Chapter Six: My Spiritual Center *a straight up excerpt from my so-called memoir, but with pictures

The Isle of Skye is probably the most breathtakingly beautiful place I’ve ever been in my whole life. I suspect it may be the pinnacle of all earthly creation and I say this despite how fond I am of the mountains in my own back yard. I’d recommend everyone go there if they ever the chance, but I’d also say that you might need to love the rain or you might need to be the owner (or married to the owner) of a magic umbrella.

Casey owns a magic umbrella, so our trip to Skye was perfection.

We had debated for quite a while whether or not we would even go to Skye. At this point of our UK Adventure, we had arrived at Loch Tay in Scotland, the leg of our trip I had been most looking forward to. I think we were all a bit tired of being in the minivan and considering only Casey and his father were supposed to be driving, the idea of making it from Kenmore up to Inverness – to see Culloden Field, which was the one thing I absolutely had to do – and then cut all the way across to Skye was a bit daunting.

In the end though, we agreed that although it would be a long drive, we were much closer now than any of us would be in a few weeks and come on. It’s Skye.

To make the logistics a bit more difficult, we knew that we would have to try to find lodging once we got there. The gentleman who sold us some lunch supplies near Invermoriston on the banks of the Loch Ness told us we were crazy and that we should have made some sort of reservation a few weeks ago at the very latest.

aka: best picture Alas has taken in her WHOLE LIFE

We didn’t let that sort of pessimistic talk deter us and continued on our way. The closer we got, the more epic the scenery became. It’s truly the kind of beauty that could kill you with the longing to see it again. I don’t know how the people who live there cannot all be poets and photographers and painters. Or maybe they are. I didn’t get to meet any of them to talk to them about it.

Once we’d crossed over the bridge onto Skye, we all whipped out our cell phones and got down to the business of trying to find a place to stay. As our friend from the shores of Loch Ness had cautioned, it wasn’t looking too promising.

But God was watching out for us, because I eventually discovered a place in Carbost called the Old Inn, which claimed to have a bunkhouse attached. I called to see if they had enough space for five adults and the answer came back that they did, but that we would all have to be split up amongst three separate rooms. A hostel is hardly my idea of staying within my comfort zone, but after all, I had signed up for adventure. And there was no room at the Inn, Old or otherwise.

The rest of the drive to Carbost was filled with gorgeous scenery and a familiar sense of disquiet. It didn’t take any figuring to reach the conclusion that we weren’t going to have anything in the way of cell reception. If the medical emergency I’d been waiting for since October the year before finally decided to strike, I figured I was probably toast.

I just have a cheerful outlook like that.

Arriving in Carbost, we found the hostel was conveniently located a mere stroll from the only distillery on the whole Isle of Skye. We’d had no idea it was there when we reserved the remaining bunks, but it was quite fortuitous that things turned out that way. If the one thing I had to do was walk Drumossie Moor, well, the one thing Casey pined after was a chance to see how real Scottish Whiskey was made. And, you know, to have a free tasting. Priorities.

We secured our bunks, split up among three rooms as promised. My sister-in-law had begged and wheedled from the initial phone call all the way there to be permitted to stay in the room that only had one bunk. I think of myself at any age and in any state of mental health and know that I would never have wanted to be left alone in a room full of strangers. Either I’m not independent enough or my introversion really can be crippling. I admired Tori though, and was secretly pleased for her when she got her way.

The Old Inn boasts a pub, so we all headed over for dinner after getting settled. The place was surprisingly packed for such a tiny little scrap of a town on the edge of the western coast of Skye, but we managed a table and the food was really excellent. There was to be live music later, but we decided on a walk after eating and meandered down to a pier and back, taking our sweet time about it and reveling in the beauty.

And the weird signs.

As we walked, we firmed up plans for the following day. We’d kick things off with a tour of the Talisker Distillery because who doesn’t want a dram of Scotch first thing in the morning? After that, we decided we would head out to Neist Point, which – insofar as I have one – turned out to be my spiritual center.

If I could force people to listen to certain music as they read these words, this is the section where I would insist people listen to “Mightier” by Aaron Strumple, who doesn’t even have the decency to put out the best version of his own song that I’ve ever heard. Sorry, Aaron. It’s true. The worship team at The Fellowship often does it better. But you wrote the words and for that? I will give you everlasting credit. And profound thanks.

Plus, “Mightier” came out in 2015, and that was the same year I stood on the shores of Skye and felt all the things that are in this song echoing in my head but without the lyrics to put voice to them. I wish I’d had those lyrics then. I was with my husband’s folk, and they are almost all musical and we could have had the most beautiful and amazing worship service there on the rocks of Neist Point had we had the words, the talent and soft hearts. Probably, mine was the only heart that needed softening before that day and before I found my spiritual center.

I’m not entirely certain I can convey what I mean by that, but I’ll take a run at it anyhow. Maybe it’s that I’ve always seen God in his creation, and most particularly in the rocks and mountains. Maybe it’s that the whole day was basically a microcosm of the lessons I’ve been learning ever since my trip to the UK. Maybe it’s just the sort of place that feels holy, despite being covered with sheep dung.

