Deep breaths rattle in and out of my chest. My legs are shaking and sweat pours down my face and body. My eyes are stinging but I can’t wipe the sweat away. If I do I’ll lose my balance and so I kept my arms extended. I close my eyes and slowly as I stand there, suspended in time and space, my breathing calms. My legs and arms stop trembling and the sweat is no longer coursing down my body. I open my eyes. Several shafts of light penetrate the darkness and I realize I am standing on one strand of a giant spider web stretching across an abyss, from one side of the cavern to the other. This strand is my sole source of support – a gift from Grandmother Spider. I can feel the fibers of the strand beneath each foot as they cradle and balance my slow progress. Eternity seems to pass and I inch along until finally my left foot comes down on solid rock. Flooded with relief, my heart pounds and I look behind me, but only for a fleeting, dreadful moment, peering into the deep, dark abyss plunging forever below the hard rock platform I now stand on. I can see around me a massive dark cavern that I could so easily have fallen into. The grip of the fibers still pulses through my feet as I stand, trembling on solid rock. I breathe deeply to steady my nerves, then without hesitation start to walk along the rocky incline leading away from the abyss. Ghouls, snakes, creatures and phantoms of all kinds move through the cavern but I pay no mind to them as I walk with determination away from the danger that had entrapped me.
The shock of sunlight. I’m blinded for a moment until I see a verdant valley stretched out in front of me. A trail leads to a river and without hesitation I follow it and take off my clothes and submerge myself into the crisp, cold waters and all the fear and danger I carried from the abyss washes away. I warm myself on a rock and then dress. There’s a pair of shoes in a leather satchel and I slip them on.
Walking onwards lightly and beautifully, I follow the the river in the direction of the sun Mallard ducks preen at the water’s edge with their ducklings, and a kingfisher sits patiently on a branch overhanging a deep, still pool. Sunlight filters through the trees and the light dances on the rocks and water like a crystal cloak, shimmering and moving with every swirl and eddy. The river leads me to its source – a beautiful lake cradled by high snow-capped mountains where I rest for a while. At the end of the lake I can see a cow moose with her calf at the water’s edge. In the distance wolves call to one another, and there are two rabbits beside me. A doe and two fawns walk slowly and tentatively from the forest into the sunlight, unafraid of my presence. Skylarks hover motionless in the sky then descend to earth with their lilting song. Being close to all these creatures fills me with a feeling of well-being, but I know I cannot remain at this peaceful spot.
As I stand to leave a huge golden eagle circles above me, my guardian. Tall pines mark the edge of the forest and I follow a path to a large clearing. A fire flickers beside the flat rock in the centre of the clearing. And there’s a woman tending it. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, tall with long black hair loosely braided on either side of her oval face. In her crafted buckskin garment she moves as gracefully as a deer. She stops putting wood on the fire and stands tall, watching me. Her dark eyes are riveting and she gravely observes my progress to the center of the clearing where I stand in front of her.
“We have been expecting you, though wondered if you would get through the dangers of the abyss. The Ancient Shaman of the West is waiting to talk to you. Take the path ahead of you and follow it to the mountain.”
I remain silent, making no reply – smiling shyly in thanks for her directions.
The path leads towards the mountains and I feel as if I have been transported to a valley deep in the Rocky Mountains. There’s a small cedar building ahead. The heavy wooden front door is wide open and as I enter, a deep melodious voice greets me.
“Welcome Ian, it is about time that we met.”
Oil lamps cast a glow over simple wooden furnishings with animal skins thrown over them. Spears and traps adorn the walls. There’s a central fire and an altar on the east side. I smell the aroma of burning sage and feel the intense sacred nature of this abode. Standing in front of me is a magnificent old man dressed in a splendid embroidered buckskin tunic and trousers. His hair is white, as is his trimmed moustache and beard. His dark skin makes his smile all the more dazzling. He’s easily six feet tall with an athletic body underneath the bearskin robe thrown over one shoulder. All of this vitality seems at odds with his obviously advancing years, his weathered skin evidence of his life’s journey. His dark eyes penetrate every aspect of my being as he regards me for a long moment.
“Come sit with me. We will share some tea.”
