Tag Archive - Beauty

For This is God’s Will For You…

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Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. ~I Thessalonians 5:18

Last night we prayed one of my favorite services of the whole year, The Akathist Hymn “Glory to God For All Things“. The hymn was composed “by Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov shortly before his death in a prison camp in 1940. The title is from the words of Saint John Chrysostom as he was dying in exile. It is a song of praise from amidst the most terrible sufferings.”

Each year as these remarkable words wash over me, I am reminded that gratitude is possible wherever I may find myself, and that it is a potent and life giving link to the God who loves me. On this day of thanks giving, I share excerpts with you along with images that represent some of the ordinary, extraordinary gifts of this year.

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O Lord, how lovely it is to be Thy guest. Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Thy love. Blessed art thou, mother earth, in thy fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last for ever, in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, the cry rings out: Alleluia!

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Thou hast brought me into life as into an enchanted paradise. We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing. We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams. We have tasted fruit of fine flavour and the sweet-scented honey. We can live very well on Thine earth. It is a pleasure to be Thy guest.

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Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

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How glorious art Thou in the springtime, when every creature awakes to new life and joyfully sings Thy praises with a thousand tongues. Thou art the Source of Life, the Destroyer of Death. By the light of the moon, nightingales sing, and the valleys and hills lie like wedding garments, white as snow. All the earth is Thy promised bride awaiting her spotless husband. If the grass of the field is like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the Second Coming after the Resurrection! How splendid our bodies, how spotless our souls!

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When the sun is setting, when quietness falls like the peace of eternal sleep, and the silence of the spent day reigns, then in the splendour of its declining rays, filtering through the clouds, I see Thy dwelling-place: fiery and purple, gold and blue, they speak prophet-like of the ineffable beauty of Thy presence, and call to us in their majesty. We turn to the Father.

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The breath of Thine Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets and scientists. The power of Thy supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Thy laws, who reveal the depths of Thy creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of Thee. How great art Thou in Thy creation! How great art Thou in man!

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Blessed are they that will share in the King’s Banquet: but already on earth Thou givest me a foretaste of this blessedness. How many times with Thine own hand hast Thou held out to me Thy Body and Thy Blood, and I, though a miserable sinner, have received this Mystery, and have tasted Thy love, so ineffable, so heavenly.

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What sort of praise can I give Thee? I have never heard the song of the Cherubim, a joy reserved for the spirits above. But I know the praises that nature sings to Thee. In winter, I have beheld how silently in the moonlight the whole earth offers Thee prayer, clad in its white mantle of snow, sparkling like diamonds. I have seen how the rising sun rejoices in Thee, how the song of the birds is a chorus of praise to Thee. I have heard the mysterious mutterings of the forests about Thee, and the winds singing Thy praise as they stir the waters. I have understood how the choirs of stars proclaim Thy glory as they move forever in the depths of infinite space. What is my poor worship! All nature obeys Thee, I do not. Yet while I live, I see Thy love, I long to thank Thee, and call upon Thy name.

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*You may read the Akathist in its entirety HERE.

 

For Monday, a Poem…

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Over several assorted Mondays this fall, I have gathered with a motley, seasoned, gorgeous collection of women. We have brought our various hurts and glories and peculiar ways of seeing to the table. A dining room table. One that has served up many a delicious repast in times past, and times yet to come. Here we have feasted on story and laughter and poems. We have lived in and out of one another’s lives. Words have nourished us; challenged and strengthened us; and sent us back into our everyday lives glowing, like Moses, betraying that we have been in the Presence.

Today we are done. For a space. And already I miss it. The very idea of it.

So I am carving out a space here for poems, on Mondays, just because. Favorites. Some from my Creative Lectio class, and some from life, and all the craziness of life, and the beauty that is ache and can only be conveyed in the strict economy and the intense potency of the poetic line.

And you may love it, or you may hate it. And that’s ok. But I challenge you to read it before you decide. Read it out loud. Let the words swim in the air and travel back to you across space. And see what it means. To you.

For today, one of the more meddlesome poems we read this fall. Meddlesome in that I have not been able to stop thinking about it, because it is so wondrously lovely and deep. Of Rilke, one of my favorites.  A poet who speaks a heart language that pierces me to the very entrails of my being.

