Measureless Mountain Days

Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. -John Muir

I spent about 12 hours over the last week or so going through the pictures I took in 2019. I believe the tally is about 10,000 pictures, give or take. I’m deeply lamenting that Google stopped automatically syncing drive and photos, since now backing up my collection requires actual effort. But at the end of each year, I create a “Best of” album that I use for creating calendars, making physical prints (so that some hacker can’t erase my children’s childhoods), and as the background scenes for my screensaver at work.

I’m always struck at how the photographs work. In the moment, my kids start groaning when I take my camera out. There’s a fake-feeling when you arrange them artistically and cajole them to smile. When it’s just me, sometimes I wonder if I’m really seeing things when I have my phone out, or if I’m just postponing the seeing to some later date which may or may not ever come. The moments that surround those pictures have all sorts of feelings: annoyance, exhaustion, aggravation, anger, humor, relaxation, exasperation. But by the time I’ve picked my favorite photos, the entire year looks beautiful, joyful, peaceful and full of familial bonding.

This transformation of life from banal aggravation to beautiful memories is a miracle of modern alchemy. The best part is that, as you pull out your memories along with these pictures, they start to conform to what the photos say. It was a great day. We all had fun. We get along wonderfully. We spend most of our time doing meaningful things together as a family. Memories are not the truth of what happened, or of what we felt at that time. They are changed by, and even created by, what we do with them after they are first born. I work hard to make those memories largely lovely (although I do save a few less beautiful ones for authenticity’s sake, and because given enough time they usually become funny).

Presidential Traverse, near Eisenhower

During this marathon session of photographic goodness, I couldn’t help noticing something about my year. There were a LOT more mountain scenes than in past years. My memories of those moments don’t include aching knee-muscles (impossible to photograph) or the pounding heat on Chocorua. But they instead evoke moments of peace, majesty, and a bigger and more lovely world. I’ve recently begun hiking a lot with an old friend who is the same kind of crazy I am about hiking mountains. On grim, cold days we sometimes text each other pictures of where we wish we were. With his not-so-great example, I was recently talked into doing my first ever winter hike, which required a massive re-kitting for appropriate gear. (OK, by talked into, I mean I said “Hey, want to go hiking on Wednesday?” and he said, “Sure!”.)

New pants, new gaiters, new boots, new microspikes.

It was a beautifully soul-clearing hike, starting in the dark of the morning before dawn. We climbed to beat the weather, due in at some uncertain time of the afternoon (the forecasts were wildly inconsistent). The skies at times darkened ominously and scarves of white clouds wrapped themselves tightly around the necks of Lafayette and Lincoln, across the valley. But there were glorious moments, too. A perfect boulder, covered in pebbly ice. A southern exposure with bright moss shining through the white snow. The expanse of Lonesome Lake perfect below us. The sound of bitter winds whipping above our heads, with short summit-pines protecting us from the greatest heat-stealing wrath of winter’s icy breath.

The ice was fascinating
The moss was shockingly vibrant amid all the monochrome of snow and sky

As Boston braces for our first real snow of the winter on Monday, the experienced yankee might feel a mild claustrophobia setting in, as the world begins its process of shrinking to the size of the shoveled path. But perhaps this year will be different. Perhaps this year, I’ll be able to brave snow and ice, and meet my mountains again before spring.

So little colored, so much yet to hike!

Bus comes, bus goes

Seven years ago, I took the bus to work. Both kids were little. I remember picking them up at the Y, rushing to get there before 6 pm. I’m guessing Adam dropped them off, since I don’t remember it. I drove to the tiny lot near the bus stop for that reason, and stressed about parking every day. Over time, I made friends with the people at my stop. I got to know the folks on the bus by sight, if not name. I read a whole lot of frivolous novels. I was kind of sad when that commute came to an end.

Then the word came that my office was moving from Cambridge to Boston for a little while – about 9 months. I’d been very tired of driving anyway, so driving into Boston was a no.

