Free At Last: Part II

If I had a blog, today I would share some more of my journal from my trip to Ely, Minnesota in the fall of 1998.

September 3, 1998

Sometimes life is just too good. I had the most wonderful, peaceful, relaxing day. I followed my heart instead of my mind. No agenda, no goals, just what felt right at the moment.

I got up at sunrise, then went back to bed. I read and wrote and loafed. I went into town around noon and moseyed in and out of stores, soaking up the rich conversation inside and the glorious fall day outside.

MN Backroad (6) webLater on, I drove to Hegman Lake for an evening paddle and to see the pictographs. The drive out the Echo Trail was beautiful. The sunlight sparkled on Burntside Lake and the aspen leaves danced in the breeze and the colors of red maples and golden birch blazed in the forest.

The portage to Hegman was long, but once on the water, my aching muscles eased with every paddle stroke. Loons called from a secluded inlet and the only sound was my paddle along the gunwale. Coming and going, I met the nicest people and I visited a long time with everyone I met. Some light human interaction is good even for an introvert’s soul.

 

Hegman Lake Pictographs webThe pictographs themselves were fascinating. The Chippewa who made this their home lived here as long as 9,000 years ago and it is estimated that the pictographs were painted 500-1000 years ago. The Native Americans used hematite to dye their paint red, soot for black, and white clay for white. These particular pictographs were red and depict a moose, a wolf or dog and a man-like maymayguayshi figure. They are higher above the water than many other pictographs in the North, the artist sitting on a ledge high above the lake. Archaeologists think this may be why they are of such high quality.

As I sat below these ancient works, I marveled at how many generations of we mere mortals they have seen. What stories they could tell! Tales of voyageurs and trappers, Chippewa and Cree and those like me, who simply come to honor what has gone before. There is something awe inspiring about such things.

The light was fading when I reached the take-out, yet I felt completely unhurried. Somehow, my tendency for speed is tempered here. I walk slower, drive slower, paddle slower, LIVE slower. In so doing, I taste much more of life. I savor the present instead of always rushing ahead into the future. What a lesson to remember and take home with me.

Damp, dirty and blissfully happy, I got home just at moonrise. and the sun’s pale sister called me to linger outside, to join her at the lake. Camera in hand and adrenaline pumping, I headed into the moonlit forest. Images of glittering eyes and low growls made me step lively, but the forest remained dark and silent.

At last I left the trees and the lake lay before me in all her glory. The moon rose high above the trees in a black satin sky and her reflection danced on the water like pale, liquid jewels. A beaver swam through the moon-path, his wake two silver threads. I wanted to fall to my knees in reverence to this wondrous hour. All fears calmed, I stood on the shore a long time, soaking it all in, making memories to carry with me.

At last, filled to the spiritual brim, I turned and started back. Once in the darkness of the trees, I felt a need to travel swiftly and the light from my cabin was a welcoming sight. It felt good to be inside, to bathe and dress for bed and at last settle down with a cup of coffee and my journal.

The loons are calling much tonight, perhaps preparing for their long flight to the sea. Or perhaps, like me, they are simply overcome by the beauty of the moonlight. Amen.

Trust Issues

St. Francis

St. Francis

If I had a blog, today I would write about the reason I struggle with faith.

While I was doing chores this morning, it occurred to me that it might be useful to give you some insight into the reason I am just now getting on board with the concept of faith and the answer is, in some ways, simple: I have long-standing trust issues with God.

I grew up attending the Episcopal church and was exposed to all the basic tenets of Christianity from an early age. I was taught that God was all-seeing and all-powerful and that the basis of our worship was love for Him and for one another. I was comfortable with that for about seven years or, put more succinctly, until my mother started having migraines.

Mom didn’t just have daily headaches. She had crippling pain that came with nausea and vomiting. It incapacitated her for days at a time and frequently ended in a period of hospitalization, all of which terrified me. I was afraid Mom was going to die from the pain and that the center of my universe would collapse, leaving me alone in a life of unending grief.

A Light in Dark Places

A Light in Dark Places

During that time, I prayed for hours each night but the Mom’s headaches still came. It didn’t take long for my pleas to turn to anger and I raged against God. I challenged His existence, begged him for a sign that He was there, and even cursed His name. I expected lightning to strike me down, but even my fury brought no response.

Table in the Wilderness

Table in the Wilderness

As I matured, I began to look for other paths that might lead me to an understanding of The Divine and I found connections in the tenets of Buddhism, Native American spirituality, and eventually in the nature-based worship of pantheists. I didn’t find a solution to Mom’s pain, but I did find comfort in these other paths, in worship that came more naturally to my wilderness-loving soul.

