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A democracy of species

Homemade ceremonies

Morning 1

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (of the Potowatomi people) explains how her family was severed from their traditional culture when her grandfather, like so many children of his generation, was taken from home by the U.S. government and sent to the Carlisle Indian School to be "civilized" (a truly shameful chapter of my country's history). It was not until many years later that his descendants reclaimed their language and heritage. Against this painful background, Kimmerer writes movingly of her father's morning ritual when the family camped on the slopes of Tahawus each summer (the Algonquin name for Mount Marcy in the Adirondaks):

"When he lifts the coffee pot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it's time to pay attention. He stands at the edge of camp with the coffeepot in his hands, holding the top in place with a folded pot holder. He pours coffee on the ground in a thick brown stream. The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls to the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus.'"

Morning 2

Morning 3

"I was pretty sure no other family I knew began their day like this," she continues, "but I never questioned the source of those words and my father never explained. They were just part of our life among the lakes. But their rhythm made me feel at home and the ceremony drew a circle around our family. By those words we said, 'Here we are,' and I imagined that the land heard us -- murmured to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' "

Morning 4

Morning 5

"Sometimes my father would name the gods of Forked Lake or South Pond or Brandy Brook Flow, wherever our tents were settled for the night. I came to know each place was inspirited, was home to others before we arrived and long after we left. As he called out the names and offered a gift, the first coffee, he quietly taught us the respect we owed these other beings and how to show our thanks for summer mornings.

 Morning 6

Morning 7

"I knew that in the long-ago our people raised their thanks in morning songs, in prayer, in the offering of sacred tobacco. But at that time in our family history we didn't have sacred tobacco and we didn't know the songs -- they'd been taken away from my grandfather at the doors of the boarding school. But history moves in a circle and here we were, the next generation, back to the loon-filled lakes of our ancestors, back to the canoes....

"In the same way that the flow of coffee down the rock opened the leaves of the moss, ceremony brought the quiescent back to life, opened my mind and heart to what I knew, but had forgotten. The words and the coffee called us to remember that these woods and lakes were a gift. Ceremonies large and small have the power to focus attention to a way of living awake in the world. The visible became invisible, merging with the soil. It may have been a secondhand ceremony, but...I recognized that the earth drank it up as if it were right. The land knows you, even when you are lost.

Morning7

"A people's story moves along like a canoe caught in the current, being carried closer and closer to where we had begun. As I grew up, my family found again the tribal connections that had been frayed, but never broken, by history. We found the people who knew our true names. And when I first heard in Oklahoma the sending of thanks to the four directions at the sunrise lodge -- the offering in the old language of the sacred tobacco -- I heard it as if in my father's voice. The language was different but the heart was the same.

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Morning 9

"Ours was a solitary ceremony, but fed from the same bond with the land, founded on respect and gratitude. Now the circle drawn around us is bigger, encompassing a whole people to which we again belong. But still the offering says, 'Here we are,' and still I hear at the end of the words the land murmuring to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' Today my father can speak his prayers in our language. But it was 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus' that came first, in the voice I will always hear. It was in the presence of ancient ceremonies that I understood that our coffee offering was not secondhand, it was ours."

Morning 10

Wildflowers

The power of ceremony, writes Kimmerer, is that "it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mixed with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist. What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, ceremony that makes a home."

Bluebells

I've written before about my own morning rituals, which are solitary ones except for Tilly's presence, and also about how much I prefer that solitude to be undisturbed in the enchanted liminal space between waking up and creative work. We can draw parallels between the rituals of beginning / rituals of approach we employ to facilitate creative work and the morning ritual Kimmerer describes. Ceremony, meditation, creative routines and practices designed to ease us into work, these are all means of acknowledging the transition from one state into another: from sleep into a brand new day, from morning chores and mundane concerns to the focused state of creativity and inspiration.

But there's also an important difference here -- which, I fear, often gets lost when First Nation ceremonies are too-casually adapted by non-native peoples. While the coffee ritual may indeed have helped Kimmerer's father to feel more meditative, centered, and ready to start his day, this therapeutic aspect of the ceremony is not its purpose or focus. Rather, it is an act of gratitude, an acknowledgement of the larger world of which we humans are just one part. There is no ego in the ritual, no self-aggrandizing, no  "look at me, look how spiritual I am" -- just the simple, humble act of man offering a humble gift to creation.

