The Mergansers are Leaving

This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.  

(“Sonnet 73”, William Shakespeare) 

The mergansers are leaving,

The cove quiet now.

Ninety-five here last week

Loud quacking,

Orange plumes descending,

We stepped away from our morning reading

To see what the fuss was all about.

To count how many 

As if in the counting the wonder might be contained

The memory captured for safe keeping 

In this quick passage of autumn days.

The leaves orange and red

So quickly fall

The beloved old cat soon die

Who lies watching the stream

Wondering if there is anything on the other side

worth wandering over to see.

Slow Time

Slow as it takes this morning to come together 

To rise from a tangle of sleep 

Into the dark gift of morning and coffee 

And clarity on the hill,

Mountains turning pink and gold.

Steady and slow as dark runs on dirt roads 

Lit only by the single beam of a headlamp.

Slow as footsteps soft and springy through the grove of spruce

Sprinkled with the tiniest of needles and cones 

A path not yet packed down to hard roots and granite.  

Slow as the crunch of dry brown leaves, 

The hollow tapping of feet on the boardwalk over the bog

The slurping stick of mud

The clicking of poles.

Steady as the slow climb to the open ledge peak

Gold and red leafed

Sparkling blue lake and sky. 

Slow as it takes coming down carefully

Over the steep stone ledge.

As slow as it takes the old cat to die

Lying there looking at the stream 

Wondering if there is anything 

Interesting enough to bother going after 

Remembering when once she did.  

As slow as it takes apple crisp to bubble in the oven,

Slow as it is for the young man to find his way to alright on the other side of inconsolable,

Slow as the sun rise standing here on the beach on this cold morning,

Slow as we are drifting in the glassy bay, waiting for the sun to set over golden water. 

Slow as it takes blisters to heal, 

For feet to mend

For ideas to be formed into words.

Slow as it takes for mercy to be be found 

A stream of orange light across a dark sky 

That turns so quickly

To shadow and shade

Sending us scurrying for headlamps.

Empty Time

The ancient Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, means separation, because when we separate ourselves from quotidian tasks – the busyness involved in making a living and a comfortable home – we can experience the vastness, the eternal, the greater sphere beyond our more grounded selfish concerns.  We have to give ourselves to empty time to find meaning.  Empty time is also valuable for creativity.  Neuroscience reveals that when our brain is on idle and not devoted to specific tasks, when we daydream and doodle in our mind, we can achieve new insights and make creative leaps.  (From More Than Meets the Eye: Exploring Nature and Loss on the Coast of Maine, Margie Patlak, p. 61)

In daydream and doodle where does a mind go?

To stopping at the Penobscot Narrows Bridge Observatory on this most beautiful morning as there is nothing more pressing to do today than to ascend and see.

Time for lunch that has time to flow beyond the list of questions to the wonder of reconnecting. To have time to tell of the things that might have taken days to tell.  

Wonder time and time for questions without answers.

Where is the Wind?

To what am I called?

Empty time that leads me wandering the woods and wondering.  

Writing time and solitary time and time to meet wonderful new people on the trail.  

Someone asked me how it was to be alone in the woods and I said I never felt alone and did not. It wasn’t only that I met people on the trail each day like the two young men by the fire with whom I shared dinner and listened to their stories. The two middle age men who had strung their wet belongings in long lines throughout the lean-to, (did they fall in the stream during the crossing?) delighted to be here and hiking on this trail and not the 100 Mile Wilderness which took a lot more effort than they were finding so easily here. Who directed me to the campsite they had passed down the trail, a good wide space with not too many roots, there by the stream.  Yes, the hiker who left me laughing all day with her comment that she didn’t find the 100 Mile Wilderness hard but only beautiful while I had found it most certainly both! No, even when alone, never alone. Perhaps it was writing, scribbles along the way, sitting on a log at the close of the day by the pond.  Perhaps those times of stopping in the woods and breathing when I had got too caught up in getting somewhere when there was no place to get. Perhaps meditation on mountaintops, perhaps the little videos I made and pictures I sent to friends and family to share the experience with them. Perhaps because I knew why I was there. Whatever it was, it was never alone. Perhaps, home.  

