It was one of those days when the movie of your life should have won an Academy award for best screenplay. The twists and turns knocked everyone out, the plot was as tight as high-end waterproof luggage, and the soundtrack matched how everyone felt that year with uncanny accuracy.
All you know is it’s one of those days when the music fits how you feel like a jigsaw puzzle edge-piece: tongue in groove on one side, a nice straight line on the other, like driving until you reach the ocean.
How you feel matches the cloud structure, these particular blues of sky and sea, the quality of the light coming through.
Neither the sensations of pleasure or pain, nor the meanings ascribed to them, have anything to do with your experience now.
You take a breath, quite possibly the best one yet. It’s such a relief to finally stop wondering what will happen in the next scene, to stop worrying about how the story might end.
You just sit there filling your mouth with the velvet of water, feeling the support of the ground beneath you, and let go of everything. Maybe the sun breaks through the clouds, maybe it rains. Maybe neither. It’s only weather. These days, you go on feelings. These days, you never know which thoughts you can trust.
The air stirs, moving over your skin, almost imperceptible, unforgettably sensual. The fabric of your sweat-dampened shirt clings to your chest, your back. The air is fine, warm, and soft.
You eat a little something, very slowly, and feel – for the time being – free.
You must not complain about dust. Dust becomes cloud becomes rain becomes forest becomes life, so you must not complain about dust as you wipe it from a table, books, shelves.
May there be an empty space in the palm of my hand, where every night some means to an end used to be. Not just any space – an interstitial space between the microcosm of the container of my physical body and the macrocosm of the jeweled net of infinite galaxies.
Of course the prevailing winds will still blow from the north, and I’ll still be listening to the broken record of myself, but maybe a sound like running water will become loud enough to drown out the static feed of my looping thoughts. Maybe the sound of a tree growing will untangle the knot of my mind’s running commentary, embroider a fine silk cloth of meditation.
I am always wanting to be reminded of something I’ve forgotten. That is precisely why I do every little thing that I do.
Look back but don’t stare. Glow in the dark and don’t think too much about it. Consider yourself a well-loved mystery.
John Lennon’s Imagine, and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind are both songs that – when the music is stripped away – reveal themselves as powerful poems. They have both stood the test of time, asking the heavy questions of what it means to be a human society, and both offering us the same fundamental invitation: let’s consider changing the ways in which we have chosen to live, ways less harmful and more peaceful, ways that discourage hate and separation, and encourage love and union.
With Blowin’ In the Wind being written in 1962 and Imagine in 1971, both songs are super-charged with countercultural ideas, calling out war, religion, and injustice on all fronts: social, political, racial, personal, and spiritual. In Blowin’ Dylan essentially asks us, through a series of symbolic and metaphorical questions, what it will take for us to change our behavior, our beliefs and values, our…
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Now the giraffe-like lily, turning its head to look out the window in graciousness.
Now the blackberry, summer’s thimble, its shape discussed at a celestial seminar where Sun and Moon are merely attendees, two out of ten-thousand. The fruit is not on a bush beneath a tree in some faraway land, but here, now, staining my skin, its essence nestling in among the tissues of my hands, their skin softened by enough olive oil to last many lifetimes of a cook.
Now the argumentative weather, now the hawks circling overhead, descending as if on a grand and circular staircase. Now and again, the clean birth of plants, the messy one of animals. Now the mystic light whose source is unidentifiable even for scientists.
Now and again, the contemplation of time and how it doesn’t exist, confused by the human mind with earthly cycles and a construct of our own devising…
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If you were writing a novel and you had something you really needed to say, from deep down in the marrow of your bones, wouldn’t you love to turn the setting for your story’s climactic moments into a perfect stage upon which your characters could play out their final scenes, while at the same time using it as a means to drive your theme home? A setting symbolic of something greater, a way to point at a larger truth extending beyond the pages of your story? While reading Tommy Orange’s highly-praised breakout novel of 2018, There There, I found myself wondering – on multiple occasions – did the author intend the Big Oakland Powwow to be a stage upon which to set his climax, or was he using it as symbolism?
