I first heard of Robert shortly after Ken and I moved to Klamath Falls, Oregon, just as I was getting over the shock of living seventy nine miles from the nearest mall, and of once again moving away from the daughter I came to Oregon to live close to.
Shortly after I began working as a psychotherapist for a local agency, one of my co- workers told me about a man he visited who had a drumming circle. He told me he and his wife owned a beautiful piece of property outside of town, and that his friend was a shaman. He told me I should meet him.
Way back when, I read Carlos Castaneda’s books, and like many of my generation was fascinated by his Don Juan. Knowing there was a real shaman nearby, I had visions of a tall Native American man, dark skinned, with mysterious eyes and long hair. But intrigued as I was by the concept of a shaman living near us, I also have to admit to feeling a little bit of fear. The kind of fear we feel so many times when we know if we take a certain path, our lives might be changed forever. So I told Ken about the shaman in passing, he made some comment that it sounded interesting, and we began to settle into our lives in the beautiful high desert of Oregon. And a very good life it was. Ken loved his hospice job counseling hospice patients and families, and I was happy working with clients at the agency. We bought a ranch style house on a hillside, and enjoyed our new life together.
One morning my co- worker came into my office and asked if Ken and I might be interested in attending a celebration of the summer solstice. Having been raised Catholic; I wasn’t familiar with the celebration. But I was curious about this man who lived in the outskirts of town, who loved the environment, who was a shaman. And I said yes. And it was one of the best yeses I ever said.
Ken and I drove to the Aerie where Robert lived with his wife Sharon. The drive was beautiful, with a view of Mount Shasta in the distance until right before we turned to reach our destination. A dirt road led us to the Aerie. We could see the house and another structure on a hillside. I began scanning the horizon for the shaman. As we walked away from our car and towards the celebration, a short, Caucasian white-haired man came to greet us. He welcomed us to the Aerie, and let us know without words that we walked on sacred and loved ground. In a moment I realized that this unassuming man who welcomed us so openly and genuinely, was the shaman. This was the famous Robert Chinook.
As I sit here tonight, my eyes swollen from crying , my heart keenly aware of his absence from this earth, I remember the last time we were with him and Sharon last fall, and all the years in between.
Robert Chinook was an honorable man. He was our friend. His smile and dancing eyes welcomed us to the Aerie through the years as we watched him create a beautiful retreat for animals and friends. And he had so many friends!! Robert made a labyrinth at the Aerie, and had us all involved painting rocks so that each of us would be represented. He took us on dream journeys, touched our souls with his drumming, and loved us all just the way we were. That was perhaps his greatest gift.
I am sure that Robert would have shared his Shamanic knowledge with me if I had asked. But that was not the lesson he taught me. Robert taught me about love. He taught me to hold the land sacred. He taught me to laugh. Laughing with Robert was an amazing experience, for he was as present in his laughter as he was in every experience. Yes, he taught me about presence. He taught me about living with dignity, and he taught me with very few words. I loved who he was, and who he was taught me everything.
Sharon and I became good friends, heart friends. She was also my healer. She and Robert and Ken and I loved playing Canasta together. And as I remember those games through the tears, the roaring laughter, the camaraderie that will last through lifetimes, comes back to shore up my spirit.
When I became the grandma to twin girls, Robert and Sharon put two rocks together under a tree for them so that they would be able to enjoy the gatherings at the Aerie through the years. But it was our wishing to be closer to the twins that made us decide to move away from Klamath Falls, away from our beloved Robert and Sharon, and although we went back to visit and they visited us for years, as we have grown older and Robert’s health declined, the visits became fewer. But the love never diminished. Robert continued his work through his declining health. He built a sweat lodge. He and Sharon bought adjacent property and created a wonderful Artist Retreat House that some of my writer friends and I enjoyed last summer. Tethered to his oxygen, Robert continued to pour love on the land he loved so much and on everyone he came in contact with.
We last saw Robert and Sharon last fall. It was the Fall Equinox celebration at the Aerie and we stayed at their beautiful home with them as we always did when we visited. Friends came to celebrate. Robert greeted us with joy and a big hug as he always did. Despite his declining health he led the celebration, he drummed, he and Sharon together, welcoming the season with open hearts and reverence. And we celebrated at the house later. Friends, laughter, love. When everyone left we sat quietly together for a while, enjoying each other’s presence. Knowing there wouldn’t be many more nights like this. I told Robert I was toying with the idea of moving back to retire in the area. He didn’t answer me.
After a scrumptious breakfast when it was time to leave, Robert saw us to the porch. He hugged me tight like he always did, but this time he held my chin and looked into my eyes with intensity. He said: “Don’t look back. Move forward. Only forward.” And he hugged me again. Our last hug.
As my heart mourns his loss, and yearns to hug Sharon tonight, I write this blog to honor a man of honor. Shaman, my friend, thank you for your love, your acceptance and all the lessons you taught me without words. Having known you, I have been blessed. If there was a hand tying for friends, I would wish that you would be my friend in every lifetime to come. But for now, I will look forward to seeing you again in the Summerland.
There is a picture of Robert and Ken that we keep in the study. The four of us joke that it is a picture of the Shaman teaching his student how to tie his shoes. But it is a picture of two vastly different men who came to love each other very much. Here it is. Robert, I will honor you by looking back with love and gratitude and by keeping my eyes on the future. But give me just a little while to grieve your passing. Just a little while.