Unexpected Angels

Last weekend I saw a Medicine Woman / healer.
A friend in Owen Sound had called me up and insisted I needed to come see this super-talented, up-and-coming, currently bargain-basement healer from the local reserve, quick, while the getting was good, before she becomes famous and unaffordable.
She was indeed magnificent – fun and funny and the most radiant, loving human being.
At the end of a long and powerful session, back upstairs in the kitchen, she asked me to pick a card from a divination deck. The one I chose said something about the protection of angels – a soft pale image, yellows and pinks, an image of light, illumination and feathers. As gentle and delicate and full of light and love as the image was, I felt resistance – I’m just not into angels. They have never appealed to my sensibility – they feel to me like princesses and unicorns and other girly fantasy-land entities. My own inexplicable prejudices – I try to hide it, but there it is.
So the Medicine Woman wrestled with me a bit over just accepting the concept, the idea of the angel image, as protective gentleness, as divine serendipitous light, synchronistic interventions, then had me do a 9-card spread from Jamie Sams’ Medicine Cards deck – all animal cards, much more my speed.
Of course I got a whack of cats – no surprise there, I am KAT, after all…
3 cat cardsThe next day I took the bus back to Toronto and, loaded down with many heavy bags, grabbed a cab at the corner. I had this idea of killing 2 taxi birds with one stone, and before going home, asked the driver to take me out to the art supplies store, the really big one with lots of cheap deals on paints and the big sizes of watercolour paper, cause when I go there I always have to take a cab home anyway.
When I explained to him, First I want to go here and then I want to go there, he pressed down hard on the gas, and called out, Whatever you want to do, we will do it! I laughed and glanced at his eyes in the mirror – they were small with the years, not a young man. Accent African, English not first language. As his face turned slightly with a right turn, I could see several thin scars on his cheek, as if he’d been slashed across the face by a very large cat.
Huh.
He was a chatty fellow, and we talked about this and that on the way to the art supplies store – Why did I only have one child, for example? Why did I not move close to my husband to get more? As we pulled into the small parking lot, he wanted to know, What is this place?
An art supplies store! Well, he was very excited by this news, but I was out the door of the cab and up the stairs and moving fast through the aisles and my list of paints and round the back to where they keep the big pads of paper. Coming back out to the front again, thinking I should have a quick look at the mediums, a man opened up his arms and waved at me. Here I am! he said with his grin.
It was the taxi driver. Looking a bit like actor Robert Wisdom –
r wisdomBut now I could see the long tribal scars patterned on both cheeks, kind of like a cat’s whiskers –
black_panther_spainI’ve never been in an art store before!
He was thrilled, delighted, in love with this newfound world.
I was so surprised to see him there, the moment was so disorienting, in my confusion I forgot about looking for mediums and simply lined up to pay for what I had in my arms. My driver was now in deep serious discussion with one of the store clerks.
Standing, waiting for the cashier I wondered, What was it that felt so disorienting, so unusual? That he seemed so open, so free, so un-servile? That in spite of being for hire he didn’t feel obliged to sit waiting in the car if his curiosity was strong?
We went back out to the car together, and driving away his delight with this world of wonder turned to concern – They have all those things out on the shelves where anyone can just grab them and put them in their bag or under their clothes!
This upset him quite a bit, the enormous quantities of goods lying out on open shelves, and he went on about it for a while, driving slowly up the street, now nearing my house, inching along at about 10km/hr, waving his hands, both of them frequently lifting off the steering wheel altogether. But soon this worry, this loose tooth troubling him was put to rest with the summing up, This would never work in the third world – in the third world, you would go up to the counter and ask for what you want, and they go back and get it for you.
This little exchange caught my attention somehow – that he had been so troubled by something I didn’t think twice about, and had had to settle himself down quite deliberately, reminding himself that the context was different. Some lesson about the importance of the need for adaptation felt nestled in the moment.
In front of my house, he practically clucked with dismay at the disarray, the strewn collection of chairs, old bicycles, unraked leaves and crumbling porch. God will help you settle down eventually, was his last fix-it pronouncement on my life.
We said our goodbyes and I trundled into the house, arms full of stuff, head full of the uniqueness of this man.
Somewhere in all of the twists and turns of the encounter I felt the hint of magic, the reminder to remain open to the possible variations on what angelic presences might look like…

Ceremony

blur river_mrkd

We arrived late the first night, stumbling into the lodge in the dark, into ceremony in process. Burning sweetgrass was offered from the fire to cleanse ourselves. We found seats along the outside ring of the circle.

