Sand art 

When I was very, very young, just before I entered school, I was introduced to the concept of gluing different colored sand inside of an outline that had been drawn. Sometimes by me, mostly by others. I considered it akin to interactive coloring.
In kindergarten my family had moved into an actual home, a purchased one, and I remember feeling excited, even at 6, to have stability. We’d all be in a place where we’d fit, with all our things. And, at this point, we could stop being turtles or snails and remove our homes from our aching backs. Perhaps we could rest a while.
As I explored the cottony bark of the cottonwood in front of our home, I noticed a similarly sized child lying in the tall summer grass of the community’s shared greenspace. She was exotic-looking to me, with almond eyes and long, thick dark hair. I wandered over to her, wondering why she was so intrigued by the grass. There, I saw her gently pinching rollie pollies and making a runway for them with her skin. I joined her, then, and for every summer after, learning to look closer at my natural surroundings. When my world was filled with sadness, she navigated with empathy, with kindness. She was carefree, like the wind. Still, to this day, the wind reminds me of, no, it IS her. How beautiful she could become the wind!
Vanessa was my best friend, from kindergarten to 7th grade. She was in second grade at Buena Vista when I was in kindergarten, which is often a bit of a jump for friendship, but I remember loving the idea of skipping first grade because that meant I could transfer into the 2-3 combo class, led by Ms. McPherson. And there, we got to be classmates for the only time. With Vanessa, I had fun. I mean, what I can only imagine as a childhood. We played and played and played. We made art, we tanned, we had sleepovers where we played Oregon Trail and sometimes snuck out at night to walk the neighborhood. We experimented with cooking. I recall the night we attempted both Navajo fry bread and my grandmother’s sugar cookies, accidentally switching sugar and salt in both. It was terrible. And the best night I remember. Usually, my stepfather would get angry, but he melted at our laughter. He even made us eat what we’d tried… Joining in the fun of how terrible or concoctions tasted. And who couldn’t? It just was the single greatest reminder that we were children, that we were allowed to make mistakes, that those mistakes meant learning, and that what we did had no relevant consequences to the rest of the world.
Vanessa was quiet, small, gentle, thoughtful, and curious. She was trustworthy and fun. When tragedy struck, she carefully put on her oxygen mask before assisting others. She cares that much about her soul–deeply spiritual, deeply loved. She was an old soul.
While we were quite young still, two events shaped our neighborhood and another shifted energy between us. The smaller incident: I was playing a game of helicopter where you put your arms out as propellers and spin— faster and faster, until you got too dizzy and floated down to the ground. I was not the best pilot and often was overzealous when being allowed to be childlike in nature. I started spinning, filling the spring air with laughter, until I quickly plummeted to the concrete below my feet. This was my first concussion. She rushed to me, then rushed to my house, finding an adult who could assist. She believed adults took care of children. I suffered a concussion and many, many cosmetic injuries, but what made this experience different from the rest is that she reminded me how fun the pain was the entire time. “It was soooo worth it, right? Didn’t you feel like you were flying?!” What a great counter balance to my family, where I was grounded a month.
Vanessa and I lived in a poor neighborhood, though, and there were many moments that served as reminders. Michael, a Hispanic boy in our neighborhood, whom we absolutely loved going to the pool and playing soccer with at home and at school, had family staying from out of town for a time in Tanglewood. He couldn’t play as much, that summer we were nine, so we decided we’d move the playground a bit closer to his house so he could join. The communal areas had tall light posts most of us children liked to climb and slide back down like fire poles. In May, I’d work with with Vanessa to decorate the one we were playing near so we could have proper May day festivities. We strung flowers together for our hair and made bracelets. We took it all in. Two hippie, earth loving kids. While playing soccer in the grass one evening, Vanessa and I heard a shot, a big loud slap. And then the world went quiet. Michael and his cousin were playing inside the house, perhaps 500 yards away, with a bb gun. And it was loaded. We held hands as her dad and mom came running toward where we were playing to see if we were okay. We huddled together as they took Michael out of the house on a stretcher. That was the spring I first learned about death and the summer I learned about life–i was finally able to go home to the reservation with the family I loved. Love. The family I love.
Her grandfather, a shaman, lived east of the painted desert, in Northern Arizona, near the New Mexico border. Her grandmother was a fantastic cook, with a traditional kitchen, but also with a traditional fire hearth that we used to learn to bake. I can smell the fry bread in the wind. The only member outside the immediate family I’d met beforehand was Eric Runningpath, Vanessa’s cousin, our dance instructor, and one of my greatest heroes. Eric taught me to love traditional Navajo culture and prepared me to experience the stillness of the res. My second night there, we went to the grandparents home, a few miles from where we slept. I remember like yesterday, baking with grandmother, singing songs, hearing stories of childhood, when grandfather came in. He walked right toward me, his giant hand coming to rest on my shoulder. “We have much to do. Come.” This was a moment where I felt genuine fear, for I believed this man would hurt me. But in fact, this began my teachings from Hunter Bear, the man who has become my still small voice.
Being with Vanessa was always extraordinarily boring. It was one of those friendships that a person takes for granted, like the fit of a glove or a warm embrace. Most of my favorite memories with her were quite normal for children: playing on the swings at school, playing soccer and handball and four square at recess, not wanting to do our homework together, and having epic sleepovers. Vanessa was easy, and I enjoyed the moments where I could be a regular kid. I hated leaving my elementary school for a new one because I was always scared she’d find a new group of friends, which she did, but she never forgot me.
I remember the day Vanessa met Ashley, my new friend from my new school. I was in 4th grade and they were in 5th. Ashley came to my house to spend time at the pool, and Vanessa joined us. I was so nervous they’d hate one another, but they adapted. Mostly, Vanessa adapted and Ashley stayed Ashley–which worked for us. It worked well for me, as then I had someone to share Ashley’s sadness with. Vanessa became the backbone of my group of friends. And she was always there for me, to remind me that friends could be more inclusive than family.
And then that day occurred. September 1998. So vividly do I remember the paralysis I felt watching Ashley take her life, her body lifeless before my eyes. So vividly do I remember looking for Vanessa. Looking for the calm inside the storm. And when she was found (on the reservation), her family had no hesitation to pack up the car and head home to take care of a friend in need.
I wish I knew the last time we enjoyed one another’s company. I wish I could have thanked Vanessa. I wish she hadn’t been killed. I wish I could have told her all the things I adored about her and learned from her.
Oh, Vanessa, I’m so sorry I did not have the capacity to share with your dad and family my memories of the beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, and kind young lady I was fortunate enough to hold hands with. To play with. To adventure with.


