Thirty years ago Steven Foster and Meredith Little founded The School of Lost Borders, offering rites of passage experiences based in part on Native American vision quests. The school’s work is based on group sessions followed by a period of fasting alone in the Sierra Nevada desert, followed by more group sessions with elders. Rod first interviewed Meredith and her husband, Steven Foster, five years ago. Steven died in May 2003, after suffering from a genetic lung illness for ten years. Near the end of his life, they took the first steps toward combining their rites of passage work with hospice work.
Meredith Little is a wise and radiant being. Rod said after his interview, “Meredith is one of the gentlest people I have ever met. So full of love. Even the way she walks is peaceful.” It did not surprise me to learn she had witnessed the deaths of four people very close to her. She has also spent thousands of hours listening to people’s stories and helping them through to another phase of their lives.
We began our conversation talking about how difficult it is to talk about death in our modern culture and yet how important an awareness of our own impermanence is to living fully in the moment. Meredith offered these thoughts:
My feeling is that our discomfort with these topics reflects the fear in our culture of the natural cycles of death and rebirth within our lives — the mini-deaths that happen during the change from one phase to the next. We have a tremendous drive for comfort and security. Often, if we’re going through a difficult time personally, there is the perception that we must have done something wrong, that we have a problem that we need to fix. These perceptions make it very difficult for us to move through to the next phase. In trying to “fix” ourselves we often halt the process, preventing us from doing what we need: to go inside and be self reflective, to challenge our values, and look at the story about our self that might have worked for one phase of our life, but is only getting in the way of moving into the next phase. Around the world, indigenous people recognize that if there aren’t meaningful ways of enabling people to pass from one phase of life to the next, to face the chaos and challenges of self, then that energy leaks out in destructive ways. My feeling is that this is happening a lot now. We’ve forgotten how to die. We see dying as a failure — from the little deaths of our lives to the big one. We hear death described in terms of “a good death” or “a bad death.” We sometimes hear that a good death is dependent on being “spiritually evolved,” having done things right, having lived well. When we get sick the implication we often hear is that we haven’t eaten right, or we haven’t prayed right, we haven’t done what we should do, that something is lacking. This is dangerous. This makes it very uncomfortable to be in the truth of our pain and also in the truth of the beauty that can be present during a death of self or of a loved one.
Death, as with birth, is a fascinating time when the veil between the worlds lifts for a moment and there’s a sense of numinosity, a place that is both the most physical and the most sacred place. The opportunity is there for the sacred and the profane to become one for a moment.
Ann: Five years ago, you talked with Rod about your father’s death, saying, “Out of the beauty of that death I was able to consciously choose to commit myself to the love of Steven,” and you talked about the lifting of the veil. Reflecting on that, I wrote later that it is so hard for people to allow themselves to think about death as bearing any gifts.
Meredith: In this year and a half since Steven has died, one thing has become clear to me: The same place where there is absolute grief, loss, and the sensation of being torn apart, there is also absolute love, joy, and creativity. Somehow life-warding and death-warding both come from the same source. When one is cracked open in this way, both the joy and the love are painful.
When we try to squeeze grief into one definition of despair and loss and tears, then we’ve missed the opportunity to experience something that is natural within us, that gives us at the same moment a huge rage for life and for creativity. We are given the gift of new possibilities and a deep sense of what is essential in our lives.
Ann: A year and a half ago I heard Martin Prechtel say: “Ecstasy is when grief and beauty collide.” Grief rides along with beauty and beauty with grief. Hearing this shifted things for me in an important way. I didn’t need to be so afraid of loss anymore.
Meredith: Yes, I remember one of my solo fasts in the desert. As often happens on a fast, I was questioning things in my life and experiencing a certain despair. I was wondering what it was that carries me on, what is was that could lead me to say YES to life. And the answer came as the word “Beauty.” Perhaps there might be a moment of beauty just around the next corner. In some ways I see these “moments of beauty” as authenticity — moments so often found amidst suffering. They can be found in the midst of war. They can be found in a hospital where a mother is losing a child. They are often the places in life where everything is stripped away and all that is left is that moment. To be able to touch such a moment with someone else does not necessarily give meaning to life — meaning to me is somehow a rational thing — but it makes the next moment worth living for! (Laughter)
Ann: You worked alongside Steven for 30 years. What are you doing now that he is no longer there?
