Saturday, November 18, 2017

Above and Beyond


The other morning, I strode buoyantly homeward after a predawn workout. I was feeling refreshed and invigorated by the physical activity and the clean crispness of the air. As far back as high school, I have had a love-hate relationship with early morning exercise. I hate to drag myself out of a warm, comfortable bed to initiate an hour or so of (what I consider) strenuous activity, but I love the feeling of having battled a more matronly figure one more day. I also enjoy witnessing the dawn of new beginnings.

As I walked home, I glanced to the west and witnessed a spectacular show of light and color. The sky dome overhead was a dark and dreary gray. It looked as if a curved lens cap of high clouds fit snugly over the world. The exception was a horrific-looking rift on the southwestern horizon. A ragged tear of incredibly bright orangey-red light split the horizontal separation between earth and sky. I thought to myself that this must be how the first primordial dawn looked.

Stopping in my tracks, I watched in wonder as the rift widened until the sun sprang forth, igniting the earth one more time. The fiery orb lit up and blended with the blanketing cloud cover and cast an ominous glow upon the surrounding landscape. It was a simple, yet glorious, moment. I wondered what ancient peoples might have thought of such events. The Sky World must have at once attracted and repelled them.

Working with local Native American artists has allowed Steve and me a deep and abiding interest in their creativity, and the myth and legend from which they draw inspiration. We have learned that the Sky World is of critical importance. Living in such close proximity to the natural world and her splendid wonders allows these artists a unique and exciting perspective that many of us can only imagine. To them, the sky alone implies a potent, thought-provoking reality.

The sky is infinite, remote, inconceivably immense, inaccessible, and eternal. From this upper realm, as with numerous cultures around the world, the Navajo derived their first notion of the divine. Native artists are inspired by thunder bolts, eclipses, storms, meteors, falling stars, phases of the moon, sunsets, and rainbows. The sky was (and is) an endlessly active dimension with a life all its own.

Although the Sky World was basically effected by human beings, it affected and motivated them tremendously. From this elevated realm evolved cultural and faith-based inspiration that developed into elements that were essential to their spiritually inspired, artistic lives. These, now iconic, images are projected through rug weaving, basket, jewelry, and folk craft.

The images include the Bearer of the Sun, who carries the light disk across the sky and can represent youth, endurance, virility, and strength, and the Moon, a more settled personality associated with knowledge, wisdom, compassion, and understanding. These two inseparable characters combine to present a harmonious, balanced persona. Big Thunder, Star People, and those beings with dual citizenship to earth and sky, such as the raptors and small birds, are now common to Native American art forms.

All of these images are instrumental and beneficial in explaining creation, existence, and relationships. The art allows us to experience a mystical unity with people of a unique perspective derived from the ancient past and the natural world. This grants us a glimpse at primitive richness common to the land in which we dwell and the people with whom we associate. Look to the skies, there is beauty and enlightenment there.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Old '59

Most Sunday mornings, I am the designated manager at Twin Rocks Cafe. That is my reward for not attending church. While the cooks prepare breakfast, fry bacon, steam oatmeal, and bake biscuits, I sometimes stand at the south-facing picture windows, waiting for the sun to crest the eastern horizon. When it ultimately does, the sandstone cliffs embracing our small community glow with a stunning pink-coral radiance. It’s enough to take my breath away.

Promptly at 8 a.m., we illuminate the open signs and begin welcoming hungry travelers. Last week as I stood admiring the natural light, a late model pickup turned into the gravel parking lot. Hitched to the truck was a gooseneck trailer loaded with a vintage Ford F-250. The transport came to a stop and a couple in their early 30s hopped out and headed my direction. I could tell by the way they hurried along, they were in desperate need of a coffee infusion, so I alerted the server.

Once the pair had settled into a booth and placed their order, I asked about the classic car. “It’s her’s .” the young man said, pointing to his wife. Pleased I had taken an interest in her truck, she said, “It’s a 1959. Has some scratches and dents, a bit of rust; body looks good from afar; not so great up close; not bad for an old one.”

Feeling unexpectedly self-conscious, I surprised myself by declaring, “I’m a 1959.” “Oh, that’s interesting,” the woman said, wholly unaware she had exposed a nerve. For some reason, I could not help thinking that in describing the old ‘59 she had illuminated my own characteristics: more than a few scrapes and scars, not bad from a distance, but don’t look too closely. All of the sudden, I felt a strong affinity for the vintage truck.

Considering the current state of affairs: scratches, dents, worn joints, wiring not firing so well, leaky valves, and noxious exhaust, I was initially uneasy. Then I began to envision the adventures that old truck might have had in its prime. I thought of it tooling down a country road, feeling the excitement of new power and straining to find the limits, everything working at maximum efficiency. Over the sound of wind rushing through open windows, I could hear Elvis crooning Big Hunk O’ Love and My Wish Come True on the AM radio.

