Spring Sweat Lodge and Medicine Wheel Ceremony

Spring Sweat Lodge and Medicine Wheel Ceremony

Sevenoaks Retreat Center

March 21, 2017

My partner, Don Harvey, and I recently conducted a Spring Sweat Lodge at Sevenoaks as an opening ritual for day-long equinox ceremonies and workshops at the Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison, VA.  The theme for the day’s gathering was “Ancient Wisdom for Our Time” and featured a Medicine Wheel Ceremony in the late afternoon, led by Susan Thesenga, co-founder of Sevenoaks.

The sweat lodge is an ancient Native American ritual that we have been enacting at Sevenoaks for over three decades.  It allows for deep, intensive physical and emotional purification within a context of prayer, reverence for the Earth, and the formation of a healing community.

A medicine wheel is a sacred alignment of large stones in a circle, with the largest “Earth Stone” in the center, with other large stones serving as direction indicators — a kind of sacred compass, with additional aspects of a sacred calendar.  The medicine wheel serves as a ceremonial ground for guided, intuitive unfoldings of wisdom and energy within co-created ritual.

When performed together, the ceremonies can work synergistically to maximize inner awareness and healing.



             I’d driven down to the Center in central Virginia from my home in the DC area the day before to help out with the preparations.  As I drove, the sun fell behind the clouds around mid-day and I could feel my spirits start to wilt from all the dire news being reported on the radio.  I decided to turn it off, and sing some of the songs and chants that I would be leading in the lodge the next day.  Singing for an hour or so as I drove definitely lifted me and I arrived at the Center inspired to get to work.

As it turned out, the Center grounds manager, Alex Comer, had just completed his last preparatory task for the lodge, splitting a large pile of dried pine, cedar, and locust logs for the lodge fire the next day.  Alex shared the work status with me before leaving for the day.  I unloaded my overnight things into my assigned room in the large Center Building and proceeded outdoors for the short walk down through the pine woods to the ceremonial lodge site, overlooking a pond at the bottom of a wooded hill.  I like to spend some time before conducting a sweat lodge within the subtle but real vibratory presence of the physical space: the woods, the pond, the lodge itself, its earth altar, and fire pit enclosed by three decades of spent rocks from previous lodge ceremonies here.

As I descended towards the pond, I was taken with the clear vistas opened by Alex’s recent landscaping project there.  Removal of many dead trees and bushes had opened the view to the pond.  The impression was like seeing an old friend with a fresh, flattering haircut.

The whole lodge site felt similarly open and fresh.  The sun had re-emerged from the clouds and even the usually murky pond waters seemed to sparkle.  Alex had reinforced some of the cedar poles of the main lodge and covered the whole with clean blankets and a new white canvas.  The freshly cut wood was neatly stacked near the fire pit.  I felt light and happy as I gathered kindling for the lodge fire, raked the lodge interior, and exterior pathways, and hung a new earth flag that my spouse had lent me for the ceremony.  I was able to hang it at eye level from two saplings standing just behind the fire pit to the east of the lodge.  When I finished my tasks, I proceeded to conduct a sacred pipe ceremony within the lodge itself, with its door opening to the lovely blue earth flag.  The tobacco smoke from the pipe helped to open my heart and mind to the beauty of this sacred place.

My partner Don arrived late that evening and we had breakfast together in the Center dining room the next morning before setting out to work around 8am.  We loaded a cart with everything we needed:  gallon water jugs, bag of fruit, towels, lodge-door, hand drums, and our own gear, consisting mostly of sacred objects and herbs used in the ritual.  As we hauled the cart through the parking area to the footpath down to the lodge site, a car pulled in and I checked in with the driver.  He was indeed here for the sweat lodge and eagerly joined us.


 Laying the Fire

It was still lightly overcast and the ground was wet from a light rain overnight.  But it looked to be clearing and the temperature was already in the mid-40’s, with a predicted high of 65 for this first day of Spring.  It was good having the new man join us in guiding the heavy cart down the narrow, twisting footpath through the pine woods.  He had just driven over the Blue Ridge from Harrisonburg to be with us for his first sweat lodge and his enthusiasm was palpable.

Conducting a sweat lodge is about a 6-hour affair, starting with about three hours for laying, lighting and tending a bonfire sufficient to bake about two dozen large stones to a red glow.  The ceremony inside the lodge lasts about two hours.  And the dismantling and closing communal meal is another hour.

But the work is all performed within ceremonial time, rather than by the clock.  Our first order of business on arriving at the lodge site was to burn sage and smudge the site, and ourselves, within its purifying smoke.  The new man knew about smudging and entered into a calm, relaxed presence with Don and me as we consciously cleansed ourselves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, for the work ahead.

We then turned our attention to laying the fire, and carefully placed a platform of six logs to support the stones.  Three new women joined us as we turned to the stone pile.  Don proceeded to smudge the women and we each selected a head-sized stone to lay on the platform within the fire pit.  One of the women placed the Mother stone in the center of the platform, and the rest of us placed stones for the East, South, West and North around the Mother stone.  The Father stone was laid as a capstone for the essential template that grounds the energy of the stones within the fire.

