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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.

To Try

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I try. I’ve always tried. When I was a kid, I tried to be good, I tried to be smart, I tried to keep the peace in our house. Kids think the world revolves around them (you may also know adults who did not outgrow this) so they try extra hard to control things, especially in an unpredictable alcoholic household.

I’ve always tried to avoid conflict. It reminds me of the dinner table when I was growing up, where I couldn’t understand my father’s tirades or my mother’s silence in the face of family chaos. I tried to be invisible so as not to become the target of paternal wrath or sibling ridicule.

When I was a teenager, I tried to belong; I tried to be the cutest and the coolest; I tried to act like I didn’t care. I tried to end the Vietnam war.

As a young adult, I tried. I tried everything. I tried to see how many drugs I could take without passing out or going bankrupt and how much tequila I could drink and still drive home. I tried to see how many boyfriends I could run through.

Thankfully, grace abounds.

As an older adult, I tried to get ahead in my career as an environmental lobbyist, and I tried to be a good mentor and manager. I tried to make members of Congress vote against the polluting industries that funded their campaigns. You see how well that worked out.

Trying to Save My Sanity

When I was young, I tried to save my father from the bottle, but he died at fifty-eight. In recent years, I tried to save my brother from mental illness and heart failure. That didn’t work either. He passed away in December.

Nowadays I try really hard. I try to work through my grief. I try to “let go and let God,” to surrender my illusions of control and accept what is. I think I finally get that I can’t control anything except myself, and that’s where I need to focus my trying.

I try to manage my time better. Because I know that life is short and getting shorter with every breath, I try to spend time with safe people doing things I enjoy. I spend quality time alone with God, whether that means journaling, meditating, or being out in nature.

I try not to try so hard, and I remember to schedule time for having fun. I just bought a djembe drum!

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So my trying is a constant, though the object of my effort evolves. Now I’m trying to learn to play the drum.

There are a few constants: I will always try to avoid math whenever possible. I will always try to be grateful. And I will always try to change the world; I think I’m hard-wired for that. That’s not trying to control, it’s trying to hope. I’ll be marching in the streets as long as I can, trying to end endless wars and trying to get action on climate change and trying to promote justice.

Because you have to try.

Trying

Trying

♦ ♦ ♦

Thanks to WordPress for today’s Daily Prompt: “Verbal Confirmation: To be, to have, to think, to move — which of these verbs is the one you feel most connected to? Or is there another verb that characterizes you better?”   http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/verbal-confirmation/

Why Not Get Your Hopes Up?

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“Don’t get your hopes up.” The inner voice pounced immediately, barely a heartbeat after my actual voice had said, “Wow, this could work out.”

Negativity is not my natural inclination, yet this mind-battle of the voices has been waging as long as I can remember. I wasn’t conscious of it for most of my life, but now I recognize it, and I can call it out and say, “Hey, wait a minute, voice — who are you? And WHY shouldn’t I get my hopes up?”

The answer comes easily. It’s Mom’s voice, and the reason I shouldn’t get my hopes up is that I “might be disappointed.” Mom’s cautionary remark and its corollary “Don’t get your heart set on it” were meant to protect me, but really — what an awful mindset to convey to a kid!

Give up, Kiddo.

Give up, Kiddo.

Sins of the Past Visited Upon the Present

How disappointing my mother’s life must have been to cause her to consistently quell passion in herself and her children. She gave up her dream of being a soprano (a singer, not a mobster) and instead married an alcoholic and struggled emotionally and financially for the rest of her life. I’m not saying she was miserable, she wasn’t. Just disappointed.

Once I asked her why she didn’t leave Daddy when the drinking got bad, and she said how much she loved him and then added, “Where would I have gone? I had no skills, I hadn’t worked since World War II, and I had you three children.”

Good answer.

I suspect that her mother — my grandmother — had a similar experience in her marriage, and on top of that, she lost her first child as a toddler. Then her husband died in a horrific fire at sea when her four kids were teenagers. So I imagine that she also frequently advised her children not to get their hopes up. Mom inherited the inner voice, just as I did.

My mother always said I was much braver than she was, going out into the world and going after the education and the career I wanted. But I wasn’t really. I was just as fearful as she was.

