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After spending thirty years in a monastery, I moved to West Virginia to live as a hermit in voluntary poverty and simplcity. Using vignettes of the sometimes discouraging, sometimes humerous, always challenging incidents of learning to live without indoor plumbing, burn firewood, and slog through endless mud with my snowy white cat, Merton the Tom, I relate how I found God where I never expected.
Little House in a Holler
Screwdriver in one hand, a can of WD-40 in the other, my friend Jeanne scurried up the long drive with me on a sticky July day. As we strode past towering weeds, she muttered about unreliable people who promise to leave keys behind and then drive off, taking them to another state.
A month had passed since I had arrived in Colt Run, a month of rain and mud, during which I had waited impatiently at the gruest hermitage at Jeanne and Jane's place while the family up the road- living in what I had begun to think of as "my house" - got their vehicles running, their possessions together, and their plans implemented for a move out of West Virginia.
"This may not work," Jeanne said darkly, as we approached the weathered house sheltered under huge pines. A narrrow walk curved toward the steps leading up to the front door I had tried unsuccessfully to open for the past hour. Dilapidated as the house appeared, the front door, stoutly padlocked, was formidable. Low and wide, four inches thick, this door had defeated my every effort to enter this Appalachian cabin I was hoping to turn into a hermitage.
The former tenants had pulled out that morning, promising to leave the key in the mailbox on the ridge. I had made the twenty-minute trek up the now-familiar hill, only to discover that the key was not there - or anywhere else. With my frustration peaking, I tramped back to Jeanne and Jane's place to explain my dilemna.
Jeanne wasted no time gathering the requisite tools, and soon we were trotting up the dirt road that separated the two houses in Colt Run holler. Together we faced the enemy. The weathered door, with its padlock gleaming maliciously, defied us as we tried first one key and then another.
Finally, a few squirts of WD-40 and an expert twist of the Phillips screwdriver loosened the entire lock from the door frame, and door swung heavily inward. I stepped over the threshold and took a deep breath - which I immediately regretted. Cats and mice had cohabited with the former tenants, and their presence was evident! I looked about apprehensively, noting faded calico tacked along the lower half of the living room walls. "What's behind that?" I asked.
"Nothing but studs," Jeanne responded. "The fellow who remodeled this place planned to build a couch around the walls ...left the state before finishing the job," she added vaguely while kicking at the rippled carpeting.
I considered the rough hewn boards set in a diagonal pattern along the upper walls. "Creative," I murmured, not realizing just how flimsy "artistic" construction could be.
A piano leaned against one wall, its yellowed and broken keys predicting how wretchedly out of tune it was. It was the only piece of furniture in the room except for a velvet armchair of indefinable color.
I turned toward a windowed alcove. A low table surrounded by a built-in bench reminded me of an Oriental tea-room. The odor was stronger here, and I noticed stains on the sloping ceiling. It had been casually mentioned that the ceiling leaked whenever it rained ...
A rumbling vibration startled me, and I stared in awe as the old refrigerator, graciously left for my use, kicked into action.
"Oh, God!" Jeanne exclaimed. "How can anyone live with that kind of noise?"
I was about to respond when the pump under the kitchen sink began to whine, something it did at twenty-minute intervals because of a slow leak somewhere in the line. I swung open the copboard that caged the pump, and my heart dropped when I noticed rotting wood beneath the holding tank. The aroma of mold was strong. The stained sink and blackened countertops appalled me, and I reeled back, bumping into a table that had also been left for me, albeit without any chairs. Jeanne's lips were moving and I could guess what she was saying even without hearing the words.
Continuing my exploration, I wandered into a dark bathroom. A rust-stained tub was sunk into one corner. Near it stood a homemade potty with a bucket beneath. A sink in another corner appeared to have been unused for the past century, and I guessed why when I noticed that it had no connecting drain. White plastic pipes ran around the walls.
"There is running water," I comforted myself. Little did I suspect what grief that water would cause me.
The surrounding walls next caught my attention. Inlaid woodwork clearly depicted a sunrise over the mountains. Another wall was decorated with a cunning mandala arranged by an artist whose imagination had exceeded his carpentry skills.
