Even if we feel we are living in the wilderness of life by choice or by the choices of others, the voices of the tamed world have the ability to follow us. It seems unfair that they don’t check themselves at the threshold and stay where they belong. And sometimes, they are the reasons we needed to leave in the first place. The stories the world had for us about who we were and what we were to become did not match those that we knew in our minds, hearts and bodies. Some of the voices were people that we trusted with our whole selves; people that we had no reservations with, like parents and spouses, lovers and best friends. Sadly, these voices at times, are not accurate depictions of who we truly are. Their voices often project the image of what they want or “need” us to be for them or for others; not for ourselves.
I have had voices tell me I should settle for a satisfactory marriage; voices that say that I am selfish; voices that tell me that I am strong and that’s why no one ever offered help (darn me for trying so hard); voices that say I’m beautiful and need to be more careful about the attention I draw (as if that is my fault); voices that tell me I need to slow down and take longer to do school because everyone needs more of me than I can give while I am in school; voices that told me I should not homeschool; voices that told me that to vaccinate the kids the way it is ordered is the only safe way. It is endless.
Each of us have these voices in our heads. Some of us have an easier time of letting go of them; leaving them at the threshold. Others of us have them live in our bodies as these voices have been the impetus for so many of the choices we have made in our lives; the choices others before us have made and we are expected to live into as well.
The voices leave us sometimes when we break cycles of those same choices. Then others we trust use those same words, bringing back all of the previously cut-out words like a wash. It is truly cruel sometimes.
Grateful for the voices?
What if we could take the voices into the wilderness as gifts? What if we took them as reminders of what we left behind, and as fuel for our journey? That journey is simply to find our own voice; the only voice that matters in the end.
Mary Oliver says in The Journey:
But little by little
As you left their voices behind,
The starts began to burn
Through the sheets of clouds,
And there was a new voice,
Which you slowly
Recognized as your own,
That kept you company
As you strode deeper and deeper
Into the world,
Determined to do
The only thing you could do-
Determined to save
The only life you could save.
It was almost three years ago when Amos read that entire poem to me one starry night in a campground north of Toronto. I wasn’t ready to hear it. It made me sad and a little angry. I didn’t want to step into the change that my life was requiring of me. I wanted things to be happy; to work out as they were. But he knew that Mary Oliver’s words would sink in eventually. And they did.
And life changed as it needed to. It continues to surprise me. The wilderness is an exhausting place at times, and ecstatically joyful at other times. It is a place to sort and sift through the voices and leave them in an altar here and a campfire there; washing them off in the river and allowing the wind to carry them away as it calls to them.
Finding and claiming our own voices is the practice of a lifetime. May we travel the wilderness together, filled with the fire of our intentions and the desire to truly live our lives.
How have the voices shifted for you over the years? Which voices do you hear today? Can you find your own in the mix? We would love to hear your thoughts.
To begin, I need to say that my choice to become a mother was one that required many thresholds. The most complicated piece was a miscarriage at age 20 that ended in 4 days in a hospital with blood transfusions, in Austria. The recovery took months physically, but psychologically took years. At 25, it was far enough away to address seriously. I became pregnant with no problem and had Joe 9 months later. He forever changed my life. He was followed by Hannah, Eva and Elizabeth, all separated by two years, give or take.
It was a hard choice to step into. I had helped raise six of my mother’s children and having my own almost felt unnecessary. And I wanted to be an opera singer. How would I do that and raise children? There were questions I had no answers for. In the end, I knew having children was the right thing for me to do. In this blog I want to touch on a few things about being a mother that I have learned these past 20 years, with my gleanings from being a big sis as well.
At Wild Communion, we have talked about how the wilderness is a feminine space; a place of the unknown, uncontrolled, untamed and unpredictable. It is also a place of breathtaking beauty, peace and deep relationship. It feels a little bi-polar, and it is all that and everything in between.
To choose motherhood-whether we are able to have our own children or not-requires a heart that is open to the unknown, able to take risk and look at everyday as an adventure. There are beautiful moments inside eternal days. There are years of chaos we barely remember (and we are grateful we took pictures because we would have completely forgotten). There are a million books out there about motherhood and I feel like I read about half of them. But in the end, I realized that what I needed to do most was listen to my heart with regard to raising my children.
They each needed attention, but what kind of attention did they need? Did they need firmness or softness; tough love or a cuddle…or both? After years of doing it right and wrong every day, I came to a place that I could begin to trust what I knew in my body.
Mothers know when to create space for growth and expansion, how to say no to the world’s many offerings and have a quite night at home. They know when to put away the computer, sit and watch a movie or play a game with everyone. They know how to boost the family morale with laughter, games, dancing and song. Every family is different. We did a lot of jeopardy-style quizzing at the table. We were a homeschool family and every minute was for learning. We also sang a lot and continue to make music and the accompanying messes together.
What I did not glean explicitly from my years assisting my mother and raising my own children was the understanding as to where deep respect and adoration for the mother originated and belonged. Raised as a Mormon in an evangelical hometown, there were only a sprinkling of Catholics. It was my relationship with Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene that helped me to see the worth of the feminine in relationship to the white-haired male God of my childhood. It was also fed by my studies in theology and the Goddess Kali Ma and the Black Madonna. These were strong women; women who endured the fire and pain of grief, shame, and misunderstandings. They were women who said yes; yes to incredible hardship, but the accompanying pain as well. The Black Madonna represents a purity that only comes by going through the fire, not averting it. Kali Ma is the creator and destroyer; a representation of the cycles of life itself in an embodied form.
