Woke up this morning not just to the sound of leaves, which is ordinary enough, but to their dancing shadows on the roof over my head. This was because the roof was, in fact, fine-woven fabric, strong and thin as silk, two layers: the tent itself and its fly. Between me and the cold, hard, knobbly ground were four layers of fabric (bedclothes, nightshirt, tent floor, ground sheet) and two of vinyl, containing some cubic feet of mildly compressed air. In short, there wasn't even half an inch of solid stuff between my tender person and the great outdoors.

This is as it should be when you're camping. There's much less, in fact, between me and the great outdoors when I'm outside the tent: at best a single layer of tarp-fabric, cheap blue plastic sheeting, over our picnic table (other, of course, than clothing; while Manitoulin Island isn't as buggy as the mainland, there are still too many mosquitos around for nudism). As I found the first time I went camping, this exposedness--this sense of being only very thinly veiled to your surroundings--is in fact one of the great pleasures of camping. We could, I suppose, have rented one of the small frame cottages around this campground, but it wouldn't be the same.

There's no word for this that I know, other than nakedness (and that's not quite right either). We take for granted, in "civilized" places, that the walls between us and the great outdoors will be solid, permanent, weatherproof. In more Interesting Times a few centuries ago, those walls might very well have been three foot thick and solid stone. We're not quite as vulnerable as we were back then, and our walls have grown steadily less substantial over time. But even the most jerrybuilt of contemporary houses is enormously substantial compared to my tent.

Of course I couldn't live this way always. In past camping trips, we've weathered very heavy rain in this tent with hardly a drip, having prudently slung a tarp over the fly before the skies opened. But unless you knew exactly what you were doing, you wouldn't want to be out here so lightly protected during the winter. This place at the north end of Lake Huron has winters even more substantial and respect-worthy than we have at home, hundreds of kilometers to the south. I don't know, but I expect that the original peoples here, Odawa and Ojibwa, probably had winter houses. You need those, up here on the fringes of the real North. And this is not real bear country; I don't know if I'd be willing to tackle being this unprotected in serious bear country, not without knowing more than I do now. I respect bears and I don't want to mix with them.

But for right now, living this skinless to the world is pure delight and entirely practical. In fact, when I tried to put thick-soled real shoes on, I found myself teetering around the campsite tripping over roots. On this nubbly ground, thin rubber sandals are far more practical.

Because God is never far away, especially on Manitoulin Island, I thought for a bit (as I strolled over to the loo) about the thickness or thinness of our relationship to Him/Herself. What I desire most, and fear most, is to have between me and God nothing much thicker than my tent's silky sea-blue wall: a veiling only, not a wall; and a veiling only because I don't yet trust God quite enough to get naked with Him. I've seen myself in too many dress-shop changing room mirrors for that, thank you. But I certainly don't want the between-us space to be filled with hard, protecting walls, as though God were the Canadian winter, something to be feared and hidden from, or as though God were a black bear, dangerously unpredictable but predictably dangerous. No: I do believe in a loving God, and a God with whom I should feel safer than I in fact do.

When I start thinking that way, I start having to reconsider how I believe in God: what bits of the doctrine I hold to stem from genuine note-taking on angel-wrestling (which is what theology is, really) and which of my bits of doctrine are more like walls, meant to protect me and to exclude what I see as dangerous or wrong. Doctrine driven by the need for safety--by fear and mistrust --isn't, I think, what God wants from us. God, being a true lover, would rather have us in the buff than veiled, and rather veiled than dressed in heavy, protective clothing, and rather heavily dressed than armoured, and far rather armoured than lurking on the upper floor of the keep with the doors bolted shut and the ladder pulled up, lest the Enemy Other get in. I've never sensed God yet in a piece of fortification the way I do in a tent. (Maybe this is why Paul was a tentmaker, not a mason?)

I don't mind a God of power. A good strong wind would certainly knock down our dining-room shelter, and a strong enough wind might harm or dislodge the tent; but you don't get hurricanes up here. A God of power on Manitoulin Island in July could be a God like a summer storm, sweeping across Lake Kagawong, which gleams through the trees a few dozen meters away. I wouldn't want to be out there in a canoe in a thunderstorm, of course. But I have declared myself to be, and increasingly know myself to be, a lamb in God's fold and under God's protection--a child on my Father's arm. I know increasingly that God is active and helpful in my life: no dangerous black-bear presence; no bleak and distant wintery authority always in need of placation; but a force of love, ancient and substantial as the rib of Earth under my sandals, big as the sky, firm and gentle as the wind in the slender maples, and warm as the sun striking brilliance from the woods around me.

And so I can sleep soundly, wrapped in these few thin layers of fabric, so close to the air. In my middle age, after long experience of long winters and black bears, I seem to be discovering that life with God in it is indeed a safe sort of place, a place in which a person doesn't need foot-thick walls just to get by. Out here in the gentle woods of Manitoulin, which is lapped on so many edges by sweet water, big and small, it's right and proper to sleep with only sea-blue silky cloth above and some squeezed air and vinyl below, and to sleep that way in trust and peace. And so it should always be, for all God's children; and so it will become, in God's own good time.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 21 Jul 2001
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