Morning coffee

In my own morning rituals, gratitude to the land, to our animal neighbors, to the vast nonhuman world plays a crucial part. It is why I write and why I paint: sheer gratitude for being alive, even on -- perhaps especially on -- those mornings when, because of poor health or other difficulties, life feels most burdensome. I want to create not from a place of ego and self-aggrandizement but as a means of gifting stories to the beautiful land that feeds and clothes and houses and sustains me; and to give, as Pablo Neruda once said, "something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood."

Some days I succeed, and some days I don't. But each morning I wake up, climb the hill with Tilly, pour steaming coffee from a silver thermos as birdsong greets the sun, and I try again. And again. And again. On the hill, I remember that my place in the world is very small. And very precious. And I'm grateful for it all.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Comments

Such beautiful, heartening words - his, yours. And thank you for sharing why you write, because it reminds me why I write, and what I need in order to do so. By the way, I am reading a book at the moment which you might like (although possibly I got the name of it from here?? It's hard to remember online sources) - Rising Ground, by Philip Marsden. It's enchanting and enriching.

Philip Marsden's book is wonderful; very glad to hear you're reading and enjoying it. We just had the chance to hear him speak about it at our local literary festival, Chagword.

I love this: "The land knows you, even when you are lost." Also: "And when I first heard in Oklahoma the sending of thanks to the four directions at the sunrise lodge -- the offering in the old language of the sacred tobacco -- I heard it as if in my father's voice. The language was different but the heart was the same."

In response to that last quote, as well as your thoughts about people adopting native rituals, I just want to say how grateful I am for the rich diversity of ways to connect to the earth, to God and to one another that have spanned time, language, and place. I didn't have a very "rooted" childhood, and my racial makeup is too diverse to feel connected to any one lineage, so I often feel the opposite of "grounded," like I have no deep, linking channels. So, I borrow a little here and a little there, adopting the things that seem inexplicably "familiar" to my soul, searching for ways to tap into the web of creation, and yes, to say thank you.

P.S. In the first paragraph of quotation, did you mean, "holding the top in place," rather than, "holding the place in top?" Just checking. ;)

Thanks for proof-reading, Sara! I've made the correction.

And I agree with you about "the rich diversity of ways to connect to the earth, to God and to one another that have spanned time, language, and place."

I have great respect for the indigenous peoples the world over world who have kept their traditional ceremonies intact (including the indigenous cultures of western Europe, such as the Sami people of Norway/Sweden/Finland) -- but I also greatly appreciate Kimmerer's words about "homemade ceremonies" having value and integrity too. Her family had a tribe, language, and religion to reclaim -- whereas for people with western European roots, the pagan Old Ways were so thoroughly repressed long ago that what survives (and a surprising amount *does* survive) is fragmented and incomplete, making a certain amount of "homemade ceremony" inevitable if one seeks to embrace one's own heritage of animist traditions. And for those of us with mixed heritage, it all becomes more complicated still...

Yet there's also a danger in homemade ceremony, when it borrows from other traditions without understanding those traditions. Judging by some of the whifftier workshop and "medicine man" flyers one sees posted in any town with a New Age community, I think that there's a tendency to conflate ancient practices designed to facilitate a respectful relationship with the natural world, and a life lived in service to family and tribe, with modern therapy practices designed for individual "personal growth" and "self-improvement." Not that I sneer at therapy (far from it!), but therapy and ceremony are two different things. One is inner directed and focused on the self, the other is outer directed and focused on others (including nonhuman others). When ceremony becomes a personal "experience" to have rather than an expression of relationship with and service to land, family, and community, it seems to me that something rather vital has been lost in translation.

Just my two cents, of course. I'm no expert, just a quiet mixed-blood animist trying to live as thoughtfully as I can. :)

A beautiful and interesting meditation on ceremony. I would only add that genuine personal growth (as opposed say to acquisitiveness, ie ego) is inextricably bound up with service and gratitude because it's about opening and strengthening spiritual connection. Connection, gratitude, service go together.

Indeed! And very well put.

