Sacnite: White Flowers in the Zócalo
Even in the vast expanse of the central square, (the Zócalo) of Mexico city, the Metropolitan Cathedral was massive and imposing. I stepped out of the cool sanctuary into a square filled with the complexity that is Mexico; tourists, groups of children in muddied traditional costumes selling tiny packets of Chiclets, colorful booths with piñatas, smells of fresh tortillas. The square was packed, but all the life around me, the colors and vibrancy felt empty and I couldn’t find my place in it, in the world.
At 20 I had temporarily dropped out of Oberlin College/Conservatory. My cello teacher was angry when I announced that maybe I should be a farmer, and that I was leaving school to find out. After discovering how terrible I was at farming, I wandered through the ruins and pubs of Ireland, weeded gardens in rural NY and hitchhiked and backpacked through the Lacandon Jungle during the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico. That is how I found myself in the center of La Cuidad De Mexico. That is also how, from the deepest part of me, I yearned for belonging and the knowledge of self.
My plea was answered swiftly and definitively. Standing 30-40 feet from me was a woman shaman, in her 50s, tall, regal and beautiful. She had been blessing people in the square as they approached her, with a pungent incense. The day was drawing to a close and she picked up a large shell and sounded out a haunting call to the four directions. As she began ceremoniously wrapping up her feathers and other sacred objects, including a vase with three stalks of white flowers a disheveled man, groaning and drooling, began to approach her. A wide swath in the crowd opened up around his chaotic movements. He stumbled and groaned and the woman shaman bent towards him and placed one stalk of the flowers into his hands. After a brief pause, the man returned to his angry and crazed moaning, and slapped the flowers against the stones, until they were shredded. The crowd began to part again, as the shaman walked through the people, stopping to stand in front of me. She placed her hands together with mine, looked me in the eyes and spoke Mayan words. She placed the second stalk of white flowers in my hands. I reflected at that moment my capability, every human beings capability, to be either shaman or madman, and the fine line that can separate these two. I was moved by her poise and compassion in this act of honor to these two lost souls.
I stood frozen and wide-eyed for several moments, transfixed and blessed. The woman quietly returned and wrapped the third stalk in a cloth and left the square. I looked at the flowers in my hand. They had a pure citrus like sweetness.
When I finally moved from my spot and rejoined my friends, I carried the flowers with the greatest care and love, as if they were a candle in the wind that might be extinguished with the slightest breeze. I felt profoundly moved yet also a deep sense of responsibility. I realized at that moment that I needed to stop running from myself, I needed to stop slapping my gift against the stones. I thought about music, about cello and the hard work of practicing. I thought about all the people who had told me with awe, how I had moved them with my playing. How gifted I was. I never believed this. I never felt I really was anybody special. But also, I was overwhelmed by the work required to be a cellist of any skill, the daily practice and devotion. Rejecting my gift felt easier than this work. In that square, I began to recognize that the gift was not my choice. Beauty had found me. It would keep finding me. What I did with it, THIS was my choice.
Six months later I returned to Oberlin and majored in music. I practiced and practiced and got into a masters and then a doctoral program in Boston. I became a professor and I became a performer. I became a cellist. Today, I do my best to care and honor my gift every day of my life, and to pass it on to others. It’s not always easy, but on that one day in the square of Mexico City, one white stalk of flowers, a madman and a shaman showed me the way.