"Not to be afraid when you are all alone is the only true way of being not afraid" . Olga Jacoby
About 40 years ago I was living through a series of reversals of life that I would have never predicted and had been promised wouldn’t happen if I would just do the right thing (as they instructed me to do). At that point everything that I had grown up believing in had proven to be untrue.
My unquestioned loyalty to my religion and church, it’s teachings, the community of relatives and friends that constituted my actual and church family, the promise of marriage, connection with my two precious children, the reality of the educational system I worked in, (“one doesn’t dare care what happens to kids too much”) and my country, had proven to be sadly and badly misplaced. I was disillusioned to say the least.
I had tried, and pretty much succeeded, at doing and becoming everything all of the above had asked of me. At the end of it all, it hadn’t worked. Not only had it not worked, but I had, in the process, lost any sense of self.
As was popular for my generation of disillusioned people who were experiencing life as I was (and there were many of us), I set out to “find” the self that I had given up and given over to all those other aforementioned entities.
In order to do that, I found that I felt most at home, alone. All alone. I sought out and took any and all opportunities to be by myself for long periods of time. In the wilderness. Weeks at a time. Tent and backpack and whatever I could carry. No people.
One night, on top of a remote Montana mountain, I found “him”, the missing self I had been so desperately looking for. And wouldn’t you know it, I didn’t know what to do with what I found. I panicked.
I tried all my usual diversions. I played my harmonica. I tried to go back to sleep. I tried some food. I tried to read. I tried to write. Nothing worked. In fact, everything I tried seemed to make my anxiety worse. Suddenly, I had to get out of there. I had the sense that if I didn’t, I would go crazy or die on top of that mountain. So, though it was the middle of the pitch dark night, and I was on top of a mountain, I hurriedly rolled up my sleeping bag, struck down my tent, tossed everything into my backpack and literally ran down the mountain and what felt like, away from myself.
I then drove three hours to the first place I could find that was open, a little diner, and chatted up the matronly owner, like a world champion extrovert might do – as if I had been denied access to people for three months.
I was in a sense, heartbroken. I had found what I was looking for, my “self”, and didn’t know what to do with what I had found. I had run away. My take on it was that I was a complete failure. That night, and the knowledge of not being able to face myself has haunted me for the last 40 years.
Last week, I found myself in Ireland. It was my second trip. When I had been there before, I had discovered a coffin shaped depression on top of a knoll, on a remote farm in northwest Ireland, in the most isolated place on that farm. That place used to be a fort during the Iron Age. That coffin shaped depression, was an actual burial site and the coffin shaped depression was what had happened as the coffin that had been placed there disintegrated.
When I originally saw that hole in the ground, there was an urging, an internal voice-like energy that said, “I need to lay down in that.” And I did. I had a sense, at that time, that I might or might not get up from that space once I crawled in, and surprisingly it didn’t make any difference to me whether I did or not. Obviously, I did leave that space, and the process was an amazing experience. As I mentioned that was a few years ago.
This year, as I thought about my trip to Ireland, and my itinerary, I remembered that place. As I recalled what had happened at that old fort, I knew that I wanted to go there again. It was important for me to go but I didn’t know why. I knew that instead of spending just a few hours there I needed to spend the night. I wasn’t sure why, but one of the things I have learned to do is listen to that “voice”. As I got closer and closer to the night I would spend there, I thought more and more about why.
I was puzzled. Then, like a flash of lightening the Montana mountain memory came flooding back. I suddenly knew why I was going. I needed to finish the experience I had run away from 40 years ago. That’s why I had to spend the night in that coffin shaped depression. This time with no book. No harmonica. No tent. Just me (bundled up) and the ground.
The old fort is located on a little 50-yard-wide peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean with sheer 200’ rock cliffs on all three sides. It was difficult to even stand up against the steady 50 MPH, with gusts in the 65 MPH range. Salt spray from the crashing waves that had been gathering steam for 2,000 miles combined with the driving wind and an air temperature of 45 degrees and added to the sense of inhospitableness. I was reminded of the series of orchestral compositions by Mussorgsky, “Night on Bald Mountain”.
I wondered what would happen, I knew I would meet myself again, but what I didn’t know was if I would run away once again. I didn’t run. I kept waiting for something to happen. I waited and waited and waited. Nothing.
Except. An insight. A huge one. As the night sky began to give way to the morning sun, the awareness emerged that what I thought was running away from myself, down that mountain 40 years ago, was actually running towards people, places and things. This running over the last four decades brought me to the point of being able to lay in that coffin shaped depression in the ground all night and experience the night light show of the most spectacular sunset, and moon- rise, shooting stars, and animal cracker shaped clouds.
When I headed by to my rendezvous point where my daughter and a friend were picking me up, I realized 40 years ago I was running towards the people and experiences that allowed me, bit by bit, little by little, over the last 40 years to truly find my “self”. Then, I began to send gratitude to my teachers. Thank you to my Mom and Dad, Cheryl and Dave, Margie, Sharon, Joe, Jo, Leo, John, Brad, Brenda, Joni, Antoine, Morgan, Leah, Ethan, Logan, Jim, Fritz, Hugh, Dave, Peter, Bill, Richard, all of my students and teachers, and everyone else who is and has been a part of my life over these last decades…….
One of my favorite songs of that era that I still hear playing in my mind is “On the Road to Find Out” by Cat Stevens. Now I know better, why.
I would love to hear from you if there is anything you can relate to in this story.