Home as miraculous and temporary as the beauty of a fall day bright blue sky and brilliant tree – orange, yellow, green and red.  

Home in the circle that gathers below the red tail hawk circling above.  

Home talking over Zen at dinner and drifting in kayaks to watch the sunset.  

Home in the Bible study on the lawn with the old man and other old people on Zoom

and young girl sitting beside me who left home to find a wider perspective.  

Home of apple crisp and peanut butter cookies you made just because you cannot help but serve and share for that is what happens at home.

At home in the Maine woods.

In the unsettlement of emptying, 

And the dislocation of nothing to hold to, 

At home where everything can happen,

The discovery of what we are about and why.

Thank You

The last morning before heading East. Sitting here on the stoop at Phil’s and all I can do is say thank you, thank you, thank you, over and over again, thank you. 

Thank you for a 6 day hike on the AT, for camping 5 nights out like I wanted to do, for nights alone on a mountain top and by a roaring stream. For watching the fog lift off the pond.  A contemplative ramble.

Than you for two bonus hikes when I return – for Kineo and Borestone and Pebble Beach. For talking to the couple last night at the bar at Kelly’s and the kid at the Indian Store who directed me there. Thank you for the young man who stepped off the trail to be responsible to his three month old son. Thank you for the couple doing laundry, and getting to meet Guy who is hiking the trail with a brain injury. 

Thank you for the call of the loon and the moan of the moose in the fog, for talks and texts with friends and family in the parking lot of the Monson General Store.  

Thank you for the gift of meeting Eric the piano player from church and his mom on the trail, for falling leaves through a burst of color. Thank you for the release of leaves.  

Thank you to the chattering squirrel. For wonder and possibility and all of it. For who knows and I wonder what. For knowing what needs doing and doing it. Thank you for good sweat and tears. For Trail Magic generosity that ends up gifting me. For walking in beauty below, above, all around.  

Thank you for the little boy who finds a red salamander and holds it in his hand. For the people who made it to the top who thought they never would. For the mom and her son at the top of the fire-tower, he with his sneakers and how he explains that he made it over the sharp rocks with them but doesn’t want to go down that way. For safe passages down. 

Thank you for sunset and sunrise, the crescent moon, the Milky Way so white and bright across the dark sky. For this breath of time, this gift of air. 

For all of it, more than enough. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  

Nothing Special

A spot on the trail

A log to sit on

Falling leaves

And a burst of orange

A gold leaf

A handful of peanuts and melted chocolate

The refreshment of water

The remnant of cheese.

Nothing special 

And everything is 

When I stop to notice.

Fifth Night

On the river bank of the West Branch tonight, about five miles from home. Here at the site that the SOBO hikers at the shelter had noticed on their way up here. A good size spot, not too many roots, with a couple of logs to sit on, right off the trail and here at the river bank.  

Just the kind of spot I was looking for on this last night, this fifth night in the woods I wanted. Yes, plenty of food and breakfast in the morning. Yes, the song of the stream and an extra mile down the trail I wanted to take.

I’ve felt good today, coming off the night on the mountain. A good deal of tears and release on the mountaintop that woke in me joy and lifted my spirits. Steady good hiking today. 

I’ve loved the pace I’ve chosen – ramble pace, wonder pace. Stopping in the woods pace to take it all in.  After days of working at it, I’ve settled into the swing of the trail.  

So glad I did not rush to a finish but took this time. Receiving as I do tonight the memory and gift of the river, the pond, the mountaintop, the trail, the call of the loon.  

I think on the words of release I shared with the congregation last Sunday, the release of the trail this week. Pray for release for Mango obsessing over the what if’s and wherefore’s of a lost love. For Popeye, trying to figure out his future before he’s there.  

After returning from his own hike in the Maine woods, Thoreau asked his Native American guide, Joe Polis, “Are you glad to be home?”  

Polis replied, “It makes no difference to me where I am.”