Ill Matched Threads

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth–
it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
and clears it for a different celebration
where the one guest is you.

In the softness of the evening
it’s you she receives.
You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her,
to hold you.

Rainer Maria Rilke

My profound gratitude to Nita Andrews and Patsy Clairmont who have poured so much beauty and truth into my soul over the past year in our Creative Lectio experience. I love you both.

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

 

Into the Wild…

It was supposed to be just a simple training trip. The Warner Parks had given us some good hill training, but we needed the physical and mental fatigue of long sustained miles of up, and significant altitude gain, in preparation for the Grand Canyon. So we headed to the Smoky Mountains for a couple of back to back hikes.

IMG_5348It was 2:00 in the east by the time we hit the trail to Rocky Top. Ten minutes in we had our first surprise. Mike was in the lead, but I saw her first. “Stop,” I whispered. He continued. I grabbed the back of his shirt and said, more helpfully, “It’s a bear.” He stopped. We were already closer than advisable so we backed up a little. Then the first baby tumbled out of the brush. We backed up some more. But not so far that we did not see the other two come chasing after their brother. They rolled and played, bounded and pounced, and mom mostly ignored them. They were in no particular hurry to get anywhere, so we just watched. And I tried to remember if I had any food in my pack that was not wrapped. Anything that might make me smell tasty. Once they finally left the path, we began to move tentatively forward, keeping an eye on them. As it turns out, they were keeping an eye on us too. The little guys stretched up onto their hind legs to see the tall funny looking people with humps on their backs. Mom, though, had apparently written us off as harmless. Good.

We climbed, mile after mile, practicing our rest step, hydrating frequently, stopping occasionally to remove our packs and relieve our feet. When we connected to the Appalachian Trail, the path began to go down, then up again, then down, as we moved across the crest of several mountains to get to the one we were after. This was more mentally fatiguing than you might imagine. It is difficult to give up altitude painfully gained, knowing you are about to have to climb it again. But then there was the up that was only up, and we ascended past the trees and onto the rocky crest and the world opened up all around us and it was so glorious that I thought I would gladly do it all again, though, in fact, I can’t imagine that that would have even been possible, but in that moment you feel invincible and will promise yourself almost anything. We dropped our packs and spread our arms and let the wind cool our hot, weary bodies. And it was so quiet. And still. And lovely.

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The descent took roughly half the time. Still, darkness overtook us. We pulled out flashlights, listened as the song of crickets joined the gurgle of the stream, dodged a few diving bats, and tried to remember exactly where it was that we saw the bears. Mike wondered aloud if they locked the picnic area where the trailhead was located at night.  As it turns out…

We suspected we were in trouble when we saw no other cars. We knew we were in trouble when we drove up to the gate. With the padlock. As we tried to figure out exactly who one might call in such a situation, I got out to see if just maybe the padlock was not locked. I suppose some ranger had gotten tired of being dragged away from his family to rescue crazy hikers who did not bother reading signs about parking areas closing at dark. Thank God for that. I slid the padlock out, Mike drove through, and I carefully replaced it just as I had found it and breathed a thank you to kind, practical human beings everywhere.

After a shower and a late supper, we looked at the forecast one more time before setting the alarm for an early wake up. No change.

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A light mist fell as we commenced our ascent to Mount Leconte. We congratulated ourselves on our fortitude and thought how silly we would have felt for backing out for something as innocuous as this.

Though the Smokies are littered with waterfalls and cascades of every sort, Rainbow Falls is the tallest. That, and the rainbow it produces on sunny afternoons, are its claim to fame. But as a general rule, the output is rather meager. As a general rule…

IMG_5375A couple of miles in, the rain picked up considerably. We pulled on rain jackets and carried on. We noticed how the colors of the leaves became more intense when wet. We looked out through openings in the trees at a world swathed in mist. We gave thanks for the canopy that withheld much of the water. Several streams crossed the trail. There were log bridges for a couple. The rest were crossed by stepping on larger rocks that stood above the water. We remarked early on how even the trail itself looked like a dry creek bed. As we neared the top, it wasn’t dry any more. Rivulets of water had begun to course down the center of the path. A curiosity. A slight inconvenience. For now.

