Gratitude

My Annual Pause: Accessible Mystery in the Périgord Noir

I entered the dark, narrow passageway. The temperature dropped considerably from the heat outside. More than that, I was immediately aware of the overwhelming rush of energy I felt through my body. Was it because I was in very close quarters? I’d been in caves before and hadn’t experienced anything of the like. It seemed to vibrate off the very walls and permeate the air, alerting me to sacred space. Something of significance happened here, was resident here. I felt it.

I was in the Vézère Valley in the Dordogne of southwestern France, this section called the Périgord Noir, a lush area of narrow winding roads through thick forests. It’s home to the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, where I was staying, hidden spots that touch the soul, and a system of caves full of engravings and paintings going back to 23,000 BCE. The area had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage location, but I’d never heard of it. I was there explicitly due to Beebe Bahrami’s book Café Oc that spoke of its richness and accessible mystery. The Périgord Noir came at the end of my Annual Pause, this time a memorable, month-long sojourn in France that took me through Paris and southward to the tiny town of Durfort in the Tarn for an art retreat then on to Sarlat, finally ending in Toulouse. This is the leg I want most to share, particularly since the energy of the region is still resonating so strongly for me.

Hallowed Caves of the Périgord Noir

You have probably heard of Lascaux and maybe Rouffignac. It’s no longer possible to enter Lascaux. Now there’s a sophisticated reproduction to go through instead. To view Rouffignac, tourists board a little train, probably similar to the miners’ train I straddled as a child visiting the salt mines of Salzburg. That’s not the experience I wanted. I wanted to get the real feel of these caves. I wanted to put my feet where ancient ones had, be able to closely examine the expressions and impressions they’d left.

Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume were top on my list, and I’d had little hope of actually going. Access was strictly limited to no more than 8 and 12 people at a time, respectively, and just a few opportunities to enter per day. In research, I’d read about people showing up outside the ticket office from 6 AM or before in high season, holding a place in line — for hours — to buy a ticket to go later in the day. I suppose I might have done that.  But I was without a car, and I could find no small group tour to take me.

There’s a bizarre regulation in the region that works against solo travelers. A tour agency must have at a minimum two people to proceed. Don’t ask me why. Finally, I found a taxi-tour service who, due to the way their business was set up, could slip in between the cracks of that ruling and accommodate me with my personal itinerary. Thankfully, Christoph, the owner, was able to wrangle secured entry for me ahead of time. No waiting. His wife Sarissa, my driver that day, told me Christoph had been born in the area. He was part of a group of about forty locals who, having grown up there, felt so strongly about their homeland they’d banded together to ensure quality tourism.

Les Combarelles sat across a green, well back from the road on the other side of an old stone farmhouse. Sarissa was well satisfied to deliver me into the hands of Pascal, who played a part in the conservation effort she’d mentioned. I completed the group, the rest being French, and Pascal began to lay the groundwork for what we were to see beyond. There were two passages, one open to the public. The cave’s entrance was originally excavated by archaeologist Emile Riviere in 1892. However, it was the owner, Monsieur Berniche, who discovered the rock art in 1902. I put myself in his place at that moment and got chills imagining what it must have been like to stumble upon something unexpected…and so obviously old.

Before we entered, everyone had to store anything they were carrying. Nothing could bump the cave walls. Such was their fragility. We were warned not to brush the walls in passing and to watch our heads. The cave floor had been lowered about a foot to provide a bit more access. But still it was close quarters. I had to be alert. The electric light was quite subdued, barely enough to light the way. Somehow the place played with my sensibilities. I wanted to crouch and duck walk, which is what the artists must have done or crawled on hands and knees in places. The engraved images number 600 or more of those thus far discovered, thought to be from 12,000-10,000 BCE, carved at different times.

It wasn’t long before we came across the initial art. It wasn’t merely an image here and there. It was a very long stretch, like herds of animals drawn one over the other or intersecting as though jostling for their place. The cave was active.

I couldn’t begin to imagine how M. Berniche could have known what he was looking at except undecipherable scratches and scrawling. When Pascal waved a hand light over an area, that’s all I saw. It wasn’t until he used his laser light to outline individual animals that my eyes adjusted…and I was amazed. I had expected very simplistic engravings. Most were surprisingly detailed and accurate to life, or a sweeping line suggesting movement. To me, that requires a sophisticated eye.

I anticipated seeing mammoths, bison and reindeer, but not a tiger, horses, bears and rhinos. There were also a few male and female figures. Curiously, the female figures were never anatomically complete. The head or arms were omitted, even breasts. But not grand derrieres, which were always depicted. I have a theory. These omissions were an act of reverence in that, as in some traditions or religions, something so venerated must not be named. The incomplete female images or symbols like vulvas, which also appeared, were ways to allude to the Sacred Feminine, a laying down of prayers for fertility.

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Horse. Courtesy Don’s Maps. Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum).

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Courtesy Don’s Maps. Drawings by Capitan and Breuil, 1902.

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Tiger. Courtesy Don’s Maps. Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum).

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Courtesy Don’s Maps. Drawings by Capitan and Breuil, 1902.

We continued on until our way was blocked. Finally, it wasn’t possible to go farther unless a squeeze beyond on all fours. I was overwhelmed. Really, it was a lot to take in. These were not sterile renderings. I sensed a place of reverence. I could have stayed for a very long time.

We turned to pick our way back in the barely lit passage. I was glad I was second in line, having a time finding my feet. Especially so when the lead disturbed a large bat. It flew up in front of her, like some horror film. We had to duck and swerve.

I could have ended with Les Combarelles. There was so much to digest, and Pascal truly set the stage and helped bring the site to life. But Font-de-Gaume was barely 5 minutes down the road, and I had a ticket.

Apparently, the Périgord Noir experienced a run of discoveries in the early 1900s. While the Grotte Font-de-Gaume was generally known for some time, the local schoolmaster, M. Peyrony, put significance to the rock art after he’d visited Les Combarelles with an archaeologist. These are the most intact examples of polychrome painting, dating back to 16,000 BCE. About 250 paintings are known at this point, but there may be many more covered up by calcite and iron deposits. As an example, scientists were cleaning the cave walls and uncovered a frieze of five bison, the most preserved due to the deposits. There are about 30 paintings the public is able to view, mostly bison. The artists had many times taken advantage of the natural lines and bulges of the cave walls, so that the figures were brought to life in bas relief.

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Bison. Courtesy Don’s Maps. Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum).

