I found myself flat on my back on Saturday night, awed.
Grass in the curls of my hair. To my left, like ghost breath, a pall of sage-scented smoke carried silent offerings into the immaculate expanse.
At my feet thundered a fire, the crackle of blue, yellow, orange, red.. consuming the sizzling snapping branches.
I lay there, intimately aware of these voracious flames, because that night, I was the Fire Keeper. Because that night, I fed that fire. And because that blaze, set deep into that land, held 18 white-hot stones that were being fired for the re-enactment of the primal act of creation.. the Native American sweat lodge.
I was a wish-breadth from the altar which held offerings and precious things belonging to the participants, who had met earlier as strangers with the usual masks. Participants who, in the depth of that lodge, where human eyes cease and the heart’s eyes open, were journeying together now, along the good red road of rememberance.
Participants of this day and time, westerners making a living in South Africa, paying rent, holding jobs in IT, in reception, in dance, in healing modalities, in landscaping…were finding the new language of their Spirit voices, and
remembering, and discovering themselves.
Participants who were now re-member-ing, and learning again about their place, about connectedness and the sacred… hot, anxious participants who were fighting their claustrophobia and cloying fears, were honouring their existing families.
And by experience, were reaching across their differences and creating the fragile bonds of a new family, born of the dark confessional of their purged hearts.
I lay, lapped by the tongue of the ancients, in the lap of the Mother, contemplating the heavens – the cosmic pulse of our lives – the sentience of dreams and, almost directly above me, the numinous magnificence of the Southern Cross.
In moments when the fire seemed content to burble, the faint sigh of the ocean could just be heard. This home-coming was hosted on land on Glencairn’s suburbian slopes by a couple whose lives are dedicated to sharing this way with others.
The constellation above us was witness to the hum-drum of the ordinary surrounding us, the ceremony, and to my broad smile into the breadth of the night.
This was not my first sweat lodge. When David Standing Deer was named by visiting elder John Twobirds, I was receiving my own spirit name in the same line. That was many years ago. John has left this world now, and of all the people who met and
were changed by him, David is the only one I know taking this way forward to the people, full time.
I carry what I learned from John in my own way. Its part of my world and my life, it runs through my words, my heart, my dealings with people and this world..and that’s enough for me.
Saturday was not my first time as Firekeeper, but it was good to step back into the circle with whole-heartedness and the full-body memory of what ceremony provides.
From the mouth of the sweat lodge, I could hear David Standing Deer speak, and the magic of his words, words I had once heard from gravelled gold voice of an elder, spun their magic. Those words and the building heat started to slip masks
My fellow fire-keeper shared my name, and we recognised in each other the strength of resolve to be fully present for this night and to fire those stones, and bring them, all but flaming (but definitively hissing with heat) into the centre of the
lodge. There is a curious satisfaction gleaned from being face to face with that intensity, fearlessly and consciously working within inches of its burn. It is in a way, a sense of being the fire itself, melding with it to become it and
thereby not be singed. This urges one to deeper thought about how we engage with the fire in our worlds.
When the opening dedications were said and the stones were called for, there was a deeply gratifying sense of unity in this role, in digging each of these massive glowing stones from the firepit and delivering it to the lodge, balanced on a
pitchfork, for David to arrange. Then a bucket of fresh water would be handed in, the flap closed, and the sweating would begin: in earnest.
Each person is given the opportunity to speak. Each round is dedicated. Round one, thanks and prayers for the earth, our nurturer. If there are eight people sweating, there are eight voices giving thanks for all the aspects of the earth they
wish to acknowledge, and after each speaker, water is doused on the stones to create the steam. The steam acts as a twofold thing, it sweats the people, stripping them of all layers, and when it escapes from the lodge at the end of the round like breath on a winter’s night, it carries those prayers to the watching constellation above, and into all things.
There are four rounds, each specificially dedicated. First one gives thanks and asks for healing for the earth, for family and friends, for the animals, then and only then, may one ask for one’s self.
The fire stones are tended throughout the night-long ceremony, the heat hungers and the stones move in the pit, faces flitting briefly across their surfaces. While they burn, the words float and spill and fall from the lodge, some slippery with tears, some bold beasts with bared teeth, some mere whispers, each borne into the ether on the wishes of their speaker.
Lying as I was on my back, those words coming overhead could almost have been shooting stars, fizzing truth from so many different tongues.. that and the scent of sage and flame wove momentarily into an ancient song.
That’s what made me smile.
We all the know the words. We just don’t often speak them.
I recognized sorrow, courage. I heard love, recovery. I understood pain, healing. I resonated with grief, then found power. I heard gratitude. I felt deeply, connection..recognition.. harmony.
I remembered the first time I understood the earth’s sentience.. slithering from a sweat lodge with John Twobirds I lay face down on the earth and felt breathing. I thought it was my own, and then I was filled with the strange desire to hold
my breath. I did… and the breathing – ever so gently – continued… face down in the dirt I understood something then that the participants in this lodge, on this Saturday, were just coming home to on an experiential level.
Sentience, individual responsibility, family… all looks very different when one is fresh out of a sweatlodge. The world is expanded yet again, as a firekeeper to one.
Some of us are lucky to experience both. Others will find their truth in other expressions of unity. We will have different names for them: beauty, balance and harmony will probably be among many of the tenets to follow.
I’m not one for labels. Or convention. But truth rests gently in me. I laugh with Forgiveness. Beauty’s blade cuts me tenderly, often, lest I forget that I am not the only living thing in this world.
Much of what I tend to, comes from what was shown to me in the depths of a sweat lodge’s sacred centre. It makes it easier, in the depth and dark, fighting for each breath, fighting for words to put to the hammering of one’s heart, to elucidate one’s own choices.
Nothing will teach more effectively the beauty of being succinct.
And equally, the true beauty of finding the words within, for what has always ached to be said.