Earth, Fire, Wind, and the Smoke Alarm

Grandmother, and great Mother Earth, upon you the people will walk; may they follow the sacred path with Light, not with the darkness of ignorance. May they always remember their relatives at the four quarters, and may they know that they are related to all that moves upon the universe…               

  … Black Elk

It wasn’t the drum; it wasn’t the feathers; it wasn’t even the candle or the darkened room – it was the sage and the smoke that finally got to the nurses on the adolescent mental health unit where Chaplain Lydia Jackson spent her Tuesdays.

 Anything that smelled that much like marijuana couldn’t be a good thing for teenagers with behavioral problems. Every Tuesday the chaplain packed a big basket with these items, and more, and brought them up to the unit for “group time” with the kids.

“The Feather Lady’s here,” someone announces, and the youngsters begin to gather.

“Can I use the drum?”

“No, Dork, you did last time.”

“Did you bring food today?”

Yes, she has. Some cheese and apple slices. She also brings Apache tears, black obsidian pebbles, and Cherokee tears, kernels of blue grey corn. On other days, she uses crystals of varying colors and talks about chakras, or sometimes, she sits a kid on chair in the middle of the circle and demonstrates the whooshing moments of healing touch, without ever actually touching the child. The kids play with the wax from the melting candle. They splash each other with the Water of Life. Only once has the smoke alarm gone off and only once has a youngster had to leave because of asthma problems. 

“Does anyone have asthma?” she now begins. “Anyone allergic to, ah, marijuana?”

Giggles and laughs. Seeing no self-proclaimed allergics, she says, “Well, good. You can tell me later how this smells to you,” unwrapping a bundle of sage.

Tuesday was the best day of the week for Lydia. She has an hour to “do something spiritual” with anywhere from one to a dozen troubled teens. The previous chaplain’s Bible study time had not been popular. She is determined to try something different.

The Native Alaskan kids take to the program immediately; the others quickly follow.

“If we were all Native Alaskans, this would be a Native healing circle,” Lydia explains. “If we were all Buddhists, it would be a Buddhist circle. Same thing if we were all Catholics or Baptists. As it turns out, we come from many different traditions, and since all we can bring to this circle is ourselves – it will be uniquely Our Circle.”

The kids relax and scoot into a circle on the floor. The ceremony begins.

Someone is assigned to slowly beat the drum.

“The drum represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth,” Lydia intones. “In every culture, in every time, peoples have thought of the world in terms of four elements. You have all heard of them: Earth, Fire, Wind, and Water.”

Every circle was a little bit different because Lydia was never very good at remembering the exact order of things – any more than she could remember the exact words of the Presbyterian communion service when she presided at church. The calming force and sense of preparation was the important thing.

Lydia crumbles some sage into a clay pot, lights it, and allows the smoke to build. The kids stand, and with the drummer continuing to drum, she explains that there is an aura, or private space around each of them; that at times “stuff” hovers around them like annoying gnats – fears, angers, painful memories. Taking the feather and asking the teen to spread out his or her arms, the chaplain brushes smoke around the perimeter of each child, banishing those annoying thoughts, in preparation for the healing circle to come.

Lydia looks up and sees the quizzical, disapproving face of a mental health nurse peering through the glass window in the door to the unit. Undaunted, she continues.

“The candle represents Fire. We cannot live without fire. It keeps us warm in the winter. Cooks our food. Sterilizes our medical instruments. Helps us find the way through the dark night.

“But too much fire can kill. Forest fires. House fires. The fire under the coffee pot on the kitchen stove. All can bring pain or worse. Fire is important for life – but it is also important to contain and control fire.”

She unwraps an ersatz eagle feather with some beads attached to the quill end. “This will be our talking stick,” she explains. Handing the feather to the first youngster, she whispers, “Speak to us of fire.” The youngster speaks of a camping trip he took with his family one summer.  It was a rare, good family experience for him and he says so. He passes the feather on. A sense of respect and reverence fills the darkened room as each youngster speaks.

Lydia talks of the healing powers of water, but notes we can drown in too much water. She speaks of the healing powers of a cool breeze versus the terrible force of a hurricane.

The kids talk about whatever comes into their minds as a result of the prompting of the elements. Lydia explores questions like a child’s favorite quality about themselves, or their greatest fear, or what it means to be “spiritual,” or what it means to be a “good” person. Or possibly, what is the purpose of life? Each teen answers honestly and sometimes disturbingly.

“Life is a trial that we are forced to live through, until we die,” says one.


Of course, the circle worked better on some days than on others. And it worked quite well for several years, even when the staff opined that the whole thing smelled of marijuana.

But today, well, today …


The damnable smoke detector explodes like a chorus of overwrought bull seals.

