Crying Into the Night

Here is a story that continues to replenish my soul year after year.

It’s pitch black night outside in Riner, Virginia. The sound of crickets is strong enough to break through the walls and be heard inside. I’m sitting across from Cross Elkroot, a man in his thirties with long black hair braided in the back with a fedora crowning his head, and he is telling me what to expect. He is telling me we will enter the lodge well before daybreak and we will sing some songs and say some prayers and be done sweating before the sun rises. Then I will be taken to a preordained spot in these western-most mountains and my assigned area, which will be six foot by six foot, will be staked out. Four choke-cherry branches will be stabbed into the ground at each corner and one thousand prayer ties, which I was asked to string together over the last three weeks, will create a fence around me and protect me from harm. A fifth choke-cherry branch will be used as a gate. I am to leave the area only to go to the bathroom. I will not have any food or water. I will stay in the six by six foot area for as long as is necessary. I wonder how long this will be.

I’ve known Cross for many years, but I have never asked him to “put me out on the mountain” until now. I am listening to every word he is saying and pouring every ounce of my attention into his words. I don’t feel that what I’m about to do is a matter of life and death, but I do feel it will become a profound event in my relatively short life.

I ask Cross if I can speak to him outside. There are three other people here and I want to reveal something that I feel is very personal. Cross agrees and we step out into the pool of dim yellow porch light.

“Cross, I got myself a job and have been working for a friend for a couple years now and he has always paid me on time. But about a month ago he was unable to pay me. When I asked for my check, he simply said, I cannot pay you right now.

“I let it go for a week, but at the end of that week he still couldn’t pay me. By the third week Wells Fargo was threatening to foreclose on my mortgage and I was in danger of losing my home.

“I told him I needed to be paid and he said, ‘That’s not my problem.’ I don’t know what to do here Cross.”

“I know,” says Cross. “I am aware of what’s going on with you and I promise by the end of this ceremony you will know exactly what to do.”

I look at Cross in the haze of the porch light and I see his eyes are somehow focused on a spot between him and me. I wonder about this. Can he not look at me in the same way a groom cannot look at the bride before the wedding ceremony? Is he so deep in the spirit of this ceremony that he cannot focus outside of it? I’m not sure, but I am absolutely positive about one thing. I believe what he is saying. His conviction is strong. Cross does not lie. He has more integrity than most of the people I’ve ever known.

It’s time to get whatever rest I can now before the ceremony begins and here at this spiritual retreat center nestled in the plateau of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I’ll sleep outside on the porch of the Zendo. All the night creatures that make sound are busy doing their jobs and at first I feel I may not get much rest, but the lull comes and fills me with the closing of the day and the eyes and the consciousness and suddenly it’s time to get up and start a new day.

Up at 4:00 a.m. looks just like up in the middle of the night. But I have enough adrenaline coursing thru my veins, I don’t have to yawn. In the distance I hear drumming. Today there’s no coffee, no breakfast. We’re not breaking a fast, we’re beginning one.

The April pre-dawn morning in this mountainous region of Virginia is cold. The wind has a bite to it. Outside the lodge down the hill from the Zendo on the brink of a hillside, the fire is burning deep in a hole dug specifically to prevent the wind from blowing it out. I feel the warmth of the fire on the backs of my legs as I kneel to enter the lodge.

Three people will go on vision quest this morning. We are all present for the ceremony. The ceremony goes well and each of us is taken to our assigned areas. I have the distinct feeling that the fast is going to affect me. That I will soon be hungry and wishing I had food. But once placed and seated in my 6′ X 6′ area, I am surprised to learn that it is not food that I crave. It is water.

My spot is in a meadow surrounded on three sides by a creek which flows in a horseshoe shape around the outside edge of the clearing.  I can hear it burbling over the rocks. A sequence of thoughts occurs to me. We take in all that we sense. Sounds come in our ears. Tastes come into our mouths. When we see a tree, the tree is not outside of us, it is inside of us. Our optical nerve and a series of cones and rods are producing the concept of a tree at the backs of our eyes and then traveling to our brains where we register the tree inside of us. So although it is not entering my mouth at this moment, the sound of the water is entering my ears. Therefore water is coming into my body. This may be the most far fetched thing you’ve ever heard, but it satisfied my thirst and I no longer craved water.

Now sitting here on this grassy meadow, I see the sun rising in the east. The day has begun. I am holding the bowl of my sacred pipe against my chest and aiming the stem out in front of me. This is how I will sit for as long as I am here. I wonder again how long I will be here.

