• November 8, 2019 |

    radio in the morning

    bringing home to brown

    article by , illustrated by

    The bright morning sun warmed my back. My footsteps crunched, and I could feel the gravel under my worn, blue tennis shoes. The brisk November air chilled my legs. I shuddered, my thin pajama bottoms rippling in the wind. I buried my nose deeper into my jacket collar and eyed the sky. Another clear day with few clouds covering the blue paintbrush smears of the sky. My arms held a new change of clothes and an old towel. Every morning, I made the short journey between my aunt’s trailer and my shimasani’s, or maternal grandmother’s, hogan. 

    My aunt’s trailer has no running water; everyone in my family knows this. A two-minute trek away, our shimasani’s hogan was where we showered, cooked, and used the toilet. Getting up and ready for school meant walking there, most times half-asleep, past bare trees and stripped cornfields. This walk was completed in silence. Nothing but the occasional bark from our dogs—Asher and Mason, both tied up near my aunt’s trailer—and the whoosh of cars down the dirt road nearby.

    Even now, I can see her hogan clearly. Small, brown, peeling. The porch, crafted from old cement blocks, wobbled when I stepped onto it. A box in one corner, home to a collection of wild cats—some named, others merely “the one with white ears,” or “the one with black paws.” I always peeked inside, my brown eyes meeting a drowsy collection of dilated pupils. 

    “Good morning,” I yawned.

    As expected, I received no response. The mother, a large cat with sleek black fur, refused to break eye contact. I took that as my cue to leave, but not before offering a small wave. 

    Hagoshíí,” I said. See ya.

    The screen door never shut correctly, and it always screeched when I opened it, the noise making my shoulders scrunch and face crumple. But no matter how unpleasant, it couldn’t conceal the sound of shimasani’s radio inside—nothing could. Every morning, I’d walk into her hogan to hear the same station playing. 

    “KNDN, all Navajo all the time!” The radio host spoke with the same rough Navajo accent that many of our elders carried with pride. The entire radio station consisted of Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language. I could pick out a few of the host’s words. Mostly about advertisements: car dealerships, casino deals, back-to-school discounts at local supermarkets. Sometimes I could translate full sentences—“Kirtland Central High School is hosting parent-teacher conferences this weekend.” Other times I’d only catch the date or place: “Dííjí eí damóo Niłchil’tsosí táá’,” Today is Sunday, November 3, or “Dahghaalgaiidi,” Taking place in Kirtland. But no matter my ability to understand, the radio station offered comfort. If the radio was on, shimasani was already up and working in the fields. During the winter, she always started the stove’s fire early. So whenever we young’uns came over to shower and get ready, we were met with warmth—in sound and in atmosphere. 

    At Brown, a good two-thousand-plus miles away from home, I look back on these memories with yearning: something heavy I carry in my breast pocket, close to my heart and always in the back of my mind. Many of us come to Brown with something pinned to our chests, written on the insides of our wrists. A small token of home: a photo, a song, a memory, a recipe. Something we cling to, consciously or unconsciously. My freshman year of college, I attempted to recreate the lost feelings of comfort and ease I experienced each time I walked into my shimasani’s hogan. The warmth from the cast iron stove crowding my cheeks, the smell of dirt and ash mixing with the air, the instant manifestation of every good emotion I knew—something close to what the English language describes as content

    But my sad, empty dorm room did not compare. I’d lay on my bed, listening to Diné Bizaad pour from my busted laptop speakers. A tiny part of me felt something close to comfort, but I couldn’t shake the parts of myself that continued to feel lost and displaced. 

    Nevertheless, hearing Navajo brought me reassurance. It brought back memories of cooking with my aunt, of sitting on the porch with my shimasani in the evenings, of entering her kitchen each morning, shivering from the walk. Though these memories brought on pangs of heartache, reminding me of my distance from home, they also managed to ground me in my identity. All the things I thought I’d lost to the past remained through connections both tangible and intangible. Slowly, as if they had never left, I felt pieces of myself return.

    Pieces of home, pieces that ultimately make up who I am. Trinkets, tokens, strands, collections, streams, and threads. My foundations: built from tattered photo albums, patched jean jackets, wrinkled finger paintings, and songs I can’t help but sing along to. My memories, constructed and raised by stories shared over dying stove embers, by the smell of black coffee in the morning, and by the feel of brisk November air rushing through pajama bottoms. 

    The bright morning sun continues to warm my back, but from a new direction. My footsteps continue to crunch, though from fallen leaves instead of dirt and gravel. I still complete morning walks in silence, though with a backpack and not a pile of clothes in hand. Wild cats no longer greet me, nor does the comforting warmth of my shimasani’s cast iron stove. But the language of my people and the songs I’ve heard morning after morning, for as long as I can remember, are all a couple keystrokes away; KNDN radio still reaches me. The emotion behind these memories, no matter how painful, fosters strength. I can feel it now—a new kind of warmth, reaching from the tips of my fingers to the ends of my toes. And reader, no matter where you’re from, I hope you can feel it too.