“Failure to wonder is the beginning of violence.” (Valerie Kaur)
It’s summertime and for the last eight years, that’s meant a few weeks at a little cabin on Lake Winnisquam in New Hampshire that had belonged to Harriet, a weaving friend of my Mom’s, and now to her family. Harriet’s place is just up the river and around the cove from where my parents lived for many years and not far from the retirement community in Laconia where they live today.
I drove up here late morning yesterday from Milton, the day after my last Sunday at United Parish in Brookline where I had been serving for the past four months. I don’t often listen to music while driving but I found myself yesterday doing what I have done on other days of transition this past year, scrounging for the CD of the band, Cattle Call, and their song, “Change.” I heard this Maine band in Boothbay Harbor last summer, the first and only time I went to hear a concert at the Opera House, and invited the lead singer Mark Farrington that evening to come to church to sing:
I can let these days remind me
That the tracks I left behind me
Are not the only way to get back home.
I can change.
Much has not changed here at Harriet’s lakeside cabin. Although she died many years ago, much of Harriet is still here —her bird books and binoculars on the shelves, pictures of her husband and children on the refrigerator and walls, knickknacks and notes on bedside tables. And now, alongside these mementos, memories of our own.
Harriet’s cabin became our COVID oasis for over a month the past two summers. Perhaps that’s why unpacking the car, we can’t look on this little place without a deep feeling of love. In the past two summers the little kitchen table and desks in the bedrooms upstairs become our offices for zoom teaching and telecommuting, taking a class. Mid-morning swims during lunchtime breaks.
On the more ambitious days, here is where we rise early with the sun for morning runs on dirt roads followed by laps swimming in the lake around the neighbors docks. Lazy afternoons with cousins and friends floating on long brightly colored Styrofoam noodles, paddle boarding and kayaking, blueberry picking at the farm over the hill, evening soft serve at Jordan’s Ice Cream and long games of Catan. And yes, times like our first night here last evening, watching the night ascend in a cascade of color as twenty Canada geese in a long row paddle across the purple lake.
How many times have my sister and I shared how much we love being here and how grateful we don’t own this place! What a treasure that we don’t have to spend our time looking around and thinking about yet more house repairs or remodeling to do but can merely give ourselves to the gift of here and now. Perhaps, sitting on the porch, like I am doing now, looking out on the changing colors and textures of the lake and sky after a passing rain shower. The mountains of Gunstock, Belknap and Piper across the lake where since I was a young child we have skied, hiked and gathered blueberries.
Everything in view, everything in sight and sound is in motion here; nothing stays the same. Once again, everything seems possible and must be.
I have asked the same old questions
And I’ve believed the same old lies,
I’ve come to some conclusions,
But I’ll probably change my mind,
And everything I hoped for is not mine.
But I can change. (“Change” from the band Cattle Call).
Valerie Kaur writes in her memoir See No Stranger, that it all comes down to this wonder. Once we stop wondering about others, she notes, we don’t see them as part of ourselves and we disable our capacity for empathy. When we lose empathy, we are able to do anything or let anything be done to another.
This bit of time at the beginning of summer is a wonder time. A time set apart, when there is something that tops the list that is more important than scheduling our next appointment, making our next flight or finding our next job. I wonder what might happen if we all had the privilege of a few days of wonder time this summer. I wonder what it would take to make that possible for not just some of us but for all of us. As I look around, it is so clear that we are not who we were last year and we will not be so the next. I wonder who we might become, who we might be with and for each other – if only we gave ourselves to wonder.
The sky blue with great grey and white cumulus clouds rising above the mountains after the downpour that had turned everything to mist and lines of grey.
The loon dives and disappears beneath the lake only to startle us to listening as the sun sets later this evening with her most plaintive song echoing over the water.
Sunday night, February 13 and I’m gripping the steering wheel in the middle of a snowstorm on my way to Brookline. As the traffic slows to a crawl and the windshield wipers flap I wonder where I’m going and why I’m out here on a night like this.
The next Sunday, I shared that story with the congregation of United Parish in Brookline on our first time meeting each other. I wondered if a sabbatical season might be a time for all of us to open our hands. What might happen, I wondered, if we received the gifts of this moment in time we will spend together for the next four months while their senior pastor is on his own sabbatical?
That February snow storm now feels like a long time ago. Much has happened in the past four months. And yes, this time has passed quickly.
Now this morning as we prepare to gather for worship one last time, I wonder with the congregation, what did we receive in these past months?
I’ve received so many gifts. I came here full of questions about how I would like living and working in a city again after loving my immersion in the Maine Woods. I wondered how it would be returning to the familiar setting of a vibrant multi-staff urban church. I wondered on the possibilities of a sabbatical season. My time here has strengthened my call to a ministry of traveling with a community for a season of transition with all the unique possibilities that can arise in a time like this. I loved being in a city again and working with staff. I discovered so many trails to hike and run, the gift of trees and a river.
As I have shared with many, I have never felt so relaxed, non-anxious, grounded and present in my role as pastor ever in the past 35 years. What a gift of surprising grace that I take with me from here. Perhaps it was the particular role I filled or perhaps the specific clarity we named to define what our work was about and all it was not. Perhaps some maturity and perspective. For sure, a wonderful community and staff.
The gifts we receive in an interim time like this are precious and unique. But I’ve learned that unless we find ways to continue to practice them, we’ll usually just drift back to our more familiar patterns and habits. In the past months here, I went to yoga class, 3,4 days a week at a little yoga studio around the corner from the church. Most afternoons at 4:30, 5:00 I’d head over with my yoga mat tucked under my arm. I used to “hate” doing yoga. Here I discovered what a joyful difference it made to my body, soul and spirits. What I know on saying goodbye is that unless I commit to continue to practice, my days of yoga will soon drift away.
Yes, we did good work together. The staff and church leaders have shared how they feel grounded and empowered and with more energy than before we began.
Together, we walked through a particularly sad and violent season. We gathered right after I started to mourn the invasion of Ukraine. We gathered last week in a lamentation circle to grieve the past months of mass shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo and at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, the anticipation of SCOTUS overturning Roe vs.Wade. There have been hearings on the January 6 insurrection and so many other particular events in our personal lives and life together that have made this a challenging time with all the anger, anxiety and fear that can spin out of it. We needed each other to find grounding and hope, a way to move forward in courage and commitment.
In our final service together this morning, I’ll share that whether or not we opened our hands in these past four months, now is the most important time of this sabbatical. In some ways it all comes down to this, the opportunity for the community to open their hands to welcome with wonder their senior pastor home. I’m so curious to hear what happened in him, to him – what discoveries he made, what questions he returns with. And I am full of hope for the conversations the congregation will have with Kent after I leave as they share what happened to them as a community during this time. As they meet each other anew, what might happen?
This morning I will pass to the church moderator what was entrusted to me back in February – the keys to the church building, a parking pass and name-tag. We will offer words of release and blessing and there will cake outside to celebrate what we’ve done together. And then I will drive north to New Hampshire where I will be spending the next weeks at a lakeside cabin with family and friends.
I leave with the gift and blessing of tears. For if ministry is about anything, it is about the sharing and giving of our hearts to one another. Yes, love has been in the room here in Brookline and what a difference that has made. I will carry that gift in me, always.
That’s Jason the crew members report this morning. Post-breakfast, some 60 of us sit silent and attentive early this morning around our wooden tables at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. We’re warm, and full from oatmeal and eggs, coffee cake and coffee while outside rain and wind rattle the windows.
My first thought, it must take a lot to say “grim” up here when the weather is rarely ideal. Today, “grim” fits the word: 71 mile per hour winds, 28 degrees and wind chill of 7. Good news, he says, is that it’s not snowing. That’s coming in this afternoon with a forecast of 1-3 inches.
“It’s conditions like this,” the man beside me says, “That made a couple of thru-hikers coming north from Georgia, quit the trail shaking their heads that the Whites had done them in.”
The last two days we’ve been navigating the thin edge of sanity and safety, the right kind of confidence we need and the foolhardy kind we’re trying to avoid.
