The Writing Girl

Once upon a time there was a little girl growing up in Blueberry Country where the swamps breathe, and the trees stand

Blueberry country

Blueberry Country

like soldiers, and everywhere there are jeweled lakes.  The land is so beautiful it forces her to learn language so she can speak of this beauty.   By seeing she becomes intimate with tiny, white spiders on a wild rose.  By hearing she learns to sing a song of wolves and birds.  By feeling she discovers the intricate design of a single snowflake on the back of her hand.  Finally, out of sheer frustration and unrequited love, she learns to write.

For one hundred years she writes, scribbling words on paper, filling page after page attempting to capture the beautiful gifts earth has given.

Later, she sees the Beautiful People of the land linked also in some mysterious ways to the trees, and lakes, and sky.  She watches them, seeing lines and colors form landscapes of emotion on their faces.  With pen and ink she paints them.  She writes of the sigh, the tender thigh, and the repose of sleep.   She writes also of hidden cruelties, sticky loyalties, and the power of a single tone of voice.   All is caught in her search for the right word, the turning phrase, the rhythm of language and souls.

When the girl comes of age, she tucks pen and paper into a pouch, asks her parents’ blessings, and leaves Blueberry Country to seek her fortune in the City of Writers.

For years she wanders, seeking her place among the unfamiliar tribes known as writers.  Many try to discourage her from this foolish path.  Only one in a thousand, they warn, find the hidden City of the Writers.  Others, False Prophets of the pen, read her babbling-brook stories and explain that she really must not let the brook flow so freely but contain, restrain the fluid thing and they torture her pretty prose until she no longer sees it as her own.  Some living on the shadowy edges outside the City of Writers ply snake oil, luring into the promise of fame and fortune–for a price.  It is a painful time for the girl and she relinquishes the scrawling pen, determined to turn away from this dangerous pursuit.

One day she enters the vast empty lands of the Great Plains.  The girl is profoundly confused by the lack of trees, the missing lakes on this dry, rolling lands and thinks perhaps she has found the moon.  Surely there can be no danger here of the land itself coaxing her to speak.

All is well until, alas, one day she drives into the Black Hills only to find the hills them selves begging for the use of her voice and pen.  She begs them to release her. “I simply can’t.  It breaks my heart.”

But the wise, ancient hills ask the fated question, “Can you not?”

And so she turns again to the empty page and submits.  She submits to the hills, and to the land, she submits to the blue ink pen, and the lure of her own soul, and she submits her pages to their fate.

After many years, she takes her simple stories to the Grand Council of Literary Writers, bows before them three times and asks their exalted opinion.  The weary Grand Masters hum and sigh, nod and smile, leaving the truth and its pursuit entirely up to her.  The girl gathers her stories and leaves, more unsure and discouraged than ever.

Along the weary road, the trees again stand like soldiers along her path.  They too hum and sigh in a language she cannot grasp and, once again, she submits, aware only that she knows not.

Returning home, the girl goes to the river where the current is strong and flowing, and the water crystal clean, and she strips naked, shedding all the garments and coverings of her body and soul.  She strips off all desire, disappointment, her greatest aspirations, and lays them beside the pile of garments and then, at last, she steps like a newborn into the river and dives, seeking now only the deepest part of the river.

First published in Byline Magazine

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Of Noble Bearing, a short story

Chick Cloud walked home from school Thursday with a deep scowl lengthening the natural lines of his face.  He kicked a crushed paper cup with the tip of his boot and watched it sail up, turn over, and land in the gutter on a muddy mess of leaves and trash.  It ain’t fair, he cursed silently.  It just goddamn ain’t fair.

Mrs. Salstead had pulled him up in front of the class (the second time this week) and made him stand there while she read his short story out loud to the class.  “Man, would I like to get her,” he muttered aloud this time, the rage rumbling through his body.  He could just see himself punching at her puffed up body or snatching the stiff glossy wig from her head and watching her hands fly to her flattened scalp.  He’d just stand there, arms folded, laughing.

But he had just stood there.  Silent.

Fresh shudders of anger and humiliation ran up his back and stiffened his neck.  Goddamn, it ain’t fair.  And all because of that stupid book.

Chick had never thought much about being Indian, at least not until just lately.  On his fourteenth birthday, just two weeks earlier, Uncle Red Cloud had come to see him and had given him that book.  Books were not his thing, but Red was his favorite uncle and something about the tall Indian youth on the cover of the paperback caught his eye and pulled him into the story hidden between those slick covers.

It was a short novel about a kid named Lance that belonged to the Sioux tribe (his tribe).  It took place on a South Dakota prairie two hundred years earlier, before there was a South Dakota.  Last Monday, Chick had parked himself in a chair in the corner of the living room and started reading.  He read slowly at first and kept reading until he forgot he was reading.  That had never happened before, like the pages smeared and blurred until he quit reading and actually became Lance, the kid in the story.  Strange.

When Lance moved through the underbrush, Chick could feel the branches scrape his cheek; when Lance rode his pony, Chick’s inner thighs felt warm and chaffed; when Lance ran, Chick felt soft-skinned moccasins cushioning his feet and his breath quickening.

