As you’ll see, this is mostly about me, that’s one of Nathan’s powers. It’s not just me. He helped and continues to help many people be a little closer to their best self, their true self, their self that really does know how to treat others. Nathan stands with the ancestors now. And whatever is going on on the other side, I’m convinced he looks our way from time to time with a smile like he is about to give us one of those big Standing Bear hugs.
I start with a picture of my great-granddaughters out of respect for Nathan’s family; his mother, sister, and late father. Nathan’s deep love, longing and wishes for his family was the central topic of our first conversation. It seems that our contemporary cultures, our lives, keep getting more complex. But, maybe nothing is as deeply complex and meaningful as our human families. One thing is simply true. All of us come into this world as helpless infants, totally dependent on someone for the loving care necessary for living. Many people, like me, carry some wounds and/or scar tissue from childhood. Nathan carried less. I am deeply grateful to Nathan’s family for who he became.
“You gotta meet this guy, he’d give you the shirt off his back,” my friend Sam exclaimed in passing. It was 1972 or 3 and I was teaching at Mankato State in Minnesota. Nathan showed up a few days later to sit in on an Indian Studies class and we talked afterwards. He talked about his family and about life on the road living out of his backpack. He said that he was interested in
Indians because of his father. I talked about the North flowing current that brought me from Santa Barbara to Mankato and invited him to a sweat I was running for a few close friends. I’ve always been proud to say that the first sweat that I poured was the first that Nathan attended.
A few weeks later Nathan and I were sitting in the sunshine when our friend Jennifer strolled up. “What are you guys up to?”
“We’re thinking about hitching to Colorado.” “When are you leaving?”
“How soon can you be ready?”
“It’ll take me 30 minutes. I’ll bring sandwiches’
It didn’t take long to get our first ride but the second was a different story. Traffic was sparse and no one stopped for three hippies and three big backpacks. Still we were in good spirits, talking and sparring in the ditch beside the road. Jennifer was an advanced Karate student and I’ll never forget her little white high velocity fist suddenly materializing one quarter inch away from my Adam’s apple. A few minutes later she started screaming and jumping around in circles. “What’s wrong?,” I asked..
“I’m scared of butterflies.” she screamed. Sure nuff, there were a couple of little white butterflies chasing her around.
Now, I’m ashamed of being sarcastic. But, then, I said, “I guess karate doesn’t work on butterflies.”
Later we were talking about what Steve Gaskin wrote about truth, love, and beauty in his book, Monday Night Class, He said something like,
“Beauty is a gift, it’s in the eye of the beholder, it’s in the hands and spirit of the creator, ….Love takes a lifetime to learn.
….Truth, though; truth is easy. You are either doing it or you are not.”
Hours later, still no rides and almost sundown, we walked about 50 yards off the highway to a little grove of trees. Built a little fire, cooked rice and veggies. Rolled our sleeping bags out and had a wonderful rest.
Nathan was up early and for the first time I noticed the ordered beauty of his backpack home. Vividly embroidered bags of diverse yet harmonious colors, sizes and shapes gave a place and space for everything. I asked him about them and he told me that he made them when he was snowbound in Colorado for a month. He said, “…that’s why I don’t like peanut butter—that’s all I had to eat for the last week.”
Back in the ditch beside the road after a few hours, spirits were about to sag when a station wagon with Virginia plates pulled over. Backpacks barely fit with their luggage behind the seat. Nice young couple recently married, friendly, talkative. Off to see the USA. I was sitting behind the driver. Nathan in the middle. Jennifer behind the wife. With Nathan’s warmth, as usual, there was no ice to break. We were all talking like old friends when the husband with innocent pride said, “I wrote the computer program that caught Angela Davis.”
Silence. Time slowed down. “Truth is easy, you either do it or you don’t.” Like hell, oh well. I looked at Nathan. He looked at me. I awkwardly, clumsily, but clearly said, “I would rather write a program that set people free than one that locked them up.”
Time slowed a little more. Like a turtle, I pulled my head and all four legs in. Tucked my tail in under my shell. What an awful self-righteous way to say it. I mean if I have to tell the truth why couldn’t it be, “great programming but she is kind of a hero of mine. I mean like maybe it’s all for the best. At least she won’t be on the run. Hopefully she’ll get off or maybe just a slap on the wrist.” You get the idea, Only, I didn’t think. I was just all tucked in waiting to see what came next.
Nathan said something. I wish to God I knew what he said. Maybe it was just the tone of his voice when he said it. Whatever. When I tentatively poked my head out, the conversation had shifted to a deeper, closer, caring and sharing level. My late Uncle used to help people heal with just the tone of his voice. Nathan did that sometimes.
So we had a great picnic with our new friends from Virginia and waved a ‘see you later’ with real affection. Then a woman in a VW Bug pulled over. I don’t know how she thought we would all fit but we did. Shortly after we got in she said, “I got out of the hospital a few days ago. I was in a car accident. I was driving. My baby died.” Naturally she was still grieving. We mostly just listened.
She took us home with her to meet her husband. He was shocked to see us. Clearly still grieving, he was an M.D. with kind, sad eyes. They lived in a small old house in the middle of the Fontenelle Forest. I think of it as a sacred place. It is a large, natural forest located in the center of Omaha, Nebraska. He took Nathan, Jennifer and I out into the depths of the forest to gather Morel mushrooms.
