This is the story of The Trees Community, a semi monastic Christian group that left NYC on a bus in 1971 on a journey of faith. When most of our money burned up the first night, we relied on God for all our needs and he provided! We traveled the United States growing in our new faith, finding a ministry in music and eventually becoming artists in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Seven years, seven "stories" are woven into this amazing journey.

The Final Days at General

I did mourn as a dove
Mine eyes fail with looking upward
Oh Lord, I am oppressed
Undertake for me…
[From a Trees song]

May 3rd, 1976. We pulled into Manhattan at 2pm. Our last tour was over but the only thing on our minds was finding somewhere to park. It took two hours to unload in the drizzling rain. The grounds at General were blooming and covered with spring growth, which surprised me since it had been winter when we left. Holly, Rick and other seminarians popped by to say “Hi” and “Bye” as we lugged everything up all the flights of stairs, but no one offered to help us unload. Once all the instruments were back in our apartment, both Stephen and David were suddenly gone. Only Mary and I were left to unpack everything and wash loads and loads of dishes, pots and pans. Rick Bering (white Rick) came over and pitched in helping us wash dishes and get settled back in (that was soooo nice).

Later in the evening, I went in search of Rick B. until I finally tracked him down. I was so excited to see him again after six weeks that I chattered on and on, not realizing that he remained quiet and withdrawn. When I had finished my monologue, he looked at me with a cool expression. His next words shocked me. He said he didn’t want to continue our relationship and that he felt that all I wanted was a physical thing but he wanted a deeper relationship. He said he couldn’t trust me and that he was going to be a priest in an all black church and that it wouldn’t be a good environment for a white woman. Unwilling to let him go, I started to plead with him, telling him my love was not just physical, that sex didn’t matter, and that I loved him and that I couldn’t help it if I was born white! I begged him to give me another chance. We went around and around until finally he said he was sorry, he just wanted to be friends. I was devastated. I trudged back to my room, closed the door and cried for what seemed like all night. I spent the next few weeks moping around, praying he would change his mind. After awhile, I sought him out again and asked if he was sure we were through? It was then that he said that the real reason was he’d gotten involved with another young woman named Susan (another white lady) in her late teens who was a dancer and lived at General. He said they were getting into a deeper bond in which sex didn’t come first but he insisted their love was more Godly in that it would come AFTER they “got tight”. Oh. Really. Right. When I heard, that I finally accepted that the relationship was finished.

I left feeling hurt, betrayed, and numb. I was so depressed that I went into the bathroom, locked the door and held a razor against my wrists. When I cut into my flesh I was flooded with pain. Hey, that hurt! I tried to push harder but then I stopped. As little trickles of red blood dripped into the sink, I realized not only did it hurt too much, I was being ridiculous and melodramatic. I cleaned up my wrists, wiped up the blood and threw the razor blade away. At dinner in the dining hall I wanted Rick to know how he had hurt me so I tried to flash the underside of my wrists, but no one noticed and I just felt stupid. Stupid and completely alone. Not only had I lost Rick but the Trees was folding and I felt like I was floating in free fall, drifting away and nobody cared.

So now we were two. For the next week Mary and I slogged through the days like sleepwalkers, cleaning out Stephen and David’s old rooms, then cleaning and rearranging Melody’s old room. We were running low on money, the phone bill was over $500 dollars and there was only $600 left in our bank account! On top of that, someone had gotten a parking ticket on Mary’s car, one more expense. I slogged through the days, depressed and feeling hopeless. It felt like I was at the bottom of a murky lake, buried under a deep, fathomless blackness with so much sadness pressing down on me from above that I was unable to move or swim to the top. I did my best to avoid Rick. Now I had a taste of what Shipen must have gone through when he broke up with Dorian. It was hell. But I wasn’t going to give up on the Trees. Neither Mary nor I were. Not yet.

Brother Lavrans officially left Gethsemani and stayed with us for three days. He was gone most of the day visiting Shipen and other friends (I think Mary and I were boring company for him). After just three days, he decided he couldn’t stand New York City and flew to Atlanta, which he decided would be a better place to begin his new life and try to get a foothold into the Art scene.

May 8-15th. Mary and I got a job taking care of the mother of Mrs. Sullivan (from the Cathedral Gift Shop). She had diabetes and a severe case of gangrene in her foot, could barely walk and needed to be bathed, have her dressings changed and meals prepared for her. The worse part for me was cleaning her foot and re-bandaging it. The smell was overwhelming and the decaying flesh was horrific. She lived out in the Bronx and what with a long subway ride, it was an all day job. One day Mary worked, the next day I did. It was also difficult to deal with Mrs. Powney’s nagging and complaining all day. “This isn’t the right kind of thread, run next door and borrow some. These aren’t the right size of envelopes, these are all wrong – go out and buy me the right size.” The best part of my day was getting home and putting my tired but healthy feet up.

