A reminiscence in honour of Create's August challenge: describing an encounter.
Everyone knows what a retreat is: an opportunity to step away from the world for a few days, regroup, and get in touch with your personal values. To pause, reflect, and seek inner peace. During a retreat, you may encounter the Other in yourself – or just take a breather. A retreat is a welcome respite from the hurly-burly of life.
To Baptists in the mid-1960s, a retreat was a jolly weekend of fun, fun, fun. A weekend packed to the gills with activities, Bible study, enthusiastic prayers, and chorus singing. Noisy, too. The organiser always wore a whistle.
And thus it was that in the middle of my journey through teenagerhood, I found myself in a dark wood. But that came later. First, there was the Camp.
Early one summer Friday afternoon, we piled out of the cars into an open dirt square. As I looked around, I mentally hummed the theme from The Great Escape. There were no guard towers, of course: just pleasant, green South Park, nestled in the mountains south of Pittsburgh. But the primitive cabins reminded me less of Davy Crockett than of Colonel Klink. There were two barracks…er, sleeping cabins, boys and girls, for the use of. There was a mess hall and kitchen, with a primitive infirmary, required for insurance purposes. There was an open-sided pavilion with dais and rows of seats. Next to that structure was a large, open field for sport. Sport was always included in a Baptist retreat, as muscular Christians were inevitable. All in all, a satisfactory setup, and we had the place to ourselves for the next three days.
Well, not quite to ourselves. We were going to have to contend with Nature – something Baptists are not always good at.
The first intimation came seconds after exiting the vehicle. The ominous whirring…in front, beside, behind, above…a menacing buzzing sound. I looked down, and there it was: the enemy. Evil-looking, with glowing red eyes. It was as if the Friday Fright Night movie had come to life in the western Pennsylvania sunshine. There were at least a hundred thousand of the horrible things, everywhere there was open ground: wings vibrating, mating, dying. Worse, they had no compunction about landing on you.
To interject at this point: I can keep a cool head when confronted by feral dogs. I have been known to act with aplomb in the face of a rattlesnake. I have no fear of heights – in fact, I enjoy them – and I shrug at earthquakes. But a stray cicada will render me catatonic. To each his own primal fear. Judge not, say I.
Mrs Cartman, the schoolteacher in charge of this weekend's frivolity, announced loudly that this happened to be the season of the 17-year locust. We should man-up (and woman-up) and Ignore Them. Mrs Cartman was the choir director's wife, a pillar of the church who managed all activities with the same firmness with which she approached her students, her sons, and her meek husband. Mrs Cartman had The Whistle. So we did as we were told. Suppressing a shudder, I tried to ignore the humming, and grabbed some boxes to unload.
Everyone was unhappy with the venue in some way. The lady volunteers found the squirrels in the kitchen stovepipes an outrage. The registered nurse from our congregation who had volunteered to staff the infirmary grumbled about the cleaning involved. Mrs Cartman told them all to 'zip it', and we got on with the task of being enthusiastically religious. The rest of the afternoon was spent in praying, reading, singing, and listening to adults drone on about matters which they did not understand. I'd had a lot of practice at this, was basically charitable, and did my best to be polite.
After a dinner break, there was more of the same. The programme had been overplanned, but the programme was sacrosanct, and thus it was after midnight when we were allowed to go to bed. The sleeping arrangements heightened the retreat area's resemblance to a POW camp: the beds were uncomfortable, and outfitted with only thin blankets. It can get cold in the mountains around Pittsburgh at night, even in summer. I shivered myself to sleep, trying to ignore the whirring of myriad alien wings against the tin roof.
In the girls' cabin, rest was harder to achieve. There was a bat in the rafters, which of course became active the moment the lights went out. There was screaming. It was a shame, really. The guys would have found the bat an interesting novelty: after all, we'd all seen nature (and Dracula) films. The girls, unfortunately, had seen Dracula films, too: and girls were usually the victims. Besides, every female person in the Pittsburgh area knew one thing for certain: bats had a thing for long hair. They were ineluctably drawn to it. They would become entangled in it. They would have to be surgically removed. Every long-haired lass in the girls' cabin hid under the musty blankets, while the short-haired variety helpfully wailed for Mrs Cartman. Mrs Cartman, who desperately needed her beauty sleep (if you'd seen her, you'd understand), informed them in no uncertain terms that this carryon must cease, immediately. Jesus wouldn't like it. Go to sleep, the bat will leave you alone. Everybody dove under the covers, and no further bat incidents took place.
