Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave (2012) and Poet Warrior (2021)
After my uncomfortable experience reading Autobiography of a Yogi, it was a relief to dive into poet Joy Harjo’s memoirs and encounter a completely different kind of spiritual teacher, an older-sister guide who can instruct me about the path I also want to follow: Poet, Warrior, Healer. I am so grateful for her eloquent, heartful, insightful words!
Harjo has been through a great deal of suffering in her life, as her Native American parents fought and then split up when she was young, followed by her mother marrying an abusive white man whom she refused to leave. Young Joy had to fight hard to maintain her integrity and her creative fire, given all that was stacked against her in her family, as well as the forces oppressing her people. An important sojourn in a school that fostered her artistic gifts and connections to other Native American students and teachers helped to give her strength, but she quickly made some unwise relationship choices and had to learn more in the hard way.
She wonderfully describes “the knowing,” an inner guide that, when she can listen to and be true to it leads her in the right direction. There are also points in her story where she doesn’t listen, and she pays the price. Following the wisdom of this “knowing” does not lead to an avoidance of suffering, but it does lead to deeper and more meaningful life. I tend not to trust any spiritual guidance that asserts otherwise, that claims to bypass suffering and make everything clear and simple. Harjo’s story is never simple or easy, but it is beautiful.
Her writing style is often dreamlike, poetic, making jumps and drifting back and forth in time. Sometimes it loops around and considers the same events more than once, with different nuances. It’s definitely not a forward-driving, logical kind of narrative, so be prepared for that if you read it. But it weaves its own kind of spell, along with the poems and prayers that are incorporated into the story, and I loved every moment.
Here are a few favorite quotes from Poet Warrior:
My failures have been my most exacting teachers. They are all linked by one central characteristic, and that is the failure to properly regard the voice of inner truth. That voice speaks softly. It is not judgmental, full of pride, or otherwise loud. It does not deride, shame, or otherwise attempt to derail you. When I fail to trust what my deepest knowing tells me, then I suffer. The voice of inner truth, or the knowing, has access to the wisdom of eternal knowledge. The perspective of that voice is timeless.
My family didn’t understand my gift or me. I didn’t fully understand it either. All I knew was that I had to go wherever it took me. Every place it took me I found something I needed, sort of an extended lifelong scavenger hunt game. I picked up a piece I needed in every location and I assumed that one day they would all fit together, and I would finally understand what it all means.
To hear poetry in person is to experience poetry as it is traditionally meant to be experienced, that is, you feel it breathe and experience how it travels out dynamically to become part of the winds skirting the earth, even as we inhale and take the words into our bloodstream. To speak is to bring into being. Poetry can bring rain, make someone fall in love, can hold the grief of a nation. Poetry is essentially an oral art whose roots are intertwined with music and dance.
Her house was thick with song resonance. Through her eyes I came to see that all is spiritual and either we move about respectfully within it, or we are lost.
Spiritual Memoir Challenge: A book that engages with Native American tradition
6 thoughts on “Spiritual Memoir Review: Crazy Brave and Poet Warrior”
I heard Harjo read at the South Bank in London a few years ago and she was hypnotic, very memorable!
Wow, lucky you. I can imagine she would be a very compelling speaker.
The different concepts of time and place Indigenous peoples can draw on from their ways of interacting with the natural world, and how varied they are, would be far healthier for those of us limited in thinking in linear timelines. Connections become so abundant!
Harjo is brilliant at conveying those different ways of perceiving and interacting with the world.
I read “In Search of Buddha’s Daughters: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads” by Christine Toomey as my spiritual memoir pick for February. It was quite interesting to hear lots of different stories of women who chose to become Buddhist nuns at different points in their life. For March I’m reading “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” by Sue Monk Kidd. Your choices by Joy Harjo sound fascinating!
Harjo’s writing really resonated with me, I was so happy to discover it. Buddha’s Daughters sounds fascinating, unfortunately my e-library does not carry it. I might have to seek it out anyway because it seems the focus on women’s experience of Buddhism is unusual (I’ve been reading The Snow Leopard and it’s VERY masculine).