The medicine of the eagle

When I arrived in Sedona, in the mountains of Arizona, I went to the home of Starry Song, the shaman who had the gift of perpetuating the wisdom of his people. No one was there. As he had the habit of never locking his doors, I went in and left my backpack inside. Then I tried to find him. I was informed that he was at a community meeting in a nearby school. I went there. When I arrived, a young woman, standing, was speaking to a group of people sitting down. Among them, Starry Song. I settled into a corner at the back of the room and tried to find out about what was going on. The woman, later I learned her name was Beth, was well articulated and explained her ideas clearly. In short, that meeting was to discuss a book about ancient stories, which kept the cultural tradition of those people. A people that already inhabited that place when the colonizers arrived centuries ago. A philosophy that blended with the metaphysical because of the strong spirituality involved in the stories. It was a very rich content that should not be lost. As they were transmitted through the ages by oral tradition, they tended to change through the interference of the narrators or disappear if no one was interested in replacing the storytellers, the art to which Starry Song had dedicated his entire existence. The shaman was invited to write them down so that they could be recorded and shared in the form of a book. It was a beautiful project.

It was also a very simple project, though lovingly handled. None of the people involved had publishing experience. When I was in Sedona last time, almost two years ago, I took part in a small shamanic ritual, organized to celebrate the release of the first volume. Although it resulted in a beautiful book, everything about its physical appearance was simple. From the cover to the layout, through the small printing shop in the neighbouring town, which had never printed a book, whose owner had accepted the challenge and joined the group. A communion of ideas, a common-union of people.

Although the book was sold, there was no profit reasons behind it. The money from the sale was only to pay the costs. Or part of them. The main reason was to allow many people, from the most distant places, to learn about a philosophy so rich in elements and wisdom. Besides guaranteeing its continuity for future generations.

Some time after the book’s release, Beth, who as a teenager had studied in a big city with excellent universities, returned to live in Sedona. Since she had specialized in the subject and worked for a prestigious publishing house, she offered to collaborate on the next volume. She said she was delighted with the idea. She loved those stories, many of which she had heard in her childhood and which were part of her moral formation.

Beth sought out the people involved in the project. She praised the stories written by Starry Song. However, she pointed out that the book had aspects that could be better developed. She opened her notebook to show different possibilities of cover and layout done by more experienced professionals. She also talked about the quality of the paper used to make the book. She thought that a better-quality type of paper should be used to raise the standard of the work. She pointed out, apologizing a lot, some of the flaws in the printing. She understood the goodwill on the part of the printer, but as it was not properly equipped, it could not live up to the content of the book.

She offered to take care of everything. The second volume would be a work of art, not only for the value of the stories, but also for its physical presentation. A complete work of excellence. The costs, she warned, would go up a little. However, one could charge a little more, without the value interfering with sales. She taught that the book is a personal object, even intimate, because reader and book talk for as long as the reading lasts, and even after it is over. One part of the story is written in the book, the other is completed in the reader’s imagination. People read in their moments of greatest introspection, in a deep connection between the narrative of the text written by the author and the soul of those who absorb and move forward with the idea. She recalled the custom, common to almost all peoples, of keeping books forever. Because it is an instrument for expanding knowledge, the book is sacred. It makes us better people. The beauty of the book, not only as a content, but also as an object, adds value to the work by making the content more pleasant. A refinement of art.

The best, she announced, is that from the moment the profits came in, they could use the money to finance writers still in the beginning of their careers, especially those who had a similar approach in their works. Current and ancient storytellers, side by side, like members of a stellar orchestra. A beautiful concept, I thought, while listening to Beth’s explanation.

            Everyone was enchanted and no one was upset. Not even the people who had made the effort, by doing what they had never done, to get the first volume published, like the printer’s owner, for example. On the contrary, they remained joyful for having been instrumental from the beginning of the project and supported the innovative idea, for the value of the arguments and greater breadth of the proposal. Starry Song was also satisfied.

In the following days, I participated in the ceremony held for the passing of the winter equinox and returned to Brazil. I returned to Sedona a year later. When I met with Starry Song, I immediately asked if he had kept a copy of volume two which, by my calculations, should have been published by now. The shaman, with few words, replied that the book was not yet ready. I wanted to know the reason. He changed the subject while he lit his indefectible pipe with a red stone furnace. Sitting on the veranda, we talked about other matters. No words about the new book.