Rumble, reckoning, revolution

So many changes over the last few weeks, I can hardly explain it all… Though the journey has not been smooth and the process has been crippling, the lightness and peace in my life has sustained since a quiet moment where I wept with grief in a mountain cabin, for a friend whose loss I’d put behind me, for all the pain and isolation I have felt. Opening myself up, I immediately felt the shame of happiness, lashing out at undeserving individuals, because of my startling shame. Such a low point before my rising, and one that truly breaks my heart. 
I can’t explain what has transpired since the stillness of opening myself to grieving the loss of my dear childhood friend, the loss of innocence, except to say that I have now found deep peace and profound joy within myself. I’ve forgiven people and events that have ruined my self esteem and relationships with others, I’ve actually stuck through 20+ minutes of meditation a day, I’ve heard people, I’ve seen people. I’ve settled lawsuits. I’ve apologized. I’ve felt deep, tremendous gratitude. I’ve eaten ice cream cones, done cartwheels in the park, watched ACTUAL comedies, I’ve read. I’ve danced alone, with strangers. I’ve prayed. I’ve felt safe and loved as I am. 

To all of you who have been a part of my reckoning, to those I’ve hurt in the process: Thank you. I’m so sorry that I’ve made you feel like I didn’t trust your intentions. Thank you for inspiring me to belong again. I can’t wait to experience this new, beautiful world and what it’s got to offer my exploding, happy heart. 

Father’s Day

Fathers’ Day can be so painful for many. I am grateful that despite the loss and pain, I had a grandfather who could teach me the beautiful lesson that loving a child has nothing to do with biology. That being a father has nothing to do with genes. And then, I was fortunate enough to be loved by the man who loves my mother.

I’m even more grateful for the men raising my nieces and nephews, to the fatherly heroes my brothers and cousins have shown themselves to be, for my friends who are such present fathers and stepfathers, for the father who raised the man I love into an amazing human, and especially for the men who have loved me like their own.

To me, every anniversary between my mom and stepdad is (my) father’s day. Cheers to the man who never had to love me but did, and to the man who loves my mother more every single day. Who taught me math, who encouraged me to love baseball and hockey, who came to my games and PTA meetings, who drew tough boundaries, who embarrassed me the way only dads can, who stood by me even when my mom couldn’t. Who stood by me when no one else did. I have never been able to show my gratitude for you, but today I want to share it with the world. I cannot wait to find a man worthy of you walking me down the aisle to greet. I look forward to the day that I get to see you be a grandfather, to dance with you at my wedding, to have more adventures with you. I don’t think I could love you more than in this moment, where I have woken up for the first time to how absolutely fantastic you have been my entire life.

Thanks for loving my mother, and thank you so much for loving me. I could never thank you enough for being the man you didn’t have to be. I look forward to living closer to you. I am hopeful that one day I will get to meet a man who loves me like you love my mom, for all my imperfections.