A year and a half ago I took three of the teenagers I work with on a three day camping trip to a First Nations gathering. It took place near a natural hotsprings, deep in the woods.
We loaded up- the back of our 15 passenger van stuffed with the essentials, coolers full of food, sleeping backs, a huge 7 man tent.
We drove for hours. The kids blasted the latest pop music, screaming until they were hoarse. I concentrated on keeping the van on the narrow gravel road, often washed out in heavy rains.
We passed a graveyard, a 100 year old church in the middle of nowhere, built by some of the first settlers, intent on converting the local ‘savages’ to Christ.
The building stood empty but sacred in a quiet grove of trees, white painted exterior faded and warped. It was untouched. Stained glass intact, intricately carved pews and pulpits stood silently waiting for words of fire and brimstone. Redemption.
I let the girls out for a smoke break, they wandered slowly around the edge of the cemetary, spooking themselves with ghost stories, falling silent as they realized that many of the gravestones stood crookedly in memory of those who lived lives much shorter than their own.
Entire families lay beneath their feet.
The weekend was busy, a rush of pine needles and campfires, salmon caught straight from the river and dried by the fire.
We fell asleep to the sound of rushing water, awoke to the busy murmur of strangers.
A First Nations elder led us in a smudging ceremony, my first. He stood in front of us, two grey braids lying softly down his back, an eagle feather in his hand, slowly fanning a shell filled with burning sage.
“I don’t know what to do” I whispered.
” Wash your hands in the smoke” he told me, “Wash your hands for clean intentions. ” Lift the smoke to your forehead for clear thoughts, your eyes for clear sight. Send it to your chest for a pure heart, under your feet for a safe journey.”
I wafted the smoke towards me. I inhaled the sharp sweetness, bathed myself in its soft fog. I felt equal parts privileged and foolish. My actions were jerky and stilted. I wished for clear thoughts, a pure heart. I wished for redemption.
Later on the group wandered between different workshops; identifying herbs and using them for healing, a discussion about salmon preservation, guided meditation.
I sat down at the edge of the guided meditation group. A long-haired woman bade us close our eyes. She told us to imagine ourselves walking on a path, thickly forested and safe. It wasn’t hard, nestled within the trees and the river valley, to call to mind this peace and safe haven. It existed for us then. We were living it.
She asked us to imagine coming upon a door blocking the path, told us to imagine it in descriptive detail. She invited us to open the door, sense the resistance or ease with which it opened. She told us to look inside, what did we see when it opened? What lay beyond?
I screwed my eyes shut, imagining an imposing wooden door, I struggled with all my might to push it open and it barely moved enough for me to squeeze past the rough edges.
Inside was bright and fog, light emerging from something in the centre of a massive room, looming shelves crammed with books. The fog obscured something luminous and shining, but I couldn’t see it, I struggled to push away the fog but I couldn’t imagine beyond.I couldn’t make it out.
We were brought back. Encouraged to sketch our visions.
I felt frustrated. Books. How predictable. I felt like my unconscious was straining, trying to find something that wasn’t there. I left the session and sat on the stony river bank talking with one of the kids who was acting out, working through our day.
Each night I would go and sit in the hotsprings. The water welled up through the drain holes of old bathtubs and spilled over the sides, constantly refilling and renewing the water. I sat and spoke, listening to my words rise and disperse with the steam.
On the last day we traveled to a reserve a half hour from the hot springs. Old buildings stood ramshackle next to a street with 10 new built homes. Children gathered curiously as we approached, they were reticent and shy. I walked through the town, taking note of the only store, selling chips and pop. There was nothing fresh available, the nearest town over and hour away.
We attended a concert in the new school, an anathema, a shining institution rising up from the woods, dusky mountaintops looming dark in the background. A new method of conversion, redemption.
The auditorium filled with the thick smell of wet clothing and warmth. The pulsing sound of drums jarred the seats and got into our bones. It felt like a heartbeat and we were all collectively living and pulsing together, smelling like salmon and sage, nodding and bobbing along with the sound.
As we drove home the girls were silent. We were all trying to process the three days. It was one of the strangest weekends I’ve ever experienced. Clashing ideals of self-reliance and subjugation, man-made ideas rising sharply from natural contours. I couldn’t make sense of it. I resorted to monosyllables when asked to describe it.
I’ve never been able to make sense of the envelope of peacefulness I felt, sitting on that riverbank, watching the bright frustrated tears of a teenager.
It was a handful of cliches riding meekly, a dark, seething undercurrent of rage and frustration. The trees and the church, the river and the school.
The faces of children as we passed them by. The graveyard as it faded into the plume of gravel dust stretching out behind us, bloody from our taillights.
” Lift the smoke to your forehead for clear thoughts, your eyes for clear sight. Send it to your chest for a pure heart, under your feet for a safe journey.”