The Great Smoky Mountains

Rainbow over the Great Smoky Mountains

About a century ago—in January 2020–I planned to visit Ireland in September and Alexandra had reservations for Japan.  We all know what happened next: plans changed, life took a detour and staycations became the new way of life.  Fortunately, one of the major tourist destinations in the United States is in my own back yard so to speak.  Every time I drive to town, I’m treated to a perfect view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Daily, I get to see these ancient mountains in all their glory.  Many days they are clear with gradations from deep purple to lavender.  Then there is the winter with snow and clouds turning purple to pure white. Many days the clouds reflect the name “Smoky” and a misty haze covers the horizon.  I don’t often make the hour drive to the park itself but, when I do, I love the rocky stream beside the road, the dense tree-cover overhead and the sweet wet smell of the moss and ferns.  The Smokies really don’t have many vistas; it is more like being in a massive Zen garden where Nature herself has curated every inch to be perfect.  In the autumn, the Smokies put on a magnificent show when the trees are ablaze, and the air is cool and dry and the sky is bright blue.  I am so happy to have a staycation in this magical place.

When Alexandra was little girl, we would go play in the cold mountain stream on hot summer days but never hiked.  But ever since we walked the Camino in 2014, hiking has become such a joy and a priority. And we are very compatible hiking pals. We are also wanting to make the most of her extended time in East Tennessee since she will be working from home until at least next year.  We are using this time-out-of-time to make the most of our lives here and now. So let me tell you about our September adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains.

For our first hike, I chose “The Chimneys”.  This is a well-known trail that isn’t very long but very steep with hundreds of stairs up to a rock outcropping and a beautiful overlook.  The path starts flat and has several bridges over a wide, rushing stream that tumbles down massive boulders.  If we had just stopped there, it was worth the hour and a half drive. But then the trail starts the assent which means at least it is downhill coming back. Fortunately, we have a trail on the farm with a steep hill and so I’m use to the incline but it was still a big challenge.  Everywhere you look is a feast for the eyes—deep green moss, dark tree trunks, rock outcroppings and leafy canopy. The fresh air and rushing water fills in what the eyes miss for a full body experience.  We were tired at the end, but I was glad to get to mark that trail off in my hiking book as a trail well done.

Sunshine illuminating the path

As we were driving to the hike, Alexandra mentioned she would love to pet a deer as we love seeing the deer on our lawn feeding at dawn and dusk.  I had her google petting zoos and amazingly, there was a deer park and exotic petting zoo just 30 minutes from the trail in the next town over.  You know we had to go right then! Instant manifestation of desired deer petting, and did we have fun.  The Smoky Mountain Deer Farm and Exotic Petting Zoo is full of goats, deer, horses of all kinds, ostrich and emus and beautiful reindeer.  Most of the animals you could feed either a corn mix or apple slices.  We started in a big pen of Fallow deer. They loved the food and we were quickly surrounded. If you weren’t careful some of the deer would give a light nip from the rear so they could get some too—I must say a bit overwhelming but fun. We enjoyed the pen of goats with docile babies that love being held,  I loved cuddling their warm furry bodies. But our favorites were the Sitka deer and reindeer—so gentle and beautiful.  We were dirty and tired by the end of our day but so happy with our mini vacation. Plans are already being made to return to the deer park, maybe with some outlet shopping first.

Sitka Deer

Fallow Deer

A few weeks later I chose a hike on the famed Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine, over 2000 miles. We did a four-mile section to a point called Charlie’s Bunion, an outcropping of rock with a magnificent view. This is the part of the trail that starts on the North Carolina/Tennessee line and is at 5000 ft elevation.  The trail is rocky and the rainy remains of a hurricane made the trail like a small stream.  I definitely had to be careful not to turn an ankle. This higher elevation had a special feel with dense moss and hemlock trees which smelled like Christmas, so we chattered on about this year’s Christmas plans. Unfortunately, the beautiful vista was a pure white cloud, so we hungrily ate our PB and J sandwich and headed back down. I did slip on the way back, my legs were getting like rubber by then, but fortunately there was another hiker right behind me who took hold of my arm which softened the fall so I wasn’t hurt.  We were happy to see our car and the vista from the parking lot. Some ibuprofen and a latte got us home to hot showers and beef stew in the crockpot. The hike was 8 miles of rough trail but I felt like I had a big accomplishment and a magnificent adventure in our beautiful world.

