Frugal Weddings

Wedding ceremony

I was in town the other day and caught a piece of an Oprah Winfrey show, one in which Oprah and a currently popular financial consultant were helping couples look at their income, expenses, savings, debt load, etc. to determine whether they should, or should not, spend such and such amount on whatever it was they were wanting to do (remodel the kitchen, send a daughter to an expensive school, etc.). Watching their process was a useful educational tool for people in similar circumstances, so I was, in general, applauding Oprah for her knack of hitting the mark.

But then came the question from a young couple who were to be married in June. The bride wanted a fairly large wedding (200 or so guests) and was willing to spend the $20,000 that such an event can run. The groom was looking at something simpler – under a hundred guests, about $5,000. Looking at their finances, the experts concluded that this couple could afford the $5K, not the $20K, event, but that since there’s no such thing as a $5K wedding (even a simple, under a hundred, affair, they said, runs at least $20K), “you’d better elope.” Even when an audience member pointed out that the important thing was that these two people wanted to marry, not how fancy the wedding was, the pros stuck to their position. No wedding.

I was startled. I know that I am often out of touch with the price of things these days, but this one got to me. Has our culture really come so far down the cash intensive road that we have forgotten how to do weddings that don’t cost a fortune?

I was reminded of one of the most beautiful weddings I ever attended. I was 17, traveling with a bunch of other Quaker/Unitarian type kids thru Eastern Europe and what was then (1963) the Soviet Union. We were driving thru Rumania, under strict orders not to stop, but one of our two VW buses broke down, and we were stuck for several days in a small village. As it happened, we landed there on the day before a wedding, to which we were immediately invited. My memories of that event are by now somewhat romanticized, but the images are of an entire village full of happy, celebratory, people, wearing beautiful, ornate, hand embroidered, clothes. Music, dancing, food, and a lot of small rituals that were obviously meaningful to the people, and to the new bride and groom. I can guarantee that that wedding did not cost much money.

Preparing the wedding feast

It did, however, cost. Who sewed and embroidered all those amazing clothes? Who prepared all that food? Who were the musicians and why did they play at that wedding?

Several years ago I had a chance to try it on myself. Our daughter, Lauren, who was by then living a mainstream life out in the real world, decided that she wanted to get married at Light Morning, on the same knoll, in fact, where several decades earlier, friends and neighbors had gathered to christen her. These were her people, the “village” that had raised her. And it was, indeed, the village that sprang into action.

Months before the wedding itself, these neighbors and friends joined us for a workday to get the main living room finished enough to be ready for such an event- ceiling, insulation, interior walls. Lilly ( Lauren’s beloved Grammiddy) started working with the bride to create the dress she was wanting. Folks volunteered to prepare favorite foods, bring bouquets of flowers. There was even a team to whom I would be turning over all the co-ordination and wedding planner responsibilities, so that I could become just the mother of the bride, and enjoy myself to the max.

The last few days before the wedding reminded me of the Arden Fair, an annual event in the intentional community where Robert and I grew up. The fair officially started at 10am, but the best hours were from dawn to 10, when everyone was out there banging nails, helping each other set up their booths, pulling together to prep for the event. The energy of the fair was born in those early hours.

And so it was with Lauren’s wedding. By the time the “just under a hundred” guests arrived and the ceremony itself began, the place was already awash in magic. People had been up early, hanging signs, setting up chairs, placing flowers, and, of course, preparing, cooking, and arranging platters of beautiful, tasty food – all in a collective effort to produce a special event for Lauren and her family. It was very clear that the wedding itself, while stunning in its beauty, was only part of the specialness of the day. It was this magic that was in Lauren’s teary, ecstatic hug, as she took me aside and excitedly exclaimed, “You know, Mom, something always goes wrong at weddings, but I think this one is perfect!”

And what was the bill? After reimbursing folks for their ingredients and other costs, paying for the pieces that did need actual cash (rental chairs, wedding cakes, minister, candles, more flowers, decorations, wine glasses, etc.), the bill came to just under $2,000.

Yes, the couple on Oprah can have a wedding! They can have a wedding that confirms the whole reason for weddings in the first place, to bring otherwise separate people together to become a collective, mutually supportive team. Let families come together, and neighborhoods, to stir up a particular sort of energy that we rarely get to experience anymore. How did we let this get lost? Can we get it back?

Ready for the reception

Given that our culture has gotten so accustomed to bought-not-made weddings, it might seem too daunting a challenge to try to engage the social vortex that creates the Arden Fair, or created Lauren’s wedding. But there are other ways to produce inexpensive weddings. I think that my favorite is still the wedding of two of our friends from Delaware, who invited their unsuspecting friends and family to what looked like a regular party and then, at about 11pm, whipped out a minister and said their vows. Voila!

There are ways, plenty of ways, to gather ones family and friends together to share in an important and meaningful ceremony. Be creative, let go of the pressures that make it expensive. Remember what’s important. Break whatever rules don’t make sense. Go for the magic. Have a great time. It’s your wedding.

*   *   *

You can view more photos from Lauren and Jeremy’s
Light Morning wedding here and here.

