Friday, September 28, 2012

Of Music and Memories

A few years ago I went into a self imposed exile to the worst place a kid from Oklahoma could go. To this day I'm not really sure why I went to Texas. There is a large part of me that feels it was necessary, yet the part of me that keeps telling me it was one of the worst mistakes I've ever made in my life is the one that seems to resonate the loudest in my heart. There was a bit of romanticism and familiarity involved. My grandfather's grave was a 15 minute drive from where I lived for the first 6 months of my stay, and it was in a place I was very familiar with considering I spent a lot of time with him in his final two years on this earth. But in the end, the main reason I went into exile was to attempt to figure out what it is I am supposed to do with this life I've been forced into.

Up until this point I had been working in a field that requires one to spend more time on the road than Bruce Springsteen. Anything that makes you live like a rock star makes you party like a rock star. And therein hides the danger. It only happened once in my time on the road, but I was in a town where a man that shared my profession died in a hotel room. I overheard his "friends" scheming to get out of town before too many questions got asked and before the body was cold. It took me a month or two after this incident to figure I should really take a look at the life I was facing. In fairness, there are a lot of people in this profession that are not going to meet the same fate that young man did. But still the possibility made me rethink what it was I was going to do with my life, and a few months later I was living in Waxahachie, Texas. I had traded hotel rooms by the week for a rent house by the half-year.
I had hoped that by removing myself from the things that had become too familiar in my life, I would have some clarity and focus enter my field of view. This was easier wished than done. I found myself struggling with the responsibilities of the settled life and trying to shake off the carefree lifestyle the road had drawn me into.

My small house in Waxahachie was about a block from the railroad that ran along the south side of town. At night I would sit outside with a bottle of Buffalo Trace whiskey and a few beers for chasers. I would turn out all the lights to my one bedroom house, sit on the porch, and embrace the sky. To me that was the one thing in Texas that made me feel comfort. I could see the same stars and constellations that I saw as a child growing up in small towns in Oklahoma. 

In those days I was pretty low. I made it to work, though most days I didn't feel like walking out the door. There were two albums out that I would listen to every night. From the time I got home to the time I passed out on the couch, bed, or floor I would listen to these same two albums. I purchased both of them at Hasting's in Waxahachie.

The most important one that helped me bleed through those strange nights was Bob Dylan's "Modern Times." As I type these words I am listening to "Workingman's Blues #2" and I still recall the hopeless feeling of loss that haunted me. "I'm listening to the steel rails hum." A line that takes me right back to hearing that train roll down the track. It felt like my short life was flying by, just like that train, going somewhere that I knew not. "Meet me at the bottom / don't lag behind / bring me my boots and shoes / You can hang back or fight your best on the front line / sing a little bit of these working man blues." Dylan's words helped me to work my way back to those front lines. "Nettie Moore" also holds a meaning to me. I won't go into it here, but if you listen to it you can figure out why.

The other album that pulled me through, and one that I played before I sat down to stare at this once blank screen, was Lucinda Williams' "Live at the Fillmore."

Those were strange times. Long nights of self reflection and self destruction and hoping that was was built in its place was an improvement. Asking myself those unanswerable questions. And tonight, I felt like revisiting that time to see how far I've come from that point in my life and how far I have yet to go.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Highways Flew By...

I just returned home from a long weekend in the Colorado Rockies in a place called Union Park.

The feeling that several hundred miles and an extra 9,000+ feet of elevation can instill is something that is hard to describe to people who've never experienced the mountains. It's one thing to see pictures or videos. It's another to drive through the mountains. It's something spiritual to pitch a tent in a place that is void of any artificial light (not a radio/cell tower or house in sight), highway sounds, or generators from some Texan's 28' Fleetwood Mallard (IF YOU WANT TO SLEEP IN A BED AND WATCH TV GET A HOTEL ROOM LIKE A NORMAL PERSON!).

The picture below was taken as we first entered Union Park. It's about 9 miles from the main road to our camp and the terrain makes the drive last about an hour.

