I had been walking the mountain since I unzipped the soft nylon flap of the door to my tent at five that morning. Having traveled a northern arc through the Gambel oaks and fallen ponderosas in early twilight, I crossed several flowering meadows of grass as the sun broke free of the mountains, then turned west, following the cold waters of the acequia. Circling back south, well below my tent site, I meandered over several more oak-shrouded hill tops and had by now nearly completed the circuit I had begun that morning. It was about seven-thirty and as I pressed my feet into the soft, dry dust of the earth I was looking forward to breakfast. Headed back to Lama Foundation, I was grateful for this last quiet moment before returning to what I knew would be a busy day when, suddenly, I heard a rustle at my side. Something in the oaks. A large something.
There were more than two-hundred people circled inside the Dome, the iconic central building of Lama Foundation. It was Friday evening during the 50th anniversary of this unusually long-lived community in the remote mountains of northern New Mexico. As expected, there was a large gathering for Shabbat, Lama’s usual Friday ritual, and as the crowd stumbled through a series of transliterated Hebrew chants I sat dejected. I had hardly slept the night before, and I wouldn’t sleep much that night either. But that wasn’t the cause of my suffering. As I looked through the crowd, full of intimate faces, I felt sad because I had the sense I had let everyone down.
Shabbat at Lama is a unique event, something co-created at each gathering. Like most things at Lama, which celebrates the festivals and practices of all the earth’s religions, the essence of it is simple and joyful. Jewishness is not a prerequisite. I was raised Catholic, but I felt perfectly at home there, along with all the Hindus and Buddhists and what-have-you’s. So long as one knows the basic songs and prayers it’s easy to participate, and there’s always room for improvisation. Casual and inclusive, it’s rare to walk away without a bit of pep in one’s heart.
So, gathered amidst the largest crowd I had ever witnessed at any one Shabbat, not to mention the Dome itself, I could tell right away that I had made a mistake. As one of the central planners of the weeklong anniversary, I had invited a celebrated Rabbi from down the mountain, a leading figure of Jewish Renewal, to lead the service. Sparked by the Hasidic Rabbi Zalman Schachter, Jewish Renewal is a vibrant movement within Judaism that focuses, much like Hasidism, on ecstatic and accessible spiritual life. But unlike Hasidism, the movement is open to everyone, even gentiles. Schachter, who first introduced the practice of Shabbat to the residents of Lama Foundation in 1976, was an Orthodox Hasidic Rabbi who later experimented with the sacramental use of LSD and has been photographed with the likes of Ram Dass, the Dalai Lama, and countless other religious leaders. In other words, he fit right in at Lama.
On the surface, then, our Rabbi seemed like a good fit too. She had been to Lama before, in fact many times, and we had met on several occasions. She had literally written the book on Shabbat, the one from which we often read each Friday. But as she sang, leading us as gracefully as possible through a series of phonetically challenging Hebrew phrases, my own heart began to sink. I realized that I had missed the essence of the event. We didn’t need a celebrated Rabbi. We needed the familiar songs, the lightness and depth shaped by five decades of Lama’s unique multi-religiosity. As the last rays of the sun shone through the large, eight-sided window of the Dome, I knew that many in the crowd felt the same way and were missing the familiar songs that, no doubt, would have united the gathering through five decades of remembrance. Our Rabbi, lovely as she was, didn’t know that. I did, and I felt a pang of hunger and remorse. I looked up at the skylight in the center of the Dome, an eight-pointed star, through which I could see the blue light of dusk turn to gray, and frowned. Then Otis walked in.
I had met Otis the year before, when he was only two years old. His mother, Chloe, had visited before and had returned to Lama to reconnect and share the uniqueness of this mountain community with her son. Specifically, she had come to Family Camp. I had nothing to do with that particular camp, at least not officially, but since I was one of the few men who attended the whole thing, I managed to be a somewhat useful figure. It turned out to be a turning point in my life. It’s where I met Silke.
As I lowered my head back down from the skylight in the Dome, Otis, now three, began weaving his way through the crowd near the entrance. Shabbat at Lama is usually formed with one circle of people, closer or further from the center depending on the size of the group. Near the center, a Shabbat might be only eight or ten folks, at the outer wall a circle can easily hold sixty to seventy. I had never seen a Shabbat large enough to require two concentric circles, but the crowd that evening spilled well beyond that into a ring of chairs along the wall, with a loose hodge-podge of floor cushions, row upon row, nearly up to the center. As we sang - awkwardly, but not without gusto - Otis filtered his way past the chairs in the outer ring, through the cushions on the floor, taking no notice of the two-hundred some human voices belting out the uncertain melody, and began making his way to the center, casual and surefooted as a mountain goat.
Silently, as if there was no one in the room at all, he found his way to the altar in the middle and, with absolute patience and attention, began circling the altar, looking at the objects inside. There were three brass chalices and one silver one. Four Shabbat candles, in brass stems, flickered in the breeze. The windows and doors were open, but it was still ravishing hot. The odor, pleasant or unpleasant, was distinctly human. Step by careful step, Otis walked along the central octagon, mirroring the path of the skylight above, each foot landing softly on the joint between the wooden boards of the floor and the star-shaped earthen interior. There were flowers, many flowers, fabrics and wine bottles. Reflecting the light of the shimmering candles, each bottle oozed a rich, dark plum color, the grape juice a soft rose. Maybe he sensed the coming sweetness, or the table-sized challah underneath the embroidered cover, but he didn’t reach out or say a word. Never once did he turn to the crowd. He just kept circling, taking it all in with his eyes.
