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.


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?


What might one learn?


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.


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.


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.


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.


It was delightful.


Why had I never taken this way before?!




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.


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.


Mists whipped across a sky above granite bare and steep.


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


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.


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? 


I felt so small.


Was that it?


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



The absolute vastness of an uncontainable God.

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

For me.





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?


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?


Thank You.


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.


Oh well.

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


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


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?


It was okay, though.


He had already shown me the way.


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.


It was almost a crime to call this professional development.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


Their sound footprint alone could drive a ranger bonkers.


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.


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?


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


She left an indelible trace.


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).


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.


Mercy, not judgement.

Hope, not despair.

Faith, not fear.


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.



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.


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.



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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


Plus, I didn’t die, so that was good.


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.




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


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.


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.



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.



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


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


Vestiges of snow clung to the crags.


Hiking alone is something I both love and hate.


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


I hate being afraid by myself.


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.


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.


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.


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



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


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.


Don’t get me wrong – it was pretty.


Just not particularly dangerous.


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


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


Plus, I didn’t die.


So that was good.

On Climbing Cardigan – June

I love yardwork.


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.


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


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.



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… 


There is something to be said of a topography that is plotted and trim; life is infinitely more messy than that.




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.


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.


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.


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.


It’s there, just as Hopkins suggests.




“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.


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)


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.


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. 


God makes everything beautiful in its time.


He controls the times and the seasons, not me.


Praise Him!


On Climbing Cardigan – April

I’m glad I own a Jeep.


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.



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.


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



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


It’s snowing. Again. 


That wind.


The cold.


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.


It was so much better than grousing.


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.


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


But today was close.



On Climbing Cardigan – March

Part 1 – Bad Vision


One of the wonderful perks of teaching at a boarding school, besides the lads themselves, is that said lads must go home from time to time, occasionally for gloriously extended periods, usually a few days after we’ve both hit each others’ last nerve.

Finding myself with a boatload of quiet and too much of March to manage, the weather broke clear on Saturday: a decidedly good day to see what Cardigan looked like after the latest nor’easter.


I seemed to be the only one not wearing snowshoes, and the reason soon became clear. The trail, though lightly tread, had not caught up with the dumps and flurries of the previous few days and was not packed down.

Walking in microspikes was work.

I had forgotten my contacts at my non-Cardigan residence, so I had decided to wear my old pair of glasses, the wobbly ones held together by packing tape.

Hiking in glasses can sometimes be a challenge, and this day was no different.  The combination of the crisp air and my sweaty forehead fogged the lenses until, weary of taking them off every few minutes to clear away the condensation, I finally gave up and stowed them in my pocket.


It was as if the world contracted to the small square of real estate around my feet. I could sweat with abandon, stare at the snow under my boots, see only the things I might reach out and touch with a trekking pole.



I think sometimes it is hard not to see the world this way.


I know I would like to think that I try to picture what it might be like for another person, their situation, their perspective, but the truth is, my hallowed little halo is home and it’s hard to envision otherwise.

Jesus warned of this danger.

The Pharisees, those ancient goody two-shoes, thought that because they studied and kept the law, their spiritual vision was 20-20. But Jesus saw their pride and selfishness when they could not see it themselves; in fact, He often saved his most scathing words for those who should have known better, but had such trouble seeing.

Hypocrites! Brood of vipers! Whitewashed tombs! Mt. 23:13-37 Mt. 12:33-37

What must they have thought to be called out so publicly?

Jesus exhorts us to love our neighbor as ourselves, Mk. 12:30-31 to bear one another’s burdens. Gal. 6:1-2

This was the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus asked the people who had just heard Him tell a story of a man beaten by robbers, ignored by the first two passers-by, then saved by a dreaded Samaritan: “Who was the injured man’s neighbor?”  Of course, all who hear this story now are unable to respond with anything but “The one who had mercy on him.” Lk. 10:25-37

So what was it about the two men who crossed the road to avoid helping the injured man? One was a priest, the other a Levite, religious agents who ought to have known better.

