“How was your vision quest?,” a friend asked.
Pick a soft seat, grab a cup of tea, and let me tell you all about it.
A year and some months ago I had an inkling it was time. I had been thinking about it for years – while I was the helpers for others’ vision quests – and whenever I was around the Native community we are honored to share ceremony with.
It was a desire, a longing – but was it time?
I was feeling stable in my business – but with paths ahead of me. Choices and directions in life and within myself. We all know those times when we feel like we could do with a good introspection
It was that time. I wanted to go within and see just what I might find there. I wanted to be alone in the woods with nothing but space and time.
And so I pinched up a bit of tobacco, put my intentions and prayers inside and wrapped it up in a tiny square of red cloth and presented it to my chosen elder.
We set the date for late July. I would go out into the woods Friday evening and stay there through Sunday late morning. No food. No water. No company. No anything except what I needed to keep warm. And a can to pee in.
I had been a helper at two vision quests before so I knew generally what to expect. I would choose 4 female helpers. They’d prepare the circle in the forest where I’d stay, sit by my side in the tipi, go in the spirit (sweat) lodge with me, and deliver me to the forest. They would come check on me briefly Saturday evening. On Sunday, they’d come and get me, taking me up the hill to a final spirit lodge, and then to a tipi ceremony.
All the details were familiar. What was shocking was the feeling. The lessons. The power of the ritual. The year of preparations. I am changed.
They say my vision quest began the day I presented my prayer tie. I didn’t quite feel that way, but in hindsight I can see the truth in it. Even as I procrastinated with starting my preparations, I was learning about myself.
The preparations weren’t easy. They were quite a big deal. I was to tie a prayer tie (ie: say a prayer) for each person and event that impacted my life. At 40something, you can imagine that list was long and arduous. There were people I’d rather forget, memories that were painful – and joy that could swallow a whale. They were all to be honored.
As I found out as I went, the experiences that were my greatest teachers were the lessons in forgiveness. And man I had a lot of it to do! What shocked me, was that much of it was for myself.
Now there were definately people in my past who sucked. People who teased me as a chubby child. An egoic pastor who wrongfully accused me of cheating. A trusted teacher who sexually abused a classmate and later ended up in prison. The woman who bullied me for years (as a recent adult!).
All of those were to be in my prayers. With some, I had anger to express first. With others, there were tears. We’re all damaged to some extent – we all have our ghosts. I was digging mine up and giving them a psychic hug. I was releasing their hold on me – and releasing my own resentments.
Opening up to forgiveness let me see people and experiences differently – often through others’ eyes for the first time, realizing that the events in everyone’s lives impact them. I birthed compassion.
What I hadn’t expected was the compassion for myself. I had internalized others words and at times believed them. I needed to comfort my pre-teen self, and congratulate my entry into adulthood. In each time period of my life, there was a new me to be honored or forgiven.
I was still holding on to the times I yelled at my daughter, to the guilt of a friend I didn’t treat well, to my words said in anger, to opportunities I let pass by because of fear, times I wasn’t present to joy, words of love and appreciation never said.
Throughout my prayers I developed a mantra – an affirmation I had collected. “I forgive you and I set you free. I forgive myself and I set myself free.” Those words seemed to literally change the neural pathways in my brain, dissolving hard lines of resentment that I had repeated over and over throughout my life, creating space. Everything felt softer.
Hours and hours of prayer and reflection will change you. I had forgotten so many amazing memories – so much about myself and what was important to me.
I re-felt the pride of conquering my fear of dancing – and becoming a dance instructor 8 years later. I celebrated the perseverance of a full course load of college on top of a full time job and a 4 year old. I remembered the fearlessness that set me off in a van my own age across country with a boy, a guitar and a dog.
Through this ritual, I remembered myself in all these variables – the thrifty waitress who saved all her coins to buy a motorcycle, the cornrow-headed science center worker who rode her bike to work and then jumped in a box truck to do theatre-like presentations for 300 kids, the young nature director who found her passion for teaching in the woods, and in the process, found herself.
All of these experiences – and countless more – were me. They made me. By remembering, by honoring, by working through and with, it in a way it rebuilt me. One step at a time, reflecting back on my life, through each and every person and experience that constructed my life was a gift to myself more precious than anything I could have imagined.
Apart from my prayers, I had other preparations for the vision quest. Unlike conventional celebrations where the person of focus is the receiver of gifts, in Native ceremony, the person requesting the ceremony is the gift giver. Whether it’s a wedding or a vision quest, a gift is given to each person who attends, to the ceremonial people and fire keepers, to the helpers and elders, and to the children.
And so I bought wooden bowls and made earings, had a precious symbol made into stickers, gathered books I thought would find value in others lives, and gathered all my gifts together. It was a beautiful practice in honoring and thanking.
