A Quarterly Newspaper By & For Friends Of Sacred Fire
Issue 4 | December 2022
A Quarterly Newspaper By & For Friends Of Sacred Fire
Issue 4 | December 2022
By Chris Griffin | What drew Chris to step into the role of Board President for Sacred Fire
By Jane Wollack | Jane’s experiences with growing corn and her garden
By Colin Lenhart | Colin reflects on the challenges and rewards of his journey as a Firekeeper
By Jonathan Merritt | Jonathan’s experience with the California drought, Grandfather and the weather beings
By Leslie Martin | A woman’s first encounter with Sacred Fire and her experience with the Sweat Lodge at the September 2022 Fire Speaks weekend event in Monadnock, NH
By Sharon Brown | An experience that gave Sharon a new relationship with the mystery and miracle of the solstice
By Erica Cohen | Erica writes of the Fiesta, her role for it, and what she received from attending
Dedicated to Realizing Grandfather’s Vision
by Chris Griffin
My life changed suddenly this past August in response to an invitation. I was taken off guard at the recent summer business meetings for our Sacred Fire non-profit organization, when something not on the agenda was introduced. Out of the blue, Susan Skinner – the board chairperson – pulled me aside and casually suggested that with her increased responsibilities towards her medicine path work, that it might be better for me to be Sacred Fire’s board chair.
I had two immediate emotional experiences – the first was excitement about becoming more involved in helping the organization and Grandfather’s work. The second was a surge of fear! My mind began generating all kinds of questions with a sense of alarm: Could I be up for this job? Do I have the time for it? Can I commit to one more thing in my life?
I told Susan that if she wanted to bring up this topic in our audience with Grandfather Fire that evening, I would sit quietly and listen. Although Susan made this suggestion with great certainty, I didn’t think she would bring it up.
While this invitation was unexpected, I am no stranger to stepping up to volunteer and serve Sacred Fire. Since 2003, I have been a dedicated volunteer offering my time, skills and financial support to help this organization grow and evolve. I jumped on board to be the administrator for our original Yahoo group, helped plan the community’s first two Interspiritual Conference events, and supported the community in technical areas. More recently, I was initiated as a Firekeeper in 2019. I became a member of the board of trustees a year later.
In addition to my community service work, Sacred Fire has been a huge part of my spiritual and community life for the past 20 years. I raised my four children around the fire and have dedicated most of my free time to being with the community and with Grandfather Fire’s diverse projects to support the resurgence of traditional medicine paths. This now includes being an apprentice on the Huichol Shamanic Path.
I had a choice to make. I could go with expressing my excitement or voice my fear of taking on such a big role!
In the early hours of the morning, while in conversation with Grandfather Fire, I was surprised that Susan Skinner really did bring up the topic of switching roles. Moments later, Grandfather asked me to state how I felt about the suggestion. Moving past my initial shock that this conversation was actually happening, both of my initial emotional responses presented themselves to me again. I had a choice to make. I could go with expressing my excitement or voice my fear of taking on such a big role! I have followed the fear so many times in my life. Something within me decided to move differently. So, I shared with the group and with Grandfather my primary feeling of excitement about bringing more of my skills, inspiration, and enthusiasm to this work. I felt moved to do more to help the organization fulfill its potential of spreading sacred fire to communities in countries around the world. And perhaps more important, to help support our people to remember our connection to the living world. And with this, to let the mind’s fear quiet and be able to warm and enliven the heart’s wisdom–which I had just chosen to do in this moment in response to Grandfather’s question.
After a short conversation, I found myself the new Board Chairman. Grandfather even called an official board meeting to order during the audience to vote on it and finalize it then and there! Leaving the audience that night, my head was spinning, but my heart was full, knowing that I was being afforded an incredible chance to bring my dedication and devotion to the work of helping realize the vision that Grandfather has given and entrusted to our community.
As I sat to write this article for the Fire Gazette, I began reflecting on why the work of Sacred Fire is so exciting to me.
In the past two years of involvement with the Sacred Fire Board, my eyes have been opened to the comprehensive scope and power of Grandfather’s plan for us.
First and foremost, I see that to be with and work with the divine expression of Grandfather Fire is a special gift that has blessed my life in many ways. While the whole manifest universe is divine expression, it is exceedingly rare to be in the presence of a divine presence with a clearly audible voice carrying such profound wisdom and knowledge. Each opportunity to be with Grandfather Fire, whether it be in a private audience where he works with us on one of his many projects, or at a public Fire Speaks event, has provided me with guidance that has enriched my life in small and large ways.
Beyond that, I believe deeply in Grandfather’s vision for the work of Sacred Fire in this world. Connection to Sacred Fire feeds our connection to our hearts and each other. It provides a way for us to transform our lives, as individuals and collectively as a people, and to find great meaning and purpose. Whether I am stacking wood, cleaning chairs for a community fire, planning a Fire Speaks event, or supporting the function of the international non-profit – serving Sacred Fire brings me purpose and joy.
The potential of Sacred Fire has been realized to some extent, but it has become clear that we are still at the beginning. Also, that we have reached a plateau. It is time for the next steps in the journey, and for renewing our commitment to what we have manifested.
In the past two years of involvement with the Sacred Fire Board, my eyes have been opened to the comprehensive scope and power of Grandfather’s plan for us. He has guided us to revamp how we train firekeepers, and we now have a new and improved curriculum which people can begin to engage with online! This will allow us to scale up and train far more firekeepers than we have in the past, and to have a greater capacity to train firekeepers who live in countries around the world.
In addition, Grandfather has given us a clear vision of developing an online library of material for exploring teachings and practices related to LifeWays and Life Cycle Living. This will be accessible to more and more people, reminding us of the power and possibilities for living in alignment with the cycles of nature and the seasons of our own lives.
Finally, as we may be near the end of the time in which Grandfather makes himself available to the public through direct audiences, we are looking forward to developing new events and offerings to share Grandfather’s teachings with the wider world.
It has been a great joy to come to know more deeply those who dedicate their lives to Sacred Fire. I have experienced again and again how this group is dedicated, inspired, and determined to move the organization and its mission towards greater success. That success represents nothing short of transformation for our individual lives, our communities, and the world. I have seen it happen in people’s lives throughout our community, and I am committed to seeing the work deepen and grow.
This is the first of many communications I hope to share with you about what we are engaging within the Sacred Fire organization, and I wanted to take the opportunity here to let you know what is lighting my fire as your new board chair. I am honored to step into this role and equally honored to be in a position where I can help us meet the opportunities that present themselves and the challenges we face as an international community.
I invite you to join us and to help us! If you want to learn more, if you have something you would like to share about your connection to Sacred Fire, or if you want to be involved, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you!
Chris Griffin is a Firekeeper, the Sacred Fire Board Chair, Plant Spirit Medicine Healer and an apprentice on the Huichol Medicine Path
The Gift of Corn
By Jane Wollack
I come from farming stock. My parents grew up on farms and, as adults, were prolific gardeners. I started gardening with my Aunt Helen at the age of four. Tending plants became a regular part of my routine. Mostly, I was taught by my father. He was the second youngest in a family of nine children and grew up on a farm in Deep River, Connecticut. It was a time when you produced much of what you needed to eat or you went hungry. He lied about his age and joined the Air Force at 17. WWII took him off the farm, but the desire to grow food for the family never left him. He settled in Old Saybrook, Connecticut and he and my mother raised a family.
