Being an Account of Some Days in the Woods…

Ghost Antler Lichen

Ghost Antler Lichen

We awake in the bedroom I grew up in. My dad slices a bowl of fresh peaches. Mom cooks eggs and sausage, biscuits and gravy. We talk and eat our fill. Charcoal clouds lie heavy in the sky, menacing.  Mike and I recount our last hike to Leconte, the one when we “almost died but didn’t”. We fill our water bottles, give hugs all around, and hit the road.

The rain begins almost immediately. We drive in and out of it over the next two hours. But then, just before we reach the trail-head, it stops. We strap on our packs, eager to be on our way.

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The hike to Alum Cave is one of the most popular in the Smokies because of interesting geological features, historical significance, and diversity of habitat. For the first mile we hike along Alum Cave Creak, its gurgle and leap a constant music, and sometimes there is a canopy of gnarled rhododendron. The first geological landmark is the Arch, created over hundreds of years as water washed away the softer layer of rock underneath the bedrock. We ascend a set of carved stone steps to emerge on the other side. I do admire this use of local materials–stone steps, log bridges–elements that already belong to the landscape.

The trail bends away from the creek here and we cross Styx Branch, considerably smaller and, on this day, dry. Along the way, I notice several dead trees, their branches cloaked in what looks like a fine frost. Lichens. Still able to find the nourishment they need in the decaying wood, the lichens become a beautiful ornament, a contrast of silver among all the green. And they provide food and nesting materials for a variety of animals.

Just before reaching Alum Cave Bluff, we come to Inspiration Point where we can see Duck Hawk Ridge with it’s “Eye of the Needle”, a circular opening in the rock which admits the blue of the sky, a delightful curiosity which I was unable to capture in a photograph.

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 Alum Cave Bluff is the final destination for many making this Hike. For us it is nearly half-way. The Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company mined this area in the early 1800s. Later, during the Civil War, it became a source of saltpeter, used to make gun powder. It is an imposing edifice, framing the world below. Our experience of it differed considerably on our ascent verses our descent, as you can see. We linger here for a bit, listening to the drip drip of water from the edge of the bluff, looking out over the great expanse of earth spread out beneath us.

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Over the next two and a half miles or so we are nourished by a proliferation of wildflowers (and fungi), occasional openings in the trees to jaw dropping vistas, and the sweet scent of evergreens, made more pungent by the recent rain. The last bit of the trail passes through dense spruce forest. It is dark and lovely, mysterious and magical. Then, the forest opens out again into a bit of a clearing, and we are arrived at Leconte Lodge. Last year, we only paused here for a bit to pour the water out of our shoes, hover around the wood stove, and try to dry out our clothes a bit before heading back down. But this year, we are staying.

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We are received by a dear man with a long white beard whose name I wish I remembered. He tells me the names of all the flowers growing up on the mountain. He also gives us our pail for fetching water and our orientation: “Here are the outdoor latrines. Here is the faucet for cold water, already filtered, ready to drink. This faucet (on the back of the kitchen) is where you will collect hot water (in the pail) for washing. Here is the dining room; dinner at 6:00, breakfast at 8:00, coffee and hot chocolate available any time. This is your cabin, the basin for washing, and your key to the latrine. Light the kerosene lamp like this. Do not turn the wick up too high or it will smoke the glass. This is your propane heater.”

After our orientation, we walk a half mile beyond the lodge to the highest point on Mount Leconte. There, Mike ceremonially adds a stone to the cairn that marks the third highest peak in the Smokies.

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We wash, put on a dry shirt and a fleece, take all our snacks to the metal containers in the lodge where they will be safe from small furry creatures, fill our cups with coffee and hot chocolate and sit on the porch til supper. When the dinner bell rings, we all gather round large tables with people we do not know, passing steaming bowls of beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, cinnamon apples, and a skillet of warm cornbread. The room thrums with conversation.

We turn in early, just as the rain begins. First a pitter patter, than a pounding of raindrops against the tin roof. Thunder booms overhead and lightening flashes in one window and out the other. And the raging storm becomes our lullaby. (I should here mention that outdoor bathrooms, while certainly adequate, are not especially charming in a storm.)

