Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Tears of Paradise


At a weekend retreat given by Terry Tempest Williams author of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, seventy-five writers gathered.  We came to find "refuge in change and solace in uncertainty in difficult times where the violence of hurricanes, floods and fires are the norm."  When we signed up for this retreat months ago, none of us could have known that the deadliest wildfire in California history would be blazing nearby.  Massive clouds of smoke poisoned the atmosphere for miles around us, including the air where the retreat center is located.  The smell of smoke lingered in our hair and clothes throughout the weekend. 

Terry is a writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School who puts into brilliant lyric prose her ethical stance toward climate change that threatens to devastate the global environment and extinguish the existence of many species including our own.  Many of us thought this retreat would be a respite from the sorrow and tragedy in our daily work, but we soon realized this is not what God had in store for us.  

We sat in concentric circles and listened to each other's stories from the school of the dead, the school of dreams and the school of roots.  We wrote in the light and we wrote in the darkness.  We gave each other the courage to be honest, to tell it real and "write it strange" if that is how it comes to us.  

Writer after writer pulled up stories of abuse, sickness, shame, sorrow, frustration and fear.  We listened with a critical consciousness, with sensitivity, compassion and deep respect for each others labor.  We were able to unravel some tangled strands of multiple tragedies and be relieved of burdens carried so long we didn't know they were there.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Giant Web

This next story comes from the prompt on my retreat to think of our earliest encounter with nature and to write about whatever comes to mind first.  Terry asked us to think why this story, why now, and what is in the medicine bag it has for us.  This is the story that came to me.

We lived in the center of a small town in New Hampshire and we had a big back yard that seemed the size of a whole planet when I was a child.  I know now it was only about five acres, but it seemed huge then.  Our house was built in the Georgian style in the early late 1700s and operated as an inn in colonial times.  Behind it was a three-story barn and a large green lawn with a mature oak tree.  In the back yard we had a grapevine, an apple orchard and a vegetable garden.  Behind the garden was a small hill covered with a mix of timothy, clover and alfalfa.  The field was behind that and a high hill covered with dense forest.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, I was playing outdoors with my friend Cindy.  It was late summer, and the field had not been plowed so the grass was very high, taller than me.  Cindy and I wanted to go play in the forest, but as soon as we got through the tall grass, the underbrush and prickly branches of the forest made us turn back.  On the way back, we got separated.  Cindy was nowhere to be seen and the grass was too high for me to see where she might have gone.  I began pushing down the tall grass with my hands to move forward.

Suddenly I found myself inside a giant spider web with a whole colony of spiders nearly as big as my hand in it.  There was no way out.  I screamed and pushed through the web and ran as fast as I could through the tall grass in the field, over the hill, past the garden, the orchard, the grapevines and the barn to the lawn next to the house.  When I reached the house, I stopped running and screaming and brushed myself off from head to toe.  Cindy finally caught up and asked what the matter was. I told her the spiders were going to get us. She laughed and asked if I thought they were chasing us.  Well, no.  I realized they can't do that.  

Thinking about why this story came to me, why now and what was in its medicine bag, I had this insight.  All of my life I've had a condition that is a kind of agoraphobia, but it is not a fear of crowds or open spaces, not a fear of social embarrassment, although who doesn't have that sometimes?  I have always been afraid of being surrounded and not being able to find my way out.  As a result when I am in a crowd I always sit in a place where I can see everyone around me and can get out quickly if I want.  

Even on the retreat I realized I was sitting on the edge outside the circle.  I used to wonder if something happened to me to cause this discomfort.  I tried many times to think of an occasion when I was surrounded by people that made me afraid.  Nothing ever occurred to me.  In the medicine bag of this story I discovered what caused me to have this condition and how to cure it.  I have a fear of being caught in a giant web and not a fear of being surrounded by people.  Now that I know that I am letting myself back into the web of life a little more.