Last week I wrote about an experience I had when I found myself living in San Francisco half a lifetime ago. Frankly it was one of many that I love to reminisce about. I love to pull out each experience from my memory like they’re feelies from my own private Brave New World library. Some feel really good. Like the time I sat in the park by the church where Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio and found the most massive pinecone ever seen. As I sat cross legged on a bench watching people do tai chi, a man joined me on the bench and asked where I had come across said pinecone. This sparked a conversation with the guy who was a former world champion surfer turned photographer/philanthropist, who introduced me to one of my favorite places to hang out – the No-End Cafe. A couple of months later he knocked on my door around 3am and brought me back to that park to have my first (and last) cigar with brandy. Dawn was about to break as he walked me home, past a hidden bakery that could not hide the fresh baguette smell. As someone came out to fill a truck with bags and baskets of deliveries, my friend got us first dibs and we walked the rest of the way snacking on piping fresh hot bread. It was one of the many dots of experiences that were like something out of a movie or a novel. I had ended up living near the City Lights bookstore of all places totally by chance, and one of the local watering holes was still owned by a guy who had been around during the Beats’ hey-day, so I imagined I was living like a new-age Beat.
Some of the experiences, however, were more like having your eyes propped open against your will like in A Clockwork Orange. One day, not long after stumbling across the native guy in the street, I was at the waterfront looking over a railing at the waves far below. It was mesmerizing. I started an internal dialogue about how cool it was that no two waves were the same, that every single molecule of water was in constant motion and never hit the beach in the same way. I wondered how far each molecule travelled, if they’d been around the world and how cool would it be to be h2o. I wasn’t on any drugs; I was just lost in the ebb and flow. I dunno how long I’d been staring down at the waves when a noise startled me. I blinked and shook my head a bit, then looked to my left where the sound had come from. While there had been no one else at the railing when I idled up to it, there were now 5-7 people leaning over the railing looking down where I had been looking. When I turned and saw them, somehow they all noticed and turned to look at me, then they looked towards the water, then back to me, as if they were silently inquiring what the heck I’d been staring at. I felt my face redden, thinking how absurd it would sound to explain what I was thinking about. So I put my head down and quickly walked away with the weight of their stares on my back.
Not knowing where I was going, and not caring so long as it was away from them, I headed towards the green space. Within moments I heard a faint noise, like the beat on a bass drum. My head tilted as I tried to figure out where it was coming from, my eyes squinted, scanning left and right. I couldn’t see anything that looked as though it was making the sound I could only faintly hear. Like a dog sniffing the wind, I closed my eyes and tried to focus all sensory powers to my ears. I pursed my nose like people do, because that action filters out unwanted sounds, and then blindly moved in the general direction of where the sound was coming from. Obviously, the closer I got to the source, the louder the sound became. I still couldn’t figure out what it was aside from a kind of drum. It sounded more and more like my heartbeat and I began to freak out as it seemed like my heart was beating outside my body. It wasn’t just that I was hearing my heartbeat in my ears; it was as though I was hearing it all around me. I was sure I was losing the plot when an overwhelming illogical obsessive need to find the source of the beat came over me. I worked myself into such a state that I could barely breathe when I noticed a group of people in the distance, at the far edge of the park and stumbled hastily towards it.
I assume that I must have looked somewhat alarming because when reaching the back of the crowd, people took one look at me and stood aside to let me pass. I couldn’t make words at that point as I could barely make sense of what was going on, so kept my head down avoiding eye contact and silently passed in front of them. When at last I found myself at the front of the crowd behind a barrier, I looked up and felt something in my head pop as my jaw dropped. There before me was a sight that I had only ever seen in books. Beings which I had assumed lived on another planet; reddish-brown skinned men and women, dressed in traditional first nations’ clothing. At the front coming around a bend in the distance a couple hundred feet away, was a man wearing a tall, long feathered head dress with feathers that went down his back, a red and tan coloured top and leggings, walking in moccasins and carrying a long tall stick that had strips of coloured material or beads near the top, with 2-3 feathers attached by strings/sinew waving in the wind. Behind him were what seemed like legions of others just like him but different. Immediately after being clobbered by this sight, there was a sound that caused a sharp pain my chest, scared the crap put of me and made tears spontaneously erupt from my eyes. I whipped my head around to the right to see what it was. There, merely 10-20 feet from me, under a tempo tent, were about 5-6 men sitting around a large drum, and behind them were another 10-12 men who were standing up. The drum was larger than any bass drum I had ever seen but skin side up and those who were sitting were banging on it with long drum sticks that resembled bulrushes. They were not dressed in regalia, wearing western clothing instead and the piercing sound was their singing. To this neophyte, it almost sounded like they were screaming out in a haunting high pitched way that was primal and scary and soulful as they banged on the drum in unison. They weren’t saying words that I understood, but it was powerful, evocative and compelling. I stood there with tears streaming down my face, overwhelmed by the most disturbingly beautiful scene I had ever witnessed.
