Tag Archive - Life

A Pilgrim Tale: day twenty-eight

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Jan says she wants no steep uphills or downhills on her birthday. We cannot make this happen for her. However, the rain we have been promised never materializes. So, there’s that.

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Early in the day we pass a little hippie retreat with fruit and bread, eggs, nuts, juices, tea, and lots of hippie love in a cool open timbered barn with sofas clad in colorful saris. A soft spoken woman, probably American or Canadian we think, floats out the door of the house with more bread, and 5 yellow kittens at her heels. Everything is donativo. We suspect we might have stumbled into some kind of commune. But, the food is welcome as our first cafe is ten miles into the hike.

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We pause for lunch in Sarria, a hillside town that marks the starting point for some pilgrims. To obtain a compostella, a certificate of completion of the camino, you are only required to have walked the final one hundred kilometers. Some pilgrims begin here because physical or time restraint does not allow them to do more. Others, because they can not be bothered. These are easy to identify. They are loud and flippant. They usually carry only a day pack and send their luggage ahead. They stop at all the kitchy souvenir shops (also new in Sarria) and buy tacky bumper stickers and t-shirts. They are tourists, not pilgrims. Touregrinos. Learning to live with them graciously will be a challenge.

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After a burger and a beer, we resume our walk. By now, we have been joined by Jorge and Kelly, Otto and Jose, and their whole gang. We walk the final 3.6k into Barbadillo with them, belting out Neil Diamond hits.

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Casa Barbadillo has accommodations that are modern and efficient, but the dining room is a showcase of antiques; a whole wall of sewing machines, plus cameras, telephones, and more. They are so lovely. Here we gather for Jan’s birthday dinner. The table is full. Friends take turns singing Happy Birthday to Jan in English, Portugese, French, German, Spanish and Hebrew.

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We laugh at Jose and the waitress who have a playful banter all night. She is so funny. We also have a tender moment with him. He asks us why we are walking the camino. After giving our various answers, we ask him the same. He explains that he walks in gratitude for the extraordinary life he has been given. His eyes fill with tears as he says this, and so do ours.–Turns out, Jose is an important attorney in Brazil. He has presided over the bar association, and he and his wife Suely have raised three lawyers in their home. Since coming home, we have seen him in photographs with national leaders in very important meetings for the good of Brazil.–But on this night, and on this camino, he is one of us. We end the evening singing Willie Nelson tunes. Jose loves Willie. 🙂

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Santiago is close enough now that we can feel its pull. But, I think each of us is also struggling with the thought that soon this family that has grown so dear to us will be once again scattered to the seven winds…

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If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.

~Frederick Buechner

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*Thank you to David for the birthday photo, and to Mike for the photo with Jose as well as the crazy currencies at bottom of post.

Metamorphosis

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My blog has had some security issues this year. As a result, it was offline in the spring when my baby boy turned 18, and when he graduated from high school. So here I offer a woefully belated coming of age post. The words are from a blessing that Mike and I had the honor of speaking over Josh at his senior formal. They give a tiny glimpse into the life of this remarkable young man that we have had the profound joy to parent.

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You were born curious. Five minutes in any hotel room and you have found all the best gadgets, secret hiding places, snacks, toiletries, AND the Gideon Bible. Never one to stay on the path, you run ahead and climb things. Ingenuous, you can figure anything out, from all things technical to how to drive a stick shift, nothing scares you. Stay hungry. Never stop learning.

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Senior formal with sweet friend Ashley. Outfit designed by Josh. Shirt hand sewn to his specifications.

The world is more beautiful and festive because there is you. Fashionista and interior designer, you integrate loveliness into all you do. As an accomplished food stylist, you transform the most humble offerings into a feast. Thank you for teaching us to celebrate every season, every day, as gift. The world is starving for beauty. Feed it.

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Convincingly incarnating both a lecherous wolf and a dashing Prince Charming in Into the Woods at the Franklin Theater

When you were 12 years old, you sang Amazing Grace at a school talent show. With the first clean, clear notes, the room fell silent and still, awed by the beauty of it. Whether leading worship, singing with friends, or acting on the stage of the Franklin Theater, you continue to leave us breathless and blessed by your artistry. Your photographs and your words compel us see the world afresh. Marcel Proust said, The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Keep seeing deep, and helping us see too.

