From the archives: What Happens When You Don’t Know?

I blogged for a long time before I switched to WordPress. I did an incomplete job of moving my writing from one platform (Livejournal) to another – partially because it was very manual. But a friend asked about my beliefs regarding the soul the other day, and I was reminded of this sermon I gave. I was surprised, checking the archives, that this one fell in the gap between platforms. Rereading it, I feel like it stands the test of time. This was originally published on 7/17/2007 after the first of two miscarriages, and before my second son was successfully brought into this world.

Job 39:1-4
Mark 4:35-41

The Book of Job is a story about people trying to understand God’s actions. In the story, the righteous man Job has horrible things happen to him for reasons he doesn’t understand. His friends spend several chapters claiming that they understand how God works, and that Job’s bad luck must be his own fault. Job complains to God, asking why he had such a tough time of it. God never answers that question for Job. Instead, God’s reply (in some of the most beautiful and poetic language that can be found anywhere in the Bible) is to talk about all the things that God understands, has done, and had witnessed that are far beyond Job’s ability to comprehend. Finally, Job accepts that while he might not understand why he was so miserable now, it was ok not to understand as long as his relationship with God was intact.

There is a lot to talk about in the story of Job. Right now I want to point out that it is possible for good people to misunderstand God’s nature, and believe the wrong thing about him.

Christianity has spent a lot of time and energy trying to decide what we believe about God’s nature. Some of the most divisive questions in the Christian church have been about that: Is Jesus both fully human and fully divine? What is the trinity? Is it three different people, or three aspects of the same person?

Belief is important. It can change how we act and what we try to do. If we believe that Jesus died and gave us grace for our sins, we act in hope and try to encourage others to do likewise, instead of falling into the inaction of despair.

But how we believe doesn’t actually change the nature of God. Job’s friends truly and sincerely believed that God was punishing Job for some sin Job had committed. God wasn’t – he had another reason. The conviction of Job’s friends didn’t change God’s nature.

Why is that important?

Sometimes I think that we’ve fallen into the habit of thinking that what we believe makes it true. This is easy to observe in a toddler, and fortunately I have one handy to watch. Grey is convinced that if he says that we are outside at the park often enough, then we actually will be outside at the park. A child can think that believing something makes it true. Adults fall into this sort of trap in much subtler ways. (Author’s note: I didn’t say, but one could argue a certain president of ours is doing this by claiming we’re winning in Iraq.) In some theological questions, where the Bible might not have much to say and there’s no way for us to test to find the answer, perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking that whatever we decide is true is actually true.

But God’s true nature doesn’t change based on what we think, and for that I am grateful.

Why?

Well, what happens when we don’t know what to think?

Most of you know I recently had a miscarriage. I’m hardly unique in this. I was stunned at how many of my sisters in these pews had gone through one or even many miscarriages. (Author’s note: I got three more miscarriage stories after this sermon.) Anyway, in the course of my recovery from this, one of the questions I was asked was whether I had any theological doubts or uncertainties that had been raised by the miscarriage.

There are certainly lots of questions to which I do not know the answer. When does a pregnancy turn into a person with a soul? Was my pregnancy even at that stage? What happens to the souls of children who are never born, if they have souls? When does a person accumulate enough actions and intentions to be judged and forgiven by God? For that matter, just what is heaven really like? On some of these issues, such as the miscarriages, the Bible is nearly silent. On others, such as what heaven is like, it is very mysterious and hard to translate to a concrete vision.

So when I look at my own experience and wonder: was there a child, and if so, what happened to them? It’s a question to which I will never have a concrete answer on this side of salvation. I don’t even know what I believe.

And that’s when I realized the beauty of the unchanging nature of God. I don’t HAVE to know what happened, in order for the right thing to have occurred. This possible child isn’t waiting in some limbo, pending me making up my mind as to what God does with early miscarriages. God has already acted, and if there was a baby with a soul, it is in God’s loving hands. I do not need understand, agree, believe, or consent for God to fulfill his covenant and relationship with this other person. I do not need to understand for the right and proper thing to have happened.