Meredith: When Steven died the only thing that I could do was trust my body. My psyche was cycling and recycling and recycling the pain of Steven’s pain — integrating the memories and all that had happened. My mind was totally unreliable. And my sense of spirit…? I had no idea where Steven was. So the only thing that I could rely on was my body, which knew what it liked and what it didn’t like. And the thought of doing any of the old work that Steven and I had done for the last 30 years just made me ill. When I finally reached a point where I was able to look up and around a little bit, the only thing that made any sense to me was the last work we had only just begun to do, which was the work of bringing the worlds of hospice and rites of passage together.
In part, I took up this work because it was still where “I lived”— inside myself, in my grief. And simply because so many of the pieces were in front of me. In particular there was Scott, the hospice doctor who had been midwifing Steven and I through the last months of Steven’s life. Earlier, I mentioned the gifts of my father’s passing. The gift that I felt Steven left at that door was, in many ways, Scott. We both loved and respected him — he had the same passion Steven and I did to bring these two worlds together: the rites of passage work that we had been doing at The School of Lost Borders, and the end-of-life care that Scott has dedicated his life to. After Steven died, people graciously continued to ask me and Scott to come and teach. So, in looking around at the pieces, I said, “I have to say ‘yes’ and see where this goes. I have to. It’s the only thing that feels right. God knows where it’s going to go. And if I am going to do it I want to do it big. Why not? I have nothing to lose.” Since Steven’s death a year and a half ago, Scott and I have begun to bring the populations that care for the dying — nurses, doctors, volunteers and caregivers — together with rites of passage guides, to look more deeply into the natural cycles of living and dying, and the wisdom that comes out of this world view. We challenge them to look at the conscious or unconscious story that they carry about death in their own life. And we challenge them to look at the cultural story. We put them out on the land in evocative ways, for periods of time ranging from several hours to four-day solo fasts. We ask them to be with some of the questions that arise out of that whole mix. Out there in the natural world, we can rediscover our own personal story that also includes the truth of the modern world — a world that has a lot of violence in it, and a lot of conflicting values about how we’re supposed to be with death. What emerges for each person is a new way of embracing the truth within our own worldview; a story that reconnects us with what we know, consciously or unconsciously, in our bodies and psyches about the natural cycles of living and dying. A story that also incorporates the many gifts that have come from medical and scientific advances.
I am fascinated with where these conversations are taking people. They move people to be much more accepting and trusting of their own values and feelings. People are more able to sit comfortably with people who are dying. They are more able to deal with their own perceptions of the death process. I see how they allow people to access the enormous amounts of compassion we are capable of. I see curiosity and open-eyed fascination with the magic of life and death. I see them emerging with a desire to be there for people who are going through hard times, and feeling that they have something important to offer at the deathbeds of friends and family. This process helps them to see that we don’t have to go there with answers. Instead, it’s going there with open curiosity, the ability to listen, and the ability to support somebody without judgment.
Ann: We are taught to cling to life at all costs.
Ann: And despite signs that our loved ones might be ready to die, when it comes down to it we really don’t want to let them.
Meredith: No. We don’t know how to let them go. We’re not taught how to let them go, much less to feel that it is O.K. to let someone we love go. And often we haven’t done the important work of mutual forgiveness and completion that enables this “self-full” love.
Ann: My father, who has done a lot of hospice work, told me once how the dying person would often want to spend time with him rather than their own family. He thought maybe this was because he was able to just sit with them, listen to them and read to them. The family would come laden with their issues, wanting to reconcile old disputes, wanting to hold off death, clinging. It made me think about how we really don’t know how to be with the dying.