By the time we reached the summit, our breath poured out in clouds of vapor and there were bits of ice in the rain. A fire burned in the lodge. We poured the water out of our boots, wrung out socks and jackets and hung them over chair backs to dry, and snuggled up to the stove. We devoured our lunch and drank our weight in coffee and hot chocolate. The memory of that warm coffee would be a comfort to me for some miles after.

Tearing ourselves away from the fire was painful. Shoving my feet back into those cold, wet boots made me want to cry a little. But it’s amazing how quickly the body acclimates. We started back down the way we had come, but we soon recognized that a considerable change in the trail had taken place while we rested. The rivulet was now a stream four or five inches deep. We straddled the path walking on its sides where we could, occasionally finding large rocks in the middle, avoiding stepping into the water at all costs. We would eventually give up on that.

The first water crossing was the worst. It had occurred to me by then that the rocks we had crossed on before might be difficult to find now. It had not occurred to me that they would be buried under a foot of roaring water tumbling headlong down the mountain. We walked up and down the creek looking for a place to string together rocks and make a crossing above water. It was not to be found. We dared not cross on the higher rocks for fear of being washed off and carried over the cliffs below. So we walked behind them figuring that if the water took us, the rocks would stop us. The freezing water came up to our thighs. We held our breath and held onto one another and pushed through to the other side. My heart was filled with gratitude and my boots were full of water.

Mike made me jump across the second stream. I didn’t think I could do it. We were jumping from one wet, mossy rock to another and it was a big gap and the pack made me feel like a rhinoceros on stilts. But he would not let me be a coward. He jumped first and did not die. He promised to catch me if I fell. I also did not die. I was very glad about that.

We continued to dodge water in the paths until the last mile and a half or so. It was mentally exhausting, all that navigating. It took us as long to get down as it did to get up. That never happens. But, we were rewarded by a view of the falls that most people never get. People who were only hiking as far as the falls were turning back because a couple of the water crossings were on that side of the falls. Perhaps we would have turned back if we had started then, I don’t know. I am glad now that was not an option.

As a training hike, it was far more effective than we planned. We learned a lot about packing for rain and are making some adjustments in our gear. Though the Grand Canyon is in the desert, sudden thunderstorms are always a possibility. As an adventure, it exceeded anything we might have hoped for.

Mike said to me, “When I am old and can’t remember anything any more, will you tell me the story of how we almost died but didn’t?”

“Yes, my love, I will.”

Rainbow Falls before

Rainbow Falls before

Rainbow Falls after

Rainbow Falls after

Flight of Fancy…

The morning dawned cool and damp, like a renegade fall day. I knew it would not last. The atmosphere already strove to reclaim the cool along with the dew.

An accumulation of weeds had been tormenting me for days. Every time I crossed the porch or refilled the birdfeeders, they stared up at me with impudent faces, mocking me. I was glad to find an opportunity to attend to them, and even more glad that I could do it without being slathered in sweat.

hummingbird_butterfly_bushI buried the upper portion of myself inside the butterfly bush to get at a handful of offenders wedged between it and the iris. When I stood up to move to the other side, I found myself face to face with a Ruby-throated hummingbird. I immediately stopped breathing. I tried not to blink and even scolded my heart for beating too loudly. He was so close to me I could feel his wings beating the air. I don’t know what he asked me with his probing regard, but apparently he decided I was safe. He turned to a nearby panicle of blossoms and began sipping daintily from one tiny cup at a time.

My mind was racing like when you are in an accident or an almost accident and the whole of the world slows and your mind assesses the scene with surgical precision. I strained my eyes to see every precious detail of his beautiful body (which, incidentally, I took to be a female body at first for its lack of scarlet on the breast. I soon discovered I was mistaken.) I watched him move along the blossom like someone eating corn from a cob, a row at a time. Holiness hovered on his emerald wings and the heady scent of the blossoms might have been incense. I could feel the sacredness of this moment in my pores.

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Then I saw the other one.