That raises another uncomfortable question, though. What if I don’t like what happened? What if it was something bad instead of something good?

I am at peace there, too, because I have faith. That’s where our other Bible story of the day comes into play. The disciples are in a tight spot, with a boat that may at any moment break apart and drown them all. Jesus is sleeping through what they fear might be his last moments alive. They wake him up. “Hey!” they say. “Don’t you care that we’re all about to die!” I imagine that they’re not saying he should do something, they’re waking him up to tell him to prepare himself for the worst. What can anyone do in the middle of the sea, in a horrible storm? I mean, there are miracles of returning sight to people with milky eyes, and then there’s commanding the very weather to act unnaturally. Doctors can return sight or it might come back on it’s own, but no one can command the weather. But Jesus does, and he comments on their lack of faith.

Well, I do have faith. I believe that God is good, and kind, and loving. If there was a soul in place, I believe that he holds my unborn child in his hands and has carried that child to a good end. I trust in that not only for this Schroedinger’s baby, who may or may not have ever existed as a person, but I also trust it for myself. I believe, in the end, that God loves us and cares for us. And so, when theology goes dark and God’s plan is unknown and unknowable, and we do not know what the right thing is to believe, then have faith friends. For we do know that God is good, and his steadfast love for us endures forever.

Me, then

Remembering a Tremendous Man: BJ Johnson

BJ Johnson

If you have ever been to one of the Flynn “high holidays” – like Piemas or Mocksgiving you’ve definitely met BJ. He was always punctual (if not early!) and lingered late into the nights, when we all diliquesced into the couch and began rumbling as much as talking, with shadows and silences stretching long. Some nights, BJ would wrap up an evening by running a game of Werewolf for us. “Close your eyes” he’d intone. “Werewolves, open your eyes and acknowledge each other.” There were long conversations on video game art, obscure 1980s cartoons, comic books and toy design. BJ was truly among his own in these gatherings, and deeply beloved by the folks there.

I learned this year that BJ had a special “Mocksgiving shirt”. He was sad that he thought it would need to be retired after this year.

BJ was also renowned in our local circles for incredible Halloween costumes. We’ve all been frantically searching our archives for the year he came as the king from Katamari Damacy, or my personal favorite, the year he was “Tremendous” with a tiny city glued on his shoes and a hat made up of clouds. He was endlessly creative and had the artistic chops to pull his crazy designs off – even if they weren’t always comfortable.

BJ c. 2003

We learned this weekend of BJ’s death, and it comes as a great shock and sorrow to us all. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ll never get to chat with him in the kitchen while I prep, or hear the latest news from Saxonburg. I have gotten the last ever BJ-drawn Christmas card (this year’s was Santa wearing goggles flying on a giant eagle). The world is a poorer, sadder place for not having him in it. There will be a hole in my table and my heart for as long as I continue to set the feast.

This last Mocksgiving

The family is holding services at 11 a.m. Saturday January 26th 2020 at Saxonburg Memorial Church, 100 W. Main St., Saxonburg PA. BJ was a devoted and faithful member of that congregation, and the family has asked that instead of flowers, memorials be sent to the church.

For folks who may not be able to make it to Pennsylvania, we’ll be doing a few things locally here in Boston. We’re tying down a date to have a memorial meal in Waltham (his home while he lived up here).

This is now scheduled:
BJ Johnson Memorial Brunch
Saturday, Feb. 1st, 1:30 PM – 3:00 PM
In a Pickle Restaurant
265 Moody St.
Waltham, MA
(Please let me know if you’re coming so I can notify you if there are any last minute changes.)

We will also take some time during the upcoming Piemas to remember our missing pie-companion and celebrate his life. In his last email to me he said, “May these occasions long be afforded for us all to gather and enjoy the friendships we’ve been blessed with.” We were certainly blessed to have his friendship.

