Thursday, April 30, 2009

Time Ball

When Hemos Johnson (hereditary Hahwannis chief of Kingcome) was an old man visiting his daughter at Comox she took him to Elk Falls, a place he had heard much about but had never seen. He stood where he could behold the raging torrent in all its splendour, gazing in silent wonder at the majestic sight and when he came away he announced, "It gave me a new song."
It had all come to him there, the words and music straight from the Master of all harmony - a song that would always be his alone.

---Mildred Valley Thornton
Potlatch People: Indian Lives and Legends of British Columbia

In the past much of the Yakama tribe's history was passed down from generation to generation by the women of the tribe using an oral tradition known as the time ball. New brides used hemp twine to record their life history starting with courtship. They tied different knots into the twine for days and weeks and added special beads for significant events. They then rolled the twine into a ball known as the "ititamat," which means "counting the days" or "counting calendar." The ball of twine grew in size as time passed and as events occurred…
When the women were very old, they could use the knots and beads of their time balls to recall not only what happened in their lives but when the events occurred...When a woman died, her "ititamat" or time ball was buried with her.

---Bonnie M. Fountain
Using the Yakama Native American Time Ball Oral History Tradition to Tell the 1965 Selma-Montgomery Voting Rights March

My friend and I finished his book a few days ago. It is not my book---nor even ours. Though I worked with him, the book belongs to him and the eagle Hanble Okinyan. It came to them from the Master of pain, loss, fear and loyalty. It is a song that has never been sung before.
My work is done here. My eyes and fingers are tired. I like the feeling. This is the weariness of hard labor faithfully done. I am ready to go home.
This is my last night in the Dutch Cup Motel in Sultan, Washington. This place has been perfect shelter for the month of the work. The owners know that the planet’s resources are being stripped. The towels, cleaning products, shampoo and hand soap are all organic. Hand soap is in a squirt bottle. Toilet paper, the telephone instruction card, the stationery are made from recycled paper.
The desk clerk cleans rooms. The owner mends what is worn out or broken. He takes in the chairs from the deck when there is a high wind. Each worker was unfailingly kind and creative in dealing with the few blaring television crises.
This morning I began to pack up my charms and amulets: the Dave Edwards postcard of the Tuvaan shaman and her words: Keep your line and don’t be afraid.; my friend’s photo of Hanble taking a joyous bath in her pool; the little raven drum I bought at Raven’s Corner in the Makah village of Neah Bay; my writing altar on which there is a new stone from a beach at Puget Sound. I will take the pot of rosemary to my friend’s partner Lynda.
There is little left to do. I write my friend:
We did what were brought together to do---for now. The Yakama women keep track of their lives with a time ball. They spin fiber and tie a bead into the thread at each important moment of their lives.
March 30 to May 4 will require more than a few beads---they are weather and mineral. One is azure for the sky outside my window right now; one is moonstone for the sky outside my window yesterday; one is garnet for the blood the talon leaves; one argyllite, one the green stone the Northern people use in their art. One bead is mist from a Cascade waterfall. Another tastes of salt from the waves below the point at kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx. One bead is shell, one is cedar, one is the exact color of my eyes, one the exact color of your eyes as we go gaze to gaze---to more easily follow the threads a wounded eagle weaves. The brightest bead is made from laughter.
When we look back on these four weeks, we will hold a length of braided cedar bark in our hands. We will let the beads tell us the story. It will be a story that is ours alone and for all who read it.
It is a story that belongs only to the future.

Veils 3

You must leave your home and go forth from your country.
The children of Buddha all practice this way.
---The thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices

I stand firmly on the ground on the other side of the Veil. Here, loneliness is transformed to honed and solitary awareness. Here, longing is transformed into the path to my own door. Here, places are re-named. A people reclaim themselves.
My friend and I head for the Olympic Rain Forest. We never arrive. Somewhere around Sequim, he feels the northwest pulling him as far as it will be possible for two humans to go. Beyond that point there are cormorants and orcas. There is a blue-black horizon and light fading down into the sea. There is air vibrant with salt.
We stop along the way to the last stop. I go down to water’s edge. I scoop handfuls of liquid mineral. I touch my forehead, my heart and belly with my wet fingers. I take away my cool wet touch, and a gray-white pebble flecked with mica.
At the Makah Cultural & Research Center, I learn that the people regard the knowledge in that place as “a canoe” carrying them and a “war club” shattering assumptions and prejudices. I learn that their real name is kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx which means People who live by the rocks and the seagulls. Makah is a name given to them by another First Nation. It means Generous with food.
My friend and I walk through the exhibit that is a canoe and a war club. Much of the weaving and pottery, toys and weapons, cooking and burying objects were found during the excavation of Ozette Village. We look into the cases together. We say little.
We sit in a reconstructed cedar longhouse. It is dark and fragrant with cedar. There is silence except for soft chanting from the hidden stereo speakers. Later, my friend says, “I was there.” I nod.
We drive out to the trail that will take us to the furthest northwestern point of what never really was The United States of America. We walk through prisms that break the gray light into particles of green. Then, we stand on a cedar platform a hundred feet above dark sandstone and silver spray.
You will not find the kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx name for this place on any map. You will find, instead, “Cape Flattery” and when you research the name you will find this:
...on Sunday, March 22, Captain Cook saw, between a low cape and a steep island just off the cape, “a small opening which flattered us with the hopes of finding an harbour”. The hopes lessened as the ships drew nearer. Cook decided that the opening was closed by low land and turned the ships away. He named the point of land Cape Flattery...
...Cook’s activities at Nootka actually had a far greater impact on the future history of Washington than his brief excursion past Cape Flattery. He and his crew were able to trade with the Nootka Indians for sea otter furs, which were highly coveted by Asian and European merchants. When Cook’s expedition finally returned to England following his of the wealth available on the Northwest Coast inspired the fur trade that brought many more Europeans and Americans to the Pacific Northwest.

I look down on the dark fingers of sandstone, on the cormorants gliding in and out of the darker caves. There is a dwarfed cedar to my right. Salt spray beads on its boughs. I know I will write about what I see. And I know I will write that the fur trade brought genocide. I know I will not be able to call the place “Cape Flattery.”

The day after we return, I e-mail the Makah Cultural & Research Center. I ask to know the kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx name for the furthest northwestern point. A woman writes back:
I hope I understood your question right and that you are asking for the word in our language that describes or names Cape Flattery. If that is the case, the name kwih dich chah uhtx IS the name we use to loosely mean the area of the Cape. ---Vickie B.
The people and the place have the same name. The people and the place are the same.
You must leave your home and go forth from your country. The children of Buddha all practice this way. The kwih dich chah uhtx go forth from “Cape Flattery”. They travel in a great canoe. They carry war clubs of knowledge. They circle out from “Cape Flattery” and back into their home. The kwih dich chah uhtx come home to kwih dich chah uhtx There is more than one way to practice.

Note: When you look down from the furthest northwestern point in kwih dich chah uhtx, you might see this:

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Veils 2

It is one thing to step through the veil. It is another to take my place on the other side. There is no turning back. Those of you who step through know. If you try, you see that the veil is gone. Only a new world that seems to be the old world surrounds you.
And then, as you move into this new lost world, you are shaken by what has always been around you. Inside you. Hidden.
The licorice ferns grow from the bark of the red cedar. An eagles’ nest sits in a tree at the edge of the Skykomish River, perhaps a half mile from the four-block Monroe strip mall. A brown bat circles above me on the trail at Wallace Falls. The greens are not more green. The rill of a stream is only the sound of snow melt moving. The bat is not a messenger but a creature hunting food. I have been open to all of this for years.
What I have not been open to is my huge loneliness on the other side of the veil. I’ve blurred it for five years---with anger and compulsion. Here, on the other side of stepping through, I live each moment with the steady physical ache of having not been touched for every day of those five years. Yes, there have been the rare comradely embraces of my brothers and sisters. Yes, those have been the only touch. Yes, they are not enough.
I talk with a friend about my loneliness. He listens and he says the perfect words, “I’m sorry.” There is no pity in his voice. He gives no advice. Later I write him: Thank you for your response to my loneliness. So often well-meaning people (especially those happily partnered) either give useful advice on how I can meet a partner or regard me with ill-masked pity. Loneliness is an honorable emotion. It has been relegated to shameful in our world and times. It is far too honorable to be pitied or fixed.
I send this same message to my oldest and closest friend, M. He calls. “I’m sorry you’re feeling so sad,” he says. “Loneliness is not fixable or dishonorable. It’s a condition of being open.”
A few days later, I talk with I. who is my true sister. (I am not writing Rasta here, I only protect my friend’s privacy.) “Loneliness,” she says, “is crushing. You and I seem to find it often. I think it is an edge from which to explore. I hate it.”
Grace to have these friends. Grace to know that not only the single are lonely. Grace to be on the other side of the veil, refusing to blur or fix the ache. My efforts to not feel what I was feeling had nearly killed me.
So, for you, one request. Honor my loneliness. With it and without it, I am a woman blessed.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Where there is no doubt, there is no understanding
Where there is little doubt, there is little understanding
Where there is great doubt, there is great understanding.

