Eventually the air faded to black on all sides except straight ahead, in the path of the headlights, and above our heads where the stars were clear as lit matches. How Samu knew where he was going was a mystery; all that lay ahead was snow, and there was now snow falling as well.
But at some point, after so many breaths into the vibrating night air, there appeared a hulking shape in front of the lights, first small and nondescript and then expanding in size until it became a wide rectangular one-story building with strange protrusions off the left side. Samu slowed the snowmobile and pulled up in front of a lighted door.
Standing at the door was a woman with short, black, curly hair; light brown skin; and a slight padding of weight on her cheeks and torso. She wore a luminescent purple shirt under a heavy gray cardigan and, opening the door, asked me to come in quickly so as not to let the heat out.
The large room was made of light-colored wood on the walls and ceiling, which looked like the underside of the roof, sloping up to a point. The floors were wide, flat boards that were neither rough nor smooth. In the center of the room was the biggest woodstove I had ever seen, made of black cast iron with a glass door displaying crackling red and orange flames. It was connected to a metal pipe going up to the roof. Catherine saw me staring at it and said, “We don’t always use it. You’ll see tomorrow, we have a large solar installation and geothermal heating, and we do a lot of the heating that way. The stove is supplemental, but it feels so good at this time of year, and it’s so comforting to look at after dark. I’m always drawn to the warmest spot in the room. I like to say it’s because my family’s originally from Syria and not used to all this cold. But I was born in Winnipeg, so really I think I just like woodstoves.” She smiled.
The windows were small and unevenly placed, and because it was dark out, I couldn’t tell how much light they’d let in during daylight hours, which were, in any case, scarce at this latitude and time of year. The floor was covered in places by bright, woven, crimson and cobalt rugs with geometric patterns, and in each corner there were groupings of padded couches and chairs arranged in semicircles. At the far end of the room was a passageway leading somewhere else, without a door.
Catherine offered to take my parka, and motioned for me to have a seat on one of the cushioned couches in the corner on the left. I sat down, feeling the cushion depress under my legs, which were still buzzing with the vibrations from the snowmobile.
She returned with a mug of steaming liquid. “Motherwort and sage tea,” she offered. “It’ll warm and calm you. It’ll also help you sleep.”
“Thanks. I don’t even remember the last time I had something to drink.”
Catherine looked displeased. “You could have gotten hypothermia from dehydration in this weather. I know you probably don’t care right now, but that’s not the way to go, trust me. While you’re here, you need to stay hydrated, and you need to eat. I can tell you haven’t been eating.”
I reached up and felt the protruding bones of my face.
“But I don’t mean to lecture you. We’ll help you with all of this, don’t worry. For now, just rest, and in an hour, we’ll have dinner. We eat early here. Samu will bring your backpack to your room, and tonight you don’t need to help cook. Just please sit and watch the fire. Tomorrow we’ll go over everything, and you can start.”
Before I could say I just wanted to go to bed, she was gone. As I contemplated lying down on the couch, someone came out of the passageway. Or, rather, more than one someone.
An angular, balding, white man, who looked like he was in his sixties, entered with a dog following close behind him. The man had a thin rim of gray hair, and his skin looked lightly tanned, almost yellowish. The dog kind of resembled a border collie, slender with longish, mottled, gray and black fur with a white circle on one side, short ears that flopped over, and a penetrating gaze directed at me. It stayed within inches of the man’s legs. I felt a new pain in my chest looking at the dog, though I didn’t know why.
The man walked up to me. “You must be Lee. Catherine told me you’d get here this afternoon. I’m Robert. And this is Ring.”
Robert and Ring
He sat down on a chair facing me. Ring jumped on the couch next to me and lay down, pushing the side of his body against my leg. I must have looked surprised because Robert said, “Please excuse him. He doesn’t leave my side. Unless someone else’s side is available.”
I looked down at Ring, who seemed to have settled in for a nap. I put my hand on his head and slowly dragged my fingers down his neck and back, parting the fur in little rivulets. He sighed.
Robert said he needed to help cook dinner in the kitchen, which was just off this room, and if it was okay, he’d leave Ring with me. “Once he realizes there’s food in the picture, he might follow me. But Catherine doesn’t let me give him scraps in there so he’s mostly lost interest in the production side of dining.”
I didn’t say anything, and Robert stood up to leave. “Before you ask,” he said, “pancreatic cancer.” He stood looking at me expectantly.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
A look of slight disappointment drifted across his face. “Don’t be sorry,” he offered. “This place has helped me a lot. I’ve done a lot of healing.”
