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Marilyn and the Madrona

The Chinook Learning Center housed a small restaurant called the Madrona, situated in the little ferry dock town of Clinton, Washington. The Madrona was a non-profit organization created to benefit our local Waldorf school. It was in Chinook’s Dodge Building (now the Clinton Union) and it was staffed by volunteers.

The first time I visited the restaurant, someone asked me if I would like to help in the kitchen. The restaurant had a nice feel, and I loved Jo Shelver, who ran the place then, so I said, “Yes.” I spent that day helping out, meeting people, and working hard, doing endless piles of dirty dishes. As I was leaving, one of the people who worked there asked whether I could fill in on Tuesdays on a regular basis. I fumbled for an answer. A regular schedule had been alien to me for so many years that I did not think I could make that kind of commitment. I lived in the moment, maintaining the ability to leave the ground at any time. That is what my life seemed to ask of me, and I was ever ready for that possibility. Although I wanted to help out, I was not sure at that point that I would even stay on Whidbey Island, so how could I possibly tell anyone I would be somewhere on a regular basis? I said, “ Well, I am here now; if I am here then, I will be.” I showed up that Tuesday, and returned on a regular basis for at least a couple of years. For the most part, I loved the grounding of doing something on a schedule. It was nice to be a component of a world in place, serving hot soup. However, I was uncomfortable at first. I felt so routinely apparent and public. This was more external an expression than I was accustomed to. I once asked a very down-to-earth, pregnant friend if it was hard to be pregnant. She said, “Well, being pregnant makes you very apparent, and everyone knows what you’ve been doing.” That’s a little how I felt working in the restaurant.

The days turned to weeks, and eventually I managed the restaurant. I opened and closed, and recruited volunteers. It became something of a community club. Friends jokingly called the restaurant Jerry’s Baghdad Café, a name taken from a poignant, whimsical film that was out at the time. The Chinook offices were upstairs from the Madrona, and over time I got to know many new people who frequented the restaurant. The restaurant was a place of human interaction, prayer, tears, laughter, and incidentally, good food. I had the freedom to stop what I was doing at any moment and be with someone who needed to talk or go for a walk. I felt that the restaurant was there to serve those human connections. The restaurant needed only to meet its expenses, which it didn’t always do. I gave many a free meal or cup of coffee away, or a special ice cream sundae to children. I loved being able to give! There were no salaries involved; people gave of themselves freely, just because they wanted to be there. Everyone worked hard and created a wonderful community life in an atmosphere of deep, and often ridiculously playful, sharing. Many remarkable people from the extended community helped out at the Madrona, cooking, baking, or doing the books. I served food, washed dishes, and talked to people. For me, as well as for many others, the Madrona was the gateway to the golden city of the larger community of Whidbey Island. To this day, people approach me on the street—often people I don’t remember—to tell me that their first encounter with life on Whidbey Island was at the Madrona Restaurant and that it was such an important connection for them.

My guardian angel, Jo Shelver, arranged a room for me in the home of Chinook’s secretary, Kay. Kay was a beautiful older woman with the genuine and consistent detachment of true Buddha-nature. When I first met her, I thought she could not really be as detached as she appeared to be. Many people believe that they are above the circumstances of life, but when something goes wrong, they are often enmeshed and complaining in no time. By spending many a night sitting around the kitchen table with Kay, drinking hot tea, and getting to know her better, I discovered that she had an amazingly healthy detachment. She seemed to have little patience with useless, unfruitful suffering. I was in her life in the years of her father’s death and her son’s death. I visited her just days before her own untimely death (a phrase she would not have used). I found her clear, strong detachment, even in the face of the worst suffering and ultimately, her own physical death, to be incredible!

