The Road to Promise

Saxon Henry, author of Stranded on the Road to Promise
Muriel Antoine lives on the Rosebud Reservation
Muriel Antoine, Sicangu Sioux, in ceremonial dress.

In August 1990, I met a visionary woman named Muriel Antoine, whose home I visited in Mission, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Reservation. I was questioning everything—the pain swirling around me was reflected in the pain swirling within me. The poet and artist graciously fielded questions I had about how history could have unfolded the way it did on the reservations, rather than unfolding as I had been taught in school. I open my memoir, Stranded on the Road to Promise, published by Sharktooth Press, with a poignant conversation I had with her that day.

I’m illustrating this post with an image of her in ceremonial dress and snapshots of her masks I speak about below. I bought Hepan and have him hanging in my New York City apartment. He makes me smile each time I see the colorful lizard curling all the way around his face!

Stranded on the Road to Promise
Opening of Chapter One — The Enemy

“Do you think I’m the enemy?”

The abrupt question had been dogging me for nearly a year. Muriel studied my face, her dark eyes unwavering even when she could tell I felt burningly uncomfortable. I braved the scrutiny because I knew I had asked for it.

“I think greed is the enemy,” she answered after a long pause. “It becomes god for some, and they sacrifice any and all for it. It has brought me to my knees, hit me in the head and taken me to my lowest points.”

She pulled a piece of paper from a stack near her chair and said, “This poem I wrote describes how low those points have been at times.”

The opening lines of “The Legacy,” read in her nasally deep-toned voice, slipped like an icepick into my gut:

Hepan, a colorful mask by Muriel Antoine.
Hepan, a colorful mask by Muriel Antoine.

“Ashamed because we’re Indians
born with the weight of our
culture on our backs
put there by others.”

I was glad she didn’t lift her eyes from the creased page right away because tears had welled in mine as a certainty thrummed through my nerve endings: “I must be one of these others.” The clock on the wall ticked loudly through far too many minutes while I searched for something to say.

“May I have a copy of your poem?” is all I could manage. As lame as the question sounded to my own ears, I was happy to have gotten it out.

She studied the hand she had placed on the arm of the chair, her index finger pulsing to some internal rhythm she seemed to be using to mark time. When she finally looked up, she asked me, forcefully but without malice, “Who would you say is the enemy?”

In that moment, it seemed there was no “right” answer. I mumbled, “I don’t know.”

Muriel Antoine's mast "I Dreamt I Was an Aztec Goddess in My Maidenform Bra"
“I Dreamt I Was an Aztec Goddess in My Maidenform Bra,” 1994, by Muriel Antoine

She handed me the poem.

There were other questions dammed up inside me but Muriel was visibly tired so I stood to leave. I thanked her for her generosity in sharing herself, her art and her day with me; she gave me a long, firm hug and said goodbye. I drove back to Mission with tears streaming down my face as I tried to make sense of all that had come to pass that day. The moment she softly challenged me had unleashed decades of pain, and I was proud of one thing at least: I had answered her question honestly rather than pretending I was more together than I was. I had let arrogance go, and this felt momentous all the way down to the bedrock of my being.

Muriel was a Sicangu Lakota, an artist and poet who had spent decades documenting the faces of her relatives by making masks of them. A peaceful activist, she is considered one of the keepers of Sioux culture. She wasn’t kidding when she said she had been brought to some of her lowest points by greed. That afternoon, she told me the story of her grandfather, who had owned the land on which the town of Gregory, South Dakota, stands. When the state decided to put a county seat there, they simply took his property. Before long, the state and federal governments were arguing over whom was responsible for paying the man, forcing the family to begin their own litigation, which took over five years to settle. During this time, her grandfather died, and after the attorney’s fees were paid, each heir received a $20 check. Muriel had framed hers to remind herself how avarice can devastate a life.

I was surprised to learn she felt the government had done the Sioux tribe a favor by relegating them to reservations. She said the isolation had helped them to save the pieces of their culture that remain intact, unlike the Native Americans in California, who had scattered early in the state’s formation and were just beginning to regroup and revive their mores. “It is usually the women in the culture who save the knowledge and bring it forward,” she said, her efforts to do so for her tribe proof of that. She did so by teaching young Sioux about their history during the camp-circle days and by documenting the faces of her relatives. She had hit upon the idea of making the masks of them when one of her grandchildren was born with blonde hair and blue eyes, even though both of the girl’s parents had swarthy skin, black hair and dark eyes. Muriel showed me the tiny mask she’d made of the girl, her surprise that her family’s Norwegian DNA had skipped two generations before showing up so beautifully in the child still evident on the artist’s face as she turned the girl’s white bisque likeness so it would catch the light.

When she made a mask, she decorated each one with a meaningful symbol of the person it represented. One nephew was fond of lizards so his mask, called Hepan, meaning second-born, was decorated with a bright orange, blue and green reptile, its playfully pointy profile wrapping around the face from the right side of the chin to above the left eye. During my drive back to the motel in Mission, these colors and symbols she had used to celebrate her tiyospaye, the Lakota word for extended family, swirled through my mind. Spiraling as kaleidoscopically was my own emotional skirmish. There was something about the way Muriel had honored the drama going on inside me that made me want to take a step toward healing, though I didn’t actually know what that meant.

Saxon Henry, author of Stranded on the Road to Promise
The author attending the Niobrara Convocation in Promise, South Dakota.

To read more of Stranded on the Road to Promise, you can order it in print from Amazon or from the Kindle Store. This book resulted from a blog-to-book process that Sharktooth Press makes available to clients. Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read about this piece of my journey on the Great Plains.

