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
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
"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
July 14, 1999