Craft, Community and the Art of the Essay

Patrice Gopo, author of Autumn Song: Essays on Absence, and Terra Trevor, author of We Who Walk the Seven Ways: A Memoir, share a candid conversation on craft, community and the art of the essay. 
Two University of Nebraska Press authors, two essayists, two books on different journeys but walking the same path.

Memoir, Migration and This Wilderness in My Blood

My bags were packed and the boxes stacked. We were moving from the city where we lived for forty-three years. We didn’t have a new house to move into, not yet. While we searched for another home we would live in a 26-foot travel trailer on loan to us and parked on land a family member owns in the redwoods in Northern California. 

The morning our belongings were loaded into the truck, I walked through the empty house thanking the space, saying goodbye to the home that sheltered my family for three decades. And before I got into my car to make the long drive, I checked my email. The editor at the University of Nebraska Press, sent an email saying she liked the manuscript for my new memoir, We Who Walk the Seven Ways. They were  interested in publishing, and asked for revisions. 

Oh, for joy. Happiness. And crazy-making. Take on the task of revising my book manuscript when I was in the process of uprooting my life? 

Time driving alone in the car settled my thoughts. 

When I arrived at sunset I was filled with calm, strength, trust. 

The trailer was parked by the barn, in a meadow with other homes nearby. Still, it was more off grid than I expected. 

Multiple times each day I walked uphill to the houses where our families live, downhill to the car, up again with groceries, to do laundry, to take a shower. We didn’t have trailer hookups and needed to be mindful of gray and black water waste. But we had electricity, internet, and plenty of cold well water running from the tap. I gained respect for my privileges and felt positive I would become a better person, and I have. 

Every day and most nights are bookended with writing. Writing backed against hiking hills with my grandkids and the dogs, or house hunting. I reached wide to be tender, loving, with my husband, and my family. When I write, I go deep. It’s not easy to move between my mind-world and the outer world. 

After a day of writing my daughter’s kitchen is the place to be. Not all of our meals are complicated. Yet the days when we cook from scratch, gives us time to focus on gratitude. The dogs are at our feet, watchful, my grandkids help chop, mix, stir, then dash off, lost in play, then return to the kitchen. We clear the day’s clutter off the table, sit down and savor every bite. 

Some people sit and meditate in silence. Others climb Kilimanjaro. Along with my 2-mile morning walk in the redwoods, I hiked to and from the trailer often. When we first arrived, the ground was muddy with rain water. Soon yellow, white and purple flowers dotted the earth and my footsteps formed a path. The flower season was short, the weather warmed. Green foxtails appeared, and quickly dried, sticking in my socks. At first, I grumbled about daily supply hikes in the rain or heat, my arms loaded, and then it became my mediation. I enjoyed the journey, paying attention to the earth, sky. Walking mindfully, stepping carefully. 

I am thankful for love and shelter, but we are too crowded in the trailer. We brought too much stuff and it's packed into a too small space. I'd planned to bring only what we needed into the trailer. But instead we included all of the things we "might need" but never did need. My friend Stacy referred to this as a “soul polishing” experience. On my low days I cling to her beautiful words. Stripping off the old expectations, shedding, growing, reaching. I look up and see the trees, the beautiful trees all around me. 

Eventually we found a tiny place near the ocean, and for the last few days we lived in the trailer, I worked on my memoir. 

On my last day writing in the trailer, I opened the window wide. The wind played in the trees and the air was heavy with the scent of mountains and earth. I had the window open to keep me company. I was lonely. 

I love being with the people I love, and I am also happy alone, and I am never lonely. Yet for the past week I felt like poor me, I must sit down all alone and write. 

Then I started thinking about how the characters in my favorite books are my friends. Relationships I remember long after I finish reading the book. My most loved books leave me feeling the author invited me over for a long chat at her kitchen table. I favor memoirs so intimate I feel myself leaning over the shoulder of the writer, feeling her thoughts and sneaking into her life. 

Thinking about the characters in my favorite books opened the window wider for me, and I found the root cause of my loneliness. With revisions nearly completed, already I missed the characters in my memoir. 

