When they heard about my impending cross-country trip, my friends Wayne and Sue arranged a Talking Stick ceremony for me. We had done these sorts of gatherings before. Theirs always centered on a single individual who was in need of support. Perhaps someone was facing a health crisis; perhaps another needed counsel and guidance on a particular topic. But most often it was done for someone undergoing a transition in his or her life: the end of a marriage, the beginning of a career. For me, it was this trip, this quest.
Sue invited me over early, and suggested I go down to their basement and take a sauna. It was one of those free-standing sauna rooms that could seat one or two at the most. And it was lovely. I cranked up the heat, way higher than was recommended, leveling off only when I started experiencing an . . . altered state of consciousness. That wasn’t my original intent, but it served as a fitting symbol for the trip to come.
At one point, as I shifted position, I burned my butt on something. Made a serious welt, like I had been branded. As I was majorly communing with the Divine at the time (the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, not the late drag queen of John Waters film fame), I called it God’s Burn for the duration of the trip.
I believe Sue made me some supper, then the small group gathered. There were three rules to a Talking Stick ceremony: (1) when the stick-holder is speaking, not only is no one else allowed to interrupt, one is asked not to even prepare a comment about or reaction to what is being said until the speaker is finished, ensuring that everyone is completely present at all times and is not off in one’s own head somewhere; (2) one should endeavor to speak the truth (that is, one’s own truth) as fully and completely as one knows it, with great love and compassion; and (3) what is talked about in the circle is sacred, and is not to be discussed outside the circle.
Each person gave me some small token to take on the trip with me. Their words were challenging and nourishing and deeply supportive.
In my journal that night, I wrote:
I think this trip means to be my death; I hope it means it figuratively. I have, however, made out my will, and the sense of death is strong, though I have a curiously peaceful acceptance of whatever is to come. I’ve left the recent issue of the Utne Reader that was all about death on the top of a stack of magazines in my room, just to give everyone a start when they see it after my funeral: Did he know something?
I don’t know what I’m to encounter. I think I’ve got most of the details in place, but it will be a bear packing and loading everything into the car, and then that eight-hour drive to Ohio (not counting lunch somewhere)! But right now I have a satisfying peace about it all: no nervousness, and a pleasant sense of expectancy. Is the trip itself the only journey? Am I to encounter something/someone out there, or experience something profound? I’ve tried not to heighten my expectations for fear it will throw the experience, if there is to be one.
Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that the trip would be more emotionally challenging, more fun (and deliciously tacky), more scenically beautiful, more prosaic and mundane, and more spiritually transformative than I could ever have imagined.
Tomorrow’s episode: The Trip Begins.