My Light Opera Vision Quest by Coral Gaggiani
I soon found out that this quest was to take place in the great outdoors where I would be required to go off by myself for a couple of days without food.
It wasn’t really my decision to go on the women’s Spirit Quest, at least not consciously. I only had a vague idea of what it was. It was over a bottle of wine with two dear men in my life, Eric, the Breitenbush Events Coordinator, and Tim, my partner, that I expressed a deep desire to go. The notion arose from some murky, intuitive region in Goddess knows what part of my brain or being. I had lived at Breitenbush for a year and a half and had never participated in a workshop. These good men of my life demolished all of my excuses. It was time to nurture myself. It was time to receive as well as give.
I thought the women’s Spirit Quest would be a time for some safe ceremonies and group interactions, and that would be it. I thought it would be good to spend some time with women, exploring feminine mysteries. After all, I was writing a book called “In Search of the Goddess.” I soon found out that this quest was to take place in the great outdoors where I would be required to go off by myself for a couple of days without food. I would have to track down major camping equipment, including a fancy backpack, and commit to carrying all of my comforts up a mountain track, part of the time bushwhacking through the timber.
I’d never camped in anything more rustic than a KOA with bathrooms and water faucets. The whole thing sounded like an intriguing adventure, but the timing didn’t feel entirely right. I was physically shaky because I had just kicked my coffee habit. And, though I’m fairly tough, suffering is no longer my path to God.
After I was told that I didn’t have to fast, I finally decided to go for it. Several wonderful friends offered me the use of their high tech camping equipment (and expert advise on how to use it). Spirit seemed to be leading me in this dance and I decided to trust, despite my misgivings.
Spirit Quest. That was what it was called. I wanted to reconnect with my source; to be open to encounters with the numinous. I have been a closet mystic all my life and used to read books on Catholic saints when I was very young. I wasn’t even raised Catholic, but Protestants didn’t seem to get to do such exciting, vaguely Pagan things like seeing the Virgin Mary in a grotto—certainly not the Presbyterians, at any rate.
When I grew older and became dissatisfied with some of the exclusive elements of Christianity, I graduated to reading about the great yogis and their transcendent experiences. I ached to see through the veil that separated me from the great “I Am.” I envisioned myself as an aesthetic, meditating for years until I finally could commune with the Realized Ones who dwell in higher realms. But as much as I wanted to go to God realization with the help of the gurus, the Hindu path didn’t really speak to my deepest core. In the end, both Catholic and Hindu traditions seemed to guide me to a place in the woods beyond which I’d have to bushwhack my own path, just like the women on the Spirit Quest intended to do.
I was tired of trying to be who I “should be.” I wanted to be who I was, but I was still unsure of whom that might be.
I have always been a little cynical about the possibility of actually getting in touch with spirits that might offer me guidance and protection. At times I have glimpsed such encounters, but it was so ephemeral, I suspected it was imaginary. “Live in the real world” was what my rational mind would jump in and tell me. “Deal with life as if is, not as you want it to be.” There was great confusion within me. I earnestly wanted to believe in the spirituality of life, yet I couldn’t trust spirit enough to have the kind of deep faith I wanted so badly.
Opening your heart is a dangerous business and idealistic trust of spirit a tenuous road. And yet, without trust, life has no meaning. It had become obvious to me that I wasn’t “getting” something important. When we were asked by the Spirit Quest leaders Hanneli Francis and Melanie Rose to set an intention for the Quest, I asked for clarity.
After an intense, cathartic sweat lodge, where we wailed and laughed in a dark hut resembling the womb of Mother Earth, it was time to go up the mountain. Still high from that experience, I volunteered to drive to the trailhead from which we’d hike to an isolated lake in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson. The poor souls in my car wound up eating the dust of two cars ahead of us as we climbed a road so steep and full of washboards it threatened to send my little Thunderbird slipping over the edge into eternity. “So this is what happens when you open up your heart to spirit guidance and stick your neck out,” I mused silently.
Sometimes the haze was so thick I had trouble seeing the car ahead of me, but I had to follow closely because I didn’t know the way. The stalwart woman who rode beside me covered her nose with a cloth just so she could breathe, but I had to stay focused and endure.
“I’m so glad you’re driving. My palms are sweating,” my passenger confided as we skirted a sheer cliff on a road so narrow there was no way an oncoming car could get past us. Little did she know I’m used to driving in South Florida, a state so flat that ten feet above sea level is mountain view property!
True to my usual pattern, I didn’t allow myself to freak out until we reached the trailhead. There, drained by the sweat lodge and the drive, I had to take several breaks to breathe slowly and calm my pounding heart.
I tried to focus on the rituals our leaders had prepared for us before we chose our own space. At this point, however, what I really wanted to do was get my tent up and crawl into my sleeping bag. What had I gotten myself into? Now I was going to be in seclusion for forty-eight hours and besides that, I was going to have to drive back down that friggin’ road!
I found my tent site quickly, a clearing near the lake with a terrific view of lovely, ethereal Mount Jefferson rising above the wooded ridges. It seemed so impossibly beautiful, it had to be painted on the air. The sight of this mountain, sacred to the Native Americans, gave me strength to go on.
Although I couldn’t locate a level spot, I put my tent up quickly, managing to find a fairly good place for my sleeping bag where I wouldn’t be slipping down into the lake. Exhausted, I placed a sacred circle of rocks around my tent, did a few half-hearted rituals for protection, then crawled into my sleeping bag while it was still daylight. I was too tired to get up and explore the dark, starry night. It was too damn cold to dance naked like a wood nymph and, besides, the mosquitoes were out.
