Friday, November 26, 2010

"Bone Country" and rituals of place

As we celebrate a season of thanksgiving and abundance, many of us engage in rituals that center on relationship with family, friends and, of course, food. This season of celebration, plus a recent trip to my native state of California, got me thinking about another kind of relationship to be thankful for: relationship with place. Places that are important to us can be anchors to our past, as old friends often are, or act as stepping stones to our unknown future. When a place is in one's heart and one's DNA, we recognize each other in some inexplicable way.

I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the East Bay hills of Richmond. The picture window in the living room of our house looked out west across the Bay to the blue-shadowed shoulders of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. On fog-free days I could often see the Golden Gate, to the south of Mount Tam. The well-kept houses in my neighborhood were mostly stucco, modest but comfortable faux Mediterranean-style bungalows - though our home was constructed of redwood, daringly contemporary for its time. Farther up the hill, surrounding the elementary school I attended, eucalyptus trees stood sentinel and wafted their pungent fragrance across the schoolyard and down the steep streets.
My family moved 80 miles away when I was 6 1/2 years old, but my attachment to and memories of that early childhood environment have never lost their power over me. Something subtle and mystical, something that seems to penetrate to a cellular level, keeps me tied to those hills which have been kneaded like bread dough by earthquakes, to the always-choppy waters of the Bay, and to the aromatic eucalyptus trees that aren't even indigenous to the area but seem such a fixture of the landscape. Though I deeply love the place I live in now and don't plan to leave it until I leave this life, whenever I return to the Bay Area I feel welcomed home, as if I belong in some fundamental way to the soil, the water and the sky.

So, when I do return, I pay respects: I go to various locations around the East Bay which have some special hold over me, and perform rituals - sometimes without realizing I am doing so - that acknowledge and cement my relationship with the places that Clarissa Pinkola Estes would call my "bone country."  I go to Alameda Beach, which was my destination and my companion on daily walks when I lived in a student house during my master's program at the University of Creation Spirituality. I greet this place, sacred to me, by returning shells and rocks I have picked up on prior visits. This ritual reminds me that all healthy relationships, this one included, are reciprocal, and require giving as well as taking. 

I go to Tilden Park in the Berkeley hills, to ride again the splendid Herschell-Spillman merry-go-round that was the first carousel I rode, as a toddler - or simply to look upon it if it is not open for rides. The setting is incomparable and the merry-go-round is an exquisite example of the love that goes into true craftsmanship and which lasts beyond the lifetime of the craftsperson. Every time I visit I feel a quiver of the same excitement that accompanied each childhood trip to the carousel. These ritual visits restore my innocence in a jaded world, spark joy in me, and remind me of the importance of cultivating and welcoming a spirit of wonder and awe.

Indigenous peoples everywhere know about this kind of relationship to the land which brought them forth: that they belong to it, rather than the land belonging to them; that it sustains them psychologically (or spiritually) as well as physically. They know that the earth they were born on or upon which significant events in their lives took place is a part of who they are, a part of their story. And they do not fail to offer their bone country the respect and love it is due.

What places on this planet have a hold on your heart and your cells? How do you keep yourself whole, integral, by acknowledging that connection with your bone country? If you have never celebrated your connection to place, how might it make a difference in your mind, body and/or spirit if you started now? Could that be part of a season of thanksgiving?

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