Paths (Part 37: “That was some tough squirrel.”)

The ultimate goal of our training under MD, at least in part, was to become free of enslavement to our sin, to our addictions, to anything that would limit our ability to love others in purity and truth; and additionally, for the men at least, to be fearless in the face of danger and difficulty so as to be of benefit to others in their need, in times of great difficulty. I’m sure there were many other goals as well as these which I never fully understood, due to the narrow limits of my intelligence and perception, but also because I didn’t stay to complete the course. When I left in the spring of 1997 I had completed about a third of it so I will likely never know what more was intended.

Our final year together saw our small community living in many various locations, together and apart. We lived on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, in Santa Barbara, in an old chicken coop south of Sebastopol, and several miles up a dirt road off Highway 1, in the mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean, in what is known as the West Waddle Creek State Wilderness. The road in was essentially a path which led up into the wilderness and in several cases, it had washed out entirely and was impassable, and one would have to walk the final mile or two up the hill to get to the old shell of a cabin which was standing on the property which we rented. The name of the road was ‘Last Chance Road’ which I found amusing, and I wondered if there were some poetic and prophetic nuances to this which I should be aware.

While in Tahoe M finally gave up, and left the community one night after another particularly difficult scenario. It surprised me on the one hand because he was among the toughest people I’ve ever met, and he seemed to be able to endure anything, but then it didn’t surprise me as well, because he was pushed to an extreme limit repeatedly, and eventually everyone has a limit I expect.

Also while in Tahoe I was finally asked to sign the contract agreement that everyone else had signed several years earlier, acknowledging the potential dangers inherent in the course and our willingness to take part freely, without coercion. This also surprised me because I didn’t think I would ever be asked to sign this contract, especially now after so much had transpired and I had already gone through so much.

I continued to work on landscape projects throughout the bay area during the week along with S and J; and the three of us would return to visit with MD and W over the weekends. Another young woman had also joined our community during this time and she stayed with MD predominantly, although she also worked with us on landscapes. Over time she became an integral member of our community and we all cared for her deeply. So it was, one Friday evening the three of us took the long drive up ‘Last Chance Road’ to join MD and the ladies at the cabin for the weekend.

The next morning we joined MD as he was grading and leveling a large area beneath a huge pine tree on the property. I don’t recall what was going to go in this place, but he had been working throughout the week cutting and filling this location, and now the three of us came with shovels and picks to join in the work. I began to shave away at the uphill side of the excavation with a pick, loosening the clay soil and eating away at the hillside, while S and J worked together to grade the area smooth along with MD. I was working some thirty feet away from the others as I heard the familiar escalation of rhetoric and volume that denoted the beginning of a ‘scenario’. It appeared that I wasn’t involved as I continued to work, and it seemed that it was only involving S and J but I turned to observe as MD swung a shovel in wide arcs towards the others. They dodged the shovel and moved away as MD came around towards me. In a flash I discovered that I was involved in this one after all. The shovel came down upon the crown of my head and I staggered for a moment.

In the next moment I considered retaliation with my pick but I didn’t want to hurt anyone, then I considered escape over the embankment which I had been creating with my pick, just moments before, but I didn’t want to run away, so I chose to endure what was coming as best as I could. Another several blows from the shovel crashed down upon my scalp and I began to feel blood washing down over my face and neck. I staggered and fell to my knees as I raised my arms in defense. I felt the shovel blade hit my arms and I lowered them to support my weight now so I wouldn’t collapse to the ground. I felt it was imperative not to collapse and I willed myself to stay on my hands and knees against the coming blows. My world became very small now as I concentrated my consciousness within myself to endure the attack. I closed my eyes and focused all my effort to try to stand up again. I believed that I was doing it and felt myself rising to my feet and I was relieved and encouraged that I hadn’t been conquered. I thought I had risen by my own efforts but only later learned from MD that in the midst of my trial, my dear friend J had come to my side and held me and it was by his help and support that I was able to stand up again. The scenario ended and J helped me walk up the hill towards the cabin.

On the way up the hill MD walked past us by a different trail, and he and I had a brief exchange. I was covered in blood and had a number of wounds on my head and arms but I was in good spirits all things considered, and I imagined how strange I must look being up here in the woods and so damaged in my body. Maybe I was delirious, but I joked about how tough the squirrels are in these hills, implying that my wounds had come in an attack by an angry squirrel. We smiled and laughed for a moment, and then continued on our way. The others helped clean me up and bandaged me, and I went off to my small campsite across the road, out on a small rocky promontory overlooking the ocean in the distance far, far below.