My Dad was pretty old school about the garden. You planted in straight rows set by a string. You pulled or hoed the weeds, dusted with Sevin. At fourteen I discovered Rodale and organic farming and never turned back.
My father was set in his ways and I refused to garden his way, so we split the family garden in half, me building the soil with things like compost, rock phosphate and green sand, mulching heavily to replace the constant need to hoe, and hand picking bugs as needed. Dad came around when he saw the results.
Everywhere I’ve lived, I have had a garden. Building soil is always the first step with cover crops, manure, compost, ground rock minerals. I now live in Hendersonville, NC. When I moved here in 2015, I staked out my small garden in the sunniest part of the yard and began the process again. Building soil takes years and takes patience. I was joined in my efforts by my now husband, Rob, in 2018. What we have produces for our table year round.
I grow corn because she is a Divine being. She connects me to that which is infinite and eternal.
I started growing corn in earnest in Prospect, CT back in 2002 at the behest of Grandfather Fire. He said I would know what kind of corn to grow, and I began to experiment with different heirloom varieties. By the time I moved to Tennessee, I was studying with Cherokee herbalist David Winston. From him I learned about the Cherokee White Flour corn, an old variety that was then available through a seed exchange. It’s a tall, beautiful white kernel corn native to the southeast. The first year, the corn produced ample white ears and one, small red ear of corn. When I asked Grandfather Fire if it was for eating, offerings or planting, he said “Plant it!” I have selected for the red coloration ever since.
The sacred Cherokee stories say that when Selu, the Mother of Corn, came to earth to be wife to Kanati, the Great Hunter, she tucked her sister O-se-sa-u (O-sheh-shay-oo – beans) under her arm and brought another sister No-we-se-u (No-weh-shay-oo – squash) along with her. The sisters could not bear to be parted.
The stories tell how Selu gave us the gift of place when she died and promised to come back as a plant. She returned as not just any plant but one that required the human hand to sow and tend it in order to grow and reach maturity. In return she continues to sustain civilizations. In return the people settled in place to tend the field. As Selu is a Divine Expression still loved as a deity by many, the gift of place is a sacred gift. Her story is one of sacred reciprocity.
I grow corn because she is a Divine being. She connects me to that which is infinite and eternal. At times I sit in my garden to be with Selu. There is much peace in the garden.
One time this season, deep in meditation, Selu took me into the profound sacredness of the garden. Not my garden, not a garden with corn, but of garden. I feel the very holiness of this place. I feel the grace that happens here as the land yields up the nourishment – for my body, for my mental health, for my soul. I feel the vital flow of life force that emanates from the earth. I feel so much deep respect for the promise and mystery of that life force that permeates this world. I grow corn to connect with the natural cycles of planting, rain, and offering gratitude. As a ritual performer at the Tsantawu ceremonies I am part of a strong team to petition the mountain for good rains and beneficial weather.
I do grow a three sisters garden. When the young corn is about four inches, I plant one or two beans at the base of some of the stalks. Squash goes in just outside of the corn patch. It will send out vines across the corn bed. If the corn gets too overgrown with vegetation, no matter how much love is involved, a heavy storm is sure to bring the corn and all the vines down.
The garden is a community, a place where nourishment for my family is given from the land.
Red corn from Jane’s garden
This year I watched in horror from my kitchen window as a fast-moving thunderstorm with all the winds and thunder and lightning came roaring out of the west. My corn bent way down this way and that. In the end, she stood up and was just fine. It isn’t always like that. I have cried time and time again over large swatches of corn blown down by winds too strong. Some of it snaps, other stalks bend but never fully stand up again. I have done all kinds of staking and tying and stringing of twine. Now I just resign myself to letting the corn grow and accepting the storms and doing as much clean up after as I can. It’s a teaching about acceptance of the natural cycles. I still cry about it.
Someone asked me when to harvest the ears. Well, that’s a good question. I look at the corn and harvest when it seems ready. When the silks are all dry, it means pollination is over. The ears fill out more after that. When the husks start to look like they are browning and drying up, I start to harvest. It’s a bit of a guessing game. A long time ago, I would leave the ears on the stalks to dry completely. That didn’t work so well. Squirrels took my corn one year. Deer another. The longer the ears stay on the stalk, the more the bugs eat.
I always plant the three sisters in my garden. They are old friends. There is a reciprocity in our relationship that we celebrate.
Here we plant the three sisters Selu, O-se-sa-u, No-we-se-u (corn, squash, beans). The garden also grows peas, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach and kale, garlic, basil, parsley and cilantro, the arugula, the nasturtiums and calendula. Here, too, pop up the wild plants like evening primrose, mullein and lambs quarters. They are old friends, medicinals I use in my healing practice. Here live two tobacco plants given by a friend. Two more tobacco plants self-seeded from last year’s plants.
The garden is a community, a place where nourishment for my family is given from the land. She reminds me that our lives intertwine with the sentient forces and beings of this realm, such as sun and rain and wind, all the time. Because of this, I experience the world in a different way than I used to. I know the world is talking to me all the time. Patterns I once thought random, are intentionally brought into existence by beings with purpose and their own agenda. I always plant the three sisters in my garden. They are old friends. There is a reciprocity in our relationship that we celebrate.
Here, it is October and the corn has been harvested. The stalks still stand, a perch for O-se-sa-o to hold onto until the last of her beans are picked. I still sit in the garden. The breeze rattles through her dry leaves. The hummingbirds, which feed on the corn pollen, are gone about a month now. The vital energy of the earth is slowly pulling back as the days grow shorter and cooler.
I am excited by the uptick in interest in growing heirloom corn. Planting a garden slows me down to a healthier pace, and brings me closer to the earth and the Divine Mystery that constantly creates this world. In the garden I am reminded of the simple rhythms of life and all of its blessings and abundance.
Jane Wollack is a long time gardener living in Hendersonville, NC. She attends community fires in Maggie Valley and Asheville, NC and is an initiated Dugantu (rain caller) and member of the Tsantawu Ritual Team for the Stone Mountain Weather Tradition. She has the great honor of retelling some of the sacred stories of corn at the spring weather ceremonies in Stone Mountain, GA.
Firekeeper Spotlight: Tending the Heart in Seattle
By Colin Lenhart
For anyone that doesn’t know me my name is Colin Lenhart. I am the Firekeeper for the Seattle Washington area. I have been a Firekeeper since 2017 and I took over the Seattle Fires from Buffy Aakaash in 2019.
