Starry Song, the shaman who had the gift of perpetuating the wisdom of his people through the stories he told, lit up the smoke in his indestructible pipe with its red stone stummel, puffed a few times and let his gaze wander over the infinitude of the night. We were sitting on the porch of his house when I was surprised by the arrival of one of his great-nephews. I realised that Starry Song was waiting for him, not just because of his cheerful smile, but because he was already directing him to leave his suitcase in the small, tidy room in the attic of the house. Zaltana was about thirty years old, tall, athletic and with long Navajo-style hair. Friendly and kind, he greeted us and, after putting his things away, sat down next to me. He seemed in good spirits despite the long drive from Tampa in Florida to Sedona in the mountains of Arizona. He looked seriously at his great-uncle and hissed through his teeth: “cursed man”. I tensed up for a fraction of a second, until in the next instant Starry Song burst into an amused laugh, soon joined by Zaltana. It was an affectionate way of joking. I learnt why later.
Zaltana’s mother was Starry Song’s younger sister. The age difference between the siblings was considerable, there were more than twenty years between them. She had got pregnant very young, as soon as she had entered university. Although her father didn’t refuse to fulfil his obligations to his son, he refused to marry her. Her mother was very hurt and, as punishment for what she saw as a betrayal, she made it difficult for Zaltana to live with her father. A few years later, she married another man, dropped out of university, moved away and had other children. Her family had always taken pity on the young woman who had had her dreams interrupted because of her early pregnancy and, what’s more, the fact that she had been abandoned by the father of her child. The father died a few years later in an accident at work, without being able to re-establish emotional ties with his son. As Starry Song never shared this idea, because he considered the father’s banishment unfair, he maintained his friendship with his great-nephew’s father until the last day of the endless day. For this attitude, the shaman endured a long period of rejection from his own family. Hence the nickname cursed, as the sister referred to the shaman for a long time. Zaltana grew up facing difficulties in his relationship with his mother, who always projected onto him the disappointment she had experienced during her pregnancy and, without realising it, put her other children above him. Unlike his younger siblings, Zaltana was unable to attend university. On the pretext that he wasn’t fond of studying, he was encouraged to work from an early age. As a teenager, he had learnt to do tattoos and decided to dedicate himself to this craft. Everything seemed to be going well until he had a serious problem. After falling off his motorbike, he lost most of the movement in his right hand, severing several nerves and tendons, preventing him from tattooing, as he didn’t have anywhere near the same ability with his left. He even tried applying some designs to his own skin with his left hand, but the results were disappointing. As the injury was permanent, he was left without a job and, worse, without a profession. Difficulties came soon after. Although his family seemed to understand his problem, their support was limited to words of encouragement. They were sorry for him, but could do nothing to help. In the absence of more consistent support, Zaltana felt himself falling into an existential abyss. When he was surprised by a message from his cursed uncle inviting him to spend a sabbatical time in the mountains of Arizona.
Zaltana needed to reinvent himself. To do so, he needed to understand himself. That’s what sabbaticals are for.
I heard this story on the balcony, told by Zaltana himself, who made a point of adding that he didn’t resent the fact that his family, at least those with whom he had been most intimate throughout his existence, weren’t available to help him. He was generous in expressing his feelings towards them: “Their lives are perhaps too difficult, preventing me from having an inner space where I can cosy up until I recover and understand where to go from here”. He gave his great-uncle a quick but meaningful look, showing his recognition and gratitude for that moment of welcoming. Starry Song, who up to that point was listening to it all without saying a word, and at the end held out the pipe with the red stone stummel for Zaltana to puff on. A Navajo-style pact of trust and loyalty was sealed. Overcome by fatigue after a tiring day, the lad excused himself and went to bed.
Alone with the shaman, I thought that perhaps a few physiotherapy sessions would help to recover, at least in part, the lost movements, to the point where Zaltana would be able to tattoo again. I said that we could also train his other hand, the left one, to become as skilful as his right. I told him about some cases of recovery that I knew of, apart from the beautiful examples of lives that have been moulded by artists of their own existence, capable of seeing the reality that lay behind the curtains of hardship. Starry Song agreed: “It’s true, the most beautiful stories are those of overcoming,” paused briefly and continued: “Especially those that, rather than expanding the limits of the body, expand the frontiers of the soul.”
