The spiritual nature of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff was an awesome experience for me. The sight of these sacred mountains took me off guard when they first came into view, and indeed, were the focal point of the sky all the way to Holbook, Arizona. I can see why so many first nations hold these mountains in such reverence, when from anywhere for hundreds of miles the shimmering white peaks are a beacon of light and orientation. The Hopi believe the Kachina spirits live at the top of the peak. Looking at this forested hillside on the way up the mountain to Snowbowl, I can almost feel the spirits there.
Our Lady of Guadalupe inspires millions of believers, offering a mothering balm of love, peace, and forgiveness through her Blessed Son. Read the legend of the appearance of the Holy Mother on Tepeyac Hill near Mexico City. Her apparition was witnessed by Juan Diego who had gone to the hill at the request of his Bishop to gather roses for the church. The Bishop’s actions were inspired by a request for a sign from the Holy Mother after she asked the Bishop to build a church on the hill. When Juan Diego returned with the roses, an image of the Holy Mother was embedded in his tilga–a garment that has remained without any sign of wear or age for the last 485 years.
Miracles do happen but we never know how or sometimes why. The universe and the Earth herself are imbued with numinous qualities that we intuit but can never “prove”.
In my novel Threshold, Dolores Olivarez is a devout Catholic who recites the Rosary as she hikes the mountain to the top.
From a place of reverence, Dolores seeks to understand the meaning of her time and place, much as Juan Diego climbed to gather his roses.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,And sorry I could not travel bothAnd be one traveler, long I stoodAnd looked down one as far as I couldTo where it bent in the undergrowth;Then took the other, as just as fair,And having perhaps the better claim,Because it was grassy and wanted wear;Though as for that the passing thereHad worn them really about the same,And both that morning equally layIn leaves no step had trodden black.Oh, I kept the first for another day!Yet knowing how way leads on to way,I doubted if I should ever come back.I shall be telling this with a sighSomewhere ages and ages hence:Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.
My cultural heritage is one of linearity. Americans progress, move forward, dream of the future and its possibilities. Yet, this conceptualization of time is not shared by many cultures on earth.
Now, some westerners are reconsidering whether time is linear. Einstein demonstrated that space and time bend at certain velocities of light. Physicists document the structure of the universe as part of “parallel universes.” It might be possible one day to travel in a worm hole to other times, future or past.
In Threshold, Luna Lopez, a Tohono O’odham youth, is learning basket-making from an elder. She discovers the recurring pattern of a maze on her teacher’s baskets and queries what it means. Rather than tell her outright, Mrs. Romero tells an old Pima story. Luna is left to interpret it in her own life.
As the narrative unfolds, Luna recognizes circularity in things around her: seasons, natural history of trees and plants, and her own circulation system. She begins to intuit that the “man in the maze” is about her inner life.
Does time bend each September allowing us to return to it, to perhaps increase our understanding? If so, let us approach it with reverence.
Dr. Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a lifelong desert dweller, a linguist, and cultural preservationist. In 1999 she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her work creating a Tohono O’odham book of grammar. However, Dr. Zepeda’s poetry is what I wish to focus on and how the chance encounter with her performance in the first week of my residency in Tucson led to my deep feeling for a place and community as culturally rich as any I’ve known.
The poetry reading took place in the circular auditorium (kiva) in the American Indian Studies Department at U.A. In the large room with rows pitched down toward the lectern in its center, a soft voice rose and fell. Dr. Zepeda’s was reading from her book, Ocean Power. She spoke in O’odham and English, alternating between each as she read. I closed my eyes to listen to the language of desert communities at Tucson’s origin.
She explained the relationship of her family and community to rain in the desert, its precious nature, and how, after the long hot, dry foresummer, the first monsoon clouds gather, and people point and wait for the first cold dollops of rain.
After her lecture, I walked to my hot, dusty car to drive home. Not long after I was on the road, a massive monsoon cloud, as black as coal, threw lightening strikes like explosions on the ground, and rain burst from the sky, falling n buckets, cleansing the car and blinding my sight. I had to pull over. Flood waters gushed around drains, cars stalled as the water rose, but all the people smiled behind their windshields or stood outside their vehicles with open arms, letting the storm soak them to the bone. It was a celebration, first delivered through Dr. Zepeda’s poetry and, then, by the monsoon itself. I believe to this day that hearing about rain on the desert in O’odham made the impact of the storm much deeper for me. It was a true rite of passage. Listen to a short video about Dr. Zepeda.
As the New Year begins today, I am listening to Paul Baker’s beautiful Celtic harp renderings on The Quiet Path.
I believe it is important to be aware of first steps with the gift of this New Path.
