When at the very peak of his popularity as a writer of American fiction and an exponent of Native American culture and history, the late Tony Hillerman (1925 – 2008) was being interviewed on a radio talk-show as I listened from my car radio. When questioned about the financial rewards which came with his international fame as a mystery writer, Hillerman – an author who had claimed my admiration since his very first Leaphorn/Chee novel – commented at length on the definition of success. He quoted a Navajo elder with whom he had had that same discussion: “I know a man who has always been poor; no one ever taught him any songs!”
Now I understood at once that the word “songs” in this context referred specifically to the “healing” and “blessing” songs which are at the center of spiritual ceremonies intrinsic to Navajo religious culture. But I couldn’t help but apply the term metaphorically to the deafness many of us in the fast-paced modern world succumb to on a more worldly level. So much so that I pulled off the roadway I was traveling to write the exact quote on a pocket card. The message with both meanings has traveled with me in my life ever since, and as I listen for the stories which are carried on the wind or whisper through a stand of Norway pines or flow from the strings of a nine-string banjo, I try to listen for the hidden chords – the deeper story connected by a thin thread at a harmonic level not easily captured.
The life of a tour guide is a busy one; driver, teacher, marriage councilor, story-teller, peace-maker, sometimes cook; shepherd really. In that role one lovely autumn afternoon I was driving a 12-passenger van on a two-lane highway in the farming country of northwestern Vermont. It was the first day of a new school year and just ahead of us a yellow school van – the kind used for the smallest of scholars – slowed with stop lights flashing. I carefully came to a stop adding my own flashers for further safety, although there was no one else in sight. About 200 yards up the long dirt driveway of a country farmhouse to our left a mother in her apron waited anxiously holding the hand of an excited pre-school age girl in blonde pigtails. A small boy nervously exited the short yellow bus and you knew at a glance this was his first day away from home. At that instant his little sister broke loose of the mother’s hand and into a full-out run down the sloping driveway shouting her greetings. The boy took off to meet her dropping a brand new book bag on the ground. The two met halfway in a power embrace that must have taken them through three joyous circuits before the laughing and crying mother could catch up and join them. I sat there mesmerized, feeling like a thief of time looking in on a hallowed moment in the life of those who were experiencing a shared piece of family history that would never quite happen again.
Looking around the van I thought I was the lone observer. Then the passenger seated just behind me, a long-time friend and former Mrs.Utah USA leaned forward and whispered: Al, did you see what just happened? (Two out of twelve; not bad.)
There is a certain place in our log home where, as I negotiate a right-angle turn, passing a high shelf where I keep my family of prized Aladdin kerosene lamps, that I sometimes pause to catch a vagrant whiff of coal oil almost no one else would even notice. If the mood is right - and especially if rain is falling outside - I can hear one of those songs that serve to carry me back in time to a moment of exquisite happiness. It would have been 1937, since we were taking a trip to break in our family’s brand new Oldsmobile. I was already joyful, since our destination was an old Victorian house on a rural Connecticut back road I loved more than a modern kid might a Disney World. There was no electricity, no phone or radio, no running water unless you operated a hand pump, and an old and wonderful outdoor privy (a two-holer!) a long dark walk from the house. As we drove the last few miles, Mom and Dad in front, my two older brothers and I in back it started to rain hard. I don’t know who started it, but we began to sing” It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring. . .” I was safe, secure, surrounded by those I knew loved me, and looking forward to my customary job of trimming wicks and pouring kerosene into the lamps we would soon light to push back the cricket-filled dark of the outside night.
All these years later, I can close my eyes and hear that singing with the metronomic sound of the windshield wipers in the background reminding me that I am a man who has always been rich.