There is so much that has been said about these dominant archetypes of the Mother. Being able to identify them in myself has changed a lot for me. It has allowed for my energy to wax and wane, my strength to be fed and feed, my love to be sweet and fierce; all without the label of bad or good, right or wrong. Just understanding the power in the cycles of life has released the shame of feeling inadequate or the fear of failure.
I come from a long line of strong women. I learn from them daily, even after their passing through the veil to the next life. They will forever be my teachers. The archetypal mother is as beautiful as a rainbow after a storm, as forceful as a hurricane, and as soft as a fluffy cloud-filled sky. To be a mother is to desire the best for not only our children, but all of the children, human and non-human; all the beings of the earth.
How do you feel your ability to step into the mother archetype has fed your abilities as teachers, mentors, lovers, coaches and workers? Please share your comments below.
We, at Wild Communion, had a post on Instagram a few days ago by Joseph Campbell. It said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” We had a comment from a sweet follower and very short conversation ensued. I began to think of the way that fear had forced its spindle-thin fingers into nearly every facet of my life at one point. Those were nearly impossible years.
It was September 11, 2001. I was pregnant with my 2nd child and extremely ill. I had no idea what was wrong. The doctors did not know what was wrong. My cervix had tilted so much so that the growing little one inside me was crushing my organs, more and more each day. Malabsorption was a way of life and weight loss, weakness, and a hyper-emotional almost neurotic worrying state were just part of the deal. It started out as a beautiful day. I was living for the time with my parents in the rural farmlands of Indiana. There were horses down the road a ways and they were a welcome distraction for me and my then almost 2 year-old Josef. On sunny days, the horses would run along the fence line and play with each other in the pasture. We both loved to watch. However in the same moment, I ached for my life back in Prague that we had just left behind and was waiting for the day we could find a place of our own here in my hometown, even though it was the place I never wanted to come home to.
We walked up the lane, only to see my mom run out or the front door and scream something, very distressed. I ran with the stroller, grabbed Josef and headed inside where we watched the replay over and over of the planes entering the buildings, the bodies of people falling from the twin towers, the smoke rise and the chaos reach ever greater heights with every minute. I felt my body melt, weeping and desperate for something or someone to come save the day. Of course, we all know how that ended, as if anything like that could every truly end. 2,606 people tragically died that day and we as a global community, stood by and watched. There were so many heroes who sacrificed their lives that day among that number and we cannot begin to imagine the grief felt by their families and friends.
That day, something changed inside me, as it did so many others. The paranoia and terror that we felt continued and seemed to grow exponentially with the scare of anthrax through the postal system and additional bomb threats. I felt so paralyzed by my sickness, having a 2-year old, living in my parents home, and now, in a world that I felt was unsafe. I was unsafe going to large venues. I was unsafe simply getting the mail. I made a lot of false assumptions, but my mind was not about to be soothed. This is where the climax of fear was felt in my life thus far. Fear and its accompanying chemical consequences had been my drugs of choice for many years.
As a child, anxiety was the norm. After the occurrence of abuse, I became a hypochondriac, paranoid, anxiety filled, and in a state of being alert to an extreme that a 12-year old should never be. My ability to take in information increased in order to keep myself safe from unknown. Although at this point, I feel that this is a pretty great quality to have in life-calculating and mindful planning and choosing-a child should not be doing this. The neurological patterning in my brain had depth and breadth. I found myself able to be afraid of everything. During one rather manic phase in college after getting married, it was so bad that I was afraid to open the door when people would come to visit. The complication of extreme loneliness in my marriage was icing on my many-tiered cake of fear. The only times I felt a release from this was when I performed my music. I played piano, violin and sang. I accompanied and immersed myself in a life that just felt safe and good. I played some fiddle, but Bach felt good on the violin, Beethoven was my favorite on the piano and Puccini, Verdi and Mozart were my voice’s preferences. I had found my comfort zone and place of sweet rest. The performing arts were my life and I knew it. It had chosen me. I had hardly chosen it.
Over time, I noticed that there were places I felt a relief from the fear. They were always away from home: college until I got married, Austria as a nanny, and Prague, teaching English. Home represented something I had not been able to come to terms with. In many ways, healing has occurred, but in others, I have had to find to help me continue down the path toward healing.
We don’t always get a location change to do a reset. We often don’t get to choose the people we live with and work with to do a reset. We have to work within the parameters of what is present. After 10 weeks of deep trauma therapy and a couple of years of integrating the new patterns, I found the practice of forest therapy. This practice gave me a whole new skillset, with the accompanying side effects of understanding the role of the sense and the body in accessing and storing information. I have also learned to honor all feelings, that there are no good or bad feelings. They are simply ways we are responding to certain challenges in our lives, and each of these responses need to be observed and validated. Fear, after many years has become this: a bodily awareness that there may be struggle or growth ahead. I also learned my body has an ability to teach me about myself in ways I had never been able to acknowledge before, because of strict ideologies and the socio-cultural norms of my homeland. This knowing has allowed for a release of deep shame and an increased understanding of my intuition and its power in my life and the life of others.
