This is the sixth guest post in my series on the Navajo Beauty Way here on Smoky Talks …. I asked a handful of my friends, each an artist in their own way, to read the Navajo poem, The Beauty Way, and talk about how it applies to their work and their lives. (The series begins, and you can read the poem, here.) Here is what author Patricia Snodgrass had to say.
I was concerned about the monarchs. Two years ago we experienced one of the worst droughts since the Great Depression, and by late August, the forests of North East Texas were drying up. The fires, large and frightening, gobbled up farmhouses and ranches at a terrifying rate. Frightened town folk worried about having to abandon their small outlying towns and flee west, toward Dallas.
Crops failed. The burned out fields of corn stalks jutted like blackened hands rising from the dust. Farmers who could not sell their cattle, nor were able to feed them, were herded down to the Sulfur River basin to feed, in vain hopes that in fall, if the monsoons arrived, ranch hands could drive the cattle back into their pastures. They could sort out the brands later.
A friend of mine from the Audubon Society asked me to make a count of the number of monarchs I saw each day. She, too, was deeply concerned and was afraid that the butterflies had either died out or had diverted their migration path to avoid the heat and aridness. By this time of year, the skies should be filled with butterflies. The day before, I counted eight. On this day, I counted two.
It was too hot to meditate in my shrine room, so I took my scrungy old yoga mat outside and sat down in front of my scorched cannas. If there was one saving grace to the drought, it was that the heat was too much for even the fire ants. I sat in Tara pose, closed my eyes, and drank in the evening air that smelled of scorched pine and hardwoods.
I stilled my mind, using the techniques taught to me by my lama to achieve spontaneous awareness. My mind wouldn’t keep still. It was restless, like the ocean, ebbing and flowing. I didn’t fight the current of my mind, but let myself go along with it. And when I did, I found myself once again at the age of five, wandering across a pasture that my mother had earlier forbidden me to travel. But the blue and black butterfly that floated by me had invited me to play, and that offer was much too tempting to resist.
It wasn’t long until the forest gave way to the most beautiful glade I had ever seen. The light shone golden down upon the green grass, and as I sat and watched the memory play over again in my mind, I recalled how still and utterly sacred this place was. And as if to prove it, a cloud of butterflies rose from the thick grasses and small yellow flowers. They swirled around me, flying higher and higher, and then, in a great rush, they were gone.
The feelings rushed back, and I savored them, and then made an offering of them to the Buddha of Compassion. I released the sensation of sacredness, sadness and joy. Then, I watched as my child-self tried to make her way back home.
What was I? Who was I? Was I Cherokee or was I white? The concept stumped me for many years, and although I tried to walk both paths, everything seemed to tangle up inside me.
You’re white. You’re red. You’re white. You’re red. It was a puzzle that needed a solution, yet there was none.
The Tibetan lamas say that we’ve taken rebirth so many times that at one point everyone had a turn at being our mother. I realized then that the conundrum of my ethnicity did not need a solution. It simply is. I had taken birth so many times, had been so many different people, and things … I might have been black in my last life. I might be Asian in the next. So what then, did it matter, if I was of mixed race in this life? The monarch doesn’t concern herself as to whether she is black or orange. She just is.
My five-year-old self was found sleeping underneath a pile of hunting dogs. I opened eyes and looked up at my father, and what appeared to be half of the Cherokee nation staring down at me. Their flashlights were bright, the woods, spooky dark, their faces a mixture of relief and concern.
My father bent down to pick me up and I scrambled up into his arms. I wailed as if the world had just ended and my father, my Edoda, my hero, was the only one who could bring it back.
“What were you doing out here in the woods?” he asked.
“Butterflies.” I sobbed.
The men laughed.
From that day until we moved to Dallas three years later, I was known as Kamama. The Cherokee word for butterfly.
Something tickled my nose. Heat prickled on my brow. Sweat drizzled down my neck and pooled between my breasts. My practice was over, but I wasn’t ready to let go, not just yet. There was a message in the memory for me. Something Kamama left behind long ago. Something that had just now come to the surface.
When the realization came, it was as sweet as the memory of my father carrying me home. Kamama knew where it was going all those years ago. Kamama was not lost then, nor were they lost on that day. They simply found a different path, a new way of going back to Mexico. They were following the Sulfur River, resting on the foliage along the tributaries, safe in their knowledge of home.
My nose tickled again. I opened my eyes. A monarch clung to the very tip of my nose. Her delicate wings gently opened and closed. Her large compound eyes regarded me closely. I held my breath, feeling in awe, feeling blessed by my namesake. Kamama had come to reassure me.
In one deep sweep of her wings, she took off, fluttering away into the deepening purple sky. Low clouds scuttled on the horizon. Impotent lightning flashed, and the cool breeze that promised an early autumn blew through me.
“Do na do go huh,” I whispered to my departing friend. “We will meet again.”
Patricia Snodgrass is a freelance writer who resides in the wilds of East Texas. She is married and has one son. Her latest novel, A Private Little War, is currently available at www.mundania.com.