As a young adult, I made several abortive attempts to return to the Christian faith, once going so far as to pursue a career in the priesthood. A disastrous confluence of events derailed that pursuit and left me feeling betrayed; as much by Christians as by their God, and so I left the church behind. This time, I thought, for good.

The Rose Window

The Rose Window

To say I was surprised when I started having synchronicities with a Christian tone (see my blog The Evidence of Things Not Seen), would be a vast understatement. This time I didn’t see it as a call to go rushing back to the church, but rather as The Divine speaking in one of its many voices; a voice that came just as I found myself in need of the gift of faith.

And so it goes. Each day I remind myself that I can put my worries in the care of The Divine and all will go according to plan. My desire is to integrate the concept of faith into my spirituality, which exists outside any one religion. Ironically, the challenge exists not because I am unfamiliar with Christianity, but because I know it well. It is harder to gain new a perspective on the familiar than it is to start anew. I will have to take to heart the words of Margaret Wheatly, in her work A Simpler Way:

Land Ho

Land Ho

“Healing waters will cover the land, giving birth to new life, burying forever the ancient, rusting machines of my past understandings. And on those waters I will set sail to places I now only imagine. There I will be blessed with new visions and new magic. I will feel once again like a creative contributor to this mysterious world. But for now, I wait. An act of faith. Land ho.”

 

The Divine

If I had a blog, today I would write about the reason I don’t refer to The Divine as “God.”

My Altar

My Altar

I am not an atheist. I believe more than ever that behind the thin veneer of our mortal lives exists a divine power; a creator of life and guiding light for those who choose a spiritual path. To Christians this is God, to Muslims it is Allah. Buddhists look to the wisdom of The Buddha and Hindus look to Brahman and his lesser deities. Native Americans worship The Great Spirit (who has different incarnations and names in different tribes) and Pagans worship an entire pantheon, reminiscent of ancient Greece and Rome, that is overseen by both God and Goddess. Who do I worship? That’s an excellent question.

Throughout my life, I have explored many of the world’s “Great Religions” and some smaller sects as well. I have given communion in the Episcopal church, spoken with Navajo Grandmothers, been brought to my knees by the holy drums of the Lakota pow-wow, called The Goddess to my forest altar, and meditated in the way of Buddhist monks. From each experience I have gleaned wisdom, solace, and perspective on my spiritual life and so, I cannot claim one path as the only one for me. When I pray, sometimes I hear the voice of Lakota holy man Black Elk, sometimes I feel the gentle touch of Mother Earth, and yes, sometimes I hear the voice of the Christian God, but I believe they are all different aspects of the same being, one which I can only describe as “The Divine,” “The Powers That Be,” or my “Higher Power.”

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis

This Being, the spirit that flung the galaxies into space,  planted the living seeds that became the inhabitants of planet Earth, and begat our spiritual yearning is one being. One being with many names, many faces, and many voices, each tuned to ring true in the hearts and minds of a thousands of different cultures. Call it what you will, but I believe that those of us who are seeking spiritual wisdom are all worshiping the same great power. In the end, the name by which we call our god is much less important than the belief in a great and benevolent power that watches over us day and night.

Be Still And Know

If I had a blog, today I would write about the sacred nature of silence.

The Lord of Holiness

The Lord of Holiness

The last few days, the message of The Universe has been, “Be still.” I spent two days on a solo retreat in Missouri Wine Country, enjoying the rare privilege of reading, writing, and sitting in quiet contemplation. Originally, I had gone to the little town of Hermann to eagle-watch along the Missouri River, but when I arrived, I knew my trip was to center around restoring my spirit, not adding to my portfolio. I gave in to the urge to rest and in the stillness of those midwinter days, I found new life in the simple act of doing nothing.

Any doubts I had about forsaking my eagle project were erased this morning when I discovered a handsome bald eagle perched in a tree near the barn. I had followed my heart on my retreat and now the eagle had come to me and I knew at once the story I needed to share:

The Eagle wasn’t always the Eagle. The Eagle, before he became the Eagle, was Yucatangee, the Talker. Yucatangee talked and talked. It talked so much it heard only itself. Not the river, not the wind, not even the Wolf. The Raven came and said “The Wolf is hungry. If you stop talking, you’ll hear him. The wind too. And when you hear the wind, you’ll fly.” So he stopped talking. And became its nature, the Eagle. The Eagle soared, and its flight said all it needed to say. (As told by Marilyn Whirlwind on Northern Exposure).

