Ways of Knowing

SUNSETI’ve lived in the coastal South since July 2008. That is exactly 7 years to the month—the periodicity that apparently rules over my whereabouts.

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:

Live Web Casts from the Naitonal Museum of the American Indian

Shield Making Materials

Seven Arrows by Hyemeyohsts Storm

How fragile our lives

IMG_0188For 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.

My Dad…

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!”

Z-49 Over MtHe 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.

Sweet Leilani – Our Mother

Sweet Lailani, Our Mother Performing Hula She Learned at the Bishop School in O’ahu in 1949Mom Performing Hula in Michigan[Also see links on blog about Hawaiian history and culture.]

Our mother was known as Mickey Jones when she was a teenager and “20-something”. Born in a small town in Tennessee she longed for places far and away. She loved beautiful things and wanted adventure in her life. Mom loved to sing and to dance. She was an excellent cook. As a military wife of a career Air Force pilot, Mom set up homes all across the U.S. and in Hawai’i.  I have very lovely remembrances of Mom and Dad in Hawai’i. They were very much in love. These are kid memories so fuzzy and sensory. A sweet scent of plumeria wafted from my Mother. She was happy in Hawai’i. Dad was a pilot on Hickam Air Force Base established in 1941 to protect Pearl Harbor and near by Honolulu.

Hawai’i was still recovering from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet the natural beauty of the islands was already transforming the tragedy to the pervasive love and ease natural to the island kingdom. Mom hummed Hawaiian songs, Dad played a lot of slack key guitar music on a phonograph. He wore colorful silk shirts; Mom wore sarongs filled with flowers. She wove flowers in our hair and we often wore leis. I remember making leis from aromatic blossoms at a picnic table under a towering banana tree with leaves like green rafts hovering above.

Mom learned traditional hula from a teacher who told stories about her ancestors who came from Polynesia. Later Mom performed more modern forms of hula for military families at bases where we were stationed around the U.S. The photo above is in Michigan at Selfridge AFB. Through our mother we carried the heart and soul of Hawai’i in our hearts. This day the stories told through the dance and chanting of traditional Hawaiian music remain with me as some vestige of a true connection with the Earth Mother. See link to the Merrie Monarch Festival and the Prince Lot Hula Festival.

[I recently found this new story and art animation about the original Hawaiians, and authentic experience in the form of old time storytelling: Voyagers – The First Hawaiians. **Highly recommended.] “The discovery of Hawaii told through the art of Herb Kawainui Kane in stunning 2.5 animation.”

I often think about my mom. She would have many struggles later in her life but in her youth and early days of rearing kids and being a wife she was a joyful person, filled with hope and love of nature. She was high-spirited. This is the mother I remember, honor and love with all my heart. She brought elegance to simple spaces, traditions to an otherwise mobile lifestyle, and always a sense of wonder about the world at large. On this Mother’s Day I honor her for what she gave me and my sisters and all who come after us….

How to shape the future

Florida HammockOne of my personal occupations now is figuring out how to make a living doing what I believe is most important to do and to find joy in that process. Right now I am giving most of my time to worker-bee matters at a local university where I spend my day searching for funding for faculty research. I am wasting my creative energy, my intent in living, at something that brings me a paycheck, a medical plan, and a retirement account. So, I am trying to reinvent myself to continue “working” at home so that as I age, my mind and spirit can continue to contribute to the culture that I believe we are capable of creating together—a culture that values the ground under our feet, and that while we are in our virtual lives together, we  thoughtfully breathe the sweet air, notice the plants and animals that enrich our lives, and sink our feet deeper into the Earth, and DEFEND IT. What are we creating with the fantastic tools that the Internet and hand-held devices now make possible? Everywhere I see the creative energy that EVERYONE of us has inside of us wasted on low-level and spurious sound bytes on social marketing sites where very few people are sharing their best ideas and heart-felt thoughts. Here is a very thoughtful interview with Seth Godin who has devoted his life to exploring these ideas and has contributed to society by creating tools like Kickstarter, a crowd-sourcing site for artists to raise funds for their creative ideas. His point is that we are reaching too low when the tools everyone has access to (we are our own publisher, marketer, etc.) make the potential to draw people to an idea or take action, or use something we create that promotes the social good, a reality. Godin points out that we still think in hierarchical patterns, the industrial pecking order, rather than the reality that the net has created – anyone can create now, not just the people on the New York Times best seller list, or the Fortune 500 companies, etc. Yet, most of us have not noticed. In regards to creating a nation that leads on climate change and retools its very foundation to utilize non-carbon based energy sources, this realization is critical. Our leaders and citizens are locked into the belief that this is not feasible. The reason for our lack of vision is that our system is fundamentally set up to bring huge profits to a few individuals for something that is a part of the human commons – access to energy. So its up to us to create the new economy and new sources of energy and free ourselves from the system that is an energytocracy. Many people have been working on this for a long time but they have drawn few people to their ideas. How can we each help market these ideas so they become more widely embraced?

