For two months, when I was 18, home was the Navajo boarding school at the foot of the mesa. The little girls at the school set the rhythm for my days. They followed me everywhere, watched me with curious eyes, practiced spelling and multiplication tables, and tumbled into my room at night to hear Michael Jackson’s Thriller and twirl in their nightgowns. They taught me Navajo words. The last month I was introduced to a Navajo elder who made traditional clay pots, who called me granddaughter. She claimed me like a thunderclap that echoed inside me, like the Navajo thunder that ushers in spring.
“I’ll be back,” I whispered to the Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle mesa, from the backseat of a government issued car driving to the Albuquerque airport. I rolled down the window after we turned onto the paved highway, and dust settled. The fresh smell of sagebrush and red earth filled the vehicle and my thirsty lungs. It’s scent danced in the backseat keeping me company. Faint traces of gas filtered in.
“I’ll be back,” I whispered again, as the mesa grew smaller and smaller out the rear window.
Lois drove. She had an open way about her that put me at ease. She had taken me under her wing. The wheels on the sedan hummed, but a loud silence filled the grey interior. I closed the window, shutting out the cold and the smell of sagebrush and gas.
The sun’s early rays stretched like fingers across the wide-open land. The roads were long and straight, and I was grateful to let my mind wander. I slid back against the vinyl seat for the five hour ride to the airport. To the flight that would take me back East, to home, to face the culture of elite colleges and application results, my family’s life of public service that was both inspiring and confining, and to my parents’ supportive nest that was growing too tight.
My singing bowls are crystal, most of them smooth and transparent. They pick up the colors of the sun like a prism on sunny days. One is an alchemy bowl, made of cobalt, its deep blue feels like the night sky. They resonate at different tones that fill up the silence. I rub the mallet around the rims to create sound, I play them for meditations and they are healing.
The land did call me back. The wide open spaces where sky meets earth, where magma broke through crust and hardened into monoliths pointing skyward, where mesas turn revealing different facets of the same face, where twilight haunts the arid land with layers of memory beyond my own. The landscape of New Mexico. After 32 years, I have returned.
No longer a young woman, the land awakens a sweet sadness and a remembering of my youth and inexperience before college. Before early work years. Before graduate school. Before marriage. Before giving birth and motherhood. Before divorce. A remembering of a time when my story was just beginning. I do not feel regret; I am grateful for these wisened eyes that carry instead a tenderness for the many roads our human heart can travel.
This time I visit the Navajo Nation and the boarding school with the partner who fits me, a man who has sensitive eyes. He is a gentle observer who knows how to make room for me.
We drive under the light of a waning full moon. I search the horizon for a feeling in my heart and solar plexus. A dark outcropping pushes up from the deep purple ahead and an electric current swells inside me. The rock monolith grows larger as we drive, and it’s still miles away. But I know it. It’s Shiprock, or “Winged Rock” if you translate the Navajo. I remember it. My Navajo grandmother’s home is somewhere nearby.
During the last month of my stay, the school’s head of maintenance, John, took me to visit his mother. The house was a weather worn rectangle—simple, neat, utilitarian. The land rose up and curled around her house. Nearby, an ancient lava flow flattened into sections that linked end to end. She wore a traditional long skirt that rippled when she walked. Her velvet blue shirt draped over her petite frame, the sleeves resting thickly on slender wrists. The house smelled like the moist earthy pots she made.
She knelt on the particleboard floor before me. Her eyes looked into me. I sat as she did on the floor opposite her. Behind her, a well-used broom rested against a wall near the oven. A giant earthen pot sat next to her, like an ancestor sitting with us. Inverted, the open lip rested on the ground, the rounded bulb swelling upward.
She made these pots with earthen clay, rolled into coils. Looking at the grandmother, I rubbed my hands together as if making the long stands I made in ceramics class. I lifted my eyebrows to ask if this was her process. Through thick-rimmed glasses that seemed too wide for her slender face, she held my gaze a moment and smiled. She rubbed her hands together and then mimed a similar motion and nodded. We carried on like this for a period of time that seemed to reside in another realm. We shared in a language behind the language.
Now, at 50, I have returned to search for Lois and John, the grandmother’s son. I needed to find them to let them know how much they impacted my life, to touch in some tangible way the meaning of that time. I had little to go on. I couldn’t remember Lois’s last name. I didn’t know my grandmother’s first. Weeks ago, I called the boarding school, and a man had answered who remembered Lois and her full name. He didn’t know anything more. I knew my Navajo grandmother could not be alive anymore—she had been old when I met her. But her son, John, was surely still alive. If only I could find him. My instinct told me to return to the school. I brought my pictures and the clay pot the grandmother had given me.
At it's simplest, the vibration of singing bowls breaks through mind chatter and creates a space for just “being.” People feel the vibration inside their bodies. We are composed of 70 percent water, and the water in our bodies vibrates with the sound. It vibrates at a cellular level. We experience ourselves connected to something outside of our physical being.
The Navajo name Dzilth-Na-Oh-Dith-hle means “turning mesa,” and I kept turning back to it over and over through the years. In the years before my graduate studies I took a series of pottery classes in Boston and gravitated toward the coil pot making like my Navajo grandmother.
