Saturday, October 6, 2012

Waking Up in California

Because I have lived most of my life away from California, when I return for a visit I see it with different eyes than those who have never left.  Everything is new to me, and at the same time, I remember and know every detail.  There should be a word for that, a word for remembering what you didn't know you knew; the way déjà vu means you feel like something has already happened even though you know it hasn’t.  But déjà vu is not it, not what I feel when I step out onto California land.  This is, perhaps, more of a bone and blood memory:  the air, minerals, water, scents, pollen, light, angle of the sun and stars, that my body remembers, that some deep part of my brain remembers.  Usually this is triggered simply by being in California: feeling the thunder of surf on a flat sweep of beach, stepping over the rampant roots of huge fig trees bursting through slabs of sidewalk, or smelling eucalyptus on the evening air, running my hand along the ancient spears of agave or sitting beneath the shameless purple blossoms of jacaranda. 

Once, taking a bus a few years ago in Westwood, I suddenly stepped back into my four year old body, going up those bus steps, my hand in my mother’s hand, sitting next to the window looking out at hot sidewalks and palm trees planted along the way.  I had never consciously remembered taking the bus with my mom in Los Angeles, and yet once I stepped on that bus, I felt as if I’d never been without that memory.  It was as much a part of me as the color of my hair.

So my experiences in California now – as a middle-aged woman - are constantly doubled with memories of being a child here; sensory memories, emotional memories, that shadow my every move.  In some ways, this is like walking simultaneously on two timelines; my two bodies, one three or four years old, one fifty-one, connected suddenly by the geographic location and my history with it.  This probably wouldn’t happen with someone who had grown up in a place and never left, because there is no rupture in that timeline – it’s all connected.  For me, there is that moment when my mother and I got on a bus and left California “forever.” 

We took a Greyhound, actually, all the way from Los Angeles to Washington State.  I remember only parts of this (no doubt I slept much of the time).  I remember that someone had bought me a lovely new dark blue sweater that buttoned up the front, just for the journey, and that I left it on the bus when we got off.  How I mourned that sweater.  It had been a special gift for the journey, and I lost it to the journey.  I also felt bad that I hadn’t kept hold of my possessions, a little guilty that someone spent money on me and I’d wasted it. Mostly, I remember the heat: the bus must have had AC, but the sun beat in from the window anyway, and I stuck to the seat.

We must have gone up the middle of the state, up through the deserty valley, because my body is filled with those rolling golden hills and flat brown fields when I think of this bus ride.  We stopped at my grandparent’s home near Bakersfield for a visit, I recall; but then we got back on a different Greyhound and continued on to Washington, where my mother’s new husband and my new stepfather, Tommy, waited for us.  We would stay at his sister Tina’s house while looking for a place of our own to live.  I would enter another world, a lush, green, gray, wet, close, dark world.  And my Southern California body would withdraw deep into the core of my being, wrapped in fog and clouds and months, years of fir trees, rain, puddles, wet shoes and hair.  My California body would stay there, curled up, dormant.  Even when I returned for a visit at age nine, or when I visited Santa Barbara with my mother when I was nineteen, my California self didn’t emerge – completely enveloped in who I had become, a Pacific Northwestern girl, someone who had gone into that grey land and submerged herself, become a creature of water, mud, pine needles, decaying red cedar, salmonberries, creeks, stinging nettles that left raised tattoos on my skin, skin no longer the color of deep cinnamon brown but an olive-beige – reminiscent, I often thought as I grew older, of the underside of a mushroom.

Like most people who live in the Pacific Northwest for a long time, like any child relocated at this age, I quickly became fiercely territorial of my new home.  No other place was as clean, as beautiful, as friendly.  And California?  California became the Devil, signifying all that was wrong with the world:  impassable freeways, earthquakes, heat, violent upheaval.  People in the PNW who came from California did not advertise that fact; it was a slur to call someone a “California Driver!” or imply that some outsider was “from the land of shake n’ bake.”  Now I realize that part of this attitude must have come from my mother’s sense of having fled a past she wanted to forget, a place and time when she made unforgiveable mistakes and was subject to abuse that could not be forgiven.  She had fled California and who she had been there as if it were Hell on earth; as if the fires of Hell had caught her, burned her, left her with raging scars that could only be healed in the land of endless rain.  My mother was in hiding.  My mother had gone underground.  And she took me with her, because she had lost all her other children to the maw of a monstrous state that would never, never give them back to her.

