On Walking 2,000 Miles with a 10-Year-Old: Part Two, A Cautionary Tale

So I wrote a book.

It took five years, and the process was messy and magical, frustrating and joyous, arduous and effortless. It made me feel competent one day, helpless the next. It wracked me with guilt sometimes, blinking cursor mocking me from that blank screen; other days, I lost track of time bouncing between iPhoto, the reverse online dictionary, my journal, Google-searching synonyms for the word eerie, and http://www.funnycatpix.com

In fact, the writing process eerily (sorry – couldn’t find any good ones here on easysynonym.com) mirrored the journey about which I was writing: the 158 days Owen and I had spent hiking the Appalachian Trail.

I loved remembering those days. Back then, everything was, although remarkably uncomplicated, a study in contrasts. Trying to voice what it had been like was a labor of love.

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I’m learning that writing a book is the easy part. Getting published is a whole ‘nother…well…story.

Anyway, one day, Owen and I had hiked 22 miles in the rain. We were cold, wet and miserable when we reached the shelter where we were planning to spend the night. Inside, we discovered a group of camp counselors-in-training who had hiked five miles and had called it a day because their stuff was all wet. It was raining. DUH. The shelter was littered with their soggy gear, and they begrudgingly let us in, pointing us to a corner of the structure that was small and puddled and dark.

When we had arrived, the four of them had been arguing whether or not to brave the night. They were supposed to, for their training, but one of the girls lived close by and finally, after a long contentious debate, convinced the others that having her dad pick them all up was a better alternative. They were whiny and rude and completely clueless about shelter etiquette, so we were not disappointed when they decided to leave.

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Here’s an excerpt from that chapter….

In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous. -Aristotle

Chapter 12 – Two Days in Dixie

June – Maryland

Owen and I made ourselves small, voicing sympathetic noises as gear was grabbed from above our heads and out from under our feet; we were not worried about them taking anything of ours, of course, since we had not been afforded any space in which to unpack in the first place.

At last, ponchos on, they headed reluctantly out into the weather. Given the spectacle in front of us for last two hours, Owen and I had not taken any time to orient ourselves to the shelter’s surroundings – the location of the privy, for example – still, it was with surprise that we watched the camp counselors turn left out of the shelter, away from the AT and the approach trail we had come in on. Perhaps they knew an alternative route to their meeting place? Left sure looked like the way to the privy to me, but I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to impede their departure in any way by an uninformed comment. They disappeared, and Owen and I busied ourselves by unpacking into the cavernous space they had left behind.

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It was no surprise, therefore, when five minutes later in the dusky light, the sorry group came cursing back and marched silently past the shelter in the direction of the AT. By then, we had not only made ourselves cozy, but had discovered a few odd items they had left behind in the rush to bail out. Wordlessly, Owen held them out, relay-race baton-style, and each item was snatched out of his hand by the passing pilgrims without a backwards glance. It must have taken a lot of practice to become that helpless.

We waited until they were out of earshot to raise a cheer.

Settled comfortably into our down cocoons, Owen and I began listening to Adventures of Jimmy the Skunk by Thornton W. Burgess on my iPhone. On the nights when we were too tired to prop ourselves up and read, we were working our way through many of Burgess’s delightful animal adventures.   We were particularly enamored of this Audiobooks narrator. Headlamps off, rain pinging lightly on the roof, we snuggled close together, dry and content.

“Hey. Look, Mom,” Owen’s voice rose drowsily from the dark. “Over there.”

“Over where?” I said, leaning up on an elbow and straining to peer over his fluffy bulk to where he was pointing.

“Over there, down low,” he breathed. “On the other side of the shelter. Do you see it?”

“Well, I’ll be darned,” I whispered back. “Let’s turn off Jimmy and watch what happens.”

In the perfect blackness of the quiet night, a tiny life and death battle was being waged on the opposite wall of the shelter. How the spider’s web had remained intact through all of the earlier commotion I could not fathom, but there, entwined in its silken grip, was a lone firefly. Like a heartbeat, the orange glow of its tail pulsated rhythmically as it thrashed to break free. As Owen and I watched, the intervals between blinks began to grow longer as the firefly’s strength waned.

“I’m going to see where the spider is,” Owen said.

“Okay. Just don’t disturb it.”

He inchwormed his way across the floor of the shelter, sleeping bag still attached to his nether regions, flicking on his headlamp only as he neared the far wall.

“I see it, Mom!” he said in a stage whisper. “It’s down here, by the floor.”

“It’s probably waiting for the firefly to tire before closing in.”

“Poor firefly.”

“Everyone’s gotta eat.”

“But what a way to go. Do you think it knows it’s doomed?”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s probably going to keep fighting till the bitter end. That’s what I would do.”

