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Remembering the silence of a wise Elder

Thursday April 26, 2012

I’ve been around the ceremonial life and the teaching lodges of my people for over thirty years now. It doesn’t seem that long. The very fact of being part of a spiritual community lends time a different quality, one where time passing becomes more like time inhabited, each day, month, year joined in a stream of vital energy. As I get older I look back and recognize significant moments in that journey that I will always hold as special. There are a lot of them actually and I feel blessed.

But for me, the special moments, the unforgettable ones, aren’t the big, huge, splashy production numbers you’d expect. My life hasn’t been a Technicolor glitz and the things that carry me forward are the simpler, genuine and touching, moments that are memorable for their humanity. In the end, spirituality introduces us to our humanity. That’s its biggest gift.

Sure, I remember my first Vision Quest, pipe ceremony, sweat lodge, Sun Dance and healing ceremony or being danced into the powwow circle by Elders for the first time but the big moments are always easy to recall. What really moves me though, what keeps me brown, are the quiet enriching moments that happen naturally when people come together in a good way.

When I was thirty I came home to Kenora to live with my mother and try to recover from the failure of my first marriage. I’d been living and working in Regina, Saskatchewan where I’d transitioned from newspapers to radio. But alcohol had me in its grips even then and my marriage was a merry-go-round of craziness and regret. My wife asked me to leave eventually and I arrived at my mother’s full of pain and hurt and feeling very guilty and ashamed. I didn’t think much of myself and it showed in everything I did.

I worked where and when I could but the only place where I felt better was at ceremonial gatherings. Friends from Manitoba took me to a remote traditional camp on an island on a lake far away from any towns or roads. While we were there we learned traditional skills, cultural skills, ceremony and got to sit with Elders and hear their stories and ask the questions we needed answers to. It was a special place.

There was a man there named Clayton Archie. He must have been about eighty then and had a quiet way about him that was regal almost and we all walked softer around him. He seemed to understand the pain I was in and even though I couldn’t talk about it he stayed close to my side all the time I was there.

He asked me to be his helper and showed me how to prepare the articles and things he needed for his ceremonies. It was an honour to be asked and I worked deliberately and conscientiously. Every night we’d go and sit on a log beside the water.

He’d sit and smoke an old cob pipe and I would be content to look at up the stars. I recall those nights as being as pacific a time as I have ever encountered and the loneliness and the hurt seemed to lessen in the presence of all that marvelous space.

When I looked at him, the glow from his pipe turned his face into angles and shadow like what you’d expect the face of a shaman to look like. I kept waiting for him to say something, to offer a deep meaningful teaching or a story but he never did.

What he did was honour my silence. We sat there night after night and he told me just by his presence that he was there for me and that he always would be. He told me in that wordless way that it’s feeling that gives birth to right words and he was content to abide and allow me to find my way to them. In that overwhelming quiet I allowed myself to feel my feelings and he was calm and patient until I could find the words for it all. Eventually I did.

I spoke and he listened and in the end there were no grand secrets transferred to me, no elaborate First Nations rituals of redemption. Instead, my own words, allowed to come at their own time and in their own fashion, framed my healing. It was a ceremony of
acknowledgement. Once I owned my feelings and held them, I was free to let them go. I hurt for a while after I got back but it wasn’t a crippling ache.

He was a wise man. Ceremony sometimes is just our hearts in motion. And sometimes when life is tough I still gaze up at the stars and I remember Clayton Archie, waiting for my words to fall.


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