Amor Fati:
How To Make Your Own Oracle

Michael Ortiz Hill

But who has written this book?
It is you.
And who will read it?
The you in everyone who holds it in their hands.

And how can it be understood?
Ah! The mystery becoming known.
But is it real? Is it me?
Only give yourself to the book and you will know.
But what will I know? How will I know it?
Welcome home.

Peter Levitt,
Fingerpainting on the Moon


Chapter One 
To Love Ones Fate

Peter Levitt writes in Fingerpainting on the Moon:

“There is a story related to the Tang dynasty Chinese poet Wang Wei that I dearly love. In a collection of Wang’s poems called Hiding the Universe the editor asks “Where do you hide the universe?” It’s a pretty provocative question, I think, and before reading on you might offer a few answers. Where would you hide it? The answer given is one that has always delighted me with its simple clarity: You hide the universe in the universe because that’s the only place large enough for it to fit.”

God works in mysterious ways in the plurality of our lives – so many relationships, so many voices within us and around us – because the only place large enough to hide your life is in your actual life. The Amor Fati Oracle is a map of your life. Each card is a stone beneath which you might find what is hidden. Each configuration a mirror, the cards presenting your face different and compelling because the familiar details of your life are rearranged and display the new. There is a pattern within which you live, that may even offer a poetry to understanding things you long desired to understand. To make a deck is to begin to recognize your fate, to work with the deck is a way of becoming intimate with your fate, to learn to love it quietly or passionately. From there it’s possible to humbly participate in the collective enterprise of weaving a generous and meaningful life and help others to do so. When your fate has delivered you to that openness of the heart you have begun to understand Amor Fati.

Amor Fati emerged from two stories, each very different yet nested one within the other. Together they display the quality of Amor Fati.

The first story finds my wife and I in bed together. It’s 3 a.m. My wife has the misfortune of having married a night nurse who thinks chatting at 3 a.m. is normal.

That morning she was despondent the way creative people often are. There was some world crisis going on – there always is, isn’t there – and Deena had spent a month writing only letters, making alliances, trying to extend support, fielding other people’s visions – leaving her novel in the dust. The artist consumed by an obligation to the world.

It came to me than – what might the wisdom of Deena Metzger the letter writer have to say to Deena Metzger whose literary life had been so relentlessly undermined? I grabbed a loose leaf binder filled with recent letters and picked one at random. I forget its message, but I remember its aptness and I certainly remember the moment of reprieve. The letter was beautifully written.

A moment then, “But am I a writer? Do the spirits speak to me or through me? They did once. Will they speak again?” The welter of doubts that rise in a merciless time.

I pulled from the bookshelves her poetry A Sabbath Among the Ruins. Opening at random, eyes closed, my finger lands on these lines:

“And I wonder about this poem. Who is it I am trying to awaken with this specter of blue? And how? and to what?”

Then in another book of her poetry Looking for the Faces of God from her misery she closed her eyes and cracked open to a poem she wrote to the Vietnamese peacemaker, the Buddhist Nun Sister Phuong:
“But I will not make a corpse from these elements
I will make a child
I will make you such a rose of a child,
A rose of a child held in the crook
of the dark hand of a dead branch
I will make you a child shining
Like an angel from these elements of dark
And the child will sing.”

These tender words for Sister Phoung becoming tender words for herself.

The next day I secretly began making an oracle for Deena to sustain her in her creative engagement, but soon found myself insanely envious of the gift I was crafting for her. It was then that I began making for myself what became the Amor Fati oracle.

In the other story I’m in Zimbabwe, 1996. I had been studying and writing notes on the origins of African-American culture ever since I saw African patterns in the dream life of black Americans. Mandaza Kandemwa, a healer and dream teller of the Shona and Ndebele tribes was initiating me into the medicine tradition of his people.

It was my first time if Africa and I was disoriented and exhausted with culture shock, lack of solitude and the rigors of initiation into the spirit world. Like the white boy I am, I said with perfect Shona locution, “I think the spirits are wanting me to go up to Victoria Falls for a couple of days,” as if I was running the show and could actually say, “Time out” in the middle of an ancient rite for a little R and R.

Mosiyatunya (‘Where the Stones Thunder’) may be the biggest tourist attraction on the African continent south of the pyamids but it’s also a holy place for the local tribes. Whether you are an Apostolic Christian going north to the Zambezi to baptize or a nganga (shaman) of the water spirits like Mandaza people travel for hundreds of miles to immerse in the waters. So when I told Mandaza that I heard the spirits call he thought perhaps I meant David Livingston, who has a bronze statue at Victoria Falls, he having “discovered” Mosiyatunya.

“Ah ha!” he clapped. “We will finish your initiation there.”

As we drove north it was dark as we approached the falls. Three elephants crossed the highway, chalky white in the headlights of our stopped car. Immense and unearthly. I gasped.

Nine year previous I had the strangest dream.

I was alongside a large river with bright orange flowers blossoming close to the ground. There was a small herd of elephants larger than life and chalky white browsing nearby and an African man, dressed in skins dancing and beckoning to me. I dreamt this when I had no interest in Africa whatsoever, nor any knowledge of African culture.

