Gratitude

In Memoriam: Maestro Xavier Quijas Yxayotl

Another star has appeared in the night sky.  Xavier Quijas Yxayotl — composer, master musician, spiritual guide, healer, artist, visionary, resurrector of the ancient ways, life-giver, steward of Mother Earth, friend, lover of life and all beings — has passed. And we have experienced an incredible loss  at his departure.

We can be thankful that he leaves a substantial legacy in the way of ancient Mesoamerican music and instruments. He rescued this rich heritage from annihilation, the colonizers having sought to destroy it. Xavier led the way and others then stood on his shoulders. He’s globally acclaimed. Beyond this enormous accomplishment, there is the man. I’m not sure I’ve ever known a man more gentle, kind, generous and — despite his renown — humble.

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Portrait of Xavier Quijas Yxayotl with one of his handmade ancestral flutes. ©2015 Barry Wolf. Used with permission.

I first met Xavier in September 2013 when we, Kenosis Spirit Keepers, invited him to Phoenix to share his music, Huichol/Azteca traditions and ceremony. I was so taken by how, through his music, he led us into other worlds and realms entirely. I grew excited when he mentioned a bit of his life’s history to the point that, a couple of months later, he agreed to relay it to me in detail, allowing me to document it. In 2014, Still Point Arts Quarterly, a literary arts journal, accepted Beyond the Dark as a feature in their Fall 2015 issue.

Over the ensuing years, Xavier lent support of his music and presence to other of our Spirit Keepers Series weekends, and in January 2018 he was our invited guest on the Maya spiritual travel program in the highlands and lowlands of Chiapas, Mexico. It was my honor and privilege to know this compassionate spirit…who grew through a difficult childhood, separated from his ancestral traditions…who heard the calling of his ancestors…maintained his sensitivities throughout…to give his gifts to the world. He remains a role model for all time.

To read Xavier’s soulful life story, Beyond the Dark, in its entirety, go here. You’ll discover how he returned to the Huichol roots denied him as a child, and went on to resurrect ancient instruments lost to time through visitations from his ancestors.

Xavier, your bright light lives on.

Xavier and Apab’yan Tew closing a fire ceremony with ritual music at a Spirit Keepers Series offering in Phoenix in 2017.

Categories: Global Consciousness, Gratitude, Indigenous Wisdom | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Q’ero Relief: Food Delivery for Ccochamocco

I’m going to provide some background before launching into my update for anyone reading of this undertaking for the first time. Kenosis Spirit Keepers, the nonprofit I founded in 2007,  began to fundraise back in early April to provide emergency COVID-19 relief for the Hatun Q’ero village of Ccochamocco, where my close relationships have developed since the mid-90s. I love these people. The village is quite isolated at 14,500’ high in the Peruvian Andes, and Indigenous lands in the Cusco Region had been closed by the Peruvian government.

Who thought the pandemic would last for so long and intensify? The timeline kept slipping again and again as to when quarantines would end in the Cusco Region and Indigenous lands would reopen. We’d been ready since June to make the food delivery. But it was not to be. All I could think of was how their food supplies must be dwindling away.

Some have been cavalier about the Q’eros’ predicament saying they’ve survived for a thousand-plus years that way. Sorry. I can’t accept the image that kept playing in my mind of my godson, his and other families, children and elders being hungry, only having potatoes to eat and then those diminishing. That’s exactly what happened. By October when lands finally opened and it became possible to travel into the high mountain villages, potatoes had been their sole dietary choice for quite a while. I’m thankful they at least had that.

See the full report of our effort for Ccochamocco, plus the Hopi villages of Moenkopi and Shungopavi in northern Arizona. Scroll down to the portion on Q’eros after Hopi.

Now on to happy news…

First, I want to express great gratitude for all the donors over these months. Because of you, we had $7000 to pay for food and expenses to get the goods up to the waiting villagers. This kind of money goes a very long way in Peru, as you’ll discover in a moment.

Second, I really want to recognize my Q’ero liaison Santos Machacca Apaza. A lot of times, those people who quietly operate in the background but who do all the legwork to get things done—make things actually happen—are taken for granted. I don’t. As soon as lands reopened, Santos made the long trip from Cusco to Ccochamocco to consult with the community on what they needed, then went to a number of merchants in Cusco to secure supplies and got the best price. Very time consuming, along with hiring a large truck, helpers and everything else, including keeping me apprised. Clearly, if he wasn’t so willing and trustworthy, we couldn’t have gotten this done.