We then placed the remaining eighteen stones on the platform, surrounding and on top of the six template stones.  Each of the additional stones was consciously offered and placed, with the naming of a desired quality or spiritual force.  In the lore of the lodge, each stone represents a “Tunkashila” or Grandfather Spirit, which is activated as it is heated.  The heated stones carry the energy of the fire into the lodge, where that searing heat can be tempered to serve the real needs of human beings for physical healing and spiritual renewal.

As this process continued in a deliberate manner, more people kept arriving at our ceremonial site and Don would go over to greet and smudge them.  The ritual washing in the smoke of burning herbs, like sage, is intended to encourage each entering person to step into an awareness of common commitment to what is sacred and holy on this Earth.  Sage, in particular, has a sharp, cleansing quality that can help penetrate any psychic defenses.

After the 24 stones were laid, we proceeded to place the kindling branches and sticks around the platform in a teepee shape, stuffing newspaper in between the sticks and the stones.  All 10 or so of us, men and women, joined in on this task, and followed it with laying the split logs all around the base, and then in a second vertical layer on top of the first.  Aesthetics matter in all sacred ceremonies, and we worked together to create a satisfyingly symmetrical teepee of stones, wood and paper.

New people continued to arrive as we invited everyone to form a circle around the fire pit.  I sent a pouch of tobacco around the circle and invited everyone to take a pinch of it.  We then proceeded, one at a time, to each offer a prayer of intention with our tobacco, sprinkling it on the wood-and-paper teepee.  Intention is the key to benefiting from any conscious ritual.  As each person spoke from the heart to affirm their reason for being there, I sensed a current of common spirit and purpose forming within our human circle.

With this initial prayer circle completed, Don came forward to begin lighting the fire, using a paper-torch to ignite flames in each of the four directions. The fire began to rise rapidly all around the circumference.  I’d begun a slow drumbeat and others joined in with other drums and rattles.  As the inner kindling and paper quickly ignited, we offered the first of many sacred chants together:

Oh, Great Spirit,

Earth, Sun, Sky and Sea,

You are inside

And all around me.


Inner and Outer Preparation


It takes about two hours to bake the stones to a glowing red.  It can be a rich time for all participants.  We encourage an ongoing drumbeat throughout, and sometimes a lively drum-and-dance circle is formed, with anyone free to lead chants and songs, or to move around the fire pit with simple dance-steps.

This can also be a good time to walk in the woods, to meditate or pray, or to converse consciously (not just chatting) with other participants.  I’ve learned from doing this work that, after some initial unease, most people enjoy free time outdoors, unplugged from their phones and daily responsibilities.  Learning how to just “be” in the natural world is a worthwhile practice in its own right, helping us to calm our nervous systems, bringing our focus back to simple presence.

As a “water pourer” for the lodge, I have some additional tasks to attend to during this time. These include readying the lodge structure itself, and ensuring the close proximity of water, bucket, ladle, and herbs.  In damp weather like today’s, I prefer to line the earthen floor of the lodge with cardboard, tarps, or some combination of both.  I’m also responsible for attaching a sleeping-bag-door to the only entrance, in the East.  On a good day, like this one, there are many offers to help and we make quick work of it.

The last thing I like to do before we all enter the lodge is to call everyone into a big circle in the wide-open, adjacent beach area of the pond.  Although the announced start time was 8:30, people have been arriving throughout the morning and the group as a whole hasn’t had a chance to congeal.  We start with a round of first names, with the whole group echoing back each person’s name.

I know from experience that it can be a physical challenge for many of us to just sit for two hours within a confined space.  It can really help if we allow ourselves lots of full-range bodily movements beforehand.  All the Pathwork Helpers at Sevenoaks get training to lead movement classes, and I call on that training, and on my fellow Helpers in attendance, to lead the group through some grounding, bending and stretching exercises.

I also lead a simple “trust circle” in which all 18 of us take hands in a circle.  I then invite everyone to take a step back.  This creates a tension within the connecting hands and arms that allows each person to lean slightly backwards, supporting and being supported by the people on either side.  I invite people to experiment with more or less tension, more or less leaning back, paying attention to sensations of both supporting and being supported.  This usually becomes fun and playful.  It also can induce feelings of both active participation and surrendering to the group.

The sun emerged through the clouds and I encourage everyone to turn and face “our star” on this day of Equinox.  I invite an arms-raised posture to really receive the light and warmth from this magnificent celestial furnace, and to express a “sun salutation” in whatever physical form felt right.

             I thank everyone for coming to the sweat lodge this morning and encourage everyone to stay on for the aftternoon Medicine Wheel.  About a third of the participants are here for their first lodge, and I invite the new people to bring their full attention to their experience, with a minimum of pre-conceptions or expectations.

Don and I communicate that there will be four rounds to today’s lodge ceremony, each round with a theme.  At the end of each round, the door would be opened and drinking water would be circulated.  If anyone needed to exit the lodge, it was best to do it between rounds.  T-shirts and shorts were the prescribed attire for this lodge.  Women would enter first, by order of age, to occupy the north side of the lodge.  Men would enter next, by age, and occupy the south hemisphere.  I noted the native practice of honoring the Elders by allowing them first entry into the lodge. We wished everyone a good sweat and prepared to enter.


