On Borders

The Princess reminded me recently that she has always lived in a state that borders Canada: Maine, Michigan, New York and now the beautiful Northeast Kingdom.

This week, she and her hubs took me across the border to the tiny town of Stanstead, where we walked through quiet neighborhoods admiring the stony architecture and manicured lawns.

Of course there was a rink.

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Everything was so orderly, including the street we drove down later which had Vermont homes on one side and Quebec maisons on the other. No one seemed concerned that two countries were literally sharing the same asphalt, telephone poles, and drainage ditches.

Crossing back and forth between Canada and the U.S. was peaceful and calm, cars lined up in the queue patiently waiting their turn, people politely answering the Custom Agents’ questions, passports methodically reviewed and found sufficient.

It got me thinking about borders.

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Borders are everywhere.

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Borders are necessary.

Sheep need fences or they will wander off and be torn apart by wolves. Worse, one errant sheep can cause the demise of a whole flock as lamb after clueless lamb follow the leader to their doom.

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Staying within a given border is critical for a society to function.

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Speed limits, postal codes, environmental regulations – these all exist to keep us and those around us safe.

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Sadly, our family knows all too well what happens when you go outside the lines.

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If indeed good fences make good neighbors, as Robert Frost observed, why do we fight so hard to bash against them, try to hurtle over them, tear and slash at their protection?

It seems as if all we do these days is push against each other’s borders demanding that the other side either join us over here or stay over there and leave us alone.

I’m not sure when everything became so complicated.

When I was little, I loved to wander in the woods, adopt stray kittens from the farmer’s hayloft up the street, wrestle and run and raise a ruckus.

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I wanted to be a boy, but when I told my mother this, she simply said, “You don’t have a penis. You cannot be a boy.”

Sometimes the greatest kindness is a no.

I went on to discover that I could be a tomboy and a girly girl, all because my wise mother set for me a border of common sense. By affirming who I truly was, she gave me the freedom to explore all of the complicated me-ness that wanted to be known.

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As an athlete, I am concerned that one day, women like my daughter will not be able to qualify for the Boston Marathon because borders were erased and we could not get them back.

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We need borders.

God Himself gave us borders, 10 rules for living that, when followed, make for a happy and well-balanced life. 

Recently, I have been praying a dangerous prayer.

Fatigue, self-pity, and indifference had worn me thin, and I wanted to get back to a place where walking with God was my highest priority.

So I prayed: Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

Be careful what you wish for.

Did God send me ease, a pat on the back?

Nope.

Things actually got tougher, which made me press into Him deeper, which caused me to see myself clearer, which made me want to cringe and cry.

Jesus called this the plank in your own eye (Matthew 7:3), and mine was the size of a redwood. I wanted to point my finger at that person or this situation, to blame something or someone outside of myself for my own wretched faults.

But here’s the thing: God, the author of perfect borders, did not leave me where I was; He, the Shepherd, led, and I, the reluctant sheep, followed Him back to inside the fence where there truly was good grass and freshclear water.

I am reminded that God is a loving Father who wants to keep us and those around us safe.

He’s not surprised when we push against His boundaries, but He is firm.

He is willing to teach if we are willing to learn.

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Moving is brutal.

This is not a new revelation for me, as over the last 3 decades, I have switched locales more than the Bedouins.

As an adult, I twice moved from Connecticut to Providence and, once in Rhode Island, moved apartments twice more before finally settling into my first married home. Maine and Michigan were next, and, while in Michigan, I moved from a rental home to a split level, all the while accumulating children and belongings.

Following that came New Hampshire: 2 moves in Henniker, from a cramped dorm space surrounded by hostile party-ers, I mean, college students (they resented the loss of their common room, now occupied by toddlers and pre-schoolers, whose schedules were wildly incompatible with their own), then to a Cape my family and I occupied for only 8 months. I lost the shade to a favorite lamp there and, unwilling to give up the lamp or buy a new shade, I boxed up the lamp and ultimately reunited it with its shade – 2 moves later.

From Henniker, the fam moved into a 5-bedroom in Durham with a deck, a yard, and a pool; a year later, a fire forced us across town to a rental (it had a skating pond! and bears!) while wrangling with our insurance company to repair our gutted original home. When they finally complied, it had been beautifully restored, but had somehow lost a bedroom.

Post-divorce, I was forced to sell this wonderful place – my best friend lived two doors down – and split my time between a tiny 2-bedroom in Raymond and my work/dorm apartment in Canaan.

