It felt like an ordinary day, an ordinary meal, an ordinary bowl of noodles. Maybe it was, but it was his last. The earthquake hit. All hell broke loose. The river catapulted out of its banks. It came rushing in, pushing a wall of vegetation, soil and rock in front of it. He ran for his life. The bowl of noodles hit the ground and landed upside down as disaster struck. All went dark. Everyone and everything in the village was buried under ten feet of clay soil.
Four thousand years later, scientists digging at the Lajia archeological site on the Yellow River in China reconstructed this scene. They noted skeletons thrown into various abnormal positions. The inhabitants had been overwhelmed as they tried to flee the catastrophe.
As reported in the journal Nature, when scientists lifted the overturned bowl, they found the clay soil had vacuum-sealed its contents. All these years later, there were the noodles. It was an extraordinary find. As you might well guess, Stone Age noodles are not easy to come by.
I think it’s a fascinating story. My longsuffering husband has heard me recount it numerous times. The other night I was telling it in his hearing once again. “The scientists lifted the bowl,” I said theatrically, “and there were the noodles, four thousand years later!”
“And the thing is,” my weary husband interposed, “they were still hot.”
We all laughed. Yet it’s true that for me those noodles are still warm, moist and juicy. There’s something about them that compels me.
Perhaps it’s the parallels to my own life. The earthquake struck when I came out gay at age 35. In the ensuing flood, I lost my life as I knew it—along with my wife, children, church, family, friends, job and home in the country.
Yet I lived to tell about it and what felt like thousands of years later to sort through the wreckage looking for anything I could salvage. Amongst the debris I found a small bowl—a soul-container—and, inside, some simple ordinary things which nourish me.
Trees. Stars. The seasonal rhythms of nature. The musty smells of an old barn. Chickens and geese. Fresh-grown vegetables. An outdoor privy. Raccoons, coyotes and deer as neighbors. The loud hammering of a woodpecker. The even louder quiet when he’s done. These and more are good soul medicine for me.
And for others, as well. “I am convinced, both as a psychoanalyst and as cantodora [storyteller], that many times it is the things of nature that are the most healing,” says Charissa Estés in Women Who Run With Wolves, “especially the very accessible and the very simple ones.”
Returning to a simple country life four years after coming out was part of my healing. My husband and I were evicted from our small-town apartment after word got out a gay couple was living there. We began an earnest search for a place of our own. We wanted it to be soul-nurturing, in the country, and affordable. At long last we found Old Winters, a rural Indiana farmhouse nestled in 18 wooded acres.
Country living comes at a price. Initially, we paid it in mailboxes. For some while after we moved in, ours was the only mailbox on our rural Indiana road regularly targeted for drive-by batting practice. Each new police officer who came by to write up a vandalism report acted mystified as to why it kept happening. My husband and I were not so naive.
We kept replacing mailboxes, hoping the vandal would tire of the game. We tired of it first. If he could play hardball, so could we. We filled our next mailbox with cement. Maybe the vandal did get a shock when he hit it, but he exacted revenge by stealing the box, the cement, the post, everything.
We then arranged a set-up that allowed us to detach the mailbox and bring it in each night. He stole our set-in-concrete wooden post. Now we bring in both mailbox and post every night. He hasn’t yet stolen the hole in the ground. What he has done is sprinkle our door and yard with bags of “anthrax.” He’s also set fire to the porch.
I feel angry and fearful about paying this price to live in a soulful place. Yet I realize that living close to one’s heart always extracts a price of some kind. For me, country living is a wise investment.
I pay attention to what feeds my inner self. Recently, that came in building an outhouse—a fabulous outhouse. It’s made of boards reclaimed from a tumbled down hog shed. This privy has curtained windows, a gorgeous old-oak two-hole seat and a sitting porch, even. We named it Fern Hill, after the poem by Dylan Thomas that begins, “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs . . . .” In some way I don’t quite understand, my past, present and future meet in this little building. We had an outhouse when I was growing up, as did my grandparents. We used it regularly. Last year, when winter storms left us without power for a week, we wished for an outhouse. Having one now is insurance against future power outages. It’s also a connection with the old ways and with the earthiness of life.
Sometimes nature comes looking to us for nourishment, as when an orphaned raccoon adopted us for a spell one year. Rascal was a faerie spirit who taught me much about the wildish nature and the life/death/life aspect of being. So, too, our goose Albert, a cantankerous fowl creature who embodied my animal nature—that which will turn and bite me in the butt if I’m not careful.
Living in the country offers me solitude. Much as I appreciate that, there are times I’d like some other men with whom to be easy under the apple boughs. I learn from this, as well. For ten years my husband and I have been part of an intimate circle of loving companions that meets monthly in the capitol city. It’s a 90-minute trip one way, and worth it for the mutual support and encouragement we share. We also run a monthly gay men’s support/discussion group in our home, another way we create meaningful connection and community. Once each year we travel further afield and attend a national gathering of fey spirits. We drink deeply of these waters, for the memory of this experience must sustain us through another year.
Country living reminds me of my connection to the physical and cultural landscape around me. My outer life shapes my inner life, and vice versa. Energy flows both ways. Life is richer when I am mindful of this.
Thus, we make conscious choices about what we allow into our home. Old Winters has no television, no internet access, no cell phone. An answering machine screens incoming calls. Books line our walls. That’s my bailiwick. Hand-crafted furniture and hand-sewn artifacts testify to my husband’s leisure time pursuits. A placard above the fireplace bears words adapted from Ira Progoff, “I enter Old Winters as a sanctuary, a refuge, a protected place set apart from the cares of the world. . . . Here I deepen and expand my perspectives on being. Here I find my heart’s home.” No idle words, these. Living them out is for me a path with heart. And a venture into the unknown.
Archeologists at Lajia snapped a picture of the Stone Age noodles. It’s a good thing they did. Exposed to air and sunlight, the millenniums-old noodles soon crumbled to dust.
There is Mystery here. That which sustains me at a deep level is something of a slippery noodle. Try as I might to quantify it, contain it, explain it, its essence always eludes my grasp. It’s enough that I recognize my hunger for it, and discern what it is nourishing soul food from that which is empty calories. For me, country living sharpens my appetite for the real thing.
This essay appeared in RFD, No. 124, Winter 2005–06