Negotiating the Peace – 6

Chapter 6

Kateri Tekakwitha

Kateri Tekakwitha was born in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon in 1656 in what is now New York State.  She was the daughter of a Mohawk chief, and an Algonquin mother who followed the Catholic faith.

At age four her parents and brother died from smallpox. Kateri survived but was left nearly blind, with deep scars on her face and her body physically weakened.  Her uncle, also a Mohawk chief, took her into his family.  Kateri lived with her adoptive family among her people at the village of Ossernenon.

When Kateri turned 8 years old, her uncle, following Iroquois custom, selected a young man for her future husband. Recalling her mother’s faithful devotion to the Holy Mother and Jesus, Kateri rebelled, declaring she would remain single and devote her life to Jesus. This began a long struggle with her Uncle and members of her Iroquois village. They named her Tekakwitha which means “bumps into things.”  Tribal members did not hold back their ridicule of the poor-sighted, disfigured girl. There was deep distrust of the Black Robes—Franciscan priests who attempted to convert native people to European faith traditions.

At age ten, her village was destroyed by French soldiers with enemy tribes. They fled to the north side of the Mohawk River near present day Fonda, New York.

In her new setting, Kateri began in secret to devote herself to Jesus and to follow a Christian faith. She lived in Caughnawaga village until age 20 at which time she was baptized at the fervent protest of her uncle and Mohawk community. Eventually she was forced to flee for her life to a Catholic mission near Montreal.  Kateri made the long, arduous journey alone, terrified of reprisals.

St. Xavier Mission was formed among Christian natives. The settlement, also known as Caughnawaga or Kahnawake, became the place where Kateri devoted her life to serving people and God, taking a vow of perpetual virginity in 1679. She was noted for her deep faith and practice of self denial. Perhaps because of the aftereffects of smallpox which hastened her demise, she became seriously ill at age 24 and died shortly after. Upon her death, the deep scars on her face disappeared and her face glowed with light. Two priests bore witness to the miracle.

Kateri’s short but deeply devoted life as an aspirant continues to inspire millions of people today. Many miracles are ascribed to her intercession. She remained Blessed Kateri until 2012 when sainthood was finally bestowed by Pope Benedict XVI. The prayers of millions of native and non native Christians helped to bring her canonization. She became the first Native American to gain sainthood in both the USA and Canada.

I would later learn that Earth, my principal spiritual teacher, had devoted her life to Kateri from childhood. Her parents lived in Montreal not far from the Iroquois Confederacy seat of power. Both her mother and father had assimilated into French Canadian culture. They followed the Catholic faith. But her father’s father, her grandfather, was a traditional Mohawk elder and spiritual leader to whom Earth bonded early in her life. The Mohawk reservation in Akwasasne, where her grandfather resided, became the early spiritual center of my teacher’s life. She often played near what is today the Kateri shrine as a child and a young woman, and related to me that she’d had many encounters with Kateri’s spirit.

In the ongoing mystery of my education, Earth arrived at my trailer with a rosary and a prayer book, insisting that I learn to pray the Rosary with her. We went down on our knees in front of the little devotional altar I had constructed by then, and she taught me how to use the beads and the prayers before and after.

For the four years of my study with her I wondered why a native person embraced a Christian saint. Later when I questioned her, she answered that was my koan—a paradox about which I was to meditate.





Negotiating the Peace: 5

Chapter 5

Sitting in Silence

I am convinced that there are places where it is possible to step out of time into another reality. That is what I believe happened for me when I crossed over Earth and Sky’s threshold in that humble setting of row upon row of trailers, and among people of varying circumstances in Yuma, Arizona in the year 1990. Not until 4 years later would I return to clock time as I had perceived its passing throughout my life and my cultural window.


The interior felt surprisingly cool given the near 100˚ temperature outside. Colorful Mexican blankets covered the windows, and Indian rugs of varying sizes decorated the otherwise worn carpet. A beautiful stringed instrument with a large round belly sat as a centerpiece in the room. A white leather hide hung from its long stringed neck.

Sky filled an easy chair, arranging her aquamarine cotton skirt. She nodded toward the couch on the opposite side of the room. I sat bolt upright in anticipation or perhaps ready to flee, I am not sure which. As I recall the moment, my mind went blank.

