Day Two

They say that the second day of a fast is the hardest. That is true for me. I wake several times in the night and realize that I’ve been dreaming about food. In one dream about community gardening in Bobcaygeon, I end up in a room with a table laden with nut and pumpkin loaves. Awake, I don’t feel physically hungry – much – but it seems my subconscious mind is looking for food.

My eyes are open as the first light begins to lift the dark. The opposite shore is a strip of shadow between the upper and lower worlds of sky and lake. It’s pretty chilly so I stay cocooned in my sleeping bag dozing and checking, in between snoozes, on the progress of the day. The light slowly brings definition to the trees across the water. At first they are an impressionist’s blanket of blacks and greys and mottled suggestions of colour. And slowly the reds and yellows and greens emerge from their sleep.

I get up and get busy making a quick fire. Water from my 5 gallon jug goes into the kettle (my only cooking tool) and a cup of mint tea is soon in hand. I stagger down to the water with the tea, to watch the sun arrive. There isn’t a cloud in the sky and so no drama to be enjoyed. I’m kind of disappointed. It’s going to be a clear, sunny day. The sun comes up; taking its’ sweet time, and eventually gets around to joining me on the rock where I sit wondering how I’ll fill the day.

Keeping the fire going is a good pre-occupation but after it’s warmed my bones and my tea, I have had a hard time justifying burning up good firewood just for something to do. So I turn to the main task of the day.

The Death Lodge ritual was first described for me by Doug Aldworth in a workshop he led last spring. He told a small group of us about a ritual he’d conducted on his own Vision Fast. The ritual involved gathering stones and laying them out in four rows. The four rows represented people who had hurt him; people whom he had hurt; those who had been a blessing to him, and those to whom he had been a blessing. The explanation that stuck in my head was “it’s kind of like being at your own funeral – you get to have a chat with all those souls, living and dead, who are there to celebrate your life and say goodbye.” After the Vision Fast, Doug explained, you have transitioned. You are no longer the same person.

My first step is to gather stones. At the water’s edge of my huge granite outcrop is a small, flat shelf just big enough for one person. On this shelf there es an amazing variety of rocks, stones, and pebbles displayed just beneath the tree-root carcass. It is almost as if the roots have pulled the stones from the granite and placed them there waiting for me. But I know, in fact, that I am interrupting the progress of an important work.

That morning while splashing water on my crusty face; washing the night’s drool from my beard, I’d noticed a small pile of sand just below the water’s surface. It was as if dinky little toy trucks had been dumping loads of sand off the rock ledge and into the water all summer long. What I was looking at of course, was the work, or if you like – play - of Time.

The trees and wind and rain and snow and ice and spin of the planet had been working on this outcrop for centuries. Ever since it had dared, in a volcanic birthing, to expose itself bare to the elements, those elements had been working to reclaim it; break it down, and cover it up with green and growing things again. Who knows how long it had taken this cooperative conspiracy to split off rocks from the slab, break them apart, crush them, tumble them down against one another until the lake’s tongue would lick up on that shelf and splash the sand into its mouth? How much longer would it be until that sand would end up on the beach at the windblown north end of Nunikani?

“Have Patience.” says the One with me.

“Yeah, okay. Sure thing.” I reply.

I start picking up the rocks, stones, and pebbles. “The work I’m doing is far more important than this sand-making.” I conclude. “You won’t mind will you, Mother Earth, if I interrupt your little project here with my ponderous and important play will you?”
“After all”, I reason, “I’ve dedicated four precious days of my life to this adventure.”

“Sure, little brother, go ahead” blink the trees helplessly; sighs the wind, splashes the lake. The planet just continues to spin, noticing -but judging not- my interruption of its’ universal dance.

“After all,” whispers the wind in the trees ears “he’s one of God’s favourites isn’t he?” The lake just laughs.

To pay for this hubris (is to be hu-man, to evoke hu-bris?) I incorporate a little cognitive therapy into my work of gathering up the rocks, stones and pebbles. One of Michael Neill’s recent Monday morning self-help newsletters had suggested a little ritual to help lighten the weight of the shadow baggage we all carry along.

Taking four or five of the earth’s gems in my hands at a time, I climb up to the next level of rock. It stretches back from the lake about four good steps ending with a little bench cut into the face of the next rise. As I place each load on the bench and return for the next, I begin to compose a song to a simple little tune.

“You’re a self-centered, lazy, insecure, little prick,
who needs affirmation just to get up in the morning”

On each trip down to the lake and back up with a load, I refine the song. Singing helps with the task. I notice that the climb up pulls down a good boxful of energy out of my stores. So I take my time and even add a little jig dance step to the tune as I work.

