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Monday, November 28, 2016

I Dreamt This Prayer Last Night



I dreamt this prayer last night.
I stand with my feet on the earth and know that all that I am or hope to be comes from Her.
I am grateful for my life, for this body, for the flame inside this body.
I will tend this flame with respect, tenderness and compassion.
I am here because my Ancestors were here, and sacrificed for my survival.
We are here because our Ancestors were here, and sacrificed for our survival.
I am here because my Ancestors ARE here, and want me to survive.
We are here because our Ancestors ARE here, and want us to survive.
I am here so that my children and grandchildren and all of my descendants will know that I loved them, that I will always love them, without boundaries of time or distance.
We are here so that our children and grandchildren and all of our descendants will know that we loved them, that we will always love them, without boundaries of time or distance.
Today, we will be warriors of peace.
Today, we will protect, with love, the gifts entrusted to us with love.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Prayer of Prayers




Prayer of Prayers


for the Water Protectors at Standing Rock



The leaves hang on
into mid-November
oak, alder, locust –
each one a prayer flag
singing aloud –
scarlet, cinnamon, yellow
rippling with
wind’s rough caress. 
Every acorn,
every hickory nut,
a tobacco tie
hung in the trees;
they call out to us
come harvest your prayers.


Soon a blanket of prayers
will cover the earth
and the trees will stand
like prayer poles
dressed in feathers—
gifts from bluejay,
eagle, hummingbird,
meadowlark.
The planet prays for us,
for itself;
the planet sings
for November’s endurance,
weaves a nest
for our future
to curl up inside
and learn winter’s
Kevlar-wrapped stories.
This planet is a prayer.
Each icy night
under floodlights
and spy drones
she offers up moon
and stars, a holiness of cold.


You think prayer
cannot change this war?
Then redefine prayer:
it is clothing frozen
to the bodies of warriors
who do not carry
any other weapon
against water canons;
it is eyes swollen shut
with teargas, a relative
holding a bottle of saline solution;
it is the ferocious flower
left behind by a rubber bullet
blossoming on the face
of a woman who is, in the end,
made wholly of prayer,
her spirit an impenetrable vessel
carrying prayer out to the edges
of camp where armed officers
try to hold prayer at bay,
as if prayer were a rabid bear
or a pack of wolves
that must be isolated,
beaten, eradicated
because prayer is contagious
prayer is that dangerous
prayer rages like a bonfire
no fire hose can quench.


The leaves hang on
into mid-November
oak, alder, locust –
each one a prayer flag
howling hoarse –
scarlet, cinnamon, yellow
snapping under
wind’s cracked hands. 
Every acorn,
every hickory nut,
a tobacco tie
swaying in the trees;
they cry out to us
come harvest your prayers
come pound them into meal
come mix them with river water
come cook them on this blazing rock:


oh people, come feast
on this prayer so righteous
it burns your tongues,
wash it down
with a sip from the river
whose songs will always call you
Beloved.


Deborah Miranda
House Mountain, Virginia

November 21, 2016

For more information:

Updates from Standing Rock






Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Tuolumne





“Tuolumne River.  My father took me there when I was a baby to show me 'the Indian river,' and again when I was released from prison.  We went to see the salmon.” – Al Miranda Sr. (November 19, 1927 - June 28, 2009)



Tuolumne


My father walked out of San Quentin after eight years and somehow ended up at the Tuolumne River.My father’s 44-year-old body was hardened, callused, scarred and tattooed with eight years of fighting to breathe, to stay unbroken, or at least alive. He woke up nights in a cold sweat, fists coiled, pumped with adrenaline.  Far into old age, he told me, he lived in fear that his release was a mistake, and guards would show up to take him away, lock him back up.

But how did he get from San Quentin to the Tuolumne River, and why?  Well, he didn’t mean to make that trip.  As to why …

My father went to see his own father; they hadn’t seen one another in a long time. Maybe my dad just wanted to catch up.  More likely, he wanted to borrow some money, maybe bum a place to crash until he could find work. My father wasn’t afraid of hard work, and right about then, he could use some structure in his day. With all the carpentry skills he’d learned “at college,” he’d find work quick.

