Today, a week after the occasion of my 80th birthday celebration, which was a Dances of Universal Peace Four Day Camp at Earthsprings Retreat Center, my heart, mind, and body are still vibrating with the energy of the time some fifty people spent together dancing, singing, praying, eating, laughing, and most of all, being in awe of the vastness of the reality we call Spirit.
We started gathering on Wednesday, began dancing and singing on Thursday, deepened our connections and our experience through Friday and Saturday morning, when the rain began to fall and seemed to dance with us, coming and going as we came and went, and increasing and decreasing in volume almost precisely in tune with our chanted songs. It seemed magical, and we were all in awe.
And then on Saturday afternoon, all around us tornadoes struck. Although we only had rain at Earthsprings, one tornado was just nineteen miles away, and in it was Kerry, an attendee of our Dance Camp who had gone for a few hours to volunteer at a different celebration at the Caddo Mounds State Historical site. Kerry was inside the museum there when the storm hit, and the building fell in on her. She survived, mostly unhurt. But the storm and our participation in its aftermath “deepened the dance” of universal peace for all of us.
Jean, one of the attendees at Earthsprings, later said it best, I thought (and I hope I paraphrase what she said precisely): “My mind keeps returning to the image, when, simultaneously, on the one hand, we were in such high, joyful, peaceful, and powerful energy at Earthsprings, and, on the other hand, those including Kerry at Caddo Mounds were in a situation of devastation and destruction. That state of duality, dark and light, good and bad, is all too familiar. But what was so striking, what has stayed with me, is how we all managed to embody the ‘larger circle’ we are always talking about, the larger dimension that takes it all in. We sang and danced and held it all together in our expanded awareness of that larger reality beyond our human capacity to comprehend, and we held it all in love. It was a perfect example of complexity and wholeness at once. It was incredible.”
Indeed it was. And I would add to Jean’s dual image of what was happening all at once, I would add things I was aware of at the time during those specific moments of storm when we at Earthsprings did not yet know of the tornadoes.
For example, one of our attendees, during the deluge of rain that was what we experienced at Earthsprings, this woman went outside alone where she could not be seen by others to dance, joyfully, naked in the wind and rain and lightening and thunder! “Awesome,” she said.
And then there was me, sitting on the couch with sweet young Breanna, whom I have known about and prayed for all her life but who had not known me, she and I during the storm were having the most powerful and deep conversation about life and death and depression and elation, anxiety and spiritual practices, and about her deceased grandmother, my dear friend Jyoti, and how Bre felt Jyoti’s spirit coming through to her from beyond time and space, and I was deeply engaged with this beautiful conversation, even while part of my mind was looking out of the window to see if the atmosphere was turning tornado colored or not.
Meanwhile, in the Medicine Lodge, some people were chanting kirtan, singing traditional praises to that which is vast and mysterious and beyond the capacity of reason to explain.
And in the cottage, dance leader Sky was taking a well-deserved rest, unaware perhaps that our electricity was now suddenly off.
Christina, once the lights went out, was busily drawing up water and finding lanterns and candles and calling the electric company’s automatic outage line, doing the practical things that one does in rural East Texas when the lights go out. Reassuring everyone, working hard, as she had been doing for weeks getting ready for this event.
Somewhere else Mary and Marci were on their way home in a rainfall so heavy they couldn’t see at all, and they had to park their car on the roadside for awhile.
And Gloria and Margaret were in route to their B&B for a short rest, hearing on the radio that a tornado was on the way, so they were talking about where in their rented space they might find a ‘safe room.’
Jim Lemon, Kerry’s husband, was in the dining tent with several others, sheltering from the rain and telling stories, no doubt, as usual, and telling people that in a tornado one caught outside should get in the lowest place, and someone said that at Earthsprings, that would be the creek.
All that and more was happening simultaneously.
But it’s what happened afterward that will stay with me always. How the call came in about the tornado hitting Caddo Mounds, and how Kerry’s voice was there, shakey and tearful, “I’m alive, I’m ok, but the place is destroyed. Many people are injured. My car is crushed. It’s devastation. We can’t get out and no one can get in to help us. I don’t know if anyone is dead…”
We all steadied ourselves in our places, whatever they were: Jim (Kerry’s husband) and Randall and Jacque (a nurse, herself still recovering from a surgery) left Earthsprings immediately, attempting to get to Kerry. But they soon had to park Randall’s car and then walk 2 ½ miles through the outer band of the affected tornado area, where there was ripped-up and torn-up trees and debris blocking the road and everything else. They encountered on the way stunned or injured animals and other humans. They spoke briefly with compassion to strangers whose lives had been hit and changed forever. But they had to keep moving, leaving behind what they normally would have stopped to give more attention to, trusting that somehow that person or those situations would be attended to otherwise.
