Heaven Stooped Low

“We fail to understand the Divine, not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.”

Abraham Herschel-

August 15, 2022

I took the kids to eat at a fast food restaurant yesterday after church. The Cracker Barrel had waiting lines out the door, the air conditioning was down at Noodles & Co., and so we ended up–first-world famished–at a run-down Burger King in Pueblo.

The entrance was partially demolished and blocked off with yellow caution tape, almost as if a car had crashed through the front door, and a hand-written sign suggested using the side door as an alternative.

But the alternative entrance looked like a grocery store parking lot lined with shopping buggies filled with sleeping bags and any other tattered possessions their homeless owner had accumulated along the way.

Sufficiently deterred, I pulled out of my parking space around to the drive-through window, which–to my dismay–was only accepting cash. The lobby register was equipped to take credit cards, the staticky voice politely informed.

Grayson growing edgier by the minute, I resigned myself to a dine-in Whopper, and circled back to my original parking spot, where Grayson, Reagan, and I filed out of the car toward the buggy-lined door.

A waif-like man beat us there and was holding the door for us while fixedly staring at the ground. His hair looked like it hadn’t seen a dollop of shampoo for weeks, but when he hesitantly lifted his pale blue eyes to meet mine, I noted they were kind, albeit heavy-laden; and their watery softness stood out in stark contrast to his deeply etched and weathered skin.

Inside, a homeless man was curled up in a chair, loudly snoring away with his filthy shoes propped on the table. My kids exchanged nervous glances but followed me toward the register, regardless, where we arrived just in time to overhear the recently door-holding man barely whisper, “Just a hamburger please,” before plunking down a pile of change–mostly pennies–on the counter. He was visibly nervous as he slid and counted the coins one at a time, and grew further exacerbated when a man toward the back of the line loudly muttered, “Jesus, how long is this going to take?” before irritatedly slapping a dollar bill on the mound of coins.

Now fully flustered, the door-man forgot what number he was on, and had to start counting all over. The young girl behind the cashier smiled apologetically at the approaching manager, who had, in the meantime, wandered over to assess the hold-up and the ever-increasing line.

His head was bare as an eight-ball, and every last square inch of his revealed skin was covered in tattoos. Strands of looping earlobes swung back and forth as he walked, further highlighting the two gaping holes that lacked the structure of their customary gauges. He looked the part of a fast-food manager, I wryly (and critically) mused to myself.

Stepping forward, I offered to add the door-man’s hamburger to my order, but the manager brushed me aside with a wave of his arm. “No worries, I got it,” he said, sweeping the change off the counter into his free hand. I asked the door-man whether I could buy him anything else, and he quietly added from beneath lowered eyes, that, yes, a drink might be nice.

After thanking me, he shuffled meekly to the end of the counter as if he wished to disappear, and I leaned over to asked whether he might like some fries or onion rings too.

Suddenly, the manager’s swift movements caught my attention, and I caught him quickly sneaking an oversized box of fries into the man’s paper bag. Our eyes met, and he winked as he stuffed an extra burger into the bag.

At once, the scales fell from my eyes and the manager’s heavily-inked skin was revealed as the canvassed dwelling tent of God. Joy trickled from the corner of his winking eye, and his face was awash in white light.

There, in line at Burger King, I stood exposed and naked in my threadbare garment of judgment, while the tattooed manager was regally robed in his charitable works, and the door-man vested in a simple, yet splendid robe of humility.

Even so, the nearness of the Divine, was sufficient to cover me–even me.

Truly, there are angels among us.

~

It’s early morning, and the sun has yet to show it’s face over northeastern mountain peaks. A loud thump to my left alerts me to the fact that–yet another–bird has flown into our living room window.

I look over to behold the tiniest, most pitiful of creatures laying in an all-wrong position on a board of composite decking–its wings intermittently twitching and flapping. Assuming it to be a near-death flutter, I pull my chair closer to observe the strange transition between life and death.

I note the bird’s faint yellow underbelly and the white markings around its eye, and assess it–perhaps incorrectly–to be a Warbling Vireo. Much to my husband’s amusement, I’ve taken on the self-appointed role of “Family Ornithologist,” thanks to my new Merlin Bird ID app.

As I’m voyeuristically observing the bird’s sacred transition, Cadence, our German Shepherd, lets herself out the front door, and automatically walks up to the ailing bird and rudely nudges it with her nose.

With what seems like its last dying strength, the bird hurls itself over and its head flops back in an unnatural position. Certain that the light is now surely passing from its eyes, I return to my reading, mentally committing the task of discarding the dead bird to my daughter.

Half-an-hour later, Nala, our dingbat of a Golden-doodle, comes sauntering out the front door to lay her head in my lap, completely failing to observe the little bird I believe to be deceased.

After a round of morning scratches and pets, both dogs notice and re-notice the bird. They sniff, circle, and then to my chagrin, begin poking it with their noses. Surely, they won’t eat a dead bird, I wonder to myself, cringing.

Suddenly, Cadence flips the bird upright with her nose, and I observe that its eyes are now wide-open and glossy black. It’s hops across one, then two and three planks, then leaps off our porch and flies effortlessly to a nearby tree.

I sit, stunned, as I take in the complexity of such a simple moment, and ponder on the quote I’d just read, “We fail to understand the Divine, not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.”

Self-admittedly, I lack the ability to extend my concept of the Divine “far enough,” for it is here that I find my words and mental capacity simultaneously reaching their end.

