Running is not the optimal form of exercise for me. My left knee with its largely excised menisci probably shouldn’t have to endure the pounding of my not-inconsiderable frame. Running isn’t really optimal for weight loss. I should have a more varied workout regime to be fitter and healthier.
But about three years ago I figured out that this was a classic case of “the perfect is the enemy of the good” and laced up some shoes and went for a jog. I haven’t really stopped since, although I also haven’t improved. I’m slow – my “record times” are like 10:30/mile and my longest run is just over 4 miles. Still, I’m out there once or twice a week!
So when I heard that Camp Wilmot, scene of my children’s happiest memories and moral development, was doing a fundraising 5k to raise scholarship funds to be able to welcome more kids, I was mightily tempted. But then I looked at the date. September 22nd. On September 23rd, it will somehow be 40 years since my mother did all the hard work of introducing me into the world. My 40th birthday. The big Four Oh. And my husband had put a block on my calendar for the weekend, so it was right out. Couldn’t be done. Even though there was going to be a campfire and ceilidh and overnight and breakfast in the morning. In possible the most beautiful New England fall week of the year. Not possible.
Then the begging started. PLEEEEEEZE MOM! LET US GO BACK TO CAMP WILMOT.
So I asked my husband *exactly* when I needed to be back in Stoneham and the answer was: as soon as you’ve finished running the 5K. SCORE!!!! We’re headed to Wilmot, boys!
I don’t want for many things in this world (although any implication that I’ve bought every single one of the shiny iridescent school supplies I’ve encountered this year is true). But I really really DO want more children to have opportunities like Camp Wilmot. I have first hand experience seeing that it changes the life of the children who attend it. My kids come back thoughtful, kinder, centered, with a sense of belong and purpose. I know other kids hang on to it as a loving lifeline in a hard world. And I know that for a lot of kids, scholarships are the only way that lifeline is available.
So, if you are feeling like you are desperate to give me a gift for my 40th (or just interested in making a difference in kids’ lives), please consider a contribution in any size to Camp Wilmot. And if you’re starting to think that a sleepover, cookout, ceilidh & brisk autumn run or walk sound pretty tempting, it’s certainly not too late to sign up!
“I must drift about these love-monument mountains, glad to be a servant of servants in so holy a wilderness.” John Muir – “My First Summer in the Sierra”
My friends, I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love. This is the literary equivalent of texting your bestie from the bathroom at a date to tell her that you have found *the one*. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without really getting to know this man who is so very perfect for me.
In a desultory fashion, I saw his book when I was up at Mt. Rainier buying All The Mt. Rainier Things. And I now own no fewer than two t-shirts that say “The mountains are calling and I must go” citing him and Rainier in the same breath. So before I headed off backpacking with my son I downloaded his “Nature Writings” – which start with his autobiography. His life starts out both hard and common. He speaks of the beatings, the fighting, the memorization that mark his childhood. To modern ears it sounds beyond brutal and brutalizing. In his teenage years, his father abandons him down a well for the better part of a day for days on end (where he nearly dies), and his growth is stunted by the heavy constant labors of plowing and toiling in fields. But somehow he wakes up hours early every day and invents (without the internet, or even many books) devices whose purpose I can’t even understand, never mind whose workings.
Somehow, from that drudgery and brutality, is born an open-hearted poet.
This man speaks to me in a way I thought only Tolkien could. He is a co-religionist in every sense. Like me, he was a Presbyterian, although raised in a much more stern and unforgiving religious environment. But he seems to find God in the same places I do – in the mountains and streams and forests. His love of nature is a worshipful reflection of a God whom he never seems to be able to see as nearly as cold and unkind and punishing as his father apparently did. While is story of his youth makes you want to pity him, you can’t. Because through the 16 hour days, the frozen feet, the stunted growth he’s always noticing the beauty and the loveliness of the world and people around him.
