In the summer of 2017, Mark and I led the River of Life Connecticut River Pilgrimage – a 40-day journey of prayer and reconciliation with the land. I invited the more than 50 pilgrims who joined us to return to the prayers from our pilgrimage this Lent. Throughout the season of Lent, I am writing weekly reflections drawing on the themes from the Connecticut River Pilgrimage. They are also being posted by Kairos Earth, the organization that sponsored the pilgrimage. Enjoy!
Our winter lives in New England are full of barriers to protect us from the wildness of the outside world – the walls of our houses and the heating devices within; coats, boots, hats, mittens & scarves; our climate-controlled vehicles. Thanks to amazing road crews our routines can continue uninterrupted save the occasional blizzard or ice storm. All these protections keep us cozy, safe, and protected from the fierce wildness of winter.
Barriers that keep our bodies warm and alive on cold winter days are good and necessary protections. Yet our lives are filled with all sorts of other barriers that protect us from the wildness and the unpredictability of God. These barriers also keep us from dying, but they keep us from a spiritual death of the ego. Ultimately, that death invites us into a much greater life than we can possibly imagine.
Lent is a time to discover and strip away the barriers that stand between us and the wild love of God. Because God’s nature is so clearly revealed in the wildness of creation, I think it is also a time to strip away the modern barriers between us and the incarnate wildness of creation.
It may be a few days after Ash Wednesday, but it’s not too late to think about what to fast from this Lent. What can you remove from your life that will bring you into greater encounter with the wildness of God, the wildness of nature, and the wildness of the present reality. What barrier, can you remove to remind you that life – existence itself – is wild, free and glorious?
Here are some ideas:
Internet/Social Media: We all have had the experience of being transported from where are bodies are to some other place with one ding, swipe, or click. The internet is an incredible tool when used wisely. It also has tremendous power to shield us from the wildness of the present reality – including God and nature. Every time I do an internet or social media fast I am shocked at how programmed I am to reach for my phone as soon as I am no longer preoccupied with something else.
This fast can manifest multiple ways – delete a social media account for the season, limit internet use to working hours, keep a tech-free Sabbath once a week, or remove internet access on your smartphone. And then, look around you, really see the people you walk or drive by, notice how your body feels, pay attention to where your mind goes. Pray that your eyes would open to the infinite presence of God in each and every moment.
Conveniences: Our modern lives are chock-full of conveniences! Surveying our morning routines alone demonstrates this – light at the flick of a switch, water at the turn of a handle, hot water at the turn of another handle, a refrigerator keeping our food cold, a heater keeping us warm. Choosing to fast from a convenience can remind us how interconnected our lives are with the rest of the planet.
You can fast from a convenience by using candles in the evening instead of electric lights, hand wash dishes instead of using a dish washer, or limit the amount of trash you generate during Lent to a quart-sized jar (or smaller!). Consider parking far away from your office, grocery store or church rather than the closest spot you can find. If you are able to walk instead of drive, opt for walking this Lent. You can also remove a barrier between you and your impact on the earth by visiting the source of your conveniences. Visit the hydro dam, solar panels, wind turbines or power plant that produces your electricity or the reservoir that supplies your water.
Noise: The news, background music, podcasts, Netflix, conversation with others, books. We have countless ways to distract us from the physical reality around us, our thoughts, and God’s presence. On the Connecticut River Pilgrimage, silence was the cornerstone of everything we did. Without the silence – 3-4 hours every morning and 20 minutes of silence during communal prayer – the challenge of hearing the voice of the river and the presence of God would have been so much greater. Silence is our greatest aid in encountering the wildness of God, nature, and the present moment. The gift of silence is that it is accessible to us no matter where we are!
The prayer book encourages a practice of twenty minutes of silence two times a day. Additionally, you can fast from noise by not listening to the radio or podcasts; giving up recorded music; choosing to not watch TV, Netflix or movies; or keeping silence until mid-morning each day (you need to get your household in on this one!). Do not be afraid when your mind fills in the silence with noise of its own. You may be tempted to replace your old form of noise-making with a new form. Resist the temptation. If you stay with the silence and surrender your inner noisiness to God, inner silence will come.
It is a terrifying undertaking to remove the barriers we have built to protect us against the wild unpredictability of God, nature, and the present moment. I resonate with Emilie Griffin when she writes,
“‘Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.’ Isn’t that one of the most disturbing sentences in the Scriptures? We know God asks hard things. We know he did not spare his own Son. We know Jesus, prayed, not now and then, but all the time. Isn’t this what holds us back –the knowledge of God’s omnipotence, his unguessability, his power, his right to ask an All of us, a perfect gift of self, a perfect act of full surrender?”