My Bald Eagle

My Bald Eagle

Today the eagle assured me I can trust my heart; that not all needs are met by action. The eagle reminded me that unless I am quiet in body and in spirit I cannot hear the voice of The Divine. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to this when he wrote: There are voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.”  and still more compelling, he admonished, “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.”

Going forward, I will remember to stop, to be still, and to listen, for then I will not have to go in search of Holiness; it will come in search of me.

Where No One Stands Alone

If I had a blog, today I would write about my journey towards faith.

The Rose Window

The Rose Window

Faith is not an easy get. People who as been part of any religion or spiritual path has been confronted by this five-letter word and it seems like a simple one, but throughout the ages, no one has offered a concise definition of the word. Our family is one part Episcopalian and one part Baptist, so growing up, I got a full range of Christian doctrine, all of which admonished me to have faith in God. As I matured, I wanted more that the Sunday-school version of Abraham and Issac to guide me. I wanted to know how I could have the kind of faith that would relieve my constant struggle with fear and give me confidence in the face of life’s uncertainty. I couldn’t find these answers in The Bible, so I widened my search to to include other religions and spiritual paths.

Table in the Wilderness

Table in the Wilderness

I found many uplifting, soul-healing perspectives in the spirituality of Buddhists, Native Americans, Druids, and Pantheists. I drank deeply from the nature-wisdom of Thoreau, Emerson, John Burroughs and Sigurd Olson and had powerful experiences in the wilderness, but I still couldn’t find the key to unlock the concept of faith. I prayed, meditated, journaled, and went on vision quests; joined churches, left churches, and very nearly entered seminary, but with middle-age fast-approaching, my quest seemed to be in vain. Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to crack the code of this mysterious concept. Maybe I was not to be a “person of faith.”

As often happens, I started to find a trail of breadcrumbs soon after my frantic searching ended. Once I decided to accept my “failure,” things began to happen. In July, I was running the farm for two weeks while Mom and Dad were on a horseback-riding trip out west. My first week alone was fantastic. I had energy, creativity, and tons of motivation. I cleaned and organized the storage room in our house, cleaned six months of bedding out of the chicken house and cleaned it stem to stern, and did a deep cleaning of the horse barn. I was on fire. In the midst of my power-surge, synchronicities abounded. The Universe was speaking directly to me, leaving me no doubt that whether you call it God, Yahweh, Allah, The Goddess, Nature, or The Great Spirit, there is a divine being out there somewhere and it knows us as individuals. I was on a spiritual high. Then I came the crash…

Over that first weekend, the Ego, the inner voice that gives rise to my doubts and fears, got the better of me. I can’t say exactly what triggered my fall, but by Saturday evening I had fallen back into my old, fear-laden mind-set and my body responded in kind. It was utter gastric rebellion for thirty-six hours. As soon as I was well enough to contemplate, I tried to uncover the source of my illness. I compared my thoughts and moods over the last week to those of the weekend. Somewhere along the way I lost something, something essential. Late Sunday evening the answer came: I had lost faith. I’d had seven days of trusting The Universe, conversing through signs and dreams in a way that told me, “Whatever happens, you will have the resources you need to meet the situation at hand,” and then I let the Ego take it away. If I could have gotten off the couch, I would have leaped up and shouted, “Eureka!” Not only did I start feeling better, but at last I had a clue to the meaning of faith. I had finally struck gold.

I don’t want to be a zealot who proclaims they’ve been given the secrets of the universe, but I think I have a small piece of the cosmic puzzle: To be a person of faith, you must believe that there is a divine being that knows you as an individual and wants to communicate with you and it is saying, “I’ve got your back.” It doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen, or that you’ll get everything you want, but it is an assurance that when the hard times come, you’ll be given what you need, not only to survive, but to find peace, comfort, and joy in the days that follow.

No One Stands Alone

No One Stands Alone

The synchronicity that finally pulled this together for me was a gospel song that kept coming up on my Pandora radio station. For three days, every time I was in the car, I heard the song Where No One Stands Alone. I was familiar with the song, but had never really listened to the words. When I did, I knew I was on the right path at last.

Once I stood in the night with my head bowed low
In the darkness, as black as could be
And my heart felt alone
And I cried oh Lord
Don’t hide your face from me

Hold my hand all the way
Every hour every day
From here to the grave
I know
Take my hand
Let me stand
Where no one stands alone.

 

Out West Part II: Santa Fe

If I had a blog, today I would write about Santa Fe, the City of Saintly Faith.

