After describing the path before us, Stephanie sat there, grinning, ear to ear with excitement. My first thought: “Why is she the only one so excited about us going out to not look for something – rather, to let it find us?” My second thought: “What might she know about what awaits us?” I began my Saturn Walk of the Sage by looking for a path that wasn’t too hard for me to navigate. I walked along something that looked like a golfing green or fairway. I tried hard not to look around for things, but I had to navigate my way lest I fall. Now at the end of the grassy area, I came upon a particular spot that had small colonial columns around a small pool and several benches. I stepped into this gathering place. There was a canopy above with walls of trees banding around it. Just as the trees fixed my attention, I heard, what must have been awaiting my arrival, a chorus of chattering birds all over and other sounds unfamiliar to me – the waves of rustling leaves. There was so much noise surrounding me, immersing me in wonder and delight! I was immediately filled with excitement. And in an instant, I understood exactly what that excitement was that had Stephanie smiling before us! I was so surprised! I had barely found a safe path to this holy place and there it was waiting for me, singing in chorus after chorus, and holding me and I was “beside myself”! Again, I tried not to seek out that which would speak to me. But I turned to see the fullness of this realm before me – and there HE was – a large tree just outside of the concrete circle, yet under the canopy. (picture below) He stood before me, waiting for me to catch His eye watching me . . . as I beheld Him. And He revealed to me His fulness. Then, I sat, waited, and wondered how I could possibly return to our meeting room with a 30-foot tree! Then it happened; kerplunk! A nut as big as my palm gave way to gravity and hit me on my head! (picture below) At once, I thought “This is the treasure that I will take and share with the group.” When I began to think that even these people of God might laugh at my story (and that I should wait a bit longer for another gift), it seemed as though the entire canopy burst into a louder chorus, now with the falling of many hearts! This time, I laughed and took the first seed to our sacred circle. My filled heart overflows . . .
And here is a beautiful poem DeAnne wrote about her experience:
Angel wings spread The white cloud’s canopy fills the sky.
No form surrounds this soul, But sweetly glides –
Taking me to the heights Of silent and dry lightning –
Keeping watch, Guarding mind and spirit, Within, and without –
I have no need of wings To carry nor be lifted now.
Sometimes the most amazing openings come unannounced. Just suddenly they’re there having their way with me. This was one of those times. May this story bring hope and sweet joy to your heart as well . . .
I’d started feeling overwhelmed lately with what’d seemed to be one calamity after another: the reemergence of COVID through the rise of the delta variant—in particular seeing so many children becoming sick; the erratic weather patterns raging across our land effecting so many families in devastating ways; the growing divide in truth–telling between the political right and left creating deepening stress fractures in the very foundation of our democracy; the unbearable, tragic, witnessing of our Afghan brothers and sisters trying so desperately to escape impending Taliban rule as our brave soldiers continue to stand guard monitoring the doorway to freedom. Add to all of this any personal challenges we may be facing and, well, it was just all starting to feel down right crushing to my fledging spirit. What else?????
So today, I decided it was time for serious action and took myself out for one of those long walks on a trail in a near–by park. I put on my favorite pink sweatshirt—the one with black letters, amour, (Spanish for love) and a rose on the front, pulled on my comfy cut–off jeans, and slipped into my favorite walking shoes. Last, I grabbed my headphones and iPod.
I decided to put on Sing Allelu. As you may know, Ah is the sacred sound current of the One called by many names. Christians sing Alleluia praising Abba, Aramaic for father. Jews call out to Yahweh, O God of Israel. Muslims chant la illah ila allah declaring Allah to be the only God. Hindus intone Atman, the universal God–self of each person. So, when I listen to Sing Allelu, one of the first Christian hymns, I think of the Ah . . . the One who cannot be fully known but to whom we can, most unabashedly with no holds barred, sing to, sing about, and sing with!
So, off I went progressively picking up speed until I could barely hold back from skipping. Now, when I walk, I am somewhat aware of those close–by as I do tend to sing along with my music. But today, I didn’t care so much. And then, about ten minutes in, I suddenly saw a feather just out in front of me. Small but impossible to miss. Ah, (no pun intended😊) but this was no ordinary feather. It was a dove’s feather.
Feeling most certain that I’d just struck gold—or, even better, a chord with the Holy Spirit—there was no holding back! My heart did open wide to see Your face—now everywhere before me! From the ones passing who looked at me smiling to others who simply looked away. No matter. Now, I could now see Your face everywhere. Even the stone people, tree spirits, high–flying hawks, and the still canal waters had joined in.
Sing Allelu Sing Allelu . . . We rejoice in Your love most high . . .
In Your Light You shine forever . . . shine in us O Lord forever,
We’re the light to the world Allelu!
Suddenly, all the world was singing and I allowed myself to just be moved along on the gathering winds beneath my feet, guided now by the feather directing, compelling, my every step. For my beloved feather had become something like a conductor’s baton as I, now full of fervor, imagined directing all those who could to rise up and join in the chorus—to sing out loud and free—We’re the light to the world Allelu! Yes! We’re the light to the world, you and I, right here and now, in the park, in the subway, in a crowd, in our solitude, in our laughter, in our tears, in the midst of deep challenge and suffering, in the heart of joy and gratitude. No matter who we are, where we are, or what may be happening in our lives or beyond, we are still, unequivocally, unmistakably, unapologetically, the light to the world!
