Thursday, October 31, 2002

Personal Relationships

I was sitting on the couch early the other morning scanning the newspaper for items of interest when my young daughter McKale ran up to me and gave me a swift kick on the shin. "Dad! Did you see that great sunrise?" she asked. As I hobbled toward the window in an effort to see the phenomenon and get a headlock on the imp at the same time, I witnessed a truly impressive sight. At that moment I felt a strange combination of pleasure and pain. That particular joining of visual and physical stimulation was quite an experience. There, spread before us was a fall spectacular; a Halloween sunrise to be sure.

Wisps of orange, dark purple, and blood red, along with brief shooters of other muted rainbow hues were caught there on the horizon for a brief moment. The sun was hidden behind a cloud bank between the darkness of the earth and an overcast sky. It was doing its darndest to let its presence be known before being obscured behind the heavy black morning clouds hanging overhead. The dispersion of light appeared both ominous and exhilarating. I would not have been surprised to see the silhouette of an airborne witch scurrying for cover at the approaching dawn. It was a memorable moment that I am happy to have shared with my child.

As the sun continued its journey into the heavens and became blanketed by the dampening clouds, my daughter and I turned away from the scene. I thanked her for bringing the sunrise to my attention and gave her a loving embrace. As I nudged her in the ribs and provided her with a parting love tap I said, "Now, my dearie, we need to have a talk about your aggressive tendencies. You do not need to give someone a major bruise just to get their attention! At this rate I am going to have a tough time getting much of a dowry for a roughneck, tomboy girl child like yourself."

As I drove South that morning, fondly remembering my encounter with McKale, I noticed that the truck's fuel gauge was nearing empty. Luckily I was near the White Mesa travel center; a Texaco station located in the center of our local Ute indian community between Bluff and Blanding. I gassed up the beast and went inside the convenience store to pay my bill. As I stood at the counter I heard someone call out "Hello Barry!" Recognizing the friendly voice of Annie Cantsee I turned around to greet her but could not catch sight of her. "Hello Annie. Where are you?" From over by the mail boxes around a display counter appeared my dear friend with a broad, beautiful smile spread across her face.

Annie is not very tall physically, but she has a towering personality. Her positive attitude and appealing nature make meetings with her a pleasurable and warm experience. We spoke of the sunrise, our families' well being and her desire to go to the Blue Mountain Trading Post to sit on the porch and visit with "Duke and Rose," my parents. I continued my journey with an even more pleasant feeling about life in general and the world I am a part of. As I was two finger typing this story a couple more Ute friends came to visit us at the store. Bonnie Mike Lehi and Stella Eyetoo came in to discuss basketry, pick up some corn pollen, and speak of the past. These women are fun to be around and always add to my day in a positive way.

Life at the trading post has provided me and my family a multitude of friendships that we cherish more than any other aspect of the business. The warmth, radiance, and unique nature of that sunrise, and the way it was presented, reminds me of the people we have been introduced to through the years. Some of those relationships started on a sour note, then turned sweet. Others snuck up on me and took hold before I even realized what had happened. Each and every one of them is a treasure I hold near and dear to my heart. I can truthfully say that each new day here in Bluff presents itself in incomparable ways; there are always new friends to meet and experiences to be had.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Broken Hearts

As I sat on the porch after a long day in the store, I noticed Grange hunkered down on the Sunbonnet Rock with his back to me. At first I didn’t notice anything wrong, but when I spoke to him there was no response. After a little prompting from Jana, he blurted out, “Kira broke my heart!”


Apparently Grange had forgotten to bring Kira’s scooter back from Aunt Cindy’s, and Kira had given him the what for. Grange, being the sensitive type, had taken it personally and migrated to the safety and isolation of the rock. At three years old, he says many things he doesn’t fully understand. He knew quite well, however, that Kira had pierced him with her well placed barb.

Jana and I have often debated the merits of raising our children around the trading post, and have generally concluded that it has been good for them. Because they were raised in the store, the kids are extremely comfortable meeting and talking with new people. They also seem to be picking up a few trading post techniques along the way. I worry a little about what Barry teaches them when I’m not looking, but fear nothing can be done. Up to now, the most serious offense I have identified is his use of candy, mostly Starbursts, to wheedle hugs and kisses from them. They come in the store calling “Uncle Barry”, and shortly thereafter I notice their teeth impacted with sticky goo and a smile on his face.