Kay became my dear friend. When I ran the restaurant, each morning I brought her decaf latté upstairs to the Chinook offices, where she worked at the reception desk. One day Kay came down from her office and said that Marilyn Strong, a woman on staff at Chinook, was upstairs on the floor of her office, devastated and crying. She had just received the news that her husband wanted a divorce. He had become involved with one of her best friends while she was away at school in California a month earlier. Kay seemed a little confused in her Buddha-like, detached way, as to why Marilyn would lose it so completely and suffer so under the circumstances. I asked Kay if anyone was there helping Marilyn. She said, “No.” I found myself a little bothered by this information. I thought, “This is supposed to be a caring, conscious community. Why isn’t anyone helping her?” (I found out later that many people in the community cared a great deal about Marilyn and they were actually very much there for her through this difficult time.) I decided right on the spot that I was going to help Marilyn. I knew about death and I knew that what she was going through would look like death to her. Interestingly enough, “death” was about to be given a more complete expression in Marilyn’s life. Within a very short period of time, she lost her job at Chinook, the covenant community disbanded, she moved out of her beautiful house into a small, one-room, garage apartment, and then—the final blow—her beloved, fifteen-year-old cat, Willy, disappeared!

I did not know Marilyn very well before this; we had met only a few times. Marilyn and her husband had been involved with the Chinook Learning Center since they first visited years earlier as idealistic young college students, and Marilyn had been on staff for several years. News travels fast in a small community, especially when it’s about people active in the community life, so I had heard about her husband leaving. Whenever I saw her, she looked as if she were going through a personal hell. I saw that she was very introverted; she looked like someone who needed a lot of space. She took every opportunity to remain separate from the crowd, often sitting off to the side with one or two close friends.

As I was closing up the restaurant on the day that Marilyn received her divorce summons, she came in. She had obviously been crying. She had lost so much weight during this prolonged ordeal that she was skin and bones. My days at the restaurant were so full of people that I didn’t know how I could possibly be with even one more. Nevertheless, I made her lunch, and when she was finished eating, I made her a latté, put it in a to-go cup, and said, “Let’s go for a walk.” This began our long friendship.

The Madrona brought many loving connections into my life, and I was slowly opening back up to the possibility of personal relationship, a possibility that came into my life with an overwhelming vengeance. There were no half measures. I went from a very clear position of holding relationship at bay for many years, to feelings of deep and equal love for a number of attractive women! I did not know where I was going in this regard so I held the position of unknowing with all the strength and courage I had. I had been burned before and I did not wish to get lost in something complicated or destructive for others, the community, or myself. I grappled with a strange, unromantic question. I knew I could love many people at once, so how could a committed, monogamous relationship be possible or have any real meaning for me? I remained detached and watchful, with relentless attention to what the heavens had in mind, and stayed open to the possibilities. I once asked a close, married friend of mine how she had arrived at the clear realization that allowed her to choose marriage. I wondered how she came to believe that one person was special in her life, when everyone requires our love? Unfortunately, she didn’t have a clear answer. Maybe there was no clear answer.

I remembered reading about Ramakrishna’s unusual arranged marriage. Arranged marriage was the norm in India, however Ramakrishna was an unworldly mystic, and his marriage remained unconsummated. He said, “Life, death and marriage are up to God; everything else is negotiable in this world.” If this was true and I was meant to be in a relationship, then somehow this understanding would make itself clear to me. Until this became clear, I knew I could hold on to no one, so I simply let relationship’s natural process have its way.

Marilyn is the deep embodiment of all aspects of the feminine spirit; she holds the vastness of the feminine mystery as well as a wild and melancholy nature. She has the capacity to enter a variety of states, sometimes switching from one to the other, and then back to center, with the fluidity of a child. When she was sad, her feeling ran so deep; her tears were the saddest I had ever seen. I used to call her The Virgin of the Rocks, after Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting of a melancholy Madonna. Watching her cry, there were times when I envied the honesty and infinite depth of her feelings. Her suffering was as changeable, elegant, and mysterious as she was. She was in no way needy, and yet her healing process required an enormous amount of loving attention. Because she expected nothing from anyone, it was very easy for those of us close to her to give her that attention.

Marilyn had a dream around the time of her divorce, when she felt her identity and personal power were being stripped away. She told me the dream, and we worked together on interpreting it. I have done quite a bit of interpretation of my own dreams and of others’. Dream imagery is similar enough to the symbolic imagery of art that it is not much of a stretch for me to interpret the writing on the interior walls of the dreamtime. Marilyn’s dream seemed to point the way to re-empower herself after the devastating experience of loss from the divorce. I saw the dream as holding out something new for Marilyn, something pivotal, not yet born. I also saw this powerful new presence shyly peeking out from her soul on occasion. Her empowered being was somewhere between her dreams and her tears. Its potent innocence seemed to emerge when Marilyn surrendered to her circumstance. Remarkably, the human psyche invariably interprets the tears of surrender as a powerless defeat, when in fact they can give us the greatest proximity to truly divine power we can attain. Marilyn accessed this power easily, and through the imagery of dreams, it became more defined and available for her to claim.

