Thursday, March 25, 2010

Finding the words

So, the plan to blog from South Dakota? That didn't work out. And when I got back I was immediately overwhelmed with piles of work. (I'm still behind, almost two weeks later!)

And then there's the issue that came up in tonight's Celebration of Spring Break event, where the teams that did service work in various places all get together with some other folks and present some thoughts on the week (in addition to a fun slide show): there's just no way to put it all in words.

As Kelly said tonight, when you come back from a week like that and people ask, "How was it?" and you know they want the 30-second version, it's impossible to express how it was. Even the five-minute version isn't adequate; I'm not even sure the one-hour version would do it. It's hard to find the words to explain how one week on the rez can make you feel like everything's different. How the heck did that happen?

But last week the folks at the chaplain's office who put together these projects asked me to speak tonight, so I started thinking just how I would write about it, what I would say to try to give a feeling of what it was like and what we came back with. Here are my remarks from tonight, which almost kindasorta came out in a near-poem (once you get past the introduction part). (At first I added photo captions, but then I took them out because they seemed disruptive. And at some point I'd like to add in some photos that others took...)

Thanks to Donna and Russell Masartis (the amazing folks who run Tree of Life) and my teammates, who are the inspiration for this: Maria Fullenkamp, Stephanie Heiser, Chris Mickens, Liz Spragens, Matt Hill, Sam Chonko, Linh Nguyen, Becca Salinas, Briana Gunter, Abby Dockter, and Kristen Scott. They are all AWESOME, and I feel privileged to know them.

Hope you enjoy it,

Mitakuyepi, Karen Poremski emaciyape ksto, nahan eyuha cante wasteya nape ciyuzape.

My relatives, my name is Karen Poremski and I come to you with a warm handshake and good feelings in my heart.

I am one of the co-advisors of the Lakota Nation trip; we worked for Tree of Life, an agency that provides home rehabilitation, a thrift store, a soup kitchen, nursing home visits, school visits, and various other forms of support to the people of the Sicangu Lakota nation (known by the federal government as the Rosebud Sioux tribe). We worked for Tree of Life during the day, and in the evening were visited and taught by various elders and leaders on the rez: Dolores Kills in Water, Albert White Hat, Butch Artichoker, Steve Tamayo, and Mike Marshall (and, sort of accidentally along the way by Shane and Noella Red Hawk).

I’m going to try to tell you what our experience was like…

Mitakuye oyas’in!

That means “all my relations,” or “all my relatives.” And on our trip to be with the Sicangu Lakota, through what we did and what we witnessed, we learned just what that can mean.

-- Before we even got to South Dakota, we learned that it means someone will come help you when it’s dark and cold and BOTH vans are stuck by a lake in Wisconsin. And these someones, these strangers who are your relatives, will be intrepid, brave, and actually cheerful!

-- We learned that the staff at Tree of Life—people who practice Christianity and people who practice traditional native ceremonies—can work together to make something good on the rez.

-- We learned that it means when you go to work on a house and the family has nothing—and I mean nothing: mud for a front yard, with four dogs and a cat wandering around; a two-bedroom house for your extended family, and part of that house is condemned because of the snakes; grime covering your food containers; and no sheets on the bed—when you go to work in this family’s house, they will offer you a Sprite. Even though they have nothing.

-- We learned that it means when you have nothing to give, you can give a smile, or make someone laugh.

-- We learned it means that the elderly man you just met today in the nursing home will want you to write to him; and the elderly woman who plays a mean game of bowling is going to ask you at least three more times this afternoon, “Are you coming back tomorrow?”; and the elderly woman whose father-in-law was Black Elk tells you a bizarre story about a skunk and you both laugh so hard you’re crying; and the young woman there who was paralyzed in a car accident ten years ago, a descendant of Red Cloud, will want you to call her.

-- We learned that it means that everyone is a relative, even the person at the Indian School who discourages you, who tells you that what you’re doing here is meaningless, won’t change anything, won’t help anyone; even that relative will teach you, in her frustration and heart-brokenness, what it means to face inconceivable obstacles.

-- We learned that it means visiting your relatives the prairie dogs, and trying to call your relatives the buffalo, and maybe sneaking a little lunchmeat to the cats hanging around the back door, who are also your relatives.

-- We learned that it means carrying sheetrock and carrying doors and carrying lumber and sorting screwdrivers and drills and tape measures and gloves and figuring out how to build a cabinet.

-- We learned that it means going back and working on the tile again, even after you’ve discovered you hate working on tile.

-- We learned that it means sharing your frybread. Even when you don’t really want to.

-- We learned that it means when you make a mistake you’re forgiven.

-- We learned that it means responding to three suicide attempts in one day, and praying to say the right words that will give all three of those young people hope.

-- We learned that it means mentoring two middle-school boys—showing them how to make dream catchers and regalia and how to play hand games—and knowing that, even if their parents don’t seem to take notice (because they’ve never bothered to meet you), and even if it’s just two boys and so many more are going to be lost to drugs and alcohol and hopelessness and maybe suicide, still, you’re doing a good thing because you’re their relative.

What we learned seemed sometimes a bit mundane, or small, or maybe unimportant or unnoticeable. But I’m here to tell you that it has the potential to change. Because it can change your heart. And that’s the only way to change the world, isn’t it? Isn’t that the place we need to begin?

Mitakuye oyas’in!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Doing things I'm afraid to do...

My very wise friend Nina gave me some advice, through an inspirational quote, recently. It says, "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face... Do the thing you think you cannot do." (Eleanor Roosevelt said that.)