As I readied myself for the weekend, I gathered and cut poles from the forest – one that would be placed in each of the four directions. What a beautiful task that was! Selecting fallen trees, each with their own story and markings – missing bark, insect trails, histories of the life they had lived.
And I cut down a tree. In the center of my circle there would be a “Creator pole”, a living tree that would be stripped of bark and sunk into the ground deep enough for me to lean against. It was the pole I would be touching at all times throughout the weekend (except for when I walked my prayer paths.)
I chose a maple – a species I knew well from my years of making syrup – a tree that has nourished me. I wrapped my arms around it and asked if it was the one – my heart swelled. It was. I offered tobacco as a thank you, cut it with a hand saw, and dragged it out of the forest. The Y at the top would hold my prayer ties. It was the perfect size.
I sewed 7 colored flags – one would be tied to the poles in each of the directions around and within my circle.
And I packed my bag – a sleeping bag and blanket (and because of a past back injury, a rationalized pillow), a wool sweater, socks and hat (yes in July!), and a tarp and raincoat. Being summer in the forest, I knew insects would be an issue so I borrowed a mosquito net and asked a friend to make some herbal repellant.
During my preparations, I practiced the fast. In the forest it would be around 40 hours without food and water – an evening, full day, two nights, and a morning. I had juice fasted for days before, but had never done an all-out fast.
I was surprised how easy it felt. Years of dieting had convinced me that being without food choices would be agonizing. But this was different. There was a spiritual focus, a reason. A proving to myself that I was strong. The first practice I went all day without food and until evening without water. Water – my savior in the heat of summer with my physical work of lifting cages and moving equipment – would take more practice. By the second practice fast it was gone. My confidence soared. I could do anything.
In the week before my vision quest, my family birthed our pipe. In Native ceremony, as the pipe is smoked, we connect to the breath of Creator. Simply put, it’s a tool for prayer. The ceremonial pipe lives with the elder, but individuals can have their own personal pipe. We requested a family pipe – one that could be used individually by each of us, or together as a family.
We had drilled a slab of pipe stone and sanded it into a bowl. A found stick with the natural pith already gone became our pipe stem. I sewed bags to hold tobacco and ashes and sage and we put together our bundle. The week before I was to go into the woods, we buried the bundle in a ceremony on our land. It was to stay in Mother Earth for 4 days and 4 nights.
We birthed it just two days before my vision quest. The pipe would go with me into the circle.
The day before my vision quest was long and hard. I had scheduled 3 Large Farm Animal Events for that day (Not because I’m a masochist, but before we had chosen that weekend for the vision quest). To save my energy and focus, I had arranged for a helper to be the lead that day. I would drive the animals, but otherwise I’d stay in the truck, focus, and finish my prayers. That morning, my helper called me in tears – her cat had died and she couldn’t come in.
Life doesn’t work as we often want it to. I was stunned into action. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. My 10 year old daughter, who was to be my second helper that day became my only. Overwhelmed by the added responsibility and sad for me, she broke down, having to rest and regain herself – and I became the one.
I knew there was meaning for me in this. It was giving me contrast – it was showing me what life could become, asking me for all my strength and patience. That night, exhausted, I slept with the tree I had cut down. It was to be my Creator pole and I was to connect with it through sleep the night before my quest. The bare wood was grounding. I was ready.
My husband Chris drove the camper he and our daughter would stay in throughout the weekend. I had asked Chris to be my main firekeeper – the biggest job. I wanted him intimately involved in the ceremony – and he had recently become a firekeeping apprentice. For the entire time I was out in the forest, 24/7, the fire in the tipi would be burning.
The fire symbolizes Creator – that energy of all that is. There are ways and rituals around building a ceremonial fire and Chris was just learning them. This experience would be a focus for him as well. I liked that. Chris would keep the fire during the tipi ceremonies and whenever the pipe was around. Other times folks from community would sign up to tend the fire, with Chris keeping watch over the whole weekend.
His work was well underway when I arrived mid-afternoon. A group of people were gathering together to put up the tipi. I walked up just as they were preparing to raise the skin. At the top of the tallest pole – the backbone that holds the skin, a red flag is placed, prayed into with the intentions of the ceremony. I arrived just in time for that prayer. Divine!
I was to do no work – not help in any way. I hadn’t realized how hard that would be for me – to let others work up a sweat while I stood idly by. And so after watching for a few minutes, I walked off to talk to a friend.
Tall Shining Bear, aka John, is our community heyoka – the prankster that teaches through his antics, the distractor when the ceremonial leader isn’t ready, the clown that demonstrates that all energies are welcome in the circle. He is a special friend. John had called me a few days before to tell me a dream he had. About me.
