Have you had one of those moments when you were driving down the freeway, you decided to change lanes, you checked all your mirrors, turned on your blinker, started to move into the other lane—and suddenly, in a flash, out of nowhere, there was a car right next to you, the car that had been hiding in your blind spot. You jerked your car back into your lane; now disorientated from an abrupt realization, jarred out of your comfort zone, relieved that you didn’t collide into a disastrous future.
I have had several of those moments. One of them was a month after I thought I had finished my book, Wisdom Walking: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. I had met the publisher’s deadline and thirty days later was headed to a writer’s workshop at the Collegeville Institute on the campus of Saint John’s University, northwest of Minneapolis.
I arrived at the Minneapolis – Saint Paul airport with the instructions needed to find the Fun Van that would take me to the Collegeville Institute for a week of writing. I’m not the best of travelers. I get lost easily and turned around quite often. When I reached the spot where I thought I was supposed to meet my ride, there were vans from hotels, car rental companies, shuttles to other terminals, but no Fun Van. I panicked. I read the instructions for the fourth time.
And then I saw her, a woman wearing a Chicago Theological Seminary t-shirt. I just knew in my heart that she had to be going to the same workshop. Before asking her, I had to overcome my profound introversion—admittedly, I have problems striking up conversations with people I know.
“Um, are you going to the Collegeville Institute?”
I gave her a bit of start. Still, she offered this over-sixty white-guy with long hair a kind but curious look.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Gil.
“Hi. I’m Renee” She was holding her phone in one hand and a small bag in the other with her carry on propped against her leg. She was calm. Her brilliant brown eyes crackled with energy. This African-American woman exuded presence and that was reassuring to me in my moment of anxiety.
I kept talking. “I’m going to the Collegeville Institute. I saw your t-shirt and just thought maybe you were going there as well.”
Her smile was warm. “Oh, yes, my t-shirt, of course. Yes, I’m going to Collegeville.”
She told me she has already received a text from the van driver, who was waiting for all the passengers to arrive before heading to our pre-arranged pick-up. I was relieved. I wasn’t lost and I had met someone who confidently knew where she was, and that’s what I needed.
The van arrived and we boarded. We sat down next to each other. Made introductions with our fellow passengers and started off on what turned out to be a long, sweltering ride. I came to learn that my new colleague is the Reverend Doctor Renee C. Jackson, a United Church of Christ pastor. Renee and I, weary travelers and possibly two introverts, dozed off while the other passengers chatted pleasantly.
I had been looking forward to this workshop for months and I was confident my hopes to learn something valuable would not be disappointed. Our workshop officially began the next morning. It was all I had hoped. Karen Hering, author or Writing to Wake the Soul was our facilitator. She made the space feel safe and at the same time creative. Karen quickly engaged us in her writing process of “contemplative correspondence.”
Then the afternoon session began. Karen had prepped us that before arriving we needed to choose a metaphor that we had been working with in our writing. A word we would be willing to share with the group. When it came my turn I said I had chosen the metaphor pilgrimage and that I would use alchemical language to unpack its meaning. One of our classmates asked me if I would say a bit more about alchemy.
I gathered my thoughts. I had read nearly a hundred books and spent thousands of hours studying alchemy. Now I had to boil it down to an elevator ride explanation. “We begin in the chaos and confusion of blackness and through the many shades of darkness we eventually move into the burning of the white ash, which gives rise to the multicolored phase of the raven with the peacock tail, who eventually becomes the rising Phoenix who flies into the sun of the healing red tincture for the sake of other’s healing.”
Karen then said, “Your language is very poetic. However, we need to be mindful of the baggage our words carry. Words like “black” and “white” can be very heavy words packed with racial associations. How we use them in relationship to what is good and bad is important to our awareness of racism functioning in society and our language—especially in these charged days of heightened racial tension following the death of so many black men.”
A pall of chaos fell over my soul. The stormy clouds of shame rushed into my heart with lusty vengeance. I thought I had searched through all the secrets corners of my life looking for latent racism. I had been open in the past that in 1850 my great-great-grandfather had enslaved a black man and women, and their baby. My great-great-grandfather died in 1860 in Alabama at the age of forty-one, a year before the Civil War broke out. He left behind a wife, four children, and the three people he had enslaved. One of his sons became my great-grandfather and I have no idea what happened to those three souls who had been liberated from his subjection. I have tried mightily to wrest the DNA of enslavement out of my life.