But these two men, my father Al, and grandfather Tom, could not communicate. Oh, they both spoke English. But they also both spoke the language of pain, and for that very reason, could not speak to one another.

I don’t know how my father got to his dad’s house. He had no money. He had no car. He had nothing. Nothing. Still, in his lonely freedom and state of shock, my father found himself there in Stockton. Maybe Tom was out back in his garden, lifting his prize cantaloupes up on boards so the gophers wouldn’t gouge them out from beneath, or maybe he was feeding treats to one of his dear dogs. I’m sure it was hot, the California sun merciless on skin that had not seen much of that particular light for over 3,000 days.

Maybe they had coffee. Or a cold beer together.  My grandfather was no angel, but he’d never been in prison.  I suspect he was shamed by my father’s incarceration, but then my father always was the black sheep of the three surviving boys; he would have been used to that. And my father wasn’t the first family member incarcerated at San Quentin; his mother’s brother, Cesar Robles, had done time there, convicted of manslaughter. He’d killed his wife for her unfaithfulness.  My father said Cesar had beheaded her; I’m not sure that part of the story is true.  Still, forgiveness was not a family trait.  Al and Tom would not have enjoyed this reunion.

And yet, at some point Tom said, “Get in the car.”

And because he had nowhere to go and no one to go with, my father did. He sat in the passenger’s seat of my grandfather’s old Ford sedan, waited to see what would happen next. He expected Tom to say something about the prison gang tattoos, the X between my father’s eyebrows, the dark blue marks in the crease between thumb and forefinger. Tom said nothing. Just backed out of his driveway, pulled onto the side street, and made his way to a freeway.

They were heading toward the mountains.

When they arrived, Tom steered the car down toward a cluster of tall trees, shaggy pines and oaks.

The two men stepped out of the car, felt the heat of the engine hanging over the hood, and then the embrace of cool river breath and liquid calls of birdsong. And in the river, the long ancient bodies of salmon returning home, silver and red flashing in the green water, spotted tails pushing hard against the current.  It must have been Fall; that’s when Chinook and steelhead make their return up the Tuolumne.

This is what my father told me, years later.

“The Indians came to this spot,” my grandfather said. He might have sounded casual, off-hand, or deadly serious.

My father was silent. I do know that. He was stunned by the beauty of that place, the taste of wet air on his tongue, same air of his first breath when he emerged from his mother’s womb nearly 44 years before.  Stunned by the song of water, the explosive greens of leaves and pine needles, the scent of life.

And now his father was talking about Indians.

Tom Miranda spent a lifetime being silent about what was written all over his body, his former wife’s body, and the bodies of their four boys. Family stories say Tom used to go to Indian dances, make his own regalia, but he never shared any of this with his boys.  Indian was a dirty secret.

“You know, you were born near here, up at the Rancheria. I brought you here when you were just a baby. The river, she was a lot faster in those days, before they dammed her; lotta salmon then. Your mother came up here cuz I was away logging, and she had family up here.  Her mother died around then, and her grandma was real sick.  She needed family to help her with Tommy and Richard. They was just little ones.”

My father knew this story. It was his personal Creation Story, the one that marked him different from everyone else. The sudden November snowstorm; the doctor sent for but stuck on the road; the Indian woman – a cousin? an auntie? - who midwifed Keta. The doctor who finally arrived, exhausted, agreed the hollering dark brown baby was a healthy boy, stepped outside to sign the birth certificate and collapsed, didn’t get back up. That baby, never registered with the U.S. government, didn’t officially exist until it was time to go to war, and he needed proof he’d been born before he could sign up to die. My father told me that he’d had to go back up to Tuolumne and find that woman who’d delivered him, get her to sign a document.

