The campgrounds are divided by the south fork of the Gualala River. A suspension bridge, that swings back and forth when you walk on it, connects the two sides of the camp. Crossing the bridge is a "special" kind of experience, especially when someone is simultaneously coming from the opposite side. The bridge really swings! You have a difficult time maintaining your balance. You don’t feel drunk, but you walk drunk!
In this part of the "woods," the giant redwood trees outnumber any human inhabitants, creating a very sacred presence. There is one tree in particular which stands out like the leader or the Elder or perhaps even the King! The tree is estimated to be over 2500 years old and sinks its roots on a prominent spot on the west bank of the river. When one stands next to the tree, there is an immediate awareness of infinity and God’s presence IN the tree.
When I tried to explain this awareness to a priest friend, whose training was drenched in Aquinas and Aristotle, he insisted, "No, Vern, God is not in the tree. God is in your heart, and you project God into the tree."
As many times as I reiterated my observation, the good priest, ironically like the Redwood tree, stood his ground. Looking back on the conversation, I wish I would have said, "Father, in terms of sheer raw faith, it seems easier to believe that God is in that tree than in either of our at times ungodly hearts."
Besides sharing, laughing, drumming, eating, sleeping, star gazing, singing and chanting, the men who gather here spend a good chunk of time searching deep into their souls for purpose, meaning, creativity, courage, compassion, forgiveness, healing, and last but not least, for the Creator of this magnificent forest. It is not a particularly religious gathering, but, like the trees themselves, definitely a sacred gathering.
A major theme, for the gathering in 1998, was Grief, which was quite apropos for me, as my father had died exactly a year before, and worse, Roberta, my wife of twenty six years, was dying from cancer. Attending this gathering was becoming an annual event for me, but with Roberta literally being in her final weeks, I wasn’t sure if my attendance would be outright avoidance on my part and perhaps experienced as abandonment by Roberta and our son, David. But Roberta and David encouraged me to go. I have never wondered, till this very moment, how my life might have been different had I not gone?
I always feel rich and privileged when I am with the men at this gathering. They are all focused outward when it comes to their brothers and sisters of the world. They are hardly perfect let alone perfect gentlemen! I’m sure they would all agree! But there is an energy in this group of men which seems focused on the healing of our society, of our world and of our planet. They are not tree huggers nor wild men, but definitely men and dedicated men at that. They are not of any particular religious or political persuasion, and there are no drugs or alcohol at this gathering.
Throughout the weekend, I heard people sharing with each other about different projects that they were involved in, projects that contributed to their respective communities or to the benefit of some humanitarian cause or movement. And after hearing about the project, someone would inevitably ask, "Did you find a feather?"
I found the question curious and a little odd. But I was too preoccupied with home to ask the obvious, "What are you talking about, finding a feather? And what does it mean if you find one or not?" But I didn’t ask. I did what most of us do. I assumed I knew what it meant. You know, if you find a feather, it means you’re on the right track or your project will be blessed or guided by the angels!
The weekend turned out to be just what I needed. It was NOT a particularly restful weekend. Remember, the theme was grief. It was NOT an escape from what was awaiting me back home.
At one point in the weekend, we each fashioned a vase from pottery clay and "poured" into the vase our grief. During an evening ritual, we set the vases afloat down the Gualala River to eventually meet the ocean. In addition to carrying our grief, each vase also carried a lit candle, so we could watch our grief-filled vases float down the river for some distance. The ceremony did not make the sadness any less heavy. I am crying right now remembering the moment. It was a very real physical experience of surrendering and letting go.
I arrived back home on May 25th. I was ready now to walk with Roberta the final steps of her earthly journey.
Roberta was at home. We had set up a hospital bed in our bedroom. For the next three weeks, David and I spent day and night just sitting with her, taking turns crashing on the King Size bed. Sometimes we talked and sometimes we all just sat in silence enjoying each other’s presence (or presents, for that matter!)
David and I were intrigued by all the conversations she was having with folks we could not see. We never thought for a moment that she was hallucinating or delusional. In fact one afternoon, she said to me,
I said, "Is he here?"
She said, "Yes."
