The beginning of my summer has been filled with long, glorious days on the homestead. Settling into this place and learning the way the sun and moonlight bounces off the contoured land. Familiarizing myself with the habits and voices of those that share this hill. Slowly working and dreaming alongside Mark with nothing marking time but the turning of the earth and the liturgy of the hours.
Most of this post I wrote last fall. With each day I don’t get in my car, the longing for intimacy with this place is both satisfied and continues to grow and deepen. When I read an article in the Northern Woodlands magazine this morning, I knew I had to dig out these words.
More soon on what my hands have been doing during these long days, but first an update from my heart…
“Whh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh! Whh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh!” “Mmeeep! Mmeeep!” These sounds accompanied our meditation one evening last October as the day transitioned into night. Our friend and neighbor, Tom, was with us and as we eased back into conversation, he and Mark (my husband) began to comment on the unusual sounds. They knew exactly who the wing flutters and calls belonged to – the woodcock. The sounds themselves were not unfamiliar, rather the time of year is what was odd. The fluttering of the woodcock’s wings and his piercing call is part of the springtime’s symphony, not the fall’s. As the woodcock called out, Mark and Tom, who have been witness to Vermont’s rhythms for 20 years and 30 years, respectively, had the feeling of spring in their bones even as we sat under a warm October dusk.
I, however, being new to northern New England did not have the same experience. I heard the woodcock, proudly knew it was woodcock, but had no idea what was so significant about its presence in mid-autumn. In my two years of lived experience in New England, woodcocks fly and sing in the fall just as often as they do in the spring. The next time I hear a woodcock in October, I may now know in my head that woodcocks aren’t typically around in the fall. But I will never know the original rhythms of the woodcock the way Mark and Tom do. I will never know it in my bones.
Over breakfast this morning, I read the Editor’s Note in the Northern Woodlands – a quarterly magazine about the northern New England woods. The author, Dave Mance III, wrote about the recent news that the Emerald Ash Borer was found in Vermont. This news is a 5-10 year death sentence for a whole genus of trees. As a professional forester, he writes about his grief – “like loving someone with a terminal disease.” He tells of a black ash basket-maker in Minnesota who made a “burial basket” in her mourning. He wonders about what his daughter’s memory of the ash tree will be and how we will begin to explain the loss to the coming generations.
Bearing witness. Listening. Fostering intimacy. In the wake of environmental crisis, I believe these are the ways we must turn back to the earth. We must welcome the rhythms, the joys, and the sorrows of the land into our very bodies – into our bones. Local ecosystems are already changing as the earth’s temperature rises. I have already lost the opportunity to know deeply the old rhythms of my Vermont home, but I can begin where and when I am. With each passing day, season, and year, the wisdom of the earth, even the earth in a rapid state of change, will seep into my body.
In June and July 2017, I had the honor of co-guiding a 40-day pilgrimage down the Connecticut River in which we prayed with the land, honored sacred sites, and mourned places of desecration and destruction at the hand of our species. On the morning of the fifteenth day, I woke up with a sense of intimacy with the created world in general, and the Connecticut River in particular, previously unknown to me. I realized all at once, as if waking up from a dream, that the river and I are equal players in the same story. We have the same Creator. We have the same home. Our stories our intricately interwoven with each other in such a way that I cannot thrive, or even survive, if she does not thrive. We will live together or we will die together. I could feel the river’s life, her pain, and most astutely, her patience with humanity. Throughout our shared history – the river’s and my people’s – she has literally carried the burden of our sins in the form of trash, factory run-off, eroding topsoil, and stagnation-inducing dams. That day, she became for me an image of the body of Christ, bearing all things in gentleness and in love.
In the same moment, I saw another face of her patience, a forbearance of our inattentiveness. I have come to glimpse, incrementally and in the gift of sacred moments, that our most destructive habits as humans cannot be solved by recycling, electric cars, wind power, or our favorite green initiatives. The human behavior most destructive to our precious home and our fellow earth-dwellers is a pervasive culture of inattentiveness. Our fractured relationship with the earth is not simply a result of what we have done (and are doing), but of what we have failed (and are failing) to do.
That beautiful July morning, waking up to the river flowing as she has for millions of years, I turned to the natural world in a new way. I realized that our species will continue to be a destructive force until we turn back to our rivers and our land, engage with them like the keepers of wisdom they are, and seek to be their pupils. We must know in our bones the way in which this world turns.
This is why we live the way we do – in an off-grid 314 square foot yurt on a Vermont hillside. We sold (or in our case – bought) the farm for this one audacious hope– that the world’s hope rests in individuals, and then communities, turning their full attention to the earth and to her Creator.
This is why we lead people on wild pilgrimages where we pray for and with the land, bless and be blessed by the natural world as we move slowly through it. We pray this helps more and more people turn to the earth, allowing her wisdom to seep into their bones. I believe the future of the world – the trees, the birds, the rivers, and the people – depends on it.
As we listen, as we let the wisdom of the earth seep into our bones, our behavior will change. It has to, because it is then that we realize our well-being cannot be divorced from the earth’s wellbeing.
But first, we must pay attention. We must bear witness. We must listen, for the earth has much to tell us.
