Both Sides Now

It was a winter afternoon, and the sun was beginning to fade.
Late February light in Bluff is stunning, so I was sitting in my office staring absently out the picture windows when I heard a car come to a sudden halt in the gravel parking lot.
The driver apparently overshot his or her intended mark and had to break faster than expected to avoid a collision with the large sandstone boulders located in front of the trading post.
The Gems, aka Pearl and Opal, who were lounging under the writing desk, jumped up to see what was going on.
As it turned out, it was Chris Johnson with his newly woven basket.
Chris’ arrival at the trading post is always an exciting time because he is one of the most talented, skilled, and inventive Navajo basket makers ever.
This time, however, I was confounded by his offering, which resembled an astronomical event, late winter light, or maybe even one of Van Gogh’s dried sunflowers.
To use a double negative, it wasn’t that the basket was not well woven. It wasn’t even that Chris’ weaving was unattractive. It was just that it was . . . somehow.
“Somehow,” is a term local Navajo people, including Priscilla, use to describe a thing or event that defies description or explanation.
For example, when one of our prior café managers ran off with his business partner’s husband and began posting about the affair on Facebook, that was, well . . . somehow.
Fortunately, I had recently seen a YouTube video of an elderly Joni Mitchell singing her landmark hit, Both Sides Now.
The song was released in 1968 when I was still in single digits, but it has always stuck with me as something important, a lesson to keep in mind.
I even have an original copy of the vinyl album Clouds, which features the tune. I found it over 45 years ago at a yard sale and couldn’t believe my luck. Unfortunately, I just can’t remember where I put it all those years ago.
Unlike Joni, I have generally been unsuccessful when it comes to looking at both sides of an issue, whether that be clouds, love, life, art, or Navajo culture.
Indeed, as those who know me best understand, I am generally one dimensional and am all too often incapable of fully considering the question at hand.
Maybe that’s why a friend recently gave me a copy of the book, Thinking Fast and Slow, by Nobel laurate and founder of the behavioral economics movement Daniel Kahneman, which seeks to explain and improve one’s decision-making processes.
The friend probably recognized, and hoped to correct, this handicap that has afflicted me my entire adult life.
That said, with Joni on my mind, I stepped back and took a good loooong look at the weaving, trying to understand it from both sides.
“I had a lot of yellow, and some green too,” Chris explained, reading my mind.
So, that was it, this basket was like the “Leftover” Navajo rugs I had seen in the past. In those weavings, the artist uses surplus wool from prior projects to make a totally abstract design.
Some of them are the most interesting and beautiful rugs I have ever seen. We recently had one called the “Jackson Pollack Blanket” that was stunning. Everyone at the trading post loved it, and fortunately a customer did too.
“So,” I thought to myself, “maybe this is actually one of the most extraordinary baskets I have ever seen.”
And it might be! I probably just need time to absorb its complexities and consider the complications of this artistically abstract masterwork.
As mentioned, Chris is one of our favorite artists, so I couldn’t turn him away based upon my indecision. Who knows, he could be the next Van Gogh.
As a result, I paid him and set my new acquisition on the back counter.
When Priscilla returned from the post office, she looked at Chris’ weaving, cocked her head to one side and said, “Interesting. It’s, it’s . . . somehow.”
Priscilla has always been better at abstract thinking than I, so, to use another double negative, her response was not unexpected. As she went on to explain, “The basket is like the trading post, which is . . . somehow.”

San Juan Record

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