November 1st, 2013
This line is moving so slowly. There are about 75 people standing in front of me, a human barrier between me and the warmth of the inside world. The line is moving no more slowly than any of the other nights here but tonight the lack of conversation is stretching time. Nobody is saying anything, no masked banjo player serenading the group, nobody breaking out into spontaneous song. Nothing. As a matter of fact, nobody is uttering a single word, just the sound of feet scuffling and the random cough here and there.
The line moves forward a bit and I take a couple steps closer to warmth. With the lack of distractions my mind easily gets fixated on the chill of the freezing Oregon mountain air. On the outside it probably looks like the cold is not affecting me but I’m dying to get inside. Everyone else here seems to be coping with it OK, but maybe they’re all suffering silently too.
I can see condensation building up on the windows of the building we are waiting outside of. The tone of the light shining through the panes is warm and inviting and the decor on the outside makes me feel like I’m in Neverland. Ornamented with beautiful hand-crafted pieces of art, ancient symbols of some deeper meaning I’m unaware of, patterns made of recyclable materials, plants growing up the walls, the three-story tall barn’s beauty looms over me strongly tonight. Every structure in this community has a unique and rustic feel to it. Beauty, resourcefulness and individuality transform these practical structures of metal and wood into creative and expressive communal spaces.
I make it to the threshold of the doorway and stick my head in to take a look around. A line of people move slowly from one food station to the next, filling their plates from the long buffet-style table. To the right is the open kitchen area where a small group of people had been volunteering all day to prepare this immense feast for the 100 plus people tonight. In the far back area people are already quietly eating on the couches, coffee tables and floor. On every wall there are posters, paintings, quotes, scriptures, sculptures, and all sorts of random things that give the whole room a mix-mashed feel of individuality and creativity. It carries the energy of the many people over the years who have put thought and effort into each little work of art. Inspirational quotes, beautifully detailed drawings, cuttings from articles, old photos, I could spend hours upon hours exploring just the walls of this room.
Perhaps what is even more interesting is the fellow feasters, living works of art themselves. Some have beautifully done up, glittered faces, some haphazardly threw some face paint on, some of the men are wearing dresses, gowns, long trench coats, leotards, all white, all black, pink, purple, rainbow, tall fancy hats, girls with shaved heads, dread locks. I blend in since somebody painted my face earlier today but I feel I would be accepted in any shape or form here anyway.
I make it up to the food table and hold my plate out to the volunteers dishing out the helpings. At each station, the servers make eye contact with me and smile. I smile back and not a word is exchanged between us. I find a seat over on the floor in the corner of the room to be able to watch everyone while I eat. Some people close their eyes and look very intentional about savoring each bite, some look lost in their own worlds, some are observing everyone else like me. Somebody sneezes loudly on the other side of the room and breaks a threshold of volume that hitherto hadn’t been reached all evening. It’s funny how loud a sneeze can sound in a room of a hundred silent people.
The silence tonight is purely intentional. Today is the day after Samhain, a pagan holiday, the day of the year when the veils between our world and the world of our deceased ancestors are thinnest, at least according to what people here say. The purpose of the silence this evening is to rid ourselves temporarily of the distractions of this world to be able to hear our ancestors. I can’t say that I’ve actually heard anything other than the clanking of forks and a loud sneeze tonight but I appreciate the idea of taking a moment to think about my ancestors. I find this idea of veils between worlds to be interesting and new to me, a barrier of thoughts, love, emotion between the present waking world and the spirit world. It’s true that I hardly spend time thinking about how my forefathers (and mothers) struggled to keep the chain of existence going and to build a foundation for the life I’m living now. I’m always concerned about what is going on in my present, past and my future worlds, but not so much the past worlds of my ancestors, or even less so, the present deceased world of my ancestors. It’s interesting to find myself in a new little world here where a thought process like this is invoked.
I take a look around the room again and realize I’ve never been in the presence of people like this before in my life. A large group of people mutually agreeing on remaining tacit for a meal with the intention of taking a moment to try to listen to another realm. People here use the term “intentional space” a lot; a place where intentions are talked about openly in a group and individual effort toward that intention is made by everyone. It is also referred to as a sanctuary, a place to be free from judgements. Most here do not fit into what would be thought of as “normal society” or being “normal” people. Gays, lesbians, transgender, transsexuals, atheists, anarchists, self-proclaimed “wing nuts”, witches, wizards, magicians, rejected from family, social circles, the law, church, the social norm. Whenever I tell people here that it is my first time to visit the sanctuary, they reply with a warm smile and say “welcome home”. To them, this is home, the real world, stripped of distractions, prejudices, status, control of the financially powerful, hatred in any form. It’s a temporary utopia that exists year round for some and only on the most magically powerful times of the year like now for the rest.
