Monday, December 31, 2012

No Charms Against Lightning and "Rabbit Stories"

There Are No Charms Against Lightning

or to keep earthquakes at bay, bring fish to your net,
make women fall at your feet or raise children from the dead.

There's only longing and fear and desire and grief in this world.
Get that through your head.  No magic, no shortcuts.

Don't expect so much from St. John's Wort.  It's just a flower.
Famous only to bees and a few migrant insects.

Likewise, peyote.  Give that one lots of space and forget
that shaman shit you read.  They lied.  You know this,

but you prefer to pretend: quartz crystals capable
of healing cancer, mystical runes visible by the light

of a full moon spelling out the way home.  Look, there's
no sacred star, no amulet to clutch when the monsters come.

Instead we have existential angst, the question why, serial killers
and bad TV shows about terrorists who are us.  There are

no charms against lightning, I tell you.  Wrong world.
Try the next one over. Take your hope and faith and

magical thinking and hit the road.  Leave us our lightning rods,
 our Prozac, our robotic remote controls -

that which we make, that which we control,
that which shall surely save us.

Deborah A. Miranda, 12/2012

Quickie Book Review:

This week I had the great good fortune to read Tslagi poet and artist Kim Shuck's new prose manuscript, Rabbit Stories.  Here is the blurb I wrote for Kim, after I could finally put words together that didn't sound like crap after her beautiful weavings:

Subatomic particles.  String.  Knots.  The water in London, San Francisco, Tar Creek.  A coy Spider.  The Dance of DNA.  Chestnut Man's kiss.  Songs made of strawberry soda.  These are glimpses of the complex world in which a Tslagi girl/woman lives.  Named "Rabbit Food," after a wild rose, the girl is accompanied through life by irreverent guardian and teacher Rabbit, "a creature of trick and pleasure."  Kim Shuck's collection is tenderly constructed, finely woven in and out of Rabbit Food's lifetime as girl, young woman, new mother, and middle-aged artist.  Rabbit Stories winds through waters layered with dream and memory, loops back around time with a wise/cracking humor.  I couldn't put these stories down.  They're singing in me now; it feels as if the DNA in my cells has been transformed by, as Rabbit would say, "a joy in craft and artifact."  Brava!

Seriously: I sat in my chair after finishing Rabbit Stories, and honestly felt as if my cellular DNA construction had been rearranged.  My body felt transformed.  Even now, I don't feel like I can describe that sensation of reading (was it reading, or breathing in?) material that went so deeply into my psyche and changed - or rather, improved - who I am.

All of this doesn't begin to tell you what it is in Shuck's book that did this to me, or for me.  There were no magic amulets, no Cherokee charms, no ancient grannies teaching secrets.  The story is quite literally woven out of time - clearly, a young girl growing into womanhood, becoming a lover, becoming a mother, becoming an artist - but with a chronological orientation toward connections rather than linearity.  In other words, we do not meet Rabbit Food, the main character, as a baby and then watch her grow into maturity.  Rather, we come to know her through the human and planetary connections she feels, clusters of memories from various important moments in her life as a whole.

And none of this is narrated by Rabbit Food herself, but has an alternative point of view from her guardian and teacher that teaches us as much as Rabbit Food.  Perhaps it starts with that name, Rabbit Food;  it's the name of a kind of wild rose favored by rabbits, and using the literal translation rather than the more romanticized "Wild Rose" gives this story the deliciously unexpected pleasure of, well, reality.  The world doesn't get much more real than intercontinental air travel over the pole to reunite with a lover, driving across the United States in an old car with a father who is somehow distant and lost, bathing a baby in the kitchen sink or a child absorbed by the mysteries of knots and string.  Yet in Shuck's hands, this reality is narrated from the point of view of Rabbit.  Yes, that Rabbit - Trickster, "a creature of trick and pleasure," - and Rabbit observes Rabbit Food all of her life, a constant loving and instructive presence whose main goal is to introduce and perpetuate "silliness" into Rabbit Food's life.

Now, define "silliness."

Merriam says:  Having or showing a lack of common sense or judgment; foolish.  
foolish - fatuous - daft - dull - idiotic - fool - goof - ninny

Clearly, dominant culture doesn't think much of silliness.  And there you have it: Rabbit's reason for being, the mission behind Rabbit's love for Rabbit Food.  Rabbit teaches Rabbit Food to see beyond the reality given to her by the dominant culture.  Rabbit turns it upside down for her, and she is able to understand that reality isn't "common sense" goals like money, career, advancement, ambition.  In such a world, reality is the death of joy; in Rabbit's world, silliness is the key to wisdom.  Thus Rabbit Food's real self, an artist whose work communicates an indigenous survivance in contemporary times, is in fact "fed" by Rabbit. 

