Lost and Found

Deep Island, pt. 9

Deep Island:


Once the jiisakaan was taken down, all we fasters picked up the warm blankets we’d huddled up in to watch, and got on Pebaam’s boat. With the help of Stacy and a snazzy million-candlepower light he’d just gotten, he took us back through the enclosing darkness and a drizzle that muted conversation, to all our various islands. He dropped me off last. “Got a light?” he asked.


“Need one?”

“I don’t think so.” It would be a short walk.

“Do you know exactly where you are?”

“I… think so. I should be able to follow the shoreline back.”

“Okay. Sleep well!” He rode off, with Stacy shining the light to illuminate my path for as long as it reached me.

Once the light was gone, I realized two things. One: it was really dark. Two: this did not seem familiar at all in the dark.

I picked my way along the damp rocks of the shoreline. With each footstep into the invisible I was liable to find that my foot’s next landing spot was up at shin height, or an unknown distance below me, and attempting to account for this made me move with a slow-motion stagger. I didn’t have the help of my hands to deal with the rocks and slopes, since they were full of the sleeping bag I’d wrapped up in at the ceremony. I pushed through some trees I didn’t remember and found myself uncomfortably close to a ten-foot sheer drop to the lake that I would have to edge along. When my path kept bringing me into unfamiliar trees and up to cliff edges, I stopped. “Okay,” I said aloud. “I did a dumb thing when I told Pebaam I knew where I was. And now I’ll pay the price for doing that dumb thing.” I found a vaguely flat spot on top of a rock, spread out my sleeping bag, covered it marginally from the drizzle with my jacket and raincoat, and slept a little.

When I woke up there was daylight, though so dim and drizzly it barely qualified as such. My sleeping bag was damp. The island still looked unfamiliar. I circumnavigated it. It didn’t become familiar. It was the wrong island.

Pebaam would be coming back later that day to take us all to the teaching lodge—a sort of second half to the shaking tent, where we could sit in the light of day and ask for clarity on some of the mysteries we’d witnessed in the night. I just had to be ready to make myself visible when he got close. While circumnavigating I’d seen another island that seemed to be the same shape as my island, so I banked on the hope that he’d head there. I sat on the steep rock closest to the other island and waited.

The drizzle kept on drizzling. I bundled up in my bag, which got damper and damper. Later there was a little weak sun, enough to dry off fractionally. I waited. The vastness of this lake began to impress itself upon me. Of the thousands of people living along its shores, I could see nothing whatsoever. I had heard only natural sounds all morning: no boat motor anywhere, even off in the far distance. I sat there and kept waiting.

In what I guessed must be the early afternoon, I saw Pebaam’s boat heading to the other island, and waved my bright orange sleeping bag in his direction. After finding the usual landing site empty, he noticed my signal and came over. “You know,” he said, a little abashed, “I was kind of wondering last night if I dropped you off on the wrong island.” I told him I’d managed okay. “There’s a good story in there,” his indefatigable jokester answered. “We’re going to get a lot of mileage out of this.” It didn’t turn into quite the smash hit we hoped, but we at least got a goggle-eyed chuckle out of each person we picked up along the way back to Ralph’s camp.

The peninsula that by night seemed vast and full of impenetrable mysteries looked, by day, more like a little Canadian lakeside paradise. Ralph’s teaching lodge was a series of arched saplings lashed together with horizontal cross-saplings into a long half-cylinder frame, with no walls, open to the sky. The floor was soft pine needles and the air was gentle and quiet. The ten people who’d been there last night all gathered quietly along the walls, and we went around asking questions about the answers we’d gotten from the spirits last night: unpacking some of the mysteries. Ralph stood at the front, in his blue jeans and plaid with a cigarette, and in his calm voice made the inexplicable sound a bit more explicable.