Whatever part or parts of any of that it might’ve been 1, it is still the shore of Skye that seems to resonate with me on some deep level. It is the mental picture I hold in my times of closest intimacy with my God.

Funny how when I was there, I had absolutely no idea how important it would become for me. Which is not to say that it didn’t impact me. It did, and profoundly so. I had just imagined that the impact was all cerebral and not spiritual. But Neist Point is where my heart started to soften a bit and where so many of my spiritual cairns mark a path out of darkness and into the light.

It was drizzling by the time we arrived there, and everything was shrouded in a wispy fog. I was cold at first, but between a borrowed extra jacket and the long walk we had from the parking lot down to the shore, I soon warmed up. Even had that not been the case, I think the wild beauty of the place would have soon distracted me from any physical discomfort. I know I forgot to be afraid the whole time we were there.

How can I convey the magic of this place? They say a picture is worth one thousand words and I have dozens and dozens of pictures, some of them quite spectacular, and even they fill me with a vague sense of disappointment. A picture can’t capture the bracing breeze or the scent of the sea. A picture can’t tell you anything about the slipperiness of the path or the constant bobbing everyone’s necks did as we focused one moment on our feet to make sure we weren’t about to land in a steaming pile of sheep dung and on the next moment had to look up, had to look around, had to draw everyone else’s attention to that cliff, this view, that unearthly clear patch of bright blue water.    

There’s a collection of older buildings there, one made to look like a lighthouse. They are painted gold and white and are striking against the endless green of the hills and the pale blue of the ocean. They are also abandoned, a melancholy end to what must have once been a rather charming B&B. The very remoteness of the place – not to mention the walk down to it from the parking lot – makes this understandable.

From the looks of things, there used to also be a place where guests or perhaps supplies might arrive via boat, and from there it was just a moderate tromp through the soggy mixture of grass and mud and, yes, sheep poop to arrive at the buildings. I keep mentioning the poop because you have never in your life seen so much sheep poop all in one place unless you are a sheep farmer. I just want that to be clear.

Beyond the decrepit former B&B was the rocky coast, and that was something else again. Again, I find myself frustrated with the lack of words to adequately describe how it was.

There was an absolutely massive tumble of rocks, none of which looked as though they could possibly be natural or original to the area. They were so largely uniform in size and general shape, all squared off, as though they had been shaped and used to build some sort of structure.

For all I know, that’s exactly what happened. They seem to have a great fondness in that region for dry-stacking walls. Why not buildings without mortar?     

Probably nearly every visitor before and after us had taken the time to stack a few of the rocks, one atop another, a beach full of cairns leading nowhere and signifying nothing other than that their makers had been there.

We didn’t make one, but that was probably only because my father in law had the notion to build a mini henge and that was enough fun to engage most of us in its making and subsequent photography shoot.

Beyond those stones was another type of rock, this one obviously more natural and rumored to be part of the Scottish side of the Giant’s Causeway, the more famous half of which is in Ireland. But it was unnatural in its own way. Closer to shore, all the terrain was grey. Further out, where the waves sighed against the stones, they were a stark black. It’s the sort of place that can make rocks interesting enough that you understand why some people major in geology.

We climbed all over the rocks, out to the ocean and looked out over the waves. Watching the mindless surge of the water against the pillars of stone, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the rock formation had been worn away by that endless striving. Jellyfish were occasionally visible and the seabirds wheeled overhead, raucous and wonderful in that setting in a way seagulls just aren’t around dumpsters in a parking lot in Salt Lake City.  

Overcome by the beauty of it all, I found a place to sit, sheltered from the wind by an outcropping and with a good view out over the water. Time stood still while I sat there, watching the skies clear from the mist that had enshrouded them. Eventually, I could see small blurs of land on the horizon – other islands – and the distinct line on the horizon where sky meets water.       

Eventually, we had to get going. Our stay on Skye was only ever meant to be the one night and we had a long drive back to Loch Tay before nightfall.

The walk back up to the parking lot warmed me so thoroughly that I was almost wishing for the mist and the wind again, but sunshine had arrived and burned off the clouds and spread a gentle warmth over everything.

As a result, the landscape was even more spectacular on the way up than it had been on the way down.

“Oh come on!” Tori blurted at one point, her eyes fixed on the cliff opposite of a small inlet of water from where we stood. “There was a waterfall hidden over there the whole time?”

I knew what she meant. It was just too much.

Since that day, I’ve looked back and back and back again. I can’t get any of it out of my head, and nor do I want to.  

I said earlier it was a microcosm of my life since then, so having said all of the above, let me now try to explain that statement.

I arrived at the most beautiful and peaceful place my soul has ever known in the midst of a shroud of rain and clouds. Kind of like how I arrived back in an active relationship with God, my beautiful refuge, in the midst of a shroud of anxiety.

I descended down a slippery and treacherous path that was covered with poop, finding even hidden beauty along the way until I came to the water. Sort of how I descended through the layers of myself, headed towards bottom, still finding some good things but mostly just blinded by the fog until at last I came to the end of myself and was faced with the waters of change.