At certain points, in fact, it seems that Rabbit Food's capacity for "silliness" even surpasses Rabbit's; some of her creations are more complex than even Rabbit can bear for long, but Rabbit Food knows they are necessary.  Throughout the story, Rabbit flirts with Spider, a female presence who has an important but less obvious role in Rabbit Food's education; sometimes I get the distinct feeling that Spiderwoman is who Rabbit Food is growing up to be, with her love of string and beads and knots and weaving.

At any rate, my stumbling words can't do this book justice.  I don't have the ability to look at the world through Rabbit's sacred eyes.  But Kim Shuck does it beautifully, and I can't wait until Rabbit Stories is out in the world for all to read.   Watch for it at in January 2013.

Monday, December 3, 2012

"Towards Your Daughter's Education": a note from Harry Downie

As I have mentioned here before, Madgel Miranda, my mother, was a dogged, determined self-taught genealogist.  In the pre-internet era, she typed up a form letter explaining her quest to prove my Native blood quantum so that I would be eligible to apply for scholarships targeting Native students.  I was 13 years old when Mom started this journey.  I remember her sitting at the little kitchen table of our old trailer in Kent, Washington, late at night, with her stack of ditto'd form letters (later Xeroxed), envelopes, stamps, and her battered checkbook.  She had lists of people to write to, and in her own methodical way, between cups of coffee or a bowl of noodles with butter and garlic, she'd make her way down those lists.  I still have a copy of her form letter.  It was very articulate, to the point, but clear:  I need you to help me accomplish this for my daughter's education.

She kept all the replies that returned with useful information.  Her life may have frequently been a mess, but her genealogical files were tidy.  One reply, however, remained hidden from me until recently.  In a plastic page protector, my mother stored some transcribed birth records from Carmel Mission about my great-grandmother, Severiana Ramirez Miranda.  On one side was that mission record, typed out on Carmel Mission stationary, and on the other, stored back-to-back, a second note about Severiana's twin brother's birth.

What I didn't know until a few weeks ago when I actually removed those pages from the plastic: a third page of stationary was tucked between them.  It was a type-written note, briefly explaining that researchers at the mission had found Severiana's entry in the old mission Book of Baptisms, but not that of Tranquilino Miranda, her husband.  Fairly usual genealogical correspondence, although once again I was amazed at the graciousness with which researchers responded to so many genealogical requests from amateurs like my mother, people who were training themselves and relied on the kindness of very busy, understaffed, underpaid strangers at great distances.

But what was written in the closing stopped me in my tracks.

"Enclosed you will find your donation, I feel it will be more of use towards your daughter's education.  Hoping this will be of use to you, Sincerely..."

Of course my mother had not sent much - maybe five dollars, something to help defray the cost of research, paper, stationary, typewriter ink ribbons.  It was something she'd learned early on, something she appreciated:  a way of acknowledging the expertise and work load of those she was asking for assistance.

Still, this researcher had returned it, had been moved enough by my mother's form letter to see not just another tedious request, but the woman behind the request, and even further, the young girl - me - whose education was at hand.

I was really touched by this reply.  I think, perhaps, my mother was impressed as well, because she kept this piece of stationary so carefully.

But then I read further down to the signature of the researcher.  Written in the shakiest of hands, by someone very elderly but very dignified:  "Harry Downie, Mission Curator."

I knew that name. In fact, any mission scholar worth her salt knows about Harry Downie.   Born in 1903 (a year after my own grandfather, Tom Miranda), Downie was the man who guided the decades-long restoration of Mission Carmel, from 1931 and continuing for over 50 years.  He's darn near worshipped in some California mission histories, and damned in others for the romanticized reconstruction of the mission where my ancestors were held and so many died.  Harry believed in the greatness of the mission era, and did much of the reconstruction with his own hands; later in life, he supervised and guided, but was still in charge.  He passed away in 1980.  Although this correspondence with my mother is not dated, I can make an educated guess that their exchange took place sometime between 1975 and 1979, when I went off to college. 

What a kick, seeing this note from the famous and infamous Harry Downie to my mother, all these years later.  How nice it was of him to return her donation, and tell her that he thought it would be better used "towards your daughter's education" than any mission restoration fund.  I'm bemused by this act, shaking my head.  I have often argued that money spent on restoring the missions - in some cases, literally rebuilding them from the ground up - would be better spent on support for the descendants of California Indians once exploited in those missions.  If all that passion, all that energy, good will, community spirit and investment could have gone into educations for survivors like my father, his parents and grandparents, where would the California Indian community be right now?

That utopian fantasy was not to be.  Californians preferred to capture a mythological past in amber, preserve it, revere it.  But maybe, at the end of his days, Harry Downie received my mother's note and - for just a moment - had a glimmer of what could have been.

A girl can dream, can't she?