By the time classes started at PSU in Fall, 1985 I was euphoric and “weller than well,” infused with new energy and no sign of cancer. I had had a miracle! I wanted to give back.
That same year, my mother Frances, who was then nearly 70, started a nonprofit called “A Course in Miracles Center” in her home in Sellwood, where she paid the rent from her small Social Security check. I joined her Board, and she and I each began to facilitate study groups in her home. She had dedicated the ground floor to the Center, using the upstairs loft as her living space. She accepted donations for the Center, but most people thought she was rich enough to finance it herself, since she had a large home. Before long, she had quite a following of eager, new ACIM students.
Three years earlier, my dad Travis had died on Fathers’ Day when his car hit a tree on the way to dig clams with my brother Tim. Tim had a head injury, but recovered in the hospital. Soon, we learned that Dad’s children had inherited his Christmas tree farm. It had been sold to a man who harvested the trees, sold them, didn’t replant, then defaulted. We got it back. Alder trees and blackberries had taken over, and the trees that hadn’t been sheared and shaped were now too tall, crowded, and ungainly to harvest. My brothers, Wes and Tim, their wives, Mary and Irene, and Jack and I were the ones interested in rebuilding the tree farm, so my two sisters opted to be bought out.
Jack took to tree farming and became the de facto “foreman” of our six-person crew. We were all teachers, and from then on we spent our spring, summer, and Christmas breaks doing stoop labor in the rain, just as we had growing up. Planting trees, shearing, spraying for pests, and for the whole month of December, harvesting the trees and selling them at a mall in Warrenton, with the old sign, “Trav’s Trees.”
Before 1985 was over, Jack’s musings about early retirement had become serious.
“What would you think if I retired at 55?” he said.
“You’re 55 now!”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean. I’m sick and tired of the politics at the Lab. I’d rather raise cattle, and Christmas trees.”
“Cattle! You want to raise cows?” I remembered the one cow I had grown up with, how often she caused problems for Dad. Falling into a deep ditch, ripping her leg open on barbed wire, bashing in the side of the bulb fumigator…
“I’ve always wanted to be a farmer, and raise beef cattle, and Candy’s a trained cattle horse, I could use her to keep them in line.”
I was trying to take this all in. “So, you’d rather be a cattle farmer than wear a suit every day and show up to help schools figure things out?”
“And a tree farmer, don’t forget. I love doing that, too.”
That was before we knew how regularly the local elk herd would knock down our fences, and how regularly Jack would be on Candy’s back, picking their way over fallen logs in our woods to round up our 13 cows. And then, repair the fences.
But I gave him my wholehearted blessing. “I know the work has been wearing on you, and the politics, and the travel. By all means, as long as I’m still working so we can pay the farm mortgage, do it!”
“You should think about retiring early, too.”
“In nine years!” I said. “But I love my work now, so I’m nowhere near ready to retire.”
* * *
As Jack happily divided his time between the two farms, I commuted to PSU alone. Once I got used to being alone, the hour and a half drive each morning and again each evening became a time when I struggled to understand and hear my inner voice more clearly. I questioned what it was, and what it meant. Could it be more distinct, more than a brief whisper?
There had been times in my life when I knew I had guidance from beyond my ordinary thinking, guidance that had turned me in an important direction, or given me the right words to say, or the right decision to make, often against all conventional wisdom.
I remembered that Helen Schucman, the professor who wrote down the Course, had called it “inner dictation.” As a clinical psychologist, her inner voice terrified her at times. She confessed to her colleague Bill Thetford early one morning in his office:
“Bill, I’m afraid I’m losing my mind.”
“What makes you think so?”
“I’m hearing a Voice.”
“What does it say?”
“It says, ‘This is a course in miracles. Please take notes’.”
“Then take notes!”
Christian groups attacked the Course as “channeled material” and therefore evil. A real sticking point was Helen’s early identification of the “Voice” as Jesus. In their view, Jesus delivered his message of Divine Love, unity, forgiveness and peace to His brothers and sisters only once, 2000 years ago, and had been silent ever since.
* * *
My mother waited for my late-afternoon study group to end so we could have coffee together in her small dining room. As soon as the last student had left, she set two cups on her wooden table and poured hot coffee from the always-ready pot on the sideboard.
“Are you busy next Sunday night?” she asked.
“Why, what’s going on?”
“You know my friends Paul and Susan Tuttle? Well, Paul is ready now to go public with his channeling, and he’s doing a ‘gathering’ in Portland where he’ll answer questions by listening to his Guide.” She took a sip of coffee. “Mostly about A Course in Miracles.” Her crystal blue eyes sparkled, set off by her smooth cap of shining white hair.
I had met Paul and Susan a year earlier at Mom’s house, and I liked them both. “His guide? How does his guide know so much about the Course?”
Mom laughed. “He calls him ‘Raj’ but that’s because apparently his guide sometimes answers questions as if it’s Jesus, and he’s too humble to ever accept that his guide could be Jesus.” She topped off my coffee. “Helen Schucman was willing to accept it, but he’s not.”
“I’m curious about it,” I said. “Maybe Jack would like to get away from the farm for a change and do something different like this, too.”
Jack was as curious as I. We drove together to what Paul called “a gathering”—mostly of Course students—at a hotel in Portland.
We followed the sound of Paul’s deep, hearty laugh down the hall to find the room. He sat at the front, wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, facing chairs arranged in rows in a semicircle.
When everyone had settled in, Paul closed his eyes and became very still for several long minutes. When he opened his eyes, he scanned the room and said, “Who has the first question?” His voice hadn’t changed.The first question came from Aaron, a young man in one of my mother’s study groups.
“How can I hear my guidance, like you do?” (Even though I wasn’t the questioner, I might as well have been—I wanted a more stable, regular way to check in and have my questions answered within myself.)