I like what artist Jennifer Neptune makes of Polis’ reply:

“What if his response means, I’m always home because we belong to this land. It doesn’t belong to us, we are part of it like the salmon and eagles and deer and moose, which makes it all home, which makes us responsible to all these things.”

I left my home of 20 months last week without a permanent address except for the box under Jason’s desk where he’s keeping my mail until I tell him what to do with it. I left a story that ended and heading towards a new one that I cannot yet see. And yet, this week has reminded me that rather than uncertain or afraid, I feel called to this passage, called to the discovery of this interim time. This time in the woods reminding me of a groundedness I feel, an at-homeness I carry in me wherever I go.  

When I return the next morning, Phil asks, “What did you do out there all that time? 

I laugh and have no answer. Tell him of taking time just to stop and listen on the trail and swim in cold ponds. Time to hear the call of the moose and the loon through the rising fog, four hours sitting and watching the light change on the mountaintop.  

“I couldn’t do that,” he says. 

We laugh.

And yes, while I was out hiking 34 miles over 6 days, he’d hiked 32 in 2.  

“How do you come up with your sermons?” the guy at the bar asks me that night. 

“Why, out on the trail,” I say, “And here, in a conversation.” 

“You’d probably end up in a sermon,” I tell him. 

We both laugh.  

Mountaintop

I stopped on the way down, almost turned back.   

After filling my water at the base of Moxie Bald Mountain, almost hiked back up to the top to spend the night. I could imagine seeing the sunset, stars and sunrise. Longed to do so. 

But I didn’t turn back and chose to come down, down here to the pond and I am glad now for it. It’s what I planned on doing and have been looking forward to all day. This cold plunge and paddle in the pond when there’s no one here but the loons calling across the lake. 

Its been an amazing day. Impossible to describe just how beautiful it was up there on the top of Moxie Bald Mountain. Looking over towards Pleasant Mountain, I see why I’d struggled on those 5 miles down yesterday over what I can see now were three peaks, down and up, down and up before getting down to the stream where I’d camped last night. 

And then, later atop North Peak, an open ledge peak with a clear 360 degree view all around. I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere more beautiful.  

A dozen hawks, black and circling.  

I declare it my favorite mountain ever, and the hiker I startle along the trail agrees. She never sees anyone out here, and yes, it is the most wonderful place. She comes here as often as she’s able. Sometimes the side trail is exactly where you need to go. 

Down here at the pond, at the close of my day, I think that as much I might have imagined camping out on the mountaintop that in fact it wasn’t a good idea. I wouldn’t feel comfortable up there alone and walking around on the trails at night to see the stars and sunset. I chose the pond wisely. I look up at the mountain as the light descends. Imagine the sunset up there!  

A first star appears as I sit here wondering when it will. A lone star above the lake.  

I think of all those tears in the mountain labyrinth as I stood in the center earlier today. Every goodbye contains every other goodbye. So many tears today after months of no tears at all. What is this grief?  What are these tears? An offering of what? For what?  

I wake to the pond covered in dense fog. Sitting here on the rock, a flutter of wings behind me as I turn my head. Red squirrel crackling leaves, now chattering angrily above. A beaver hunches on the rock, gnawing wood. Slips into the pond, paddles by to another rock where she hunches, gnaws on another stick as the loon sings and sings. An owl calls. Woodpecker taps. The rock reflected in the still pond. The fog thick and still.  

And as I sit here declare that I’m going to spend the night on the North Peak. Name today a retreat day that will give me that 5th night in the woods I wanted and not sure how I was going to get.  

The loud couple who’d come in last night come down to the pond to take a look before heading out.  

The woman in the hooded blue jacket says, “Oh, this is a pond. I wondered what this white thing was down here.” Heads with her partner off down the trail.  

They are here for other things. Off to Katahdin or Georgia. As for me, to sit here this morning in the fog and listen to the singing of the loons. 

The sun begins to rise, wisps of fog dance across the lake. 

I stay by the pond until the sun breaks through. I will follow the days rhythm.  

