Doing My Homework

After this long winter of isolation, when my church offered a class on spiritual exploration, I jumped at the chance. Who knew there would be actual…homework? I haven’t done homework in years. The first assignment was to write a spiritual autobiography documenting our personal religious journey. These we would share together in class. Yikes!

Writing an autobiography of any kind would have been easier if I had taken notes along the way.  As it is, my memories are written on post-it notes, scraps of yellowing paper, and captured in photographs without location or dates…all stuffed in boxes, tucked between the pages of books, left unattended in old suitcases, and scattered across the top of my desk.  To truly make sense of all this ephemera would take much longer than the time allotted for the assigned task, but perhaps I can begin by sorting the debris into stacks and piles.

Gathering the bits together, I realized that I have forgotten a great deal of my life. That realization caused me to feel embarrassed and somehow lacking until I recalled the words of the Irish priest and poet John O’Donahue. “I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”  I think that is pretty much how I’ve lived my life… simply being carried along by the current, paddling hard through the rapids and around the rocks, enjoying the sun on my face when drifting on the quiet water, and approaching each new bend with curiosity, wonder, and courage…as well as a wee bit of trepidation and hesitancy. I haven’t spent a great deal of time looking back at the water that carried me.

The Chippewa River…Sylvan’s Solace
October 2020

Creating a lifeline and guessing where I am on it reminded me of when a new woman was invited to join Book Babes, my Vermont book club. She said that she’d like to ask three questions to get to know us.   All of them were unusual for getting acquainted questions, and I’ve forgotten two of them, but the third stuck with me.  She asked each of us in turn how long we wanted to live.  I replied that I wanted to live until I died.  My answer was in no way intended to be cheeky or flip. As I age, I realize that It’s not the length of life that concerns me. It is the loss of meaning, purpose, and joy that worries me. On the other hand, my definition of meaning, purpose, and joy are also constantly evolving.  I have had the example of women who lived…and are living…wonderful active lives well into their nineties, but I have also seen my grandmother disappear into Alzheimer’s. Yes, I definitely want quality…but then… quantity would be nice too.

There are a finite number of marbles in my jar…just so many big trips and grand adventures left.  I’m angry that the pandemic has robbed me of some of those cat-eyes and clearies…places I wanted to go and plans I wanted to make…but in some sense, living through a pandemic is a pretty big shooter as marbles go…a once in a century adventure… just not one I would have chosen.

An Unknown Number of Marbles in The Jar
Photo credit: Pixabay

 “I was going to decide whether I had a marble-worthy day based on how I felt, not based on what I did…I want to approach my time moving forward with an infinite mindset. I want to “feel” supported, loved, seen and I want to depend on my circle of truth-tellers who I’ve chosen to be there for me.”

Maria Shriver, Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper

Even with so many pieces of my spiritual journey misplaced, lost, and forgotten, I am finding the task of condensing it to a manageable size without resorting to an “and then” story very challenging.  Deciding what…or how much…I want to share is also part of the process. Then, too, as I continue my sorting, I discover with very few exceptions…people, places, and events don’t fit easily into a single category.  Most of them overlap, very few stand-alone.  The same people and places keep appearing, transforming, and reappearing. So, I continue to sort and re-sort then sort again.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

African Proverb

As I modify and alter the collection of souvenirs and guidebooks from my spiritual journey, a pattern emerges.  Throughout my entire life, I have been supported, shaped, and influenced by my relationship with people…my parents, my siblings, my husband, my children, my teachers, my long-time friends, my new friends, and even momentary connections with strangers. Together we have shared deep discussions about life, spirituality, and ethics, as well as the going rate for the tooth fairy, which way the toilet paper should hang, and jokes on the level of a Fifth-grade boy.  We have held each other in times of loss and pain and spent hours just sitting side by side in silence.

These people have joined me in my travels too. Together we have stood in awe in the mountains of Sedona, been lost inside St Basil’s Cathedral, slept in a wee cottage on the shore of Loch Fyne, watched a storm brew in the Atlantic Ocean, emerged from a 5000-year-old burial mound at Newgrange, and enjoyed countless hours in a darkened theatre in Ontario. Each experience has revealed another facet of what I recognize as sacred and divine. Through my relationships, I have understood, found meaning, and been blessed by these revelations.

