Tom, the artist in the group, flashed me his thin reefer smile.
“You know, this coffee will stain your stomach,” he whispered.
Laura and I knew exactly what he meant.
Both Tom and Laura seemed uncomfortable in the presence of a “healer.”
Robert Gopher and I had known each other a while. We had travelled Montana’s Hi-Line together a time or two, talking, “sweating” and praying.
Robert, a Cree Indian then in his early 70s, had one line of work: to be of service to anyone who came to him.
Tom, Laura and I had travelled more than 2,000 kilometres to meet up with Robert at his Great Falls home.
His small rundown place sat on a hill overlooking the city. Known locally as Hill 57, this was the poorest part of the city; it was Indian country.
Dorothy Gopher was the same age as Robert and they had been together for more than 50 years.
She was fat with shoulders round as Montana hill-country. She had been worn down by the disease of being Indian in urban Montana.
We were here to attend an international powwow as Robert’s guests. He was going to lead us in prayers in his sweat lodge a few hundred metres from the house.
During awkward moments of silence, I watched Tom and Laura move their eyes around the interior of the house.
On the wall, just above the table where we sat drinking bad coffee, hung a cheaply framed picture of Jesus on the cross.
It was the only picture anywhere in the house.
There was one small couch in the living room, three plastic-covered chairs in the kitchen, an end table, which supported a long braided tail of sweet grass and two fat, neatly bound smudges.
A carton of Camel cigarettes, maybe two now that I think about it, were tucked in under the table.
Dorothy poured more coffee.
Tom quickly covered his cup with his hand and began giggling to himself. He went outside to smoke a joint.
Marijuana was his way into “the other world.”
It was his relaxant, his artistic buddy, always around egging him on to paint what he felt only he could see.
When he was not busy painting, he tied his balloon to music. And without pot, he would say, music was only common chatter.
Laura politely took more coffee, puckered her moist tiny lips and swallowed.
She was a psychotherapist, addicted, I thought, to the strong feelings she got from helping clients wade through their swamps of dream and nightmare.
Carl Jung and Carlos Castaneda were her heroes, both riding the same train but on different rails. Her job was to bring them together headlong into the service of contemporary psychology.
Psychotropic drugs, especially Lophophora williamsii (the peyote cactus), Jimson weed and humito, a preparation of dust from Psilocybe mushrooms, had become the tools of her trade.
Robert’s use of the sweat lodge in healing ceremonies was another tool Laura hoped she might tap into to skirt the dream world.
Both Tom and Laura were disappointed.
For Robert, drugs shut doors, clouded vision and produced nightmares that in fact retarded our ability to see the reality hovering just on the ends of our fingers.
“Drugs and alcohol,” he was fond of saying, “stop us dead in our tracks.”
“So too,” he lamented, “does religion.”
“Why the picture then?” I asked.
It was his constant reminder that both he and Jesus were misunderstood.
Robert felt people nowadays use religion as they do drugs: to comfort, to offer hope at the end of a bad day, to escape into a reality that is all “flowers and clouds.”
When we are in pain, lost, lonely and afraid we have trained ourselves to go right to God, or to pot or cocaine — today’s it’s crystal meth and Glenn Livet.
That won’t do.
We have to learn to sit with pain, gather it around us and find out where it’s coming from. The goal of pain is not to immediately find ways to mask it, but rather to live in it long enough to learn from it.
To be lonely is to be in the moment.
To be lost is step one in being found.
When we are at wit’s end, at the end of our rope, this is not some sort of punishment. It is as much a point of health as it is anything.
We are alive at these moments like never before. There are opportunities for clarity and deep understanding at the end of our rope.
For Robert, the sweat lodge is the place; small, dark and contained.
In it we give up thinking and begin to breathe.
It is a sacred place of great clarity in which you can, according to Robert, “safely pinch yourself into knowing that pain is temporary; so too pleasure.”
Tom, Laura and I left Great Falls after four days. I think it was November 1973.
Many years later, I heard that Tom had moved to Mexico, still painting I assume.
Laura ran into difficulties.
One psychotropic experience was not kind to her.
For the last 20 years or so, she had been hospitalized somewhere in Nebraska’s flat country.
Her mother called me a few days ago to let me know she had passed away.
“I thought you might pray for her,” she said.
“I certainly will,” I told her.
Behind my cabin there is a trail I have made my own. Over the years I have worn it down — deeply.
I sat with the pain of Laura’s passing and I wondered if Tom was really still turning out art — perhaps though with a more southern embellishment.
Snow began to fall on me. It was cold enough for the flakes to sit on my hands and legs.
What beautiful shapes these are.