Now there are no daycare pickups (thank heavens!) And there is a beautiful new Greenway almost directly connecting my home and that bus stop with a brisk 20 minute walk. So here I am again, sitting in the 354, headed to work!

Remembering Del Loder

The struggle of explaining my relationship with Del always started with how to describe him to people who didn’t know him. I usually settled on calling him my Godfather. It had the right ring of near-familial without blood-relation to it, and in some ways it was quite true. Of course, Presbyterians don’t usually do godparents, and Del had been a few continents away when I was born and christened.

Pirates of Penzance

What he started as was my grandfather’s best friend. They’d been Boy Scout leaders together most of their adult life, although Del was a decade younger than my grandfather. In my earliest memories of him, I’m probably 7 or 8. We made the trek to Seattle to visit my grandparents for a great family tradition: the annual Gilbert & Sullivan outing. I’m not sure exactly which show it was, but I remember seeing Yoeman of the Guard, so it was then or earlier. My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and various family friends were all there – a huge crowd of us for dinner, a speech by Del about the play we were about to see, and the play itself. A few years later, after the performance, he asked my parents if my sister Heidi might be able to join him for some other plays, and with their assent, a new relationship was born.

Gilbert & Sullivan time!

My turn came when my sister got too busy to attend the plays, perhaps around my freshman year of high school? Del and I had so much fun together, we had to set a rule that we could only have an event in Seattle once a week during the school year. (Seattle was a 2 hour drive for me. My Jr. year of high school I put 1000 miles a week on my parent’s car.) He brought me along with him with his season tickets to the ACT, Seattle Rep (I nearly died of embarrassment when we caught “Angels in America” there when I was 16), Intiman, Seattle Opera (my favorite – he got me a signed copy of Lohengrin by Ben Heppner which shows how in tune he was with my obsessions) and “Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We also caught musicals at the Paramount, and the periodic Seattle Symphony Orchestra concert (my favorite was New Years ’98 concert in Benaroya Hall’s inaugural year). Throughout high school (and summers in college!) I got a world class arts education, first hand, from Del.

Del was in almost all our family pictures

It wasn’t just that we watched the plays together, either. Most of our outings included a dinner. I remember one night eating at the Four Seasons in Seattle where he apologized to my future husband, who would not be able to take me anywhere fancier to propose to me. (In point of fact, Adam took me to Applebees. After Del had met him and approved of my then-boyfriend, he’d offered the advice that Adam should take me to Der Rosenkavilier to pop the question.) We had car rides to the plays, dinner before hand, the plays themselves, and then the post-play breakdown. I almost always loved it, but recall Dels’ surprise when I was particularly critical of 7 Guitars when it premiered Seattle. We skipped it when it subsequently showed in Ashland.

Del and I talked a lot. About everything. We talked about the shows we’d seen and would be seeing. He spun me extremely specific tales of Seattle of yore – the people, places & events. He witnessed much of the city’s growth from a regional backwater to nationally important center. At the height of Microsoft’s power and dominance, we even once sat behind Bill & Melinda Gates at a relatively exclusive showing! He told me about my grandparents, and my father as a young scout. He talked about Baden-Powell, and the Order of the Arrow, and his mother. He told me how his parents would take him out to fancy balls, and he’d explore with the other kids and then fall asleep in the coat room. He told me how the doctors believed he’d been a twin in utero, due to the mirror-placement of his internal organs. He talked about KING TV, and the day he had a heart attack at his desk at work, died, and was brought back. From that day on, without fail, he ALWAYS ordered the salmon at dinner. Always. He’d encourage me to get creme brulee for dessert and then stare at me wistfully while I ate it. I particularly remember the long drive from Ashland back home to Mineral, where he spent no less than two hours explaining the whole concept of an “HMO” to me, and how it would work amazingly, back when that was a brand new concept to the world.

Del at our wedding

He was also always there for me. I am not sure I played in an orchestra concert where he wasn’t in the crowd, nodding his approval. He noted my interests and helped me pursue them. Most of the time when I met up with him, he had newspaper clippings he thought I’d be interested in. He never forgot a birthday. As time went on, he was increasingly at every Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. My mom kept tea in the cupboard, which only he ever drank. After I left to go for college, Del and I were frequent correspondents.