And I loved my mother.  Oh, how I loved her.  My loyalty knew no bounds, and would suffer no correction of my mother’s behavior, even when that behavior wounded me past all healing.

So my California body slept.  Waited.  Dreamed.  Did it struggle to get out?  Or was it lulled into dormancy by the long wet winters that went on for ten months out of twelve?  I was always such a good sleeper, my mother told people.  I slept through car rides, bus rides, parties, even disappearing into my bedroom for self-dictated naps when life got too busy.  I became practiced at retreat.  I adapted.  I transformed.

At least on the outside.  On the inside, my body remembered everything.  I sit in this California coffee shop this morning and my skin tingles with what I know.  What I remember.  What I will remember.

Friday, October 5, 2012

My First Bad Indian

San Marcos, California. 7:20 a.m. 

I'm about to go hold Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir in my hands for the very first time as a published book.  I'm thinking about my first Bad Indian.

My dad once repeated the old saying, “The only good Indian is a bad Indian.”  Then he made that disgusted sound that meant he’d reached his limit.  “Ahhhh, hell.  Even when we’re dead, we’re not good enough.”  We looked across his small kitchen table at each other.  Left unsaid were the words, “So why not just be bad and enjoy it while it lasts?” but that’s what I was thinking, and suspect it was what he was thinking, as a way to explain his long and frequently bad life. 

I can still see him sitting there, old at last, the old age he never thought he would reach or deserve, still living with his third wife before they split and he ended up in Hospice; his hair now gone completely silver and thinning at last, his face lined, dark, his eyes watering with glaucoma, his tattooed arms having lost their bulk but still tight with muscles, his huge hands, the hands I will never forget, wrapped around a cup of coffee, fingers gnarled with arthritis.  His fingernails with those fine straight grooves on them, like mine.  My dad.  The man I know so little about, really, and about whom I know far too much.  Like my mother, I could never deny that I loved him – a love that sprang from someplace honest and naïve and tender deep inside me, from a place uncomplicated by lies and violence, by histories of betrayal and cruelty.  This kind of love that exists from me, for my father, is the kind of love I wish I felt all the time, and not just in these moments when I rise above all the grief like a drowning woman quickly grabbing a breath at the surface before sinking down again into the struggle.

I see him sitting there; he was so surprised by his old age, wondering how he got to such a weakened state – diabetic, arthritic, bad eyes, bad teeth, trouble swallowing – wasn’t it just a few years ago he was still out carousing in his beloved red truck, tearing up the road between our little trailer and the Red Rooster near the Muckleshoot Rez, king of his world, survivor of the worst the world could throw at him?  Oh, the stories inside that man.  He could tell them all day, when he was in the mood.  I imagine him talking to my younger brother all those years they lived alone together, telling Al stories I’ll never hear, and it gives me such a pause:  the light years apart that were their boyhoods!  My father, born in 1927, raised in Indian/Mexican family, the peculiar poverty of Southern California in the Depression, World War II.  My brother, born in 1971, raised for three years in Southern California, then snatched up and moved to Washington State: predominately white world filled with TV, computers, cell phones, ATMS.  Was there ever, really, any way the two of them could relate to each other?  It was as if they were from alternate realities.

But the same love exists between them, even stronger than what I feel in my moments of clarity and forgiveness.  It is a love forged out of alcohol, out of late nights, abandonment, rage, tears, hurt, fishing trips along rocky banks of cold rivers, eggs and tortillas and beans and potatoes, hot black coffee, Mariner’s baseball games on TV or at the King Dome before they blew it up, and oh, the tenderness that comes after violence when the two of you are the only family you have.

We miss him.  I never thought I would say that.  I miss him.  I wish I could talk with him again, sit down over coffee and a piece of his favorite apple pie, listen to him talk about his mother, how she "wrote everything down, like you," his grandfather, washing the old man’s feet, running bootlegged booze in his little red wagon, learning to swim in the Santa Ynez River, eating cactus apples and acorn mush because his father had left and they were poor, and his mother who isn’t Indian enough for the BIA went out and gathered what her ancestors had eaten for thousands of years, and fed her boys.  Stories about the day the four young Miranda boys were walking along the road, and a truck struck Richard, killing him; “I carried him all the way home in my arms,” was the most my father would ever say, in a voice strangled with a grief never resolved.  I wish I could listen again, Dad.

