And so I return, the days of retreat, then embrace, gone far too quickly into my past. Yet it is as it needed to be. I have gained much by going into the deepest silence of solitude, and I will hold that wonder that I found with me in the coming days. My heartfelt gratitude to the warm hearts that hold the gates of GilChrist open to us who need it. You are a blessing to many of us that pass those gates and emerge again, changed.
This is my journal of those days at GilChrist. I thought to proof it, revise it, clean up the mess and make it a fine thing, dressed for company, as a writer inevitably does … but then thought better of it. This retreat was not a time of perfection, after all. It was a time of accepting myself and my life as far, far less than perfect. And embracing it nonetheless. For the blessing that precisely imperfection brings and perfection only denies us. It is our crying out to God that we cannot do it alone, after all, and that we need Him to edit.
Take it then for what it is: the random scribbling of a few days of quiet wonder.
GILCHRIST – Sept 2, 2008
The Retreat and the Embrace
“I have no reason anymore
to be other than I am.”
How can so little be enough? How can I have lived so long with less than this? For Jeremiah is all that I need, all. A small place in the woods. Windows open to the green. A table, a chair, a small bed, no more than a cot. And that tiny hummingbird that just flitted by my window. Yet on first stepping in to the little house called Jeremiah, I felt enveloped in luxury. Why would I ever want more? The sweet silence. The summer light flowing in. The faint ticking of the ceiling fan, turning high overhead.
It is far more than I expected. The hardwood floors, cool under bare feet. The quilt on the bed, folded back, and two pillows. The cabin is centered by a red brick fireplace, the kitchen – a refrigerator, a compact stove, oak cupboards to the right as I walk in. To my left, the pine table with a basket of colored pencils and a green glass lamp. In the corner, a second chair, tiny, almost like a child’s, painted green wood, and beside that, another large window, a low table, perhaps a little more than two feet in width, with a green pad and round green pillow before it as a meditation space. On the table: a candle, a two-toned gray stone, a shell, a striped feather, a dried milk pod. And in a frame, this text:
In this small hut
In this small hut
are worlds beyond number
living here alone
I have endless company
already I have
attained the essence
how could I dare
to want something higher
Then, a floor lamp with a green and white plaid shade, set beside a forest green futon that serves as comfortable reading chair facing inward and directly the brick fireplace. On the other side of the futon is a small bench. A few steps more, the little bed and nightstand, on which someone has left a glass vase of wildflowers—lavender, orange, yellow daisies. The bed has a headboard that is a bookshelf, and on that, another small lamp for reading at night before sleep.
Rounding the perimeter of this space, at the foot of the bed, is a door to a small screened back porch looking out into the forest. A wicker chair, table, and candles along the windowsill are in this space. Back inside, continuing clockwise, the bathroom, surprisingly luxurious. Shower and bath, towels each inscribed: “Jeremiah.” In the closet there, a box of logs for the fireplace. Just outside of the bathroom is a dresser, and in its drawers—crayons, great pads of paper, a jar of soap bubbles, pastels, paintbrushes, watercolors. In another drawer, linens and extra blankets for the bed. As I continue around the room, I return by the backside of the fireplace into the kitchen again.
I need nothing more. Ever.
It is but a few hours since my arrival, and already I think my blood pulses more slowly. I drove in this morning twittering and jittery with excitement and eagerness to embrace my retreat.
Coming up the gravel drive between the trees and into the sun, the caretaker’s house was to the right, and John soon came out to greet me. With him, Samantha.
But a few hours later, Samantha shares my bed. Such is the open heart of a dog. The sweet little mutt, mostly black with brown rippling, some mix between beagle and maybe a touch of dachshund, has in a dog blink decided that we are old friends.
Showing me where to park my car, John took my luggage into his golf cart and gave me the grand tour. Samantha with her pudgy low belly and ears flapping, trots alongside us. She has not left my side since, though John is long gone.
My luggage, I apologize for it, too much, but John merely smiles. His long wavy white hair bespeaks years of experience that have done their part, I can tell, to regulate proper priorities. He questions nothing. My heaviest duffel bag is loaded down with a small library of books. My retreat, after all, is intended to embrace my love of the literary arts. There is Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, Rainer Maria Rilke, Joyce Carol Oates, many journals and notebooks and sketchpads with a tin of graphic pencils, several issues of Poets & Writers, also issues of Poetry. There are my father’s and my mother’s diaries from the Second World War, carefully bundled, entrusted to me. There is a leather bound bible. There is my laptop, blessedly without an Internet connection here, to serve only as writing tool.
