Velma Wallis was born of the Athabaskan people in a small village in remote Alaska. She grew up in the traditional way and heard the oral history of her tribe and others in the region through her mother. She’s documented two of those through Two Old Women and Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun.
Two Old Women tells of two elders who had lost their usefulness, often falling into complaining in the face of decline. As tradition holds, the duty of providing for them fell to their extended family and others of the tribe, which they did. But the tribe fell upon hard times. Food was almost nonexistent and some successive winters brutal. Finally, the chief made a decision, when the tribe departed in search for a more hospitable home, the two old women were left behind in favor of tribal survival. This meant they were leaving the elders to a certain death. Two Old Women discloses the internal conflict many of the tribe experienced and the process of the women as they faced a fate they did not choose, and the unexpected outcomes.
Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun is about a girl and boy, living in separate camps of the Gwich’in people. Neither fit in. At a young age, Bird Girl’s father had taught her to hunt and roam along with her brothers. Having tasted that freedom, she took no interest in the never-ending burden of women’s work or taking a husband. Finally pushed to fall in line, she chose to leave home to make her way on her own.
The boy Dagoo was told about The Land of the Sun somewhere to the south where the sun shone all the time, and it was warm, unlike the frozen ground where he lived. His elders said that some of their people had gone in search for this place but turned back, while others went on and never returned. Dagoo was compelled to wander, to explore what potentials may be had beyond the small confines of tribal expectations and limited grounds. After being given an ultimatum to conform, he left in search of The Land of the Sun.
Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun is about the need to belong, and the choices and consequences of rejecting what doesn’t fit.
Both books are about the meaning and pressures of tribal community and historical, territorial violence between tribes as well as first experiences with European intruders. Told in a straightforward manner, they are impactful eye openers that caused me to consider the choices I have taken in my own life.
In February, I traveled to southern Guatemala with Maya Daykeeper Apab’yan Tew to put the final touches on the spiritual travel program we would lead in that region and Chiapas, Mexico in January 2019. When we stopped at Lake Atitlan for several days, I made sure to revisit La Galeria in Panajachel. I retained fond memories from twelve years before when my friend Will Crim and I stumbled upon the place while wandering the streets of Pana.
We were first attracted by the vintage Mercedes planted in the garden, and then became enchanted after entering the gallery. While making our way around the exhibition, a spare man engaged us about the artwork and offered us an expresso. We took him up on his offer and got to hear Thomas Schäfer Cuz’ stories about his mother, German-Guatemalan bohemian artist Nan Cuz, for hours. We were even invited into the inner sanctum to view his grandfather’s collection of Maya folk art. I was fascinated. This time was much the same, but we also met Sabine Völcker, Thomas’ wife, who was equally as hospitable.
This article could go in any number of directions. For now I’m going to focus on the artwork and background of Rosa Elena Curruchich ⎯ and why such works are important. In the main gallery, there was a grouping of Naïve art that caught my eye. At first glance, these miniature paintings looked simple. But beyond their style became complex, quite detailed, and there was a narrative to each one. Only that grouping was up for display at that point.
We returned a couple of days later, invited by Thomas and Sabine when they would start cataloging the entire collection. They had received boxes upon boxes of the tiny paintings to be sold on behalf of the family of a collector, possibly Anna Paddington, who had recently passed.
Rosa Elena Curruchich was the first female painter in San Juan Comalpa, a highlands town known for its artists. Her grandfather, Kaqchikel painter Andrés Curruchich, started the tradition of oil painting there in the 1930s documenting celebrations, ceremonies and lifeways. Rosa Elena followed in his footsteps. Based on her grandfather’s teachings, the subject matter explains the detail of the pieces. The more you look, the more is revealed.
But most of Rosa Elena’s are just 4”x4” or 6”x6” – none larger. Why so small? Here is the story she told her benefactor, as it was passed on to Sabine and Thomas. She was married to a prominent, authoritarian husband who forbade her to paint. So she would sneak off to paint in secrecy and limited the sizes to what she could slip into her pocket to hide. Then she would make trips to the old capitol Antigua Guatemala and try to sell them in the market. After she sold the first one to the collector, this woman became almost her sole buyer.
Another story told by Rosa Elena that I uncovered through research said after she got her first exhibition in Guatemala City, the male painters in San Juan Comalpa were jealous. She received threats and fled to Chimaltenango, about 10 miles away, to live.