Was it that they could not SEE him as their neighbor?

Was it simply a case of bad vision?

Part 2 – Bad Dog

There were many people on the mountain that day, although honestly I couldn’t see any of them very well.


After reaching the summit and helping two fellows who had gotten turned around and were heading down the wrong trail, I took photos until my phone froze and started back down myself.



As I was humming along – downhill is so much easier –  a dog came bounding up the trail.

The man running behind him called out “He’s friendly” just as the canine leapt on me with muddy paws and nipped my arm.

“He just likes to jump,” the man yelled as he ran toward us.

“But I don’t like to be jumped on,” I grumbled, moving aside to let him pass.

Could it be that our singular definitions of “friendly” did not align? It appeared to be so as he glowered at me and huffed up the hill.

But there it was again: another case of bad vision.

Part 3 – Bad Neighbor

Because the snow was so thick on the mountain that morning, one thing I noticed was the contrast in color between the orange blazes and the muted whites and greys of the surrounding world.


Hard to get lost on a trail marked so clearly.


And yet, this week I wandered off course and discovered a blind spot in my recent behavior that caused injury to another.

Social media can be a dangerous platform, and I had used it in a way that neither lifted this person’s burden nor demonstrated loving another as myself.


Repentance sometimes gets a bad rap in today’s feel-good society.


And yet, I was wrecked by the depth of my own inner bad-neighborly-ness, the utter cold black of my pulpy heart, because here is my confession: I knew what I was doing, but I did it anyway.


I lied to myself about motive, but really I had acted like a modern day Pharisee, an unmerciful Levite, the owner of a bad dog.

But grace!

Listen to this stunning promise: If we boast that we have no sin, we’re only fooling ourselves and are strangers to the truth. But if we freely admit our sins when his light uncovers them, he will be faithful to forgive us every time. God is just to forgive us our sins because of Christ, and he will continue to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

I’m here to tell you it’s messy work.

It’s hard to find your way back when you’ve stumbled off the right trail, especially if you try to do it in your own strength.


Jesus knew this.

When His disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray, He challenged them to ask the Father: Forgive our sins as we ourselves release forgiveness to those who have wronged us. And rescue us every time we face tribulations. (Luke 11:4)

Repentance is just a fancy word that means “to turn around” or “to face a new direction.”

Just like those two men heading down the wrong trail, we can turn around, I can, and get back on track, but we must be willing to offer the same unconditional forgiveness that we ask for ourselves.


So. Hard.

But I’m thankful for the bright orange signposts of His word, thankful for how it helps us to see, thankful that it’s never too late.


Another storm is on its way.

There have been so many.

Remove my broken glasses, Father, and help me to see.


On Climbing Cardigan – February


Last Wednesday, the mercury was forecast to hit highs peculiar to February, so I woke up early and climbed Cardigan while it was still dark.


I needed the quiet to prepare for a talk I was giving the following day at Cardigan Mountain School’s weekly chapel service. I was excited but nervous for this opportunity, and time alone on a mountain has always been my happy place – even more so, that day, with the conditions so rare.


Something Jesus once said had been percolating in my spirit for a while, and I am still trying to understand its full meaning.

After His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus spoke of His own impending death when He told the people, “Truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24)

I think perhaps He may also be speaking of us.

Finding meaning in Gordie’s death has been a hard pursuit at times, but there is a promise hidden in this verse: a seed is only a seed if it dies and is planted, followed by fruit.

I have been praying since his memorial service that my son’s death would draw others to this truth, the stunningly outrageous good news of the gospel. The hope that is available to us all.

I also feel compelled to share how one bad decision can wreck so many lives, even if that outcome was never the intention.

There are so many deaths we can die, every day.

Death to self, however, can be that harvest-producing seed; just look at Jesus.

