Dia de los Muertos

The circle sat quietly in sacred space, men and women. Some in chairs and some on pillows on the floor. Candles were aglow on a center altar cloth with a sparkly spider web design, as well as a small mossy animal skull, a piece of Ursula’s grandma’s hand-tatted lace, and a bowl of marigolds. It was the Day of the Dead.  Dia de los Muertos.  All Souls’ Day.

The larger, more public ritual at the Community Center had gone off well. People had brought mementos of their dear departed to create a huge altar in the west that glowed with multi-colored electric lights, fall flowers, gaudy Mexican hangings and a great deal of love evidenced by photographs, artwork, and bits of the lives of those who had passed on.

Molly had explained that many traditions considered that the veil was thin between the worlds of the living and the dead at this time of year when the leaves were falling and the harvest was mostly in.

People had spoken the names of the deaths in the previous year into the circle and everyone repeated the name twice. The tissue boxes scattered around the circle came into good use as tears flowed. At last, when it had been quiet for a bit, someone began to sing softly, “May the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by…..” Immediately everyone had joined heartily in on the chorus. “There’s another home awaiting, in the sky, Lord, in the sky.”

They had ended the circle with a woman from the city leading them in a few of the Dances of Universal Peace. Afterwards there was feasting on the food people brought that reminded them of a loved one. From blintzes to enchiladas to Ritz crackers and salami, the beloved dead had their due.

Now in this circle it was time for the smaller after-session, held this year at Charley and Ursula’s house, chosen in part for the availability of the hot tub. Joining them as usual were several not usually part of the group who had lost someone during the year and who were open to a deeper connection than the larger circle allowed.

Cindy sat with bowed head. She used to feel pressure to “produce” at these occasions and then worried that what came to her was a product of her imagination. The training of generations to doubt psychic “knowings” was hard to dispel.

I-mage-in. Magic. Imaging. Being a mage. After several years of doing this she’d acquired faith that what came through to her had relevance, so she didn’t care as much what others in this intimate circle thought. She trusted the effectiveness of the invocation at the beginning to allow in only those energies dedicated to the highest good of all beings. She was comfortable doing this in small groups where she knew most of the people. Maybe some day she would be willing to be more public but for now she still wanted some degree of invisibility.

She didn’t think of it as a séance. In fact she shuddered at the word and its connotations, especially as it was one her husband, Van, threw at her when he was being particularly skeptical of her gifts and process. But she knew it was true that she had a special connection with those who had passed over and this was the time of year when their disembodied voices seemed to press on her most forcefully and persistently. It used to be that she and June were the only ones to “receive” but increasingly in recent years others experienced connections as well. They had an agreement that whoever popped in their heads was considered to be present. Given all the people they knew who had died, it was no longer a stretch to say that the ones who appeared in their minds wanted to connect. It was always interesting to see who “showed up.” And who didn’t, which by definition wouldn’t be noticed until afterwards.

 

Molly hummed notes without a tune to herself. Others soon picked it up and it segued into toning that soared, multi-leveled and glorious. As the harmonies and disharmonies wove in and about, a palpable cone of power rose above them. Some could actually see it shimmering. June and Raven, for instance.

Suddenly, with no word or direction, the tone broke off. All of the voices fell silent. Some touched their hands to the floor to ground the energy into the earth. Some covered their hearts to take it inward. Some reached skyward to call in the dead.

Molly spoke into the silence. “As I was toning, I kept thinking of Seth – my dear work companion at ReBound – gone several years now. I could feel his energy around me wishing me well, apologizing for ways that he let his ego and insecurities get in the way and let me down. Thanking me for taking on Loki-dog until she died. This is the first time I’ve felt him in circle. Occasionally he comes to me at ReBound, though it’s hard to separate out his actual spirit presence from the memories of him associated with so many aspects of the place. Maybe there is no difference….” Her voice trailed off.

“I remember how much he loved odd metal bits,” said Owen. “He got a lot of people started welding. And he could fix anything.”

