The door is closed on Dan and his friends. The door is closed on the style, the door is closed on the story. I can’t say exactly how I know this; I only know it is true. It’s similar to the moment when, on a journey, your thoughts suddenly turn inexorably toward home. You can fight it, you can deny it. But you know the heart of the journey is over — you have moved from the excitement of discovery to the wistful anticipation of return. And nothing you can do will change this.
I felt this as I worked my way through The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo. It was not that I had said all there was to say, or that I had exhausted the characters or the story. It was just time to go home.
So where, I ask myself, is that home? What should I do next? Who should I be as a writer?
One of the many gifts that I have received during my years with Native people is a deep appreciation of the importance of being an elder. I’m not referring to some status within some religious denomination, or a faux linguistic effort to demarginalize people who have reached an age where they are no longer productive contributors to contemporary economic society.
No, I’m talking about an active, dynamic status that carries unique responsibilities that come from having journeyed long and seen far. It is something that you gain only by life experience, and it is characterized by being able to look at those coming up behind you and seeing them walking in pathways you understand.
You understand the innocence of childhood, the incredible emotional sensitivity of adolescence, the excitement and struggle of early adulthood, the travails and joys of child raising and shaping a family; you have experienced deep joy and deep sadness and know the fleeting nature of time. In spite of yourself, you have knowledge that is worthy of sharing if you do not close in around your own immediate concerns of aging or your biases about the direction you think the world ought to be taking.
In effect, you have the responsibility to be a teacher. Sadly, our contemporary culture does not offer up that role to the elders. It pays lip service to this idea, but, in fact, it patronizes them, marginalizes them, sees them as economic and social liabilities, and completely ignores their gifts of long vision. And too many of the elders acquiesce to this or fight in an unseemly manner to hold onto their centrality when they should gracefully be letting it go. In either case, they are not truly being elders.
The Native cultures, even though they do marginalize the elders to some extent, have it built into their cultural DNA to listen to the elders and value their counsel. It is a joyful thing to see.
What I have gained from this is the realization that as I move to the elder stage of life, I must claim the status, exhibit the appropriate behavior, and offer the knowledge that has come from my journey. I have always seen my literary role as being a teacher, either directly or obliquely. But now it seems like a moral imperative.
And so I have sifted through the possible projects before me and decided to look back over a life in the arts and to offer the insights it has taught me. This will not be a “how to” book, and God knows it will not be some self-serving life retrospective. Rather, it will be reflections on the inner journey; a guidebook through the psychological and spiritual pathways that anyone in the arts must travel.
People on the outside misunderstand what it means to live a life as a writer or a painter or a dancer or any other profession of artistic expression. And those on the inside are too often left to find their own way through the ecstasies and uncertainties and rejections and societal misinterpretations. If I can speak of the artistic journey in a way that illuminates the path just a little for those who would travel it or those who would seek to understand it, I will be doing something of value and importance.
It seems like a worthy next step in my own artistic journey.