John has been around Native ceremony for over 40 years, visiting elders and reservations around the north country. His dream before my vision quest was important. It was about my spirit name. In his dream he had walked up and called me Tree Spirit Woman. He had heard the Tree Song.
During my vision quest I would be choosing a spirit name. Not everyone does, but for me it was time. Ten years in community without a spirit name was enough. Although I had words and variations in mind, nothing stood out as the right one. By the end of the weekend I would have chosen. Johns dream played hard on my mind. After I arrived, he sang the Tree Song for me.
I greeted friends and helpers. So many people would be involved. Watches Birds would assist Chris with the fire. White Spirit Feather and Little Dove would tend the spirit (sweat) lodge fires. Rainbow Wolf would pour the first lodge (conduct the sweat lodge ceremony).
Rainbow Eagle, the teaching elder of our community, and his wife Mary Rainbow Snake Woman, would be the ceremonial leaders. This land that we were on was their home. Dear friends from North Carolina and pipe carrying apprentices, Star Dreamer Singing and Firebird would assist them, learning the vision quest ceremony for their own community in NC.
And then there were my helpers. Four women I chose to support me and to step into ceremony with me. My daughter Sequoia was the youngest – as one of my biggest teachers in life, her energy was imperative. Yellow Squirrel was next – just a few years younger than me and just as mischievous – we’ve always had a connection. Her butch features remind me of my sister – and so she has always felt like one. Marcelle is my mentor, although she would never take claim to that. Immersed in the Shambhala tradition, her gentle demeanor and unending compassion have taught and continually inspire me. She’s the friend I take long walks with to sort out my mind. Gentle Heart, the grandmother energy, was there when I met Rainbow Eagle. I drove to my first ceremony with her. She introduced me to community and helped teach me tradition. These four feminine spirits would be my foundation throughout the weekend, praying for me, eating dark chocolate on my behalf, and very importantly – they’d carry my stuff and empty my pee can.
As folks arrived, I swelled. I didn’t expect to feel so full.
My helpers and I walked down the hill to the mossy point where I’d spend the weekend. Memories of other vision quests remained in the land in a circular indent in the moss. On the side of a hill where 3 creeks converged, the mossy knoll stood out on the land as a sacred space. Our heavy summer of rain made the creek flow audible, an unusual occurrence for this time of year. I felt blessed.
With hoe and shovel, the girls gently upearthed the perimeter of the circle – and in place of the moss they laid aside, they placed stems of sage, each end touching another, creating a boundary that I wouldn’t leave. They dug a hole in each direction and a large one for my tree in the center. It would be dusk when we came back later to place the poles and myself. They were readying the space.
The Creator fire was lit with a song. The stones for the spirit lodge were chosen and stacked, ready for a burning ember from the Creator fire to light the wood piled around them. Women gathered cedar from the land and placed it ceremoniously around the spirit lodge area.
I changed into my red sweat dress, chugged as much water as my bladder could hold, and gave my helpers my bag and spirit blanket. The hundreds of red prayer ties that I had strung like beads on a string were placed around my neck in overlapping layers. I felt regal.
As the ceremonial pipe was prepared, we talked and joked. I hugged new arrivals and was delighted to find two spiritual brothers from North Carolina had journeyed up for the ceremony. The honor of this experience and all these people gathering and working together for me was humbling. I hadn’t anticipated this part of it. I had contemplated the time alone in the forest deeply. I hadn’t considered the love I’d feel. It wrapped around me like a vortex.
The pipe came down the hill and I followed it alone.
The fire in the tipi was burning and Chris was standing watch. Chairs and blankets had been set up and a special seat in the west had been prepared for me. I was silenced. I would not speak again until the final tipi ceremony on Sunday. I sat on the buffalo hide and a blanket was placed over my head like blinders, focusing my attention on the fire in front of me and out the entry of the east doorway. Rainbow Eagle instructed me to burn the vision of the fire into my memory. I can still see it.
I could hear the bone whistle outside, signifying that ceremony was beginning. I knew that everyone was standing in a circle, sweetgrass smoke inviting in the ancestors. They would face each direction as the whistle was blown, singing a song and inviting all energies into the circle.
One by one, the supporters entered the tipi and sat down. More singing – and then the heartbeat drum began. The sound of the heartbeat drum would pulse throughout the whole weekend, day and night. It had started. Rainbow Eagle spoke of the experience and about me. He invited others to speak to me. My heart swelled with the words.
The pipe was shared and prayers were offered. The taste of tobacco on my breath brought back memories of so many ceremonies before. The smell, like a medicinal incense to my spirit, lifting me even higher.