I conceived of projects started and completed: loads of building materials hammered into a beautiful home, rocks for landscaping, and bags of leaves raked from lush green lawns as winter approached. I could see children piling into the cab, on their way to camping trips, birthday parties, school events, and athletic contests.

The miles sped past, eventually delivering me to the present. There we were, the old truck and me, with all our warts and bumps, monuments to almost six decades of experience, rooted in the past, but looking ahead. It was then I noticed the young man’s ball cap. “Life is Good,” it proclaimed. “No, life is great,” I thought as the couple finished their breakfast and left to continue their journey.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Insightful Intuition


The aged man sat quietly amid a group of three giant, twisted, and textured cottonwood trees. The heavy foliage overhead protected him from the excessive heat bearing down on the weathered cliffs, broken sandstone, and iron-stained earth that surrounded him. Deesdoi (too hot), he muttered to himself. Surveying the landscape, he spotted three young boys (ashii Ke yazhi) forming a pincer movement on the giant bullfrog that rested comfortably in the shallows of the small pond just below the hill to his left. The shavers were so intent on their prize that they were completely unaware of the interested bystander. From under the rumpled rim of his sweat-stained, black-felt Stetson, the observer studied the intent faces and deliberate movements of the boys. Avoiding any sudden movement that might arouse the attention of the frog, or the sprouts, he carefully reached into the right breast-pocket of his tan and brown Pendleton shirt, pulling out cigarette papers and a small bag of Bull-Durham tobacco. Closely studying the young bucks, he shook loose a bit of the shredded leaf and deposited it into the Zig Zag sheath, deftly licking the edge and sealing the seam.

As the youngsters navigated swamp grass and cattails, slowly but surely closing in on the croaker, the man noticed that two of the boys were heavily tanned, but lighter than the other. Their hair was cropped short and sandy blond in color. "Tow-heads" was the term he had heard white people (Bilaganna) call such flaxen-headed children. The other at first appeared to be Navajo; he was darker skinned with closely shorn raven hair and heavier, with more muscled features. The old fellow's mahogany eyes brightened and his weathered complexion crinkled as he smiled and thought to himself "Duke's Boys." Duke was the red-headed white man who had built the filling station on the east end of Bluff. Duke had brought the pretty Portuguese woman from California to the edge of the Rez. The old timer studied the boys. They were outfitted in well-worn Levi's, slightly soiled white T-shirts, and heavy "clod hopper" boots. The kids worked well together, and the "kicker" looked to be cornered.

The resting, rustic character simultaneously placed the cigarette in his mouth and removed his high-domed hat, presenting a full, uncombed head of salt and pepper hair, which stuck out in all directions. The small fry did not notice the movement, but the monster frog did. The old Indian slowly reached into his pocket and drew out a stick match. The frog hunkered down. The boys were nearly in position. Hasteen placed the match on the thigh of his stiff Wrangler jeans, preparing to strike. The little soldiers eyed each other in silent conversation, making final preparations. The man pulled the match in an upward motion, lit it, and moved the flame to his cigarette just as one of the boys shouted "NOW." Spying the flash of fire, the bullfrog jumped an instant before the striplings, escaping into the depths of the pond. The ruffians yelled in frustration and began pushing and shoving one another about, each blaming the others for failing to catch the marvelous trophy. The man smiled to himself, replaced his hat, and took a long satisfying drag on his cigarette.

At the edge of the pond, things were quickly getting out of hand. The old Navajo gentleman reached back and pushed himself up from the gnarled tree trunk, placed two fingers to his lips, and let out a shrill whistle. The punks froze the instant the sound split the thick air. The boys looked in the direction of the man, smiled and waved, never suspecting his involvement in the frog's escape. The lads sat down on the bank of the pond, removed their boots and t-shirts, and bailed off into the murky, artesian well water. The old codger smiled to himself and headed off in the direction of the K&C store for a cool red pop (To'lichii). As his chafed black riding boots scuffed the dust, he could hear the ruffians splashing and laughing out loud behind him. According to Navajo legend, the old timer had saved the youngsters and, for that matter, all locals numerous crop failures and countless ailments. He had done them a favor! Those boys were certainly not aware of the frog's influence over corn, rain, and diseases of the bones and joints. To trifle with a bullfrog was to court disaster. If they had indeed caught and handled that huge frog, they might have been adversely affected for years.

As the old sage made his way to Keith and Curtis's store, he thought of canned peaches and licked his lips in anticipation of the sweet (likan) goodness. Hearing the sound of distant thunder, he looked to the west and noticed a heavy build-up of storm clouds, illuminated by flashes of lightning. A thunderstorm was moving quickly in the direction of the sheltered river valley. With the advancing winds, the old gentleman picked up his pace; he knew a male rain would soon bust loose overhead. Nearing his destination, he checked his pockets for loose change and, noting the problems he had averted for the kids and this small community, said out loud, "You're welcome!"