And I could feel the holy spirit in my feather directing those gathering winds to move across time and space to wisp gently up against all those who were suffering; to soothe the unnamable; calm the heart spasms; restore peace to those too weary to get up; and, to deliver a song of love to all who’d forgotten they could sing.
Sing Allelu Sing Allelu
We’re the light to the world Allelu!
Thank you blessed dove for your feather and for the power of the Holy Spirit it brought reminding me, us, all the world, that we are each, indeed, the light of the world and, most blessedly. . . for the remembrance that we can, together, raise up one voice to. . .
I could sit on my great grandparent’s porch in the deep southern woods and count to ninety from the time I’d first hear the sound of a car coming to when I’d finally see it round the bend up the road. The sound was something like the wind makes when it’s first gathering steam. Louder and louder it’d come, piercing the still, damp heat until, finally, in just half a second, the car would fly by leaving only the memory of an off–handed wave from the driver hanging in the air. And I’d always wave back from the porch swing, nonchalantly, with just a slight tinge of melancholy as I watched the fleeting visitor disappear from sight.
The old farmhouse sat a ways back from the road, had a wrap–around porch, and a peeked roof that jutted high into the sky. Late afternoons I’d rock in the swing to cool off the sweat of the day and from there could see across the road to the wide–open field where crops had once been grown. I loved the field. Just behind the house was a large shed for the tractor, and then, off to the side, tucked away, almost hidden in the tall bushes, was the outhouse.
No, we weren’t the antebellum south. We were the other south, poor but fiercely proud. My great grandparents raised six children here in the early twentieth century. Pigs were hung upside down and slaughtered for bacon and salt pork, seedy watermelon was stolen away in the back fields on rare goofing–off–after–church–goin’ afternoons, bottomless buckets of peas were shelled off the back steps, and the smells from the mid–day meal could linger well into the evening. We called it down home and it was where I’d come to visit every summer from out west. It was also where Mini would come to cook and clean for us.
Like other rural families with many children to feed and crops to plow, extra hands were needed in the house and in the fields. And those hands were black. Of course, by the time I was growing up and spending long, sultry, days there an image of those black hands in the fields could only be held alive in the vapors of memory. But Mini was no memory. She was right there making those biscuits and, then, making my bed.
And so, she labored for our family for most of her long life. No doubt she would have said she loved us dearly, as we certainly felt so, and we always said we loved her like family. And, I believe both were, undeniably, true. Me, however, living in a different part of the country for most of the year, didn’t have the same history with Mini. So, though I was always happy to see her come through the back door (yes, only the back), mostly, I just tried to turn away and not think about it too much. But, sometimes I couldn’t and a sour feeling would start curdling in my stomach.
I suppose I could have made it through without any unnecessary upheaval for those few weeks each summer. After all, this was where my roots were, my home. This was my family, the only place I knew I belonged. And our stock was sturdy, the kind with solid backbones, straight gaits, and piercing eyes that could bore straight through to tackle the most unforgiving hardships of life. I loved them. And, of course, still do.
Yes, I suppose I could have had it not been for that outhouse at the outer edge of the backyard. Mini wasn’t allowed to use the indoor bathroom. The outhouse was for her. One day, as I watched her heavy–laden ankles shuffle slowly out to that outhouse, I could feel that curdling again. But this time, the inevitable tide, like nausea, having festered for what seemed like a long time in my young life, could not be curtailed. I was just old enough to feel it all but too young to know what to do with it. I just wanted it to go away. I wanted it to be different. So, this time, I waited for her to return and, finding us alone, suddenly blurted out, Mini, why don’t you use the indoor bathroom?
And, exactly in that moment, would have given my whole life to take it back. Her stunned, piercing glance felt volcanic, like hot embers long dormant, now suddenly in real danger of erupting without regard to fallout. And I, in the wake, stopped breathing, paralyzed. Oh, but my young, naive, heart was screaming, But, Mini, don’t go out there! Don’t!
Gratefully, her lifetime of well adapted this is how you behave ‘round whites instinct kicked in and she quickly recovered but not before giving me a good tongue lashing. Youse knows better’in dat Miss Stetnee. Things is how they is.Youse best leave it ‘lone now! And, turning from me, she threw the dry cloth over her shoulder and flashed me one last clear look of warning, We be done w’ this Miss Stetnee. We be done w’ this. And, so we were.
Things is how they is.Youse best leave it ‘lone now! My family would have said exactly the same thing. Still, since, I’ve winced every time I remember. Just what was she to do with that? In truth, none of us, least of all me, barely nine years old, were equipped to do anything with, simply, yet regrettably, what was. It was more than what we did. It seemed to be who we were.
We never talked about it again. I returned home and, in later summers, would come to see Mini less and less as age and health issues took hold of her. Still, over the years, I’ve often prayed that she knew what was in my heart that day in the kitchen and have often longed to say . . .
Please forgive me, Mini. I just couldn’t watch you walk out to that outhouse anymore. I just couldn’t. Still, I’m sorry I was so unkind to you. I just wanted you to know that I saw you . . . and so felt for you. This was what was in my heart that day. I just didn’t know how to say it. Oh Mini, thank you for your long, faithful, service to my family. Thank you for making the biscuits and for making my bed, for caring for us, even when we did not know how to, best, care for you.