Yet even as we enter this forty day fast, we already know how it ends. We fast, not in a spirit of deprivation, but with the promise that it is only through stripping the old away, through death, that new life will come.
May God give us the courage to strip away all that keeps us from knowing fully the wonder of this wild world and the love of a wild God!
Most of my stories take place on a 10-acre homestead in the hills of Vermont. Occasionally, however, I tell a tale of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is an essential discipline in my spiritual life. In the out-of-routine unpredictability and vulnerability of pilgrimage, my eyes become more adept at seeing the infinite riches of each moment and that vision comes back home with me. Without doubt, the familiarity and comfort of home will lull me back into a blurrier vision and so I return to pilgrimage. However, upon each return home my vision stays clearer a little longer. The conviction that I’m as much on pilgrimage at home as I am on the trail is a little stronger. I have come to believe that without this change – if pilgrimage doesn’t impact home – the journey was in vain.
I usually go on pilgrimage close to home – on the Connecticut River or the Appalachian Trail. When I choose to take the train to Pennsylvania (my childhood home) instead of driving, that too becomes a pilgrimage. On rare and special occasions I am called even further outside my comfort zone. In the fall of 2017, I set aside money and carved out time to walk an old pilgrimage way in southeastern France – the Way of St Gilles. Here’s part of that story.
It took me two hours to get out of Le Puy en Velay. Two hours of wandering around the unfamiliar city on the first day of my two-week walking pilgrimage in France. The morning started out okay. Early rising, an unsatisfying version of a French breakfast – bland white bread, butter, and instant coffee – at the hostel, and a special mass at the basilica to bless and send pilgrims. At the conclusion of mass, the 60-some pilgrims shouldered their packs (you could immediately pick out the veterans and newbies based solely on pack size) and flooded down the huge stone steps leading out from the church. The majority of these walkers stepped right from the church onto El Camino de Santiago – their first step on the French Way of the famous pilgrimage.
I, the contrarian that I can be when I’m truly listening to the Spirit, had to meander and navigate my way through the curvy, cobblestone, medieval streets to find the first unassuming white and red blaze marking the Way of St Gilles, or the Regordane Way, the much less traveled path I had chosen. However, before finding my pilgrim way, I had a few errands to make while I was still in the “big city.”
Streets of Le Puy en Velay
Backpacks lining the cathedral walls
First, I needed some real food if I had any hope of walking the 17 miles to the hostel I planned to spend the night. I loaded up on the fattiest and protein-iest foods I could find at the little French market – two avocadoes and a little tub of Greek yogurt. According to my guidebook, there was a town of decent size that had a bakery and market about half-
way through my day’s walk. I didn’t want to carry more weight than I needed and this would get me at least that far.
I also needed more cash than the 15 euros I had. I knew next to nothing about the villages I was about to walk through and certainly didn’t want to end up cashless and ATM-less. Quite aware of the ticking clock and the lack of kilometers behind me, I quickly tracked down a bank, muddled my way through the automated screen and eventually saw a friendly “Merci, au revoir!” on the screen. I waited for the cash I requested, but no money came. Oh no! I thought I’m going to need to go inside! I know very little French. I knew even less on my first day of this walk. My plan was to find my way on this adventure with my eyes, ears, smarts, and gut and use my voice as little as possible. But here I was, only a few steps into my journey and already confused.
I sheepishly pulled the heavy glass door, my mind swimming with all the stories I’ve heard about how much the French hate Americans – especially the stupid Americans who travel to France without knowing French. They’re just stories, I try to reassure myself. Don’t live in a perceived reality. Experience actual reality. Well, this time perceived reality and actual reality were quite similar. Sitting at the desk before me was a tall, slender, perfectly manicured Frenchman who already looked annoyed with me. I was suddenly terribly conscious of my stained hiking clothes and unkempt hair.
“Excuse moi? Parlez-vous anglais?” I managed in the worst French accent imaginable, so embarrassed I hadn’t been more faithful with my Duo Lingo exercises.
“A little,” he responded, as it seems all French people do regardless of how much English they actually do speak.
I explained my predicament and he kindly came out to the ATM and tried again for me. After working his way through a couple screens he looked down at me. “Denied,” he said. His tone wasn’t condescending, but it was not apologetic either.
