Three weeks in the Shenandoah Valley helped me settle better into my place on this wide Earth. It was my first trip since the pandemic began. Lack of other recent travel perhaps helped me open more fully to the awesome expanses in what the locals call “God’s Country.”
I went to Virginia to visit my mother. Our initial efforts at distancing in the same house were awkward, but soon we found a good rhythm. Much of the day I stayed in the spacious basement rooms, which open out onto the lawn in back. I frequently walked the ridge of the housing complex where my mother lives, past comfortable new homes to the far end of the roads, where there are still-open hillside spaces, much of it now marked as lots for sale.
Both from the windows of my mother’s duplex and from the streets along the ridge, I enjoyed wide vistas, including remaining farmland. The openness extended miles, ending in mountains, usually topped by puffy ranges of white clouds, but sometimes covered in mist, or gray clouds of rain. On the clearest days, I could see range beyond range.
Many times when my mother and I took our evening walk, we were awed by splendid, enormous displays of color, sunlight, and cloud.
Walking in these open landscapes, I felt I’d been let out of a closed space into something much larger. This spring and summer, most of my outdoor time was spent close to home, or in the nearby park. My husband and I had dug up more of the yard for garden space and planted many new kinds of seeds. With my hands in the earth, I felt more truly how my body is part of the planet. I’d learned how going barefoot in my backyard helps to literally ground me.
Like most people, I’m used to spending my time in spaces built on a human scale: rooms inside buildings, fenced yards, city streets lined by sidewalks and buildings. In these human-constructed environments, I and my fellow humans see ourselves as large and important. But walking along a high ridge in the Shenandoah Valley, with a vista miles wide in every direction, it was quite evident that my body is a very small moving part of the Earth. Perhaps one reason we often relax in nature is because of the sense it imparts that life actually unfolds on a larger scale than the scope to which we usually limit ourselves.
The evening news on television focuses mostly on human-sized dramas. My mother and I watched it every night, seeing distressing scenes from around the world. During the lead-up to the national political conventions, we listened to campaign rhetoric and political commentary that often exacerbated the differences in our political views. One evening when she revealed her intentions for the next election, I responded with anger and heated arguments. What is at stake is deeply connected for both of us to our spirituality and religious beliefs. We have different ideas about which political party better supports life and respects its sacredness. In my view, one party, while claiming to be Pro Life, is accelerating death on this planet in so many ways, allowing increasing pollution of the air, water, soil, atmosphere, and ecology, damaging or destroying essentials required to sustain life both now and for future generations. This party has removed scores of policies designed to protect the environment, and the behaviors it supports are fueling the catastrophes of climate change. Although one political party is accelerating this destruction significantly more than the other, I am sadly aware that our culture as a whole—including both major political parties—has not adequately addressed these huge problems facing our country and the world. Enormous forest fires are raging, polar caps are melting, and massive hurricanes are flattening cities. Yet the media gives much more news time to smaller events and controversies. The voices that could guide us on a healing path are rarely heard.
Taking morning walks along the ridge helped lift me out of a sense of turmoil into a wider perspective. Nonetheless, every day as I walked past new mini-mansions being build on what was recently farmland and forest, I mourned. Several time I climbed up the highest ridge of the housing complex, and looked beyond. On the other side of the ridge, in several directions, I saw other new housing complexes.
Everybody wants a comfortable life in a beautiful place. I certainly do. Yet, when there is no longer any farmland left in this beautiful valley, refrigerated trucks will bring ever more food to feed those who are chopping down trees, turning up topsoil, and settling here. It’s not clear how we will feed feed our exploding human population when there is no longer enough farmland anywhere to grow food for all, or enough fuel to transport it long distances. Standing on the ridge, a small dot in a large landscape, I had a clearer sense of myself as part of a species rather than primarily as an individual. A species that is recklessly, heedlessly destroying the environment that sustains our lives. I am a part of my culture. For all of my life I, too, have participated in ways of living that are destructively unsustainable.
During my walks, I prayed to know how humanity can move forward in a healing way. I prayed for direction and guidance, for a divine voice from a burning bush. I prayed to understand my part in the divine plan.
Those three weeks were a time for sabbath rest. I let my work on various projects slow down. Gradually, my busy mind became quieter, too. It became more clear how the activity of our minds create human-sized mindscapes in the way that our urban and suburban-spaces create human-sized environments. In both our minds and our human spaces, our activity looms large. In a wider physical landscape, and with a more spacious mental terrain, I could better feel the deeper source of life. I sensed more clearly the slow, powerful pulse of life energy that flows through the earth, and through my body and all bodies. I sensed the presence of divine presence and guidance, and a softening in my heart.
I heard a quiet inward voice saying, “We’ll find a way of forgiving.” It was an invitation to enter God’s peace. It came with a sense that we can only find the way forward from a place of love, forgiveness, and attentiveness to spiritual realities and the deeper energies that sustain life. The peace I found in the wide landscape and in my sabbath time gave me a sense that even at this late hour, it’s not too late to choose a path toward a hopeful future.
Until the time I said good-bye to my mother at the end of three weeks, both of us were still maintaining six feet of distance. In parting, as we expressed our love for each other, my Mom reached out. We hugged each other close, heart to heart.
Within the Vast Wholeness: When has time outdoors helped create greater space inside you?
© 2020 Marcelle Martin
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A Guide to Faithfulness Groups explains what faithfulness is and how it can be cultivated by small groups that practice ways to listen inwardly together for divine guidance, a practice that holds great potential for supporting individuals of any faith in allowing the work of the Spirit to become manifest through them and their communities.
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