Interactions like this one and others like them made me stronger, more resilient and increased my confidence.  I felt that I could face pretty nearly anything or anyone and nobody could really harm me. This of course was one of the goals of the course, but another was to be ready and willing to fight back if the situation warranted, and this goal I never reached. I just didn’t want to hurt anyone, at least not anyone I knew, if I could help it. So in subsequent altercations, when MD would try to get me to fight back and defend myself I never was able to do it.

Eventually we would be on our own again, the course would end, and we would be sent out to help bring healing to “a world at war with itself,” as MD put it, “to defend the weak against ravenous wolves intent on destruction, and to stand in the breach, offering ourselves in service to others.” My personal weaknesses precluded me from arriving at this worthy goal, but I achieved some small measure of it before I left and went out on my own.

(to be continued)

~FS

May 19

It is significant how deeply attracted men are by the spectacle of an earthly king and how eagerly they seek after it; and how everyone who lives in a city where the king has his residence longs to catch a glimpse simply of the extravagance and ostentation of his entourage. Only under the influence of spiritual things will they disregard all this and look down on it, wounded by another beauty and desiring a different kind of glory.

If sight of a mortal king is so important to worldly people, how much more desirable must the sight of the immortal king be to those into whom some drops of the Holy Spirit have fallen and whose hearts have been smitten by divine love?

For this they will relinquish all amity with the world, so that they may keep that longing continually in their hearts, preferring nothing to it. But few indeed there are who add to a good beginning an equivalent end and who endure without stumbling until they reach it….those who wish to pursue the way with assurance to the end will not permit any other longing or love to intermingle with their divine love.

~St Makarios of Egypt

May 18

For bodily endeavor, united to contrition of the spirit, will offer to God the sacrifice best pleasing to Him, and a worthy dwelling-place for holiness where the inmost recesses are pure and clean. But if, while we observe bodily fasting, we are entangled in these most deadly vices of the soul, affliction of the flesh will naught avail us while the more precious part of us is defiled, for we are offending in that very part of our nature wherein we become the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit.

For it is not so much the corruptible flesh as the clean heart which is made the dwelling of God, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. We must see, then, that while our outward man is fasting, the inner man must likewise keep himself from those evil meats of the soul; the inner man, I say, whom especially the blessed Apostle bids us present pure unto God, that he may be worthy to receive Christ in himself as his Guest.

~St John Cassian

Paths (part 36-Close Encounters of the Mammalian Kind)

Of the many benefits to living outdoors, free from the confines of a stuffy bedroom, under a canopy of trees and stars, laying amidst a panoply of earthy smells which stimulate the mind, soothe the soul, and relax the body, one of my very favorite is the closeness it affords for interacting with other members of the animal kingdom.

Laying hidden in the grasses of a meadow, gazing up at the night sky, while a cool and then warm gentle breeze blows across my face and through my hair, it is inescapable the observation of how interwoven my life is with that of my surroundings. I exhale and the trees inhale, in the shelter of my tarp little creatures find warmth and comfort and perhaps even a little companionship.

This particular night I nested down at the edge of a meadow, under a tree, in a private setting and drifted off to sleep. Sometime in the night a doe found her way to my campsite and also nestled under the tree and drifted off to sleep. The next morning she awoke before me, so that when I opened my eyes and looked her way I saw her dark black eyes watching over me. “Good morning, my friend,” I said to her. “I hope you had a good sleep.” She shifted her weight and looked to her side. I yawned, and grabbed a sip from my water-bottle while she continued watching me. The sun was rising in the sky but neither of us were in much hurry to get started with our plans for the day. I had a job to get to and work to do, and she had food to forage, but we just continued lazily to enjoy the gathering warmth of the morning and the sounds of the birds singing from the neighboring trees.

As I began to gather my things together she pulled herself up and shook off the night sleep. I thanked her for joining me, and for giving me the honor of sharing my campsite with her, and then she slowly walked off into the brush and out of sight.

Another evening I settled into my sleeping bag at the edge of a small stream, under the dripline of a group of large, old, oak trees. I set my ground-tarp on the dry, dusty dirt beneath the trees and soon fell asleep. Towards midnight, as the full moon lit the sky and my surroundings, I began to dream a strange dream in which something was burrowing into my head. In my dream, I heard a continual scratching or a pattering, like water dripping on plastic, and I felt an incessant tugging at the hair on the back of my head. I slowly awoke and discovered this was not a dream at all. Something alive was in fact digging and scratching the dirt beneath my head, pattering at my plastic tarp, and yanking on my hair.

