The two-sided drum of Starry Song, or shaman, who had the gift of sharing the philosophy of his people through his words, drummed the night into the mountains of Arizona, beating a sweet ancestral song sung in native dialect. One of the shaman’s dearest friends had passed away. Starry Song was alone in his place of power, a place he enjoyed going to when he wanted to connect with the invisible aspects of life. It was a plateau at the top of the mountain on whose cliff, right at the edge, a tree maintained an unlikely balance. The next day, there would be a funeral in the city, where all acquaintances and members of the tribe would be present. When I arrived and spread my blanket beside the fire, the shaman performed his personal ceremony. It all started in the morning. Upon finding his house empty, I was informed by a neighbor of what had happened. It was not difficult to know where I would find him. As he didn’t object to my arrival, I sat down and waited for him in silence until he finished his songs. Starry Song looked at me, arched his lips in a slight smile and nodded to me without saying a single word. I told him I heard what had happened and expressed my sorrow. However, that wasn’t it. Other events added up to take the shaman to his place of power.
Starry Song taught ancient legends and songs to children at a local school for many years. The new principal appointed to the position, coming from the capital, had exempted the services of the shaman, as he understood that, because he did not have a university degree, he was prevented, by law, from exercising this function. I knew how much Starry Song loved to tell stories and sing for the kids. It was easy to see how difficult this must be for him. I had become aware of this fact when I went to the store to buy some groceries before I took the trail and climbed the mountain. I told the shaman that I also grieved this additional loss.
He looked at me curiously, as one does when having fun with a clumsy child, and said: “There may be loss or there may be a transformation. There may be drama or evolution. The choice is up to each individual. Things always change and that is good. However, we are often not prepared; then, everything looks dark.” He paused briefly and spoke as if to say the obvious: “That’s why I came to talk to the owl.”
Astonished, I said I didn’t understand. I asked if those songs were to call the owls of the forest. I looked around to see if the birds were already resting on the trees. Starry Song laughed heartily and shook his head as if to say it wasn’t quite that. Then he explained: “Animals do not have a consciousness, but each species, due to its instinct, has a collective energy that hovers over the atmosphere. This energy, although not inventive, is fundamental to the maintenance and balance of the planet. In shamanism we learn to use this energy, natural to each species, as an instrument of healing. Not directly in the physical aspect, but as a force for harmony and overcoming in the mental, emotional, and spiritual spheres.” He shrugged and concluded: “Which, in some way, always brings reflexes to the physical body.” He paused briefly to light the red stone bowl of his pipe and continued: “Although we can use the energies of all species for healing, there are always some animals with whom we have greater affinities; these are our animals of power.” He stressed that this was a very brief explanation of the subject and that he used to teach this more deeply in the classes he taught to the children. He recalled that the animals of power were the basis for each one to understand and build their own totem. Totems represent the predominant spiritual characteristics, gifts, and forces that act on a person, tribe, or clan. Upon my surprise, he said: “The universe has a sophistication far beyond where the eyes can see and the imagination can reach.”
I wanted to know why he came to talk to the owl. Starry Song was instructive: “The owl is the head of my personal totem. It is my predominant power animal. There are moments in life when some events tend to push us off balance. This usually happens to boost our advances based on our willingness to seek a new point of internal harmony. In those moments I use the owl medicine for my healing.” I asked him to talk more about it. The shaman didn’t put up a front: “The owl, due to its habits, is known among the native peoples as the night eagle. It has the enormous ability to see in the dark; to see what others have a hard time seeing. The owl sees through the nights of time.”
He lit his indefectible pipe, puffed a few times and continued: “Sometimes, we go through situations where everything seems to get dark. The day becomes night. We get lost in the forest of existence. Then, it is necessary to find the way back from darkness to light; the road back home. I use the energy of the owl as a guide, to learn to see in the dark, to show my eyes the path of life; after all, there will always be a different way to follow, a new possibility of being and living.”