While writing I had intimate chats, wandering back over time with Marie, Ann, Mary Lou and Irene. Dancing with Irene long after the moon was full, wearing moccasins beaded in colors of sunrise, clouds and blue skies, her buckskin dress swaying. Irene danced the powwow competitions, Women’s Buckskin style, Northern, in the Golden Age category. At seventy-five with her tight jeans, blue-black hair and flirty personality, Irene reminded me so much of my aunt Jo, I had to keep reminding myself that she wasn’t my aunt Josephine. 

I missed the flow of these women, the ones with the grandmother faces, walking the seven ways. How they made me laugh, and told me the truth even when it was hard for me to listen. While writing, I brought them all back, made them come alive again. The women who over three decades, lifted me from grief, instructed me in living, and showed me how to age from youth into beauty.

First published in Women Writers, Women's Books

We Who Walk the Seven Ways: A Memoir

Copyright © Terra Trevor. All rights reserved. 

The landscape will teach you who you are

Walking this good earth for seven decades, I’ve found home. The girl, the woman, the writer, the grandmother I’ve searched for, questioned, challenged and shaped, comes into view. I see her a few steps ahead, looking back at me, smiling. Telling me an earth journey is meant to be watercolor on the pages of life. We can pencil in an outline, but water mixed with color will wash and blend and give richness greater than edges controlled. 
The landscape will teach you who you are. —Pikuni Elder Joe Crowshoe, Sr. 

Photo credit goes to John Simpkins my friend, and decades-long partner to my cousin Victor. 

The Alvord desert, the landscape I carry within.

You Who Are In My Stories

Photo by Paul Wellman

Tomorrow they will hold a memorial service for you in the beautiful grove where we celebrated your 80th birthday. I’m sad I can’t travel to hold space for you, to celebrate your life on earth with all of our friends. Some of our other friends also cannot travel to be there. And yet in the ways of our ancestors, and all things that never die, we will be there, we will all be there together holding space for you, not in flesh and blood, but of souls and songs. 

You who are in my stories, today you are making your transition, walking on. As you know, my stories are not only about me, they are also about you, and our friends whose lives are braided with mine, defining it, and shaping me. 

In my stories I've offered a measure of privacy with some name changes. But what has not changed is the love and time you gave. I’m holding the love and the gift of your time, helping me give to others. 
This morning the ocean is reflecting the sunlight and is shining like thousands of diamonds. My grandson and I walked for 2 miles along the sand, exploring, looking for seashells rounded smooth by the waves. It was a good day for collecting driftwood too. In my mind I brought you along with us on our walk. The bits and pieces of shells we picked up would delight you, perfect for art projects. You will be also be happy to know I’m wearing the beaded medicine pouch you made for me twenty-five years ago. So please know I am protected. If I forget to put it on in the morning I hear your voice, reminding me. Your beadwork lets me feel close to you, and reminds me of all our years and great times together, the lessons you gave, and the way you believed I could, and taught me how. 
Sage down, and prayer up. The sunrise singers have come for you. A high sweet trill of voices, abalone beads swaying, carrying songs from the ancestors. I'm pretty sure the sunrise ceremony now rides in my heart, and is carrying me. 
I love you my friend, auntie and sister. 
Donadagohvi. Until we meet again. 
Gratitude, Respect, Caring, Compassion, Honesty, Generosity, Wisdom.

Copyright © Terra Trevor. All rights reserved. 

Dancing to Remember

I am gathered with friends and family under a bead blue California sky. Powwow weekend. Santa Ynez Chumash Inter-Tribal. My shawl is folded over my arm. I listen to the wind, spilling through the tree leaves. 

Time merges with timelessness. Memories circle and carry me to a day forty years ago, when I stood on this good land, near the oak tree for the first time, with my young children gathered about. The same tree I am standing under today. 

I lean my back against this oak. This tree, giver of life. She has raised a community with song, dance and prayer. We return to this land, to this tree, in October every year. Laughter, flirting and romance in lives young and old take place all around her. 

She stands sentry. Her autumn softened leaves, swept up from a cool mountain breeze, fall gently on American Indian fathers holding sleeping babies. Mothers trading stories, their shiny cut beads reflecting light while braiding their children’s hair, with feathers in the colors of the earth, trailing. 

There were difficult times too for this oak tree, when she witnessed wild fires raging, drought years with dust rising against the clear sky. The times when her branches sheltered human arguments and angry outbursts, but mostly she is surrounded by love and caring. 