I make myself comfortable on a bench by the fireplace, feeling at rest and at peace with this man and we sip tea together for quite a while in silence,
“There is someone who wishes to meet with you. She passed on to the other side many years ago. Yet she still carries a great burden of sorrow. And that sorrow has to do with you. Are you prepared to meet your favorite Aunt?”
“You mean my Aunt Ruby is here to speak with me?”
He nods and there is my Aunt Ruby sitting opposite me on another bench. She’s just as I remember her, wearing a fashionable pant suit, her greying hair pulled back in a bun to display the beauty of her cheekbones and elegant face. But she looks troubled, sad. Ruby had been my favourite aunt. When I was seriously ill as a young teen, she took care of me and nursed me back to health. I suffered from a general malaise that my family’s doctor put down as rheumatic fever – but it was not that at all. Had I been born into a society steeped in shamanism, the elders would have seen that this was a shamanic illness, announcing that I was ready for training. But I was not born into such an alert society, and so my shamanic training was postponed until my middle years. In the meantime my Aunt Ruby healed me with her boundless source of love and incredible intuition.
It hurts, seeing my aunt so distraught and miserable. Very softly I ask her “Can you tell me why you seem so troubled Aunt Ruby?”
“Oh my Ian, there is no “seem” about it. I knew, as did your other aunties, about the abuse you endured at the hands of our second cousin, when he was on leave from the army after World War II. We all felt that we had failed to protect you and did not do enough to keep him away from you. We took some solace in that you seemed not to remember. So we kept quiet about it, keeping it as a family secret. But I have carried this deep suffering into the grave and beyond. My sisters and your parents too. I am so sorry Ian for not protecting you in time.”
I sit patiently, waiting for her sobbing to subside
“My dearest Aunt Ruby – please stop your tears. I became aware of the abuse and its effects on me as I got older. In my middle years I had wonderful help from powerful healers and shamans and was able to release the energy of abuse so it no longer harms me as it once did. I even found forgiveness for the man responsible – your second cousin. If I can let go totally of the suffering, then surely you can do the same. And your sisters and my parents can let go of any grief they still carry. None of you need to suffer on the other side.”
Her crying stops, as she collects herself and in a tremulous voice Aunt Ruby asks, “Is this really true Ian? You are not just saying this to placate me? I could not bear that.”
“It is absolutely true. The pain, suffering and violence from the abuse are no longer with me. It is only logical that it is no longer with you. Don’t you think so? You must share this news with your sisters and my parents on the other side. Can you do that for me?”
She nods, silent for a while, pre-occupied with her thoughts and suffering. Then she looks up at me and smiles her great broad grin. “You were always my favorite nephew Ian – the little philosopher. How well I remember our conversations about insects, God and the universe. When you stayed in my home when you were so ill – that was one of the happiest six months of my life.” Her eyes light up. “And do you remember how I used to chase you and your cousins at our parties and give you big red lipstick kisses on your foreheads and cheeks? You never rubbed them off, not like the others, though you must have been embarrassed at being out run by your auntie!”
Ruby’s sorrow has been lifted and then, in an instant she is gone.
The Ancient Shaman of the West who has observed our exchange looks at me with those penetrating dark eyes, “This is what you came to do Ian. It is now time for you to go back.”
“Come back Ian.” The voice calling to me grows more and more insistent. “Come back.”
And so I travelled back. I was lying down on a bear skin with a pillow under my head. White Eagle Woman, medicine woman of the Ojibway, sat in her armchair – very carefully observing me on the floor of her home. It was 1985 and I had already received seven years of training with this all seeing magnificent mentor.
“I will help you stand up as you will be shaky after that journey. And brush you down with an eagle wing. Then you can sit down on the sofa and tell me every part of your journey. First – drink this glass of water.”
With one hand on my shoulder she brushed me from head to toe with the eagle wing in her other hand and I felt the strength of eagle medicine enter my body and mind, knowing I was coming to rest in a stable state. I sat down on the brown sofa and White Eagle Woman listened intently as I spoke, occasionally asking me to repeat and clarify the sequence of events I was describing. She pointed out several vital components of the journey that I had missed. She was very thoughtful once I finished speaking. I respected her silence. Then she looked at me shrewdly, as if through new eyes.
