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Desert Pilgrimage — Arrival

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“What’s the difference between a pilgrimage and a retreat?” I’ve been on spiritual retreats, but have no idea what to expect from a pilgrimage.

Marjory rarely answers a question without giving it a bit of thought, so I’m familiar with the dreamy, unfocused look that comes into her blue eyes, as if she’s pondering some far-off, imaginary mountain range. Except that today she’s gazing at an actual mountain range that I can see, too.

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Pedernal Mountain

I wait.

Marjory is the closest thing I’ve found to a personal spiritual director, and I’m glad to have a day with her before the rest of the group arrives for our eight-day desert pilgrimage. We’ve just finished a more-than-adequate lunch and are sitting at a splintery picnic table outside the dining hall at Ghost Ranch in the red rock canyonlands of northern New Mexico.

“Usually on pilgrimage you go away someplace,” she says at last. “You put yourself in a different context. A retreat is more like a Sabbath for rest and reflection, where you just step back from life for a breather. But it takes work to go on a pilgrimage, and it’s for a long enough time that you can expect to come away changed.”

Under New Management

Her answer intrigues me, but it also unnerves me. Generally when I take a weekend retreat, I have some intention or agenda, a question or a difficulty or a request for God’s help. In other words, I feel I have some control.

That’s not the case here at Ghost Ranch. As I journaled this morning, I had trouble identifying a goal for this trip:

I do not know what I want from this trip. I would like this to be a time when I can simply “repent” — become willing to change, willing to think of myself differently. I just want to be open to what God has for me now. It is hard to let go of “control,” to surrender the notion that this is my life to plan and direct. Of course it is in one sense, but I never know when I’ll crash to the floor and break my arm, or when my brother will go nuts and die, or when the funding for my job will end. I don’t always get to dictate who or what comes into my life. I have a lot of choices, though, and perhaps this is what I’m aiming for — being open to seeking and choosing God’s way every time. But here I am, trying to manage my experience on pilgrimage, to dictate outcome. I will leave it all open for the Spirit to work, to open my eyes, mind, and heart.

Coming to Center

After lunch, I walk the dusty path to the labyrinth, strolling slowly beneath red and ochre sandstone cliffs, stopping often to catch my breath and slow my racing heart as my body tries to adjust to the altitude.

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People have walked labyrinths for thousands of years in search of spiritual centeredness. My church in Maryland has one, and I walk it often, sometimes receiving clarity about a particular question, sometimes receiving a deep sense of peace, sometimes receiving nothing except the knowledge that I am seeking God.

Today the Ghost Ranch labyrinth seems decorated for spring, with tiny purple and yellow flowers lining the rock pathways. I enter and begin circling, turning inward and outward, round and round, trying to empty my head of the chattering thoughts that followed me from the east coast.

Ghost Ranch Labyrinth

Ghost Ranch Labyrinth

A raven’s call echoes off the canyon wall. I stop to watch the black shape circling its own invisible labyrinth against the layered cliffs. The towering rock face reminds me of human flesh, with striations of variegated red muscle and yellow fat and purple arteries. Living rock.

I feel this desert landscape is breathing, and I’m breathing with it. I have a sense of grounded love and feel more than hear the words, “You are doing just fine, Mel.”

I go back to circling.

Day one.

Lessons From the Fall: Saying Yes

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The woman walked slowly across the parking lot, clearly not caring that her wrinkled blue scrubs were getting soaked with rain. She seemed bone tired, like she had just come off a twenty-four hour shift. Still, when she saw me wrangling a grocery cart with my left hand, trying not to involve my broken and braced right arm in the maneuvering, she didn’t hesitate.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

I looked her straight in her tired eyes and said, “Yes.”

This may not sound like much to you, but I think I felt the sidewalk tremble under my feet. You see, I never, ever answer yes to that question.

I haven’t completely figured out where my inability to accept help comes from, despite discussing this with my therapist numerous times. I am independent to a fault — there’s a fierceness to it that’s not healthy.

Back off, I got this!

Back off, I got this!

My therapist suggests that growing up in an alcoholic home meant I did not get what I needed, and so I learned to fend for myself and stopped asking for help. Maybe.

Or it could be in my blood.

