The Smell of Fire

It's been about two months since I was at the Oceti Sakowin camp in support of the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I haven't found all the words I need to describe the whole experience. This is my first attempt to at least capture small parts of it. 

Bundled in three layers on top, two on the bottom, I pulled the gray prayer shawl-turned-scarf over my nose and breathed in.

Did I smell fire?

As I exhaled and inhaled again, breathing deeply, hoping my nose wasn’t fooling me, I recognized the ever-so-faint scent of campfire.

Oceti Sakowin.

The day I smelled the fire in my scarf was nearly a month after my return from North Dakota. I was walking in the woods on the grounds of the Sisters of Loretto, happily crunching through snow that had fallen the day before.

The temperature was in the teens, cold for Kentucky, and I was glad to have thrown a pair of borrowed long underwear in my bag at the last minute. At Oceti Sakowin camp, the long underwear had served as my base layer under two other leg layers and a full-length down coat.

The scarf I wore at camp and again at Loretto kept my neck warm and offered a wool filter for the cold air that burned my nose and throat when I breathed without such a filter. 

It’s been two months now since I was at camp, where I worked in a kitchen, most often as sous chef. Chopping frozen vegetables (everything was frozen, no freezer needed). Thawing food or water that had frozen overnight or been left alone too long during the day.  Washing dishes (after thawing enough water to do so). Organizing donated food. Trying to be helpful in any way I could.

I had allowed myself exactly one expectation for my time at camp: it will be cold. I didn’t have a way to check the temperature while I was there, but before I left, the forecast was for highs in the single digits to low teens and lows below zero – before wind chill.

Realizing before my trip that my cold weather gear was not fit for North Dakota winter, I put a request on Facebook to borrow warm clothing. Generous friends came through with long underwear, sweaters, fleece for my top and bottom, wool socks, ski pants, face masks, yak tracks, ski goggles, two down coats, Hot Hands, more than I could actually take with me.

Thankfully, the day I experienced the worst North Dakota wind was the day I arrived in Bismarck. The whipping winds reminded me of Chicago; I had to work to keep my balance, leaning into the air that pushed against me.  

I gratefully spent the first night in Bismarck. The previous night I had gotten very little sleep and wanted to arrive at camp with energy to give.

After a good night’s sleep and a long shower (I wouldn’t be bathing at camp), I used a Facebook rideshare page to find a ride out to camp.

Before going to Bismarck I had reached out to the friend of a contact I had there, but she turned out to be not only unhelpful, but hostile to my presence. I was arriving after the Army Corp of Engineers announced it would not approve the easement (a decision that has recently been reversed), after the mass influx of veterans had come and most had left, and the day after David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, had asked people to go home. The woman I reached out to sent a condescending and scolding message in response to my request for help. The elders of the Seven Councils, who guided what happened at Oceti Sakowin, had not made the request Archambault made.

“It is hard to know which voices to listen to,” I was told by numerous friends who had been at camp. Receiving conflicting information and advice about the best plan of action, I stayed in Bismarck both to catch up on sleep and to get more information about whether or not I should even go to camp.

After scouring what news I could find and talking to a few people on the ground, I felt comfortable with the decision to go to camp, so I put a message on the rideshare page. A lovely woman, who was in town for a court date from a direct action she had participated in a few months before, was driving people between Bismarck and camp. She would accept no money for the ride. As she drove carefully on the icy, snow-blowing roads to camp, we exchanged stories.

Just before we pulled into camp, she picked up a scruffy hitch-hiking man looking for a ride to Bismarck. His entrance into the car overwhelmed the air with the smell of fire.

FIlled with joy and gratitude, I thought, “This is what I’ll smell like when I leave."

Oceti Sakowin.jpg

Breathing In...Breathing Out

I arrived home and opened Facebook where several friends had shared live video footage from the ongoing efforts to stop the construction of the North Dakota pipeline through sacred tribal lands: police in riot gear, a few water protectors shouting at them. I started watching.