The common theme being oppression by men. Sabine had already told me the story about Rosa Elena’s husband may be questionable, told in the hopes of increasing sales. The same is said of the second story. It’s called survival.
The important thing though is what Rosa Elena Curruchich and all those who followed her grandfather have done. Through their artwork, they’re documenting ways of life that are precious, many threatened. I’m a fan of narrative art. In the true sense of artistry, they are preserving what’s important. A meaningful story, an emotion, ordinary things that have a deeper meaning.
It was quite exciting to me to go into the inner sanctum of La Galeria that day Apab’yan and I were invited back. There all laid out on two tables, side by side, were about 60 or more of Rosa Elena’s works. Several boxes were still unpacked, totally about 200 in all.
As Apab’yan examined them, he began sorting the pieces into an order…each ceremony as they fell according to the calendar. It was remarkable, really. Others he separated out having to do with daily activities. I ended up purchasing 3 pieces depicting ceremonies, and wished it could have been all that fell around the calendar. Below you will see them with Apab’yan’s explanations. He told me the ones I chose depict ceremonies that are nearly gone.
This painting is showing a private celebration inside the cofradia house. In here we can see a woman and man making an offering to the patron saint. There is incense and food offerings as payment. The patron saint image is dressed as a full high-ranking member in the cofradia hierarchy. Inside the house there are the special objects to perform ceremony and celebration: a big drum, incense burners, paintings, old textiles. Cofradia members are holders of ancient ways of Maya spirituality, beyond the image of a western cult. There is always a nawal, or spirit, related to some aspect of nature.
Once again we are inside the cofradia house. In here we can see the healing of a baby. By burning specified dried herbs and exposing the baby eyes and breath to the incense burner, she or he is going to recover. We call this awas, meaning secret or taboo. It is hidden ancient knowledge preserved by cofradia members. This practice is becoming extinct except in the far away mountains where elders from a direct Maya background continue to keep a huge quantity of spiritual and medicine knowledge.
This is a celebration. There is fiesta and dance, food is prepared and musicians playing chirimia flute instruments.
Thomas told me directly this was a very important ritual done if a baby reached the age of 8 days. Infant mortality is high. This ceremony reinforced the health of the baby, who you can see laying on top of the mother, and that it would live to be an adult. The next marker was at 3 months, I believe.
This work is Rosa Elena’s legacy. Not only her own but that of her people. She passed too young at 46 in 2005, complications of diabetes.
We will be making another visit to La Galeria in January 2019, and I’m looking forward to it.
Are you one of those people who stumbles upon towns or regions that you simply must make your way back to over and over? Those places that reflect some kind of magic in the land? In the air? The people who live there retain it in their blood? It speaks to your very soul…and you can’t stay away? That’s me. I set up my life in such a way that ensures my returns to Chiapas, Cusco and Provence regularly. If I don’t heed the call, I mourn.
Beebe Bahrami, a cultural anthropologist and travel writer, is one of those people, too. Through happenstance, she found herself in Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. Her times there produced Café Oc ⎯an intimate love story rather than a travel book. She takes us on an unexpected spiritual journey, as she returns to Sarlat through the seasons, over a year’s time. What I spoke of in my life, she found in that medieval town and surrounding earth.
From her first winter, the reader is treated to the author’s initial impressions and evolves from there. Her lodging overlooks the historical area, giving a bird’s eye view of the bustle below, the market and its people. The deeper flavor of Sarlat is revealed as she begins to wander the town, frequents cafés, samples regional dishes and meets some locals. She feels something stirring and makes plans to return. Over the times that follow, she points the way to just what is inherent. The energy of subterranean waterways can be felt and emerge at certain points in town. Ancient peoples left their marks in caves that dot the region, and still have an effect on the sensitivities of present-day residents. Then there are the sacred sites: natural and human-made. She reveals what generates and permeates her longing to make this place home.
I became so enchanted with Beebe Bahrami’s soulful accounting of Sarlat that I’ve made arrangements to explore it next year myself. And⎯as happenstance would have it⎯I’m already going to be within two hours of that destination.
When I left you in Part I, I was leaving Florence to venture farther into Tuscany and sequester for a ten-day intensive to study with artist Serena Barton. I landed just outside Contignano, one of those tiny hilltop villages sprinkled throughout the region, as part of the group of eight. La Montalla, which held our rooms, common area, dining room, kitchen and studio, is actually a renovated 16th century farmhouse, the kind where family and farm animals cohabited under one roof. Not so today, of course. I could just imagine what it must have been like back then, where the family lodged and the cows, pigs and what have you bedded down.