I believe in God, though, and Mom didn’t. I believe in some sort of divine plan, and I sense that I’m a part of it. That makes a huge difference to how you feel when you’re stepping out into the fog of the unknown.

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Nothing Good Ever Happens to Me

Having hope seems like a risky thing. It’s easier to expect the worst. Then you’re not disappointed. Also, if you have no hope, you don’t have to take responsibility for your life. You don’t have to try: you are a victim. See? Easy.

But is it really easier?

The belief that underlies “not getting your hopes up” is that nothing good is going to happen. There’s probably an element of “I’m not worthy, not good enough” involved, and perhaps a touch of depression or acedia. That certainly runs in my family.

So is it true that nothing good ever happens in life? Of course not. It usually comes down to our attitudes. I’ve heard it said that difference between an ordeal and an adventure is your attitude. Trite, but often true.

Over time, doesn’t the hopeless approach — the fatalistic attitude, the worry and dread, the boredom of not taking risks — wear you down as much as a whole boatload of disappointments might?

You Have to Dive In to Catch a Good Wave

Why not run into the ocean and try to catch the Big Wave? Sure, you might get knocked down and get a pile of sand in your bathing suit — but you might get an exihilirating ride! Either way, you are fully participating in life.

Jump in!

Jump in!

Jesus said that he came so that we could have life, and have it to the full. I believe that. We’re not meant to shrink from our passions. The Bible says that if we align ourselves with God’s plan, God will give us the desires of our hearts. I try to believe that, too.

Part of me knows that my  dreams and passions come from God — they are unique gifts that She means for me to share with others. When I view challenges and transitions as part of God’s plan for me to use and expand those gifts, my struggles often result in “immeasurably more than all I could ask or imagine,” as the Bible describes it. 

And yet I still have trouble trusting that God wants the best for me. It’s these dang voices.

No Regrets

When I get to the end of my life, I don’t think I’m going to regret the things at which I didn’t excel, or even those things that I totally messed up. I think I will regret the things I didn’t pursue, the times when fear conquered hope.

They say that courage is just fear that has said its prayers. So, God, please help me out here, OK? You deal with the hopeless voices of my mother and my grandmother. You can have them; I don’t need them anymore. I’m ready to get my hopes up and catch a good ride.

Speaking of good rides, happy two-year anniversary to my little blog!! Thanks for coming along for the ride.

The Work of Rest

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My neighbor stood at my back door in his usual state: bare torso sweaty, blue jeans dirty, and straw hat terminally tattered. Despite his appearance, a sweet, fresh aroma entered with him when I opened the screen door, as if he had just been rolling around in his herb garden.

Van held out a carton of eggs and a paper bag spilling over with yellow squash, cucumbers, parsley, and basil. Before I could thank him, he proudly announced what he knew would be an even more welcome gift. “I just bought a brush hog!” he said with a grin.

“Oh my gosh!” I squealed. I knew he was looking for an effusive response, but I was also sincerely  thrilled because my hay fields are going to be forest very soon if I can’t find someone to mow them.

“I’m going to start on my fields tomorrow, and then we can see about yours,” he said. “And you gotta come down and see the solar shower I just rigged up from the rain barrels. Don’t worry, it has a curtain.”

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The Industrious Nature

Like a lot of folks up here in New Hampshire, my neighbor Van rarely sits still. He’s up before his rooster crows, feeding chickens, weeding the garden, or transplanting bee balm and lilies around his Rest Easy Pet Cemetery down the lane from my place. He hammers a lot, building fences and sheds and such. I think this industrious nature may be in the blood — many generations of chopping mountains of wood to fend off the severe winters and farming dawn to dusk during the short growing season.

It’s not that citizens of the Granite State are frenetic like the people in D.C. where I live most of the year. They know how to relax. People in rural New Hampshire work hard five or six days a week, but they don’t work much past five o’clock. On the weekends they go to ice cream socials and sidewalk sales, and they actually stroll in the park (without phones glued to their heads). The bars and businesses in town close early, and then everyone goes to bed at nine or nine-thirty so they can be up at dawn.

