We Are Never Alone

Following My Patch of Light

About seven years ago I attended a Baltimore Yearly Meeting spiritual formation retreat where quite suddenly I realized that my “dabbling” in art needed to become more intentional—more serious, if you will. We were given a few queries that were intended to be prompts for writing down our spiritual journey thus far, but the image that came to mind really didn’t have words. It was just the image and a visceral feeling of being nine years old, my first year at Camp Catoctin, and feeling very alone. Writing has never come easily for me, but I had my sketchbook and my watercolors, so I started sketching and painting. But nothing seemed to quite get the feel of this memory.

The memory goes something like this: I had been camping since early childhood but always with my family—my parents and my two older sisters. I’ve never understood why I was terrified of the dark when I was young, something my sisters would frequently tease me about. I had even been to visit Catoctin once before, since one of my sisters had been a camper before me. But this was the first time being away from my family overnight, other than sleepovers at friends’ houses, and here I was alone in the woods at night. I had gotten up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. I grasped my trusty flashlight tightly as I made my way down a twisting path. To nine-year-old me, it felt miles long, littered with rocks and tree roots, all seemingly alive and ready to trip me up at any moment. I recall the trees appearing huge, moving so as to confuse me, hoping I would get lost there in the woods. The barred owls were hooting to each other in the dark tree canopy, and though I loved the sound of them, on this night their classic Halloween chatter simply added to the spookiness of the entire scene. If the owls were awake and talking, who else or what else might be out there? Did they view me as a trespasser in their space, out and about during a midnight hour meant only for them?

Eventually I came within sight of the well-lit bathhouse, breathed a little easier, and walked a little faster. Now the bathhouse lights attracted all sorts of insects—some of which might be a little frightening in their own right—but at least the lights were on, and I could see them. As musty, dank, and insect-filled as that bathhouse was, I was at ease there. With the call of nature answered, I had to make my way back to the lean-to where my counselor and sister campers were, where there was no light waiting for me. I can remember the light from the bathhouse getting smaller and smaller. I kept looking back at it as I slowly picked my way through the roots and rocks, avoiding the outstretched branches of trees and bushes, quite sure they were arms reaching out to grab me. I estimate I was about halfway between what was now a tiny light emanating from the bathhouse and my unit’s lean-to, in the darkest part of the woods, when my flashlight proved not to be as trusty as one might hope. I felt that familiar terror start to well up inside when I noticed the small beam start to grow dimmer and dimmer, and I knew the batteries were about to die.

And then it was complete darkness. I froze in my tracks. I could just barely make out the light from the bathhouse. I considered going back and spending the rest of the night in that musty, dank space, but there was a long stretch of unlit pathway with all its perils between me and that light. It was the most alone I had ever felt. I couldn’t go forward, and I couldn’t go back, and there was no one to help me decide what to do—only imagined, fearful things that delighted in my terror even more so than my sisters did. (I would have gladly tolerated the cruel teasing just to have them there.) I was on the verge of tears. I may have even cried out, though I can’t remember doing so.

Margo Lehman, Walk in the Light, approx. 12″ x 12″, wool.

But it’s what I do remember of that transformative experience that I now try to capture in visual art. Just before I completely broke down, it seemed that the trees chose to open the dark canopy they created to let a single moonbeam shine on the path about ten feet ahead, in the direction back to the lean-to. I can make it to that patch of light, I thought, and so I did. And then, the trees made room for another moonbeam just a few feet ahead of the first patch of light—and another and yet another. Before long, I was filled with the same sense of ease as I felt at the bathhouse—perhaps even more so, as I was being serenaded by owls and guided by trees. Just before I got to the lean-to, I can recall thinking, Hey! I’m walking in the Light! I stopped and looked back down the long moonlit path, and it came to me that the Light was provided for me. Someone—something—moved the tree branches just enough to let the Light in, as much as I needed at the moment. Drinking in that thought, those beautiful moonlit woods and the songs of the owls changed me forever.

The query I was given at that spiritual formation retreat was to recall the earliest age I could remember being aware of the presence of God. I hadn’t thought about this incident in more than 40 years, and yet less than a minute later, the image of being in the woods at night with no flashlight, frozen in my tracks, was burned into my brain. Yet it is not terror that I feel with this image but peace. It’s not a sense of trespassing but a sense of being in my place in the world. It’s not a feeling of being abandoned or alone but knowing that the Companion is with me, always.

I have been trying to capture this image with drawing and painting for the last seven years. My staff meeting notes are littered with doodles of dark forests and well-lit paths. Every new pencil set or paint brush is tested with this image flowing from the tip. And though I’ve had many occasions to return to Catoctin, it was never with this image in my head. When I visited on a full moon night a couple of years ago in an attempt to get the perfect reference photo, I found that the trees I remembered as imposing and gnarly were actually quite small and straight-trunked, with few roots or branches reaching out for me. The path I walked decades ago has been replaced with a wide, well-trod path with little or no rocks. None of the photos evoked the memory the way it lives in my head or in the deep place where the Companion lives in me. And my artwork wasn’t much better than my photos. I’ve gathered numerous reference photos, done sketches of various trees and their somewhat gnarly roots, and even attempted a few paintings in watercolor and oil.

In the middle of my second year in a three-year atelier art program, I decided to renew my acquaintance with needle-felted wool in a workshop on “painting” a landscape with wool. (I should note that I first learned to needle felt at Catoctin, as a parent volunteer when my youngest child was a camper years ago, just to show how the Companion works to bring things about.) I soon left the pre-packaged image we were supposed to be working on behind and found myself creating this image from my transformation. I worked for 15 hours straight, with no fatigue. I needed to make this image, and I still need to make this image. It’s the same restlessness we feel when a message comes to us in worship. It’s why I retired early and started art school at the age of 60. I want to get this image out there, with its message that we are never alone. It is the basis for my thesis work as I come into the last year of my art program, and I will continue painting this image, in paint and wool, until I am clear that it’s time to move on to another image.

I’ve never been afraid of the dark since that experience, much to my sisters’ chagrin. And while I prefer to have a few soft lights on in the house in case I have to answer that call of nature in the middle of the night, if I have to be without human-created light sources, then my preference is to be outside in the woods. I have never really felt alone since that experience. Oh, there have been moments when the various shortcomings of life have pushed me into despair but never for long. I am always willing to ask the Great Companion to come and be with me and always sure that the Companion is there, whether in the woods or in my studio.

Margo Lehman

Margo Lehman has attended Sandy Spring (Md.) Meeting since early childhood and became a member at the age of 18. The meeting, Camp Catoctin, Young Friends, Sandy Spring Friends School, and Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM) have made the foundation of her life. She retired from working at BYM to pursue a life of art in 2020. Contact Margolehmanart.com.

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