One of my good friends and teammates in high school lived two-doors down the street. Clyde Cunningham, was one of a dozen African-American kids in our school of 5,000. My high school baseball coach was Gil Trejo, a Hispanic man and the best coach I had ever played for. He didn’t tolerate racism of any kind and he would become the model for my twenty-years of coaching college baseball. After high school, the Houston Astros drafted me and my five-year professional baseball career began. Most every team I played on, Caucasians were the minority. The teams were filled with Latin players of every shade of black and brown, then African-American players, and then the rest of us. 1973 was my third year of professional baseball. Our manager was Bernie Smith, the first African-American minor league manager in the history of professional baseball. I loved playing for him. When my playing career was over my wife and I took teaching jobs in Coolidge, Arizona. The collective minorities were the majority in that town. The Black, Hispanic, and Native kids wove their way deep into my heart. Twenty years later, when my sister-in-law and her two-year-old African-American son were in desperate straits, they moved in with us. For five years we provided a safe and loving place for them to heal. I thought I had worked through the ancestral DNA of racism that had lurked in my life. Evidently not.
Karen Hering’s words felt like she had shoved a rusty railroad spike into my heart; cracking open the stone egg of my soul—and from it oozed the putrid smell of an unconscious blind spot. At that moment my book was sitting on the publisher’s desk. I had spent four years writing this book. I had studied Carl Jung inside out. And yes, I know he was a racist, a sexist, and a philander. But his ideas on alchemy, pilgrimage, and individuation helped make sense of my life. Somehow, though, the names of the phases of alchemy, the words, black, white, yellow, and red hid in my unconscious blind spot. How could that have happened? How did I not see the weight of those words?
Sitting in that conference room at the Collegeville Institute, I wanted to run and hide. I felt like I was going to vomit. Synchronicity, however, had brought me to that moment of suspended timelessness. Months before, I had been notified that I had not been selected as one of the twelve who were invited to attend the workshop. I was, however, asked if I would be an alternate in the rare case that someone else would decline. A month later, I was notified that a slot had opened and asked if I would I accept. Synchronicity had brought me to that moment, for that workshop with Renee, Karen, and my blind spot. I could not run. If there is one solitary thing I have learned from pilgrimage it is that when I feel like I can’t take another step forward, I must keep walking in order for any chance of transmutation to emerge in my life.
That evening, as our group went to dinner, I walked along side Renee. I said a few inane things about the weather. Then I apologized. I told her I didn’t mean to offend her or hurt her in any way. I was simply using alchemical language. She told me she wasn’t offended. She understood the context.
Gently and graciously, but firmly, she said, “But I did have a reaction. I wish we could find other words so that black isn’t always bad and white is always good.”
I knew what I had to do. I contacted the publisher. I told him I needed to make a major revision in my book. I wanted to take any color language that smacked of racism out of the alchemical metaphors. I would need to create new names for the alchemical phases, replacing them with more expressive words, void of the baggage of racism. I explained my reasons and waited for a response.
The next day I was walking toward the Saint John campus and Renee was walking in the opposite direction back toward the Institute. Synchronicity was working overtime. We stopped under a large oak tree for needed shade and more conversation. I asked for her permission to tell this story. Renee said she’d think about it and then quickly got to the heart of the matter. She told me that our conversations were building racial and cultural bridges. “Our work is about more than a book. It is about more than you or me. I believe this is God’s work, truly a marvel to behold.” Then she asked me a question that would further pry open the egg of my soul.
“So Gil, where are you on your pilgrimage?”
I told her that I am still on pilgrimage. I am still experiencing the surprising, yet confusing, moments of synchronicity that turn up the heat in my life. I am still being transmuted by the pilgrimage of writing and living as a pilgrim. I am still returning again and again back to the beginning, back to the chaos of the alchemical process—still doing the dangerous work of turning up the heat, phase by phase. And why do I do this—because, consciously or unconsciously, I never want to enslave another soul with my words. I have to keep searching for all the blind spots in my life.