Over the years I seem to have developed a phobia about rituals of any kind. I’m wary of events where I’m ordered to hold hands with or hug someone, or even to sing along. I rarely attend events that even hint of New Age behavior.
This antipathy dates back to my days as a hippie. During the 60s and 70s I considered myself part of a grand planetary movement to alter human consciousness; my lifestyle included attendance at dozens of Aquarian Age rituals. I wore long dresses, danced to the Beatles, ate brown rice and vegetables, and popped as many psychedelics as any other self-respecting hippie–still, a part of me secretly felt like a fraud: although I really did believe in peace-and-love and the possibility of global transformation, the rituals that hippies devised for furthering these goals seemed as forced and phony to me as those of the institutions we’d left behind.
In the summer of 1973 I was living in a log cabin with my long-haired androgynous musician-astrologer boyfriend. We had no electricity or running water–we used kerosene lanterns and a wood stove, an outhouse, and a nearby crystalline stream. Everyone living on this land, strewn with relics from its long gone Native American inhabitants–a totem pole stood on the bluestone patio outside our door–had been granted permission to stay rent-free by its current owner, a hippie philanthropist. Tonisgah, as the place was called, was wooded and verdant in summer, snow-kissed and magical in winter; the rush of waterfalls was the only sound in the velvet silence of the night. Little cabins and tents were scattered all over the property, and we shared a communal vegetable garden. By day we created art, got high, roamed the woods; by night we studied the stars, made music, made love.
Up the hill lived Ralph, Judy and their eight-year-old daughter, in an authentic teepee constructed by Ralph, who earned a living of sorts helping people build their own teepees. Judy, pregnant, wore her hair in a thick braid down her back and did things like bake perfect bread from the heat of the sun and sprout salad ingredients in cheesecloth-covered jars (hippie housewifery was a skill I never quite mastered). I admired their simple wholesome lifestyle, the Zen-like consideration they gave to details of daily living, and the thoughtfulness with which they were raising their daughter. One hot August night we climbed up the hill to attend what Ralph promised would be an authentic Native American Full Moon Peyote Ceremony.
About twenty of us sat in a circle in Ralph and Judy’s teepee; the everyday furnishings had been moved, along with their daughter, to one of the cabins for the night. Odd-shaped pieces of peyote, rubbery and medicinal-tasting, were passed around, with a warning that they might induce nausea. The ubiquitous pipes and joints appeared, and the summer air was redolent with the sweet smell of hashish. Ralph sat in the center of the teepee, wild-eyed and heady with power, issuing what seemed to me overly complicated instructions for ingesting the peyote, including what to think about while chowing it down. Judy, who abstained due to her condition, hopped around fetching whatever Ralph needed–incense, musical instruments, a book of Native American poetry from which he sporadically recited. The ultimate Boy Scout, Ralph was in his glory, guiding his troops first into higher states of consciousness with chanting and singing, then naked into the sweat lodge, followed by a jump into the cold rushing stream.
Scared off by the nausea factor, I ingested a minimal amount of peyote and experienced only a mild high. Observing the pomp and circumstance with a coolly detached eye, I couldn’t help but notice that this ceremony functioned not so differently from Judeo-Christian sacred gatherings–only the props, scenery and language had been changed. That Judy fetched cannabis and peyote instead of hors d’oeuvres and Daiquiris didn’t seem as significant as the way she hovered by Ralph’s side, anticipating his needs. That none of the women wore makeup or perfume (not to mention deodorant) didn’t seem as significant as the fact that the men did most of the talking–primarily about the favored gurus du jour.
Towards dawn we began singing the song Amen, and, after a few rounds, the woman opposite me suddenly stared at me dead-on, her eyes gleaming wickedly. A-woman! she sang out lustily. Laughing, I joined her, and we tried to get the others to follow suit–but my boyfriend Adam was the only one who joined in our lyrics. The next morning as we staggered wearily down the hill to our cabin, Adam confessed that he’d been acutely aware of the sexist dynamics all night, and was ashamed–but he hadn’t known what to do about it.
A few weeks later, Adam and I went berry picking, and decided to bring a basket of fruit up to the teepee. When we got there, we discovered that Judy had just given birth. Her son was lying on her belly, the placenta still attached. The midwife and a few friends milled about, laughing and crying and hugging one another. The teepee glowed with a shimmering purple aura, and a not- unpleasant scent of blood filled the air. Not wanting to intrude on this intimate moment, we stepped outside. In a few minutes Ralph appeared, bearing in his arms the bloody placenta. He announced that it would be buried in the garden–but first everyone was invited to partake of a tasty morsel.
The group eagerly gathered ’round a wooden table and dove right in, plunging their hands into the bloody mess and feeding bits of dripping red flesh into one another’s mouths. Appalled, I turned away, and in that moment I swear I heard my mother’s shocked voice pass right through my brain: My God! They’re eating the placenta!
Adam, a vegetarian, commented that this was the first meat he’d eaten in several years. In retrospect, it was probably the sight of a bloody string of flesh hanging from his beard that signaled the beginning of the end of our relationship.
And so to this day, whenever I find myself among a gathering of people, I immediately check out their jewelry, hunting for beads or turquoise; I sniff for incense and listen for rhetoric. I avoid spiritual events like the plague–after all, I never know what I’ll be asked to sing, say, do, or–god forbid–eat. I’ve been called everything from an iconoclast to a Republican to a party-pooper. Sorry, but I can’t help it: my behavior is a legitimate reaction to the placenta-eating ceremony, a case of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.