Güera in Wirikuta: Meeting Don Juan

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The path to Don Juan’s Ranch

The road began to narrow and the dirt changed from beige to the rusty hue of ocher. We hadn’t seen a house for over an hour when we arrived at a crossroads where a cluster of some six or seven buildings sat. I figured we must be getting close to our destination because two of the buildings were decorated with colorful murals of Huichol imagery. One was a portrait of a shaman next to a blue deer, on top of which many smaller images of peyote and other plants were painted. The shaman was recognizable from his characteristic sombrero adorned with eagle feathers and tassels along the outside edge. A second smaller building bore images of the ocean and the Huichol name for the ocean spirit “Tatei Haramara,” meaning Grandmother Ocean, in bright red.

IMG_20150307_083141At our shaman Lupe’s request we stopped and Victor, Joel, and I got out to stretch our legs while Lupe went to look for someone. I quickly surveyed the area for a bathroom just in case. To my great consternation there was none that I could see. We took the obligatory tourist shots of one another in front of the larger mural before we were herded back into the van by Lupe.

From here we turned left onto a side road that shot straight up the side of the mountain. The road narrowed and the terrain became more severe: cliffs rose steeply on our left and fell away dramatically to the right, the tops of trees growing below just barely reaching the road’s surface. In places small waterfalls cascaded down the dark grey cliff faces and gathered in small pools on the side of the road.

Before long the terrain flattened out and we were surrounded by stands of tall pines, whereas previously the forests were dominated by deciduous trees. Massive walls of beige and grey rock jutted proudly out of the surrounding terrain. Next thing I knew the van bounced and creaked into the diminutive village of San Jose Escuela. True to it’s name, a school (escuela) sits at the center of this gathering of ten or so homes and public buildings constructed of low-fire red brick. We parked next to one of the small single-story homes. A couple of wooden benches flanked the short central doorway. Behind the house several small pigs snorted and tousled in a rough dirt area fenced by gnarled wooden posts. Next to the house sat a smaller one-room building the size of some Americans’ walk-in closets. This was the general store.

Don Lupe, his son Memo, and Victor disembarked from the van while the rest of us waited. I assumed it was Mario they sought, the other shaman who was already in the sierra having arrived several days before. The men returned and loaded back into the van. Some words were exchanged in Wiratika and Victor fired up the van. I normally would have asked what was happening and where we were going, but between being up all night and my intestinal woes, I was uncharacteristically passive and decided to just go with the flow. We continued heading northeast on what resembled a rough track more than a road. Uneven and littered with large sharp rocks, it was only wide enough for one vehicle. I wondered what we’d do if we met someone coming the other way as there was no shoulder to speak of and in many areas where the side of the road ended the land dropped off precipitously. It wasn’t long before we met a couple of locals utilizing the preferred mode of transportation – burrows (donkeys). It occurred to me that this was the ideal way get around in the region and as our van creaked and swayed over the uneven, rock-strewn road I became convinced we’d either get a flat tire or a break an axle before long. As concern gathered as stress in my body, I felt my shoulders creep towards my ears, while held tight to the molded door handle. When I finally voiced my concerns about the van’s ability to sustain the abuse, they were dismissed offhand.

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The rough track of a road and the surrounding mountain landscape.

“You worry too much, Güera,” was Victor’s patronizing response. This became his mantra any time I expressed misgivings about something.

The countryside surrounding San Jose Escuela is dotted with small ranches where the Huichol grow corn, squash, and tomatoes, raise pigs, chickens, a few cows, and horses, mules, or burrows for transportation and plowing. The small clusters of buildings comprising each ranch, with their grey thatched roofs and stone walls, were hard to make out against the identically colored rock-strewn landscape. But at that time of year a gentle haze of purple and pink flowers adorning peach and apple trees planted along bordering stone fences helped to define their boundaries. I wondered how they were able to grow anything in such a rock strewn landscape.

IMG_0924Eventually we ran out of road and when that didn’t stop our progress, a stand of trees finally did. It wasn’t quite noon, but the sun had gathered appreciable strength by the time we all tumbled out of the van and began hiking down a narrow foot path.

My sandals turned out not to be the best footwear for the hike, so when we reached a particularly steep section in the descent, I took them off and walked in my bare feet.

“Careful Güera,” warned Lupe’s daughter Angela. “There are spines and stickers on many of the plants here.”

In response to her warning, I increased the care with which I picked my way over the rocks. Nevertheless, soon a sharp sticker impaled the ball of my foot and made me cry out. I pulled up short to remove the offending spine. It turned out to be a very reticent seed head covered in so many spines that I couldn’t grab it with my fingers. I tried to use one of my sandals to flick it off, but after several painful attempts, I gave up and decided on another approach. Meanwhile Angela, her mother Olivia and Marianna looked on with concern.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get it out.”

I looked around for a stick or a rock with a sharp edge. A thin piece of rock did the trick and I was soon on my way, choosing my path with even greater care.

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Don Juan’s ranch sits among the bright green trees in the valley below.

As we reached the bottom of the valley, the terrain turned to sparse grass and sedge meadows dotted with low spiny trees, bushes, and the occasional nopal cactus. In the distance I could see the bright green canopy of a Mesquite tree and the deep green tops of a couple other tall trees. I stopped to put my sandals back on and take a few photographs. As I did Don Lupe, his son Memo, Angela, and Victor all passed me and continued on ahead.

Rancho Tewariripa is where Olivia, Lupe’s wife grew up. Her parents, Don Juan and Leocadia, and her younger brother Juanito were there to greet our party. By the time I got there, however, everyone but Olivia had scattered, busying themselves with one thing or another and Victor was deep in conversation with Juanito.

