Joyce Mills, Ph.D.
According to Native American legend, the back of a giant turtle supports the earth. The Turtle’s slow and deliberate movement provides for changes of times and seasons. An impenetrable fortress, when the turtle is threatened – it finds strength inside. It makes progress only when it sticks out its neck. The ancients called this whole world “Turtle Island.”
I would like to share an experience that helped me fully understand this process. Have you ever found yourself in a moment of utter frustration over some situation that seemed totally out of your control, and only when you released that “control” did something positive happen? My awakening to this concept happened on a cool drizzly Sunday morning, about 5:30 am, when I was awakened and someone told me to start the fire for the Sweat Lodge, which is the ceremony culminating our annual Turtle Island Project – Women’s Healing Journey retreat in Northern Arizona.
Normally I am a grumpy bear when someone wakes me that early, but this morning was different. It was the first time I was asked to start the fire for our Sweat Lodge ceremony and it was an honor to be asked. Without any words, I was handed a small, worn leather pouch filled with wooden matches. I quickly put on my warm thermals, zipped up my quilted ski jacket, tucked the matches and another pouch containing prayer tobacco inside my deepest pocket and out the door I went.
It was one of those amazing Arizona mornings where the ridges of the mountains seem to be painted on a background of cinnamon, plum, and luminescent haze. The cedar and pine trees were moist and fragrant. In the solitude, I understood the kind of quiet, where even silence can be heard, was perfect for soul-searching
As I walked up the stony mountain path towards the Sweat Lodge some hundred feet away, thoughts about our quest to move to Kauai swirled through the quiet spaces of my mind. While reviewing the current status of our dream, thoughts quickly turned to worry. It had been over two years and five real-estate agents later, and in spite of working diligently to sell our home in Los Angeles in order to make this move, not one offer had been made.
To add to the worry, we had borrowed money for a down payment for a small home in Kauai, thinking our Los Angeles home would sell easily and allowing us to pay off the loan within very short period of time. But with the crumbling real-estate market, and trying to pay two mortgages on very little income, we found ourselves with but a few months’ rent left from all of the equity we had amassed over the years. The possibility of losing our home to foreclosure was too close for comfort. I was very frightened and I found myself wondering if these obstacles were signs telling us that we shouldn’t move; that the more prudent course of action was to abandon our dreams.
Huffing and puffing, I came to the top of the hill where the sweat lodge and fire-pit had already been prepared for the morning ceremony the night before. I stood there for a long, quiet moment – taking in the majestic view from that mountain crest before kneeling down near the logs which encased the forty-some-odd lava stones that rested within its center.
Reaching into the tobacco pouch I took out a pinch between my fingers, held it up towards the sky and then began to say a prayer for the well-being of all who entered the Sweat Lodge, as I had been taught to do. After finishing the prayer, I placed the pinch of tobacco within a small opening, a “doorway,” that is left slightly open between the logs, and proceeded to light one of the matches I brought with me. It went out almost immediately.
I moved closer and lit another match, quickly placing it on the dry kindling. This time there was a slight smoldering and then… nothing – it went out again. This process of lighting match after match went on and on until I just had two matches left. Feeling frustrated and very much like a failure at being able to start a fire, I traipsed back down the road and walked upstairs where my spiritual sister was beginning to stir.
“Hey Sis, I don’t think I should be the one to light this fire. No matter what I do, I can’t get it lit. I only have two matches left.” Offering a slight smile of reassurance my sister chortled, “Get back out there Joyce, and light that fire with whatever you have left. Just stay with it!” So… back up the path I walked all the while thinking to myself, “She must know something that I surely don’t know.”
Kneeling down on the cold, moist ground once again, I lit one of the two matches I had left and placed it on the dry pocket of kindling and paper, as I had done before. Small flames began to flicker and I leaned forward and blew on them in order to keep them going. However, no matter what I did, they seemed to have a mind of their own – continuing to quickly dwindle into nothingness.
Realizing I only had one dry match left, I moved closer to the logs and maneuvered a few pieces of the wood around and carefully struck the match on a nearby rock. Waiting a few moments so that the fire was well lit on the end of the match, I reached inside once again and lit the dry kindling. Finally, the flames grew stronger and I breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, that feeling of relief was short-lived because the flames began to steadily grow fainter until they were completely out… again!
Having no matches left and feeling very much a failure, I thought to myself, “I couldn’t even light a simple fire”. With fists clenched in frustration, and tears of desperation streaming down my cheeks, I looked up towards the Heavens and shouted at the top of my lungs, “DEAR GOD, I NEED HELP. I CAN’T DO THIS ALONE.”
Within moments, I heard a slight rustling coming from the bushes nearby, and found myself looking face to face with a sweet, dark-eyed deer. She just stood there looking at me for a few long moments, cocking her head as though to communicate some sort of understanding about my sad situation. Simultaneously, I heard a loud whooshing sound and turned to see what it was. The seemingly dead fire was suddenly blazing brilliantly within the center of the fire-pit!
What was more unbelievable to me was that, very uncharacteristic of a deer, was that it stood there – watching with me as the fire continued to blaze. Her head still cocked with that “knowing” look, the deer slowly turned and walked down the same path she had come – conveying a silent message that I needed to hear.
I just stood there – taking this moment of magic within my being. “What had she come to tell me?” I wondered to myself. As I began to walk back down the road to the house it began to rain. By the time I got back to the house, it was pouring. “Oh no!” I thought to myself, “After all of this and now the rain will probably put the fire out. Well, at this point it is out of my control, that’s for sure.”
When I got back into the house and dressed for the Sweat Lodge, I told the women about my morning’s adventures with the fire and the deer. As we walked up the hill through the rain, I wondered if the fire would still be burning or had been doused by the rain. I suppose there was a part of me that wasn’t the least bit surprised by the fact that there, in front of us, the fire was still blazing.
I think what I learned from this experience is that when you believe in yourself – it takes a lot to put out a good fire. And in times when it feels like there is no more energy left to spark the flames of our desires, it is important to remember that a simple breath of faith can ignite that fire within each of us once again.
Please feel free to leave your comments about how this message impacted you – causing you to remember some similar, life transforming event.
Oh, I almost forgot, I wanted to invite you to learn more about the Turtle Island Project by going to http://www.turtleislandproject.com/whcinfo.htm
Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D. LMFT LLC
Creative Solutions for Positive Change
Registered Play Therapy Supervisor
Co-director of The Phoenix Institute of Ericksonian Therapy