The Thunderbird

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There are moments that stop you dead in your tracks, that turn you upside down and shake you out. There are moments that fill you up, that inspire, that change your mind and allow you to see the world permanently in a new way. There are moments that seem to last forever, where a second can feel like days. And there are those moments that slip through your fingers like sand, forcing us to ask, “Where was I when this was happening to me?”

This is a story about all of those moments happening at once.

My friend Kelly Roveda was back in town. She had moved to Albuquerque, NM and I missed her terribly. On Kelly’s last visit to Florida, she helped deliver our first child, Alchemy, at our home in Seminole. Alchemy was now two years old and staying with her grandmother for the weekend. So, Kelly, my wife Jennifer and I – with nothing better to do – decided to drink some mushroom tea and go to the beach.

It had been well over two years since Jennifer had drank or smoked anything and she decided it was time to let loose a bit in a safe, controlled environment among close friends.

I had taken acid with Kelly before (in the deserts of New Mexico) and enjoyed the crystalline nature that the world took on and the sense of disembodied perfection that I had experienced. I remembered the view from the backseat of her car vividly as the desert (with its tumbleweeds and far-off mountains) rushed by. It was as if my eyes were too close to a computer screen and the underlying fabric of reality was now visible to me in prismatic triangles of reds, greens and blues – like a veil had been pulled away to reveal a matrix of colors and connections that had always existed, just under the surface. I had begun to perceive all things through the lens of their relationship to each other – form emerging from emptiness, musical chords being created from single notes, the third eye opening between the left and the right, the child being born to a mother and father.

The idea of calmly sipping on some tea and possibly feeling that again sounded more than pleasant. It sounded necessary.

It was a rare cold night in Florida. Maybe October.

It was already dark when we sat at the tile mosaic kitchen table in the Seminole house and chatted as we prepared, then drank our tea. We probably talked about what we might need to bring, and more importantly what we might need to leave behind. We then hopped in the car and drove the short distance to the beach while we waited for the tea to take effect.

Kelly was driving (Kelly always seemed to volunteer to drive) and once we crossed the bridge to Gulf Blvd. we pulled into the first parking lot we found — the Thunderbird resort on St. Petersburg Beach. We parked at the foot of its iconic, three-story, Aztec-looking neon bird that marked the front of the building and we had a brief conversation about whether or not we would be towed for not being guests of the hotel.

We gathered our things from the car and made our way, on foot, back behind the hotel and out past the chaise lounges and the fenced-in swimming pool.

There were bright fluorescent streetlamps overhead that served to illuminate the back of the hotel. They gave an artificial glow to all the man-made parts – the plastic chairs, the poured concrete and tile work, the chlorine-filled pool. I felt a sense of sadness and revulsion for all the plastic parts of the world, and figured the tea was beginning to take effect.

Eventually, we reached the sand and kicked off our shoes. The cold sand felt different somehow, not loose and powdery like usual, but firm and easily packed. Maybe it was the temperature or the moisture. My footprints left deep shadowy impressions as I walked.

I squinted my eyes to look ahead, but the streetlamps were creating a curtain of bright white fluorescent light glaring down from overhead and I could see nothing but darkness beyond.

Soon, I was at the edge of that darkness, looking down at the sparkling, well-lit sand at my feet and total blackness in front of me, the shadow curtain waiting to be parted. I stepped into the darkness beyond, toward the vast expanse of ocean that I knew was there but could not see. As I made my way through the dark and my eyes began to adjust, something shifted in me. I began to feel lighter on my feet, as if the effects of gravity were slowly diminishing. It felt as if I were walking on the moon, taking giant, slow and significant steps toward something. Gradually, I became aware of the sound of the water, like a radio playing nothing but static, getting louder as I made my journey, one significant step at a time.

I had finally arrived at the shoreline, where the lapping waves had made the sand much easier to stand on, when I noticed that the girls had already sat down and begun to draw huge circles in the sand around themselves, talking and laughing quietly.

It was then that I noticed the reflection of the moon on the water and looked up.

There, above me in the night sky and staring straight at me, was the moon. It was a huge benevolent eye that seemed to look right through me, the planet and everything.

I froze. There was something else up there.

Like a jewel, the moon was embedded in a large rectangular gray stone. Extending out in front of it was a curved stone beak, like a bird’s beak. It sat atop other similarly-shaped stone columns (each one the size of a planet). They were stacked like a totem pole and extended like a spine back behind the curvature of the earth. Stretched out on the left and right were two large stone wings.

It seemed to be alive. And it seemed to know I was afraid. Beyond it, past the twinkling stars that felt so safe and familiar – the stars that men have measured and written poems about – swirled the far-off nebula where I could see new worlds being born. It was as if it had opened a door into the Cosmos and stood blocking the doorway.

