A Saying of My Grandfathers

“In life you walk a wire like barb wire. As you walk, your feet are bleeding and cut. As in life, when you go through trials and tribulations. Your first instinct is to run or quit. Sway to one side on this barb wire, you hear laughter and feel warm, swerve back the other way, and you are cold and freezing as you hear crying and despair. You will always be surprised, who deserts you when you need them most, and also, who stands by your side through it all. Life is like this, look to the alter within.” (Pete SB Sr)


I never knew my grandfather. He died when I was four years old. All my years, I’ve heard echoes of his character, reverberating words that people kept, remembered, lived their lives by.  But I have few memories of the man myself.  I enjoy when those older than me speak of him.  He is my blood, and I welcome knowing the story of my own blood.

The painting is someone’s painting of his sweat lodge. It was a place of healing and insight to many. I never saw the lodge as it is in pictures. It is merely a shell of stones now. I sit on a tree stump before the old holy ground sometimes, underneath nectarine sunsets curtained by the most majestic purple clouds, imagining the eras before my birth.

I could think of no greater honor as a philosopher, no greater accomplishment as a thinker, than to be remembered as my grandfather is remembered. He was no saint, no sage of lofty perfection. He was a common man, and everyone remembers the times he was ridiculous, the times he was mean, the times he faltered, as well as his times of wisdom.

Yet whatever his faults, he left an imprint of his mind on many lives, his passing was a felt absence in the world.

 If twenty years after I’m gone, someone remembers anything I said, if any of my words searched deep enough to guide a life, if anyone wished I was still on the earth to speak with, I would consider mine a life well led, and all those hours in philosophies abstract empyrean time well spent.

The saying at the top is one I’ve heard numerous times, from several different people. It encompassed my grandfather’s philosophy.

The barbed wire is the flow of human time, the one way procession of life toward dying. Smooth as metal, smooth as the journey may be, it is studded with razors, with sorrows, and everyone is eventually cut, everyone bleeds. As a person totters on the wire, happiness and despair are fragilely separated. Life is flux, and seasons of laughter follow seasons of weeping, only for laughter to rise again and be consumed by more weeping.

There is no end to change in this life.  There is no end to either happiness or sorrow until the grave takes both away. Humans are unpredictable, and a person’s own family and closest friends will fall away sometimes when they’re needed most. Yet this shouldn’t cause desolation, because the most unlikely people, at the most unlikely of times, will appear to take the place of those who fall away.


The altar in the Lakota religion is the most sacred place in a person’s life, holding pipes that are the legacy of relatives past, a symbol of the present person’s commitments and purpose, a hope that the future will keep alive the tradition. More important than the physical symbols is a sense that a person carries everything their altar represents within themselves.

We remember my grandfather this time of year. His birthday was two days after mine in February. He died in May.

The green grass is just beginning to overtake the brittle husks of dead prairie. He would have been preparing for the Lakota ceremony to give thanks for our feet touching green grass another year. Lightning darts the sky again. Wakiyan Oyate, the clan of thunder beings returns in Lakota cosmology, the beings after which our family takes their name.

Tonight, perhaps I’ll walk the hill above the creek on our families land. Step away from the busy, overcrowded nature of life and take a moment to remember.


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