It was dusk when part of the same group present at the previous year’s community meeting arrived, unannounced, to talk to the shaman. They were the people who had published the first volume in an amateurish way and then entrusted Beth with the responsibility of editing the next book. Duly seated on the veranda, they began to parade their complaints about the recurrent postponements of the promised publication. In addition to the costs, which kept rising. They were upset, and even expressed some revolt.

There were several reasons. The hiring of an artist for the cover; a graphic designer for the layout; an illustrator to draw the scenes narrated in some stories; a specialist in digital marketing to publicize the work; this one, in turn, understood the need to make a short video for disclosure. Beth warned that an amateur film would be a disservice to the book, it was necessary to call a professional in the production of publicity material. There was also the need to develop a website, both for the sale of the books and for fundraising, essential for the continuity and expansion of the project. In short, the people in the group listed the reasons for the constant delays in the publication of the second volume. Worse, there was an ever-growing debt. Some people were discouraged and thought of abandoning the project; others were suspicious and threatened to take action. Some suspected that Beth didn’t know how to do what she set out to do; others that she was taking advantage of the situation. Discouragement and irritation were the predominant emotions.

Starry Song listened to everyone, without interrupting. With his eyes closed, he seemed distant, as if he needed to move away to better understand.  At the end he said: “Calm your hearts. I don’t think that’s what this is about, it’s about something else.” Faced by everyone’s curiosity, the shaman cooled their heated passions and suggested: “If you let me, I would like to try to solve this question which has caused so much agony. Including, I believe, to Beth as well.” Some insisted that a decision be made at that time. They could not wait any longer. The shaman did not change his mind and proposed: “If you have come to ask for my help, allow me to try to resolve it in my own way. I think it’s wise and fair.” Although somewhat grudgingly, everyone agreed. Before anyone could prolong the conversation in an unduly fruitless manner, he asked, “Please ask her to come and talk to me early tomorrow morning.”

The next morning, Beth went to the Starry Song’s house. She was a mix of distress and anxiety when she arrived, as she knew she had a lot to explain. However, before she could start talking, she was surprised by the shaman’s serene and sweet tone, “We are expecting you for breakfast. Business can wait. Our friendship is more important.” Beth smiled and sat next to me, across from him. We talked about various subjects until she began to talk about how she had a successful career as an editor. She told of the projects she had been involved in and the admiration she had garnered. When I asked her why she had decided to quit her job and move back to a small town like Sedona, Beth stumbled on her words. She claimed she was the victim of a plot by co-workers who were jealous of her talent. Without going any further, she diverted the question by starting to talk about something else. At a certain moment I realized that only Beth and I were talking. I had the feeling that, even sitting at the table with us, Starry Song was watching us from a distance.

At the end of the small meal, the shaman suggested we talk about the book. Beth was distressed. Her tone of voice changed and became aggressive. She made a point of claiming her competence and seriousness. She opened her laptop to show a spreadsheet of costs and said that the account did not add up. She took out of her bag a folder full of invoices that justified the expenses. Even more, she proved that part of the costs she had paid with her own money. It would be necessary to alter the final price of the book once again, because with the value suggested previously, even if they sold the whole run, they would remain at a loss. I argued that we could contain the costs by cutting some of the embellishment or publicity services. I maintained that, first and foremost, a book is worth for its content. Anything else, while adding to the work, does not increase its intrinsic value.

Beth vehemently disagreed. As an editor she had to have the professionalism to present a book in the best possible way. She claimed not to be a perfectionist, but admitted that perfection appealed to her. She would not allow herself to publish a book if all the necessary elements to enhance its content were not present, nor would she allow such a valuable work to run aground for lack of dissemination. This point was of extreme importance, she claimed. If it occurred, the loss would prevent the release of the third volume, which was already being written by Starry Song. It would also make the publication of new authors impossible. She said again that she was doing her best to balance the finances. She said it was too much work, as she did everything by herself. She confessed that she could no longer remember the last time she had had an entire night’s sleep because she was working incessantly to make the project a reality. She said she strived to offer the best and anything less was unacceptable. People should be patient and know how to wait.

There was a brief moment of silence. Starry Song said, “I have no doubt about your honesty and competence. What prevents the publication of this book is fear”. The shaman’s gaze blended gentleness and sincerity; his voice, firmness and compassion.

Beth denied it. She said she was not afraid. She had faced many difficulties in her life and had learned to overcome them. She was sure of what she was doing and only needed more time. As a result, she needed a little patience from all the people involved. Starry Song exposed: “Do you realize that when one difficulty for the publication of the book is overcome, another soon appears, created and imposed by yourself?”