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Best uncle ever

Your love knows no bounds. You are a generous and loyal friend; a trusted confidante to many, kind to all. Kenzie adores her uncle Joshie. When dad and I are old and can’t remember our names, we will remember the extraordinary Christmas gift you gave us two years ago, at great cost to you. Heck, we’ll probably lug it to the nursing home with us. Continue to love well, and allow others to love you.

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*photo and editorial credit Josh F Mullican

You are a true man of faith. Like every person, your life has had hard places. You have walked these with great courage and persistence. You have not been afraid to wrestle with God, to be raw and vulnerable and to ask tough questions. The result is a faith that is authentic and personal. Never stop chasing after God. He loves you so.

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Dear one, Dad and I labored over these words, wanting them to be the right ones. But, they are inadequate. We are proud of you and love watching your continual metamorphosis into the person God has designed you to be. May your days be many, and may you know much joy. I love you. Always.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young

~Bob Dylan

 

Letting Go

Imagine your departure as a metamorphosis. Through simple acts of intention and attention, you can transform even a sleepwalking trip into a soulful journey. The first step is to SLOW DOWN. The next one is to treat EVERYTHING that comes your way as part of the sacred time that envelops your pilgrimage.

~Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

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It has been more difficult than I imagined: the weeks, days, now hours, leading up to our departure.

First, there was the injury. A stress fracture, diagnosed just 5 weeks out. Just like that, the marathon was gone. But the pilgrimage? Who could say?

Days before, I had read this admonition in the guidebook: “Remember, this is an inner as well as an outer journey. Be sure you spend at least as much time preparing your spiritual body as you do your physical body.”

Snap.

Immediately a film reel rolled before my eyes: hours spent researching lightweight sleeping bags and backpacks, reading pilgrim forums and attending presentations. And goodness know how many hours on the trail. Yet precious little time asking why I was doing this or seeking God’s design.

Until the doctor handed me the boot. Literally. “This is to protect the bone and make sure it heals straight. But mostly, it’s to slow you down. Stay off it as much as possible.”

So while I was “staying off it” and icing religiously, I decided to embrace this sudden “opportunity” to take a hard look inside. What if this was never meant to be a physical pilgrimage at all? What if there was as much for me to learn sitting here on the couch and letting go of my agenda as there was traipsing across Spain? Could I be ok with that?

I spent some time reading. The book referenced above, for starters. It made for a pretty great perspective shift. I had borrowed the book, so I filled my phone with some of the more radiant, and uncomfortable, phrases.

I pulled other books off the shelf that had been lifegiving to me and scribbled favorite passages into my pilgrim journal. I knew I would want them close to me on my journey. And even closer if the journey didn’t happen.

And I spent a good deal of time being still.

And slow.

I like to think I came to a place of being at peace with whatever God had for me in this. “Be flexible,” my friend Debra said to me on the morning of my doctor’s appointment. “Be willing to walk the path God gives you.”

Turns out the path involves starting, at least. I am cleared to go, thanks be to God. And am advised to take it slowly, a concept which is as foreign to me as the two languages I will be corrupting over the next few weeks. I know that if the pain returns, I have to stop.

Meanwhile, I find myself putting away laundry and fondly stroking the clothes I will not see for ages. In fact, all my worldly goods, at least all the ones going with me, are in that backpack you see up there. Except my sleeping bag, which I haven’t rolled up yet because I still have to treat it for bedbugs, 😳 and the one outfit that I will wear ever single solitary day from this Wednesday until October 21st. Oh, did I mention that all my worldly goods (including sleeping bag) weigh 14 pounds?

Last night, Mike innocently said to me, “Just three more nights to sleep in our own bed.” And I almost cried.

Apparently, part of what this sacred time means for me is to let go. To let go of my demands that this look the way I imagine it should. To let go of clothes, and make-up, and the flowers I had to cut down because they would become gangly and unkempt while I was gone. To let go of the house renovation project that began last week and must continue without me there to hover and get in the way. To let go of my children and the grand baby for a while and trust that they’ll be ok without me. And that I will be ok without them. To let go of friends who are hurting and trust that God will take better care of them than I ever could, and believe that my prayers might be a far better gift than my presence.

It is begun. We leave on Wednesday, God willing. And I will make every attempt to report here from time to time. As best I can. On my phone. Which will not really be functioning as a phone because that costs a million dollars, but as a wifi receptor/the world’s smallest computer. This is my first attempt at posting from my phone so the jury is still out on how that works.

But I am letting go of that.

