Row house handrail, Harlem, 2013

Early in her amazing career, my friend Leslie spent some years in New Guinea teaching English quite unsuccessfully to remote villagers, the Papuas (the fuzzy-headed people). Over a lovely dinner at L’Ybane last week in NYC, she described the difficulty of finding a way to bridge their pigeon English to its proper expression. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable of the cognition, she explained, it was that she found herself not wanting to change their way of expressing their world. They said “mouth-grass” instead of mustache. She didn’t want to alter that, and found herself adjusting to their way instead. For example, the Papuas were familiar with 1) the shape of the blades on an electric mixer, and they knew that 2) the white man’s Jesus lived up there in the sky somewhere. So when a certain hovercraft made its first appearance over the island nation, the locals referred to it as a “mix-master-belong-Jesus.” That said helicopter to them. Whenever she corrected them, they would nod sweetly and affirm the circumstances of their lives relative to the object: yesyesyessss, mix-master-belong-jesus bring medsin. That was all they wanted to know about helicopters.

Nowadays Leslie is a consultant to federal asylum program based in DC. She works with foreign victims of horrific torture—usually young women—helping them learn English and adjust to life in the states. She tells me those years with the Papuas helped her develop a skillset she now relies on daily to avoid common word-triggers including “family” and “darkness” and “men.” She says a creative vocabulary is also essential in understanding what the women are trying to say to her. Knowing how “push-me-go/pull-me-come” translated to handsaw helps Leslie comprehend what she is hearing from these women who, under certain circumstances, still bleed sometimes…and will bleed for the rest of their lives.


character study


The grove of pecan trees had been planted generations earlier, long before Hodge was born in the shelling shed to Esperanza, who left him there when it was time to move on with the crew to pick the next farm. His mother gave him his first name, although he never used it. Also, the umber cast to his skin that set him apart in Missouri in 1927.


From Grigg Hamblin, Hodge would inherit the land where the trees had been set out in orderly rows along the floodplain.


From the trees, he got both a living and an identity. As if he’d been bred for it, and perhaps he was, Hodge was the special kind of being that is a pecan farmer. Atop sturdy, straight legs, he was mostly trunk supporting a thick V of shoulders, muscles knotting his arms down to long fingers. A head of nut-brown curls went uncut during the harvest season when he didn’t even bother to return to the house at night.


Arizona Hodges Hamblin belonged only to the trees, and that’s how it went until he was almost 30.

© 10/18

$26 for the happiest day of his life


He knocked on my front door, needing money . . . the exact amount to the penny for a bus ticket to Chicago: $25.65

Did I have any odd jobs he could do?            (this got my respect)

Overcoming my default NO, I said I figured I had $5 for pulling weeds out of the cracks in my driveway.

It’ll help, he said. And he started yanking at the crabgrass.

After about five minutes, I couldn’t stand the white privilege roiling off me; I approached him with a better idea.

OK, I’ll cover the full price of your ticket if you write about the best day of your life.

He just stared at me, confused.

How do I do that, he asked.

So I handed him a can of Cherry Pepsi, something to sit on, a notepad and paper.

Just tell me what happened that made it happy, I said. Write what you remember.

I went back into my house. Every time I peeked through the curtain or around the door frame, the boy was writing intently.

After 20 minutes, I went to see how he was doing. I asked if he would read it to me and said he would, but it made him shy. Shyly, he read. Sensei-ish, I listened.


I liked his theme and told him so. He said he wasn’t done yet, so I went back to my work. Maybe 15 minutes later, he was ready. Did I want him to read it out loud again? I said no, you don’t have to.

He returned the notepad and pen. I shook his hand and gave him an envelope with $26 cash in it.

Congratulations, I said, this is your first paid writing project. You are now a writer. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Go to Chicago and keep writing even if no one is paying you. One day they will. You’ll be amazed by your life one day.

I’ve no idea why I felt authorized to say that, but that’s what I said. I think I just always wanted someone to say that to me when I didn’t know who I was.

Then he smiled awkwardly, trying to hide his broken front teeth. He thanked me and walked off.


