Saturday was so warm that none of us could sit still. I felt tingly all over, rousing and uncurling in the light. In the eyes of my children I could see that they felt it too. We put on sandals and swim trunks and marched off through suburbia to the tiny enclave of wildness at the end of our street, a steep-banked stream just beyond the sightline of lawn ornaments and vinyl siding.
I have decided that I do not like the term ‘mindfulness’. I have spent years with an inner voice urgently, persistently exhorting me to be ‘mindful’. But it doesn’t work. The word itself evokes the mind, and that is, for me, the very thing I long to escape. I prefer the term, and the sensation, of ’embodiment’. Ahh. Can’t you just feel the difference? It’s a soft breath, a delicious sinking into the senses, the pleasure of warm sun striking the skin, scent of oniongrass and chickweed, coolness of dusty feet in the water.
Growing up Quaker, I often heard the story of Levi Coffin, a Quaker who worked on the Underground Railroad assisting escaped slaves on their journey North to freedom. The story goes that he built a false bottom into his wagon so that he could smuggle people along with his deliveries of clay goods. One day as he was making such a delivery, he was stopped on the road by a group of men chasing down the very people he had hidden in his wagon. They asked him directly: “What are you carrying in that wagon?” Quakers, as they knew, must speak honestly–it is a cornerstone of the faith.
He answered them clearly and calmly: “only earthen vessels.” They let him pass.
How I love that term–‘earthen vessels’. Not spirit only, not body only, but holy in the very clay, sanctified in the experience of being alive. I was reminded of this story because as we wandered and poked and waded in the stream, we noticed one patch of bank that held all manner of interesting tracks in clear detail. The boys studied them, dug around them, and discovered that the ground here was almost pure clay.
Thrilled, they immediately sat down and began to sculpt small bowls, clay eggs “for the spring altar”, rings and letters and figures. Caught up in their enthusiasm, I dug some clay too and held it dripping in my hands. I watched them with their clay eggs and clay nests filled with river rock ‘eggs’ and could feel so strongly, from my sacrum and stomach and heart, the upwelling of spring, ongoing and unbroken. And I sculpted too, and we gathered runaway daffodils and violets and scooped flowers and clay and river rocks onto a flat stone beneath a tree, celebrating.
I didn’t have to be mindful. I could feel cool mud on my feet, feel the wet weight of clay seeping between my fingers, fully absorbed in the light on the water and the art I was making. I was in my body, sacred, slow. Savoring my freedom. The constant stimulation of wilder places—wind, motion, danger, beauty, detail, change—leaves no room for preoccupations of the mind. It pulls us into our bodies. What a blessed relief.
We need wilderness for so many reasons, but I think we get lost sometimes in the responsibility of being caretakers. We forget the other side, that it takes care of us. And I think in remembering this, in remembering that we are earthen ourselves, we have the key to restoring that sacred and vital relationship.