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.

Whirling Dervishes, Sufis and Summit V

Seven Trees in our monastic habits (Sept. 1974)

October 6, 1975. None of us could have known that the next three weeks were to be our last time together as a community under Shipen’s leadership. It had been six amazing years since I had graduated from high school and joined him in New York City during those early Loft days. Events were fast approaching that would rock our small family and create a major upheaval that would lead to irreversible, destructive changes - changes that would eventually tear apart the very fabric of our existence.

Shipen had warned us before the tour that we must change and I, innocently enough, thought we were well on the road to improving our alleged 27 faults. Certainly there were minor problems such as people not picking up his dirty clothes or fighting over what music to listen to but these were inconsequential. I thought our tour had brought a great deal of healing to all of us. Granted, I was apprehensive about returning to the City, but since there was nothing to be done about it, my hope was we could survive a brief interlude there until we were off again on our next music tour. Unfortunately, things were far more fragile emotionally than any of us realized. It was only a matter of time…

Monday. We settled back into life in our apartment across the street from the Cathedral. On this day, we held a family meeting during chapter to make some important decisions including: whether we should get part time jobs (yes we’ll try), should we send some money to Christopher (we all agreed yes), and when to start music rehearsals (next week). David said he’d like to take a vacation at Christmas to take Dorita home to visit his family (fine). Mary suggested we have a quiet day once a month and also suggested that our chapel should be a place of silence and that we needed to have more silence in general (agreed). Melody suggested she would like to meet with Alan Jones about the idea of our becoming part of the Center for Spiritual Growth at General Seminary (that sounded exciting so we said yes, check it out). We talked about needing to plaster the apartment and other work to be done to fix up the apartment. Then Shipen asked if we could all take a week off and everyone do whatever they wanted to do. Hmmmm. After discussion, everyone agreed. Melody said she would like to do pottery every morning (everyone said fine). Then I asked if we could invite Canon West to dinner (yes). Last of all we called and arranged an appointment to meet with the Dean. After chapter, everyone had a free day.

On Wednesday, two days later we met with the Dean. He was eager to hear how the tour had gone (short we told him but great). Then he explained that he’d arranged for us to start seeing Sister Mary Michael Simpson (who was the pastor counselor at the Cathedral) free of charge, as a group if we wanted to (a resounding yes!) He asked us who we had decided we wanted to have as our regular spiritual director and advisor? We answered, Canon West. We then talked at length about our debt, our financial problems, the loss of most of our money to repair the bus on tour, and our idea to possibly go to General Seminary or remain based at the Cathedral but be more actively involved at the Cathedral. He probed us on each issue and assured us he would talk with Canon West and to Chauncey to see if we could “work off” our debt, as Shipen suggested. He urged us to continue with our music and touring, and suggested that we take a retreat together out of the City. He recommended that we remain based at the Cathedral and be much more active there than we had been in the past. Yes!

When we talked about our debt to the Cathedral and Shipen suggested we be allowed to work it off, the Dean assured us he would talk with Canon West and Chauncey Parker to see if they would be agreeable to our doing that. Hurrah! That would be such a load of our backs! We also talked about our getting different part time or full time jobs to help us financially. Most importantly, he kept coming back to the idea that it was imperative that we remain together as a community to pray, rehearse, and eat together, even if that meant we were apart at other times. With a desperate tone, the Dean once again begged us to stick it out and stay together urging that we “must continue on with the music!” He urged us to keep doing our tours together, and that we could also benefit from a retreat together, that no matter what we decided to do it was important we pull back together.

As I listened to his sense of urgency on continuing our music, I too felt this was very important and that it was exactly what the Lord wanted. I applauded his convictions and only hoped that the rest of our community was really listening! Wow, what a pep talk! After showing us the “Friends of Music” write-up featuring us, we hugged and left. It was very reassuring to me and I left feeling much relieved and upbeat.

Later that morning Melody began her first pottery session while Sarah and I took the subway down to the Louis-Nikolais Dance Theater to enroll in a four-month modern dance course there. Both Sarah and I had arranged to have our parents pay for the class, worried that Shipen would not allow us to attend, since he had been so negative the last time we took dance classes and had claimed we were breaking the family apart by doing so. My plan was to keep mum about the whole thing but when Shipen was eventually asked if it would be o.k., his response was, “Sure, why not?” Hearing that, we both assumed there would be nothing wrong with it and went ahead and enrolled.

