I walk slowly across the fields, step by step, from my place of power to the grinding rock below the petroglyphs. The ground
is uneven; grass seeds swell with rich food. At the flat, wide, grinding rock, the women roll their manos between their hands,
rhythmically, calmly, chatting quietly. They are preparing food for today. There is little hoarding, saving: life is abundant.
I walk towards the spring, crossing a wash where children splash, adults make snares. Each person has a task, but there is
no rush; each action has focus and intent. At the spring, I stand in the shade of granite boulders, grinding a cupule (shallow
hole) into the sacred stone. I am patient, like the others who have stood and ground here in prayer. My cells are open, listening.
I hear, "This is how we learn. Breathing slowly, listening with our bodies, time and space coursing wide through our
This gift of journeying back in time is a watershed in my life; springs, rivulets, and streams of experience flow into a great
river of transformation. All the pieces of my life--mothering, writing, community work, earth healing--feed on and harvest
from these journeys.
My connection to these ancestor spirits began on a particular day. At the entrance to the San Francisco Bay, just north
of the Golden Gate Bridge, the headlands stood sentinel; wind-blown scrub, purple Lupine, and an old grove of Cypress trees
covered the hillsides. At a crescent-shaped stretch of sand, sea sounds overtook the wind. Three of us wandered, collecting;
then we formed shells, seaweed, and stones into a circular altar. We called the four directions and acknowledged the elements,
creating a space between the worlds for our work. We drummed and chanted, then sat in silence, breathing in and listening
for the spirit of the place.
Out of the silence we created a ceremony. To explore how this cove was used by indigenous cultures--people we know as
Miwok and Ohlone--before the Spaniards arrived, we decided to do a group journey. Entering a trance state with drumming, we
chose a direction to travel, and spoke our vision as we journeyed together:
We climb in our canoe fashioned from tules and head south down the bay: fall is coming and it is time to go inland and gather.
After spearing salmon and eating, we are drawn towards the old Ohlone grandmothers who are sitting around, gambling and laughing.
Their pleasure and rootedness are infectious; we forget about seed gathering and do not want to leave.
We ask the grandmothers how we can remember their rhythmic, simple way of life. The oldest looks around the camp with
her eyes and says "Take this with you." She tells us to make a ceremonial cape. Finally, she hands us a palm-sized
abalone for a clasp for that cape.
Another grandmother says, "You carry the light and the life in your eyes. They will always be with you."
We thank the grandmothers for their gifts of wisdom and intention. We leave feeling full of the great ebb and flow of
river-bay and ocean, returning in our tule boat to the cove.
Back in this world, we spoke excitedly about making a ceremonial cape. What material should we use? What design? How could
we do it together?
A few weeks later, at a Siplichichin Ohlone shell mound (a midden where people deposited clam shells, broken pots, and
sometimes buried the dead), we asked the grandmothers for more help in making their vision a reality. They answered:
Making the cape will take a long time. Be patient and slow. Quiet yourselves within the ceremonial process.
Use tules for the cape. The shape should be a circle. Use it for a centercloth, a container for ritual objects for your
group, a shamanic tool for personal journeys. Decorate it, and use it, with intention.
You will weave this cape/cloth/container with the strands of many people's knowledge. It is an ancestor totem, a gift
to remind you of your connections to the first peoples of the Bay, and their connections to you.
This advice gave us courage to proceed; people in our community helped us learn how. We met with a ranger at the San Francisco
Bay Wildlife Refuge to learn the basics of tule weaving. The school science teacher sent us to one of the few sloughs that
still holds massive stands of tules, at Alviso in the south Bay, to collect them. (Ohlones had used tules to make boats, sandals,
houses, rope, and mats. But the invading peoples had no use for the reeds, so they had mostly been removed.) Weaver friends
helped us with books and ideas. A dream sent us the design. The grandmothers continually gave us heart; we helped each other
persevere through demanding jobs and children. We sensed the adventure and held it by the tail.
Gathering tules felt holy to us: tules felt like the essence of life and growth. They were fibrous, strong, tenacious plants,
rooted in intertidal mud, with narrow, conical, feathery tassels at their ends. They were a soft dusty green in the spring,
turning golden brown in the fall; by winter they cracked and disintegrated in dryness. Sponge-like, fresh tules soaked up
water and floated. Held upright, tules seemed like staffs or arrows to the sky. Soaked overnight, they were pliable; woven
into twine, they were as strong as hemp.
During the year that we wove panels for the cape, I wrote:
Working with fibers lets my hands know, lets me feel in my cells what the earth knows. The knowing is in me and comes through
me at once.
Weaving the tules connects my present with the grandmothers' past, just as they promised. It gives me a growing cellular
connection with the richness of the Bay.
We completed the cape in time for a daughter's coming-of-age ceremony. As she accepted her challenge, and began to dance inside
the circle of women, with the tule cape over her shoulders, the cape emanated a power, radiance, and energy all its own. We
felt the grandmothers join us, and our world became larger.