Santos Machacca Apaza, my Q’ero liaison, showing one of his wife Remigia’s weavings.

It was a 3-day operation from first load to delivery into the hands of the families—not counting all the prep beforehand. Santos documented it all with photos and videos. Here are some.

This first video is the only one with English. The rest are in the Q’ero dialect with a few words of Spanish sprinkled in periodically. Santos narrates, expressing the gratitude of our Q’ero friends, telling us 54 families will be fed now for months as a result of what they’ve received, visible in this wide circle before each family and more to the far side of the video pan. He thanks all donors and, if you listen closely, at the last pass through the circle you can hear some of them calling out in thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Apu Wamanlipa, the sacred mountain that watches over Ccochamocco.

This next video is a little wonky but I wanted to share it. This is Juan Machacca Paucar, the current president of Ccochamocco, a responsibility that rotates every year or so. He wants to show us all the food each family received: rice, flour, sugar, cooking oil, quinoa, tuna, soups, pasta, lentils, oatmeal, condensed milk, salt, soap and a few other things I can’t identify.

Just as when we come together for despacho ceremony, Q’ero friends place importance on standing, speaking sincere words of welcome and letting us know how they hold us in their hearts. First, you see Modesto Machacca Apaza, father to Miguel Angel, my godson. Next is Carmina Zamata Machacca, Miguel Angel’s maternal grandmother, who you can glimpse hovering behind the stacked food. (So big now at 14!)

Finally, you see some Q’ero friends holding a banner. When Santos asked me to send a photo file of the Kenosis Spirit Keepers business card, I had no idea he had this purpose in mind. Plus, it appears he located an old image of me, probably lifted from Facebook. Frankly, I was a bit embarrassed when I saw this. I tend to operate beneath the radar. But I know how much receiving these goods means to them, and this is their way of making a visual representation of their appreciation.

If anything, I wish we’d been able to show a gallery of donors who made all of this possible, for both Q’ero and Hopi. It would be crammed full front and back. Kenosis Spirit Keepers is merely the vehicle through which love flows from like-hearted people who assist us in fulfilling our mission to help sustain these Indigenous peoples who hold intent to keep their traditions alive.

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Despacho ceremony. Modesto Machacca Apaza breathing prayers into a coca kintu (prayer offering). Photo credit: Cécile Sother.
Categories: Compassionate Action, Emergency Relief Fund, Gratitude, Q'ero | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Hatun Q’ero Weavers: Destination Santa Fe

In October 2016 I sponsored a pilgrimage beginning in Bolivia that culminated in the Hatun Q’ero village of Ccochamocco high in the Peruvian Andes of the Cusco Region.* About 2,000 Q’ero live spread through small villages on the mountains commonly known as Q’ero. They exist as subsistence farmers—their fields some distance below—living in stone huts with dirt floors, no electricity or running water. Their main diet is potatoes. All families have alpaca and sheep herds and live engaged with the natural world, which they consider sacred. The majority of my relationships with these beautiful people going back 20+ years rests in Ccochamocco.

We spent our time with them in ceremony, soaking up the vibrations of sacred mountains and generally hanging out with the community. At one point, we gathered with the weavers who were gladly showing us their textiles, also hoping for sales.

Weaving is integral to Q’ero life. Passed down through generations since Inka times, they make their clothing, ceremonial and other functional items. In keeping with tradition, women weave. Men knit.

Some weaving is like a rite of passage. When a girl comes of marriageable age, her mother teaches her how to weave a man’s poncho. The wife is always the one who weaves the husband’s poncho—a necessary skill. When a young man is looking for a wife, he knits a colorful hat and applies beads. The more beads he applies, the more patience he is said to have—a signal to a prospective wife of good husband material.

 

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Despacho outside Tiwanaku, Bolivia for permission to enter. Photo: Carla Woody.

Mesas or mestanas, woven altars or bundles used for ceremony, are used to hold sacred stones, other objects and coca leaves, and contain healing or divination properties. They are also used as a ground altar upon which a despacho, or blessing/prayer bundle, is created within ceremony. When weavers create these special use pieces, they imbue intent and prayers within the weaving similar to the making of Tibetan singing bowls.