My dad was a Texan, and I was taught that having Texan ancestry meant I could do anything I put my mind to. By myself. (The Alamo and all that.) Then there’s the British blood from Mom’s side, which signals my psyche that any sign of “weakness” is cause for embarrassment.

Somewhere I picked up the notion that there’s shame in needing help . . . that I should be able to do everything by myself and that there must be something fundamentally flawed in me if I can’t.

My discomfort may also be left over from olden days, when my self-esteem was nonexistent. I couldn’t believe anybody would truly want to help me, worthless as I was. Perhaps at some level I’m afraid if I “trouble” someone to help me, they might not like me — ah, those hobgoblins of old.

Do you find it hard to accept help, or am I alone in my neurosis here? If you can relate, have you ever wondered why you are like that? It doesn’t make sense to me — we are communal creatures, biologically made to thrive in help-groups.

Funny thing is, I like helping people. It makes me happy. So why would I withhold that pleasure from others? Maybe it was my imagination, but I think that the tired woman in the blue scrubs was walking with a little spring in her step after she helped me to my car.

Lesson number two from my fall: practice saying yes once in a while.

Related: You can find lesson number one about the illusion of control at this link.

Lessons From the Fall: The Illusion of Control

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Here I sit reading a book, sipping green tea, without a thing on my absolutely-must-do list for days to come. And man, am I pissed about it. Why? Because I did not choose this lazy afternoon; it chose me.

For reasons that I hope will one day become clear, the Universal Narrative decided it might be a fun plot twist for me to fracture the shoulder of my right, dominant arm.

I am typing this with the index finger of my left hand, so it will be short.

This was to have been a week of house cleaning. I have friends coming from Florida next week to help celebrate my sixtieth birthday, and I wanted to at least clear a path through the clutter in my house so they could visit. In fact, it was a well-placed vacuum cleaner cord that led to my fall in the hallway last week. (I’m not used to the thing being out of the closet.)

There is to be a party, which involves chairs and food platters and coolers, none of which I can move.

There is my planned pilgrimage to New Mexico, less than two weeks away, which will involve yoga and pottery wheels and body prayer, none of which I can do.

There is taking a shower, brushing my teeth, putting on my socks, opening a can of soup, fastening my seatbelt — everything is a challenge now.

All of these things, I thought I controlled. I do not. I never did. All our ideas of control are an illusion. This is why there are so many angry people in the world — they have not yet surrendered to this truth.

When it’s time for a plot twist, all you can do is trust that there’s a larger story going on and that your present circumstance will contribute to your personal growth.You turn the page and keep reading from a new perspective.

Lesson number one: I am not in control. Stay tuned.

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An Easter Message from the Great Beyond

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God-believer or not, you have to admit this story is cool. If you’ve been following our hero (me), you will know that I have been going through difficult life transitions in recent years, having lost my mother and my brother and now preparing to separate for good from my growing-up house.

The Search

So I’m over at the empty house the other day, looking behind doors, toeing the dust piles in the corners and opening closets for the twentieth time, looking for . . . what? At some level, I think I’m looking for my brother or my childhood or some cosmic connection to all I’ve lost.

Being a God-person, I pray: “God, I know this is silly, but can you just give me something — anything? Some comfort. Something to show me I’m not alone here.”

Then I chuckle at my “oh ye of little faith” moment. I know God’s with me; “fear not” and all that stuff. Isn’t that enough?

The Attic

I decide to go up to the attic for the last time in my life. I didn’t go up there before I paid the professionals to clear out the house — too many childhood toys and games and rock collections and moldy stuffed animals that I do not need in my rapidly dwindling fifties. Better I not even see them.

I stoop but bang my head on the eaves anyway, as I always have. The little crescent window where my mother showed me my first baby birds when I was five is now so crammed with old nesting material that almost no light gets in.

Marauding squirrels have apparently broken through the barrier of concrete blocks and old license plates I erected several years ago, and there’s Pepto-Bismol-pink insulation scattered everywhere. Otherwise, the attic is empty.

“Anything?” I say to God again. “A scrap of paper?” (For real. I said that.)

And then I see a scrap of paper. It’s peeking out from under a tuft of insulation. I don’t want to pick it up because I don’t want to be disappointed, but I do anyway.