“Me too,” I said. “But why don’t you c’mon back over here and shut off your headlamp so you don’t interfere with the laws of God and nature.”

Obediently, he scooched his way back to me. We repositioned ourselves head-to-head, two exclamation points stretching out toward opposite ends of the page, so that we could both turn our faces toward the combatants.

Owen’s breathing gradually slowed until its cadence melted into the dying glimmer-beats of the firefly.

As he drifted off to sleep, I considered our four former sheltermates.

Perhaps that night they had dined on real plates, washed their grilled steak down with some iced drinks, brushed their teeth in tap water that did not need to be doused with chemicals or filtered through a pump. By now, they were probably showered and changed, lying clean-clothed in crisp sheets, alarms set to waken them in the shade-drawn darkness of their private rooms. No doubt they were congratulating themselves on their good fortune.

But what had they forfeited?

To begin with, the opportunity for competence. I pitied them their eagerness to take the easy way out, their inability to work through the uncomfortable, their lack of belief in themselves to stick with something despite the cost. But it was more than that. What of true value had they really lost when they had packed up and fled?

The genuine measure of a mile.

The sound of rain tickling the leaves.

The patient watchfulness of a spider.

The quiet wonder of a little boy’s heart.

This is what I knew: something pure and honorable and sacred had been sacrificed, and I would not have traded places with them for all the comfort in the world.

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On the One Thing

 

“Martha, Martha.”

She must have frozen at His voice. Was it gentle, scolding, smiling, stern?

We’ve probably all been there. Rushing around, doing doing doing, trying to cook, trying to impress. Meanwhile, she just sits there, NOT DOING ANYTHING TO HELP.

I’ve been thinking about Martha this Thanksgiving week, the story about when Jesus pops over for dinner. Luke tells it this way:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

It’s so easy to judge Martha, 2,000 years and a Bible later. We read this story and tsk tsk her, wondering how she could ever be so clueless as to be worried about the hummus and naan when GOD’S VERY OWN SON was hanging out in her living room.

Martha was the practical one.

By the time Jesus arrived at Martha’s doorstep, His ministry was picking up speed, and there were a lot of people following Him around. In fact, just a few paragraphs earlier, Luke relates the story of the 72 disciples Jesus sent out, and how they came back rejoicing to Him that even the demons submit to us in your name. They may have been rejoicing right up to Martha’s front door, and who can blame her for looking out the window in horror, wondering how she was ever going to feed them all.

Martha, Martha.

And there was Jesus, dusty and tired, surrounded by perhaps a few dozen of His closest followers, relaxing, talking, laughing, teaching. And who is that scooched up right under His very sandals? Could it be? Is that my lazy sister Mary?

Yes, if we are honest with ourselves, we have all had our Martha moments. Moments when we feel unhelped, unnoticed, unimportant, unloved. When maybe we even feel that we’re the only ones doing the right thing, and the rest of the world is a bunch of slackers.

“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Outrageous.

Martha spouts off at THE LORD and tells Him to tell her sister to helpoutwithdinnerforthelove. Did Jesus get angry, rebuke, scorn? All we have are the few words of Jesus that Luke records, but when I imagine the scene, I picture Jesus with a small smile teasing the corner of his mouth, His eyes dancing with love and fire.

Martha, Martha. I see you working over there. I see your heart, Martha. I know you want only to please, to bless. And, yes, we have traveled far and we are hungry and you are seeing to it that our simple needs are met. I so appreciate that.

I see you, Martha. I see you, but come over here. Come closer. I have something important to tell you.

Worry and disorder are not of My kingdom, Martha. Your distracted mind and troubled heart have no place in My presence. My kingdom is a peaceable one, even in the midst of strife, yes, even then. Especially then. Yes, we are many and we are hungry, but did you not hear how I fed the 5,000 with but a few loaves and fish? I AM not worried, therefore you need not worry. Don’t you trust Me?

We are constantly told as parents that we should never compare our children, so it has always surprised me that Jesus tells Martha to regard her sister Mary, sitting at His feet. Few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

My own kids love to tease each other about who is “the fave,” but of course they know there is room enough in my heart to love each of them with an abandon that sometimes hurts. So surely the Creator of the universe, Maker of hearts, knows His children well enough, knows the love between the two sisters, knows that Martha would not resent the comparison.

Only one thing is needed.

It’s a picture of the cross before the cross. That’s the whole point: Jesus isn’t asking us to perform, to work, to earn His love. He already loves us, has loved us from the beginning of time. We don’t need to rush around, to jump through spiritual hoops, to do or be anything other than ourselves.

Only one thing is needed, and, at first glance, it sure looks like the least practical thing. Sit with Me. Be with Me. Listen to Me. Choose ME.

Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

I have to say this is quite the relief as the chores begin to stack up from a day spent giving thanks. I’ll just sit here with Him. The dishes aren’t going anywhere.

Plus maybe if I wait, somebody else will do them.

 

 

 

On What I Miss About Being the Mom of Littles

I was sitting in church the other day marveling at all the wee ones bouncing, crawling, drooling, spilling, and giggling all around me. We have a remarkably fertile church – I think there’s an actual term in Christian-ese called “biological expansion of the congregation” – and watching all the littles and their beautiful mommies and daddies brings me great joy.

One never knows when a wave of nostalgia might break. Seeing all those littles called to mind the many things I miss about being the mom of littles, now that my four babies can dress themselves and load the dishwasher and roll their eyes. Here are just a few of them:

~Naps…Yep, not gonna lie, the struggle to get a house full of toddlers and infants to sleep all at the same time was a gargantuan challenge. As soon as one would drift off, sweet milk seeping from the corner of rosebud lips, another would pop his or her curious tousled head up out of the covers and ask, “Can I get up now?” Dear One, it’s only been five minutes. NO YOU MAY NOT GET UP NOW. Mommy needs at least an hour before she can cope with the afternoon. One ridiculous year, I had not only my own children, but also the daycare kids I watched to “put down” (that sounds so deliciously final, doesn’t it?) for their naps. Every day, one little, whose mom confessed, “I can never get him to nap; it’s just too hard,” protested during this most holy time with a violence totally out of proportion to what I was asking of him. (It’s a nap, Cooper, not the SAT’s). I, being the ADULT, and hence, in charge, would wait out his tearful protests until at last, with great drama, he would succumb. Hours later, he would awake in full scream, always with a diaper full of poo; I suppose he thought that made us even. But when it worked…all of us deep in REM unison, the house’s hushed ticking like the rocking of a boat, it was a marvelous and spiritual thing. Of course, I can nap now. But without the struggle, it doesn’t feel nearly as victorious.

~Nursing… Are you kidding me? Is there anything more intimate and soothing and sacred than nursing the blood of your blood, flesh of your flesh? (Well, perhaps the event that inspired the baby’s genesis, but this is a post about littles). Morning, noon, and night – and mid-morning, late morning, late afternoon, late evening, midnight, dawn, and any other time an empty belly cries – mothers are given the awesome privilege of actually feeding their human babies with the extract of their own bodies. This is a deep, deep mystery, and one that I dearly miss. Young mothers, may I suggest that never again will you be able to meet your child’s express need so precisely than when you are able to nurse them from misery to bliss? Stop, sit, cuddle, coo. With all the other crazy that comes with the territory of being a new mom, I think God really knew what He was doing with this one.

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~Smaller battles… Honestly, I can remember times when the little’s decision whether to wear a sensible outfit or his Pokemon costume to a playdate was a battle to the death (and looking back, why did I even care?) Now that my littles are big, however, and can speak with real words and use sneaky logic, it is harder to know who’s actually in charge. Smaller people, smaller battles. But make no mistake: we are exhorted to train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Train, train, train with everything you’ve got because, sooner than you’d ever believe was possible, your little will be asking for the car keys or talking to (gasp) girls, and unless the seeds you have sown are faithfulness and self-control, you will be fielding phone calls from the police or your son’s school (or so I’ve heard…wink…sigh).

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~They stay put… When you put a baby down, say, on the floor or in a jog stroller, as a general rule, that’s where you will find them when you look for them again. Teenagers have way too many moving parts and are unwilling to be tied down to anything as tedious as an agenda. I’m heading out to hang with the boys, Ma, I’ll see ya later is the most specific information I can expect from my 19-year-old on any given Friday night. Which boys? Out where? Define “later.” It’s constantly in flux, and for this reason, I am grateful for the iPhone. On the other hand, that astonished look on a baby’s face when you pop yours back into their field of vision after a short hiatus is as comical as it is dear. Wait! You were back there the whole time? Nobody told me! I miss that.

~ Bedtime… Don’t get me wrong. Spending the day with a little, or a herd of them, can be wild and unpredictable and exhilarating. I loved every waking moment I spent with my wiggly littles. But no matter how you may feel, you’ve gotta put your game face on every morning, especially when it involves a trip to the grocery store or your in-laws. Days with littles are looooong. At the end of the day, though, when all the tears have been kissed away and they’re bathed and jammied and tucked in tight, the most magical thing happens. You open their favorite book and even though they’ve heard goodnight comb, and goodnight brush, goodnight nobody, goodnight mush a million and one times before, and even though you might still be harboring a wee bit of resentment over the jelly incident at lunch, the warmth and the stillness close in until the universe compacts into just the two of you. Your breathing slows as a chubby hand reaches out to twirl a strand of your hair. Your cheeks touch. You whisper prayers. Soon, your little’s tiny body is curled up like a comma and you wonder if it’s even worth it to get up and move to your own bed. These days, I’m lucky if I outwit, outlast, or outplay my bigs’ bedtimes. More often than not, I’m poking my head into their room on the way to making the next day’s coffee and smiling at the bulky heap of their cusp-of-adulthood bodies, so reassuringly there, a shadow of what once-was. I suppose this, too, is magical, but not at all in the same way.

