On Climbing Cardigan – July, Chapter the Last

This past Tuesday, I found myself sleeping on a picnic table in the parking area of Cardigan Mountain State Park. How this happened is a bit of a tale.

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It started a year ago, when I thought it might be a curious experiment to climb a favorite little peak nestled neatly in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley every month for an entire year (On Climbing Cardigan: August). What might be gleaned from 12 visits to the same peak?

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What might one learn?

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I wanted to make the last in this series unique, epic even – or as epic as 3,155 feet can be. I wanted to take the long way up, sleep on top, travel miles around and over, walk a series of backroads to return to my car.

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A full day’s “work” splashing around our school’s own sweet lake with boys and canoes in our wilderness program precluded an early departure, so I arrived at what was described to me as the way to the trailhead sometime after 7 PM.

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This back side of Cardigan can be reached by an asphalt-flaking, gloomy thoroughfare called New Colony Road, which turns into a deep mudfest about a mile and half in. I thought it wise to park while the parking was good.

There had been talk about a gate and an overgrown thicket disguised as the trailhead, so I ran up the dirt road, sinking in the mire, but nothing up there looked like a way to climb my mountain. Puzzled, I returned to my car to find, in absurdly perfect timing, another summer school teacher also looking for the same elusive trailhead.

We decided on a united search.

Almost two miles passed before a cairn was discovered in the weeds with what might generously be deemed an opening to a path beyond. A few yards in, an understated sign nailed to a tree announced that we were in business.

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Most of said “trail” – called Mowgli’s Trail – was swamped due to recent rains, so I surrendered my dry feet to the journey and just squashed on through.

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It was delightful.

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Why had I never taken this way before?!

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My new friend and I chatted about NESCAC schools, long distance trails, and a supposed Civil War deserter’s cave hidden somewhere nearby as the scenery became more and more glorious.

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It was getting dark when we reached a small, dirty shelter slouching in the woods (not staying here, I thought); he needed to get back to his car, so we parted ways and I continued on up Firescrew Mountain, Cardigan’s baby brother.

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Mists whipped across a sky above granite bare and steep.

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I followed the blazes up and over Firescrew to the familiar flank of Cardigan.

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Somehow, God never exhausts the ways He is able to display his grandeur. It was as if He had saved the proverbial best for last; moonrise, ripple, vapor, expanse.

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Psalm 8 welled up from the depth of my very bones:

Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
    in the heavens.
When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them? 

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I felt so small.

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Was that it?

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All those trips, step upon step upon step upon step?

Glory.

Wonder.

The absolute vastness of an uncontainable God.

And yet, in all that bigness, that unfathomable huge, He still cares for us.

For me.

Intimately.

Carefully.

Perfectly.

Creatively.

Jesus told it this way: …the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

And aren’t we all lost?

Broken, hurting, misdirected, wandering, searching, desperate lost?

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And that’s where He meets us.

In all of our mess, in all of our failings and stumblings and stubbornness and pain.

He fills us up with what He is full of: compassion and goodness, mercy and power.

O, Lord, what am I that You are mindful of me?

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Thank You.

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So the story ends, for now.

It was too wet and windy to sleep comfortably on top of Cardigan, under the firetower, as I had hoped.

Another detour.

Instead, by headlamp, I wove my way down to the parking area, slipped on a rock and impaled myself on a trekking pole, possibly breaking a rib.

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Oh well.

The picnic table was as good a surface as any, so, sore but dry, I passed the night contemplating the next.

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In an irony totally reserved for God, I found myself the next day hiking the same exact route with our wilderness kids.

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Dangerous weather on the high ridgeline we had planned to hike caused us to change plans at last minute, but isn’t that also how He sometimes likes to surprise us?

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It was okay, though.

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He had already shown me the way.

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On Leaving No Trace

I just got back from a four day foray in the woods.

I was with a group of brilliant educators all participating in an inaugural program aimed at expanding place-based education, sustainability, and experiential learning in our classrooms and schools.

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It was almost a crime to call this professional development.

