Guest Post: Living School

by Sara Bybee Fisk

I’m starting a program, it’s called The Living School. The homepage asks three questions of prospective students; 

Do you seek contemplative grounding and purpose?
Do you long for wisdom elders and companions to share your spiritual journey?
Are you willing to be shaken and changed at your very foundation?

My answers were yes, so I applied and was accepted. 

I was intrigued by the manner in which I was asked to prepare for the program to begin; I was to learn about the original inhabitants of the place I live, to learn about the endangered species where I live, to learn about the watershed where I live and the ocean it empties into, and to identify an ancestor I want to honor. 

I live in Arizona; it is the land of the Anasazi, the Hohokam, the Mogollon, the Patayan and the Sinagua. Later, the Chemehuevi, the Chiricahua, the Cocopa, the Dilzhe’e Apache, the Havasupai, the Hopi, the Hualapai, the Maricopa, the Mohave, the Navajo, the Southern Paiute, the Akimel O’odham (formerly Pima) the Quechan (Yuma), the San Carlos Apache, the Tewa, the Tohono O’odham (formerly Papago), the Southern Ute, the White Mountain Apache and Xalychidom (Halchidhoma), the Yaqui, the Yavapai and the Zuni. 

Say their names. 

The Mexican Gray Wolf and Spotted Owl, the Black Footed Ferret, the Ridge-Nosed Rattlesnake, Jaguars (yes!) and Ocelots, the Sonoran Tiger Salamander, the Yaqui Chub fish and the Three Forks Springsnail…43 species in all are threatened and endangered in Arizona. 

The water that sustains the desert runs like veins through the map; the Salt River basin sustains my town, flowing to the Gila River, which flows to the Colorado River and empties into the Gulf of California. I have kayaked on the Salt River; herds of wild horses roam and gather in such untamed glory it would make you cry. Birds, wildflowers, fish- insects, cactus and trees all drink from the Salt River. Her shores contain a multitude of perfect skipping rocks and places to have sacred, silent moments. 

I honor Willa Daniels Bybee, my paternal grandmother. I didn’t know her well in life; she and my grandpa were always gone on a mission for the LDS church. I still have every one of the short, newsy letters she sent me from Switzerland, Washington DC, Brazil and Chicago. 

My Grandma Bybee survived being married to my grandpa–he left for World War II a kind, gentle man and returned utterly angry, impatient and impossible to please. She had stiff whiskers that I remember feeling as a little girl when she kissed me. She once emerged from the bathroom having accidentally used a green pencil to fill in her eyebrows; when it was pointed out she exclaimed, “Oh! They are supposed to be blue!” to match the blue tint of her hair.  

Pieces of history came out over the course of my adulthood; when they were all put together after she died, a story emerged. She had opposed the marriage of my parents; my father was Cache Valley stock from Bountiful who had served a mission in Mexico and his intended fiancee was Mexican–born in Mexico.  It was one thing to go and preach the gospel to the Lamanites, another thing entirely to marry one. She hauled him down to the church office buildings to have one of the members of the Quorum of Seventy talk him out of it. My mom remembers many nights doing dishes next to her new mother-in-law and learning to cook casseroles, trying to smooth things over. 

When I was born, she vocally opposed my proposed name; Xochitl. I’m good with that one; can you imagine what grade school would’ve been like for me? Then my parents decided to speak to me only in Spanish, and she opposed that too; so to keep the peace, my parents stopped. My only childhood memories of Spanish are hearing my parents use it to tell secrets in front of us.  

I love her too much to think anything other than “She was doing the best she could do,” and leave it at that.  

She left me her turquoise flower ring; when a chunk of turquoise fell out, I researched getting it repaired with no results. On a drive through Arizona, I stopped for gas in a little town and the woman at the cash register saw the missing chunk. “That’s Zuni” she said. “Leave it with me and I’ll get it repaired.” So I left my ring with the old woman at the gas station, and a few weeks later it was in my mailbox, better than new.  Every time I drive through Wickieup, I still stop to say hello to Judy; she met my children as babies and is still delighted each time we come in.  

When I still attended the temple, Grandma Bybee came to me. I recognized her spirit just as clearly as I would recognize her face, her whiskery kiss. “We are helping you,” she said. “We know your children and are helping them. We are so proud of you and who you are.” The encounter left me breathless and still is the most concrete evidence I have of the only thing that matters to me; that families are forever.  

I’d describe myself as very busy, busier in this pandemic than before. I rush and hurry a lot.  Today, in preparation to be “shaken and changed at my foundation” I slowed down and connected to the people who were here before me, to the vulnerable animals, to the water that flows while I live my life, and to my grandma. To the Zuni who lived here and inspired the ring she gave me, to the way that the universe always sends me people who can help fix the broken things in my life. I started the great work of change that is founded in all things being one. 

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6 Responses

  1. Violadiva says:

    This is just such a lovely piece, Sarah, thank you for writing it! Your reclamation of the land and animals where you live reminds me of the ways women recite their matriarchal lineage as a way to connect with the past in a new way. I’m inspired to learn more about these aspects of the place I now live, too. Thank you.

  2. EmilyCC says:

    Ok, I’m super envious that you can do all the good humanitarian work you do and write so evocatively about our desert home.

    This sounds like a tremendous experience. I hope you’ll consider sending more guest posts about this.

  3. Heather says:

    Sara this was so moving. I love how you named all the people. I love that you name the animals. I love that you love a grandma who was not perfect. Thank you.

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