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The Woman in the Wood

Submitted by Virginia Watts on Tue, 06/18/2019 - 15:59

Woman in the Wood
After several weeks of pragmatic demands and family exigencies, I scheduled a few days of private retreat in the high desert. I have a book I’m working on, and had made no progress at all since before Christmas last year. My body was weary, my spirit was flagging, and my will to write was down to a few drops at the bottom of a deep well. I hoped rest and peace would bring an infusion of energy, and I was looking forward to being in a place that brought me comfort many years ago. 

I remembered long, solitary walks in the high desert where I could listen to bird song and marvel at the diversity of nature in that dry, arid place.

The chapel bells would ring out to call the community to prayer and worship. The ducks would float in their pond, the cottonwood spring ‘snow’ would drift, weightless, catching in spider webs and cactus. 

Food would be prepared by others, and I remembered it was always delicious with fresh, local produce and creative soups. Accommodations would be spare, but comfortable; tiny cinderblock rooms with sliding glass doors that opened out onto the desert. 

A friend who goes there often told me to go before it got too hot, which was good advice. June is generally a mild month, with warm days and cool nights, so I was confident I would be fine. I looked forward to seeing the stars, away from the ambient lights of the city. I wasn’t worried. 

I was prepared to be moving around with caution – I’m in my seventies now, not my forties – and balance and stamina are a bit challenging. It is the high desert, about 3700 feet above sea level. The altitude had not bothered me before, but that was then. 

The place has changed, of course, as places do. A new, huge hospitality facility faced the road that led onto the property. It is pleasant enough, but obviously built to accommodate many people and programs. The little bookstore that used to be in a clapboard outbuilding was now housed in this magnificent structure. I didn’t go in. 

I was grateful to see beautiful paved roads that used to be worn ruts in the dirt, and handrails where steps had been added when there was an incline. I wouldn’t find my walks quite so perilous as I had imagined.

I had changed in 30 years too. I was no longer fascinated by the structure and requirements of an organized religious order. It had become artificial and without meaning or inspiration for me. But I did long for silence and a spiritual connection with creation, and that was still available there in abundance. I felt a bit guilty about skipping the daily prayers and scripture readings in the chapel, but I did enjoy hearing the monks chanting as I sat outside the chapel and entered into my own kind of silent prayer.

I realized as I went through that first day that I was looking to regain something I had left behind. But my own personal journey took me out of that context many years ago, and while it is a lovely remembrance of a special part of that journey, it’s not available to me any longer. 

It was hot. Too hot to be comfortable for very long outside, but inside the lodge there was a group of animated teenagers learning about monastic life. Not much peace for writing to be found there. Nevertheless, the time and the space were mine, and I did write. I journaled and I made good progress on the novel I had started years ago. I read a good book, which fed my soul, and I walked. 

Then I did something I rarely do. I put pencil to paper and sketched the woman I saw in the bark of a tree. Her face was visible in one moment, and as the light changed, it vanished. I moved to find her again, and there she was. I sketched quickly, not wanting to lose her for good. 

What a gift to see this Green Woman with her deep connection to life, to the earth, to the seasons and their changes. She was just as she should be. Ever-changing, yet she still was solidly in that place. I wanted to hold close the vision of her face and the symbol of her strength. But I never thought to take a photo. 

I am not an artist, but I managed to get a rough sketch. I know her now in my fingers moving on the paper, in my vision as I sketched her contours. I will never forget her.

She is my example of constancy in change, of growth in all circumstances, of a grounding that I need to remember in adversity and triumph, in the mundane and the extraordinary. She is a true talisman of a journey that began long ago and continues. 

The light has shifted for me, too.