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one fine day

There was one glorious day of sunshine.

It was our last day. Tammy asked me where I wanted to go. “East Point?” I said. I wasn’t sure what was even there, except a lighthouse. And I had seen other lighthouses, and maybe they were all the same after awhile. But it was too nice a day to stay indoors, and with any luck there would be a beach, and there would definitely be water and sunshine and fresh air. We took off with two other family friends, Lan and Minh, and Lucy, Tammy’s Sheltie. Lucy is an older dog with arthritis and cancer, and she is a good traveling companion. I miss having dogs—not as much as cats, but I grew up with dogs, and Lucy is a very good dog.

It didn’t take long to get to our destination. I grew up near a river, and water makes me happy, but there is nothing like the sight of boundless ocean to ground and heal me. (Technically it’s the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but you know.) I took photos of the water and the boats at work, but mostly I enjoyed the air and the sound of water. I was high up from the waves, and from certain positions I was able to pretend that the rest of everything was gone, no other people, no buildings, just me at the end of the world. It was a kind of peace that I didn’t even know I needed until it came to me.

Unlike the other lighthouses I saw on the island, the East Point lighthouse is a tourist destination, complete with gift shop and garish signs. (And you know what I think of that.) So I took some pictures of the structure but didn’t go inside. Other cars pulled up, and people with enormous lenses and tripods began to shoot commanding views of the water. I walked away from the others in my group, toward an area of tall grasses in front of a stand of trees that had been pummeled from the sea winds.

And then a fox came out. At first it just trotted around, and I took its photo, amazed that it allowed me to get this close, even though it was obviously used to tourists. Soon enough, it got in a staring contest with our Lucy. Our Lucy, she of the advanced age and the sore joints and the cancer.

Time stopped, in a way that none of us could have expected. It’s one thing to dissolve into the view of water endlessly crashing into rocks, and quite another to watch two animals locked in silent communication. Both scenes are nature, free of human interference, but during those moments while we waited, all the water-induced peace vanished and tension arose. I wished you were there to see it with me. I hoped Lucy would be okay. I wanted one of the animals to swish a tail and make the first move. My heartbeat was loud and insistent. Did Tammy call Lucy and try to get her to come out of the trance? I don’t even know. I went down on my haunches and shot into the sunlight, trying not to startle either Lucy or the fox, channeling the part of me that watches nature documentaries and hoping that one of the shots would turn out all right.

Then they took off. I don’t remember which one twitched first, but the fox took off through the grasses and into the thicket of windbent Seussian trees. Lucy followed with a speed and agility that I could never have imagined I’d see, racing through the brush after the fox. Tammy called for Lucy to come back, but the trees were silent. Somehow she didn’t panic, and we four humans walked down a trail that ran perpendicular to the trees, slowly enough that Lucy would find us if she came out. I tried to remember what I knew about foxes, dogs, foxhunts, and rabies. It was a mishmash of trivia that didn’t matter at all unless Lucy was okay.

And then she was. She trotted back out from the thicket, the fox nowhere to be seen, and joined us on our walk down to the beach. No sign of a limp, and her happy Sheltie smile was intact. Tangles of blackened seaweed on the path attracted flies, and the water grew louder. Nowhere had there been a sign that said No Trespassing, but neither had there been one that said This Way to Beach, either. From the worn path it was obvious that many had gone before us, so I followed along, bringing up the rear.

Tammy

I have seen black sand beaches, green sand beaches, and plenty of white sand beaches, but this was my first red sand beach. Compelling and different, especially that day, when the rocks around me were illuminated by full sunshine, when the sky and water were so boldly blue. Tammy took off for a long walk with Lucy, Lan selected pebbles from along the shoreline, and Minh sat on a broad rock and watched wave after wave. I took a few photos from far away, keeping everyone small against the umber and blue, and then sat on some rocks myself so that I could be in the moment. Part of me wanted to stay until the sun went down. It was an unexpected idyll.

LanMinh (the tiny spot of blue there in the middle)

Tammy showed me the stones she’d collected from her own walk with Lucy, whose fox-forest secrets we will never know. Tammy is an accomplished jewelry maker and her handful of stones were well selected, some for aesthetics and some just for the way they felt in her hand. I bent down and picked up a dozen or so tiny shells and a handful of red sand, and then hiked back up the rocks and along the trees, wondering about the fox and walking slowly enough to keep from losing a single shell.

I came back to the car and let my eyes linger on the view a little longer. I tried to tell myself that if I lived amid such beauty I would never take it for granted, but those are the kinds of promises I can’t keep. It might be why I’ve moved around so often, trying to keep my eyes fresh. I can’t move house the way I used to, but I can do this much, sometimes, and open my eyes so wide I can feel it in my spine. And I can share it with you, of course. That helps.

