We Are the Land

I place my hands on the ice and hold them there as long as I can tolerate the bitter cold.  It’s old ice – perhaps hundreds of thousands of years – and I am awakened and awed by natural forces that extend far beyond my comprehension. There is something archetypal about a glacier. How else could we explain the allure of its multi-dimensional, crystal blue hue; especially when it beckons us to come closer, to touch it, when all signs read “danger”?  But I am equally stunned by the markers indicating the distance and speed of its retreat.  At its current rate of withdrawal, in fifteen years, this glacier may be completely gone. It’s odd to think that I may outlive it. Ironically, I came to Alaska to celebrate my 50th birthday; to put into perspective fifty years of life against that which, at one time, seemed like eternity.

“We are the land” writes the Native American writer, Paula Gunn Allen. “Illness is a result of separation from the ancient unity of person, ceremony, and land, and healing is a result of recognition of this unity”.

Over the years, I have tried my best to understand the truth of what Gunn Allen is saying. If the glaciers are melting at such a profound rate, are we not also losing something of ourselves? But, how can I, a white, Eurocentric, and displaced person, possibly grasp this notion? James Hillman says I can’t.  Speaking of us European descendents, he says our eyeballs and ears were made in Europe and that we will forever see and hear through European eyes and ears. And, in any case, he asks, “Doesn’t it take centuries for a settler to hear the earth of a place, to become soil-soaked?”

Maybe so, but there is one ingredient that we all hold in common, whether European, Middle-Eastern, Asian, or Native American, that Hillman forgets to mention, and that is the spontaneous feeling response that comes from listening to another’s story. Feeling. That non-rational, ego suspending, wildly uncontrollable, awful, and beautiful feeling. Feeling dissolves all dualities. It reconnects us to our bodies, to each other, and to the land. When the story is told and heard, feeling is present.

And here, I turn back to Gunn Allen when she writes, “Perhaps we can best characterize this relation by saying that the stories are the communication device of the land and the people. Through the stories, the ceremony, the gap between isolate human being and lonely landscape is closed”.

How many of us have come to the ceremony, broken and cut off, only to go out onto the land and return with a story? Stories of the shadowy vales of life, the ecstatic mountaintops, and the impassible rivers?  Of long dark nights and early morning sunrises? Stories of mysterious desert mirages, visions, and coyote sightings? The story is the ceremony that closes the gap through feeling.

And this is why I tell you my story of melting glaciers. Perhaps my heart is melting, too. The glacier reminds me that I will also die, as will those I love, and there is immense sadness in recognizing this loss. But, when the heart melts there is no room for opposition, or even rational judgments. All fluids leak out and flow into the body, through the feet, onto the land, and into each other. And who knows? Maybe these tears of mine will return someday as snow to form later into ice. After all, we are the land.

Ceremony Becomes Us

I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

The stones are placed in a circle. All are Catalina stones and I recognize the smooth green soapstone, the enduring white of the quartz, and my favorite, the red and black garnet. It is important that the stones are here, placed alongside the cornmeal, for they represent a part of me. They are a part of me. These stones, like the land from which they came, hold four generations of memories, stories, and dreams. For me this includes memories of long hikes on the wild backside, wet wintery days and Levis covered with mud. They stir dreams of waking to the sunrise on empty beaches with no tent, pad, or pillow; just the soft, warm sand and a thin sleeping bag to ease the evening chill. And many memories of my father and his small Cessna, gliding through cumulous cloud caves with the blue, sun sparkled ocean below. As I look down at the stones, memories flood me – too many memories –and so I am grateful that the stones can hold them in place.

But we are in the western foothills of the Sierra, someplace near Grass Valley, and not on Catalina Island. This is a landscape that is not mine but is slowly reaching in and weaving itself around my arteries, like a vine working its way up the rain gutters of a new building. This is the place we have chosen to wed. My story is being woven into his and his into mine. This place, where we stand, also holds memories of four generations, of life-long friends, many loves and many losses, cherished trees that have fallen during heavy winter storms and new promising sprouts that show up in spring. The stories are palpable here. They live in this land.


What is this thing that we call “ceremony”? How could this simple act bind two very separate lives, collective memories, and entire histories?  We created this ceremony, we planned it, but once it got started everyone present knew that it took on a life of its own.

For the last fifteen years, I’ve been creating and sitting in ceremony as part of my involvement with the School of Lost Borders. We have a saying: “Trust the ceremony”, which essentially means that we can depend on that which is much greater than ourselves – greater than our individual selves – to bring about the changes, the bonds, and new openings that we seek. It is true. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. Even when it all feels so mundane, or when personalities are out of sync, or the weather is troublesome, the ceremony always pulls through.