By the way, I write as though you know what I am talking about, which might not be the case at all. So, if you are new round here: my hubby and I are off to walk an ancient pilgrimage route across Northern Spain. The Camino de Santiago. It culminates at the tomb of Saint James, Apostle of our Lord. 500 miles, give or take. God willing, we hope to commence on the Feast day of the Elevation of the Cross (Monday, 14 September). Two days before this, Mike will run the Marathon du Medoc in Pauillac, France. Alas, I will be cheering him on from the sidelines.

p.s. I corrected the photo on my computer, otherwise it would have appeared on your screen sideways. Incidentally, I didn’t even know it was sideways on my phone. So, be warned, you might have to stand on your head, or at least turn your computer sideways to see the photos I upload into these posts… 😜

 

 

 

Further Up and Further In

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There is no remedy for love but to love more.
~henry david thoreau

It might have been reckless to become engaged only two months after meeting. It might have been reckless to marry only seven months after that. I can’t really say.

This I do know: I expected a great deal of my husband. I believed he would right every wrong in my world, fill all the empty spaces in me. I would, of course, do the same for him. And this would be as natural as breathing. Because we loved each other.

This way of thinking might have been was reckless.

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What we have learned over the 28 years between then and now is that people who love one another experience extravagances of joy together they would never be able to know alone. These same people are also uniquely qualified to cause hurts deeper than those inflicted by the worst enemy. We have known our share of both of these. Our friend Heather said it this way, “Your testimony is broken, battered, beautiful, & redeemed.” That about sums it up.

What we have also learned is that God can use all of this, the sweet and the bitter, to draw us to Himself. The marriage we have today has a richness and a loveliness we did not even know to wish for in the early days. And that is a testament to God’s extravagant grace, to forgiveness 70 x 70 x 7 times, and to friends who fought with us and for us when we were unwilling to fight for ourselves.

In the six years since we have come into the Orthodox Church, we have been privileged to be part of a great many weddings and marriage blessings. Marriage is a sacrament. Therefore, a wedding is seen by the Church to be, not so much a declaration of our intention to love one another, but a vessel of the mystical grace of God. This is a wondrous mystery.

Asking for the blessing of the Church seemed a fitting next step in the work that God has been doing, and continues to do, in our lives. A further grace.

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So on Saturday we gathered with a handful of dearly loved ones before the altar. The prettiest little girl in the world padded barefoot down the aisle in a white dress that once was her mother’s, carrying crowns on a silver tray. And the priest blessed her and took the crowns. And I walked down the aisle on the arm of this good man who I finally understand is God’s provision for me. The epistle reading was St. Paul’s exhortation to husbands and wives, and the gospel was Christ’s first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana.

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Father Stephen began his homily with this prayer from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,

“O Lord our God, Whose dominion is indescribable, and Whose glory is incomprehensible, Whose mercy is infinite, and Whose love for mankind is ineffable: Do thou thyself, O Master, according to Thy tender compassion, look upon us, and upon this holy temple, and deal with us, and them that pray with us, according to Thine abundant mercies and compassions.”

He spoke of the great love that moved the indescribable, incomprehensible, infinite, ineffable God to make a way for us to know Him, so that all of our life can be a progression towards God. And this grace, this sacrament, was an important part of this progression.

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Then he crowned us to one another–crowns that speak both of authority and of martyrdom, and gave us to drink from a common cup, then covered our joined hands and led us three times around the altar.

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And my heart was full.

As Father Stephen reminded us, we are embarked on a journey that continues into eternity. And his prayer for us was that, just as in Cana when the best was served last, the richest and sweetest wine was still to come. May it be so.

This is a significant waymark.

A “thus far”.

A further grace.

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Further up and further in, my love…

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*Many thanks to our dear friend Joel who took all the photos in the post (except Father Stephen blessing Kenz which was taken by Josh. Thanks, Josh. :)).

**The phrase “Further up and further in” is borrowed from C. S. Lewis who uses it in the Last Battle, a favorite at our house.

***Thank you, Alece, for Thoreau. His words are perfect.

****If you would like to see more photos, your can find them HERE.

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It all began this morning when Mike and I arrived in the bathroom at precisely the same time to take a shower; I because Kenzie was arriving soon and this was my window, he because he had to leave for a meeting. Of course, he assumed I would yield to him. Because he has the job that actually pays money, I guess. He didn’t say that. But he did get the first shower.

And all day I have wrestled with an issue that has been pestering me, drooping from the front edge of my brain for weeks now. What is it that I do? Who am I anyway? A friend I haven’t seen in some time innocently asked me, just this morning, what I am doing these days. One of my kids even asked, not that long ago, how I fill my time now that all but one of them is grown.

