LISTENING TO THE MOUNTAIN
I. FINDING THE MOUNTAIN
As early dawn seeps over Mount Shasta, a long curved cloud arcs across the sky, and across the decades to scenes near a similar gleaming white mountain that became a symbol binding events together, weaving veils of irreconcilable memories into meanings that unify a life. The events take place during a period when my life went from darkness to light. Remembrance reveals fragments held together by a golden current stronger than any destruction, a vector through time.
My early childhood was invaded by the dark human construct of persecution and war, of hiding and isolation during World War II. I felt trapped into a constant fearful vigilance, a painful holding back, constriction that felt like a prison. Rarely was there room for play.
And yet I was met in my efforts to move beyond the sense of wretchedness. There were moments that brought rays of light into the dark, cramped circumstances. And I started having intimations of a wondrous principle working within the world and myself in early childhood. Simultaneously I was directly aware of the heart-wrenching, often utterly terrifying and traumatizing, situations humans face, individually and collectively. The mysteries of the miracle of life and also of suffering were poignantly real to me as long as I can remember.
All of us have a version of the world’s pain impinging on our vulnerable innocence and pulling us into the intense drama of light and dark. Stories such as this one illustrate the capacity children have, which is generally underrated, of an inner knowing that guides their lives. Much is made of the parental and circumstantial influences of early childhood, but we tend to ignore the responses given by the child’s own being that can hold a key to how a person’s life unfolds.
This story starts with a Jewish girl born at the beginning of World War II in 1940, of parents who fled Hitler at the time of the forced annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. The scenes are in Lyon, France, with large stretches of time spent hiding from the Nazis, who seemed to be everywhere, regularly searching buildings, knocking loudly on doors, putting up barricades to capture Jews in the streets.
My father was a master craftsman whose refined abilities in furniture making and sculpture kept the family alive by trading his skills for sustenance in the black market underground economy, working long hours just to keep food on the table. He was a stern disciplinarian, hard on himself and others. Thankfully there was my mother’s great heart. Trained as a teacher, she gave German lessons to individuals who were preparing for the eventuality that Hitler would be victorious and take over all of France.
The experience of war wasn’t just the physical danger of being hunted as a subhuman worthy of extermination, or the bombs that could obliterate entire buildings and neighborhoods. It was also what it did to the human web. Brutality burst into the haven of family life; it was in the atmosphere, the pressure of always being on guard, the terrifying incidents helplessly experienced together, the inability to keep family stress from spilling out on the children. Even in the best times the strain of impending violence was never entirely absent.
Sometimes it was possible to not think about it, such as in the early light of morning, when everyone was still sleeping and no one was in the kitchen barely big enough for a table. Then the four-year-old girl would get up and take out her mother’s box of buttons to make a beautiful pattern on the table.
One day, on one of the rare walks outside with my mother, I suddenly saw how the sun lit up a mimosa bush. A thousand tiny radiant orbs filled my whole field of vision, permeating my being with their scent and warm fire. This was in absolute contrast to hiding in musty dark closets and bomb shelters.
At times our mother would ask my younger brother and me to “go to the garden”. This was our name for the pantry on the third floor landing outside our door. There we stored our main fare – turnips – that we ate day after day, as they were plentiful on the black market. In the “garden” we gathered “tomatoes”, “apples”, “lettuce”, “peas”, and other things we could only imagine…and of course they all looked like turnips. It was a game my mother invented to keep joy, goodness and other realities alive. It was huge fun and it worked! The turnips actually tasted better.
Then there was the game of “find the spoon” in the tiny two-room flat that suddenly expanded into endless possibilities of where the spoon might be hiding. Our mother honed our intuition as we approached different places, by giving cues of “warm”, “no, cool”, “ice cold”, “warmer”, and suddenly “hot”! – there it was!
These experiences were like seeds carefully collected on an invisible gold thread in a compartment of my being where I stored treasures to make me happy, gems to light up the hours spent in hiding.
