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Holistic Health

Walking the Labyrinth

Otis & Friends 4I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

In July 2012, a couple from Milwaukee who introduced themselves as LoriLee and Jeff explored the woods and prairie that make up Prairiewoods’ 70 acres. When they returned home to our neighbor to the north, LoriLee wrote a short essay about their experience and shared it with those of us who love Prairiewoods …

A charming and fragrant pine chip trail wound softly through the sun-dappled woods on the grounds of a spiritual center in Hiawatha, Iowa. As Jeff and I wandered along, we came upon a warm and worn, sand and brick labyrinth at the edge of the woods. I had read about labyrinths serving as meditation devices and was excited to try it out.

I hopped straightaway into the labyrinth at the closest random point. I felt a bit uneasy as I began to navigate this maze. The concentric and winding path led me at times closer to and then farther from the center of the network. Surprisingly, after 10 minutes of what I imagined was movement toward the heart of all the circles, I found my self standing at an outermost spot, the farthest arc from the middle point goal. It was a dead end and yet, coincidentally, the only true entrance to the labyrinth. The only available next move was to step out or to turn around and step back in.

It was clear that I had to start all over again. Apparently my arbitrary entry point choice led me not to the core, but rather directed me back to the proper place to start. I laughed and was tempted to call it quits, but I was committed to being present and fully engaged on this day of exploration. My thoughts at this moment were—no matter what my ego chooses as the easiest, safest or “good enough” starting point in this “game” (as in life) God apparently will lead me back to where I need to begin. There is only one “true” place to start—at the source. In this moment I chose to experience this “sporting” event not in my typical fashion (as a spectator rather than a full participant) and I jumped back in—mind, body and soul.

Labyrinth_LoriLee Villwock_smallAs I began, I fretted about the humidity and the length the labyrinth trek might take. Did I appear foolish by playing this silly maze-game? Was my incessant chatter a bit bizarre? Was Jeff inconvenienced by the amount of time this going around in circles was taking? Did I seem odd or egotistic, as I felt compelled to relay every little insecure and/or insightful impression? I was in a constant state of analysis and commentary feeling alternating periods of stress and peace. I literally talked to myself out loud, trying to discern the cause of both the anxiety and the calm.

While this walk was slow moving, it was equally engrossing. I had to constantly observe my feet without distraction so as not to stumble or trip off the path. The turns were apparent and sharp. I concentrated on the effort, but continued to stress about the extent and orientation of the path. It clearly must lead to the center, yet just when I thought I was close to the goal, the path steered me back toward the outer arcs of the labyrinth. I began to see the spiritual significance of this winding walk. The path was purposefully designed and thus, must be followed purposefully despite how uncomfortable and unproductive it felt to move forward only to turn another corner and fall back. This was an “aha” moment, and although I accepted this truth, I still hoped that I could soon be done with this winding up and away.

Have I mentioned that this little trek around this labyrinth was seriously slow? I couldn’t look ahead to predict how much farther I had to go because in taking my eyes off the path I would risk losing my balance. It was not possible to continue to move ahead sure-footed while simultaneously looking down and around the distant turns. I had to stay focused in the present and be mindful of my feet. Trudging ahead, I admit, I had fleeting moments of doubt. Would this path actually reach that solitary little seat waiting patiently in the middle? Ridiculous. I was certain I was on the only available route and it simply had to lead to the center. In that awareness I discovered something about my faith nature. Faith keeps me moving and steady. Faith assures the conviction in my plans and gives me clarity of purpose. I had to be ever faithful and attentive to stay steady on this path. I began to feel more at ease as I simply surrendered to the experience. I no longer saw value in the analyzing or predicting. Moving ahead became less about navigating and more about going with the flow. This concept I knew to be true on the labyrinth trail and on the walk of life.

Eventually, the path came to an end and I approached the wooden bench in the center of the labyrinth. As I sat down, it dawned on me that the trek itself far outweighed the achievement of sitting in the center and claiming the prize. Thus, this is what the labyrinth revealed—life is in the journey, not the circumstances, perils or milestones that pop up along the way. In the end, it wasn’t the arrival at the center that seemed most satisfying. I felt accomplishment in the actual walking of the labyrinth despite all the things I endured that went against my nature: the absolute, non-negotiable, non-creative start point; the need to recognize the truth of that and acquiesce in the start-over directive; the slow, methodical progress that forced me to accept and appreciate equally the forward and backward procession; the focus on one task without distraction; and the faith to know that there was an achievable end point, a true purpose to the journey in spite of my occasional and very human doubt and discomfort. Most of all, I had to acknowledge that the “prize” at the end meant far less to me than the journey experience itself.