Saturday was a busy day. No, no one caught the bat. They did chase the squirrels out, by lighting the stove. All morning, we participated in a programme that might possibly have entertained an overenthusiastic corporate executive. The kind who enjoyed reading spreadsheets, and whose favourite book was Your Erroneous Zones. We remained politely bored. After lunch, we adjourned to the open field for the muscular Christian part: softball.
I like softball. Softball, however, does not like me. As a teenager, I was considered clumsy. What I was, was visually impaired in an odd way. My peculiar vision problems meant that, while I could read perfectly well with glasses, I could not track the course of a ball. I could not hit the ball. In fact, it often hit me. Running, I was prone to fall, due to mistaking the location of obstacles. In short, I was a detriment to a softball game, and I knew it. For this reason, out of courtesy towards others, I stationed myself in the 'outfield'. The far outfield. That way, I could meditate in peace, secure in the knowledge that any ball that reached me was so dead that nobody was in a hurry for it.
Normally, I would have enjoyed watching the game from a distance, and thinking my own thoughts. Today, of course, I was nervous and twitchy. Waiting for 17-year locusts to land on you is not conducive to peace of mind. Finally, I could stand it no longer, and realising that no one was paying attention, I slipped into the nearby forest. The insects seemed not to like it there.
What I found in the woods was pure revelation. All was quiet, save for the singing of birds. The mulchy ground was soft beneath my feet, like a deep-pile carpet laid by God's own union workers. The path sloped downhill at the usual western Pennsylvania angle. I loped along, then stopped: somebody had made something interesting here.
It was a church, of sorts. Or an auditorium. The slope of the ground, down to a level place, had created a natural amphitheatre. Somebody had turned it into a meeting place by dint of half-burying horizontal logs in tiered rows. An aisle separated the rows, leading down to the level space, where there was a stone – pulpit? Lectern? Altar? I sat down to appreciate, in one of the back 'pews'. The sunlight filtering through the tall tree branches reminded me of stained glass.
In later years, when I learned about our European ancestors who worshipped in outdoor shrines, I thought about this place. It made sense to me. Where else would you find nature gods, except in nature itself? I breathed in and out, grew calm, rested in my retreat from the retreat. Then, because I was me, I started singing.
I'm not a shower singer. However, I'm an 'alone-time' singer. When I was growing up, if alone, I'd sing, unselfconsciously. I did so now, offering the song to the place as a thank-you for the sanctuary. I remember the song I sang: a sentimental 19th-century choral piece we'd learned in school, called Green Cathedral. It seemed to fit.
I know a green cathedral, a hallowed forest shrine, where leaves in love join hands above to arch your prayer and mine…
No gods appeared to accept tribute, green or otherwise, but nobody seemed to object, either. I sang with gusto. The acoustics were perfect, but nobody outside the woods was going to hear. As I finished the song, I looked down on the log I was sitting on. And was amazed.
Moving along the log was something I'd read about, but never seen: an inchworm. A neon-green, comical worm, not very long, that 'inched' its way across the log by folding itself in half. In between movements, it reared its head – at least, one presumes it was its head – and seemed to peer around at the world. It was at one time both the funniest and most transcendental thing I'd ever seen in my life.
I must have assumed, without reflection, that the unexpected appearance of this unique creature was the answer to a question I didn't know I was asking. I sang to it. Of course, my repertoire being what it was, I sang the Inchworm Song.
Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds…
Only I didn't sing 'marigolds'. You see, I hadn't seen the music, only heard the song, and I misheard. So I sang
Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the miracles…
The inchworm did the maths bit, continuing to measure its way across the log as I sang. When I finished, it had rounded the log, and I felt a sense of profound calm and perfect peace. The quintessence of the goal of a retreat, really: the search for a moment of stillness, in which insight is possible. I stayed for a while longer, just breathing in and out. Then, deciding that someone might miss me, I went back to the campground.
A few hours later, I collapsed in a faint near the mess tent. The next day, when I went home, I came down with a four-day case of vertigo. But all that is another story. The real gain at that retreat was that I'd figured out how to engineer a meeting, an encounter, if you will. You have to take encounters like that on their own terms.
In the Bible, a guy named Elijah retreated to a cave. He was on the Middle East's Most Wanted list at the time, and disgusted. There was a whirlwind, an earthquake, and a fire. But those were not God. After all that noise came a 'still, small voice'. The voice told Elijah what he needed to know. Sometimes, you have to strain to hear that voice. And you have to wait out the preceding noise.
Encounters are what you make of them. I've learned to meditate in a railway station. I've learned to meditate in the middle of a Baptist church service, which is harder, particularly when the preacher keeps mispronouncing 'Nietzsche'. I owe a debt of gratitude to that inchworm, and whoever sent him.
Measuring the miracles, indeed.