The mimosa bush experience especially stood out because for what seemed like a very long moment, it blotted out everything else and lit up a place of immense wellbeing. It was a sense that someone, a luminous knowing presence, was watching, knew about all that was happening, and that it was all for a reason. It felt like a promise at the core of the mystery.
There was also the opposite experience. During an unguarded moment while my mother was giving German lessons in the kitchen, I was playing in the narrow passage between the bed and the window in the other room, when in a flash, the terror and overpowering magnitude of war burst in; there was a shattering blast of noise, and I felt painful flying slivers of glass and metal cutting into me. This experience came to stand for the pain of all who suffered unimaginably, the nameless pain of human cruelty, persecution and annihilation…the world’s pain. It was traumatizing to my very core. I felt so totally inundated by terror that I couldn’t remember there was anything else.
Another event stands out that brought the two aspects together. After hearing loud forceful knocking on the door, our family quietly scurried to huddle behind the false wall my father had built into the closet. As we sat in dark motionless silence, the knocking came again, more insistent. In my child’s mind I was convinced, there in the dark, that if I could just keep love alive in my heart, then everything would be all right. I squeezed my eyes shut and made a supreme effort to feel love with all my heart. After a while, we heard steps on the landing, which then faded down the stairs. Of course we’ll never know who was there, but it is conceivable that the Nazi SS police searched the entire building, and that this particular officer’s heart might have been touched. Whatever it was, I was discovering my own way of bringing light into darkness.
Life went on in this way. My father was caught and imprisoned by the Nazis, and miraculously escaped to join us again; we continued living in and out of oppression. And then there were the mice, roaches, and sewers regularly overflowing with human waste…
In late 1944 France was liberated. Tall Americans on a train threw chewing gum and candy to us skinny waifs on the platform. The soldiers looked like heroes from a book of knightly tales.
The traumatizing experiences became memories not far below the surface, collected on another string of seeds, condensed into a feeling like dark and smoldering coals. This feeling would burn in me whenever I felt once again shattered by perceived betrayal, danger or fear. Then I would succumb to an unbearable default mode. I had to decide what to live for, how to find a way out of this shattering core pain, this wretched feeling of annihilation.
This necessity became a childhood vow. I was seven years old and standing on a hill on La Grande Côte, our steep urban neighborhood in Lyon. Further down the cobblestone street was La Place des Terreaux, a fountain surrounded by a square full of people walking around. They seemed to be acting like nothing had happened, as though the darkness was gone once and for all. But I could not forget; it still seemed to be lurking. I declared right then and there that I would find what was stronger than the darkness, what could overcome that unspeakable terror. There had to be more. This was the vow I made, not only to myself, but to the greater knowing presence I had sensed at the time of the mimosa bush experience.
Yet the stress and years of deprivation took their toll. The next year, at the age of eight, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. This led to a yearlong stay at a children’s sanatorium at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the French Alps.
Every morning a kind nurse set me up on the deck to breathe the pure mountain air, in a chaise lounge with blankets up to my chin. Hours of rest in fresh air and a nourishing diet were the treatment for TB at that time. There might have been other children on the deck, but I felt alone in a dreamy solitude that no doubt came from the weakened and moderately feverish state that characterizes the illness.
The atmosphere couldn’t have been more different than the sordid one of our flat in Lyon. Especially on the deck, my whole field of experience was filled with a palpable stillness that enveloped me in a sense of inviolable safety, emanating from the brightness of Mont Blanc like a mist of light. Within myself, a radiant unaccustomed wonder grew to meet it. The mountain became a universe the way the mimosa bush had been momentarily, a reality that outshone everything else. Days turned into weeks and months in that state of expanded feverish marveling. It came effortlessly, like a living dream, a parallel world, that I could contact on my own as a deeply renewing place of pervasive beauty and wellbeing.
When I became a little better, the nurse took me together with a group of children on a walk through the forest. It was springtime and the snow was melting in sparkling rivulets. Patches of pine-scented earth were warmed in the sun, and my blissful world expanded beyond the deck.
