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Wage peace — in breath, spirit, and community

While missiles flew in Libya, and Japan continues to reel from its natural and man-made disasters, I attended a medicine wheel ceremony last Sunday. The event, held on a part of Musqueam land in Vancouver, BC now known as Van Dusen Gardens, was designed to honor the spring equinox and share healing words in a sacred community space.

This was my first visit to the medicine wheel. I walked past the garden’s white and purple crocuses and mini-daffodils towards the Canadian Heritage Garden, where people sat nearby in folding chairs or on the grass on the outer perimeter of the medicine wheel, a 30-foot circle. At around noon, about 35 people gathered in this open area, which has been in active use for First Nations and other traditions since the late 1990s. The wheel was initiated by a Cree elder,  Amy (we used only first names), who shared drumming and stories with us. Under a blanket and hood and long, padded coat, she readily offered a kind smile and provided a soft-voiced presence of grace and wisdom. 

Our host Phil, a middle-aged Cree with a native drum and long, plaited ponytail, began by honoring the four directions, which correspond to mind, body, emotion, and spirit. He reinforced the need to heal Mother Earth, to ask for more balance, and he said that all faiths are honored within the medicine wheel. While each of us received a smudge (a symbolic cleansing ritual, using the smoke from burning sage or other herbs), Phil drummed and sang, drawing on music from Lakota traditions. (He spends time with Lakota friends at annual Sun Dance events in the U.S.)

Each of us was to have arrived with a stone offering for the wheel. A woman provided some small stones for those of us, like me, who came empty-handed. Phil invited us all, one by one, to address the group, saying in whose honor we were placing the stone in the circle. Clockwise, we began with those seated in the south, like me. I said that I was offering my smooth, rounded, grey stone in memory of my father, who died in October, and in honor of my mother, husband, and anyone who was trying to bring a voice to what lay hidden within them, asking that they be heard, including those in Libya willing to risk their lives for freedom. I placed my stone in the grass at the centre of the circle, putting a pinch of tobacco under it, as Phil directed us to.  

As we went around the circle in a three-hour ritual, each person stood and honored loved ones, dead and alive, or voiced concern and love for those suffering, including the Libyans and Japanese. Several people had close friends in Japan. One woman said that the Japanese men who were risking their lives to try and cool the overheated reactor at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima gave her great hope. She admired their courage and selflessness in an activity that served “the well-being of us all.”

At times, crows circled overhead in the sunny, blue sky and squawked periodically. A hawk perched in a nearby tree. Phil encouraged those who wanted to cry to invite such a cleansing. Several native elders spoke, drummed and sang. When the sun went in and it grew colder, Phil led us in an Algonquin stomp song; we moved clockwise around the circle and pounded the ground with our feet. He teased us for our lack of spirited stomping; it was more like timid tapping.

As a closing, Phil lit a ceremonial pipe and we passed it around the circle. Some wanted to draw smoke from it, others just tapped their right, then left shoulder with it. Overall, it was heartening to join with strangers in such a public ritual of combined vulnerability and strength. I liked that we moved beyond our individual pain or concerns to encompass the suffering of others around the planet. To me, this reinforced the view that we are all One.

In the spirit of this gathering, I share this poem by Judith Hill:

Wage Peace

Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings
and flocks of redwing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children
and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen
and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening:
hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools:
flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Make soup.
Play music, learn the word for thank you in three languages.
learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing rasberries,
Imagine grief as the out breath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Don’t wait another minute.

March 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm
  • July 24, 2011 at 4:53 pmGloria McArter


    I am thrilled that you are revisiting the theme of compassion and compassionate living. “To Inspire Compassion” is an aspect of my passion statement so reading the questions has given me ideas about how I will proceed with my writing. All the questions are very thought-provoking as well as resonating with an energy that stimulates reflection. For me, compassion is genuine and caring acceptance of self, emotionally experienced within, in order that it can then be shown with others in the world. “How will I know when compassion is positively benefiting personal and interpersonal experience?” Now, that’s a question I need to ask to ensure I stay socially, physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy and encourage health in others!!

  • March 28, 2011 at 12:22 pmSharron McMillan

    The poem is beautiful. Thank you for sharing your heart enlarging experience of the medicine wheel. And yet, on this same site your blog is listed, guns are being sold. Is there hope in this world of conundrum and stark disregard for life? I wonder…

  • March 28, 2011 at 8:14 amFrank L. McElroy

    Your description is very moving, powerful. It evoked in me the emotions I experienced at Burning Man Festival in 2006 when reading some of the messages in the temple written to the lost and dead. Thanks.

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