What We Were Thinking
All we really wanted was a place for folks to come and pray. A retreat, away from the city, far enough to feel tucked into the leaves, but not so distant that getting there was a deterrent to our collective spiritual disciplines and inclinations. What good is sacred ground if the feet never make contact?
It was late summer 1997. I worked for Habitat for Humanity, coordinating the volunteer involvement portion of their good work; Patrick clocked in every weekday morning at a nearby tree nursery, and took environmental studies classes in the late afternoons. We were four years and some change into our marriage, and through a series of circumstances and decisions, found ourselves dwelling-less.
We moved in with our dear friend and her three children (at the time toddler twin boys, and their younger-by-just-over-a-year sister. They’re fine young 20-somethings now, and even more dear to us than the days they were born), who lived on 22 acres of field plus woods plus pond. Well, when I say “moved in”, our chattels moved into the basement of her home. We settled ourselves a few hundred yards from the house, in a 15-foot tipi, then later upgraded to a 21-foot tipi, where we stayed through the winter.
In equal measure, it was both challenging and romantic to come home from work and class, walk through the tall grass to the door of our temporary canvas-and-pine poles home, light the fire and adjust the flaps where those pine poles joined together. Done correctly, this created a draft that drew the smoke upwards through the small opening at the top of the lodge. Sometimes my flint-and-steel attempts at fire-making took longer than was comfortable. I knelt on the frozen ground, my fingers feeling thick and clumsy as I struck the flint against the chunk of steel, hoping to throw a spark that would catch on the char cloth in the palm of my hand.
There are more contemporary ways to start a fire (matches and kindling, a blowtorch), but the thrill of seeing that char cloth ignite, and quickly dropping it onto the jute nest in the center of the fire pit, adding dry sticks, then larger branches and eventually logs, would never compare on the self-satisfaction scale to warmth stolen from a fire made the "modern" way. I held my hand at arm’s length away from my face, and flexed my once-again nimble fingers, grateful for my stubborn perseverance and skill.
1997's autumn was especially generous with its wet chilly rains, often soaking the hem of the tipi’s canvas along with any blankets we were using as a softer “floor”. More than once, Patrick and I lingered a bit longer over the dinners we all shared at our friend’s table, glancing out the window that framed the path to the lodge, looking for a break in the clouds, or wishing the fire had been lit by some elf from the woods who knew where we kept the flint and steel, and pre-made jute nests.
In that round circle of a home, our chattels safe and dry a few hundred yards away, we dreamt of and planned for the elusive retreat center that was hiding in the future. We’d spend hours poring over “homes for sale” classifieds, and on weekends, would orbit in a thirty-mile radius from the tipi, chasing the ads for 5+ acres, “Secluded!” “Away from it all!”, “Your new country paradise”!.
Along the way, we made sure we landed in places that offered up home cooking at the local diner, where we could savor our coleslaw and wash down cheeseburgers with coffee and conversation. We learned quickly that a realtor's idea of "secluded" and ours differed pretty much all the time. It didn’t take long for us to tell them that our standard of privacy was nudity.
It raised a few eyebrows, but no one could debate what we meant.
We were also assured of flowing creeks, dense wooded borders, and excellent road frontage, and all of it failed to deliver. So we'd shake the dust off our feet, climb back into the car, and salvage the day by remembering that the coleslaw was tangy.
Five months of this weekend ritual put us in front of much of central Ohio's up-for-grabs real estate, and we often remarked how little we had known about the topography of our home state, not to mention the dicing up of previously large farms, family-owned and beloved, about to become smaller rural "neighborhoods". We were one of those future neighbors, looking for a good fit, but naive about what it cost the previous owners to say farewell to a life we had only dreamt of.
And five months of searching had also resulted in a solid list of features that, for us, were now pretty much deal-breakers. We wanted: meadow, woods, creek, a house, a few outbuildings, and…privacy. All the elements necessary for living a prayerful, contemplative life.
(to be continued)