Juanito exuded strength and confidence. He was dressed in traditional Huichol clothing – white cotton smock-shirt and pants with colorful piping along the edges. He wore an especially ornate shamans sombrero covered thickly in eagle feathers with a red fringe and blue tassels. Olivia sat on the ground with Jonathan, Marianna and Mario’s 18 month-old son in her arms. The others were off greeting their cousins, aunts, and uncles or making themselves busy with I knew not what.

The ranch consisted of two main structures – one larger than the other. The larger was a round-walled building with a stone foundation and grey low-fired brick walls with a roof that consisted of wood poles crossed with finer sticks and thatched over that with thick layers of long grasses greyed by the passage of time. The second building just beyond the first was a smaller rectangular affair made of the same type of grey bricks, but with a simpler pitched roof of large wood shingles. In the middle of the clearing that seemed to define the center of the ranch was a patch of earth grey with the ashes of many fires. Next to this were several flat rocks on which pots and pans sat. The soil next to these was stained burgundy, I presumed from the blood of an animal recently sacrificed.

IMG_0949Aroused from their temporary slumber by the hike down the mountain, my intestines began once again to communicate an urgent need that I had no choice but to heed. I walked off into the desertscape, looking for a little privacy, ever watchful for snakes.

I returned feeling weaker yet and looked for somewhere to sit near Olivia under the wide-branched Mesquite tree. But before I could find a place to rest, Angela was at my side inviting me to join everyone in a circle around the now lit fire. This would be the first of many cleansing ceremonies to prepare us for our journey to Wirikuta.

Each of us was handed a small stick from one of the nearby trees. One at a time the shamans, Juanito, Lupe, and Don Juan, went from person to person and with chants and their muvieris (their power arrows to which eagle feathers are affixed) blessed us. But as Don Juan moved on to the next person after conducting his blessing of me, my stick seemed to jump out and grabbed onto his shirt. He pulled up, looked me sternly in the eye, and backing up slightly, unhooked himself before moving on again. I was mortified and wondered just what had happened. It seemed as though my stick acted of its own accord. Granted I was not feeling well and my stick was covered in little barbed hook-like projections, but I couldn’t help but think, as I knew the Huichol would, that this was not an insignificant occurrence. I couldn’t fathom what it could possibly mean though and wondered if anyone else who might be able to tell me had witnessed it.

The blessings completed we each rubbed our sticks over our bodies to cleanse ourselves of negative energy and then offered it to Tatewari, Grandfather Fire, who would purify it and us. Once we’d all put our sticks in the fire, the circle of people broke up and everyone returned to their business. My head spun slightly with weakness and confusion and I turned to find somewhere to sit down.

Before I could sit down though, Angela approached me once again.

“How are you feeling Güera?” she asked, genuinely concerned.

“A bit weak,” I admitted, “but I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“You know, my grandfather is a highly respected shaman. Would you like him to do a healing for you?”

From my previous experience with her father Lupe, I had an idea of what a healing consisted of and figured that anything that might help rid me of the demon that was tearing at my insides was worth a try.

“Yes, please,” I responded, “that sounds like a good idea.”

Momentarily, Angela returned with her grandfather and introduced me as “La Güera.” In response to Don Juan’s curious expression, she laughed and admitted she didn’t know my real name.

“My Mexican friends call me Alba,” I said, holding out my hand in greeting.

Don Juan is a man I estimated to be in his mid to late fifties. Like the rest of the men, he was dressed in traditional Huichol clothing. On his head he wore a relatively plain, but new-looking straw sombrero with three colorful pompoms affixed along the upper portion of the brim where they were barely visible. I was surprised by the simplicity of his sombrero, that it featured neither eagle feathers nor the tassels that adorn most shamans’ hats. Similarly, on his feet, in contrast to the heavy-soled, woven leather sandals (called huaraches) that most Huichol wear, he wore beige construction boots. His physical appearance was one of contrasts as well – I detected both a softness exemplified by his light brown skin and an edgy sharpness expressed in his intense dark eyes and long hawkish nose. Among the Huichol, shamans are considered to be the embodiment of the eagle spirit, able to sore high with vision that extends around the world. Interesting then that in many ways Don Juan resembles an eagle.

The incident with the stick, while I knew was not forgotten, neither was it acknowledged nor did it stop him from his task. In short order, he invited me to lay down on a blanket that Angela placed on the ground under the Mesquite tree and told me to relax and breath normally. I lay back, the dark branches of Mesquite spread out above me, and closed my eyes.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Güera in Wirikuta.

Güera in Wirikuta: Cathartic Purgation*

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The following post is the second in a multi-part series. To begin reading at the beginning click on THIS LINK.

The basic difference between an ordinary [person] and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, whereas an ordinary [person] takes everything as a blessing or a curse.                           Don Juan, Tales of Power by Carlos Casteneda

Gradually the roads we traveled became narrower and more isolated, the way was dotted by checkpoints manned by state and municipal police. When we began the climb into the most isolated part of the mountains our progress was halted by a band of rifle-touting men in plain clothes. My pulse quickened as I wondered if they were banditos after our valuables, but then I saw among them a woman in traditional Huichol clothing. I relaxed, knowing they meant us no harm. Each time as the van rolled to a stop and I lowered the window to answer their questions, “Where are you going?” and “Where have you come from?” the inquisitioner’s expression changed from one of seriousness to surprise when they saw who was behind the wheel.

As the clock ticked past 3AM, my eyes began to strain and the road to wind up and down in steep hairpin turns.

On cue, Lupe’s voice cut through the low rumble of the van’s engine, “Are you hungry Güera?”