Later in the early evening, I was walking Nessy and saw a nearly full can of Cherry Pepsi sitting on the curb just up the next block from my place. It wasn’t thrown down, not even dented; somehow politely, it was just sitting there, punctuating the end of our exchange.

It charmed me.  It embarrassed me.  It was something I would have done at his age when I wasn’t brave enough to say no thank you . . . decades before I learned how to be the person  I myself needed when I was 17.

of the Moon

Nightbird at Blood Moon

Last night, Kit and I went to the Full Moon Drumming, which was particularly wonderful during this, the Blood Moon. There was a big turnout. Instruments of all kinds were spread out on the ground for any newbies (like us) to borrow—fully engaged participation is the unspoken expectation. Interspersed were various art supplies that had presumably been used to put up promotional posters about the event, at least that’s what we figured the markers, scissors, etc., were beside the tambourines and maracas. Yet there was a tin can, fly swatter, knitting needles, and a knife sharpener, so who could be sure?

I’m not a musician but I can keep a beat, at least I thought I could. Then the tattooed guys with pony tails started beating rhythms out of the congas, snares, steel pans and African drums that were powerful and primal. Everything I tried to sync to that skewed highchair-baby-with-spoon. As soon as the first session winded down, I switched to cow bell and spent the next session trying to keep Will Farrell/SNL images out of my mind.

Maybe the fourth or fifth “drum conversation” in, I was finally getting the hang of it. I had settled at last on the triangle because…well, I just didn’t think you could mess up on the triangle. It always sounds nice. After a while, Kit gave me a look that inferred otherwise.

“Play something different,” she hissed.
“This is the only song I know on the triangle,” I replied.
“No, I mean a different instrument…anything…like a skein of yarn.”

She looked around desperately then handed me a glitter-glue stick, but I just tuned her out.


a common wicasa

Young Bear would not let me take a picture of his hands.  He was self-conscious about missing a finger, but not over the way it looked.  It was because he had cut it off during a Sun dance, and that was a sacrifice, not a photo opp.  He said I am going to tell you things you cannot speak about later.

I do not share those things . . . they are for sacred knowing not blogposting.

young bearSo I spent the next hour with him, who pointed out many times that he was not a Wicasa Wakan, a Sacred Man, but just a common wicasa.  Still, he was working to elevate his people on their spiritual path; he was the man who bridged them at Death (which is not real, he pointed out) over the North Star down the Milky Way to the Death Star.

At the end of the Milky Way is the place where the spirits face the Smokey Mirror for judgment.  But the judgment is not from the Creator, who loves and accepts all wicasa.  It is the reflection of our own fears, shames and beliefs about ourselves that judge us.  We judge ourselves.  He knows this and his function with the tribes is to teach the people self-love.  If they know self-love, then they can face the Smoky Mirror and accept the Gift of their Life.  He gave me this Knowing to share.

Then he said that he would give me a gift, too, that would help me.  What did I need?  So I asked him if he could tell me about the Eagle Dream I had.   He nodded.  After I told him, he kept his eyes down on his hands, on the finger that wasn’t there, and after a while he started talking.  He told me things about it that were not given to me before, but still entirely synced to what I knew about this Dream.  He added some things I didn’t know, and my heart swelled with the Truth of what I’d been given…how it was instantly known to this man, the common wicasa.

Then he told me that if I want to keep the Gift of my Dream, I must give him a penny.  An exchange of things of value must be made before I could own it, before the Dream was really mine.  Except that I didn’t have a penny, so I gave him the compass I bought in Australia last fall that was hanging on my camera bag.  He studied it, then nodded approvingly.  He took it ceremoniously and hung it on his keychain.  Now the Dream is mine, and it will now come to pass, he said.  Then he told me more things I can’t speak about, although I do not know why…why extraordinary things like this happen to me, an even more common wicasa.

(This happened to me in North Dakota, Summer 2012; reposted by special request of BJHM)

a naked story

It seemed that Igor learned English from watching porn.  He mastered (and I use that term loosely) “take off clothes,” “turn over,”  “hot, very hot now,” “would you like harder?”  “come…come” and these were the only phrases he knew or really needed to say to his clients.  He always got his point across with hands as thick and commanding as his Russian accent.  Igor could make you feel good, real good…but believe me, you were going to suffer for it.  Very few American “vimps” could endure his deep tissue massage and the intense heat of “The Only Authentic Russian Banya in America.”