For every story my father told me, there are a hundred more he never shared, that I was never there to hear.  The history between us was a terrible storm on a sea that I couldn’t bring myself to cross often enough.  But maybe he told me enough, just enough, to maintain the thread across generations that is our family story, the story in Bad Indians that stretches back and back through all the bits of oral history, newspapers, mission records, ethnographic notes, census materials, back to where even stories can’t go, into a time immemorial where the Ancestors dwell, and whose presence sustains us.  Maybe the stories that I did hear are enough to keep us connected despite all the distances, the alternate realities we each lived in, enough for us to say that despite everything, despite history, we are still here, the thread between us still unbroken.  

The thread back to those Ancestors still wiry and tough, shot through with love.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Here is the Scar of Rupture"

 Shouldn’t it be true that we can protect our children?  From other adults, from the world’s cruelties, from themselves?  I want it to be true.  It should be true.  Last night I dreamt that my daughter had miraculously returned to her form as a newborn.  Her small dark head turned to my breast, her mouth rooted furiously, and even though in reality it had been 25 years since she last nursed and she is now a grown woman carrying her own child, in my dream, I rejoiced that I could do this for her, and pulled my blouse down so she could find my nipple and latch on.  She nursed strongly and confidently, and for the first time in many years, I felt like I was a mother again: able to hold, fill, protect. 

It’s true that in my daughter’s real childhood, I did protect her in many ways, especially the ways in which my own childhood was NOT protected.  I shielded her from poverty, alcoholism, abuse; kept a roof over her head, fed her well, made sure she had good medical care, went to good schools, learned to enjoy music, swimming, books, human touch.  But what’s truer: I could not protect her from the fact that she owns her own soul, and her soul has its own battle in this world, a battle that I can only watch, throw in a few words now and then that I hope are loving and encouraging.  Words that give her heart, I hope, and remind her she came into this world loved, and is loved, and will leave it still loved by a mother who feels like a part of my body chipped off and is walking around without me.

Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) wrote a poem once about the earth and the moon.  It is called “Partings.”  “The moon was once earth/ a daughter whose leaving broke land to pieces” when the moon flew out into darkness, found her own orbit. The mother earth and daughter moon must speak to each other forever across that distance, never rejoined, always separate.  “Here is the scar of rupture,” Hogan writes, and she articulates precisely the brokenness.  Are mother and daughter still connected in ways that can’t be severed, after such a rupture?  “Think of the midwife,” Hogan writes, “Whose knife made two lives where there were only one.”  The price of giving birth, it seems, is parting from that which is most beloved; giving up a part of yourself that might very well wander away into the Universe.  The price of having children is that the “having” is only temporary, and the parting goes on and on.  The best a mother can hope for, Hogan seems to say, is to master the art “of beautiful partings.” 

In my dream, I imagined my daughter as a newborn again, perhaps because that was the last time I really believed that I could protect her from all the hurts and cruelties and hard lessons of the world.  Maybe it’s all those mothering hormones, maybe it’s the Mama Bear instincts, but I KNEW I could take apart anyone who came between me and my baby.  A few years ago, when a young woman I know had a baby, the baby’s father asked that young mother, “Do you love the baby more than you love me?” and she gave him the most amazing answer:  “I would die for you,” she told the father of her child, “But her, her I would kill for.”  Once we are mothers, we know exactly how precious life is; at the same time, we know that we would take someone else’s life from them if it meant protecting our own child.  That kind of fierceness filled me as a new mother, especially when I remembered my own childhood when it seemed no adults were protecting me or my siblings at all.  I vowed that would protect my children in all the ways I was never protected!

Figuring out that I can’t has been the hardest part of mothering.

Mastering the art of beautiful partings.  In my lifetime, I’ve sure had a lot of practice with partings, some necessary, some unwanted - but making parting into an art, into something beautiful that makes another life possible?  It seems the opposite of what parenting is supposed to be.  Yet as Hogan says, ”This is what it means to be mother and child … believe that emptiness is the full/ dance between us,/ and let it grow.”

This is a lifetime’s work.

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