And sometimes, through those vapors of memory, I’ve closed my eyes and pictured us again there in the kitchen, her with that dry cloth flung over her shoulder. Yet, this time, I’m a grown woman and we’re simply standing there gazing quietly at one another. And, this time, I’ve imagined us both, at last . . . unburdened and free.
But I couldn’t have known what was yet to come—a final chapter that could, at last, bring us around full circle to, just perhaps, true freedom for Mini . . . and me.
We’d heard that the house had finally sold—this house and land that had been in my family for almost two hundred years. I was relieved as I’d seen it empty for a while and had watched it steadily go down since the passing of my last remaining great aunts, one of whom had lived in the house for many years. On recent visits, my heart would ache seeing the screen doors hanging off the hinges, paint peeling, windows covered up with black paper, and always a scattered pile of garbage littering the porch. And the swing, the one that had silently joined me in my late afternoon musings, now hung crooked and still.
So, holding fast to all the old faded photographs and to those lingering memories still alive in the vapors, I’d been asking my heart to let go so I and this place, which had long held and sustained my family, could breathe in new life again.
But still I wasn’t prepared for what was to come.
On what would be our last visit down home, my aunt, husband and I decided to just drive by and see—but see what, we didn’t know. As we neared the house we slowed down and then my aunt suddenly said, “Pull in the drive. I want to see who bought the house.” “No!” I thought, “That’s not a good idea. Maybe they’ll think we’re intruding.” A trailer was parked in the front yard and, clearly, there was work being done on the house.
As we got out of the car and walked toward the trailer, a black man wearing a blue printed bandana and matching shirt came around the corner strolling casually toward us. As he got closer, we could see that his bandana loosely held back greying dreadlocks.
My aunt was the first to speak. “Hello . . . we’d like to speak with the owner.”
“I’m the owner,” he said. And I felt a silent gasp in my breath, some need to freeze the moment, to hold this unexpected brevity in time, a moment that held not just my life but so many lives before.
“Oh . . . well, this was my family’s home for almost two hundred years. We’d heard it’d sold and just wanted to stop by,” my aunt said.
And I heard myself jump in.
“Looks like you’re doing a lot of work on the house. When I was growing up, I used to sit on the porch and watch for cars to go by—on a swing that used to be over there,” I said pointing toward the end of the porch.
“I actually bought the land first. I was taken by that field,” he said pointing in the opposite direction across the road. And it was then, a certain something in his voice, that let me know that he’d be a most perfect caretaker to help breathe that new life into the place.
“It was my great grandmother’s favorite place to go in the early evening after supper,” I said. And so, we chatted back and forth, our small talk soon effortlessly bridging across the depths of time, race, the old and the new.
At one point, we noticed a couple of bees swarming around his head. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m a bee keeper,” pointing to some crates nearby. “They won’t bother you. They’re just mad at me because I moved them.”
“Oh, it’s okay,” I said. “I know, in time, they’ll come to be right at home here.”
Then smiling, a surprise: “Would you like to come in?”
And, for the last time, we walked down the center hall—me holding fast to those vapers of memory. In the background, like a distant echo, I could hear him saying he was an electrician by trade and also a jazz musician. But then I was jolted back when he said, smiling again, “I’m redoing the kitchen first. I want it done before my family comes. We love to cook.”
Oh, Mini, if you could have only known that some sixty years after that day in the kitchen a black man would buy this house and that the kitchen would be filled with his family—all folks who love to cook . . .
Folks, dear Mini, that look just like you.
Full circle. Now, when I think of down home, I instantly smile. I think of bees, jazz music ringing across the wide open field, and good smells coming from the kitchen. I think of new life arising out of the old. And I think of Mini and me and I know somewhere deep in my soul that we’re both now truly . . .
It’s been said that synchronicity is the language of God. In those times when we recognize the language and can sense that wondrous dance of synchronicity sparking us, ironically, we often find ourselves becoming very still—for we know now no effort is required on our part—except for our willingness to simply be malleable instruments in the flow of the moment. It brings that I-wonder-what’s-going-to-happen-next inner giggle, as we fully know now that the Unseen Hand has got this. One such time I found myself in that flow was when we were gifted with the name of our blessed wilderness camp.
I’d already felt the dance beginning when the call of the wild started moving my feet the very first time we visited the wilderness property. Oddly, I wasn’t drawn to go into the cabin first. Instead, I found myself making my way further up the mountain, following a thin black hose I’d been told led to the spring, our only water source. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the land had already claimed me. We weren’t even half way home when we called our realtor and excitedly told her we were ready to buy—yes, no offer here—just buy! There was no doubt this was our place. Later, as we discovered that the sunsets off our screened porch offered the best evening programing and that our kerosene lamps, solar lights and blazing stone fireplace created the most wonderful glow and soothing warmth for our sleepy hearts and dusty feet – well, we just knew. It’s why I often say now, “3 Feathers Camp, aka Heaven!”
Soon I started thinking that our new camp needed a name. I began praying that the name would come, for just like the camp and our part as the new caretakers had so effortlessly been brought together, I just knew that its name was already alive in the mind of God and would soon be revealed. About that time, my husband and I went for a walk in a park close to where we lived in town and three feathers found me. I was thrilled and immediately made a nature creation to hold this blessed find. (first picture below) In the Native American tradition, feathers are considered a special omen, a message from the Great Spirit.