Lemme just digress… as this may seem a wee bit over dramatic, but… it was kinda like seeing a unicorn. Up until then I was pretty sure that the so-called ‘noble Indian’ was not real; a throw back to my youth when I was actually under the impression that ‘Indians’ lived on another planet. As a young child I had been told of both my adoption and that I was an ‘Indian’ which are simple yet complex ideas for a 3 year old to grasp. At the time, I only knew that babies came from their mothers’ bellies and that there was no one else who looked like me in the white middle class suburbia where I lived. This was almost 30 years before the internet came about, so to help me understand what an Indian was, I was exposed to books about the first nations’, and the images in the books looked like the majestic people before me. I didn’t even meet another native person until I was almost 18. Over the years, not one of the first nations I met ever came close to resembling the images from my books, or me for that matter. But here were these real live natives walking proud and they were stunningly beautiful and all at once, it felt like confirmation that I wasn’t from another planet, and that being a first nations’ person was something to be proud of. So it was quite overwhelming for the girl who once lamented always having to play the ‘Indian’ while her older brothers got to play the ‘Cowboys’.
Having some wits about me though, I pulled out my camera and started snapping away. Believing I had stumbled across a once in a lifetime occurrence, I wanted hard proof. I watched in awe as the lead man with the long pole was followed by dozens more first nations’, men, women, children, all so wonderfully dressed and beautiful and noble looking. While once a term I had used in jest amongst my fellow native adoptees, I now totally understood what it meant. As my shock turned to awe and the tears came under control, I tried to find my way around the physical barrier that separated us. I discovered that for the mere cost of 5$ I was permitted onto the grounds of what was going on, which I learned was a pow-wow.
I strolled around the grounds confused, uncomfortable and embarrassed. I felt like people were looking at me as though I was a freak. Like they knew I was one of them, as the guy on the sidewalk had, but that they still saw me as an outsider. Unable to make eye contact with anyone out of shame for not knowing more about being an ‘Indian’, I made my way through the stalls, tentatively sneaking peeks at the goods for sale. Even though I was on a tight budget and had already spent my allotted funds for entertainment, I parted with another $3 in exchange for a small plastic toy baby of a reddish hue nestled in a leather and fur papoose attached to a leather string that was to be worn around the neck. I then found my way to the main tent where dancing was taking place. I settled into the bleachers, off to the side mid way up as far away as possible from other people so that I could observe but not be observed.
There was one man with a young baby in his arms. During one of the dances where anyone could participate, he walked to the innermost part of the circle, held the child close and started talking to it as he began to dance in the circle. He lifted one foot, tapped his toes softly on the ground, lifted it again, then placed it on the ground slightly in front of the other and followed the same movement with his other foot, repeating it in time to the beat and slowly making his way around the ring. My eyes fixated on him as I wondered what he was saying. I imagined him telling the child of the significance and importance of the pow-wow, of community and that this was his/her legacy and that one day the child too would dance in the ring. My eyes welled up but I refused to blink away the blur while the man held this lucky child with such gentleness, pride and love because every fibre of my being ached to be so lucky. My chest heaved as I struggled to contain the primal sobs of sorrow that I didn’t want anyone to know were within me, that I didn’t even know were within me. But I lost the battle and buried my head in my lap like I was prepping for a crash landing in an airplane and let myself cry. Not for long though. I talked myself down by saying that it was ridiculous to cry over things I had never known and would never know. And my internal dialogue turned to a loop I knew by rote, that I was lucky to have been adopted and had the life I did. So I wiped away my tears, stood up, tucked all the feelings away in a box somewhere in my head, and walked away. I thought about what had happened, but I didn’t let myself connect with the feelie aspect of it. At least, not that I was consciously aware of… A few months later I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and agoraphobia, so it turned out that repressing feelings didn’t really work out for me…
I am a fan of serendipity though. I dunno that the plans are written in the stars or if it’s all free will, but I’m partial to what Milan Kundera wrote: that events seem “more significant and noteworthy the greater number of fortuities necessary to bring it about”… that “only chance can speak to us”. What are the odds that two events involving first nations’ would happen in San Francisco of all places, and within weeks of each other? It still took me years to see the important part they played in my narrative as a sixties scoop adoptee though…
But I mean… that’s the simple way of putting it, like saying that as of today I’m on level 1095 of Two Dots. Obviously I’ve gone through 1094 levels and it hasn’t always been easy; sometimes I can be stuck on one level for weeks, and sometimes I get through 5 levels in a day… Safe to say, connecting my life dots has progressed much the same way.