“He never met an engine he didn’t like,” laughed Alex. “When we cleared out his work area and then his house after he died, there were dozens of them.”

“He could be pretty hard headed and not everyone got along with him, especially our younger staff,” remembered Molly. “He was always so charming though, I forgave him even though perhaps I should have been harder on him for some things. We both were such rule breakers…. He sure was a teacher for me about trickster energy.“ Ursula and Raven each reached out from either side to put hands on her knees.

“Is he wanting anything from us?” asked Pia.

“I’m getting that I’m to pay a little more attention to the garden where his sculpture is… and… he wants me to do some of my own art…. I’ll try if you’ll help me, Seth.”

The group lapsed into silence again. Then Cindy spoke up, “Alex, I sense Jed here, your dear partner of so many years. Can you feel him?”

Alex began to weep softly. Ursula handed him one of the cloth hankies she kept in a basket. “There are more here if you need them. Put the used ones in the smaller basket when you’re done,” she said softly as she passed the basket around.

“The manner of Jed’s leaving was such a gift to the community,” said Charley. “I loved that day when we all came through to say goodbye to his body lying there in the bed surrounded by candles and flowers. I was so grateful you let us all take part in that. You were brave to keep the mortuary people at bay.”

“I was grateful that it worked out for me to be at his side as he died,” said Pia after several quiet heartbeats. “I saw his soul lift up. In fact, I haven’t told you this before because I was a little afraid you’d take it the wrong way, but I helped a little with my breath and hands. He was working very hard to do it well, but he needed just a little assistance in those last moments to actually leave his body.”

I’ve felt guilty that I was asleep when he passed,” said Alex. “But you helped me to understand that sometimes people need to do that last step without the presence of their loved ones. That for some it’s too difficult to leave otherwise. Still, I so wanted to be there. If I’d known how quickly he was going….”

“He wants you to be in contact with him now. He says you have some work to do together…..”

“Man, he would have hated that implication before he died – he was so science minded and so clear that pesticides and other shit killed him. So certain that death was the end…..” His voice trailed off and they all waited in silence to see if Alex himself could pick up anything.

“Blackberries,” he said finally. “Blackberries. I’m supposed to chop the brambles. What on earth can that mean?!”

“It’s not exactly on earth,” quipped June. “Perhaps it’s about clearing the path between your different worlds. And maybe teaching the rest of us about that.”

“Maybe you can come for a tarot reading soon and we can look at that more deeply,” offered Ursula.

“Don’t forget to listen to your dreams,” said Owen. “It may be a soul contract you made somehow that you have to stay connected.”

“I did have a particularly vivid dream about him recently, “ said Alex. “I knew he was trying to tell me something. But I couldn’t make out what it was.”

“Keep listening. I think that’s what he means by blackberries. Those huge tangles of prickers are in the way of you guys communicating. He’s saying he loves you very much,” said Cindy. Again there was silence to see if any more would come about Alex and Jed.

“I’m getting all sorts of local creatives flashing through,” said June. “Klaus Jordan, a painter on the Mountain who died 30 years ago and dear Brin who taught music at the Community College. I think we all need to be doing our art more no matter what the medium in order to find out more about ourselves.”

“And I just got Marta who landed here for a bit so spectacularly a few years ago with her shamanistic paintings,” said Cindy. “I think these folks will help us if we let them in and pay attention to their whisperings. We all need to clear the blackberries.”

“I’m getting something about – from? – the native peoples of the Mountain and our river,” said Charley. “They just popped into my mind anyway so I thought I’d better mention them. But I can’t…. I have no idea what they’re trying to say.”

They all sat breathing quietly, listening, reaching out…. Until finally, “Thanks to you, spirits, for coming through to us tonight,” said Owen. “We will work with your messages.”

“Ho!“ Said everyone in unison.

