I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to our Monk in the World guest post from the community. Read on for Liz Hill’s reflection “When Life Sends You Dancers.”
Several years ago, I felt called to go on a vision quest, a personal journey that would provide solitude in nature along with a physical challenge to improve my confidence. After signing up for a journey, I was excited to receive a packet with logistics and instructions about what to bring for three days alone outdoors in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The instructions included suggestions for pre-trip reading as well as practices to prepare my heart and mind for the quest.
One of these instructions suggested spending an entire day alone in nature. At the time, we lived in Berkeley, California and were slated to move to Minnesota in less than two weeks. I had limited time to devote to an all-day retreat in the woods, not to mention being a little short on quiet places to have one. But I am a follower of rules. If the instructions said to spend a quiet day in the woods, I would give it my best.
I often walked my dog along the unique network of steep paths and stairways that wove through the neighborhoods of the Berkeley Hills. We’d occasionally wander into Tilden Regional Park, a beautiful 2,000-acre wooded preserve. Though I knew I was likely to run into a person or two along the way, Tilden Park seemed my best bet for a quiet space to spend a day in nature.
I set off early on a Saturday and all was well for the first few hours. I walked slowly and purposefully, trying (perhaps a little too hard) to observe even the smallest details. When I happened upon a peaceful grove, I stretched out in a bed of pine needles, drenched in the delicious aroma of the the surrounding eucalyptus trees. Birds twittered from the branches above and small creatures scampered in nearby leaves. As I relaxed into my soft bed, I began to see the wisdom in the request to step away from routine for a day.
But a while later when I resumed my walk, my ears picked up a new sound in the distance. Bells. Not church bells; jingle bells, the kind you hear at Christmas or on a sleigh in snowy woods. It was May, neither snowy nor Christmas, so my curiosity was aroused. I wondered if the sound could be bells on the necks of the goats that were sometimes used in the area to keep down the weeds. I decided to investigate and began to climb the path up the hillside toward that persistent jingling sound.
I soon found its source. A small crowd had gathered around a troupe of men wearing bright red vests over crisp white shirts and loose-fitting knee-length pants. Every man wore a strand of bells on his shins and every step they took resulted in that jolly jingling that had floated downhill toward me.
At the time, I had no idea who these people were. But I soon learned they were Morris Dancers, part of a group that performs ancient English folk dances with precise choreography. Morris Dancers wear traditional costumes and often use bells, sticks, and swords to accentuate the rhythm of their steps. I had stumbled upon Berkeley Morris, the local dance team about to perform a Maypole Dance to welcome spring at the Tilden Park Little Farm.
I now faced a dilemma. This day had been set aside for solitude. I was supposed to be alone, not interrupted by the rhythmic sound of sticks and the jingling of bells attached to dancers leaping to joyful music. I should walk away. Now. I should move on and pretend I’d never seen them.
Or should I?
I stopped to consider the true purpose of my day in nature. It was meant to prepare and open me to the lessons of my vision quest. And yes, one of those lessons surely was the cultivation of patience and confidence in order to be comfortable while completely alone. But what if the greater goal was to practice being fully awake and alive to whatever presents itself?
On my day of solitude in nature, I had been sent a lovely eucalyptus grove, birdsong, and–undeniably–Morris Dancers. Who was I to walk away and pretend they hadn’t appeared? I settled myself on one of the small wooden benches in the clearing and joined the others clapping to the rhythm as the dancers wove the maypole ribbons of their spring dance. I felt certain my heart was learning a lesson far more important than silence could teach: when life sends you dancers, wake up and enjoy!
Liz Hill is a writer and spiritual director who has led workshops in creative process, discovering authentic voice, and un-journaling. She has written several novels for young people and is a co-founder of Lit Youngstown, a literary arts non-profit in Youngstown, Ohio. See www.lizhill.net for more information.