Strength from the Living Waters

Over a year ago, a friend offered me a chance to spend nine days at a cabin in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains of Washington. The cabin was a beautiful place to stay but the main attraction was a forested lake that my friend called “Living Waters.” I opened the email, got the gist of the invite, hit reply, typed “Yes!” and then studied the email more closely to see what I had gotten myself into.

The cabin and the lake were surrounded by hundreds of acres of forest and a massive hill off in the distance. It was accessible by an old logging road. To get to the property my friend and I had to get through, and lock behind us, two metal gates. It was an isolated place inhabited by deer, bears and mountain lions.

After giving me a tour of the place, my friend handed me a 10-inch knife and a cannister of bear spray that I was to carry me when I hiked the property and use to make gestures of self-defense in the event of an attack.

He told me that he liked visiting the place because it reminded him of his place in the food chain.

“It might be dangerous,” he said in an email. “I guess that’s the point.”

The invitation, which came email under the subject line “Hermitage,” came during a pretty tough time. It was early October 2020, just a few weeks before the end of brutal presidential campaign and in the midst of a global pandemic. Everyone was at each other’s throats on social media and the fact that the cabin had spotty cell phone coverage and no internet was a great boon.

My benefactor was right. The place was not without its risks.

Before he left, my benefactor had shown me a wound, so to speak, in one of the logs used to construct the cabin, which was built with standing dead lodgepole pine from Montana, dried as it stood in the ground before being harvested. The floors are old growth Doug Fir reclaimed from a grain mill in Eastern Washington, probably from the Cascades originally.

The wound was to the left of cabin’s entrance, right there for all the world to see. The wound is a dark spot on the log where the tree was attacked and badly damaged by insects. Every log has its imperfections, but most of the time, when people build log cabins, an attempt is made to hide them from view.

Not this cabin.

This wound was put on display to remind people who come visit of their wounds, to make it clear that hiding them is not an option.

“It’s the Christ log,” my benefactor explained.

After handing me the knife and the bear spray, my benefactor had left me with a challenge to listen to the quietest sound in the woods. As I went to sleep that night, I heard a plane flying overhead, which was a reassurance, a nice distraction from the sound of my pen scribbling across the pen of my journal.

The sound of the plane was a reminder of the civilization upon which I depended for my physical sustenance but ruled over my life like an intrusive tyrant.

For the first two days after my friend drove off, I walked the nearby trails and even tried to improve the property by cutting up a downed tree that had fallen across the path up the hill. A “prepare the way of the Lord” sort of thing. I recited the Chaplet of Divine Mercy while sitting before the root system of a downed tree. I took pictures with my IPhone, walked to a high place on the property and posted the images on the internet with the express purpose of inspiring envy on the part of my friends on social media. I also wrote in my journal and by God’s grace, I fasted for two 24-stretches. I went 24 hours without eating, ate one meal and started the clock again after I was through eating.

My friend had encouraged me to swim in the lake and I had said, “No way!” in response. But after a couple of days of sitting with myself in struggling with the demons in my head and heart, I knew I would have to bathe in the living waters.

I went into the lake twice.

The first time, I went into the water was to wash the shame and self-contempt that I had internalized over a lifetime of accepting the verdicts and negative assessments others had leveled at me over the years. The impulse to do this came while reading a copy of Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul by John Eldredge. Upon climbing up into the bunk to sleep the first night at the cabin, I discovered that my benefactor had left a copy of the text for me to read.

The text, which talks about the negative verdicts we internalize about ourselves, had a real impact on me. In one section of the text, Eldredge quotes Garrison Keillor about not being able to do a bunch of stuff that guys should know how to do like changing a tire or chopping wood. I went out and split some wood just to counter the feeling of shame. I didn’t want to risk an injury because I am on blood thinners and forgot my vitamin K. If I bludgeoned my foot, I was a dead man. Fortunately, I survived.

After reading Eldredge, I realized I needed to do something to exorcise myself of the self-hate I had internalized over my life as the result of failed relationships, failed attempts to achieve status and to find a place for myself in this world. I wrote down the names of the people who had expressed negative verdicts about my manhood and put them onto a sheet of paper that I resolved to put into the wood stove at the cabin and set it alight. I winced as I wrote some of the names down to be burned because some of the names belonged to people who loved me, but whom I had given them good reason to disdain me.

Still, I burned the sheet of paper, mixed it with the ash from the previous night’s fire, and put it into a plastic water jug that I had cut open and carried it down to the lake.

As I stood on the grassy fen near the lake, wearing my gym shorts, I smeared the ash into my hair, and onto my neck, chest, belly and legs. I prayed to Jesus asking him to cleanse my embittered soul and release me from the demons I had allowed to infest my spirit like termites. They were there at my invitation, as my welcomed guests. The demons were not in any way like the people whose names I had written down, but images and figments of my creation. I was an author of a novel who had given the villains in the story the names of people in his life.

I asked Jesus to bless the people whose names I had written down, to shower them with His mercy. “Make them warriors for your kingdom and let me fight alongside them,” I prayed, stealing a trope from Eldredge’s book about God’s need for warriors.

I stepped out of my sandals, walked up to the edge of the fen and said, “Dear Lord, give me the strength to make a decisive leap into your merciful blessing.” I have no idea where that prayer came from, but it was the right and meet thing to say.

And then I dove in. It was Monday, Oct. 5, 2020.

I was cold. So cold in fact, that I feared I would lack the strength to climb out of the lake. I was at risk. Still, I swam toward the center of the lake, into deeper water, rinsed off the ash of embitterment and once I was sure it was gone, swam quickly to the edge of the lake and pulled myself up onto the spongy mass of vegetation that was slowly creeping its way over the Living Waters. I had survived.

I sat on an upturned canoe and prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy with a special emphasis on “have mercy on us and the whole world.” My intention was that this mercy was to be directed in particular at the people whose names I had written down on the sheet that had been burned into the furnace. They were God’s creations.

The demons in my head were the manifestations of my own maledictions. I had cultivated them allowing them to grow to great towering heights, obstructing my view of the horizon and blocking my path. I sacrificed these demons and my false self along with them in the living waters.

For a few hours I was jubilant and at one with nature. Later that day, I floated in the canoe and looked at the blue sky. As I floated, I saw a moth-like insect drowning in lake and spent the better part of a half hour trying to rescue it from certain death.

At first, I tried to save the moth (which after consulting a guidebook, was really a winged termite) with the canoe paddle. It kept spilling away from the paddle as I tried to lift it out of the water. Finally, I saved it by cupping it with my hand and putting it on the bottom of the canoe as I paddled to shore. I cupped it again and put it gently on a blade of grass for it to dry off. I had spent the better part of an hour trying to save a bug. To make matters worse, it wasn’t the first bug I had rescued. I had spent long moments struggling to cup flies in the cabin and release them into the woods. I was obsessed with saving these trapped insects, I think, because I related to their being trapped.

As I paddled back into the center of the lake, a thought popped into my head: “You put more energy into saving that insect than you do correcting your relationships with people. Talk about misplaced priorities.”

And a shadow descended upon me. I had a vague sense that I had more work to do but wasn’t exactly sure how to accomplish it. For the next couple of days, I walked the property to get my head straight.

Eventually, I mustered the nerve to ascend the hill that dominated the property and walk its entire length. It was a hike for the ages. I have never hiked for so long through so much underbrush and downed trees. It was simply an ordeal. After about a mile or so, I came to an open area where I found a plastic white hard hat with someone’s name inscribed on a white tape with a black border. The adjustable gray plastic strap used to keep the helmet on one’s head broken led me to conclude that it had been abandoned by a forester working the property.

I put it in my daypack as a trophy.

On the way back I got so badly lost that I needed to use the map application on my Iphone to get back to the road leading to the cabin. I got lost because I would see a gentle slope leading into a nice open clearing and think to myself, “Oh, that must be the path,” when in fact it wasn’t. It was just the easiest way to go.

“Such as it is with the Decadal Impulse,” I said to myself in my C.S. Lewis voice. “We walk the downward path, not because it takes us in the right direction, but because it’s easy.”

Finally, when I got back to the cabin, I wrote down the names of the people whom I had damaged in the course of my life, with an emphasis on the friends I had betrayed and the family members I had let down.

Some of the damage was the result of malevolent acts on my part and some of it was carelessness. But the vast majority of damage I had done to others was a consequence of things I had left undone.

My wife bore the worst of it. I let myself get fat. I let her struggle alone with the difficult decisions relating to money. I relied on her to provide income and benefits early on in the marriage and never paid much attention to my own income. I obsessed about my work and the pursuit of status at the cost of my family relationships.

The symbol if it all was the yard to our house back east. During the previous spring, I had gone through the lawn, which had been overrun with dandelions, with a pitchfork and removed the all the vegetation with an iron rake before sowing a bag of seed into the soil.

Two weeks later, it looked pretty good, but two weeks after that my front lawn had been overrun by sprawling network of green vines that had simply choked the life out the new grass. In my shame, I covered the front lawn completely with a tarp and did the same thing to my side lawn which had been overrun a species of wide-bladed grass didn’t match the good stuff that I had planted in the back yard, which was the only section of lawn that I had any luck with. I covered the side yard with a few strips of black fabric that I got from the local chain hardware store.

I had a small postage stamp of a yard, less than a thousand square feet, and aside from the small section in the back that no one could see, it looked like crap, covered with two different colors of fabric. It was a humiliating proof of my laziness and lassitude which I disguised with an air of ineptitude. I couldn’t keep the weeds at bay, not because I didn’t know how, but was too lazy, distracted, and tolerant of the shame and self-disrespect that allowed me to ignore the weeds that destroyed my lawn in time to do something about it.

And while my family lived with the shame of a tarp on the front lawn back home, I was out West, taking a rest from work I hadn’t done.

The internet had made it all worse. I had come to hate myself, with good reason. A few days before my trip, I had been on the phone with my oldest daughter. She was in need of my attention and devotion. I was in the middle of a conversation, and I told her I needed to call her back and hung up on her.

Why? Because someone had responded to a post of mine on social media and I couldn’t let it fester without a polemical response from me. I realized I was in the throes of an addiction.

Once I had put these sins and the names of those damaged by them, I put it into the wood stove, set it on fire and carried the ashes down the lake, smeared them on me as I did before, jumped in and repeated the ritual I described previously, with two changes. First, instead of carrying the ashes down to the water in a plastic jug, I carried them in a plastic hard had that I had retrieved from the hill on the previous day’s hike and before I jumped into the water, I read Psalm 51.

I recited it from my copy of the National Council of Churches Revised Standard Version of the New Testament and Psalms published by Thomas Nelson Publishers for Ignatius Press. It seemed appropriate. Here I was a former mainliner who converted to Catholicism, praying for forgiveness on a property loaned to me by an Evangelical. I hit for Ecumenical cycle, so to speak, and so had the book I was praying from.

It was Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 and I knew I could leave the place in good conscience, so I left the next day.

A few days after I returned home, I started working on my lawn. It was the third week of October. It started on a whim one afternoon when, I tore up the black fabric on the side of my house and the blue tarp on the front lawn and started working them over with a pitchfork. I reached down into the soil and ripped up the dandelion roots that stretched a foot or so into the dirt.

I tried my best to rip up the roots in their entirety and in some instances, I was successful, but most of the time I’d stare in frustration at the round, white end of the snapped root in my hand, knowing that that it had a stubborn twin deep in the ground ready to erupt into the sunlight next spring. When the two patches of lawn — the side and front lawns — were as free of weeds as I was going to get them, I raked them level.

I worked after dark, using the headlights of my car to illuminate the scene. I imagined my neighbors looking at me with a mixture of relief, contempt and derision as I leveled the soil with the iron rake, but they probably ignored me.

I seeded the grass on the weekend and was later gratified to see it take root and flourish during the wet and warm winter we had that year.

As I raked the front lawn, my dog, a 25-pound chihuahua-dachshund mix watched from the front step. In an instant, she took off into the dead-end street and barked loudly at a coyote that was patrolling the neighborhood. My dog, small as she was, simply would not tolerate its presence in her field of vision. The coyote ran off as I yelled at my dog, Bambi, to return to safety. I smiled. I had spent almost nine days in the woods of Washington state terrified at the prospect of being confronted with a predator and here I was being shown what courage looks like by my dog who stood only a few inches off the ground.

Later that night, I walked Bambi and took a walking stick with me to fend off the coyote just in case it was still around. After Bambi did her business, I walked down the street toward my house with the newly seeded lawns. Fearing the animal might still be nearby, I dragged the metal tip of my walking stick on the pavement to make a loud scraping noise just to warn the coyote of our presence. As I got a dozen or so steps from my house, the coyote ran out from a neighboring yard and into the street.

For one brief terrifying moment, the coyote charged directly at me and my tiny dog, who was barking wildly and pulling at the leash to confront the animal, which was three or four times her size. At the last moment, the coyote veered off and loped down the street into the darkness. Again, I laughed at the irony. I hadn’t seen a predator the entire time at Living Waters, but upon my return to civilization, I was twice confronted with a real live predator just a few steps from my house.

Who and where is the danger, really?

I followed my dog up the steps, looked out into the darkness and offered a prayer of thanks.

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Dexter Van Zile

Dexter Van Zile

Managing Editor of Focus on Western Islamism (FWI), published by the Middle East Forum. His opinions are his own.