It is May 14, 2004 and my most recent travels have brought me to an extraordinary retreat center near Asheville, North Carolina. It is 7am and I have three hours before I teach. With a steaming cup of coffee, I sit on the huge porch at the lodge, preparing for my day. At my feet I have a book, two highlighters (a yellow and an orange one), my lessons and this journal.
As I work on my presentation, I look up to think and each time I look up, my eyes linger longer and longer. There, in front of me, is a beautiful lake – Lake Kanuga I believe. The water is calm and the surface holds patches of pollen. Ducks and geese swim on the lake or feed and groom themselves on the shore.
Since this is an Episcopal retreat center, there is a huge white cross is tucked among the trees across the lake. The cross is a focal point from the porch and a person is standing silently at the lower deck, apparently in meditation facing the cross.
Rodedendrums, azaleas and oak trees are plentiful. A patchwork of colors – hot pink, white and lavender jump out of the dark green foliage. The thick forest of oak trees shades the porch where I sit and the sun is beginning to peek through the trees, backlighting a scampering squirrel.
I attempt my prep work, but I am distracted. As I sit in the silence, I recognize it isn’t silent at all. A symphony is playing. Rather than woodwinds, brass, percussions and strings, all the instruments of nature are playing.
The most prevalent sounds are a soprano tree frog and a baritone bullfrog. At first the bird and cricket sounds seemed random until I listened to the voice of each. There are trills and peeps and chirps. What were they saying to one another? “Good morning!” “Hello world, I’m here!” or “Thank you, God for another day?” It certainly didn’t sound like grousing. But there was a pattern. My earliest college training was a musician. It’s been a long time since I had to write compositions, but I begin to notate the sound of the rhythms and pitches.
If I had the talent to create a symphony, I would write that every 16 beats, an owl would call from offstage. One bird, with a two-note call, would come in every 8th beat, to be quickly answered by a bird singing five notes. There are two birds singing three different notes, when they sing in every 16 beats. The syncopated bassoon-like honking of geese fly overhead, adding a touch of spice.
Every couple of minutes the sound of a fish breaking the surface of the water on the lake, leaving a mark on the surface until the rings fade away. And I notice my breathing has slowed and the cobwebs in my head have cleared as I become fully present in the middle of this symphony. I inhale and close my eyes to savor the music of the day until a new sound appears. A retreatant is walking the path near the porch, with a steady, moderate beat coming from the crunching sound of the gravel. Soon, a second person approached, walking twice as fast. If I were a composer I would write a note for the percussionist to play “impatiently.”
The activity is picking up. More instruments are beginning to play. Sh…sh…sh…goes the broom as one of the staff begins to sweep the large porch where I sit. At first I am irritated by the interruption, and then I notice the rhythm and the changing pitch as she sweeps in two directions, then one direction, around furniture in long strokes and then short strokes: sh…sh…sh…sh.sh.sh.sh.sh….shhhhhhhhhhhh….Shhhhhhhhhhh…. shhhhh… sh..sh..sh… sh…bang – as she hit the chair leg…sh….sh…. clop…clop… goes the sound of another retreatant with clogs crossing the porch. Clop..sh…sh…clop…clop… shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh …shhhhhhhhhhhhh…. Squeeeeak… squeak…what is that??!! It was the sound of staff cleaning the inside of the picture window. “Ahhhhh…”… clunk… clunk…as another retreatant relaxes in the rocking chair and the chair rails clunk over the bricks. Hooooooot! Hooooot! goes the owl…all while the birds continued their ostinati [pattern]. “Achoo!”…”Bless you Becky!” someone answers. Ssniff… shh… shh…shh…scrrrrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaape…the wrought-iron chair says as it is moved by the sweeper.
I sit in the music “hall” for more than an hour of continuous beauty, until the music begins to fade. My untouched work still on my lap, but my trip to the symphony has me in a serene frame of mind. I am filled with gratitude for the talented musicians and oh…that Divine composer? Masterful!