I tried not to let my gut’s clenching reach my face until he disappeared back into the bank. It was 3:30am in the United States – all banks would be closed. There was nothing I could do but walk. And hope the hostel accepted cards.
I walked out of the center of town, where the Virgin rose into the sky watching over the city, and made my way toward the outskirts, my eyes alert for the first sign of the Way of St Gilles.
Confident I was on the right street, my eye suddenly caught the red and white marker that would be my guide for the next two weeks. There it was. A 2 inch by 4 inch red and white blaze on a street light, the first indication I was on the Way. No large announcement, not even a small one. As humble as a pilgrim’s first step is the pilgrimage’s first marker.
With renewed vigor I went forward, my eyes constantly scanned the posts, poles, trees and walls for the blazes that would lead me the 249 km to the old seaport of St. Gilles. I walked with confidence and a sense of bewilderment that I was actually doing this – alone in this strange city on a path I had only learned about a few months prior – walking for no other reason than I felt called to do it.
Then, as quickly as I had found the way’s blazes, I lost them. The blaze had pointed me across the street and then they just disappeared. I walked up the street and back the other way on both sides – no red or white. Except…there was some red tape hanging from a rope across a driveway. It seemed like my only option, so I interpreted it as a sign. Bad mistake. I few days into my walking adventure, I would know the pilgrim’s markings well enough to know this tape had absolutely nothing to do with the walking route. But today? I was new to this and had some learning to do and I was destined to learn it the hard way.
I followed the path into a lush green park bordered by an urban stream. It seemed like the perfect time to take a moment for some water, a snack, and a good look at my maps. Since I had lost the blazes, my map was now my guide. The map was not as detailed as I would have liked and in retrospective, may have given me just enough information to arm me with unwarranted confidence. Two hours later – which involved a confusing sign-language/French/Spanish/English mashup conversation with a Spanish woman, going to the bathroom in the SKETCHIEST public restroom I have ever seen (think concrete, under a stairway, IRON GATED DOORS), and a desperate duck into a church to gather my senses – I was pointed by a gentleman right back to the very spot where I had lost my way two hours earlier. I traced my steps heading back to the center of town thinking perhaps my two hours of aimless wandering would have given me miraculous intuition to know what to do this time. Turns out, it did! This time I saw what I didn’t before – a small walking path following a stream. It was the same stream that had lured me two hours earlier, just the upstream direction. Twenty paces down the path – a new-to-me red and white blaze. I was back.
The sun was now high in the sky and I had literally made no physical progress in two hours, but the joy of knowing where I was and where I was going was enough to keep my spirits buoyed as I climbed the hill leading out of the city. Before I knew it, Le Puy en Velay was nothing more than a view as I looked back over my left shoulder.
Leaving Le Puy en Velay
The welcome sight of the countryside!
Au revoir, le virgin!
The hours flew by quicker than the miles (as they so often do when walking in the afternoon) and I didn’t make it to Costaros – what should have been my lunch spot – until dinnertime. All I had eaten so far was a little bread, yogurt and one avocado. I decided to save my second avocado and ducked into a small bakery. I spent 2 euros on a quiche Lorraine (which I quickly learned is the most protein-dense option at a French bakery) and stashed it in the top of my pack. It’s not that I wasn’t hungry, but I was feeling a bit ashamed at how my first day of pilgrimage was going and I wanted to wait to rest and eat in the countryside without the risk of onlookers. Even in provincial France, I was worried about my image.
I walked up and out of Costaros – tired, despondent, and afraid. I had tried to make a reservation at the hostel in Landos, but I had no way of knowing if they had received it (my phone was useless to me without wifi).
If they did receive it, I didn’t know if there was a bed available and if there was a bed, that I’d be able to pay for it without cash. I started eyeing up the landscape around me, wondering if I would need to stealth camp tonight. The idea of wild camping – something commonplace for me to do at home – seemed terrifying here. This place, in its unfamiliarity, felt unpredictable. What if someone approached me? I can’t even speak their language. I couldn’t explain myself. I’d have no one to call. No one to lean on. My heart raced as I thought how narrow my options felt.
As I peaked the top of the hill coming out of Costaros, the image of Christ on the cross loomed in front of me. I wasn’t having a supernatural vision, there in my path was an actual life-sized crucifix. Do you want to know the really awesome thing about being a Christian pilgrim in France? You literally come face to face with a cross at least three times a day. I dropped my pack at the foot of the cross and slumped my body next to it. I pulled out my cold quiche and gave thanks. I gave thanks for everything I had going for me in that moment, which it turns out, was a lot. I had quiche. And water. Thirteen euros. The blazes showing me the way. A tarp and a sleeping bag. Two more hours of daylight. Fair weather. My healthy, whole body. My mind. I was going to be fine. The next hours may not be easy, but I wasn’t going to die. I wasn’t even going to be harmed. There was nothing to fear.