Keep the Home Fires Burning

1winter-deck
The Rivendell deck

We were just blessed with a lovely 12″ snowfall over the weekend. After 2-3 winters with occasional ice storms but almost no snow, it was delightful to awaken to a white landscape. Richard took off for Roanoke right after pancakes on Sunday and got stranded there until the back roads were plowed two days later. Ron tried to make it home Sunday night after delivering pizzas. But even with tire chains on, he only made it part way in before getting stuck in a snow drift and spending the night in his car. With a book to read, tapes to listen to, and the right attitude, he was fine. The next day a snow plow came in from the Roanoke County side. Ron, however, ended up driving back to Roanoke in order to replace a damaged tire chain. After waiting another night in town until the back roads were finally plowed, he made it home on Tuesday

Joyce and I had plans to travel to Richmond on Wednesday to see Lauren and Jeremy. It took me several hours on Monday to get the car free of ice and snow, get the chains on, and bull through the deep (but fortunately light) snow out to the mailboxes to await the snow plow.  While plying the snow shovel, and hoping that Ron and/or Richard would make it home before we left, the phrase came to mind, “Keep the home fires burning.” We were keeping the home fires burning for them, while they were away, and then they’d keep the fires burning while we were in Richmond.

Suddenly, while shoveling, I realized just how figuratively I’d always taken that phrase. Keep the home fires burning. Keep things nice; keep it feeling homey. But in our self-chosen lifestyle the words have a fiercely literal relevance. Keep the home fires burning, so the canned goods don’t freeze and break. Keep the home fires burning, so the house plants won’t die. Keep the home fires burning, so the expensive battery bank that holds our solar electric won’t be ruined. If you have central heating, you just set the thermostat and that keeps the home fires burning. But as you transition toward a more subsistence lifestyle, your heat comes from the woodshed rather than an oil tank. And so you depend on friends and fellow community members to “keep the home fires burning.”

Richard got home on Wednesday shortly after we left for Richmond. He emailed us that afternoon, saying, “I made it home no problem. I’ll keep an eye on the cold frames and make sure the Rowe room stays warm. Have a good visit with Lauren.  Be well, Richard.”  The subject line of his email was, “I’ll keep the homefires burning…”

The Founders’ Dilemma

This article first appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of Communities Magazine

The Elizabethan home that Frank Stephens built in Arden. Its name, "Tomorrow is a New Day," was carved into the door beam.
The Elizabethan home Frank Stephens built in Arden. Its name, “Tomorrow is a New Day,” was carved into the door beam.

Many of our communities are just now reaching that sobering age when we start to question our immortality. The founders are aging, as are many long-time members. Meanwhile, there is a surge of interest in the communities movement among younger people, who see this lifestyle as a partial solution to the multiple crises facing our world. At the place where these two phenomena meet lies a crucial challenge–the blending of old and new.

This is the “founders’ dilemma.” It is the creative tension between affirming the original intent of a community, while at the same time being deeply responsive to the need for growth, flexibility, fresh air. New people arrive with strong and good dreams of their own. How can their visions be woven into the original tapestry without obliterating it?

I have been on both sides of this dilemma. I grew up in Arden, one of the oldest of today’s intentional communities, but left there in the early seventies, young and knowing everything, to help found Light Morning, a small community in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Twenty-some years later, I find myself very much a part of Light Morning’s old guard, its establishment. And now there are new, younger people at the door, wanting to know if we are open to change. Attempts to answer this critical question have taken me back to my roots in Arden, where there is a story well worth pondering.

* * *

A young Frank Stephens, campaigning for Single Tax in Delaware in 1896
A young Frank Stephens, campaigning for Single Tax in Delaware in 1896

Arden was founded in 1900 by Frank Stephens and Will Price, both disciples of Henry George, an economic philosopher who envisioned a better way to organize land and wealth through the Single Tax movement. George believed that the Earth, like the air and the water, should be a shared, communal resource. He felt that private ownership of land, by the privileged few, inevitably resulted in exploitation, speculation, and poverty. As a corrective measure, he therefore advocated the abolition of all taxes except a single tax, to be levied on the value of the land, irrespective of the value of the improvements on it.

The passionate followers of Henry George tried to take over Delaware in the elections of 1896 in order to demonstrate the virtues of the Single Tax theory at the state level. Donning backpacks and uniforms displaying a symbol of the Earth, they campaigned vigorously, only to be severely trounced at the polls. In the aftermath of this electoral defeat, Stephens and Price decided to set up a demonstration project on a smaller scale. So they scrounged up enough money to buy an old farm north of Wilmington and laid out plans for the village of Arden.

Besides being avid Georgists, Arden’s founders were also artists, musicians, and craftsmen, heavily influenced by William Morris and Elizabethan England. Their little village quickly took on this artisan flavor. Soon it attracted a rich diversity of other artists and social activists and became known for its weaving, woodwork, and stained glass; for its Shakespearean theater; and for its eccentric population.

Upton Sinclair lived in a tent. A young Scott Nearing peddled “Nearing Perfection Vegetables,” prompting Dr. Moore (as the story goes) to advertise his produce as “Moore Perfect Vegetables.” With Single Taxers and Socialists, Anarchists and Communists, Arden in the early days was a wild mix of young hotheads and visionaries. Nowhere was this more evident than in the town meetings.

Arden was set up as a land trust. Three powerful trustees were to keep the community true to its Georgist, Single Tax course. In counterpoint, the founders also called for town meetings, in which every man, woman, and child was to have a vote. The inherent tension between these two decision-making bodies quickly evolved into a classic portrayal of a community’s conflicting needs, both to hold fast to its founding vision (the trustees) and to be open to re-interpretation and renewal (the town meetings).