This new Thunderbird towered over me and continued to stare down at me with it’s all-knowing eye as I stood frozen, physically unable to move for what could have been twenty minutes or two hours.

I knew intellectually that what I was looking at was somehow related to the neon bird we parked next to. But this bird was not made of light. This was a vision packed with such rich visual and visceral detail that it literally took my breath away.

I knew that what I was seeing was some kind of totem or spirit animal – a cultural expression from the Native American and indigenous people that I had grown up with near the Indian reservations of Wisconsin and Minnesota – tribes with names like Kickapoo, Ho-chunk, Dakota and Chippewa. Some part of my brain was projecting this into the sky in a form it knew I could understand. It could have also been a local phenomena – as if the soul of the Seminole tribe, native to Florida, was reaching up out of the ocean where they had fished and swam and survived for generations.

But, at the same time, there was a spiritual understanding of what was happening. With my left and right eye, I was seeing The Thunderbird. With my third eye, I knew that I was experiencing the presence of The Christ.

Not just in the sense that it resembled a stone crucifix the size of a space station, and that it spoke directly to me in the language of the religious tradition that I had grown up in. But in the sense that I felt an actual presence with me in that moment. The presence of a gentle and loving, masculine power that held me and overtook me.

What I knew, was that it was not just observing me, it was speaking. What it was saying was that I had been going about this all wrong.

My spirit was out of balance.

My approach to spirituality was lacking the Sacred Masculine. I had been focusing too much, giving too much emphasis (and attribution) to the Divine Feminine. Indeed, for as long as I could remember I associated the “spiritual” with softness, love, kindness and community. There was no room for anger, agency, ambition, individuality. If those feelings showed up I was quick to label them as “ego” or “not spiritual.”

A mature, resurrected, warrior masculine energy needed to be honored and invited back in. He needed to be given a rite of passage within myself in order that he may take his rightful place at the fiery circle in my heart and in my belly. I had kept this male elder archetype – this dimension of myself – outside the village for too long.

This realization had immediate real-world implications. As I understood it, I had to face the relationship with my own father, and bring that current as well. I needed to admit my own role in our estrangement, realize that I too could have picked up the phone and reached out to him at any time in order to connect and deepen the bond of father and son. I knew that even though he parted ways with my mother when I was three years old, I would not do the same. I would break the pattern of the broken family that I had grown up in.

All these thoughts – the Thunderbird and the Christ, the Father and the Son, the past and the future – as I have described them, came all at once, within seconds. It was like a flash of light or a download of information, immediately unpacked and installed. And, the remainder of the time spent standing frozen on the beach (whether it was twenty minutes or two hours) was spent trembling, trying to process what had just happened, trying to turn things over in my mind so as not to forget the details, trying to remember the intertwined sensations of power and passion so that I might feel them both forever.

Eventually, my thoughts slowly returned to the beach, and my wife, and Kelly. We slowly made our way back to the car and drove home in silence.

###

In 2017, I texted my father and asked him about my great grandmother (his grandmother) Alma DuChane. As a kid I had remembered hearing stories about Alma’s long black hair – so long that it dragged on the floor behind her. She was said to have been Native American and DuChane was the Indian version of Oppelt, our family surname.

Dad replied that he was glad I asked. For many years he was led to believe she belonged to the Cherokee nation. However, in the last year, he had come to find out that she was not Cherokee after all. She was Chippewa and had come to Minnesota from Canada.

I immediately hopped onto Wikipedia to brush up on my knowledge of the Chippewa tribe, and what I found startled me.

The word “Chippewa” is the anglicized version of Ojibwe or Ojibway. Many Ojibwe migrated from Canada to settle in Minnesota and the name Ozhibii’iwe means “those who keep records of a vision.” It refers to the Ojibwe tribe’s use of pictographs in their sacred writing.

But, what shocked me was the Ojibwe creation story.

According to legend, there were seven “beings of light” that appeared to the original Ojibwe elders in the East. These beings came to Earth to teach the elders their “way of life” (presumably their values, ethics and religion).

One of the seven beings was so powerful that the humans it came into contact with all perished. That entity returned back to the water from which it came. The six remaining migiis (mee-gis) transmitted their unique teachings to each of the elders, establishing the six original clans of the Ojibwe tribe (bullhead, crane, duck, deer, bear and marten). All the clans had unique traits and strengths — they were negotiators, healers, teachers, farmers, warriors and builders.

According to the story, if the seventh “light being” had been able to stay on earth to transmit its teachings – if it hadn’t been forced to return to the water – it would have established a clan known for its great spiritual wisdom and insight. It would have established a clan based on a mystical animal revealed to the Ojibwe – an animal known as the “sacred vessel of unlimited happiness.” It would have established the clan of the Thunderbird.

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