His Christmas Cards were always a highlight

Like that star of the waning summer

We found our way through the Port of Pireus across a short, quiet stretch of water to the island of Aegina. After a perilous taxi ride (no roller coaster has ever terrified me that thoroughly), we arrived in a quiet, pine-shaded compound, with limestone grottos and placid Mediterranean blue waters.After a moment of deep appreciation for the view, we sunscreened up and climbed in. The water was intoxicating in our near private bay, warm and clear and calm.A ten minute walk brings us to the tiny town of Aegina Marina, which is sadly reduced from the days of Adam’s youth, and where ambitious and long abandoned buildings stand as archaeological ruins from the ’80s.As the daylight waned, I spotted a path up the pine slope along our grotto. I resolved to see where it led. The answer was boring (a hotel), but there was this enchanting rock, almost made got by the sun, where I sat for an hour to watch the sun fall beyond the bay and behind the mountains.In the gloaming, I returned to fetch my youngest son, and we watched the light disappear in the West to be to replaced by the great swath of stars. The Milky Way cut a path from Athens towards Africa. Jupiter was bright at our feet, with Scorpio perilous under the tread of that wanderer. It was gorgeous, and glorious and I spent an hour on that warm rock with a cool breeze and the sound of gentle surf below. There are precious moments in life, and that was one.Tomorrow, more swimming. We plan on spending the entire day at the beach. But today? Was perfect.

Down from the mountaintop

Hike more, worry less – my motto for the week

Sabbaticals that don’t come to a planned end are usually called “retirement” – and that’s a milestone I’m still years or decades from. So it turns out that tomorrow I have to pack up from this cabin and go home and resume the mantle of daily living. (And for the few of you who have inquired as to the availability of this cabin, here’s the AirBNB listing. Weekends in August look pretty full, but September is wiiiiiide open.) This period of rest has been exactly what I needed, and even largely what I planned. I have been somewhat surprised at how much I want to be out hiking. Only one day of this entire week have I failed to lace up my hiking boots. It’s been less reading than I thought. This may actually have something to do with the chairs in this otherwise lovely cabin not being incredibly comfortable for lounging in. I have written more blog posts, got halfway through a ghost story (sorry!), but my mostly-finished novel is completely untouched. I think that the process of editing feels too much like work and too little like exploration.

Friends and mountains

My loneliness/extroversion techniques have been interesting. I have spent several days entirely by myself. Physically. But I am struck by the generosity and kindness of my friends in having not one, but two people make the drive all the way up here to go hiking with me – on hikes I would otherwise have had the good sense to pass up doing alone. Those were two excellent days for me. There may be a better way to have deep and meaningful conversations with people than hiking, but I have yet to find it. Conversation flows as breath ebbs and views wax on the horizon. I loved the hikes, but I also loved the chance to go really deep into conversation with people I deeply like and admire.

Wooded summit

And as Anthony cogently observed “I thought you were going up to the mountains for solitude, but you’re all over social media.” There is a constant dialogue in my head with … you? But in the tumult of work that’s usually with my colleagues. And so often I find that I have little interesting to say, or my interesting thoughts are still nascent and unformed. It takes time and space to take the germ of a thought and grow it into any kind of meaningful expression. And time and space are notably lacking in my usual daily life. But I definitely countered the aloneness by writing, and reaching out on social media. Perhaps I would find it less enjoyable if I actually was really alone. I am brought back to an era – I am the last of this era – where I used to write actual letters and then get responses in the mail. I think that worked almost as well, if more slowly. No one writes me letters anymore, and I write few to the remnants of generations past who do not “Facebook”.

First peak of the week!

When I first came, that first night, I wrote down my intentions for the journey: both those things I did and did not want to do. I also set some goals for myself, which were really permission to do what it was I needed and wanted. Here were my goals:

1) To truly rest and recharge
Admirably accomplished, I think. I fell into conversation at a trail head with some passing cyclists and they actually commented on how well rested, clear eyed and happy I seemed.

2) To understand myself and my desires, wants and needs better
I think this is definitely a B+ or better. I learned some interesting things about myself, with time and space. I also importantly reinforced things that I have previously believed, but had become separated from – like my passion for hiking. It’s a little divorced from reality, though, since who I am without obligations, family or work is not at all who I actually am. There is always work to be done here.

