A Cautionary Cosmic Tale

A Cautionary Cosmic Tale


Is it mankind’s destiny to evolve into a godless society?

An astronomer climbed Mt. Improbable on a crisp, moonless night.  He used a telescopic computer to count the celestial bodies in his 360-degree hemisphere.  Meanwhile, one trillion other scientists, droids, or unknowable energy manifestations, also tabulated their respective numbers, many without equipment.  When completed, they sent their data to a cosmo-central terminal.  The cumulative number was not significant enough to register on the universal curve of knowledge.  Meanwhile, scientific Scrooges like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking have proclaimed that Jesus is a hoax and they, not God, are the most intelligent beings in the universe.  88% of the world’s population disagrees with them.  95% of the US population believes in a “Higher Power.”  Approx. 2.5 billion Christians will celebrate Christmas by attending church, reading the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke, reading (or watching) Dickens’s “Christmas Carol,” Schultz’s, “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” or simply enjoying quality holiday time with family and or friends. Religious leaders of the world have made (and continue to make) egregious errors, however, the Christmas message of, “peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” remains as a socio-cultural compass for those who try to comply.

“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”




Poets and Kings And Sawdust Rings

Poets and Kings and Sawdust Rings


George Bernard Shaw was an Irish playwright who received a Nobel Price in Literature. Today he is regarded as one of the most important and influential playwrights in history.  He was also the founder of the Fabian Society.  In his typical satirical manner, he once quipped, “Christianity would be a good idea if anyone ever tried it.”  I couldn’t agree with him more.  Indeed, loving the unlovable; turning the other cheek, returning good for evil are sometimes impossible to accomplish.

After class one day, a student asked me about Jesus.  Not being a Biblical scholar, I quoted CS Lewis: “Either Jesus is who he says he is or else he is a fool, a madman or a clown.”  He looked at me and asked, “No door number three?”

Charles Schultz is considered by many as the world’s singular greatest cartoonist.  For over 50 years he provided spirituality, warmth, humor, love, compassion, wisdom, joy, sorrow, enthusiasm and much, much more, to millions of people.  I saw him interviewed in his home and he was asked what his greatest challenge was.  His response was quick.  “That’s easy!  After breakfast, I have to walk down the hallway to my studio and make the world laugh.”

Many agree that he also brought laughter and levity to the Gospels.  In essence, he became a clown of God.

All three men were great men and I have no doubt that all are enjoying each other in some kind of eternal life.


Christmas At Model Bakery


Christmas at Model Bakery


For better or worse, the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas time, is rooted in the Biblical account of the Magi presenting gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child.  However, from a purely secular (or scientific) perspective, the story is a myth, parable or misguided fabrication that has no value in the modern intellect.  Therefore, without a spiritual component, the “social” value of gifts is measured by their monetary cost.  However, even many Christians, who know the story well, fail to grasp that the gold, frankincense and myrrh were merely earthly symbols acknowledging an event that the Magi regarded as supernatural.  The true gifts were the time, energy, stress, discomfort and danger that each of the “wise men” endured over the 2000-mile, round trip journey that each underwent.  There is a pre-Christian, African saying that captures this essence; “The walk is more important than the gift.”  Imagine walking from St. Helena Ca. to Salt Lake City, Ut. (and back) to present a gift to someone whom you have never met.

On a cold, rainy, December morning, I took my last morning cup of coffee upstairs to my computer to check for e-mail messages.  I was shocked to see a single, bold-face line: Maria: “I’ll be in St. Helena on Sat. Dec. 8.  Can we get together for coffee at Model Bakery? My spirit soared.

Saturday arrived and with a feeling of excited anticipation.  The reunion was that of two dear friends separated by 15 years of time and space.  The coffee for me and latte for her, along with scones, nearly became irrelevant between the bursts of laughter and a flurry of “catching up.”  She kept shaking her head and bubbled over with the joy of the mystery of the synchronicity that had reunited us.

Once settled, I began:  “Maria, you may recall that in June of ’97, I mentioned that I was not interested in your final exam.  Instead, I suggested that you come back in 15 or 20 years and tell me how your life has worked out.”  Her beautiful Latina eyes widened, her cheeks blushed rose, and she looked as if she were about to explode; which she did in an avalanche of words.

