Eight or nine years ago, an American Indian came to me in a dream. He taught me a simple rain dance. When I awakened, I practiced the dance — and then watched it rain. For a few days afterward, I could not refrain from telling the dream, even teaching the dance to friends and students. That was the winter of the floods in Topanga and Los Angeles. Though I was not so arrogant as to feel responsible, I came to suspect that I had betrayed a sacred trust.
Last summer I was traveling in the Southwest, trying to understand the landscape, the trees, the blue hills, the odd visual marriage of desert and miniature, twisted groves — pinon, juniper, and cottonwood — which characterizes that area. Such a landscape can break someone whose imagination has been formed by the art and vistas of the East Coast or Europe, who has been taught that beauty is limited to the dense, green forest, the pastoral meadow, or the precise curve of the ocean’s crashing waves.
I was disturbed by this landscape: the bare, harsh, rough hills; the open, splayed plain of brush; the palette of beige, pink, and brown rock; the dusty sage — everything muted by powder, dust, and heat, modulated by the patina of stone. It did not conform to any principles of beauty that I’d been given, but it insisted that it was beautiful and that I be willing to claim it as mine. I tried to reject it. “You are ugly land,” I said, but it insisted itself upon me, demanded I take it in. “This is so ugly,” I thought, but then again knew it was mine. Ugly and mine; therefore, suddenly beautiful. Ugly as long as it was outside of myself, and beautiful as soon as I allowed it to penetrate my heart. I came to understand that as much as I loved northern forests, redwood groves, English gardens, or flamboyant jungles, this harsh, dry plain, this mosaic of sand, disintegrating rock, unremitting sun, this fierce and dry beauty of desert — these were, always had been, would continue to be what I had been given, would always be mine.
I was traveling with my lover, Michael. He, too, had come to me in a shape or form that did not meet my expectations or fantasies. For a year, I had confronted myself with an ongoing question: “How do you know the beggar at the door isn’t an angel?” The poor land I was looking at was also an angel, and it broke me to recognize it: to see that things are not what they seem; to see beneath the surface, to see the luminous in its tattered disguise. In a continuing progression, my heart opened to the land as it had to Michael: I took it in; I became afraid; I forgot the love; my heart shut; I was broken open again; I loved. . . . This dynamic became the bond between us. We did not give each other ease, but we were always alert and therefore enlivened.
Michael and I traveled to the Lightning Fields near Quemado, New Mexico. Because of the unusual amount of rain here, an environmental artist had set up 100 rods over an area of a square mile to attract lightning. With four other people, we were driven to a small cabin, where we waited overnight hoping to see an unusual display. To pass the hours before dawn, I told Michael about the dream. I speculated about doing the dance, but something stopped me. I said, “When I had that dream I was disrespectful to it. Magic is never to be used lightly, if it is to be used at all.” Nothing in the dream had admonished me to be silent, but I had known then and I certainly knew now that only the most enlightened people have a right to use the power to make rain. Only they can know when the need is great enough and the permission to proceed is clearly given. If an American Indian does a rain dance, she is already profoundly related to the land. I aspire to that relationship, but I have not yet achieved it.
I apologized for teasing that I might do this dance for our mere entertainment. Afterward, I spent some time repenting my earlier breach of faith. The rains did not come, and the next day we traveled north toward Mesa Verde.
The following morning, when we were setting out, Michael said he suddenly felt that we should change our plans and go immediately to Canyon de Chelly. I hesitated; Mesa Verde was the only place on our itinerary which neither of us had ever visited. But he was adamant, so we heeded the call.
We doubled back and drove through Navajo country, looking all around us at the storms and lightning we had not seen at the Lightning Fields. We watched the mysterious patterns of black rain falling in the distance, marveling as they were illuminated by pitchforks of light. When the roads became unmarked, then clay, we were a little concerned about the rain because we had intended to take these back roads to the Canyon. Just as we were approaching a rise we came upon a Navajo man and asked him for directions. Was this the road to Canyon de Chelly? He responded by asking us if we would give him a ride to the camp where his people moved their homes and livestock for the summer. A bit surprised by his answer, we hesitated only a moment, and rearranged the luggage in the back seat to make room for him. He was a little vague as to whether this was the road we wanted. We came to the turnoff, and Michael drove down the very narrow lane to take the man to his door. We came upon a compound with a few houses and hogans, and the man insisted that we come inside to meet his mother.
When we entered, his mother was weaving a red, black, and white rug. She showed us the two rooms of the house, other rugs, photographs, and objects on the wall. She said, “I am so glad you are here. This is how we live. We want you to know this.” She suggested that we might return to stay in the hogan if we didn’t find a place to sleep.
While Michael got piñon nuts from the car to leave with them as a gift, I asked again for directions. She gave them vaguely, waving her hands casually, “Left, left, left, then right, right, right.” She knew she wasn’t being precise, and it amused them both. Then she looked directly into my eyes, and said with a seriousness that could not be mistaken for road directions, “Don’t worry, you will get where you are going.”