3) To sit down and recall a slower pace of life
Again perhaps a B+. When I wrote this, I imagined a reptilian torpor stealing over me where a whole day or two would languidly pass and I’d barely note their passing. Instead, I laced my shoes and went hiking. I think that reveals not failure, but who I really am. That said, today I spent almost a full hour sitting on a rock in a river doing absolutely nothing. I noted every charming, unexpected, delightful aspect of that creek – seeing things nearly an hour in that I’d failed to see in the previous many minutes. I don’t think I could have sat so still so long at the beginning of the week.

4) To write, especially fiction
I wrote, but it was mostly connectional and not fiction. I have no idea what it would take for me to actually write the fiction.

5) To hike, and use my body in joyful motion
Nailed it. This is pretty much what I did.

6) To reacquaint myself with nature and become friendly with mountains again
Speaking to that journey of self-discovery, it was interesting to watch me orient myself in place and history. I read up on geological formations and historic notes. I stared at maps. I learned the names of the peaks I could see. I went to as many New Hampshires as I could reach: biker bar, art gallery, 7-11, microbrewery, rugged trail, townie trail, literal castle, unpretentious state park, BBQ joint, etc. To the watching eye, you could almost see me laying down the filaments of roots to see where they might thrive and where they would be crowded out. You do not come to love nature in the abstract, but must love it in the most concrete. I like mountains, but I love Chocorua. I like rivers, but that stretch of unnamed river I dwelt in (perhaps the Chocorua?) for a long hour I knew and loved. I like trees, but I know the beech silhouetted against the darkening sky has one branch that has been stripped of a foot’s worth of leaves. To reconnect with nature in the abstract, I found I had to get very close to very concrete parts of it and introduce myself.

To do list

I recognize keenly how very, very fortunate I am that I was able to take this time, this distance and this week. There are so many aspects of lucky: the supportive husband, the older children, the resources to book a nice place for 10 days in high summer. But I wish that all of us could have these times and moments set aside to know ourselves and our surroundings.

Contemplation

The place I’m renting is for sale ($400k if you’re interested, with a two family plus the cabin). The house next door is also for sale, with the same gorgeous view and slightly less stuff going on and also $256k. I might possibly have called a realtor to take a look. The house, well, it’s not for me. And I know what I’m really doing is wishing I could stay in the easy-ness of this week, and look out on mountains that heal my heart. But it’s time to go back, hug my beloved family and take up the yoke of my labors again.

Victorious

Chocorua: a third person narrative

Since I have discovered that I apparently am incapable of writing in the third person, and since I have insufficient time this sabbatical to remedy the issue with more structured fiction, I figured I’d be adventurous and attempt this blog post in the third person. Don’t worry – this won’t be the normal thing. You will soon be able to resume not-reading my first person blog posts.

The day started with pie. There are much worse ways to start a day. This pie was made of tart, locally grown cherries picked in season, and almost entirely pitted. And as all the best pies should be, it was eaten for breakfast. The pie was a gluten-free gift from the wife of today’s hiking companion, Anthony, sent north from Massachusetts to nourish and sustain the travelers. It was well established that Brenda likes pie quite a lot.

The intrepid hikers

The day was slated to be very hot, to the point of records being set. There is no way to hike Chocorua in only the cool of the day. The hike was planned for 10 miles, crossing from Champney Brook to the bald summit of the mountain. They’d then turn their steps towards the invisible ocean, claim the summmits of the other two sisters, then tackle the long, hot descent through beech forests to the waiting car in the White Ledge parking lot.

Champney Brook has a quick loop that for the measly cost of .1 of a mile gives you a long and lingering view of beautiful waterfalls across granite. The morning was still cool when their steps brought them to the falls, already the province of old hikers and young enthusiasts alike. With hours of hiking in front of them, they still lingered in front of the splashing spray of the clear mountain river, pure and golden in morning light. Heedless of risk to shoe and sock, they hopped across stones like a pair of young kids instead of the sedate software Stonehamites you may have met. Pushing across shimmering waters, they found a long dark wall of basalt with a vernal fall silhouetted against the impossibly blue sky and green leaves. They lingered in the spray of the waters, marveling at the work done by ephemeral water against impossibly soft stone. But the summit still awaited, and the heat would only mount throughout the day. They tore themselves away with deep regret that they and their to-be weary feet would not pass this way again. At least not this trip. If there were secret heart-felt vows to come back again with hiking-reluctant loved ones, they were only somewhat spoken.

