On Light

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. ~Genesis 1:3-4

The darkness of the whole world cannot swallow the glowing of a candle. ~Robert Altinger

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It was Hanukkah this past week – the Festival of Lights –  and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about light.

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The other morning, I went out for a run. It was still pretty early, cold and dark, so I threw on some layers and grabbed some gloves.

A friend of mine gave me this pair of gloves a few years back, and I have to say, they are one of my favorite pieces of athletic gear. They have these powerful LED lights that ride comfortably across your knuckles and, when your hands are swinging out in front of you, perfectly illuminate the road ahead.

Anything that has a duel purpose – in the case of these gloves, warmth and safety – is, in my opinion, a win-win.

This particular morning, I was about a mile out from the Cardigan campus on Back Bay Road, which is completely devoid of streetlights, when there was a noticeable dimming of the pool of light in front of my feet. Too late, I remembered that I hadn’t charged the knuckle lights in a while, and they were rapidly running out.

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I thought about turning around, but, probably like some of you, I’m pretty stubborn once I get going. So, I alternated between the glove lights, keeping only one hand on at a time until they both….. went…. out….

I still had a ways to go to reach campus.

One thing I will say about the forest around Canaan – it’s dark.

Really dark.

My eyes gradually adjusted so that I could just about make out the pavement, but I had to slow way down.

Occasionally, a car would drive by, exploding the whole road around me in a sea of brilliant light. The thing is, though, after the car had passed and I was alone again, it was even harder to see through the blackness.  

My whole being craved that sweet light. At last, the halo-glow of the lamppost at the end of Alumni Drive came into view, and I was home….safe.

I told this story in chapel this past Thursday, as we were celebrating Hanukkah.

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Light often serves as a metaphor for good. In fact, in the Genesis account, light was the very first thing that God made, so I’m thinking it’s pretty important.

We must be careful to steward that light well, however. Too long in the dark – looking at things we ought not to look at, hiding things we ought not to have, treating with incivility, unforgiveness, and blame those we ought to cherish and respect – and our eyes might adjust to this absence of light.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Spend enough time in the light – craving it, hunting it, chasing it with all your might – and the darkness no longer appeals.

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I was speaking to a colleague about the properties of light this past week. Did you know that light is actually a wave? And that light’s wavelengths include a spectrum of 7 different bands, only one of which is the light we can actually see?

Did you know that the speed of light is 300,000 kilometers per second and is the “absolute upper speed of anything in the universe?” But even though it’s so incredibly fast, some galaxies are so far away that their light may take BILLIONS of years to reach us.

How remarkable to think that when we look into a night sky, we are “looking into the past across vast gulfs of time” (Tulane University).        

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Marvelous.      

Mysterious.

I can’t help but think that if one single candle can overpower the darkness, imagine what a whole roomful of them could do.

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It could be as miraculous as the story of Hanukkah itself, when one small vial of oil kept a menorah lit for eight straight days.

Of course, Jesus called Himself the Light of the World.

I wonder if, when he left heaven to enter the portal of the world through the womb of a faithful teenage girl, he did so at the speed of light. It would be just like Him.

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Our marvelous, mysterious Jesus.

May we crave Him, hunt Him, chase Him with all our might this Advent season.

The darkness can’t help but hide when we choose to put on the light-armour of our great, great King.

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On Grace

My son sent me a photo this morning.

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We are both early risers, so it was no surprise when a text came in around 6 AM – we’d both been up for a while, he opening up the gym at his school, me spending some time praying in the sweet little chapel at mine.

The thing is, I had been looking out the huge window behind the altar at the gray darking the morning sky when, slowly, streaks of brilliant pink sliced through the gaps in the clouds, winking dawn into being.

It made me all warm and fuzzy inside, knowing my youngest was admiring the same sky, the same sunrise, the same Creator of the same expanse.

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Recently, I’ve been reading about Jacob and Esau.

These two brothers came out of the womb fighting and things went rapidly south when Jacob stole his older brother’s birthright then tricked him out of their father’s blessing.

Eventually, Jacob flees from Esau’s wrath, and the two spend years estranged from one another. But when Jacob finally prepares to meet Esau again, their reunion is nothing at all what he expected.

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his 400 men…

Jacob must have been terrified, watching his brother advance, hoards of burly herders blocking his way.

So Jacob went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.

And they wept (Genesis 33:1-3, 4).

I almost wept, reading.

Grace.