I know I could hike on to Horseshoe Cavern today and come out to Monson tomorrow. That too would be okay. And this is the day I choose, mountaintop receiving.  For now, receive the sun’s warmth. 

As the sun comes up, the cold descends. Sit here shivering and wondering why is it so cold. Silence but for my pen scratching.  

And out of the fog, the groan of a moose, a moaning cow.  

Receive this chill, this cold, this warmth of the sun’s dull orb through the mist. Receive, this morning, this moose call in fog, this grace of a day.

I cannot help but ascend. 

Whose voice is it that calls me to go? How do I know it can be trusted?  The voice that yesterday said I would not do this, today says, Yes. Yesterday, full of apprehension and considerations. Today, no fear. I choose to go. 

Yesterday, I wanted to swim and be here by the pond in the late afternoon. Yesterday, dreamed down here of being up there on the mountaintop. Didn’t know what to do or trust. Today, do. Know what I desire.  

The loon sings again, the red squirrel chatters. The snap of a tree that falls with a thump.  

I lean back and fall asleep on the rock.

When I open my eyes, the fog lifted, the pond clear. The sky opens blue, so blue and warm after the descent of cold. How the pond changes in a thousand ways while I sit here.  

As I slip on my pack, pick up confidence. The last vestiges of considerations fall away. I know why I am here and why. I remember what you reminded me: I can trust in the path and that God is with me. Trust I am going in the right direction. Trust being myself. 

I ascend. Out to the labyrinth, I circle again. Receive: There is nothing to fear. I don’t even know what it means but trust it is true. What I do know is the wind picked up as I stepped in. The barking dogs in the valley are silent now.  

A raven makes low croaking noises soaring overhead.  

Some go to mountain tops for Vision Quests and to discern their Animal Spirit. Some to meet God. As for me, I’d settle for a sunset and sunrise, the view of the stars from the peak. That sunset like Mango woke to see, the stars on the peak we’d thought about trekking up to see on our hike a few months back and never did.  

I can’t believe I’m here. 

The mid afternoon light sublime.

A reflection of trees in the valley pond below.  

A deer crosses the ledge, long white tail trailing behind. No fear.  

What I hadn’t taken account of in being on a mountaintop is the wind, especially the likes of the wind on an open-ledgetop like this. The howling of wind, a wind that slides over and around the rocks I huddle behind in the waning afternoon light. A stilling silence, a whoosh and flap, a gathering gust.  

I find a spot here at the peak to set up my tent. Exclaim at my good fortune to have found such a spot, to be out of the wind tonight, warm and dry. 

The sunset descends over the mountains; the eastern peaks, darken. 

Catch sight of a falling star. First time in forever!  

All the considerations flap out of me into the night air.  

Later, awake to the howling wind, clammer out of the flapping tent to see the stars. Keep waking all night to poke out my head, to see more, to know that it is true. 

The next morning, wake to stillness. The night sky still ablaze and far to the East the first turn of color.  

The loon calls from the pond below.  

I descend for morning breakfast on the rock.  

I remember how just the other day all the old considerations and clinging came up on the trail. The assurance of hearing from Popeye and Mango that it happens for them too. It’s not only me. All the things I don’t want to think that I think about. All the what if’s and if only’s. Getting lost in trying to unstuck what is dead and gone. 

Today as I step out, its not old considerations, but joy I find. A kind of joy that inhabits me — Here in my ease of step, the swing of the pack. Here in this tapestry of color and light. Here in this beaming smile that I cannot wipe from my face. 

Later, back here at Bald Mountain Pond. Sitting again on the warm rock, the lake clear, serene. The loon trills her morning call again and again.

What is possible for you now? he asks, days from now. Why anything, anything is possible.  

Trail Magic

The five miles down the trail off Pleasant Mountain kick my butt. Every descent leads to another rise.  Five miles go on and on. I am low on energy and water, high on exhaustion after a long day of hiking from the pond to the mountaintop and back down again.  

Its been like a perfect Day 2 of a meditation retreat, this second day of foggy doldrums and mountaintop  joy, a long, slow afternoon of exhaustion. Not yet in the swing of breath and trail. Still working too hard.