And then the joke. My daughter could hardly sit still from anticipation. I could see her fidgeting and asking Yellow Squirrel if it was time yet. All the things that were to go down the hill with me had come into the tipi – my poles, my blanket, my bag. Rainbow Eagle would go through my bag, feigning mistrust of what I had brought, on the search for contraband. Ones helpers never let him down. In my bag appeared a pizza box, snack mix, nail polish, and other tomfoolery. Laughter and fake shock resounded, and he removed all those things my helpers had not-so-secretly planted. Joy is a crucial part of the sacred.
And then it was time. My helpers and I followed the pipe out of the tipi and across a bridge to the spirit lodge. They placed me in the lodge first, sitting in the west. The others came in after, kneeling down to thank Mother Earth and then crawling into the lodge. Those sitting towards the north crawled behind me. We sat in silence, the dim light from dusk filtering through the open doorway.
I had never sat in the west before. That place was reserved for the requester of ceremony. The view was amazing. Straight in front of me was the pit that would hold the stones. As each stone came in, cedar was placed on it to honor the stone energy. It sizzled and cracked and released an intoxicating smell. Out the east door was a long mound, soil from the pit that had been piled into a sacred space that one must not step over, but always walk around. Across from the mound was the fire – a large fire built to heat the stones. Around the outside of the fire was a half circle mound, encasing the sacred space. My view out the doorway showed all of this. I watched as the firekeepers dug stones from the fire and carried them one by one on a deer antler stick to the doorway.
Eleven stones came in. A bucket of water and a horn scoop were passed inside. The firekeeper knelt down by the door and told us of signs she observed while the fire lit and burned. The fire burned balanced and fast. A large dragonfly flew from the west to the east. The bats had begun their nightly rounds.
They closed the canvas door. In such a small space, words become intimate. Voices reverberate and fill every ounce of you. It’s my favorite thing about the lodge. Especially in a women’s lodge – the singing voices of different hues feel like they connect me to a time before time. I fell right into habit and sang along, only to realize halfway through that I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to sing. So I quieted myself and listened, letting the energy of the songs wrap around me like a blanket.
The lodge was moving. Rainbow Wolf was inspired. Her words in the rounds were slow and insightful, her movements as pourer deliberate. It was a hot lodge. Round two brought in 4 more stones. My daughter Sequoia had only ever been in one lodge before – a lodge she requested for herself at 7 years old. It had been so mild that I remember my feet being cold. This was nothing like that. I could hear Yellow Squirrel asking her if she was ok. She was, but it was most certainly challenging her – I could hear her heavy sighs. She was told to lay down – that it was cooler down there, touching the earth. The women were watching. We were all in good hands.
During a vision quest, the lodge only has two rounds, unlike the usual 4. It is only the start of ceremony. The final two rounds would come at the end. And so after each woman shared their feelings and hopes with me (touching my heart!) and the songs were all sung, we crawled towards the doorway, whispered our thanks to Mother Earth, and stood out.
After a lodge, one is supposed to splash with cool water to close the pores. I was to do no work and so they were to do it for me. My splash turned into more of a pour – like I was a winning coach at a football game. I think it was more for the amusement of my helpers than for my pores.
They held up a blanket for privacy and I changed out of my drenched sweat clothes and into the clothes I would wear on the hill. The girls grabbed my things and we followed the pipe into the woods.
I was standing taller than I ever had – filled so completely with words and care, supported by the 30ish people who had made their way to Green Deer Woods to support this journey I was on.
Down through the trees we walked, slowly, establishing our footing in the dark. Rainbow Eagle, our elder at over 70, had raked this entire path before the weekend. I knew how much work that was from my years of doing trail maintenance. Each cleared step was an honor.
When we reached the mossy point, they left me standing by the grandmother tree as they prepared the space. Set with the sage from earlier, it was now a ceremonial space. They could only enter the circle through the east doorway, traveling to the center, then at a 90 degree angle to the south, then back to the center, then to the west, then back to the center, etc. That was known as walking the prayer paths. They set each of my poles in the directions, tied with a colored flag on top. They removed the prayer ties that had been on my neck throughout the tipi and lodge (except during the “splash”), and hung them over the creator pole.
The Creator pole had not been easy to place. Using a spud bar, they carved out more of the earth to get a good fit, making sure that the tree was stable enough for me to lean against. Throughout my time in the circle, I was to be touching it, excepting when I was walking the prayer paths.
They set down my bag, placed my spirit blanket against the pole facing east, and set my pee can right outside the circle. (I was to pee with one leg in the circle and one leg out.)
After everything was set, Rainbow Eagle walked around the circle with the pipe, blowing the breath on the sacred space. Leaving my sandles at the tree, I entered the circle, sat down on my blanket, and watched them all walk away up the path. I followed their flashlight bobble until it was out of sight. I was alone.
I breathed into the space. This was really happening.
