The Pilgrim’s Path: Surprise in the Similar

I’ve been walking in our neighborhood’s woods for years now.  What started out as hopeful curiosity in a forest behind our house, led me down a path towards becoming a Forest Steward- trained in local flora and fauna, urban forest restoration and community activism. I wanted a trail upon which to walk my dog; I found homeless encampments.  I wanted a place in which to refresh and recreate; I found prostitution base camps.  I wanted a place in which to be quiet and still; I found needles and sex toys.  The sacred place I wanted didn’t even seem like a possibile hope; the English Ivy and Himalayan Blackberry covered the promise of this land with its dark invasiveness.

In 2007 we commenced our commitment to hosting monthly volunteer work parties for our neighborhood.  We believed that the fear, filth and felonious behaviors could be combatted to reveal the great gift Earth is always offering us: LIFE!  In the context of these first-Saturday-of-the-month gatherings, we began the slow, inglorious effort of hand removing the ivy and blackberry.  We became master garbage collectors and bore witness to the very real social tensions of encampments being told [repeatedly] to vacate.  We became versed in our City’s shelter programs and at which pier personal affects can be collected.  We canvassed the neighborhood looking for support and interest in changing something that was into something unimaginably better.  We were committed to the long-term work of restoration and transformation.  We wanted to transform this urban soil into a sanctuary.

The work of bringing down heaven to earth is no easy task.  And it always takes time…and a lot of it.  This is the epic work of pilgrimages and journeys, deserts and dreams.  There is always such fanfare and exhilaration when one picks up the walking stick and marks, and crosses into, the beginning of the journey.  The vision of the destination is so clear, so lucid–it seems you could just reach across a short breadth of time and realize every desired detail.  But soon you find your arm is tired from being extended for so long…for so very long.  Your hand clutches that walking stick with a deepened sense of understanding that this stick is with you to uphold and offer stability when the road gets longer, instead of shorter.  For sacred destinations always require time and long processes; the meaningful meanderings are necessary to bring you to that place where you are able to see and hear with a clarity that simply doesn’t exist at the beginning.

We have hosted over 75 work parties in our 10 acre parcel of urban forest in the last six years.  We have painstakingly picked up invasive plants and planted more than 1500 trees and shrubs.  We have written for and received grants to fund an urban forest trail system to connect neighbors and neighborhoods.  I have sat in Council members chambers in City Hall sharing our story of forest transformation and restoration.  The heaven that I thought was just one-shovel full away has taking me years to begin to see.  I have leaned on that shovel-and on the arms and hearts of committed neighbors and friends-in fatigue and frustration, wanting so badly to be done and to realize the destination for which I had set out for…so very long ago.

I long for free social weekends and open evenings not requiring correspondance with local organizations. …And then I have to make the choice–the choice we all have to make on our journeys.  When we have been on the road for a bit of time, the enchantments and sparkles of roadside attractions become great.  They call for us to stop, rest and even consider them a favored substitute over the sacred destination.  We can choose this…or we can look to the “imaginative, active encounter with the place” (P. Cousineau).  At this point in the journey, we must look all the harder and request for a renewed power of vision.

I went up into the woods this week and came across a beautiful, seemingly-spontaneously-built, road side alter of rock, wood and fern at the trail head into the woods.  I was startled and stunned by its presence.  Everything about its quiet appearance shouted reminders to me of what these woods once held.  For at one time-at this very spot, I had uncovered over 200 hypodermic needles…and now there was just this free, intentional, beauty.  This organic gathering was a blessed statement of how far along the journey we had come to seeing this forest as a place of community refreshment, a place of collective comfort.  We certainly aren’t there yet–the destination is still a long way off.  But the meaning that is being collected along the whole long way is going to make this little piece of heaven one helluva place!

Quietly Waiting (Advent)

I anticipated having a lot more creative inspiration during these early Advent days. I assumed that because of both the personal challenge to write reflections and the richness of this season that epiphanies would be snowballing me. This has not been so. In fact, it has been uncharacteristically quiet.

