The bus diesels out of the McDonald’s parking lot in Lone Pine, CA at six am, minutes after I creep out of the room of sleeping women in the Whitney Portal Hostel. The first driver wears a cowboy hat and listens to classical guitar. The second driver growls at pit stop requests. “I think he has a case of the Mondays,” another rider whispers. Oh yeah. It is Monday. We are reentering the world where the day of the week can foretell mood, and heart attack likelihood. Because we are going home: a passel of assorted hikers, plus a few locals headed north a stop or two.
The bus dumps its passengers in Reno, Nevada, which is the ugliest city I have ever seen. Still, looking at a six-hour layover, I am not just going to hang out in the airport. Here’s the mission: find one Beautiful Thing here in Reno. Surely there is a redeeming sculpture, tree, mosaic… something beautiful both inside and out. Three weeks of natural beauty have spoiled me, and my tolerance for the products of profit-driven construction is low. With a $2 city bus pass in my pocket, the quest begins.
The riverwalk is concrete, decorated with trash. The river itself flows strangled and brown. Down-and-out people lie on the curb or push along on canes. Bad junctions, hard living. The neighborhoods struggle. I pace the streets with a few tourists, the ones who can’t afford Vegas, shuffling between tacky casinos. The synthetic facades have not been renovated since the seventies, which looks awful, but I may actually support this neglect: isn’t it preferable to the endless facelifts of swankier towns, unneeded, superficial? You know what you are getting here. You can see all the way to the core.
I think about my trail trust that the right paths will unfold. They always have, if not immediately. But why? Reno is a reminder that this is not the case for everyone. I am not sure why I have been so fortunate. Having money helps, as well as other kinds of privilege, but some people still find themselves in bind after bind. There is no guarantee. How do the people of Reno see their town? Do they find beauty here? They must. You must find it where you are. Where is it? Can I see with Reno eyes?
The bus driver is kind, advising me on the best place to get off, but it’s not beauty. The begging man is kind, but it’s not quite beauty. In line at the post office to mail home my sharp objects, which cannot be checked through airport security, two people burst in singing happy birthday, carrying helium balloons and neon cupcakes to a postal clerk’s counter. She reddens and won’t meet their eyes. Her manager bounces on tiptoe as she belts the refrain over-enthusiastically, and some of us in line faintly join in.
None of it is beauty, but all of it is human. Maybe human will have to do. So after my wanderings and a couple of street tacos, I surrender beauty and retreat to the airport sidewalk. I lean my pack on a bench near the taxi lot, and pull out a book to kill time.
But then: with minutes to spare, in peripheral vision, brightly colored cloth. A man’s voice, chanting. On the grass by the road, three cabbies are praying toward Mecca. Their voices rise and fall over the traffic. They sing for fifteen minutes, then rise and walk back to work, the older man with his arm around a younger man’s shoulder.
Okay, Reno, there is your One Beautiful Thing. The color, the song, the reverence, the brotherly love, the willingness to pause profit for spirit. It goes all the way through. Well done. You win.
My friend Jane often misses church in summer… and fall… and spring. “We were worshipping in the green temple,” she’ll say later. Meaning, of course, that she and Garon were outside on Sunday morning. In which case, I’ve been church-shopping vigorously: in the Rattlesnake, on Mount Jumbo, on Sentinel, in the Elkhorns, up to Glacier Park. I am fickle and can’t commit to any particular congregation. I aim to join them all.
Strange to say, I can walk all day and not feel bored. Training for the JMT is a perfect excuse to do a lot of that, loaded up with gear or not. It’s not always pleasant in all ways, but that’s what it’s like in the green temple. Especially when I let go of counting miles and hours, of dreaming about my next snack, of caring that a fly’s circling my head with missionary zeal… and listen:
Ambling down an unmarked trail as the temperature rises into the hundreds and sweat slicks my neck, the unmistakable sound of moving water comes softly, from underneath all the other sounds of the woods: a tiny spring, hidden by ferns and old branches. Zamzam, I think.
