Archive for March, 2017
“Parts of a Whole” by Jolie Olivetti
“The World Has Need of You” by Ellen Bass
seems to need us
Rainer Maria Rilke
I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple.
From “Whole Again” a chapter in Debby Irving’s Waking Up White
I think the moment my mother told me of the Indians’ alcohol-soaked demise was when my soul first cracked, letting in a slip of cognitive dissonance that would be added to over the years. For my entire life a part of me has been reaching toward lost truths, missing details between what I was told and what I felt, information that would still the rumblings in my consciousness. I couldn’t have known at the age of five that by thinking a fellow human being less human, I made myself less human, or that by disconnecting from my human family I began the process of disconnecting from my natural intuition and ability to love, relying more and more on what I was told and less and less on what I felt.
Racism’s ultimate grip on me came not just from my conditioning to ignore it but from the inverse story that I was told about it. As I picked up the notion that race and racism belonged to other people, my mind was trained 180 degrees away from the harsh reality that racism is a problem created by white people and blamed on people of color. The problem is not simply that racism wasn’t discussed. Messages supporting a contradictory story were pushed on me, a story that placed disproportionate value on individualism, intellect, and bravado.
By being taught to buck up and compete in a world of individual players, I learned to silence feelings of vulnerability, curiosity, and compassion. As those parts of me withered, the void filled with assumption and judgment. In the same way my white town presumably protected me from people who could undermine my safety or financial stability, my buck-up attitude presumably protected me from my own vulnerability. Allowing myself to feel anger, grief, or confusion was tantamount to saying I was weak. Admitting vulnerability felt like letting go of my ladder rung and plummeting, landing who knows where.
Ironically, only when I tapped into my own vulnerability did I rediscover my inner strength and start listening to my own voice, the one that for years had been trying to tell me something wasn’t right.
“Remember” by Joy Harjo
Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is. I met her
in a bar once in Iowa City.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe. I heard her singing Kiowa war
dance songs at the corner of Fourth and Central once.
Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.
SERMON “Parts of a Whole” by Jolie Olivetti
I have long been obsessed with cereal. Pretty much every day in middle and high school I would come home from school or sports or play rehearsal and eat an enormous bowl of cereal and watch TV, keeping a sharp lookout to see if my parents were pulling up to the house, at which point I needed to turn it off and pretend I was just about to walk the dog, or that I had been doing homework the whole time. And now, you better believe cereal is at the top of my list of hungry & pregnant snack foods.
Grape Nuts in particular is oddly significant in my family. Personally, I find them delicious. When my older niece was only two or three, she’d wake up my brother-in-law in the morning, grabbing his hand to drag him out of bed saying, “wake up Papa, time for Grape Nuts! Yum yum!” They ran out once and took an emergency trip to the grocery store and bought like ten boxes. The picture of my niece with the all the Grape Nuts piled on her lap in the car seat made it onto their Christmas card that year.
Anyway, I’m just saying, for the record, I have nothing against Grape Nuts.
But I was dismayed to notice a Grape Nuts box in the grocery store once, proudly proclaiming “100% of your whole grains in one serving!”
My initial reaction was to be up on my high horse: who wants to get 100% of anything from a box? Especially a culinary staple like whole grains? I felt suddenly indignant that modern society tries to package a sense of completion and satisfaction as if it’s something we can buy from the store. But really, what’s the big deal. Convenience is convenient, right?
Commercial agriculture and grocery stores have given us a complicated relationship to our food. We demand that our produce be blemish-free and that our nutrition be ready-made. For my part, I know I mutter under my breath any time I’m at Stop & Shop and the lettuce seems a bit wilted, and I skip right over any apples with little gouges or bruises. Why should I buy anything that doesn’t look perfect? And though I’m not shopping for meals for a little one yet, I’m sure in the near future I’ll be exhausted and pressed for time and will have no complaints about an easy, pre-packaged way to ensure I’m feeding my kid all the protein, whole grains, or whatever they need.
The trouble is the demands that grocery store-levels of convenience and perfection place on the earth and on the people who grow our food. It takes a lot of waste, a lot of transport, a lot of packaging, and a lot of back-breaking labor to keep a supermarket stocked with the sparkling array of a Whole Foods. There’s something unnatural about the pretty paradise of Whole Foods. Don’t get me wrong, I shop there sometimes and feel pretty darn fancy while I’m doing it. It’s just more accurate to call it “whole paycheck.”