It’s not always easy to figure which way to go in the face of “grim” and what makes hiking in the White Mountains so deceptively tricky. When we’d taken off on a sunny morning yesterday, the predictions for the day seemed preposterous. What “morning thunder storms?” Fortunately, we’d not been too cautious but chosen the right kind of caution and opted to hike up the tree-covered Ammonoosuc Trail that’s the shortest way up and ends right at Lakes of the Cloud Hut.
It was only when we turned around before starting up the trail that we could see the dark clouds coming in. They soon caught up to us, with yes, the promised morning thunder showers. We were grateful for my Dad’s good advice for the trail to choose that day and the protection of the woods. So glad we were not out where I’d have preferred to go, on the long ridge climb up the Crawford Path. Beautiful yes, but on a beautiful clear sunny day.
The Ammonoosuc Trail meanders along the roaring stream until the valley narrows. At a lovely pool at the bottom of a waterfall, the trail heads straight up. A very good place in the morning rain for a lunch break before the ascent.
Ahead, rocky waterfalls to ascend and cross, long slick granite slabs. Last summer I got scared on the steep ascent up Katahdin. I realize today I haven’t yet gotten over that fear. I go slow, cautious, placing my poles with care like a very old bent man. A few young hikers stride effortlessly up and past us.
As we ascend, the clouds lift. Long wisps of white run up the valley beside us, blue sky breaking through behind.
The wind rises, cold, sharp as the trees turn gnarled and low. At last, the view of the hut roof over the next rocky ascent. We’ve made it.
Outside the hut, the young hikers who passed us earlier smile, “We’re glad you finally made it!”
Their little group is assessing the rocky summit of Washington above, “It’s too windy today up there, hurricane-force wind, we’ve heard. We’re going up tomorrow.”
We nod at what sounds like their good advice until we go into the hut to register. The crew member says that no, she’s not going up there today. “It will be even windier up there than here,” she says, “but if you need to check it off your list, you have time today before dinner and it will be worse tomorrow.”
I never thought of being one of those people who needed to “check off a peak” but in fact, that’s why we’re here. Ross asked me to come so he could get up Washington for the first time in 50 years. I’ve been up Washington many times but never on a clear day like this. What’s clear now is despite the wind, we’re going. Now is our time, tomorrow will be worse.
It’s only 1.5 miles up from the hut to the summit, looks so close and so deceptively far. The trail a field of red and aqua lichen covered boulders. We navigate slowly rock to rock, pole to pole. The wind howls up the slope, strong gusts that seem hell-bent to topple us over.
At last we approach the top, but the actual summit further up and across from the Tip-Top House, an old stone building. Tourists from the Cog Railroad crawl in sandals and sneakers towards the summit marker for pictures – all the drama they paid for. We join them, down on our hands and knees, cling to the sign not wanting to let go. I’ve never been out in wind like this.
Mount Washington has the worst weather in the world and the White Mountains some of the most dangerous. Highest wind ever recorded by humans. More fatalities per vertical foot than any other mountain in the world. 200 people need to be rescued each year by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department from falls and hypothermia, avalanche, drowning, heart attacks. People take off on deceptively nice days like we had this morning and are led right into trouble. Sunny blue sky days in their 70’s turn quickly wet and windy, lashed by lightening.
When we arrive back at the hut for dinner, the thru-hikers who had their kids visiting for the weekend, have sent them all down the mountain to avoid what is forecast to be a particularly nasty day tomorrow. All I know is that I’m exhausted and we’ll have to see what tomorrow brings.
I sleep well, wake to a fogged over window I mistaken for snow.
What’s clear this morning is the way down is not the way I was committed to go yesterday. Last night I was sure we should take the Gulfside Trail and down Jewel Brook which promised to be a much easier descent.
Today we need to embrace “grim” including going down the steep Ammonoosuc that I so did not want to go down. We’ll go down as we came up, steady and slow, and yes, with a good deal of sitting and sliding.
“It’s nasty out there,” the crew member reminds us, “But soon you’ll be below the trees. Go slow and careful when you turn the corner around the hut, the wind will slap you in the face.”
As promised, the wind slaps and almost topples us. We descend into the cloud whipping wind and rain. The same fears as yesterday as I look down the sheer slabs of granite now wet and cold. I sit and slide, not wanting to fall. The crew told us at breakfast that while most injuries happen on the way down, it’s often because hikers are tired from the ascent. We’ve had that wonderful breakfast, warm and rested. I’m banking on their promise that it should serve us well for a good descent.
We descend below tree-line, the wind quiets, rain stops.
As we descend down the trail in hats and gloves, rain pants and jacket hoods pulled up over our hats, we pass little groups of people ascending in tee shirts and shorts, tiny packs and white ball caps out for a day summit of Washington.
“How much further?” one sprightly group asks.
“Oh perhaps an hour,” I say.
“What!”, the leader exclaims, “It can’t be! It’s only half a mile!”
Perhaps, I think, as he clambers on ahead, and you have no idea what the trail ahead is like.
“It’s really nasty up there,” we tell the last couple in the group. “Be careful.”
We pass several groups of young men striding briskly up and one group that pauses at the stream crossing. They too dressed for a day hike and without a clue what lies ahead.
“Did you do Washington?” one young man asks.
“Yes, we summited yesterday, it was a real adventure, hurricane force winds on top.”
“Oh that’s just what I’m looking for,” he smiles, “I’m in need of an adventure and conquering a mountain!”
“It’s really windy up there today,” I say, “Hurricane force winds and snow coming in.”
“But its not windy down here!” he says and strides on.
That’s right, I want to say, it’s not windy down here and just what makes hiking in the White Mountains so dangerous. I hope their day ends well for them, that they make it to the hut safely and reckon with reason. I don’t want to read about them in the paper tomorrow.
That afternoon, Xi Chen, 53, of Andover Massachusetts will be caught in the wind and snow on the Gulfside Trail, and die of hypothermia. From all reports, he was an experienced hiker caught in a terrible storm.
That night, three hikers in their 20’s will be rescued when they get turned around and lost off the trail coming back from Mount Avalon, the same mountain I climbed two days ago on a most beautiful day.
It’s my fifth day out hiking this spring and I’ve arrived here in Crawford Notch a day early before our ascent up Washington tomorrow. Its my final vacation day and today, the gift of time and a question of what to do with it? What to do with these 6, 7 hours before Ross arrives for dinner.
I head to the woods. Head out without any particular need to do, prove, show, check off, accomplish anything but to immerse myself in something, in this case, the trail. I look at the map Dad lent me yesterday to get a rough sense of a loop I might do and cross the tracks at the bright yellow Crawford Train Depot. This time, instead of heading up the familiar trail to Willard, I head down the trail to a mountain called Avalon.
A few years ago, I made the short hour-long hike up Willard with my nephew Peter when we were out with my folks on a day-trip wander in the mountains to see where the road would lead. On the climb up, we were told by a hiker coming down the trail not to bother with the climb as there was no view at the top. We smiled and said thanks and kept on going. It wasn’t the view we were out here for. It was something of the same immersion in time on the trail that I feel today. Something about following the memories of other times we had climbed Willard before other longer ascents.
As Peter and I turned the bend at the top of the peak, the heavy clouds parted. For just a moment, a mere breath of breeze, we could see all the way down the Notch until a moment later, the clouds folded back over the view. A couple making lunch told us that they thought we might have been the hiker who’d passed us going down.
“We told him if he waited for a few minutes the clouds might part.”
He had other things to be about or no time to waste. How many gifts I miss seeing when I’m running about distracted by other things. I pass by that memory and head up by a rushing stream on the trail to Avalon.
On the way a big toad jumps to the side of the trail. We pause and consider each other for a while. Around the next bend, a smaller toad. Last month, I kept meeting frogs, today toads. What is the gift of the toad that I am to receive?
At the small crop of rocks at the top of Avalon, two young women eating their lunch who thought they were climbing Willard. “We thought this couldn’t have been that nice short trail our parents had taken us up when we were little!”
They are surprised, proud they made it here, passing that memory and making a new one.
They are not the first hikers I’ve passed who missed the sign to Willard right after the trail crosses the train tracks. One group I passed turned back to find the trailhead. These two women kept climbing thinking they were on the right trail and questioning their memory.