On Thursday Mary took care of Mrs. Powney and I dragged myself to the Dean’s Mass alone. I sang Thomas’ song during the service. Afterwards I met with Canon West to fill him in on everything that had happened during the tour and told him our plans were to stay in NYC and try to get more members. (Since it was not a confession, I kept my personal problems to myself.) His first suggestion was that all events pointed to the fact that we should be an all women’s order. He asked who we would want back if we could have them. I replied, Christopher and Patricia. He then said he could envision either a community of married people or one of women but not both. Hmmmm. He suggested that Mary and I should be lay readers and chalice bearers at the Cathedral so we filled out the proper forms (and later received our lay reader’s licenses in the mail).

With Stephen and David now gone, with the future of the Trees Community up in the air, and because he would be out of town, he advised us to cancel the ceremony wherein the Bishop was supposed to hear our first vows. (It had been arranged before we left on tour). First vows were the official “engagement” for a nun or monk as they entered into a convent or monastery and acknowledged their commitment to devote their lives to the Lord. In some of the ceremonies I had attended the vows were very similar to marriage vows and one young woman I saw was dressed in what looked very much like a wedding gown. Since at this point we didn’t even know if we were still going to remain a viable Religious order, Canon West suggested we should wait until things were more settled and stable. So we called the Bishop’s office and cancelled. I was disappointed because it was one more step away from what we had been trying to build over the past six years. I was helpless as I watched our community crumbling around me when I desperately wanted to shore it up. The only good news was at least Canon West seemed genuinely concerned for the Trees future.

Then I walked over to our old apartment and met with our subletter Robert DeRivera who asked if he could extend his sublease for another year. He reported that living in our beautiful, airy apartment had totally changed his outlook on the City. We decided to let him stay until May when we would meet again and renegotiate. Mary and I had agreed that it was important to keep as many options open as possible since we didn’t know what was going to happen with our living situation at General Seminary.

Wanting to reconnect with Canon West and the Cathedral, Mary and I also decided to continue going to the Thursday Dean’s Mass and the 11:00 mass at the Cathedral. We also agreed to volunteer there as needed so both Mary and Melody helped sew costumes for the big banquet there the following Wednesday.

At 6:30pm Sister Mary Michael came to our apartment for dinner. We talked about the recent changes and what might be in our future. We informed her that we ’d rather wait until the fall before resuming regular meetings with her since Mary and I were both working all day and also because I had decided to take a six week dance class at Wayne State University back in Detroit over the summer. Sister was very kind and assured us of her support and that if we ever needed her, to call. She said she was confident that things would work out because the two of us were dedicated and responsible. The “fellows” had been irresponsible and immature and she assured us that we were better off without that kind of dead weight. Feeling listless and still pretty numb, the whole thing just seemed bleak.

Saturday evening General Seminary had a “senior prom” dance. I thought it was a total fiasco! One of the professors (who I suspected had a crush on me) was tipsy and kept chasing me around. Hardly anybody showed up and when they did arrive, who should show up but Rick with Susan on his arm. Disgusted, I left immediately.

May 17-22nd. On Monday I returned to working full time at the Cathedral Gift Shop. Mary took over full time care of Mrs. Powney. We wanted to earn enough money to pay off the phone bill, ticket, bills and the $50 a month on the Trees debt to the Cathedral. I was so tired and disheartened that by the time I got home each night it was an effort to do much else. We also took turns all week babysitting for Alan Jones’ children from 6:30 p.m. until 11:00 pm. For me that meant I got up at 7am for morning service and prayers, cleaning duties, shower and breakfast, then I worked at the Gift shop from 9-5, took the subway home, grabbed a bite to eat, then zipped over to babysit every other night. We had been trying to attend as many of the services at General Seminary as we could but it was a relief when we heard they were ending for the summer following graduation.

On Monday we had a concert to perform at General that had been arranged before the tour so Stephen and David had agreed to do it with us. They had promised to start setting everything up at 2:30 (because Mary and I couldn’t get off work until later). However, when she and I arrived at 3:30 very little had been done and David didn’t even show up until 4pm. We rushed around setting up and tuned but there was no time to rehearse. Dorita was supposed to dance to Psalm 45 but because things were so hectic she didn’t. We performed a shortened 45-minute concert for some of our friends and seminarians. I was embarrassed by the mistakes but no one else seemed to notice. Joyce Klannit, Jack McClung, Dorita, David, and Stephen then came up for drinks and supper. I relaxed and enjoyed their company - it was like old times.