The Q’eros are known for their textiles and authentic traditional designs. But they have little opportunity to sell their weavings except to the occasional visitor to the villages or on the streets of Cusco to tourists when they venture down.

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Carmina weaving outside her home in Ccochamocco. Photo: Carla Woody.

After we’d been with the weavers in Ccochamocco, participant Loretta McGrath suggested I look at having Kenosis Spirit Keepers sponsor them at the annual International Folk Art Market (IFAM) in Santa Fe. Loretta had volunteered with them for years and told me about this prestigious market. I’d never heard of it.

Armed with information from Loretta, I checked into it upon my return home. In the meantime, the Association of Weavers Q’ero Inka Design (Asociación de Tejidores Inka Pallay Q’eros) was formally established July 4, 2017. The cooperative was the first of its kind within Hatun Q’ero.

Their purpose was for the weavers to learn from each other and outside resources in the ways of natural dyeing and best practices to produce high quality items and increase their availability to larger markets. Members include those living between Cusco and the Hatun Q’ero villages, and those who do not step beyond their high-altitude homes. This cooperative represents members from Hatun Q’ero villages of Ccochamocco, Chua Chua, Challma and Qolpacucho.

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Members using natural dyes with alpaca wool. Photo: Santos Machacca.

In 2018 I began the lengthy series of communications, information and photo gathering, writing, and finetuning until finally submitting the application by the October 2018 deadline. Then we waited. Would they be chosen? How would we raise the chunk of funds needed to pull it off? I was also concerned about the relatively short time between January notification and the need for the weavers to produce a reasonable number of textiles to bring to market.

All weavings are done completely by hand. No machines of any sort are used. The wool is cleaned, spun using a traditional hand spindle, and woven using 4 stake looms. Hats are hand knitted from alpaca wool in the same manner. It’s a very long process.

There were over 700 applications. Of those, 178 artisans from 50 countries were accepted. The Q’ero weavers were one of those. We celebrated. This was huge. I could envision the beginning of something that would immensely benefit the weavers, their families and larger community. Then the weaving began in earnest.

Santos Machacca, my Q’ero liaison and member of the cooperative, kept me updated. He said that many of the women were weaving day after day starting at 4 a.m. and into the night. I could imagine how sore their fingers must be and how strained their eyes.

The next frontier was obtaining visas. Santos and Remigia Salas Chura, his wife and a master weaver, were designated to represent the cooperative at the market. Given the current political climate in the US, it seemed quite iffy whether they would be granted. But armed with formal invitations from IFAM, the major of Santa Fe and Kenosis Spirit Keepers, visas were granted.

Santos and Remigia arrived in Santa Fe on July 9. It was the first time Remigia had flown or been so very far from home. They were thrilled to be there. Their smiling faces were evidence. Aside from being in Santa Fe—first time in the US—they were rubbing elbows with artisans from all over the world: Algeria, Colombia, Cuba, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iraq, Kenya, Pakistan, Rwanda. Too many to name. The artisan processional in Santa Fe Plaza was truly inspirational.

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Peek at the processional. Photo: Carla Woody.

During the market I was there with them in the booth. It was a real pleasure. The Q’ero weavers offered a range of textiles from hat bands to ponchos to mesas to table runners. The latter was something I suggested for Western customers along with coasters and placemats. All in traditional designs. Truly the Association of Weavers Q’ero Inka Design outdid themselves. Offerings were 100% alpaca—no blends—all natural dyes or natural wool, all finely finished. They had undertaken this effort to produce the highest quality—and they did.

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Santos and Remigia at the Q’ero weavers booth. Photo: Carla Woody.

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Remigia weaving at the booth. Photo: Carla Woody.

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Q’ero weavings. Photo: Carla Woody.

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Q’ero mesas and hatbands. Photo: Carla Woody.

The mission of Kenosis Spirit Keepers is to help preserve Indigenous traditions. I take the outcome of this endeavor as a big win for the Q’eros—a full return to traditional weaving—as well that we could assist in such an important effort.

The plants needed for dyes grow lower than the altitude of the villages. In order to gather them, the artisans must forage distances from their homes. Perhaps due to this reality, it became common for family weavers to use synthetic dyes for their wool when they became available in the markets about 70 years ago. However, the Association members have returned to natural dyes or natural wool as most traditional.

