Thursday, December 9, 2010

Witch Tree

- My name is Cory and I am a widow - It seems as though I have worn that sign around my neck for the last three years. I feel like an exile from a twelve-step grief group. Maybe that's why I threw the brochure away when it first arrived. Surprisingly, when my cat Moonstone knocked over the recycling bag, it was the first thing that caught my eye. “Invent Your Future, Begin Your Life,” it was a workshop at the North Woods Retreat Center. It was only January and it didn’t start until August. August seemed a long time away, also it marked the anniversary of Franklin’s death. “Maybe it’s a sign,” I said to Moonstone, who was glad I wasn’t yelling at him for knocking over the bag.
I met Franklin when I was eighteen and he was thirty three.  I’m forty-three now and there are days when I feel my life is over.  He died so suddenly, I never thought I would lose him over a bad cold, but three weeks after that first dreadful cough started he was gone. He fought so hard but the pneumonia fought harder. 
            Nothing was fun for me anymore and I walked through life as though I was following a vague instruction manual. Franklin had so many interests and his enthusiasm for them was contagious. I learned to love baseball; jazz, hiking, biking, and the stock market. Even history, his passion after me, was fun when he told me stories of dynasties, wars and ruthless dictators.
            I knew he would expect me to still love these things, but I couldn’t. I cried every time I heard a baseball score and I couldn’t even get myself up for a walk around the neighborhood without weeping. I quit seen our old friends because they were tired of inviting me only to hear I was not ready to go out yet. I also knew I would have to get going and find something I could do that wouldn’t make me sad. The idea started to creep into my mind, “ Perhaps this retreat is just the thing I need. Perhaps in August, I will be ready.”
            Everything that happened between January and August is a blur. I could scarcely believe it when the day finally arrived and I had no excuses to keep me from forfeiting my $500 registration fee and staying home.  I was even getting a little excited about the prospect of spending some time on the shore of Lake Superior. I heard about and was eager to see the North Woods Retreat Center.
            I put the top down on my convertible, popped in a James Taylor cassette, opened a large bag of corn chips for nourishment and began the long drive on the warm August day. I pulled into the conference center five hours later, tired and apprehensive about the whole week ahead. I found my cottage and when I saw how small it was I was glad I had paid the extra fee not to share it with another person. I could see I packed too many comforts of home for this tiny place but I needed to feel at home here if I was to stay.
I unpacked my portable cassette player and put in the tape of Native American music, drums and chants. I purchased it because it seemed to fit my image of the kind of music I should listen to in the north woods. Then I propped myself up on the bed with the two small pillows provided and started to read the new Rebecca Scott mystery novel I bought for the trip. Before the end of the first page I was sound asleep.

In the main conference center building there were five circles of chairs spread around an oak tree that grew out of the ground in the middle of an atrium. The roof was a dome shaped mosaic of glass; most of the panels had abstract stained glass designs. A few were clear and projected rays of sunlight into the room.  It felt like a cathedral that mother nature had blessed and made me feel as though I was taking part in a spiritual quest.  I took a tray like the others in line at a buffet table and helped myself to a blueberry muffin and a cup of tea. I found the circle for my group easily since a smiling man with a badge that said, "Michael" stood there holding a sign in bold letters  “Inventing Your Future.” Michael had a distinctly Irish face, filled with freckles and boyish appeal. He had sandy colored hair with reddish highlights. It was slightly silver at the temples and along an inch wide strip of hair that fell softly in a wave from his part on the right side to just above his left ear. The silver made me think he might be older than he looked. I looked at him and felt a wave of guilt sweep over me. He had the same kind of smile that attracted me to Franklin.
            The meeting started like every other workshop I have ever attended with a round of introductions. I pulled out my imaginary sign and announced my widowhood and desire to learn who I am and how I am going to spend the rest of my life. Sitting to my left was a woman named Doris who said what I would I have liked to say, “I’m not interested in telling anyone why I registered for this course. It’s no one’s business.”