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 woke up this morning to my mind buzzing through my/our to-do list. I have:
Wood to stack
A side dish for dinner with friends to prepare
A blog post to write
Emails to send
Leaks in our workshop to patch
Porcupines to catch1
Cabinets and shelves to build
A bakery to start2
Two books to write3a
Five outdoor programs to plan3b
Et cetera ad nauseum
Our to-do list, of which this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg, holds enough to keep us busy for the next five years, at least. With the hint of the day’s first light, all those little (and huge) bullet points descended upon me at once. What did I do? I am proud to report I didn’t try to tackle a single one. I didn’t even make an action plan. I’m even more proud to report that I didn’t roll back over for needless sleep to escape the scary buggers. Instead, I peeled my reluctant body off my bed, the warmest place in the yurt, fumbled for some clothes, made a fire, and went outside and stood in the cold.
Mark and I are developing a rule of life for our homestead, or perhaps more palatable for post-modern tastes, a rhythm of life. The sole purpose of this rhythm is to aid our waking up to the infinite source of life, that is God, in every moment and to act freely out of that reality. It’s a big purpose, but this “rule of life” is one of the most effective practices in my journey of waking up. Commitment to this rhythm is why I didn’t attend to my to-do list the moment I woke up. In fact, I was out of bed for three hours before I gave those bullet points my attention.
Our rhythm is simple. Its simplicity is the very thing that makes it challenging, and thereby refining. We pray together every morning around 7am, again around noon, and yet again before dinner (or before going to bed if we go out). Work happens between these set-aside times, not before and not after. When I allow this rhythm to shape my day amazing things happen.4 I get in a solid eight hours of work – usually a mix of mental and physical work – with an ease and quality that escapes me when I allow the to-do list (and all its accompanying anxieties) to shape my day.
Of course, I don’t always bend my will so graciously to this discipline. I often wake up with a base-line of anxiety, certain that if I don’t get to work straight away the world itself will crumble around me. Sometimes I manage to ward off this temptation and turn my heart toward prayer and the natural world around me – the way I intend to start each day.
I revel in the beauty of both Creator and creation until the time finally comes to pick up the to-do list and get to work. My heart groans. Can’t I just stay here? What I was chomping at the bit to do only two hours before now becomes an act of the will.
Eventually I turn to my work and am reminded of the joy of it all – of creating, of engaging my body, of critically crafting an experience. The work flows. I am losing myself in it. I don’t want to be anywhere else. And in the midst of that high, the silent call to prayer rings out. I need to put down the hammer, the computer, or the paintbrush. I know the work will be there tomorrow, but I want to keep doing it now!
I see Mark reluctantly pull himself from his work and in camaraderie, if nothing else, I do the same. We read the gospel, we sing, we confess our shortcomings, we sit in silence, and we give thanks. Once again, I’m grateful to have heeded the call.
As I shape my daily life around this self-imposed cadence my relationship with time is revealed. I see with new and uncomfortable clarity how often I want to stay when life calls me onward. This fall, I went on pilgrimage to France. I stayed at Taize Community for one week and walked for two weeks through the mountains and villages of south-eastern France. I experienced days of rich consolation where it felt like every step was buoyed by the felt presence and love of God. Other days it took all my strength (and calling on God’s strength) to keep fear from ruling my heart. I felt great resistance to moving on from the most vibrant, nourishing places. I even started to make plans for how I could stay at places longer, sometimes fantasizing about ending my walking journey altogether. God, it is good for me to be here, let me make a dwelling and stay in this spiritual vibrant community… or this cozy and hospitable home… or this known, safe corner of the world (c.f. Luke 9:28-36). Each time, in the midst of my anxious calculating, I heard that same silent call that tells me the day’s work is done. “Stay watchful. Keep moving. The present moment is at hand.”
The natural world is a great teacher of this particular lesson. Every sunrise, every flower, every season is an invitation to be present to what is in the moment without begging for it to stay. This morning, as I walked the path I do most mornings, the wetland invited me to make a detour. The sun had just crested the far hill, but its rays had not yet reached the low, protected vale. The overnight frost encased every slender stem, each shriveled flower, the tiniest twigs, and wispy blades of grasses. The indirect glow from the sun illumined the fragile crystals turning our wetland into a field of diamonds. I entered the heart of this wonderland and as I brushed up against the reeds and the red osier dogwood, a shower of sparkles dusted my clothes for just a moment. My heart oscillated between sheer joy of this gift and a desire to capture it. I contemplated running for my camera, knowing even as I considered it that my grasping to preserve the moment would rob me of its very gift. Instead, I kept my slow pace, following the deer’s path through the temporary masterpiece, soaking in the wisdom of the melting frost.
“It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.” – C.S. Lewis
1 A family of porcupines has taken up residence under the 20×40 workshop we inherited with our property purchase. Before we built the yurt, we slept in this workshop and regularly woke up to porcupine in conversation. I am not making this up.
2 This workshop, also known as Chez du Quill Pig, is the future production space for our home business – sourdough breads featuring local wild foods baked in a traditional wood-fired oven. I can’t wait!
3 Mark and I co-guided a 40-day pilgrimage down the entire Connecticut River this past summer. A lot of beautiful work has immerged in its wake, including contracts for two books and five outdoor programs in 2018 alone. Gulp.
4 It is worth noting that the rhythm itself is shaped by the rhythm of the land and will change accordingly with the seasons.