The Human Trail

This morning in Glenpool, Oklahoma I woke to a grey winter sky. I miss the sun. Haven't seen it since Saturday morning in Albuquerque as we lifted off and headed East over the Sandia Mountains for Dallas. This has been quite a tour. Started off from Honolulu last Monday to LA. Spent the night in an airport hotel of coming and going passengers and crew. Then to Albuquerque and directly to a warm greeting and short visit at UNM. That night up to Santa Fe to prepare for a residency at IAIA. Between Wednesday and Thursday noon I had back-to-back individual appointments with talented student writers, and a workshop and a reading. Everytime I have visited the school the high school student I was there at the old IAIA campus in the late 60's hangs over my shoulder. She's long, lanky in a pair of worn, cheap bell-bottoms from a department store in Tulsa. Wears a Navy pea coat and silence. Silence defines her. She's listening, taking it all in. Doesn't know the basics of communication yet. Slides into a room sideways. She will have to learn how to address people, the wind, the sun, the spirit of a poem or a song.

This is not an unusual story. It's common. Especially in Oklahoma. Last night I was blessed with a wonderful audience at OU in Norman, Oklahoma. The event was set up with little notice by Robert Warrior and Craig Womack. They paid attention to every detail. This kind of care lets the poetry and music know they can take off their coats and hang, have a good time. And that's what happened. Starting with the readings of two students poets, a Choctaw student, Steven (if anyone can tell me his whole name I'd appreciate it so I can include it here) and Jeanetta Calhoun. Then a wonderful introduction by Rosemary McCoombs Maxey, mostly in Mvskoke. Quite an honoring. Then the performance of music. I dedicated the song "Grace" to my mother and spoke about her struggle to make songs and sing....how I saw her sing once with the hot country swing band, Leon McAuliff and his Country Boys, and how she had contacted a Hollywood publisher and her her tunes ripped off; one became a Johnny Mathis hit, and how behind this was a problem that has come to be known in recent lingo has a "self-esteem" problem, which I attributed it to being a woman in Oklahoma in the 1950's. I feel the ache of the need to sing in that song...That night the performance flew. We ended with a wild round dance to funky, the whole standing room audience, around the room.

Another thing I've noticed on this trip from Honolulu to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Tulsa, Stillwater and Norman is that those students who are fluent in more than one language appear to have more confidence. Each language is a library of history, mythology, culture, being. Each gives entrance to an amazing field of knowledge, deepens thought and character. So I'm back to practicing Mvksoke every day, little by little. And in Albuquerque freshed up my Navajo some speaking with my Dineh son-in-law Tim Chee.

At the dinner Saturday night at the Red Fork Native American Film Festival in Tulsa, provided (I believe) by the Hickory Ground Church I spoke with my cousin George Coser who reminded me of how most of the older people knew both Creek and Cherokee and often Spanish,too, as well as English. At the film festival, (which used to be known as the Muscogee Nation Film Festival but the name was changed because the audience thought they were coming to see films about the town of Muscogee, Oklahoma) Lurline McGregor, the Hawaiian videographer showed two DVD's: Eagle Song, the music video, and "Reality Show" a little 8 minute piece of a bit of my life. Despite my general uncooperativeness with having a camera on me, they came out gracefully. The audience appreciated them. And then I performed.

The theme of this one week tour has been: "Be careful of what you say and your behavior because no matter where you are someone is watching and listening." Every day someone has come up to tell me of how something I said to someone on the road, ten years ago, five years ago, a few, evoked some change, made some kind of difference. In one instance the person was furious because I called them on something they didn't want to see. Some of these moments attributed to me I take credit for, or remember saying. Others I don't. I have been mistaken for my cousin Suzan Harjo, for any other Harjo out there, and Leslie Silko and Mei Mei Berssenbrugge and I used to be constantly mistaken for each other. And who knows, maybe we all have doubles out there.

To conclude, before stepping out into the mad holiday preparations I want to remind myself once again, and whoever is listening, that whatever we say and do is being recorded...well, maybe it is,too, by U.S. surveillance, but in the end even that will fall away. What won't fall away is each of our kind acts, each of our words, thoughts and deeds. Taking a daily account of all these every night, and making fresh resolve will help the trail through this too human world. So here we go again.


Strange Thoughts

Strange thought here, after talk about getting a bug zapper and all the moral and health implications for the humans who don’t like getting attacked by squadrons of mosquitoes when they go out behind the house to do laundry, but don't like to kill creatures either. Maybe this planet Earth is a huge human zapper. Think about that.

Rain, The Inward Journey of Politics

November 14, 2004 Sunday morning in Honolulu

It's five a.m., still dark and very raining. Yes, very raining. I am to be at Hui Nalu Canoe Club in an hour for a paddle out into the bay. Do I feel like it? No. Will I go? Probably. It might be raining at the beach; it might not be. It's like writing, which is as much about the process, the practice of writing as it is about the poem, story or song.