Meredith: Not knowing how is the reason why so many people are dying in isolation, which is the worst kind of death. The thing that is so fascinating is that the way we sit with people who are going through a significant life passage — a mini-death — is very similar to the way we need to sit with the dying.
What I’ve learned through the rites of passage work we’ve done at Lost Borders is very similar to what a hospice worker would learn over years of working with the dying. It is the learning that comes from holding a container for the passage, either from one phase of life to the next or from one life to the next. This form of midwifing is about how to listen, how to set aside our own judgments or values, how to empower and honor another human being. And the lessons do not come from book learning, but rather from literally being with people who are dying in all the different ways people die, and are ultimately renewed.
Ann: In his book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Studs Terkel records the stories of those who have had very close experiences with death.
Meredith: Yes. Say more. What is it that you see?
Ann: Well, that dying is a time of truth-telling, of telling our story. It comes from a need to create meaning from our lives. What I got from the book is that what we most need when we pass from one phase of our life to the next — or from this life to the next — is the opportunity to tell our story whole, without judgment and with celebration and gratitude. I love the simplicity of this because it allows me to enter into it. I can create the space for these life transitions with just my open heart and open ears. It allows me to feel like I can serve people during life changes without having a PhD in Psychology.
Meredith: Yes, and I think that a lot of times those credentials only get in the way of showing up with an open heart. Many of the credentials we have encourage us to believe that there is a problem that we can solve and a formula to follow that will fix it.
Ann: Four years ago Rod asked you what was the most rewarding aspect of your life and you answered: “The opportunity to be truly intimate with people, and to recognize and know that someone on the street might look very different from who I am, but that I could come to love them.” That is an incredible thing to know. Has your answer to that question changed over the years?
Meredith: Oh no! That is absolutely part of my core. That’s what I live for. I have been blessed in my life to live in a way that reinforces the values that come out of being intimate with people quickly and deeply. An incredible gift! The hunger in us to touch in that way is huge. And it doesn’t take much to get us to a place where we can meet and share our humanity more deeply than our differences. These are those moments of beauty we talked about. I live for those moments.
I have now been with four very close family members at their deathbed and I know that this too is one of those moments of beauty. Being with people I love deeply who are dying, and going through their grief with them, and their peace, and their joy, and whatever else that comes up, and staying with it, even as it is tearing me apart, only fills me just as deeply. As deep as I can go in my own “being torn apart.” Taking the risk to truly grieve I get that much more capacity to love.
Ann: What are your thoughts on love? What blocks love?
Meredith: I don’t know what love is. I think that in some ways it’s grace. Love to me is not something that I make happen, so it’s like grace coming into me. It’s my capacity to care and to know my own fallibilities. It seems that I’m taught about love through experiencing it very personally and then it overflows outward. But it doesn’t have authenticity to me unless it comes from experiencing these feelings very, very personally. I see that for some people, genuinely the way love is taught and experienced is that it begins flowing from a more universal source, enabling them to channel it into something personal. You see what I am saying? I think it is different for some people.
You asked what blocks love. I don’t know. I just know that the more I can trust the full range of my humanness and trust love, the more I can let it be O.K. when I am not feeling loved or loving. The more that I allow my love to be challenged and tested, the more I go through the struggle of it, the faster that it will teach me the bigger things.
We try so fearfully to push the shadow away that we don’t know how to deal with our shadows. We haven’t been given many tools. And I think that is part of the reason why our kids are having such a hard time. Where are the initiated elders to guide them through dark and confusing times?
Ann: So where do you find your strength when your strength is lagging — and how do you honor yourself, love yourself?
Meredith: I don’t know, I feel like I just fumble through.
Ann: So you don’t consciously do things for yourself to nourish yourself?
