few years back, in a not-unusual state of panic in my personal life
and hubris in my professional one, I spent several winter months
in Wyoming. More specifically, my job as a journalist required me
to sit at a battered kitchen table in the middle of the Wind River
Indian Reservation, swapping stories with a quadriplegic Northern
Arapaho horse gentler and traditional healer named Stanford Addison.
I went home with nothing particularly resolved, but happier than
I'd been in years.
had lost more than anyone I'd ever known. He was paralyzed
at age 20, when the truck in which he was traveling to a party hit
some horses wandering on a dark reservation road. But by the time
I arrived 23 years later, he was holding sweat lodges to help his
neighbors twice a week. He was assisted in the lodge and the corral
by young men and kids, some adopted as his own children, others
just passing through or released to him by tribal courts and social
programs. When the beds filled up, kids and other visitors slept
sprawled on couches or on the floor.
terrible things happened on the reservation crime and addiction
and violence were never far away happiness was all over the
place on this ragtag ranch. As the weeks passed, my spirits palpably
started to lift. I would find myself breaking into laughter in the
middle of washing dishes after dinner, or while I crunched over
the snow to see the horses in their shaggy winter coats, puffing
steam into the frigid air. Somehow, the volume was being turned
down on the internal voice that tended to drive my actions, the
voice that shouted, "I must get what I want! I must get what
I want! Something is seriously wrong if I don't get what I
a restless soul like mine was soothed by spending months in the
company of a person who persevered thrived, even without
his needs being even close to met. He had very little money. His
body was paralyzed and diabetic, and he was always more or less
in pain. Still, he managed to care for all these kids, work his
horses, and host a steady stream of visitors from the reservation
and beyond. I watched him worry, but not be consumed with worry.
I watched him get grumpy, but never rageful. He laughed a lot.
to get going," he'd say before his nephews carried him
into the sweat lodge. "Hand me my goggles. And my cape."
hadn't always been like this. Before his accident, he was as
heartless and handsome as a young rebel could be. He was a small-time
outlaw who busted broncs, broke hearts, robbed cafes and dealt drugs.
After the accident, his 20-year-old body lay unmoving, visited by
doctors, nurses, and spirits who began to endow him with unwanted
two years of hospitalization and rehab, he returned home, recognized
the sorrow and pity in the eyes of his friends, and decided to kill
himself. He tried, failed, and fell back on Plan B: He would get
himself killed which wasn't all that hard to do on the
reservation. But this didn't work either. At a rowdy party,
Stanford was antagonizing a drunk man with a hammer into what he
hoped would become a murderous rage when the man put the hammer
down, launched into a description the emotional pain that had always
haunted him, and started sobbing.
took Stanford more than a decade to accept his role as a healer.
But by the time I met him, acceptance and surrender were key to
who he was.
example, he usually went bare-chested because shirts made him slip
around on his wheelchair. As he rolled into the 20 degree winter
day for a cigarette, I asked if he was cold. "I just don't
fight it," he said. Or if someone asked how tall he was, he'd
say, "six-one, or four feet, depending on how you're measuring."
I came from a culture where control was the gold standard, and surrender
gave off a bad smell, like an old refrigerator. Sure, I got happier
when I was around Stanford I enjoyed and benefited from his
surrender but surrender wasn't really my thing. When
he sang in the sweat lodge, asking the Creator to pity us, the mantra
of the white middle class would go off in my head: "Don't
waste your pity on ME, Creator, I'm fine. I've got this
credit card and this Toyota and I'm healthy and pity isn't
something I really want or need. I deal with my problems by myself.
In fact, I'd really rather you didn't do that pity thing
with me." Like Stanford, I wasn't going to surrender until
I was forced to.
that day came. I was assaulted by a white man who sometimes lived
at Stanford's, a man who had become a friend and, at one point,
almost a lover. I wasn't raped or beaten, but I was held down
and threatened. I was sure I was going to die. Then the attack suddenly,
miraculously, ended. The next night, after I tearfully called home
to Colorado and brushed off admonishments that I leave Wyoming and
come straight back, I was back in the sweat lodge, heaving with
nausea and confusion and praying to the Creator to just please help
me. I was horrified by how my own bad judgment had inflamed the
situation, and how close I'd come to having my life ruined
or ended. Kneeling, I begged (which I never thought I'd do)
for mercy (which I never thought I'd want).
I was, a former agnostic, the daughter of a psychiatrist, sobbing
and begging, face to face with the unwelcome fact that I was a mortal,
vulnerable, terrified animal.
helped. A lot.
didn't just help me. Sitting near a boy who had just been released
from jail and a woman who had recently suspected she had stomach
cancer, I had prayed for my companions with unusual simplicity.
Stanford told me later my prayers had helped another participant
an exhausted grandmother raising a houseful of restive grandchildren
says that the more you pray for others the better off you'll
be. He also says that Arapaho spiritual practices are hard because
Arapaho life is hard, and that the more you suffer the more the
Creator hears you. The reservation the Northern Arapaho share with
the Eastern Shoshone is just a few miles from the comfortable town
of Lander, and a single scenic mountain pass away from Jackson,
the seat of a county that is, per capita, the wealthiest in the
nation. But it might as well be on a different planet. On the reservation,
people I loved died with stunning frequency. Even the young people.
Especially the young people.
don't personally know a more powerful force for good than than
the quadriplegic Northern Arapaho in whose sweat lodge I kneeled
on that night a night I wouldn't wish on anyone else,
but which, for me, was pivotal. Since then, my personal life has
settled down into something calm and gratifying. I think that process
began on the floor of the sweat lodge, where, on my knees, I felt
my own life moving inside me like I never had before.
Lisa Jones chronicled her friendship with Stanford Addison in her
book, "Broken: A Love Story," which was published by Scribner
in May. She lives in Colorado. Her Web site is lisajoneswrites.com.
The Web site of Stanford
Addison Ranch (http://www.stanfordaddisonranch.com/) describes
his life and work.