Owners Giuseppe and Paola welcomed us as though we were family, and collaborated beautifully with Lisa Statkus who put fine detail to our time in Tuscany. We lacked for nothing. Lisa and Serena put their heads together and gauged when we all needed a pause from our artwork in order to soak up the richness that is Tuscany. I’m sharing just a few photos to give at least a sense of my experience.
Fountain of the World in Siena’s main square.
The stunning 14th century cathedral in Orvieto, Umbria Region.
Lucious figs from one of the plentiful outdoor fruit and vegetable stands.
I can’t say enough about the cuisine and freshness of the food. Plus, I ate more pasta than I probably have in twenty years…with no ill effects whatsoever. At home I avoid it. I can only guess that my lack of symptoms is due to the wheat being GMO-free, local and organic. One day the baker came out of retirement to make (way too much) pizza from scratch in the old brick oven that is something like three hundred years old. It was extraordinary. Needless to say, leftover pizza was an option for breakfast, too.
Martino making our pizza from scratch start to finish.
Resident cats Ernesto and Blackie visited us in the studio, curled up in some of our rooms and were otherwise consistently on hand. That made it feel like home even more so.
Blackie sunning himself.
Ernesto at dawn the day I left.
I’m guessing this sampling would whet your appetite for a trip of your own. I did want to mention one particular place in case you get to Montepulciano. It’s a little hole in the wall along Via Ricci. Libreria Magnanet holds floor to ceiling treasures. Antique books and stacks of pages that are possible to purchase. I could have stayed there all day poking around, and the (surprisingly) young-ish man behind the desk would have happily accommodated it. He looked the part of the bibliophile who perhaps had been there as long as the books. As it was, I found three gems in the piles that I decided I must have. He wrote out the authentication certificate in longhand, which was only proper, noting the line drawings of Psyche, Venus and Jupiter dated to 1834. More than likely I’ll incorporate them into some artwork.
Gleaned from my treasure hunt at Libreria Magnanet.
I suppose this is actually a three-part article. To read about my pilgrimage studying oil and cold wax, which includes more examples of what I created, hop on over to my art blog to read A Tuscany September. An art intensive with Serena Barton is more than learning about art…
Thus ends my Annual Pause for 2017. I came away inspired, renewed…and further convinced there’s absolutely no doubt that such time set aside like this, just for myself, is of utmost importance.
The white-haired server smiled at me in recognition after raising his eyebrows. He probably didn’t see visitors return much. But I was back at Trattoria Cribari on Piazza Santo Spirito, a little more than a hole in the wall, because I learned that not all bruschetta and gelato are created equal. Plus, it was around the corner from the airbnb place I’d rented–perfect for my needs–and they didn’t mind how long I stayed tucked just inside the open doorway watching the human world go by outside. Something of an education, a pastime I’d forgotten I enjoy.
I love the work I do, a destiny of sorts that fell into my lap over time. I find there’s reciprocal value in it. I can’t imagine I’ll ever turn away. But. And. It requires a lot of energy. Sometimes a pause is required. Rather than leaving The Pause to chance, I made a commitment that I’d set aside time–and make it special–on an annual basis. A time when I had no responsibilities to anyone but myself. A time to rejuvenate. To experience something new or revisit something beloved. To read. To walk. To write. To learn. To create. To meditate. To talk to strangers or be silent with my own musings. To do things I love. In the past I’ve taken the mini-pause, sporadically–a camping trip here, a short road trip there as I could squeeze it in. Oh, I do all those things in my daily life I listed above–but not without interruption.
In 2015 I made the first declaration by walking the Camino de Santiago, which turned out to be quite the odyssey. I’m still integrating. My Pause in 2016 was equally memorable but in a different way. I studied with master beadists Nancy Josephson and Jan Huling, who show regularly in museums and galleries in the US and Europe. I had no way of knowing when I was drawn to Puerto Vallarta for this express purpose, that I’d be catapulted into a whole new territory of artwork. One that still won’t leave me alone.