Other bags hold groceries: milk, pasta, rice, a loaf of bread, butter, olive oil, a jar of strawberry preserves and a jar of peanut butter, a round of sausage, a box of green tea, a pound of Kona coffee, a box of granola, a can of baked beans, four small squares of dark chocolate, garlic salt, a brick of Muenster cheese, half a pound of potatoes, chicken bouillon, and a bottle of red wine. I am ever so pleased when I find in the kitchen shelves and drawers all else that I could possibly need. Even the corkscrew that I had forgotten. At the front gate, John had shown me the garden and invited me to return at any time and gather whatever I might need. There are sun ripened tomatoes, yellow squash and zucchini, round watermelons and cantaloupes, even corn growing in rows. And herbs. Samantha waddles between the rows of vegetables pointing out its bounty to me.
What more can I possibly need?
I had been told that when people first come here—they sleep. I am amused at this. Not me. I am too eager to get all that I can from my too short stay. Already I am aware of the ticking away of precious time. And yet, soon after John has delivered me to Jeremiah in the woods, Samantha decidedly staying behind to keep me company, I fall into the little bed. And it is just right. I do not know how long I sleep. I refuse to look at the clock, whose tiny ticking face I have turned to the wall.
Sometime after dinner ...
One fawn nibbles at a tuft of grass, no more than 25 or 30 feet from my window. The other fawn wanders back along the path, but the doe walks on her dainty little hooves along the gravel path leading to my cabin, to Jeremiah, carefree and unworried about her two children. It is safe here. I feel it, too.
After Samantha and I napped this afternoon, and she all snuggled cozy and spooning against me, smelling of the forest, I got too curious to stay put, despite the heat of the day. I, who despise heat, am completely intolerant of it, realize I could well live comfortably without air conditioning on a 90 degree day in this space. Those who know me, how I melt and wither away in the steam of summer, will crow, what? No! But the little house stays remarkably cool, as all my windows are shut, the ceiling fan whirring overhead. I even contemplate trying out the fireplace tonight—it’s that cool—but decide to leave that for later in the week, when the temps will indeed fall a bit.
I brave the heat. Samantha hops off the bed to follow me as soon as she sees me stuff my hair under my Santa Fe straw hat. I put my sunglasses on, grab one of my recyclable Meijer’s tote bags, now emptied of groceries, and head down the path to the garden. Samantha dawdles, finding some living something, some invisible critter, apparently hiding under a slanted rock in front of Jeremiah. She whines, digs with one paw, digs with the other, circles, yelps. I wait a moment, laughing at her antics, but then continue on my way. As soon as I emerge from the woods onto the path that borders a large meadow, the sun slams down on me. But I am that content today. I don’t mind. My hat pulled low over my eyes, I hike to the garden, first going uphill, then turning left, away from Windhill, the meditation chapel on top of the hill that John showed me earlier. I will explore that further perhaps tomorrow.
The garden is surrounded by a graying old wood fence. The gate creaks when I push it open. I am a girl in a candy store, choosing the roundest melon, snapping off two large corn cobs, picking through the pale yellow squash for two perfect ones. Handfuls of yellow and red cherry tomatoes, a bit of lettuce, sugar snap peas and green beans go into my tote. And a large red chili, biggest I’ve ever seen. Two green peppers, and I’m set. My tote bag is heavy, but my heart is light.
After delivering my bounty to my little kitchen, I head back out again—this time across the meadow toward a little stone chimney rising beyond the hill. John drove me by earlier in his golf cart, explaining it was a little stone chapel a woman had built here for worship. I will have to find out more of that story, but I head over now on a grassy path winding through the meadow, until I am over the rise and see just on the other side a wooden chair set in the shade of a tree, gardens surrounded by stones with bursts of color flowering everywhere. The tiny chapel looks like a hobbit house. I sit in the shade for a moment to take it all in. But I have yet to fully slow down here. My heart still beats a fast rhythm. I am every moment driven, eager to see around the next corner, wanting adventure. I sit but for a moment before popping out of the chair to peek inside the hobbit house… chapel. I have to duck to enter the curved wooden door. It is all stone, large stones, all shapes, and inside the floor too is of stone tile, one wooden bench to either side. Tiny octagonal windows allow a bit of light inside from either side, but the far wall has candles set upon the stones wherever they jut out. I wonder who lit them, because, aside from John, I have seen no one here. I find more candles in a basket on the floor, wooden matches, and I light another and place it on a jut of rock.
