I met Adele and Darlene (not their real names) on a sunny September morning in the courtyard of the YWCA domestic violence shelter. Along with six other women from the shelter and three staff members, we were meeting that morning to go up the canyon into the mountains on the east edge of Salt Lake City to spend the day on a medicine walk.
Darlene was busy, busy; talking and telling stories, rummaging through her bag, putting on sunscreen. Of everyone, she looked the most prepared in terms of appropriate clothing and sporty layers. Adele was tall and willowy, clearly a beauty in her day. Her manner was cheerful, at times a bit distracted.
The programs director drove thirteen of us in a big white van to the base of the canyon, where we stopped in the parking lot. I invited everyone into the sacred theater of this walk. We would be spending all day together, in a place of beauty in the natural world — a place where time was different; a place that was home to the indigenous part of ourselves; a place where we could be still and hear our own wisdom as we shed, bit by bit, the noisy fast-paced world of stress and responsibility. I invited everyone to consider their intention for this walk — why they had come. What wisdom or guidance was each person seeking right now in their lives?
Without any explicit instruction to do so, our van of souls eventually fell silent as we drove slowly up the canyon. Darlene continued to rummage in her bag, and show everyone photos of the snow that she had taken while up an adjacent canyon just two days before. By the time we arrived at the trailhead, we were all ready to step across the threshold stick that I placed on the ground, and begin our walk into a magical space outside of time.
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Throughout this last year year, I have had occasion to drive along a street on the west side of Salt Lake for monthly board meetings of an arts organization I am involved with. This area is where one of the primary homeless shelters in the city is located. The explosion of homeless people has become very apparent, to the point of making headlines in the local news. I drive by in my big new-ish car and feel very curious about these people, and very isolated from their reality. There are young people and old people, white people and black people. Some look very weatherworn. Some look fresh. Some look quite rough. There are children and even infants. I wonder how many of these folks are drug addicts, drug pushers, alcholics or mentally ill, and how many had suffered abuse and how many abused others. Or come from good families and are taking a walk on the wild side.
I have no experience with this population. I live as far from the homeless world as a person can . . . unless camping counts.
I wonder about the stories of these folks. How had they come to be here, congregated on the grass in an outcast community, living their days without a shelter to call home? I wondered if there might be great sages among them, or folks who chose to live on the edge for reasons beyond my understanding. I have a fantasy of parking my car somewhere and walking to that street, with disheveled clothes and hair, and spending a day or two or three sitting on the grass in their midst.
I think of my friend Paul who I’ve known for years through the Wilderness Guides Council. He has been homeless off and on throughout his years. He has wild grey hair and beard, and piercing blue eyes. He is one of the most intelligent humans I know. He has seen through the matrix of our collective dream for most of his life. He has struggled to live within the lines, to follow the rules. And he has lived deeply — finding healing for himself, and touching always the edge of our evolutionary possibilities as a species. Paul is a man who is in tune with something beyond the small world of civilization, perhaps a man with a soul too tender for this world.
* * *
I wondered if it might be cold on our medicine walk day because of the recent snows, but it proved to be brilliant and warm up the canyon. After arriving at our base camp, settling in, and drumming in the directions to open our day together, the group sat in a circle on the brown tarp I’d packed up and spoke about why they had come. Words were heartfelt and mostly brief. Darlene spoke first. She was full and open, speaking of how this journey was a spiritual one for her and that at sixty she felt full of life. She felt her ancestors with her and was looking forward to her walk. Everyone spoke as they felt called to speak, staff and clients alike. Adeline was open hearted but brief, saying she mostly she wanted to find her purpose.
As I sent off each person through the threshold between two small aspen trees into an hour and a half of solo wandering as spirits in liminal space, I spoke low blessings that came to me as they stood close. At her turn, Darlene stood with an intensity I rarely see. I felt a strong sense of indigenous ancestors, Native American, and spoke of this impression. She pulled off her sunglasses and our eyes met fiercely and knowingly. Adeline stood tall, intently listening as I murmured blessings to find her purpose. She thanked me as her blue eyes met mine, and she strode off confidently.
Adeline came back to get an aspirin about twenty minutes into the solo walk time. Later, I saw many of the women wandering close by as if they were over it and ready to come back. “Is this working? Are people doing this thing right?” I wondered. I told myself to have faith. Faith in the process, which I know time and time again, holds something much bigger than I can know.
Ninety minutes later — time that felt both way too short and immensely long — I officially welcomed each person back over the threshold. We sat again in a circle and the stories began.
My faith was answered in spades! I heard rich, deep stories of profound self-understanding that belied the casual and at times chaotic unfolding of the short time out (from my perspective), and of the trauma that these women were dealing with. Their stories came not from their minds but straight from their authentic selves, from their souls, and provided profound nourishment and teachings for all listening.
Darlene spoke of her two grandmothers on either side of her who guided her throughout the walk — her white grandmother and her native grandmother. Her affirmations of her ongoing healing from addiction were powerful and offered as a gift to all for what is possible. Adeline was the last to speak, having wept through everyone’s stories. She spoke of deep love for her children and a realization how she had not been there for them. Though she did not speak of it explicitly, her words made it clear to me that though she tries to numb herself, she feels too much of everything and maybe has her whole life . . . especially the subtle world of energy and communication that is not considered ‘real.’
* * *
In his book, Care of the Soul, theologian, philosopher and psychotherapist Thomas Moore turns our modern framework of psychological health on its ear. He recognizes that the human soul is not fully understood or cared for in traditional psychotherapy and that our soul is “ . . . not a thing, but a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves” and has a direction and purpose of its own — which is sometimes a direction that opposes the appearance of a “healthy” ego or “normal” personality.
Soul seeks that which is rooted in earth, in attachment, in relationship, in messiness, in depth. Moore notes that modern psychology “ . . . perhaps because of its links to medicine, is often seen as a way of being saved from the very messes that most deeply mark human life as human” and that “By trying to avoid human mistakes and failures, we move beyond the reach of soul.” He says that when we come to know what soul is and how it operates, we can begin to truly care for it. “The aim of soul work,” Moore elucidates “is not adjustment to accepted norms or to an image of the statistical healthy individual. The idea is not to be superficially adjusted, but to be profoundly connected in the heart to ancestors and to living brothers and sisters in all the many communities that claim our hearts.”
* * *
Though I recognize that we all create our lives through the choices we (or our souls?) make and those choices can cause great suffering for ourselves and others, we all also contain profound wisdom. I also had heard the wisdom of these women and sensed how connected they were — to the natural world and their families and children, and how they so valued the time we spent together outside of civilized time. I had seen their souls and they were not ill. No doubt as children they did not get the nurturing and guidance they needed to function well in society. But I wondered if, as children, they perhaps could see things that no one around them could. And when you are told that what you experience is not valid, it can wound your soul and make you feel like you're crazy. What I saw up in the mountains on that medicine walk day were strong and deeply wise souls who are maybe too tender for this world, or who are perhaps actually living fully and courageously a life of soul in a culture that has yet to re-awaken the knowledge of how to care for it.
May we all be blessed with the messy darkness that our souls need to deepen and thrive!