Shannon Sloan-Spice, Ph.D.
I am Shannon.
I have my own place.
I have my own place on this land.
I have my own place on this land, by this water.
My father named me after the River Shannon. Ireland was his favorite country and he stayed there for several months. My family tells me he was claimed by the land, haunted by her beauty, wanted to live there. I wish I knew more about his connection to the mythical Emerald Isle. I wish I knew about his love for that river, he but he died when I was too young, before I had questions.
I grew up along the shores of the Great Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, never living more than three miles from her, but the home I have lived in the longest is only within a mile. How many times did I look to her ever-changing horizon for answers to the questions I could not ask of others? How many times have I sung to her, prayed to her? How many times did she offer solace and sustaining support? Grandmother Michigan has held my heart throughout my entire life; she is my oldest living ancestor. So oriented to her am I that my sense of direction is always somehow in relation to her wherever I travel. Being named after a River apparently endears one to the water.
Because of my early losses in childhood, I was an odd duck. I had trees for friends, sometimes in greater company than people. I liked to be alone, to be in the park forests, or by the lake. I remember singing medicine songs I was never taught when I was eight years old. Nature has long been the place where I go to seek sanctuary. The lake has gifted me many times for my devotion. I met my beloved under the moon in her waters at a high school at a graduation party. He waded over to me, began a conversation, and we didn’t stop talking until the next day. There was a sweet kiss with the rising sun, sitting on some old train tracks. He has been my special person ever since.
When I was sixteen, I also compelled by the urge to go looking for “my teacher.” This was not typical for such a young kid to go looking for a medicine person I had never met, but I had this strong inner voice telling me to go and find him. We were at a large annual pow wow by the lake at the Summerfest grounds. He had just been in a conversation with the mayor of the city and the top spokesperson for the park. They walked away and he was sitting at the picnic table. His version of the story was that “all of a sudden a girl came up from the water, like a mermaid, and said, ‘Hello Pop.” I had been praying by the water and somehow knew to turn around that minute. When I saw him sitting there, I knew that he was the one I came to find. Earl Meshigaud, Chief Cloud, Potawatomi, Three Fires, took me on as his assistant, and later, adopted me as his daughter into the Bear Clan. This was a homecoming for me: I had never felt comfortable in a church. I like staying close to the earth.
Fast forward a few decades later, I was a doctoral candidate in a Mythological Studies with a Depth Psychology emphasis, writing my dissertation on the Celtic Goddess of the Land, Sovereignty and how the Goddess of the Land manifested archetypically in cultures around the world. Because of a research grant I had been awarded, I was able to go to Ireland with my dear roommate and cohort companion, Sharon. She called me one day and said, “If you are really going to write this dissertation, you NEED to go to Ireland.” And so, we arrived over New Year’s between 2013/14. 2014 was the thousand-year celebration of Brian Boru, the last king of Ireland to be chosen for kingship by the goddess, Sovereignty, as legend would have it. We did not have the opportunity to really visit the River Shannon on this trip, but as we were driving back to Dublin to catch early morning flights, we did drive briefly past her, and I waved from the back of the car.
What I wish to say about that trip is this: Like my father, I was claimed by the land. I had arrived with no plan or itinerary. Sharon had been to Ireland several times before, so I relied on her and the advice of the locals as to what we should see. As it happened, we were staying not far from the mound where Boru had been coronated in County Clare, outside of Tulla. I fell deeply in love with the landscape, the trees, The Burren, the Irish Sea. We were at the Polnabrone Dolmen at sunset of New Year’s Eve, I got lost in Lady Gregory’s forest of trees, sat on the stone bench where Yeats once sat; it could not have been more enchanting.
We took a detour visit to Wales with our friend Gay from our cohort who had written her dissertation on shamanism. She had some sacred sites she wanted yet to see there. I could feel myself yearning for return even as the ferry boat got further and further from the Irish shore. But Wales was lovely, wild, and has a magic of her own.
In the beginning of 2014, the winds were furious, and the sea was threatening. Waves were rolling up streets in towns as the locals watched gathered and watched in disbelief. It was ominous and awe-inspiring. We had to make our way to some of the sites, battling high winds and ocean spray. We found ourselves in a portal chamber, a burial mound that lit up inside with the setting afternoon while we were sheltered inside her safe depths. These thin places, neither of this world or of the underworld are beautiful in their liminality. Again, I don’t ever remember being held and comforted like that in any church. The quiet closeness of the Earth, the darkness, and the shaft of light was more than holy; it was magic.