I still have fears. Most of my fears now are around our ability as humans to misunderstand each other so greatly. I try to work within the parameters of what is present. I attempt to see life as a gift daily, struggles and all. I want to learn and stretch, see success and learn from failure, allow old ideas to become memories and make new and exciting goals and work toward them. Fear is now not a way of life but has been a learning tool that has helped form the life I live today. I am not angry for the stolen years, because they were not stolen if I continue to choose to see what was being taught. Because of fear I know I am strong and determined and I hope to use what I learn to serve in any way that is presented to me. My learnings from fear have been shown as a wisdom that only could be revealed by entering the cave. And that cave had many tunnels; having children, homeschooling, going through therapy, doing my forest therapy training, going back to school, starting a business, and working toward healing the many past and current relationships I have had in my life. What are your tunnels? How has life offered a way to escape from and see your fear in a different perspective. Please leave your thoughts and comments below. We look forward to learning from you.
By Amos Clifford
This morning I was invited to write a blog post on hope. It’s certainly topical. We are hoping to get through the current array of crises with our well-being, and that of our friends and family, intact. Hope, when we find it, can be a bright light, a candle in the dark. But with every light comes its shadow. In the past weeks, as we’ve moved into social isolation because of the virus, I have experienced the shadow of hope as anxiety. Anxiety lives in my belly. Anxiety tightens the tissues in my shoulders and arms. It builds a toy train track in my mind; the train runs in loops with a shifting cargo of loud, colorful worries.
Hope lives somewhere else in my body. When I tune in to locate hope I feel it in the space that encompasses my throat and my spiritual heart center (just imagine the physical heart but more centered beneath the sternum). The throat is where our voices come from; where the words we wish to speak are formed and birthed into the world, with all their creative power. If we speak words of despair and anxiety, we are bringing those into being, in the sense of Logos (the word) becoming real and shaping our minds. But if we slow down for a moment before uttering words and connect with our heart center, perhaps it can help guide us to a positive way of speaking, and speaking thus, to a hopeful way of thinking and feeling.
My heart is carrying a great deal of sorrow these days. I’ve just had my physical heart mended through a triple bypass surgery. But the illness in my heart was not just in the physical organ. The spiritual heart is a tender and sensitive organ. It is affected by relationships, by messages in the environment, by our experiences of change in our lives and in the world. When my heart carries sorrow I notice that often my choice of words becomes less optimistic. My speech carries stories that are demeaning; they work against hope. There are always multiple ways to view an experience. For example, when experiencing the consequences of some past choice, I could say, “What I am experiencing is a result of my stupidity,” or I could say “This is an opportunity to learn, and I am capable of learning and growing from the adversity caused by my unskillful actions; perhaps I called in this adversity because it carries the lesson my soul needs now.” These two modes of self-talk have dramatically different effects on how my life will develop going forward.
Hope may seem faint, especially if we are insistently attached some specific hope of what we project as an ideal future; for example, the hope that heartbreak can be avoided. But perhaps hope is more accessible if we look for how and where it authentically and spontaneously appears. Think of hope as living thing, an autonomous energy not generated by us but by its own beingness. I wonder how our experience might shift if ask Hope itself what it is trying to offer, rather than expending our energy trying to shape hope according to our view of an ideal outcome.
I’ve been working toward developing a set of precepts to guide me through these difficult times, and through my own sense of broken (and mending) heartedness. One of my goals is to generate positivity in my mind and emotions and spirit. So, one of my precepts is to take up the discipline of finding a positive, hope-full way to frame my experiences, my self-assessment, and the events in my relationships. Doing so is not always easy; but in living the precept there is the possibility of holding silence when a positive way of seeing things doesn’t appear. Choosing words, telling stories carefully and listening to how others mirror me, and holding silence may all be elements of ways to nurture hope in difficult times.
I’m curious to know what your thoughts are about hope. Please share in the comments below.
Last summer, I was only home for short stints between work travel. The days I was home, I often guided walks for different local organizations. The people who show up are always such an amazing source of joy. Not joy because it is always happy, but joy as in like we feel really supported by each other and the forest in our experiences during the time we share. Here in Indiana, I love meadows and wetlands in the summer because there is often a breeze and less irritation from the insect beings. It was in late July and time that a new animal being showed up to teach me something.
The first intimate encounter with the serpent had been a year before. It was in a wetland-a private property-and I was guiding a forest therapy walk. We walked slowly along the path and out of nowhere a 3-foot long snake slithered across my feet. In summer, my Teva sandals are my shoes. The scales of the snake were a shocking sensation on my toes as the snake moved over my feet..both of them. It just went on its merry way. Not concerned by the type of snake it was, I simply saw the experience as an anomaly and gift.
Another walk, this last summer-alone this time-the very same thing happened. From the left, a large snake appeared and I hardly noticed before it was on my feet, moving across, not even seeming to be in a hurry. I simply watched in awe. That was twice.
The third time it happened was on another guided walk, in a meadow area. Everyone had been sent out for 20 minutes to sit or wander alone. I wanted to do the same. But before, I needed to set up our tea ceremony, which was to come next. When I finished, I walked slowly through the meadow. As I walked, I suddenly heard a sound. It was a very alarming sound, like something was calling out for help. I thought at first it might be a cicada being eaten, but this was a very different alarm. It was, however, a small animal sound. As I wandered toward the sound, I found myself a little hesitant. I knew I needed to see what was happening.
