A Woman’s Vision Quest
There is a bench down in our orchard where I love to go and sit.The cats follow me down and play around the bench while I bask in the sun. Six years ago this June I laid a circle of smooth river stones on the grass in front of this natural seat, each one to represent one of the twelve women I shared my Rites of Passage vision quest experience with. After six years the circle is still mostly intact, though some mornings I find a stone or two has shifted due to the nuzzling of some nocturnal creature.
When I sit and meditate on my stone circle, I think about each woman and where life may have taken her since June, 2012. I have since lost touch with many of these fine women, but know that each has not forgotten the camaraderie, the time spent in heartfelt council, or the three days spent alone at her chosen campsite in the high desert near Big Pine, California.I remember the creeping fear I felt at the prospect of time all alone in the wilderness, which was our goal. Would I be able to tie those knots just right so I could put up a tarp that would protect me from rain or high winds? I had never been a very competent camper and in the mountains had a great fear that my sense of direction was profoundly lacking. And aren’t there mountain lions in the high desert? I imagined my body being dragged away in the jaws of a cougar.
I hoped that facing my fears of being alone in a place of natural wilderness would help me face my life at home, where I was frozen to act on the big dreams I held close to my heart. My inner critic would rise up and overwhelm me when someone asked what I did in life, and I practically gagged while telling them I was a “writer” or “artist.” I had spent so much time and effort looking for my purpose in life and was ashamed and terrified to speak my truth, telling what I had found was the authentic “me.”
So I left behind the outside world and my daily life in Eureka to join a group of twelve women at a campsite near Big Pine, California. Most of us arrived late, set up tents in the dark, or crawled into sleeping bags to fall asleep to the sound of the river just feet away, or stay awake looking up at the globe-like sky, bright with star constellations.
The next three days were filled with exploring new friendships and cooking meals together. Though we love our men, it was freeing to have left them behind, to enter a world where we felt free to be ourselves, released from expectations, real or imagined. We expressed fears and vulnerabilities, laughed until we snorted, and admitted we had no idea how to tie a slip knot. For the twelve days we would spend together it was safe not to be perfect.
We sat in our circle of council sharing perceived struggles and strengths, what needed to be cast off and left behind. There was humor and tears. We affirmed together the essence of our quest, or what we each hoped to find during the three days of time alone in the wilderness in this high desert environment. Our two women guides took on the role of wise elders, deeply listening to our struggles and fears, encouraging us to have faith in our journey.
* * * *
It is the third day of my solo. Intense sun rays beat down on me, burning my shoulders and the part in my hair, and I take refuge in the shade of my ‘professionally’ installed tarp. From that vantage point on my back, I watch tiny bird’s pausing in flight on the branches of ‘my’ tree, and marvel at the deep blue color of the sky.
I creep out from under cover late afternoon, sit on the ground in powdery earth, not caring that I haven’t changed my clothes in three days, or about dirt under fingernails and toenails. My stomach rumbles from fasting but I am beyond hungry.
I focus on ants, upturn rocks for exploration, and notice animal scat right behind the tree that anchors my campsite. I imagine a mountain lion that chose the same site I did, resting in the shade of my Pine Tree, looking out over the same glorious view of a wide valley with rolling hills and mountains beyond. Is this the mountain lion’s favorite place to sit in the shade in the heat of the day? Will he be back tonight on a nocturnal prowl? I know we both recognized the perfection of this sacred site.
I am alone and loving it. Completely alone, with no one here to judge or criticize. This very solitude releases me into a freedom I haven’t felt since childhood. I write, make up dances, sing old hits from the 60’s and 70’s, and write some more. In my journal I engage in an intense written dialogue with my ‘inner critic’. She is relentless, and at times makes my eyes well up with tears, but I feel I am ahead in the argument. Here, I am free.
I walk to the rock pile where my quest partner D.Jae and I place rocks in a small circle to communicate to each other we are o.k. The rock she would have placed this morning is there; all is well. I wonder how she is passing her time. I ponder what everyone might be doing, knowing each woman’s quest experience is unique. Returning to my campsite, I am relieved to see the red bandana I tied to a branch so I wouldn’t get lost.