Truthfully, our community has been in flux ever since Buffy left. A lot of folks came to the fires in Seattle through a relationship with Buffy, and I didn’t do enough to reach out to those folks after he left. Being a young person without my own space to hold the fires, I relied on a community member that offered up her backyard to host fires. I love her space but being there only once or twice a month changes my relationship to the land and our hearth and I frequently struggle to bring my attention to the Fires in the way that I would like. Attendance at the fires has steadily declined and I haven’t done enough work to invite new people and reach out to past attendees. (Shoutout to the hardcore five of us that are there every month. You know who you are!) And yet none of this discourages me.
Being a firekeeper isn’t just the one Saturday a month that I hold fires
I have a lifetime commitment to hold Sacred Fires. To once a month create a community space for people to share what is on their hearts and minds. And as I’ve expressed to many of you, I have every intention of holding true to that commitment. I love being around the Fire. Whether it’s just me and Grandfather or if three people show up or if thirty people show up, I love that time. But I know I have used that love as a crutch, to hold me back from being the best Firekeeper I can be.
After all, if I love being around the fire, and I’m not concerned with how many people show up, why do I need to invite anyone at all? I’ve placed my own personal comfort before the true calling of a firekeeper, to help the people, and both myself and my community are underserved as a result.
Being a firekeeper isn’t just the one Saturday a month that I hold fires, and listening to the wisdom of Grandfather isn’t done only when you’re with a candle or around the flames. Every time I am urged to act courageously is a time when Grandfather is speaking to me (to all of us). It happens in the grocery store when I think about inviting someone to the Fire and I refuse because I’m too scared. Or at my work, where I have refused to tell anyone about the Fires because I’m worried that I’ll be accused of appropriation by my progressive coworkers.
The spiritual experiences of my life touch me in a way that nothing material ever has or ever will.
Following Grandfather’s guidance means remembering the bigger picture and being disciplined in how I spend my time. When it’s the Tuesday before a Fire and I know I need to send out my invite but I decide to watch television instead and then all of a sudden it’s Friday and I haven’t sent the invite out–that’s another opportunity missed.
The modern culture never lets up, always fighting for attention, pushing its materialistic ideals in my face, and many days I struggle to remember the feeling of being around Grandfather Fire and the deep connection I have felt in my most present moments. So I frequently falter, and fail the challenges Grandfather places before me.
It hurts me to write these words, not because I’m worried about what anyone reading this thinks, but because I’m saddened by the way I let myself down. Because I have (and continue to) let my tiny fears hold me back from everything that I could be.
I’d like to think that writing this letter will change something, that this catharsis will empower me to courage in a way that I have never fully embraced. Maybe it will for a couple hours, hell even a day or two. I’ll use the memory of the grief of wasted opportunities and strike up a conversation I wouldn’t have otherwise. But do I have the discipline and the strength to truly be the person I am being asked to be? Can I day in and day out choose courage more times than I choose fear? Sometimes I think yes, other times no.
Frequently, this path and the way I am encouraged to act feels exhausting and daunting. At least when viewed through the mind perspective where I spend much of my time. How am I supposed to find the time and energy to devote to being a Firekeeper when the culture I walk in every day is devoted to distracting me, to pushing my awareness onto the material and monetary? Many of these experiences I genuinely enjoy. I love watching my hometown baseball team try to make the World Series. There are some inspired television shows in the world. Watching scary movies with my wife is an activity I never want to lose. How do I balance all of this? Which activities are distractions, and which are a positive step on my path? I’m sure Grandfather would have an answer that would resolve it all into a wonderful perfectly understandable paradox. But as a human, it’s yet another question I struggle with.
For me, as a firekeeper, these questions are permanent and persistent. My commitment is to this path, every day, for the rest of my life. Could I work on addressing my negative self-talk? Sure. Could I be more self-compassionate and forgiving? Absolutely and I am working on it. But the deepest question will always remain, do I have the courage and the discipline in this place, at this time? I can guarantee that when I find the courage to overcome one obstacle, Grandfather will place another fear in my path.
We are a group of humans, and even our collective wisdom contains blind spots, unheard voices and struggles, points of learning, and unforeseen obstacles
These are my challenges, and you are being challenged in a different way, and we together are being challenged in even more ways. Our lessons are unique yet universal. We have had firekeepers, and other path walkers step away from their commitments, and many of us share sadness, not just from their leaving but over the conditions that contributed to their leaving. We all hear snippets, but we never know 100% of a story, even when directly involved.
People are infinitely complex, and the current of the Divine is unknowable. But when people choose to stop holding fires, inevitably there are resulting questions. Why did they make that choice? Is there something that I should be seeing that I am not? Do I need to say something? Should I be doing something different? And there should be questions. We are a group of humans, and even our collective wisdom contains blind spots, unheard voices and struggles, points of learning, and unforeseen obstacles. If the collective voice has these holes, you better believe each one of has even more. And so, we come upon more opportunities to listen to the inner voice, for each of us.
That doesn’t mean continuing a given path is necessarily the courageous decision and walking away is a timid one. I would never claim to believe that I know what another person’s heart is telling them to do. The creative Divine has certainly laid a path more complex than Fire good, Fire grow. We always need to be turning a lens of curious introspection upon ourselves, both individually and collectively, to work towards creating a more inclusive, vibrant, and thriving group of people.
I went through the young men’s initiation in 2011 with seven other men. Of those, only two are still working with the Sacred Fire community. Does that mean our initiation was fruitless? Absolutely not! It changed my life, and every one of us is playing the role that Divine needs us to, even my beloved friend Rasmus, who passed away a few years ago. But things could have been done differently to support the recently initiated young men and women–to help them learn how to exist in the duality of modern life that we are steeped in every day, and the world of Spirit that we experience during initiation.
In my desire to support other initiates who are also struggling, I stepped up to work with others who are facilitating the work of initiations. Over time, we discovered just how challenging the few years after initiation can be, and the need for support and guidance that extends beyond the initiation window. That was an important lesson, but we turned off several iterations of young people while we learned it. Right now I am part of a team that is working on creating a mentoring program to help future groups of initiates as they integrate the blessing of initiation into their daily lives.
The work to create this mentoring program is being done by a small, committed group of individuals. We are actively shaping this new offering, that we hope to have ready by 2023. Some of you may notice that this is not the first such attempt to create such a mentoring program, and we are using the work and lessons of the past attempts as foundational pieces.
I know that the hope of everyone working on the current mentoring program is that we create a sustainable and long-term program which meets the needs of the courageous young initiates. (And if we’re lucky, maybe a few of them might end up as a new generation of Firekeepers.) It highlights the importance of pushing firmly, courageously, and consistently, but also gently and without expectation.
But the question remains, why do I continue on this path? For me, the answer is a selfish one. Because it feels good. It feels good on a deep deep level.
Writing this has been cathartic and therapeutic for me. Thank you all for taking the time to read it. As you can probably tell I have spent some time thinking about Sacred Fire, my role in it, how we could do things differently, how I could do things differently, and how we can better support our youth who are moving into adulthood. Most of the time these ideas and thoughts sit between my ears. I am grateful for the chance to let them out, regardless of who makes it this far in the article.
