But I left off talkin’ ’bout how I’ve been living my life golden. Yah. So two weekends ago, I went to a weekend workshop on Ritual and Sacredness. I had no idea what to expect other than the description provided by the course sponsor, the Institute for Health and Healing (IHH):
In the indigenous world, ritual based on the magic of Nature plays an essential role in village life. Many people find that African healer Malidoma Somé helps them reconnect to the natural, old instincts of their souls in ways that strengthen their own beliefs and self-understanding. Experience earth-based ritual and teachings as a doorway to self-discovery and community-building.
The only preparation I had was the self-imposed reading of Somé’s autobiography, Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. In it, he desribes several rituals performed during his initiation. Whether the described events were literal or figurative, I knew that some serious shit was gonna happen.
That Friday, I had an ultrasound in the morning, and while the technician couldn’t give me any diagnosis, I knew she’d found something. Meanwhile, I still had to figure out how I was getting up to Green Gulch. The sun was hot and bright, and I had the day off with no schedule to adhere to. I decided to eat first and figure out the travel logistics later. I took a leisurely stroll to way to the vegan stylings of Cafe Gratitude. Sitting in the sun at a sidewalk table I enjoyed a cup of “I Am Grateful” (Cat’s Claw tea) and a bowl of “I Am Luscious” (live wheat with young coconut juice). I know, I know, it’s hippie dippie, but I had to get in the zone.
Once fed, I called Golden Gate Transit and found out how a couple of buses could get me most of the way there, so I threw together a bag and hightailed it to Civic Center. Once boarded, I resumed Of Water and the Spirit, though part of me felt like reading it was cheating. Instead, I let the hum of the tires lure me into sleep. I awoke when the bus pulled into Mazanita, across from the Buckeye Roadhouse. I couldn’t resist; the vegan was tasty but not quite filling. I parked myself in a booth and enjoyed pan roasted artichoke with creamy tarragon dip and grilled ahi tuna with wasabi cream and pickled ginger.
I’m relaying all these seemingly mundane details in an effort to convey my mindset, which was that I was very open to simply enjoying life, taking things in stride and living in the moment. Yet, I also wanted to work through some things. In my bag, alongside Somé’s book, I had some letters from my mom, a journal, and a pen. A cab carried me and my belongings the rest of the way to the Zen Center, where I found a delightfully austere room with my name on the door.
After a quick self-tour of the grounds, I unpacked my bag, fixed my mother’s picture so it was overlooking me from the headboard, and settled down to finish the last 20 pages of Of the Water before the workshop began at 7pm. Those are the pages in which he conveys the outcome of his initiation, and I felt they might give me some clues in what to expect, which is why I sort of felt like it was cheating. In his telling, he notes how the elders insisted that the less he know about what might happen to him, the more effective—and less dangerous—the process would be. Too much knowing ahead of time engages the analytical brain instead of the instinctive center of wisdom, i.e. working intuitively from within. Part of me wanted to go into the weekend oblivious to the possibilities and part of me wanted to be as prepared as possible. I went for my comfort zone—preparation.
The evening was quite chill. I threw on a sweater and hopped into the bed, settling down to finish Somé’s story. That’s when I discovered that the book had vanished. Disappeared. Some might call it “lost,” though when’s the last time I’ve lost a book? I thought back on the day—Gratitude, my apt., the bus, Buckeye. At each, I’d had the book. I’m certain of it. But somehow it was gone, and appropriately so. So began the unknown. Shocked but not shocked, I fell asleep again.
I dreamt strange dreams before awaking to the clanging gong that announced meal service. The dining hall was just across the way. There I made first contacts with some of the other participants as well as mixing with the Zen temple residents. Silence is observed for the first ten minutes. We newbies tried to be respectful, but I spied whisperers and twiterers scattered about the room and knew they were my fellow initiates. We introduced ourselves and surrepticiously sized one another up. At my table was Steve, a teacher from Virginia. I believe he came the furthest though later I met a children’s author and his teenage son, both from Royal Oak, Michigan. I sat next to a woman who is a healer who works with the homeless population and across from a woman with spiritual beliefs that led her to the workshop.
The workshop was held in a yurt on the Zen Center’s grounds. About 30 people were signed up, of which a handful were men. The youngest participant was the aforementioned teen, but I’d guess most people ranged from late 20s to early 60s. I may be being slightly too generous on both ends of those numbers. I don’t believe I saw any Asians, one or two Latinos, and I was one of four blacks (three women including myself and one man). Many of the participants, but certainly not all, were affilitated with IHH, meaning that many are healing arts practitioners such as masseuses or accupuncturists or Western medical professionals with an interest in integrative medicine. The IHH librarian was there as well.