“That spirit in your dream was one of my grandfathers,” Mandaza said.

I realized then that I was being delivered to the circumstances of my dream, that neither was I in control nor Mandaza, that what awaited was both terrifying and benevolent, that I was not altogether the author of my own story and that Spirit had even used my “R and R” trick as a way of drawing me to the heart of initiation.

(“That’s how these spirits work,” laughed Mandaza.)

The next day we walked upstream to a place a dream had led Mandaza years ago and that was especially sacred to him. I picked three bright orange flowers growing among mounds of elephant dung and made a little crossroad altar as it was clear both Mandaza and I were at the crossroads. Then I went into the river to wash away my insufferable arrogance and lack of gratitude so I could Step Onento this last rite of my first initiation.

Mandazas grandfather came. And other spirits as well. They place the medicine in my body.

And after nightfall the elephants returned.

These stories say something of the nature and mystery of Amor Fati. There is a thread that leads from this present moment back through our childhoods that we can follow to a more and more refined and generous understanding of the patterns we live by and the life we were born to live. This is the well of indigenous wisdom, the place of native wit, the tribal context of our soul that is our birthright merely because we were born human. Amor Fati settles in the marrow of the life that you actually live and have lived. It is the life hidden within that life that Amor Fati gives language for and hints of how to live with grace and poise.

In Africa it is said that before you are conceived you are in the village of the ancestors and the old ones hold council among themselves until they come to an agreement of the life you are to live. Who will your parents be? Where will you be born?
What virtues will you carry? What flaws will be yours to learn from? What spirits will attend you when you are in the womb, at birth, through childhood and adulthood? Who will awaken you in initiation? And who will be at your bedside when you die? This not an inflexible script but rather a geography of feeling, imagination and circumstance where the soul that is soon to pass to the world of the living will live in as well as she can.

Birth is such a terrifying ordeal that most everyone forgets the fate that they knew before conception and so we stagger through trial and error, often for decades or even a whole lifetime, trying to remember who we are. Some are initiated, which is to say they ritually return to the village of the ancestors and the old ones remind them of who they are and how best to offer their gifts to the living who they now belong to. Others are initiated by life itself, often through ordeal – an accident, a tragedy, an illness, madness, a passionate but hopeless relationship. Whatever pushes you past who you thought you were and you find yourself on your knees praying for guidance. Others remember more gradually, the wisdom of the other world coming first as déjà vu or strange dreams , a curious meeting with a beggar, a stray comment overheard in a supermarket and they are reminded: There is more here than meets the eye. The Amor Fati is an oracle of remembering.

There is a plumb line dangling from this moment to before conception and through all those key moments which led you to be the person that you are becoming. And through the gate of your conception to the world of the parents you were born to, your family, your ancestors with their wisdom and their blindness, the cultures that received them, the land you all have walked and the animals and plants of that land. In sum the geography of community and spirit where you live out your suffering and love. I place Amor Fati as much outside the vagrant soul of the individual as within the soul of the world she lives in.

At least that’s what I learned in Africa.

“Amor Fati” was brought into the vernacular of Western philosophy by the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:.

“Did you ever say yes to a pleasure? Oh my friends, then you have also said yes to all pain. All things are linked, entwined, in love with one another.”

And, “The greater the suffering, the greater the potential for joy. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people. For happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or remain small together. Those who wish to experience the fullness of life must also suffer deeply, for it is in recovery from a crippling disease that life is must fully affirmed.”

Tony Hale, an addiction counselor in Southern California, comments:

“This is not the philosophy of a fatalist who is blown here and there like a leaf in the wind resigned to its fate. This goes beyond acceptance. Amor Fati is about the struggle. It’s not about what happens to one, but what happens as a result of our active participation in the life event. Love of one’s fate is the love of our involvement with life. It is a cause for celebration. Chaos, pain, and defeat are opportunities to gain wisdom, stature and strength and prepare for future victories. One welcomes the battle. Fate is loved when one is consumed by living it.”

The Amor Fati Oracle alters Nietzsche’s statements somewhat by making them pragmatic, a tool for exploring the nature of one’s fate and learning to embrace it. It also draws on the substratum of the Pleistocene, the old ways of tribe and living with Spirit that have nourished human beings since those foolish apes first left the tree tops to the African savannah four million years ago – because to love one’s fate one must love the circumstance of being born human, crazy and awkward as we are, dangerous as we can be.

Chapter 2
The Little Eye Through Which the Ancestors Pass

I am thinking about 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. Without these old ones, how could be possibly find the words for prayer. In particular, I think about my own grandfather, Frank Ortiz: abuleo, hombre amable y formidable. Pancho. Specifically, I’m thinking about 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 11 meant trying, and in many ways failing, to shape shift from a white suburban kid from Southern California to a Mexican farm boy 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, and that of his ancestors, would die with him. Neither his sons nor his grandsons would till the soil. As for me, 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 20 years. He was in his early nineties, and 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 (irrigation ditch) in the traditional Mexican way. I took him out for 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, thank God, or 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, which in Spanish is called ojito, or “little eye,” from the old European believed 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 and 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 11, 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 10 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 which 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 raspberries – at this 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 assure 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.