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My biggest little is married now. And though I miss her once babyfine curls and small sweet voice, I am comforted by this profound truth found in the book of Ecclesiastes: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…

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One day, she and her brothers might have littles of their own, and what joy will fill my heart then!

The apostle Paul reminds us that it is not God’s way to leave us in one place for too long. He writes: When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Our wise God has given us seasons to enjoy, and it’s good to revel in the now-ness of them as well as to look back and treasure.

As much as we would love to linger, He moves us ever-on, growing and learning and becoming, so that one day, we will stand before Him in all our Christ-likeness, no longer in-part but, at last, complete.  

On Sticking

This one might be a bit raw, but I suppose, as an English teacher, I’ve preached the credo “write what you know” enough to believe it. Our stories are our own.

Let’s just start with this: God is love.

Not our human, dependent-upon, fickle, memememe kind of love – the kind that falters or bolts when we’re met with an unkind word, a disappointing action, an unfulfilled expectation.

No, God’s love is a love that sticks. It sticks through our prodigal wanderings, it sticks through our lusts, it sticks through our greed and our judgements and our indifference; it sticks through our snappish demands, our overt cruelty, our not-so-benign neglect and our worrisome fears. God’s love stuck itself right up there on the cross where, despite the brutish spikes and the mocking spittle and the bloody thorns, its final words were ever-still looking out for our best good: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

God is love. God loves. There is nothing and no one like our Love-God, and not even the most sacrificial, pure, holy, human love can approach the mighty, reckless, awe-ful, fearsome love of God.

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I was married once.

My husband and I fell in love in the usual way – with laughter and shared pursuits, and eyes that held over candles, and sweetness and emotion and abandon. For over two decades, we woke up in the same bed, oftentimes with a nursing baby or a sick child or a couple of cats or all of the above alongside. We propped each other up when I began to unravel under the strain of motherhood or he was fired from his dream-job or our house burnt down or the kids took turns rebelling. Friends died and family members struggled and we moved more times than I care to count, but through it all, I thought: this is it. This is love.

Until, one day, it wasn’t anymore.

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I missed the signs, wrapped up as I was in my selfish self, and thinking, how lucky am I – he’ll never leave, and though the silences were growing more alarming and his business trips seemed to blend one-into-the-other until he was away more than he was home, I nevernevernever thought he would walk away. Nights I would sit upstairs in our bedroom reading fictional accounts of people who sounded like they had it all together and he would sit downstairs in the “family” room playing iPad solitaire. It was desperate and heartbreaking, but I thought – we have time. This is rough, but we have time. Someday this will get better and we’ll have a great laugh, together.

Falling-love is easy. Sticking-love is not.

Sadly, that someday became instead a one-day when he said I can’t, and I won’t and I’m done.

How does one recover from such a thing? Get up every day and move about the world as if, as if, as if I could still eat and still sleep and still will my heart to beat on and still think can I make it back to the safety of the car before I break down for the umpteenth time today? Still smile at my children?

Still believe that God is love?

In the Gospel of John, the disciple Jesus loved, (this was how John oftentimes described himself; good ol’ dependable John!) recounts how many followers of Jesus began to fall away from Him when Jesus said these shocking words: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This was obviously a hard thing for Jesus’s twelve main men to hear. Was this Jesus crazy? What could His words possibly mean?

Without getting into the theology of the richness of what Jesus meant – how His sacrifice will nourish us if we are willing to identify ourselves with His suffering – what happened next is what we really need to remind ourselves of when our own earthly sufferings startle us to attention.

For when they began to question and argue, Jesus asks His disciples point-blank: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” He wanted to hear from their own mouths where they stood with Him. Although being, of course, Jesus, He already knew.

Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” 

Good ol’ impetuous Peter! Answering a question with a question. He’d been around Jesus long enough to have learned some of the Master’s nifty tricks. And he’d also been around Jesus long enough to know that there was no where else to go. Jesus’s words may have been shocking and hard – they still are, 2,000 years later – but they are life, hold eternal life.

You do not want to leave, too, do you, my daughter?

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Lord, to whom should I go? 