The most unexpected gift of our time in Wales, came when we hiked a mountain in Penmaenmawr to see “the Druid’s Circle.” I did not know what this meant at the time, but this journey ignited a seed of becoming in my soul; it activated something inside me that was deeply tied to the Great Mother. To get there, we had to follow the descriptive advice of the locals: “Go up that hill, turn left at the fountain, go past that yellow house, gnarly tree” etc. There were arrow signs to guide us until we started finding a stone path to guide us as well. The adventure was more enchanting with mountain sheep staring at us. The icy-peaked Snowdonia watched over us on one horizon and to the other, the town lay far beneath us leading out to the sea. The hill was steep and had running rivers we had to cross so there was an effort to reaching this wild and ancient place. But once we arrived, it felt like such a blessing to walk around several circles of those grandfather standing stones, especially with the wild ponies running around. Those giant stones, thousands of years old, seemed like they, unlike the mountain sheep, had been expecting us. There was one large circle and several smaller ones. What were all these stone circles used for? Who were the ancestors that brought them here?
Yes, I loved our short trip to Wales, took to heart those vistas with their challenges and great rewards, but I was also so happy when we were headed back to Ireland. I could feel myself settling down as we neared her shore. My heart quickened as we got closer and closer to setting foot again on Irish soil. Ah yes, it was a mad and deep love affair I was secretly having.
Eight months later, as I went to write the final chapter of my dissertation, I was synthesizing the books I was reading in my research with my notes and pictures from the trip. Although I had traveled there with no agenda, it turned out that many of the places we had been were exactly the places I had needed to go! Unseen hands had pushed me in all the right directions. Ireland and Sovereignty, Wales and the Druids, felt like they were telling me the stories they needed me to hear. Something had gripped me and was causing an alchemical shift in my awareness of myself as a daughter of the earth. The landscape continued to instruct me as I wrote about her. And I was happy in my service.
I defended a year after our trip in Dec of 2014, and in 2015, began teaching World Mythology at a community college outside of Chicago. I was lucky enough to join the steering community of the newly formed Environmental Studies Program. Here, I was able to blend my love for stories with my love for the Earth. It is the consensus of many mythologists that myths are the language of the Great Mother and how she speaks to us. So, it was with me and Sovereignty. We were in conversation. I was listening, deeply.
In the summer of 2016, a call went out to the world from Standing Rock, North Dakota. It was a call to come and stand with the Oceti Sakowin people who were trying to protect their scared lands and water from the desecration of the Dakota Access Pipeline. My heart ached, watching the violence escalate: Native sisters and brothers being attacked by dogs, tear-gassed, arrested by militarized police. I told my partner, I had to go out there. I felt the call to protect the river from that pipeline so deeply, it could not be ignored or denied. We had many friends who also wanted to help so they brought us their donations and we rented a van to bring all the items with us. We began our journey in November, the day after Trump was elected. As we were driving, reports of random racially based attacks began to erupt all around us. It was a time of darkening, and we were sobered by the ominous feeling of greed and chaos. We wondered, as we drove, what the hell we were getting ourselves into? But we stayed the course because there seemed no work more necessary and vital than what we were about to do. The Missouri, the 22 million people, and all the wildlife that depended on her for water, were also depending on us.
I will never forget seeing her for the first time as we drove over the horizon entering Ladonna Brave Bull Allard’s land: Sacred Stone Camp. The breath caught in my throat. Grandmother Missouri was so majestic and dazzling with the light dancing off of her water. The giant, pipestone sculpture of a Native looking over the waters by Charles Rencountre called, “Not Afraid to Look” grounded my awe. I was dazzled by both the river’s beauty and the presence of this great witness. I knew instantly that she was worth defending. We delivered our donations and stepped into a ceremony and then straight into service. Ladonna was blessings the yurt village they had completed building. They had been gifted from a tribe in Mongolia. She told the story of how long ago, a medicine man had put a stone into the ground there on that land, and predicted that one day, the world would come to that place. This is why it was called Sacred Stone camp. I worked in the kitchen. Jim helped with building a schoolhouse. Everyone was taking care of one another, working for a common good. The donations we brought with us were being worn by people the next day. Across the river was the pipeline. Flood lights glared at us all night, and it had such a sinister feel to it compared to the safety of the people. At Očhéthi Šakówin camp, there were flags from all the indigenous nations of turtle island, and beyond. People from all over the world were here to protect or be allies of the water and the Sioux Nation.