I stand high upon a flat rock, my eyes roaming, taking in the day, the years. Filling my lungs with sweet fragrances of the damp Mother Earth. Feeling my body grow light, like the feathers of the red tail hawk touching the soft clouds. 

For the record I am not California Indian. I'm mixed-blood Cherokee, Lenape, Seneca, and for forty-three years I lived in an area that makes up the traditional Chumash homeland. I spent those years walking gently, a guest on this good land and I hold the culture, traditions and history of the Chumash people in my heart. For my Chumash friends this is their landscape of time. 

I remember the words of my aunties and my grandmothers, about how each person is a connection to history and when we gather around the area and form a circle around the drums, singers and dancers we are all connected, and it's our way of saying that American Indian people are still here. This is our celebration of life past, present and future. 

First published in News from Native California, a quarterly magazine devoted to California's Indian peoples published by Heyday Books. This essays also appears in We Who Walk the Seven Ways by Terra Trevor. (University of Nebraska Press).

Copyright © Terra Trevor. All rights reserved. 

My Journey Toward Less

Driving home from the department store I thought about my problem. I wanted to own less clothing. To have only what I loved and needed. 

My desire for a moderately minimalistic wardrobe began six months after my fifteen-year-old son on died. It was 1999, and I was doing laundry. I walked past my son's bedroom, a room that was immortalized with everything in place exactly as it had been when he was alive. 
I felt a tiny wave of strength surface, a glimmer of faith bringing me to understand I was ready to begin the process of letting go of his things. But I needed to do it in baby steps. I cleared out a stack of his outgrown clothes. It was the only way my mother’s heart could manage the task. He was fifteen years old when he left this earth, and I let go first of what no longer would have fit him. Slowly, over a period of time, I gave away all of my son’s clothes, keeping only his sweatshirt for me to breath in the scent of him, to bury my face in long nights of remembering.

Next I began tossing things from my own well-stocked closet, giving away good quality clothes that I seldom wore—clothing that no longer fit the newly evolving me. Each month I eyeballed my closet and convinced myself to part with more and more. At the time it didn’t occur to me that I was beginning to walk toward a stress-free lifestyle of owning less. Back then I wondered if maybe my grief and sorrow had taken a dangerous turn. My family also worried about me.

I was forty-six years old, and the gentle, generous part of me that cheers for myself wanted me to have a plentiful wardrobe. But I wanted it to be small, no excess, and only what I loved and needed. At the end of each season I edited my closet, took stock of what needed to be replaced. I removed any neglected items to give to thrift stores or to friends. I was getting to know myself with a new identity. I was a mother without her son, and I craved simplicity, to own less, to be surrounded with beauty and find my rhythm without a lot of clutter.

In addition to my work as a freelance writer, I also worked in a corporate office environment and the majority of my wardrobe centered on work clothes. There was a strict dress code requiring a tailored look with structured jackets. In following the guidelines somewhere along the way I lost my sense of personal style. I had no idea what would be in my ideal wardrobe, so even if I could have tossed everything out and begin anew I didn’t know what I wanted other than for my wardrobe to be smaller and more workable, with everything worn often and loved. But other than that I hadn’t a clue. With frequent editing, although my closet was not bare, it had a forlorn look. My family members encouraged me to shop for new clothes, and I did.

To map out a new me I gathered purples, reds, earth tones, and hues of tan and green. I searched for travel friendly clothes that hinted of a well-used passport and would not wrinkle, versatile clothes that could be accessorized for work, yet casual enough to wear on the weekend. Most of all I wanted clothing I’d feel happy wearing. With my husband and daughter urging me, I began the process of updating my wardrobe. But I always stayed within a careful budget, and never had credit card debit. 

At home I dumped the contents of my shopping bag on my bed—a steel gray sweater to glide over a jersey skirt or to pair with jeans. I cut the tags off, and a few minutes later I tied them back on with a piece of clear plastic thread.

