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East of Eden

“And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden…”

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My people are people of the soil.

My grandpa made his living as a dairy farmer. And now, when he sits on his porch in the evening, he looks out over the fields where he pastured his cattle, and where he made hay for their winter sustenance. In the middle of those fields sits the timber frame house where, one hundred Aprils ago, he was born.

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Over the past forty-nine years, my parents have planted gardens, fruit trees, and flowers; dug a pond and built some barns; raised kids, dogs, farm cats, and beef cattle; snow sledded, cut firewood, and canned a million quarts of green beans on the wild twenty acre plot of Eden they bought when I was just a baby.

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My brother and his bride have reared their babies and built a beautiful life, and now a business, on the very same farm where my dad was once a boy.

Deep roots.

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Mike and I have been somewhat more transient. Gypsies. In June we moved into our sixth house in twenty-nine years of marriage. And yet–something of this need to plant things, to intimately know my portion of earth, has pursued me.

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So I lovingly lift out my mama’s irises and haul them with me, wondering if any of the soil of Appalachia still clings to their rhizomes. I sift cleome and larkspur seeds into the new ground and bless my grandmothers who loved them so and who, though immensely practical, could not live without beauty.

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I study the vicissitudes of sun and shade. I tuck columbine under the dogwoods and border the walk with lavender. I make a home for Samra’s calla lilies and Lorri’s Lenten roses. I stand perfectly still when the hummingbird comes to drink while I am pulling weeds. I watch Kenzie charm the butterflies.

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And slowly
thread by thread
I stitch myself into this new soil.

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p.s. The barn pictured above has been transformed into a gorgeous event space. If you live in the East Tennessee area and are planning a wedding, reunion, or corporate event, check out River Ridge Barn HERE.

The Mystery of Art

MysteryThere is a fairly good chance that you know Jonathan Jackson as an Emmy award winning actor from television shows like General Hospital and Nashville, or from films like Tuck Everlasting and The Deep End of the Ocean. You might even know him as part of the band Enation. What you might not know is that he is also a philosopher poet, a budding theologian, and an Orthodox Christian. All of this coalesces in his new book, The Mystery of Art, a beautiful and compelling articulation of what it means to be “an artist in the Image of God.”

Following in the tradition of artists like Flannery O’Connor, C.S Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Makoto Fujimura and others who have spoken insightfully about the intersection of art and faith, Jonathan stitches together wisdom from saints, authors, filmmakers, and friends with stories and observations of his own to clean the lens of our perception.

This is one of the most thought provoking books I have read in a long time. I frequently find myself recalling passages and ruminating on them even though it’s been two months since I read it. I wanted to include more than twice as much of the author’s content in the post than is here. Whittling it away has been excruciating. So, I will keep my remarks brief and mostly let the author speak for himself. I hope you will be intrigued and read the book so that you too may be nourished and inspired.

Whoever wants to become a Christian, must first become a poet. ~St. Porphyrios

In the introduction, the author invites us to remember a Christianity that “experienced Christ by means of a holistic, sacramental, and artistic reality” and to embrace art’s unique ability to penetrate to the heart of things.

Whenever an artist brings someone into the presence of meaning, in that moment his work becomes incarnational instead of ideological…he awakens the heart to a deeper significance.

Art as Beauty:

Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Because we are made in the image of the Creator, we ourselves are creative, regardless of vocation. “We are artists in the way we love. We are poets in the way we pray.” In this, we operate in concert with the Trinity:

The artist is never more himself than when his heart is united with the Holy Spirit; when he approaches his craft as a kind of symphony with God.

Art as Mystery and Madness:

Man is at once glorious and broken–magnificently radiant and deeply wounded.

We are all familiar with the image of the suffering artist. This suffering can be “destructive, narcissistic, and tormented” or “therapeutic, selfless, and holy“. Dostoevsky is given as an example of one whose “inner illumination” made it possible to “transform his suffering and give it meaning.”

Art as Prayer and Intercession:

The artist is to become a living prayer.

With personal examples of roles that brought him close to the sufferings of others, Jonathan explains how these became unique opportunities to intercede on behalf of these people; to stand with them in their pain.