But the question remains, why do I continue on this path? For me, the answer is a selfish one. Because it feels good. It feels good on a deep deep level. It’s hard to articulate but I suspect that we’ve all felt it, otherwise why would we be here? Whether it’s giving offerings to Grandfather, sitting around the Fire with you all, or being courageous at the grocery store, that shit feels good.
The spiritual experiences of my life touch me in a way that nothing material ever has or ever will. A part of me would love seeking that bliss permanently, working towards communing with Spirit, perhaps as a monk or a hermit, but that’s not what this life is about for me. This go round I am meant to commune with people, not solely with Spirit. The paradox of path exists here for me, being in service for selfish reasons. I look for the magical in the mundane, trying to find deeper levels to a world built on the superficial. I wonder what Grandfather would say about that.
Colin Lenhart is a Firekeeper in Seattle, WA and a member of the Initiate Mentoring Team that is part of the LifeWays programming.
The Gods Are Waiting
By Jonathan Merritt
Driving down from Portland to the spring pilgrimage camp in late March, 2014, I saw how California had withered in its three-year drought. The north part of Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, was only a narrow river. The basin at the south was a shallow pool. After the driest year on record, the lake was 120 feet below normal. As I drove across the north bank of San Francisco Bay, the reeds of the wetlands were gone, the bushes and grasses gray and brown tinder. At our camp near Muir Woods, the stream that runs through it was silent, nearly still.
The forecast for our ten-day pilgrimage called for two days of light rain, then warm, sunny weather—great for camping, but terrible for the devastated land.
It was a small camp, only eleven people. We unloaded the truck, set up the canopies, pitched our tents and lit the fires. There was a public audience with Grandfather Fire the second night. About twenty guests showed up.
After Grandfather Fire came in, the first question was about the drought. Grandfather told a story of the Miwok, the local native people renowned for their peacefulness. He talked about how, despite the rich abundance of the land, they became greedy. They began fighting over hunting and fishing grounds, over the stands of oak that provided acorns vital to their sustenance. They turned their hunting arrows and fishing spears into weapons and the clans warred against each other. In their fighting, they forgot the ceremonies that honor the spirits of the land. The weather beings, the sacred mountains, the spirits of the forests, rivers and springs were displeased. Great Grandmother Ocean became angry. The gods withheld the blessing of rain.
At first, the dry sunny weather only increased their fighting. But eventually, the people began to suffer. Finally, the oaks withheld their bounty of acorns. The root crops and berries withered. The salmon could not run up the dry streams. The people began to starve. Something needed to change.
The medicine people from the various clans gathered in council on the sacred island we call Alcatraz. They agreed that the only option was to make peace, to renew the ceremonies, to beg the gods’ forgiveness, to humbly ask for rain. In every village the sacred fires were lit and the offerings given. And the gods saw that the people had changed. The blessed rains returned and peace and abundance again reigned over the land.
The people need to look up to the sky and begin to recognize the livingness of that great sacred being and the passing clouds who inhabit Her.
Someone asked what our people could do to break the drought. Grandfather spoke about how we live in a time of great separation and fear, how that fear leads to greed, and greed leads to taking ever more and more. He spoke of the hubris of those who had amassed great wealth, how they imagined that their cleverness and innate superiority had enriched them. They had no concept of the natural prosperity of the land. Grandfather spoke of how the common people suffered, but lacking guidance and perspective, they too were plagued by separation and fear.
Low water levels of Shasta Lake 2022
“There is no technological fix for this problem,” Grandfather said. “Your cleverness cannot help you. But the solution is very simple. The people need to look up to the sky and begin to recognize the livingness of that great sacred being and the passing clouds who inhabit Her. They need to see the divine livingness of the mountains, the forests and streams. They need to look at Grandmother Ocean and see that all weather arose from Her generosity. And, when they see that livingness, to let go of their fear and to ask with open hearts for the blessing of rain.”
“The gods are waiting,” Grandfather said. “They will respond.”
Mara’akame Jonathan Merritt in his work traje
I always marveled at the movement of clouds over the land, recognizing them as living, constantly transforming beings. But I had never really asked them for help.
We continued the camp, keeping the fires, making offerings, practicing our songs and prayers, journeying to the sacred places, enjoying the fellowship of pilgrims and the opportunity to engage with the Divine. It rained every day, sometimes torrentially with strong winds that flattened our tents. The night before we made pilgrimage to Grandmother Ocean, Grandfather Fire returned. He said that the rains had come in response to our pilgrimage, to the kept fires, the prayers and songs, our attention to the Divine.
“Listen to the stream,” He said, “how it sings again. Do you see how simple it is? The gods are waiting. They will respond.”
Leaving camp, I drove across the bay and saw that the wetlands were full, that beneath the dead foliage, there was the vibrant green of new growth. At home, I read that the water level of Shasta Lake had risen twenty-two feet. I felt humbled and grateful that this great blessing was brought to the land.
As a mara’akame, a traditional spiritual healer in the lineage of the Huichol (Wixarika) people of Mexico’s Western Sierra Madre, I had long been cultivating an awareness and developing relationships with Great Grandmother Ocean (Tatei Haramara), Grandfather Sky (Tatei Wirika Wimali), Grandmother Rain (Arrautemai), and Great Grandfather Wind (Tamatsi Parika Tamoyeka). I always marveled at the movement of clouds over the land, recognizing them as living, constantly transforming beings. But I had never really asked them for help.
I know that it will take a great many of us to give up our greed and fear, to recognize the livingness of the world.
In late October of that year, Oregon was suffering from the same drought. It was so bad that the salmon could not move up from the great rivers into the spawning streams. I was keeping my monthly fasting vigil by the fire. At around midnight, I suddenly felt the urge to ask for help. I lay down on the grass looking up at the starry night and began praying. Slowly, cirrus clouds began drifting in from the west. Suddenly, there was a light sprinkling of rain. Then, as the cumulus moved in, it began pouring. I had to quickly string a tarp over my hearth. It rained hard for several days until, at last, the salmon were able to swim up the streams.
Eight years later, much of the West is still gripped in a strangling drought while other parts of the world have been flooded or devastated by wind. I try to do my part. I keep a regular practice to look to the sky and see the livingness there. I listen to the wind and welcome the rain. I adore the sun and admire the moon. Sometimes, I ask for help. Sometimes, the rains come; sometimes they don’t. I know that it is not up to me, that I can’t command these great beings, that there are far greater forces at play. I know that it will take a great many of us to give up our greed and fear, to recognize the livingness of the world, to see the beauty and generosity that sustains us and to humbly ask for help so that we can truly address the challenges of climate change.
Jonathan Merritt is a Mara’akame, a traditional shamanic healer in the Huichol tradition, a Fire Keeper and a poet. He lives in Portland, Oregon and his book, The Calling: Poems from a Spiritual Path, is available at Lulu.com
Fire Stalks Duress
By Leslie Martin
Blessings come in so many forms. From the moment I heard about the special September weekend-long Fire Speaks event hosted by the Sacred Fire Wilton, NH hearth which included a sweat lodge and Grandfather Fire, I was surrounded by blessings.
To this retreat I brought years of paralyzing fears, trauma memories, devastating financial losses, and confusion concerning my future. All of which had steadily escalated into an apparent comfort called agoraphobia.
