Ladies of the Canyon

First published in L.A. Observed

“You must to come to the Teepee. You will come to the Teepee,” Melinda stated. Melinda is a can-do gal with the big, sloppy heart of a Labrador. She was already texting my email address to the hostess, because I was going, and that’s it. “It’s on the full moon, of course.”

“Naturally.” I replied. The full moon is a big night in Los Angeles; land of a million new-age ceremonies and healing rituals. There’s always something pagan going on. “Will drugs be involved?” I asked.

“What?!” Melinda laughed. Her surprise surprised me. One wants to know how to dress for these things, after all. Will we be hiking? Swimming? Doing yoga? Vomiting? She assured me nothing stronger than Cabernet would be consumed, which these days, suits me just fine.

We met at Lorna’s groovy Spanish house on Coldwater Canyon. Lorna was lithe and earthy, warm and welcoming. She had been hostessing “Circling Ceremonies” in her back yard for over a decade. She had two young children who were being tucked in by a nanny, and a clearly supportive husband who had tastefully absented himself for the night.

We were a group of eight women, between the ages, of twenty-four to… well… as I looked around I found myself in the startling position of being the eldest of the group. Traditionally, I have always been among the youngest in a moon tribe, but this is the thing about moon ceremonies—do enough of them and you’re gonna find yourself in a whole new age group. I had waxed and waned into seniority. So that night I assumed the Crone Position—asana for the doomed.

When all were assembled, Lorna asked us to please prepare to enter the teepee. We lined up on her patio, waiting our turn to be smudged by our hostess. As she wafted sage smoke over me and whispered blessings I looked up at the moon. It was perfectly chalked on a blackboard sky.

We kicked off our shoes, stooped, then crawled into the dark, conical inner world and seated ourselves in a circle on soft cushions. The teepee’s ceiling was draped in silky fabrics. A constellation of candles, burned between us on a waxy pedestal, sending a curl of perfumed smoke up through the open apex of the roof.

The ceremonial props were standard issue. Hank of sage for smudging? Check. Handmade, crystal-encrusted, bling-y talking stick? Check. List of intentions? Check. This ceremony looked like it would be very basic—a little burning of paper, some brave sharing, perhaps some soft crying. Dig it.

Though I am a cynical New Yorker by birth, the truth is, after almost twenty-five years in Los Angeles, I believe in this shit. When I do my inventory I have to say I have become a Los Angeles cliché—a new-age, self-helper. It both mortifies and sustains me. I’m like Tony Robbins in “Annie Hall” snapping his hood visor in place, while the Woody Allen part of me looks on in horror and disbelief. Oxygen bar? Sure. High colonic? Let’s go! Oy.

There are a million ways to grow your soul in Southern California and I have tried most of them. I have ‘shroomed among the sepia rocks of Joshua Tree, schvitzed in a kiva in Burbank, sipped Ayuhuasca in West Los Angeles and twelve-stepped at the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax.

It’s easy for New Yorkers to roll their eyes at Angelenos—I know because I used to do it. Most of the rituals we enact here are a miasma of mysticism. We co-opt from Native American rituals, bastardize Buddhist koans, hijack Hindu traditions and shove centuries of human wisdom and spirituality through the distinctly American sieve of self-empowerment. What emerges is a kind of spiritual paste—good for spackling broken souls back together.

This teepee ceremony feels both tribal and Jungian. It has a whiff of witchcraft with just a soupcon of Steinem. It’s “Dances With Wolves” meets “Thelma and Louise” by way of “Practical Magic”. We are powerful WOMYN and all we really need is the Sisterhood. At the pee break we checked our cell phones to see if the husbands had called with news of the kids.

Lorna passed pens and paper around the Circle, and told us to make a list of the things we wanted to get rid of. The younger women set to their task eagerly, scribbling long lists of their character defects. I have made dozens of these lists myself, but on this night I sat with my pen hovering over the blank sheet of paper. Suddenly, I felt the simple satisfaction of being. I had survived divorce, heartbreak, middle-age and I felt happy, strong and… serene. Any complaints I had would be nitpicking, at this point. I wrote down a single word, so I would have something to burn.

We went around the circle and shared our lists. We resolved to let go of hurts, rivalries, addictions and self-doubt. As each woman spoke her heart we would spontaneously say “Ho!” if her words particularly resonated. We were Ho-ing it up in that teepee. Each woman burned her piece of her paper in the metal ashtray that was passed around the circle. By the time it got to me the ashtray was so full of sage leaves and half-burned regrets I worried that my scrap of paper would ignite the lot and start a fire in the tinder-dry canyon. I thought of all the things I had avoided doing in my life because I was afraid of the outcome, or because I thought it was possible for me to make the wrong choice. I burned the word “Fear.”

A coyote’s lone yowl threaded through the night like surgical stitches, and it was immediately answered by the pack. They were all around us. A chill rippled through the circle and we laughed and hugged our chenille throws more tightly around ourselves. A Chumash woman would think of the coyotes as spirit guides sent to take us into another the world beyond this one, our brave companions. But I am born of the Manhattan tribe, come of age in Los Angeles, and when I hear the hungry call of brother coyote I can only think, Ladies, hide your purse dogs.