---Buddhist teaching

My friend and I climb to the top of the old stone tower on Mr. Constitution. I look down. Orcas Island lies below me---cedars and fir, mottled green, oval patches of cobalt water. The San Juan Straits are malachite, the other islands lesser green.
I am barely present. I feel as though I stand before the veil into a new world. My friend seems to be on the other side of the veil. I cannot imagine how it would be to be him, to move through life with trust.
My friend laughs. “There’s one,” he says. I know he means an eagle. He is a man possessed. Eagles come to him.
I’m a different bird. Ravens have accompanied me for days, but from here I see none. They were with me on the road, looping in each time I had thought This is a mistake. What if the charm that held my friend and me is undone? What if the task of fitting my words with another’s is impossible? The ravens would streak across the road, turn somersaults, arc against the light and disappear.
My understanding should be great if the Buddhist teaching is correct. I am a skin sack of doubt. Still I manage to watch the eagle spiral in great curves up from the tree-tops. Two others rise into the air on the east side of the tower. A third joins them.
My friend gazes past me toward the south. “There are two more, three, five, six.” I turn and look up. My eyes are older than his. The sun glares through the cataracts. Cataract. Veil. I see two eagles, no more than that.
I feel damaged. Inept. A woman much nearer exponential losses than her friend---though he has lived through a cancer that might have taken him all the way into nothing. A man from my past comes to mind, a man who became necrosis.
My friend watches the people below us. “They just don’t look up,” he says. “They’re missing so much. Why don’t they look up?”
“Habit,” I say. “Fear. My last partner could not look up…or maybe it was me who couldn’t.”
My friend looks past me. His eyes are cool. “They’re gone,” he says. “All those eagles in the south just disappeared.” He looks at me. I’ve not seen his gaze this intense. I look South. There are no eagles. I know in that instant why the eagles are gone. I believe he knows. I feel ashamed. I want to descend from the tower. I want to go home.
I manage to stand my ground. Something greater than shame holds me in place. I shouldn’t have talked about that man,” I say. I breathe hard out into the cool bright air. “There,” I say. “That’s finally out of me. Never again.”
I’m turned away from my friend, but I hear him laugh. “The eagles are back,” he says. “They just reappeared from nowhere.”

Later, we talk for a long time. I tell him that I had believed he was chastising me for being careless, and when I stood my ground to find my own knowledge, I understood something about him and the eagles---and a great deal more about myself.
“I went through a veil,” I say. “I have come up to that crossing again and again in my life. I’ve never crossed over till now. I still don’t know exactly how to be here on the other side. I won’t know for a long time.
“I do know this: you did not judge me in that moment. You were only telling me what was important.”

Even later, I open my e-mail and find the daily message from Word-A-Day:

1. Transparent, light, or delicate.
2. Vague or hazy.

From Latin diaphanus (transparent), from Greek diaphanes, from diaphainein (to show through), from dia- (across) + phainein (to show). Ultimately from the Indo-European root bha- (to shine) that is also the source of beacon, banner, phantom, photo, phosphorus, phenomenon, fantasy, and epiphany.

I forward the entry to my friend with this message:

In Vietnam during the American war, one of the most feared weapons was burning white phosphorus. It would char down to the bone.
I think of our book as I write this. It will be a book with more than a few words that will char down to the bone, written so subtly that most will never smell the smoke.

Friday, April 3, 2009


I rarely take photographs. I tell my students that using a camera short-circuits the pathways that fix an image in my memory. And, a picture cannot bring in sound or scent, taste or dawn warming my back as I pray: For the furthering of all sentience beings and the protection of earth, air and water. I trust what surrounds me. I trust I’ll retain what I will someday need for the Work.
Not all memories make it into writing. Those that do rest dormant until a cue from the imperative to write brings them out. Here is how it works: I walk out the dirt road to the Joshua Buddha. Much streams in through the body into mind, loops through the heart and down the arm to the fingers on these keys: Sunset clouds, rose-gold herring bones against the blue dark. Soft air. A small wind brushing my skin. Saffron light just above the mountains. Coyotes screaming in the east.
I stop near the broken dry well in which lie more than a few of my words. One pewter-light day in December, I carried four journals to its rim and dropped them in. They were the record of a time when “much” was code for love, a time when I didn’t know that code is not necessary for love. I am learning. Clouds, light, wind and coyotes come into that emptied moment.

In four days I will begin a drive north. In the last two months, my life has spun into a new location, a new book and new hope. Jeff Guidry and the eagle Hanble Okinyan touched their story to mine and this circling began.
Come with me. Jeff took the photos of Hanble in her bath. He is a living camera. How else to explain water exploding off the jubilant eagle into spirals and auroras and splinters of diamond ice?
Jeff flies to Denali tonight. “I’ll send you pictures,” he promises, “I’ll have two cameras with me.” I am a camera. I think as I listen to him. So many gifts. I think as I imagine him standing on the glacier. He’ll be wearing old work boots. Standing on the glacier with all your heart is work. Being a camera is work. Light and pure cold and the glacier’s voice will be streaming into him. He’ll raise the camera to his eye and capture. He’ll leave the camera in his pack. And capture.
Later, we will swap stories. I’ll see his words. He’ll see mine. They will stream into our minds, loop through our hearts and emerge in the book we are making. The eagle, Hanble Okinyan will keep us honest. She demands beauty.

