Saturday, December 22, 2012

Winter Solstice Long Dance

Winter Solstice, 2012

Our family/community on L. celebrates winter solstice with a ritual called the Long Dance. We come together for a planning meeting a month in advance, then two work parties to gather wood (to burn all night) and to prepare the site. This involves the various temporary structures (we erect a teepee for the kids to sleep in, a teepee for the altars for the four directions, a tea tent to serve hot tea all night and a ritual-preparation tent for people to change their clothing, don masks, etc.each tent needs a stove, except the ritual tent, too) as well as determining where the fire circle will be and preparing the wood (much of it needs to be split). These work parties involve a "usual suspects" group of people-- I am proud to say that when I am on Lopez I am always part of such work parties. It takes a lot of work to make community happen! My dad, despite being 71 this year, is one of the key workers/organizers of work parties and never misses a single one. Paul is another of those who never fails to organize and use his practical skills for community.

Starting from the organizing meeting people also start to prepare "dances" to share with the community. There is always a presentation by the men, by the women, and almost always by the kids. In the morning there is a sun dance to bring the sun up, this dance also requires four participants to organize and practice in advance. There is also a mourning/death dance in the middle of the night-- this does not usually need pre-planning. Other smaller presentations also happen-- dancing a new mask, for example. I was part of the women's dance this year and the number of meetings and rehearsals was sort of out of control-- although the final result made it all worth it. I should clarify that "dances" may mean "theatrical presentation" with no dance involved.


Here are Karjam and I in our first outfits of the evening ready to depart. Note that half of our truck is full of things for the night- clothing changes, ritual items, etc.

The winter solstice has a very specific start time-- sundown. No one is supposed to arrive after sundown, which is at 4:00 pm, but every single time someone decides that even though they couldn't get their ducks in a row on time, they still must attend. The grandparent heartbeat drum begins at sundown, and continues all night until sunrise-- only adults can drum this drum-- and they pass it from one to the next, quietly beating a heartbeat.

The people circled together, and after clarifying some guidelines (I spoke up to explain why we ask people who don't plan to stay all night to wait until 11 to leave, when we open the circle for that purpose-- my brother-in-law Jaime explained the purposes of the various tents, and several people spoke up to thank the people whose land we were on), we came close to the fire starters who use a fire drill to start the ritual fire. Using a drill is a bit difficult-- you need to draw a bow at a fairly regular and quick speed, keeping it horizontal to the ground, with even pressure on the top of the drill pushing down to the bottom (where there is a cedar plank that produces the coal to start the fire). This year there were two people responsible for the fire (usually it's one and an assistant), T and L. T (a man) used the drill first. His strokes were strong and fast, but despite several attempts (and lots of smoke) he could not produce a coal. I whispered to Summer Moon (my sister) that the fire spirits must want L to try, and finally she did. Her strokes were horrible! Jerky and awkward, and slow. But on her first try she produced a sizable coal that lit the fire.

Next, as the fire grew larger and we had to stand back, we circled again. This time the four directions were ritually called out, and the candle on each altar was lit. East is the altar of the young, and J, who is still in high school, spoke for this altar. South, the altar of young adulthood was lit by M, who had exquisitely prepared what to say. I spoke for West, the altar of the time of career and family, and P spoke for North-- the altar of old age (although he is only in his early 60s and I don't think of him as particularly old!). Finally the drumming and dancing started.

There is ONE bad point about dancing all night around a large raging fire-- sparks. My vest (I intentionally wore an older vest that is already more of an at-home or rough-work outfit) was one casualty. I also have a dime sized burn on my forearm where a large ember landed and have lost a bit of hair.

In fact the fire is not raging all night. It gets higher and lower, with coordination between the fire keepers T and L and Ala who is the ritual coordinator for all the rituals of the evening. There are periods of time with high energy drumming, and a lot of dancing, and periods with people playing mbira and rattles, and other periods when we sing circle songs (do not confuse these with campfire songs, they are not). Many of these songs have been in our community for a long time, and a fair number of our circle songs were composed by Joules (who often lives here). Here's an example of a simple song:
Under the pale moonlight, we dance
Spirits dance, we dance
Joining hands, we dance
Joining hearts, rejoice

and another longer one:

Spirit of the Wind, carry me
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home to myself

Spirit of the Ocean
Blessed emotion
Spirit of the Sea
Set my soul free

Spirit of the Wind, carry me
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home to myself