In the midst of all that, I also chose to live for six months in a tent with a squirmy 10-year-old, a different place every night between Georgia and Maine.

Let’s just say I’ve moved a lot.

And while I realize there are people who do this routinely their whole lives – Coasties, for example, or serial killers – let’s just say I’m ready to stay put for a while.

This past week, I moved yet again, across campus, this time into the first floor of a spacious farm house that my school owns. It looks out across a wide expanse of field and is bordered by woods on one side and a clear mountain stream on the other. There’s storage for my bikes and gear, lots of tall windows, a screened-in porch.

My personal Promised Land.

This last move, however, was the one that almost broke me.

Nothing really prepares you – not even multiple previous moves – for the chaos of switching spaces.

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I enlisted the help of many for the big day: my son and son-in-law, handsome Samsons who can throw couches around like confetti; my brother Rick, the one with the truck; my daughter who, despite being half-way through her first pregnancy, lifted and dragged like a champ; my son-in-law’s two sisters, 11 and 16, sturdy Georgian girls not intimidated by a box of books; my colleague from across the quad; and two of my students and their mom, who were kind enough to show up during their summer vacation in the pouring rain. *

I’d like to say I managed this eclectic group with grace and kindness, but the ugly truth is, I was impatient and snippy and completely overwhelmed.

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Furniture arrived, rain-drenched, before I could decide upon a final resting place. Unlabeled boxes had to be dug through to know where they belonged. The newly-installed rug was christened by traffic, and not in a good way.

Despite being barked at by me, my helpers remained optimistic and energetic, hauling things back and forth and up and down, until at last all that remained in the old apartment were the cats and the litter box.

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Cat, actually. We lost one for a while.

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I am comforted in remembering that the story of God’s people is one of constant movement.

Abraham, faithful father of nations, was told by God: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

So he went, not knowing where he was going or what he would find there. But he knew God, knew His heart.

Abraham trusted that God had a purpose in uprooting him, and that the magnitude of the blessing that awaited him would far outweigh any inconvenience.

And so, too, must we trust. We never know where God might move us, but His placement is always secure.

My pastor reminded us this Sunday of the profound goodness of having a roof over our head. 150 million people on planet earth do not have a home, and 1.6 billion live in subpar housing.

What can one person do in the face of such crisis?

A lot, actually.

Sponsor a child.

Help build a home.

Feed the poor.

If all of us do something, even just one thing, we can raise roofs for the needy across the street or across the globe. Be their neighbor.

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I’m happy to be settled into my new place. I’m guessing it will take the rest of the summer to unpack and get things in order, the way I like them.

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I’m hopeful that this long season of moving is over, and I can rest for a while, secure in His placement but willing to go, should He need.

Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Will bring her into the wilderness,
And speak comfort to her.
I will give her her vineyards from there,
And the Valley of Achor as a door of hope;
She shall sing there,
As in the days of her youth,
As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt. (Hosea 2:14,15)

 

*To Rick, Caleb, Maddy, Hannah, Eden, Trish, Caden, Spencer, Pat, and Owen: thank you and I’m sorry.

 

 

 

 

God’s Isotope

“Living things carry an imprint of their environment recorded in isotopes.” ~Jason Moon

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I love high places.

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I’ve been visiting a few favorites this past week, and also paying calls to some I have not seen in almost a decade.

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On the weekend, while hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail my son and I did in 2010 and knocking off some peaks on The Grid, I binge-listened to a podcast a dear friend suggested.

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Bear Brook by Jason Moon chronicles the mystery of four murder victims discovered in New Hampshire’s Bear Brook State Park beginning in 1985, their eventual identification, and the capture of the serial killer responsible for their deaths.

One of the ways they uncovered the identities of the victims, who were (sorry about this) cut to pieces and shoved into barrels was by examining the isotopes found in their bones.

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Environmental isotopes are naturally occurring atoms that carry the signature of the geographic region where they are found, and they make their way into rocks, plants, animals, and even us, revealing our history with a mark that is as distinct as a fingerprint.

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While I listened and walked, walked and listened, I marveled at the complexity of isotopes and the unique map God creates for all of lives.

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What is in our bones?

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God’s vastness is so incomprehensible, and his thoughts and ways so much higher than ours.

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We are so small.

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The prophet Isaiah once observed: He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. (Isaiah 40:22)

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Jesus, too, was drawn to high places. He frequently slipped away to a mountaintop to pray and spend time with His daddy. I’m sure they had a lot to talk about: bumbling disciples, plotting pharisees, the hurting, the sick, and the dead.