Santa Fe

Santa Fe

Mom and I reached Santa Fe around noon on the Summer Solstice. As we traveled deeper into the desert, I felt the land speaking to me in the same voice I hear when I am Up North. It occurred to me that maybe I didn’t have to make a choice between loving the North and loving the desert. Perhaps I had simply found a new branch of the same Sacred Tree. I thought about the raven we saw the day before and about the aspens in the high-country, whose leaves danced like those of the birch and popple around our cabin in Ely, and I felt the a current of spiritual energy running  between these two holy landscapes and I knew I was feeling  The Earth Root, through which all things are connected.

Our first afternoon in Santa Fe, we met one of The Grandmothers, a Navajo woman selling silver guitar picks, each engraved with a story. My brother plays guitar and Mom wanted to buy a special pick for him. “Find one that speaks to you,” said the Grandmother, “and I will tell you its story.”

Spanish Roses

Spanish Roses

Mom chose one with a turtle engraving. “The story of Turtle is one of long life. Not only does Turtle live for many years, he also represents water. which is life for our people.”

The Grandmother motioned for Mom and I to sit down, so we could talk more comfortably. Under the shady latilla canopy, we talked about the suffering of the Earth; the oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the destruction of forests and the extinction of animals to satisfy the greed of humanity. The Grandmother asked what Indian tribes were native to our part of the country and we talked about the Osage and the Early Woodland people who lived in the rocky overhang above our river nearly 1500 years ago. We told her about Old Woman Cave and the pottery shards we found there. She smiled when we told her how we treasured the work of those ancient Mothers and Grandmothers; she was glad we gave them the honor they deserved. As we prepared to leave, we thanked her for her stories, and she thanked us for ours. The song of The Earth Root was as loud and clear as the bells of St. Francis’ Cathedral. In that moment we were not white women and Navajo, but sisters, mothers, daughters, and grandmothers who carry the Song in their hearts.

As evening deepened on the longest day of the year, we drove a few miles east of The Plaza and climbed the winding path up to The Cross of the Martyrs. From the cross, you can

Solstice Sunset

Solstice Sunset

see all of Santa Fe as well as the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains. As we sat in the cool dusk, the sun set over the mountains in a blaze of red and gold, the perfect celebration of the Solstice. We couldn’t imagine a day that could outshine this one, but that was before we went to Chimayo.

To be continued…

 

Out West Part I : Crossing Over

Into the Desert

Into the Desert

If I had a blog, today I would write about the desert. My creative springs have been as dry as the grass here in Missouri. Its typical summer weather: Ungodly hot and droughty. I have trouble staying upbeat this time of the year, but one day, things will change and the rains will find their way home. In the meantime, I thought I would share my thoughts on life in the real desert, a barren, hot landscape that I love: The desert around Santa Fe.

If not for mystery writer Tony Hillerman, I might have missed seeing the desert. I have always been a lover of the North Woods: The cool, dark forests; the sparkling lakes and the chance to make medicine with the raven and the wolf had called me North every year. When Mom suggested we deviate from our usual vacation plans and go to the Southwest, I would have said, “No,” except for Mr. Hillerman. His mysteries that described the world of the Navajo enticed me to see that place, to see if that landscape has something to teach me, something the North did not know.

Cowboy Country

Cowboy Country

Mom and I headed west on June 20, 2007.  Late in the afternoon, we crossed from Oklahoma into Texas and I began to feel the spirit of the land reaching out to me. Before us stretched the great open spaces once known to cowboys and Indians. As a farmer and lover of cows, I have a soft spot in my heart for the cattlemen who drove the great herds across these plains. I plugged in my iPod and played the album, Cool Water, by The Sons of  the Pioneers. Mom and I sang along, “Empty saddles in the old corral, where do you ride tonight?” and “Come and sit by my side if you love me. Do not hasten to bid me adieu, but remember The Red River Valley and the cowboy that loved you so true.” I could almost see the dust raised by the cattle, hear the lowing of cows to their calves, interspersed with the banter of the cowboys as they rode the open range. This was a landscape with stories to tell; a place  of high-adventure and endless drudgery, a land of beginnings and endings, the stage that saw the rise of the American Dream and the last days of the Native American hope. I was full of emotion and we hadn’t even reached the desert. I began to suspect this was going to be more than just a vacation.

First Look at the Desert

First Look at the Desert

As the shadows lengthened, the landscape changed from flat, boundless prairie to gently rolling hills. We upped-and-downed for a number of miles, then, as we came to the top of a rather unremarkable rise, we were suddenly in the desert. Mesas appeared, glowing gold in the evening sun. The grass vanished, replaced by sage brush and cactus. The wind found us there, gusting to sixty miles an hour over the beautiful, barren land.

