“You are in the time of the interim, where everything seems withheld. The path you took to get here has washed out. The way forward is concealed from you. The old is not old enough to have died away; the new is still too young to be born.” ~ John O’Donohue, Celtic scholar, mystic and poet
Recently, the Public Radio program “On Being” interviewed several people about the spirituality of running. The most riveting interview was of Billy Mills, a Native American runner who won gold in the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Olympics. Just as he was nearing the finish line with nothing left, he glanced at the runner he was passing and saw an eagle on the guy’s shirt. He thought of his dead father telling him, “You do these things, Son. Someday, you can have wings of an eagle.”
Inspired, Billy Mills flew the last 60 meters to set a world record. No American has since won gold in that event. After he got over the shock of winning, he went to find the guy whose singlet had propelled him over that last bit of track. There was no eagle on the shirt. In that moment, he understood the power of perception. “I realized that perceptions create us or destroy us, but we have that opportunity to create our own journey.” Even more moving is what he says about his true motivation for running:
“It was, in a sense, not to win a gold medal at the Games, although I wanted to try to win the gold medal. I wanted to try to get a world record. But the number one objective of my Olympic pursuit was to heal a broken soul. And I look back — it just blows me away. A 77-year-old man, and I know what it is to be broken, but I also know what it is to be on a healing journey. You feel you’re never healed, but the journey is a lifetime.” ~ Billy Mills, 1964 Olympic gold medalist in the 10,000 meters
This theme of brokenness and unraveling has echoes in an old mythic tale from storyteller Michael Meade. We live in what he calls “black dog times.” This story is from his book, Why the World Doesn’t End.
The ancestors tell of a special cave in the mountains where an old woman is weaving the most beautiful garment in the world. She is almost finished, but while she stirs the soup in a great cauldron at the back of the cave a black dog awakens, starts pulling on a loose thread of the garment and unravels it. The black dog is her dog. This has probably happened before. When the old woman returns she picks up the threads of the garment, and begins again to weave an even more beautiful cloak.
We live in “black dog” times, when much in the fabric of nature and culture is being unraveled. I sometimes fall into that mindset of things being bleak, hopeless, impossibly screwed up, dumpster fires and shitshows everywhere you turn. And yet our time is also a rich opportunity to rediscover stories that nourish and inspire us to continue on our own healing journeys. Stories like these—whether actual events or mythic tales from the ancestors—help me to see the “worst of times” story through a larger frame. Things are always breaking and unraveling, decaying and dying, and being reborn anew.
As I write, right now, a hawk is circling in the late-summer blue, crying her kweep kweep kweep. The sunlight shines through her trailing wing feathers, creating a golden glow that sets off the silhouette of her body and tail. The hawk traces great looping circles, receding as she rides the thermals up and up. Utterly effortless and at home, this animal belongs with a fierceness that awakens a longing in my heart.
“We belong to this world. The web of life is calling us forth at this time.” ~ Joanna Macy, ecophilosopher and author of Active Hope and Coming Back to Life
In these “black dog” times there is a special opportunity to pick up a thread and begin with others to re-weave a more beautiful garment. Jim Hall and I will be co-leading a nature and soul retreat in the wild, beautiful mountain and river lands of Rolling Ridge near Charles Town, West Virginia. Our retreat is called “Thriving on the Threshold: Becoming a Community of the New Story.” We will explore and encounter beings in the great forest, listen to and share mythic stories from the land and from the deep past.
What thread of new story might be yours to pick up and begin to weave with others? What ancient wisdom and practice might be drawing you? Every small gesture that we make is invaluable in weaving a new and more beautiful fabric of life for our Earth home. Join us on retreat in October and see what we can weave together.
Thanks to Jim Hall whose words I have borrowed here.