We got plenty for dinner. Delicious. We got to see their grief soften. Saw more life in their eyes. Saw their bodies relax and lean towards one another. The room changed, filled with their loving shared grief displacing what they had each borne alone. Maybe I’m fooling myself but i don’t think so.
We rolled our sleeping bags out in their front yard and in the morning they drove us to the road.
The last ride I remember occasioned another truth-telling lesson. Nathan took point on this and it worked out better than could be expected and was certainly easier on me.
I don’t remember how we got to where we were supposedly going. But we got there for the last half hour of the two-day meeting of the American Psychological Association. We met up with the other faculty from Makato State and they offered us a ride back with them. They were good guys and we had a picnic in a park on the way back. I had my pipe with me. The time was right so I unwrapped it and as far as I know that was Nathan’s first pipe ceremony.
The next extended time I remember spending with Nathan was another road trip. We hitched out to California to see my family. Towards the end of the day on the road we would start looking for a likely place to camp. As soon as one of us saw one we would ask the driver to stop. Then we would find a place out of sight of the road to set up camp before dark, cook dinner and have a good rest before we got up to cook breakfast and get on the road again. I was developing a bad cold.
Coming down the side of some mountain in Montana, Nathan spotted a small stream and asked the driver to stop. We got out and walked upstream to where we found a nice flat spot beside a beautiful little waterfall with wild roses growing all around. We set up camp and picked rose hips. We stayed there two or three nights, maybe four. All I did was visit with Nathan, drink rose hip tea and sleep by that cheerful mountain waterfall. It truly was one of the most wonderful few days of my life and I’ve had way more than my share of wonderful days. By the time we left I felt better than I had ever felt since I was ten years old.
When we got to the west coast we got a ride with a nice guy in an old VW van. He picked up another guy, a Vietnam vet with wild eyes and a bayonet. When it came time to get out and camp the vet said he’d like to camp too and Nathan said sure. We struggled through big trees and thick damp coastal brush down to the beach. There were hundreds of big drift logs on the beach and lots of big driftwood planks. After exploring a little we found a triangle of logs with a gap we could use for a door. We drug planks over to make a roof and there was plenty of room for the three of us and a nice little cook fire.
The vet had peanut butter and Nathan and I had raisins and apples so we cored the apples, filled them with peanut butter and raisins, wrapped them in aluminum foil and roasted them in the fire. Great, but much better in a driftwood hut than when I tried it at home. The company was good but I slept with one eye open thinking about that bayonet. Especially when it sounded like he was having flashback dreams. The next day the vet got to his destination and Nathan and I continued down the coast.
A big old car rolled to a stop. I could see they had been drinking but Nathan was already in so I climbed in. Nothing bad happened but I should have had the sense to drag Nathan out if I could have. They were a middle-aged man and woman; happy drunks, happily on their way to the next big town so the man could turn himself in for some crime. He never said what crime. I didn’t speculate. His driving was sloppy but not too bad considering how happy he was. I really liked the woman. She clearly loved her man and kept him happy even though she was happy to tell us her “heart was bigger than the Grand Canyon.”
It was the most cheerfully terrifying ride I’ve ever had. When they stopped at the next liquor store for more beer I told Nathan now was our chance to get out. He didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
I proposed that I drive so that they could party undistracted. Of course, the driver wouldn’t hear of it. At least he didn’t offer to fight. But I didn’t think to try to take his keys away or to call the cops. They weren’t happy with us but we unloaded our backpacks. Nathan still didn’t think we should have hurt their feelings. Oh well, some things I’m stubborn about.
We arrived safely in California at last. I’m grateful that my family had a chance to meet Nathan. Now they know who I’m talking about. Mom loaned me her car so we could drive back to Minnesota. We started the drive back but stopped in Lake Tahoe at a health food store. Nathan went in after agreeing that I would pick him up in an hour or so. When I came back. He said, “I met some people here I think I’ll stay a while”.
Twenty or thirty years later in Saskatchewan I got an email from him, saying, “I am still in Lake Tahoe.” I sent him one back, said, “Good, I’m going to a family reunion in North Lake Tahoe this summer. I could come see you.”
“Great,” he said and told me about his contracting business and other things he was doing. That summer me and my teenage grandson did go to see him. I brought him an arrow I had made. He gave me one of his beautiful pen and ink drawings. He took us to a restaurant that he and his crew had designed and rebuilt. He showed us through the interior of a home he had rebuilt. He took us sailing. I knew how beautifully and generously he worked with people. But except for the beautifully designed interior of his backpack I had never understood the extent of his gift for beauty. Even material things responded to his gift.
My Navajo Aunt Bernice told me just a little about the Navajo spiritual path she called the beauty way, I don’t claim to understand even the little she told me. But her husband, my father’s brother, took me once to visit a Navajo silversmith’s workshop. It was a place of beauty. That is what I thought of when I saw Nathan’s work.
After I returned to Saskatchewan, Nathan and I kept in touch by email.
By my count its taken me fourteen hours to write five pages. It’s a labour of love but I better take a nap.
For all our relations,
(with thanks to Eric for editorial suggestions)