By then, I will have driven north on Route 395. I will have stepped into Warm Creek, felt the sand shift under my feet, crouched where the hot spring bubbles up. I will have parked my car at the base of Glass Flow and pressed my hands against the sun’s touch on the brilliant obsidian.
I will have met a friend in Reno. As I come into her presence, my mouth will be dry, my heart pounding---because I will not have brought myself into the presence of neon as brilliant as a Mojave sunset, and jackpots as elusive as a desert mirage, and the descent into what I still long for so often. I don’t know how I will drive past the casinos. Perhaps I’ll be a camera, nothing more.
Then, there will be the dirt road to a low butte. There will be obsidian needles shining in the sand. I wonder if I’ll take one. I have learned a different way to capture. Pages in the bottom of a dry well, clouds become a radiant fish, love shaping and re-shaping itself. Michael, A., Chris and Chris, you know.
Two days later, I will arrive at an unfamiliar house I can already see. My friend has sent me photos. He will step out his front door. He will have seen me from the window of the upstairs room in which he has been making his half of our book. I already know what will be in our eyes.
Laughter. Friendship. And the willingness to go further into the mystery of making.

Lightning Glass

I began to see that, when it comes right down to it, we are nothing until that nothing becomes so dedicated that it
is like a vessel through which good things can move, an instrument for receiving knowledge and sharing it with
others who might be in need.

---Bear Heart, with Molly Larkin
Bear Heart

Eighteen years ago, three trucks drove up the dirt snake of the Moqui Dugway. The road rises 1100 feet on a 10% grade. The ascent can take your breath.
The first time I had driven it alone. It was 1982, I was forty-two and it was the first time I had spent longer than three days alone. A new friend had given me directions. You approach from the south and drive across flat desert toward what seems to be an impenetrable cliff face. Keep going. I followed his instructions. Suddenly the road curved east and I had no choice but to go up hair-pin turns, cliff-face on one side, drop-offs on the other. I remember keeping my foot steady on the accelerator of the rental car and thinking, “If I can do this, I can learn to do anything.”
Eight years later I was passenger in the lead truck. I was not alone. We were perhaps a dozen women and men and we were friends, lovers and strangers. Our trucks were loaded with river gear. We were headed for a trip on the San Juan River.
We topped out and headed West. As abruptly as any human change of heart, thunderheads moved in. There was no rain. The man I now think of as Dead Bill---no longer with rancor, but with affection---drove. I sat in the passenger seat and opened his beers for him.
Lightning slammed down into the pinon-juniper a few miles ahead of us. A thread of smoke rose. By the time we came to the strike, there were no flames. Only smoke rose from the little juniper. Some of us jumped out of our trucks, walked to the juniper and began to pile sand around its charred base. We waited till there seemed to be no more smoke. A soft rain – the Dine call it Female Rain began to fall. We climbed back in the trucks and went on.

It would be years before I would learn that sometimes a lightning strike in the desert makes glass. By the time I looked into a desert museum display case, saw a non-descript chunk of jagged glass labeled fulgurite and found it far more beautiful than the slab of emerald and cream malachite to its right and the wine-red chunk of garnet to its left, I was no longer the woman who had piled sand around the base of a smoking juniper. Had that woman known that there was lightning glass, she would not have asked the group to wait while she searched the ground for a glittering shard. She would have deferred instead to her lover, to his need to get back on the road and to his beer.
She is gone. He is gone. The group is gone, not so much dispersed by lightning, but drifted away on currents of alcohol, pot, betrayal and lies. The woman would herself disappear for five years, carried deep into loneliness by her own addictions and lies.
She would once have said that the disappearances were nothing but loss, and that our behaviors were cruel and tragic. Now, I understand the nature of juniper, lightning, smoke and glass. I see that addiction, lies and betrayal may be no less alchemical than the action of unearthly heat and sand. Now, my favorite chain of words has become: I don’t know.
I don’t know has transformed me from a woman who once would have googled lightning glass and ordered a piece from an on-line store, to a woman who walks the abundant Mojave, under skies from which lightning rarely descends, her eyes often on the ground, hunting for a glint of nondescript glass, knowing she may never find it.
I don’t know moves these words out of what sometimes feels like nothing, a nothing that is both frightening and welcome. I am a vessel formed by dedication, a vessel made from lightning glass.