Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Book I am Wildly in Love with Now: Broken

Because I'm a book critic, I get a lot of books. I always read the first paragraph and I can pretty much tell how hooked I am going to be by page 2.  This incredible book, Broken: A Love Story, by the extraordinary Lisa Jones, got me in the first few sentences. Jones went to Wyoming to meet the remarkable Stanford Addison, a Northern Arapaho who gentled horses and it was said, healed people--all from his wheelchair.  Lisa ended up spending four years there, and along with telling Stan's story, she threaded in the story of her relationship and her transformation. I so wanted to talk to Lisa, and she was so generous with her time, and so much fun, that I feel a little dazzled presenting this Q and A. Thank you so much, Lisa, and if you ever come to NYC, City Bakery is on me.
What struck me was that while dealing with a man who claimed to hear spirits, and with wild horses and all manner of things, you never seemed scared around him.  Were you, and if not, why not?

I was scared of him very early in the book, after I felt his unmistakable power over me when I worked the horse in the corral and heard his neighbors tell stories about his healing powers. I also knew that spiritually powerful people can misuse their power (especially spiritual men over their female followers), so I embarked on my trip to Iowa with Stanford with a lot of trepidation. But we hadn't gone a few miles down the road when it struck me I was perfectly safe and happy around this man. I knew he was good and kind and respectful. And that never changed. Considering the pain I carried around due to a father who wasn't exactly respectful of women, Stan's immaculate treatment of me was like manna from heaven.

One of the things (among many) that I loved about the book is that you really give us an insider look at the Indian community, from the sweat lodges to the way Indians are treated in the non-Indian community. Your mother, in one of the funnier passages, tells you to respect your genetic makeup and reminds you that you are not an Indian.  How close do you feel to Indian culture now?

I don't spend as much time at Stanford's as I used to, although I'm writing you from Wyoming right now -- I've actually been here three or four times since March and it's not even May yet. (Most of these visits revolve around his health, which has hit a rough patch lately.) When I'm here I go to all of Stanford's sweats. Anyway, When I'm home in Colorado, my spiritual practice revolves around taking long walks in nature. On these hikes I pick a lot of sweet sage, which grows prolifically near my home on Colorado's Front Range (and which was the last home the Arapaho picked for themselves.) I send packages of it to Stanford to use in his sweat lodge. And that feels like a lovely connection; a sort of active prayer. At home, I pray, and light sage. That I got straight from Stanford. Tiny vestiges of the sweat lodge. And while I'm totally involved in my life in Colorado, the minute I go to Wyoming, the familiarity and at-homeness surround me really quickly, the way you can pick up a conversation with a friend that got interrupted months and months ago and it's as if you never stopped talking.

Part of the book revolves around your relationship with Peter, who seems so hell-bent on a spiritual quest that I was really surprised—and delighted, at the way that relationship transformed. I’m curious, did this unfold as you were writing the book, or did it all happen before you began to write?  At what point did you realize the book was going to be about two journeys—yours and Stan’s?

That's a great question. Um. At first it was all going to just be about Stanford. But time -- years, really -- passed, and I found myself in front of the camera. Part of this was due the fact that I couldn't get away with doing the typical white thing -- ask a direct question about his spirituality or his life and get a direct answer. He would just finger his mustache and say,"You're just going to have to hang around some." So I did. And I formed my own relationships and made my own mistakes. There was a long period when I was going to Stan's and writing about it and not really knowing where it was all going in terms of the book, but I was so enchanted by what I was experiencing I didn't really care. People would say, "when will you be done with your research?" and I'd say "Research?" and think, "My God, I have TOTALLY left the known shore." I mean, prior to this book my biggest writing project was a 2 1/2 year investigation into the way colleges of agriculture and forestry in the Rocky Mountain West taught natural resource management!

Writing this book wasn't about accumulating knowledge and then writing it down. It was more like going snorkeling and not knowing exactly what I'd find, but knowing I'd know it when I floated over it. And that's exactly what happened. And although I could have written an entire second book on what's happened since I closed the action of BROKEN, there was a clear sense of closure when it was time to stop writing.

