catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 8 :: 2005.04.22 — 2005.05.05


Judgment calls

When my marriage was new, my sister-in-law asked me a question that was more embarrassingly telling than I realized at the time. She asked me, in all innocence, ?If money were not an issue, where would you see yourself?? Undoubtedly she wanted to know a little abut this woman who had newly joined the family. She was tolerant of what she heard, smiled and nodded, but I wonder what she really thought of my response.

I told her I saw myself in a Mercedes convertible tooling slowly down Rodeo Drive with shiny-handled bags in the back seat full of expensive purchases. I didn?t have the good sense to be embarrassed at the time by my answer. She had told me she saw herself living in the mountains surrounded by a husband, a dog, and probably one or two pair of Birkenstocks, things far more humble than my pursuits.

At the time I kept thinking how unexciting her life would be. Remembering my silent reaction to her dream, and visualizing my sorry carcass roving down the legendary road of hedonism is something I do not look back on with pride. It?s one of the moments in life I remember and wince. How could I have been so shallow?

We are all the products of our experiences and I needed serious experience to get beyond where I was the day of the sisterly talk. I got it. Thankfully, the Material Girl no longer exists, but it took me a long time to change her.

Two springs ago, I was told by a friend at the church I used to attend that she was going to spend a week building bunk beds at an Indian reservation on an adult mission trip. It was just the kind of experience I had been looking for to shake myself out of my middle class, suburban, WASP existence. I told her so, and she said I should look into it.

Now, you need to understand how embarrassed I was to call the associate minister in charge of the trip after having decided that I needed to attend a different church. Would it look like I was trying to get back into the fold? What right did I have, after deciding to leave, to take a space on a trip that should rightly go to a current church member? But, having a forgiving nature, the pastor said I was welcome, and, wasn?t it funny? A call had just come in from a parishioner who was no longer able to make the trip. There was just one space, and I could have it. The idea that this seemed providential has not escaped me. It was time for me to experience the poorest county in the United States, located in Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota. Lakota Sioux country.

When we first arrived at the red pole barn halfway down a pockmarked road clogged with tumbleweed and empty liquor boxes, we were greeted by Keith, a round, grey-bearded Santa of a man who was to be our leader. Through the week, he showed us how to sand bunk beds, use a drill, and conserve shower water. We slept in bunks made of raw two-by-fours. The stain was saved to finish the bunks where the children would sleep. Then we would deliver them to the shacks and trailers identified as places where families had kids who were sleeping on the floor, in bathtubs, or in some cases, on rags in basements where rats hide.

Part of Keith?s mission is to serve the Lakota population on ?the rez.? His other mission is to educate us suburbanites on the world of Indian reservation life. The Lakota believe that a love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome. They have honoring parties at the anniversary of the death of a loved one, or a birth, or at a naming ceremony. They spread out items they have been saving over an entire year, and guests are invited to take what they wish.

Saving in Lakota culture is considered selfish and counter to a spiritual way of life. If someone comes into a bit of money by gift or inheritance, it is often given away within days or shared by throwing huge parties. It is no wonder many of these people, who don?t believe the land can be owned by any human, and shun possessions, would rather stay on a desolate reservation than to join American society, driven by upward mobility.

We went to the mass grave known as Wounded Knee. Here, in 1890 the U.S. Army shot and killed 153 men, women and children. As we picked up trash blown in by relentless Dakota winds I noticed new offerings of tobacco, teddy bears, food and sage placed at the site. Wounded Knee is considered the last official stand against the intruders from the West. Families were overrun, beaten, hunted down in the dusty draws of the plains for hours. The depth of the sadness here was palpable, the burden of a hundred crying souls. I sat in a corner of the graveyard and wept.

We came to build bunk beds, get splinters in our hands and stains on our clothes. We were told not to bring much, no jewelry, no clothes you couldn?t ruin. And I discovered it was all I really needed. We carry within us the strength of God and so little else matters. It was an awakening I never imagined. I came away with something better than possessions, a sense of honor and a fresh judgment call on values.

I returned to my home and looked around with new eyes. How could I possibly have all these things

; collectibles, coffee table toppers, decorations that serve no purpose. How awful, now, to see the items stuffed in the back of refrigerator, forgotten until they are so moldy they must be tossed out. I was so ashamed of my excess. During a party cruise down a local river, friends were talking about the value of real estate on the shore. I was thinking of how many of my new Lakota friends could live in those big houses. Ten, twenty, thirty perhaps, judging from the square footage they were used to living in. Food, knick knacks, housing?I was looking at them all with reservation eyes.

I remember helping relocate a couple from Somalia to Grand Rapids, MI. As I was helping collect baby clothes and a crib for the family, another church worker told me one of the people relocated to this country cried the first time he visited an American grocery store. She didn?t know why. She supposed he was overcome by seeing all the food. I don?t think that?s quite it. I think he cried because of the unbelievably excessive amount of food we have here. What must have he thought of us, with our carts full of Pop Tarts and Kraft cheese? If people could add just a few things to their carts each time for the hungry, or send the equivalent in money to a food organization, the people in his homeland might not be starving to death.

If I were asked the question today, I would say I would live in a smaller home than the one I currently own. Downsizing is not something many people consider unless they are forced into it by circumstances. But, paying off the mortgage and having more for my favorite charities sounds a lot more appealing than my self-image of the California Girl of long ago.

One thing I have learned over the years is not to be so hard on myself. Let the past live in the past. Maybe I had to live in that mindset for awhile to learn that it was not the real me. Beating myself up over old values won?t help me cultivate a very productive future. So, when I find I?m flogging myself over a memory, I take a long breath of acceptance and self-forgiveness and return to the present. I think it is what the Lakota would suggest.

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