The news about this special event came at a time of desperately needed liberation, a need for change, of finding new community, a desire to leave everything behind, and to experience any kind of relief. I was longing to listen to a voice of truth more powerful than the despair and exhaustion I’d been living with. The retreat instruction included completion of a purifying Sweat Lodge on the first night in order to hear Grandfather Fire tell the sacred story of Mt. Monadnock the following night. What a special time to experience my first sweat lodge!
My friend Ben, experienced in sweat lodge and fire ceremony, invited me to attend the Fire Speaks weekend. In August 2022, we moved deeper into conversation about the upcoming sweat lodge, and one of the things Ben mentioned was, “the fire stalks duress.” Suddenly I felt absolutely aligned. Yes, aligned with a sacred Fire who stalks nourishment because in this phrase I was suddenly given permission to hand over traumas stored in my body and heart.
My duress would be helping to nourish that fire!
What was most important to me though was the circularity. My duress would help to nourish that fire! My duress suddenly had value beyond the teachings to “learn from and transform the energy of mistakes and anything negative”. Now I could benevolently give it to another!
“Fire Stalks Duress” really are the most relieving words I have heard in a very long time. The final peace came in the realization that Fire commands respect. Similarly, the way in which I perceive my traumas commands respect. If I use care when handling either of them, they are both helpful.
Pre-Lodge Preparatory Thoughts
During my four-hour drive, I couldn’t help but ruminate over how I have never liked sweating. I’ve been athletic all my life, have lived and worked with horses, dogs, birds, in gardens, was a gymnast, dancer, runner, tree climber, and kayaker, and became a bodyworker, sometimes working in environments where the temperature was out of my control. I always disliked that sticky end result with the lingering cold wetness absorbed into my clothes!
My habitual negative reaction to the inevitable sweating in the lodge was offset by understanding that this process harbored so much more healing potential. Water moving through the pores is immensely cleansing and cooling; moreover, I trusted this Water form to help as a vehicle for my answers to Don David’s four questions. I visualized releasing my difficulties and hopes through both my voice and through the rivers of water moving from inside to outside.
I also understood from the Acupuncture Medical Model’s “Five Elements Theory”, that it is Lung Organ Energy that governs the opening and closing of the skin’s pores and is associated with the emotions of grief, sadness, and depression. It is also associated with the element Metal as the sacred fire sits upon a bed of stones, the carriers of heat. For my needs, utterly perfect!
Arrival: Finding Kindness
Departure delays on Saturday made me arrive five hours later than planned. In spite of this, my enroute phone check-ins with Jane Wollack were received with patience and encouragement.
I expected judgment from everywhere. I expected wrath. I expected impatience. There was none.
Arriving after the lodge and bonfire had been constructed, Don David Wiley came to warmly and happily greet me and to make sure I understood the weekend’s procedures. I expected judgment from everywhere. I expected wrath. I expected impatience. There was none.
A strange but new experience for my punishment-expectant mind to handle, allowed my lungs to open and breathe freely. As I had more conversations and interactions with folks in the community, it became increasingly clear how much unbridled kindness was simply flourishing. I think this immersion into 100% kindness was largely why I felt disoriented by Monday and for several days afterwards, sort of like “culture shock.”
That simple but meaningful phrase “the Fire stalks duress” was repeated often throughout the weekend, by Don David and from others to whom I spoke. My heart and spirit appreciating it more and more, the phrase itself simply became a vessel overflowing with kindness and love.
Greeting The Sacred Site
Finally, the moment I had been waiting for—approaching the ceremony site! Yet in response to seeing the people walking around the site, I retreated into my habitual container of safety—a layer of protection that no one can see but I can feel.
Thirty minutes later, having spoken to gracious Don David, I looked off into the distance to see the highest tendrils of flames and smoke arising from the sacred fire as it patiently heating the lodge stones. I wanted to greet the Fire and walked slowly towards it as mindfully as possible. Still surrounded by my protective shield, I just wanted to look and become familiar with this whole site and with this Being who, by its nature and as much as my faith would allow, was dedicated to becoming my new ally in healing.
The sweat lodge cover was mostly black with an entrance path straight from the fire. I could see that it was completely dark inside the entrance, “pitch black,” just as I’d been told. I followed a low stone wall until I stood near the Fire. Big stones lay in an earth pit; these glowing rocks were to feed us the purifying heat as messengers of Sacred Fire to our souls. I remembered being told they would not be used again, that they were actually considered sacrificial, and I felt sad.
Experiencing this Fire as a seeker of duress, a stalker and dissolver of troubles, I felt unified with the benevolence of its spirit, so welcomed, and in that moment my personal wall of safety became completely transparent between us. I asked Fire if my safety wall could be included in all the nourishment it would receive this weekend. Presently came the reply, “You will understand and love this wall more and more as it gradually evaporates into my care. As a function of duress and trauma, it has served you and now it serves me”. I felt blessed by this loving generous message.
I stood for a while longer to become more familiar with this Sacred Fire. It was in this cautious first greeting that I noticed the presence of something that made me feel very much at home. In this Sacred Fire, I witnessed the Five Elements all magnificently present. Wood feeds Fire which creates Earth via ash, which in turn densifies into Metal aka Stone Metal, densest of the elements, potentially liquifying into Water from extreme pressure or heat or vibration. Water in turn feeds Wood.
This Sacred Fire was sitting in a bed of stones deep in an Earth pit, being fed by Wood. I wondered, “where is the Water?” Then I realized that the heated Metal element in the form of these precious stones would create the reactive changes in my body—everybody’s bodies—and would move Water in the form of sweat from internal to external, helping to carry duress away during the purification process. Beautiful.
In The Lodge
After being told that “it is very close quarters inside,” I crawled into the lodge from the firelit night into utter darkness. My mind’s “wall” was preoccupied with not wanting to be in anybody else’s way. I began to shift my focus from my sense of sight into an increasing awareness of my body. I was able to offset my fears by relating to the familiar and by witnessing the kindness of the community.
I was able to offset my fears by relating to the familiar and by witnessing the kindness of the community.
After 40 years as a Massage and Amma Therapist, I once again blessed my profession and my teachers. Then I simply tried my best to follow instructions which I heard as “sit comfortably, move into a meditative state, listen to Don David’s four questions, speak answers from within the heart, and follow my body’s changes in response to the increasing heat”.
The first installation of blazing stones actually brought much comfort. It took a few minutes but soon I felt a universal opening of pores as a unified whole-body response. Thus, the presence of yet another healer came in the form of another of the Five Elements, Water, moving from within to my skin’s surface. How magnificent that my body responded so appropriately. I felt so at home.
Throughout, I did not feel the moisture on the surface of my skin. I really only felt the heat permeating my body deeper and deeper. In the sacredness of the moment, my mind stopped trying to process any thoughts. In consideration of the increasing discomfort amongst us, I kept my answers as concise and brief as possible. For me to speak was difficult enough, but as I and others spoke round after round, I relaxed because I experienced our sharings more and more as a network of human experience.