Again, I felt the overwhelming energy throughout the time I was in Font-de-Gaume. There’s no mistaking this, too, was hallowed ground. It couldn’t have been more clear than when the young guide stopped talking and allowed silence to prevail.

Then I touched that other realm that was timeless. I wanted to stay.

An Apparition at Redon-Espic

Jeanne Grave was a simple, 14 year-old shepherdess tending her sheep in deep forest at a winding creek blessed with a spring, a stone hut on the banks for shelter. The story goes that in June 1814 the Virgin Mary appeared and spoke to her in Occitan, Jeanne’s native tongue, and gave a message for her to carry.  Jeanne told her parents that “the pretty lady” said everyone must pray and perform penance, to return to the Church, or they would soon die. This during a time of great taxation, famine and pestilence, probably cholera, when many had fallen away from the Catholic Church.

Jeanne immediately carried the Virgin’s message and beseeched her parents, but was ignored. She knocked at the doors in the small village where she lived repeating the Virgin’s words over and over. She was ridiculed. She herself made the return, regularly performing the rosary and receiving communion. Again in July, the Virgin appeared at the spring repeating the message. Her family and villagers continued to treat her with disdain. In October 1814, Jeanne’s parents died. Jeanne followed a month later. Pestilence took many of the people in the community of Castels fulfilling the Virgin’s prediction, the interpretation being punishment was meted out for lack of faith.

During Jeanne’s burial procession a violent storm broke out, but Jeanne’s coffin, its bearers and the candles lighting the way were completely protected, remaining dry. Local people were so taken with this event, they began to gather in the wild place where Jeanne had experienced the apparition. In 1818, with no formal canonical investigation, the Bishopric of Périgueux sanctioned gatherings at a small, isolated Romanesque church, once a convent, named Redon-Espic close to the shepherd’s keep where it all happened. For more than 20 years to present day on the Sunday closest to September 8, the Virgin Mary’s Feast Day, locals gather at night in deep forest and make a candlelit pilgrimage to the church and on to the shepherd’s keep, which has become a shrine. Prayers are given and offerings made on the stone altar on a rise several yards from the site.

Sarissa was surprised when I told her I’d like to visit Redon-Espic. She said it wasn’t really known to outsiders. She knew how to get there because she rode her horse through that forest. As isolated as this place is now, I can only imagine it more so back in the early 19th century. We drove on dirt roads first arriving at the church.

No one was there, and the doors were unlocked. It had recently received a new roof, curiously made with flat rocks. I remarked on it. It turns out that’s the old traditional way, and the renovators held to it. Sarissa told me to also notice how thick the walls were, made that way to protect from marauders who would attempt to destroy it.

It was quite plain inside. Then I noticed a statue, precariously perched on a stand, in a corner near the altar. It was a depiction of Jeanne and her apparition. The Virgin’s head was missing, probably damaged and not intentional. There were two things about it that got my attention. When I walked around the statue, Jeanne’s gaze was slightly off. It slid by the Virgin like she was looking at something just beyond. The other thing had to do with the Virgin’s lack of hands showing. Maybe they were supposed to be draped inside the sleeves. But these looked fairly flat as though empty. I’m not well versed on typical representations, just what I’ve otherwise seen, and could not find any mention of these two things, which were peculiarities to me.

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Statue of Jeanne Grave and the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Notre Dame de Redon-Espic. Photo: Carla Woody.

I sat in a pew to be present to what was there while Sarissa waited for me outside. Our journey continued down a one-lane dirt road. We reached the site of Jeanne’s vision a few minutes later. I was quite taken with the shepherd’s keep transformed into a shrine. In so many ways it reminded me of St. Brigid’s Holy Well in Liscannor, Ireland where I had a powerful experience. While Jeanne’s place didn’t have as many prayers lodged between the stones in the walls, they were there. So were the spring, icons and candles.  Up the small rise on the altar was evidence of past rituals. Again, this was clearly sanctified space. Its use continued to present day. After a while, we could hear a car coming. We left just as the man parked, to give the newcomer privacy. He got out of his vehicle holding flowers.

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Shrine at Redon-Espic. Photo: Carla Woody.

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Inside Jeanne Grave’s shrine. Photo: Carla Woody.

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Prayers left in the shrine. Photo: Carla Woody.

There are places in the world where the land holds something and waits to reveal itself. In truth, it doesn’t take much to recognize the invitation. It does take a willingness to accept the invitation though, to open to what may not be right in front of your face … then linger.

Categories: Gratitude, Spiritual Travel, Travel Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Revisiting the Wanderings of My Soul

A few weeks ago a friend sent me a note saying she’d begun her morning by watching a video that Kenosis Spirit Keepers* produced from footage of one of my spiritual travel programs in Peru. We went on to have an exchange on how such things touch us and change our lives.

Our brief discussion didn’t leave me. Over these last days a multitude of memories kept popping up, the journeys I’ve taken, people I’ve encountered, that have inspired me onto a different, deeper track. Some of these were undertaken with a clear frame of intent, others happenstance I never could have predicted.

In all of this, a particular time came to mind again and again, probably because its 3-year anniversary is nearly upon me. But I’d already been preparing for several months, intensively as it got closer. By now, I was walking 8-10 miles several times a week. It was a trial to squeeze in the training necessary to walk the Camino Francés, from the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela.  However, it was one of those things that I was so drawn to do and didn’t know why.  A must-do. I knew it would stretch me but so had many, many other things I’d embraced.

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I revisited the writings and photos from The Essential Way, the blog I created to document my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. You’re welcome to read the whole blog if you like.

Here’s one I’d like to share with you here. I wrote I’ll Know I’m Home When 12 days after I completed the Camino. I think I was laying over in Paris on my way home. It’s a snapshot of experience and take-aways.

Somewhere along the way, once I got the rhythm down pat, I began to note somewhat tongue-in-cheek differences between daily life on the Camino and home. But the more I listed the more I realized it’s an intimate glimpse of common pilgrim experiences you normally wouldn’t be aware of unless you’d undertaken the journey. I also began to have insights, reminders and resolutions related to some of them that I’ve included at the end.

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I’ll know I’m home when…

   … I’m no longer looking for markers every few minutes to tell me where to go, except perhaps subliminally.

… I’ll no longer be walking continually for 4-8 hours on a daily basis, with the exception of a brief rest or rest day.

… I’ll no longer hear the continual click-click click-click of walking sticks telling me that a pilgrim is coming along the trail.