Perhaps this is the holy ground where has God has drawn a line in the sand, thus demarcating the end of language’s capacity and the early frontier of contemplative “unknowing.”

Regardless, it is in this micro-moment that I sense the meaning of “close enough.” It is here, that I sense God’s “smallness” and the way He condescends to fill the fragments–the slivers of time–to bring life and light to motionless birds, tattooed skin, and defeated, pale-blue eyes.

~

As I found my way to a table and began doling out burgers, the soft-spoken door-man began unwrapping his at a nearby table. I stood to introduce myself and invited the man named “Adolfo” to eat with us. Re-wrapping his burger, he let me me know that people made him nervous, as he was more accustomed to being alone. I told him I understood as he turned to shuffle out the door, the feel of his leathery hand still fresh in mine.

But it had been “close enough.”

The Divine had come “close enough.”

Ordered Chaos

*Disclaimer and warning: Do not read if you are easily offended. There is nothing admirable in the words that follow. My parenting skills are abhorrently MIA, and my actions are questionable at best. There is no point, no glimmering lesson. It is simply a stark, bare naked sliver of reality, written mainly for me. It is ludicrously and embarrassingly vulnerable. Everything in me questions why I write, and I will waffle back and forth on whether or not to share. Yet, as always, the words of Joan Didion come to mind, “Was it by writing or dreaming that I could know what I think?”

As such, I write to make sense of life’s chaos, to attempt to understand all that remains nonsensical until pen is put to paper or fingers to keyboard, and because I know that if I don’t get this out, it will stay in, and fester and rot. So, I muse and ramble, type and delete until I can start breathing freely again, until something clicks, until clarity emerges from the fog, until my words take on a life of their own and randomly stumble upon something that resembles sanity. I write because I don’t know what else to do or to whom else to talk. And I suppose a small part of me hopes to connect with others who feel the same way. With love…

August 7, 2022, a.m.

Today is the kind of day that makes you happy to be alive. The air is cool and the sun warm, and there’s not a cloud to be seen in the sky. My hair is poking out of a hat in a messy bun, and I’m wearing a broken-in pair of cut-offs and boots. Feeling very ME, I practically float down our dirt hill, excited to get started on my morning work.

I spend the first few hours clearing copious amounts of the previous homeowner’s leftover junk from our stable, along with layers upon layers of hardened mouse and bird droppings. Outside, Grayson and Reagan take turns bush-whacking the waist-high weeds. After I feel satisfied with the inside of the stable, I begin digging up old stumps and dragging them into a pile on the side of our road. Dusty snot pours from my nose, and sweat trickles down my brow. I pause for a moment—wiping them both on my shirt—grateful for my body’s ability to accomplish the strenuous work.

After accumulating a significant pile of wood, I hop into our skid-steer to begin hauling the wood up the hill, where Arin—upon his return from Texas—will eventually chop it up to be burned in the winter.

But Grayson has other plans.

“Why don’t we clean out the sides of Daddy’s shop for his birthday?” he inquires.

I agree, touched by his thoughtfulness, and fire up the skid-steer just like Arin recently taught me and maneuver it (fairly) smoothly up our road to the roll-off dumpster. Up top, I pause to snap a thumbs-up selfie for my parents and sisters. Guess who’s driving the skid-steer? I caption the photo, followed by a wide-eyed yellow emoji.

Guess who’s driving the skid-steer?

“Grayson, take a picture for Gramma and Bop,” I command, and as he hands my phone back to me, I busy myself sending proof of my newly acquired skill.

That’s where I slip up. I forget my own number rule regarding my son: Never let your guard down.

Having secured his work gloves, Grayson begins dragging over long metal poles cemented in five-gallon buckets. He has planned to place them in the scoop of the skid-steer for me to hoist into the dumpster. I watch out of the corner of my eye as he successfully—and carefully—heaves one bucket into the scoop and then two. But by the third, he is growing frustrated and tosses the bucket a little too hard. I watch, horrified, as the metal pole bounces off the back of the scoop and—as if in slow motion—heads straight toward his eye, backed by the weight of five gallons of concrete.

Instantly, Grayson is on the ground as his gushing blood colors the dirt a rusty shade of brown. With no other clean item nearby, I tear off my shirt and press it to his eye as he screams and thrashes in resistance. Oddly enough, he keeps pushing past me to reach for his foot while angrily cursing our dog. Confused, I look around and finally realize that our dog—assuming I was being attacked—had sunk her teeth into Grayson’s flailing foot.

Chaos ensues. A ripped-off shoe is hurled at the dog, followed by a flurry of rocks, set free from Grayson’s trembling fist. I pin him to the ground as he repeatedly tries to lunge for the dog while threatening to kill her. Finally, after a brief moment of struggling, Reagan arrives, bearing ice and clean rags, then secures the dog in the shop. Grayson peels off his sock as a fresh wave of panic overtakes him upon viewing his multiple lacerations.

Long story short, by the time I get him to the house, his wounds are already coagulating, and I suppose it’s safe enough to remain home and avoid yet another trip to the ER.

Allowing myself a deep exhale, I sit back on my heels and breathe a prayer of gratitude. Considering the weight that had just rocketed a metal pole towards Grayson’s eye, it dawns on me that if that pole had struck just half an inch lower, Grayson would have almost certainly lost his eye.

Major crisis averted, I situate him on the couch with a few bags of ice and return outside to finish my work. But the internal reminder was not lost: When you let down, bad things happen.

August 8, 2022, p.m.

A day and a half post-injury, Grayson attends his first cross-country practice at his new school with a lump on his head and a few bandaids on his foot and runs three miles.

