icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures



I left our church when I was twenty-five. I don't remember any pangs of conscience, and in the beginning I felt little grief. There was no joy, either. There was only dying. My soul was like Ezekiel's valley of dry bones, picked clean by vultures and hyenas, bleached white. Then, after seven years of baking in the sun, the dry bones of my soul, took on new flesh through meditation practice. My spirit breathed once more. My connection with God, tenuous at first, grew deeper and more alive than before, unbound by the rules of orthodoxy.

In Ezekiel, after being revived, the valley of bones becomes a great liberation army. In my imagination, the throng danced with the joy of breath blown back into it. Either way, new people came together for a common purpose. As with Ezekiel's bones, reconnecting with God on my own wasn't enough for me; I wanted to join with others. I began to grieve the loss of religious community, the feeling of belonging. The summer I dreamed of running from the church, I set out to recreate what I had lost.

The first time I had other White kids as classmates was at the mission boarding school, when I was eight. I spent most of my time during recess and after school behind the big gray Navajo girls' dorm. In the classroom I used Standard English, but on the playground I automatically switched to Dummitawry English. Playing marbles one day, I called out, "Hey you kits, dit chew saw my rat marvel?"

Katie Van Boven, who had never lived in the Navajo Nation itself, pointed at me, laughing and shouting, "Hey, who do you think you are? You think you're a Navajo or something? You're White, you know. Don't you know that?"

My stomach tightened. Tears threatened to spill. I turned without saying anything, leapt up to the monkey bars and crossed them, three bars at a time, back and forth, back and forth.

Once in a while, when I lived with Sylvia and Abe, I went to Shabbat services at Temple Emmanuel. The first time, I sat next to Sylvia's mother, a diminutive silver-haired immigrant from Russia. There came a point in the service when everyone turned to greet a neighbor. Ruth turned to me and said, "Good Shabbos," her eyes twinkling. I hesitated and she said, "Come on, you can say it. Good Shabbos."

It wasn't that I couldn't. I was "good" at languages, after all, but I was afraid it might be presumptuous, as if I thought I could be one with them. All I needed was Ruth's encouragement. When I said the words, I was filled with the blessed feeling of belonging.

Under a blue autumn sky in Shiprock, when it was time for the Northern Navajo Fair, my father prayed, "We ask for rain, Father, that the Yé'iibicheii dances may not be performed, that the people may turn from their heathen practices to serve thee, the only true God." The sky looked nothing like rain, but I knew, of course, that God could work a miracle if he wanted to.

The fair's parade introduced a panoply of color into my black-and-white Dutch Reformed world. Turquoise, gold, scarlet, maroon, hunter green, plum, royal and navy blues, tangerine—satin, velvet or corduroy—shirts, blouses and long gathered skirts. Layers of turquoise and silver—hat bands, squash blossom necklaces, earrings, bolos, bracelets, rings, bow guards, belts and buckles, spurs, trim on bridles and saddles. There were hand-woven saddle rugs, striped Pendleton blankets, green and orange wagons decorated with blankets and juniper greens.

After the parade, we went to the fairgrounds. I smelled mutton ribs, fry bread, and mutton stew. My father bought us kneel-down bread, and I peeled away the rough, damp cornhusks to get to the compact, moist Indian-corn cake. I savored the mild nutty sweetness, rolling each dense bite over my tongue before swallowing. I picked and licked the last crumbs from the narrow crevices of the husk.

To the south of the booths lay the forbidden. I kept looking, knowing it was where the Yé'iibicheii dance would be held. I took on faith my parents' assertion that the ceremony was of the Evil One, but still I wanted to see and hear, to feel the mystery my summer lullabies tendered.

I only saw that place afterwards, when the fair was over. The booths and corrals were empty, the earth packed hard again, and at the south end of the grounds stood rounds of tall juniper branches stuck in the soil, their tips leaning in toward the centers of the circles. Beside them were great orbs of black ash. The green and black rings slipped their magic into my imagination. I closed my eyes and saw a starry sky lit orange by huge leaping bonfires. I saw a crowd of people, wrapped in Pendletons, the ladies with scarves on their heads and men wearing tall black hats, their backs to me, hiding the dancers from my view. I couldn't push through to see, and I heard only silence. I opened my eyes and saw just the wheels of green and black on the hard cream-colored earth.

Lakme and I began Torah study at my request. I stopped often, needing to talk about my process. Lakme listened, salting her responses with midrash and with the deeper meaning of the original Hebrew.

I talked with her about my efforts to return to my own religious roots and how I'd been unsuccessful. Every time someone mentioned Christ, my reaction told me that the flesh had not returned to my spiritual bones with the same hollows and curves as before. I couldn't go back to believing that Jesus was the awaited Maschiach, the Messiah. I saw him now as a gifted rabbi who brought with him the message, "You are all Maschiach. You all have an obligation to redeem the world from destruction, to perform Tikkun Olam." I felt that Christianity was a mistake, that it had departed on an unintended two-thousand-year detour. And there were so many Christian travesties—the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, cultural genocide through worldwide missionary activity—that I abhorred the idea of calling myself Christian.

"Maybe you have to go further back to claim your roots," Lakme suggested.

"You mean to Judaism?"


"I've thought of that," I said.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved


To be continued on Monday, 4/8/24

If you're just joining, you can use the Table of Contents to find your way from the beginning.

Be the first to comment