 

 

 

 

Peacocks

Brunhilde, Figaro and Mimi

I’ve always loved peacocks. There is something about their iridescent blue-green color and magnificent tails that calls to mind the exotic and extravagant.  Over the years I would be drawn to journals, pillows and clothes with peacock images.  I didn’t overdo it. I wasn’t a crazy peacock lady, just a reminder here and there of this beautiful bird. I also imagined having peacocks on the farm, wandering around the yard and making their haunting calls—it would be so beautiful. I worried about predators so I never investigated owning peacocks and peacocks remained a dream.  But things changed this year. I stopped traveling and Alexandra came home to ride out the pandemic. Suddenly, there was time and space for new opportunities I would not have otherwise and the dream of owning peacocks became a reality.

The end of June, I showed Alexandra a video of baby peacocks on my favorite YouTube channel, The Chateau Diaries.  She started to research peacock care and look for breeders and the next thing I knew we had reserved three baby peacocks to be picked up a few days later in the next county.  We already had plenty of space for them to roam and a shed that would make the perfect roost to keep them safe at night. It seemed like destiny, all with the help of Alexandra’s persistence and love of animals. We finally succumbed to the lure of farm animals, albeit vanity farm animals whose sole purpose is beauty and to make us happy.

Since Alexandra and I both love opera as well as birds, she thought it would be fitting that our babies have very distinguished names from our favorite opera composers.  We have hatch-mates, Figaro, a male and Brunhilde, a sweet dove-colored female.  Figaro is already turning green and struts around like he is in charge.  The third baby is Mimi, a white peacock, beautiful if a bit neurotic, so we are forever pleading “no no Mimi”. Caroline is the official bird wrangler and likes to hold and cuddle them. Alexandra has become a farmer with pitchfork and straw to clean their roost.  Every night, I fix them a lovely supper of lettuce and white bread. In a few weeks, they will be old enough to start exploring the yard and the bread helps lure them back into the safety of the roost at night.  We can’t imagine life without our peacocks.

The challenges of 2020 are bound together with the changes we make this year that become this iridescent experience as the highs and lows are seen from different perspectives.  For me, the loss and sadness has been inextricably bound with gain and joy. I mourn the loss of how life use to be when we could gather with friends and be in the world. But there has also been gain with time as a family and deepening connection with farm and home. I’ve been reading Life is in the Transitions by Bruce Feiler, a book that came out at the beginning of the global transition to an unknown future.  The book is a guide through the transitions in life that come more quickly and last longer than we would probably like.  Sometime, the big shifts in life come voluntarily, but most of the time, it is involuntary, and it is these big changes that make up the fabric of our lives. This year, I’m glad to add peacocks to my life tapestry and the lore of my family. We have also a new tradition born from our transition. Every Saturday evening, we gather on the patio for “aperitif” (also inspired by The Chateau Diaries). We have a glass of pink wine and some “sexy cheese” or other special foods and enjoy the end of the week.  We enjoy the planning as much as the eating, a mini-celebration of life and joy which has been the highlight of our summer and will sure to continue on for many years. Peacocks and aperitif are part of the new colors of our life that we will remember as part of life in transition.

 

 

Dreaming the Future

New footbridge on the farm.

I’m a planner.  I like to think about what is next, what is in the future.  I like to organize, sifting through all the possibilities, and come up with the perfect agenda, menu or most efficient method. Then I expect it all to go perfectly—because it is all so perfectly planned.  But, I don’t know if you noticed, lately things don’t always go as planned.  I had three perfectly planned trips this spring.  One by one I clicked the cancel button on the reservations. As the days of spring rolled on, I would sometimes think, “I’m supposed to be in Taos for my birthday”, or “today I was going to be in Santa Barbara graduating”.  But strangely it was all OK.  I missed what I had planned but I also was enjoying what I was already doing. I was enjoying the unexpected, the serendipity of life.