I found one dream that Marilyn told me so moving that I decided to paint it for her. In the telling, I got such an immediate, clear image of the gift of her deeper identity that when it came down to doing the painting, it happened quite easily. I used the only paint I had—latex house paint that I had found at the thrift store. I finished the painting in three days in the stock room of the restaurant after we closed up at night. I told Marilyn that I had a gift for her and asked her to come to the restaurant later that day when she was free. When she walked into the restaurant, the painting was sitting on the counter. When she saw it, she was visibly shaken and appeared to come slightly undone. She grabbed the painting and hid it in the back room of the restaurant under the towels. I thought that maybe she didn’t like it. But she said, “You shouldn’t let anyone see that!” Later, when I talked to her about it, she said, “I feel you have captured my soul and I couldn’t have it out in public like that.” The larger part of her, beyond the present suffering, was being encouraged, through dreams, to emerge whole and strong. However, it was still tender and not yet ready to be seen in the world. The amount of time it took Marilyn to be ready for anyone to see that painting was about the same time it took that part of herself to emerge in the world. Marilyn had her own timing and she intuited her way, doing what came next when she was ready.

The wild side of Marilyn’s personality knew what she needed in her healing. To process her anger, she would go out daily with a tree branch and beat the hell out of an electric power pole! One day she came into the restaurant embarrassed. Opening her wallet, she said, “I owe you for a cup. I accidentally broke one.” I laughed and said, “You smashed it, didn’t you!” With a guilty smile, she confessed that she had. She said, “I hurt my hand, hitting the pole, so I smashed a cup instead.” It was all healthy, unfettered, spontaneous healing ritual, which little by little, worked to strengthen her. She knew intuitively how to take care of herself and not hurt anyone else in the process. On occasion, I would walk away from situations that I felt were self-indulgent, when I felt I could do nothing further to help. I was surprised that one minute, Marilyn could be full of justifiable rage, and then in the next, she could run into her husband on the street and be as centered, impeccable, and loving as a warrior in the face of death. I watched the cumulative effects of her acts of power build with each successful encounter in the world. Over several years, a sequence of divinely arranged opportunities and her own appropriate, rightly-timed actions ultimately healed Marilyn, and returned her life to her in well-deserved, full measure.

I see now that Marilyn was doing the personal work that her former husband would have to do later. Isn’t that the way it is for all of us, on either end, coming or going? Every choice or apparent lack of choice comes with the possibility of liberating new life. The gift of being last is that, indeed, you later become first.

For Marilyn, this devastating experience and the work that she did around it were her personal sacred wound, her death experience, and in the end, this became her greatest gift. This enormously difficult passage gave her a new strength and wholeness and helped her to become a most incredible woman.

Marilyn and I were loving friends. There were many women friends in my life as well, and I remained loving and detached to everyone equally, at times against all odds. I watched the larger process at work here with interest. I shared beautiful and intense interactions with many women and I watched each woman fall away into the perfection of her own destiny. The detachment that allowed this organic process to unfold without interference required a great deal of strength.

I still did not see how my life could fit into the normal requirements of family life. When I first met Marilyn’s parents, Ken and Joyce, I liked them immediately. They came to the island to visit, and we went out to dinner. At the time, I didn’t talk very much, especially when there was a social expectation to do so. Marilyn’s dad, Ken, is a gregarious, loving man, who is confident enough of his love for others that he easily instigates conversation. He has two lovely daughters, and I am sure he must have had many encounters over the years with their new boyfriends. I could see that he was accustomed to boyfriends trying a little harder to please him and win him over. I did not try at all and said very little, even when prodded. There was nothing I wanted to win. I was watching instead to see what the gods had in mind with this meeting. When all expectations fell away due to the lack of results, we all sat quietly together. Then I spoke and connected easily with both of Marilyn’s parents. We still laugh when we remember this first meeting.