Weird.  A weird, eerie feeling; a sense of sliding into another age, another time.  Hours later, Chick had risen from the chair amazed that he had read the entire book in one sitting.  A first for Chick.

When he put the book down, the drab reality of his own living room in the tumbled track house felt chilly and disappointing.  Dad had passed out on the couch from drinking again, Mom hovering protectively over the drunken man.  Again.  The sight stabbed, like the blade Lance used to skin the wolf he had hunted and killed.  It stabbed; sharp, pointed, pain.  Nothing’s fair, nothing.  Discontentment had grown like a pool of blood on the forest floor, soaking his thoughts and making him mad.

And then he had written the story, (that story) last night sitting alone at the kitchen table until midnight.  Wrestling with words, wrangling with his own poor vocabulary, determined to say it, to translate the sense he had while reading that book into today’s world.  A noble Sioux in a modern society?  He created a character and then gave him nobility, crowning the young man with his own hidden desires.  As he wrote, the tangled feelings and thoughts about his own life had tumbled out the end of the pen and landed in the story.  Chick went to bed feeling different somehow, settled and sure.

It wasn’t that he thought the story was so terrific or anything like that.  He knew his handwriting stunk, and his spelling and punctuation were lousy.  He knew that.  It was just that, well, it was just how he felt as he wrote it out, and then to have the class…and that bitch Mrs. Salstead…

“And Mr. Cloud, it should be–he moved with noble bearing, b-e-a-r-i-n-g, not baring, b-a-r-i-n-g.  To bare means to become naked.”  Chick had kept his head pulled down, his hair hiding his face as he stood there.  The class had dropped into the aisles with laughter at Salstead’s stuffy and humiliating tones and tight mouth as she ripped into his story.

“God.  I’d like to kill her.”  He cussed loudly now, his rage ribboned by the slicing hurt and shame of Salstead’s words.

As he entered the front yard of his parent’s house, the whole shabby mess dumped in on him; the muddy tire tracks cutting across the sunburned lawn, the house flaking and peeling, a pack of dogs sniffing and pissing along the foundation.

“Go On.  Get the hell outta here.”  He grabbed fists full of dirt and stones and ran at the dogs, hurling the stones hard.  He heard a high pitched yelp as a stone connected with the back end of a mangy shepherd.  Chick felt mean.  Mean like in hurting mean, or killing mean, or mean like getting drunk and fighting mean.  It was the kind of mean the wolf in the book must have felt when he knew Lance was hunting him, wanting to kill him, to destroy.  Chick’s own nostrils flared and he wanted to crouch, to slink silently, to feel his own throat vibrate in a deep growl.  It was a wild animal feeling.  It made every muscle in his body tighten in readiness, in preparation for the fight, for death, if necessary.   He wanted to bare his teeth and snarl.

Damn.  Bare.  That word again.  Baring.  He felt defeated.  Killed.  The howling laughter of the other students rang in his ears again.  There was no getting away from a mind or a memory.  No place to hide.

Noble bearing.  Chick saw in his mind Lance’s arrow-shaft, straight body, his long proud neck, the dark hair pulled back tight to reveal every inch of the rich dark tones of his skin.  A leather strap crossed his brow like a crown.

Chick thought again of the words he had written in his story.  Not thought like “oh yeah, sure” but really thought about noble bearing.  The words.  Noble bearing.  He gazed out across the back yard, the dogs gone now.  This time, he saw it as it must have looked two hundred years ago.

Lance looked across this same land, then untouched by human filth and small minds.  The earth still clinging to herself, and man still clinging to the naked earth.  A kingdom.  Chick felt the light breeze brush his brow as he pulled the hair from his face.  The early autumn sun still held it’s warmth. It felt good.  Clean.  Like it really was the same sun and the same breeze that Lance had felt, and that had warmed and cooled the prairie for so many years.

“It’s not fair.” Chick whispered.  This time, the words were sad, grieving; for the land, his parents, even for Mrs. Salstead who may never understand the way Chick felt at this moment.  He felt sad for all that was forgotten or misplaced, for what had been hunted and slain and a great sympathy sifted in pushing out the rage and the humiliation.

Chick bent down to pick up a discarded beer can.  He bent again to pick up a crumpled newspaper.  He bent from the waist again and again keeping his upper body straight as an arrow as if he were bowing to the land.  Bit by bit, he cleared the trash from the yard, his motions slow and rhythmic like an ancient tribal dance.  Each time he stood erect again, he tugged his hair away from his face so he could feel the breeze on his naked brow.  Noble bearing?  Noble baring?  Sometimes it seemed that nobility could only come from stripping away what didn’t belong, by clearing and making it naked again.  Perhaps the two words were not so different and things could be fair.  Chick didn’t know for sure.

