Saturday, April 27, 2019

Just My Luck

I should have seen it coming, but I was slow to identify the signs. First, there was the Paul Simon riff that kept running through my mind: “I know a man. He came from my home town. He wore his passion for his woman like a thorny crown . . . .” I could not stop the continuous loop of Paul Slip Sliding Away. Then there was the image of a serene Christ impressed into the insulation paper in my basement. I noticed it during one of my early morning exercise sessions. Like the Shroud of Turin, this likeness resembles the Savior quietly resting. It was clear the stars were aligning, and I should have taken notice. But I didn’t.

Since my views on religion and the sacred are unorthodox, and not associated with any formal institution, I did not immediately share these occurrences with anyone. Being raised in the Roman Catholic faith by Mother Rose, and therefore subject to its lingering influences, I was wary of being branded a heretic, and maybe even burned at the stake. Many years ago, I adopted the Joseph Campbell ideal of “The God Within.” Barry and I have been exposed to countless cultural and doctrinal philosophies over the course of our trading post practice. As a result, I finally came to consider myself a religious pluralist. As for Barry, I am still unsure. I find the various myths, legends, and teachings of world religions fascinating and enlightening. Additionally, Navajo stories of the Hero Twins, Changing Woman, First Man and First Woman, Talking God, and other deities and their adventures have caused me to more fully embrace diverse cultures. This caused me to decide that exclusive claims of oneness associated with distinct philosophies are frequently just variations of universal truths that have been around far longer than I have been or will be.

As all this was circulating through my head, Jana suggested we get out of Bluff for the day. That usually means heading to Durango, Colorado. Living in the desert, we often like to experience the mountains when we have time off. So, into the car we piled and steered east. It was a beautiful day as we strolled through the shops on Main Street Durango. Jana wandered into a women’s clothing store, which led me to take a seat on the bench outside. As I sat pondering shapes in the billowy clouds, a youngish woman exited a nearby establishment and spied me reclining in the sun. “Contemplating life?” she asked. “Yep,” I confirmed, patting the space next to me and saying, “Sit down and tell me all you know.” To my surprise she did exactly that, saying, “I really don’t know much about the topic.”

Gina, as she introduced herself, was attractive, approximately 35 years old, medium build, strikingly blue hair, a multitude of rings piercing her ears, and what looked like flame tattoos peeking out from under her long-sleeve pullover. Carefully dressed to transmit a clear message about her independence, it soon became apparent she was quick-witted, intelligent, and articulate. “Well,” I said, thinking she would likely not take the bait, “if you don’t know anything about life, tell me about tattoos.” “Ahh,” she said hiking up her right sleeve, “that is something I know.” “Flames?” I inquired. “No, Jesus’ crown of thorns. And I intend to add His image when I get around to it.” There was Paul’s song again. “Christian?” I asked, somewhat surprised, considering her outward appearance. “Yes, I am,” she assured me with a confident nod, acknowledging I had reason to be surprised.

"Have you read the Bible?” she inquired. “New Testament or Old?” I responded, hoping to throw her off. “Both.” “Well,” I said, “I have tried unsuccessfully several times, never getting all the way through either. But . . . I have read a great deal of history and commentary, which I find easier to digest.” “Ahh,” she said, gently mocking me. “Well, it’s all in there---the Bible,” she assured me. “Really?” I replied, intrigued by her conviction, but still unwilling to accept that her outward appearance was at all consistent with our discussion. “Yep,” she said confidently. “Well,” I countered, “I have an extremely simple equation for defining God; God = Love. If it doesn’t fit within that framework, I can’t understand or support it. I think even if I don’t follow the guideposts exactly, due to misinformation, misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and maybe even unintentional negligence, God will know I am doing my best and give me a pass.” “Nope,” she assured me. “You gotta do it right, and your reasoning is not going to save you. Not going to get you through.” I was a bit taken aback, but impressed with her candor. I mentioned an image of a defiant young boy I had seen several years before. Below his photograph was the caption, “I know I’m good 'cause God don’t make no junk.” Gently, but genuinely unimpressed, Gina let me know she was not buying my arguments.

I was about to tell her about my ace in the hole, when Jana emerged from the shop and ended the conference. Many years ago, Corrine Roring had come to me in search of sandstone to rebuild the old Bluff Coop. Knowing our reputation as hard bargainers, when I quickly agreed she could harvest the necessary rock from property Barry and I own, she asked suspiciously, “How much?” “Nothing, nada, zero,” I responded, “but you have to make me a promise.” “What,” she said eyeing me cautiously, obviously concerned about what was coming next. “If you get there before I do, put in a good word for me,” I said, inadvertently leaving Barry out of the transaction. This lapse has had serious consequences once Barry learned of my lapse. “Deal,” Corrine said, extending her hand, “shake.” Although I am confident Corrine kept her commitment, I am also sure Gina would not agree that is a viable solution. In any case, I didn’t get the chance to test the thesis because Jana was ready to go. So we said our good-byes and went our separate ways.

