Indigenous meditations by a celebrated Ojibway author

PFSP Perspectives

March 15, 2018

Vincent M. Hanlon, MD | Assessment Physician, PFSP

Contributed by: Vincent M. Hanlon, MD | Assessment Physician, PFSP

While preparing to write this piece about Richard Wagamese’s 2016 book, Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations, I received an Alberta Health Services memo about the new Ceremony Room at the Chinook Regional Hospital (CRH) in Lethbridge. This dedicated space at the CHR, opposite the fourth floor roof terrace, was included in the recent renovation and expansion of the hospital. It is part of an Alberta Health Services collaborative Indigenous Health Program that aims to provide “accessible, culturally appropriate health services for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in Alberta.”

Sylvia Ann Fox, Blackfoot traditional wellness counsellor at CRH, greeted me when I entered the Ceremony Room. The table in front of Sylvia was covered with a multi-colored blanket. On the blanket was an eagle feather, a small box of matches and a half shell. In the shell was a small clump of sage and sweet grass from which a fine ribbon of aromatic smoke rose.

Sylvia coordinates smudging ceremonies for interested First Nations patients and their families on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Serious illness, according to Sylvia, is a time when some patients seek to reconnect with their spiritual traditions and practices. The day I spoke with her she was expecting three patients to arrive for a smudging ceremony.

In the introduction to Wagamese’s book, he describes the early morning smudging ceremony with which he began each day, sitting at his living room table. He lists “… the four sacred medicines of my people – sage, sweet grass, tobacco and cedar. I put small pinches of each in the smudging bowl, which I set upon the table. I close my eyes and breathe for a few moments. Then I light the medicines, using a wooden match, and waft the smoke around and over my head and heart and body with the eagle wing fan. When I am finished, I set the fan on the table, too.”

Wagamese likens the smoking embers in his smudging bowl to the stories he has written, the words he will write today, and the words of other writers. “The words in this book are embers from the tribal fires that used to burn in our villages. They are embers from the spiritual fires burning in the hearts, minds and souls of great writers on healing and love. They are embers from every story I have ever heard. They are embers from all the relationships that have sustained and defined me. They are heart songs.”

His purposeful intentions for the new day intermingle with the rising smoke. “For you today, my friends, I raise sacred smoke. For you who are troubled, confused, doubtful, lonely, afraid, addicted, unwell, bothered or alone, I raise sacred smoke. For those of you in sorrow, grief or pain, I raise sacred smoke. For those who work for people, for change, for spiritual evolution, for the upward and outward growth of our common humanity and the well-being of our planet, I raise sacred smoke. For those of you in joy, in the glow of small or great triumphs, who live in love, faith, courage and respect, I raise sacred smoke. And, in the act of all of this, I raise it also for myself.”

In his daybreak ritual, Wagamese turns for guidance to the words of writers he respects as his teachers. “There are certain spiritually oriented books I read from each morning. I lift the books from the couch beside me and read from them in turn. Then I place the books on the table as well. I close my eyes and consider what the readings have to tell me that day. When I’m ready, I settle deeper into the burgeoning pool of quietude, and when I feel calm and centred and at peace, I say a prayer of gratitude for all the blessings that are present in my life. I ask to be guided through the day with the memory of this sacred time, this prayer, the smell of these medicines in the air, and the peace and calm in my heart. I pick up the role Creator has asked me to play in this reality.”

Wagamese’s distinguished career as a journalist and writer ended unexpectedly in the spring of 2017 when he died in his sleep at the age of 61. Later in 2017, Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations was awarded the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award.

The writer’s thoughtful and lyrical prose in this book is, unfortunately, hijacked to a degree by contemporary approaches to book publishing and marketing. A surfeit of stock photographs, words, fonts and font sizes threaten to reduce the wisdom of his meditations to an overly long series of colourful greeting cards. Stock images beget stock thoughts. The meditations might be better served by a simpler Zen format. Fortunately Wagamese’s distinctive voice, although muted in places by the publisher’s production values, is not silenced.

Embers is the central metaphor that informs this work; another is the living room table. If embers are living words, the table is the writer’s life. “Everything I have come to know and rely upon as centring, spiritual, real and valid has its place on that table in my living room. The table is like my life: dented, scarred, battered and worn, but rich and full nonetheless, and singing its histories. In that way, mornings themselves have become my table. Enveloped in Ojibway ceremony, protocol and ritual, ringed by strong words on faith, love, resilience, mindfulness and calm, I reclaim myself each morning.”

My vicarious participation in Wagamese’s smudging ritual brings to mind four observations or questions pertinent to our ongoing conversations about physician health.

1. What are the objects of most significance on our living room tables?

2. Make friends with silence. Continue to explore the salutory presence of silence in your life. According to Wagamese: “I am not created or re-created by the noise and clatter of my life, by the rush and scurry, the relentless chase or the presumption that more gets more. No, I am created and re-created by moments of stillness and quiet. I am struck richer by a pure solitude that allows me to feel the world around me and lean into my place in it.”

3. Who are our wisdom figures and spiritual guides in 2018?

4. Take one step into the wonder of nature each day.

Recall those nature deficit studies of children in first world countries and the negative effects experienced by kids who spend less and less time outdoors. Wagamese encourages others to nurture their connections to the living world: “Wake and watch the universe shrug itself into wakefulness, as night surrenders slowly to day and shadow relinquishes itself to light. I watch this display and realize that the moon lives in the lining of my skin, the sun rises with my consciousness, and the earth thrums in the bottoms of my feet. Everywhere I go, I take that sense of wonder and mystery with me.”

As a recurring motif in the book, Wagamese records brief encounters with Old Man or Old Woman. To one or the other of these wisdom figures he brings his hardest questions:

Me: What if we’re wrong?
Old Woman: Wrong about what?
Me: All this ceremony, prayer, meditation. What if, at the end of it, all there is is nothing?
Old Woman: Then we still come out better people.
Me: How?
Old woman: Can you think of a better way to live than in gratitude? Can you think of a better way to be than to be kind, loving, compassionate, respectful, courageous, truthful and forgiving? Even if we’re wrong, can you think of a better way to breathe than through all that?

Wagamese concedes: “I couldn’t. I can’t. I continue …”

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