Friday, March 30, 2012

Riffing in Faith, Building from Scratch

Photographs at left courtesy of Andrew Graham.

None of us knew what might happen next.

The six of us knew we wanted another weekend in community, after our first gathering in the autumn. Our experiments those two days in November gave us a glimpse of what we might do together in a zone of freedom and safety to speak our longings and fears, our gratitudes and hopes. We took first steps at building ritual together to bring forth what was in us: to make the unseen visible, to give it shape, to call one another as witnesses to what was moving through our souls. We searched for the beginnings of a shared practice of gesture, symbol, and language to speak of our separate journeys, and of what we could share. We welcomed one another into a candlelit circle. We walked the labyrinth one of us had contrived out of twine. We named stones for what we needed to let go of, waded into freezing surf, and cast them into the sea.

Gathering again last weekend, just after the spring equinox, at the cabin one of us had offered for our reunion, we walked in a kind of blind faith—knowing we needed each other, but maybe a little bit at a loss to say exactly why; knowing something awaited us larger and fuller than what any of us had brought on his own, but having no clear vision of what that bigger whole would look like.

And then, undramatically, it began to unfold. Andrea’s house and the land it sat on were magical, a radical faerie sanctuary in miniature waiting to happen. The tent Drew had brought became a temple, decorated with the bag of Indian fabrics, prayer flags, and icons I’d shlepped on the train. A totemic painting Drew created two years ago became its central altarpiece. A watercolour seascape Martin had sent Nick as a postcard held him present in our circle despite the scheduling conflict that kept him away.The bread Andrea and Drew had baked before the rest of us arrived became the food we offered each other in welcome the next morning when we formallly entered ritual time and space.

Saturday afternoon, we all dove into the art materials that Robert, Drew, Nick, and I offered for shared use. We sat together for three hours, mostly in silence, absorbed in the deep play of the process, shutting out the voices of self-judgement that might have hushed the creative children we were inviting back into the light and open air. The found objects Andrea salvaged from a dumpster Friday night on a walk down to the pond made their various appearances: a garbage can lid became a mandala hung from the branches at the top of the garden steps; the coffee table Drew had succeeded in repairing took its place in front of the living room couch.

“What happens next?” Robert asked at one point as the afternoon wound down, and our energy with it. I felt both a restlessness in the question and my own anxiety in having no ready answer. We’d talked that morning in the tent about the rituals we aspired to create over the course of the day; much of what we’d shared still remained unaddressed. As we settled into the evening’s fading light, Drew showed us the recent photographs he’d brought to share; Robert read his poetry. We unpacked what Nick had described in the morning as his “gift of noise”—a cache of borrowed drums, rattles, and chimes. Andrea lit the fire that figured centrally to his vision of what the night should bring.

But none of us mustered the energy, or claimed the authority, to call us back into conscious, explicit focus on the intentions we’d set for ourselves. I found myself in the night’s deepening silence reviewing how much of my own aspirations I’d succeeded in claiming, wondering how we could all best find what we needed in what already felt like the approaching last hours of our time together.

I know many people who long for intentional community. My sense is that fewer of us succeed in finding it. Our culture makes us uneasy with the artificiality of ritual action. This is especially true of improvisational ritual that we invent together in short, intermittent bursts of community, between which we return to our separate, individualistically oriented lives. The more of our lives we spend apart, the more artificial these rituals feel when we first create them. The more artificial they feel, the more insecure we may in turn be about stepping into a role of leadership, or even about being the one who gently nudges a group back toward the formality of ritual time and space. All that played into how unsettled I felt amidst the silence late on Saturday night.

Back in the tent on Sunday morning, we began by sharing what the day before had given us; what we still hoped for; and how we imagined we could use our remaining hours to find it. As we went around the circle giving voice again to our intentions, I saw that the evening before had provided exactly what we’d needed, each in his own way, in order to recharge and to consolidate. I understood that the diffuse, loosely shared experience had given us breathing space now to become more closely attuned to one another, finding in each other’s intentions a fundamental vibration with our own; hearing in one another’s aspirations an invitation to name and express ours as well.

I asked the others to stand witness to a simple naming of my past and present lovers, an exercise poised for me somewhere between celebration and mourning. But it called forth from the whole group a shared meditation on the richness of our erotic histories—and for their sometimes painful complexities--manifesting more grief and more joy than we could have asked or imagined. The short, straightforward ritual that one man asked us to perform for his healing and growth blossomed into a drumming procession around the boundaries of the garden, a thanksgiving and blessing for the land and for the hospitality of our host; a joyful affirmation of community; an expression of hope for our future gatherings.

As we basked in the surprise of what we could create together, I reflected on everything we’d done to pave the way for its abundance. We’d shown patience and openness to the shifting rhythms of our energy. We’d asked , “What happens next?” but we’d held the question lightly and not forced the answer. We’d been careful to listen to one another, yet not hesitated to hear through the ears of our own experience, or to reply in the voice of our own longings.

To put it in more traditionally religious terms, we’d walked in faith. But other ways to name what we did probably shed just as much light on what happened between us. We’d created a kind of spiritual jazz, picking up on the lines others had offered, building on them in call and response. We’d assembled a collage, setting the pieces each of us had brought into new contexts that both honored and transformed them. We'd put the yeast into the flour, kneaded the dough, and then waited. We’d built out of the materials that lay to hand a house not quite like anything we’d seen before.

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