November 3, 2008

Messages come from the most unexpected places

I spent the several days in Ft Collins, stuck in a sense of aimlessness – perhaps because so much had happened and I desperately needed the rest (not to mention some time to synthesise something of what I’d gathered, learned and experienced on the journey thus far), but from the outset my plan had been to carve a 2nd petroglyph here – for Jim – knowing that of all my family he is the one most likely to get what I'm trying to do and to take my efforts - and the task of attending to the ancestors - seriously. I’d gained some valuable knowledge and skills from my work on the 1st petroglyph and knew that I needed to give careful consideration to the design and layout of the images I would carve into the stone. I wanted to rework the design – not only for clarity’s sake but also to add to the depth of its meaning. In working the first petroglyph, I’d realised that overlapping the different graphic images (the crows and sun symbol overlapping the boat) made them difficult to read. I also realised that I wanted to add representations of both my living family and our ancestors to the glyph.

I spent a few days playing with some new designs and also practiced carving them on some red sandstone Jim and Kathy had left over from a patio they’d built. Though the sandstone carved easily and beautifully, none of the pieces were big enough to have real impact when set into the landscape of the yard (not that there are rules about the dimensions of such things) and it seemed clear that Jim wanted a stone with a bit more heft and presence. We searched through a number of landscaping stone yards until we found the perfect stone. It had a beautifully flat and even surface on one side (perfect for carving) and was craggy, beautifully mottled & covered with lichen on the other. I spent the evening plotting the scale and layout of the glyphs and began carving it the next day. I’d mistakenly thought the stone to be some sort of reddish sandstone, but it turned out to be something much harder – ironstone, I think. The hardness of the stone meant that the progress of the work was very slow, but this allowed for the ‘occupied monkey-mind’ reflection time that seems to be the key factor in all the artwork I choose to do. The hardness (and texture) of the stone also meant that though the lines took a fair amount of effort to inscribe, they held a very clean, crisp and clear edge.

My efforts were a bit tentative at first, but I quickly developed a feel for the stone. I settled in to the work with a sense of confidence and a steady rhythm that allowed space for me to think deeply about my reasons for doing this work and to imagine ancient others - perhaps even my own ancestors - who had engaged in this very activity: somehow, I’d assumed that the images the ancients had chosen to inscribe in stone must have reflected the ‘big’ concepts of their cultures, but as I worked, I had time to reflect and felt like I was coming closer to understanding what it might have been like for the ancients to do this sort of work – the whys and hows suddenly seemed much less mysterious/much more accessible. Perhaps they, like me, carved their glyphs as simple messages, simple prayers – for connection, belonging, in gratitude and in hope. As I worked, I felt like I was (almost) one of them..

For the next two days, I carved from morning until evening. Jim had been away at a conference and when he came home he was surprised at the progress. He sat with me as I worked and asked me about the meaning of the symbols I’d carved: On the upper right were two human figures – one right-side-up and the other upside-down (representing the living and the dead, us and the ancestors). On the ancestor figure there were 5 lines inscribed for our five preceding generations. In the upper left, I’d carved a sun/circle symbol – with 3 incised lines creating (as Jim pointed out) 5 sections. Though we're no longer clear on its precise meaning, the sun symbol seemed to represent renewal & regeneration and had held significance for both our ancient Norse and Irish ancestors while, for me, the circle held the significance I'd learned (and felt moved by) at the Kearsarge Indian Museum. It is what binds and connects all things: once we know our place in the circle, we know where we belong. Lastly, I’d also begun carving the first of 2 boats: one to represent the physical journey of our ancestors from their homelands to America, as well as our own journey to to search for and reclaim them. The other to represent the metaphysical journey of their souls to the afterworld; to return to us; and to return to their homelands. As I was finishing up the day’s work, Jim and I also talked about a number of specific ancestors, including my mother, and we both agreed that it felt like she was with us as we talked. It occurred to me that a significant piece of this work might occur in it's potential to shift my relationships with the ancestors - specifically, those ancestors with whom I had a living relationship and who have passed away during my lifetime - from operating on a predominantly practical/profane plane to one that is something more spiritual/sacred. It occurred to me that this was an avenue well worth exploration in terms of how this same idea might be addressed and manifested in other cultures.