My tiredness did not go away, but my despondency did. With a simple prayer of thanks, I was transported out of a scarcity mindset to a place of enoughness, perhaps even
abundance. I actually had MORE than I needed. I had multiple options. I could choose to camp right there. I could go back down into Costaros or continue on to Landos. I had enough water to get me to morning and I certainly wasn’t going to starve if I missed dinner. There was nothing to fear.
I’ve found myself coming to this place multiple times since returning home. Sometimes the fear creeps in as I review our month’s expenses and realize we spent more than we had intended. The few hundred dollars we were over budget becomes a crisis of mass proportions. My gut clenched, I am sure I will die a sickly, impoverished woman. My fear blinds me to the abundance around me – the land on which I dwell, the neighbors who look out for us, the food always at our finger tips, my loving, creative, and passionate husband, and plenty of money and means of earning more money if necessary.
Or I’ll mull over how unlikely it is that any of our dreams will come to fruition. That we’ll labor away for years without ever creating a productive bakery, a spiritual community, or a beautiful and soul-nourishing place for people to find respite and reconnect with God. I totally ignore the fact that our lives are so
joyful already, that gifts beyond our dreams have already materialized and if nothing else happened, what already has happened would be completely and utterly sufficient!
Still other times I worry about the children we don’t have. Will our alternative lives traumatize them for life? Our current set-up is not yet conducive to a large family. Will what we need be available when we need it? When I’m not being controlled by fear, these questions sound ridiculous to me! Our lives are so abundant with love, community, good food, and the felt presence of God, it’s insane – literally in that it’s out of line with my current reality – to be anxious about tomorrow.
I am discovering that my fear is almost always based on a false perception of the world around me, not the actual reality.1 Without fail that perception is a narrowed and constricted view that is blind to the resources, options, and love accessible to me. My inner eye locks in focusing on what I do not have and consequently, I fail to see the abundance in my peripheral vision. Much of my life of prayer and faith is practicing to relax my eyes and see the infinite riches all around me.
What was previously paralyzing me with fear does not disappear, but it is held within a larger picture. In that moment by the foot of a crucifix on a little hill over Costoras, France, I still didn’t have a place to spend the night. I still had to make some decisions and act quickly. But as I took stock of the gifts around me, I was moved from a place of gripping fear to a spirit of open trust. From there, I could think and act clearly and even experience joy.
My journey onward from Costoras ended with a hot meal of shepherd’s pie, conversation over tea with a fellow pilgrim and a warm bed. All were pure gift. Three miles from Landos as the sun was setting, a car slowed to my pace and the gentleman inside asked (first in French, but soon thereafter in broken English) where I was going and if I wanted a lift. I paused, obviously hesitant and wary. I was about to say no when I checked in with my gut. I felt safe. So contrary to my usual habits (I turned down a number
of ride offers on this journey alone), I accepted. Accepting this ride was the best decision of my day. This angel drove me right to the hostel, helped me figure out the unnecessarily complex system of checking in, and called the hostel manager who was out (my phone was worthless remember?).
By the time I got settled in (the hostel did accept cards!), any food stores or restaurants in the tiny village were closed. I resigned myself to the fact that my saved avocado would be my dinner that night until I realized it was gone. It must have fallen out of my pack somewhere along the 17 miles. So I resigned myself to the fact that I was fasting that night. I was in the common area of the hostel trying to figure out why my debit card had been denied when the hostel manager asked if I wanted some food. Some guests last night had left a frozen shepherd’s pie.
“It’s probably not very good or healthy,” he warned me. “But you can have it if you like.”
It was the BEST shepherd’s pie I ever ate. As I happily digested my four servings of shepherd’s pie, I sipped tea (another gift) and swapped traveling tales with my roommate for the night. The abundance of resources, generosity and life that surrounded me was even more than I knew on that hill above Costoras. There was nothing to fear.
1 Clearly, for many people, the actual reality of their life’s situation is a legitimate cause for fear – fleeing a war-torn city, watching your ill child’s body fail, living with an abusive relationship. I feel ill-equipped at best and pretentious at worst to speak about such traumatic events and lives. That said, I am curious about how this dynamic of fear and trust plays out even in such tragic and heart-wrenching events. Not all people respond to all situations the same way – even the most horrific. What’s going on there? What allows the great saints and heroes of human history to stay open, loving, and present while they are being beaten, tortured, and killed?