Zamzam is the name of a friend I met when working in refugee resettlement many years ago. In the break room one day, she told me the Muslim tale: Hagar and her infant son Ishmael were left in a desert valley without water. Hagar scoured the valley, climbing every mountain, praying, until in exhaustion she set her child on the hot ground. Then, miracle: fresh water sprang out where his feet touched. Zamzam explained that her name is really more like “Zam! Zam!” (“Stop! Stop!”), for the spring flooded with such generosity that it overwhelmed even parched Hagar. The awe that elicits Zam! Zam! is understandable: even a slow trickle in midsummer, water purified by earth and brought back to us to carefully enjoy and revere, is a miracle indeed.
It’s not something I’m exactly proud of: I find the divine spark more easily in inanimate objects than in people. There is no such thing as an ill-tempered rock or an unlikable tree. There are no moods, only endless variety of forms. There is no love, conditional or otherwise, wanted or wanting. There is nothing to do but observe and appreciate.
My favorite way to do this, alone in the woods, is comedic impressions of trees. They jut, they creep, they rocket, they burl, peel and clench. I want to point at their dramatic survivalism. (Rocks also have character, but they’re much harder to impersonate– er, impetronate). The trees are doing what they were born to do, shaped by the shade and the fire and the wind, and with what flair they manage it. My mimics aren’t anthropomorphism, but the other way round: dendromorphism, let’s say. Homage to foliage: well done, good and faithful servants!
Early morning, before the heat comes into the air, I jog a few miles up the trail at Logging Creek. The path passes in and out of burned zones springing back into the life cycle: aspen, fireweed, small firs amid the hulls of old growth and deadfall. The unburned forest smells of vanilla, another thing I learned from Jane: the smell from the bark of old ponderosas means one can identify a stand with eyes closed. What is it about this intimate knowledge that feels like memorizing a book, a Good Book, the Good Book of learning that will never end? The world is a small and perishable place, but everything stands for something else. Ponderosas may well stand for eternity, fire cycle notwithstanding.
Morning sun at Logging Creek in Glacier National Park
From the sunny ridge of Waterworks Hill overlooking Missoula, I drop into the sheltered ravine on the far side, lined with shrubs, spike mullein, and a few meadowlarks. The white noise of interstate traffic and the busy town dies as quickly as I step below. My ears hadn’t realized they were deadened. Now they hear the muted dance of grasses, and though the world has shrunk, it feels at once endless and holy. It’s divine. No matter how much I think or read or even pray, god has always been to me only a sense of wonder and unknowing amid vastness. Lots of folks feel certain (or convicted, as they say) about religious matters, but not me. I think I’ll never feel secure that way. But that’s OK. Mystery is underrated, and no amount of scientific or philosophical investigation, while worthwhile, can diminish the mystery of the world and all that is beyond. Tucked into the pocket of Waterworks, I sit in the trail and listen thirstily to less, drinking in the space, one clueless and content iota.
For most of my life, I didn’t know that Christian monasteries even existed in the United States. Then J. brought me to visit a Trappist abbey in Georgia, and I completely fell in love. I’m not Catholic—not even Christian—but I dig the chanting, the escape from time, the craziness of getting up at four am to look at the moon through stained glass in a cool, blue chapel for thirty minutes and then go back to sleep. In my generation, it seems like belief in anything sacred is practically, well, profane, but here it is: a beautiful, living anachronism, people who not only believe but pray and act on that faith. Heretic as it may make me in academic or hip circles, I admit: sometimes it’s good to just shut up and pray. I highly recommend the monastic experience. Here’s why…
Prayer awakens – Justice impels – Compassion acts – Thy Kingdom Come.
(the motto of the Monastery of St. Gertrude)
The Monastery of St. Gertrude, which I’ve visited four times now, sits at the base of a piney hill, on the site of an old quarry, overlooking the rippling camas prairie of Idaho. Wheat grows here, and neon yellow rapeseed for canola oil. The Seven Devils mountain range rises on the faraway, eastern horizon. They don’t call it a convent, and definitely not a nunnery: it’s a monastery, just like the guys. You don’t hear the word nun very often; they’re sisters. And sometimes, “sisters-sisters.” That’s what the two ladies said they were, one pushing the other in a wheelchair, when I introduced myself. Then they giggled. Lots of them came from the nearby small towns, teenage daughters of big, German Catholic farm families. Sisterless myself, I can’t begin to imagine their bond, these doubly-sisters.
