Michael Ortiz Hill

I am thinking about the grandfathers as if they comprise a village of their own, forever holding council, as my African friends say, conspiring and collaborating around the possibility of wisdom. In particular, I think about my own grandfather, Frank Ortiz: abuelo, hombre amable y formidable. Pancho. And more specifically, two meetings with him; one when he was alive, the other after he passed.

My childhood had been violently cut in two by divorce, which for a boy of eleven meant trying, and in many ways failing, to shapeshift from a white suburban kid from Southern California to a Mexican farmboy in the mountains north of Santa Fe. My grandfather then was a vigorous man in his late sixties who loved the land and lived to work it. He was also a harsh taskmaster who year after year faced bitterly that his way of life -- that of his ancestors -- died with him. Neither his sons nor his grandsons would till the soil. As for myself, I was taken by the siren song of the counterculture, and we parted in anger.

When I insisted on meeting him, it had been over twenty years. He was in his early nineties, hard of hearing. My mother would help him up on the tractor because he still lived to work. I was on the cusp of going to Africa to be initiated in the tradition of the water spirits. I knew it was time to make peace with this man who had spent decades as guardian of the acequia (the irrigation ditch) in the traditional Mexican way. So I took him out to a meal.

"I hated you when I was a boy," I said. "I thought I could never be good enough. I see now that though my father taught me many things, he taught me nothing about survival. You taught me that, and I want to thank you for it."

Perhaps there are old Mexican men of his generation in whom emotion is visible, recognizable. Not Pancho. Yet I knew what I said was received. Granite or feldspar: not expressive; not, thank God, even a hint of the sentimental but something solid and true. "Follow me," he said, and we left our meal half eaten and drove to the ranch.

Driving past the fallow fields and crossing the Rio Pacheco, we paused to have some water at the spring -- in Spanish called "Ojito" or "little eye" from the old European belief that such were inlets to the underground world of the ancestors. After slaking our thirst, he took two shovels from the back of the truck, used them almost as crutches to amble his way up the slate of a hillside. Then he did the most remarkable thing. As if I were again a boy of eleven, he handed me a shovel and told me to clear the acequia. We looked in each other's eyes, the symbolic gesture utterly transparent. I did as I was told, clearing stone and underbrush so that a field long abandoned might have water should anyone take again to corn or alfalfa. When I finished, he underscored what we both knew. "It makes no difference, hombre. We only grow weeds on this land now."

My recent meeting with Pancho was ten years later, long after his ashes mixed white with the red soil of the ranch. A meeting -- in Spanish "encuentro," encounter. In the African tradition that I serve, one does not say, "There is reality, but then there are dreams which are unreal"; rather, there are two realities, and they run parallel, and when one meets a sekiru, a grandfather spirit, one best pay close attention.

In both worlds it was springtime, May. The land was green, and the river full from snowmelt. Sweet water and wild raspberries -- the time of year the boys and men gather to clear the acequia. Pancho was again vital, radiant really; not the man broken by age as in our last encounter. "I didn't know you were coming," he said. "You will need a shovel." I quickly assured him I would get one, but he beat me: He wanted to hand it to me. As he gave me the shovel, I began crying. "I was so young and so arrogant," I said, "young and arrogant but mostly just young."

The whole of the dream was in my tears and his eloquent silence; yet just as his gesture of handing the shovel had been transparent when he lived, so was it now. Forgiveness was never the point, rather, the benevolent recognition of the inevitable, as if to say, "Yes. You were arrogant as was I when I was young. We are until it falls away, and then we tend to the acequia." Simple and without melodrama.

There is a certain quality to this encounter that reminds me of a story Augustine Kandemwa told me the last time I was in Africa. For three years, he was initiated by a healer of the so-called enemy tribe, the Ndebele: the ancient rituals of clearing the path to the world of the ancestors. After his initiation, he could not imagine what it would mean for he himself to practice as a healer. So he waited for months until the spirits came to tell him how to proceed.

One night he found himself far away in the mountain where he met a sekiru with wings. "We are not learning to be healers," said the spirit. "We are already healers." As Augustine described this sekiru, I saw my grandfather's face, the two twinned: They that dwell now within and alongside us, self-complete, wise and without aggression.

When I hear what my friend Lone Eagle respectfully calls the red hot stones of the sweat lodge, "The grandfathers," I think. "Without these old ones, how could we possibly find the words to pray?" The way of the healer is difficult beyond telling, sometimes unbearable but beautiful, sweet, the very stuff of grace. For even in aloneness, we are never for a moment alone.