First Published by Winds of Change Magazine, Fall-1990

Included in McGraw-Hill Ryerson anthology entitled Native Voices

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The Greater Soul of the Family, an article on Family Constellation Work

In the spring of 1999, my friend Peg invited me to a demonstration of something called “Family Constellation Work” being presented by a visiting German facilitator named Heinz Stark.  Initially, I was not interested.  Ten years earlier I’d had a spiritual experience that hit like a tornado and spun my world around, making me sharply aware that I knew nothing–about nothing.  As a result, I was no longer capable of working with people.  I spent the next decade writing fiction and documentary material for public radio.  My husband, Milt, and I had just finished producing a 52-part native music series and I was exhausted, content with my meditation practice, and frankly, not interested in one more new model of self-development.  Added into this mix, my mother had passed on just six weeks earlier and I was struggling with grief and an odd sense of liberation following her death. .

Still, Peg persisted, wanting someone to go along with her to this demonstration.  I finally agreed out of friendship.  So, one beautiful evening we drove out Nemo Road to a pretty ranch house to meet the German man.  The living room was filled with people, many I recognized as part of the ceaselessly-seeking Black Hills community.

Heinz began by introducing him self and the originator of this work, another German named Bert Hellinger.  He then began spoke of the knowing field of the constellation, the mysterious existence of hidden orders of love, and something he called the greater soul of the family.  Cryptic language, I thought.   The constellation, he said, is a tool for making these hidden orders within the family visible.  The process begins with a brief interview between the person who wants to do a constellation and the facilitator.  (The work is based on the facts of the family and the issue at hand.)  Next, the person chooses members from the group to stand in or represent certain family members.  Finally, the person “constellates” the representatives, or moves them into the circle in relationship to one another based on an intuitive or deeper sense of the family.

The process reminded me of a psychodrama or Virginia Satir’s family reconstruction.  I was familiar with both and jokingly whispered to Peg, “Watch, I always get picked to be the mother.”  Sure enough, the first participant to set up a constellation walked straight across the room and asked me to represent her mother.  Peg and I laughed and Heinz, in his stern German way, scolded us like naughty children.

However, when the woman put her hands on my shoulders and moved me into the circle, all my comparative thinking ended.   My body was suddenly awash with feelings, sensations, and desires that, quite simply, were not mine.  The strength of these other feelings surprised me, as if someone else had stepped into my body and was gently making use of my container.  When the constellation was over, the foreign feelings left and I was myself once again.  All that remained was a tender compassion for what that mother had suffered.

My intuitive antennae were wiggling now.  Heinz explained that we have an individual soul but are also intricately linked to the larger soul of our family.  These natural orders exist beyond what the mind determines is good or bad, right or wrong.   Like the stars in the heavens, our place in the family is fixed, held by some mysterious force of belonging.  However, when events occur such as an early death or difficult fate, the family system may go out of “order” and result in “entanglement”.  In simple terms, sometimes our actions are determined by this hidden flow within families.  Depression, sadness, sickness, suicide, and violence can be related to past events, to the burdens of others within the family.

I left the demonstration that night in a spin.  Could this energetic and intricate linking and loyalty through the generations be true?  We pride ourselves on our mighty independence and yet the constellation revealed hidden and powerful dependencies. I realized my life was about to take another abrupt turn.  I would have to learn this work.

On a personal level, Heinz showed me subtle ways I kept my children from fully accepting their father (we were divorced).  He said forcing a child to choose between parents splits his or her soul.  I wanted to resist his observation and defend my actions, but I saw that he was right.  I began to adjust my bad attitude.  A week later I was out of town and got an email from my then fifteen-year-old son.  He asked, “Would it be okay with you if I worked construction with Dad this summer?”   Suddenly, I heard the unspoken question in his request.  Is it okay with you if I love my father too? I saw the bound up energy of a soul split between his loyalty to both parents.  I remembered Heinz saying, “Honor the presence of the father in the son if you want your son to do well”.  I sent an email off immediately and said yes, what a good thing it would be to work for his father.

Following the demonstration, Milt, my husband, went to the constellation workshop.  Milt was adopted, had three adopted children, and had a child adopted away from him—a veritable maze of adoption issues.  When he came home from the workshop, he went online and found his missing daughter.   Today he has a warm relationship with Susan and her three children, his grandchildren.   Later, he used the constellation to find his place in his own missing family.

When Heinz returned that fall, I asked him to teach me.  For the next year I immersed myself in the study of the deeper orders within families.  Now, five years later, what I see is still stunning, and sometimes shocking.  When we are entangled, it’s as if our life energy is being siphoned off, our spirits called away in deeper service to the family.  We may carry a burden of guilt or sadness for another–even when it is not our place to do so.  As a result, we cannot gain or maintain our strength.

Divorce, the early death of a parent, miscarriage, tragic accidents or illness, war, and immigration are just some of the happenings within families that can affect the generations to follow.  Because we cannot see these hidden entanglements, counseling and coaching often fail to make a significant change.  In the constellation, we are given access to the mysteries, to the place where love resides . . . and entanglement begins.

In the end, it is not the constellation itself that has strengthened my life and the lives of many friends and clients, but a deep shift in how we see the world.  We now see that below the visible life, there truly exists a web of love and connection linking us to our ancestral line and the strength that resides there.  When we plant two feet in this energy, we are instantly stronger, more resilient, more able to do our part to bring about the great shift the world so needs right now.   It is toward this shift I now work.

First published in 2006

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