Most days, I feel so overwhelmingly un-up to the task, but I try to remember He would never ask of us what He Himself was not willing to give.




Here’s the text of that chapel talk. Some of it is recycled from a past blog, some of it new.

I can’t bring myself to watch, so crazy-awkward, but if you felt like seeing the recording, here’s the link: Cardigan chapel.



Let the inner movement of your heart always be to love one another.

Live happily together in a spirit of harmony, and be as mindful of another’s worth as you are your own.  

Do your best to live as everybody’s friend.

Never let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good. (Romans 12: 9, 16, 18, 21)

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.                      (2 Corinthians 4: 16-18)


So I’d like to begin by saying that I wish I wasn’t up here today, telling you this story that I am about to tell.  I wish I could be talking about something else, anything else.

But our theme this year – “WHO ARE WE” – compels me to consider what exactly has caused me to be the person I am today; we all have our stories, and this one is mine.

It’s a tough story to tell, but I think there is hope tucked inside, as well.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Nowak invited us to think about defining moments: times when we were forced to confront some event of consequence, to consider how it might have affected us, to perhaps even concede how it might have changed the very course of our lives.

That day for me began ordinarily enough.

It was May 28, 2016, and I had been shopping for a pull-out couch for the new tiny home I was about to move into. Returning successful from the store, I puttered around the kitchen of my soon-to-be-former home, mixing ingredients for granola and singing along to Pandora.

Owen, my youngest child and a Cardigan brother of yours from the class of 2015, was out mowing the lawn in the oppressive spring heat, a dutiful son just doing what needed to be done, however reluctantly.

Such pedestrian things preceded the event that was forever to separate what followed into my personal BEFORE and AFTER.

I cannot say what compelled me to look out the front window. We lived on a cul-de-sac, and the only people who ever drove by were delivery trucks or neighbors. The last time I had looked out, Owen was zig-zagging across the grass, earbuds in, shirtless and smiling; it would be the last time that face would smile for long time.

I watched as two police cruisers pulled up and parked on the street by our walkway; the officers were slowly exiting the vehicles, making their way to our front door. With everything in my heart, I willed them to go-away, go-away, go-away, praying that there had been some mistake, but, on some inscrutable level, knowing that I just knew.

I invited them in. What else could I do? Lawnmower abandoned, Owen trailed in behind.

At least they were kind when, terrified, I felt their officiousness was taking too maddingly long and I pleaded with them to just gettothepoint.

They admitted there had been an accident.

A fatality.

And does your oldest son Gordie (another Cardigan brother, 2010) have any distinguishing birthmarks? What is the color of his hair? What was he wearing when you saw him last?

The horror of these questions only later sank in, hours and a lifetime later: that his face was unrecognizable after colliding with a tree going close to 80 miles per hour.

In just a few moments, I had become the mother of a dead son and Owen had left childhood forever behind.


Gordie had spent his final day on earth at Holderness, playing alumni lacrosse and surrounded by people he loved. Later, the only part of him the funeral director would let me see or touch was his cold right arm.

He had been grumpy that last morning I saw him, the previous day.

It was uncharacteristic of him; but being asked to move a broken refrigerator out of our all-too-narrow front door when you’re late for work would bring out the crabby in anyone, so I teased and thanked and forgave and said good-bye for what turned out to be the last time.

It’s impossible to remember my last words to him, looking back; it had been what I had thought would be an unremarkable morning at the beginning of an unremarkable day at the end of an otherwise unremarkable week.


And now.

Oh, what I miss.

The way his green-eyed charm pressed my heart-walls until my chest ached. That laugh. Those dancy feet. The way he once carried a fallen maple leaf in pudgy toddler hand, blond hair dazzled by the wind of a coming winter.

How he had learned to skate. To write. To love. To drive.

I tried my best to be his mother, to guard his ways and warn and trust.

Put on your boots. Finish your carrots. Turn off your light. Text me when you get there.