“Hungry?” I asked. “Well, no, uh, I’m not hungry…maybe a bit tired.”

He laughed good-naturedly at my misunderstanding.

“No,” he said, “not that kind of hunger…”

There was a pause after which he continued, “Here, give me your hand.”

I reached my right arm back, palm facing upwards into which he placed a small soft object. I wrapped my fingers around it and bringing it forward felt with my fingers the slightly moist texture of a small piece of peyote cactus. I smiled and wondered, did he read my mind just then? I placed it in my mouth and chewed it down to a pulp, knowing it would provide the stimulation to let me drive on deeper into the night, same as a cup of coffee, but without the jitters. The subtle effects of the small wedge of cactus came on about twenty minutes or so after I’d swallowed it and I realized an additional benefit of peyote over coffee was that it sharpened my night vision.

Slowly but surely we drove higher into the sierras of Narayit. The route reminded me of many drives I’d made in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec where my family has a summer cottage and led me to consider, once again, how in hind sight often our lives turn out to be a series of lessons and experiences that lead up to and support some higher purpose, like how in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany Owen insists that he and his buddy practice the basketball shot over and over again, we know not why…until the book’s zenith.

Night still cloaked the surrounding countryside in darkness when the rumbling in my intestines began to compete with the narrow strip of winding road for my attention. Before long I winced and gripped the steering wheel tighter with fingers already cramped with fatigue as sharp cramps joined the rumbling. I wondered if the peyote and quesadillas were having a disagreement. But no, I reminded myself, Hikuri and blue corn quesadillas get along just fine. It’s only when you eat non-Mexican food that it protests. I pulled over when my discomfort made it nearly impossible to concentrate on the road and Victor took took my place. Our extreme isolation meant I no longer worried about him driving without a license, but road conditions and my discomfort made resting in any significant way an impossibility.

The sky had brightened with impending dawn when the cramping in my gut became too much to bear.

“Pull over,” I said, my teeth and anal spincter correspondingly clenched.

“Huh?” Victor replied, his focus on driving and oblivious to the seriousness of my condition. “What do you…?”

I didn’t let him finish. “Just pull over Victor! Pull over now! I need to go to the…” A cramp seized me, rendering me temporarily speechless until the last two words came out in a gasp, “…bathROOM NOW!”

He quickly located a wide area of graded dirt off the edge of a wide curve in the road and pulled off. I jumped out of the van before it came to a full stop and scoured the surroundings for somewhere I could squat out of sight of the 12 or so bleary-eyed people who came tumbling out of the van behind me. We were perched on the side of a mountain, the land dropping steeply away from the patch of dirt the van sat on. Spectacular, yes. Forgiving of someone looking for a quiet spot to take a crap, no. Thankfully, the grader left a pile of dirt at the far end of where we parked that I decided might just be large and high enough to provide the necessary cover. Once I got over there I realized it was not as high as I’d hoped, but my anus told me I would have to make due.

I squatted for so long that soon I heard the telltale murmurrings of impatience. Another minute and I decided I’d done all I could do. I stood up, knees shaking, and surveyed the results. Astounding. Bovine in proportion even. I said a little prayer that I’d purged whatever it was that ailed me and joined the restless crew who’d already loaded back into the van. We needed to make time. Lupe was expected at a ceremony begun the previous night and we still had a long way to go.

Less than half an hour later, where the pavement ended and the ocher-tinged dirt and scattered sharp rocks began, I begged Victor to stop again. This time there was no pile of dirt to hide behind and I found myself choosing my footholds carefully as I traversed the steep hillside looking for somewhere to squat. In places I prayed as I grabbed the branches of low-lying bushes to swing from one section of the path I was on to the next. I imagine the path I was on was cut by the hooves of agile goats and I was not feeling particularly fleet footed at that particular moment in time. I found a slightly wider section of worn dirt and, grabbing onto the branches of another small shrub, squatted.

From where I crouched the steep mountain plunged vertically, the bottom invisible. I thought again how this could be the end of me and pictured myself tumbling backwards, ass over tea kettle with my dress up over my head, underwear like hobbles around my ankles, full moon exposed to the first hawks and song birds of early dawn. I was startled out of my nightmare vision by Victor yelling at me to hurry up. Later he would tell me he thought I’d been taking my time “sightseeing.”

“If only,” I replied, torn between amusement and annoyance at his utter cluelessness about the suffering I’d endured.