Stanford became paralyzed after a terrible accident and a wild, carousing youth, but he received a gift—the ability to shrink tumors, gentle horses and help his people.  He was transformed.  But you, too, were transformed from knowing him—and knowing yourself.  Can you talk about that transformation?
I wish I could say my time on the Wind River rearranged me into the finished product, a wise woman who remains calm and happy in every situation, who never snipes about people behind their backs or argues with her husband or feels tragically sorry for herself or gets so upset by the actions of a certain president that she stopped reading the newspaper for FOUR YEARS. But that's not what happened. I can still be a complete idiot. Still, I know I'm vastly better off -- less restless, more let-go, happier, happily married to my husband although we certainly have our issues, no longer making an art form out of blaming my parents for the deficiencies in my upbringing -- due to the time and experiences I had at Stan's. I think the proof showed up in the pudding about three years ago, when a very old friend asked me how I was doing and I said, "Lucky." and she said, "I've been waiting for about 15 years for you to say that."
At one point in the book, Moses says about the non-Indian world, “It’s the White world, it’s lonely!”  Your book certainly makes me feel that this non-Indian world is filled with less magic and less spirit, which indeed makes it seem lonelier.  How do you personally reconcile that since you are now off the reservation? What keeps you centered? And can you still be connected to that deep spirituality and magic or has something else taken its place? 

When I drive up from Colorado and hit the high desert of Wyoming and see the Wind River Range in the distance, I just about die of happiness. Every time. So I'm not completely integrated or resolved. I still yearn for Wyoming. But I think that's part of life -- there are certain aches in the heart that don't go away. You just make room for them. As for how centered I am, see question #4, and as for what's taken its place, see question #2.
I have to ask: while in a sweat lodge, you witnessed a cancer coming out of a woman’s body.  How is that woman now?
This woman, a good friend of mine who happens to be white, was suffering from a particularly virulent strain of breast cancer that had spread to her bones. She was near the end of the year the white medical doctors had predicted she had left to live and arrived on the reservation gulping Oxycodone (a powerful narcotic pain reliever). After the sweat lodge I refer to in the book, Stanford said we'd gotten the cancer out, but if she continued with chemotherapy, she would die. She felt better than ever after the sweat (sweats, actually -- she, me, and about a dozen friends made two trips to Stanford's in which she did four sweat lodges each and a third trip where we did one sweat before we were stopped by torrential rains), and then went home to Kansas. Cultural conditioning being the unstoppable thing it is, she went back on chemo. Awhile later tumors were found in her brain. She is still on chemotherapy. Her sight is starting to go. But she has lived two years past her predicted survival date and is still dancing at parties and being generally delightful. And she's not on Oxycodone -- she makes do with a couple of Aleves a week. And her doctors think she's a marvel.

What happens in Stanford's sweat lodge is unknowable to me, but I do think the attitude of the person there for healing is very important. It's not a magic wand he can wave over just anyone and BAM, heal them. But it's a healing method friends of mine on the reservation take very seriously, and it works for them. I know that for me the sweat lodge is a hugely mentally healing process.

You talk about the love that is above romantic love, that is akin to surrender.  Do you think there is a way to attain that for those who don’t go to sweat lodges or have the opportunity to meet someone as remarkable as Stan?

 Weyull, I think there are lots of road to this place. The Christians practice centering prayer, the Buddhists meditate, extreme surfers catch the uncatchable wave, as I wrote above, I have a thing for walking in the woods. I come home really centered and rejuvenated and calm. More than that -- I am closer to the way I felt when I was with Stanford -- as though there is very thin membrane between me and the divine, like I can feel the warmth of it. I think there are many ways to get there. Stan's way (preceded by years of Buddhist practice) just happened to agree with me.
How is Stan today?

I'm writing to you from his bedside at the hospital. He continues to battle bedsores and infections. This Halloween he'll have been a quadriplegic for 30 years. He turned 50 in late April, and on his birthday had to go back to the hospital for the third time in seven weeks. But he always astonishes me with his ability to bounce back.

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