            After preparing us for the topics to be covered in the week ahead, Michael gave us our first assignment.  "Find a harmonious place somewhere on the conference grounds where inspiration will cover you with its blanket of creativity. Enumerate all the things you want - no limitations. Be enterprising and audacious, tap into the depths of your imagination. When you are done, pause to meditate, perambulate the grounds, return to your primordial haunt and catalog all the things you don’t want. Same rules as for the want list. Take time for another meditation. Then  make a list of the rules you live by. They can be as routine as your daily schedule and as deep as the values and convictions that you will not violate at any cost."

Michael’s words curled in my mind like spoken calligraphy. They left me wondering how to begin so I perambulated the conference center grounds until I saw my perfect place.  There it was an old gnarled tree growing out of a rocky formation along the shore with only a few leaves left on it although this was only August. Native American’s called them Witch Trees, trees that live a long time and seem to be nourished only by stone and rain.  The roots at the base of the tree, puIled up by the shifting earth, formed a knot that looked like a small chair. I sat there hoping that the tree would be my muse and help me write this Want list.
All I really wanted was to have Franklin back - To walk with him along the sunny beaches of our favorite vacation island in the Caribbean - To drive him crazy with my dreadful singing - To show him how well I can score a baseball game - To brainstorm with him about which stocks to buy – To laugh with him – To love him.
Then I started another list of wants, possible or hopeful wants. The first page was pretty boring things like losing weight and getting more exercise. Then I started getting into the assignment and felt free to write what I really want.  I want to love again – To be loved again – To learn more about myself – To find my gifts – To be spontaneous – To be eccentric  – To be uninhibited – To shed my cocoon  – To sail a boat – To live on the Ocean – To learn to draw and paint – To learn the psychic arts - To stand in the spray of a waterfall – To take time for daydreams – To know my spiritual side – To seek the divine – To be mysterious. Then I set my journal down and watched the waves lap the shore.
The Don’t Want list was harder so I started with things about bad health, obesity and loneliness. I ended with not wanting – To be predictable – To be reliable – To fear my dark side. Where in my head did I have that fear?  I am not even sure what my dark side is. Did the want list inspire me? Was it the Witch Tree? The deep gray water and waves pounding the rocks?
Just then I heard my stomach growl and made a quick addition to my want list – To eat dinner.
Rodney and Rachel, a married couple in their mid seventies, were just sitting down and asked me to join them. They had a common goal for the course of using it to decide if they should stay married since their fiftieth wedding anniversary was coming up in November. They said they still loved each other but wondered if they were in a rut that a separation might cure. They had not been more than a few yards from each other since they both retired ten years ago.
.            “How are you two doing on the assignment?” I asked.
“Oh, we both finished,” answered Rodney, “ We are about to go for a drive along the North Shore. Would you like to join us?”
“ I better not. I’ve got the rules list ahead of me and my muse is calling.”
             After dinner it took me a while to get back into the project so I roamed the shoreline. I found myself noticing, as though for the first time, the myriad shades of green on the trees and in the grass; the rough and smooth textures of the rocks and tree trunks that I passed; the sounds of unseen animals rustling somewhere near on the forest floor; the sounds of different birds as they called out their songs; the smells of ripened fruit and moist earth seemed to fill the air. It was the first real walk I had taken without Franklin and I had not thought of him until near the end of the trail. 
I went back to my witch tree and started to write my rules list. Never thinking of myself as a rules person, I was surprised when I found myself with a list that was longer than the other two. I started with my daily routine. I suddenly realized that I was in a rut. All those inane little daily rituals were really important to me. Franklin used to laugh and say, “Why do you rush around in the morning to get to work just so you can go to coffee break? Why did I? I never answered that question for him. For fifteen years I gossiped and drank coffee with the same people. I guess I thought they would leave without me if I wasn’t there by 7:30.  The longer I worked on this list, the deeper the realization that I did not consciously know what my deeper convictions were. Is that why I wanted to seek the divine and know my spiritual side? I was exhausted when I finally finished. I slept deeply to the muted sounds of native drum songs.
