Knotted Prayers

A Father, A Daughter, and a Journey Towards Healing

I am wearing my father’s skirt. If you’d like to get technical, it’s actually more of a sarong. This one is hippie blue, with fringe, and some tie dye action that is in the soft outline of a dolphin. I wear it wrapped twice around my legs and knotted awkwardly at my side. We’re standing in a campground in West Virginia in the heat of late August in 2012. My father is about to fast from food and water for the next four days as he dances around the tree of life. My job is to eat and drink on his behalf.

When I emerge from my small tent wearing the sarong, my father is sitting in a camping chair, smoking a rolled cigarette. “You ready?” he asks. I nod.

My father stands up from the camping chair. He is wearing a skirt, too.

When I agreed to come with him to this sun moon dance, I was worried that I didn’t have a skirt. I didn’t really have anything that would qualify me for this ritual: I did not like camping. I loved food. I judged any ritual that skirted the edges of cultural appropriation. I liked my queer aesthetic of black skinny jeans and tank tops from American Apparel. And finally, I did not own anything that would constitute a long skirt.

“Don’t worry,” my father said. “You can borrow one of mine.”

Here is what I know about sun moon dances: they were created by Joseph Rael, or Beautiful Painted Arrow, a semi-retired shaman and artist of the Southern Utes tribes in Colorado. Joseph Rael began leading ceremonial dances—open to anyone—in the 1990s. All of Joseph’s teachings came from his own visions, such as his vision to build a peace chamber in New Mexico, where people of all races could chant for peace. “When you dance you are expanding the vibrations of insight and manifestation,” he wrote. “I created three dances—the long dance, the sun-moon dances and the drum dance—for these spiritual gifts. Every dance, every ceremony, is both for you and for the cosmos.”

Here is what I know about my father: he is a sixty-two-year old retired septic sewer worker who at one time loved Nascar and drank alcoholically, but now is the sort of man who wears a knotted prayer bracelet around his thin wrist. When I was sixteen, my father got sober and got spiritual. I have often said that I have two fathers: the alcoholic volatile father from my childhood, and the sober father who came home from rehab and wanted our family to go to church. My mother had raised my brother and I as Catholics. Every Sunday when she hustled us into the car, my father stayed behind on the couch, hungover and watching football. “Why doesn’t Dad have to go to church with us?” we whined. “Because he’s Protestant,” my mother snapped. “Just get in the car.”

My father drank a case of Rolling Rock a week, the green and white bottles imbued in my memory. He was sometimes a falling down drunk, was often a yelling drunk, and hit me only two times, a low enough number that I demur if asked if my father was ever violent. As if there’s a spectrum on quantifying abuse. No matter. He was now my sober father. The script called for gratitude, forgiveness. I was an enthusiastic kid. After he divorced my mother, my father fell into the role of part time parent, taking my brother and me out for dinner and a movie whenever we came home from college to visit. By this time, my father had gotten into sweat lodges, Tibetan bowl healing ceremonies, meditation, drum making workshops. One Christmas, my brother and I go to an early mass with our mother, then get in the car and drive an hour to the house where my father has moved in with his friend, the house with the sweat lodge in the backyard and a guest house for the healing ceremonies. We go to sit in a room on the floor with our father and listen to the crystal bowls be rung, each bowl corresponding to its own chakra. The only thing connecting old dad and new dad is his wrinkled face, his beard, the glasses he’s worn forever, and his smoker’s cough, a brutal throat clearing and the way he tries not to let it betray his body when he coughs. This is around 2002, and e-mail is still relatively new. My father signs all of his emails in capital letters: PEACE AND LOVE, POPS. In January he writes my brother and I an email about how he went ice skating that day. My brother replies to just me: what the hell happened to dad?

The first sun moon dance comes not long after that. My father tells me about it over the phone. I’ve escaped to New York, where I go to college and tutor kids for money, and where my friends and I have a dyke bar for every night of the week. I feel a codependent tether to my newly divorced parents, and so I call each of them at least once a week. When my father tells me about the sun moon dance, I picture him in a forest at night, a joyous kind of dancing, the high that must come from not eating for four days straight. I pace my small apartment and worry about him, worry about my mom, worry about all of us. Every apartment I have in New York, my father comes to visit and brings with him a handmade drum. He walks up and down the narrow hallway, drumming lightly, to bless the space. We are incredibly white and this is very strange. At my brother’s wedding, someone turns to my mother and says, “So I hear your ex-husband is a bit of a shaman?” I nearly spit out my drink. My mother pales. No matter how many sun moon dances he does, my father will never be a shaman.