Now you know why it’s so important to be alone on this quest. Only the tree carcass is there to watch me; the gaping wound at its’ center, where a trunk once rose, is a dark eye that keeps watch – and isn’t arguing with anything I sing.

The idea of the song is to have some fun with my foibles. Put them out there in the daylight and wind and let them dry out. Pull them up out of the dark, wet soil where they root and grow. The song ties them up in a bunch and hangs them out to dry like domestic garden spices. Hung up to dry in your kitchen, maybe you get a little more control of how much goes into each day’s soup?

There are a lot of rocks and I know I’ll need them all – especially for that first row of all those buggers who’d hurt me. I come up with a second verse.

“you’re a grouchy, petty, greedy-grabbing, big slob
who only gives it up when there’s something to get”

“That’s even better!” I laugh. “How could I make up that first verse and leave out all those other choice bits?” Okay now, let’s put it all together.

But, try as I might, I can’t remember both verses in a row. I can get one at a time but when I try to sing them in a row – I get lost. I suppose this is what’s known as the “blind spot”. Arch my neck around this way and that – use the mirror all I like – I can only see so much of myself at a time – coming or going – conscious or unconscious – I can’t get it all into one photo frame. Isn’t that what spouses are for? They’re so good at seeing what we don’t, won’t, can’t get into view. If only they’d put it into a song, maybe we’d dance along?

When the rocks, stones, and pebbles are all cleared from the shelf, I take a break. That was really pretty tiring. Some bacon and eggs would be good about now eh? A little toast and jam, coffee and cream, a muffin even? A few leaves drop down into the lake. “Here, try a few of these.” offer the trees. “We grow our own food. There’s plenty to share around.”

My stomach gives a turn. It isn’t like one of those gut-twisting hunger pangs you get when you know lunch was two hours ago and dinner’s still hours away. I’d been on a cleansing diet for 10 days prior to this trip and experienced several of those gut-wrenchers during that week.

Apparently, as my body’s fridge empties, my system is beginning to draw nutrients out of my fat, organs, and every other cupboard and shelf in the house. Along with these nutrients are all the toxins our bodies store up for….. for…. for what reason I don’t know. I guess, like the mind, the body takes in the bad along with the good, and there it sits until…until…until either it decides to feed a dis-ease, or we decide to do some house-cleaning.

Anyhow, I spend another little while brushing the pine needles and leaves from the large flat rock surface before me. There is a dark apron of flat rock in front of the bench that will serve as my altar. The sun is well up by now and I shed a layer of clothing before settling down to my task.

I don’t really think you want to hear all the naked truth about my childhood hurts do you? I mean, I’m pretty comfortable being naked alone but it’s not like we’re all on a nude beach together. I don’t really care. If you’re interested I’ll send you along the nitty gritty (they ain’t that gritty) details. I just thought I’d spare you the embarrassment…

We all have “loss of innocence” stories to tell eh? Having spent long hours around coffee cups with streetpeople, I’m under no illusion that what I’ve suffered is particularly tough. How are such things measured?

If I fall 3 feet and you fall 10 feet, you get a break and I get a bruise. We both experience the shock of an unexpected fall. If I’m allowed to cry it out, and you’re told to suck it up, does that affect how deep the emotional wound goes? If I suffer a thousand little cuts and you suffer one deep one, who suffers more?

The process of remembering times of hurt is exhausting. Starting with my earliest memories of Mom, Dad, Brother, Sister, I recount my introductions to life’s harsh surprises and disappointments. It’s those closest to us who have that inescapable honour of being the first ones to introduce us to the pain of rejection, abandonment, injustice, and good old violence.

Beyond those first four rocks, I continue my mental walk innocently along into life. I experience all the same pain again, only this time with Uncles, Aunts, and Cousins. I find a rock for each of those among the extended family whose hurt had mattered most. They get to represent the collective pain carried along by this generation of my loving family.

Was my family any worse, or dysfunctional, than yours? All through the exercise I have to keep fighting off the voices that raise in their defence. “They didn’t really mean it.” “You’re just too sensitive.” “What are ya whimpering and whining about?” “You’re lucky to have been raised by relatively healthy people; with more joy than curse to pass along.”

The point of the exercise, as I conjured it up, was to meet the hurt again face to face out from under the shadows of excuses and rationalizations. By pulling it into the light, I hope to find a way to exorcise the pain from deep within my kidneys, or liver, or colon, or wherever it has been hiding all these years. Let it out and let it go – let go of the person who had been shaped by those un-conscious pushes and pulls.

I didn’t get to be a minister without getting into my fair share of Counselling, Therapy, and Spiritual Direction. I’d told these stories before. That wasn’t new. What was new was the ritual of laying them all out there in front of me in a row; a rogue’s gallery together at last.

