Last Updated on October 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876
In her narrative, Joy Harjo employs a compass-based structure to describe a journey from the spirit realm to a life of challenges on the earthly plane and then an eventual reconnection with her spirituality and purpose. Along the way, Harjo endures abusive relationships and a disconnection from her cultural and individual identity. After much hardship, she experiences a turning point at which she finds her voice and spiritual self again, thus awakening her talent as a poet.
In the first section of the memoir, Harjo describes her parents and their love of music. She presents herself as a being in the spiritual realm, looking down at the earth and at the activities of her parents in preparation for her birth, and writes,
Though I was reluctant to be born, I was attracted by the music. I had plans. I was entrusted with carrying voices, and stories to grow and release into the world, to be of assistance and inspiration.
While in the spiritual realm, Harjo understands the purpose of her life. She notes that everyone takes part in a family story, and she establishes her ancestry in the context of the Trail of Tears and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She also describes her descent from the Muscogee leader Samuel Checote and the Seminole warrior Osceola.
As a young child, Harjo remains in contact with the spirit realm, which guides her through variouschallenges. As she develops a sense of her unique self through drawing, Harjo intuits a truth about an artist's life and recalls,
In the kindergarten classroom I had a sense of knowing that my path would most likely veer from everyone else's. I understood in a flash, without words, that if I did not follow my path, I would suffer, even as I would suffer for following it. The latter suffering was preferable.
What she calls her sense of "knowing" guides Harjo through a difficult situation with her abusive stepfather. At a crucial moment, she understands that running away to San Francisco would be disastrous for her and that she is better off turning to her ancestors. This insight leads to her enrollment at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where she finds a more nurturing and supportive community. Her talent as a visual artist flourishes as she develops her self-confidence and learns from students and teachers representing different Native traditions.
However, the school experience also leads Harjo to a new set of challenges. A relationship with another student leads to a pregnancy, and she subsequently leaves New Mexico to live with the father of her child, whom she marries, back in Oklahoma. While dealing with an unhappy marriage, a variety of jobs, and difficult family relationships, she loses contact with her dreams and her unique self. At a critical point, Harjo realizes that the voices she has been entrusted to carry still call out to her, and she relates,
As I walked, I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul. They urged me out the door or up in the night, so they could speak to me. They wanted form, line, story, and melody and did not understand why I had made this unnecessary detour. . . . "Think for yourself, girl . . . Your people didn't walk all that way just so you could lay down their dreams."
Remembering history and the people she was born to represent, Harjo eventually manages to free herself from her situation. She divorces her husband and moves back to Santa Fe to enroll in the university. She also embarks on a new path as an activist for Native American issues and marries a poet and fellow activist; however, he eventually becomes abusive.
As she goes through a busy life of raising children, trying to work on her paintings, and dealing with her new husband's erratic behavior, Harjo endures her lowest emotional point, riddled with bouts of drinking, anxiety, and panic attacks. Then she experiences a sudden shift in her awareness as she watches a television report about a shaman in a South Pacific nation. Realizing that the "spirit of poetry" has arrived, she says:
As I sat there alone in front of the story box, I became the healer, I became the patient, and I became the poem. I became aware of an opening within me. In a fast, narrow, crack of perception, I knew this is what I was put here to do: I must become the poem, the music, and the dancer. I would not truly understand how for a long, long time. This was when I began to write poetry.
In this moment, Harjo comes full circle: she reconnects with the spirit world and the stories she is supposed to bring to life. In doing so, she also begins to embody the book's title, which describes a courageous willingness to take risks. Her turnaround moment will lead to the next stage of her journey, in which she becomes a professional musician and poet—thus fulfilling her life's purpose.
Harjo has earned several prizes and honors for her contribution to American literature and to social justice causes, as well as for her work as a teacher and musician. In June of 2019, Harjo became the first Native American to be designated US Poet Laureate.