The battles were often intense. As the years passed, the forces of change pounded away at the village’s Georgist legacy. Much to the dismay of founders Stephens and Price, the original vision lost out. What remains of Single Tax in Arden today is but a shadow of how it was meant to function.

tent_women
In early Arden (above), as in the early days of Light Morning, residents sometimes lived in tents before building their homes.

Old family letters (Frank Stephens was, conveniently, my husband’s great-grandfather) offer intimate glimpses into this man’s acute sense of failure as he saw his dream lose ground. By the early 1930’s it was clear to him that his beloved Arden, in which he had invested his life, would never become the instrument of economic revolution that he had so ardently desired it to be.

Growing up in Arden in the 1940’s and 1950’s, we children were oblivious to these seeming failures, as most of the village happily remains today. What survived of the dream is rich and special–the beauty, the quaintness, the town meetings, the arts and theater, the Gild Hall and the gilds, the village forests and greens, and a town that, nearly a century later, still eats together on Saturday night. It’s all very good.

But is that enough? Can a community that strays from its original mission still be considered a success? As the years, then decades pass, as people come and go, as the political, economic, and social climate changes, how relevant is that original vision?

* * *

An older Frank Stephens ponders the waning of Arden's founding vision
An older Frank Stephens ponders the waning of Arden’s founding vision

Most of our communities are perhaps still too young to offer a clear perspective on how the passing decades test original intent. It would behoove us, then, to pay close attention to those who came before us. What happened to these earlier communal endeavors? And what of their experience is relevant to ours?

In Arden, the struggle was between the trustees and the town meeting. In the communities movement today, the same tension exists, but perhaps not so obviously portrayed. For many of us are using consensus, rather than voting, as a means of reaching decisions and settling disputes. While holding the promise of a true reconciliation between old and new, consensus can also be abused, assuring instead the effortless protection of the status quo. I have seen this happen time and again at Light Morning, and I would guess that we are not unique.

But when utilized in conjunction with a radical willingness to truly cooperate, consensus can be stunningly effective in resolving the founders’ dilemma. Long-time members must continually stretch to be open to renewal, while “newcomers” need to take active responsibility for the core intent of that which attracted them in the first place, being careful not to slide into either submission or rebellion.

As one of the founders of a community, and deeply devoted to its original vision, I have been wrestling with the call for more openness and flexibility. My question, at least until recently, has been how to remain responsive to change and still hold true to course. Yet a closer look at Arden’s story suggests a far more threatening consideration. Is “holding true to course” all that critical in the long run?

* * *

Frank Stephens died believing that Arden community had failed. His “come one, come all” policy had indeed proved fatal to his cause. What he could not see, however, but which is visible to us nearly a century later, is that in founding Arden he had established a garden–a fertile, sustainable garden–in which not only he, but many others after him, could build toward their dream of a better world. His beloved crop, Single Tax, was lost, but the garden itself survived.

In setting up those democratic town meetings that, in the end, voted him down, this founder trained a staff of vigorous and experienced gardeners, eager and able to carry on, season after season, long after the founders had passed. This is not, perhaps, such a terrible thing.

Although many of us today may use a different form of decision-making, our process offers the same perilous opportunity. Through it we hone our skills, learning responsibility and compromise, respect for each other’s needs and perspectives, how to build together and take apart, how to handle power.

Often we get caught up in the issues–should we grow our wheat or buy it, build the new shelter here or over there, use hand tools or power?–and neglect to see that it is the process that is crucial, and the training of vigorous gardeners, not so much any particular outcome. This is also why our communities are best left a little undone, a little imperfect, providing a seemingly endless supply of flaws to be corrected, issues to be hashed out, grist for the mill.

These are the skills that will, if continually exercised, keep a community alive and relevant beyond its founding generation. Changing times call for discernment, responsiveness, perhaps even a radical reorientation. Such shifts often entail the stripping of outmoded form from essence, and so require not only a strong grounding in the vision–it’s hard to pull a board off a 2×4 if the framing itself is not well anchored–but also a willingness to bend. For the dismantling of old (and perhaps precious) forms can be painful.

Can we long-time community members, then, trust ourselves to keep nurturing the skills of renewal and redefinition, though they carry the potential for what may feel like our own undoing? And do we really have any other choice, if we want our communities not only to outlive us, but to stay vital and growing while we are present?

Do not misunderstand me. These are, by their very name, intentional communities. This implies a purpose beyond the every-man-for-himself version of the American dream. We must not let some undertow run us aground on those tempting and familiar shores. But surely we are learning to discern the difference between a shift that’s grounded in true responsibility for the bettering of our world, and one lacking that fire.

So I’m not, by any means, advocating that we abandon the helm, anything goes, come what may; only that we make space in our enterprises for the gestation of new dreams to succeed our own.

* * *

Dancing the May Pole in early Arden
Dancing the May Pole in early Arden

I am not sure how fully I can do this, how flexible I can be. I love my community, tucked back here in the mountains. There are aspects of it that I am very attached to–the simple, labor-intensive lifestyle; the common table; a shared respect for dreams, meditation, and prayer; our “rose-work” (the thorny business of learning to hear and understand one another); the quiet and beauty of the land.

I have been shepherding this dream for close to 30 years now. I am pure “establishment,” attuned to all the forces that want to keep things just as they are, forever.