So it was with a tone of confession that I answered Van’s query of what I’d been up to: “I’ve really done nothing since I’ve been here.” I smiled apologetically.

“Well, isn’t nothing what you’re supposed to be doing?” I love Van.

“Well, I better get a move on; got to get the chickens in,” he said as he headed for the door.

Re-Imagining Work

What exactly am I supposed to be doing? Is this it? Then why do I feel guilty and ashamed? This was my plan for the summer: a month of cleaning out my family’s house in D.C., then a month resting and writing up here — back and forth each month and catching the fall colors both places.

Yet somehow I feel I should be “working.” I haven’t even been writing much, except for some bad poetry I wrote while sitting by the beaver pond.

Perhaps what I’m doing can be re-imagined as work?

Inspiration for some bad poetry

Inspiration for some bad poetry

The Writer at Work

I feel slovenly when I spend an afternoon reading fiction, but they say that writers should read incessantly — it is part of our work. I’ve finished almost three books in the short time I’ve been here — Keri Hulme’s The Bone People; Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (awesome); and an Agatha Christie mystery, Cards on the Table.

I say I’ve hardly written, but I’ve actually filled more than twenty-five pages in my journal and covered ten pages of a spiral notebook with random bits of blogs, essays, and poems.

Spiritual Work

Much of my writing has also been spiritual work. I came up here with a specific goal for myself: to examine and pray about some of the character flaws I’d like to have God remove — anxiety, contempt, a need for recognition, and envy. (The latter is an insidious little bugger — I’ve only recently realized I have it!) If you’re interested in my navel gazing about some of these flaws, scroll down to my last post.

I am making an effort to get back to my favorite form of meditation, Centering Prayer, which is seriously hard work because it entails trying to surrender everything in your brain to God, becoming nothing but a vessel for love.

My walks in the woods can be considered spiritual work since most of my wandering is spent in reflection, and they are also a workout for my body. So is my occasional thrashing around on the floor in front of a Rodney Yee yoga video.

A Working Chef

Cooking! Surely that counts as work, although it’s fun and something I usually take significant time for only when I’m on vacation. Summer is abundant here, and I never miss the farmer’s market.

Summer Abundance

Summer Abundance

I’ve made gazpacho, fresh corn salad, potato and lentil stew, cabbage and pasta with garlic, tomatoes stuffed with eggplant curry (dreadful), and nearly daily caprese salads with perfect local tomatoes and basil from my backyard.

Does building up the compost pile count as work?

Shucking corn is hard work!

Shucking corn is hard work!

Working Dreams

While we’re pushing the boundaries here, how about dreaming? I’ve heard of “dream work.” I decided to stop setting the alarm because I’ve been waking up anxious, something that happened after my mother passed away and which returned after my brother’s death. I don’t think I understood the psychic cost of keeping the phone by my bed every night for seven years in case my mother or my brother had a crisis or was dying. No wonder I wake up anxious!

After I nixed the alarm, I slept eleven hours several nights straight and had intense and involved dreams of my mother and my brother. The subconscious at work . . .

What I’m Supposed to Be Doing

The work of rest. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

Partners in my work - Mayasika and Eliza Bean

Partners in my work — Mayasika and Eliza Bean

Rest is essential to health and creativity.

After my mother died, I went on a retreat about calling and vocation — I thought I had to get busy since my caregiving role had ended. (Little did I know I would become my brother’s caregiver for the next six years.) On that retreat, I learned that restful healing is a calling in itself. I just forget sometimes.

I will not talk about the work of grieving, that goes without saying. It is what I do these days. Except to say that part of grief work is learning to have fun again. Saturday I went to a party and met a bunch of interesting folks and laughed a lot. On the way home, I stopped at the fairgrounds and watched the town’s end-of-summer fireworks.

I am where I’m supposed to be.

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A Rant at God with a (Borrowed) Redemptive Message

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This post had been relegated to the “failed drafts” folder, for having no redeeming qualities and managing to sound pissy despite being toned down more than once, when who should walk into my living room and say, “whoa, stop, you should publish that” than my favorite author Anne Lamott!?

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Here’s Anne Lamott giving me profound advice.