The defining moment, however, that clearly set our relationship in place was our first visit to her family’s house at Christmas time. We had been invited to the house of one of Marilyn’s relatives for dinner. Before dinner, we sat around having drinks. The conversation became more and more animated, at least partially because of the alcohol in the punch. Many of those gathered had not seen one another for years, so they had a lot of sharing and catching up to do. Everyone knew that Marilyn had gone through a painful divorce, and I think they were curiosity about who I was exactly, and how I was going to fit into her life. My unusual story had preceded me, and in comparison to most of those in the room, I’m sure I seemed a little mysterious and strange.

At one point, one of the relatives who probably had a little more to drink than the rest of us turned and pounced on me. The mystery of who I was needed to be revealed. Fueled by alcohol, he aggressively took on the challenge. When he confronted me loudly, the room fell silent. It was clear that he had struck a nerve and had asked the question that everyone else wanted to ask. I had nothing to say about myself that would be seen as impressive from a worldly perspective. When we have nothing and have consciously become nothing in relation to the world and its values, confrontation with the simple question, “Who are you?” elicits prayer. At that moment, I asked myself silently, “Who am I, god?” After a moment’s silence, I turned to the man and simply told him my story. To my surprise, tears came to his eyes. He told me, sadly, about his life. Like many of us, he had been an idealistic child of the sixties, a hippie who had believed in something beautiful—an ideal that required trust and faith in life. Although this belief may have been naïve at the time, he still held a small part of it in his heart. Hearing my story opened his heart. It renewed his hope to know that someone had lived out the dream, even if it wasn’t him. He said, “I always knew I could live like that. I got lost somewhere along the way.” His poignant emotional outpouring opened everyone’s heart that day, and I felt fully accepted and loved by Marilyn’s family. It appeared that my “nothing” could fit into the something of their family structure.

Many events brought me to the point where one day I looked at my life, and Marilyn was simply the one I was with. When people ask me how Marilyn and I got together and I tell this story, people often say, “How unromantic!” It was not un-romantic. It was hugely charged with romantic energy all around! I did not share a greater love with Marilyn than I did with anyone else. I recognized an equality in love that could not be quantified. Our relationship and ultimately our marriage came about through a long, careful process. Life and relationship fell into place on their own terms, the best terms, actually. We allowed our relationship to arrange and settle into its own natural order without the interference of preference, personal desires, or insecurities. True romance’s perfect delivery of a life-partner is the end product of a love affair with one’s own personal God. Living through the details of this organic progression and letting relationship settle gently onto holy ground is the making of the sacred marriage. Isn’t this how the myths always end?

Now we are both quite attached. We struggle and have great battles, mostly due to that very human attachment. God is still God and will accept nothing less, so as with everything we love, we continually release our relationship and place it back on the altar for renewal. I adore Marilyn, and this is as happily-ever-after as this story gets.

Testimony to the Marilyn Strong I Know and Love

Lao Tzu says, “Better too little than too much." That best describes the wisdom of the quiet way Marilyn holds the space around her. She holds the space as though with two hands held in prayer.

The comment made most about Marilyn is, “She has such a beautiful presence.” People, including me, just like to be around her. Conversations seem to go a little deeper when she is in the room. It comes with the way she holds the space for others, yet conversations are often completed when Marilyn expresses an unexpected point of view, overlooked by the rest of us. Marilyn is in touch with the spirit and pulse of our time and has been for a very long time. She is drawn to certain ideas, books, and people by an uncanny intuition.

The nature of true beauty is to know its own reflection. She recognizes her own. The beauty that she gets excited about now, I watch the world get excited about years later. Yet she has not aggressively taken a position of glory, which could easily be hers. She humbly receives what comes with grace.

She is a queen by her very nature. Everyone who knows her sees that. It is not a position that can be assumed. I have often thought of her as a shooting star. On the ground, we see only the sparks of the star as it shoots across the sky. We receive its beautiful gift, the atmosphere of wonder it creates. The star moves on to new, unexplored territory. I have watched artists, writers, and other people create entire careers with a single spark. The creative people in the fire, who create the sparks, often go unnoticed. I believe that the ultimate gift of feminine energy is undefined beauty. Definition is fed by the dross of the Muse.

Marilyn is my Muse and my teacher of all things beautiful.