It’s folded about two inches square, a delicate tatter with a faded floral print. I open it carefully, and here’s what I read:

“To a very dear little daughter — hoping that this Eastertide marks the beginning of the happiness her sweet unselfishness should bring her — Mom”

Might I remind you that this is Easter week.

The writing is my grandmother’s. My mother saved this precious piece of paper her whole life.

And now it is made even more precious, as the Easter message of sacrificial love, joy, and freedom passes on to another generation.

Easter Tidings From Beyond

Easter Tidings From Beyond

Easter blessings, my friends!

Leaving Home and Legacy

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I’ve been thinking a lot about dying lately. Maybe not so much dying as just not being here anymore.

This week I will be signing the papers that will detach me from the house I grew up in, the homey, red brick colonial that my family has owned since 1958. It is more than the end of an era; it is the end of *all* my eras so far. Although I’ve lived in my current home for twenty-seven years — way longer than I lived in my family home — somehow that house has always been “home.” Where’s home now?

Home

Home

At the same time, I am preparing to turn sixty years old in a few short weeks. This preparation mostly entails drinking more than is good for me more often than is good for me (perhaps trying to feel like I’m in my twenties again?) and frequently shaking my head and saying “I can’t believe this,” or “How did this happen?”

I’m crying a lot, missing my brother and my mom and even my father, who died forty years ago this May. It’s letting go of the house that’s stirring up the memories.

At any rate, these happenstances have brought to my attention the likelihood that I will die at some point. I knew this, of course, I think I just know it more now. What will be left when I am no more?

What Lasts?

A few weeks ago, we had a Lenten Quiet Day at my church where we spent time in prayer and reflection and meditation. One of the Hebrew scriptures that we used for meditation was Psalm 139, which reads in part, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

I got to thinking about that word “everlasting.” What is everlasting? For someone like me with no kids, no DNA spread about, what of me is everlasting?

I used to think that my legacy was wrapped up in the National Parks and forests and rivers that I helped protect for posterity when I was Public Lands Director at Sierra Club. But those aren’t everlasting. Even if they survive America’s insatiable need to drill, mine, and chop down every last cotton-pickin’ acre of wildlands, they will still be dust eventually.

So no everlasting legacy there. Nope.

I also used to see a trace of legacy in my role as chair of the pastor search process that released my friend Brian McLaren from pastoring the church he founded, so that he could be a full-time author and international speaker spreading a gospel of love and justice — at least a small flickering candle against the darkness of the judgmental, hate-preaching juggernaut that many people think of as “Christianity” and from which they understandably flee.

But Jesus didn’t come to establish a “religion,” and he doesn’t need Brian McLaren to save him, and Brian didn’t need me to save him either. Ten years has put this in perspective. I’m glad to have helped Brian and our church out, but God is God, and is likely by turns divinely amused and annoyed by the way humans represent Her/Him/Is/I AM.

True Home

So what truly is everlasting? Only love. Only the Spirit of Love that passes from one to another to another for all time and into eternity. And I believe what Jesus’s friend John wrote two thousand years ago: God is love. That’s where “home” is, always was, and always will be.

So let me not waste time, God. Let me not waste time clinging to brick and mortar or searching for meaning or significance in things that don’t last. Let me dwell only on the love in my past, and let me love well in the time I have left. 

Related post: https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/hope-or-hostility-in-a-multi-faith-world/

Peppermint Stick, Please

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I had peppermint stick ice cream on Sunday, two scoops with warm fudge sauce. You have to grab it when you can get it, because only a select few establishments serve peppermint stick. Not peppermint, peppermint stick, with little pieces of pink and green candy in it.

I was with some friends at Seibel’s restaurant, an old family-run business in Spencerville, Maryland. They serve meatloaf and mashed potatoes and open-faced turkey sandwiches and creamed spinach with bacon. The vegetarian options are limited (no veggie burgers or California wraps here), but believe it or not, the potato and sauerkraut croquettes with sweet and sour sauce were quite tasty, and I was completely sated. 

But Seibel’s makes their own ice cream and they only occasionally offer peppermint stick, so there was no question of passing it up.