Round One — The Powers of Creation

             As “water pourer”, I enter the lodge first, on hands and knees, putting head to ground at the entrance and offering the prescribed Lakota prayer for entering and leaving: “Mitakuye Oyasin”, translated as “All My Relations” or, “We Are All Related”.  I circle to the left around the central stonepit of the lodge as the women follow, arriving at the other side of the door, where I sit and shake my rattle at a slow, deliberate beat as people continue to enter.

I learned the protocols for the “All Nations Sweat Lodge” during a five-year informal apprenticeship I served some 25 years ago.  My teacher had a connection with a Lakota “Uncle” who had authorized use of the “All Nations” lodge by serious-minded non-native people.  Tradition and lineage are still important to me.  Following the prescribed forms helps me to stay grounded within an awareness of the Native American traditions that sweat lodge comes from.

After everyone has entered, I communicate with the two “firekeepers”, a woman and a man who have volunteered to stay outside, to begin bringing in hot stones, one at a time, on a pitchfork.  One firekeeper digs out a hot stone from the base of the fire and the other uses some lashed-together cedar boughs to brush off any ash residue.  Each stone is greeted with a “Welcome healing stone” as it is brought in and as I guide the pitchfork over the stonepit, depositing the first stone in its center. This is the “Mother Stone”, representing Earth herself, the foundation of the lodge ceremony.

Additional stones are brought in, continuing with the four direction stones, and the Wakan Tanka (“Great Spirit”) capstone.  Each stone is blessed with sacred herbs as it is placed in the pit, sweetgrass first, followed by sage, cedar or other appropriate herbs.  The sweet aroma of the burning sweetgrass and other herbs soon fills the lodge.

With the stones forming a glowing presence in the center now, I request the water bucket and dipper from a firekeeper and ask that the door be closed.  It’s a special moment when the door falls over the opening, enclosing us in a warm, dark, moist environment that is intended to evoke a feeling of our mother’s womb.

The first round of the All Nation’s Lodge brings our attention to the ongoing creative forces of the universe as expressed in the Lakota “Wakan Tanka”, which can be translated as “Great Spirit”, “Great Mystery”, “Creator”, “Divine Source”.  A translation that resonates most profoundly with me is “Great Spirit-ing”, acknowledging the ongoing activation of the Creator.

As I pour small amounts of water onto the hot stones from my dipper, heat and steam rise in the lodge and I invite everyone to take in “Grandfather’s Breath”, the healing energy of the stone-people.  It’s important to orient oneself to the healing properties of the heat and steam and to welcome its penetrating and softening energy within any stiff, hard places of body or mind.

I’ve learned over the years that the experience within the sweat lodge is often enhanced by deep and regular breathing.  After a period of silence in which we simply take in our new environment, I lead the circle in a deep breathing exercise in which everyone is encouraged to inhale deeply and vocalize an “Ahhh” on the exhale.  This is repeated four times until the “Ahhh” begins to modulate to a more harmonious sounding of voices.  Then I invite an ongoing sounding of the sacred sound “Om”.

“Om” originates in ancient Sanskrit and is the sound of creation in Tibetan Buddhism.  I encourage a visualization of the moment preceding the Big Bang, when all the creative potential of the universe was gathering itself.  I encourage people to allow their voices to express fully and openly with their “Om”, allowing the natural and spontaneous harmonies that inevitably occur.  In that spring equinox lodge, I experienced our Om-ing as a series of energetic waves emerging, growing, climaxing, and subsiding.  The co-creation of this deeply resonant chanting never fails to fill me with awe and wonder.

Physics teaches that three-dimensional Space-Time emerged out of the supreme unitive compression that preceded the Big Bang.  After the Om-ing recedes, I offer an ancient Lakota song of the sacred directions to mirror this primordial movement from One to Many.

The spirit of the Creator, Wakan Tanka, inhabits every nook and cranny of the great unfolding universe, but is seen to manifest as a more focused presence in the four cardinal directions, as the Grandfathers of the West, North, East, South, and in the above and the below.

The Lakota directions song is structured with an invocation to the Grandfather spirit of each direction, inviting its presence within the lodge, followed by a choral singing of love, appreciation, and human longing for the spirit’s presence.  The Lakota words and the melody of this chorus are simple and most participants are able to join in:

Chek-i-aye-o, chek-i-aye-o

A-hit-oo-wan yan-kay-lo.

The Lakota directions song begins by calling in “Wieoh-peyata”, the Grandfather of the West, and all the beings who manifest most strongly in the evening and in the season of autumn. They are the true Elders, the spiritual teachers, the ones who protect and disseminate the ancient ways and teachings of the ancestors.

The song moves to an invocation of “Waziya-takiya”, the Grandfather of the North.  The north is the direction of winter, night-time, old age — the looks-within place of expectant waiting and hibernation required to survive a long, cold winter.  This Grandfather also guards the pathways between material life and the great beyond, allowing the spirits of the ancestors to communicate with us.

