Letter 5

Dear Friends:

April 4, 1999
Fifth Call Council of Elders

Sitting in Council in Zimbabwe and Finding Hope

I am beginning to write this letter on Easter Sunday in the midst of the Festival of Pesach in which we are enjoined to remember the difficult passage through Mitzraim, the ‘narrow place,’ toward freedom as if we are going through that passage ourselves. Even as I write these words, NATO is bombing Belgrade. I am assuming that the questions in my mind are similar to the question in your minds:
Will things change and how? How long can such wars continue? What are our individual responsibilities? What is our [unconscious] individual participation in the seeming inevitability of violence?
Will we ever truly govern ourselves according to answers to such questions as these: What drives people crazy? What enrages them? What drives them to violence?
Will we, living in North America, forever assume our innocence in the face of fascism, police states, civil wars, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, nuclear disasters elsewhere? Will we continue to consider ourselves separate because we believe it can’t happen here and also that we are blameless in regard to any such occurrences elsewhere? Will we face the economic, political and military hegemony that has entangled us, without admission of our complicity, in such events elsewhere?
On another note: Will human beings be able to make the individual changes that can lead to planetary changes in order to take us through a wormhole toward peace rather than defeat? Where/who are the bearers of wisdom and how can we consult them?

One intention of this letter is to thank all of those who have written or called, so many of whom are people of color and native people whose views and understanding I treasure beyond words. I am deeply reassured because councils are occurring everywhere – even councils of young people — and these councils are creating their own forms and rhythms. Also I’m grateful to the many who have written to confirm that you’ve heard the call and, wrestling with this angel, are accepting the honor and the responsibility of being an elder.
I also feel compelled to respond to several correspondents who have cautioned me against, and reprimanded me for, speaking of how dire our situation is. But no earnest declaration that things are exactly as they ought to be has, so far, reassured me. Many, but not all of such letters, have come from people speaking only from their own circumstances: those who aren’t nor ever have been fleeing without food, papers or possessions like the citizens of Kosovo nor living through bombings like the citizens of Belgrade, nor holocausted like elephants and other species. Still, I have considered long and hard the content of these letters because I want to be in Council with others especially those who think differently from myself. I have considered whether it is my language, or the activities, that ‘are especially poisonous.’ And so I have weighed the consequences of lightening what I see. I have also questioned taking on the heavy burden of cultural responsibility for so much which is devastating all the species on the planet. [Devastation is a word I was ‘instructed,’ not to use by someone who experienced ongoing ‘heaviness’ after I used it “in reference to a woman’s experience concerning breast cancer Ö as using it or thinking it may/will/can cause you and others to experience illness.” The writer, citing support from a Balinese healer advised me to use “depression or frustration” in its stead. If only it was just frustration and depression we had to deal with. “Don’t ever think it again!” the man warned.]
Ultimately, I find myself unwilling to look away from the mirror, which we must hold up to ourselves if anything is to be saved. Looking away or mitigating what is there does not erase what is to be faced. After we see clearly what we are up against in the world and in ourselves, we can, with each other’s counsel and support begin the slow, careful, thoughtful work of recreating our lives.
In regard to some other responses, I do not find it in myself to condone current behavior because it has a historic base. Because we are not the only ones in history to have engaged in violence against people, animals and the earth, does not relieve us from the consequences of our behavior today. Consciousness teaches us that it is possible to change ourselves and we are not doomed to repeat history because it is natural or has precedence. When we are willing to see that we are subtly and overtly entangled in, or allied with, economic, religious and military organizations that are in their own ways totalitarian and from whose influence no one, no being on the planet is safe, we have a chance. The old axiom applies here: We may not be able to change anyone else, but we can explore how to change ourselves as we are the ones who must change.
In my mind, it makes a difference to move from the obsession with one’s own survival and well being, and one’s infatuation with one’s own goodness, to imagining ways that all beings might survive and live substantial and meaningful lives. In order to achieve this, we will have to be cagey to negotiate the social, political, economic minefields that threaten our existence everywhere recognizing that each mine removed to protect ourselves provides an area of safety for others, while also recognizing that removing the mines is not sufficient– we have to undo the system that thinks in terms of mines to begin with.
Again, responding to some letters, though I have been assured that the system is fine, I find no evidence for it. The cosmic order, the natural world, Hozro, call it what you will, these systems are, indeed, fine. The task is to accord our humanly contrived systems with these. I do not think we have yet recognized how willful we are as human beings and how willfully we obscure divine principles and impose our own ways on the natural world. No matter how clever we think ourselves, we have not managed to integrate all the factors and elements that were, before our intervention, in dynamic balance. Perhaps nothing more -and nothing less -than considering all others as passionately as ourselves is the key to survival.
And to those who have written with broken hearts saying they have come to the point where they are virtually paralyzed by looking in the mirror realizing that they cannot make a move without doing great harm if only that they are dependent even when living a simple committed life on an inordinate number of resources that undermine and deplete the environment and the lives of people all over the world — to these people I say what I continually say to myself: No matter how painful it is, let’s continue to scrutinize ourselves and our culture. The pain we feel is nothing compared to the pain we inflict on ourselves and others, and we will, in concert with each other, come to new ways of being that will make a difference. Accordingly, to those who like myself sometimes feel they are collapsing under the weight of it all, I offer a little humor and solace from Naomi Newman’s one woman show, Snake Talk: ” Fall down, get up, is one motion.”