And then I sit. Sit. Still. Resisting the urge to move, to get up, explore, touch. No. Sit. Help me slow down, Lord, I whisper. Help me let go. Show me what it is that I am supposed to learn here. I want to find my way again.
The prayer is short, even as a tall candle with Jesus on it, his bleeding heart glowing in the middle of his chest, watches me in silence. I am up, walking along the walls, pressing my palms to the shapes of the rocks. This one, that one. My hand longs for the feel of rock, wood, earth, plant. I mold my hands to the rocks of the chapel, feeling for a pulse, and I am almost sure I feel one.
Back toward Jeremiah, but again I pass the little house by. The path winds further, around a bend, and I want to see where it leads. Around the bend is the first other person I have met here today, aside from caretaker John. The sun bright behind her, I can only see a silhouette of a young woman approaching, then pausing for me to near.
Hello, I reply, and we stand facing each other and smiling. We talk for a while. She is Laura from Chicago, a chaplain who works in a hospice, a pretty young woman. A bit burned out, she says, smiling. Needed a moment to … retreat. I tell her why I am here. Retreat and embrace, I say, and she nods. I tell her that I am a writer, that I write business words all day, but I wish to find my art words again. She nods, says quietly, I wish you to find them, and we pass each other and continue each on our own way.
I see paths this way, that, toward meadow, into woods. I choose the woods again, and as soon as I enter the shade of the trees, I catch my breath. Three deer. No doubt the same family this moment outside my window. Doe and two fawns, and they leap as light as air and are gone. I follow them, a little more slowly now, my heart jittery with joy, and come back up on my own little hobbit house, this time from the back.
A quick shower, I shimmy into a light little summer dress, and I pad around my new home humming.
Dinner, then. I wash my vegetables and set them out on the counter, choosing which ones I will have for tonight. Contentment seeps through me. There is something about picking fresh vegetables, something about cleaning and preparing them, something about preparing a meal, lighting candles, pouring a glass of wine at end of a sweet day. And watching deer play as I finish my meal.
Why, I wonder, do we so complicate and clutter up our lives? When joy is such a simple thing.
Approaches already evening. I have not been driven to write today. I came here to write, I thought, but no. I came here to let go. To submit. And to do so fully, I am discovering, is not quite yet to write, or perhaps at all … I don’t know. I am now only trying to listen. To open and take in.
My pace has already slowed. Indeed, as I had expected, this is a process, and this is a time of taking off layer after layer. I worry that there will not be enough time … but then I remind myself to let go of that, too.
This was the first morning that I woke with no tension headache in some time. That was my first realization of the process of letting go underway. I woke feeling rested and light. My evening before had been as if charmed. I discovered how wonderful a place is that little screened-in porch out back of Jeremiah. I keep referring to everything as little, as tiny, as small … and yet what I am experiencing is how little, and tiny, and small, and crowded my life has become, constrained in its tensions and worries and stresses and fears. This might go wrong, and what then? That might fail, and what should become of me then? I resist all such thoughts. Let go, is my mantra, let go. Retreat. First, retreat, and then, embrace.
After my dinner of linguini and freshly picked vegetables, I retreated to the back porch to read. Since I hadn’t finished my glass of cherry ginseng wine, I took that with me. I have noticed that my need to eat, ingest, wish for the relaxation that a glass of wine might bring have already lessened. One glass is enough, more than enough. Where I am has already begun to do its work upon me. My surroundings have intoxicated me.
I sit on the porch in the wicker chair that fits me perfectly. How is it that everything here fits me so perfectly? The little house called Jeremiah fits me perfectly. The chair and the table are just for me. The futon is comfortable on my back, just low enough for my feet to rest on the floor, and the bed is the right degree of soft and firm. Everything is just so, for me. For my needs and even my wishes.
I light a small (yes, this too, I have chosen in small size) cigar, a Mayorga Columbian Supremo, coffee-infused cigar from a tin of several. I haven’t smoked a cigar in months, but tonight the mood seems right and the pause in time seems right. It gives me something to do while I learn again how to do nothing. I light it and I light also the candles that someone has set along each windowsill, on all three sides of me. It is perhaps the first time since my arrival here that I truly do nothing. Only sit, watch the coffee-infused smoke rise, pause, and open my senses to my surroundings.
All around me is the forest. And at first I see only forest. It takes time before I see the trees. And then the brush beneath them. The leaves. The twigs. The blue sky between the tops. The chipmunk scittering across the pile of wood and bark chips. The whirligig that spins out from a tree branch and helicopters toward the ground. The dragonfly that hovers and zigs suddenly away.