Where else can any of us go when the life we thought we were living suddenly strikes us on the heel? When the love we thought we knew drains away from us, leaving us empty and abraded? Or when we realize the things over which we thought we held sway – health, dreams, job, home, friends – are not actually ours to control? Never were.

Lord, to whom should I go?

Then comes His gentle answer. Come back to where you started, My child. Remember who I AM. I am love, your love, your best love. My love never falters, never runs, never leaves nor forsakes. My love is sweet and and light and affirming and constant, but I will tell you it can also be firm and heavy and corrective and bare.

My loves calls to you when you have forsaken my ways and are hiding in the trees. Adam, where are you?

My love cheers you on when you feel totally unqualified to do the things I have asked of you. Be strong and courageous, Joshua. Do not be afraid.

My love gives you purpose because I believe the best of you. Whom shall I send, Isaiah? Will you be my sent one?

My love fills you to overflowing so that, through you, I can bless others. Feed my lambs, Peter.

My love challenges you for your greatest good. Beloved, if you want to be my disciple you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me. For if you try to save your life, you will lose it, but when you lose your life for me, you will find it. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?

My love both asks and answers the uncomfortable questions.

Jesus: You do not want to leave, too, do you?

Me: Well……

Jesus: My child, be sure of this: I am with you always, until the very end of the age.

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His liberating, uncompromising love is the flesh and blood of your life. It sticks. Yes, things might look pretty grim right now. They may feel jagged and merciless and unfair.

But His love can restore even that, yes, even that.

Human love can be patently unsticky. We are all, yes all, guilty of loving unstickily.

But that is why it is so amazing that we can with confidence listen to His love whispering to us in those bruised, tender places.

I am love.

I love.

Follow Me.

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On Equilibrium

So I was subbing in a biology classroom this week.

First, let me offer how grateful I am to have a job, a steady job, in my field (sort of), that pays reasonably well, keeps my mind animated, and gets me out of the house so that I may interact with other people besides my cats. I’m blessed and I know it.

One of the wonderful things about substitute teaching is that every day is different. (This can also be its curse, but let’s not go there today.) A sub can be coloring zoo-phonic animals with chatty kindergarteners one day (G-Gordo-Gorilla! Guh-Guh-Guh!), or solving algebraic equations with squirrelly sophomores the next.

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Quickly one discovers the culture of each school, which is, unfortunately, disproportionately dependent upon Those In Power – the principal, the deans, anyone responsible for maintaining order: The Ones Who Have Your Back. This is important for a sub, for as every student knows, it is open season to misbehave when Mrs. Peterson is out sick. It is a lot more fun to sub at a place where discipline is not a naughty word and Those In Power have firmed established a culture of kindness, trust, and earnest expectation.

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The particular high school where I found myself subbing in this bio class was one of those coveted kind places. I’m happy when I get called to go there, and I was happy when, after handing out the reading on volcanos, the students were immediately productive, each finding a quiet place in the lab or hallway to digest the information.

This left me with nothing to do. Typically, I might catch up on the news, check my email, or subversively snack, periodically taking a tour around to make sure students are on task. Anything more invasive is seen as hovering, and teenagers are not huge fans of hovering.

I also like to learn. Since these students were being quiet – in a non-suspicious way – I grabbed the volcano handout and started to read.

The first paragraph transported me back to August 27, 1883, to the island of Krakatau where, at 10:02 AM, an explosion likened to the force of a nuclear bomb blew the tiny island to smithereens, producing 135 foot tsumanis, a column of ash and debris 3 miles high, and an airborne sound that traveled half way across the globe, the longest distance ever in recorded history. All that was left of poor Krakatau were two small, denuded humps they had to rename Anak Krakatau and Rakata.

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For a moment, let’s not focus on the enormity of the cataclysmic event, the 40,000 people who died, or the geological re-ordering that occurred when the displaced sea flooded back into the newly formed subterranean caldera. Let’s just say it was big.

What truly amazed me was reading about the re-colonization of Rakata. Nine months after Krakatau blew herself apart, French scientists were combing the sterile surface of Rakata for evidence of life when they discovered one microscopic spider. It was the first living organism to appear, so they were puzzled. How had it come to be on the now-naked island?

As childhood readers of Charlotte’s Web may remember, newly hatched spiders spin a thread of silk from their tiny posteriors; when this filament catches a passing wind, the baby spider soars up and away, joining (and here’s the amazing part) an entire microscopic universe of creatures called aeolian plankton. I was familiar with your garden variety sea plankton, the huge masses of algae and protozoa that course through the ocean on currents, like a mobile delicatessen for the more ambulatory critters of the deep; but AIR plankton? Who knew?

