Telling Our Stories

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While in Flagstaff I met and had lunch with Dinah, a friend of Seth and Melissa, who is Hopi and grew up on the Navajo Reservation nearby. I have driven past that “res” on the way to the Grand Canyon, and was shocked by how desolate it appears. I have seen documentaries about life on any number of reservations, and was saddened by the stories of alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and deprivation. Dinah, however, was joyful and told stories about the fun she and her siblings had growing up there. It was a new view for me into life on the Res.

I asked her to tell me a little about Hopi beliefs and culture, and she said she would start by talking about birth rituals. After a baby is born, the mother and infant are confined in an interior room for a long period of time, about thirty days I think. At the end of that time in darkness, they are led to the edge of the mesa at dawn and the baby has her first glimpse of the sun. The elders are gathered around the pair and name the baby, so each baby has multiple names reflecting the ancestry and clan of the child. The English name is given by the parents and used openly, while the other names are saved for ceremony.

Chan Luu Shawl

Dinah was a wonderful lunch companion whose good cheer disguised her concern for her husband who was at that moment in the ICU at the hospital. She was taking a break from sitting at his side while he recovers from a serious lung issue. The two of them had met not terribly long before while they were both in the police department, and both suffered from health issues related to their time of service, but Dinah was a model of joy and positivity.

She was a perfect example for me of the power of point of view. While she grew up in a place I have seen which is dry and harsh, she told stories only of the good times she and her family shared, and I came away with a different view of the place. It reminded me of my own stories of growing up with wolves. The stories I tell about my childhood make Oliver Twist seem like a lucky guy. The more I tell those stories the darker my childhood appears and the sorrier I feel for myself. I could if I chose tell the stories of the fun my friends and I had Trick or Treating unsupervised until late at night or sledding down the steep hills on the back side of the Hudson River cliffs in Englewood. I could focus on the many weekends I spent with my best friend’s family. Or I could even tell about the sacrifice my parents made to buy me a new bicycle. But the story I tell of my life is a sad one. 

My daughter Abby is in rehearsal right now for an original play she created called The Warp and The Weft. (https://ashevillecreativearts.org/mainstage-productions/) which will be performed April 19-28 in Asheville at The Magnetic Theater. The play explores the lives of children who grew up in the Carolinas working in the textile mills. Seeing the Lewis Hine photographs of such children when she herself was a child, Abby wondered about the differences there were between her own life and theirs. How would they describe their childhoods, and how would the definition of childhood differ then and now. Also, how different would our interpretation of their childhood differ from their own views. Also included in this multi-faceted production are the voices of disparate populations of young people from Hanger Hall and from Hispanic immigrants talking about their own young lives. The play asks us to imagine the difference between our own telling of our life’s story and that of some observing us.

I have written about the book I read recently, Women Rowing North, by Mary Pipher, concerning aging. She talks about how so much depends on our take on the events of our lives. Inevitably, our lives are peppered with times of loss and disappointment, but it does no one any good to fixate on these. She urges readers to take a broader view and find something positive to take away.

I started a memoir class yesterday and enjoyed the short pieces read by each of the participants. If asked to tell one short vignette about your life growing up, would you tell a happy story or one that reinforces a vision of your life as a poor, pitiful victim?  Most of the others told snippets of discovery and insights into meaning. My story was about my father and what a narcissist he was. Next time I’ll dig up a story about him happily slogging through the mud as he led a pony around and around a ring so I could imagine myself as Annie Oakley. That happened too.

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