“Nothing against performing and offering the best. On the contrary, it is a practice that elevates the self. However, we need to be attentive if the intention of reaching perfection is not used as an escape to avoid being exposed to criticism. If so, we will never finish what we had started. As the perfect is always one step ahead, it ends up being an excuse we use to avoid possible criticism.”

“For some reason, deep down inside, possibly unmentionable to yourself, you consider your previous experience a failure. Something went wrong and there is a guilt that still weighs heavily, to the point of not allowing you to walk again. Maybe they made you believe you couldn’t do it. I think differently from them. You have a gift that is clear to me. You just shouldn’t let fear stop you from being who you are.”

“The opportunity to edit this book did not come about by chance, but as a way for you to continue on your journey. You interpret it as an opportunity to prove to yourself that you are capable of fulfilling your dream and see yourself as a competent editor. You are close to this. However, you have convinced yourself that you mustn’t go wrong, you mustn’t fail. That this is your last chance.”

He paused and guided, “There is no such thing as a last chance. The Law of Infinite Opportunities is a cosmic rule. To believe in a last chance is to value the shadows and not understand the movement of light. There will always be a path for those who want to walk. Try a thousand times, make a thousand mistakes. But go ahead. To give up is the speech of the shadows. Failure is one of the best teachers of the Way, as long as one understands its language: love”.

Irritated, Beth interrupted to ponder that she was working with love. The shaman did not change the serene tone of his voice: “Absolutely. It is perceptible the beautiful feeling involved in your work. However, you lack love for yourself.” The editor interrupted again to say that she loved herself very much. She claimed that she had many qualities. Starry Song explained: “Of course, but it’s not enough to admire the virtues. You have to know how to deal with the shadows, without pretending they don’t exist. Fear is one of them and also one of the most powerful because of its immense paralyzing force”.

“When we deny the existence of the shadows, we let them loose to take over our thoughts and choices. When we bring them into our inner circle of love, we educate them. A primitive emotion, with great destructive power, is transformed into a delicate feeling, a booster of many virtues. Any shadow can become a seed of light”. 

“Self-esteem, to be complete, needs to accept not only the existence of shadows, but also the possibility of failure, despite the absolute commitment dedicated to what we do. Mistakes do not make anyone lesser than they are. On the contrary, when well used, it teaches a lot about humbleness and compassion. It redirects the route and improves the way of walking. Mistakes also require you to find the courage to continue, because fear will try to convince you to give up. This confrontation strengthens the walker through the virtues it adds to he or she. The blows suffered is what perfect the warrior for the next battles”.

“Always try to do your best. But don’t forget to be sweet to yourself”.

No word was said for a while.  It was Beth who broke the silence to say that if they wanted, she would leave the project. Starry Song rejected the proposal: “No way. I think your presence has added many values and concepts to the initial idea. You have become very important for everyone. We just need to adjust the situation”. He paused briefly to continue: “I have a proposal to make to you.” The publisher’s eyes were fixed on the shaman’s. He said: “The delay in releasing the second volume is the cause of the conflict. The book, because of the subject it covers, is of great importance, not only to me but to the whole community, because it vivifies our roots.”

“The originals are already revised and diagrammed, indeed a beautiful job you have done. We are going to send the material we have to the printer. With the same cover used for the previous one, only changing the number relative to the volume. This, besides reducing costs, will fulfill my expectations as an author and the intention of the community which created the project. We just do not wish to delay publication any longer.”

“However, good ideas should not be left to waste. A partial solution does not prevent the continuation of the project in its entirety. Anything great, be it a job or a problem, is easier to solve when we break it down into parts.”

“By publishing the second volume of the ancestral stories along the lines of the previous one, we will make the enormous pressure on your back disappear. You will be able to concentrate on the work of launching a collection written by young authors, including all the useful elements, both in relation to the work and its dissemination. It will fit into the budget and allow the necessary tranquility to proceed with the care that you desire and that the project deserves.”

Beth looked at us for a split second that seemed to take forever. She gave a deep sigh and collapsed. She cried a lot. We remained for a few moments without understanding what feelings motivated her tears. When she calmed down, she said she was relieved. She thought the shaman’s proposal was marvelous. She took a sip of water and said she would have time to finish the editorial preparation without rushing. She joked that life had just become lighter”.