I may be biased but I think the real whole foods can be found at a place like the very messy and very beautiful community-based farm in Dorchester where I used to work.
The farm is based at a shelter – a place for homeless families with young children to land for a time and look for permanent housing. Working there showed me something I needed to learn, given my rather sheltered middle-class upbringing: even amidst the unbelievable inhumanity of poverty and homelessness, people sure do raise their kids with fierce and awesome love.
The farmland was formerly vacant lots – remnants of an era in Boston’s recent history when many buildings burned, particularly in the panic and disinvestment that accompanied white flight. With more than a decade of care and compost, the farm’s founders remediated the blighted soil, and by the time I worked there, the place was a vibrant and lush garden, buzzing with life. I was very blessed to witness how strength and beauty can grow from hardship, in the case of the people and the plants of ReVision. Even the name of the farm and the shelter – ReVision – is a statement about possibility and process rather than perfection.
One of the many lessons that ReVision Urban Farm taught me was the value of “good enough.” The perfectionist in me wanted my rows to be ledger-straight, my paths entirely weed-free, and my planting and harvesting activities to match the plan to the day. Not surprisingly, my rows were always wobbly, there were always weeds everywhere, and we were always two weeks behind or even more likely, we scrapped the plan mid-summer and just made it work. Empty planting beds? Let’s plant something! Are the beans ready? Let’s pick them! We grew plenty of delicious and healthy fruits and veggies. Very little of it was perfectly executed. I got a lot more comfortable with imperfection, I learned to appreciate the beautiful chaos of the organic garden, its little ecosystems of bugs and soil and roots and fruits, everyone eating each other, and the plants flourishing despite having some holes in their leaves.
Speaking of leaves with holes, just yesterday some members of the Youth Group and the Social Action Committee and I went to make bags of grocery store seconds at the UU Urban Ministry – perfectly edible produce that doesn’t meet the stores’ standards of marketability. The program is called Fair Foods and people come buy these bags for $2 at locations all over the city on different days of the week. I was blown away by all the food that would have been wasted. I deeply enjoyed the camaraderie and playfulness that sprung up among all of us who came together around those bags of food.
Forcing marketable perfection onto the fruits of the earth reminds me of the expectations we put on our bodies and our selves: our culture devalues bodies that have been marked “other” in color, size, gender expression, ability, or in other ways. Advertisements and TV and movies show us that certain bodies are good bodies – white, slender, young, with proper expressions of masculinity or femininity, and rich enough to buy any perfection we may secretly lack.
But of course we know that what the media shows about human beings is hardly a reflection of reality. We are creatures of this earth. We are sometimes disheveled and smelly and we are not uniform. Like the plants at the farm where I used to work, growing strong even with holes in their leaves, our wounds are not defects; rather, they are part of our wholeness, they are badges of our vulnerability and resilience. Our diversity is not due to deviance nor is it for gathering tokens in a collection, it is the truth and wonder of humankind.
I have to come clean about something. I chose two of our hymns today with an ulterior motive: to complain about them. Not to get super preachy or UU or anything, but we have to question many of our hymns, for various reasons. Amazing Grace and Standing on the Side of Love are both gorgeous and meaningful expressions of faith, and it’s also frustrating that they favor certain bodies with certain abilities. I’m talking about the line “I was was blind but now I see.” Do these hymns demand we have seeing bodies, and bodies that can stand? Of course it’s figurative: “Seeing” is a metaphor for understanding, “standing” is a metaphor for showing support. Of course we can sing these songs and still honor our own and one another’s inherent worth and dignity, with all our different sorts of bodies. But we get SO many messages in our daily lives about how there’s something wrong with our bodies: they’re too fat, too wrinkly, too vulnerable. People’s gender expressions are policed, people’s skin color marks them for a criminal. We are tricked into noticing someone’s disability first, and then that they are a person comes second. We get so many messages about which bodies are whole and perfect and which bodies are wrong, that it’d be a relief to get a break from these expectations in church. I’m with Rumi, whose poem we sing, “come, come, whoever you are.” We need all of us here, we need to honor all our different bodies and abilities.
One of our readings came from the last chapter of Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White: the chapter is called “Whole Again.” I participated in a discussion about this book here at church last year along with several others from the congregation. In the section I read today, Irving reflects on the impact of what her mom told her at a very young age about Native Americans and alcoholism – her mom had put it in such a way as to suggest that the disease was inevitable among Native people, the destruction complete, and that it was all their fault:
“I couldn’t have known at the age of five that by thinking a fellow human being less human, I made myself less human, or that by disconnecting from my human family I began the process of disconnecting from my natural intuition and ability to love, relying more and more on what I was told and less and less on what I felt.”