These letters have been circulating to people and places beyond my network – bless Spider Woman. Those of us who are working in the world in our different ways are seeing the potential for change. It is becoming increasingly clear that we are in the hands of what is far greater than us and so we must ask whether and how we can each change ourselves and our ways of life radically enough to come forth to meet what is being offered which can we must presume, ultimately, save us – and everything.
Perhaps, again, it is just this which is being asked of us: that we do not turn away, that we gather strength and vision from each other, that we look deeply at what we have wrought, grieve it and step away, that we recognize that we can live differently, and that there is much joy and fulfillment in this process of moving out of what is destructive toward what is life giving.

Now I would like to tell you two stories regarding sitting in Council in Zimbabwe. Afterwards, you will understand why, for the first time in a long time, despite our dire circumstances, I feel hope.

In December 1998, I traveled to Zimbabwe to live within the community, the daré , and to do mutual initiatory work with a renowned traditional Shona healer, a nganga, Augustine Kandemwa who is married to an Ndebele woman, herself a dream teller and trance medium. The Shona and Ndebele peoples have been enemies for years and it is significant that these two people have created an urban intertribal healing sanctuary. Augustine sees that he has been given the charge of peacemaking and his marriage with Simakuhle is one of the ways that peacemaking is being enacted through them.

My husband, Michael Ortiz Hill, following a dream, his great interest in Bantu culture, and a book he was researching, first went to Africa in 1996 where he met and began working alongside Augustine. I went with Michael in 1997 and again in 1998.

Just before leaving for Africa I had sent out the last Elder’s Council letter which contained a dream communication from the Koji people. In that letter, I wrote:
Perhaps we are being called to these [native] peoples not only to help sustain their traditions, ways of life and natural habitats, but, as importantly, to ally with us, to sit in council with us, to advise us, so that we can, together, discern how we may all survive and preserve what must be preserved.
And also:
“We must find ways to sit in council with the animals and the natural world…”
“What do you want from this trip to Africa?” my husband asked me as we landed in Bulawayo.
“I want to sit in council with Augustine and his people and I want to sit Council with the elephants.”

Sitting in Council with the daré was quite different than I had imagined. We did not only sit in formal sessions seeking counsel from each other; we were in council all the time. Upon meeting, we quickly agreed, almost without formally consulting each other, that we would be holding certain questions in our minds at all times – essentially the questions that have been the basis of these letters: What are the life sustaining ways? How can we change our lives so that we live according to them? What forms and actions will protect us from what is pernicious in modern culture? What of the old or traditional shall we preserve and re-instate and what of the new is useful to all of us and where shall we look for yet newer directions?
Upon first meeting, Augustine and Michael entered into a mutual relationship of complete respect so it was a given that we would listen most carefully to each other in order to receive each other’s wisdom and also that we had thrown in our lot with each other and that survival had to be mutual. It was as if every conversation and dream and event addressed these questions so that we are always alert to the moment and to the larger issues.
One evening, Augustine’s oldest son was trance-possessed for the first time. This was an extraordinary event and we were all joyous for it meant, among other things, that Augustine would have a dharma heir in his own family. But what was most moving to Augustine was that the wise grandfather, ancestor spirit, the old sekiru, who appeared through his son, George, spoke of healing the deep rift between Augustine and the rest of his original family that had occurred when spirit impelled him to step away from Christianity to take on the role of a native healer. From the moment the sekiru appeared, we all, as if carried by him, began the initiatory, psychological and ritual work that would prepare George and his family for this work as well as healing our own relationships in our own families. Part of the wisdom, which came to us in this instance from the Shona tradition, is the necessity to heal history and the ancestors as well as ourselves and each other. This idea is implicit in the Kaddish, in the Mass, in the prayers many traditions say for the dead, but perhaps without focusing so particularly on the particular and individual historic circumstances that need to be redressed and redeemed. We were each compelled by inner circumstances to bring the scrutiny of self also to our history and to work from there, psychologically, practically and ritually. It was not long before it became evident that what might be called personal or domestic concerns had global implications. Considering tribal conflict in Rwanda, for example, and how such tensions are manipulated for political purposes as well as the rise of nationalism in Europe and elsewhere, we began to understand something of why we were being led in this direction.
This was not what any of us had expected but Augustine because of his native tradition is deeply sensitive to the directions of spirit and the assistance of the ancestors and so led us on to this unexpected path. What was most evident to all of us, was that when we were in council in Zimbabwe, the spirits and ancestors were sitting with us.
My sense of these Councils of Elders is that each of them will yield important insight to the participants which will often be relevant to all of us as we walk this maverick path of doing the individual work of healing outside of institutional or legislative domination and without concern for economic gain.
Synchronistically, Michael had begun such work with his family earlier last fall and I, myself, in my own way was working on myself in regard to my relationship with my sons. Several of the other Americans and Europeans who were traveling with us were led, similarly to consider these issues as primary as we recognized that spirit was sitting in council with us, giving us a direction. Needless to say, I think we would be endangered by any formula which insists on how this is to be accomplished but it seems to me that we might consider the same philosophy that is essential to council – to bring to each other mutual respect and a deep desire to know and be informed by the wisdom and being of the other and to honor the ways of reconciliation that each culture has developed.
A few days ago we received the following from Augustine:
My relatives called me to Harare because they were facing so many problems. Simakuhle and I went to stay with them for two weeks. Together, we went to three different ngangas of their choice who told my relatives they had hated me for no reason for many years. They were also told that they were refusing to accept the spirits I am carrying by not accepting me. My relatives admitted this and they are now reconciling with me.

