In my travels across the American Southwest, I kept having encounters that made me feel as though a power greater than I was putting people in my path to guide my journey. That’s why I’d like to tell you about my time with Dennis.
I was walking around the Plaza in the center of downtown Santa Fe (wearing my kick-ass new boots, by the way) and it was a cold late afternoon, with no more than a half hour left of good light. I stopped by an older native American man I'd seen playing his flute out here a few times before. I dropped some money in the basket and stood back, waiting to figure out how I'd like to photograph him. His eyes were closed, oblivious to those around him, as he played a soft, haunting melody that gave me goosebumps.
It was just he and I on the plaza square, too cold except, perhaps, for him and someone from the north who considers it a pretty balmy day, all in all.
I started to take a few shots of him when the song came to an end and his eyes opened, and he looked at me. I reached out and introduced myself to him, and he smiled such a beautiful (albeit toothless) smile. "Hello, John", he said, "nice to meet you on your journey. Thank goodness you're here, I was waiting for you to wake me up!" At this point I had told him my name, nothing else. He shook my hand and said, "My name is Dennis."
I started to ask many of the same questions I normally asked, and he responded, so quietly I leaned into him to try and understand. He looked at me and said, 'You're interested in the thread that binds us all. That's why I'm here, and it's why you're here." I had been on that side of the street on the plaza before, a busy place full of working people and buskers and tourists slowly making their way from store to store. Today, it was just Dennis, and me.
Dennis told me he was born in Arizona and that he was a Maricopa Indian. He had been taken from his home early in his life because his mother had died and his father was an alcoholic and couldn't care for him and his brothers. "I'm state raised", he said. "I had no idea where to put my feet and I was afraid." He described this to me in almost a whisper, and his voice was almost as lyrical as the flute he played.
"From seventeen on, I was incarcerated. After I got out, I went to California, where I ended up in several prisons. I had a terrible addiction to alcohol, and I was very angry." I nodded my head, and kept listening. "After I got out of prison, I committed another crime and this time I was in big trouble. I had to get into the wind and get away." He smiled and continued, "I ran into the desert outside of Tucson and I hid in the bushes. I was desperate and I had run out of anger. I only had despair. I was laying in the bushes one night, and I asked the Great Spirit for a pillow. It was then that I turned and saw a rock and knew the Great Spirit had given me a pillow. At once, I had my eyes opened. I realized that I could make this world anything I wanted it to be, and that I didn't need anger or despair." He then smiled at me, with a serene look on his face. "The next morning, I turned myself into the Police and was glad to finally be done with anger, and despair, and running. I wanted a place to put my feet on the ground."
"When all of that was behind me, I found a flute and began to play. The music is a great gift I give people. It helps them find their feet on the ground." He smiled. "I had a flute but still did not have a place to grow as a human being, which I wanted to become. I drifted to Santa Fe, and when I got here, I could feel that this was the place where I could feel the ground under my feet." He has now been in Santa Fe over 40 years.
"John," he said, " What you are looking for, what we are looking for is right here in front of us. It is closer to you than the breath you breathe. When I play my flute, I see people's eyes open and I see that they are experiencing the Great Spirit, closer to them than the breath they breathe. It is all right here, inside of us. Politicians and the Powerful are far from it. A Garbage collector is much closer to it than those people. I can only feel so sorry for them. They have no place to put their feet on the ground."
He then began to play his flute, and I stood there with Dennis, feeling a little stunned. When he finished he said to me, "John, you have gotten off the treadmill, you are now awake. Keep looking for the thread that runs through us, it's the Great Spirit and it is our place to have our feet on the ground. Only things on the ground can grow and experience all that life is."
Dennis continued, "Let me tell you a story. There is a man here that I admire so much, I could never approach him. For years we would pass by and acknowledge each other, but I never spoke to him. I had no idea what to say. One day, I saw him come into Starbucks while I was sitting drinking coffee and reading the paper. When he sat down beside me I knew I finally had to speak to him. I asked him, what is the most important thing in life? He said "Shut Up!" and pointed his finger in my face. "There" he said, "right there. Right when you shut up, and listened, it was right there. Now go ahead and continue reading the paper, if you like." It was there when I understood why I admired him. He knew when to be quiet and see the thread that binds us all, that which is closer to us than the breath we breathe."
I had no idea what to say. I stood there, stunned. I had told him nothing about me, other than I was a photographer who took portraits of people on the street. I still am trying to figure out what transpired. Then Dennis said, "I am seventy-two years old. Most of me is gone. My fingers ache and its harder to make music and remind people of what is closer to them than their breath. Soon I will be in the wind and part of the Great Spirit."
I asked him if I could share his story, Dennis smiled and nodded. Then he said, "tell them that I am Dennis and I had my feet on the ground, and I was really lucky to have helped people see what is closer to them than the breath they breathe."
If you have time, and you're so inclined, come visit Dennis before he is done playing and is part of the Great Spirit. He will remind you what is closer to you than the breath you breathe.