 

Pia’s Morning 2

The Bay was peaceful, a slight drizzle making lovely little splashes on the water. The hills across the way were fogged in, hiding the crest above with the craggy tree they climbed to sometimes for ceremony. The tide was coming in, so the river was flowing backwards, the salt sweeping the fresh water upstream as it did twice every day. What a potent dynamic. She wasn’t exactly sure how far up its influence was felt, but she knew it flowed back and forth in front of the land upriver where they hung out in the summer and even further up, one was wise to take the tides into account when kayaking.

She took a deep breath of the all the watery influence, the clean rain and salty ocean mixing with the tang of the mud flats. The ocean’s sound was faint today on the other side of the dunes, though the buoy at the mouth clanged every few minutes. Waterfowl twittered out where the tide flowed.

The River. For a moment she could feel its current through her body like the flow and saltiness of her own monthly blood. She could also touch into the river of her growing up years in Michigan, as well as the river by her college campus and even the storied rivers of the earth…. the Tigris and Euphrates, the Amazon, the Mississippi, the Nile…. Arteries of the earth. Lifeblood of the Mother.

She pulled up the hood of her sweatshirt and, leaving her tennies by a log, walked along the shore. Acclimated. Attuned. A little ways north she turned to head across the inter-tidal area towards the edge of the woods. Not much of it flooded daily this time of year, but it still had a boggy quality to it. It was do-able in bare feet but she had to pick her way carefully to avoid the slightly prickly stems of silver weed and grasses, as well as a few broken bottles and other detritus of the summer visitor season. Picking the latter up and putting them into the plastic bag she carried in her backpack, she splashed through little pools, enjoying the squishy places, and climbed over silvered logs that had drifted ashore last winter and would no doubt be moved about in the return of the stormy season. Many of the logs had been journeying hither and yon in the same vicinity for years.

The shrine was tucked into the clutter of logs, salal, Nootka rose and huckleberry at the edge of the marshy area. To get in she had to duck under a low hanging branch, but other than that the way was clear. It would be a different story come spring. By April the logs would be scattered like matchsticks against the rise of the bank, a new configuration every year. Either Raven or Owen came out before the annual Mother’s Day re-dedication ceremony to make an opening again. Some years the way in was cleared from the north end and some years from the south, depending on what was moveable or could be climbed under.

The sand was still dry in the tiny clearing, the large overhanging Sitka sheltering it from the slight precipitation. She called a quiet welcome to the space, and kneeling, swept aside a million tiny crystals with her hand. There was the stone. Flat granite from the Mountain, carried here 15 years ago by her tribe. The Fibonacci spiral at its center seemed to wink up at her and as always her finger was drawn to trace its double curves. She poured a few drops from her water bottle as a libation and then settled, legs crossed, to breathe in the stillness of the place.

Well, almost still. A jay squawked insistently from overhead and a squirrel chittered, both announcing her presence to the woods further inland. It was quiet again for a moment and then a heron honked a greeting as it passed by out on the water. Was it the same who had sent her this way?

She certainly felt she was in the right place. The angst of her morning had been left behind. The River flowing by had put things back in perspective. She was prepared now to listen to its song. How wonderful if it had a message for her….

She thought of the native peoples of the place who had summered in this area. Perhaps camped in this very spot as they clammed and fished, enjoying the bounty of the season before the higher tides and wild winds of winter chased them upstream and inland to their more permanent long house villages. She loved to think of them squiggling their feet in the sand as she and the children of her time did around a campfire under the summer stars.

Another loud squawk reminded Pia of the year a crow kept noisily complaining to the small group present for the dedication. It had swooped in and out every few minutes and scolded them roundly each time. Towards the end of their communion someone had looked up and there above them was the half eaten carcass of a salmon dangling precariously from a branch no more than ten feet over their heads. It could have been disgusting. It could have fallen on their heads. Instead it made Pia feel they were an intimate part of the sacred round of eater and eaten and as such it was like a blessing. No wonder the poor crow had been so upset, its feast interrupted and, as far as the bird knew, in danger of being stolen by these larger intruding five fingered ones. They had apologized and, their ceremony over, had left soon after.

