When I was in eighth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Jordan, asked us to memorize this opening stanza of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem, "Evangeline". Although I would be hard pressed to tell you what I had for lunch yesterday, I have never forgotten those six lines. From the moment I read them, they conjured a mythical place in my mind and heart that has been beckoning me for over forty years: Acadia.
This past week, I finally went. Well, sort of. . .In fact, the poem takes place on Grand Pre Island in Nova Scotia -- a place I have also longed to visit. But from the moment the 12-year-old, eighth-grade me memorized those lines AND heard about a national park called Acadia on an island in Northern Maine, the two places became one in my mind. The forest primeval and deep-voiced neighboring ocean of Acadia National Park began its decades-long call to my heart.
I was supposed to be in Spain. But on the day before I was booked to leave, I hit a wall of exhaustion -- physical, emotional, psychic -- the likes of which I have never felt. All of the events of the past five months finally hit me -- the reality of leaving my home and selling most of my belongings and now being homeless, the stress of all the emotional turmoil and many losses, the physical exhaustion of a house and two businesses packed or sold and over eight thousand miles driven, the non-stop busyness and all I still had on my plate. But mostly the feelings I had been tamping down in order to "get through" everything. As I wrote two weeks ago, that Sunday I could hardly get up off the couch, let alone write my blog. For someone who averages five hours sleep and goes like the Energizer Bunny all day long, this was profoundly disconcerting.
So, I called in my God Squad. Everyone should have that core group of people who know you well enough and are so hooked in to your spiritual practice that they can help you hear your soul. I told them that I knew I could "do" Spain, but at what cost, I wasn't sure. And person after person reflected back the same sentiment: Stop. Take care of yourself. Start to heal.
The beauty of the digital age is that so much can be done virtually. I was able to complete all my Spanish press interviews online and created a multimedia video in lieu of the remarks I was scheduled to make in person in Madrid. And then, for a week, I slept, caught my ontological breath, and prayed to heal. And in that quiet, I heard something loud and clear: Go to Acadia.
When I get directives like that, things almost always fall into place. And sure enough, they did. I found a super affordable little cottage on a beach cove surrounded by forest that was available for a week -- and drove up during a heat wave and holiday traffic -- to turn off my phone and discover the Forest Primeval.
primeval, adj: 1. very old or ancient 2. basic and powerful 3. raw and elementary
Check. Check. And check. This week was all of that: Very old. Ancient. Basic. Powerful. Raw. Elementary. In a word: Primeval.
I went to Acadia to re-center, to find some inner peace, to prepare for this week's required seminary intensive (a well-chosen word if last year's intensive is any indicator) and my vow-taking, ordination, and graduation as an interspiritual minister. I went to Acadia to re-connect with my spiritual practice, to finish writing my Ministers Manual, and to honor the impetus behind all of the changes I have made, which is, of course, living my Daily Practice of Joy. To do that, I was called to the Forest Primeval of my childhood -- that ancient, basic and powerful, raw and elementary place INSIDE ME -- mirrored out in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
On my first morning there, I needed a hike after the long car drive up, I ended up at Beech Mountain, where I found a small parking lot already filling up with day adventurers. An older couple saw my New Mexico plates and came up to chat with me. I asked them if they were locals. They were. So I asked them to recommend a less-traveled hiking trail.
"How long do you have?" the wife queried.
I literally laughed out loud, because at any other time, she would have heard an earful about my time constraints. "I have as long as it takes," I heard myself say.
"In that case. . ." and they both chimed in to give me all the details for the best and quietest hike.
"Why are you here?" one of them asked.
I heard myself respond with what became my self-introduction for the rest of the week: "I sold everything I owned and am intentionally homeless. I've been writing a blog called Daily Practice of Joy. I've gotten good enough at writing it that someone offered me a book deal. But I'm still not very good at living it. So I figured I'd better get out and figure out how to actually live joy."
Every single person I met lit up when I said that -- and the conversations that ensued all week were amazing. Beginning with this couple, who gave me the perfect Acadian welcome: "Well, you've come to the right place. . .and the right hike. Remember, just keep making right turns to stay on the right trail."
"So, you're telling me to keep turning right for joy?" I quipped.
The wife looked back and me very seriously: "Well, normally I would tell you to always turn left for joy. But in this case, this morning, yes. Turn right for joy."
