THE SURVIVAL DANCE AND THE SACRED DANCE
Harley Swift Deer, a Native American teacher says that each of us has a survival dance and a sacred dance, but the survival dance must come first. Our survival dance; a foundational component of self-reliance, is what we do for a living – our way of supporting ourselves physically and economically. For most people, this means a paid job. For members of a religious community like a monastery, it means social or spiritual labors that contribute to the community’s well-being. For others, it means creating a home and raising children, finding a patron for one’s art, or living as a hunter or gatherer. Everybody has to have a survival dance. Finding or creating one is our first task upon leaving our parent’s or guardian’s home.
Once you have your survival dance established, you can wander, inwardly and outwardly, searching for clues to your sacred dance, the work you were born to do. This work may have no relation to your job. Your sacred dance sparks your greatest fulfillment and extends your truest service to others. You know you’ve found it when there’s little else you’d rather be doing. Getting paid for it is superfluous. You would gladly pay others, if necessary, for the opportunity.
“SoulCrafting; Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche” by Bill Plotkin.
More dreams about food wake me up somewhere in the middle of night. I get up to pee. All is dark and silent and surprisingly not as cold as the night before. I thought that this clear, clear night would drop the thermometer down. It is still far from warm so I crawl quickly back into my sleeping bag and pass the rest of the night in cycles of sleeping, dreaming, waking, watching, thanking, sleeping...
“Okay, bring it on God! I pray with the dawn “I’m ready for the big breakthrough now. Day three is here at last.” The discipline I set for myself this day is to do nothing, go nowhere, stay put - just wait and pray.
I am amazed that I don’t feel hungry at all. Despite feeling quite weak after any kind of exertion (climbing up from the lake to the fire requires a pit stop halfway up), when I stay still I feet very good. I become aware of the many prayers that are with me. One friend from church had told me that she’d be fasting today along with me. Quite a few people who I’d told about this adventure had generously offered to keep me and Carol and David in mind and heart. Knowing that this effort is not mine alone, but that it is shared by those whose lives intersect with ours - is food enough!
I’d had misgivings about telling folks about this trip. I didn’t want to be like the proverbial Pharisee announcing his self-righteous prayers for all to hear and be impressed by. I’d known a friend who’d fasted for Peace during the American war in Kuwait. That seemed a fast worth sharing. This fast is for me.
That voice sounded like me. Or, it sounded like it thought it was God.
From my heart, I had preached so many times that the Spirit moves in community. Our willingness to be moved by it will open up new channels for the Spirit to flow more powerfully. How many times had I said things like “It’s not what you do – it’s the way that you do it.” and “everything we do, every little thing, good or bad, affects everyone and everything else.”
My own small effort to find, or create, some peace in my soul was perhaps worth sharing. If it caused a friend or three to connect with the Maker one extra time on my behalf could that be bad? If it encouraged just one of those friends to do something unusual to feed their own souls with enough time and space to let the Earth nourish and replenish them, was that worth exposing myself to the critics?
My conclusion to this dilemma is my usual fallback position – one I’d learned at the age of fifteen. So far, it’s been working pretty well for me…“I am who I am. If they don’t like it – fuck‘em.” Adolescent Bravado? Definitely! But like I said, it’s where I fall back to after all my agonizing and worrying about the good, the bad, and the ugly of being “good enough?”.
It’s the antidote to the poison pill of my childhood critics. When I finally came to this conclusion as a teenager – it was my first experience of what I now call “grace”. I could feel a weight lift off and an inner joy of self-satisfaction put a spring back in my steps. Later, Jesus was to put it another way for me…”just keep being who you are, doing what you do, and I’ll do the rest.”. So far, these two versions of Grace had kept me getting up off the ground after a trip and fall.
A cup of tea and some Tai Chi exercises are my only morning distractions. It’s a grey day again with clouds to watch and winds to listen for. I sit down among my rows of rocks and my imagination is peopled with prayers.
The Sunday I’d left, I was preaching about the story of Job. Job’s suffering stirred up the questions of “Why?” and all the human explanations to that age old question. The final chapters tell of God’s response to Job. Without really replying to the questions, God instead directs Job’s attention to nature’s wonders. The Creator responds to human enquiry with the Creation.