We wake to a world washed clean and a mist that moves before our eyes and all around us. We feast on pancakes and eggs, biscuits and apple butter, and steaming mugs of coffee and hot chocolate. We have an enthralling conversation with two musical brothers and their dad. The oldest brother is a sophomore at Eastman School of Music studying the clarinet. I ask him if he has played Rhapsody in Blue and he laughs. “Yes, but only the second clarinet part so far.” The younger brother plays mandolin and I wish Jake were here as we talk Chris Thile and Sam Bush. This is actually a trip built around him. They are visiting Appalachia to better understand the roots of bluegrass. Dad, incidentally, is a jazz pianist. And happily I wonder how, out of all the people in the world, we ended up across the table from them.

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Back on the trail, we are so deep in conversation, we miss a cut off and take a one mile detour before getting back on track. But the trail is so pretty and the morning so new and fresh and full of promise, there is no space for regret. The cloud that last night enrobed the top of the mountain has now slipped down over her sides. We stop sometimes to watch the mist moving around us til it makes us dizzy and we have to move on. Many of yesterday’s vistas are hidden today. On the other hand, new waterfalls have emerged along the cliffs and Styx Branch, which yesterday was dry, is gurgling and tripping all over itself.

At the trail head I give thanks that no bear tore open the soft top on my Jeep to get at the overripe banana I unwisely left inside. (This has been causing me no small worry once I realized what I had done.) We drive a few miles up the road to the Newfound Gap trail-head where we are treated to an astonishing view before even leaving our car. Here begins the serious part of our training. 1.7 miles on the Appalachian Trail (mostly up), then 3.7 on Sweat Heifer Creek Trail (mostly down), then, turn around and come back. The fog has lifted, the sun is shining, and it is hot.

The AT is over and around rocks, up and up all the way. When we reach the branch for Sweat Heifer Creek trail, two ladies remark that they went a ways down and were not thoroughly convinced it was a trail at all.  The high grass on either side leaning over the small strip of dirt tends to support their assessment. But this trail has been recommended by a seasoned hiker whom we respect, so we recklessly plunge in. Soon, the grassy sedge gives way to a soft trail of needles and leaves, wide and accommodating, though strewn with the occasional rock or root. We meander down and down, past the named creek, past spruce, then hardwoods, down and down.

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At bottom, we find the perfect spot for lunch. (Lunch being, I should here qualify, a shared summer sausage–I wish I could tell you how amazing this tastes on the trail when my body is salt deprived from too much sweating and I find myself thinking far too fondly of the salt blocks my dad used to put out for the cows–sesame rice chips, almonds and walnuts.) A restaurant would charge dearly for a view like this. And perhaps the luncheon would be more elegant, but I doubt it would taste better. “Nothing seasons food like a hearty appetite.” I can’t remember who said that, but it is oh so very true. We sit on the edge of the bridge with our legs dangling and savor each bite as though it were the only thing standing between us and starvation.

We retrace our steps, up being much more difficult than down, obviously, but not so very much slower, which is surprising. As we rejoin the AT, we meet up with a group of twenty-somethings here from New Jersey for ten days, sharing a cabin and hiking all over the Smoky Mountains. And I wonder why we were not more industrious when we were their age. They tell us which trails they have loved so far and ask what is down that peculiar, half-hidden trail we have just come up.

When it is over, we put on dry clothes and complete our toilet, as best we can, with a couple of wet wipes. Convincing ourselves we are somewhat presentable, we stop for pizza and beer to reward ourselves for our effort. And dream of the deep canyon, a few hundred miles, and just over a month, away…

Out-takes:

Ok, so there is only one outtake. And it is not so much as an outtake as a photo that I couldn’t figure out where to insert, but I love it so much and it is my blog after all so I can put anything I want to on here. So there was this tree, threatening to crush us on the trail to Leconte, and Mike had to hold it up…

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He is really strong. But maybe not that strong. ;)

*We are grateful to our friend Hugh for directing us to the AT/Sweat Heifer combo that gave us a chance to hike mostly down, then up, like the Grand Canyon.

**Also, I can not recommend highly enough the site hikinginthesmokys.com for trail info on all the major trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He lists trails by difficulty, by features, and by area, and gives vertical gain, mileage, and thorough descriptions of each. Invaluable.

Mother of God

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It has been a process. Coming to know Mary, I mean. Still is.

