Since late Autumn I've not had the opportunity to step back from what I have been doing and write an issue of Reflections. With this Reflections, I hope to resume my monthly writing. I'm using this letter as a way to share with you the shamanic experiences that have been my focus these last two months.
In early November, I gathered with my ElderBear Sisters at a retreat center just outside Tucson. This is a Circle of women that has been exploring and practicing BearMedicine for almost eighteen years. For various reasons, we focused on making a formal Covenant that would describe our Circle commitments. Among the ten 'agreements' we made, two of them state:
"To establish and maintain a system for making prayer requests among the Clan for our families and friends in need. An email with subject PRAYER REQUEST will be sent and each of us will
"To tend each other in illness and our ending/crossing over time."
Our time together was permeated with the special joy that arises when a Circle's members recognize the deeply forged bonds they have made over many years and the ways in which Spirit has blessed them. The Desert offered us rich moments for deepening our experiences of the larger Web and for engaging with creatures unique to this habitat.
The last night of our gathering, we were reflecting on some of the special moments that had marked this time. As our evening was drawing to closure, I shared that I was experiencing an acute sense of moving into a period of "last time or last times.." I did not have any specific idea of what was for the 'last time' or any particular premonition. I needed to voice these feelings
because they were so strong within me and somehow related to our BearClan. I'm always seeking to learn the meaning of unexpected messages from my body because I have learned Spirit sometimes uses our physical vessel as a way to inform our Soul. I ended by saying: "A year from now...or the next time we gather...maybe what was for the 'last time' will be clear...or maybe there will be no such 'last time' as I'm experiencing and these are just some transient feelings".
I could feel the silence in the room right after I shared but since this sense of last times did not feel dreadful but rather somehow part of all we would know in the coming year, I felt no need to soften my words. And I believed we were quite capable of tending ourselves, and others, through the stages of human experiences that we call birthing...living...and dying. Not only did we have our love for each other but
also we had come to experience the incredible Powers that Spirit can send to assist humans in their Earth journey.
A Call from Donner's Pass
About three weeks after returning home, late one afternoon, I received a phone call from Cheryl...one of my Clan Sisters. She was calling from Donner's Pass, a high summit, in the Sierra Mountains. With trembling voice, she told me she was on her way to Reno to be with her Mom who had been taken to the hospital and was now in Intensive Care. At that moment, she and Mark (her husband) had been stuck in snowbound traffic for two hours. They were caught by the fierce Winter storm that had arrived overnight to Northern California. She describes how she is standing outside her car, snow swirling around, traffic not moving, and her urgency to get to her Mom. I can hear the anxiety and worry in her voice. I am familiar with the high pass
over which she must travel to Reno. The pass itself is named for a group who were also caught in fierce Winter storms and whose struggle to survive produced an outcry at the time because they had engaged in cannibalism. It is a major story in the development of California.
As we spoke of the Donner Party and her worry about being stranded in the Pass, I reminded Cheryl that shamans work with Weather Spirits. I also recalled for her the ancient Bear story: "Comes When Needed"--- in essence, when the call goes out and the need is felt, then Help will be sent...either in the form of Bear or some other Animal Guardian that Bear sends. This is an ancient story of promise that indicates the people knew such Power would arrive and to remember this in times of extreme stress. And together we Called.
I also spoke of her Circle of BearSisters upon
whom she could call for help-"What did she wish her BearSisters to know?" Cheryl gave me a description of her Mom's situation.....which was quite serious and perhaps life-threatening...and she felt an urgency to get there as soon as possible.
We returned to working with WeatherSpirits, and shortly thereafter, Cheryl exclaimed "SnowBear's here" and described a Spirit approaching her through the snow..... just moments later, car lights began turning on...indications the traffic was starting to move again. As we ended our conversation, I agreed to immediately send a Prayer Request - for Cheryl and her Mom. Lines from a poem Cheryl wrote last week speak of this moment at Donner's Pass:
Snow and swirling air taking forms
Bear tracks at the mountain peak
They come when called
Snow Bear standing on one side
Bear Sisters on the other
Since that initial phone conversation with Cheryl, I have been focused on learning and doing what is involved in supporting someone I love as she tends her Mom in her dying time, and assists her Soul's movement after death. Then about three weeks ago, our Circle received a "Prayer Request" from Pirkko, another BearSister. She was letting us know she had been informed that her sister had entered hospice care that afternoon and was near death. Between the death of Cheryl's Mom and Pirkko's Sister came the shootings in Tucson....home of some of the
BearSisters and a place the BearClan has come to love.