The next invocation is to “Wieoh-iyampata”, Grandfather of the East, guardian of the dawn, of birth, of youth, and of the springtime.  Its force is strongest now, on the Spring Equinox, when new ideas, new projects, new relationships, and new beginning of all kinds are most auspicious.

The last of the cardinal directions, South, is called in as the Grandfather “Itokagata”, the guardian spirit of the fullness of summer, noontime, adult maturity.  The South is the time of fullness, power, and vitality, the time when plants grow to their fullness and adult humans tend to their loved ones and their work, building and nurturing what the family and community most need to sustain themselves.

The song then turns to what is above us, the firmament of the heavens, the place of the Creator, the essence of the Divine Masculine.  The Grandfather “Waka-takiya” is called to bring his creativity and energy and light to all the participants in the lodge.

Finally, the song acknowledges “Maka-takiya”, Grandmother Earth, the very ground on which we sit.  The essence of the Divine Feminine is the holding container of love and nurturing that planet Earth offers all her creatures.  The chorus changes here to acknowledge the Mother’s ongoing presence as the bearer and sustainer of all life on Earth.

Water is poured on the hot stones with each of the six directional invocations.  By the end of the song, we are all sweating, and we rest in silence for a while before opening the circle to some personal prayers and a closing song. As the round ends, the firekeepers are called to open the door.  Fresh air flows in to cool the lodge, drinking water is circulated, and people can exit as needed.


Round Two — “We Are All Related”

             The essence of Native American spirituality rests in its lived appreciation of the intrinsic inter-relatedness of all creatures. This spirit is expressed in the Lakota mantra “Mitakuye Oyasin”, which is the theme for our second round.

My partner Don pours water for this one.  Don is a retired Forest Ranger who served in the nearby Shenandoah National Park maintaining hiking trails for much of his career.  His knowledge and love of the natural world is readily apparent.  After more stones are brought in and the door comes down, he invites us to settle into our own personal connection with the natural world.

He then invites us to connect in spirit with a wild animal that we feel a connection with; to visualize that creature in its natural environment, moving about, making its sound.  After a bit, he suggests that we mimic the sound of our creature.  Soon a chorus of animal soundings are expressed:  growls, barks, cooing, buzzing, howls, cries.  I remember the owl soundings I heard in the woods the day before and try to mimic those throaty hoots.  In doing so, I come to connect with the raptor fierceness of the owl as it shares important hunting information with its mates.  As the soundings recede, Don leads us in a song of the hawk:

Trailing my long-tail feathers as I fly

Trailing my long-tail feathers as I fly

I circle around, I circle around

The boundaries of the Earth.

Grandmother/Mother Earth is the matriarch of the great family of earthly creatures, holding all of us in acceptance and blessing and love for the essential role each of us plays in the ecology of the planet.  The rest of the round is a paean to the Earth’s love for us and ours for her, expressed in traditional lodge songs.

The Earth is our Mother

Let us learn how to love Her


And all of Her creatures

Are our sisters and brothers


I love you, Mother Earth

Mother Earth, I love you


The Earth is our Mother

We must take care of her


This sacred ground we walk upon

With every step we take

Don’s own love and appreciation for Mother Earth is freely and openly expressed throughout this round.  I am personally moved by his sincere expressions of devotion and love, to the point of his unabashed tears and sobs as the door is opened to end the round.

Roun Three — Personal Prayer


In the “All Nations” lodge, the third round is a prayer circle.  Every spiritual path teaches that a true servant of God must find an inner channel to communicate directly with his or her Higher Power.  This inner channel must be given regular time and space to manifest.  I offer an opening prayer/song that helps to open this channel for me:

Oh Father I pray for tenderness

Oh, Father I pray for the love.

I pray for the awareness

Of my inner worth.

I open up my heart

To receive you, Father,

To know the holy Light

So I can see.

We go around our lodge circle sun-wise (clockwise), each person beginning with:

Grandfather, Grandmother,

This is _______.


The person then offers a prayer, silently or aloud, concluding it with “We are all related”, with the rest of the circle repeating it.  Water is offered to the stones and the resulting steam carries the spirit of the prayer to its intended Source.

The prayers are sincere and deep that morning, eliciting support and tears from many of us.  To close the round, we sing some verses from a traditional hymn:


Amazing Grace

How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch

Like me.

I once was lost

But now am found,

Was blind

But now I see.


When we’ve been here

Ten thousand years

Bright shining

As the sun.

We’ve no less days

To sing God’s praise

Then when

We first begun.



Round Four — The Way

The fourth and last round is meant to be an affirmation of the Way, the sacred path.  The intention is to encourage participants to engrave their spiritual experience into memory and to develop some daily practice to help keep that memory alive and active.

My sweat lodge teacher was also a student of the Tao.  He incorporated some teachings from the classic Chinese text by Lao Tze, the “Tao Te Ching” (“The Way of Things”), into the last round of the All Nations lodge.  One of those teachings is:

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

This round is usually hot and short.  All the remaining stones from the fire are brought in.  At our spring lodge, almost everyone had stayed inside for the duration.  I was especially impressed with the stamina and commitment of the 6 neophytes.