I wrote this poem in the winter of 2014. My best friend’s infant son had died the summer before and my cousin’s infant daughter was battling cancer. It didn’t make sense then. It doesn’t make sense now.
Mark (my hubby) and I now sit on the floor to eat all our meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner – on the floor. It’s not that we can’t afford a table or are even waiting to find one that works in our space. We actually have two tables in storage (we each inherited a family table). One of these we were even using in the yurt until we decided we should start eating on the floor. We don’t, however, eat off the floor. We’re not animals, after all. (Actually, we are, so I guess I’d be cool eating off the floor, too.) We have an octagon of birch plywood perched atop a wooden box that raises it just enough for our legs to fit under the table top.
The advantages of the floor table are multi-fold. First, it can disappear be dismantled and transformed into a decorative art piece and storage box leaving the precious space open for whatever is called for – a sleepover, yoga, a prayer circle, a dance party, a giant domino chain. The possibilities are endless. The floor table also comfortably fits eight people around it’s relatively small perimeter because we don’t have to hassle with pesky, cumbersome chairs that take up more space than a single person. A typical American table of the same size (one that requires chairs) could seat four, possibly squeezing in up to six. The floor table also means we don’t have to store eight chairs, assuming we even owned eight chairs which we do not, in order to host eight people. Genius! (We do have plans to make the table adjustable so it can also be a chair table for guests that need it. Another DIY project in our future!)
All these things contribute to living well in 314 square feet, but my favorite benefit of the floor table is how it reminds me that there is always more than one good way of doing something. Many people in many parts of the world through much of human history (I suspect it’s actually most people in most parts of the world throughout most of human history) did not have chairs. Those who did only had a chair because they were in a position of authority. (This is where we get “chairman of a committee” and “cathedral” – where the Bishop’s chair is.) That doesn’t mean chairs are wrong, which I hope goes without saying. But it does mean they are not a necessity. Just because they are common does not mean they are no longer a luxury. (Similarly, just because you make less money than most people in your community does not mean you aren’t within the world’s wealthiest 20%, something I try to remind myself of often.)
The way we are used to doing things isn’t necessarily the best way or the way that makes the most sense. Sometimes it is, but not always. Mark and I have embraced this philosophy wholeheartedly. As off-grid yurt dwellers, this may already be absurdly obvious. It has become an exciting challenge to seek out and subsequently shed any assumptions we have of how a home ought to be and instead think about what works best, not only for us, but for all creatures and systems that are impacted by our decision.
This philosophy extends well beyond our home to the very essence of how we live our lives.
“Regular Jobs” Are Like Chairs – They’re Not as Necessary as You Think
The mother of all societal norms is what we choose to be the gravitational center of our lives. I call it the mother of all norms because this is what ends up determining what we do day to day and therefore, what our life is devoted to. Within my demographic – white, college educated, middle class – it often feels like that decision has been made for us. Upon college graduation we receive the invisible edict:
“From this day forward, your life will revolve around your career, and then in the future possibly some combination of your career, your spouse’s career, and your children’s schooling. All other aspects of your life – where you live, creative pursuits, spiritual or religious practice, hobbies, vacations – must work themselves around your nine to five and benefits package.”
This may be a perfectly reasonable way to choose to live one’s life. I sure hope it is based solely on how many people are living it! But like a dining room table three to four feet off the floor with one chair per buttocks, it is not the only way of doing things.
This fall I had the joy of hosting a group of students from the college where I used to work. They came to enjoy their October break backpacking in autumnal New England (an excellent life choice). Under the starry sky and over a gourmet-for-camping buffet of pasta with choice of alfredo, marinara or cheese sauce, chicken sausages, sweet potatoes, and locally-made chocolate and vanilla ice cream, we discussed the post-college life on their horizons. Each one of them felt like they had one option – to get a full-time job within their field of study. Their reasons were not unreasonable – there were steep loans to be paid for most. For those fortunate enough to be graduating debt-free, the pressure to “make the most of their education” (translation: get a well-paying job in my field) was equally foreboding. Again, I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting a well-paying job within one’s field any more than I think eating at a high table is wrong. What felt wrong was the sense of stuckness these young women were experiencing. It didn’t sound like they were choosing this direction for themselves. The gravitational pull to orient their lives around career, capitalism, and consumerism had already been decided for them.