Following is a very edited blog I'm posting now. I waited a few days to come back to it:

November 12, 2004

Once again I woke up between four a.m. and five. I don’t fight it anymore. I get up and write. Most of it is junk struggle on paper. Important is the stuff of dreams. Dreams are atmospheric poems, of mythic, mystic and physical layers to be deciphered and read. Some of them are, anyway. Others, I’m convinced, are ways for the body and spirit to throw off poisons. Try eating a pizza and drinking a few beers just before sleep and see what you dream.

Lei, my wonderful lomi lomi massage friend in Waimanalo confirmed that many of her female friends and clients are depressed, when I daringly stated (for me, I don’t like to admit things like this) that I might be a little depressed. Many of us are depressed since the election. The voters have just given a Christian fundamentalist and corporate regime permission to destroy the world. Women tend to carry these currents in their bodies, or maybe we just admit to them. We are all made of water. I feel stymied, like my spirit is wearing lead boots, walking up a mud mountain that’s been stripped bare of all animal and plant life and I’m alone. What especially bothers me is the thought that at least half this country would vote to support an administration that lies, kills and steals. There. I’ve said it. Yes, there probably was vote tampering and other forms of dishonesty at work. But each of us has relatives who support the current government, though they have suffered from the terrible economy, don’t have a job, or support for educational programs, are having a hard time buying clothes and shoes for the family, and are afraid that their lifelong American dreams will be lost by the liberals who will let the terrorists get us. Maybe it’s really fear that’s ruling the country. And the struggle is not to give into it, whether it’s our beloved duped ones who are afraid, or we who are afraid because we dare to look past the television and our bellies to what we see happening all around us.

The rest of the world is aware. In Durban, the first night of the Poetry Africa events, each of the poets was asked to read or speak for 3 to 4 minutes. I was introduced as only: “a poet from the U.S.”, after some succinct comments about the U.S. government by a verbally gifted young praise poet... I learned what it felt like for the first time in my career, to stand up in front of an audience who didn’t want to hear from me because I represented a bully country. I have had audience members who were forced to attend by teachers, spouses or friends, and I can usually turn them around...but this was rough. And I didn't turn it around in 4 minutes. One young South African woman said to me later during a panel of women writers: “Your words didn’t move me, but when you played your horn, I blacked out.” And that's why I took up saxophone, to go where the words couldn't go. But don't all poets strive to go beyond the words?

(A few horn wailings here.)

Hence the huge gap in my blog during and after South Africa. I went with a great love and respect for that country, for what that country has meant for many of us who has watched and listened and spoken of the struggle. I’ve studied for answers in our tribal dealings with the colonizers. Have met with and admired many South African poets, writers and humanists, like Sandile Dikeni, Lesego Rampolokeng, Mzwake Mbuli, Nadine Gordimer, and of course, one of the world’s most developed human beings: Nelson Mandela. (Another side note: Zoleni Mkiva, the young praise poet who rose to prominence in 1990 when he was called upon to praise the recently released Mandela and has since traveled extensively with him, told me that the role of a praise poet is to call attention to anything that needs to be addressed politically-personally; they’re linked. Even if the leader is your employer. He said that Mandela was consistently impeccable in his behavior, always. And that he’s had to say a few things publicly about the recent president, but the president has taken it good-naturedly.)

Now, the sun is up. I’ll put on some lighter hiking shoes, some good music, some faith and head up the mountain again.

Back to Sunday morning. Please note that Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet of resistance has a new book of poetry translated and published in the U.S.. He lived in exile for years because his family was forced to flee to Lebanon in 1948 after the Israeli Army occupied and destroyed his family's village. They sneaked back the next year. When he was eight he read a poem which called the attention of the Israeli military governor. After that he was often imprisoned, for either reading poetry or traveling within the country without official papers. He roamed for years outside of his country, and returned in 1996 to live in Palestine, but couldn't live in his village of origin. He now lives in Ramallah. His new book, UNFORTUNATELY, IT WAS PARADISE, Selected Poems, translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche, with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein is now out from the University of California Press, Berkeley 2003. I say "now out" because this is the first review I've read on the book, in Poetry Flash, the Summer/Fall 2004 issue....It's been out at least a year. The reviewer, Tiffany M. Higgins reports: "...while in these mid-to-late career poems, he transitions to a poetry which, while still fiercely resistant, has become less attached to drawing attention to specific political objectives than to the inward journey, which, while situated among crowds, must, in the end, be individual. Then she quotes from a poem:

It's possible we might find an answer
to the questions of who we are when we are alone."

"My prison cell grows by a hair to make room for the song of a dove."

I will have to check out the translation. Four translators points to possible problems. Check out his body of work, nonetheless. He's important. Especially in these times.