Irving is describing something that threatens our inherent wholeness: the damaging conceit that some of us are worthy and others are not. What’s at stake is our sacred interconnection with one another, our ability to respect the interdependent web of existence. Irving says her “soul cracked” when she was taught to believe that there is something inherently inferior about Native Americans. Stories like this, stories about hierarchies, about inferiority and superiority, separate us not only from one another but also from our own humanity.
You may have heard of Ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term for humanity that has been translated to mean “I am because you are.” Here is Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s explanation of this word:
One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
Debby Irving also reflects that once she began to recognize her own vulnerability, she began to recover her sense of wholeness. Believing in superiority, whether consciously or subconsciously, means believing that some of us have got it all together, are always in control, can show no weakness. But that’s a lie. Part of being human is being vulnerable. Bikini ads are airbrushed. Immortality and omnipotence is for the gods. We can’t be whole if we pretend we are perfect.
Our wholeness lies not in some illusion of flawlessness and self-sufficiency, but rather in our interconnections and in our own bruised and healing selves. On the farm, I had to let go of the idea that I had everything under control and that everything would turn out just so. I put my face right up to the plants to try to understand what they needed, I worked hard to cultivate a healthy and vital landscape, but much of it was out of my hands. Every part of that farm was dependent on every other part of that farm. Shade, drainage, pests, compost, even the people that coaxed the plants from the soil… all of this was best understood as a network of interlocking pieces, stronger parts and struggling parts, that all somehow led to a cute kid biting into a carrot she had just pulled from the earth, and smiling wide to taste the sudden gritty sweetness, orange flecks decorating her teeth.
“The World Has Need of You” as the title of the poem from our opening words put it. The poem says, “It’s hard to be human. We know too much and too little.” Indeed, the world needs us just as we are – equal parts broken and strong, equal parts wise and foolish, always in process and wholly reliant on one another.
This is the wholeness that suits us best. Not something we can get from a box or that tantalizes us in a commercial, but just being comfortable with our regular, rumpled selves, our hands dirty from digging or from helping a friend.
I’ll end by returning to these lines from Joy Harjo’s poem:
Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Sonnets to Orpheus, Part One, IV by Rainer Maria Rilke
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins beside you.
Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
“Up and Down the Mountain”
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
March 12, 2017
A found poem by Dalton Wright, from one page of text in
“Alone on a Mountaintop” by Jack Kerouac
What strange thoughts come to you
when you realize…
I realized I didn’t have to hide myself.
Seeing, hearing, smelling,
Touching, tasting, thinking
To perceive at all.
Is ultimately silly.
The mountain meadowside in the moonlight
You’re already there
You’re already there
To stay in Nirvana bliss
God’s Universal Mind
Silence itself is the sound of diamonds
That graveyard silence
Like the silence of an infant’s smile
Reading from On Trails, by Robert Moor
In 1846, Henry David Thoreau made a failed bid to climb Mt. Katahdin, the highest peak in the state of Maine. His guide was an old Indian man named Louis Neptune, who advised Thoreau to leave a bottle of rum on top of the mountain to appease the mountain spirit. On their climb, Thoreau and his companions followed moose trails and scrambled cross-country. In one harrowing instance, while crawling
over the flattened tops of the black spruce trees that had grown up between the mountain’s massive boulders, Thoreau looked down to find that below him, in the crevices, lay the sleeping forms of bears.
The party became lost in fog and never made the summit. But on his descent, Thoreau suddenly realized he had stumbled upon a wholly wild place. He found the land savage, awful, and unspeakably beautiful. He wrote:
This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the untamed globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor woodland, nor wasteland…Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific…rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!
How… had a human being—indeed, a whole generation of human beings—become so abstracted from the land ..as to warrant such an epiphany? Solid earth, actual world? The answer stretches back. ..through agriculture and literacy and urbanization and technology; and through monotheism, which vanquished the animist spirits and erased their earthly shrines… Euro-Americans had been working for millennia to forget what an unpeopled planet looked like. To see it afresh came as a shock.