On the way down, I meet a Southbound (SOBO) sixty-something who has come from Katahdin to head back to where she’d stopped her northbound trek in New Hampshire. She says she’d heard that the 100 Mile Wilderness was difficult but that wasn’t her experience; it was beautiful. I nod and smile. I do not say that it was my experience that the 100 Mile Wilderness was definitely difficult like this afternoon is difficult. And beauty? It’s here but I can’t quite see it yet. Definitely Day 2 of my walk in the woods.  

At long last a roaring stream below, where I filter and drink. I feel better. As I step across, I think I must be close to the shelter by now and realize the other side of the stream is the place I’ve been looking for all afternoon. The shelter just beyond, and here, beautiful campsites. 

As I’m finishing setting up my tent, several NOBO’s (Northbounders) filter water at the stream, all headed to Katahdin before it closes on October 16. Some 136 miles to go in 11 days. In June on our 100 Mile Wilderness Trek we’d met some of the first hikers of the season to finish, the second woman finisher, the 12th man. Today, I’ve been meeting some of the last, heading to Katahdin before the snow including Mango and Popeye, two young solo hikers, who set up camp across the trail.

As I’m talking with Mango, I’m thinking about Pat. I remember how on the first night out of of our 100 Mile Wilderness Adventure last June, she’d got talking to another young hiker finishing the trail and shared some food with him. She reminded us how after these months on the trail, these hikers just can’t get enough calories in them.  

I don’t want to be stingy. I want to share. I think how good it would be to share. Just yesterday I knew I was setting out with more food than I needed. Tonight I think about what a great story it would be to provide a little “Trail Magic”, some unexpected gift and support to someone along the trail.

“Here,” I say, reaching in my bulging food sack, I have an extra dinner. Would you like one?”

“Wow!  That sounds great!”, he beams, “It was going to be dehydrated potatoes again tonight.”

“And here,” I say as I scrounge deeper, “How about one of these bars and one of these?”  

“Oh this is great!” he says, “I only have enough for another day and this will help me if I can’t get to Monson by then.”

This feels good. I like providing Trail Magic.  

I walk over to where Popeye is setting up his tent and offer him a choice of dinner as well. Put on water to boil for their dinners and they soon join me on the log to tell me about their months of travel since March.

“What do you think about on the trail?” I ask.  

Mango thinks of of the woman who left him after 8 years. Popeye on what his future might be on the other side of completing the trail.  

At best, they both say, they try to think about where to put their foot next. 

And yes, on the trail there is too much time to think. 

Both say if they could do it again they would go slower. All this beauty that they walk by each day that they just take for granted.  

They are sweet young men and could well be my sons. I wonder if that’s why I’m so generous with them. But no, it’s not from some old need to take care of them, they certainly don’t need that, but from some present desire to invest in them, to be part of supporting this great effort they are undertaking to the finish.  

Late that night, I wake in a panic.

What was I thinking? Why did I ever give away my power bars?

All I could remember was how I felt my energy drain from me in those last miles in the 100 Mile Wilderness without enough food and water.  

I lie there counting how many days I have left and how many bars I think I still have. Toss and turn thinking about what a fool I am. Vow to tell Mango I made a mistake and that I need one of the bars back, but he’s gone by the time I awake – off to see the sunrise on the top of Moxie Bald Mountain. 

I think if yesterday’s words were “Up and Out”, today’s necessary word is “Grace.” A grace I’m sometimes not so good receiving myself. Today I need to make room for some surprising grace.

Fingers so numb I can’t tear open the coffee, granola packets. Try biting them open to no avail. My pocket knife does the trick.  

Morning coffee and granola and the surprise of tears as I wash my face in the stream.  

The boys gave themselves grace. Popeye canoed some 80 miles through Virginia instead of hiking. Sometimes both of them sent their heavy packs ahead and slack-packed along the trail. Popeye spent five days enjoying New York City. They listen to music, watch movies at night. 

The stream rumbles. Yellow and brown leaves on dark earth that leave no scent.  