“A good friend listens to your adventures. Your best friend makes them with you.”

Unknown

As I stuff all the bits and pieces back in the containers from which I gathered them, it occurs to me that perhaps we write an autobiography not so much for others as for ourselves. Through writing, we give voice to what we already know. I may leave out the twists and turns in the telling, but my path has led me to the perfect destination…the realization that human connection and traveling are spiritual practices. Talking with friends, being with my sisters, planning short jaunts and long trips are no longer inessential distractions or rewards. They are necessary, important, and sacred—what a delightful surprise.

“Do you know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? Anchor chains, airplane motors, and train whistles.”

George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

Of course, during this pandemic, those were the most difficult things for us to do…travel and be with others, yet we are resilient. We have discovered ways to connect and share our lives without being physically close. We read maps, make plans, and create itineraries for future adventures even as we explore new ways to make meaning and find purpose from our living rooms, dens, and kitchens. And so, the journey continues, and isn’t that an adventure in itself?

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Rumi

I completed my assignment with time to spare. It was then I remembered the second part…the additional task…write your own epitaph. If one day you stumble across a slab of granite with this one carved into it…you’ll know that it’s me.

“I told you I was sick”

Cemetery on Elm Street, Montpelier, VT

There Are Bears on the Way to The Promised Land

I have seen the Promised Land, but contrary to the milk and honey advertised in the brochure, I found a land of maple syrup, early fall foliage, and lots of mask-wearing people, but I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Camel’s Hump from Charlotte

For months…after following all the guidelines, wearing a mask, keeping social distance, and having very minimal contact with others…I still debated whether I could or should make the trip from Michigan to Vermont during this pandemic. I missed my family and the anticipated isolation of winter was looming on the horizon but was it sensible, wise, or even safe to do?

“Sometimes you have to go through the wilderness before you get to the Promised Land.”

John Bytheway

One Sunday in late August, during a sermon on courage, my minister, Rev. Andrew Franz, shared the analogy of meeting a bear in the woods. “Fearing the bear in front of you compels you to choose action. Fearing a bear that might or might not be there in the bushes is not a useful emotion, ” he said. ” Fear of the abstract is not useful. It is debilitating”.

In September 2016, Dave and I visited Glacier National Park. Before the trip, my sister, Penny, gave me lots of instructions and admonitions about meeting bears on the trail. Since Dave wasn’t able to hike much farther than the parking lot, any hiking I was going to do I’d have to do alone, so I paid close attention.

One afternoon, I began a short hike to a waterfall. In less than fifty yards, I came to a sign reporting bears in the area. A little farther on, I came to a second posted alert. Perhaps, I thought, the prudent course would be to heed these warnings. I hesitated momentarily and then turned around. As I retraced my steps, I got a glimpse through the trees and down the mountain at the trail I would have taken. Hiking together in pairs and trios were several other people. Certainly, they were making enough noise to intimidate any bear. I could have done the hike and seen the falls if I hadn’t been worried about the bear that might have been in the bushes.

The Water is Really Low on The North Branch

On the other hand…if there had been a bear…I’m pretty sure I’d have been the tasty morsel who couldn’t outrun the other hikers. Realizing how temptingly delicious I’d have been…maybe I made the right decision. Then again? Bottom line…I missed the view.

Was I letting the may-be-bear get in the way of my Vermont decision?

“Often any decision, even the wrong decision, is better than no decision.”

Ben Horowitz

“You do seem to perseverate on things, you know”, my sister said. “No kidding, I thought, but it was clear that it was time for me to get out the map or put the suitcase back in the closet.

OK…I’d make the trip.

Suddenly There Was Crimson

I began the preparations needed to comply with the requirements for travelers to Vermont. If I drove my own vehicle…stopping only for gas, food, to use the restroom, and short rest breaks… I could quarantine for two weeks in my own home as opposed to two weeks in isolation after arrival by plane. I rearranged appointments and reluctantly canceled all opportunities involving possible human contact and began to psych myself up for the drive.