…Katahdin …gained a reputation as the antithesis to peaks like New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, where… “large flocks streamed up the mountains like a transplanted tea party.” But the mountain resisted all attempts to tame it. During the height of the summit house craze of the 1850s, Maine politicians, envious of the commercial successes of their neighbor, chartered a road to be built over Katahdin, but the steepness of the terrain meant the project was soon abandoned. …While trail-builders on Mount Washington were rearranging boulders to construct paths so smooth they reportedly could be walked blindfolded, the paths on Katahdin remained… “but the roughest of cuts through the north woods.”
The longer Katahdin resisted attempts to tame it, the more it attracted “pilgrims” who enjoyed its wild character—and who, moreover, would fight to keep it that way. In 1920, an eccentric millionaire named Percival Baxter climbed Katahdin via the vertiginous Knife’s Edge route. Greatly impressed, he vowed to ensure that the land would remain “forever wild…. simple and natural nearly as it was when only the Indians and the animals roamed at will through these areas.”
…in a very real way, wilderness is a human creation,…born when we began cleaving the world into the binary categories of wild and tame, natural and cultivated. … Perhaps the most succinct definition of the wilderness is simply: the not-self. There, in the one place we have not re-molded in our own image, a very deep and ancient form of wisdom can be found. Wilderness is a brazenly naked land, where a person, in mingled fear and awe, verging on nonsense, can cry out for Contact!
Sermon Up and Down the Mountain
A Penobscot story begins with a young Native American girl gathering blueberries on Mount Katahdin. Because she was lonely, she wished for a husband, and then, seeing the great mountain in all its glory, with the red sunlight on the top, she added, “I wish Katahdin were a man, and would marry me!” She went up the mountain, picking her blueberries, and singing to herself, and was not seen again for three years.
When the girl reappeared, she had with her a beautiful baby, whose eyebrows were made of stone. The spirit of the Mountain had indeed taken the lonely girl as his bride, but after a time she wished to see her own people. The Mountain, wanting only peace and goodness for her, sent his bride back down.
The baby boy had strange and wondrous gifts. The wise men among the Penobscot said he was born to be a mighty magician. All he had to do was point a finger at a moose, and it would drop dead; when out in a canoe, if he pointed to a flock of wild ducks, the water would at once be covered with the floating game for the people to gather in. Through this gift, the mother and child and all the tribe had plenty of food, and never a worry.
So this was the truth, and a mystery, too – that Katahdin had wedded this girl, and created a child who would build up his nation, and make of the Wabanaki a mighty race. But before the girl went back down the mountain, the great spirit of the Mountain told her that she must not allow the people to inquire about the boy’s father. He said, “truly, they will all know it by seeing him anyway; it is an impertinence on their part to ask; do not let them grieve you in this way.” So she made it known that she would not be questioned. She did not talk about the spirit of the mountain, or the life it gave her.
Then one day, knowing people were speculating about her, she said to herself in frustration, “Katahdin was right. These people are not worthy of my son, and he shall not serve them and lead them to victory any longer. These are not people who will make a great nation.” When someone teased her one time too many, she finally spoke out, and compared the people to mud-wasps who stung the fingers of those who plucked them out of the water, and said they were likely to kill themselves with their stupid mistakes.
“Why are you troubling me to tell you what you are already know? Can’t you see who was the father of my boy? Look at his eyebrows! Don’t you know Katahdin by them? — Well, you will be sorry you ever inquired. From this day on, you will feed yourselves. Find your own venison. This child will do no more for you.”
Then she stood up, made her way into the woods and up the mountain, and was never seen on the earth again.
Last summer, as June turned into July, my husband and two of my sons drove to Baxter State Forest, in order to hike to the top of Mount Katahdin. They had romantic notions of conquering high peaks, balancing along the knife’s edge, and – in the case of the 64 year old, completing an item on the list of things to accomplish before succumbing to old age; in the case of the 17 year old, proving his independence while lounging by sun-dappled stone pools above the clouds. The 19 year old was just going in order to go. A third teenager – a friend of our boys – accompanied them.
Some of you have heard about this trip, from people who actually went. This is a story from behind the stage, by one who did not go, yet whose heart made the journey. Now, these guys didn’t read up on the park, and the rules for toileting or how to hang your food in bags away from your tent so the bears wouldn’t visit in the night. They didn’t realize the road in to the park was more like a rutted path in the wilderness; that it would take almost two hours to drive the 20 miles from the edge of the park to the base camp.