Walking in, the smell of a monastery is similar to that of health food stores and your cleaner communes: baking, bulk goods, and the mysterious aroma of people sharing lives. The grounds are meticulously kept. Religious art and iconography abounds: a plaster, three-quarter-size Mary surprises me in the stairwell on the fourth floor every time I round the corner. She’s got jazz hands and a knowing eye, and her bare feet pin a serpent by the jaws.
You can stay in the retreat house or the lovely new B&B, but if you want the full experience, your best bet is volunteering. Female volunteers stay in the cloister with the nuns. (For a parallel experience, bros should pick a monk-astery.) To each her own cell, though it’s more like a dorm, were the dorm cleaned and decorated by an army of Teutonic seniors with an affinity for lace. They feed you, too. Forget the hardtack loaves and stale water of movie lore: there’s a strong strain of smorgasbörd here. Bread is fresh-baked daily, and the women spend their Augusts canning and preserving the fruit and vegetables they grow. And lo, they are into Jello and brownies and, of course, all kinds of potatoes.
The ladies themselves are great. While the contemplative, more silent Trappists wear robes, the Sisters of St. Gertrude are Benedictines, where the dress code is apparently Grandma Casual. (And many are actual grandmothers—it’s possible to have a family, be widowed, and then join). People often recall nuns as severe and thin-lipped, even abusive, per boarding school horror stories, but maybe these women weren’t that way, or softened after retiring from their vocations as Catholic nurses, teachers, and social workers. They’re tough, sweet, real. Around the lunch table, they were big into Obama in 2008. They’re big into Vatican II. They’re into Joan Chittister and other progressive, female Catholic theologians. They often hold hands, or touch each other on the shoulder when talking. Some of them have an ageless quality, looking far younger than their years. They are the dictionary image for spry. Take that, Retinol-A.
Three times a day, they file into their high-ceilinged chapel, split into two small choirs facing each other, and pray for the world. They read verses, sing, and chant in unison. Their beliefs and priorities are not for everyone. When I am with them, I omit many words and phrases due to discomfort with, especially, an Old Testament deity. It can be difficult to suspend judgment, but try. Just listen. When monks chant, the sound is alien, deep, surrounding. The women sound more like a small breeze coiling upward to the sky. I think they could sing anything in unison and have it sound holy:
Starting on a high note, repeated: Heavenly Hash… Dropping with a note of melancholy: Prepared by Sis-ter Cha-nelle. Back to the high note, opposite choir, each syllable lovingly embraced:
Contains choc-o-late chip, chunky peanut butter, miniature marshmallows With closure: …and wal-nuts. A-men.
Volunteers, both male and female, get to hang out with monks and nuns far more than retreatants or guests. Over a pot of potatoes and armed with a peeler and a compost bucket, nonagenarian Sister Wilma told me thrilling tales of her girlhood in the 1930s. Expect to spend four to six hours a day on tasks such as weeding, housekeeping, or pitting plums. The rest of the time is yours to walk, sleep, draw, write, go to prayers (called “offices”), or watch an old Nicholas Cage movie on Tuesday Movie Night. You might even gain some spiritual insight or comfort, though probably not during the Nicholas Cage movie. (If you prefer a more structured and chore-free experience, the Spirit Center offers retreats on icon painting, meditation, grieving, and more.)
One last perk* of staying in the cloister is that, if you’re lucky, you’ll see how Sisters party. Once, in honor of someone’s final vows, everybody got together for a shindig on the top floor. They popped a cassette in the boombox, then settled in to play cards, shoot the breeze, and partake of mini-muffins, PBR, and boxed Sutter Home. They love each other fiercely. They also know how to mourn. Within a day of the party, an older sister died in her bedroom. The bells pealed and sang over the hills, and all the women crowded in with her, singing her spirit home with the music she had heard all her life, saying goodbye. She was buried on the hill where they will all be buried.
Speaking of which, you’d better visit soon. The ranks are dwindling. The community seems smaller than it did five years ago. The order will have to adapt or die. I don’t believe they’ll disappear, though. They are creative, faithful, and hardworking. And god knows: strange times impel people to unusual lives.
*OK, I lied. There’s one more perk: being able to truthfully say you’re volunteering for a monastery is a great way to avoid a speeding ticket when the small-town cop stops you doing 35 in a 25 zone and asks you what brings you to these parts.