But the seasons are changing. Will I respond, or will I hold tight to what has, until now, been sufficient? As a gardener, will I see the yellowed leaves on a favorite crop and know that some vital nutrient is missing, or maybe even that the crop needs turning under? Am I open to sharing my garden with other, newer gardeners, hot to plant other, newer dreams?

We can make peace with this process, realizing that change is not nearly so perilous as the lack of it. Or we can try to cling to what is, using consensus to protect us, rather than allowing it to invite renewal. But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “a community not busy being born is busy dying.”

To be truly sustainable, then, our communities must navigate these perilous waters. We need to honor the goodness of much that has been so carefully crafted over the years, while at the same time ensuring sufficient elbow room for new imperatives. Only in this way may our communities realize their full potential and become viable seeds cast into the fertile soil of these troubled times.

* * *

For a fuller discussion of Henry George’s philosophy,
see “Henry George and the Single Tax.”

Striving to Die Smilingly

A Tribute to Terrell Jones
(25 October 1942 – 15 August 2002)

Terrell Jones, a good friend and fellow Vipassana meditator, died at his home just down the road from Light Morning in mid-August, shortly after having been diagnosed with a rapidly metastasizing melanoma. Many of us in this area are deeply indebted to Terrell. For not only did he introduce us to Vipassana, he also modeled for us the exceedingly rare quality of being able to die well. To leave with awareness. As a small token of my personal appreciation, I’d like to share a few stories about my Vipassana relationship with Terrell.

Terrell in India for a long Vipassana course

 

Noble Chatter (Early 1994)

Terrell and I are walking down to a small cabin on his and Diane’s land. Having just returned from his first 10-day course at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Massachusetts, Terrell had called, asking if I could come by and hear about his experiences. So I rode my bike over. He suggested we talk at the cabin.

Walking beside him through the woods, I’m startled by the bounce in his step and the eager light in his eyes. A far cry, indeed, from the listless, haunted, desperate friend of just two weeks ago. A friend so deeply mired in cravings and confusion, for so long, that he had felt himself to be teetering on the edge of a precipice, about to lose everything that was dear to him-his health, his marriage, and his sanity.

Then someone he knew had recommended Vipassana meditation.

“I’ll try anything,” Terrell had told me just after sending in his application.

We enter the cabin and sit down. For the next five hours, Terrell tells me, in a ceaseless, effortless monologue, about his course. He describes the practice, recapitulates the teachings, enthuses about the center, shares the insights he’d received. He says he now sees how self-centered and self-indulgent he has been.

“But this has changed my life, Robert. This has totally changed my life.”

As the hours go by, and Terrell shows no sign whatsoever of winding down, I’m tempted to wonder if his euphoria might perhaps be drug-induced. Maybe he took a little something when he got home.

“No, no,” he laughs. “That’s all behind me now. Besides, this is better than drugs.”

Much later I learn that Terrell’s post-course eloquence is not all that uncommon. In this Vipassana tradition, students take a vow of silence upon beginning a course. On the tenth day they are released from their vow. Noble Silence gives way to “noble chatter,” and all the feelings, insights and experiences come tumbling out.

Finally, as our marathon session draws to a close, Terrell leans over, seizes my arm, and says, “You’ve got to take one of these courses, Robert. I just know it will be wonderful for you.”

“You’ve already convinced me,” I reply. “You’ve come back a new person. I want to see what you tapped into up there.”

Hear/speak/see no evil (in India)
Hear/speak/see no evil (in India)

Shut Up, Terrell (December, 1995)

I’m sitting slumped on the couch of our community shelter, staring into space, distantly aware of Terrell talking to me from across the room. I have just returned from my first Vipassana course. And I am feeling anything but euphoric.

It had taken well over a year to translate my intent to sit a course into action. Light Morning had been busy finalizing the blueprints for a large new shelter. Then, in June of 1995, Joyce had decided that she wanted to take a course and had returned impressively transformed.

So Terrell and I had decided to drive up to V.M.C. in September and sit a course together. Just before we were to leave, however, Terrell was diagnosed with a melanoma in one of his eyes. It was successfully treated with laser surgery, but we had to withdraw from our course. Finally, another friend (Kent) and I had driven to Massachusetts in early December.

The full story of my first course will have to wait for another day. It was, in short, highly traumatic. I had left V.M.C. hating the place, vowing never to return, and warning Kent, as we drove south through a raging blizzard, that if he even mentioned the word Vipassana on the way home that I would puke all over his truck.

Now I’m sitting numbly on the couch, slipping quickly into what any professional would easily describe as a nervous breakdown, and listening to Terrell gush about what a great course I just had!

“Are you crazy?!” I ask. “Are you deaf?! Didn’t you just hear me tell you what a rotten time I had? How much I hate Vipassana? How I’m never going back?”

“Yes, but how fortunate that such a big sankara came up.”

I shake my head in disbelief. There’s a recollection from the course that sankara means a deeply rooted mental complex. Some kind of karmically reactive energy knot that generates impure thoughts and actions.

But I have completely forgotten that Goenka (who teaches the courses via audio and video tapes) had talked about Vipassana as a path of purification and liberation. During a course, he had said, a “deep surgical operation of the mind” takes place, and big sankaric impurities sometimes come to the surface and are released.

This is what Terrell is trying to convey. But I’m too far gone and want no part of it.

“Shut up, Terrell!!”

He smiles and continues his discourse.

I extend my leg in his direction, interposing my foot between his face and mine, and say, “My foot’s in your face, Terrell. I’m not listening to one more word you say. You and Goenka are both full of shit!”