“This journey had more than I ever expected of you. Grandmother Spider rarely shows herself as a helper. Her job is to spin the threads of the Universe, yet she took time out to build that web across the abyss for you. It is only thanks to her that you could walk out of the darkness of the cavern and begin your intended journey. You were totally unaware of how much that gift means and of the other gifts placed on your journey. In time that will all be brought to your attention. But what sticks with me the most right now is that you offered gifts to your Auntie so that her suffering could diminish.”
She paused, tapping her feet on the floor in concentration, and considered very carefully her next words to me: “The Ancient Shaman of the West is very pleased with your compassion and courage. And so am I.”
With that rare acknowledgement, White Eagle Woman stomped off to the kitchen to make tea – leaving me to wonder about what else I had missed and still did not understand. This was the state of unknowing from where I began the process of remembering.
It was during a gathering of elders in 1978 that I first met White Eagle Woman where she announced that she did not like me at all! Her rebuke was perhaps well deserved, given how dense and unaware I must have seemed. My disjointed education and experience with the Native American domain of mysticism did, however, slowly evolve into a seamless pattern rather than remain as random knots stretching across an abyss.
The blunt introduction to White Eagle Woman was a prelude to a thirty year period of training and healing under her guidance. She was a heavy set woman with a round face and long black hair, but it was the air of quiet authority that pervaded her presence that immediately struck me. She rarely smiled, but when she did it illuminated the entire room when her dark eyes lit up with mirth. I was very fortunate to be in her hands. She was the first of four incredible medicine people who provided me with shamanic training and teachings over the next three decades. White Eagle Woman directed the shamanic process of my healing from childhood sexual abuse, and this allowed the mosaic of the past to start revealing itself.
Shamans and medicine people from far and wide came to consult with White Eagle Woman. Elders from the Amazon would come to see her. She was a holder of the Medawin lineage, an unbroken tradition of medicine people known far and wide across the Americas. At that first encounter at the elder’s gathering she told me about a Vision Quest on her reserve in Sault Ste. Marie in south western Ontario. I was to be there, as she had received instructions from her ancestors to train me. That humbled me and was enough for my attendance. The eight day Vision Quest began and finished with a sweat lodge. In between were six days of fasting, prayer and ceremony in the wilderness. White Eagle Woman located me in a small grove of birch and oak trees and I had to stay within a strictly designated area. The other seven participants in the Vision Quest were located in a different part of the forest – distant and unseen. I found some level ground for my tarp and strung it over a frame built from what I could find within the grove. I placed my coloured ribbons at each of the four directions, also for the realms of above and below. One of the oak trees became the symbolic stem of my pipe. The bowl of the pipe was a clamshell with tobacco in it. As the sun moved the tree’s shadow, I had to be alert and move the clamshell in the same direction around the base of the tree.
I was very still and silent, observing my territory’s nuances – the leaves, smells, insects and the rain – all while in a constant state of prayer and thanksgiving. White Eagle Woman located herself in a trailer close by for anyone who needed guidance. She indicated that a medicine bear would visit one of us and to report that to her. Time passed in a seamless flow, scarcely existing before we gathered for the final sweat lodge once the Vision Quest was over. On coming off the land, a surprise awaited. I had to consume a half cup of blueberries and then drink vast quantities of a foul tasting concoction created by White Eagle Woman. This was a cleansing medicine to make me throw up the blueberries. It was quite disgusting. Especially for me, as it took a long time before I vomited up the blueberries. White Eagle Woman’s comment to me was terse. She pursed her lips and looked at me quizzically:
“Hmmm – you’re holding on tight to resist the truth you need to know!”
I had no idea what she was referring to. White Eagle Woman asked about the medicine bear. Nobody reported experiencing it. In exasperation she turned to me and announced that she had seen the medicine bear visit me twice. What did I remember? I recalled dreaming about a tall, gangly and somewhat goofy creature that was not a bear to my mind. I had also noticed the creature on another day, out of the corner of my eye, sitting next to the sacred oak tree. White Eagle Woman immediately threw tobacco on the fire to absolve my ignorant gaffe and instructed me that a medicine bear can take on many forms. The goofy creature was the most receptive one to an idiot like me. Though the medicine bear had been easy on me, White Eagle Woman was certainly not. She chastised my lack of insight while we were all in the sweat lodge. Later on, in private, she quietly revealed the door that had been opened wide due to the medicine bear experience. The visit was to assess whether I was capable of receiving medicine gifts from the past.