“Then she smiled bashfully and confessed that, in fact, there were wounds from her last job. Still open, they bled with fear at the mere possibility of another failure. She had been fired from her last job when a project, of which she was in charge, was a commercial shipwreck, causing a huge loss. She had suffered a lot at the time, to the point of feeling crushed. It was a good idea done wrong, she apologized. She lost sleep at the thought that this could happen again. She feared failure would become a constant in her life. Starry Song sweetly corrected her: “Failures will always happen, in different scales and existential aspects. The important thing is to learn from them, to take responsibility for their consequences and the commitment to do differently and better next time. There will always be another chance. What cannot exist is the permission for fear to become the standard of your choices and the boss of your life.”

Beth said she would use a cliché, but it felt like seeing the day dawn after a night that seemed endless. She promised that on that same day she would send the material to the printer to start printing. He kissed the shaman on the cheek and left with the joy of a girl who finds a lost toy.

Knowing how to deal with time in a balanced way is a little known art. It is essential to understand the rhythm of each person. The community would be pleased with the immediate publication of the ancestral stories, even in the simplest form. Beth would be able to take care of the new authors with the attention she felt was necessary and, very importantly, as she managed to do so, she would be strengthened to be exposed again to possible criticism from the publishing market.

Alone, I commented that the decision taken was of extreme simplicity and enormous value. However, I confessed that I had not thought about it until that moment either. I was impressed that no one had suggested it. Starry Song, while putting smoke in his pipe with a red stone furnace, pondered: “Eagle medicine is an important healing tool in moments of tension and anguish”.

I asked him to explain further. The shaman lit the pipe, took a few puffs, then went into more detail: “In shamanic mythology, the eagle is linked to spiritual ascension. According to tradition, it came from the sun and lives in two worlds. The eagle flies at high altitudes. This allows greater amplitude to its sight”.

“She teaches us that we must fly high so as not to suffer the undue influences of setbacks, frustrations and sorrows, still common to coexistence. We cannot and must not run away from the world. Remember, the eagle also lives here. However, the great heights allow a more refined vision to the eyes of the soul, the conscience, by avoiding the effects produced by fear, justified by false reasons or by desires disguised in necessity. Thus, it is possible to see what most cannot. A valuable resource when faced with the difficult situations imposed by existence”.

“In the midst of conflict, give yourself the necessary distance. Do not become infected with the passions of the moment or with apparent needs and motives. Far from the noise and affliction, the inadequate use of words becomes more perceptible, as the hidden content of reasons chained by the shadows originating from selfishness, from fear and from a clouded conscience. Listen to the words that are not spoken, read the messages written between the lines of behaviour. Understand when an insult is really nothing more than a cry for help, something common in a person who is disconnected from her or himself. Identify the lost crowds, they walk in a circle, they cannot get out of place. Fear generates violence and sadness, wild desires give way to incoherence, despair buries virtues. All because people are unable to codify their own feelings. Consciousness loses its axis and love is forgotten.”

“By flying high we prevent unhealthy emotions from interfering with our consciousness, shaking virtues and affecting choices. We perceive the essence and understand the essential; we don’t need the rest. Away from passions, solutions become simple and we gain conditions to offer the best that inhabits us”.

“From the great altitudes, great walls have the height of a chalk line on the ground. We realize that problems are much smaller than they seem; solutions become simpler. We understand that almost everything is only landscape. The facts are ephemeral, we are eternal. The Way becomes perceptible. The shadows, initially presented as predatory beasts, become rebellious little animals that only need understanding and direction. Peace is established.”

We ended the conversation with the arrival of some friends. We had arranged to ride along a beautiful trail through the mountains. We did not touch the subject any more. However, a phrase said by Starry Song stayed in my mind for a long time: Facts are ephemeral, we are eternal. It took me some time to metabolize the teaching in the intensity it provides. Its exact understanding modifies our reality by establishing a new scale of values and priorities.

Life went on. Two weeks later, I participated in a ceremonial and received from Starry Song’s hands the second volume of the book. It was a beautiful ritual, with a wonderful energy, for the work that had a double function: to make knowledge circulate and the possibility of perpetuating the ancestral wisdom of a people. Joy reigned in everyone’s heart.

The following year, for professional reasons, I could not return to Sedona. Those facts seemed distant to me, when one day I received by mail the book with the collection of shamanic stories, written by the young writers and edited by Beth. It was a beautiful book elaborated to the smallest details. Cover, illustrations, layout, quality of the paper and printing, everything was impeccable. In each chapter, the content showed the value of a work of art inside another.

That beautiful work introduced the world to unpublished and talented authors who helped to keep the valuable wisdom of a people alive. A book with incredible stories. My favorite was an unwritten one. Beth’s story. Her journey of overcoming herself. A woman who overcame her fear to use her own wings again. To be able to read the hidden story behind that book you had to understand the flight of the eagle.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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