That’s not precisely how it happened, but it felt like that. What actually happened was that Anne published a blog post similar in energy and tone to this one, except that it’s beautifully written and ends on a somewhat redemptive note.

So in a cheap writerly turnabout, I’m going to append Anne’s post to this one and call the whole thing a plus for the universal karma.

Even if it is essentially just a rant at God. Anne’s kind of bitching at God, too, which makes it acceptable. I don’t like taking this tone with God, but it’s all I’ve got right now. Besides, the Psalms are full of “godly” people throwing out angry questions like:

“Why is life like this, God?” 

“What’s it take to get your attention down here?”

“Hello, how much do we have to put up with before you see our plight?”

“Is this any way to run a world??”

So I’m joining the ranks of ranters. If you’re depressed, please don’t read this. It won’t help.

Dear God:

Things are bad. Really, really bad. And I’m thinking it’s time for you to fix it. 

I’m confused about the plan, God.

It’s my understanding that we all have a spark of the Divine within us, and it’s our job in life to dismantle the inner obstacles that keep us from channeling Pure You — goodness and love and the like. That’s one of the ways you reveal yourself in the world: through the people you created. I like this part of the plan.

We need to intentionally connect with you so that we have the desire and power to fix what we’ve screwed up here. OK, I’m game. And I’m certain that you are right here in this mess, accompanying us and offering to help us clean things up.

And thanks for that. But — from my humble vantage point, this plan is not working. 

I don't know which one bothers me more -- the one spewing hateful fire, or the one who thinks this is just TOO fun! Photo: Dallas Morning News

Which is more offensive? The one spewing hate or the one who thinks this is just TOO much fun? Photo: Dallas Morning News

We’re a Mess

Maybe I’m just having a bad day; I’ve been having a lot of them lately. But I don’t think it’s only me. Three friends have recently said these exact words to me: “I can barely function.” 

These are praying people, trying to channel God, but instead they seem to have tapped into the spirit of Eeyore. Should we just put extra-strength anti-depressants in the water supply and be done with it? 

Woe is Me

Woe is Me

As a friend said the other day, “I don’t know what’s going on — it seems like everyone’s walking around under a dark cloud.”

Yeah – and we’re a bunch of relatively well-off suburbanites doing our gardening and going to the gym and paying the gas bill. We don’t live in the frickin’ Gaza Strip; our daughters weren’t kidnapped by extremists in Nigeria, nor were our families on the Malaysian airliner recently blown out of the sky. Or any of the other planes that have been falling out of the sky of late.

This Rant Precipitated By…

World events did not bring on this rant, though they may have contributed.

Here’s what put me over the edge:

I stopped to give my condolences to my neighbor J who had just returned from North Carolina where she was cleaning out the beach house of her recently deceased partner. Who as you know, God, randomly fell and hit his head and died. Just like that. Did that have to happen — right after J’s surgery and during her radiation treatment for breast cancer? 

Anyway, I was helping her carry things from the car and she told me she had just had an accident on the beltway. “It isn’t the accident that’s got me shaken, it was the other woman. She had the foulest mouth of anyone I’ve ever met.” 

You have to picture my neighbor J — First of all, she’s clearly a cancer patient; she’s bald. She’s very pale. I don’t think she hits five feet, even with her little pink sunhat perched on her bald head. She somehow reminds me of a rabbit — timid and watchful, always sniffing the wind and ready to bolt. 

Here’s what the other woman on the beltway said to her: “F&&%%CK YOU! Look what you did to my car! YOU F$@*CKING BI#%^CH! My fifty-thousand-dollar Mercedes! I’m going to get you for this, you F%&$CKING BI#%^CH! I’m going to get you!”

“She didn’t just say it once, she said it about fifty times,” said J, looking dazed. “She gave me her insurance card, but when I tried to copy it down, she snatched it back and started screaming, ‘I’m going to get you, bi*^%ch!’” Then the woman drove off.

I told J that the woman was clearly unbalanced, and to try to let it go and simply call the police to report the accident. 

“I think she had some anger issues,” ventured J. 