Kira will crowd next to children visiting the store and say, “Hi, I’m Kira,” hoping to engage them in a little play. The Navajo kids often seem unsure about her forward approach, but, after a shy moment or two, generally warm up to her overtures. Grange, who parrots everything Kira does, has started riding the scooter up to the door and announcing to anyone who happens to be inside, “Hi, I’m Grange.”

Navajo people tend to be a little introverted, so they are sometimes shocked by the boldness of Kira and Grange. The ones who have been around the store for a while, however, seem genuinely interested in them. Kira and Grange are allowed to participate when photographs are being taken, and are also frequently invited to take part in a variety of other trading post rituals. We have several nice pictures of Mary Black and her daughters holding a beautiful basket in one hand and Kira or Grange in another.

The other day I was at the restaurant and stopped to help an older Navajo gentleman with something. After his request was satisfied, I asked him if everything was okay. He responded by saying, “Pretty good all right.” I hadn’t heard that particular Navajoism for a long time, so the statement, combined with Grange’s comment about Kira, started me thinking about several former Bluff residents.

Many of my earliest memories of Bluff relate to the mid-1960s and St. Christopher’s mission. Because I was so young, I don’t really recall much about Father Liebler, the central figure at the mission. I have often been told, however, that he was a hugely charismatic figure. I do remember him striding around Bluff, wearing his black cassock and long gray hair. He seemed a gentle man with a heart as big as this land. When I was older, I stumbled onto his book, Boil My Heart For Me. I was intrigued and confounded by the title.

As I discovered much later, when Father Liebler arrived in Bluff automobiles were not widely known, and the Navajo people were just developing words to describe the parts and processes of their cars and trucks. Tires were referred to as shoes, and the automobile’s battery was its heart. When the car’s heart was broken (the battery was dead), Father Liebler and his staff were asked to boil (jump start) it.

Father Liebler had a unique way of patching Bluff’s many broken hearts during that time. People often stop by the trading post and tell us stories about Father Liebler, Brother Juniper, Brother Joseph, Joan, Helen and the other founders of St. Christopher’s. Recently a couple wandered into the trading post and began talking about their 1953 visit to the mission. They smiled widely as they told of several young Navajo boys they had met. Once the children became comfortable with the visitors, the boys laid out a proposition. “Let’s play cowboys and Indians,” the young men said. The boys went on to say, “We’ll be the cowboys, and you be the Indians.” The elderly couple chuckled as they remembered the incident.

Many of Bluff’s old people are gone, and those little cowboys are fully grown. I hope my children will be filled with the affection I have for Bluff, and trust that Grange’s heart will soon mend.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, October 3, 2002

Effective Communication

A holy man once said, "He who loses his life shall find it." I have often thought of that phrase, and wondered how it applies to me. I am sure I will define that new life one day, but for now, I am still looking for the life I misplaced several years ago when I decided to go into the family business and become an Indian trader. I began thinking about the old insurance salesman from Arkansas who had been in the store earlier this week. As we talked about his agency, the life it allowed him to build, how he hadn't had a real vacation in several years, and his inability to convince himself it was time to retire, he said, "It's hard to kick a dawg off a gravy train."

For this part of the country, I think I have engineered a pretty good locomotive. The gravy is thin, but it is gravy. With the kids growing up, and college looming, Laurie is convinced we need a few more "Tender Vittles" in our bowl. My wife doesn't understand how I have gotten so lost in the trading post, and recently accused me of spending all my time and energy on the business, thus leaving precious little for the kids and her. I gave her all the standard explanations, but she wasn't buying it. My wife sometimes thinks of my chosen profession as "a futile effort". Although I feel the same from time to time, I have trouble admitting it. Instead, when things are not going my way during these discussions, I have a bad habit of redirecting the dialog and attempting senseless abstractions. Laurie long ago caught on to my strategy, so she doesn't budge. In response to my final argument, she gave me a harsh look, and said, "That's not what he meant! As usual you have taken a meaningful statement and twisted it to suit your needs." "Well that's the way I interpreted it, and isn't it all about interpretation anyway," I pleaded.