For years she was mostly an ornament in the Nativity scene; the fretful parent when her 12 year-old goes missing; a grieving mother watching her dear one die.

Then, there was the year I was pregnant at Christmas. I thought a lot about her that year. I would run my hands over my belly and imagine her, feeling this miracle baby moving inside her, as she walked past whispers and pointing fingers on the way to the market or the well. Rehearsing the angel’s words over and over in her head,

“Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among women…You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his Name Jesus…that Holy One who is to born will be called the Son of God.”

A tender knowing opened between us that year. It was a beginning.

Five and a half years ago we stepped into a tradition that holds Mary in highest esteem. She is not worshiped, but she is constantly held before us as the example of complete surrender. She is the first one to bear God in her body. And, because of her, we can now bear him in ours. So we mention her often. Her images fill our churches alongside those of her Son, and of the saints who followed her example of surrender.

We ask her to pray for us. Because we believe those saints who came before us are ever in the Presence of God, we ask them to intercede on our behalf, just like I might ask you to pray for me. And this is where I have come to love her best.

In this season of grown-up or almost grown-up children whose lives are mostly their own, I have very little control. Perhaps I never had very much. But I still worry about them, I still want good for them. And so I pray. I have always prayed for them, but as more and more of their lives are out of my reach, I pray more.

And it is good to be able to ask Mary to pray for them as well. Because she knows. More than anyone, she knows what it is like to see your child have to walk a very difficult path. To be misunderstood. To pour himself out for others, then have those others turn on him. She knows what it is like to watch a child die. It is difficult to imagine any experience that would fall outside her compassion.

I speak to her of my godchildren and their families, friends that are hurting, young adults in my life who are navigating the world alone and who need a mother to watch over them. We grieve together over children in places like Syria and Iraq who are being driven from their homes. Hungry. Scared. In constant danger.

As we walk these stories together, as I bring my mother’s heart to hers, we are knitted every more deeply together.

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Today we commemorate her falling asleep in the Lord, and her translation to Heaven.

On Wednesday we gathered to decorate her funeral bier. Kenzie and I brought blossoms from our garden. That evening we sang songs of lament; tender, intimate, sweet. And the grief in those hymns, and the joy, was my grief, my joy. I kissed her icon with a love born of knowing.

“Receive, O Mother, from thy children our love and these hymns and odes to bid thee farewell which we offer from the depth of our souls.”

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Last night we celebrated her life. We considered the icon in which Christ holds her in His arms, as she so often held him, carrying her into heaven. Bringing his mama home. Our priest reminded us that just as she preceded us in bearing Christ in her body, so she precedes us in her entrance to heaven. And the words of welcome that Jesus speaks to His mother, he will someday speak to us.

“Come, My most lovely one and enjoy the beauty of thine own Son thy Maker. Come indeed, My Mother, come into divine joy and enter into the Kingdom.”

May it be so.

*Quote at the top of the page is from the first chapter of Luke. The others are from the Lamentations at the Bier of the Mother of God.

*If you are interested is spending some time with the Mother of God yourself, or would like to understand more of the teaching of the ancient church with regard to her, may I recommend these excellent resources:

Mary as the Early Christians Knew Her: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts by Frederica Matthews-Green
Mary Mother of God: Her Life in Icons and Scripture by Giovanna Paravicini
Full of Grace a glorious recording of the music of Dormition Vespers by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Chorale

In the Radiance of His Light…

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Everything is transformed in Christ into its true wonder. In the radiance of His light the world is not commonplace. ~Alexander Schmemann

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I had risen early for a run. The sun was just climbing out of bed himself, sending out long slanting rays, gilding cattails, painting auroras against the mist. I couldn’t stop looking at it. Everything was transfigured in this light. I kept stopping to snatch photos, trying to gather up souvenirs of this moment, this unrepeatable onceness. The way common ditch flowers and stalks of grass, tired old buildings and fields of corn were aching into their true selves, and for an instant I could see them as they really were.

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They were his closest friends.  True, he had been investing himself deeply in a group of men and women for three years.  But these three…they had gone deeper. And he wanted to share something with them.  Something very intimate.  An extraordinary moment.  A memory that would linger long after he was gone.  And he would be gone.  Soon.