(Sorry this was so late… there were just so many photos it was overwhelming.) 

a world of pure imagination

When I was a little girl, my grandmother gave me the fourth Anne of Green Gables book, Anne of Windy Poplars, as a gift. It’s the story of the years that Anne had a long-distance relationship with her one and only Gilbert while she worked in Summerside, PEI, teaching at a girls’ school. This does mean that all of the carefully constructed will-they-or-won’t-they from the first three books, which I read after Windy Poplars, was forever lost on me. What matters is that Grammy’s gift had two lasting effects on me: First, I will do everything I can to avoid reading books in a series out of order. Second, I joined the Cult of Anne. I still reread my Anne books every few years, still quote from their obscure passages without even caring if anyone knows what I’m talking about, and still think about the giddiness that would have come over the little girl I used to be if she’d only known that someday she would end up living in Canada. Now, living in Ottawa doesn’t equal Avonlea or really anything close to it. And as an adult and a person who viscerally detests tourist traps, I never even suggested to Myron that we go. Someday, I thought, maybe someday when I can go by myself, just to see. But I wasn’t about to say no when the opportunity presented itself.

The day we drove from the B&B to the north shore of the island took me by surprise. That morning, my friend Tammy had the map open at the breakfast table to plan the route. I wasn’t mentally prepared to go—I’d been expecting to stay close to home that day. But I threw together a small bag of items and we headed out across the island. It was another cold, gray day and the only appealing visuals came from the beautiful contrasts of the red farm fields (most were prepared for potatoes, with deep grooves in the earth) and brilliant green grass and the many beautifully painted farmhouses. After all these years of living in a suburbia where the houses are beige, off-white, and brown with the occasional red brick, it was elevating to see aqua blue and butter yellow houses that looked completely at home in their world instead of sore-thumby and loud.

It doesn’t take very long to travel most of anywhere on the island. I say this as a person who used to drive four hours to get to a Wal-Mart, so a ninety-minute trip to Cavendish didn’t bother me in the least. We stopped on the way in for a quick lunch—I ordered an appetizer order of mussels and a veggie wrap, but didn’t end up touching the wrap because my bowl of mussels was so enormous. Just a few more minutes down the road, we stopped here to look out at the water in North Rustico. I may have wished for better weather, but I could not have asked for cleaner, crisper seaside air or better music than the wind and water in concert.

My aversion to touristy attractions wars with me at places like the Green Gables house and the stuff that’s sprung up around it. There’s a visitor center that shows some sort of video (um, no) and outbuildings like a barn, woodshed, and granary that have slice-of-historical-life facts posted on plaques. These things have no appeal to me—all I cared to see was the house, a place where I expected to suspend my disbelief and forcibly place myself in the books I know so well. This house is the Macneill house, which Montgomery said was her inspiration for the Cuthbert home, and the items inside were collected for the purpose of creating the walk-through experience. The people responsible for it know the books exceedingly well.

I stood below the deep slope of the lawn to view the house and imagine approaching it as a small girl with countless hopes. But in fact Matthew’s cart would probably have approached the house from behind.

Matthew’s wash stand Puffed sleeves.My photos of the inside aren’t the greatest. This is partly due to the (lack of) light inside and the ubiquitous velvet ropes. But it was fun to be there, in a place much smaller and more personal than you might expect having seen the movies from the eighties. We moved quietly through the rooms, and my friend recited bits of the books as she was inspired by each room. Touring the little house at the same time were an older woman and her brother. There is nothing like meeting another Anne-girl, especially not in a place like that. She observed that the (period-appropriate but exceedingly loud) paisley hallway wallpapers were not what she expected out of a salt-of-the-earth type like Marilla Cuthbert, but then mused, “Of course Rachel Lynde moved in at one point,” and sniffed loudly, indicating exactly what she thought of both Mrs. Lynde and the decor.

Later on we stopped at the gift shop on the way out to pick up postcards. You wouldn’t think that you could work the merchandising as hard as they do, but, well, Anne was all about the imagination, and imagination is much at play here. Books and videos and maple syrup, of course, but my two favorite souvenirs are down below. I managed to resist buying both of them, but I might have been compelled to plunk my money down for some comp’ny jam. 

So here I am, trying to put together thoughts about visiting something like this, something manufactured to replicate a fictional experience. Cavendish is not Avonlea, which doesn’t truly exist. To me, the visit was more about being on the north shore, around the red dirt and the water, breathing the fresh air and walking in the author’s shoes more than Anne’s herself. Maybe this is part of being older, and maybe it’s just that Green Gables is not the kind of place that needs to be reproduced the way someplace like Hogwart’s can be—it doesn’t need an unlimited budget or complete immersion. An amethyst brooch on a nightstand, a geranium in the window… these are magic enough. And Green Gables is in the heart of all Anne-girls, anyway; what’s lovely is to see the echoes of the hearts of so many other Anne-girls made manifest in a plain little farmhouse on a hill. 