“I have done really, really well, but it has been really, really hard.  I went to UC Davis and majored in cellular/molecular biology which is one of the most difficult majors.  Many of my classes had 300 students [classes at SHHS rarely topped 25] and they were filled with pre-med, pre-dent, or pre DVM students.  The level of competition was extreme.  When I became lonely, or overwhelmed, I called home for support.  My parents thought they were doing the loving thing by saying, ‘Hija, quit, come home where you belong.’  They did not understand that it made matters worse and so I called less often.  Amazingly, I became the first member in my family to graduate from a university.  Even more amazingly, I was hired at Genentech in San Francisco.  As I sat in the orientation meeting, I could nod believe what was happening.  Maria, the little [100 lbs] Mexican girl from little St. Helena was sitting in a room with some of the greatest biological scientists of the world.  I soon became a biochemical engineer and was paid lots and lots of money.  I was single, living in a fantastic city, making lots of money but I became less and less happy.  I found the streets hectic, noisy and filled with people who were rushing around getting into one line after another.  I decided that there must be more to life than making lots of money.  So, I quit my job.”

As she spoke, a lump formed in my throat as I marveled at the courage and wisdom of this little power house that was sharing with me.  She continued, “I returned to UC Davis, took a huge pay cut and got a job doing research designed to help protect endangered animal species. I love my work!  Also, I got married three years a go and still feel like I am on my honeymoon.”

As she was speaking I sensed a mysterious aura surrounding her that reminded me of the body-halo that artists use to create religious icons.

Suddenly, I recalled that Mary, the mother of Jesus, played a “supernatural” role, without which the Christmas story could not have happened.  I guessed that she must be proud of her diminutive namesake.

As she concluded her story she extended her right hand.  As we shook hands, she looked at me as if she could look into my very soul and said, “Thank you.”

In a flash, the latent joy that we shared on top of Half Dome, the bottom of Grand Canyon and around the campfires at Mendocino, washed over me like a wonderful baptism.

The good-bye hug was precious with assurances that we should remain in touch.

I don’t know what she thought, but I do know that she was too humble to even think that she presented me with gifts that were more precious than gold, frankincense and myrrh; they were priceless.  How could I have guessed that a casual meeting at Model Bakery, with former student, would rekindle a spiritual fire and renew my sense of faith, hope and love, associated with the Christmas Season?

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea


Throughout the process of writing BOFAW (and Facebook entries) I tried to shine my magical flashlight on the people (especially students) and events that created what became known as Biodesign.  It was not a poorly veiled form of self-deprecation, but an honest attempt to show that the millions of variables and puzzle pieces that had to miraculously fall into place were utterly beyond my comprehension, let alone ability to organize or direct.  The Class, and thus the book, resulted from Lettie’s simple, yet profound, question, “Is this really important?”  Over 24 years 750 more students would ask their questions that molded and shaped the Class.  If “no two people have ever met and departed unchanged,” then every student (even those who dropped the class) left his/her mark.  They were joined by over 400 chaperones, and hundreds of scientists, sages, sinners, and poets who collaborated in the creative/evolutionary process.  Just as, “there is no such thing as biological equality,” no two classes were the same.

Therefore, after much reflection and analysis, I have concluded that a mysterious supernatural being, power or process created and guided the Biodesign experience, expressly for my education.  It is probably not likely but, I hope that every ex-Biodesigner feels the same way.  After all, was the Earth not created expressly for the purpose of our education?

As this Fb page (and “blog”) began to wind down, I began searching for the perfect metaphor that would communicate the profound sense of gratefulness I felt for the privilege of spiritual sharing with all of you.  After much soul searching, the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony came to mind.  The purpose of chado, the ritual of tea, is contemplation (to make a temple with).  The four basic principles of chado are harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.  The ceremony typically involves one, two or three cups of tea.

The first cup of “face book tea” was offered by a group of fans, friends and “likers,” and included the implicit invitation into the private (if not sacred) regions of their being.

As we sipped our tea we sauntered with Henry Thoreau seeking Holy Land and tried to live deliberately.  We hiked up Half Dome with John Muir, and into the depths of Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell and Loren Eiseley.  We were lulled to sleep in Mendocino by the gentle rhythm of the Pacific Ocean.