This year it’s Italy. This is my last night in Florence. I’ve wandered the streets, churches, museums and gardens for four days. I’ve appreciated the architecture, sense of history, the locals, the visitors. The bustle is sometimes a bit much for me, and being on top of my neighbors… I’m not used to it, living out in the boonies in solitude as I do much of the time. But the live piano music coming through a window as I walked down the street and the saxophone just next door have stirred something in me.
I’m taking all this with me as I travel farther into Tuscany where, over 10 days, I’ll be studying with an oil and cold wax artist. An old art form, I’ve worked with this medium for a few years and greatly appreciate its multi-layered depth and versatility. I want to go deeper.
In 2012 I was invited to South Louisiana by Shala Fontenot and Faith Moody, who had been on one of my Peru journeys. I still carry gratitude for their generosity. It was the start of a love affair. I quite fell in love with the people and rich culture of those lands. While there I interviewed Becca Begnaud during her monthly Healing Arts Collective gathering. Becca is a Cajun traiteur, a tradition indigenous to the area that I didn’t know existed. Not only is she well versed in her healing art, Becca is a wealth of information on Cajun and Creole history and lifeways.
Traiteurs are faith healers, a heritage in danger of sliding into extinction. These days they have few, if any, apprentices willing to undertake a trade that involves a lot of personal sacrifice. Most are way up there in years. Traiteurs are known to selflessly give of themselves – many on call around the clock – caring for those in need. If they’re paid for services at all, it’s customarily a chicken or other practical item. They heal through what they call “the gift.” A prayer comes through them for the person it’s meant, often by laying on of hands. But there’s no requirement for the person to be present. Long distance healing is often done as well.
Below you’ll find the original interview I did with Becca during which she talks about her own process of taking on the mantle, and the origins of those who live in the area.
A few days ago, Becca sent me a note about coverage on traiteurs in a local publication. You can read it here. Her message gave me the final nudge to write this additional article, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time.
Just prior to my return to Cajun Country in 2013, my friend Shala called and said a few cryptic words, “There are some folks I want you to meet.” Nothing more. After arriving, I discovered she’d set up sessions with three traiteurs. Her method: She put out a general announcement to friends and acquaintances, a request for names. When she received the same recommendation three times, she arranged a meeting. Luckily, I had my recorder with me, and they freely answered my questions. I asked each one about the same things: any criteria for being a traiteur, how they received the gift, and what effect it had on them personally. They filled in the gaps.
We pulled up to an unassuming house in the small town of Opelousas, the home of Sostain and Dorothy Lemelle. Mrs. Lemelle greeted us at the door and brought us right into the kitchen where Mr. Lemelle sat at the table. She returned to watching a TV show in the seating area just beyond, but piped in periodically as we talked with Mr. Lemelle.
He was 83 years old at the time, having begun his healing work suddenly at the age of 10 when a veterinarian was unable to staunch blood flow from a horse’s deep wound. His mother told him to point his finger at the horse and send the prayer. He did, and the bleeding stopped. He’d been doing his work ever since. Mr. Lemelle said his mother told him his daddy died six months before he was born, and that’s why he had the gift. No other reason and nothing else specifically done to learn his craft. But he was known many places in the world, regularly receiving calls from far-flung places.
From left to right: Shala Fontenot, Sostain Lemelle, Becca Begnaud and Carla Woody.
I experienced his work myself. We sat knee to knee in that kitchen, TV going in the background, as he passed his hands over me and said prayers. I felt an enormous amount of energy, a force moving though my body, flushing out anything that could be out of sorts. Later, I asked him what he felt himself. He smiled and said, “Nothing.” I queried him, was he sure he didn’t experience any sensations, any energy? He smiled even more broadly and insisted, it wasn’t for him, only for the one who sat in front of him. So he didn’t feel anything. About that time there was a knock on the door, someone else showed up for healing. We placed the chicken we’d brought on the kitchen table, thanked him profusely and left.
Mr. Lemelle, a sweet humble man, passed this life in August 2014. He was kindly remembered in the world and left a gap hard to fill. Our unedited interview is below. A bit garbled in the beginning, it’s well worth the listen (27 minutes) and gets clear the more this elder launched into recounting his life.
I’m going to call her Mrs. Benoit, then a 78-year-old traiteur who preferred to remain nameless and didn’t want the actual recording on the Internet. I’m sharing some of her story.