At the end of the path I felt a wave of gratitude. I was grateful that while I started the labyrinth according to the needs of my personality/ego (just jump in and figure it out as you go), the call of my soul won the day by sending me back to the authentic starting point, the truth as it were. This allowed the full journey experience to unfold. I was grateful that I was with my husband who kept the conversation going, asked me to consider other wonders and possibilities and, I think, learned something about his own personality and spirit in the process.

It is a wonder and revelation to clearly see why my personality occasionally causes me to lose my way. In that awareness, I can trust that I will proceed on my life’s path however God directs me—one foot in front of the other. My faith and resolve to move ahead is fortified. I weathered the labyrinth, and it was good, really good.

—LoriLee Villwock, labyrinth lover from Milwaukee

Review of Renew Your Life: Discovering the Wellspring of God’s Energy by Kai Mark Nilsen

Otis & Friends 3I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Have you met my friend Mary Nilsen? She and her husband, Roy, have been coming to Prairiewoods for years, participating in everything from programs to holistic services. Here she tells us about a spiritual book written by her son, Kai …

How could we have known years ago, when the phone rang and the plaintive voice of our son said, “Dad?” that that call would find its way into a book; that my husband’s words, “You may have to muddle through this for awhile,” would become something of a mantra for him? But most important, how could we have known that the reason for the call, the withering time he was going through would lead him? push him? force him? into new discoveries about the restorative love of the God he worshipped and preached about every Sunday but had lost touch with?

Our son, Kai Nilsen, pastored a large suburban congregation—a dream job, but he had fallen into despair (a despair not unfamiliar to pastors or most anyone involved in a helping vocation or avocation, including parents). Simply put, he didn’t care. Not about his parishioners. Not about his community. Not about his family. And especially not about himself. The call to us, his parents, was the cry of a middle-aged man trapped in an arid, frightening place.

We were caught off guard. And after the conversation we were left with the powerlessness parents feel when their adult children are in trouble. All we could do was pray and trust that he would find some way to access the same divine energy that had helped us muddle through similar times in our lives. And trust that in this wilderness struggle, God would provide all he needed.

Mary and Roy Nilsen 3The wisdom gained from that dark time is shared in this compelling book filled with stories both humorous and poignant. Beyond that, Kai sets his experience (and the experience of so many Christians) within the biblical foundation of the creation story, where he discovers the renewable energy of God, an energy available to us all. He also gives to his readers common sense practices that can help them move more quickly through those times of muddling through.

This book can give to individuals going through dark times a sense that they are not alone. It is also designed to be read and studied in groups—granting time and space for people to admit their plunges into apathy and doubt, share wisdom gained from such times, and grow in faith that the same God who walked with the Israelites through the wilderness and accompanied Jesus during his wilderness sojourn will be with them, giving them energy for the day and hope for tomorrow.

Kai explores seven energies released at the time of creation and available to all who are open to receiving them:

1. The energy of grace—How can I both accept and pass on the graces God is eager to bestow?

2. The energy of possibility—How can I tend to the life I now have and at the same time stay open to the possibilities for something new?

3. The energy of paradox—How can I learn to accept the “unwanted” as gift? To say yes to both light and storm?

4. The energy of the natural world—How can I regain my child-like wonder at the beauty of the day? The power of a storm? The delight of a rain shower? And in so doing, how can I learn to coexist with all of creation?

5. The energy of relationships—How can I open myself to both give and receive so that I can gain energy from relationships instead of letting them drain me?

6. The energy of fruitful work—How can I be energized to develop respect for and joy in both what I do for a living and what I do to keep living?

7. The energy of rest—How can I organize my life so that I can receive the energy that comes through rest, whether that rest is sleep or meditative prayer or a long walk in the woods?

We are grateful that Kai muddled through, that he learned in and through the muddling, that he was given the energy to move out of that place of frustration, and that he has done the hard work of writing it all down in a way that can be helpful to others who wake up one day and realize that they simply don’t care.

—Mary Nilsen, long-time friend of Prairiewoods

The Prairiewoods Knitters & Stitchers

Otis & Friends 2I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Today I want to introduce you to Linda Martin and her friends, the Prairiewoods Knitters & Stitchers. This group of crafty humans knits and crochets items for area charities. (They’ve even offered to make me a sock to keep my tail warm this winter!) Feel free to join Linda and this fun group …

A group of ladies gather the second Tuesday morning and fourth Wednesday evening of each month at Prairiewoods, with the intention of knitting or crocheting items for donation. The Prairiewoods Knitters & Stitchers has 18 members. Yarn that has been donated is used to make hats, mittens, scarves, blankets, and sweaters. Each meeting we share patterns and techniques and give help to those that need it. We welcome people with varying skills, including beginners. There will always be someone available at each meeting to assist.