The sleeping bag I had borrowed was supposed to be good for temperatures down to fifteen degrees, but it wasn’t living up to its reputation. Even with a woolen hat and my partner’s polypropylene underwear, my neck and shoulders were still freezing. I missed the feel of my partner’s hard, fuzzy, masculine body against me. I missed his reassuring presence. I had asked him to light a candle for me the first night and I felt him with me despite it all. I had tried to light a candle myself, but the matches I brought with me didn’t work. In my fatigue, self-doubt came up to torment me and I wondered if I would last. I wanted someone to stick me in the trunk of my car and drive me back to my warm trailer and my supportive honey. It was a long night of sleeplessness and convoluted dreams, but finally dawn came filtering through the nylon walls of my tent.
I was here to make myself open to spirit guidance despite everything, so I forced myself to sing to the mountain. When the early sun had subdued the morning chill, I was able to take off my warm clothes and put on my hot pink sarong. Sun block, water and notebook in hand, I found a halfway comfortable place on the rocky beach and settled down to journal. I wrote freely, from my pain and from my heart, asking for guidance, yet feeling that I couldn’t quite trust it. Why did I always fluctuate back and forth from faith to cynicism? A psychic once told me that I often call for help from spirit and then I put up so many walls nothing can come through. Somehow, I knew that my inability to trust was intimately connected to painful unresolved issues with my mother.
Slowly, I allowed the land to support and nurture me. I journaled. I did yoga. I wandered about the space on the shore that I was making into my home. I swam in the frigid, shallow lake. Sometimes I took off the sarong and let the sun warm my skin. At last, I was letting the healing energy of the place fill me.
Then, in the early afternoon, I had a great insight. It was up to me to heal my concept of love. Since childhood, I have tried to twist love into what it was not...excusing and justifying what I couldn’t endure. Once, many years ago during an Al-Anon meeting, a seventy year old child of an alcoholic who remembered the pain of her childhood as vividly as I did told me, “If it doesn’t feel like love, it isn’t.” There was no need to condemn or judge, but it was also crucial not to tell stories to make things all better. That came from fear, not faith.
It all started with Mother, when I tried to make her love into what it wasn’t to make myself feel safe. I fell into a despair with this insight and floated aimlessly on the lake. How could I know that any love in my life was real, if my concept of love was so distorted? It was then that my guides and teachers led me relentlessly back to my journal to work out the other piece of the puzzle.
In the past, my feelings towards those I loved had been desperate, like a craving for coffee that had to be satisfied, even though I knew it would make me feel depressed and a little ill later on in the day.
“If it doesn’t feel like love, it isn’t.” But the love in my life did feel like love now. It was as nourishing as a swim in the clean lake, as gentle as the early morning sun. There was no sick feeling to it at all. There was no one in my life I desperately needed, even though there were many whom I wanted to be around. Could it be that I was already free, yet just not recognizing it? Could it be that I was truly healed? If so, perhaps I could now trust myself, just as my passenger had trusted me as we journeyed up that mountain road. Everyone had told me how well I had done, yet part of me hadn’t wanted to believe it. If I could open myself to the acknowledgement from others here in the material world, perhaps, similarly, I could open up to the spiritual realm I felt all around me.
In the sweat lodge, I had been clearly directed by spirit to sing an ancient Ave Maria I had learned many years ago. My first reaction was to scoff, “This is a Native American kind of ceremony. I can’t sing a Catholic chant.”
“Sing the Ave Maria!” the voice insisted. This beautiful music and my trained, light operatic voice reduced one of the women in the lodge to tears. It was exactly what she needed to connect with her mother, who had recently passed on to the other world. Trust was often so hard for me, but it wasn’t spiritual guidance I doubted. It was my own ability to hear it and know it for what it was.
After this insight, I sat at the rough altar I had made outside my tent in sight of the sacred mountain. For hours I chanted to the Goddess, using all the names I knew from the ancient mythology I loved so dearly. I sang and beat on an old piece of wood for a drum. I chanted to Hecate, Kali, Diana, Tara, Gaia, Athena, and other goddesses. As I sang to Her, the sacred mountain sat there serenely while a storm gathered over the lake and the sky darkened. I saw her, imperturbable in the murky light of evening, and realized that she had been there for thousands of years and would be there for thousands more. I felt her as a living presence and wondered if she could perceive me as well. My heart felt nourished and strengthened and I did not push the love away to make myself safe from disappointment.
Snug and secure, without a trace of fear, I heard the claps of thunder and the hail pelting upon my tent. The wind raced in afterwards, whipping at my home. Hav-ing figured out how to use the cord at the top to keep in the heat, I climbed into my sleeping bag and slept toasty warm.
I have known many times when it was a struggle to face the day. It has often taken all my courage to hold onto life, hoping that a tempest of emotional and physical hell would finally pass. And yet the storms did pass and here I was, healthy and happy, living in a spectacular place with a super relationship.
Wasn’t it time to be grateful? Wasn’t it time to see that, despite my confusion, love and guidance had been there all of the time? Clarity had come.
Coral undertook her spiritual adventure on a Spirit Quest led by Hanneli Francis and Melanie Rose in August, 1998. She lives and works at Breitenbush Hot Springs with her partner, Tim Zook, where she is completing her novel In Search of the Goddess. Writing this book has been a transforming experience and she fervently hopes that her readers will be inspired to explore their own goddess connections.