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.
We drove along the South Rim tourist area of the Grand Canyon and wound our way to the west on a dirt road through tall pines. Leaving the throngs of people behind, with much anticipation, we entered a different world. During opening circle for our spiritual travel program to Hopi just the night before, I’d let the folks know an opportunity had presented itself.
The Grand Canyon is sacred to the Hopi. They emerged into this middle world in ancient times from a point deep in its interior, and the Havasupai people have called it home for at least a thousand years. A relationship exists between these peoples. So when my Hopi partner Char Joseph contacted the Havasupai Tribe inquiring if there was someone who would speak to us about their ways, they were happy to oblige saying…all too often they were forgotten.
We pulled into Supai Camp, once the tribal winter home on the rim where just a few remain. The traditional dwellings are long gone. In 1934 the National Park Service (NPS) tore down or burned the homes without notice to the residents who were away at the time. I Am the Grand Canyon documents more than a century’s devastation of the Havasupai at the hands of the US federal government, NPS, Grand Canyon Association and Sierra Club. In the book, Havasupai Mack Putesoy testified how their homes were burned to the ground with all their belongings inside. Effie Hanna said she lost things she’d been saving all her life. In place of traditional homes on their aboriginal lands, the NPS built cabins and forced the residents to pay rent.
However, I knew none of this at the time we approached the home where we’d been invited.
Havasupai girl, circa 1900. Photo credit unknown.
We were greeted at the door by Colleen Kaska, daughter of Daniel Kaska who was chairman of the Havasupai Tribe in the 1970s. Elder Daniel is now quite frail but welcomed us. He wanted to tell us the story of the Havasupai, People of the Blue-Green Waters named after the beautiful canyon waters running through the area they now mostly live. Colleen shared in the storytelling.
Their aboriginal lands once encompassed areas from the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and the San Francisco Peaks west to Ashfork and Seligman. In the warm months they lived in what is now known as Cataract Canyon in the interior of the Grand Canyon and grew crops. In winter months they dwelt on the rim in order to hunt.
Once the Santa Fe railroad came along and interest in the Grand Canyon grew as a tourist and recreational site the Havasupai were squeezed and began to suffer. In 1882 President Arthur declared the majority of their aboriginal land belonged to the American public. The People of the Blue-Green Waters lost their plateau hunting-herding lands and many thousands of acres. They were barred from rim watering holes by cattlemen and the NPS…and relegated to Cataract Canyon. This narrow 518-acre tract doesn’t see sun during winter months, and historically endured flash floods that sometimes took out homes and people.
Colleen had been relating this history in a matter-of-fact way. The more she spoke, the sadder I felt. I had no idea what we would learn when we came through this family’s door. But I didn’t anticipate such a story. I’d thought of the NPS and Sierra Club as entities that conserved beauty…not those who wrought devastation upon peoples of the land (I thought) they were to protect. I said, “This all must be heartbreaking.”
Colleen paused, became still. She had a faraway look in her eyes. “Yes. But when I walk our aboriginal lands⎯the ones taken from us⎯I know it is of my people. My ancestors are there.” The tone of her voice made clear that knowledge gave her strength.
Elder Daniel spoke haltingly of the century-long struggles to be recognized by the federal government, to regain any of the land taken from them, including his own personal involvement as chairman in this quest. Finally, in 1976 they succeeded to a small degree: 185 acres returned to the Havasupai with 95,300 acres named “Havasupai Use Lands” but controlled by the NPS.
K’iche’ Maya Daykeeper Apab’yan Tew was present as a sponsored guest on our spiritual travel program. He wanted to know about Havasupai ceremonies. He asked Daniel, “Do you have a story about some time of a spiritual nature you remember?” Daniel shook his head. It seemed the focus for so long had been a fight for acknowledgment, some recognition of their worth, that there was no energy left for anything else.
Mike Weddle⎯Kenosis Spirit Keepers board member, Daykeeper and musician⎯visiting from Maryland was able to join our group for just two days. He brought his flute. I invited Mike to offer Daniel and Colleen a prayer song. The music was sweet. When it came to an end, there was silence. Then Daniel began to sing in words and tones that entered every one of us. The energy seemed to shift.