We got seated in the yurt, some on chairs, others like myself on zafu, or meditation pillows. Upon entering the space, I made a beeline for the coal-burning stove, next to which was a mudcloth-like rug and two chairs. When I announced my intention to take one of the seats, Toni, a participant and facilitator shook her head, saying “there’s where Malidoma is sitting.” I’d figured as much, but hey it was worth a shot. I grabbed a cushion and parked my bad ass on the floor with everyone else. One thing I noticed from that vantage is that the law of nakedness extends to feet. At nude beaches and other venues, it’s always the people that you don’t want to see naked who are always the first to strip down. Shoes had to remain off and outside of all the Zen Center structures, even the rooms for overnight guests. But that didn’t mean you couldn’t wear socks. I saw some ugly toes that night, real ugly. Woof.
Across the way from me were a few drummers. Again, some were participants who’d brought their drums and others were there specifically to drum, particularly the next day. Drums figured prominently in the events that were to take place and eventually led to my newest acquisition—a djembe—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Malidoma and the woman who was introduced as his partner, sat front and center, or at least what goes for front and center in a round space. For an hour or so he regaled us with his unique blend of sagacious knowledge and irreverent humor. He is softspoken but in a way that allows his speech sound like it’s directed intimately to you rather than simply being difficult to hear. He made some general comments, similar to the one’s I’d heard from his mouth this past March. I received his words differently though. A relaxed yet simmering excitement was present that was different from the delight I’d experienced hearing him speak in a Jewish Temple, with a couple hundred people seated in pews. His talk then was also more structured: during the temple lecture, Somé had been “the respected indigenous healer” who came to deliver an interesting talk about theoretical ideas, i.e. the kind that you think about and possibly internalize. In the yurt, Somé came across more as an older brother with thoughts to share about actionable ideas, i.e. tips and suggestions culled from personal experience that might come in handy but hey it’s up to you, take ‘em or leave ‘em, I mean who am I to tell you what to do? It’s your experience. The effect was both daunting and comforting. He was telling us that he couldn’t tell us what we would experience because we would make the experience. He told us that he wouldn’t tell us how to the make the experience because the experience would be made and only then would we know how it had occurred. I thought, “what the fuck is he talking about? what is he doing? correction, what are we going to do? how can we do anything if we don’t know what it is we’re supposed to do?” Hold that last question.
The questions were free floating in my mind, rather than barrage style. I wasn’t stressed out about it. I was simply confused. Maybe a little anxious, like when you can’t wait to turn the page in a book or see the next scene of a movie ’cause something is gonna happen, it’s gotta, but what? It was fun. Like an amusement ride but a mild one, something better than a ferris wheel but just as gentle. Using the last number in the year of our birth, we were divided into clans. The Fire clan. The Water clan. The Earth clan. The Mineral (“stones and bones”) clan. The Nature (“witches”) Clan. Each clan was given the same mandate: devise a ritual for that element. That was it. During his “sibling chat,” we’d touched upon these elements and some of their potential meanings, but we’d done so in the larger context of what is this crazy life about? There were no hints of “this is what you should take from this” or “listen closely to the next clue” or any kind of instruction. We didn’t know anything. We didn’t even know we’d be divided into clans, let alone expected to create ritual.
To do so, we began with community. Getting to know our clan selves. I was/am Fire Clan. We flamers gathered together and made sparks, introducing ourselves and sharing our ideas about fire. In my group were two French women, one from IHH and another, Natalie, who was there in part because her brother had died in Togo ten years ago under mysterious circumstances and she wanted to make peace with it, with her ancestors. We had Tino, a facilitator who has been working with Some for years. We had Christy and Kit, also from IHH. We had a woman who is some kind of spiritual leader, I can’t recall now of what denomination; I believe of an eastern sort of religion. And we had me, also there seeking ancestral connection following a death in Africa.
We talked about fire—its power, its danger, its usefulness. How it’s a force of change, how it transforms whatever it touches. We talked about it in the negative and in the positive. Fire as the igniter of passion, I said, and compassion, Tino added. Before we’d had much chance to delve into this ritual business, however, it was time to get some shut-eye.
We wrapped up around 9:30. Leaving the yurt was tricky business; night is pitch black out in that zen wilderness, despite torch lit paths. I wasn’t surprised to quickly find myself off the path without having noticed; it was only when someone called to me that I realized I’d kind of tranced out on the crunch of the wood chips underfoot. I had lost my sense of time and place already; I was on fire, thinking how funny it was that just a day earlier Juju and I had debated my astrological fire/water conundrum and how she’d be tickled to know I’d been dubbed fire through and through.
Called back, I fumbled my way to my door and entered my temporary home sweet home. Out there in the woods, I worried that I might discover other little roommates of furry, winged, or crawling kind, but there was nothing for which I was grateful. Then I washed up and got back in bed, thankful that it had actually gotten a bit warmer, as often happens with kooky Bay Area weather. I was able, thus, to hunker down with my mom’s missive, something she’d given me before I’d even left Ann Arbor, something I’d never been able to read all the way through. But that night she was in the room with me, and I felt oh so empowered. Tino suggested we see what the night’s dreams might bring us in terms of ritual. I slept eager to see if Doris would plant any seeds in my head.
to be continued…