Time as we Westerners perceive it, is a linear path. But, many other cultural traditions see time as circular, spiral in nature, turning back on itself, learning again and again until the lesson at each part of a life’s path, is complete.
On this first day of the new year, the new physical cycle of the sun’s path, take time to understand where you are on your life’s path. The sun “returns”, lengthening daytime, illuminating our perceptions, invigorating growth and fruitful endeavor.
Happy New Year My Dear Family and Friends!
“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”
I remember so well the face of George W. Bush as he declared “Mission Accomplished” after the first few rounds of that administration’s “Shock and Awe” campaigns. Did it make Iraq safe, did it stamp out terrorism? Is Al Quaeda wiped out?
No, in fact the opposite is true, and many analysts now target the Iraq War as the beginning of the rise of ISIS.
Another pernicious behavior among Americans is the “fear of the other” – of anyone perceived to not look like “us”…us being white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian immigrants. Americans are and never were of that description though the people in power for so long could be described that way. Of course, over nearly 3 centuries of grieving their rights, Americans begrudgingly are accepting that the “face” of the United States is multi-ethnic, and religiously diverse.
Let us not forget these ugly facts that are a part of our history: genocide of Native Americans; enslavement and persecution of African Americans; internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and so on.
Now the cry is to keep out Syrian refugees who might harbor terrorists. The fear is understandable in light of the bombing of a Russian jet, killing all aboard; the Paris shootings and slaughter, and the Beirut attacks on civilians — all claimed by ISIS as retribution for our way of life. This is a threat no doubt. But let it not push away our better angels to respond in an equal force, BECAUSE WE HAVE RECENTLY BEEN REMINDED THAT THE STRATEGY DOES NOT WORK, IN FACT IT CREATES WHAT IT PURPORTS TO STAMP OUT.
This is a time for calm, for prudent decision making and for our humanity to be strengthened. The Syrian refugees are fleeing the forces that have destroyed their homeland. Just as the Irish fled to America under the brutal oppression of the English in the nineteenth century. Our relatives were refugees fleeing from brutal forces, poverty, and oppression. Let us not forget who we are and extend a helping hand to people who are without country, without the basic resources to live.
We can keep our humanity and also keep our country safe.
STOP – THINK – CONSIDER!
E.O. Wilson reigns in my mind as our most important scientist-author of our time. He is University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard. Wilson has two Putlizer’s under his belt, for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants with Bert Holldobler (1991).
The adjacent photo is from Nature and Culture International: Board of Directors, one of many organizations E.O. Wilson serves with his visionary gifts.
He has penned dozens more books that have stayed on the New York Times Bestseller lists over decades of his career. He writes for the public as well as scientific community. If you have never read anything by Wilson, I recommend The Diversity of Life as a starting point. While published first in 1992, it is still relevant to understand the diversity of life across the planet, and – most important – the conservation areas that Wilson recommends must be preserved for the healthy functioning of the biosphere.
But, my reason for this post is to review his recent book, The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). Why is it important to read? He is most likely the most erudite scientist writing for the public today. His understanding of who we are as a species and society is informed by his comprehensive grasp of our genetic inheritance, the dynamics of sociobiology – how we function as a group – and the challenges to our existence in the near and distant future. Yes, it IS that significant.
The book calls for the reunification of the humanities with science. Wilson argues that the current separation of these two great ways of knowing our human nature, is at the crux of our possible self-destruction by lack of understanding our roots in nature. He explains the most basic evolutionary path leading to our essential human nature: our dualistic nature, usually ascribed to the humanities to explain.
Wilson shows us how our “selfish” genes and “altruistic” genes evolved, and how they work in a multilevel natural selection. This is relevant in understanding why we do what we do, predicting the kinds of decisions we will probably make, and – once understanding this – how we could use this knowledge to make critical decisions about new technologies that may doom human existence or secure our continued success into the future.
The Threat of Gene Engineering of Human Beings
He is writing about the new potential to design our own genetic endowment – design humans like we want them. This can also be applied to new threats from artificial intelligence (AI), a topic he does not address in this book, but which occurred to me as I read the book during a time when the nation is discussing the challenges inherent in AI development.
If we do not understand, who we are, and know how to understand our behavior, how can we possibly make these new, complex ethical decisions? Wilson writes that religion, which introduces a supernatural being who is in control of humans and the universe, is an outdated way of knowing that currently blocks human society’s ability to understand how the world works and based on that, to make the collective decisions we need to determine to secure that human life on earth will go forward as we know it.
What do you think about that? Does religion prevent us from knowing who we are biologically? How can we bridge the gap between these two powerful ways of knowing our story on Earth? Please comment so that we can discuss this online.