Laughing at the laughing waters
Vernal sprays in midsummer

Altitude, time and distance all fell under their greedy boots as their strides sought the open skies.

“You know, last time I did this trail I didn’t have a single undamaged tendon in my entire left knee” Brenda marveled, boosting herself up the granite. “I did this all with no left ACL, major tears in both meniscus, a bone bruise and two cysts – only to be stymied a half mile short of the summit by the sound of thunder.”

No thunder sounding in the mounting heat – only birdsong, the persistent buzz of mosquitoes, and the elegant huffing of two friends hauling themselves up a mountain side for fun. As they broke into the sunlight, they were rewarded by spectacular views of their next climb and refreshing breezes that swept aside both mosquito and humid heat. Despite their desire to achieve that summit, they stopped often to admire it and revel in the New Hampshire spread before them: lakes and civilization to one side, unpeopled White Mountain vastness to the other. Both raised the cameras to the horizons in the fond hope of capturing this warmth and joy for the cold, long days of winter.

Striking the heroic pose
The path ahead

A quick scramble up the last steep incline, and the summit was theirs. It was peopled with similarly victorious hikers: kids with their parents, the kind of retirees that the ardent hikers someday hoped to be, young folks bursting with energy and vitality, selfie-takers all. Long they lingered on the summit, seeking the freshest breezes and the most glorious views. The remaining hours of hiking gave them no fear: the days are still long so early in the summer, and the miles ahead were all downhill. The breezes blew away their fears, the warmth baked into them melting New England ice. The birds flew below them, hovering on hot winds. Snacks were consumed.

Victors against the hike
Glorious summit winds

Long they lingered. Long they looked. Long they tried to record every moment of sound, scent, feeling and sight into their minds, for future recovery. But at last the miles ahead beckoned and then slid down the mountainside they’d lately ascended, headed to the other two sisters of the peak. Long was the discussion about which one was Middle Sister and where the Little Sister peak might be found. The second summit of their day boasted a spectacular view of their first, as well as old ruins and new mysterious towers. On the last high bit of ground, they looked back over the work of their feet, ate cheese, and were satisfied.

Towers old and new
Looking back

They descended into the long, slow slope back to civilization. Finding on the farthest trail the unexpected beneficence of a granite slope with lovely views and ripe blueberries, they picked a portion for the maker of pies, still in Massachusetts. As he carefully filled the Pringles can with the blueberries, she sat in the sun. “You know, some day we’ll be talking and I’ll remind you of the time we picked blueberries on the mountain together.” “Ah,” he responded, “But I’ll have to say ‘Which time'”? The friends grinned and picked the blueberries for those who had not been able to eat them, sunwarmed, in the waning slopes of the mountain.

Blueberries

The hike down was long, leafy and buggy. No more views beckoned. No more summits summoned. Only the beer and burger which are the inalienable right of all hikers remained of their adventure. But all through the descent of hard-earned altitude the theme spun: when can we hike again, and who can we bring along with us on the next journey – to share these wonders and joys.

Know yourself

Here on Thursday, I’m on the downward slope of this week of rest. I don’t have that panicky feeling I sometimes get late in a vacation “Hurry up and relax already! We’re almost out of time!” This has so far been a gracious, joyful and relaxed week.

Yesterday, with thunderstorms in the forecast, I just spent the entire day in my cabin doing the quiet and contemplative things I never have time to do. OK ok I played Civilization 6 almost all day and barely squeaked past the Congolese empire for my Scythians to win a cultural victory. I also wrote a section of ghost story and read a book cover to cover. This morning I snoozed my alarm, except apparently I actually turned it off. I woke up when my body was ready to arise, which was waaaaaay later than I had planned. But I didn’t, you know, miss anything. It was fine. I’m headed to White Lake today with a chair and a book and I’ll make a campfire and maybe rent a kayak. Tomorrow will be the real closing ceremonies, with a planned ascent of my beloved Mt. Chocorua. I’ll have Saturday, which looks fine, in which to do any things I feel like I should have already done. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty fulfilled.

