Reflections on Spirit

Note 5: Spirit Wheel. 2/18/99

The act of remembering a spirit-encounter, an event, as it were, that may not even belong to a classification meant to include anything that embraces the spirit world in the first place, is difficult enough in itself, in the quiet and solitude of one's own mind, without the added complication, if not contradiction, of converting that "event" into a linguistic form like description. Giving voice to spirit is an act of telling that may not be possible at all. The problem is that spirit-encounters, unlike those that occur in ordinary social circumstances, do not happen in verbal contexts. They have nothing much about them that language can comprehend. Words, especially in Eurocentric discourse, have always been used to deny and annihilate the possibility of spirit in any and every native American expression of that concept. Spirit, except God's, does not move across the face of the deep in logocentric speech. Logos, by definition, and in fact, obliterates any other form of spirit except its own. European languages, and the people who use them, do not possess a vocabulary to describe spirit itself and have no hope or possibility of saying what encounters with spirit are like.

The temptation to approach this problem differentially, by saying what spirit is not, by defining the concept negatively, while holding out a false promise of achieving some limited success in bringing the concept toward the light of day, nevertheless must be rejected because there is virtually nothing in life that is not touched in one way or another by its passing. To say what it is not, therefore, leaves us precisely where we started--with virtually nothing to say and in possession of no words with which to not-say it. Silence, in other words, is the only way left open for one to address the subject of spirit.

To say that spirit does not exist because there are no words with which to capture it, since European theory lays claim to the notion that language constitutes reality, that ideas do not exist until there is language in which they can be expressed, misses what may be the most significant fact about the nature of spirit; namely, that it cannot be captured at all. One cannot stop spirit in its tracks, as it were, simply by attaching this or that European word to it. No series of words can say what it is; just as no series of other and opposite words can say what it is not.

That seems to leave us with the prospect of a long series of blank pages.

On the other hand, however, it is possible to talk about the effects the passing of a spirit through one's life leaves behind. Spirit changes everything it touches, everyone it receives into its presence. One morning, in May, 1977, for instance, I went out into the desert in the pre-dawn darkness to look for stones. In retrospect, and from a temporal distance of 22 years, that act seems strange to me now, seems like it might have been meant to happen to someone else. I have been estranged from the memory of the act by the fact that I no longer live in the desert, have not spent any time there in nearly 10 years, and have no reason to believe now, nor at the time for that matter, that there would be any stones to find in the area I planned to search. Deserts are mostly sand. Even in mountainous regions, like the one where I used to live, stones do not often find their way across eight miles of cityscape (recently constituted geologically speaking) to cluster together in relative proximity to nothing in particular that can account for their being there. Stones, like anything you can name, come from somewhere else when there is no geological structure present in a landscape to explain their origin. Sand can be blown in by the wind and comes from God knows where. But a stone, even a small one, where there is no flowing water to carry it, and where it is too heavy to be moved by the wind, cannot just show up in the middle of nowhere it ought to be by itself.

That is one of the problems this act of memory entails. I had no rational reason to believe there would be any stones to find in the place I decided to look. I had some sense of the kind of stone I was going to find. I also knew that particular kind of stone would be there. In fact, my being out there in the desert to hunt the stones was not a spur-of-the-moment decision to do something completely irrational at all. I had just returned from a journey to Lake Superior (south shore in Michigan) where I had gone to learn how to hunt stones in the first place. Most people probably do not realize that there is a school on the south shore of Lake Superior where you can learn, not how to find stones, but how to hunt them. Well, maybe the school is not always there in reality.

Anyway, after learning how to hunt stones, I returned to the desert to put those lessons into practical use. Stones are mostly stationary. That fact forms a useful first lesson in how to hunt them. No one in his/her right mind would build a stone-blind in the desert and settle in until a flock/herd of stones came by that a hidden hunter could kill with random blasts from a shotgun. Also true is the fact that driving the stones by sending beaters out into the bush to herd them toward the blind and the hunter would probably not work very effectively either. Driving them over the edge of a cliff might also prove to be a disappointing strategy.

Since stones are not in the habit of moving about, and cannot be driven to it, the hunter must take the initiative upon him/herself in setting out to find where the stones have come to rest. On that particular morning I had devised a relatively simple plan to use in hunting the stones. Since I was entering the ground where I believed the stones were likely to be from the west, and was therefore walking toward the eastern horizon as the sun rose, I thought it would be appropriate to move in that direction until I found the first stone. Since the stones I was hunting occurred in only four different colors (white for north, red for east, yellow for south, and black for west), colors, by the way, that are traditional markers for the cardinal directions in native American cosmology, it seemed logical and prudent to walk along in a straight line toward the east until I came upon the first stone directly in my path. The color of that stone would then determine a new direction in which to continue the hunt for the second stone, and so on, until I had completed the task of gathering all the stones.