I walked into the meadow, clearing the grasses and flowers in front of me with a long stick. As I got closer, the volume increased. It was most definitely a cry for help. And there they were; a snake eating a bright green frog. The frog was in distress, of course, and the snake was very focused on his lunch. The frog was trapped, back legs already inside the unhinged jaws of the snake’s mouth. And there I was, alarmed and extremely disjointed by the sound the frog was making. The two voices in my head began. “You should just observe. This is just nature at work. Leave it alone.” The other voice was not a voice really. It felt like, “You have to save the little frog. He called out. You heard him. It is right that you follow your heart and save him.” Being the empath that I am, I really had no choice. I used the stick to move the grasses to uncover the area as moved closer. My actions agitated the snake, but I stayed as far away as possible. He reared up and “stood” up about a foot high with the frog still deeply in his mouth. He would not let go easily. I agitated him a little more, just moving the stick at the ground close to him. Retreating slightly, he stayed as reared up as possible, holding tightly to the frog. Eventually, the snake felt threatened enough to let go and leave the scene. I felt a real struggle there, in myself. I wondered why it was I needed to stop that natural process, but I did. The snake was over 4 feet long, but a simple garter snake. I felt relieved at the cessation of the sound, but also regretful about having upset the built-in miracle of the food web in the meadow. The feeling of relief was primary, though.
The allotted time was complete for that part of the guided walk and I called everyone back to the circle. We sat at our tea, shared our stories, snacked and just basked in the sunshine and the smell of the warm grasses in the meadow.
As we left the forest I met the serpent again. Walking on the path back to the parking lot, a snake slithered over my bare feet. I was walking just ahead of the participants and just allowed myself to stop and breathe in the moment. I felt a smile come across my face and a feeling of sheer surprise and mild shock fill my body. I could not help but talk about this experience with my new friends. Luckily, they all were interested enough not to think I was losing my mind and were quite curious about it.
I drove home pondering the morning’s events. The visitations from the snakes were all too much to ignore, once again. I needed to look some things up. As I sat at my table, after showing the kids the video I took of the frog and snake, the significance of these encounters became apparent. I had had a summer filled with encounters with the color red, Mother Mary and other revelations of the divine feminine, the salmon spawning, artwork that made my body just light up with excitement, feeling validation of my journey just through my coming face to face with it all. Here was something to pay attention to yet again.
The snake means many things and is found within so many ancient cultures’ belief systems. Encountering a snake can represent healing, transformation and a surge of life force and primal energy. The snake-think Garden of Eden-can symbolize spiritual guidance. One site states that snake might appear when we are stepping into the unknown and ready to experience significant personal growth. It also has been defined as the carrier of divine feminine energy and the possibility of the release of old ideas that no longer serve.
The encounters with snake were powerful outer witnesses for what was happening in my life. The gratitude I feel for these experiences really cannot be put into words. The support of the more-than-human world is so generous and validating. The mirror of nature is honest, perhaps more honest than our reflections from the human world.
Thank you, dear humans, though, for traveling this path with me.
Please share your experiences in the comments about your encounters with the natural world, questions you might have about it, or ideas you’d like to see us explore!
The snake as transformation. Three calls. An image of the pitiless element of nature, the consuming of life. I am glad you are paying attention.
When the Serpent Appears-Part 2
Between Mother’s Day and the talk with the bishop, there was a month of work travel overseas and a week of family vacation in northern Michigan. These weeks were full to the brim with beautiful people, places and all the best “feels” possible.
My family has been vacationing in a coast guard cabin in the north of Michigan since I was three years old. I have only missed a few years, and those I was usually in Europe working, so didn’t miss out too badly. This cabin and the surrounding landscape, the water and sand, are full of moments of connection for me. This has been a sacred place to me for many years. The soft smell of the hemlocks, the relentless wind off of the lake, the bite of the hot sand on my feet all have a special place in my heart. My grandmother found and rented this place for us all when I was young. My cousins and siblings ran wild for the entire week, only coming in for food and to steal a cookie from the enormous pail of monster cookies. Monster cookies were only available for that one week every year, and we all took advantage of it.
This past year, it was a little different. I was 44 years old and not running wild, per se. I was pondering the imminent changes in my life, taking long walks in the dunes, forests and on the beach. This is the one place I am used to being alone in the natural world. Something has always reassured me that I was safe there. It has held true to this day, thank goodness.
On the last morning, I walked from the cabin to the beach for one last morning stroll next to the water. Looking down almost constantly, I searched for pretty stones; stones with stories of the past. There are such special fossils there and only there, to be found. At one point, I looked into the water next to me. I was walking at a slow pace and noticed that there was movement in the water, going at the same pace I was. I had just done a semester-long project for school on the invasive Asian carp and their potential influence on the area’s waterways. I was afraid to look too closely. But my curiosity won out..like it often does. What I saw was something I could not explain. Next to me were at least twenty salmon with pink bellies, moving at the same pace I was, rolling over and over each other. We, the salmon and I, were traveling south from the cabin toward Frankfort. There were no immediate rivers nearby; where they might have come from. Never before had I seen them next to the shore. I could have reached out and touched them as they were no more than 4 feet from me.
They remained at my side for over 10 minutes, moving at my pace. Some would leave for a bit, then come back to join the others. At one point, they all disappeared and I worried that our meeting was over. But they came back and I had plenty of time to pull out my phone and record this event, getting close enough to show their behavior as they swam. I took over four minutes of footage in order to ask a local fisherman (whom I would find later that morning) about it.