I recalled a time with Earl when he told me a story long ago that inspired me to become a storyteller. He said, “In the time of the seventh generation, a Rainbow Tribe will gather to heal the wounds of the world, not through wars or through treaties, but in lighting sacred fires and sharing our stories.” I made a vow, in that moment so long ago to be at those fires. I wanted to hear those stories! As I looked around, I realized that those sacred fires had been lit and the Rainbow Tribe was gathered. It dawned on me that this was the time of the seventh generation! The prophecy for the time for healing had begun.
So, I began asking the people I met to tell me their stories. I had a practice of asking those I worked with, “Why did you come? What brought you here?” There was a woman who was blind, and it was her task to make the coffee for the water protectors going out on actions. She kept a large black cauldron bubbling with water over one of the fires that never went out the whole time. I know now that she must have been the Goddess, herself, in disguise as a crone, walking among us.
One morning, we were peeling potatoes together and I asked, “Why did you come?” She answered me simply, “We all came out here for the same reason, because the water in our bodies told us we needed to be here.” With that one sentence, in one breath, I began to remember what I had somehow always known: I belonged to the water. This was beginning of the Great Awakening for me at 43 years old, mother of two, Ph.D. I knew who I was and what I was here to serve.
At Standing Rock, the Elders taught that we were not there to protest a pipeline, but rather, we were there to protect the water. And the way to do this with the most integrity was to align ourselves with our hearts, with our connection to the land and to the water, and to know that through these bonds of love, everything was connected. Therefore, we remained in prayer and service. We offered tobacco gifts, songs, and drumming to stay close to the heartbeat of the Great Mother. We were told to stay in alignment with what we loved because love is the most powerful medicine. And we were also taught that gratitude was essential to practicing strong love medicine.
One is not going to make a difference if one marches against; to focus on what we do not want would only make that thing amplified. Even on a bad day, when the militarized police were aggressive, when there were arrests, when things did not go as we hoped, the Elders would sill answer, “Today was a good day.” They blessed everything and prayed for everyone-- even the DAPL workers desecrating their sacred lands--even the militarized police.
Water is sentient and wise. Water can hear us, can speak to us. Prayers make the water happy. Although learning this indigenous wisdom may sound far-fetched, I urge you to investigate the research of Dr. Masuro Emoto, as he documented what happens when you speak to the water, how it responds to co-create the reality of your words. What we think and speak about, we bring about. It is a sacred law.
We had given service to camp, and it was time to go out onto an action. We attended training and a debriefing meeting. I was inspired to hear the great Occupy Wall Street activist, Lisa Fithian, advise that the fight for clean water would not begin and end at Standing Rock. She reminded us, “The frontline is everywhere.”
Instantly, my heart flew back to my beloved Lake Michigan, and I knew from that moment forward, I would continue to dedicate myself in service to protecting what my heart was most in alignment with. A week after we left, the Water Protectors were trapped on a bridge and had water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets assault them. The people continued to pray, even though they were fighting the harms of hyperthermia and zero-degree temperatures. They continued to change their clothes and return to pray on that bridge. It was one of the greatest acts of love and courage ever displayed, a love so deep and universal. This was spiritual warriorship on behalf of all our relatives, all children of the Water.
I was wild with grief watching it unfold from my safe ad warm home. A group of dedicated friends and friends I hadn’t met yet found one another as if, again, by unseen hands bringing us all together. With the help of the Church of the Great Spirit as a meeting place, we began Water Protectors of Milwaukee and continued to help bring awareness to the issues facing our water. We marched, organized, practiced mutual aid, hosted water ceremonies. I was honored to learn and pray with the late, great, Water Walker, Grandmother Josephine Mandamin. She walked and prayed around the perimeter of each Great Lake. And she taught that water protecting was women’s work because we carry life in the water of our bodies. This deepened my calling even more, because I was no longer standing just for the water, but for the children I carried in the water of my body, that was once the water in my mother’s body, that was once the water in my grandmother’s body, all the way back to First Mother. Every moment of that work aligned me with my greatest sense of purpose.
Right before we left for Standing Rock, my mother fell, badly. She never walked again. I did not know that she had been battling early onset of dementia, and I did not know one could forget how to use their fine motor skills. I thought it was more of a forgetting of people and time. This great coming- into-my-calling coincided with her Chinese water torture, drip by drip loss of vitality and fight. I hated the nursing homes we were forced to have her live in because her needs were too complicated for home care. They were oubliettes: places where elders are forgotten. I was so mad that she was not fighting her way out.
