I never thought much about the question “How are you doing?” until Covid started. My family went into extreme isolation. None of us left the house except for walks in our neighborhood, and we had all of our groceries delivered. My father-in-law passed, and my wife went to be with her mother, who has dementia. She has been gone for six months now. Our twenty-year-old cat died. My computer died, and I lost essential memories not backed up. My phone died, and I lost some lovely chat histories. I am not sure why my response to this series of tragedies was not sadness. Rather, I responded with depression.
Swallowed up by nothingness, I lost track of who I was. Isolated and alone, there was no one to whom I could explain my situation. I tried to hide what was going on because I did not want the stigma of mental illness. My depression worsened, and then even that concern diminished. I had no idea how to change my lot. Intellectually I knew many self-care practices, but that did not lead to any action. Shipwrecked in my psyche, waves of sadness and futility battered me. In many ways, my inner realm mirrored the outer world’s tragedies. Maybe I had removed a final filter and was seeing the world as it is.
Was this a perverse kind of enlightenment? Or was I drunk where the hangover and recovery never came, constantly inebriated by nightmares and dread? No escape because I cannot stop being myself.
Conditions with Covid improved, and I started shopping again. Old friends from out of town visited. I drove out of town and took ferry rides for several extended weekends of spirit work training – house blessings and shamanic soul retrieval. I also took part in a traditional vision quest ceremony. My mental health slowly improved, but at first, I wasn’t sure. I came out of my depression after an evening drum circle at a friend’s house in the countryside. Before Covid, I gathered regularly in communities that sang—yoga kirtan, healing ceremonies, and drum circles. I had lost the sense of being alive, and then, as the poet Jane Kenyon writes, “… and suddenly, I fall into my life again.”
The evening in the country starts with strangers being introduced and eating a potluck dinner—my plate has chili casserole, pasties (a savory baked pastry), and fruit cobbler. The sun goes down and seven of us are sitting in folding chairs in the backyard around a fire. Above us, the stars are out, and the moon is almost full. Each of us has a frame drum and a beater except for one man with chronic finger pain. He is holding a rattle. We drum and sing and talk, sharing songs and stories for the next four hours.
One woman in a tie-dyed t-shirt wearing a straw hat shares about her partner passing and how she spent years being angry at others and herself. She talks about the Anishinabe, a First Nations people who live around the Great Lakes, and sings their Strong Woman Song for us. The song allowed many indigenous women to survive solitary confinement in a prison where they were abused for being native peoples. After the song, we talk about the recent mass graves found at now-closed schools for native children in Canada. School officials murdered children as young as three years old. In the evening’s darkness and for times of great challenge in our lives, we have this song as a gift.
Another woman wearing a long dress and a black vest jacket is a single mother raising two high school boys. They are becoming increasingly independent. She shares a Lakota Sioux song about two brothers who are each on a side of a canyon. They sing to each other to let the other know they are ok. She shares about being at a vision quest at Standing Rock Indian Reservation where a young man who fasted before the quest ended up dying. The vision quest is not an easy experience, but while you are alone on the land you are held by your community. She talks about her work at the local church for the youth. I love witnessing this mother’s love for her children and those in her town.
My friend mentions I had recently completed a traditional vision quest. The woman in the black jacket asks to hear about it.
I share that an 80-year-old Lakota Sioux grandmother ran my quest. There is a nodding acknowledgment—four days in nature, alone without food and water. My only provisions are a sleeping bag, a wool blanket, and a tarp to wrap myself in if it rains. It rains. I fail to wrap myself correctly so end up soaking wet below the waist. The following day it is windy and overcast. I have no drum to beat on or journal to write in. All I have is my voice, so I sing and pray for my four days and four nights. There are twenty of us scattered in our isolated sit spots. Each sunset the support community gathers, drumming and singing five or sing songs for us. We reply with howls and cries of gratitude. In the middle of the night, you can hear another singing. We sing for each other and for those at home who are here with us in spirit.
I sing in front of the fire the song I sang I sang for my fellow questers.
Spiraling into the center, the center of the wheel
I am the weaver; I am the woven one
I am the dreamer; I am the dream
A third woman, whose partner is the man with the rattle, shares about her adult daughter who is schizophrenic, not taking her medication, and addicted to crack cocaine. She lives in a run-down trash-infested trailer on their property. Her diet, if she does eat, consists of soda and candy. There is so much heartbreaking despair here. Parents unable to save or even help their child. I reflect on raising two children with my wife. We faced many challenges but none approach this. We listen. No one offers advice or solutions. We hear and our listening becomes a song, affirming the importance of prayer for me.
I have a new reverence for family, friends, and community. Even when it felt as if I was unable to receive their love and concern, I was. The sun and the moon continue to rise and set. Song has always been important to me but now holds a more gentle and generous space in my heart.
There is an Albanian proverb that goes: “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” That particular configuration of people in that drumming circle in that time and place will never repeat itself. Yes, we could all get together again but it would be a new gathering. The flow of life continues to move and transform. Grieving and celebrating with others heals us and perhaps, just maybe, allows us to survive a period of deep sadness or depression.