As my story of pain progresses into school years, the abuse of schoolyard bullies, fickle friends and unhappy teachers are echoes of the same hurts I’d met before. By the time I reach adolescence, the sting of betrayal from a first love –as fresh as it feels - is really only a new ripple on the pond. The years produced new circles of pain, each with a new set of faces, all echoing that first shocking rock that had dropped into the calm of my innocent young pond.

By the time I get down to employers, co-workers, and false friends the parade of rocks is losing its’ sting. Without much passion I add the latest representatives of the folks in every circle who manage to find ways to hurt me, hinder me, and generally piss me off.

I stretch and take a turn around the campsite. Nothing else to do – back to work. If that first exercise was hard, I find the next row of rocks even more emotionally taxing. One by one, I find a rock for each of the people that I had hurt, abused, abandoned and betrayed. The big rocks are for those I’d hurt the most. And I notice how they were the ones I’d let closest in. And there were quite a few who show up in both lines.

I know you’ll be surprised to hear that this innocent young soul had found some ways of my own to get in on creating painful life lessons for others. I spread my own particular variety of grief around. Family, friends, girlfriends, teachers, employers and employees, each got to experience a particularly ugly facet of Big Al’s smiling pain.

As my mind wanders around through the dim hallways of my past, I encounter lots of folks I could have treated better. The rocks I place however were for those whose hurt, and my guilt, are still brightly lit in my memory. Those who had been closest to my heart had received the fiercest blows and betrayals. Just as I had been hurt with- “You’re not good enough” -the message had twisted around inside of me and come out in mean little ways. I was convinced that these loved ones were… (is it a surprise?) “not good enough”.

The sun is bright and nearing its’ daily zenith. With only a slight head-tilt back I can catch it’s warmth full on my face. These dark reminiscences have not stirred up the deep emotions I expected they might. Instead, I feel calm and unmoved.
“I know this stuff” I tell the lake. “there’s nothing new here.”
The two rows of rocks sit silently with me. Waiting.

I search around inside for some tears of regret and loss. But, as usual, I can’t feel how I feel. Emotions with me come physically. And, as usual, when faced with a highly emotional situation, I react the same way I do to a huge turkey dinner - I feel very, very tired.

In search of tears, I pull my stiffened limbs up off the granite shelf and wander slowly, weakly, up into the woods. The shade is cool and moist and I know where I can find some tears. I follow the path to the moss-covered cliff; my weeping wall. Tears flow in a steady drip off of its wide flat face. I press my palms against its tear-soaked beard, then press my face into the moss. No visions, no voice, just the steady trickle and drip.

“Mother, you cry tears of hurt, and - like all mothers - mostly tears of compassion. You know that we’ll only hurt ourselves in the end. So sad, that in our collective pain, we can find no tears to quench the consumer’s fire. And so you cry for us.”

“Where do all these tears come from?” I ask looking up into the woods above. Beside me were ledges where the cliff had cracked and broken. Carefully, slowly – very slowly - I climb up to the next level. The woods above are light and open. The light has no trouble entering the woods up on top of this hill. I can see where there must be a clearing up there. Climbing through the tumble of rocks and trees up to the top of the ridge I follow the light to a spot at the top.

There is a rock raised up like a giant’s tomb that had laid there for centuries. Covered in moss, a small cedar had grown up as a headstone. I climb up and lie down on the moss. The sun has warmed the spot. This is holy ground. Off come my boots. I lie down in the soft moss and sleep a deep sleep; a forgetting, forgiving sleep; the forest watching over me.

Summer was like your house;
you know where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart’ as onto a vast plain.
Now the immense lonliness begins.
The days go numb,
the wind sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
Ripened until it is real,
So that She who began it all
Can feel you when She reaches for you.
--- Rainer Maria Rilke
The Summer House

I wake and the sun has drifted a bit lower. I put on my boots and find one word in my heart. “Compassion.”
“Yes, compassion, agree the trees. Deep and ever-flowing.”
Refreshed, I climb slowly down the hill again. This time through a ravine without cliffs; over logs scattered and decaying; covered with the greens of life; every shade of green that God could imagine - and a few the forest had thought up itself.

At the lake, I walk back along the shore to camp thinking “Patience? Compassion?
Have I come all the way out here to starve myself for these messages? “God, these are not exactly new ideas for me. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful but…can’t we get to something more specific?”

No, God did not flatten me with a falling tree just then. Instead, God practiced compassion and patience with me - modeling by example, like any good parent.

