Monday, February 24, 2014

It’s the Little Things that Count


“I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.”
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

I was worrying about all of the big things that were facing me in the upcoming day when I left home on a recent sub-zero, cloudy, and dreary February morning. It was one of those days that prods one to question the reasons for living in Minnesota. To make matters worse, I was now stuck in a traffic jam on Interstate 94 where it crosses Hiawatha Avenue. Most of the gray exhaust rising from each of the cars idling on this highway turned parking lot was creating an environment that was not quite pea soup but more like dirty dishwater left in the sink overnight. The remainder of the exhaust was freezing on the pavement creating a black ice that made whatever movement there was hazardous and stressful.

The longer I was trapped in this traffic jam the more irritable I became. It was dawning on me that I was going to be spending a large chunk of time in my car in one of the gloomiest parts of town on one of the gloomiest days of the year. The irony of the presence of such ugliness as I sat stranded over a street named after a famous American Indian, whose name evokes images of nature's beauty, was not lost on me and made my frustration even more intense.

That thought, however, momentarily took my mind away from I94 and Hiawatha Avenue and transported it to a storytelling session that I had attended over twenty years ago. Despite the fact that it had occurred so long ago, I could vividly recall the setting – a small cottage nestled in a small clump of trees in the middle of a preserved patch of prairie just south of the Twin Cities. The cottage was decorated with hand-crafted furniture, fabrics, and art. It was a magical place that gently coaxed stories out of people.  It was the antithesis of I94 on this gloomy morning.

One of the storytellers made a particularly vivid impression on me. Her name was Anne Dunn, an Ojibwe woman from Cass Lake, MN. She had made the trip to the Twin Cities solely for the storytelling session.  She knew it didn't make any sense for her to come all that way just to tell a story or two but she had a feeling that she had to be there – so she was.

Her story was about a young man who had gone on a Vision Quest.  Just before he departed, an elder approached him and advised him that over the next three days he should pay attention to the little things around him because they might hold something special. The young man said that he would and then departed with hopes of having a great vision that would give him some purpose and direction in his life. 

When the young man reached the top of the hill that he had chosen for his quest, he set up his camp and began the fasting and prayer that he hoped would lead to his vision. 

For three days he waited. No dreams came while he slept. He looked for signs from eagles, wolves, bears, or deer but nothing appeared. He gazed at the sky looking for clouds or thunder and lightning but nothing was visible to him. He looked at the trees and the rocks and the hills but he saw nothing but the landscape. He prayed, and even begged, for a sign but nothing came that he could recognize. Finally, exhausted and in despair he gave up his quest and headed back to his people.

Upon entering the village the young man was met by the elder who had talked with him before he left. The elder asked about the Vision Quest. The young man dejectedly replied that it was a failure; nothing had happened. He felt depressed and cheated.

The elder asked him about the bird. The young man replied that there were no birds. 

The elder asked him again about the bird. The young man again replied but this time with some impatience in his voice that there were no birds. He had looked diligently for three days for signs of eagles, hawks, loons, or even owls but none had appeared.

For the third time the elder asked him about the bird. By this time the young man was beside himself.  He screamed that there were no birds, that the place was barren, and that his whole Vision Quest was a waste of time. 

The elder quietly asked "what about the bluebird?"

"O, that pesky little thing," the young man replied. "He kept bothering me. I tried to chase it away but it kept coming back. After a while I just had to ignore it because it was interfering with my Vision Quest."

As he was talking, the young man suddenly remembered the words of the elder before he had left on the Vision Quest -”pay attention to the little things.” With great despair he realized that he had disregarded this advice. The bluebird was trying to tell him something but he didn't pay attention because he was looking for something more dramatic and spectacular than the appearance of a lowly little bluebird. 

The young man went away and cried with the realization that he had wasted a golden opportunity.

Just then, I was jolted back to the present by a horn sounding behind me. The traffic had begun to move and, for the person behind me, I had been too slow to respond. I slowly pushed down on the accelerator and caught up with the flow of traffic. The cars were now moving but the murkiness and glumness of the surrounding cityscape remained. My mind went back to the advice of the elder in the story - "Pay attention to the little things around you. They may hold something special for you."

At that moment I looked up through the dirty gray air toward the sun that was slowly rising directly ahead of me. Around the sun a glorious rainbow had appeared and was forming an arch over the road. The rainbow was created by the exhaust and polluted air which moments before I had been cursing. 

I began to smile as I noticed that the most vibrant color of the rainbow was blue – a blue that matched the hue of a bluebird's wing. At that point I knew that I was one of the reasons Anne Dunn came to the Twin Cities. I needed her story even though it took 2 decades to understand that. To paraphrase Leslie Marmon Silko, I needed her story to fight off the frustration and stress that was not leading to health. Her story also assured me that the big things in my day would take care of themselves if I stopped worrying and simply paid attention to the little things all around me. 

It turned out to be a great day.

The 2014 legislative session starts this week. That’s a big thing. While we deal with that, let’s be sure to pay attention to the bluebird on our shoulder.


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