Fine finishing, or binding the edges, had also been let go. It was rare for see a Q’ero weaving like that even though still beautiful. I can imagine much of their time was taken up with childcare and their herds. I had encouraged the highest quality though, telling Santos the elements that were needed for acceptance at the market. He later told me the weavers had forgotten how to finish edges or never knew. They had sought out elder weavers to teach them.

I want to publicly thank Loretta McGrath for her initial urging and support during the application process. I don’t know how we would have survived without Lisa Flynn who was so willingly by our side offering rides, her fine Spanish and calls back to Peru, as well as ongoing hospitality. I’m grateful to Sachiko Umi and her team at IFAM for patiently guiding me in this first-time effort, and their great care for all the artisans. Really, it was amazing how everything came together. But you know…this never would have come about for these Hatun Q’ero weavers without the generosity of donors, some who knew them and others who didn’t. I hope you are reading this, and realize you supported a dream come true.

Now we look to next year…

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Artisans of the 2019 International Folk Art Market. Photo: Marc Romanelli.

***

*The Hatun Q’ero of the Q’ero Nation are known as the Keepers of the Ancient Knowledge and call themselves the children of Inkari, the first Inka. They are widely accepted by anthropologists to be direct descendants of the Inka. They live in isolation at 14,000-15,000 feet in the Andes, as they have for hundreds of years after the conquistadors came, preserving their ancient mystical traditions. The lands of the Q’ero have been declared a cultural heritage site by UNESCO, but that has not brought personal riches to the Q’ero Nation. Some Q’ero have migrated to Cusco and environs hoping for a better life.

I will be sponsoring another pilgrimage in Fall 2020 following along Bolivia’s sacred sites…Tiwanaku, Islands of the Sun and Moon…and into Peru…through Puno, Cusco and once again culminating in Ccochamocco. Check on this spiritual travel page. It should be posted soon.

 

Categories: cultural interests, Gratitude, Q'ero, What Warms the Heart | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

When Magic Comes Unbidden

We were at the end of the March spiritual travel program on Hopi — always entrancing. On another level, I’d been handling some complex situations over the last couple of months and, in the background, was running on empty. My program partner Charlene Joseph was in the same state. Living as a traditional Hopi lends incredible meaning to a life, but it’s not a breeze. The Hopi Way contains many ongoing responsibilities, especially for women. Char abides by all of them. I’ve frequently told her I don’t know how she does it. But she’s dedicated, working always for family, community and the greater good.

The ability to detach from some things, or at least push them into the background, in favor of fully engaging in the present moment is a human attribute…and a skill. This strategy will be particularly familiar to women. The problem is…we can’t do it ongoing without paying a price.

Char and I left the group for an hour in Harold Joseph’s capable hands where he would share further storytelling before our closing circle. I needed to go talk with a Hopi candidate about sponsorship on the October Peru journey and drove to his studio. While engaged with him, there was a knock on the door. I was surprised to see a slightly built Japanese man. Earlier in the day, we’d been with Hopi artisans listening to them present their work when the same thing had occurred. The same Japanese man had knocked, zipped in, said a few words to one of the artisans and disappeared.

This time as the door opened, he greeted our host, saw us and apologized for interrupting our discussion. We were basically finished. Char and I said so and made to get up from our chairs. It appeared as though there was business to be transacted. But he looked at us and said in heavily accented English, “Can you wait? Just a few minutes?” There seemed to be some urgency in the way he asked.

Char and I looked at each other, having no idea what he intended, and agreed. A nod of the head and he zipped out the door. Glancing out the window we could see him rummaging around in his car.

Soon he reappeared holding a shoebox. Char and I exchanged glances. He went over to a counter and began carefully unpacking what turned out to be the implements of a traveling tea ceremony. Now we had two hosts — one Hopi and the other Japanese. Our Hopi host pulled over a small table and went to heat water. Our Japanese host carried over the most delicate small cups, a bamboo whisk and finely powdered green tea then waited, never raising his eyes. He said, “I only have two cups. I am sorry.” When Char and I started to say, it’s okay indicating they should serve themselves, he said, “This is for you.”

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Our Japanese host proceeded to pour heated water into the cups and whisked the tea with concentration until foam formed in each cup. The exquisite attention he gave to this process and the fine way he lifted the cups, gently setting them down in front of us, touched me at a level where I have no words. Having completed his task, he sat back, still never raising his eyes to ours.