This year we gathered over 500 items for donations to 8 local groups! Items were delivered to Veterans Outreach, Olivet Church, Catherine McCauley Center, Mission of Hope, Young Parent Network, Salem United Methodist Church, Linn County Child Development Center and a Baptist church in Marion.

In the past our group has participated as a Prairiewoods representative in Earth Day activities. We use our craft to knit and crochet with plastic bags we called plarn.

Prairiewoods Knitters and Stitchers participate in the yearly Prairiewoods Holiday Bazaar. Proceeds from the bazaar are used for needed supplies and operating expenses. We have donated money to Prairiewoods, to Grant Wood School Back Pack Program, and to Olivet Church.

Members of our group spend time during the summer in the Sprint Program at St. Paul’s Methodist Church. We help children learn how to knit, crochet and do other yarn crafts.

If you would like join us in our endeavors at Prairiewoods, call Prairiewoods (319-395-6700) and ask to be put in touch with Linda Martin.

—Linda Martin, member of Prairiewoods Knitters & Stitchers

2015 Knitters and Stitchers

Otis’ view of a weekend retreat

Otis & Friends 5I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

Hungry! I come hungry to the place where I know I’ll be fed: Prairiewoods. Overwhelmed with the burdens of caring for my family, scrambling for the few scraps tossed my way, and learning how to live peaceably with all my relations on the good Earth, coming here is like coming home. The peace washes over me when I reach the front doorway. It’s a lot less daunting when I know I’m surrounded by these beautiful trees, fresh water, and clean, breathable air. And here I’ll find the stillness. This is an oasis.”

Whether it’s me (Otis the squirrel) or Delilah the deer, Taproot the turkey, or a human-merely-being, the swaying prairie grasses and the gorgeous pines, oaks, and maples welcome everyone to the sacred stillness! We all come hungry. We all come weary from the labors that bend our backs and weaken our knees.

One brisk weekend in December, the Earth paused in the middle of a day’s rotation to welcome guests to the Stillness Retreat: “SSSH!” the trees said. “Hush!” the grasses whispered. “The humans are coming!” And our human guests arrived to candlelight and mystery, poetry and music, and breakfast at nightfall. The chill December shroud blanketed us all, and we heard the poetess Mary Oliver speak:

Otis relaxing with a cookie and some quiet

Otis relaxing with a cookie and some quiet

Today I’m flying low and I’m not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep. 
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

It feels so wonderful to rest! We all come hungry for stillness. We leave realizing we traveled a terrific distance, only to find the temple was inside us all the time. We just entered through the Prairiewoods doorway!

—Otis (as dictated to Laura A. Weber, Associate Director and Retreat Coordinator)

I stand with muskrats

Otis & Friends 3I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

I, Otis, being of sound mind and body, do solemnly swear … I had the bejeebers scared out of me the other day—but in a good way.

I was just minding my own business chasing a buddy around the trunk of a grandmother oak tree, like I’ve done a thousand times before, when all of the sudden he was there, standing right where I wanted to run. I thought about changing directions, but I didn’t want to show him I was scared. I thought about running smack into him, but he was bigger than me. When I was younger, we’d been told about “them muskrats” and how we should keep a safe distance between us and them because they weren’t us and they didn’t belong.

Even though I had a little streak of fear running through me, I just stopped where I was and stared. He had a kind of smile on his face, which took me by surprise. Yes, his teeth were crooked and bigger than mine, but he didn’t lunge at me and take a bite like Scoots said happened to him last summer.

I didn’t want to appear alarmed, so I pulled a peanut out of my cheek and started nibbling, real casual like. Rather than trying to grab my nut, he just leaned over and pulled up some sweet, wet grass to munch on. We just chewed and looked at each other for a while. It was funny, cuz he chewed his food really fast, just like me.

muskratI slowly inched toward him and could smell the wetness in his fur. My hair was flowy and dry from the breeze high up in the tree. He didn’t seem to be too concerned about me, but when I tried to bark a few lines at him, he scrunched up his furry face like he didn’t understand. He worked his nose in little circles like he was trying to write something on the wind. When he did reply, it was a squeak I didn’t recognize. I just nodded a little and made some more noise too, like I got him.

The other young squirrels slowly poked their heads around the tree one by one and joined in the chatter until we were all laughing and rolling on the ground. I don’t know if we’ll be able to be friends, but I have this feeling that if I ever got in trouble, he’d be there to help me, and that’s a feeling I can live with. I can’t wait to tell the rest of the scurry that I stood with a muskrat and lived to tell.

—Otis (as transcribed by Rodney Bluml, Program & Hosted Group Coordinator)