Around the Medicine Wheel with Jim Frank

—Don’t we all want a map with a big arrow that says, “You are here!”

Hiking in the arroyo, sometimes I feel like a motherless child

Even before I met Joseph Rael, the magic began; a hummingbird visited my campsite that morning. It was not content to merely buzz around me while I was cooking my breakfast on the open tailgate. While I shaved it came through the open door, into the cab of my pickup, where I was leaning forward in the driver’s seat running the electric razor over my face. For a long second or two the hummingbird hovered between my bugging eyes and the rear view mirror which I had twisted to allow a better view of my face. Only inches from my nose, it was so close that I was cross-eyed and he was there long enough for me to worry that he could peck my eye if he wanted. “How magical is that?”— I thought when he had flown away. The legend on the New Mexican license plates came to mind—“Land of Enchantment.” It seemed like a hummingbird was the perfect welcoming agent.
I was awake early and after my morning routine and I set out for a hike up into the Sandia Mountains leaving the truck parked at my camp. There was lightness in my step as I set out but a lifetime living close to sea level in Pennsylvania had left my body unprepared for the Northern New Mexico altitude. At close to six thousand feet the thinner air can make a big difference and as I hiked up an arroyo it was difficult to keep from being winded. I paced myself pretty well at first but as the trail got steeper my breathing labored, my muscles tired and I quickly exhausted myself. And when the sun’s warming rays finally reached over the mountain, even though it was not yet mid-morning, its heat set to wringing out of me the last of whatever had animated my steps. Often I use exercise and hard work to release emotion and in this strange new world a great sadness grew in me as I tired. That license plate slogan might have been foreshadowing but my mind was unaware of any sense of the magical discovery that lay ahead of me, I was only feeling the loss of what I had cut loose.
The recent end of my twenty-five year career with IBM, and the accompanying sense of purposelessness weighed me down. In a call home the night before to the woman I had been dating for three years, the conversation seemed like a set up for the ‘Dear John” phone that was coming; she was not going to wait for me. To punctuate the end of my IBM career I set off on a trip around the country and now, after only three weeks on the road, mostly living in my pickup truck, I felt I had no purpose, no destination, no place to go, no plan on when to return, and this morning I was beginning to feel there was no place I had come from.
My ruminations combined with my exertions to produce a loneliness that became unbearable, I began to sob. I pushed myself along but my breathlessness and the heaviness of each uphill step overwhelmed me. I couldn’t go any further, I collapsed and sitting at the edge of little canyon I cried full force. I wailed and sobbed and blubbered for my pitifully lonely self. From deep within my sadness a song welled up to express my feelings.
“Sometimes, I feel, Like a Motherless Child,” came out of me. Slowly and sadly I sang, like a funeral dirge. I needed to take a breath between each word so the pause between each phrase was exaggerated.
“Sometimes breathe breathe, I Feel, breathe breathe, like a Motherless Child, breathe breathe breathe.”
As I sang, my hands found each other and began clapping, again very slowly, something like this, “Sometimes clap breathe, I Feel, clap breathe, like a Motherless clap Child, breathe clap breathe.” “A long, clap breathe, Way, clap breathe, From Home, clap breathe.”
Singing, clapping and crying… I was caught up in my isolation and self-pity. Had I ever felt this lonely? Was there no one to care? Then an answer came. Someone was clapping along with me. I immediately went from sad to alert. Had someone followed me, had they been watching me and listening to my sad song? All these thoughts came in an instant me and in a second instant I realized that I was hearing my echo. Without even missing a beat I had found that it was not some human that was clapping with me, it was the mountain herself. The timing of my claps was at the exact beat so that the claps the echo returned matched my rhythm. Each time I clapped the echo from the previous clap came back and joined my new clap. The Mountains had joined my song and I was no longer alone. Mother Earth herself was responding to my loneliness. The mountain was singing along with my lonely song which was being transformed into a more soulful blues sound, that amazing blend of sadness and joy. My heart raised, my tears dried, and I felt a new wholeness as I came down from the mountain, ready to face an unknown future knowing I did not walk alone. My mother, our mother, was right there with me.
Back in the truck, I drove to the nearby home of the Native American mystic, Joseph Rael, Beautiful Painted Arrow, and within an hour I stood face to face for the first time with the man whose teachings have led me to the Medicine Wheel, which has come to be the ordering principle of my universe. That weekend I went along with the small group that Joseph took into the Pecos Mountains to do ceremony. For three days we fasted and danced the Drum Dance and I write more about that elsewhere. Since that time the rituals and ceremonies Joseph taught have become my way of prayer. His teachings have become my way of understanding the world and have guided my actions. And this has all combined to bless me so that the wholeness I felt walking out of the arroyo is with me often.
All of the ceremonies that Joseph taught revolve around the four directions of the Medicine Wheel, as do all of his teachings. Over the years, I have come to understand all of life’s transformations as fitting on the four directions of the Wheel. And as I look back I see how my experience in the arroyo is a good example of how this works. The East of the Wheel is the place of new beginnings and seeing things for the first time. I had left my truck and hiked toward the East into the dawn’s Mountain shadow. By its very nature there is an isolation that happens when we have a vision, in this case it was the vision of how pitiful and alone I was. In that moment I felt hopeless and if I stay there I would have indeed stayed hopeless. But all things in this world have a response. Things go out and things come back. My thoughts of my sad condition were responded to by those overwhelming emotions, the South. These emotions led me to move my muscles and I clapped. This was a physical action, the West. And then the echo came back, a blessing from the North. The echo reminded me of the connectedness of all things. The echo was completely outside me; I didn’t make the echo, yet it would not have happened without me. This is the kind of return that the universe generally provides, we are part of the universe but we are not the universe. There is a marvelous co-creation going on in the universe. This is the kind of blessing that I have come to expect from Nature’s God, the Medicine Wheel predicts it.
I now see that the events in the arroyo came together to form just one of many Wheels within Wheels. Singing along with the echo, meeting Joseph, and dancing the Drum Dance were the East of a new life for me. The wheel in the echo in the arroyo made its full turn within an hour, and the Wheel of my new life would take years to become recognizable as such. I see it now but at the time I was seeing as if it was very early dawn, when the light is weak, the shadows are long, and I was thinking with a mind that was holding on to sleep and dreams. Now, after many years, I find that I can write about those days.

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One Response to “Hiking in the arroyo, sometimes I feel like a motherless child”

  1. Sarah Bell says:

    The “Motherless Child” post is wonderful, Jim! Your writing so beautifully tells the story and illustrates the way the Wheel works. Thank you so much for sharing your talent!