“You’re healing?” I asked, surprised. “The cancer’s going away?”
“No.” His brows furrowed as he shook his head. “The cancer won’t go away. I’m walking the pillars in a couple of weeks, while I’m still able. That’s not what I meant.”
I looked at him again, and he turned to leave, saying, “I’m sorry, you just arrived. You don’t need to know the state of my organs. It’s normally everyone’s first question so I get it out of the way. I’ll see you at dinner.”
And with that, Robert left the room.
Ring’s head jerked up, and he watched Robert disappear through the passageway. At first, he seemed a little anxious, almost like he was holding his breath, and I thought he might jump up and follow Robert. But instead he turned and looked at me expectantly, like I’d been in the middle of a sentence and he wanted me to finish it. I put my hand back on his head and told him, “I’m Lee. What’s a nice dog like you doing in a place like this?” Satisfied, Ring sighed again, dropped his head back down to the couch, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.
The food was grown in three different greenhouses attached to the main building. Two hydroponic and one soil, kept at different temperatures through complicated systems involving solar panels, geothermal heating, grow lights, pipes, and gravel. Catherine explained it to me over dinner the first night: red chard, black-eyed peas, and salted raw tomato slices. They grew much of their food, didn’t eat or use anything from animals. Food was central to the belief system on which the sanctuary was founded. The earth, an element of god energy, should provide everything we ingest, and in return, we should work the earth with our hands, breathing in and ingesting the air and soil. The hydroponic systems were used because accessing sufficient soil was difficult and the hydroponics had large and consistent yields. But the food grown in actual soil had special relevance for nutrition and spirit, and so something from the soil greenhouse was included in every meal. In this meal it was the chard.
Feeding oneself was a central tenet, Catherine said. The first part of my training would involve working in the soil greenhouse and learning how to convert what I harvested into meals. I would start the next day. I felt some level of confusion. I understood that I was expected to eat while at the sanctuary but was surprised, in a place where people were preparing to walk out into the snow, that it would be important to learn skills around food production and preparation. I said as much, perhaps too bluntly. Catherine and Samu looked at each other, and then Catherine assured me that I’d understand more once I received some training, and that it would help me appreciate the food more. But I didn’t want the food. I wanted only to lie down.
There were five people at the table, and Ring below it. Catherine, Samu, and Robert were at one side. On the other, I sat next to Viviana, muscular and Black with mahogany skin, dense clipped hair graying at the edges, and a weathered, almost military look. Maybe butch, or maybe like me, I wasn’t sure.
Other than Catherine, the rest were silent as they ate. I picked up a single black-eyed pea on a tine of my fork and put it in my mouth. It had been so long since I’d had a cooked meal, I was surprised by the strong flavor and the warmth. I put the fork down, and then heard Viviana’s voice for the first time.
“If it’s hard for you to eat, you can drink your food. I did that for the first few days. You just blend greens and water with flax seeds and a little fruit, and keep it on you and take small sips all day. It helps.”
I nodded. No one asked me anything at all. I briefly wondered what Catherine had told them, then realized, as with most things, that I really didn’t care. In more ways than one, we were all in the same place.
If you associate darkness with night, it’s difficult to name what occurs from midafternoon to midmorning here at this time of year. It doesn’t make sense to say that the period of darkness starting before 4 p.m. is night, especially the hours when we work and train. Or eight in the morning when everyone has been up for hours. Darkness is more like the base of existence here, bracketed by periods of sunlight that mark the actual passage of time the way nights do in other places.
When I woke, I had no idea how long I’d been sleeping. It was, of course, still dark. In the apartment it wouldn’t have mattered what time it was, but I got out my unconnected cell phone and turned it on. It was 4 a.m. Technically, then, still night. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep, and Samu had said I could go to the kitchen as early as five and he’d be there ready to help me start my first day.
The walls of my room, like those of the main room, were wood boards, though the ceiling was lower and made of drywall. There were three things in the room. Four if you counted the drapes on the small window. The single bed was in the middle, under the window, and on the right side was a rocking chair on top of a circular green rug. No dresser, or mirror, or TV. There were hooks on the back of the door for clothes, as though no one would have more than a few pieces. And, of course, I didn’t.
The bed was firm, and the room was small and sparse. But it was welcoming. And it had nurtured what was, for me, a surprisingly long interlude of sleep.