The artist’s performances are destined to become not only seamless acts of prayer but also holy acts of intercession. The spiritual artist creates from a place of wounded love and humility–like Christ.

Art as Listening:

If there were a little more silence, if we all kept quiet…maybe we could understand something. ~Federico Fellini

Silence teaches the artist to listen–it creates space inside of him to discover secrets and encounter mysteries. To be silent before anything or anyone is an act of humility…Humility has no reason to hide or falsify itself. Therefore, silence teaches the artist how to tell the truth.

Art as Belief:

The most brilliant artists possess the gift of faith, whether they are conscious or subconscious participants in this grace.

Art as Prophecy:

Creating is meant to be a form of prophecy…To be prophetic means to live in communion with the Spirit. His intentions become the artist’s intentions, through ceaseless prayer, love-filled repentance, and the transformation of the mind…When an artist abandons the illusion of autonomy, he becomes a vessel of the Divine Flame…

Contrived art for the sake of preaching to people is an offense to the mystery and sacredness of creation. Beauty and honesty are the primary inspirations of the artist: he trusts the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit to lead hearts into the truth. The prophetic artist is one who breaks open the remembrance of humanity, creating an atmosphere for the Spirit of God to breathe new life into creation.

Art as Sacrament:

Poetry is unhindered paradox and contradiction. It seeks to communicate something mystically before that thing can be apprehended cognitively. It is the music of words.

We have become a dualistic society, opposing the physical world to the spiritual. But this was never meant to be. We were created to be fully integrated beings. There is a physicality that is absolutely essential to faith. “Human beings are, in a very real sense, symphonic creatures.”

Art as Offering:

It may seem strange to portray events and characters that are not holy and beautiful or to write songs about troubled souls. But, in reality, it is not strange at all. Who better to prophetically enter into the depths of humanity than those who are living in ceaseless prayer with God?…The holiness of Christ brings us closer to humanity: closer to our true beauty and fearsome darkness. Any talk of Christianity that displays a haughty distance toward the brokenness and vulnerability of humanity has nothing to do with Christ.

Rejoice, O Artists:

Our society seems to think that joy is a conflict-free, lucid state of contentment. It is not. It is an act of rebellion: a holy and sacred rage…It is not placid, passive or docile. It is the madness of love.

One of the lovely gifts of the book is the inclusion of several original poems and prayers. I close with a short excerpt from one of those (from the chapter Art as Mystery and Madness).

O Spirit of Grace, you are complete and utter bliss. You are the ecstasy of a thousand kisses beneath the ocean. You are the rain of restoration and hope. You are the trembling inside my frame. You are the tears that have no end. You are the lightning of inspiration within my temple of wanderings. You are the heart of desire and the warmth of intimacy…Wisdom is your presence. Salvation is your embrace. Heaven is to be seen by you. I fall into your arms of love…

*All quotes in the post taken from the book. All unattributed quotes: Jonathan Jackson.

Steel Magnolias

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I’m crazy about the new venue. So intimate, it feels like you are all mixed in among the characters. It was true during Fiddler on the Roof. The actors began to wonder onto the stage a few at a time and it was like arriving in a new town early in the morning and watching it come to life around you.

And it was especially true during Steel Magnolias. So far as I knew, I was sitting in Truvy’s shop, among that lively bunch of wild and familiar women waiting for my own turn in the chair.

From the time Truvy walked into the beauty shop, adjusting her more than ample bosoms, slathering a new coat of lipstick over the old one, and varnishing her bleached blonde locks with enough Aqua Net to create her own personal ozone hazard, I knew it was going to be a fun evening. She dished up plenty of wisdom with her beauty treatments, just like most hairdressers I’ve known, but she also had the good grace to laugh at herself, and pretty much everyone else. 🙂

And boy did we laugh!

We laughed at Annelle whose every action screamed the fact that she was uncomfortable in her own skin. Over the course of the next couple of hours, she would blossom, in fits and starts. But that hunger to fit in, to be liked and accepted was ever a palpable reality. So much so that I was astonished to see the actress afterward and observe that she was nothing like her character.