When I later explained the entire situation to Jana, pointing out the image in the insulation, she said, “That looks more like John Lennon than Jesus; maybe the Beatles will look out for you.” Just my luck. As Paul, George, John, and Ringo sang, “Help!"

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Fly If You Might

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to take a hike. After my formal duties of church and state, I decided it was high time for exercise and a close commune with nature. My idea was to walk up the pavement to the northwestern tip of the mesa above town. There I would go off-road and trickle south through the pinion, sage, and juniper, scamper along the canyon rim, and meander towards the reservoirs our forefathers so thoughtfully provided north and west of town. I asked Laurie if she was up for a hike but she declined."You are like the poky little puppy," she said, "you walk too slow and are too easily distracted. Anyway, I am in the midst of preparing Sunday dinner."

Laurie and I do "walk" differently. I prefer to meander, drawn to areas of interest by whim and fancy. Laurie walks strictly for exercise, and she prefers the most direct route from point A to point B at the most-brisk pace possible. I forgave her derogatory remark without too much resentment, because I knew the benefits of her culinary creations would be worth much more than any trauma her slight verbal whiplash might cause. I grabbed my phone, just in case I might need rescue, and headed out the door.

As I walked the narrow blacktop to the north, the houses became fewer and fewer and the languid Sunday afternoon traffic dropped to a trickle. I topped out on the mesa and trekked the incredibly scenic ridge-top road that borders Recapture Canyon and the Abajo Mountains that rise up majestically from the ruggedly rocky canyon floor. Looking across the great expanse, I could see several interesting rifts in the adjoining mountainside that deserved closer inspection. Alas, those would have to wait for another day. The sky was amazing, a deep azure with an abundance of puffy, white cotton-ball cloud formations floating majestically overhead. As I walked, the sun came and went causing intermittent zones of light and shadow, allowing constantly differing perspectives on the surrounding landscape. Just before the road dropped into the canyon, I veered left and hopped a locked, gated fence meant to deter vehicular travel on this particular dirt track. As I trekked south, I witnessed a multitude of wild flowers. There were white phlox, golden sunflowers, orange Indian paintbrush, and an occasional milky-white blossom of yucca flowers set among prickly, protective green spikes. I also noticed several other varieties whose names I am not familiar with.

Moving at a fair pace, I came to the head of a canyon running north and south. The slight depression quickly became deeper and rockier as I moved along its flank until I could no longer see its most interesting and alluring depths. I thought about delving into the darkness, but knew I was expected to attend a meeting with my wife at 5:00 that evening. Even worse, I might miss a family dinner that promised delicious delicacies. I was hesitant to chance such a disappointment. I never wear a watch, claiming I refuse to be ruled by time. On the other hand, I despise tardiness and seldom miss a scheduled appointment. A conflicted personality? Probably!

Anyway, I did not know what time it was, how long I had been out, exactly where I was, or how far from the house I might be. As I stood there marveling at the peaceful silence, I could hear the breeze through the trees, the creak of branches, and the songs of birds all about me. There was nothing else. I thought back to the trading post, the artists, art, and culture I am blessed to deal with on a daily basis. I am constantly reminded how the belief system of the Navajo people evolved from their close, personal relationship with Earth, Sky, and Water.

Standing there in the near silence, and looking out over the spectacular landscape with the snow-capped Blue Mountain at my back caused me to reflect on those wonderful stories I have heard from early childhood. I thought how Wind, Rain, Thunder, and Lightning, almost every aspect of the natural world, are deified, and how Sun, Moon, and Earth are held in extreme reverence. I heard a meadowlark sing his five-part melody and thought how the people believe the gods have stepped aside to allow their precious charges time to explore the Anglo world of science and technology. "You will know of our being by the song of the small birds" was their departing promise of continued support. I can't help but believe that world still exists for those who embrace that primitive but thoughtfully hopeful philosophy. I heard a buzzing sound and felt something land on my forearm. Looking down I recognized a pesky horsefly and thought to smoosh it where it rested. Hesitating, I was reminded of Dotso, Messenger Fly, the Navajo mythological guardian that reminds the people of meaningful events. "Shoot," I said out loud and thought to myself that this friendly fly had placed himself at risk to remind me of an important appointment. It was time to fleet-foot it home. But where was I?

I navigated a cluster of pinion trees, dropped into a small valley, hopped another fence, and climbed a rocky hillside before finding a dirt road that looked promising. Following it to the south a few minutes, I thought I was beginning to recognize my surroundings. Walking further, I encountered a relatively unused double track I had hiked a week earlier with a small group of young people. I knew if I traveled that rugged road for a half a mile, I would find myself overlooking the fourth reservoir. That would put me somewhere close to four miles from my front door. Looking up at the position of the sun, I realized it was time to pick up the pace. Before too long I reached the reservoir and hit pavement. I hustled as fast as I could, passed up a couple ride offers because I wanted to finish what I had started. As I came to the church about a mile from our home, I saw "my ride," the Toyota Torpedo parked out front. That meant Laurie had gone to the meeting without me. I dredged the long-forgotten cell phone from my back pocket and realized that I had been gone three and a half hours. I quickly cleaned up, changed my clothes, and drove my truck to the meeting. As I arrived at the church (half an hour late), I looked to the heavens and thanked that fresh fly, or whoever he might have been, for reminding me of my responsibilities.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Carving

When Barry and I were young, the Simpson family operated a small filling station on the south side of Blanding, Utah. This was our first venture into family business, and we have been working together, off and on, ever since. Duke began leasing the small Plateau service station when we were 10 and 9, respectively. During summer vacations, we maintained a rotating schedule with Craig, our older brother, consisting of a morning shift the first day, an afternoon shift on the second day, and play on the third. Since this was before self-service, we pumped gas, repaired tires, checked oil, sold snacks, and did all the other things associated with small filling stations.