In this round I invite people to share from their own spiritual path or practice.  My friend Keith shared a Sufi chant designed to open the heart to the reality of Allah. Someone on a yoga path shares a sacred Hindu chant, in the tradition of Kirtan.  Some people go deeper with the prayer they started in the previous round.

As we approach the end of the ceremony, we thank each other for our presence and participation, thank the firekeepers and water pourers, thank the spirits of the directions, the Creator, and Mother Earth, thank the founders and the current leaders of Sevenoaks, thank the custodian of the lodge and medicine wheel.  In gratitude we affirm our work together as we exit the lodge, clockwise again, and climb out the opening into the warm rays of the full, mid-day sun.


 Breaking Bread Together

It’s traditional for participants to share in a potluck meal after a sweat lodge.  Don and I had prepared a large pot of chili con carne and a big salad.  Other participants brought hearty sandwiches, cheeses, fruit and snacks.  Food always tastes wonderful after a lodge, and the familiar faces from the ceremony can evoke a real feeling of family.

On this day, other people were arriving at the Center for the 3:30 Medicine Wheel ceremony.  Registration was in the dining hall, and there was much mixing of friends, old and new.  Many of the lodge participants were staying on, and I was looking forward to a shower and a brief rest before the ceremony.


Spring Medicine Wheel Ceremony

Susan Thesenga, a founder and matriarch of Sevenoaks, spoke to the 25 or so of us assembled in the parking area.  She welcomed and thanked us for joining her in her ongoing meditative and ceremonial work with the Sevenoaks Medicine Wheel, located at the top of a rise in the woods, beyond the pond and above the sweat lodges.  The sun was still shining, full and warm, and people were removing jackets and sweaters.  Our group consisted of women and men of all ages, including two children, and a service dog.  Susan invited us to walk in silence, single-file through the quarter-mile of woods to the ceremonial site, with a slow drumbeat sounding throughout.

At an open area near the pond, Susan had us stop and circle up again.  She said that part of the ceremony today involved each person finding a stick or twig that would represent some aspect of themselves that they were ready to let go of.  She urged us to take some time to identify a negative aspect of our thinking or behavior that we were already moving towards letting go of.  There were many sticks and twigs in the place we were standing and most of us found our object right there.

At the entrance to the Wheel, we stopped for a ritual smudging ceremony, similar to what we had conducted as people arrived at the sweat lodge early that morning.  Susan had enlisted other Sevenoaks leaders to assist her and they performed the smudging.  In addition, other helpers had prepared an outdoor firepot where we were invited to surrender the twig representing our imperfection.  A slow, steady drumbeat was held throughout, grounding the ceremony in sacred time.


Spring Equinox and the Direction East

The Sevenoaks Medicine Wheel is set in an open, partially shaded area of woodland above the pond.  It was a lovely sight to behold on that first afternoon of Spring, the grass closely mowed and raked and the pathways clearly delineated around the circle, and connecting the direction stones with the center.   Wooden benches occupied the southern and northern ends, but our ceremony was conducted mostly with everyone standing, and often moving slowly around the circle.  The sun was dropping lower towards the west, but its rays still warmed us, and a slight breeze carried fresh smells and coolness from the surrounding woods.

Susan suggested that we walk meditatively around the circle a number of times.  The metal firepot was ablaze with the burning wood at that point, placed on the Earth stone in the center.  Walking in silence, I was able to reflect more deeply on my personal “give-away” to that fire — a tendency towards impatience and unconscious hurrying.  The quiet repose of this place, coming after the emotional release of the lodge experience, was opening an internal sense of peace and ease and genuine bliss.

Susan stopped at the East stone and spoke some about the Wheel and how it can be used to re-orient ourselves to the ever-changing currents of life, external and internal.  She pointed out the cardinal direction stones and linked them to phases in the movement of a day, a month, a year, and to entire stages of life: birth, childhood, youth, young adulthood, middle age, old age, decline and death.  I thought back to the Lakota directions song we had sung in the lodge, and dropped to a deeper level of appreciation of these teachings that Susan expounded on so eloquently.

Susan ended her talk with a reflection on the meaning of Spring as a time of rebirth, renewal, and resurrection.  As the natural world came to life all around us, with the first flowering of crocus, daffodil, forsythia, and with the budding and first flowering of trees, cherry, redbud, crabapple, the sap of the life-force was rising again.  She encouraged us to consciously allow our own sap to rise again, to shake off the hibernation of winter, and allow the newness and freshness of the green life all around us to inspire our souls to venture forth into the world once more with hope and possibility.



Driving home that evening through a magnificent dusk, I was filled with a sense of gratitude and peace and of new possibilities.  The “Ancient Wisdom” of spring advertised in the event’s flyer had truly infiltrated my psyche.  I felt the great privilege of being an Elder now in my own right, serving the ancestors and all the sacred teachers and teachings of our rich, eclectic heritage to re-consecrate ourselves to what is most holy and most precious on this our earth-walk.


Aho Mitakuye Oyasin!


John Bayerl

Rockville, MD

A Love Song for Mom and Dad

[I wrote this while in Isabela, Puerto Rico on Valentine’s Day, 2017.  I recommend watching the youtube clip before reading this piece.]