I took my place by the wall bubbling with enough questions to keep him talking for days. I knew nothing about the mythological role of the morning star, in Ojibwe or European tradition. The sum of my knowledge was that it was a traditional alternate name for Venus among old-time European stargazers. I had nowhere to connect. I had imagined, when I dared to imagine I might ever be given an Ojibwe name, that at the moment I received it, it would make instant sense and feel like I’d borne it all my life. In fact, it would make my life itself make sense, draw it into focus. But the name I’d gotten was a mystery to me. And it made me nervous that I was way up there in the sky. People around me carried names that translated to ‘Streamlet’, ‘Stone Woman’, ‘Leaf Storm’. And here I was, not even on the same planet. Not to mention that I was in the Crane clan, and thus supposed to be a leader (of whom?). I don’t remember what I asked exactly, but it can be boiled down to: What on Earth does this mean?

Essentially, that is, I hoped he would explain most of the metaphysics of the Ojibwe world and exactly how my life fit into it. As with any question where the answer is the size of a world, the only useful way to respond was obliquely. He told me that he never used to understand any reason behind his own name either, but one day on a fast, as his strength was failing, it occurred to him to just say it out loud. “Pa­Shaw­Onee­Binace,” he said—and felt an unexpected rush of energy. “Pa­Shaw­Onee­Binace.” More energy. “Pa­Shaw­Onee­Binace!” More. And he kept going until he was shouting it across the lake. He reminded me that in the Ojibwe creation story (as in the scientific one), we all come from the stars, and we’re all still connected to them. He told me that the morning star is a powerful spirit keeper to have as a namesake. And I started to realize that I would have to grow into this name, that the message here wasn’t so much an explanation of my specific name as a reminder to trust the process.1

When Pebaam dropped me off after the teaching lodge, on the correct island, I suddenly found that I had no more arts and crafts projects left to keep me busy, nothing left to do but watch the island and mull over things. Here, on the last day, I would finally experience something like a typical fast, one not consumed by anticipating and then attending an important ceremony. I spent some of the rest of my fast thinking myself into circles about various questions, and some of it having a series of ambiguous and amorphous moments that could possibly, with some squinting, be construed as spiritual contact.

I stared for a long time at a little plant with a soft white flower growing out of a patch of soil, seeing what my imagination told me about it. It seemed to be telling me, almost playfully, that in a while, it would be tasty: it seemed to encourage me to smile and pretend I was biting it. I don’t think it was just the hunger. I found out eventually that it was a blueberry plant: I’d never seen one in flower and didn’t recognize it.

I watched the pine trees on the closest shore, standing so joyfully in the calm evening sun. They seemed to explain that life is hard work sometimes, like in the winter they’d just emerged from, but it’s also just so much fun. I thought about a lot of things, rarely in any organized way. I sat on the island. The sun went down. I slept.

I heard a motorboat early in the morning of the last day and hurriedly packed up, but it turned out to be a glinting speck of a boat on the other side of the bay, not Pebaam on his dawn pickup rounds. I sat and waited anyhow; he’d be by shortly.

But he wasn’t. And then he wasn’t some more. I abandoned the idea of a dawn pickup. Then of a morning pickup. Then of a pickup in time for even a late lunch. I started to wonder if I’d misunderstood the days, or miscounted them. Or if there’d been an emergency back at camp. I examined some beaver poop. I played with a plastic pinwheel I’d found washed up on the first day. I got really, really hungry.

At some point, feeling myself fading, I lay down on a big granite rock, head hanging down over the side of it, staring at the lichen on the rock and the island below it, and I let my mind wander in free association. My head was filled with static. After a while, though, it started resolving into vague impressions. A ghost of wind, blowing in white lines across darkness. A face, ancient, Native, out of focus both visually and mentally. The idea, again, that everything is connected, itself strangely unconnected to any context for thinking about that. A shapeless experience, not through any particular one of the five senses, of something that might be a barest bit of essence of the spirits. The wind blowing through time: the rocks as they are and as they’ve been; as they were under glaciers. So much, so fast, so hazy and bewildering and even, possibly, enlightening.

