The Sacred Life of Boxes
For the past six months two seemingly different circumstances have been “working” me. The first is a commitment that Gisela Wendling, Holger Scholtz and I made last summer to organize a special retreat at his family farm, the Beuerhof (in the Vulcan Eifel region of Germany East of Cologne). We are calling it Leading as Sacred Practice. You can infer from the name that this is moving into new territory.
The second circumstance is moving from San Francisco after 40 years!
Let’s start with the retreat. At the time of our commitment we did not have an agenda, or design, but were in the grip of a very strong intention and life experience. We ALL are in touch with our spiritual paths, all practicing in different ways, and all find it challenging to integrate this orientation into everyday life. Gisela has a Ph.D. studying liminal processes and rites of passage. Holger has been doing medicine ceremony and circle way practice for years. Vision questing and meditation are a key part of my personal life. We also all feel that in this time when we consultants are facing every more complex challenges it is important to connect up.
We ended up inviting Alan Briskin to join us in our inquiry into the sacred. Alan is a long-time organization consultant with a passion for collective wisdom, and has even written about that subject. The four of us then embarked on a series of zoom calls and a face-to-face gathering in May to plan the retreat and open up an invitation to others intrigued with this challenge. We made a brochure; created a web site post, created our design, and began communicating with colleagues (The retreat is September 5-9.)
About the Boxes
Over this same time period Gisela and I decided to buy a home together in Petaluma, California, 38 miles north of San Francisco. Gisela supported me in holding my wife Susan’s death as a rite of passage, one of the biggest one can have I can say in retrospect. We fell in love. We will marry this summer.
It’s relatively straightforward to actually buy a home, I discovered. Banks want to lend money for a good value. But moving after 40 years wasn’t easy. I had to empty my flat in San Francisco where I’d lived since 1982, create a little city apartment in my old studio, prep the old flat for rent, and move into our new Amber Way home. This is where the boxes come in. There were so many of them I started dreaming about boxes. But are they sacred?
They are practical. You can’t move very easily without boxes. But boxes, I’ve come to see now, became proxies for mental categories. What to keep? What to throw away? What to to give away? What is sacred? I had boxes for all these categories, and they were categories of types of relationships. In the last six months I’ve touched everything Susan and I ever owned and kept! At one point our kids, Thom, Jerda, and Phil, came down for a weekend to determine what things they wished to keep as remembrances. The experience is still raw for all of us, and the things she had touched and used where touchstones to our most precious memories. Nineteen boxes went north to Portland where Jerda and Phil live. Others went to San Rafael with Thom. (Valentine didn’t join us, but communicated that she wanted some of Susan’s writing—that was sacred to her).
Leading as Sacred Practice Retreat. Moving boxes full of objects, some sacred. Thoughts about the two have danced in my life now for more than six months.
What Is Sacred?
Some insights are emerging. Alan helped us define sacred for our retreat brochure. “By sacred we like Ann Dosher’s definition of sacred as ‘that which has value in and of itself and gives meaning to the whole’.” As a Presbyterian minister’s son, I know how much language has been generated about this subject. I know how easy it is to use language and miss the experience. I also live in a consulting community when some brand themselves as transformational consultants, teaching at this level. What does “sacred” really mean?
Susan was a Henry James scholar and student of the way the literary community responded to industrialization and the onset of electricity and our modern age. She preferred fountain pens to e-mail. The language of the “new age” tended to put her off. She wasn’t a Sufi, but would have liked their practice of not talking about the divine directly. I’m not so allergic to technology, but share her love of the unmediated encounter of human beings.
In confronting our boxes and Susan’s life in kitchen tools, flower pots, dolls, loved books, music collections, I realized that Susan held many things as sacred. The trust and hope of children was sacred to her, as a poet teacher in the schools. Our garden and the special flowers were sacred. Food was sacred — it’s smell, and textures, and taste. Music was sacred, like Brahms, her father’s favorite. Good conversation was sacred. Loving touch. Community was sacred. And her children were sacred. Her love was unqualified.
Without Susan in this world of flesh any more, her essence and spirit have spread out to all of us who knew her. These things she held sacred now leap out at me.
When Gisela and I found our Amber Way home, we walked into this room pictured here where a half dozen very large coastal life oaks hold the whole house. They are visible from every north window along the long reach of both floors. It seemed like a sacred energy field. In fact we call this room (shown here) “the sactuary.”
This sense of the sacred has growth. I was born in Petaluma many years ago, raised in the high Sierra, schooled in LA and Chicago, and lived in San Francisco since 1969. But returning to the smells, and light, and air in Petaluma has struck a deep chord. I am connected here in an irrational and deep way.
I felt this same sense of sacred at the Beuerhof with Holger. He was raised on this 70 acre farm. Archie Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota Medicine Man who created sweats along the Berlin Wall, and was called to do sacred ceremony there for many years while Holger was a young man. He clearly felt the specialness of this land. I think our call to retreat there is connected to Gisela and my call to live among the oaks. We as hungry to listen to the land as to each other.
The boxes are now stored, or given, or unpacked. Some of their objects, the precious ones, are out and about, and call me to continue to reflect on “what is sacred.” Yes, it does often involve inherent value, and also involves the type of relationship I’m willing to open to. I sometimes fall into the feeling that everything is filled with a special vibrancy, and that the sacred is widely distributed. Then I come back to the mundane, and feeling separate. How do we navigate this kind of territory? How do we keep a sense of the whole? How do we come back to respect for the trust of children, the importance of good food, the presence of trees?
I’ve come to see that our program designs, plans, languages and even homes themselves as a bit like boxes. They hold our precious lives. They allow for movement and storage. But I suspect it’s the flow of our connections with what’s in these boxes that is makes them sacred.