Thinking of that sermon, I remember that I’d not only asked folks to pray for me but also said that in return, I would pray for them. I am struck with a problem. How can I keep that promise? How can I possibly remember every person who had been in church that day? Even though I do know all their names, there had been well over a hundred of them. Surely I’d miss many if I tried to go one by one. That statement had been an impromptu promise spilled from wherever those words come from. How could I honour such a promise?
Just then, the sun comes out and the wind picks up. As I lift my eyes to the lake, I see dozens and dozens of bright and sparkling lights dancing atop the wind’s little waves. There they are! They are all there before me at once! The people of Trinity-Providence, the people of my past, the people of my future – all dancing together as pure reflections of sun and hope and living light! I give thanks; ask God to bless each and every one of them and laugh at how the things that are a problem for me are so simple for God.
All through this day, God keep bringing people to mind. I take note, give a word of thanks and care for that person, and give them back to God. This process started yesterday, and as the day wears on, more and more and more people keep coming to mind.
If yesterday had been long ride, today is like waiting for a bus that might never come. I see the yellow canoes cross the bay’s mouth heading home. The hawk crosses once and is gone. And those are the big events of the morning. My bum gets sore from sitting so I raise my stiffened limbs up to a stand and a stagger and I think “maybe I’ll just go for a little paddle eh?” I really want to, but I also really want to do this thing well. I am a little surprised at my resolve.
I’m not usually good at following a strict discipline. I never much liked or respected the people who’d been strict with me, so why would I be one of them?
Somewhere in that musing about how well I am doing – something clicks. I am down by the water, near the gaping tree stump of my neediness. I connect my childhood need to please - please all those who had hurt me, and all those who might hurt me, - with my own internal damage-control-manager that keeps me working overtime to please and produce.
A talented Spiritual Director, had diagnosed it as my “over-functioning”. John had helped me begin the process of a mid-life shift. I wanted to balance the “human doing” with more of the “human being” that I talked, and talked, and talked, about but so far had remained illusive and only a hobby. I wanted to live more simply and creatively. I wanted to use my creative energies to create more beauty with fewer costs; costs to my family, my community, the earth, and my self.
In my twenties, after a similar kind of Quest that I’ll write about one day, I’d been drawn back to Toronto as the centre of a circle; a place to make things happen. I’d found a great joy in being used by God to make so many things happen with so many wonderful people. Carol and I made babies happen. We made businesses happen. We drew together circles of people and work and meaning and spirit that were a privilege to be a part of creating.
But the dream of community I sought can’t be made to happen. I tasted it several times in those years. But I also felt that I had wasted many, many hours of creative energy trying to make something so simple with such extraordinary efforts. A simple life required a simple strategy. Our urban lifestyle was pulling us in so many different directions. It was so hard to live slowly in a place where busyness sets the pace. I’ve known lots of people who have perfected the art of living simply in the city and it works well for them. But for us - we needed a shift.
Our son David had been born disabled by an extra chromosome. Downs Syndrome was a challenge we met by changing quite a few things. The emotional struggle to deal with our heartbreak opened us up to more pain than we knew was there. Our marriage was stretched beyond our limits - and the limits of marriage counseling. We both sought help from professionals but individually. We also did some family counseling to try to help our daughter Alana get through these messy times.
We were coping. We were gifted with a spiritual community that was wide and deep. At its centre was a small group of families who met every couple of weeks for a few hours of Saturday afternoon study and prayer and support. Would our marriage have lasted without these supports? I doubt it.
And then Carol was diagnosed with Colon cancer. That was the kicker. I dropped everything at work to be at home during Carol’s recovery from surgery. That summer of recovery gave us a chance to do some strategizing. I had known for some time that what the small community-based organization we had created really needed – wasn’t me. To move to the next level of growth, it needed someone with greater administration skills. I also had known for some time that what I really needed –to move to my next level of growth – was not to be an administrator.
We’d talked for years about living in a small town. I had the credentials to be a small town pastor (just no experience). It was now or never. I announced my resignation at the Riverdale Economic Ministry and we started looking. Within six months I was a country pastor in Bobcaygeon. I was determined to stop over-functioning and start living simply and lightly.
Five years later we had made many, many, lifestyle changes. But the over-functioning was at best – on a leash. In the last year it had been pulling me around the block and pulling my work and personal life out of shape again.