After a long time, they made it to what remained of Caddo Mounds Historical site, and after some confusion, located Kerry. Hours had gone by at this point, and one roadway had been opened from a neighboring town, and so all of them were transported out by bus, the more injured having been life-flighted out by helicopter.
Meanwhile Christina and Jean, knowing that Randall’s car had been left behind by the roadside, went out to drive around and about to locate and retrieve everybody, with me back at Earthsprings at the phone, attempting to connect all of them with each other.
By then, Kerry and Jim’s son Forest was on the phone from Arkansas, their daughter Maya on the phone from Minnesota, my daughter Johanna on the phone from Colorado (Johanna was consciously unaware of what had happened, but unconsciously knew she needed to contact her Mama), and Zonk was on the phone from Austin saying how he had watched on radar prayerfully as the storms “triangulated” Earthsprings.
Once we knew Kerry was safe and that they all were on their way home, the surprise birthday cake and ice cream was brought out and everyone sang to me, “Happy Birthday!” Despite the storm. Despite the tension, despite lack of electricity or its attendant conveniences. Despite awareness of how close a call all of us had been to potential destruction ourselves, they sang to me, and I served up cake to Juan Diego, the nine-year old youngest, and me the oldest, the two of us, as Juandie said, “the wisest and the fastest,” and people asked which one was which!
Then everyone was busy, mopping up the water in the dance tent, shutting down restrooms until further notice, when the pump might be working again, when there is electricity… “No, no showers, no flushing, use the portapotties and the wash station there, conserve water, we may not get electricity for days, given the storms…”
Getting out the generators, figuring out how to cope…
And cope we did, that night, and we were not just carrying on, but we were dancing that night in the next scheduled dance session, specially chosen dances, I am sure, for that specific occasion…
Dancing in the most sacred, prayerful, meaningful way, holding sacred space for Christina and Jacque to re-enter…
…as meanwhile, some few of us surrounded Kerry and Jim and Randall and Jean, at the dining tent, closing the circle of love tight around them, while Carlos built up the campfire and Audrey and Beverly and Christine and Dawn and Gloria and others brought blankets and tea and love, and we listened to Kerry as she did her own most ‘sacred dance’ internally and verbally, struggling with her shock and grief and terror, not feeling safe anywhere, inside or outside, but bravely and generously deciding she could stay with us, to complete the weekend together with us, despite her trauma, her injuries, her anxiety.
Kerry and I and some of the rest of us then stayed on the phone for hours trying to learn if one of her friends, Victor, the first one life flighted out, the one she had sat with and kept awake and alive for what seemed a terrifying eternity until help arrived, Kerry needed to know whether he was now alive or dead, but not able to find out…
And then Kerry, now beyond exhaustion, finally went back at midnight with Jim to their ‘cloth house,’ as Jim called it, their tent set up already in the woods by the Little Medicine Wheel, to get through the night somehow, also not knowing if their own house farther along the path of the storm might have been blown away too…
I, and perhaps others, spent part of that night intensely doing our practices, watching thoughts come, and then releasing them, flashes of image and memory and feelings, one after another and another and another:
…about how hard Jim and Kerry and Christina had worked for weeks, getting the new outdoor showers up and built and privacy fencing in, and it all working perfect, a warm shower taken with the sky and stars shining overhead, Randall for one saying while showering to someone on the outside on Friday that he might never get out…only to have then, with the storm, the electricity go off on Saturday afternoon, shutting down the pump and the water so that showers couldn’t be used;
…about how Dena and Jean the week before had shoveled and hauled dirt and filled holes so that no one would so much as turn an ankle, let alone be blown away;
…about how everything had gone so smoothly and seamlessly and joyfully the first few days, putting up all those big tents and decorating them, with the dish-washing station functioning so well with the equipment Denbie had spent several mornings hauling in for us to use;
…about how Joy’s “Clay Hearts” session on Friday had been so well attended and received and appreciated and how open people had been with each other, going into depth about their experiences and feelings;
…about the joy of seeing Karen and Peggy and Jana leaning out the car windows, in their matching shirts, shouting, “Hello, Gramma Glenda” as they drove up, and then how they were so willing to adjust when Cynthia mysteriously ended up on the wrong side of the bunkhouse and I thought I had miscalculated, and how when we figured it all out, we all laughed when I was so glad that I could actually still count;
