It’s lizard season. Driving down the Rough and Ready Highway, the air is hot and dry, a tangible manifestation of the California drought. But here, everything is alive. The Woolman Semester School sits on 237 acres in historic gold country, but more immediately, it’s my favorite place in the world. I’ve been coming to Woolman for various reasons as long as I can remember – College Park Quarterly Meeting sessions, summer camp, family work camp, visiting Friends – but today, March 30th, 2015, I’m returning to visit for the first time since graduating from the Fall 2014 high school semester. Driving past the orchard, it already feels like home.
Ten minutes later, I’m standing in the kitchen for the first time in months, smiling at the spice rack and the sanitizer, while an old friend reads me a quote about how you have to get lost before you can find what you’re really looking for . If she had told me that last summer, I would have raised my eyebrows. But today I nod; I know exactly what she means.
At Woolman, there are layers of myths surrounding the Crystal Tree, which hides out in the woods, a ways off the main trail. You can’t just go straight to it or have someone lead you there. You have to discover it. Some people bring the tree gifts (hence the name), ask it for advice, or simply feel a deep connection there. Early on in my time at Woolman, I often went into the woods to look for it, but I never had any luck.
One day in October, I couldn’t focus during a community business meeting, so I left to walk in the woods. It drifted into my mind that I could be looking for the Crystal Tree. I reminded myself that I was practicing letting things come to me instead of forcing them – a very new lesson at the time – but I continued walking in the direction I imagined the Crystal Tree to be. Suddenly I stepped almost directly on top of a wasps’ nest. A multitude of wasps began buzzing around me. I turned around and ran. Every time I paused to check where I was or to catch my breath, I could here wasps almost inside my ears, and I ran on blindly through the woods. All at once I stopped in my tracks. The wasps were gone, and I was standing right in front of the Crystal Tree. I stood stock still, eerily awed, for as long as it felt right, and then returned to the meetinghouse, just in time for the closing moments of worship. I’ve been back to the Crystal Tree just a few times since then, and every time, I’ve gotten a little lost before I found it.
At Woolman, I often felt like a baby bird: thoroughly safe, but uncomfortably vulnerable, which I see as the ideal state for growth. I sat in my nest with my neck stretching upwards and my beak wide open, waiting for everyone around me to regurgitate a piece of something sacred so I could be nourished by the Truth. Here are some of the beautiful, integral truths that I found at Woolman:
One evening early in the semester, while I was finding it difficult to nest with my roommates, I came into my advisor’s office and said, “Hi, um, could I cry on you? Obviously not literally because I might get snot on your shirt and that would be gross . . . ” I sat down next to him and complained about the dynamics in my cabin. He told me that the four components of a healthy friendship are inspiration, admiration, respect, and communication. I’ve held onto that advice as a way to gauge relationships ever since.
Another piece of wisdom that I really took in for the first time at Woolman was Giovanna’s observation that “There is no scarcity of love.” Sometimes, dancing around the dining hall during dish crew, with everyone in earshot belting out the same song, it was so easy to feel all of the love connecting us. But other days, when everyone seemed to be off having intense conversations without me, and I felt insignificant, love could be hard to feel. It was during those frustrating times of loneliness that I came to understand I need to keep on trusting God and keep on loving the people in my life as wholeheartedly as I can, no matter what. In the moments when I feel gross and unlovable, I just have to keep living my life with integrity and love. Worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites. There will always be love in my life.
Another thing I learned during that time in my life is that it’s okay to ask for what I need. In November, I sat with my Nana, who I love more than life, as she slipped out of it and into death. I felt shattered. I could hardly remember to eat or to interact with people, and during that time I came to see how fervently my community wants to care for me. If I mentioned wanting to watch the newest Taylor Swift music video, people would immediately grab laptops and speakers and offer to make tea. No one expects me to be thoroughly self-sufficient, and it’s totally fine not to feel fine all the time.
It’s okay to get lost and scared and to cry on the floor when your feelings get messy. Actually, messiness can be beautiful. I learned this from my dear friend Flannery Raabe when we spent hours throwing pots in the ceramics studio. No matter what, everything Flannery did made a mess. When we left the studio, I would have a few gray streaks on my pants, and she would be covered head to toe in clay. While I looked at my legs thinking about how much laundry I had to do, Flannery would be beaming, telling me how fantastic she felt. I could see that she was thoroughly covered in God.
I think if I had only one piece of advice to live by, it would be this: follow God with alacrity. Brisk, cheerful willingness is what I’m all about. At Friends General Conference in 2014, a Friend told me that despite the uncertainty of the world, commitment to a spiritual path allows you to find two things you can count on: God’s love and a way to live with integrity. I try to live my life so that I constantly feel connected to both of these things. Woolman has given me many of the tools I will need to live fully into the person I want to be in the world.
As my favorite band Girlyman puts it, I feel “not quite lost, not quite found / Just somewhere different now.” Uncertainty is hard, but for the time being, I’m okay with that. Lately God keeps asking me a simple question: Why not be ecstatic right now?
Thistle West (Hannah Mackinney) is a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting (PYM), has served on PYM’s Youth Programs Coordinating Committee and is about to enter college.