I come from family of 10 and have 10 children of my own. My mother was a traiteur who would treat just two things—the blood and the burns. That was back in the day of the horse and buggy. They would turn into their drive calling out ‘Madame, Madame.’ And my mother would look out the window. If she saw red, then she’d know it was a bad cut. Walking to meet them, she would already be working on the wound. I’d run beside her. I found it fascinating! When my mother got to the buggy they would be squeezing a bandage that was dripping blood. But when they unwrapped it, the wound had closed!
I said, Mama! How did you do that?
She said, it was just prayer. It’s a treatment that was handed down to me from the elders.
Mama, can you teach me?
I’m sorry. I can’t. I can only teach someone of the opposite sex.
So I had to learn from a man or a boy older than me. A woman couldn’t teach me. But they wouldn’t teach me then because I was too young, they’d say. But finally someone taught me at 7 years old. I first learned for the blood. I saw a dog get hit by a car and it was bleeding. I treated him and it stopped immediately. Thank you, Jesus!
I learned one at a time from those who would teach me.
Then my sister-in-law was somewhere and saw this old man. She asked him if something was wrong. He said he was sad because he’d traveled the world and learned all these treatments. But he didn’t have anyone to pass them to.
No one ever asked me, he said. I’d love to meet a woman younger than me who speaks both French and English that I could pass my treatments to her.
She said, Oh my God. This is my sister-in-law’s answered prayer! She’s been praying for years to meet an angel that would tell her treatments from the old days. And she’s never forgotten a treatment she learned.
Thank you, Lord, I said. I called him until he got home. I went and spent 3 days with him. He even taught me the treatment for cancer. When someone needs to come, God sends them.
A woman came to my door. I could hear her coughing before she got there. I said to her, that’s a heart cough. Not a lung cough. She’d just spent 5 days in the hospital, but she was no good. I told her I learned a treatment from an old lady who lived with the Indians. She taught classes, and I went to all of them. I told her, there’s a treatment for that cough you’ve got with some tea. It was blue malva tea. I treat 3 days in a row, pretty much at the same time of day. If they can’t come here I treat them here [long distance]. In 3 days this woman was not coughing. I treated her [with prayer] and she drank that tea.
This lady called me one day when I was doing reflexology. She said [crying], I was making some roux and the pot fell on my shoulder. It burned so bad! There’s nobody around! I’m by myself! Can you treat me?
This lady I was working on [with reflexology] was a very religious lady. I said, we’re going to treat you. We’re going to pray for you. Me and my friend are going to hold hands. And I’m going to pretend to hold your hand. Did you remove that roux on your shoulder?
Yes, but it burns so! It burns through my body!
I asked the lady to pray with me for the burn. We did it 3 times. She had stopped crying. We did it 3 more times. She came and showed me the next day. It didn’t even blister. I’m overwhelmed when I see something like that! She said when we stopped praying it was no longer there! So it works.
Rebecca Henry is known as a Creole folklorist who runs the Creole Heritage Folklife Center in Opelousas. Located in an old home, it contains items from the early parts of the last century that document African American life of the times. But Mrs. Henry is also a traiteur, and certainly a clairvoyant. Unsolicited, she told me things about myself that she had no way of knowing. I regret not writing them down. While she gave permission for me to record our conversation, and openly spoke of hidden things the others hadn’t, I could see she wasn’t sure about my motives. And even though the recorder batteries had plenty of juice, the record light was on…and even tested prior to beginning our discussion in earnest…when I went to listen to it later, nothing was there. Blank. I tell you this was one powerful woman that I look forward to visiting again.
I have a very strong pull to spend more time in that region. The folks there were liberal with their storytelling. Still, I have the distinct sense that the stories proffered were an invitation to go deeper. I’ve been in such places before. I recognize the waters running there.
Beyond charts the quest of photographer Joey L. as he seeks religious ascetics in Varanasi, India to include in his series on Holy Men. Each morning before dawn Joey L., his assistant Ryan and filmmaker Cale Glendening make their way down to the Ganges where they remain until dusk. They roam its banks to find just the right light and spot to capture the core essence of the sadhus who willingly agree. But first something else must occur.
This is not merely a documentary about shooting images. It’s just as much on the importance of relationship, understanding and respect. Only by sitting with the sadhus, hearing their stories, sharing a meal does the deeper meaning of their chosen life emerge through film and photography. Trust develops. With a sensitivity unusual for one this young, Joey L. is given to portray them and their rituals in a way that austere beauty is clearly spoken. This is so particularly of the Aghori who are little understood by outsiders and often feared.
