Moon Grail

I never know whether to keep one eye on the crawl below the news program or stay single-mindedly watching the main story and its visuals.  Sometimes I use this to test my ability to concentrate on one thing at a time.  Or my ability to stonewall the temptation to multi-task even while watching the news.  It seriously strains my freakish curiosity to know what’s going on in the world.  I often fail these tests.

A day or so ago I was diligently exercising my sense of self-control in this way when I thought I glimpsed the word “Grail” slide across the bottom of the screen.  The Grail??! By the time I focused there, the news item was gone, and I was telling myself that I must have been mistaken.  Surely the quest for the Grail is not a news-worthy item.  Even though it should be.  But I decided to wait for the cycle of “crawl headlines” to complete itself and maybe the item would return.

Secretly I began hoping it would. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was someone somewhere in the world searching for the Grail as in olden times?  Or maybe someone had actually found it!  I waited impatiently through crawling blips about the jobs crisis, European financial disasters, Lady Gaga’s latest thing, Rick Perry’s ignorance, flooding in the Northeast (oh, yes,  I live here), and various other news bulletins that whoever controls these crawls thinks are important.

And then there it was!  It returned! The story about the Grail.

Turns out, the latest moon probe is called the Grail.   As I learned on more comprehensive stories about it later on, it is carrying two cameras that are going to simultaneously orbit around the moon taking pictures of the moon’s interior.  The news anchor said it was like a “cat scan of the moon.” (Or those x-ray booths that look under your clothing at airport security.)  And eventually we can see the photos on a special web site that’s being set up so school children can prowl around inside the moon and find out what’s really there. Sounds like a worthy project.  At first.

I got to wondering whether we are tempting the fates.  Are we meant to see inside the moon?  In some ways, this all sounds like another example of humanity’s hubris, of reaching out to places we are not meant to go.  The stories of the Grail make pretty much the same point:  you can’t find the Grail and look inside and survive. Occasionally someone sees it, fails to ask important questions, and it disappears along with a lot of other things like castles, wounded kings, beautiful women, and lavish banquets.  Galahad does look inside, but then soon dies and goes to heaven.  It seems the message is clear: we are not meant to know what is inside the Grail.

But does that stop us?  No.  Browning may have said this best. “Ah, that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”  Or even just a moon, for that matter.

What bothers me most I think is that this may turn out to be another incidence when science “proves” something and thereby “disproves” lots of other things that were a lot more fun to think about.  Remember the various studies of dreams in recent years?  Scientists now know that when we dream certain synapses fire in our brains, electro-chemical whatzits reshape themselves, and our eyes roll around; and so many people now think of dreams as nothing more than just that.  They don’t think that dreams come from the gods anymore. Or that they have important teachings for us.

When those school kids start browsing this moon web site will they stop thinking about green cheese?  Or the Old Man?  Or the rabbit?  Or the cow? Or that Native American woman who was thrown up there many years ago?  It’s possible the cat scan will find something truly amazing but mind numbing—in the sense that our minds will be lured into not thinking very creatively about what the moon is made of or what the strange shadows on it might be. Or what a moon is for.

There’s an old Scottish Highland custom of men taking their caps off when they saw the moon, and women curtseying.   They thought of the moon as an important friend who had returned.  They honored it. They prayed to it with words like these:

Hail to you, moon of the seasons.  You are the most beautiful moon of moons.  You are the guide of the stars, the companion of the clouds, the dear one of the heavens, the jewel of gentleness.  You are the joyful maiden of my love. I lift up my eye to you. I bend my knee to you.  I bow my head to you. I lift up my hands to you. I raise my voice to you. You are the jewel of the night. You are the beauty of the heavens. You are the mother of the stars. You are the child of the sun. You are the majesty of the night sky. You are the moon of moons and of blessings.

And people carried a coin in their pocket to hail “the queen of the night” when they first saw her by reaching into their pockets and turning the coin over three times.  Why?  Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

I worry that these young students will grow up not knowing what they’re supposed to do, and how can you get on in life if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do?

When the cat scans are available, we might start thinking that we’ve seen what’s in the Grail.  And I’m afraid we will no longer say and do these things.

The Disaster Guide

I’m pleased to announce that the Society for Shamanic Practitioners’ guidebook for healing and tending in places where disaster and trauma strike has been available for about a month and is getting rave reviews. The book is a composite of articles by various SSP members who have worked with disasters, and they share their experiences with readers to inspire and suggest further shamanic responses to the world’s crises.

The guidebook is just that – a guidebook, not a blueprint, nor a set of rules and regulations. Every disaster is unique and requires the right action for its uniqueness. The book is simply a collection of philosophies and possibilities that can be a foundation for others to do similar work. The book urges readers to “read between the lines and listen between the words for Spirit to speak and comment.”

The first section contains historical perspectives on how shamans have worked in the past and modern perspectives on how we might respond to crises today. Two of the articles in this section deal with using energetic fields in the land and working with light and positive visualizations.

Section two deals with the predictable phases of disaster and how shamans might respond to each of them. It also contains ethical questions for practitioners to consider before and during their work with suffering beings so that our work comes from a place of integrity.