Afterward, he bursts through the door, excited to see Rylee, his older sister, who is visiting for a few days before leaving for college. They start wrestling, and she inadvertently flings him backward onto the couch, where, before landing, he smashes the back of his head on the edge of a sharp-cornered windowsill. Once again, he clutches his head and begins screaming, and once again, the dog moves—barking fiercely—to protect me. But Rylee heads her off and locks her up, and instead of gushing blood, I find only a sizable linear knot. Soon enough, the tears and screams subside to a nervous, then raucous laughter as we all celebrate his “good luck.”

August 9, 2022, p.m.

Grayson has successfully completed his second cross-country practice with significantly fewer nerves, and Reagan, her second volleyball practice at the new school. Moods and endorphins are running high, and it seems like a good night for a bottle of wine.

I am in the liquor store only long enough to pay for a bottle of Kitchen Sink Red Blend, but the second I walk out the door, I instinctively understand something is wrong. The front seat is empty, and there’s a jumbled heap of commotion taking place in the back. In a second, I’ve gingerly placed the bottle of wine on my car’s floorboard and hurled myself into the backseat on top of Grayson, who is lying face-up on Reagan’s lap, fingers firmly entangled in her hair. I can smell the humid salt—they’ve been tousling long enough to break a sweat—and there’s blood on Grayson’s shirt, his hand, Reagan’s face.

“What in the hell are you doing?” I demand to know as I squeeze the sides of his fists to loosen his grip and inch them closer to Reagan’s head, hoping to alleviate a portion of her pain. We meet eyes—hers are water- and rage-filled—and we are all a pile of tangled bodies fighting against each other, for each other, and ourselves.

Several curious onlookers wander by wordlessly, and I urgently plead, “Grayson, someone is going to call the police. Think about what you’re doing. You can stop this.”

When the struggle only intensifies, I realize my words are falling upon deaf ears, and I grow increasingly desperate, “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you doing this? Stop now, or I’m driving back to the school, and you can explain your behavior to your new coach.”

Reagan’s head jerks back, her hair falls limply around her damp face, and I realize Grayson has released her from his grasp. I motion her from the car with a jerk of my head while maintaining a tight grip on him. Slowly, I move him from the vehicle, where he immediately hops in the front seat—his face blank and overly calm.

“It’s over,” he tells me flatly, “We can go home now.”

“No way,” I push back, breathing hard. “There’s no way you’re going to treat your sister like that, then hop back in the front seat like everything is fine. Sit in the trunk of the 4Runner. I want you as far away from Reagan as possible.”

“Nope,” he replies, and I know he means it. “I refuse. I’ll sit here all night.”

(More curious onlookers, more wondering eyes.)

“Then I’m walking back to the school to get your coach,” I tell him, knowing that I’m lying, wondering if he’ll call my bluff.

He wavers for a short minute, then concedes and jumps in the trunk, slamming the door behind him.

That was easy, I think. Too easy. And I know—we’re in for a long ride home.

I lay out the rules: his back must remain flat against the back seat and his arms at his side. If I even think he’s coming over the back seat to hurt Reagan, I will throw the car in park in the middle of the road and fly over my chair to meet him. I will protect my daughter, I let him know, and I hope he understands that I mean it.

He’s quiet—the bad kind of quiet—and I know from experience that he’s plotting. My brain, also, is spinning and whirring, frantically trying to figure out how to stay one step ahead of his. Last week, he locked us out of the house and threw her cat from the second-story balcony (fortunately she landed in a bush), and I know if I take him back home, he’ll do something along the same vein.

Both Reagan and I are on high alert but are attempting to act casual by sneakily watching his every move in the rear-view mirror. He spins and, in one swift movement, grabs a phone charger from the back seat and repositions himself in the trunk facing us.

“I’ll whip you,” he growls menacingly, phone cord raised in the air.

I know I have to avoid a physical altercation while driving, so—grasping for straws—I try to hit him where it will most hurt.

“Grayson, you’re almost an adult now,” I inform him, “and as such, I’ve decided to charge you $200 for hurting your sister. If you choose to continue, the fine will increase.”

He testily flings and retracts the phone charger, and I screech to a halt on the side of the road.

“I’m counting to five, and that cord needs to be placed gently on the seat, or the fine will jump to $500. One, two, three….”

The charger lands with a soft thump on the backseat, and I snatch it up and continue driving.

His shenanigans continue for the duration of the twenty-five-minute car ride. I pull over, threaten, resolve, and resume.

As we near the house, I whisper to Reagan, “Get out of the car quickly when we pull up to our drive and walk home. I’m going to keep driving with him; I can’t bring him home yet. I won’t have reception, so I’ll just be home whenever I can.”

She moves her hand slowly to the door, and I imperceptibly shake my head. “I don’t want him catching on. Lower your hand.”

I loudly ask her to check the mail as we roll into our dirt driveway for appearance’s sake, then peel out as soon as her door latches shut.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Grayson demands. Then, when he realizes I have no intention of stopping, he lets loose with a stream off innovation, “Stop the car, you fuck-bitch-hole!”

Now he’s flying from the trunk and grabbing a handful of my hair, just like he used to do when he was a toddler. Years later, I find myself—yet again—held fast to the headrest, but without any other children to help.

Eyes ablaze, I challenge him, “Rip it out, I dare you. Pull harder, so I can show your dad my bald spot when he gets home!”

Grayson relaxes his grip slightly, and I break-check him. His unbuckled body slams against the back of my seat, and his hand flies from my hair to brace himself.