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Jesus needed this time to strengthen Himself, gather courage for the way ahead, listen to His father’s voice.

Things always seem so much better up there.

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Perhaps they even discussed Jesus’s answer to an expert in the law who once tested Him with this question: Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?

Jesus didn’t hesitate: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 

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So where do we go to find the map of own lives?

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At times, the way seems so obvious, so well-defined.

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Other times, we come to a crossroad and freeze, hardly knowing which way to turn.

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It’s murky. Unclear.

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We stumble and curse, wishing there were some way to control the swirling chaos and the deep ache inside of us like an imprint in our bones.

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Isaiah reminds us that those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

Spending time like Jesus did, up high, with our heavenly Daddy gives us a sense of proportion. While there, we also percolate in the immutable character of God, absorbing His most perfect isotope: love.

When we are confident of the Father’s relentless, passionate love for us, things down here seem less awful. We find ways to cope, to fight, to overcome.

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It allows us to weigh Paul’s words against our own experience and see the wisdom in his testimony: for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Whether or not we can see the way, we can be confident that God sees. He is the ultimate map-maker.

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And that is more than enough for me.

 

 

On Paying Attention

I got a speeding ticket this week.

It ruined a decades-long streak of clean driving and made me a little crabby, not appreciating the heft of the fine.

The truth is, though, I wasn’t paying attention, and this is something against which we must guard with all fury.

I had spent the previous weeks feeling marginalized at work, wishing the landscape of my life would change, and wondering if I was ever again going to be anything but alone.

Probably the best place to be when self-pity rears its wretched head is at a boarding school, where pace and duty leave no room for despair, where the presence of middle school boys presents endless opportunities for surprise and joy.

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Oswald Chambers writes that “No sin is worse than the sin of self-pity because it removes God from the throne of our lives.

Ouch. Thanks, O.C.

Determined instead to de-throne myself, I tuck the ticket in the back seat, wish the officer a nice day, and drive on, albeit much slower.

It was Saturday, it wasn’t raining, I was done with school for the day, and I was headed to a mountain.

Rejoice, already.

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Thankfully, Tecumseh didn’t scold as I moved up her flank, her bottom half determined to be spring while her top half remained stubbornly mired in snow.

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Ill-prepared hikers skidded and fell in their sneakers and shorts.

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Were they simply not paying attention?

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The other day in chapel, I spoke about nostalgia and the need to be fully present. To not look to the next-next thing, lest we miss something along the way.

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The lyrics of a Talking Heads song came to mind, the song “Once in a Lifetime,” where David Byrne croons same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was over and over and over.

There is a not-so-subtle warning there; we must be careful to fight against the complacency of routine so as not to wind up, years hence, asking ourselves in bewilderment, “Well, how did I get here?”

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On this, Tecumseh-climb #9, it would have been easy to roll up and down, to not notice.

The unfurling.

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Red growth on a rock.

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My friend Chippy, who still doesn’t trust enough to come near.

 

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Life, pushing through.

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Signs, everywhere, if we pay attention.

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Each day a gift.

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A marvel of complexity.

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But we must be sure to look.

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On the way home, I plant bulbs at the base of the tree where my son died. Leave some pennies, a new bracelet to replace the one dissolved by weather and the years.

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Nothing really is same as it ever was.

So we find joy in hope, soldier on through tribulation, devote ourselves to prayer. (Romand 12:12)

Pay attention, lest we miss what matters most.

Sorrowful, Yet Ever Rejoicing

Another birthday, and I find myself this morning crying at a footnote at the bottom of a page.

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I was reading how the apostle Paul journeyed to Ephesus, a stronghold of paganism and magic arts, bringing Good News, the message of hope and peace.

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When they reached Ephesus, Paul left Priscilla and Aquila behind, then he went into the synagogue and spoke to the Jews. (Acts 18:19)

I looked below:

Ephesus was in the ancient world, a white marble city, one of the most beautiful in the world. It had the temple of Artemis, one of the seven great wonders of that era. It also had two agoras, a beautiful fountain in the city supplied by an aqueduct…a large stadium, and many terraced houses…It was in this backdrop that the apostle Paul and his companions planted the renowned church of Ephesus.

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Why was the description of a now-ruined city making me weep?

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I’m always a bit raw this time of year – wondering about my would-be 25-year-old son.

April, birthday.

May, deathday.

What do you look like now?

What might you have been, here, on earth?

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You were such a beautiful boy.

Trusting, hopeful, full.

Flawed, as are we all.

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How transient are the things of earth.

