Sunday, April 14, 2013

Pow wow rhythm

Take a piece of Indian fry bread, but don't add sugar. Instead, top it with beans, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese and sour cream. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!! The Indian taco is our go-to lunch for pow wows, and we're never disappointed. A pow wow is a feast for the senses--beautiful sites, a cacophony of sounds, and oh yes, deliciousness.

We got there early and were pleased to discover about a gazillion vendors hawking their wares--more even than last year. I love the wonders you find in a vendor tent, brimming with colorful goods, some hanging, some piled, some featured, some worn by the seller. I love the open-market, bazaar feel of pow wows, and the sounds, smells and colorful sights take me right back to the African markets I visited many years ago. There's just something about the energy of these places that can't be matched. And for some reason, American flea markets don't catch it. Maybe it's all the craptastic plastic at our flea markets that pales when compared to the hand-wrought, natural pieces in a pow wow market, but whatever the reason, we love these venues.

Bill and I have similar shopping styles. We choose our purchases based on the vibe we get from the seller, more so even than the goods themselves. We passed up hundreds of pieces of incredible jewelry, but purchased a small piece that wasn't all that pretty, simply because the seller was earnest and poured himself into it. The tooth-and-gem piece now protects my bike, and frankly, looks pretty badass.

So we made the loop, talking with each of the vendors. Obviously, we like the ones best who are selling their own art work. One gentleman had collected moose antlers and carved the most beautiful pieces into them. Even though they were way out of our price range, we couldn't help but stare at the gentle curves and organic shapes brought to life in the bone. Just gorgeous.

One vendor, who was also very cool and would have earned our business if I needed any more jewelry, crafted amazing bracelets from silver--each one different from anything I've seen before. Just gorgeous. 

Some tents are filled with flow-through purchases, mass produced and targeting a market of, well, I suppose little kids and people who just love to acquire stuff. But the cheap stuff, as long as it's not the dominant product, adds to the vibe as well. We found an herb shop--oh, the smells!!--bought a small, stone bear, a ring for Bill, some food. Soon enough after arriving, the sounds of the drums warming up in the main arena drifted through the venue. Then the strains of a single person singing with a guitar. That was so different and quiet compared to everything else, we stopped for a minute and stepped in to watch him warm up, the sounds of the market area fading behind us.

And then it was time to find a seat near the floor and await the grand entry. The emcee called to each drum for roll call, and they each responded with a short song, the hammers thrumming deeply on drums the size of a kitchen table, and I watched the smaller children off to my left, dressed in full regalia and too excited to contain themselves, dancing to the roll call. While I sat in my chair, tired still from yesterday's journey, I wondered at their energy. Even as a youngster, I didn't have that kind of vigor, and now, the thought of dancing for three days straight is unthinkable. I shall sit here, thankyouverymuch, and eat my taco.

And then it was time for the grand entry. The emcee announced the host drum, who got us started with a beautiful song, and in came the dancers, led by dignitaries of the host tribe and intertribal councils. Each time the pow wows start, goose bumps rise up on my skin, and a surge of emotion pours through me. This is a millenia-old tradition of travel, gathering, hosting, and honoring. The drums reach your soul and drag the life force of all the Americas to the surface, pouring through your limbs and out to the pow wow circle in front of you. The emcee identifies the honorees and then calls the dancing groups in, all of whom are moving to the rhythm of the drums, their magnificent head pieces, feathers, horsehair, skins, and cloth alive with the beat of their footsteps pounding out a history of pride, beauty and strength.

The dancers enter in a wide circle and create a tightening spiral as more and more pour into the venue. About 400 people finally gather, while the audience stands for prayer and song honoring the Creator, as well as the veterans and warriors of the various tribes present. The emcee remembers as well those empty chairs at area dinner tables, belonging to all those soldiers still in harm's way, whose families await their safe return.

Once the formal ritual is over, the dance competitions start. Catawba starts theirs with a number of intertribal dances, bringing large crowds of dancers out to the arena area, a festive, brightly colored event for the spectators to enjoy. New to me this year was the presence of iPads on the dance floor, recording the drums and in the case of one of the dancers, texting her mom. I love watching the adaptation of regal, beautiful, ancient ritual being brought into now, evolving in front of us, alive, current and relevant. Pow wows are not a harkening back to a glorious time; they are not historical reproductions of quaint or revisionist tribal traditions. They are the very present celebrations of a living culture that is filled with rich and honorable traditions but participating fully in modern America. The people of the pow wow have not set aside a weekend to "go be Indian." They are Americans in every way--not the least of which is military service--and enjoying a glorious festival this weekend.