My father was a little proud of this story. His outlaw birth.

“The Indians used to come here. Catch salmon, big ones. This is the Indian river,” Tom went on, looking out over the waters, hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. “You come here when you have questions. You come here when you need …”  his voice broke off; maybe he didn’t know the word for what he wanted to say. Or maybe, he knew the Indian word once, but couldn’t remember it, or remembered it but knew his son couldn’t understand the word even if his father did use it. 

I wonder. Was the word healing, cleansing, re-birth?

Tom and my father stood there a minute, silent. Then Tom gestured at the river with his chin, an abrupt sharp jerk. “So.”  It was a move and a word that said, Well, it’s up to you.

He wouldn’t have touched my father on the shoulder, wouldn’t have patted him on the back. The only touch shared between these two men had been blows. Tom turned, walked down the river bank a ways, left my father to it.  When Tom walked away, he carried the remnants of a world with him: languages, dances, tools, materials, songs. Things he never shared with any of his sons. This was the closest he would ever come to attempting that bridge.

This is the Indian river.  You come here when you have questions.  You come here when you need …

My father loved rivers. After he came to live with us in Washington State, that’s where he would go when he wasn’t drinking, when he had a weekend off. A fishing rod, a battered red tackle box, a thermos of black coffee, and a river; and maybe, a chance to be happy.  The Puyallup River on the Muckleshoot Reservation was one of his favorites, but he frequented the Green River, the Nisqually, the White, too. He took me once or twice, but brought my little brother more often; our father ached for a father-son bond that he didn’t quite have the tools to create.  If only fatherhood fit in his hands like a good solid hammer and kiln-dried two-by-fours.

I don’t know what my father thought as he stood there by the Tuolumne in the cusp between the 1960s and 1970s; whether he prayed, or asked for forgiveness, or wanted to throw himself into the green waters and let it decide what to do with his body.

His body.

He carried eight years of hell in that body. Did he think about what had been done to his body in San Quentin? Did he think about what that body had done to others? Did he hate his body for its weaknesses, for its needs, for its fears and angers? Could he even still feel his body anymore? Did he know his body as anything but a weapon, or a target? did he wonder how long he could bear the weight of his body, heavy with the blood of others, stained with indelible loss and grief, curled tight as a fist around a handful of shame? Was he already thinking about where he could get a beer, start numbing the thousand and one blows to the innocence he’d once known that November night on the Tuolumne Rancheria, swaddled tight against his mother’s breast?

Of course, my father had not been innocent in a long time, decades before San Quentin.  He knew that.

But my father never told me what he was thinking that day his dad took him back to the river. What I do know is that in 2009, when my father was dying, he gave my brother this command: “Take my ashes back to that river. Scatter me on the Tuolumne.”  He told our sister Louise the same thing over the phone, calling her in San Jose from his hospice room in Everett, Washington.

Something in that river called him back.  Something in that water told him he needed to return to this Indian river one day, even if only as ash.  Something told my father that here was the place he would lay down that battered body one last time, his bits of bone and cinders spread on a current that starts as snow somewhere in the Sierras, gathers its power through canyons and gravity, pours like an artery of creation through meadows near the place of his birth, then crosses the Central Valley with its thirst and fertility, is dammed and held captive, joins the San Joaquin River, is dammed again and finally, weakened in volume but not memory, flows on to the Bay, and the Pacific Ocean, entering that mother of a story.

Something passed between river and man that day. Was it a promise? A plea? Instruction?  

One year after our father’s death, my brother fulfilled our father’s last wish, and he did it well.