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Tentatively, we took a sip of tea. Char and I paused. I think we were both surprised. I’d only ever had green tea that was too earthy and bitter for my taste. Clearly, I’d never had fine ceremonial Matcha before. We sipped and ate the tiny chewy cookies offered as accompaniment. Both of us remarked how delicious it was and thanked him immensely. All too soon we’d consumed the treat. Throughout, our Japanese host said almost nothing but had an unspoken fashion — offered with great humility — of honoring us and this precious moment in time. I felt completely renewed like I’d consumed some ethereal elixir.

There’s a word the English use that’s uncommon in the US. Gobsmacked…meaning overcome with wonder, utterly astounded. This was the only word I could think of later that precisely described my state.

While our Hopi host plainly knew this Japanese man. Char and I had never laid eyes on him save the fleeting moment earlier in the day. But he could not have distinguished us then, his eyes never even scanned the group.

It seemed like one of those mysteries of the Universe…how he dropped in at precisely the time he did…when it was just us…having finished our discussion. Why he spontaneously decided to surprise us — perfect strangers — with such an enduring ceremony in an unlikely setting is another.

I do know the effect it had on me though. So do others. Char and I returned to the group where I told the story. I’m quite sure I was still in that state of “gobsmacked-ness.” I continued to tell the story…to family…friends…and now to you. Maybe at least a little of what I felt has been passed on.

We all could use that kind of pure wonder where we’re touched to the core…shaken awake in a sense…that we’re being acknowledged in a deeply respectful, unassuming manner for no apparent reason…not because we’ve done something that deserved reward necessarily. But because Magic has come unbidden. A gift from the Universe delivered in an unconventional, unforeseen method when we most need it.

When I returned home, I did my research and guessed at which ceremonial Matcha would best duplicate what I’d tasted. I ordered it along with the appropriate implements. After the package arrived, I remembered that many years ago someone had given me a Japanese tea service. I found where I’d squirreled it away, never used, and washed one cup.

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Now when I perform my own private ceremony and sit…pausing in my day…savoring the taste, not just of the tea but the sense of wonder that returns, I remember that most unanticipated time on Hopi when my good friend Char and I were acknowledged with beautiful intent. I’m so glad we said yes.

Masayoshi Watanabe, ありがとうございま. Thank you. You honored us with your gift.

Categories: Gratitude, What Warms the Heart | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

The Insidious Expectation of Privilege: Taking Things for Granted

By chance, I flew out just hours ahead of the predicted snow, hoping to meet better weather in Ohio where I was visiting my folks for a week. I live in a rural, wilderness-like setting on a hill abutting state trust land below, and love it there. Just yesterday morning a bobcat sat on my deck giving herself a bath then wandered on her way. Such things are a blessing to me. Nature—miles of it—is right outside my door. The fact that I must drive unmaintained dirt roads to my place, and absence of services like mail delivery and trash pick-up, have been of little consequence to me. I figure these factors will keep most people from inhabiting this area, and I can maintain my solitude. My neighbor Barry, who lives about a mile away, would stop in to feed my cat while I was gone. He was dependable and I wasn’t worried. That was Monday.

By Wednesday, there were news updates that a colossal snowstorm was imminent back in northern Arizona. I texted Barry and asked him to leave a full bowl of dry food that day for my cat in case he couldn’t make it over the next day. Over the ensuing days, he sent texts with updates as to the situation at home. We had a few feet of snow with drifts up to a foot higher and periodic white-outs. He couldn’t locate my driveway due to the depth of snow and was trekking in from the old ranch road that ran through the state trust land. I later learned that for a day or two the road from his place was also unpassable and—bless his heart—he slogged through snow up to his knees to feed my ungrateful cat who never shows her face to him.

Now, if you live in places like Wisconsin, New York or Canada, this is probably nothing. But we don’t get this kind of weather here and aren’t prepared for it. I didn’t even own a snow shovel. Normally, if there is snowfall at my home, it melts in a couple of hours and the sun is out again. Not so this time. Then came the text from Barry that I had no water. Now I was worried.

Nothing changed over the days until I headed home except Barry said he’d made a trail from his repeated footsteps up the hill so I’d be able to walk in more easily, about a quarter mile. Again, that doesn’t sound like much, and minus the snow wouldn’t have exhausted me ferrying necessities up the slippery slope from where I’d had to leave my vehicle.