I’ve just started on his “My First Summer in the Sierra” and oh! How he speaks of the mountains! It’s like hearing someone praise your own beloved, but in words better than you could find. It’s like hearing a prophet speak of your faith, or finding a poet whose words express your heart’s great secrets. I thought that in reading Muir I’d have to put on my “reading 19th century white dude” filter (well-honed to note and then pass by mysogyny, colonialism, racism, and a belief that not only were the spoils of the Americas limitless they were the rightful property of white folks). I’ve been astonished to meet among the pages of these mountain praises the thoughts of a man who generally seems to see all other humans as of equal worth – a man who also understands the gift and limitation of nature’s bounty. Even as he leads sheep to fatten on alpine meadows, he laments the impact of mankind and our beasts on the world, “Only the sky will then be safe, though hid from view by dust and smoke, incense of a bad sacrifice.” (p. 208) One begins to understand by whose hand, and why and how, these marvels were set aside for us in the first place.
My reading has just begun. I start to wish that I had a lovely copy of his works – a Riverside Muir as you would. It seems almost sacrilegious to read his works on the most quintessentially modern Kindle. I feel like I should find a grove in which to encounter his texts as sacred witness to God’s most glorious creations.
There should be some great conclusion here – some wrapped up discovery. Instead there’s just a hopefulness – that his other writings refresh and inspire my heart so. The astonishing awakening of the morality and decency of those from whom we expected a more “of their era” myopia – and perhaps a similar inspiration to be better than our own era demands. The rising heart of someone who has discovered a whole body of work that seems designed to inspire them, and of which they’ve barely sipped. I can see my future self slowly meting out writings in moments of either great reflection or great need, to feed a famished soul.
“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”
Muir, John. John Muir: Nature Writings (LOA #92): The Story of My Boyhood and Youth / My First Summer in the Sierra / The Mountains of California / Stickeen / essays (Library of America) Library of America. Kindle Edition.
This weekend, we got kicked out of our house. Something about it being a formaldehyde-filled death trap. We have finally gotten to the phase of the attic project where the windows are in, the wiring is done, the plumbing is roughed and the walls are where the walls are going to be. So it was time to insulate the attic for the first time in its 120 year old life. As long as you have the walls and ceiling down to studs, it’s a great opportunity to do it right – floorboards to roofline. But you can’t be in the house for 24 hours after they finish (the off gassing can be dangerous). And it took them two *full* days to do our attic – they still need to clean up & do the fireproof spray paint, despite working from 7 – 6 for two days.
During this period, I’d been planning on getting hotel. It’s a bit annoying to get a hotel in your neighborhood (and expensive when that neighborhood happens to be Boston!) Plus with my folks here, I’d definitely need to get two rooms. But when I was complaining to a neighbor, she generously offered us the use of her house while they were on vacation! It was fantastic, although super weird to come home to your street, park your car in your driveway, and then not go home.
We’re three months into the project. It started in early April, and now it’s nearly July. Despite pretty consistent work, I feel like we’re about halfway there. But perhaps we’re at the beginning of the end? And maybe someday soon my bathtub will no longer be on my front porch? That seems like an impossibility. I really do miss my quiet spaces – both the attic as it was and the porch as it was. I’m also tired of my house being a constant mess. I blame that less on construction than kids. When they leave for summer camp, Imma gonna clean this place thoroughly and enjoy the rare sensation of having it stay – mostly – clean.
We had a lovely weekend. I loved having my mom and dad here. They took the kids off to Great Wolf Lodge for one of the days of this weekend, letting Adam and I have a lovely evening full of a run & a dinner at the Stones. We watched a lot of World Cup, both with and without the kids. I wish I could take a day off and just watch all the matches! Alas, work is very busy. My mom and I went to an African clothing shop run by a friend of mine (MJ Clothing) and I got to help her pick out an African outfit that is going to be tailored for her. When the new shipment of fabrics comes in, I think I’ll get an outfit for me too!
We finished off that fantastic day at a friends house celebrating the start of summer with a BBQ that somehow ended up with Rock Band – the way the best of parties do.
