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.