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.

My buddy Marianne Abel-Lipschutz wanted to feel at home in my home, the woods, so she stayed overnight in one of the Prairiewoods Hermitages, rustic cabins nestled into the warm embrace of the woodlands. Here is the story of her first experience there …

Last spring I chose one of the hermitages for my first overnight at Prairiewoods. The buildings intrigued me—furnished bunkers set literally between prairie and woods. I explored the simple space while unpacking my things and making a cup of tea. A corner cabinet offered books, blank journal pages I could add to and drawers full of handy supplies—flashlights, bandages, notepaper, batteries, a transistor radio, playing cards, a phone book. A welcome binder under a daily devotional profiled the myriad possibilities of a stay at Prairiewoods.

I leafed through the binder just long enough to discover the page headlined “Nuclear Emergency Action Plan.” I scanned the two-sided sheet, imagining the “You Are Here” spot on my chair and the dotted line six miles northwest to the Duane Arnold Energy Center (DAEC) at the bullseye on the danger zone map. I felt like the stunned character in a 1970s cult cartoon, “Bambi meets Godzilla,” which showed the catastrophic meeting in the forest. Bambi, a lightly drawn image of meekness, munches twigs for 60 seconds. Then Godzilla’s right paw stomps downward through the center of the screen, squashing the fawn flat. Like Bambi, I had never considered my nuclear emergency action plan, a subject so far outside my typical circle of contemplation I could only reach for the jasmine tea.

This consciousness-raising whopper and the weekend’s sessions expanded my preconceived image of an idyllic spiritual retreat. Staying at Prairiewoods put the nuclear plant in my backyard in a way I couldn’t ignore. I’d driven past the clouds of fission-generated steam rising off the cooling towers while driving on the interstate many times, vaguely aware of their source. I casually disregarded them the way I ignored the rank smell of metric tons of oats roasting in downtown Cedar Rapids. Even though I lived 62 miles away, I couldn’t pretend my life existed outside of a nuclear energy zone. I had to make room for the specter of nuclear disaster as part of my community.

Hermitage 12_squareRight away I felt grateful that someone valued my presence enough to inform me about the emergency plan. I thought of all the placards on the back doors of hotel rooms I’d read; none of them cautioned specifically about tornado, flood or nuclear disaster. Later I learned about the reactor facility, built in the 1970s, and how years of extensive cooperation for disaster preparedness in the greater metro area helped prevent loss of life in the 2008 floods. The DAEC pamphlets used familiar words: resource use, environment, safety, protection, power, household needs. Yet their assurance of safe operations fell short of my truer needs.

At sessions during the Beauty is the Path to God’s Life Retreat, presenter Father John Quigley, OFM, helped us explore mind-shifting reversals about our images of God’s creative power that infiltrated my awareness. John cast a vision of God as “an eternal furnace freely breathing ecstatic joy,” a compelling contrast to Godzilla’s destructive atomic breath colored by radioactive heat waves flaming red and blue out of the monster’s mouth. God’s almighty breath will always overwhelm any real threat. “To just share a breath together is eternal,” John said. Love is a simple and effective emergency plan.

The generating capacity of God’s protection cannot be measured. Kindness, goodness, simplicity and love can empower our lives when we open our hearts and minds to the Source of all being. Like the concentration of spiritual energy at the center of the labyrinth, God welcomes us at whatever ground zero we face. We can walk the circular path without fear, returning to the Source again and again to restore the breath of life within us. Prairiewoods acts as a counterbalancing force in the danger zone, marked by a radiant footprint rather than a radioactive one.

—Marianne Abel-Lipschut, program participant