Photo by Joy Houck Bauer
How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of … the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? … One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. // Barry Lopez
A winter’s day: there is no snow, nothing pristine nor sparkling to grace the gray trees and brown, drifting leaves on the dull ground. The bare persimmon tree lifts its fantastic limbs toward the pale sky, the branches curling and fanning into astonishing, intricate designs. A flash of scarlet, and the cardinal flits by; the jaunty red-bellied woodpecker alights on the suet; the sweet auburn wren and blue gray titmouse trace tiny circles, all for a bit of the feeder’s birdseed to bolster the forest’s meager gleaning. Overhead the shadowed clouds open to a patch of blue.
Community supper was a genial, homey affair: spaghetti casserole, homemade bread. One of the youngest among us opened with this spontaneous prayer: “The stars up in the bright sky when it’s nighttime. The people eating inside. The animals eating outside. Amen!” We conversed, laughed at a few jokes, heard about the hopeful plans for the garden this year and guests at the Retreat House next week. In a couple days a good friend is coming to help fell, cut, haul, and split more wood. In preparation for that, Josh was outside this morning in suddenly warm sunshine hand splitting with an ax, trying out a new way of bundling the stumps together with chains so there is less picking up and handling of each piece of split wood.All this, and there are no guarantees. We revel in the bursts of beauty in a dull day. We build community, share meals and prayers. We work hard on wood and gardens and relationships. We offer hospitality, and retreats and strive mightily to care for the 1400 wild acres of Rolling Ridge. We endeavor to live a “moral and compassionate” existence in a myriad of ways, some small and quiet, others grand. We agree with Ann O’Shaughnessy when she says, “I truly believe it does matter what energy we put out into the world.”
It is happening all over the globe: people doing good work, living mindfully and well. I’ve just returned from a wonderful retreat at our sister community, Dayspring; called Winter Light it was led by Jim Hall, Cheryl Hellner, and Julie Gabrielli. Winter Light celebrated the weaving strands of dark and light, winter sparseness and the warmth of the hearth; and it called us back to a renewed sense of belonging and of the sacred all around us.
We lean into the light and know its warmth. And we are swathed in wintry darkness within and without, in culture and politics and the deeply shadowed corners of psyche and heart. Pondering this strange existence, I went the other morning to where the Perimeter Trail crosses Deer Spring Creek. The trail slopes and curves into a little valley, around fallen trees and lichen-kissed rock. The creek had a sheen of ice, its stones all collared in white. I waded through the brown leaves near the edge, crunching and shuffling, and at last stopped and listened. I heard music. The water under the delicately frozen surface was flowing. Slowly widening circles appeared, the sparkling water danced under a thin mirror, then poured out through every opening, tumbling down the shallow fall.
There is such a thing as grace. Grace is the territory between the troubling dark and the yearned for light, adhering them both, filling the essential space between them. It is where we fall when we don’t fret, but instead land quietly and linger, letting the questions with no answers swirl above us. Mary Oliver called it, “The Place I Want to Get Back To”. She told the story thus in her collection called Thirst, which in closing I share with you now:
The Place I Want to Get Back To
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
and first light
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me
they said to one another, okay,
this one is okay,
let’s see who she is
and why she is sitting
on the ground, like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;
and so they came
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring to me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can’t be repeated.
If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named