I look over at the sun, barely clearing the horizon. I have nothing to do. I have nowhere to be. I have no one to answer to. There are no responsibilities.  I cannot write. I cannot draw. I cannot make things. I cannot visit with any human beings. So I sit…

… the sun has barely moved. I wonder how long it will take for the sun to get directly over head. How long will it take to be noon? It looks like it is going to take a very long time; and indeed it does take a very, very long time.

It seems that three days have passed since the sun rose and finally made it to the zenith of the sky. Now that it is probably noon, there is still nothing to do. I look to the west and I wonder how long it will take before the sun goes down. What seems like six days later, the sun finally sets.

There is still nothing to do, but it is dark now. The symphony of the night creatures begins and I listen. This will be my evening’s entertainment. But it is so natural that I am not really entertained. I sit and wonder how long it will be before midnight will come. I don’t have a watch. I see a lot of stars. Eventually, I fall out of consciousness.

I wake up at some point in the morning and I open my gate so I can walk ten feet away to pee. Then I come back and I sit with my pipe against my chest and the stem aimed out. The sun is barely clearing the horizon. I have nothing to do. You see where this is going. Time is showing me just how eternally long it takes when you cannot measure it. I vow to stay awake as long as possible tonight. I feel intuitively that if I deprive myself of sleep I will enter a state of trance and actually see some visions. But without a way to tell time, I do not know how late I am staying up and once again at some sort of biologically, predestined time, I lose consciousness.

I wake up and I have a sense that everything is clearer now. The greens of the trees are greener than yesterday. The blue of the sky is bluer. The pale green-gray of the lichens is even more vibrant today. I sit up and stare into the woods, my sacred pipe aimed and at the ready. I hear the cardinals… and then I see them. I hear a heron and then I see it land in a tree near me. I keep staring into those woods looking sharply, trying to see everything that is there all at once. I do this for many hours. I have nothing else to do.

I look up at the sky. I look down at the sky. I am sitting with my feet dangling off the edge of a cliff. The sky below has something swimming in it. Suddenly I hear the whoosh of wings to my upper right. I look up into the sky to my right and there, in the middle of the sky is a stone ring with turrets, like the top of a castle, 12 feet in circumference, spinning in the air. The whooshing sound was from the wings of an eagle who is flying toward the stone ring. A golden eagle lands on one of the turrets and the ring stops spinning. The eagle is looking down at me.

I look back down into the sky and the tiny, distant swimming creature is getting closer. I see now that it is a baby polar bear swimming up toward me. He swims right between my knees and he is so cute. I reach to pet him, but he opens his mouth and his teeth are super-sharp, so I withdraw my hand, only to discover he is just yawning. I pet his furry head and take a deep breath. I hear a faint voice far below… “obby ime to…”

The voice gets nearer. “Bobby ime t’go…” I hear my name. I look into the sky to see who’s talking to me, but I cannot see them. They are getting closer because the voice is getting louder. “Bobby, time to go.” I look to my left and right and up and down, but I cannot find the owner of this voice. I am feeling very puzzled. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder and I watch the scene in front of me, the blue intensity of the two skies, one above and one below, the baby polar bear, the stone ring and the eagle slowly tear away and become smoke until the colors are completely replaced by greens of the trees that are really here and the pale green-grays of the lichens and the sound of the creek returns and it is Cross who is touching my shoulder and he is telling me that it is time to go.

“Are you sure?” I ask, “because I don’t think I am done.” But he assures me I am done and it is time to go. I stand. I march straight to a spot on the creek in front of me some fifteen yards away as if being pulled by the sound of water and I look into the tributary. The water is clear, but the bottom is covered with mud. All the stones are coated with brown, but I reach straight into the water, the whole time feeling that I am just obeying impulse, not willing nor intending any of this and I wrap my fingers around a small stone and lift it from the creek bed. I rinse the mud off in the water and I am surprised to find the stone is translucent. This, I say to myself (in my mind) is my vision stone.

We all head back to the retreat center and our favorite meal is being prepared for us by our respective ogligles (pron: oh-GLEE-glays). They are the people who assist us in our quest. They eat for us and drink for us and pray for us the entire time we are out there on the mountain. They have asked us ahead of time what our favorite recipe is and now we enjoy a feast of everyone’s favorite foods.

When I return home the following day, I remember my conversation with Cross. “…I promise by the end of this ceremony you will know exactly what to do.”