My parents, in a sign just how much he was truly family, stepped in when it became clear that he could no longer live alone. They tackled with love and compassion the task of preparing a home he’d lived in for 75 years (which, in all our time together, I’d never once seen) for sale and a new generation. My mother says that in all the extensive files he kept, I was his longest & most voluble correspondent. My parents have been with him since, treating him like the grandfather to me he is like. My father kept vigil with him today, as his breathing became unsteady, labored and then finally ceased.

At home together

My relationship with Del was just one chapter in the book of a great man. There are many who look at his life’s work, and can be forgiven for thinking he dedicated it to excellence in the way they knew him. His scouting service was legendary. His name is inscribed in the outdoor theater at Ashland. He had an eidetic memory, and could (and would) give you the life histories of all the important people ever buried in Queen Anne Hill. He was a great patron and lover of the arts. He also worked a full career, starting with pushing elevator button on the Smith Tower (a favorite topic of conversation), through the rise of television.

He was a remarkable and generous man, and I’ll be forever grateful that he gave me so many rich gifts: of experiences, tickets, meals, marble heads of Wagner (ok, only one of those), but mostly – his time.


If you have any remembrances to share, or want to learn more about this amazing person, you can visit delloder.com

Sweet Hour of Prayer

This post is best read while listening to “Sweet Hour of Prayer” by Anonymous 4. Their whole “American Angels” album is worth a listen for those to whom this post will resonate.

Harkness Chapel was home to the Compline service, some of my most meaningful worship

I always liked to joke that I am an “Born the first time around” Christian. I was a missionary baby born in the hospital my father helped run in the Congo. My earliest days were a compassionate example, as my mother visibly nursed me to show that this healthy & cheap option was good for any child. I was baptized by Pastor Kafiamba – fire-eater. My first memory of music were the songs of Maranatha when I was three. And I have never fallen away from church, from my faith, from my God. Even in college, the notorious time of not-going-to-church, I was one of a faithful handful who attended Sunday and Wednesday services, huddling in a tiny corner of the vast and magnificent Harkness Chapel.

My good-church-person resume is extensive. I’ve been a member of the Presbyterian Church in Burlington for nearly 20 years. I’m on session. I am a Sunday School teacher. I run the website. I have served on almost every committee a person can serve on. I show up on Sundays, and sometimes Tuesdays. I ran the process to listen to what mission God calls us to, and led the search for our new pastor. I run the Christmas pageant, play trumpet, serve communion, bring coffee hour treats, and can walk through the halls in total dark without stumbling.

But lately, it’s been harder and harder to reach that font of living water, and I have felt my soul getting parched. I suspect some of this has to do with age. Nothing feels quite as vivid or fresh or spooky-special at 40+ as it did when I was 19. Repeated experiences, like sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning, can either gradually add to or gradually wear away at meaning. Or sometimes, both. But in the last decade or so, as my labors have increased, my deep connection to the “why” of those labors has started to wear thin. Simply put – my heart has been growing hungrier, even as I do the things I’ve always done to feed it.

After grace. I think that might be my cousin, since my hair was never that neat in my entire life.

When I think of my mother’s parents, their deep faith and devotion are a huge part of what I remember. They had two chairs in the living room, with a big bookcase on one side. One for her, and one for him. And every day, often in the quiet cool of the morning, they would sit in those chairs with their well-loved Bibles and pray and read. Both those Bibles are still in their hands, in the cool quiet of their shared tomb – a fact I often reflect on. But this time of prayer was central to their lives, if always a little foreign to me (and hard to stay quiet for, when I was wee).

In this desert-time in my spiritual journey, I’m looking hard for things that fill my cup, and inspire me. I’m looking for things that make me feel big feelings, and have a heart overspilling with unnameable emotion. I’m looking to have mind and heart and soul be more expansive, and to see a world that is grander and more mysterious than the narrow boundaries of my life. And so, into the cracks of time my schedule permits, I’m trying plants expansive seeds of soul-dilation.