We heard Brother David encourage us to actively practice the art of gratefulness, and Kabir shouted at us to: “Wake up! Wake up! You have been asleep for millions of years.  We squirmed a little when Thoreau pondered, “Oh, to get to the end of my life and realize that I have not fully lived!”  All the way, Phroncie, Jane, Jeane, Sabrina, Barbie and others, cheered me on from the sidelines.  Sharka and Mark joined us from somewhere in cyberspace and became spirit-brother and spirit-sister.  Their spectacular photos, married to inspirational thoughts (even slide-shows) took us all back to the time of wonderful slide-shows that students used to prepare.  Their presence (and presents) had a synchronistic feel with no logical reason for occurring.  How could we not love them?

I worried a little about the lack of comments, but our fb numbers indicated a lot of “passive viewers.”  Then I remembered Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now) where he described many people as “Silent watchers.”  We hope the silent watchers have gained something worthwhile.

Even so, in spite of Sharka and Mark’s wonderful contributions, I was nearly out of photos and ideas and was prepared to gracefully leave the Tea Ceremony after one cup of tea.  Little could I have known that Lori Evensen, another member of the class of ’79, would arrive with the “second cup of tea.”  She is traveling around the US on a “vision-quest.”  I didn’t really know what a “blog” was before she invited me to follow her travels by reading: http://meanderest.com/ I was suddenly inspired to take a shot at blogging.

The blogs were intended to be reflections, illuminations and introspective glimpses into the soul of Biodesign. Whether or not the blogs spoke for themselves, they shifted the conversation to a monologue.  The single, most important secret of any success in Biodesign was the circle, and not lectures or monologues.  If, during the Tea Ceremony, the conversation lags or the guest stays too long, a third cup of tea is offered.  This is a face-saving device that leaves no hurt feelings.  BOFAW Fb viewers were too kind to offer the “third cup of tea,” still; my spirit guide was telling me it was time to take another trail.

The final Biodesign trip each year was to the Mendocino coast of California.  On the final evening we celebrated our own version of a Japanese Tea Ceremony.  We thought it would be appropriate to share part of this ceremony.

“The class was sitting in a circle in the wonderfully rustic building that smelled of thousand-year-old incense cedar. The room was dark except for 30 brightly shining votive candles, each adding its unique color to the twinkling rainbow. This was their moment. They had traveled thousands of miles together; they had walked over 100 miles together. They sang, slept, and broke bread together. They had seen some of Earth’s most beautiful scenery, matched with some of man’s greatest thoughts. They had been encouraged to write their own bible. The time had arrived for them to gather the tools they had selected, pick up their candles, and head out into the darkness, alone.

Sean Gagnier, a local folk singer, stood by, poised, ready to offer his musical benediction. The six strings on his guitar were perfectly tuned and came softly to life. His eyes sparkled like Sasha’s, the Mountain Man’s, and the Mule Skinner’s, only they reflected the brilliance of 30 twinkling lights.

He began with a chorus that they all knew by heart. A chorus that echoed from the beginning of time; off the granite peaks of Yosemite; into the depths of Grand Canyon, and thundered on the waves of Mendocino beaches—ancient echoes of time and the rhythm of the universe; a chorus that united over 700 students, 400 chaperones; hundreds of scientists, saints, naturalists and poets into one glorious circle:

May the circle be unbroken.

Christie joins me in expressing our profound gratefulness for the opportunity you have given us to share our spirits with you.  We have been greatly privileged to experience something totally beyond our ability to conceive. Love from both of us.


Full Circle: Lettie and the Final Synchronicity

Full Circle: Lettie and the Final Synchronicity.



Throughout the thousands of pages of Loren Eiseley’s 13 books, his greatest single line is, “It’s a great day to be alive!”  He was camping on a scientific field trip, got up early on a crisp morning and was overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and the joy of being alive.  John Muir described a similar elated state when he was in the Yosemite high country, sustained by a pillow case of bread balls, pocket full of tea bags and a single wool blanket.  Walt Whitman wrote:

To me, every hour of the day and night

is an unspeakably perfect miracle.”

Henry Thoreau went to the woods to live simply.

Brother David Steindl-Rast describes his life as a monk as leading him to a nearly continuous state of gratefulness.

I admire all of these men but, it recently dawned on me that what they all have in common is that they spent great periods of time alone.  Leading 30 “rowdy” high school students out into Mother Nature, in search of truth, beauty, and goodness was hardly a solitary walk in the woods.  There were times that were painful, dreadful, horrifying and nearly impossible to cope with, however, the rewards were so great that it seemed like I had little choice.  The closest metaphor I can invoke is that each class was similar to having a baby.  If that is so, then it should not be surprising that some of the students became as close to me as my own children.