There is a sound of a pow wow that is hard to describe. Yes, in the background are the ever-present drums, but also, the voices of the people, the speakers on the microphone, and all that. But beneath it all, cutting through the deep drums and sonorous voices--beneath it all is the bells. The women's dresses jingle with hundred of small bells, and the men's boots and women's shoes--all are decorated with bells. As you shop the vendors circling the main auditorium, you hear the sounds of bells as people walk the crowd. It all takes on a rhythm of the pow wow life itself, and soon enough it blends into a loud hum. 

But I remember as we left, we were seeking a smudge stick, and therefore made another round of the vendors. The grand entry and several dances had taken place, and now the vendor aisles were packed with people. I had seen the warriors in the dance arena, and they are a sight. Badass that I may be, these guys are hard-core, and as I heard the approach of the bells from my right, I looked up, and here came a warrior in full regalia. I know, I know, I KNOW he was a normal human being of normal height, but as he approached, I realized he had to be seven feet tall. I shrunk in my mind to a tiny girl, and he only got bigger as he got closer. The face paint, the skins, the feathers, all conspire to KICK ASS. In all my badass dreams, I can only hope to be a tenth as intimidating as that. A few minutes later we crossed paths with two more, and these were even taller than the last. Kick. Ass.

And so our pow wow day passed. We got back on our bikes, leaving the drum beat and remarkable sights behind us. We are pow wow bound again in a few weeks, this time to Lumberton, which is my favorite. And then it will be a year again, probably, before we return here. I can't wait!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Never motorcycle through orange

I woke up the morning of our motorcycle trip and did what I do every morning, pretty much as soon as I open my eyes. I grabbed my phone.
It's gross, isn't it? It started innocently enough. I would lie in bed for however long, do my usual morning things, and eventually check email and Facebook without having to get up. But then, the threshold for grabbing the phone got earlier and earlier, until now, I am often blinking at it, trying to get my eyes to focus through the haze of immediate wakening. Chide me if you must, but know that I chide myself at moments like that. Much as I love the technology of this amazing century, I must admit, I have drunk the Koolaid.
But regardless, this was an exciting morning--we were headed to Rock Hill, SC, on motorcycles!! We are SO COOL!!! And so, as I reached for my phone, a stab of consternation ran through me as I saw an hours-old text waiting for me from Alert Carolina -- which is a benefit of UNC employment I cannot opt out of -- stating that Orange County was under tornado watch. "Conditions favorable." Gack. We had heard there would be a cold front and accompanying storms coming from the south and west, the exact direction we were travelling. And now tornadoes. Rain wasn't going to stop us. We've gotten wet before. But tornadoes? Visions of Dorothy Gale and Toto -- in the sidecar with goggles, of course -- flashed through my head.

So this led me to the radar, also on my phone, and I could see the band of rain, almost a perfectly straight column, moving toward us. There were plenty of green areas, but this column had a surprising percentage of yellow and orange as well. Now, I was once on a relatively short ride around a local lake -- one of my typical evening, unwind-from-the-day kind of rides -- when I was hit by sudden rain. I had noticed the clouds building and tried to get to cover, but failed, and suddenly I was on a two-lane road, with no shoulder, in unbelievable torrents. The kind of rain where, in a car, you kick the windshield wipers up to maximum, turn off the stereo, slow down, and peer intently through the unrelenting gray to seek out tail lights and make sure you don't hit someone. I found a gas station fairly quickly, but in the intervening minutes, I was rocked about, the tires making a wake through the seemed-like-many-inches of water flowing down the road, and I strained to see through the wiperless visor and the rain that made sheets of water like curtains in front of me. Once I pulled to safety and checked the radar (I LOVE the century that has hand-held computers in it!), I saw the blob of orange over my road. This was orange. Never ever ever motorcycle through orange.

So these were the thoughts going through my head as I looked at the column of rain currently hovering between Greensboro and my house. Soon enough, the sounds of the large drops on the roof and in the garden came to us, along with the speedy arrival of a very wet orange kitten who flew in to the room from whatever mischief he had been getting into outside. Beyond the column, though, were clear skies, so we simply delayed our trip a few hours, and waited it out.