I don’t know. How do I?

God knows, I am not writing. If you have ever followed this blog, you know that. I don’t know why I stopped. But, I can’t seem to make myself start back. When I was writing every day, there was less pressure. So…one day I ramble or write something no one cares about? Maybe next day will be better. But now, when I haven’t written for two months, it should be something really good, right? And I can’t handle the pressure. So I don’t write anything. I just sit around resenting the people who are out there doing it every day. People whose lives are far more productive than mine. And still they find time to write. Still they have something to say.

And maybe that’s it.

Maybe I have nothing worth saying anyway.

How can I be this old, and this tired, and have accomplished so little?

Sure, I have raised some pretty great kids. But so have plenty of other folks who also held down full-time jobs and brought home a pay-check every week. And the truth is, though I love my kids and am proud of them, not one of them has had an easy road. So what was it that I thought I could give them by walking away from a job that I loved and giving myself entirely to being their mom? Would they have been better off if I had been less involved?

I honestly don’t know.

This past Sunday, the teaching of the Church was on the Pharisee and the Publican. Humility. And I sat and piously nodded my head and resolved to spend some time this week thinking about that. But I am pretty sure self-loathing, and rage against feelings of being invisible and under-appreciated and maybe having wasted my life thus far, are not exactly what the priest had in mind.

On the up side, I gave myself permission to write it all down. On the not so up side, it kind of looks like so much vomit on the page and I wonder if, in a couple of hours, I will pull it all down and hope nobody saw it.

Here is what I really wish I knew: What is it that gives value to a life? How do you know if you are doing/being that kind of person, the one that matters, the one whose absence will be felt, the one whose presence will live on, long after they have gone?

The Radical Defiance of Giving Thanks

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

Much of the time I feel like I lead a charmed life saturated with beauty and grace. Gratitude, for me, is as natural as breathing. But there have been seasons in my life when choosing to be grateful was an act of radical defiance. A trembling candle held out against the gathering dark. Maybe you know what that feels like. Maybe you are there now.

Gregory Petrov knew. A priest, he had been imprisoned by revolutionary forces in a Siberian gulag. Here, he would meet his death. In his personal effects, they found a prayer. He had titled it “Glory to God for All Things”–words uttered by St. John Chrysostom as he was dying in exile. An act of radical defiance. “A song of praise from amidst the most terrible sufferings.”

Last night we prayed his words. At times, their piercing loveliness caught in my throat. My heart swelled and my eyes filled with tears.

Wherever you find yourself on this day, I offer you his words. Perhaps they simply give voice to the deep joy in your heart. But, perhaps they are a vehicle for you to ride into a place of gratitude. A borrowed thanks. A radical defiance against your own gathering dark.

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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!

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.

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

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!

Glory to Thee, bringing from the depth of the earth an endless variety of colours, tastes and scents
Glory to Thee for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature
Glory to Thee for the numberless creatures around us
Glory to Thee for the depths of Thy wisdom, the whole world a living sign of it
Glory to Thee; on my knees, I kiss the traces of Thine unseen hand
Glory to Thee, enlightening us with the clearness of eternal life
Glory to Thee for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

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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.

How near Thou art in the day of sickness. Thou Thyself visitest the sick; Thou Thyself bendest over the sufferer’s bed. His heart speaks to Thee. In the throes of sorrow and suffering Thou bringest peace and unexpected consolation. Thou art the comforter. Thou art the love which watches over and heals us. To Thee we sing the song: Alleluia!

When Thou didst call me to serve my brothers and filled my soul with humility, one of Thy deep, piercing rays shone into my heart; it became luminous, full of light like iron glowing in the furnace. I have seen Thy face, face of mystery and of unapproachable glory.

Glory to Thee, transfiguring our lives with deeds of love
Glory to Thee, making wonderfully Sweet the keeping of Thy commandments
Glory to Thee, making Thyself known where man shows mercy on his neighbour
Glory to Thee, sending us failure and misfortune that we may understand the sorrows of others
Glory to Thee, rewarding us so well for the good we do
Glory to Thee, welcoming the impulse of our heart’s love
Glory to Thee, raising to the heights of heaven every act of love in earth and sky
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but Thou canst restore a conscience turned to ashes. Thou canst restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With Thee, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. Thou art love; Thou art Creator and Redeemer. We praise Thee, singing: Alleluia!

Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

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*I assigned myself the arduous task of choosing only a few stanzas to share with you. I encourage you to read the whole of the prayer HERE.

**All bolds in the text are mine.

On Becoming a Man…

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This is a frontier of tension; it is at once beginning and end, origin and completion.  Here is where two opposing forces reach toward each other to create a vital frontier filled with danger and possibility.  ~John O’Donohue

Best Beloved,

This morning the world continues its incessant hum and people rush about as though it were any ordinary Monday. But you and I know different. Today is a threshold day. And because you are a philosopher poet, because you ponder and reflect, I have an idea that the weight of it is sitting on you.

How I wish I could be with you today. To have long talks about life and faith and dreams. To share a delicious meal and watch you close your eyes and pause to let the wonder of it settle on your tongue. To walk with you in comfortable silence; to give and receive hugs; to laugh. But you are far away. So I send you this letter. Because I too tend to ponder these liminal moments.

This I would have you know…

You are a uniquely gifted individual. Your peculiar accumulation of talent, intellect, compassion, and experience has never before existed on the earth. The world desperately needs you to grow into the fullness of who God made you to be. Work to develop your giftings. Talent will only take you so far, but talent AND persistence are a force to be reckoned with.

Never be afraid to fail. Some of the best lessons come from audacious efforts that fell short. Next time, you will bring that experience to the table. Be wise. Be prudent. But also be brave.

You are loved extravagantly. All the time, no matter what. By your family, by your friends, by God. Nothing will ever, ever change that.

Nourish your heart. You give so much of yourself away to those you love. Be sure to replenish your stores. Make music, paint, draw, and feed yourself with the music and art of others. Stay close to nature. Read wonderful books. Surround yourself with people who encourage and love you, and who will challenge you when needed. Practice gratitude.

Walk closely with God. You must decide for yourself what that looks like, but never lose your great love for Him. He loves you so.

Hold fast to your passion and curiosity. Continue to drink life in great, lusty gulps. And allow your joie de vivre to spill out on others. They need you to help them see more deeply, more clearly.

Live YOUR life. In endurance sports it is common to hear someone say, “Hike your own hike” or “Run your own run.” It is easy to get caught up in the pressure to be what someone else envisions for you; pressure to be “successful” (whatever that means), to be wealthy or famous, to fit into some box the culture–or the counter-culture–has designed. I pray that daily God will reveal to you more and more the man He has designed you to be, and that you will know the joy of living out your truest self.

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I take great delight in you, son of mine. I respect and enjoy you. And I couldn’t be more proud of the man you are becoming. I close with an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes”. It expresses my fondest wish for you.

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 is 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.

Happy 21st birthday, beloved! God grant you many years!

Like Beads on a String

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Sometimes it seems we assemble our days
like beads on a string. Now and again
we take them out and run our fingers
over them. And remember…

First flutter.
A movement inside.
Tiny growing miracle.
Secret and wondrous.

Born. Suddenly the world
has more color. Deep, vivid,
vibrant. The fierceness of my love
startles me. And I know I would give my life
for you.

Blue eyed girl seizing the world
with both hands. Drinking words like milk,
creating imaginary realities, telling stories.
Dancing through life with abandon.

Young woman, pouring yourself out for those
without water, those destroyed by war. Seeing
the invisible ones.

Gypsy soul stamping your passport in Paris,
London, and Rome. Traipsing across
Europe and Asia with a backpack. Sipping cappuccino
in an outdoor cafe in Salzburg. Smoking
a hookah in Turkey. Leaving a fragment of your heart
in the warm soil of Africa.

Life giver. Ushering your little one
into the world. Weaving your own thread
into the great tapestry of women that are
your heritage.

Mommy. Tender, gentle, radiant.
Laughing and loving.
Planting, playing and praying.
Teaching your daughter to be generous
and kind, with your words, but mostly
with your life.

Woman. Courageous, curious, and
wise beyond your years. Receptive and open
to experience, to people, to ideas.
Crazy, mad cooking skills, and deep devotion
to food that nourishes both body and soul.

Friend. Grace giver. One who loves
extravagantly.
Intuitive.
Hospitable.
Loyal.

Beloved.
For all the reasons.
For no reason at all.

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Dearest Daughter, when I run my fingers over the string that is my life, some of the most brilliant beads belong to you. Thank you for coloring my world. I pray that your string will be long and full of dazzlingly beautiful beads.

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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 Her Third Year…

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

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

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

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

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

 

thanks

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

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