Now it is time to revisit the upside down tree stump at the lake’s north end. I grab my drum and the water jug and head off in the kayak (and yes, I also put on my lifejacket). Again today there is a steady wind from the south that pushes me, once I leave the bay’s protection, to the lake’s north end. I let the kayak come to a rest in the shallows directly in front of the inverted treetrunk whose roots reach out to me like Medusa’s snake-filled head.

I pull the drum from the seat ahead of me and begin to tap out a beat. It is a song to let the guardians of the hungry underworld know, that I know what they know. That these many, many reaching desires, needs, and wants are not something I can just cast off with a prayer. They are me, and I am them. And although I might turn them up to the light for today – as long as I live; as long as I lift my branches to the sky; letting sun and wind and rain make daylight memories – those roots will keep reaching deeper into earth sucking life from death and sending dreams up from the dark.

So I drum up a bold and playful song making friends with those demons. Those demons who dance behind me every day in my shadows. Who jump from sight if I but merely turn my attention their way. Who whisper in my ears all the time. Who pretend to be either “me” or “God”. Like the quote I read this week in Michael Neill’s newsletter.

“that voice you hear is not God. It just sounds like it thinks it is.”

The Temple of Need

the roots that grip this spinning earth
that suck life from soil
to feed trunk and branch and stem
stretch out in silent cry

The green clothes I wear
customary coverings

instead, reaching out from nightmare’s dark places
my deepest needs, hungers, wants,

so many
so tangled
some fine, some gross and hollow-hallowed
startling to see them all at once
- no head, just tales untold
so human

I take a wander up the river and into the woods on a portage path. I wander into my future and into my past and every so often stop and give thanks for some small thing of beauty I notice in this moment. Memories of mistakes are the fallen logs that feed the latest crop of new ideas and sustain the choices planted long ago that are growing still.

The wind picks up a notch and a chill visits the woods. I don’t like the idea of getting drenched out here, so I head – slowly – back. All day long, people have been joining me for a while. As they come to mind, sometimes for a moment only, sometimes for a while, I listen to what they have to say and send them off with a prayer of thanks and hope.

Getting back to camp requires quite an extended effort. A good wind, full in the face, means that nothing less than steady strong paddlestrokes will get me closer to home. There are four yellow canoes pulled up on the shore at the Northern site and four more down where the rock stars had stayed last night. I wonder who I might find sitting on my rock in the bay.

Only my two rows of rocks are there to greet me. After getting the kayak settled, I set to work gathering another batch of rocks for the rest of the ritual. Now my task is to encounter those people who had been a blessing to me, and those people to whom I had been a blessing.

The sun is just above the treeline on the far shore now and I figure it is time to finish the job I’ve started. If nothing else, it will help pass the rest of the day; get me through dinnertime.

I find that it is much easier to remember those who had delivered blessings to me. However, seeing myself as a bearer of blessings to others in the final row requires a step out of my humble skin – my social training in Christian humility and Canadian downplaying of personal attributes makes it difficult. What I notice is that most of the people who I remember blessing me, also show up in the row of rocks of people I feel that I had also been a blessing to. While the first two rows had been a litany of broken, or damaged, relationships, these two rows celebrate the relationships that live on in a mutuality of respect and appreciation.

Instead of preparing and cooking an evening meal, I carefully set out these two rows of rocks. I test and taste the nature of each person who has given me something light and easy to carry. I place rocks for each one that I have had the honour of serving. Unlike any meal I’ve chewed over, I savour the lifegiving nutrition of being with these folks. Then I sit back and digest this lonely day full of people.

The sun goes down slower this day than any day I can remember recently. There are still no clouds in the sky for the sun to play with and help it pass the time. And so it seems to just slow down to a Tai Chi crawl. I get my drum and tap away at the moments – finding a rhythm that works - then change it up – meeting my limits of speed as a drummer, losing the pace, and then slowing back down into a groove.

Was that what I was doing out here on the rock? Improvising some new rhythms? Testing and trying them on? Stepping out of the daily groove and learning some new moves? Were my expectations too great?

The stories in the books had all told about how the breakthrough would come on the third day.

A pair of hawks pass high overhead heading south. As I follow their flight they swoop and circle at a place beyond the southern treeline. One drops down into some distant woods. The other continues to circle; letting the winds lift her high into a crescendo until it breaks and she swings down towards earth and nest only to be lifted again, and again, and again, and again until day’s end. I lose sight of her and then notice that Venus has appeared in her place.

I wait politely, lingering with a cup of mint tea, until the stars get to show me their stuff. My stomach takes a nauseating turn and so I decide to pack it in. A brief headache visits me as I crawl into the sleeping bag. Sleep comes quickly. It has been a long, long day. I give thanks for it and hunker down.