To live by moons

What would it be like to live by moons…or times of blooming, fruiting, migrations? What would it be like to know only what your eyes can see, fingers touch, the tongue to taste? To be prey and see oneself as another of the animals, a part of the garden? Was the Old Testament’s parable of Adam and Eve about that break? The tree of knowledge being a departure from an ecological mind?

Ceremony

Nature’s beauty cannot be dissected nor understood through mere thought or system.  What fills your eye and then your heart is understood whole.  It’s more like a symphony—there is magic in the melding.

Each morning before I write, I light a candle or two in celebration of the new day.  If I have a bundle of white or purple sage, I burn a leaf or two and let the fragrance of its spirit cleanse my soul and body, and I offer a prayer to the Giver of Life.  When I lived in the West, I always had this mystical plant at hand.  I miss it in the Southeast where I now reside, and have not found a substitute—perhaps pine needles from the great long-leafed pines of this low, coastal landscape.

A writer-friend of mine, Byrd Baylor, wrote The Way to Start a Day which describes the ways that peoples around the globe greet the dawn of a new day. Here’s an excerpt.

The way to start a day is this —

Go outside and face the east and greet the sun with some kind of blessing or chant or song that you made yourself and keep for early morning.

The way to make the song is this —

Don’t try to think what words to use until you’re standing there alone.

When you feel the sun you’ll feel the song, too.

Just sing it.

But don’t think you’re the only one who ever worked that magic.

Your caveman brothers knew what to do.

Your cavewoman sisters knew, too.

They sang to help the sun come up and lifted their hands to its power.

A morning needs to be sung to.

How do you greet the day? No need to do it any particular way, in fact, you may even be unaware of how you are paying attention and feeling gratitude for this one good day.  Sometimes we are so wrapped in our individual challenges and tragic circumstances we forget to breathe, to look up and see the beauty all around us.  Create a tiny sacred space to recognize the gift of life and the wonder of nature and you.

The Nature of Liberty

Liberty presses on the American mind.

A true American cannot be moved from his or her conviction about Liberty.  No eloquent speaker, powerful force, mind-altering influence; no bribe, or set of tragic circumstances, no ideology can shake an American from the knowledge that Liberty is at the heart of America:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.  ~ Declaration of Independence 1776

Liberty caused these thoughts to be written when minds were shaped by an America present long before the Europeans walked upon our shores.  Liberty presses on the American mind still:  Let them all be free – black, brown, red, yellow, woman, child, plant and animal!  Liberty stands firm on this.  True Americans understand it.

Americans believe all people should know Liberty.  A true American will not participate in, or support, anyone or any nation (even her own nation) that would deny Liberty to another human being.  Americans look across the globe with the hope of Liberty’s promise for all.  A true American is generous and long-suffering for just causes.  Listen:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….  ~ Declaration of Independence 1776

Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it. ~ Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States (1809 – 1865)

He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.

~ Thomas Paine, American Patriot (1737 – 1809)

Americans raise their flag to honor Liberty and burn their flag when Liberty is in jeopardy.  Liberty for All is the creed of true Americans.  They cannot be swayed. They have tasted her intoxicating liberation.  No government, no religious doctrine or person can deter true Americans from their pursuit of freedom.  Liberty is their only religion, their only banner.  True Americans are free to think and free to live.

Liberty whispers in their ear throughout the land.

Quiet Dissolution

This past month I’ve focused on the importance of the places where we live in making who we are.  It’s subtle if you live in a busy, noisy environment like a city or even a heavily populated suburb.  When you are lucky enough to live with lots of open space around you, the influence of the land, sky and waters – the Living Dome – is tangible and pressing.

The advent of a relatively new environment of virtual space creates another layer of human voices, ideas, visions, sounds, and computations that tamp the living presence of the natural world. Some humans now prefer virtual representations of the Living Dome that blankets the planet, sustaining all life.

What does physical or representational separation from the source of life and imagination mean for coming generations?

So much in American life has has a corrupting influence on our requirements for social order.  We live in a culture that has lost its memory.  Very little in the specific shapes and traditions of our grandparents’ pasts instructs us how to live today. ~ Gretel Ehrlich from The Solace of Open Spaces, Chapter “To Live in Two Worlds”

What do you think?

The Good Mind

The legacy of the Peacemaker [the man credited with bringing the Iroquois Nations together under a Pax Iroquois] is best illustrated in his concept of The Good Mind. The Peacemaker believed that a healthy mind naturally seeks peace and that a nation of individuals using reason and harboring good will in their hearts can not only establish peace in the worst circumstances but maintain it forever.

At the time the Peacemaker was born, the region was beset by wars among the five tribes (Onandaga, Mohawk, Huron, Seneca, and Cayuga). In some areas the hatred ran so deep that individual warriors practiced cannibalism on their enemies. These dark times were at least 1,000 years before the Europeans arrived in what is now New York State.

