Many years ago when I lived in Boulder and my last girlfriend, D., and I began our relationship, I heard her tell the story to friends and relatives many times of how she came to move halfway across the country to enroll in the brand-new Environmental Leadership master’s program at Naropa Institute (now Naropa University). I sensed that the faculty and administration were desperate for recruits, because they apparently lied to her about what she’d learn and be able to do after she obtained the degree. It was really more of a liberal arts-with-outdoor-trips degree, and she wanted to become a certified wilderness guide and ended up dropping out of Naropa after a year.
But the detail I’ve been recalling lately is D. telling me about going camping in beautiful places with her women’s outdoor group before she enrolled at Naropa. She said she was happier in the wilderness than in any other place or time in her life, and that camping gave her the feeling that she didn’t have to do anything, that she could simply step out of her tent every morning and just be.
At the time I didn’t get it. I was still young, angry, an untreated depressive, a political activist, crusading journalist sort. How could anyone just be?, I shouted internally. You had to do something, because the world was so screwed up, and we all had an obligation to fix it! But now I live it. Every weekday evening after a mile-long bike ride on a road with loud, hyperactive traffic, I turn onto a short street with a handful of houses, hurtle down the decline at the end, ride under an ancient, defunct telephone wire wrapped in wild grapevine, turn into my landlords’ packed-sand driveway, and suddenly I’m in sacred territory. I lean my bike with its overburdened saddlebags against the house, and everything is perfect. I meander into the backyard and watch the birds and look at the tiny sprouting plants in the borderland between my landlord’s gardens and the city open space, the Meadows, and I don’t have to do anything – in fact, when I try to even walk gently in that area, every day I’m stepping on more and more infant plants. When I sit out on the lawn with my laptop, my busy brain brimming with stories and reports and complaints and worries and dreams, my mind is instantly rendered silent by the shriek of blue jays, the chipping of cardinals, the chirreeeee of redwing blackbirds. What is the point of going on about my petty concerns when more interesting and beautiful lives are taking wing all around me?
I was raised a cynic in a cynical era – my parents brought up my brother and me as agnostics, and I came to political consciousness in very early adolescence during the Watergate scandal, when it seemed the only heroes were investigative journalists. I’ve always been allergic to religious and spiritual ritual, and all my holidays have been secular and/or political. But living in the little paradise of my landlords’ backyard and the wetlands, fields, and woods beyond – and knowing that not only will the two of them not consider me a weirdo for lying on the lawn, but will probably enjoy seeing me enjoy the land – is leading me to create tiny new rituals for myself.
So far these consist of nothing more unusual than taking a break outside between work/ after-work activities (classes, board meetings, cultural events) and home, removing my shoes and socks on the last slightly chilly day of fall and the first warm day of spring and digging my freed toes into the New England earth, a fertile combination of dark, rich loam and glacial till. My prayers consist of little more than variations on “thank you,” but they acknowledge something greater than myself. Prayer still feels a little odd to me, remarkable because I was raised without it, an atheist throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. It seems presumptuous to call my daily backyard contemplation “meditation,” but disinterested parties have labeled it such. I suppose they’re right – the woods behind our house are certainly a far more spiritual space than the empty meditation rooms I visited at Naropa back in the 1990s.