I desperately tried to let them know there were other ways. It may involve sacrifice. It would definitely require imagination and creativity. It may even require doing the salaried job for a time to dig out of crippling levels of student debt. But despite all this, there are other ways of doing things. You don’t need chairs if you don’t want them.
How We Make a Living (And Only Somewhat Related, How We Make Money)
Mark and I have chosen to orient our entire adult lives around something other than a money-making career. In this experiment (aka our life),we are attempting to craft a sustainable way of living that leads to wholeness of body, soul and spirit, not just for ourselves, but for all who share this earth.
Our life (yes our life for Mark’s and my lives are hopelessly wedded in almost every way) is a beautiful and complicated web of prayer, building projects, writing, retreats, visioning, homesteading, trip guiding, body movement training, wild food gathering, and teaching. Nearly every week we give at least some attention to each of these “things we do.” Some provide for our needs (money, food, or shelter) directly, others are investments that we hope will provide for us or our community in the future and others are our life’s service to the world.
We are learning the art of living well on a small amount of money and finding it quite easy to do so. The things that help us live on a small income – like harvesting wild food, living in a yurt (no mortgage!), heating exclusively with wood, or building our own furniture – are the very things that contribute to a holistic, soul-nourishing life. It’s a positive feedback loop! Simple lives allow for spacious lives. Spacious lives give us the freedom to decide how they are lived.
The privilege to live this way has required all of the things listed above – years of paying down debt (and making choices to not take on more debt), sacrifice, creativity, and imagination. It’s the kind of imagination and creativity that may lead you to eat your dinner off a floor table by candle light in a 314-square foot yurt and realize you are richer than you ever dreamed possible.
It’s 4:00pm and the sun is casting its last golden rays on the far hills. I won’t need to light the candles for another thirty minutes. Enough fading light will make its way into the yurt through the skylight. But by 4:30 any last warm, reddish hues will set with our planet’s nearest star. Even still, some light lingers, but it is cool, shadowy light, painting the white snowy canvas with purples, then blues, then grays, then darkness.
Or, almost darkness. It looks like it will be a clear night. On clear nights, the stars – those faraway pinpoints of light – are bright enough that I don’t need my headlamp to walk the unlit path from the car, up and over the knoll to our yurt nestled in its tiny dell. The collective brightness of the stars astounds me.
I’m learning to love the dark more than ever this year as I spend my first winter without electricity in a 20-foot yurt. Many (myself included) thought the lack of electric light would make the dark of winter more difficult. It has actually made the darkness more magical! It is stunning what is revealed when light, among other things, is stripped away.
Twinkling distant galaxies, the smoky milky way, and the array of constellations are always hanging in the sky, but modern humans so rarely see the masterpiece. What keeps us from marveling every clear night at this wonder? Light pollution, yes. But there’s other stimulation that keeps us from seeing the stars. There’s the quick shuffle from one climate controlled space to the next, heads down, cursing the cold, thinking about what just happened, or will happen, or might or might not happen. What do we need to finally marvel at the sky’s glory? I suspect we need no thing. What we need is less. Less light. Less work. Less parties. Less obligations. Only when the light and the busyness is stripped away can we finally see the galaxies.
As it is with the starry night, so it is with all of life it seems. Like this evening’s clear, star-speckled sky so much of life can only be enjoyed when unnecessary stimulation is gone. My first few months of yurt living has definitely been a stripping down. We’ve given up most modern conveniences (many of which we’ve come to assume as necessary) in order to embrace this life. No internet means walking or driving to a neighbor’s house to send an email. Living without electricity requires the use of an icebox instead of refrigerator, cleaning up dinner in the dark, and makes nearly every modern time-saving kitchen gadget an impossibility.
That’s right – no crockpot, microwave, blender, toaster, toaster oven, coffee grinder, electric coffee maker, mixer, electric kettle, etc. We definitely don’t have an automatic dishwasher and no hot tap water means heating water on the woodstove before each round of hand-washed dishes. Some of these conveniences were easy to give up. The absence of others, however, has caused me to throw mini, inner (or sometimes… ahem… larger, outer) tantrums while I wait for a pot of water to heat up with a stack of dirty dishes on prominent display.
Why put yourself through this? I’m not surprised if you’re thinking this. It’s a question I’ve posed to myself during those occasional hissy fits. The reason? In the act of simplifying my life, there is a richness and abundance I can see more clearly than before! Like the stars revealed when we turn off the lights, abundance shines through as I strip away these outer accoutrements. Stripping away conveniences, even conveniences I’ve been most hesitant to relinquish, has revealed a daily beauty I’ve previously only enjoyed away from home on retreat, a wilderness trip, or vacation!
