A Sandpainting (Reflections on the 2010 Conference)

A sandpainting

The story I tell goes beyond my personal story
            and so goes well beyond my own memory
      to the collective and individual memories of many men
      and, no doubt, through them, to the memories
      of the many women
      in their lives.
For twenty years and more,
      a group of men, usually several score,
      have been gathering among the redwoods
      on Memorial Day weekend, for four days—
      to explore together what it means to be a man,
            to be alive, at this moment,
            in this world.
And that deep commitment
       to exploring together
       has led them, over time,
       to the simplicity of the circle—
       a circle of ordinary men, who come together
            to bear witness to each other’s lives—
            without judgment,
            without crosstalk.
            The ritual response in this circle,
            after a man has spoken his truth,
            some particular part of his life experience—
            joyful or sad or even close to unbearable,
            after he has found his own words
            and revealed himself, in that way, to his brothers,
            has summoned that courage to be vulnerable
            or to attempt, at least, to be vulnerable and has sat down,
            after all that and after a moment of silence,
            each man in the circle places his right hand
            over his heart and looking directly toward his brother
            speaks with intention and feeling
            the words, “I hear you.”
And though I cannot tell you
            all that has been spoken there, among us,
            I can tell you this—
            that vessel, that container,
            that circle of open hearted men
            has heard, felt and held each story,
            for to a man, we have known such things, inside ourselves—
            we know each story as our own.
The long warp of our separate lives,
            the thread we each have followed,
            sometimes loosely spun and soft
            and hardly thread-like at all,
            sometimes taut, spun and stretched
            to the very edge of breaking,
            these threads, woven together in a moment
            with our shared words—
            our words of risk, of fear, of anger,
            of grief, of shame, of confusion, of understanding,
            all fierce in their truth—owned as such, heard as such by each;
            these threads of our separate lives
            woven together, as well, by our faces, our fluid faces
            speaking the language of faces, turning our insides out,
            and within our faces, our eyes are doing the work of eyes,
            seeing all and revealing all—
            making the unseen seen—
            and so from this warp and woof comes our tapestry,
            the intangible tapestry of our lives, made real, in a moment.
Our intent, our desire, our vision made real—
            a bond among men,
            the depth of which surely matches
            those legendary bonds forged among men in battle
            who fight a common enemy,
            who face death together each moment,
            yet a bond, here forged, among us, in this circle,
            from our common humanity,
            from our likeness, revealed—
            all ordinary and extraordinary, all,
            all victims and perpetrators, all,
            all heroes and villains, all,
            all human, humans all.
            This bond, then, forged from our likeness
            and from courage to own it all,
            to blame no one, to risk it all
            in the telling of our stories,
            the telling of our stories, whole
            and in our willingness to hear and to hold those stories,
            those moving stories that are always there,
            with the most open heart we can muster at any given moment,
            and this open heart comes from our intent,
            from our desire, from our courage
            and from our disciplined effort
            at mindful listening—
            first of all to ourselves,
            and then to our brothers
            and to our sisters
            and to the wider world
            around us.
This, then, is sacred space—yeiheishai
            in the language of the Navajo people—
            the place, as they say, where the gods come and go.
            It lives where it lives, inside of us and out,
            whether we enter it, whether we partake of it or not.
            Memory can take us there. It is our guide
            but memory can also profane and take us far, far away.
            But without it, we have no future—
      without it, we cannot tell our stories.
      And telling our stories and bearing witness
      is our essential human offering
      to those who come after us. 1
There is more, of course,
            that happens among us
            over those four days together—
            there are meals shared,
            there is drumming and dancing,
            free form and silly or full of grace and beauty,
            there is time to visit and solitary time,
            there is time of spoken word and ancient story
            and morning singing—oh, the lifting up of voices
            in the early morning quiet—
            all this, surrounding our simple circle of sharing.
            Yet there is one more part of this time together—
            within this larger circle, smaller, more intimate circles live
            and there’s a kind of symbiosis there,
            a flux and a flow, a breathing of sorts that happens,
            when large breaks up to become small
            and voices and faces are close in
            giving us that gift, that other way of being
            and then small breaks up to re-make the whole
            and so it goes back and forth, back and forth—
            though out our four days together—
            a kind of heart beat of these men
            making community.
And so it happens—
            this labor of love, this men’s work—
            as it always happens, when men allow themselves to be,
            allow their own rich and varied colors—
            their whites and blues, their yellows, reds and blacks—
            to flow freely within this vessel,
            this time, this moment together,
            as if they each were the skilled hand
            of one laying colored sands,
            in healing patterns,
            upon the floor
            of some hogan,
            mindful and open and connected,
            doing the work that is theirs to do,
            leaving behind what needs the leaving,
            taking in what needs the taking.
            And when their time together is done
            and the circle and the sharing
            and the singing and the solitude
            and the spoken word and the stories
            have worked their work,
            and when the colorful sands are returned
            to where they’ve come from,
            as they must always be,
            this beautiful soul painting
 lives on in each memory.
And maybe, just maybe
            you might hear, were you there
            at the parting and listening carefully,
            one brother saying to another,
            holding him by the shoulders
            square on and looking deep,
            “All you know of me lives in you.
            All I know of you lives in me.
            We remember. We do remember.
            ‘Till then . . .”
                                                Bill Denham  2010