The third and largest section of the book is composed of articles by practitioners who faced specific challenges and the ways they dealt with them. These include working with animals who have been rescued and are now living in a shelter; healing at the scene of a motor vehicle accident; healing a dangerous intersection where multiple accidents occur; finding missing persons; remote work to heal Asian Moon Bears rescued from farms where they were held captive and restrained in order to drain their bile for market; land-tending at a windmill site; and finally, a full report from the 2010 SSP conference in Santa Cruz, California, where seven teams of shamanic practitioners conducted on-site healing and tending work for seven disasters in the county both past and present.

Shamanism Without Borders: A Guide to Shamanic Tending for Trauma and Disasters is an 82-page field guide to shamanic work for disasters resulting from natural, industrial, or human causes. It is a must for shamanic practitioners who wish to be better informed about how our unique skills can be used either on-site when crises occur or remotely when we hear about them occurring around  the world.  It can be purchased from the SSP web site for $12 plus shipping.  Go to and you will see how to order it on the home page.

As one contributor put it, “We are here to bless and be blessed.  So be a blessing!”


I like to drink a cup of coffee on these summer mornings sitting on the stone wall behind the house, watching the rising sun make Chinese shadows on the back of the house as it shines through the trees.  Like a kaleidoscope the shadows move and change position, change shapes, appear and disappear.  There is such beauty in this season.  The gardens are full of flowers. The fronds of ferns are long and lovely and lush.  In these early hours I imagine I could spend the entire day just sitting and watching what is beautiful.  The rosebud impatiens dropping its spent blossoms as new buds open.  The points of light that glisten in the wet grass. The way some birds gallop when they fly.  Watching what is beautiful would make a good day.

Yeats said that beauty is a “gateway out of the net” of this world.  I suppose by “net” he meant what we mean when we think of the chaotic, stressful world of business, work, pain, and struggle that ensnares us.  But beauty can be a gateway into the world as well, meaning that it pulls us deeper into the world of Creation.  Whatever Mind or Sensibility lies behind the natural world has formed and painted colors and light-shows that dazzle our eyes, has trilled musical notes into the wind and water and produced the myriad sounds that delight our human ears, has laced the physical realm with threads that connect our senses to what pleases  them and sometimes thrills them.

I’ve come to think of beauty as the quality of delight that we find in many places that causes us to stop and admire.  Perhaps simply stopping is also a way of escaping the net of the workaday world as well.  Who has not been told to stop and smell the roses?  But beauty has a power of its own.  Beauty makes us stop.  We pause at the sight of a beautiful face, a radiant sunset, the mocking bird’s song in the morning.  Even driving a car 65 miles-an-hour down a highway, we mentally stop when we come up over the hill and view a vast, enchanting vista before us drifting off ridge after ridge to the horizon.

Beauty demands that we slow down, pause, and admire.  It pulls us out of whatever funk we’ve fallen into. It offers us another world within this world.  It challenges us to make what is beautiful part of our lives, and to live our lives each day in a beautiful way. When all is said and done, beauty’s role in life may be nothing other than to make us feel good that there is such beauty in the world.


I haven’t lived in Missouri since 1972, but my heart is still connected to the land and the people I knew there growing up and those I know who still live there.  My mother had some distant relatives who lived near Joplin, and our family went to visit them one summer when I was maybe seven or eight years old. Crossing the state from St. Louis in those days before interstate highways was a bigger and longer adventure than it is today.  I have only two memories of that visit. One is of me and my sister bouncing on a big feather bed in an old farm house.  We had never seen a feather bed before. The other memory is of Mother telling us we were going so far we’d be almost across the state line into Kansas, where the Wizard of Oz takes place.  It seemed exciting.

When the tornado blew through Joplin last weekend I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico after the SSP conference that focused on doing shamanic work for disaster sites as a community of practitioners.  But the group had dispersed by the time we learned about the tragedy.  So here’s what I did.  I’m writing about this hoping that this kind of “shamanic tending” will appeal to others when some power of the earth rampages.

I merged with my power animal and sought power from a Sheltering Spirit I know in the Hudson River Valley where 7,000-year-old rock shelters exist, and then I collected some power from the Spirit of Hospitality that I have worked with as a figure on the Irish Spirit Wheel.  Then we flew to Joplin.

When I felt I was there, I used the prayer left to us by Francis of Assisi.  It is a prayer for balance, although he called it “peace.”  This is my version of it that I used in Santa Fe/Joplin.

Divine Spirit Who Dwells in All Things,
may we be bringers of peace.
where there is hatred let us sow love,
where there is injury, pardon,
where there is doubt, faith,
where there is despair, hope,
where there is sadness, joy,
where there is darkness light.

May they not seek so much to be comforted
as to comfort those who survived,
not so much to be understood
as to understand what has happened,
not so much to be loved
as to love.

For it is giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
it is in dying that we return to Life Itself.

So I flew around and perched on things, and kept spreading this prayer, hoping that some of the people of southwest Missouri would hear it.

Feeling Small

With so many crises raging around the earth, we teeter on the brink of despair.  Despair that there’s nothing we can do, or despair that things are not going to get better, or despair that the good things may be gone forever.  I’d like to wallow in this despair for a few moments—aware that there are things we can do—and to step back from that sense of urgent action and reflect on the feeling of despair itself.  The feeling of deep, if not total, helplessness and grief over what is being lost or changed forever.