I had a powerful vision in a premonitory dream that when she died a tidal wave of change would be coming. There were so many questions I needed answered, so many secrets, half- truths, and lies. But because of the oxycontin prescribed to treat her Rheumatoid, she was often in the Land Beyond, where I could not reach her to ask for grace or accountability. I had to make peace with her desire to transition instead of fight. She was weary. And her body vessel had become a prison of pain. I couldn’t bear to watch her suffer in those final days. I was so blessed to be surrounded by loving friends and a ceremony circle. I was able to bring as much ritual and healing as I could to this sacred time of great transition.
They say that water is the element of emotion, perhaps because it is so linked to our tears. There were many tears I cried losing my mother, drip by drip. There were also some tears that I could not cry until much later. Because she had congestive heart failure, they had her on strict water rations. She was always thirsty, always asking for more. I couldn’t refuse her requests and would wet her lips and sometimes let her suck from a cloth. Water IS life.
On the day she was dying, I had the chance to be with her for several hours before my other family members arrived. We had a little tradition at this time where we would ask her for her sage wisdom of the day. When I asked her what her wisdom was on that day, she growled most defiantly, “I NEED SOME FUCKING WATER.” I filled her cup and she gulped it with glee. I began working with her on water imagery, taking her on a visualization journey back to the Adirondacks, to her father’s farm, and the place where we would bring her to lay to rest. There is a pond surrounded by trees that four generations have fished. This was the land that had claimed her. She used to teach us to always light a fire whenever we were home so the ancestors would know we were there.
“Do you see the pond, Mommy? Do you see the sun rippling on the tiny waves? Can you feel the coolness of the water between your fingers? Well, that water is you, Momma. And just like the water, when the time comes, you are just going to move seamlessly from one form to the next.” Water can neither be created or destroyed, it can only change. Water spirals like the ancient symbols of Ireland, moving in its cycles from liquid, to solid, and gas. Water in our bodies today was once in the bodies of even the dinosaurs. Water is Mother to Us All.
I began singing her a ceremonial song, helping her visualize her resonate water body flowing into its next form.
The River is flowing, its flowing and growing.
The River is flowing down to the sea.
Mother carry me, in your arms I’ll always be.
Mother carry me down to the sea.
I sang it over and over so she could do her work. At one point she called out, “Mother? Mother?” I knew the ancestors were coming to bring her home. Her mother, wo died before I was born, had come quietly into the room.
When at last she was ready, when she had spoken to all her children and grandchildren, saying her final words of love, she suddenly cried out, “Help, help, help!” I grabbed her hand and reminded her, “Nice and easy, Momma, just go with the flow, moving gently from this form to the next. Just roll on like the river.”
She took four more deep breaths and flew away…
It was the most sacred and holy moment of my life, giving her back, next to giving birth to my children, of course. I was so honored to be there when she, whose name was Walks Beyond Woman walked on.
I continued to bring ritual and prayer to this time of transition. I prayed for her, smudged her body, eulogized her, and sang to her as much as I could. I once had sworn to care for her, always, and I fulfilled my covenant with her.
But as is often the way when a matriarch of a family transitions, there was a loss of center in my family and ugliness and grief began to rage unchecked. I realized how much my mother had always protected me, but without her, the gloves had come off and the accusations began to fly. I was her mixed-race love child and my family it turns out was not as open-minded as she was. When I understood the colorism I experienced, I refused to be a whipping post and place for shadow projections. I made a clean break. I had my own grief to attend to. Feeling I would never return to our family land again, my ancestral home that I so deeply loved, I looked to send my roots deeper. I once felt claimed by the land in Ireland, the home of my more ancient ancestors, and knew it was there that I would find healing once again.
Sharon and I met again in Dublin. We contacted a man named Dave who was willing to give us a tour of the sacred sites in Sligo: Carrowkeel, Knocknarea, Crevvykeel and the exterior stone circles and dolmens of Carrowmoore, which is closed in January. We would be in Sligo for two days and then off to Kilkenny where we had a time share for the week. Our accommodations and tour of the sacred sites were the only planned pieces of the trip.