On that day, I could not be there, though I was on a river, too, on the other side of the country with my two children.  What I know about this story comes from my siblings, and from the photographs taken by them.  I know that our sister Louise loaded up her van: sisters Pat and Rose, our little brother.  It was a long drive from San Jose to the nearest part of the Tuolumne.  Large stretches of the river were full of trash, the water low and dirty. It made them all sad, to see a beloved river treated so cruelly.  Other places were inaccessible for Louise, who uses a cane.  They were losing heart when Louise saw a stranger parked nearby, and asked him if he knew any good places in the area, somewhere pretty, and easy to get down to the water.  It turned out Harry was the right guy to ask.  He said, if you go around this park and make a right, go down a couple of lights, make another right, go down around 2 miles …

Louise told him why they were there, asked if he would be willing to show them the way.  He said yes.  They jumped in the van to follow. Louise told me, we would have never found this area without him, I think he was sent to guide me.  Harry took them to a sweet place where the river ran fast and clear.  Our brother walked out and stood, at the edge, smelling.  Listening.  Feeling.  This is the spot, he said.

There, Louise read a prayer she’d composed in Esselen, and they offered abalone and beaded gifts she and Pat had made.  Al kicked off his shoes, pulled up the legs of his jeans, skinned off his shirt, waded into the river holding the plastic bag of ashes with both of his big hands.  He opened the bag, poured the gray gritty contents out like a cloud onto the surface. 

In the pictures Rose took, the plume spreads out, hangs for a moment like a diver streaking downstream. My brother is brown and broad-shouldered as our father. He stands in the water, sure-footed, watching Al Miranda Sr.’s last mark upon this earth.

Our grandfather Tom had brought his son to that river for guidance during a time of great change.  In that moment, even if he could not articulate why, the river was the one thing Tom could offer to a son in need of a ceremony to begin his life over. Now, in a way, that son -- our father -- had also brought his son to that river, brought three of his daughters, to stand on the bank and say micha eni hikpalala.  Together, they reinvented a ceremony for beginning again.

One of these days, I’ll go to the Tuolumne, too.  I’ll stand on the bank cut by thousands and thousands of years, by storm, drought, rain.  

I’ll go because this is an Indian river, our river, and we go there when we have questions, when we have need. We go there for guidance.  We go there for cleansing.  We go there to say goodbye. 

We go there to start over again.  We go there because there is one prayer we have never forgotten: water is life. 


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Midnight


 
Midnight

Wife and dogs have gone to bed. I sit here with the front door open and night waltzes in. Crickets sing patiently, a long lullaby in four part harmony. Rain falls on our tin roof; little taps of reality, start and stop. I breathe myself back into my body. Come back, self. You’ve been out fighting demons and bullies and liars. You’ve been talking to an electronic box with no ears. You’ve been cheering for a democracy that doesn’t exist. We’re all walking on bones. Some of us are walking on more bones than others. Breathe. Back into the body, little one. The human world is broken, but so beautifully. Corruption of the soul never shows the scars; when you don’t resist, there are no wounds. Breathe, breathe it back. In this world, we live in bodies of flesh. In this world our souls tether themselves to blood. This is a good thing. Otherwise we might take wing into the darkness, never touch our Mother, twist language into silvery shapes. Breathe now. Let the crickets tell you their truth. Let it be yours, for now.

Deborah A. Miranda

Thursday, September 15, 2016

My father said, "Let's name her ..."

 My mother said, “Only if we spell it the right way.”

She meant, the Hebrew way. Not “Debra,” the modern, stripped-down, secular version that would make for great playground moments of shame.

Not that shortened version only one letter away from Zebra, as if I were an illustration for the last letter of the English alphabet, a poor animal kidnapped from its ancient homeland, caged for children to point at.

Not the easier-to-spell, 50's B-movie-star, untethered way.

No, my mother meant Deborah, a name full of lineage, a name whose sonorous syllables conjure up the steady gathering of golden pollen all day long, the defensive don’t-fuck-with-me sting, the die-for-my-hive-sisters attitude. 

My mother knew right then, right there, at UCLA Hospital in October 1961, before anything else but my miraculous birth had happened, before any of the apocalyptic moments ahead of us had peered over the horizon, that her brown half-Indian, half European girl would need the real thing.   

Deborah, the venom and the honey. Deborah, the fury and the dance. Deborah, the howl and the song.