Having introduced you to Pancho I grab a shovel for you. There is work to be done. The ojito, that little eye through which we see into the world of the invisibles, needs tending. The acequia is tangled with brambles and clogged with silt. And los campos, the fields here and those downstream, are suffering for lack of water. Let’s get to work.

Sunk in the very center of the Amor Fati Oracle, is the Well. T.S. Eliot speaks of “the still point of the turning world.” The Well. Some might recognize it as silence or the peace that passeth understanding, the hope that springs eternal. Refreshment, the frisson of your lover’s glance or your daughter’s goofy slobbery laughter as she sits on your knee, the place where dreams come from, a moment of reflection, an oasis in the desert.

Peter Levitt tells and exquisite story of the violinist Itzak Perlman drawing an astonished audience to the Well.

Having ambled on to the staged with the slow grace of a man beset by polio as a child, Perlman did not hurry as he removed his leg braces and set himself to perform. Then “with the slightest of nods offered to the waiting conductor, the music began.”

“He was not more than a minute into the music, playing beautifully with his eyes closed and his bow floating across the strings, when an unmistakable sound was heard throughout the concert hall. One of his violin strings had snapped.”

Perlman paused, smiled, nodded again to the conductor and then played music such as no one had ever heard.

“The passion and tonality that poured out of Pearlman’s violin made it clear that he had entered into a relationship with himself, the music, the composer, and perhaps even with the source of life itself; one he may not have previously known. On and on as the symphony progressed he played with a startling freedom. Each movement of the bow took him to some further place beneath the music as he seemingly reconfigured the composition with a spontaneity and drive that required his fingers to be new fingers, his strings to be new strings. Out of this imperfect moment, Pearlman was creating a purity of musical expression that was stunning to behold.”

After applause Perlman said, “Sometimes you must find out how much music you can make with what you have left.” Everything I might say about the Well and Amor Fati is in this little anecdote. Amor Fati makes music out of the flaws, mishaps and limitations that compose the funkiness of our lives. The sheer beauty we can make of them.

As it turns out in ancient China the archetype of the keeper of the acequia is effectively a personification of Amor Fati: “Yu the Great, the limping god, who turned the flood, fixing the omens and opening the channels,” writes Stephen Karcher. Channeling the waters that overflow from the Ghost River (where the ancestors live) he “changed the strategy from heroic, lonely striving to collective effort, building the dikes, channels and dams that opened the watercourse way, the foundation of culture… He established the divinatory vessels, the Nine Ding, clearing communication with the spirit world.”

Clearing the acequia and creating a reliable oracle and embodying Amor Fati. Who hasn’t known what it is to stagger through the blessed burden of our lives: “The shuffling step, backwards and forwards, is the ‘step of Yu’ used in many rituals. It is the movement of limping and of Yu the Great: ‘bad influence going, exorcize it!; seeds of good are coming.”

“His limping is a sign of selfless toil and an enduring connection” to the ancestors below.

Anything at all, transient or steady, fleeing or bottomless, that draws you to the present moment draws you to the well, for the well is this very moment.

Some cultures place the well in our actual bodies, the wellspring of the heart, for example, or the gut as in Japanese martial arts and Zen meditation: The hara, that center of gravity three fingers below the navel. Among the Bakongo, so many taken as slaves to Georgia and the Carolinas, the path led down the spine to the pelvic cradle, the genitals themselves being the obvious link between past and future generations. The elders in Bantu Africa concur with Kundalini yogis of India, the sacred snake awakened from the root of the spine to rise up to the crown chakra to give itself over to God.

Others meet the Well in ritual, reborn in the baptismal waters or renewed in the waters of Mikvah if you’re a practicing Jew. For still others, it’s a place of pilgrimage, the spring of Castalia for the ancient Greeks, Lourdes if you’re Catholic. Many such wells exist among tribal people in Africa. People go to them to drink deep, to chat, to meet the spirits, to bring water home so mother can cook or wash dishes.

The Well is the center of your life, but more importantly it is the center of the community you sustain and that sustains you.

The Well is surrounded by eight fields and each field is a card in Amor Fati. To quote Stephen Karcher’s  Total I Ching, his fertile translation of the ancient Chinese book of changes:
“Hexagram 48 The Well (Jing) Communicate, interact; the underlying structure, the network; source of all life – water needed by all, welling up from the depths; the common people, common needs and strength; site of creative transformation…
Well represents the well field and the common people, an ancient unit of sound order consisting of eight fields cultivated by eight families, surrounding a central well used by all…
Well is a norm, a model of good order that meets common needs, an endless and inexhaustible source of the waters of life. The figure that shows the Well and the bucket also means ‘us, all together.’ It is a structure that allows access to the source, a moment when one finds what supports life without exhaustion and understands our common origin… It is a tap into the subterranean flow of the Way, the nipple of the Great Mother.

Karcher translates the words of the shaman who knows profoundly the way of the Well:

“This is a time when Noble One toils for the common good to encourage mutualizing.

“This is Water over Wood: it reaches the inner ground, where the water wells up from below to support our common life. The ideal Realizing Person reflects this by unceasingly toiling for the common good. He inspires people to find ways to share and support each other, carried by the Bright Omens. Dissolve the old self.”

