Friday, October 14, 2016

Living on the Edge

"You people live on the edge out here!" the lady said accusingly. The woman was seventy-something years of age with white hair, a pale complexion and, because she was agitated, a rosy flush on her hollow cheeks. "Well," I replied curiously, "Whaddayamean, edgy?" The woman's traveling companion, a short, petite girl some fifty years younger, laughed out loud. She had this really weird, machine gun giggle--the type that is sorta, kinda interesting when you first hear it, but you know, for a fact, if you were cooped-up in the car with it for several hundred miles, it would begin to get on your nerves.

The older woman looked at me crossly and said, "My comment was that you live on the edge, not that you are edgy." "I stand corrected!" I said, managing to contain my sarcastic nature. Looking into her sage green eyes, I said, "Alrighty then, what do you mean by living on the edge?" This sent the young woman into a rapid-fire giggling fit. I winced as her curly brown hair bobbed about and her dark eyes twinkled merrily. She was kind of cute, but that laugh!

Working on a hunch I asked the ornery lady, "Is this your granddaughter?" "She is," came the strained reply. "We are traveling from Salt Lake City, seeing the sights." The elderly woman explained that she had a newly-discovered fear of high places and narrow roads. Her granddaughter was driving them around and seemed to be drawn to elevated and grandiose vistas. "Muley Point was frightening, and the Moki Dugway made me fall to the floor boards; I nearly popped my teeth!" the aggravated woman said.  "At the Goosenecks I thought I was going to be sucked over the edge by the vortex there, it scared me out of my skin!" The granddaughter fired-off another round of laughter.

"Driving over and around these mountains, monuments and mesas is just too much for me!" Grandma said, lashing out. The granddaughter snorted with that now annoying giggle. Speaking now to the girl I asked, "Do you like to drive fast?" "The faster the better!" she giggled. Thinking to myself about Grandma's situation of being forced to ride around Canyon Country with a crazy, cackling driver was enough to force anyone over the edge.

The apparently disruptive interaction between the two women and the grandmother's misplaced aggravation made me think of a Yee Nahgloshii, a Navajo Skinwalker. Growing-up in Bluff brought Steve and me into direct contact with Navajo legends, one of which concerned a werewolf-like creature, or a witch wearing the skin of an animal, and taking on its more negative aspects. Stories of Skinwalkers were whispered around the campfire and caused the night to be a much more frightful place. Later on I came across a book by Clyde Kluckhohn, the American anthropologist and social theorist, titled Navajo Witchcraft.

As I understood Dr. Kluckhohn's interpretation, the Yee Nahgloshii were often used as scapegoats. Navajo families generally lived in large groups, the close proximity of numerous personalities often caused contention. To help disperse pent-up emotions, a Skinwalker was blamed for an altogether different issue like losing sheep, scaring children or causing an illness. The focus of frustration was shifted from each other to something far more malevolent. Most often everyone involved knew the underlying issues, but chose to vent frustration on a common enemy.

Several years ago Marvin Jim and Grace Begay brought in a carving of a Yee Nahgloshii. When I reacted in a less than positive manner to the sculpture, Grace chastised me and explained, "The Skinwalker was initially a positive creature. Medicine Men would morph into animal form to move about Navajoland with speed and agility to gather herbs and medicines from the sacred mountains, then arrive at their ceremonial destination on time. "But," Grace explained, "humans corrupted the totally positive aspects of the Yee Nahgloshii and twisted them into something far less pure."

"As with many cultures," Grace explained, "most people focus on the negative aspects of things. Marvin and I carved this Skinwalker to help people understand that our deities gave the medicine men a gift to help heal our people, not to represent fear and distrust." Steve and I bought the carving and sold it to some friends who collect American Indian Art. The sculpture remained in their care until recently when we reacquired it. 

Looking back to the elderly lady and her antagonistic granddaughter, I realized that here was a perfect opportunity to incorporate the Yee Nahgloshii. That poor frazzled Grandma was just venting her frustration at being cooped-up in a car with a crazily cackling speed demon. She had become edgy and was focusing the blame on those of us "living on the edge."

After all that, Grandma bought that girl a pair of earrings as a gift for bringing her to Monument Valley and southeastern Utah; then left, shakily, through the Kokopelli doors. As the young woman gathered up her gift I caught her eye, dropped another small pair of earrings in her box as a gift and said; "Slow down and let your Grandmother enjoy this trip, you are stressing her out." The young woman giggled nervously, as she left I thought I saw the ghost of understanding cross her countenance.

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