At the conclusion, asking my body to bear weight and crawl towards the door, the response was total trembling. My legs wobbled and my head spun. For all of us, exiting was a gradual process with the final reward lying on yet another of the Five Elements, the cool Earth, and feeling the clear Air. I became acutely aware of the sensation of my skin’s pores gradually closing again, and marveled at the perfect functioning of my body.
As I and others spoke round after round, I relaxed because I experienced our sharings more and more as a network of human experience.
Initially, I had been so afraid and nervous. Staring into the Fire, my mind stopped trying to process any thoughts. The questions were asked and I gave my answers, all in preparation for the following night’s lessons. The journey needed no explanation, just observation so the healing, purifying process of Sacred Fire could move through me in its own way.
The following evening, at the Grandfather Fire I was deeply moved by the network of attention surrounding Don David; his closest attendants watched constantly for his every need, and by so doing, were supporting the entire community of listeners.
I have always been drawn to community, which for me translates into a great circularity of care and love. Here community was – alive and well! This encounter was truly the medicine I needed. The spirit of Grandfather Fire and this purposeful loving community revitalized my relationship to myself. I felt the Fire and Grandfather’s discourse literally burn away the bond to my life’s immersion into anxiety, fear, and despair. With the love in my heart no longer a “was” or “used to be”, I feel myself moving forward refreshed and enlightened.
I’ve previously experienced reluctance to return from a profound event. My four-hour return journey was very challenging indeed. I had been so nervous about going and was disoriented towards the end. The disorientation magnified by the final day and continued over the next few days. I had entered “unfamiliar territory”, with habitual perceptions lacking sufficient explanations for what I experienced. I was dealing with a resulting psychological confusion as I moved to integrate the weekend.
However, gradually, as the inner processing continued to be driven by the sweat lodge’s quiet wisdom and Grandfather Fire’s lessons, I sensed a freedom coming from a long way off in time and space.
The odor of Don David’s cigar smoke lingered around me for the next four days and I was not surprised to hear that this is a common experience. I was glad for this lingering company of Fire Speaks because it eased the disorientation and my shifting in and out of tears. As the first few days moved on and the disorientation gradually dissipated, I became more aware of a wonderful presence of lightness and revitalization carrying me forward and providing strength. There is now a kind of renewed motivation which feels so mysterious, yet I think it feels mysterious because it has been buried for so long.
Dramatic changes came in the form of how that strength manifests, by the refusal to allow myself to be bullied verbally by others and even more by how I internally speak to myself. The “I can’t” that I became in every cell of my being is really abusive and managed to create an ever-haunting feeling of futility that in turn evaporated much of the energy I had left.
Another very important change happened – being able to reply clearly, concisely, and effectively when someone else is reacting or replying based upon their assumptions or projections. Now, speaking tactfully on behalf of clarity and mutual understanding is my new world and it is such a relief.
I found internal arguments and indecision no longer present when faced with tasks. Even the smallest tasks had grown into impossible monumental issues due to that depressive resigned “I can’t” built over years of chaos and loss. Now, even if it whispers, I have the ability to address a task without delay.
Leslie Martin lives on Long Island, NY. She is a NYS-LMT, Certified Amma Therapist, and offers classes in Taoist QiGong
One Small Glowing Ember: A Winter Solstice Story
By Sharon Brown
I had a truly transformative experience the day after our Nahua Winter Solstice Fire Ceremony last December 2021, at our Sacred Fire hearth in Olympia, Washington. We’d had a good group, around 25 souls who attended. The next morning, I went to my altar and I began by lighting my prayer candle.
I took my lighter and I made the sign of the cross three times, as is the practice of my wisdom tradition as a Nahua Granicera. I lit the wick, and the flame pretty immediately burned up and went out. Quickly. I’d never seen anything quite like it. It’s lit and then just seemed to burn right out.
And I said to myself:
Well, that’s not very good.
Here it is, the morning after what felt like a very successful solstice ceremony, and my candle is immediately put out in a way I’ve never seen in like, 60 years of lighting candles. This was not very affirming or auspicious in the least.
So of course, I went to relight it.
The wick at this point was a bit toasted from having gone through round one. So, when it did light, the flame was a smaller flame that crept down the wick to reach the wax as it should, but the flame was so small it went out again. But not completely. It left behind that burning ember one sees momentarily after a wick is snuffed.
Once, the people knew just how fragile this relationship with the Sun is.
That ember was there. Just a tiny pinhead orange glow. And it did not go out after five or 10 seconds. And it did not go out after 30 seconds. Or after a minute. I was staring at that tiny ember, feeling that feeling of knowing that it will go out any second. Because that’s what always happens with a tiny bit of fire that small. It burns out.
As the minute of staring at it grew beyond two or three minutes, I started feeling my anxiety rise. I didn’t want that tiny spark of light to die. It seemed if I breathed the wrong way, my breath would snuff it out. So, I could barely breathe. And I could barely move. I was feeling that if I moved, I would disturb the air around me and that would be all that was needed for the ember to die. I began to feel panicked.
And my vision changed.
I began to realize that what I was staring at was the barest glimmer of the potential for light in the pre-dawn of an ancient winter solstice morning. I’m waiting, waiting for the light and it’s not coming. Maybe this time it won’t return. Maybe it will go out. Die.
I began to realize that what I was staring at was the barest glimmer of the potential for light in the pre-dawn of an ancient winter solstice morning.
Sharon’s altar, on a different day
I began to feel the panic of that tiny ember of flame and its fragility and its importance and how if the sun does not return, there will be no more life. I began to try to will that ember to grow, to not die. And I stared at it. And stared at it. For what felt like more than 10 minutes that tiny ember simply sat there with its tiny bit of glow, and I was growing so anxious and despairing that it might die out and so confused about how it was still alive.
And then from within my confused panic I heard: “This is what Solstice felt like. This is what it feels like—this feeling of desperate, urgent longing for the Sun and Light’s return. Once, the people knew just how fragile this relationship with the Sun is. This anxious waiting for the dawn—the fear the Sun’s fire won’t return, knowing what’s at risk—”
And as the minutes ticked by, I finally realized that I had to release what was going to happen to the pinpoint glowing ember to the fates. I had to stop staring at it. What that ember was doing was impossible, but I was not in control. I had to move on with my life, my prayers.
And so I released my gaze, closed my eyes in prayer, and sometime later I opened my eyes to see that my candle was fully lit, burning brightly before me. At some point, something had happened, that ember had caught, the flame had grown. But it was not for me to see that magic. The lesson of that ancient winter morning had been enough.
Sharon Brown is a Firekeeper in Olympia, Washington and the Outreach Director for Sacred Fire. She is a Granicera and Tepahtiani apprentice in the Nahua wisdom tradition of Mexico’s Central Highlands.
By Erica Cohen
I stand next to my dear friend, Larry Messerman, in front of about 70 people who look up at us expectantly. We are welcoming them to Fiesta September 2022, in Casa Xiuhtecuhtli in Tepoztlán Mexico.