Now, also, it’s important to note that the number three has profound meaning for me. My theological underpinning could be described as the Trilogy of Love, the paradigm I first conceived while working on my doctorate. With love as the organizing force in the Trilogy, we as Lovers engage the Love to merge with our Beloved and create the conditions to experience moments of mystical unity with our Creator. This Love may be sacred sound, movement or journeying into the spirit of all things. For example, many faith traditions chant, sing or intone the holy and recognize that there in the silence that follows is the portal into the divine. Sufis spin as they inaudibly chant, merging into stillness and oneness with Allah. And Shamans, throughout the ages, have entered into unity with their Beloved Great Spirit as they have chanted and danced on the spirit of the rattle and drum. In moments of mystical unity, all distinctions between Lover, Love and Beloved dissolve leaving only the One. So, being gifted with three feathers on our walk felt like that dance of synchronicity had already found my feet again.
Shortly after, in July of 2020, I wrote a blog, The Spirit of Place and Three Feathers, in which I shared the story of finding those three feathers and the relationship to the Trilogy of Love. A long–time Tree of Life beloved commented in response to the blog that “Three Feathers” sounded like the name for a new nest. (I had called my old brick and mortar teaching space, “The Sparrow’s Nest.”) I remember thinking, “Well, if I open a new space, that’s what I’ll call it.”
Then, a few days later, as my husband and I were heading out to try a new trail near our camp, I heard myself say, “How about if we call our camp Three Feathers Camp? My husband agreed that would be okay but pointed out that I hadn’t found the feathers on our land. So, as we started our hike, I let the idea rest. Then, as we were heading back, I saw the most beautiful large feather and then shortly after another one that looked just like it but much smaller. As we came in eye shot of the Jeep, my husband said smiling, “Okay, find another one and we’ll call it Three Feathers Camp!” When we got within feet of the Jeep, I looked off to my right over a pretty field and there it was about twenty feet out—the third feather. So now our camp had a name! (second picture below) Later, when I shared some pictures, another long–time Tree of Life beloved said that the third feather was a dove feather. The Trilogy of Love was first introduced in my book, The Call of the Mourning Dove: How Sacred Sound Awakens Mystical Unity. Amen.
Over the summer, my husband created a beautiful sign for our gate to add his special touch to this new creation. (third and fourth pictures below)
We often recognize the language of God best in hindsight. It awakens us to the wonder of life and the remembrance that all that’s required is that we do our part. That, in fact, that Unseen Hand has totally got this—us—life. It puts a giggle in our hearts and a dance in our feet.
I still wonder if he was real. Over the years, I’ve mostly kept silent about seeing him. In a way, it doesn’t matter. It was the gift he gave me, his face—with that soft, barely–smiling gaze, though he never looked at me directly, and the kindness—close enough to fill my swiftly draining heart as it convulsed with tears.
It was the early 90s and he and I were only two of three passengers on one of those small puddle–jumper flights from Meridian, Mississippi to Memphis. He was already on the plane when I and another passenger boarded. The other passenger sat up front and I sat across from the man. Our puddle–jumper was just one of many lined up that day ready to take travelers to larger cities.
Just moments before I’d been in the hanger waiting for my flight to be called. I was there with my mother and step–father. My mother had had a stroke a few years before and was in a wheel chair. It was there, in the middle of that cramped, dingy, noisy room filled with strangers that she looked at me with that look, the one I’d seen a lot, especially since the stroke. The one that seemed to eagerly hone upward as if searching for something—a something that always eluded, something just out of sight, beyond reach, a something that could, just maybe, somehow dispel, resolve, mend what couldn’t quite be named. And, as so many times before, it was just the two of us there, locked in a vortex of memory.
A vortex that held how my father had left before I was born—not a good scenario for a woman in small–town Mississippi in 1950. And how she’d never regained her footing. How I remained an only child and would spend my days playing hide–in–seek with myself trying hard not to be seen or cause trouble as mom could be very mean when she got mad and she was mad a lot. We lived in one of those small look–alike row apartments in an almost rundown neighborhood and I learned early on how to step lightly as I scanned for what felt like hidden mines. I got to know my mom long before, and much better, than I got to know myself. Mostly, I just kept trying to be perfect enough so she’d love me, be proud of me, or maybe, just once in a while, be glad to see me.
So, I knew that look. Only lately, it had made me feel oddly squeamish and unarmed. Now, it was bulldozing right through my strongest yeh-buts, right through years of snipping the stiches from my heart’s still recovering wounds, right through my best lines and rightful defense. Now it just me made me anxious and always in a hurry to leave. Little did I know that my heart was about to undergo a final ripping away of all the stiches that had long held it together. And that it would all start when I least expected it—during that final it’s–time–to–go hug. Unexpected because a hug like that was the one thing I’d always had some control over growing up. Each night I got to decide when I’d go into mom’s room for the good–night hug and kiss.
“Okay, mom. Gotta go. Take care of yourself. I love you,” I said bending down to hug her. But it was in the middle of that hug that I felt the first rising of the tsunami swelling in my belly. Like being suddenly poked and jarred awake from a deep sleep, I suddenly knew, without any doubt, that I was never going to get what I needed—not because she was bad or cruel but— because she didn’t have it. She hadn’t gotten it either. She was still looking for it just like I was. It all happened in a second—a second that would change everything.
