Ekunyi's Embers

Finding my spiritual Keystones – Journal 1.2

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I am nineteen and just returned home for my first summer after starting college, an internal mess of new realizations about love, knowledge, and independence that I experienced over the past eight months. I have a few weeks before the summer job at the theatre starts up, and my mind is free to wander through these new ideas, many of which prove intensely uncomfortable. On the first day available to me without a thunderstorm, I wait until both parents have left for their respective jobs, and begin the half hour walk out of our suburban neighborhood to the local park. My feet take me deep into Quiet Waters Park, originally to my little pagoda on the South River which was so well known to me, but then, before I arrive, off the trail. I am uncertain if this is “permitted” by park regulations, but something of that newfound craving for independence granted me in the past year compels me to push aside old fears and before long I’ve lost myself amidst the trees and the cries of insects and the occasional rustle of an eastern grey squirrel or chipmunk who saw me before I them, and ran off.

After walking for an indeterminate amount of time, I find myself tiring, and settle on a fallen log, perching on the rough oaken bark and just watching the world move around me. As the sun continues its march across the sky and begins its descent, boldly plumed male cardinals keep their distance while boldly spirited robins come far closer to eye the stranger in their midst. I mimick the cries of birds singing out above me as evening creeps ever nearer, laughing quietly to myself in sheer joy as we engage in a peculiar sort of call and response. I’ve no idea if they are reacting to this giddy human soprano’s efforts to join in the avian choir, or just continuing in their own standard repetition of melody, but it is absolutely joyous.

Behind me and the log, a sudden crack. I turn, ever so slowly, to see two massive white tailed does looking at me, maybe ten feet away. I blink, they blink, and then they turn and bolt. I don’t know what compels me to follow them, in the grand scheme of things it is not particularly intelligent, given how much larger they were than I, and how much damage a deer can do when frightened. But fortunately they just speed ahead, tawny pelts turned golden in the remaining light of dusk, leading me on for a few seconds that feel like forever before disappearing from my view into a field of thick marsh reeds as high as my shoulders.

The earth, still damp from past storms and uncovered by leaves that would not fall from trees in the prime of early summer, gives me the chance to determine precisely where the deer entered the field. I crouch low, following their prints into the marshlands as best I can, but being no expert in tracking swiftly lose them, and realize that I myself am lost in the thick, swaying plants. I stand up, and realize with a start that just across the field is a large house, with an old man sleeping in a rocking chair, shotgun splayed across his lap. Still running on adrenaline, I immediately drop to all fours in the mud, heart pounding, my first (perhaps not entirely rational!) concern that he’d wake and mistake me for something he could take aim at. Carefully, but quickly, I retrace my steps through the reeds, find my way back to the fallen log, and sit, breathing hard. There I try to come to terms with the fact that I’d inadvertently chased the deer into harm’s way.

Robins returned to watch me as I panted and tried to wrap my head around everything that had just occurred, keeping company while I wait, and wait, and hear no gunshot. Eventually I realize it is getting dark, and I somehow have to make it home before my parents arrive from their desk jobs, clean off my utterly mud-covered self, and return to the obligations of being human and their responsible adult-child.

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***

I am twenty one and it is my last year at college. I am not ready to leave, not ready to move on to the next step with so many unknowns. After four years of growth and community and companionship with some of the people who will remain some of my dearest friends for years to come, the future seems utterly overwhelming. I’m worried about many of my support structures: things are starting to take a turn for the worse with the relationship that initially taught me so much about my capacity to love and be loved. I am aware now of imperfections in my parents’ health and personality that I had been naively blind to before I originally left home. My sibling is moving farther still away than zie was before, and I have not yet entirely adjusted to this necessary reality.

I am not sleeping well, with all of this on my mind. Not for the first time in those weeks I wake before dawn. I recognize that I have a choice: I have a full day ahead of me full of tasks to wrap up my senior year, I can toss and turn and try to continue sleeping, or make something of this early morning. Throwing off the covers I grab my new camera, an early graduation present from my grandmother, and head out of my dorm in the crisp coolness of an Ohio spring morning. I breathe the damp gladly, the wet scent of grass waking me as the cool dew licks against the tops of my shoes and brushes against my ankles.

I wander without real direction through our rural campus, most of our tiny bubble of the world still asleep. Eventually I am near the dorms farthest from the main part of the school, more trees than buildings in the northern part of campus. As I round a bend, a tall stag with three does near him lift their heads to watch me. I stop, do not move, do not chase, just watch. After a few minutes the does go back to grazing but the stag keeps his eyes on me. Then he too seems to give me permission to remain. I lift my camera, take several photos, admiring how the world changes around me from something of muted hues and mist to the brilliant glow of early morning.

The deer return to the woods, I to my dorm, and we all go on about our day.

***

I am twenty five and living in the outskirts of Pittsburgh. I have found a new partner, a new relationship, which is much healthier for me. My parents and I are getting along better, albeit in new contexts as mutual adults. My career path, however, is putting me in constantly unhealthy situations. Stress is high as a graduate student, higher still for dysfunctional relationships amidst my department. My anxiety skyrockets and depression plagues me again, I begin to experience attacks that leave me frozen and incapable of normal, day-to-day function. My partner worries. My sibling worries from afar.

On five separate occasions, when I have an anxiety attack at work, there are white-tailed deer in the forest behind my apartment when I return home, always on that same day. A doe and two fawns wander near and allow me to run inside to grab my camera and take photos of them grazing like I once did their kindred in college; an old multi-point stag who keeps his distance and bolts when I take a step in his direction. They remind me of the beauty in my life, they remind me of my past, and they remind me of my connection to the spiritual which grounds me and gives me enough stability to reach out for the assistance I need.

The white tailed deer remind me of what brings me joy in my life, the actions and relationships that serve as my own keystones to fulfillment and keep me emotionally, physically, and mentally healthy. Through their graceful and powerful motion I am reminded that I do best when I can spend time wandering the woods, occasionally running, but mostly just having space to wander and roam in a familiar territory. Through my interactions with deer in an artistic manner, I am reminded that my heart and mind need time and space to create art, whether it takes the form of photography, sculpting, or music. I also see in the patterns of the does who sometimes wander together and sometimes explore the world apart, that I need a few, close, deep relationships with a partner or friends, yet I still need time to be independent in my thoughts and my activities to not be overwhelmed.

Yet robin is there too, if perhaps in a slightly less obvious role. For robin embodies song in a way that I do not find in deer, and song combines all of the personal necessities I’ve described above. With song I engage with my physical health, I stand erect, I use the muscles in my core and throat and face to produce sound. I cannot slouch or bow my head when I sing, I must be tall, proud, and in control of every inch of my body. My mind follows suit, challenged to remember new texts, engaging with past lessons to create the best possible sound, to remember where I will shift in dynamics, adapt in pronunciation. When I am successful with both of these aspects of my singing, when I can share my voice in a way that brings joy to others, then I am utterly fulfilled emotionally. I find absolute satisfaction in this form of communication, I am unafraid to be proud of what I can accomplish with my voice. And indeed, in this joy, singing is one of the ways I most strongly connect with the divine. I write music for my gods and my spiritual guides, I sing the songs I hear in the trees, I learn the old Kemetic hymns. Singing is my core, my keystone, and if deer helps me to remember and define all the parts of what makes song so important to me, robin takes them all within his bright red chest and lives them.

I hope to learn more from both of them in the weeks ahead.

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(This is a response to Alison Leigh Lilly’s Keystones of the Sacred Land e-course.)

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