What is the “right”trail? Is it the trail we are looking for or the trail that finds us?
I’m feeling good. It’s a beautiful day and the last such sunny day we are expected to have. I look at my map, see Mount Field it not too far away, and take off down the trail.
It’s not far off. At a trail crossing in the woods, a pile of rocks marks the peak. A little side trail leads to the view down another section of the Notch I’ve never seen. A good place for lunch.
I walk back to the pile of stones to consider my map. A young man steps down the trail.
“Is that the way to Wiley?”, I ask.
“Yup, its only 1.3 miles.”
I pause, look at my map, consider my time, my options. What is the time about? When do I have to turn back to meet Ross for dinner? What trail am I to follow?
“If you want to see how many peaks you can do, you should definitely do it,” the young man says. “Its mainly flat.”
Perhaps the turning words are “only 1.3 miles” or “mainly flat.” Perhaps the thought he planted that I might see how many 4000 foot peaks I can do on this little circuit. Perhaps, if not today, when? I check my watch. Ross won’t be here for a few hours. I have time. I take off toward Wiley.
The trail descends, continues to descend. I wonder if this is the right trail. Mainly flat? Then the trail heads up and then down and continues down until I finally hit a stretch of what might possibly be called “flat”. As I pause for some water and a snack, a couple of hikers who have followed me from Field, have caught up. “Mainly flat?!” they laugh, loud, exuberant laughs. “I wonder where he’s from! This is definitely not flat!”
But “Mainly Flat” is spot on about the view on Wiley. Like he said, there’s no view from the top, only another pile of brown rocks, but a bit further on, a little sign for “overlook” and a view across to the Webster Cliffs. Definitely worth it.
Mount Tom is the next of the 4000 footers in an afternoon that is now becoming full of them. The hikers who’ve followed me here have come that way. “It’s not like this trail, just .6 miles.”
I head back up and down the trail to Field and then will head over to Tom for one more 4000 footer on my way back for dinner.
When did I become the man I never imagined being? When did I become a hiker? When a hiker who never desired to climb all 48 4000-footers in the White Mountains and is now heading off to climb yet another? I get why people like this chasing of peaks, this joy of discovery, this marking of time.
Yes, it’s Peak Season here. In the months to come the mountains will be full of hikers seeking to climb the 48 this summer or year, or in whatever time they imagine they have left to do so. That might be me out there joining them, or perhaps I’ll be sticking to hiking the Willards of the Whites. On the way over to Tom, bunchberries at their peak and so many other flowers whose names I once knew and now no longer remember. Perhaps, I will learn them again.
I’ll end out here on the trail as I’m standing at the trail crossing up to Tom. I glance at my watch wondering if I have time enough to get back for dinner and deciding I do. They said its only a short way up Tom and no view to be found. But perhaps, that’s not what I’ve come for.
I’ve been out practicing getting my feet under me again. Reminded that it takes its own slow time to return to the swing of the trail.
It felt like a lifetime and not mere months ago that I was hiking with ease up mesas in New Mexico and mountains in Acadia National Park. In these months since I’d been out on the trail, how could I have forgotten how to walk?
In early April, on my first hike of the spring, a friend and I climbed Mount Monadnock. I couldn’t find any swing on the trail that day. All I knew was my old familiar friends of trepidation and fear of falling off what felt like impossibly steep rocks and tripping over far too many roots.
Monadnock makes the list as one of the top ten most climbed mountains in the world. An estimated 125,000 hikers a year venture out to find its summit as its only a two hour drive from Boston and five from New York City. Although only 3,165 feet, Monadnock is a New England mountain full of all the rocks, roots and sharp descents that it can squeeze into its stocky stature. It’s not an easy climb – in fact, I don’t know any mountains around here that are including the Skyline Trail in the Blue Hills.
Last Saturday I completed my third hike of the season, and my second hike along the Skyline Trail across the Blue Hills Reservation. The 22 hills in the Blue Hill chain are like Monadnock full of their share of rocks and roots and sharp descents. Yes, they are small – Great Blue Hill tops the list at a mere 635 feet. But when you climb the stone tower there at the peak, what a wonder to see how close you are to the city’s hazy skyline across a sea of deep green forest below.
I’m so thankful for so many things I’ve discovered here in my present home along the Neponset River this spring, including the Blue Hills Reservation – some 7000 square miles and 125 miles of trails a mere 10 minutes from my apartment. In the past four months I’ve skied, run, walked and now backpacked through many trails and miles.
It took that hike last Saturday and the few others I’ve been on these past weeks to return me to the presence of the trail. Of course, presence is there all the time, its just I don’t sometimes appreciate all that I’m present too! How much more I prefer to drop into that present wonder of the woods, of a kind of seeing where I recognize the tree for what tree is and the stream for what stream is. A kind of present stillness where I see the rock not as an enemy or obstacle, a threat or something to fear, but something to see and be aware of and work with. Yes, how often I’m lost in the thoughts and stories in my head! How, yes, I long for the frog’s way of knowing and feeling with their whole body — present, still, waiting, watchful, ready to spring into all that is.
I’ll have moved north to a lake in New Hampshire in a couple of weeks. The final pieces of my ministry here in Brookline complete or soon to be in the next week. But before leaving, I head north early tomorrow morning for a climb up Mount Washington on Friday. I’m grateful for it – one more ascent in this season of descent. It’s this ascending I love, the new beginnings and discoveries, the wonder of vistas opening along the way.
But its not the ascent that I’m focused on this season, it’s the turn to the descent. I keep saying what a gift it has been to be here this spring and it is true. A gift that came in the surprise of finding trees where I expected only a city, quiet riverside trails where I only anticipated only honking traffic. I will miss being here.
Yes, it’s always been the descent that I’ve struggled with; it takes its own slow time for me to grow comfortable with it. I often feel in the work of saying goodbye the same kind of awkwardness and out of sorts I felt in descending Monadnock a few months ago in that first hike – stumbling over roots, anxiety about falling. Sitting down and sliding over the rocks rather than risking a big step over them. Unsure of my steps, unfamiliar with my new boots.
Now with a couple more hikes and practice getting the ground under my feet, I’m learning to breathe my way through this present descent. Getting used to the pacing of the trail, the right pace for me. Pausing every hour to stop for a moment, drink, eat. What a difference it makes. I’m learning to pay attention.
As I neared the end of the Skyline Trail last week, I had to cross a busy road with long lines of traffic. I hesitated to cross. Why not turn around here? Why not call good enough, enough? But I wasn’t done with the last bit of the trail and I wanted to finish the whole trail not part of. Good enough, not enough. So when a car slowed and the driver waved, I sprinted across the road. Across the road, off the rocky peaks and rooted trails, the trail flowed gently out into a beautiful trail of pine needles. Except for the hum of the distant highway traffic, so quiet, so still. I passed just one couple who commented that they too had never been to this far end of the trail and how beautiful it was.
The trail ends with a small cairn of stones. I’m so glad I made it to the finish. A snack and swig of water to celebrate and I turn back to where I began.
Miles ahead, as I descend into the parking lot, already new hikers are ready to ascend the trail. Five tall lanky young men stride up the trail towards me.
“How long to the top Boss?”
“Oh, I have no idea,” I say.
“Not even a guess?”
“Well, maybe an hour? But that’s for me – for you, half an hour!”
I have given myself once again to this trail and all the ups and downs and discoveries on it. I’ve walked with my unsteady anxiety and found my way to ground and breath. I’ve found the swing of the trail again as I’ve practiced learning to walk each day up and down, the staggering ascents, the steep descents, the surprise of long shaded paths of pine.
The path this morning leads from my table here by the window to the kitchen to refill my coffee. Later, a drive past the Arboretum where each day this long spring I’ve watched it turn from brown to shoots of brilliant green, the once white and pink flowering trees, now lush green.
Yes, the path ahead is full of unknowing. And yes, in giving myself to the trail I am learning anew to trust in it, and to trust in the wisdom of the body. Practicing the descent out of my head and the endless stories I tell into a body that knows the way and how to make the journey better than my head can figure alone. The body’s way of presence that just knows to place my foot here and place the pole there that will take me up and over the rock to the next curve on the trail.