So they climbed a mountain.  Mount Tabor.  Funny how much of his story had been unfolded, would be unfolded, on mountains.  The three planted themselves, but he walked on a little farther.  Suddenly, he was not alone.  There were figures on either side of him.  Figures from beyond…from the other…

And he was changed.

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The glory had simmered inside him for as long as they had known him.  Sometimes they caught glimpses of it in his eyes.  It had wrapped them round when he had calmed an angry sea.  It had filled their bellies with fish and bread and wine.  It had flowed from his fingers into people who were wounded and hurting and had made them well.  But now….now a visible glory radiated from him like fire.  His face shown like the sun and his garments were whiter “than any launderer could bleach them”.

The hymnody of the ancient church says Peter, James and John saw his glory that day, “as much as they could bear“.  It makes me think of the recurrent phrase that permeates the Gospel of John, “and his disciples believed in him”.  They believed…as much as they could.  And the next day, or the next week, they saw more of who he was, and they believed a little more.

He had been creating a space in them…for belief…for glory…

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. On this day I am reminded that God’s glory is all around me on a daily basis. I have only to walk with eyes open. And I pray that as I continue to look for His glory in humble places, that I will become able to bear more, and more of His glory. And that one day that I may see His Uncreated Light.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.“  ~John 17:24

Where the Wild Things Are…

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Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
~John Muir

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I lie on my back looking up through a mishmash of leaves–silver, chartreuse, deep green–at a powdery blue sky. The cold of the stone presses against my hot skin and I feel it seep into me like ink in water. The taste of blackberries, harvested along the trail, lingers on my tongue; sweet and wild.

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And I am filled with gratitude: for feet that keep moving one step after another; for the boy beside me who is generously supplementing my store of water with his own; for extravagant, gratuitous beauty; for the gift of being wildly, utterly alive in this moment.

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I could have stepped on this little guy. He is only three inches across. But even tiny turtles receive their own measure of grace, and he and I were both spared the grief of his undoing. Meanwhile, I try to reconcile the fact that the same Artist who spread out the vast panoramas that we keep stumbling across also took time to mold the intricate copper mosaic of little bit’s ruffled shell.

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Keep close to nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
~John Muir

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Everywhere we go we can hear the water. Gurgling, gushing, falling over itself, leaping over rocks, plummeting, dashing, stilling for a moment, collecting in pools, then being hurled through some impossibly narrow channel to form a funnel of foam. Sometimes it comes soft, droplets forming along mossy rocks, languidly lengthening til they tumble through the air onto a smooth shimmer of rock below, gliding effortlessly into some hidden underground cavern before oozing along the edge of a cliff in a slow meander to the stream below. All the while, the water is in me. Washing. Stilling. Despite the exertion of climbing over and around rocks, I feel my heart softening. Slowing. This is why I am here.

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One makes unexpected acquaintances along the trail. :) I think of the woman, nearly 70 I imagine, hair done, make-up on, practically bouncing on the uphill portion of the trail, smiling and greeting us as though she were walking to her mailbox. Mike and I are both taking notes. We make a promise to one another to still be on the trail–smiling!–when we are her age. There is the Indian family with their lilting, musical words, and another family from Brazil. And I wonder how they found this place when I have lived only two hours away from it my whole life and am only just now getting here.

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Boys will be boys. Especially when you get them away from all the responsibility and weight of the everyday. Maybe this is the best part. And we talk about things out here, this boy and I. The deep things that we never seem to have time for elsewhere. Here, we are insulated by all the trees and the air, the crickets and katydids, the water and the stone. Here we find a safe place for wrestling with hard things, and for dreaming, and for being utterly vulnerable. A great deal of growing into one another happens in these wild places.

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There is a testing that happens on the trail. A pushing beyond boundaries. A going farther than I think I can go. Choosing to do the hard thing because I know it is making me stronger. It is good practice. For life. And when the testing is through, there is deep thankfulness. And sometimes it looks like this: plunging hot, weary feet that have carried me over 23 miles of hills and rocks, roots and steps, bridges and boulders, into the icy cold of a mountain stream. And the sweetness of it flows into my body like a thousand amens, like a chorus of hallelujahs. And the veil between this world and the other is thinned. And I know that I would do it all over. Will do it all over. Again and again.

