Heyokah Blues ~ or the Cost of Being the Clown-Guardians of Society

Heyokah blues

“When everyone thinks something is good, it becomes evil”- Lao Tzu, Chinese sage, fourth century BC

Lest anyone think I am being pretentious quoting Lao Tzu, I should explain I found this quote at the start ofa very enjoyable pulp fiction read, Kingdom by Tom Martin.

I’ve been involved in certain aspects of Native American spirituality now for many years, but not as a plastic Indian, rather as someone seeking to make sense of the now through the eyes and the understanding of another culture. One of the aspects that struck me the most forcibly is the role of the heyokah in NA culture. There isn’t an easy or concise way to explain what the heyokah actually is; you can call them sacred clowns or fools for god, or jokers or tricksters and they are all that. Sometimes they are described as people who do everything backwards, upside down, the wrong way round, inside out. I must say here this is NOT by personal choice. A heyokah is CALLED; sometimes they are called by the Thunderbeings. Those who are struck by lightning and survive often become heyokah. My friend Alice, half Cherokee, half Blackfoot and all medicine woman has a cousin who is heyokah. She tells me he’s a pain in the ass; he eats with his back to everyone at table, laughs when everyone cries, cries when everyone laughs, dresses in light clothes when there’s snow on the ground, and complains of being cold when there’s a heat wave. She also tells me he cannot help this; he would like to stop but cannot. It is how he is and mostly this is tolerated and often even revered. They see him a someone touched by a kind of divine madness and his acts and speech are viewed as messages from God. The interpretation of the messages is often difficult, but in their culture the heyokah is valued and important. I shall leave you to try and understand why for yourself.

My trouble is that in certain senses, I was born Heyokah in a culture where this is not welcome. The heyokah is often apart from the society in certain ways; they are sometimes shamans, often some of the most powerful and feared medicine people. Here, in the West, people like me are not welcome. We’re seen as partypoopers, oddballs, weirdos, mavericks, individualists, lone wolves, wild sheep and above all, a threat. I’m the one that says, “Hey, the Emperor is wearing NO clothes and boy, does he have a tiny todger!” I’m the one who gets the giggles during solemn moments, or laughs out loud at funerals. I’m the one who cries when a small bird dies on the road as I walk to work. I’m the one who won’t dance at parties and then embarasses everyone by dancing under the new moon on the way home from work. I’m the one who you dread meeting when you’re with your new boyfriend because you know there’s a risk I will say or do something that’ll make you cringe.

And I can’t help it. Foot-in-mouth disease? Incurable case here, guys. There’s no hope for this one.

The thing is, I’ve begun to realise that the role of people like me, even where the concept of the heyokah is shunned and reviled, is essential for a society to remain whole and healthy. Lao Tzu doesn’t mean that something everyone believes to be good becomes evil instantaneously; becoming is a long process. If you do not have a few arbiters who retain independent thought and are able to stand clear of popular opinion, then there can be no true freedom. If you let yourself think about the Third Reich and how everyone allowed themselves to believe it was good, then the role of the heyokah becomes clear.

We stand as guardians of something none of us truly understand, but we stand nonetheless, and stand firm even when the personal costs of loneliness and isolation and even hatred from the community seem overwhelming. We stand because that is who we are and we can do no other than what we do.

That’s why I’m blue, I guess.


I’m sitting here on my own tonight; husband and daughter are in Wiltshire. He’s camping out somewhere in the countryside around Avebury and she’s in the comfort of a pub near Stonehenge as a part of a dig that’s a part of her degree.

I love my family and I miss them but I have noticed something quite powerful since I’ve been on my own when I got home from work yesterday: I can think more clearly. I don’t mean the usual humdrum what am I cooking for dinner and I must remember to water the plants kind of thinking. I mean the creative story telling style of thinking I remember being able to enjoy a few years ago.

We live on top of each other by comparison with our previous homes. And since my daughter’s illness, she’s seldom away from the house for more than a couple of hours at most. In the past she was at school or college or out with friends or whatever. When her fiance lived here too, I spent a lot of my time feeling unbearbly crowded out and unable to think or feel anything other than sheer frustration and mundanity. He’s been gone now since February when they broke up and he was here very briefly today to collect some belongings, which made me sad.

This house is a nice house but compared with the places we used to inhabit, it’s pretty small. In the (almost) three years since we moved here we’ve managed to either organise our stuff better or get rid of what we can’t keep, but even so, we still have too much in many ways. It doesn’t make a lot of difference to the actual amount of space we have; whatever we do, the house is still smaller than we were used to. There are still only so many rooms and nowhere to hide from each other. And because my daughter is ill, I’m often the only company she has, so she comes to me for hugs and to talk numerous times a day.

None of this is bad as such. I’m lucky to have a loving child and husband. But the ideas and images that come into my head waiting to be nurtured into stories are at first as fragile and ephermeral as soap bubbles and it only takes speaking or being spoken to and they reach that rainbow nirvana moment and pop. Then even though I may remember their import, I have lost their irridescence and the shining promise of their being. There’s only a wet imprint left that conveys none of the sparkle and excitement of those bubbles.

I also wonder whether the magical beings who sometimes throw those bubbles of beauty our way are put off by us being focussed constantly on washing up, laundry lists and remembering to put the bin out on Monday. I wonder if they prefer to send those bubbles to those who gaze into the middle distance at the trees turning to gold and who sniff the autumn smells of wet leaves, bonfires and fungi and think about inconsequential matters like the mid-ribs of leaves turning to filigree lace as they decay and what the fur on a bat’s tummy feels like. I hardly feel worthy of bubbles these days when I have rushed home to write lesson plans and get housework done so I can collapse into bed and sleep, to start the whole thing all over again in the morning.

As I write with only the light of the monitor, I can see a shadow on the wall behind my desk,  a dreamcatcher, the first I ever made, crisper and more defined than the physical one. We cast shadows with our creations and sometimes the shadows have more power than the creations.

I need to have more of this solitude, even if it means shutting myself away in this room or our bedroom, and gently but firmly shunning the distractions of everyday life so that I can watch in wonder as those pearlescent bubbles float by and sometimes lodge deep in my unconscious. I need to let my unconscious have time and space to go and play, to dabble in the mud and sail paper boats on ponds.

Then and only then will the stories begin to flow again.

The Exile

The Exile.


I am a stranger in a strange land:

The exiled, the dispossessed,

A refugee from life.

I want to go home,

Knowing it can never be,

That home is here, and now.

My mind walks alone

Through other rooms,

Other landscapes.

My inner eyes see

Other trees, other people.

At night I turn the wrong way,

Looking for rooms

I no longer possess.

As dusk falls, the walls

Move in, shrinking my cage

Until I feel trapped.

In sleep I escape to homes

I can never own again,

Exploring mansions beyond reach,

Castles and kingdoms

Created by dreams.

It’s not that this life is so bad.

It just isn’t mine, that’s all.