Although we all know that life is unsure and the unexpected can always happen, in our modern world we have come to make assumptions about what life will be like in the future. I assume that things will go along as I planned and how I wanted them to go. I think we are all learning that we can no longer make assumptions about our future but can only live/lean into the future.  I don’t think my planning ways are going to change anytime soon but I will be more open to the variables that life brings and let go of my plans more easily.

Strangely the best things in my life are things I didn’t plan, wasn’t looking for, or didn’t want.  The best things have come when I was just following a hunch or synchronicity.  I think the most important part of pilgrimaging into the future is to hold life loosely and allow dreams you didn’t know how to dream to move in and let life surprise you, delight and move you in a direction outside of your plans.

Our modern world loves to plan: a 5-year plan, a career plan, a family plan, a retirement plan.  All of that is good until our soul decides it doesn’t like that plan and begins its own agenda. We have to set aside our desires and open to that bigger agenda. For the next bit of life—and we can’t even begin to plan what that will be—we can let our souls guide our pilgrimage to the heart and where we need to go. Our old plans are gone, and space has opened for something new.  So, for the time being I will indulge in some planning but know that my soul might dream of something else and serendipity will guide the way. Hopefully with that agenda gone I will notice the little things, the taste of warm cherries, the smell of fresh laundry, the waxy feel of a magnolia blossom and know those simple joys are as important as exotic travel.

For the next bit of time, however long that is, choose something to explore deeply, an idea, writer, composer, moment of history, or the natural world. Pilgrimage to the heart of that place/space/thought and let it take over your mind and heart. See where you go and let the soul be the guide.  For the quality of today’s step determines where our future steps go.

I’m featured on a podcast about life during the pandemic.  Here is the link for Profile in Quarantine with host Mary Gilbert.

 

Noticing

A couple of weeks ago, Alexandra was ready to have a trip to town.  Since she was working from home she had not been anywhere in a couple of weeks and was hungry for a Dairy Queen vanilla cone. I needed some plumbing parts from Home Depot to fix a leaky faucet.  The ice cream was just what she wanted and we headed home through the countryside to our small rural town.  About halfway home she saw some cows in a field, including several calves. I promise, she has seen baby cows before, but even though she is closing in on 30, any baby animal brings a delight usually reserved for toddlers.  She made me turn around so she could admire the babies. We found a driveway to pull in to and had a perfect view of a mama giving her baby a bath.  The little one stood patiently as mama’s rough tongue cleaned under its chin, each lick making the baby lift up a bit, yet the bath happily continued for several minutes.  It was a mini-magical moment for Alexandra and me.  In the background, were the purple silhouettes of the Great Smokey Mountains. The rolling spring-green field contrasted with the dark angular bodies of the Black Angus cows. It was a simple, bucolic moment but yet one of perfect contentment for the mama and baby and me and my sweet girl.  At that moment, all was right with the world because Alexandra had noticed.  She noticed the simple beauty of babies in a field and wanted to savor that moment.

Noticing. This is how we pilgrimage to the present. This isn’t remembering the past or anticipating the future but finding those little moments of everyday life as special and beautiful. Currently our physical worlds are reduced in size as we tend to the business of life and health. But our internal world is infinite when we take time to notice the beauty of life. It is in connecting with nature and the amazingly creative human mind and spirit that we find those timeless moments that feed our soul.  It is so easy to get caught in the negative and the difficult and forget to see, to notice the abundance all around, the opportunities to enrich our minds and souls.  I’ve enjoyed the operas, ballets, gardens and museums that are online for us to enjoy in a way I haven’t before.  I’ve had time to read and tend my house, cook and take a daily walk to enjoy the spring flowers and budding trees.

My sweet friend Becky was reading a passage in my book about pilgrimages to your own back yard. She took that idea to heart and noticed that her own backyard needed some tending and decided to build a “pretty little garden” where she could put her hands in the dirt and find refuge from her busy “on-line” life. Every day she would pilgrimage a few short steps to her little place on earth and found healing and peace.  She shared her special space on Instagram.  It is up to each of us to find and nurture that space of time and place to pilgrimage; we just have to stop and notice.

 

Noticing, observing– brings gratitude for the details of your surroundings, the little things that are often ignored but actually hold the essence of life.  Notice the taste of simple food, the earthy smell of a cat, the softness of worn sheets, the heaviness of a hardbound book, the tattered edges of a warm rug, the brilliant purple of the tiny violets in the grass. Notice the bird songs in the early morning, the whipporwill’s call at dusk, the croaking frogs after a rain.  Each of these things and an infinite amount of other little things in our world become a moment of pilgrimage to our life as we live right here, right now.