What are the stars revealed by this crazy, off-grid yurt life of mine? Intimacy. Presence. Space. I’m still figuring out how this works, but as I’ve simplified my life, stripped things down to the bare essentials, I have so much more room for intimacy, presence, and spaciousness. Instead of feeling like I have less of something because the basic chores take a little more time and effort, there is a sense of abundance! I’ve been experiencing a renewed and uncontrived intimacy with nature, with my husband- Mark, and with the Spirit. I more often feel at home in my body, my place in the world, and the tasks at hand. I have a clearer understanding of what to say yes to and what to say no to. The temptation to distract myself from reality is lessened as I experience the fullness of each moment.
I will be the first to admit that this sense of abundance is not my moment-by-moment experience. Sometimes I’m hunched over, tunnel-visioned on my shuffling feet, annoyed by the darkness and the inconveniences. In those moments, I have no idea that what seems like a nuisance is revealing a masterpiece around me. But as I commit more fully to this life of inconvenience, these moments of abundance are much more common than at any other time in my life. Whereas I used to need to retreat from my regular life with its light pollution and conveniences in order to see the stars, now all I need to do is look up.
Ahh… Snow! Snow days unapologetically insert their will into our modern lives, clogging the gears of our machine-driven society. I’ve always delighted in this phenomenon, but this winter – my first winter living in an off-grid 314 square foot yurt – I more fully understand why it’s just so satisfying!
We had our first big snowstorm of the year this week – nearly a foot! Mark and I cancelled our day’s plans and burrowed into our cozy home. We spent the hours stoking the fire, drinking cream-doused chaga (an immune boosting boiled tree fungi…yum!) and balsam needle tea, slurping soup that simmered on the woodstove all day getting better each hour, praying, reading, resting, burrowing… ah! My body and soul finally felt aligned with the cold and darkness. I needed this snow day to finally embrace the season. Herein lies the magic of a heavy snow – it forces us into our creatureliness. When our roads are blocked and our meetings canceled we can finally burrow in like the mammals we are.
Of course, I didn’t need to live in a yurt to experience this snow day magic – I’ve been experiencing it my whole life in perfectly modern, wired, square houses. Yet experiencing my first snowfall in a small round home with not much more than the bare essentials, I felt a new and deep kinship with the creatures just outside our thin walls. As we drifted off to sleep, my mind wandered to these critters. Where are they burrowing?
The barred owls we still hear most nights are roosting in the pine trees – the splayed out boughs providing shelter from the heavy snowflakes. I imagine their heads shrunk into their fluffed plumage and their eyes squeezed shut – waiting.
The squirrels and chipmunks burrow deep into their nests of leaf litter in semi-hibernation. Do they wish they slept as soundly as brother bear does like Mark wishes he slept as soundly as I do? Who knows? I do know both rodents and bears curl up and wait.
The deer yard up under a stand of conifers, taking advantage of the natural protection of the ever-green boughs like their winged friends. They huddle close, the warmth of the whole greater than their individual heat index. And they wait.
Our porcupines – or “quillpigs” as we affectionately call them – are indubitably cozy in the rocky foundation under our workshop. This prickly family has become a nuisance as they’ve made home beneath our infrequently used workshop and gnawed on the wooden door. Gratefully only the wood of the one door seems to satisfy their taste buds. Otherwise the entire wooden structure might be a porcupine’s smorgasbord! We lived in this workshop for a few weeks before building our yurt and were amazed at how much porcupines had to discuss! All. Night. Long. They murmured back and forth with an intensity that led me to think Mr. Quillpig got home from a night out a little later than Mrs. Quillpig felt acceptable. Whatever squabbles we’ve had with them (or they with each other) I am grateful to know they’re cozy and warm under our hand-built structure just as we’re cozy and warm in our yurt up the hill. Harsh conditions evoke mammalian kinship I suppose – especially if we’re already well-fed by other means.
The porcupines huddle up and wait… and so do we.
The societal forces to be out and about during this cold, dark season feel absurdly incongruous with our creatureliness. Holiday parties, Christmas shopping, hosting preparations, charitable drives shout for our attention – all on top of our ordinary contributions to a productive society. Meanwhile, our bodies, the darkness, the cold, and the snow are inviting us to burrow, to rest, to cease productivity. To wait.