As this Fb page and blog wind down I find myself identifying with Ingrid.  Looking back over the 24 years, I can’t believe we did it.  It all started with a simple, yet profound, question from Lettie, and evolved into something otherworldly.  It was politically, scientifically, religiously, economically and educationally incorrect, yet the results were very, very correct.

Brother David regards every experience of gratefulness that is not shared is an opportunity lost.  Remembering this, I decided to send a complimentary copy of BOFAW to the four universities that provided the biological A-B-Cs that were necessary in order for me to become a teacher; San Francisco State U., Sonoma State U., Washington State U., and U.C. Berkeley.  I received a kind thankful note from WSU, and an e-mail note from Joe @ San Francisco.  He was interested in the book and wanted to talk with me about it.  When I saw where the note was from I burst out laughing.  When I attended “State” it was a liberal bastion and students whispering the words God or spirituality, did so at their own risk.  The professors were mostly “secular progressives” and in many cases overtly regarded any spiritual references as antiquated, if not regressive thinking.  I was OK with that, after all, I was in the “science” department and science was going to solve ALL mysteries, including debunking the “myth” of God.

I suspected that “S.F.State” is far more “liberal” now and could not imagine what interest they would have in the book.  Even so, Joe and I agreed to a phone conversation.  He had scanned the book and was pressing for a “sound bite” definition.  I laughed, knowing that when students were asked the same question, they would stammer and struggle before saying, “It can not be defined.”  Feeling the same frustration, I blurted out, “I guess you could call it “Spiritual Ecology!”  I had never heard or used the term before so I decided to Google it.  What I found was both surprising and cathartic.  Several colleges and universities, in the US and abroad, offer classes, majors, Masters Degrees, and Northwestern University offers a PhD program in “spiritual ecology.”  Suddenly I didn’t feel so isolated and that Muir, Emerson, Thoreau, and all of our protagonists, were visionaries, 100 years ahead of their time.  I also discovered Dr. Leslie Sponsel (Anthropology Professor emeritus: Univ. of Hawaii) who released “Spiritual Ecology: The quiet revolution,” one year after the release of BOFAW.

Suddenly Lettie’s question came full circle: “Is this really important?”  According to Sponsel, we are rapidly approaching the point in human history, whereby, if a world-wide renaissance of spiritual ecology is not embraced, there will be a major loss of humanity.

It is hauntingly ironic that many readers of BOFAW have contacted me and said that the book “gives them hope.”  I feel that the book is an honest narrative of kids at their finest, and that gives me hope too.  Sadly, on the other hand, adults do not offer me the same solace.

Meanwhile, Muir stated that books are merely piles of stone set out to show future travelers where other minds have been.  That being so, we are proud to offer our “pile of stone” to the universe as record of 750 kids who were courageous enough to go on a walk and discover realities that very few humans know exist.

I have no delusions of grandeur and fully realize that BOFAW has only provided a scintilla, at best, of many mysteries, miracles and revelations.  If the students only did it for me, then I am the most privileged teacher on the planet.

In the later years of the Biodesign Class, I imagined a group of Juniors gathering each spring out on the Quad and asking, “Has he got “it” figured out yet?”  “No,” someone would reply, “Well then,” someone said, “I guess we better sign up for one more class and hope he gets it.  He’s getting pretty old and Half Dome isn’t getting any smaller.”

Kahlil Gibran suggests that the depth of our sorrow is a measure of the joy we previously knew.  I have found this to be true and still experience deep pangs of sorrow reminding me of the intense joy we once we shared.

The Road Not taken

The Road Not Taken


Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” has probably been used at more high school and college graduation ceremonies than any other reference.  And, while I like the poem, what is more significant is that its message became a touchstone for the Biodesign Class.  As it evolved and progressed it became a class that may have been the only one of its kind, especially in a public school.  This process was greatly facilitated by two books: “Religions, Values and Peak Experiences,” by Abraham Maslow, and “The Road Less Traveled,” by Dr. Scott Peck.

