Friday, May 16, 2008

Consider the Lilies

Or consider the poppies. The California poppies are in full bloom. So amazing how orange they are. How full of sun they are.

Mario and I just had a decadent dinner while we watched Lilies of the Field. Except for the fact that they dubbed in someone else's voice over Poitier's when he was singing "Amen," this movie is near perfect. A near perfect story, too. My kind of story. About creating community. I never knew until today that it was filmed near the east part of Tucson, where Mario and I stay every year, where the Church of the Old Mermaids was born. When Poitier first comes on screen, my breath catches in my throat. Has there ever been a more beautiful human being on the planet than Sidney Poitier?

It's been strange in our little community lately. Nearly two weeks ago, six seal lions were found dead in traps on the Columbia River. The authorities said they had been shot. No one doubted this. We knew some people around here were absolutely capable of this. When resources become endangered around here, people tend to blame nature, not themselves, not anything humans have done. It's not about the dams. It's not about pollution. It's never about over-fishing. "It's the damn seals." (Or fill in the blank. "It's the damn wolves." "It's the damn spotted owls." You get the picture.) The news media interviewed fishermen down by the dam, where the seals were blamed for poaching salmon the fisherman wanted, and the fishermen unanimously said that "it's about time" and "somebody should have done something" a long time ago.

Only that's not what happened. Apparently the poor animals died of heatstroke once they got caught in the traps. No one shot them. Of course, someone may have closed the doors on the seal lions on purpose. The story is probably not over.

A couple days after this happened, three Yakama fishermen went out onto the Columbia River near here to check their nets. They never came back. Their overturned boat was found in shallow waters near where they went out. Members of the Yakama Nation came from near and far and set up a tent village by the river. They have said they will stay until the loved ones are found.

I knew about the missing fishermen. I did not know people were still out on the river looking for them. I didn't know about the new village along the Columbia River until someone emailed our Gathering group yesterday about it and said they could use some food. First thing this morning, I went to our local grocery and bought a bunch of stuff. I figured the need was immediate, so I didn't try to cook anything. I had trouble figuring out what to buy. They said they needed hot side dishes, but they didn't have any place to keep things refrigerated. They wanted baked goods, too. I stared at the stuff in the grocery store trying to imagine what people actually eat. We eat so differently from most people, so I had no idea! Baked goods? They all had sugar in them. Hot dishes? They all had dairy products in them. I remembered that Native Americans are more susceptible to being lactose intolerant. Finally I got a couple of baked chickens, some mac & cheese (hot), three pies, a bag of apples, bananas, and orange juice.

It was supposed to be 100 degrees today, so I drove right down to the encampment, by Home Valley (near to Wind Mountain). I drove across the railroad tracks, then turned right and went down a long dirt road. The tall trees lining the road were green with new leaves, creating a kind of cool sanctuary. I drove by trucks with empty trailers until I got to a row of tents. I stopped the car in the middle of the road so I could unload.

I was nervous. I was the only non-Native person there. It's always disconcerting to be a stranger in a strange land. I didn't want to interfere or be seen as an interloper. It is conventional wisdom in the gorge that, generally speaking, the Native Americans take care of themselves and stay to themselves; there isn't a lot of cultural mixing. The Anglos stay to themselves; the Native Americans stay to themselves; the Hispanics stay to themselves. For a gal who believed in groovin' with people from all kinds of cultures, this was shocking to me when I first moved here. But now, I understand that people like to be around people like themselves, people who make them feel comfortable. It's natural. Unfortunately, I am rarely comfortable with my own people in my own culture. (Let's face it; I am rarely comfortable. Perhaps comfort is overrated.)

Anyway, I got out of the car and asked a couple of people where I could take the food. I did feel like an intruder. But hell, I thought, I've got eighty bucks worth of groceries I wasn't ever gonna eat so someone was going to eat it. (I hate waste.) A man came and helped me with the groceries. He joked about taking the chicken to his tent and eating it. I ducked into the kitchen tent. It was dark inside. We put the groceries on a table, and the man disappeared. 

A woman with a clipboard introduced herself to me. (As usual, I'm not naming people; just because I'm a writer doesn't mean that everyone I meet has to become a character in my life.) Then the woman told me where everything was in the tent. Everything was organized. The plastic wrap in this box, the aluminum foil there, the pots and pans there, the actual kitchen in through there. People came and asked her questions. She introduced me to the cook. I asked how the families were doing. She said they were out on the river, and the people here were trying to make certain the search and rescue people and the family had food, wanted to make certain they were taken care of.

The women said I could stay and help, but I hadn't eaten yet, so I went back home, took a shower, and got something to eat. Then I stopped at the grocery store again and bought some foil, since they said they were running short. Then I returned to the encampment. I went back to the kitchen tent and asked if I could help with anything. They said they were pretty much caught up. I definitely felt like a fifth wheel. Uncomfortable. Stupid that I'd come all the way back here and now had nothing to do. I didn't know anyone. Didn't know what to do. I wondered what the hell I was doing there. I wasn't needed.

But then the cook suggested I might want to help do the dishes.