Spirit of the Earth
Help me with my birth
Spirit of the Sky
Spread my wings and fly

Spirit of the Wind, carry me
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home to myself

Spirit of the River
Blessed giver
Spirit of the Land
Hold me in your hand

Spirit of the Wind, carry me
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home to myself

Spirit of the Mountain
Flowing rock fountain
Spirit of the Rock
Help me with my talk

Spirit of the Wind, carry me
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home to myself

Spirit of the Moon
Hold my heart in tune
Spirit of the Light
Keep my soul in sight

Spirit of the Wind, carry me
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home
Spirit of the Wind, carry me home to myself


We song that song last night, but a new verse honoring G.E. who recently passed on was added speaking to the Spirit of the Bear (G.E. had a lifelong connection to bears). G.E.'s button blanket was danced around the fire and then set in the altar teepee for the night, and many people shared their love for him at the fire. Other people were remembered during the dying time after midnight when the shaman, death, and mourning mask danced around the fire.

The rehearsed dances I mentioned earlier were also presented. The men's dance was before 11, so that the children were still awake and those who couldn't stay the night were still there. The men's dance was a comedy theatre sort of presentation-- there was a dream sequence in it, and in the dream sequence various people went through an airport security check. These people included my brother Zack who was carrying a small battle ax and a sword (yes, they're real, yes, he was wearing a kilt), and death (with a real scythe of course). Zack's water bottle was confiscated.

After 11 there were still so many people! No one appeared to have been scared away by weather reports of rain and wind. In fact, the weather was remarkably and surprisingly benign. By so many people I mean that I think close to 100 people stayed up all night! This could be totally wrong as I didn't count, but last time I was able to go to the long dance it snowed on us and we had around 35 who stayed up all night. The large numbers are partially because some clarification of who can come is needed. We have a rule that new attendees and children must be sponsored by an adult from our island who has attended before (with the idea that the sponsor clues them in to how/when/what is going on and how they can participate. A lot of people with only a tenuous connection showed up. As my dad said, "suddenly we're popular!"

The women's dance was amazing. I can't tell you more than that, because you'd have to see it to believe it. But it was amazing, fantabulous, sure-to-be-remembered-for-years. Later in the night I helped my friend Faith dance my moon mask. I have this full-moon mask that my dad made-- it's gorgeous. Faith, V. and I danced it once around the fire, very slowly, at the edge of the darkness behind the people. V. and I had a silver star in each hand-- I hear it looked great.

For me a big highlight was when Faith honored me early in the morning next to the fire. Ahhh, that's hard to explain. Around 6 a.m. or so Faith threw cedar on the fire and talked about our friendship and what sort of person I am. I just cried. What is really funny, and I haven't even told Faith yet, is that just before she started to talk I had had this feeling of how I wanted to honor Faith! I didn't because it would have seemed like a response, not something coming from my own heart. But it was so affirming of our deep friendship to have her do that.

I asked people later their favorite moment. I never got to say mine. But it was the look on the faces of the enthusiastic dancers when there was actually room for dance (often it was a bit crowded), and they were moving fast, dancing with the fire, the wind, the drum beats, perhaps in a trance. M's face as he danced-- his big beaming smile, comes to mind.

After the Sun Dance in the morning (which I must say was fabulous), the grandparent heartbeat drum ended and we shared a big potluck breakfast. I had made gluten free, dairy free, honey-sweetened pumpkin ginger pinenut pie (out of local pumpkin). Hmmmm, glad I made two so I could have more this morning!

Back home we had a sauna and I packed up my new ginger-sauerkraut made from purple and white cabbage. I felt transformed, more than usual, by the experience of the Long Dance-- perhaps I had a deeper level of spiritual connection to what was going on than before. Yet FB was just the standard stuff, and no important emails had come in. I'm glad we honored the earth and the changing seasons and our community in this way. I feel renewed. This blog post is just a small gesture towards that.

The sun through the trees as I was leaving my mom's house and the sauerkraut. Yay, a new year begins! 







1 comment:

  1. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, CedarBough!

    Thank you for giving such a thoughtful personal report. I had to leave at 11 and I NEEDED to hear how it went all night, as I know the energy settled down to more sacred ritual after the crowds departed. I wanted you to know that Babylon wouldn't think of not staying up all night beating a drum, and did it again this year, in isolated Ohio, where a few friends helped him but couldn't stay awake with him all night. You played an important part in my experience around the fire, Cedarbough, dear sister/daughter/friend.

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