On Wednesday evening we met with Father Bob Duncan from General about our arrangement for the apartment. We had been living there rent free in exchange for renovating the space. He informed us that arrangement would have to end in September. He offered to let us continue living there for $165 a month starting in September when I returned. He thought it was okay for us to enroll in classes at General and that possibly we could work in exchange for part of our tuition as some students did. Mary said she was interested in maybe getting a Masters in Divinity and I was thinking about attending part or full time. He said that they had long range plans for our space but assured us we could remain there at least until next May. We told him of our future plans (my class in Detroit over the summer and then my returning in the fall), our efforts at finishing our Rule and our desire to continue with the music. [Note: A complete copy of the final “Rule” for the Trees can be found at the end of this story]. We offered to perform for liturgies if they so desired and after Father Duncan left I felt encouraged, feeling reassured that “the powers that be” at the Seminary were glad to have us there.

May 19th – Wednesday. We kicked around the idea of selling the amplification equipment to put toward our Cathedral debt. When we contacted David to ask the original cost he immediately asked to have two microphones, the amp and two mike stands – he wanted his share. Then Bobby Lee called saying he wanted his antique lamp back. He explained that Shipen had done a lot of carpentry for him in his apartment and the lamp had been given as payment. Since Shipen was no longer with us, he wanted to know when we would give his lamp back? I told him I’d call him back. Then I made the mistake of calling Shipen to ask him about it and did he want it? No, but he demanded to know what were WE going to do with the bus, the amplification equipment, the old apartment and all the money from the tour, now that the Trees were no longer in existence. Huh? He said his parents had donated $1,000 for the production of our record and he wanted that back along with his share of the profits. They had also donated a new stove and refrigerator, TV and a camera and he wanted those back too. He didn’t care that his parent’s gifts were to the Trees, he felt they should be returned to him. He argued that he’d invested five years into the Trees orchestra and it died when he left in October (oh really – guess the recent tour was a figment of my imagination)! Since it was over he deserved his share of everything. He grew increasingly angry and wanted to know why Mary and I should end up getting everything, all “the spoils”. I quietly informed him that since he had left the community and wasn’t paying off the debt as we were and since he had walked away from all our responsibilities that he no longer was a part of anything. I pointed out the Trees had just returned from a successful fall tour and he should stop discounting everything we had done after he left. The odd thing to me at the time was how he kept saying “we” this and “we” that but in the same breath he insisted that when he left, the Trees had ended, as if the community ceased to exist once he was gone. Humphl!

For his part, Shipen remained polite saying he didn’t want to have any bitter feelings over all of it but that he just wanted his belongings returned. We had very little contact with him after that phone call and he moved off into another phase of his life as did we. What affected me most about that final conversation was that in one sense he was right - the group never fully recovered after he left.

May 20-23rd. I was troubled by the conversation with Shipen so the next morning I called Sister Mary Michael to ask her advice. She advised me to talk the matter over with Alan Jones which Mary and I did. We discussed finances, the looming debt, and at the end of the meeting he also suggested, as had Canon West, that we consider becoming an all women’s order. That was it. Frankly, I was tired of everybody else telling us what the Trees were or weren’t and what we should be. I just wanted to stick with our original vision of men, women and married couples and to hell with everyone else’s opinion! God had called us and given us this special ministry. Who were they to change what He had ordained?

May 23, 1976. The Trees (including Stephen and David) performed at the funeral of Brian Eaton, Arthur Eaton’s son. I remembered Brian best for his gift of 15 pounds of brown rice he was thoughtful enough to bring us when we had very little food and no money. He was only 25 years old when he died and it was very sad. Many, many people came to the funeral service held in St. James Chapel at the Cathedral.

May 24th. When I returned from work, Father Bob Duncan (from General) asked to see Mary and I. We entered his office hoping he might have some good news about our arrangements to stay at General Seminary and attend classes that coming fall. With an embarrassed expression he said he had some universally bad news. When he’d presented our tentative agreement to start paying $165 a month starting in September, the staff had decided that the rent would have to be $300 a month since we were “outsiders” and that it must begin in August! It was a fortune and far beyond our means! Stunned all we could answer was, “Why? We had an agreement?” Then he said it was because we had brought in a stove and refrigerator, which constituted kitchen facilities and that $300 was the rate for any outsider with a working kitchen! What! That "kitchen" was there when we moved in! When we brought up the fact that the students downstairs below us had a refrigerator but they were only being charged $400 for the whole school year he said that that was because they ate all their meals in the dining hall at the Seminary.