Meredith: Well where I live is my sanctuary. Here at Three Creeks I don’t have to talk for weeks at a time. The only sound is the sound of the birds and the wind. And I need that. I need a significant amount of time when I am not bombarded by external stimulation and demands. I do my “non-people” work here, and I still have my own time to integrate what has been going on while I’ve been away working. To get quiet. That doesn’t mean that my time alone is a nice, peaceful and easy time, because of course all of my selves show up at every moment! (Laughter)
I suppose I also take care of myself by entering into something that I feel passionate about that is bigger than me. I feel like the work Scott and I are doing is bigger than us and that it serves people. And I need that selfishly. To feel like I am serving something bigger than myself.
Ann: You had ten years of living with Steven’s illness before he died. I have been curious how the long process of Steven’s dying was for you internally — if you shared all of your struggles with him, or if you dealt with a lot of it on your own. For someone like you, who has committed her life to rites of passage work, it must have been a fascinating, complicated trip.
Meredith: Yes, that’s the truth! Number one is: There is nothing more we can do but just “show up.” Certainly I had thought about how it would be for me when Steven died — “What will I do? What will my life look like?” Oh, there is so much... especially in the two years since he’d died. But, ultimately the journey has been about learning to live in the moment. About having the courage to make decisions, to plan ahead while letting go of the outcome. Just as while he was dying the most important thing was the comfort of Steven in the moment, and learning how to let go, let go, let go.
We had a progression of things we had to let go of in those last years. From stepping back more and more from our work, to letting go of identities that we had with each other and individually; there were just huge teachings about letting go and taking risks. I especially understood in the last two years of his life that there was no way I could prepare for when he was gone. Or, that the only way that I could prepare was to have the courage to live fully in each moment of the last years of his life. And to relax in the knowledge that all of it was preparing me for what was after Steven. And ultimately, just as we had to let go of the definition of our relationship in so many ways in order for the new definition to happen, in the same way I had to let go of any “story” about how it might be when he was gone.
I don’t know — Love is an incredible thing. It’s such a gift because it’s the thing that enables death somehow. It allows for the letting go that has to happen.
Love doesn’t die. That I know.
In all of those years and the love, the risk of sharing everything, loving each other, hating each other, growing together, stretching our relationship into new definitions, all of what taught me so much, is worth the equal amount of grief and loss. It was and is just worth it.
To learn more about The School of Lost Borders, go to www.schooloflostborders.com. There is a fascinating film about their work, which Heron Dance carries, entitled The School of Lost Borders.
A few years ago a video, Lost Borders, arrived in the mail. It sat in my bookcase for months before I watched it. That was a mistake. It was a powerful depiction of two people, Steven Foster and Meredith Little, who do a profound work of love. The school they founded, The School of Lost Borders, offers teens a wilderness rite of passage — a three-day solo experience without food in the Sierra Nevada.
The film shows a particular group of young people — roughly in their mid-teens — convening on the edge of the desert. They talk about their lives and what they hope to get out of their solo experience. Then they head off individually into the desert. A day or so into experience, one young man walks back into camp. He tells Steven he wasn’t getting anything out of it and he had had enough. Steven listens patiently and agrees with the young man that, yes he probably made the right decision. They talk some more. Steven doesn’t try to convince or judge. He just listens. Eventually the young man gets up and walks back to finish his solo.
I interviewed Steven twice before he died of a genetic lung illness on May 6, 2003. The interviews dealt with what Steven had learned about life, and what he was trying to learn. He was a fascinating man, a student of mythology, a storyteller, a man of contradictions, but above all he was a passionate man of profound love. He published several books, mostly dealing with life processes and how they relate to mythology. The following is from the introduction to Vision Quest, one of the books Steven wrote with his wife Meredith Little.
"Is it the vulnerability of loneliness that drives us to love and to be loved? The implacable stars and the horned moon ride the night sky, leaving the ache and emptiness of another morning without love in their wake. Thus we learn to live with loneliness, to curse and accept it, to fill it with the rituals of survival. But finally loneliness would break me down into rigid insistence: My body craved, as dry leaves crave the wind, the presence of another. I would go into Winnemucca or Austin or Goldfield or Goodsprings or Lone Pine or Furnace Creek, looking for someone to talk to.