One week ago I didn’t know such a place existed in the world and now I can say I feel at home too. At any moment, other than this particular silent moment of reflection, I can freely approach anybody here and open up to them without fear of judgement. I know I’ll be accepted for who I am and won’t have to put on any act to prove myself. Not to say that there are no judgements or egos here, but everybody at least is aware and intends to be open which really goes a long way.
I lick my plate clean, something I don’t do too often in public or among people I don’t know but I feel comfortable to do so here. The room has been slowly emptying and I find my way outside with a full belly of healthy food and hot ginger tea. A group is beginning to gather already just outside of the barn and I tag along to see what’s going on. I see some friends I came here with from the farm and break the silence I’ve kept the last couple of hours with conversation. It seems like everyone is getting ready to make a group procession from here to the fire pit a few hundred yards away. It is a tradition of the sanctuary have a group procession after the silent feast each year.
After a few minutes the procession begins and I find myself marching through a field in the dark with 100 chanting people toward a distant fire. I feel as if I’m part of some underground cult of witches and wizards doing magic and realize that I am. Everybody around me is chanting a song about ancestors over and over in a droning unison. After a few rounds, I learn the words and join in for fun. As we near the fire the group slows down and one by one, each individual enters through a white ornamented doorway in the middle of the field. Each person stops before the doorway and is covered in sage smoke before they pass through and on to the fire. When it is my turn, the person blessing me with sage tells me I am entering a ring of magic separated from the outside world; that I am being rid of negative energy and that my barriers will be down, exposing me to the magic.
I pass through the portal into the magic world with an open mind and no fear. I approach the fire and really feel that I’m stepping into a new world. Once again, it is silent except for the sound of the fire crackling and one story-teller captivating the attention of everyone in the circle. I find a spot to sit down in one of the outer rings of the circle across from the story-teller to get a good look at him. He is sitting right up close to the fire on his knees, his body covered by a poncho and his face hidden behind a sinister looking mask. His body moves fluidly with each passage he narrates, his voice deep, loud and animated. I feel like I’m listening to a camp fire ghost story except much more theatrical than I have ever experienced and much more spooky. I can’t even really follow what he is talking about but somehow I am captivated by the performance and the whole scene.
I look around the pit, faces of all shapes and sizes lit by the warm glow of twinkling firelight, mesmerized. I’m another one of these mesmerized painted faces lit by firelight in a special ring of magic. I’m not just an observer in somebody else’s world, I’m very much part of this world whether I asked to be a part of it or not. The veils between me and all the little worlds that I’ve come across on this motorcycle trip around America are more than just thin, they don’t really exist. I’m part of their little worlds and everyone I meet is a part of my little world, our little worlds in this bigger world.
The story-teller ends on a solemn and serious note having set the vibe in the fire pit for this evening. He takes off his mask to reveal his other mask of clown face paint complete with a red nose. Some people say thank you out loud while others make an unusual hissing sound that seems to take the place of clapping. An announcement is then made that the ritual burning of the coffin will commence shortly and that drummers are needed. I see a drum a few seats away that nobody seems to want to use so I take up the role of one of the drummers for the evening.
The rhythm begins and the circle becomes animated. A coffin is carried from the outer ring and brought right beside the fire, open and empty. A naked bearded man with breasts begins drawing lines in the dirt on his hands and knees. He is doing some sort of magic spell on the earth and asks that nobody cross the line of magic he has drawn. He asks that anybody with offerings of things they want to get rid of in their life please step forward and place them in the coffin and the crowd begins to move.
An hour or so later my hands are beginning to hurt but I keep playing. I’ve been in a trance for a while, getting lost in the beat and watching people dancing around the fire and throwing offerings into the coffin. People have been throwing cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and other items that represent things they want to get rid of in their lives into the coffin. The point is to throw away fears, negative feelings and bad habits and let them burn. Everything is being overlooked by who they call the May Queen here. A peaceful looking man who has been sitting perfectly still, indian style on a rug right across from the coffin. He is wearing a white gown with a white headdress and another man’s head buried in his lap caressing him. He seems to hardly speak and is respected by everyone here.
I look back over to the coffin and they are nailing it back up now. The naked man who has been performing the ritual says some words and with the help of others, throws the coffin into the fire. The fire intensifies and roars, a surge of energy shoots through all the dancers, the drums get louder, my sore hands hit harder, a brilliant light illuminates everyone’s faces, the May Queen’s face stays calm with a slight smile. I feel like I’m in a very weird dream world but the pain in my hands and the cold on my back tell me its real. Perhaps even more real than the world outside of this sanctuary, its genuine, deep, the veils have been lifted.