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!

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Living in Fear

We all live in fear to some extent or another.  There is a spectrum of this emotional response and absolutely, there are situations and contexts that warrant this self-preserving stance.  If we were to do a broad-stroke generalization though, what is the typical object of this fear?  I daresay that the average common characteristic of these fiends is difference.  Think about it: when someone or something is different than you, something inside bristles a bit and puts you on defense.  And perhaps there is a good evolutionary reason for this.  Because, very likely, a million years ago difference would have denoted danger and you could’ve tried to eat my kids or kill my clan!

Please understand, I am not making light of very real, very tragic events and circumstances that absolutely generate fear.  My heart cries with what I read about in the news and cringes when I hear gunshots and wailing sirens in my neighborhood.  These situations should spur us to live with vigilance and a keen eye for safety. To a very real degree, our lives and the lives of our children, depend on it.  But what I am interested in exploring is the kind of fear that causes us to dig our chin deep into our chest when passing a stranger on the sidewalk, that compels us to close our curtains to the chaos of our community and has us not knowing the very name of our next door neighbor.  I think it has everything to do with difference and those unknown, misunderstood behaviors of Other that cause consternation instead of a courageous, compassionate response.

One day, not so long ago, I was playing in front of our house with our children.  While they think nothing of this (to them the front of the house is appealing because we live on a hill and they love to take anything with wheels down our front sidewalk), this has always been an act of resistance for me.  For good reason, there were times when I hid behind our curtains, double bolted every lock and wished that everyone on our block was like ME.  But I’ve found over the years that this kind of hiding response doesn’t necessarily increase safety; it feeds the fear and kills the community.  And so we play out front of the house.  I’ve intentionally planted curb-side gardens so that I have to be outside, out front, present to my neighbors and praying for opportunities to engage those who are unknown and different than me.

And then she walked up the hill.  Lunging is likely a more accurate description-all the same, coming towards us was a stranger, someone unfamiliar and not at all like me.  I shielded a shy smile with my shoulder.  My boys, called out to her in a vigorous greeting and asked her for her name.  She slowed her pace to a stop. There was a very strong something in me that immediately wanted to hush them, to swoop them under my wings and whisk them away from this now pending encounter with this foreigner…because…I was afraid.  I inhaled.  I exhaled. And I reminded myself of something I firmly believe: The Spirit resides in (I would say even thrives in) that grace-filled gap between being afraid and being known.  That is a space that only the Holy can handle, hold and heal.  It is a place that, while scary as hell, I want to be; I’m challenged here to see, to hear and to know Other.

Her name is Manichanh and she is an immigrant from Laos*.  I’ve never seen her before because she rarely leaves her home, which is just five down from my own.  She occasionally does exercises on our dead-end street when most people are at work and the roads are quieter.  She lives with her six year old grandson, Alexander, who also doesn’t play outside; indoors, TV and video games offer safety once he returns home from school.  I ask her if she ever goes walking in our neighborhood woods, “There are trails in there now, you know,” I gently offer.  Manichanh emphatically shakes her head no, points to the woods and firmly states, “Bad. Scary.”  I take a deep breath knowing that I’m about to step into the gap: “Want to take a walk with me in the forest?” I ask.

Two strangers stare at one another.  We have nothing to rationalize an excursion such as this other than the fact that, plain and simple, we are neighbors and I’m struck with the value that that still holds even in our isolated, urban existences.   And I believe that our woods are healing and are active participants in a great agenda for God’s common good.  So, this seems as good a place as any to engage my new neighbor.  For a reason greater than us, she agreed.

We-Manichanh, myself and the children-approached our woodland trailhead.  She grasped my arm.  I laid my hand over hers.  This time I didn’t hide my smile, and as we entered the woods together, these woods that once truly were a place of which to be legitimately afraid, she exhaled.  We walked for a time in silence largely due to our language barrier, the children ran ahead and about, bird song lilted in the leaves of the waving trees.  We clasped hands and completed our walk, a walk that took us so much farther than simply through the woods, it took us through the gap and to the beautiful place of being known.

When we made to depart from one another, Manichanh brought her palms together at her chest and bowed deeply, while murmuring a phrase repeatedly.  I asked her what she was saying and she said it was like a ‘thank you’ but her native words carried a depth of gratitude that our mere thanks simply cannot touch.  I knew she wasn’t just thanking me.  With her words and gestures, she was responding to me and the woods and The One who upholds us all, with a deep seat of gratitude.  Both of our fears were relieved and in its place stood relationship.

The next morning I discovered home-made Lao cuisine on my porch.  Manichanh’s grandson, Alexander came over later for a play-date and a romp through the woods with my boys.  These are the kinds of blessings that arise from living in fear, living close enough to the edge of what is known that reliance on the Spirit is critical to get through to the other side.  And the other side is where the goodness resides, folks–therein lies the beloved community, where all are known, all are welcomed, and all are gloriously different.

The Spirit is calling: “Come!  Step into the gap with Me!”  Will you go?

*Mentioning Manichanh’s ethnicity is important to describe the dynamic of this story.  In this context she represents Other to me and I, and the forest, are Other to her.