The next day I rose feeling refreshed and contented. I felt ready to throw myself wholeheartedly into the rest of the workshop. Breakfast with my classmates was interesting. Most had enjoyed the first day’s assignment. Everyone but Doris who spoke only to condemn the course as a waste of time: “If I could get my money back I would have gone home last night. I’m already tired of looking at Michael up there acting like the god of transformation and it’s only day two.”
“I think Michael is inspiring,” I said.
“Sure, if you have a pocket dictionary,” Rodney spouted.
Doris was an enigma. She looked like an endearing teacher I remembered from grade school. She acted like the kind of disciplinarian who slaps a ruler on her hand to remind you that it might be on your knuckles or worse, if you don’t behave. She seemed to be my age or older. She had long blonde hair that flowed over her shoulders in soft waves and eyes that were so incredibly green they seemed unreal. I wanted to like her but she was not making it easy. Every time I spoke I felt she was rolling her eyeballs as though what I said was na├»ve.
Michael spent the whole day lecturing on tools for understanding yourself and your relationship to your community. The Pyramid of Human Needs grabbed the group’s attention. We spent an hour discussing which of the needs each of us felt were and were not being met for us. I felt my need for self love had evaporated when the love of another had been pulled away from me.  I also felt that my community lacked supportiveness since I depended on Franklin to provide those needs for most of my adult life. Transcendence, the tip of the pyramid was the hardest one for everyone but Doris who announced,  “I have already achieved transcendence. I am a deeply spiritual person.”  She did not offer any examples of how she accomplished this, merely stated that she had. Eyes were rolling in her direction this time.
In the afternoon session Michael wrote on the blackboard as the group called out answers to his question, “what are the attributes of people who live their dreams?” We came up with answers like; self confident, talented, passionate, committed, driven, visionary and risk taking. Then he gave us the assignment for the rest of the day. “Evoke both your right and left brain to bring forth those attributes, good and bad, you know exist within each of you. Again make a list. Put your feet to the fire. Then I want you to take a few of the magazines on the table and bring fifty pictures to class tomorrow. Cut them to three by five-inch size. Have fun.”
Fun indeed, the attribute list was mind boggling to me. I really did not know where to start. I did not feel I had any of the attributes we came up with in class. Did that mean I am doomed to never living my dreams? I really needed the witch tree to brew me a pot of attributes. I started to write: I am a woman – I am a widow – I was a loving wife – I am an introvert – too serious – too opinionated – too consistent – good at my job – compassionate – analytical – a perfectionist. Why is this so hard? I just could not think of anything else. I went back to my cabin and attacked the picture project. That was hard too, my perfectionist attribute would not let me cut out anything that was not just right. Whatever that meant. Finally I finished and went to bed with a headache, still wondering why this assignment was so hard. Even the native drums did not quiet my thoughts.
The first thing Michael did in the morning was to ask us to take out our pictures. I immediately noticed that I was the only one who cut them out in neat three by five boxes. Most of the people ripped them out and their piles were ragged and uneven. That bothered me. Next he paired everyone up with another person in the group.  Doris was assigned to be my partner. I was disappointed. I was even more disappointed when Michael told us to exchange our bundle of pictures with our partner. Then we were to go through the partner’s pictures and put them in order of how much we liked them. We were to give the one picture we like best back to the partner and tell them why. Doris liked the one of an eagle flying through the clear blue sky, “It makes me feel like I could fly,” was all she said.  I found that I liked all of Doris’ pictures and it was hard to pick a favorite. Finally, I chose one of a shack on an ocean beach at sunset and told Doris, “I would love to live on the ocean and sleep peacefully to the sound of the waves.” I didn’t care about not getting back the rest of my pictures and was happy to have Doris’.