The kids cheer. The angry nurses call Security. The kids are herded out of the unit and guarded under the stern, watchful eyes of the hospital cops while the alarm is reset. In minutes, the young patients are returned unharmed. But Lydia knows her troubles are just beginning.

“It’s over! No more candles. No more grass. No more whatever that is you do!” declares the supervisor. “The other chaplain read them Bible stories!”

“Yeah, it was pretty awful,” Lydia says, hoping to sound contrite, but realizing that along with the fire alarm fiasco, the Bible stories were pretty awful, too.

“Is that all you have to say?’

“Yes, that’s about it for now. Pretty awful,” Lydia repeats.

Let it rest for a couple of days, whispers the Presence, the voice that Lydia has heard since childhood. Give me a little time.

“Okay.” It was time to go home anyway. Lydia slips out of the supervisor’s office and heads for the garage.


Lydia Jackson liked working with the kids, and the adults, on the mental health unit. Everyone knew this. One winter, at the Spiritual Care Department Christmas Party, her colleagues gave her two books: one about schizophrenia and the other, the latest edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-IV). Lydia took her work seriously and truly believed that she would not be effective with these particular kids if she attempted to read them Bible stories.


Tired and worried, when the chaplain arrives home her youngest daughter pops an unexpected question, “Mom, can I invite Andra over to spend the night? She is a lesbian, you know. We’re working on a project together.”

“No,” Lydia answers, and walks to the kitchen.

A second or two passes before she squints, furrows her forehead,

and wonders if she has just been set up. Had she just demonstrated unacceptable paranoia or prejudice? Was her daughter trying to goad her into saying something stupid?

“No,” she repeats. “No more discussion.”

Oh, Lydia! She hears the Presence sigh somewhere off to her right, but she has no time for him either.

“The German is coming in two days,” she tells the girl and her older sister. “We’re going to be inspected by the Rotary. This place has got to be picked up!” This is part of the reason Lydia does not want to even think about entertaining an overnight guest, but she doesn’t even make the connection herself.

Both daughters have become friends with the teenage exchange student from Germany. The girl’s host family can no longer house her, so there is an unexpected need to find a new family right away. Lydia would have to give up her office and private hideout to accommodate the girl, which she is willing to do, but realizes now that she is secretly grumpy about it.  It has been a bad day, but she had not planned to pick a fight with either of her daughters. The hostility her request for assistance now meets is confusing and hurtful.

Sleep on it, glares the Presence. Lydia gives up and goes to bed.


   Sleep is always good advice. The next day was Lydia’s day off. It was dedicated to cleaning and packing and moving stuff out of her office. The girls jumped in with some enthusiasm and the place looked pretty good when the Rotarian arrived that afternoon. The woman seemed sufficiently impressed.

Later, Lydia drives across town to pick up Andra. The girls spend the evening working on a video for a school project. It turns out quite good, Lydia tells herself. As she drives the youngster home that night, Lydia realizes she really likes the girl and hopes she remains her daughter’s friend.

“Maybe I’m not a bigot, after all,” she says to the Presence.

No, you just needed a little rest and time to think things through, came the Voice. Tomorrow could be important, best get some sleep.


The Presence is grinning a big grin when Lydia arrives at the hospital the next morning.

“Would you like to help me bless a home this afternoon?” the Filipino priest asks before she even sits down. “The lady is a Filipina and has had some really bad experiences. This is a new apartment, and she wants it cleansed before she moves in.”

“Sure,” Lydia answers. She and the priest arrive at the home. She reads the assigned prayers while he – is that incense, smoke? - cleanses and blesses the new home.

“Are you coming to the dedication of the new surgery rooms?” the Irish priest asks when she returns to the hospital.

“Ah, sure,” says Lydia. She arrives in time to watch her friend take a small evergreen branch and sprinkle holy water into each of the corners of the room and around and over the equipment. He, too, follows up with a little … incense.

How’s that? beams the Presence.

“Mysterious work,” Lydia answers.

The following Monday, Lydia receives word that she is scheduled for the healing circle on the adolescent mental health unit the next day. She vows to be a little more careful with the fire and the smoke, and even experiments with a smoke-free healing circle, using an evergreen branch and water in place of a feather. It all seems to work.


          Nighttime comes. Lydia feeds her fish, waters the plants, lights her two, large, five-wick candles and strokes her stuffed raven, Roderick. Settling in to listen to the sounds of Enya, she inhales and exhales with the rhythm of the music.

          “Thank you for getting me back on the adolescent unit,” she whispers. “The kids are doing okay, aren’t they?” The music begins to cleanse her brain.

Earth, Fire, Wind, and Water, chants the Presence, as the chaplain drifts into sleep. You are definitely a not-so-bad mother, Lydia. I see you even have smoke detectors. I’ll make sure someone wakes up in a little while to blow out the candles.


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