My eyes adjust to seeing the world again. I begin to see.
I spend another hour, or is it three, or more, sitting on the porch, reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I have intended to read this book for a long time. It has rested with other books on my nightstand back home for at least a full year. Now, at last, I do. I am a great fan of C. S. Lewis and he does not fail me now. I am drawn in, as I find my questions and arguments and wonderings and protests about Christianity being answered with surprisingly clear and satisfying and rational answers. I begin to see.
It is a while before my ears pick up the sound. A slight puffing. A crackle. And a sense that something else is near, something living. I glance to my left and but a few feet away is one of the fawns I had watched earlier, as I ate my dinner. Now she is so near that I can hear her breathing. When I move, she picks up her head, her delicate white ears in my direction, and our eyes meet for a long moment. She goes back to eating.
What is she eating? I had thought earlier that she was grazing on tufts of grass. But I can hear her distinctly now. She snuffles her nose along the ground, finds the treat she seeks, then crunches it between her teeth. There seem to be many of them, these treats. Nuts? Acorns? I note to myself that I will go out and look more closely at the ground and find what it is that she so enjoys.
She wanders even closer. I see the soft of her spotted coat. The tender pink of her ears. Her breath coming in gusts. The second fawn appears, too, but wanders around to the other side of Jeremiah more quickly , and she lags a bit, but then follows him.
I sit silent with blessing, and for a moment, I think I will weep with the immensity of a simple joy. I have had quite a few such moments here already. Wanting to weep for release. Feeling the tears just on the other side, but not yet spilling them. They well up inside me, I sigh, and they are gone again.
This morning when I woke there was such a moment, too, of wanting to weep out of sheer goodness of being alive. Of belonging to the day and wanting it—the day, as one longs to unwrap a gift. Padding around barefoot, I made coffee and took my mug back out onto the back porch again, this time to sit outside on the step. I walked around in the grass in my bare feet, feeling for the hard knots of whatever it was the fawn had been crunching with such pleasure, but found nothing. So I sat on the step and sipped coffee and watched the light change slowly in its quality among the trees and over them and through them.
Good, good morning.
A walk to Windhill. I see no one on the way. I see no one coming back. I see no one at the meditation chapel of Windhill. It is as if the world is mine alone, and I want it just that way. A sign at the door of Windhill reminds me to remove my shoes, which I do, placing them on a wooden shelf. I walk through the great rooms with white carpeting and soaring cathedral ceilings and great windows to all directions of the sky. I stand inside the chapel for a moment and read the psalms on the altar. I walk into the library and browse through every shelf. I find more books by C. S. Lewis and I set those on the table. I find Walden by Henry David Thoreau and smile with memory. Thoreau’s Walden is one of those books that was a turning point, a defining place, in my young life. I was in high school when I first read it. I have purchased several copies of it since. It is still among my cherished treasures, but it would be fitting to read some of it while being here.
I take also a book titled, I-94: A Collection of Southwest Michigan Writers, and I add to the quickly growing stack, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, and two slim collections of poems by a poet I do not, yet, know—Mark Nepo.
Before leaving Windhill, I step inside the white tiled kitchen and see a sign on the refrigerator, inviting me to take whatever I like from its contents. I find more gifts from the garden, and I choose one zucchini to take back with me. My arms full with gifts, I return to Jeremiah.
The day is quickly growing hot again, and it is the time I wish to withdraw. John has left what looks like an army canvas duffel bag, but for its orange embroidered “JEREMIAH” on one side, on the bench next to my front door. Inside are fresh towels for my bath and dishtowels. I set them inside, I put away the zucchini, I put my books on the back porch, and I close all my windows to keep out the heat. The hut remains as cool as if it were air conditioned.
Then something comes over me. I don’t even sense it coming. But in the next moment, I am dancing. In a circle around the centering brick fireplace, I dance around my hut, circling and swaying and leaping. In my mind’s eye I see a little girl, one I had not thought about in so many decades … and I feel that distant sense of weeping again, a mix of sadness and joy. I hadn’t thought of myself dancing as a little girl in such a very long time. But when I was quite little, I would dance nearly every evening. Still dressed or already in my pajamas, I would quietly sneak out into the backyard as night was falling, and I would dance and dance and dance. Between the trees, around the flower beds, arms up to the sky, twirling and swirling all around the back yard until I would fall, dizzy, into the cool grass. I am sure now that my parents must on some such evening have seen my nightly dance of joy. But they never said a word. And I never named it in my mind. This dance. It is, perhaps, a show of my appreciation for another day of life. And a wish, too, to be a part of the magic of falling night.