There are noteworthy circumstances surrounding the Peacemaker. First, his grandmother had a dream that a great man would be born who would save the tribes from utter destruction. He  was recognized as a youth for his exceptional qualities of mind as someone who would become a leader. But he had a problem—a speech impediment (stuttering)—which later required the assistance of the great Iroquois orator, Hiawatha, to help him accomplish his mission to bring the tribes of his nation together under the Great Tree of Peace—the democracy of constitutional laws and principles that exist to this day.

When I began studying with my teachers in Yuma, Arizona (see previous blog post, The First American Democracy) I was completely unaware of this body of law, the Iroquois legacy of which some passed into the U.S. Constitution, nor was I aware that the Iroquois Confederacy had maintained peaceful coexistence for 750 years before the founding of the fledgling American democracy.

The most important lesson of my four years of study was the reading of Basic Call to Consciousness, written as an address to Western civilization in the 1970’s when the Iroquois were still under threat and domination by the powers that be: the Canadian government and New York State legislature. Basic Call is still relevant in its astute analysis of the values that drive Western societies and how they lead to the destruction of the very basis of life.

In Basic Call to Consciousness Americans have a useful guidebook on how to strengthen our own democracy by broadening our bill of rights to include the natural world and all the life in it as sacred because,  everything emanates from our common Creator. Practically, the document gave the early constitutional authors further reason to formulate a bicameral congress and institute a process of checks and balances. For example, the Peacemaker charged the women of the tribe to act as arbiters of peace by choosing the male leaders and representatives and removing them should their thoughts and actions stray from the sacred purpose of the Great Law.

I remember being shocked to find this gem of a small book in whose pages lay all the wisdom needed to solve entrenched political, economic, and relational problems here and abroad.  But I realized the document was politically dangerous in the U.S. precisely because it would prevent greed and avarice from being the dominant drivers in our social and cultural enterprises. In fact, when my teachers suggested I read it, the book was out of print and hard to find. But I eventually did find a used copy at the Bohdi Tree bookstore in Los Angeles. It was considered an occult book and probably still is by a society that relegates any true challenge to its economic values as dangerous and suspect.

Today you can find Basic Call to Consciousness on Amazon.com. I consider that progress!


The First American Democracy

“The future is a construct that is shaped in the present, and that is why to be responsible in the present is the only way of taking serious responsibility for the future. What is important is not the fulfillment of all one’s dreams, but the stubborn determination to continue dreaming.”

~ Gioconda Belli, The Country Under My Skin

Nothing can replace the act of seeking knowledge for oneself. I can read about it, have it explained, or live it through another person’s experience, but in each case I see it incompletely, like the blind man holding the elephant’s tail.

For Americans eighteen and older this has never been more relevant.

In 1990 I sought to learn about our nation’s first people by going to them. I left a high profile position at a well known institution, sold or gave away most of my possessions, packed up my pick up, and traveled to a dusty border town trusting my inner compass. There was a man and woman who agreed to take me on as an apprentice and student to help me understand American culture and my own life’s course through an examination of my country’s historical relationship with the First Americans and with the land, water, air, and wildlife of the North American continent.

Why did I do that, you may wonder. I had come to the realization that instead of my nation being a beacon of light in the world, it was in fact an empire to many other nations and peoples whose cultural beliefs and lands were at odds with ours.  How could there be hunger in a land of plenty? Why were democratic rights applied conditionally to members of our own society and in the world – and my culture accept that? How could we destroy the great natural beauty and abundance of our lands even while extolling how much we love it?

It made no sense to me and created a pervading sense of living a lie. I remember the unreality of my life then as I drove to work where architecturally beautiful buildings and the expansive green of a golf course tumbled down to the deep blue of the Pacific ocean. My day was stressful administering programs at a world renown health care facility where patients—banged up in the American market wars and social striving—suffered from heart problems, addiction, or complications from obesity.

One day I sat looking out the picture windows of my corporate office on a singing blue-sky day in southern California. Internally I felt lost and weak.  My eyes settled on a book that had lain unread on my shelves for many years:  Touch the Earth (T.C. McLuhan.) It is a book of Indian values from Indian voices.

At the first reading I experienced a profound sense of sanity return to me. In them I found a direction to pursue the answers to my deepest questions. I became aware of a pulsing hunger at my core for this knowledge, like something precious lost and then vaguely rememberd. Could it be that we have within us the knowledge of past human wisdom buried in our brains at birth? Looking back now, I realize that I had no choice but to make the decisions that led me to seek guidance and leave all I had known before – to clear the decks and make way for something new.

The next three years of living in the daily presence of two American Indian educators (one a Mojave elder, college professor, Korean veteran and social worker; the other an Iroquois artist and musician.) Their guidance changed the way I see myself and the world around me. I still believe the experience made me a better person. But the story of how that evolved is a hard one and definitely not what I had expected. The path to self-understanding is a crucible where falseness is burned away and a tender new skin grown. It requires humility, determination, and humor. It is anything but glamorous.

I hope you will return to my blog for journal entries about my experiences. Until then, here are some links to explore:

The First Democracy: the Haudenosaunee

Basic Call to Consciousness

What Does It Mean?

The Earth Charter