"There is probably no other bathroom like this in West Virginia," Jeanne observed.
"Truly!" I echoed fervently.
Near the bathroom door, irregular steps wound up a corner to a loft bedroom. "What next?" I wondered as I grabbed the bannister of two-by-fours. I blinked as I climbed into a sun-drenched room of gracious proportions paneled with knotty pine. A sloping ceiling with dark beams added to the surprising charm of this loft.
"I can write here!" I exclaimed as I gazed about at the built-in shelves, the floor-to-ceiling windows opposite each other, and the green vista they framed. For reasons I could not immediately define, I sensed that I had stepped into a space in which my spirit could be both contained and set free. Whisperings of future developments reached my inner ear, and I nodded in unspeakable satisfaction. It was so right!
I had always been influenced by my environment, especially when it came to writing. In small, cramped quarters, I seemed unable to write. Noise and clutter also distracted me. But here was a room filled with warm light, inviting, friendly, slightly above the demands of daily necessities. This empty loft evoked poetry and teased me to explore my inner rooms.
Despite the many challenges of occupying this unfinished house, I felt confirmed that here I could, like St. Clare at San Damiano, "fix the anchor of my soul." Unexplored vistas shimmered in the very air, and I could hardly wait to get to my typewriter, although where I would set it was a moot question.
I assessed this loft room, dominated by a built-in double bed frame. The carpeting up here smelled fresher even though the heat of the July day was trapped under the low ceiling. The closet door lay on the floor. The closet itself was amazingly large. Only later did I learn that I shared it with a squad of flying squirrels.
Through a back window the rusting roof of a shed was visible. It added to the Appalachian atmosphere, in company with two stoves that lurked in the weeds and an old freezer that stood in the open cellar along the north side of the house. Thoughtfully I descended the steps, passing a mural of a soaring multicolored bird, another legacy of the free spirit of the former tenant.
With Jeanne's help, I undertook the task of rolling up the rug in the front room and heaving it outside. Then we tackled the odorous situation in the alcove. As we pulled the table loose and pried up the bench (both had been nailed to the floor, Mama Mouse scurried by with a baby in her teeth. We found the nest and conveyed the rest of the litter outdoors. I was blissfully unaware that this was only one of several families who shared my house.
My young cat showed only mild interest in his housemates, an attitude I hoped would soon change. He was carrying the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, where the cat would lie down with the mouse, further than I was prepared to go!
I spent the next few days with scrub brush and scouring powder, liberally augmented with elbow grease. My first priority was to create a personal clean space within the house. That the wilderness outside threathened to come inside and harbored unwanted denizens didn't matter for the moment. It was the denizens within that concerned me.
Moving into a new house was like putting on a new skin. And donning a new skin implied shedding the old one, a painful process that threatened to leave me somewhat shapeless and vulnerable for an indefinite period of time. I sensed that the form my future life took would be determined by my choice of a dwelling place... and what I would allow to live there. I brought many unwanted critters with me - fear, distrust, anger, grief, resentment. Some I was already aware of; others would be revealed only in the stark discipline of solitude.
The dawning recognition that I was being called to change not only where and how I lived but also the why's and wherefore's of my living was terrifying. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing my self-image dissolve into formless mist. Many faces appeared and disappeared, few of which I wished to own as mine. Yet I knew they were all parts of me that I had to meet and welcome.
Like the house itself, I felt so very unfinished yet brimming with potential, designed by Someone with visions and dreams. The challenge of realizing those dreams, of giving concrete shape to powers and gifts freely bestowed on me, was daunting. No one could show me my true face. Only I , with grace, could find the way to become a reflection of my Dreamer.
Despite its multiple problems, this house felt strangely right. It was large enough to give me a sense of inner space and isolated enough to provide an atmosphere of solitude. It was a place that I could slowly "live into", letting it put its imprint on me even as I gradually put the stamp of my dreams on it. I had a haunting sense of having stumbled into a sacred grove where the Holy had been worshiped, where a search for mystical experience had been conducted.
This sense of the pneuma that pervaded the place spoke to the deepest longings of my spirit. For I had made this mad lead out of the security of contemplative life in the monastery into solitude because I sensed that only in solitude would I experience the wildness of the New Age aborning in the church; only in solitude could I develop a vision wide enough to embrace this wondrous new child with the compassion that an infant requires.