I Am Not Amused, God

Who would do that, God? Mentally unbalanced or not, the madwoman in the Mercedes functions well enough to have a good job and make good money. Can’t she afford a therapist? How can she walk around like that, an infected open wound gushing venom on little old ladies with cancer?

I won’t even start on mental illness, God, because you know how angry I am about that, regularly haranguing you about my brother’s descent into darkness and death. I probably sound a bit like the Mercedes Madwoman myself as I grumpily tackle the gloomy task of cleaning out his hoarder-house. But at least I’m not inflicting my temper tantrums on anyone but you.

Is There a Plan B?

What about the young woman I know who just slashed her wrists with the lid of a can? And my sweet, intelligent young friend who is stuck in a religious cult?

Why are so many people so sick? Aren’t you going to do something about this? Why are we killing each other all the time? Why did you make us like this? I know that you want us to choose differently, to be the loving and lovely people you made us to be. But we don’t seem to be doing that.

So excuse my impertinence, God, but don’t you have a Plan B? Are we *really* the hope of the world? 

Thanks for bearing with me, readers. And now for that promised redemption. Here’s Anne Lamott:

https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/524013137728334

Wild Goose Part Two: Mud, Music, and Exploding-Head Syndrome

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The giggling girl seemed to speak for all assembled at the Wild Goose Festival as she splashed barefoot up to the sunshine-yellow popcorn tent. “A little rain doesn’t have to spoil a good celebration!” she said to the long-haired, bearded young man in the tent. He laughed and handed her a popcorn bag almost as big as her umbrella. Shoving their hands deep into the bag and trailing yellow kernels behind them, she and her friend headed off in the direction of some electronic thumping that might have been music.

All Smiles

All Smiles

On the first day of the recent Wild Goose celebration of faith, justice, music, and the arts in Hot Springs, North Carolina, everyone tried to stay dry during the periodic rainstorms, darting under tents or escaping into one of the few pubs and restaurants in town.

On the second day, we all flailed around with umbrellas and tarps for a while and then gave ourselves over to the rain. Everyone was drenched and laughing, and the kids were up to their knees in mud puddles. It was Woodstock redux, except there were no drugs, people kept (most of) their clothes on, and we did not come close to running out of food.

The food and drink tents were surrounded by throngs of wet people — sweaty when they weren’t rain-soaked — day and night. You could have popcorn for breakfast, french toast for dinner, and Yerba Mate energy drink any time of the day or night. The beer pavilion was ground zero during the daily thunderstorms and the nightly Beer & Hymns gathering.

Music floated over the campground from 8 a.m. until midnight, from the main stage and from several huge tents that pulsated with drumming, electric guitars, and electronic new age recordings accompanied by lava lamps the size of giant popcorn bags.

A special shout-out to the Carnival tent, which produced power for its musical performances with bicycle-generated electricity!

Pedal power!

Pedal power!

Tie-dye tees, temporary tattoos, and sparkly hair implants were popular draws, and the smell of vanilla and rosemary aromatherapy oils mixed with heavy smoke from many damp campfires.

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Serious Pursuits

But Wild Goose wasn’t all fun & frolicking in the mud.

One of the biggest attractions for this largely intellectual crowd was the book tent, stacked high with hundreds of titles like Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God and How to Be a Christian without Going to Church. The biggest seller was We Make the Road by Walking: A Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Action, by Wild Goose perennial favorite, Brian McLaren.

Lining the muddy lanes that ran through the campsite were dozens of informational tents and tables, some colorful and bold: WHO WOULD JESUS TORTURE? and others nondescript and looking rather lonely: explore your calling to seminary. 

There was less heavy theology-talk this year than last, and more passionate justice-talk. Food justice, job justice, racial justice, sexual justice, LGBT justice.

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Although this year’s crowd was more multicultural than in years past, reflecting a serious effort by the organizers “to be culturally accessible to an ever broadening audience,” the crowd was still largely white. Baby steps.

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Reverend William Barber, founder of North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” protests

Someone with Attention Deficit Disorder (me) might suffer from exploding-head syndrome after a few days at Wild Goose. So much was happening that they had to print two separate programs to fit it all in — more than one hundred pages of small print. At any given moment, you could be down by the river doing yoga or art therapy or a writing workshop, or under one of a dozen tents learning about white privilege, the death penalty, or post traumatic church syndrome.