This isn’t to say that my daily activities have been still. My interior home-life has all the markings of December; my children and I have been enjoying creating in the kitchen, and our freezer full of Christmas delights speaks to this. My knitting needles are keeping up pace with the envisioned gifts I have still yet to make. Christmas canticles have been sweetly singing and candles are aglow throughout our days and evenings, and indeed, we are all very much aware of the deepening darkness in these weeks leading up to the Winter Solstice and the celebration of the Christ child. Try as I might to center in on all the rich symbolism of the season and capture an essence of the deep truths that annually call us out to celebrate, squeals of boy-children laughter, running-on-hard-wood-feet, and sibling drum circles (six hands chaotically attempting to play along with The Little Drummer Boy) dissipate the reverie and my inner-writing-voice is, again, quiet.

Beyond our doors the urban streets surrounding our home in Southeast Seattle are far from quiet; they are full of life and noise. Our city’s light rail train runs just one block from our front door and our home resides directly underneath SeaTac International’s most popular flight path. The road in front of our home is a main arterial to Seattle’s interstate highway and hospital; the wailing sirens of ambulances, police cars and fire engines charge this street at all hours of the day, in every season of the year. Christmastide doesn’t lessen these lights of pain and sorrow; if anything, the blinking rainbow Christmas strands alighting these city-homes seem an ironic backdrop to the grand-scope reality of urban life. It is a practice to offer up a murmured prayer for the ones impacted by the siren’s story; but the high-pitched decibel of these warnings leaves me aching for peace and silence.

But just behind our house is a small parcel of forested land. When the banter of the children grows too big for the confines of our home, or when we are needed to exchange the concrete under our feet for the soft, spongy feel of the earth, we dress for the weather and go into the woods. And it is most often here, in this green space that is adjacent—and under! —all the aforementioned urban realties, that we find a deep sense of quiet and Nature silently offers up testimonies affirming this Advent season.

This past weekend, while giving a tour of our recent trail work to a volunteer, we were discussing the mutual frustration at the lack of creative writing during this wintertime. During our walk through the woods, I observed how quickly the forest had quieted into its dormant stage—it was just a few weeks ago that these self same woods were vibrant with the flaming colors of autumn. Heedful of a surfacing truth, I felt a message from the woods settling into a deep place in my heart: it is this time of year when the earth goes quiet. It is in this season that all of creation huddles inward; drawing its energy to its core as it awaits the time to unfold again into new life. This isn’t the time of creative displays of springtime colors or the heady scents of sultry summers. This is the month of darkness; this is the month of quiet dormancy. This is the tide of wordless waiting. I felt a comforting invitation from the trees: “Wait with us”, they seemed to say, “as we do not wait passively in vein!”

A popular prayer poem that comes by way of the Iona Community in Scotland begins:

When the world was dark and the city was quiet, You came. You crept in
     beside us. And no one knew. 

It is easy to expect much from this time of year (and so we should!); the lights, the music, the bows—all seem to loudly proclaim the Life that is to come. These merry seasonal accoutrements, while certainly pointing to the day when the Ultimate Gift was given, can also be that which confuses the energy with which we move through these Advent days. With every Christmas light, tree or gift we see, we find the anticipation growing, the excitement mounting, the frenzy swelling, until—just like the energy of our home with three small children drumming along to carols—we have an emotional spiral in complete contradiction to the season of Christmas. I expected that all of the preparations and plans would inspire and nurture creativity; that the cookies and canticles would give me a fresh perspective on Christ.

Yet this prayer poem, with great simplicity, describes the ideal context for the Christ child to come: “When the world was dark and the city was quiet You came.” Our greatest Gift, our deepest Inspiration, the seat of our conceiving comes to us not because of the fanfare of Christmas, but out of the quiet, expectant, hope-filled waiting to which we are called. The One for whom we wait WILL come…will we know? Will we allow ourselves to be still enough to sense Christ’s presence? Perhaps if we accept the invitation to dark quiet from the trees, we will be among those who know of The Arrival.