He puffed his pipe and concluded: “No two stories are the same. There are cases in which you have to be firmly determined to carry on, others in which you have to start again.” And he concluded: “To restart, you have to rebuild.”
Before I could ask him to explain those words, the shaman said he was going to sleep. Over the next few days, contrary to what I had imagined, Zaltana was not taken for physiotherapy exercises. We went fishing in a beautiful lake, went horse riding on beautiful trails, and listened to Starry Song, sitting under the oak tree in the backyard, telling ancestral stories about the philosophy of his people to the residents of Sedona, as he did every Saturday morning. We also met the shaman’s friends, cooked, read some books and talked about a wide variety of subjects. Not a word was said about Zaltana’s problem. Without realising it, the shaman had already begun to work, purifying the boy’s aura by dispelling the dense vibrations of pain and fear that had accompanied him recently. Joy and lightness have this power. But it’s not enough; it’s only a necessary preparation for the possible transformations. After two fun-filled weeks, Starry Song told us to get our blankets, as we would be spending the night on top of the mountain, in his place of power.
In the native tradition, a place of power is a place where a person establishes a strong connection with the invisible side of life and, due to the intense energetic anchoring that takes place, becomes a portal. It can be in a church, temple, beach, waterfall, forest or a quiet corner of our home. Everyone has the power to determine their own or make good use of existing ones. Starry Song’s one was on a plateau high up in the mountains, where a tree hanging over the edge of the cliff showed an improbable balance.
It was almost two hours of walking. Once we sat in a circle, the shaman lit a small fire in the centre and began to beat out an ancestral song on his two-sided drum. He asked for light and protection for this simple but meaningful magical and sacred ritual. Magic is transformation; sacred is everything that makes us better people. The melody lulled us and seemed to invite our souls to dance to the great cosmic symphony. Some music makes it easier to move into an altered state of consciousness, in which the flow of ideas and feelings travels more smoothly. It only stopped when the sky brought the stars to take part in the ceremony. As well as the fire and the stars, I had the distinct feeling that there were lights everywhere.
Then Starry Song asked Zaltana to close his eyes and concentrate on his words. He began by honouring all the ancestors, especially the boy’s father and mother, as well as his siblings, who deserved respect and gratitude for everything they had added to his life. Everything was joy or learning. Even difficulties, when properly understood, also became joys. The Shaman recalled Zaltana’s existence from birth. Not a single fact was spared; there was no censure, no mockery. I could see the boy’s features contract and relax as the words reached his heart. Pains and delights. Some events he believed he could no longer remember; others he would rather have forgotten. He frowned several times as if amazed that Starry Song knew so much about him. When all the defences set up by the unconscious to deceive the pain had been dismantled, the shaman addressed a question that was angular for that moment in Zaltana’s existence: “Do you remember when, in high school, your grades were bad?”. The boy nodded. Song continued: “It was said that you would fail if you tried to go to university. They also said that not everyone was born to study. Many would have come into the world only to work. Unlike your brothers and sisters, all of whom worked hard at their studies and later achieved their university degrees, your destiny and ability were different.”
A tear escaped down the young man’s cheek and he explained that abandoning his studies after high school to start working had been his choice. The shaman waited for the momentum to cool before continuing: “Zaltana always felt forgotten, left out. All he ever wanted was his mother’s approval, to see her happy, because somehow he felt responsible for the supposed destruction of the girlhood dreams she had once harboured. He believed that she had dropped out of college because of his birth. It was as if, unconsciously, his arrival had stolen the honey from her life. The dark cellars of the unconscious told Zaltana that it wouldn’t be fair for him to achieve something that he had prevented his mother from achieving. There was a lot of guilt inside him and it paralysed him. All along, he just wanted to be seen as a good boy, not a troublemaker or the cause for worries. If he had to give up his life to bring his mum a bit of encouragement, he would do it without hesitation. And he did.”