 

truth, fiction, hózhǫ́

Five Star Friday This post was featured on Five Star Friday on May 5, 2011.


I wasn’t going to write about Three Cups of Tea; I haven’t read it and it’s not our usual subject matter by a long shot. But Roxanne pointed me to this article in The Rumpus about fictionalized memoir, and an episode in it crystallized a memory for me. This episode, in fact (emphasis mine):

Years ago, when I worked for a newspaper in El Paso, I wrote a story about the press in Juarez, Mexico. I spoke very little Spanish and had no business working on such a story in the first place.

The guy who translated for me worked for a leftist weekly. He told me that one of the biggest papers in Juarez was funded, in part, by drug money, an allegation I included in my story.

It was an inexcusable moral breach, and my paper was nearly sued.

We’re all subject to this impulse. We’re all constantly exaggerating, amending, confabulating – trying to make our given story more worthy of being heard. But we also know when we’re lying.

I used to think I wanted to write a book about my time on the reservation. The more I learned about publishing the more I let go of that desire because nothing horribly tragic happened to me there. There would be no gruesome scenes or grand romance or To Sir with Love moments. For a memoir to succeed these days it’s almost imperative for them to be even more over-the-top than fiction, so it doesn’t surprise me when I learn that parts of a memoir have been fictionalized. It’s disappointing, yes. But I can imagine reasons for it, not that those reasons make it right.

I was already teaching summer session at at the high school when I was asked at the last minute to teach four night courses for the local two-year college. I’d never done this before, and the schedule was killer: a whole day of high school work, followed in the evenings by college-level work. One of the night classes was a long seminar of southwestern lit, a three-credit course that wrapped up all of its class time on one night. The other courses were intros, and the material was stuff I already knew. But my back-east university degree hadn’t prepared me to teach southwestern lit, so in addition to all my class time, grading, and prep work for the other courses, I had to learn the subject matter of this one on the fly. The reading list had been prepared for me, but I never got a syllabus, so I had to make connections between (I think eight) works I’d never read on my own.

We were reading Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge. LaFarge was a white man (allegedly he had some distant Native American heritage) who had spent enough time among Navajo people to write a book set in their culture, a book with Navajo main characters that speaks eloquently against the encroachment of white culture on traditional ways. By the time I was teaching this book, decades after its publication, white culture had made permanent inroads; most of my students had Anglo names, listened to Anglo music and ate Anglo food, and a number of them of them had grandparents they could barely speak to because they didn’t know enough of their own language to do it. I don’t mean to say that they were strangers to their culture; they weren’t. We were in a town that attracted tourists from all over the world, and instruction in Navajo culture was available everywhere. They lived it. Many of their families made their annual income from the accommodations, restaurants, and artisan crafts that were paid for by white people who came to the reservation to learn and see and feel what that particular corner of Dinétah could make them feel.

The first class discussion of Laughing Boy arrived. I don’t remember which brave soul first pointed out that he’d found a discrepancy: One of the ceremonies was happening at the wrong time of year. The hands went up. More and more students offered up their issues with LaFarge’s facts. The book was seventy-five years old and millions of people were reading the wrong facts. It would never happen that way, they said. They were reading lies. These students—teenagers to adults in their fifties—were upset. We had gotten away from the plot of the book and strayed into what responsibility LaFarge had to represent Navajo culture accurately. I was unprepared. I had been in the desert for three years and I didn’t expect that so much of Laughing Boy could have been factually inaccurate.

It was late in the evening. It had been a long day and a long week. I got annoyed. How many of you, I asked, ever told a lie to a tourist? Made something sound more mystical and meaningful if you thought it would get you a higher price? Or just to have fun with a gullible bilagáana? How many of you got out of an obligation by claiming ceremonial reasons to someone who couldn’t know any better? I wasn’t angry, but I wanted them to see that the stories they told would be taken away from their land, and once that happened, the story wasn’t theirs anymore. People aren’t coming here for shopping and beaches. They’re coming to learn. You can’t fault a tourist who wants to hear the truth from you, someone who’s supposed to be living it. You are responsible for how you use your story.

