Today I offer a post from the Householder’s Archives. It’s a little fiction/poetry I wrote a couple of years ago and thought, in light of my recent musings on faith, vision, and traveling into the unknown, this would be an appropriate transition piece as we prepare for Thanksgiving and Advent. Enjoy.
It begins in the dark, as all things do. It begins in the breath before a whisper; the deep, cold space between the stars. The black bones of trees lay bare against a black sky growing grey with the first light. Winter. Below the stars Earth, frozen and dormant. There’s an intelligence there, forgotten in the hard packed crystals of ice. A waiting for something not yet remembered. A sharp intake of Breath; the groan of Earth recalling some deeper warmth.
I know you, She says.
It takes some convincing for Earth to thaw. He wavers around the idea of warmth as space slides between the ice. One day, without realizing it, Spring. A whisper turned into a laugh, a song. The remembrance of a bird, a flower, a tree.
I’m alive, He says.
They flirt, this Earth and Breath. They dance and tumble and birth new animals, new songs, new skies. Their love grows, warmed by Sun. But Sun betrays them. She shines too bright and too strong. Summer. His grasses get scorched; flowers wither and die. Breath pushes rain through Air only to choke.
You almost killed me, She says.
Earth, wondering what happened to his beloved Breath turns only to see that she has found a new love. Wind. Fall. Breath and Wind merge bringing a familiar song to Earth. The ancient chant of ruin and death.
This is what I was afraid of, He says.
Leaves fall. Everything they birthed in Spring unrecognizable now.
I have to go, She says.
The rage in Breath pushing away the last of Sun. Light and warmth fade. The hard-pack of ice returns as Earth goes dormant once again.
Why did you leave me? He asks.
Breath rides Wind over Earth, searching, searching for a way back in; getting caught on the bones in the sky. After Her exhale, the dark. The deep cold space between the stars. The breath before the whisper.
I know you, She says.
A friend who spent most of his life in the mountains and now lives in the Piedmont recently said to me, “My only beef with North Carolina is the tree canopy. You can’t look out over things.” He has a point. In New Mexico, you can see everything. The land is BIG. The sky is HUGE. I suppose this is because on the mesa the only vegetation is sage brush, scrub greenery, and sensual groves of Cottonwood trees. The mountains sport several ecosystems including the drought resistant, low growing Pinion and Juniper forests to the South, and tall Douglas and White firs to the North.
There is always a view.
One of my dearest friends who is living through the unimaginable wrote, “Today marks one year of death being a reality! One year of trying to understand and realizing that there’s no sense in even asking ‘WHY?’ because the answer is too convoluted. There is not a doubt in my mind that without God, doing what we are doing would be an impossibility.”
Why is faith so difficult? Why, after a lifetime of God demonstrating trustworthiness do I cling to the need for vision before action? Why do I continue to grasp at knowing a future which is not mine to know? I suppose there is no sense in asking these questions.
On my trip I was afraid to do the thing I most wanted to do. I told myself, “I can’t go hiking alone. There are risks you just don’t take when you have small children.” But the mountains kept calling. So I reached out to a friend. I told her where I was going and how long I would be gone. I studied the trail map, dressed in layers, packed water, and a snack.
When I got to the trail head, two middle-aged women and their dogs got out of the car in front of me. Their presence boosted my confidence and I knew that, while solo, I would not be alone. I followed them onto the trail and passed them soon after. I came to a fork in the path and called back for directions. “Just go to the right.” They were very kind.
I hiked up the rocky, dirt trail. I wove my way through Pinion and Juniper and Gamble Oak. I stopped often to take pictures, enjoy the view, slow my breathing, and drink some water. Most of the time I was by myself but I met enough people on the trail – many of whom were women alone – to keep from feeling isolated and afraid.
I made it to the top.
Throughout most of my twenties and early thirties I was ill and could not walk the flat, one mile loop around the lake at Kanuga without pain and an overwhelming need to go back to bed. And yet, through those long years of chronic fatigue I had a vision of myself climbing a mountain in my late thirties. I dreamt of being one of those women who gets stronger and more physical with age. Throughout the pain I had vision. And I had faith.
And I had the same nervousness I have now.
My time in New Mexico brought a brief reprieve from my present anxiety. But it soon returned. Before sitting down to write this I said some prayers of the “help me” variety and opened my Rule of St. Benedict with commentary by Sister Joan Chittister. This is what I found.
Life is often a series of false starts while we find out who we are and determine where we really want to go. Benedict understands the struggle of uncertainty and indecision and makes room for it. After all, the giving of oneself to anything is no small thing and should be done with reflection and with peace of mind.
I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps anxiety is a key part of the structure on the bridge between faith and vision. One we have to walk through, to accept, to feel rather than circumvent. Very often my anxiety is a clue that at some point I am going to have to take action to bring a vision to life. Very often my anxiety is also born out of indecision because I want to be certain the action I take is the right one. The one that is going to lead to the easy fulfillment of my dreams. But that is not faith. That is not peace of mind.