I bought them trail maps, and read how much water was necessary, and packed that up for them, too. I encouraged them to do a bit more research, but my son found all this superfluous. When David showed up so they could all head out, he had no back pack or sleeping bag at all, because Asher – who had reassured us that David would have everything– Asher had neglected to explain how long a trip this was; that camping was part of the deal. They left amidst a discussion of extra chargers for their phones, blissfully unaware of the lack of cell towers in the wilderness.
Meanwhile, my third son and I drove to our cottage in mid-coast Maine, where we would meet up with the climbers on the third day. Levi and I puttered about the beach, bumped into our neighbor, Jim, and explained where the rest of the gang was.
And Jim began telling me about being lost on the mountain.
In July of 1939, a twelve year old boy was climbing Katahdin with his father and two brothers when a sudden storm came up, and covered the top of the peak in a fog so dense Donn Fendler lost sight of not only his companions, but the trail. Just as he reached the summit, the mist closed in and shut off the view of anything below the peak. The clouds settled in; then a storm followed. First it was lashing rain, then snow and ice, and the soaked little boy ended up completely and totally lost. After a few days, the search and rescue mission became one in which the authorities hoped to recover a body. Fendler’s last footprints were found at the edge of a precipice that fell 400 feet.
All of America was united in praying for this boy. His mother was receiving thousands of Western Union telegrams; Boy Scouts across New England joined with the Maine paper mill workers and the New York State Police bloodhounds to look for him. And nine days later, he emerged — naked and battered and delirious, having lost 30% of his body weight, with hundreds of black fly bites and missing a few toes. He had walked through 48 miles of extreme wilderness with no supplies at all. He had even lost his pants and shoes. He had survived on berries and faith.
Now, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Jim telling me all this. It was interesting to learn of his passion for collecting all information related to this story and the tension this has created in his marriage; the scrapbooks Jim has created about the story and its aftermath; the times he had gone to meet him at public appearances across the state of Maine. But I was increasingly thinking about my own husband and sons, and wondering if I would ever see them again. It seemed a bit insensitive of my neighbor to be dwelling on this story of being lost on Katahdin while my men were in fact on Katahdin, even if it Jim’s story did end with the miraculous.
I periodically reminded myself that if something terrible had befallen my husband and children, the chaplain for the Maine State Wardens would call me, and I actually know her. For some reason, this seemed vaguely comforting. I had not gone on this trip mainly out of fear. There are times and places when I cannot cope with my son’s free spirit and lack of limits. This was one of them. I knew I would be absolutely terrified to see him dancing along the boulders. I would rather be useless from a distance.
I thought about the Penobscot tale; of the little girl picking blueberries and curing her loneliness by falling in love with the fire-tipped peak of Katahdin; and disappearing into a cloud on the summit, to emerge with a son; his brow made of bits of chiseled stone, like Moses on Sinai, receiving the law for his people. How we do make our way to these heights? Even though I am afraid of my son’s wildness, I understand that spirit, and feel it too – this desire to be elemental, somehow – to be strong and natural and in tune; to feel free and yet also connected to the powers that keep creation humming along. As a kid, I loved collecting periwinkles at low tide and steaming them; learning that we could chip lichen off the rocks and eat it; that following the birds was the best way to find good raspberry patches.
I have never forgotten a book I read in third grade, called My Side of the Mountain, which I suppose is a fantasy, but I certainly did not read it that way. It seemed to me a revelation; teaching me how to be holy, and closer to heaven. It made living purely seem both desirable and possible. A boy named Sam goes off to find land that had belonged to his great grandfather, and the disinterested adults say things like, every boy should have a good adventure, clearly expecting an insignificant foray followed by a return to the overcrowded New York City apartment; the seven siblings and the noise and the cars and buses and people everywhere.
But armed with $40, flint and steel, an axe and some string, Sam makes his way to the Catskills; the mountain of his tribe. He burns out the interior of a rotted out tree to create a home; learns how to fish, draws maps so he can get oriented. He climbs higher and higher, tracking a falcon to her nest, then scales a cliff and snatches a fledgling for his own. The bird becomes his friend, and his piece of wildness, too. He trains the falcon, but feels her flight in his own bones, just as the light of the sky becomes his own vision.