I don’t know where the answer came from. I don’t remember being presented with the answer at any given point in the ceremony, yet it was indeed quite clear. What my friend said to me, “That’s not my problem” was true. It was not his problem, it was mine. I am the one who chose to work for someone who could not pay me. I’m the one who would have to remedy the situation. And so I met with my friend and told him I quit. Although he was not happy with that summation, I was 100% confident that it was the exact right thing to do.

That was eighteen years ago. I still love my friend and I think he has forgiven me for abandoning him. And I think often about that baby polar bear, the golden eagle, the stone ring, the cliff, the two skies and how the two realities overlapped and dissolved into one another when the blue skies turned back into the trees of the forest. And with me, I have my vision stone which reminds me of my friend the creek who gave me water thru my ears.

The things we thirst and hunger for in this life may be satisfied in ways we do not expect. We live for surprise anyway, so I think this is a very, very good thing.


I Wish!

I want to live in a world where ideas come to life.

I want to see a doodle go from ink scratches on a piece of notebook paper to a real-life lamp. Yes I said a real-life lamp. Why a lamp? Because a lamp represents illumination. The enlightened soul can use all the real-life help it can get. When you create, you take something out of the world of spirit (idea) and manifest it here on earth (reality). Enlightenment is one of the highest principles of the spirit realm. We have to shed light on things in order to see them clearly and understand our environment. So lamps are the perfect utilitarian work of art.


Since life is no more than a work of art itself, I figure I’ll make it happen. I look thru my scraps of paper with doodles on them and I find the three deer doodle. Scribed long ago on a yellow legal pad, something about the simplicity of the three deer appeal to me.

There’s poetry in the fact that very few simple lines drawn on colored paper can depict nature’s complexity in such a convincing way.

My lovely wife Catherine has been telling me for months she doesn’t like the random boards stacked against our fence. So I opt to use random boards as the medium for my three deer lamp.

I find a beautiful, once-painted, now faded board and cut out the basic shapes I see in my doodle. For the lines that represent the necks and legs, I’ll use patinated copper house wire. For the antlers I’ll use Dogwood branches. For the ears a scrap of leather will do. Finally, for the trees, I’ll use watercolor paper.

To translate a doodle to a work of art (especially a lamp made of old boards) is an act of pure intuition. There are no pre-made instructions. I make a tiny sketch (almost as tiny as the original doodle) so I have a map to go by, but I don’t take any measurements.

I just approximate the comparative sizes of the deer’s bodies and heads and legs and necks to keep everything somewhat within the laws of physics.

The battles one fights on one’s journey to glory are what make the journey worthwhile and making a doodle lamp is not without its challenges. The most disastrous onslaught is not having a drill bit that is ever-so-slightly larger than the house wire. They are so close in size that I have to pull out a hammer and pound the backs of the deer to get the legs to fit down into the holes in the hillside where they must reside. A less exuberant soul will let the resulting bent wires discourage his or her efforts, but this is one of those projects that falls into the third category of art.

There are three definite categories of art:
  1. Graphic/Commercial,
  2. Fine Art,
  3. and that which comes from your soul.

All three require a different set of disciplines and all three have their place in the world. But the stuff from your soul does not die an early death. The stuff from your soul gets birthed into this world come hell or high water! A broken antler means another trip to the Dogwood tree. Leather too thin it tears when you poke it in the deer-head holes means a thicker, more beefy leather scrap must be obtained. Finding out you purchased the wrong lamp-wire online means requesting a return authorization. Having no idea how to attach the white paper forest in an upright fashion behind the deer means ratcheting up your intelligence and finding a way that will work with the goods you have on hand.

These tiny but substantial skirmishes are always behind the scenes for the casual observers who take in your art once it is created. But victory over these perilous encounters are your ticket into artist’s heaven, where you and the muse get to kick back a cold one and recount the adventure you had bringing your idea across the spirit bridge and into reality.

This is your chance, people, to join the ranks of the artists in artist’s heaven. If I can take a doodle off of a piece of paper and turn it into a lamp, imagine what you can do!

We truly do live in a world where ideas come to life!

(Click on the photos if you’d like to see slightly larger versions… unless you’re on a mobile device, in which case just stretch and pinch to your heart’s content.)

Tell me about your experiences with bringing ideas to life…

Putting Yourself “In There”

Our high school English teacher (who preferred we call her Wendy) taught us how to meditate.
She led a guided meditation in the classroom to show us how to do it properly. As I recall, the room turned pink, there was a giant ball of white light surrounding and penetrating us, and we all came back to our normal waking state relaxed, at peace, and extremely joyous.

When I got home and enthusiastically told my dad about the meditation adventure, he immediately called the school and cussed out the teacher.