In retrospect I think Spirit was working and teaching us in our November gathering - we were being prepared to both live our lives, and to tend our dying with a consciousness formed by an ever present awareness of the Comfort, Grace, and Beauty in which Spirit holds each and every Being.
There are experiences within our shamanic community that may be offered to one or several of us....in this case to a Circle....yet they are meant to be shared. I think we are actually obliged to bear witness to the Presence of the One....for we are not left without Love or without Help during our life journey. Yet sometimes we can lose our knowing this...and sometimes we can be too overwhelmed to remember 'to call for help.' Through sharing we keep an ongoing
consciousness available....a source from which each of us can draw in those times we might forget..and from which we might draw comfort as and when needed. I think of these Reflections as contributing to the Communal Well of Re-membering.
A Circle Responds - Prayer Request: for Cheryl and Her Mom
The teachings and experiences of this time with Cheryl and her Mom are extensive....and rich in the ways individuals or a Circle learn how to listen both to the one requesting help and to Spirit. I am lifting out a few of these experiences that have now in-formed and shaped my perspective for times of dying and death and re-membering. I am also being guided by those responses that may be unique to Shamanic Circles. These are moments when the secular and the shamanic worlds can interweave rather than work at seeming odds one with the other. It is, perhaps, in
times of dying that we are most challenged to ensure that our spiritual tending is not jeopardized or obscured by demands from the official or secular worlds.
Our Circle's process was thus: Cheryl would call me at different times of day and night. She would share whatever was on her mind and her heart - occurring during the hours since last we spoke. After each of our conversations, I would come to my computer and send an update to the Clan Circle...these updates included any specific prayer request Cheryl might have given me. Clan Sisters would then respond and the next time Cheryl called, if there was time, I would share responses from individual Clan Sisters. At certain times, it was important to share journeys, activities, or ceremonies that some Clan Sister had done because often these would include some specific support to Cheryl, from Spirit (s), through someone in our Circle. We did not even
attempt to interpret these...nor did I with Cheryl. They were messages for her and her only. We did not discuss these in emails among ourselves...that meant there was a pristine, non-interpretive flow of information and support.
We were communicating under circumstances within which Cheryl had to grab opportunities to call...these opportunities included finding some private space in the hospital where she could talk...whether that be a bathroom, a stairwell, a phone booth or on the steps outside the hospital. And even then, sometimes our conversations would be interrupted or aborted because someone would come looking for Cheryl. She was needed
by her Mom or some doctor had arrived and Cheryl could finally asked questions that had been on her mind that day.
I stress the circumstances within which our conversations occurred because they influenced the nature and flow of our
sharing. Both of us, in retrospect, were so focused during these times that only the 'essence' from any particular topic was always being shared. It's somewhat analogous to an individual describing every detail of a journey or an individual sharing only the essence. The first type of sharing has the risk of providing so many details that the one listening becomes lost and might even forget the intention, much less the meanings, of the journey undertaken. At the same time, sometimes a certain detail, 'along the way' in a journey can be key to understanding what Spirit was communicating. I found the best route was to simply listen and respond only for reasons of seeking clarity or at those moments when I thought my Sister was seeking some specific support from me.
Small Rituals Can Help Focus the Listening Times
Thus, when I heard my cell phone and the
'ringtone' indicated it was Cheryl, I had a small but important ritual that developed by the third phone day: I would pick up my iPhone, take a Stone Egg out of my pocket and put it down in front of me...sometimes picking it up during our conversations...other times simply having it on some surface near me.
(A little background: at our ElderBear Clan gathering in November, we had each drawn a stone, shaped like an egg, from a basket holding a wide variety of precious stones: that is, stones that had been considered of special significance by shamanic cultures around the world. We referred to them as our Bear Birthing Stone...or our Winter Bear Dreaming Stone. They were visible, physical reminder that we were invited to touch and nurture whatever was being born within us during the Winter
months....to welcome this birthing just as Eggs of other animals would be hatching in Spring).
