As I mentioned in an earlier post, back in January, I had the opportunity to go on retreat for five weeks in the mountains outside of Santa Fe, NM.
There were about thirty of us, from all walks of life and mostly from the Midwest and West Coast; I was one of the few from the East Coast. The regimen was a total change from my usual: yoga at 7:30am, group at 9 (and again at 1), then elective groups until dinner, then one more elective group before bed. It was a far cry from my home routine of groggily wandering to the shower at 8, skipping breakfast so that I can get to work by 9, and collapsing at home with the PS4 or the DVR after cooking dinner.
For those who have never visited New Mexico (or those who wonder why you’d want to go there in the first place, what with all of the empty miles of desert), I can only tell you that it is a truly spiritual place. There is something magical and mystical about the atmosphere; the peace of the Earth is to be found in those empty miles. Even moreso in the steep inclines of the Rockies.
Our core group was a smaller affair, around ten people. We had projects to work on – things that would assist us on our spiritual journey. This was no churchy thing – it was a universal spiritual thing. I’ve been to churchy retreats in my youth and this was nothing like it. They had shamanic drumming, somatic movement, art therapy, breathing and meditation…a truly holistic experience. So me being a spiritual-leaning atheist was hardly worth noting; I got on well with most people there.
About a week into my stay, two things happened that completely altered my experience there. First, I realized that coming in presenting as my birth gender was a mistake. Second, my personal beliefs offended someone in my core group so badly that they were scared of me.
No matter what else I may be, I am a proud and demonstrative metal-head and motorcycle enthusiast. I have long since embraced the traditional iconography of the metal culture – namely the references to the devil: it’s just how you show you’re cool and badass. It’s a stage prop (which is what most metal bands would tell you, too). It’s also a great political philosophy (I’m a card-carrying member of The Satanic Temple. Before you panic, I highly recommend you read a little about them. They’re an amazing organization and are highly respectful and supportive of the non-binary community). I especially love this line from their web site:
I’M OFFENDED!!! Please go elsewhere. We are probably offended by your beliefs, but we do not send you hateful email.https://thesatanictemple.com/pages/learn
In group, we had a tendency to sit in approximately the same places every day. There seems to be something in human nature that needs that kind of repetition to keep an anchor in the unfamiliar patterns of a new situation. My couch buddy was Phoebe. She and I would take opposite ends of the well-worn leatherette couch, leaving someone else to be sunk in the middle in the junction between the cushions.
Until the day I presented my art project about the things that are positive resources for me, I never thought much about the religious upbringings or beliefs of anyone else there – it was simply none of my business, even when they presented their own projects and highlighted their religion as being a vital resource.
The day after the presentation, my group leader sought me out in my cabin. She told me that we needed to have a meeting because someone in group was upset with me – particularly regarding my presentation – and didn’t know whether or not they could continue with me in the group.
We met in our group leader’s office. When I got there, Phoebe was curled into herself on a chair; knees up, arms wrapped around them. She’d been crying. When I said hello to her, she looked at me with terror on her face and just shook her head.
If I was a memoirist, I would be able to tell you what was said in that meeting; I only have vague impressions. I told her I was sorry that I’d upset her, that I was only doing what everyone had done: showing off bad artwork and the things that help me get through. I certainly hadn’t intended to frighten her.
It turned out that Phoebe was terrified of the iconography on my artwork: the pentagram, the Eye Of Horus, the ankh, the anarchy symbol. All things she, in her strict Mormon upbringing, had been told were evil and things to be feared and shunned. Her husband told her she should throw holy water on me and perform an exorcism. Her mother told her to stay away from me and pray for my soul.
This would hardly be the first time I’ve been called Evil (capitals can sometimes be heard, you know). Nor would it be the first time someone was told to stay away from me because I was somehow monstrous for simply existing as I am. But it was my first experience having a person I considered to be a friend turn on me for being who I am. As I continue the transition process, I fully expect to have that situation repeat; this was the litmus test for me.
The amazing part of it was that Phoebe couldn’t reconcile what she was being told with the reality of what I presented. I was no threat, hadn’t been eating babies or sacrificing animals at the full moon. I was just me. The same person she’d enjoyed sitting next to. Despite the draconian nature of her upbringing, she reached out. We had a real dialogue, a real discussion. It hurt me that she was scared of me. It confused her that I believed in and valued these things she was sure were flat-out Evil, but that she felt no animosity or danger from me.
That conversation in the group leader’s office was only the beginning of the dialog. Slowly, painfully, we both reached out to continue to talk. When no one else was around, we shared our histories, we shared the friendly affection that had been born on that couch (and continued daily). It blossomed into a true respect for each other and a kind of love I’ve never experienced before or since: a small, fragile thing born of mistrust and allowed to flower in the greenhouse that was Trauma Camp. It wouldn’t survive us going back to our real lives, but for those few weeks, it was a beautiful friendship.
Phoebe was the person whose hand I needed to hold when I presented my timeline project to the group; a brutal and bullet-pointed list of the momentous events in my life until then. I cried a lot.
She left two weeks before I did; that timeline thing was the last major project we shared. But I wanted to give her a gift before she went. Something that would mean a lot to her, and show her that I understood where she came from and where she might go.
I borrowed computer from the staff and sat on the floor with Phoebe. Holding onto each other’s hands, I sang her Petra’s “Road To Zion.” It’s a difficult thing to sing while crying, but I did.
And, with her blessing, when her mother came to pick her up, I introduced myself to her: “Hi! I’m the devil-worshipper.” And we all laughed.
Phoebe is one of a handful of my Trauma Camp friends who I think are in a better place now than they were before they went to Camp. I wish her all the luck and love in the world. She writes occasionally to share how her life is going. She even sings that song for herself, now.
She’s my friend. Even if I’m still an atheist.