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There was something magical about this slurry of teachers, solitude, and vision; blend in some sweat, peak-y views, and a few bald eagles, and you have the perfect recipe to energize a tired soul to keep fighting the good fight.

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The tide that often seems so strong against us as teachers – societal ills, indifference, lack of resource – might just be able to be turned were more of us able to just get together and dream.

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One of the principles we discussed at length was the idea of leaving no trace.

Leave No Trace is the wilderness ethic of minimizing the impact of one’s passage through an environment; this includes guidelines such as planning and preparing, properly disposing of waste, and leaving what one might find in the wild – leaf, antler, stone – in the wild.

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As a leader in my schools’s own wilderness program, this is often a challenge with young people.

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Kids are naturally curious and want to touch, pick, throw, and eat whatever surrounds them, so it is a constant battle trying to help them to understand how what they do today will cause a profound echo into what future generations will experience in the tomorrow.

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Is tossing this apple core into the forest okay? What about building a small cairn? Tasting wild blueberry?

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Their sound footprint alone could drive a ranger bonkers.

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I have been thinking of the story of Mary of Bethany a lot lately; she has popped up numerous times over the past few weeks, and I am curious as to why.

God does that sometimes, I think. Percolates an idea, an image, a word over and over until the grounds settle, leaving behind a rich, aromatic brew. Like coffee, this distillate can provide focus if we attend to its message.

Mary’s story goes like this: Six days before the Passover began, Jesus went back to Bethany, the town where he raised Lazarus from the dead. They had prepared a supper for Jesus. Martha served, and Lazarus and Mary were among those at the table. Mary picked up an alabaster jar filled with nearly a liter of extremely rare and costly perfume—the purest extract of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet. Then she wiped them dry with her long hair. And the fragrance of the costly oil filled the house (John 12:1-3).

This act of Mary’s would have been seen as scandalous in Jesus’s day – uncovered hair! a room full of men! perfume costing a year’s wages! – but Jesus wouldn’t allow anyone to criticize her, even saying her act would be remembered throughout time.

As I thought more about leaving no trace and about Mary, however, I began to wonder how they connect to the kind of mark we leave behind.

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Did the Roman soldiers (as the footnote in my Bible suggests), determinedly driving iron barbs into Jesus’s feet, perhaps detect a faint whiff of that aromatic extravagance and ponder what it possibly could mean?

Surely some of the spikenard Mary poured on Jesus spilled out onto the floor of the house where they were gathered. Would others walk by, daysmonthsyears later, and sense the sweet impression of Mary’s outrageous love?

Did the scent linger long in her hair?

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Because the thing is, Jesus was right. Here we are, some 2,000 years later, still remembering Mary’s sacrificial act of devotion.

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She left an indelible trace.

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Like Mary, we have the profound charge of either being to those around us the fragrance of life or the stench of death (2 Corinthians 2:16).

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Although in the wilderness we should tread as if we had never been, in life, we can – we must! – choose the kind of scent-trail we leave behind.

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Mercy, not judgement.

Hope, not despair.

Faith, not fear.

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May the costly oil of our lives be poured out and fill to the full the lives of those around us – a true trace that reverberates across time.

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On Being Afraid

Part One

This past Tuesday, I had wanted to fulfill a long-time desire to see the Alpine Garden on the flank of Mt. Washington, but 60 MPH winds and a 40% chance of rain left me hiking in another direction.

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I’m starting to learn that blindly bulling ahead with a pre-pictured agenda is not always the best option; rather, by surrendering to the circumstance – accepting what-is and trying to find the good in it – is a much brighter path.

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Still.

Mildly disappointed, I scoured for alternate routes using a road atlas, the only map I had at my “summer house.”  (Ha! This “summer house” is really the only house I own, but it lies mostly vacant during the school year, when I live elsewhere, in a dorm, attempting to instill order to a hallway full of monkeys, I mean, middle school boys.) (Would-be thieves, please note: I’m a teacher. There is nothing of worth in my house, except perhaps the television, which I never watch anyway, so you can have it if you’d like. I sometimes forget to lock the door, so there’s that.)

