Another blizzard visited us during the night. It is early morning, and I am in the silence of the snow. Nothing is moving. I am looking out the window at snow-covered pine trees remembering that one winter in my home town in Northern New York, the drifts were so high, we could step up onto the porch roof. Taking sleds off porch roofs was common that winter. Seeing the world covered in snow instilled in me a sense of the vastness of life–and also a sense of intimacy. Fresh deep snow fall has the smell of cold stone and the intimate acoustics of a great cathedral. Even soft sounds carry a long way. When I was young I loved to try walking on snow shoes, and I loved to go outside at night and look at the stars over snowy fields. Both experiences inspired me to marvel at our early human ancestors. How hard it was to survive. How lonely it must have been. They must have been aware constantly of mortality and the way conditions keep changing, the wind rises, the fire goes out, the temperature drops, darkness falls. James Joyce called the impermanence of conditions the “grave and constant” in human sufferings. Our early ancestors learned this in the Cathedral of Nature.
Igjugarjuk was the shaman of a Caribou Eskimo tribe in northern Canada. Joseph Campbell told journalist Bill Moyers that this shaman once told European visitors that the only true wisdom ‘lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone open the mind to all that is hidden to others.”
Snow or no snow, I think most children intuit that a greater awareness–a greater way of being–is possible, and that it comes out when we confront great essential forces, or shocking changes in conditions. When I was young, I sensed that I was secretly capable of knowing the kinds of things that Igjugarjuk knew, that our earliest ancestors knew. I sensed that if I was given a chance and the right kind of training, I might be able to know the freedom and strength they possessed. I might be capable of great being.
My father’s ancestors are Scottish and English; my mother’s parents were from Denmark. The early ancestors I thought most about were not Eskimo but Viking. I knew little about them except that they were big, blond, and wild. I skipped over the Viking reputation for pillaging innocents and pictured fierce warriors like Beowulf, men (and I added women) who faced down terrifying monsters like Grendal, who crossed icy seas in open boats and told inspiring sagas in the mead hall. I loved to think of their wildness and fierceness, their ability to relate to great forces, big truths. My mother grew up in the Great Plains of western Nebraska, and I often visited there. In my child’s mind I made no distinction between Plains Indians like the Sioux and the Vikings. They were similarly fierce and brave and capable of deep knowing. They had minds that included the body, Wild Minds that were not separate from nature and the cosmos and hidden things. When I grew a little older and discovered the book Siddhartha, I started linking Vikings and Sioux and Indians from ancient India. When I took a college course in Indian religion and learned of the Aryan migration that swept down into India from the North, I pictured big blond Vikings on horseback, riding like brave Sioux warriors into Mother India where they dismounted and perfected yoga and meditation. I pictured them sitting with legs crossed under bodhi trees, channelling all that fierce warrior energy into awareness. Somewhere along the way, I learned that “veda” meant knowing with the heart and mind together. I pictured the Rig Veda, the oldest of all books channelling and refining that wild openness to life, that knowing that is not split off from Nature, from an awareness of the Whole. Out of college, I read Gurdjieff and learned about lost libraries in Egypt, and lost knowledge, of extraordinary people in Central Asia, a secret brotherhood who knew things hidden to most others. I connected them to my own ancient brotherhood of fierce warriors. I was astonished to visit a famous archeology dig site in Agate, Nebraska, and see photos of great Sioux warriors. They looked like Tibetans and Mongolians (maybe not Vikings) Standing before those pictures out there in Agate, where signs of ancients seas were being excavated in the desert, I dared to believe that there was more to life than my patchwork philosphy, that their capacities buried deep in my DNA, in sleeper cells.
These days, life has punched some well deserved holes in my childhood sense of intimate connection with pan-Indian-Nordic ancestors. I have had a bit of diversity training and I know that I have lived as a modern educated Western white woman. I know that my perspective is painfully limited, and that my ignorance has caused harm. And yet, there are hints…..
One cold winter day recently, I visited the Lohin Geduld Gallery on West 25th Street in Manhattan, and took in the numinous, intricate, spacious paintings of Laura Battle. When I walked into the gallery from the cold street, I felt as if an energy was activated in me, a cellular recognition of the connection between infinite space and the intimate reaches of our own hearts and minds. Exquisitely geometricate, full of symbols, her works looked like maps or astrological or alchemical charts. The artist happened to be present. Amiable and soft spoken, she told me that she spent part of her father served as an ambassador in Egypt and she spent her childhood playing in the ruins of Egyptian temples. She led me to a painting called Spell, an intricate hieroglyphic structure in shades of yellow. I felt called to read it–not to decipher it but to follow where it lead. What I read in it was a powerful wish for transformation. What I read was that art can be a means to enter the “Great Aloneness” and know what is hidden to others. Such people and such works are clues to me that we can be seekers–and maybe even shamans and fierce warriors of awareness–still.