“I want you all to eat lunch with the person you exchanged pictures,” Michael presented the next assignment. “When you have had a chance to know each other better take notes as each of you tells the other what your feel are your own attributes. Focus on the things that you believe will help you to achieve your list of wants. If some of the wants on that list no longer seem important to you, cross them out. Before you go I want you to each sign up for a private meeting with me tomorrow. The group attacked the sign-up sheet and by the time I reached it the only time that remained was seven a.m. 
Doris was pacing around the oak tree waiting, having been the first one to get on the sheet. “I suppose you really want to do this? You seem like such a Girl Scout.”
“Of course,” I was stunned. “I can’t believe you would say that. I paid for this workshop and I plan to learn something here. If I don’t it won’t be because I didn’t give it a whole hearted try.”
“O.K., O.K., you win. I’ll play the game. Let’s go to lunch and learn more about each other,” Doris said with a strong overlay of sarcasm.
I told her about Franklin and how hard it’s been since he died. “ I have lived with the pain of a broken heart for too long. Maybe I am looking for a miracle cure for heartache but I don’t know what else to do. I feel I am dying inside.”
“What are your parents like? Did they have a good marriage?” Doris asked.
“No, my father wasn’t the kind of person who should ever marry. When I was ten years old I made a pact with myself to marry a man who was the opposite of my father and that was one of the things I loved most about Franlklin.”
“Is your father an alcoholic?” She had a sympathetic look on her face and I did not take offense to the question.
“He never will admit it but I believe he is. My mother is still taking his abuse and letting him get away with whatever he wants.”

“I understand, I came from a family like yours. I also vowed to marry a man who was the opposite of my father. My husband is a dream come true in every way my father was not. I just didn’t see that he also had an addiction. Not alcohol, drugs, women or gambling, he is addicted to having children. I feel like I am an incubator and nursemaid.”
“How long have you been married?” I asked.
I’ve been married twenty years. I gave birth to five children then I told him I was through. Since then we have adopted five more, the most recent is a baby girl from China. I will be sixty-five when she graduates from high school.”
“Is that why you took the class? Are you thinking of leaving them?” I envied her and pitied her at the same time
“I don’t want to leave them but I’m dying inside too. I’m afraid if I stay I will freak out and end up in padded cell,” her eyes were misting over.  “Unlike you I have lots of interests of my own. I paint, I dance ballet, I sing, and I play the piano and guitar. Those things have been taken from me because I spend all of my time taking care of children.”
“You’ve really got some big time thinking ahead of you. Is the class helping at all?” I was stunned by her story.
 We agreed to find a place to review our attribute lists and try to help each other pare down our want lists. Amazing to me, we shared many of the same wants with the twist that I needed to learn many of the things that she already knew. I told her that I admired her self-confidence and her ability to speak her mind. She told me that she admired my courage and sincerity.
“You have a rare gift,” she took my hand, “the ability to make people feel safe, as though you would accept them unconditionally no matter what crazy things they might say or do.”
 I told her that she had a rare gift also, “the ability to project legitimate authority. I bet your children are highly motivated to please you.”
“I always thought it was fear, but they seem to love and respect me too.”
We talked about our spirituality and I was enthralled to know that she was a student of world religion and currently was involved in a pagan group at the Unitarian church she attended. I asked if I could view a ceremony sometime. She seemed pleased.
“The group I belong to is all women. We follow the rituals of the Native American goddesses. I have a book I want you to read, if you are still interested I will gladly take you to our next full moon ceremony. Its in three weeks.”
We spent the rest of the day together going over our wants and checking them against our attributes. Thanks to Doris I found that I had more positive attributes than I would ever admit to on my own. We had dinner together at a log cabin diner she knew just a few miles away that had a great view of the lake and was angled on an outcropping of land, that faced west and provided one of the most glorious sunsets I can remember. Every shade of purple and pink and coral seemed to light up for our own private showing.
What a great day, I was happy that I found a friend in the north woods and I was eager to read about goddesses. Doris said she would get the book, “I have an extra copy I was meaning to send to a friend but I would rather give it to you. I hope you enjoy it.”