My dear cosmic mother Rachael passed away last month. She was in very poor health, the perfect target for Covid-19.  As I mourn her loss, I think about something she would often say, “we are in the glory now”.   By noticing, we experience Now in each glorious moment.

Rachael Salley   1942-2020

Pilgrimage to the Past

Trout Lily, Spring 2020

Historically, pilgrimages were taken by people in all social, economic and cultural levels since sacred travel was about the call of the spirit to seek soul in the world. In our modern times, pilgrimages can seem to be for the privileged few that can afford the time, money of an exotic pilgrimage. Many have physical limitations that make a long pilgrimage impossible. I’ve always worried that my blog and book on pilgrimage have over emphasized international pilgrimages at the expense of the true nature of a spiritual journey.  As my tag line indicates—pilgrimage is about making every step of life sacred, a journey of the soul. Yes, pilgrimage is about physically going out into the world, discovering your inner world as you discover the world around you. But I also see pilgrimage as a perspective, a way of viewing life as a sacred journey.

Even as we are still early in 2020, our entire planet has been turned upside down as we pause life to tend to health and safety. Daily, even hourly, life is shifting with plans and routines which have disintegrated into the unknown. We are all on an untried path for a while before a new normal arrives. Although most of my family already work from home, Alexandra is here in Tennessee, a refugee from her micro-apartment in California.  My elderly mother is in quarantine in her retirement home–all appointments cancelled and no lunches out for the foreseeable future.  Our introvert natures are happy to be home with the cats and a stocked pantry.

Travel is going to be interrupted for quite awhile and maybe even make us rethink some of our far-flung vacations. It is unnerving when a much-anticipated trip is interrupted by the unexpected but that is part of a pilgrimage. Nine years ago, I was caught in the Egyptian Revolution and sequestered in a hotel before British Air sent an empty plane to rescue travelers. We expect our plans to go well—and most of the time they do—but part of the nature of a pilgrimage is a test of inner strength in the light of outer events.

Pilgrimage can always be part of our life no matter what the circumstances of the physical world. Thanks to the remarkable nature of our consciousness with the help of our five senses we can pilgrimage anytime and anyplace: past, present or future. Let’s start with pilgrimages to the past.

Our past experiences remain available to us through our memories.  Although memories are not usually perfect recordings of the event, our own imagination and the perspective of time can remake an experience in the past into a meaningful experience in the present.  For example, I bet you could walk around your childhood home in your mind or visit your grandparents house with a full sensory experience.

I can feel myself walk up my grandparent’s sidewalk on to their back porch and see the details of my grandfather’s shaving kit on the porch sink and hear the door slam shut behind me.  Now I can go into the tiny kitchen and smell the fried chicken and open the cupboard where my grandmother kept Juicy Fruit gum. I continue on into the living room where my grandmother sits in her pink velveteen chair and I sit down by her feet and watch the nightly news as my grandfather sleeps on his green couch beside us.  These memories are so vivid forty-five years later.  I can remember those ordinary moments of my childhood and re-imagine them as the cherished experiences of my personal story.  What childhood experience joyful or difficult are part of your personal history?  Can you pilgrimage to these sentinel moments and greet them, thank them for participating in your life?

Our senses make these memories come alive.  Our bodies remember our lives through the senses and we can use these memories to travel to the past and remember our lives in detail. Last year, I was at a concert listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and I was unexpectedly back in my childhood home with my family by the fire listening to this monumental music on a scratchy record.  I was surprised by the vividness of the memory and realized how this calm family experience was so important to my introverted soul.  In the summer, the smell of warm pine trees takes me back to a summer vacation in Estes Park Colorado. The taste of raspberries are the reminder happy moments of summertime in Minnesota.