Do we breathe in these planktonic bacteria, these fungus spores, these small seeds and aphids and insects and the myriad other invisible creatures that blow around us waiting for their BIG CHANCE to land somewhere hospitable and begin terrestrial life? Apparently, we do.

More incredible facts about the re-life-ing of Rakata emerged as I kept one eye on my students and the other on Southeast Asia. As the invasion of the aeolian plankton began to green the barren surface of Rakata, other players began to arrive. Lizards negotiated the straight between Rakata and the nearby islands of Java and Sumatra, dining on sea crabs along the way. Birds flew over, and bats, butterflies, and dragonflies. One reticulated python, a serpentine version of Michael Phelps, took to the water and slithered up one day. Lazier species hitched rides on log rafts or buoyant pumice stones, so that decades after the eruption, frogs, rodents, and other small animals once again began to hop and crawl and glide over the island, defecating and dying and decaying, leaving a trail of rich soil behind them for more flora to take root.

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Species surged and waned, advanced and retreated, checked in and checked out, until at last, after about a century, the island ecosystem reached an equilibrium.

It made me wonder.

Do we ever reach anything like equilibrium in our own lives? And what would that look like?

I know for a fact that there are times when we ourselves are scoured clean, Krakatau-style, by what the apostle James calls “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). I don’t think James was talking about the I-didn’t-get-a-parking-spot-at-the-mall or there’s-no-milk-for-my-muesli trials, annoying though they be, but the BIG ONES. The death of a loved one. Job termination. Loss of relationship. The inability to conceive. Sickness. These kinds of trials grab us by the throat, cut off the oxygen, force us blue-faced to the throne of grace where we plead and rant and demand that God TAKE IT AWAY.

Instead, we are met with silence. Or worse, His unmistakable answer: wait. What advice does James have for us then?

The answer may be as surprising as aeolian plankton:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-5).

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Perhaps for God to repopulate the weedy islands of our hearts with all of the good, fertile things that should be growing there – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22) – He must first create an environment of disorder, even chaos: a soul-slate wiped clean of hatred, pride, jealousy, unforgiveness, lust, bitterness – all the uglies that take root and try to choke out the “Christ-in” us.

When the volcano blows, instead of hiding under the dust, perhaps we need to be open to all of the re-ordering God must do in us and through us. Instead of heading back to the mainland of our old comfort zone, we must, like the reticulated python, persevere to the new landscape of hope up ahead, even when we can’t see anything that looks even remotely hopeful. Instead of desperately trying to squirm out of the discomfort and pain, or try manipulate and scheme it away, we can, like the baby spider, abandon all notion of control. Trust in the One With All The Power, who is always good all the time because He is only one who can see the big picture and because He has our backs.

Maybe there isn’t any such thing as true equilibrium. Looking back on my own life, there have been seasons of violent erasure followed by seasons of slow but gentle growth. Much as I wish God could teach me some other way, He knows my stubborn heart. Knows I can only be truly His when complete surrender to His hand is my default setting, when my desire to be “mature and complete, not lacking anything” overrides my desire to have my own way.

Yep. It’s a battle every day.

This side of heaven, we will never completely be all that we were created to be. I’d like to think, however, that the more we cooperate with the Father, the more we will come to resemble Him. We are His beloved children, after all.

May I ever be able to declare like my big brother Jesus: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done.”

On Walking 2,000 Miles with a 10-Year-Old: Part One

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The Appalachian Trail is a footpath that traverses the spine of the ancient mountain humps of the eastern United States. Due to land acquisitions, changes in rights-of-way, and relocations, its length fluctuates to within a few miles from any given year to the next. In 2010, the year my then 10-year-old son and I became part of the eclectic band of travelers known as “thru-hikers” – those who walk the entire AT in one shot – the trail measured 2,179.1 miles.

There is a lot one can learn about a child in that distance.

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In an age when many 10-year-old boys might be found glued to their video monitors chasing nazi zombies or being furiously driven from after-school care to play date to soccer practice, my little 80-pound rascal believed he could walk alongside me across 14 states, forgoing nearly all modern conveniences and luxuries to become not even the youngest somebody to attempt such a thing. (The governing body of the AT, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, discourages such age-related record-setting, but it is widely known that, in 2013, a 5-year-old named “Buddy Backpacker”completed a thru-hike with his parents, earning him the “youngest person ever” distinction. You can read about him here: http://www.backpacker.com/special-features/kindergarten-can-wait/.)

Thru-hiking the AT had been a dream of mine since high school, and I had introduced all of my four children to the mountains – with varying degrees of success – as soon as their little legs could propel them up a steep slope with minimal complaining.

