A peaceful mountaintop retreat, a few good reads, and a reminder that worry accomplishes nothing, saps one of energy, and causes self-suffering – usually needlessly. Having pretty much recovered from the unfortunate incident at the end of my lovely South African trip (see my last two blog entries if you’re new here), I headed to one of my favorite places of retreat: Wintergreen Resort in the mountains of western Virginia – Afton Mountain, to be exact. For many years I have headed to this sprawling mountaintop retreat, usually staying in the same condo on each visit – just me, my husband and me, my kids and me, and so on. This particular condo is like a home away from home. Lovely covered balcony (overlooking the ski lift!), sunken living room with real working fireplace, and all the comforts of home.
Anyway, that’s where I headed. The photo at the top of this blog was actually taken in November when I was there last – clear blue sky and all. The other photo was taken from one of the dining room windows the day I got there this time, thick fog and all! Actually the weather wasn’t too bad, some rain, but mostly cloudy in the mornings so that I could get in decent hikes in the mountain air. This was my escape.
Now, you might ask me, escape from what? Well, there are always things to escape from – book deadlines, household responsibilities, bills, other obligations. One of my very dearest friends named Charlie observed shortly before I left town that I was a “worrier.” And yes, I guess I am. But more than that, I always try to control my life, what’s happening to me, how things are going – I mean, I have never liked surprises. Now we might want to delve beneath that and try to trace all that need for control and worry over contingencies to their root cause, but this is not my objective in this blog. (I mean, I know rationally that none of us are ultimately in control, control is an illusion except for the most obvious requirements of daily living – like paying taxes on time, etc. But still, some of us are wired with a certain temperament which makes “hanging loose” more of a challenge.)
Anyway, off I went to the mountains, deciding what I needed now was some stillness, some time to reflect, and some time to slow down a bit in my life. And aids to good slowing down are reading poetry … as well as reading a good book with an uplifting message. And I made sure I took both with me. I took from my shelf several books of poetry by Mary Oliver (one of my favorite poets) and a memoir that I had already read titled Father Joe: The Man Who Saved my Soul by Tony Hendra – first editor of National Lampoon and writer for John Belushi, Chevy Chase and others.
First, the memoir. You know, I almost never re-read books that I have already read – because there are so many more that I want to get around to reading. But this one I remembered as particularly moving, and for some reason I pulled it off my shelf to take with me. In case you haven’t read it I’m not going to spoil it. But I will tell you that this story by Hendra (first published in 2004) provides the reader with a glimpse of a living saint – Father Joe, a Benedictine monk – who walked this Earth and lived God’s love fully, touching those in his orbit with grace and holiness, including those like me absorbed again in the writing. Almost every account of Hendra’s 40-year relationship with this saintly man brought tears to my eyes. I found the read incredibly moving – an account of those few souls who exist and inspire the rest of us with the thought that holiness is possible.
And then Mary Oliver. As I have said in blogs and books before now, I do believe that God occasionally intervenes and sends grace through certain books, poems, and people into our lives. And on this visit to Wintergreen, I was visited by grace through one of Mary Oliver’s poems – that was just right for me at the time.
The poem is called “I Worried.” It’s a kind of prose poem, starting off with her wondering if gardens will grow or rivers flow in the right direction and if the Earth is turning as it should, and if not, is there something she could do about that, somehow set correct the erring situation. And then she starts in on herself, wondering about her past, about her wrongs, about forgiveness of past lapses, about whether she could actually become a better person. And then on another plane, she wonders why she can’t sing – even birds can sing and unfortunately her own singing voice is … “hopeless.” And then she ends her lovely poem this way:
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
Am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
And went out into the morning
And sang. (Mary Oliver, Swan, 2010, p. 39)
Just those two lines – “Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing./And gave it up” – meant everything to me – a moment of grace indeed. An epiphany, a clearing in my life. Not that I will never worry again – that would go against the grain. But the next time I do, I will hope that I remember Mary Oliver’s lines, and remind myself that worry accomplishes nothing, saps one of energy, causes self-suffering – usually needlessly. But even if there’s a reason to be concerned, worry adds nothing but additional burden.
So thank you, Mary Oliver. And thank you, Tony Hendra, for bringing alive again a saint who walked the earth in our midst. Despite the occasional fog at Wintergreen, a mountaintop experience of grace for which I am truly grateful.