Jesus is Just Alright

Miss Gomez and the Brethren
William Trevor

Lost. Once again I am completely lost.

I really hate when that happens.

If you’ve visited before, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered me in my befuddlement. Almost always, the cause is a work of fiction. I always say it’s important to Continue reading

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Raise Your Voice up to the Sky

The Way to Rainy Mountain
N. Scott Momaday

There’s been so much noise lately that I needed a
quiet book.

So I went hunting in the unread stash I keep in my basement, the acquired-but-unread treasures of a life-long booklover. And I found exactly what I was looking for.

Look this book up–on Wikipedia, say, or on a bookseller’s website–and you’ll find a synopsis. Perhaps it will speak of founding legends. Or it might speak of the journey of the Kiowa nation from its ancestral home in the forests of Montana to the South Central Plains. Maybe it will speak of the author’s personal journey of discovery about his own Kiowa past.

In truth it would be all of those things, and none of them at all.

If that last sentence seems hopelessly vague then I’ve failed, because what I want to convey is a sense that a synopsis, as typically rendered, fails this book.

Years ago I attended Yom Kippur services for a period and the rabbi had standing remarks prepared for different portions of the day. As I recall, one of those set pieces spoke to our ability to understand loss  being incommensurate with its reality. A similar inadequacy applies to describing this short, beautiful volume.

N. Scott_Momaday, b. 1934

When N. Scott Momaday published this book, in 1969, he was fresh off the success of his novel, House Made of Dawn. I’ve not read that book, for which Momaday was awarded the Pulitzer Prize,  but it is credited with launching what is known as the Native American Renaissance.

I remember the period, though. At the tail end of the 1960s movements were everywhere.  In my juvenile mind their energies were all intertwined–Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, the National Council of La Raza, and the American Indian Movement among them.  Not too much earlier, there had been a week when eight of the top 10 network television shows were Westerns, a genre in which Indians were rarely the goods guys and most certainly were never called Native Americans.

So being the guy who kicked off a cultural movement is a big deal.

You wouldn’t know it from this book, though. The authorial presence here is liminal, a conscious choice I am sure. The words, the tales, the book even,  are merely a channel for the reader to sense what it means to be Kiowa.

The prairie at Wichita Hills NWR. Rainy Mountain lies just outside and is probably similar to the hill in the background.

Momaday himself is a member of the Kiowa nation, his father being full-blooded and his mother of Cherokee and mixed extraction. Momaday was born in Oklahoma, where this book is set, but grew up in Arizona where his father was a teacher on the reservation. As a result Momaday was immersed not just in the ways of the Kiowa but in a number of Southwestern tribal nations.

In a prologue, Momaday tells us he was drawn to this subject by the death of his grandmother.  Her passing, I suppose, made clear the limits of living connections to cultural history. But I also think that it probably brought with it the realization that the only thing permanent is loss.

It’s not polite to speak for other people, but I’ve no other explanation for the sense of loss which permeates these tales. And the book contains many tales. In fact, along with the prologue, an equally short epilogue is the only other thing recognizable as more or less standard prose. A PhD, Momaday surely knows how to do that, so again it’s a conscious choice.

Kiowa Sun Dance (maybe?)

What the book contains is a number of voices. Some are drawn from the existing first-hand recollections of writers who came with or on the heels of the Army. These are, more or less, intellectual contemporaries of  Francis Parkman and the voice is familair.

Then there are the tales that belong to the nation itself, none more important than those involving Tai-me, the talisman that lies at the center of the nation’s celebration of the Sun Dance.

We also read the tale of the Kiowa people’s emergence into the world and another that originated during the Kiowa’s long migration from Montana to Oklahoma. Once Devil’s Tower is explained to you this way you’ll never watch Close Encounters the same way again. The voice, though, carries the flat tones anthropologists use when retelling tales– a manner that doesn’t impose meaning from without.

Lastly, there are the deeply personal parts. The memories of grandparents and Momaday’s personal encounters with the landscape. The moments when he connects personal experience with the still-living experience of his tribesmen. The parallels between the loss that comes with natural death and the loss that results from having your cultural existence obliterated by men on horses with guns.

Devil’s Tower. I much prefer the Kiowa story of its origin to the hard science.

Momaday was around 35 when he published this book, which contains lovely illustrations by his father. For me that was a turning point. Youth was most surely gone and the dawning realization that time is not limitless began to itch. There are hints of that in this book.

Mostly, though, I think the book offers an opportunity. Slow down. Read a few pages at a time; there are few places in the book where the text spans more than a page or two. Think about that which persists and that which does not and accept them as you can.

In such a way, I think, we make our peace.

 

She’s Leaving Home

The Awakening
Kate Chopin

My ongoing dialog  with the Tao te Ching has convinced me of one thing: the universe sends us messages and we’d be foolish not to listen.

Consequently, when a hardcover edition of Kate Chopin‘s most celebrated work fell into my hands soon after I’d terminally misplaced my just-set-aside-for-a moment Continue reading

That Ain’t no Ghost

Reading in the Dark
Seamus Deane

Some years back I worked with a woman who hailed from Mississippi. A talented engineer who would tackle advanced math the way you might the dishes, she was also a walking encyclopedia of regional folkways. Among these was the delightful phrase, “Haints is real y’all.”

I’ve a lot of sympathy for that belief. Continue reading

The Milk and Honey Done Run Out

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell

Why, I wonder, in reading a book set in early 20th century London and Paris,  did I find my mind wandering ever closer to home and New York during the same era?

I’m always the first to point out that reading helps me connect things otherwise unconnected. So what I was Continue reading

Living Through Another Cuba

The Cuban Affair
Nelson DeMille

While I’m fighting the urge to begin with a lament, I might be better off with a trite observation: there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.

I may, in fact, have established that I should limit myself Continue reading

Nosey Pokes’ll Peek

Miss Julia Stirs up Trouble
Ann B. Ross

Here’s a recipe for a literary car wreck: a book rooted in a regional setting and culture; an author who holds a PhD in English; and a heroine who is among the most unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered.

At times like these I really wish I’d been born with the Continue reading