Jenny-dog curled by the door, gave a low growl and the red-brown fur on her neck stood up. Outside I could hear weeds rustling and I grabbed onto the dog’s collar so that she wouldn't move. And that’s when I saw the coyote, young and lean sprint off down towards the creek bed. I scratched my dog’s neck and raked my fingers through her fur and found a flea, and then another. Usually I never forgot to give the dog her medication, but this time I had procrastinated. Without a doubt I knew I must get back in the car and go to the vet’s office and buy what we needed to rid the dog of fleas. And while I was out I could return the sweater.

That afternoon was a marker moment. I didn’t know what, but I could feel something take root within me—an awakening. I was moving further and further away from what I wanted most—to own less. 

From a rocker by the open window I spent the rest of the day watching Scrub Jays dart from branch to branch, until the afternoon shadows melted into liquid dusk, and the wind turned wild. Then I removed the tag and pulled on the new gray sweater, feeling its silky texture against my skin, and I said a vow to keep the sweater, to wear it on any ordinary day, instead of saving it for good, because my life is now.

I sat while the stars, one by one, began to light the sky, and let the chill air of mother earth embrace me. It would take me a few more years to break the habit of saving clothes for good, and to find Project 333 and learn about a community of good people who embrace the concept of living with less, and to reach the good place where I am now— but that afternoon was a beginning.

Copyright © 2014 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved. 

Thank you to Courtney Carver, founder of Be More With Less for featuring a link to this essay on her website. 

Photo © Santa Fe Daily Photo. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Race, Ethnicity and My Face

As a woman of Cherokee, Lenape, Seneca, German descent, I came of age understanding that I'm not totally Native nor am I totally white. I'm a border woman dwelling between the boundaries. 

I have light skin, light enough that some people think I’m a white person. My dad is Native and my mother is white and I was born when they were teenagers in the early 1950s.

I grew up in Compton, California, a mixed race suburb of Los Angeles. The family next door was Bolivian and they loved me like a daughter. My best friend was Japanese and Mexican. Still, when I was 10 years-old, my dad sat me down to have “the talk” with me about race. He told me about how to navigate the streets, about how to stay safe. He also wanted to make sure I understood that in order to be accepted by certain white people it mattered who your friends were. 

By that point, however, I already knew. 

I had discovered that when I went to play at the houses of my white friends after school I needed to be aware of how I was holding myself at all times. I learned to stay alert and watch for clues: sometimes there might be an older brother who pulled his eyes in an upward slant and said something mean about Chinese people; or a father that casually spouted racial slurs at people of color or made fun oof Indians. When this happened, I knew I had to make an excuse to go home and I’d never go back. Sometimes I’d make up stories when asked about my darker skinned, mixed-race family in order to protect them. But if the mothers of my white friends didn’t feel satisfied with my answers, I wouldn’t be allowed to stay at their houses for long. 

Things would be different when I went over to the houses of my friends of color. Their mothers would always take me in without hesitation. And if there was a grandmother at home who spoke English with an accent, or didn’t speak English at all I could usually be certain they wouldn’t ask me if my daddy had a job. In their homes, I felt safe. 
As a child I had things all figured out. But when I reached my late teens and early twenties it became more complicated. 

Hanging out with my friends of color meant witnessing them get treated poorly and face multiple instances of discrimination by white people. Being out with my white friends, however, meant that we could expect to be given preferential treatment no matter where we went. When I began dating and went out with Native boys or other boys of color in my community, I was considered “white trash” by white America. I could even expect to have a white man point to my date and ask me what I thought I was doing being with the likes of someone like him. But when I dated the first guy that was white, I was allowed to be white by association and had access to the privileges of white America because of that. In stores or restaurants, we were always served or seated first, before people of color. When we acted up or got into mischief in public, it was laughed off as opposed to being taken seriously with the assumption that we were up to no good like it had been for other teens of color. 
My early adulthood was charged with decisions to make: Should I mention my Native identity? Should I let white people I don’t know well and may not ever want to become close friends with, assume I’m white? Keep my racial identity private from employers and others who would discriminate against me if they knew I’m a mixed-blood Native American woman? With dark skinned family members and dark skin friends? With strong ties to Native America and rooted within a community of color? 
Then, at age twenty-three, I suddenly found myself employed full-time in a company that was predominantly white. So white, that my intuition told me if my boss had known I was anything other than white, I would have probably not been hired. My white co-workers seemed to only accept people of color who adhered to white social norms and didn’t challenge their biases. They could not accept how vastly different the culture values, thought processes, and social norms of ethnic people were from white America. 