Cindy, the master of ceremonies and Contrary leading the event was speaking.  She was dressed in a kind of shredded brown burlap sack.  A hood with the eyes cut out and a long cloth nose attached was thrown back over her head while she spoke, but brought down over her face when she began the active ceremony.

We sat with tobacco in our hands, as offerings of thanks to be burned in the fire. Cindy would come around to each of us, singing and shaking her turtle rattle inches in front of us, the eagle wing resting on our heads.

In the dark of the lodge, lit only by the big fire in the center and a few lanterns, I’d steal glimpses of her standing so close – the piercing strength of her voice and the trancelike power of the drum, the rattle, made her feel like a huge powerful brown presence in front of me.  Among the necklaces around her neck was a very large claw.  I asked her later – grizzly bear claw, she said.  Of course!  That was what she felt like standing there – a massive grizzly bear.

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Bears are known as powerful healers, and healing was the purpose of the ceremony – four phases of it.  First the mind is cleared, restored to the Good Mind to allow the healing of the spirit, source of vision, that which should lead.  Next the heart and finally the body.

Cindy spoke about trauma – said we carry it in our DNA.  That we carry all the heartaches of our own personal lives, but also the agonies of our ancestors – that it weakens the body.

She spoke of releasing the hurts we’ve received from others – of being able to see them as lost souls stumbling and hurting in the dark just as we are – to take pity on them, to allow our hearts to soften.

She said the heart that heals from grief and hurt becomes a place of great generous love.  Reminded me of Hiawatha and the Condolence Ceremony, how his life was moved from a place of deep grief to one of healing others.

The second night I had a vivid image of an eagle coming at me, talons forward, grabbing a loop of the barbed wire from around my heart like some kitsch Mexican art and flying away with it, yards of it ripping out of my heart until I thought of Eustace in the Narnia series, when he’s turned into a dragon and one night has the layers and layers of dragon skin peeled away from him by the lion with deep painful gashes until a fresh-skinned boy steps out of the leathery husks.

blurred heart_mrkd

Air and expansion rushed in to the newfound space.

And a sensation began of an animal inside my skin about to burst out like the Hulk bursts out of his clothes – the sensation of fur and claws and ferocity coursing through me so overpowering I thought I might spontaneously shape-shift and slink away into the night.

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More rounds of the drum, the tobacco.

Later a feast was held in the kitchen.  New friends were made.

blurry trees, sky_mrkd

No mind

Early this morning a dream of a deer, come to the door of a house I was just leaving.  I  thought he was an unusual sighting in a suburban neighbourhood as he turned and ran away revealing a fox tail rather than the little white cotton puff.   Excited, I turned to my host, who seemed non-plussed, as though deer were frequent visitors in his neighbourhood.  But when I went out again to the street, the deer was back, his expression deliberate, gesturing with his head for me to follow him around the corner, where it turned out an old friend was giving birth.

Today on Facebook, I see that a photo I took up north weeks ago is featured on the Ontario Travel page.

I took a lot of photos while I was up north.

I loved the experience of it.  Of getting up early, heading out into the morning light and feeling a kind of no-mind creative process – different from writing. Different because it seemed like the best way to connect with my surroundings was to be empty, to just be present in my body in the space…..waiting, feeling, breathing, sensing.

Riding and walking the trails around Collingwood, I found it easy to get very quiet inside myself.  I’d heard in the past about “walking with your power animal”.  It sounded faintly pretentious and I wasn’t sure really what was meant by it.

But I started to feel it.  I started to feel like that’s what I was doing.  Walking as if.  Walking inside the animal.  Walking AS an animal – listening, smelling, feeling the light shifts in the air.