“Keep your hands off me,” I warn him to no avail. Immediately, his hands wind their way through my hair once more.

I tell him I’m driving all the way to Texas to see his dad. Partially, I’m bluffing. Partially, I’m not. I’ve got no reception and don’t know how long it will be until if find some. I have no earthly idea what I’m going to do, but I know I can’t stop, and I know I can’t go home.

“TURN AROUND!” he bellows, his voice shaking with rage.

I ignore him, then feel from the direction of my hair that he’s reaching toward the ground.

Click, click, click. I recognize the sound of one of our many black gel pens.

“Turn around, or I’ll stab you in the arm until you die,” he warns.

“THEN FUCKING DO IT!” I scream at the top of my lungs, already burning with shame over my lost temper and choice words.

He considers, then resorts to yanking my hair even harder, and so we continue for the better part of fourteen miles—him grabbing my hair, me pulling over and telling him to get out and walk home, him opening the door then shutting it again.

Now, the sky is rapidly darkening, and I weigh out my options—none of them good. At one point in our insane routine, Grayson calls my bluff and gets out of the car and starts marching straight up a mountain, determinedly disappearing into the trees.

Frantic, I resign and yell out the only words that I know will bring him back. “Fine, I’ll drive you home.”

Instantly, he whips around and walks back toward the car, triumphant. My goal is to get him home safely and keep everyone else safe, so I speak to him through a crack in the window and a locked door between us. 
“Here’s the deal,” I tell him, “I’ll take you home IF you go straight to your room and go straight to bed. If there is a single threat, if you run away, ANYTHING at all, I will call your dad immediately and tell him he has to quit his job and drive right home.” (Another bluff).

He agrees, and I pass my daughters on the way home. They’re driving to look for us. I order him to stay put while I pull over at our mailbox and fill them in on the plan. Surprisingly, he complies. “Stay in the car with doors locked until I make sure Grayson’s calm,” I tell them. “Then lock yourself in my room until he falls asleep.”

Instead, they drive to the top of our hill to wait, and just as I hear Grayson’s shower running, I receive a text: The elk are out. Come up!

Beyond the point of caring what Grayson does or doesn’t do, I grab a sweatshirt and walk out the back door. On second thought, I return for the bottle of wine I’d left in my car.

I climb the hill as the sun is setting to find my daughters, their faces radiant with excitement as if it were Christmas Eve. “Hurry, mama,” they whisper, “the elk are getting close!”

We pile into Rylee’s car and roll—silently as possible—to the top of the hill, where close to fifty mama and baby elk are peacefully grazing. Rylee puts the car in park, and we shimmy out open windows to perch on her doors. The moon is shining white and bright behind my oldest daughter, backlighting her head like an angel’s. I open the bottle of wine and uncharacteristically pass it around—even to fourteen-year-old Reagan. Besides the fact that my level of give-a-shit has hit bottom, the moment feels sacred, and the wine seems only right. There’s a small cut on Reagan’s cheek, and her eye is slightly swollen. My hair is disheveled, with multiple strands potentially missing.

Regardless, the struggle has bonded us, and an unspoken intimacy passes between us. In time, Reagan laughs aloud and begins regaling Rylee with tales from the night, “You should have heard how psycho mom sounded when Grayson threatened to come over the seat…”

We sip and giggle as the night sky darkens and the elk silently fade away into the tree line.

Despite the last two hours, I can’t imagine feeling happier, and at that moment, everything in the world seems right.

August 10, 2022 3:30 a.m.

I wake up sweating and anxious, recalling the night before. I’ve been through this enough to know that trying to go back to sleep is futile, so—wrapping myself in a robe—I arise and step out onto my bedroom balcony.

It is the first cloudless night I’ve witnessed since we’ve moved here, and I lean back in my chair, blown away by the sight. Besides the distinctly twinkling stars I’m accustomed to, I behold Jupiter and Mars and clusters and swirls of what I can only imagine being other galaxies. I’m transported to another world, and I sit in the stark silence, watching as one star shoots across the sky, then another.

After an hour, I decide that Rylee simply must see this, so I rouse her from a deep sleep and summon her to my balcony. We sit together in the same wordless silence, and she pulls out her phone to identify constellations with her app—Taurus, Orion’s Belt, and others she can’t pronounce. By the time the horizon is brightening, we’ve seen over twenty shooting stars.

As one exceptionally brilliantly dying star leaves its last blazing trail, I speak my thoughts aloud, “From here, a shooting star is over so quickly, and it looks so simple. But can you imagine what it would be like to witness it up close? It would be so loud and turbulent—nothing like how it appears from the earth.”

I sit, pondering this thought in light of our own preceding chaos. Up close, it all feels scary, turbulent, loud, and violent. But in the big scheme of life, it’s a mere shooting star, a short dash of light in the night sky. Blink, and it’s gone.

So, too, will be my life—chaos and all. It will flicker and burn out. It will be turbulent, chaotic, and catastrophic. It will also be peaceful, graceful, and brilliant. It will be everything, it will be nothing, but it will be mine.

I sit alone, long after Rylee has gone back to bed, and the words ordered chaos come to mind. Not a star falls from the sky without our Creator’s allowance, and I reckon, this is a God I can trust.

Like every other shooting star, my chaos is ordered, it is allowed, and it is for my benefit.

I spend the wee hours of the morning finding solace under this starry blanket of ordered disorder. I’ve heard what people think of my life from afar—I’m put-together, patient, and kind. But I know what my life looks like up close. It’s ugly, embarrassing, messy, spur-of-the-moment flying by the seat of my pants. It’s ALSO breathtakingly beautiful with wine-filled moonlit nights, bugling elk, and giggling girls.

