It was twilight, that time between two worlds when “dawn goes down to dusk.” I was in a cafeteria having dinner with my children when an older gentleman approached me. “You’re part Native American,” he said. “I can always tell.”
Although his question surprised me, he was right. I am part Cherokee. At some level, we are all part of the same tribe of humanity, and we are all sharing a journey, trying to make sense of the human experience.
I learned that the man’s name was William, and he was also part Native American. My Cherokee ancestry is so distant that I was surprised but honored that William would notice. Like me, William was also proud of his ancestry. I learned that William and his son had dinner most evenings at the cafeteria, and these days his son did all the driving. William walked with a cane, but his insights and memories were timeless.
Hundreds of years ago, some believed that the boundaries between the human world and the spirit world were more permeable at twilight. It was a threshold over which spirits could easily cross between their world and ours. In that twilight, William and I crossed easily the boundaries between our worlds and lifetimes. We skipped the details, diving into the marrow of life and the stream of memories. In a moment, William had crossed decades to his childhood, returning to the memory of his baby brother who had died in a fire long ago. Tears came into his eyes, and I could see that while life had moved on, there are some experiences that even time cannot eclipse.
We did not have time to exchange many words or stories, but, as Chief Joseph said so well, “it does not require many words to speak the truth.” In what seemed only a minute or two, we had returned to the present, to my own children, and I could tell that William and I had much in common. We both knew that although it would be decades before my children were adults, in the context of eternity, the transition from childhood to adulthood is but an instant because “Nothing gold can stay.”
William and I both knew that there are so many mysteries in life and so much that we can never know. We both knew that perhaps it is only through sharing our stories that we might be able to help one another understand the human experience, and if understanding is not possible, then perhaps the shared stories might help us bear the mysteries.
I like what the Native American poet John Trudell writes about such mysteries: “I’m just a human being trying to make it in a world that is very rapidly losing its understanding of being human.” Trudell would say of his work, “they’re called poems, but in reality they’re lines given to me to hang on to.” So often, our words and stories help us make sense of life, and I valued William’s bravery in sharing his story with me — events in his life that remained as much a mystery today as they had been decades earlier.
At first I marveled over how this stranger could have possibly recognized me, but then I realized that William and I were like family; we shared a common tribe. I have never seen William before or since that evening, and while we met as strangers that twilight, through our stories we crossed the space between our worlds and said farewell as friends.
Dr. Love is dean of the College of Arts at Lander University; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.