…about all of us various “lindas”–two Lyndas, two Glendas, and one Marlynda—all were there, some dancing, some who held the space around the circle so strongly even when they couldn’t dance;
…about how Kurt and Ramana had come so far to be with us and participate so fully and she had led a beautiful dance;
…about how the portapotties thankfully didn’t blow over in the wind;
…about how the signage (a sign with arrow pointing—”Bunkhouse this way;” a sign with arrow pointing—”Camping that way;” a sign with arrow pointing “Parking” another way; a playful sign with several arrows pointing different directions and a question mark “Mecca, which way?”), signage that Dena and Jean had made the weekend before with so much fun and anticipation;
…about how Marci, survivor for years and years of cancer, always in pain, was amazingly up dancing nonetheless, next to Sheila and Rich, survivors of the loss of two adult children, one to cancer and another to Aids; and dancing next to Diane whose beautiful young daughter had died just three years ago, Diane still trying, as she said, “to figure out how to live now” herself;
…about how young Juan Diego, a child, was dancing almost every dance, with so much ageless awareness and intent, Juandie, who had walked attentively hand in hand with me around the tent as I pointed out the banner with an image of Ganesha, the young boy so strong he had elephant like powers to use to protect the innocent and the women and children, and with me pointing out to Juandie and speaking of all the other symbols of every religion hanging all around the tent, and how he was able to call out the ones he already knew.. “That one, that one is…” and “This one, this one is…” and when we got to the other side of the tent, to another elephant image, Juandi’s young voice, confidently: “That is Ganesha, remover of obstacles…”
…about the image of Margaret, smudging, or sitting in the chair in the center, utterly given over into the experience;
…about Diane’s willingness to help wherever help was needed, and her sweet and gentle spirit;
…about the image of walking toward the tent, seeing outside the doorway billowing smoke from the sage and sweetgrass incense, while Mary and Mary Elizabeth played their flutes, or Duffy played the dige…
…about the absolute delight and joy and love radiating out from Christina as she danced, taking in everything;
…about my own delight, reading aloud between dances passage after passage of my favorite words of wisdom from all ages, seeing the smile on Sky’s face, and Bernie Skydrummer calling me the female Coleman Barks (how could I not be shamelessly delighted at that!);
…about seeing Angela and Wade, in love and making a new life, together–Yes!
…about Sam, coming all the way just for a few hours of dance on Friday, only to drive back home in the middle of the night so he could work the next day, but emailing later, asking if he can come again for silent retreat;
…about the greeter’s station with Don there to tell people how to park and where to go, that had made parking logistics so surprisingly easy and effective;
…about how Sky and Bernie and others had praised our “tribe” for being able to step right into the circle and into high energy right from the first, and how proud I was of all of the circles coming together, even Gina’s group none of us had met before, who had somehow found us online;
…about Douglas, coming from Tennessee, and wandering around all over Texas, trying to get to East Texas by almost going to West Texas, his own circuitous journey, always on the path somehow, to wherever he was supposed to be. As we all were. Lost and found. There and here.
…and then, how all of us, all of us, were feeling how our prayers and intentions for the Dances, for my birthday celebration, had been set , and answered, so beautifully, and now…the storm…the tornado…and here we were, in the middle of the night, thoughts and images, coming and going, reason and unreason coming and going, emotions and thoughts, coming and going…
Thankfully, I and others that night knew to allow ourselves to notice and then release the natural feelings of somehow being cheated of our ultimate intentions for things to be completely “right,” and “good,” and ‘perfect…’
We knew to let go quickly of our consternation and become prayerful and tender with each other and ourselves.
We were able to acknowledge Kerry’s cry to me ”…everything was so beautiful…here at Earthsprings, we were so radiant, and at Caddo, all those elders at Caddo Mounds had come so far to give blessings and to pray and sing, and to be so injured…. and why this… and it’s so wrong…when it was so right …”
We all understood, and steadied her, and let her have all those feelings without platitudes on our part.
I remembering murmuring to Kerry, as I held her close, “Yes, I know, it’s true, it’s hard…” knowing Kerry as I did, knowing, and saying to her, that it is right to allow ourselves these feelings right now, this is what is happening to us, this is how we feel, and, and, we also knew that in time, we would be able to acknowledge the larger circle of Life itself, beyond our feelings of entitlement or right and wrong, beyond reasonableness, and without superficial bromides , we would again be able to acknowledge the Larger Life that takes it all in, tornado and tenderness, joy and pain, ecstasy and unreason.