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I had planned on spending the night before my Tuesday hike sleeping in my car at a trailhead, so I looked for something that would fit that bill. Part of the adventure for me is getting outside early and being first on the trail and part of it is finding a site that’s spooky, but not too spooky, to strengthen my aging courage-muscles.

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The Davis Path in Bartlett looked promising, so reluctantly entrusting the health of my house to the older boy during what would turn out to be a power-killing storm, I headed north in the dark.

Finding the trailhead in a downpour proved tricky, so I pulled into another lot instead, snuggled into some downy fluff, and listened to rain thump the roof.

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Finding the Davis Path was a cinch the next morning, so it was straight up for a few miles to start checking off some of the peaks from New Hampshire’s “52 With a View” list: Crawford, Stairs, and Resolution. I had heard of this list before from a fellow author-friend, Dan don’t-even-try-to-spell-his-last-name.

His book The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie is a great resource for anyone wanting a scaffolding for potential summer hikes.

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The beauty of this list is, of course, that every peak has a stunning view at the top, usually from open slabs that are expansive and exposed.

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I passed only two people and two dogs all day, and the reflective nature of the mountains was good for my soul. It wasn’t the wild Washington trip I thought I had wanted, but it turned out to be a much better match for my mood.

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Plus, I didn’t die, so that was good.

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Part Two

Another time-window opened up later in the week, and Washington’s forecast was only half as nasty as before.

When the youngest and I hiked the Appalachian Trail some years back, there were many high traverses we did in crazy wind and weather, but there is a difference in having to walk through that stuff and choosing to.

Choosing to this time, with the option to bail if it got too awful, I slept a few miles south of the Tuckerman trailhead in an undisclosed spot (camping and fires are prohibited along Route 16 – but sleeping in one’s car doesn’t count, does it?) and was rewarded with a stunning sunrise.

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There was no one stirring around Pinkham Notch, so I crept on through and up the Rock Pile.

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Maybe it’s just me – I do have a penchant for getting lost – but with all the money the AMC pulls in, you would think they could invest in some more obvious signage. I was pretty sure I was on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, but none of the signs was willing to reassure me that I was.

With all that vertical – 6, 289 feet – I was just looking for a little confirmation.

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Confirmation arrived some two miles later, at the base of the headwall. So I was on Tuckerman Ravine Trail; I just couldn’t stay on it.

Sigh.

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Still lacking a decent map (this time I was using an old novelty bandana – how hard could it be to find the top of New England’s highest mountain, after all?), I headed up the Lion Head Trail into the wind.

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Ruggedly steep and blasted by squalls, Lion Head gave me the shivers.

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One minute the view was clear and unobstructed, the next it was veiled in fog.

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Vestiges of snow clung to the crags.

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Hiking alone is something I both love and hate.

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I love the freedom of going my own pace, listening or not listening to whatever I like, and thinking uninterrupted thoughts.

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I hate being afraid by myself.

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Even though my son was only 10 when we hiked the AT together, he was clever and brave. I could always count on him in a crisis, even when it was one of our own making. Spooky is one thing; stumbling to one’s death alone on a gusty peak is another.

Sometimes I get to a point where it would take more courage to turn around than to keep going, so I stopped taking pictures to focus on my footing and kept climbing up.

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The last .6 was a crawl.

I had forgotten how stark and sharp all those rocks were toward the top, but thankfully the radio antennae soon came into view and I was able to settle down at the summit snack bar with a hot cup of coffee, watching the cog spew smoke and spying on a thru-hiker fussing with his gear the next table over.

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At last, I felt ready to see the Alpine Garden. Somehow, in all that terror, I missed the turn-off, so I had to wind around the back side of the summit on the Nelson Crag Trail to hook up with the Alpine Garden Trail.

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It added a mile to my down, but it was a mild mile, so I didn’t much care.

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I would like to say that I was as excited as the two aunties I met, face buried in their alpine flora identification guide.

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But I was more like their young nephew tag-along, who was counting spiders, playing the lava rock game, and quoting the Lego Batman Movie.