My wife rolled her eyes and shook her head in disgust. She picked up her keys and headed towards the door, saying, "You are impossible! I have to go to work now." Out the door she went, mumbling to herself in frustration. As I watched her depart, a smirk spread across my face, and my eyes fell upon our three children, who were gathered in the kitchen witnessing the scene. They gazed in amazement at my smug attitude. All were shaking their heads and rolling their eyes, just like their mother had. My middle, sassy, child, said, "You have got to be kidding! Don't you ever learn?" I replied, "The real question is, don't you have some toilets to clean or ear wax to remove?"

As I started towards the scoundrels to give them a well deserved thumpin', a horn blasted outside, making us all jump, and giving the kids a chance to escape. Noticing Laurie gesturing wildly from the driveway, and thinking I may be in for an apology, I pushed open the window to hear what she had to say. "The Kirks are presenting a talk on marital communication this Thursday; we should go." I smiled sweetly and waved as she drove off, grumbling under my breath, "What the heck do those people know about communication that I don't? I communicate every day of my life, and do quite well at it, thank you very much." I looked around to see where those nasty, disrespectful children had gotten off to, but couldn't find them.

Later that same morning, I was making my daily Postum run to the cafe when I nearly tripped over our waitress, Nicole. Nicole's father and I were in school together, and I am very fond of his family. He has a business in Blanding, so we see each other from time to time, although not nearly enough. I consider him a good friend, and appreciate that he has entrusted his daughter to us for training. I intend to send my kids his direction when they are old enough to be indentured, which may be sooner than they think.

I asked Nicole how her father was getting along, and she told me that he was frustrated with the struggles of small town business. He felt that he may have made a wrong turn on the road of life by coming back home when he finished college; that he may have done his wife and children a disservice by settling them in such a rural, economically challenged, area. His earlier decision had come from the heart, and was based on emotion rather than sound economic principles. He had returned to support his parents as they aged, and to give his children the opportunity to enjoy a closely knit extended family. Growing up in a small town had provided Nicole's father with a strong sense of well-being, and a solid foundation in a world that does not always provide such fringe benefits. He simply wanted to offer his children the same experience. I know exactly how he felt; I have had the same thoughts.

As I wandered back to the trading post, I found Steve polishing the glass counters to perfection. I don't know what it is with him and Windex. It may be an obsession; perhaps an escape. Anyway, I told him what Nicole had said about her father. Steve nodded his head knowingly, and went back to the never-ending chore of removing fingerprints from the showcases. I know he has often contemplated those same issues. When I look back at the reasons my family and I are here, I realize that they are similar to those used by Nicole's father to rationalize his coming home.

Our parents provided us with a safe and secure home when we were young, and have supported us in all of our endeavors; as long as those undertakings were honorable. The sense of family and community runs strong for us in San Juan County. Wasn't it Dorothy who said, "There's no place like home"? The relationships we have developed through the years are more valuable than any material possession we could have acquired. It feels good here at the trading post; the harmony and dynamic of the place are in tune with its surroundings. Here you will find a truly human and friendly atmosphere, not because of Steve and me; we are mostly antagonistic and unpleasant, and getting worse daily (especially Steve). Maybe there is more time and room to grow out here; maybe our faults are generally overlooked, or just ignored. At any rate, we are where we belong.

When Laurie asked me to marry her, I mentioned that she would have to learn to live with imperfection if we hooked up. She thought I was kidding, but has come to know the truth in those words. Laurie puts up with my nonsense with the patience and love of a latter day saint. She provides me with enough freedom to hang myself on a regular basis, but has always been there to loosen the noose when I begin to choke. She knows in her heart that I would be out of place in any other situation, and would tell Nicole's father and me that we are truly where we should be. Only occasionally does Laurie force her hand, and drag me off to some communication in marriage seminar. I think she feels there is still hope for me.

While the economic rewards may be sparse, the emotional benefits of being on this gravy train are immeasurable. I think I'll stay until I am a very old dawg; God willing and the rocks don't slide.

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Variations of Light and Color

Steve and I were recently sitting on the porch of the trading post enjoying the most incredible evening imaginable. The light of the fall sun was filtering through the golden leaves on the cottonwood trees, and there must have been at least a dozen shades of green emanating from the various plants common to our high desert environment. The cliffs surrounding our small community were glowing in the softness of sunset; there were warm red tints, burnt orange highlights and earthy browns. Canadian geese that winter on the alfalfa field across the way were beginning to gather for the evening, and their soft conversations could be heard as they settled in for the night. It was one of those short lived moments that sticks in your mind and remains there for you to cherish and remember. I have always had a love of watercolor paintings, because it seems to me that they best portray the way my mind remembers scenes such as we had just witnessed. I felt a softness of detail, slightly smudged, yet warm and comfortable, resting easily on my senses.