"In a way, loneliness is a way of preparing for death. Once, as I drove a long, desolate stretch of highway between Wells and Ely, I overtook a young woman walking beside the road, without pack or water, twenty-five miles north of Currie. Imagining that she was in trouble or needed a lift, I stopped and asked her if I could be of help.
"She looked at me with a face blistered by the sun. She saw a wild-looking man, dirty, unshaven, horizons gleaming in his eyes. I saw a weary woman with a wasted longing in her eyes.
'No thanks,' she said.
Curious I asked her what she was doing here, out in the middle of nowhere.
"Nowhere is somewhere,' she replied curtly and kept on walking.
So I drove on. Her toiling form shrank in the rear-view mirror, until she was just a speck, which then vanished. I sometimes wonder about her. She reminded me of myself. Surely she was one of those lonely, lost people learning how to die...
"The mother of my children needed money and my children needed their father. The rent had to be paid, the master cylinder replaced, the check-out stand endured, the feet well heeled, the body made respectable with clothing. This seemed no dark night of the soul I faced; this was an endless round of pseudo-events, a whirl of routine deadlines. For a long while my heart of hearts would not accept the idea that money had anything to do with survival. When I finally had to accept this fact, I accepted it bitterly.
"Yet it was a dark night of the soul I had descended into. I pitied myself. The impregnating joys of the wilderness were gone. The sorrows of bringing forth had commenced. I was not to be granted the privilege of being taught by the Great Mother without the responsibility of carrying these teachings to others. For a long time I resented the burden. But the vision of my life began to grow, regardless, in the close, anxious darkness of despair. . . .
"In the beginning there were few who cared or understood. But these few counted for a great deal. . . . The vision has helped us to grow, to change ourselves, to transform our life stories. Above all, the vision helped us learn to love, respect, and cherish each other, to walk in balance between the two worlds, to give away, to worship the fire in the heart of our Mother Earth who brought us into being."
The following excerpts are from various issues of Heron Dance (25, 26, 29, 35, 40) over the last several years in which I tried to relay the impact Steven and Meredith have had on me and on Heron Dance.
In Big Pine, California, I spent a couple of days with Steven Foster and Meredith Little of Lost Borders. For twenty-five years, Steven and Meredith have led vision quests and done rites of passage work. When I first arrived, Steven and I sat near a pond and talked. Right away Steven asked me what my story was. When I asked him what he meant, he said, “What is your mythology? Tell me about your childhood.”
I told Steven about my childhood, about my often difficult relationship with my parents, with school teachers and peers, and how out of all that emerged an affinity for uninhabited wild places. I tried to explain all this to Steven, and then gave up, saying that it was too difficult to put into words. Steven said, “Yes, but we poets keeping trying.”
The next day I interviewed Steven. Steven has a genetic lung illness that is considered incurable and fatal. Several months ago he was very ill, and has since rebounded, but often finds himself short of breath. First I asked Steven the question he asked me: What is your story, your mythology? Steven talked a lot about anger, about losing his children when, as a radical in the sixties he was blackballed from universities in California where he worked, and then was wanted by the FBI for subversive activities and spent some time in prison.
"Many men I know are angry. It is almost a way of defining men. Not all men, but many of us. The doing of the work, and the living with the woman, and the coming home to love, as I have be able to do in my whole life. A wonderful life. It is a problem to understand the anger inside of me. It keeps trying to be redefined. Re-understood. But it is still there. And in the end, I think it is the anger of the human being shaking his or her fist at the gods or goddesses, and saying, ‘Why? WHY!’ You know. ‘Why did you give me this life? Why life as it is?’ And it involves a coming to terms. Coming to terms with the given.
"I could never follow the Buddhist way. I tried. That was one of the ways I attempted after I lost my children. To find myself. Okay. If I am not a professor, then what am I? I tried yoga. Kundalini yoga. Tantric yoga. Meditation. And although I learned some wonderful tools from meditation, I was never that fascinated by the notion of letting go. I was never truly fascinated by the idea of becoming unattached. In fact, I think my way is through attachment. Fierce attachment. As opposed to disengaging from. And there is a kind of path that lies through the fierceness and desire and passion. And I guess that is where we get the compassion. With passion. Com means with. Passion."