I’m not an ice cream fan in general, only peppermint stick. I’m also not generally a WordPress Daily Prompt fan because I’m not focused enough to finish a blog post in one day, and I’m usually not passionate about the prompt ideas. But when today’s prompt asked “Vanilla, Chocolate, or something else entirely?” my passion was aroused (in an ice cream kind of way).

The ice cream I had on Sunday was good, not great. There weren’t nearly enough candy chips in it. You need to be able to tuck all the candy bits into the inside of your cheek so that at the end you have a big sticky ball of candy to suck on.

Worse yet, Seibel’s has no marshmallow topping. And it goes without saying that marshmallow topping is de rigueur for peppermint stick ice cream.

Marshmallows in all forms, including the swarm of Easter Peeps that has descended upon our grocery stores, is the one chink in my holier-than-thou vegetarian armor. I just can’t resist the horse hooves that make up the gelatin that makes up that fluffy white stuff.

And a digression — did you know that the original marshmallows were made from the tuber root of the marshmallow plant? That’s where they got their name. I learned that in my college Marsh and Dune Vegetation class, which if you said it real fast sounded like Martian Dune Vegetation and always made us laugh, especially when we had been inhaling a certain type of burning vegetation. Hey, it was college.  (OK, that was multiple digressions, but they were short.)

The very best peppermint ice cream I know of is served at The Piazza in Keene, New Hampshire. It’s best eaten when surrounded by four excited grand nieces and nephews. I get a large cup of it, smothered in extra marshmallow sauce. To. Die. For. (Do people still say that?)

Coincidentally, the place I discovered this pink bliss at the age of ten was also in Keene, New Hampshire at a now defunct ice cream parlor called Mackenzie’s where my family used to go when we visited my grandmother, Beedie.

Beedie loved Mackenzie’s and always suggested we go there “for the children.” It was one of the few places I saw her really relaxed, surrounded by her grandchildren and daintily picking at the whipped cream on her sundae. Beedie was not relaxed by nature. In the first place, she was British. She also saw “some things” growing up in South Africa — her little cousin was murdered by Zulus and she was never allowed outside alone again — and she lost her first child in its infancy and her husband in an awful ship fire at sea and her family money to her late husband’s brother’s schemes.

Beedie was a stiff upper lipped, soldiering on type of woman, except when she was at Mackenzie’s. There she became her child-self again. I don’t remember if her favorite was peppermint stick, but I like to think it was, and I like to think of her slipping peppermint chips into her cheek and sucking on her wad of candy — surreptitiously, of course, because a proper British lady would never do such a thing.

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From a long line of ice cream lovers: my nephew Jeff and his son Josh

Waiting For The Muse

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I was talking to a fellow blogger at a party the other night.

“I just don’t want to be one of those people who blogs about how they have nothing to blog about,” she said. We sipped our Merlot, then caught each other’s guilty glances over our wine glasses and dissolved into laughter because we had both recently done exactly that.

I blame winter. It was long and it was dreadful and it was cold and it was dark. How can one be expected to write under those circumstances? My creativity has been buried under two feet of snow, and the pipes to my well of inspiration froze solid months ago.

Sometimes when I feel at a loss, I pull out excerpts from my journal and — for reasons not clear to me — my readers seem to enjoy that. I may have to resort to journal snippets later this week, although my journal entries have mostly been complaints about the weather.

I’ve had a little fun with stream-of-consciousness word games, just rambling blogs about fun words like ignominious and ratiocination. I thought about doing one on the word perfidiousness, but decided that perfidiousness was too unpleasant to write about, and besides, someone could sue me for defamation of character if I got too specific about their “deceit, deliberate faithlessness, and treachery.”

The days are getting longer, and the robins are singing their spring songs. It was in the sixties yesterday. And — I know you’ve been waiting for an update  — I finally took down my Christmas tree last week. For Lent. So things are looking up, I think. I may actually produce something worth reading sometime soon. For now, I just wanted to say, “Hi, I’m still here; I still think about you guys.”

Welcome to my newest followers, and I’m sorry if this is the first post you’re receiving. I’m not usually like this. Usually.

Last week

Last week

 

 

 

This week!

This week!

 

 

 

 

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