The memory of the fish now had Pia thinking of the salmon and the meager flow of them compared to the time of the Old Ones. A university student passing through a few years ago had spoken of his work for the return of the Columbian Condor, sighted by Lewis and Clark not far north of here and last seen towards the end of the 1800’s. A worthy endeavor, certainly. But as a local wildlife aficionado had pointed out later to Pia, the condor depended on huge numbers of salmon and the area was no longer rich enough in this resource to support that piece of the cycle. The salmon were still giving of their largesse, but the wiles of the white “civilized” branch of humankind had brought them dangerously close to extinction and ruined much of their healthy habitat. The hatchery fish were no match and lacked the nutrients and hardiness of the native ones.

Salmon. That amazing magical fish, creature of both River and Ocean. Spawned up towards the headwaters of every tributary, even the tiniest, they swam out to the ocean and then years later, made their way back to the very spot from which they had come. Such a dance of instinct and mystery. They were honored by the native peoples, the first fish of the season celebrated and every fish thanked. No one could imagine then that they could ever become so few.

Pia lowered her head as tears of sadness, then frustration, then of rage swelled and broke over her. Her own salt mixed with the salt of the sand, her own water spilled to mix with the water of the River. The Salmon. How had her people come to be so out of touch as to perpetrate and allow such damage?

Now is the time to make it right.”

Pia’s head snapped up. She looked around for the source of the voice but knew she was alone. “You are one who can change the story,” the voice came again. Images of the Native peoples flashed again in her head – the campfires, the laughter, the storytelling. Fish drying on sticks or passed around on cedar planks. Savored. Cherished. The story of Salmon Boy told again and again so the children could learn of nature’s cycles and the right ways to hunt and to honor the creatures that gifted themselves for the People’s sustenance.

You live in Nekelew – place of the Salmon. You must honor us here. You must restore the balance. Tell your people. Do not let another year go by or we will all be gone. We want to flow again. We can even thrive again. But you must fulfill your mission.” The voice was thundering now like the River itself at full flood over the falls upstream. “It was for this that you were born. It was for this that you made your way to this place.”

“Who are you?” asked Pia.

I am River. Mountain. Sea. Marsh. Field. Salmon. I am Gaia.”

Pia was on her knees now, hands clasped at her heart. “I honor you. I serve you.”

I know that, Daughter. You dedicated yourself to me and serve me and your people well. I ask you now to dedicate yourself to the part of me that is this River and its people, the Salmon. Kelew. And this place of Salmon. Ne-kelew.”

“What is it that I am to do?”

Pia waited quietly for an answer to her query but the potent energy had left the tiny clearing. Tears ran down her face at the chance to have had even that much contact. Part of her was non-plussed at not having a specific assignment but she knew enough about voices and oracles to know that she had been blessed with more clarity than most. She had only to state her willingness. The rest would unfold.

Still kneeling, she dug in her pack for her Swiss Army knife – the athame, ceremonial dagger, of her Wiccan influence. She cut a tiny slit in her middle finger and as a drop of blood welled, touched it to the center of the spiral on the Shrine rock. “I honor this place, Ne-kelew. And I honor the Kelew itself and the River of its flow. I open myself to guidance as to what I am to do.”

“No wonder I have been at loose ends lately,” she thought as, protecting her cut finger, she gently and lovingly pushed the sand back to cover the shrine rock allowing for its discovery by those who were meant to find it.

When she crawled back out, she realized the sun had appeared while she was under the sheltering Sitka. She blinked at its brightness and peeled off her sweatshirt, gasping a little when she realized the connection of its Nekelew High School message – Arlo’s alma mater. Yet another sign. It was a thoughtful walk back across to the beach. Everything was sparkling now rather than the silvery grey of her earlier trek. Both states were beautiful, but her heart was lighter now and her step inspired rather than driven. The time was 1:11.