Could there have been good reason for the Navajo people that LaFarge met in the early twentieth century to tell him things that were not true? Of course. Some things are meant to stay secret. And of course he could have mixed up his notes or even chosen creative license. Today we have plenty of Navajo writers who create wonderful Navajo literature, and they can tell as much of the truth as they want. Or maybe they’ll choose to keep some secrets, too, and misdirect readers from the dominant culture. Some are aware that the story they tell is not just theirs to tell, and that it belongs to centuries of ancestors who could never imagine a world like this one; the best story will stand on its own whether a flute or a drum is played at a particular time.

Driving home, I felt an energy that approached elation but was somehow held back by my lack of solid answers to How these things happened and Why they were offensive and Whether the story is still worth reading and What about the theme of protecting native culture against white-out? How do you argue with a dead man, an old book, your great-great-grandparents who may have lied to protect the truth of their sacred ceremonies? Fiction is a haze of intention, truth, falsehood, and fantasy captured at a particular moment of time. And it is always, always flawed. But if it lasts, it’s because it makes us feel.

My high school students used to love to try to trick me into believing bizarre traditions and origin stories to see what I’d fall for; most of them would giggle uncontrollably a few sentences in and give themselves away. And maybe that’s another reason that I think I wouldn’t write a memoir of my years there; the only facts I know for sure are the ones I lived myself.


 hózhǫ́ is harmony | Dinétah is Navajoland | bilagáana is Anglo

mana

It was a hard weekend here; my family is starting our fourth year without my mom. This morning I woke up to the news that Kilauea was erupting brilliantly and I spent a little while watching the world leak out of itself on Youtube. 

Late last year I shared a photo I took when I was sixteen on a school trip to Hawaii. We were there for eleven days, and on one of those days we hiked Kilauea. I lost the disc of pictures I took on that day, and though there are worse things in the world, this one is still pretty bad. It’s a strange thing, to see the world from that vantage point. I would love to be able to show you what it looked like from where I stood at that moment, even if the pictures were shot by a girl who was only doing what she thought she was supposed to do when she walked through a volcano.

It was a long, long hike, and by the end of it I was sure they were going to have to drive a van up to me somehow because I knew I was not going to finish. When you push yourself physically that way, you think so many bizarre things, and then you stop really thinking at all; your body divorces itself from your silly brain to keep taking step after step. I sat down on a rock and told myself not to cry. Our tour guide, Mike, found me sitting there. He handed me a small white flower and, ever the cryptic one, said simply “Mana” to me before walking on by.

click to visit the original image on Flickr from sinayNo, they wouldn’t have left without me, although there’s nothing like watching someone walk away from you when you’re in distress. But I caught my breath and walked back out of that volcano. Mana is spirit; it’s in everything, the whole world, and especially in Hawaii, if you pay attention, you know you are surrounded by it whenever you’re more than a mile from a t-shirt shop. You carry it around with you even if you aren’t using it right now while you’re drinking your coffee and reading this. Or maybe you are; maybe this is about all you can accomplish right now because other things are too much. And that’s okay. Everyone walks out of the volcano on their own, in their own time, on their own mana.

dominion

from last summer, with the old cameraI’ve been thinking off and on about what I wanted to say since Friday, when we trudged into our catless house and Myron brought the carrier down into the basement. I feel like I need to stay brief so that I don’t ramble and get too emotional, and then I think—you are supposed to be emotional about this.

When I graduated from college and was truly on my own, one of my few criteria for housing was a pet-friendly rental. Luckily I found a teeny house for a teeny price and within two weeks I had a cat of my very own. And cat allergies too. Things happened and I wound up with two more, and to my mind, I had to stop before I entered crazy cat lady status. The first one was older when I got him; kidney failure took him in 2003. Then the second had diabetes and he died in 2007. Both times, the cats hid their final declines until the very end, the way cats do. Both times, administering the pink shot was something to be decided that very day. This time, every day was a new evaluation, watch and wait and listen and wonder how to choose a day. It wasn’t like he had to make his peace with anyone or that he would see the snow melt and watch for enemy chipmunks through the windows. The time for all of that was done. The longer I waited, the worse it was going to get.

The way the world is set up, we have dominion over the beasts, but anyone who has a much loved pet knows that they have dominion over us instead. I had to take that power back in choosing a day, in signing the paper, in holding him and stroking him when the end came, in apologizing over and over for everything from the cancer to the syringe feeding to the last car trip in the carrier. Myron held him from the other side and was the last thing the baby saw. Coming home after that appointment was everything I feared it would be. My eyes looked for him in every shadow, expecting him to sit on the stair and watch me make dinner or leap up to my bed to demand attention. Oh, I have attention in spades right now, with no good target. Today, with Myron back at work after the weekend, my body knows that something is missing in ways my brain can’t soothe. It has been more than thirteen years since I’ve lived a petless life, and adjusting to one again is going to take a while. I prefer life with a good beast in the house that has dominion over me.