The Woman on the Hill

I always imagined there was a hilltop shining with golden wheat where a woman with a red skirt, an apron and a babushka stood against the sky, swinging her scythe. . .

The Woman on the Hill

I always imagined there was a hilltop shining with golden wheat where a woman with a red skirt, an apron and a babushka stood against the sky, swinging her scythe in slow, rhythmic arcs. I pictured the sun so bright it bounced off the sword-sharp crescent as she swung it, silver glinting over waving gold. I could see the perspiration on her face and I expected her to be suffering an aching back or resenting the drudgery of it, but no, she loved what she was doing, and when she saw me – materializing suddenly before her – she stood up and smiled with such a welcoming, loving gaze I felt she was looking through me at all the others that connected us as well, so many of whom had left the farm young, never to return, and others she had only heard about in letters when they were born, or were married, or died.

I could smell the wheat's sweetness around us, and her sweat, and though we didn't touch, it felt like she embraced me. I saw myself having crossed a continent and ocean from San Francisco to reach her in Denmark, and my journey had turned back time just as it had counteracted the rotation of the Earth. And as a plane undoes the power of gravity, I had undone the passage of years, meeting my great, great grandmother in her youth, before she had ever had children.

Of course I didn't think about it that clearly at the time. I was probably seven when I first imagined her, based on something my father must have told me, though a bronze statuette he had bought for his mother with his first paycheck as a boy – of a woman with a sheaf of wheat in one hand, and a scythe in the other – might have kindled the notion even earlier. Seeing her standing on our mantle piece above the fire place, her scarf-covered head lifted and her gaze reaching to something in the distance, made me yearn to enter her world, and to know her.

When I finally made it to Denmark, alone, at 16, looking for her on that hillside, the farm was gone, and none of her many descendants were farmers anymore. One, however – my father's second cousin, whom he would never met – was an insurance agent during the week, but on the weekends a devoted chronicler of Denmark's healing springs. He knocked on doors to ask landowners the stories of healings that had happened around these springs, some of the stories going back hundreds of years. Adding photos and maps, and corroborating accounts from collections of local lore, he published a beautiful book. I thought how happy this would have made her, she who always appeared to me to be not just an ancestor, but a handmaiden of nature's love in the landscape that was her world.

It was her view – literally, as well as spiritually – that I yearned to share, not her life. Though for a few years, after I had started meditation as a young teen, I thought working beside her in that open-air temple, would be the most sublime meditation I could imagine: spirit riding on wings of gratitude and beauty in a swinging, stepping dance with Mother Nature. I wanted to see the way she saw, to climb inside her eyes like a lap and listen to the stories that filled her gaze. A gaze that scanned the contours of the Earth, as well as Her depths: Her expression through rivers and trees, birds and clouds, seasons and cycles and storms, as well as Her heart, Her wisdom, and Her ways of caring for Her children. I wanted to see the Earth in that light, the way she saw Her.

That golden light shone from her sweaty cheeks, her gentle, far-seeing eyes. I took her as my template, and thought I saw her in Isadora Duncan's gestures and life: the way she gave herself to air, so clearly having taken on the job of priestess in nature's temple, making her own body the smoke that rises in sacred spirals from the tree-sap burning altar fires of frankincense and myrrh. The cigarette and dog shit-laden sidewalks of my San Francisco streets disappeared from my view as I walked home barefoot in my tunic from my Isadora dance classes, taught by one of her original students in a dance studio hidden amongst the pines and eucalyptus on Lone Mountain, perched between Golden Gate Park and Geary Boulevard. My mother was terrified I'd get tetanus from stepping on broken glass or a rusty nail. I don't remember what words I had then to explain it, but I was convinced the reality you see yourself in is more real than the seemingly solid one around you. That there is another set of laws of physics that dreams are nightly proof of, and how far your dreams reach is up to each of us.

One afternoon while dancing, I felt the space between the woman on the golden hill and I vanish, and for a single measureless moment I felt her presence in my veins with a jolt, and knew that she felt mine. Something turned like a golden key unlocking the great oak doors to the library with its spiral stairs housed in my DNA. It was the beginning of the sunset, and she straightened up to look out across the fields and sky, feeling the drop in temperature and the gentle movement of the air it caused, cooling the moisture on her cheeks. The colors near the horizon began to spread, reflected in the fjord, over which the birds had started their swooping sunset ritual. Her heart felt like a river was flooding through it, washing over its banks with love for all of it, and nature's love for all. It was a moment like a crystal that condensed into a single snowflake of divine geometry a code, a chord, a ringing as of a golden bell that reached me across the centuries, reverberating in the river of my blood, inscribing that moment's healing spring on the map that would lead me through my life.