Dissolve the old self, says the shaman! If you’re fortunate you know something of the bitter and sweet ordeal of the old self dissolving so you too can join the common labor. In my story it began with the petulant 13-year-old groaning that it was spring again. Wrapping the willows with a chain to yank them up with a tractor or sweat and ash in the eyes from burning them cause Pancho said they held water from the farmers who lived past Bony Canyon. (“Who I’ve never even met,” whined the 13-year-old boy to himself.) It continued through my sixteenth year, breaking with the land (“why don’t you stay home, hombre and take care of your mother,” were Pancho’s final words.) Then twenty years of being broken down till I could return to my grandfather and he could again hand me the shovel. The dissolution was complete after his death when he handed me the shovel one last time. This story is archetypal, not for a moment mine alone. Every man or woman who has made it to adulthood has their personal version of coming to the sacrament of common labor. Indeed, it is exactly that which makes us an adult and confirms our maturity.

The Well is a passageway to the world of the spirits that uphold this life. Different traditions have different names for these spirits. Angels or saints if you’re Christian, Bodhisattvas if you’re Buddhist, Njuzu if you’re Shona, Amandlozi if you’re Ndebele, Diyin Dine’e if you’re Dine’ (Navajo), Fairies if you’re Celtic. Monotheistic traditions speak of the spirits as aspects of the One God: the many names of God if you’re a Muslim or a Jew; the Orisha – God refracting into the spirits that are the intelligence and vitality of the natural world if you are Yoruba. So many ways to make sense out of the sacred that is at once One and Many.

If you look into the Well at night you will see the stars for this little eye opens to the very heart of the cosmos. It is in fact bottomless.

The way to deal with the Well, says the I Ching, “is to clarify and renew your connection to the Source. The Well is there for all to draw on… If all you find is mud in the well, you haven’t gone deep enough. Your rope is too short. If you ruin the pitcher used to draw the water, you will be cut off from the spirits and left open to danger.”

The Well is where one draws from the truest stratum of story – the old stories passed by ours or other cultures through millennia but also our own stories, authentic and complete. When the rope is long enough and we’ve cleared away the mud, then the task is ours to give the bucket to the dark and draw up a truer or more resonant understanding of our lives.

If the length of the rope doesn’t meet the depth of the well you draw up air and the fields go unwatered. You feel an emptiness inside and a deep sadness. The story of your life perhaps not even known to yourself. Anonymous to yourself, having never asked “who am I?”  Or maybe you’ve existed within the stolid and dim security of living within the most superficial stories of your life.

Where is the place you indulge superficiality? What are the taboos against knowing who you are, the taboo against apprenticing to the art of living? In what way do you betray your own soul, renounce without thought the implications of the life you have lived, are even now living? Amor Fati says you life is itself the oracle, a mystery that can yield layer upon layer of meaning and provocation. Your life itself inquires: Who are you? What are the dimensions of the world you move in and how do you honor spirit as it moves through all those dimensions?

Or maybe you draw up mud. The old stories covered by the sediment of a life poorly lived: the sludge of the dogged persistence in making the same mistakes again and again. The refusal to make wisdom and compassion of your suffering, the compulsion to go more thickly into the muck of your anguish, you tangled history. Mud, yes. And brambles. Nettles. Tangled roots.

And then there is the question of the ruined pitcher, our selves cracked and leaky from what Deena calls “the fascism of distraction.” Not a moment to take your own life to be your own life. Or perhaps you take your own life too seriously, grasp at it, a possession the threatened by thieves or see it as delicate, easily crushed or made brittle by your merciless perfectionism, an inability to honor flaw or vulnerability. Or maybe everyone gets to use the pitcher before you even have a sip of water and it is quite worn out for use. Such a pitcher is unsuitable for drawing on the wisdom of the old ones. Fortunately the Ship of Fools, who you will meet in the next chapter, have made a cottage industry of repairing your very own pitcher.

Having looked now at the state of the Well and the condition of its rope and pitcher, it is time to look at the eight fields the Well serves for they are the next eight cards of Amor Fati. The eight fields call forth the reciprocity between your labor and the fruitful earth – on behalf of the earth and they that she feeds. It is here that the soul gets its hands dirty, finds meaning in its actual lived life for the work of the fields is very real or Amor Fati is a trivial fantasy, certainly not an oracle that allows you to dialogue with Spirit.

What is it that you do that feeds your soul, feeds your kinfolk, shelters and clothes you, encloses you in purpose and necessity, makes your body weary, softened for the evening meal? What is it your hands, heart and imagination yearn to do, even insist on doing, paid or unpaid, within or in spite of that dreadful job you’re stuck in?
Ah, but I’m being too literal here. I wouldn’t necessarily include your work in the eight fields in your resume though it might well overlap with profession or aspiration. Best to list what your lived life is made up of between dawn and laying down to sleep. You raise children or you don’t. You’re employed or you’re not. You pray or you’re very good at playing pool. You have a lover or he just left. You’re single now but you have ideas of what you’d like to do with your spare time. You take care of your mother. She has Alzheimer’s and you try to love her after work at what horrible home she is in. You’re in school and will be so for a least four years. How will you bear it? You live for music. You play it, not so well, but your learning. You’re a political activist because you can’t stand the anguish of the world and you want to be of use. Besides, you do not trust the powers that be.