Then I said to Steven: ‘The amazing thing is that time and again I think that I am just beginning to find my way. Five years ago I thought that, and I think that this morning.’ And Steven responded, “Isn’t that amazing? Me too. Me too!” After I interviewed Steven, I interviewed Meredith. I could tell she was a little nervous, and in the course of our discussion, I asked her what was hardest about living the life she had chosen. She said,
“Probably being an introvert in a people business. As you know, to make something happen you have to give it everything. As an introvert, there isn’t always the time to integrate what is going on. It is everyday, a lot of people, rarely a break. As an introvert, I need empty time to process what is happening. When I don’t get that, it creates stress.”
Meredith has a particularly gentle way about her. She doesn’t talk much. She walks very softly, and listens quietly. When we would talk over a meal, I would get the sense that she was listening carefully but not judging, just absorbing. She seems to understand things in a deep way. Meredith said many things that provoked thought on my drive home. In particular were her observations on the value of our dark side – that aspect of our being and personality that we like least. Modern psychotherapy assumes that the dark side has to be addressed, and worked with and overcome. But in the ancient way – the way of indigenous peoples – the dark side is embraced and worked with and mined as the source of individuality and creativity, “Like a tree shaped by a bad winter, or years of drought,” she said.
"Over the years we tried to understand how early cultures listened to people who came back from the vision fast or rite of passage. They would come back to a council of elders, where they would tell their story. It was really enlightening for us to have an old Paiute teacher here in the valley.
"What we learned we came to call ‘mirroring’. The council would listen to the story, and they would bullshit about it. ‘Oh, yeah. That hawk . . . . what did you get from that hawk? What was the hawk telling you? I remember, when I was alone, that that happened to me too.’ And they would open the story up. They would treat everything that happened to that person as sacred, as a message from Spirit. They saw every moment as important, as a teaching. They would see in the story the gifts that that person has.
"So in planning the different ways of listening to the story, we realized that the way to tap a story was to give it back. It is a way of giving the story back to the person without judgment and without our own values getting in the way. We tell the story back to them so that they can hear it. In that way, the story becomes empowered. The person sees that everything they did when there was nobody to turn to and nothing to turn to – how they dealt with their fear in that moment, when they maybe hadn’t eaten for a day or two – could be directly co-related to the message of how to deal with the fear in their life. The message that is calling them and to them. That is their story. If we lose our story, we lose our life.
The people who have the most difficulty understanding the difference between therapy and mirroring, are people who have been trained as therapists. It is beginning to change, but therapeutic and modern psychology is problem-orientated. It is finding out what is broken, or what causes someone pain. Whereas in mirroring there is enormous honoring of pain. Rather than taking it away, it is the understanding that if we are capable of embracing our own pain, we also have the opportunity to discover the gift that sits right there next to it. Often when we are able to embrace and accept the pain of grief, or feelings or emotions that might not be comfortable, we can see the ways that that pain defines who we are and the gifts that we have to offer others."
Meredith got me thinking about my dark side, and about my gift, and how I see that gift as lying just on the other side of what I think of as my dark side. For me, my dark side is my intensity, my tendency to overwork, to push ahead, regardless of the impact on my relationships, on the quality or beauty of my work, or even on my health. My gift, I think, comes from what I have known of true peace, of deep peace, of beauty, from time in wilderness. I have discovered out there a whole different rhythm. It is a rhythm that is counter to our culture. It is a concept different from more words, more interviews, more data.
Relax, rest, think. Beauty. Create. Wilderness canoe trips. Loons. Distant campfires. Freedom. Stories. Breathe. In Meredith’s words, that is the message that is calling to me from the core of my life. I don’t want Heron Dance to be about wilderness, but I want to create it out of the rhythm and sense of peace I find there. I begin the second five years of Heron Dance filled with creative inspirations of ways to do that.
