Soul training 

Piecing together the fragments of a broken spirit

Near the beginning of her native memoir, The Woman Who Watches Over the World, Linda Hogan writes about being with a friend in a museum gift shop where they spot a small clay statue of Bruja. The Spanish word for woman healer or soothsayer, Bruja is full, fleshy, and Renoirian in figure. With black hair that flows behind her, she wears a dress of stars and small black shoes that connect her to the orange earth. Her eyes are alive, her breasts heavy and pointed, her stomach attached to the earth just above North America. Hogan instantly fell in love with the clay woman who is so connected to the land she protects it with her own body. She bought the Bruja statue and asked the sales clerk to mail it to her. When the clay woman arrived, it was broken. Though Hogan glued the chips and fragments, the woman who watches over the world kept breaking and cracking. First her nose, then her hands, then her legs cracked in new places, with new splits spiderwebbing into airy fissures.

“Despite my efforts, she remained that way, fragmented and unhealed. At first I was disappointed, but then I thought, yes, the woman who watches over us is as broken as the land, as hurt as the flesh people,” writes Hogan. “She is a true representative of the world she flies above. Something between us and earth has broken. That is what the soothsayer says.” Hogan’s latest book is not for the light of heart. More a collage of short essays and narrative poems that were stitched together to create a loose, watercolor of a story, the memoir leaves the reader with a feeling, an image, an historical palate of colors and emotions that undulate sadly behind the eyes. A Chickasaw Indian, Hogan tells many stories, each lined with a fierce need to heal. We get the feeling Hogan is drowning and yet, she keeps breaking through the surface of the water into the light, each time a stronger swimmer, each time able to breathe more air.

Hogan grew up with an army sergeant for a father and a mother who kept her heart protected behind a thick wall. She moved toward adulthood trailing behind a legacy of alcoholism and retracing in her heart the steps of her Chickasaw ancestors on the Trail of Tears. At age 12, she had a love affair with an older man, a relationship she called a marriage. The man, she writes, “represented, in an odd way, something like salvation and energy.” With him, she had the sort of childhood she’d never had before. In the evenings, they played games or did puzzles, taking picnics on Sundays under a hopeful sky.

“My goal in our lovemaking was to have a baby. I needed something or someone else to love, to escape into my own home with him and marriage,” she writes. “I had no other dreams of a future, I was a child who had been suicidal for as far back as I could remember, praying each night for death, as if I’d inherited all the wounds of an American history along with a family which hadn’t yet learned to love, touch, or care. Looking back, even now, the two sides of this relationship baffle me; it was love and it was also wrong.”

As an adult, Hogan and her husband adopted two orphaned girls from another tribe who arrived with no histories or records, no photographs or scraps of anything to point to as their own. “I know now that every life is a knot of stories to be either untied or left tangled. Every life has stories mistold, stories approached watchfully, stories never finished, and truths of its own, hidden even from ourselves.” As a Native American, Hogan knew that growing like a plant on a fertile landscape of countless other plants helps you blossom. The earth and sky and all other beings before and after you reside in your cells. Being separate feels like death.

At ages 10 and 5, the girls were already suffering from “susto,” or “soul loss.” With a childhood of abuse and torment behind them, both from their birth parents who abandoned them and the selfish foster parents who took them in for the financial gain, the girls were damaged in body, mind, and spirit. One girl did not speak. The other looked dead behind her eyes, her body something that just happened to walking on the land of the living. Hogan believed that love could heal the girls, that it could unravel all that had come before it, no matter how raw and unspeakable. But she learned that sadly, for children who never bonded, who fight off intimacy as though it were their worst enemy, love is oftentimes not enough. “Fire, like pain, like love, is a power we do not know,” writes Hogan. “Yet from the ashes of each, something will grow. No one knows if it will be something beautiful and strong. But in our lives, it is sometimes the broken vessel, as writer Andre Dubus calls it, that spills light.”

The common denominator of all the stories that make up her book—whether about her journey back from a head injury or about the Eskimo boy and his father who were taken in the 1900s to the Museum of Natural History in New York City to serve as part of a “scientific study”—is the connectivity of spirit, body, culture, and land, of the need for wholeness, for truth. “As humans, we want truth. We are searchers. Our stories, our courthouses, our lives, contemporary anxieties and depressions are all searches full with this desire,” she says. “Humans want truth the way water desires to be sea level and move across the continent for the greater ocean.”

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