It came as a complete surprise when Shipen cornered me later on to discuss the validity of studying technique and taking lessons in any of the arts versus remaining “self taught.” He was of the firm opinion that taking professional lessons would influence our music and we should only learn “from the Tree’s school.” He pointed out it was fine to attend a performance of a play, ballet or music concert as an observer but NOT to study under that performer or troupe or school. I argued that dance was another way to express one's faith. By bringing dance, painting, poetry and music into the Liturgy we were further helping the growth of the Church and through dance we could use our bodies to worship God. Mary added it was a way to begin to feel more freedom and confidence with one’s body and be more responsive so that the movements could then be incorporated into The Christ Tree. Shipen reiterated it was important to remain free of outside influences but finally conceded since we had already enrolled we might as well go ahead with the classes. I worried our pushing the point had driven another wedge between us.

That night I prayed that the Monday night classes would not be detrimental but would be more up building. Lord, if you can, find a way to bring healing to us. Heal the distances between us and help us find a way to draw us closer together. Bind up our wounds and help us hear your voice and follow your will.

October 9, 1975. This week was declared by Shipen to be a “free week” so half of the community were gone much of the time. Meanwhile, those who remained attended the Dean’s mass and performed some spontaneous meditative music on the Koto, Cheng and bell tree. Melody cooked up some awesome meals like Cantonese chicken and stir fried vegetables, yum! Mary filled out record orders, studied, mended clothes or sold records at the Pews Action Convention. Sarah kept busy cleaning and scrubbing the whole apartment from top to bottom. Remarking on the amazing accumulation of filth, she attacked the rooms working from morning until late every night “until it gets done!” She organized things more neatly and bought shower curtains for the men’s bathroom. I helped clean and did 13 loads of everyone’s laundry, bedding, and costumes, helped with the mending and pruning and re-potting of long neglected house plants. On the first day of our free week, Dorian and Shipen worked together to clean out underneath the storage area under the living room platforms and then put the instruments away. Shipen also cleaned the men’s bathroom and Stephen helped with the spring cleaning. Some attended classes that had started at the Institute of Theology over at the Cathedral.

October 10th. Harroll stopped by all bright and cheery, back from a refreshing summer out of the City. We kidded him that he ought to become a Tree since he was so perfectly adapted to our way of life. Shipen and Dorian stopped by for lunch, but Shipen seemed unusually quiet and withdrawn. Hmmm, odd. Sarah and I called around trying to land some kind of jobs, no luck. We went back to cleaning, this time focusing on the kitchen and living room.

October 11, 1975. We loaded up the bus and drove out to Rutgers University for a concert that evening. We arrived with two hours to spare so we set up, tuned, ate lunch and visited with people who showed up early. Dorita joined us and warmed up to dance for the concert while we rehearsed. Dorian demonstrated an unusual whirling dervish idea that he and Shipen had been talking about. As he spun round and round, we played spontaneous music, something with an organ drone of 4 or 5 notes cascading down and repeated over and over like: g,f,d,c,…gfdc…gfdc. Around these notes, we gradually added in other instruments, zither, bells, and other sounds into it grew into a beautiful piece! Finally, all of us were out there whirling, enjoying the meditative quality of the experience. I was entranced by the wonderful music and whirling until slowly, just as quickly as it had blossomed, it quietly tapered off. Amazing! I was once again reminded of the power of this gift from God and how it could so completely transform all of us in such a short time. Wow!

The chapel at Rutgers was round with no pews or chairs and the acoustics were excellent. During the concert, Dorita danced movements she had choreographed to go with our music. We did not include the new whirling dervish type moves just yet.