As sometimes happens, the more I wrote, the deeper the realizations went. I began to sense, in some ways, what it was like to be homeless.

… I’ll have more than one change of clothing.

… I’ll have more choices to wear on my feet than hiking shoes or flip flops.

… I’ll keep my belongings in a closet or chest of drawers rather than a backpack.

… I’ll no longer do my laundry on a daily basis rather than weekly.

… I’ll no longer be required to vacate my lodging each day by 0800, or be restricted in any movement or slight noises between 2200-0630.

… I’ll know on a consistent basis where I’ll lay my head each night.

There are more of those listings. But then there was this…

My Take-Aways…

It’s important to be alert to the lay of the land to avoid becoming lost or overlooking tell-tale signals that things are off track or hidden. I resolve to sharpen my peripheral and x-ray vision.

Flexibility is a virtue. It’s also important to set your limits and abide by them. I resolve to identify with even more depth and breadth what is true for me.

A simple life in the best sense is a pure one, devoid of clutter in the mind or unnecessary material goods, anything that weighs down the spirit. I resolve to up-level my sorting and pitching process.

Nature is a great gift, healer and stress reliever. I’m fortunate to live where I do. Nature—miles of it—is just outside my door. I resolve to do these things more: hike, take breaks, sit on the deck, notice the wildflowers—however small—and watch the lizards, birds and other wildlife. Absorb energy given by the moon, sun, stars, wind and rain with intent to return it in ways that are life-giving.

It continues. You can read the entire piece here.

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I’d had no idea what was in front of me. Do we ever really? We think we do. It’s how we try to control our world. Things can turn on a dime, and they do. If anything, the Camino is the great equalizer. It shows us what we all have in common, that separation is an illusion. It instills humility.

Sitting with the outcome of my Camino, attempting to make sense of the learning, I had come to one understanding. Presence. That one I wrote a bit about.

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Now something else is emerging. Transience. The nature of reality. An awareness we tend to turn away from. But it makes life that much more precious.

***

*Kenosis Spirit Keepers is the volunteer-run 501(c)3 nonprofit I founded in 2007 to help preserve Indigenous traditions facing decimation.

Categories: Gratitude, Spiritual Evolution, Spiritual Travel | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam: Doña Panchita of Palenque

There are people who belong to a place in such a way that they become imbued with the very energy resident there. It permeates who they are…and they’re generous with it. Over the years I’ve returned over and over to certain areas that are dear to my heart. In particular ways, I live vicariously through those I’ve known at some depth who have consistently played a part during special journeys. They ground me in the land. When I see them through the years, they reinforce all my experiences by virtue of their physicality. When suddenly that person is no longer there, it leaves a void and a piece of me goes with them.

Doña Panchita, curandera of Palenque, was one of those people. A couple of weeks ago, I received the sad news that she had recently passed. Annually during my Maya spiritual travel program in Chiapas, we would see Doña Panchita for an individual limpia, a clearing session.

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We would go to her home just off the main street running through the town of Palenque and take our places in her waiting room, which doubled as a storage and laundry room. Sometimes kittens would scamper in as the kitchen and rest of the living quarters were through an open doorway on the right. A curtained door next to the washing machine led to the tiny room where she saw patients. We weren’t the only ones waiting. Locals often sat patiently, too. You see, Doña Panchita was respected in Palenque as a bona fide healer. She served her community.

Working through prayer and clearing methods, she alleviated imbalances and dissipated blockages in the emotional and physical bodies, and dispensed with spiritual afflictions. She sent outside interferences packing, such as envy from others, etheric cording that drains, a hex from a sorcerer or any other detrimental attachments.

P1010689Doña Panchita was not given to talking about herself or how she worked. She was humble. In my experience over the years, she was no-nonsense and wanted to get down to business. I imagine this was especially so because she would already have had a full day from early morning working as a maid in a local hotel. That’s before she would begin seeing anyone in her waiting room. But one time her husband slipped in and sat down with us. He disclosed that the spirits of the house, or the small plot of land where it sat, had made their connections with his wife many years ago, and she worked through them.

She was Catholic, deeply religious. Along an entire wall from tabletop to ceiling, was an altar with religious statues and accoutrements of various sizes. She favored Mary. Framed pictures of saints also hung on the wall. I remember being overwhelmed by it the first time I entered the room. Other than the altar there were few furnishings. Mainly two chairs—one for her and one for her patient—and a small table to hold the herbs and other things she used.

LaCruzI remember the first limpia with Doña Panchita maybe ten years ago. She didn’t know me, and I didn’t say anything about myself except whatever she may have gleaned from my request of her, something fairly benign. I closed my eyes and heard her praying under her breath then felt her brushing my body, head to toe, with a branch of holy basil. Once she was done, I opened my eyes. I remember feeling a bit spacey and had glanced over at the altar, which seemed to have come alive. She stood in front of me pointing to an ornate cross around her neck and told me in no uncertain terms that I must immediately buy La Cruz de Caravaca and wear it, that I needed to protect myself because of the work I do. She then called to a young woman, probably a granddaughter, and dictated a prescription instructing me to, once I returned home, bathe in the infused liquid she gave me and purchase some other things to add to the bath. I did both.

During my 2011 session, I told Doña Panchita that I had been feeling off for some time. Nothing seemed to be going well. At every turn there was a roadblock. Sometimes it was worse than others. It didn’t feel like it was something of mine generating the problems. I always look inside myself first to evaluate.

What I had not told her was how uncomfortable I also was in my own home as though I was unwelcome. I often felt on edge. I would frequently wake up in the middle of the night on high alert as though there was an intruder in the house. Sometimes there would be popping noises or the bureau in my bedroom would crack loudly like it was splintering.

I had barely stopped talking when she took hold of my head on either side and began shaking it, making guttural sounds, growling, into the crown of my head. Then praying fervently and whacking me with a water-drenched holy basil branch. Understand this was rough treatment coming from her. She was normally quite gentle. When there was a lull, I opened my eyes to slits just in time to see her holding scissors a foot away from my body. As she began to slice through the air, I can only say it was like floodgates released⎯and whatever had been there…vacated. I felt immediate release…light energy…and extreme relief.

When she was done, she took an egg from the table and cracked it into a glass of water. After a few moments, she showed me the glass, and based on how the egg appeared, that all was well. I don’t know how to read such things. But I certainly took her word for it. I’ll never know the cause of all those troubles and didn’t ask her.