As well as cherished memories of our childhood, think about pilgrimages you have taken in the past.  Think about how they have affected your life now many years later for we need a lifetime to process these profound moments.  During a conversation with a fellow plane passenger, I asked her if she had a special trip that she could now see was a pilgrimage.  She recounted going to Brazil with a friend, and as part the tour, the group held a ceremony by the ocean to honor her ancestors that had crossed the ocean on slave ships. She teared up thinking about how meaningful that moment was for her.  She now remembers that trip as a powerful and life-changing pilgrimage, not just a casual trip with a friend.  Sometimes our most powerful experiences come not from intention but from the unexpected.  Often, we can’t see this until many years or decades later.  Go back through your photos and find a trip that was meaningful and take the time to remember. Maybe make a photo album of that trip or get out mementos and build a little shrine to that experience that changed you.  While we experience this moment of “global time-out” we gain the space to experience time differently and meld past and present together.

 

 

Shaker Village

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You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth for a pilgrimage to change you. Some of the loveliest places can be close to home. Pilgrimage is a perspective as well as an experience. Pilgrimage is seeing the divinity that is all around. Next month I will be back with new content but today enjoy a happy journey from a few years ago.

For most people visions of heaven include pearly gates, streets of gold and jewel encrusted mansions but not in my world. All I have to do is go to Kentucky to find my version of nirvana and it is called Shaker Village. After my lovely time at the Serpent Mound, and fortified with a latte, I retraced my path back to Lexington for the night. I had one more essential pilgrimage stop to make the next day. I needed a Shaker Village fix.

These days I live in my in-law’s home which is decorated in a style I would call High Ostentation but in my heart I prefer a style more like Early Convent. My Taurus/Virgo soul longs for a tidy house with white walls and simple furniture. The Shakers perfected this style and brought it to a high art.

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So who were the Shakers? They were a branch of the Quakers who came to America looking for religious freedom. Lead by Mother Ann Lee, the first communities were started in the late 1700’s and formed around 20 utopian centers with 6000 members at the peak of popularity. These communities were founded on principles of equality for the sexes and races, celibacy and pacifism. Men and women lived separately but worked together and the congregations grew by recruitment since procreation wasn’t allowed. In the early 1900’s the communities stopped taking members and were eventually closed

Spiritually they believe God was both male and female and the imminent second coming of Christ. They worshiped in stark meeting rooms with narrow benches and no pulpit. The service consisted of singing, dancing and ecstatic states of shaking and shouting thus they got the name “Shakers”. They wrote many songs for their worship and the most popular tune is Simple Gifts, immortalized in Aaron Copeland’s work Appalachian Spring.

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The communities were self-sustaining farms and invented many new labor-saving devises. The Kentucky Shakers were know for their brooms and high-quality seeds as well as furniture and weaving. Hard work was important to them so all the communities thrived. They believed that beautifully made simple furniture was an act of prayer. Each building and room was perfectly planned for simplicity, practicality and order and ideal which has had a lasting influence on American design.

Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, is like stepping back in time. On this perfect September day the buildings glowed in the sun with a back drop of purple/blue sky. Pumpkins and corn stocks decorate the stack stone fences and there is just a hint of color in the trees that line the lane; translation—-pure joy. I wandered the buildings looking at the magnificent worn furniture, craft demonstrations, amazing circular staircases and stark perfection. I wandered into the dinning room for corn pudding and buttermilk pie, headed down to the old barn to see the friendly ram and horses and felt the gentle grace of this place frozen in time. During a past visit I sang Simple Gifts in the meeting hall where that song has reverberated thousands of times and I’m thrilled to sing it for myself.

After having my joy quotient filled by two beautiful days in Kentucky. I headed back to Tennessee. I didn’t have far to go and on the way home I listened to John O’Donohue talk about beauty. I have been bathed in beauty and sacred vibration for two days which has left my heart singing and spirit cheerful. My quick pilgrimage had all the joys of any exotic journey with no jet lag or expensive tickets. So this Fall find a place to pilgrimage close to home and bring beauty and joy to your soul.

http://www.shakervillageky.org

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Basho

Breaking the silence

of an ancient pond,

A frog jumped in to water —

A deep resonance.

This haiku by the poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is one of the most recognizable poems in Japan. Haiku is a short traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of seventeen syllables divided into three sections of five-seven-five. It was Basho who perfected the haiku form, but he also wrote beautiful prose in the form of a travel log with the haiku inspired by his experiences. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is his best-known work and read by almost every Japanese high school student and translated more than any other work of Japanese literature.