I prayed: Father, guide him. Father, save him. Father, protect him. Please?

What was it about Gordie that drew people in? He was funny without trying, kind without guile, quick to lend or offer or grant or give.

He used blow through the front door trailed by a wake of friends, not ashamed to call me Momma or say I-love-you or drop a naughty word just to get a rise. I miss that.

The memory of driving home with him from Cardigan that first time, he abuzz with Athens and aqueducts and his roommate Allen. I couldn’t keep up; he had taken ownership of his education and I could not have been more pleased.      

Thank you, teachers, who remember him now.

Smells. His favorite muffins. Old Spice, like my own dad when I was small. Hockey gear fresh with sweat.

I miss the obvious things, of course. Sound of voice and touch of hand. But the layers of miss…the not-yet and never-will-be. His never-bride and never-babies, the never-career and never-failures that I might have celebrated or counseled with him.

I have discovered it is possible to miss something that never was.

He never saw my new tiny house, my new black car, or me in my perfect new office at my perfect new job.


Good is relative now.

I miss that feeling I used to have, waking up, knowing he is, no matter where, no matter how many miles apart we might have been. The simple possibility of him.

I ponder heaven now, the where of it, what matter of distance separates him from me. I consider that perhaps it is measured in sighs and tears rather than feet or miles, at least from my end. That heaven is a place, that it is real, is what anchors my soul, remembering all that Jesus promised and clasping tight what-will-one-day-be when I’m not sure I can endure.

I miss and miss and miss and miss until my eyes ache now and my arms and my gut and my soul.

But I am reminded that the Bible says I am surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. 

My green-eyed boy is one of these now, exhorting me to run with perseverance the race marked out (Hebrews 12:1) for me.

There is something about these backward roles, he-cheering-me now instead of me-cheering-him, that stops my heart.


Run, Momma, I can hear him whisper.

Don’t miss me too much.

Because these things that you miss are just benchmarks on your way back to me.

Before. And after.

This is my story. This is who I am now.

I am the one who every day must walk past a small bronze urn on a dresser that holds what once was my 200-pound, living-breathing man of a son.


I am the one who might hold a hug a little longer, especially if it’s a friend of his I haven’t seen in a while; sometimes I pull out my phone to tell him….only to remember, like a punch.



I am the teacher who some days wants to say won’t you just cut it out; don’t you know how lucky you are to be… sitting in class/dressing for dinner/going to practice… with your friends and the rest of your life ahead of you? Don’t you realize how blessed you are?

I am the driver who slows at accidents. No, I’m not one of those gawking people; I only want to see if I can in some way help or comfort…like the man I met at Gordie’s wake, who told me he had been the first to arrive at the scene and had held my son’s hand and spoke quietly to him as he died.

I am the mother whose children know that they can never, ever, under any circumstances, ever forget to text me when they get to wherever they are going.

I told you when I began that this was a tough story to tell, but here is where I find my hope.

Because the thing about going through the very worst that could happen to you is that it frees you in ways you could have never imagined or expected. My son’s death has made me bolder, softer (sometimes), less easy to offend.

I am no longer the one who is afraid of dying, because, as a believer in the resurrected Christ, His heaven, and the renewal of all things, there is no such thing as death – only life, life, and more life, expanding exponentially, multiplying itself out forever like an unbreakable rubber band.


This is who I am now, after my son’s accident.

And because this is chapel and because I care about all of you perhaps more than you might ever realize, this who-I-am-now would like to leave you with two ideas that I’d like to think might challenge you in some way.

The first one you may want to remember, perhaps soon, perhaps years from now, when you find yourself in a position where a critical decision, a before/after decision, must be made.

Please listen: what I am about to say may shock you – at least, in some ways, I hope it does – so please listen.

Because I’m telling you right now that you do not want to get behind the wheel of a 2-ton vehicle and drive it drunk into a tree, shattering the windshield, your face, and the lives of the ones you love. You do not want to do this to your momma, your brothers, your sisters, your dad or auntie or uncle or friends.