I had spent a fair amount of time with my Stone Egg since our ElderBear gathering - frequently carrying it around with me, gazing it, and allowing its physical texture to communicate meanings to me. So often did Stone Egg speak of endurance...of being shaped by the Waters of Life...of great strength and great fragility. When Cheryl first called me from Donner's Pass, my Stone Egg was on my desk to the right of my computer.
While listening to Cheryl, I had unconsciously picked up Stone Egg and been rolling it around in my palms or rubbing my thumb along its curves. Somehow that rolling and rubbing became 'fixed' as part of talking with Cheryl.
I have not asked
other Circle Clan Sisters if they had, or have, any such ritual associated with their relationship with Cheryl during this time. I know that each of us tended a Candle for her and we shared what we had done in response to some specific request from Cheryl.
I have shared this little ritual with Stone Egg because, over those days, I found it helpful to have something I could touch that reminded me of quiet listening, of endurance in many ways, of our ElderBear Circle, and of the way the Waters of Life can shape, wash, and transform us over time, and of birthing that comes through any process of transformation. The Stone Egg spoke to me of these realities and others I can feel if not articulate. In some profound way, I also found my self listening for what knowing or event was seeking to be hatched, to be revealed, during the day's activities that Cheryl would be describing. I did not think 'about'
this - it's simply that a Stone in the shape of an Egg, and held in my palm, was a constant reminder of new worlds developing...and surely that is one way to consider dying and death-a change in form and world.
Breathing and Singing - Bringing Comfort and Peace to our Bodies and Souls
A major concern Cheryl conveyed was the high level of anxiety and seeming fear that her Mom experienced as she struggled for oxygen. Even though she needed an oxygen mask for breathing, the mask itself seemed to induce in her Mom fears of suffocating; anxieties about this were heightened because she was unable to speak with the oxygen mask. In the few times the mask was removed so her Mom could speak, she quickly began gasping for air---clearly not getting enough oxygen. And understandably, Cheryl's own stress and anxiety were increasing as she witnessed her Mom's
struggle. I had a friend who died last year from chronic pulmonary obstruction and I recalled Paul's floundering and gasping for air when his mask was removed so he could speak. So I had some sense of what Cheryl might be perceiving of her Mom.
Thus began our focus on breathing and singing as a way to reduce panic, restore some calm, or to lessen anxiety, and perhaps to immerse her Mom in healing sound waves. This was the first time we began practicing together, over the phone, whatever shamanic ways might assist Cheryl in tending her Mom and in tending herself too. We started doing this because, with anxiety in her voice, Cheryl asked:
"How am I going to be able to hold myself together enough while singing for my Mom?" to which I
"I will sing to you...I will send easing and calming sounds to you, then you sing to your Mom, and I will continue singing to you for however long feels right. I will be the Singer at your back while you are the Singer face to face to your Mom."
As Cheryl shared the power of this for her, she asked me to write the ElderBear Sisters to sing for her and for her Mom. Singing became a way in which we offered her continuing support - a Circle of Singers at her Back. There were also occasions when we arranged for singing at a designated time...that is, when Cheryl would be receiving during the same hour.
Two of Cheryl's nieces were with her there in Reno and the three of them would often sing together. When she shared this with me, I thought "There's my
BearSister teaching the young ones the Medicine Ways" and later, at a Memorial Service for her Mom, the nieces came up to me and spoke about the importance of this time for them...and specifically the power of singing together. When Cheryl's Mom was clearly starting to move towards Elsewhere, they called me because they wanted to sing the Sami Canoe Song to her since Cheryl had seen a Canoe, and other Beings, readying to escort her Mom's Soul to Home. Over the phone, the four of us sang the Canoe Song until they were confident that, even through tears, they could sing for as long as needed...and they did.
Singing is such an integral activity on the shamanic path but this was the first time I appreciated just how much it could be the bridge between the worlds, and how singing can steady us in trembling times and give voice when words fail. Sometimes I encounter folks who are timid in their singing or
who equate the ability to sing with having a good voice! We can all sound ourselves...we can each let a flow of sound move from within to others or to the outer world. And I would wish for each of us, to have Singers in our departing times and to offer the way of singing in the closing times of others in our lives......singing, or the flow of sound, becomes the River that holds and joins us all....it is not the words so much but the uncensored sounding from our heart, from our souls.
