Virginia Creeper Trail

Several years back, I decided that I wanted to travel outside the US at least once a year. But in 2015, my life was overtaken by the needs of my elderly parents and I needed to stay close to home. Those next 18 months I blogged about the wonderful rural sacred sites of America, places that my life serendipitously lead me to.  Five years later, life once again has me visiting the world close to home and I’m enjoying delightful places that I would not have prioritized in the past. Just like hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, I want to take you along with me on a few of my local adventures.  Here is a chance for me to share some of the wonderful and charming parts of Appalachia so that you might also enjoy a land that is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. I want to paint you a beautiful new picture of this remarkable region full of beauty and culture.

Alexandra’s birthday is early in October, so we planned an overnight trip to celebrate. I suggested the Virginia Creeper Trail just a few hours’ drive across the border in Virginia. This trail is an old railroad right-of-way from the 1880’s that runs through the rolling hills and low mountains of southern Virginia and is bisected by the Appalachian Trail which runs north and south.  The trains stopped running in the 1970’s and the Forest Service secured the land for a recreation trail.  It is now a 34-mile hiking, horse and bike trail from Whitetop Mountain to Abingdon, Virginia. But it is mostly used as a biking trail with outfitters who rent bikes and take riders to the end of the trail for a mostly down-hill ride back to the town and car. I’m not much of a biker so this was perfect for me.

The adventure started the night before when all four of us drove to the little town of Mountain City, Tennessee, to an Airbnb, stopping in Johnson City for some gourmet pizza for dinner. The next morning, we had a picnic breakfast and Alexandra opened some birthday gifts. We headed toward our next destination along a winding road beside a creek. The trees were just beginning to change colors and a few leaves were accumulating on the road. The narrow gorge is dotted with tidy farms highlighted with crisp white farmhouses and weathered barns. This was just the beginning of the perfectly picturesque “hills and hollers” of the gently rolling Appalachia.  We wandered a bit around the tiny trail town of Damascus. There are outfitters and hostels to meet the needs of the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. We had coffee and loaded our backpacks with water and snacks, got our rented bikes loaded on the outfitter’s trailer and climbed in the van for the 30 minute drive to the top of Whitetop Mountain.  As the van climbed the narrow curvy road, the terrain transformed to steeper hillsides with perfect rows of tiny Christmas tress beginning a decade of growth before harvesting for their intended Christmas home.

The first few miles on the trail were a bit wobbly for me—it had been awhile since I was on a bike. The trail was wide and slightly down-hill through a rich canopy of yellowing leaves. The air was crisp and the smell of the dry fall air that is such a relief after the humid hot summer.  It was a little too crisp for Alexandra’s hands and she fashioned mittens out of shirtsleeves and socks and I gave her my jacket. We crossed tall trestles and stopped to look down the rocky gorges.  There are well over a dozen trestle/bridges to cross on the trail. We took a short break where one side of the trail had several men in a field loading pumpkins on a truck and the other side was a steep incline of Christmas trees—it was like being on a movie set of idealized American holidays.  The next short rest was by a hillside full of goats protected by a Great Pyrenees dog. It was my childhood dream of being Heidi in Switzerland.  Fortunately, a bit later there was a sign for coffee and gloves—Alexandra was saved. The sock fix wasn’t quite good enough and we quickly purchased gloves and hats from the small outfitter across a little bridge.  Warmed by coffee and a wood stove inside the old hut gave a renewed spirit of pleasure for the amazing scenery. 

We pedaled/coasted on for awhile until we came upon a little café with picnic tables for the tired and hungry bikers. A delightful menu of hot dogs, grill cheese and tater tots was perfect to feed us body and soul for the last third of the trail.  Over more bridges until the trail flattened out just before Damascus and our car, 17 miles from the mountain top and the half-way point of the trail.  We loved every minute but the last bit found us saddle-sore and rubber-legged. It was good to turn in our bikes and climb into the car for the ride home.  There was a quick stop for chicken sandwiches and iced tea in Abingdon and then just a few more hours home to hot showers and comfy beds.  I wanted to bottle up that day and save every breath, leaf and tree to store away for hard times. I wondered at the land, my family and the simple joys of fresh air and knew I had a moment of rest to enjoy life even if it was just for a day.

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.

 

 

Remembrance

This certainly has been the strangest year most of us have ever experienced. The unexpected has become the norm and seems like we are having to adjust daily to the unknown. Trying to find life’s joy isn’t easy with the constant grim news that comes flashing up on notifications. Not since wartime has there been a daily body count, the number of people who have lost their lives to the virus.

Death has been present in my life this year. My mother-in-law, Dusty, passed away in February after 17 years of Alzheimer’s. The family was able to be with her during her final hours and we are grateful for that would not have been the case just a few weeks later. Dusty’s ashes remain in our home awaiting burial that has already been postponed once. My beloved mentor Rachael died in the March and her memorial is delayed indefinitely.  This last weekend Hamilton and I attended a memorial for a cousin now buried with parents and grandparents under the shade of a tree.