I first learned of Basho while researching pilgrimage. I was already familiar with the haiku form and its popularity in both Japan and the West but going deeper into Basho’s life and work expands my understanding of the form, but more importantly informs my own pilgrimages and soul journey. Although Basho spent a great deal of time traveling, it is this pilgrimage to the Deep North that called his soul. To wander in nature and discover the world was not a luxury for Basho but a necessity for his poetry and the calling of his soul.  On this journey, Basho developed a new form a writing called haibun, which alternates prose and haiku to describe his journey. The prose, equally as beautiful as the poems, explains the physical aspects of the journey where the haiku illuminates the internal images and experiences. He walked 1200 miles over five months with his disciple Sora and planned part of the route to include places described by other writers. Basho’s call to a pilgrimage was not a specific place but to experience whatever unfolded before him. “I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind–filled with a strong desire to wander”.

Basho’s words are beautiful in their simplicity and grace. He uses a lightness and gentleness to describe nature and life itself. Beauty becomes an essential element in the soul’s journey. Basho found beauty on his journey: in the change of seasons, fleeting moments of sun on dew, a hazy moon, the arch of the Milky Way. He found beauty in the smallest details of cherry blossoms, pine trees, wind and water. Life is fleeting and these details captured the ephemeral moment when life is perfect beauty. Basho took great delight and wonder in these moments that fed his soul’s path. It is in these brief moments that Basho experienced eternity and left a trace in his haiku.

Walking pilgrimages are inherently simple. Life is reduced to what you can carry on your back. Basho’s haiku perfectly alludes to the essentialness of his journey. Pleasure is found in the simple moment of a flower, the soft breeze, or sound of a cricket. Basho left behind the comforts of home and community to see the world in the simplest moments where the sacred is found. Basho doesn’t analyze or offer opinion on what he sees, rather he relates pure experiences as they happen in the moment and in his heart. Haiku becomes the way he expresses his journey. Although haiku is simple in form it is not simplistic for the subtly expressed by the image associations and verbal play enter in the depths of the human heart.

In the essence of his work, Basho is above all a nature poet. All his senses were tuned to the natural world and Basho misses none of the subtleties of the wind, seasons, smell and sound, often bringing him to tears in the moments of pure wonder and grace. His poetry and prose are words of praise and thanksgiving for life in all of its forms. The sea, rocks, stars, mountain, trees, flowers, all participated in Basho’s poems to the ineffable mystery of our world.

Although written almost 400 years ago, Basho’s story and poetry are timeless. His experiences and observations reflect his deep understanding of nature and his own interior life. Pilgrimage, as a time of solitude in nature, becomes a catalyst that opens an important soul space.  Basho heard the call of this soul space and left a beautiful account of what that interior pilgrimage looks like. His words are those of the mystic that sees the sacred in all things and in all places.

The title of Basho’s story, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, reflects the physical road and is a metaphor for the quality of the interior journey for the sacred does not come with broad highways and neon signs. The sacred is found with effort on a narrow path that takes time and sacrifice, suffering and joy. There is no easy and quick way to a lasting relationship with nature and the soul. Hard work and dedication are needed to find these numinous moments when the world becomes alive with wonder as we step out of time into the timeless.

Later this year I am going to Japan to see for myself what inspired Basho. I will be walking part of the 88 Temple trail on Shikoku island, a 1000-year-old spiritual pilgrimage and a sister pilgrimage to the Camino. Basho did not walk this particular trail, he walked north of what is today Tokyo, but the landscape and culture as well as the search for the heart and soul of nature aligns me with the spirit of Basho.  Basho wrote on many subjects that moved him to live in relationship with his soul and thus offers me language to seek the same beauty.

 

 

Amid mountains of high summer,

I bowed respectfully before

The tall clogs of a statue

Asking a blessing on my journey

 

To talk casually

About an iris flower

Is one of the pleasures

Of the wandering journey.

 

In the utter silence

Of a temple,

A cicada’s voice alone

Penetrates the rocks.