He grins again and surrenders, but only after telling me one last time what a great course I had. Three intense weeks later I would begin to agree with him.

The Swish of the Horse’s Tail (June, 2002)

Again we’re seated in a living room. Terrell and Diane’s this time. I’m visiting Terrell while Diane goes shopping in Roanoke. He’s looking gaunt but seems to be in good spirits.

He’s telling me about a phrase that he’s recently come upon in the teaching of Buddha and that he finds especially evocative–the swish of the horse’s tail. He shares the image of a horse grazing in a field, tormented by pesky flies. The horse swishes its tail, first one way, then the other. Back and forth. Back and forth. Good times, bad times. Pleasure and pain. Hope and despair. Back and forth goes the horse’s swishing tail.

“Anicca [ah-KNEE-cha],” Terrell says with a smile, using the familiar Vipassana word for the bedrock principle of impermanence. The experiential realization that everything is transitory. That this, too, shall pass.

Then we joke about not looking a gift horse in the mouth. Or in that other part of a horse’s anatomy to which its tail is attached. And about how some gifts come to us quite well disguised.

Just below the philosophical references, however, and the bantering humor, lies the poignancy of the moment. For Terrell is, in all likelihood, dying of cancer. And he’s choosing to die well. He choosing to put his practice into practice.

Several months earlier, Joyce and I had gone over to Terrell and Diane’s for supper. We were planning the first Vipassana course to be held in the Roanoke valley, in late August. Terrell and Victoria, another Vipassana friend, had been instrumental in bringing the intent for the course into focus.

But Terrell wasn’t looking at all good that evening and had hardly eaten anything. He’d been to the doctor several times, complaining of intestinal pain, but had been sent home with the reassuring diagnosis of diverticulitis. With the clarity of hindsight, and especially given Terrell’s prior history of melanoma, one senses the terrible inadequacy of that diagnosis.

Then in May the four of us had driven down to Charlotte, North Carolina, to see Goenka, who was on an extended tour of North America. Joyce and I had sat the one-day course there. Terrell and Diane had served it. Victoria had come in from New York and we had talked more about the upcoming course in Roanoke.

Shortly after returning home, however, Terrell had finally been given the appropriate medical tests. The results showed that his earlier melanoma had reappeared, after all these years, and had metastasized into his vital abdominal organs.

Terrell and Diane, and the rest of us, were stunned. Then, almost immediately (and mercifully), our practices had kicked in. For years we’d been listening to Goenka talk about learning to “die smilingly.”

“Vipassana teaches the art of dying: how to die peacefully, harmoniously. And one learns the art of dying by learning the art of living: how to become master of the present moment…”

So Terrell and I are sitting in his living room, honing our awareness of the fleeting moment, and joking about the swish of the horse’s tail.

“I’m keeping both sides open, Robert. I’m going to pursue whatever experimental therapies I can. I know the odds aren’t so great, but there are spontaneous remissions, and I’m open to that. But I’m also open to this being my time to go. And if it is my time, I want to go well.”

I nod in agreement, feeling surprisingly at ease in the presence of my dying friend, and hearing a soft, unspoken voice saying, “Sadhu, Terrell. Sadhu. [Well said, Terrell. Well said.]”

The Miracle Pilgrimage (Early August, 2002)

Joyce and I are visiting Terrell and Diane, who have just returned from a final journey to V.M.C. to see Goenka. They are radiantly, almost ecstatically happy. Listening to their stories, witnessing their bliss, I suddenly feel the unmistakable touch of the sacred, the numinous, the realm of miracles.

Miraculous because this was a journey that few expected Terrell to even be able to take, let alone complete. And he had come so close to not going.

The past couple of weeks had been rough. The medications that had been prescribed to soften the fierce, jagged edges of Terrell’s pain had rendered him less and less lucid during more and more hours of the day. Sometimes I would come over so that we could do our afternoon sits together. He had appreciated my presence, but couldn’t hold his focus very well, which frustrated him.

“I only wish that I could have had another twenty years of practice to get ready for this,” he would say. “But at least I have a practice. I don’t like to think about where I’d be right now without one.”

Increasingly, though, Terrell had been drifting further and further away. Once I had even slept on a mat at the foot of his bed, not sure that he’d make it through the night, and not wanting Diane to be there alone with him if he didn’t.

During his rare lucid intervals, he would talk about how much he wanted to see Goenka one last time-to pay his respects, to convey the depth of his gratitude, and to simply be in his presence. Since Goenka would be concluding his North American tour at V.M.C. in early August, and would be spending a few days there before flying home to India, Diane had outfitted the back of their van with a comfortable mattress to prepare for the 12-hour journey to Massachusetts.

The journey had not looked promising, though. Even if Terrell survived the drive, would he even know where he was when he got there, or what he was there for?

Then Alta, another longtime friend and fellow Vipassana student, who also happens to be an R.N., had taken a closer look at Terrell’s medications and had decided that the dosage was way too high. After consulting with the physicians, she and Diane had drastically reduced them. The effects were equally dramatic. Terrell’s lucidity had returned almost immediately. Now they were ready for their pilgrimage.

Terrell with Goenka at VMC in early August
Terrell with Goenka at VMC in early August

And what a pilgrimage it had been. As Joyce and I listen to their excited tales, it becomes apparent that their journey had not only gone better than they might have imagined, it had gone better than they could have imagined. It had clearly exceeded whatever they may have hoped for in even their wildest dreams.