Friday, October 13, 2017

Are you a Simpson?

Many years ago, our sister Cindy began researching Simpson family history. Having grown up in Mormon country, where determining one’s genealogy is essential to a full religious experience, she apparently felt compelled to unearth our paternal roots. I have often wondered whether she initiated the enterprise after being led to believe we came from royalty and that she was, therefore, a princess. Simpsons, as we know, have vivid imaginations. That is, however, a different story to be left for another day.

Having begun her project in earnest, she soon uncovered details better left in the past. Illuminating the activities of our ancestors was apparently an unnerving experience, and after arriving at that conclusion, she folded her tent, locked the offending documentation in a chest, and abandoned the undertaking. It is clear from what little information Cindy disclosed that our antecedents were mostly outlaws, misfits, vagrants, miscreants and Democrats; the latter category being most worrisome. Intuitively understanding our lineage should never be open to the public, before Cindy began her investigative adventure I had consciously avoided the truth. Indeed, fearing what I might find, I steadfastly refused to interpret our family narrative.

Last Tuesday as I sat at my desk trying to sort out trading post accounting, which is always challenging, I was reminded of Cindy’s quest. Having heard the doorbell ring, I looked up to see a slender, well-dressed, middle-aged man enter the store through the Kokopelli doors. Since it was late in the afternoon, Barry had given up trying to peddle turquoise and was reclining in one of the wooden chairs strategically located in the middle of the showroom. “Good afternoon,” I heard Barry warmly greet the guest. “Good afternoon to you,” the man replied affably. “Are you one of the Simpsons?”

Knowing our history all too well, Barry’s posture straightened and he cautiously responded, “Well, that depends on whether you are from the CIA, FBI, NSA, IRS, ATF, EPA, BIA, BLM, or one of those other governmental agencies designate by consonants and vowels, designed to trip up ordinary human beings. If, on the other hand you are from ABC, CBS, NBC, or Netflix, I have a story to tell.” While Barry was not interested in being incarcerated long-term, he was still looking for the fifteen minutes of fame Andy Warhol guaranteed us all.

Several years before, after a particularly harrowing federal raid in Blanding, Barry and I had been advised by a lawyer who came wandering into Twin Rocks to always stonewall when anonymous individuals asked for information. This shyster had counseled that we should never voluntarily divulge personal affairs. “Never give ‘em anything,” the ambulance chaser cautioned. “Make ‘em work for it. If you directly ask ‘em if they work for the feds, they have ta tell ya. Then you’ll know and won’t be entrapped.” Since I cannot keep a secret, that guidance was lost on me. Barry, on the other hand, was obviously following the jurist’s instructions. Barry seemed worried I may have made some grievous error he had yet to identify, and this guy knew more about that particular issue than he was revealing.

“No, no, none of that,” the gentleman replied. “Just met a character in Blanding who said he has two sons here in Bluff. Thought you might be one of them. I think his name was Acey or Ducey.” “Duke,” Barry corrected. After a bit, Barry relaxed and began chatting amiably with the visitor. Barry had obviously forgotten about going to the Big House and was thinking there might be one last chance to sell a Navajo basket, rug, folk carving, or piece of silver jewelry.

As I watched through the tinted glass of my office, the dapper man closely inspected Barry. Sensing nothing was amiss, after a time I went back to my accounts and left Barry to address any ongoing issues. When he had concluded his analysis, the dandy turned to go. Before exiting he said, “By the way, while I may not be employed by any of those organizations you mentioned, if I were with the fashion police I would have to charge you with a first-degree felony for violating the IDC, International Dress Code.” Obviously impressed with his own humor, and chuckling to himself, the man strolled out, glowing like a new penny in the late afternoon sunlight. Barry self-consciously smoothed the wrinkles in his Twin Rocks Cafe tee-shirt and uttered an oath he had long ago learned from our neighbor Opal Hooper.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Dumbfounded


Standing near the cash register, I was just finishing a telephone transaction when an older couple walked into the trading post. From the lines on his face and the abundance of gray in his beard, I estimated him to be approximately 70 years old. The lady had only a few laugh lines around her eyes, and her hair was more brown than gray, which made her appear at least 15 years younger than her companion.

As soon as they came through the door, the couple split up. The man veered off in the direction of the Navajo rugs, poked his hands into his pockets and took on a look of complete indifference. The woman walked right up to where I stood and smiled in a bright, friendly manner; hesitating a moment as if waiting for me to finish my work. At the back counter, Priscilla, our trusty associate, was busy pricing bracelets we had just purchased from Ella Toney. I set what I was doing aside and greeted the woman, who was dressed for summer in khaki shorts, a sleeveless, button-down shirt, and sandals.

