Tuesday, December 11, 2018

My Life as a Leaf


A while ago I was thumbing through an old issue of Southwestern Art magazine when I noticed an advertisement for a bronze sculpture. The sculpture looked interesting, so I paused for a closer look. The ad showed three men sitting beneath a monumental bronze of a canoe with Daniel Boone in the bow and a Native American man in the stern. The ad included the following text, “Near the end of his life, Daniel Boone was quoted as saying, ‘My life was like a leaf on a stream.’” I nearly shouted out loud, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s my motto.” 

Many years ago, I decided I had little control over my fate, and that the title of my autobiography, should it ever merit writing, would be, My Life as a Leaf. The title refers to the belief that my life has generally taken a course similar to that of a leaf cast into a fast-moving stream. I sense I am carried along by this overwhelming, uncontrollable force which sends me tumbling over rocks, swirling in eddies, and bouncing from shore to shore, with no ability to stop or even slow the process. Fortunately, up to this point at least, there hasn’t been significant physical damage.

It didn’t take long to realize ole Dan’l must have had the thought well before I did. Well, okay, it took a little longer than I care to admit, but I eventually arrived at the appropriate chronology. I often feel the pull of a current as I go about my daily routine. The tug reminds me that larger forces are moving all around me, and that I have little or no control over them. That point was reinforced late one morning as I walked to the trading post and a “monster truck" approached me from behind. Since Bluff’s streets are narrow, the truck came fairly close and I began pondering just how fortunate I was to have avoided occupying the same space with that mass of steal and rubber. Shortly after my close encounter, I noticed a stinkbug with his back side sticking up in the air. The vehicle had obviously affected the insect as well. In response, the creature simply stuck its fanny in the air; apparently concluding the truck would somehow notice the obvious threat to its wellbeing. I am confident I have engaged in similarly vain attempts to protect myself when forces I cannot possibly comprehend are impacting me. Although I generally don’t stick my rear in the air, like my companion the stinkbug, I have all too often failed to understand the magnitude of things that have just passed over.

One such thing was making the decision to move back to Utah almost thirty years ago. At the time, I had no idea I was destined to become an “Indian trader” in Bluff, Utah, USA. That was one of those parts of the stream that sent me tumbling and swirling uncontrollably for an exceptionally long time. Having grown up in this region, I thought I had a good grasp on its land and people. In fact, I had none. As a result, on many occasions these people of the Desert Southwest have shown me new and unexpected ways to see things.

As an example, when my oldest daughter was young, a Hopi friend periodically invited us to the katsina dances at Moenkopi. I accepted the hospitality whenever possible, and often took her, a bag of flour, and a box of oranges to the ceremonies. On our first adventure, we got up early and arrived at the old village before sunrise for the Bean Dance. Our friend ushered us into his grandmother’s home to meet the family. His grandmother was of an advanced age, as was the community. Hopi villages are some of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in America and are a testament to the tenacity of these Indigenous people. Grandma lived in a single room with a wood-burning stove in the center and the table, bed, and other modest furnishing neatly placed around perimeter of the apartment. When I initially stepped inside, I noticed there was no running water and no bathroom facilities. “Poverty” was my first thought. A short while later we went outside and were shown a tree with a metal pipe protruding from it. It appeared the tube had long ago been stuck into a spring and over many years a cottonwood had grown around the outlet. Water flowed freely from the spout. Our friend explained that the tree was the village’s only water source, and that, although he was unsure exactly how it worked, he and the other members of the village were happy to have it.

We returned to Grandma’s house for the start of the ceremony, and I began to notice more about the structure and the family. I realized the room was built of love and contained virtually everything the elderly woman needed. I noticed melons under the bed and a curtain hung for those moments when she needed privacy. I also realized the woman’s children and grandchildren exuded love and tenderness. I began to see my initial evaluation had been terribly wrong, and that this person lived in a state of extreme wealth; wealth that we of the Anglo culture frequently misunderstand in our quest to accumulate more and more material things.

As the dance began, one of our friend’s aunties asked to hold my daughter. I, of course, agreed because I sensed her kindness and gentleness. My daughter looked a little concerned as she sat watching the Mudheads cascade from the kiva. I reassured her everything was okay, and she snuggled down into the woman’s generous lap. I believe that is as content and happy as I have ever seen my daughter.

As the dance progressed, I remember feeling the warmth of the old woman’s family surrounding me. I also remember thinking I had stepped back in time a century or two, and was experiencing something important, something large. The flow in that part of my stream was cool, comfortable, and serene, and I felt content. It was then that I realized just how happy one can be with a few melons under the bed and a family who loves you. At that moment, I knew something significant had passed over me, something I could not fully comprehend.