Thursday, June 30, 2011

Into the Silence

All soul-searching inevitably leads to a search for God in some way, shape, or form. For some it is the spiritual entity in the context of organized religion; for others it is a philosophy or school of thought through which lens worldly experiences become meaningful. For still others, it is the discovery of the self, the truth of the self, its desires and passions, and the infinite source that is life-giving to the self.

My search for God led me to a remote Trappist monastery in the heart of the Shenadoah Valley, Virginia. It was old Civil War territory, acres of farmland along the famed river which gave the valley its name, populated by cows and myriad butterflies. There was an empty creamed honey and fruitcake factory, which was the main source of income for the contemplative monks. I was not there for the cake (although it was sinfully delicious) and I did not intend to volunteer (although I did end up contributing free labor).

I was there for a silent retreat.

In all honesty, my journey there was quite ambiguous. I knew I needed the silence; silence was rejuvenating to introverts like myself. Yet, back in New Jersey, I found that I could not confront the silence. Whether it was hanging out with as many friends as possible or constant window-shopping or insipid phone conversations or the asinine noise and visions coming out of the cathode tube known as a television, I avoided the silence because I wanted to avoid myself. I did not want to think.

The ironic thing was in the midst of the hustle and bustle of activity, I still felt it was inadequate. I found myself longing for silence when the noise and chatter and talk in my life were imposed by me.

So I made my way to the Holy Cross Abbey. Silence for seven days.

It was at the end of July and painfully hot. To get there, I traversed four buses and trains: bus from NJ to NY Port Authority, subway from Port Authority to Chinatown, Chinatown bus from NYC to Washington DC (lovely things, those $15-$20 bus rides available every hour on 3 different carriers), local bus from DC to Berryville, VA. It would have taken 5-6 hours had I driven. Of course, being unemployed and carless, the affordable route took 8-9 hours.

There I sat, at a shopping mall in the middle of nowhere, waiting for someone from the monastery to pick me up. I worried if they would remember, since arrival time for the retreat was 3pm and I was fashionably late at after 6:30pm. It was rush hour, although in this isolated town no one ever seemed to rush. It was an eternity before a navy blue station wagon pulling into the parking lot hesitantly…stopped as if the driver was peering around…and continued to roll through the parking lot, halt and watch, and keep rolling.

It was my cue.

I saw a pleasant-looking man of about seventy with fluffy white hair, a baseball cap, and faded polo shirt.

He opened the door and introduced himself as Brother Barnabas.

I knew we would be friends.

Copyright © 2011 Paladian Queen

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Exit Glacier: The Alpine Path not Climbed

We arrived at the Kenai National Park. Exit Glacier sprawled from the bottom of the mountain to the top in a curvaceous configuration, so that it was visible at multiple angles. From the bottom, it was a crust of diamond overlaying the desolate rock and loose earth of the lower lands. Blue undertones, the vivid color of transformation, that state of being locked between ice and water, ran along the glacier like veins. Yet it was far from pristine, grains of soil were embedded on the periphery, tainted by the footprint of man.

Then we began the climb. The landscape began to change as the elevation increased. Shady paths and stately trees appeared; everything was so overwhelmingly green. Countless tiny waterfalls spilled silver water and made music as they flowed from ledge to ledge. Sunlight filtered through the swaying leaves, and I remembered a verse from my youth, a verse that inspired me in my most impressionable years:

“Then whisper, blossom, in thy sleep
How I would upward climb
The alpine path, so hard, so steep,
That leads to heights sublime.
How I may reach that far-off goal
Of true and honored fame
And write upon its shining scroll
A woman’s humble name.”

I wondered if I still sought fame. What I seek becomes more simple as the years go by. As a teenager, it was prestige and success and wealth. Then in my twenties, it became a search for love. Now, in my thirties, it was a quest for serenity within my own heart.

My reverie was broken by the tinkling bell Marie wore to ward off bears. Of course, Marie’s year of hiking also made it impossible for me to keep up with her. I watched her limber physique and red coca cola t-shirt disappearing up the mountain.

I entered a clearing with a gorgeous view of the glacier, like a frozen waterfall, ice ridges blinking. Around me was a grassy meadow, dotted with wild bluebells. Such a splash of scintillating color, it reminded me of a Monet painting and those vagrant poppies that seemed lush enough to pick.

I grew tired. My legs trembled as if I was a marionette that lost control of the strings. I continued towards the snow-covered path which led to the top and slid inconveniently back down on my butt. Sweat broke in beads on my forehead. On my abdomen, my scar began to burn. I felt my body betray me. And I accepted my limitations.

Once upon a time, I was too determined to give up. Once upon a time, when I set a course of action, it was inevitable that I reach the destination. I never changed course; I never weakened; I never allowed failure. To do so was a devastating blow to my psyche.

I watched as people passed me, doing what I am unable to do.

In that instant, I gave myself permission to stop. To stop trying, stop struggling, stop thinking. In this moment, I am enough. Wherever I am in life. In whatever I am doing. I am enough.

When you have nothing, you realize that your very essence is far from nothing. I am not defined by what I have. I am not defined by my career or association with others. I am not defined by youth or beauty or health. If I lose any of those external things, then I would become lost again.

I found in myself, the raw divinity of the self. It is the part of me that touches God, the part that is connected to everyone and everything, the part that understands the immortality of love, the part that is too vital to die.

That is who I am, who I will always be.

A daughter of God.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On the Road to Exit Glacier

There was a strange man in my room. Not in my bed; I was sharing a room with three other girls in the Moby Dick Hostel. Lola was one of them. I was awakened from my slumber by the pungent odor of a guy who apparently hadn't showered for a long while. He was conveniently lying across Lola's breast, snoring.

As I headed to the bathroom to brush my teeth, I was yanked to the side by Bianca, one of my other roommates.

"Oh my God, there is a guy in there! What if he rapes me?"

Now Bianca was an extremely attractive girl with deep sapphire eyes and an uncanny resemblance to Kate Middleton. She seemed genuinely frightened by the idea, even though she had staunch allies in the two girlfriends she traveled with. I was amused to see someone even more perplexed than me, down to her expensive Louis Vuitton luggage set. Oddly enough, I felt safe. With dazzling Bianca around, who would think to attack me?

Not to worry, Lola and her boy toy left after breakfast. Bianca resumed her beauty sleep; her two companions apparently hadn't stirred throughout the morning. I headed to Exit Glacier, the only glacier accessible by land in the Kenai Peninsula. My ride was a fearless French nurse, Marie, who had been backpacking continuously for a year. She visited New Zealand in the winter, Asia in the spring, now Alaska in the summer. Along the drive, I asked what she learned about herself in this eventful year.

Marie told me that she discovered the virtue of rest in the midst of her worldly sojourn. Ironic, but it is precisely when going became the norm that the freedom to do nothing became a cherished opportunity. She learned to live in these exotic places she visited, not merely passing through as a tourist.

"Most of all, I don't worry anymore. Before I was really uptight, and I needed to plan everything." Involuntarily, I leaned forward and she elaborated. "When I was in Christchurch, I got into a car accident. It was my fault; I just paid damages to the girl and moved on. I've learned to let things go. When you travel, nothing is perfect and nothing happens like you expect."

Uh oh. Car accident? Goosebumps popped onto my forearm. I tightened my seatbelt, wondering if I should have taken the bus instead. Nonetheless, it was a free ride and I was running out of cash...