You do not want your parents to have to remember forever the sight of the impossible angles of the fender and broken wheel of your shattered car slumped in a dirty puddle of the towing service parking lot.

You do not want to make your mother dig through bloody glass to find your phone that will never ring for you again, to uncover any clue, something, anything, that would explain what you were doing and where you were going when you knew your sober friend had volunteered to be the designated driver.

You do not want to be the one whose birthday can only be celebrated now by posting pictures that only age year after endeless year, when you will grow no older than 22.

Gordie did not wake up that beautiful May morning and think, this is the day I am going to die.

He did not realize that the drinks he had had the night before his accident, playing cards with old friends, would still be coursing through his veins as he ran around in 95 degree heat on an astroturf field. He didn’t realize that the beer he shared at lunch with those same friends would push him over the legal limit.

He had just wanted to come home.


So please – make the decision now of who you will be then. Make it now, so that when the temptation comes – and it will come for all of you, one day – you will be able to hold up under it. Because some things, regrettably, cannot be undone.

Before I share the second thought I would like to challenge you with, I would like for you to look around.

[Thanks for your patience – I promise I am almost done.]

Please look to the right of you.  Look to the left.

Maybe the person sitting next to you is your classmate, teammate, teacher, or friend. What I would like for you to think about is that you probably don’t know what that person next to you is facing on any given day.

You don’t know if they heard in a phone call last night that their parents are about to divorce; you don’t know if their mother is sick or that they didn’t play much in the game yesterday; you don’t know that they just got a D in French and their secondary school list just got a little shorter or that it took every nano of willpower for them just to get out of bed this morning.

What I would like you to know, however, is that you have the power to add weight to already heavily burdened shoulders, or to take it off.

Jesus once told the dusty crowds of Galilee, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

We have the unique opportunity, I might even argue obligation, to take up the yoke of our nearest brother or sister, to help them bear their weight, redistribute it, make the pulling easier – not pile on more and walk away.

To those of you who have been quietly doing this all along, steadily balancing your brothers’ burdens, I say thank you. You are noticed. Well done.

To others, who perhaps have not yet settled this is your heart, why not let this be your before and after moment?


Think of the potential in your one uplifting word, compassionate act, or insult withheld.

Perhaps it is time to posture your heart toward healing, not hurting.

I want to close by saying that I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I have become okay with this who-I-am now. My son’s death was a fragile gift that God has trusted me with – I carry it carefully, hoping that, by keeping it safe, I might be able to honor the years he lost with the ones I have left.

Gordie once sat where you are now. He spent his days tackling schoolwork, waitering, and Eaglebrook running backs with variable zeal. He certainly wasn’t perfect; he had his struggles, just as you have, just as we all have. Perhaps he might even want to be sitting here again, although, I believe, probably not. And this is why.

You may have noticed that when you entered the chapel today, it was not to the familiar light-sweet notes of Mrs. Perricone’s harp. Instead, the song you heard, called  Where I Belong, (you’ll hear it again in a minute) is an anthem of sorts, a declaration I play to myself when I’m having a bad day here on this dirt sphere.

I like to remind myself that I am only here for a blink. That God has promised to prepare a place for His children; a place where, as Tolkien writes in Lord of the Rings, “everything sad will come untrue.” Sam to Gandolf

This world is not my home, nor was it Gordie’s.

Someday, I believe, I will see my son again; and we will have all of eternity to catch up.

Thank you for listening.


We cannot know the grief

That men may borrow;

We cannot see the souls

Storm-swept by sorrow;

But love can shine upon the way

Today, tomorrow.

Upon the wheel of pain so many weary lives are broken,

So may our love with tender words be spoken.

Let us be kind.











On Climbing Cardigan – January

My oldest earthly son turned 22 this weekend.

This was a tough milestone, as that was the age of his brother when he crashed his car and became a citizen of heaven.