The route through Canada is very familiar having done it innumerable times …easy peasy…but due to the high number of infections in the US, the Canadians aren’t allowing Americans in…not even to simply transit through. I know. I called. I wanted to say that I’m Justin Trudeau’s cousin…10th cousin, twice removed…but I doubted the no-nonsense woman at the other end would have been impressed. I’d just have to go south to go north.

With These Green Hills, the Vermont State Song, playing on a loop in my head, I left my house at 2:30 a.m. to avoid major construction near Toledo and to miss morning traffic around Cleveland and Buffalo, besides I like driving on the highway in the dark, and frankly, once I made the decision to go, I was like a horse heading for the barn. I couldn’t wait.

These Green Mountains…The State Song of Vermont

Crossing the Crown Point Bridge into Vermont I felt a surge of emotions that I cannot adequately describe or define. After just fifteen hours I had arrived once again in my spirit’s home. These green hills and silver waters will always be my home wherever I live, but it was the people of this ‘brave little state’ that were pulling me back. My children, grandchildren, and so many dear friends live within her borders. It made me sad to think that COVID would keep me from most of my friends and my proximity to their unsharable hugs was painful, but I would cherish the memories of the ‘before time’ and look forward to when we would be together again in the ‘after time’.

Vermont is a glorious place, but…along with moose, woodchuck, and beaver…Vermont has bears.

Along the Path

Many years ago, Dave and I were in Alaska where we hiked in Denali National Park. Granted we only did laps in the parking lot of the Visitor Center, but…hey…I’m counting it. During our laps, we became aware of for-real-hikers who were checking-in at the ranger station to document that they were setting off on an adventure or to report that they were safely returning. It was easy to recognize these people by the bear bells around their ankles and cans of bear spray hanging from their belts or backpacks. Whether the bells actually work is disputed, but those hikers were doing all they could to be ready to discourage any bears that they might encounter. The bells, the spray, and the bear-sighting board at the registration counter provided the hikers the information they needed to weigh the risks and prepared them for the hike.

The level of risk regarding COVID in Vermont is very low. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that Vermont could serve a model for the country, but reminded Vermonters to keep vigilant. Vermonters listened.

Showing Our Love By Wearing Masks

During my brief stay, everyone I saw was wearing a mask or social distancing outside. Small children, old men, high school soccer players…everyone, without exception…was masked-up. On hiking trails, people wore masks or signaled to those approaching that they would move a reasonable distance off the trails to keep each other safe. The few stores I entered had sanitation stations set up just inside their doors. The number of shoppers was limited and enforced. I’m sure there are maskless Vermonters, but I didn’t see any. It appeared to be…as I expected…a matter of course that we’d all wear masks; we’d all take care of each other. I was warmed by the deep sense of connection I had with all those…strangers…who were wearing masks to help keep me safe. Vermont isn’t actually Utopia. It has its faults, but I certainly felt as if I’d seen The Promised Land. A glimpse of life as it once was…the possibility of what it could be.

The compassionate mask-wearing and rule-following nameless Vermonters allowed me to be with my family and others I loved after being isolated for months. I knew, that I’d have to preserve the blessings of the simple pleasures I was enjoying, remembering and holding them in my heart, keeping them ready to sustain me through the coming months ahead so I paid close attention to the way my grandson’s tiny hand fit into mine and the weight of my granddaughter’s head on my shoulder and the smell of her hair. I memorized the way it felt to share a smile and a laugh with my daughter and the warmth of my son’s skin through his shirt as we shared a single quick hug. I delighted in the opportunity to ride in my little car…masks on and windows slightly open…as my teenaged granddaughter learned to drive. I recorded upon my heart the voices of my family and the few friends within my small COVID restricted circle. I bottled the joy, contentment, and renewal of this adventure keeping it ready to add to my cocoa…or…wine…and sip slowly on a cold winter night.

I know that somewhere a bear still lumbers among the trees and bushes…but…maybe he’s simply munching berries or settling in for a long winter nap.