I recently returned from a five-day retreat led by the African elder, shaman and teacher, Malidoma Some. We spent a lot of our time engaged in ritual work intended to draw us into deeper, spiritual connection to the elements of earth, water and fire.
As part of the earth ritual, we had to dig a hole in the ground, large enough to lie down in. We jokingly referred to these holes as our graves, but truthfully, mine felt more like a womb than a grave. Wow, maybe they are the same thing, womb and grave. Huh. Where was it that I was reading that when you are born here, you die somewhere else and vice versa?
Anyway, we were buried, naked in the womb/grave of mother earth for several hours that night. Actually, the nudity was optional, but you know me. When it was my turn to be buried I plopped my bare behind right on down in the hole. The earth was packed in tight making movement impossible. It was cold and damp, but strangely comforting. I felt embraced by an old friend, a friend that I was intimate with as a child. I looked up at the stars. I surrendered. I rested the deep rest of an empty mind. A few bugs were very curious about the presence of this new flesh. They tickled my armpits. I mentally, politely asked them not to go in certain places and they agreed. Some people had a harder time with the bugs. Some people screamed in the night.
We were told in preparation for the ritual that the earth would scan us like an MRI. It knew us, knew what we came here with, and would tell anything that did not belong to us by nature to GET OUT! I accepted all this. I have been talking to the earth for a long time.
As a child, closer to the ground, I loved the dirt. I was not squeamish about worms. I didn’t play house or play with dolls much. I just wanted to be outside climbing trees, exploring every little nook of nature. I could feel the aliveness, the Great Is-ness all around me and felt sorry for adults who seemed to have lost that ability. I promised myself I would not forget.
But I did. For awhile at least. Then, in my late twenties, I smoked pot for the first time, and suddenly, the earth in all its glory sprang back to life. I could feel it and it could feel me. I wept. I laughed. I rolled around. I placed my palms to her and spoke. I sang. I laid on top of her, with my legs straight out to the side and my chest on the floor and my face down (What? I’m flexible) wanting to enter her and be entered by her.
Since then, whenever I’m outside, I try to acknowledge her, even if I’m just running out to get the mail. It would be rude not to, rude to pretend she isn’t there, watching. I try to acknowledge the wind and trees and grass and flowers and stone and water and animals and anybody else that happens to be there, unseen. I don’t ever want to lose our friendship again.
Before the retreat, I started, once in a while, taking an extra bag out during my daily walks with Mr. Chulo, picking up bits of trash and recycling here and there. But since my return, it’s become an obsession.
There is a small area of land in particular, right outside my front door that I’ve taken special interest in. It has been desecrated with trash, but underneath all of that, I see the presence of great beings in the earth and trees and huge, ancient rocks. And since returning from the retreat, it’s like I feel their gaze on me all the time now. I feel pressure from them. It’s like they’re saying, well, now you know how bad it is. You feel it. What are you going to do?
It is overwhelming, the sorrow I feel, at how us humans are treating our planet. So every day, I clean. I know that even if I clean this small area, the trash will go somewhere else into the earth, hurting her there. It is not a real solution. However, most of what I pick up is glass that can be recycled. I spend hours pulling shards of it out of the earth, like shrapnel from the wounded in war. The extraction hurts at first. She gasps, but then, sighs, relaxes, and I know that every piece counts.
A neighbor drives by. Sees me at work. Thanks me and tells me that there’s a big neighborhood clean-up at the end of this month. I will surely go, but my intentions are not to make the neighborhood pretty. I’m not doing it for my neighbors. I’m doing it for her. I’m doing it for the earth.
Yesterday, on my rounds, two little boys that were playing nearby asked if they could help. One said, “We have to clean this up so we can help things grow.” Yes, yes we do. We excavated diapers, car parts, broken toys, clothes and beer bottles by the dozen. The other little boy said, “My family does this. They sit out here and drink at night and leave their bottles.” I could detect a note of shame in his voice that broke my heart.
Well, at least now he knows that he doesn’t have to do that when he gets older. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel righteous and judgemental of those people who live at the top of the hill, the family of this beautiful little boy who at eight, knows better than they. Maybe that’s not very spiritual of me, to judge them. To feel righteous anger. I don’t know. I don’t know.
As I was filling our bags, I sang an African prayer I’d learned on retreat. The words are A Zima Wo. They asked me what it meant. I told them it means Peace to the Earth.