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. 


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.