An earlier version of this story was first posted to Light Morning’s website in the Autumn of 2002
Terrell Jones, a good friend and a fellow Vipassana meditator, died at his home just down the road from Light Morning in mid-August. Many of us in this area are indebted to Terrell, not only for introducing us to Vipassana meditation, but also for modeling an exceedingly rare quality — a learned ability to die well; to leave with awareness. As a small token of my appreciation, here are several stories about my Vipassana relationship with Terrell.
The following story has three parts. It’s told from the perspective of how I experienced it25 years ago this month, in December of 1995.
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After the trauma had served its intended purpose, I would come to believe that the path I was traveling needed to unfold as it did. The hard-earned clarity of hindsight would show me clues I had missed and traces of long-dried blood on the tracks. But we don’t see what we’re not ready to see. Or shouldn’t see. Foresight would have made me run from the pain that awaited me. And from the improbable healing that pain would bring.
This photo shows Marlene, one of Light Morning’s four co-founders, prepping tomatoes for canning on the porch of the old community shelter. She taught me how to work; I learned by watching her. Marlene’s hands moved at the same consistently fast yet careful pace, whether she was typing, cutting tomatoes, or bow-sawing firewood.
Marlene also deepened my understanding of what Light Morning half-humorously refers to as U.P.S. — Unresolved Parental Stuff. In a previous series of posts (here), she shares a harrowing tale of how primal childhood woundings leave scar tissue, which in turn causes us to re-create our unresolved trauma with other people and in other settings. How much of our trauma can be healed and how much will remain unresolved is an open question.
Finally, Marlene taught me about death and dying. The teaching was up close and personal, as Marlene chose to die at home, here at Light Morning. The following story (in three parts) charts her journey from receiving a diagnosis of terminal illness to taking her last breath. It’s based on a series of email updates I sent to Marlene’s far away family and her many friends. It’s also a story about the shadow dance between the acceptance and denial of death.
This is the final post in this series. Part One and the introduction are here.
Each of the first two posts in this series revolves around a strong medicine dream. But where do dreams like “Down Under” (here) and “Harvesting the Moment Points” (here) come from? They’re certainly personal. I’ve already shared visceral associations with the imagery. It’s quite improbable, then, that anyone else could have dreamed either of these dreams, any more than they could have my face, my voice, or my fingerprints.
Yet strong dreams can also be more than personal. Other people’s thoughts, words, and images sometimes come alive within us. That’s why poets, painters, and storytellers ply their trade. That’s what makes conversation and communion possible. That’s why myths and scriptures resonate. They help us approach the threshold between the worlds from one side. But what awaits us on the other side?
This is a revised version of the third and final reflection paper I wrote for an 18-month School of the Spirit program called “On Being a Spiritual Nurturer.” My application for this program is here. The first paper, Two Roads, starts here. The second paper, Medicine Wheels for Story Orphans, starts here.
Between Two Worlds
This paper explores the probability that we are a species poised between two worlds. It suggests that on the threshold between sea and land, inner and outer, heaven and earth, we receive liminal gifts from a mysterious Gift-giver. For this is what liminal means: on the threshold. Although the luminous offerings we find on such thresholds are not always easily received, they are the ultimate source of our charisma, our callings, and our special friendships.
* * *
In the middle of the night I’m walking along a beach on the North Carolina coast. Bare feet on wet sand; the soothing sound of surf to my right; the long row of beach houses to my left. Some are dark. Others have a lamp or two still burning. A few are decked out with security lights.
“The inner light alone makes us feel secure,” I muse. “Security lights feed our fears.”
The mid-September night sky is clear. The waning gibbous moon behind me casts the distinct shadow of a walking man on the damp sand in front of me. It mimics me perfectly.
Sirius has climbed above the eastern horizon, faithfully following Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades. Moonlight plays across the surface of the receding waves. Looking more closely, I smile to see the faint reflection of Sirius there as well.
The waves keep breaking; I keep walking. Slowly I slough off the constraints and conceits of this present time. The beach houses, lights, and power lines fade away, leaving a solitary human doing what our species has done for thousands of generations – walking at night by the edge of an ocean, hearing the same sounds, seeing the same constellations, marking the same phases of the moon.
How do we learn to live with those who might do us harm? What if some of our neighbors are dangerous? Why wouldn’t we simply move away; or cause them to move away; or try to do them in? How do we balance caution with compassion?