Duke was always good about showing us techniques to make the operation better. Since we were young, we were mostly interested in drinking soda pop, eating potato chips, and just making it through the shift. Duke ran a tight ship, so he was always after us to walk out in the parking lot and pick up the trash deposited there the night before. Earlier today, as I walked back to the trading post with lunch in my hands, I noticed a potato chip package in the Twin Rocks parking lot. Since my hands were full, I couldn’t get out to pick it up, which started me thinking about how we have gotten so busy around here that we don’t always get to things as quickly as we should.

Consequently, I realized there is a wrapper in my emotional parking lot I have been meaning to retrieve. Picking it up requires writing this article. The bit of unfinished business originated when I was asked to write a short essay for a book friends of ours were writing. Since Barry was out of town, I became solely responsible for writing a piece focusing on modern-day trading posts. In doing so, I mentioned several traders I felt had made significant contributions to contemporary Navajo weaving.

One of our friends read the draft and called to inquire what criteria I had used to determine the traders I included. She obviously believed I had a given a lot more thought to the issue than I had. Her point was, “How do you define an Indian trader?” As usual, she had put her finger on a difficult issue. In the past, an “Indian trader” was one who operated a trading post on a reservation, who traded with “Indians,” and who held a federal Indian trader’s license. Using that definition, Barry and I certainly are not classic traders. Her idea of an Indian trader reflected on the relationship between the traders and the “tradees,” and discounted the day-to-day operations of the establishment. She felt strongly it was the relationship between the people that determines whether you are, or are not, a true trader.

During our discussions, it became apparent the trader connection she felt was so important frequently manifested itself in the form of bad financial decisions, which were often good personal choices. Such decisions are typically the type that make you question your sanity, but make you feel good when they turn out. Typically, we justify them even when they don’t go right by saying, “Oh well, we were destined do it.”

Jana, my wife, frequently reminds me we are never going to get rich making so many of those “oh well” decisions. Maybe we all have to realize we are never going to be wealthy anyway, and that the “oh wells” are what keep us smiling. One “oh well” incident I frequently laugh, and cringe, about involves Navajo folk carver Rena Juan. Many years ago, Rena and her now former husband, Harrison, came into the store with several sculptures. It was almost Christmas and Rena was looking for a present. She had her eye on a peyote rattle. The piece was nicely done and had won a blue ribbon at the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonials. Since I was feeling flush at the moment (I am particularly careless when business has been good and there is a little cash in my pocket), and since Rena and Harrison had been good to me, I told her I would just give her the rattle. She objected and offered to carve a small portrait of me in return. After telling her I did not want a carving of me and listening to her insist, I finally gave in.

Afterwards, every few months Rena would stop by Twin Rocks and insist I allow her to photograph me for the carving. Over several months, she gathered pictures of me from virtually every angle. I often stated I did not want the carving, but she persisted. About 20 photographs later, I began to press her to just get the project done; I couldn’t bear up to the photo sessions forever. Months later she stopped in with a large carving. I had to admit it was a funny piece, but I was expecting a small carving and this was about four feet tall. Since I was still a little naive in the ways of trading, I thought she had gone out of her way to compensate me for Harrison’s gift. No, that was not the point; she wanted $800.00 for the carving. I informed her I would not pay, that it was supposed to be a gift and she would have to take it to one of the other trading posts. Certainly, the other traders would pay handsomely for a carving of me! Rena, realizing I had her over a barrel, decided a serious discount was in order. At that point, I said, “Oh well,” and wrote the check. It certainly made Barry, Priscilla, and everybody else around here question my ability to operate the business. I was almost retired on the spot.

Putting the carving in a dark corner of the post, I thought nobody would notice it. The corner was not dark enough, however, because from time to time I would hear a “What is that?” and I know somebody has discovered me. The carving was set back by the rug racks, which when she was young was one of Kira’s favorite hiding places, and the piece always unnerved her. One day I came to work to find a cardboard box over its head. I pouted a little over the insult and put the box back under the counter, pending an inquisition into who had done the dirty deed. Nobody would admit to the cover up. A few days later, I caught Kira sneaking around the corner with the box, climbing up, and placing it over my head once again. Apparently, she didn’t like me watching what she was doing behind the rugs! After that, the carving wore a headdress so boxes could never again disgrace me.

With that, my emotional parking lot is clean! Oh well!