Even White Men Can Fly

When I was a child my father arose every morning at 4:30 AM to prepare for his job at General Motors, Central Foundry, in Danville, Illinois. My earliest conscious memories are the smell of bacon and coffee, like smelling salts, pulling me out of deep sleep into lucid dreams. I am convinced that my father’s breakfasts, his insistence on eating the same thing morning after morning, year after year, helped tremendously in perfecting my ability to fly.

Even in those earliest days peering out from behind the bars on the side of my crib, there stirred within me, a memory of something ancient, something vague, out of focus, but so real I clung to it like a child to a mother. They say the first three years of a child’s life are the most important for the development of the brain. In the first years of my life, spurred by the scent of bacon and coffee, I learned that there’s a fine line between dreams and awake time. But most important of all, I learned I could fly.

The 1950s were a time when people seldom talked about personal things like dreams, except to relive nightmares or unusual dreams. So naturally I was left to figure things out on my own. With everyone guarding their own private perceptions, we lived in a world of assumptions. It was very easy to assume that everyone else was just like me. Since I could fly, I just assumed everyone else could fly too. I lived in my dreams as consciously as I lived in my waking hours. For me one was just as important as the other. In one I could actually fly and in the other I remembered I could fly.

I spent my childhood growing up in my grandmother’s house, a two story Victorian style farmhouse near a small industrial area. The alleyway beside the house was periodically repaired with loads of gravel from nearby strip mines. The gravel was a treasure trove of Native American beads and arrowheads. This too I assumed, was the pastime of every child; sitting in an alley picking through beads and arrowheads, discarding the imperfect ones. They were all tiny pieces to a puzzle I was reconstructing. My center had become the stillness where the voice of the ancestors could be heard on the wind. The sum of their knowledge and wisdom was written in everything they had touched. As I held the artifacts in my hands, my eyes conjured up visions of Hollywood “Cowboys and Indians.” But if I closed my eyes, my heart told the truth. The most important thing in life is not learning from the outside. The most important thing in life is to rediscover what you already know, like the bird who intuitively builds a nest.

In the 1950s, half-breed was a common derogatory term for Europeans with blood mixed with Native Americans. So it was no wonder I was unaware that two of my mother’s brothers had married women with Native American roots. My Aunt Faye’s father had traveled east at the age of 17, when he left a Crow reservation. He was one half Osage and Faye’s mother was part Miami. Even though I was unaware of the Native American connection at the time, my Aunt Faye could not help but pass on to me, the ways of the elders. As a child, I was aware that she was different. When I was with her, I felt like an equal, as if what she shared with me was shared one adult to another. Through our interactions, Aunt Faye reinforced what I already knew. I was connected to the animals, to the birds, as well as to the trees, the rain and the wind.

For the first nine years of my life I was the youngest of six children, a boy with four older sisters. I learned very quickly that this position allowed me to be invisible. My conscious choice to not participate in the mad rush toward so called progress, simply went unnoticed by everyone who was entrusted with molding me into an acceptable member of structure society. I decided that ambition was something that steals people identities, their souls, if you will. So during the summer months I pitched my pup tent in Kickapoo State Park, communing with nature. I spent one unstructured day after another in a meditation that allowed the universe to come to me, to speak to me. With each breath I opened to the next moment and all the infinite possibilities it offered. Everything that everyone else cherished, all the things that brought them a sense of security and meaning to their lives remained worthless to me. Even before I had read the first Native American poem or mythology, the indigenous spirits had come to me, as they do to all who find their quiet center. Once they pull away the illusion, there’s no turning back.

In grammar school, my friend Ed’s Native American grandfather had told him a story about flying. According to Ed, his grandfather could think like a bird, his spirit leaving his body, soaring above the land, looking down even upon himself, just as I had done often in my dreams. Throughout my life I would be offered many of these brief encounters with Native American culture. The stories told by Sacheen Littlefeather at our Tuesday evening meditations at Paul Stuetzer’s in Marin County, strengthen my perception of the role of indigenous people in teaching us how to remember our connection with the earth. When I entered Judi Bari’s hospital room in 1990, after her car had been bombed, my heart was suddenly filled with hope and peace. There were Native American healing tools, feathers, stones, bones, etc. hanging over the bed and anyplace else available. The alliance between the environmental movement and Native American culture was a natural. I saw it as the white man was waking up to his mistakes. I couldn’t help but remember the Hopi prophecy of how America would be destroyed by the inability of the white man to understand how to live with nature.

I had always found it impossible to respect ideas that were disrespectful to natural law. I saw borders and fences as man-made tributes to greed and arrogance. I accepted nature and the environment as teachers, not enemies to be conquered. And I eventually came to understand that every other living thing besides humans, was operating on a principle that guaranteed its rightful place in the patchwork of the universe. As we became more materialistic, our intuitive senses, the very essence of what connects us to the universe were forgotten.

My approach to mid-life coincided with Bill Moyers’ interviews of Joseph Campbell on the PBS series, “The Power of Myth!” Religiously, I recorded each episode on my VCR. There, condensed into six hours of interviews was everything I already knew intuitively. No other person alive could have done for me, what Joseph Campbell did. There stood a man from my own tribe, but without the trappings of the white man. He was my father figure, standing at my crossroads, giving me all I needed to know before I embarked upon my hero’s journey. His words and stories resonated within my heart.

By 1990, life had offered up many tough lessons that only strengthened my understanding of spirituality. Death and extreme suffering had become such a normal part of my everyday life, I had no choice but to live fully in each moment. Spurred on by the vision of the hero’s journey, I took Joseph Campbell’s challenge. My partner Rob and I sold everything we owned. Armed only with what we could fit into a backpack, we cashed in our Pan Am frequent flyer miles and set off to discover the world.

And that’s how I came to live on the south coast of the Greek island of Crete. On a warm day in April in 1992, I was hiking up the mountain toward the village of Livaniana with three other friends. The air was heavy with the scent of rosemary. A gentle breeze kissed my face as the sun warmed the back of my neck. My attention was captured by a large bird circling at the peak of the mountain near Anapolis. Then a miracle happened. I was at the top of the mountain looking down upon my hiking party. I spread my wings, then catching the wind I began to soar down the side of the mountain to where my friends were standing. I gasped! My friends turned to me with puzzled looks upon their faces. I responded by telling the story of my childhood friend Ed, whose Native American grandfather could fly!