In the end, the filmmakers speak candidly about their experiences, how aspects may change who they are, and what they consider to matter.
I was truly moved and fascinated by this film⏤to the point I’m still thinking about it a couple of days later. The cinematography was beautiful and the photography exquisite. For more examples, view the websites of Joey L. and Cale Glendening.
I think some stories are best read aloud. For me, this was one of them. I came to this conclusion before I knew that the author herself reads all her work aloud as she writes chapter to chapter. And she was the narrator here. Who better to know how to make her point? After the fact I also learned that author Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest. Then so much of the knowledge dropped in unexpectedly, almost casually, made sense if it has its place in the everyday underpinnings of someone’s life.
I count the coincidence lucky. I’ve just started listening to audio books. I wouldn’t have used the right inflection for the Japanese names or words in my mind. I might have glossed over them. But also because there were things inserted softly that caused me to stop and listen. There’s another layer here, I’d thought. I rewound and took it in again.
There was the clever double entendre: A Tale for the Time Being. We’re all Time Beings for the time being. And it’s a novel that involves time, how we experience it, the ways it warps. But you don’t realize it until you’re well into the novel. It’s subtle until firmly anchored.
A Japanese American novelist with writer’s block named Ruth walked the beach near her home, a little populated island off British Columbia, and found a carefully wrapped, albeit battered, package washed up on the shore. It wasn’t long after the 2011 tsunami and the resulting meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. It contained a Hello Kitty lunchbox, the diary of a conflicted Japanese American teenager living in Tokyo named Nao (Now?) and more. That is the launching point that draws us into the shame-suicide culture of Japan, the suffering of a “living ghost”, and the darker underbelly of Tokyo. If the book had only been these things, I probably would have quit after the first chapter or so⏤stopped short from finding out what it was really about.
I would have missed Jiko, Nao’s 104-year-old great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who peppered her conversations with koans drawn from The Shōbōgenzō written by Japanese Zen Master Dōgen. And how Ruth lost the experience of her own now, the more obsessed she became with Nao’s, and began to realize she was “playing origami with time.” Or the strange phenomenon she experienced of changing places with the young girl, populating her dreams, and finding them much the same. Or Ruth’s disclosure of another weird instance, which validated my own, when being so immersed in writing a story that, upon waking the next morning and opening the computer, she found herself wondering who had written the words…
This is a novel about living in the midst of contrast in this modern world, the time of our being and the choices we make, along with a real indoctrination to Japanese culture. I have to end with this because it’s such a great quote:
The ancient Greeks believed when you read out loud, it’s actually the dead borrowing your tongue in order to speak again.
Available in print, e-book and audiobook from the public library, Amazon and elsewhere.
My favorite type of novel is when an author takes obscure subject matter or a little known historical occurrence then expands upon it, slipping in a perspective to make entertaining reading. I gain knowledge in an area where I had little or none without the drudge of academic study, all in the midst of pleasure.
That’s how I felt when I stumbled upon the films of Roberta Cantow. Earlier I reviewed Clotheslines. Now she’s just released Accordions Rising. Originally, I wasn’t necessarily attracted but remembered the unique spin she put on Clotheslines, which was really a statement on the status of women. So I watched the new one and became engaged just as I do with the type of novel I mentioned.
This filmmaker moves you well beyond the instrument’s association with street vendors, Lawrence Welk and the polka to its surprising—for me—modern-day use in orchestral, experimental, jazz and ambient music. And history? How about accordion during rituals of Vodou’s Marie Laveau? Beyond the music itself, she features the accordionists giving voice on how they came to their instrument. These are the kind of stories I personally love, plus all the examples of its role in traditions across the world. Then there’s the power of the accordion that you can hear throughout the film. Depending on the focus of the musician, it can take you on an emotional ride. And I guarantee you’ll be tapping your foot.
I was curious as to what drew Roberta to undertake all the intense research, time and other investments a documentary requires to do well…for something so unpopular. So I wrote to her and asked. I learned as much from her answer as I did from the film. I’m sharing a bit with you here.
Let me start with this: The accordion, I have come to understand, is far less ‘obscure to mainstream’ than one might think. In fact, although I was not able to include all of these examples due to licensing issues, the list of musicians that play or include accordions is quite long. All with names that are familiar: Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, etc. The instrument was simply not foregrounded. It certainly did fall out of favor at one time, but there has been a resurgence for the last 20-30 years.