Curiously, I am reading the adult version of this right now – Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which after sitting on my list for a long while, my husband bought for me. It has this same intense intimacy; grappling with our human place in creation; examining predatory behavior and the idea of tameness; the impulse to both be an authentic self – alone before the powers of the universe, and yet also deeply connected to family, and traditions, and something beyond, in the sky. Macdonald’s book, though, is true. She really does train hawks – and like Sam, connecting to his family and its past, Macdonald’s relationship with her hawk is a way of exploring her identity, and mourning the loss of her father.
She writes, “the hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away… she was my refuge.” Although they look at first like stories of running away, retreating; these are actually about finding the experiences that will teach us what we need to know, connecting us to that which makes us fully human. They are followers of Moses on Sinai, Thoreau on that Katahdin trip, making contact with… what? Something that is not just an idea; our own creation. What will guide us? What is revealed to us from on high that will show us how to live down here? We live both vertically and horizontally; we reach for communion with the spirits above our heads and with those who walk beside us. And when those who once accompanied us disappear, how do we keep walking? And how do we find them again?
It is easy, in stories like this one, to think that the tale is about self-sufficiency. But the bigger part of the story is about living in harmony with a spirit we do not know how to talk about, that evaporates when put into words – yet which rules us somehow – the stone eyebrows of Katahdin’s son, whose finger could stop a moose in its tracks; or the laws cut into Moses’ stone tablets by God’s finger inside a vast cloud on a mountaintop; the way the hawk’s gorgeous flight into the heavens is predicated on death. I was a little girl when my grandfather died, and I think of my grandmother – they had just moved to Maine that month. A little while later, she went on a trip to Japan, and it was transformative.
She absolutely fell in love with this culture of simplicity and rigidity; of nothing unnecessary and everything essential. In that country symbolized by Mount Fuji; the hill that could erupt into fire and smoke, she learned how to be alone, but she did so by being part of the routines that everyone followed. Maybe the lesson is about finding yourself, and feeling competent; knowing that you are a survivor. Even death won’t get you. You may be changed, even unrecognizable – but you will not really ever be gone.
When Donn Fendler emerged after being lost on the mountain, his rescue was a balm to the nation. His survival let others see things in themselves that they hadn’t thought about, or dared to believe in. And for him, those nine days shaped the course of his life. He credited his survival to his faith, and his determination to see his father and brothers and mother – so the story of being lost was really more about hope, perseverance, and love. Fendler’s father had a business making clerical vestments and church supplies, and I love how that exterior work is such a complement to the inner transformation; of finding the holy and witnessing the laws of creation. Fendler returned to Katahdin every summer for the rest of his life, which ended this past October, and at his request, his ashes were brought to the top of Katahdin, and scattered to the wind.
My men obviously did return from Katahdin, essentially unscathed but definitely humbled; with an appreciation for the scale of this world, and our radical dependence on grace to survive. They did it. The weather cooperated. But they had travelled too lightly – left the water in the car rather than carry the weight – and had to be given drink by passing strangers, and food from fellow climbers. And they were impressed by the realization that – as hard as it was to reach the summit, the descent was far more brutal. Back to earth, changed and yet with nothing changed. In a letter about his climb, Thoreau said he felt as if he had been translated while up there, but it is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if we ever do.
One summer, copying Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment in living intentionally, Jack Kerouac worked as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State. One night he woke up in terror, and saw a huge black shadow in the window “Then I saw that it had a star above it, and realized that this was the 8000 foot Mt Hozomeen looking into my window from miles away… — I .. went outside and gasped to see black mountain shapes gianting all around, and not only that but the billowing of the northern lights shifting behind the clouds. — It was a little too much for a city boy — the fear had me hiding..
But in the morning I was overjoyed to see a clear blue sky and down below, …the clouds making a marshmallow cover for all the world … while I abided in warm sunshine among hundreds of miles of snow-white peaks. … That night I just lay on the mountain meadow side in the moonlight, head to grass, and heard the silent recognition of my temporary woes.
— Yes, so to try to attain to Nirvana when you’re already there,
to attain to the top of a mountain when you’re already there…..
I decided that when I would go back to the world down there I’d try to keep my mind clear in the midst of murky human ideas smoking like factories on the horizon,… I could walk forward, blessing the mountain, and thanking it for the lesson…”
Closing Words from a letter of H.D. Thoreau’s
I keep a mountain anchored off eastward a little way, which I ascend in my dreams both awake and asleep. ….I find that I go up it when I am light-footed and earnest. It ever smokes like an altar with its sacrifice. I am not aware that a single villager frequents it or knows of it. I keep this mountain to ride instead of a horse.