They came and went, with a mass of them staying with me. Nearing the end of my walk, before I came to the point where the lake prohibited my going further, it seemed they had all left me. But, looking more closely, I noticed one remained. One single pink bellied, Coho salmon. She was beautiful. She remained with me until I had to turn back. I walked back alone in my thoughts about what I had just witnessed.
Getting back to the house, packing and cleaning, I made a plan to go into town and find someone before leaving. I put gas in the car and drove down toward the fishing docks. Finding two older fishermen, I asked if they would watch my video from my phone. They did. Both of them looked at each other, then to me again, asking where I had been when I had filmed this. According to both of them, it was extremeely abnormal behavior for the salmon to be that close to the shore and for them to be spawning in the lake. So that’s what they were doing! That idea had crossed my mind, but the location didn’t match the behavior, so I put it out of my mind.
Because the woodpecker had all but disappeared from earshot that past month or so and I was aware of it, I wondered if these salmon were trying to say something to me. What was the medicine of the salmon and did it apply to where I was in my life in that moment? Spoiler alert! They had a lot to say. 😊
According to the website dreamsandsleep.com and others, the Salmon represents many things as a totem animal. Salmon represents adaptation and change, rebirth and happiness, eternal life and femininity. Its appearance can be a support of the change happening in your life and witness that it is allowing progress in a good way. It also witnesses to a person that they do not deal with monotony well, they get “bored easily” (I have said this many times about myself), and that travel and exploration is vital for them. It’s focus on femininity and reproduction can mean several things. One being that families are very important to them; that they get a lot of meaning and fulfillment from their relationships with their families. It also speaks to having a large family, but that it represents deep creative power is more of an accurate description. They also represent infinite wisdom and prophecy; that a person is guided well by their own intellect and knowledge.
As I reflect on the timing of my experience with the salmon, all of these totem messages ring true. Focusing on the gift of witnessing the spawning of the salmon demonstrates to me that the creative journey I am on is indeed valid and worthy of the energy and life-force it requires. It also reflects to me the fierceness and commitment in my mothering and my deep love for my family and need to be seen by them. Indeed, all of the other messages are true as well, but I’ll save them for another time…another blog.
Sometimes when people hear me tell stories about encounters with animals in nature they will say something like, “You’ve had a lot of luck to see so much wildlife.” But I don’t think so. I think the number, frequency, and nature of our encounters with wildlife is mostly a function of how much time we spend outdoors. If you spend a great deal of time outdoors, eventually you will meet every species that lives in your area. But this is only one of the determinants, and it has mostly to do with frequency and variety of encounter.
There is also the element of the nature of the encounter. And that’s where the determining factor is our own inner process and how we are relating to our lives and the lives around us, especially the lives of the more-than-human world. Slowly walking alone in places where we feel safe in our solitude invites a different quality of encounter. Especially when we are holding big questions; it is as if the land feels our questions, as if the prints and traces made by our feet are a written language that the land reads.
In your story of the salmon I see you walking barefoot, intensely in your heart as your ponder an important moment of your life. You are finding clues in ancient stones. Life extends backwards millions of years, and leaves its written alphabet. And each of your steps leaves its own word in the sand. Your heart and mind and body connect with the place, and it hears, it listens. It responds. The salmon come to you. They walk with you. This is not a miracle; it is the ordinary everyday way of the web of interbeing that connects us all. But you do something radical for our times: you notice. You notice what you have called in, and you welcome the companionship of the fishes. You welcome it with wonder and tenderness and excitement.
The Salmon speak in the language of fishes. This is a language that is heard by humans in the voices of our imaginations, where imagination lives in the heart center. You say you wondered if the salmon were trying to say something to you; I know you better than that, Christy. You knew they were. The wondering is more like this: “How can I receive the message?” And I am sure you did. The Salmon knew better than to waste their time on someone whose heart was blind, whose imagination was dulled. Is this not at the core of our forest practice, that we will receive what we are ready to receive, and understand what we are ready to understand, the great sentient earth will know exactly what to send us; what generous offering to make. And receiving it, we are little by little shaped on our path of becoming the fullness of who and what we are.
Last summer was a time of great transitions in my personal life and the conversations that led to the creation of this business, Wild Communion. The woodpecker had left my side, after 3+ years of almost constant companionship. His message to “keep moving, keep moving, you haven’t found “it” yet” as well as “quit banging your head against the same ideas, trying to make them work, when they won’t”, had shaped my will to continue to search for answers. I am sure he could have been saying more than that, but that is what I felt in my body about his presence. I listened to him at home daily. I listened as I traveled around the world, in every kind of forest, young or old, biodiverse or otherwise. It was an interesting thing to notice that when alone or when guiding, we were accompanied by the ever-present sound of woodpeckers.
Yes, it is possible that I simply started listening more acutely to the sounds of the forest. It is possible that I am just reading into things.But I don’t believe so..especially after last summer.
It was Mother’s Day when I knew that the marriage was over. Something just said, “it is time.” We had talked and talked about it, but never had come to agreement on the timing or whether it was truly necessary. But it was. Nearly a couple of months later I got brave enough to talk to my church leader about it all. I knew he would be compassionate and loving. He is just that kind of man. I was grateful to have him to tell…first. I was still too afraid to tell my friends or family. I didn’t know if I had the stamina to withstand any kind of attacks on my judgment, even though I knew in my body that it was right.