So I danced now. I felt the awkwardness at first in my body. Although I had danced countless times over the years on various dance floors, waltzes and tangos and fox trots, this kind of free form movement felt odd to my body. Over the last near decade, caught in a relationship that had brought shame on all things physical to me, feeling broken and ugly, I had withdrawn inside my body and, in many ways, abandoned it. I had long ago detached from my body, as if we were two separate beings and that one, an untrustworthy stranger. I pretended it did not exist, for it had come to bring me only a sense of pain and rejection and the most intimate kind of betrayal.
But now I danced. If at first forcing my body to stretch and unfold and uncurl, feeling a little like a tin woman grown rusty, then soon I turned with more grace. This kind of healing would take a very long time, I knew, and perhaps this part of me would never be completely whole again … but to dance like a child again, simply for the joy of movement, was an unexpected gift. It was a first step in taking back ownership of my physical self and acknowledging her to be a part of me, of my whole self. Yet one more that Jeremiah has gifted me.
I wake to it, shattering the sky, clapping the leaves like a thousand hands in applause. Heavy rain, downpour, a waterfall from the skies, washing all clean and quenching all thirsts. Even mine. And this, after a night of wandering wakefulness. For I woke in the very middle of the darkness, my heart pounding, a pressure against my temples, my thoughts jumbled and restless. By morning, I realized—this was the exact midpoint of my stay here. The womb of night was birthing me, from retreat into embrace.
The peaceful coddling was done, and now I must find my way into a life that I can embrace. Unable to sleep, I turned the light above my bed on, and grabbed for a notebook. It is the notebook in which I have been doing a messy sort of scribble of brainstorming for the past few weeks. Ideas, concerns, questions, hopes, goals. Plans on how to achieve them. More than a few fears that I might not. No, when I look through the random notes, I do not find the fears that I might not. Only fears. To overcome. And next, the notes on how I might, possibly, do so.
Several pages are hard reality. Debts owed and budget. How long to pay them off and buy my freedom. In what order. Plan of attack. But then there are more pages of ideas. Some bizarre ones, no doubt. But I have not censured myself here, because dreaming is a messy business, and its seed is in the impossible made possible. One has to begin somewhere, and although I wish I were much, much further along, here I am. So here I must begin.
I sit on my bed cross-legged and scribble more notes while paging through the last issue of Poets & Writers magazine. There is more than enough here to keep me busy: awards and prizes, calls for submissions, grants and fellowships. With a marker, I circle one here, one there, many throughout the pages, and circle twice the deadlines. Some are breathlessly near. But in the middle of night, in the hour of dreamy madness, all things are possible. The morning will have its own say.
At last I sleep again, but it is to the crack of thunder and the nearing of dawn.
And in the full unfolding of morning, the refreshment of rain. My worried mind is eased when I finally open my eyes. I am hope again. My spirit opens and drinks in.
One of my favorite parts of mornings here—and I take immense pleasure in by now being able to say that a relationship is beginning to be established between me and Jeremiah, me and this solitary life, me and the surrounding woods—is the ritual of opening my windows to the day.
Doing so, I feel my own opening to the day. One after another, I draw up the dark green blinds and tie them back. I open the windows just enough to let in the cool breeze, fresh from the rain. I open them all, until the gentle gray light of the rainy morning enters my abode, and we are one.
Everything here is about being one. Connection. The blending of human to nature and even human to house. In my life in that other place, out there, now seeming so far away, time is an enemy, hurrying me along, biting at my heels, a demanding master. Here, time is my gentle and most kind and patient companion. It urges me along, an open invitation, while allowing me to dawdle when I need to along the way. I am present in each and every moment. I note every detail of what surrounds me, and all is wonder. All is a tender miracle. All is a gift, and the sense of being at every moment near bursting, near weeping in gratitude, never leaves me.
So I pad around my circular space, the brick fireplace rising in the center as a steady marker. My windows are my eyes to the world in its grace, and now I make my pot of coffee. The spoon in my hand is a solid fit, a cool curve on fingers, and I find myself gazing at an ordinary spoon as if having never quite seen one before. The gift of time …
The delicious aroma of percolating coffee fills my abode and mixes with the fresh rain breeze. It is cool, deliciously cool, when I go out onto my little back porch and settle into my wicker chair with a blanket wrapped around me. I light the candles on all windowsills, to all three sides of me.