For me, the most touching of their stories has to do with the deep mutual gratitude that had flowed between Terrell and Goenka. For Terrell, being able to express his profound appreciation to his teacher had been the driving force behind their trip. He had not been at all prepared, however, to experience an equally deep appreciation coming back the other way.

For Goenka was having the special opportunity to see one of his experienced students taking the practice of Vipassana into the white hot heat of the final moments of his life, and doing so with a lighthearted, even jovial equanimity. It was a striking affirmation that Goenka’s mission to offer Vipassana to the world, and especially to bring it to the West, was bearing fruit.

And he openly expressed his gratitude to Terrell.

“Look at this man,” he had said to a roomful of senior students and teachers. “He’s laughing and he’s dying. He’s dying and he’s laughing. This man understands my teachings.”

To Leave With Awareness (Mid-August, 2002)

I’m meditating in a corner of Terrell’s bedroom. It’s the middle of the night. Diane and Alta and I are taking turns keeping vigil by his bedside. The end isn’t far off.

Terrell’s restless. In and out of a shallow sleep. At one point he suddenly sits up, looks around, and then, seeing me on my meditation cushion, says, “Hi, Robert. I didn’t know you were here.”

We’ve had some good sharings over the past few days. We had been able to find resolution for a long-standing concern that he’d had about the “purity” of my practice, and he’d been enthusiastic about a special 10-day course that I’d be taking in the fall. He had also talked wistfully about the upcoming Roanoke course, due to start in a few days, that he won’t be able to serve.

Other friends had been stopping by as well. All are deeply touched by the grace that Terrell and Diane have been exhibiting in the face of such challenging circumstances. It’s an eloquent testimony to both their Vipassana training and their daily practice.

Later in the night, Terrell awakens again.

“I’m dry as a bone, Robert. I’m dry as a bone.”

“You and the Earth both,” I think, as he gets some chipped ice from a cup by his bed, sucks on it for a while, and then drifts back to sleep. The southeast is in the grips of a prolonged drought. No rain for months. The land is desperately dry.

Morning comes. Terrell has made it through another night. I decide to take a brief break and have breakfast with my Light Morning family, five minutes down the road. I haven’t seen them for days. Midway through the meal, I get a phone call saying that Terrell has just died.

So I drive back. Diane and Alta are quietly awed by the peacefulness of his passing. Just after I had left, Terrell had awakened with some anxiety.

“I know it’s time to go, but I don’t know how!”

“Yes you do,” they had reassured him, each of them taking one of his hands. “Just be aware of your breathing. Follow your breath. You know how.”

So Terrell had settled into anapana, the breath meditation that students practice for the first third of each Vipassana course. After a short time, though, he had lost the focus again.

“I can’t do it!”

“Yes you can, Terrell,” Alta had said. “You have to show us the way. You’re our teacher here. You have to show us how this is done. We need you to show us how this is done, so that we’ll be able to do it, too.”

And with that encouragement, Terrell had been able to relax and to re-focus his awareness on his breathing. His breaths became softer and softer, slower and slower, the out-breaths slightly audible, like a quiet sigh or perhaps a soft chant. Slower. And slower. And then he was gone.

I take my cushion over to Terrell’s bed. Diane and Alta have bathed him and dressed him in his special meditation clothes from India. He’s lying there perfectly still. All restlessness gone.

I settle in beside him and begin to meditate, feeling the richness of our friendship, my gratitude to him for having introduced me to Vipassana, and for supporting me in my practice. And now, for the priceless gift of our last sit together, here on his deathbed. One final, piercing reminder of anicca. This, too, shall pass. I, too, shall pass.

And then, unbelievably, as I’m sitting quietly beside him, it starts to rain. Softly at first. Then harder and harder. It’s beating on the roof. Soaking into the bone-dry Earth. A long, steady, sustained downpour.

“Thanks, Terrell,” I murmur. “Thanks for everything.”

Terrell at VMC in August
Terrell at VMC in August

(A few closing notes: During Diane’s evening sit, on the day that Terrell died, the feeling came to her that in his final out-breaths, “slightly audible, like a quiet sigh or perhaps a soft chant,” Terrell had been taking refuge in the Buddhist Triple Gem. / The first Vipassana course in the Roanoke valley, which Terrell had helped to organize, was well attended and ran smoothly. Two courses have also been scheduled for 2003, in late April and early September. / If you’re interested in learning more about Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka, go to www.dhamma.org.)

Reaching Out

Hardy begonia
Hardy begonia

We recently received a letter from someone who last visited Light Morning 15-20 years ago. She was reaching out, in a time of need, to a place and a group of people that she had obviously harbored in a sheltered area of her heart for a long time. Below are a few brief passages from her letter, followed by Joyce’s response.

“I hope you haven’t forgotten me after all these years, and I hope you won’t mind too much if I write to you regarding some of the things I’m concerned about again. I have no idea what any of you must think of me, but I’ve always felt a special bond toward all of you and have felt closer to you in certain ways than to anyone else or any other group of people I’ve known in my lifetime…

“I’m extremely depressed, have given up all hope, and can’t even find the motivation to meditate any more. This is a surprise to me because I’ve waited for these “end-days” all my life, knowing that it would mean a new beginning for an ideal world. I know that a large part of my grief is that I’m grieving with the spirit of Mother Nature. But this feeling of hopelessness is fairly new to me…

“I don’t mean to take advantage of your kindness, but I truly feel you are my brothers and sisters and I really need some help. I feel that God has forsaken me! Please write back if you get a chance. I trust you fully and care about you, even though I never see you any more. I hope you can feel the same toward me.