I am as you know, a terrible old cynic, and as you yourself have said a 'contrarian', but I have to agree with much in this posting. As I'm sure I've said many times before, near where I was brought up there is a wide spacing of land that used to be a railway marshalling yard but which fell into disuse when the line was closed. Eventually the people of the area convinced the local council to turn it into a park and recreation ground, and after a petrol dump had also been removed (along with several tons of industrial waste) grass seed was sown, flower beds were planted and pathways were made to meander. But best of all a small avenue of oak trees were planted which led to an area of lawn where the local people took some of the debris from a demolished factory adjacent to the park, and created a stone circle. It may not have been constructed from the fabled ‘Bluestones’ that had been quarried in Wales and transported along an intricate network of interconnecting rivers to be erected as a mighty temple like the monoliths of Stonehenge, but in its own humble way this stone circle precisely and accurately reflected the lives of the people who'd created it. And if proof were needed that this 'Industrial Henge' has a spiritual significance to the area and the people who live there, then I think the small posies of flowers that sometimes appear in the very centre of the circle provide just that. The ceremonies may have been forgotten, but not it seems, the impetus to perform them.

Stuart, you call yourself a terrible old cynic, but I think you must be a secret romantic underneath the contrarian crust. Your fiction, art, poems and comments are too wise and full of heart for true cynicism. But I won't give your secret away....

Your blog posts are part of my own very small morning ceremony, and I am very grateful to you for them, to you and to all the things you show me.

Pamela

How lovely! "Braiding Sweetgrass" is added to my "want" book list but I may want to get it sooner than later. Just moved to a house in a small town and am working to make it my own sacred space. The yard has been sadly neglected and will take some work. My morning ritual often includes some of the gratitudes you have shared with us. I try to include some of the First Nation ideas and objects, since this is their land, but give them my own spin.

Hi Terri

I love these passages from Robin Wall Kimmerer's book and the native American custom of blessing the land and thanking its inhabitants with an offering of something special or sacred. The earth is spiritual and spirits dwell within its premises. We are, as humans, naturally bound and connected to the land we inhabit. Gratitude and recognition of this is often overlooked except for those who truly listen and reflect on what we have and where we come from.

I also love these photos of Tilly and the spring blooming in your part of the country. The captions with each picture are perfectly suited to the context of each photo.

Here, I have learned to take comfort in some steadfast elements of the high desert landscape. The one tree that continues to fascinate me and console me, at times of stress and uncertainty, is The Joshua Tree. It is always changing in perceived appearance and context, depending on time of day and the light, whether it be sun or moon. Also the mood of the onlooker --namely me. With this prolonged drought and its devastating effects in our area, I feel the tree is like a sacred guardian watching over the land, having been forewarned of this dry period long before it actually began. The tree has character and one that beguiles as well as guides. Here's a poem I wrote recently about it --


The Joshua Tree

Here you are again

in my poem --

torch bearer of moonlight

and blue darkness that burns

into my brain


as I see

the spirits you draw:

raven and coyote,

lizard and tortoise

owl and snake, squirrel

and jack rabbit.


They come to tell you,

tree of the ancient grove,

guardsman of the plain,

there'll be drought

furrowing the land

with sharp blades of wind,


rain shadow

and dry lightning

that sets to flame

many wicks of thistle

and sage, grass and vine.

Most will leave

but a few will stay.

Those who throw

their hands to the sky

shifting to bark

and needle leaf,


those who will dwell

next to you

as brethren or sisters.


and those at night

who know how to slip back,

silhouette into stances

that seem most human.


The moon stalking their field

with her chatoyant eye.
_________________________________________

My Best
Wendy


Oh this is so close to my heart...though not a Joshua Tree, its' the Juniper that haunts me.
All the High Desert of Central Oregon and its fringes of forest. Do I say lovely too much?
I don't think so.

It's a lovely process, and personal ceremonies can be a great beginning on a journey to a place where every breath is a prayer.

What you shared reminded me of a story from a 'few' years ago. There were two small children and several adults where I was living at the time, and every day at dinner the adults always took a moment to offer a silent prayer of gratitude. No one ever explained to the kids what this was about, but they would close their eyes and get quiet for a moment as well. We called it 'Supper Story'.

Two things. One day I must have been a little more loquacious than usual, because while everyone else was waiting patiently for me to finish the elder of the two piped up with, "Michael! NO SLEEP!!" The second event was a few months after that. One day as everyone was preparing to offer their own silent thanks, the same little one closed her eyes, fervently clasped her hands together and with great enthusiasm yelled out, "THANKS, MUCH!!" To this day it remains the best prayer I have ever heard.

Mike.

P.S. Here's a story that (in part) speaks to walking in balance:
http://www.wolfnowl.com/our-stories/mikes-stories/the-cougar/

Something I was told once, long ago:

"Ceremonies were originally created by those with knowledge for the common people. The people would perform the ceremony knowing there was truth within it, but not necessarily knowing what the truth was. It's like a doorway. Those who are ready will find the doorway and pass through; then can naked walking ensue. Those who are not yet worthy will stand, transfixed by the doorway itself."