October 12-18th. On Sunday, Mary, Melody, Stephen and I attended mass at the Cathedral. Dorian, Shipen, David and Dorita went instead to the Broadway Presbyterian Church for services. After lunch I had a call from Mrs. Sullivan offering me my job back at the gift shop, Praise God! I accepted immediately and was thrilled and delighted. Thank you Lord! The catch was that the Cathedral had told her my entire salary would have to go to pay off our debt. Oh. On Monday I started back working 9-4 three days a week: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Tuesday we had our first meeting with Sister Mary Michael. Shipen was unable to come because he said he had to run some lyrics and poetry down to Jean Forest at Trinity Church. We spoke with Sister about our expectations, hopes and problems of growing lack of communication between us. She zeroed in on several areas we could deal with in future sessions: authority and decision making, deciding on our purpose, and writing a Rule down on paper. She asked us to think about this specifically in preparation for the next week’s meeting and we agreed.

On Wednesday, Dorita invited all the Trees over to her apartment for dinner. We dressed up in our fancy “going out to dinner” clothes and crowded into Dorian’s car and drove over. She fixed an excellent Chilean meal (yum). Just as we were starting to relax after the meal and chat, Shipen said he had to excuse himself but he had to be somewhere else that evening so we all piled back into Dorian’s car and left poor David to help Dorita clean all the dishes, naughty us!

Thursday morning we performed our new Whirling Dervish piece during the Dean’s mass, something we had been rehearsing all week. This was our trial run since we planned to perform it Friday at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Needless to say it was not well received and the response was decidedly negative. Mr. Keasby was enraged. Canon West told us he thought it was totally improper and the Dean was not at all impressed. Oops. However, we decided to go ahead and performed it at St. Paul’s anyway. Luckily, the reaction was very different at St. Paul’s. We played during the noon liturgy to a small group of about 30 parishioners. Then Jean Forrest remarked that the music was lovely and she was more impressed with our songs than ever before. Phew! We weren’t paid since this was our final concert to pay off the debt we owed to Trinity Church. It felt good to clear that off the books of at least one debt. It left us still owing the Bishop $250 and the Cathedral roughly $4,000 something.

October 19-23rd. We continued moving along in what I thought at the time was a very positive, creative direction. We rehearsed our part in a special musical performance at the upcoming Summit Five Conference at the Cathedral. Some of us worked at day jobs, we were taking religious classes at the Institute, and the music was continuing to develop in wonderful new directions. Dorian was fully incorporated into our sound and we were branching out into new sounds and influences with the new material we were working on. Finally we were working as “artists in residence” at the Cathedral and I felt our new weekly meetings with Sister Mary Michael had us well on the way to healing and the creation of our religious order. I felt wonderfully productive and encouraged by what was developing musically. What none of us knew at the time was that we were only ten days away from a catastrophe that would destroy this fragile new growth. Were there signs I overlooked? If there were, I completely missed them.

On the 19th some of us attended the 11:00 mass at the Cathedral. Afterward, we packed up and drove to Dobbs Ferry for a concert at an all girls’ high school there. Joyce Klannit (Madeline L’Engle’s niece) helped us pack up and tagged along. After warming and tuning up, we performed the Christ Tree up to the banjo portion for their Vespers service. The 50 or so girls sat quietly and attentively seeming to enjoy it. We were paid our full fee ($350) and ate dinner as we drove back home then unpacked the instruments into the Cathedral in preparation for the next day’s concert. We finished just in time and most of us rushed into the main sanctuary for the opening night of the week long Summit V Conference being held at the Cathedral. It began with an Egyptian fire dance ritual and opening speech by the Dean and one by Margaret Mead.

The next day we performed in the crossing on a special platform that the Sufi’s had built for their Cosmic Mass. We played the full Christ Tree but it was disappointing as only about 30 people were there. Our sound seemed to be totally lost in the massive, high domed space of the Cathedral. The Omega dancers performed in front of us and I wondered if it was a distraction from the performance or not? Later, we invited Thetis Blaker, a good friend of Canon Wests, back to our apartment for drinks. She opined, “They just don’t speak your language. They’re using self expression in a time when self expression is no longer relevant. They did not mesh with your music or the total sound.”

At 7pm we returned to the cathedral dressed in our green habits. We took our position up on the Sufi platform and were part of the “orchestra” which performed Mary Lynn’s new “Symphony.” It went quite well and no one minded the little mistakes or the fact that the monks only sang once instead of twice during the piece. She used textures and calls to war and prayer from other countries within the one symphony. Parts of her work were very moving and at the end two clowns danced in throwing suckers and balloons and candy all over everyone, even those of us in the Orchestra. Quite a happening and the Dean was loving it!