And so on.

Look over the land that you are cultivating or will cultivate. From what looks first wild and weedy what fields do you see taking shape? Which is deprived of water, which waterlogged? Where the new growth to tend and what calls for the scythe cause it’s harvest time again? Who can help you bring in the crop? What fields need to be cleared, what weeds pulled, what sweet fruit is almost ripe? And how is the acequia? Does it run freely? And the wild raspberries that grow this time of year. Can you eat them yet or is it too early?

The way of Amor Fati  requires a vibrant and creative interchange between you and the fields that shape you and you shape, that you impact and are impacted by. The fields are not “out there,” you arriving on time to punch the clock and put in your eight hours. You are in the fields and the fields in you. The French novelist Jean Giono writes of this invible world in his novel Joy of Man’s Desiring.

“One has a feeling that, at heart, men do not know exactly what the bare doing.  They build with stones and the do not perceive that each of their gestures in placing the stone in mortar is accompanied by a shadow gesture that places a shadow stone into shadow mortar.  And it’s the shadow building that counts.

The Amor Fati Oracle relies on this double vision. In the fields we are actually crafting our own souls for our fate is imprinted and patterned on lived relationships and the fields are where we meet and work alongside the many others who make us laugh, frustrate us, intrigue us, undo us and call us to compassion. Amor Fati is an intimate knowledge of a relational universe, the life of vivid context we know when we leave home to meet the world and return home to meet our kin or our solitary selves.

Define your eight fields broadly so you can fully appreciate the fertility of your life. To be narrow in your definitions suggest that the acequia needs work or the well is shallow. Two of my own cards serve as examples.

The Field of Nursing

My profession now for almost decades. The oral history of it rehearsed at least to myself – from working with the dying when I was a boy to four years with Mildred and her ventilator, meditating at her bedside through the night. Working in a tent clinic after the earthquake, El Salvador, 1986? campfires on the streets of the capitol, flash of bombing to the north, death squads after nightfall. The rigor of the hospital, getting the meds on time, enemas, nasopharangeal suctioning, wincing at the cruelty I watch and enact for my patients’ welfare, catching the dawn light on a magnolia on a bedside table. Stressed, bitter, exhausted or stunned by sudden silence, love even or surprised by tears. Dance with coworkers and doctors, wondering what the administration thinks of an African witch doctor for an employee. Catching up on my e-mail wondering if I’m drinking too much coffee, if I’ll catch enough sleep in the day to return more functional than I feel tonight. Etcetera.

In the field of nursing the Well relies on stopping at 3 a.m., climbing into a shower room or closet to meditate for an hour, heartfelt conversation between coworkers, affectionate flirtation or teasing (I did promise my nurses’ aide Bill Tran that my next book would be called The Sex Life of Billy), calling Africa on my break while everyone is waking up there to talk about dreams with Mandaza or how the farm is doing. (“Manguanani, Mapatya!”)

The acequia is kept clear as it was when I was a child – calling on assistance. Billy and I cleaning up an old man who has soiled himself. Miriam “the snake queen” able to find the urethra of a 95-year-old Vietnamese woman after I had twice failed. Little conspiracies of unnoted kindness between myself, staff, family members of patients. All of us so different from each other, a tiny MASH unit of multiculturalism, so different from my friends outside the field of nursing. Meeting situations that are routinely unbearable.

The field of nursing is a place of submergence since in that field, nursing is everything.

The Field of Language

Of course as a writer there is the written word, refined one hopes every time pen is set to page, and there is the writing of others that informs the craft. Then there is the spoken word, conversation or overheard, an anecdote told by a coworker or a piece of fascinating poetry from a madman’s ranting when I give him a dollar or the story of a patient shot in the face while pumping gas. Then there’s the morning papers, Doonesbury, the evil little tube, pop music swooning on the way from work, turning it off, calling my daughter on the cell phone and talking theater. Then there’s proofreading Deena’s new novel or her editing a piece of mine, then conversation till 3 a.m., the Eros between us much in the pleasure of some wild species of dialogue as in the sexual embrace. (And who’s that priest in the corner of my mind who I’m always telling confession to?) And one could go on and on, going on and on, doing as the Romans do while one’s in Rome because the field of language is a place where one thing leads to another. It is a place of submergence since, in this field language is everything.

And Oh yes, the cascading of internal monologue, various experiments with sad but sometimes lovely efforts at eloquence like watercolor in thin air or as if I’m rehearsing for a part that’s not fully defined, that in fact I must make up as I go along as if living and thinking, hoping and fantasizing were some sort of improvised music, bebop monologue then blues song then – what’s that silence right in the heart and gift of language? What kind of jazz is that? And who is the speaker or thinker anyway except his mad descriptions of himself? I mean the one I call Michael Void (Of Course). I mean the one who has actually becomes language and what is the relationship between his silence and simple direct loving, between silence and language and the way of the husband and father, the tribal healer, the keeper of oracles?