And as I walked out to the plane, I could feel the tsunami building. When I finally settled into my seat across from the man, it broke through. Now throttled sounds were surging out of me like a torrent I couldn’t control. After years of therapies and healing, it felt like the final, most deeply rooted, vestiges of moldy sorrow and rage were now scouring against my insides, pushing up and out, unabated, toward freedom. Finally, it was all coming undone.
“I’ll wave to them for you,” he said as he gently tapped the arm of my seat.
I couldn’t answer and barely noticed the gesture but at one point I did manage to glance at him. He was looking straight ahead though it seemed his soft gaze was looking at nothing in particular. Much later, I would wonder that with so many people outside to send off a row of puddle–jumpers and, because he was already on the plane, he couldn’t have seen me with my mom and step–dad inside . . . how could he have known who “them” was?
The flight was short, maybe twenty minutes, and by the time we landed in Memphis I was just beginning to gain some composure. When we’d come to a stop, the passenger in the front was first to deplane down the stairs. Then the man next to me got up. As I watched him walk the few steps toward the front, I suddenly felt compelled to catch up to him and say, “Thank you,” or something to just acknowledge the kindness he’d offered from just across the aisle. As he turned to make his way down the stairs, I quickly put my compact back in my purse and got up to follow. The flight attendant and pilot were standing at the exit looking at me with polite sympathy—the kind you offer strangers when you want them to know you care but don’t want to get too close. I paused at the top of the exit and glanced out across the long walkway leading to the terminal. The first passenger was still in sight, about half way there. But the man who’d been seated across from me was nowhere in sight.
Jilted with a bit of sudden anxiety, I asked the flight attendant and pilot, “Do you know where the man is who just got off . . . the one who was sitting right across from me?” But my voice was already trailing off as I could see that now there was a new sense of growing concern in their eyes mixed in with that polite sympathy. “There was only you and the man way ahead there on the plane, Miss.”
For a long time, I was caught up in the mystery of it all. It seemed pretty special to maybe have had an encounter with what I could only imagine had been an angel or some ethereal being. But as the years wore on, I noticed something different happening—even more special to me—when I was with my mom. No, it wasn’t like there was some new, deep, sense of by–gone love that had suddenly returned. And it didn’t feel like some measure of forgiveness had wiped away the layers of crusty wounded residue. But what did seem different was that now my old wounds seemed more like fading scars. And, even more importantly, it seemed to have more to do with how my own daughters were now grown and how I could, even before I knew it, find myself looking at them with that same look.
Something my mom could do that always amazed me was that she could play the piano though she’d never been taught. She was one of those who could hear a song once and play it full chords and all. One day, shortly before she died, she was playing some of the old hymns and I did something I’d never done. I gently nudged her over a little so I could sit close on the piano bench and I started singing the words to some of the hymns. And it was somewhere in the middle of In the Sweet By and By that I knew the look had relaxed and the search had ended, if only for a short while, for both of us.
I’m still grateful for the mystery man on the plane, for his kindness and for his tender accompaniment that day when the tsunami had its way with me. But I’m no longer enamored with the notion of visiting angels or ethereal beings. Rather, sometimes I close my eyes and imagine me and my daughters squeezed in close on an old piano bench singing out full–bore some ole catchy tunes and just smiling like crazy . . . and, well . . .
I confess I rather enjoyed being not–so–discreetly perused by the slightly disapproving eyes of those around me—most notably from the older women escorted by their distinguished husbandry—drenched in their long furs, dawning freshly coiffured colored perms, and swaying those dangly earrings from side to side with every move. All notable signs of those known to be well–appointed and, of course, destined to sit in the front row of the mezzanine of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum that night in 1979 in Biloxi, Mississippi.
And then there was me, not so well–appointed, as I was unescorted and very pregnant, arriving in my low–cut scarlet red gown and daring to sit in the front row, center seat. Now the low–cut part likely caused my most salacious grin as I had only recently become quite voluptuous as a result of being pregnant. And I did have a pair of those dangly earrings to sway alongside my long, loosely hanging, hair. But while, yes, I was enjoying some of the novel attention I was arousing, nothing could have detracted my mood which, by this time, was already in full aerobatic mode—leaping over the railing and down onto the stage where, very soon now, I knew my heart would be dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov. If this wasn’t heaven, I couldn’t have told you what was.
But, as I would come to discover often, the greatest gift I was to receive that night was even grander than Baryshnikov himself. You see, there had been some buzz about Baryshnikov being ill and even, perhaps, not being able to perform. Luckily, there was also another great ballet dancer of the day, Peter Martins, there to perform as well.
So, the evening began with Martins. Having taken ballet since I was young and had even danced in a small local company, the Pensacola Civic Ballet, the year before, I knew something about what I was seeing. And Martins was absolutely technically brilliant. No question. Brilliant. But, then a short intermission and . . . suddenly there was Baryshnikov leaping through the air with such power and grace that we were all jolted up out of our seats gasping and clapping in response to some ubiquitous, primal, involuntary force. Now, there had been some intermittent clapping for Martins’ technically brilliant performance—but nothing like this.