Each dance happens in an arbor around a tree of life. The dancers each bring with them a support person, who eats and drinks of the dancer’s behalf during the four day fast. There is a moon mother and a sun father, a bevy of drummers, volunteers called dog soldiers who make sure that the arbor is set up, that the sweat lodge is ready for the pre-dance ceremony, and that the kitchen, set away from the arbor, has water and food and space for everyone who is not a dancer to eat together in communion. The night before the dance, everyone—twelve dancers, their support people, the moon mother, the fire tender, the chief of the dance, the drummers, the dog soldiers, and me — go out to an Italian restaurant in a strip mall off the highway near the campground. There are baskets of greasy garlic knots, heaping plates of spaghetti and red sauce, plastic red glasses bubbling with Sprite or Fanta or whatever the dancers desire. This is their last meal. As we’re leaving the restaurant, Moon Mother politely asks me if I had any other shirts with me besides my tank top, anything modest that would cover my shoulders while we were in the arbor. When I say no—I am not part of this community; I am my father’s twenty-nine year-old lesbian daughter from Brooklyn trying desperately to form a connection with her father in this wacky display of who-knows-what—my father, in the refrain of the weekend, says that he had some extra T-shirts with him that I could borrow. The one I wear the first day was from my college production of The Vagina Monologues, black with V-DAY in white letters across the chest, the tag line until the violence stops.

That first day, when I step out of my tent in the sarong and the big T-shirt and the only sneakers I own (peacock-blue Keds), Jane, a tall woman from Arizona who has a peace chamber in her backyard, asks me if I’m wearing underwear.

“Um,” I say. “Yes?”

She shrugs, then gestures at my pelvis. “Next time,” she says “trying going without underwear. Puts your hoo-haw at the center of the universe.”

The dog soldiers nickname me Brooklyn. As in: Brooklyn, can you help me roll this sweet grass? or Hey, Brooklyn, wanna hop in the truck and come with me to pick up more water? In their everyday lives, these people are nurses, playwrights, retired postal workers, contractors, academics. I’m one of the youngest people there; one of the other dancers has brought her college age step son to support her. He has a cooler of Starbucks canned frappuccinos next to his tent, which I guzzle with him whenever I need a reminder of the real world.

During the four days, there are periods when the dancers are dancing and times when they are not. The arbor is set up with a corral of posts around it, covered with tarps, creating little cubbies where each of the dancers can rest and sleep. My father’s space is on the east side of the arbor. He has laid out his sleeping bag, his duffel with a few extra t-shirts. A poncho in case it rains. Hung from his arbor are the one hundred and ten prayer ties that the chief of the dance asked each dancer to bring. Each one is a little pouch of sacred tobacco, so that the flecks of brown blow in the breeze whenever we’re lucky enough to get a breeze. I ask him what he prayed for when he tied his one hundred and ten prayer ties, and he’s thoughtful for a moment. “Peace,” he says. “The earth.” I feel small and selfish for hoping he would say me.

I’m told this is one of the best dance arbors because of the shade. The tree of life is about ten feet from where the dancers rest, marked with a buffalo skull, its mouth stuffed with sage. When they are called to dance, they each dance in their own path, walking to and from the tree of life. Some dancers shuffle. Some dancers jog. The drumming sets the pace. Each dancer also wears a turkey bone whistle around their neck (vegetarian whistles are available for the vegetarian dancers). They’ve been instructed to blow on their whistle as they dance. Everyone stands when the dancers dance, to bear witness to their journeys, being careful not to make eye contact, which could disrupt their journeys.  I stand a little back from the arbor, my arms crossed, and watch my father with trepidation. He dances at a good pace. He blows his whistle. He sometimes puts his hands up in the air. He looks up at the tree as he approaches, then lowers his head, turns around, and dances back towards his space. What the hell happened to dad?

My brother has gone to a dance with my father once before this. When I asked him what it’s going to be like, he just says, “Weird. But the people are nice.” At the end of the dance, when the chief has blessed everyone with water, when everyone has been washed and fed, we will all sit in a circle in the shade of the arbor and go around so everyone can share what the dance was like for them. I sit next to my father, and when the sharing comes to him, he says he is grateful for everyone who made the dance possible. “I felt safe and cared for to do my work.”