The rest of the week Melody went to throw pottery on a wheel and cooked our meals, Mary sewed and cooked and worked on records, and all of us attended rehearsals. We worked on Psalm 139, which was shaping up very nicely. Shipen was gone quite a lot working out at the gym and David spent nights and mornings at Dorita’s.

On Tuesday, October 21st at 10 sharp we met with Canon West. He asked us what we were reading for spiritual reading and then gave us two books about the life of St. Francis to read aloud during meals or during silent times together. We spoke about our need for more space and he suggested cells such as monasteries and convents have. I asked about the series of rooms or cells hidden up in the upper floors of the Cathedral but he dismissed the idea since it would be nearly impossible to heat and there was no plumbing or electricity. The idea of individual cells was a turn about since previously he was the one who had insisted we should live in a dormitory type situation. Next we discussed the possibility of living at General Seminary with Alan Jones as Chaplain. Curiously, Canon West was all for it and wanted us to let him know as soon as we found out one way or the other. Odd. We discussed our habits and he explained that wearing our habits was not for our sakes but as a witness to others. As usual he had specific set ideas of what he wanted us to look like or how we should live. He was in rare good spirits and I left happily thinking that he would continue as our Abbott even if we went to General. Eight days to go and none of us had any idea what was about to happen. It was the lull before the storm.

Thursday, October 23rd. We sang “O Trinity of Blessed Light” during the Dean’s mass, quite a contrast from last week’s whirling dervish musical performance. Afterward, Canon West explained that his main problem with the dervish was that the Muslim’s would whirl and whirl and then go out and butcher thousands of Armenians. It was simply NOT proper to do it in the Church, he explained. Oh. No wonder.

At 10:00 we met with Sr. Mary Michael. She inquired about the purpose for our community and what our thoughts were about it. This led to the question was service more important than personal growth? Who felt directly connected to the music and if anyone felt pressured or forced into the music? (This led to the idea of vocation and if everyone felt called to the ministry of music). We talked about the problem of being so small that when one person left it would shake up the community and jeopardize the music. Sister Mary Michael noted the music was one place where we were united and all able to speak simultaneously and be used by God at once. We mentioned how the Charismatic movement had attempted to undermine our gift of music, saying it was too ambitious and not of God. She replied emphatically, “That’s shit!” We all agreed, laughing.

Finally we got to the question of what was our discipline? I mentioned my frustration and discontent with the laze fare attitude of everyone doing whatever they pleased lately and the lack of structure. Shipen then said how that this was a period where we needed more loosening up and more freedom. That we shouldn’t or couldn’t write down a Rule or purpose for fear that tomorrow it would be different. Sister responded that she was there to help us verbalize and write down our purpose and Rule even if it meant including a way to change it after it was written down. She stressed that we need to write down our customs, purpose and rule and that not even Canon West could write it for us or impose it on us. It had to come from out of ourselves and no one else! Oh my! On this note, we adjourned and went our different ways.

At 3:00 it was time for the day’s rehearsal but, curiously, only Mary, David and I showed up. So we started to work on Psalm 137 and then Dorian wandered in and joined us, adding clarinet parts. His ideas were excellent! Stephen was busy typing away and Melody kept cooking dinner. Shipen showed up about 4:45 p.m. and listened to what we had done somewhat absent-mindedly. Twenty minutes later, we started from the beginning and played the whole song for him. He seemed preoccupied as he listened to it and then remarked that maybe there should be a little bit less clarinet in the “How shall we sing the song of the Lord” section. Rather than join us in rehearsal, he quietly left the room. Something was definitely amiss.

After Vespers we ate a huge meal of roasted, stuffed chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, salad, bread and cake of desert. Guests were Dorita, Elizabeth and Leo. Then Stephen was off to a poetry workshop and Sarah and I were off for a make-up dance class. No Compline.