At that time, even though Dad was dead, I was still angry with him, so I had to get it together, so to speak, really quickly, and come up with "nice things" to say about him! I don’t know for sure, but it’s probably a good idea to say good things about your dead father, even if you are still angry with him, if he’s there in the room with you! Maybe he knew the best directions for getting Roberta through the pearly gates, you know?
She had also told us that she had already crossed over and come back several times. So our curiosity was quite stoked. In the book, Final Gifts, the authors’ on-going encouragement is to pay attention. For David and I, paying attention meant there just might be an opportunity to get a glimpse of the other side. It’s almost like we were trying to stand in line with her, you know like it used to be when someone was boarding an airplane? You got to be with them right up to the point of walking through the boarding gate.
So one night, when her conversations with the folks we could not see seemed quite intense, I asked her what she was seeing. She said to us both quite adamantly, "GET BACK."
David and I talked about her "reprimand," and we both had the same thought. She was telling us that we had no business "being in line," so to speak, and what was on the other side was not for either of us to see or know. It was a spine chilling and ALSO sacred moment. But one that also brought us to the awareness, that we were not giving her HER SPACE. Roberta was more introverted than extraverted and perhaps our hovering was draining and maybe even keeping us tethered to her, not allowing her to be free to cross over and stay there. After all, as much as we were all very much IN the journey with her, it was ultimately HER journey. So we talked to her about giving her more alone time. We would be right there available, but not hovering and she seemed to appreciate that.
So on Sunday, June 14, during one of those times when I was letting her BE, I went out to our backyard to putter amidst the roses and the weeds! I couldn’t believe my eyes when I spotted a large black feather resting on some rocks. I immediately remembered the question from Camp Gualala, "Did you find a feather?"
At first, I just dismissed the discovery as, "okay, a feather. I found one, So what?" I almost walked away from the feather, but the question from Camp Gualala kept repeating itself, and I knew that this feather meant something. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it meant something. So I picked it up and I put it in a safe place. I don’t think I told anyone about my discovery. And, anyway, I wouldn’t have known what to tell them.
On Tuesday, June 16, two days before she died, Roberta said to me,
"Sure, what do you want me to do?"
"Will you get me a feather?"
Well as you can imagine, I was stunned, but also not wanting to get stuck in "reality" and miss an opportunity to venture into another realm, I quickly and excitingly said, "I just happen to have one." Man, did I ever feel useful. You know that guy thing!
So I got the feather and hung it from the ceiling with a long piece of thread for her to look at whenever she wanted. It sometimes hung there motionless and sometimes gently moved or twirled.
I never bothered to ask her why she wanted a feather or what the feather was about. It was almost like that would be disrespectful or trying to use a cookie cutter over something mysterious and ethereal. I don’t know. I sometimes wish I had asked her. Roberta died on Thursday morning, June 18, 1998 at approximately 11:30.
I shared the story about the feather at her funeral. I told our friends and family that I had no idea what it meant, but it all seemed significant and beyond coincidence. So how would life had been had I not traveled to Gualala that weekend? There’s a good chance I would not have seen the feather let alone pick it up for safe keeping. And perhaps I would have dismissed her request for a feather as just one of those strange requests that dying people make.
Of course, the story doesn’t end here. When the funeral was over and following the burial service the next day, friends and family started walking up to me and handing me feathers. I didn’t know what to make of that, but I took them and put them into a basket.
On Thursday morning, June 25, 1998, one week to the day of her passing, I intentionally went on my six mile run between 11 am and noon time I wasn’t out looking for feathers, I was just out exercising my heavy heart. But at eleven thirty, there at my feet as I’m running, is a FEATHER. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I took it as a sign that she was still with us and taking care of us.
And the feathers have continued to show up for twelve years now at very significant moments and in very unusual places, places where you have to wonder, how did a feather happen to land in this exact spot at this exact moment?
And besides believing that it symbolizes her continued presence (presents) in our life, I imagine the appearance of the feathers might mean something even bigger than that. I don’t know. I’m just glad I went to Camp Gualala on Memorial Day weekend, 1998 and paid attention. By the way, the picture above is that first feather I found on June 14, 1998