I didn’t move so as not to frighten whatever it was that was behind me trying to get into my skull. But it was difficult to stay still in this position, and with my concern growing, especially as I began to consider the possibilities of what creature might be behind me, practically and essentially on top of my head. I decided that it must be a squirrel trying to get at an acorn or something, so I slowly, ever so slowly, lifted my head slightly, and slowly turned to face my nocturnal hair stylist, to get a better look. All the while he continued to scratch and dig at the dirt, paying little attention to me.

I wished then that it had been a squirrel but unfortunately it was a skunk. My alarm increased dramatically but I held my position. He looked up from his labors and stared into my eyes. We were as close as lovers, eye-to-eye, and could easily have kissed, had we wanted to, and were he not a skunk. But I had no interest in being this close, yet I didn’t want to startle him by moving away too quickly, as he went back to his business of digging and scraping at the earth. I realized he had no interest in my at all, I had merely been in his way; so I slowly sat up, and then slowly slid out of my sleeping bag, and then scooted across the dry ground to a reasonable and safe distance, and waited.

In time, my smelly visitor either found what he had lost, or gave up searching, and turned and waddled away.

Not every close encounter with animals ends well. Sometimes people get eaten. As I sat on the beach in Santa Barbara watching a small pod of dolphins playing in the water about a hundred yards off shore, I reflected on a story I had heard about a poor tourist in Honolulu who had mistaken a group of sharks for a pod of dolphins, and had excitedly swam out to see them but ended up being attacked and killed by the sharks instead. I was certain the pod I was watching were not sharks however, because of the way they jumped out of the water playfully, and by their dolphin-like shapes silhouetted against the hazy summer sky.

I decided to swim out and see them closer and maybe get a chance to spend some time with them. I had never seen a dolphin up close in the wild before and these dolphins were clearly in a good mood and likely would enjoy my company. I knew for a fact that I would enjoy theirs.

As I approached the pod through the ocean surf, and as the water grew calmer further out from shore, I decided on my strategy so as not to alarm them. I would approach them not as a human, with arms extending and legs kicking, but as a piece of humble, innocent and non-threatening seaweed. My method of approach would be quiet and peaceful, as one treading water very slowly, with a smooth, long, flowing motion. I pictured myself as seaweed being carried along by the ocean currents as I drew near to them. I figured that this way I would be just another part of the environment, as far as they were concerned, and as innocuous to them as a jellyfish. In this manner, I inserted myself into the middle of their pod, as they swam in wide circles around me.

Without a doubt this became one of the truly memorable and most wonderful experiences of my life. In their midst I could hear them clicking and squeaking to one another. Two small calves stayed close to their mother as they made their rounds, lunging above the ocean’s surface, while occasionally she would stop and peer at me with a cautious eye, and then say something to one of her cohorts. These three, along with several others swam slow, tight circles around me as they spoke with one another, while another group of two or three swam at a greater distance breaching and leaping, sometimes very high into the air. I stayed with them for about twenty minutes as they continued about their business, until finally the pod moved off to the north and swam away.

(to be continued)

~FS

May 17

It is not the enemy that is outside us whom we need to fear; there is an enemy in our very selves: daily within us an internal war is waged. When the enemy within is conquered, all our foes without are rendered feeble, and Christ’s soldier will find all things at peace, and all subdued. We shall have no external foe to fear if what is within is conquered, and subdued to the spirit.

~St John Cassian

Paths (part 35-kayaking)

One Friday afternoon I returned from working in Santa Rosa, and joined the others who were spending the week at a Christian Retreat Center in the woods south of Fort Bragg. It was a beautiful rustic campground with log cabins, outdoor fire-pits and other amenities situated beneath the redwoods. Among the activities available for our use were river kayaks. That evening I learned that we were all going to go kayaking the following morning in a nearby river. This sounded like a lot of fun although I was a little concerned because it was early spring and the river was still flowing fairly high and fast, it would be an unguided trip, and several of us had never been in a kayak before. I had taken kayaking lessons years earlier and knew how to roll, and the basics of navigating a river so I felt okay about the adventure for myself but still had a foreboding feeling about the event.

Apparently a conversation earlier in the day between S and MD had spawned our impending kayaking challenge. In this conversation S and J had both addressed our world with a certain prideful disdain and had underestimated the power of nature, and overestimated the ability of humans in relation to the cosmos. MD devised this event as a means of educating us all firsthand of the awesome power of water, even a river which appeared to be relatively small and seemingly innocuous. Perhaps we would gain a healthy respect for the power of nature and maybe learn a little humility as well, and hopefully not sink along the way.