Life is all of the above. I’m all of the above. And that, I suppose, is rather glorious.

Small Town Vignettes

Eating dinner at the bowling alley

July 5, 2022

A man we’ve dubbed “Propane Joe” came up the hill to fill our tank today. He showed up unexpectedly a day early with a “Howdy” and a “Nice place ya got here,” then stuck around long after topping off our tank just “shootin’ the breeze.” People around here don’t seem to operate by the same clock I’m accustomed to, and no one’s ever in a hurry.

I smile to myself, recalling the words I’d recently read by Edward Abbey in his classic book Desert Solitaire, “We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.

Two hours after his arrival, as Propane Joe was preparing to leave, he turned back to Arin, seemingly struck by inspiration, and casually called out over his shoulder, “Hey there, you want to be a volunteer sheriff?”

Arin shrugged and—without a second thought—replied, “Sure.”

“Great, I’ll call you sometime,” said Propane Joe as he hopped up into his truck and disappeared down our long dirt driveway.

~

Yesterday, I took Grayson into town to buy a pair of hiking boots. The owner of the store was (yet again) in no hurry, and as we visited, she discovered that we were new to the area and that Grayson ran cross country.

“Oh, Hal-the-cross-country-coach was just in here!” she exclaimed, picking up a pen. “I’ll give him your phone number and tell him to call you. Maybe you can get together with him over the summer!”

As she walked away to grab a piece of paper, Grayson glared at her and sneakily stuck up a tall middle finger before abruptly marching out of the store.

When I caught up with him moments later, I angrily demanded to know why he had flipped off someone who was so kindly trying to help us.

Scowling at me beneath one furrowed eyebrow as if I were the dumbest woman alive, he irritatedly explained, “I’m just not used to people being so nice. It makes me feel weird.”

Later that day, he asked to go back and apply for a job.

“I like that lady,” he definitively proclaimed. “She’s nice.”

The Sinewy Connection Between Life and Longing, Death and Doubt

July 5, 2022

I am mid-stride in the kitchen when the darkness hits. Without warning, it rolls in as quickly as the afternoon thunderstorms, although my darkness feels much more smothering and muggy. Siphoning my breath and dousing my previous exuberance, the darkness accosts me, demanding an immediate account for my actions: What have you done?

In the sudden eruption of thought, I cannot discern whether it’s originating from within myself or without. You realize you’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life. You’ve uprooted your children, your AUTISTIC SON nonetheless, and you KNOW how he hates change! You’ve forsaken your aging parents, abandoned your friends…and for what? A longing? A far-fetched dream?! You know that in time, you’ll make a mess of all this too—just like everything else you touch. You’re an inverted Midas; everything you lay hands on turns to shit!

My stomach twists in knots as I identify the franticness as Fear, and the spiteful accusations as Self Hatred. I banished the latter years ago; still, it loves to rear its ugly head from time to time to test whether my resolve has weakened. It tries to sneak in the back door, piggy-backed on my deep-rooted fear of failure. Both voices blend as one until Self Hatred grows overly animated and—hopping on its soapbox—starts portraying my longings as potential landmines, my dreams as catastrophes-in-waiting. 

Having exposed itself, I gently but firmly escort Self Hatred back out the door, reminding it that it is no longer welcome in my life. Turning my attention to my quivering Fear, I attempt to compassionately acknowledge it as real rather than feverishly ignoring it as I have for many years past.

The heaviness subsides slightly but leaves me shaky and unsettled, certain to the core that nothing in my world will ever feel right or normal again.

Shortly after, I take a walk to dislodge any residual heaviness. My eyes can recognize the surrounding beauty, but Fear prevents them from perceiving it as such. Rather than an ancient, towering Ponderosa Pine, my wildly scanning eyes inform me that I am beholding a mountain lion’s perch, from where it will inevitably pounce and tear me limb from limb. Every rock is a crouching bear, and every snapping twig confirms my impending doom.

But as the incline rapidly increases, I am forced to focus on just sucking in enough oxygen to maintain my leisurely pace (altitude is no joke!). In time, the deep, rhythmic breathing begins unfurling my knotted guts.

Up ahead, the dogs have zeroed in on something of interest, and although I call to them, they willfully ignore me. As I round the bend, I see a full rack of curving ribs, rising like spires from the weedy earth, and the hairs on my arms stand on end. The ribs are still attached to the backbone, forming more than half of a skeleton, with clumpy bits of fur and meat still clinging to the bone.

Although my boys and husband hunt, I’ve only personally experienced the post-hunt plastic-wrapped meat, the cleaned-up pelt-turned-rug. I’ve never killed anything, never even been close to such unmanaged, wild death. Something about it simultaneously intrigues and repels me (like many sacred things do), and I inherently understand that this push-pull will be my new steady companion while adjusting to life in these mountains.

Truthfully, the longing and curiosity have always been intertwined with my fears and doubts (more on that later), and like a rubber band ball, I have never been able to tug on one strand without the whole mass tagging and bouncing along behind. In reality, it’s all one bundled package anyway—life and death, desire and fear, light and dark. They cycle back and forth, round and round, in and out, and our wide-eyed attentive presence to all the opposing forces is what shapes us into more well-rounded humans—empathetic, sensing, and wholly present.

