My camp was set up, tent pitched under the Douglas firs. I hung a long necklace from a tree branch. I had bought it at the art fair--three charms dangled: Trust God. Brave Heart. Fly. I put a little water into my bottle cap and blessed it, then sprinkled holy water all around the campsite, praying for protection and guidance and mystery and vision. My quest had begun.
The only thing left to do was to build the Death Lodge. This was one of the practices that had confounded me when the leaders were preparing us for the vision quest, back in base camp. I had signed up to spend forty-eight hours, fasting, in the wilderness, to seek a vision for my future. Hanging suspended between middle-age and approaching older age, I wanted to face my future with integrity. So, I decided to make a quest.
I was excited, terrified, and annoyed. Annoyed because, as a stolid Episcopalian, I was finding it hard to embrace the New Age-y aspect of this experience. Nonetheless, I had stepped--along with everyone else--into the medicine wheel laid out at the base of the mountain. I looked at my fellow questers and made my pledge: “I fully commit to this quest with all of you.” I said it, knowing that the power of life and death is in the tongue, and to speak an intention brings it into being. I was committed.
So, now, the Death Lodge. I was supposed to create a space where I could sit, and where another person might sit, while leaving an open doorway. There, I would have imaginary conversations with people I could not speak to honestly--either because they were dead, or because I could never say to them the things that really needed saying. It was a place to make things right, even if only in my imagination.
I found a low, level spot near the edge of the clearing. I cleared it of pine cones and sticks and brushed the earth clean. Then I framed out a rough square on the ground with larger branches, leaving a space between them to be a doorway. I piled needles in the far corner. That is where I would sit, with my face to the door and my back to the metaphorical wall. I made a circle with smaller sticks in front of me, a place for my guests to settle.
I took my seat and wondered where this act of imagination might lead. Who would be my guest in the Death Lodge? The first person to sidle in was an aspect of my own self--my earlier, mothering self, from the days when the kids were small. No, I thought. I cannot deal with you, not yet, you struggling, failing, trying-so-hard-and-messing-it-up-in-so-many-countless-ways self. I cannot face you now. I sent her away.
It was easier to face my own mother, dead for almost fifteen years. Her last words on earth to me had been, “Don’t be facetious.” I know she didn’t intend to wound. She was out of her mind and dying fast, but still…her instinctive response at the end was to scold, not to bless. I had made a joke of this for years. But she was here now, and I didn’t have to joke around anymore. Come on in, Mom. Come in and have a seat in my Death Lodge. We have some things to sort out. Indeed.
Cry, cry, cry. Pretty much all I did in the Death Lodge was cry, ugly cry. When my mother came to the Death Lodge, I saw at last how she had been broken by life, how fearful she was, even under all the bigger-than-life boldness she showed to the world. I saw how much she loved me, even when she hurt me. After my mother, my daughter came in—not my living daughter, but the daughter I wanted to explain everything to, the daughter I wished would listen. I told her how many ways I had been wounded. I apologized for all the ways I had passed those wounds on to her. Cry, cry, ugly cry.
Mothers and daughters. I am my mother. I am my daughter. And how the dance of mother and daughterhood spools out, over decades and generations. But my mother was dead, long dead. And my daughter was grown, fully grown. What was done was done, what was not done was not done.
It was time to be done, now, with mothering and daughtering.
I let her enter the Death Lodge at last, my old, mothering self. She had tried so hard. She wanted to be so much better than her own mother. She wanted her children to be marvelous, free, competent, amazing, achieving, successful…all the wants she had wanted for them. But those were her wants. She hadn’t listened to their wants.
Hello, old mothering self. You still haven’t let go, have you? But you’ve got to. You have to retire. You can still be those great big grown-up peoples’ mother, but it’s time to stop mothering them. Listen, old self, you did your very best, and this is how they turned out. It’s just how it happened. But remember those times? The swing pushing times, the pile of books from the library times, the catching the first fish at the cottage times, the Christmas morning stocking surprise times, the crabbing at Jane’s Island times, the silly songs at bed times, the Friday night pizza and Rugrats times? That was a treasure trove you gave them. That hasn’t gone away. They carry all of that with them. They might not even know they have it, not now. But it will be there when they need it. They will discover that they had it with them all along.
Cry, cry, ugly cry.
When I broke camp at sunrise on Saturday morning, the Death Lodge was the last thing I put away. Stick by stick, it went back into the underbrush, and I swept away all signs that anything had ever happened there. But I knew the tears would remain, still blessing the space, still blessing the time. Holy water.
Kit Carlson is an Episcopal priest and a life-long writer with work appearing in publications as diverse as Seventeen Magazine and Anglican Theological Review. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, with recent publication in Ponder Review, Bending Genres, and DaCunha. She is author of "Speaking Our Faith" (Church Publishing, 2018). She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband Wendell, and Lola, a nervous rescue dog.
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