Each night I would peruse the schedule for the following day and dutifully wield my red pen, and each afternoon I would throw up my hands and simply wander from presentation to presentation sipping my Yerba Mate. A lot of people were doing this, sampling a bit of this and a snip of that and finally settling down to a panel discussion or a few sets of music.

In one tent, this young lady explained to me that if I spun the wheel, I could find a new image of God for myself:

Spin the wheel to find your image of God!

Spin the wheel to find your image of God!

Here’s what the wheel came up with for me — not bad: a wise old woman. Her nose was not on fire, by the way, it’s just a lousy picture.

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On one of my wandering afternoons, I came across this amazing fellow who wrote poetry for passersby.

Poetry on Demand by Eddie Cabbage

Poetry on Demand by Eddie Cabbage

I gave Eddie Cabbage five bucks and a theme, and he produced this sweet piece in five minutes:

Loss/Grief/Redemption:

The heart broken

The eyes holding

oceans of tears

The emotion spilling

and the sorrow

a tipping rain

The long road home

The dreams and the wisdom

found when the

wounds begin

to heal

The strength and the power

Inspiration to carry on

The scars now just

flesh tattoos

of a hardship

you came

shining through

Eddie’s offering alone was worth  my trip to Wild Goose this year. See more photos and read more about the festival in part one of this post. Won’t you join us next June?

Don’t Miss the Parade!

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Want to Know My Dream?

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The question makes me laugh: “You just inherited a dilapidated, crumbling-down grand mansion in the countryside — what do you do with it?” As it turns out, this is not a theoretical question for me. Today’s WordPress Daily Prompt is, in fact, a reality in my life.

All except the second part of the prompt, “Assuming money is no issue…” That part is definitely theoretical. Oh, and the part about it being a grand mansion. That’s not exactly true either.

What is true is that I have inherited the loveliest piece of real estate on the planet, named Quiet Hills by my grandmother Beedie who purchased the place in 1940. The old (1782) Cape Cod in the countryside of New Hampshire could probably be described as somewhat dilapidated, but I don’t see it that way. 

Quiet Hills

Quiet Hills

Because of the money issue, I don’t spend time dreaming of what it might become, I just enjoy it for what it is: a wildlife sanctuary of woods and meadows and a quaint house full of ghosts and massive old furniture, which I imagine house servants slathering with beeswax back in the day. It smells of lavender and witch hazel and my grandmother’s face powder. 

On still nights, I can hear the Ashuelot River rushing over boulders at the foot of the hill. The Hermit Thrush announces the setting of the sun, and the Great Horned Owl welcomes the falling of darkness. I can’t say what happens at dawn because that’s not my thing. I always stay up too late reading Beedie’s musty old novels to see the dawn.

But . . . but — what if I had money?

A Writer’s Haven

No question. Quiet Hills would be a retreat house for writers and nature lovers and spiritual seekers. I’d give classes in writing techniques and in contemplative spiritual practices like Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina (sacred reading). 

We would have silent retreats, too, and I’d have someone teach yoga  and tai chi. I’d set up nature trails on the property with prayer prompts along the way, and build a prayer labyrinth with benches and weeping birch trees around the edges. People would frequently have life-changing spiritual epiphanies there.

Prayer labyrinth

Prayer labyrinth

I’d run a bed & breakfast for my retreatants, and every morning my helper would get up early and make a humongous country breakfast. Our speciality would be blueberry muffins with berries from our fields and fresh butter from two dairy cows who roam the meadows and come into the old coach house for milking. And eggs, too, from my chickens who eat the pests in the vegetable garden where lush tomato vines are heavy with warm fruit and the aroma of sweet basil is overpowering. There would be no meat in our meals, and no one would miss it.

Eggs, not meat

Eggs, not meat

I’d fix up the massive barn; one end would be a huge picture window overlooking the woods — that’s where we would hold workshops, and there would be sleeping quarters in the lofts above. In the corners of the barn I’d have mounds of brightly colored handmade quilts for people to snuggle into each autumn and to spread out in the meadows for writing and naps in the summer. 

