Ruminations on coyotes, angels and balance...
(email to a distant friend)

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Tuesday, July 13, 1999

It was my grandmother Rosebud, or Granny, as I used to call her, who I think was my best friend ever. Granny was the one who told me she'd never tell a child or grandchild of hers that they couldn't come home after my mom told me, her only child, that she'd be too embarrassed for the neighbors to see me with dreadlocks. Until I cut them my mom banned me from going home. I still remember her saying "...not only can you not come to 708 Calloway Drive, you can't even come to Raleigh." That was November 1989.

Since my grandmother died in 1992, I've always felt she was my guardian angel. When I cycled across Africa in 1992 - 1993, I included one of her quotes in my journal for inspiration ("...I may give out, but I won't give up"), and thought of her frequently during the trip. She'd died half a year before the trip started. Though my mom has sold my grandmother's house, I drive past it each time I come to Raleigh. Even if I don't visit Granny's grave, I'll drive by her house. It still looks the same. My eyes usually swell with tears upon seeing it as I have many, many fond memories of being there with her, like her letting me use metal roller skates in her living room on the carpet, or us sleeping together and her giving me a hard time for taking all the "kiver" as she used to call the bed cover.

While driving into Flagstaff Sunday night just after I was coming up the pass north of town, a coyote crossed my path. I narrowly avoided hitting it. Without thinking, I stopped the car, pulled out my jish (traditional Navajo medicine pouch) and did a corn pollen prayer to the four sacred directions, as Vivian, mother of my child, had once taught me to do. Years ago when I first saw her do it, I chided her for her simplistic belief in the superstition that coyotes are a bad omen. Then I was a man of science. Now, regardless of whether I believe coyotes are a bad omen, they remind me of "disharmony and the need to pray." So, that was what I did. (Actually, Vivian says that traditional Navajo believe coyotes are a bad omen when they cross your path if they are traveling from south to north. The one that crossed my path went from east to west so I was probably okay.)

I stopped the car just beyond the crest of the road near Schultz Creek Pass and prayed. I prayed for the usual stuff, patience, peace, understanding, the universal dispersal of love, etc. As I dispersed corn pollen acknowledging Father Sky, Mother Earth and the creator, I remembered years before standing on roof tops in Tunisia, hearing the Muslim call to prayer or standing alone under a canopy of stars in the Sahara and the corn pollen prayers I did in Africa. I prayed at lot during that bike trip in 1992 -'93, especially during the first several months feeling somewhat lost and alone. Having just left the Western Navajo Juvenile Detention Center, prayer felt good at that moment outside my vehicle on the outskirts of Flagstaff. It'd just rained. The earth smelled fresh and alive. The clouds had cleared and the stars shone like a bright light piercing pinholes in Batman's cape. For the moment, I knew bliss.

This had been my first visit to the Western Navajo Juvenile Detention Center. I stopped there before proceeding onto Flagstaff because of a disorienting incident that happened the day before while on call in Kayenta. A Navajo Tribal Police officer brought in a 9 year old boy for medical clearance in order to be taken to the detention center in Tuba City. He'd been caught shoplifting. I went through his chart and found that at age 7 he'd been admitted to Tuba City Hospital for a neurological condition that almost killed him. In fact, after several days in Tuba City, he was transferred 200 miles away to a hospital in Phoenix. His condition was so serious that he could neither breathe or swallow on his own. While at Tuba City, the pediatricians learned that this kid came from an alcoholic family in Kayenta. Even though this patient had been hospitalized before Thanksgiving and his stay extended beyond Christmas, his family rarely came to visit their 7 year old son during his 3 month stay in Tuba City or the hospital in Phoenix.

With this knowledge I walked over to the kid and asked him how he was doing and whether he was scared. He responded yes. We talked for a bit before I examined him. His name was John. He said older boys had told him they would beat him up if he didn't go into a Circle K and steal some hair gel for them. He got busted in the attempt. Upon realizing John had gotten caught, the older kids bolted and left him alone. I completed the exam and released John to the officer accompanying him. I was told John would be detained over the weekend and would be visited by Social Services the following Monday to see about getting placed in a foster home, again.

On the way into Flagstaff I stopped in Tuba City to check on John. It was about 9 P.M. He was the youngest kid in the place. A relatively new facility, the Western Navajo Juvenile Detention Center is a very sterile, concrete building where your voice echoes off the wall when you talk in the "Interview Room." It fosters a feeling of loneliness. While all the other kids were wearing their regulation orange surgical scrub detention outfits, John was wearing the same jeans and tee shirt he'd had on the night before. He feet were still bare.

No one from his family had come to check on him. He'd spent the day indoors sleeping he said. When I asked whether he was hungry he said yes, as his supper had consisted of beans. He and the other kids thought were stale so they didn't eat.