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Stretching, blooming, dying.

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Falling, freezing, melting.

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Later, I read:

Human beings are frail and temporary, like grass,
    and the glory of man fleeting
    like blossoms of the field.
    The grass dries and withers and the flowers fall off,
 but the Word of the Lord endures forever!
And this is the Word that was announced to you! (1 Peter 1:24,25)

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Do tears fall because that no matter how beautiful things are here – even a gleaming metropolis hewn from marble white, or the sign of a promise in the sky  –  they can never compare to the beauty of your eternal church, your heavenly city, your promised forever?

Paul. Knew. This.

He was beaten, stoned, left for dead, his only crime spreading kingdom seed.

And yet he was still able to say, as I am today:

We may suffer, yet in every season we are always found rejoicing…We seem to have nothing, yet in reality we possess all things. (2 Corinthians 6:10)

There’s still work to do here, of course.

Hard, humble work.

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Forgive the ones who have done us wrong, pray for the sick, practice peace and patience and love.

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Make ourselves ready.

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Soon and very soon.

Both Sides Now

Ever since my son died, I have had a fascination with clouds.

Or perhaps it started, way back when he was still with us, on a beach in Florida.

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While visiting the Sunshine State, he and his siblings and I had driven to a state park, paid the rather hefty entrance fee, and set up towels on the beach in anticipation of a banner day.

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As these things sometimes go, however, the clouds rolled in and thunder wrecked the sky, until we could no longer deny that a violent storm would soon be upon us. At the last possible minute, we made a run for the van.

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All that trip – the first we had taken together after their dad had left – the clouds seemed to loom, trying to tell us whatever clouds know.

Everywhere we went, there they were.

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Terrible.

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Lovely.

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Years later, at my son’s funeral, his brother spoke about the long drive home from that Florida trip: a precious memory of a time he had felt closest to his brother, sharing stories of loves and dreams and naughtiness as the two of them, awake, navigated the rest of us, sleeping in the back of the van, through the dark night.

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I ran into my son’s old headmaster the other day, at the Hannaford in Plymouth.

When I asked him how he was doing, he happily announced it was his first day in a while without the crutches he had been using after breaking his leg skiing.

He smiled, then paused.

Breaking his leg was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, he quietly apologized, and I was reminded of why I loved my son’s old school and its kind headmaster so. 

With this small gesture of tenderness, he was saying: I remember. I understand what you might be thinking. I miss him, too.

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I had, that day I saw him, gone north to climb Mt. Tecumseh.

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It was my seventh time atop the 4,000-footer. I am loosely working through “The Grid”: each one of New Hampshire’s 48 special mountains in each calendar month, a task that both overwhelms and thrills. It does, however, give me a reason to get out there, and although it may take decades to finish, it’s a joyful challenge.

There is always certain point on the climb when I look up through the trees and see Tecumseh’s snout, a mile up and away in the distance, and think that I might never make it.

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So.

Far.

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Life seems that way, sometimes: or more accurately, life-after.

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There was a song that used to make me cry back in middle school.

Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell speaks of looking back at things-gone-by and seeing them in a more mature, realistic perspective. It’s a haunting, somewhat tragic song, and I thought of it looking at the Tecumseh clouds.

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The veil is so thin, there, up high.

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In the Book of Revelation, the disciple John has a vision of the sky splitting open and rolling up like a giant scroll.

Behind this, he sees angels, a great white-robed multitude, and even the very throne of the Lamb. (Revelation 6-7)

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Had heaven been there all along? Behind the clouds?

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Is that where it is, now?

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I want to see the other side. 

But like looking toward Tecumseh’s faraway snout, like the Grid, like the steady walk of grief or joy, we can only be where we are, here, between what has been called the “already” and “not-yet.”

What amazes me is not that God promises to bring us, his children, there, but instead to bring heaven down, to us: new, vibrant, bright and pure. (Revelation 21)

So far? 

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When?

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Hours or decades, not even Jesus knows, only the Father. (Matthew 24)

Amen. Come.

Spring Break

My family, the one-once-intact, used to drive to Florida every year.

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For many Mays, this meant getting on Interstate 75 at the last Michigan exit before Canada and following the signs until the last exit in Florida, a thousand miles and a climate change later.

It was always an adventure: 6 bodies in a minivan, the oldest throwing up in New Jersey, the youngest throwing a tantrum in Georgia, books on tape and gas station snacks and music marathons until, at last, we’d arrive, sometimes still talking.

