This is the second of three reflection papers I recently wrote for a program offered by The School of the Spirit. My application for this 18-month program, which was called “On Being a Spiritual Nurturer,” can be found here. The first paper I wrote, “Two Roads,” ishere.
What follows was submitted in September of 2019. How can that be? Surely far more than a year must have passed since our class gathered at the Franciscan Spiritual Center outside of Philadelphia for our fourth residency.
My sense of time — not to mention my sense of reality — has gone topsy-turvy since the coronavirus pandemic circled the Earth. For most of us, the pre-pandemic normal is no more; and whatever the post-pandemic reality may turn out to be, it has yet to appear. In this tensioning interval, many of our former assumptions and certainties are being deconstructed.
That’s why Medicine Wheels for Story Orphans feels increasingly relevant. As tumultuous and disorienting as these times are, they aren’t unprecedented. Stories are maps of meaning, and we are hardly the first generation to be shorn of our stories.
This is the second and concluding portion of Two Roads, which began here.
Time slides by. It’s December, 1995. Twenty years have passed since Season of Changes was published and Wax Statues was germinating. I have just returned from my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course. And I’m coming apart at the seams.
Last week’s post (which can be found here) started to explain why we were given the name Associations of the Light Morning. This week’s post continues that exploration.
Names Given and Taken
When I was born, my parents named me Robert. My father’s father celebrated the arrival of another grandchild with a cross-country telegram. But he was puzzled by my name. “Robert?” he asked. “Why Robert?”
Grandpa’s confusion was understandable. Children were expected to be given family names. He was Henry Wilder Foote II, named after his father who had died young. My father inherited the name Caleb Foote IV. Genealogy was important to Grandpa. Family names sustained and strengthened a family’s sense of identity.
My parents met and were married on the west coast in 1942. Far from their east coast families and freed from the constraints of family expectations and traditions, they were married on a lonely beach in southern California. It was just the two of them, plus a friend who was a minister, standing before the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Three years later, in San Francisco, they named their firstborn Robert.
What’s in a name? Two friends of mine renamed themselves when they were young adults. Maxine became Naomi; Karen became Olivia. Two other self-chosen names gave America’s cultural stew pot a good stir. Malcolm Little became Malcolm X and Cassius Clay renamed himself Muhammad Ali. The names these four people had been given at birth no longer fit. So they took new names and assumed new identities.
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.
These are the final three letters I wrote when participating in a bioregional seminar in the late 1980s. The first two letters, with a fuller introduction, can be found here.
Letter 3: February 1989
I stayed up late last night, trying unsuccessfully to find a theme for this month’s letter. As I finally went to bed, I asked my dreams for help. But this morning I was unable to recall even a single dream. Joyce, however, who was consciously unaware that I had been puzzling over this letter, awoke with a surprisingly relevant dream. It almost seems as though the dream I needed had come through her.
In the dream world Joyce is attending a workshop on environmental issues. Many of the other participants are castigating the government and/or the big corporations for their unresponsiveness to the critical problems facing the planet. Joyce is moved to say that we have no right to demand significant changes from anyone “out there” if we are unwilling to make comparable changes in our own lives.
“The changes we must turn to first are personal changes,” she says passionately. “And they have to be radical.”
Joyce and I are walking down a North Carolina beach at dawn. It’s mid-September. The twilit sky is pale blue-gray, with shadings of mauve and orange. We pause, moved by the muted colors and the soft background murmur of surf.
Then, without warning, we are overtaken from behind by a flight of brown pelicans, eight or nine of them, gliding low overhead in perfect formation. Their watchful eyes are serene, their elegantly angular bodies motionless, as they suddenly come into our field of vision.
The beauty of the moment strikes us with an intensity edging on anguish. Joyce feels her fuses being blown, as though only a small dose of such high-voltage beauty can be safely taken in before some self-protective mechanism goes into shut-down mode.
This is the second of two posts containing my application to the School of the Spirit for its program On Being a Spiritual Nurturer. The first post, and a fuller introduction, can be found here.
A well-chosen question can have quite an impact. Several years after moving to the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was gifted with such a question. It was posed by Douglas, the same friend whose birthday would later coincide with the Testing the Water retreat in Roanoke.
It was a sunny afternoon at Light Morning. We were sitting on a grassy knoll called Temple Hill, close to where Douglas now lies buried. High above us, a raven traced a lazy circle in the sky.
“So why did your Virginia Beach guidance,” Doug asked, “say that the Essenes were to serve as a model for your community?”