The blanket fell out of the closet from the top shelf as if it had been pushed. It was not what I was looking for, but the fact that I had been thinking about what I needed to take with me on this trip made its attempt at escape interesting. I had not touched it since I hid it away, and now it ends up in my arms as I am searching for a give-away. Maybe now it is time.
I was getting ready to leave on a week-long trip to the desert of eastern Washington where each summer solstice I am part of a large women’s celebration. The gathering drawings inspiration from numerous religious traditions (mainly pagan) and includes an adaptation of a Native American tradition called give-away. The intention is that participants bring a meaningful gift to pass on to an unknown receiver. The process of letting go is an important aspect of the tradition, as we cannot receive if we continue to hold onto that which we no longer need. The wrapped items are placed in a pile in the center of a blanket. Each participant chooses the gift that calls to them, and it is surprising how often what they choose has deep meaning to them. It is as if the items find their way to the next owner.
I had waited until the last minute to put much thought into my give-away, which was unusual. As the Solstice approaches, I am always on the lookout for signs for what needs to move on to the next person. But this year, nothing struck me solidly, until the blanket fell out of the closet knocking me in the head. It was a full size Pendleton wool blanket; midnight blue with a sunburst of oranges and reds, in a pattern no longer available. It had been unused for years.
This blanket had been a gift from a man who hurt me immeasurably. For several years, the violence, shame and humiliation I was subjected to left me broken until a desperate run for freedom on a grey day in June. I didn’t really want to give the blanket away – it was worth several hundred dollars and I loved its heavy warmth. Yet, I was unable to use it because of the memories and didn’t want to pass the karma on to someone else. Still, it DID fall out of the closet. I tucked it into the corner of my car as I packed so that I could think about it, wrapped another item and set off for the week.
The blanket had sat in my tent all week, and as I returned to pick up my give away for the ceremony, I had more or less had come to terms with the fact it was moving on. It made me unreasonably anxious though, and I assumed I was worried about who would get it and if the blankets history would follow. I had learned to trust this ritual and had seen too many times how people received what they needed to receive to doubt the magic. Besides, the history was mine, not the blankets and I had moved on. Sighing, I grabbed the only “wrapping” I had – a garbage bag – which I tied it shut with red yarn to designate its “sacredness”.
Every year, the process of getting 200 women split into groups of less than 10 was a challenge. And, as we were supposed to keep our gift a secret so that it could be chosen from the heart, not the brain, we weren’t supposed to be with people we were close to. This time, we were instructed to choose a group based on a strong feeling – positive or negative – to someone else until our group number was reached. I hate to admit it, but I chose my group because of the challenging negative feelings I had about a tiny blonde woman with a squeaky voice wearing all the hippy trappings (including the name) of a pseudo-Native American. I am harshly judgmental of people who think they can buy their way into a culture or spirituality and am very sensitive about wanna-be’s. Her California looks and abrupt attitude rubbed me the wrong way even though I had heard she was the “real deal” –a traditionally trained and well respected medicine woman. There must be a reason I felt so strongly and I might as well figure it out. Besides, if anyone could handle the history of this blanket, it was her, regardless of my personal feelings. But I don’t get to choose who gets the gift and I waited through several rounds while my large package was passed over. My agitation grew immeasurably as time passed. I couldn’t sit still and was on the verge of tears. What could I say about this gift that I alternately detested and loved? It felt wrong to give away something so filled with bad memories. I was completely unable to pay attention to my own chosen gift, or to anyone else’s.
Finally, with little surprise to me, it was the tiny blonde lady who picked my gift, and as she opened it, her eyes filled with tears. “You know the tradition of Pendleton blankets?” she asked.
I did. Pendleton blankets were taken from Oregon to be traded by the whites for supplies from the Native people. Gifting one of these high quality blankets bestowed honor and having one was an indicator of wealth, as it would keep the owner warm and could be sold if need be to support them. It was these associations that made it so easy to give away blankets contaminated with small pox as the British troops sought to obliterate the resistant tribes.
As soon as I had the chance I took her aside to explain about the blanket, but before I could say anything she wrapped her arms around me and said, “Clearly this is a big gift you give me, I can see how difficult it is. Thank you for honoring me with it”. She chose to see it as a gift of honor, continuing the blanket tradition but I felt as if I had just given her smallpox. I felt worse, not better, and through my tears I was speechless – unable to explain and uncertain why my reaction was so strong. I burst into tears and ran from the gathering, leaving bewildered friends in my wake.