What I really knew I needed to do was get to the River Shannon to pray. I needed to spend time by my namesake, I needed to find my center, my true self. As we were driving, Sharon said she was not sure how we would make that happen, as the river was not close to any where we were headed. But our great adventure was beginning, and we weren’t going to miss a single beat! Sharon decided we should make one stop during the sunlight hours on our way to Sligo. We were going to an old monastery, Clonmacnoise.
As soon as we arrived in the parking lot, a small bird landed on our rearview mirror, cocked its head, and stared at us intensely. What struck me about this wee fella was its bright salmon head and brown hood and wings, and cream body. Adorable! And so bright on this gloomy day. Ireland has a proliferation of ravens, crows, and magpies, and crows are a strong medicine symbol for me. You could see a murder circling the towers of the monastery, as if the whole cloudy day was only filmed in black and white. They seemed to fit the winter landscape. But this little technicolor one was full of Spring. He did not stop staring at us. We were able to take pictures of him, watch the rising and falling of his breath in his chubby waistcoat. I discovered this was a European robin, which looks much different to our American robin, as he was smaller and brighter salmon-hued than our rust-colored friends. In America, one always knows the Spring has arrived with the first sighting of the robin. I did not know at the time, that this wee one would play spirit guide for our whole trip. He became my symbol of new life as he psychopomped our entire journey.
I fed him some granola from my backpack. He stayed with us a good long time. We were entertained by his company, and he seemed satisfied with his gift. And to my delight, when I looked up from my amusement, lo and behold, we were right on the banks of the River Shannon! First stop in Ireland, and I was exactly where I need to arrive! The unseen hands had guided us there, I should know by now to trust the flow of energy in that special place. Even though Sharon had been to the monestery once before, she had not remembered this critical detail that it rested on the shores of my river.
I wandered about taking pictures, greeting the trees, finding my way to the river through an old graveyard. Irish graveyards are as much living as any other part of the enchanting landscape. Tender Christmas decorations and mini altars are freshly placed upon the graves. I sensed the deep tradition of love beyond death, that love cannot be destroyed, only changed. I recalled my mother’s favorite story The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” There was a dock that took me out onto the peaceful river. I was able to put my hands in the water and feel her gentle flow kissing my fingers. I began to sing the river song again:
The River is slowing, she’s flowing and growing.
The River is flowing down to the sea.
Mother carry me. In your arms, I’ll always be.
Mother carry me, down to the sea.
I sang this over and over until I found myself quite in a reverie, being lifted, transported down this ancestral highway to whom I felt so connected. The water of the Shannon danced in a way I had not seen before. Most water flows in a single direction, whereas the Shannon laughed, she bubbled, and danced, like she was singing back to me. I watched two swans on the opposite shore swimming gracefully together. And there, right at the water’s edge was a perfect, single, bushy little tree across the river, which oddly looked like it was still in bloom, though this was early January. It was so close to the river that it was perfectly reflected in the water, giving the illusion one could see the roots. I know enough about Irish lore to know that such a singular tree is often a place of magic. From my distance, it looked like a Hathorne tree. But perhaps it was my very own Hazelnut as it offered me some kernels of comfort and wisdom. It stirred me deeply to look upon that perfect symmetry, to see the way the reflection in the water accentuated the branches so they looked like roots instead of canopy. I could not tell if it was an optical illusion! But as I sang to the river and gazed upon the sweetness of that yonder tree, I felt like I was singing myself home. My brokenness was being weaved back into perfect harmony too. I was being claimed once again by the land and blessed by the river. After being so filled by the love of my namesake and the magic of my tree, we drove in the approaching darkness all the rest of the way to Sligo.
We arrived in the dark. We grabbed a delicious meal along the river and headed to our little row house, which was cozy and warm. With all the international travel and big adventure of the first day, we were jetlagged and ready to sleep right away. The dreamworld tugging behind my eyes, I crawled into bed. When we awoke the next morning just before dawn, I got to look around a bit more. I noticed that the garage wall in the backyard had a cool nature mural spray-painted on it with a huge bee and Irish Robin! Coincidence? After such a personal encounter? I had never seen this creature before, and here, it seemed to be following us from landscape to artscape. Sligo was promising to be a place of enchantment, too.
At sunrise, we were meeting our tour-guide, Dave. What I appreciated most about him was that he was a trad musician and at every sacred site, he played music for the land, for the stone circles, dolmens, inside the portal tombs and for Queen Medb, herself. We took turns singing or playing in these thin places, some 5,000 years old. The land welcomed us with her grace, and we offered our gifts in return.