Sending a Circle of Power (Animals)
And Encircling our Sister
Towards the end of one day, I began to be uneasy about Cheryl. We had not yet talked that day and this was the first time I had not heard from her in over eight hours. Assuming she might call later in the night, I decided to take Shamana, our dog, for
her late afternoon walk. We went deep into the Redwoods here and sooner than I expected, darkness was on the land. Without a flashlight, I was uncertain about both my footing and the path home. Standing with concern for my footing, suddenly I heard Shamana's heavy breathing and then felt her rub her head against my right thigh. She continued rubbing until I reached down and scratched behind her ears. Then she began walking just slightly ahead of me.
We continued our walk in the dark in this fashion: I would take whatever steps I could feel confident about and then pause. When I paused, she returned, once again rubbing her head against my thigh, me scratching her head, and then I continued by following her breathing in front of me. It seemed a long, long walk home but with her beside me, I did not anxious myself about taking a wrong path in the woods or stumbling over some unseen branch or rock.
I sensed that I was being given some message regarding Cheryl so journeyed immediately upon arriving home.
The essence of my journey was that each of us in the Clan was to journey and/or take word to the Animal Powers that Cheryl needed their help to sustain and invigorate her during this time. Similar to me, her footing had gotten difficult and her path dark. For whatever reasons, Cheryl was feeling alone and uncertain. Before sending word, however, I was to wait until I spoke with Cheryl to receive any specific Prayer Request from her.
She called late that night and began by saying she was so exhausted that she didn't think she could even speak....so I simply invited us both to be together over the phone in silence - to let the Silence rest
her. After a while she described a day that had really stretched her limits---a day in which she felt overwhelmed both through tending and her beginning to realize that HER MOM was dying - was leaving her.
When she returned again to the subject of her being so exhausted and the difficulty in being able to continue moving, I shared my journey with Cheryl and ended with "help is on the way right now." Because in that very moment, I could see certain Animals flying to join her...as though they, too, were just waiting to hear Her Call for Help. She stressed that she did want me to write everyone to send more help. Over the next day, BearSisters wrote that various Animals were going to lend of their power to her.
Some sisters described the
specific Power Animals while others chose only to indicate Powers were sent. There was conversation about whether to describe the Animal or to keep that private...but each Sister made the choice appropriate to their understanding. There's no right or wrong answer in this regard and I respect both choices. I was struck, however, by the effect on Cheryl while I was reading to her the description of one BearSister's journey. It turned out that one of the Animal Powers that was sent to Cheryl was a Being of special importance to her for many, many years; it was a Being, however, that she had never shared with the Circle and was involved in her life before ever she began the practice of BearMedicine. This was one of those moments when someone journeys for us and brings back information that has a unique importance to us and this very specificity confirms for us, on the deepest levels possible, that Spirit is indeed Here, Present, and Holding and Tending us.
This sending of Animal Powers is different from retrieving a Power Animal as some of us are taught in shamanic training. This sending is more analogous to a Friend arriving to our side, lending of their presence and support as needed, and then returning to their home. Thus might an Animal Power I work with say "I'll go to Cheryl now" and sometime later this same Animal Power nudging me to say "I'm back Carol." The variety of ways the Powers can assist us is unlimited but if our intentions and requests are clear, then we are able to see and accept that they might work in ways previously unknown to us or quite unexpected.
Power Rising Up Within the Circle
Then came another day when Cheryl's voice indicated great weariness.
Just as we both sensed the importance of Animal Spirits gathering in Power around Cheryl, I had a sense this was one of those moments when it might help to tap into the deep re-membering of ourselves in Circle with other humans...to intersect the spirit and physical worlds in a meaningful way. In the past, Cheryl had referred to times, esp. when the Circle is drumming and singing, that she starts feeling this 'rising up of power' both within herself and the whole Circle. I reminded her of the many times she had shared her experience of this 'holy power' in Circle.
Over the phone, we began this re-membering by turning our consciousness to being in Circle...holding hands in Circle with our other BearSisters...we allowed ourselves to re-member the sound of the drumming rising up in us, sound and singing moving through and around us in Circle.
