The Wandering Years
After adolescence, a person feels the urge to go on a Journey of Discovery: take what he/she has learned and try it out in new and challenging situations. He wants to see how other people think, feel, and do things. I was no different, and because of it I couldn’t sit still in college. If it were today, I would probably have been diagnosed with ADD. Instead, my counselors labeled me “lazy” while pointing to aptitude scores that were supposed to convince me I was throwing my life away.
Professors must come from a different mold than counselors, because one day mine got together and invited me to meet with them, where they encouraged me to go find what college could not give me. After several failed attempts at college and seminary, I needed no further convincing.
And yet my academic experience blessed me profoundly. The Gifting Way of my Grandmother was clear and easy to follow; however, I had trouble adapting it to the complex, chaotic world I found as an adult. I needed guidance, and it came as grand as rolling thunder and as gentle as warm rain in the voices of Aldo Leopold and Mohandas Gandhi. I was told they were both dead, but I knew better: they were there, speaking
directly to me. I took the fact that they left just before I was born (Leopold exactly 1 month prior) as a sign that I was placed in their footsteps. Gandhi’s examples of local subsistence and ahimsa (living peace) showed me how to live the Gifting Way in this day, and Leopold demonstrated how to practice it in relationship by recognizing that every thought, word, and action affects all of life.
At the same time, I came across Alan Watts, who was busy exposing the West to the traditional philosophies of the East. No wonder I felt such resonance with Gandhi and Leopold; they not only embraced the essence of life Watts referred to as Zen, they were Zen Masters. Watts cleared the brush from the gateway I was to pass through in walking after them: rather than studying life as seen through the eyes of others, I was to learn by embracing life’s essence. After taking a vow of poverty, I declared myself a conscientious objector, said my goodbyes, and stuck out my thumb. I became a boat whose sail caught uncommon winds –a wandering Zen seeker.
Down one road my medicine animal (or animal helper), Wolf, came to walk with me. Under the guise of rescuing from captivity the four pups of a pair of captured wolves, I was lured into living for several years with two elder wolves named Simbut Meaxtkao (Silver Wolf) and Deshum Nashak (Earth Thunderer) by a Mohican Grandmother, along with their extended family. This experience of clan inspired the vision of human clans returning to live in balance with our Brother Wolf Clans.
On the return from one of my hitchhiking trips, I walked into a hometown bar and met a Metis woman named She-Who-Talks-With-Loons. She being young and alluring and I being young and full of vigor, I thought it would be good to become lovers. Instead of her bed, she led me out into a violent storm on a windswept lakeshore, where we stood naked in the pelting rain. She had me face the far shoreline, where lightning revealed the spirits of natives dancing to the drum. “The Old Way lives,” she told me as she sent me on my way to find Elders who still held some of its pearls.
Back on the road, I stopped in Colorado to attend a peace conference. Again, out of the blue, my real reason for being there revealed itself: I was to go up into the Rockies and meet with Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya. He was so relaxed that it was as though he already knew me. There was no small talk; he got right into transmitting the Prophecy of the Four Worlds. His description of what really mattered now in the Fourth World bore an uncanny resemblance to what I had been learning from Alan Watts.
“Where are the rest of the people?” Banyacya asked when he finished his sharing. “It is time.”
I shrugged and we quietly ate our lunch.
In my travels across the continent, I came across dozens of rare varieties of native corn, beans, and squash. Like multicolored jewels, they entranced me, and I became their passionate caretaker. The only glitch was that I soon came to realize I was no farmer; mine was the way of my hunting-gathering ancestors. How could I honor the kindly Grandmothers who entrusted me with their beloved Plant People?
Confirming my faith in the Gifting Way, Chas Wheelock from the Oneida Nation (a gardening people) showed up, offered me a Petition Pouch (a small, symbolically-decorated pouch containing ceremonial herbs that often accompanies a formal request) and became the Keeper of the Seeds.
Shortly thereafter, I hitched down to New Mexico to attend an environmental education conference. You’d think I’d have the pattern down by now, but once again my plans proved to be only a guise. Federico looked right at home sitting on the needle-carpeted ground in a grove of ancient Ponderosa Pines in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I listened to story after story of his adventures that ranged from Tierra del Fuego to remote Greek islands, where he went to learn all he could about the Old Ways from the few people he could yet find living natively.
However, he wasn’t all talk. There was the mountain climbing rope he made from wild plant fibers and the buried trench fires that we slept upon to keep warm at night. He taught me a number of tricks, such as how to make fire by friction in damp conditions and novel ways to use grass and cattail down for insulation.
As with me, Federico found that wherever he went, natives had similar core cultures, clan structures, and traditions of honor and respect. Other than utilizing different materials, they employed the same skills. And no matter what the language, most natives merely called themselves “the people.”
As with Grandmother, I didn’t know who Federico’s people were, and I had no desire to ask. Once I realized he had Grandmother’s character, I knew who he was. Like Grandmother, he quietly demonstrated how the Great Mother graciously provided all her children’s needs, right in their immediate area. He was content with that, showing no desire to have something else or be somewhere else, so I felt as at-home with him as I did with Grandmother.
After my time with Federico, I knew I could feel at home anywhere. So I chose nowhere. I thought it was time to listen — time for this wandering Zen seeker to do some inner wandering — and to do that I needed to be away from scurrying people, the all-pervasive media, and materialist culture.
Deep in the forest south of Lake Superior I found an isolated cabin hermitage. Its only amenities were stately pines, beaver ponds, and being immersed in the heartbeat of life. And yet all I could hear was my inner turmoil. Something was wrong, something was missing, and I had to find it.
Makwa Giizis, an Ojibwe medicine man, accepted my petition and met me at the base of the mountain, where he guided me through the ritual preparation for my Fast. Before I could catch my breath I was left alone on a ridge half way up the mountain. I was in the alone of alones: nothing existed but my emptiness and my clear sense of presence.
But not for long. My guide had barely disappeared down the trail when voices came on the wind and the sky turned prophetic. I had prepared for a quiet fast and instead was given a Feast of Feasts that sent me spinning with a narcotic mix of fear and ecstasy.
Hitching down the road from Makwa Giizis’s was like drifting through a fairytale. It didn’t matter that I was on a lonely road in North Dakota, as all roads were the same path. The old man in the faded 1942 Plymouth coupe was putting along up the road so slow that I didn’t know whether he was intending to stop for me or not.
His clothing bore the same frumpy look as his car, but not so his eyes. Were it not for their sharp, knowing glance, I wouldn’t have hopped in. There was no “Where are you going?” or “Are you having good luck getting rides?” We traveled mostly in silence for 15 miles or so, and then he pulled off to the side, apparently to let me out. He then putted back in the direction from which he came.
Five minutes later, he reappeared. I walked up to the car.
“My name is Red Elk; I heard you calling me to come back.”
And that I did. Remembering Andy’s lesson about how asking can get in the way, I said nothing in the car. Instead, I sat down beside the road and envisioned spending time with that Elder who drove up out of the past.
At the kitchen table (classic 40’sFormica), Red Elk poured me a coke and continued to work on his son’s dance regalia.
“I’m Mormon,” he said, out of nowhere.
“How can you be Mormon and Lakota?” I replied. “They stole your babies to brainwash them!”
“There is no disagreement,” he responded without looking up. “Who we are is our relationships, not what it says we are on paper.”
I drank the coke, something I hadn’t done in years.