Union Park is the kind of place that allows a person to shed the weight of paying bills and looking for the cheapest gas in town, if only for a little while. The next picture was taken looking to the east northeast from the edge of our camp. The field in the foreground is carved up by small streams and beaver ponds. There is far more water here than the picture shows and contains the best trout fishing I've ever experienced. You don't catch a lot of large fish, but you catch a lot of fish.

A few of us decided to take a hike to a lake about 2 miles away and a thousand feet above out camp. None of us had been there before so it took a bit of navigating to get there. About a mile and a half from camp we stumbled upon the remnants of an old log cabin near a small stream. 
The lake sits at a little over 11,000 feet above sea level. There were a couple of campsites that showed sign of recent use. A raft sat on the dirt under a foot of water. Until I saw this lake, it was hard for me to imagine a place more secluded than our campsite. The next time I come to Union Park I plan on camping here at least for a night (even though the night before we broke camp a myself and a couple others heard a Mountain Lion screaming nearby).
So, here I am. A short week of classes ahead of me and I'm trying to figure out what the Clint Eastwood speech was about (this took place on the way to the woods and I have yet to view the video), and looking forward to football season. Every team could stink and the season would still be more entertaining than the coming's late...I'll save that noise for next time.   

Friday, July 13, 2012

"You who wish to conquer pain...

you must learn, learn to serve me well." Leonard Cohen sang that. A man named Samuel Johnson once said, "He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man." What Johnson forgot to mention to those of us who choose to become Beasts to deal with our pain is the fact that it is only a temporary fix. The more one relies on transforming themselves into a Beast to alleviate the Pain, the man becomes more Beast and less Man.

I have to wonder if Johnson was advocating this method of Pain management, or merely making an observation? No matter, there is something at the Dark Heart of his statement that each person should examine when attempting to conquer pain: Is it really necessary to rid myself "of the pain of being a man?"

Pain is something that every human being encounters at some point in life. It may be a spiritual pain, a physical pain, a mental pain, an emotional pain or any combination of these and other forms that Pain can mold into itself. For some, the slightest discomfort becomes too much to bear. Some embrace the Pain and use it to fuel themselves towards their goals and desires. Still others become addicted to their Inner Beast, choosing to misuse it at any chance and for the flimsiest reasons.

The methods we use in a feeble attempt to alleviate our Pain does not come without side effects. It only takes one medication commercial to help one see that the side effects can be worse than the Pain.

Cohen goes on to sing, "You who wish to conquer pain, you must learn what makes me kind."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Thought on Rumi, Dante, and Milton.

I have been reading a lot of poetry lately. Besides the occasional glimpse at "Paradise Lost" and "The Divine Comedy" I have been spending the majority of my time reading Rumi, a Persian poet from the 13th century. The common theme between the works I have been reading (in some cases re-reading) is that of man's relationship with God and religion. I don't wish to start a debate on religious issues here. I just wanted to take a minute to write about something that I think gets overlooked when these texts are discussed, especially in the part of the world where I live.

Religion is always a hot topic here. There are probably more misinformed and polarizing opinions around this little town than in any other place I have had the Cosmic Punishment of living. This often drowns out what, to me, is the more important and useful insight found in these texts. The idea that a Persian Muslim poet can encounter similar questions (whether they are from within himself or observed in others) about the nature of man's relationship with God and religion as Dante and Milton shows us that the questions surrounding the nature of those relationships in our time are not that dissimilar. The subjects and characters found in these poems relay the message that human beings have always struggled with the questions surrounding God, and they likely will continue to struggle with these questions. It's not the religious ideas that are in focus, it's the human ideas these poets address that can give one insights as to our own thoughts and the thoughts of those with whom we share this world.

"When you look in a mirror,
you see yourself, not the state of the
-Rumi's "Moses and the Shepherd"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

New Mexico, Non-Required Reading, and Other Adventures

The second half of May has presented me with some great opportunities to do some travelling and to catch up on some reading.