Thus the long ritual began. A darkened trailer, a teacher and student, a Benson and Hedges lit and the long in breaths and exhalations. That first day she uttered no word though we sat with each other for two hours, at the end of which I was a nervous wreck and she simply stood, and said, “I have things to do now.”


Curriculum of Study

I bought the trailer across the street, in defiance of my family’s disdain for anyone who lives in a trailer park. I learned it is its own little world: young, poor families working in service and trade jobs while raising their families; well-off seniors who migrate from their homes in cooler climes; residents like Sky whose ex-wives demand alimony; non-commissioned military on meager salaries, and odd birds like me on a specific mission.

Yuma, Arizona has its own tidal rhythm. Much like the Colorado River which once flooded its banks in spring and retreated in summer, the population of the town swelled with the arrival of overwintering snowbirds and shriveled with their retreat as summer arrived. The town’s economy ebbed and flowed accordingly.  Casinos and restaurants filled to capacity in the winter. When I arrived that summer in 1990, Yuma was a ghost town.

As it should be. That first summer saw a day that reached 126˚ F. When I opened the door on the trailer at 8 a.m. to get in my truck and run errands, it was nearly 100˚. The radio announcer has warned everyone to shelter indoors by noon at the latest.

Very hot dry air feels like sharp-sided glass when it reaches the cooler soft tissue of lungs. But, strangely, it was invigorating. My body recognized potential life-threatening conditions and became vigilant and present. No mistakes could be made. There must be plenty of water and gas in the car at all times. There must be no flats or car trouble and a direct path to each destination must be known. There was simply no margin for error.

It was in this crucible of heat and threat that I began my study with Native American teachers. All these elements continuously delivered a message to me: I surely was crazy.

The 3-year curriculum of my study confirmed it.

On that fateful day when I first met Sky and Earth they had suggested we move from Denny’s to a place called The Garden. It was another restaurant known only to locals. Set near a spring, it was a lush oasis in the city limits. Palms and bamboo grew profusely around it and there was an outdoor patio covered in deep shade. It was still very hot for a beach dweller like me, and I soon got a raging headache, a sure sign of dehydration. Nausea set in later, and I ended up spending the night in their trailer on the living room couch before I woke at dawn to return to San Diego, still my place of residence.

At The Garden two actions took place, the significance of which I would realize only decades later. First, following a natural tendency, I had purchased gifts for my new teachers. When I gave them these items (a brightly colored South American sash, and a large polished mother of pearl shell), they leaned their heads together examining the items, muttering exchanges I could not hear. They thanked me with great sincerity. Then, Sky handed me a lengthy document describing my curriculum of study.

How can I explain the impact of reading that document? It came from some other reality and I clearly was mystified. It was like reading an ancient document from civilizations that existed thousands of years ago. It spoke of places I would go, things I would learn, and the guides that were given to me by White Star, a spiritual being who guided my teachers. My problem, as I understand now, is that I thought it referred to my current reality. I read it literally. But, for some reason, I decided to trust the process and just see where it might lead. For someone like me, a logical thinker who makes lists of daily tasks to accomplish each day, it was amazing to think that I would suspend my doubts so easily.

Dragonfly, White Swan, and Kateri Tekakwitha would be my guides. Since my education, Blessed Kateri has become Saint Kateri – the first Native American sainted by the Catholic Church. Here is a link to the Katerie Tekakwitha Shrine in upstate New York.



Negotiating the Peace: 4

Chapter 4

House on Wheels

I made my way to The Crossing restaurant, recommended by my supervisor at the Junior High School where I would be teaching in the upcoming fall.

A mind needed little imagination to reach back in history to a similar establishment full of cowboys and Indians. Just change out the chaps and boots for permanent press or military blues—The Crossing was the local watering hole, and, I subsequently learned, the best Mexican food in town. The rich tamales and enchiladas with rice and beans on the side mellowed my soul. A cold Tecaté beer delivered the sedative. Peeling myself off the chair, I went in search of a motel to lay my head on the pillow and drop off the planet for a while.