It had been so long since I wanted to get out of bed. I had expected that to be the difficult part of being here, the expectation that every day, without fail, I would report to the kitchen in the morning. But somehow, I felt the urge to stand up, put on my sweater, and go find Samu. Maybe it was the lack of Xanax. Maybe it was wanting to get it over with so I could get closer to walking out in the snow. Regardless, at 4 a.m., I was on my feet.
I opened the door to a dark hallway but could see a light at the end, past the main room, at the door of the kitchen, and I made my way there. I was wearing socks but no shoes, as I had left the pair of boots I’d been wearing in the main room by the woodstove and had not had the energy to get the other pair out of my backpack, string the shoelaces, and put them on. The boards under my feet felt solid and differentiated, and I noticed a slightly different sensation when I stepped on cracks between the boards. It was the first time I remembered thinking of my feet since Rachel. I hadn’t been using them much, and they hadn’t seemed very involved in what I was going through. But, like my lungs, they appeared to still be with me, living their own life and making what they could of the new surroundings.
When I entered the kitchen, Samu turned around and nodded at me, but didn’t smile. I was suddenly nervous that maybe I should have waited until closer to five, that perhaps I was not welcome at this time of day. But he was just measuring some kind of ground seed into a bowl. I could see him counting to himself, and when he finished, he turned again and smiled and said, “Lee! You’re up! Did you sleep at all?”
I told him that I had slept, that I didn’t know how long but I was pretty sure it was more than I had slept at one time in months, and that I was surprised, since I normally took Xanax. “The snow and the motherwort tea,” he replied. “A few hours in the cold, finished off with Catherine’s motherwort tea, and Xanax is history.” His accent was so familiar, and so musical, that it made me want to hear him talk, which was, again, something new.
“Where’s Ring?” I asked.
Samu looked confused. “With Robert. He’s Robert’s dog. He’ll come to breakfast with Robert.”
I paused. Something didn’t make sense. “Why did Robert bring him here?”
“Because he’s Robert’s dog. He goes where Robert goes. And Robert relies on him to help with his anxiety. It’s true we don’t normally have animals here, but Ring’s basically a service dog at this point, and it was the only way Robert could come, so we said okay. It’s been really nice having him here, actually.”
Samu stood facing me, silent.
“But, isn’t Robert walking the pillars?”
“Yes, that is the plan.”
“So he’s just leaving Ring here then? Will he stay with you?”
“No,” Samu repeated, “Ring is Robert’s dog. He’ll go with Robert. Robert can’t complete the walk without him.”
This bothered me in some way I couldn’t entirely process, a feeling of discomfort without words or images to go with it, something akin to the feeling of being watched from behind.
“Lee, let me show you how to make your breakfast. You will see, this will be so much easier for you to eat.” Samu motioned for me to go and stand at the counter next to him. He pointed at a large waxed cardboard box with pictures of oranges on it, filled with different kinds of greens. And then to a bowl next to it with the ground seeds he’d been measuring. “So easy, so nutritious. You take handfuls of greens and pack them this way into the blender. Then you use this scoop and pour the flax into one hand till you can’t hold any more, and put it on top of the greens like this. Then you come here,” and he opened a door at one side of the kitchen, leaned out, and quickly lifted the lid of a chest freezer against the outside wall of the building, “and pick some fruit, whatever you like, and fill the blender the rest of the way.” He closed the door and walked back to the counter, holding a bag of frozen peaches which he poured into the blender. “We pick our own berries when they’re in season and freeze them, but we do buy some things, and these are my favorite.” He moved over to the sink. “Then you add water and you blend. So easy. Like this.” He put the blender back on its stand and turned it on, almost lovingly, then switched it off and looked at the resulting yellowish green liquid, obviously pleased. “So good.”
He poured it into two tall metal containers that looked like crosses between coffee cups and water bottles, then fastened lids on and stuck in metal straws. He handed me one of the drinks, and it looked cold and uninviting. I took it and, I guess, looked skeptical.
“Lee,” Samu said. “Please. Try a sip.”
And I did. It was cold, and slightly sweet, and surprisingly easy to swallow.
“So good,” said Samu.
The first part of every day, Catherine said, I would spend in the soil greenhouse. I was still unsure how this would help me prepare me for my journey. Catherine had told me over the phone that I’d be trained to calm and settle my mind before I’d be allowed to walk, but I hadn’t asked many questions about what that entailed. I realized now that I’d expected something like lectures about the Society’s philosophy and instructions on how to do the walk properly, maybe having to repeat back the things they wanted to hear to show I was of sound mind and sufficiently instructed. I’d thought there might be some sort of meditation that I could just go through the motions of. Gardening was not something I’d imagined.