The problem with this description is that much of it has been said in retrospect and very profoundly from memory. Trying now to sort out what I knew or thought about the task in front of me, even before I had taken the first step on the journey to hunt the stones, is quite literally impossible at this remove (22 years) from the actual event. At the edge of the first step, I did not actually know whether there were any stones in that particular area of the desert or not. I did not know how many stones I was meant to recover. The old man, my spirit-guide, had brought me to that first step and I could think of no reason not to take it.

After walking for a while, I cannot now say for how long or how far I walked, I came upon a small white stone lying directly in my path. It was quartzite and was about an inch wide and one and one-half inches long. It was about one-eighth of an inch thick. The "bottom" side of the rectangle was slightly curved inward and the "top" had a point near the midpoint. It was vaguely "arrowhead" in shape but was clearly never meant to be one because the point and edges were rounded-squares and were blunt and smooth to the touch. The stone was opaque lying on the flat of my hand but, when I held it up to the sun, a pattern of light and dark areas became visible where its surface had been thinned, to allow the passage of more light, or left slightly thicker, to allow for the passage of less light. I was looking at the profile of a man's head perfectly carved in the surface of the stone, a profile that was only visible when the stone was backlighted by the sun.

According to plan, I made a 90* turn to the north where I stood and resumed my journey. After a while I came upon a red stone. I put the white stone, which I had been carrying in my right hand, into my pocket and picked up the red piece of quartzite with my left hand, a pattern of recovery that was followed with absolute consistency throughout the entire course of the hunt. The second stone was irregularly shaped with one polished side worn perfectly smooth and shaped in an arc from very thin edges to approximately one-quarter inch thick at the midpoint of one relatively flat side. The stone is shaped most like a half-circle but is irregular around the arc and appears more oval than round. On the bottom side, which is polished and smooth as well but unevenly pitted, I could clearly see the head in profile of a bird of prey. The curved beak and the eye were carefully etched in the surface of the stone.

The third stone, which I recovered after walking east again for a time, was yellow and sent me south. It was a polished cougar's head shaped perfectly in the round of its three dimensions and was worn smooth to the touch on every surface of the initial cut that fixed its form. The next stone was black and I walked back toward the west. That stone was a perfectly shaped horse's head. And so on and so forth.

The hunt lasted for five and one-half hours.

By the time I got back to my apartment I was exhausted, dehydrated, and approaching the edge of hallucination. Walking around in the desert in middle to late May without food or water can become an ordeal in its own right. I drank water, put a cold, wet towel across my face, and rested for about thirty minutes. When I felt less heat-stressed, I took the stones out of my pocket and laid them out on the floor. The old man told me to count the stones, an idea that had not occurred to me before the old man's voice broke across the inner silence of my mind. I realized too for the first time that the act of picking up the last stone was truly a concluding moment of the hunt because I had seen a significant number of other stones in the desert but had somehow known that they were not part of the encounter. At first glance I could see that I had recovered more yellow stones than any other color. There were thirteen yellow pieces of quartzite in the group. Oddly enough, at that moment I knew the other stones (white, red, and black) would reach a total of exactly twenty stones. I knew as well that the collection was the equivalent of the 260-day almanac of the Mayas.

The yellow stones were the numbers (1-13). The other twenty stones were the day-names (Imix-Ahau). The Mayas' spirit-wheel of time, at first composed of two straight, parallel lines, was already laid out on the floor. Each combination of 1 yellow stone and one white, red, or black stone, arranged in pairs along the parallel lines was a single day in the almanac count. The first thirteen days were 1 Imix, 2 Ik, 3 Akbal, 4 Kan, 5 Chicchan, 6 Cimi, 7 Manik, 8 Lamat, 9 Muluc, 10 Oc, 11 Chuen, 12 Eb, and 13 Ben. By moving the first stone back in the line behind the one designating the number 13, and placing it adjacent to the first unpaired stone in the second line, the day-name 1 Ix came into being. After that, 2 Men, 3 Cib, 4 Caban, 5 Etznab, 6 Cauac, and 7 Ahau, were made, and the first twenty days of the count were present and accounted for, so to speak. I tested the system one day at a time until all 260 days were matched, number to name. Needless to say, it worked perfectly. Several weeks later I turned the longer line into a circle, day-names at rest on the outside, and the line of the numbers into a second concentric one that I placed on the inside of the first, larger circle. The stones on the inside are moved across the open end of the smaller circle one day at a time and the method keeps the count perfectly as well. The old man told me the Mayas used the two circles before and during the Classic Period. I have no reason to doubt his word.

So, how exactly does one master the art of talking about spirit? After forty-five years of trying, I have no clue how it should be done.

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