A half day later I woke to an overhead fan covered in cobwebs and white light streaking around the edges of sun panels darkening the window. I showered and made my way to the continental breakfast near the lobby.

After a couple cups of coffee, I begin to let in my new home. Everything in me fought the feeling of a foreign country with a language of its own: I want it to be easy, familiar. But I cannot push reality back. It’s going to be uphill, even steep terrain, and I’ve been climbing for two years already.

My kids’ faces flashed in front of me. I pushed back on the stressful memories of a acrimonious divorce and the struggles to stay connected to my children, teens at the time.

DIVE! I said to myself. DIVE IN. I found a payphone and called Sundance. It rang and rang. Finally, she answered.

“Hello?” A soft low voice on the other end of the phone.

I hesitated, about to belly flop on the dive.

“Hello …it’s Susan.”

No answer. I heard the indrawn breath and imagined the Benson and Hedges cigarette in her large hand.

“Well…are you coming over?”

“If that is OK, I mean yes, if you want me to…”

“Where are you?” she said with obvious effort to be patient.

I gave her the address and she gave me directions to the trailer park and hung up.

“And, welcome to Yuma, Susan. We are so glad you are here,” I muttered as I went to my room to pack up.

The El Camino my son left behind was now a dusty red pony, baptized in desert soil. Just walking to the car, I felt grit on my face, in my shoes, and on every surface I touched.

Following directions I left the main drag – a thoroughfare lined with low-budget buildings, gaudy signs, dusty people, and dusty cars. I turned onto B Avenue and drove along groves of citrus trees with blue water coursing through canals. Finally, I came to a large sign over an entrance: “Avenue B Trailer Park”. The unimaginative person who thought up the name must have also laid out the park. Row upon row of trailers pepper the streets, all of them with a number and letter code like prison cells on a block.

In spite of the modest surroundings, residents had planted gardens, and decorated with colorful clay pots holding cacti or roses or any tenacious sun-loving plant. I found Sky and Earth’s trailer, noticing there was one for sale across from them. Sky was at work so I pulled up close to the trailer.

With trepidation I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again and waited. No answer. As I raised my hand to knock one last time, the door flung open to an angry woman.

“Don’t pound on the door!” she said opening it wider and walking back into dark recesses, leaving me to decide if I wanted to cross her threshold.

Frankly, I did not. But, I’d come all this way. What the hell, I can only be murdered and rolled out later in the desert where no one would ever find me. I dove.

Negotiating the Peace: 3

Chapter 3

Crossing Over

Along Interstate 8 water flowed swiftly across the Imperial Valley in the All American Canal delivering precious Colorado River water to thousands of square miles of agricultural fields. A fine curtain of water spewed from enormous sprinklers moving in circles like alien beings on metal legs.

My beach car began to heat up in the direct sunlight. I delivered my own spray of water to cool my face and neck. My son’s beach car had no air conditioner. San Diego was a place of mild weather and the blue Pacific Ocean. I had entered an inferno.

I stopped in El Centro where I slumped over the counter of a local Wendy’s, dehydrated and near faint. A waitress took me to a table and delivered a couple big cups of iced water. I stayed there for hours until I recovered enough to go on to Yuma, my destination.

Clearly, I was unprepared for the desert. This would not be the last of its hard lessons, surprises and mysteries. I was a true initiate in every sense of the word.

As I neared Yuma what can only be described as an Arabian desert appeared out of nowhere with high, white sand dunes stretching for miles along the highway and southwest toward Mexico, not far away. As suddenly as they had appeared, the dunes ended and I was back in flat scrubland.

Signs for Yuma, The Crossing, appeared along the roadside. At Yuma, I crossed over the Colorado River from California into Arizona centuries after the westward Gold Rush which put Yuma on the map. Of course, I was going against the flow.

At the time of the Gold Rush, the Colorado River flowed freely in a broad expanse toward the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Dense forests of mesquite and sycamore trees that lined its shores were cut down to fuel the big steamboats carrying gold seekers to their fates. By the time I crossed over the Colorado, the forests were gone, the river narrow, and it no longer ran down to the sea.

Thus I began to learn about the ghosts of a time, a people, and a natural history that existed almost entirely in people’s memories but still there in the subtle contours of the landscape.