Before I stood, she asked me to open my hands and placed a white flower across my palms. She closed my hands together with her own and said, “For your work.” I was so very touched by her blessing.

After that journey when I walked through my front door, everything looked brighter in color and had a sparkle to it. Really. Whereas, for years I’d been experiencing the things I’d mentioned, from that time forward all has been clear. No more cracking furniture. No more high alert. I am home.

I hold much gratitude toward Doña Panchita of Palenque. I know others do, too. She blessed many with her attention, kindness and skill. She was the real deal and is missed.

 

Categories: Gratitude, Healing, Spiritual Travel | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Cajun Healers of South Louisiana

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Doc Moses, Cajun Traiteur, 1974 by George Rodrigue, oil on canvas.

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.

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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.

 

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Categories: cultural interests, Gratitude, Healing, Spiritual Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Of That Time in Iran

“I think you should open it,” my dad gestured to the bottle of Camus Napoleon Cognac, still in its original box after all these years. His face was poignant, holding mixed emotions: doubt, resignation, a touch of sadness.

Camus CognacIt touched me, too. Dad is 85 years old and had held this bottle for 38 years, patiently waiting. He’s sentimental and loyal to his convictions. He holds things inside. Nearly every year for at least 25, he’s said to me, “We’ll wait until Ahmad comes back.” He kept it tucked safely in the bar. Now it sat on the top. It took something for him to do that, to make that final decision, waiting for me to come home for Thanksgiving.

“I think so, too. It’s time,” I said.

In May 1978 I traveled alone to Iran to work on a project called Peace Log, a collaboration between the US and Imperial Iranian Air Force, that acted as oversight to Lockheed’s fielding of F-16 jets. I was 24. I was to be there for six months working on Doshan-Tappeh Air Base outside Tehran.

Don’t ask me what I was doing. It was many lifetimes ago. It had much less to do with the logistical work I would do than the call to adventure that had been roiling in my blood. I’d applied for the job not really even knowing where Iran was, other than it sounded exotic. I was just following a strong urging. The internal conflict produced from being in a line of work that went against my values hadn’t yet gelled. And as much as I wanted the adventure, I hadn’t figured into the equation my extreme shyness and the huge gap in age between me and the US people I worked with. I pretty much holed up after work and read books.

But it wasn’t long before I met Ahmad, an Iranian captain a few years older than me, who worked in the same complex. He asked me to dinner. That was more complicated than it sounds. There was a strict order from the Iranian side against fraternization. And within a couple of weeks after my arrival we were suddenly under martial law with strict curfews and all the riots and bombings you’ve read about. The Shah was falling.

Nonetheless, Ahmad and I began to see each other a few times a week. It was like a grade B spy movie. I’d leave the apartment building where I lived with other US work personnel, located on one of the busiest boulevards in Tehran, walk nonchalantly a few blocks over where he’d pick me up in his car and whisk me away.

If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have seen the things I saw. We hiked the mountains surrounding Tehran. He took me to Isfahan with its extraordinary ancient architecture. For a weekend we went to the Caspian Sea with his cousins and friends. One time we had to travel through Qom, the revolutionaries’ stronghold, and he brought me his mother’s chador to wear so I’d be safe. But mostly, we talked. He would teach me basic Farsi and I would correct his English as he asked. We roamed the bazaars, had meals together and developed a quiet bond.

Iranian MiniatureIn the middle of my assignment in Tehran, Ahmad had to accompany his general to the US. He was gone a few weeks. They had business in different sites. One was Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, outside Dayton where I lived at the time. He visited my folks while there.  They had him to dinner at their place. That’s when he gave Dad the cognac. For my mom, he brought an exquisite Persian miniature, an Iranian art form. My folks enjoyed his visit thoroughly. The next day Mom took him shopping.

That day in November, right before Thanksgiving, when I was slated to fly back to the US, he accompanied me to the airport for which I was so grateful. I only realized later what a risk he took being seen with me in that environment. It was chaotic and dangerous, people clamoring to leave. Somehow he parted the seas. Or at least it seemed that way. I showed my documents and was granted passage. In those last moments, we said little. But we both cried.

In January 1979, he managed to call me. There was a lot of static on the line. I remember our conversation was brief. We may have been cut off. That was the last time I heard from him. Ever.

My dad doesn’t forget kindnesses personally granted him. Neither do I. Over the years, I’ve thought of Ahmad countless times. Wondering what happened to him, where he was. Did he survive the revolution? I’m afraid he didn’t but don’t want it confirmed.

After the fact, I realized just how little I really knew about him. Somehow I got the idea he was from a well placed family, and that his allegiance to the Shah was questionable. Although he never came right out with either of these.

A few years ago, I did a google search to see if I could turn up anything. I was shocked when I was greeted with listing after listing of a man by the same name identified as the father of modern Persian poetry. I was disappointed when I reviewed photos that told me he wasn’t the one I sought. But still a strange coincidence. My Ahmad was much younger, of course. So perhaps a namesake or family relation.

The cork broke in two and crumbled into the bottle; it was dry. I took a sip of the cognac, and it took my breath away. It was so strong. Perhaps as strong as my memories that without Ahmad wouldn’t have been so rich.

If I could, this is what I would say to him:

I hope you’ve lived a long, healthy life filled with love, family, children and work that nurtured your soul. You were of such significance to me at a time when I was young, naive and scared, not of my surroundings, but of myself. You provided a safe haven and wanted nothing in return except friendship. I’ve never forgotten it.

I mourn that I cannot find my photographs from then. But I can offer these words from a poem by Ahmad Shamlu that speak, for me, of that time in Iran.

The sea envies you
for the drop you have drunk
from the well.

 

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Categories: Gratitude, Sacred Reciprocity, Spiritual Travel | Tags: , , | 15 Comments

Unearthing of the One Tribe

Early morning as it was drawing to a close, I reflected on our journey in the lowlands and highlands of Chiapas. I don’t quite know how to describe what I was feeling in this time of unearthing. Some mixture of great gratitude and overwhelm. Not overwhelm in the way I may sometimes feel it at home when I have too much to juggle at once. Rather it was the sense of overwhelm that comes when so much has happened of a sacred nature. You can bathe in it…even though the deeper meaning isn’t yet realized. But my mind’s attempts arising nonetheless.

Words broke through in staccato—bullet points. My hand flew to jot them down. Each one came illustrated with examples from the Maya people themselves.