Seven is a number associated with the personal journey, the desire to refresh perspective, endeavor, and relationships. The mystery is figuring out what that means in the latest warp of one’s universe.
Over my lifetime, I have devoted time to reset my internal compass, appreciating that life is a fleeting experience and one to be taken seriously but also with alacrity.
Between 1985-89, living in Southern California, I studied shield-making with a Native American teacher. She was patient and methodical in helping me understand this ancient spiritual practice. I continued to make personal shields through 1999. I saved only two of many. Each time I find them, stored in my belongings, they usher back the time and emotions when I created them as a way of knowing.
Basic Idea: A circular shield contains four quadrants which are directional, representing distinct aspects of an individual’s or a group’s spiritual journey. Each quadrant is given a specific color. North: white for wisdom and peace; white buffalo. South: red or green for innocence and receptivity; mouse. West: black for sunset, introspection and exit at death; bear. East: yellow for sunrise, inspiration and the divine; eagle.
The circular shield itself is symbolic of the Earth, the Universe, the tribe, the family, or the whole individual. The first shield I made used an embroidery hoop as the frame. I stretched canvas over it and painted the shield. But that was just to start learning the meaning of the elements.
A willow branch is traditional for making the hoop. But that varies by region. In true shield making the artist collects the materials from nature with prayers given and tobacco offered as the willow branch, animal skin, and objects are collected. My first teacher allowed me to intuitively choose objects which she provided: feathers, shells, ribbons, etc.
If you wish to study shields, a good place to start is the collection at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. If you have not been there, you should plan to go. It is a magnificent place. Online travelers will also find great educational articles and webcasts. You can explore the collections online as well. The current exhibit on the Inka Civilization is an amazing opportunity to understand the great wisdom of indigenous people and how their knowledge and experience can inform modern society.
Links to Explore:
Seven Arrows by Hyemeyohsts Storm
For readers: I wrote this short essay in 2009. Dad passed away on December 7, 2012. When I wrote this piece I was living with my Dad, helping him recover from pressure sores on his heels after surgery.
Being with Dad
He is not up yet. I think gloomy thoughts. Usually he rises before me and struggles past my bedroom door. I hear the heavy breathing and the cranking noise of his walker.
Should I go check on him? I decide to wait until 7 a.m. It is 5:45 now.
What would I do if I found my father dead in his bed? I envision the scene: opening the door and listening intently for his breathing, made audible by emphysema.
Hearing nothing I creep down the hallway past the bathroom and as I turn the corner there he lays, mouth open, eyes closed, withered into his pillows like an old wrapper.
The birds are munching happily now at his feeders, a cardinal’s clarion call pulls on my heart. For over twenty years my father sits at the front windows in the condo’s watching birds, smoking his pipe, and trying to complete the NY Times crossword puzzle.
For many years my mother lived here, too, until she passed away in 1996—thirteen years ago. Dad has lived a peaceful albeit lonely life since then. Her struggle with cancer, over so many years, drained him of all his mental and physical resources so that these years have been an island of tranquility.
Retired Air Force pilot… During “Saving Private Ryan” on TCM a couple nights ago he came out of his semi-awake fog with an emphatic “Seeing all those gravestones fills me with rage!”
He led his crew on low altitude bombing raids over Tokyo in the B-29 they named The Three Feathers in his honor. Lt. Col. EB Feathers recalls the smell of burning flesh that haunts him now. “Will I burn in hell for that?”
I can tell he worries about dying and wonders what will happen to him, or worse, nothingness…oblivion…
My journey to living with Dad in these last days and months of his life was not planned nor is it heroic by any standard. I shipwrecked at a job that was completely wrong for me and he invited me to stay here until I can get back on my financial feet.
Even in his nineties he is still taking care of his four daughters. But that is not entirely true: lately we have become his caregivers and decision-makers as we see that he has given up trying to live and is just waiting now.
Being with Dad at this juncture on his life’s path has caused me to reflect on my own. We never know what may become the defining event of our life while we are in the midst of it but later it emerges like a fulcrum on which before and after impinge.
For Dad the memories of war haunt him. He finds no glory in the carnage and has lately become a true pacifist.
I listen to the stories of his early life—how Lindbergh inspired him to fly and how it felt to be airborne on his solo flight, the fear and excitement mixed with the sheer magic of winging high above the green rolling hills of Tennessee.
I see him tall with a full head of dark brown hair and real teeth.
He is stirring. I hear him go into the bathroom…one more day, then.
I recall a beautiful poem by Crowfoot on his deathbed:
What is Life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the Sunset.