Some of What Inspired Us This Year

We turn towards and into the arts regularly over here. Books are a particular love. There is a small desk in a small nook at the top of the stairs at the office. Often a book is just placed there. Of course, nobody has time to read during a busy clinic day. But there sits a book. It’s something one of us is reading and it feels good to see it there. Usually, one of us finds a treasure in book form and then we both end up reading it. The book sits on the desk and while it sits it prompts conversation – another art form we treasure. The conversations take place over days and months and years. In some way, somehow, these books inform aspects of our work and only that because they inform us ever more deeply of what it means to be embodied now – in this time and place with our particular histories alive and always seeking deeper understanding…


For instance, while we read these books well over a year ago, David Hinton’s Existence and Hunger Mountain spent some time on the little desk. There is no possible way to exhaust the talk prompted by those two little jewels. 


What follows is a list of some of the books that sat in that special spot on the desk at the top of the stairs and touched us most profoundly.


I am going to start with Layli Long Soldier’s poetry collection, Whereas. I believe it’s an important book, a testament, a devastating truth telling, beautiful and haunting. Layli Long Soldier’s use of multiple languages and lenses gives her poems depth that bends time and place. Her voice both on the page and in readings and interviews is amazing. You can hear her hereon On Being and watch her heregiving a reading.


Layli Long Soldier’s poems and use of language raised my awareness of current Indigenous poetics – which is inseparable from politics and justice. I have a lot more awareness to gain and am taking that as necessary work for the coming year and beyond.


The 25thanniversary issue of Orion magazine was entitled Nature and Culture at a Turning Point. Inside was a sequence of poems, essays and photographs, entitled Women and Standing Rock; On sacred water and the body, curated by Layli Long Soldier. Every poem, essay and photograph is amazing. But one stood out; The First Water is the Body by Natalie Diaz. There’s no summarizing, it just needs to be read. The entire sequence can be read and viewed here.


While it couldn’t quite sit on the desk another find of the year was LitHub. So much amazing content, long form journalism, features, reviews and excerpts. One of the best discoveries on LitHub is a series, New Poetry by Indigenous Women, curated by Natalie Diaz. In her words:


“In my Mojave culture, many of our songs are maps, but not in the sense of an American map. Mojave song-maps do not draw borders or boundaries, do not say this is knowable, or defined, or mine. Instead our maps use language to tell about our movements and wonderings (not wanderings) across a space, naming what has happened along the way while also compelling us toward what is waiting to be discovered, where we might go, and who we might meet or become along the way.” 


The poems she selects she equates to these song-maps. You can read the series here.


Lucky we are to have Powell’s a short walk down Hawthorne. Sometimes you go with something in mind and sometimes to just wander and be grabbed. New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich was featured in the poetry section on one such visit and it came home with me. I’m still making my way through the poets, their voice and subject, it is rich and warrants slow going, so as to be absorbed by the words. 


One poet touched me in a particular way, possibly because she writes in the Indigenous language of the great lakes region where I was born and was the first landscape I knew deeply, a place where my own imagination took formless form. Margaret Noodin’s collection Wenwei, poems in Anishinaabemowin and English. She works first in Anishinaabemowinand then translates the poems into English, on the page the reader see the original Anishinaabemowinpoem first and the English translation second.


One spring Saturday morning I sat reading her poems and did what we do these days and looked her up on my phone. I saw a TedX talk on the google scroll and watched. I strongly encourage you to watch it here.


Her first words are to imagine a fire onto the stage and then she shows a satellite image of the great lakes and names them as a totality in Anishinaabemowin. I spent innumerable hours sitting on the rocks at the shore of Lake Michigan throughout childhood and into adulthood. I brought my troubles there and my yearnings. I went in the winter when ice buckled the shore, the winter visits were always my favorite. The ice would groan and crack. I knew the lake to be alive but never really had any language or concept for that feeling.


Her weaving of Anishinaabemowin wisdom and cosmology by focusing on the words and the language first and then offering a translation I found instructive and illuminating. Her talk taught me more about where I grew up than any of the required history that I was forced to learn growing up in Illinois.


I am still working my way through Noodin’s Bawaajimo; A Dialect of Dreams in Anishinaabe Language and Literature. It’s currently on the stack of books coming on my winter sojourn. 


I have been touched in profound ways that are difficult to put in words by spending much time with these voices over the year. But I can say my view of myself in relationship to the land and the concepts of nation and race are changing in ways that feel important and I recognize how important an ongoing commitment to this type of change is for me. My endeavors into this work are certainly not ending with the turn of the calendar. Rather, my challenge is to learn how to embody and act from increasing awareness. This is the ongoing unfolding of the life.


Other books have found a place on the desk at the top of the stairs but I feel that giving them more discursive space here might dilute the impact that the above works have had on me. I would like to list them though as they have also been important companions on the journey through the year.


·     Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. Tom Kelly and David Kelly

·     Being a Brain-Wise Therapist; A Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. Bonnie Badenoch

·     No-Gate Gateway.David Hinton

·     Desert:Poems. David Hinton

·     Lu Chi’s Wen Fu, The Art of Writing.Translated by Sam Hamill

·     Beauty.John O’Donohue


Then there is the ever growing taller stack of books to be read… these ones are here patiently waiting for their turn on the little desk at the top of the stairs…


·     Little Man, Little man. James Baldwin, illustrated by Yoran Cazac. 

·     Heart Berries:A Memoir. Terese Marie Mailhot

·     The Mountains and Waters Sutra.Shohaku Okumura

·     The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory;the transformative power of feeling safe. Stephen Porges.

·     When My Brother was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz. 

·     Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology. Translated and Edited by David Hinton.