I wake up this morning in the dark of predawn. At my bedside is a cup of hot coffee with cinnamon and real cream, curtesy of my husband who brings me this tender offering each morning. My morning pills are within close reach and I open up the small jar after snapping on the light by my bed. Four pills, tiny things, but powerful. Without one of them—the thyroid medicine—I would not remain long on Earth. Without another—the antidepressant—I would not want to, anyway. Medicine, the need and the ingestion of it, should always be a ritual undertaking because it is so powerful an act. Yet I slosh down the pills with a mouthful of coffee, without a second thought.
Already, my mind is lurching ahead into the day, then past the day into summer, into the summer garden, then off sitting by the bees, then ruminating about my 92-year-old mother. Still dark outside, the world is peaceful and my room is like a soft, downy cradle, but my thoughts yank me away from this comfort and careen me forward again: What to defrost for dinner? Do I have any appointments today? When did I last clean out the duck pen?
With an effort, I pull them back, pull the runaway train of my mind back for a moment. Sometimes, that’s as long as I can keep it in check—a moment. Each morning, I make a habit of asking myself, “What is the quality of Skan this morning? How is it moving right now?”
Taku Skan Skan is the Lakota word for life and it translates, roughly, to “Something moving. Something sacred moves.” I think of it as a word not only for life, but for life force. Sometimes, life—which to the Shamans imbues everything in the Creation from stones to trees to wind and fire—may not seem to be moving much at all. But the force that animates all things is always in motion. And it always has a particular quality to it.
So, each morning, I ask, “How is Skan moving this morning?” Sometimes I sense the movement as strong and focused, other times fractured and bouncing. Sometimes it moves darkly, and sometimes with great, blinding spirals. This morning, which ever way it is moving, I have no sense of it at all because my mind has made a cunning escape and is off imagining how big the asparagus plants could be come late-May.
Especially in these dark moons of late autumn and coming winter, I notice in myself an insidious desire to avoid these seasons, even while another, deeper part of me cherishes them. My mind, in the morning dark, runs away with remarkable speed, leap-frogging past December and January and March, landing splat into the first warmish day of April. Even for those of us who tell ourselves that we relish the deep, cold, inner-work times of winter—and we are not many—there is this pull of an even greater power to avoid this season and these tasks. These oft-times scary tasks. These moments when the dreariness outside becomes the dreariness within the heart.
I don’t need daylight to tell me what dwells just outside my window this morning. The rumbling of rain on the roof, like heavy trucks passing, tells me that our backyard is already a world of muck, and that every last, spent plant stalk is hanging over, weeping cold tears. I used to believe my fear—because fear is the right word—of the dark seasons and my dark moods was a failing in my will. That I did not have enough strength of will to face the wintry blasts with boldness.
But I this morning, I wrap my tender heart around this fear like a mother bear enfolds her naked, vulnerable cub. Because I recognize this piercing fear as the wild in me. It comes forward from my most ancient, Pleistocene past, and it is no weakness but an ancient-brain respect for the deadliness of the cold moons. Moons that in the past took us with icy fingers and killing throat-holds of freezing floods and starvation. One cruel blizzard could wipe out an entire tribe. Maybe it wiped out my tribe, long ago. We have an old and respectful relationship with the freezing moons. It is a natural and life-protecting caution we feel about the dark and dark times, and I count as precious all the parts of me that remain wild, tribal, and instinctual. Even when the wild instincts do not feel good and my stomach clenches in spite of myself.
No wonder my mind seeks to push such ancient dread away and think about asparagus sprouts in spring. I don’t live in deep snows anymore. Winters here are fairly temperate. For some of you, winters are almost nonexistent. But our bodies remember the glaciers. Our eyes speak to our brains and our bellies when the sun drops low in the southern skies and the days grow short. Even if roses bloom for you in winter, your ancient animal brain remembers the ice.
This season, I will not push that wild caution out of mind. I will put my arm around it like a cherished long-time friend come to stay the winter. Side-by-side, my winter friend and I will look outside and see in the first light of dawn the skeletal beauty of the trees, the fog that suspends a secret and warming blanket over the morning. Here in my room where I can now make out the geometric patches of red and back and gold on my blankets, I will call my mind back into THIS moment. This moment where the heater hums and small birds collect on the feeder just against my window. Where bees rest in winter dreams on my drenched hillside.
When this crazy, elusive mind of mind leaps off to the riverbank in late summer, I will call her back kindly, without exasperation but with kindness, to the smell of my coffee in its red cup and the stillness in my belly. Then, only then, I will ask myself, “How is Skan moving in this most precious moment just…right…now.”