Standing on the rock by that gaping needy stump, I see that somewhere, early along my life’s road, I’d become convinced that the best defense was a good offence. The best way to keep from being hurt, was to run around trying to keeping everyone happy. When I got really manic about it, I’d be running around solving problems before they occurred, meeting needs that hadn’t yet been named and trying to please…really….the ghosts of days gone by.
My over-functioning was simply the daily expression of the nighttime neediness I run from in dreams and run towards in the day. Running in circles was what I was doing. And so I slowly walk back up the rock and sit still in the middle of that “circle” and listen some more.
After what seems like a couple more hours of sitting and thinking and trying to talk my way out of that circle - it finally dawns on me. I am over-functioning again! I am doing what I always do with a problem. Worry it over. Think it through. Talk it over with the people who like to talk such things over. And come up with my next solution. The problem is that those solutions have so far only proved to be minor detours that always lead me right back into that circle.
It’s my head that is keeping my heart from leading. I remember a dream that I’d had weeks before - during my Vision Fast preparation time. In the dream, Carol and I are flying (with Carol as the pilot) to a remote lakeside destination. We are greeted on the shore by a young native man who I am quite impressed with. He is courteous and intelligent. He leads us up to a cabin where Carol climbs the steps and goes inside. We wait outside while she disappears down a dark hallway. Soon, there is the sound of running water.
“She got the water running even in this freezing weather.” I say with surprise to my native companion.
“The well runs very deep and has a heat source from below.” He explains.
Carol emerges triumphantly. There are little children in the hallway with her and I lift another little boy up the stairs and into the hall. Carol comes out to the doorway. She leans down and puts her right hand on my head, putting most of her weight onto me.
I am greatly annoyed! I feel like I am being suppressed; put down, leaned on too heavily. I shove her hand off of my head. Looking up, I see that our native friend is supporting her other arm with a hand beneath both her wrist and her elbow.
I’d talked that dream through with another talented Spiritual Director. Gloria helped me to see that Carol was the part of me who was leading me on this journey. The “I” in the dream was the part of me that observes and reasons and judges. The dream offered an exciting and affirming message – Carol had brought back flowing water from a dark, deep place heated with passion. What had troubled me about the dream was that - among the positive image of an abundance of children - she had pushed my head down.
Suddenly, I knew with certainty - that dream had been for this moment. If I was to receive what God was desiring to show me, I would need to suppress the observer, the reason-maker, the judge.
And that’s why –also during my preparation time - my friend Kim had received a message on my behalf, as she prayed for me before I left. The message was simply “drum”.
So, I went and got the drum. The drum I’d crafted at the Haliburton School for the Arts fourteen months before. I’d made it small enough to fit into the bottom pouch of my canoe pack. It felt like I’d made it for this day.
I choose a three beat rhythm; tum, tum, TOM! Right, left, centre! Left, right, centre! Tum, tum, TOM over and over and over. The heavy TOM slap was Carol’s hand leaning heavy on my head – “you, get, DOWN, you, get, DOWN, you, get, DOWN, tum, tum, TOM!
I keep drumming til I stop noticing that I am drumming; til I stop thinking about anything and am just “doing what I do”, and truly “being who I am”.
When I stop, I’m not tired. I’m not changed. I just am. I’m drumming up on the hill by the fire and my shelter. I walk down onto the ritual rock just for a stretch. The wind gives a gust and those two trees give a groan.
“Which one of you is complaining?” I ask.
They groan again.
I take a closer look. And then I see. Those two trees are singing my song. They are groaning my groan. The one tree is a White Pine; tall and straight and mature. It stands beside and just below an even taller great White Pine in the midst of a family cluster of tall pines and Hemlock.
The tree that is causing the groaning is a maple. I have to walk over closer, off the rock to get a better look. It’s rooted about ten paces away from the pine. It has grown up in the shady midst of these older, taller evergreens. I can almost wrap my two hands around it - all the way up to where the branches of the bigger trees start high over my head. And there it takes a turn. You can see where it has made a move; a major move. It had stopped growing straight up and had started growing out towards the lake.