The storm was moving eastward across the US. Again luckily, I got out of Ohio early morning before high winds hit but was rerouted because of the storm elsewhere. Before I ventured homeward in the car the next morning, I remembered to buy gallons of drinking water.  Over the next several days, I learned just how much snow it took to make a minimal amount of melted water for domestic use and how much of my time had to be devoted to basic living needs. At least I still had heat. I still could not drive my 4WD vehicle up my driveway.

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Q’eros. Photo: Santos Machacca.

In the midst of scooping snow into containers, I began to think of my Q’ero friends living in their high-altitude villages in the Peruvian Andes in stone huts with dirt floors. No electricity or running water and minimal heat. What was a temporary, minor inconvenience for me is a way of life for them, a hard one.

Just a few days prior to my trip to Ohio, I received a message from Santos Machacca, my Q’ero friend and liaison for the work I do there. He was up in the village of Ccochamocco and told me of the cold torrential rains they were having. At 14,500’ altitude the nights get quite cold even in their springtime. Santos said a lot of baby alpaca were dying. This news reinforced to me the importance of our project providing shelters for alpaca and sheep, not something the norm for them. The Q’ero people are subsistence farmers living on inhospitable land and climate. Loss of any livestock threatens their wellbeing and traditions.

 

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Newborn lambs. Photo: Gi Thomas.

Just as my snow days were starting to draw to an end, I heard from Gi Thomas, one of the board members for Kenosis Spirit Keepers. They were being hit with the monster snowstorm moving across the country. Gi and her partner Katrina Marshall live on a farm in Oregon and had newborn lambs. She wrote, “I’m working hard at just keeping the sheep warm, fed, snow shoveled, water tubs full, etc. All this snow reminds me of what Q’eros must be like during those big snow storms of late. Helps me keep things in perspective.”

 

 

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Katrina Marshall in Oregon. Photo: Gi Thomas.

But lack of snow can bring about hardship, too. I’ve just returned from my program on Hopi. This year they’ve had the same plentiful moisture we have so far. It wasn’t so last winter.  We’d received almost no snowfall and very light monsoon in 2017. I saw the effect because the free-range cattle that sometimes come around my place had eaten a four-foot spread of prickly pear cactus down to nothing. They must have insides of iron. Prickly pear have long, menacing thorns.

During the several days we were on Hopi, comments came from different directions lamenting the drought conditions of the previous year. Traditional Hopis use dry farming, depending on moisture from the sky—not irrigation—to grow their corn, beans, melon and squash. Last year they were not able to produce the needed corn for their ceremonies, or food from their fields.

These days they have access to grocery stores, so are not solely dependent on what they can grow. But it caused me to ask the question, “What did your ancestors do?” The answer came, “They stored food from year to year.” But what if there are years of drought?

The snow finally cleared to the point a plumber could make it up my driveway a week after I returned home. He checked the usual (scary, expensive) suspects causing lack of water, and they didn’t apply. Thankfully. He finally tracked down the issue, an outside electrical outlet that needed to be reset—strangely connected to my well. A push of the button and water began to flow again. He was there about fifteen minutes minus the friendly conversation. I was glad to pay the rather large bill for my needs to be taken care of so easily.

I’m a privileged Westerner living in the area I do by choice, in a home built to my specifications with modern conveniences. Any inconveniences are ones I choose or merely temporary. Most of us—those likely reading this article—are given to taking precious things for granted. Running water, electricity, access to food, readily available transportation, wellbeing. Freedom to live where we choose. These are some of the insidious underpinnings of privilege. There are plenty more. We expect to have them even as others do not. By an accident of birth, we are not where they are.

I cannot brush that recognition away. I cannot turn a blind eye. I cannot do nothing. I bless that storm for reminding me.

Categories: Global Consciousness, Gratitude, Spiritual Evolution | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

The Heroic Journey of Maya Spiritual Leader Xun Calixto

Imagine you live in a rustic, tiny village and have barely ventured beyond the next town. Few westerners can imagine confining themselves to a small radius within the region of their homes. But in many parts of the world, it’s normal for any number of reasons. Now imagine if you were invited to travel beyond the borders that are familiar to you…all the way into another country? Would you go? Your answer will be telling as to the filter with which you experience the world. It’s usual to have at least some questions or trepidation about venturing into the Unknown. But would you let it hold you back? Or would you instead leap at the chance?

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Totik Xun laying an altar in his home. Photo credit: Carla Woody.

