This sabbatical took me from Auschwitz in Poland to the rock and sands of Death Valley. From a Buddhist monastery in Trout Lake, Washington to the stunning and empty beaches of Molokai. Then to the desert lands of New Mexico that Georgia O’Keefe inhabited. It has been a gift. I come back entering the month of April and its theme of transformation, transformed. Every place I encountered worked on me, opening me to quiet, allowing me “to remember what the soul never forgets.”
I carried the beaded necklace you made for me and blessed me with before I left. I have pictures of it in every place I was. Though I carried the necklace with me and all that it meant, I did not carry the daily and ongoing work of the church. If the community learned as much about itself as I did about myself during this sabbatical time, we are all in good shape.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned during this sabbatical came in the first few weeks as I decompressed: to give you my best, I cannot give you all of me. Though I came of ministerial age when the model was for ministers to work 50-80 hours a week and at a time when a minister and their spouse was seen as a “twofer,” I have come to believe that that model is not only outdated but harmful to clergy, their partners and families, and the churches they serve.
When you literally wander deserts for a period of time without electronics, internet or access to news 24/7, your mind, body, and spirit slow down and become present to just the moment. The combination of sun, wind, and building heat and then the sudden drop of temperature to just above freezing, demand a body awareness that is not necessary in the Pacific Northwest. Huge open space and sky become the visual norm. As do two lane main roads. And a lack of people. One watches the sunset brush color on rock and clouds. Without light pollution from cities, the night sky reveals itself without a veil. The coyotes have their way with the night and the doves greet each morning in song. The landscape both distracts and wipes away all distraction, leaving one exposed, unable to hide from one’s self.
The pace of our lives can be great hiding places. The rapidity at which we live our lives and the clutter of activities that we fill them with can serve not to fulfill but to lose ourselves. How many of us are so exhausted at the end of the day that we unwind electronically and sometimes, mindlessly? How many of us say that we have no time in our schedules to do the most basic tasks of self-care such as feeding ourselves real food, sitting down at a table with family or friends? Or going for a walk or moving one’s body in some way? Or taking even 5 minutes just to stop and be still, taking the internal temperature of our hearts and minds? And spiritual practice? Guess what, it ain’t just for monks in the deserts.
A clergy person who was part of a workshop I took at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico said the following: “I have learned to say and value my ‘No.’ If I can say and trust my ‘No,’ then I know that when I say ‘Yes,’ I am doing so with integrity, energy, and authenticity.”
I have always maintained that Unitarian Universalism’s values and ethics, principles and purposes, are radical in today’s culture. I would like it to push that radicalism further by refusing and resisting the pace and vacuousness of mainstream culture. I would like it to tear through cultural norms that leave us depleted, despairing, and too distracted to even remember who we are. I would hope that it could be a kind of desert for many of us, where instead of hiding our true selves, we dare to know them.
I come back to you carrying the deserts within me. They have reminded me of who I am and of what my soul remembers.