Two weeks ago, we put our initial plans to explore New England aside, and rerouted to Detroit for Danny’s grandmother’s funeral. As is always the case, the days flew by, as we moved from one family gathering to another, soaking up the unexpected chance to be with loved ones. Also, the van’s alternator died, requiring 2 days in the shop.
By Sunday, with the out-of-towners headed home, and the van running smoothly again, we finally looked at each other and asked “Okay. Now, where to next?”
We could stay in Detroit, we thought. We have a family history there (on Danny’s side) that we have never really explored. And, with Detroit now being touted as something of an urban gardening phoenix rising from the ashes of a post-industrial wasteland, certainly we could get ideas for our future life as urban farmers.
At the same time, events in the world and the United States in particular, over the previous weeks, clamored for our attention. I mean, the world really looks like it is blowing up right now, doesn’t it? Maybe we should join one of the many vigils or marches that I was seeing all over Facebook? Who the heck do we think we are, skipping out at a time like this?
I have no good answer to that. All I know is that for people like Danny and me, launching right into action without thinking/praying much about it is a constant temptation. I’ve seen people of privilege – myself, many times – ruin some pretty great projects by diving into them head-on.
So when our dear friends Bill and Lisa got in touch a few minutes later to tell us they were, coincidentally, headed from their home in Harrisonburg, VA, up to Sleeping Bear Dunes in northern Michigan, something deep inside both Danny and me said “Yes!” So we packed up and headed north to meet them. After four days, when they headed on to loop back home, we kept going north, deeper into the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
I belong in the woods. Despite living the last 19 years of my life in cities, I have never truly felt at home there – never slept well with the noise of sirens and people bustling by. I grew up on nearly 70 acres of mostly untouched forest in Southern Indiana. When I was a kid, I would get off the school bus every day and wander that forest with my dog until my parents got home and called me for supper. On the weekends, my dad and I would explore it together, and he would teach me about the different trees and animals we saw. He’s been dead five years, and when I miss him, I go to the woods to feel close to him again.
The woods call to all of us, I think. It’s a place where time slows down, the mind quiets, and we can remember what is most important. It’s a place where, as my dear friend John Linn said after hiking the Appalachian Trail, “nobody tries to sell you anything.”
In Thoughts in Solitude, Merton (who spent a lot of time in the woods) wrote about the pull of the nature – the desert, in this case – toward closer communion with God:
The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had traveled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.
I love this passage especially because of the last bit – the reminder that the desert, compelling as it is, is not the Promised Land. Anyone who has spent time alone in nature will tell you, it ain’t all peace and tranquility. When the world around you quiets, those demons in your head really rev up. My friend Lori put it more directly during her trip through east Asia, noting that, “Wherever you go, you bring your bullsh*t with you.”
In nature, you get to spend a lot of time with your bullsh*t. With no distractions – no email, no cell service, nobody trying to sell you anything – you can see all that stuff for what it really is. Just stuff that gets in the way, frankly. Roadblocks on the path to the Promised Land.
(As a side note, the kids don’t have a whole lot of psychological baggage yet, of course. Once we were out in the woods, I noticed the kids fell into a quiet, more contemplative existence pretty quickly, just like I used to when I was a kid. They’d be off whittling branches into walking sticks, or more commonly spears and daggers – admittedly interesting choices for the offspring of pacifists, but I digress…)
No, the desert is not the Promised Land. It’s just part of the journey there. Jack Jezreel puts this way more eloquently than I can in his essay “To Love Without Exception”:
[Much] of what passes for spirituality and spiritual practice–prayer days, meditation, retreats, spiritual direction, contemplation, ritual, and study–is primarily informed by an exclusive attention to the self and perhaps family relationships, suggesting that much of what we call spirituality is actually some mixture of psychology and private devotion, made sacred by the use of religious imagery. My argument is not that it’s worthless, but that it’s woefully incomplete.. . . .
Isn’t it instructive that the spiritual formation of the original disciples happens with Jesus on the road? In effect, the disciples learn by doing. They grow into an understanding of this God of love, this God of compassion, this God who loves justice, this God who makes all things new, by participating as active observers and agents of compassion, justice, and newness. And, yes, necessarily, they pause with Jesus to reflect, ask questions (sometimes stupid questions), and pray. But the spiritual adventure described in the four Gospels does not happen in the sanctuary; it happens on the road, in the company of beggars, prostitutes, and lepers.
Danny and I have lived long enough to know this deeply. We recognize the skin we’re in, which virtually guarantees we will never experience marginalization in any real sense. And, again and again, we have been transformed by our time with those that are marginalized.
Where does that leave us now, as a family? Right now, we are in the woods, literally and figuratively. We are living into the tension, the pull between desert and city. For now, we stay put, grateful for the respite, and grateful also for those who are on the front lines today while we are out here.
But make no mistake, when we have learned what the woods have to teach us, and hopefully gotten some of our bullsh**t out of the way, we will be in the street again. We hope to see you there.