My prayer-view

And that brings me back to the sweet hour of prayer. (OK ok, honestly, sweet fifteen minutes.) I’ve started creating my own sanctuary and litany. My quietest time is morning, after my boys are all already gone to school and work. (I am not a morning person.) I sit on the white chair by the window and look out at the morning and the sky and try the rusty skill of prayer. I’m really not very good at it for someone who’s working on their fifth decade of Being Christian.

Then I sing a hymn. Hymns are my emotional soft spot, especially the old ones (like Sweet Hour of Prayer). Grey accused me of “flexing” in church this morning because I knew all the words to “Praise to the Lord, The Almighty” by heart, and it includes the word “Ye”. The hymns sound strange in the acoustics of my bedroom, with just my voice. But the words connect me to the great cloud of witnesses who have come before me.

Then, if I have time, I read. My goal was to find things that would inspire me when I read them. I read the Book of Matthew first, a little because I had to start somewhere. I’ve probably read Matthew through 10 times? So I wasn’t expecting to find anything new, or surprising there. But that’s the great joy of a book like the Bible. There is so much to it, so much complexity, that you see different thing based on where you are in your own life. Different things stand proud and catch your notice. In this case, for me, it was the theme of being judged by the measure you judge others, and the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” which showed up several times. It is funny, reading the Bible, to know that there is so little to find that others have not already seen. I bet both of those have PhD theses, if not entire books written on them. But I’d never noticed before.

Book pile

I’m working on my next book. I listened to “The Reason for God” on my commute, which was particularly fascinating when read alongside Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now“. I tried Bonhoeffer, but despite his excellent quotability he was annoying instead of inspiring me. I’m reading Luke while I figure out what I want to do next.

I’m also mindful that books that have great spiritual resonance for me are not always actually Christian. There is no book more capable of evoking a spirit-response in me than Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion which is written about a religious Pantheon which is distinctly Not Christian. But yet, it makes me feel closer to the creator. I also have come to the conclusion that John Muir is a prophet to *me*, speaking to a very important part of my heart. I think poetry may come close to this soul-expansion I so deeply desire.

The last thing I’m doing is my one faith-fail-safe for my whole life. I feel closest to God when I am in nature. There is a meditative quality to an expansive hike which cracks open my hard shell and lets air and light and water in. It is as though altitude helps me get closer to heaven. The time I spent this summer and fall with hiking boots strapped to my feet was time I spent nurturing the soul-fire God has given me.

With time, prayer, song, poetry and nature – I have hope that embers of my joy in God will rekindle. There’s a heat to someone whose soul is well tended. I remember the soft warming glow of my grandparents, in their quiet devotion. I also know that there is a more blazing, inspiring fire that comes sometimes. I’ve rarely heard a story of someone who converted to Christianity without an encounter they have had with someone who seemed lit by an internal conflagration of joyful spirit. I wish to be such a beacon.

Invocation for Town Meeting

I was asked to do the invocation for our Town Meeting in Stoneham tonight. I found myself thinking a lot of those who had spoken words of meaning to this group in the nearly three hundred years we’ve been meeting like this.

On the 14th of December, 1803, Reverend Mr. Stevens preached a sermon on the book of Haggai to the assembled town, as they gathered to dedicate a new meeting house for the Stoneham. According to Deacon Silas Dean, the sermon was focused on the words, “I will fill this house with glory”.

As we come together today, we remember the legacy of hundreds of years of good governance, careful planning and thoughtful preparation that have given us a town filled with green spaces, beautiful buildings and strong institutions. We live in a town where our children and our elders are both carefully treated and dearly loved – where the happy sounds of the soccer fields float through the historic windows of the senior center.

Let us come together, in a sacred intention to build and sustain our community so that those who live in our town in another 200 years may look to us as examples of wise planning, good decisions and respectful communications.