Still, what is ceremony?

I’m not talking about ceremony as verbatim ritual. Many of the so-called ceremonies I have attended throughout my life have been nothing more than a collection of repetitious acts, and as meaningful as reciting the phone book. But when people come together with a clear intention, complete presence, and open hearts, something remarkable occurs.  A space is created – a threshold – where old perceptions are suspended, making room for the unexpected new.

Although I am not Native American, nor make any claim that we non-natives should practice Native American ceremonies, I find Laguna descendent, Paula Gunn Allen’s description of ceremony to be useful:

“The purpose of a ceremony is to integrate: to fuse the individual with his or her fellows, the community of people with that of the other kingdoms, and this larger communal group with the worlds beyond this one. A raising or expansion of individual consciousness naturally accompanies this process. The person sheds the isolated, individual personality and is restored to conscious harmony with the universe”. – The Sacred Hoop.

Ceremony marries all the disconnected pieces and unites them. Thus, there are no separations in ceremony, no rigid categorizations of superior and lesser, no hierarchy between people, or between humans and the rest of creation. In a world that has been compartmentalized by the compulsive need to exert power and control, ceremony is that which brings all things, human and non-human, back together in a web of inter-relatedness. In a word, ceremony brings about wholeness.

And, wholeness is not to be confused with monotheism. Wholeness does not support “there is one truth, the only truth” absolutist thinking. Rather, wholeness suggests continuity and belonging. As Gunn Allen implies, wholeness means to be fused with our community, with our environments, and with the worlds beyond our own (notice that she uses “worlds” in the plural). When these many layers of existence are aligned there are no discarded pieces – whether the pieces are perceived to exist inside or outside of our skin – and each piece provides meaning in relation to the others. When there is a drought, some may say, it is because we are not treating the land with respect. Or perhaps, we are not in right relationship with our neighbors or with ourselves. As Jung mentions in his retelling of the rain maker story, maybe we are not in Tao. Whichever tradition one functions within – modern, tribal, Eastern or Western – disease is not just an individual problem. It is relational on every level.

And ceremony is the only cure I know for the disease of separation.

On my wedding day, the many parts were present, including those parts of myself that I’ve despised and denied. They emerged like furious demons from the underworld. The self-doubts and insecurities, all wrapped up in my fear that I am incapable of giving and receiving the love that is now being presented. Who am I to partake in such a gift? But the ceremony made space for it all, demons included. Ceremony widened the circle so that all the elements could move around and breath, stretch their legs and loosen their grips. What was once felt as fear turned into open invitation. Although I don’t quite understand it, something shifted and the pieces fell into place with a soft, but distinct, snap. Not that I’m no longer tormented by my own complexes and fears, but I now know they are no longer just mine to contend with. They belong to the circle. As Rumi writes in his poem, The Guest House,

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

It is no wonder that when in ceremony, people are more emotional, more expressive, more creative, and more likely to show their wild and unruly selves.  In a culture of intolerance, these are the parts that are most often left out, pushed down, and exiled. In the spirit of ceremony nothing is out of place. And that, which was once harmful and self-destructive turns belly up and morphs into a great gift – a new delight, as Rumi calls it.

For native peoples, ceremony is a co-creative act writes Paula Gunn Allen, “Christians believe that God is separate from humanity and does as he wishes without the creative assistance of any of his creatures, while the non-Christian tribal person assumes a place in creation that is dynamic, creative, and responsive”. Thus, ceremony is not stagnate, nor bound by a fixed set of meaningless rules. It is creative; and it is creation.  No longer separate from the sun, moon, stars, trees, animals, and stones, we become participants in creation. Without ceremony, it is feasible to think that the world may just come to an end.

Yet, there is one constant in ceremony, at least that I know of, which is love. Not gushy, romantic love (yet, there is room for that too), but the love that extends us beyond ourselves. Even when it feels impossible to love oneself or the other, it is easy to love the ceremony. And that love reaches out, like the branches of a tree and wraps itself around the circle. Through the love of ceremony, we are able to love even ourselves.

And so I say the words, “I do”. They are not just ghost words floating around in a non-material realm. These words are the act itself. “I do”. It is so.  These lives, these worlds, are brought together though ceremony; though love.

*This piece is dedicated to Wayne Olts and Joseph Lazenka and to those from Lost Borders and “The Ranch” who helped to make our wedding ceremony so meaningful and real. And, of course, to my man, Joe, whose love cracked me open in ways I never knew possible, and let the sun come streaming in.

(photos by Gina Jensen  and Joseph Lazenka)