There wasn’t much to look at in the dark. The clear sky and quarter moon illuminated just enough to see shadows silhouetted by the trees. I put on a wool sweater and sat. I’m not sure how long I sat. Time is felt differently in the woods alone. Wrestling with staying awake, I walked my prayer paths.
One needn’t stay awake, but it is encouraged. I was exhausted. My long day before was taking its toll and so I climbed into my sleeping bag, leg touching the center pole, and stared at the dark above until my eyes could resist no more.
Dreams woke me up. One had clear meaning; one muddled the waters. Both short and to the point, giving me much to contemplate.
Before dawn, I resumed my seat in the east. The morning flowed in and I could hear moments from up on the hill. The morning song was sung – one of my favorite things. Each day of ceremony at Green Deer Woods, those awake in the early hours gather outside the camping grounds and sing a beautiful ode to the day, gentling rustling those still asleep from their slumber.
How delightful that I could hear hints of it out here amongst the trees.
I stood up and walked my prayer paths. There were things I wanted to focus on during my vision quest and so I methodologically analyzed my mind for answers. I sat and meditated, I talked out loud.
Mid morning I heard songs from the hill – those songs we sing when we’re together in the tipi. Many voices were coming together and I knew it was a sharing of the pipe. My heart warmed for the people on the hill. Convening for me, but also here for themselves. Vision quests are bonding experiences. Unlike other ceremonies, the main activity at a vision quest weekend is hanging out. Hanging out tending the fire, hanging out playing the heartbeat drum, hanging out eating the things that I would want to be eating. All those things are in support, but feed our own souls so deeply. The camaraderie of community is nurturing.
Late morning was warming me, sunlight hitting my legs like a warm blanket. For what may have been hours I moved my body into the sun streaming through the trees, rotating around my creator pole, nourished by the heat and energy. I wanted to savor each moment, drinking it up into my memory.
I laid in the sun on the moss, feeling it, analyzing it, reveling in the amazingness of a whole peak of hillside covered with it. The softness of my seat, my steps sinking so slightly into its depths. I thought of my spirit name – who I was in spirit, my essence. I thought of my life and its direction, my family and our path together.
My task of self reflection brought me to sitting in each direction, looking out at the world from the perspective of ancient teachings. Honoring the directions is integral to my understanding of balance.
In each direction we find guides, symbols, and a part of ourselves. The west is represented by black. It’s the season of going within ourselves, like the hibernating bear entering his cave. It’s the self-reflecting within us, our personal strength, our time alone. In the west I took an honest look at myself, my fears, anxieties, hopes, who I wanted to be, who I had become.
I like to pray out loud and so I talked to spirit, and to myself.
In the north, symbolized by white – the snow of winter, the white hair of our elders – is our wisdom – the part of us that has perspective and rationale. It is the elder within us, the intellect of our mind. Here I tried to advise myself as an elder would, seeing my life from a distance. It looked good. I was following my dreams. I had a vision for my future. I felt gratitude.
The east is a contrast to the west. Rather than going in, it’s a coming out – out into community, rising with the yellow sun of new beginnings. I cried.
When I was in my mid 20’s, I had lived in an intentional community – a house with 16 other people, eating a vegetarian diet and focused on an environmental life. Although enriching, it was a transient house on a college campus. I longed for a permanent version, a community that felt like family. And so my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and I traveled out west, searching for that place.
We didn’t find it. We found instead our longing for our birth families, our community of already friends, our bond with Ohio. We came home. But a part of me still longed for that sense of intentionality – having a permanent community sourced around a purpose.
On the hill in the east I realized it was here. The drum on the hill was pounding loud. I was sure I knew who was beating it– specifically so I could hear it so far below. Up top were a community of people gathered together to enrich my life, to hold me close to spirit. I realized that what I had been looking for so long ago had come to be. My permanent community was here.
One could describe such a feeling with all kinds of frilly adjectives and descriptors. It is enough to say that it was a revelation.
Moving around the circle to the heat of the south, the playfulness of childhood, the spontaneity of courage, I saw a lack, an imbalance. So often in my head, so hesitant to put down work and play. I didn’t expect to see all roses on this quest. I wanted to see the lack and it was here.
Below, Mother Earth, is my grounding. I was surprised by how my relationship to Earth had changed in the last decade of my life. I had gotten soft – what used to be so important had become an every now and then kind of thing. I recommitted myself to my values, to my actions.
Above is the unknown. Like the stars in the night sky, there are countless things unknown to us. I opened myself up to both the fullness of possibility and the emptiness of unknowing. I asked all the energies and ancestors to help guide me.
And in the center of all is Creator. Within me, the moss, the tree, the mosquito. It is all there.