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O Lord, how lovely it is to be your guest:
Breeze full of scent; mountains reaching to the skies;
Waters like a boundless mirror,
Reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds.
All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing depths of tenderness,
Birds and beasts bear the imprint of your love…
~Akathist in Praise of Creation

*The first four photos, as well as the last, were taken inside Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park on the trail from Signal Point to Mushroom Rock. The others were taken inside Cloudland Canyon State Park, one of the most beautiful state parks I have ever visited.

Though I have hinted at it here, I cannot tell you all it means to me to be in wild places. But I encourage you to give yourself a chance to find out. Look up the nearest state or national park in your area. Get out there for an hour or two. Take your time. Meander. Look closely. Leave your phone in the car. Go by yourself, or with someone you love. If you need inspiration, check out some of these resources:

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Any thing written by Jean Craighead George, but especially My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves (Your kids will love these!)
Also, the books of Gene Stratton-Porter, especially Girl of the Limberlost
The poetry of Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke
The poetry and novels of Wendell Berry, especially the Port William series
The films: Into the Wild, Mile…Mile and a Half, 180* South
The prayers of Thomas Merton
Kim’s raw, audacious blog So Many Places
Backpacker magazine

A Company of Women

Most of the truly great women I have known are not very flashy. They do not call attention to themselves. Daily, they do a thousand small things that over a lifetime have an incalculable impact. The lessons they offer are quiet and subtle, and most of the time we do not even realize we are learning until one day we are aware that wisdom resides in us that is not of our own making. On this day, I would like to offer a word of gratitude to some of the women God has been kind enough to place in my family. Women from whom I have gleaned valuable truths about mothering and about life. I am ever in their debt.

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The Grandmothers

Grandma Howard taught me to make ordinary things extraordinary by making them beautiful. Even though she has been with Jesus for 20 years, I sleep every night under a quilt she made. And her love keeps me warm. And just any day now her precious peonies will fill her yard with fragrance and color. Again.

Grandma Nelson showed me that food is a love language. Her table groaned under the weight of her love for us. Her legendary chicken and dumplings, vegetables from her garden, and a whole array of homemade cakes and pies. There was always more than enough. There was always room for everyone. And each delicious morsel nourished far more than our bodies.

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My Mama

What did she not teach me? She taught me to love words, to play the piano, to sew my own clothes. She taught me that when you go out on a date you should have plans for every minute you are going to be out, or bad things can happen. :) She taught me to give a proper handshake and not to sing out of my nose. She taught me how to drive and how not to plant iris too deep. She showed me how to take on a scary disease with practical wisdom and extraordinary grace and how to find gifts in the hardest of places.

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Sisters in Love

Lori has taught me that sometimes mothering is letting go, and sometimes it’s going and getting. When Erin died in a car accident just before her ninth birthday, Lori walked this most excruciating of seasons with grace, and later comforted other grieving mothers in this same place. But when God called their family to bring home Keeli, then Ellie, from China, Lori was a bulldog, following all the paperwork trails and keeping things moving til she could bring her babies home.

Tammy teaches me to celebrate the uniqueness of each child. She throws the very best birthday parties, and they always say something very particular about the child. She has gone to basketball games, horse shows, 4H public speaking contests, even to the State Legislature to support her children in their many endeavors. She is, without a doubt, their biggest fan.

Candy taught me that sometimes mothering asks far more of you than you could imagine, but that it is always, always a gift. When Tucker was born with severe heart problems, she studied relentlessly to understand his condition, then became the one who tied together his disparate doctors when they did not communicate well. She poured all she had into caring for him and was grateful for every day of the 3 1/2 years she had with him.

Kristina is teaching me that love is a choice. When she married my brother, she got two tweens in the bargain who already have a mother they love. But with courage and tenacity, humility and kindness, she is walking this challenging path with grace, and I am inspired. Anna and Ethan are lucky to have two women in their lives who love them so.

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My Daughter

My daughter reminds me that love can be costly, but that it also is the source of the deepest joy. Many days, she rises before dawn to head into work and provide a life for her daughter. This year she bought a house after living frugally and saving diligently for three years. It has not been easy. But I rarely hear her complain. However, I do hear her laugh. A lot. She is having so much fun being a mommy. She treasures all the silly and confusing and unexpected and crazy things about having a three year old in the house. She is so gentle with her daughter; a trait that I am sorry to say she did not learn from me. But I am trying to learn from her.