The bishop and I met on the trail. I tend to prefer that for every kind of conversation I have, especially the difficult ones. There is a support there that is so very present. The natural world always knows how to show up, doesn’t it? I explained the situation on the home front to him. He replied only with concern and love. What about the kids? How would I do financially? How would I finish school? There were many questions and no answers. But the knowing was strong and I felt he trusted my judgement. Carl Jung speaks these words about this kind of knowing: It is…
“a thinking from the intestines, from the depths as opposed to an academic intellect which is often empty and does not always agree with us…a knowledge that comes from the blood.”
I like this because even when my mind goes into fits about all the impossibilities of survival in this new state, I have the reassurance that the feeling in my gut mean something. It has told me when I am in harm’s way, but this time it was saying that this was right and good.
Returning to our cars, we walked the path back the way we had come. Suddenly, I heard a woodpecker call on the right. It wasn’t the red-bellied, the hairy or downy that I know so well. It was something I heard before but couldn’t quite place it. A scan of the trees revealed a glorious red crest; a Pileated woodpecker!
I was so surprised. It was early July in northern Indiana. Locally, I had only ever seen two of them; and always in the winter. I watched him-it was a him-and he swooped across our path as we stood still. Following his path, we saw him land on another snag on the left. And the chatter began. There were two others there, all of them having a conversation about something. I always like to imagine what they are talking about, but in this moment, I was too much in shock to imagine anything. I am sure I said something to my walking companion, but I don’t remember what that might have been. I got back in my car and drove home in a little bit of a trance. As I processed that experience over the days that followed, I came to know what it all meant.
The image came to mind of fireworks. They are beautiful and noisy, colorful and exciting. There is no getting around noticing them. What happens at the end? There is the finale, right? They come at you, over and over, louder than before, just inundating your senses, your sense of wonder and awe..your eyes open wider and you may even want to plug your ears. This is what those gorgeous Pileated woodpeckers were. They were the finale. They were saying to me, “you did it!”, “you did the hard work and didn’t settle”, “you can now relax a little.” How about that? I allowed those words to sink in and felt that, indeed, the natural world had given testimony to my actions. My mind and body were in sync and I felt witnessed like never before.
The hard times did not magically end there. They are still very present. I see this experience as an extraordinary gift in support of the first part of that transition.
Trail time so often eases difficult conversation. There is something about sharing a pace, a rhythm of walking, and how the experience of the trail attunes us with our companions, that makes it easier to find words. That’s how I see the walk you describe with your church leader. There is space for a gentleness and for listening. What you reveal in your account, something that perhaps many of us miss, is how the other beings contribute, almost like stage managers, to the setting of the conversation. The woodpeckers were there; and like you they too had a knowing. Part of which was this: that years of hard work and struggle eventually brings down the tree, and it is time to celebrate, no matter how many years went into the growing and tending and life of that tree. The way you experienced the raucous calls as equivalent to a fireworks finale is so inspiring. I’ve noticed this when you and I have shared trail time: how attuned you are to the many voices and textures of the place, how they speak to you. Having your story of receiving the speech of the woodpeckers inspires me to listen again to the forest. Thank you for this pointer to the wisdom we all carry in our bodies, if we but tune in to their many pulsing voices: “I know in my gut, that it is right and good.”
I have long thought of the wilderness as a place that is overwhelmingly feminine. This feminine is the unknown, the dark, vulnerable, trusting, creative, and unpredictable. It is a place of mystery. This wilderness is not a place to be trifled with. It is also a place where the sacred occurs; a place of ceremony. So often when we are in the wilderness of our lives, every breath feels as if it must be earned.
The words “wild”, “rewilding”, and “wilderness” are being used liberally in our world of nature-connection. I wonder sometimes if there is consensus on their usage. One place I encountered the word wilderness made me very curious. Several years ago, I bought the book Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown and put it on my Audible account. She has, unknowingly, read this book to me almost 6 times now. There is apparently something in her message that resonates with me and keeps me curious. Through the many life changes I have made these past few years, her words have given me strength to keep moving; to keep traveling my path, even though I often felt incredibly alone. In chapter two, she writes about wilderness in a way that just today caught my attention. She says in her own words that we not only are called to live in the wilderness if we are doing our work; the work that is only ours to do, we are called to be the wilderness.
To be the wilderness
I was on a run while listening to her and when I am on a run, I am truly in my body. After 4 children, and being over 40, it is now hard work. But today was sunny and almost 50 degrees. I was not about to miss the chance to be outside, watch the swift Wabash, listen to my woodpeckers and crow companions, and feel the cool air through my hair. As I heard Brene speak those words, I felt them. To embody something is to truly understand it; it is to know it beyond words; it is to envelope it, to receive it completely…all words we would use to describe the feminine. To be the wilderness is to -
Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.
To be the wilderness, we are required to feel. We are required to feel it all: the angry, scary, sad, incomplete and lonely. But the wilderness also allows for ecstatic joy and pleasure, the resolution of grief, and the fullness of grace and mercy. Although to feel the joy is easy, we know it is complicated by knowing that all of these feelings are temporary. They wash over us, are transient and fleeting. To be in the wilderness is to know we are vulnerable to the unknown.
There is much about this that I do not appreciate fully yet. If I am going to be open to deeply- felt emotion, I would prefer it to be ecstatic joy and pleasure rather than deep unrelenting grief. But there is no opt-out button. And, just because we experience these feelings does not mean they serve us long-term. We can observe the wilderness as we suffer, but to really be the wilderness, is to accept that our suffering has meaning; it has something to teach us and we are NOT leaving untouched. We face the pain, grief and ask it, “What is this supposed to teach me about myself?” or “How is this to change me?” It is not to push it away, wishing for better days, hoping that it will be over soon.
