PRAYING -- THE BREATH AND VOICE OF CEREMONY
EXCERPT CHAPTER EIGHT

AN ANSWER TO PRAYER

Although we cannot see into the future, we need to pay attention to know if our prayers are answered. Answers often come in unexpected forms. It’s usually not as straightforward as asking for a horse, then receiving one the next day—sometimes you have to wait awhile, earn your own money, and then buy one. You have to do your part. 

Ceremony can make it possible to receive answers to issues that have been bothering you for years. An example occurred at a medicine wheel ceremony one February on Mount Hood where eight women gathered to learn about the teachings of the North—part of a yearlong commitment that included all four directions.

In order to get to our ceremonial site on the mountain, I skied crosscountry with my Australian shepherd Maakai down the Barlow Trail, an arduous trail that in the 1800s led wagon trains from the east to the Willamette Valley. Happy to be skiing again, I went gliding through the snow_laden trees feeling the cold on my cheeks and watching for animal tracks in the snow.

In the three years since my last ski trip I had been coping with glaucoma, the world’s second leading cause of blindness. There’s no cure for glaucoma, a disease that affects the optic nerve. Usually it can be controlled with eye drops, which reduce the pressure in the eye. However, I have what the doctors call “low pressure” glaucoma. The drops had not worked for me, and my blindness had progressed to the point that it was dangerous for me to drive at night. Occasionally, black words on a page would fade, and trees appeared grey rather than green. Even with a recent trabeculectomy surgery for my left eye, I was worried that I could become totally blind.

I hid my anxiety fairly well, and I did all the right things. I took my eye vitamins, decreased the amount of stress in my life, exercised regularly, prayed for healing, and ate my broccoli. The doctors said I was unusually healthy. But when I woke up in the middle of the night with a full bladder, I’d close my eyes and feel my way to the closet, to the hook that held my bathrobe, to the bedroom door, down the hall, groping for the bathroom door handle. I worried that my writing would be affected, that I would no longer be able to drive, and that I’d become a burden to my daughter and friends.

In addition to anxiety, I felt sadness. When I gazed at a beautiful sunset I often thought, I might not be able to see such wonderful colors in the future. As we skied to the cabin, I looked at the bright whiteness of everything and wondered, How long will I be able to continue to do this?

Maakai, my dog, had no such concerns. He loved his first ski experience, fearlessly bounding through deep powdery snowdrifts, at one point falling in over his head. His joy was contagious, and I arrived at the warm cabin with a feeling of exhilaration and anticipation of what was to come. As the women gathered together in circle, the two leaders of our weekend ceremony spoke about the North as the direction where wisdom and vision come together. We had been asked to bring sacred items for our North altar. I had chosen to bring an eagle feather, even though I usually associate the eagle with the East. As I placed the feather on the altar, I thought of my husband’s teachings about animals. “Sooner or later we all are guided to the eagle if we pay attention,” he had told me.

After our opening song and prayer, we all helped build a group altar. Then the two leaders read some stories about the North and informed us that we would immediately go into silence until after breakfast the next day. We could meditate, go for a walk, or write, but we were to remain in silence so that we could pay attention to what the spirits of the North wanted to say to us. There was some resistance among the group members to this instruction. We hadn’t seen each other for months and we wanted to “catch up” on our lives, the way women do. But this was a ceremony, not a social event, and the group understood that the two intercessors had been guided to do this ceremony in their own way. Ceremony is not the same as group process—it’s about following guidance, not democracy.

I wanted to continue skiing and explore the land, the snow, and the bottom half of the Barlow Trail. I knew of a tiny cemetery in the midst of some nearby Douglas fir trees called the Pioneer Woman’s Grave, and I thought it might be a good place to sit and meditate for a while. Before putting on my skis I prayed that I would pay attention and learn whatever it was I needed from the North.

Maakai and I headed out the door into the deep snow. Maakai, whose name means “medicine man” in Pima, was leashed because of the many beginning skiers on the trail, and I found it challenging to ski and control an enthusiastic dog at the same time. Occasionally I had to drop the leash to keep from falling when he chased squirrels up tall fir trees or spotted another dog in the distance. I chastised myself for bringing him along.

When we finally came to the main trail, I saw two skiers heading toward us with a black dog in tow. The dog looked like a slim Labrador retriever, tall and well trained. He was sniffing the ground in front of him, and he seemed content to be on a leash. His owners looked as if they were in their twenties, dressed in woolens and skiing with older equipment. Maakai pulled free of the leash and ran full_tilt toward the black dog.

“Look out!” I cried, breaking my ceremonial silence.

The man dropped the black dog’s leash, not wanting to become entangled in a dog fight. But there was no need for concern. The two dogs jumped on each other as if they were long_lost friends. Maakai ran around in circles, with the black dog chasing close behind. After a minute of this enthusiastic play, I said, “My dog is so glad to find a friend. You have a beautiful dog—what kind is he?”

“He’s part Lab—we got him at the pound,” came the reply.

I watched the dogs playing for a few more seconds. They jumped at each other on their hind legs, then ran off the trail into the snow, mouths open, tongues hanging.

“How old is your dog?” I asked.

“He’s three,” the young man said. He paused. “He’s blind.”

“Blind?” I looked closely. When I paid close attention I could see that the black dog would momentarily lose track of Maakai, for a few seconds at most. But he quickly picked up Maakai’s position again, and the dogs enthusiastically resumed their jumping and chasing.

“What happened?” I asked as I watched them playing.

“He was hit by a car over a year ago now,” answered the young woman.

“He seems so happy.” I watched the black dog now tracking Maakai through the brush. “He does so well. Is he totally blind?”

“Yes, they had to cut his eyes out.” Then I noticed that his eyelids were actually sewn shut. I hadn’t noticed this before, because the dogs had been moving so fast.

“We take him to the Mount Tabor dog park, and he plays fetch with the other dogs,” the young man told me. After a moment he continued. “Three days after he had his eyes removed we were pretty depressed. He woke us up in the middle of the night and wanted to play ball. So even though we were really tired, we were so excited that we got up and played with him all night.”

As I looked at the black dog, I felt like crying. He was so happy. . . . “You don’t know me, but I have glaucoma,” I said. “Much of my vision is gone already, and I just had an operation, but the doctors can’t tell me how long I’ll be able to see. I’ve been worrying about it a lot—it’s really been getting me down. But I look at your dog, and I see that there’s nothing to worry about. Thank you.”

I reached down to pet the black dog, who sniffed me enthusiastically. We exchanged goodbyes, and Maakai and I resumed skiing north. Maakai, the medicine man, was the same as always. I was a different person—no longer afraid of what lay up the trail.

I often wonder what would have happened had I kept my silence and continued past those two skiers and their dog. Instead, I was given an answer to my prayer in this ceremony—not necessarily the answer I was looking for, but the answer I needed.

People often receive answers to prayer like this in ceremony. Although this kind of encounter cannot be planned, when the intercessor does his or her best and Listens well, magic can and does happen.