I often wonder how ancient peoples—the very first peoples that we might call “human”—dealt with and understood the powers of the world over which they had no or very very little control.  I like to think that they did not despair.  Rather they developed (or already had) a worldview that saw themselves embedded in a huge Universe of living beings in which they were just another grouping.  (Grouping may be the accurate word here, for they most likely did not have the strong sense of individuality that we modern people do.) They did not despair (so my fantasizing goes) but simply saw themselves as small.  There was value in acknowledging their smallness in the face of the Great Universe on which they depended for life, for it was, after all, realistic.  They may have talked or even prayed to that Universe, maybe saw it broken into various, distinct powers, may have even attributed spirit and consciousness to those powers.  May have even called those powers “gods” or “God.” But even if they hadn’t, even if “religion” or “spirituality” as we know these terms had not evolved within them yet, they still knew that outside of their individual and collective selves, there was another immense Being, a Being outside of them with power that can only leave one awestruck.

It is good to be awestruck.  I keep reminding myself of the poignant words of Matsuwa, a Huichol shaman:

The shaman’s path is unending. I am an old old man and still a baby, standing before the mystery of the world, filled with awe.

The mystery of the world is the power of the world, the Powers of the Universe.  And we shouldfeel small in front of them.  And so disasters like the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear explosions should bring up the difficult emotions for us: despair, helplessness, grief, sorrow, and smallness.  Even warfare and violent rebellion in the Arab world triggers some deep feeling of life being out of control.  If we were there, amidst the seething crowds of rebels and protestors, we might get pushed and shoved into feeling our essential smallness and helplessness.

We do not like to feel small, living as we do in a century where so much of the world is under human control, or at least strong human influence.  We have grown accustomed to having our world—our food, shelter, clothing, necessities—at our fingertips, even one fingertip a mouse click way from whatever we need whenever we need it. We feel big in our current times, with our strong indivdual egos.  But those of us in the shamanic communities, even while that small and helpless feeling rises in our guts, might also experience a kind of thrill.  Not because it is thrilling to watch disasters and see people suffer and die, but because they lead us back to that primordial consciousness out of which shamanism emerged, that consciousness of being small before a grand and frightening universe before which we stand in awe.

I hope we do not despair.  And certainly there are things to do to help, heal, relieve suffering, tend and rebuild the world.  But I am grateful for moments when something awful in the Universe causes me to snap back into that humble feeling of smallness.  Definitely not to wallow in it, but to acknowledge it as our essential relationship to the Universe.  To remind ourselves that in some sense (maybe even many senses) we are as helpless as babies, standing before the mystery of the world, filled with awe.

How do we see ourselves fitting into the world?  That may be the most basic religious or spiritual question we can ask. And we may not even need to assert that there are gods or a God.  Just that there is Something Powerful Outside us.  And maybe the way Matsuwa saw himself in relation to that Mystery—old approaching death, young emerging from birth—is the least despairing stance of all.  I hope I can always and forever repeat Matsuwa’s words to myself, and really be filled with awe, no matter what events shake or destroy the world we know and love.


Arnold Toynbee, one of the great 20th century historians, said that when we evaluate civilizations or cultures we should look not at how rich and powerful they were, how much land they controlled, what their GNP might have been, or how advanced their arts and technology were.  Rather, we should ask how they cared for the most vulnerable members of their society:  children, the elderly, the sick, the poor.  Going on this basis, most indigenous cultures would probably come out pretty high on the list.  They carefully nurtured and initiated their children into adulthood; elders were respected and cared for; no one was denied health care; and there was relatively little difference in affluence between the lifestyles of the leading families and the ordinary people.

While in Nairobi we went on field trips when the eye clinic ended each day.  Two of these made me think of Toynbee’s remark as they demonstrated how Kenyans are caring for some of their most vulnerable members: orphans.

The first orphanage we visited was for baby elephants.  If young elephants are orphaned, they have very little chance of survival.  A baby elephant is milk-dependent for the first three years of its life, and occasionally may even need its mother’s milk up to age five. In recent years two factors have increased the number of orphaned elephants.  Poachers shoot the mothers for the illegal ivory market.  The years of drought either kill off the mothers or the lack of food and water doesn’t allow them to lactate sufficiently.  The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi has successfully rescued and hand-reared over 85 newborn and very young elephants from 1987 to 2009.  By 2009 36 ex-nursery elephants were fully rehabilitated, reintroduced into the wild, and are now leading normal lives among the wild elephant community.

Elephant development parallels human development.  Elephants have a childhood until age 10; then a definite teenage phase until age 20, when they become young adults who are fully mature by their 30s and 40s.  By age 50 an elephant is elderly.  Elephants live in families, bond with each other, and grieve if one dies or is captured.  They can die from stress, bad diet, polluted air, and foul water just as humans do. And from the intricate ceremony they perform with the bones of a dead relative, observers surmise they have a rather sophisticated and emotional understanding of death. If an elephant stays healthy, it can live into its 70s and 80s.

The orphanage is in the Nairobi National Forest just south of the capital.  We arrived in time for one of the three feeding periods that take place each day.  At the appointed time, a herd of 15 baby elephants came tromping out of the forest with their Handlers, heading for the water hole where very large baby milk bottles with nipples waited for them.  Each elephant is hand-fed a formula that approximates its mother’s milk, after which they roll in the water and mud and cavort with each other, tossing themselves over each other’s backs, clearly having a good time.  Soon they are covered in red mud and very happy.

