"Balance" by Chicana Muralist Judy Baca (used by permission)

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Bears










By Juan Santos

Darkness and Light

In the beginning, when dreams were still real, we made agreements with the others: together we would heal our wounds and keep the world in balance. These were the original ways, our original instructions, written in the language of fur, stone and fire. It was written in branching veins beneath muscle and hair, in the tender dusk, in the transubstantiation of light in the green flesh of leaves, in the transubstantiation of light called vision, the photosynthesis of sight.

These are the most fundamental laws: light becomes life. The divine light of our father, the sun, is wed in divine chemistry with our green mother, the earth; light is transubstantiated into living flesh. We are the children of divine light; it takes a new form in us, the form our mother gives us.

We open our eyes and see the light that is the very source of our being, we feel its heat. We never leave our mother’s embrace, we are born and die in her. We are conscious energy of sun, of earth. Conscious light, we cast shadows: our longings return to us as dreams.

When dreams were real we made agreements: we would heal ourselves together.

We’ve forgotten to dream. We’ve broken the boundaries, the most basic boundary, turning matter into light, light into death, and shadows into scorched runes, the signature of denial and obsession. The magicians of holocaust have read the code of life and reversed it, making of it an equation of death.

“We have forgotten our agreements,” he said, our original instructions. Now we must remember.

That is what the medicine man said before he called the Bears.

*

The Bears

“…that was a bear song; like I say, he’s roamin’ out there, his food is not there no more, and that’s the reason why he’s cryin’ over the land… that’s what it says in my language: looking for food but he’s cryin’.” --- Western Shoshone Elder Corbin Harney


You think they’re men dressed in bearskins, shuffling past you in the circle around the shallow pit where the fire burns warm, moaning, huffing and grunting. But these are different; these are the bears, the real bears you held as a child when you cried; these are the bears of dreams, of memory and possibility.


The bear’s head turns, stops, watches your eyes. The bear watches the soul, a dangerous thing. As he passes, the people, all the people, anyone, everyone, no one special, strokes the fur. It is dense, deep. The body, which has never before touched this, remembers it, primitive as stone.


The bears will heal us. It’s that simple; the ceremony is that simple. This is the ancient agreement between us, the bears take our pain as we touch them. We weep like children, sobbing into their fur.


I stepped into the circle, a Tongva man, native to this place, with a broken foot on my left, a white woman in a wheelchair to my right. I was in a mild agony, with steel in my spine and two slipped disks, sometimes not able, really, to walk. I had been walking all that day, guarding the ceremonies at the Gathering of Elders.


The night, on a high bluff overlooking the flow of arctic waters down the Pacific coast, had turned cold with the season’s first high bitter wind. We were a hundred miles south of the Western Gate, where the spirits of the dead leave the continent on their way to the place where the sun will set.


My first thought was that the woman could walk, or that she had been able to walk until recently; that she had not yet accepted the wheelchair, that it was new to her. I was ready for the bears to enter; this was my fourth bear dance. They come almost every year. I love the Bears.


The largest was a big, golden brown grizzly, the smallest a little black bear. It had died young, its skin barely covered the dancer’s frame as he followed the beat of the drums in the rhythmic shuffle of the dance.


The scent of sage and the smoke of burning wood were on the cold air. An ancient staff from the Lakota people was planted near the fire. Trained to lead this ceremony in the old way by native elders, the medicine man, with his eagle’s wing, stood nearby.


I closed my eyes. Almost indifferently, frustrated, I had touched the first bears as they passed. When my eyes opened the grizzly’s head was just beside me; the bear was embracing the woman in the wheelchair. I’d never seen a Bear offer such an embrace. My first feeling was of jealousy.


I closed my eyes and admitted it; I need help. That is the hardest of admissions; that I am unable, that I cannot bear the pain; so I said it to myself: I need help. When I opened my eyes again, the medicine man was with her, stroking her face with the feathers of the eagle’s wing, rubbing a strong smelling oil on her feet, anointing them.


No one can help a stoic.


I need help; and as I said the words I began, at last, to weep, then to sob. I opened myself to the pain; I could no longer stand. Bent, I wept, forgetting almost everything but the need to cry. I crouched above the ground, carried on a current of tears toward the earth, my face covered with my hands.


When I opened my eyes, his head was there before me. The dancer was face down in the dirt, the golden grizzly bear’s head beside my knee, looking up. Opening my eyes, peering at the earth, I saw him. He had kept the agreement. He had lowered himself, this most powerful being, to heal me. He stayed there for a long while, and I stroked his head, tears pouring in gratitude.


The Bear stood, then, watching; he reached out his hands to mine; I took them, and he helped me to stand. Suddenly the medicine man was there, he took me in his arms; I cried, nuzzling my face in his shoulder; then he stroked my face with the feathers of the eagle, and anointed my hands, rubbing them with the same strong oil he’d used on the woman’s feet. He moved on, around the circle, to the others who needed him.

As he left me, I saw a bear walking toward me; the small black bear. Hands balanced on his back, walking behind him, radiant, was the woman from the wheelchair.


Bunny, a good woman who always helps here, reached out, and we helped the woman to sit again. They laughed in amazement, wept and laughed, and wept again. Then she wanted to stand, and we helped her to do it, braced delicately on her feet, weak, and new to this business of standing. We held her there, braced between us.


Then it was done.


The next day, Bunny brought me thanks; the woman knew I had been in pain, that it had been hard, too, for me to stand, and she sent her gratitude that I had helped her. She hadn’t walked in 18 years.

But in the sweat lodge, the night before the Bears came, she had felt a tingling in her legs. Then, sitting in her wheelchair as the Bears began to dance, her legs were jerking, sort of jumping up and down in small spasms of movement. Then, that night, she had stood up and walked.


That’s all.


Except this: this medicine, this kneeling in the dust, this cold wind; the opening of our eyes; the bear’s golden head bent to heal, the stroking of its fur: this is the world. This is the real world. This is how it is.




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