I said that I knew about the two difficult moments he was going through: the death of a friend and the lay-off at school. As I had a hard time dealing with the deaths of people close to me, I insisted on saying that I was sympathetic to him for the loss he faced at that time. The shaman, observing the smoke from his pipe, which, lit by the bonfire, seemed to twirl like a ballerina in the air, explained: “I have not treated death as a loss for a long time, but instead, as an inevitable journey driven by the love of the universe, so that, on the invisible side, we can continue on the journey towards fullness. Death does not sadden me.” I asked him if he thought life was better on the invisible side. Starry Song explained: “Neither better nor worse, each one will follow on the exact scale of the level of consciousness and loving capacity already achieved, without escaping the inevitable lessons for personal improvement.” He pointed to the sky and said: “There are many stars in the sky. Each traveler will proceed to the one with which he has affinity, meeting other travelers just like himself, who think and feel in the same frequency, until he can continue the journey to a brighter star. This is wisdom, justice, and love.” He puffed on his pipe again and concluded: “Therefore, I never suffer from death any more than I do when a friend travels. I go to the funeral as if to say goodbye at the station. I wish them a safe trip and remind them to not leave their heart here; it is important to always be in full, wherever you are. Since love is the road to all encounters, I know that at some point we will embrace again.”
I said that the speech was very beautiful, but that, in practice, I had an enormous difficulty coexisting with death. Be it mine, be it of a loved one. Starry Song shrugged and said: “For those who live well with themselves, every day is a good day to die.”
I confessed to the shaman that those words bothered me. He replied: “This is the problem I encounter when someone close to me dies. If I go to the wake and don’t display a typical face of mourning, I bother people for what they believe is my insensitivity. If I don’t show up for choosing to say my goodbye in my own way at another place, I receive a sentence for an alleged negligence similar in content and condemnation. Many reproach me for being uncomfortable with the lightness I have in these situations. Since they do not understand or accept death as an act of wisdom, justice, and love from the universe, they are terrified; then, I cause strangeness and become a source of discomfort to them. So that the fear of others does not disturb me, I search the owl for a look that will not let me be imprisoned in the darkness of others, and I follow in peace; worthy and free, in the fullness of my own eyes.”
I asked him how he felt about being laid-off at the school. Starry Song was enigmatic: “The director can prevent me from going to the school and teaching. However, he does not have the power to stop me from being who I am. I have to respect his roles and decisions. But I also respect my gift and my choices. It is not necessary for there to be conflict in coexisting differences and for us to be lost on the night of existence. It is always possible to see what many have difficulty seeing.”
I understood the depth of Starry Song’s philosophy. I didn’t know, however, how he would apply it in his actions.
The next day I accompanied the shaman to his friend’s funeral. Gentle and discreet, he stood beside the inert body and offered a silent and sincere prayer for the friend, in spirit, to follow in peace and with joy. Even in the face of censorship from some and sadness from others, he greeted everyone and said goodbye. On the way out, we met the mother of one of the students at the school. She commented that other mothers had notified her that classes on tradition and native philosophy would continue at the shaman’s house on Saturday afternoons. He confirmed the news and said that everyone was welcome.
On that first Saturday, only that mother attended with her son. The class took place on the porch of the house. On the second Saturday, the balcony became small for the six families who went with their children to attend the class. The shaman directed everyone to underneath the huge oak tree in the backyard. A few Saturdays later, Starry Song’s home was bursting with so many people. Mothers and fathers spread colorful blankets across the lawn. They brought snacks and refreshments. I was delighted with all of this; the classes had become ceremonials of knowledge and joy. Huge gatherings. One Saturday, sitting in his rocking chair under the leafy tree that reigned in the backyard, the shaman was surprised by the arrival of the school principal at the time when class for the day would begin.
There was an enormous suspense and silence took over. The principal crossed over to where Starry Song was. Polite, he explained that the shaman’s classes had been suspended at school due to a regulation to which he was subject to under penalty of losing his position as principal. He added that it was nothing personal, that he had nothing against those classes and that, if allowed, he would like his son to participate with the other children. Starry Song arched his lips in a sweet smile and said: “Love dissipates pain; where there is light there is no room for darkness. Thank you very much for coming and feel free. Make yourself at home.” The principal motioned for his wife to come in holding their son by the hand. One of the families present made a little space to share their blanket with the newcomers. A gentle breeze cooled that spring afternoon. For a split second I thought I saw an owl perched on the oak. There were many, many classes under the canopy of that tree.
Starry Song and the school principal became great friends. Respect, tolerance, kindness, sincerity, honesty, and love mold good character; the mortar of all friendships. The owl teaches that differences are only separate in the darkness; never in the light. Conflicts only portray the inability to see during the nights of existence.
In that moment, I understood the reason why the owl is present in the emblems of different educational institutions around the world, and the reason why it symbolizes wisdom in all philosophical and metaphysical traditions since ancient times.
Translated by Julia Reuter e Carvalho