Today was a pretty special day, too. It was the Pastor Emeritus service for our beloved pastor of 36 years. I really enjoyed getting to sing in the choir today for the celebration. And it was such a joy to get to show off all our progress to the folks who helped set us on the path.
1) Hooray for fathers!
For the first time in… maybe ever? I got to spend Father’s Day with the top 2 dads in my life. Both of them, I have great first hand knowledge, are superb dads. My father has always been a warm and loving presence. His bad jokes are legendary, his grounding in all the things I needed to know was thorough and he’s always the first one to lend a hand or solve a problem. He made it to every single one of my sports matches growing up – surely a purgatory when one’s daughter was a perpetual bench-warmer. He and my mother, in keeping with their generosity of spirit, drove out to Boston to help cover that awkward week where there is no child care. Thanks daddy!
The other father in my life is an excellent one. Adam spent his day like he does so many – teaching his kids, enjoying their company, spending time with them. He fixed Thane’s laptop (with several hours of labor) this morning. He is currently downstairs watching the Incredibles to prep for The Incredibles 2. He cares so deeply about his sons, and invests his though, labor, skills and heart into being the very best dad he could be for them, and I love him so much for it.
I hold a space in my heart today for that third missing father – Adam’s father. He lives on in story and song, but his daily presence in our lives is much missed. I’m sad that there are no new memories of him to be had, but I’ll cling to the beautiful ones I have.
2) I’m really proud of my church
As many of you know, I worked really, really, really hard to help my church through the retirement of our pastor of umpteen years (his emeritus service is next week!), the death of our interim, and the really long hard pastor search. There were more than a few times when I wondered whether I’d completely burn myself out on this labor, and possibly have nothing left to stay with the church after I’d completed my work. But the last few months have been just a joy. Our music program, under the loving direction of my dear friend, has become a source of inspiration, enjoyment & pride. The music ringing from within that sanctuary seems like the sound of hope to me. That pastor we hired after long seeking has done me proud. Today’s sermon was truly excellent. On Father’s Day, we are remembering too those fathers at the American border whose children are being torn from them as they apply for asylum. But we, in our church, choose to welcome those immigrants instead, as much as we can. It’s remarkable to see something go from careworn and tired to joyful and vibrant, but that is my beloved congregation.
3) Stoneham Soccer
Have you ever encountered a group doing so much stuff right you can’t think of a single criticism, or improvement? As in the weight of my years, I come to understand how hard it is to do things well, I get more and more impressed with the group that runs Stoneham’s soccer program. It’s one of the most reasonable sports programs around, for cost. And for this modest investment, we get this amazing community. The refs are teenagers – and they’re 99% of the time treated with respect by kid, coach and parent. The parents are positive and yell out support and encouragement – not abuse. The coaches are all volunteers – a mix of parents and people who love soccer. Saturday was the end of year tournament and cook out. Seeing the kids play really pretty excellent soccer was awesome. Watching the community enjoy the games, their kids, the company of each other and the darn good and free hamburgers, hot dogs, watermelon & sodas. Well. Honestly, it restores a bit of my faith in humanity every time. It’s somewhat remarkable to see competence, good faith, great intentions and excellent skills all come together in something you can sign your kids up for.
4) There’s still one plum left
It even looks like a plum. It’s maybe the size of a cherry tomato. Despite the dour doom of plumdom, not all hope is lost for this year, yet.
What about with you? What fails to make the news, but brings joy to your heart? What has gotten better? What is excellent? Tell me!!
I’m chronically busy and oversubscribed. Like so many in this day and age, I have to fight the tendency to wear my busy-ness like a badge of pride, or a competition. The last week or so I’ve been particularly hard-working. I think a bit of that is a burst of energy from the renewal I got from camping. I now have the capacity to work just a little harder, so I’ve been tackling the small things and the backlogs that drain energy from the every day. Much of my weekend was given to the domestic labors and to do lists that eat at my conscience like a black stone dropped on a field of ice.
