Each morning I wake up and light some sage. I twist it in my hand, watching it catch flame. The tightly bound leaves burn bright red then turn to black and ash. It reminds me of the fires from ceremony, burning wood and heating rocks. This daily ritual reminds me of the fire that raised me, the flames and prayers that make my spirit strong, today.
The smoke rises in currents that wash over me—breathe in, breathe out. My lungs expand and release; I’ve been imagining them as wings ever since a massage therapist commented on my back. She said she’d never felt a back so tightly wound by knots interlocking like roots around each other; the knots underneath my skin reminded her of birds.
I think of blackbirds, how once I read a poem that said if you get lost, follow the blackbirds because they always stay close to (or know where there is) water. I think of the blackbirds I write about in my poems, where I render myself brave enough to be seen rising, and simply, enough.
I think and I wonder why it is that I have always struggled with allowing myself to be widespread-winged, why simply being at peace with myself has been a lifetime battle.
I am at war with myself.
“What is it you do for work?” my massage therapist asks, fingers firmly pressing into the edges of my shoulder blades.
“I work with Native youth on reservations.”
She asks me to tell her more. I give her the elevator pitch, what my job is on paper: to help Native American high school students learn more about college, from the application to enrollment and, hopefully, graduation within six years.
But, I also tell her what isn’t necessarily in my job description; what it takes to get them there isn’t as tangible as filling out an application for FAFSA or college, but something bigger that fills the rooms almost like smoke rising. Doing what I try to do is as simple and complex as prayer.
My prayers are simple: I want the youth I work with (and everyone I cross paths with) to believe in themselves, their passions and their dreams. I wish for them to be balanced, happy, and healthy enough to determine their own meaning of “success,” to live by their own definition of wholeness. For me, this means just living a good life, staying true to who you are, and helping others live freely and lovingly enough to fly wherever their wings want to carry them.
She responds by telling me that people who do the kind of work I do usually have knots where mine are. “They’re your wings,” she says before I flip over on the table.
Sometimes I think it is precisely what we don’t say that dictates the path we end up walking. When we hide out of shame or fear, we don’t allow ourselves to live as our full selves. More often than not, I don’t say a lot of what I’m actually thinking, going through, and feeling.
What I don’t tell the stranger massaging my back is also what I don’t really share with anyone. There are stories, experiences, and heartbreaks that even my most trusted beloveds have to pry out of my stubborn, white-knuckled hands.
Letting go was never one of my strong suits. My therapist Sonya says my coping techniques are staying productive and keeping busy (she reminds me that there are unhealthier ways to cope, so I should be grateful I got some good ones). I also tend to push my emotions down like everything is okay. She asks what I am so afraid of.
I am afraid of feeling. It reminds me of drowning and searching for air to breathe. Every time I have had to do serious healing, it has been hard work pushing through another surface into more growth. I am afraid I won’t be able to do it again. I am afraid of this even though I know I have done it time and again, knowing that I will inevitably have to keep healing and growing. I suppose I am afraid I won’t always be able to get where I need to be. I am afraid to fully trust myself to keep doing it.
I don’t tell people all of the ruptures the youth I work with endure. I don’t talk about what it feels like to not be able to control every outcome, how it feels like earth breaking apart in my hands when someone discloses abuse or traumas. We are all searching for stable ground.
I don’t mean to make myself seem like any kind of savior; I’m not. I am not perfect. I don’t always respond with the right words to convey the empathy I feel. I have made many mistakes that have taught me how to do better next time. Most importantly, I know that everyone I meet, work with, and serve is capable of saving, empowering, and healing themselves.
I no longer talk about what it felt like to lose someone I love to suicide. How, now, part of my job is to know statistics like suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death—2.5 times the national rate—for American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) youth in the 15–24 age group. Or that, in the US, between 1 in 9 and 1 in 5 AI/AN youth report attempting suicide each year. What I know is that even if we all don’t know these exact facts, we know, in our hearts and spirits, the effects and aftermath of colonization, what it feels like to live with the PTSD of post-traumatic settler disorder. We feel it….
When I ask myself, “what kind of ancestor do I want to be?” I think about how important it is to know not just the pain, hurt, or anger, but to also know the joy, happiness, and love of our individual and communal experiences living on Mother Earth during this time. I think that perhaps joy, happiness, and love are the feelings that should keep us rooted in our spirits whenever we are blown by the winds and rains of pain, hurt, anger, or sadness; recognizing each of our emotions is meant to be felt in order to help us stay rooted. And each emotion helps us to rise in our growth and understanding of what it means to be alive. For instance, I may know some sad facts, but I also know that it takes one student to make all the others laugh, that it takes one student being brave singing a song or sharing a story to make others feel brave enough to share their gifts as well. I know that sometimes all it takes is a good song on the radio to get all of the youth to sing along and in those moments with the music blasting and everyone singing at the top of their lungs; everyone is happy and free. And, it is this knowing that always brings me peace.
Today, when I pray I imagine my ancestors in the room with me. As the smoke dances across the air, I visualize everything I need to let go of leaving me with the smoke rising. Instead of holding on to what I can’t control, I hold on to gratitude for my family and the people and things I am thankful for. We are all tightly bound together just as the wrapped leaves I burn and I pray we all find and know peace. I pray for the kind of ancestor I want to be, one who helps people spread their wings wide enough to be seen, to believe they are enough. I want to be an ancestor who helps others navigate every emotion that this life asks us to experience, one who helps others to be unafraid of their hearts in all their rises and falls. I hope I can teach how to listen to each other’s prayers, and to be a blessing in this world, be the blackbird that leads others to water when they’re lost because that is the kind of light this dark world needs.
“Morning prayer” courtesy of Kate Cummings.
“Corvus brachyrhynchos in flight” by Mark Nenadov, courtesy of Flickr (CC BY 2.0)