But now I followed Catherine out the door in the side of the kitchen to a covered walkway leading to three structures. The walkway was short, less than twenty yards, but we put on our parkas, hats, and gloves before exiting the kitchen, as the thermometer read negative 25 degrees centigrade.
The cold on my face felt bracing, in a way that I appreciated—and it was this second feeling, the appreciation, rather than the cold itself, that made me stop midway. I purposefully and forcefully inhaled through my nose, which stung, and I looked off to the right side. It was dark but I could see a few barely discernible shapes.
“Meditation and training huts,” Catherine said, and waited patiently for me to start walking again. “We’ll go there in a few days.”
She opened the door to the first greenhouse and ushered me in, then started removing her outer layers. I did the same.
The domed walls were made of plastic with descending pipes in multiple places, and there were paths in every direction between raised beds of wood-framed soil on top of gravel mounds. In the different plots were an array of vegetation—kale, chard, beans, cucumbers, several varieties of squash, and some things I didn’t recognize.
“The soil is the first element, the skin of God,” said Catherine, crouching by the nearest plot and plunging her fingers into the dirt. “We have to use hydroponics here too, to produce sufficient quantity, but soil is necessary for life. It contains the minerals, bacteria, fungi—the life—that the plants need, that we need. Touching it, breathing it in, getting it in our mouths, is necessary not only for physical health but for spiritual connection. We discharge unhealthy electrical currents into the soil. It’s the great stabilizer, the source of all equanimity. That’s why we start here. We work from the outside in.”
She motioned for me to squat next to her and do as she did, so I dug my fingers into the soil. It was soft and felt aerated, almost fluffy, on the top, and more solid and compacted the farther down I pushed. “Don’t be afraid of it,” she continued. “Soil is not dirty. Soil is the cleanest thing we have. Soil will not hurt you.”
“I’m not worried about being hurt, Catherine.” I looked at her. “That’s why I’m here.”
“I know,” she nodded. “But people sometimes maintain aversions even in crisis. I need you to look at the soil as your respite, your sanctuary. I want you to ground the painful energy going through you by touching it, really feeling it grain by grain on your hands. I want you to breathe deeply while you work in here, to never look at what you’re doing as a task to be gotten through, but rather as your destination. Your relief. Why you are here.”
From there, she showed me where the tools were and how to use them, and wrote on a white board what I was to do in each bed. I’d start each day with a blank board, and she would fill it with instructions, and when I was finished with everything listed, I would erase it all, but not check off or cross out any item before that. In-between, I would work as my body allowed, resting on the ground whenever I needed. I would not push myself, but I would devote myself. And when I was finished, I would erase.
I’d been working with the plants for what felt like a couple of hours, though I had no reason to check the time. I had squatted and weeded, bent over a soil mixer, harvested kale, and finally had lain on the ground, which was much colder than the air, and closed my eyes. When I opened them, the sun was rising.
Through the plastic, it looked like a gradually intensifying glow, first red and then gold. I remembered the northern lights and wondered what they’d look like from this vantage point, through the cloud of the plastic walls and roof. I tried to forget where I was, what I was, and just watch the colors change. I looked at my fingers, coated in a thin layer of dirt, and watched the inside light be slowly overcome by the light from outside.
When the sun was fully risen, I erased the white board, picked up the box of cut kale, and went back to the kitchen, where Samu asked me how it went and handed me another glass of the green-gold liquid he’d made earlier.
“That is the first pillar, Lee,” Samu said. “The connection of your skin to the earth. Not just the skin on your hands, but the lining of your lungs, your nose, your mouth. Doing this every day will help you feel, understand, and accept this layer of yourself. It’s where we start.”
“Catherine called the soil the first element. You just called it the first pillar. I thought the pillars were real structures, in the snow, that we walk to.”
“They are. Each pillar on the trail represents a philosophical pillar, and each philosophical pillar is about an element of God.”
Samu’s God talk reminded me of childhood Sundays with my mother, and the synagogue services Rachel had to attend while preparing for her bat mitzvah. In both contexts, I would look around at the other people in the congregation, faces buried in prayer books or lifted toward the pastor or rabbi, or staring blankly ahead or out the window, and wonder if any of them really had the sense that an omnipotent being was looking down at them, if there was a single person in the room who in truth felt anything beyond the need to get through the hour quietly and without too much shifting in their seats. To be fair, Samu’s description of God was a far cry from the old man in the sky I’d been raised on and that Rachel had played along with in order to get through her ceremony. But talking about God still seemed to me like a pretend activity, something one did in childhood in order to complete an expected task—get confirmed or bat mitzvahed—and then move on to adult things. I supposed being at the sanctuary wasn’t all that different; I was trying to complete a task and move on. I didn’t really have to believe anything in order to do that. So, I nodded at Samu and focused on drinking the blended vegetables and fruit.
As I did, I became aware of an earthy taste I hadn’t noticed earlier in the day. I almost thought I could taste the soil in the liquid. I finished and, without asking, Samu refilled my glass. To my relief, no one offered or asked me to eat anything solid.
“Samu, I need to lie down for a while. I’m trying to stay focused, but I just need a break.”
“That is fine. It’s a little after nine. Just go lie down for as long as you need. When you are ready, go to the main room, and I will meet you there. The next thing to start on is yoga.”
I had turned to head back to my room but stopped in my tracks when Samu mentioned yoga. “Yoga? I don’t think I can do yoga. No one told me I’d have to. I really don’t have the energy.”
“Lee, please do not worry. This is very gentle. There are energies stored in your body that need to be released, and this is one way to do it. It’s not for exercise, I promise you. Did you know that yoga was developed to help with meditation? It was to calm the body enough for the yogis to be able to sit in meditation. So, to get ready for meditation, you must start doing some gentle yoga. If we start you on meditation now you will have trouble, it will not work well, and you will be frustrated. We take one step at a time, okay? Please, if you are full, go lie down, then when you are ready, go to the lodge and we will start.”
Back in my room, I lay on the bed in a fetal position, curling around the hollow ache in my chest. Closing my eyes, I felt Rachel lying in the curve of my body, between my arms, the way she did as a child. This was something I had not felt in the months since her death, and though it was disarming, I wanted it to continue.
Some time later, I realized I’d been asleep. The first thing I noticed when I opened my eyes was the thin layer of dirt still crusted on my fingers.
When I got to the lodge, the fire wasn’t burning. I remembered Catherine telling me she liked to burn logs in the dark hours for comfort, but that the building was mostly heated by geothermal and solar energy. The room felt chillier than last night but still relatively comfortable, and the windows, while small, were numerous enough to make it bright and inviting.
Robert was there, cleaning the floor with some kind of Swiffer mop. Ring was lying on one of the couches watching him. I nodded to both of them and sat down on a chair across from Ring. He jumped off the couch and came to sit by my legs, pressing against me with his back and yawning. I absentmindedly put my hand on him, and he turned his head and licked it.
When Robert was done cleaning the floor, he walked over slowly, a slight smile on his face. I surprised myself when I spoke.
“Samu said you’re taking Ring when you walk the pillars.”
“Is he sick too?”
Robert was silent for a moment, his smile gone.
“No, he’s not sick.”
I sat, trying to figure out what it was that I wanted to ask or say. Nothing came to me. I looked at the floor.
“He’s nine years old and I’ve had him since he was a puppy, just the two of us. I can’t do it without him. I’m like an Egyptian pharaoh, I need my dog with me when I go. Together forever.” He smiled weakly. “Besides, he doesn’t have anywhere else to go.”
This shocked me, but I nodded, trying to suppress the feeling rising up in me.
“Would Catherine and Samu let him stay here?”
Robert shook his head, looking slightly irritated.
I replied, too quickly, “I just thought, since he’s not sick…”
Robert looked at me carefully. “Lee,” he said. “Are you sick?”
I didn’t answer, just continued looking at the floor, while Robert called to Ring and they both left the room.
Waiting for Samu, I thought of Susan for the first time in days. She didn’t know where I was. I had thought of texting her before my cell phone became useless, but decided it would be harder for her later if we continued communicating. Now I wasn’t sure I had thought that through clearly. And there was no cell service here, no internet. If I wanted to contact her, I’d have to ask to use the satellite phone and call her, hear her voice. The thought made the aching spot in my chest run cold like ice water. It seemed best not to think about it, not to think about her.
When Samu came in, I almost laughed, despite myself. He was wearing bright red stretch pants and looked a bit like Pa in the illustrated Night Before Christmas that I used to read to Rachel. Minus the sleep cap.
“We are here!” he exclaimed, smiling. “Today just you and me. When you are comfortable with the routine, you will join Robert and Viviana.”
Samu disappeared into the passageway and quickly returned with two yoga mats, one orange and one green, and unfurled them on the wood floor between the ring of seats and the inactive woodstove.
“You have never done yoga?” he asked.
“I took a few classes years ago. But it’s been a long time. And I don’t have much energy.”
“Energy is life force. Your life force is dim. Yoga doesn’t take energy away from you, it moves and focuses it and releases what needs to be released. This is the second pillar, energy, chi. Yoga is one way to feel that, to get clarity and stillness and reach all the layers of yourself. Especially if you are going to walk. You cannot just focus on the mind and make believe the body is separate and just carrying your head around for you. Your mind runs on chemicals that come from other parts of your body. How those chemicals form and move is important to your clarity and your connection to God.”
While he spoke, he lay down on his back on the orange mat and motioned for me to do the same on the green one. “We will start by learning how to breathe. Put your hands on your belly like this, right below your belly button. Yes, like that. When you breathe in, breathe into the space below your hands so your hands go up like an elevator. To a count of four—1, 2, 3, 4—and out four, and your hands should ride the elevator down like this. Yes? Good, Lee, that is so good.”
We breathed like that for so long that I lost track of any sense of time, and at some point felt almost in a dream state, with my breath, with Samu’s breath, with sensing my stomach as the locus of my breath rather than something I was obligated to fill. Sometimes thoughts entered my mind, but I was so tired, and the breathing felt so safe, so comforting, that I allowed myself to be engulfed in it.
When Samu spoke again, I was startled.
“Okay, Lee, that is so good. Now we learn sun salutations.”
When I arrived in the kitchen, Viviana was the only one there.
“Hello,” Viviana said, with a serious expression but gentle eyes. “We’re cooking tonight. Catherine and Samu are doing some intensive work with Robert since he’s in his last weeks, so I said I’d show you the ropes. How has your first day been?”
“Has it only been one day?” I asked, partly serious.
“I know, it’s tiring at first. You’ll feel less and less tired as the days go on. Everybody seems to. Even Robert, with everything he’s dealing with.”
I wanted to ask Viviana what pronoun to use, and to offer mine. Though it all seemed somewhat beside the point. Maybe whatever part of me shut down the day we got the call about Rachel had my pronouns with it.
I also wanted to ask Viviana what brought her or them to this place, as I couldn’t see any sign of physical illness. But I didn’t want to have to answer the question myself. So, I responded about Robert instead.
“Robert told me he’s taking Ring with him when he walks the pillars,” I said.
Viviana looked at me with an expression that was a cross between amusement and suspicion. “Yeah, that’s what he told me too.”
“Doesn’t it seem strange to you, when there’s nothing wrong with Ring?” I asked.
“I don’t know about you, Lee, but things stopped seeming strange to me a long time ago. About the time I decided to fly to a sanctuary out in the snow and never go home again. I figure if that’s okay with me, probably most other things are gonna be okay with me too. That, and it’s not my business.” Viviana looked straight into my eyes. I wasn’t used to that anymore, and broke the gaze by looking at the floor.
I asked what I could do to help with dinner.
“Someone soaked lentils, so I guess we’re having lentils,” Viviana said. “I was thinking maybe a dal. We need some vegetables too. You wanna go in the cooler there and see what’s been harvested and pick some things that look good?”
I did as Viviana requested, and brought back some broccoli and a small box of spinach, as well as a few tomatoes that must have come from one of the hydroponic greenhouses. Viviana smiled approvingly.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Got here a couple weeks before you. Feels like longer.”
“When are you walking the pillars?”
“Don’t know yet. Don’t even know if I am walking them. Just taking it day by day and trying to learn. Purifying myself, you know? Stillness and all that. Moving energy out of me that isn’t mine. Trying to find the part that is.” At that, all mirth left Viviana’s face.
I nodded. “I’ll cook the vegetables,” I said.
At dinner, Robert looked tired and pensive. Catherine and Viviana talked about the next day’s work in the greenhouse and the schedule for something called EFT. Ring lay under the table again, pressed against my legs. At one point I absentmindedly handed him a piece of broccoli, which he took politely between his teeth and then swallowed whole.
Samu smiled at me. I tried to smile back, knowing it was half-hearted and unconvincing. I picked at my food, wishing I could get away with having another blended drink instead, but aware I had promised to eat. With effort, I filled my spoon with dal and rice and put it in my mouth, saving myself the obligation of talking.
