Learning from novelist, poet, activist Deena Metzger
To find a living Elder, I knew that I needed only to walk up the hill to a neighbor’s house. Deena, 82, lives in a small home on a large piece of land overlooking the mountains, where for more than three decades she has seen clients for counseling and held large community Councils for healing rituals of person and planet. Her life has been divided between a longing for solitude and a longing for community.
Deena’s passion is the healing power of Story, and her recent focus has been on Revisioning Medicine, uniting Western medical practices with indigenous medicine traditions. She is the author of many books and essays that explore the links between the human and natural worlds, most recently the novel A Rain of Night Birds.
When I entered her tree-lined patio and crossed into her cozy living room, I felt a wave of familiarity. I had attended Deena’s writings groups years before. She had been a mentor to me, as to many others.
Aware of the subject of my book, Deena began our conversation with a story. “In the 1980’s, I went to Omega Institute to teach. It was the site of my childhood summer camp, same building, same dining room. Back then, my parents went upstairs to eat, and we kids entered downstairs. As I walked upstairs, I was aware of time passing and who I became during those years.
“A young woman suddenly walked up to me and said, ‘Thank you for being an Elder for us.’
“I thought, ‘When did I volunteer for this?’
“But I heard the call in my heart. Like it or not, I needed to find out what an Elder might be. I knew something of indigenous Elders among Native Americans and Africans. But nothing of Elders here, now, in my world. And that led me on a path.”
Deena became a well-known teacher through her books, workshops, activism, and community-building during the next 30 years. She trained people to do no harm and to give up their self-centered material lives and live in greater harmony with Spirit. She taught them to open to the creative flow in writing, to heed their dreams, honor the ancestors, and speak truth to power.
In the 1970’s, Deena had breast cancer and rejected conventional treatment. She had a mastectomy and tattooed a tree onto the scar, rendering her wound a sacred wound and leading to the publication of her book Tree, as well as to a photograph of her bare-breasted and open-armed, which became a popular poster.
As she told me, “I could never have choreographed this life. If I hadn’t had cancer, I would not have thought about healing, written that book, or traveled the country teaching about it.”
Cancer speaks in a language not understood, she said. “A symptom talks in particularities to tell us to take a certain path. It orients us to connect with Spirit because, with illness, Spirit enters the field of your life.”
Her essential insight: Heal the life and life will heal you. Disease and illness can be messengers guiding us to change our lives, she said. This idea developed over the years into “Healing Stories,” the therapeutic use of “the story that the affliction is telling” to address diseases, spiritual and emotional crises, and community, political and environmental disintegration.
Through the decades, her passions and her gifts were being woven together by life, as she followed the clues that appeared in synchronicities, dreams, and encounters with people, and allowed them to guide her.
“Years after that young woman thanked me for being an Elder, I had a dream: I won a contest three times that I had never applied for. The prize was to go to New York for training to become an indigenous Elder. Questions haunted me: Can I incorporate that consciousness? What might a non-colonized indigenous Elder do?”
She followed this question for years, eventually writing A Rain of Night Birds in response. “This Elder is within us as a cellular presence. It’s self-aware, ethically rigorous, holds a broad view, and responds only on behalf of the best interests of the whole earth community. It has no concern for the small stuff.”
When I asked her about the current turbulent social and political climate, she stated, “I need to communicate sufficiently about how dire the times are and how responsible we must be. I never thought I would say this: I’m past tolerance. The NRA has no right to an opinion. Climate deniers have no right to an opinion. Those who wish to undo democracy have no right to an opinion. We must meet the times as they are and bear witness, not looking away but still having hope.”
Deena walks her talk. At 81, she went to Standing Rock and told the youth who were fighting against the installation of an oil pipeline on Sioux land, “I’ve got your back as an Elder.”
Her legacy? “A Rain of Night Birds is my legacy. Readers can step out of the Western mind, the willful, ego-driven, power hungry view and see remnants of wise cultures from within. They can learn to sense the presence of earth and live in relation to its intelligence.”
When I asked about her spiritual practices, she told me, “My practice is an ongoing conversation with Spirit, no inner chatter, just prayers, offerings, praise, and gratitude.”