A Pilgrim’s Year, 2004:  Week 1


Woolly Home


Week 1, 2, 3,

Week 4, 5, 6

Week 7, 8, 9

Week 10, 11, 12

Week 13, 14, 15

Week 16, 17, 18

Week 19, 20, 21

Week 22, 23, 24

Week 25, 26, 27

Week 28, 29, 30

Week 31, 32, 33

Week 34, 35   Sermon

Week 36, 37,    Sermon

Week 38, 39




  Siem Reap

Week 44, 45, 46

Week 47, 48, 49


Week 50, 51, 52


Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage.  It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along.  It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis




Pilgrimage, the journey to a distant sacred goal; it is found in all the great religions of the world. It is a journey both outwards to hallowed places and inwards to spiritual improvement; it can express penance for past evils, or the search for future good; the pilgrim may pursue spiritual ecstasy in the sacred sites of a particular faith, or seek a miracle through the medium of God or a saint. Throughout the world, pilgrims move invisibly in huge numbers among the tourists of today, indistinguishable from them except in purpose.

A Pilgrim’s Year

Walking with the Great Mammoth along an ancient road

On their knees Christian pilgrims travel the last ten miles to Santiago de Compostela, or to a Marian shrine in Costa Rica.  Hindu’s pierce their skin and walk miles to a cave outside of Singapore.  Families take sick loved ones to Benares to die in the holy city.  Millions travel from around the world each year to Mecca for the Hajj, fifth of the five pillars of Islam.

Pilgrimage is no abstract concept; it is a matter of sacrifice, often lengthy preparation, and travel, always travel, from a known place to an unknown place in hope, often just that, in hope.

The Woolly Mammoths, a group of men who long ago set out on an archetypal trail following the ancient Woolly Mammoth as a totem animal and guide, have decided to devote this year to pilgrimage.  Their journeys, though individual, will not be taken alone.  Twice monthly meetings will provide hospitality and sustenance for these ten pilgrims.

I have decided to document my pilgrimage, a diary from the interior road.  I plan to write weekly and send the results—ten to twelve pages like these—out as e-mail attachments, first drafts of what I hope, after editing and revision, and  your help, will be a short book on pilgrimage.


The Woolly mammoths

In the gender struggles of the waning second millennium men, some men began to suspect they might benefit by gatherings.  Robert Bly, James Hillman, Robert Moore, Michael (?) {others?} held conferences, often in the woods, with much drumming, poetry reading, and male bonding.

During one such conference, Paul Strickland, a Roman Catholic pilgrim late of Texas and Mississippi, slept.  As he woke he saw, off in the woods, the fleeting image of a Woolly Mammoth.  From his loyalty to this inner guide came a possibility.  Could he and some others create a group of men who could meet and go past the hunting buddy, golf foursome, poker game, tv football, beer after work type of male friendship?

Paul, then an executive in human resources for a large retail chain based in Minnesota, spoke with some friends: Stefan Helgeson, an architect, Charlie Haislet, an ob-gyn, Warren Wolfe, a reporter focused on aging issues, Mark Odegard, a graphic designer creating exhibits for the Minnesota Science Museum, Bill Schmidt, ex-Jesuit and ex-nuclear engineer, turned animal health entrepreneur, and Jim Johnson, at the time a graphic designer for the Walker Art Center.  They added a couple of other people who dropped out early. 

These six met for a year or so, then reached out to two others: Tom Crane, owner of a small, successful forensic engineering firm, and Charles Buckman-Ellis, then an Associate Executive for the Presbyterian church.  In the next year Frank Broderick, a chemical dependency counselor, came on board, and later, Scott Simpson, a percussionist turned financial planner joined.

This group in its various configurations has met often, gotten to know each other well, and achieved a longevity rare among men’s groups. 

Each month the Woolly’s, as we call ourselves and as we are known to spouses and others who know of us, meet twice, once at a restaurant and once in a Woolly home, on a rotating basis determined at an annual retreat.

Over the years the restaurant meeting has moved around from Sawatdee on Washington in Minneapolis, then for a time an Indian restaurant on the West Bank, a Mexican restaurant in south Minneapolis, then the Java Middle Eastern restaurant at 28th and Nicollet, then Christo’s, A Greek place further up Nicollet.

The Woolly who hosts the home meeting cooks a meal for all ten men, aided by a helper, so each year each Woolly is both host and helper.  During the meal the Woolly’s often check in, that small group process ritual so often encountered in the seventies.  In those days the purpose was to clear the air of baggage brought in from the outside so the group could get down to work. 

The Woolly check in often is an end in itself, a way of creating and maintaining intimacy.  A daughter had an abortion and came to Dad for counseling before hand.  A wife leaves notes of affection in her husbands suit-case.  The company forces a long-term employee out in the cold.  A man feels stuck between two callings, not sure which way to go. 

After the meal, a meeting occurs.  The host has responsibility, not only for the meal, but also for the topic of the evening’s meeting.  Since the meetings rotate through each person’s home over the course of the year, each Woolly has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to determine a meeting topic.

This individual responsibility reflects a general Woolly principle, come to after many frustrating years of not being able to make decisions:  Each Woolly is a President and can, as a result, make decisions binding on the group. So, the host Woolly has absolute option about a meeting’s topic, with the ability to deviate even from a year long theme if the need seems important, or a better idea floats through his head.  In effect, this means our decision making is most often consensual, though at times it is also autocratic, but in a situation where each autocrat has the same amount of power.  See the first rule.

Meetings develop around a host’s plan for the discussion, then a general free for all, with the intimacy developed over the years allowing topics to reach deep places in men’s lives.

