“But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.” - Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
There are a few places that you come across in life that impact you in surprising and powerful ways. Sometimes it’s beauty. Sometimes a special quiet or stillness. Sometimes the keynote is laughter – or the unique ways in which different sources of laughter blend together so effortlessly. Sometimes it is the inescapable realization that the constellation of values provides a nearly identical match to the ethical framework you meticulously aligned over years of thoughtful and heartfelt experience. Sometimes, it is simply the place you feel safe to be who you are. So safe, in fact, you have the courage to embark on the becoming more aligned with that next evolutionary notch that is even more you.
The Mountain is such a place for me. And for a lot of other folks too. It is a UU retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where NC, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia come together. It is a cluster of structures atop Scaley Mountain with short, old, gnarl-twisted trees allow the wind to sweep through them and emit a holy sound. It is a cluster of communities like the Southeast Ministers who gather there, and the Mountain School for Congregational Leadership whose staff I was on for six years or my Atlanta Congregation that held an annual retreat there. It is a cluster of stories that mix losses, hopes, tender lessons, support, understanding, experience, commitment, purpose, community and a ready resilience.
I grew up in such a place in Southern California. It was called DeBenneville Pines. And I know there are others. In fact, I hear the echos of common phrases about these places – and places like our churches – when they touch us in a particularly profound way. ”I never knew a place like this existed…’ or ‘I’ve been looking for this place all my life…’
The Mountain has experienced some tumultuous transition in the last few years. About the time I left to go to California it began experiencing some contention. Trust and leadership became issues. Hurts began to surface and be named. Anxiety and tension became felt and created an orbit of hesitancy among those whose constellations mirrored the Mountain. All UU retreat centers – and churches – experience times like this. Rarely, in my experience, do they come about from neglect or apathy. Rather, they come from an over-extension of effort and control. Such places call people to care too much (and there IS such thing) rather than not care enough. Such places are born from souls woven together in special ways and when a particularly intense or urgent care impedes or overrides individual connection or investment, then the energy that once felt holy simply becomes hot.
I think the tendency to become so urgent and contentious about such places is because they matter so much. Because they are so rare and unreplaceable. The loss is too great to bear. And yet they sometimes require more of us than we, in our current evolutionary state, know how to offer. I guess that is what elevates them to such an important level in our lives – they expect and compel us to become more of who we are called to be.
In the last year or so, The Mountain has been in a transition. There is a palpable sense of resiliency and resurrection at work. Stories are being shared and heard and honored (While I was there I had the privilege to meet and hear David Novak who is a professional storyteller from Asheville, NC – who is incredible – his rendition of ‘The House that Jack Built’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘The Cookie-Girl’ were fun and poweful and profound – and one of the best parts was watching the 5 year old boy sitting in front of me listening and laughing at the stories and becoming observably more and more affectionate with his father as the stories went on). Perspectives when they are being integrated allow for an understanding and warmth that cut through conflict..
I had the chance on this trip to spend three days at the Mountain and renew and cultivate that understanding and warmth. And as is almost always the case when I’m there, I spent it with people who had a remarkable capacity to listen and share and participate on a level of human being-ness that comforts, inspires, restores and co-creates a new response.
Jim McKinley (nearly 20 years in Hendersonville, NC) and Roy Reynolds (Interim Minister most recently in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania) were my company. They gave me both grounding and vision that felt like an exquisite stretching. We shared and cared and laughed and prayed. And most importantly, they helped make a special place more special. And by that, i guess I mean they helped make my place on this planet an experience which prompts me toward saying, “Amen.”