Have you ever gone somewhere and the moment you arrived, you were just happy? I mean, from the moment you stepped out of your car after the long winding drive up the dirt road past farmhouses and fields, the brilliant green of fresh new leaves on the trees bending overhead, you just opened your heart and received the wonder of all that is here.
A week ago, at the end of May, I went on a five day retreat with the Animas Valley Institute, based on Bill Plotkin’s book, Wild Mind, connecting human development, the Natural World and Spirit/Soul. We had a wonderful intergenerational group of eighteen. Thirteen men, including two others who had also just turned 60. Something is breaking forth in all of us, a new season of change with new questions, challenges, opportunities and openings. I’m always so fascinated to find any “spirit-centered” group where men show up. What is it that draws us all here? Perhaps it’s the wilderness guides, the woods, the experiential program with movement and conversation, community and solitude.
Our conversations over meals and around the fire, confirm our deep connections in fears and worries, anxieties and ecstasies. Stories of learning to walk with despair, the fate of the earth and finding our part. Talk of the meaning of healing and hope, the longing that had drawn us here to give ourselves to the way of transformation. We are so alike at our core amidst all our surface differences. As I think back on this group, I could go on and on about each of them, how I treasured hearing their stories.
Each day a simple rhythm of morning yoga in the yurt, conversation and discernment about dreams over breakfast, dancing on a green hill followed by conversation in a circle. An afternoon wander in the woods with a question and sharing our discoveries when we returned followed by a delicious dinner. Conversation and drumming around a fire on the hillside at night, and one night a most incredible “trance dance” where everyone could find a part holding the circle, drumming, striding out one way as the “sun”, and slithering the other way as the “moon”, dancing every which way in the center. Together we made something powerful that ebbed and flowed in energy and ecstasy, in grief and joy, ending in dark silence.
I gave myself so fully to all of it. Perhaps, its how I’m learning to walk these days, open to receive the gifts that are here – such happiness, such grief, this laughter, these tears. Present to all of it, gift and grace.
Yes, after not being able to smell the lilacs several weeks ago when I had COVID, I stopped to smell the purple and white lilacs everyday, several times a day, each time I passed in fact, just to take in the wonder of smell and lilacs.
Everyday on our afternoon wanders I kept meeting frogs. I’d head out with my head full of my “plan” of where I was going and what I wanted to “do” and everyday was drawn off the path and away from my plans to something that was deeper, quieter, more necessary.
One afternoon I went down to play in the brook. Constructed dams and piled rocks, something I have not done since I was a child. That day, met a brown wood frog in the stream, and everyday since kept meeting frogs. I wasn’t out looking for them but they kept finding me each day.
“I take coincidences like that seriously,” our guide told me. “I wonder what frogs are offering you?” I think about frogs and how they are so present, silent, waiting, watchful. So deeply attuned to their environment, their skin so porous to receiving and yet so vulnerable. A way of silent, watchful listening that I treasure. Think too of their sudden flying out, their joyful leaping. Think of all this and who I am and long to be.
Am I listening? Patient and watchful?
Am I awake to all that is here?
Ready to pounce in a moment?
Am I ready?
On returning last week, a share of sadness and grief of missing the wonder and joy of those five days in the woods, a sadness I’d felt in the last circle we had on the morning before we took off in our many directions. I was ready to tell my tale of sadness and woe, planned it all out in my head of what I was going to share. Instead, a question was offered that I hadn’t expected, a question that changed everything. “What sea are you heading out towards?”
“What? That’s not the question I thought we were here to answer,” I said. “And that, that changes everything!”
The question does make all the difference. And this question, not the one I expected on what was in my heart looking back on this week but instead what is in my heart heading out, opened my heart in another moment of transformation to joy. Instead of sharing my woes on leaving, I laughed.
I could go on and on about it – the joy I found there that is calling me out – to the woods, to community and connection, to deep listening to the deep questions of life and where we are going together, to wonder and wanders, dancing on the hillside. To the creation of a dance that creates a fire of energy and passion none of us could generate alone, but together do. Oh, I could go on and on about the seas where I am headed and not have a clue the shape and form, the place and context in which I will find them. But I know where the Spirit is calling.
On returning to my home of this season on the Neponset, I sit here on a green bench this morning looking out over the river so green and still, I receive this wind, this grey sky, this drop of a single wet drip from the branch above. This sparrow song and all is so, so alright. More than that, well. So very well.
The white duck appears. A cormorant pops its long slender curving neck out of the water. Startled to find each other here. I am here. I am home.
The mallards too are back to be with the white duck. I wonder if he now imagines himself a mallard.
As for me I imagine a frog. Watching, waiting, present, listening. Ever so ready when the time is right, to leap.
I tested positive for COVID last Monday after an afternoon walk with a friend in the Arboretum and not being able to smell the lilacs that were supposedly quite fragrant.
“You have COVID!”, she said, joking. I knew I had congestion and a cough from springtime allergies. I knew I didn’t have COVID. At least I didn’t when I’d tested last week. But that afternoon back at the office I took another test.
I couldn’t believe it – two lines! What does that mean, two lines? I read the instructions. Re-read them. Took another test. Two lines! Examined and re-examined the little pictures. COVID! No! It can’t be! The illness that had been in so many other people was now in me.
My first instantaneous thought before thought was “Don’t tell anybody!…. Deny, cover it up….Go on as if everything is normal.”
It was my my first sign that something powerful happens with the onset of a disease, a diagnosis. Immediately, our minds can race to some old story to put “meaning” on it. For me, an old story of moralizing illness. An ancient belief that I had done something wrong, I was at fault and had in fact “sinned” by getting sick and had done something unconscionable and probably unforgivable by perhaps making others sick. And like a little child who doesn’t want to be judged and lose connection, a first thought – “Don’t Tell!”
In the last week I’ve had a slew of such “crazy” thoughts, old stories that have come up and grabbed me as I’ve been recovering. Fortunately, while the thoughts have sometimes momentarily taken over and fully inhabited me, for the most part I’ve been able to look at them and see them for what they are and how in fact they are trying to protect me and keep me safe.
Yes, fortunately last Monday, I was quickly able to see the “crazy” thinking of denial and cover-up and stepped into telling my colleagues and calling my friend with news they needed to know. I was deeply gifted that no one has shamed me or blamed me for having COVID. But somewhere deep in me, perhaps in many of us, a connection has been made between illness and shame.
I’ve watched my thoughts agonizing over how I could have gotten sick, what bad decision I must have made and didn’t know I’d made. I watched my mind grabbing for every hard decision I’ve made and questioning my ability to choose wisely. Felt racked by guilt for who I had or was going to make sick in the coming days.
Today I’m feeling almost all better – congestion and cough cleared and no longer in need of an afternoon nap (although perhaps that is something I should continue, so I just took one!) So while my brain has cleared enough to write this post, I share a few questions and observations about what has come up for and helped me through the most challenging part of living with COVID – my “crazy” thinking.
How did I miss hearing this kind of ”crazy” thinking from others I’ve known with COVID? Was I not listening? I really didn’t have the appreciation until now what a mind wrestling with illness can do. So today I wonder, What is the meaning you put on illness? Where might those thoughts have come from? What does your more mature and adult mind know about what illness? What happens when you meet those old stories of illness with compassion?
What were your experiences of illness as a child? I know that spring allergies have been part of my life since I was young and I know that sometimes I used not feeling my best as an excuse to stay home from school, not because I was actually that sick but because I wanted some care. I don’t actually know how often I did that but what I do know is that because of that distorted way I used illness, it’s challenging for me to lean into self-care with myself when I am sick. Sometimes I can judge taking care of myself for not pushing myself when I should be. I need the guidance of others like my doctor to help me find the right path.
My doctor told me, for example, “Peter, run the marathon you were supposed to do on Saturday with your friends next year. You don’t want to push your body in its healing.” His good advice didn’t mean I believed him, however! When I woke on Saturday feeling better I was convinced I could jump in the car, drive to Maine and run the race. Fortunately, I paused and googled advice from several running magazines which all affirmed just what my doctor had said. In fact, I needed and took two long naps on Saturday!