It was not so long after this photo was taken. Roadrunner, Clark Kent, Zippy and I had eaten our lunches while swatting gnats at a shelter just before Tinker Cliffs. We were full of peanut butter, except for Roadrunner, who is from Germany. (Apparently PB is a uniquely American taste, like Vegamite to Australians.) The day was warm, and we climbed quickly to the ridge. The trail in this section of Virginia has stayed mostly atop ridges, and so has been unexpectedly dramatic, despite relatively low elevations. But this afternoon’s walk would prove to be the most dramatic yet.
It often happens that the sky on one side of a ridge will be robin’s-egg-blue, and on the other side will be hazy or gray. Such was the case that afternoon. To our left, the valley and town below bathed in peaceable sunshine. But to our right, the green hills and blue reservoir were topped by an army of dark clouds, which marched toward our perch at a quick clip. The light on that side was strangely yellow, and a foreboding breeze puffed our sleeves and made goosebumps rise on our right legs and arms.
We’d seen the chance of a storm in the forecast, so we crouched behind a tall, toothlike row of rocks to secure our dry bags and ready our rain gear. One by one, we emerged from the windbreak and darted forward down the trail.
Energy rose in the wind. The high-altitude, intoxicating smell of ozone filled my lungs. For some reason, I welcomed the rain. I had seen the clouds and knew it was coming. I suspected it would be brief, and then it would be gone. Best to accept it, relish it even, and let it go. Why hide? Why shrink? So I kept jumping between the jagged rocks and following white blazes, glancing between footfalls at the incoming spirit to the west.
It did not disappoint. There was no thunder or lightning, but the wild, windy rain was magic. It started with scattered drops and grew to a gusting, symphonic force. It filled the springs from below, the rivers from above, and soaked my right pants leg but left the left side dry, blowing in only from one side. The tiny speck that was me disappeared into the greater force of the front. I was only another mouse or moss or stone, subject and witness, not actor.
And then, the light appeared. Even as the rain hurled down and the gray squall pressed from above, the reservoir and hills below were illuminated. The sun had cut through, and though it was invisible upon the ridge, its light mirrored below. It was the light people see in near-death experiences. It was at once golden and white. It radiated and attracted. It was like a birth canal. And the land looked like Eden, like heaven, like Hawai’i, like the Appalachians before man touched them. We shouted and pointed. I was the happiest mouse or moss or stone. My heart felt as large as the mountain. Something touched me, though I couldn’t say what the message was. It was enough to be there.
The rain blew past and we began to dry off, savoring the glow and dwindling energy. Giant power lines rising from the reservoir’s dam sliced through the woods at intervals, buzzing and humming, and each time we entered one of their clearings, we were given astonishing, if unnatural, views. Roadrunner crowed over a fragment of rainbow, and I knew the storm was past.
We walked down the hill and I felt myself coming down, literally, but also as if from a drug. I felt content, inert, spent. The newly unfolded green leaves canopied over us, bright as the lithe, yellow-eyed snake Roadrunner had spotted across the trail that morning. Like me, the trees were still quivering from the squall.
After six months of going to Spirit of Peace, the band of faithy people I had fallen in with, something stirred in me. They always would say “The table is open.” Meaning anyone can partake, no specific belief required, no error or identity wrong enough to get you nixed. No merit badge to earn, nothing to say or be. Some called it the Body of Christ, and the Blood, but I heard just as often a whispered bread of life and spiritual drink, or only eyes, no words. It seemed left to each to name. After all, this bunch was halfway kicked out, and halfway left, the Catholic church. Heretics, I suppose; no wonder I feel so at home. In here, women preach, ex-priests marry, nobody rules, the bread’s homemade, and the wine is probably Safeway.
Why, after at least fifteen years of knowing that that stuff wasn’t for me, was there a pull? Because this was an expression of community. Because there was no exclusion. And because there was no pressure. I mean NONE.
And so one day I went to the table and took onto my tongue the heavy crumble of bread and light sweet wine, and became more deeply. What were they really, the food and drink? In my cobbled-together theology, the components of life: earth baked in fire and air, water fermented with spirit. Ruins of other life, wheat and grapes and insects and humans, regenerated, infused. Accepting them, I accept that I too am comprised of these components, am being used, will one day be completely used, am not separate from that cycle of life and death. But that in this, there is also soul, which transcends, which I can’t, and don’t care that I can’t, put into words.