For a year I lived in that atmosphere. I don’t recall anything breaking the harmony of the pure world of beauty, and this peace allowed me not only to heal, but to come to a realization about life that in my child’s mind was only semi-conscious, yet unquestionably real and mine. I didn’t share it with anyone, not knowing how to say it. It was a precious treasure, a secret I could draw from, a place apart from the traumas and pressures of life. It felt like a promise, a thread weaving in and out of darkness and confusion, always reappearing.
II. LISTENING TO THE MOUNTAIN
We sailed from France when I was almost ten, on an ocean liner named MS Sobieski, landing a week later in New York Harbor. On Staten Island my Aunt Miri took our family into her house, and her magical garden brought the imaginary vegetables of the war years to life. I remember the rough years of being an immigrant, learning a new language, being different in school, then making a friend or two, gradually sort of fitting in. In my second year of high school, the family moved to Denver, and life marched on – university studies, marriage, two wonderful children, a master’s degree in languages and literature followed by a college teaching career. In 1968 I divorced my husband and started life on my own with my small children, Julia and Nathaniel. During the era of the Vietnam War I joined the protests. And in the civil rights movement I marched along with the others.
In Martin Luther King’s fervor for the principles of justice and equality, in his power to rally diverse people to nonviolent resistance, I sensed a human counterpart to the reality I had seen possible in the light-filled atmosphere of the mountain. He seemed to tap into that sacred realm. He inspired me during my four years of teaching at Spelman College in the heart of the black community in Atlanta, Georgia during the height of the civil rights movement.
After King’s assassination I returned to France with the children, to search in art and poetry for how my dream of a light-filled world could emerge in the human sphere. It was hard to believe it could happen in the U.S. after what had occurred. Yet I saw that King added an enduring layer of light in the earth’s field, a living legacy of values for us to tap into, something stronger than the darkness of prejudice and even stronger than death.
I felt a deep determination to find what could be stronger than the darkness. What does it take to overcome it? My journey led me, with my young children, to Paris during the time of the student revolts in 1968. Enrolled at the Sorbonne, I experienced the passionate uprising of students and workers, affirming that another way of life was being born, and here it was confronting the vested powers and entrenched institutions of western civilization, only to be quelled. I taught in a junior-year-abroad program during three school years, and every summer we escaped to the small villages, beaches and mountains of southern Europe – to Italy, Greece, Croatia, Portugal, Spain, and finally Morocco. We lived among the Moroccan Berbers in a small desert village near the ocean. The utter simplicity of our days felt like eternal unbroken time. The sense of a light filled existence re-emerged for me in this village where we formed community with a dozen other escapees from the complications of industrialized society. Yet after a year, it became clear that this life was not sustainable for us to maintain and unfold our potential. The children and I returned to the U.S.
In my mid-thirties, a mountain drew me again. My search gravitated to Mount Shasta in northern California. As soon as I arrived I recognized the same healing emanation that had awakened my inner light as a child by Mont Blanc. I felt I wanted to commit to this place for the children’s sake, and to build my dream of land, community and a meaningful quality of life. If I could do it anywhere, it would be here.
As soon as I made that decision, things started to happen. I wanted to live close to nature, and seven months later, 10 acres of forest and meadow just outside town with a perfect view of Mount Shasta appeared for $17,000. My mother’s generosity made it happen, and the first thing I did was put in a garden, even before we had a well, hauling water from town. With two friends, the next four years were spent building the house I had envisioned as growing organically from the land, giving shape to the rays of light streaming through the trees. It took form as a six-sided wooden tipi with skylights and a large round window framing the mountain.
Over the years, I have retreated on the mountain, taking my backpack for several days, usually by the high spring sources near timberline just down from the glaciers. At first my mind would be buzzing with chatter, but after a while I would come into another way of experiencing what was around me – through my heart and whole being.