Her pageboy haircut and sparkling brown eyes made her seem even younger than my original guesstimate. She said she was interested in earrings, so I showed her a variety of styles. She liked those by Navajo artist Jimmy Poyer and began to closely investigate his work.

Looking up to locate her husband, I found him standing near the bat-wing doors leading into the rug room, tapping them impatiently. I told the man he was welcome to enter and look more closely at the weavings. Except to push through the doors and walk in, he did not acknowledge my comment. His wife and I returned to Jimmy’s earrings. She soon found a pair that suited her and held one to her left ear to view it in the mirror.

Neither of us saw her husband approach, but we both distinctly heard his next statement. "I am dumbfounded," he said emphatically. We were caught completely off guard, and stared at him in wide-eyed wonder. He reiterated, "I am dumbfounded!" "So am I," I thought to myself. "Why?" I asked. I could tell the woman was thinking the same thing, because she had a similarly startled look on her face as she continued holding the earring to the side of her head.

The man was slight of build, with sharp features and a slightly olive complexion. He stood there looking intently at us in his Levi's, hiking boots, and plaid button-down shirt. I admit I am sometimes slow on the uptake, but this guy was not giving me any clues. I looked to Priscilla for help and saw only confusion in her eyes. The man gazed at us intently from under his Indiana Jones, sage-green felt hat---waiting. At close range, the man's bearded face and the serious look in his eyes allowed me to see just how passionate he was about this subject.

The three of us stood gazing at this interesting character and wondered where he was going with his comments. He shook his head and produced a pictorial rug which I had not previously noticed him holding. “Sarah Descheny" he said. Then again, "I am dumbfounded!" "I understand that part," I said, "but why?" Shaking his head at my lack of comprehension, he began to explain. "I am Jewish, and my last name is Deschenes. This rug was woven by Sarah Descheny!" He looked at us again, with raised eyebrows. "Oh," I said, somewhat relieved, "you have similar last names."

Turning to Priscilla, I asked what Descheny means in Navajo. She thought a moment and said, "I think it is a clan name meaning, 'Start of the Red Streaked People.'" "There you have it," I said. The guy just stood there, shaking his head side to side. I turned to the women, who looked at her husband and tried to change the subject. Shaking the earrings next to her earlobe, she asked if he liked how it looked. Waving off the question, he said, "I can't be bothered with that right now; this is amazing!" The woman handed me the earrings and sighed in resignation.

What had captured the man's imagination, aside from her name, was an image of Sarah that was attached to the weaving. Mr. Deschenes held the picture up to his face and said; "Do you see the resemblance?" "Okay, this is getting weird," I thought. "Think man," he said, "her name is Sarah!" Now I was losing patience. Shaking my head in disbelief, I said, "There is also a Rachel next door working at the cafe, and I know for a fact she is not Jewish!" The man gave me a look of disdain and turned to his wife to explain. She cut him off by turning away. I am sure she was remembering the earring dismissal.

The man turned back to me and said, "I think this is my sister!" I just stood there a moment, letting his statement sink in. He waited patiently, and I started to disagree. Looking into his eyes once again, however, I thought better of it. I could not, however, let it go and said; "If that is true, it would mean that your father visited the Reservation 80 some-odd years ago and . . . planted a seed. "Yes," he said shaking his head in the affirmative, "I am dumbfounded!"

I stared at the man in surprise, and thought through the implications. I considered how surprised Sarah might be as well, and smiled inwardly at the thought of presenting her with the facts. The idea just did not make sense, and I said so. In reply, the man said, " I'm Jewish; I know a Jew when I see one." He held the picture up again and said, "Can't YOU see it?" What I wanted to say was, "Well, I'm not Navajo, but I have lived among them for years. In spite of that, I don't always know a Navajo when I see one!" I resisted, however, and in the alternative said, "What I think is, at this point, it really does not matter what I think; your mind is made up."

Things quickly went downhill from there, and the earring sale fell through. "I just can't think about that right now," he said again. The couple departed, and Priscilla and I stood there looking at each other in wide-eyed wonder. Yup, you guessed it . . . dumbfounded!

The next time Sarah came to the trading post, we mentioned the encounter to her. I thought she would fall down laughing at the thought of such a thing. Her two daughters ribbed her unmercifully the whole time they were here, and then departed laughing and joking. This was quite a contrast to how Mr. and Mrs. Deschenes left the building.

As I considered the parallel encounters, I realized that Sarah never really refuted the accusation. She laughed about it, joked about it and allowed herself to be tormented by her daughters, but never actually denied it. Either Sarah thought the idea too ludicrous to take seriously, or she would make an excellent politician, or just maybe . . . .