To wish that it is over soon is not bad; it does not mean we are weak. It just means we need more support. The wilderness-contrary to many people’s ideas of it-is not a place to experience only solitude. There are times that we have that experience, but it is not the only way. We need support. We need friends, therapists, or family to hold us as we stumble along our path.
There may be nothing more frightening than to have the realization that we have been living someone else’s life; perhaps the prescribed life. But stepping outside that is lonely, truly lonely. As we embody the wilderness, we are not only learning the lessons life is throwing at us, we are truly living our lives and becoming the people that the world needs us to be. One of the greatest rewards of embodying the wilderness are not even ours; they are seen in the lives of the people who watch, even from a distance; the people that need us to go first.
So we do it. We brave the wilderness, as Brene says. We do the impossible, ask the hard questions and wait for the painful answers. We sigh with relief when it is over and breathe deep breaths of air that are transcendent, making us feel more alive than we could have ever imagined possible.
I think what you say is exactly right, that to be in wilderness we have to feel. There is a particular quality to this feeling; it is not emotions disconnected from body awareness, but rather a whole-body-and-self experience of the felt presence of the world and how we are living in it in the present moment. And I agree that this is the place of the feminine. In our guide training we differentiate between two states of being. One we call "The Tamed World," and the other "Wilderness." The tamed world is primarily masculine, with the masculine traits of order, control, protection, conforming, and so on... the elements needed to make a culture cohesive. And it also includes the shadow aspects, domination and oppression of individuality. Our bodies respond to this with a kind of anesthesia; we learn to hurt less by feeling less. Of course, we develop a host of somatic troubles in response, but it is often beyond our awareness to link them to the effects of the pervasive toxic aspects of the masculine. Chief among these effects, at least in my experience, is the feeling that who I am is not welcome here. Our authenticity is suppressed. This is why as guides we create threshold experiences that help our people leave the tamed world and enter Wilderness.
Which is to say, we help them have an experience of the feminine. Like the masculine, the feminine is complex and ambivalent. Creator and Nurturer live alongside Destroyer and Devourer. We cannot walk in the field of these energies without becoming more awake, more aware of our humanness and of the many innate resources that exist in each of us.
In the tamed world, the masculine myth is of eternal, linear progress. We can measure our success by the extent to which we become progressively wealthier, more privileged, and (presumably) happier. This never seems to work out as advertised. The feminine path is a spiral. We move in cycles of creative energy followed by the "things fall apart" stage. At each turn of the cycle we gain a bit more wisdom. It may be that the purpose of Wilderness is to nurture our wisdom and to destroy the hubris that arises when we imagine we have "made it."
Following my surgery three weeks ago I've been resting. It's been difficult for me to think about writing or being productive. My body is knitting itself back together: new grafts on my cardiac arteries, the sawn split of my sternum weaving new bone, the long cut on my leg slowly becoming skin and scar. A few days ago while in the cafe in Glen Ellen I was reading when an image came over me. I opened my notebook and two pages flowed from pen, almost autonomously; if felt not so much as if I was writing but more like I was recording images from an imaginal realm. It took me a couple more days to realize that I had received an image of my own threshold experience.
My heart surgery has certainly been a threshold experience. For a while my heart stopped beating. Then it was started again. This was expected, a part of the surgery. I had decided in advance to make it a ceremony of death and rebirth. Not knowing what I am to be reborn into, what shape my life will take, has left me with a sense of inquiry, a great wondering. Who will I meet when I gaze into the mirror? How will I meet the world? Will I at long last begin to learn how to embody the man who I have always hoped I would be, that elusive being who has been hidden behind a lesser being, a man-in-becoming often swamped in the confusion of life?
These are open questions for me. And as questions they carry a charge, an energy that drives my work. They are the batteries of the soul. Deep questions are at the heart of the immersions we do in Wild Communion. I know that for many people the immersion experiences they've had have also served as thresholds, simultaneously into new knowings of Self and new not-knowings, a deepening of gnosis and of the questions that drive the continuing quest.
In the story below, two of the beings who have long inhabited my imagination point to new possibilities.
Coyote Sets Sail
After many years together, and many shared adventures, Coyote and River Otter set out on a journey that brought them at last to the shore of a dark sea.
Arriving at twilight, they saw anchored a ship built of planks of ebony with gossamer sails. Coyote and River Otter gazed at the ship. Presently a skiff lowered from its decks into the water and began to float toward where they stood on the shore. Gentle waves washed it onto the beach.
“For me, I think,” Coyote said.
River Otter stood silent, feeling the breeze in his fur, feeling the presence of his old friend. Feeling a moment outside of time, a Kairos that having arrived held them both in its embrace.
Thus they stood for some time. Then Coyote turned to River Otter.
“Here is my tea set,” he said, giving otter the worn canvas case that held, carefully wrapped within it, his tea pot, whisk, tray, and cups. “I cannot go where I am called if I carry the things I love,” Coyote said. It was not known to whom he spoke. River Otter and he held the same thoughts and after their many years of companionship the same knowings were in their hearts.
“And you, my friend,” Coyote said, “here is where for a while we part ways.”
River Otter said, “The ropes that bind us are infinite and will be be severed.” He paused, raised his paw about his head, and made an abrupt downward chopping motion. “I sever them,” River Otter declared.