After I finished up my finals at the University of Oklahoma (putting to an end my least productive semester of my acedemic experience), I packed up and headed out west with some friends. Although I have relatives in New Mexico, this was my first trip to the area. We spent three days in Navajo Lake State Park camping, hiking, and fishing the legendary San Juan River. This old Navajo stone building was about a mile from the river on the wall of Simon Canyon.

Next, we stayed an afternoon and night at El Vado Lake. Many laughs, good food, good drink, and a good campfire.

After that, we spent a couple of days at Wild Rivers National Recreation Area near Taos, NM. From our campground it was about a mile hike down to the Rio Grande.

Aside from travel, I also have been catching up on some reading. I finished Mohsin Hamid's best-seller The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It is a well written novel that reminds me of the way Gatsby looks in on the lives of the rich, except it is looking at the lives of Americans and Pakistanis (and in a way the relationship between the two countries since 9/11) through the eyes of a person who is both yet neither.

I am almost through The Essential Rumi and plan on following that up with Nathan Brown's Karma Crisis, Carol Hamilton's Lexicography, and hopefully some more books that have been at the ready on my shelf.

Hopefully, I can shake this lazy phase I'm in long enough to do some more writing in the coming days. Until then...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"When you see Indians; be careful...When you don't see Indians; be twice as careful."

Before I post the excerpt that I read at the 2nd Annual Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, I feel like I should talk about what this collection of flash-fiction means to me and why I feel it says something that needs to be said.

One of the things that I find extremely fascinating about human beings is our ability to change. I want to avoid the terms "adapt" or "evolve" here because those terms seem to imply that whatever it is that endures change automatically comes out improved or better than before. When we endure a change the outcome is not always certain and it is not guaranteed to be better, but once that change is enacted there is seldom an opportunity to regain what is lost in changing and we are left to do the best with what we have if things don't go as we hoped.

I have avoided these stories for a while now, hoping to address these ideas about change in a similar way but side-stepping the places and people from which they come. I have avoided these because I don't want to be labeled a "Native American" writer, but for the most part these stories are from my (and other's) experiences in and around the American Indian culture. Also, the more I read American Indian literature the more I notice that the viewpoints presented in such works are somewhat limited to Indians on reservations and the complications that come from that, but hardly any address the viewpoints of the rest of us that didn't grow up at Crow Agency, or Rocky Boy, or Fort Hall, or Pine Ridge. Though we share some common social problems, the conflict between tradition and progress is a bit different than those that were born and raised in rural reservation towns.

I hope to kill two birds with one stone with this collection:
1) Change is something that all human's experience whether we are aware of it or not, and the individual's experience with change is something that can be a bonding factor between generations or cultures.
2) Write with the voice of, in a sense, the anti-Sherman Alexie. (It doesn't always take a white teacher to tell an Indian kid that she or he is smart and to get out and get an education. Some of us had parents that would tell us that.) I don't have anything against Alexie. In my opinion, he is one of the more original voices in modern Native literature. It is his content that I wish to provide with an opposing view.

That was more than I wanted to say...

So here it is...the opening story from my flash-fiction collection "A Tradition of Change"