Oct. 24 Friday. Four days and counting down... Shipen once again declared the day a free day so everyone slept in and didn’t get up early to go to services at the Cathedral. I went to work at 9, and Shipen, again, went to the gym (what DID he do there?). Others shopped and then prepared dinner for our special guests who were coming for dinner.

At 5:30 David escorted Canon West and Thetis Blaker over from the Close. They attended our Vespers service in the chapel and then we all retired to the living room for drinks, cheese and crackers. Thetis was her usual bubbly self regaling us with stories and enchanting bits of news. We all laughed at her take on the Cosmic Mass. Canon West expressed his disgust with the whole thing and reported that valuable icons had been stolen by the Sufi’s who were supposed to be so holy. He said he would be very relieved when the whole thing was over on Saturday. We chatted some more, then we showed them pictures in our new photo album. Dorian showed Canon West a new book about St. Francis he had picked up and then we all sat down to dinner. Shipen had prepared just what Father West had said he liked: lentil soup, Kabuchi and sauerkraut, bread, several hot or sweet sauces, cucumbers and a special wine “from that part of the world.”

After eating, we returned to the living room where Thetis told us of a recent dream she’d had about her uncle’s death and the second coming. She had written it down and as she read about her dream, I was swept away into a different place, a completely different frame of mind. Suddenly I felt that the second coming was real as I was transported with her vivid images and descriptions. Afterwards, no one said a thing for a long time. Finally Canon West said simply, “I would have thought that you could do something like that in your music…something from the section in Revelations about a new heaven and new earth…and also something from Corinthians 15.” Thetis then explained some more parts of her dream, which then led for some reason into our singing the “universal note” she’d heard in the dream which was an A and an A flat together. We closed our eyes and then tried to sing that strange, discordant note. Afterwards, Canon West remarked that it was very good except that we hadn’t been thinking of God. Thetis agreed and said it was very close to the sound she had heard in the dream so we agreed to practice it later and next time focus on God as we did it, and that maybe it might be a good part of our new program. [Later on, we did incorporate the discordant note into our concerts and it was beautiful!]

Stephen models the new "Transformed" costume

Next, Shipen slipped into the men’s bedroom to put on a sample of the new costumes that Lavrans had designed, each with a different style and theme. He then swooped back in and completely surprised everyone dressed in a costume Lavrans called “Alienated”. Canon West immediately remarked, “Splendid! How utterly effective!” He then assured us that it would be perfect for our performance. Thetis sat beaming and smiling. Next David Lynch came in wearing “Repentant” which they also said they loved. Finally, Stephen strode in wearing “Transformed” which was purple trimmed in fur. Neither of them said a word as they sat there smiling. Finally Canon West said he loved the colors of Repentant and said how proper and right they were, creating exactly the perfect effect overall. I was surprised actually at their positive reaction since, in my mind, the costumes seemed a bit too effeminent and flamboyant. However both of them were quite impressed with Lavrans’ ideas. They stayed another half hour, then Shipen and Dorian escorted Canon West home and then drove Thetis back to Rodney Kirk’s apartment. We cleaned up. Success!

On Saturday, Shipen and Dorian dropped in briefly and Stephen went out with a friend. On Sunday, we once again packed up the bus and drove to New Rochelle for a concert at the college there. It went well and the music was well received. After we returned and unpacked, David, Shipen and Dorian left for parts unknown.

October 28, 1975. One day to disaster and most of us had no idea what was coming. Mary worked on answering letters and filling record orders. Our first clue should have been the fact that Shipen and Dorian sat glaring at each other in sullen silence that day, sitting on the desk in the men’s room. What on earth was going on with them? Dorian seemed visibly upset and neither of them were talking, either to us or to each other. At the time, however, it was just one more minor melodrama to be missed in the wider scope of a day’s events. What was bothering me was that with everyone leaving every night after dinner, we hadn’t had Compline in two weeks. I felt that our structure was unraveling and would soon fall apart. Shipen had recently pronounced that all services except Vigils and Mass were optional and that nights were now free. Things were too loose and I sat by helplessly watching as each of us slowly drifted apart.

Meanwhile, two guests arrived to visit for a few days who were friends of Ralph Buscarello. They unrolled sleeping bags and slept in the Chapel.