The last few weeks, I’ve been working on projects around the house. Like so many Americans, with our lives restricted, we turn to our home to nurture us and, in turn, we are nurturing our homes.  I’ve been deep cleaning many of the rooms of my house that were neglected while I was in school the last few years.  It is hard work that must be done to keep my beloved home looking its best. In each room, I systematically wash all the woodwork, oil the furniture, clean the windows and wash the curtains. While I scrub and polish, I keep my mind occupied with an endless stream of podcasts, usually one just running into the next so that I’m not sure what I will be listening to for the next bit of work.

The last on the project list has been the library.  We are all addicted to reading and the library tends to overflow with read and to-be-read books as well as art projects and memorabilia from family members.  It is definitely the hardest room to clean. I needed to repair some of the paint and clean behind bookshelves that hadn’t been moved in several decades. As I worked, the podcast that started was an interview with Dr. Cedrus Monte who recently published a book about the death of her mother. The book launch was delayed so Cedrus was reading excepts as a virtual launch. The poignant words flowed over me as I worked and allowed me to reflect on my own losses. At one point, Cedrus speaks of the fear of disappearing into the unknown as death moves in and I experienced those words as the fear of being forgotten.  It doesn’t take but a couple of generation for our lives to fade and become a handful of unidentified photographs.

But in my library is a special place of remembrance, a secret compartment where the memory of a stranger continues on in my world.  I have a small antique writing desk that Dusty bought as a lovely end table for the library. A few years ago, I opened it and was investigating the nooks and crannies when I lifted a compartment that held a hidden space.  To my surprise it was full of papers of the former owner, Robert Lennie, a teacher at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, Scotland. With these receipts, letters and cherished papers, I am able to piece together a snapshot of Robert’s life in 1920’s and ‘30’s Scotland. He was not married and was a lay preacher. But my favorite paper is a short poem written in pencil on a blue piece of paper by his students who obviously really loved Professor Lennie.

They’ve an excellent teacher, (his name’s Mr. Lennie).

He doesn’t have foes, and friends, he has many…

I have a picture with no names on the back so I can’t be sure it is Robert. But I cherish these hidden snippets of his life. This total stranger from another land and time has a place of honor in my home linking me to a magical land that I love. Robert isn’t forgotten and continues to live on in a way he could have never imagined, in a home far away from Scotland.

We too can’t imagine where our lives are going or what legacy we will leave.  The winds of fate seem to have much to do with that and our current whirlwind of life is sweeping us to an unknown world. The best I know to do is live life well and to the fullest, nurturing people and cherishing place. Hopefully that will be enough legacy for me to be remembered and leave a bit of love and kindness in my wake.

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.

 

Frost Flowers and Books

Frost Flower January 21, 2020

January in Tennessee is chilly, wet, and calm after the delights of the holiday season. The decorations are put back in the basement, rooms are tidied, and I turn my attention to some neglected projects around the house. I hate to see the glitter of Christmas fade but I also enjoy the stillness of January and a return to quiet mornings and simple food.  Tennessee winters are wet and gray with the occasional “shirt-sleeve” day alternating with a cold snap that might bring a dusting of snow. Last year, on her daily walk, Caroline noticed some Styrofoam peanuts on the ground but on closer investigation it turned out to be frost flowers. This phenomenon happens in very specific winter weather conditions where freezing air and warm wet ground forces sap to expand rapidly and extrude out of thin cracks on the stems of specific plants (ironweed). This sap freezes on contact with the air and forms beautiful swirls around the stem. The latest deep freeze produced a “super bloom” of frost flowers along the dirt road on the farm.  We bundled up to enjoy dozens of these beautiful flowers as they don’t last long once the air gets above freezing. I’m always amazed at the beauty every season offers.

January is also a great time to talk, think and write about books. Recently I was at the post office getting yet another book delivery. When the postman commented on the number of book shaped packages in our mail, I had to confess that we have a book problem in our house. We don’t just have one library but “his” and “her” libraries that dominate several rooms and overflow into every other room of the house. It is a problem that we have no intention of fixing. So, I wanted to talk about a few books I really loved this past year.

I didn’t finish school until September of last year so much of my reading was academic and often difficult but I grew a new vocabulary that has opened my reading world.  I enjoyed Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story by Jody Gentian Bower. This lovely and very readable book looks at the heroine’s journey in classic literature as a template for women’s empowerment and how it is very different from the classic male hero’s journey. Women’s lives aren’t just a version of men’s but fundamentally different in their needs for finding authentic and fulfilled lives. This book is based on Jungian psychology but fully explains the ideas in a way that is understandable and helpful.