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Don’t get me wrong – it was pretty.

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Just not particularly dangerous.

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And maybe that’s the point: perhaps one comes to Washington to face one’s fears, not look at flowers.

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Either way, I felt blessed to have done both, even though the plan took longer to execute than I had originally foreseen.

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Plus, I didn’t die.

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So that was good.

On Climbing Cardigan – June

I love yardwork.

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Perhaps it is because I spend nine months at a boarding school where others plant, prune, rake, and thin that I can appreciate the short summer I spend cultivating my own small yard.

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There is something holy about bringing order to tangled spaces, to impose defined upon chaos.

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There is joy in growing grass, especially after such a stubborn winter, but there is also a joy in cutting it back, forcing it to align with our own vision, confining it the the places we ordain.

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In one of my favorite poems, “Pied Beauty,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes:

Glory be to God for dappled things – 
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; 
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; 
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; 
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim… 
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There is something to be said of a topography that is plotted and trim; life is infinitely more messy than that.

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On the way up the Cardigan access road this month, I saw a momma moose galumping into the woods, two frisky toddlers in tow. The little mooselings did as they pleased, butting and rearing behind her, and the look she gave them over heavy shoulder was one I remembered well.

My mother used to have a magnet on her fridge, before she became too frail to access even the lightest foodstuff from its cold interior and had to be fed by others. It decreed, Raising children is like being pecked to death by a chicken.

I’m sure momma moose would agree.

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I know I sometimes do.

I have one boy, a walking crime scene, who leaves a trail of puddle and mess throughout the house, another who needs his meat cut because his one arm is in a sling, and a grown-up girl who has at last discovered that hiking in a desert is hot and could-you-please-send-me-an-umbrella-mom.

We cannot (alas) control our children any more than we can control the constant upping of the grass or the clouding of the sky.

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So how do we do life when it feels like all of our hard efforts are being constantly pecked apart, dismantled, overrun, like a constant sequence of concession-then-compromise: feed the cat, let her out, lose weight, put it back on, open this, delete that.

Health, disease, love, betrayal, vigor, death.

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Perhaps we would like our circumstances to be something more akin to gardening, where we allow that vine to reach only so far but no farther before halting its progress with a precise snip.

Perhaps, instead, we need to look for the pattern in the plot.

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It’s there, just as Hopkins suggests.

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“Pied Beauty” concludes:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

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Lest I forget, there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens times to plant and times to uproot, times to be born and times to die, times to weep and times to laugh (Ecclesiastes 3)

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I am entering one of those times, a new season, right now, where all that mourning, tearing, warring, scattering, searching – all of that hard – has only prepared me for the joyful challenge that awaits.

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King Solomon, the wisest man of his time, knew all about this. That no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end; that finding satisfaction in all of our toil is the gift of God; that everything God does will endure forever. 

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God makes everything beautiful in its time.

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He controls the times and the seasons, not me.

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Praise Him!

 

On Climbing Cardigan – May

Memorial Day, and for the second time in a week, I head up to the mountain I love.

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Two years already you’ve been gone.

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What have you missed?

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Your sister ran a 50K, a 50 Miler, and Boston this year. She and hubby are off to hike the PCT in a couple of days.

Jealous.

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Your one brother started college, played some hockey, made future plans.

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The other one committed but needs to fix his two wrecked shoulders, poor guy, so there’s that.

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Your father has another job, another wife.

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Your college class graduated, many of them off to work, missions, or higher degrees.

I hear from them from time to time. They miss you, too.

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And your momma?

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I’m still here, another year older, drinking too much coffee and not running as much as I’d like.

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Two classes of middle school boys have come and gone, and you know what that’s like this time of year: climbing the mountain, singing the hymn, silently weeping a procession of good-bye.

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They’re wonderful and wild and make me laugh.

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It was a hard fight for contentment, but sometimes, I think, the battle actually looks more like surrender. When we stop wrestling and just hold on, perhaps we give Him room to work. That tricky not my will thing.

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I never got a chance to tell you how I used to pray for you while you were down the road at school.