“P.S. Hope you can read this! I got a thorn in my finger today from the garden and can’t get it out.”

It was so good to get your letter, despite the pain. I am sitting here at my desk, watching several spicebush swallowtails working the hosta and the coneflowers outside my window. The beauty is intense, yet carries with it the sadness of which you speak. How long can Nature tolerate our foolishness? Will everything so fragile and precious be destroyed? Or will we somehow “get it” before it’s altogether too late?

No easy answers for me, I’m afraid. I do believe in the immense power of Good. Things look mighty grim, but somehow I do expect a turning. It seems we rarely turn voluntarily, so I expect some awful times. People hurting badly. Looking (finally!) with the clear eyes and hearts that so often accompany grief. And wanting to be part of that goodness.

I need to be ready, then, to show folks the beauty that I’m still seeing. So I try to keep myself in good enough shape to still be seeing it. There are times I lose sight of it–even now, with all the caring and the exquisite beauty surrounding me. So I know it’s a tough assignment.

I’d be lost if I were alone. I’m glad you reached out for support. For you to know we’re here, and for us to know that you’re there, and that lots of other folks are spread around in various obscure nooks and crannies of this planet–this is helpful; maybe even enough.

I’m one who needs regular reminders of what this goodness is about, so I choose to live with people who prioritize holding this awareness. Most people can’t live in a communal setting like this, but they do want to touch base from time to time. So we keep Light Morning open, during the warmer months of the year, for people to visit. A few days. A few weeks. It can help.

Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that the planet will reflect back to us our personal despair. To the extent that we give up, we will see Her giving up. Our constancy in the face of darkness, therefore, becomes an act not of denial, but of defiance. You are a warrior! Don’t go under! It’s important!

We rely pretty heavily these days on our dreams. Also on meditation. When we get out of whack, we hustle up to Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, for an incredibly intense 10-day course at the Vipassana Meditation Center. It’s hard work, and I always sort of dread it, but it’s certainly effective. They don’t charge for this, by the way.

There’s another group in West Virginia, the Bhavana Society, who also offer meditation courses. (And likewise don’t charge.) We’ve never been there. I hear it’s not quite as grueling as V.M.C., but it’s still Vipassana, and still very good. Perhaps you could find your way to one of these places.

Or come visit us sometime, before you lose faith entirely. (Which I know you haven’t or you wouldn’t have bothered to write!) We still garden and chop firewood and all of that, though we also use computers now, and even have a web page (!) so that folks out there who are looking for support can find us.

We’re a mix of old and new; high tech and low. We’re building a big new community shelter called Rivendell that has several guest rooms, and plenty of room to dance, and we still hold pancake breakfasts every Sunday, as well as various other shindigs. And sometimes there are bears in the yard.

So come see us if you can. Meanwhile, may the creatures outside your window help keep hope alive in your heart. They are so beautiful. So precious. So are you!

Exploring the Vortex

 

Karen

How a visitor experiences Light Morning is a largely unpredictable meshing of the personal intent they bring with them, plus the “institutional” intent, or vortex, or energy field they find when they arrive. The former has to do with a visitor’s readiness and willingness to move into the “stretch zone.” The latter is a mysterious creature, shaped by the dreams and aspirations of all those who have touched or been touched by this place over the years. For Karen, these two intents came together in a surprisingly powerful way. She shared the following story toward the end of her most recent visit.

For me, visiting Light Morning is like eating potato chips. I can’t have just one! Within the past year I have visited three times. And I feel pretty sure that I’ll be back again.

The first visit was quite brief. My partner, Bob, and I had been visiting another community in the county and were on our way to visit yet another in West Virginia. Just before we left, though, a friend suggested that we check out Light Morning. He felt that we might have some things in common with them. We must have left three messages on their voice mail that day in hopes of stopping by on our way to West Virginia. Robert finally returned our calls that evening, invited us to lunch the next day, and emailed directions.

The drive to Light Morning was an adventure-a lot of curvy, back-country, mountain roads. “They sure are ‘out there’,” we thought. We parked and walked down the drive to the community shelter. Robert met up with us and gave us the short, “10-cent tour” of the grounds, filling us in on as much of the history of the place and the people as he could in the brief time we had before lunch. It was autumn, the trees were at their peak of color, the weather was perfect, and the grounds were beautiful.

Then we sat down to lunch. We had brought our “community booklet” as well as a short resume, which we shared with everybody. During lunch, Joyce, Robert, and Ron were very interested in finding out more about who we were and what our passions are. The food was delicious, thanks to Jonathon, the cook and gardener, who hurriedly said hello before he left for his chess-teaching job in Roanoke.

Everyone was so friendly and easy to get along with, surprisingly so for having just met. I felt like I had landed on another planet. Or better yet, into a magical fairyland. After hugs all around, and the precious gift of a freshly picked persimmon, we were on our way. I felt like I was walking on air and was filled to overflowing with positive, bubbly feelings. This was definitely a place I wanted to explore further, as did Bob.