Sacrifice

The religious officials in the Chiapas highlands carry cargo, a term to describe the responsibilities they take on to maintain their traditions, to care for the saints, to make sure the processionals occur as they have for many hundreds of years. And house the saints well between times so they will receive the prayers of believers. Carrying cargo is a burden taken on for the sake of the community, done through community. Tasks are divided and shift to others from year to year. No one person can do it all. The strain is too great on family finances and time away from the fields. These are not paid positions. They do it because, if they didn’t, a way of life that connects all things would otherwise disappear into the ether from which it emerged.*

Don Antonio

Don Antonio signaling the start of the balché ceremony.

For some, the sacrifice is ongoing. I always think of Don Antonio Martinez, the last Lacandón Maya Elder still holding the rituals of his people, faithfully feeding the gods, laying down the prayers to create balance in their rainforest home. His is not an easy life when others have turned away to foreign religions or the influx of material things, when he is nastily pressured by converts to give it all up. I’m guessing he hangs on because he recognizes his soul would otherwise suffer, and he cannot find it within himself to abandon the gods.

Humility

For me, a clear measure of an authentic spiritual leader or healer is humility. If their ego isn’t making pronouncements, they can approach their work with compassion. Connection to the person in front of them, and their community, is genuine.

Don Xun Calixto, Tzotzil Maya of San Juan Chamula, is a profound example of that for me. Over and over, I’ve witnessed his ability to put his fingers on a person’s wrist, someone he’s never met before, and listen to their blood. Then with gentle words tell them the exact nature of what they need to let go in order to heal, his words confirmed when his patient bursts into tears as he holds them in a comforting hug. The care and precision in which he lays the altar, and how he sinks to his knees and utters the prayers to carry the healing. Or the relief a patient displays when he tells them they can put fears aside because they’ve already overcome their trial.

Don Xun

Don Xun listening to the blood.

Today we don’t think of political leaders having humility, the opposite so often true. In ancient times though, Maya kings and queens were spiritual leaders and protectors. Indeed, they were seen as gods incarnate, walking among the people, making personal sacrifices. Humility displayed itself in the bloodletting rituals they undertook upon their own person. For the kings, thrusting a stingray spine through the penis; for the queens, through the tongue. Their blood dripped onto a paper then burned, taking the blood prayers for good crops to the heavens.

In the Popol Vuh there is explicit counseling against narcissism and pompous behavior. Seven Macaw, a demon parading as a god, claimed to be the sun and the moon. He terrorized the people and puffed himself up with jewels and arrogant proclamations. In doing so, he gained the attention of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who noted his evil and summarily took him out.**

Courage

Depending on the nature of an affliction the people consult different types of healers. An example would be Doña Maria, a curandera who attended us during this recent journey. Her prayers will cure an earache or get an innocent man out of jail.

Doña Maria

Doña Maria making her initial prayers before beginning clearing sessions.

But when someone thinks the ailment involves the supernatural, particularly witchcraft, they will go to Don Xun. And if he diagnoses soul loss, he will be called upon to descend into the Underworld, through trance or dream, with a dire mission. Not an undertaking for the faint of heart, Don Xun must wrestle the person’s soul away from the Earth Lord. In this process his prayers return the patient to wholeness.***

Don Xun

Don Xun laying an altar.

Persistence

In the face of great adversity, I witness quiet persistence, strength and faith in the person of Don Antonio in the tiny village of Nahá.

Emerging from the 1990s genocide in Guatemala and Chiapas, the Maya have not been defeated. Particularly the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas is alive and well. Nonviolent marches protesting treatment by the Mexican government regularly occur. At the entrance of villages, signs proudly declare a people in resistance. While behind the scenes, Zapatistas are not merely complainers but have actively established their own Indigenous schools, clinics and pharmacies using traditional ways.

Integration

Throughout the Indigenous communities of Chiapas, I am consistently reminded of a way of life that integrates spirituality into everyday life…and the grounding that brings. As I’ve returned to my geographic home base in the US, I’m also reminded just how fragile that way of life is with the forces active to destroy. I am aware of the soul loss within this nation ⏤ including my own. And the need to pull together, so that we do not feel as though we are merely one…but the One Tribe.

♦♦♦

* Outward appearances may confuse outsiders into thinking Catholicism is being practiced in the Maya highlands. This is not the case. Instead the saints have been converted. Each one carries the meaning and stories the Indigenous people have given them, and the spirit of the forest permeates the church with trees (pine boughs), mist (copal incense) and fireflies (a multitude of candles).

**The Popl Vuh is the K’iche’ Maya creation story and historical references originally documented in Maya hieroglyphics, transcribed in the 16th century.

***One of the worst curses perpetrated upon someone is due to envy. One person seeks to usurp what another has and, through witchcraft, captures the soul and offers it to the Earth Lord. In the Tzoltil Maya religion, the Earth Lord rules the Underworld and owns all the natural resources. The Earth Lord, represented as a greedy ladino with a cowboy hat sitting on a bull, may grudgingly provide, but may also take away on a whim. In Chiapas when a shaman of Don Xun Calixto’s stature engages with the Earth Lord it is not done through hallucinogens or alcohol but, as described, through trance, dreams and prayer. These undertakings are every bit as real as anything in the material world involving battles and danger.

♦♦♦

All images in this article ©2017 Carla Woody. All rights reserved.

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Thomas Hatathli: The Everyday Life of a Diné Medicine Man, Part II

At the end of the evening introduction to sacred Diné ways, Thomas Hatathli talked briefly about the Blessingway Ceremony he would offer the next day. He spoke of it as a cleansing, a restoration to full health, life-affirming choices and connection to all beings. Through song and prayer the ritual would provide a channel for healing.

I stood and asked Thomas if there was a way we all could best prepare and be ready for the next day’s ceremony. He said simply, “Just be you.”

I waited until he was free, then talked to Thomas privately. “I asked that question for myself. I’ve just returned from Peru. I was in a Q’ero village where I have relationships and learned of a death. I think I’m carrying a lot of grief.” I told him only that.

During time in the village in my role of group leader, I wasn’t able to really process the tragic story I’d been told of a young mother’s sudden, recent death and the devastating effect I witnessed on the dad and very young ones she left behind. Ever since, images had continually played in my mind of the event I never saw—haunting me. I couldn’t shake them, and I was experiencing a physical impact that was getting worse.