I would liked to have continued to work at a similar pace, but by the end of the second day, I could barely lift my arms or close my fingers around the chisel. I didn't really mind, I felt a glorious kind of tired.

I rested few days then worked again. The third day’s work consisted of finishing the boats and plotting where I might carve a few crow figures. I scratched the faint outlines of two crows into the rock surface, but felt a degree of hesitation about proceeding any further – I wasn’t sure if it was because I lacked confidence that I could carve them well (the crows I carved in the Malden granite had not come out as well as I’d hoped) or felt somehow that there was something unresolved about their inclusion, but suspected (knowing my process) that it was the latter. I knew I had to think it through before proceeding, to determine not only what the crows represent, but how many there should be: 3 might represent past, present, future; 5 might relate to 5 generations; 2 (as there were presently scratched into the surface) might represent the living and the dead, or the physical/metaphysical. One day, Jim told me about a young Native American man he’d met at the conference who'd told a story about a time when he was unclear about what he was meant to do and whether he was following the right path. He went to the mountains to ask his ancestors for a sign – and said to them that if he was on the right path he wanted them to show him a green arrow (!). He said he'd been praying hard for an hour or so when suddenly the clouds parted and the (green) northern lights appeared over a mountain across the water, gathered themselves into an arrow shape and flew across the water towards him. (Nice to get clear signs!) As I listened to the story, it occurred to me that I not only have no idea how to pray, but absolutely no idea who to pray to. I also felt astonished to realise that in asking (or praying) for a sign, it would never have occurred to me to specify what I wanted the sign to look like (which, on reflection seems entirely practical. If you ask for a green arrrow and a green arrow shows up, you don't have to wonder if you've imgined anything). There seemed a lovely kind of familiarity and trust inherent in the story and it left a kind of Aesop's fables impression on me: something along the lines of "clear signs come from knowing who to pray to (and how to do it)". I realised that I’ve never felt any clarity about how or why I might pray, but felt somehow that in my current frame of mind (and heart) any prayer I might engage in would quite naturally be directed towards my ancestors (who else would care to listen?). I felt inspired to explore the hows, whys and to whoms of prayer with the people I know who already seem to have a clear sense of their ancestors and a habit of attending to them: Sal, Flo, Sam and Wanda. This train of thought felt good, it felt like a breakthrough – I finally knew another piece I needed to learn and had a fair idea where to begin. I felt happy.

I carved the first crow and the second, then a couple of cold, wet & windy autumn days passed giving me plenty of time (and the perfect excuse) to consider the ‘crow question’. One evening, I mentioned to Jim that I was wrestling with whether I should carve a third crow into the stone. A little while later, he called me outside, pointed to the sky and said ‘look’. I looked up in the tree above us, saw two crows and said aloud, “Okay, I get it. Two.”Jim asked, “Why two?” and I answered, “Because there are two crows.” To which he said, “No, look, there are three.” When I looked again, the third crow rose up, and flapped his wings and I said, “Okay, Three”at which point they all started cawing loudly and flapping their wings at me. I laughed and said, "Okay. Okay. I get it now. I’ll get back to it as soon as the weather clears!” They scolded me some more and then all three flew away. I spent a final day carving the third crow and every now and then would look up to see whether my crows were sitting in the tree, watching. I even called to them, inviting them to come and take a look. But no one came (at least not while I was working.) I could here them though – not far away – calling to each other. They did come back, more time and in the most impressive display yet. Jim and I had planned an ancestor feast for Halloween night and while Kathy and I were out buying what we needed to make the dinner, Jim erected the finished petroglyph in their front yard. Just before dusk, Jim said, “Come outside and see this.” I walked outside and a half dozen or more crows were swooping low over the house and yard while dozens more cawed from the nearby trees. I was transfixed and realised that I’d come to see the crows as ancestors.- or at least as their messengers. I asked one after the other, “Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?”and even listed several names, “Are you Ed? Are you Marge? Are you Harriet? Are you Magnus?” It didn’t matter whether there was an answer. I’m overwhelmed by the thought that it’s ancestors come to tell me that this is right and that they’re here.

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