I was up until three o’clock reading her book, “Sisters of the Moon,” and I was so tired when the alarm went off that I almost did not go to my meeting with Michael. It was no longer important to me to have a man validate who I was and I really did not care to discuss my future with him. My day with Doris and my night with the goddess book filled me with a new sense of power and strength. My new role model was Coyote Woman, the trickster. According to legend Coyote Woman teaches us to grow by tricking us to take chances. Doris was my Coyote Woman and I was waiting to see what tricks she could teach me.

“You certainly are a model student,” Michael gave me one of his sincerest smiles, “I’ve never seen anyone take my course so seriously. I hope it’s helping you with your journey.”
“Yes, yes, you’ll never know how much it helped,” I said smiling back.
“ Is there anything you would like to ask me? Anything I can do to speed you on your way.” 
“I can’t think of a thing,” I said.
“Then you are ready for your final assignment. Tomorrow we will have class until noon. Then we will re-convene at six p.m. and each of you will present a totem to the class that represents who you are. It can be as simple as a stone you found on the shore or a picture you like. It needs to be something concrete, an artifact, that, like a Native American totem pole, represents your past, your present and your future.”
            When I got back to the room there was a note on my door. Doris wanted to meet me for breakfast at the trading post in town. I was thrilled to have the chance to tell her how much I loved her book. She was sitting at a table on the deck, the one nearest the water, when I arrived. I bent down and gave her a hug.
            “Did you like the book?”
            “I loved it, I can hardly wait for the next ceremony. You have to bring me with you now. I’m so glad you are here I need your help with the next assignment.”
            “You mean the totem?”
            “How did you know about the totem? You haven’t had your meeting with Michael yet.”
            “That’s something I need to tell you. I’ve deceived you and I hope you will understand. You see - Michael is my husband.”
            “But, Michael, how could it be Michael, you act like complete strangers.?”
            “When I told him I wanted out of the marriage he made me promise I would attend his workshop, as a student. I also had to promise I would not tell anyone but I don’t think its fair to you or to me. I’m counting on your non-judgmental nature to bail me out.” Doris looked sad for the first time.
            “Don’t worry about it.” I said surprising myself, “I understand completely. It was terribly unfair of him to coerce you into attending but I’m so glad he did. Now I can see what you meant by the god of transformation.”
            Doris knew exactly what I wanted to do for my totem and she helped me purchase just the right things to pull it off. Then I asked her what she would do for her totem.
            “I am going to make some business cards and let Michael figure out what they mean. I haven’t done it yet so I’m not quite sure what they will say.”
We spent the rest of the day walking along the shore collecting rocks, hiking up a mountain trail and talking. She told me tales of other Native American legends, the animal spirit guides. She said I could pick one of them to watch over me if I become part of her group.
“I picked the eagle because it stands for spirit, majesty, renewal and the ability to soar to new heights. Eagle teaches how to be strong and be a woman. Eagle turns up to help me when I least expect it. I knew it when I saw the picture of the soaring eagle in your packet.”
I told her, “I loved the story of Coyote Woman. She reminded me of you.”
“Don’t be so hasty,” she said, “You don’t want the trickster around all the time. No, I think the otter should be your guide. You need to learn to have some fun. Only Otter can teach you to play.”
The class on Friday morning seemed like busy work, I tried to give it my full attention but I drifted into daydreams more than once. I looked around the room and notice that everyone seemed as distracted as I. Finally, Michael gave us the evaluation sheets and said we should turn them in at the center office on our way out.
Six o’clock arrived and the group quietly gathered each carrying a paper bag with their secret totems inside. Mine was in a basket, which I covered with a black lace mantilla to mask the contents. Before the totem ceremony started Cory asked the group if anyone would mind if she did her totem last. The group agreed.