Well, I am taking that advice to heart, and here I go doing SEVERAL things I previously thought I could not do, and that I'm in fact afraid to do... we'll see how it goes!

First of all, we are having people over to dinner tonight--including us, there will be 20 for dinner. !!!!! I cannot even tell you how much of a panic this would have had me in a couple years ago. Where will we put all those people? Do we have enough bowls, spoons, etc. for everyone to be able to eat? Here's how I'm talking myself out of panic: It will be fun. It will be like an indoor picnic. We will mingle in smaller groups and move between rooms and people will talk and laugh and it'll all be okay. They will not think I'm Martha Stewart, but really, I don't want to be Martha.

The folks coming to dinner are the students I'm going to be traveling with for the next week, my co-advisor, and the co-advisor's family. Which brings me to the next thing I'm doing, and it's pretty scary.

I'm going to the Rosebud Reservation with this group, and we'll be there to do service work in the daytime (doing home rehab, serving in a soup kitchen, helping at the thrift store) and then in the evenings we'll learn about Lakota culture from elders in the tribe. It's a fantastic experience. I've done it before (with two previous groups), and this is the place I stayed at for a month last year on sabbatical (the originating inspiration for the blog!). So there's a lot here that's familiar. And in fact, in some ways I feel like I'm going home. (A part of me comes alive west of the Missouri River, doncha know.)

The trip is a challenge in part because it forces me to confront strong feelings while I am with students. There's a pretty good chance I will need to cry at some point, and there will be a group of ten students witnessing that. In years past, this would have immobilized me with fear. Now, I figure they'll see I'm a human being having an appropriate reaction to the conditions we will be witnessing, both difficult and beautiful. I no longer have to be the one who's in control in front of students all the time. If for no other reason, this trip is valuable for that piece of growth!

So here's what's new: I have been making lists, packing, and running errands for several days now, and ordinarily I would be beside myself with the idea that I might forget something. I would be checking and double-checking and making calls and running more errands, stuffing things into my bags "just in case"...

But not this time. This time, I'm going to do my best to remember to take what I need, and NOT get upset if I forget something. I will learn to live without it for a week. I'm trying to "go with the flow" a bit more, trying to be a little more relaxed about some of the eight thousand details in a trip like this. The important stuff? Okay, that's worth making sure I've got...

Money, checks to pay for things, and insurance forms? Check.

Clothes to work in? Check.

Tobacco for the elders? Check. (It's for ceremonial use!)

Donations of coats, boots, and various wintery things for the kids on the rez? Check. (I have the most kind-hearted friends a person could know!)

Tobacco ties that the group made to take with us & help us pray? Check!

I'm also taking a little bit of school work, some sweat lodge clothes (I hope I hope I hope I get to do the sweat lodge this year), my laptop (hoping to blog while there), and other stuff.

We've even got a bag for each of the vans--stuff we might need on the road.

But whatever's not packed later tonight will stay home, and I will not be upset about it. Dinner will be chaotic and wacky, and I will be happy. Woohoo!

May you do something brave today!

Monday, March 1, 2010

My trusty steed

Recently I noted on Facebook (my new obsession) that I had just filled up my car's gas tank for only the 2nd time this year. I was quite proud that I'm trying to contribute as little as possible to the profit of the oil companies. Of course, unlike most people in this country, I have the option of NOT driving to work, so that makes it lots easier for me. (Perhaps I shouldn't be too proud!)

I have a funny relationship with my car. Even though I like not having to use it much, I also love being able to use it when I need to. From the time I was a teenager, feeling absolutely STUCK in the suburbs, at various points in my life a car has meant freedom to me. So in that way I'm pretty typically American. But I also have found it really difficult to spend real money on a car.

My first car was a used 1982 Ford Escort, which I nicknamed my little burro. When I lived in the city (D.C.), I left it at home and used Metro to get to work, but it got me to my horseback riding lessons quite nicely. It got me and my brother all the way across the country in the summer of 1990 without much trouble (a broken hose somewhere along the way, but that was it). After living in San Francisco for about a year and finding that--thanks to excellent public transportation--the only time I drove it was to move it for street cleaning, I decided to sell it. It scared me at first to be without a car, but I realized that if I really needed one, I could rent one. It ended up being a good decision.

Fast forward a few years to Atlanta, a city in which you definitely need a car. We had one, but after Dexter came along and Patrick had a full-time Monday through Friday job, we needed a second car. I looked into taking Dexter to daycare on the bus and then going from there to school, but it turned out that the 3-mile trip, with transfers, would take about an hour and a half. Crazy, right? So we bought a 1991 Honda that a friend of a friend was selling.

And that's the car I'm still driving! Here it is:

Every year, I think maybe I'll get one more year out of this car before it's time to donate it... I used to think about selling it to a student, but they drive MUCH nicer (and newer) cars than this one! Its various plastic parts are starting to break (the most recent was a door lock); it's got a mysterious problem with the dashboard fuses that will take too much money to investigate and fix. And I'm afraid the rusty bits are growing (as you can see in the photo). It's practically a rezmobile. But it's a likely little machine, it gets me where I'm going, and it's a Honda, so it's hearty.

Some days, I'm a little bit like Philbert when he decides to buy a "pony" from the junk yard... (Go here and have a look-see. :) ) My car's dings and booboos endear it to me, somehow. Maybe it's a metaphor for how I'm trying to appreciate my own aging self...

May you enjoy some mobility today!