Julie Walls

I sit in the warm, silky dirt beneath the sugar maple whose leaves are dense with protection. I sit drumming on my thighs and knees avoiding attention. Drumming in secret, the heartbeat of the earth, drumming to connect my heartbeat with hers.

Each Sunday after Mass, my father invites my older sister, brother and I to sit under the Sugar Maple. I am the only one to accept. It began as a wonderment. My father is a dangerous man, brutal, violent, a sexual predator, a beautiful man of the Leni Lenape tribe. What could this man offer my six-year-old self beyond his monstrousness? How tempting to romanticize what he taught, his heritage, reduced in narrative to shaman, drunk, cigar store Indian, savage, warrior. He taught the sacred. How to feel into the core of myself, to feel my life energy, how to feel beyond the bark and wood of the tree into her essence, how to feel they are the same and in this mingling lives love. In this mingling I may feel my perfection to be the same as the trees.

How to pray by asking guidance from turtle, flower, swaying grasses, the stars, and ocean. How to hold a leaf, running my fingers over the veins, knowing they are the same as mine—the thunder of the storm, the passion in my soul. How to be cradled in the musky grass at night watching fireflies and luminous stars, knowing as the shaman and the physicists tell us, we are all stardust. Each lesson infused with the teaching, there is no separation except as a projection of the fearful mind. You are me and I am you. When one person cannot breathe, no one can breathe.

These lessons of beauty and love, endless in their gifts, open the portal to stories of truth beyond the secrets.  I learn of my grandfather’s terror of the Carlisle Indian School with its motto, “Kill the Indian, save the man,” leading him to abandon our family name, choosing his children to pass for white. My father’s unusually delicate features betraying his Indian-ness providing him with the disguise that was a curse. In my grandfather’s desperation to save his son, he stripped him of his identity, his belonging, causing him to become a ghost walking alone. We sit drumming in near silence, the constant “Shh, shh, shh; be silent, be silent, be silent.” I learn that to be separated from who you are cuts you from your soul; his need to drink and abuse a crying out in aching protest, the knife he carried concealed at his waist a symbol, not a weapon. How can a man learn who he is, bring his gifts to the world, allow a life to unfold in beauty and grace when he must hide who he is? His memoir a thousand pages of “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” How can he learn to dance?

Never on Sunday, my father came to my bed to commit the worst things a person can do to another, always turning me over so he could not see my face. In the elasticity of time, I wonder. Was this to spare us both, grasping at the seemingly last shred of our humanity?