When I finally arrived back at the van, a fine layer of sweat had gathered on my upper lip and a glance in the sideview mirror at my pallor proved I’d left most of my color back on that mountainside along with the remaining contents of my intestines. I said another prayer that I’d passed whatever evil presence possessed me.

~~~~

*Author’s Note:  The title “Cathartic Purgation” comes from a botanical description of an arctic plant in a book I stored away before moving to Mexico. I don’t recall the name of the plant, but its description included a warning that the result of eating a specific part of the plant would be “cathartic purgation.” I had to look the meaning up and was tickled to discover that purgation is the act of purging or purifying, and shares the same Latin root as the word Purgatory. Addition of “cathartic” as a an adjective describing the kind of purgation is all about the degree of purification you’re likely to experience.

Güera in Wirikuta: The Pilgrimage Begins

IMG_20150307_083544You may recall the series of blogs I published here about my first peyote ceremony. Two years and several ceremonies later, I found myself taking the next step on a spiritual pilgrimage that began with that ceremony. This is the first in another series of posts describing that journey.

Every year in March the Huichol begin the process that takes them to the most sacred sites in their spiritual cosmology. It’s the annual pilgrimage that leads ultimately to Wirikuta, the sacred land where peyote grows. Every year they travel thousands of miles to fulfill their spiritual commitment and to collect peyote for ceremonies in the year that follows. The pilgrimage period encompasses four full months beginning in March with preparations that include cleanses and sacrifices and culminating in late June with a closing ceremony.

This year I joined the shamans Lupe and Mario, and their families on the pilgrimage. During the 10 day period I shared with them we traveled first to their home in the mountains (la sierra) for the intial cleansing period, to the Virgin of Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City to leave offerings and ask for safe passage on our voyage, and then on to the five sacred sites visited annually, including Wirikuta.

Our journey started in Guadalajara where my follow journeyer Victor and I rented a large passenger van. Our first stop was to pick up Joel, another “mestizo” (Mexican of mixed race), who carried with him large bags of pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and chia from his family’s ranch. For both Joel and Victor, this was the second time they would join the Huichol on the annual pilgrimage. From Guadalajara we drove North to Tepic, Narayit, where Guadalupe, our shaman, lives with his family – Olivia his wife and their two children, Angela, 18, and Guillermo, 13. Angela and Memo both speak Spanish fluently, unlike their parents and Mario’s wife, and proved to be excellent guides and interpreters, as well as positive upbeat companions, throughout the journey.

In Tepic, while we waited for Lupe to return from Puerto Vallarta where he’d gone to sell some artwork, Olivia, Angela, Memo, Victor, Joel and I walked across the street to Tepic’s annual Easter fair, one of the largest in Mexico. The Huichol have their own area there where they set up booths to sell their artwork and a kitchen area with several wood-fired barbecues on which the women turn blue corn flour and cheese into quesadillas. The Huichol consider blue corn the most sacred of the five possible colors of maize. In their colorful traditional clothing surrounded by vast collections of beaded and embroidered artwork, the Huichol created a festive feast for the eyes. In preparation for the pilgrimage, I’d begun to fast that day, but seeing and smelling the blue corn tortillas cooking over the open fires, I could not resist and ate several – two with squash flowers embedded in the fresh cheese, two with nopal (rabbit-ear) cactus.

While we enjoyed the quesadillas, several Huichol ladies and their children bellied up to the table to join us. One of the women in particular made an indelible impression on me – she wore a deep purple shirt with matching skirt with white, blue and black piping. Her straight raven-colored hair was pulled back in a pony tail that emphasized her long neck, decorated with a beaded choker necklace. Her face, with its flawless skin, high cheekbones, large almond-shaped eyes, and thin straight nose combined with her erect, proud bearing gave her a royal air. Her name was Rosa. Leaning against her mother, seven-year old Imelda was a carbon copy down to her garb in the same intense hue of purple, the choker necklace. From what I could tell, the only difference between them was that more often than not Imelda’s face was adorned with an unabashed smile and she would join us on the pilgrimage, whereas her mother would not.

After the quesadillas, we took the children, six in all, on the merry-go-round and a mini Ferris wheel. As we walked about the crowded fair grounds the two little girls each took one of my hands. I was struck by their comfort with me, La Güera [pronounced “wera,” with a soft “e” like “where.” It means “the white woman” or “whitey.”]

Before long though Olivia, Lupe’s wife, signaled to us that it was time to go. Lupe had called and it was time to prepare for our journey to the sierras. Our first stop on the journey to Wirikuta would be the tiny village of San Jose Escuela and on to the ranch where Lupe grew up.

When we arrived at Lupe’s house, he and his family hurriedly packed what they would need for the trip. It was almost midnight and I wondered, when they’d known for days that we were coming, why they didn’t have their things packed and ready to go. On further consideration I realized that this is one of the many cultural differences between this white Anglo Saxon protestant Canadian and the Huichol. I told myself that I would need to go with the flow on this trip. I lay down on one of the van’s long bench seats and rested to the sound of scurrying and chatter in their native tongue, Wiratika. It was just after 1:00AM I pulled the van out of the small yard next to Lupe’s house, listening carefully as soft-spoken Lupe issued directions on how to get back to the highway that would take us to the mountains. Lupe’s son Memo facilitated the process by repeating each of his father’s instructions more vociferously.

I try not to drive at night in Mexico. Roads and obstacles are poorly marked and other drivers’ condition uncertain. There’s a lot of drinking and driving in this country, which makes Sundays an especially treacherous day to be on the road. I was comforted that we were traveling on a Thursday. I insisted on driving because I was the only one insured to drive the rented vehicle and I suspect may have also been the only one with a valid drivers license.

The only other vehicles on the highway at that time of night were transport trucks trying to make time. They drove fast and didn’t let up for anything. In contrast, Victor admonished me that we’d never get there at that rate I was driving. Against my better judgement I pressed the gas pedal further to the floor, picking up considerable speed on the good quality two-lane highway.