Which brings me to the intersection of Old Greensboro Road and 87, where we found ourselves a few hours later. The Shadow I ride has a large seat with an ample, curved section in the back that scoops up and cradles the rider, providing a little support for your lower back. This is a cruiser, meant for the over 40, girls-gone-wide crowd, for more relaxed riding. This is not a racer bike that zips past you with the rider bent into the wind for maximum thrill. So the seat is designed for comfort and support. This is the seat I was sitting in at the intersection of Old Greensboro Road and 87, when the rain came (the rain behind the column that wasn't on the radar when we left). This seat, shaped like a bowl, is perfect -- perfect! -- for gathering rain water. So as we pulled out of the gas station and headed back down the road, the rain came lightly at first. Our last trip, if you remember, was nothing but rain for four days. We could handle this. But I didn't WANT to. I wanted a nice, pleasant ride. But the rain came down, like needles, stinging my neck and my fingers. The drops were small, I guess, because they even stung my legs through my jeans. In a couple of minutes, I was soaked through. And on my left leg, the boots hit the jeans just so, such that there was a small fold in the jeans at the boot line, and that fold allowed the water to collect for a few seconds, and then drip onto my shin and into my boot. My right foot stayed dry, but the left felt a single, cold drip every few seconds that seeped down to my socks and sat there. Cold. The bowl/seat filled with water, puddling between my thighs. If you were to fill your tub with an inch of cold water and then sit in it, with your jeans on, and then turn on the shower -- that's how I felt.

But the rain was quick, and passed within a few minutes. For a couple seconds it came down very hard, and I worried we would hit an orange patch, but it never worsened, and in a very short time it was over. We would not see any more rain for the rest of the trip. But the deed was done. I was soaked to the core. And even after my body dried up a little bit, my butt never did. We arrived in Rock Hill seven hours later, and I still looked like I had peed my pants.  Motorcycle riding is so SEXY.

But that was the only negative part of our journey. Everything else was flawless. The Carolina countryside is gorgeous -- I have written about it many times. We made this exact trip two weeks ago, and the world was brown and wet. The trees have been busy in those intervening weeks, and they have sweet haloes of fresh leaves -- the tender kind that are a very light green. The forested areas look like fleece, with soft rolls created by the young, delicate leaves. We crested a hill where I had been admiring the wispy quality of the fresh growth when a magnificent dogwood appeared, stretched large across a freshly mown lawn. The startling white announced a regal presence and demanded attention. I love dogwoods for this very reason--they bloom just as the other trees are beginning to turn green, and around here, we see them tucked into forested areas, bright spots in the midst of wide swaths of dank, cheery hellos from Spring, herself.

I used to meet with a patient every Friday at 3:00. He was one of my favorite people, and he was an anchor at the end of my week to look forward to. We met for many years. He told me the fable of the dogwood tree. That its wood was used to fashion the cross of Jesus' crucifixion. At that time, it was a tall, straight tree of strong wood, perfect for such a task. But once it was used for that purpose, it was so ashamed that it never stood straight again, and that the flowers weep each year at the horror the tree wrought, leaving a dark stain on the inner creases of its petals.

Now when I see dogwoods I think of that patient, and of the beautiful myth of a tree, so shamed by the horrors humans wield that it weeps still, two millenia later.

And so we travelled on. We stopped in Richfield at a little roadside restaurant. I had begun getting crazy hungry and wondering if I would ever eat again, when the road stretched on before us, straight and empty, with fields and houses on either side. Not a business in sight for miles. Eventually we pulled into the town of Richfield and Bill spotted a little cafe. At first blush it looked like a house, and I had dismissed it, but his eagle eye caught the restaurant sign and we pulled in. It was quite possibly the worst restaurant in America. I was shocked, really, at how bad it was. Imagine the worst high school cafeteria lunch, and you might come close to this meal. Nope. We won't be going back there. Ever.

And soon enough, we were riding through Charlotte, which is just a gorgeous city. So very beautiful. And then down to Rock Hill. We were exhausted, but Bill had predicted this and found a hotel with a whirlpool IN THE ROOM. The only thing better than a hot tub at the end of a long day of riding is a PRIVATE whirlpool. Oh yes. Perfection!!

Today we are pow-wow bound, where we are sure to buy lots of beautiful things and feast on the delights of such a gathering.