Cheryl starts commenting she can hear some Sister's specific drum or their singing voice---at some point we put down our drums and hold hands. Over the phone, she describes placing her left hand in my right hand, her right hand in the BearSister on her other side and in a long silence, we are both experiencing this rising up power that completely invigorates through love circulating within the Circle.
In my letter later that evening to the Bear Clan, I share our complete conversation and how we are doing this meditation with the rising up power of our Circle. We were asked to do this re-membering in whatever ways we experienced "rising up Power" in Circle.
During these conversations with Cheryl, I also became increasingly aware of our
BearCircle's support: I felt tended as the one who was bridge and messenger during this time. I felt strong in my tending because I literally experienced the strength of the Circle with whom I would later be sharing and I KNEW they were waiting to hear how they could be of support. I listened, not only for Cheryl and me but also for the whole Circle and wrote all I could remember of each conversation.
I have had several deaths in my own family over many years and have been directly involved during the dying times of a brother and a sister. I remember the loneliness and isolation that can develop and how people can scatter rather than come together. I feel incredibly blessed that Cheryl shared her Mom's dying and death with us and equally blessed to participate in Circle with Sisters who WANT and WILL be there for one another during these passages.
And it is this sense of the Circle encircling that I think is so important to convey and to do. It reminds me to be more conscious of those moments when I experience "Circle" in power-filled, loving ways so that I am able to speak of these, to assist others in re-membering as needed, and to assist myself in re-membering as needed. We were all blessed that Cheryl had a very clear knowing when she experienced this Power of Circle
....a knowing we could re-member together when not in physical circle and yet when such re-membering is needed.
Spiritual Support in the Encounters with the Official World..
"This is MY MOM - I will bless her Body and tend her Soul"
One of the most difficult shifts in consciousness can come when the 'official' and legal worlds interrupt our spiritual tending in the times of dying and
death. And since this public world can seem so pragmatic and rationale, we can feel even more challenged as we are suffused with our feelings of love and the range of emotions so present in these times. Faced with the rational clarity of the ordinary world, our feeling-full Selves can seem too vulnerable
and lacking in the firmness of decision-making that others seem to require from us.
Cheryl called me the day her Mom moved home to hospice care---anxious that now all the decisions for care were in her hands as no one from hospice was remaining with them. Suddenly with no medical staff around she was worried she might make some mistake. Once more we walked through re-membering all the Help she did have yet we also spoke of the specific things that needed doing (e.g. the morphine drip). She doubted her Mom would live through the weekend and we spoke of 'last times', of physical intimacies (e.g. lying with her Mom) and last touchings one body
to another - the blessedness of the physical Vessel that is the Home of our Soul during our Earthly journey. As I went off to bed, I had a keen sense that this last night would be very special between the two of them and gave prayerful thanks for the blessedness of this last journey for both of them.
Cheryl called the next afternoon fretting that she did not have enough time to tend her Mom's body before the Funeral Home people came to take her away. Her needs and desires seemed in opposition to what she was begin told by the hospice nurse; she didn't feel they were allowing her time to wash and cleanse her Mom. Since she had been told the staff of the Funeral Home would be arriving shortly, she felt there was no time available for those cherished moments as Soul leaves Body and begins its own journey to Elsewhere.
I was so glad to be able to tell Cheryl she could take her time. She could call the Funeral Home office and tell them when they could
come that day; and she could tell the hospice nurse that she wanted time alone with her Mom's Body to prepare her for whatever type of burial the family would choose. I shared with her different scenarios from my own experiences with this specific time of tending and she shared what it was she wanted to do now. As soon as she realized they could continue tending from that place of "This is MY MOM....I will bless her Body and tend her Soul," Cheryl moved quickly to inform the hospice nurse and to call the funeral home and, of course, they respected her wishes.
And for her own healing, Cheryl was able to witness how the staff of the Funeral Home respected her wishes. Cheryl and her nieces had covered her Mom's body with rose petals...roses being her Mom's favorite flowers. When the men arrived to take her Mom's body, they asked Cheryl if she wanted them to put the petals in the casket. She told me she
was so surprised that she answered: "You can do this?" Yes, please do.." And then the guys started picking up the rose petals that had fallen to the floor and placing them in the outer edges of the casket and as Cheryl exclaimed to me later: "It was right, Carol, it was just right and so beautiful because the lining of the casket was the same color as the rose petals!"
