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Shiprock from Beclabito, NM–an iconic image from childhood

Whenever I can, which means when time is not of the essence, and it rarely is anymore, I drive the back roads. I especially detest driving on I-40, which is the most direct route to many places for me; it is croweded with 18-wheelers serving the country from East to West and back again. As I take up my nomadic life, I've become even more committed to not using the Interstates. I used to take I-40 to the Mesita exit, 40 miles west of Albuquerque, pick up Historic 66 and drive it to Continental Divide (the actual name of a place) where 66 ended, then pick it up again at Iyanibito when driving to Gallup. Now I go through my old stomping grounds of Cuba, NM, then Crownpoint, Mariano Lake, Pinedale, and Churchrock–an extra 71 miles and so worth it. The drive is relaxed, never once touching an Interstate and offering vistas of great beauty.


Sunday I left Albuquerque for Flagstaff, Arizona and took a most satisfying, round-about route, first to camp at Quaking Aspen in the Zuni Mountains for one night. I got in a couple of short hikes before a welcome visit from my brother Rick. We chatted at my campfire while he fixed his supper (I'd already eaten), and before he left, he played me a three-number concert on his mouth harp--a Celtic piece, an Inuit number that was hauntingly gorgeous, and "Amazing Grace" by request. I delighted in the stars above the pines and had another walk in the morning.


I had some errands to do in Gallup before taking off for the home of my friend who lives in Tse Daa K'aan, just east of Shiprock. From Gallup there's no Interstate, so I took the most direct route–NM Highway 491, previously named 666. I love this highway, as the entire road represents memories, among them: Tohlakai, where my father was missionary for six years; Sheep Springs where we turned off every summer to go to Cottonwood Pass Campmeetings; Toadlena, which is the address that appears on all of my University of New Mexico transcripts because my parents lived there after I left home; Table Mesa with its redundant name where we had a picnic on my 4th birthday. Gloria and I talked shop (writing) and many other things, including shared memories. We ate dinner at Mikasa Japanese restaurant in Farmington and afterwards walked Main Street downtown.


Yesterday I headed for Flagstaff, traversing the Navajo Nation through Beclabito, where I played in the red canyon with my friend Marlene and ate her mother's fry bread; Teec Nos Pos, which I think of as "home-not-home;" on through spectacular country like Antelope Canyon, which I'd driven through before but didn't remember and was blown away all over again.


Due to an unusually wet winter in the Southwest, the roadsides were lush with rabbit brush, saltbush, yellow daisies, sunflowers. There were fields and fields filled with young rabbit brush (also known as chamisa) where there had been none before. As always, when driving through places I know well, I saw things I'd never noticed before. One of the oddest was a pair of stairs going up a rock outcrop somewhere past Tohatchi. It made me wonder what was so important about getting to the top of that outcrop, and who needed the stairs. A story there. The Nation is also peppered with what missionaries have left behind--roads and buildings ending in "ministry," "revival," "campmeeting," "mission." Creative names like "Glory Road," "Heaven's Door," "Prosperity Gospel Chapel." Yet another story.

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Photo by Ted Charles

I knew the Rehoboth Christian Reformed Church was slated to come down one of these days, but a shock went through me when my photographer friend Ted posted pictures of the demolition. I watched the walls tumble and with them memories came tumbling in, not in any sort of order, a stone here, a chunk of nostalgia there–like the building itself as it fell to earth.


When I was eight years old, I entered for the first time a space that seemed so large. I was a boarding student  then, with my stomach never coming unknotted, hands and feet always cold–a stranger, intruder even, never feeling at home. A place so different from the embrace of the little clapboard chapel at Teec Nos Pos.


In the Rehoboth church we practiced for a musical that long, tall, old Miss Stob must have adapted for us from a 1930s score.


We marched over from the high school next door for chapel on Tuesdays and Thursdays, choir practice on the other three days.