I want to have enough, even with less. I’ll make it be enough. Show me some surprising grace.

In the days to come, find it. On a mountaintop, nights from now, after a day of intentional fasting will wonder how I could ever have worried about not enough, that I have more than I will ever need. 

Indeed, will finish my hike with a ziplock bag of remnants to spare, a Protein Gu and some Energy Chews and even one last Bobo Bar.

Mornings from now when I’ve finished my hike, I’ll meet Guy and his wife doing laundry. Learn how he’s walking the trail to raise money for the Maine Chapter of the Brain Injury Association of America. Then and there make a donation to support him to the finish. 

Downstairs at the Landmark Diner, there’s a worn young guy with a dog in front of me waiting for a table. We both get a seat at the bar. He’s fixated on his phone, doesn’t seem anxious for conversation.

But when he puts down his phone, I venture a question, “Are you a thru-hiker?”  

“Yes,” he says, but sounds more like he once was one.  He’d been sick for the last several days, and came down off the range on the trail ahead and back to Monson to get checked out at the health clinic.  

“My old self would have stayed out on the trail and pushed through,” he said. “I only had 70 more miles to Katahdin. But I’m trying to learn to be responsible. I have a three month old son.” Hands me his phone with the picture of his smiling young baby.  

“Everyone tells me I made the right choice, but sitting here I’m not so sure. I think I should have just stayed out there and finished.”

He knows he has the physical ability to do this, it’s the mental energy he needs to make it through. I don’t say anything, because I figure he knows that energy won’t be found in one more beer and shot of whiskey.  

When our checks come, I take his, and buy his dinner as my investment in him, my encouragement. 

“Just text me when you finish,”I say.

Its not that I’m such a good person. It’s just that when I’m generous, generosity finds me. I’d finished the trail unsure if I’d have enough and had more than I needed. I have an abundance and can’t help but share. 

And yes, grace myself with the most wondrous squash ravioli and salad and bread and a brownie sundae and Bissell beer that is delicious and does not go to my head.  

Later a call to Leanne who is finding an opportunity in a time of hurt. Larry who failed his oral report and found such success because of it. Nan who had a margarita with a friend and cake with her son and the next day ran her best half marathon time ever. Surprising grace all around. 

The next day, at church in Greenville, the story of the rich young ruler who was told to give away all he had to the poor and because he couldn’t walked away sad. I don’t remember a thing about the sermon except her closing words, to open our hands and receive. 

From Down and In to Up and Out

I returned last week from a week of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Here’s a story of what happened on the way. Day 1.

I wake in the dark, an unfamiliar bed, the scent of pine.  Where am I?   Turn on my headlamp to illumine the small wood cabin, a car door closing.  Pull on my pants and fleece, greet Tabitha who is sorry to have woken me and is off early to go get a mountain and leaving me here to wonder on the brilliance of stars.

I’m off today to begin my own interim adventure, stepping into my own anxiety and uncertainty, my first time hiking alone and camping alone in the woods. I’m far from an experienced backpacker but think I have enough to get me through the next week.  

What I don’t have is enough room in my pack for a bulging bear-bag packed with food and dry bag stuffed with warm clothes. I know I brought too much but not knowing what to leave behind, I push down harder, squashing the peanut butter sandwiches I brought for lunch today and fearing I’ve turned my apples to applesauce.  

Chattering with Phil on the hour long drive from Monson to Caratunk, a drive I hope will never end. 

But then, here we are, and the start of my journey.  As he pulls away off from the trailhead, an ache of aloneness.  A twinge of doubt, Why did I think this was a good idea?  Do I actually want to be doing this?  Comfort myself with the thought that in a few days it will soon be over. 

Head back to the shore of the Kennebec to start my journey.  Here by the river bank, on a rock warm with sunlight, watching the canoe turn away around the bend in the river, a prayer, to get out of my own way so the Spirit can lead the way.  

My former colleague Tom reminded me yesterday that I am going in the right direction. I want to trust that, to believe it’s true.  