Running barefoot through camp I blindly sought a safe place where I wouldn’t be found and could cry in peace. My feet led me to the empty sweat-lodge. The sweats were over for this year and everyone was at the give-away ceremony, leaving it peaceful and too far away for anyone to hear my sobbing.
The sweat-lodge is a short, squat dome large formed from native vine maple poles, and covered in blankets. For the gathering we build a new one every year large enough for about 15 people to sit in relative comfort. The sweat lodge ceremony is one of physical and spiritual purification as individuals pray and sweat together in the dark. A fire is built directly outside the lodge in which a number of rocks are heated up. The hot rocks are brought in between rounds, and placed in the center pit. The door is then closed, water is poured over the rocks and the Pourer leads the group in prayers and songs. A lodge can take up to 5 hours to come to completion, and the fire-tenders are responsible for the fire, the heating of the rocks, the care of the women inside and holding the energy of the space for healing work to be done. I have been fire-tending for 15 years and was one of the three leaders of the lodges until this year. It is a sacred space, and a natural place for me to run when I was in despair.
I threw myself through the doorway of the lodge in relief, my head resting on the still warm stones from the previous nights lodge. The tears came unhindered now with a shocking fury. With no one to hear except the ancient ones and spirits that held the lodge, I screamed my grief until my throat was sore. I felt I had been ripped open and was suddenly, terribly heartbroken. I wasn’t upset about giving away the blanket with all that history, I was sad about finally letting go of a long held secret. For the first time I allowed myself to grieve the years of subjugation and desperation. I was so ashamed of the story I had lived through that I had held it tightly against me – couldn’t tell anyone, couldn’t put it anywhere, couldn’t finish processing it by leaving it behind. I kept the knowledge of what I had compromised in order to raise my children hidden because of what I thought it said about me. I didn’t want anyone to know, because I didn’t want them to think I had been stupid. But after all these years – especially after cancer had tried to kill me – I finally understood that I had done what I needed to do to survive. Sometimes it isn’t pretty, but there it is. Burying something so deep do not release you of it, it simply weighs you down.
As I gave away the blanket, I gave away the only thing left of that time, and even though I didn’t want to hold it, by letting it go I was uncertain what would happen. Looking at it reminded me of my shame, and in releasing it I was letting go of my own self- judgment. As I was moving into my pursuing new dreams, I no longer needed to hold any of this – it was all just part of the path that had got me exactly where I needed to be. In true give away fashion, I had let go of something with deep meaning that I had moved beyond so that I could create room for the next thing I needed.
It felt like I had been crying in the dust for hours, but I didn’t once feel like I was alone. I felt hands in my hair, on my back, breath in my ears. I heard sighs and murmurs and opening my eyes was surprised to see I was still alone. I returned to the gathering feeling a lightness in me that I cannot explain. As I neared the still gathered circle my friends approached me, and for the first time, I explained enough of my story for them to understand that my give away had been profound. As they held me, the blonde woman asked if we could go away and talk. I was ready now.
The sun came out for the first time that day as we sat in the meadow and talked. I told her the story of a young woman in poverty with two with two children who sold herself to a man who said he would take care of them. He did, but the cost was enormous to her and she lost who she was in his anger and violence. He told her she was worthless and stupid, and she believed him; this was her second marriage, and if she made such bad decisions twice, than stupid she must be. But as she talked more and more to her ancestor spirits, she began to grow stronger and wondered if there was more in her than he said. Somewhere in running a farm without his help she learned she was capable and that most mistakes are fixable with some hard work. One day she ran with her two children and even though she went back once, thinking that she could make it work out, she didn’t stop listening to her heart again. When she was left with a million dollars of his debt, bankrupt and homeless, her worst fears had come true, only to find that she was happier that she ever imagined possible. It was not the end after all, but the beginning. And now, years later, all her dreams were coming true.
The blonde woman listed to the story without ever taking her eyes of me, tears flowing down her face. When I was done, she took my hands and told her own mirror story, minus the children, adding health issues and ending at the point where she had declared bankruptcy just before the gathering and did not know where she was going to live when she left us. The traditional meaning of receiving a Pendleton blanket — the honoring of the individual and the gift of wealth, was initially what had struck her so deeply. In knowing the story behind the blanket, she had received a gift of hope and courage from one who had travelled the same roads and come out the other side.
As we rejoined the gathering I finally was able to pay attention to the gift I had received sitting at the blanket. With happy tears in my eyes I again looked in the gift bag that contained a bag stamped with the words “Give Happiness” filled with lavender, the herb representing peace and cleansing.