Before us is Don Jose Sandoval de La Cruz, our presiding shaman from the Sierra Madre up north, accompanied by several Huichol families dressed in their traditional embroidered trajes. Also gathered are Don David Wiley, the Mara’akate of the Sacred Fire community, community members from as far away as the United Kingdom, as well as those from our own local fire hamlet. We are gathered to honor the Tuki which lives on this land, in the traditional way the Huichol people have done for thousands of years.
There is a great richness to the group–a great variety of experience in our connection to the medicine paths of Sacred Fire, as well as other spiritual traditions. We have been asked to dress festively, and everyone is glowing in colors and excitement. Surprisingly, the post-travel exhaustion is not dimming our light.
Some guests I’ve known for decades; some I will meet for the first time later today. A gentle shyness creeps up my chest and my eyes brim with tears as I look out on the colorful, full-hearted crowd. Larry begins to speak and soon it will be my turn. I am suddenly flooded with the knowing in my body, “I belong here, these are my people, I belong.”
Larry, who has lovingly introduced me as his sister, is the Master of Ceremonies for this Fiesta. I am his translator from English into Spanish and back again, as needed. We are doing our best to keep everyone included in this trilingual group. For the Huichol, Spanish is already a second language and one of their group, Maurilio Cruz, will be translating directly for Don Jose. Larry and I have hosted together many times. We enjoy each other, enjoy the joking and sharing, watching each other for pauses and clues, noticing if something is missing, throwing in bits of Yiddish from our shared Jewish background.
Preparing the Tuki for the ceremonies
I can’t remember how many times I have been asked to provide this service at Fiestas and other Sacred Fire events. I always accept with joy and feel it is an honor. Larry has a special talent for moving between logistics and the important work of guiding us into a deeper understanding of what we are doing here together, the profound perspective beyond the actions. Often his speech is truly poetic, and I have to stop to gather my breath before I can translate. He can put the ineffable into language, bring the shining multicolor threads of the Huichol world into something we ‘modern’ people can not only feel, but begin to understand and translate into our own lives. Language is connective tissue, and Larry connects us across three cultures.
In the Huichol tradition a Tuki is the traditional ceremonial temple, the home for the Gods. Although at first glance it may appear to be just another thatched roof adobe building, the Tuki is designed and built as sacred architecture. Everything about it, from the choice of materials, to the orientation of the posts that hold up the roof, is based on thousands of years of tradition that express the full Huichol cosmology. Here in Tepoztlán we have the honor of holding our community fires in this sacred place and every time I cross the threshold, I can feel this powerful being living and breathing, bringing teachings and blessings to all those who gather within.
The Tuki is a living treasure. It nourishes and feeds our people and our connection to the world. As such it also needs to be fed in certain rituals, known as Fiestas. The Fiestas for our Tuki at Casa Xiuhtecuhtli (pron. (Sheetacootli) began in 2009, the year it was built, and continued for a cycle of five years. After a period of rest, it became time for a new cycle, which was delayed due to the pandemic.
So, this Fiesta, in 2022, is filled with special excitement. It is combined with a second Fiesta of Initiation for Mara’akame Brian Collins who will consecrate his relationship to a sacred site. Also, as a surprise to all it will include the second baptism of the tiny baby of Xitaima, Maurilio´s young daughter.
The Tuki is a living treasure. It nourishes and feeds our people and our connection to the world and as such also needs to be fed in certain rituals, known as Fiestas.
Although the Ritual Performer Don Jose, Don David Wiley, the Attending Shaman and Guardian of Casa Xiuhtecuhtli, and the Mara’akate of El Grupo Tatewarí have the greatest responsibility for these events, they are only possible through the dedication of time, energy, financial support, creativity, patience and love of everyone present.
The family and friends of Don Jose have made the 20-plus hour journey by bus from their homelands to join us and support him in practical and ritual matters, and surely in many ways that are invisible to us. The Jicareros, specially designated Mara’akate, are responsible for the ritual well-being of the Tuki and will take the sacred offerings to the Home of the Gods. The Caseros perform tasks of organization and maintenance before, during and after the event. The Tuki maidens adorn and watch over this sacred space. They prepare for and guide the many rituals, blessings and ceremonial meals held within it.
The Fire Keeper tends the consecrated fire, keeping it burning day and night. The brilliant kitchen staff manages to juggle modern food allergies and traditional ritual cooking methods for 70 people. The Health Hut is always available for our questions and needs. Dancers and musicians, mostly volunteers from among the guests, rehearse and perform a sacred Dance of the Bull within our great dance of Fiesta. Children run around being children with all their joy, grace, curiosity and screams. Also, a special gift…two babies are passed from arms to arms throughout the days and nights we are together.
We are all the Fiesta, and the Fiesta is all of us.
Some of the roles have been assigned months ago, some participants offer on the spot to carry a meal into the Tuki, or clean up after meals. We are all the Fiesta, and the Fiesta is all of us.
The rhythm of these days is familiar to me by now: the first day is mostly for slowing down, moving away from our busy, mind-oriented lives into the quality of presence needed for this time. The attending shamans, Mara’akate, Caseros and Jicareros have already been working very hard, literally day and night, often while fasting for pilgrimages; attending to numerous ritual demands to prepare the space for the rest of us. Yet they receive us with great warmth and open arms.
On this morning, Larry and I help people orient to the new, slower rhythm of our shared time here, and the details of life in this very special time and place.
It is a day for one of the aspects of these gatherings that most warms my heart: hugs, catching up, sharing with new friends and old. After the dry solitary time of the pandemic this is a balm to my soul. We are all hungry for it.
We introduce people to the Tuki itself. Some have never been here before, and Larry speaks eloquently about both Casa Xiuhtecuhtli, and the Tuki itself. When we venture in, we see the altar that covers the western wall, adorned with flowers, sheaves of corn stalks ripe with full ears of corn, big bags of beans, images of places sacred to the Huichol, and many candles. Huichol yarn paintings decorate the walls. On the altar, sits the blood, masks and hides of two deer who have been sacrificed before the Fiesta. The sacrifices and the blood are essential for the feeding of the Tuki and for solidifying the Initiate’s relationship with his sacred place.
Don Jose and his family
The Fiesta officially begins when together we consecrate the fire, which will be carefully attended for the next days and nights. Don Jose will be blessing all the food and drink before every meal, and after eating we will each put a stick in the fire to include thanks to Grandfather for what we have received.
…we are all exhausted, softened and moving more like a tribe and less like individuals.
After the sun has set and the stars appear in the night sky, we receive teachings from Tatewarí, the wisdom of the ages gifted to us through the “suit” as he calls Don David in this context. I have been privileged to attend these audiences for over 20 years, yet the depth and eloquence of His words on each occasion touches me in unexpected ways.
Tatewarí prepares us for the sacred activities to follow. He says that the wisdom of the Huichol people is a precious gift that has been obtained through thousands of years of relationship with each other and the living world. There is great value in turning to a tradition like this in these times of great challenges all over the world.
After the ‘slowing down day’ and the audience with Grandfather, we are all exhausted, softened and moving more like a tribe and less like individuals. It is a subtle change that comes over us, but something I long for especially at this time, after the fear and isolation of the pandemic has held us apart.