Inspiring spirit, be with us in this time and place. Let our decisions be well-thought and wise. Let our speech with each other be patient and kind. Let our community thrive from our efforts. And let all who live within the bounds of our borders benefit from our good planning. Let us, like our ancestors, fill this house with the glory of good governance. Amen.

Home of the Pawtucket, Agawome & Namkeek

I live in the home of the Pawtucket tribe. Nanapashemit and Squaw Sachem lived together on the shores of the Mystic River, along my commute. The Agawome and Naamkeek once canoed on the fall bright waters of Spot Pond, when it was quiet. Doleful Pond was a field of Indian corn, cultivated by skilled and careful hands.

Silas Dean says, approvingly, “this was a great place for the destruction of the Indians by the early settlers.”

Today, we remember.

Who lived in your home, before it was “discovered”?

The waning of summer

This summer was a remarkable one. I can think of few periods in my life where I crammed as much in (mostly great, fun stuff) as I have done the last four or so months. I’m honestly a bit daunted by the attempt to even summarize it all. Let’s see.

This summer’s motto for me

Hiking
This summer I hiked. A lot. I did four four-thousand footers (Osceola, Osceola East, Eisenhower and Pierce). I hiked Chocorua. I hiked Monadnock. I hiked Welch-Dickey. I hiked small trails centered around Tamworth New Hampshire, like the Big Pines trail, Mt. Major, the Boulder Loop Trail and the Castle in the Clouds. I bought a new hiking backpack and new poles. I did several long, full days hiking morning to evening. I was a founding member of the “Stoneham Mountaineering and Libation Society” (it started as the Stoneham Hiking and Drinking club, but these things tend to evolve over time). And this might have been my favorite part of the summer. I loved being in the woods, strapping on my boots, and heading towards the sky.

Travels
We went camping three times this summer, as is our custom. Nearly two weeks of the summer was spent in tents. We also journeyed back to near our family’s (and democracy’s) foundations in our trip to Greece. It was so glorious – the history, the food, the cool clear waters of the Aegean. I also sent my sons on a rather ill-fortuned RV trip to Canada, cut short due to mechanical failures. Grey spent four weeks at Camp Wilmot, Thane spent two. I took a week to myself in New Hampshire (wherein I mostly hiked…). Adam went to Gencon. It felt a little like a French Farce, where someone was always entering one door as someone else left through another.

Iconic moment

Home Improvements
I’ve been deeply remiss in the whole blogging as autobiography thing. I think you’ll understand when I tell you that the week before we left for Greece, we finally got a contractor to come in and replace the (awful) carpet in our hallway and stairway with hardwood. There was a lot of panicked last minute moving, and since then has been a lot of painting etc. This was the first step on a long journey to built in bookshelves!

Before
After

Friends
I’m just now coming back from a weekend spent with friends. While we were gone a lot this summer, looking at my pictures I see us at the newly opened restaurants in town, at BBQs and rock band nights, whitewater river rafting, tubing the Saco, catching live music, celebrating birthdays, watching the (incredible!) Women’s World Cup or running into each other in the climbing gym.

My selfie form leaves much to be desired

Exercise
My abysmal time in the Camp Wilmot 5k notwithstanding, I may be in some of the best shape of my life. I didn’t run a great race on Saturday (although I ran the race!) in large part because I’d hike 13 miles over ~10 hours with several thousand feet of elevation change the day before. Then slept in a puppy pile of air mattresses in a cabin with a bunch of my friends. This might not be considered optimal race preparation. But I have run, climbed, hiked, and biked to such a degree that I’m feeling stronger and more capable. That’s an awesome feeling.

Ask yourself: are you in top physical condition?

Filling in the corners
And in between all these bigger things were other things… like going to work every day. I’m engaged in some of the most interesting, difficult work it’s ever been my privilege to undertake. Even returning to the home sphere, there was jam to make (I didn’t manage to find any plums this year, alas!), spending time with my beloved husband, going to the beach with the boys and catching the book signing for the latest Randall Monroe masterpiece.

How To

I was once told that “Life is rich and full”. Life is so rich and so full, and I am so very grateful.