He gazed directly into my eyes. Perhaps beyond me, too. “Do you want to be my patient tomorrow?”

I wasn’t expecting this explicit invitation. I nodded yes.

“Then sit beside me tomorrow.” He asked no questions, nothing causing me to replay the painful moments.

The next day we gathered again at North Mountain Visitor Center, which backs up to the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. I found Thomas outside at the small amphitheater that opened to the land, already preparing himself.  He said this round place was a good one. At home he holds ceremonies in a hogan.

As he’d asked, I sat next to him. Others assembled in a loose circle. He took a small rug and woven cloth from a bag and laid both on the ground in front of him, one on top of the other. As he readied the space, he spoke about the turning basket he placed in the middle, the significance of the circle around its perimeter. There was a break in the circle where anything that was not life-affirming could be released to the east. He noted that some patients were afraid to let go and needed encouragement. He’d made sure to place the turning basket with its break to the east, the same as a hogan’s doorway.

Turning basket

Example of a turning basket.

Thomas inherited this turning basket from his grandfather who was a medicine man. It had to be over a hundred years old. I could only imagine how many ceremonies it had seen and the power it held. Even as the formal ceremony had yet to begin, I felt its energy reaching for us. We all were invited to place items—sacred bundles, jewelry, stones—in the turning basket; the purpose to represent each of us in this ritual, to clear any traumas or aspect out of balance.

Thomas talked about the sequence of ancient songs he would sing, the meaning of each one. The Mountain Song would come first, calling in the benevolent spirits of sacred mountains to provide protection and healing. Next would come the song he sang for himself, asking for the strength and capabilities required to sing the songs and make the prayers. The Bluebird Song was one to bring in happiness. The Returning Home Song was about returning home, to the natural order, coming home to your true Self. The prayers would come next, twelve of them.

When Thomas began to sing I closed my eyes. Before long I was lost to this world and entered the landscape this Chanter was weaving. Somewhere in there a thought swam up. I’ve heard this before. It sounds so familiar. I grasped to make the connection but couldn’t and surrendered again, letting the songs take me. At points periodically I experienced a lifting sensation as though leaving my body and thought it would fall over backwards. Somehow I remained upright. Every now and then my ears popped.

As the last song ended, I opened my eyes and knew how the songs were known to me. Icaros. Just a few weeks before I’d been with Don Alberto Manqueriapa, a respected Huachipaeri-Matsigenga spiritual leader, again in Peru as he sang the icaros during the rainforest rituals that hold the same intent of the Blessingway Ceremony. A return to the natural order. They couldn’t be the same language. Yet they were. And they held the same frequencies. They were drawn from the same place.

Thomas handed me the feathered female medicine stick to hold in my left hand and a small deerskin bundle that held dirt from the Sacred Mountain for my right hand.  As I received them extraordinary energy washed over me and I knew their power, recognized how many people had held them as I was now. The Blessingway prayers began, a continual chant until complete.

He directed me to press the medicine stick and bundle up and down both legs, then the rest of my body. Pressing them to my face would cleanse the senses and perception. To my head, purified the mind.

Thomas went to the fire made earlier and threw herbs upon the flames, a further prayer for happiness and blessings. We all went up and made an offering of corn meal. The Blessingway Ceremony came to a close.

Post Blessingway Ceremony

Post Blessingway Ceremony.

I remained seated outside for some time while others drifted back inside where we would share a meal. I didn’t trust my ability to walk. I wasn’t yet fully back in the material world. And I was assessing my state. I felt different, as though something had lifted. I was much lighter.

Three hours had passed as though mere minutes. We’d been encapsulated in a timeless bubble as the world around us went on. A short distance away people were on the preserve’s hiking trails. The parking lot had been full. I’d heard nothing but the cadence of Thomas’ words moving on the air. I felt nothing but the energy coursing through my body, taking me somewhere, and only a slight warmth from the sun. Not its increasing strength as it followed its path across the sky.

Naomi Tsosie had stayed behind, too. During the ceremony, she and a few other Diné women who were present sang softly, barely a beat behind Thomas. I later learned that these echoes are sustenance to the Chanter providing strength for them to continue, sometimes many hours or even days depending on the need.

Naomi came over to me. She gave me a sacred gift that I will always treasure. I understand the meaning. I only wish I hadn’t been so altered and could have expressed adequately how her action and kind words truly touched my heart.

Thomas knows over 500 hundred songs. He retains them in his mind, passed to him orally, not to be written down. Each having their own purpose to be drawn upon depending on the needs of the patient.

That day we experienced an abbreviated version of the Blessingway Ceremony by necessity of the circumstances. I truly get how this is a way of healing. It has had a lasting effect on my state of being, emotionally and physically.

Thomas’ level of impeccability—the care in which he spoke his words, the seamless way I absorbed their deeper meaning, how I felt the medicine he delivered—is a rarity. He would never say so himself…but I believe we were in the presence of a true Holy Man.

 ***

This is Part Two of a two-part article. To read Part One, go here.

To learn more on the Blessingway Ceremony, go here.

I wish to acknowledge Ruth Harrison, Kimberly Ewing, Nathan Shannon and Norm Meier who were present and contributed their memories of our time with Thomas, filling in where my own memory gapped.

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Thomas Hatathli: The Everyday Life of a Diné Medicine Man, Part I

In the old days there existed 200 or more traditional Diné healers.* “Now,” Thomas Hatathli told us, “There are only 30 to 40.” As I listened to Thomas’ words my heart felt a tug of sadness to be hearing again what I’ve heard so often—directly from the Indigenous healers themselves. And I imagined what it’s like to be one of a dwindling few, and perhaps the only one left in some cases, who dedicate their lives to the wholeness of their people and the planet, living the ancient principles every day.

We’re honored that Thomas accepted our invitation to share some of the work he does as a traditional healer of his people.** Tall and spare, Thomas radiates a quiet strength. He began with a prayer. Then he introduced himself by citing his clan relations, adding, “This is who I am. I know I’m never alone.” And I got the true understanding that knowing your origins, stretching back centuries, gives of itself to spiritual grounding.