Negotiating the Peace 2

Chapter 2

  A Canopy of Stars

As I left San Diego toward Yuma, Arizona in the summer of 1990, I felt a certain weariness of soul shed from me like an old garment. The night was clear, the sky black as onyx, and the stars like shards of glass painted in big brush strokes over its curved vault.

The ascent was steep as my truck wound its way up the Laguna Mountains to the crest on the Continental Divide. I pulled over and got out on the shoulder of the road to view the heavens. I had never seen the likes of it—the Milky Way so vivid, the constellations sparkling on and off.   The hills were covered with aromatic sage, a holy plant to the tribal communities whose reservations I had passed. I said a prayer of thanks and collected bunches of white and purple sage for my new teachers. Back inside the cab of the truck, my body was refreshed by their pungent fragrance. Ahead of me was the Imperial Valley on the vast floor of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The road plunged down the other side of the mountains from 8,000 feet elevation to below sea level.

The cool night air of the mountains vaporized in the warm, dry desert air. As dawn cast light across the valley, I began to make out row upon row of sturdy corn and later a multitude of lettuce heads, spreading their leaves over the irrigation canals that fed their growth. A flaming read ball appeared over the horizon, blinding my sight. Then I breathed in the smell of my new home – a peanut like, earthy fragrance of heated soil, stone, and wind.

So it was that my body first made acquaintance with my new home. It was in that final stretch across the valley that I first understood the reality of my decision.  Doubt crept in. Was it just serendipity that brought me to a hot desert, and an ugly town, to study with people whose own sense of the world was utterly unknowable to me? Was I crazy? Probably.

AZ Agriculture Photo



Negotiating the Peace: 1

Chapter 1

Encounters of a Certain Kind

The impetus to follow a spiritual path was always part of me—a questioning, seeking part. From childhood I sought inspiration in the out of doors, a kind of joyful solace among living creatures, brooks, trees and aromatic earth. I got along well with them.

My own kind often puzzled me, perhaps brought on by frequent uprooting and migration of a military family. I left behind dozens of budding friendships, and was spared the harder lessons of fidelity and perseverance that long-term relationships require. I believe, now looking back, that my love of nature was my child’s way to feel rooted to a place.

These early experiences, and the tales in my family of our Cherokee relatives, cultivated an early interest in Native Americans. When I became a seeker, it was natural to wish to learn more. Then I studied ecology and that added another impetus to discover the world around me. As I learned about the interconnections among soil, air, water, plants, and animals and the symphonic manner in which life and earth interact to achieve dynamic balance, I first sensed the deep wisdom of native people.

Before I traveled to Arizona to study with Native Americans, I’d experienced an early brush with death and several unexplained spiritual phenomena. The encounter with death happened when I was 2 years old near North Beach, Oahu, Hawaii. A wave caught me at the water’s edge and drew me under into a long running rip tide. Tumbling through the surf, I must have known I was going to die, though I do not recall anything about the accident except what my parents related. When my father found me, I was choking for air and had swallowed sea water. Surely, buried away in me is some sense of the fragility or uncertainty of life.

The second knowing came when I was 13 in dark forested hills near Lake Champlain on the Canadian border. On an emotionally stressful day, I escaped to the woods to clear away family tensions that are part and parcel of military life. Our beagle, Johnny, accompanied me on a long walk over soft paths where moist leaves from the early fall blanketed the forest floor.

Our house sat just outside of Plattsburgh, and the land on which Johnny and I travelled was owned by a nearby abbey. Along its quiet trails, wood-hewn benches had been placed by the monks for rest and contemplation. There was little foot traffic, and one could be quite lost in blissful wonder, birdsong, and the activities of forest animals.

After hiking for about an hour we came to a clearing in which sunlight penetrated the towering pines to flood the multicolored leaves on the ground and surrounding trees and shrubs. As I stood there allowing the reflected colors to fill my eyes, a chimera lifted from the actual place, appearing like a wavering mosaic of which I was an inseparable part. I felt the greatest relief come over me as I lost the sense of my body as it blended with everything around me. I do not know how long I was in that ecstatic moment but when I came into my body again, I remember feeling the pull of gravity like the weight of a wet bag of soil.