Very occasionally an all-too-human friend or neighbor has become sufficiently unhinged to be dangerous. More often, however, it’s been one of the other-than-human creatures with whom we share this land who has tested our willingness to be neighborly. When the path that Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow are following leads into a dark wood — in the film version of Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz — their fears run away with them.
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” they exclaim. “Lions and tigers and bears!”
We’ve never seen, outside of our dreams, any tigers at Light Morning. By slightly paraphrasing Dorothy’s fearful refrain, though, we can easily relate to it: “Lions and serpents and bears, oh my! Lions and serpents and bears!” Stories about our encounters with mountain lions and black bears may be shared later. This story is about learning to live with venomous serpents.
This is the final post of a four-part series of posts. Part 1 can be found here.
An Escalating Sense of Urgency
The ocean waves keep crashing in. They surge up the beach, only to be drawn back down again by gravity. Each set of waves climbs slightly farther or less far up the beach, depending on whether the tide is flowing or ebbing. How high any particular wave will reach is unpredictable. But the trend of the tide is unmistakable.
* * *
In March of 1980, Douglas celebrated his fiftieth birthday. Not long after reaching this milestone, one of his sustaining beliefs — that he was riding an incoming tide and that the story which had led him here was unfolding as it should — took three significant hits. Following these jarring dislocations, Douglas started to wonder whether the tide might have already turned against him and was now beginning to ebb.
This is the third of a four-part series of posts. Part 1 can be found here.
Seeding Wax Statues
Douglas and I are sitting together on Temple Hill. It’s a warm Indian summer afternoon in 1977. Douglas is 47; I’m 32. Doug and Stan have just moved up from Norfolk and are living in a small camper at Transdyne, the land they bought two years ago. It’s within easy walking distance of ALM (Associations of the Light Morning), where Doug and I are now talking.
Far above us, a raven traces a lazy circle in the sky. Douglas again wants to hear why our guidance in Virginia Beach said that the Essenes were to serve as a model for the community. He’s alluding to a few lines from Season of Changes. It’s the passage that first sent him searching for ALM and for me. By now I know the words by heart.
This is the second of a four-part series of posts. In the prologue to Part 1 (which can be found here), Douglas is described as being “a mentor and interrogator; a reliable source of both irritations and insights; an occasional enemy; and a best friend. He could be effortlessly charming one moment and fiercely adversarial the next. But above all else, Douglas was fully committed to exploring the interplay between his own unique and pricey calling and the founding vision of Light Morning.”
The Bookworm and the Symposium
“I am evidently not intended to die and leave this world,” Douglas said in the biographical cassette tapes that he recorded for us, “because I’ve been unsuccessful in these attempts. As we can see, there are quite a few people who would not be unhappy with my absence. But there is some force that appears to be more adamant than I in keeping me here, for reasons that are still not known to myself, and are totally unknown to others.”
After an attempted suicide in a Washington, D.C. hotel room, “I was unemployed for some time and very rarely left our apartment. I raised orchids, read books about Edgar Cayce, and saw few people. But in a way, this story is a story of destiny; a story unfolding according to the designs of destiny. And this happens to each of us, if we will but look at it. This is not to say that I was aware of looking at it, for only recently have I started to pay attention to what comes before me, instead of fighting what comes before me.”
What was about to come before Douglas was an unexpected twist of destiny: Douglas was about to become a shopkeeper.
Remembering Douglas Dean Todd Born March 3rd, 1930 Died on Good Friday, 2000
One morning over breakfast, in the autumn of 1999, I mentioned to the other members of the Light Morning community that I would be going to Roanoke to see Douglas that day. Following his stroke, Doug had been staying at Salem Health and Rehabilitation, just across the street from the V.A. hospital. Then someone sitting around the breakfast table said, “Who’s Douglas?”
Cecile had become part of the community only recently, and her question stopped a spoonful of applesauce midway between my bowl and my mouth. It seemed inconceivable that someone living at Light Morning could not know who Douglas was. For me, it was a watershed type of experience.
Douglas had played different roles for different ones of us during the 25 years when he and Stanley lived just down the road: mentor and interrogator; a reliable source of both irritations and insights; an occasional enemy; and a best friend. He could be effortlessly charming one moment and fiercely adversarial the next. But above all else, Douglas was fully committed to exploring the interplay between his own unique and pricey calling and the founding vision of Light Morning.