Growing up as a Unitarian Universalist had both benefits and drawbacks. On the positive side, I met a lot of wonderful friends, attended plenty of potluck dinners and camping retreats, learned a great deal about a variety of religions, and realized that it was okay to be an atheist. On the negative side, I was considered a bit of a freak beyond the doors of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.
Unfortunately, I didn’t go to school with any of my U.U. pals, and the private school that I attended from sixth to eighth grades was mostly populated by Catholics who had never heard of Unitarian Universalism before. Even the few Jews and Hindus at my school didn’t seem impressed when I told them that people like Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Beatrix Potter, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Pete Seeger had been Unitarians, too.
It didn’t matter, though. I loved being a Unitarian Universalist; I loved being part of a small group of U.U. youths. That is, until my thirteenth year approached, and I realized that, unlike my Jewish and Catholic friends, U.U. adolescents had no official coming-of-age ceremony. So, determined to mark our passing into adulthood, the four of us (Julia, Antonia, Daryl, and I) decided to create a ceremony of our own. Luckily, one of the church members discovered a man named James, who operated a vision quest camp in the woods of southern Mississippi, and after meeting with him, our parents quickly approved our plan to experience a weeklong La Terre Quest in the summer of 1990 - just prior to our freshman year of high school.
Our quest began on Monday, June 25. After reaching James' property, the four of us met his family, plus his two assistants (Keith and Steve) and the other two members of our quest (Sean and Jeremy). Then, we trekked across a wide creek and into the woods that would be our home for the next six days. Following a group meeting – during which we each received a blank journal – we were led to our campsites, each of which consisted of a tarp draped over a line between two trees. Beneath the tarp lay a pile of dry leaves, over which I laid my sleeping bag. After lunch, I chose a meditation spot in a nearby copse of pine trees, then sat down to sketch my campsite.
Over the course of the week, the six of us learned a great deal about warriors, red roads, medicine wheels, and the like. We ate plenty of granola, experienced numerous council gatherings in a teepee, crafted spirit totems from natural clay deposits, sewed medicine pouches (which we filled with symbolic seeds and other items), scribbled in our journals, created personal myths, bathed and washed our clothes with creek water, battled humidity and insects, and spent a lot of time meditating alone.
On the last day, we fasted – and the “vision” we experienced that last night inspired our spirit names. Mine was Monkey, Seeker of Knowledge (years later, following a three-day fast and vision quest, it would become Otter, Watching the Leaf). Despite our joking complaints about the lack of activity – which later inspired James to christen ours “The Sit and Do Nothing Quest” – we all learned so much from this unique experience.
In fact, words can barely describe how incredible my first vision quest was. It meant so much to me that it became the inspiration for my second novel, currently in progress. Although I lost my spirit totem (a pig face) and my symbolic staff in Hurricane Katrina, I still have my old journal, my medicine pouch, and a string of beads that signify the cardinal directions of the medicine wheel: green for the innocent mouse of the South, black for the introspective bear of the West, white for the wise buffalo of the North, and yellow for the illuminated eagle of the East.
While I still suffer from the same weaknesses – such as doubt, procrastination, nervousness, perfectionism, selfishness, fear, and self-pity – that I did prior to the vision quest, lessons learned during the quest have stayed with me through the years. Lessons like releasing the past, dispelling worry about the future, living life to the fullest, and letting nothing capture my awareness. I have yet to master such lessons, of course, but I’ll always be grateful to James for putting them in my head in the first place... no matter that the four of us came home hungry, dirty, itchy, and stinky. Ah, what a high price we pay for peace of mind.
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