10-Day Journey, Day 10: Neighbors
On this trip I’ve been experiencing the interplay between big open spaces and little cramped ones. I’ve been wanting to withdraw from human society for a few days to be alone in nature. But perversely, I seem to learn the most from random encounters I didn’t seek with people I don’t understand.
This is what it looks like at the beach at Cape Lookout State Park — vast, empty spaces, great natural beauty — ah, just what I’m seeking!
This is what it looked like when I got to my campsite — small spaces crammed with parents, kids, lovers, friends, dogs and stuff — just what I’m seeking to avoid!
My mind goes into overdrive. It’s my vacation for God’s sake! Is a little peace and quiet too much to ask? Maybe I can find a motel in town with no one around and a nice view.
15 feet away two light-skinned teenage girls are making dinner, while a dark-skinned woman in her 20s goes back and forth to their van. They’re all overweight, and I notice the bags of candy and junk food piled up on their picnic table. Who are they? Could the woman be the girls’ mother? Aunt? Nanny?
I try saying hi to one of the girls. She squirms and looks away.
The smoke from their campfire is blowing thick grilled-meat clouds at my picnic table. In order to breathe while I have my salad and vege noodle soup, I have to set up my little portable camp table and chair near the parking area. Then one of them turns up their music, which blasts in my direction, and they all start laughing. This is shaping up to be a fun night.
While I’m sipping my wine and eating my canned fish and salad, I watch the girls standing by their fire cooking their dinner. One is holding hot dogs on sticks, the other has marshmallows. The woman is looking my way so I catch her eye. “It looks like you’ve got all the basic camp food groups covered!” I say laughing, nodding at the hot dogs and marshmallows. She laughs with me, and we start a conversation. I try to identify her accent. Carribean? I ask her where she’s from.
“Aloha,” she says.
“Hawaii?” I say.
“No!” she says, “Oregon!” She cracks up laughing, and I join her.
We talk about camping. “They don’t give us lots of space here,” I observe.
“Thats okay,” she says. “We’re all friends, right? And we’ve always got the beach.”
Later she walks over holding a gooey mound on a paper plate. “What’s that?” I say.
“The girls want you to have it,” she says. There’s a huge, gooey marshmallow, two graham crackers, and dripping chocolate.
“S’mores!” I say. She nods. I look at the s’mores. That’s more sugar and fat than I’d have in a week. “Thank you, that’s so nice! I’m not so sure I can eat all this …”
She interrupts me. “The girls made it for you,” she says simply, and leaves it on the table.
I look over at the girls and wave. “Thank you!” I say. They smile back shyly.
I put the s’mores on one of my plates, cut off a little piece, and eat it, thinking of campfires when I was a teenager. Then I bring back the rest, still on my plate, over to their camp site. The music is turned up, and they’re playing cards.
“Poker?” I say.
“Go Fish!” says one of the girls.
“The s’mores is delicious,” I say. “Thank you! The thing is, when you get to be my age, you can’t eat so much.” The three of them look at each other, and then at me, nodding knowingly. “So I’d like to share the rest with you, okay? You can just bring back my plate when you’re done.” They accept this.
“I’d like to give you something back, but I don’t know what. Lettuce, cucumber, blueberries, wine, canned sardines, granola?”
“Not necessary,” says the woman. “The pleasure of your company is enough.”
“Wow,” I say, “you are smooth!” The three of them laugh. Then they go back to their cards.
The next morning at sunrise I go to the beach to meditate and write and walk, feeling serene in the vast, empty space.
My friends from India have told me that when they go to retreats at ashrams back home, they become reacquainted with a world where people are crowded together. For them, a retreat is not alone time in nature. It is living with others in a crowded place in silent harmony.
To be a human in quiet isolation in nature is not a natural state today on this planet. It is a privelege, a gift, an accident of where I live. Can I learn to live in harmony with my neighbors wherever I am, to hear God’s voice everywhere, in both the big, empty spaces and the small, crowded ones?
When I get back to the camp site, my three neighbors are gone. My plate, the one that held the s’mores, is back on the table, washed clean. When I open the supplies box to put it away, I see a blue book inside. The Book of Mormon. Inscribed inside it says, “We hope that you will find the love and guidance from God that we’ve been blessed to receive. If you feel so moved, please join us at our church when you’re in Portland.” And it gives the address.
These neighbors gave me gifts that are precious to them. I look over at their empty campsite, at the other campsites around me, at the distant hills above the ocean. The s’mores I’ve already handled. Next task: decide what to do with the blue book in my supplies box.