“On the other hand, Zaltana’s victory, no matter how small, bothered her as if his presence brought the image and strength of her son’s father; as if he pursued her and revived her frustrations. He showed her everything she could be, but wasn’t. However, her destiny was determined by the choices she herself made. Blaming her son or even her father, even indirectly, wasn’t fair. No, she didn’t do it out of spite or because she didn’t love Zaltana, but because she didn’t understand how these emotions got mixed up inside her and obscured the best of her understanding. Paradoxical as it may seem, she also suffered for her son’s difficulties and pain, but she didn’t know how to do anything different because she didn’t understand how the heart interfered with the mind. Emotions and feelings imprison our thoughts or free them.”
“The truth is that Zaltana is not responsible for his mother’s existential pains and knots. He never was. No matter what he did, nothing could cure it.” The young man interrupted and wanted to know why he couldn’t stop his mother’s suffering. The shaman explained: “Pains and knots exist because of our mistaken perceptions of reality. Therefore, only your mother can do this for herself. However, be willing to help her when she needs it.”
The boy’s cheeks were bathed in tears. Starry Song warned: “Like her, you also need to get rid of the guilt that has tormented you since ever. If you feel angry, you’ll escape from one shadow to imprison yourself in another. You must have love to access the purest wisdom. Nobody can be free and happy without forgiveness. You must forgive yourself and her too. Forgive your father as well; believe me, he was the best father he was allowed to be. Several times he was prevented from living with you.”
“You must continue to offer your love to your mother. However, the time has come to redeem the life you offered as a sacrifice on an lightless altar. It is neither necessary nor efficient to exchange our life for someone else’s. It never works. To keep someone’s light burning, no one needs to give themselves over to darkness.”
“It’s just the opposite. The more intense your light, the more light there will be around you.” Zaltana asked how he could be sure of the darkness that surrounded him. The shaman explained: “Far from the essence, far from who we came to be.” He looked briefly at the sky and concluded: “All suffering shows a disconnected part waiting to be understood in order to be integrated into the whole.”
We didn’t say a word for a time I can’t pinpoint. Zaltana needed to allocate the new ideas. It was the boy himself who broke the silence by saying that it was time to start again. He would start physiotherapy the next day and also perfect his skills with his left hand. He seemed pleased with his resolutions. I was also pleased to see his enthusiasm. Starry Song corrected us: “That wouldn’t be to start again, but to continue. There’s a time to carry on and there’s a time to start again. Both are very valuable attitudes, but you have to understand when they apply.”
I asked how to decide which move to make. The shaman was clear: “The dream, the flight plan of flight of an existence, is decisive for this understanding”. He looked at us sweetly and said: “When someone lives their dream and encounters one of the many difficulties that need to be present in order to strengthen their wings, they will adjust their route, make intrinsic changes and move on. However, when we are outside of our dream, life will come and demolish everything that we believe sustains us. Be grateful for the gift. It’s not time to adapt, but to transform. It’s not time to move on, but to start again. In order to restart, you have to rebuild.”
“To do this, it is essential to reinvent a different path. Nobody can do this without being in tune with the most sacred face of their being, the one that will tell you who you are. All your light will be there too.”
“Everything you are and have done has helped you get here. From this point on you will have to be and live in a way that was unimaginable until recently but will become essential for a new reality.”
Faced with Zaltana’s astonished look, he got to the heart of the matter: “Close your eyes and go back to the day you decided to give up university to devote yourself solely to working as a tattoo artist. There’s nothing wrong with this beautiful activity, but examine whether it was Zaltana’s dream. Be honest with yourself so that you can be honest with life. It took a while for the young man to go back in time and adjust to those distant days. Starry Song guided him to observe that difficult moment, not as a protagonist, but as a privileged spectator. The distance would facilitate the lucidity necessary for an unbiased reading of all the factors that influenced him to make the choice he didn’t make, but thought he had made.
He then explained: “His choices weren’t free because of multiple circumstances that imprisoned him within himself.” He frowned and, in a serious tone, warned: “Don’t mourn or play the role of a victim, only fools do that. Be thankful with all your heart for the path you have travelled and learn from it. Only then will you be able to reach unbelievable heights.”