Rustles and snaps of twigs in the brush, in the forest made me stop and listen, waiting to see who was there.  All senses poised as carnivorous predator, hunting for the next shot.

Strangely enough, sometimes it seemed as though the hunted waited, wanting to have their picture taken.

Animal Friends and Strangers

At Nicky’s Sunday morning Nia dance class there is a dance she does every once in a while that involves a series of moves which she performs as if she is both a hunter and a bird – several steps take her over to the right where she draws one arm back as if drawing an arrow in a bow, then several steps to the left are taken as the bird flapping its wings, flying away.  I’d always thought it was the nature of the dance that drew out this bird and hunter characterization.

But in this Sunday morning’s class, during a totally different routine, she tried to get us to do a chicken flap of the wings while carrying out some steps, and it occurred to me, no it’s not the dance.  The thing is, Nicky IS a bird.

What kind of bird?  I don’t know, I don’t know all the different birds that well or I can’t see it that clearly, I don’t have that kind of shamanic sight, but something slender, with quite a long neck I think – perhaps a heron.

And her husband is just so obviously a bear – big and bumbly and sweet and generous but with a surprising sudden temper – all around larger than life.  As a couple they are quite an interesting combination.

My animal is described in one book I read as “short and stocky”.  Oh well.  I still love her.

I was thinking about this whole animal spirits idea on the plane coming back from Santa Fe and Ohki’s teachings.  My first flight was from Albuquerque to Atlanta, where I had a changeover to a flight that would take me up to Buffalo.  But looking at my itinerary on the first plane I realized I only had half an hour to get off one plane and onto the next, and I knew from the flight down that Atlanta is quite a large airport.

First I tried speaking to one of the stewardesses to see if they might help me out – make an announcement to the other passengers to let me out first given the tight time frame.   As I told her my plight, her face remained unmoved – no help forthcoming there.

My seat was just behind first class and beyond them was the front door of the plane where we had boarded, so when the plane came to a stop in Atlanta, I grabbed my purse and shot forward into first class, hoping to get close to that front door when it opened.

The passengers in first class were already getting to their feet, so I was stuck in the midst of them and could feel the hostility instantly.   I made noises about having a very tight changeover time, explaining my presence.  One man on my right looked at me with a sour face and said, “In Atlanta they usually use the middle doors of the plane”.   I thanked him for this information and together we stood watching out the window to see where the accordion corridor contraption would go – front or middle.  When it became clear that it was moving towards the center doors and I was therefor even worse off than I had been, his look was a triumphant smirk.

I turned towards the back, to see if I might be able to push my way through the crowd somewhat, improving my time, but the man directly behind me had risen to his feet and stood towering over me.  He was maybe 6’5″ and wearing a tall cowboy hat and sharp nosed cowboy boots.  He had a bit of bloodied kleenex stuck in one nostril and as I gazed up at him with a mixture of amusement at the kleenex and the stress of my hurry and the decades of training in Canadian feminine politeness, he looked down at me with a cold glare that clearly said, “I do not move for you”.

We stood for a minute, feeling each other out for size, attitude, power, and I wondered, where does this man derive all his self-confidence, superiority and entitlement.  Clearly physical size and class are a big part of what was going on there, but it did also cross my mind….What animal is that?

Power Animals and Santos

Buffalo-DancerOne of the teachers I follow – travelling when possible to her workshops in the States cause yes, she is that unique and interesting – is Ohki Simine Forest.
An important element of the work she does with people is helping each person discover and build a relationship with their personal power animal. It’s a modernized, workshop-able version of what was pretty traditional Native custom.  Ohki herself is Mohawk of the Wolf Clan (clan animals being entirely separate from power animals) and she currently lives in Chiapas amongst the Maya, so she is influenced by both Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Mayan cultures, with a dash of Mongolian shamanic education thrown in.
The idea of a power animal or animal totem is that an animal guides and influences your spirit throughout this life. It’s not really as exotic as it sounds – chances are you already have an inkling of your animal, dream of them often or feel some affinity for a particular species. But this relationship can be developed, enriched. As Ted Andrews, author of Animal Speak writes –

By discovering your animal totem, studying it and then learning to merge with it, you will be able to call its energy forth whenever needed.