Each time we used the cape in community ceremony, its aspects became more clear. It became a visible symbol of the interconnections
of earth, body, ancestor, and spirit. It became a bridge to ancient wisdom.
After an Angel Island journey to the ancestors, each woman wore the cape to help bring her vision into words around the
circle. At healings during illnesses and before operations, the cape enclosed the celebrant tenderly, seeming to emanate light
At a ceremony of preparation for city council testimony, as we tried to save the last remaining open land along the San
Francisquito creek, we brought the cape into the larger political community. We spoke these words, "Allow the power of
the ancestors to surround you. Breathe in their help and guidance, their deep intent to protect the land," as each person
who planned to testify wore the cape and spoke his or her intent. Even people who knew nothing of the cape said afterwards
that they had felt empowered. We marveled at this gift we had been given.
Between ceremonies, we traded the cape back and forth. At my house it hung on the wall above my bed, greeting me each
morning with grandmother energy and reminders of the simpler, resonant, connected life I sought. In meditation, I used it
to open my heart, to open my cells. I wrote:
The panels of the cape are protective sheaths; and they are wings. The weaving captures movement (curves) and rest (warp).
The whole both receives and emanates exactly as the grandmothers promised: it helps us maintain our connections. It helps
us maintain the continuity of place, of material, of ritual. Meaning travels ahead of words.
Over time I felt embraced, encompassed in the ancestors' deep, warm tenderness. The yearning I had had for the deepest human
mother love and acceptance seemed to dissipate. The grandmother connection replaced the need. I no longer felt alone.
Tules themselves became powerful symbols of the old ones, and of the cultural connections we share across space and over
time. Tules grow worldwide. In Ireland, my blood ancestral land, they fill the waterways and canals; my great-grandmother
would have used them to thatch her house, for they are still used that way on rural cottage roofs. In Lake Titicaca, Bolivia,
floating islands, boats, and houses are made entirely of tules. What the Spanish called tule, Scirpus lacustris, after an
Aztec word, was called bulrush in the Bible. The cradle Moses was hidden in, the bed Odysseus laid in, and the first source
of paper (papyrus) were all tule relations.
As the seasons passed, pieces of the tule cape broke, and finally a whole panel fell apart. Like any natural material,
tules would not last forever. We began to wonder what we would do when the cape finally disintegrated, but kept repairing
and reweaving in the meantime. We wrapped it carefully in an old West African cloth I had, and continued to carry it with
us to ceremony and sacred sites around the Bay, using the cape to call in the palpable presence of the old ones, to help us
in healing ourselves and the earth.
The cape spent its last three months with a woman dying of breast cancer. We did not know her, though she lived in our
community; we did not hear the stories until after she was gone.
Maria kept the cape by her bed all the time she had it. She frequently asked to be covered with it, especially after chemotherapy
treatments. She seemed to feel comforted, her sister says, to have it near her.
Several months after Maria died, her husband, three children, and family went to the Pacific ocean to scatter her remains.
Along with her ashes, her husband threw the cape into the waves. There it floated, carrying light, energy, and grandmother
wisdom to accompany her on her journey.
For us, however, there was shock and sorrow at losing the cape. Its permanent absence from our lives has prompted much
reflection on what it meant to us.
The cape had become a community shamanic tool, a tool for transformation, a tool for shifting consciousness. This became
clear as we came together to remember the cape and tell our stories, and to begin to search for what to do next. The maker
of something does not always realize its full power.
When we returned to the Ohlone shell mound to make offerings, we asked the grandmothers, "How should we proceed in
order to carry your teachings to others?"
We see the cape, disintegrating and sinking slowly, its nutrients feeding the bottom plants. We see it descending into ocean
mother of all, returning to earth, returning to stone, all the time remembering. Thus do our cellular, historical memories
get transmitted, carried on in stone, water, earth, fire.
All the insight we gained from and through the cape--opening cells across time and space, letting light through, breathing
ever more deeply and slowly, funneling energy, working with heart and intent--all this insight we must put into practice through
our own bodies, they say.
We hear the importance of attending to our own rhythms, not pushing ourselves. We understand that we must keep weaving,
literally and figuratively.
The grandmother spirits guide us in this weaving. They are a thread back in time to our first ancestors who walked this land,
to group mind, and to cellular memories of simpler lives. They remind us about being present--gambling, laughing, weaving
baskets, burying the dead. They are a pathway into plant wisdom, earth rhythm, ritual. They are teachers and spirits who hover
in the fields, around sacred stones, at certain places on each mountain. They are the warp of 25,000 years of ancestor practice
and example. Our DNA holds memories that let us find our way back; our intent is the weft.
The spirits of the ancestors know the vastness of the universe and are waiting to teach us. We have only to ask to learn
and make quiet to listen.
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First printed in Earthlight, Summer 2002.
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