In the book’s prologue, Orange presents the idea of “Urban Indians”:
We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses — the city took us in. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn’t just like that. Plenty of us came by choice, to start over, to make money, or for a new experience. Some of us came to cities to escape the reservation.
The Urban Indian characters in There There struggle with alcoholism, addiction, discrimination, depression, financial struggles and emotional trauma. They each have their own unique difficulties and backgrounds, but they all have one issue in common: they all struggle with their identity. Five of them (Blue, Orvil, Edwin, Calvin and Thomas) grew up removed from their Native American heritage, and feel disconnected from it. A little boy (Orvil) feels like a fraud when he puts on his grandmother’s old regalia. Calvin says he knows nothing about the culture, and consequently doesn’t feel like he should even call himself a Native American. Yet all of these characters (and several more) are involved in the powwow – either through working there, planning to rob it, or (in the cases of Thomas and Orvil) wanting to perform in it. The reasons for the collective characters’ going to attend the powwow are all very different, but at the same time they all share another reason in common: it’s a way to connect (or reconnect) with their heritage, and what it means for each of them, individually, to be Native American, regardless of blood percentage.
The word powwow in itself is from an Indian word that has been Anglicized. It is derived from the Algonquian term “pau-wau”, referring to a gathering of medicine men and/or spiritual leaders. “Pau-wauing” referred to a religious ceremony, typically one of curing. In the 1800’s, European explorers observed religious gatherings and dances, and mispronounced the word as powwow. Non-natives began using the term to describe any gathering of Native people. Eventually, even the Natives began using the word.
“As more and more Native Americans learned English, ‘powwow’ became the accepted standard for both Native and non-Native people.” ~ Chris Roberts (Powwow Country)
In the modern world, powwows have morphed into Native American gatherings (private or public) where the traditional rituals of dancing, singing, making music, and wearing detailed regalia are performed, displayed, described by commentators, and judged. People sell their arts and crafts (clothing, jewelry, herbal remedies, sage for burning, art, etc.) and there are often “Indian tacos” among the food and drinks being sold, though the tacos are not a traditional Native dish. But really it is a gathering, a meeting, a crossroads where people come to be together.
In the context of the novel, it punctuates the characters’ lives with ritual. It connects the personal to the ancestral, the individual to the group, and the group to its collective heritage. One might argue that a sense of worship is felt at a powwow, a sense of the spiritual, because the expressions of the performances often appear to be pointing toward an acknowledgement of God (the Transcendent, the Creator, Great Spirit, etc.) through tradition and ritual. It reminds me of the Latin term religio, the root of the English word religion, meaning to link back, to bind, connect, reconnect.
To quote from There There’s ‘Interlude’section:
We made powwows because we needed a place to be together. Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum. We keep powwowing because there aren’t very many places where we get to all be together, where we get to see and hear each other. We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid – tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.
Tommy Orange’s Big Oakland Powwow could also be interpreted as symbolic of a massacre, reflecting the senseless violence suffered by Native Americans in their history of oppression inflicted on them by whites, and linking that historical trauma with Urban Indians. Orange opens the novel by telling us about the “Indian Head Test Pattern”, making the extreme to which Indians were thought of as disposable targets clear to us from the start. He then takes us through the fractured lives of his characters, showing us the present-day effects of historical trauma. Finally, he sets his climax on a stage where more senseless violence plays out, but instead of whites killing Indians in the wilderness, he shows us Indians killing each other in his urban setting. And he breaks our hearts as we once again witness death, hate, fear and ignorance, where there could have been life, peace, friendship, understanding and acceptance.
Ultimately, it seems Orange intended the powwow to represent a chance for his Urban Indian characters with identity issues to connect with their heritage, while at the same time being symbolic of a massacre, as well as serving as the ideal stage for his novel’s finale. Either way, it’s a beautifully written, powerfully orchestrated, brilliantly executed story that helps dispel the cultural myth around what it means to be Native American in present-day society, giving depth, range, and a broader scope to the so-often narrow, single-story that so many non-Native Americans have about Native Americans.
“We can train in rejoicing in even the smallest blessings our life holds. It’s easy to miss our own good fortune; often happiness comes in ways we don’t even notice.