My first set of joy directions! And I was off -- into the Forest Primeval. And, oh! It was everything I dreamed it would be. Huge boulders covered with moss, giant hemlocks and beech and maple and oak, fallen trees and rocky paths opening to sweeping views of a misty coastline and the open sea. WOW! From the moment I stepped out on the path, I felt like my whole body was smiling. I felt, too, a huge sense of relief. All year long I think I had been worried I had a joy deficiency, like someone lacking some essential vitamin or mineral or hormone. I kept wanting to feel more joy, and so I practiced all the things I knew brought me joy every day. But it felt dutiful, like someone who loves to swim slogging through laps as practice and only every so often feeling joy in the water. Joy felt pie-in-the-sky idealistic -- almost mythical. A kind of Holy Grail or pot of gold at the end of some rainbow I wasn't sure I'd ever see.
But that morning, on that trail, all I felt was joy. It was pure, effusive, gushing out of every pore. By the end of the hike I knew that I had done the right thing to jettison everything and take this journey. The joy was still in me -- completely intact. I just had to keep doing my joy laps, while committing to creating a life where joy has room to breathe!
Right before I left on the hike, the husband added one more directive, "The trail is well marked in blue. Just keep looking." I figured he meant those little placards that are often placed on trees on most trails. Turns out that so much of Acadia is granite, the trails are marked by cairns -- large rock piles -- and by small patches of blue paint. For those of us who grew up hoping that life would be like Tom Sawyer's Island in Disneyland -- clambering up rocks and over narrow wooden bridges in ridiculous picturesqueness -- Acadia is our place. My first hike found me scrabbling up boulders, leaping across little crevasses, and tiptoeing across rough-hewn logs in almost impossible beauty. Oh what fun! A whole week's worth of Oh what fun! But there was one caveat: You had to pay attention. On a vast granite mountain side, there are no paths -- only little patches of blue paint and rock cairns. So if you let your attention wander or get distracted and meander off trail without being conscious of where you have chosen to stray -- you will get lost.
Over the course of the week, those trail markings became the most glorious metaphor -- because they kept me present, made me be where I was, instead of in my head worrying or planning or just daydreaming. It slowly occurred to me that this was exactly like life. The signs and markings are everywhere. We know that when we're kids, but the older we get, the more we start shoulding all over ourselves, and the less we see the signs. And this is how we get lost in the forest, and lost to ourselves.
All week long, I spent every day in that forest primeval -- not just with the murmuring pines and the hemlocks bearded with moss and in garments green -- but in the forest primeval of my soul. I spent all week witnessing a lifelong accumulation of shoulds and habits, guilts and joykills. And every day I had the beauty of choice -- which primeval voice would I listen to -- the joy or the should? Which comes down, as all choices do, to the same thing: Love or fear.
Every day, I chose Love. But not without some kicking and screaming along the way. Because everyday I wrestled with my habitual devil of shoulds and pitted her against my better angel of joy. Oh the shoulds were loud -- and nasty!
Who do you think you are taking a vacation like this and having fun all day? You have lost your mind! You should be doing your work, answering your emails, booking your next gigs, worrying about how you are going to make money. Are you crazy? You are crazy aren't you? When was the last time you checked something off your To Do List? How are you going to pay your bills? Do you think people like you can just go off and do things like this for a week? GET BACK TO WORK!
But the beauty of having spent over a year practicing joy -- day in and day out whether I "liked" it or not -- is that I have built up some joy muscle. And so while the Shoulding Devil never stopped yelling, my Joy Angel overrode the screaming and plowed ahead being joyful. Every day I felt the anxiety born of habit feeling there were things I SHOULD be doing. And every day I went out joymongering instead. I hiked to the tops of mountains, scrambled along sea cliffs, went birding and sea kayaking, photographed every day, collected shells and sea glass, picked lilacs, read, wrote, prayed, slept, and ate my body weight in fresh-caught seafood and island-grown vegetables, including my new favorite -- fiddlehead fern fronds. What a week of joy!
