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Fire

Fire

Today rain wept from the leaden sky.  Rain pounded sideways, drenching.  The great Lake Superior roared.  Waves splashed with fury against the rocks along the Keweenaw Bay.  A walker needed to step oh-so-carefully on slippery rocks.  Place feet consciously, pause, take step, place foot again.  It was a treacherous rain-sodden walk.

Sweat lodge memories have been nudging the back of my mind recently, memories kindled a couple of decades ago.  When I was invited to attend sweat lodges with local Anishinabe people here in the Upper Peninsula.  It’s a long story which involved a lot of strange dreaming in my life.  At one point I dreamed a voice said, “I want you to learn about the Native American people.”  The story took a lot of twists and turns but eventually I was invited to attend sweat lodges and ceremonies.  This lasted about seven years back in the ’80’s and ’90’s.

Rock and waves

Rock and waves

The first time I entered the lodge and sat in the darkened womb of Mother Earth, I almost wept.  It was a feeling of remembrance, of returning, of being completely safe, of being held in the embrace of an ancient culture and spirit.  Something deep in my soul remembered this sacred ceremony.  It was a ceremony of prayer, of steam, of connection with the Infinite.  It helped me to remember who I was in a deeper sense than just a little white girl who only understood white culture.  It was as if the spirit of my great-great grandmother from a native tribe in New York whispered in my ear, “Wake up, Kathy, and learn to be truly alive.”

Sweat lodge rock

Any one else see the spirit-woman on this sweat lodge rock?

In the following years I probably attended two or three dozen lodges (a handful of these were conducted by respectful non-natives).  Hot lodges, cool lodges, challenging lodges, easy lodges.  They were all deep ceremonies of prayer and healing.  We witnessed prayers come true, healings happen, mystical occurences, quiet prayers, deep connections.  I cannot share what happens in lodges, because I promised to keep that sacred, but each experience offered a spiritual gift to the participants.  Some of the gifts involved learning how to grow up, learning how to let go of ego’s relentless attachments (um, still working on that!) and learning how to surrender.  It was like the church of my childhood in many ways, although in other ways in was very different.

Cedar over water

Cedar over water

Three people died in a sweat lodge in Arizona recently.  My heart breaks thinking about this.  Immediately I imagined that lodge, imagined the heat, imagined the suffering.  So many of us want to know more…how could this happen?  You feel perhaps the terror and disorientation of the weakened fasting participants and your heart clenches in sorrow.  I, too, have fasted before a sweat lodge. This feels very close to the marrow.

And yet, another feeling also comes in. Some people hear of this horrific incident and condemn all sweat lodges.  Thinking perhaps they shouldn’t exist; not understanding.  Not understanding the sacred nature of this, a ceremony which has existed for hundreds or thousands of years.  Perhaps thinking of limiting or restricting the ceremony.  And that also makes me sad.

Stone for fire

Stone for fire

I think of how all religious and spiritual ceremonies and groups and churches can be fraught with challenges, how good-meaning folks can screw up, how some folk aren’t perhaps so well-meaning.  How we need to be alert and aware with both our mind and our heart.  How we must be careful.  How we must listen to our deepest heart.  There are no easy answers. 

Another reflection in another mud puddle

Another reflection in another mud puddle

Today I stood in the pouring rain, stared out over a churning lake, and thought about fire, rock, lodge and medicine.  Said a prayer for the people who died.  Said another prayer for the sacred sweat lodge.  Asked permission of the ancestors to write this blog.  The rocks said, “yes.”

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The Blackened Land

The Blackened Land

It’s been four months since the Pinery Lakes wildfire which seared 685 acres about ten miles from our house.  My daughter and I were lounging in her Manhattan apartment when we heard the news via Facebook:  “Pinery Lakes Fire, 2009“.  I remember feeling so sad with memories of cross-country skiing (and falling on my butt way too many times) and hiking with Denise and her dogs and the Anishinabe “spirit houses” in the nearby cemetery.  How could the land be burning?  How could this be happening?

Please read this FIRE!!!  blog if you would like to learn more details about the actual May 20 fire.

Lately I’ve been wanting to return to the fire scene.  To see what difference four months (well, almost 4 1/2 months if we want to be a bit more accurate) might bring.  My last memories were of ash and smoldering logs.  Fried landscape.  The acrid smell of fire.  The remnants of fire crews standing by. 

What would it look like now?

Black trees, black stumps and green ferns

Black trees, black stumps and green ferns

OK, here’s what it is like. You get out of your car and head into the woods.  Ferns and plants are growing up everywhere.  Some of the brambles are already chest high!  The ground still lies covered in black ash, but Mother Nature has waved her magic wand across the landscape and there grows wintergreen, labrador, ferns.  There bloom asters, raspberry, Queen Anne’s lace.  New life springs up everywhere from the ashy soil.  Ahhh, the soul sighs in relief:  Life Returns!

Yellow flowers bloom against black trees

Yellow flowers bloom against black trees

I wandered for a long time, up hills and down.  Let me tell you, it’s a bit dangerous.  Roots have been up-rooted and holes punctuate the earth everywhere.  If you’re not very careful, you will trip in a hole.  (Yes, I tripped.  But not to the point where I fell unto the ashy earth.)  You must, I repeat, be completely alert.  The fire has consumed so much.  It’s not a hike for the unwary.

Looking up...

Looking up...

I really wanted to show you photos of the Native American Spirit Houses which sit atop the graves at the Indian Cemetery.  But I can’t.  For some reason it seems sacrilegious to do so.  Perhaps not to me (after all I casually put in photos of cemetery graves from the Marquette Cemetery for a June 26th blog).  But it seems this might perturb some of the local Native Americans who do not believe the graves should be photographed.  So I shall leave them photographically undisturbed. 

Half burned

Half burned

The weather has turned lovely today, by the way!  The temperature soared to 52 degrees and the sun nudged the clouds away for a while.  The weather forecast has the “S” word in it for the weekend (that would be “SNOW” for any of you non-Upper Peninsula folks) but we’re thinking that means the Highlands.  Not the lowlands around the lake.  Surely we won’t get snow.  It’s not even October 15th for goodness sakes.  And my parents are coming to visit.  No, snow is not allowed.

One charred pine cone on autumn leaf

One charred pine cone on autumn leaf

That day, last May, when my sneakers almost started smoldering while taking photos of the fire seems so long ago.  How strange nature is.  On that day in May the temperatures soared up into the 90’s and the fire sparked.  How many other times did we reach the magic 90 degree mark during the summer?  Once?  Never?  How very unexpected the weather can be.

The bones of a tree

The bones of a tree

I think of us humans and how fires sometimes sear our hearts.  How death and pain and suffering can uproot our trees, our sense of security, our confidence.  And how, if we let them, the ferns and the wildflowers and the trees grow back.  The landscape heals.  Perhaps slowly, but it heals, if we let nature ease our sorrows.

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

I am glad the land heals.  New seeds sprout.  New flowers bloom.  New life bursts forth from the wildfire ash and the ancestors smile in their graves as the cycles of life turn again and again.

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