Feeling an urge to proceed on to Flagstaff, but not wanting to totally abandon him, I called the pediatrician on call at the Tuba City Indian Medical Center since they'd be really involved with his care 2 years before. At that time they were concerned enough about John and the length of his hospitalization that they found out what his homework was in school so he wouldn't be too far behind upon discharge.

The pediatrician on call said they'd check up on him the following day. Secure in the knowledge that someone would check on him I proceeded on my way. While standing in the San Francisco Peaks, remembering Africa and thinking of my guardian angel, I prayed for John also.

Wednesday, July 14, 1999

Ah, North Carolina, a land of contrasts. Home to Jesse Helms, Jim and Tammy Baker, John Coltrane and Paul Robeson. One man's heaven is another man's hell.

A nice thing about being in Raleigh is there are several traditionally black colleges which have real community radio stations. Many of these stations (like WSHA at Shaw University and the station at North Carolina Central University), feature jazz. For me, this is a treat. Not the Kenny G, Najee panacea for the masses muzak jazz, but the joyous sound of cacophonous, "not afraid of the unknown" kind of jazz. Jazz that is the uninhibited expression of a soul on fire, like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy speaking in tongues on their saxophones, signifying to the presence of the spirit within. Nurturing a passion for the latter, it pleases me to hear such music on the radio given that there are no such radio options in northern Arizona.

This morning I heard a familiar voice on WSHA. I'd heard this particular dj on previous visits home and remembered her soothing voice delivering an unrepentantly positive, uplifting messages between songs. It used to be that I listened to reggae for it's positive message. But, it=s hard to find that much anymore in reggae it seems. Now, I'm finding some of that same inspiration and ebullience in jazz. (Examples of this include music by John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Lonnie Liston Smith, Pharoah Sanders, Mbeki Msuleku, Charlie Haden, Max Roach amongst others. Unfortunately, much of this music comes from the 60's and 70's, but not all of it.)

"...This is your day Raleigh. Wake up to the love that surrounds us in the universe," or something like that said the dj from nirvana. She seemed to sense that her message was the soul food needed by a listening body that was being insidiously devoured by the negativity of day to day stresses. When I heard her message, I was moved to the point of calling. "Thank you, sister. Thank you for bombarding the airways with positive vibes," was my message to her.

Positive vibes. Shortly afterwards my call to the station I then left home to run some errands. As I drove, the dj from nirvana was playing one of my favorite songs by Branford Marsalis' side project, "Buckshot LeFonque." The song is "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Branford mixes a reading by Maya Angelou with a funked up melody by Fela.

"The caged birds sings with a fearful trill of things unknown, but longed for still. His tune is heard on the distant hill. For the caged bird sings of freedom."

It's a brilliant song and I dance whenever I hear it. As it continued to play, I parked and went into the mall to shop. Actually, I was going to the Body Shop to get some hemp products, lotion and shampoo. Impressed by the b/w images/ads of black people in the Body Shop and with the Body Shop selling hemp products, I asked the young white woman cashier where the Body Shop was based. Given it's progressive ads and products, I assumed it was a California company. She responded that the national headquarters are in Wake Forest, NC. I said "No way!!") "Way," she replied. I still think she misunderstood my question and told me of the state headquarters for the company.

Catching as many end of summer sales as I could, I shopped a bit more and started to head towards the food court when I climbed a flight of stairs that emerged near the doors where I'd entered the mall. I looked out and noticed a car much like my mom's parked at an odd angle not too far from the mall doors and thought perhaps someone chose to park so close to the mall doors so they could load large items into their vehicle. But the longer I looked, the more it occurred to me that that a car like my mom's. It was hers! A lump appeared in my throat. Gripped by fear and hoping someone had hit the car and that was what caused it to roll to within a short distance of the mall doors, I proceeded outside to join a well dressed white man who was walking slowly around the car. I asked "...do you know what happened?" He looked at me and asked "This yours?" "Yup" I sheepishly replied. "You lucky," he said. "Looks like you didn't get any damage to the car. It coulda gone through them doors too."

So check this out, not only did the car NOT go smashing through the mall doors, NOT hit anyone or another car, not roll off the top level of the mall parking deck to the level below, it had no damage to it after rolling about 40 yards down a slight incline before coming to rest obtusely angled against a cement retaining well. I got into the vehicle from the passenger side since the driver's door was too close to the wall. The vehicle started and I drove away without looking back. The man walked away shaking his head. I wanted to stop to confirm that there was no damage to the car, but I just couldn't. I just drove and drove. Tears welled up in my eyes and I thought of angels, coyotes and prayer. And how that well dressed white man kept saying "...you lucky."

Chip Thomas
July 14, 1999