Who cared for you when you were sick? Who can care for you now? I am someone who readily seeks out comfort and care, affirmation and support from loved ones when I am sick. Since they are not here with me now, I was grateful I had some zoom conversations with friends and colleagues that gave me an opportunity to share my “crazy” thoughts out loud. As I did so, I started laughing at the absurdity of them. That so helped and felt so good – to separate what I was thinking from what I really know. I also know that I can isolate when I am not feeling well. Fortunately, I saw that thought for the unhelpful response that is and called a few friends. That helped!
And yes, I got outside. The sky, the brilliant green leaves, the flowing water, yellow flowers, the moon and starlight – all of it is such an essential part of healing. Just getting outdoors moved my mood and turned my thoughts into a wider wonder from what increasingly felt like a closed small room. Taking some walks, doing some yoga when I felt better all helped me move my moods. One of the most challenging things of being in hospital is the inability to escape the closed walls of that room. I think now of one person I visited who listened to music often – what a gift that must have been to bring them into a wider field of being.
Where is your illness an opportunity to grow? I experienced often last week how my thoughts kept making me smaller, their own way to protect me from yet more vulnerability and uncertainty. I didn’t blame the folks I knew who had COVID. I didn’t think they had done something wrong or been someone who was wrong in their “being” because they were sick– but I certainly thought that for myself. At least with feeling judged, we have something to hold onto. What if all we have instead is the truth of our vulnerability, the uncertainty that is life? How might that be a gift and make for a wider, deeper connection?
And so, I got curious about wondering if my experience of illness could also make me bigger as much as it was seeking to make me smaller. I certainly had a lot more personal empathy for folks I knew with COVID. I called them up or emailed them. I let them know I was thinking of them.
On Saturday I start a retreat with the Animas Institute focused on Bill Ploktin’s book, Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche. It’s a short book and good read and helped me in its descriptions and exercises to begin to understand a bit more about the origin and effect of my so-called “crazy” thinking. Maybe no, not so “crazy” just truly so human.
What if COVID is an opportunity to connect us in our vulnerability? I flew into Seattle the day in January 2020 when the first case of COVID was diagnosed. I flew out when the second case was discovered. I remember thinking (again, illness “crazy” thinking) that “they” were sick because they had just been to China, that this was a disease like so many others that would be confined and contained and experienced by “others”.
It was my nephew who early on in 2020 saw what COVID could so easily become. I remember wanting to comfort him, to tell him that it wouldn’t be that bad. I remember worrying about his worrying. And he was right. What he saw is what happened and is happening with COVID, a disease affecting “them” has become a condition affecting all in some ways, and some of us, communities of color, the poor, in devastating ways.
And so, as a week ends and my healing continues, I give thanks for a steady recovery. I am humbled by the way my “crazy” thinking leveled me at times and what I’ve learned from watching my thoughts. I’m grateful for the healthy choices I made and have further empathy for why we all sometimes make less healthy ones.
As the pandemic continues, I open my heart and pray ever more deeply that we might care more deeply for ourselves as the beginning of the way we care most deeply for each other and our wider community. That this challenging and changing time may become the opportunity for the meeting with compassion and healing of these “crazy” minds of ours for the sake of the wider hope and deeper healing of the world.
It’s Sunday morning and when I sat started writing this piece it was 7:20 a.m. and a few minutes before my friends would be setting out to run the Sugarloaf Marathon. I was to be there running with them this morning but last Monday I tested positive for COVID after going for a walk in the park and discovered I was unable to smell what I’d heard were fragrant lilacs. My friend joked, “You have COVID!” I was surprised to learn I in fact did, that this illness that has happened to so many others has now happened in me.
So this morning instead of being out on the road in the mountains of Maine, I’m here at my little table by the window, looking down over the Neponset River rippling dark green and gray through the brilliant green leaves of the golden birch by the bank. It’s a gray morning, a slight breeze and turn to the leaves, unseasonably warm.
The river below has been such a metaphor for my time these past three months as I’ve been serving as the Sabbatical Pastor at United Parish in Brookline. I have said to many I have never been so relaxed and anxiety-free as a pastor ever before in my career. I don’t know what to make of it.
Yes, good work to do, and such good people and staff to do it with. Yes, the privilege of sharing this beautiful apartment here by the river thanks to friends from Maine. Yes, its been the gift of long morning runs along the Neponset River Trail this spring as I’ve been preparing for this marathon today.
Its been the joy of the most absurdly difficult and fun gym class I’ve ever taken at the Dorchester Y. It’s been weekly dinners with an old friend and sailing on the Charles. Its good conversations and late afternoon yoga class around the block from the church that has made this training the best I’ve ever had. Thanks to yoga, I can still touch my toes and am not stiff as a board, grouchy and gaunt as I’ve been preparing for other marathons. It’s been a wonderful season of training, of giving myself to receive the gifts of this time.
Its been a long journey to come to this particular bend in the river and I give thanks for all it has been to bring me here so blessed and at peace.
As I sit here scribbling these words this morning with my morning coffee, I open my news feed. The headline of yet another mass murder yesterday, and the targeted deaths of yet more black men and women by a white supremacist. People just out for their Saturday morning shop looking to pick up a loaf of bread and jar of mayonnaise and meeting a young man with a gun around the corner.
The racial hate and violence in the news again today is something we don’t want to see but is in fact nothing new. Racism takes so many hidden forms in the fabric of our everyday society and institutions that are just as insidious, violent and deadly. Racism is in the water which we all live in this country, in this river that has carried me here.
My friend reminds me that the Neponset River is now a hazardous waste site. Like the river, the toxicity here is old.
Just up from my apartment where the bridge crosses from Milton into Dorchester Lower Mills, there’s a historical marker for the mill that was built here in 1675 to manufacture gunpowder for King Philips war.
2,500 colonists, 30% of the English population of New England died in the war. At least twice that number of Native Americans were killed. Some historians estimate that the combined effects of war, disease and starvation killed half the Native population in the region.
My morning runs take me past an idealized mural of members of the Neponset tribe looking out over the river. Along the trolley track beside the trail, the old yellow trolley rattles by long overdue for repair. At a recent public meeting the Metropolitan Transit Authority apologized to the neighbors along the track which ends in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods for false promises and neglected commitments. History keeps repeating itself.
I’ve run down the river trail past Carson Beach where on August 10, 1975, “hundreds of Black protesters, fed up with the indignity and terror of living in a segregated city rallied to assert their right to use Boston’s public spaces. What started as a peaceful protest devolved into violence between Black and White demonstrators, further cementing Boston’s national reputation for racial rancor.” (Deanna Pan, Boston Globe, July 13, 2020)
1675, 1975. History keeps repeating itself.
Today I wonder, what does it mean to give yourself to the river? I mean, all of the river.
The river is long and flowing, brightened by brilliant green leaves and the plaintive song of the redwing blackbird. This is true. And this as well: The river is toxic and carries the blood and violence both done to and inflicted by the divergent communities and generations that have sought to make a life beside it.
Today the river is its own dividing line between predominantly white communities and communities of color. Milton where I live is 72% white; across the river, is Dorchester which is 21% white.
What might it might it mean to give yourself to the healing of a river?
From where I sit this morning, the river turns beyond where I can see until appearing there again across the marsh golden in the setting sun.
Years ago in a time of wrestling and questions, a friend spoke to me of rivers. Of the futility of fighting to turn the flow and the necessity of giving ourselves to the current and way of the river, to this unfolding gift of life which is always moving and changing.
I think of his words today and the places where I rejoice in the river flowing and beautiful and yet can hide all that I don’t want to see.
I think where the river is dammed and drifts into stagnant pools.
I think of what it might mean to give myself to all that is this river, to all that it carries and has carried me here – both the beautiful and good and the toxic and terror which which has both harmed me and benefited me.
In the river below is a white crested duck abandoned here by its owners last summer. They’ve survived the winter, made friends with the cormorants, mallards and squawking geese. They’re out there now paddling after the mallard. They too have given themselves to this unfamiliar and blessed place, to this turn of the river. From all signs, they’ve survived. But I want for them what I long for myself, for all of us – something even more, to thrive.