We sat in stunned silence, trying to digest that. Then Mary suggested maybe we could have some students live with us to help us pay rent but he said no, we couldn’t do that because other students would feel cheated and it would also draw seminarians away from their common religious life. He suggested we could move into the women’s dorm but we couldn’t have a kitchen and we would have to pay to eat in the refectory. Also, a single bedroom would be too cramped for our instruments and too small to rehearse in along with two cats, a bird and a dog. But anyway, he said, he was sorry but there weren’t any available dorms for women. They were all full. Great, just great. So what he was saying was that we would have to leave, since my entire paycheck for a month would have to go for rent which would leave nothing for food or bills or the Cathedral debt.

It was all incredibly depressing and we felt betrayed since we had put so much money (over a thousand dollars), labor and sweat equity into renovating the apartment and had been led to believe we would be compensated for it with lower rent for at least a year. Not so! Now it appeared we had just provided them with a whole new floor for student housing (the space hadn’t been used in years till we came along). The Dean had been right after all.

That night, Mary and I talked into the wee hours, trying to brainstorm and come up with a solution, but the Seminary had backed us into a corner. As the hours passed, we grew more and more discouraged. I had hoped we might somehow get more members, but without new members we had few alternatives. We came up with:

1. Move back onto the bus and live in it parked at the Cathedral (not allowed).
2. Move out of the City completely.
3. File for bankruptcy to wipe out our debt (not ethical in our minds).
4. Try to get other subletters to move in and pay half or two thirds of our rent (couldn’t be seminarians).

Of all our ideas, the last seemed to be the best solution. Maybe David Karasek and Kateri might be possible candidates? They could help with the rent. Our biggest worry was that if we moved out of the City for good that it would leave us no hope for growing or getting new members and might lead to the end of the Trees (how prophetic).

Later in the week, we informed Bob that we planned to pay the August rent and then meet with him in August to discuss our intentions for the coming year. He agreed. Meanwhile, we both obtained applications to attend General in the fall. Mary applied for a Masters degree and I applied as well and also filled out forms for financial aid and grants. A few weeks later, I learned my application had been turned down. I needed a Bachelors degree first. Oh. Great. I couldn't even take classes at General.

May 25-31st. How were Stephen and David doing since their departure? Stephen was given a job working with me at the Gift Shop where he worked for the month of June while Mrs. Sullivan was on vacation. David had landed a job as a chauffer.

My sister called and invited me to join her for a summer vacation in Detroit. She told me about a five week dance course she was taking and invited me to join her. Mary and I talked and decided a vacation was in order. I could leave June 17th, take the class and then return at the end of July. We talked about my getting a temporary job in Detroit and earn some money to pay for our rent at General. Mary would keep working in the City.

Then surprise! We got a call from David and Kateri Karasek asking if they could stay with us for awhile. It must be God’s answer to our prayers! They could help with the rent, praise God! He hadn't abandoned us. We agreed but told them we’d need to talk later to hammer out specifics (when they would move in, for how long, how much rent they would pay, a payment schedule, etc.) Then Mary and I left for a short vacation to Phil and Sarah Weil’s beach house in New Haven. Of course, our good friend Jack McClung was there too which made it even more enjoyable (he had arranged everything). We sailed, lay in the sun, talked and relaxed with Phil, Sarah and Jack. It buoyed up my flagging spirits.

On Sunday night we came home and noticed that lights were on in our apartment. That was strange. When we opened the door, Kateri greeted us saying, “Oh! I’m surprised to see you home so early.” What?! Actually, I was totally surprised to see they had already moved into our apartment! They had moved in before we'd even discussed rent. When I discovered they’d eaten a lot of the groceries I had just bought I got really upset. Easy-going Mary didn’t seem to mind and was gracious as always. The next day when I returned from work we talked and they shared that they planned to stay through August (so much for our plans of subletting long term). It seemed to late to bring up asking them for rent money and I was outright unkind and snippy. Kateri agreed to buy her own food and keep it in a different spot to avoid confusion. Since I was going to be leaving in two weeks to start my dance class in Detroit, it shouldn’t have really mattered.

