While rummaging through the books we brought with us when we moved to Oregon some 15 months ago, I came across one of my favorite books by Leslie Marmon Silko last night, Ceremony.
I read this book in Dr. Hal Crimmel’s contemporary fiction course at WSU while doing my undergrad. At the time I was incredibly moved by this novel and the underlying message, that stories are healing, that they are as much a part of our heritage as our DNA. ” You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.”
Leslie Marmon Silko is a Native American writer of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, and one of the key figures in the First Wave of what literary critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance. Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead are two of my favorite novels by contemporary authors, and really I’d have to say Ceremony is one of my favorite books of all time. However, I have not read Ceremony since 2008 in which a great deal of my life has changed; two of the biggest changes have been moving away from home and becoming a soon-to-be mother.
The first edition I owned was the 1986 publication which was dogged-eared and battered and annotated as all undergraduate course literature should be. It even had corner nibble marks from when our previous beloved cockatiels decided the book would make good afternoon munching. But it wasn’t until my niece got hold of the book a few years back that it was damaged beyond repair. My husband, Adrian, knowing how much I loved the book, bought me the so-called “blue feather” 2006 edition for Christmas shortly after.
I was so happy to have it again, but all of the other numerous books we owned and new prints always kept me from re-reading Ceremony, not to mention all the time I was spending learning another way of telling stories through dance, music and song from my mentors Deja Mitchell who taught me about the rich heritage of the West African griots (oral historians), and Lorin Hansen who taught me about the transplanted storytelling of the West African slaves who were brought to Brazil and kept their traditions alive through dance and song.
Then we moved from our home in the Southwest to Oregon for my husband’s graduate work and it was a strange process for me. On the one hand, I had always dreamed about moving to the mythic Pacific Northwest; a land of such plush opulence as to make a child of the desert faint. So much water! So much greenery! The first time I visited the Oregon coast I kept joking that I half expected Ewoks or Gandalf to appear! On the other, I could not have moved to a more alien landscape from the places of my birth and childhood if you had sent me to Mars. It’s one thing to visit a place for a few days, it’s quite another to actually live there.
Flash forward 15 months to my picking up Ceremony for the first time in five years. What struck me to the core was Silko’s own preface (newly added to the 2006 edition) in which she talked about her inspiration for writing Ceremony; a longing for home. She, her two sons and her husband moved from the warm, sunny climate of Chinle, Arizona to Ketchikan, Alaska for her husband’s work in 1973. There she became so homesick, she began writing her first novel as a kind of therapy for the depression she experienced in the dark of Alaska. From the preface:
“Located on Revillagigedo Island, 750 miles north of Seattle, Ketchikan had a mild climate by Alaskan standards due in large part to a warm ocean current named the Japanese Current. The average temperature was forty-eight degrees, and the average rainfall was 180 inches. In Chinle the annual rainfall was 12 inches in a good year.
I was accustomed to the bright sunlight of the Southwest, where the weather permitted activity outdoors all year around. In southeastern Alaska the tall spruce trees, the heavy clouds, fogs and mist enclosed the town. In the Southwest I was accustomed to gazing into distances of forty or fifty miles. I was accustomed to seeing the sky and the stars and moon.
The change in climate had a profound effect on me; I spent all of June, July and August fighting off the lethargy of depression caused in large part by the absence of sunlight.”
Reading this introduction, I felt such a kinship to the her homesickness that I actually started crying. I couldn’t comprehend exactly where Silko was coming from (no one ever can completely understand another’s journeys), but I recognized the longing for place. Silko then went on to describe how the writing of what would become her first novel, was a love song of sorts to her homelands:
“Once I started writing the novel, the depression lifted, but then came the terrible migraine headaches. I stayed in a darkened bedroom for eight hours at a time while the vertigo spun the bed. Fortunately, as the main character, Tayo, began to recover from his illness, I too began to feel better, and had fewer headaches. By this time, the novel was my refuge, my magic vehicle back to the Southwest land of sandstone mesas, blue sky, and sun. I was no longer on a dark rainy island thousands of miles away. I was home, from time immemorial, as the old ones liked to say to us children long ago. But I wasn’t just homesick for the sandstone cliffs and the sun; I missed the people and the storytelling…”
Of course, as a Native American, Silko has a much stronger claim to place than I can ever imagine, and yet so much of what she said in the above statements cut my heart. I think there are some people in the world who have a profound attachment to the land. Recently, someone asked me where we had moved from and where my family were and when I told them all of my people were back home, they asked “How long has your family been there?” “Since the pioneers back in the 1840s,” was my answer.