Shouting is not the same as holding a baton, ready to strike.

The image froze on the police, faces shielded, batons across their bodies. Though not as ominous, my mind shifted momentarily to the "peacekeepers" in The Hunger Games. On my screen the image of the police changed to a screen with a geometric pattern. Was the signal lost or blocked? By the time the video came back on, the police were moving, telling protesters to move south. Some water protectors faced the police, walking backwards as the police moved towards them. “Keeping moving south or we’ll arrest you.”

I start writing with the video on, though I can’t see it as I type. I only listen.

This is not what I thought I was going to write about when I opened a new post.

I turn to the video and see armored police vehicles. I think of Palestine.

I return to my page.

This morning I woke up grumpy. I had no excuse for my mood except that I was tired. The mood followed me through the day. It’s actually been haunting me for several days, coming and going as ghosts do. The source is a sense of loneliness, a desire for more constancy than my current relationships provide, a ghost that visits me periodically, even in times like now when I am being showered with love and love and more love from far and wide. I would like to befriend this visitor, Loneliness, but thus far we haven't hit it off.  

This afternoon I had a meeting at the local Tibetan Buddhist center. The friend I was supposed to meet with was tied up in a call when I arrived.  I had arrived a few minutes late, but my attention only focused on her lack of immediate availability. I could feel a foul mood sweep over me again – resentment, loneliness, anger, impatience, each out of proportion to my current situation. And on top of these, frustration with myself for feeling all those things.

I type now and hear chanting and the rhythm of a drum, what I assume is prayer. I turn to the image and see the chanters standing calmly, feet planted solidly the ground, as their voices sing words I understand only in the way one understands rustling leaves or rushing water: they offer soothing beauty.

I return to the page.

As I sat waiting and stewing earlier, it occurred to me that a few feet in front of me was a beautiful shrine, a room that for me is peace. I entered, sat down, crossed my legs, closed my eyes, and turned my attention to breathing. The aroma of incense lingered in the air as I started to take deep, slow breaths.

Breathing in peace.

Breathing out, releasing anger.

Ah, yes, there are things I need to let go of.

Breathing in peace.

Breathing out, releasing sadness.

Breathing in peace.

Breathing out, releasing impatience.

Breathing in peace.

Breathing out, releasing intolerance.

Breathing in peace.

Feeling my body relax, calm.

Knowing I am ready to offer something different to myself, to the world around me.

Breathing in peace.

Breathing out acceptance.

Breathing in peace.

Breathing out love.

Breathing in love.

Breathing out patience.

Breathing in love.

Breathing out gratitude.

Breathing in love.

Breathing out gratitude.

Breathing in love.

Breathing out peace.

Breathing in love.

Breathing out peace.

I opened my eyes, ready to meet with my friend. Ten or 15 minutes had passed.  She had just finished her call.

She apologized for being late. She apologized for a few other things from the last few months that she labeled as “failures.” If I had not spent time in the shrine, I feel certain I would only have given an insincere “It’s ok” in return. Having had those minutes to focus, I could tell her that her that her delay had been a blessing and that her perceived failures had also allowed me unexpected gifts.

The video behind my writing has ended. I am relieved by the quiet, but left wondering about the well-being of all whose faces and voices passed through my consciousness.

I want to be there. If the protests continue, if my presence is needed, I will go in a few weeks.

In this moment, I am far away. In this moment, I can offer no more than my breath, my calm, my prayer.

This afternoon as the meeting with my friend wrapped up, she apologized again for our late start. I assured her that the wait had offered a gift, sacred solitude, that unfolded into other gifts.

I carried them home: calm, trust, patience. I nearly allowed them to spill out, wasted, as I watched and listened to the video. And then I heard and saw the prayer.

I remembered my own prayer hours before in the shrine.

Now, holding peace gently, I leave my hands open,

ready to receive what may come,

ready to release what must go.  

Breathing in love.

Breathing out peace.

open hands.jpg