This unexpected encounter with death somehow makes me feel more acutely alive, and as I walk up the remainder of our winding dirt road, I notice my previous darkness had, at some point, dissipated along with my Fear, leaving behind only a deep-rooted satisfaction.

One day, I will be ribs and backbone and clinging morsels of flesh.

I have one life.

How will I choose to live it?

Integrity is often a willingness to hold the dark side of things instead of reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere. Frankly, it is just another name for faith.

-Eager to Love by Richard Rohr-

“To tread the sharp edge of a sword, to run on smooth-frozen ice, one needs no footsteps to follow. Walk over the cliffs with hands free.”

-Buddha-

Freed From Fungus

July 3, 2022

“Your Aspens look diseased,” my mom offhandedly remarks from the breakfast table that overlooks one of our many new-to-us Aspen groves. “You could get an arborist to come up here and take a look,” she suggests.

Instantly, my chest tightens with stress—yet another expense, one more item on my to-do list, and my head has yet to stop spinning from our move. We’ve been hemorrhaging money for the last six weeks—repairing stucco, mitigating radon, paying for moving trucks, and then another when we ran out of room. Besides, we are not talking about a few backyard Aspens; we’re talking about forests of Aspens, mountainsides of Aspens, and dollars being flushed down the toilet to our easily-clogged septic tank. I feel overwhelmed and discouraged as dreams collide with reality.

Later in the day, I sit at the same breakfast table staring dejectedly out the window at my diseased Aspens, practically panicked over the dead limbs and black festering fungus that has gouged holes out of the trees’ once healthy trunks. My eyes follow the trunks down to the earth  and then out, where they behold flexible saplings sprouting up in every direction.

In a moment of epiphany, I feel at once freer than a bird drifting on the breeze. This mountain has been here long before my presence and will remain long after my death. Aspens will grow, die, and regrow year after year—without my assistance or the advice of a professional arborist. The mountain doesn’t need me, the trees don’t need me, and I am not here to assume dominion over nature but merely to be a grateful participant and witness in the ebb and flow of life.

For the first time in a long while, I feel absolutely blissfully irrelevant and unnecessary. After twenty-one years of parenting, of being needed almost every second of every day, here is a place that requires nothing of me yet welcomes me still the same. I do not have to DO to earn my keep; I only have to BE.

My tensed muscles let down, and I suddenly grow tired—so, so tired. After weeks of striving and endless details, I feel, for the first time, able to rest. Aspens will live and die. The mountain will not crumble without my presence. No one needs me…no one needs me…no one needs me.

Relief floods my soul like a soothing balm. Already, this mountain has begun working its way inside of me. Perhaps I’ve had it all wrong. Perhaps it’s me that has the need.

~

In his book Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance, Beldon Lane asks the profound question, “What do you learn to love and what do you learn to ignore?” He elaborates (and forgive the lengthy quote, but I believe it to be quite relevant), “Imagine yourself out in a desert…There, your ‘image’ doesn’t matter in the least. Your presence is unneeded, superfluous. You lack any significance. Realizing this, you’re initially tempted to panic and run, as a result. But if you stay in the place that cares nothing about your persona, your false self, you may slowly begin to realize that you are saved in the end by the things that ignore you…the things that remind us we aren’t the center of the universe. You may sit there for a long while in the desert silence, perhaps in the shadow of a rock, studying the majestic stone face of the canyon cliff before you. And you ask yourself, ‘How did the canyon cliff change on the day of my divorce? How was that sandstone face moved on the day my father took his life when I was thirteen years old? How did that great expanse of rock shift on the day I admitted my dependence on alcohol, that I was totally powerless before it? How was that precipice altered on the day I admitted the shame I had carried all my life?

Surely the canyon cliff must have changed on the day your world fell apart. The whole earth must have fallen down the day your world fell to pieces. But you find in the silence there, that the canyon cliff didn’t change at all that day. You realize that something remained constant and unchanging in the midst of your pain. A silent immensity waited there, ready to accept every bit of grief and sorrow you could pour into it. The canyon, like God himself, was listening there for you, accepting you without any accusation, waiting there in silence. Strange as it sounds—and this is one of the great truths I can’t understand in my head but know to be so in my gut—something poignant happens in the canon cliff’s utter indifference of you. At that pivotal moment in your life, you know yourself for the first time to be truly loved.”

~

I rise from the kitchen table and succumb to an unheard-of mid-morning nap on the couch. Blanketed in sunbeams, I choose to ignore the festering fungus. I drift off to sleep in our new house on the face of a mountain where I am completely irrelevant.

In the end, we are saved by the things that ignore us.

I Went to the Woods

July 2, 2022

My eyes flickered open to the dark outline of a mountain, and I blinked repeatedly, willing the looming shape to disappear, yet simultaneously praying to God that it wouldn’t. This inner disparity made me feel instantly crazy, for the decision to move had been mine. I’d driven the real estate search (much to my husband’s delight); I’d scrawled out the list of geographical prerequisites for any potential homesites, and I’d packed the last box with my own two hands just barely over a week ago. Even so, the whole process had felt mechanical, as if something outside of myself had been set into motion, and I, although entirely capable, was somehow too paralyzed to stop it.

I’d been waging such an interior push-pull war since November of 2021 when Arin and I first decided to move, and half of me has spent the last seven months trying to convince my brain to revise its position. This fearful half has spent hours ranting at my daydreaming half to pull its head out of the clouds, to consider all the horrifying “what-ifs”—the bears, the mountain lions, the intermittent lack of cell phone reception. Besides, who did I think I was to tackle life in the woods? I was just a wimpy wannabe, a city-girl admirer of manicured nature, a fake, a phony, a fraud.