Or something like that.

I like that.

Awww, thank you sweetie.

I'm glad you're going to be reading Braiding Sweetgrass. She writes a bit about the relationship between non-native peoples who have made North America their home and the land they (we) live on, and has some rather wise (and kind) things to say about it all.

I love Joshua Trees (though they're not native to desert of southern Arizona which I know best) and this poem is perfect tribute to them. Thank for you for evocative gift this morning, Wendy.

What a great story! I agree that the child shouting "Thanks, Much" is a perfect prayer.

When I lived in Arizona, I spent a lot of time in ceremonies with local First Nation friends, and though these were primarily gatherings on Tohono O'Odham land, often people from other Arizona tribes would show up as well: Pima, Apache, Navajo, etc. When the Navajo folks prayed, their prayers were inevitable *long*, as they thanked each element of creation, each bird, animal, insect, reptile.... The others teased them about it ("Uh oh, watch out, the Diné are here, we're going to be in that sweatlodge/tipi a long time!"), but it was also greatly respected.

Coming off of pressured days working for the New York publishing industry (as I did long-distance from Arizona), full of deadlines and that caffeine-fueled fast pace that New Yorkers are famous for (and I count myself in that tribe, being an ex-New Yorker), I had to consciously step into a different, slower, more abundant sense of time when heading to a ceremony. I'd be driving my old pick-up truck across the desert, singing (to practice the songs) and letting go of the fast-paced modern world with every mile.

Here in rural Devon, things move more slowly too, and that now feels right to me (despite still working for frenetic New York). When our daughter comes home from London -- where she's working and studying at the moment -- I watch her do the same thing I used to do on the way to ceremonies: consciously slow herself down from her faster urban pace, letting it all go bit by bit, day by day...until it's time to head back into the Big Smoke again. My husband and I are both former city people (London for him, where running a theatre company while also puppeteering at The Little Angel kept him running at a fast clip) -- and we now joke about what ambling Country Mice we've become.

I say "lovely" a lot too, but it's hard not to here in England where its such a common form of praise.

Hi Phyllis

I ,too, love the Juniper; and I am glad this poem resonates with you! And I ,too, use the word "lovely" quite often and think it's a wonderful word. Thank you so much for spending some time with my poem. I deeply appreciate it!

Best
Wendy

And Thank you Terri

so much for taking the time to read and reflect upon its contents. I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness!!

Take care
Wendy

It is amazing and somehow reassuring how widespread this idea of "offering a libation" is among human cultures; how Jungian is this idea of "offering back to the giver in acknowledgment of the gift." How hospitable to invite the spirit of place to join in the feast.

Terri: There's a story that I offer here from memory, but it connects. I honour but don't know the original author:

"An old Cree woman decided one day to present a priest she knew and loved with a sample of her embroidery. She left the house early, and began her journey to the town far away. The ground was hard and her feet were sore, but she continued on her quest.

As the day progressed, the sun beat down on her and baked her skin. The stones on the path cut her feet, and by the time she arrived at her destination, she was exhausted, her lips were cracked, and her feet were bleeding. Nonetheless, when the priest answered the door she held her embroidery up with great pride.

The priest’s eyes were filled with tears as he took the delicate embroidery from her hands, but his gaze was filled with the question ‘Why?’

Looking up at him, the woman said, “Father, you don’t understand. The walk is part of the gift.”


Author Unknown."

Prayers are like that too.

Mike.

Very good point. :)

i'm so glad that you're writing about braiding sweetgrass. it was one of those life changing books for me. i feel it's like her father's ceremony, deeply respectful and everyday, both. and, of course, it is "sort of about" a place i call home, northern new york. since reading braiding sweetgrass i have become more intentional in my foraging/gardening work, it framed what i had been doing. saying thankyou is one thing i can always do.

I can't stop staring at the golden spring light in these photographs. We're having a cold weekend here, and just looking at them warms my bones. Marvelous wise words from Robin Kimmerer, and I also enjoyed following the links in your post and re-reading your older posts about your morning rituals, especially this one with its lovely Wyeth art:

http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2013/01/on-writing-in-the-morning.html

My act of gratitude this morning is to that you for all you do, Terri.

I'm a bit late to this, but I love it. So many thoughts to breathe on.

I just picked up Braiding Sweetgrass from the library on your recommendation and look forward to diving into it. ♥

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