Such compassion could be discovered only in prayer. One of my first interior decorating projects was to set up a worship space in the windowed alcove from which the mice family had been evicted. Jane helped me reconstruct the low bench into a slightly raised platform that I covered with a donated piece of lavender carper - a "mystical color", Jane asured me.
On it I placed a wood table-altar and plant stand, hand-made by a friend. A cushion completed the furnishings, while a jar of wildflowers added a grace note. Through the windows I could see the giant pines that shaded the patchy yard near the house and the ridges that rose steeply on either side, giving me a sense of protection I sorely needed.
The first evenng that I could settle into prayer in my new worship space, my eyes were drawn to the living room wall opposite. Yes, indeed, fading daylight shone between the rough boards! Though I was definitely interested in fresh visions, I was not prepared for transparent walls! I studied the situation more closely and realized that not only was there no insulation, but there was neither siding nor shingles on the entire north side of the house.
This explained why the living room ceiling dripped whenever it rained even though the bedroom was directly overhead. Water apparently ran down the outside of the house and across a beam. Dismay filled me, because I had no money for major repairs.
Another sourse of distress sat along this same north wall - that piano! I had just barely been able to pull the ratty carpeting out from under it. Its very ugliness depressed me. How, in God's name, could I get it out? I pondered the possibility of axing it up for firewood.
A few days later, as I was applying a coat of enamel to the kitchen sink, a truck rolled up my drive. Four men and a boy jumped out. "We've come to pick up the piano, Ma'am," they announced politely. I asked no questions as I indicated the hulk in the corner. Scarcely believing, I watched as they wrestled it through the door and onto the truck.
The old piano, symbol of all the insuperable tasks facing me, departed down the drive and up the steep track to the ridge. I seemed to hear a still, small Voice inquire, "Is anything impossible with God?" Suddenly I knew that no matter how formidable life might seem, there would always be a way to deal with it.
This experience of Providence proved prophetic as help arrived from various and unexpected quarters. Cousins appeared on the scene with the building supplies and the skills needed to make emergency repairs before the winter winds set in. Members of the parish donated furniture. My cupboards filled with donated canned goods and other staples that insured I would eat well for months to come. A couple befriended me and gave me a small washer-dryer purchased with money they had begged from others. A cousin in the carpeting business donated remnants that not only covered the floor but also replaced the calico on the walls, providing needed insulation.
When Jeanne and I tracked down a wood stove for sale but discovered that it was far too heavy for the two of us to load onto her pickup, three husky men materialized who not only loaded the stove onto the truck but came with us to set it in place by my chimney. Jeanne and Jane taught me the art of making a wood fire and helped me collect a winter's fuel supply.
By November, my initial fears about moving into a primitive place in Appalachia were allayed. Some One, whose dreams for me were larger than any I dared to entertain, had taken charge of my life and every detail of it. All that was asked was that I trust and take the next step into the dark. As the saying goes, where is no solid ground under your feet, you will be taught to fly. And flying can be fun, I discovered!
Deep content and gratitude bubbled up in my heart, along with an increasing sense of security. Although threats to survival were all around me and my future was precarious, Love upheld me as an eagle her young.
Freely I delighted in the quaint beauties, the rough loveliness, the unique character and grace of this little house in a holler that I christened "Beth Shalom" - House of Peace. My peace would be threatened frequently in the months and years ahead, but for the moment, I rested in wonder at the Love that had brought me thus far.
The huge pines stood guard like veiled women, blunting the winds and sifting the first of the winter snows. No longer was I an alien in a strange and hostile place, for I had found the doorway to my true home in this shabby, charming house of promise.
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Learn about a woman with four lives lived so far; an eldest daughter in a middle-class Catholic home; a nun for thirty years in a cloistered monastery; a hermit for six years in a rough cabin in WV; a wife for sixteen years in a secluded mountainside chalet in western North Carolina. Watch for her next book: Where God is Ever Found, From Cloister to Couple, A Woman's Autumn Journey! Due out in November 2012.