We laughed at Clairee whose polish and good manners, confidence and subtlety, did not for a minute hide her vivacious interior. Instead, it gave it precision and potency. Her humor always took me by surprise. A truly elegant Southern lady AND an untamable spitfire.

We laughed at Shelby who we first met on her wedding day. Shelby who arrived in curlers with a bag of baby’s breath and a magazine picture of Grace Kelly. Shelby who, for all her lithe, sweet, pink prettiness, possessed within her the iron will she had absorbed from these strong women. Shelby whose wedding colors were blush and bashful. Feisty, mischiefmaking Shelby.

We laughed at M’Lynne whose matter-of-fact humor frequently bordered on sarcasm, but was too Southern to dip over the edge. We laughed at her husband who was out that morning shooting all the birds out of the trees.

We laughed at Ouiser before we even saw her. At dinner, friends and I predicted that Nan Gurley would incarnate Ouiser. And we laughed just imagining how she would play her. It was so much better than we imagined. Ouiser with the outlandish fashion sense and psychotic dog. Ouiser who has been in a bad mood for forty years. Ouiser who people are nice to only because “I have more money than God.” Ouiser who decides to go have her colors done?! Ouiser who will be offered as a punching bag in a moment when we all really need a good laugh.

Woven all in and through the laughter are strands of memory and difficulty and hard things that have been weathered and walked together. There is a love and a belonging. There are the things that don’t have to be said because they are understood by all.

Some of the most poignant moments came at the mirror. A mirror is a very vulnerable place. In this production the audience sat just back of the  “mirrors”. So when one of the women had the moment of considering herself, the way she looked or who she was (and maybe those are too tangled up most of the time) we saw it. For a space, I had this feeling it was only she and I in the room. It was raw and exposed, intensely intimate and tender.

If you know the story, you know that it takes an excruciating turn. This was powerful in the extreme. It was played with restraint, not manipulative or sentimental. But deeply honest. And the honest wrestling, the yearning to make it somehow make sense, the uncomfortable place of not knowing what to do or say or be was so true that it pierced me to the heart. All the sorrow and longing I have ever known seemed to be connected to that moment.

Steel Magnolias is a profoundly human story. Southern women, to be sure, are their own peculiar brand of human. 🙂 But anyone who has lived life, truly and deeply, will find parts of their story in here.

I highly commend to you Studio Tenn’s performance of this wonderful work. It is intimate and artistic, cleanly and beautifully articulated. I have seen a great deal of theater in my life, and this was, without a doubt, one of the most moving experiences.

You have nine more opportunities this weekend and next. Buy tickets HERE.

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.

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

Mindful

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Mindful

Everyday
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

~Mary Oliver

Memorable Literary Companions of 2013

There is something magical about opening a new book. The promise. The anticipation. New worlds I have never yet seen. The story of a life very like, or unlike, my own. Ideas, thoughts, words that will rankle, discomfit, expand, illumine. This year I opened the pages of 36 books. Some new. Some old and much beloved. As I looked back over them in preparation for this post, I was filled with gratitude for every writer who sat down and penned the beautiful words that have nourished and delighted me this year.

Here are a few of the more memorable encounters…

 

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Christian Wiman

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this…

And so begins the most important book I read this year. Christian Wiman grew up in a west Texas town where faith was a presumption. Unquestioned. When, as a college student, he discovered that there were people who did not believe in God, he shrugged off his inherited “faith” like a jacket that has grown too warm for the afternoon. For two decades he lived comfortably with the absence of God until two cataclysmic events shook his life. He fell in love…

…when I met Danielle, not only was that gray veil between me and the world ripped aside, colors aching back into things, but all the particulars of the world suddenly seemed in excess of themselves, and thus more truly themselves. We, too, were part of this enlargement: it was as if our love demanded some expression beyond the blissful intensity our two lives made.

…and he learned he had a rare and incurable form of cancer.