I wrote this piece a couple of months ago at the close of my four-month intentional sabbath time between finishing my position as Interim Pastor at the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and starting the new position where I am currently serving this spring as Sabbatical Pastor at United Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts while the Senior Pastor is away on his sabbatical.
I’m curious why its taken me a couple of months now to post this reflection on what I learned in those four months of my own “Reluctant Interim.” Perhaps, as I begin to look forward to the unknown possibilities of the summer, I want to remember what I learned in the unknown of last winter. Perhaps, it’s just that today seems the right day to remember what I learned and share it with you.
September, 2021. My term as interim pastor in Boothbay Harbor was coming to a close. It was my first interim pastor position and I’d learned a lot and really enjoyed it. Though I’d moved across the country 3000 miles to a coast I’d not lived by for 40 years, I liked being back in New England and had made good friends in the community. I would miss being here.
As I prepared for the new settled pastor and prepared to leave this place I’d called home for over a year and a half, I began to wonder what was next. I knew that before jumping into whatever that next chapter and position would be, it would be good to take a break, to have my own interim time for a couple of months.
It wasn’t that I was exhausted, worn out, burned out. No, in fact I was full of energy and clearer in my call and passion to walk with people through transitions. Instead, I knew I needed some time to let go of this congregation I had loved. I wanted time to put down the stories so I wouldn’t enter a new community getting the new congregation confused with this one.
I talked to my spiritual director about what I wanted from this, my own interim time. I wanted time to be outdoors, write, reflect on all I’d learned and how it had changed me, connect with family and friends. He heard the heart of what I wanted – time to reconnect, reground in the Spirit. That was it, so clear, so simple. I needed this time before whatever was to be next to be with God.
It’s funny how sometimes you can know so clearly what you need and yet can get so easily distracted and interrupted from actually doing what you know you need to do! For isn’t there something both enticing and terrifying about choosing time to connect with God – something so unfathomable, mysterious and open about what such a time offers. I’d always come to making a retreat for some “God time and God space” with some initial longing and joy and had it turn to sheer fear and trepidation as the time approached knowing that in a time like this all sorts of things come up.
So I was surprised and delighted a few weeks before my position was ending in Boothbay Harbor, to have a church reach out to me about a new interim possibility. I jumped onto scheduling an interview delighted at my good fortune to perhaps have found a position before I’d even left this one! The interview went well, they told me they’d be calling my references soon. I looked and relooked at my calendar for the fall negotiating with myself about when I would actually be willing to start. Maybe, I thought, I really just need a month or perhaps a few weeks. I pondered, What would be the least amount of time I could imagine needing? Wherever that “connecting to God” time that I’d talked about wanting had got condensed down to a manageable few weeks so I could get on to my next thing.
It wasn’t about money. I’d been saving for this time in-between and putting aside a bit month by month over the past year. I had enough to support my needs for several months at least. But what I wanted more than a paycheck, more than time with God, more even than what my heart knew I wanted and needed was certainty. The certainty of knowing what was next and avoiding this interim time of unknowing that I’d felt and said I needed. Now, that it approached, I wasn’t so sure.
It’s not that God cannot be present and come in the surprise of an opportunity that might be right where you need to be. But as I sat with this opportunity, I knew it wasn’t really a call, it was merely a way to avoid the deeper call I knew I wanted to follow.
There were two nagging problems about the possibility of this new position. Something about the idea of moving to this new community made me depressed and the Associate Conference Minister (ACM) who had a good read on my particular passion and gifts thought this position wouldn’t in fact be the best use of my gifts and desire for my next interim. I was so grateful. She’d reminded me what I wanted and had my best interest in mind. So grateful and so hard to heed however once I was off the phone with her.
I spent a week thinking of being someone other than myself with different passions and gifts than the ACM had reminded me were mine. Maybe I could do this – maybe this would be okay…. But then again there was this depression that wouldn’t lift when I thought of moving there, there were those turning words from the ACM that this place might not be the best fit for what I was looking for.
It took me a week to write back to the search committee and share what I knew was true and didn’t want to be. It wasn’t a good fit – not where I needed to be – not the right place. Again, its not that perhaps going there could not have been a good place but I found I was choosing it for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to go there to have the certainty I craved, for control, for having a position, for the delight in being wanted – none of which had staying power.
The deeper part of me, that older, wiser part of me knew I needed my own interim time in order to be with the God I needed to meet not in the certainty of a job but in the emptiness, space, time, unknowing where I have always found God. But how hard to choose that! I would have taken comfort, assurance, the certainty of a job any day over that!
The ACM had in mind another position that she thought would be a great fit and was opening soon. I dreamed my way right into moving there but I sensed from the interview that they had already found someone else they wanted. They had. I didn’t get the position.
All which thrust me right back where my friend Larry said he hoped I might end up – in the uncertainty and opportunity of my own interim time that I’d said I’d wanted all along.
In the four months of my “reluctant interim” last fall and early winter, I learned a lot. Grew a lot. Let go and opened, rested and played, was indeed re-grounded in the presence and imagination of God. I have a clearer and deeper sense of my call that led me to say yes to opportunities I never could have imagined months ago.
“You are going in the right direction, and you will end up right where you need to be,”my colleague Tom in Boothbay Harbor reminded me as I left. Along the way, I’d held close to the hope of his words and the trust he held for me.
A few months ago, I said yes to this position where I currently am serving, as Sabbatical Pastor at United Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts for a few months this spring. I said Yes to this position not to take away the uncertainty of the future. Not to fill my checking account again although this position will help do that; I still had a few more months of savings put away. I said yes to this position because it fits. Fits my best sense of the next and right step on the way, of God’s call, something I never would have known or been able to discern without the gift of the interim time this past fall and winter.
So a few notes, in the weeks ahead, a reminder to myself about what those four months this winter gave me and what I want to remember today.
1. A good ending makes way for a good new beginning. There is another post I could write about what I’ve learned about good endings but in essence it all came down to being intentional and focused on finishing well. Yes, I had a good check-list of things to complete. Yes, I cleared my calendar for conversations of thank you, forgiveness, love and goodbye. Yes, made space for us all to share what we learned and what questions had arisen in our ministry together. Most importantly, I gave myself to the grief of goodbye. I knew I was going to miss these people and this place. But instead of doing what I’d sometimes done before, jumping over or denying or walking around the grief, this time I stepped into it, felt it, gave myself to it. I talked about it, got support for myself through it, released it. And the gift of good grieving is that when I left I was done and I’ve been amazed how little I’ve looked back. It was time to say goodbye and my ending well honored the gift of the time we had shared and the new time before us all.
2. Find good partners to be with you on the way. I couldn’t have had the kind of good ending I’d had without the support, guidance, listening space and loving nudges and challenge of a spiritual director, coach, ACM and wise friends who hear and know me well. The regular conversations with all of them helped me to process and discover what I was feeling. Their good words reminding me of what I had expressed I wanted, help set me on the path forward.
3. Head North to Monson. After the final service, the liturgy of leave-taking, passing back the church keys, after the cake and after final hugs of goodbye, I headed north to Monson, Maine. Months before I left I’d dreamed I could stay on in town. I had a beautiful house I was renting, great friends in the community and a wonderful community that I’d really enjoyed living in. Why couldn’t I put down the position of pastor and stay on? It took a conversation with my coach to get me out of my imagination and into what was real. It was a small town. I’d run into people at church all the time and what I’d loved about being in town was connected to my role in the community as pastor. He helped me see what I was reluctant to see and yet knew – it was not really possible for me to stay on and have the new beginning the church and new pastor needed and I needed as well. He was right – they and I needed a new beginning. But where then was I to go?
I thought of how good it would be to have a place where I could settle for a couple of months – a place with what I had loved in Boothbay Harbor – a place with a YMCA for early morning gym classes and a pool, a place near the sea and places to hike, a place with the possibility of making new friends and not so far from the ones I’d left here. I made some inquiries and found a place that sounded like it might work but they wanted a longer lease than I could commit to – so now where to go?