It reminded me of the story of the Prodigal Son, whose father must have also been looking out upon a vast expanse of world that had swallowed his boy and bound him, captive to his own wretched desires.

Why would anyone want to leave the Father?

But just like Jacob, the son finally realizes that estrangement is tearing him apart. He longs for reconciliation, longs for the warm fuzzy of his father.

So the young son set off for home.

From a long distance away, his father saw him coming, dressed as a beggar, and great compassion swelled up in his heart for his son who was returning home. So the father raced out to meet him. He swept him up in his arms, hugged him dearly, and kissed him over and over with tender love.

Then the son said, “Father, I was wrong. I have sinned against you. I could never deserve to be called your son. Just let me be—”

The father interrupted and said, “Son, you’re home now!” (Luke 15:20-21)

You’re. Home. Now.

Isn’t that what we all want? The embrace of grace that tells us I love you even though, even if, even now. 

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I’m so grateful for grace.

Because we are all Jacobs, all prodigals, all wayward children longing for the pink dawn-touch of the Father, a home in the vast expanse of His love.

 

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On Letting Go

Next week, nearly two years and three months from the day he drove his car into a tree, I will shut off my son’s phone.

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The phone has rested on my bureau, bookshelf, table, or nightstand, in my private home or workplace apartment, all throughout this long season of grief and recovery.

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Though lifeless and inanimate, it has helped me come to terms with the man my son was becoming and has allowed me to connect with him despite his conspicuous absence.

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Finding the phone itself was not an easy thing, those shortlong years ago.

I wanted to know, we, his family, needed to know – what happened? 

Where were you going, my sweet son, and what were you doing? Were you texting or shuffling your music, navigating or calling your friends?

Why?

We received neither phone nor answers when his broken body arrived at the funeral home, not even the clothes he was wearing nor the cross from his neck.

A search was mounted: first, to the fateful tree, and next, to the garage where the wreck had been towed.

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His father and I clung to each other in the hot sun of the parking lot, weeping, as we beheld the crumpled heap, our own brokenness forgotten for a time in our shared sorrow.

No, it wasn’t easy to dig inside the car’s sad interior, littered with glass and dirt and rain, through the bark and bottles and blood, to find the device dangling under the dash at the end of its charging cord.

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Of course, there was a password that had to be cracked. Part of a zip code, our zip code, where we once lived as a family of six.

So. Much. Loss.

We discover that he had not been texting, nor shuffling, nor looking at Waze. A small comfort, I suppose, because it was not the phone that killed him, but ignorance and alcohol and speed and pride.

One of the troopers in charge of my son’s case leads me to the accident report, which to this day I have still not been able to read in full. But there were witnesses who saw: a casual arm out the window, a brush with a traffic cone, a swerving, no seat belt.

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Why?

Too much to drink the night before, distraction, hurrying – home? We will never know in full.

My last texts to him, a day or two before his accident, are chilling. We talk of retrieving his car, newly repaired and inspected, and his hair, freshly cut. Why did I choose that emoji, a head swathed in cloth, when I would not see his face, too damaged by the crash, ever again?

Why did he choose those words?

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I don’t know what to make of this.

What I do know is that God speaks to me through His word, and in the weeks leading up to the crash, everywhere I turned, everywhere, were the promises of Psalm 23.

The Lord is my best friend and my shepherd.

His tracks take me to an oasis of peace.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.

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He was preparing me, I know that now, just as He prepares me now for this next step of letting go.

Another Psalm comforts me today. It speaks of the path before me and the path that was my son’s.

You know every step I will take before my journey even begins. You’ve gone into my future to prepare the way, and in kindness you follow behind me to spare me from the harm of the past. 

You saw who you created me to be before I became me! Before I’d ever seen the light of day, the number of days you planned for me were already recorded in your book. (Psalm 139: 4-5, 16)

Even as I consider that this fall my son would have launched himself officially into adulthood – his college class having graduated this past May – and perhaps we even might have worked here together, at our beloved shared school, side by side, even as I consider this, I know I must continue to let go.

God knew how long Gordie would live, even before he was born, and He knows the length of my days.

What is your only comfort in life and death? the Heidelberg Catechism asks.

From the heights of heaven comes the response, as well now knows my boy.

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I am not my own, but belong, with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

So I will scroll and listen for the last time, text myself from his device to hear his unique tone on mine one last time, and turn the corner, and wait, and watch: try to fit a life’s worth into the days left on the path ahead.

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Until, of course, we meet again.

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 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.