Owen’s Morning

Mahonia tells me it is about coming into True,” mused Owen Logan to himself as he moved off the main trail up the Mountain. “Like a carpenter’s sense of upright,” he said, tilting his hand back and forth slightly in his mind’s eye to create the wobble of a board out of true.

Owen was a large man so his progress was rather bearlike. He was dressed simply in a well-loved green woolen jacket and patched jeans. A grey ponytail curled from under the hand knit hat of subtle woodsy hues protecting his bald spot from the moisty mist of the September morning. He didn’t exactly blend into the forest, but he belonged somehow.

The rough elk path he was now on led to a patch of Mahonia nervosa, more commonly known as Oregon grape. He thought about the taller variety he had next to his house, Mahonia aquifolium. Though the books said otherwise, his experience told him it was difficult to say which was the more potent of the species. He loved them both with their bunched yellow spring flowers and their roots, which when scraped, yielded bright yellow shavings. Medicinally antibiotic and anti-viral, it is coastal Oregon’s goldenseal. Tinctured, it made a fine general tonic. Good for the gums too, especially gum infections. He loved to say the word “berberine” – the component that made the yellow of both plants.

Lately, however, Owen had been noticing the subtler properties of the plant. Coming into True. Finding balance. Helping one to be more truly oneself. Helping to find one’s life purpose – to find the path one was meant to be following. To pay attention to the guides that abounded if one only knew how to listen.

Owen was pretty sure he was on the right path – both literally and figuratively. He knew he was at home here on the Mountain. In fact, he had been born here and his knowledge of the plants and their properties was extensive, though he had come to that study relatively late in his 64 years. He loved it that he had fallen in love with Oregon grape before knowing that its Latin name was the same as his village by the ocean – Mahonia. Synchronicity, indeed.

He used to fret that there was no way to learn all that the Old Ones of this place must have known about their habitat. So much was lost when the natives died off. He had only been slightly comforted by something a medicine woman of the Siletz Tribe told him in an herb workshop a few years ago when he spoke this concern. “Listen to the wind and to the plants themselves,” she had said. “They will tell you what you need to know.”

At the time he hadn’t really understood what she meant, and assumed it was no more than a metaphor. But recently he had been consciously communing with the plants and they had begun to tell him their secrets. He now knew they had so much more to gift than the synergy of mere chemicals even in their most natural state.

Today he was heading for a patch of Mahonia nervosa that was tucked in among the Sitka spruce, hemlock and bushy salal on the south face of the Mountain. He’d brought his digging fork because he wanted to transplant a little of it, to try once again to grow it in the woods of his own home further down the mountain. Perhaps he hadn’t asked it properly the other times or maybe the spot he’d chosen hadn’t been to its liking. What did it take to get it to flourish removed from its siblings’ roots?

There – spread out like it was planted, the conditions of sunlight and slope perfect. It grows so slowly, its spread isn’t very far. Is it because the big trees shade it on either side? He moved gently through to sit in the middle. To pay homage.

“Mahonia, most sacred plant to me, thank you for your presence in my life,” he said out loud as he poured a libation from his water bottle on the plants. It was Mountain water that he gathered from the spring up the road from his house. “May I take a little of you to have close at hand? I think you will like growing in my yard at the bottom of the Mountain. My friends and community have need of your wisdom and presence closer to their homes.”

He listened quietly to the subtle sense that this plant and this one, but not that one, were willing to make the journey down with him to gift their power to the people of this place. Indeed, Owen got the sense that they were thanking him for paying attention and honoring him for it. “It has been a long time,” he heard as a whisper in his mind. Owen expressed his gratitude again and wrapping his gleanings in the newspaper he’d brought, added them to the clutter in his frayed green backpack.

Hey…. Was that a coyote he saw out of the corner of his eye? He mentally saluted that local Trickster who had now passed behind an ancient cedar stump.

Clambering back to the main trail by a slightly different route he wiped a sticky spider web off his graying beard. “Forgive my intrusion, Grandmother.” Off he went, down the Mountain, back to the town of Mahonia that was the center of his world.