The previous spring I’d been invited by friends to join them for a backpacking trip through the 100 Mile Wilderness, the last 100 miles and most remote part of the Appalachian Trail. I’d never gone backpacking for more than one night in the woods and that many years ago. However, I’d jumped on the opportunity, part of my joy in discovering all things Maine. The trek was challenging, hard, and oh so fun. When I returned, the church administrator remarked how I’d changed. “You came here months ago all buttoned up but you came back from that trip so relaxed, so at peace, so yourself.”
I thought of the beautiful little cabins Phil the Outfitter had where I could stay. Thought of the possibility of hiking the next section of the trail from Caratunk and back to Monson. I’d never hiked alone, never camped in the woods alone and the 32 miles from Caratunk to Monson would be a perfect place to try this on. Phil would be there to support me if needed and I already had the trail maps!
How good it was to have a destination to head to out of town after I finished. How good to have a good story to share. For sure, some people worried but others delighted in my stepping off the map of the familiar once more. I like to think it might have been encouragement for them to do the same as they welcomed a new pastor into their community.
An adventure thrust me out of my familiar place and routines into the disorientation that provided a great beginning for my realignment. A few months ago a good friend died and I was able to be with Wes’ wife Marcia for the weekend and memorial service. She shared the other day that she is “realigning”. She noted how everything is different now and she is slowly learning how to do things differently. Its not been easy but realigning often isn’t. Leaving a beloved community was its particular kind of loss and grief and getting out of my comfort zone and into my discovery zone helped me to realign. My adventure in the woods gave me a space to reconnect to my joy and love of adventure, challenged me to overcome obstacles in creative ways, gave me the space and time to grieve, let go and give myself to the trail ahead.
On my backpacking trip I began to learn about hiking in my own way. I learned that I didn’t hike like I did when with my friends. Instead of putting in 10-14 mile days I took 6 days to hike 32. I learned the joy of wandering and delighted that I discovered I am a true rambler. When I at last returned, Phil was curious, “What did you do out there all that time?”
“Oh Phil!” I exclaimed, “I had such a great time, I paused and listened when I was going too fast, spent a morning watching the fog lift off the lake, backtracked to spend the night camping on the top of a mountain peak so I could watch the sunset, moonrise and sunrise. I met wonderful people along the trail and delighted in the solitude.”
He shook his head, said he could never do that. He’d hiked 32 miles that week in 2 days that had taken me 6.
4. Go to Church. When I returned from my trek, I spent another couple of days hiking in the north Maine woods. I visited a church on Sunday that I discovered was in need of an interim and dreamed for a while of being there. I sent on my profile and received soon the best rejection note I had to date, “I think there are many churches who could use your gifts. Happy Holidays!” That set a pattern for my coming weeks – I went to church on Sundays whenever I could. Sunday morning helped ground and connect me to God and yes, gave me a wider perspective on what was happening in church. I learned what spoke to me and what didn’t.
As I packed to leave Monson, I was struck how sad I was. It had been a good start to a new beginning.
5. Blog. Scribble and remember what you are learning about yourself and interim times. As I started this interim time, I wanted the freedom to let go of most commitments, but I chose to commit to blogging each week about what I did and what I discovered so I could remember what I was learning and so my family and friends knew where I was! A few months ago, I’d put out a question on the Maine Conference FaceBook page asking if folks had leads or ideas on places I could spend some time that fall. I jumped on the two places that were shared – The Alcyon Center, a retreat center in Acadia National Park, and a rental on an island. Two perfect places to do what I wanted to do in this time as well – to have space and time to write and reflect on all I’d learned and was learning on the way. I love to write and writing is a practice that helps me keep in touch with how I’m feeling. It also helped to have these places set up so that as I left I had a schedule of where I was going to be – enough structure in the midst of the uncertainty I found helped. Because of COVID I also knew that I needed to hold these plans pretty loosely.
The time at the Alcyon Center was fabulous – a few others were there on retreat and I had time for things that ground and renew me – time for conversation, great hiking, shared meals, and time, yes, to write. Sometimes when I’ve planned on doing something I’ve gotten to that time and something else was now needed. I was delighted that I actually wanted to write and did! But instead of writing about Boothbay I wrote about my backpacking adventures the week before and my hikes that followed. I was struck that it wasn’t so much the memory of the past that called me but the present discoveries I was making. I enjoyed my time on the island with more time to hike and write about what I was discovering on the way.
6. Say Yes. Some invitations became possibilities as I said yes to a week-long backpacking trip with friends in Virginia and an invitation to visit former congregants at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, preach at their church and get to learn more about this fascinating school. I discovered the joy of being able to say yes and time to do things a full-time job, commitments and schedule don’t sometimes permit. Things were falling into place! I had the gift of spending a weekend at my nephew Thomas’ new apartment in New York, seeing friends in New Jersey and going for a run with my nephew Peter in Baltimore. Such a gift of time.
7. Discover the Strange “Gift” of Challenges. And yes, as things fell into place they fell out of place as well. Our backpacking trek with my friends in Virginia was great fun and then had to be called off early because of a sharp drop in temperatures which we weren’t prepared for. A wise decision to call our trek short and now the dislocation of wondering – where would I head next? I wasn’t expected in Berea for several more days so I took off for a cabin in West Virginia. It was a good place and I had some fun runs and exploring. It was also lonely, the first time I’d felt the longing for others who were not there. It made me all the more grateful when I got the chance to stay with a family in Berea.
And then there was my hand. Besides a couple of blisters, the only thing that hurt after coming down from our backpacking trip in Virginia was my hand. I did what I had too often done with injuries – ignored them figuring they would go away soon enough. My hand didn’t heal however – the pain didn’t go away and it started to swell. Despite my disappointment in not being able to finish our AT hike, I knew with my hand as it was I couldn’t have kept on going myself as I would have liked to have done. I headed off to Berea and after a few days gave in and contacted a doctor. Perhaps an infection, and for sure a need to see an orthopedic doctor about a possible break. Not in my plans. Neither was my sister’s surgery that had moved up a month. I wanted to check in on her and see how I could help out at home. I put down the writing retreat time I’d planned and headed to my sister’s home in Maryland. Besides, I had to get this hand looked at. I figured I could write while at her house.
The visit to the orthopedic doctor confirmed that I did not have a break but a good case of tendinitis. He put me in a splint and scheduled a time to see me 10 days later. So much for my writing retreat!
I had often told the story of the stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41) – the Gospel story which seemed to me a perfect picture of an interim journey – a leaving of home for the opportunity to go to the other side of the lake. Along the way what happens, happens – a great storm, the disciples panicking in the boat and shaking Jesus awake, “Teacher! Do you not care if we should perish!”
It was my own stormy time in my little boat. This was not what I had in mind, and I felt all the fear, anxiety, creeping desolation and depression rising in me. I thought I was being held and led so well in these past weeks and now 6 weeks in look at what’s happened! Things are not going as planned.
I was good – okay, pretty good – at obeying the doctor’s orders for caring for my hand. I worked anyway I could to get around his order to keep the splint on all day. Tried to write with my left hand. Couldn’t read a thing I wrote.
It took me awhile to embrace not the time I had planned and wanted but the gift of this different time – the gift of time just to be with my nephews, to eat popcorn and watch Al Pacino movies, to take the dog for a walk, plan and make a Thanksgiving feast together, be there for my sister and help out around the house. To embrace the gift of this kind of time, ordinary family time without the pressures of other responsibilities and timelines.
8. Come to the End of the Road. I’d loved my time at the Alcyon Center earlier in the fall and was delighted to learn when I was there that I might be able to put together a time to return soon. They were offering a retreat on the 14th century mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing, which sounded particularly timely for me. Besides I needed to place myself in Maine again for the last commitment on my schedule – meeting friends from Boothbay in early December to attend the University of Maine hockey game and run the Millinocket Half Marathon.
It was exactly two months since I’d left Boothbay when we set out in 10 degrees on icy roads to run the half marathon. I’d told friends that Millinocket was at the end of the road heading north – now I’d reached my own end of the road. I didn’t have any commitments after this and a wide-open December. Disorienting and challenging as this time was, it also was when I really leaned into the discovery of the challenges and opportunities an interim time can provide.
