I have a memory.
I was a little girl, maybe 6 years old, maybe older, and I was sitting on the green grass in my parent’s backyard. I was looking up at the blue sky, trying to see Heaven. As I tried to look deeper and deeper beyond the sky itself, I suddenly had a thought. The thought went like this: “First there was nothing. Then out of nowhere, there was something.” I have no idea where that thought came from. But I saw an image so clearly in my mind’s eye. It was like a light in the sky, or an energy, – something I had no words for at that time – and it just sprung out from nowhere. From that moment my mind was made so clear, “This is God.”
My parents were not very religious. We went to church sometimes, and sometimes we didn’t. However my extended family was very religious and I was raised Catholic. My mother often spoke of God. She loved God and told me that she prayed to God every night to bring health and happiness to her beloved children and family members. She always encouraged me to do the same.
So I did. I talked with this God that I thought I had come to know. This light in the sky. It was comforting, and I felt heard by my God. I was happy with our relationship.
When I got a little older I began to go to Sunday School. We learned ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Mary’s’ that I was told to include in my nightly conversations. I tried to oblige like a good student. Then one day, my mother hung a picture in my room of Jesus and told me,”This is the Son of God. You need to pray to him too.” I took one look at this picture and thought, What?!?!
This person was the son of God? But he didn’t look anything like my God! I mean, how could the light in the sky have a son? And how could this person in the picture, who was just a person after all, be able to understand me? I didn’t even know him! And he didn’t know me! I felt uncomfortable. I felt that I didn’t like this person. I felt that I didn’t want to pray anymore.
So I became quite the rebellious young teenager. Although I received my Confirmation to console the heart of my beloved grandmother, I decided that I didn’t like Sunday School, that I was not Catholic, that I had my own ideas of what God and Heaven were to me. These were the ideas that were created in my mind from the vision I saw when I was small. And I was very content to carry on with them in my heart, all the way through high school and into college, believing that “I made up my own religion, and I’m proud of it.”
My sophomore year at the University of Iowa I took a “Living Religions of the East” class. The professor was a balding man who delivered these religions and philosophies to a lecture hall full of hundreds of people in a rather dry manner. He went on about Buddhism, Confucianism…I diligently took notes trying to prepare myself for whatever exams were to come, as well as trying to keep myself awake. Then, one day we came upon the section of the class entitled “Taoism.” Suddenly, I stopped. Putting my pen down, I sat up straight in my chair, my mouth dropped open. I looked around, stunned. How does he know my made-up religion???”
I was truly shocked. It was everything that I had felt. A something that came from nothing. An energy that connects all living things. Something so hard to describe that can only be felt or known, but not understood. Something that resides at the essence of all. A harmony with all of life – humans, earth, sky. A source where we return to… What I had lived for so many years believing that I had created and only I knew about, was actually an ancient wisdom from the East. The Tao. WEIRD.
After that I considered myself “A Taoist,” although I didn’t really do anything about it. There was a funky store in town that sold all kinds of books and trinkets of eastern influence and I would peruse it sometimes, never finding anything that grabbed me. It was all so overwhelming, honestly. Where do I start? Should I read this book on Lao-Tsu? Or maybe something about Energy? In the meantime, life itself was quite stressful and I felt like I didn’t have space in my brain to delve into this. Instead, I turned to an option that seemed lighter and simpler to me, and began to read some popular books of fiction that explored the concept of awakening such as,”The Celestine Prophecy,” “Stranger In A Strange Land,” “Only Love is Real” and, “The Tao of Pooh.” It was a time when my mind opened and I became quite interested in the search for a deeper truth – for something that existed beyond what this world was showing me. I believed it was there, could somehow sense it, and the desire to know more of it was lit in my heart like a tiny burning ember. It was the beginning of something that I didn’t fully understand and yet, at the same time, did not put on the top of my priority list.