In the field of language I tend to the Well by reading poetry and fine novels, by the act of writing itself, taking risks, eating the humiliation if what I don’t know how to say, the humility of honoring the unsayable. The acequia is kept open by the late night talks with my wife and the company of friends who like wine and are not afraid to speak of who they are.

Such are the blessings of an ordinary life. For myself, the remaining six fields are:
    The Field of Marriage and Keeping a Household.
    The Field of Tribal Healing.
    The Field of Fathering.
    The Field of Learning Loving kindness.
    The Field of Dare’ (Dare’ a Shona word for “holding council” – in the deck it’s about serving a confederation of communities in North America and Africa that have emerged from my collaboration with Mandaza and Deena.
    The Field of Keeping the Oracle.
What are the fields that make up your life? Don’t be distracted by the disappointment you feel in what you do with your life. You can change what you do so it more truly accords with your nature but it is also the way of Amor Fati to see the small and intimate meanings in your unchanged life or dig deeper in your understanding of what it’s all about.
Soto Zen takes the quatrain
Before Enlightenment
Chop wood and carry water
After Enlightenment
Chop wood and carry water

and reminds us that chopping wood and carrying water is itself both the process and the activity of enlightenment. Amor Fati reminds us that even when we are alone we are not for a moment alone. Chopping wood and carrying water are always the labor of the community as a whole.

Get to work.

We’ve got a lot to do if you want to do it right.

Chapter 3
Cracked Skull, Half Pelvis, and the Jawbone of a Deer

For a Latino child the Day of the Dead is an exciting event, similar but with different poetry than Halloween. Calaveras are everywhere – skulls, skeletons, skeletal nurses and doctors doing surgery on a skeleton, farmers plowing with a skeleton of a work horse, skeletal priests raising the host in their bony hands, calavera hunters taking aim at the skeleton of a deer, and los novios swooning cheek bone to cheek bone. Little putty figurines or candy. And then there’s the picnic in the graveyard where the old ones are buried. Horchata and tamales for the children, beer and tamales for mom and dad, and wine and tamales for your mother’s uncle under the ground.

As an adult I’ve only been a part of Dia de los Muertos twice. Once in El Salvador in 1986 as a nurse. Hundreds of thousands of people were homeless from an earthquake that shattered the capital and from the carpet-bombing to the north. After sunset on the Day of the Dead I see a skinny boy in black full bodied leotards and a skull mask but scurry soon to the next homeless campfire and from there I quickly move on. After nightfall the death squads come out and kill their political enemies. And I’m further from my hotel than I want to be.

The last Day of the Dead I honored was much darker than my time in El Salvador though in truth it was just the doorway to the bitter blue dark of being stripped to the bone by tragedy. The police had found a plastic bag with my brothers wallet, some xeroxes of “How to Survive in the Wilderness” and his bankbook. “The trail is cold,” the Tesuque tribal policeman told me. Paul had been gone three months and winter was coming. So I headed from the end of the cold trail overland towards my grandfathers’ ranch trying to find my little brothers corpse.

A mind emptied of hope for years can still find the dregs of hope to spill in the dirt. I knew I would find nothing and that I must suffer whatever I must to come up with nothing and step by step the land I’d known as holy since I was a boy was simply cold with hunger and pitiless to anybodies soul. I looked and looked exhausted by heat. Finally as I approached the ridge bordering my ancestral land I sang a Yoruba song to Ochossi, the Yoruba spirit of the hunt who can follow the scent of prey anywhere and makes trails through whatever welter. I was quickly startled by the cackling of a single pinon jay and after he got my attention he spurted to the ridge of an arroyo and then into scrub oak.

I walked down into the dry riverbed trembling of course, knees week of course and dizzy with nausea. When I parted the scrub oak I suddenly saw it, exposed, a stunning white:  the jawbone of a mule deer. How much like a deer Paul was, lithe and nervous like a fawn frightened of the cars at night. I took the bone to place on my ancestors’ altar. Alive or dead I would pray for the passage of his soul. I looked at it and gently said, “This may be the last I will ever see of little Paul.” I knew it would be a long time before the tears would run.

Paul was the smallest of the six of us, born with his cord wrapped three times around his neck. Some attributed his strangeness to that, being suffocated at the moment of birth.

The invisibles were always a part of the family. My mother’s visions and dreams. The poltergeist that came when my sisters were first bleeding, turning the washing machine on at three a.m., plastering the inside windows with mud.

And that strange but useful new technology taking over the neighborhood. Perry Mason didn’t explain our household but the Twilight Zone certainly did. What with all these disembodied ones along with Elvis, Bonnie and Clyde, Ed Sullivan, and the Beatles, the house was a hive of incomprehensible others.

Into this Paul brought his own retinue of shades. By eleven Officer Krupke was a virtual Nazi trying to whip the two street gangs into shape. He’d put on Westside Story barking “Officer Krupke you at it again, these boys don’t need a shrink they need a year in the pen.” It isn’t a matter of misunderstood, deep down inside him they’re no good and with the refrain “they’re no good, they’re no good, they’re no stinking good,” Paul Krupke would hit us with a stick. I don’t recall whether, being biracial, Krupke was beating the Latino Sharks or the White guys. Anyway it hurt.