My then-husband and I would drop the kids at my folk’s place and spend a week dining out, conversing with other adults at his work convention, and sipping frozen drinks on hot-white sand.

As a young homeschooling mom, I relished these days, looked forward to them all year, mourned when they came to an end.

I loved my kids, of course – even managed to spend one “special day” with each of them during our time down there – but the break –  O that break! –  from the routine of math and meals and domestic mania.

Naples and the swanky hotel where we’d stay was how I remembered Florida: $8.00 drinks, valet parking, new cars and old money.

But this spring, I took a break from my now 200 school-sons and drove instead to the Panhandle to hike a section of the Florida Trail, a 1,000 mile corridor that snakes from Fort Pickens National Seashore in Pensacola down to the Everglades, south of my beloved Naples.

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I discovered that the Panhandle is not only a different time zone from Naples, but it also felt, in so many ways, like a whole different planet.

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The first person I met on the Panhandle drove an hour out of his way to deliver me to the northern terminus of the trail. Matt, one of the Florida Trail’s many “trail angels,” almost talked me out of being afraid of alligators as we crossed the many bridges from Pensacola to Fort Pickens and snapped this picture on the cold Tuesday morning I began my hike.

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The cold lingered for the next few days as I walked 12 miles of sugar sand (hard) and even more miles of road (harder).

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Unlike many of the trails up north or out west, the Florida Trail must parcel together brief bursts of nature linked together by longer stretches of pavement or dirt roads.

Had I done my homework better, I could have carried a much lighter load, as I passed convenience stores and even restaurants every few hours my first days on the trail.

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Road walks are a cruel necessity, but the time hiking in and out of communities allows one access into that community’s heart.

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I remembered the opulent vehicles that were the norm in Naples, but folks on the Panhandle drive pickups you can work out of, splattered with the red clay of back roads and farm towns and carrying lumber and table saws and hound dogs.

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I watched as a lady trooper, unfazed, donned rubber gloves and dragged a dead deer out of the road. A man pulled over one day and told me he had “seen me walking all day and wondered if I need a lift.” Haha. Thanks but no need, kind man.

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I found 9 pennies one day on a 21-mile road walk. A friend calls these “God-winks,” and I always seemed to find one when suffering a low point of the day.

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I found that folks on the Panhandle still say yes ma’am and no ma’am, hold the door, linger over coffee.

I loved everyone I met, particularly one ridiculously generous trail angel who let me stay at her house, slack-packed me for two days, and, along one sketchy piece of road, drove her car between me and a driveway full of 10 snarling Mastiffs guarding what looked like a trailer cooking meth. When I was finished, Nancy drove me the 100-plus miles I had walked back to my car. Unreal.

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But I went to Florida to walk in the woods, and despite the many road-walks, I found myself in some beautiful but alien terrain.

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I was surprised by the sandy-bottomed streams, clear and cold, that criss-crossed the trail and some haunting spider domes that appeared one foggy morning in the trees.

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Some prettier sections of the trail wended through Eglin Air Force Base, and it was a bit of a logistical nightmare to time walking these bits when my permit allowed so as not to be taken hostage by training rangers or bombed into oblivion. To be allowed on the base, you actually have to pass a quiz on what to do should you encounter unexploded ordnance along the trail. It was a little tense, but some strange scenery kept my mind off being blown up.

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I thought I would see more wildlife, but in the week I was on the trail, all I saw were a few black vultures feasting on some dead thing along the road, a dead squirrel behind the payloader I tucked in back of to pee, the aforementioned dead deer, a huge tick that crawled across my foot, and two snakes.

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I managed to snap a photo of the cute little green guy, but I was too busy screaming and running away from the other monster to consider pulling out my phone. Yikes.

Oh yeah: and on the beach, I saw a dead jellyfish and some shore birds, so there’s that.

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Are there gators on the Florida Trail? Apparently, yes, but I didn’t see any, and I’m not at all sad about that. Some northbound thru-hikers told me that when walking through the swampier areas, alligators “sense your vibrations and swim away.” Alrighty, then.

I had planned on hiking longer, but a nasty blister under my foot and a seriously sore quad forced me off sooner than I would have liked, but isn’t it always better to leave wanting more?

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I’m finding that it’s okay to do things alone, to be alone with my own itinerary, my own thoughts, my own path.

On the Panhandle, I never felt truly alone, and having a new tradition in Florida – spring break on the Florida Trail – seems like an exchange I can live with.

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It may take me years to hike the whole Florida Trail, but I learned a ton this time around and I’ll be more ready when next spring break rolls around.