As I watched throughout the evening, I could see that, on this night, Baryshnikov was not as technically brilliant at Martins. But it didn’t seem to matter because Baryshnikov just had that . . . certain something.
I’d seen and experienced that certain something up close a few years before in an adult ballet class in Honolulu, Hawaii. My teacher’s name was Jack Clause and he definitely did not look like a ballet dancer. He was rather short and stocky but his face—oh my, that face held me fast. You did not come to class late. Always proper attire. No chit–chat allowed. Yet, each week, when I walked into his studio, I just knew something special was about to happen.
“Be beautiful!” he would bellow. “There are many technicians but very few dancers! Be a dancer!” Now, I can tell you that most adult dancers, out of their prime and usually far from years of practice, often do not look so beautiful moving across the floor. But, in Jack’s class, suddenly I didn’t care if I could do that Grand Jete really high or not. Off I’d go as if I could fly—because that certain something in him had ignited that certain something in me that told me I could. And it didn’t matter how beautiful I looked, or didn’t look, to others. Not on the radar. No, most importantly, it was how I always felt in his class and, afterwards too, as I continued to Grand Jete down the sidewalk to catch the last bus home. Later I would learn that, in part, that certain something had come from his knowing that he had a terminal illness and could die at any time. No time for chit–chat . . . indeed. Only time for beauty. And for doing what you love.
We all recognize that certain something when we see it. It certainly exists in all the great ones who’ve spent years honing a craft to technical brilliance to suddenly discover that, in moments, their craft is doing them. Still, as I discovered in my dance class with Jack, even if we haven’t spent years developing a skill or craft, we can still experience that certain something when we fully let go into what we love. It’s been forty–five years since I saw Jack’s beaming face that sparked that certain something in me. Yet, it’s like it was just yesterday. This tells me that that certain something is eternally alive, woven intrinsically into our DNA, and forever pointing us toward our true love . . . and when we have the courage to fully let go into its force, we too can suddenly, and quite ahhhhmazingly, have times when we feel like life is doing us. And we . . . well, we’re just along for the ride.
What is it that you truly love? What sparks your heart to carefree gladness? What leaves you speechless and lost in time? What if you could let go of how it looks, how good you are or may feel you need to be? What might happen if you could just fall into its beauty, its power, its grace, its force—the force that’s actually pulling you toward itself?
Perhaps you too would discover your own certain something . . .
Like how just a few Grand Jetes down a Honolulu sidewalk could stir a magic that would last a lifetime.
PS: Would you like to test my hypothesis? Check out the first minute and about ten seconds of this video of Baryshnikov as a young man and ask yourself, “Is he dancing or is he being danced?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UApNesAfyps
And here is a picture from that evening all those year ago. And, no! He’s not being held up by strings like Peter Pan!!
Whenever sorrow comes, be kind to it. For God has placed a pearl in sorrow’s hand. Rumi
It’s a funny thing about those pearls. They’re only found in the depths of the ocean floor. Hidden in the deepest recesses out of sight and out of reach. We cherish them for their purity and beauty but truth is most of us wouldn’t choose to make the long journey down to uncover them. Instead, we’re happy to enjoy them in the bright light that lingers just above the water’s edge.
And then something happens. In our case, it was those letters, blazing red and in all caps, POSITIVE. Doug and I had both tested positive for COVID–19. And before I could fully recover or comprehend what was happening, Doug became very sick. And, day by day, I felt like I was being pulled down, down, down, into those darker and darker waters where I could no longer see or navigate. And, yet, it was in those very depths, at those very times, just when I felt I could simply go no further, that the pearl somehow found me—the one God had put there in sorrow’s hand—waiting just within my reach. And it seemed to say to me . . .
You are not alone. I am here with both of you. Place all of you, and all of Doug, in God’s hands. And rest.
Rest. This is the blessed gift of the pearl that God leaves in sorrow’s opened hand. Blessedly, in times like these, I often imagine myself laying down, with all the despair, struggle and fear, to rest fully in the cupped hands of God who, alone, I know can carry me through. And, in such moments, my quiet, still, heart can only wonder, “What greater gift, treasure, could there possibly be?” For now, my sorrow’s hand has become God’s hands.
Some folks think it’s only spiritual to stay on the surface and to bask in the sunlight wearing that new strand of pearls. That somehow the darkness of the deep waters is outside of God’s realm and purview. I would disagree. I believe it is God’s true purview. While the mind loves to surf off the shoreline, the soul alone knows the true depths. All I know is that the deepest love I’ve ever known, been shown, lived has happened in those deep waters where I’ve found the only true rest in those cupped hands of God.
We blossom, not in spite of, but because of. I can already hear the deepening whispers and etheric melodies breathing through my heart ready to burst out singing on my walks at 3 Feathers this summer. I know I will look at Doug across the room a little longer and smile that smile only he knows. I know I’ll hug my children a little tighter and spend time treasure hunting with my grandkids a little longer. For nothing brings us to life like just the threat of death.
Gratefully, Doug is doing better day by day. Me too. I only had mild symptoms which allowed me to care for him as I’ve been able. But even as we make our journey back to normal, I find I still hold that pearl close—the one from the dark depths. And when I am just still and quiet enough, I can still hear it speaking:
Remember that it is out of the depths that I come to shine in the light of day. No darkness, deadly current or undertow can erase my gift for you. No matter how hidden I may seem, I’m always waiting for you. Swim deep. And know you can always find me nestled there in your fingers, right where God has left me. . .
