This trip is over. The time has come to return "home" to Massachusetts. Each time I must do this, several times a year, I ask myself how I manage to leave all this that I love behind. My mind, my heart and my soul live here where I can look out over the land, feel the land, see the sun traverse the sky almost every day of the year, see the stars who watch over us move across the sky almost every night. Someday I won't leave. I can't say whether that move will be deliberately planned for or whether I will just turn my back and walk away when the boarding of the plane to take me "home" is announced, my mind and my body acting in concert, no longer being torn apart, saying "NO, not again."
I don't fit easily into the available niches in the eastern college community of Amherst, even though I have spent over half of my life in Massachusetts, first going to school in Cambridge, working there for several years before finally leaving, and then returning again, this time to Amherst. I had expected to return to the New England where Steve and I had grown up together and where our children were born. While time almost stood still here, both Steve and I had changed. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has been very good to me professionally. I was given the opportunity to really mature as an astronomer here and I took advantage of it. I hope I have given back as much as I received. There may be no other place where I could find a happier home as an astronomer. But I cannot be defined solely as an astronomer and I will never be a New England matron.
Amherst has a peacefulness that makes me uncomfortable. I am just not comfortable with the contented. The world is too full of interesting and exciting things to learn to allow me to be content, or to understand those who are. I have seen my view of the universe change many times in my professional lifetime. The "average" worldview of the U.S. population has also changed drastically in my lifetime. The assumptions that my grandaughters will grow up with are vastly different than those of the generation of girls with whom I went to school. I hope the same is true for the my grandsons.
The world is now a far different place than the one in which I grew up. Even more important, we each move through this world carrying our own universes within us. My universe is quite different from my husband's. I'm sure that it is different from my children's, each of whom carries their own. Yet we all operate in the same physical world and deal in some way with the others who inhabit it and interact with their universes, hardly considering what we are doing, all seeing the world through different eyes.
The Muskogee (Creek) poet, Joy Harjo, grew up ten years later and forty miles north of where I grew up in Oklahoma. In her poetry, I can find the things that I could only feel under the surface there and fear without apparent reason because to to acknowledge these realities of life at that time was so taboo that I could not even think them, at least not consciously. But her poetry places me back in that space and tells me that I was not alone.
There are people with very different world views who produce works of art which I find completely compelling, if not overwhelming. For me this is reason enough to wish to see the world through their eyes. This feeling is strengthened by reading Nora Naranjo-Morse's introduction to her book Mud Woman where she describes the factors that enhance her creativity.
"The simple act of doing opens creative channels.
"Unharried work opens my mind to imagination."
"Uncensored imagination, along with the purity of childlike play, explodes on my worktable."
These are the same factors that enhance my creativity as an astronomer! The time consuming and laborious work of reducing data allows my mind to sometimes wander a bit to consider where the data might lead and to follow alternate paths. Perhaps, when done with the "reductions," this time to think will allow me to explore in a direction not seen when I undertook the project. Certainly things go much more smoothly when I am not distracted by a variety of external interruptions. And there can be no argument about the value of uncensored imagination, although some will find the concept of childlike play with ideas undignified!
I find my peace in motion. I have always gone wandering off by myself, driving my mother crazy when I was a child. Now I have waking dreams, when the sun goes down at 3:30 in the afternoon on December 15th, of walking to the edge of Canyon de Chelly at Junction Overlook to watch the shadows move up the canyon floor, with the breezes playing over my face, with lightning from a storm flickering over the distant mountains, as it did one evening a couple of August's ago. Some sunsets I drift off to watch the light on the western face of the Lukachukai Mountains, as I could each evening when we taught math at Navajo Community College. Sometimes I have to stop myself from greeting someone with yá'át'ééh and pull myself back from diné bikéyah.
I have personally gained an enormous amount from the Native Americans that I have come to know and from my forays to the edges of their culture(s). One cannot help but profit from looking at one's self and one's assumptions from another's perspective, allowing a continuing development of the person. I have learned to think of my "ownership" of pieces of art as a falacious notion imposed by European based concepts of property. I cannot own these works. Instead I have taken on a great responsibility since I am now the caretaker for these incredible personages. I must communicate with each piece regularly. I must touch them (listen to the museum people shudder!) and I must listen to them and thus inform my behavior. These pieces have chosen me; they would not allow me walk away once I had seen them. That is why they now live in my home. They want something from me in return for their company. They have led me to know their creators, a very important part of my life. Now it is my time to give back, to try to create knowledge and understanding, to attempt to empower again these people who have had their world taken from them abruptly and violently, to try to give them the means to speak to us, to each other, and to the rest of the world, if we will all listen will listen, to seek a reconciliation.
And what can we say to them? What can you say to an entire array of cultures which our European culture actively attempted to wipe out, which we have certainly damaged, perhaps irretrievely? Cultures, whose innumerable contributions to our own we fail to acknowledge; who we continue to manipulate for the gain of the dominant culture? Nothing we can say can undo the damage. The best we can do is give them the means to take control of their lives again and to join us as full citizens, contributing their insights and perspectives to the solution of the enormous problems that we face today and in the future.
Diane Glancy writes, "Can you imagine America remaining as it was while the rest of the world moved on? Perhaps it could have been handled better." Yes, perhaps, but Jack Weathersford argues in Indian Givers that the rest of the world moved on in large part because of the rape of the Western hemisphere and its cultures. The silver and gold mined in the Andes changed the entire distribution of "wealth" in the rest of the world. The introduction of the hardy potato plant had at least as great an effect because the more northerly countries now had a healthier population, no longer continually subject to famines because of the climate sensitivity of the grain crops, and could compete more easily with the "sunbelt" countries.
The prosperous, working cultures of the Western hemisphere were destroyed by the European cultures because over the centuries they had domesticated a set of animals not found in the Western hemisphere, such as horses and cows, and built a civilization based on animal power instead of human power. Their metallurgy was also more advanced, allowing them to have swords and guns. They made use of the excellent roads built by the Incas to rapidly conquer the main population centers. So today we enjoy Italian cuisine, incorporating the Indian tomato, potato, and bean, Swiss, Belgian and Dutch chocolate derived from the South American cacao bean and Spanish gazpacho, based on the Indian tomato and pepper. The chilis we associate with so many cuisines, even the Asian, all derive from plants gathered in the western hemisphere. All of these are taken and used without attribution and claimed as their own by the recipients.
"But these are idle recollections, the mean and ordinary agonies of human history," says Scott Momaday. And indeed, that is true. This was by no means the first time entire cultures were treated in this manner by conquering armies and certainly was not the last. The front pages of our newspapers continue to retell the same story again and again.
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© 1994-2008 Karen M. Strom
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