This morning as I was heading out for my walk, I heard the tail end of an NPR interview with Sitting Bull’s great grandson, his closest living relative. The great grandson said the Lakota believe you have to have reached a certain level of maturity before you can go on a vision quest. For most people this is in their thirties. For him, it was in his forties. Then he told a story about retrieving Sitting Bull’s leggings and a clump of his hair from the Smithsonian. When the grandson and his wife returned home, they walked out in the desert with Sitting Bull’s remains and came across a huge rattle snake. They were alarmed, but the rattle snake stayed still, put its head down (or something — I can’t quite remember). Sitting Bull was generous, said the grandson. He would give his life for his people, and not just his people, but the whole world, every living thing, and so, the snake knew Sitting Bull had come home and humbled itself.
I remember teaching Lakota history and feeling smug because I had read about vision quests and could tell students about them and — I am embarrassed to admit this — felt I had been on vision quests, not just one or two, but too many to count because I had had a few daydreams, gone on runs that were too long, written poetry, and fasted for many days and had strange insights as a result. I know better now. Sadly, if I were to see a rattlesnake, which is not likely since I don’t live in Wyoming, it would remain a rattlesnake, no matter what it did. I have not been schooled in a tradition that taught me to see the world in mystical terms. Just the opposite. Even my writing has become an item on my list of obligations. Did I get more carrots? Did I put gas in the car? Did I write The Mary‘s today?
On my walk, I looked out at the river near my house and felt guilty. Why am I not trying to be more visionary? Why don’t I try to go on quests? Not that I could as I am not trained as a Lakota, but why am I not trying to see more, feel more? At least I could go to Temple. At least I could meditate or pray more often. At least I could try to have more ecstatic experiences. It is not just because my mind is cluttered with shopping lists and credit card payments, school orchestra concerts and class schedules that I have forgotten about my old aspirations. I think it’s because I had assumed visions would just come to me, that I would sit down to write and always have access to my imagination. But now I realize I have to work for it. Train for it. Eat less sugar. Get more sleep. Take writing more seriously, not in an inflated sense, but in an athletic sort of way.
My grandfather was fortunate. His work was his love which was music. When he performed, he could enter that greater world, whatever we want to call it, the world of spirit and art. If that is truly what I want, then I have some rearranging to do. It seems absurd to put “be more visionary” on one’s to do list. But that is my impulse. It’s what I’m going to do.