Sometimes an experience touches you deeply, where you know you are witnessing something profound and important, but you don’t know exactly what it is. That is what happened to me today. Yoda and I were heading back to Princess Leia the Prius, having just spent the last hour walking around Lady Bird Lake. I was lost in thought, trying to concoct a menu to serve my dinner guests this evening. We arrived at a grassy clearing right next to the parking lot and were met by burning sage, drums, conch shells, and a group of Native Americans decked out in ankle bells, dance regalia and the most elaborate feather headdresses I’ve ever seen. Trying to be inconspicuous, we stood in the shade of a nearby tree for a good 20 minutes watching the ceremony.
The group first did a small dance, stopping to blow conch shells, hold up a smudge bowl and kneel in prayer in the directions of North, South, East and West. Then a man, whom I presume (perhaps mistakenly?) to be the Chief, performed a smudging ceremony on three individuals. Typically smudging involves burning sage, cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco (considered the Four Sacred Herbs in Native American culture) in an abalone shell. A fan or feather is then used to waft the sage smoke around a person’s aura. It is done to purify a person by removing bad spirits or negative influences, and also to keep bad spirits from entering the area where a ceremony takes place. After the smudging ritual, the drumming and the dance grew in energy and intensity. It was beautiful and I found my experience quietly observing from the sidelines to be uplifting with swells of unexplained emotion. It was much like my unexpected encounter on New Year’s Day with a river baptism in Barton Creek.
Another bystander told me that this was an Aztec dance of gratitude, thanking the Gods for the land, air and sea. Hearing this, my emotions surged yet again. One of the reasons I love living in Austin so much is that I have easy access to nature in my own backyard. Nature centers me. This is why I prefer the song of birds to the music in clubs, and why I prefer the visual stimulation of the landscape during a hike to sitting in a dark movie theater. I regularly hug trees (when I first make sure no one is looking), and I’ve been known to weep at the beauty and grace of a deer leaping away after it has stopped to lock eyes with me.
When I got home I immediately jumped on the internet to research what I had witnessed. I came up with nothing. I don’t know what tribe these people were from, or the name of the ceremony. All I know is that I feel huge amounts of gratitude. I’m grateful for stumbling upon this gratitude dance. I’m grateful for Yoda’s and my walk around Lady Bird Lake this morning and the swans that groomed themselves 10 feet from us when we stopped for Yoda to cool off in the water. I’m grateful for nature. I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve been learning during the very difficult past 1½ years of my life. And I’m so unbelievably grateful that I now live in Austin. So I’m calling today’s ceremony a Gratitude Pow Wow. It seems fitting.
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