“I’ll be damned if I’ll stand by and let you pump my son’s head full of your cock-eyed eastern religious bull s___!”. That was a little embarrassing as I recall, but I digress.

Wendy told us that we were going to go “inside”… deep inside, to the core of our being. I remember wondering what the hell Wendy was talking about. Where is this place called “deep inside”, how does one get there, and what would make a journey like that worth it?

I went somewhere, but I had a hard time imagining it as deep inside. I suppose It was just one person’s take on where one’s spirit resides.

Later I would hear that the spirit resides outside the body. That the soul is like an invisible
egg-shape, surrounding and protecting us. Eventually I heard the point of view that the entire universe is made up of particles and waves of which we are a part. Just a bunch of particles and waves mingling together in a sea of potentiality.

All of these places and spaces where our spirit supposedly resides are all just theory of course, but I was thinking of the term “Get yourself out there” the other day and I began to wonder about that place too. What does “out there” really mean? Where is this place called “out there”?

Of course the obvious answer is in the public eye, and all the reading I’ve ever done on the subject of art careers commends you must get your stuff out there. But “out there” could be at a service station vacuum machine or the shower near the public pool. So where is it really?

Perhaps in order to arrive at the perfect out there, one must first visit the perfect deep inside. Maybe the answer to where “out there” is for you is hidden “deep inside” and you have to go there to pick up the map. (Remember maps? They used to be printed on big folded paper instead of on tiny lit up screens.)

It’s fun to ponder these things. Especially in light of the fact that we may be “just a bunch of particles and waves mingling together in a sea of potentiality.”



Aim High in Steering

I nervously shut the driver’s side door and felt trapped behind the wheel the first time my dad tried to teach me to drive a car. Four years later I would learn the most important lesson of my life. I had a problem that first day though. My problem was that I was looking at the road as close to the front of the car as I could. That seemed to be the most crucial place to look. Right there where the rubber meets the road. If I could have seen under the car I’m sure I would’ve summoned all my concentration on that area. My driving was terrible. My dad said I was all over the road. And he was right.

Four years later I took Drivers Ed in high school. The instructor introduced a concept I had not been exposed to before. He said, “Aim high in steering. If you look way up at the horizon where the road converges or goes over a hill, you will automatically see all of the rest of the road between here and there. You’ll drive nice and straight.” And he was right.

Now I use that phrase to help me live my everyday life. Instead of looking at right where I am, as close as I can get to my current circumstances, I aim high in steering. Of course, in order for this kind of thinking to benefit us, we first have to realize we actually are in the driver’s seat. We have control of how those circumstances evolve. Every thought, word, and deed leads to what’s coming next. I’ve had dreams where I’m sitting in the back seat of a car having an exciting conversation with someone, I look up and no one is driving the car. I usually get a small pang of panic at that point in the dream. So let’s admit, we are in the driver’s seat and we are indeed driving our lives.

The excitement reigns when we realize that the current circumstances we are living out are a product of all our thoughts, words, and deeds up to that point. At the point we are looking around us and noticing how things are, nothing is changeable. It’s already been made manifest. So we are looking too close to the car and our lives are swerving all over the road! Look further ahead. Use that reality generator called your imagination and imagine how you’d like it to be. Spend time in reverie. Daydream. Now you’re aiming higher. Now you’ve got your eye on the prize and no matter how far up ahead on the horizon it is, if you keep aiming there, you’ll get there. And you’ll enjoy the ride.

Just think, by merely utilizing our imagination we can drive our lives more efficiently and arrive at places we really want to go. By ignoring the use of our imagination and just letting everything run on default, we live a much more haphazard life (dangerous to ourselves and others) and maybe even miss out on destinations we were hoping to include on this trip. I just love knowing that!

On Deck

There is a place in baseball where the next batter stands and gets ready to step up to bat when his turn comes. That person is said to be “on deck”.

We experience different thoughts all day long and those thoughts, which affect our mood, can either come randomly, or we can have a hand in creating them.

An interesting way of changing or creating a mood for yourself is to imagine a scenario. If you’ve never played baseball before, please forgive the metaphor. But if you have, then you know what it feels like to be on deck.

You’re stepping up because you’re about to do something to help the team (at least that’s your hope). Maybe you’re about to experience exhilarating glory by hitting the ball way out of the park. Or maybe you’re about to suffer a shameful embarrassment by hitting a pop fly and causing another “out” for your team. But there’s no turning back now. You’re on deck!