One of the Handlers pointed out individual elephants and told us a little about them.  Some were only a few weeks old when they were rescued, some were found on the day they were born.  All of them that we watched were under three years old and were clearly enjoying the new family, or herd, in the orphanage.  They also bond with their Handlers who sleep with them at night. A baby elephant would be stressed to sleep alone.  So each elephant has a night stall with straw on the floor, big enough to give it room to lie down and roll over.  At eye level is a platform-bunk with a mattress on it where the Handler sleeps.  Handlers rotate so that no elephant becomes too dependent on one man.  Most of the Handlers are young Kenyan men, although we saw a white woman, also young, wearing the bright green overalls as the men and working along with them. (The overalls are crucial because frisky baby elephants think humans love mud as much as they do.) The Handlers stay with the elephants 24 hours a day.

When they are reintroduced into the wild, they often seek out other “graduates” from the orphanage.  An elephant never forgets, and relationships built up as young elephants can continue into later years.  These relationships help the younger elephants adjust to the wild. Elephants communicate with body language and spoken sounds (some of which are inaudible to humans) which they have to learn from other elephants.  They also have telepathic abilities and can detect seismic sound through their feet.  A young elephant needs to be exposed to older elephants if it is to mature with the right skills and abilities to survive on its own.

There is a saying that an elephant will only thrive if it is happy.

The other orphanage we visited was the Nyumbani Village, a mostly self-sustaining community that serves orphans and elders left behind by the “lost generation” of the HIV pandemic.  The orphanage requires two conditions for accepting a child.  Each child has to have been abandoned, and each must be HIV positive.

Founded by Angelo D’Agostino, a Jesuit priest who died recently, the part of the orphanage we visited began operating in 2006.  It consists of what you might think of as a small village green surrounded by cottages.  Eight to ten children live in each cottage with two older women whom they call “mother.” In time the children live much like other kids in a large extended family, playing and studying with each other, meeting on the green to play games.  All together there were about 100 children under the age of 7 or 8 living in these family-like settings where they receive love, sustenance, healthcare, holistic education, and cultural teachings—the many factors that go into lea toto, which is Swahili for “to raise a child.’

The village is safely enclosed from the outside world, and the children can roam freely on the green where they play games, romp, scream, and run like other kids.  Since medical science has perfected medications for HIV, the ailment has become a manageable disease, much like diabetes.  With the right “cocktail” of medications, a person with HIV can live a long time and lead a rather normal life without developing AIDS.  The children at the orphanage look happy and healthy and are as thrilled to see visitors as children in any orphanage might be.  They tagged along with us, grabbed our hands, eagerly took the candy some of us gave out, climbed up on our laps, and even enticed a couple of us to kick a ball around with them on the grass.

We visited some of the cottages that consist of a kitchen and eating area, a play and study area, and bedrooms for the children and the “mothers.”  As in other orphanages these children will progress to other areas for further education and development, where the staff hopes, as does the staff at the elephant orphanage, that the young will eventually be reintroduced to the outside world, embark on a successful life, and survive. A small area of the grounds, however, was the graveyard where some of the earlier children who were unable to live with HIV are buried.

I didn’t hear anyone actually say this, but it seemed that the working principle at this orphanage is similar to that at the elephant orphanage: a child will only thrive if it is happy. And every 14 seconds a child is orphaned in sub-Saharan Africa.

You can learn more about these orphanages and see photos at their websites.

INTO AFRICA: The Dying Wildebeest

(The third in a series of essays on a recent trip to Africa.  See River Current posted 12-6-2010.)

One morning some of us on the safari chose to take a hot-air balloon ride at dawn to see the animals on the savanna from above.  I opted out.  I don’t trust balloons.  They either pop or shrivel up.  Furthermore, I have a complicated relationship with heights, so I went on the morning game drive instead.

We headed out across the savanna, still wet with dew, the sun not yet above the eastern escarpment.  Within a few minutes we came across a vivid drama of life-and-death on the African plains.  A dead wildebeest was being devoured by a hyena, two jackals, and a swarm of vultures.  They had been feasting for some time, their faces red with blood, the carcass rather ripped up.  Our guide pointed out that vultures are virtually featherless around their heads because they would not be able to clean blood out of a thick layer of feathers.  They are designed to be able to stick their heads into a carcass (they love to do this) and come out relatively clean.  We watched up close for a few minutes then drove off.

Within less than a mile we came across the same scenario.  In fact we wondered if the driver had just driven in a circle.  But no, it was a second wildebeest being eaten by a similar trio of scavengers although this time there were four jackals, one hyena, and a swarm of vultures.  We watched, fascinated by their maneuvers, competing for the best space, the hyena yapping at jackals and birds, jackals backing up and getting a running start to dive back into the crowd, vultures pecking at each other and hopping around with their thick wings flapping for more space.  Somehow in spite of the competitive dance, with occasional fierce stand-offs, they manage to share the food.

We watched awhile, then left, and came to a third site, in some ways more fascinating to me than the other two.  We found a wildebeest, lying on its side, dying all alone.  Whatever herd it belonged to was nowhere in sight.  Our guide said it looked old. It just lay there on its side, with no visible sign of injury.  Scavengers had not yet discovered it.  The animal was panting heavily.  Clearly it would never stand up again.  What struck me most deeply was what else the guide pointed out:  The animal was continuing to graze!  Although it could move its head only a few inches, it was stretching to nibble whatever grass was within reach.  Its old lips munching and squeezing to pull out whatever blades of prairie grass it could find.  When we left, it was still patiently waiting to dye, its life fading like the morning dew. Maybe a lion or hyena would come along and put an end to its efforts.  But I like to think it died grazing.