The book chronicles the several years between then and now. Years that have included unimaginable pain, bones dying, locked joints, bowel failure, and isolation. And in the midst of this, a wrestling with God, with faith, with poetry and art. A raw, authentic quest to penetrate to deep things. To drink hungrily of the beautiful. To weave together moments of exquisite clarity with moments of excruciating loneliness and pain into a tapestry of life that is rich and expansive and true.

His writing style is evocative and lovely and threaded throughout are delicious lines of borrowed poetry and prose that nourished and challenged him along the way. I am grateful to Makoto Fujimura for whetting my appetite for this one. I give it my highest recommendation.

What a relief it can be…to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck.

 

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, Billy Collins

I had the distinct privilege of hearing Billy Collins at the Porter’s Call Evening of Stories last year. I was already a fan, but to hear him articulate the poems–his cadence, the pregnant pauses–was remarkable. Mike gifted me with this new collection of old and new poems for Christmas. On AUDIO. In the poet’s own voice! I have listened to it over and over. It is a spectacular collection of Collins’ work anyway–funny, poignant, clever–but completely irresistible when he reads them to me. If you are unsure of poetry, start here.

 

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg

This book has been on my list of candidates for a while, but this year my friend Nina put it in my hand. Thank you, Nina!! Clean, concise, and chock full of brilliance. If you are a writer or you want to be, you need this book. One of the best I have read on the craft.

 

I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brene Brown

It is difficult for me to imagine any human alive who will not find herself in this book. Brene Brown has done years of research on shame and she uses her discoveries to help us build “shame resilience.” She understands that as long as we are alive, we will encounter experiences that shame us. It is what we do with that shame that determines whether we become captive to it or move past it. I read this one with bosom friends, and we laughed and cried our way through it with lots of “oh no!”s and “me too”s. You can get a taste with her Ted talk which has over 12 million views to date. Yep, it’s that good.

 

Tuesday’s With Morrie, Mitch Album

It took me a while to get around to reading the bestselling memoir of all time. I think I was suspicious of the fact that so many people liked it. :/ But when my friend Julie recommended it, I decided to check it out. Thank you, Julie!! Mitch Album spends several months of Tuesdays with his old college professor, Morrie, who is dying. Morrie has always been wise man. A man of examination and thought. But death sharpens that vision and helps him see with even keener perception. This is, in some ways, a book about dying. But it is much more a book about really living.

 

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

I read several books this year by Marilynne Robinson after Christian Wiman tempted me with excerpts in his book. They were all very good, but this was my favorite. Apparently the Pulitzer committee and I are in agreement. John Ames is 76 and knows he will not live to see his 7 year old son reach adulthood–a beloved, unexpected son of a sweet, unexpected second marriage–so he writes a book for his son telling of the life he has lived, the people that have mattered to him, and what all means in so far as he understands it. This narrative is woven in and out of these precious last days he is living with his beloveds. It is a tender, beautiful story told in clean, spare prose.

 

Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

The characters of Port William have become dear to me. Jayber might be my favorite. The life questions which were not answered in seminary work themselves out in front of him in the confessional of his barber chair, and in the community of characters to which he belongs, and does not belong, as a lifelong bachelor. An unlikely instructor in philosophy, perhaps, but instructor he is. Alternately ponderous, humorous, and sweet.

 

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

This was my year to read ghost stories. Not necessarily by design. I already knew this story from Hitchcock, of course, but when my friend Chelsea told me it was one of her favorite BOOKS, I checked it out. Naturally, the book takes you further into the subconscious of the characters, subtly weaving a web that begins to press against the chest. Artful storytelling, well developed characters, and a host of plot twists make this a terrifically engaging read.

 

Silence, Shusaku Endo

This book was one of the reasons I chose to use the word “memorable” rather than “favorite” in the title of this post. This was a difficult read. Though there are shifts in perspective, much of the story is told in the voice of Rodrigues, a Portugese priest filled with love for the Japanese people who travels to Japan to encourage persecuted believers and find news of a lost priest. He is almost immediately captured. As he observes the cruel torture and relentless persecution of the remnant church, he wrestles with a God who is “silent”. Can his fragile faith withstand the anguish, the futility, the silence?