If you’ve been procrastinating on a project that you’d really like to see happen, no need to jump out there where all the fear of failure is. Just step on deck. Get ready. The readier you are, the more confident you feel about stepping up to bat. Stay on deck as long as you need to, but notice the difference between the way you feel when you are successfully procrastinating (doing nothing toward your goal) and when you actually step on deck. BIG difference!

The Brink

I remember the three and a half mile hikes we used to take down into Feather Falls… all the way down hill. When you came to the overlook, a large wooden deck placing you just over the edge of the canyon so you could witness the Feather River plunge to the rock floor 640 feet below, there was a secret.  If you did not turn left to walk out onto the overlook, there was a secret trail to the right. No one knew it was there because it began three feet higher up a hill than the ground of the standard trail, obscured by bushes and long dry weeds.

When you clamored up that first impossible step, the trail went on and as you walked you’d see signs—warning signs that read: Caution, Brink of Falls! Stay behind the Fence! And sure enough there was an eight foot tall chain-link fence erected long enough ago that the rust had set in and it was no longer (if ever) a pretty sight. But the brave and the anarchist hikers who came before us saw fit to take bolt cutters to many of the fence’s weak points and cut wide gates to freedom. So those of us with whatever gusto it takes, could go right up to the brink of the falls. From there, the roar was deafening. But I found an even better secret.

If one were to hike up the river, just around the next bend, one would come across a fallen tree. A giant of a fir tree that had plummeted straight across the river who knows how many centuries ago. But it still had its bark, petrified somewhat by the weather and it was a wide and welcoming bridge to the other side of the river.

Once you crossed this mammoth tree-bridge, you were free to explore a land that many have never set foot upon.

Turning left and heading back toward the brink of the falls, there was an unusual rock formation. It was the peak of the hill and from the ground it rose up about ten feet from the trail. Half way up, a solid rock slice of bread (or so it appeared) was slightly removed from the mother rock, like a piece of toast sticking out of a sideways toaster. Behind this slice of stone where it used to be connected to the mother rock, was a one foot by two foot hole from one side of the pyre to the other. This produced a shelf where the rock had slid out a little bit over the canyon. It was possible to step up onto this rock, take seat and dangle your feet over the edge. It was the best seat in the house.

Looking to your left you’d witness 4,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Feather River fly out over the brink of the falls and down to the canyon floor. At about the eleven o’clock position you could see the observation deck and all the tiny tourists marveling at the site just to your left. And straight out westward you’d see the canyon stretch for miles, the river winding its way thru the gorge which sliced through the Sierra Nevada mountains eons ago.

Here’s what I’ve learned from those trips to the brink of the falls; this feeling of nearing the brink, which contains a large measure of anticipation, readiness, and pure adventure is a valuable feeling. It is a feeling you can bring to bear on any one of life’s many situations. It is a state of being. The first time I ventured up onto that secret trail, I had no idea what lie before me. I anticipated something big and very possibly dangerous. The closer I got to the brink of the falls the more excited I got to see what was there, to take in the sights and the smells and the sounds of all Nature’s fury as an entire river came rushing off a precipice and fell through mid-air only to crash on the rocks below and continue its journey toward the sea.

Sometimes we can get in touch with that feeling of excitement and adventure without the hike to the falls. We can feel that way about a project we are about to embark upon.

“The state of mind revered most by the Muse is a mind filled to the brim with notions of adventure.”

Just imagine the brink. Imagine nearing the brink and see what kinds of inspiration find you.

We’re On a Mission From God

One of the best lines in all the movies I’ve ever seen was delivered by Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers.

“We’re on a mission from God.”

Such a powerful statement and most likely true in our lives much more often than we suspect.

But growing up Christian there were very mixed signals about uttering such words. To think of oneself as in league with God in any way was considered blasphemous. Some of us were led to believe we are far too profane to ever have a relationship with God. And I see solid evidence of the same admonition happening today. It’s like walking on eggshells when you can’t express your feelings about the relationship you have with God outside of an accepted set of phrases.

When I first read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” I began to wonder if he didn’t have a very good point.

What I’m trying to say is that we, as creators, often feel compelled to create. Although I cannot claim to know, there may be a strong chance that those compulsions come directly from God. So when we’re making what we’re making, we may well be on a mission from God.

I want you to walk away convinced that it is more than okay to be on a mission from God. I want you to be able to feel it when inspiration comes barreling thru your heart and you feel that ultra-conviction to follow that inspiration and create what has been delivered to you to create. And then I want you to be able to proclaim that mission to anyone who will listen, because I believe that is exactly what’s happening. You’re on a mission from God!

Say it often. Feel it. Believe it. Even if only to yourself… we really are on a mission from God.