 

 

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Apalachicola

photos by G. Smith

For the last four winters, I have traveled to the Florida panhandle to the little out-of-the-way town of Apalachicola. Along this long expanse of white-sand beaches outlining the Gulf of Mexico is an almost forgotten land where time stands still, and Florida remains as it was before air-conditioners and high-rises. My aunts were looking for a place to find refuge from the arctic cold of northern Minnesota where they live most of the year. Apalachicola is just a bit north for warm weather in February, but it is still moderate, much more moderate than the icy north and just right for their winter retreat.

The first two years, I drove my mother the 9 hours to the coast to visit with her sisters. The last two years, I flew the two short flights to Tallahassee–and it is still another two-hour drive. This part of Florida is not on of normal tourist routes but that is its charm. These last two years, my aunts rented a home on St. George’s Island, a long drive across the bridge from the mainland. Family, food, chatter, movies and naps fill the day between my walks on the beach. I love the beach, any time and in any weather. I can’t get enough of water, sand and sky—this simple landscape that feeds my soul.  I love the salt air, breeze, sound of waves and gulls and water lapping at my ankles. I’m a beach girl to the core of my being.

But last year this almost desolate coast endured the ferocity of nature–Hurricane Michael. The third strongest hurricane on record, Michael hit the coastline on October 10, 2018. Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe were devastated. Apalachicola was damaged but not quite as severely and by the time I arrived in February much of the brush was cleaned up. But there was no turning away from the destruction. The roads are being rebuilt and I got a flat tire from the construction debris. Along the road were tall piles of rubble that was once someone’s beloved home. I drove down the streets of Mexico Beach, but I couldn’t really comprehend what all those empty lots meant for the residents of that small town. I was seeing the aftermath from an outsider’s perspective months later.  I know how much I love my home; how could I ever recover from having it destroyed. But the resilient human spirit seeks hope in the face of overwhelming adversity. Small campers now stand next to the rubble as homeowners work to rebuild a life.

Apalachicola has become a new refuge for my family, a place to be together. This new place has come from our own loss of land and home in Minnesota. So, we, too, have found our resilience, knowing that life and family do transcend place. It isn’t what we wanted, but we found a way to build new experiences that nurtures our bonds

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Gifts

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As we enter the traditional season for giving, I am reminded that gifts are always a part of the journey, on a pilgrimage and in daily life.   All you have to do is become aware the abundance of life and open your heart to receiving these gifts so freely given.  I offer these three gifts for this holiday season.  Gifts to give yourself and then in turn give to others.
Joy:   The poet Leon Bloy says, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God”.   Finding joy, living joy, sustained joy are the moments the pilgrim has put down their burdens, worries, sorrow and let the light of the Divine show through to your life.   This is a moment of transformation where just being alive and open hearted is all there needs to be.   On the Camino I had the experience of sustained joy where just walking and being in nature made every breath a thank-you.

Silence:  In our noisy world we don’t find much silence and if you do happen to encounter it most people find it uncomfortable and immediately fill the void with more talking or scrolling.   Silence is where you take time from our frenetic world.   You can’t hear the voice of your heart and the Divine if you are talking or distracted.   Practice sacred silence as you move into sacred space.   Take time to sit in silent wonder and just be with the experience.   You need time to be without distraction to connect your being to your special place on earth.   Before and after visiting a special place give yourself the gift of coming into silence so you can prepare, receive and then integrate this experience.

Music:   Music is part of spiritual practice in all traditions, hymns, chants, toning and other types of music that enhances your personal experience.   As always these should not affect the experience of others near you or the nature of the site.   Sing a song in your mind, quietly chanting, listening to a song on an iPod can greatly enhance your experience.   I like to link a specific song with a specific place or experience.    Sometimes I have chosen that song ahead of time, sometimes I let the shuffle setting choose the song, sometimes I like to have a song spontaneously come into my mind.      When a song is sung or listened to at a site the song is then imprinted on your energy at that site.   In the future when you hear that song then you can be instantly transported back to that place and time.   It is a way of being part of that place forever.   In the cathedral in Burgos, Spain during a Mass in English the congregation sang a hymn I learned as a child.   I sang the words that I knew but hadn’t thought of for decades.   Now my voice is forever in the stones of that chapel.