Subsequently it occurred to me that I could be a baker too. All the time I make bread. Why not this? So they gave me the recipe, and I burned a bit of the cornmeal and molasses and scraped up the rest, poured it into the dough. Shoved aside keys and cords and papers to clear a tiny place to knead. My moods went out of me through the dough, and instead I thought of people with love – no mean feat for one so disillusioned with our species. The baby loaf rose in the sunlight. Then it baked, barely fitting in the apartment’s small oven, and there was no way to test its readiness without puncturing or slicing, so I had to hope. But it was good. And when it was broken and given, still hot, I felt not my own power, but the swimming flowing energy that always is, coming through my hands and works and my temporary warmth, passing into the people.
And witnessing this, what is your typical spiritual unchristian hanger-on to do next? Obviously, sign up to be a minister of the eucharist. Ha! But yes. Yes, I’d like to be another pair of hands sharing earth, water, fire, air, spirit more directly. Eucharist’s from the Greek eukharistia, meaning thanksgiving or gratitude. What could be more right? They will teach me and I will learn, experiment, fall deeper in love. “Everything is preparation for something,” said J. Otis Powell!, a wise man I knew many years ago (and whose name really is spelled with an exclamation point). All right then, I am ready. Exclamation point!
It was a long time coming, but at last I realize that spiritually, I need something to push against. Resistance and difference fuel deeper connection. I don’t mean bigotry or the “prosperity gospel” or apathy towards the needy or oppressed; those conversations need to happen, but what I mean is words and stories.
I’ve gone to faith-y places where I agree with every word said and sung – they’re praising nature and thanking the universe, smudging the elements on new babies’ foreheads – but my heart doesn’t move. The people are good but I feel no motion. Instead, I am pulled to denominations, to specificity, to all the lush details so easy to debunk, deflate, mock. You draw lines, you claim anything, you’re a tempting target. The Dalai Lama lectures on some particular number of jewels, and his laugh penetrates my cells. The Hare Krishnas fill the air with perfume and din and color, which I do not understand, into which I am absorbed. I don’t buy any of it, but my friends see me come out into the dirty New Orleans air and say I am glowing.
And the place I have made my faith home says Lord. Yuck. Sings Jesus, sings Christ, sings heaven. I’m forever substituting “life” and “God” and “spirit” and “light,” or even “death” and “darkness,” which are holy too, instead of those loaded words I would not honestly use, or want to. What is this team I’ve joined?
They read from a book out of which maybe half, or a third, of the readings are what I call “bombs.” Like heavy stones dropped into a lake. The extreme example, of course, is Leviticus. Verse from Leviticus? Bomb. Kersploosh. Whoops– some folks were trying real hard to get it right, but it sank to the bottom. Look at it down there beneath the deep, clear water. Just remember that it’s there, watch out for more incoming, don’t throw any in yourself, and keep swimming. Others are eels, slippery fish. Parables? What the hell did that mean? Ah well, maybe it’ll find a river and lead upstream someday. Keep swimming.
But bombs and eels and questionable proper nouns aside, these are the right people for me. Energy flows. I feel a part. We’re in the same drink, treading and paddling and rescuing one another. We speak different languages, and apparently, for in spite of this we still connect, the difference makes that connection more true.
Midrash: a form of rabbinic literature or storytelling used to explore the meanings and interpretations in the Torah and other Hebrew texts. (In this way, the religion evolves along with its people.)
We went to see him, me and my sister and my sister’s kid. We walked there, stayed until our food ran out, then walked home. Then they asked us, who is he? They surrounded us and demanded to know: What is he like, and moreover, is it he or is it He? We looked at each one and chose our answers:
He had the fake charisma of a used-camel huckster, all oil and smiles. People drew near to him for flattery and my sister gave me a look: she felt it too, the little nope in her heart saying he’s a fraud.
He was dramatic, dependent upon attention, living off our movements toward him. Even in the crowd, my nephew wrapped himself behind his mother’s skirt. He could feel the energy siphoning off us at ten, twenty, forty paces.