On certain days, I’d feel a pull, that Spirit-nudge, and run the Durham streets, looping tighter to where you slept, blissfully unaware, in your dorm. Around I’d run, prayers pouring from my heart like tears, like blood, as I asked God to pull you, to nudge you, to call you into His destiny and purpose.

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He answered in a way I could never have predicted, but I have come to trust His ways. I believe He is using you even in death – because of it, not in spite of it.

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So I’ll keep climbing, keep looping, keep surrendering.

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Keep looking for you in rock and cloud and sigh.

 

 

 

The Empty Frame

My friend and I went to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum last month.

On one of the walls of its myriad rooms hung an empty frame.

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The painting it once held was a beauty.

The only seascape ever painted by Rembrandt, this painting depicts Jesus about to still a violent storm on the sea of Galilee.

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The story goes like this.

…when evening came, (Jesus) said to his disciples, “Let us cross over to the other side of the lake.”

Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 

Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Haven’t you learned to trust yet?”

They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:35-40)

If you look closely, you can see that Rembrandt has painted himself into the boat; he is the one in middle, holding onto the line looking out into the storm.

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Sadly, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen from the museum in 1990.

It is out there, somewhere, even though we cannot see it now.

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Today would have been my oldest son’s 24th birthday.

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24 on the 24th; there must be some significance to that.

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He was a beauty, as well.

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He made us laugh, drove us crazy, always showed up.

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He’s the empty frame that hangs on the wall of my heart.

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I’ve always wondered how Jesus could sleep while all hell was breaking loose around Him. He was the one, after all, that thought it was good idea to sail across a squall-prone lake in the dead of night.

Before I unjustly accuse the disciples of unreasonable panic, however, I must remember the many squalls I have had to sail.

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The times I thought Jesus was asleep, indifferent and aloof.

The times I thought my own boat was going down.

The times I dared to ask, Teacher, don’t you care? 

What a ridiculous question!

While there may be times, in fact many times, when we might feel Jesus is sleeping on the job, the fact is, He scolded the Jewish leaders who were hassling Him for healing on the Sabbath by telling them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (Mark 5:17)

Jesus knew the right questions to ask.

Why are you so afraid?

Haven’t you learned to trust yet?

This second year since my son’s accident has been harder than the first.

I’m not sure why.

His brother told me the other day that another year simply means we are getting closer to seeing him again.

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I know that, but sometimes, like the frightened disciples, I forget.

I know that my son is out there, like Rembrandt’s painting, somewhere, safe, even though we cannot see him now.

Quiet! Be still!

The One whom the wind and waves obey knows what He is doing.

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I miss you, Baby.

 

 

 

 

On Climbing Cardigan – April

I’m glad I own a Jeep.

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Winter has hung around a tad bit longer than seems fair up here in the Promised Land, so in a if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em epiphany – with more snow falling and all the students off on a surprise adventure – I grabbed a friend and the Jeep and headed over to Cardigan.

The way up was more rut than road; we slid and shimmied our way to the gate, but such is the state of driving on dirt in northern New Hampshire this time of year.

A chance encounter in the mail room with my friend M was serendipitous. I haven’t had a hiking partner since December, so it was lovely to share all that snow and ice with a kindred spirit.

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The low cloud ceiling seemed to magnify rather than diminish range of view; M and I gazed across the endless expanse trying to identify distant peaks and ski slopes by their shapely silhouettes and cardinal points.

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Ice caked the fire tower and guy-lines, a frozen remembrance of the holocaust of rain that blew through a few days before.

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It would be so easy to grouse about this winter that won’t let go.

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It’s snowing. Again. 

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That wind.

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The cold.

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Instead, M and I discuss children, our own and own-by-proxy, marvel at ice tangles, take a summit selfie just to annoy The Princess, and generally solve all the world’s problems.

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It was so much better than grousing.

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When we let joy be our continual feast, make our life a prayer, give thanks in the midst of everything (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) – we are able to see treasure in the what-is rather than fuss over the what-isn’t.

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I’m not saying I have this figured out yet.

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But today was close.