Saturday, February 4, 2000. Lost Borders. Big Pine, CA
I often ask people I interview about the early days of pursuing their dream, and about faith – having a faith that transcends reality.
During my interview of Steven Foster, I asked him if he felt that when he and Meredith started Lost Borders (see issue 26) their work was supported by some force of Grace.
"Love. Love. Love. (laughs). Love! The love we had for each other. In the beginning, I was a Kelly Girl. I hired myself out to various offices and agencies as a typist. As a secretary. And Meredith cleaned houses. We made just enough to scrape by. And we had love. Every night we had each other. And we would go to bed at night feeling completely defeated, and lie in each other’s arms. In the morning we would get up and be ready to go again. Anxious to go again. That was help. Supernatural help
"There were others who came later on to help. Other people. Teachers who showed up. One was Hyemeyohsts Storm. He gave us a great big boost. He introduced us to the magical, the sorcery element of what we were doing. Sun Bear was another. Great big old bumbling Sun Bear. With all of his bad habits. Sun Bear loved us, and he loved people, and he opened his arms and he said, ‘You are okay. You are white, but you are okay. You can smoke the pipe with me.’ And Meredith’s step mother – Virginia Hine - who had the idea that everything was going to change socially, that more and more there would be a trend towards networking instead of hierarchies. That people would link up and become a force for change. We see some of that now with the Internet.
She was a great teacher. An anthropologist. She taught us about rites of passage. Everything that she knew. Then, just to cap it off, she said, ‘You want to have a real show, watch me die.’ And in full health, on a beautiful sunny day, happy like a little child, she took a bottle of pills and drank a bottle of scotch, and went. She was interested in finding out what was on the other side. And she just blew us away. She was a real helper."
And of course there was always nature. If we ever really needed healing, and rejuvenation, we went to nature. We went out into the desert a lot in the early days. Not only with our groups and our people, but with just to get the hell out of the city and be out there and be in the quiet. That was really good for us.”
When I later interviewed Meredith separately, and asked her the same question, she said:
"Oh yeah. I feel like we have been enormously blessed. Even when we literally didn’t know how we would put bread on the table for our kids, the next day somehow there was always enough. Miraculously enough. In so many ways. The teachers who have come into our life. There is a part at me that doesn’t even want to look back at why it has happened. There is a part of me that feels that this life of ours is co-created with something mysterious and bigger than I understand, and our own incredible flame as individual consciousness. If we fully engage in that partnership, it matches us. Somehow it meets us. That has been such a big part of our work and life.”
Then I asked Meredith: “What has been most rewarding about this life you have chosen?”
"The opportunity to be truly intimate with people. To recognize, to really know, that someone that I might just see on the street who might look very different from who I am, that if I had the opportunity to sit with them in a circle, that I would come to love them. That is an incredible thing to know. To have experienced that much love in my life. Not only with my kids and with Steven, but with people who I might only see for two weeks. And then they are gone.
There are so many ways to touch the divine. I want to do it as many ways as I can in this lifetime."
An interview by Rod MacIver, from Issue 40 of Heron Dance
For twenty-five years, Steven Foster and his wife, Meredith Little, have led vision quests and rites-of-passage programs through the school they co-founded, The School of Lost Borders in Big Pine, California.
Steven has been suffering from a terminal genetic lung illness. He refers to where he is now as the Death Lodge. Early in the interview, I asked Steven how his life would be different now if he was not facing death.
“I probably would be less involved in the ultimate questions. I would not love my dog so much, I would not love my children so much, my grandchildren so much, my wife. I would probably be more engrossed in the work itself. The work was important, and it is beautiful the way it spread around the world, but it is not my work now. Now relationship is more important than work.
“I find myself in deep friendships with people whom I disagree with. A colonel from the Marine Corps who did two hitches in Vietnam. And a couple of people in the town of Big Pine who would be labeled extremist in their opposition to environmental protection. Nevertheless we continue to find common ground.