I scanned the room for any sign of his mother, wondering if she would snatch him away from us, or whether our Rabbi, in an attempt to keep our focus, might gently, or rather more coarsely, guide the roaming child to his seat. But no one even made a motion. Otis just kept circling, each step impeccably soft and unhurried, gently observing the altar as if there was no one else in the room. We kept singing. In fact, it was almost deafening. Finally, after three complete revolutions, having satisfied the curiosity of his eyes, he veered off in the direction of his mother, who sat in the circle some distance to my right. In the background, the chorus of two-hundred plus voices caromed off the triangles and diamonds of the massive geodesic dome. Long since untrained against modesty, even if a bit awkward, we shifted and pulled our voices through the challenging consonants, occasionally producing the vowel tones of music. The Shekinah had arrived.
It was the next morning, less than twelve hours later, that I saw the bear. By then I was going through my plans for the day, identifying who I needed to speak to, and when, that I heard the first rustle in the branches nearby. The oaks are mere shrubs, hardly taller than me, but the foliage was dense and the animal, whatever it was, was completely hidden. The thought of a bear crossed my mind - I had seen one out this way years ago - but I shrugged it off. It could just as easily have been a deer or coyote, either of which were more likely. Anyway, how could I tell in that green thicket? I glanced back to the path without even stopping.
Half a minute later, around a bend in the path and up the slope of the next hill, I turned around, looking back to where I first heard the rustling in the oaks. I now had a perspective over the whole hillside. Even if it was just a deer, I would like to know, the constant iteration of sound and fact being of use to me. Then, there it was, a patch of black fur rifling through the brush. Nothing else could be that black, but I sat and watched patiently. Every ten feet or so the dense mesh of green oaks opened upon an empty space in which, as the animal moved through, I could make out the coarse outline of a bear ambling carelessly, gracefully. I never caught a full view, just a blackness moving through the sea of green that covered the mountain. I stopped and watched as it made its way, purposeful, but in no hurry, to the top of the hill, and then disappeared over the next ridge.
That evening, after a day of nonstop planning and coordination, I sat once again in the Dome. Purposefully an empty space, the Dome is circular in shape, but capable of being formed into almost anything. This time, the chairs formed two wide rows in the back, which faced an improvised stage. The cushions, which we had been repurposing all week, were pooled between for sitting and reclining up front, which is precisely where I sat. I wished for a bit more obscurity, but Pema, who sat in my lap, had picked our spot. I was exhausted and a bit grumpy, but I hoped that wasn’t obvious.
It was no surprise to me when, after a couple of songs and performances, I began to dislike everything. I sat with a guarded expression, but a few feet from the performers, holding Pema tightly, trying to mask my displeasure. As one performer finished her piece, I couldn’t help wondering what all the fuss had been earlier that afternoon. There had been so many tense conversations, so many nits and nats between the big personalities. That’s what all the planning and anxiety had been about? Geeze louise, people, get over yourself, I thought. But I smiled and clapped like everyone else.
As the woman exited, another woman, of some notoriety, began taking the stage. The sun had receded below the horizon and the room was infused with the same dim twilight I had witnessed earlier that morning as I walked through fields of wildflowers and grass. But that had been ages ago. Earlier, as we were setting up, I had gotten the impression the woman was going to sing, but instead she sat down and began to read several short stories to the crowd.
“…like rotisseries,” she said, enunciating the word with relish. She spoke humbly, softly, yet with an irony that was a bit eerie for my taste. She had been describing an autobiographical sketch of her childhood, in which she had spent a long stint in the hospital due to a severe back injury. “Rotisseries” was her word for the children, burned all over, which, she told us, lay in beds that rotated, presumably to minimize the scarring and re-injuring of their flesh. I grasped the analogy, which brought to mind the slow roasting chickens in an oven, but I wasn’t pleased with it. These children, she told us, wailed constantly.
Megan, who was sitting next to me, kept looking at my lap. Finally, I looked too and recalled, somewhat to my horror, that Pema was still seated there, barely ten feet from the speaker. The sun had set fully and even the twilight had receded considerably. Two compact fluorescent lights, suitable to Lama’s modest solar array, gave a soft light behind our storyteller, whose face was lit from underneath by the bluish glare of her computer screen. My eyes scanned the periphery, recalling the joyful mood of the space in which I dwelled, the place I had experienced countless blessings and joys, and began to feel an inner horror.