Maslow’s book knocked my socks off, not because of “religion” or “values” or “peak experiences.”  Yosemite and Mendocino (later Grand Canyon) provided mountains, canyons and oceans of peak experiences, but the powerful little book offered a huge surprise.  For those of you who have read Biodesign Out For A Walk, you may recall chap 3, “Firestorm.”  I was facing a major outer and inner battle of how to reconcile topics that seemed to overlap, “science,” religion and spirituality.  Maslow suggested that his studies showed that religion and spirituality were not necessarily interchangeable.   He established that from a psychological perspective, there were many examples of spirituality that did not require a supreme being as the source, and therefore can and should be considered in a public school environment.  Interestingly, if we are, as the Bible contends, “made in the image of God,” then why should we not be capable of generating and communicating spiritual experiences without crediting them to a supreme being?  These were exciting, albeit challenging threads to sort out.

The Road less Traveled,” ironically released in 1978, would also have been extremely helpful.  I can only assume that we had to go through the crucible to be ready for the two newly discovered books.

The first two chapters in The Road…pretty much sum up the essence of the book; Chap. 1, The Problem of Pain, and closely related Chap 2,-Delaying Gratification.

All of the authors that we referred to were interconnected, and so when Peck described the greatest threat to American culture was the inability to delay gratification, it resonated well with Erich Fromm’s contention that the greatest threat was our inability to master the art of loving.  It appears that they are related.  Their common bond may be that they both require heaps of self-discipline.






Melody—Kay—Vintage –1979-II


Early this summer Melody contacted me to say that Kay Cummings (Shaw) was coming from New Zealand to show her husband Napa Valley.  She and Melody were spending a week together and hoped to be able to visit with Christie and me.  I smiled and did a mental flashback to the classroom.

By the time June rolled around I had shared all that I could and learned as much from them as I could absorb.  I was not inclined to give them a final exam, but the administration demanded that I do so.  Instead, I told them that I would prefer that they return after 20 or so years and tell me how they were doing.

I was smiling now because, after 33 years, Melody and Kay were coming back to take their final. I was glad that they were coming, but still, I knew that I often felt awkward in purely social settings.  Little did Christie or I know that lunch at Gillwood’s would be the highlight of our summer.

When they arrived they proudly introduced their husbands who both looked like they could be GQ models.  They brought photos of beautiful (nearly adult) children and shared stories about how good life had been to them.  However, they also brought totally unexpected spiritual (and therefore priceless) gifts.  As they talked their eyes sparkled and danced like Sasha’s, the Mule Skinner’s and Moses’ on top of Half Dome.  They were vibrant, enthusiastic and engaging.  And then suddenly, another gift was unveiled; “belly-laughter.”  Kay’s husband (Steve) is a rugby player and built like a fire hydrant.  I was feeling relaxed (w/o alcohol) and playfully mentioned that I was admiring his body.  His face flashed bright red and we all erupted into fits of belly-laughter.  Christie elbowed me sharply and asked, “Why did you say that?”  I mumbled, “Maybe because I am 71 and maybe a little envious?”  It didn’t matter (I hope).  Melody’s mom (Sharon), from the end of the table asked, “What did he say?”  Melody, holding her sides said, “He said that he was admiring Steve’s body!”  Another wave of laughter washed over the table.  Belly-laughter had been released like a Genie from a bottle and we were instantly spiritually connected.

The two hours we shared seemed to pass in two minutes.  The conversation was spirited, skirted dangerously close to “Politics,” but was magically blessed with belly-laughter.  We were happy to meet them and sad to seem them leave.

When we returned home I remembered a beautiful book, “John Muir’s America,” that the class of ’79 presented to me at Yosemite.  I glanced through 33 (ugh) names and found Melody and Kay.  Melody wrote: “Mr. Young, Thank you for all your giving, Love Melody Petersen.”  And Kay wrote, “Happy Birthday Mr. Young (and many more of course).  I know throughout the year, our class will continually feel stress and pain as we grow together. Love (even in such a short time) Kay Cummings. New Zealand.

Kay and Melody were very special, however, nearly, or all, of their classmates were equally special.  Kay predicted what they were going to do, and they did it.  It was almost as if the cosmos had aligned and decreed, “This Class is the foundation upon which 18 more years of Biodesign will be built.”


The year proved to a banner year with the only major trauma coming at the very end. I had fallen in love with a whole class, and when it was time for them to graduate, I was heartbroken. I decided that it would have been much less painful dissecting pigs.

“So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour

of his departure drew near—

‘Ah,’ said the fox, ‘I shall cry.’

‘It is your own fault,’ said the little prince. ‘I never

wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to

tame you …’”

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupery.



After they left I began to process the gifts they brought and how the meeting evolved.