Several years later, in my final semester of college, the next shocking-to-me thing happened. I was living in an apartment on Iowa Ave with Rachel Vanderwerff. Rachel was a home-town neighbor of Dan, who had introduced me to her, and she and I had come to be good friends. The three of us hung out all of the time and shared in many laughs and conversations. One morning, perhaps a month before I was about to graduate, Rachel came home with a new and unexpected boyfriend: Avdiel.
I don’t know the best way to describe Avi. I’d like to start by explaining that during the three years that I was in Iowa City I was aware of an interesting man who used to walk around town. He had a long beard and wore a long tunic and he sat in the pedestrian mall for most of the day, speaking only with men. I never knew his name, but as time passed by, several more men that looked just like him began to appear and do the same thing. Some of my male friends told me that these were religious men who only rode bikes around the country and only ate food from the dumpster – the unwanted, unsold food that stores threw away at the end of each day. They preached of Jesus and invited other men to join with them and live the simple, humble and pure life that Christ had come to live, spreading His love and truth. They were only allowed to talk with men. By the final semester of school, Avi was one of these men who had come into town.
Apparently, he and Rachel had met one night. She was passing by him and dropped a book that I had given her, “Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh. He picked it up for her, intrigued, and they began to talk. They talked and walked all night long. It was love at first sight, I suppose, and by the morning he had decided to leave his religious group and she had decided to leave school. They planned to do a bike trip through Europe.
However, until they left, he needed a place to stay, so he stayed in our apartment. We spent some time together in those final weeks of school- me, Rachel, Dan and Avi. We listened to his stories about life, his reflections, his love of Jesus, his choices, his beliefs. We would come home after our classes and Avi would have whipped together some delicious meal that he pulled out of the garbage from the Co-Op that we lived next door to. He would watch at the end of a day to see when the staff would come out to throw away the perfectly good food that could not remain on the shelf, and he would go and grab it right away. So we actually ended up eating really well, for no cost at all.
During this time, something strange began to happen in my heart. I found myself feeling agitated and angry – frustrated for no reason throughout the day. When I took a closer look at myself, I found that I was feeling a great deal of jealousy. But jealous about what? I couldn’t figure it out. Was I jealous that I was suddenly seeing less of Rachel? No. Was I jealous of her relationship with Avdiel? Did I want him to be my boyfriend? No no. Was I jealous that they were going to go on a European adventure together? No, not at all. Then, what was it?
Finally one day it came to me. It came to me so crystal clear, yet completely out of the blue. It was a shocking, unexpected realization. I was jealous of Avi’s relationship with God.
I realized that I too wanted to have a closer relationship with God. I really wanted to know God – I mean, I wanted to know the true God in my heart. I suddenly felt, What could be more important than that in this crazy and chaotic world? I realized that although I was graduating from the University of Iowa with a BA in English, I had a good boyfriend who loved me and who wanted to go anywhere with me, and my future was wide open with possibilities, I was not happy. Not happy at all. In fact knowing that I had all of that and was still unhappy made me even more depressed. What kind of life was ahead of me? Was I just sentenced to a life of getting a job, getting a husband, getting a car, a house, a dog, a kid? It all seemed so empty. So empty. So empty. I couldn’t accept that this was all there was waiting for me. There had to be more. I had to find it. Right then, I made up my mind that I would search until I found it. I would travel the world until I found it. I just wouldn’t stop until I found it. Whatever it was that I was looking for.
I decided that I would learn the trade of organic farming. I would go to the land and find the answers there. And I would travel from farm to farm until I found what it was that truly satisfied me. Because I knew that degrees, jobs, and relationships did not. They could not fulfill my heart. It was not anything that Avi ever said or did that made me come to realize this. It was just what he had appeared to have dedicated himself to that gave me my first taste of a life that I yearned for. So I set up my first internship. I would live and work on a farm in Abique, New Mexico for 8 months. From there, I would make my next plan. I would live like this until I was clear of what I really wanted. This was the goal I had set out before me as I drove away from Iowa City after graduation, back to Boston to visit my parents before farming season began 5 months later. I had told Dan that he could come with me if he wanted to and he decided that yes, he wanted to. We were off. Off to find something that I could not put into words, but I felt for certain that I would just know it when I found it.