No doubt many of us struggled through the night, trying to set our emotional world back into place after the turmoil of the storm. I know it was difficult for many, coping with uncertainty, discomfort, upheaval. But our practices served us well…
Later I would tell Kerry that from now on, when she heard the old gospel song, “Were you there when they crucified our Lord?” she could say “Yes. Yes, I was there when destruction came to those souls undeserving of such horror, those Caddo elders, those other people…”
And indeed, all of us have, at times, been involved in what the Christian church calls “Good Friday,” the day of death of the “good,” the day of unreason and dismay, the day of tears and sorrow. This too is real, part of the big picture, not explainable away to anyone in depths of sorrow and hurt and suffering…
And then came Sunday morning.
Today may be Easter Sunday for some of the rest of the world, but last Sunday was Easter Sunday for me. On Sunday morning, in sunlight, clear skies, going up to the dance tent, being smudged with sacred incense before entering, reminded through long association with the practice, to let go of all negative thoughts and energy before stepping into circle of wholeness, being smudged and feathered, with the dige sounding nearby, going into the tent to reorder the readings I might do between dances, choosing sacred and meaningful words of hope and transcendence and beauty, then singing and dancing various chants well chosen by the leader for the occasion;
…watching Rich, come all the way from Pittsburg to accompany his wife Sheila, the professional dancer, now saying to Sheila, who was going to sit it out, with a smile on his face, “Get up and dance, they are doing a Jewish song!” and then his staying to dance too an Islamic song, both songs being about the same “light” that is the ultimate, holy, creative “light of the world…”
…then a Buddhist chant, then a Hindu, then a Native American, and a Sufi;
…and then Rob led us in remembering how much is yet to be done in the world to move into the light, after the weekend ended, leading us in singing “We Shall Overcome;”
All the while Jim danced with us, his face solemn, his eyes often teary, and Kerry sat on the floor of the tent, just inside the door on the eastern side, bravely, courageously, there with us, grave but present, really present, eyes closed and obviously prayerful.
Christina reached to pull Kerry into the dance, knowing already the words that Sky was humming and that we would sing, and Kerry, trusting Christina’s wise heart, rose up bravely and with an exquisite demonstration of Spiritual Grace personified, joined the circle to move with us, and sing, tears sometimes spilling over, to the words:
“May all beings in all worlds be happy; (and all of us aware that Kerry had to be thinking of all beings in all worlds, including Victor, her injured friend, wondering what world he was in, by now, and remembering all the rest of the people affected, many having died we had learned, and all of us knowing that the storm was moving on, eastward, affecting others, one storm among many, always, but this storm was ours, and our tribe was affected, and so we sang, and danced, and prayed):
“…May all beings in all worlds be well; may all beings in all worlds be peaceful and at ease…May I be peaceful, may I be well, may I be peaceful and happy and at ease…may all beings in all worlds be peaceful and happy and at ease…may all beings be well…
…and then, “May the Great Spirit grant you peace of mind, may peace be there in all you leave behind, may peace be there in all that you may find, may the Great Spirit grant you peace of mind,” singing these words over and over and over, as we moved around the circle, greeting and blessing each person, every one of us, until each of us had looked into the eyes of every other member of the circle, praying for peace of mind and heart and spirit.
Jim said later that that was the most powerful healing ceremony he had ever attended. That’s saying a lot, knowing Jim.
I am sure all of us felt the power of what happened in our midst and through us that morning. Our capacity to live out all that we have believed, taught, studied, said we would do, when faced with difficulty, we acted in and through Love, no matter the circumstances, no matter the irony or seeming meaninglessness of anything. We were One, with the One, with each other, with those suffering, those in joy, those beyond this life’s plane, and those yet to come. Truly, we were in a state of Divine Love…
Today, a week later, my heart is still full, as I continue to take it all in and make a place for it in the depths of my being. My 80th birthday.
My gratitude is boundless to all of you who made this event possible and all those who participated in it so willingly and fully.
Some of the images, the pictures, are online now. These images, as well as the images in my mind, are implanted forever in a place of reverence and respect.
I know that the ripple effect from all that we were and did here at Earthsprings last week will continue to go out and out, forever.
I love and respect and am deeply grateful for all of you, with all my heart.