Change: The Old Man’s Last Story
By Sly Alley
“Things were a lot different in those days,” he began, “but change happens. It happened before I was born. Change happened all my life and I’m sure it will keep happening long after I die.” He paused to rearrange the thin white blankets that covered his legs. Before he got sick he looked ten years younger than his age, but now, after several months of late-night rushes to the ER and long drives to doctor appointments and all the hassles that those of us who depend on Indian Health Service must endure, the old man looked much older than his age.
“They keep it too damn cold in here,” he said under his breath as he retreated from his battle with the blankets and took a long drink of water from the hospital mug.
            “My dad wanted to be here today…” I started to explain before the old man cut me off.
            “I know he has his own problems. We’re all getting old. Hell, every week I read the obituary of one of our classmates in the newspaper. Your dad’ll come by when he can.”
            We sat there in a strange silence that only lasted a few seconds, but it seemed to engulf the entire hospital. I had spent enough time in hospitals to know how loud they can be. There’s usually an orchestra of buzzers going off, nurses talking way too loud, someone knocking a food tray off of a cart. For a sick person a hospital can be hell, so I wasn’t about to interrupt this momentary symphony of silence. I left that task to the nurse who came in to check the old man’s blood pressure. After she finished and left the room, the old man gestured for me to close the door.
            “Is your recorder going?” he asked as he took another drink of water.
            “Yes,” I said as I pushed the button on the small, black digital voice recorder that sat on the tray next to the old man’s water. “Start whenever you’re ready.”
            “My earliest memories are of a white woman I called Mrs. Kate. Of course at the time I didn’t know that she was white, and I didn’t know that I was an Ind’n. We lived in a little house in Pawnee. Mrs. Kate enrolled me in school…I guess what they call kindergarten these days. And I went for a while. I think it was that same year that I met my mother. I was four years old. At that time I didn’t know I was going to meet my mother. Mrs. Kate told me that we were having a special guest over to the house that day. I took a bath and got cleaned up. Mrs. Kate started packing the few clothes I had, some trousers and t-shirts and things, into a little black leather suitcase. I couldn’t figure out why she would be packing my clothes for a guest. Later that day this woman showed up to the house. This woman and I sat on the porch for a while before she began to speak. 
‘I am your mother. My name’s Julia. I came here to take you home with me,’ she said.
“I said okay, told Mrs. Kate goodbye, and I climbed up into a horse drawn cart and left Pawnee. That year was 1946.”
The old man coughed, took a drink of water, and closed his eyes while he spoke.
 “My point in telling you this is that even at an early age, my life underwent a change. And that’s what people don’t know about Ind’ns. That’s how we survived all these years…we were able to hunt and fish and grow crops, that was a part of it, but the bigger part is that we recognized when the time comes for us to change. We don’t all see that need for change at the same time. The same goes for any people, not just Ind’ns.”
The old man opened his eyes and looked out the window to the cold November clouds that hung somewhere between the earth and sun.
“Tradition,” he said. “Tradition has caused some of the biggest arguments for our people. These young people like to brag around about tradition. They say ‘I was raised in the Old Ways’ but they have no clue what the Old Ways were. None of us do… When I was a teenager some people came to study our tribe. People from different universities would come and ask these older folks to tell them about their ‘Old Ways’ and traditions. The old folks would tell them ‘You’re about 300 years too late for that. Those old ways were lost before we were born’ they would say. Since I was a young man, the elders would tell us, ‘Go to school, get an education, learn English, get jobs.’ They knew that it was time for us to change.
“My mother’s generation had trouble accepting that change, so they took to drinking…they couldn’t get jobs because they drank too much and wouldn’t show up for work. When you hear these stories about children being ripped out of their mother’s hands and sent to boarding schools and being stripped of their heritage…it was that way for some, but there were some of us who knew it’s what we would have to do to survive. I made a friend when I came back home with my mother. We grew up together. His parents died when he was little, so his grandparents raised him. His grandparents knew our language, but they spoke in English to us young kids. When they started to get old and were dying, they told him to go to Haskell Indian School. I was with him at the bus stop when he went up there. He was 14 years old then. Someone said he died a few months ago.” The old man paused for a moment as if he were silently paying respect to the man whose funeral he was too sick to attend. Then he continued.
 “Even when things were bad at home--sometimes we’d go hungry for a while, we were never starving, but hungry--even then there was that hope that we could go get educated and make ourselves better. We had to learn from our parents and accept that a time had come to change.” The old man paused, this time to catch his breath. Then he chuckled and with a smile he said, “I sure didn’t want’a live in a house with dirt floors and haul water for the rest of my life.” His laugh and smile gave way to a hard cough and he spat into the washcloth that he clenched in his left hand.  
“I’m going to tell you one more thing, nephew, then I’m going to rest,” said the old man, looking out as the sleet started to tap the thick glass of the window. The smell of the hospital dinners were beginning to creep through the hallways like a lazy rainstorm cutting through the mountains. Wheel of Fortune was at maximum volume in the room across the hall and Pat Sajak’s voice carried through the door.
“The tribe has money now. Now, they have all these different businesses. They have casinos, and construction companies, and farms. They have money to send you to school. Things haven’t always been this way, so take advantage of these benefits. They might not always be available to you. A lot of us worked hard to get things this way so that the young people have better hopes and dreams than we had. We were able to change towards something better, now it’s going to be your turn.”
He paused and took the last drink of water from his cup. We sat there listening to the sounds of the hospital and the sleet and rain pelting the window. After he had fallen asleep I turned off the recorder and quietly slipped out of the room, unaware that this would be the last time I saw the old man alive.
© 2012