I’d get custom-made windows for the main house, and insulation, so I could be there in the winters, too. I’d build a big stone hearth and fireplace in the living room where the small wood-burning stove is now, and expand the kitchen to fit several long tables where people could eat together. Why not put a fireplace in the kitchen, too? And a big bay window with lots of hummingbird feeders just outside. Everyone would marvel at the constant comings and goings of the hovering jewels.

I’d have all new (but vintage) wallpaper and curtains and oriental rugs, and wall-to-ceiling bookcases in every room, because after all, this is a writer’s retreat. I’d have lots of bathrooms, and instead of the dug wells that run dry in August, there would be an artesian well sunk deep into cold, underground springs. There would be a jacuzzi. 

Best of all, Quiet Hills B&B retreat house would be free for those who couldn’t afford my already reasonable rates. Money should be no hindrance to dreams.

And that, WordPress Daily Prompt, is what I would do with my dilapidated inheritance if I had money. Now – please tell me that this is actually a contest, and I win, and the prize is that you’re going to fund my dream. 

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Wild Goose Part One – Celebration & Sexuality

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My head swirls with images of sweaty hippies swaying inside a drumming circle, tattooed youth dancing beneath rainbow banners, and a parade of body-painted, trumpet-blowing, cymbal-crashing celebrants on their way to . . . church.

Just another hum-drum Christian weekend at the Wild Goose Festival, a “gathering at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and the arts” in Hot Springs, North Carolina.

At the entrance to the festival, a poem by Mary Oliver

At the entrance to the festival, a poem by Mary Oliver

I’ll be writing more about the festival, I’m sure. It just takes some time to process the dozens of workshops and performances, everything from Mindful Sexuality to What Queers Bring to the Church to White Privilege.

This year’s theme was Living Liberation, and the gathering was most definitely liberated, much to the chagrin of the handful of demonstrators outside the gathering, half-heartedly waving signs saying things like REPENT. I felt kind of sorry for them — they had to act all sad and serious while thousands of joyful Christians celebrated Jesus right across the street. 

We invited the demonstrators in, but they declined. We were respectful — a couple of Wild Goosers brought them water and food and even held their signs when nature called the protestors away from their posts.

The REPENT people didn’t like the gay and lesbian Christians amongst us.

Why not celebrate who you are?

Why not celebrate who you are?

My heart broke for one protestor named Will who said that he used to be gay but he was fixed now. Oh. My. God. How confusing and upsetting for him to see all these free Jesus-loving souls celebrating the way they were made while he waved his little sign, unable to “live life to the full,” as Jesus called us to do. 

But here I go, writing about the Goose. I didn’t mean to get into it, I just wanted to share a few photos for fun. More to come.

Saturday night "Beer and Hymns"

Saturday night “Beer and Hymns” tent

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Sunday morning celebrations

 

Who doesn't love a parade?

Who doesn’t love a parade?

 

Wrong Turns: Hold the Map Loosely

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One of the nice things about getting older, at least for me, is that I don’t get lost anymore. I may occasionally feel lost, but I know I’m not truly lost. 

This weekend, I was driving the winding roads of western North Carolina with two friends in my car, returning from four days at the Wild Goose Music Festival in Hot Springs. Nothing looked familiar, and I realized Suzanne was taking us home a different way than we had come. 

There was a lot of map rustling and Siri debating as we approached a crossroads, and I felt tense because I sensed my friends were getting tense. We might get lost! We might BE lost and not even know it!

“Is that going to be a slow and winding road?” 

“That’s not the way we came!” 

“Does that get us to the interstate faster?”

“Make a U-turn; let’s ask at that gas station!”

Thing is, I knew that both roads would get us where we needed to be. I wasn’t sure which was most direct, or whether people might laugh at me for choosing a silly route, but I knew that technically, I wasn’t lost. 

Spiritual Navigation 

My circuitous spiritual journey has taught me a bit about navigation. Mostly, not to panic.

Wandering Path

Wandering Path

Here are some things I’ve learned about getting literally and metaphorically “lost” in life.