Paul’s invisibles changed when he got Jesus. At 15 he knew the exact day Christ was returning and that it was soon because the star wormwood had poisoned the waters of the earth and he could taste blood in the faucet water and had my mother change water filters every few days. He felt compelled to tell all the Christians in
Santa Fe about it and most thought he was mad for some reason – except the Latter Day Saints. They listened.

Paul carried his conversion with the perfect presence of a staid and earnest missionary (he yearned for a few years teaching tribal people about Joseph Smiths,  the angel Moroni and how Native Americans are the lost tribe of Jews). He also, often, pulled off a rather tight rectitude, a 19th century Latter Day pioneer in the backcountry of Utah. He was taken with the alarming idea that practicing Christianity was actually possible in the twentieth century and cast his lot with the homeless, sometimes bringing them home for a bite to eat. The hour was short. He knew that. So why withhold Christ’s generosity from anyone?

I began to get worried when I went outside late at night and found Paul standing on the roof of my car in full baritone singing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” to a circle of spaceships hovering above his head. Paul saw Don Quixote as a patron Saint (he once told me quite soberly that my grandfathers ancestry hails from La Mancha, Spain).

Paul was evidently in a state of abject ecstasy and extreme paranoia so I drove him to an acquaintance’s solitary cabin and decided to heal him. A la R. D. Laing. A la the miserable, sleepless, incompetent nganga I always was. But alas he was a man mainlining ecstasy, truth, the book of Mormon, and the belief that extraterrestrials have come to take him from this place. A man doesn’t sleep much who awaits rescue from the Mexican guy in the trailer park that wanted to kill him. Or who yearns to be delivered from the devil. Nor did I when he soaked our bed in urine in the cold cabin. I’d have thought nothing quite feeds sleeplessness as when big brother gets angry but Paul met it with surprising kindness and lucidity.

“You went through this when you were my age didn’t you?”

“Oh yes I did. And I pass Dad’s words to you cause he told me he went though it also. It’s a rite of passage, he said. It happens when you’re young and trying to find out how to be an adult. He said ‘you can trust it.’”

I knew I was lying. I knew Paul couldn’t trust what he was in and this was not the mad vision I had when I was homeless, probably not my father’s mad vision either. Nonetheless I made a fire in the woodstove, sang a traditional song and ritually went about scribbling things on paper, Paul giving them to the flames:  Burning up the Paul that lived by the story of being victim.

“You don’t have to get crucified, Paul. Jesus did that for all of us. You are free. His blood spilt made you free. Sing freedom brother.” In truth I knew truly that there was nothing I could do to stop Paul’s eventual crucifixion. He had an appointment to make. In fact a few years later he charged into the low chamisa, the edge where the high desert shifts to pine and then aspen. He disappeared a couple of months before his thirty-third birthday. Time to prepare, I guess. For years we didn’t know whether he was dead or alive, murdered, suicided or living in the backcountry of Utah.

For those years I went down to the place one must go when you’re served the indigestible. Bless those cultures that know that you place the forsaken in a hut of mourning for I effectively gathered such a hut around myself, a little island in time to pray, weep and scratch at my skin.

Eventually I went to a cabin in central Arizona to spend some time with Deena. The smell of the land and the flowers so much like New Mexico and mercifully far away. I could not yet enter the forest, that place of solace now in my mind dank with fear but I did spend a day at a lovely creek to sing, confess, make offerings.

I made a small circle from elk dropping and placed Paul’s jawbone in the middle and went to the bloody altar of accountability. Who killed Paul? Murdered or not he was nonetheless killed. Was it my father, posthumously? A seventh child, unwanted, not the bright light of intelligence that my dad valued.

Or how about myself? Refusing to be poisoned by the extremity of selflessness after his first psychotic break I watched my heart thicken to stone. I was skilled at that simple confusion of gestures that will drive anyone crazy and sends a paranoid person over the brink – the perpetual twist of the hands. “Come closer Paul, you are loved,” coupled with “stay away. I don’t know what to do with you.” He’d approached me about living on the land with Deena and myself a couple of weeks before he disappeared and I refused him.

And was he in truth murdered? Some family members think he was. Is my story a fairy tale? Did he really follow a mad vision into the wilderness; did crucifixion bring his fragments together?

Some fairytale. Besides crucifixion is murder, too. Not knowing whether he was even dead I made offerings on behalf of his murderers. What hell they must live in where no one knew that for such as they, prayer is the fiercest of obligations. Besides I was of their company and I refused to lie about it. When a family is swallowed by a Greek tragedy each has their role. Weeping, I recognized the blunt truth:  If it were all replayed, a second chance, we’d likely fail as we failed before not for lack of love but because we were aghast before the unhealable.

And then things turned mid-afternoon. What had been dark and accusatory softened to seeing the web of human frailty, much including my own. And I began seeing Paul in his astonishing strength and endurance, his kindness and solidarity with the homeless however much he suffered. I began to feel an affection for his crazy visions and ambitions, his Mormon screenplay about Mickey Mouse and a little human girl off to the planet Zot to confer with the disembodied elders of the church. To dream the impossible dream! Paul was good at that.