In Her Third Year…

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Three years ago today, our world changed forever when our baby girl gave birth to a baby girl of her own. We could not imagine in that moment all the delights that awaited us. It has been a wild and exhilarating ride. And this year was exceptionally grand. It has been a year of letting go and moving on. A year of firsts. A year of long strides.

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In her third year she said goodbye to pacis, diapers, and the baby bed, and hello to a new dog, Cinderella (and Superman) underwear, and some pretty fabulous bunk beds. In her third year, she and her mommy moved into a home of their very own. In her third year she drank in language like milk, memorizing favorite stories and “reading” them aloud. (see below) In her third year she built roughly a million houses, palaces, and pieces of furniture out of Duplos and wood blocks. She painted pictures, and drew with markers, and sang songs. In her third year she danced. A lot.

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In her third year she learned to create fantastic worlds out of her imagination. She acquired a couple of imaginary friends and assigned them roles in the scenes she regularly acts out from films and books. In her third year she traveled to the beach and to the mountains, to tea parties and to the zoo. She delighted each of us with these words, “You are my best friend,” and “I been missing you all night morning.” In her third year, she befriended frogs, lady bugs, birds, and even a (slightly dead) bumblebee. She lit candles, breathed incense and prayed.

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In her third year, she helped all of us see the world again. New. With eyes of wonder. She taught us how to leap out of bed each morning in expectation that something truly wonderful awaits. Every day.

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In her third year, she stitched herself ever deeper into our hearts. She filled our lives with joy and delight. And magic. And extravagant love. Happiest of birthdays, dearest Kenzie!! I am awfully glad there is you in the world. In my world. God grant you many, many years!!

 

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*photo credits: The second and fifth photos taken by Kelsey. The black and white is a self-portrait. :)

Once Upon an Appalachian Spring

The year was 1916 and the world was at war. But all of this seemed a million miles away on that April day when Emmie Nelson gave birth to a baby boy, her first. She named him Leo Samuel. The Samuel was after his daddy. Eventually he and his older sister Glennie would be joined by 3 more brothers, Lonnie, Lloyd and Lester, and a baby sister, Anna Mae. He would spend most of the next 98 years in this hilly little corner of east Tennessee known as Catoosa. And I would have the great good fortune to be his granddaughter.

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When Grandpa was a little boy going to the three room school, Catoosa was a thriving railroad town with a depot and a store. Later, when the trains stopped coming, the government would buy up most of the surrounding land for the Catoosa wildlife management area. Grandpa’s family would be among the few who refused to sell. Their little world became an island in the middle of wilderness. A magical place for growing up with hillsides cloaked in mountain laurel, deep cold swimming holes, a frenzy of fireflies, and a broad sky littered with stars.

He tells me about school. About the primer he received as a first year student. On the first page was one dog, on the second two cats. The third page had three rabbits, then four yellow ducks, and five baby chicks. I try to remember the pictures in any of my school books. My brother asks him if he ever got in trouble. He had only two switchings, he says; remarkable, for this teacher of theirs was generous with the switch. Once he got in trouble for rough-housing in the school room while the teacher went home to get her lunch. The other time, his younger brother Lloyd was to be switched because he had not learned some words assigned to him. When he began to cry, Grandpa couldn’t take it. He told the teacher to whip him instead. This does not surprise me at all.

My Grandpa is the archivist of the family. Partly because, at 98, his memory seems to be better than any of ours. Partly because the stories and the people are so important to him. In his mind they still live and breathe. And in his stories, they live and breathe for us.

He tells about a relation of ours who was about to be hung by the Union army for giving aid to Confederate soldiers. He already had the noose around his neck when he was saved at the last minute by the testimony of Union soldiers who had also been cared for by him.

He tells of a great, great grandmother Zumstein who came over from Germany. They ran out of food on the ship before reaching America, and there was serious talk of cannibalism. So far as we know, it was only ever talk.