I’ve known Totik* Xun Calixto for about ten years. He’s an important fixture during my Maya spiritual travel program when we visit his home in a misty hamlet above the Maya village of San Juan Chamula in the Chiapas highlands of Mexico. Xun came to his calling later in life, enduring a process that involved a number of hardships (not unusual for those sought out for that kind of sacred responsibility). He holds a private ceremony for us according to Tzotzil Maya traditions. Xun retains spiritual responsibilities within his community and is also revered as a healer. In his tradition, he listens to the blood by pulsing the wrist, and is able to determine the cause of any malady – spiritual, mental

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Listening to the blood. Photo credit: Carla Woody.

or physical. The transmission he receives determines the coding – size, color and number of candles and specific accompanying prayers – of the curing ritual he does before his altar. Xun is quite forthcoming in describing to us what he’s doing and why from within his traditions, an approach that describes things in metaphorical fashion, often otherworldly. Sometimes a stretch to understand from a strictly western reference. But the curing isn’t for the mind’s understanding anyway, which can certainly get in the way if someone is too attached to intellectual knowledge.

This year’s Maya journey could be thought of as a pilgrimage. It took us through southern Guatemala, over the Mexican border to the Chiapas highlands and then down to the rainforest lowlands. I wanted to sponsor Xun on the Guatemala portion so he could experience and share traditions with Maya cousins. But I didn’t really know if he would consider going. It required him to travel on his own by bus, a long trip from his home all the way to our starting point in Guatemala City. Air travel was out of the question. I shouldn’t have wondered though. Xun was over the moon at the invitation.

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Pure enjoyment. Photo credit: Bekki Davis.

It sometimes happens that, when any of us decide to take that leap outside our comfort zone, there are tests…as if to say…are you sure? Travel required a passport, which turned out to be a several months’ long, challenging process of back and forth travel to the large city of Tuxtla Gutierrez because Xun had no birth certificate. Without on-the-ground liaisons to accompany him there would have been a different outcome, and I’m in their debt. Just shy of two months prior to our launch, he finally had passport in hand. It was nail-biting time for me on the day of his anticipated arrival at our lodging in Guatemala City. The long ride required changes along the way, perhaps daunting for one who hadn’t traveled. When the front door sounded that night, I finally exhaled. Then took in the light of his ear-to-ear grin and added my own to his.

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Pure absorption, textile museum in Guatemala City. Photo credit: Bekki Davis.

 

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An invitation to spin wool in San Juan La Laguna. Photo credit: Carla Woody.

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Maximón. Photo credit: Carla Woody.

It’s a safe bet to say that Xun’s experience was one of bewonderment. I don’t recall ever seeing an adult be so open, just taking things in at every turn. A good role model for any of us. I never saw him rejecting anything unfamiliar but simply accepting, an appreciation of difference.

One of the most touching moments for me was when we were in the Tz’utujil Maya village of Santiago Atitlan and visited Maximón. Known as Rilaj Mam, Beloved Grandfather or Venerable Ancestor, Maximón is a trickster diety and protector, disguised in effigy, who may be petitioned through prayer and offerings of alcohol, money or tobacco, and interventions by his attending curandero. This tradition only exists in several towns in western Guatemala. Thus, unknown to Xun. Yet when we entered the small ceremonial house, Xun immediately dropped to his knees and began to pray before Maximón. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an outpouring. In his own dialect, he chanted. Soon tears were springing from Xun’s eyes as he gestured, taking in all present, asking for blessings and healings for everyone. It was sincere and humble. He was present, no show for effect. It wasn’t long before my own eyes began to feel wet with emotion.

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Xun (2nd from right) in the home of Maximón. Photo credit: Carla Woody.

It’s impossible to orchestrate each person’s journey and I wouldn’t want to. Each has their own reasons for setting out on such a venture into the Unknown, even if not consciously known to themselves. Openings, difficulties and beauty occur. Resolve and resolutions integrate as they will over time, a part of the spiritual path.

I am very much looking forward to seeing Toltik Xun again next year, in expectancy for what these travels have come to mean for him. It was a real honor and blessing to have him accompany us.

✥✥✥

*Toltik means Spiritual Father, a title of reverence in the Tzotzil Maya dialect.

 

 

Categories: Gratitude, Indigenous Wisdom, Maya, Spiritual Travel | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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: , , , , , , | 5 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: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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