I am in the process of writing the next story in detail and hope to publish it soon. But as it is of such an extraordinary nature, I wish to communicate its essence to you because it alters the territory in which most of us have been working.
On January 6th, Epiphany, we were on the way to Chobe, an animal preserve in Botswana known for its elephant herds. Michael asked me “How does one sit in council with elephants?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I do not know. I do not even know how to imagine it.”
Now I know something of it. And what I know is that the animals come forth.

There were five of us and Michael and I were in the open flat bed of the truck. I had the hope and intention of sitting in council with the elephants for the sake of mutual survival. I had determinedly prepared for this for two years, though without knowing how to prepare. After several hours of prayer and invocation, I saw an elephant deliberately walking toward us from three-quarters of a mile away. When he came to the truck, he faced us directly, acknowledged us, then walked toward us until we were four feet from each other. He then looked me directly in the eye for a very very long time, twenty minutes perhaps. Afterwards, when we were leaving the park, dozens of elephants came down from the hills and carefully aligned themselves for a half mile along the riverbed unmistakably addressing us as we exited the park.
What was transmitted? I don’t know yet. But surely something about the fundamental values and ways of being that are at the foundation of the community of this remarkable species.
What occurred? I think, or hope, an alliance was created and some mysterious form for communication across vast distances and species lines.
To what end? We will see.
What does it mean? We will all have to wrestle with this but, for myself, and those who were with me, we will never be the same. Our former understanding of the nature of the universe is irreversibly shattered. Accordingly, I think it means that we are not the only intelligent, conscious species in the universe and so we are not so alone with ourselves. Perhaps it means that we may have assistance even from those we have so deeply injured and so there is hope.

So many letters have spoken to the difficulty of meeting the other in order to sit together in council. Perhaps this is where we begin. In the act of trying to meet each other, of living among each other for whatever period of time, sharing each other’s jeopardy and wisdom, many of our problems will be solved. Perhaps finding each other, in whatever ways and forms we discover, is the essential task and the solutions will proceed from our meetings. Small gestures toward the other, unexpected alliances, unanticipated relationships, unprecedented camaraderie, the willingness to find kin where we least expect it, allowing ourselves to be altered in the crucible of relationship, abandoning our most cherished beliefs in the face of the revelation of spirit and the other’s wisdom, being willing to break all the forms that keep us separate, not being daunted in our insistence upon peace or beauty, these ways, I believe, open the doors and heart.
Since this experience with the elephant, I have been thinking ever more deeply about what it means to walk with integrity concerning the interconnection between all beings as the basis of all conscious thought and action. To live actively and resolutely on intimate terms and in continuous relationship with all beings while in conversation also with the past and the future, our ancestors and our descendants, is it not to enter into the sweet marriage that rightly promises us possibility?

I send you my blessings and my deepest prayers for a rejuvenated planet, the restoration of the earth, and the return of the sacred everywhere.
Deena Metzger
P O Box 186
Topanga CA 90290

Please feel free to distribute this letter and those that preceded it to whomever you wish. There is a short form of the first three letters which may be useful to you as it outlines the motivation for these letters and the concept of being an elder and the ways of council. Please ask for the article that appeared in the Whole Life Times.