 

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

Lily Owens wants desperately to be loved. He father is cruel and her only memory of her mother is of the afternoon she died. She sat in a closet while her mother and father fought. There was a gun. Lily picked up the gun. There was a loud noise. Her mother was dead.

Lily runs away from home seeking answers and follows her mother’s picture of a Black Madonna to Tiburon, South Carolina. Here she will live with the “Calendar sisters” and learn the art of bee-keeping. But she will learn much more than that. A complex, poignant coming of age story.

p.s. Jenna Lamia who reads the audio book is fantastic! I highly recommend listening if that is an option.
p.s.s. The movie is good, but you miss so much of the story. Read, then watch. 🙂

 

Davita’s Harp, Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok writes brilliantly of the liminal spaces in life. Of paradox. In this book, Davita’s parents have rejected the faith of their childhoods, Jewish and Christian, and are staking everything on socialism. There are frequent, hushed night time meetings at their home, which force them to move repeatedly, and always an undercurrent of impending danger. Davita has to string truth together for herself from many disparate influences; her Christian aunt who sweeps in like an angel in times of trouble, her devout Jewish cousin whose home radiates peace and warmth, and her radical parents who are risking everything to make the world better for her.

 

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

Another ghost story. Or is it? A haunting tale set down by a governess some years after it happens. Perplexing, nuanced, mysterious, spine-tingling, it leaves one with more questions than answers. Positively delicious.

 

Your turn. Best books you read this year? Go!

p.s. Thanks to Kari for recommending “I Thought it was….”, to Ian and Anne for “Jayber…”, to Giorgio for “Silence”, to Karissa and Jen for “Secret Life…”, and to David for “Davita…”. I am profoundly grateful for my bookish friends. 🙂

Grand Canyon: Rim to Rim

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If all you ever see is a photograph, you can’t help but sense something of its grandeur. You will understand it is unlike anything you have ever known. You will marvel at the colorful layers, at the jagged edges and curious shapes, at the blue of the sky.

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If you stand on its edge…well then. You will feel something in you grow larger to meet it. You will breathe deeper, stand taller, and your soul will begin to sing. Your eyes will try to fasten on something familiar; something to keep you from dancing off into the abyss. And the deep gladness you feel for the gift of being here, even once, will astonish you.

A breeze blows up from the canyon carrying silence. A silence that is ancient and raw and wide. You watch sunlight paint the stone in brilliant washes, while pockets of shade keep certain secrets to themselves. You strain to catch a glimpse of the river, but the cold, dark Colorado is elusive unless you walk the rim trail to the west. There you will see fragments of its sinewy form and, if the air is still, hear the thunder of its rapids.

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But if you dare to dip below the rim…then, my friend, you truly begin to know her. You feel the grit of her against the bottom of your boots. The deep plunge of her walls becomes a memory in your muscles. And the play of sun and shade are something you wear on your skin. You are becoming part of her; your footprints in her soil, her dust on your skin. As the rim recedes further and further into the distance, you are astounded that the river is still so far beneath you. And the enormity of her becomes a visceral, ponderous reality. You rattle around inside her like a bead in a washtub.

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She whispers secrets to you. She shows you stones of vermillion that break open to centers of verdigris. And you walk on the green dust. She startles you with clumps of yellow wildflowers, purple asters, piles of snow. You look up to see a bighorn sheep perched on an impossible ledge, and pass a rattlesnake curled against a stump. You feel the wind that blows up off the Colorado River. You hear the shimmer of the aspens.

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She will test you. She will ask questions of you. Questions about motivation and fortitude and what it means to truly love. You may taste pain and despair on her behalf. She will prove that there is more to you than you know. And she will provide companions on the journey. Companions who encourage and tell stories, commiserate and give advice. And if you manage to climb out on the other side, you will understand that a part of you is hers forever. That you are wed to this place, to this endeavor, to the blood and sweat and heartache of it, to the wild extravagance and the glory.

