We arrived in Loa on Sunday the 17th, just in time to slip into the parent meeting at 6 p.m. There was only one other boy graduating that week, and his parents were a lovely couple from Texas who live on a ministry and oversee several Christian missions worldwide (an orphanage in Liberia, a media mission in France, etc.). We were all coached on how to avoid any kind of distancing behaviors with our sons, and what to expect from them, including some lingering anger at us for sending them there.
We stayed that night in a quaint motel across the street, called the Snuggle Inn...and hardly slept a wink because of all the excitement, emotion, and built-up anticipation.
The next morning we had more parent workshops and drafted several “I Feel... statements”:
(I feel _______ when you __________. I feel this way because _________. In the future I hope I can _________, and request that you __________.)The boys have been trained to communicate this way, learning to express their feelings in a way that de-escalates conflict, and then reflect back each other’s statements until they feel adequately heard. It was more challenging than we expected, both to communicate this way, and to listen and reflect back what the other person was saying. The graduation counselor said our boys are “emotional warriors” -- not in an angry, fighting sense, but in the sense of having conquered their own emotions and learned to express them assertively and listen with compassion -- “emotional warriors” in the heroic sense.
After lunch they told us to load our gear into the truck, and they drove us out to the wilderness to meet up with our boys. (Note: Our gear consisted of the clothes on our back, a sleeping bag, water bottle, camping cup and spoon, and a fleece jacket. We were instructed NOT to bring any food, cosmetics, matches, flashlights, camping equipment, or anything else that could detract from the wilderness experience. Cellphones and internet were out of the question.)
After a 20-minute ride down a series of dirt roads, we stopped the vehicles, and had a moment in a circle, linked by a red cord, to share our feelings. Then they told us, “Your boys are just on the other side of that hill.” Gingerly we climbed the hill and made our way down the trail. Once we rounded the bend, I caught sight of the boys, and my heart just about leaped right out of my chest. At that moment it felt exactly like the account of the Prodigal Son in the book of Luke:
But when he was yet a [little] way off, [we] saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)My arms would not, could not let go of him, and my chest would not stop heaving up and down as I sobbed my love and gratitude right onto his shoulder. We just held each other like that for what seemed like forever. And then he and Jeff did the same.
The boys (who it turns out have become best friends during their time together in the wilderness) walked us to the private campsites they had prepared especially for this reunion with their parents. We tramped over acres of desert grass and cactus until we arrived at a little clearing where Josh had built a shelter for himself, and one for us. (Home, sweet home!)
He taught us how to “bust a fire” using a bow drill, and cooked our dinner (which was delicious, by the way) in a "billy can". We washed out our cups and the cans using sand (such irony, cleaning with dirt) and then Josh read us page after page from his journal, along with two short stories he’d written. (I had no idea he was such a strong writer. His talent puts mine to shame. His diction, clarity, visual sense and imagination were very impressive. Both Jeff and I gave him the ultimate compliment: “I wish I had written that.”)
The next day we hiked down to a little shady spot by a river that was so lush and green it was like something from Shangri-La. We spent the better part of the day there with the group, engaged in listening activities, relays, and even a writing exercise. (yay!) That afternoon we got rained on, then hailed on, then rained on again, and worked our way breathlessly back up the hill to our campsite to let everything dry out. At that point I felt like we had been given a tiny taste of what the boys had been through for the past eight weeks. It was just enough to ignite my sense of adventure without dampening my spirits.
The next morning we walked through a Native American Medicine Wheel (a circle on the ground, made of branches and bones and chapparal, with four gates: North, South, East and West) except this special graduation medicine wheel had only two gates, East (symbolizing new birth, new life, regrowth) and West (symbolizing leaving something old behind). We entered the wheel from the West gate and walked counter-clockwise to stop time. Everyone passed a "heart stick" that has been at Aspen graduations for decades, and shared a few thoughts regarding our reunion experience. The staff leader read Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You'll Go!, which seemed amazingly applicable to what we were all thinking and feeling. We then walked clockwise around the medicine wheel to restart time, and exited through the East gate and hiked back out to our cars, leaving the wilderness and all its rich lessons behind, but hopefully emblazoned in our hearts.
I was prepared for a rough couple of nights under the stars and a sweet reunion. But I was not prepared for the amazing young man we met there. (I almost wanted to ask, Who are you and what have you done with my son? --except that this was the young man I always knew was inside him. I just hadn’t ever come face to face with him yet). He seemed so much older, whether or not you took into consideration the two months we’d been apart. He was confident, gracious, respectful, loving, expressive, patient, responsible, goal-oriented, and dare I say? happy. He demonstrated all the qualities of a strong leader. I couldn’t help thinking that he had entered this amazing rite of passage as an angry, confused boy...and come out a man. He made a courageous journey, physically and psychologically, progressing up the figurative totem pole from Mouse to Coyote to Buffalo...and finally Eagle (an honor only 5% of the kids achieve).
He almost seemed born again -- not necessarily in the Christian sense, but in the sense that he had been stripped of his old life and was beginning a new one...one where he had discovered exactly who he is and what his purpose is. Like his whole mind and body had been cleansed by the dirt and the rain and the wind and the sun and let his soul shine through like never before.
I was also struck by the symbolism of us meeting him on his turf, so to speak, and the reciprocal beauty of having him prepare a shelter for us and cook our meals. We, who had nurtured him since his infancy were now being sheltered, fed, taught and cared for by him. The whole experience surpassed my expectations in every way. I have a hunch this is one of those pivotal points in history we’ll refer to for the rest of our lives. To say that we feel blessed would be entirely insufficient. I can’t thank you enough for every thought and prayer launched to the skies in our behalf. I believe He has held our family in His loving arms and carried us safely to this point in the journey.
And so we’re on to the next adventure. As we dropped Josh off at his new boarding school there seemed to be an innocence and vulnerability I haven’t seen in him in years. Something tells me he’ll do well, and once again rise to the top...but that he’ll need our faith and prayers along the way like never before.