By mid afternoon I felt done. Not done with the quest, but done with the inner work I had come to accomplish. Even on a vision quest I had a to-do list. And so I sat. I laid down. I fiddled with the moss and gathered little twigs into a pile and made a fairy fort. I spelled “love” in nuts and sticks. I laughed at myself for being so bored. I flopped around and looked at things.
Butterflies flittered just outside my circle. A hummingbird flew right up to me as I stood at my center pole. My helper Yellow Squirrel had told me they would. That they would investigate my prayer ties for nectar. I stood just behind my prayer ties and one came right up, inches from my chest.
In the distance I heard a turkey hen cluck and cluck and cluck. An hour later she was in a new place and clucked again and again. My farm turkeys never make that much noise and so I began counting her clucks. Over 130 times she clucked in a row.
Drumbeats, then no audible drum beats. I knew they were up there always, but some people banged with a purpose to project. At one point I heard raucous laughter, recognizing individual guffaws.
I walked my prayer paths. I kissed my poles. I smiled with my whole body. And I was lonely. I wished I could be both places at once – here in this experience, and together with everyone on top.
Day began to fade and I knew I’d see my helpers soon. At dusk I heard them coming. I knew the drill – I would meet them at the west side of my circle. Rainbow Eagle would hold the pipe for me to smoke. My helpers could speak to me, tell me of their experiences and signs. I couldn’t speak back, could only listen. They told me of masses of butterflies, of owls, of luna moths. The weekend was full of signs and delights. They felt blessed. They told of dreams and food they’d eaten for me. Marcelle said she ate so much “for me” that she heard me tell her I was full. It was so good to see them.
They walked out of hearing and left me alone with Rainbow Eagle and Mary. They wanted to know how I was – and if I had any signs or inklings of my spirit name. With the ceremonial leaders, I could speak. I told them what I had seen and thought. How I knew Tree would be a part of my name. They agreed.
On Friday, the tipi had been moved for my ceremony and a new fire pit had been dug. Running directly east to west under the pit was a tree root. It would not move – they would have to cut it out. That night, Yellow Squirrel had dreamed that all of community were up in the trees greeting me below. These signs and others pointed to the tree. I had long felt connection to trees – had felt their presence, had heard their voice. I had come to embody a tree spirit.
They left me to reflect and they traveled up the hill, leaving me to the night alone.
They had told me that the second night might be harder – longer, hungrier, more challenging. Words spoken from their own experiences. I sat in the dark and felt myself drifting. I lay down and slept.
I awoke with a start. I knew the spirit dance would be starting sometime late after dark and thought I’d be able to clearly hear it, as rowdy as it was. I did hear it – it had already begun. I leapt up and began walking my prayer paths, trying to shake the fatigue out of me. I could hear the music and began to walk with the beats.
Up in the tipi, all were gathered tight, walking and dancing in circles, shaking gourds and fanning feathers, whoops and hollars ringing out loud and rowdy into the night. It was a time of celebration and laughter, of smiles that wouldn’t leave your face. I loved that part of a vision quest. I had so looked forward to hearing it in my circle.
I savored every moment of it, but too soon it was gone and all was quiet again. The moon wasn’t up – or was clouded over, and it was dark. The mosquitos had increased. The first night they had pestered and I had slept with a netting over my face. This night they became incessant. Each place the net touched my face or my ear, they indulged. I slept off and on amid the feeding.
I had wanted to stay up as much as I could and so I prayed for help staying awake. Creator responded with rain.
The rain started a few hours before sunrise. I leapt up because my pipe was out. Throughout the weekend I had either held it or it had rested on a Y stick that we had pushed into the ground to cradle it. Now it sat on the moss in the rain. I quickly tucked my sleeping bag away, grabbed my poncho, and sat down on my blanket, holding my pipe.
The rain increased, puddles gathering on my poncho. The mosquitoes began their worship of me.
I became their goddess. I joked later that my spirit name would be Mosquito Queen. I was their idol and they would not leave me. My blood became their nectar.
At first it was amusing, the rain, the constant humming. It was a new experience and I was being present in all its diversity.
The dawn began to break and a mist settled for a good while. I got antsy. I wondered when they would be coming to get me. I remembered as a helper feeling that it was earlier than I thought it should be.
The rain stopped and I heard the bone whistle. I was to walk my prayer paths. I took off my poncho but kept the mosquito net. It was a different walk than the day before. The bounce was gone from my step and I was irritable. It seemed I was just going through the motions.
I wasn’t feeling hunger but thirst. My body felt weak and tired. The mosquitos were intense.
After a while, I heard singing from the top. It sounded like they were sharing the pipe in the tipi. The sun was fully up and I guessed it to be after 10:00. It took me by surprise – I had thought they would be on their way.
I sang along to the songs, hoping to calm and ease my mind. It was a distracted singing – I felt present to my discomfort rather than the joy the songs usually invoke in me.
