“There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do.” –Freya Stark
Ok. I’ll admit it. We all have our secret indulgences, don’t we? It is Valentine’s Day, after all. Shouldn’t we indulge a moment? After years of having my mind mired in the esoteric quandaries of the academy and the heart-yearnings of ministry, I needed an outlet, an escape. And when I couldn’t literally escape to some beautiful far-flung land via travel, I found my freedom nestled up with a good travel memoir. Travel essays, memoirs of finding oneself in another land, became my way of wandering, wondering, and learning about the world. A shelf full of dusty travel essays became my secret indulgence.
Along the way I decided to support feminist and women writers, pouring through every edition of The Best Women’s Travel Writing, sometimes in one sitting. Over and over I found these thoughtful writers referring back to one person, the pioneer of women’s travel, the founder of this far-flung freedom. Her name was Freya Stark. Years ago I began researching her life, reading The Passionate Nomad, and some of her many writings based on her travels all over the world.
Born in Paris in 1893, she was one of the first European women to travel and write about the Middle East, adding Arabic and Persian to the English, French, Italian, and Latin she already knew. There are tales of her riding camels through rebel territory, taking refuge in Bedouin camps, diving into shark-infested waters off the coast of Turkey simply because the water called to her and was too beautiful to avoid immersion, or in her old age (she lived to age 100), driving wildly in her hand-crafted “camper” through the Italian countryside. She lived boldly, going where few women had gone. She lived wildly, caring little about the restraints of decorum. She claimed, “It is the beckoning that counts, not the clicking latch behind you.” It’s no wonder that she inspired and empowered the many women travel writers that have followed in her fearless footsteps.
I never found the courage to paint her until recently. Though I’ve always tried to follow the beckoning and to “do” the things I “believe,” I held back, concerned about propriety, financial responsibility, career aspirations, that clicking latch of adulthood, parenthood, a mortgage, and all the other excuses I could muster. Years after finding Freya, I have decided to follow her and, in so doing, invoke her spirit into the canon of Holy Women Icons sainthood. It wasn’t a decision I made quickly, rashly, or alone. Rather, after years of thoughtful discernment, my wife and I—along with our 15 month-old child—have hatched a plan to finally follow the beckoning that has been calling us.
Our queer little family has had the long-term goal of opening a small ecofeminist retreat center with a large organic garden. Leading retreats, partnering with universities and seminaries to offer land-based intensive classes, providing hospitality to the marginalized, and living sustainably, creatively, justly: these are the goals. But we always assumed this would have to become a reality in retirement, or at least after much more time serving the academy and/or local church in a more traditional sense. The beckoning grew louder, stronger. Finally, we’ve decided to click the latch and follow Freya’s fierce lead.
If you’re interested, here is our plan…
Since we are both professors, my wife and I will finish teaching through the end of the semester. We’ve bought a little camper and we plan to spend one full year doing intentional travel discernment. Though traditional academia and local church ministry have contributed much to who we are, we realize that they confine our wider vision for our family and our world. So, we are selling our home and leaving our jobs behind to follow the beckoning…wherever it may lead.
The purpose of this year is to discern what vocational steps to take next in our lives and to live in a way that is gentler to the earth and other people. By living in different beautiful places, learning new skills, and thoughtfully considering our life goals, we hope to complete the year prepared to open a small retreat center with an organic garden. The skills we develop throughout this year will better equip us to achieve our future goals, and practicing these skills along the way will help us discern whether this is the best path forward for our family.
Along the way, we’ll be hosts, caretakers, Artists in Residence, retreat leaders, volunteers, and farm workers. We kick off the year this summer when we’ll be volunteer campground hosts in the Green Mountain National Forest and continue this work through the fall in the Shenandoah Valley. While in these beautiful places, I hope to connect with some of our FAR community in person by leading retreats, art and yoga workshops, teaching classes, preaching, doing book signings/readings, and giving guest lectures.
After the late fall, the plans are still fuzzy. We’ve learned that many organizations simply don’t plan this far in advance, so like Freya, we’re trying to remain open to wonder. The hope is to head West with the camper, ending in California after the first of 2016 and then flying to Hawaii for me to lead yoga retreats and my wife to work on an organic farm for several months, returning to be an Artist in Residence at a fabulous spirituality retreat center in rural Washington. Who knows? Like Freya, our hearts remain open to wonder, possibility, and adventure, but we envision landing—prepared with our newly learned skills—around Asheville, NC to make our retreat center a reality sometime in the fall of 2016.
It is women like Freya and communities like FAR that have helped me have the courage to follow this notion of freedom. It is a risk, but it is a risk worth taking. So, please join me in welcoming the ultimate risk taker into the canon of Holy Women Icon with a folk feminist twist. Freya Stark joins many others as prophetic visionaries who inspire and embolden women to find and create freedom.
With the courage to paint her finally a reality, I situated this holy woman amidst the far-flung places she loved so deeply. With oceans, mountains, rivers, deserts, and a starlit sky surrounding her, Freya’s brave heart cries out to us:
With heart and mind
Open to wonder,
She followed the beckoning
No matter the cost…
With our own hearts beating for justice, and our minds filled with memories of Freya, we invite you to follow the beckoning, too. To know more about our wild adventures, you can check us out at www.searchingforsustenance.wordpress.com, and as always, at www.angelayarber.com. We welcome suggestions, connections, partnerships, donations, invitations to lead events, or admonitions along the way. To the beckoning, we go…will you join us?
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, and Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com