But for Scooter (the trail name he would choose for himself on our hike), walking the Appalachian Trail would have to become HIS endeavor. Although many a youth hockey parent might disagree, prodding from without is a poor substitute for desire from within. The good news was that Scooter was the Borek child my neighbors called whenever they wanted rocks moved, logs stacked, or snakes relocated. He had climbed 3,165-foot Mt. Monadnock at the age of six, prompting some teenagers from an urban high school also hiking the mountain that day to point at him and exclaim, “C’mon fellas! If he can do it, we can do it!”

I felt that if he was willing to own his own hike, then there was an excellent chance that he just might be able to finish the entire trail.

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The thing is, I couldn’t have asked for a better traveling companion than my low maintenance, long-fused, open-hearted, single-minded, rugged, reliable little boy. He had a way of diffusing the most awful, ridiculous situations with his simple perspective or optimistic outlook.

One night, Mom decided it would be a good idea to tent atop one of the beautiful southern balds. These curious mountains – some as high as 5,000 feet – lack the trees you might typically find at their elevations further north. Scientists disagree as to why these gentle giants are covered only in wild, blowing grasses, but I had been eagerly anticipating this section of trail ever since hearing about the balds, had wanted to pitch our tent at one of their summits and lie under the stars with nothing but atmosphere pressing down.

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I probably should have noticed the pattern. For the week leading up to our entry into the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, although we walked each day in pleasant sunshine, every night like clockwork we had been assaulted with violent thunderstorms, forcing us to sleep either in the many 3-walled shelters along the way or set up camp under the protective canopy of forest.

Ignoring the heavenly signs, I timed our long day to end on Snowbird Bald. Standing on its flat peak, Scooter and I could look down a mile in every direction to where the safe treelike began.

Yes, let’s tent here.

I cannot begin to describe the horror of the situation as it unfolded. A few harmless-looking dark clouds skimming across the distant rim of the Smokies became an manic deluge punctuated by sky-splitting, eardrum-blasting rages of light that exploded all around us. As tent stakes were ripped from the ground, I clung to the nylon tent wall to prevent us from being sucked into the maelstrom. Nothing remained dry. Trying to reach the treeline would have been – if possible – an even more egregious error than my initial one, the mile in between an exposed minefield of electricity.

Cowering on top of my foam sleeping pad, praying that the lightning strikes would either kill me instantly so I wouldn’t have to explain my folly to his daddy, or disperse through the ground and not fry both our brains, over and over I cried out to my trembling son, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I was the adult. He had trusted me. How would he ever follow me again?

When at last the storm passed, its cold indifference more heart-rending than a breakup, Scooter and I sagged out of our ruined tent to take stock. And what did he do, this son of mine, who had every right to wail and accuse and condemn?

He laughed! Grabbing the soggy tent fly, he ran around shrieking and whooping in a youthful display of ebullient bravado.

I loved that kid.

Later, as we lay, spent, in puddles of rain and tears, he quietly thanked God for sparing us, tenderly offered me his forgiveness, graciously never brought it up again.

Was this what Jesus meant when he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”? Matthew 19:14 

Surely my little one seemed to get it. Got that finger-pointing and blame-gaming are not the passkeys to the kingdom, that kindness, forgiveness, and awestruck joy are what swing wide the door to Jesus’s crazy, radical, upside-down kingdom. Why do we, as adults, feel that judgment and effort and exclusion gain us entry, when all God really ever requires is worship?

From his ash-heap of suffering, even Job was able to glory, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:7-10

Scooter was pretty good at glorying, too.

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Toads the size of softballs. Brilliant orange salamanders. Petting-zoo friendly deer barricading the footpath in Shenandoah National Park. Wild-maned ponies. A mushroom masquerading as a tee’d up golf ball, begging to be hit.

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All evoked a sacred wonder from my son, a response to pause, contemplate, adore.

Once, in a frenzy to get to the next shelter before nightfall, and somewhat annoyed at my dawdling son caboosing behind me, I hiked right over a coiled-up rattlesnake, eliciting a “MOM!” from his horrified lips.

I had missed it. He had not.

Hiking with a 10-year-old was frequently nerve-wracking, often frustrating, and occasionally downright terrifying. One thing it never was, however, was boring.

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Scooter could make the dullest of days a party simply by humming a tuneless ditty about why Mom was mean for not allowing Little Debbie oatmeal snack cakes to be breakfast. He could talk for hours about carnivorous plants, the Everest ride at Disney, or the composition of bear poop. He could laud town food, a found machete, or the attributes of the most comfortable rock to plop down upon. He made me laugh at silly signs, encouraged me when I felt I couldn’t go on, and was polite and generous to everyone we met. He alternated between exasperating and heroic, lived every day like it was a miracle, and made my time on the trail one of richest experiences of my life.