“The teachings of death are so tender and so overwhelming and beautiful, and at the same time so terrifying. Not wanting to leave this life. It has become so beautiful. Being brought to the end by my karma, my fate, by whatever, and knowing that I have to let go. Death has become an ally in a very real sense. I know that this is true for many people as they age. Death brings on the most precious gift of all. The shadow contains the most precious gift of all. Which is love. Love. For God’s sake love, love for people, love for the Earth. It is this caring thing. I am not sure why it should be in us. I know it is in other species as well. The miracle.
“Our greatest shadows are at the same time our deepest friends. Deepest allies. For many years, we have been teaching our people a process we call the Death Lodge. When a person comes to the end of a full life, and knows that there are only a few years left, it is important for that person to signify to everybody else in the village, everybody else in the karmic field, that a death is due to occur and now is the time to take care of all outstanding debts, and all outstanding karmic ghosts that can appear in the death passage afterwards, and trouble us as we reach toward a new birth.”
I asked Steven about the role of fasting in Lost Borders vision quests. I have spent a fair amount of time alone in wilderness, but never fasted. I was wondering what I was missing.
“Especially if fasting is done over three or four days, it begins to produce this feeling of hunger inside. It is often mistaken for hunger for food. But it is really hunger for the spirit. It is hunger to be filled. Humans have this hunger — all humans have this deep, deep hunger to be filled. And it is not ultimately with food. When we return and we eat food, we realize that wasn’t what it was. It is something much deeper, much more profound.
“If I look out at a mountain peak and have not been eating for four days and nights, there is something in my being that wants to be that mountain. To consume that mountain. To make that mountain myself, or to make myself that mountain. It is the hunger to reach a oneness with the universe.”
I asked Steven about the period when, as a young man, he spent time in prison for something related to activism. I told him that when I feel most emotional about something — about a political view, or a view of some aspect of our culture — in retrospect I often find that those were the times when I was most wrong.
“Me too. I began as a youth with idealistic struggles. I was going to change the world. I had my flag, my horse. I had my armor. But then, as you get older, reality sets in. Among other things, you come to see that those you opposed were not necessarily evil.”
Finally this, something I wrote shortly after Steven's death.
I found out yesterday that Steven Foster died. I turned around at my desk and picked up one of the arrows Steven had given me during my visit out to interview him and Meredith a couple of years ago. One of the first things I thought of was Steven’s generosity, his goodwill.
I did not know Steven well, but I knew him well enough to know he had both a huge heart and a tendency towards anger. He struggled with those contradictions, and overcame them at least to the extent that he was able to co-create, with his wife Meredith Little, The School of Lost Borders in Big Pine California. Their work touched people all over the world. Many founded offshoots doing similar work.
Like others I have had the pleasure to meet and get to know a little through Heron Dance, Steven embodied huge contradictions, mood swings, anger and gentleness, self-absorption, generosity and kindness. Perhaps everyone possesses those contradictory characteristics, but some of us contain extremes. In fact it is surprising to me to think of the number of people I’ve interviewed for Heron Dance and in some cases gotten to know well who persevere with a work of love and beauty, who touch a lot of lives, and who are people of particularly large contradictions. Perhaps out of the internal friction and grinding comes the energy to overcome the obstacles and discouragement and ultimately contribute something of wide impact and goodness.
Within a few minutes of meeting, Steven asked me to sit with him beside the pond in front of his home. We sat and watched the ducks in the late afternoon. Immediately he launched into a tirade against environmentalists who were working to shut down roads in the wilderness areas he loved. His health no longer permitted him access to some of those areas unassisted. Local people he cared about had grown up hunting and fishing in those areas and had always done so by motorized means. They didn’t like the changes being imposed by young, middle class, educated environmentalists. I’ve thought a lot about the words of this man with a truly wild heart, a big heart, a lover of quiet and a champion of solitude in wilderness.
* Issue 40