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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.

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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.

flowers and Dayspring 039

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!

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