She did not know she would only be with me for forty years. She did not know that she would abandon me a thousand times before that final departure. She did not know that she herself would inscribe my body with the scars that spell out our severed story.

But she left me with a name that would stay, a name I have grown into at last.

A name like the guardian she could never be.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Needs Improvement




I was in elementary school when I was told, with a small group of other fourth grade girls, to report to the school counselor’s tiny office once a week.  I have no idea who signed us up, but every Wednesday, there we were: Mrs. Case, three raggedy white girls, and me – the only American Indian kid in the school.  

 I don’t remember much about this “counseling,” other than the glorious novelty of one adult’s undivided attention for 30 minutes, and the fluffy pink key chain our mothers pitched in to buy from the Wigwam as a thank-you gift for Mrs. Case at the end of the school year.  Maybe we were singled out because we were the poorest kids in the school, or maybe we’d each let slip something about our “unstable” home situations to an adult at Soos Creek Elementary.   

Soos Creek Elementary was my fifth elementary school in five years. 

It’s hard enough to know what’s inappropriate at that age; throw in late nights waiting up for alcoholic parents to come home, molestation by Mom’s wayward boyfriend, or a good case of ringworm, and god only knows what alarms get set off.  Missing 19 days of school might have had something to do with that, too.

Being assigned to this counseling group was the first time in my life that I was officially identified as damaged, or in need of ‘fixing.’  Although I had occasionally been graced with a loving teacher who lavished tenderness on me, this was the first time a mental health professional was brought in to try to treat me.  It was also pretty much the last time anyone made that effort.

Either the school district thought Mrs. Case was a miracle worker and we were all repaired by the end of the school year, or they gave us up as a lost cause; or, maybe like so many other rural, poor girls, we just fell through the cracks … because despite the fact that my home situation only got worse and I experienced still more damage, I made it all the way to high school graduation without any further official administrative interventions.  In high school, a few tender-hearted teachers took me under their wings, offered real books to supplement the censored materials handed out in class, praised my creative and scholarly writing, gave me access to AP English classes, and even extra food when I started looking a little too thin. I remember these teachers vividly and gratefully.

But without anyone ever actually saying so, I learned early on that this damage – the wounds inflicted on my body and soul during my childhood - would be left up to me to deal with. Let’s be clear: I did not have a fucking clue.

I found my 4th grade report card the other day. I don't remember ever getting a "C+" for reading in my life. Perhaps I just didn't like the reading material? The teacher marked me as reading at the 5th grade level, so the C+ makes no sense. It may have been my attitude. It may have been hers. Mrs. Burt was a real piece of work and I hated her guts for making me feel like a piece of crap in her classroom.  "Completes assignments on time" was "NI" - Needs Improvement; I remember getting lost in my head doing worksheets that seemed so easy, running out of time because I was "daydreaming." I still do that.

I was given a "B" grade for Health, although I received a "+" for "tries to keep neat and clean" and "effort." Apparently, trying was not enough to overcome whatever it was I was dragging in from our trailer in the woods. 

"Debbie has written many imaginative stories. She'll receive further practice in writing factual reports," Mrs. Burt reported (misspelling my name, as she always did: it was Deby), "Debbie dislikes arithmetic, but with more patience with herself, I think she'd feel less frustrated." Now I remember: I used to get a well-timed stomachache just in time for math sessions! Because of course Mrs. Burt, my least-favorite of our "team" of teachers, taught math. I was switched to a different head teacher at the semester.  At the end of the school year, Mrs. Burt's contract was not renewed. She wasn't "compatible" with the school's open-concept design. Or, I think, with children in general.

But I do remember those "imaginative stories." In those stories, I could control things. In those stories, I could write about what was unspeakable, even if it were entire rabbit families being massacred and disappeared, not people.  

In my stories, I could be brave. 

 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Brave

My therapist keeps telling me I'm brave. No. He keeps insisting that I am brave, and points out ways he thinks I'm brave, from his perspective.

