Monday, November 1, 2010

Otter Memories

My experience with drumming started in 1997 when I attended a retreat at the home of a friend's. She asked myself and another woman to come and do a segment talking about our experience in 12-step groups. I wasn't into what I then referred to as the New Age bullshit my friend was all about but we went and spoke. After we spoke, another woman did a segment on Native American spirituality. She did a guided meditation that she called a "journey" in which we traveled to the top of a mountain and met an animal who brought us a lesson. She told us stories and

I can't remember what we did first but at one point we "drummed". They had several handheld drums there for those without a drum of their own. And in the dimly lit livingroom of that big, rough-cut lumber house in the woods in Arkansas, that group of women drummed together. It was just a simple rhythm but all in unison and as I drummed along with them something profound happened to me. I still don't really know what it was. The power of being in rhythm with all of those other women. The same heartbeat, as I later learned the drum beat signifies. I don't know what it was but I was totally hooked. In a time, that woman, Lyn, and a couple other women and myself began to meet once a month at Lyn's house in the woods nearby. But first I gotta tell you about Lyn.

Lyn is larger than life. A female John Wayne. She is tall but it's not that that makes her stand out. She has long, thick, beautiful, now gray hair worn in the traditional butt cut so favored by us older gals. Her eyes are a peircing gray-blue color. I'm not sure of her heritage. She claims Irish and Native American though she looks as Irish as Mickey Rooney (he is Irish, right?). But she has a presence. Just something that takes your breath away when you see her. Her spirit, I guess it is.

She lived, as I said, in the woods in a log house her husband and she built themselves as in, cut the trees down and skidded them out of the woods and skinned the logs, etc. They take off work every year for the entire month of November to hunt and it is during this time that they stock up all the meat they'll use the coming year. On their property, they had a combination art studio and woodworking shop out of which came the most beautiful creations. They could do anything. There wasn't a thing those two couldn't do. One time at another get together, one of the gals in the drumming group asked if anybody had heard from Lyn. Another gal spoke up, "Yeah, I called her today. She was skinning a bear."

She was my hero. And I wasn't alone. The group slowly grew. Women were drawn from all different directions and stations in life. And everyone who was suppose to be there, was there. I never missed it except once in October when the moon was full and the sky was incredible and I was on frigging vacation somewhere. I swore I'd never again miss one. Just to know people like that existed was a privelege. I adored them. We'd have a huge potluck before the drummings and she'd always cook something scrumptuous like beans only they weren't like any beans you ever ate before. Or elk or deer or black-eyed pea cornbread that made you wanna slap your mama. We'd all cut up and laugh and tell smart-ass jokes and then we went to the livingroom in front of the fireplace or, and this was my absolute favorite, outside to the fire pit.

Someone would smudge us, usually the one who cried so much. "Woman Who Cries", we called her for fun. She would light a bundle of ceremonial white sage and then blow it out, keeping it smoldering and, one by one using a fan of turkey feathers, she fanned the smoke over our bodies from head to toe, back to front to cleanse us and prepare us for communion with God which we called "Grandfather". And once the smudging began, no more fooling around. We fell silent because it was sacred time. Sometimes Lyn would lightly beat a rhythm on her large, Buffalo drum while we waited for the rest to prepare themselves.

Then, all smudged and sitting around a circle one by one we voiced our prayers and whose ever turn it was, would begin the drumming. We all used the same rhythm except once in a while a new person would come and do something different. But whatever the rhythm, the rest would join in and drum along with them, carrying our prayers to heaven on the sage smoke. We moved around the circle, continuing until everybody had said all the prayers they had and then we quit. Most times, and again this was my absolutely favorite thing in the world, at some point in the night Lyn would say, "Okay ladies, get comfortable" and that meant to grab a pillow or something to use to lie on the floor with your eyes closed because she was getting ready to do a lesson. It was always an Indian story about the roots of a pine tree versus an oak tree or about the directions or some woodland animal and they all carried lesson. I found out later, despite the fact that the lessons were structured and organized, she rarely knew what she was going to say until the words came out of her mouth.

Of course, Lyn had made her own drum beater. The stick was wrapped in leather that was cut into long fringes. At the ends of each fringe she'd attached little hollow metal balls and when she referred to the rain or a storm in a story, she'd rattle those fringes over the drum and it sounded like rain hitting something. It was absolutely magical.

Sometimes I'd bring my guitar and sing songs that seemed to me to fall far short of the mark but that everyone at least pretended to enjoy. Woman Who Cries started leaving early when I got my guitar out and I developed a little paranoia about that and quit bringing it but it was nice for me when I did.

The evolving group had many different souls and belief systems and all were welcomed. Each month someone could, if they wished, do a presentation to teach about their spiritual beliefs. One gal did a lesson on Buddism explaining what it was and how she applied it to her life, etc. Another did Judism. I shared about AA.

Sometimes Lyn had communion. Most nights, we'd ask if anyone wanted to "sit in the middle" which meant to sit in a chair in the middle of the circle and have us pray over them. In my head I called it "laying on of hands" because some of us touched the subject as they sat in the chair. Some nights we'd do two or three women. It was a beautiful time.

Every square inch of her home was decorated with something beautifully Lyn. The whole place reeked of she and her husband's talent and respect for the land and for God. Just being on the place felt like going back in time. I honestly felt like I had a glimpse into another place and time. When they killed a deer, she took tobacco out of a leather pouch she carried around her neck and did a blessing and thanked Grandfather and the spirit of the deer, for the sacrifice made for them.

Lyn's belief in God was palpable. She was one of those people who don't ever seem to have any doubts. She just lived and breathed belief. And so did I, back then. It was so easy to believe when you looked into those big, blue eyes. The earnestness. The integrity. And somehow, she gave me and all of us hope. Somehow. That's why we all love her so damn much.

We patterned ourselves after a group of Native American women Lyn told us about who lived around the turn of the century called The Otter Society. They gathered together to pray for each other and the country and leaders and, like us, anything and everything. And they did healings. So we called ourselves The Otter Sisters.

Occasionally, we'd meet somewhere else. Once we met at a nearby falls in a recreation area and drummed. We often met for a sunrise "service" on Easter morning or the day before, and we'd drum in the sunrise together up on some mountain in the cold mist, usually.

I don't know what happened. Things changed. The group got really big for a short time and there were lots of new people. Some of them, I didn't like and I don't think I was alone. But when a group gets big like that, it can't be all things to all people.

All I can say is that we all went in a little different directions. Or maybe it was just me. And I wish it was different. I miss those times so much.

Sometimes in the middle of a drumming, Lyn would walk by and throw a big handful of white sage into the campfire and I can't begin to tell you what that smell does to you. It just shoots you off on a rocket to the 1800s, or something. I still carry a little smudge stick of white sage in my vehicle and often light it while driving in the woods. The smell takes me back to that log house in the woods and that campfire and those women beating those drums under the moon and more stars than you've ever seen in your life.

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