Keynote for CIC SROP 2004, University of Iowa, July 10, 2004

July 10, 2004
The Path of Mentoring (working title)

I woke at dawn in a hotel room in the small city in the Midwest in which I once lived. And though the sun was hidden in the thick overlay of clouds that appeared as a white fogginess at the hotel window I knew the sun was there, in the ache of light. I nosed toward that light because I utterly needed it this morning.

The sun is a mentor. It has taught me that tomorrow will come, no matter what. No matter failure, no matter clouds, no matter sorrow, no matter slaughter, no matter, or happiness. And each sun is differently received in turn by us, as we carry on our celebrations of living and dying. Yet the sun remains quintessentially the same, a shining star, a dynamic power, ushering our journey from one breath to another, one drama to the next.

This morning, too, marks the pinnacle of the green corn ceremony at home in the Mvskoke Nation in Oklahoma. This is the morning we arise early with our intent to sing, dance, think, dream and know that this is the season of renewal. We let go all enmities, we shed sorrows and the sting of enemies; we bury the ashes of our failures and bring in the new fire, which is the returning sun renewing us each morning with hope, yes, hope. We are scratched, we take medicine, we dance, we remember and greet the sun as it rises after we accompany the night toward the rising of the sun, of ourselves. The European settlers accused us of worshipping the sun. Maybe we were and are, because we are acknowledging the power of creation, a sun that literally keeps us alive as we walk and breathe on this beloved planet, this beloved earth.

We communicate, literally with the sun, and the sun with us. The sun is a beloved, a relative who returns to take care of us because we are loved, despite our humanness, despite our forgetfulness. I now realize why the Old Ones always awake at sunrise and acknowledge sunset. To do so is to acknowledge the journey, to ensure the continuation of life because it is a tender thing, it is vulnerable, precious even.

I realize, too, as I write this morning, that I am in service to the sun. And we all look in the direction of the source of light, whether we are sunflowers or humans. The goal is to be as the sun, a shining light to those around us: family, human and otherwise, and that family that we often call strangers. The goal is to deem every act an act of kindness.

And at night, when we are bereft of the sun, we are gifted with the appearance of millions of small suns scattering the universe and we know that life goes on and on, beyond our minute human consciousness. If we link with the consciousness of the sun we link with each sun and we too go on and on until we finally remember who we are and where we came from and what we are here for—for don’t those concerns form the nucleus of all our research, our studies, our art? And the basis of inquiry all disciplines albeit astronomy, sociology, theology, mathematics, physics, economics, philosophy, literature?

As a child I spent many hours alone. I craved the inspiration of the hours in which I was taught by the sun, by the flowering earth herself. The in between world of the middle world was confusing. My parents were young and fueled by urgent dramas, by the need to find a place in a world that didn’t welcome Indian. The grandparents on both sides had died young, fled this place. No one had taught them.

The dream world, too was a teacher, and it was best to rise up from that complex array of stories and spirits and slip directly from my cot, past the other children, past my parent’s bedroom out into the flowering world. There was no confusion in this place where I would join the revelry of the various layers of the insect world, the pink-flowered bush, the garter snake family, horned toads, frogs, and the lush green I would squat next to and lean into the smell, take nourishment. I would dig in the earth for the smell, and to see what was there. Birds, butterflies and all the flying creatures made a literal song together. Each part fit. This was song, was nourishment. This was my first place of study, my first school.

In one of my earliest memories I am playing with bees in a field of dandelions. To this day dandelions are still one of my favorite flowers. They are small, staunch suns, not showy. They stay close to family and give much nourishment. Bees enjoy their dandelion resorts. I used to hold bees in my hands as I played. I didn’t know they stung. And they didn’t, until one morning an adult saw me carrying a bee and shouted that the bee was going to sting me. I startled and the bee did sting me and that was the end of that trust relationship between the bees and me, until I began to remember again. I was five-years-old when the world shifted and I began going to school. Dreams faded then and I forgot how to see and began existing in the thinking world.

The thinking world does not have to exclude the experience of the so-called natural world or the dream world, but in Oklahoma in the mid-fifties I had to leave it behind, which was to leave behind a knowing, a sense of belonging and connection that reached far and wide into star realms, into the utter beauty and complexity of the plant, mineral and animal worlds. To leave these worlds, not literally, for we are of them and within them, was to leave behind a complete sense of myself. I was bereft. And by the time I had completed elementary school, junior high and barely finished high school as a teenage mother, then college, I had been separated as if my head floated aloof from my body, my heart or the spirit world. Then I had a crisis.

Crisis is often how we learn our most difficult lessons. Consider crisis as an exam. Small crises are quizzes, others are like midterms, and some are for an M.A. degree or PhD. This one was major. I was an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico and juggling two small children, my daughter’s brilliant poet alcoholic father, poverty, and national Indian political crisis. I wasn’t allowed home to see my mother. My name was not allowed to be spoken in the home because I had spoken the truth against a stepfather who was abusing my mother and was now kicking my little underage brother out of the home for no reason. I was on my way to being a painter but had become engaged with the art of poetry and had begun feeling conflict there, the need to make a choice, a change, when it happened.