Over the mountains, on the other side of the valley, late-afternoon skies turn darkest grey, ominous, heavily thunderous. Clouds are slowly spreading toward the hillside where we are all camping. On this last night we have vowed to remain awake and stay present for a vision. That is why we are here. For a vision of our life’s purpose, or for some a difficult decision to be made. I count the seconds between thunder and lightning, gaging the distance between the brewing storm and me. Will it rain upon us on our last sacred night?
Two hours later, storm clouds melt into golden-streaked sunset. I could swear I hear all creatures nearby my hillside breath out relief and go back to their business. I imagine each woman of our group in her campsite watching the sky with intense joy there will be no storm tonight. Celebration is in the air. So I begin my last ritual, creating a medicine wheel around my campsite placing rocks with my friendly Pine tree as centre guardian. I slowly wander, gathering dry sticks and place them teepee style on the west side of my wheel. I get a small fire going, using my lighter. I dance around my fire, singing; I no longer feel foolish. I am free.
Stars appear and I slip into my sleeping bag and lean against the Pine, my only friend, the only witness of the three days I have spent here. I decide I will spend the whole night sitting up, leaning on the tree in case the mountain lion should appear and find me vulnerably lying down.
I feel protected under the branches of my Pine tree, which make bizarre shapes in dark silhouettes against the sky. I know that time is passing when I notice a star constellation has changed position in the sky. My little fire burned out long ago. No sign of the mountain lion. My butt is numb from sitting, and gnarly bark knots press into my back. The night air is cold. I’ve been in deep reflection, stripping off layers of myself like clothing and am nearing the core of me, that lost part I’ve been seeking.
The heavy scent of pine needles released by the day’s heat captivates me, and I find myself thinking “love… life is all about love. Not just about feeling love, but about being love.” Could it be true? Could it be that simple?
The uneven bones of my Pine tree press into my back and the word “connection” comes to me. “Deep connection to others, to self, to one’s work, to God energy, to Mother Earth, to animals, to the universe, to one-ness.”
I contemplate these words “love” and “connection” with wonder through the long, deep, darkness of night, until first light and the last star disappears. In my chest I feel aligned with the mystery of being alive. Something intangible, but deep, has shifted. I wiggle around in my sleeping bag and hug my Pine tree.
D.Jae and I agreed beforehand to start packing up at first light so we would know when to meet up at our rock pile. Its time to take down my tarp, untying each knot carefully, I roll up my sleeping bag and mat, take my red bandana off the branch, pack my water and all my sacred little objects back into my pack. I joyfully weave braids into my hair, feeling indigenous roots on this land.
It takes my full force to heave my pack onto my back, and I waddle into the middle of my medicine wheel facing the sun that will soon appear over the now familiar hill, and thank the East for lighting up a new day. I would dance but for the weight of my pack. Instead I bow slowly ( heavy pack!) to the South, West and North, and step out of my rock circle.
Just one more task. I reluctantly scatter the rocks that have made up my medicine wheel, so there will be no trace of my having spent three days here. Only my Pine tree will remember.
I am first to arrive at our rock pile. D.Jae appears within minutes. We turn and head off toward base camp where our guides and other questers will be waiting. There is no need to talk. The glow in our eyes tell stories in themselves.
D.Jae and I are the first to arrive back at base camp. I am overjoyed to not only have survived the experience but also thrived. As I step in ceremony into the little stone circle our two guides burn sage around me and look into my eyes. I look at them and utter one word: “Writer,” is all I say. As each woman returns and steps into the ceremonial circle I feel a deep love and connection to all of them. There is laughter and tears. We have all returned from the wilderness experience with new wisdom and stories.
* * * * *
I didn’t know at the time how these epiphanies would play out in my life. Now, remembering it all, sitting here in our orchard with pen and notebook in hand, my stone circle reminds me how life moves in cycles; the wisdom I received during those three days alone in the wilderness has taken the past years to understand more fully, as I watch it surprisingly play out in my life in a myriad of ways I never would have believed could happen, and rejoice as it continues to unfold.