While I had learned a ton about native ritual and ceremony, prayer and the undeniable and intricate connection among all living things during the week-long retreat, this was the healing act I sought. I carried with me the possibility that the stuckness I felt as an artist might be fueled by unresolved grief.
I laced my boots to cushion the rocky ascent to my ridgetop altar created my first day at Arawaka. I filled my water bottle and tobacco pouch, grabbed my straw hat and marched into the New Mexico desert--64 acres of sacred ground; an intentional community dedicated to living and teaching earth-based spirituality.
Down the road, left at the culvert, up the hill I tromped the rocky, dusty ground, navigating around small and large Andesite boulders and Creosote Bush, ever delighting in the out of place brown-red-turquoise rock confetti at my feet. At the top, a plateau, swatches of scorched grass, a ceremonial ground marked by rock pillars arranged in a circle, around to the right of a handful of Honey Mesquite to the edge where on a weathered Sagebrush hung the sand dollar I had placed there days before.
I sat cross-legged, facing my altar decorated with hand-picked rock treasures in the hours I spent there sitting, listening and praying. I pinched some tobacco from my pouch and laid my offering in a small indentation in the rock.
Tobacco is a sacred plant. Natives believe it raises vibration and heightens clarity, and is a gift to the earth that sustains us. "Good morning Pacha Mama," I greeted, "thank you for this day and this place and the chance to deepen our connection." The sand dollar twirled in a bluster of wind.
"We must not be arrogant enough to believe we can save the earth," warned Arkan. "The earth will survive. It will be people and creates that perish. The best we can do is create a reciprocity agreement with Pacha Mama, give some take some (NEVER taking more than we give), and when we take, we express our appreciation for the gift. If we cannot do this ourselves, we are impotent to act on Her behalf."
I knew in this moment facing the sand dollar I would let go of my Dad first. I was five when I lost him to asbestos-induced lung cancer. He had become a chimera memory, but as I spoke I started to cry. "Thank you Daddy. I am so grateful to you for the gifts you left me--intelligence, a loving heart and the love of nature with a photographer's eye. I have spent my life longing for you, but I am blessed by the gifts you left behind."
"And now I must let you go."
With these words my Raven flew over and gurgled its approval ." I had no explanation for this bird and his daily visits and commentary, but had grown fond of its company.
"And now Pacha Mama I connect myself to you."
With closed eyes I saw an image of a shiny white cord cast from my belly button out over the desert, then transform into a net that spread to the horizon and then turned gold.
Talking to my mother about our complicated relationship was tougher. Mom was a difficult person suffering from her own difficult past. She had a mean streak and quick tongue impossible to dilute in a two-person household. As her final act she developed Alzheimer's--I spent 8 years as her guardian while I watched her disintegrate. She outlived my Dad by sixty years, living alone. She never stopped pining for him. I had granted her wish when I added her ashes to his grave 2 months before.
"And you Mom," I choked. "Thank you for gifting me courage and power, your zaniness and love of cooking as art. I only hope I loved you enough, especially in the last few years. I am so grateful for how hard you worked to make a good life for me."
"And now I must let you go."
Again I shut my eyes and again watched the image of the shiny white cord, cast from my belly outward, transform into a net as it spread to the horizon, and then turn gold.
When Raven didn't return to bless my work I waited a bit for something to happen and when it didn't followed my intuition to the premier feature of my altar, a bonus rock-bench overlooking the desert and the mesa in the distance, easily accessed by scooting to my right about 5 feet.
I sat there a few moments breathing in relief delivered by the wind, when my attention was drawn to the sky. Out of the light-filled cumulus clouds dropped a large bird too distant to identify without binoculars. In an instant a second bird joined. The two tumbled together like playmates and then flew into the distance, side by side.