A week of joy shared with many other joy seekers and practitioners. You see, one of the most wonderful things about traveling solo is that you are never alone. In fact, you connect more with people than you would if you were with friends. Because when you stop to talk with someone, you really talk, you really get to know them, you really connect. It's not just a polite hello and then back to the conversation at hand. For people who love their solitude as much as I do, the choice to connect is just that -- a choice. And when I choose to connect in joy, especially in a place filled with other people like me -- people to whom the wild places of nature call -- you have the blessing of meeting many like-minded souls.
I ended up having some deep and beautiful encounters, a few of which I want to share with you -- because are among my most cherished memories of my time in Acadia.
From my parking lot couple who told me to keep turning right for joy, the parade of beautiful individuals continued. The next day I met Andrea, who had just graduated from college and was living her dream of spending the summer working in Acadia. She told me with great wonder that she had been hired two hours after sending in her application. It was no wonder to me. Andrea gushes enthusiasm for life and for every experience. I would have hired her immediately, too. She exudes pure joy in life and deep interest in other people and the world.
Andrea and I hiked for almost an hour together and her excitement about spending the next five months living and working in Acadia was like serotonin for my soul. At one point, she said to me, "I will do this for a while before I have to get a real job using my degree in child psychology." I heard myself say, "Why? Do you love nature?" And Andrea proceeded to rhapsodize in pure joy about everything she loves about camping and hiking and biking and exploring the natural world. From the school of hard knocks thirty years down the road from Andrea, I heard myself giving her the advice I wish someone had given me when I was her age: "Forget the shoulds. Listen to your heart, and live your joy. If you do, I promise you things will find a way of falling into place."
Practice what you preach, Victoria. I tell myself that everyday now.
Andrea and I had a beautiful hike, and when we ended up back at the Visitor's Center, she introduced me to someone who could answer a question I had about the best route up Cadillac Mountain -- the tallest mountain in the park. Her name tag said Adrienne, and she quickly answered my question. But I was thinking to myself, "What is a Navajo woman doing in Acadia?" So I asked her where she was from. . . Teec Nos Pos of all places!
Teec is in the Four Corners area. A beautiful place famous for weaving some of the most beautiful and complex Navajo rugs. The trading post at Teec was run by the family of a dear colleague of mine. So, Adrienne and I had a little common ground where our conversation started. By the time we finished chatting almost half an hour later, we had found so much more! We both shared similar journeys to Acadia. Hers began in school too, when she and her girlfriends all pointed to a place on the map that they wanted to visit. Adrienne pointed to Maine -- and Maine is where she ended up. We talked about the weavings of her grandmother, my childhood spent with my dad traveling for his work on the Indian Arts & Crafts Board, my camping trips in the Chuska Mountains in the Navajo reservation in my twenties, her life in Maine, living a daily practice of joy -- and then, improbably, we found that, in addition to nature, we had another deep passion in common -- Navajo weaving. Adrienne put that passion into words as beautifully as I've ever heard it, "When I hold one of those rugs, I just feel the power in it."
By the time I left, Adrienne Redhair and I had exchanged deep hugs and a promise that our paths would cross again. Talk about a joy infusion -- and a cairn in the form of a human being assuring me I was on the right path.
On the hike up Cadillac Mountain recommended by Adrienne, I met Carolyn and Roger. Now I'm not a power hiker by any stretch of the imagination, but with a 38" inseam and lungs used to living at 7,500 feet, I clip along at a decent pace. So imagine my surprise, when an older couple -- 15 - 20 years my senior -- passed me. I called out to them and said, "Wow! You guys are amazing, powering up this mountain. You locals?"
"Oh no," the woman replied. "We're from Oklahoma."
"Wow!" I said, "Flatlanders!"
"Yep, it's hard to stay in shape in Oklahoma. We have to travel all over to find hikes like this."
"Well you guys have given me a real shot in the arm. You've motivated me to keep hiking and staying in shape."
We introduced ourselves and chatted for a bit, before they started to head on their way. At which point, I thanked them for motivating me to keep hiking and staying in shape. And I told them that meeting them had brought me real joy.
"You want to feel even better?" Carolyn asked me. I nodded. "Well, before I met this guy, I was facing a wheelchair. Now I'm hiking up mountains. Roger is the wind beneath my wings."
Wow. I watched them walk away with tears of joy and hope in my eyes.
To read more about Carolyn's own journey, this is a wonderful piece she sent me!