Larry speaks to us about this shift: how the healing path of being in community for even a few days, just a taste of the way our ancestors lived their entire lives, helps us release the hard, speedy edges of our individual agendas and ego mind. The sacred container created by the consecrated fire, and our attention to the details of ritual space, bring forth another way of being together.
Once again, I am deeply moved by Larry´s capacity to transmit in poetic language the subtleties of what we are experiencing, to point with words toward the indescribable. Sometimes I struggle, and have to take a moment to move between not only languages, but cultural context and understanding about things that are so important to me. The sleep deprivation and lack of normal daily routines loosens up my own conceptual mind so that I cannot rely on it and have to let Larry´s poetry carry me. I also know there are other translators there to help if I miss a beat.
We have time to share our impressions of Grandfather´s teachings as we sit around the fire between the ritual events that mark this day and build to the events of the evening. Our Huichol friends take out their splendid woven bags, jewelry and yarn paintings to sell and the fun begins as we deck ourselves out in colorful splendor. Meanwhile, although they are out of sight, we can hear the performers for the Dance of the Bulls rehearsing on the other side of the compound. Intriguing drums, grunts and mooing sounds drift our way.
There is a procession in front of the Kawiteros—the Elder Council of the Mara´akate—who sit before the fire in their spectacularly embroidered trajes. These include the Jicareros, the Mara´akate with their takwatsis, their sacred bundles, and the Caseros.
We share a ritual meal of stew of the meat of the deer followed by feeding the fire with sticks. And then, the most delightful ritual of all: we crumble animal cookies into cups of hot chocolate to be placed to one side of the altar. The children participate in everything they choose to, and of course they go first for this one. I have never asked about the meaning of this ritual, because I prefer to believe that the Gods, like us, just love dessert.
The Dance of the Bulls is performed for us, and a friend who is attending Fiesta for the first time shares her trepidation about the sacrifices to come early next morning. I speak of my own experiences over the years, the layers of fear, awe, confusion and acceptance of the mysterious wisdom of traditions my own western mind cannot fathom.
(left to right) Kawiteros Susan Skinner, Patrick Hannaway, Don David Wiley, Anna-Lena Hilton and Alan Kerner with Mara’akame and Initiate Brian Collins
After dinner we move into the Tuki to join a truly magical scene. Don Jose sits before the altar in the West with his takwatsi and other sacred items before him on the ground, alongside coca cola, and beer he will be drinking during the night. He is surrounded by the Mara´akate in full, colorful splendor. The rest of us are packed into the other side of the Tuki.
Long after dark, Don Jose begins to sing. He is singing the expressions of the sacred beings here and far away, the souls of mountains and wind and caves, of the animals who have offered themselves for sacrifice, of the local Gods and those of the sacred places that give the Mara´akate, the Tuki and the ritual itself their blessings and power. He asks for their permission, their guidance and help. Sometimes he weeps and sobs through his singing.
During the last Fiesta, Don Jose confided to me that sometimes they have so much to say that he can barely keep up in his song. I have no words for the way this experience touches me. I can only say that when I heard him for the first time, many years ago with no understanding of what was happening, some unnamed longing in me felt answered. An enchanted sense of wholeness and connection to the living and divine world held me. I thought “Now I am ready to die.”
I am awake for most of the night, letting the waves of Don José’s voice in song and speech sink into me. For me personally, this is the peak moment of Fiesta and all the months of preparation lead up to this.
Already I feel nostalgia for the preciousness of the time shared in this magical container.
On other occasions, his singing has lulled me into a deep sleep where the very beings he speaks of flicker in and out of my dreams and leave me with a distinct sense of being cleansed. But this time I am alert, and I hear the explanations that Don Jose passes on to us about what he is hearing and the messages he is receiving. He speaks in his language, Huichol, and Maurilio then translates into Spanish, and Leticia Gamboa, David´s assistant, then offers the English translation–all so that those who are still awake and alert can understand what Don Jose is saying.
Before dawn, I participate in something ancient that has been enacted for millennia. We file out of the Tuki holding candles and make a procession around the bulls. They are sacrificed and their blood is gathered. Don Jose anoints the offerings on the altar and the takwatsis of the Mara’akate with this blood. In this way the Tuki is fed, and the sacred bundles are enlivened. The rites of wisdom traditions evoke the great mystery, the ineffable, and touching in me beyond what my mind can explain or understand.
Just then, when it seems there cannot be any more to do and our eyes and minds are foggy with exhaustion, Xitaima comes before Don Jose in a fresh traje embroidered with violet deer. The precious moment of her baby’s baptism has arrived. Now, the rituals are complete. We can all feel it.
Participants listening to announcements about afternoon events
After a few hours’ sleep, we return for breakfast and line up to express our joy and gratitude to the Mara’akate and especially to honor the initiate, Brian, who has the eyes of a newborn child in wonder now. When I greet and thank Don Jose, he tells me “I did it, I stayed up singing all night, I got through it.” He is at least 80 years old.
The rest of this day is again social time, with a more relaxed feeling now that the ritual aspects have been successfully completed. We drink too much tea and coffee, complain about our exhaustion and wonder once again how the shamans, Mara’akate and initiates get through this over and over again. Some of them are heading for a two-week pilgrimage in a few days. Larry and I make announcements about logistics and also encourage people to give themselves space to absorb and digest the powerful experiences of the past few days.
We now need to prepare ourselves consciously to return to the worlds we have left behind. Already I feel nostalgia for the preciousness of the time shared in this magical container. I prepare to return to a life that will no longer be lived in the warmth of the collective and I realize once again how “my” life has never felt right to me.
Ever since I was 14 years old a voice within has repeated, “There must be another way to live. There must be another way to live.” Now that I have spent so many days and nights over the past two decades immersed in community—in events like Fiesta, or on pilgrimage, or in Firekeeper trainings, I know where the path lies. The return to “my home” and “my responsibilities”—although clearly necessary and often satisfying—is bittersweet.
In the days following Fiesta, rich memories flutter through my heart and mind as textured and overlapping as the multicolored threads of the Huichol yarn paintings. There is one that returns again and again haunting in its tenderness.
It is the baptism of Xitaina’s baby. It is the moment when she kneels before Don Jose offering her tiny, swathed child to him in with outstretched arms and he reaches out to sweep his feathered wand over the baby’s head petitioning the Gods once again after a long night of singing and prayer. A collective “Aaaaawwww” rises from all gathered in the Tuki, and I burst into tears.
I long to be that young woman witnessed in her motherhood by the entire loving, exhausted yet alert community. I long to be that baby attended to by the ancient Shaman, receiving the blessings of her family and the Gods.
I feel honored to be part of this gathering, to know that I belong here and have played my part as best I could in the grand dance called Fiesta. And I long for a belonging ever more profound.
Érica Cohen is one of three firekeepers in Tepoztlán México and supports Sacred Fire events as translator and organizer as needed. Originally from New York City, she has lived in Mexico for over 40 years.