He points to the faces in faded sepia portraits and gives their names, whose son or daughter they were, who they married, and the names of all their children. He tells of another ancestor who had left his family in North Carolina to try his luck out west. He and his young bride decided it was not for them and began the long journey back home. They lost a wagon wheel in a river crossing near Crossville, TN. That night, she gave birth to their first child. Unable to go on, they settled down and made a home where fate had dumped them.

grandma and grandpaI don’t know when it became so important to him to live to be 100, but it is. I suppose it just seems wrong to have come this far and not finish. :) He tells me that if his body were as fit as his mind, he might well live another 98 years. I do not doubt him. His voice grows quiet and his face clouds as he tells me, “I only wish your grandma could have had as many years as me.” He misses her so.

Their loving was not a frilly affair. It was lived out in a thousand daily kindnesses. In pre-dawn trips to the barn together to milk the cows. In warm breakfasts. In the silent sitting on the porch and this invisible something that passed between them there. In the stories and years, the griefs and joys that had irrevocably bound them together, body and soul. In talking over each other, in filling in the blanks, in picking up a sentence where the other left off.

That love flowed out from them into their prodigious progeny. Five children, seven grandchildren, fifteen great-grandchildren, and one great, great grandchild (with another due in October). We all still crave being together, that invisible web they spun around and among us tethering us no matter how far away we may be.

On Saturday we gathered to celebrate the extraordinary life of this ordinary, extraordinary man. His baby sister drove down from Ohio with her daughters. They two are the only siblings still living. Friends and family told stories and ate and laughed. The great grandkids roamed the hills and the pastures and climbed trees and found hiding places just like their parents before them.

Happiest of Birthdays, Grandpa! I am grateful to be part of a world with you in it. Thank you for the stories and the hugs. For always remembering my children’s names. And mine. For providing us such a grand legacy of quiet, tenacious love and for helping us understand where we come from. Certainly, your quiver is full of years already, but I look forward to celebrating the century mark with you in 2016. I love you.

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Photos:
Top: Grandpa with his 5 children, from left, Benny, Wanda, Diana, Janie, Martha
Middle: The dashing groom and his beautiful bride.
Bottom: With (clockwise)… baby sister Anna Mae, the youngest of the great grandbabies, Sophia Rose–97 years his junior and utterly enthralled :)–, yours truly, and Kelsey.

I Wish You…

Dearest boy of mine,

How is it that you have come to be so grown? With ideas and dreams and thoughts all your own, with your own questions and wrestlings and hurts. From whence comes this voice to speak truth into the world, to help it see something it has never seen before? I am in awe of the young man you are becoming.

I know that today is your day for wishing, but if I were the one blowing out the birthday candles, here are some of the things I would wish for you…

joshnola

I wish you beauty. It has always been so important to you. From artful presentations of your food, to decorating the house for holidays and events, to the constant reconfiguring of your bedroom, you must make things lovely. And now you are finding beauty on the other side of a lens. Your photographs are exquisite and help me see the world anew. You are a weaver of words and a maker of music. Your creativity is without bounds. I wish you a world brimming with loveliness and the eyes to always see it.

I wish you wisdom. Acquiring it can be costly as it often comes by way of mistakes. But I pray that you will pursue it with all your heart. I pray that truth will be dear to you and that you will value it more than popularity or wealth or even what many would perceive as success.

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I wish you a lifetime of explores. Your curiosity is one of my favorite things about you. It has always been fun to watch you rummage through a hotel room, uncovering its secrets. You are the one who detours from the trail, climbing something or seeing where that little side path goes. You are not intimidated by new technology or by finding your way in unfamiliar terrain. Sometimes it takes a great deal of courage to follow untrodden paths. Bon courage, my love!

I wish you faith. I wish you a faith that is vibrant and living, strengthening and emboldening. It is a daring thing, to stake your life on something bigger than you. But you have always had a heart for God. I pray that your love for Him will only grow with your years. It has been so for me, even though there have been difficult and confusing seasons when I thought I was ready to chuck the whole thing. You too will probably have seasons of wrestling and doubt. Persevere, my love. Keep your heart open to God. His will always be open to you.

joshstageI wish you a voice. Yes, I know that your vocal skills are already dazzling. :) That’s not exactly what I mean here, though it is part of it. There are treasures inside you that the world needs. Stories that only you can tell. I pray you will always find a way to tell them, whether through poetry, song, stories, photographs, plays or some medium you have not yet explored. I wish for you joy in the making of them, regardless of whether they ever bring you money or fame. The important thing is that you tell them. For you. And for us.

But

above

all

this…

I Wish You Love.