They returned to say, “Thank You,” and without words ask, “So what do you think? Did we pass our final exams?  Christie and I returned home floating on the cloud of knowing that the girls had exceeded all that we could have hoped for them.  We were extremely honored to have lunch with them.

I have long suspected that the women in Christ’s life were, symbolically, and in reality far more important than the male-dominated “Church” gives them credit for.  I grew to love many of the guys in Biodesign, and they offered many significant “left-brain” improvements to the class.  However, it was usually the girls who profoundly and consistently redirected my spiritual path which led to a class that may never be duplicated.  Melody and Kay were two of the movers and shakers.  Even though Biodesign ’79 was 33 years ago, Melody summed up our relationship when she wrote: “Sitting and talking with you two during lunch felt like no time had passed at all.”

I wonder if that is what heaven will feel like.



Melody–Kay–Vintage 1979



Melody Petersen (Floyd) was one of the earlier ex-Biodesigners to locate this page.  She was in the Class of ’79 and intrigued that I had singled out her class as extraordinary.  I tried to approach all classes without prejudice or expectations and, not wanting to hurt other student’s feelings, was hesitant to highlight the class of ’79.  In the end, however, the fact remained that they were directly responsible for, not only drastically altering my life and career, but saving the next 18 classes from dissecting fetal pigs.;-)  After the “Firestorm Class,” it was too late to cancel the next Boidesign Class so the administration and I agreed to try Biodesign one more year.  What happened is now history.

After reading BOFAW, Melody offered several reflective comments.  Two important ones were: “We didn’t know what you were going through.”  And, “We didn’t realize that you were growing along with us.”  She also didn’t realize that both of her comments were related.  What I was going through was necessary for my growth.  She also said something that made me burst out laughing.  “We just thought that you knew what you were doing and were going to take us to Yosemite and Mendocino.  The truth was that I usually did NOT know what I was doing, especially on the trips.  Every trip was a blank slate with potential joys, sorrows, dangers and trials waiting around each bend in the trail.  The first time I took two ex-Biodesigners along on the Yosemite trip as chaperones; they approached me on the second or third day and said, “Something is wrong, the trip is not like our trip.”  The last afternoon, they came to me with huge smiles and asked, “Are they all that different?”  I laughed and said, “Yeah, it’s kinda like children being born, they are all that different.”  Each trip was like a living, breathing, cosmic kaleidoscope and as each student and chaperone bumped the scope, the view shifted creating a “once-in-a universe” moment.

It was certainly never boring.  On the final morning of Melody and Kay’s Yosemite trip, we had just finished breakfast and were preparing for the morning activities.  I made a quick trip to the restroom and, as I came around the corner three of the father/chaperones were standing in a small circle.  As I passed by one of them said, “I don’t know what he has planned for this morning, but these kids are pretty worldly, he better not try anything funny.  A pang of fear shot through my body and I instantly retrieved a line from Shakespeare, “Assume the virtue though you have it not.”  Without breaking stride, I laughed and said, “He doesn’t have a clue what he is doing.”  Two of them laughed nervously.  I would have loved to have seen the speaker’s face.

We gathered in a circle under the watchful eye of Half Dome.  I shared a meditation and some thoughts from (of course) John Muir and the students were released to find a quiet place to spend 1.5 hours referring to their journals and gathering their thoughts in preparation for their required, post-trip descriptive paper.  After the allotted time we reformed the circle and invited all (including the chaperones) to share thoughts or reflections from the 5 previous days.  This was typically a time of celebration when students joyfully shared things that they had discovered.  Sometimes I asked what the high and low points were, but usually those all came out in the discussion.  When the final person shared, it was common to share a huge group hug, followed by many hugs between pairs.  During this time, the three male chaperones approached me shaking their heads.  The one who had mentioned “funny business” blushed red and said, “We had no idea of what the kids were capable of.  Sharing this with my daughter will surely be one of the greatest experiences of my life.”  I laughed and said, “John Muir promised that great things happen when men and mountains meet.”  We all laughed.

Ingrid: “greatfulness is the heart of prayer”

Ingrid:  “gratefulness, the heart of prayer.”