For our non-human friends, burrowing is about survival. Going to holiday parties would use up precious energy needed to make it through the winter. Productivity would be deadly. Human animals have discovered other sources of energy beyond our caloric intake. We have oil and hydro-dams and coal and wind turbines. Lucky us! We don’t ever have to stop. We can keep going and burning and producing and consuming and…
We have much to learn from our instinct-driven friends. For the health of our bodies, our culture, our earth, and our souls, may we learn to burrow, to listen, to wait.
My pink Advent candle – the one symbolizing joy – snapped in half. Mark “repaired” it to the level of functionality with a band of purple wax borrowed from the other three candles in the wreath. It now stands more or less upright with a small bend in its middle, like a broken bone that didn’t heal quite right. The purple patch is totally incongruous with the rest of the candle – not just the color, but the texture too. It’s really, really ugly. The very thing that typically fills me with warm fuzzy feelings at the mere sight of it is now unattractive to behold. Unattractive it will remain until December 17th, the third Sunday of Advent, when we can finally start burning the blasted thing. For the next week and half, it will maintain its crooked, awkward posture – a lesson in waiting, a testimony to imperfection.
The reason the candle snapped in the first place was because of my impatience. No, not exactly impatience, but because of my shooshlick-ness. Shooshlick is Pennsylvania Dutch for an impatient inner state that leads to flustered and too-hurried work, occasionally leading to more work or accidents as a result. It’s one of those beautiful dialectal words that sticks around precisely because there’s no adequate translation for it. Boy, can I get shooshlick.
I was shooshlick-ly rummaging through boxes on the second story of our Shaker-inspired workshop, surrounded by pine paneling, the late afternoon, setting sun casting a warm glow throughout the space. I could see my breath and the tip of my nose and fingers were getting chilled as I opened and closed the boxes I most expected to hold our few, but precious Advent pieces. Only two things did I seek. A simple Advent candle holder made out of a slab of black walnut, one inch thick with four simple holes for the candles and O COME EMMANUEL wood-burnt on the sides. And a pack of four candles – three purple, one pink. The candle holder was my first birthday present from Mark, made by him; the candles, my first Christmas present from my mother-in-law, made by her.
Finally, I found the right box. There they lay – side-by-side – four candles and their holder. All the candles were a bit misshapen. The summer heat had molded them out of their erect alignment, but only one was twisted beyond satisfaction – the lone pink candle. The one that waits to be lit until the third week of this preparatory season.
The heat that had mangled the rose candle was long gone and the November cold had locked it in its new, erratic form. I took one look at the annoyingly wonky wax rod in my hand, applied a little pressure back toward straight, and… SNAP!
You know the rest – Mark’s mending and my inner angst at the sight of it. I refuse to go buy another candle to replace it. This one, with its glaring flaws I must wait to burn away, has become my daily teacher.
I look at my wonky Advent candle, wishing it was different than it is, wishing it was without scars. It asks me what I’m waiting for, what I’m hoping for this Advent. I try on a few answers I’m used to hearing and saying. Answers I’m used to believing. I’m waiting for the restoration of creation; for the coming of Christ’s love and presence in the world; for all to be set right again. I want these to be my answers, but this year they ring hollow.
What am I honestly waiting for, in my day-to-day? It takes me hours of writing this very post before I’m willing to admit it: I’m waiting for perfection and this first week of Advent I’ve been shooshlick-ly trying to attain it. I want the “good life,” the crunchy, homesteading, environmentally sustainable version of the “good life.” I want our homestead to be immaculate, everything in its place, going the way we planned each step of the way. I want to be a perfect writer, posting profound and transformational blogs every week without fail. I want to stop doing and saying things that hurt my husband, that requires me to ask for forgiveness. I want to stay on top of every email, every task, every budget line, every building project, every relationship, every prayer time. I want to get to the end of the day and not have a single thing to confess.
I want to be perfect. I don’t want to be like that candle, broken and put back together with vulnerable scars for all to see. Ugh, I really don’t want that.
This Advent, I wish I could authentically long for the redemption of the earth, justice for the poor and oppressed, a world full of love. I’m afraid it will be mostly lip-service until I learn to love this little patched-up candle, until I’m willing to break open into imperfection, into vulnerability, into life.
I am definitely waiting this Advent, but not for an abstract “perfect” future. I am waiting for God to melt my wounds of perfectionism. Maybe then I’ll be free to see the presence of love and the depth of life in each sacred moment and each wonky candle. Maybe then God coming to earth as a helpless babe will start making sense.