Igor and Irena Bosynkorov, whose dramatic leave of Moscow in ’95 was a story Irena told us over dinner, insisted that we all come try their Banya. It was the least they could do to repay us for sharing our Thanksgiving with them, their first in this country. Irena insisted we let them return the hospitality Russian-style. None of us knew what it meant to try the Banya. We’d seen the quaint, ornately carved wooden cabin that sat unexpectedly in front of a ‘60s ranch hemmed in by sprawling commercial growth southeast of the city. It was utterly out of place—a fairy tale next to a strip mall. I drove past it daily on the way into the city.  A couple times I’d stopped for lunch at the Bosynkorov’s Russian Restaurant nearby, which is how I met them.  I was always the only customer, so Irena and I got acquainted while I ate Borscht, which she wouldn’t let me pay for because “now ve are friends.”  Naturally, I had to invite the Bosynkorovs to Thanksgiving dinner, the first I ever made entirely on my own.

So, over pumpkin pie, Irena explained the Banya, adding that Igor built it himself (without benefit of building code or permits, I would later learn) as her eyes looked heavenward, “It is like massage, but more more more than massage.” Her English was considerably better than Igor’s but still lacked some vocabularic essentials.  My folks were in town for the holiday, and dad was already out of comfort zone because I made the turkey dressing different than mom.  Dad politely, but instantly, declined the idea of another man touching him.  My mother’s and my exceeding politeness left us wide open for what happened next. Tom pushed the point, “why don’t you and your mom go…you two would enjoy that.”  Irena clapped her hands happily, so the deal was done.

This is how I came to be sitting buck-naked beside my mother on a roughly sanded bench in the ante-room of said quaint cabin the very next morning.  We had taken off clothes and jewelry as directed.  Then we waited glum as prison inductees for Igor’s return. We were not at all sure we would enjoy this. In fact, I was pretty sure my mother was already disembodying in the way of people going into shock.  She doesn’t do naked.  She’s the sort of modest woman who sews a swatch of fabric across the bodice of her swimsuit so her cleavage won’t show. I hadn’t seen her naked since the day I was born.  But there we were el buffo, deshabille…our eyes strategically averted from one another, searching intently for anything else to look at…like those lizards with eyes that work independently.  She sat mute as I justified mushrooms in my turkey dressing recipe and dawdled on other topics akin to what you say when you’re waiting for the doctor to call you in from the waiting room for test results you know won’t be good.

Finally Igor appeared.  He was nearly naked, sporting only a tiny tight red swimsuit of the sort worn by the burly-man-kicking-sand-in-the-face-of-the-puny-guy-on-the-beach in those ads in the back of old comic books. His thighs were blunt and strong; his chest two heaving pectoral hills.  He held out his hand to my mother who hesitated, then rose, trance-like, and followed him into the steam room, a look of “lie back and think on Mother England” resignation on her face.  I breathed a sigh of relief at not being taken first, but about that time Sergei entered the tiny room and that’s how I met Igor’s 19 year old son.  That’s also when it first occurred to me that they really should provide towels in this joint, and have age-requirements for staff.  Idiomatically-challenged but enthusiastic Sergei announced, “I vill do you today.” His father, Sergei explained, had been a sports trainer for the Russian Olympic gymnasts in the ‘80s, and was now teaching Sergei the art of deep tissue massage. But I shouldn’t worry, “Iz not my first time,” he assured me.

The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back on a raised wooden platform in the steam room. The kamenka, a small woodstove, hissed a few inches from my toes, prompting the question I would ask later, and how I learned of the aforementioned lack of building plans, permits and code violations.  I couldn’t see well through the steamy white haze, but I knew my mother was just an arms-length away across the skinny aisle where both Igor and Sergei competed for space. They bumped and jostled each other as they worked, Igor grunting impatiently at his son who didn’t have the routine down yet.