Paul, after being quiet for a few moments to hear the answer from Raj, replied.
“Get still, ask your question, listen, and expect an answer. It’s important to expect an answer, or you won’t hear it when it comes.”
Paul was quiet again, with his eyes closed. After a minute or so, he continued:
“You don’t understand anything you see. So you must
- go within and ask for the meaning of everything you see and everything that happens. You will be told what action to take, if any.
- And, do not defend or explain your conclusions or the actions that come from your guidance.
“Your sense of your tininess causes you to feel vulnerable. It seems to call for defense. And so you engage in defense to keep yourself safe, and to stay in control, in a hostile environment. Now there is something you need to know: what I am talking about is not like an ostrich sticking its head in the ground and saying everything is all right when it isn’t.
I am saying that when you dare to abandon thinking in favor of the inner experience of your peace, and you have that experience of peace, truly all the things that seem threatening will no longer be threatening to you. They may need to be dealt with, but they will not be frightening to deal with.”
Paul ended his answer with this comment: “The most important message of the Course was what can happen if you simply listen within. Helen was willing to do that, and she produced 1200 pages of material that has changed the world.”
Aaron persisted: “I’m willing! But how do I know when I’m hearing my guide?”
Paul suggested that the questioner ask, “What should I call you?” and then listen within for an answer.
On the drive home, I asked Jack his opinion of the evening.
“It was interesting,” he said. “Paul is a pretty regular guy. He was the only person in that whole group, besides me, who smoked. So I got to talk with him while we stood out on the driveway during smoke breaks.”
I laughed. “Did he channel Raj while he smoked?”
“No! We talked about smoking, cattle—he loves hamburgers, and wants to buy part of a steer when we have some beef—his childhood, my childhood, and how awkward he sometimes feels, learning to speak his guidance out loud.” Jack turned at the highway intersection that meant we were halfway home. “I trust his answers, because he doesn’t seem to have an ounce of arrogance or pride. But did you notice, when he listens, then speaks, his voice has an assurance that he doesn’t have when he’s just chatting?”
“I did notice that. I guess he’s learned by now to trust his guide, so he doesn’t hesitate to speak.”
We drove in silence for a few miles. “I wonder…”
“Wonder what? You’re the most wonder-full girl I’ve ever known…”
“I just wonder…if he can hear his inner voice so clearly, which I would call his own Higher Self, maybe I can, too. He’s such an ordinary guy.”
Jack glanced over at me. “He’s an ordinary guy, who has this gift. He was pretty clear tonight, that all it takes is willingness. No harm in trying, is there? Maybe you’ll write the next Course in Miracles.”
“You jest. I’m not interested in going public, but would sure love to have more clarity about some of the questions and problems I run into. Especially at work. Right now, they’re trying to get me to run for Department Chair, and that’s the last thing on earth I want to do! I love my teaching, love having summers off, and there’s no raise in salary for being Chair. But there’s a campaign starting up, they just won’t leave me alone about it.”
“Sounds like the perfect time to get some guidance,” Jack said. “Can’t hurt, why don’t you try?”
* * *
Every day for the next week on my way home after a hectic day at work I drove slowly, and tried to keep my squirrel brain quiet enough to hear, which didn’t succeed.
One evening around dusk, about a mile from home, I passed a cluster of pickups and emergency vehicles, all of them idling or with the motors shut off.
Jack was sitting on the steps of the back porch, his head in his hands.
“What’s happened?” I asked. “Fire and Rescue is down the road, and an ambulance…”
Jack lifted his head to look at me. His eyes were bloodshot. “It was Jack Ott. Logging by himself, up above the Chapman place. Cut an alder, the damn thing twisted as it fell, hit another tree, a limb broke off, hit Jack in the head, killed him instantly.”
I dropped onto the steps, feeling as if I’d had a hard blow to the gut. Jack Ott was a friend, a small, wiry logger with blue eyes and blonde hair. He often logged with horses to avoid damaging a fragile forest. We had hired him to scout our acreage for trees that needed to be harvested to sustain the forest health, and he had spent hours sitting in our 50 acres of woods making beautiful colored-pencil drawings of the position of every tree, marking the ones that were diseased or dying. Sometimes he’d spend all day out there, writing poetry about the beauty around him. Or working on his treatise about how mathematics could be used to prove the existence of God. He was enrolled in a PhD program in mathematics at Harvard. Logging, now, to support his family—four kids, and his wife expecting another.
A few weeks earlier, Jack Ott had finished cutting the bad trees in our forest, and his horses had pulled them out to the road where he had loaded them onto his logging truck.
I left work early a few days later to attend Jack Ott’s funeral at the Mist-Birkenfeld Grange. Jack’s widow, hugely pregnant, stumbled down the aisle to the front, her smaller children clinging to her skirt. Hurting inside, I asked my inner voice to please explain this tragedy to me. But my mind was filled with grief, and grief was all I could hear.
A few days later, on the way to work, I finally noticed an entire “train of thought” that was peaceful, quiet, and loving. There were no answers to unexplainable tragedies, but my mind was finally at peace with mystery.
I’d been asking all week, as Paul had suggested: “What should I call you? What is your name?” but there was never an answer. Instead, there was only that qualitatively different kind of thinking, wiser and more loving and creative than my usual scatter, and often, more fun.
I listened, and tried to remember what the thoughts were, but by the time I got home they had drifted away, leaving me with a feeling of deep peace.
I bought a recording microphone, so I could speak my questions and answers out loud, and remember what I was hearing.
* * *
I wrote about an incident that happened one night while I was driving home and listening to my inner voice. It has been somewhat fictionalized, and the names of places changed. But the incident happened. Think of it as a short story. Here, it’s Chapter 26.