I am not convinced. I am also not convinced that I am not damaged or broken, so we talk about what those words mean to me, and how the word "healing" fits in there.

I decided to start keeping a list of things I do that Daman would think qualify as "brave" acts.  I am trying to see myself through the eyes of someone who sees me at my worst and pulls the courageous little seedlings out of that compost pile.

Here is today's bravery:


This morning I made a necklace into a choker.  And wore it.  Why is this brave? When Buddy raped me, he also choked me with his hands. Or maybe it was one hand. My neck couldn’t have been too big at seven years old. He could have put his hand over my mouth, but he didn’t. Of the legacies he left me that remain visible: I can’t wear anything around my throat (choker necklaces or turtle necks), and I can’t braid my hair worth shit. (He also taught me how to braid, using a purple velvet doll with a horse’s mane for hair that I’d found at the dump. I can braid, just barely, but I know nothing at all of the artistic ways of braiding, though I envy the women and girls wearing those beautiful styles.) Today, I looked in the mirror and I didn’t have a necklace to go with the open-necked blouse I’d put on. I took a longer necklace and pulled it up in the back, and wrapped a black hair tie around the excess (my long hair would hide that part). I pulled the necklace a bit tighter than I’d planned, and instead of hanging at just below my collarbone, it hangs in the hollow of my throat. I feel it there, the slight pressure on my skin, every second. It’s a light necklace made of hollow shells and small glass beads with a few pieces of green stone.  An Indian man gave it to me when I went to give a reading at Willamette University a few years ago. It's simple and sweet.  It is a gift in return for storytelling. It feels like it weighs a thousand pounds. It feels like I can't swallow. In the past, I would have immediately untied the hair band and readjusted the necklace. Today, I looked in the mirror again, and the strand of dentalium looked nice that way – the gift necklace as an almost-choker (not quite). Leave it, I told myself. Leave it.




Sunday, September 11, 2016

Psalm of No Surrender

My destroyer;
Master of disguises. 

Able to breach my defenses
with a single searing word. 

Faster than adrenaline's rush. 
Stronger than a nightmare’s claw. 

Creature of a thousand beloved faces. 
Ventriloquist of every voice I’ve longed to hear. 

Chameleon. Sorcerer. Stalker.
O, you deathless thing.   

You track me down
by the stink of my loss.

You lead me into the eager quicksand,
make me lie beneath the beast’s belly. 

You coax the iron from my blood
into your own shallow veins.  
 
You bury me in the desert
of steaming asphalt, drown me 
 
in the sewage of your monstrous language. 
Shall I be your slave, your poet, your captive?
  
Will you be my god,
shall I have no other? 

Must I worship you
with all my disgrace

and all my hatred
and all my shame? 

This handfasting
works both ways. 

If I am yours,
you are mine.

We go down
to the sea of no stars

with our wrists bound
tight as ticks;

we go down
to the sea of no stars

and you will not see
that silvery surface again

without me at your side:
your relentless, bloodied bride.


Deborah A. Miranda


For many years now, I have been trying to write about fear. Joy Harjo and Raymond Carver's poems about fear both take on the concept with visceral specificity and honesty, and speak clearly about the damage our own fears can do in our lives. Yet crafting something of my own about fear has escaped me. And I mean escaped: the "fear poem" drafts are piled up like dead bodies, while fear went flitting on, uncontained.

I found a very rough draft of this poem in my "freewrites" folder yesterday. It wasn't very good, but it had something intriguing there that pulled me back in. I let myself start playing with it again, around 1 a.m.  Maybe 1 a.m. is the perfect time to write a poem about fear. I was alone in the house except for two dogs who'd given up on me ever going to bed, and snoozed in the bedroom without me. The air was finally cooler, and our neighborhood was, for a Saturday night, quiet. It was just me, and the poem. The poem opened up and Fear walked in.