We got to the next community in West Virginia and immediately decided to drive home. Once home, Bob and I both wrote letters to Light Morning expressing our desire to visit for a couple of weeks or so. Unfortunately, it was late October and their visitor season was ending. Unless we could visit within the next few weeks, we’d have to wait until the spring. We decided to wait.

In the meantime, we corresponded with Joyce, Robert, and Jonathon, getting to know each other a little better as well as finding out more about Light Morning. We planned on visiting for two or three weeks in May. May rolled around pretty quickly. Bob’s landscaping business got really busy, so he decided to wait until possibly August to visit.

I couldn’t wait! I had been looking forward to this visit all winter, so I decided to go alone. The first week I was mainly getting used to being in a new place and plugging into the routine. I was overwhelmed with all the attention everyone gave me, as well as their interest in finding out all about me. I was not used to talking and sharing so much about myself. I probably talked about myself more in that week than I usually do within a year!

I was also not used to spending that much time with so many other people. At home, I spend most of my time alone at work, or home with or without Bob. I was actually relieved when another visitor arrived so that I wouldn’t feel like I was on the “hot seat” anymore.

By the second week I was in the groove and enjoying myself. By the beginning of the third week I was getting a little homesick. That last week flew by, of course, and when the time came to leave I was wishing I could stay longer.

Returning home was quite an experience. It felt like culture shock. I live just outside a big city, so all the noise, pollution, cars, and congestion were suddenly intense. Bob and I were happy to see each other and I was overflowing with things I wanted to share. I realized that I had learned a lot about myself and had grown so much during my three weeks at Light Morning. I wrote him a 15- page letter; a summary of the journal I had kept during my visit.

Bob was overwhelmed with all the information. He was possibly feeling a little threatened, too, that I had had such a great time alone, away from home, and that I was already wanting to return to Light Morning for a longer, two-month visit, most likely during July and August-just three weeks away. So we spent the next few weeks trying to get back on line and in the groove, so to speak. Meanwhile, I was communicating with everyone at Light Morning and preparing for my next visit.

My intention for a longer visit was to more fully explore what life is like at Light Morning; to find out more about the place, the people, and their purpose. It sounds pretty simple, but boy, I sure didn’t know what I was getting into!! My earlier, three-week visit had been like a “honeymoon,” while my current visit has literally and figuratively been more like “living together.”

Spending two months here has given me a clearer perspective on what living at Light Morning is really like, as well as who these people really are. We got to share some of our shadow sides, our “bad” days, our struggles and triumphs, our daily habits, both good and bad, and our pet peeves. (Everyone knows the “best” way to clean the dishes and, of course, they’re all different!)

If I thought I had discovered a lot about myself during my three-week visit, I have learned a ton during this visit. I now have enough material to sift thru, work on, and resolve for possibly the rest of my life! Early on in the visit, during a conversation with Jonathon, it became clear that this was a good place for me to work on any problem areas in my life, and especially in my relationships. So I jumped right in and started sharing the troubles that Bob and I had been experiencing.

All of a sudden Light Morning (both the place and the people), as well as my dream world, turned into a forum for working on my relationship issues. I was sucked into the “vortex” that Robert had mentioned was here; a vortex that tends to bring up peoples’ unresolved issues in such a way that they can be processed right away. My feeling at first was, “Sink or swim!”

The amount of time, interest, and help that everybody gave me as I worked on my issues and dreams was tremendous! It felt like these people, whom I had only known for a few weeks, were suddenly becoming the best friends I’d ever had. If there’s ever a place to be pulled into this vortex and be “compelled” to work on one’s unresolved issues, this is the place. Which is probably why so many people have a similar experience whenever they spend a good chunk of time here.

Aside from the daily schedule of bread labor, meditation, and meals, then, much of my time has been spent on discovering repetitive patterns in my life, especially in my relationships, and realizing what initially caused the patterns to be created. Surprisingly enough, many of my realizations grew out of working with my dreams. Before coming to Light Morning, I had almost no appreciation for how much the dreams that I wake up with in the morning could help me deal with the problems that I face in my daily life. Now I’m hooked! Never again will I discard my dreams as useless and irrelevant.

All these discoveries have given me a new perspective on my relationships both with other people and with myself. I’m beginning to see that, ultimately, my relationships with others are an outward reflection of my inner self. On the one hand, it’s overwhelming to acknowledge that I am responsible for whatever occurs between me and another person. Yet this same realization also gives me the power to re-create and transform myself, and, in so doing, to re-create and transform all my relationships with others. The true challenge will be keeping this knowledge alive and present on a day-to-day basis; to use it as a theme to live by; and to find other people who are supportive of and open to this perspective and this work in their own lives.

The inner work I’ve been doing here at Light Morning has been very challenging. At times, I’ve felt as though I’m on an emotional roller coaster. In fact, it got so intense at one point that I decided to “take a break” by visiting a friend in a nearby city and watching movies for a couple of days! Yet I am truly excited about the growth, the knowledge, and the healing that I’ve gained. I know I’m a better person for it. I also know that my own healing and growth will ripple out towards everyone in my life and, possibly, from them to others, and then on and on, like dropping a pebble into a pond.

So during the last week of my most recent stay here, would I say it is worthwhile to make the time to visit Light Morning? Definitely! I would encourage anyone interested in community life, in sustainability, and in dreams, meditation, and other forms of spiritual practice to check out the life and people of Light Morning. Just be prepared (especially if you’ll be here for any length of time) to grow and to learn a lot about yourself and about how you create the world around you!

Maybe I’ll even see you here!