June 24, 2008

Amazing Grace: Day One

Preceded by Amazing Grace (Intro)

Our first day at the desert camp was spent getting settled and learning the rules by which we would live. Abe and I were given our clothing, bedding and a small amount of gear. (The only things we brought of our own into the camp were boots, a hat, and underwear.)

The yurt at base camp

Six sets of parents gathered in a yurt to talk about what we could expect. Our lifestyle in the desert would be “leave no trace,” which required extra vigilance with every item we handled. Nothing, not even food crumbs, would be left behind.

Two of the six tents in the meadow

We were trucked into our first campsite, a large meadow on the rolling plain with six frame tents widely disbursed. The meadow was filled primarily with Timothy grass about a foot high. A copse of cottonwood trees gave shade to the firepit. Around the meadow, for miles in every direction, was sage-filled plain. Most of the sagebrush was about three feet high. Boulder-strewn foothills to the north led to the Sawtooth Range, hidden from our view by brown bluffs and small peaks.

Sagebrush all the way to the foothills and beyond

At first it looked as though there was little animal life. But it took less than an hour to realize that this was a birder’s paradise: there were redwings, goldfinches, jackdaws, whipoorwills and more I did not recognize. The only sound was of constant wind and birdcalls. Out in the meadow, away from the trees, the wind did not diminish but its sound did.

Mystery bird on a bush

The parents gathered around the firepit for the solace of company. As we chatted about this and that, laughter was quick but died as quickly. It felt as if we were searching for anything to keep us from voicing our as-yet-unshared fears. Long silences were encouraged by the landscape, and it was not uncomfortable in that context.

A fire was built and we had a dinner of rice and lentils with several spices. This would be our dinner every night, and we ate from our large metal cups with large plastic spoons (just as our children had for several weeks). Every bit of that dinner had to be eaten. Part of “leave no trace” means “leave no crumbs.” If you cook it, you eat it—if not tonight, then for breakfast the next day.

After dinner we rinsed our cups and spoons in a very spare amount of water and sat around the fire for Truth Circle. This was a daily tradition for our children each morning and evening, in which all participants had a voice, taking turns speaking about the given topic. We were asked what we hoped for when we saw our children the next morning.

An object was selected for each Truth Circle for helping us take turns. This “power object” was passed around the circle so that only the possesser could speak. Faces were illumined in firelight, silence broken by sniffling. Some were unwilling or unable to speak, others speaking what everyone was feeling. The hope was palpable.

As the power object was passed, I could feel myself opening up more. My composure was almost gone when it reached me. I was a swirl of emotions: hopeful anticipation; fear of failure; exhilaration at the peaceful landscape; gratitude to be among those whose pain and hope bound us. Above all, a longing.

“I want to see my son smile. I want him to smile when he sees me.”

Would Ben be glad to see me? I prayed he would. His letters gave me hope, but this was face-to-face; I wasn’t at all sure what to expect.


In the firelight we affirmed each other in our fears and hopes, and we grew quieter as the sun began to fade late in the evening. Sunset limned the curves and points of the horizon while a waxing moon grew brighter. Stars slowly emerged with the sharp shadows. The wind faded with the light and new birds’ voices awakened. It was time for bed. We would greet our children in the morning. I lay on my sleeping bag with a flashlight to write what I could. (With a pencil! On paper!) If I could get it out of my head, maybe I could still my heart and go to sleep.

Next: Day Two


somewhere joe said...

You've set a fascinating and evocative scene, B.

"Our first day at the desert camp was spent getting settled and learning the rules by which we would live." I like the idea that the adults were subject, presumably, to the same rules, responsibilities, and austerity as the youth. This establishes a level playing field, a shared experience, and emphasizes a milieu 'set apart.'

I'm intrigued by the stripped-down aesthetic here - which no doubt brings the essentials to the fore while maintaining the integrity and beauty of the setting. A multi-level fast. We fast to be filled. And by nightfall everything was blowing away but one smooth stone: "I want to see my son smile."

I make brown rice and lentils often, by the way. It's a base for fried rice or a quick bean and rice salad, tossed with dressing or spooned in a wrap (good with chopped tomatoes, onion, and scrambled egg). Together, the two ingredients are said to provide most if not all our nutritional needs. So there's a grab supply in the fridge most of the time.

Java said...

Very touching. Well written, too.

David said...

Ack! I'm on pins and needles. Beautifully written. Daily episodes, please!

Greg said...

Birdie, thank you for sharing this experience with us, all the brilliant or quiet details, and at the center of it, your hearts.

What a start to your journey...