So, perhaps you're thinking -- well, sure, anyone on vacation can have fun. But then you have to go back to work. Well, that ain't necessarily so. . . as was so beautifully shown to me in the person of Brian, our guide on my sea kayaking excursion. Being the only solo person on our trip, I was paired up with Brian in a two-person kayak. Normally I'm the control freak in the back of the kayak, making sure we're going where I want to go. Not much chance of that when you're with the guide. So, I had the completely unfamiliar experience of stretching out in front and just paddling and looking around at the birds and seals and beautiful scenery. Turns out leaving the control freak in the van made for an awesome afternoon on the water. But even more awesome was listening to Brian's three-hour monologue that exemplified enthusiasm for your job. Whether he was talking about a 20-year-old eagles' nest, the beauty of the water or the sky, the sounds that baby seals make, or a green crab he found on the beach where we stopped to chill out, Brain was a living breathing emanation of joy. When I asked him how many trips he leads a week, he said, "If I'm lucky, ten!" Brian has to piece together his life to do what he loves -- snowboard in the winter by working at a ski resort, landscape in the shoulder seasons, and guide whitewater rafting and kayak trips in the summer. But it's worth it, because he loves his life.
The highlight of that trip came when we saw what he thought was an orange seal. "Can you get a photo of that for me?" he asked with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old. "No one will ever believe I've seen an orange seal unless you get a photo!" And so I snapped away with my long lens, and the results were pretty good -- not just in the photo of the seal, but in a memory of what it is to be in the company of pure and unadulterated joy. Oh what fun!
On my last day in Acadia, I felt the need to go deep into the forest primeval again. Through misting rain, I hiked far into the forest and finally just sat down on a moss and lichen covered boulder to feel the power of the place, so I could carry some of it home with me. Just like the poem says, the forest really is bearded with moss and almost every boulder and tree wears a garment of green. It is both beautiful and powerful.
I first fell in love with the primeval power of moss on a small uninhabited Alaskan island -- which is the most primordial place I have ever visited. Every inch of earth there was covered with moss, which made walking feel like springing through the air -- and air was rich with oxygen that felt as though no other human had ever breathed it. I will never ever forget how I felt on that island -- as if I had come alive for the first time. It was the single most magical place I have ever visited. Sitting on that boulder in Acadia on my last day, I felt that same wonder and energy and power.
In Elizabeth Gilbert's absolutely terrific novel, The Signature of All Things, a book I adored, I learned more about mosses than I would have thought possible. I certainly learned their power: "Moss eats stone; scarcely anything, in return, eats moss. Moss dines upon boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries. Given enough time, a colony of moss can turn a cliff into gravel, and turn that gravel into topsoil."
But moss is also a reflection of the uniqueness of every part of creation:
Sitting on the boulder, I felt the Creator's love and the rightness of every moment of my journey reflected back to me in the fallen tree across the path, the wet boulder covered with spiky green moss, the beautiful curled bark of the birch trees, the persistent call of the ovenbird, the tender mist falling from the leaves, the bracing smell of fir, the power of the neighboring ocean, the puissant presence of the forest primeval. I felt that powerful but loving Presence enter into me and overpower all the shoulds and guilts and doubts and fears, as if to say, we belong here, not you. I breathed a sigh of relief as deep as any I have ever breathed -- and with that I knew I was ready to re-enter the world,
When I came down from my hike, I walked over to visit Adrienne and say goodbye, for now. I shared just how amazing my visit to Acadia had been, and she said, "You know I have a good cry almost every day when people share their experiences of this place me, because it reminds me of the first time I came here myself. And of why I still love being here."
And there, in that one sentence, Adrienne Redheart modeled a true Daily Practice of Joy.
As I prepare to enter my final week of seminary, I can think of no better preparation than this gift of having spent a week in Acadia. As Longfellow wrote, so it is:
The patient primeval presence and power of Acadia will live on as joy and Love in me forever. . .because it was in me all along. Acadia, of course, is inside us all. Very old. Ancient. Basic. Powerful. Raw. Elementary. It is that beautifully right place of love and joy and peace and life requires only that we show up to it by putting one foot on the path, and then the next, keeping an eye out for the markings and cairns that guide our way, meeting strangers on our journey and leaving as friends, listening to the wisdom of the birds and trees, flowers and animals, rocks and sea. Being grateful for everything that already is.
And so, as the Navajo pray: