Tag: hiking

A Message Carved in Rock

One of hundreds of petroglyphs just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

One of hundreds of petroglyphs just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I saw petroglyphs in New Mexico last week. “Petroglyph” means “rock writing” and refers to art carved in volcanic stones lying about the desert hills just west of Albuquerque. According to the scientists who’ve studied the petroglyphs, Native Americans from the Pueblo nation produced those markings during a few centuries before and after 800, c.e. Three of us hiked around the canyon where those ancient Pueblos left their art and we repeatedly asked what they symbols endeavored to say. “What do they MEAN,” we kept asking. We saw representations of snakes, birds, foot prints, lizards, horses, masked people, and a bunch of spirals, as well as dozens of other forms we couldn’t decipher.

The symbol on this rock resembles the theme on the New Mexico state flag, probably symbolizing the four ordinal directions.

The symbol on this rock resembles the theme on the New Mexico state flag, probably symbolizing the four ordinal directions.

As we read the signs along the trail, we learned that some of the art represented religious ideas while others purely secular themes. Some of the markings simply identified a path. Then we came across a trail sign that read, “. . . according to modern Pueblo people, it is culturally insensitive to reveal the meanings of some petroglyphs.”

“So, you had to be part of the club,” one of my colleagues said with a snort.

“I don’t think so,” said another. “I think it means that you honor your community. Unless you’re part of the community, to talk about what these things mean might actually make someone look bad, or hurt them, or lead to misunderstanding things that make sense if you’ve been living together for a while.”

We agreed with each other that the latter explanation made more sense.

All of that brought to mind an essay that I’d read just before going on the excursion. William Deresiewicz, an excellent writer and thinker, had reviewed a book written by a literary hero of mine, Annie Dillard. In reflecting on Dillard’s body of work, Deresiewicz (can anyone tell me how to pronounce that?) made the observation that “we are born with souls but die in bodies.” I think that’s why the modern Pueblos don’t tell us what some of those petroglyphs mean. Even though the symbols stir something in me when I look at them – they touch my soul – the fact that my body never breathed the same air, smelled the same smells, shared the same struggles, and celebrated the same successes as those Pueblo people makes it difficult, if not impossible, to relate to their art.

Many cultures include the spiral in their religious symbolism.

Many cultures include the spiral in their religious symbolism.

This doesn’t mean that I cannot imagine in some ways what the Pueblos faced and what their humanity desired and needed. Certainly, common concerns connect the whole human community now and across time. However, the real healing comes when we enter into each other’s lives, touch one another, listen to one another, and respond to one another in real time, in the places we occupy.

You see, true community grows when we’ve become mutually vulnerable, where we connect meaningfully with others who cherish and honor our vulnerability and offer theirs in trust, when we breathe the same air, smell the same smells, share the same struggles, and celebrate the same successes. That’s the only way loneliness can be assuaged and wholeness nurtured.

An academic knowledge of what this or that petroglyph means doesn’t have the power to heal me. However, when I see a spiral carved in the rock, I can imagine that some Pueblos had decided to draw a symbol for the power of coming to a center, of honing in on the most important thing, and that the most important thing is the power of blessing one another in a community of trust and love. Humans across cultures, across eons, across religions have come to this conclusion. So, this tells me that I need to spiral into a community center, too!

Beautiful scenery against the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains.

Beautiful scenery against the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains.

Yes, that’s another reason why we do support teams here at UAB Pastoral Care. When you enter intentionally into a relationship of caring and trust, you discover a depth of spiritual power you’d never experience by looking at it from the outside. You want to know if support teams “work?” I can show you statistics, or you can enter and experience the love. Which sounds more attractive?

Maybe that’s what the Pueblos are telling us about the petroglyphs. Embed yourself in your own community of caring and support and love, then draw your own symbols.

Support Teams and Bears in the Woods

Farther up the trail from my first encounter, and much farther off through the trees, I eventually got a shot of the Mama Bear I'd seen earlier.

Farther up the trail from my first encounter, and much farther off through the trees, I eventually got a shot of the Mama Bear I’d seen earlier.

In doing support teams over the year and a half since I’ve been at UAB, I’ve met some fantastic people. But I wouldn’t have met them if I hadn’t gotten off my usual beaten path. It sort of reminds me of a discovery I made right after I ran into a bear once in the woods. Here’s the story.

A couple of years ago, I was hiking in the mountains of western Virginia (not West Virginia). I rounded a bend in the trail, crested a slight rise, and came to a long straight section. That’s when I saw movement through the trees and a black shape emerged from the shade to the left of the path about 75 yards ahead. There, stalking directly toward me, was a black bear. Almost immediately after she appeared, a cub entered the path behind her. She abruptly halted when she saw me. I couldn’t see her eyes, but her muzzle locked in my direction. She stood stock still. The cub behind her stopped, literally, in his tracks. I’ll admit it – I was scared.

A trail leading through the George Washington National Forest near Douthat State Park in Virginia.

A trail leading through the George Washington National Forest near Douthat State Park in Virginia.

Now, I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about human-bear encounters in the woods and in all of them, the human loses. My heart rate rose but I remained glued to my spot, knowing that fleeing would provoke a chase. I thought of that old story about the two guys who confront a bear in the woods and one turns to run. The other says, “You can’t outrun that bear,” to which the first guy replies, “No, I only need to outrun you.”

Suddenly, mama bear moved, in an impressive, fluid motion. I felt a blast of adrenaline, but she pivoted, and together with her cub, they took off up the path in the opposite direction – away from me.

Though I felt really relieved, I decided to wait a while before I proceeded. So I sat down on the side of the path. And that’s when I saw them: the most intriguing mushrooms I’d ever seen. They were orange and clustered around a fallen log. I looked to my left to be sure that the bear wasn’t sneaking up on me. Then I took up my camera and began shooting. I’m glad I did. I’d never seen anything like them, and haven’t since.

I'd never seen lichen like these in the woods.  Thanks to the bear that scared me off the path!

I’d never seen lichen like these in the woods. Thanks to the bear that scared me off the path!

It’s very much like that in our lives, isn’t it? As we walk our “paths” we come across things that raise our anxieties all the time. I have my work to do in the hospital, much of it administrative, so I spend quite a bit of time emailing, phone calling, meeting, going from office to office arranging things – you know, dashing along my professional trail making sure I take care of all that stuff I get anxious about.

But then I take time to step away from those fidgets in order to visit a patient, and so often, it’s like finding hidden treasure. As we converse, stories open up. Dreams and aspirations take shape. I learn about extended family and close friends and how the patient has cared and loved, sometimes over many years. In that time of talk, a person who was just a medical record number takes on color and texture, and enriches my own life.

That’s one of the benefits of joining a Support Team. You interrupt your mindless cruise through the world and step away from your habitual path. You become more “mindful,” and in the process, you come to know a new group of people in a much more significant manner. And when you spend some time listening and watching the world take on dimensions you didn’t know existed, you end up discovering that whatever “bear” you may have feared has already disappeared.

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