So that's what I did. Alongside another woman, I scrubbed pots in the kitchen, opposite of the stoves. Beneath my feet was grass and uneven ground. Outside a hot wind shook the trees. I imagined all the boats out on the river beyond. Someone poured hot water heated on the stove into two plastic tubs, one for the soapy water, one for the rinse water. We kept doing the dishes. People came into the tent and introduced themselves to me. Said their names and held out their hands. Everyone was very gracious. Not that it was about me! This was all about trying to bring comfort to those who had lost their family members. When my mom died, it really helped that people thought of us, that they came and visited and called. Even when I didn't talk to someone, I appreciated their thoughts, their actions. That's what people do in a community: They come together to help one another. When my mom died, one cousin just kept doing the dishes. That was great because then we didn't have to think about it.

So I did dishes.

Soon after a fierce wind went through the camp, it got very hot in the tent. The cook opened up the flaps, and that helped a little. I dried the pots and pans and put them away. It seemed now that I had actually done some work, I was OK. Then I helped put frosting on a bunch of cakes. We cut the cakes up and carried them over to the dining tent and put one cake on each table.

About then I met a woman who worked with Mario's boss's wife, and suddenly everything felt better—like I was part of the community rather than an intruder. This woman and I talked for a while. It was one of her relatives who had been lost on the river. She said they always knew every time someone went out that they might not come back, that was just part of it. I asked if that made it any easier. She said no.

The cook and I sat near the kitchen stoves, where oddly enough it was cooler, and we broke off the ends of a lot of asparagus. We threw the good parts in one box and the end parts in another box. She talked about what they were having for lunch—I had seen the spaghetti and potatoes, but she said they were waiting for the eels and the hot dogs. I had been assiduous about not asking a lot of questions. After all, I was there to help, not to be a tourist. But when I heard the mention of eels, I asked about them. Eels? Did you say eels? Yep, you've never had eels? I shook my head. Where do you get them? Off rocks in the river. She said, "They're gooood." Several other people said the same thing.

When we had gotten halfway through the asparagus, the cook said, come on, I'll show you the eels. We stepped outside of the tent. It felt so fresh and cool, although it was probably over eighty degrees. Around the back of the tent was a huge grill. A man was turning over whatever was on it and said that it would be ready in five or ten minutes. I followed this woman—who had the best laugh of anyone I've ever met—a bit away from the grill to these two men who were standing at a piece of board about as tall as I am, about three feet wide. At the top of the board were about four nails several inches a part. The whole board was streaked red with blood and guts. Stuck to one of the nails was an eel about two feet long, maybe two inches wide. One man was slicing it down the middle and removing the guts.

"She's never seen an eel before," the woman said.

"No? Never seen any eel?" one of the men said.

"No," I said. "Just on TV shows. Then they had these big mouths with lots of teeth and they came out of holes in rocks." I demonstrated all of this silliness with my hands.

"These aren't like those," she said. "These are smaller. Some people mistake them for snakes in the river."

We watched for a minute, and then we went over to the grill. The woman told the man that I'd never had eels before. "No? They're good." He said he'd just been over to 15 mile the other day to get the eels but he got there too late and others had gone out. I wondered where 15 mile was but I didn't ask.

We returned to the tent and broke off more asparagus tips. One of the women who sat with me thanked me for doing the dishes. She said it was a big help. Soon after, lunch was ready. One of the women told me that the cooks don't eat until everyone else has eaten. We kept breaking asparagus as they sang prayers in the dining tent. Something very peaceful about sitting with these women, helping prepare food, and listening to a man sing prayers before lunch.

Then it was about time for me to leave. The cook offered me some eel. I remembered that many vegetarian Buddhist monks eat meat if their hosts offer it. So I took the proffered eel and ate it. It looked like charcoal. It tasted like sausage.

Then I left. Drove home. Wondered again why I often feel more at home with cultures that aren't my own. Not all cultures. Not Eastern European. Not Chinese. Japanese. Not that I feel uncomfortable with those cultures, but I don't feel as though I've come home. But many times with Hispanic and Native American people, I do. And with the Irish. I'm more comfortable. That's the wrong word. Everything just feels more real. Maybe it's the language, the sound of the words, the singsong. Maybe it's because it all feels like a dance, it all feels grounded in something. For some reason.

I can't explain it because I don't understand it. It just felt so real sitting in that tent with those women today. As though I was a part of something. I rarely feel that.

I'm so sorry for those families who lost their sons, husbands, brothers, fathers. I am sorry for our community that these fishermen have died.

And now it's Saturday morning. I'm hoping it's not as hot today. I have to drive to Tigard in twenty minutes, and I haven't eaten, showered, or packed a lunch. Why am I going to sit in a building all day today? It looks so beautiful outside. Across the street, bright red rhodies are blooming. And our poppies.

I long to build a church, like Homer in Lilies of the Field. Or sit along the river helping with lunch. Listening to the wind and the songs. Ahhh, do you hear the birds? They are outside in my church, already built. The air is so still. The morning sun is just past golden. I'm already home. I'm already in community. Always. I just need to remember that.

May You Commune in Beauty!


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story! It does remind me of the years I lived on an Indian Reservation in Wisconsin where I was one of very few Anglos and how isolated I felt.
You sure would be welcome helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity. That's kinda close to building a church and helping those in need.

Kim Antieau said...

Thanks, VG! I love Habitat for Humanity! I couldn't actually build the homes, though. Too many chems in the construction of buildings. I've heard that HFH is trying to be more green and environmentally safe, although it looks like it depends upon which HFH it is.

All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.