Sunday, April 8, 2012

"I do the best I can between high spots."

Hunter Thompson said that. When you're a person like me, a strange human-chameleon that either blends in with too many crowds or tries to sink into a wall and observe the things that most people will forget about ten minutes later, the high spots come often, but rarely do they linger and it's back down to the bottom to do the best I can. This past weekend was a tremendous high spot.

It started Friday when I attended The Scissortail Creative Writing Festival at East Central University. As always I enjoyed Jim Wilson reading from The Journeyman. Poet Alan Berecka read some great poems and shared some funny stories. Steven Schroeder was great. I had the pleasure of having lunch (too much curry chicken) with poet and organizer of Scissortail Ken Hada, Scissortail presenters and good friends Jessica Isaacs and Rayshell Clapper and others. After the afternoon session, I had the pleasure of visiting with many of the presenters at the home of Jim Wilson and LeAnne Howe. It was another one of those days that made me want to drop everything in life and finish either of the two books I have been working on for a while (The Thompson Gunner novella is still in the works and I've started something else that I will talk about shortly).

I followed that day up with a fishing trip to Lake Texoma with some good friends of mine that I haven't had the opportunity to hang out with in some time. It was just before dawn and I had been enjoying my two hours of sleep when it was time to hit the water. In about two hours we had caught 70 fish. I love fishing because the things that I would like to change but know that I can't don't take up one fraction of my thoughts while I'm reeling in that fish and it's a great way to build memories with friends.

Finally, I will be reading from a work in progress titled The Last Deer Hunt at The Second Annual Howlers & Yawpers Creativity Symposium (the link is here) on April 27th at Seminole State College. It is a collection of flash fiction and short stories set primarily in north central Oklahoma between the mid 1950s and the present day, and it deals mainly with Native Americans in this region. This is a collection that until recently I was affraid to approach. I won't go into too many details right now because it's just after midnight and I should be finishing up my paper on Sartre and Camus that is due in 12 hours. I was affraid of these stories because I don't want to become a cliche Native American writer, but after studying modern and contemporary American Indian writing I found out that it will be quite impossible for me to be a cliche since I'm not a Cherokee. In Songs From This Earth on Turtle's Back there is only one Otoe-Missouria/Ioway writer out of 66 selected to be in the anthology. He's my uncle. There is not one Citizen Band Potawatomi. There are stories here that need to be told and it appears very few are trying to tell them. These aren't stories about how the bear chased the kids up a mountain and turned it into Devil's Tower. These are stories about how Cousin Pepper crashed his car on the way home from drinking and playing cards and almost got away with it, or the time Connie got so drunk she pissed her pants in the Deli Mart. They're also stories about realizing that change can be hard, but in the long run it is worth it and sometimes it isn't. So I decided to move forward with this collection and am now looking forward to sharing an excerpt (which I will post here in a few days) at Howlers and Yawpers on the same stage as LeAnne Howe, Nathan Brown, Phil Morgan, Ken Hada, Christian Morgan, Rayshell Clapper, Kelli McBride, Carol Hamilton and many other talented poets, authors, musicians and clay rubbers.

So, I'm coming down from Scissortail and Texoma and doing my best until the next high spot at Howlers and Yawpers.