When they were little, my children believed all sorts of silly, erroneous things, as children are wont to do. As a child, I myself once believed that when your parents wanted to move, they would have to find a family to switch houses with, and I wondered how anyone was ever able to move anywhere at all.

My kids used to think that they would be able to catch up in age with their older siblings, stealthily gaining ground year by year, until, at last, they became the oldest, usurping all the rights and supposed privileges of the eldest, favored one.


Now, it almost seems as if this has come true.


I’m listening to a book called All Things New by John Eldredge. In it, he describes what the Bible actually says about the afterlife, and it is astounding. Hearing his words, I felt like a child again, finding out that my neighbors were not going to have to swap houses with some random people from New Jersey.

He speaks of what Jesus refers to as the palingenesia, or “Genesis again.”

When we die, heaven is just the place we wait until Jesus returns to restore, renew, Genesis-again everything to a state even more glorious than what we might imagine even heaven to be like.

Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago… (Acts 3:21)

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5)

I’d read those verses, but somehow I had missed it.





The thought of living in this new earth, free of stain and sorrow, makes the waiting bearable.


Perhaps we will all be 22.


I hadn’t planned to climb Cardigan today.

After uncovering a nefarious plot in my father’s assisted living community to leave the residents woefully un-caffeinated (a headache, ever after drinking two cups of their supposed “coffee”), and after a faculty pond hockey game was cancelled due to decidedly un-wintery weather, it seemed there was still day enough to head up the muddy access road to check January off my list.


Conditions couldn’t have been better.


Although icy in spots, it was warm and sunny, with just enough wind at the top to feel vindicated in carrying a hat.


Bare rock even poked through in places.


Eldredge posits that in this all-things-new earth, we will be able to return to all of our favorite places. They will be the same places, but better, newer somehow.


It’s hard to imagine a place more beautiful than Cardigan was today.


The son who was first to arrive, to wait for the palingenesia, used to be afraid of eternity. He couldn’t wrap his little-boy mind around its enormity, and he sometimes cried that he wished it wasn’t true.


O my son.


We cannot wait to catch up with you.


On Climbing Cardigan – December

The forecast looked grim late in December  – temps in single digits, negative wind chills  – when I finally had a minute to breathe and think about this month’s climb.


The students were gone, the campus quiet.

It was the day after Christmas, and the fam was readying to scatter to their various environs after a sweet couple of days together doing what we like to do best – play some hockey, work out, eat, and make messes, I mean, memories.

So after a furious sprint of packing, cleaning, and minor Jeep maintenance, the son-in-law, his brother E, and I headed out to Cardigan to try not to die.

I knew the road to the trailhead lot would be closed for the winter, which meant an extra mile in and out each way, but we had a shovel with us and were able to carve out a parking space at the gate with a few hardy others taking advantage of the sunshine and free beauty.


Although it had only stopped precipitating the day before, a kind soul had risen early and packed down a fabulous path all the way up to the icy slabs at the summit. With boots and Microspikes, it was just a matter of putting one cold foot in the front of the other, up and up and up into the frozen marvel of this agreeable mountain.

Hiking with long-legged twenty-somethings when one is, ahem, older than that took some perseverance; they let me lead, and I felt at times driven along by their strength and enthusiasm. The son-in-law was even carrying a sled, with which he hoped to descend at a quicker pace than I could manage, yet still the two of them had to stop and wait for me to pretend to take pictures so I could catch my icy breath.



I thought about how the snow covered the ragged places on the trail, how it smoothed the rocks and roots and ruts under a desert of white that made it both easier and more difficult to traverse. Boots could skim over silent brooks or break though hidden crusts in equal proportion. Because you just didn’t know what was underneath, what was coming, how to exactly prepare.

I thought about how hope is like that, sometimes heavier to carry than even grief.

The weight of it.


Wondering when it will break, open, release.

The apostle Paul knew about hope, the unfulfilled wantingwaiting ache of it.