He dived from the sky with a throb of wing and a pernicious squawk. The other rose to meet him and they hovered with their beaks only centimeters apart scolding, talking over one another. Neither was listening. One of them finally decided to retreat to the sunflowers, which seemed a reasonable and generous solution to me. But not to his aggressor. He pursued his enemy and they carried their dog fight higher and higher into the air until both of them fled.

And even this. Even the wild bravado of these young adolescent males establishing their territorial claims filled me with awe, and for a long time I could not stop looking into the sky at the very place where I saw them last.

I finally went back to my work, but there were a great many more visits from my winged friend, or friends, as the case may be. And this became just one more lowly, everyday experience shot through with the luminous. It happens all the time. Nothing is more common.

Be watching…

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*All photos (and the exquisite watercolor) harvested from other sources. I did eventually grab my phone to see if I might catch a shot, but the one time I tried, it frightened him away. I decided I would rather have his presence than his image. 🙂

North To Alaska, Part the Second

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24 May: And then there were three. Last night we put our 19 year old on a plane in Anchorage, and this morning he is home in Franklin. Meanwhile, Mike, Josh and I begin the drive to Seward. Astonishing vistas meet us round every turn in the road, and I am enchanted by mountains straddling sea and sky.

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A pallet of blues and grays prevails with only the occasional intrusion.  A world where shadows are blue. Some conspiracy of sky and snow. We pass Dall sheep grazing, snowmobilers plying the high passes still drenched in snow, and mountain lakes of icy green. Finally, we plunge seaward to meet our ship in Seward.

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25 May: How is it that I never knew a glacier is blue? The ice and snow are compressed so densely that they only reflect blue light. It is like a great wall of topaz with millions of dazzling facets. We grip cameras and binoculars in gloved hands, crowding the railings. This place palpitates with glory and we all feel the need to be near it.

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Hubbard Glacier (on the right) extends about 76 miles from its source. The ice at its base is approximately 400 years old. It regularly “calves”, dropping icebergs into the sea that can be as large as a building. It’s smaller neighbor on the left is Turner  Glacier. I love how the feathery clouds have arranged themselves as if to  say, “Tah dah!”

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A final look back as we pull away from the glacier. Icebergs, cottony clouds, and jagged clots of snow appear to be cut of the same cloth, scattered indiscriminately across a gray/blue ground.

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26 May: We gather to pray with believers in Juneau. The prayers and hymns are familiar. And it is good to be so far away and so at home. We stay for coffee and swap stories with dear brothers and sisters.

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After church, we board a small boat to go see us some whales. We watch a mother humpback teaching her baby to “spy hop” (lifting the head out of the water to have a look around). She demos, then he practices. We watch the graceful curve of their backs as they dive for food. Flip of the tail, sometimes for propulsion, sometimes for fun. 🙂 We also visit a colony of sea lions sunning themselves on rocks. My, how I wish you could hear them! There must have been a hundred of them. I don’t have great pictures of either, (or of the porpoises), but here are a few sea lions who came out to play with us.

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27 May: Skagway was a departure point for many starry-eyed dreamers looking for gold. Today we follow their treacherous path on the White Pass Yukon Route Railway. I feel a little like I’m in an old Western film. Keeping an eye out for train robbers. 🙂

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We pass waterfalls, deep ravines, rickety old bridges that look like they belong in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, and the tragic “dead horse gulch” (named for the many horses who died while attempting to carry prospectors’ supplies up over the pass).

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There is a glacial lake at the top of the pass, mostly frozen still. Sometimes we travel through a great corridor of snow, tall as the cars in places, carved out for our sakes.

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I spend most of the return trip out on the porch of the car breathing the clean scent of evergreen and snow, catching the spray of waterfalls in my hands and on my face, and trying, once again, to get inside this landscape. To get it inside me.

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We spend the afternoon doing what most of our friends at home are doing on this Memorial Day, sitting out by the pool. It is 70 degrees, after all. The view from my deck chair….

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28 May: If I lived in Alaska my whole life, I would never get over seeing a bald eagle in flight. We see them every day of the cruise; sitting on buildings, in the woods, or in their tree top nest in Hoonah. But the best is to see them soaring overhead. And I have to stop and watch. My eyes fill with tears, and my heart pounds from the sheer majesty of it. (In fact I couldn’t write this without tears.) My gratitude is so deep.