9. Wander in the Fog. I headed south to Maryland and into the gray descent of a December fog. Nothing was clear. I treasured the words from The Cloud of Unknowing that this unknowing is the place off the map where God is to be met, but I can’t say I liked it. I had more interviews, wanted things to fit that weren’t fitting. I was most struck by a position I found and applied for that offered one week off each month. I thought it sounded perfect but I realized that what really interested me was that one week off each month! The three weeks of work weren’t what I was called to or passionate about. I wanted to make it work, kept trying to see how it might work when I knew it wouldn’t be a good fit for me or for them. It wasn’t what I wanted. The search committee got it. “Are you really ready to settle?,” they asked. No, I had to admit I wasn’t. I wasn’t longing for a settled position, I wanted to take a community adventuring in a time of discovery. I wasn’t ready to settle for something just to make it fit.
And so in the fog, I gave myself to the gift of what was there – my niece home from college and more time with my family, for games and play, for simple routines like morning swims and classes at the Y. My sister improved and along the way that month, so did I, including my hand. I went to church and met a community and colleague who is doing the kind of ministry connecting Spirit and Wilderness that I’m passionate about. Conversations led to new connections and opportunities.
10. Discover Ghost Ranch. As it became clear that things were taking their time coming together, I wondered, where to place myself in January? I remembered Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I’d been there decades before in another liminal time and the wide open terrain and vast sky had served me well. Perhaps it was just what I needed. A quick search showed they had a January term and an opportunity to join the “Adult Service Corps” that would cover most of my expenses. I didn’t overthink it, signed up to go that day. And yes, why not go for the whole three weeks?
Ghost Ranch was right where I needed to be, the kind of open space to help open my imagination and discovery. Much to my surprise I loved serving on the Service Corps and tearing apart cabinets, using power tools, painting. It got me out of my head thinking and planted in my body and present. A great team to work with and so much fun.
I’ve been struck by the many ways I’d grown and changed during these past months. My flight to Santa Fe was delayed due to snow and later cancelled when the airport shut down. I spent the day at the airport reading a good book knowing that I had no control over what happened and let unfold what would. It’s what happened at Ghost Ranch too. I’d come with all my ideas and plans of time to write and paint and ended up doing neither. Instead gave myself to the gift of this place – to good work and conversations, wandering the trails, early morning runs and making new friends. I was learning again about being present to what is and less triggered and clinging to the way I wanted things to be.
When a friend died, I was able to say right away to his wife, I’ll be there. I had a clearer sense of what I needed to do and more agile in pivoting to it. So many surprises along the way and little of what I “planned” on leaving Boothbay Harbor. I’d told folks as I left that I was going to find another interim position and here I was headed to this position job as a sabbatical pastor for a few months. So much has changed, so much opened up beyond my expectations since leaving Boothbay Harbor four months ago.
11. Trust Things Get Figured Out. At Ghost Ranch, I signed up for a weekly on-line class on “Navigating Change” hoping that it would help me get stuff figured out. Yes, it provided some good tools and reminders, encouragement from others in interim times as well. But more than helping me “figure stuff out,” the course reminded me that things are being “figured out” beyond my planning and control.
It’s a message I’d shared in my previous interim of learning to trust in the mysterious process of transition. To believe and trust what is hard to see in the passage from one side of the lake to the other, especially when a storm comes up – that Jesus is there, has always been there in the boat with us. We are making our way.
No, its not about just sitting passively and doing nothing along the way – it is about finding the things we really need to be doing that bring us back to the presence of Jesus in the boat, to learn to adjust the sails to heed and follow the wind of the Spirit. It’s such a different kind of stance than sitting tight fisted at the edge of your seat, which is in fact no way to sail a boat. No, to sail well, means to breathe and sit back, open and awake to everything happening around you, holding the mainsheet and tiller light in your hands so that you can feel the subtle shift of wind and be ready to respond.
Do I do it all the time? Of course not, and this interim time certainly taught me that – taught me the humility that as much as I talk a good talk to a community about the opportunity of interims and the joy and possibility of a sail across the lake to the unknown, that I struggle with trusting this journey myself and would often choose another path than this. But despite myself I have a deeper confidence as well in the unfolding of time and trusting in God’s lead and hand in it.
Things got “figured out” beyond all my figuring as I let go, stayed present, pivoted, got out of sorts and found my way back to ground again, opened to possibilities I never imagined. Tried things I thought I wouldn’t like and ended up loving them. Had conversations, made connections that took me to the next step. Sounds like a good interim time and in it, yes, I learned more about being there with people in times like these.
I did in fact what I really wanted to do – got re-grounded in God – the unknown, mystery, Spirit of God, learned to practice loosening my grip. Learned time and again to put down what gets in my way – my desire for false security and control and be open to what I need most of all – an open heart and spirit to keep listening for and heeding the Spirit’s call.
I don’t know where the road leads in the next few months after this position ends. But I trust more than ever that this not-knowing will serve me well. I’ll give myself to the present needs and bring a deeper trust that Jesus is in the boat with us.
Yes, by the time this new position started, I was ready to say yes to this good work. Rested, grounded, humbled, open, knowing more intimately some of the feelings and triggers, stumbling places and opportunities that come up at interim times like this for all of us. Yes, things that I hoped for never happened and things that didn’t were gifts. I had the interim in fact I knew I needed all along and yes, however reluctantly I entered it, it has served me well.
12. Take the time to remember, reflect and write what you learned up before you move on to the next new beginning! I ended my interim time on a week retreat in upstate New York at Colgate’s Chapel House in Hamilton. Just the gift of time I needed to take those early morning runs, wander the woods, and reflect and write on what happened and all I learned in these past months. What a wonderful gift to receive before starting this new position. And because I took that time – this piece came to be! So grateful!
All week I’ve been rejoicing in skiing in circles. Some fifty miles of circles on the cross country trail and most of them on the trail at the little golf course around the corner from my parent’s house here in Laconia, New Hampshire.
Yes, the snow’s been spectacular, the weather perfect. Yes, the luxury of stepping out the door and soon onto the trail. But its been the joy of what’s happened circling those same small trails, time and again that has been true gift and grace.
Earlier this winter there I was in Bethesda, Maryland circling the lane at the outdoor pool. I delighted several times each week stepping outside to walk to the pool, barefoot and shivering, my towel draped around my neck, putting on my swim goggles and sitting at the edge of the pool, calves in warm water (yes, the outdoor pool was heated!) and then jumping in to circle, back and forth, up and down the lane.
There’s something about the slow circling of the cross country ski trail, the same lane at the pool, that I find so freeing.
But like all journeys, circling takes its own time.
When I start circling the same trail through the woods or lane at the pool, I watch my mind and memory often trace back to the past, back to a stuck place or decision, a question or query.
How many times in my life have I circled problems to no avail. Circled solutions I was unable to see. I’ve known the fixation of believing that if only I circled that stuck place one more time I’d be able to see my way through. Yes, I’ve known the obsession of my over-thinking, wanting to fix everything fixation! Often I’ve had to remember time and again that its been stepping away, getting outside for a walk around the block and one more time again, that I’ve been able to be freed to see “the problem” or myself, or my place and role, in a new and clearer way.
Yes, there’s something about the physical act of circling that helps me find a way when there is no way.
As I circle the ski trail, swim laps in the pool, I find that the interior, mind-fixing and obsessing noise increases for a while, and with it, at times, the intensity of that stuck place or memory. But keeping at it, keeping circling, something else happens and there’s this opening.
It’s like the shades have been pulled away, it’s like I see. I notice the tree, the blue sky, the sun lighting up the tops of the trees across the forest. I see the sun glistening now off the snow that I notice is quite icy. As I circle, I still, I quiet. I breathe. I’m in awe at the wonder that I’m breathing and that I do it most of the time without my even noticing. I feel the bite of the wind, look up and notice that there’s a sky overhead and there are grey clouds moving slowly above me.
And then in the face of everything that can never be fixed and will never be solved, amidst all my little obsessions and worries, there is this slide of the ski. There is this stilling to sky. And it is more, so much more than enough.