He told us we could glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)


Hope does not disappoint.

Though I know this to be true, have proven its verity many times over, it still arrests me, gives me pause.


We hope because we know there is something up ahead, something better, something worth waiting for, persevering for, suffering for.


Something that will make the desert places, the sharp scales where our feet slip and buckle and crack, worth the neverknowingwhen but knowing just the same. 

We hope because we know this is not the end of the story.


Heartache and injustices and hardship can quash our spirit or soften our hearts, but the choice is up to us.

God-love feeds us on a continual diet of hope.

I want to savor its sweetness, believe in its assurance, wait on its promise.

We are all hoping for something.

Elsewhere Paul writes hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:24a, 25)

When we reach the frozen granite at treeline, I beg the young ones to forge ahead, and they storm the summit first, wait there for me.


It’s too windy and cold to linger.


I’m tired and ready to be done, but the walking seems easier on the way down.



A hot shower awaits at home, and there are new adventures to plan, new hope chasing on the heels of hard.

I’m glad I had the chance to climb Cardigan in December. 

I think of that passage in Isaiah, and laugh thinking of those crazy, sturdy boys. 

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but 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 40:28-31)

Soar. Run. Hope.




On Climbing Cardigan: November

Driving through Vermont with family the other night, we played a game in the car called “Rate the Lights.”

It was simple game, invented by The Princess and her hubs, wherein you ascribe a 1-10 value to the Christmas displays that have nudged Thanksgiving aside these past few days.

My nephew loves flash, so houses bedecked with what other – lets-just-say more discerning – voters might consider gaudy he would rate a “10,” while my brother would give high marks for creativity  – an old plow wrapped in white strands, a peace sign made from colored bulbs hung on a barn (he lives, after all, in Vermont).


For me, it was all about simplicity.

In each of the front yards of my family’s past three homes grew a single spruce, and the sum total of my outdoor decorating consisted of hanging this lone tree with a few strands of large bulbs that once belonged to my mother.

I used to love plugging them in late in the afternoon, the light waning, before heading out for errands. Nothing pleased me more than rounding the corner on the way home in in the now-dark and seeing that honest beacon welcoming me back.

Whether I was carrying car-seated infants, groceries, or hockey bags, I knew as I walked by those lovely lights I would be opening the front door to family.

I’m back at school after a long-ish Thanksgiving break; my family, too, have dispersed to their various commitments, so it was good day to climb Cardigan again.

Driving up the access road, I watched the temperature gauge on my dash drop until it settled to a brisk 27 degrees at the trailhead lot.


The trail itself was coated in white, and many were abandoning the endeavor half-way up, as recent run-off had frozen solid, making the way more like a luge than a path.


I was happy I brought along my grippy microspikes.

Slipping them on over my trail runners, I was able to navigate the tricky places until I found myself alone on top being blasted back and forth by powerful gusts that had scoured the summit clean.

The wonder.


Off to the south, sunlight fell like rain through the clouds.



Icy puddles spooned in granite depressions.


Myriad blues shape-shifted behind the clouds, a palette crafted by a perfect Painter.


Much ado is often made about joy during the Christmas season, and rightly so.

Immanuel means Godwithus. Love put on flesh, broke bread with us, washed our feet, and revealed the Father. Died so we might live.

For some, however, this long stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s can carry with it the baggage of loss. Even in the most functional of families, children grow up. Marry. Move away.

The family that now lives in my last house cut down my spruce tree; naught but a specter remains of what-was.

I think that sometimes in this season it might be easy to get carried away with the flash – to equate sparkle and glam with meaning and magnitude.

Events in past years have had the effect of recalibrating my capacity for joy. It is no longer dependent on circumstance or proportionate to expectation.

Clinging to the Cardigan fire tower today, gazing out at a beauty so profound and pure, I was thankful for the way that God has fathered me through.

His is a simple equation.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:12)

Wonder = joy.

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