“So what is this trip you’re going on?” my daughter asked as she set the table. “A vision quest,” I said. “It’s an American Indian ritual where you go out into the wilderness and seek a vision to guide your life.” But my daughter was no longer listening. “Daaad,” she said, “Aimee’s texting at the dinner table!”
I pretend they’re still listening and continue. “We first go out alone on a remote island. Then we each find a spot, draw a big circle on the ground, and sit down in the circle. No tent, no sleeping bag. And we don’t leave the circle for two days.” My texting daughter is about to smack my pestering daughter, “Dad, tell Andree to go away!” But I continue: “And we don’t eat or drink anything for two days.”
Both daughters freeze in mid-squabble and turn toward me. “Two days?” they say. “No food? Dad, won’t you die?”
Our vision quest group began the week with a sweat lodge ceremony in the woodlands of southeast Michigan, led by a man initiated in both Cherokee and Ecuadoran shamanism. His day job is working as a clinical psychologist. In preparation for the journey to Manitou Island off Northern Michigan, we took off our watches. We pulled the mass of jingling keys out of our pockets and purses. We turned off our cell phones, unclipped our pagers, left the laptops in the car and went completely off line. Off the grid. Recklessly unhooked from the hypnotic, constant intravenous drip of television, talk radio and Facebook chatter. And we started to relearn how to relate to the living things around us: trees, plants and animals. Even insects. How you don’t have to scream, spray or smash every small creature that has more legs than you do. How other living creatures, just like humans, are curious, and appreciate being acknowledged. Even insects. “How would you feel,” our shaman said, “if some huge, loud and bad-smelling creature came stomping into your home and habitat unannounced? You need to let them know why you’re here,” he continued, “and that you’re not there to harm them. You can ask them for help, during your vision quest.”
Sounds pretty far out, yes? New-age, tree-hugging, liberal environmental nonsense? Well, all I can say now is, try it sometime. Tomorrow morning skip the paper, the cable news and the talk radio. Walk outside and spend an uncharacteristic moment in your back yard. Watch the sun rise. Do you even know what time it climbs up over your own treeline? Then greet the oak, maple or birch in your back yard. It’s a lot older than you are. Actually say hello to the sky above, the earth below, the squirrel, the wild dandelion. Salute the Canada goose winging low overhead: it commutes much farther than you do in the fall, without GPS. Nod to the ant crawling across your bare foot. Because when you actually greet another creature with sincerity an unexpected thing happens: you open a portal, a relationship, where it hadn’t occurred to you that one existed before. Then you’re ruined. Because now it’s just a little more complicated to chop down, squish or chemically spray these creatures thoughtlessly.
Up in the Manitou Island wilderness, we learned to tell time using… the sun, of all things. “Ok, I want you back in camp when the sun is there,” our shaman said, holding his straight arm to the west at a 45 degree angle. “Not when it is there,” he said, “or there.” And guess what? At the end of the day, we were all back in camp within about 15 minutes of each other.
As far as the vision quest fasting, the body metabolizes fat back into energy just like it was designed to do in lean times. Just like animals do all winter. I got a little thirsty. I got a little hungry. But the sensations came and went: I didn’t go blind, I didn’t hallucinate, I didn’t die. I just got a little thirsty, and a little hungry. I did get a lot clearer in my head, and my heart.
Perhaps it was going off the mood altering effects of caffeine, fat, sugar, dairy and meat. Perhaps it was being unhooked from the trance-inducing effect of 24-hour television news, violence, politics and sports. Perhaps it was my mind just running out of things to obsess about, regret and plan. But after two days alone with just myself and the earth, my mind idling in neutral, the vision came. Not with the fanfare of a Mormon Tabernacle choir, or descending upon a heavenly cloud with angels. But quietly. As a vision. As in, when you can see. See through the tangle. As if you were peering through unfocused binoculars that suddenly came into focus. As if you had had been surrounded by fog for years, living your life in the little zone you could see and then one day, the fog vanishes. You stand there in silence, amazed, as you see what is. What was there all along. Where you can go. What needs to be done.
I arrived home after a week on the island, not entirely the same. Both my daughters were unusually glad to see me. “Did you get your vision?” they asked, inspecting me for signs of starvation or death. “Dad?”
But I wasn’t listening to them. I had been putting my watch back on, stopping as I noticed how oddly heavy and unpleasant it felt, like a handcuff. That was when I looked up and saw the aerosol can up on the hall shelf, a tall green and yellow can I had purchased just a week earlier. The bright red label proclaimed, “Hornet and Wasp Killer. Guaranteed Kill!”
The rest of the week, I continued to hear whisperings from the wilderness. Sitting in my living room, I listened to the splash of fresh water pouring into the washing machine. While walking across my bedroom floor I stopped in mid step, looking down at the creaking Douglas fir tree now cut and lying varnished in smooth parallel boards under my feet. And outside in my back yard, the browned grass and the limp leaves at the top of the redbud tree were telling me, without any help from the cable weather channel, the full story of the past week’s weather.
(Originally aired September 4, 2009 on public radio station 88.1 WVPE,Elkhart/South Bend, Indiana. )