It's not finished, but it needs to sit for awhile now. "Sit and think about what it's done" is what my wife would say.

This morning, I realize that I've been writing about fear most of my life. What I wanted to do differently was write a poem TO fear, address fear as an entity that has controlled so many of my actions and made me its puppet.

Harjo's compassion at the end of her poem is stunning. She sees her fear as a victim itself, almost a young child whose rampages are the result of its own trauma, and needs comfort rather than anger. Carver lists his fears; the poem is a catalog, a way of trying to organize and control fear that, at the very end, slips the leash and takes off on its own again.

I wanted to capture the horror of being at the mercy of fear, of losing control. But I also wanted a glimpse into the fact that I haven't given up. Yes, there is a terrified small child at the core of this picture; but she's grown up into a woman with the guts to take fear on. At the end, I hope the poem intimates that the struggle is more evenly matched that it first appeared.

Like so much else, this poem is a work in progress.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Doorway to the Ancestors

As I continue working on my collection of essays using Isabel Meadows' narratives, Isabel and her connection to both the past and the future are much on my mind. I have written of Isabel as being a doorway, a threshold, through which knowledge, spirit and love pass through, going in both directions.  From her to the Ancestors, from the Ancestors back to her, and from Isabel to us in the form of story.

Sometimes I get jammed up, unable to translate the feelings generated or opened up by Isabel's words.  That's when I turn to wordless creation. Working with my hands gives my heart and mind other ways to translate what it is Isabel might be trying to tell us. Working with the materials she speaks of - abalone, pine nuts, olivella, dentalium, twined string, icons from Catholicism - is a tactile, even sensual, method of bodily-felt research. I lose myself for hours, days, in such work, and when I eventually emerge, intangible, abstract yet terribly real sensations seem to be more willing to be held in the shape of words.

This summer was like that.  A lot. In writing a chapter about the Indian women of the Carmel mission in post-secular trauma, and trying to couch those stories using Dian Million's "felt experience" theory, my body was sometimes swimming in fear. If you've ever read the book Watership Down, by Richard Adams, you might be familiar with the state of being "tharn." I've tried to explain what going tharn feels like:


It comes with bone-deep paralysis, something colder than freezing, and a cessation of breathing.  Not breathlessness, which means you are trying to breathe, and not holding your breath, which means you are trying not to breathe – I’m talking about a simple lack of breathing, of never having breathed in your life, of passive stasis: not breathing, not not breathing.  Maybe that is what death feels like.  You aren’t asleep.   You aren’t dazed.  There is a kind of clarity in the moment, perhaps even a blanket of calm.  If you breathe, either in or out, that would disturb that veil of almost serenity.  But you can’t call it serenity; that would be blasphemy.   There is no serenity about rape.

I understand that for some people, going tharn means amnesia.  Those people aren’t going tharn; they are disappearing.  I was never like that.  I never forgot the details.  It wasn’t a question of memory or forgetting.  Of wanting to forget or wanting to remember.  It was separating myself from the scary parts, of surviving, of getting through it, and moving on.  Survival, not disappearing.  Maintaining some presence.  A foot still on the ground.  A way back.  An anchor.  Going tharn lets you do that.

Because disappearing is way worse than going tharn.  I knew that.  I knew people who had disappeared.

Going to sleep at night after a long day of wrestling with notions of wounds and healing, I began to imagine a door. The door.  The doorway between us, and the Ancestors who survived so that we could be here to pull their stories out of silence and into the laps of our selves and our children. My wife's Aunt Laya, a collector of beautiful and odd things, had long ago gifted us with a small teak door from some little hand-crafted boat being sold for parts. With brass nails and hinges, a worn handle, and a wonderful square window that opened outward and down, it has waited in a dusty corner for us to find the perfect use. So I began to imagine that door, plain yet sturdy, maybe the only survivor from that old boat, as something to hang my image of a doorway to the Ancestors on.

Every night, I lay in bed and tried out materials, designs, ideas, on that door. The door became my lullaby.

