Teri Orr: With a pinch of salt…
There were years I would start Jan. 1 with a clean journal and write in it my resolves for the year ahead. I would write slowly with great flourish and try in a couple of hours to distill things in the past year that did not go well — and why — and try to plant the seeds for fixing them. I would never dwell on what went well — the Irish in me wouldn’t allow it. It would surely bring bad luck — so many things could.
This may be the year I take one of those DNA tests to determine if I really am Irish on both sides. Or if — like Elizabeth Warren — I have a whisper of Cherokee in my blood — which so many Westerners were told we did growing up. What I do know for certain is the people in my life who were Irish were filled with so many superstitions they still whisper to me.
Things like — never putting a pair of shoes on a bed — it invites death. If a bird flies into your home — death is coming. I don’t know why we tossed spilled salt over our right shoulder but I think the devil was involved. Also never have knives crossed on top each other because … something bad would happen.
Mostly these came from my Irish grandmother on my mother’s side — the one I was closest with — she was short, fiery and certain in her beliefs. So when her husband died at 59 unexpectedly in the buffet line at his Rotary lunch club where he was president — there were all kinds of reasons given besides his smoking, drinking, being overweight and lack of exercise lifestyle.
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One year later his wife, my grandmother, died — from a broken heart my mother said. Not the actual cause — which I learned decades later was cirrhosis of the liver. That same year my great uncle died and since both my parents were only children this was the only uncle figure I had. He traveled the world for Dutch Boy paints and brought exotic menus back for us. He never married. Which I believe now was a euphemism for being gay. After that my father died in Australia where he had been sent to “dry out” by his mother. My parents divorced when I was 6 and I saw him once after that, when I was 7. Finally my beloved grandfather — his father — who had been a Major League Baseball player for the Philadelphia Athletics — part of Connie Mack’s $100,000 infield — died of a broken heart from his only child’s death. Or perhaps some other heart failure reason, up in St. Helena, in a fine hospital in the wine country when it was known equally then for restorative waters and mud baths.
It was a five year period from ages 12-16 when I tried to figure out how I was responsible for all of those deaths. I mean I had unconsciously put a pair of shoes on the edge of the bed one day when I was getting dressed. My mother had pointed out death could follow. And she said the same thing when a bird flew into our home when I had left the back door open. I don’t remember what other taboos I broke unwittingly but the consequence were always death would follow.
I got married at 19 and had two babies in rapid succession and got divorced at 26. Which may have involved a bit of bad luck but no one was dying so I counted it all as a success. I moved to Park City at 28 and folks were pretty healthy. Most of the deaths seemed related to diseases suffered from working in the mines. Until the drug deaths started, which sadly seemed related to just living in any ski town in the ’80s.
I no longer hold myself responsible for each death that touches me but there are whispers in my head. Questions about causes. Salt maybe thrown over the left shoulder instead of the right.
In the ’90s my children were in college and I had time to travel and learn a bit about the first inhabitants in the Southwest. I started to embrace Native cultures and I helped deliver yarns, food, tin foil and batteries to Navajo and Ute tribe members in the most remote places. In exchange I got stories of shape shifters and customs that influenced how a rug was woven and which direction the door should face when you are building a home (to the east — the sun should always rise upon your door.) If you picked up a pottery shard and did not set it back exactly as you had found it — you would become as disoriented as you made the shard. I know this to be true. It was the only time I ever got lost on The Rez. It took me hours that day to find my way back to our hotel which was just minutes away.
This is all a very complex way to explain how I felt when my neighbor texted me the other night, and asked if I could hear the owls hooting in my yard. I was hearing them — I just didn’t realize they were in MY yard. Apparently one high up in my pine the neighbors could see. Yes, the book — I Heard the Owl Call My Name — came to mind. In some tribes the owl is seen as a sign of death coming. But years ago a medicine man taught me about shadow sides and he said if a death is coming, then so is a rebirth.
I have a clean journal and a piece of a day I can steal soon. I will start writing about resolves, about death that leads to rebirth, about hope for the year ahead. And just for good luck — I will try not to cross any knives this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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