Text of Stranded on the Road to Promise © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and journalist based in New York City. Books include Anywhere But Here and Stranded on the Road to Promise. Saxon is also the co-founder of Sharktooth Press.

Where book titles come from

One of the most agonizing tasks an author has to do is title his/her book. Nothing seems right, then everything seems right. You have the perfect title but the cover design just isn’t working. Eventually your publisher is screaming so loudly at you that you just pick something and go with it.

Well, that’s my story anyway. Yours may be different. My book, Monkey with a loaded typewriter, started off with a very different title and picked up three more before I settled on this one. To be entirely honest, I’m not totally in love with it, but it had a lot going for it already:

  • SEO: I already owned the phrase “monkey with a loaded typewriter” Google it; it floats to the top.
  • One of the essays had Monkey with a loaded typewriter written in it, so there was a natural tie-in
  • Nobody else’s book ever in the history of book publishing was titled “Monkey with a loaded typewriter”
  • It was quirky
  • It drove my editor nuts. (This one was just pure bonus!)

Sometimes book titles are carefully researched through A/B-tested focus groups. Sometimes they just fit the author’s art perfectly. I think mostly it’s because the book has got to get published and it’s way past the deadline.

Featured image from Wikipedia

Honoré de Balzac, A Legacy

The writing desk and chair in Balzac's study.
The door to Honore de Balzac's study in Paris.
The door to Honore de Balzac’s study.

I stood to the side as the others on the tour filed into the study of La Maison de Balzac, the museum dedicated to the famous French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac. His petite writing table and roomy upholstered chair were placed in the center of the intimately-scaled room where the writer spent hours creating his novels, plays and stories, nearly 100 of which make up his well-known La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) alone.

The author retreated to the tiny home that now houses the museum, which was originally an outbuilding for a larger residence (or a folly as the museum dubs it), to escape creditors during a financial low point in his life, living in the one-story dwelling between 1840 and 1847. “Working means getting up at midnight every evening, writing until eight o’clock, having lunch in a quarter of an hour, working till five o’clock, having dinner, going to bed, and starting all over again the next day,” Balzac wrote. The writing table, which remains exactly where he had placed it, is where he proofread his work, including the entire La Comedie. He said the desk served as “the witness of my worries, my miseries, my distress, my joys, everything. My arm has almost worn it out with rubbing as I write.”

The writing desk and chair in Balzac's study.
If these walls could talk! The writing desk and chair in Balzac’s study.

As I stood trying to imagine the mammoth creative energy that must have been unleashed in that room, the thing that struck me the most? How I could see where the tabletop had been worn down to the point that it had a significant indention in it, one that corresponded with the spot where the writer had repeatedly run his arms over the wood as he drew wildly flailing lines to the margins of the pages he edited and scribbled in the updated text—all visible on the edited pages on display.

I as in awe of the tiny table with its sturdy turned legs because it had acted as the foundation of such great literary works, and knew I was witnessing a place where the rubber met the road for a writer I respected. It is a memory I will treasure forever because it made me burn to get back to my desk and begin putting words on a page or a screen as fast as my fingers would fly across the keyboard or scribble with my pens. I’m wondering if other writers have this type of experience when visiting the studies of famous authors they appreciate.

Left Bank location of Shakespeare & Co
The Paris location of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore.

When I left the museum, I headed straight for Shakespeare and Company, one of my favorite bookstores in Paris, and bought a copy of his three short novels collected in the History of the Thirteen. I read the book while café hopping on the Left Bank, just as the Lost Generation had done decades before me.

Desk and chair in Balzac's study
The desk and chair where magic happened!

In Balzac’s novella “The Girl with the Golden Eyes,” I could see how the thread of autobiography was woven through the storyline given his money troubles: “Love is reduced to desire, hate to a whimsy. The only family link is with the thousand-franc note, one’s only friend is the pawnbroker.” I could also feel how his inescapable French point of view permeated the story: “This general attitude of devil-may-care bears its fruit: in the salon as in the street no one is de trap, no one is absolutely indispensable or absolutely noxious, be he knave or blockhead, intelligent man or honest citizen.”

Balzac’s use of the character to vent makes me wonder whether I do this in my poetry. He has inspired me to look more closely as I craft new poems in the future so see if it is even possible for a writer to stay out of his or her own way. I wonder if it’s inevitable that we all emote in our writing whether we intend to or not…definitely food for thought.

If you find yourself in Paris and you want to visit La Maison de Balzac, the museum is located at 47, rue Raynouard. The Metro stop is La Muette on line 9 of the Paris Métro. Happy literary adventuring!

Text of Honore de Balzac, A Legacy © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and journalist based in New York City. Books include Anywhere But Here and Stranded on the Road to Promise. Saxon is also the co-founder of Sharktooth Press.

This is the last time I’m doing this

I got my hair cut last week and as I was getting up from the chair, he asked if six weeks out would be good.

“God willing,” I said and he turned to me and asked, “Why do you always say that?”

“Because one of these times, we will make an appointment and I will not show up. It will be the last time I get a haircut. There will be a last morning I will wake up, a last cup of coffee I will drink, a last phone call I will make, a last commute to work… a last everything. Just a fact of life.”

“Well, that is a fatalist view on life,” he shot back.

“On the contrary,” I said. “Knowing that each time you do something may be your last should motivate you to make it the best one ever. At some point, it will be.”

And for the record, my latest haircut laid down nicely. Probably his best ever.

The conversation was good, too.