Standing in the North

Every morning after breakfast we gathered for exercises in the field below the retreat house at the Mother Tree. The exercises resembled the personalities of those leading. Linda’s exercises were hot. Grif’s were unexpected and always entertaining.  When Laura took charge, you were always on edge, never sure what she was going to ask of you. Stretching often led to laughter. Our bodies didn’t respond the way we wanted them to.

After stretches we began Shintaido, a form of movement and maybe prayer. As we faced east, south, west and finally north, we took turns reflecting on the seasons of the year and their corresponding seasons in life. Looking into the rising sun, Liz shared how spring was a time of new beginnings and new life—a time filled with hope. Facing south, Jennifer warmed us with her description of hot summer as a time of youth and passion, of growth and play. Observing the fruits of our labor during the season of harvest was Simon’s addition as we faced west. When we turned towards the north, Alex solemnly shared how winter symbolized the ending of life, the time of death, of letting go, of providing the land with rest. Shintaidos were then offered to Father Sky, to Mother Earth, and to the Snakes, the name given to the twenty-four of us going through this program together.

Afterwards we entered a time of silent reflection and meditation focused on one of the seasons. Everyone headed off in different directions, but I sat down right where I was on the side of the hill. My legs brushed against the recently mown prairie grass beneath me. Facing west, I began to meditate on harvest time. In front of me stood the Mother Tree, a massive redwood. During her fifteen-hundred years, she had endured many seasons. A severe wind storm had snapped one of her twin trunks, that trunk now half the height of the other which was still reaching for the sky. Forest fires had charred and scarred her base in many places, yet she still stood solid, strong, and filled, not only with her own life, but the lives of a multitude of birds, animals and insects.

Though I had wanted to reflect on harvest, the Mother Tree drew me to thoughts of a winter I once worried would never end. During that season, death was never far away. In a very short period of time, my brother, my brother-in-law, two of my nieces, Meg’s grandmother and Meg’s uncle all died. Then the hope of spring was denied when Meg and I were told we couldn’t have children.

The darkness of that north had surrounded me so deeply, I felt blinded, unable to see in any direction. Anger, sadness and disillusionment were all that I knew. Yet as time passed and I grieved the losses, I began healing and the intensity of the cold and darkness lessened. Spring finally arrived when Meg and I discovered we were expecting a baby.

Suddenly, I felt an unexpected urge climb the hill on which I had been meditating. Near the top, I entered a circle of stones and stopped to catch my breath. When I turned around, I had to catch my breath once more. The sight was spectacular. The sky, deep blue and clear, created an unhindered view for miles. I could see past the redwoods, tall and majestic, to behold the panorama beyond.  The valley was filled with houses, barns, and farm animals. Farmers were tending their crops. Cattle were lowing and sheep were baying, ignoring my desire for silence. In my mind I pictured the waves crashing on the shore of the Pacific which I knew was just beyond the horizon. I stood there and soaked in all the beauty and all the majesty.

A couple of minutes later, my eyes left the horizon. I noticed that the circle of stone in which I was standing was separated into four quadrants. It was clear they corresponded with the directions we had honored earlier. My feet were planted in the middle of the northern quadrant. Had I been standing in the eastern quadrant, a hill would have hindered my view of the farmhouse below and to the left of me. Had I been in the lowest part of the circle—the southern quadrant, the redwoods would have limited my view of the expansive landscape. Standing in the north at the top of the hill, I clearly had the best perspective of the beauty in front of me.

I returned to my reflections about my northern experiences. Though they were painful and I will always wish they had never happened, I recognized that those events provided a new perspective. Had Meg and I not experienced infertility, my joy and wonder as we expected our child and witnessed his birth wouldn’t have been nearly so rich, nor so deep. Had I not experienced the loss of a brother, a brother-in-law, and two nieces, I wouldn’t have known how much every day I have with my children is a gift. My northern experiences helped me to see the wonder of all that I have been given.

A chime rang out and interrupted my thoughts, calling me to rejoin the group. I took one last look at the beauty before me. Standing in the north provided a spectacular view in all directions. I liked it. Inside, a deep sense of gratitude encompassed me despite, and because of, all I had been through.

Filled with that gratitude, I left the north and walked down the hill to rejoin my friends.