It was only an hour or so into our drive when we came over a hill and faced a transport truck coming straight at us as it passed another rig. The older highways in Baja rarely have anything resembling a shoulder and there is often a drop of several feet from the edge of the pavement to the ground below. So my first thought was that we probably had nowhere to go. Confronted with the transport truck bearing down on us and the knowledge that if I were to leave the lane we’d likely fly off into a rough landscape and likely roll the van, I could have frozen with panic. Instead, time slowed to a crawl and I had time to consider whether this would be the end of our journey, only just begun. I didn’t want to believe it. I looked right and discovered there was in fact a shoulder there. I purposefully angled the van towards the white line that defined our lane from the shoulder, at the very same instant that the transport swerved back into his proper lane, missing us by, I believe, mere inches.

From the seat behind me, Lupe’s voice came quiet and reassuring, “You handled that well Güera.” I breathed a sigh of relief and gave thanks that we were all still alive. I couldn’t help but think Lupe had as much if not more to do with us still being in one piece and the weight of the great responsibility I’d taken on by agreeing to chauffeur such precious cargo about the Mexican countryside became more tangible and heavy on my shoulders.

Biting It

If you surf or are a fan of the sport then you’ve undoubtedly seen this: If you don’t surf then let me explain. That encounter occurred while 3x ASP World Surf League champion Mick Fanning from Australia was waiting for a wave in the final heat of the competition at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. This is the closest a professional surfer has ever come to being eaten by a shark during a WSL event, in front of hundreds of live spectators and thousands watching televised coverage on TV or online. Fortunately for Mick and the sport of surfing, Mr. Shark was distracted from his mission to see what Auzzie surfer tastes like when he got caught in Mick’s leash (“leg rope” to Auzzies and South Africans). The thrashing you see in the video, including a good whack to Mick’s face, was the shark freaking out because it was trying to free itself from the leash. Mick handled the situation incredibly well and dealt the creature several blows on the back with his fist, leading surf legend Derek Hynd to compare him to the Flintstone’s Bamm-Bamm.* It seems that the shark was as panicked as Mick and got the hell out of there. If the tangling and thrashing weren’t enough to scare him off, rescue boats quickly responding to the emergency very likely had him questioning who was in greater peril. In the wake of the “attack,” there was a lot of talk about shark attacks and sharks in general in the media and among surfers. Social media was rife with stories of close calls and scary encounters with sharks. And those of us who spend a lot of time in the water felt compelled to share our own experiences concerning “the man in the grey suit.” The reality is that if you spend time in the water, the likelihood that you’ll encounter one of these apex predators is considerable. And as a surfer originating in a place few surfers hail from, I’m often asked by family, friends, and acquaintances, “What about sharks?” My reply, “If it is my destiny to be killed by a shark while doing something I love more than anything, then so be it. I would hope that you will be happy I died doing something I loved,” may come off sounding cavalier, but it’s sincere. In my thirteen plus years of surfing and kitesurfing regularly, to date I’ve had three close encounters with sharks. I described the second one, which occurred while I was kitesurfing right out in front of my house in an earlier blog post. My first encounter was really just a sighting, but there were only two of us out at Nine Palms that evening and when the shark swam through the face of a wave, my buddy Fernando, son of a local rancher, caught the next wave in, leaving me to consider my fate. I was still a beginner and my lack of skills pressed me to praying to whatever deity might be listening that I would catch and ride the next wave in, rather than flail and fail. Plagued by a mental image of being up to my neck in the dark blue surrounding me, I nevertheless did catch a wave and made it to shore without incident. Neither of us saw the shark again after that initial glimpse of him cutting through the wave face. My most recent encounter affected me a bit more profoundly than the other two. Like my second encounter, this time I was kiting. I’m at the stage in kite surfing where I’m still learning how to maintain control of my kite while I ride a wave. With the energy of the wave pressing you on, it’s easy to outrun the kite, which makes the lines go slack and the kite to fall out of the sky right into the impact zone of breaking waves. It’s tough, but not impossible, to relaunch a kite once it’s been smacked around by the white water on the inside and that’s exactly what happened on this particular day. My kite was lying in the water, the wind gently pulling it and me towards the beach while low tide exposed the sharp lines of rocks along the way. I’m pretty stubborn. Often to my own detriment. There comes a time when you gotta say enough is enough and give up, but I usually push myself beyond those rational limits. This day was no different. In exchange for my persistence trying to get the kite relaunched, I got dragged across those rocks on the inside. This is when I lamented my choice of bikini over wetsuit. Had I been wearing my spring suit, my thighs would have been protected from the sharp rocks. Thanks to my vanity (I wanted to work on my tan), I instead got a long gash along my left upper thigh. The scar remains an indelible reminder of my bull-headedness and the following incident it likely precipitated. I got back to the beach and inspected the wound. It was bleeding, but not heavily and the gash was not as deep as I thought it would be. I decided that if it stopped bleeding, I’d relaunch and try my luck at riding waves again. I’d caught that wave without reminding myself of the intricacies of wave-riding with a kite. All my hard-learned lessons came flooding back to me as I watched the kite fall out of the sky. I knew could do this! I dragged my kite and board back up the beach to the take off spot, rinsed the blood from my wound and patted it dry. I reran the lines to the kite, making sure everything was in order, and reinspected the cut. The bleeding had stopped and I rationalized it was really just a scratch, nothing to worry about. Certainly nothing that would get the attention of a grey suit. I had a relatively good session from there on out and managed to catch some waves without dropping the kite. An hour or so into the session, I checked in with my thigh muscles. They were fatigued, indicating t was time to start tacking North to the one sandy spot where I could get to the beach without crawling over rocks. It was just as I began to tack upwind when out of my peripheral vision I saw something grey leap partially out of the water. A small black grebe that seconds earlier paddled along the water’s surface had disappeared. My heart clenched as adrenaline surged through my body and my head spun. A walrus. It had to be a walrus, I thought fully entering denial. And then another voice spoke up, an annoyingly intelligent voice. Walrus don’t eat grebes, Dawn. And there are no walruses here. My mind buzzed like a pinball machine on full tilt and I drew a blank despite attempts to rationalize what I’d just seen as something else, anything but a shark. It turned next to the cut on my leg. I had to accept that it was possible that the small amount of blood I was likely leaving in the water had brought one in. Just get in. Just focus on what you’re doing and get in. Don’t fall. But of course I fell. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck!” I hurled the epithets as I grabbed my board and hurried to get back up and moving after blowing the turn back towards shore. “Fuck!” I swore again when I got closer to shore and realized that it would take at least three tacks to get up wind enough to where the beach was sandy. I gritted my teeth and managed to turn and head back out to deeper water without falling. I focused everything on the task at hand, working my way upwind and eventually making it back to shore. I breathed a sigh of relief as I prepared to step off my board onto sand and brought the kite high overhead to the neutral position. That’s when I discovered that the wind had turned offshore near the beach and by bringing the kite overhead it was met with the force of a wind that pushed it back out to sea. It arced and plummeted into the sea behind me where the opposing onshore wind pushed it gently back towards shore. The lines went slack and I was powerless to do anything as it slowly floated into an area full of rocks just South of where I stood. The next thing I heard was a loud “pop!” followed by the hiss of air escaping. The kite had run into the sharp edge of a rock, much like my leg had earlier, which cut through the leading edge, an air-filled tube-like bladder that gives it structure. Maybe it was the stress of seeing a shark consume a helpless little bird right in front of me, the prospect of similar treatment or maybe it was just frustration with the vagaries of kiting, but I lost it at that point. I totally lost my shit and screamed (to no one in particular as there was no one there to hear me anyway), “I hate this fucking sport! This is the dumbest fucking sport ever!!! I’m over it!!” And in that moment, I felt alone…terribly fucking alone and I came close to crying. I felt the tears knocking at the door and I very nearly let them come. I came damned close to walking away from that kite bobbing gently among the jagged rocks with it’s fucked up lines and torn leading edge too. Very very nearly. But I took a deep breath. Considered the options. Then put my head down and carefully picked my way over those goddamned motherfucking rocks and pulled my kite off them without doing further damage to me or the kite. The lines were caught in the rocks and it was all I could do to keep from having a total melt down every time I pulled on one of them and realized I had to disconnect it from the kite before I could extricate the mess from the grip of those tenacious rugged rocks. It was almost dark when I finally had the whole maddening mess packed up and was driving along the beach towards home on my ATV, jaw clenched in anger. That was six months ago and I haven’t kited since. The kite is still in its bag, torn, sandy, and neglected. And after watching Mick’s experience with the shark, I asked myself whether that was a function of the hassle that is learning to kite surf or if it is more about the shark. Compared to surfing, kiting is definitely a higher risk activity where sharks are concerned. You go into deeper waters where sharks like to travel and you have the considerable potential of breaking down out there. Even experienced kiters have kitemares and end up losing entire kites or boards out at sea. The boards are too small to paddle back in on and the kites are a serious liability once they are disabled. Once when my kite failed I had to swim a good half mile to get back into shore, dragging the kite as the leading edge took on water. Getting to shore was a Herculean effort accompanied by nerve-wracking thoughts of what could be lurking deep below me. Despite these experiences my passion for surfing keeps me returning to the water. I wonder though, if I had a serious close encounter with a shark the likes of Mick Fanning’s, how soon would I get back in the water? Would I even be able to? It’s a crossroads I hope never to confront.

******

*After Fanning’s run in, Hynd was the first person to paddle out to the empty line up to catch a few overhead waves, further proving accurate my assessment that he is the Nutty Professor of Surfing. When I questioned his sanity by internet chat, he suggested that I would have done the same. “No one out…swell was building.” ‘Nuf said.

Failing My Way to Success

churchill failureSo I failed. That commitment I made to write 1000 words every day for 90 days? Yeah, I tripped and then I stumbled and fell flat on my face. It happened quickly, within a week I was flailing and not finding time to pen my 1000 words. My solution to missing one day was that I’d make myself write 2000 or more the next. Scot Bolsinger, my inspiration for this whole thing, said he saw my downfall coming when one day I wrote 3500 words.

When I told him what had happened, he nodded sagely and said, “Yeah, you can’t do it like that. That’s like going to three AA meetings in one day. It’s too much and you’re bound to burn out.”

It’s not the first time I’ve failed to keep a commitment to daily or even just regular writing. Not by a long shot. But this time was different. This time in that very short time of making the commitment to write every day, I felt the positive effects of doing regularly something I love. I was energized by the act in a way that I haven’t felt before. And I realized that putting words to paper makes me happy. It buoys me up with a sense of accomplishment and there is something oh so sweet about those moments when the right words come together in a unique way and I’m suddenly smiling because it’s good. I might not be great, but it’s good enough that in those moments I recognize this is one of the things I was put on this planet to do.

So what contributed to my failure? It was a combination, I think, of just what Scot warned me about, biting off too much at a time and life throwing one of those curve balls it’s known to throw at us when we make a commitment to something good. It’s the challenge that says, “Are you sure? Do you really want this? How badly? Let’s see just how badly you want this.” And whammo! Circumstances conspired and I found myself distracted and preoccupied and unable to focus on the writing. I was unable to make it a priority.