It was a kind of natural meditation, as my mind became still in the absence of intrusions and distractions. Everything I saw and heard led me to a bright place inside – the wind, the bonsai shapes of the white bark pines, the glistening needles, the clean line of the ridge against the sky. My consciousness became focused and expanded through the intensified sense of being that was my soul’s natural response. Sacredness is everywhere in creation, but it is more directly experienced in pristine places, where human overlays don’t veil the unifying harmony of nature. If we can suspend conditioned ways of imposing our interpretations on nature, we can become more receptive to its essential miraculous beingness.
Yet the residue within me of the pain of war and persecution left an unresolved shadow gnawing at my world. In my mid-40s, during a trip to Europe, I made a pilgrimage to Dachau concentration camp near Munich to face that question. The holocaust museum at the camp didn’t have the answers. But outside the pebbled courtyard where inmates had walked, I stood near the monument that said “never again” in every language, by the gas ovens where so many had been exterminated. My whole being became a plea for understanding how anyone could have faith in the goodness of life in the face of such unmitigated cruelty.
After a long time in the grips of this question, something moved in me…an all-encompassing wordless knowing beyond anything I could have thought. I understood that light and beauty had pervaded even this darkness; that there had been heroic actions, caring and forgiveness. There were those who didn’t lose faith in the grimmest of circumstances. I saw that the sacrifice of these people had been imbued with an unearthly light, in the same way that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross brought consciousness into the darkest most desperate zones of human experience. I saw that darkness is a result of the abuse of freedom, of wrong choices. Even in the direst conditions, light is stronger than darkness and offers choices.
Back in Mount Shasta, I was able to put this understanding into practice by confronting a shadow that threatened our mountain sanctuary. One day in the summer of 1988, I was on a high ridge overlooking Panther Meadows, sometimes called the “lap” of the mountain, to reflect and do some writing. However, I couldn’t concentrate because I had learned that this hallowed place was threatened by polluting, destructive development. The shock and grief at the thought of the mountain being degraded put me in an intense state. A picture opened in my mind’s eye and showed me what I could do in order to prevent the mountain’s desecration. Like a fast-forward movie, scenes came to me of people and strategic actions that I would take.
Something larger took over, an urgency to safeguard this sacred mountain that stands high above the encroachments of civilization. I wanted to protect its purity, its capacity to generate an experience that goes beyond the limitations and conditioning imposed by society.
Leaving my 17-year college teaching career, I found the way to launch an effort to protect the mountain. The current within me that had been awakened by Mont Blanc now flowed through my life anew to emerge in a successful decade-long campaign. Others too were listening to the Mountain, and several of us founded the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, which continues today as a community expression of environmental conscience, stewardship, and awareness of the sacred in nature.
I was honored to be taken into the confidence of the elders of all five surrounding Native American tribes – the Winnemem Wintu, Pit River, Shasta, Karuk and Modoc tribes. Up until then, the Native voice had largely been left out of the decision-making process regarding development. Their deep sacred bond to the mountain as a gift from the Creator and a place of worship stood in sharp contrast to the profit motives of the developers.
The Native American involvement proved to be a turning point in the campaign, eventually leading to a withdrawal of the permits for development in 1998. During the crusade to protect the mountain, the community, which had been so divided, changed its course. Many people came to realize that Mount Shasta was already valued for its magnificence and primordial beauty, and this also made economic sense. The region is a world-class attraction that would be greatly diminished by the commercialization of the mountain.
The deeper victory occurred when the developer himself came around to a new understanding. In a letter to the editor of the Mount Shasta Herald, he urged “everyone to move on and enjoy the mountain we all love”. We had long prayed for an outcome that would leave no bitterness and unify all positions in appreciation of the mountain. “Touch their hearts”, Charlene Jackson of the Modoc Tribe would say.
III. BUILDING THE MOUNTAIN INSIDE
In 2011, I handed over the reigns of the organization after having served as its founder and executive director for 23 years. In a ceremony to pass on the torch, I recited the following poem.
it’s the mountain
that flows through this work
it’s the mountain that lit my light
much bigger than just me…
at the base is a way of seeing and listening
to breathe in silence with the forest
until something responds
from the Oneness within all life…
high on the mountain in the early light
from deep in the night a long pure tone