I’ve also learned a few things about myself, in this quiet and space.

1) I only write in the first person autobiographical
I really love to write. I have been blogging for a very, very long time – almost twenty years (if not all on this platform). In fact, if you go back to my oldest (converted) post on this platform, you can hear the same longing for and love for the mountains I’m still trying to express today. (Although I’ve come around on New England mountains.) But I am like a body builder who has focused on one particular rep – one particular muscle group. I write as me, in the first person. Even when I write fiction, it’s the same voice and the same skills. The same perspective. I usually have such trouble finding time and space to get to a keyboard and get my thoughts down, I haven’t realized it. I’m an unbalanced writer. I’m not sure I *can* even write in the third person, or from a different point of view character. Now, I am fully allowed to leave myself in that state. I write for the joy of it. But noticing this makes me want to tackle it, and as gracious as this week is, I have trouble writing more than 2000 – 3000 words a day. Maybe this will be a fun thing for me to tackle and freshen my writing in the coming year.

2) I am not afraid
I’ve long known that I’m more motivated by hope than by fear. I’ve also generally known that I tend to be less afraid of stuff than our culture expects of women. But I didn’t really realize just how fearless I am. To be clear – I can still be very anxious. When I consider the destruction course our civilization is on, I’m deeply anxious indeed. But I’m not afraid of being alone in a cabin in the woods. I’m not afraid of scrambling up slick stone chimneys. I’m not afraid of falling. I’m not afraid of heights. I’m not afraid of ghosts. I’m not afraid of bears. I’m not afraid of the dark or the quiet. I’m not even nearly as afraid of ticks as I thought I was. I’m not a reckless person. I don’t go after adrenaline hits. I don’t usually take unnecessary risks or do wildly dangerous things. But it’s not because I’m scared – it’s because I’m cautious. Because I am not afraid.

3) I am physically strong
There’s a great line in “The Princess Bride” (ok, they’re all great lines) where Fezzik says as he tosses a boulder “I don’t even work out”. I don’t think of myself as “a fitness person”, and with my 40th birthday a happy memory, I am no longer young. But put me on a hiking trail with a full pack of water, and somehow my legs are indomitable. I felt powerful and euphoric in my body, cresting mountain saddles and breaking into the light. Even after rigorous ten+ mile days, my feet itched for more. I’m not coming to this entirely sedentary – I run 3.5 a few times a week when I can. But I also don’t do any weight training (I know, I should) and am physically best described as, uh, curvaceous. It’s so empowering to discover that under all that curve is muscle, sinew and will.

4) I like the things I thought I liked
My regular life is, by my own design, very busy and full of people. I cook and eat. I gather. I play games. I am with people a lot. Adam and I mused extensively on how I would do in this week of solitude. Would I go crazy? Would I try to fill the quiet spaces with busy-ness, like I do my regular life? Would I be bored and realize I’d misunderstood my own desires? But before I began to live my adult life, I would have described myself as an introvert. I spent most days mostly alone (as a girl I didn’t have many or close friends), with the company of my books and my thoughts and the mountains. I am not lonely in my aloneness. There’s a big caveat here though. I will get to spend two of these hiking days with dear friends, which breaks up the silence. And there is the internet, which for all its flaws is a lovely connection to the people I care about. But I like both things: the people and the quiet.

There’s also some reassurance in what I haven’t discovered. My journey through the week shows me that I am living the life I want, with the people I want. Only I want more hiking. (I’m trying to convince Adam that this week should become a tradition – he’s such a loving guy he’s going along with it.) The course of my life is the right one, and I can hold to it authentically and joyfully. These are all good and welcome discoveries!

Now, to White Lake!

