Friday, June 6, 2014


Mission San Diego de Alcala has an interior garden with a cross built from the original bricks of the Spanish Mission.  Here I am, a few years ago, contemplating the slumping cross.

“. . . when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”  Chimamanda Adiche

I am about to embark on a great adventure.

For much of June, I’ll be traveling through California on my own.  On my own … at least physically.  I fully expect to meet ancestors and relatives – human and non-human - at every breath, to see and hear and feel and know wisps or storms of stories all around me, coming from every direction, including from within.

After a week spent visiting my adult children and one-year-old granddaughter, I will leave from the Amtrak station in Tacoma, Washington on a Saturday morning, carrying just a backpack of clothing and writing materials, a book or two, and all my years of longing.  I’ll head straight through Washington, Oregon and Northern California all the way to San Diego, a glorious journey of almost 40 hours through crazy beautiful mountains, forests, valleys, inner cities, along beaches and rolling hills covered with wildflowers.  I’ve made this trip before; the magic of a slow train and hours with nothing to do but read, write and look out the windows is my idea of escape, vacation, paradise.   

Once in San Diego, I will visit the mission there, then slowly proceed back up “El Camino Real” a few train stops at a time, following the path of the missions as laid out by the Spanish Franciscans and soldiers from 1769-1836-ish, over the course of 18 days.  I won’t be able to visit all 21 missions; but we do what we can with what we are given, and eight missions are plenty for this trip (and brings me to a total of 11 missions visited).

Preparation has taken quite some time, and a whole lot of energy: figuring out which California missions are close enough to Amtrak stations for me to visit without a car; planning a few inland excursions with a rental car; scouting out bus or walking routes; setting up lodging along the way (I’ll have a sleeper on the train for a total of four and a half nights, and along the Camino Real itself I’ll stay in hostels, hotels, an air bnb, even one of the missions itself, as a solo retreat participant).  A summer grant from my university makes this possible, but I need to make the funds stretch as far as possible, so meals will be creative: both healthy and cheap.

Other preparations have included re-reading various histories of the individual missions I’ll visit (both the “official” Catholic archival materials, and more recent indigenous-centric or alternative texts), revisiting my family genealogy as well as Isabel Meadows’ stories, reading and/or downloading books about California flora and fauna, especially ones that include traditional gathering of natural resources as food or materials for living.  Something about being able to name a tree, a flower, a fruit, a stone, a bird, gives me a little bit more of the story I’m witnessing and trying to tell.


But I’ve been preparing in other ways, too. 

My preparations require serious attention to the health of my faith: faith that stories matter.  When you spend nine months a year teaching literature of the margins to mostly white, mostly middle-to-upper-class students in a small southern university, this kind of faith can wear thin.  When you live in a world, as we all do, in which language and story are perverted into propaganda and misinformation, faith that stories matter takes a beating.  I have paused throughout the month of May (oh the grace of not teaching!) to refresh my faith with the beautiful constructions of language by writers whose work pulses with meaning.  

 Most recently, I read (and savored/delighted in/got lost in) Susan Power’s Sacred Wilderness and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House.   

These two books rejuvenated me as a writer, acted like a blood transfusion of plump, singing platelets for my faith.  Rich characters, deeply spiritual quests, poetic renderings of community and family … and the sheer joy of storytelling as the glue that holds us together (individually and collectively) even beyond death.  Yes, I believe that the stories I will find as I travel will have the potential to make a positive difference in how I, and others, know and live in the world.  I have faith that sometimes a story may be both dangerous and necessary.  Faith that the story will lead me in the direction that it needs to go.  Faith that I am tough enough, resolved enough, to go there too.  Huwa!

More than anything else, preparation for my time on “The Mission Trail” (as this string of history has often been called by historians and touristic exhortations) means reminding myself that I may be completely unprepared for the story that emerges from landscape and memory, golden hills and ocean breakers, melted adobe and reconstructed campanarios.  The story I find may not be the story I expect to find, or the story I want to find.  Looking for genocide, I may find peace.  Looking for sovereignty, I may find fractionated tribes swollen with Historical Trauma.  Expecting oppression, I may discover resilience, even joy.  If I can stay open to the story around me, who knows what I might learn?

This last thought gives me greatest pause. 

In her talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,”Chimamanda Adiche tells us about her experience, learned over and over in different situations, with the limitations and damage of falling for ‘just one story,’ of believing that the story we’ve always heard is the only story, the only truth about that story (the transcript of Adiche’s talk may be found here).  She says,

“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power …  How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, ‘secondly.’ Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”

Adiche reminds us of the driving force behind the literature of so many survivors: the desire, the need, to tell our own stories, to claim our voices, to take back the power of narrating our identity.  I absolutely agree with her; storytellers have a power that cuts both ways.  A story can create, but it also has the power to destroy.  Because of this, Adiche also warns us:  not just about being wary of the stories we inherit, but taking care with the stories we, ourselves, create.  In our urgency behind this desire for voice, we become susceptible to the lure of a central myth, a controlling stereotype that damages the lives of very real human beings.  It seems like a paradox:  how do we assert our story, our truth, without becoming proselytizers for The One True Story?  Put another way, does there have to be one monolithic story for a people, or can there be multi-colored threads intertwined in a larger cable? 

Many years ago, I attended a life-changing, week-long writing workshop on the McKenzie River in Oregon.  As part of the registration process, each workshop participant reached into a basket and drew out a card with one printed word that was meant to act as our guiding principal throughout the week.  I drew the word willingness.  Such a demanding word!  To this day, willingness tasks me with the work of not taking the easy way through an experience by closing up, turning away, maintaining the status quo.   

So, my preparation for this California mission journey also includes a decision to nurture my willingness to remain open, to listen, observe, intuit, question and consider all the stories that I will be entering into.  Willingness does not always come easy; it’s safer to stay unwilling.  In that sense, willingness implies risk.  (I embraced willingness that week on the MacKenzie River, by the way, and it shook me up, shook me down, and completely rearranged my life – for the better, ultimately, but damn, that was some hard work!  I still battle frequently with the concept of willingness; I don’t give up security easily but at least I have learned to keep trying). 

Well, this storytelling thing is a risky business.

Yes, I will bring my intellectual knowledge about Missionization with me – leaving it behind is impossible – but I also want to try to put aside what I think I know about the story of California missions, and listen to the story that comes to me from the places themselves.  I sound surer of this process than I actually am; I think I have some strategies about how to do this, but I also know that I’ll work it out as I go. 

What I do know for sure is that this journey has been calling me for a long time, and now that I am finally on my way, I can hardly wait to hear the harmonies of voices, see the constellations of stories, re-enter the ‘kind of paradise’ that is my homeland.

Fresh figs from Mission Soledad (previous visit)

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