I did not make it to the top of the mountain in New Mexico by ensuring that every decision, every step I made over the course of the past decade would get me there. I got to the top of the mountain by giving myself to the difficult faith journey of illness, healing, motherhood, divorce. I got to the top of the mountain by determining that where I want to go is the place where my heart and soul feel free. That is and was the core vision. The mountain is just detail.
Last summer a colleague gave me a necklace with a charm that looks like an upside down crescent moon. It’s the symbol of a longhorn and came with the inscription, “She who has courage is free.” I wear this almost every day. It comforts me. It reminds me that anxiety is not the only one on the bridge. Courage lives there too. It reminds me that even in my weakest state I am also the woman who just traveled solo to climb a mountain in a foreign land. It reminds me that I’ve walked through things that felt impossible and can do so again.
It reminds me that I did not do any of this alone. God in all her forms was with me every step of the way, holding parts of the vision I could not see.
“One and one-half wandering Jews, free to wander wherever they choose. Are traveling together in the Sangre de Christo, The Blood of Christ Mountains, of New Mexico. On the last leg of a journey they started a long time ago. The arc of a love affair. Rainbows in the high desert air. Mountain passes slipping into stone. Hearts and bones. Hearts and bones.” ~ Paul Simon – “Hearts and Bones”
Pilgrimage is an important part of the spiritual life. Pilgrimage is a voyage into trust and letting go. It’s a hope to meet God in a new way. To be present to each step of the way because each step is new. In Celtic spirituality there is a tradition of peregrinatio – “wandering for the love of God.” Peregrinatio is different than a pilgrimage because it is a journey into the unknown without plans or destination.
On Thursday I fly out to New Mexico in answer to a call I have felt for years. My trip is part pilgrimage, part peregrinatio. I have a destination and a few places I’d like to visit and things I’d like to do – the Georgia O’Keefe Museum and the church with the unsupported spiral staircase in Santa Fe, and the mass ascension of hot air balloons at the festival in Taos. I tried to book a horseback riding trip but the season is closed. I signed up for a float down the Rio Grande but it may be too cold. So for a few days I have no set plans.
As someone who likes a little bit of planning, this makes me nervous.
In her book, Soul of a Pilgrim, Christine Valters Paintner writes, “The spiritual journey calls us out into the wild places where God is not tamed and domesticated. We are asked to release our agendas and discover the holy direction for our lives.”
I’m bringing some paper and a travel set of watercolors. My journal and favorite pen are coming along too. And my computer in case I’m inspired to write. Part of this call is creative. I know the Sangre De Christo mountains and surrounding mesas play an important role in my next novel, but I’m not sure how. In my wandering, I will listen and feel and drink in whatever the spirit of the land has to show me.
Two weeks ago I filed for divorce. Now, as I continue to re-create my life, I’m answering this pilgrim call to head out into the wild, untamed yearnings of my soul and listen for the voice of God in a new way. To hear it in my heart and in my bones.
To help honor this journey I will take next week off from the blog. You’ll hear from me again in November. In the meantime, enjoy Autumn, listen for what is calling to you in your own life, and give yourself the gift of response.
Go in Peace.
In the summer of 1996 my then 71-year-old grandmother joined my family on a whitewater rafting trip. We rode the musty school bus up and around narrow mountain roads to get to the put-in. We slathered on sunscreen and strapped on life vests. We climbed into an equally musty raft with another family and a beefy guide who seemed grown up to the teenage me, but was probably only twenty. Twenty-two tops. Together we floated and paddled our way through the four-hour trip on the French Broad River. I don’t know how my grandmother felt about the experience, but to me, she rocked it.
Seventy-one isn’t so old. My parents, gulp, are getting close. A dear student started yoga around that age and then took his grandchildren on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon.
What seemed at the time to be an extraordinary adventure in her life is really just one more example of how Grandma meets life as it is – messy and sometimes exhilarating. She assisted with the resettlement of German scientists during World War II. She raised six boys without much help. After splitting with my grandfather she and the three younger boys moved from New York to California where she became a single mom in every sense of the word. She coached soccer. She worked with technology. She racked up travel credits from getting bumped while flying. Flying to travel, to visit her boys, to attend my dance recitals and plays.
Grandma is one of those gems who celebrates achievement but doesn’t make it a condition for love.
She’s also ornery, stubborn, opinionated and occasionally mean to wait staff. My brother and I were afraid of her when we were kids. In part because she made us eat our fish-sticks and didn’t brook moodiness.
A few weeks ago she had a shower of mini-strokes in both hemispheres of her brain and in her brainstem. The doctors were conservative in their treatment and expectations. Forty-eight hours later a death watch felt imminent.
And then my battle tested Grandmother opened her eyes.
And tracked the faces in the room. And squeezed both hands. And said the names and ages of all six of her sons. Read the time. Said the last few lines of the Lord’s Prayer with mom and dad. Scowled at my dad’s bad jokes.
After touring several rooms on the second floor of Wake Med, she is now recovering at her retirement facility. Her face is bright. Her eyes are clear. Her humor is back. She’s feeding herself – chocolate pudding in particular. She can walk short distances with her walker. She understands everything I tell her about what is new in my life, what fun and exasperating things Cole is doing. We have conversations. And when I leave she says, “I love you.”