Yet despite my fearful self’s frantic ravings, my body calmly continued touching up paint, patching old holes in our walls, and methodically packing one cardboard box after another.

In hindsight, this journey started the first time I read Thoreau as a junior in high school. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”

His words were instantly tattooed on my heart and became a life motto of sorts, yet they’ve remained dormant as simmering lava, tempered by whichever thin window pane of glass has separated me from the ruggedness of nature I’ve historically preferred to avoid. Like Goldilocks, I’ve tended to live life in the “just right” zone—neither too hot nor cold nor too hard or squishy soft. I’ve been perfectly satisfied to savor the great outdoors from the comfort of my climate-controlled office, curled up beneath a fuzzy blanket in my spider-free, herringbone, wing-backed chair.

But one morning, Thoreau’s words suddenly grew tired of simmering, and—with much roiling and smoking—started a violent upheaval.

The whole process began in earnest on August 29, 2021, when I found myself bawling over the pages of a Magnolia Home cookbook. There was Joanna Gaines in her full down-home simplicity and beauty, making cookies with her precious children, who were sprawled contently across her farmhouse countertop. On another blissful page, she was walking hand-in-hand to gather apples with her daughters. With every turned page, I cried harder and harder. Each photograph was like a knife in my heart, representing the life I had failed to create, the precious moments I’d lost (or never experienced) with my own five children.

Grayson, our son with Autism, had demanded much of my time and energy, leaving me steadily depleted and numb; and while I’ve never resented him, that day, I resented my reality. I closed the cookbook and shoved it away, unwilling to stomach one more stinking photo of Joanna Gaines and her annoyingly adorable kids. I went to sleep feeling brokenhearted, angry and cheated—as if someone had stolen a part of my life and there was not enough time remaining to salvage the leftover shards.

The following morning, Thoreau’s words thundered in my ears, no longer willing to be largely ignored, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”

What would it look like to live the second half of life deliberately? I wondered, gazing through a thin windowpane of glass. If the highest good in life is union with God and our fellow man as I believe it to be, how can I live intentionally, in a way that facilitates more moments of potential unity? How can I soak up every precious moment of whatever life I have left on this earth? How can I grow more fully present, fully aware, fully available? And what “things,” for me, are the best conduits to living in such a way?

I pulled out my journal a started a new list: nature, time, freedom, solitude, silence, space, love…

Seven months later, I awoke on a mountain.

Something Old, Something New…A Lesson in Redefining Beauty

simply-imperfect-flowers.jpgAs a designer, I tend to be very particular about the things that I see as beautiful.  In my own home, I confess I love things to look contemporary and fresh and just-so.  I love rotating new items into my existing decor.  I quickly get rid of things that look dated or worn.  However, I have recently had the pleasure of reading two wonderful, albeit very different books, that have greatly challenged and broadened my view of aesthetics. 

The first book, called “The Wabi-Sabi House,” addresses what the author (Robyn Griggs Lawrence) refers to as “the Japanese art of imperfect beauty.”  She states, “The subtle messages that live within wabi-sabi are the things we all seem to long for today: Slow down.  Take the time to find beauty in what seems ordinary – and to turn the “ordinary” into something beautiful.  Make things yourself instead of buying those spit out by a machine, and smile when your work is flawed.  Wash your dishes by hand, and most important: learn to think of others before yourself.”  Wabi-sabi finds beauty in things that are old, natural, broken, simple and earthy.  I must say, it is a challenge for me to find beauty in old things.  I love new trends and styles and experimenting in my home. I am not sentimental or much of a collector.  I have five children and often value efficiency over, well…basically everything!  However, I am stretching myself by attempting to slow down and find beauty in unexpected places, while incorporating small touches of imperfect and meaningful beauty at the same time.

The second book by Nate Berkus, “The Things That Matter,” thoughtfully covers the idea of filling your home with items that carry personal history and significance.  He opens the first page by sharing, “I’ve always believed your home should tell your story…Those cuff links?  They belonged to somebody I loved: we picked them out on one of the most perfect days we ever spent together.  That tortoise shell on the wall?  There was one exactly like it in my mother’s house and I can’t see it without thinking about a thousand inedible family dinners.  Each object tells a story and each story connects us to one another and to the world.  The truth is, things matter.  They have to.  They’re what we live with and touch each and every day.  They represent what we’ve seen, who we’ve loved, and where we hope to go next.  They remind us of the good times and the rough patches, and everything in between that’s made us who we are.”  I love this!  And while this may come quite naturally to some people, this concept has given me quite a bit to think on.  My family has never valued THINGS very much, which is both positive and negative.  While we are not tied to our possessions, we also don’t have any family heirlooms that exchange hands or generations.  I have purchased every single thing in my home…no gramma’s rocking chair, mother’s cookbooks, dad’s tools, nothing!  This honestly makes me a bit sad, but also determined to do things differently for my children.  I have started purchasing (or keeping) something special for our home every time we travel: horse hair pottery from South Dakota, my husband’s first emptied out clam shell from Maine, a wooden manatee to remind us of the one that chose to swim with us in Florida.  When my gramma passed away, I carefully elected to save a jade letter opener that reminded me of her (I never knew anyone who actually used a letter opener to open letters)! 

While I still openly profess my love for all things new, I am also committed to expanding upon what I have traditionally viewed as beautiful, and to looking through an object into its past.  I am looking forward to owning THINGS that matter, things that will one day cause my children to re-tell my stories to their children. And I eagerly anticipate the lessons that I know will come…as I learn to find perfection in imperfections.