After two years of academic writing I needed to mentally shift back to my more personal style.  I took several months off any kind of writing to take a big break and just settle into life without deadlines and word counts. The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft and Creativity by Louise DeSalvo was exactly the right book at the right time. I savored every chapter by slowly reading two of the short chapters every day. Louise gently guided me though the difficulties and joys of the writing life. I needed her encouragement to let me know I’m not alone in the solitary act of writing.

Because I can’t house all the books I want to read and I like a variety of books when I travel, I keep my Kindle app full of easy reading material and take advantage of the free Amazon Prime e-books and magazines. I particularly liked Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence by Anne D. LeClaire.  This was another book in which I slowly savored every word.  For many years, Anne would take two days a month to be in silence.  She chronicles the difficulties, joys and changes from her silence practice. I also enjoy a lot of silence and although I don’t have specific parameters, I try to spend time with just the bird songs and rustle of trees as often as I can.  Silence is soothing in our noisy, overstimulated world and this book quiets the over-connected soul.

August 2019 was a difficult confluence of final exams and health challenges for my elderly mother. I was constantly stressed about one or the other which, of course, gave me a terrible flare-up of TMJ (jaw pain), something I have had trouble with for several years.  The pain is cyclical but, when I’m in the middle of an episode, it is miserable and exhausting.  I do seek treatment but I needed to really get to the root of my particular problem so I ordered every book on the subject I could find. Help came from Taking Control of TMJ by Robert O. Uppgaard. I literally had forgotten the correct placement of my jaws because I was compensating for the pain and grimacing.  Just the simple readjustment of my position- plus being aware I was clinching from stress- helped me relax and start to find some relief.  It has taken several months but I’m much better now.  Thank-you Dr. Uppgarrd.

For some reason, I’m just not a novel reader. I wish I was, but I just can’t keep characters straight. Fortunately, I enjoy listening to novels which helps me overcome my name deficiency problems. During a drive to Florida, putting up Christmas trees and making dinner, I listened to Circe by Madeline Miller. This beautiful re-imagining of the story of the Greek goddess Circe brings the Greek myths to life in a new and fresh version. I just love Greek mythology  (or any mythology for that matter).

Other books I’ve really enjoyed:

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole

Betty Crocker’s Lost Recipes (vintage recipes I loved as a child, yum!)

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency by Akiko Busch

Digital Minimalism and Deep Work by Cal Newport

Bonus:  Three books for book lovers.

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel.  Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Nancy Goldstone. Howard’s End in on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill

 

 

Yoga

My Yoga Space

I live in a decidedly non-yoga town. Oh, it is much better than it used to be. At least there are yoga studios now even in my small town but compared to the choices in Alexandra’s Southern California town, it is still pretty sparse.  Alexandra goes to a studio, one of many, that has three classes every hour of the day with an array of styles and levels. Here in East Tennessee, you might get a few types of classes a week.   When I first got interested in yoga in the 90’s, there was literally nothing except one woman who taught a disorganized class and thought it was a good idea to start with headstands—I only lasted one class.  Or I could do a video tape. But who wants to do the same thing every time.  Then of course there was the cultural disdain for yoga. There was an incident many years ago where someone came into a yoga class to announce that the participants were devil worshiping. Many people in my community still struggle with the spiritual origins and so most classes focus on the physical benefits and even sometimes use Christian theology overlay to make it more acceptable.

Finally, about 8 years ago, I found a teacher, Lisa, who taught one night a week and was starting a beginner’s class.  I have to admit the first few months were pretty much torture. But since I don’t start things unless I plan on finishing, I kept with my once a week class with Lisa for many years.  Not only was I late to start yoga, I have several obstacles that have made yoga a challenge.  I will never be able to go to one of Alexandra’s classes and do a full routine—it just isn’t possible.  I have my own accommodations that I have learned because over 30 years ago I permanently injured my left elbow in a fall and can no longer put much weight on it. Therefore, I can do no downward facing dog, plank or table.  Try doing a regular yoga class without those very common poses—it is a challenge.

Lisa stopped teaching a couple of years ago and I was busy with school, so I started to do yoga in my family room with the help of Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube. The price is right, no long commute from my rural home and the level is just right for my decidedly Paralympic yoga accommodations.  I’m quite happy with where my yoga has evolved. It will always be a gentle practice and advanced poses will never be achieved but I’m really OK with that.  There is always a place for everyone and every level, even those of us who have physical limitations. There are still great benefits to finding what works and keeping with it even when it isn’t easy.

I’ve learned to accept my limitations. It would be nice if I could embrace them, but acceptance is good. I’ve accepted my limitations in other areas of my life too. I will never be a great pianist or a star academic. I’m not a best-selling novelist and I can’t draw at all. But I’m know that working with my limitations is part of life and I can enjoy these things even if I’m not stellar at them.  They serve my life.  I will continue my gentle yoga and take leisurely walks in the woods or around the lake, enjoying my life without the stress of a goal.  My effort is enough to keep me healthy, body and soul.

Shaker Village

shaker1

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.

shaker3

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.

shaker4

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

shaker5

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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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.