Often, meeting topics represent a particular man’s take on a broad theme identified during the annual retreat.  Broad themes, effective for a year, which have guided Woolly meetings have included:  Mothers, Fathers, Relationships, Death, Essence, Creativity, and the Millennium.  Some topics are more successful than others; that is, some of the topics, like Death and Creativity, informed most meetings during their years, while others, like Millennium, sort of fell by the wayside.  Not enough juice.

The retreats, held in January for the most part, take place away the Twin Cities metro area where all but one of us live.  A Woolly designed, large family cabin was the site of many retreats, a North Shore Resort twice, a convent near the Mississippi, and, this last year, a center called The Dwelling in the Woods have also housed the three night events.  Retreats in recent years have begun on a Thursday night and ended Sunday around breakfast.

During the retreat time each Woolly gets more or less an hour to do a presentation, a deeply personal reflection on the retreat topic.  A man gives complete description of his newly written memorial service; another shows pictures and slides of a parent, himself as a child.  Some men read poetry on various themes from poets as diverse as Robert Bly and William Yeats, or, Billy Collins, Wendell Berry, Mary Sarton, Mary Oliver, David Whyte, Rumi, Omar Khayyam.  Lines of poetry echo from retreats and meetings past, form a web, a fabric of shared meaning.  We know that to open the heart, the latch is on the inside.  That some people tie poems to chairs and flog the meaning out of them with heavy ropes.  That Christian walked from Desolation City to Jerusalem.  We know who would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. 

These presentations go on around meal times, punctuated with only a bit of down time, usually in the afternoon, when, after four men have given themselves, the group gets tired, exhausted from careful listening.  Then, naps, or saunas, or snowshoes, or cross-country skiing.  Near the end we have a business meeting in which we decide on meeting assignments, and, most difficult, a theme for the year.

On the year’s theme the Woolly’s work in strict consensus.  No idea becomes a year’s focus without common consent and one Woolly, even after apparent agreement can bring the conversation back again, and sometimes new topics emerge, one’s not considered in the previous round.

Late at night, if there’s a piano, Mark might play some jazz.  Frank might put on an opera CD or a new CD of Celtic music.  Somebody drums because, well, because drumming somehow got linked up with all this.  Others read, some sit quietly and write in their journals.  Once a while we watch a video or DVD someone thinks the rest of would appreciate.


Retreat 2004:  the dwelling in the woods—Pilgrimage

Two nuns, Chris Loegering, CSJ, and, Jeanne Stodola, CSJ later joined by a third, had the notion of a center where seekers could come as hermits.  Their vision became reality over a twenty year period and now occupies 120 acres in northern Minnesota about forty miles due east of the mid-point of Lake Mille Lacs.  There, just outside the small community of McGrath, Chris and Jeanne worked with patrons and volunteers to construct several comfortable units which range from one person cabins to multiple person lodges.

The Woolly Mammoths came to Dwelling in the Woods through a former board member, Howard Vogel, who recommended it to Stefan Helgeson.  Stefan visited the Dwelling many times as a hermit, and made arrangements for the Woolly’s 2004 retreat, their 17th, January 22nd to January 26th.


  A hermitage at Dwelling in theWoods


The Woolly’s arrived in one’s and two’s, some coming before 3:00 PM, some as late as 11:30 PM.  There was more snow in the McGrath area than in the Cities and the country road leading to the Dwelling had snow pack.  Each hermitage and the Octagon, a group gathering building with some sleeping rooms, sat in snow, connected by a snow covered circle with just a few tire tracks.  As the weekend progressed, the Woolly tracks got filled in and the snow wiped out the road.

The next morning, at 7:45-sunrise in this still mid-winter time-all ten men gathered in the Dwelling’s Octagon for an entry ritual.  Tom Crane had set up an altar of deerhide.  He had a Woolly Mammoth’s petrified tusk, and a white pillar candle.  Frank Broderick brought a stuffed animal, a Woolly Mammoth, and a well-preserved Woolly Mammoth 7th vertebral process found in a peat bog in Alaska. 

These items Tom placed on the deerhide.  He had invited us, before the retreat, to bring objects to place on the altar, leave there during our time together, then to take home with us, “...after they absorbed the energy of the retreat.”

Roxann, Tom’s wife of three months, mixed a vial of precious oil’s designed to facilitate ritual entry into the sacred space of our retreat.

The ceremony itself was simple, with readings and an anointing; Scott placed on our foreheads and both hands a mark of oil and said, “Be blessed.”  The fragrance of the oils, the silence broken only as Tom played gently on a large brass gong for each Woolly in turn, and a gentle snow falling behind us, visible through large plate glass windows put us outside the world we’d left behind, the world of work and family, of city and duty.

Over the next two days we heard each Woolly tell, or re-tell, their own story, a story familiar to themselves, perhaps too familiar, and one now intentionally examined in a new way.  Perhaps the familiar story of a parent’s death had focused only on pain, grief, and hadn’t included the sense of relief, liberation experienced.  Or the marriage that ended badly had remnants of joy, lessons learned.  The career, chosen carefully, may have lost its bite, its savor, only to uncover an old dream:  the poet, the painter, the house in a warmer climate, the scholar’s study.  A hometown, once far away and insignificant, looms larger as the magic of an 8 to 10 year old boy re-enters a man’s world.

Politics rumble across the room, a rhinoceros headed for the covers, but a Woolly stops it in its tracks.  We all see it.

Over meals the talk takes different turns.  Movies.  Books.  Ideas.  Children.  Almost no sports, except in jest. “How about those Vikings?” Aging.  Disease.

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