Report from the End of a Regime

There were humans
Sleeping, and the sky ached with dark
As it prepared to give birth to dawn
A chuk chuk of gecko
And a young tradewind
Weaved through the mists
Carrying the essence of a migrating whale
Down the hill in Chinatown
A sailor sodden with war
Zipped up from a piss
And cursed everything he found
In the ruins
One god broke against another
And so it was.

c Joy Harjo November ll, 2004 Honolulu


South Africa, Angels and Fear

I'm back from South Africa and have been back, dealing with a mean jet lag.
The last image from that mythic and historical country is from my last morning there, in Cape Town. I took a boat out to Robben Island. The last stop on the tour of the island which was used as a penal colony as well as a leper colony from the time of the first takeover by the Dutch, was Nelson Mandela's old cell. It was the size of the shanty town "houses" that run alongside the Cape Town International Airport. They're tiny. I thought about the size of Nelson Mandela's spirit and how it could not be caged here. I thought about his integrity despite years of terrible tests of injustice. He didn't give in to the illusion of false power, to his own self-doubts which were monsters imported by colonization. His spirit prevailed. It could not be destroyed. That prevailing love is what I carried back with me.

Tonight re-reading some of Carolyn Myss', Anatomy of the Spirit for healing of certain conditions. Here's one of my favorite stories.

“I met a woman named Ruth while I was conducting a weeklong workshop in Mexico. Ruth was staying at the same hotel—she was not part of my workshop. She was wheelchair-bound due to crippling arthritis, a case as extreme as I have ever seen.
One morning I got up uncharacteristically early and went out to the patio with a cup of coffee to make notes for my lecture that day. I noticed Ruth sitting by herself, listening to classical music with an old tape recorder. I had met her the day before, but this morning I couldn’t stop staring at her, although I didn’t think she noticed because she had her back to me. I was wondering how she coped with her terribly crippled body, which had also become obese because of her inability to move. Suddenly she turned her head, smiled and said, ”You’re wondering how I manage to live in this body, aren’t you?”
I was so stunned that I couldn’t cover my tracks. “You caught me, Ruth,” I said. “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
“Well, come on over here, and I’ll tell you.”
As I pulled my chair up to hers, this seventy-five-year-old woman said to me, “You like New Age music?”
I nodded, and she said, “Good, I’ll put this tape on while I tell you about myself.”
With Kitaro playing in the background, this remarkable Jewish woman told me her story. “I was widowed when I was thirty-eight years old, left with two daughters to support and few ways to do it. I became the most manipulative person you could ever imagine. I never stole anything, but I came close to it.
“When my older daughter was twenty-two, she joined a Buddhist community. I raised my girls in a traditional Jewish household in New York City, and she enters a Buddhist community! Every time she came over to visit me, I asked her, ‘How could you do this to me? After all I’ve given up for you, how could you? We must have had that conversation a hundred times. Then one day she looked at me and asked me, ‘Mom, are my clothes dirty? Am I unclean in some way? Am I doing anything that offends you?’
“I said, ‘You must be on drugs. That’s it—they’ve got on drugs.’ She responded. ‘Yes, I’ve tried drugs.’ So you know what I said to her then? I said, ‘Get me some,’ and she did. She brought me some LSD. I was fifty-five years old, and I dropped acid.
I nearly fell out of my chair. I could hardly picture her taking LSD.
She continued,”Do you believe in angels?”
“Yes, of course,” I said.
“Good, because that’s what happened to me next. I took the LSD, and I had an out-of-body experience. I found myself floating above my body, lighter than air itself. And I met this lovely being who said she was my angel. She complained to me, ‘Ruthie, Ruthie, do you know how difficult it is to be your angel?’
“I said I’d never thought about it, and my angel said, ‘Let me show you what you look like to me.’ And then she pointed to my double—only my double was completely tied up in thousands of rubber bands. My angel said, ‘That’s how you look to me. Each one of those rubber bands is a fear that is controlling you. You have so many fears that you can never hear me trying to talk to you, to tell you that I’ve got everything under control.’
“Then my angel said, ‘Here’s a pair of scissors. Why don’t you cut all those rubber bands and free yourself?’ And that’s just what I did. I clipped every single one of them, and with each one I cut, I felt this unbelievable surge of energy come into my body. Then my angel said, ‘Now don’t you feel better?’ I told her that I felt lighter than air and happier than I had ever felt in my life. I couldn’t stop laughing. My angel said, ‘You’re going to have to get back in your body now, but before you do, I have to show you something.’
“She showed me the future, and I saw myself full of arthritis. She couldn’t tell me why I would have to endure this condition, just that I would have to. But she said she would be with me every step of the way. Then she put me back into my body. I told my daughter everything that had happened, and both of us laughed almost continually for two months. She had I have been close ever since that experience. When this arthritic condition began ten years ago, I thought, oh well, this isn’t being crippled. I was far more crippled when I could walk; I was always so afraid of being alone, of taking care of myself, that I wanted to keep my daughters near me so I would never have to take care of myself. But after that experience I never felt afraid again. I believe that my physical condition is to remind me never to have fear. Now I talk to my angel every day, and I still laugh more each day than I ever did before.”

Pps. 170-172