Chaco Canyon

 

I first heard of Chaco Canyon over 12 years ago and never forgot the name. I knew it was in New Mexico and it was sacred land but that was about all.  It seemed I would get there someday for it called me. I waited until the time was right.   It isn’t an easy place to visit.   You can go as a day trip from Albuquerque but it is a three hour drive and the last 15 miles or so are on unpaved roads.   The only way to spend much time there is to camp in the small campground and I’m not much of a camper.   Our tour leader arranged for us to go “glamping” for the night so we could be there for equinox sunrise.

The 15-passenger van picked us up 8am from Hotel Chaco, a new hotel designed to represent the architecture and feeling of Chaco Canyon.    Our guide was very knowledgeable about history and geology, but I soon found myself really wanting to enjoy the land. So I put on my headphones and slipped into a gentle reverie of music and exotic landscape.   Every few miles the ground changed and yet stayed the same–beautiful barren layers of brown and deep blue sky. By noon we arrived at the Visitors Center and had looked around before heading outside and on a small hike up a hill to see a ruin and petroglyphs of animal and spirals—a first taste of the wonders of Chaco Canyon and a preview of the afternoon.

After a picnic lunch were a large, friendly crow offered to help with the leftovers, we went to the main ruin Pueblo Bonito.  The Chacoan people built on a grand scale for over 300 years.   Their buildings had hundreds of rooms with several stories, surrounding open plazas and kivas.   Some of the buildings were oriented to solar, lunar and cardinal directions.   Chaco Canyon become a ceremonial and economic center by the early 12th century.   This was a sacred place and the energy still remains.  Most of the ruins have just a story or two remaining and only one original roof remains.   We wandered around the multi-acre site admiring the unique stone work.   I enjoyed the contrast between stone and the intense blue sky that has replaced the roof.

By late afternoon I was getting chilly and ready to see the special camp.  Our wonderful tour guides Angelisa and Tommy set up new circular tents that blended into the sand.  Inside each tent was arranged a bed with fluffy pillows, bedside tables complete with flowers and a special tin filled with glamping necessities.   I happily spent the rest of the afternoon snuggled in my little cocoon reading and napping.

The sun went down and it quickly grew very cold.   We had a gourmet supper followed by s’mores around the campfire and we stayed close to the fire to keep warm.   Choco Canyon has a protected night sky. No light pollution is allowed, and any city lights are too far away to interfere.  Only a few times in my life have I seen a sky like that night.   The moon was a sliver crescent with Venus nearby.   The rest of the night sky was deep black with the Milky Way slicing deep through the middle.  I had many opportunities to see that amazing night sky as I was awake every hour of the night.  It was a very long cold, cold night—-a new definition of cold.   Glamping would have been perfect for a summer night but we didn’t have quite the right equipment for 12 degrees.  But like all good pilgrimages, the triumph and cheerful survival of the cold added to the story and experience.

Before dawn we were all up and getting ready for the main event—sunrise.  Fortunately, hot coffee was brewing, the bathroom was heated, and the van was warmed-up and waiting.   We didn’t have to worry about changing clothes as we had all slept in every stich of clothing we brought.  Some of the campers did have to use the hand-dryer to thaw out their contact lenses which froze solid in the cold.  With coffee in hand we headed back to Pueblo Bonito along with a total of 100 people allowed to experience the equinox sunrise and accompanying alignment.   Just as the sun rises, a shaft of light shines through a doorway and illuminates the sacred inner room.   This phenomenon is only seen once a year for just a couple of minutes.   A large group was already lined up to see this special shaft of light but I was quite content to see a photo of it rather than be jostled in the crowd.  I felt my experience was just to be there in that holy canyon on that morning.  So I went and stood near a Navajo grandmother who was performing a ceremony to welcome the sun.   In her right hand she held a small rattle which she started shaking the minute the sun started peaking over the mesa.  In her left hand she held an eagle wing and a small pan flute which she would play every minute or so.   I was happy to experience this miracle of the sun and this wise woman who welcomed the light to the world.

photo by V. Budayr

Before long the sun was well above the mesa and the crowd quickly dispersed.  I enjoyed the warm sunshine as long as I could before it was time for a hot breakfast.  Part of the group went hiking and to practice some yoga poses and a couple of us headed near a mesa to build an impromptu medicine wheel and give thanks for our wonderful time in Chaco Canyon.