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9 10 2007

Black Robe

By Jill Ettinger

After watching Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto a few months ago, I was interested in absorbing more information on the way our ancestors lived. I sought out movies that explored indigenous cultures, and though I know the silver screen can only demonstrate a small amount of accuracy, seeing is often the surest way to believing.

One of the movies I stumbled on recently is Black Robe, tracking a story of French missionaries and their relationship with Canadian tribes like the Huron and Iroquois. While there was a captivating storyline between the missionaries and the Natives as well as the inter-tribal conflicts, I was actually most interested in observing the way in which the people lived. The difference four hundred years makes is absolutely incredible.

Lately, I think a lot about the way our culture is so dependent on money for things that not so long ago were essentially too valuable to have a price. Like what we now drag all over the country in the form of steel and rubber, hole up in motels and eat at any establishment that fits our budgets and schedules. As someone who has done a lot of this modern migration, it feels immensely empty. Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful to anyone who helps me out, but still acutely aware that I take very little responsibility for things essential to my own survival: Someone flies the plane I’m in, or makes the bed at my hotel, squeezes my juice in the morning, etc…It’s not that I disregard the systems we’ve built to enable coexistence and right livelihood, it’s just that I’m beginning to see how deep this hole really is we’ve crawled inside of.

When I’m home, I have rituals. While the teapot boils, stretching every morning and a few deep breaths on the back porch, soft sounds of jazz and the subtle tickle of incense enhance my awakening, and the day feels strange without these little things. It’s impossible to duplicate this in a hotel room. Even if all elements are present, they are not happening at home – my home. But it used to be that home was with us everywhere we went. Huron or Bedouin, humans wandered solely dependent on their own ability and agility to be self-sustaining. If the seasons insisted on following herds of caribou or sheep, homes and rituals followed. Land was not drenched with parking lots or strip malls encroaching on forests or rivers; it was vast and accommodating. We lived as part of this earth, one aspect of its voluminous expression that we now so often lump together as something else away from us, that thing we call Nature.

Burning Man clearly reminded me, like the movies depicting our tribal ancestry, there is so much to impart from being close to kin. Family or flowers, all life is traceable back to one shared point, be that a god or science. Yet here we sit,  civilized, modernized, christianized in our little boxes and cars and cubicles wondering why life lacks magic and mystery so much that we find pleasure in lusting after celebrities, hoping they’ll blunder themselves publicly so we can kick them when they’re down. So much technology and so many toys surround us, but the simple truth is that many of us are more bored than we’ve ever been. Video games simulate what it’s like to be traipsing around nature searching for treasures and princesses; movies transport us to times when we embraced the powers found in the naked earth; we vacation to manicured resorts that control nature’s proximity to jacuzzis and tennis courts.

As I observe the hypocrisy of the elections that loom like a noose slipping around this country, I listen with disdain to the empty promises of politicians. How different they are from tribal chiefs. Sure some were more effective than others, but the tribe functioned as one, all parts essential, health and cooperation far too important to be left unattended. It is so different now. Not only have we cut ourselves off from the life that surrounds us, stifled it though it is still able to push up through cracks in concrete, but we elect polyester leaders, abysmally removed from the hearth of our culture.

It’s not possible or even beneficial to tear down the brick and mortar of evolution. I mean, I for one live near New York City and love it. The urbanized world offers so much, but is it balanced? Central Park is pretty, but we all know it is not enough. Neither are the churches or synagogues, temples or hospitals. We worship but don’t appreciate, pray but don’t practice, cure but don’t heal.

I know there are no easy answers or solutions; we’ve barely begun to ask the right questions, or seize our potential. Why I am fascinated with the way we used to live, love, appreciate and integrate is part of my own path. I’m well aware of that. But I am part of this species (although my Dad does swear I’m from another planet…) and what I see happening strikes me, hits me in that invisible place that says: something isn’t right. We’ve lost nature and our connection to what it really means to be a community, maybe only temporarily, but profoundly. Organic efforts are connecting us more and more to our food sources and who knows, maybe that’s enough to cause alignments elsewhere.  I’m writing this in hopes that I for one keep remembering what it means to be part of a tribe, part of Nature, part of Earth. Nothing else seems to be as important except maybe breathing, and of course, Love.

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