Monday May 9 Joy Harjo’s birthday,
Every year on May 9, I remember how we met in 1968, both of us a lot younger then, not knowing then that a long friendship was beginning. For one semester this young teacher and this watchful teenager worked together. The amazing Director of The Institute of American Indian Arts, Lloyd Kiva New, had asked me to tutor Joy, a promising young woman who wasn’t helped much by the standard IAIA English classes. During those days, hindsight says we worked to find pathways to where her voice lived. We lived moments of wonder. Then the term ended, we said goodbye as teachers and students do, and disappeared from each other for twenty years. But did not forget, it turns out. When we met again in 1987, we found that our memories were alive and waiting for us.
Readers of this list probably already know which of Joy Harjo’s poems I would choose for her birthday. I’ve posted “Grace” several times and never grow tired of reading it. During Holy Week, 2014, reading “Grace” brought me back to one of my earliest teaching moments five years before Joy and I met in Santa Fe.
Best to read “Grace” out loud, with pauses.
Have a blest week,
john st sj
April 14, 2014 “The Servant Song” (Isaiah 42: 1-4)
“Here is my servant whom I uphold
my chosen one with whom I am pleased
A bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench
until he establishes justice on the earth.”
I began learning to teach, a 24 year old kid, at Holy Rosary Mission on Pine Ridge in South Dakota. My life daunted me pretty much every day. So much I didn’t know about teaching, or about Lakota culture, or about the violence of Western culture as it dismembered Lakota culture over a century and a half. One of my jobs in that 7-day-week boarding school was to take care of the K-8 boys from their various bed times until they left the dormitory for school the next morning, c. 110 boys ages 5 to 14 in double and triple deck bunk beds. I took the K-4th graders up an hour before the older boys, got them ready for bed, tended scrapes they had acquired through the day, and told them a story once they were in bed. As they fell asleep, I walked among the bunk beds. I understood that some of these beautiful children would not make it into a durable adulthood; and some would, no knowing which. It broke my heart to see them sleeping in a safe place within an unsafe world. During those nights these 2 lines from Isaiah befriended me.
“A bruised reed he shall not break,
a smoldering wick he shall not quench.”
I began to imagine that The Servant of God about whom Isaiah spoke would not be frightened off by violence in the world. It’s one reason why I love Joy Harjo’s poem about the coming of spring after a terrible winter in a racist prairie town. I repeat it today because “Grace” reminds me of “The Servant Song.”
Today’s Post – “Grace”
I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway
in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk about that winter, how the cold froze
imaginary buffalo on the stuffed horizon of snowbanks.
The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences, crashed our thermostat
dreams, and we couldn’t stand it one more time.
So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked through cheap apartment
walls, skated through fields of ghosts into a town that never wanted us,
in the epic search for grace.
Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and clowned our way through a
season of false midnights.
We had to swallow that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey.
And one morning as the sun struggled to break ice, and our dreams had found us with
coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway 80, we found grace.
I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from
memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance.
We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the
hope of children and corn.
I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw.
We didn’t; the next season was worse.
You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south.
And, Wind, I am still crazy.
I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.