Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Tundra Between Us

Saggan beachcoming
When my oldest daughter Rachel was three or four we used to walk to the beach of the Beaufort Sea to look for stones and pieces of ocean-polished glass. There was an old woman who lived along the way and she often sat outside in a brightly-colored parka, enjoying the weather.  She was a tiny woman and one of the few left who still wore the traditional tattoos on her chin, made in the old way, no doubt, with ivory and soot. She would smile as we passed by, speaking to Rachel in Inupiaq with words I didn’t understand. Perhaps she was speaking of the weather or making jokes or telling stories.

Her name was Rachel, as it turned out, Rachel Sakeagak. Her Inupiaq name was Naninaaq.

In Inupiaq there is a special relationship between people who share a name. The word is Atiq and although it translates as namesake, the meaning runs much deeper. It implies a special kind kinship because names have spirits attached to them and if you want to keep a person alive or bring them back, you do so through the names you give.

Because she was Rachel, my daughter became Naninaaq and is now a filmmaker with a daughter of her own. She began her filmmaking career under the name of  Naninaaq Productions.

Leslie Marmon Silko compares time to an ocean always moving in and out,  more circular than liner.  Names are like that, too, I think.

One of Rachel’s other Inupiaq names is Nutaaq, Nutaaq, the name of one of the characters in my book, Blessing’s Bead. Nutaaq, the name  of my friend Doreen’s daughter who died too young a week ago, fighting the same battle one of my own fights, a battle with addiction. We are so hurt by the fact that Nutaaq lost her battle—so very angry that things like drugs wash up on our shores like old plastic to ensnare our children, once as happy as dolphins. 

The truth, of course, is more complicated than that—the truth is a fabric woven of many stories and including threads of bright pain and dark sorrow.

Doreen is a writer, too, and I have been remembering, lately, a  a piece she wrote once about her own childhood. She was remembering the old men out on tundra trails in the springtime, digging narrow trenches with sticks to let the melting snow water run off. Keeping the trails that tied one house to another intact, back in the days before heavy equipment destroyed the tundra between us.

After I listened to Doreen that time, I went home and watched my husband, out in the driveway, carving narrow trenches into the mud with the edge of a shovel to let the water run off.  It was a task he did every spring, one I'd always found vaguely annoying and ultimately pointless.  But watching him that time, I was struck with the sudden shock of recognition, thinking about the ways we forge connections, the code of it in our blood, as it were, as involuntary as a heart beat.

Everything intersects as story and  the stories are neither simple nor singular. Like beach glass, we turn them this way and that to catch the light and what we see depends on who we are and how our vision's tuned.

I think of  Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie's wonderful speech, The Danger of a Single Story. If you haven’t heard it, go listen to it.

Stories matter. 

This week is Random Acts of Publicy week, an idea concieved by another writer friend of mine--a way of celebrating each other’s books and stories--by talking about them in public places. I think I’ll go do that, now. 

Maybe I just did.