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On Saturday, October 12, the state of Arizona re-opened Grand Canyon National Park to the delight of a great many federal employees, and to visitors like us who poured across her threshold that very day. On Sunday, October 13, Mike and I hiked from the south rim to the north by way of the Kaibab trails. It is one of the hardest and most rewarding things either of us has ever done. Due to some unexpected health issues, we did not return to the south rim on foot as planned, but rode the last north-south shuttle of the season back along with 4 other rim to rim hikers.

The hospitality we received on both rims and the sweet companionship of fellow hikers on the trail were unforeseen gifts. The long, leisurely hikes we took along both rims on the days following will linger in my memory as golden morsels of grace. My gratitude for the health and strength to undertake such an audacious task is without bounds. And the knowledge that so many friends and family were following our story and cheering us on magnified our joy immeasurably. To all of you who provided kind words of encouragement, and especially to those who offered hospitality in our hour of need, thank you.

My heart is full.

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When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

~Mary Oliver, excerpted from “When Death Comes”

Toward Something Grand…

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Two weeks from today I will wake on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Mike and I will rise before the sun, eat a hurried and simple breakfast, make one last check of our packs, board the 5:30 hiker’s shuttle to the North Kaibab trailhead, and commence our descent into the canyon. Over the course of 7 miles of switchbacks and twists and turns we will drop almost 6,000 vertical feet. Another 7 miles across the canyon floor will bring us to the Bright Angel trail where we begin our long climb out of the canyon.

This is the second day. A return to the South Rim where our adventure began two days, and 47 miles, before.

But the journey began even earlier than this…

We have dreamed of doing a rim to rim to rim hike of the Grand Canyon for several years. We began researching and planning in earnest just over a year ago, reading blogs and websites of the crazies who have done this before and lived to tell about it. We made reservations 13 months out, the earliest opportunity, and began training 6 months ago.

Training has looked like this: Long hikes with packs once a week, increasing in length to a total of 23 miles and one back-to-back hike in the Great Smoky Mountains of 28 total miles. Lots of cross-training, running, walking, yoga in between. A major focus on nutrition, particularly during these final weeks. Scrupulous attention to packing to make sure we have everything we need and not one ounce more. Testing out foods and hydration on the trail to see what works and what doesn’t.

Everything that goes in my pack is in a stack in my closet. Nuun tablets to add to my water for electrolyte replacement. This I will alternate with a combination of chia seeds (which help with hydration and supply protein and Omegas) and peppermint oil (which helps oxygenate the blood). Pistachios, almonds, dark chocolate m&ms, dried cherries, sesame crackers, and rice crispy treats for fuel. (Add to this boxed lunches we will pick up at Phantom Ranch both days.) Gloves, hat, ear band, and fleece for the below freezing start. These I will bail by the time we get to the canyon floor which can be as much as 30 degrees warmer. Lavender oil for skin irritations, disinfection, sleep, etc… Sunscreen, bug repellent wipes, flashlight, moleskin, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, water purifier, Chacos, extra socks, bandanas (multi purpose), rain gear, and my phone. Almost half the weight of our packs will be water; 100 ounces, roughly 6 pounds.

grand canyon leavesThe leaves are coloring on both rims. The beauty will be staggering when we go. This, along with the cooler temperatures, is the reason we chose to go in the fall.

That decision, as it turns out, may have been costly.

Because today Grand Canyon National Park, along with all our national parks, will close. An early and unfortunate consequence of the government shut down. Compared to federal employees who will be trying to figure out how to feed their families, while our illustrious leaders posture and dig in their heels and refuse to compromise, our loss seems small.

But right now it feels really big.

The North Rim Lodge and most of the North Rim facilities close for the season on October 16th because snow will soon make the road into the park impassable. If we do not go on time, we do not go at all.

So this morning, I remind myself of all the beauty we have seen this summer on the trail. Of birds and bears, of snakes and squirrels, of an extravagance of wildflowers. Of unplanned adventure. Of long conversations with my husband. Of the dreaming, which for me is always half the fun. And though I still hope Congress will astonish all of us and figure something out quickly and we can proceed as planned, I am learning all over again that sometimes the journey itself is the end.

It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters, in the end.~Ursula K. LeGuin

 

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