It was only about 4 p.m., but it was getting dark, and I was tired from the gardening and the yoga. When I finished, I said quietly that I needed to go to bed.
“We’ll make a fire in the woodstove after dinner if you want to join us. It’s so good to sit by the fire after dinner.” Samu smiled broadly.
“I think I just need to lie down, I’m sorry. But thank you.”
Robert looked up from his food and met my eye for a moment, then looked down at his plate again.
Back in my room, I climbed onto the bed without removing my clothes and laid on top of the sheet and blanket. I felt unable to even think, was just aware of the ache in my chest and wanting to be asleep.
I made a mental note to ask tomorrow about seeing the northern lights. If they beckoned to me on the train, I wanted to know what they would say to me now that I was here.
When I woke, it was still dark, but that told me little of the time of night or day. I listened for sounds outside my door in the hallway and heard none. I reached for my cell phone: 3:35. Disappointed at first that it was too early to get up, I realized with surprise that I must have slept more than ten hours straight. I didn’t remember any dreams. I was still in my clothes.
Normally each time I woke was the same. A moment remembering a dream of Rachel as if it were real, then realizing it had been a dream and I was not really there, then suddenly remembering she was gone, and then the pain becoming unbearable in my chest. In the apartment I sometimes responded by taking another Xanax to try to get back to sleep, but then I’d usually only slept two or three hours. Here I had slept more than a full night’s worth and I had no Xanax. I had awakened and known where I was and why, so there was no shock.
My legs started to get restless, and I wondered what to do. As I shifted in bed, my skin felt clammy under my clothes, and I tried to remember the last time I’d washed. No one had tried to get me to bathe since I’d arrived, for which I was grateful. In fact, I hadn’t seen the shower, though I was told it was heated with geothermal power and was in a different place than the bathroom, which had a composting toilet and a sink that ran only cold water at a trickle. There were no bathtubs here, water being difficult to pipe in and heat and thus used sparingly. With all the emphasis on purification, no one seemed focused on washing. I wondered how many more days I could get through before Catherine or Samu said something. As uncomfortable as the clamminess felt, I had no interest in starting this morning, or any morning, with finding the shower or getting in it. But I didn’t have any sense of what to do instead, knowing I had a couple of hours before it would be time to get up and not wanting to be alone with my thoughts.
Without really deciding, I found myself stretching out on my back, putting my hands on my stomach and breathing into my belly to raise them slowly up and down the way Samu had taught me. After a while, I drifted back asleep.
With my blended drink in hand, I entered the greenhouse and looked at the white board. It was still empty. Unsure what to do, I took off my parka, hat, and gloves and went to the bed of kale. Squatting, I dug my fingers into the soil the way Catherine had shown me the day before, and breathed. I felt the ache in my chest run cold with anxiety, so I stopped and hugged my knees and buried my face in them.
I looked up when I heard the door close. Catherine was taking off her parka and watching me.
“I put my fingers in the soil and breathed like you showed me, but it made me anxious so I stopped.” I looked at her.
“Lee, the soil didn’t make you anxious. Neither did the breathing. You just got still enough to feel what’s there all the time.”
That did not feel like a helpful thing to say. I did not want to feel this all the time.
“The best thing to do when that happens is to let yourself feel it and to keep breathing, and keep focusing on feeling the soil on the skin of your hands. If you react in fear by pushing it away, that’s why it stays. It’s just energy. You need to let it move through you.”
“It doesn’t feel like energy. And it doesn’t feel like it will move through me, it feels like I need to get away from it.”
“Please trust me. I’ll do it with you.” She came over and put her hands in the soil, and motioned to me with her head. I squatted next to her and did the same. “Now breathe with me,” she said, “and stay aware of the anxiety. You don’t need to focus on it, just stay aware of it, and tell it in your mind that you see it, and that you want to take care of it, and it should let you know what it needs.”
“The anxiety?” I asked.
“The anxiety. Do that, and then stay aware of it, almost with your inner peripheral vision if that makes sense, and then focus on your deep breathing and the feel of the soil on your hands. Like this.”
And we squatted there, breathing with our stomachs, and feeling the soil. I closed my eyes and did what she said to do, and felt it welling up inside me. Just at that moment, Catherine said “Don’t run from it, Lee. Let it be. I promise you it will move through you.” So I stayed, feeling with fear that something was coming, like a train, to run me down, but that it was coming from somewhere inside my chest. I let it come, and I breathed, and I felt my hands. And then suddenly it dissipated.
