Christmas Eve here in Tampa was warm, clear-skied, and starlit. I took my pipe outside onto the back lawn, and laid out all the many things that go into a medicine pipe ceremony: sage wand, lighters, bowls for the smudge and a bowl containing all the prayers I had already placed in small pinches of tobacco, my pipe bag, and the leather pouch full of tobacco.

This was my first Christmas Eve in many years that was not chilling cold. I kneeled on the damp lawn and withdrew my pipe stem and bowl from the bag I carry it in. The pipe bag itself is the upper body pelt of a gray wolf, shot decades ago by an arial hunter in Alaska. I came by the wolf skin hanging by its nose in a Jackson Hole curio shop. When my eyes fell upon it, I felt shocked and sickened. I’d never seen a wolf strung up that way before (I’ve seen many since…) “If I put that wolf on layaway, will you take it off that hook on the wall?” Yes, the clerk told me. It took me a long time to pay off the shop, but eventually, I brought the wolf home and decided that I would make its pelt into a ceremonial tool, so that it could be honored in some small way. The wolf has held my pipe ever since, its eye holes watching me every time I conduct a pipe ceremony…

A pipe is never to be stored away intact, with bowl fixed onto stem. Both pieces are kept in their own separate bags. When the two pieces are smudged with sage and joined together with prayers, the pipe comes alive. My pipe bowl was carved for me out of the elbow of a pine branch. My teacher had sat beneath that tree on his first vision quest and thought to himself, “That bend in the tree looks just the shape of a pipe bowl.” He took the piece of pine home with him and carved it into a pipe bowl. His intention was to use it for his own pipe, but he got the message that this bowl was feminine, and wanted to be in the hands of a woman. The bowl was gifted from him to me. He also made me the cedar pipe stem to go with it, and told me to decorate it with my medicine.

I have carried this pipe with me for the past twelve years, through four Sundances, my house fire, and countless moves. It has become more alive with each prayer activation. At this point, I just show up and let the pipe work her magic. I supply the tobacco, matches, and words, but the pipe is the healer, the listener, and the miracle worker.

My pipe bowl is kept in a small purple velvet bag, the stem in a red and beaded bag. I open the bags after I’ve carefully smudged my hands and body with sage. The wolf pipe sack I always place in the east, facing west and facing me. I place the pipe parts, the tobacco, a smudge stick, lighters, a candle and bowl just in front of the wolf’s nose. Sometimes, I place some of the spiritual tools on his paws. He is as much a participant in this ceremony as I am. Perhaps more.

With prayers, I hold the bowl and stem up to the sky, and I pray. The prayer is always different. I’ve been told not to memorize any prayers or ever say my invocation as a rote recitation. Doing so would dishonor the spirits. I join the pipe and then begin the sweet process of loading it with pinches of tobacco for the seven sacred directions. I turn to each cardinal direction in turn, welcoming the spirit winds of that direction into my pipe, and thanking them for their blessings, their teaching, and their wisdom. I do the same for Mother Earth, Father Sky, and All My Relations.

When the pipe is fully loaded with the tobacco filled with prayers (from all of you, and more if others are praying with me), I take up a lighter and work to bring the tobacco to a fully lit bowl. My teacher has told me I puff on the pipe like a lamb on a teat. I’ve been told not to inhale the tobacco, as it is not for me but for spirit. Others fully inhale the sacred smoke as part of their tradition’s teachings.

When the pipe is lit, I take in four puffs of smoke and blow the smoke out to each of the seven sacred directions, while offering the mouth of the pipe to the spirits. Each spirit is invited in this way to smoke the pipe. Then, if others are with me, I will being passing the pipe around the circle. Participants will take the pipe bowl in their left hand, stem in the right. The left hand is believed to be the closest to the heart. They will smoke the pipe, or—if they are not able to smoke for health reasons—they will tap the pipe gently to each shoulder and pass it on.

Sometimes the pipe will make several trips around the circle before it is fully smoked out. Sometimes, just one. When I am alone, as I was this time, I smoke it all myself. Alone, I am able to more fully sit with the meditative aspects of the ceremony. When there are many others in the circle, my job is to be fully present and hold the space for everyone. It can be a distraction, but a very meaningful one. I like it both ways—sometimes alone, sometimes with others.

Last Saturday, I was alone and very focused on the pipe, the tendrils of thick tobacco smoke, and the fact that this would be the last pipe of 2011. Next time I perform this ceremony, It will be 2012—a date with great meaning to many. While I smoke, I try to be aware of anything or any thought that captures my attention. Messages often come through the pipe. This Christmas Eve, I noted that there was a steady, gentle breeze coming from the north. North is the direction of transformation, rebirth, and the hard lessons in life. This tender winter breeze did not let the smoke idle in the air. Rather, it sent the prayer smoke steadfastly to the South, the home of abundance and growth. South is where our dreams take form, where love on the physical plane is highlighted, and where the energy in our bodies is strongest and most vital.

I smoked until the last tendril of smoke hurried off to the South, smiling in my cheeks the whole time. Giving thanks, I unlinked the bowl from the stem, and let the hot pipe bowl cool off in my hands. I don’t know about you, but my life right now is fully caught up with Northern energies. It’s not just because this happens to be the winter—the season associated with the North. It is bigger than that. I feel like the message coming to me these days is “transform or die.”

How sweet that the smoke drifted so confidently to the South. That here in the North of my life right now, the spirits remind me that I can count on those lively, positive, abundant energies of the South. South is also the direction of growth. I believe the pipe was telling me that there were good energies coming to assist me—and all of us—in the transformations and rebirths these challenging times demand of us. Growth awaits us as we tackle these difficult Northern times.

Suspended here between old and new years, I am at peace and my heart is hopeful for myself and for all of you who pray along with me. May the new year bless and teach us all.

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