In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

“You’re in denial!” — “I am not!” — “See, that proves it!”

It’s been a rigorous month and I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad it happened the way it did. But it was intense.

I got back from the Sundance on Tuesday afternoon. That night, I was in the ER at our local hospital. I couldn’t breathe. The oxygen level in my blood was down to 89%. The doctor dictated “…frail, 68-yr- old male…” It was bad enough being there without that.

“I-am-not-frail,” I said, between inhalations.

The doctor, a young woman just back from Iraq, looked closely at me.

“You are sixty-eight years old, you weigh 125 pounds, you have Type One Osteogenesis Imperfecta—O.I., kyphosis, bronchitis, and hypoxia— and you are trying to convince me you aren’t frail.”

Beth put her hand on my shoulder. “Peter, you are frail. Face it. It was absolutely crazy for you to go to that Sundance and drag the buffalo skulls.”

I couldn’t think of a comeback. I wanted one very badly, but every time I tried to think of something, I felt the oxygen going into my lungs and that was enough to keep me quiet. It was my second visit for the evening. The first time I’d been short of breath but all the doctor then on duty had me do was breathe oxygen for half an hour.

About the closest examination he did was say, “I’ve read about blue sclera in patients with O.I., but I’ve never seen them. May I look?”
Shortly after that, he sent me home.

The second time, I was scared and in panic. I was suffocating. Beth called 911 and I rode in the ambulance.

I had to explain the raw places on my back from the wood pins that had been inserted for pulling the skulls. Several of the staff knew what a Sundance was, but from movies like “A Man Called Horse.” None of them seemed to think I was nuts (later on, several staff members asked me reasonable questions about the ceremony, like “So, it’s about sacrifice for the people, is it? Are you Indian? Did you have a vision?”).

My hospital visit lasted three and a half days. I’ve spent worse times in hospitals. I had a room with a view: fifth floor, looking west at the Cascade Mountains: forests, rocks, glaciers. A view like that from a hotel room would be very expensive (we’ll see what happens when the bills come in).

I was able to use the bathroom, I could sit up and eat, and I wasn’t in any particular pain—except when I’d cough and that felt like my diaphragm muscles were being sawn through. By the end of the 2nd day I was able to take a shower by myself. The next morning I was off of the oxygen.

It got boring. I know they charge for boxes of tissue paper: I wonder if they charge for the number of times I pushed the remote on the TV.

On the second day, Beth brought my laptop, but I was so disoriented between where I’d been and where I was, I couldn’t focus on what to do with it. I had the attention span of a squirrel. Too many experiences at the Sundance, too much panic when I got home, too many people around, my nice old man’s schedules and love of peace and quiet were shredded.

The Sundance is simply a time to pray; not that praying is simple, but that’s the ceremony’s focus. All I could pray was two or three minutes at a time, even by defining prayer as sort of silent openness.

Still, like Zen meditation or Yoga, it’s coming back to the focus point no matter how many times I wander off it. Having others around trying to do the same thing helped me.

Since so much of my experience at the ceremony pivoted around spirituality, instead of concepts and systems as with religion, and because it’s intensely personal, it can’t be fully described by words. It’s like trying to logically describe grief or love, dynamic processes of the entire organism. Words can hint at it, dance around the center, but not give the experience life or depth.

I was both a participant and an observer—of my own life. When they pierced me—pinched up the skin over my clavicles, and inserted the scalpel, it hurt—right there where they did it. That was all. Once on the left and once on the right. I felt the cherry-wood pins; about four inches long and tapered at both ends, slide in. Then it was done. It stung but that was about all. No spasms of pain like with a fracture. The helpers—people who had already done something similar for four years or more—led me over to the line of roped-together buffalo skulls. I’d looked at those skulls for several days. They stood me in front of the skulls, and hooked loops of rope to the pins in my back.

One of the helpers said, “When you’re ready, my brother.”

No reason to mess around: I made a cry of strength and stepped forward. The pins popped out: one, two. I think they made a noise, but I don’t know for sure. No pain: a bit of stinging, but no suffering. It happened to a part of me, but not all of me. My self, my existence, was a lot more than the physical feeling. Someone later described it as what runners feel when they hit the wall and keep going. Sort of breaking the pain barrier. I think that’s what the nature of spiritual experience is all about: going way beyond one’s personal and immediate existence. We are more than our bodies. And it’s possible to bring that awareness back to day-to-day life.

It’s been quite a month—but like I said, I’m glad it’s over.