When we all expressed how it touched us, he uttered softly, “It’s a funeral song.” And then, “We are a lost tribe.” It was painful to hear of such loss.
Our visit was over. We formed a circle outside under the pines and invited Colleen to join us. Elder Daniel was unable to do so. Apab’yan offered a Maya prayer for the People of the Blue-Green Waters and the land.
A few days later I received a note from Mike who had to leave for other business.
I think we all felt the same as elder Daniel Kaska told his story of loss and betrayal, going to Washington where no one would listen, voting against the government deal when his own people would not listen, and his final ‘I don’t know what will become of us’. When he sang his beautiful song, and then said it was a funeral song, I almost wept.
We were invited by Colleen to join a singing ceremony 8 am Saturday at Red Butte. I did go to represent us but there was no one there. There are two forest roads on each side of the Butte, but no people, no cars, and no singing.
So I climbed the switchbacks to the very top of the butte, the summit. At the very top there is a crossing with 4 paths going in the 4 cardinal directions. I’m sending a photo. Colleen called this the Supai place of origin.
I felt that in just 2 days I had been witness to the place where the Supai began and perhaps the place where they end. As there was no one else there to sing, I did the singing, and I sang the Maltyoxb’al, the [Maya] great gratitude song, for the arc of the Supai nation.
Red Butte where the Havasupai were born to this world. Photo: Mike Weddle.
Four Directions at the summit of Red Butte. Photo: Mike Weddle.
When we held our closing circle at the end of our week with the Hopi and Havasupai people, I spoke to the group.
I never know in advance how things will unfold when we hold a sacred container of pure intent. Things I can never predict come in ways that affect us all. I believe the most important thing we did during this journey was sit in respect, listen deeply to this Elder’s words and witness the grief he carries.
Sometimes that’s all we can do even in the face of our own helplessness at such recognition. And that acknowledgment matters.
Note: Elder Daniel Kaska singing recorded by Apab’yan Tew.
In 1994 a tomb was excavated in Temple XIII in the main plaza of Palenque, the large Maya ruin complex in Chiapas, Mexico. It was the finest thus far uncovered, even more so than the great ruler Pakal II’s in the Temple of the Inscriptions just a couple of doors down. The quantity of jadeite, sacred objects and two skeletons on either side of the sarcophagus indicated someone of the highest standing. And a very curious thing: The remains were completely covered in a powdery red substance that turned out to be cinnabar.
A physical anthropologist determined the remains to be female. The temple richness pointed to the final resting place of an esteemed ruler. But for women to attain such a capacity was unusual. Thus began The Red Queen. And then it immediately garnered my attention when archaeologist David Friedal took the screen saying, “The history of the past is not the history of men but men and women together. And at times women change the course of history. Not men.”
The Red Queen is not a boring historical documentary. Rather it entertains the question: Who was the Red Queen? She was nicknamed so because of the cinnabar. Attendants carefully covered her in the toxic powder at burial. It made its way into her very bones. We’re on board as the film tracks the mysteries, technical methods and data that lead to a conclusion from the three likeliest candidates.
Was it Yohl Ik’nal, the grandmother of Pakal? As far as we know she was the first Maya female to rule on her own…for 21 years.
Was it Sak K’uk, who took over the throne when her brother was killed? She held rule until she was able to put her son Pakal on the throne when he turned twelve. Likely she guided him from behind for some time after that.
Or was it Tz’akbu Ajaw, the wife of Pakal? And sometimes called Lady Conjurer as noted in Carol Karasik’s book The Drum Wars where she devoted a chapter to the Red Queen.
Those who know me are well acquainted with my love for Palenque, having been drawn back regularly since 1995 when I first had the pleasure. So the story of the Red Queen was an interest on that level. But more so, I found it heartening to have women recognized for who they are, their accomplishments and learn something of their story—not quietly influencing behind the scenes but front stage center.
Produced by the Discovery Channel, 2005. Watch it free on You Tube.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow this blog by becoming a fan on the Kenosis Facebook page.
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