Ossipee Mountain Vortex: a ghost story part 2

This is the second installment in my 3/4th true ghost story about my week in a New Hampshire cabin. To be clear, the scary stuff mostly didn’t happen, except in my febrile imagination. You can read the first part here, but I recommend instead you read it in this Google doc where I’ve also embedded pictures from the “real life” portion of my journey. I’m a day behind, so perhaps I’ll get the third installment tonight. It’s just a hunch, but I think things are about to get much worse (and therefore fictional) for our protagonist.

What I had wanted for my sabbatical was to hike, write and read, in that order. Although between the two of us, I wasn’t ruling out video games either. Hiking got first billing because reading and writing can be done in winter, in less scenic locations. But hiking was best done here at the height of blueberry season, in the gentle warmth of mountain summer.

Having signally failed to find the Ossipee mountain trails I intended from the back of the circle, I decided instead to take the well-marked routes from the Lake Winnepesaukee side. They all originated from the Castle in the Clouds parking lot. As I pulled in, under the shade of an old oak tree, I contemplated the different New Hampshires on offer. Yesterday had been the rural, poverty-touched, “Live free or die” New Hampshire woods. Today was the bucolic, orderly, historic “Currier and Ives” version of New Hampshire. The green fields were separated on the horizon by white picket fences before turning into the summer-dark green of the trees. Sparkling blue ponds (manmade) held clean gray boulders and were alive with fish and ducks. There was a stables nearby, as well as the eponymous castle a bit further up the roads. I frankly wasn’t sure which New Hampshire I preferred. Yesterday’s had felt rather more authentic.

My planned route this time was on the shorter side, the longer trails having been marked as strenuous. The first hour was marked by frequent dog-walkers, with joyful off-leash beasts who to a hound “just want to lick you”. The last of my encounters was with a woman who kept her hound in close reach on a leash, and she looked spooked. I called a cheery greeting, and she replied with a warning. “I have never seen that before!” she declared. “There was a porcupine that almost got Lucy here! She was off leash and ahead of me, and I didn’t even see the porcupine until she nearly had him! Good thing Lucy is good at stopping when I call her!” The protective cling of the leash was well-explained, then. I’ve heard that porcupines smell like delicious dinner, only to be the snack of great pain. I was relieved to see an unpunctured muzzle on Lucy – she was very lucky she was well trained. “Thanks for the warning!” I called back. “I’m glad you’re not headed to the vet right now!” “Me too!” her voice faded as she disappeared down the path. I was momentarily sad that I was not taking that trail. I’ve never seen a porcupine in the wild before. But it had probably also been rattled by its encounter, and had scurried to the undergrowth.

But a few miles up a broad, even, gently sloping carriage trail (according to the interpretive signs) led me to suspect that my path was only strenuous for a lady in a bustle with a parasol and shoes designed to show her ankles to advantage. It was as boring as it was easy – mile after mile of deep forest gentle slope, with no viewpoints in the homogeneous and well-mannered forest. By the time I hit my first peak, which finally had views, I was impatient with the placidness of the place. I resolved to switch my itinerary to a longer, theoretically harder one to stretch my legs a little more.

I regretted my decision to prioritize length over peaks by the time the sun was on the other side of the mountains. All I’d bought myself was a longer stretch of boring. Worse, instead of being a full-shade trail, there were now few enough hiking boots and plenty enough light that I often found myself hiking through high grasses – the favorite home of my least favorite creature: the tick. I consoled myself with the liberal dousing of bug spray that had started my day, but itched to get out of these broads and up to peaks.

Glancing down what seemed like aeons later, I saw my light gray pants legs were liberally coated with black dots. Moving black dots. Sticky moving black dots. There were maybe twenty ticks coating my lower body. I looked ahead and saw a shady, clear patch and sprinted, boots and all, to the welcome loam under a pine tree. I brushed off the ticks from my legs, pulled up the stretchy material as far as it would go and evicted a few more. I carefully checked my socks. Finally – I hadn’t seen another person in three hours – I took off my pants entirely right there on the trail and meticulously inspected both myself and them (removing a few more unwanted guests) before putting them back on. That there showed me beyond a doubt that I was really alone up here. Nothing summons other hikers like stepping off the path to rebalance your water ratio.