It was dusk, and fall. The last shine was disappearing over the horizon and I was crossing Central Avenue at rush hour traffic. It was nothing. It was ordinary. I had crossed here many times, with my arms full of books, with a child in hand, with a stroller, or a canvas at rush hour, or at a time of relative quiet. Suddenly a huge darkness enveloped me, a panic, a crush and I stood there on the slim island between lanes with no way to move either backwards or forwards. I was going to die a terrible death, right there. It was all going to fall apart. By whirling, by craziness.

Eventually, I willed myself to make a step, then another and made it across the street to Jack’s Bar, to a phone booth outside the door. I called home and told my daughter’s father that I couldn’t make it home, that the space between Jack’s Bar and about a mile up the road was incomprehensible. I was shaking and could barely hold the phone. “Please come and get me” I pleaded. He didn’t understand and told me just to walk home, the way I always did; I could make it. I hung up, and prayed each step home. I was walking a tightrope over an abyss. I barely made it.

This thing, the fearful beast then continued to dog me. Every step had to be calculated, then the panic turned to even swallowing. I had to consciously swallow each bite, or choke. And I could not talk to anyone about it. There were no words for it.

One morning I had made it into my southern women writers literature class, the whirl of falling apart still spinning around me. But it didn’t settle, and I knew that if I did not get up and leave I was going to fall apart there, in class, in front of everyone, and I didn’t know what that meant or how it would happen. I slid out from the seat, made my way across campus to the counseling center, a place I had heard about but had never been. I counted my way across campus, step by step.

I waited for an appointment and finally got in to a young man who wasn’t much older than me, and who had lived less life than I had lived, who knew nothing about me at all. And how could I communicate the fear, the abyss, something that was incomprehensible except in affect and sureness of size and depth? I answered his questions without flourish. I mean, what could I say to him? I know I didn’t look crazy or as if I were peering over the edge. I looked like most of the other art and Indian students, dressed in Levis and boots. His parting words were something like, “you seem fine to me.” I cut the rest of my classes that afternoon, picked my son up early from daycare and made my way across that terrible canyon. The intensity continued past that initial episode for the next year, and the beast was to dominate my thinking and moving about in the world. I was restricted by fear.

I had to keep going. I had no choice. A breakdown was a luxury afforded by rich white women, not something available to me. I had small children and no other support except from scholarships and workstudy. In retrospect I understand that what was happening here was the loss of my soul. I had been attacked, had been made vulnerable by the separation of myself from the roots. And where were my teachers? My mentors? I was far from the ceremonial grounds, banned from home, and being taught in a manner that was beyond the logic of the literal world, yet I was living and working within the literal world. I had to go within.

It was here I began writing poetry. Poetry requires that you listen. Writing poetry requires that you pay as much attention to the unseen world as the seen world, as much attention to the natural world as to the world bustling with human creations and diversions.

Mentors appeared as teachers of poetry. The first was David Johnson who taught my first poetrywriting workshop. He encouraged us beginning writers to write from the place of animals and plants, to find our way through those worlds, and gave us poetry that fed us. I remember Ted Hughes’ animal poems as the first poems we read in class. He also accepted us as poets and respected us as poets. This bear of a man nurtured us as poets by taking us to poetry readings and even encouraging us in our own performance. There was no separation between poetry and our lives. He also taught us laughter and acceptance. Another was Gene Frumkin who influenced me in the rigors of writing poetry. As in living a life, writing involves craft, skill, and the gaining of knowledge from those who have perfected the art. He also accepted and respected us as poets, nourished us.

Later I was able to reflect and see how Emily Dickenson was also a mentor, though she did not stand before me in a classroom, or sit across from me at a table. She taught me about the going inside so deep that you can know what the flowers know, see what the bee sees, hear the shifting and singing of the worlds as they shift in shape and manner according to the quality of thinking done by all. Emerson takes shape before me, as does my grandfather Harjo who wrote sermons and thought about how to live in a world in which there was no perfect fit, and his daughter, my grandmother Naomi Harjo who played saxophone in Indian territory at the beginning of the century.

I continued to struggle with that beast who stole my tongue (which lives at the door of the soul) at crucial moments, knocked me off balance when I left the door of my apartment, and made this middle world appear a treacherous place to live. It even wrestled the steering wheel away from me after I learned to drive, tried to force the car off the road down a steep embankment between Acoma and Albuquerque. When it began appearing physically I consulted a Navajo peyote healer who kept the beast in abeyance.

I left for Iowa for the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, where I was now sitting and writing these words. It was difficult being Indian here. One famous poet teacher refused to include either Sandra Cisneros or my poems in the class worksheets and discussions. I had no mentors in the writing program, though Donald Justice was always fair and respectful. I didn’t write the kind of poetry that found favor, and floundered through the long winters. Friendship sustained me, as did writing poetry in a third world writing workshop some of us created for survival here. I was also warmed by my participation in the Chicano-Indian Center. My thesis written here comprised most of my second book of poetry, What Moon Drove Me to This?. My third book She Had Some Horses, was partly born of the struggle of this place.

