True Prayer

dance family shamanism story

I had no idea what the spirits were talking about…

For years they told me to work on prayer, a giving prayer, one that involves dance. I have never experienced what they were talking about, really any of it. Dance, yes, lots of dance throughout my life. Ecstatic dance, even sacred dance, but not quite prayer-dance.

Of course I’ve prayed – not as much as the religious folk I grew up around. When you practice shamanic journeying prayer feels a little like phoning it in. Why not go talk to the spirit you’re praying to? Also – prayer that is a giving thing? Specifically prayer that gives out to life, nature itself? I’ve made offerings of gratitude, but that didn’t feel right, the spirits were talking about something different.

Also – how is dance prayer? I get (intellectually at least) that the Sufi Whirling Dervish is a kind of movement prayer that honors God, but have I ever felt that? I’ve witnessed Native American dance that fit that description, but me lining up to be yet another white person mimicking Native culture is not especially appealing to mid-life vanity like mine. I catch enough flack for being a white guy running around with a rattle and drum.

It wasn’t until I got back into the Water with my monofin that I understood what they meant.

First I have to back up a bit. I haven’t been in the Ocean or a pool in years because of our most recent addition, Truly. When she first came to us as a foster child at six days old she needed TLC in megadoses, something Terry did with profound, tender grace. Each day she would gently approach her little body, speaking quietly then cautiously touching. How could she make our quaking fosterling, who jumped at the least sound, into a puddle of peace? To see a newborn, almost constantly trembling in fear soothed with song  and gentle massage hour after hour, day after day, month after month, should suffice as any definition of true prayer for anyone.

Not that I didn’t do my part. When she erupted with blood-curdling screams in the dead of night, with no warning, 2-3 times a night, month after month, it was typically my job to hold her, calming her while Momma rested up for a new day of intensive care. There are foster-parents, mostly Mothers, who seem to specialize in bringing infants out of family trauma, it was all new to me. Its an other-worldly experience, waking suddenly to horrifying cries you associate with an adult trapped in a life or death struggle, exploding out of a tiny infant in the quietest moments of the night. Its so unexpected each time, as if witnessing a mountain just get up and stroll into the ocean.

If we’ve done enough of our own work, we can become healing waters for each other.

Your body and heart become something new when you are trying to shelter someone from trauma buried deeply within themselves. You not only soothe but also absorb, receive, dissipate and nourish. You cannot react to their trauma, you cannot disappear in front of it either – even for a little one who seems not to be aware of whats happening. You must resonate enough so that whatever she hands you passes through you and out of the room into the greater world. I became a drum for her, resonating and transforming, bringing her back to peace whenever I could. What a powerful lesson in how the suffering we create in life sends out waves far beyond what we can see.

With a newborn, any newborn, most parents set aside everything extra for the first year. The next year we spend catching up on everything we ignored the first year, and finally, the third year (if you’re lucky), you celebrate their bright independence by remembering your own self-care, if you can think straight by then. Our little one bares no apparent scars from her early time on the planet, except perhaps an expanse within her spirit she’ll need to explore over time. Where once there was a quaking leaf, now stands a strong young girl barreling through life, ready to snuggle or playfully trounce anyone available for genuine affection. She is endless celebration in motion.

Still, my first years with her left me with a few more fissures than I expected. I’ve always been a person who was very sensitive to sound – that is no longer true for me in the same way – some of those nerve endings have been permanently singed off. Again, the spirits have been telling me to listen for years, listen in a different way. New deafness aside, I feel I’ve developed a deeper sense of hearing through all of this.

And then there is the “laying around recovering from stress Dad-bod” process that evolves in tandem with parenting young ones. Time to take stock of the growing Santa belly, notice how long it takes to straighten that back, remember you just turned 50 and its a long way to go before the kids are grown. I really didn’t know how much of my health I had lost. I’ve never weighed this much, never felt this much like a blob, had quite this collection of aches and pains. I decided to start in the Ocean, it was calling so strongly. All things considered (a cold Feb swim with a strong swell), I got off easy, trounced only a few times. I should have known that my body would remember the water despite my fears. It was clear though that I needed to get stronger to swim regularly in the Ocean. Time to head back to the pool.

The spirits also advised me to visit the Elkhorn Slough at least once a week alone to listen, practice movement and write. It seems that there is a new workout for my soul needed as well. I am being invited to bring my spirit to this place where we live, especially through sacred listening.

As part of that exploration I journeyed to the spirit of the Slough, finding an ancient woman twisting her yarn at a spinning wheel, weaving out the eons singing to the tap of her wheel. Listening to her spinning song slowly turned me to gunpowder-black dust. She sang, wove and spun until I became a small bird perched on her wheel transformed by her radiance.

Birds chant a fertile bursting rythme to the Slough

become become become become become …`

Family at Elkhorn Slough
Family at Elkhorn Slough

Sitting out there today, after a hike with Terry, Tadg and True I could feel how my time with the spirit of that place made me especially responsive to being there. I felt like the golden glowing brightness of her spinning wheel was shining through me. We ate a delicious lunch of leftovers and chocolate chip cookies we baked last night, True was especially delighted to be tromping through the recently filled mud puddles that make up much of the Hummingbird Island trail at this time of year. She now acts as if she is a rightful citizen of the Slough, stopping to touch familiar places, leaving her mark with stick and mud.

What breaks ME open enough to hear the real song of a place like this?

How many losses carve out room in me to deeply listen? Can true prayer come through someone who has not felt at least once, the profound suffering of others? Is the rhythm of my prayer counted out by the paces I took with that terrified new life in my arms, already wrung through the brutality of the world? How does a Father pray?

It was my second or third time in the pool when my mind shut off and prayer opened up to me. I’ve begun to think of swimming with the monofin as feeding the Selki in me. I might start off a little rigid at first, like cinder blocks trying to flow down a hill, but eventually something wakes up in me that knows how to move through the water like a Seal. Some familial wildness, deeply buried awakens. My breath slows along with my heart rate. Skimming along at the bottom of the deep end of the pool becomes a meditation. I undulate to erase all feeling of water resistance, reaching forward, stretching back.

In a way, I become an infant again, hopeful. I stretch my arms, out, chest open, move -there it is – prayer, a giving prayer to life. It just happened, I just found myself there. That same glowing light filled my chest, feeding the world as I was fed. Prayer.

Now I can feel whats wanting to be born

Why this day, this stroke after so many strokes? Why did my swim become prayer on this day? In a way, this defies explanation, because its just what the soul wants. Our spirits want to give to life, want to radiate out to the world. We wiggle and worm our way forward until we finally open. I don’t think I could have done this without holding our precious True in my arms, not if I was younger, not before letting the anger of my youth finally wear away to old shoe leather. Certainly not before I learned how to listen deeply to the world.

Now when I swim I’m reaching for that place of prayer, inviting it in, savoring it. I’m old enough, patient enough to know that eventually my thoughts will still, my body will open up to the water, and I will fly. I don’t know exactly where this is leading me, I’ve just received one more breadcrumb. Surely I have farther to go before I can live in true prayer, in deep relationship to a place. But now I feel that I know what is possible, what happens when movement, poetry, working with the spirits all come together to make an offering to the world.

I’m struck by something the spirit of the land, the spirit of our homestead told me all those years ago when we first moved here: water binds things to the land. It made such sense, we need water to have our fertilizer absorb, to have our plants take root. It works that way with people to. This season water has bound me here in a new way. May it nourish us all.

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