I wear the face of a woman with light skin privilege. While keenly aware of the advantage it has given me over my friends and family who are not able to pass, I always make the decision to disclose my Native identity. I never try to pass. Passing would mean turning my back on my Native family, friends and community. Following my experiences working in a predominantly-white company at 23, I began to make sure that at each interview I had for a new job, I’d take a “racial temperature check” to ensure that people of color who looked like my friends and family were always welcomed. And I’d proudly list all the positions I’ve held within American Indian and Asian-American organizations on my resume. 
Later on in my life, I married a man who was white and we had a daughter together, before adopting two Korean children. Two of our kids had apparent ethnic features and their black hair and darker skin often caused people to mistakenly assume they were Native American. I knew that blending into white society would never be an option for them. So it was always a toss on whether they would be able to ride on the wings of my white privilege, or be subject to the racism that ruled America when they were out on their own. In turn, I did my best to connect them with their Korean roots by becoming deeply involved with the Korean community in our town. For thirty years, my heart and soul was shaped by my connection to this community for which I am grateful to be a part of. 
Now, in my 70s, my gray hair and wrinkled face reveal the many years I have lived. Yet what has not changed is what most cannot see: I am still a border woman. Borders are set up to define or to separate, but I am neither part white, nor part Native. My blood is a mix between two worlds, Native and white merging together to form a third: a woman dwelling between the boundaries. A border woman—that is me.

Copyright © Terra Trevor. All rights reserved. 

We Who Walk the Seven Ways: A Memoir (University of Nebraska Press)

We Who Walk the Seven Ways  is Terra Trevor’s memoir about seeking healing and finding belonging. After she endured the difficult loss she wrote about in her memoir Pushing up the Sky, a circle of Native women elders embraced and guided Trevor (mixed-blood Cherokee, Lenape, Seneca, German) through the seven cycles of life in their Indigenous ways. Over three decades, these women lifted her from grief, instructed her in living, and showed her how to age from youth into beauty. 

With tender honesty, Trevor explores how the end is always a beginning. Her reflections on the deep power of women’s friendship, losing a child, reconciling complicated roots, and finding richness in every stage of life show that being an American Indian with a complex lineage is not about being part something, but about being part of something.
"Terra Trevor's book is a gentle invitation to journey with her across decades. There are phrases and sentences I underlined, places where I wept, passages that will remain with me as they drew me to insights I'd previously struggled to name. I closed the final pages and knew that in reading this book, I had been the recipient of a generous and much-needed gift. While I could have finished this book in a day, I chose to move slowly, letting each idea, each paragraph, each reflection gently spill over me, allowing the pages to alter me in some way." 
—Patrice Gopo, author of Autumn Song: Essays on Absence 

Unpapered: Writers Consider Native American Identity and Cultural Belonging

Edited by Diane Glancy and Linda Rodriguez 

I'm honored to have my work included. Unpapered is a collection of personal narratives by Indigenous writers exploring the meaning and limits of Native American identity beyond its legal margins. Native heritage is neither simple nor always clearly documented, and citizenship is a legal and political matter of sovereign nations determined by such criteria as blood quantum, tribal rolls, or community involvement. Those who claim a Native cultural identity often have family stories of tenuous ties dating back several generations. Given that tribal enrollment was part of a string of government programs and agreements calculated to quantify and dismiss Native populations, many writers who identify culturally and are recognized as Native Americans do not hold tribal citizenship. 
Unpapered charts how current exclusionary tactics began as a response to “pretendians”—non-indigenous people assuming a Native identity for job benefits—and have expanded to an intense patrolling of identity that divides Native communities and has resulted in attacks on peoples’ professional, spiritual, emotional, and physical states. An essential addition to Native discourse, Unpapered shows how social and political ideologies have created barriers for Native people truthfully claiming identities while simultaneously upholding stereotypes.

Take A Stand: Art Against Hate

I'm honored to have my work included.