After a while I let it fade. I stood up: no boat. I cleaned my multitool very thoroughly. When I finished, Pebaam was arriving. It transpired that he was going to come get everyone at 6:30 a.m., but various things had happened, and now it was 5 p.m. I tossed my stuff into the boat with him and Liz, and he took us to Misty’s little island, where he helped us both break our fasts.

He brought out a copper cup and poured in water. Except at the shaking tent, I hadn’t drunk anything but a few raindrops in three and a half days—rain being considered sacred enough to drink while fasting—and I was dry inside and out. He held out the cup, and as he explained to do, I refused it. “No,” I said, “this is for the healing of the Earth.” He offered it three more times, and I offered it instead to the health of the culture, to the spirits I would learn to listen for, to belief. And on the fifth time he offered it, I drank it. Misty thought of four more ideals to offer the water to, and drank, and then we devoured a whole pot of wild rice. When we got back to camp, someone had made a big pot of delicious soup, and friends were there, and we told stories, and we slept soundly.

I did little the next day but sew and listen to shouts from a boisterous sweat Pebaam ran and I cooked for. The day after that, several more people came off their fasts, and Pebaam figured it would be an opportune time to call a sharing circle. So we all got on couches in the living room and went around the circle talking about our fasts.

I had a hard time imagining that all the many and apparently inconclusive experiences and impressions I’d had could add up to any lesson of any coherency. But I listened to everyone speak. Anthony, who had unexpectedly gotten his name in the sweat yesterday, talked about having had the single most transformative day of his life, and learning the limits of rationality. Liz and two friends, who all work with kids, all agreed about the joy you get from doing good for the community. Misty talked about feeling like a tumbleweed that’s finally found root in good soil. These fasts ran deep for people, and I heard some hard, soul-deep truths getting dug up and brought into light. And when it came around to me, I found that after all I did know some lessons I’d learned. I’d realized, in an insight that came after my fast with only a tenuous apparent connection to it, that I keep walls up against the unexpected, and only stand to gain from tearing those walls down. As I said it, I found myself filling up with an excitement for life that I had rarely been able to muster in my last few months of dry routine and empty adventure-seeking, because it looked like I might be able to quit desaturating all my experiences into crumbly gray cinders as I’d been doing lately, and start experiencing them in full color.

Something happened in that sharing circle. Eight or so people, only half of whom I knew at all, became, over the course of a couple hours, a community. It’s hard to logically find an equivalence between a community such as a longstanding tribe or Amish town and this circle of half-strangers, but it’s there—perhaps in spirit. If a Carrington Event had struck the world into sudden technopocalypse and stranded us together there, so that instead of a couple days together we now had the rest of our lives stretching before us, we would have done okay together with that sharing circle as a basis (and joined soon, no doubt, by several more of Pebaam’s Nigigoonsiminikaaning friends arriving on foot).

This was a particularly bracing realization to me because I’d just spent nearly three years living in a community house in Minneapolis that had never quite seemed to achieve the depth I’d just felt with these people. Was it because at Sprout House we approached our various quests for the metaphysical individually and kept our hands out of anyone else’s, leaving us nothing more profound than the succession of mundane daily highs and lows for conversation fodder—whereas here we could talk freely about trying to attain something mysterious, and have a common reference point? I couldn’t say. But something felt different. I felt like a real part of this circle. All of me did.

The next day Misty and I climbed into Liz and Brandon’s truck to catch a ride back into the rest of the world. We had been gone eight days. But I had lived two or three strange new lifetimes in that span. Already it was hard to believe that when we reached the highway and made it beyond the embrace of Rainy Lake we would find the prosaic old town of Fort Frances there, with its paper mill and border traffic. But alas.

  1. In a useful phrase that seems, oddly, to have been popularized by the Philadelphia 76ers. 

File under: fasting, religion, Anishinaabe, Deep Island · Places: Canada

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