At 17-years-old, she took the courageous step to travel 7,000 miles alone, from her home in tiny Yugoslavia, to St. Helena, Calif.  She would attend her senior year of high school with “foreign” students, and live with a strange host family.  She would make the grueling 10-mile hike from Yosemite Valley, up 4800 feet with a full backpack, to the top of half Dome.  She would walk to the bottom of Grand Canyon and sleep among rocks that were 1.8 billion years old.  She would be lulled to sleep, by the soothing rhythm of the Pacific Ocean, in Mendocino Ca.,   She would contemplate the fact that she was the result of the union of a “once-in-a-universe” sperm with an “o-i-a-u” egg.” Perhaps it was all of this, and much more, that triggered a rapturous catharsis around a Mendocino campfire.

Excerpt: BOFAW.

Ingrid sat alone by the fire, crying quietly. I approached

and sat beside her without speaking.

After awhile, she said, “I don’t believe this.”

I had no idea of what she didn’t believe, but guessed that she

would tell me if she wanted to.

After a long pause she continued, “I can’t believe I am alive, sitting

here, in this place, 7,000 miles from Yugoslavia. I could have

been born, grown up, grown old, and died without having any idea

what life was all about.”


Ingrid and I never discussed religion or spirituality.  Yugoslavia was a communist country and any discussions broaching those topics were likely politically incorrect, discouraged or deemed obsolete.  She was therefore presented with the dilemma of an overwhelming sense of gratitude and not sure what to do with it.  Without an awareness of a supreme being to offer thanks to, or assign credit to, she was either going to explode with joy or share with a fellow human. I was the lucky recipient of her shared rapture.

Brother David Steindl-Rast chose to open, “gratefulness, the heart of prayer”, with a brief poem from the poet Kabir.


Do you have a body? Don’t sit on the porch!

Go out and walk in the rain!

If you are in love,

Then why are you asleep?

Wake up, wake up!

You have slept millions of years.

Why not wake up this morning?


I suspect that regardless of Ingrid’s spiritual background, she was experiencing a plethora of intuitive emotional responses.  Like Kabir’s poem, she was “waking up!”  Another was the utter joy of feeling grateful, and another was that sharing that joy seemed to amplify it and make it more real.

Each time we added a child to our family, in her maternal wisdom, Christie avoided some understandable sibling competition for her love by giving the oldest one a candle.  She lit her candle and then lit the others and showed them that adding more candles added more light to our family.  “The same is true for love,” she told them, “each one of you is adding more love to our family.”

Russian Gulch Recreation Hall smelled of 1000-year old incense cedar. The hall was dark except for a single white candle burning brightly in the center.  Each student was sitting in the circle with a dark, votive candle in his/her lap.  After a centering meditation, I retrieved the center candle, returned to the circle, lit the votive candle at my left and handed him/her the white taper.  He/she in turn, lit the next votive and passed the taper on.  Within a few minutes the taper traveled the circle and the student on my right, lit my votive and returned the taper to the center.  What happened next was transcendent.  Each face was bathed in the unique color of the stained-glass votives.  Their faces were absolutely resplendent, giving off a supernatural, heavenly glow.

Although the experience seemed otherworldly, it was in fact real.  It was also a perfect metaphor for the Class.  Every fall each student arrived in room 103 with a unique physical, mental and spiritual face.  During every circle each face added light, color, drama, passion, anger, wisdom, humor, joy and sorrow.  The students usually discovered that by sharing all of these, their learning, compassion, love and joy were amplified and the sorrows, pain and disharmony were minimized.

In July of 1984 Ingrid returned to Yugoslavia.  The country has since been divided up and no longer exists by that name.  I have lost contact with her, but her words will ripple throughout the cosmos for eternity:


I could have been born, grown up, grown old,

and died without having any idea

what life was all about.”


Am I grateful for Kabir’s words?  You bet!  He keeps reminding me to:

Wake up, wake up!

You have slept millions of years.

Why not wake up this morning?



We Are Seven


We Are Seven

William Wordsworth



—A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

I met a little cottage girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad;
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.

“Sisters and brothers, little maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.

“Two of us in the churchyard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And in the churchyard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! — I pray you tell,
Sweet maid, how this may be.”

Then did the little maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the churchyard lie,
Beneath the churchyard tree.”

“You run about, my little maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the churchyard laid,
Then ye are only five.”

“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.

“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.

“And often after sunset, sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.

“The first that died was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.

“So in the churchyard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.

“And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”

“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little maid’s reply,
“O master! we are seven.”

“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
‘T was throwing words away; for still
The little maid would have her will,
And say, “Nay, we are seven!”