The heat of the day was coming on but I couldn’t take off my sweater. The hood was protecting my ears and neck from the bites. My hands were closed in. Sitting down I needed to stretch my legs and so I had to keep on my long johns and socks to cover my skin. I was overheating.
After a long while, I had to give in. I took off my socks and sweater and tried to become one with the bites. I tried to think of the mosquitos as just a part of my experience.
I felt anger. Why weren’t they down to get me? I could see it approaching noon – the sun right overhead. Even though the rain had long stopped, the mosquitos never let up. I didn’t expect to feel this way on my vision quest. I wanted to be introspective. I’ve never gotten along with the anger side of me – always seen it as an intrusion, a fault, a weakness.
I’ve been studying the power of thought and so I set myself on dissolving it. I walked my prayer paths, trying to get back to the place I was the day before, seeing myself in each of the directions, feeling gratitude for my experience and the lessons.
It helped. But not entirely. The feelings kept returning. Although I knew everyone was still up there, I felt abandoned. It was a completely manufactured idea, but it was there. The mosquitoes were now biting me through my shirt, through the face net, on my bare neck and feet. They were relentless. They were wearing me down.
My prayers paths became more of a pacing. At times I could relax into it and breathe into positive thoughts. And then the sneaky negative would come back before I even realized it was happening. I pushed and pulled myself like this for some time.
And then I heard them. I tried to shake it off and feign a smile. I had one final walk on my prayer path, thanking the directions. And then I left the circle.
My helpers took down my poles and gathered my bag and blanket. They walked the circle, now no longer sacred, and filled in the perimeter with the moss they had removed two days before. The center hole that had held the creator pole and had supported me so strongly was filled in. I felt melancholy.
I had connected with my poles, with the wood, with the energy in the creator pole especially. I knew they would all be burned in the final spirit lodge fire. No longer did I want to leave. I wanted them all here, but I didn’t want the experience to end.
They tied the direction flags together in a chain and hung them over my neck with my prayer ties.
We walked up a different path, crossing over a bridge and along the valley edge and then winding up to the top. I was moving slowly, laboriously. We stopped 4 times on the way up to rest and honor the journey. My head was a mess. I was boxing out feelings inside me – exhaustion, elation, sadness, frustration. By the top of the hill I was almost in tears, fighting to keep them inside me, shocked by the rawness I was feeling. I felt guilty for my lack of positive energy – that I was cheating my helpers out of an experience.
We walked over to the spirit lodge and I crawled inside. The rocks from the previous lodge were still inside as if we hadn’t left. My helpers crawled around me and we were seated. Four more stones were brought inside. Rainbow Eagle was pouring this lodge.
I don’t know if he sensed my condition or if was standard, but he did several things I had not seen before. He took herbs out of a pouch and placed them on the fire, unfamiliar strong smells. And he sang a song – a cleansing song. At first it was slow and sad and low, and then it grew loud and angry. It pulsed in and out like that several times, mimicking my condition so completely. I couldn’t hold back my tears. I was sobbing. It felt so good – and important – to release that energy.
Before we had left the circle on the hill, Mary had asked me what I had chosen as my spirit name. It was now time to share that with my helpers. In the dark of the lodge, Rainbow Eagle spoke eloquently about each word in my name, talking in slow thoughtful detail about the meaning and symbolism of each, until at last he spoke the words all together – Tree Spirit Woman. Sighs of knowing filled the heated space.
The flap was lifted and cool air streamed in. I was spent. I remember slouching heavily from the weight of my body and my thoughts until I realized that in the daylight of the open door I was visible. I don’t like to show my hardship – but in this place there was no way to hide it. It was my time to speak.
Rainbow Eagle asked that the door remain open for the final round and that the firekeepers gather around to listen. I had chosen them all and they would be welcome to hear my words.
I spoke honestly. Of the mosquitos, of my thirst, of the heat. Of my anger and sadness over my negative feelings. I wanted to start with the discomfort and work back to my bliss. I shared in detail my experience of Sunday, and then the joy and insight of Saturday and the excitement and anticipation of Friday. Through my words I felt the feelings I had struggled with dissipate. They only needed to be spoken, to be heard, to be acknowledged as a part of me. In the lodge I made those connections – that even the mosquitos were a sacred part of my life experience, pushing me to experience the extremes of life in all its colors. That just as we honor all energies in the circle, I was blessed to experience many energies on my quest.
Had it of all been bliss, it wouldn’t have been balanced. I would have missed out on seeing the dichotomy of my life.
I exited the lodge with strength. The heat and healing had filled my well back up. After a weekend of holding the prayers I had placed in my pipe, it was time to smoke them out. I sat alone with my pipe and smoked and prayed.