Coyote bowed. River Otter bowed back.
Coyote stepped into the skiff. Immediately it started floating away from shore, slowly at first, then with a steady purpose.
River Otter watched in silence. Coyote, carried into the twilight, lit by the field of stars that just then brightened into the deepening night; Coyote on a darkling sea, borne away.
“See you soon, my friend,” said River Otter.
--Glen Ellen, 02.20.2020
This is a love story. My story of continuously falling in love with the world.
Today, Amos went into surgery for a triple bypass. He is in California, where he lives, and I am in Indiana, where I live. It has been a difficult month of waiting; the roller coaster of emotions, the feeling like everyday was a week…or a month, and it was finally over. I wanted to honor the hours of his surgery with a ceremony, or at least with some change of pace. This man has been my friend, my mentor, my travel-buddy, and the facilitator of incredible change in my life. One of those changes has been my capacity to hold love; love for people, but more than that, love for the whole world. This has been beautiful. Strangely, it has also been the way I could step into the decision to divorce my husband of 26 years. I love my husband. I love him enough to want happiness for him, even if that happiness is not me.
So, rewinding a bit…A few days ago while I was at work at the YMCA, our friendly volunteer at the front desk- Randy-(a retired Illinois State Park service worker and friend) offered something precious to me. Over the past years, Randy and I have had many talks with topics ranging from our love for the natural world to how men do a great job of avoiding difficult and challenging conversations. He is not one of those men. The past three years, I have been in school and he has listened to my exhausted complaining and has also been the one who wants to see pictures from my travels. He is a great friend. This month, he has been listening to me. I did not know how well he had been listening until he offered his woods to me. He offered to make a fire, help tend it and create a space for me to be; to be quiet and write, or just be, for the duration of Amos’s surgery. I was so surprised. This was just the way I needed to spend my day. How did he know?
I instantly accepted. I had thought about going to the local State park and hiking or just finding place for sit or both. But, as many of you women know, being alone in a public a wooded place for a long time, quietly can be triggering. It is for me. But a private woods, large enough for all kinds of native wildlife and a large diversity in plant life… that was an easy choice to make.
I showed up today at 10, we built a fire, we talked a bit and he left me alone and went up to the house. The sun was peaking out for the first time in the month...no joke…and snow was falling lightly. It was perfect. The smell of the pine smoke was comforting. The sound of the forest was muffled by the snow. The sun peaked around the trunks of the sycamores and beeches.
The fire lasted about two hours without being tended too much. I decided to walk up the hill. I left the fire, skipped across the creek, and started up the hill. On the knoll, there were several grandmother beeches. I went to each of them, leaning on them, feeling the smooth bark, noticing the energy of these massive allies and soaked in the sun, the warmth coming from the bark from behind me as well as the yellow glow in front. A familiar sound suddenly filled the air. There were red-bellied woodpeckers in the woods. There were three of them all together. I watched them dart from tree to tree, wings flapping. One left the others and went north. The others, stayed, dancing around one trunk of tree, flying to another, pecking at each other. Then they flew to another large tree, only to continue the ritual. It was wonderful. I moved down the hill and leaned on a tree to watch. They were right above me for over a half an hour. Walking back up the hill, I was greeted by another pair of woodpeckers, this time they were the downy. They were much quieter and so sweet to watch. The sun continued to shine.
As I slid/walked down the hill toward the creek, I noticed a small beech. A beech just like this one changed my life just about four years ago. My mind and heart were instantly taken back to the first walk on my forest therapy training, guided by Amos. We were in Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. The leaves of a tiny beech tree quivered in the breeze. I could hear them. One was scratching the bark of a neighboring hemlock. The sound of the leaf was the perfect mirror for years and years of anxiety that had been stored in my body. I took the leaf in my hands, held it between my gloves and continued my slow walk up the hill. At the top of the hill, the wind picked up. Something in me said to raise my hands above my head and to allow the leaf to fly away. I did not hesitate. The leaf flew away. I watched it. And something changed in me. I have no idea how, but this…this is the gift of relationship. I didn’t have to know how. It just happened. The anxiety in my body left with the leaf. I was changed.
Rabia, the mystic has said what I could not say with words:
I was born when all I once
I was born. At least a part of me was born that day that had been sleeping, or had not yet even taken that first breath. That walk went on to provide one shift after another. I never expected it, nor had been told that it was even a “thing” that happened on forest therapy walks. It was a testimony to the power of this work and it lives to this day in my body. How could I help but fall in love with the powerful beech, the delicate hemlock, the sparkly creek and the dancing woodpeckers, and see past the pain of humans, into their beautiful hearts?
The gift of this love came from the man who went into surgery today to have work done on his heart; the heart that has birthed a healing balm for so many people across the world. I am forever grateful for today’s gift of quiet space from a friend, for the memories that got me there, and for the love that fuels the work I am privileged to do in the world.
There is a fire in the forest. I am laying in a cold room tended by gowned and masked Buddhas who open me up, stop my heart, repair it, and start it again. Far away there is a fire in the forest. It is a burning of the heart of my friend, a light of the gift of a great love. My sternum is closed and wired together, my skin is sutured so healing may begin. The fire burns in the snow until it is done. The heat and light of love continue unextinguished, unabated. I am grateful my friend, my companion, for your vigil and your witness. There is something here, something that pervades the entire universe, that burns and snows and dies and is reborn and born anew. I am so deeply honored, so deeply grateful.