A Love Song for Mom and Dad

Vacationing with my wife Andrea here on the tropical Atlantic in Isabela PR, I’ve had some time to count my blessings.  This is our 11th annual winter sojourn in Isabela.  We first came in 2007 after Andrea received good news regarding her likely longevity after her fourth cancer occurrence in 1999.  We’ve been celebrating our life together here every winter since.

Our stay often coincides with St. Valentine’s Day, and we’ve had some memorable celebrations of love here in Isabela over the years with our good friends Joyce and Freeman, who had bought a wonderful seaside condo and generously hosted us.  We’ve also celebrated here with my sister Marian and her husband Bob, and our friends Cindy and Ken.  We’ve also met many lovely Puerto Ricans over the years through our spiritual community, and some of these have also become lifelong friends.

For the last three visits, we’ve been renting a comfortable, open house on a cliff hundreds of feet above the beach. There’s a large balcony overlooking the ocean and we spend hours there each day, taking in the dramatic vistas of sea, sky, seabirds, rainbows, rainstorms, and the occasional whale sighting.

This weekend there was a lovely full moon rising from the ocean in the northeast.  Before going to bed on Friday night, I stepped out onto the balcony and was completely mesmerized by the beauty of the silvery moonlight reflecting off the sea.  Out of nowhere there came to me the melody of a popular song that my parents liked, and often sang or hummed around the house, “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”.

I found myself humming and whistling the tune to that song in the ensuing days, finally taking some time to google it, write down all the words, and listen to a number of classic recordings (you can actually take the time to do things like that on vacation!).  The song dates from the early 1900’s and has been revived almost every decade since by each era’s most popular crooners.  The version my parents were most likely to have encountered was that performed by Doris Day and Gordon MacRae in the 1953 movie named “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”.

My Mom, Irene Ciezak Bayerl (1923-2011) was a smart, pretty, good-natured woman who gave her life to the bearing and raising of ten post-WW2 children.  This act still staggers my imagination.  Her father was a Polish immigrant, her mother 2nd-generation Polish/Russian.  Irene had aspirations for college but that was not the accepted scenario for the daughters of immigrants back then.  Her love of reading, however, infected many of her children.  Five of us siblings have formed an ongoing book group and all of us testify to our debt to Mom’s love of good books.

My Dad, Joseph John Bayerl (1914-1989) was from a large family of 12 children himself.  His parents had immigrated to Buffalo, NY around the turn of the century, from Bavaria.  Both Mom and Dad’s families were devout Roman Catholics.  Dad joined the U.S. army in 1940, sensing that war was likely.  He was among the first American GI’s to face combat against Rommel’s formidable German army in North Africa, and then participated in the invasions of Sicily and Italy.  He returned home in early 1945 and spent some time in Lake Placid, NY in a facility for shell-shocked veterans prior to being shipped out to San Francisco for a planned assault on the Japanese mainland.  He returned to Buffalo after VJ Day, took up his old job in a rubber factory, and became an active member of the American Legion organization.

Joe met Irene at an American Legion social event in the Lovejoy area of east Buffalo, where both their families resided.  They married in 1946 and enjoyed a brief honeymoon in Quebec, visiting the shrine of St. Anne de Beau Pre.  My older brother Marty was born in 1947, me in 1949, Kathy in 1951, and the seven remaining children, Larry, Marian, Tom, Joan, Bob, Anna, Meg in similar succession (sorry, sibs, for not remembering the exact years).

Looking back on it, life for our large working-class family in the 1950’s and ’60’s was challenging and hard-scrabble.  We never thought of ourselves as “poor” though, and Dad’s working two full-time jobs for much of his adult life certainly helped. With both Mom’s and Dad’s extended families living within our immediate neighborhood, there were always aunts and uncles and cousins around.

Our family lived its first few years (till 1954) in a small flat in Mom’s parents’ house, right next door to Visitation RC Church.   Then we got our own little house, two blocks away.  Life on Longnecker Street was lively and rambunctious, and I’m just beginning to plumb those memories for a series of short stories I’ve begun writing.

“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” has opened a treasure trove of memories and feelings that have long been dormant.  On this Valentine’s Day, 2017, I’m sharing it with my Facebook family and friends in celebration of the life and love of Irene and Joe, who together launched a sprawling clan, and allowed the great, mysterious unfolding of love to survive and thrive into the 21st century.

From this time forward, their love for one another will live on within me in the sweet mystery of moonlight.  Happy Valentine’s Day Mom and Dad!

Regarding your campfire stories

[This piece is my translation of an essay by the prolific Brazilian writer and spiritual warrior, Paulo Coelho.  It’s one of the most balanced and honest statements about bragging that I’ve encountered.]

Regarding your campfire stories, by Paulo Coelho

A warrior of the light shares his world with those he loves, and animates them to do what they most enjoy.

At that moment the adversary appears with two tablets in hand.  One of the tablets says:  “Think more about yourself.  Conserve your blessings for yourself or you’ll end up losing everything.”

On the other tablet is written:  “Who are you to think you can help?”