Earlier that morning, before encountering the bear, I had discovered a moth buzzing quietly on the ground. Its wings, a blend of creamy orange and milky tan, beat profusely but to no effect. It shuddered around the dust of the path, but was clearly not going to fly again. It’s easy to walk past such a thing, and I often do, but this time I turned and stopped. Its wings created a small hum on the dry floor of the earth, but not enough to lift the thick grub of its body into the air once again. Alone in the dust, beating its familiar muscles and clawing its legs, it could no longer produce the graceful flight it had experienced for much of its life. I knew that in a short time the ants would find it. The symbolism somehow captivated me, as it had many times before. Butterflies are so elegant and flowery. Moths, with their nocturnal activity and uncanny attraction to candle flames, somehow invoke the power of death.
Two days prior, I sat under the canopy of a colorful parachute with Silke and the Earth Children. It was our last day. My last day. I was a bit sentimental, and, per Silke’s request to “dress up,” I wore my finest clothes - pinstriped shirt and tie, with thin, gauzy argyle socks. We walked one last time over the creeks and rocks we had stepped upon since last fall, through cold winter days huddled around a fire, then the witness of spring and now summer. An ominously dark shade of gray descended over us as we ate our final meal together in the forest and, as Silke, oblivious, told her story, I waited to see if or when I would interrupt her.
The last day, I thought. The very last day.
Quickly, we scavenged all our loose articles and swept the leftovers into the small blue cooler we had borrowed from one of the parents. Clothes were strewn all over the forest floor, and there were napkins, folded into stars, hanging from the trees, which now began swirling in the approaching wind. Dousing the fire, with Silke in the lead, I glanced once again at our school house in the woods, and made for the exit, trailing the kids in the rear.
We hiked at a good pace for twenty minutes, wondering if we would get soaked. The excitement was palpable. All year we had managed to evade any real downpour, at least, I had. Silke once, but only once, had managed to get stuck in a big storm. Anyway, wouldn’t it be funny if this was the day, our last? I was excited. Finally approaching the parking lot, we stopped. The children milled about while Silke and I, and two parents who had come down to join us, strung the parachute in the trees, more of a wishful rain cover than an effective one, and we all sat down underneath. The forest floor was green underneath, and the stream, which we had explored all year, bubbled nearby. Over our heads, the red and orange patches filled our imaginations with color. Silke, not surprisingly, had a story to tell.
Thirty minutes later I was racing up to Lama.
I walked home after our last evening in the Dome feeling a bit defeated, a bit sour. I poured my frustration out upon others, circling words and thoughts in my mind, blame being a satisfying game for an hour or so. But the real ache in my heart was something else, my own lack of - what was it?
I was tired. It was late, and the moon, only a crescent, was behind the mountains anyway. The darkness of the mountain was palpable, but, Pema’s hand securely in mine, we climbed over the familiar rocks in the path and around the bends our feet knew well. Silke walked with us, up to our tent.
“I just don’t get it,” I said. “Why waste your talent on cleverness and pain?” I scrunched my face into an expression of disgust. “It’s like Steven King,” I said. “Good writing, but why? For fear?” I was grasping to complete my thought, but really I was grasping to soothe my heart. “I don’t respect that…” then I trailed off.
“Anyway,” I continued, after a few steps in silence. I turned to Silke, “Thanks for watching Pema. I feel bad. You were amazing.”
Silke, knowing I was in a foul mood, held my hand, like my complaints, lightly. She had spent the entire day with Pema, missing every event, and I had been so busy running around that I wasn’t even able to find her, or Pema, most of the day. At some point, I gave up trying.
“You know, Joe,” Silke began, “you have nothing to apologize for. I spent the day just as I wanted. I got to experience Lama through the eyes of a five year-old child, the person who perhaps knows this place better than anyone else. We went to the spring and Pema showed me every turn in the path, where the roses bloom and the pine cones gather in puddles. We sat by the spring for almost four hours weaving a basket together out of grass.”
“I didn’t weave it. You did,” Pema offered.
“Yes, but you gathered all the grass,” Silke countered. “And really,” now turning back to me, “Joe, Pema gathered grass and sat with me for four hours. Think of that. I hardly encounter children with that kind of patience, willing to see a project like that through. And I had never made a basket entirely of grass before. I didn’t know what I was doing. But we did it. Together. I couldn’t have spent the day more joyfully. All these events and people and things…” but she trailed off. We were approaching the tent.
“God, Silke,” I said, looking at the tent flap, recalling my morning walk for the first time since breakfast. “Did you know I saw a bear today?”
“Really, Dada?” Pema asked, excited.
“I was so busy I never told anyone. I didn’t even remember until just now.” I shook my head in an expression of wonder, and some pain.
On the last evening of Lama’s 50th anniversary, amidst another large crowd of people, Megan, my ex-wife, the mother of Pema, now the Coordinator of Lama, asked me to stand up. Ram Dass had just spoken to the crowd, via video conference, and the energy in the room was ecstatic. I was a bit broken down.
“Two and a half years ago,” Megan began, “Joe began the vision for what we’re experiencing today. Without him, we would not be gathered here and we wouldn’t have had all the wonderful events and teachers that we’ve had this week.” She gave a big smile, and everyone looked at me admiringly. I had been getting compliments and thank-you’s all week, but this was the first time it was in front of everybody.
I smiled and nodded humbly. I was grateful, but I really just wanted to be outside with my daughter, weaving a basket of grass.