The steam from my coffee cup rises, the blanket is soft and warm, the rain has slowed to a steady patter, the candles flicker, and I am at peace.
I am at peace.
I embrace the day.
I read a chapter from Luke in my leather-bound bible, my favorite for Luke’s literary slant, and sense that for all the times I have read this book before, at least half a dozen times, I never quite felt the words as I do now. They seemed harsh at times. Hard, like stones. Even frightening. If I was drawn to them over a lifetime, it was never quite as to a friend. More as to someone I could not ever understand, yet was drawn to ponder, sensing a wisdom that eluded me. This morning’s reading feels different. I am listening to a teacher, and He speaks to me.
And then, second cup of coffee—and Rainer Maria Rilke. I read his Book of Hours, and there are so many lines, so many verses, that I would want to share, stop people in the road and hold their sleeve until they read them, too … yet the curious part of these my days of solitude, is that the need to share is not immediate. A time for everything. The gift of time, now for myself, to take in.
I have done so much reading in the last couple of days. I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity in one day. Truly, I could not step away from it. Could not. This intellect had taken on and answered for me so many questions that had plagued and even tormented me over an entire lifetime, answered them so easily and clearly, that it was all I could do not to throw my head back and laugh. In pleasure at the simplicity of his understanding and ability to communicate it. In release, at having so many mysteries at long last solved. In astonishment at my own childlike foolishness at not being able to see, see, where the answers had stood before me all this time. In acknowledgement at the wonder of it, that if I did not see before, that it was no doubt because I was not yet meant to, was not yet ready, and that every single step of my travels to this very point in time were just as they were meant to be. To bring me here. To Jeremiah. Now.
The rain, more rain, all day the rain. I love the soft sound of it, and being safe, and warm, and cozy inside. I have a log burning on the fireplace. A little while ago, a friend called. It is the first time since coming here that I have heard my own voice. We talked for perhaps 40 minutes, and then we each returned to our respective evenings. I have not wanted to talk during my too few days here. But it was a good voice to listen to, and more importantly, a good laugh. We talked about work, and play, retreats and vacations, and art. We talked of how one does not really see a thing until one tries to duplicate it. Drawing, painting, carving into wood, putting into a story, doesn’t matter. You think you know a thing, and you discover, until you want to recreate it, you do not. In recreating, we create a thing for ourselves, for the first time. We put ourselves inside of it, and so know it.
Now I return to sitting by the fire, watching the flames, listening to the rain, reading a little of my mother’s diary from 1943 and 1944, that I have also brought with me. Time, passage of time, the past the present the future blending. In reading about her summer of 1943, I see my mother as a young, carefree girl, oblivious to the war soon to come that would rip her away from her home, forever.
All night it rained. Sometimes beating against the roof, the windows, sometimes a caress, a most gentle tapping with its knuckles. All of it comforting. I love the rain, the hint of it coming, the downpour, the after green, so lush. So it is this morning. I wake earlier than all my mornings here, but I am greedy for the day, to get all from it that I can, every minute, seam to seam.
It is just barely first light when I draw the blinds. The forest hums with waking life. I open the front door and stand on the steps in my nightgown. I breathe in the fresh of the morning. The earth is rich and loamy and damp. The grass has gone from blonde to deep green, and drops of water linger on every surface—every blade of grass, every upturned leaf, pearled along each branch of every tree.
I make coffee, wash quickly while it brews, drink it down hot and fast, and dress. I want to be out in this morning. I want to feel it on my skin. I wish to be kissed.
I meet John along the way, his brushed back white hair still wet from his own morning cleansing. Samantha dances between us, nosing at my hand. I scratch her silky black ear and she offers her damp nose again, and so I am kissed. I was just heading up to Windhill to leave you a note, I say to John. He nods, reflecting my tone of sadness. No doubt he hears it in every voice that says farewell to this place of peace. Will you come by at … I stall. Samantha noses my palm. I pet her. I look at her and not John. What do you think, Samantha? I say instead. But no one will tell me to go. Or to stay. Although John upon my arrival did say they wish everyone who comes here to stay even longer than they thought they might. But I must. I must go, tomorrow. There must be this transition of home before returning to the busyness, the madness of work. Will you come by at noon tomorrow with your cart? Then I add, you can forget about me if you like …
I head past Windhill then to the labyrinth. John had pointed it out on my arrival. Down the hill from the Windhill house and meditation chapel spirals a circling path, in and around itself, around and around, nearly a mile when stretched from end to end. From a distance, it looks like … nothing. Random circlings in the tall, dry field grass. In other seasons, no doubt, the path winds between billows of wildflowers and tall grasses, or mounds and arches of snow. When I arrived, it only seemed a field of bent hay. The rain has given it new life. I enter the labyrinth through an iron gate, an arch overhead. The grass slaps wet against my ankles. A few turns in, I begin to see the beauty that is here, even in this parched season. Rain has washed it clean for me to see. I should have known, I think. I am the daughter of an artist, and from watching him paint all my growing years, the first thing I learned about color—is that there is no pure color. There are no whites, no blacks, no greens, no yellows or blues. Every color is a mix of every other color in varying proportions. Every color contains within it the full spectrum of a rainbow.
And then it occurs to me, as I wind along the path and follow its lead, that I am walking the labyrinth in its season that mirrors mine, at the end of its summer and just before autumn. The black-eyed Susans are now only the black eyes. The brightest flowers are past bloom. But the array of flowers and grasses is no less beautiful now. Only the colors are more subtle, less showy. Still, they are all here. If less obvious from a distance, on coming closer, the beauty of this array is fully as rich and inviting. The pink blush of clover growing close to the ground. Clusters of tiny white flowers, as delicate as lace. Pale gold petals, and a smoky blue. And the grasses, they are every height, heavy with seed, sagging into the pathway, brushing soft and damp against my bare hands as I pass by. Shafts of wheat sway heavy with grain. Berries glisten full and ripe, near bursting with dark juice.
I realize, then, as I walk, that my right hand has been clenched, a fist, I do not know how long. All morning? Upon entering the labyrinth? All my life? I consciously unfold it, open my palm and feel the wildflowers and grasses brush soft against my palm as I pass.
Let go. Let God.
The path winds and curls and snakes in upon itself and unwinds again. I circle inward and then out and back again. At one point, I walk just by the gate, right where I began, and instead of being nearer to the summit, I am back at the outer edge. Just then, the path takes a turn, and the next moment, there I am, at the summit, the inside circle of the labyrinth. Here, the path is a blossom. Circles of mown grass in every direction of the sky. I look out and see the meadow in its gentle slopes, the vegetable garden in the distance, the woods to my left, the gate to the retreat, the road beyond.
When I let go and trust.
Oh, dear. What is this knot of anxiety beginning again? As if I can feel every singular moment passing me now. Bringing me closer to going back. How to keep what I have found here always with me? How to keep it safe? From slipping away and out of my hands like a slippery eel? I don’t want to go. I don’t want to lose this.
Unable to be still, losing all direction, I slipped into walking shoes and headed across the field to the stone chapel. The little hobbit house. Frantic that I am losing all that I have found. Answers, please, direction! I am afraid again, and feeling lost …
For the first time since I have been here, I am able to weep, and I do so, in heaving and heart-shattering sobs, sitting in the cool dark of the tiny chapel. Until I am done.
There is a tiny wooden carved heart set against one of the octagonal windows, how did I not notice it before? Or wasn’t it here the other day? I hold it for a moment, but it lacks the skin-silky-smoothness of the wooden hearts Andy used to carve for me. They felt like living flesh in my hands. It is odd to think of him now, here. From so long ago. From so far away. A long ago love that colors me even today with the memory of silk-smooth wooden hearts in the palm of my hand, placed there as a gift.
I light a votive candle and dare not put it where the altar, such as it is, is. A couple other candles flicker here already. Jesus with his bleeding heart overhead (an image that has always seemed strange, if not nightmarish to me), out of my reach, has no burning flame inside him today. I set my candle in the far right corner, as high as I can reach, on a jut of rock that looks a little like an open cat’s mouth. I sit and weep, softly now. My breath catches like a child’s. I swallow and cry still more.
I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave this place and go back to the madness, the noise, the void. Where nothing makes sense. Where everything can come crashing down at any moment. What am I to do? How do I keep the lessons I have learned here—out there? How do I not lose them between here and home? Here and work? Here and the rest of the world?
Have I, after all, discovered anything? I am not even sure anymore that I am a writer. What is it that I write? Journals and travel logs and thoughts that come loose and unhinged. I’ve paged through some old poetry during this stay, but it is as if someone else had written it … and it occurs to me, someone else did. I am not sure that I will ever write poetry again. As time passes, my conviction that I will not, deepens.
She is gone.
Let go, I remind myself. Let Him. If I am a fool, He is not. He will know what to do. All right then, I whisper between tears, You do it, then. And tell me how.
I wander back through the field to Jeremiah. Which is, I have discovered, the longest book in the bible. And Jeremiah is something of a poet, too. An anguished one, too long without trustworthy friends, but never afraid to tell the truth, nonetheless.
What am I to do? How will He direct me? I keep thinking of a shell, big as my fist, that has been sitting on the back porch windowsill. Determined to offer no argument, whether something makes sense to me or not, I feel as if I should try to draw this shell.
And so I do, paper pad on knees, sitting now on the front step of Jeremiah, shell placed up on the bench next to the door, at eye level. It’s an ugly thing. More like bone than shell, like some old man’s fist, flesh melted away. The shiny exterior has been washed and pounded away by sand. It looks like white bony knuckles. I draw it carefully but quickly, date it, and bring the pad back inside, and the shell, and place them on the table. The drawing is not a bad one; it has captured some of the bony knuckled ugliness.
I wander the hut, wander and circle. I start another fire in the fireplace. I wash three potatoes and cut the zucchini from the garden into three large pieces and set it all to boiling in a large pot. I sit by the fire, reading Annie Dillard, The Maytrees, adoring her every fine word, and wondering if I will cry again before the night is over.
The evening deepens and nears night. I sit by the fire, facing it, and read Annie Dillard, remembering why I so love her artistry. Perhaps a resolve, but I have grown more peaceful again. Now and then, I rise from my chair to go look at the drawing of the bony shell. Each time, I am surprised to see that the drawing is good. I hold the shell in my hand and put it down again. I thought for some time about it, whether it would be wrong to take the shell from Jeremiah and keep it with me, to remind me of the peace and goodness of this place, but I decide that it would not be wrong … if I take it with a promise to return and bring it back again. Because I will return.
I am watching the sun rise directly across from my front window, across the meadow and slants of light through the trees in front of Jeremiah, bordering the gravel road. Ever brighter, brighter. It looks something like heaven. No, don’t laugh, it does. The way it slants like that, dusty golden shafts of light between the trees and sparkling across the still wet grass. A chipmunk scampers across a rock to watch, too. For a moment, the trees are in sharp silhouette. Such stillness. The earth in breathless waiting. A butter yellow leaf falls slowly from one of the trees in front of my hut onto my path. Where it curves toward the road, a puddle from yesterday shines and reflects the rising sun.
It is a miracle that happens each and every day. Every day, yet how often do we really see it?
It is a promise.
I will miss these wooded mornings of solitude and silence. More than I can say. But it is my hope that I will be able to preserve something of what I have found in these few days and bring it with me—out there. It is my prayer. While I do not know yet what it is, exactly, what I am to do in the coming days, in the coming years, with the rest of my life, there are stirrings inside me, something like that anxious little chipmunk out there on the rock, and I am yet too unsure to name them, but there they are. There they are.
I am taking the bony shell with me. This shell, too, is a promise—of my return. I will owe it to Jeremiah. Someday, I will bring it back and place it once again on the windowsill facing into the forest, and I will then know its secret. It reminds me now of my own clenched fist, clenched so hard that the knuckles press white through the skin. An ugly thing, yet beautiful at the same time, holding tight within it unspeakable pain and too long suffering. Yet without that pain, as C. S. Lewis wrote, as Mark Nepo wrote, as Rilke wrote in his love poems to God, “You, darkness, of whom I am born— … It lets me imagine/a great presence stirring beside me …"
Deborah will come by for me at noon in the golf cart. Showered, dressed, breakfasted, I have my bags packed. The few items of clothing, now with the smell of woods and wind-washed meadow to them, thistles caught on sleeves, seedlings rimming pant legs—are packed. More, the books, notebooks, sketch pads, and the one with the drawing of the bony shell. And two totes of leftover groceries, including the round watermelon from the garden that I never ate, but will be a sweet reminding treat back home.
The deal is this: guests must all clean up after themselves. Each guest prepares the welcome for the next guest to come. As I wash and put away my breakfast dishes, scrub the stove, rinse out the sink, wash down the shower, change the linens on the bed, put out fresh towels, sweep the floor … I wonder why it is that we do not all do this in every place that we sleep. Every place along the road, every table where we sit for a meal. A honeyed peace flows through me as I put things back as I found them. I think of the next soul to come to Jeremiah, and my heart is warm and brimming with compassion. We all come here with our hurt places. We all come here wondering, afraid, hopeful. Each of us unique and all of us the same. I add a few fresh wildflowers to the vase on the nightstand, and replace the burnt out candles with new ones, placing the box of matches beside them.
I am no longer afraid.