It’s like the cartoon I saw of an astonished-looking man saying What was that?! The caption below read ‘Bob experiences a moment of well-being’.
The ordinariness of our good fortune can make it hard to catch.”
~ Pema Chodron
You have known many takers, known many givers, walked many pathways, crossed many rivers.
Maybe you’ve known a husband or two, some lovers or wives. You’ve died a few deaths, lived a few lives.
You have been a seeker, you have been a finder, you have found the forgotten and remained a reminder.
You have worn many costumes and fanned a few fires. You’ve cleaned up the mess but then tangled the wires.
You have been the wild, and also the idle, swung up in the saddle and borne the bridle.
One gardener, many flowers. One eternity, many hours.
You have written the song, invented the singer. You are a happiness giver, sadness bringer.
You have danced on the roof, curled up on the floor. All this you have done, and more.
All these things, I too might be. All these things, I too may see.
And though we come from different places, look out through eyes on different faces –
Many roads, one destination. Many rhythms, one vibration.
“Gratitude To Old Teachers” – Robert Bly
When we stride or stroll across the frozen lake,
We place our feet where they have never been.
We walk upon the unwalked. But we are uneasy.
Who is down there but our old teachers?
Water that once could take no human weight –
We were students then – holds up our feet,
And goes on ahead of us for a mile.
Beneath us the teachers, and around us the stillness.
The cardinal, for one, content to go about his business. The fox, for another, at ease for the moment in his auburn jacket. The groundhog, wisely putting off her errands until March, depending on the weather. The soft gaze of the doe regarding me, seeming for a brief moment to consider me as something vaguely interesting.
The frozen arteries of streams drawing lines to the lake that is the heart of this place. A cascade of water stopped dead in its tracks by a change in molecular structure. Snow turning almost blue just after the sun slips behind a hill to the west, like that framed photograph of Sweden in the doctor’s office waiting room, its top edge dusted once a month to the lonesome sound of an occasional cough, the next name called exactly as the last name was, a clean copy of how all names will be called for the rest of the day, week, year, barring any unforeseen shift in the ratio of consonants to vowels.
Standing beneath spruce boughs watching snow descend, unhurried, like bits of ash or feather. Standing in close to the heart of the tree while wind sways the limbs, as if you were sailing an evergreen ship, charting an imaginary course to Nova Scotia, then on up into Iceland and even Norway.
Another storm warning issued, another mug of hot liquid slurped, welcomed into a body cocooned in fabric layers, some woven by hand, some by machine, another silent Hallelujah expressed. An obsession with time and temperature, forecast and calendar, and with saying we know the new year will be a great one – this last among so many other unfounded claims, clothed in a strangely American propensity to keep one’s chin up.
If I didn’t have to go to work today, I’d write a clever turn-of-phrase or a cryptic suggestion only you would understand the meaning of. I’d spend my time among the dead, paying my respects with a few well-put-together lines destined to become a classic. I’d write a poem for you because you’ve been on my mind lately, maybe even work on one of those novels that have been sitting in a shoebox in the closet for half as long as it takes children to grow up and finish school.
I’d write about the embroidery of music leaving an indentation where it makes contact. I’d casually sip my tea, considering how art, relationships and weather can all be fickle and tough to predict. I’d consider how, of all the woodpiles I’ve seen, the German Beehive requires the most patience and is a thing of beauty.
I’d mull over all my fears and desires, go for a walk, stare out a window, hope I might be of use to someone by the time my head meets a pillow, contemplate my dream about Paul Simon where I attended the opening night of a play he wrote, and afterward we sat and quietly drank pint-glasses of beer, me telling him how much his music meant to me that time I rode the bus in the rain. He understood and – of course – will be coming for Christmas.
But whether I have to go to work today or not, I’ll remember nothing has ever been mine to claim – all is given, even my name. I’ll not forget I’m blessed, palms pressing together in front of my heart. I’ll take a look at all the circles in which I’ve lived, gain some perspective, as if seeing them from the tiny window of a passenger plane with my forehead pressed against the glass. And, pulling the sword of my life from the stone of the world, my heart will recall how to make the much larger circle of thank you, thank you, thank you, spoken in a silent and wordless language.