We got confused at the first crossroads, and I told Michael what had transpired in that brief moment when he was getting the nuts. We proceeded as best we could until we again came upon a man walking along the road. Since we wanted to be alone, we hesitated before asking for directions, knowing that he would ask us for a ride; he did, saying that he’d been walking for ten miles and had another ten or so to go. “Is this the road?” we asked.
“Yes,” he muttered unconvincingly. It must have rained profusely because, after a few minutes, the road had turned to mud. The thick red clay was sleek as oil, the ruts four, five, six inches deep. The car could not hold the road, sliding in one direction or another; we went down an incline sideways, barely missing ditches, boulders, overturned logs. The Navajo man said nothing. My terror of heights returned. When we reached a place where the road went along a cliff, I demanded that we stop. I entreated Michael to abandon the car. “We’ll buy another in Chinle,” I said, as if cars were apples. Michael was determined to negotiate the road despite the clear danger, but fear overwhelmed me. I pulled on my cowboy boots and got out to walk. I could see lights some ten miles away. The Navajo said nothing, sitting still in the back of the car, serenely eating piñons. Reluctant to leave me, Michael suggested that he would drive the car until he came to a place where I would not be afraid and there he would wait. And so we proceeded for about seven miles. I walked, then we drove together, then I walked a mile or so, they waited, we drove, and so on.
When Michael was alone with the man in the car, he asked him what the Navajo believe. He said he could not tell him in white man’s language, but it was something about worshiping the sun.
When we arrived at the man’s house, he thanked us, took a package of piñon nuts, and left. Immediately after we turned the next bend, we were on a dry road that looked like it had never seen rain, and in moments we were on the paved highway to Canyon de Chelly.
It was almost sunset. Michael asked me to close my eyes and he led me blind to the rim of the Canyon.
I opened my eyes to the greatest natural beauty I’d ever seen. The light was just fading, but there was enough to make luminous the soft, deep, red clay walls. One thousand feet below, a glistening snake of a red clay river twisted through small milpas of maize, which had been worked for more than a thousand years. The brush and junipers on the ledges, curling like the pubic hair of the Mother, and the cottonwoods beside the river all gleamed with a blue-green sheen, an underwater hue, as if phosphorescent with the light of another world. I stood on the edge, thinking that the Israelites must have felt like this when they first came upon the Promised Land. This was the sacred vision of paradise.
It was raining in the distance and we could see black streaks against the sky. Where the sun was setting, the rain fell before it in a curtain of gold. I thought, “This is how so many sacred texts describe the appearance of God — a shower of gold light.” I was filled with awe. Then to the east where the black fell against the darkening sky, wild explosions of lightning appeared, each stroke blasting the Earth. This was another face of God. Then, as if this were not enough, there emerged a brilliant rainbow to the south, and beside it a gleaming, burning eye of platinum fire. Then came the magenta, the rose, and the wild colors of night. Every face of the Sky God appeared in all its glory as if He were saying, “Look at Me. Why have you raged against Me these last years?” I looked at the face of the Sky God pressed against the glorious body of the Earth Mother Goddess, and I knew — I knew — there are gods and I thought, “I must not ever doubt again.”
Over the course of time, moments of beauty such as this have been enough to inspire that leap of imagination which asserts the actual presence of the divine. People have staked their lives — and the lives of others — on such visions. Such a moment could have allowed Noah to assume the rainbow he saw was a covenant between him and an immanent God. It is so simple and so difficult to believe. I vowed to myself to try to remember that, in this moment, I really did believe.
We had come to the rim at the very edge of time. Tired as we were, if we’d come even a half-hour earlier, we would not have stayed long enough to see the sky explode. If we’d come only a minute later, we would not have seen the unearthly light. Because we were there at that precise second, I could not doubt that we had been led most carefully, through a conjunction of simple events, to a moment of vision that would have been impossible to imagine.
As night fell, I remembered a sad tale my friend Steve had told me. When he was at Canyon de Chelly, he’d intended all day to leave a ring behind and, in the last minutes, he had forgotten, and the omission had tortured him for months. So I took the snake ring I loved which Dianna had given me, and I gave it to the canyon for all of us.
The next day, we rose at dawn to see the sunrise and went down into the canyon. When we arrived at the edge, we were greeted by two goats who nuzzled us affectionately, their bells breaking the silence. We fed them crackers that we’d intended to eat but had forgotten about. Ordinary as the moment was, it had a miraculous quality, as if the goats were there to invite us out of ourselves back into the natural world.
Michael and I spent the day in solitude, together but not speaking, and as we walked in the prima materia of the shallow, warm river, a chant came to me with the rhythm of my steps: “In the dark red body of the Mother, at last.” In the quiet body of the canyon, something in me opened, something I’d been taught to keep closed, so that learning to open it was the great mystery.
Michael spoke to me of his sense of revelation. He felt this beauty we were experiencing insisted that he devote his life to protecting the planet, to being her advocate. He said he would ask himself this question each day: “How shall I live my life to accord with such beauty?”