First, we were fileted with Dubovny Veniks, leafy oak branches drenched in a ten-gallon bucket of scalding water and smacked on our screaming skin.  Sergei switched me head to toe as I lay there, eyes pinched and body wincing during this warm-up exercise.  I guess I’d been holding my breath, because as soon as it seemed the beating was over, I gasped for air.  It came in like a fire hose. The steam room was so hot I couldn’t breathe. After a few sputtering, searing attempts, I figured out how to pull tiny hits of air into a shallow space at the top of my lungs, my lips parted thinly and stretched tightly so my teeth wouldn’t catch fire.  I heard my mother bleat TOO HOT and Igor cracked the tiny window near the ceiling.  Then Igor barked “turn over.”  And we obeyed.

Sergei smoothed oil gently down my back and arms.  I figured the worst was behind me, now we’d get to the good part.  Two feet away, Igor slapped and kneaded oil into mother’s body. His style was decidedly more vigorous than Sergei’s.  My mother’s body was jumping on that table like she’d been shocked with electric paddles. I peeked through my lashes and saw her arms stretched out in front, her hands trying to brace against the logs of the wall, her skin the color of candied carrots.  Then I turned my head and look away…there was nothing I could do for her. It was every woman for herself now.

If Igor was deep tissue, then Sergei was more like pass the tissues.  He was as self-conscious and uncomfortable as I was about his hands on my body.  He chastely thumbed the ridge of my backbone between the shoulder blades down to the waist, then relocated his attention to my calves and feet.  I was beginning to feel gyped.  I said, “Ummm, I could take it just a little harder, please.” Taking this as a challenge, Igor instantly switched positions with Sergei, and began separating my muscles from tendons, my ligaments from bones. He concentrated torturously on every nook and knot in my body.  Other than during childbirth, this was the only time I ever used Lamaze breathing.  Then I felt something hot and thick pouring across my lower lumbar, just above the dimples. I assumed my back had broken and this was the feeling of spinal fluid leaking.  But Igor was ladling honey over me.  It liquefied almost instantly and splashed as he coated me (“turn over”) with widespread hands, front and back.  Honey dripped from me, it was actually sort of delightful and I was giggling as he pulled me to my feet, “come….come.”  Ummm, come where?

Igor directed Sergei in Russian, and Sergei took the buckets of oak switches and went outside. As we followed, I stole a furtive glance at my mother whose arms were folded mummy-like over her breasts, legs crossed, eyes shut, face blank.  I hoped she had lost consciousness before Sergei laid a blushing, embryonic finger on her, so at least she would be spared that future hour of psychotherapy.

We emerged into broad daylight in his front yard, blinking like moles, Igor walking backwards and leading me, still naked, by my hands. Of course, this meant my hands were unavailable for any attempt at modesty.  But at this point, Igor at seen it all and, for that matter, he had rubbed it all, too.  One could only hope that the decent citizens driving by were not seeing us through the scrubby juniper hedge that stood between me and public humiliation.

“Sit,” Igor ordered. So I sat on a small stool while Sergei came around the cabin with the first of several buckets now full of frigid water out of the hose.  Igor hefted one onto his shoulder, then nodded at me, “Oblivanye?”  Was he asking me a question?  If so, he certainly didn’t wait for the answer, which, to my shrieking surprise, I learned soon enough.  Ohhhh, Oblivanye—the Russian word for dumping buckets of ice-cold water over a person’s incandescently hot body, a practice that can actually shatter stone—that Oblivanye.  Bucket after bucket, steam roiling off my body, I experienced a heat extraction process that took me cataclysmically through the stages of volcanic to cryogenic.

Igor would be waterboarding mom next, there was nothing I could do to stop it.  In a brief moment of lucidity, I wondered if she would survive Oblivanye, assuming she hadn’t already drowned in honey. Maybe she’d be left with just a mild impairment—nothing serious—just enough memory loss to forget that the Banya ever happened. If the topic ever came up again, she’d do that forgetting-thing she does with unpleasantness in general and nakedness specifically.  As for me, I blocked out every Thursday evening for the rest of my life for Igor.

~ © L. Seaver 2012