Actually, I did have a mentor here. She was not a professor or a poet, and in this world she would be deemed a failure. She was an Meskwaki Indian woman who had several children with no means of support, but she provided a home, a table around which to gather and laugh and tell stories, and she encouraged me and other Indian students here at the university to continue in our studies, to take them seriously, reminded us that our gifts mattered. Her name was Iva Roy. The first time I returned to Iowa City after years of being away was to speak at the summer writing workshop, and to assist in burying her body. The spirit cannot be buried. I remain in gratitude to her.

But as I walk these streets of Iowa City again, I consider how I must have cut myself off, must have had a part in it and could not be reached by ordinary means.

All mentors lead you back to yourself. Audre Lorde , the warrior poet, was one of those mentors. I literally remember pulling her book, Coal, from the shelf at the IMU Bookstore. I read it before I left the store. Here was a voice who resonated within me, like that world of so long ago that sustained me. I read everything of hers and eventually met her and became close to her. I’ll always remember her looking at me after our delegation had picked her up for a reading in Santa Fe just after Horses came out. “You’ve really done it this time, Harjo”, she said. I also remember asking her if she had come to a point within herself of having it altogether, of knowing everything. She was about the same age I am now. She laughed, shook her head and said, “No-o-o-o-o-o” honey.”

From her I learned that writing poetry is a warrior path. This means that you keep your eyes, your ears, your heart, your spirit, and even your head open to the truth. And you speak that truth, no matter the cost, no matter the prevailing politics, no matter derision, no matter your own failure because you will fail, more than you succeed.

My original idea for this talk was to address my list of failures, which is quite extensive. I’ve learned that each of these failures is the raw material of some powerful, creative stuff. We can use it, for building, or let it bury us. I haven’t figured the ratio of failure to success yet, but it’s something probably like 2 to 1, and probably in those years I didn’t listen to that wisdom that speaks within each of us it was more like 10 to 1. When we remember to listen closer, and to pay attention to what the natural world, the spirit world teaches us. I’ve also learned that this is the spirit world. Even the university is the spirit world. It’s not far away on the other side of the stars, or above us decorated by harps and wings. It’s right here, within us. I’ve also learned that though we might appear to be separated by class, by money, by time or space we aren’t separated at all.

As for the beast, as I learned the art of poetry, then the art of music via saxophone (which will one day be a Mvskoke traditional instrument) it lessened its hold. One of the last times the beast returned, it brought all its relatives, and they attempted to pull me into the abyss. I fought and struggled and the more I fought the heavier I grew until I was falling again. I despaired. And then, that wise self within told me: “Speed up your energy, make it light like the song of the bees, the whirring of hummingbirds, of children singing.” And I did. And I rose up past the beast.

The wise self had been here all along, in the child carrying bees in her hands. Had mentored me. I had learned how to mentor myself. And this is the result of mentoring after all.

I also realized I needed everything I had been through to know this.

So, this story is about mentoring. Let my story mentor you. I have been mentored as a poet, by my poetry teachers, by poets, even the poet who tested Sandra and me was a mentor. She taught us to grow strong and endure. I have been mentored by friends, by Iva Roy who became as a mother, and by the spirits speaking through the music like Coltrane, Jim Pepper or the magnificent sun. It’s all about giving back as we each find a way to make a path of integrity through this world. I have mentored my students. One of them is Linda Bolton who is a brilliant teacher and writer here.

There are many paths. There are many helpers. You only need to ask. It’s a simple thing, really. And I’ve learned that help always appears, though it may not be in the form you expect it. .

I’ve also learned that the way to keep moving gracefully is to help others along the way. Meridel LeSueur, the renowned midwestern writer and activist was another powerful mentor. Her letters sustained me while I was in the writers’ workshop. She always seemed to know, too, the exact point we were down to nothing to eat. I’d receive a check in the mail. I’d offer to pay her back and she said no, help someone else. That’s the way it works. It makes a flow and is exactly related to the spin of this beloved planet around the sun. At the ceremonial grounds we know this. One day science will prove it, as a new discovery.

I had more, about achieving a balance in research, studies and being a human being. Consider the importance of common sense, and the consideration of the values of dignity, respect, compassion, courage, honesty, truthfulness and justice. And consider how this matters to your community. Is your work useful to the regeneration and growth of our life here?

But that’s for the next time.


Copyright Joy Harjo July 10, 2004 Iowa City


A Path Less Traveled said...

Thanks. Very insightful - strengthens the lessons I have learned, am learning, and will be learning.

lmg said...

I just wanted to let you know that reading this touched me deeply...so real, so down to earth yet I get a sense on your toughness and your bravery...

I'm living here in Iowa City, recently I helped put together a Library Exhibit called "Honoring Native American/First Nations Poets and Novelists" and that's how I came to read this text...I am originally from Medellin which you visited this year, as I found out while doing research for our exhibit. Isn't the Poetry Festival cool?

Anyway, this is just to let you know that I have seldom come across a text that moves me in such a simple, clear way as this...just very beautiful and moving in a simple and humble way....Thank you...