Monday, November 26, 2012

With Thanks

On Thanksgiving morning, my community and I attended Mass at the Fort Defiance Church, established by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s a small church to begin with, and being a weekday and a holiday, there were not very many people attending. We could have easily spread out through the church, but we chose to sit in one pew altogether, filling the entire thing. For someone on the outside looking in, they might think we looked funny; why crowd together when you can easily spread out? For us though, cramming together was an act of solidarity. We rarely attend church altogether for myriad reasons: conflict schedules, different times, only four of seven are Catholic, etc. But, Thanksgiving is a special day, a time to give thanks in a contemplative way. At least, in my opinion.

What always strikes me as humorous around Thanksgiving is that everyone becomes consumed with gratefulness, but as the effects of food coma from dinner and a blissful break from work fade, so it seems, does the need to be thankful. Shouldn’t we be grateful all the time? For things both large and small? Approaching four months on the reservation I have been contemplating this very aspect. What am I grateful for? For a week off of school or a mini roadtrip with friends? The answer is both, but I am also grateful for the rain, which falls so infrequently out here, and the Rez dogs who quickly become familiar partners. For my community, even though we sometimes disagree and for my school although it is sometimes stressful.
Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a National holiday during his presidency. I wonder what he would think of what it has become today, with salesmen pitching their products at discounted rates and people stomaching obligatory food to nap and race others for sales at midnight. Everyday should be another day for Thanksgiving for so many things. As a history teacher, I can appreciate the thought behind it. We remember the first Thanksgiving where two very diverse communities came together to celebrate success and life, and the hope of building a future together. We celebrate what America is and what it still has potential to become. And, we should celebrate each other, the good and bad, happy and sad, remembering that we are all part of a larger community to come. 

After Mass, my community and I went to the jail in Window Rock and served them Thanksgiving dinner, all of which had been donated by members of the local and church community. This was the second time I had been to the jail, and the men there love to hear my roommate Allison and I sing. This was the first time all seven of us had been the jail, and was interesting to serve the men and get to talk to them and also to sing with them for a while. Part of me wants to know why there are in jail, but a larger part of me realizes that many of these men are so lonely and longing for company that I feel safe and content walking in and talking, praying, singing with them. 

Next month, we will sing Christmas carols and talk some more, laugh some more. Simply being in community with each other and with the inmates, once more, celebrating the Thanksgiving of each other.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Purposefully Untitled

It's been more than a month since I've posted anything, and there are myriad reasons for my absence online. It could be contributed to many things, or it could just be that there has been a morose feeling settling around me the last few weeks out here. The scenery as always, continues to be beautiful, breathtaking, awe-inspiring. But, it can also be extremely lonely. The great blue sky which fills my heart with joy on one day can look to be a lonely endlessness the next.

I miss the East Coast. I miss seeing the colors change on the trees at Cabrini. I miss my friends there, and complaining about the cafeteria food and late night walks to get Wawa. I am incredibly blessed with the community I have out here, and I know that. I love creating jokes with them and laughing and having our own form of late nights. I love being able to hike in nature's beauty and explore ruins and find shed snake skins, but still the memories of home are nice.

It hurts to be forgotten sometimes too. It hurts when you see someone else getting a huge package of gifts from the people you used to work with and nothing comes in the mail for you. It's petty, and I know that which almost makes it hurt more because I shouldn't care. But I do. Lately I've been feeling like I am not needed; that what I do is not important. Some other friends who have volunteered before me warned me about feeling this way, told me that it happens to almost everyone at some point. When you are told you are a volunteer and your opinion doesn't matter, you can brush it off the first time. Maybe the second. But now it feels like an accusatory stab in my direction. I love my students. I love teaching. But, I hate the politics of education that has pervaded everything out here. I hate how even out here, on the Reservation, people talk about the Native Americans like they are incapable of doing anything for themselves. I have many students, most are Navajo, but with the healthcare systems located in the capital (Window Rock) I also have quite a few students who are white or multi-ethnic.

My students are beautiful and talented and amazing. I have students who can sing like angels and take command of a stage. I have students who are unwilling to give up and will work until they cry in aggravation and laugh when they finally conquer a task. I have students who realized that I was standing out in the parking lot waiting for my ride, alone, and they wouldn't leave until my roommate got there so I wouldn't be completely alone. These are students who come up with the strangest excuses about missing homework, kids who make me laugh on a daily basis and tell me superstitions that their ancestors believed in. They are the students who help me pick up papers in the hall when I get jostled in between classes and who pull down the projector film before I even ask them to.

Why are people so willing to give up on them?

My students ask me if I am coming back next year, and I cannot honestly answer them. I don't know myself yet. I love Mercy Volunteer Corps; it was the right decision for me to come here. But sometimes I get so aggravated with the way things are out here, the way people are resistant to change and I get frustrated. I am here for my kids. For the kids who discovered a love for debate and now beg to have class debates everyday; for the kids who devise clever experiments in psychology and have told me that I make them want to go on to college. For the kids who put on the first talent show the school has ever seen and are already asking to plan for the next one. I am not here for the administration or the pay (clearly not the pay, holla volunteers) or even the scenic backdrop. I am here because these kids are the most amazing group of people I have ever met and they deserve to have so much more than what they have. I am not a savior, I am not single-handedly going to change the way the reservation works. I don't know how much of an impact I will have, or even that I am having. There will be no statues erected in my name, building declaring my moniker or books written about me. I know that, and to be honest, wouldn't want any of that. What I want is to know that I am doing the right thing out here That I didn't pack my bags four months ago seeking an adventure that dead-ends.

We had our fall retreat the other week, and Sr. Jeanne, our sponosor from the Sisters of Mercy came from Omaha to visit us and join the retreat. At some point, I just sat on the bench swing and cried during our time for personal reflection. It was both happy and sad because I had time to just sit and think and let my mind out of its cage for a few minutes. I sometimes wonder am I being genuine out here? Did I come just to find a teaching job? Did I come because I was afraid of what to do after college? Did I come to find adventure? Did I come to serve God? Is this service proving that I do love God?

I think I can answer yes to all those questions at some point or another in four months here, and I am sure that those questions will continue to pop up this year and even after I leave. Sometimes I think the problem is that I spend too much time actually thinking, and not enough time actually listening. I love my students and teaching and I know despite the struggles that it is the best career choice for me. What I don't know is that I am always doing the right thing and that maybe I am doing more damage by coming out here for a year or two, instead of spending a long time here. But, maybe I am meant to only be here a short time, or maybe I am meant to be here long term. Honestly, I don't know yet.

The mind is an extraordinary thing, as is the heart. Not speaking in terms of biology, but emotionally. My heart is already being rendered into pieces. Good pieces, though. There are parts of my heart that have been scattered across the reservation that will remain despite where I go in life. There are things that I will never forget, as are there things that I can never forget.

So yes, I get aggravated with the ways things are and at foiled attempts to change them. But, I have never been one to give up and I march on. The Great Gatsby said, "So we beat on, like boats against the current". Well, there is little water out here, so no boats. But, I beat on, like frybread dough slapped against the table; like a mallet beating a drum at a powwow.

Maybe in time, my questions will find their answers.