As we enjoyed the remarkable variations of light and color, we fell into conversation concerning the many lessons we have learned on this theme. The Navajo people seem to have a special, natural ability to understand the subtle nuances of nature many of us overlook. Maybe it is inbred from generations of ancestors witnessing displays of illumination brought on by Mother Earth and her mate, Father Sky. Whatever the reason, the people are constantly trying to educate us to the meaning of what they have woven, hammered or sculpted into their art. The message must be sticking with us because we seem to be more aware of these occurrences. My wife and children can attest to that; it is not uncommon for me to gasp at a spectacular display of natural light and point it out to them. My kids have recently been beating me to the punch by perking up with mock excitement and exclaiming, "Dad, look at those clouds. Aren't they simply gorgeous ?" My reaction to their comments is usually brought to an abbreviated end by an elbow to the ribs from my wife. Being born and raised in Bluff put me in close proximity to a certain Opal Howell.

Opal had a rather colorful vocabulary, which she in turn shared with us. It cost me many a "mouth cleansing". On certain occasions this lexicon of choice phrases returns, which merits a poke in the ribs, and brings memories of a soapy taste to my mouth. Funny how that works.

Anyway, I was telling Steve about an experience I had the other morning. Driving down from Blanding, I witnessed an explosive sunrise that looked as if someone had taken buckets of paint and splashed them across the horizon. There were brilliant reds, yellows and oranges in a pattern only nature can create. Right in the middle of all that color, balanced between earth and sky, was the sun; a huge shimmering orb of gold rising towards the heavens. This scene, in and of itself, was truly inspiring; but there was more. Rounding a curve facing away from the sunrise and to the west, I was presented with a glowing moon set. I couldn't believe it; I had never before seen anything like this. There, sitting next to a pair of up thrust ridges we call the Bear's Ears was a full, luminescent moon. In opposition to the brightness of the sunrise the colors were softer, more pastel. There were soft blues, light purples, and just a touch of red reflected from what was happening on the opposite horizon. The moon was exceptionally bright, and the craters stood out in bluish contrast. I pulled my old Nissan pick up off the highway and glanced from one scene to the other until they both faded from view. The others on the highway that early morning honked and waved, sharing the same excitement I felt for the privilege of witnessing this natural spectacle.

I shared my experience with many of the artists who came into the trading post that day. Some had seen the same occurrence; only in different geographic circumstances. Others related witnessing similar situations. All were happy to discuss the event, and many used the opportunity to explain that these natural phenomena were often the theme of their art. Steve and I have often been accused of being sluggish, slow, handicapped and a variety of other uncharitable things, for our failure to understand the messages of our Navajo educators. We are told that by opening our eyes, minds and hearts, and getting in touch with our surroundings, that we will learn to recognize the message or meaning. Quite often that meaning is hidden in a sunrise, moon set, landscape or other creation of nature. The cultural ties are significant because all of these things are created, directed and presented by the deities guiding and protecting the Navajo people.

Since I firmly believe that there is value in all interpretations of well considered cultural reasoning, I listen closely to what the artists are saying. I feel that we are extremely lucky to be in such close contact with these artistic storytellers. Who is to say that their message is somehow wrong. Greater minds than mine have pondered these questions, and my personal study is fragmented at best. By paying attention to the suggested sights and sounds, we are offered views into a belief system that focuses on natural purity and balance. A rainbow's end racing across the earth, and the scent of sagebrush as you barrel down a back road becomes a view into myth and legend. The stories emerge from the simplicities of life; you need only recognize the meaning.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with a child psychologist concerning the attitude of my children. The poor woman stumbled into the trading post, and I cornered her when she revealed her occupation. I mentioned that my kids seemed to misread what I was relating to them about the art I work with and its meaning. I was also distressed at their lack of concern for the variations of light and color that I persist in pointing out to them. She assured me that they were indeed listening and paying attention; that the message was getting through and that they will appreciate my taking the time to share with them when they grow up. As for the elbow to the ribs, and resulting memory of a soapy taste in my mouth whenever I utter an inappropriate word, she said something about crime equals punishment, equals memory and taste reaction. Memory imprints related to taste would most likely never change. Bummer!

Copyright©2002 Twin Rocks Trading Post