Red Egg Jewelry

Red Egg prayer beads and jewelry

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Haida Gwaii – Vancouver

Tonight we went to the anthropology museum at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. It brought back so much from our trip five years ago to Haida Gwaii. I just stared and stared at the old poles again, which had been saved from their decay on the islands and had been brought here to be conserved.

About 7.30 pm we went outside to see the poles Bill Reid and others had carved much more recently. It was drizzling. And then soon the drizzle became proper rain. Thank God. Now I had those poles (and Susan Point’s Musqueam house posts) to myself. Even Debi had gone inside.

Even in the mist and rain, it wasn't Haida Gwaii -- but it was as close as I'll get this time. And I could feel the place again. I could really feel the place. It made me question everything -- or certainly it made me question museums. I know the old poles would be rotting on the shore now. I know someone had to save them. But I also know they weren’t made for a museum.

When I went back into the museum myself, the place was nearly empty. And then it was empty. For twenty-five minutes, Debi and I (and one guard) had the place to ourselves. We had Reid's "Raven and the First Men" to ourselves. Then we went back to those old poles from Ttanuu and Qquuna and Sghan Gwaay. I whisked away everything in the rooms but them. All I wanted was to be drifting in a canoe past Shaman's Island into a misty cove again – praying and calling out to the watchmen for the necessary permissions.That's what these poles still do, even in a museum, if you can be alone with them enough. They point the way. I've always loved that quote by Hesse: "Our only guide is our homesickness."


Elaine Savoie – Hornby Island

She makes them up. Either she makes up the whole damn thing – or else she just freely weaves her own story into them. Into these “saints,” that is. Into these corvid and chicken-icons. St. Abundance. St. Laya. St. Riel. And all the others. Some have “real” saints’ names, but she’s made up all or part of their hagiographies. There is an icon of her father, who built the Catholic church on the island, but with whom Elaine has argued about orthodoxy all her life. There’s an icon to pain, to a woman’s sexual pleasure, to the explosive forces within a marriage.

Hearing this, you might think these icons are just irreverent – iconoclastic icons, as it were. After all, they do break every rule.

But that never occurred to us when we were with them – because they come from such a sharp, intelligent questioning. They come from a woman who as a young girl felt such a profound spiritual awareness that pat catechism answers just left her more dissatisfied.

So now her icons feel like wry conversations with the sacred. “Come on,” they seem to ask, “Let’s be honest here – how do you really connect with the sacred in your own messy life?”

And you’re reminded of how desperately you need this kind of humor -- in order to poke holes in all the damn hierarchies you’ve been so busy-as-a-bee building all around and within yourself.

“Hey, buddy,” I thought I heard a chicken-icon whispering
as I leaned over the fence and looked out across the sea. “What if you risked pissing off your whole family, too? What if the answers they gave you were also never quite enough?”

Back inside, Elaine’s studio was still full of delight and conversation and laughter. She has such energy about her. It bursts out everywhere: in her garden, in her conversation, in her art. We all need our local saints.

Elaine Savoie - Debi

I must add that Elaine also does these fantastic acrylic paintings - mostly of corvids, fruit and poultry.


The Hermitage – Denman Island

The hermitage stays with us, it appears, wherever we may go.

Funny to be this far away and already to be finding ourselves in another hermitage. One of my concerns – or are they already becoming observations? – is wondering how it will be to be away from our beloved mountain place in Big Sur for a year.

But to be here at this small Tibetan Buddhist hermitage on Denman Island -- Kunzang Samten Yangtse -- feels like not being so very far away at all. It feels like being on another side, or seeing another face, of the mountain. An island-mountain here, it is true, but along the coast of Big Sur, Pico Blanco and other mountains often rise like island-mountains in a sea of fog.

Here marshes and meadows and orchards are clearings in an island forest. A sweet arc of small dwellings curve around a yurt-temple. The forest-and-sea air is already trying to reclaim the cedar shingles, and we love how homespun and mindful of the place the human touches are. Swann and his artist wife Sudasi made the prayer wheel from an oil drum and crankshaft – and Sudasi is who painted it. A future plan is to build twelve kuti in the forest – 10’ x 10’ meditation huts – so that there can be winter retreats along with the current summer ones.

“This is a forest practice here,” Rodney says. “I encourage each person to find his or her own place in nature for meditation. The bug crawling across your leg is part of your practice.

“‘Find a pleasant grove in which to sit,’ Buddha taught his followers. So our practice here isn’t to sit inside in formal rows.”

Rodney is Lama Rodney Devenish (Lama Karma Kunzang), the head resident Lama at the Hermitage. Rodney’s wife Lisa and Debi worked together at Apple years ago, and we had visited them when they lived high in the mountains above Carmel Valley – across the Ventana wilderness from us.

The only time we could visit them here on Denman was literally during the three days when they were moving from one island home to another. Still they insisted that we come and welcomed us with energy and delight.

I nod with recognition at everything Rodney says, whether it’s when he invites me to sit in on a dharma talk during a Mahamudra retreat or over dinner at the end of another full day. As a young boy on Vancouver Island, he trained with a Salish carver. He imagines Stations of the Cross along a meditation path at the hermitage and shrines to teachers from different spiritual traditions.

As we imagined this year of travel, we had said to ourselves, “to make and deepen connections.” That’s already well begun.

The Hermitage-Debi

Lisa asked if I would like to help cook lunch for the retreatants. For her, this is a special act of love. Chris and I came late from visiting an island artist. Lisa had already prepared an amazing meal, eggplant curry, salad, corn soup and a few other delectables that escape me. She prepared meals for Rodney, Chris, and I with the same loving care and skill. Lisa gives "soul food" a new meaning.


Città Slow

“The Slow movement is really taking hold in the islands,” our friend Lisa tells us on Denman Island.

We’ve seen it everywhere: at Fairburn Farm with its herd of water buffalo and culinary retreats; at True Grain Mill at Cowichan Bay with a handcrafted grist mill from Austria with which the bakery mills organic wheat, rye, spelt, and kamut; at Windy Marsh Farm and other organic farms where the vegetable stands are untended, and you mark down in a notebook what you’ve bought and leave your payment (if you’re not bartering) and make your own change from a ceramic pot.

In short, it is the natural rhythm of this small island life.

But it isn’t meant just for rural life. You may well have heard of the Slow Food movement, begun in Italy, but with active “convivia” (as local groups are called) in San Francisco and elsewhere. Slow Food advocates sustainable, local, and artisanal foods as an antidote to increasingly industrialized food processes. It can be criticized for appearing too elitist, but that isn’t its intention. Over the Labor Day weekend in San Francisco, a major Slow conference is being held, and among the activities is a speaker series featuring Wendell Berry, Alice Waters, and Michael Pollan, among others. It will discuss weighty issues like the world food crisis, climate change and food, and
re-localizing food.

All of this can seem unnecessarily heady when you are walking with Darrel Archer as he leads his water buffalo to pasture and calls all of them by name. He’s been farming all his life.

On the other hand, 1973 and the few years thereabout are also vintage dates in these islands. That’s when Vietnam War draft-dodgers from the States arrived, so many of whom have stayed, cultivating an alternative culture that most often seems to fit seamlessly with traditional farming and fishing life here.

In another age of war, it can seem like time to move again.

When the ferry leaves Denman Island, Debi looks back wistfully.

“I could live here,” she says. “Couldn’t you?”