And though others were with me on that day and though certainly others have been with me on my personal journey back towards wholeness, my contemplation of the sea that day was just as solitary as my spiritual journey has been at times. Solitude can be either peaceful or just lonely and I have been both, but I have also been brought to a deeper understanding of the fact that I am never truly alone for my God is always surrounding me, inside and out, and this truth has been one I have clung to through many fearful nights since.   

Lastly, in many ways, coming back up the hill was so much more difficult than going down could ever be. Burning muscles, shortness of breath, exertion. In my spiritual journey, putting my whole trust in God to keep me often feels like one step forward and two steps back. I stagger and fall a lot. I try to recall how loved I am, and I feel abandoned. I often want instantaneous healing, not this gradual process of recovery.

I’m not there yet, but I can’t wait to hit the summit of this spiritual journey and to turn my face to the Son and to see everything that was hidden from my sight before.     

  1. Probably not the poop part

three word

I don’t really believe in New Year’s Resolutions.

For the past several years, I’ve chosen a word for #oneword365, the details of which can be read about here. 1 I’ll be the first to admit that I often don’t quite focus on the word I’ve chosen all throughout the year, but I do find enough to mediate on and enough to challenge me that it seems worthwhile anyhow.

This year? This year, I have no damn idea what my one word is going to be. It’s annoying me, like woah.

I’ve certainly had words occur to me. In no particular order, three have stood out:

Immanuel.

Humility.

Kaizen.

I started with Immanuel, but something about that seemed too safe. God with us. God with me. Very comforting and certainly a needful reminder on a daily basis and most particularly when panic attacks strike, but I’ve spent the last few years bogged down in my anxiety and how it’s affected me and I am just over it. I want to move on. 2

Humility. Okay. Less safe. More, um, humbling. Not a bad dose of medicine for me, all in all. But it dovetails too much with Immanuel only in a “more of you, less of me” sort of way. 3

And then I landed on kaizen, which got me fairly excited. For those who don’t know, kaizen is a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement? Sign me up!

As I look ahead into 2017, there’s so much I want to improve, some of which has already been in a state of improvement. I’m going back to school. I want to improve my mind, and yes, my socioeconomic status. I am – and have been since well before the turn of the year, thankyouverymuch! – determined to get back on track with healthy living and eating. As of this writing, I can honestly say that working out has become a regular part of my routine several days a week. I want to improve my relationships, to get to know my new friends on a deeper level and to rediscover my old friends, getting to know them as the people they’ve become in the years of our separation and to allow them to get to know the person I’ve become in the meantime.

Even if that person is sometimes usually a neurotic, self-absorbed mess.

I felt pretty good about kaizen, from the time it occurred to me on December 31, right up until I went forward after the church service on January 1, and received a word of prophecy. I babbled something, not about my #oneword dilemma, and the woman I was speaking to just looked at me and said, “You’re not a mother, but you have this incredibly comforting nurturing presence. Just by being in the room, you bring comfort to people.”

And then she prayed over me. “Immanuel. God with you. God within you. God all around you. God as your rearguard.”

And I was like, dang, maybe Immanuel is my One Word?

The upshot is that I still don’t have a single One Word for 2017. As the proud recipient of not only a Generalized Anxiety Disorder diagnosis, but also an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder diagnosis, this does not thrill me. I feel like I haven’t got 2017 nailed down in my mind and at this point, we’ve lost a whole five days and how many more of the remaining 360 will I spend feeling all untethered and incomplete?

Don’t worry. I know how ridiculous that sounds. I mean, I still feel that way, but I get that it sounds a bit unhinged.

I have written and subsequently deleted several iterations of this post, hoping to find clarity through writing as I often do. And I have told myself what I recently told a friend: “Do whatever you want! Your One Word is for you and no one else’s opinion matters!” The problem is that my opinion very much matters to me and in my opinion, I should have a One Word and it should be a One Word, not a three word.

And now I’ve just sort of blown my own damn mind, because “three word” just reminded me of part of what I read to the husband today during our commute:

“Note this for now: the principle of one is lonely; the principle of two is oppositional and moves you toward preference; the principle of three is inherently moving, dynamic, and generative.”

Fr. Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance

So maybe it’s okay to have a three word. Maybe I can embrace humility, Immanuel and kaizen all in the same year.

At this present moment, that’s the first thing that has made total sense to me in this whole exercise. And with that frayed and unglued corner of my mind feeling a bit more settled and secured, I think I am for my rest for now. Doubtless I’ll have something to write about any or all of these words in the future, but that will come when it will, if it does.

Just now, I feel a bit more whole. And I will take what I can get.

  1. the details of OneWord, that is. The details of my past words are scattered across the interwebs, but to summarize: focus, hope, adventure, abundance
  2. Wanting to and actually being able to not being the same things. I do get the sense I have a lot more to process before it’s all said and done.
  3. Give me any topic and I can probably find a way to relate it to my mental illness in about half a second, flat. It’s a gift. A terrible, pointless gift.