The rest of the day I was haunted by the vision of this lone animal, dying by itself, but doing what it loved, what it had done every day of its life.  Eating grass.

I recalled a colleague I taught with back in the 1970s.  One day early in the morning before classes I popped into his office to find him bent over a road map, plotting out his next trip.  Like me, Robert enjoyed using some of the summer vacation time to travel around the country, camping, exploring new cities, and visiting friends.  He shared his intended route with me, and then he said, “You know, if I have to die suddenly in the middle of something, I’d like to die while I’m planning my next road trip.”  This comment seemed to come out of the blue, but Robert taught philosophy so I couldn’t be sure.  Philosophers don’t live in the same blue the rest of us do.  But I agreed with him.  Then we mused for a few minutes about whether, if it happened that way, we would even be aware that we had died.  We might just suddenly find ourselves on our next journey a bit earlier than we had planned.  There is something to say about dying while doing something you love to do.

The image of the dying wildebeest continues to haunt me much like I am haunted by the famous marble statue carved about 200 B.C. called “The Dying Gaul.”  It shows a Celtic warrior, with hair slicked back with lime, naked except for the torque around his neck, his sword lying beside him.  He sits calmly, bracing himself with his right hand on the ground, his left hand resting on his right thigh, his left knee bent and still upright. He seems to be lowering himself gently and slowly to the ground where he will expire.  His head hangs downward as if resigned to his death, accepting it without struggle, as we are told animals do when they realize that fight or flight are no longer options. For over 2000 years this Gaul has been dying.  For even longer a wildebeest, if not this wildebeest, has been dying.

In a similar vein, the dying Gaul reminds me of the lovers on Keats’s Grecian urn, poised to kiss but caught in that moment just before their lips touch and so “never, never canst thou kiss . . .but do not grieve;/She cannot fade, though thou has not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”  The lovers are not dead, only painted on the side of an old Greek urn, but their eternity is fixed in a kind of frustrated bliss.  Keats also thought that “we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated.”  So perhaps the wildebeest is still grazing somewhere in the hereafter but on even finer grass. Perhaps it didn’t even realize that it had died.  And the Celtic warrior is still fighting in an even finer battle.  And all lovers are still embracing in an even finer embrace.

Later that day a woman who took the balloon ride told me she noticed something from the air that you would never see quite as well from the Land Rovers.  “Bones,” she said.  “The savanna is strewn with bones.”  Of course it must be.  Animals live there in great herds and flocks, and they also die there.  But their bones lie hidden in the grass and behind scrubby shrubs that block the visitor’s view from the ground.  From the sky the savanna reveals that in addition to the great migrations of herds, the restless scampering of gazelles and impalas, the stately saunter of giraffes, the endless whirling of wind and dust, in addition to this great flow of life, the savanna is also a graveyard.  Bones lie everywhere even though we can’t see them.

In this same Rift Valley, in the last century, the Leakey family of paleoanthropologists discovered bones that are considered to be from the earliest humans to have walked on Earth.  For centuries those bones lay hidden. I wonder how those first humans died.  I wonder what earthly bliss they enjoyed in that rugged land and if it continues for them in an even finer landscape, in an even finer tone. Yes, I am also haunted by thoughts of those ancient ancestors of ours, those early human beings, who had not yet, and would not ever, wander out of Africa.

INTO AFRICA: Seeing the World

(The second in a series of essays on a recent trip to Africa.  See River Current posted 12-6-2010.)

The Maasai who sold me either five or six beaded baskets and a warthog will never remember me.  But I’ll remember him forever. He was handsome and had an air of great dignity about him. And apart from other things, our encounter exhausted me.  This happens when you travel to places that are starkly different from your own.  Your experiences are unique, surprising, one of a kind, exhausting, while the people you meet are just going through their normal day, seeing more of the same sights and anonymous faces they always see.  To him I was probably just another jerk trying to cheat him out of a basket.  It’s amazing that given different languages and cultural expectations, we’re able to communicate at all, and do it peacefully so often.

The Nairobi Rotary Club rounded up some young college-age people to serve as translators for the eye clinic.  They hovered around the various work stations to help when we had patients who were not fluent in English. I worked with several of them and was truly impressed by their vitality, intelligent understanding of how language works, their command of language, and their sincere desire to help the people who had come for glasses.  I was assigned to work in the dispensary which was where people came with their prescription card after registering, screening, having their eyes examined, and other preliminaries.  Last stop was the dispensary where they came with the great hope that we could find a pair of eye glasses that would match their prescriptions.  Or closely match them.  Each person who came up from the long waiting line (we gave out over 2000 pairs of glasses in four days) was a total “unknown” to the five or six of us working there until we read the name, age, and the esoteric numbering system, devised by optometrists, that explains one’s eyesight on the prescription card.  Then we still knew practically nothing about them.

Our routine went something like this. We’d take the card and glance at the name.  “Hi!  (Or Jambo!) You’re Margaret (or Fadhili).  I’m Tom.  Let’s see what you need.  I hope we can find it.”

Many people had never worn glasses before, and they weren’t sure what to expect. Ages ranged from an old woman who was ninety down to children of six or seven. Of course early in the week we had a great variety of prescriptions to select from, but as the days passed the pickings got slim.  We all got giddy when a doctor wrote “Readers 150” or something similar.  There were lots of plastic bags with new “readers” that some group in the US had donated, and they were easy to locate bagged by strength, and easy to dispense. Clients also liked the fact that they were getting something new, not used.