Thomas HatathliPerhaps Thomas was preordained to be a medicine man by virtue of the Diné meaning of his last name and precedent set by his grandfather. But Thomas didn’t always follow that path. It wasn’t until, after being away at college, when he came home to find his family’s livestock gone—taken from them by the Federal Government—the family forced by the same to uproot from their ancestral lands and move across Arizona, to enter into homelessness while they awaited the allotted acre and house…that he made a decision. His family was devastated. His people suffered. Mental and physical health were dramatically impacted. Spiritual grounding detached itself to be replaced by the worst influences. ***

For the next four years, Thomas dogged the heels of his cousin, already a medicine man, learning the songs, prayers and rituals, the teachings of his ancestors. Until finally, he was ordained as a healer and Blessingway Chanter. That was more than 25 years ago.

He retains little time as his own. Weekdays he works as a mental health specialist at the Tuba City Regional Health Care Center. And nearly every day people come looking for him, asking him to sing the songs and release the prayers that bring healing. Thomas freely gives of himself to do so. Nights and weekends are not his but theirs. To maintain balance, he runs. Thomas has run 16 Boston Marathons—soon his 58th marathon total. He shows no signs of slowing down.

That evening he dispensed pragmatic wisdom in an unassuming way, just stated fact. And even though I’d heard what he said before, presented in any number of ways, his way slipped in to find a home. Much of what he offered was about gratitude and presence, making good choices—the underpinnings of a healthy life in all ways.

He spoke of chewing his food in gratitude and what’s best for the body…

When I chew my food I taste it. I enjoy it. I break the food down to give my stomach a break. In this way I conserve my energy for when it’s needed.

The body needs movement to be healthy. People say they don’t have time.

When he spoke of people leaving their traditions in favor of technology and assimilating into Western culture…

 Go forward but reach back.

Of the ancient prayers and songs orally handed down to him…

When I pray it’s a thousand years of wisdom coming through my mouth.

As the end of the evening came to a close, he spoke of the Blessingway Ceremony he would lead the next morning. I stood and asked, “As this will be a healing ceremony, is there a way we can best prepare ourselves for tomorrow?”

He answered…

 Just be you.

His practical spirituality is comforting. And it’s evident his life is one of alignment to core values, to family and community. Yet it’s also true his life is one of great sacrifice—one he chooses.

Nothing good comes easy. We need to appreciate effort.

True medicine men don’t choose that path. It chooses them. It means relinquishing an everyday life and surrendering to sacrifice, one that ultimately works at a global level.

 ***

This is Part One of a two-part article. Part Two is on the Blessingway Ceremony in which I was the patient seeking to return to the natural order offered through these songs, prayers and rituals. Read Part Two.

I wish to express gratitude to the Native people who attended this offering and showed respect to this Elder: Naomi Tsosie, Lucilia Benally, De Alva Ward, Ron Interpreter and Sam Hogue. I also acknowledge Ruth Harrison, Kimberly Ewing, Nathan Shannon and Norm Meier who were present and contributed their memories of our time with Thomas, filling in where my own memory gapped.

 ***

 *The name Diné means “The People” in their own language. By the 1600s the Spanish began calling them Navajo derived from the Tewa-Pueblo word for “great planted fields.”

**Twice a year Kenosis Spirit Keepers sponsors an educational outreach program for the general public in which participants can learn and experience the teachings of Indigenous peoples from spiritual leaders and healers who serve their community. We call it the Spirit Keepers Series.

***To gain an understanding of the devastation wrought from The Long Walk in the 1860s, the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, the forced boarding schools and acts in-between, the residual trauma which extends all the way to present time for Diné and Hopi alike, read A Historical Overview of the Navajo Relocation published by Cultural Survival.

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Our Visible Wings

I came across the inspirational short Invisible Wings when it was first featured on Karma Tube in 2015 and have watched it several times since. It touches a soft spot in me. It opens my heart, and I feel the flow of my own life moving through me. It generates reflection and gratitude…all channeled through the words of a 65-year-old tea seller named Vijayan against visually beautiful backdrops.

His use of the metaphor ‘journey’ in the film is important as well as the way he validates it. A bona fide journey isn’t over smooth ground but fraught with challenges along the way. If we meet those obstacles eye-to-eye, it encourages our growth, nurtures the spirit and frees our dreams…to manifest. If we don’t, it harnesses the soul.

All this from a man many may overlook: the owner of a small stall in India where he pours tea, his wife Mohana working beside him. They appear to have little in the way most would see them. But Vijayan carries a dream— to travel the world, to open his heart and mind to other lands and ways of living—and his wife shares that dream. They have traveled the globe. Even though, at the start of their marriage, she’d never been out of her own hometown.

It takes courage to face the Unknown, to step out of your comfort zone. But the comfort zone so quickly widens when you do…no matter that others think you’re crazy or try to hold you back. There is so much beauty to be experienced when you ignore those who remain in the corral.

Whether you take the initiative to make life happen or sit back and let life happen to you, it’s a choice—even if you don’t think the latter is. And while the title of this tribute to Vijayan and Mohana is called Invisible Wings, the wings any of us wear are visible and how we wear them: fully extended, clutched to the side, or somewhere in-between. Others easily see them if they pay attention. And we ourselves can feel them.

Nothing is more valuable than the felt presence of your own unleashed spirit, intimacy with family and friends…and a life fully lived…however you travel. I’m sharing this little film here—short in time but saying so much—with intent that it brings to you the sweetness and consideration it has for me.

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The Grace of Ayni: How a Young Q’ero Man Journeys to Maya Land

There’s a point in spiritual development that—if we’re going any further—we recognize something so important that it will guide us the rest of our lives: It’s not all about us. It becomes a natural act to give back in whatever ways we can, large or small. Every time we do it’s an act of gratitude done—not with thoughts of getting something in return—but purely because it’s ours to do, representative of a deeper calling. I’ve written about ayni before, a practice embedded in the way of life in the Andes and other Indigenous cultures. Ayni is a Quechua word loosely translated as sacred reciprocity, a way of living within the universal law of balance and flow.

Ayni travels anywhere in your life: family, friends, those you know little or not at all. Acknowledgement to the Creator, Mother Earth, the ancestors and guides—those seen and unseen—comprising all the threads of this tapestry we call existence. It’s the validation of your presence in its make-up, a particular insight to global consciousness.

The practice has long been a focus in my personal life through what I’ve learned by consistent contact with Indigenous ways. I’m especially invested in exposing participants of my spiritual travel programs as I can—by writing about it, speaking of it and embedding automatic ayni within tuitions that goes to help support the spiritual leaders and their families who have offered their hearts to us. And it goes into the communities to benefit people the travelers have never met.