I admit I need to learn to prioritize and learn discipline where my writing and my life in general are concerned, but in my defense, the distraction wasn’t some penny ante thing. It wasn’t a sink full of dirty dishes or a floor that needed sweeping. No, it was that suddenly three different people who mean the world to me were in crisis. First my father called with bad news about the prognosis the lung specialist gave him regarding the pulmonary fibrosis he’s been battling for a few years. Hearing from my father that his time is almost up was a blow I didn’t see coming. It took a lot of time and energy to process it. I’m still processing it. Then suddenly the Huichol shamans who were on their way here to Los Cabos to perform healing ceremonies were arrested in Guadalajara for carrying peyote. Their arrest was a huge injustice as their right to carry the sacred peyote cactus is protected under a Mexican federal law governing the religious rights of Indigenous peoples. My fellow peyoteros and I spent the next week doing everything in our power to get them released, including hiring lawyers from Mexico City to come to their aide.

Spanish lesson #1: Peyoteros are people employing peyote as a means to spiritual enlightenment and/or cultivators of the peyote cactus.

To add insult to injury, Mercury, the planet governing both communication and my sign Gemini turned retrograde at the exact same time. I can see some of you rolling your eyes, but believe it or not, I felt the effects of that tiny planet appearing to move backwards in the sky.

The bottom line? In mid-May I experienced a one-two punch at the hands of circumstances and retrograde Mercury that knocked me out. Suddenly I was exhausted, depressed and intensely preoccupied.

Spanish lesson #2: the word for “worried” in Spanish is preocupado from the Latin praeoccupare ‘seize beforehand.’

I felt like someone had let all the air out of my balloon.

Or like my mother used to say, “My get-up-and-go got up and went.”

In the face of this failure to follow up on my commitment to daily writing, I started to question whether I am really meant to write more than a few lines in my journal at night. I started to question whether the project I’m working on is the right project and whether I’m taking the right approach. On top of everything else I was quickly consumed by doubt. Knocked down and chewed up

And then, in case I was thinking of getting up off the mat to give it another go, the Universe delivered a sucker punch in the form of a rather snarky response from a literary icon related to my work and the balloon exhaled its last puff of air and lay in an ugly rubbery inanimate mess on the floor. Or, in keeping with the double metaphors I’ve used here, said icon took my already deflated balloon, chewed it up, and spat in on the floor in a spit-soaked mess of shredded rubber.

I contemplated that rubbery spit-soaked mess, considered my options, and decided not to force it. By their very nature, depression and exhaustion are forces you can’t fight. At least I can’t fight them. Maybe you are made of sterner stuff. But me? I decided to give myself permission not to write and see what happened. Instead I put the energy I did have toward helping my two friends who were wrongly thrown in jail, but I did not write a single word that wasn’t a Facebook post entreating others to their aide. It was the right time not to write. But now over a month later I’m back at it.

So what got me out of the funk?

The fact that my shaman friends were released a week after their detention helped. But what really put the spring back in my writerly step was time spent with supportive and creative people who pressed me to consider my options. Once again the importance of having a creative community to support us in our artistic pursuits and dark nights of the soul was illustrated to me first hand.

En route from my trip to see family in Canada, I was fortunate to have to the chance to spend a couple of days in San Francisco with Mr. Inspiration himself, Scot Bolsinger; Scot and I spent an afternoon at Pier 3 eating, drinking coffee, and discussing my challenges with the dynamic and curious literary agent Michael Larsen; and yet more coffee was downed in North Beach in the company of a wise, artistic friend whom I have not seen in many years.

It was telling that when the subject of my ambivalence towards my writing arose, they all posed the same question.

Is it an option not to write this book? Or will you regret not having pursued it to completion for the rest of your life?

The resounding “Yes!” to the second question drowned out any doubt seeking expression in response to the first. That very simple question is what I must return to every time I falter. It must remain my mantra until this book is completed.

The reality that nags at me all too often is that it is an option to take the easy route and focus the majority of my energy on surfing (and selling real estate). As easy roads go, it’s a tempting, even “sexy” one. But is that who I am? Am I a surfer with a side of real estate agent? Or am I motivated by a desire to be creative in a way that will make a difference in the lives of others? It’s short this time we are given. I’m more aware of that now than ever (reference above loved-one in crisis). I want to make this precious life I’ve been gifted with count. When all is said and done I’m the only one who will remember that awesome wave on that extra-special glassy day. And I really don’t want my epitaph to read “She rode some good waves and kept a clean house.”

In the end, I know that if I don’t do this, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. I’ll know that I ignored a calling so strong that despite turning my back on it repeatedly, like an understanding and loving friend, it returns to embrace me over and over again.

Effed Up vs. Effed: More than word play

Dawn Pier:

A. Scot Bolsinger, aka “EFFin Artist,” wrote the following blog in response to my decision to edit a line, with his permission, in the piece he wrote as a guest blogger on this website (see previous post). His clarification is worth reading and certainly got me thinking about the subtleties of the English language and the power of self-talk.

Originally posted on EFFinArtist:

If I understand one thing from my experience on this Earth it is this: People are a woefully flawed creature. Or in simpler terms, we are a collective hot mess. We think we are a Lear Jet and really we are a broken down plane crash in disguise.

But this, to me, is not the problem. In fact, as I’ll explain, it’s the solution. The problem is our problem with our problems and how that leads to our big problem with other people’s problems.

Huh?

We don’t care much for flaws.

I often wonder why we have such a hard time admitting this.

For those like me whose flaws are so apparent–and so prominent on Google (thank you Internet!)–I guess it’s easier to admit, accept, address, and other A words that all explain the process of human transformation. Why fight it, we think? But more than that, for most of…

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The Hardest Part of Writing a Memoir: The Truth