Then today was a particularly rigorous day at work. Instead of writing blog posts, I should definitely be catching up on my backlog of unread emails. I had one of those days where you end the day with more unread messages than you start it – not a good feeling. And tomorrow will be more of the same, except capped by a (likely) three hour church board meeting (session, for the Presbyterians among you) in which I will remember that as chair of personnel I should probably, you know, do something.
And Mondays are a hard-working night for me. Adam has aikido, so the kids and I are on our own. There’s dinner to be arranged, recycling to be put out, the house must be prepared for the cleaners (so much less work than doing it yourself, but not no work. I go through the homework with Grey. I also needed to tackle the bills – a chore that has become less frequent with the advent of bill pay, but hardly absent.
As I loaded the dishwasher, I was thinking about one of my undone tasks. Adam and I need to revisit our will. I also need to fill out my care choices and end of life choices. I have strong opinions on my own funeral, which if I want them heeded I should probably write down in a place where my family can find them. The short version is that I’d like to be cremated and buried at the base of a fir in Wellspring’s dreampt of funereal forest – you can only learn more by talking to Sunny during a massage. For my funeral, I’d certainly want the hymn “Abide With Me”. I was contemplating what other hymns I can’t make it through without tearing up and “Come, Labor On” came to mind. (Not sure I’d want it for my funeral, though.)
It’s “a hymn of a certain age” – that age being one of my soft spots. There’s something about those mid-1800s hymns that hits me right in the heart. When I sing them, I feel like the rearguard of a dying era. I wonder if I’m the youngest person to know all the words to these old chestnuts, and love them dearly. At my funeral, will the congregation hearken back to a lovely old hymn none of them had ever heard before, as I did at my grandmother’s? The carillon in our town sing sweetly on the hour (or rather, five minutes before the hour) between 9 am and 9 pm. That bell and I have a lot of hymns in common, and it’s a moment of worship for me in those quiet hours when it makes it to my ears. I checked to see if Google Music had a version of this hymn. They do, but it’s a big choir-and-organ version, lugubrious and hard to hear the words to. I’m not a choir-and-organ Christian. I’m a piano and if we’re lucky one or two voices of harmony Christian. Most hymns I love, I cannot hear “properly” without just singing them myself.
I absolutely, positively cannot make it through this hymn without choking up. The whole hymn is about working. “Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain” and “No arm so weak but may do service here”. So totally Protestant Work Ethic FTW. But then, ah, the last verse. As with so many hymns of this era, the last verse hints to what happens after our labors cease. Here it is in full:
Come, labor on.
No time for rest*, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
“Well done, well done!”
I totally teared up just typing that. I’d blame it on fatigue, but it happens every single time I sing this song.
When is the last time someone said to you, “Well done!” When is the last time you believed it when they said it? What would it mean to you if it was the person who’s approval you most sought – the hardest judge of you – who said those words at the end of your labors, and you really believed it? What would it take for you, yourself, looking back at your life at the end of all things, to judge for yourself that your work was “well done”?
I have no answers here, only feelings. There is honor in our hard work. There is much to be done. “Redeem the time; it’s hours too swiftly fly. The night draws nigh.” But make sure that the work you are doing is the work that will earn you at least your own “well done” when the long shadows over your pathway lie.
*We Presbyterians get a lot of sermons about keeping the Sabbath and the value of rest, including this last Sunday’s, all of which we sincerely agree with and completely ignore.