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Living Seasonally

live-in-each-season-1024x1024I’ve spent the last few months with blinders on…not the blindfold type of blinders that prevent you from seeing, but more like the type they put on horses to keep them focused on what is ahead of them.  Life all of a sudden got really hard, and really good, and really busy, all at the same time.  Kind of like a whirlwind introduction to teenagers, owning your own business, husband starting a business kind of boot camp.  I laugh/cringe because this is just the way I operate…when things get hard, I get small and go inward.  When I was delivering my first son, I basically kicked everyone out (and down the hall so I couldn’t even hear their voices), and my poor husband who took all those crazy classes with me didn’t even have a chance to put his newfound knowledge to work from his chair in the corner.  I had to be fully alone and present with myself to focus and complete the task at hand.  So I’ve spent the last few months in my “internal cocoon…” possibly socially isolated and emotionally withdrawn, although I don’t know how I appear to others.  I haven’t been upset, I’ve just had to focus on getting through a challenging time and I do my best work alone.

I planned and pushed with fervency to wrap up as many jobs as possible so that I could be home with my kids for the summer.  And then…it was summer.  But to my complete surprise (and delight), the summer that normally devours me like a consuming tornado, has meandered in peacefully and silently, observed by the wonderful cessation of marking time and checking off to-do lists.  I did reverse psychology on myself by getting so busy, that summer now seems slow in comparison (I must be smarter than I thought to be able to trick myself)!  My oldest boys literally fish from sun-up to sun-down and my daughter is in Florida helping family.  I have gone from having 5 seemingly co-dependent children to feeling like I only have 2!  My days have transitioned from non-stop movement, to coffee (with refills!) on the patio in the company of a good book.

Throughout the course of the last few months, I am reminded that the struggles and busy-ness of life can function as a splinter.  They can cause irritation and sometimes outright pain, but the second they are removed, the relief gives way to a newfound joy and appreciation.  Although I am a regrettably slow learner, I am beginning to posses with certainty the belief that every stage of life is good (even the hard ones) and can offer new opportunities for gratitude.  I have loved being busy and creative and working, but I also love letting my brain rest and “just” being a mom.  We can go through life, constantly looking anxiously ahead to the next phase, or we can learn to suck the marrow out of the here and now.  I have done plenty of looking ahead.  I long to improve upon cherishing the present.

I am also (finally) beginning the grasp the importance of living seasonally.  Earlier in life, I strived and worked incessantly.  I felt lazy if I stopped to rest.  Yet when we frantically press on and on (even in positive, fun times) without diversity or change in pace, we quickly run out of steam and live a dreary life of monotony.  There must be times of ebb and flow, work and rest, tears and laughter, suffering and joy.  I am learning to heed and embrace the literal seasons of nature for life cues…the long, slow spread of summer days, the solitude and silence of winter, the invigoration of spring and the calming crispness of fall.  I’m even attempting to eat seasonal foods to provide for varying physical needs throughout the year.  I’m trying to fight less against life, and instead receive with open hands of gratitude each twist of events that life presents.  In doing so, I am learning to trust more deeply and authentically.  Hindsight is always 20/20 and the longer I live, the more I can look back over the threads of time to see how my life is being expertly woven.  I am seeing with greater clarity that I can breathe and lean fully into a life of trusting God, nature, and myself.

Living seasonally is nothing new.  It is, in fact, ancient and old and wise.  I, however am not.  But perhaps through the symbiotic relationship of internal intuition and nature’s external prompting, I can settle in to a rhythmic sort of journey that will lead to a full, healthy and long existence.  Life is hard.  But it’s also really, really beautiful.  I want to make the CHOICE to savor the sweetness of life, instead of dwelling on it’s bitter moments.  Cheers to summer…My new art purchase...

 

 

Intentional Silence

undulations“Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them. I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear, we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations. If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case.”

~An Excerpt from Walden by Henry David Thoreau~

 

It has been said that words are the most base form of communication.  In a time when everyone is concerned with finding their voice in the world, we forget the impact and importance of silence.  When we speak constantly, people stop listening.  Words that might be valuable, get lost in the sheer projectile volume.  Life gets big and chaotic and turbulent and if we rise to challenge it, we immediately begin to get lost in the noise.  This does not necessitate a passive, apathetic approach to life.  Practically, we must rise to meet to whatever stands before us.  But we cannot forget the value of first withdrawing into ourselves to subdue our inner turmoil.  When life gets big, we must get small.  If we mindlessly rush headfirst into pandemonium, we will only add to the cacophony and delirium.  We feel the need to say the right thing, do the right thing, and forget that silence is also a viable course of action.  How many problems in life could potentially be solved by just stopping, and waiting in silence?  The Tao Te Ching states that, “No one can make muddy water clear, but if one is patient, and it is allowed to remain still, it may gradually become clear of itself.”  If we are able to resist the urge to constantly fill time and space with empty and urgent words, silence becomes not only an ideal choice but also a familiar and comforting companion as well.

 

We can make our minds so like still water

That beings gather about us that they may see, 

It may be, their own images, 

And so live for a moment with a clearer,

Perhaps even with a fiercer life

Because of our quiet.

~The Celtic Twilight by William Butler Yeats~

                                                                                                               

 

 

 

 

 

Walden Pond

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Standing on the edge of Thoreau’s Walden Pond

“I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another…I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear — we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations. If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case. Referred to this standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.”

-Henry David Thoreau-