“Oh my god, it went away,” I said, rocking back into a sitting position. “I mean, not entirely, but you were right, it kind of passed through me, and now only part of it’s there, the part I normally feel, which is like a dull ache.”
“Remember that,” said Catherine, smiling. “I’ll be telling you a lot more things you won’t like, but please remember that you have a reason to trust me now.”
I considered this and studied Catherine.
“How did you learn this stuff?” I asked artlessly.
“From the Society.” She was so matter-of-fact, as if that explained everything.
“Did you start this place?”
“Sort of. It was already in the planning stages when I joined the Society, but I helped get it going, and Samu and I are the only ones to run it so far. I was an oncology nurse in Winnipeg at the time, and I was really disheartened by the options available to my patients when they were dying. Another nurse invited me to a class one night at the Society’s office, and that was it for me. I realized the Society, and the idea for this sanctuary, were what I’d been looking for. I got more and more involved, ended up on the board, and a few years later I quit my job and moved here.”
With that, she got up and went to the white board to write the instructions for the day.
“Catherine,” I asked, “is the aurora visible from here?”
“From the greenhouse?”
“No, from the property. I was just wondering.”
“Yes, it’s often visible. Let me know any time you want to see it after dinner, and I’ll go out with you. Eventually it will become part of your routine, sitting with the aurora. It’s just not what we start with, especially because it’s not always visible.”
“What’s wrong with Viviana?” I inquired, kind of abruptly.
“What’s wrong with her?” Catherine raised her eyebrows. So, then, Viviana went by her.
“Why is she here? Robert said he has pancreatic cancer. Why is Viviana here?” I realized that maybe I should have asked Viviana herself instead of asking Catherine. But I couldn’t imagine doing so.
Catherine came and sat down next to me. “Viviana experienced a rape. She was injured… in a number of ways. She’s been using conventional therapies and recently gave up on them. So she’s in training with us.”
“Was she in the military?” I asked, not knowing the outer limits of the information I could request.
“Yes, she was. That’s where she was attacked.” Catherine looked at me with an open expression, waiting to see if I had any more questions.
I remembered reading about the seventeen-year-old Dutch girl who’d gotten permission to be legally euthanized when she couldn’t recover from a childhood rape. I felt slightly nauseous. I didn’t want to know any more about what happened to Viviana.
“Do she and Robert know why I’m here?” I asked instead, trying to change the subject.
“Yes, they know, and you’ll get basic information about the next devotee before they arrive. We’ve tried this different ways, and this is what seems to work best, so we can treat each other with some basic understanding, know when someone has physical limitations or there are things that might particularly scare them. Viviana knew I would tell you at some point. I’m not betraying her. In fact, it’s important that you know not to touch her unless she initiates it.”
I let that sink in for a moment before changing the subject.
“What about Ring?” I asked. “Why does Ring need to walk the pillars? Can’t he stay here instead?”
Catherine looked at me blankly, so I continued. “There’s nothing wrong with him, and Robert said he’s nine, so he could have years left.”
“Ring doesn’t like being separated from Robert. When Robert first got here and tried to leave him in his room even for short periods, he whined like crazy until we let him out and he got back to Robert. He’s gotten better about separating for small amounts of time, but they’re still almost always together.”
“But Ring doesn’t know what the pillars are. You say choice and clarity with the decision are such a big part of walking the pillars. Doesn’t it matter that Ring isn’t making the choice?”
Catherine looked down. When she looked up, her expression was hard to read but serious. “Lee, I think you need to ask yourself why this concerns you. I’m not being curt. But you decided, in coming here, that you were ready to focus inward and that you don’t have much use anymore for the rest of the world. In retreating here, in wanting to walk the pillars, you yourself have made some choices for other people.”
I opened my mouth to object to the comparison.
“No, let me finish,” she said quickly, raising one hand to gesture me to stop. “You are certainly making some choices for the people in your life by removing yourself from them this way, whether you recognize that or not—and if you have this much concern about what Robert and Ring are doing, I think you need to think about why that is, and whether you’re ready to be here. That’s not a judgement, or a scolding. It’s a real question that I want you to think about.”
With that, she stood and put her hand on my shoulder for a moment before going back to the white board, writing the last of the instructions, putting on her parka and gloves, and leaving the building.