Dave had an inspiring story and one that resonated with me very deeply. He had been working a tech job in Dublin, but it was sucking his soul. And then his mother died. As if by magic, he also followed signs to Sligo. He decided that what he really wanted to do was play trad music and give tours of mythic landscapes. And so, he left his high-paying high-stress job to follow his bliss of myths and music. Dave was an angel more than a guide, as I think of him now. He helped me bless this time of deepening, to listen with an open heart to the ways I was being called to show up differently in the world after my mother’s transition.
After our beautiful hike, Dave took us to meet the great Irish mythologist, Martin Byrne, and his lovely wife, Margaret. Margaret was Dave’s harp teacher and they both sat down and played us a few duets. The music was a balm to the heart, and these new friends felt like we had known them for years. Such is Irish hospitality. By the end of the day, we were bursting in love with magical Sligo. Martin and Dave told us that we could not leave without seeing the Grandest of Mythologists, the famous woodcarver, Michael Quirke.
The following day, we found the butcher shop he had converted into his woodworking shop. Once, it was his father’s butcher shop, and Michael had started off as a butcher, but as he explained, he was “the worst butcher in the Western World,” so he decided to give it up and follow his bliss as a woodcarver. But not just any woodcarver, the kind that tells you the whole story and meaning behind the images he carves. He regaled us for hours on the whole mytho-history of Sligo, complete with maps and quotes from well-read books. He was hilarious and if ever a man had mischief twinkling in his eye, it was Michael. I wanted to buy a carving but was too timid to take it out of the window, but a man walked into the shop and did just that! So, my carving was going elsewhere, but Michael told the story of her anyway. She was called “The Woman of Many Gifts,” otherwise known as my beloved goddess, Sovereignty. Michael explained each of the figures carved in the wood were her traits or qualities.
At the top of the block was the three beaked bird, representing the Cailin, Bean, and Cailleach, Maiden, Mother, Crone, the ultimate feminine power. There were triple spirals for her breasts and womb, a symbol of her fertility, but not just reproductive fertility but the ability to inspire the imagination of the hero, creative fertility. The cauldron was the Grail, Chalice of Generosity. Inside of the cauldron was the Salmon of Wisdom. “The salmon denotes…well you see in the male stories they always speak of overpowering the woman. And in the male story of Finn, he eats the whole salmon; there’s none left for you, so bugger off. But there’s a Salmon for everybody. It appears in the dark, in the dark cauldron of the unconscious, a deep pool, and it’s available to everybody, if you have the sense to seize it.”
There was a Harp for culture, music and poetry, another synchronicity having just heard Margaret and David play for us last night. Leaves for growth and two ravens for hindsight and foresight. A moon represented a woman’s stellar body, and an Irish hare for misneac—which he said was a kind of chutzpah, a feminine courage. He explained that a hero needed to be born with misneac, it was not the kind of thing that could be bestowed. It was a courage that could help one face the process of dying and rebirth. It very much reminded me of Spiritual Warriorship. A heron represented common sense, and the pine martin was for beauty and cunning. And finally, a wolf to protect the high-born woman. He called him Mac Tire Faolcú, the hound of guardianship and singular loyalty.
Michael is truly one of the best storytellers I have ever met. I was sad I could not bring that carving home, but the two hours of listening to him tell stories was a gift I will never forget. When we listen deeply, it is almost as if the right people, at exactly the right time, show up as messengers of Spirit. The Woman of Many Gifts was someone I knew intimately through both my research and my lived experience: she had come to me as Lake Michigan, Missouri, and Shannon. His telling of her seemed to tie so many of my own threads together. And he said that these gifts are her own traits and those that she can bestow upon you. “Irish stories always have ambiguity and more than one meaning.” So many of those creatures had been a part of my life in significant ways. I, myself, had raised a wolf from a cub, and both heron and crow had played a particular role in being ancestral guides in two of the biggest dreams of my life, one concerning my father and the other my mother.
When you visit the shop, Michael offers to do a little wood carving with your name on one side and the animal totem of your choice on the other. I asked for a raven as I had just two months before had a very significant dream about a raven with one wing. As he carved this block of wood, he told me the only out of body experience he ever had was with a crow, who had landed on his roof and was cawing, and quite to his surprise he found himself inside of the bird looking down at himself on the ground. He laughed and said they both had a terrible fright!