My knees, and the rest of me, were still a bit shaky. I’m not generally a scared person. But I have a *thing* about ticks. I want my bloodsucking attacks to be ones that I notice, not stealthy, horribly embedded ones that pay me for my blood by spilling poison back into my system, THANKYOUVERYMUCH. I was actually proud of my cool, collectedness and rational response to these ticks (as I drained a bottle of picaridin over myself). But I was still having a bit of a shock reaction to encountering my fears in such abundance.

So it took me a moment to pay attention to the circumstances in which I found myself. I was standing on the soft loam of under-a-pine-tree, but the tree itself let through the sky past skeletal branches, cold white against the blue of the sky. It wasn’t the only one – there was a big patch where the boring green I’d been lamenting had been turned to the white of bark-bare limbs and virulent green of pond slime. The air was still in this depression. A high-flying cloud in a mostly blue sky chose that moment to fly over, casting the mire and me both in shadow. From the unseen depths of the marsh came a strange sound, like the twanging of a huge rubber band. I stood, unsettled and transfixed by it, immune from mosquitos temporarily due to the fog of bugspray that still hovered around me. I noticed a great, old tree nearly divided in two and leaning towards the water. Like old man Willow from the Old Forest in The Lord of the Rings.

Yesterday my thumbs pricked. But today I couldn’t help remember a phrase I’d read in that crazypants vortex print-out: “Twisted trees, time/ space anomalies, bodily responses are markers of a vortex.” This was definitely a twisted-feeling space. I reassured myself what it REALLY was is a beaver pond and a sign of a healthy and evolving ecosystem, which would cycle through swamp to pond to meadow before returning to forest. But it FELT like a twisted place. I checked my watch to make sure I hadn’t experienced any temporal anomalies, and was informed that it was probably past time to get myself down off this mountain and get some dinner. And maybe boil all my clothes.

I picked up my pace and the fastest way down (that didn’t include going back through tick-glen) and such was my focus that when I started the pheasants, I almost leaped backwards. I was trotting through a section with heavy brush on the sides when those sides exploded into action and feather and flight, and three birds launched skywards with velocity. But one beat against the brushes as if caught, moaned piteously and then crawled away, crying in fear and pain just out of reach.

This might have been of concern if I wasn’t on to the bird’s tricks. I’d never flushed pheasants before (how bucolic!) but I knew that this was a favorite mommy-bird trick. She had a nest near where I was standing. But she was inviting me to come eat very visible, audible, clearly injured her instead of her chicks. She’d keep flopping *juuuuuust* out of reach until I was far enough from the nest, and then fly away completely uninjured, having bamboozled me and saved her chicks. I grinned at her excellent acting, but my feet kept to the trail and I let her save her little ones the easy way.

That was not the only animal sighting on my way down. I encountered gigantic hoof prints in soft mud that must be the elusive moose. There were a few times I could hear brush-scrapes or the sounds of large, moving things headed down the mountain. I was happy to find my car and the relentlessly scenic meadows.

As I pulled out the gracefully-designed road, I had to stop as three deer bounded in front of me, headed down off the mountain towards the lake. I wished them well in avoiding all other cars on their journey, and drove with eyes peeled for the remainder of my way circumnavigating the Ring Dike on Rt. 25. It was good I did, since I encountered a crazy number of other animals crossing the road all (I noted uneasily) heading AWAY from the Ossipee range. I swear I even saw a bear in a flash through my rear view mirror just before taking a curve.

Nightmares were probably inevitable after the day I’d just had. I tucked myself in, having scoured every inch of my body and tightly bagged my clothes, prepared for the tick nightmares. But while I’m sure there were some creepy-crawly dreams, I thrashed all night with dreams of running away, of fleeing, of looking back over my shoulders and seeing something horrible gaining on me, and needing to run faster. My dream-self was flooded with adrenalin and the need for greater speed, and my waking self sat bolt upright in bed, gasping, heart racing – filled with fear and dread and the desire to flee.