            Each totem was unique and touched Cory’s heart as she listened to the stories behind the choices.  Rodney and Rachel’s joint totem touched Cory the most, it was a homemade Japanese serenity rock garden. The largest rocks represented major milestones in their life together, smaller rocks represented interests that each had that were not shared, the sand represented their life today and the small rake represented the work they needed to do to keep their garden alive. Cory was also impressed with Doris’ totem, two stacks of business cards. Doris hand printed, in script, her name and her calling at various times in her life on the cards in the first stack: daughter, student, wife, and mother.  In the second stack each card was identical. She handed one out to everyone, including Michael, below her name was the word – Freelance Artist.
Finally it was my turn. I took the black lace off the bark basket and began to assemble an altar. I was ready to do my first ceremony, I only wish it was a full moon. Doris taught me that ceremonies had certain aspects, which must always occur in threes. First a chime must be rung three times. I found a chime block with three chimes and a small mallet at the trading post. When I rang the chimes the group became quiet. I was nervous they were watching me so intently.
            I lit three candles and said, “ all four of the elements are represented here. The candles represent the element of fire. The feather represents the element of air, without air the eagle would not soar. The eagle teaches us of our ancestors and how we can use their spirit to attain new heights.”
            I picked up a rock I found this afternoon on my walk with Doris, “the rock represents the element of earth. I chose this rock because it is heart shaped and has a jagged crack down the middle. Like my heart it is broken yet it remains whole. The coyote lives in rocks and cliffs above the lake. The coyote is a trickster, it has used this workshop to trick me into seeing that my heart can heal but it will always be scarred.”
            I had a mason jar of wine in the basket, I poured into a bowl as I said, “The wine represents the element of water. It reminds me that it is all right to enjoy my life as the otter finds time to bathe on a rock and play with its friends. It is my future, to be more like the otter. I will let it guide me to be more playful.”
            I took a vial of lavendar oil that Doris gave me and said, “ The scent of lavender has qualities that relax and ease a restless mind. I anoint my totem and will anoint each of yours, if you wish, so that you may move into your new futures with a calm assurance that you have done the right thing.”
            Every one brought their totems to me and I anointed them with the lavender oil in the shape of a crescent moon.
            “I now close this ceremony with the chimes and my wishes that you all reach your dreams.”
            As I gathered up my altar I noticed that both Michael and Doris were gone. The others thanked me and we excused ourselves to go back to our cabins and pack for the long trip back in the morning. Doris was waiting for me at my cabin door.
            “What did your card mean, Freelance Artist, I still don’t know what you decided to do about your marriage?” I really was puzzled.
            “Michael knows, the word Freelance is the clue. I wrote him a note and put it under his door if he has any doubts. We have a lot of details to work out before I can be free of him. I still will be a mother to the children, but I need a little time away. He will want the children to live with him in his huge home full of rooms. He can even add a few more if he finds the right woman to clean up after them. I am going on a trip first, to Paris. I have always wanted to see the Louvre and I can’t think of a better way to get inspired.”
            “You are incredible. I guess an eagle can’t be chained down forever. Good Luck, call me when you get back.”
            “Don’t worry about that, I’ll be back in time to take you to the full moon ceremony.”
            “Great, I’ll get the added bonus of hearing about your trip.” I opened my arms to hug her and she kissed me – on the mouth. I never had a woman do that before. It was a soft sweet kiss and she lingered for few seconds before she pulled away.
            “I’m sorry if I scared you, I didn’t mean to, it just happened that way. I better go. I’ll call you when I get back. Bye now I have to go if I’m going to get to the Duluth airport in time for the red- eye.”
            She turned and walked away. I tried to tell my self it was nothing but a friendly kiss but I knew it wasn’t so. I leave these north woods with another dilemma. One that’s very different from the one I brought with me


kathleenmaher said...

I liked everything about this story. Attending a group like the one described here is something I would avoid with all my might. (I know more than enough about grieving as does anyone who's lost a loved one; and what I know about myself is never-ending.)
Yet your story opened my mind, which I generally consider too open. But as wide open as my mind is, my life's wrapped way too tight. So, thank you.

Robin Sneed said...

This story captures grief perfectly, and the freeing element is very refreshing. Well done!