When he went to carve, my name on the other side of the block he asked if it would be alright to spell it in its original form. “Yes please,” I answered. And he did so with the mountains we just had climbed carved above it, with the nipples of the cairns to signify breasts and wombs like the triple spiral of the Goddess and her inherent creativity and ability to inspire the imagination.
As he continued to regal us, he spoke about a friend he had told him he was “a secret druid.” “Well, it must not have been too much of a secret because I had known for 25 years,” he laughed. But this friend of his was practicing a sort of magic that had to do with naming and place. This is a shared theme among all indigenous peoples, the importance of naming, the importance of language. So much of colonialism was steeped in forbidding the languages of the people to be spoken, in erasing the language of the landscape and her peoples by replacing them with English ones. I don’t quite remember the rest of that story, but I thought of the Druid’s Circle we had visited in Wales, that seemed like such a holy pilgrimage. I had no agenda on that trip six years before, but in hindsight, I can see how the same thing that was calling me to this present moment had been present then.
I had the strange sense that Michael Quirke was himself a medicine man of sorts. The mythologist, Martin Shaw, says that a good story is not about enchanting one, putting one to sleep, but rather it is there to wake one up! I was feeling very awakened to what was unfolding even though I did not yet understand it all. In Native tradition, one is giving a praying name to address the creator, and this name can change with great transitions in one’s life. For instance, my mother gave me a name when I was born: Armed Warrior Maiden. Earl had modified that name to Rainbow Warrior Woman, and it was given to me in both Ojibwe and Lakota: Ochitida Wigmuka Oquay to honor the diversity of my bloodlines. Somehow, I felt like I was being given a new name now by Michael: Sionnan, in a language that felt so familiar, but had also been lost to me.
Sadly, we left Sligo that afternoon. We were headed toward Kilkenny, where we literally had no agenda, again, just accommodations and curiosity. I was sort of stunned into silence that comes with awe and felt my heart sinking leaving all those incredible new friends we had made. Sharon looked at me and asked if I was ok. She could see and probably felt it too, that it was hard to leave that beautiful place. “I think I am leaving my heart in Sligo,” I said.
“Well,” she answered, “fix it. Get on the computer and start doing some research! How shall we save the rest of our trip?”
When we arrived in Kilkenny, it was dark again. Another trip into town for dinner and then I came home and opened my computer. But what was I looking for? Tentatively, my fingers hovered over the keyboard and then I found myself typing into the search engine, “Druids in Ireland.” And the first page that came up was, believe it or not, “The Kilkenny Druid Grove!” As I searched the site, Eimear Burke made such an impression on me! It said that she was to become the next chosen High Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and would be the first woman to serve in this function. She is beautiful with long flowing white hair, and she looks exactly like a how one would picture a druid. Eimear, in her cloaks of green, felt oddly familiar to me. And she, too, was a storyteller! I knew I had to meet her. In one video on her site, I felt an instant connection to her and could see a through line between what Michael Quirke had just told us and what she was saying as she described what Druidry meant to her. She spoke about this word, Imbas, and she referred to this as a mysterious creative process that is divinely inspired by the goddess Brigid, Boann, the landscape. A gift from the land itself.
I emailed her and told her I would love to meet with her, that we were here for only a few days…that I was here searching…healing…that my mother had died…I was grasping for straws as to why she would want to see us, but I knew I had to speak with her. Looking back on this now, it was not unlike when I went searching for Earl and recognized him right away as my Pop. Feeling very silly for being so forward, Sharon and I continued with our hunting around sacred sites, getting lost in the countryside, having grand adventures. This time, we found ourselves at Knockroe just as the sun was setting so we got to see the stones lit up by the sunbeams, the ancient spiral carvings noticeable. Late that evening around 10pm, I was completely surprised when Eimear emailed me back and invited us to an open evening of storytelling and round for tea the next day! I danced around the room with Sharon, singing and laughing like the bubbling Shannon River, this way and that!
The evening of storytelling was brilliant! As two mythologists wandering around Ireland, Sharon and I could not have been better fed. We were an intimate group gathered around a fire. We laughed, and listened, enjoying ourselves thoroughly. Eimear was dazzling, truly. Dressed in all green and with her Brigid’s cross glistening in the firelight, I was transported to the Old Days of which she spoke, when one had to have a story to tell if one was asking for hospitality. I told the story of Standing Rock and how I became a water protector.
The next day, we made our way to her home. The property has an old castle ruin and overlooks a river. Her drawing room was a bright salmon color and on her mantlepiece there were about five little blocks of wood that Michael Quirke had carved! And if that synchronicity were not enough, next to them was a Christmas card with the watercolor image of, you guessed it, a robin!