June 1-5th. With David and Kateri living with us, it should have been like old times but I felt like a cat whose owner has brought home a new cat - my territory had been invaded. I wasn’t very gracious. I worked at the Cathedral all day and Mary worked full time taking care of Mrs. Powney and I was miffed no one else was offering to help pay our rent at General or the Tree’s debt. Mary planned to take care of Mrs. Powney 24 hours a day through June 22nd and then Mrs. Sullivan would return from her vacation in Europe and her job would be over. The work was tedious and emotionally draining and left her pretty worn out at the end of each day. Faithfull, charitable Mary!

On June 3rd Mary and I met with our lawyer Jim Proud and discussed legal questions about the Trees corporation. Since none of the seven members who left had officially resigned, he said they would need to send in their resignations. Before they did that, however, they would have to vote as officers in the corporation on any changes that would be made. That meant that since Mary and I intended to continue and since Shipen refused to resign, that everyone would have to vote Shipen out as President. Then Mary could be officially voted in and then everyone could resign if that was their intention. It seemed a little convoluted but we agreed to send out ballots to the seven in-limbo members. Then he suggested that we should make a list of the instruments and note whether they were personally owned, donated, corporately owned or loaned until the corporation dissolved (which we did).

We also discussed our legal obligation to the Cathedral debt and we showed him the contract Chauncey had drawn up. He informed us we were liable for the full amount and suggested we continue making payments as we had been. All this didn’t come free and as we left he told us he’d check up on a few questions we’d ask, and then send us a bill. How nice.

June 6, 1976. David and Stephen joined us and we packed our instruments into Mary’s car and drove down to Washington, D.C. to Christ Episcopal Church. The priest met us and excitedly showed us the bulletin for the Sunday service that listed all the songs we would be playing. We set up in the sanctuary and then moved our sleeping bags into the Sunday School where each of us slept. For some reason I got it in my head to invite Rick to our concert since he lived in the area. So for the next five hours I called him every 15 minutes, trying to invite him to the service. At 2 a.m. in the morning he still wasn’t home so I gave up. First thing in the morning I called and finally reached him but he coolly begged off saying he didn’t have a car so he had no way to get there. Love dies hard.

After playing various songs during the mass, we then packed everything into the car and drove out to a church picnic where we played a few easier pieces: Taka, Jesus He Knows and David played various new guitar songs he’d written. It was a sunny, pleasant day and there were all kinds of delicious potluck dishes and free pony rides for the children. We received $350 dollars for the concert and then drove home in the car, a bumpy and uncomfortable ride with four people and our instruments squished in a car with no shocks. We unloaded and then paid David and Stephen $25 each before they left. It was the last official concert of the Trees.

June 7-16th. During my last week in the City I worked seven straight days at the Gift Shop and Mary lived in with Mrs. Powney watching her around the clock. I took over for two days so Mary could have a break before I left.

On June 15th, the night before my departure, I said goodbye to my dear friend, Violet Drakes, who invited me over for dinner. Violet was a tiny, thin, frail looking Jamaican women who never missed a service at the Cathedral. Every morning when we struggled over for morning prayers there she would be sitting in her usual spot, head bowed, dressed in huge, colorful hats and her best “Sunday” clothes. She was a fixture at the Cathedral and had been for many, many years. Canon West adored and respected her and she and I struck up a friendship. I loved her grandmotherly advice on all kinds of topics. She taught me how to cook plantains and how to soak cucumbers “so they won’t give you gas my dear” she insisted. I had enjoyed several lovely meals at her small apartment in a rundown section of Spanish Harlem.

That day was to be my last meal with my dear friend, and as usual she had words of wisdom and advise. "Don’t forget to pray every day", she said, "and remember to be kind to everyone you meet, even if you don’t care for them very much." We sat sipping tea and eating a fantastic spicy Jamaican meal. We hugged and as I put my arms around her small frame I could feel every bone in her ribs and shoulders, poking through the thin fabric of her dress. Tears flooded my eyes as I promised to write and I assured her I’d be back in the fall.

[In July of 2005, I returned to visit New York City and I found myself deeply moved when I attended mass at the Cathedral. I was sitting up front near the same row of seats where The Trees always used to sit. I looked over and saw a small, black women dressed in a flashy wide brimmed hat sitting in Violet’s usual spot, praying. Violet was 90 years old when I left…it couldn’t be her! When I looked up at the end of the service she was gone and I couldn’t stop crying remembering my old friend.] There are very few people who have touched my life so profoundly: Canon West, Brother Lavrans, my grandmother, Sister Anna Van Dyck and Violet Drakes.