The next morning, as we gathered the kayaks and other gear into our trailer the idea of sinking seemed much more likely to me. I had always used a fabric skirt that covered the cockpit and kept water out of the kayak, so when I learned we wouldn’t be using these I was surprised, but then I figured since most of us hadn’t used a kayak before, it would likely be safer without them, and easier to get out quickly if needed. Even so, I wondered about water getting into the boats and how that would work out. Each of us was also going to be wearing large rubber boots as we navigated in our kayaks. These boots certainly offered excellent protection against sharp rocks so I was glad of that, but I could only picture them filling with water and transforming into big rubber anchors in the event we fell out of our kayaks and into the river. These boots became my biggest concern and I determined not to fall out of my kayak no matter what.

The seven of us took off from shore with little difficulty and a lot of hilarity. Shrubs and trees hanging over the margins created thickets which managed to trap several of us right from the start. Getting untangled from the overgrowth became our first obstacle as the current pressed us deeper into the branches and spun our kayaks. I managed to avoid this hazard but was unable to work my way upstream again to offer any assistance to the others. Not long though, all of us had worked our way out and were traveling together at a nice clip downstream.

There is something thrilling about a river adventure: the wild, rushing water, the beautiful and varied nature one passes as they, in a sense, fly past it; the joyful, almost childlike enthusiasm that is drawn out of one as they rise and fall on the currents, and as the cold water splashes them in the face. It is simply exhilarating. We were having a great time and everyone was staying upright and afloat. I supposed I had overreacted earlier and had been too concerned as I had imagined dangers that perhaps weren’t there. The fact that the river was still swollen actually had the benefit that many of the boulders which could have threatened us were deeply submerged and posed less of a threat, and were one of us to capsize there was a smaller chance of hitting our head on one of these submerged obstacles.

About midway through our river adventure we began to hit more frequent and longer stretches of whitewater, which became more difficult to navigate, and required greater finesse, or greater brute strength to get through. Because of this, our group began to get stretched out and greater distance grew between us, leaving us to fight our way downstream in smaller groups or alone. It wasn’t long before we began to lose each other around bends, in eddies, or finally underwater. One by one the currents began to claim the members of our expedition; toppling us over, carrying us submerged, or pulling us over rock-strewn shallows. Occasionally I saw an unmanned kayak float past me, or one or two of my friends pulling themselves, bedraggled, up out of the water and casting themselves, half-drowned onto the dry rocks at the river’s edge. We began our journey that morning, like children, joyfully laughing and giddy with the excitement of the day’s coming surprises and were ending it that afternoon in a struggle for survival.

My day on the river ended with me launching over a large submerged boulder, taking some air, and losing control when I reentered the water further downstream. To my relief when I fell out of the kayak my rubber garden boots didn’t turn into two large anchors as they filled with water because the river was shallow enough that I was able to scramble across the bottom, out of the main flow and into a calmer area near the river’s edge.

In a sense this river trip was a microcosm of our years together in the community; it began in pure joy, coupled with an overwhelming sense of anticipation, adventure and hope, and as the journey continued it grew more and more difficult, so that one-by-one each of us found ourselves in a struggle for survival. By the grace of God no one was lost, or seriously injured. However, we were all taxed physically, emotionally and mentally.

As the evening approached we somehow managed to collect all of the kayaks and gear into our trailer, and all of the members of our group into our van, and drive back to the retreat center. By nightfall we were all back in our cabins and ready to sleep. It was a quintessentially MD kind of day; a complex and complicated mixture of delight, adventure, thrilling fun and laughter interwoven with struggle, danger, tension, difficulty and fear. In short it was just another day at the office, so to speak; the kind of day I had grown accustomed to, and one that yielded an abundance of food for thought, a bounty of personal growth, and copious material for either a good story, or a cautionary tale—or perhaps a little of both.

(to be continued)

~FS

May 16

Nor let us suppose that the outward fast from visible food will suffice to secure perfection of heart and purity of body, unless it have conjoined with it a fast of the soul as well. For the soul too has kinds of diet that do it harm, sated werewith–even without indulgence in material food–it can run down the steep places of licentiousness.

Slander is a food of the soul, and very sweet to its taste. And anger, too, though no mild one, feeding the soul for a moment with evil meat, and laying it low at the same time with its deadly savor. Envy is a food of the mind, corrupting it with poisonous juices, and ceasing not to torment it miserably with the thought of a neighbor’s happy success.

…vainglory can be its food, soothing it for a time with sweet meats, then leaving it empty, bereft of all virtues and bare, abandoning it barren of all spiritual fruits and void…all unruly desires and wanderings of an unquiet heart can be a kind of food for the soul which feeds it on poisoned meats, and then abandons it, never more to taste the Bread of Heaven or true nutriment.

~St John Cassian