“With attention,” I answered too quickly. “Attention, mindfulness, awareness.” The words hardly served to describe the task of the willingness to see.
When I was meditating at the end of the day, a teaching came to me from the astonishing peace — the peace that passeth understanding — which was the gift of the canyon floor and the warm, primal red river of clay, where I had immersed my feet:
This beauty comes only out of great love.
This beauty comes out of a great heart.
I understood for the first time that love is the very nature of beauty. Skill, technology, aesthetics, or mind was not sufficient to create such beauty as confronted me; I could see the profound tenderness and caring in the hands of the Maker. It was as if I could feel the heart from which this beauty emerged; as if the impetus for this creation were a love which had been unbearable to contain and therefore had had to be manifested physically; as if the world were not a separate object, but the embodiment of a love so profound it absolutely required form; as if the love and form were not distinct from each other, but different faces of the same divine presence.
Now I felt I had to change my meditative practice so that after stillness, I focused upon the heart: no action taken, no word spoken, no writing initiated, no healing attempted before my heart was open; nothing that did not come out of love; not an instant to be lived without attending to the heart; nothing without the heart and nothing that did not serve the heart.
I also felt that I had been given questions to ponder:
Were the three Navajo people we met real beings?
What might have happened if we had refused either of the men a ride?
Was the second man a guide through the impassable barrier? Without him in the car might we have gone over the side?
When the mother said, “Don’t worry, you will get where you are going,” what did she mean?
How much do we suffer in our lives, because we are not attentive to what is being asked?
Would I fall into doubt again even though the revelation had come to me in the form and language I know best and trust most — in Story?
When I came to understand that there are mythic patterns in all of our lives, I knew that all of us, often unbeknownst to ourselves, are engaged in a drama of soul which we were told was reserved for gods, heroes, and saints.
The gods seem to come to us in the forms we recognize. Had a flying saucer come, I would have laughed because I do not believe in the divinity of technology. But instead, the gods came to me in Story, the form to which I have devoted my adult life.
I believe that Story is a pattern, and that it gives coherence to our lives. For years, as a writer-therapist, I’ve worked with clients to help them discover the particular Stories they are living out. I’ve also had the hope that at the moment of my death, I would come to know all the lesser Stories and the one great Story which have been my life.
The search for Story requires that we become aware of the essential elements that shape our experience. Story is a grid, an archetypal narrative, a divine scaffolding that organizes experience into meaningful form. What may otherwise appear to be unbearably random or chaotic can become coherent, even inspiring, when viewed as an intrinsic narrative consisting of elements like the Call, Setting Out, Meeting the Animal or Encountering Nature, Encountering the Guide, Purification, Sacrifice, Riddle, Making an Offering, Being Tested, Ordeal, the Barrier, the Monster, Blessing, Epiphany, and Return. Flailing around in the flotsam and jetsam of daily life, we may not be aware that we are engaged in a descent into the underworld or in an arduous attempt to find the entrance to paradise. Story is the template by which the most prosaic or mundane may be understood as the soul’s search for the ephemeral but redeeming moment of vision. When I came to understand that there are mythic patterns in all of our lives, I knew that all of us, often unbeknownst to ourselves, are engaged in a drama of soul which we were told was reserved for gods, heroes, and saints. This understanding took me beyond psychology to the existence of spirit. I realized that Story is one bridge between the human realm and the divine.
Since that first insight, I look for Story everywhere. But I had never encountered it so blatantly before. At Canyon de Chelly, Story appeared as real as anything I’d ever encountered. The structure of those experiences were for me the absolute proof of the presence and existence of the gods.
At the end of the day, it seemed a good time and place to take vows. Michael and I sat together silently at the crest before the black and magenta sky. I vowed to try to remember. I vowed to devote myself to being a writer, lover, healer. I vowed to seek to do everything in my life from the heart.
When we were going back to the car after night had fallen, Michael invited me to sit with him again. We sat on the ground opposite each other, cross-legged. He was quiet for a while, then said he’d like to ask me two questions.
He asked me if I would marry him, spend the rest of my life with him, teach him what I know. He also asked if I would help him raise his daughter.
Before I answered him, I asked if he would be my partner on the path, take care of me as best he could, and help me with the work of my soul. I asked him if he would love me exceedingly well and let me love him exceedingly well. I said I’d come to realize how much I wanted to be loved and that if I were to marry it would be to find a place for my loving.
As we spoke, I was gripped with the desire to be married on the dark of the moon. The next week, when I looked at a lunar calendar, I saw that August 24, the night we said our vows on the rim of Canyon de Chelly, had been the dark of the moon and that the date we’d set for our wedding, December 20, would also be the dark of the moon.
We looked for rings on the Indian reservations as we traveled home. I had a ring in mind, a silver band with turquoise. We went from trading post to trading post, without finding any two rings that were identical, though there were rings that resembled each other. But at the very last possible place, we came upon the only two identical silver bands we were to find. They were inlaid with turquoise and they fit us each exactly.