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I probably could have hiked the 2,179.1 miles by myself.

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But why in the world would I have wanted to?

On Identity

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Saint Luke – physician, author, fearless traveling companion of the apostle Paul – begins his gospel in the following way:

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught. Luke 1:1-4

From there, Luke launches into the incredible drama of Jesus’s birth, boyhood, and explosion into His earthly ministry.

The climax of Luke’s early account is the heaven-ripping, dove-descending, water-washing baptism of Jesus when the very voice of Father God booms down from above, “You are MY SON, whom I love; with You I am well pleased.” Luke 3:22

Whoa.

God has been speaking to me recently about my identity. And before you think to yourself, “Gee, that girl is bold, thinking that God would speak to the likes of her, the likes of us, being mere humans and not, therefore, GOD,” let me say that this was not always the case with me. The sad fact is, that for many years – most of my childhood, much of my rash young college years, and in disparate decades throughout my “older” adulthood, I couldn’t be bothered to listen to what God was saying to me.

What a shame! How many mistakes, heartaches, disappointments, and pain could have been averted, had I only unstuffed my stubborn ears and truly sought the voice the One who spoke the cosmos into existence with just His word.

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But I’m listening now. And the way God speaks to me is intimate and exciting and personal; any doubt cruelly lingering in my mind as to if I truly hear Him or even what I hear is execrated from my consciousness by His insistent, still – small – holy voice. It comes at all hours of the day and night, in scripture, in the secular, in echoes from blogs and emails and websites, in prayer, in dreams, in worship, in tears, in the advice of friends, in spin class, in song, in the turning of a leaf, the fall of snow, a penny on the ground.

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You’d have to work hard not to hear Him.

And apparently our identity has been on His heart lately.

It might be easy to examine how we identify ourselves by our actions and accomplishments. This is the United States of “I can do it myself”; I live in Yankee “pull up your bootstraps” New England, in the state of “live free or die” New Hampshire. And certainly what we do is an integral part of who we are. Looking back, I could call myself many things based on what I have done throughout the course of my life.

Student. College athlete. Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. Runner. Ironman. English teacher. Hockey player. Writer.

We also tend to identify ourselves in relation to the important “others” in our life.

Daughter. Sister. Wife. Mother. Friend.

Contratrarily, we could even tell ourselves who we are is what we could not do, or with whom we can no longer enjoy sweet companionship.

Non-olympian. Non-Boston qualifier. Unemployed. Empty nester. Ex-wife.

What God has been whispering to me lately, however, is that although what we do and our relationships with others is important to Him – He cares about it ALL – that who we are IN HIM is really the only measure He wants us to use in identifying ourselves.

Luke addresses his gospel to someone he calls “most honorable Theophilus” or, in other versions, “most excellent Theophilus.” Scholars disagree on who this Theophilus was. “Most excellent” denotes rank and honor, so he could have been a high-ranking official in the Roman government. Or he could have been a man of wealth and influence, perhaps even Luke’s benefactor, to whom he was reporting back all the mysteries and miracles, shipwrecks and beatings, he had witnessed and endured in creating an account of Jesus’s life. Or he could have been a Jewish high priest or a Roman lawyer.

But here’s the thing. Whoever Theophilus may or may not have been, in an “only-God” moment this morning when I was pondering my identity, I discovered that his name means friend of God, loved by God.

Whoa.

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John was perhaps Jesus’s closest human friend. As He hung on the cross, beaten and bloody, Jesus “saw His mother there, and the disciple whom He loved (John) standing nearby, and said to His mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his house.” John 19:26-27

Talk about identity!

Later, after Jesus has returned to the Father, John writes, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” 1 John 3:1

As an English teacher, I am supposed to discourage the extraneous use of exclamation points, but who can blame John for his grammatical excess? God spoke to him about his identity, and he was – as I am – forever changed.

I am not defined by what I do or not do, or who chooses to be or not to be a part of my life!

I am a child of God, His precious daughter, an heir of the MOST HIGH KING, God’s trusted friend, the bride of Christ, a warrior in His army, a sheep that knows His voice and follows Him, a son and not a slave, His Beloved, a new creature, His ambassador, the dwelling place of His Spirit, not my own but His, a more-than-conqueror, can-do-all-things, race-running child of the light!!

And it is knowing who we are that gives us the ability, the strength, the endurance to walk this hard, beautiful, tragic, joyful thing called life with hope and love and courage.

“You are my daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

No matter how many times I mess up, how many times I act in unforgiveness, how many times I allow myself to step out of love, how many times I allow discontent to rob me of my peace, how many times I doubt or fear or fret, I can be certain of one awesome, miraculous, unchangeable truth: I am His.

It changes everything.