And I hope life, will treat you kind
And I hope that you have all
That you ever dreamed of
Oh, I do wish you joy
And I wish you happiness
But above all this
I wish you love

More than anything, my darling boy, I hope that you will always know that you are dearly loved. Unconditionally. All the time, no matter what. By God, by your family, by friends. I pray that your life overflows with people who pour themselves out for you, who pursue you relentlessly, who are willing to ask difficult questions and challenge you. And I pray that you will do the same for them. I pray that your relationships are characterized by grace and truth. And by much joy.

Happy Seventeenth Birthday, my love!! May God grant you many, many years!

*Song excerpt from “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton

*Photo credits: The photo at top was taken by the birthday boy, the photo at bottom by Lauren Gill Photography.

Confession Shortly Before the Forty-Eighth Birthday

When my friend Amanda kindly lent me her beautiful hard-cover, deckle-edged volume of Madeleine L’Engle’s poems, I’m sure she never imagined that I would keep it for MONTHS. But it is a book that begs to be savored. Slowly. In sweet sips. It just so happens that I did some sipping last night.

I woke just before 2:00 and could not get back to sleep. So, I pulled the volume from the stack beside my bed, along with my reading glasses, stopped by the kitchen for a banana, then curled up in the yellow chair near the stained glass lamp, the one with the dragonflies. The third poem I read was the one that here follows. A delicious irony given that in 3 days, I myself will be forty-eight. They are the very words I would say if I were wiser and more elegant. It is not the first time the poet has captured precisely where I am at a given moment. I dare say it will not be the last.

Incidentally, I did this morning what I should have done some time ago. I purchased my own copy of The Ordering of Love. I plan to return Amanda’s, hopefully no worse for the wear, this evening.

Confession Shortly Before the Forty-Eighth Birthday

Here I am, beyond the middle middle,
According to chronology,
No closer to solving cosmic or private riddle,
No further from apology
For clumsy self’s continuing ineptitude,
Still shaken by the heart’s wild battering.
Intemperate passions constantly intrude;
I cannot keep small hurts from mattering,
Am shattered when met with mild irritation,
Need reassurance, feel inadequate and foolish,
Seek love’s return, bump into abrogation,
Am stubborn beyond the point of being merely mulish.
So I am saved only by the strange power of silence,
The disciplined joy of work and rule
Inner and outer imposed, steel cold. The violence
Of the freezing wind sustains the heart. So this poor fool
is fed, is nourished, forgets then to be concerned with rust;
Repentance, too, is turning, if towards dust,
And gratitude sings forth in adoration
Of the one who touched and healed the halt and lame
With the aweful, blissful power of his spoken Name.

Letting Go

I realize I am holding my breath as I make the cut. Red leaves are just unfurling on the tips of the limbs, full of promise. And I am lopping them off. It hurts my heart a little, and I feel like I owe my roses an apology. But I hold my breath again and make the next cut.

Because I love them.

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Roses need air. When their limbs become all tangled, they suffocate. They stop blooming. They become vulnerable to disease. Even death.

So every spring I choose a sunny day (to strengthen my heart), I give myself a little pep talk, and I ruthlessly cut away the excess. I gather up bundles of limbs with their tender new leaves, and it’s all I can do to not cry.

___________________________________

It is an inescapable irony that all this cutting away happens smack dab in the middle of Lent, when I myself am feeling the slice of the pruning shears. And I wonder if my Father has tears in His eyes as He cuts away at my excess, giving me room to breathe. Strengthening. Restoring me to health.

Instead of freedom from possessions, O Savior, I have pursued a life in love with material things, and now I wear a heavy yoke…I have discolored with the passions the first beauty of the image, O Savior. But seek me, as once Thou sought the lost coin, and find me.

Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me.

~The Lenten Triodion, Canon of St. Andrew

As I feel hunger in my belly; as I make prostrations; as I borrow words of deep repentance from those wiser than I; I wear this letting go, this cutting away, inside my body. And sometimes it hurts. I see my own tender leaves fall to the earth, and I am too much attached to them, sure that I cannot be me without them. But I hold my breath, and stretch my arms out to the Gardener as He makes the next cut.

Because He loves me.

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Jesus said, “I am the true Vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser. Every branch of Mine that bears no fruit, He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit….” ~John 15:1-2

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