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In Hoonah, we sit for a long time with a store owner who talks to us about her life in Alaska. This is an unexpected gift. She tells us about a group of Tlingit artists who are crafting totem poles and panels for the new visitor center for Glacier Bay National Park using traditional tools and stories. They welcome us into their workshop and tell us about their work. We are honored to be drawn into this tradition.

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29 May: We are only ever rained on twice in Alaska. One of these days, appropriately, is in Ketchikan–purportedly  the rainiest city in North America, as well as the king salmon capital of the world.

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Creek Street is the former red light district. (Prostitution was legal here until 1953.) It is a charming clutter of buildings sitting on stilts which today house galleries, jewelry stores, and souvenir shops.

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30 May: Our last day on the ship is spent entirely at sea. It is the coldest day of the trip with intermittent rain, but the rain brings gifts of its own. Shafts of light stab through gray clouds, while slender columns of steam rise tenuously skyward to rejoin their fellows.

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And then this. I take it all in in greedy, grateful gulps.

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Tomorrow, we will wake in Vancouver, and all around will be city, and noise, and hurry. But tonight, during dinner, this is outside our window. This is Alaska as I will remember her. Wild. Unfettered. Unpredictable. And utterly wondrous…

North to Alaska…

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20 May: We chase the moon to Alaska. She shines against an indigo sky that has no memory of black. Sometimes she slides down snow blanketed peaks to drop into the sea, winking up at us between floating blocks of ice, the ripples bending her light into a thousand faces, littering the sea with diamonds. When the sea is still she pours herself out like butter, soft and golden, puddling, then spreading. Languid. Easy. This is the first enchantment.

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21 May: They tell us it has been a late spring. That there was a snow fall of 11 inches just 4 days ago. And I wonder why it never occurred to me to wish for this.

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We get our first glimpse of Denali (Mt. McKinley) down the endless stretch of roadway ahead of us, framed by trees. We pull off at an overlook to drink in the glory of her. To be with her. It is a pristine day. She is wholly unfettered by clouds and altogether magnificent. We do not learn until later that these views only happen 60 days or so each year. Gift.

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Denali does not make trails, however they do recognize community trails that have formed naturally and point you toward those. On this day, we follow footprints in the snow across frozen streams that begin to crack with thaw, across bridges where only the handrails are visible above the snow (barely), along cantilevered shards of ice that are melting from the bottom up, through an enchanted wood that is very Narnia.

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22 May: There is a quiet in Denali so deep you can feel it on your skin. You breathe it in the snow scented air. To stand in this is to know something profoundly important about life and the world, a knowing that happens in your bones. And even the ptarmigan’s bluster, the soar and swoop of nest building magpies, the snort and huff of grizzlies as they frolic in the river bottoms, seem to lose themselves in the endless expanse of blue sky and mountain and frozen lake.

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Denali is generous to us this day. We see a moose cow who has just calved. She is still tidying up number two while number one begins to test out wobbly legs. All of us press against the bus windows with binoculars and cameras, and no one says a word. Later we see a bull moose in all his glory, a herd of caribou, Dall sheep (for whom the park was created, incidentally), as well as the aforementioned grizzles, ptarmigans and magpies.

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The call of the mountains is too much for Jake, and he determines early in the day that we must climb something. So we have our driver leave us off near an approach that appears reasonably navigable.

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The going is steep and precarious at times with dense shrubbery, rock slides, and snow fields that are packed solid for some expanse, then suddenly drop you 12 inches in and fill your shoes. But the vistas from up here are spectacular and it is good to plant our bodies in the middle of all this without the insulation of a piece of machinery, and no sound but our breathing.

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I take approximately a million photographs, even though I understand the futility of trying to capture this moment with a lens. To stand inside the grandeur of this place, to once be here, is an unrepeatable wonder. But I know that when I look at the photos, I will remember…

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We are, for a time, held hostage by this guy who plants himself squarely  in the road ahead of us just after we descend from the mountain. We are required to give him 70 yards clearance, a directive which is superfluous as we know Dall sheep are sometimes known to charge when ticked off. This photo is taken after he finally decides to clear out.