Carter Ledge Trail crosses a small brook and soon ascends a steep gravelly slope with poor footing, then turns sharply right and up at a gravelly slide with a view of Mt. Chocorua; this turn is easily missed, especially on the descent. Continuing to climb steeply… The trail passes through a sag then climbs, steeply at times, up the slope of Third Sister, with several excellent outlooks, but with some ledges that can be dangerous in wet or icy conditions. Higher up is a particularly tricky scramble across a potentially slippery, downward sloping ledge (especially difficult on the descent)…White Mountain Guide 30th edition p.385
About the time we hit that gravelly slide bit (on the descent, of course), we’d already been on the trail for about 8 hours. I’d noticed the beautiful way the light slanted through the jack pines that we were just about to lose it behind Chocorua, on whose summit we’d so recently stood. I figured that it was probably a bad idea to point this out to Erin, who was clinging to the ragged edges of sanity after the “slippery, downward sloping ledge” bit. It had rained torrentially the night before and was very humid, turning all the granite rock faces to a slip-slide zone. But I picked up the pace just a bit anyway.
My fears were justified. We reached the blessed safety of our car at just the tipping point between when ruining your night vision with a flashlight would’ve been worth it. Every muscle in our body screamed. Successive adrenaline jolts were wearing off, and we scarfed a bag of M&Ms by the fistful. Erin is an extremely polite and well mannered person. So when she turned to me to express feelings on the hike all she said was “I am NEVER hiking that mountain again.”
It’s possible I’d slightly undersold the experience. You see, I’ve wanted to hike to the top of Chocorua REALLY BADLY for about the last six years. I made an attempt six years ago (on a shredded knee, right before surgery) but had gotten turned back. It’s logistically challenging. It’s definitely a full day hike. The kids definitely aren’t up for it. And it’s several hours drive from my house. Also, you really really shouldn’t do it alone. This made it hard for me to “convince” my husband he wanted to do it, or to figure out how to do it at all. But this summer, a window opened. The kids were off at Camp Gramp chasing the eclipse. Adam was at Gencon. And I had a summer weekend all to myself. Sometime this spring Erin and I were talking about hiking and the high pressures of modern life and I said, “Hey, you wanna come on this hike with me? We’d get a hotel, make a weekend out of it, and really relax.”
The last few times I’ve gazed at Chocorua’s lovely & taunting profile I’ve taunted back “This time I’m going to get you!” But for having been on my bucket list for years, I’d spent remarkably little time thinking through which trails I wanted to take. We’d been using a hike book the last 6 or 7 years, but Irene did a number on several off the local trails and we’d gotten in a bit of trouble, so I stopped at EMS to try to buy a new copy. They were fresh out! But hey, if I wanted a “Paddling the Ohio” copy no problem. I figured I’d stop at the Ranger Station to get a copy there. But traffic was awful and I hit the ranger station after 5 when it was closed. But hey, I had a recent map of Chocorua! Erin and I reviewed the route that night.
We had two cars and wanted to do a circle route. I picked one of the shortest loops that seemed to also include the most viewpoints. “So we’ll go up the Hammond Trail, pick up the Liberty Trail across the summit, and then come down the Carter Ledge Trail to White Ledge Campground, which has plenty of parking. It’s about 10 miles. Sound good?”
I mean, ten miles eeeeeeaaaaasssssy right? AHAHAHAHAHAH!
Well, it was absolutely gorgeous. The pull up was long and hard and humid. The ground was steaming. The leaves were steaming. We were definitely steaming. It had rained so hard the night before, but it was still warm – touching 80. We’d brought lots of water – nearly 5 liters – as well as a UV water purifier that I’ve wanted for years but never splurged on. (See also: stop at EMS) But we were losing water at a great rate, which was ironic given that vast muddy puddles littered the trail. The rocks couldn’t dry off in the humidity, so stayed slick the whole day. And we needed to climb 3,200 feet. Then summit about three different peaks in a row. Then descend that 3,200 feet.
We ran out of water with about 3 miles to go. Fortunately, I did have my schmancy fancy new water purified and got us a critical additional liter for the last two fast miles out. Did I mention on that descending Carter Ledge Trail we saw not a single other human? We were definitely going the wrong direction, and were very likely the only people on that trail. We couldn’t call mountain rescue if we got in trouble, either, since Erin’s brother would’ve been the one to answer our call and that might’ve been mortally embarrassing.