He was a wild man. Crazy. The sand had gotten too much in his ears, and his hide was burnt but he did not care. His hair was unkempt and he wore no sandals. He shouted nonsense that the people copied down and picked apart for truths, forcing their own selfish guesses between the syllables.
He was a wild man. Crazy, and crazy-looking. But his shouts were true. They were arrows that split into shrapnel, one piece striking the center of each person near him. Each shard was exactly the right, sharp shape to best awaken its target. We left hurt but panting with life.
He sat very still and he spoke like an oracle, in riddles. One by one we asked him questions, took his words in a tight packet to unfold later, bowed and retreated. But around him were four scribes with oafish fingers and wax in their ears, each mangling his phrases in a different way.
He was gentle, with none of the wrinkles people get from pursing their lips, only the ones from laughing and from seeing very sad things happen. He was strong but his edges blurred into the sand and the sky. His voice was a brook, cool to step into and wash in. His eyes shaded us though we stood in the beating sun. It was charis, charisma that is gift and grace, and we melted before him and into each other and became the very water of his words. Leaving was a wound that still runs. I think we would follow him anywhere.
Beyond everything is emptiness, they say. It is beyond and also immanent in sunsets, lice, chimneys, beans, philosophy, cribbage, reiki, my god, their gods, love, hell, flannel. The ground of being, from which all is made, into which all dissolves. Unconsoling, unpunishing, unanything, it is also fullness, complete potential. But how can emptiness be the highest currency of spirit? Who can pray to emptiness for clarity? Who can visualize emptiness for concentration? And what did emptiness think it was, to write us into this book of colored chaos?
He leaned against the tile in the boys’ room, avoiding his reflection. He was reading the Bible and sucking in the last of his stash. He wanted to dissipate like smoke into air, or like an Old Testament guy into a swarm of progeny. Distant chanting and drumbeat poured faintly through the vent. Pep rally. God almighty. His classmates packed the bleachers, content, he supposed, with their understanding of good versus evil: home team versus rival team from three miles away. Decimate them, destroy them, score points: victory. Why was he here? Why was he hanging out, in a Sex Pistols shirt turned inside-out by decree, in a dingy lavatory with a book that everyone claimed to love but very few actually read? He had been born too late. Two thousand years, or at least fifty, he figured. But now the prophets were dead or co-opted, and the acid was doctored. No flaming pillar of cloud to follow, no parting ocean to be drawn across, no bread from the sky to trust. He pushed himself away from the wall, was headed for the door and the next door and the road behind the school when he caught a movement in the mirror. It was Jesus. Jesus in the mirror, his own reflection absent. The kid stopped, reached toward Him. Jesus leaned in, plucked the joint out of the kid’s hand and brought it to His mouth. He blew a smoke ring over His head and it hung there, a little in-joke, without dissolving. Then he smiled without moving His mouth. The kid gaped, praying that this was genuine, not drug-induced, as Jesus tapped ash and passed the joint back and they stood there, unmoving, looking into each other’s eyes.
I push open the bathroom door to hear a woman’s voice from the far stall, mid-stream in a phone conversation. It is a business call, evidently, which rules out the exceptions I make for women calling the hospital upon discovering they are in labor, women calling the police to nab an abusive boyfriend outside, and women who are in fact secret agents remotely dismantling bombs ticking in amusement parks. I take a seat in the adjacent stall.
“…So I will be taking 35% for my expenses,” the voice announces. “No, yes I will… because I have uninsured medical costs, and I need a new laptop, and the car is toast. It’s only fair. Here’s the thing, Suzanne…” The voice rises with a note of urgency. I begin to whiz as loudly as possible. “My higher power and I need to get my monologues out. That’s just what we need to do this year.” Ah, people who use My higher power says as an abbreviation for Give me what I want. I trumpet my nose into a tissue, hack, and flush. “…And I met this lady who is a professional dancer, and she’s from New York City. New York City.” Another flush, just to make sure, as I leave the stall. “And she has so much more experience and knowledge. She’s going to help me cut them so I could fit five in an evening, not four. This is going to be a really big year for me…”
I wash up, then activate the blow dryer for a thorough thirty seconds, but she is still not done telling Suzanne what she requires and why, so I leave, ceding the chance to see how she justifies herself as she exits her impromptu office. The rest of her words will echo off the tile, unappreciated by any captive, full-bladdered audience members.