We walked up to house. I would change clothes before the final tipi ceremony. I know that was as much for other’s comfort as for my own. I stunk. Bad. They said I could shower – but I could drink no water. The blessed shower on my skin, soothing my bites, made me feel fresh and new, now cleaned of negativity. I walked tall, prayer ties and flags placed again around my neck.
As we walked over towards the tipi, a sight I had forgotten appeared. All the folks who had come together for the weekend stood in a double line at the doorway to the tipi in silent reverence. As I walked through them, they erupted in cheers and howling and ecstatic revelry. My smile almost broke my face.
I was seated again in the west, looking out the east doorway. The tipi was now decorated with flowers and vines and branches – and my chair made into a thrown of flowers. The fire was still burning from the Friday before. I saw my husband standing by the doorway – his weekend experience evidenced in his stance and confidence. He had had his own quest.
Everyone followed me inside and Rainbow Eagle handed me the ceremonial pipe and instructed me to smoke. As I kept the breath going, he repeated his thoughtful dissection of my name, slowly, word by descriptive word, until he introduced me to community as Tree Spirit Woman.
And then it was my time to speak to community. I would not tell it all as I had to my confidents. I spoke of the feelings, the revelations, the accepting of all. And I spoke to them of how I had cried in the east, realizing that they were the community I had been looking for so long ago – how I had found my home. They spoke to me of their experience while I was gone.
And then there was a gift. I knew that my husband Chris had been working on something in the week before my quest, as he nonchalantly disappeared to his workshop for hours at a time. Rainbow Eagle invited Chris to share. He unwrapped a drum and handed it to me.
I was dumbstruck – shocked really. Chris had never made a drum before. He’s a skilled carpenter, but had never worked with animal skin in this way. It was beautiful and sounded amazing. I was humbled by his love and talent.
Rainbow Eagle announced we would continue the ceremony outside since the heat of the day was upon us. We gathered together in a standing circle under the trees for the naming ceremony. As he blew the bone whistle, community spoke my name out loud to each direction. Tree Spirit Woman. The power of a name settled into me.
Then, walking the circle, I hugged each person as they said my name out loud to me. I thanked them for their support. It was so good to connect to each – and to share words again.
We moved to chairs and sat, me in my flowery throne, glowing from the experience. The final – and most entertaining part – of ceremony was next. They would taunt me with food and drink. Ceremony is best served with levity.
On the ground were placed wooden bowls with corn, berries, buffalo meat, grape juice and water. To symbolize our connection to the Earth, the bowls weren’t to be picked up, but slid around the circle on the ground, each person using their fingers and hands as tools for eating. As it went around, folks ate in all their vulgarity – slurping and growling and exaggerating the deliciousness of the food. And they passed it by me. Such shameless taunting, laughter and foolishness is such a wonderful way to end ceremony. At last I was fed the remaining few morsels of pure pleasure. I was already full up on love.
We sang, and they removed the prayer ties from around my neck. Chris took them into the tipi to burn. All those hundreds of prayers, my lifetime of experiences, joys, and resentments, the prayers that took days of my life would turn into smoke and meld with the breath of creation. I was lighter.
The ceremony ended in the usual way – as the bowl and stem were separated, signaling the end of ceremony, whoops and hollers resounded. We are a loud bunch.
We feasted on all sorts of potluck deliciousness. I gave out my gifts and said my gratitudes. People shared their experiences of the beautiful weekend.
As most everyone filtered off back to their homes and their lives, I stayed behind. I knew I would need a buffer between the vision quest and my regular life. And so I journaled and read Rainbow Eagle’s book. I played my drum. And I felt so blessed to have a nighttime barrier between me and the hungry band of mosquitos that had made me their queen.
The next day I went back down the hill to the moss. I spent a few hours in gratitude, burning images in my mind of the experience, and taking photos with my phone. This place would change so quickly. I wanted to remember it just as it was. I played my drum, sang the songs, and walked my prayer paths. It was different without the poles and brightly colored cloths.
It was time to return home.
And now, over two months later, I’m still trying to piece together the lessons. Well settled back into my daily life, I sleep with my prayer flags on the corner of my bed. I still tie little bits of tobacco into red cloth and set a daily intention, and work through the lifetime of experiences that built me.
The goals that I set while out on the hill are in process, as they will always be. Life feels softer now. I know I’m on my way. The timing is no longer so important because the path has been laid. I only need to follow my own footsteps as they lead me one after the other.
For a few days after my quest, I had to sleep with the windows open, despite the heat. It hurt to be separated from the sounds of nature.
I am never alone. I live amongst life – some biting, some soft and expansive. At times I will be ecstatic. At other times life will bring me to tears.
And what a beautiful thing.
My helpers and I after my quest.