This climb was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. Every single stabilization muscle was spent. The big muscles of my legs screamed. Bands of pain radiated across both knees with every step up and down. The next day, I could hardly walk up or down a staircase. The biggest surprise was how incredibly sore my arms and core muscles were. We did a LOT of climbing and used a lot of arm strength to get ourselves up and down. I’m not sure any part of my body didn’t hurt. Erin had some blisters she didn’t even know she had because their pain signals were hidden in the overall pain-signals from all other parts of her body.
But oh my friends, what a triumph it was. What a great blessing it is to push yourself to and past your limits, and emerge victorious from the battle. I live so much in my mind, that to spend 10 hours being very much within my body was a great gift. It was truly everything I wanted – and more. Now to figure out how to talk Erin into making this an annual event….
Last September, I took a two and a half day course in mindfulness (an updated version of this one). It was my first real exposure to mindfulness. We spent two days talking theory, technique and doing limited practice. Then the half day was spent in near complete silence, meditating.
As with most multi-day training seminars, I took a couple key ideas out of the seminar, vowed to practice and become proficient… and had completely fallen off the meditation wagon about six weeks afterwards.
The sarcastic “there are studies that back this up” version of mindfulness is, I think, a needed and necessary intermediary technique. As Dan Harris so eloquently lays out, lots of the talk of meditation is wreathed in a religious Buddhist understanding – or perhaps more accurately in the a western idealized & exoticised understanding of Buddhism. Meditation is a work that bespeaks hippies, patchouli and the prefix “transcendental”. (Or at least it was – it is being resurrected by books and courses like I’ve encountered.) I’m a scientifically-minded Christian (not an oxymoron), and deeply skeptical of patchouli. Still, the studies on mindfulness are compelling. And just as I see no conflict between God’s creation & scientific method, I don’t think that the Christianity that exploded across continents from the more rigid roots of Judaism would throw away a useful spiritual technique just because it wasn’t invented in Israel.
For those unfamiliar with the basics of mindfulness, the concept is to stop and pay attention to your own thoughts. This is done with meditation. In it’s simplest form, meditation is the practice of trying to create space between you and your thoughts. Usually you do this by focusing on your breathing, and every time your mind wanders (near constantly) you notice that it has wandered and focus on your breathing again. I’m told that over time, with practice, you eventually are able to respond to your thoughts with intention, instead of a near autonomic reaction. There’s all sorts of benefits ascribed to this sort of mindfulness, from blood pressure to managing temper to happiness.
I’ve thought quite a bit about how the stopping and listening is missing from my spiritual life. I’ve come to realize that what I loved about our Good Friday was just this. It was so long, so dark and so quiet. We had to do the hard work of sitting, quietly, by ourselves, and praying. In fact, apparently I was the only one who loved it, so we’ve switched to a less rigorous service that didn’t require sitting and praying for 60 minutes. But what is prayer but this kind of listening? Does God really need us to tell him what it is that’s on our mind? (Pro tip: God knows. Jesus said so. (Matthew 6:7&8 “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”)
So if Jesus spent an entire night in the garden of Gethsemane praying, and he wasn’t rehearsing his finest arguments to God about why this whole “dying on a cross thing” was a terrible idea… what was he doing? What did that prayer look like? I suspect that there are few options other than perhaps this quiet listening and self reflection. If we still that inner voice, what is it we might indeed be able to hear? Perhaps the still soft voice of the Holy Spirit?
I think it is not impossible.
In meditation practice, it’s very clear that what you’re supposed to be doing is not thinking. It’s also clear that it’s nearly impossible to stop thinking. So the meditator is encouraged to forgive yourself and just start over and try again. While that advice is intended for within the meditation, perhaps it counts for the act of meditating, too. I’ve been distracted away from meditation. Instead of recriminations, perhaps I should just forgive myself and start over again, from the start. And see what might appear in whatever space it is I can create in my mind.
What about you? Have you ever tried meditation? Have you managed to keep it up? Does your spiritual practice contain something that isn’t meditation, but looks shockingly similar to it?