I make this point because it’s not a natural part of Western culture, which is particularly evident lately. We must be taught that ayni is ours to embrace so the world becomes a better place. In the last few years, I’ve become much more vocal about all this. I talk to people about standing beside me in this work. It does take a global village. Through Kenosis Spirit Keepers, we’ve created Kinship Ambassadors recognizing individuals who are supporting our initiatives in various ways. Our Kinship Circle acknowledges collaborative organizations we’ve worked with to jointly further our common missions.

A wonderful thing has unfolded over the last few years, something that makes my heart sing. Folks are stepping forward to support or completely sponsor areas of the work. They understand the value through their own experiences. I cannot begin to tell you how much it means that they are joining with the vision. This is ayni in action.

With this preface, I want to share a story leading to the most recent occurrence. During the 2014 Heart of the Andes program, we visited with Q’ero friends in Ccochamocco. We spent our days in ceremony, surrounded by the children, awestruck by the power of the land. Ccochamocco is a small, isolated village high in the Andes at 14,500 feet. Residents live in stone huts, with none of the most basic services we have, their alpaca close by. Life is hard there. Yet in its simplicity, in ayni with each other and Pachamama (Mother Earth), the Apus (sacred mountain spirits), Mama Killa (Mother Moon) and Inti (the Sun), these are some of the most peaceful, connected people I’ve experienced. Power is delivered through their natural reverence for all things. We can learn a lot from them.

Our first day in Ccochomocco, a young man made the point of introducing himself to me. He was 17 years old at the time. His name was Santos, son of my old friend Don Domingo, a respected paq’o (shaman or traditional Wisdom Keeper) that I’d first met 20 years before. A few years ago he passed suddenly under unexplained circumstances, a tragedy his family still struggles to endure. It was evident this young man was suffering his father’s absence. He stayed close while we were there, and proclaimed he would follow in his father’s footsteps to undertake the path of the paq’o himself. He meant it. It’s not a light commitment. It’s one of endurance and duty to community, in service to the Cosmos. He set aside his given name Santos and took on a new one: Salqa. In Quechua, Salqa (or Salka, another spelling) means ‘undomesticated energy’⏤the word given to the chaotic energy of The Great Mystery that distills into pure intent.

The next year I arranged a pilgrimage starting outside La Paz, Bolivia and ending in Cusco, closely replicating the initiation journey of the first Inka couple Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo. Directed by their father-god Viracocha, they sought a most holy place to build a city—a place of the sun and navel of the world. As part of this program we sponsored five Qeros and one Hopi along the path of their origins. I made sure that Salqa was invited. I felt it important that, if Salqa was going to commit himself in this way, then it was key for him to know, at this young age, the place of his spiritual origins.

He was thrilled to be part of this journey. Innocence and humility are part of his make-up. He was so eager to learn. Janet Harvey, a return traveler from North Carolina, remembers him this way:

Salqa and I stood listening to our guide describe the significant areas at Raqch’i, the temple of Wiracocha. The guide mentioned one place as the ‘ushnu.’  “Isn’t that a word for ‘navel’?”  I asked. Both of us checked the guidebook he had purchased to find this place on the map. Instead, we became transfixed on the photo of a sculpted image of Viracocha. One of many moments shared with this young/old, playful, wise, curious, creative, helpful, encouraging (for those of us hiking UP the steep path), smiling, thoughtful young man.

During this 2015 pilgrimage I experienced a vision during despacho ceremony that will shortly come to pass in 2016: Qero, Maya, Hopi and Aymara journeying together all the way from Bolivia culminating in Ccochamocco in the high Andes of Peru. But secretly I also held another vision: to bring a Qero paq’o to Maya Land in 2017 to meet those relations in their home environment. A Hopi Wisdom Keeper is already slated to join us there as normal. I had no idea how this would come to pass but have learned to trust and set it aside. The details were not mine to arrange.

This May, out of the blue, I was contacted by another return traveler inquiring about the possibility of sponsoring Salqa on the Maya program in January. Terry Waters of Colorado told me she’d intended to set her reasons for making the suggestion down in just a few paragraphs…and wrote a few pages instead. They were heartfelt. In part, she wrote:

…During our ceremony in Raqch’i Salqa so powerfully expressed himself, clearly from his heart, in the English he’d just learned. His words will remain in my memory. It was like music to my soul…Our Q’ero friends planted blessings in my heart that just keep growing, and I experience this young man as a fine representative of his people, someone who will do great things and impact many souls.

Salqa Apaza

Salqa (left) breathing prayers into a kintu during 2015 despacho ceremony outside Cusco. Photo courtesy of Diane Grupe Marshall.

As ayni took the lead, things were on the wind and developed quickly. In just a few days it was settled. A group of women who traveled with Salqa in Bolivia and Peru bonded together to sponsor him to Maya Land this coming January.

Salqa Bolivia

Salqa Apaza (foreground) on the Island of the Sun, Bolivia, during the 2015 Bolivia-Peru pilgrimage. Photo courtesy of Diane Grupe Marshall.

Diane Grupe Marshall of Montana shared with me:

Salqa is so kind, compassionate and mindful of his traditions. But he’s also becoming aware of today’s challenges and need to preserve those Q’ero traditions.

Maya Daykeeper Apab’yan Tew has agreed to act as his “spiritual father” during the entire January journey. Indeed, he’s delighted to take him under his wing with great anticipation. Since Tat Apab’yan will be on the Bolivia-Peru journey in September-October, they will have opportunity to make a connection in advance. Such mentoring will be a blessing to witness, and I know will add so much for all of us as we hold the space.

As for Salqa, he accepted our invitation and wrote:

 It is a magnificent idea! I will be preparing for such a trip from this early time. I would like to share our customs and traditions…Andean spirituality of the Nation of Q’eros. I am happy to read this message! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to travel and get to know other countries and get to know the Maya brothers. Greetings from the distance and many hugs for you.

Ccochamocco

Q’ero village of Ccochamocco in the Cusco Region of Peru. Photo courtesy of Carla Woody.

And so…this is the story…how the young paq’o Salqa Apaza will make history by being the first of his people to share traditions with Maya leaders in their home communities in Chiapas, Mexico.

And how the grace of ayni has a life of its own and travels on.

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You are invited to join us on this important, history-making journey, January 18-28, in Maya Land, and support the tutelage of this young Qero Wisdom Keeper. Be part of the global village.

 

 

Categories: Global Consciousness, Gratitude, Hopi, Indigenous Wisdom, Maya, Q'ero, Spiritual Evolution | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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