Most of the time I hate graffiti. It defaces property and reminds me of gangs marking their territory. But, the other day, my husband and I were out walking and we passed a large cement block that had a message sprawled across it: CANCEL FEAR. Surprised, I thought, “Well, this is actually something incredibly helpful for this moment in which we’re living. (See picture below)
And I remembered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life we’re celebrating today. I can only imagine the great trepidation he and his followers must have felt walking straight into the crowds full of sweaty clenched fists, high flying billy clubs, stretched hoses spewing out stinging daggers, and the shouts, those shouts, all wrapped around, infusing, and punctuating that crowing jewel of all insults . . . nigger.
Still, he and his followers walked. And later he would even refer to them, those very ones who aimed fists, billy clubs, hoses and insults, as his white brothers.
As an interfaith minister, I’ve long championed the path of inter–spiritual, inter–cultural, dialogue and communication. From the To Hear How Others Pray series fifteen years ago co–sponsored with the Souhegan Valley and Nashua Interfaith Councils to the Under One Sky Interfaith Peace Walks of 2016 and 2017, sponsored by the Souhegan Valley Interfaith Council, to my TEDx talk of 2018 stressing how we can find unity in diversity one encounter at a time. Over the years, my ministry has centered around galvanizing people for collaboration—particularly with those with whom we may feel tempted to label as the other.
However, I believe this moment is calling for a different response—very similar to the time of Dr. King. Sadly, the path of collaboration only works when both others (yes, we’re all the other to someone) are wanting and willing to sit together to find common ground. But, just like the angry white mobs that accosted Dr. King and his followers, those today who are exhibiting rage, hatred and terror in the name of certain political ideologies are also clearly not interested in the path of collaboration. And, as a result, our very democracy now hangs dangling from a noose, each moment losing breath and strength to kick.
So, what are we to do? I propose we must come together with those of similar minds to explore ways we can fight for the America we want for ourselves and, more importantly, for our children—as opposed to simply succumbing to fighting against the other. This is key for if we fall into fighting against we become no different from those with whom we would resist. Dr. King modeled this great ideal as he marshalled the forces of love for his fellow man, through non–violent action, to confront a tyranny of hate. It would serve us well to take note for it was only in this way that he was able to describe the others as his brothers—assuming we too would desire to aim so high.
Yet, when fear reins, many recall his untimely demise. Yes. But I believe this very moment is also asking each of us, “What are you willing to die for?”
Overplayed? I don’t think so. Consider all the brave men and women who face death every day: our military service men and women, all the first responders, our police force, the health care workers who show up every day to care for the sick and dying in the middle of this pandemic. Every day, so many, not–so–ordinary people just like you and me live the answer to, “What are you willing to die for?”
And, so can we.
Let’s never lose hope or site of the incredible healing that can occur when those of differing viewpoints and beliefs are willing to come together and truly listen with open minds and hearts for the sake of cultivating greater understanding and awareness. But, when such collaboration eludes us, as it did in Dr. King’s time, let’s rise to follow his example. Let’s fight for the forces of love to confront, today, the growing tyranny threatening the welfare of all our people.
It’s our turn. I know together we can restore the soul of our great nation and re–enliven the ideals still burning in that torch held high by our great lady, the Statue of Liberty. So, when our grandchildren ask, “What did you do?” We can answer, “I stood tall and did what I could. And, even though I often had great trepidation, I still worked hard to cancel fear . . .
It could be. Even though the images of insurrection we witnessed yesterday will brand our hearts for a long time to come. We did imagine it could happen. Still, we hoped not. Images. The image that most seared my heart was not the one of the insurrectionist at the front of the People’s Chamber with his arm raised, hand in a fist. It wasn’t of the one posing in the Speaker’s secretary’s office, cocked back in the chair with his feet propped up on the desk. It wasn’t even the one where Trump’s loyalists, on the scaffolding, were trying to replace the American flag with a Trump flag. No. For me, sadly, it was a less provocative image: it was the one of the woman being carried out on a stretcher, covered in blood. The one who didn’t make it.
I don’t know if she was there also to raise a fist or if she was just an innocent staffer who’d gotten up that day to go to work and do her job. Whatever the reasons that brought her to the end of her life, just seeing her awakened in me the tragic reminder of what can happen when we collectively lose control and revert to the ravages of war. Yes, war. Only this time it was not on a faraway land. It was right here at home.
Collectively. I don’t believe we’ll be able to come together to heal this moment unless we also own it. And this ownership is not about judgement or blame of others or ourselves. Rather, it’s about seeing one another behind the masks of hate, bigotry and revenge. It’s about seeing a fellow sister being carried out on a stretcher covered in blood. We can’t bring others into our hearts unless we can find them there first. It begins with us. Then, and only then, will we be able to recognize the very image of God right in front of us. Only then will we be able to rise up to heal the wounds of this time with the laser compassion required in this moment. Laser because justice seeks accountability for harmful action. Compassion because, behind all masks of harm, is a crippling desperation peering out from the face of God.
Our finest hour? Yes, if we remember that just a small amount of light ignites the dark. Just a pause, a second look, can turn the heart. It’s one of those striking paradoxes that nothing opens us to love like hate; to healing like suffering; to unity like divisiveness; to forgiveness like blame.