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23 May: Our last experience in Denali is a visit to the Canine Rangers who patrol the park all winter. They are beautiful and strong and sweet. One of the rangers tells us that they occasionally adopt out puppies if a litter is too large or if a dog does not have the characteristics necessary to make it a good dog sled dog, and Josh wants very much to bring one of them home, but we can’t figure out how to make this work…

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All photos taken with my iPhone. No editing. The colors you see are the colors we saw. If you would like more photos and less talk, check out my Facebook album HERE.

Artful Extravagance

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While God puts His lovely fingerprint on all of creation, it sometimes seems as though He spends extra time in certain places crafting an extravagance of beauty. Artful, elegant, and so exquisite it creates a pang in the heart. Bermuda is one such place.

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Sapphire skies hover over an impossibly turquoise sea that rushes toward pink sand beaches in a flurry of foam. Dark stones lie strewn about the shore and shallows like left over toys. The water hurls itself against them, spouting skyward in great white flumes.

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Along the beach, we discover treasures from the sea. And, even as I mourn their death, I marvel that God graced a creature that would rarely be seen with such extraordinary loveliness. Prettier than it has to be.

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Sea Glass Beach yields treasures of another sort. Trash, broken bottles and the like, rolled around by the waves, pummeled against the sand, wash up onto this beach smoothed and remade. We brought bits of it home. As a reminder. Fragments of resurrection for the garden path.

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The beauty of the natural world seems to inform and inspire the works of man. The houses that cling to the hills look like they spilled out of an Easter basket. Gardens and flower boxes are a profusion of texture and color. And we climb the world’s oldest cast iron lighthouse to find a most utilitarian beauty. The prisms that help magnify the light bend land, sea and sky into a marvelous upside down landscape.

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There is even a nod to whimsy. This is Kenzie’s favorite of my photos from Bermuda. The creative impulse is a one of the surest imprints of the Creator within us, even when the form it takes is unconventional. And Rastafarian. And awesome. 🙂

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The sun is painting with pieces of glass. She flings them like spatters of watercolor against the window frame with a Kandinsky-like exuberance. I can’t not look at it.

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Doors are flung open to breezes blown up from the sea. The song of them blends with voices in the liturgy. A curious mix, this. And wonderful. Like the languid, feathery palms swaying against the outside of this great stone church that looks as though it were plucked from the English countryside.

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Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

~ Mary Oliver ~

A Ballade of Place…

We almost missed it. Many people do.

It was our last morning in Paris, and we had seen everything on our list. We had one ticket left on our City Pass. Sainte Chapelle. A church. We had a little time to spare and it was near by.

Sainte Chapelle was built to house relics brought back from the Holy Land, including what was purported to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ. It was constructed at the pinnacle of the Gothic age when architects had perfected the flying buttress system to an art. Hence, the church is filled with windows. Three walls of her are very nearly windows only, beginning a few feet of the floor and soaring into the heavens, separated by only the finest ribs of support.

It is made even more dramatic by the fact that you reach it by climbing a dark, close spiral staircase. You wind your way up and up through the darkness until you are suddenly turned out into a magnificence you could never have imagined.

Standing in that place was, and still is, one of the holiest moments of my life. God was a presence that could be touched and breathed and worn there. His grandeur leaked from every pane of glass.

I have never explained that moment to my satisfaction, though I have tried. My latest attempt at giving it voice was inspired by a creative lectio experience with my beautiful friends Nita and Patsy. It is, perhaps, the closest I have come. Yet.

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The steps have been hollowed out
by centuries of use. Still they spiral
upward through the dark, close
column of stone till they spill me out
into the upper chamber.

I am assaulted by color.
Jeweled windows hang
suspended from the sky.
Sunlight scatters the jewels across the floor
and in my hair
and on my skin.

And I find that I have forgotten
to breathe. And my face is wet.

And I think of poor, hungry peasants
who gave of their meager means to build
great edifices for God, and how I scorned
their impracticality.

And I realize I would gladly starve
to stand, just once, in a place
where holiness rests
like jewels
on my skin.

 

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sainte chapelle ceiling

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