But for people who had complicated eye-sight, or needed bifocals, we had to resort to the long narrow boxes that held thousands of old, used glasses, each in a baggie with the prescription numbers scribbled across the top.  The glasses were sorted, boxed, and labeled by men’s, women’s children’s and then by single vision or bifocal, then plus or minus indicating near-sighted or far-sighted.  First number was the right eye; second number was the left.  We’d flip through these boxes like a card catalog looking for the closest fit.  Sometimes it was perfect.  Most often not.  But usually we could come up with something that was “sawa” (okay).  I guess in many cases, any extra power was better than nothing or what they were used to, and sometimes we could give them a choice of two or three pairs to see which worked best.  Often we could tell which pair was “sawa” by the smile that lighted up their faces when they put the right pair on.  Everyone agreed that the dispensary was the hardest job on the mission.

A translator named Cliff saved me more than once in dealing with a client.  He was a bright, cheerful fellow and really took time to talk with each person to make sure he or she was getting the correct fit.   At one point a thirteen-year-old girl came up to the station I was working, handed me her prescription, and I gave her my usual greeting, but she kept her eyes down and didn’t seem to respond.  I said a few more words, but she didn’t answer back.  She just sat there looking down at her hands in her lap. It was late in the day and I was running thin on patience. Sensing something wrong, Cliff grabbed the prescription from me and looked at it.  “She’s deaf,” he said.  Of course, there on the prescription, in bold black ink, the doctor had written “deaf,” but I hadn’t noticed it.  I looked at him helplessly, feeling really discouraged.  “Can you do sign language in Swahili?” I asked sort of as a joke, more for me than him.  He said, “Maybe,” and flashed his fingers around at her and she looked up and smiled.  I don’t know if it was really sign language or not, or whether it was Swahili or not, but thanks to Cliff’s resourcefulness we found a pair of glasses for her.  Sawa!

Each day began at 7:30 a.m. at the site—a few classrooms in a muddy elementary school in the heart of the slum—and went non-stop until about 2:00 in the afternoon.  Everyone was wiped out by quitting time.  One doctor had a sharp, young girl translating for her who lived right there in the ghetto.  She asked the girl what she would do with the rest of her day.  She said she would go home and fetch water. The doctor asked her what she meant, and was told that she’d be taking buckets to one of the public faucets that the city council had installed at various places to bring water to the slum areas.  The closest faucet to where she lived was many blocks away and she would make about six trips with two buckets each trip to get the water her family needed.  It would take all afternoon.

At the end of each day our team was bussed back to the Hilton where we had warm showers and then drinks and dinner. The two safari camps we went to after the mission ended also had hot showers and each had a swimming pool.  It was often hard squaring our plush way of life with theirs, realizing how far apart our life experiences are from their own.

The week before we left, Jack and I watched on DVR a revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” that we had seen last year at Lincoln Center. One of the songs in it has these lyrics:

You have to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a different shade.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.


You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

The musical is about (among other things) racism in the South Pacific during World War II between American troops and Polynesians whose islands we had commandeered for combat bases against the Japanese.  The show is a real cauldron of races and life styles and prejudices.  But beautifully and poignantly it presents the misunderstandings of people who are trying to see beyond their own life experiences, trying (or failing) to see how people we might call the Others are as sovereign as ourselves.  I teach a workshop on “sovereignty” and I love teaching it because I’m not really sure what sovereignty is.  Each time I offer it I learn something new, find meaning for something I hadn’t noticed before, and peel off aspects that don’t seem as important as before.

I like to think that sovereignty is the dignity one feels and expresses in being in charge of one’s own life.  It’s not the same as being in control of your life or controlling someone else’s life.  I like to think that even people who are not in control of their lives can still take charge, can still decide how they will respond to what Life Itself presents to them.  I like to think that even in the worst circumstances people can still take responsibility for how they will live their lives and find dignity in who they are and be proud of that.  Like the Maasai.  Like the poor people of Nairobi who stood in line patiently for hours to receive a pair of glasses.

Fortunately I had World War II parents who did not feel we had to be “carefully taught” to hate the Others.  On the contrary, we were expected to respect people who were different from us.  Still, I was shaped by the white, middle-working class neighborhood I grew up in, just as everyone is shaped by their early environments.  My expectations of what human beings are capable of have been shaped by the positive and negative experiences of my privileged past.  We all look through glasses that distort the world around us.  Some people’s glasses create more distortion than others’.

The Maasai who sold me the baskets and warthog will most likely not remember me, but I’m one of the millions of experiences he has had in his still young life.  He is one of the experiences in mine.  Our influences are felt on each other.  For me, he will always be a lens to look through, a moment of adjustment, a valuable shift in how I was taught to see the world.

INTO AFRICA: Beaded Baskets and a Warthog

(This is the first in a series of essays on a recent trip to Africa with the Indiana Chapter of Volunteer Optometrists in Service to Humanity (VOSH).  Jack and I were two of twenty volunteers and ten optometrists who conducted a free eye-clinic for four days to dispense used eye-glasses to poor residents of Nairobi, after which the team went on a safari into the Rift Valley where humans first emerged many million years ago.  It was a journey of stark contrasts, strange time warps, and unbelievably tender moments of human contact and of animal contact.)