  • You can see beautiful things and meet interesting people on the side roads of life, the roads you didn’t plan to take. The unplanned vistas and visits are often the most memorable.
  • Sometimes the slower roads are the better ones. You can absorb your surroundings and appreciate the present moment when you eschew the interstate and tootle along with your foot propped up on the dashboard (yes, I drive like that) and a Starbucks soy chai latte in your hand. You see real people sitting on their porches, not shadowy heads behind a windshield.
  • When you’re off-course, ask for assistance. This allows other people to help you, which makes them feel good and boosts your belief in ultimate goodness. We’re all on this trip together.
  • Choose your traveling companions and the soundtrack of your trip carefully. Choose people who laugh easily and don’t take themselves or the journey too seriously. Choose to listen to the positive and the upbeat in the universe, not to the critical voices in your head or to the negativity and nonsense polluting our culture.
  • Hold the map loosely. There is more than one way to get where you need to be. Someone else’s route might not be best for you. As long as you’re facing the right direction (when all else fails, look for the sun; look to the light), you are going to arrive at your destination.
  • Rest assured that things will work out in the end. You’ll get where you need to be if you pay attention. Even at the ultimate end of the journey — the one we usually deny and try to avoid at all costs — it’s all going to be OK. We are safe. There’s a cosmic navigator driving this space ship. Relax.

 You Can’t Get There From Here

When I read the WordPress Daily Post writing challenge asking us to write about the last time we got lost, the first thing that popped into my head was a riff from Firesign Theatre. Unless you are of a certain age, you won’t remember this hysterical stream-of-consciousness comedy group from the late sixties/early seventies. Some of us had their albums memorized. If you like Monty Python, try to dig up some Firesign.

Firesign Theatre

Firesign Theatre

I share this because I think it enhances my points above, but also because it’s ridiculous and I couldn’t help it:

NICK DANGER: Hey, pop!

POP: All right, hold your horses.

NICK: Where am I?

POP: (pause) You can’t get there from here.

NICK: But I’m looking for the Same Old Place.

POP: Ohhh! You must mean the old Same place! It’s right out back, sonny. Here’s the key.

— From the album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?

Some Questions For You

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One of the blessings of pretending to be retired is having the time for reflection. Last week, I went on a silent retreat at Dayspring, a rustic spiritual retreat center not far from my home. There were no epiphanies or mystical visions, but I did have a restful day of walking, reading, and writing.

My meditative moments often produce more questions than answers, so I thought I’d pose a few for you, too — kind of a mini-retreat. Why not pretend to be retired for the moment, and pause to rest and contemplate some of life’s questions?

First, take a few deep breaths and quiet your mind. Relax. The world won’t stop spinning if you take a ten-minute break.

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Now – what interferes with your serenity these days? What’s causing you anxiety or stress? Are you worried about the past or the future, instead of enjoying this gift of today? Are there dark corners of your mind that need to be swept clean or old resentments that need to be scooped out and dumped in the dust bin? I’ve heard it said that holding on to resentment is like drinking poison every day and waiting for the other person to die.

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Where’s the color in your life?

 

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What fills your spirit with joy and celebration? Can you devote more time to these pursuits and these people? Are you laughing enough?

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CELEBRATE!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do you cultivate peace in your life? Could you be more intentional about it?

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Do you ever give yourself the gift of doing nothing? Does “doing nothing” make you anxious? If so, why? Are you avoiding emotions?

 

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Are there parts of yourself that you have locked away? Gated communities in your soul that block the scenery of your life? What are you keeping in? What are you keeping out?

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Are there fires that have grown cold? Things that used to warm your soul or ignite your passions but that no longer do? Is it time to scatter the ashes and move on, or could the embers be fanned back into flame with some attention from you?

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Why not “come away by yourself to a lonely place,” as Jesus said, and plan a quiet day to seek perspective on your life? To step back and look for patterns in the seemingly random twists and turns? Perhaps the boulders you keep stumbling over have lessons to teach you — maybe they are an important part of your journey.

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 Go ahead – sit on a bench and watch the morning go by.

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Spend the afternoon with a good book.

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 Most of all, enjoy the simple things.

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