Cheryl moved quickly to inform the hospice nurse and to call the funeral home and, of course, they respected her wishes. And for her own healing, Cheryl was able to witness how the staff of the Funeral Home respected her wishes. Cheryl and her nieces had covered her Mom's body with rose petals...roses being her Mom's favorite flowers. When the men arrived to take her Mom's body, they asked Cheryl if she wanted them to put the petals in the casket. She told me she was so surprised that she answered: "You can do this?" Yes, please
do.." And then the guys started picking up the rose petals that had fallen to the floor and placing them in the outer edges of the casket and as Cheryl exclaimed to me later: "It was right, Carol, it was just right and so beautiful because the lining of the casket was the same color as the rose petals!"
As I think about these final days, I realize how important it can be to know just how the spiritual and official worlds can intersect with loving kindness. Sometimes closure in our relationships is difficult to have, at that time, because the 'outer world' seems to step in so quickly, determinedly, and to function by an altogether different perspective than have we been holding. Yet it does not need to be that way and we can remind one another when we forget. I am sharing this now because others of us most likely will find ourselves either in Cheryl's place or as a friend supporting someone whose loved one is dying. In our Circles, we can educate
ourselves as to the regulations in the city where we live. As shamanic practitioners, this knowledge allows us to help our friends weave their spiritual tending with the requirements of our ordinary world.
After Cheryl returned home, she told me that that particular conversation was the most critical for her in terms of keeping love flowing to her Mom as long as was desired.
Reflecting on her comment, I realized that a thread running through all those days with Cheryl and her Mom was a tending that exemplified the spiritual beauty of the Body and the Earthly nature of the Soul. Every touching of the Body was touching Soul; every speaking and singing to Soul was touching Body. Our Body the home of our Soul here; our Soul knowing no other Home until our Body dies and our Soul moves Elsewhere. There was such a poignant sweetness as Cheryl described 'walking her
Mom's feet,' brushing her hair, washing fingers or face....or lying down beside her and soaking in both the warmth and fragrance of Mom...and gently holding her Mom's head to her breast just as her Mom had held hers as a child and daughter.
I became so aware that this was a Daughter tending her Mother in her dying and death. In her tending, she tended for all of us who have lost Mothers and were unable to be with them in their time of departing. One journey depicted a MotherLine with women through many generations - and Cheryl's loving touch ran like a current through this MotherLine - some healing occurring for everyone.
I titled this Reflections "Winter Departures - A Circle Responds" because, as I shared, other departures have occurred since Cheryl's call from Donner's Pass. Our Tucson BearSisters are grieving their losses. Pirkko is now involved in trying to bring closure to those areas where the official and spiritual
intersect and Then, she can feel and share more with us regarding the death of her sister Hilkka. In each of these losses, ElderBear Sisters received emails titled "Prayer Request..." and our Circle responded...and continues to respond. There will be other departures and, as Stone Egg represents, there will be births and transformations too.
The issue is not whether there will be others but how shall we respond within our shamanic community. Perhaps Circles can focus on this topic in one of their meetings....develop some consensual way to inform everyone and develop ways of supporting one another during such times. Just as we celebrate the Seasons of the Earth, let us celebrate the Seasons of our Living and our Dying. A major difference both in Seasonal Celebration and in some shamanic healing is that this tending is not a few hours and sometimes not even a few days......it is truly a walking with another for as long as desired.
A Circle walking together provides a rich and powerful source for drawing on the Powers, sending the Prayers, singing the Songs, and hands holding hands through these Valleys daunting to anyone - yet one in which each and all will someday move. My hope is we move with Singers at our Backs and our own Singing strong.
Equally important, let us be Singers for one another in our Living---if we can learn to Sing one another through our lives, then Singing through our dying and death is not strange nor requiring of us something foreign to our nature. Whether Singing our Living or Singing our Dying, the Sounding itself is the Voicing of Eternity - sometimes here and sometimes Elsewhere - yet always Present.
As Pirkko reminded us in a quote she sent recently:
Life is eternal,
And death is only horizon,
And horizon is nothing,
Save the limit of our sight
Love and Blessings,
Please make note that my email address has changed. I no longer receive at my old AOL address
My new address is:
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