Last month it had become clear that the coming together of my next step forward was taking its own time. Where in this liminal time, between the home I had left and the home that was yet to be, would be a good place to place myself in January?
My question led me to the memory of a place I’d gone in another such time, Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. A quick search and a few emails later affirmed that the “Adult Service Corps” for three weeks in the “January Term” might be right what I was looking for – an opportunity for community and solitude, some good work to do and a good place to ponder, a chance to return to a place I’d loved.
29 years ago I’d arrived in Santa Fe on the overnight train from Chicago in the middle of a snowstorm. I read William Least Heat Moon’s story of his own travel odyssey, Blue Highways, as we passed through the long rolling hills of Kansas and shared breakfast with an Oklahoma rancher in a white brimmed hat. We arrived at the small train station hours late, on towards midnight, greeted by the surprise of falling snow and relieved as well to see the pickup’s headlights in the small parking lot of the staff member who had waited for me.
The week before I’d left my position as executive director of a community-based AIDS organization in Evanston, Illinois. I’d been hired as their first director three and half years before and in that time BE-HIV (Better Existence with HIV) had grown from 1 staff member to 8, from 1 volunteer to over 200. The fast growth outgrew my passion for bringing people together to create something new. I believed they now needed a new leader with experience in nonprofit management to take them to the next level.
That’s what I usually said.
What I didn’t usually say is that three months earlier Rob had walked into my office. Actually, limped down the hall, leaning heavily on his wooden cane. He was 35, tall, thin, neatly trimmed brown hair. A long tender face and the saddest of eyes. Last week he’d been diagnosed with AIDS. In 1992 receiving an AIDS diagnosis meant you had two years to live. I’d seen it happen so many times, almost to the day, like some horrible, relentless clockwork. That afternoon when Rob walked in, I looked up into his brown eyes and knew, I cannot do this one more time.
I was 31. I had plenty of energy. I knew how it to work hard and long hours. It wasn’t that. What I didn’t know was what to do with this grief.
After so many deaths and the inevitability of so many more, after so many people who I had cared and hoped and grieved for, I knew when I looked up at Rob, that I couldn’t do this one more time. Couldn’t imagine one more intake, one more Monday night dinner sitting around the table and hearing the stories, attend one more funeral. Couldn’t give my heart one more time to someone I would too soon be saying goodbye.
Some months earlier, I’d found myself in the emergency room. For months I’d been finding it hard to take a deep breath. That afternoon an ache in my chest led to a call to my doctor and being hooked up to an EKG, sticky ointment and cold tubes stuck on my chest. No, not a heart attack but a good case of stress.
It was one of the first times I’d come up against this reality called “limits” and I didn’t have a clue what to do with them. I’d learned well how to push through, get through, climb over and see beyond. But what do you do when pushing harder won’t get you to where you need to be?
Today, 29 years later I sit here in the empty conference room, grey tile floor and grey wall, Kitchen Mesa glowing red and brown in the afternoon sun. Hear the slow clicking of his cane down the hall, the surprise of moistness at the corner of my eyes all these decades later as I remember the names and faces that had brought me to Ghost Ranch those many years ago.
I don’t know how I knew I needed this, this “solace of fierce landscape” as the theologian Belden Lane speaks of places like this. I knew nothing of New Mexico but something in me knew it was the place I needed to be. And so a slow rumbling train to this vast, starkly beautiful landscape of red and brown stone and the bluest of sky, a place big enough for all my questions and empty enough for all the grief I did not know how to hold or name.
The next week, the gift of time and space I needed.
Each morning I set out to explore a new trail. As I climbed the mesas and buttes, I learned the joy of hiking without a clear destination. No peak to conquer, but a trail to discover. Along the way, paused to take pictures of craggy rock formations that became a broken communion table; a grey gnarled snag, a weeping Christ.
Practiced silent rituals opening empty hands to honor, release the young men and women I’d loved into a care bigger than I could hold. Lifted and tossed the weight of anger and sadness for families and church who would not say the name of AIDS, the names of lovers and partners, as if the silence would take the pain away.
Here I could say their names, and recall their stories. Here find the solitude I craved and the companionship I needed, meals with the dozen or so seniors in an elder hostel course, the only other guests on the ranch. Every evening, the men in the group would lean across the table, longing for me to tell them where I’d gone and what I’d discovered, jealous of my freedom as they’d sat in class while I wandered the valley and explored the trails.
The men and women we served at BE-HIV had found their way to strangers to an anonymous office site in a church basement because they couldn’t find what they were looking for anyplace else. Here in a basement of concrete block walls and small windows looking out on grey window wells, they found the compassion, the care, the friendship they craved. Here could talk about what they feared and ask for what they needed. Here find something of that love and care that the people and places they would have gone to for such support were unable or unwilling to provide. When they died, I attended their funerals where so often the name of AIDS was never named, partners and lovers uninvited or unrecognized.
That winter I’d begun to talk a bit more about the call I felt to help make the church upstairs from our office basement more open and welcoming to the people we served at BE-HIV. Over the next years, Dave and I knocked together on many church doors as we sought a place to serve together in ministry. Knocking on the door of the church and inviting it to live into its name of being a place where “all are welcome” became our passion and call.
Now, decades later, I’ve come here again to open my heart. To discern, to receive the next step in the call to walk with a people out beyond the limits of their familiar into the mystery of their becoming. Out from their home that was into the home unseen that is yet to be. Out into the possibility and discovery of the wild and wilderness, this place for exploration and adventure, of learning and limits, for trying and failing and trying again. For finding that next step as we make our way to the new way of life we all need as a people and planet in this dark and deep season of change and transition.
To this vast emptiness, this stark beauty, I open my heart.