I have etched those ten simple words into my mind, turned them over and over as if more truth can spill from them, if I can only find the latch to open those words up. What work? I want to whisper. Tell me about the work. My instinct is still to whisper around my father. It’s the residue from growing up with someone who yelled often, quick to temper, and sometimes abusive. When I try to talk to my brother about the nuance of our childhood, it is as if he grew up in a different house. He doesn’t think it was that bad. I spend a lot of time trying not to doubt myself. The whisper is a reminder.

Hitting the tree is just part of the dance. Every so often, a dancer goes into a sort of trance and runs at the tree. It can happen quickly or it can happen slowly. Only one dancer hits the tree while I am there: an older woman who goes towards the tree at a normal pace, then presses herself up against its trunk. She holds onto it. The other dancers fall back, giving her space. It takes a few moments before we see that she is weeping. The drums continue. The whistling quiets. Then the woman begins to scream.

It’s a scream from the gut, a grief scream. She wails and hits the tree with her fists and then begins to slump, down, down, down until she is on the ground, out of breath, eyes closed. It is hard to watch someone suffer so intimately and just stand by. Minutes pass before the chief goes to her. She sits with her head in her lap and strokes her hair. Then the chief looks up and nods. Four dog soldiers come out with a white sheet. They spread the sheet next to the woman, then gently move her onto it. Grabbing the sheet like a stretcher, they move her out of the arbor to the medicine tent. I had been trained on how to go into the arbor like this, with the sheet and the care and the silence, but I do not go. When one of the dog soldiers was training a few of us, with a sheet laid out in the meadow and the sun bearing down, he told us we would have to be very careful when moving a dancer. When a dancer collapses, they are between worlds.

People trade stories about dancers hitting the tree. A man in California who hit the tree so hard it shook. A woman in Arizona who hit the tree, reeled back, and hit it again. They tell these stories with a mix of astonishment and glee. A willowy man named Petro laughs when I ask him if my father ever hit the tree. “Oh, man,” he says. “Sure did. Everything was just humming along and then, here comes your dad. He came at that tree a full clip and just—“ He claps one hand into the other, his right palm skidding off of his left palm so loud that I flinch. Petro doesn’t notice. “I remember I looked over at your brother, and he had gone white as a ghost. Looked like he wanted to rush into that arbor and save him.”

I can picture my brother, pale and worried, on the outside of the arbor. Our father on the ground. A woman from Ohio gently rubs my back and tells me not to worry. “Your father is strong,” she says. People tell me this as a compliment all week long: he looks strong out there. Your father has so much strength. She’s tried to explain to me why everyone there is part of the dance community, what the dances mean to them. “We’ve tried politics. We’ve tried activism. We’ve tried religion. Now we’ve got this.” I never fully relax during the weekend. When the chief calls the dancers to go to their places and we all gather to stand and witness, I find my father’s place and I stare at him intently, even though I’ve been warned not to. I’m trying to telegraph to him everything I could never say out loud to him. It’s a fast past and desperate sort of prayer. Don’t hit the tree. Stay alive. Stay here. I love you. I want to forgive you. I’m your daughter. Don’t die. Don’t hit the tree. Not yet. Tell me everything. Why. Do you remember.

A few years after my parents’ divorce, I got sober myself. I was twenty-four and had skidded into an alcoholic bottom, suicidally depressed and absolutely desperate for help. Because of my father, I knew where to go. In the heady realignment of those early sober days, I decided to confront my father. I think I just asked him to talk? I told him I had some questions about my childhood, but when I try to remember the questions, they evaporate in my throat. All I’m left with is a memory of sitting with my sober father in his one room apartment above his friend’s garage. I sat in an armchair that had once been in my family’s living room, and he sat across from me in a salvaged desk chair, nervous and turning the beads on his thin knotted prayer bracelet.  Before I said anything, he coughed and said he supposed he owed me an amends. One for hitting me hard the time I was young. Another for the time he beat me on the stairs. He concluded by shaking his head and saying that he never should’ve married my mother. Too late, I wanted to whisper. He married her and created my family, my only family. If he wanted to clap his hands and erase it, he couldn’t.

On our drive down to the dance arbor, we stopped at a family restaurant off the side of the highway. My father had corn chowder and I ate a cheeseburger. We ate mostly in silence; I had used up all of my questions (Are you looking forward to the dance? Does your doctor know you do this? Have you ever met Joseph Rael?) on the long drive. At some point, though, my father nodded as he chewed, then said, “Y’know. This week. You’re probably going to see me suffer.”

We looked at one another. I nodded back. I said, “Okay,” in the way I’d been trained to accept the family in front of me. I’d seen him suffer before.

Courtney Gillette