We stopped at a Wayside Rest near Tucumcari, New Mexico and were greeted by an intrepid raven who, in his search for tasty treats, had staked out the rest area as his own. He faced the rising gale, clinging to the picnic table next to us, croaking like a rusty hinge. I tossed him a couple of crackers with peanut butter and he downed them readily.  I wondered if he knew the ravens that greeted us when we arrived in Ely, Minnesota each fall. It was a comforting synchronicity and it made me think, maybe the desert wasn’t such a foreign place after all.

To Be Continued…

All Day Singin’ and Dinner on the Ground

My Grandad's Homeplace

My Granddad’s Homeplace

If I had a blog, today, Independence Day, I would write about the gift the Founding Fathers gave me when they made Freedom of Religion my inalienable right. I am a religious anomaly: I draw strength from Buddhism, Native American Spirituality, pantheism, my own mystical experiences, and, yes, Southern Gospel Music. People who know my pagan tendencies simply can’t believe my Gospel Favorites have a playlist of their own, next to Celtic Women, Carlos Nakai, and Jimmy Buffet, but they are there – in great abundance. I have the The Blackwood Brothers, the Statler Brothers, The Statesmen, The Cathedrals, The Happy Goodmans, and more than a hundred other singers who have inspired me over the years. I know group personnel the way some people know players on sports teams and I if you give me a subject, I can think of a gospel song to match.

Sunday Morning Meeting-Time

Sunday Morning Meeting-Time

This morning, July 4th, I woke up with “I’m Free Again,” by Reverend Vesphew (Vep) Ellis, and it occurred to me that , more often than not, I have a Southern Gospel song on my mind. Why would a liberal, tree-hugging, neo-pagan know the songs in the Broadman Hymnal front-to-back and listen to Pandora’s Bill & Gloria Gaither gospel station? Well, first of all, how can you feel anything but love for a craft whose artists have names like: Vesphew Ellis, Denver Crumpler, Hovie Lister, and Vestal Goodman? Those are names that demand attention and pique one’s curiosity and they don’t disappoint. The artists who were called to sing this music are good, and true, and full of a kind of  faith rarely found in our cynical world. A kind of faith I desperately need. These songs were originally sung in the little country churches that formed the nucleus of most communities in the early 20th century. The tradition of Southern Gospel music developed as performance music, tailored  to quartet singing, and as “convention songs” that were popular at revivals and singing schools across the South. Often these songs would be the entertainment for an entire day of music and homemade pot-luck, called an, “All Day Singin’ With Dinner on the Ground.”  The music was an eclectic blend of traditional hymns, negro spirituals, country, bluegrass, and a cappella traditions. From the 1920s through the 1950s Southern Gospel music grew to new heights of popularity. Artists toured with full bands, drawing crowds of all denominations and faiths. In the 1990’s, Southern Gospel had a resurgence of popularity thanks to Gospel magnate Bill Gaither, who gave many of the original stars of Southern Gospel a second round of popularity as they reached their golden years.

My Grandmother Ruby as a high-school senior

My Grandmother Ruby as a high-school senior

But why do I love these songs? They speak to my need for comfort and safety in an increasingly unsafe world. Even though I find courage in the drum-beats of a Native American pow-wow, solace in the celebration of Longest Night, and The Divine in the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, there is something familiar about these songs. They are the songs my family has sung since they first settled in the Ozarks. They are the lullabies my mother and grandmother sang to me at bedtime, and the first thing that comes to mind when I’ve lost my way.  Hold me fast, let me stand, In the hollow of Thy hand; Keep me safe ’til the storm passes by. 1     Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home. 2   Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies; Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me. 3

Mom (left) and her Southern Gospel Trio (1990)

Mom (left) and her Southern Gospel Trio (1990)

I am proud to know these songs. In a way, they are the “songs of my people,” a part of my heritage and a part of my spiritual DNA. They live within me and keep alive the pillars of faith who gave them to me as a birthright. I will never be a church-goer or a Bible-pounding fundamentalist, but how lucky am I to live in a country that lets me have it all. I can love my Southern Gospel music, be uplifted by the faith of women like Vestal Goodman, and also revere the words of Lakota Sioux shaman, Black-Elk, search for enlightenment on the Buddhist path, and touch the hand of The Divine beneath the aurora on a lake in the North Woods. Thank you Founding Fathers for giving me Freedom to worship as I choose. You have given me the greatest gift a country can give. Happy Independence Day!