Terry Tempest Williams asks, I came to finding my voice through the pain and suffering of those I love most - how do I deal with that? What do I do with that knowledge?
This is precisely the dilemma I faced from the very beginning, when writing about the California Missions became the focus of my work, both scholarly and poetic.
My “successes” in life (tenured teaching position, house, car, children’s college, health care, publications, the attention and respect of publishers, universities, other scholars and poets) have come about mostly through the fact that I write about and research California Indian history and experiences. And most of those histories and experiences are not pleasant “legends” or warm, fuzzy memories. Most of them are about death by horrible disease or murder, the fragmentation of family relationships, self-destructive responses to trauma, the abandonment of children, exile and/or homelessness, displacement, loss of language and culture – and more, all at the hands of another people whose blood also runs in my veins.
Is it any wonder that I am reluctant to claim any of my successes as such? That I am so careful to always look over my shoulder at what might be coming up behind me? That I dream about sleeping on a bed of bones carved with the words of another language? That I feel guilty for profiting from telling the stories of my ancestors in the missions? That I shrink from compliments about my writing? That this writing comes so hard, takes so much out of me?
So when I heard Terry Tempest William speak at Lee Chapel, on the Washington and Lee University campus, her questions about “voice” resonated down to my bones. She spoke about her new book, one that she had thought would be about voice, finding voice, and said those words: I came to finding my voice through the pain and suffering of those I love most - how do I deal with that? What do I do with that knowledge?
I went to bed that night thinking, it’s a responsibility. It’s a debt, this gift, and I must repay it by carrying the responsibility of giving voice to those who could not speak. Isn’t that the answer? Isn’t that the way to assuage my guilt at earning my living from the tortured cries of my beloved ancestors and relatives? To accept it as a charge, not a gift?
But I wasn’t satisfied. It felt, not wrong, but incomplete. Too easy. And not enough. I know that often in those liminal moments between wakefulness and sleeping, revelation slips in, so I asked (myself, the Universe, the Ancestors): but what more is it? and perhaps because Terry’s achingly honest vulnerability had created a receptivity and openness that hadn’t been there before, the response came back almost as if it had been waiting for me to ask:
It’s not that you’ve found your voice through the pain of others. It’s that their voices found you.
I opened my hand and put that thought inside it, closed my fist around the warmth of the truth, and slept.
When I woke up, I remembered a dream I’d had twenty years before. Early on in my adult writing life, when I was about thirty, soon after the poem “I Am Not a Witness” came to me, I dreamt that I was part of a group of Indian people being used in an experiment. We were locked up in a dark, crowded space together. Huge wooden doors slammed shut, and we beat our fists against them, splintering the wood into our flesh, but unable to escape. No windows, no light, just wives, sisters, brothers, husbands, uncles, babies, toddlers, small children, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, in-laws – trapped – while the scientists watched from one-way windows in their white lab coats. In the dream, I knew we were inside a mission; the experiment was to see how much of what our ancestors had experienced was stored in the cells of our bodies. In the dream, I opened my mouth. A scream came out. A horrible, broken scream came out of my throat. But it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t my scream. It was someone else’s scream, the scream of an ancestor, coming from my own throat.
When I awoke in the dark, damp with sweat and panic, I had not uttered a sound. But my throat hurt, scraped raw. My voice, when I tried to speak, was hoarse and dry; my vocal cords scratched and strained.
Not my voice. Her voice.
The voice of an ancestor, joining mine. Singing with mine – making a song, collaborating in a song for multiple voices.
I don’t mean this in some new-age, “channeling,” Seth-like explanation. I’m not sure how I mean it. But if time is, indeed, spiral and happening all around us all the time, then there must be places where people separated by chronology touch as the spiral curves inward. I know that my sister Louise is one of those people, one who dreams, who listens, and acts for the Ancestors. We are conduits, but not mindless, robotic tubes through which something is delivered. That would be possession. That would be someone else controlling me, dictating to me. And that is not what I feel happening as I write.
What I feel as I write is this: a door opens inside me, a door like one of those between hotel rooms, with locks on each side. I must unlock my side. Someone – the Ancestor wishing to speak – must unlock her side. We must both stand, willingly, in that threshold.
If I am afraid or unwilling or unable to unlock my side, then she will attempt to come as a dream. Of this I am certain. Once, during a time of denial about writing, I dreamt of a bear attempting to knock down the door to get into my bedroom! She was a beautiful bear, and I loved her rough brown fur and long claws and dark eyes even as I barricaded the door against her.
The stories I tell with this voice that is both mine and the voices of others are, in fact, a lot like bears. Beautiful and admirable, glossy and strong. Wild and unpredictable and full of fierceness, scarred, in pain.
Maybe that’s why I’ve always been a turtle. I have to be able to withdraw into a protective shell at times, rest, then stick my head back out for the next round. A turtle is a good form to have; a hard shell into which one may retreat is a necessary tool in this work.
Am I constructing a story that lets me off the hook of survivor’s guilt? Perhaps. But what I like about the “revelation” I had the night after Terry Tempest Williams’ talk is not that it somehow removes the responsibility of bearing witness for my Ancestors, because it does not - I owe my very existence to their tenacity, their willingness to be Bad Indians rather than Dead Indians. What I like is how I see that the Ancestors are undefeated after all: not dead and silent in the ground, under pavement, in museums. No. The Ancestors are alive and kicking – kicking that door down, insisting on telling their stories, still making songs, still bearing witness themselves. They are not victims, needing my help. If anything, I am the needy one! I am in dire need of their wisdom, their direction, their Coyotismo, their survivance.
What I like is that they share their stories, still tell me how to live, allow me to write it down; what I like is that they are still teaching us how to survive.