Growing up in my homelands, my family (particularly the men in my family; my father and my grandfathers), placed a great deal of importance on the land and respect for Nature. We spent every summer in the mountains where my Dad or my Grandpa would teach me how to catch a rainbow trout, pointing out tadpoles in the shallow pools, how to spot the difference between a crow and a raven, where the “fish gods” lived, how to calm a shy horse, how to distinguish deer tracks from elk, how to avoid rattlesnakes, which root plants could be eaten, which berries were poisonous, etc. My maternal grandfather had a great fondness for lady bugs and hummingbirds. He said they brought good luck. He would tell me how angels lived in the sun beams and when I got freckles, I should think of them as angel kisses. I would build forts with my cousins and we took great delight in placing aspen leaves in the open fire to hear them pop and snapple. We stalked chipmunks and porcupines and grouse to observe and marvel at these wild creatures. When we would get too rowdy or destructive, like when the boys thought it would be a good idea to shred a young aspen sapling to bits, we were given the strictest reprimands about how awful our behavior was and if every person treated the forest as we had, there would be no wonderful places left, to which we were all deeply ashamed and began to develop a reverence for life and a love for conservation.
The men of my family were great storytellers, especially my father who specializes in long-windy whoppers of hunting and fishing tales and experiences of near death on the ice or in the dead of winter or coyotes in the desert and wolverines spotted from far away. As a child, I could listen to him for hours and hours and hours about his adventures and his father’s before him and his father’s before him and all of these stories were attached to the land, the familiar landscapes all around me, to specific mountains and rivers and lakes where the words could take visual shape on certain banks and tree lines.
And the women of my family made a bounty out of the land. Every year we had delicious goodies of peaches and tomatoes and squash and berries to pick and wash and eat and can. We were never without a food garden. There’s something very special for a child, learning to plant a seed and care for it and watch it grow. To watch the land give life.
I do have a deep attachment to place that is, as my father said, as much a part of me as my bone marrow. And yet, it wasn’t until leaving and going far away that I ever noticed just how deep it was. I remember crying when we were leaving and wondering why, as I had always dreamed of going somewhere new, somewhere different. No one in my family had ever left before. I was going to be the first! So why was I crying watching the sunrise over the Rocky Mountains, for what I thought could be the very last time? It was the tribe of family and friendships for certain I was leaving behind, but it went even deeper than that. It went into the heart of the country.
It’s a strange thing, how leaving home makes one recall and long for all that was amazing about it taken for granted for so long, but it’s true. Silko wrote what is arguably her best work in remembrance of her home and her people and their stories. I have been remembering so much I loved about the open beauty of the high desert and the Southwest here in the fog and mist and dense foliage of another place. My husband, who is also a storyteller, commented that he wrote most of his first novel, which is set in New Mexico, after he left it and also that most of his short stories about Utah were written while he was living in New Mexico. Maybe it’s because our current, “American” culture doesn’t place value on what is truly meaningful (nature, land, people) as tribal people do. Maybe it’s because we’re taught to always be in a state of wanting, of fantasizing, of believing our flaws will all magically go away some other where. I don’t know, but it’s strange.
My own ceremony in this place has been manifold in teaching me wisdom I never would have found had I not gone on this current journey. Of everything I have learned and am continuing to learn I cannot write, as it is still in a process of becoming and it too may very well be one of those things that I cannot fully recognize until it is behind me, but it has been powerful. Perhaps it has been the very thing that has been so difficult for me here (the sense of isolation and claustrophobia and darkness) that has made me go places internally I had no time for at home, in the sun and the warmth of friendship.
I have come to appreciate Oregon in a way I never could have imagined. I admire it’s strange beauty, the grassroots attitudes of the people here and the stark contrast from my former residence, and yet, it is still not my home, it is not the place of my stories. It has been a great teacher, but there comes a time when the lesson is over.
T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Perhaps it is through this “knowing” for the first time, that our greatest stories, the saving stories, and the healing stories, are born. It is not lost upon me either that the literal birth of my first child will occur at yet another transitional stage of return in my life’s journey. What things I shall have to tell him someday.
Larry McMurtry wrote of Leslie Marmon Silko;
“The stories help the people move from imbalance and disorder back to a kind of balance, the balance that comes from the accuracy and depth and beauty of the stories. […] if they are faithfully kept and honored, the people will survive and perhaps in time recover their primal strength. All of Leslie Marmon Silko’s work is infused with reverence for the natural world. Her ‘tellings’ never lose sight of the fact that the earth was here first, along with the sun and the moon and other permanent powers Thus, when she has told the tale of Tayo’s return she ends with this:
accept this offering