“Every shining pine needle, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people. We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers…all belong to the same family.” ~Chief Seattle
A woman knocked on our door.
She had a little boy with her. He was wearing one shoe. They both looked exhausted and cold. She said, “I’m so sorry. We’ve been looking for Ravenna Park. Can you help us find it? We’ve been walking for such a long time and his feet hurt.” My husband immediately said he would drive them there, and the woman burst into tears of gratitude.
I, sitting next to my warm fire, with a murder mystery show paused, and thinking about having a hot cup of cocoa, was jolted out of my cushy reverie. I came to the door, looked over the two of them with their tee shirts and back packs in the cold dark and stared. “It’s freezing out there. Come inside!” I said, swinging the door wide. But it was as if there was an imaginary line in the door frame. She put out her hand. I looked at her dirty hand, confused. Did she want something? Was this a trick of some kind? Then I realized she was giving her hand to me. I took it.
“My name is Sapphire,” She said.
“Oh. I’m Bridget.” Her tear stained, wrinkled face looked so worn, but she could only have been around the same age as me. She looked in my eyes and smiled. Not the plastered, make-uped, meet and greet, small talk kind of smile I’ve become acquainted with from strangers. Genuine.
“Bridget.” She said. I looked into her face and felt like I was falling through a looking glass. What might have been if my circumstances were different? Who would she be if hers were reversed?
A conversation I had a few days prior was fresh in my mind. A friend of mine and I were having a discussion about some Native American statues on a building in Seattle. My friend felt uncomfortable with it, in light of Seattle’s past, while I wanted to find out who made the artwork because I thought it was beautiful. It was made by Victor G Schneider, inspired by the photographs of Edward S. Curtis.
Image courtesy of Jamie Spiro Photography
“Curtis’ goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much of Native American traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared. He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907: “The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” ~Wikipedia
The conversation I had with my friend surrounded the responsibilities we have, as white women and descendants of a world that has stamped out much of the traditions of the Native American people who used to live on our shores, in keeping their memory sacred and respected. I have very few answers on the subject, honestly. I want to be able to enjoy art without fearing I’m celebrating something that isn’t politically correct. In the case of the statues (which are on the Cobb Building in Seattle), I don’t think there is any reason to take them down or be chastised for liking them. I also felt so removed from any Native American culture that I didn’t know that I had any real right to what to think or how to respond. After all, what direct link did I have with them? It was not as if I encountered any in my day to day.
And then here was a desperate Native American woman knocking on my door.
My little boys came to the door and said hello to Sapphire’s little boy. He stayed back in the shadows, out of reach. “Are you okay?” I asked, “Where do you live?”
“I live in a tent.”
Oh my heart. I didn’t know what to say. What do you do when a woman and child are on your doorstep, you’re already wishing the door could be closed because your feet are getting cold, and you know they are going to go into the woods and try to sleep on the wet ground? I want to be the type of person who could never let someone leave my door without a place to go.
And yet, I did.
I’m crying just writing that.
“[We] all belong to the same family,” Chief Seattle said. Yet our culture turns our backs on homeless people. I do it every day because, what can I do? I live in the city. There are people begging on many corners, and I have learned to ignore them. We worry about them buying drugs or alcohol, and hope that the state has enough programs to care for them, our taxes stretching across an endless chasm.
But my own doorstep. My threshold.
My Grandmother used to buy baskets from Native American women on her doorstep when she was my age. So much has changed.
Then Beau was ready with his keys and we said a quick goodbye before he took them down to the forest. It was rushed, and I had my own three boys to corral, and then it was over. I hesitated, and she was lost.
After Beau came back we talked about how we should have thought to give them our old coats. And a blanket. Or food! Beau said he asked her if she needed anything or if he could give her anything and she said no, and she offered to pay for the gas even though Ravenna is only a couple blocks from our house.
I felt like Marie Antoinette and it made my chest hurt.
Something knocked on my soul that night. Until then I could not recall any time that I had been faced with such dire poverty in my own comfortable bubble. When we first opened the door Sapphire said, “It’s not who you’re expecting.” She could not have used a more apropos word. It was the unexpected that pierced my heart. I couldn’t help but cry at how completely spoiled I am and how, with just one offer of a car ride a woman would give me her hand and her precious name. She had nothing, yet still she gave me kindness.
How many times have I lashed out because I was tired, or not smiled at the school drop off because I hadn’t had my coffee? Here was the very essence of beauty standing before me. A flower opening without any reason. A sister.
The next day I wept for hours. I went to the woods to see if they were there. There is a spot where homeless people make campfires and sleep on tarps hidden under teepees covered in branches, hidden from the bridge above. But I didn’t find them. I wept for that little boy, who looked so much like my Oliver when he was small. I imagined him sleeping in the dark Ravenna woods, not knowing if warmth or food or a thief might come. Ravenna Park has been such a haven to me since we moved here, though I would never venture there at night. I pray that the magic of that place wraps him up and makes him feel safe. I pray that Sapphire remembers our hobbit door as a place that welcomed her and cared about her. And I pray that I remember that night as one where I was given an opportunity to show kindness, but it was the one with nothing who gave it more freely than I.
In this Thanksgiving season, where “Indians and pilgrims” are made light of, and turkeys are stuffed, and we are savoring every rich flavor, I want to savor the bitterness of that night. I have much, perhaps at the cost of others, and if given the opportunity to give…I should not hesitate. I do not have all the answers, only emotions. Tears for a situation I still cannot fathom. It is the salt I will season my bountiful harvest with.
“And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone. ” ~Chief Seattle
Edit: As I was writing this article, Seattle declared a state of emergency on homelessness.
is the artist behind Flora Forager, the mother of three wild boys, and a believer in everyday magic.
so beautiful, bridget. love your prayers.
This has made me weep once again for the lost peoples of our land. Excellent blog.
A poignant read: “Seattle Native”
Thank you for sharing. The homeless community rips my heart wide open. When I leave for work at 2:45am, and there is frost on my window and my fingers are momentarily stinging from the cold I think of them. Those that will endure too much suffering and I do nothing. These thoughts make me weep. I am with you in this struggle and tangle of emotions. I believe all of them are important and they should matter more. Their stories of suffering and challenge are powerful, and their survival in such circumstances blows my mind. I could go on and on… Thank you for sharing.