Starry Song began to beat out a rhythmic melody on the double-sided drum to help Zaltana delve into his deepest truths and reveal the intrinsic piece that was missing for the angular changes that life offered. The young man cried again. Much harder this time. He sobbed to the point of choking on his own tears. The drum continued to play as if there was no end to the music. Gradually, Zaltana calmed down and gestured with his hand. The drum stopped and Zaltana confessed in a low voice, as if he had discovered a secret kept from himself: “I always wanted to be a lawyer”. Before anyone could express surprise, he continued: “Ever since I was little, I loved watching films about trials in which cowardice seemed to reign, but the brilliant work of the lawyer led the case to a fair verdict. Every day, before going to sleep, I imagined solving the most complicated cases and wanted to dedicate my life to protecting and defending helpless or innocent people. But I never believed in my dream.”
I had a quick but meaningful exchange of glances with Starry Song. There was the cornerstone of reconstruction. The shaman arched his lips in a slight smile and said: “We can’t abandon who we came to be”. Startled by the idea taking shape, Zaltana said he thought it was too late to go to college. Starry Song corrected him: “Dreams don’t grow old. They don’t belong to the body, they are the property of the immortal soul.”
He then commented that the University of Arizona had access plans for older students. He offered to help him with whatever he needed. However, the essentials depended solely on Zaltana: “A firm and unshakeable will to rebuild”.
The next day, Zaltana’s reconstruction project began. The accident had demolished the past; the present was beginning to build a different future. Life was beginning again. When I returned to Rio de Janeiro, the paperwork for him to attend law school had been filed. I was sure that the fall from the motorbike that had injured the boy’s hand had not been a misfortune, but an invitation. Although it had been delivered in a strange way, it was certainly a beautiful and interesting invitation. In the years that followed, when I was in Sedona to learn about Shamanism with Starry Song, I didn’t meet Zaltana, who was studying in Phoenix, the metropolis closest to the mountains. I learnt that he was not only a dedicated student, but also an enthusiastic one. “These are different things,” explained the shaman: “Dedication is linked to the time offered to carry out the task, something very valuable. Enthusiasm refers to the commitment of the soul to live one’s dream, which is essential.”
Then I received an e-mail from Zaltana inviting me to his graduation. Sitting next to Starry Song, I was moved at the ceremony to see him in his gown and, at the end, standing with the other graduates in the traditional rain of hats. I learned that he had been hired as a lawyer for a civil rights organisation. Then he hugged the cursed man for a long time and said: “Infinite gratitude“. Then Zaltana explained: “Gratitude is not a mere thank you, but an acknowledgement of the change in our view. This enhances the being and perfects the living.” With tears in his eyes, he repeated: “Gratitude for the transformation you offered.” Starry Song sincerely corrected him: “The transformation was already there inside you and it was just waiting for you to believe in your own ability to restart. This is called faith. Having faith in yourself is equivalent to faith in the Great Spirit; He inhabits you, you are part of Him. My participation was very small; in short, I just said that it’s always worth trying.”
“Faith in your own strength allowed you to walk the path; it would have been impossible otherwise. It’s your party, young man. Celebrate every one of your achievements!”.
They hugged again. Then the shaman said he had brought him a present. He pointed with his chin to where his mother was waiting for him in tears. Life is worth every day, but days like this are worth an existence. While Zaltana socialised with her mother and colleagues alone, we sat on one of the many benches scattered around the beautiful university gardens, far enough away from the hustle and bustle of the graduation. I commented on the important lesson of knowing how to differentiate between the time to move on and the time to restart.
Starry Song smiled and said: “Many people talk about the ability of the waters of a river to reach the sea by circumventing the obstacles that stand in its way. It’s true. Adaptability and resilience reveal wisdom and enable evolution. However, wisdom is not static; like evolution, it requires incessant movement in infinite directions. There are many roads that lead to the Light. There is the moment when, meeting the stones, the waters realise that the course of that river no longer excites them to continue. Many give up and, by remaining still, will rot. However, there are those who, instead of going around the obstacles, like some, or remaining stagnant on the banks, like others, decide to change their course in an angular way. Not all the waters of a river can follow the same course. This is how the bifurcation arises, giving rise to a new river that will also reach the sea, but by a different route. The one it has chosen for itself.”
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.