Let’s come together to find ways not to be better Democrats or Republicans or even better Americans. Let’s broaden our vision to look for ways to become better human beings in and around and with one another.
Let’s do it for the one who was carried out covered in blood. The one who didn’t make it. If we do, just maybe, together, we can create a new spark of hope from the still hot embers of this moment. . .
It’s 1895 and Milton Hershey is an aspiring business man. His dream? Milk chocolate. Unheard of in the US. No matter that he doesn’t have a product yet or even a winning recipe. In Derry Township, PA, factories are already being built and workers hired. And he’s just brought in William F. R. Murrie to interview for the sales manager position. He’s heard of Murrie and feels confident that he’s the right man for the job. So, he tells him that whatever he’s making he’ll beat and offers him a commission on sales. Murrie, of course, is interested and asks to see a sample of the product. But Hershey, showing only a hint of regretful truth–telling, admits quite matter–of–factly that there is no product—yet. But, he says, with great finality, “There will be,” and, in fact, “the product will sell itself.”
Murrie pauses. His squinting eyes unveiling his disbelief, “So, you’re hiring me to sell something that doesn’t exist . . . something people don’t know anything about . . . that’s also gonna sell itself?”
And, in a suspended moment, just long enough for raised eyebrows, Hershey replies, “Is that a problem?” [See The Food that Built America, Season 1, ep. 2]
No, indeed, it was not. For very soon after, Hershey would call on an old acquaintance, a scientist, who would create the winning formula. In addition, an entire town would be built to support his dairy farming enterprise, needed to create the milk for the milk chocolate, and he would, in the end, give his entire fortune away as a philanthropic gift.
Now fast forward to 1973. Mother Teresa of Calcutta has just passed away and I’m in Manchester, NH, for a memorial service. I hear a visiting Cardinal tell a story of how he once rode in a limo with Mother Teresa and that during that ride she’d told him she was going to teach him to pray. Sheepishly, he listened carefully particularly as she culminated her instructions with, “I always thank God ahead of time for what I’m about to receive.”
“thank God ahead of time . . .” And, so it was she was able to create a world–wide organization of compassionate service to the poorest of the poor based on nothing but divine providence. Amen.
So, what did Milton Hershey and Mother Teresa have in common? One a business man and the other a Catholic nun? I would say it was more than faith. It was an impenetrable, incorruptible, there–is–nothing–I–believe–in–more than in that something bigger than myself. Each held the seed of a vision for the future. Each marched straight forward, not according to the dictates of a business plan but, rather, in response to an inner drumbeat that was already moving them. Hershey build factories and hired employees in anticipation of the milk chocolate formula he knew was coming and Mother Teresa drew letters in the sand, with a simple stick, in anticipation of the first school she, also, knew would be created.
So, what can we gleam from their stories for our own lives? Hint: in this case, the important details are not in the nitty–gritty—but, rather, in that something bigger, that energy, that love if you will, that takes over when our hearts become seized by a dream, idea, goal or project. Still, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the possibilities for ourselves.
“Great for them but I’m not like them!” we often think contemplating the great ones. Understandable . . . but look closer. They weren’t special or different from you and me. According to Mother Teresa’s Mother Superior, with whom she lived for many years, she and the other sisters saw nothing special about Sister Teresa. And, I would guess that Murrie had quite the inner dialogue going on about Hershey in his private thoughts!
“Yes, but I’m not meant to do something big like that!” we often protest. Perhaps. All of us aren’t destined to do large deeds in the public arena. Sometimes we may hear that drumbeat, that love, in the private arena of our own hearts and feel called only to share with family and, perhaps, a few close friends. No matter. For when love has its way, we can rest assured that the something bigger is at play and all we need do is respond to that inner drumbeat now already moving us. That something bigger will take care of all deliveries small and large, now one and the same, for love being infinite recognizes no difference. But, sadly, if we shy away from the drumbeat, the love calling us, of this I am certain: a song that could have echoed sweetly through the caverns of this one heart of God in which we all live . . . will remain silent.
Something bigger . . . so, what if, when hearing that inner drumbeat, feeling seized by that love for some new idea, project or venture, we, too, said, “Yes!” And, what if we, too, had the courage to follow as if it was already quite assured? What if we, too, were willing to give our all to some wonder already moving us trusting our efforts will serve some greater good we’ve yet to imagine?
If so, maybe we, too, would find our ordinary, sequential, linear, days suddenly rolled back, spilling into each moment; our rote, well–rehearsed, dialogues paused with suspended anticipation holding the yet unanswered question; our clearly defined outcomes detoured toward destinations playing hide–in–seek just around the next bend; our footsteps lightened to match that giggle now escaping unabated from our wandering hearts, even as our logical minds look on bobbing and perplexed . . .
And, perhaps then we could imagine when others asked about it, even seeing their faces all wrinkled–up with doubt, skepticism, even disbelief, that we, too, could answer with raised eyebrows . . .
Rev. Dr. Stephanie Rutt offers her work through the Tree of Life School for Sacred Living, LLC, and also serves as Founding Minister of the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple in Amherst, NH. She is the author of five books and additional interfaith curricula. To learn more about her books, as well as online and in-person classes and workshops, please visit her website at https://www.stephanierutt.com.