During the day, I began to gather the materials. Some of them I already owned from beading - dentalium, feathers, clay beads.  Some I scoured the internet for, happening upon someone's cache of vintage rectangular abalone beads from an old warehouse.  Still others had been gifted to me during a decade of readings in California Indian territory - pine nuts, olivella shells, white sage. Some ideas came to me in dreams: I would have kept the doorway pure Indian, but Isabel insisted on the Sacred Heart milagros, and in this way I reminded myself that our identities are what they are because of what we've used to survive. If there is anything pure about us, it is that we are pure survivors.

Playing with pieces of polished abalone shell, I realized they had transformed themselves into umunipsha, the little hummingbird who often appears when I am speaking or thinking of Isabel.

The dance shawl that my sister Louise made for me has done a lot of work in its time. I wore it the night I danced in honor and memory of my mother at an Esselen Nation gathering. It has graced an altar or two. Melted wax spots from candles, a burn from a piece of sage that slipped out of an abalone shell, dust from California roads decorate it along with Louise's designs of acorns and oak leaves. Isabel wanted that shawl, even though the red sun design is from the Chumash. I am a mix of my grandfather - Esselen - and his wife, Santa Ynez Chumash. Doorway to all the Ancestors.

Bit by bit, through hot July and August, these materials sitting on my workbench made their way onto the teak door, arranged and rearranged themselves. As I cleaned and polished the teak, I remembered that Isabel's father was a sailor, an English man who arrived in Monterey on a whaling ship and never left. Ah, I said to Isabel in my head, you snuck that one in on me, didn't you?

My writing desk is on one side of my office at home, running along the wall.  My workbench is on the opposite side, against the other wall. All summer long, I migrated back and forth from one kind of work to another. 

After awhile, I sometimes forgot which table I was at, and that is what finally allowed me to finish both the chapter, and this piece: Doorway to the Ancestors.











Wednesday, June 15, 2016

If I Say the Words

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I read the reports, the interviews with parents and children and lovers left behind.  I read the texts scrabbled out from hiding places, pleas for rescue, call 911.  My skin pricks and shivers as if someone is touching me, but I am alone.  I tear up at random times, can’t bear to go out in public, see the world going on as if nothing happened, as if - because it didn’t happen here – it is still safe in a bubble of denial.  My wife and I pause as we pass each other going from one room to the other, lean our bodies together.  We say we are sad.  Shorthand for burned to the ground.  But I haven’t cried.  When I try to write, I can’t.  I am full of the rough material that make up words – emotion, nightmare, fear, grief – but the words themselves refuse to be born:  If I say the words, say the names, I admit that it really happened.  They - Mercedez, Franky, Akyra, Eddie, Angel, all of them in their glorious brown queer radiant bodies - really died, and they died in terror and agony, chased like animals by a man wielding an assault rifle with the nickname “Black Mamba,” a weapon never meant to hunt anything but human beings, which means it is a hate machine, created to shoot hatred from one person into the soft body of another.  If I say the words, if I try to corral the facts and tame them with language, I’ve already muted their screams, their whispered prayers, their frantic texts to a beloved mami or daddy who cannot save their child, who feel each cell in their body implode at the injustice.  If I say the words that attempt to respond to an act for which there is no sane response, what would those words be?  I think of the mother who was there with her son; think, how lucky she was.   She was able to do what so many parents not there wish they had been able to do: step in front of her child, face the shooter with her mother’s eyes, and shield her heart of hearts with the same body that gave birth to that boy.  That’s it.  That’s what I see, over and over again, that is what I cannot speak, what terrifies me with a power beyond steel transformed into anger: how blessed she was, and is, how she was there, dancing, because she already knew that choosing love would save her son’s life; knew that love, with its dance of blood and shattered bones, love with its twin red shoes named pain and sacrifice, love is the only commandment that matters.  Love: by any means necessary.  

Deborah A. Miranda