When I began, my knowledge of the instrument was thin. I had enjoyed a set of disks called Planet Squeezebox going all the way back to the late 80’s, the accordion in every corner of the world. In the 90’s I started seeing photographs and graphic images that piqued my interest. I attended the San Antonio International Accordion Festival, and it was as if I were lit up. I loved that it had a home in so many different cultures and styles of playing. I thought that it reflected the diversity in our culture (and our world) today. I was also extremely intrigued with the people who were using the accordion differently and unexpectedly in new music and avant-garde forms. My eyes were opened wide to the versatility and various passions of the players. I felt that it didn’t deserve to be ‘maligned’ the way it was, so I set out to set the record straight. I begin the film with these words…. ‘I have often been drawn to the misunderstood….’ and that is true of the subjects of many of my films.
With both of Roberta Cantow’s films I’ve seen thus far, a major take-away: When you think you know something—if you take it at face value—you don’t know anything.
If you have Amazon Prime, you can see it for free or $2.99 otherwise. And tell her what you think in the rating and reviews section.
Little girl…little boy. You, the leaf! You, the new branch! Listen to me. Listen to this song I have. A word I have…a speech. You must be dreaming. You must be sleeping. Are you tired? Can I speak to you? Are you tired? Are you dreaming?
I want to talk to you. I have a word from my heart to you. Would you want to talk to me? Would you want to move?
You are the reason my heart is alive! You are the reason my life is complete!
In a lilting voice he gently coaxed then paused, just as his lineage had for centuries. He sought a cue, maybe movement, to let him know he’d made a connection.
From the beginning of March, I’d traveled with Maya Daykeeper Apab’yan Tew to Kansas, Hopi and elsewhere around Arizona. Between journeys I was privileged to host him in my home. Now we were in the last days of the month, he stood—delicately poised in traditional dress, eyes half closed, an arm lifted, hand upturned—at the front of the room. The rest of us seated, in a meditative state.
Huichol composer-musician Xavier Quijas Yxayotl played his flute softly in the background, his music framing Apab’yan’s words. Monita Lynn Baker joined in with just the appropriate bit of percussion. I’d invited Xavier to our Spirit Keepers Series gathering at North Mountain Visitors Center in Phoenix to reconnect with Apab’yan. They hadn’t seen each other in 25 years. Their ritual music-dance teachers were friends but both had long passed.
Apab’yan had spoken at length on K’iche’ Maya worldview—originating from the Guatemalan highlands—and his responsibilities as a Daykeeper working with the Cholq’ij calendar. During the course of the evening he revealed that he’d acted as a traditional midwife for the last 16 years. He had a patient with a difficult pregnancy, the baby in a questionable position, awaiting his return home. This mention naturally led into the singing speech we experienced, the intervention meant to guide the baby to reposition on its own in utero, to align correctly with the birth canal.*
The song ended. The room was silent, the energy palpable. I think we must all have been touched in ways indefinable. Perhaps there was something enlivened that had been asleep. Or a dream grounded into this reality. Perhaps there were aspects we each may have carried into this life from our mothers and fathers—inner vulnerabilities—that were soothed, shed. This was a perfect portal to usher us into the fire ceremony the next day.
North Mountain Visitors Center abuts the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. The beautiful grounds are pristine, belying its poignant past. It was here, from the 1890s until 1930s, that many Native families camped, attempting to see the children taken from their homes and subjected to forced assimilation at the Phoenix Indian School. Interspersed were the tuberculosis camps in the early 1900s for those seeking the curative properties of dry desert air.
We gathered, in the shadows of the small ampitheatre, and Apab’yan consecrated an altar space where he would guide the fire ceremony. And it was here that he would call upon the ancestors. In his own words…
Everything is alive. Everything has a form of communication. Everything has meaning and belongs to a natural system.
The Maya ceremony consists of preparing a ceremonial pyre. It is called a gift but also a payment in the sense of reciprocity. The K’iche’ ceremonial pyre is not a bonfire; it does not burn a long time. It does not need to last. The importance has to do with what happens while the fire is active: There must be a dialogue.