A warrior knows that he has faults, but he also knows that he can’t grow alone, can’t just distance himself from his companions.  Even knowing that the adversary is partly right, the warrior doesn’t give too much importance to the tablets, and keeps spreading enthusiasm to his surroundings.

Sit down with your companions around the bonfire and let everyone talk about his conquests.  Then make a special welcome to the strangers so that they can sit together as part of your whole group. Being witnessed in this way, everyone can be proud of his life and of his own successful battles.

The warrior knows how important it is to share his experience with others; he speaks with enthusiasm about the path; he talks about how he resisted giving into a certain temptation, and how he found a solution in a difficult moment.  But when you speak about your inner adventures, you should carefully review any words of excessive passion or romanticism.

Sometimes it’s permitted to exaggerate a little, knowing that your predecessors also exaggerated some.  But when you find yourself acting boastful, try not to confuse your genuine pride with mere vanity, and resist believing your own exaggerations.

A warrior of the light inspires confidence.  He makes mistakes whenever he exaggerates his stories, even a little, and ends up making himself more important than he really is.  As a warrior of the light, he is ultimately prohibited from lying.

So when you sit down at the fire and talk with your companions, know that your words permeate into the memory of the Universe and are a testimony of what you are thinking.

The warrior might reflect:  “Why am I talking so much when much of the time I’m not able to do what I say.”

This is an important reflection.

The heart responds: “If you publicly defend your ideas, you will have to act on them if you want to live in accordance with them.”

Precisely because he considers what he says, the warrior succeeds in transforming himself into what he says.

A Marriage Bedroom

[I wrote this little piece as an assignment for a “Writing with Mindfulness” workshop I participated in last summer.]

I awake in our comfortable, queen-sized marriage bed after a good night’s sleep.  A crow squawks from the yard outside the two wide adjoining windows to my right, and cicadas hum in the trees on this fresh first morning of August.  Andrea is already up, the smell of brewing coffee wafting up the stairs.

Sitting up on my side of the bed, grateful for the luxury of retirement, taking in the organic order of our communal space.  Rushing cars sound faintly from the nearby highway, reminding me of many years of commuter angst.  But one year into this new phase of life, I pause contentedly before rising, mindfully appreciating the luxury of my personal freedom.

I take in the light and air from the two open windows overlooking the trees, garden and patio of the backyard.  A ceiling fan silently propels cooling air down.  The door to the adjoining bathroom in the right far corner is slightly ajar.

On either side of our bed rest side-tables with reading lights, and against the walls on either side, our respective bookcases.  A pink upholstered arm-chair sits on my side as well.  A wicker clothes hamper rests next to the bathroom door, its sides slightly tattered from our old cat Honey’s frequent clawings.   Honey’s little oval bed rests atop ours at the foot, empty now.

To the left of the hamper is Andrea’s closet with its wood-slatted, folding door now closed.  My closet is further left – about four feet wide, same as hers, with the same slatted, folding wooden door.  Between the closets on the far wall is a small altar-table holding a carved wooden cross, with small renditions of Jesus on either side – Christ the King on one side, a Jesus in seated, yoga-meditation pose on the other.   Above the altar hangs a framed lithograph titled “Materia” that we purchased in the early years of our marriage almost thirty years ago from a young local artist.  It’s a stylized depiction of two lovers sitting across from one another with a smaller feminine figure between them, joining them at the waist.

Along Andrea’s side of the bed, against the far wall, is a long, squat chest-of-drawers, with three teak drawers for her, three for me.  Resting along the top of the chest are small framed pictures of us and our two adopted children and our deceased parents.

The door to the hallway and stairs is just beyond the chest of drawers.  A small mirror hanging on the wall above the hamper, next to the bathroom, is the only other wall adornment.  It has a filigree silver frame and little doors that open to reveal the enclosed mirror.  Its fine crafting evokes memories of the market in San Miguel de Allende where we bought it a decade ago.

An oblong oriental throw-rug traverses the hardwood floor at the foot of the bed, our shared area for morning stretches and yoga.  Before I rise to do my stretches there, I notice the quiet peace and satisfaction that comes with this heightened perception of a space that I usually take for granted.  I pause in appreciation, making a little prayer of gratitude for another day to live and breathe, in harmony with the one I love.

John Bayerl, August 1, 2016

Into the Heart of a Flower


A visit with Georgia O’Keefe’s Jack-in-the Pulpit paintings #2, 4, 5, 6                                                   East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

NGA-East Building

I’ve made a special trip here today to see O’Keefe’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit #4 painting.  I’m here to complete my “Echphrastic” poetry assignment from a compelling writing workshop the night before.  I’d chosen a print of that painting from the rich selection that our poet-teacher, Adele Steiner Brown, had provided as possible inspiration for creating a poem.  I was immediately drawn in by the print’s vibrant colors and organic luminosity.

I’d compiled an extensive litany of descriptions and inner evocations in the time we had.  Unlike my eight fellow students in the workshop, I didn’t leave with a finished poem in hand.  Other participants had chosen other prints, and one had even created a masterful, bluesy poem to the memory of a Duke Ellington – Ella Fitzgerald jazz classic.  I was amazed and impressed by the creatively unselfconscious poems that each of my mates had written and shared aloud with our group.  At my turn, I read part of my litany and promised to keep working with it.