I held hands there with my girlfriend under the protection of our skirts and choir robes.


I listened (or not) to the interminable prayer, the Congregational Prayer, the one that must last for the prescribed twenty minutes, the one you could measure by the clock if you stealthily opened your eyes.


I sang a duet, "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella," in chapel service with Irma Ahasteen,  just before Christmas vacation.


There was our senior dramatic reading, "An Evening with Robert Frost." Unable ever to forget the lines from "The Death of the Hired Man:"


Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.


I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve.


Weddings: Ted and Evie, Ray and Marge, Sharon and Ken, Flo and Stu–Evie and Sharon were nurses I worked with in the old, old hospital, the one that fell years before the church. By happenstance I witnessed its demise. Ted and Ray and Marge, Flo and Stu, all students ahead of me in school. Seeming like royalty when they married.


Introducing the idea of theistic evolution in Young Peoples' Class in the church basement. Clueless about how radical that was.


The funeral of a first-grade girl when I taught at the mission. The minister saying her life was like a Navajo rug–complete, even though it was very small. Sitting in the pew with my third grade class, not knowing I should talk to them about what her death might mean to them. Still so young myself.


My girlfriend and I interrupting brass practice to decide whether to kiss on the lips. Going back to practicing, no first kiss in the Rehoboth Church, there where anyone might open the swinging doors at any moment.


Golden light, the smell of newly washed sage and earth, breezing in through open windows on a Sunday evening during monsoon season.


Being carried out the church doors on glorious waves of J.S. Bach.


Grabbed by the house parent, yelled at right after church because a Navajo boy and I dared to enter church and sit together at Sunday night service.


My first communion.


The communion I took when I feared I was losing it all.


My friend Louise delivering her mother's eulogy in the Diné language, not one single word of English. Feeling so proud of her.


A dream where I am leading the church service. A dream that will never come to pass. Not literally. Not now.


Some churches seem to hold in them the memories of all the silent and voiced requests lifted there to the Holy One. A palpable energy in those places that my young friend Ben named. "There's something in there," he said at three years old when we left St. Paul's Cathedral in San Francisco's Mission District. I never felt that at Rehoboth. There was an emptiness there for me. And yet, when I saw the image of the church falling, I felt it as one more loss. For more than sixty years, it had been a vessel for my memories.






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THE STORY BASKET: On Counseling Children

…in the aftermath of violent histories, telling stories and listening to stories are acts of peace. ~ Connie Braun, Silentium

All day long these children and I
trade stories
we weave colors and textures
we write together in journals
we tell what it is all about
we trade love for love
I hold their tears

I am the story basket
and in me the stories change
color and shape and sound
they take on rhythm
drum beats Read More 
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Meeting Darlene Silversmith was a surprise. It happened while I was serializing To Drink from the Silver Cup on my blog. She must have found the blog through a Facebook post and commented something like this: “Wow! Christian Reformed [CRC and the church I grew up in] and in the Navajo Nation. Have to read this.” After she’d read a few chapters, she shared some of her own story about being in the CRC. Darlene is Diné, and her family roots are in Crownpoint, New Mexico, although she was born in Oakland, California, her birth there being one more example of the colonization of indigenous people. It was US policy, especially in the 1950s and 60s, to try to integrate Diné into the society at large through a program known as relocation, in which Native people were sent to urban areas to vocational training programs, where it was hoped they would settle.

Darlene’s Facebook posts intrigued me, as she was clearly very involved in the CRC. At the time she was going through its Leadership Development Program and seeking what is known in the CRC as a license to exhort, which means basically a license to preach without being ordained. At the same time, she was clearly aware of and raising consciousness about the need to decolonize Christianity. I asked if I could interview her at some point when I would be in the area. Her reply was a single word: “Sure.”

As my book tour evolved, it turned out that I would drive through Crownpoint en route to an event in Cuba, NM. We agreed to meet at Read More 
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