One afternoon we visited a Maasai village where people still live much as their ancestors did, with the minor changes you might expect given modern developments in government, politics, and technology.  They are still a tribe whose primary activities are raising children and cattle, and they live off the grid.  A common greeting is “How are the children? How are the cattle?”  They welcomed us with dance and song, and invited us inside their village bounded by braided twigs and branches to keep wild animals out and the cattle inside during the night. Their compound was totally devoid of color: gray mud walls, dirt and manure ground cover, and no visible decorations.  The day was also gray and cloudy. Storm clouds were massing over the savanna. The only color inside their village compound was the bright red cloth they use for their clothing, often plaid like Scottish highlanders, and worn like tartans along with brightly spangled jewelry and head gear.  (Later we thought: How strange! They live in an environment with no color except themselves.  We live in fancy houses with colorful, pricey décor and wear faded jeans and t-shirts.)

They invited us into their thatched mud huts where they were proud to let us observe how they live simple lives without electricity and most of the modern conveniences we take for granted.  We split into groups of five and entered their low, dark homes.  It began to rain while we were visiting, and so they invited us to stay inside longer and chat with them. They were very gracious even though they probably do this several times a week or maybe almost every day with groups of loud, boisterous tourists like us.

Afterwards we were taken into a round, thatched building just outside the compound where they display art objects and craft items which they make and offer for sale.  The building was constructed like the others, but the mud walls went only half way up, and then an open space beneath the thatched roofing.  Women and children stood outside and looked over the walls to the tables inside loaded with craft objects for sale. Many of the women were the makers of the craftwork and were positioned to observe the sales activities.  Inside the “salesmen” were young Maasai warriors.

We were told before we went to the village that nothing would have a price tag on it and that all prices were “negotiable.”  We were expected to bargain.   This is not something I’m good at or feel comfortable doing. I was prepared to buy nothing rather than fumble around over Kenyan shillings and make a fool of myself.

Well, I was on the look-out for simple items to bring back as gifts for family and friends, and I found a table with small beaded baskets.  They looked perfect:  well-crafted, beautiful, and small enough to bring back on a plane.  I wondered how much they were.  I took one over to one of the Maasai warriors who were doing the negotiating.  He called through the open wall to a woman standing outside who exchanged several comments with him in Maa, their ancient language.  He told me the price for one basket would be 2800 shillings.  When he saw the bewildered look on my face, he said quickly, “I can do dollars,” and converted with the appropriate exchange rate.  “35 U.S dollars,” he said.

So knowing this was the price I was supposed to bargain from, I suggested $12.  He said $20.  Then I thought maybe if I said I wanted six of them he would give me a deal.  “What if I buy six of them?” I asked. He pulled out pencil and paper and began his figuring.  I guess he wasn’t good at multiplying because he listed $20 six times and added it up.  “$120,” he said.  I was getting no cut rate for buying six.

But then Jack came over with a carving of a warthog that he had been looking for.  (We felt sorry for warthogs because they are the ugliest animals on the savanna.  It seems everyone despises them.  And there are lots of warthogs on the savanna.  There are also a lot of baby warthogs who look rather cute if you don’t see them too up-close.)  We told the young warrior we were together and maybe he could give us a special deal for six baskets and one warthog.  He didn’t come up with a very good offer, so I suggested five baskets instead of six to see if he’d come down a bit.  He didn’t like that idea. The price stayed where it was, because it was an “expensive warthog,” so we haggled some more and put the deal back up to six baskets and the warthog.  Finally we agreed—or so I thought.  I paid the price in US dollars and took my six baskets and Jack’s warthog, and continued to mingle around the market.

A few minutes later an old Maasai woman came up and asked suspiciously how many baskets I had. I said, “Six.”  She shouted something to the guy I had been negotiating with who came over and told me that I had bought five, not six, beaded baskets.  We argued a bit over what we had agreed on, but we were going nowhere.  I was beginning to feel like a shop-lifter.  And all the clerks were Maasai warriors.

Then, wonderfully, that part of you that can step back and watch what you’re doing stepped back and watched what I was doing.  And said to me, “Hey, you’re a rich old American bickering with a poor young Maasai over $20.  You have money.  He needs money.  This is how he makes money.”

So I said, “Okay, it’s fine,” and put one basket back on the table.  Suddenly I was feeling claustrophobic in the hot, crowded trading hut and took my five baskets and one warthog and stepped out into the soft, cooling rain that had started up again.   I hate negotiating prices.  I’m not good at it, like I’m not good at poker either.

Later back in the jeep as we headed across the plains to the safari camp, the conversation buzzed about that constant American obsession: bargains.  There was talk about “good deals,” “great deals,” “best deal,” and so on, and talk about “chewing them down to reasonable prices.” I didn’t feel like I could get into this conversation.  Partly because I didn’t know if I had gotten a good deal or not.  Partly because something else seemed more important.

I was thinking: It’s not about bargaining for the “best deal” or even a “good deal.“  It’s not about buying some object.  It’s about a fair deal between peoples.

I have money. They need money.  This is how they make money.


Shamanic Tending

Recently some of us in the shamanic community have been talking about “shamanic tending” rather than shamanic healing.  The term seems more appropriate for certain situations where the normal patterns and rhythms of life have been severely disrupted either through natural processes, like hurricanes and tornadoes, or suffering caused by human activities, such as war or industrial damage.  We say “tending” rather than “healing” because the natural healing processes of the earth are operating regardless of what shamans may or may not do.  We use it to avoid the hubris of thinking that Earth needs our healing to survive. We also use it because the usual ethical limitations we honor in personal, client-type healing may not apply in the midst of chaos and disruption on a large scale.