“The poems and stories in this anthology offer necessary anecdotes against hate. They are inscription, instruction, witness, warning, remedy, solution, even solace. This anthology is relief.” —Diane Glancy, winner of an Amerian Book Award and the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry 

“We can regard Take a Stand: Art Against Hate as a print-form peace march, an ongoing campaign for justice for all of the struggles embodied in these writings and depicted in the artwork included here.” —Carolyne Wright
co-editor of Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace

Take a Stand: Art Against Hate, contains poems, stories and images from 117 writers, 53 artists, with 69 illustrations, divided into five fluid and intersecting sections: LegaciesWe Are HereWhy?Evidence, and Resistance. We begin with Legacies because the current increased climate of hate in this country didn’t begin with the 2016 election, and to find its roots we must look to U.S. history.

A Motherhood Life Lesson

My babies are all grown. I no longer sneak off to finish that one last page. I’ve learned not to try. Now I’m a grandmother, and it’s easier to just stop the writing for a while. As if by magic assorted little people are tromping through my house again, requiring Band-Aids, water. Pulling books off the shelves and asking me to read one more story and then we snuggle with books on our laps. 
With my husband I raised three children. Two of our kids came to us through transracial adoption and foster care in the early 1980s. We waded into uncharted territory, as not only were two of our children Korean (I'm mixed-blood American Indian, and my husband is white) but by adding a foster child who was the oldest, and we later adopted at age 12, we also changed the birth order within our family. Next our son, then age 7 in 1991, was diagnosed with a brain tumor—an event that changed all of our lives and taught me to let go of expectations and to forge a new identity. 

What has motherhood taught me? 

If could jump cut back to my early years and have a talk with my younger self, I would say, “Terra you have three children and their childhood will run through your fingers like water as you lift your hand to capture a moment with the camera. In what feels like the flick of an eyelash they will be adults, miles and miles on their own." 

If I could step back in time, I would teach my children not to fear mistakes, let them know that failure doesn't exist, and that what some people think of as failure is really only a temporary setback. If I could walk in my younger mother shoes one more time I’d say, “Every day write down three things you adore about your children, because you will want to have this list when your kids are grown. You will want to remember and write it in their birthday cards when they turn 40 and 50.” 
I would tuck notes into my pockets reminding myself—when I’m having difficulties, admit it. Line up support ahead of time. Find a good therapist before I need one. Keep my sense of humor. Whenever I can, laugh at myself. And, so what if the house is messy, again, right after I’ve cleaned it. 
Every day I’d tell my children I loved them and let them know they are dear to me, even on the days when they broke curfew, spilled something sticky on computer keyboard, or put a dent in the car. 
If time were returned to me, I’d remember to be kind even when I was sick with a cold, had to work overtime and was in a bad mood. 

I would send myself e-mails saying, "Have more faith because one day the searing pain you feel about your son's death will become softer, and like a river stone in the raging water it will smooth into tender grace." 
I'd write letters to myself saying don't worry, but always remember one of your kids wears a raincoat on her heart, sealed in plastic, to keep out further hurt and pain. She is hurting from from much loss, and years in multiple foster homes. Hug her lightly and often. And don’t pay attention to what the experts say. You won’t be able to solve the bonding problems, but you can give up your silly notions about the way things ought to be, and allow her to go off and live her life, her way, and love will ebb, like waves rolling in and out on the beach. 
Most of all, I would tell myself to let go of my great expectations. To just take care of the moments and the years will take care of themselves. Because things will turn out to be better than what I mapped out and had planned, and that’s a promise.

First published in Adoption and Foster Parenting Today.
Copyright © Terra Trevor. All rights reserved. 

Author Terra Trevor turns to themes of motherhood 
In these twenty-two essays, author Terra Trevor explores themes of motherhood, race and identity, foster care, transracial adoption, community and family ties.

Pushing up the Sky: A Mother's Story

"Terra Trevor’s ‘Pushing up the Sky’ is a revelation of the struggles and triumphs packed into the hyphens between Korean and Native American and American. From her, we learn that adoption can best be mutual, that the adoptive parent needs acculturation in the child’s ways. With unflinching honesty and unfailing love, Trevor details the risks and heartaches of taking in, the bittersweetness of letting go, and the everlasting bonds that grow between them all. With ‘Pushing up the Sky’, the ‘literature of adoption’ comes of age as literature, worthy of an honored place in the human story." 

—Robert Bensen, editor of Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices on Child Custody and Education

Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network
1st Edition Hardcover. KAAN 2006