Maybe it was just top heavy. There are no branches on it until after the point where it turns and bows and crosses over to lean against the pine. To me it looks like these two trees have worked something out between them. Where they meet, the maple branches out and is adding its bright red colour to the steady green of the pine. The pine offers the stability and strength that the maple lacks. Together, they offed something unique to this part of the woods. Those other pines are stately and handsome, but only this pine has colour!
I know that I can’t say with a thousand words what these trees tell me with just one close look. They are dancing both my Survival dance and my Sacred dance at the same time. The tall White Pine looks strong and straight and “together”. At middle age I’ve got a home and family and a career in the church (the “family business” as I like to call it). I’ve figured out how to Survive with the skills I’ve got and how to maintain a footing in the place I’m planted. I can hold my head up among tall pines.
The Red Maple is my Sacred dance. As I stand where it’s planted in the midst of the tall, dominant, successful, evergreens I give it a pat and say “I give you credit for growing so tall in the shadows of this family.”
Creativity had not been discouraged in my extended family system, but it was always subservient to a rational, reasonable, pursuit. There are no artists in my family. (The aunt who wears her creative flair for all to see - also happens to be the black sheep.) I’d been a maple among Ever-greens, ever-happy, ever-sure providing ever-shade for this young sap.
That Maple sapling wasn’t destined to be the strongest tree in the woods. I am a little disappointed that this is how God sees this creative side of me. But it feels accurate. And it answers the question about whether I should take courage and take the leap to let that inner artist stand alone.
No, the white pine is part of the picture – and the path forward. Just as Carol had leaned heavily on my head in the dream; my creative self will lean upon the tall and strong professional and add some colour; something unique, to this stand of trees.
It isn’t a new plan or a new story for me. But it is an affirmation of the path I’d chosen. I am satisfied with the vision God has provided. My hunger is sated.
Like a sweet dessert to the dinner, a storm blows in. God is gonna let me know that that’s it and the deal is sealed - no going back.
Rain and wind send me into the tarped cave. The storm walks through its paces, growing slowly and steadily in intensity. It rises up to a pitch blowing rain in under the tarp and shakes the skies with a few choice cracks of thunder. Lightning flashes - bright instants of illumination. And then it’s on its way. Slowly receding again back down to a steady rain and then a drizzle.
Before leaving home, as an afterthought, I’d tossed a few extra things into my bag. Four tiny beeswax candles made by Betsy and presented to me after she’d died as a gift from her estate. I hadn’t had an occasion to light them until now. I used them to light a few branches of dried sage – a going away gift from another friend. Never completely comfortable with Native rituals performed by “wanna-be Indians”, I feel that this is a good time to offer these gifts as a humble and sincere show of thanks to the Creator.
Down at the lake, the wind is dancing across the water again inviting me to join in.
I go and stand out on the rock. I lift my eyes up to the evening sky, a mist hangs in the trees on the opposite shore. It stays there, gently moving and ever-changing but not going anywhere. Even as breezes pick up and blow through the trees, the mist remains in that place before me.
“You are so good. You are so good, You are so good to me.” I sing.
“You are so good. You are so good, You are so good to me.” These words are the chorus to a song of praise – but, as usual, I can’t remember the verses – only the melody.
And so God provids the words for my song of praise. They come from my heart. They come from my past. They come from my future. They are provided without thought – for each note of the song. They just flow and flow as long as I keept singing. I change to another song of praise. Then a Christmas tune of wonder. Then I sing a Children’s song about Jesus. Then another song. Phrases are provided. Provided in a language I don’t recognize but that I know how to sing.
The mist remains and I keep singing. Each song seems to have its own language. I’m no Linguist, but they seem like the words of the first peoples; of earth people all over the earth, who first used voice to name and celebrate and share with the One, and ones, they knew and loved. I had spoken brief prayers “in tongues” before, but in song they just flow and flow. What fun! What freedom! How simple! Ha!
When the mists are finally lost to the descending dark, I leave the rock and go to bed.
No evening tea tonight. I’ve enjoyed all the comforts I need.
A David psalm
I waited and waited and waited for God.
At last he looked; finally he listened.
He lifted me out of the ditch,
pulled me from deep mud.
He stood me up on a solid rock
to make sure I wouldn’t slip.
He taught me how to sing new song,
a praise-song to our God.
More and more people are seeing this:
they enter the mystery,
abandoning themselves to God.
Translation from “The Message” by Eugene Peterson.