I placed a wildflower on a stone in the creek and returned just across the street to cook supper with Deena. I had been with her for perhaps a half hour while the sun went down when we heard the mewing of an elk cow just up the creek from where I had my conversation with Paul. Unearthly. Soon there was a chorus of them under the moonlight, a couple of dozen coming from the forest and browsing in the field. Deena rightly restrained me – I was momentarily adamant that I should be among them, join their tribe. “They’ve come to get, Paul,” she said. “It s not for you to join them.” I knew she was right. And I knew Paul was free. Resurrected would be his word for it.

Shortly after that (a month, a year I don’t know but it seemed short) my mother called. A deer hunter had found a cracked skull and half a human pelvis not far from where Ochossi had the jay send me to the underbrush for his jawbone. The DNA proved positive. Paul had arrived.

Flying to New Mexico to claim the remains and lay Paul down I cast the I Ching. I wanted to know how to stand alongside my mother, the grief of a mother who lost her youngest son to be honored next to my own. “Adorned in white. The culmination of the procession. White is the color of death and thus what is plain, clear, pure, and releases the spirit. Don’t hide things. Bring out the essentials. Adorn yourself with real virtue. Accept the difficult task. It releases bound energy and delivers from sorrow. The situation is already changing.”

There is no white like bones bleached by the desert sun. Georgia O’Keefe could not do justice to the radiance that remained of Paul. Lifting his skull from the blue plastic box I tried to recognize his face but could not. I ran my hand across his forehead and my index finger to where the skull knit in the center, remembered touching the soft indentation of his fontanel when he was a baby. When I handed it to my mother she unabashedly kissed it.

White radiance reduced to three or four handfuls of ash and that given to the red earth next to my grandfather. My God how we played on this land, I thought. I prayed in Shona and my mother read from the ragged missal she’d kept from her childhood:  “Even as you have done unto the least of these my brethren you have done unto me.”

There is a Dine word that very much belongs to the understanding of Amor Fati but it doesn’t in the least translate into English. Hozro is usually translated “beauty” as in Matthew’s gorgeous translation of the Nightway Ceremony:

With beauty before me. Held in my hand.

With beauty behind me. Held in my hand.

With beauty above me. Held in my hand.

With beauty below me. Held in my hand.

With beauty all around me. Held in my hand.

Now in old age wandering. Held in my hand.

Now on the trail of beauty. Held in my hand.

Hozro is the core of Navajo medicine. Healing ceremonials like the Nightway Ceremony are about drawing the ill person back to hozro. When I lay out the cards of the Amor Fati oracle my intent is to lay out a little field of relationships the way a singer makes a sand painting with pollen, crushed flower petals and different colors of sand for the patient to enter into and be realigned with the pattern that returns him to hozro.

But hozro is not exactly “beauty” as the idea is conceived in English. Firstly Dine has nothing like the noun system that is the very fabric of European languages. Everything is effectively a verb, and activity, a way of being. Secondly hozro means beauty as a feeling tone as much as the visual display we associate with the word. It is harmony, balance, and physical well-being. It is right and generous relationships with family, clan, and land. My translation of hozro, no better than any and certainly lacking Matthew poetry is “right relationship” or perhaps “right relating.” But respecting the limitations of English I’d translate, sa’ah naghai bikeh hozro as “there is beauty in the making of beauty” or “the activity of right relating refines right relating.”

Adorned in white.

Would that Nietzsche were conversant in Dine, “fate” in Latin, German and English a noun instead of a torque of relatedness. “Amor” altogether insufficient and inexpressive of what a soul must submit to in order to make sense of the incomprehensible. To couple Amor Fati with hozro suggest that “closure” may be one of those fads that take America every generation or so. From the point of view of hozro the question is not how to live with an unbearable fate but how to dance alongside it. It is possible to find right relating to a tragic event.

When the indigestible arrives gather to yourself all you know gives succor – solitude, friends, faith – and when your ready give yourself to being digested by that portion of being human that belongs to the gods of sorrow. Let their truths work you and pray that bitterness cedes to a compassionate heart because it’s never been otherwise – suffering in the most reliable source of compassion. Amor Fati reveals itself in reflective retrospect yet the smallest statement of someone who knows tragedy is manna. Art Paterson a Pentecostal friend, who lost his brother in a drive-by shooting simply quoted scripture, “Though he shall slay me, still shall I praise Him.”

And Paul? What might he think of Amor Fati from his residence over there?

Paul wanted nothing more than his family be united and loving – we refugees from the explosion of the nuclear family in the sixties. I was mostly irritated by his yearning since it seemed to involve a very un-Mormon family transforming into something we could never be. But – big brother be damned – his martyrdom changed us all into a coherent and loving family unit despite great geographical distances and sometimes it seems little in common other than the happenstance of the same parents.

Speaking for myself I’m indebted to Paul for making a healer of me. His crisis coincided with my first initiation in Africa and as I walked the path to the spirit world he accompanied me. That education that any young man must submit to – that he shapes the faults and frailties that are the lot of us humans – became a crucial part of my training as a nganga.

And sorrow? Well who could trust a healer that didn’t know sorrow?