We’ve been speaking about this kind of effort as “shamanism without borders” to call attention to the fact that these places often lie outside our local realms of interest, that is, they are not places where we live, and they don’t involve the people we know.  They may occur on the other side of the country or the planet. The phrase “shamanism without borders” also invites us to visit those places physically if we can to get to know them in a more intimate fashion before deciding what kind of shamanic work would benefit the places themselves and the many beings that live there.   In other words, we move outside both our regional borders and even the mental borders we impose on ourselves that can restrict the shamanic help we could be providing.

The River Current article posted on June 16 of this year, titled “Santa Cruz,” describes how some of us applied shamanism without borders in Santa Cruz, California, at this year’s SSP conference.  The article was about how the team I was on offered shamanic tending to the downtown area that had suffered earthquakes, flooding, and human violence.  I’d like to elaborate a bit, however, on what shamanic tending might imply on a broader scale. (For a more complete report of the SSP’s work in Santa Cruz County, see Journal of Shamanic Practice, issue six, which will be out in a week or so.)

The late anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff called attention to the fact that the shaman’s worldview originally was not focused on the notion that health or healing was something the shaman could hand over to another person like some kind of precious gift.   Early shamans most likely did not entertain the contemporary idea that “health” should be a static end-state or that trying to achieve that static state was even possible.  Many people practicing the healing arts today do hold this notion.  Rather, the shaman saw him or herself standing in a conflux of power that is always in a state of opposition.  The shaman’s role is to hold a balance between opposing forces.  As Meyerhoff put it, the balance “is not a static condition achieved by resolving opposition. It is not a compromise. Rather it is a state of acute tension.”  In painful situations, like after a hurricane or a genocidal war, many people rush to ease pain, rebuild the town, replant the fields, provide medical assistance, punish the evil-doers, reestablish some kind of order if only temporarily.   What does the shaman do in such crises?

If Meyerhoff is right, we are here to stand between the forces causing suffering and those trying to alleviate it.  We may not be able to resolve them. Nor is our working position always on the side of those hoping to alleviate suffering even though our heartfelt hopes are for them to succeed.  She described the situation as when “two unqualified forces encounter each other, meeting headlong, and are not reconciled but held teetering on the verge of chaos.”  This flies in the face of our modern longing to have “health and wellbeing” a constant condition in our lives.  Certainly when we work individually with clients, we hope that healing efforts will bring about a state of wellbeing and equilibrium, and that a client will not remain “teetering on the verge of chaos.”  (And yet there are some chronic and lingering illnesses that might be described this way, in which case they may need tending, rather than healing.)   So how do we imagine ourselves in the face of the upheavals caused by nature’s powerful forces or the destructive violence of human beings?

One answer involves this stand between the opposing powers.  Meyerhoff explains how the shaman’s view is not the commonplace view.

(Most people) seek good without evil, pleasure without pain, God without the devil, and love without hate.  The shaman reminds us of the impossibility of such a condition for he stands at the juncture of opposing forces, and his dialectical task is continually to move between these opposites.

When I think of tending anything, I think of being present while something I do not have complete control over has its way.  Tending is supporting, nudging, observing, running errands perhaps, being ready for whatever might come next.  I don’t see my efforts of tending as always being powerful enough to determine the outcome.  In fact, some outcomes are beyond my or anyone’s powers.  Tending is sitting with someone dying, listening to a friend talk about the end of a love, pulling unwanted weeds from the garden, watching a niece make important decisions about her life, raking leaves off the front steps before they have all fallen off the trees.  Tending assumes there will be more work to do or more presence to provide.

A shamanic approach to a catastrophic situation is to recognize our ability to move between opposites, without a desire to cancel them out or to obliterate the more troublesome one or even to find a synthesis of them.  It might even mean in the cases of natural disasters to withhold judgment that what has happened is bad or evil or of the devil.  It comes down to accepting the way things are and placing ourselves in that constant dance of impermanence, watching as the powers of the universe unfold.

But our watching is not passive.  Shamans have the ability to embody the powers of the universe, to participate in the small and great movements of the seasons, to shed light on the micro and macro events of our planet, to accompany others in their walk through life.  We strive for a balance that is always teetering, always requiring that we accept the uncertainty of what will happen next.  But having journeyed through other regions of the world and having listened to the many and varied voices that the world contains, especially those that do not speak a human language, we should feel more at home in these doubts and uncertainties. We can rely on what our journeys through the worlds have shown and said to us. Then, alone or with a team of practitioners, we can provide that place of connection where opposing, powerful, and equally sovereign forces collide.  We give it a place of understanding, even acceptance.

Tending may not be as satisfying as healing.  It may not receive the expressions of gratitude that come after a successful healing session with a client. It may provide no immediate gratification.  It may not even have an end-point.  It may and probably will go on and on.  The forces of the world we live in are dialectical; we live in alternating currents; conditions are never completely satisfying.  We need to learn how to live with change in an ambiguous world of contradictions and tensions.  Shamans have never been able to stop this process, nor have they aspired to do so.  Many indigenous shamans have talked about the suffering of being a shaman.  Perhaps they were thinking about those great and awe-inspiring powers of the universe that they are privileged to tend.