A certain kind of peace and joy remained with me for weeks afterward. Robert Frost’s poetic line, “the woods were lovely, dark and deep” best describes the peace and silence of the woods I experienced on that morning. Yet, for me, it would be another 25 years before I took “The Road Less Travelled”.

In my 30’s I began long-distance running, a spiritual path of its own kind. Like a mantra, breath is noticed and cultivated by the athlete. In top form, I began to run intervals at the track to achieve more competitive times in foot races. One afternoon, well into the intervals, I suddenly saw myself below me. I could see the top of my head and knees and feet below striding along the track. Then I purposefully directed “myself” higher up to see the whole track and field and the Croton River below it. I watched myself running around the track. As soon as “I” comprehended that I was separated from my body, I was in it again. I’ve never had a similar experience since.

The most recent encounter with other realities occurred just before I embarked on the spiritual journey that took me to Arizona. I lived and worked in San Diego where I studied shamanic journeying with a professional guide. The shaman follows a process with prayers and guidelines similar to any spiritual practice. For example, entering a journey one prays for protection from evil spirits that are just accepted as part of the universe. I think of the psalm, “Yeh, though I travel through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for Thou art with me…” The novice is instructed to recall a favorite natural place from their life. It might be a tree or a brook, or some beautiful meadow. Then, she is instructed to find an entrance into the earth, perhaps an opening below the gnarled root of a great tree. This will become the novice’s entry place into altered consciousness. Some can do this kind of work easily, for others not so. I was one who could descend down the tunnel into the brilliant, multi-dimensional other worlds. This did not mean I was special in anyway, but rather I have a vivid imagination.

Down into that tunnel I went as my teacher drummed and sang softly helping my mind move to other frequencies that opened up long unused parts of the brain. Perhaps buried in all of us is the whole book of life, all that has ever been, and all the wisdom of the ages.

During sessions, I experienced realms unlike our own and met other guides who helped me answer questions I brought to them. These experiences were as real as the one I am having now, writing this story. I recorded the wisdom I learned, painted and sketched my experiences in a small red journal. Much later, doubting the validity of these experiences, and questioning my explorations into other realities, I buried that little journal in the back of a house I rented in Tempe, Arizona. I imagine the earthworms, microbes and yeasts have turned it into dust, just as it should be. The lessons I was given, however, remain, woven into the fabric of me.

I share these events and activities not to imply that I have any special abilities, but more to show how I came to understand that life’s mysteries, however they may be revealed to us, are far grander and more useful than we can imagine. It just requires that we pay attention.


Negotiating the Peace


“Do you want the truth or a pretty picture?” he said.

I sat across from him in Denny’s. A tall, slim Indian man, dark hair held in a pony tail streaked with white and silver strands, mysterious eyes of chocolate and light. His partner sat to his side in beaded earrings that reached to her chest, a flowing blue dress over her large frame, hands of strength holding a beaded bag with turquoise and silver clasps, and coiled power enveloping the space where she sat as if occupied by unseen guardians. He seemed much friendlier. But I was wrong about that as I would be about much of my experience with Sky and Earth.

“The truth, of course,” I answered. He smiled and showed a perfect row of white teeth. But, his humor held more than that. It cradled 500 years of misunderstanding.

We ordered coffee, and he ordered breakfast. Quiet flooded into the noise of Saturday’s crowd and hovered over our table as a separate space. The air, I remember, seemed to waver in front of my eyes, an unreality about it all.

She lit a cigarette, and when her coffee came, she tore open and poured three packets of white sugar into it, stirring it with a beaten spoon. We all stared into the pond of it. Then she drank her coffee ritually, with gratitude. My heart pounded with excitement and fear.

Did they see me? I wondered.

I had blown into town on the vestiges of a Pacific Ocean breeze that still lingered on my path from the Laguna Mountains down into the simmering Imperial Valley. That gentle, moist breath evaporated like the gossamer of a former life, on that day in  Arizona.

An International Table of Peace she would later call it—our meeting that day. I would call it something much different for many years: a failure, another one; an abuse, or just plain bad luck. After four years at the feet of an American Indian spiritual guide I left the town broke and vulnerable.

But, I had a new question: could I see myself?