Atascadero. Oak trees, blue jays, and horses incite reflection. Whenever I am up here it is about visiting family and tracing my roots. A history gives one direction for the future, I have found.
Last time I was here we waded through ancient photo albums and I saw my grandma’s (mom’s mom) German heritage laid plainly in the hair and cranial structures of everyone from great aunts and uncles to present day cousins. I spent some time with Nietzsche that trip, and found it fitting that I’d previously taken a liking to Hesse.
This time, however, I am to gain a more empirical knowledge, and from my dad’s side. This weekend I help build a temporary Native American style village, where I will dance, trade, sweat, eat and commune for three days.
Friday we leave Atascadero, drive over the grade, through Arroyo Grande (the “big ditch”) where I grew up, to Lopez Lake where my dad took my brother and I when we were little to look at the night sky.
When my mom and I arrive, we recognize old faces, old friends, and new faces, young faces.
Grandmother Hua greets us with some words of wisdom about the crazy times we are experiencing and I think about what is happening this weekend — UN Climate summit and marches.
The smell of body odor, tea, and sage fills my nostrils as I imagine I am acting in solidarity with climate actions by coming here away from the city and all the bustling that comes with that, to kick it with mother earth and learn, from and with these native and wandering peoples, how to tune into natural harmonies.
Grandfather Woebleza speaks about prophecy being a kick in the ass to get us motivated and moving. He shows an old prophetic painting and speaks about climate change, war, corruption in religious institutions, and other familiar obstacles that the art has predicted.
My favorite part is if you turn the painting upside down, or if you stand on your head to look at it, it becomes the tree of life! You see the reemergence of the sun dance! And a womb that symbolizes women’s power and rebirth, and he says, there is a message that emerges of all the men standing up and saying to all the world’s leaders that we are not going to war anymore — that it is time to teach peace, honor, and integrity again.
We circle up in the perfect shade of a family of oaks to pass the pipe in sacred ceremony. One by one we are smudged (a ritual performed with sage and a taxidermied wing of a special bird) to purify and ready our spirits for prayer. An inner circle of Grandmothers prepares the pipes. One goes around. We pray one by one as we exhale. Some pray for water (we are in a drought), some for health and for their families, some for empowerment for us all and ability to adapt to this ever-changing existence.
It feels like hours pass but it could also have only been minutes, when we come full circle. I don’t know. I lose time here; I’m not the only one.
I am inclined to eat or smoke a cigarette or busy myself with something. I write. I climb rocks. I play guitar. So do others.
I find myself in the right place to join a roundtable discussion about sustainable community. Here I hear solutions. I hear my brothers and sisters recognize that individualistic living doesn’t work. There is speaking out against Monsanto. There is advocacy for Earthships.
A sister who describes herself as “fun size” rolls me a tiny cigarette graced with white sage and an elder speaks against patriarchy. After a round of introductions I feel at home.
By the end of this first day I am tired and hungry but smiling. We pot luck for dinner. We circle around the patio, a hundred or so of us (the great majority women) and give thanks for our feast. We let the elders go first. We dig in. A new friend, a cross dressing beauty named Timmy lets me have the last piece of corn bread.
After dinner is open mike. It goes on and on and on into the night. We don’t stay until the end.
The next day we do a lot of resting and getting to know each other before dusk. As the sun goes down we split. Over one hundred and twenty women head to the village area while the brothers go to the area on the other side of some rock formations where they will keep physical and spiritual guard for us throughout the night.
We have several lodges, including Moon Lodge (for women who have had their moon), Grandmother Lodge (for our elder sisters), an unofficial snack and water lodge, Wellness Lodge (with first aid and caffeinated tea), a message tent, Sweat Lodge (which holds two sweats, one for older returning dancers and one for women on their moon and new dancers), and — my favorite — Drum Lodge.
Once the sun goes down and the drums start, we circle a GIANT fire pit surrounded by meaningful herbs and powerful energy directing crystals and stones. Some circle clockwise to add to and build the energy of the dance, and some go counter clockwise to let go of anything they’ve been carrying and now have been given permission to release. I move freely and smile widely at the way people are guided by their bodies, as they seem to be obeying drum and spirit rather than by the usual cerebral command.
I only stop dancing to drink water, drum, and sweat. There are three drums played by two drummers each. These drums play the heartbeat of the dance. A steady, unchanging, unifying: bum bum, bum bum. When someone gets tired the lodge guardians yell “DRUMMER!” and someone comes running. There is an offering of chocolate given to drummers (I eat some spicy dark chocolate with cherries in it!) and songs are sung by dancers in various places and motions in order to help us keep the beat. Other instruments are improvised on — a flute, another different type of drum. …
After sweat, just before dawn I drum myself into a different consciousness. My arm moves rhythmically, driven by muscle memory, and I find myself in a room with wooden floors. I am approached by a teacher, who holds out a book for me to see. I shake my head though and say, “No. I can’t study now, I have to play the drums.”
The sister drumming with me brings me back to the dark foggy morning reality saying, “I find drumming makes it harder to stay awake.” And I mumble something deliriously in return.
The sun doesn’t rise, but the fog around us slowly becomes illuminated and we begin to be able to see each other’s faces again. Goofy smiles all around.
Once the drums stop the men come up over the ridge, stand on top of the rock cliffs overlooking us, and sing us good morning. Some sisters cry and laugh simultaneously. We are all filled with gratitude to these men for allowing us this safe space to do our most important healing work.
The last thing that happens before breakfast, and the thing that hits me the hardest, is when we snake out of our circle. We place our left hands over our hearts and hold our right hands out in front of us. The circle breaks as one by one sisters move to the other end of the circle (going like one does high-fiving the other team after a game).
One by one my sisters come before me. Some sing. Some can hardly contain the smiles on their faces. All are exhausted. A few though … a few strike through my own fatigue when my eyes meet theirs to see a salty liquid welling up and overflowing. Compelling tears. Several times throughout the night I asked myself, “Why are you doing this?”
That is when it hits me.
Maybe it is possible to be too tired to care. Maybe things like work and school and consumerism does wear us down, hollow out our bones, steal our strength, hunch us over, and make gravity seem heavier than it really is. But don’t worry, I know the secret. I have the map to the fountain of youth. It’s us. It’s in all of us — together.
If we have a strong spiritual community, or one unified by an honest and humble cause, any actions taken to cultivate that community defy gravity.