truthToday I’m posting a guest blog by none other than Scot Bolsinger, to whom I introduced you two posts ago when I committed to writing 1000 words a day for 90 days, an idea he inspired. Since joining his writers group, Scot and I have done a lot of back and forth by email. We share ideas and our philosophies of life, he metaphorically kicks my lazy writer ass, I get to kick his yoga butt, and we talk about surfing and how he needs to do it more and I less to concentrate more on writing. If you’ve checked out his website (if not, what’s stopping you!!), you will have noticed that Scot wears a lot of hats. And as I’ve mentioned before, it is in his role as editor, that he’s been invaluable to my writing process. The memoir I’m working on is challenging. It’s a lot like rolling over and showing my soft underbelly to a sharp-fanged, claw-swinging dragon. I’m scared shitless of what “you out there” might think of the approach I’ve decided to take. Yes, it’s about intimate relationships and yes, there’s a lot of S.E.X involved. While I’m still not ready to share a lot of details (in part because I haven’t even finished the first draft), I’m very interested in talking about the emotions and challenges one faces while writing a book of this nature. First off, I often wonder if I’m not being a total narcissist. But then I decide that the very fact that I worry about it probably means I’m not. And then I get anxious that I’ll be disowned by family and friends. Will they still love me if I hold up all my warts, psychological scabs, and zits to public scrutiny? But I have chosen to write this particular version of “my story” because I know I’m not alone in this world in having made the kinds of mistakes I’ve made and because it’s the most honest, most revealing (dare I say vulnerable?) version I can tell. In a recent email exchange the notion of where I reside along the monogamy – polyamory continuum came up. Yeah, we were actually trying to dissect “Who I am” where relationships are concerned. Heavy stuff. I was so impressed by one of the things Scot wrote, I printed it out and hung it in front of where I sit to write. I then asked him to write a guest blog for this site because of the profundity of what he wrote AND because everything I’ve ever read of his has made me laugh and think. That, my friends, in long because I know not the short, is how the following blog post was born.

℘℘℘℘℘

I met a bank robber once. Not the run-up-to-a-teller-and-demand-a-drawer-full-of-money robber, but a stake-the-place-out-and-pull-off-the-mission-impossible-vault-break-in-kind of robber. Dude had brass ones and obvious intellect to boot. For years and years he swore he was innocent of the crime that earned him two decades in prison. We got to know each other because he wanted me to write a book about how he was innocent. We talked at length. I heard all the arguments. It would be a great book, I told him. But I had a condition. “You have to tell the truth,” I said. “I won’t write fiction and pretend it’s real.” He stared at me. “I think the title should be Guilty Enough,” I said, which also told him I didn’t believe he was innocent. He then told the truth, perhaps for the very first time. The reason he held on to his fiction for so long is he knew the government stumbled across him but couldn’t prove it (several other dozen successful robberies, they never got close to catching him). They fabricated the case against them. They played a hunch. The Feds don’t like unsolved bank vault robberies. It threatens our belief in the power of our money. If a random guy can penetrate that and steal our money, he steals our power. We can’t have that. Tremendous pressure to convict grew. Someone. Anyone. My friend was a good bet. Turned out their fabrication worked. He was found guilty. It still pisses him off. His pride as a bank robber was shattered by being caught, because he knew they lucked out. They could have pinned it on anyone. It was wrong, he insisted. I agreed. “Fucked up,” I said. “Really fucked up. But still, I can’t write a book that isn’t the truth.” The so-called moment of truth. The book talk died down. Like oh, so, many potential authors, that face-to-face stare-down with truth caused him to blink first. The idea of the book ended up on the shelf of good intentions instead of a bookstore bookshelf. Many people are told, “You should write a book about your life.” Few do it. Of those who do, many still struggle with the fundamental task of truth. First: writing a memoir requires being honest with yourself. Rigorously honest. If you haven’t tried it, it’s hard to explain how wrenching the process can be. Of all the lies we tell in life, we lie to ourselves the most. We live the script we write for our character rather than live our authentic self. Have you ever read a memoir by a former pro athlete or political figure or most famous people? They read like the characters they portray. They are books about the brand, not the person and they aren’t that great. But the best memoirs, the truly memorable ones compel us by their authenticity. Second: writing a memoir requires us to write that truth in a compelling way. Many of us write about our lives in journals. The emotional depth in a journal can be dramatic. It can be healing. It can powerful. But it isn’t something others would want to read unless you’re historically significant or naturally hilarious. Our journals are only interesting to us. They are not the stuff of a bestseller. So then, this second step is a tough one. We have to take our sordid, confusing, dishonest lives and make them compelling, understandable, readable and honest. We have to turn our lives into a page-turner. An honest page-turner, no less. Writing a memoir is not easy. Those who do it (and finish) are pretty few in my experience. Those who do it well make up a club more exclusive then the Knights of the Templar. I truly enjoy the craft of writing fiction. But I came to a point in my life where I felt compelled to write a memoir. I avoided it for years until the point came where I felt God would not let up until I started. I described it as my Jonah in the Whale moment. I had a choice. Either agree and be vomited Jonah-like onto the beach of my new life or be consumed into whale shit. Tough choice, but I took the vomit and started writing the book I believe God wants me to write. I love writing fiction, but too often I lived fiction. I lived the story I told, not who I really was. I allowed myself to believe the narrative about me rather than be me, for better or worse. I ran from my life right smack into a prison cell. I ended up in rehab in prison. Rehab sucks. Prison sucks even worse. Both at the same time, well, that’s sort of like a Far Side cartoon drawing of hell, only without the laughs. But that is where I rediscovered that we are not what we do. All that stuff is part of becoming. Thank God’s loving Grace that She doesn’t keep score of our behaviors. Some get it easier than others. I get it only through red-faced moments that sear my brain. I’m slow. But in figuring it out, I discovered I am human and I’m a person who is doing my level best in this crazy, stupid, wonderful, spinning existence called My Life. In that dark turn of my life I found it. I became honest. In writing the truth, I discovered the empowerment of a truthful life. Instead of saying “I am fucked up,” I began to admit “I fucked up.” In so doing, I became less so. If we are honest we become our better selves. If we are honest, we find the spiritual stuff that in the end is most real. Whether we write a book about it or not is, in the end, far less important. But for those who feel compelled to like I do, like my writing buddy Dawn does, then be courageous because when you succeed you will offer the world a rare gem.