As normal, those assembled took part in the building of the altar, some given special roles. One held the fire stick. Some were called upon to make the first lighting. Two others to pass out candles. And the fire began to burn. Puffing on the ceremonial cigar, Apab’yan called for the Grandmothers-Grandfathers to be present. He made the prayers. Placing candles, we made our own prayers. At long last, the fire started to die down, the conversation coming to completion.
But not yet.
Apab’yan went over to Xavier and Monita, whispering to them. After asking me to lead the circle in holding space, those three walked into the desert. And then…on the air…from the distance…we heard flute and voice rising and falling…singing to the land…to any lingering ghosts of sadness…offering up prayers. And some strange force blew through. It overtook my body. Ever so slowly, involuntarily, my body began to arch backwards until it was in an impossible position. Held. For what seemed like forever. Until it let me go. When I opened my eyes, I saw the Diné woman across the circle crying.
When they re-entered the circle, Apab’yan knelt before her and asked her to ritually bless him with burning sage. That image and the power of it sticks in my mind: Diné woman, Maya man.
The ceremony now closed, the sense of what occurred remained. A communal undertaking. Correctly done. Even as I’m writing this now, I’m feeling into the sacred space…all over again…we all created. I imagine it still hangs in the air in the ampitheatre, the people who pass through wondering what has touched them.
I’ve been in powerful ceremonies before. Fire ceremonies, too. But none ever as compelling as this one. Perhaps it was the culmination of all the energy accumulated from all the ceremonies over a month’s time, carried with us…from Hopi…to private land outside Wichita…to private and public sites in Tucson and finally in Phoenix. And some particularly precious energy remains within my own sanctuary.**
With much respect and gratitude to Apab’yan and those who showed up in these ritual circles. The journey continues in January in Maya Land with the strength we gathered in March. Anyone drawn is welcome.
Below I’m adding a piece written by Pam Hale Trachta with her own reflections.
The Power of Ritual and Ceremony
The smoke from the copal grew thicker in the room, as Apab’yan fed the small container fire with the granules of incense, and his prayers. People seated around him and behind him prayed too, mesmerized now by the hypnotic chanting in the Mayan language, punctuated by English phrases so we could all track where the prayers were being directed.
The room was darkened in order to suggest the atmosphere of the caves where this water ceremony is usually performed. A bowl of water resting on the table received the blessing, and participants would eventually be offered sips of it, as in communion. Finally, roses were dipped into the water and used to shake drops of water on all those gathered.
It was a potent blessing, because the intimacy and power of ritual transcends cultures, language differences and even philosophical details. Spirit is Spirit in any language. And the language of Spirit is ceremony.
Water Ceremony at Tacheria Interfaith School of Spiritual Direction in Tucson. Photo: Pam Hale Trachta.
* Apab’yan Tew is likely the only male Maya midwife that exists. He knows of no other. Indeed, it’s not traditional. It occurred because, when he was a lost young man wandering in the Guatemala highlands, a Maya midwife took him in. And before long he assisted her in the process. He became her apprentice until he began to birth babies on his own. He remains readily sought after as a midwife. When in the highlands he does everything from the beginning: talks, sings, moves and delivers the baby. In the city, he prepares everything until the point of delivery then sends the mother to the hospital for final delivery by a doctor. This was the case recently in Mexico City. Apab’yan and the mother were able to bypass the difficulties of the pregnancy. She successfully delivered a baby girl.
**With many thanks to the following people and organizations for hosting us and making the March beauty possible:
On Hopi: Charlene and Harold Joseph;
In Kansas: Lonetta Lollar and John Brack, and Belle Dessa and the Great Plains Earth Institute;
Elsewhere in Arizona: Pam Hale Trachta, Frank Williams and Tacheria Interfaith School of Spiritual Direction, Leslie Spencer-Snider and North Mountain Visitors Center, and Cindy Heath.
The Lifepath Dialogues offer an invitation toward embodiment of all that is life-affirming and the deeper meaning of sustainability. Themes are drawn from books "Calling Our Spirits Home" and "Standing Stark" and 20+ years as a conscious living mentor leading spiritual travel journeys with Indigenous Wisdom Keepers serving their communities, group and individual programs. Carla specializes in working with people who seek to live through their deeply held values. For more info see the “About” tab. The author may be reached via email@example.com. Follow this blog by becoming a fan on the Kenosis Facebook page.
The Lifepath Dialogues Gatherings
Topics here are meant to open conversations and self-reflection. For more information, go to the "About" page.