Ohki expands on this, suggesting more of a two-way street kind of arrangement –

In all cases, this exchange of energy between soul and power animal must be understood as a trade… In the exchange for mutual evolution, it obtains some of your mind’s energy, which you probably have in excess, while it gives you back the instinctual and intuitive power, powers often relinquished by humans.

Wolf Dancer Lakota NationAccording to Ohki, the power animal resides behind our backs and above our heads, attached to what she calls the “dream body”. So when you see someone wearing an animal skin or dancing with a skin draped over them, it approximates the location of their power animal living just ever so slightly behind, ever so slightly above the physical body. And dancing, descending into trance with the rhythm of the drum, the heartbeat of the earth, is a way to connect deeply with your animal.
Santeria, the religion of Afro-Cuban culture, has a somewhat similar current in its use of drums to connect with spirit, and in that when someone is born, they are not seen simply as individuals, but are considered a child of one of the various Orishas or Saints, incarnations of characters from Yoruba tradition. Some are found as children to be so highly charged with an Orisha, they are encouraged to follow the path, learn the Yoruba language, and as they get older will go into trance and channel their Santo at religious events. The use of drums, complex rhythms and song to enter into a state of deep connection with the spirits, is a huge part of what has created the spectacular range of Cuban music.

In the fall, my husband and I went to Cuba for his first visit back since he moved to Canada.  His mother told us to come over on Thursday night as there would be a party at the house, a Fiesta de Santo – a Saint’s Party, a Santeria event – in honour of Eleggua, the Trickster, dweller of crossroads, opener of gates and pathways.
eleggua-eshu-3-a-study-for-the-orishas-collectionWhen we arrived at the house – an apartment, really – people were crowded on the front balcony, spilling out from the tiny living room, the closet of a kitchen, and we could see through the half-open door to the bedroom the Eleggua, not yet dressed, but already deep into his trance, holding court, waving a half-empty bottle of rum as he channeled the ancient spirit. His voice rose with animation and agitation, speaking half in Spanish, half in Yoruba, calling various people into the room and looking deep into their souls and lives and telling them about themselves, what they must do to ease their burdens in life, to clear their paths.
Eleggua’s character is infantile and tempestuous – he sulks and plays tricks and demands candies and rum and songs, exhausting his hosts.  At one point, swaggering around the drummers and dancers squeezed into the living room, he took a swig on his bottle of rum and sprayed a mouthful all over my husband. No one reacted. My husband simply stood up, walked to the kitchen and wiped himself off. Apparently the thing is, one must endure his behaviour. And he will test and test and test the limits of that endurance.
I asked my husband who the man was in his everyday life and he said he would just be an ordinary man with an ordinary job who a babalao would have singled out at a young age as embodying the Eleggua. And so he would be called on to do these ceremonies, exhausting as they might be, as little as he might even remember of them.
At a certain point a chicken appeared from the shadows of the back porch, and Eleggua began to dance with the chicken poised on his shoulders.  Holding one arm out he balanced the chicken on his shoulder and began to dance the most natural symbiotic fusion of man and chicken, then without missing a beat dropped the chicken into his hands, clutching it in tight, lovingly, to his chest as he danced, and then up went the chicken onto the other extended arm, until he passed the chicken off to someone and began to dance AS a chicken, squatting down amongst the drums and drummers, his head jutting out in sharp pecks, arms as wings flapping, strutting around the room.
Of course the real live chicken didn’t make it to morning, and at some point there was a rather gory spectacle of the chicken’s demise. I was out on the front balcony talking to my sister-in-law when the chicken’s head came flying out, landing small and sad in the dust of the road, and I peeked into the living room just long enough to see the body of the chicken tipped up as Eleggua drank back the flow of blood.
But that image aside, what was most striking in his performance that night was the man’s ability to channel both the physicality of the chicken and the spirit of the Orisha Eleggua, the faculty, the facility for entering fully into a trance state and allowing the self to be coursed through with animal and ancient archetypal energies truly affecting and memorable.