As a mother tucking my own girls into bed, I would look back on my last night at the school. With sock feet I padded to each room and kissed every dear giggly and somber face. My visit spread like quickfire ahead of me as I traveled from girl to girl, bunkbed to bunkbed and room to room. I wanted each girl to know that I recognized the beauty she held inside her and the tremendous worth she brought to the world. I didn’t know it then, but this is the prayer I sing passionately in my heart for myself and others. The song is medicine that must be shared.
The singing bowls cultivate a deep listening and peace. They help us out of linear time, into the present moment. Into timelessness. They assist us in finding the "inner witness" to our state of being, and the recognition that our busyness, stress, and emotions do not define us. They slow us down and open us to greater receptivity, intuition, inspiration, and creativity. They bring people into the "presence" of each moment.
It’s the same painted cement block school I remember, but with new colorful playground equipment and a rearing mustang stature out front. I don’t know the women at the front desk. I walk in and their conversation stops. One woman sits up taller, her smile polite but distant. I inquire about John and Lois.
“I volunteered here when I was in high school. I worked in Mrs. Blue Eyes classroom,” I say smiling.
They find a phone number for Lois that I will call later. They tell me that John still works here. I bring out my pictures. One woman gets a kick out of the old picture of John and says, “Oh look, look at all that hair!” I can feel the kind-hearted teasing they will direct his way. Laughing with them ushers in a comfort and familiarity and I feel the polite wall fade away. Heart pumping, I ask, “Is it possible to visit John today? Is he here now?” He is with a child in detention in the building next door.
Minutes later I spot him in the classroom. His hair is silver now and cut short. He steps into the hallway, but one hand lingers on the classroom doorknob. With a tired smile, he says, “Yes? How can I help you?”
I gush out an introduction, my words awkward. He is polite and pleasant but my heart sinks because he seems not to recognize me.
“It meant so much to meet your mother 32 years ago, “ I say pressing on.
He isn’t catching the significance.
“Uh. That’s unusual…taking someone to meet her like that.” He says.
I can tell my words don’t make sense to him. Maybe he won’t remember.
I show him a picture from when I was the skinny girl standing near Lois. Suddenly, a spark kindles, his eyes light up. He says with a chuckle, “I remember you!” We talk more easily, and he looks at the photos of himself and his mother, shaking his head at the little window into the past.
“Do you remember, your mother spoke to me of the four directions, through a letter you transcribed. She said we were part of the same and that I was her granddaughter?”
“I remember.” he says. He looks down smiling.
“She made a pot for me…” I say.
He looks at me and blinks.
“I brought it with me. We have it out in the car right now… Can I show you?”
He asks a nearby teacher to watch over his charge. Squinting in the sun we walk to our parked car where I had carefully packed his mother’s pot under the passenger seat—secured, away from harm. As I unpeel the insulating layers, he watches in silence. My hands seem slow and inept, but I hold the pot like a mother bear with her cub. I set the bowl in his arms and he cradles it. It was her beautiful gift to me from so long ago, and it seems made for this moment. His eyes don’t leave the pot and he whispers, “She passed away twenty-two years ago.” John’s eyes close. His eyes are like hers. John shares his mother’s teaching about pot making. “She told us to smooth the outer edges of the pot up against our hearts,” he says pulling the pot into his chest.
I realize this pot is a part of her body and being. Her pots are her heart. His hands slowly pass over the red earthen sides and he strokes the hand-smoothed interior. The current inside me rises, and tears come. I feel my grandmother—John’s mother—present with us.
My grandmother and I had met for a day, and something forever changed me. Before that, I had no model, no vocabulary, no awareness in which I could put the soft channeling of energy I had experienced since childhood. One might say it started an awakening. An awakening connected to who I am and who I’m supposed to be, an awakening to something eternal.
My grandmother’s clay pot was the first bowl—from the earth and from her heart. Now I use bowls of crystal to help people remember who they are and heal. They are all sacred containers. My grandmother helped begin this journey long before I knew or remembered anything. I still know next to nothing, but I know enough to listen and trust the right unfolding of my story.
On our way home this time, my partner and I stop at Winged Rock. We hadn’t planned to stop because snow was expected in the mountains on our way to Colorado and we wanted to make it before dark. But I had to take the time and listen to the land. It has a consciousness, it chants the stories of the people that came before me…they seem to walk along keeping company with my memories, sharing a kind of kinship.
We unpack the four singing bowls. Few words are necessary. Wrapping the Navajo shawl Lois had given me around my shoulders, I kneel down in the soil before the rocks and draw the suede mallet around the rims. Waves of sound radiate like ripples on the water. I play another and another, the sound builds in intensity, vibrating in my body, pouring outward to the rocks, and the wide open space. I play and play. I play for the love and deep gratitude I have for my grandmother, for the land, for John and Lois and the love they showed me as a girl and again on this trip as a woman…for the circle completing itself and beginning anew…for family…for the mystery that connects us.
by, Stacy Montaigne AuCoin
Stacy M. AuCoin, MSW
Stacy is an author, speaker, meditator, traveler, mentor, and facilitator of retreats.