So here I stand in a well-lit gallery of 20th century American masters and gaze to my heart’s content at four of O’Keefe’s “Jack-in-the-Pulpit” flower portraits, adjacently hung, and occupying an entire wall.  I’ve had to wait a while for a grade-school class, plopped on the floor in front of the four paintings, as a teacher excitedly explained:  “She started with the whole flower and then got closer and closer to paint its most intimate insides.”

I’m grateful for the teacher’s enthusiasm and I approach the paintings now with her observation in mind.



Jack-in-the-Pulpit #2

The first of the displayed paintings is actually #2 it turns out.  I’ve already studied this painting on the back of the reopened East Building’s new brochure.  Gazing at the full scale original quickly elicits a deeper appreciation.


The dark purple and reddish interior is met by white stalks climbing up the central petal.  “Jack” himself stands grounded and secure, ensconced within a deeply feminine rootedness.

Transcendent whitish-blue light illuminates the whole vibrant flow of the painting.  This is certainly a flower with great vitality and beauty and mystery and…the stalkiness of cabbage.

Multifarious shades of green leaves surround the flower above and below, implying its rootedness within a greater sea of Green.

The muted scarlet surrounding Jack contributes to his realm of mysterious vitality.


Jack-in-the-Pulpit #4

Entry into the flower at this level is a manifest mystery of beauty and holy enshrinement.


Luminescent white light streams from Jack’s head, illuminating a black leaf with green leaves above it.

Stepping even closer, one detects a fine glowing violet light surrounding Jack’s dark blue, rounded stalk.  His core of lighter blue arises from his base at the bottom.

The white filament of light emanating from Jack’s head is potently penetrating, an expression of phallic, ejaculatory generativity.  It is the Life Force at its most refined AND its most vigorous.

Bluish white in the four corners encase the whole image in mystery and otherness.


Jack-in-the Pulpit #5


 I am perplexed by #5 for a long time.  Finally, I release my need to figure it out and let myself be drawn in by the vibrancy of its swirling scarlet-purple leaves, its white stalks, and its luminescent greens.  Part of it looks like a candy cane maypole.  I’m captured by the exquisite violets and purples against the bright green and white.

Inside the plant, but emanating out, the central deep purple stalk spirals up to the light.


Jack-in-the Pulpit #6


The last in the series is Jack up closest. He’s more elongated than in the previous versions, white at his base, turning grey, and then black at his rounded tip.

Purple drapes on either side appear to open to a long deep cavern.  The white streaming now almost surrounds Jack entirely.  The feeling is that of the highly sacred and the reverential.

This Jack is standing within a cavern that leads to infinite spaciousness and fullness of light.  Musical strands from Kubrick’s film “2001, A Space Odyssey” play through my head, the point of full creation and the rise to awareness of that creation.


My Echphrastic Poem

With my viewing “homework” completed, I returned to the task of composing a poem based on Jack #4.  Here’s what I came up with.


Out of the Heart of a Flower

From deep, dark inside

Streams a filament of white light

Emanating from a glowing blue bulb.

Soft purple hues surround

The effusion, becoming pinkish toward the center.

The sacred dark enclosure

Is the flower’s womb.

Jack streams forth his pure, pulsating illumination,

Propelling an act of creation,

The primordial seeding of

Feminine by Masculine.

Spewing a white beacon of pure light

That irrigates and nourishes

Verdant growth, rivers, landscape.


John Bayerl, Isabela, PR; 2/23/2017


Avian visitors

[I posted this in our neighborhood’s online list-serve site last Sunday night.]

April 9, 2017

Dear Neighbors of Lake Needwood,

I’d like to report the arrival of some avian visitors to the lake this spring.

My wife and I spotted a fledgling eagle before dusk on Sunday, just north of the Needwood Road bridge over the lake.  It was resting in the top branches of a tall beech tree along the shore, basking for a good long while in the beaming, warm rays of the sun still shining above the tree line. As the sun dipped further, the fledgling launched itself into flight, soaring tentatively around the shores of the lake until heading north, over Rock Creek.

Some of you may know of the eagle nest at Lake Frank which has housed returning eagle pairs for some years now.  This fledgling likely originated there.  To learn more about the behavior of newly fledged eagles, I learned a lot from:


A half hour later, a great blue heron soared above us at the same spot.  Its course was a straight line across the lake, barely twitching a feather to adjust his route.  Its magnificent wingspan took our breath away.

The main attraction, though, was a pair of resident geese swimming in harmony together around the perimeter of the lake calmly seeking a nesting site for the night.  Their graceful gliding together in complex inter-weavings through the waters at dusk was poetry in motion.  They provided quite an inspiration for those among us trying to live together in harmony.

John Bayerl, Kipling Road

A New Venture

Welcome to my new blog site.  Since I retired from my day-job in July 2015, I’ve embarked on a creative writing venture that has taken me into some interesting waters.  I realized this year that long posts on Facebook don’t do justice to what I’m trying to express these days.  Hence this new, online blog.  I hope my friends, old and new, will join me here for at least an occasional perusal.