On her coffee table was a calendar with sayings on it that had been left open which was a quite form Mary Kay Shanley: “That’s how it is with people sometimes. When you least expect it, a common thread begins to weave together the fabric of friendship.”
As we drank our tea and chatted, she asked me if I had heard of the story of Sionnan, and I told her I had, that she was seeking inspiration at the well and had been drowned for her insolence. She told me she thought that was a patriarchal version and that surely there was a better one. And because she did not like that version, she told me a story of herself, from a long time ago, when she lived in Africa and how she, too, had given her body so that the dry land could run with water once again. Eimear had lived and worked in Tanzania with a medicine man there, and she pulled out a gourd he had given her that belonged to her in her former life where she saved her village. He told her she would remember what to do with it. She and I both were water protectors! Like to like!
We took a walk out to see her beautiful ritual space in the castle ruin. I asked her how she had come to Druidry, and she answered that Druidry had come to her; that in some ways it sought her out. As we entered her ritual space, tears came to my eyes. For there, again was the triple spiral, breasts and womb, the symbol for divine creativity and inspiration! Here in this ruin, I found Imbas, I was home. I had finally come home. Hot tears rolled down my cheeks. I knew I would never be the same.
We left Eimear with hugs, as old friends. My heart was bursting with gratitude and awe. What was happening? A s I bounced from one sweet moment of magic in storytelling to the net story to the next story. I have always said that stories are my bliss, but the this was about as magical an adventure as ever I had and clearly needed. In the world of myth there is a belief that the journey you seek is also seeking you.
We had only one day left in Kilkenny, and I wanted to pick up some gifts for my family. There was a store with some beautiful Celtic jewelry, and I picked out a Salmon of Wisdom necklace. They had two: one for both Sharon and me. The last time we were in Ireland, we bought matching spiral bracelets at the gifts shop at Tara, and this would be our matching gift this time. “There is a Salmon of Wisdom for everyone.” Michael was so right, he knew we would find what we were looking for.
When I arrived back home in the US, my heart was fuller than it had ever been. I had lost so much in the last year, but I had just gained so much in 10 days. It was hard to put it into words, and forgive me, dear reader, for this fumbling attempt to do so now., but there is something to the notion of flowing your bliss. I had become more myself than I had ever been in my life on that trip. There is a mythical ancestor from my father’s line whose name was Katherine. Legend has it she was an Irish Druid who came here by boat and married a Cherokee medicine man. I thought about the stone circles in Wales. I had felt some sort of stirring then.
I returned, curious about learning more about Druidry and visited the OBOD website. There And there, on one of the pages was a poem about the Salmon of Wisdom written by Roselle Angwin. And it was my story. It began with the words, “Like calls to Like” and ends with a call to surrender, to relinquish control, that water will find her, take her to the place of her desire through non-striving and beyond need, back to the
And now, another year has passed, and what a year this has been with a global pandemic and the cries for justice that have shaken my country. Eimear was installed as the OBOD High Chief, but it had to be done in the realm of the imaginal first, as we were not able to gather. It was very moving and felt so right that the first woman leader of The Order world be installed in the realm of the heart, first. I think that Brigid was smiling upon her in this arrangement.
Our friendship continues to deepen. I can tell you that in my year of studying Druidry, I have felt a homecoming embracing this spiritual path based in Imbas, divine inspiration, and creativity and a deep love for Nature. I did my first Vision Quest last summer, where I fasted and prayed four days and nights alone in the wilderness. When I came down off the hill, a heron flew over my head. The same heron from my dreams about my father who named me. And when I got home, I realized it was his birthday! A huge storm blew in and it turned the sky a deep pink. The hard work of the quest was being blessed by First Medicine, the water. Attracted by the light, I went to look outside, and there outside my front door was a purple rainbow in the deeply fuchsia sky. I wept and knew why I had been given this name.
Eimear recently sent me a retelling of the story Sinnan by the Story Archaeologists that reclaims her as a Woman of Many Gifts. They write, “the song of the waters of intuition swept her along and she allowed herself to become one with it in its frenzy and beauty.” I know this version to be true. I know she helped to set the trapped Salmon of Wisdom free so they could once again return to the sea because there was a Salmon of Wisdom for me. Yes, I was there.
I am Sionnan.
I have my own place.
I have my own place on the land,
I have my own place on the land by this water.