I so wanted the position in Portland to work out. So wanted to get to hold on to Maine, to have the certainty of something on the other side of this time. A forwarding address and a new place I could imagine calling home. Instead, didn’t get the job and I’m left without job, identity and role. In other words, the “gift” of having a real interim time of unknowing and a commitment to use it to connect with Spirit. 

I rise from the river bank, ascend the trail, cross the road back to the trailhead where he’d dropped me off an hour ago, descend into a forest of green.  Trust the path, God is with you, he said. Just be yourself. You can’t go wrong. 

Hours later down the trail, I set up camp down the path from the Pleasant Pond lean-to on the way to the shore. As dusk descends, a hiker comes by and asks about sites further down. “This is it,” I tell him, “but there’s space over there and you’re welcome to it,” hoping he might stay.  But no, he’ll head down further and see what he finds. I take my dinner down the trail to sit by the water’s edge, watch the sky turn to stars.

I wake in darkness the next morning after a fitful sleep. Rustling leaves, a clear step by my tent in the night that scurried away as I banged the ground. I think it happened, not sure if it wasn’t a dream.  

The demons hadn’t only been chasing me all night as I lay awake listening for bears in the woods.  They’d been with me all yesterday afternoon on the trail. As much as I’d vowed to be present, to let go to the lilt of the trail, take in the shock of color and beauty of the north woods, all I could hear were the old tapes and tired voices of my past. Familiar twinges of regret of things not working as I’d always hoped they would, a past I couldn’t return to and couldn’t yet leave. Chasing memories that turned to fantasy, an imagined life that never truly was, the sadness of leaving the gift of what had actually been. Found my only “presence” in tripping again over my endless attempts to change what I could not, to fix what was beyond me.  

I’d hardly ever looked back at an old sermon text and whenever I had knew I could never preach that old  sermon again. What was there was for another time, a voice no longer my own, an old word that did not speak to this present one. Until last month, I’d hauled around with me for decades boxes of journal scratches I’d made tracking the swing of my daily moods and uncertainties. I’d hardly ever looked back at them because not only could I hardly read them, but there was nothing living there, only an endless re-hashing out of what was to find my way to a ground that had been then and was not this.  

And yet, stepping out into the woods, those old words, tired regrets, unfixable issues were all I could hear. A much more experienced hiker than I had noted that the things people say are hard about hiking is not what is really hard. It’s this – these old memories, unsolvable puzzles that gnaw at you and will not let you go. No wonder I found hiking so exhausting, the futility of working up a perilous mountain peak of interior noise while trying to scale a real one.  

Somehow, survived the demons of the night and yesterday on the trail to find myself here, the next morning, atop Mount Pleasant, lying on a warm ledge in the bright sun, my tent, tarp and ground cloth, drying out from the morning dew, flapping gently on the rocks beside me held down by hiking poles. A second breakfast of a handful of peanuts and raisins, a not too bruised apple and cell service. Delighted in texting family and friends, views from the mountaintop.  Telling them about surviving my first night on the trail, my slow hike beginning, vowing again to savor everything.  

Up here, looking out at green mountain islands floating in a white sea of fog.  Early that morning I’d had my morning coffee down there, wondering on the bright skies far overhead. It felt down there on the foggy shore like my life felt – like I couldn’t see a thing before me with clarity, and yet, up above a sky so blue and clear.  

And now, here I am, having found my way up into that blue, looking up and out.

He’d watched me like no one had ever watched me professionally before. Filmed and Watched as I struggled to connect with a congregation I’d barely met who had disappeared behind the crack at the top of the sanctuary door where they sat at home watching the morning service. Saw when I got lost in my head, witnessed when I was just present. Helped me get out of the way so the Spirit could get in.  

Last week, he’d left me a little paper box with a note inside.  

You told me that you arrived with thirty-seven boxes.  Thirty-seven boxes of assorted memories and trinkets. Thirty-seven boxes that were weighing you down in one way or another. Thirty-seven boxes that you were attached to as well as things that were attached to you.

In retrospect, I can see them weighing you down.  As I look back on your time here I can also see you starting to stand up as you started to let go. I’ve watched your shoulders start to square, and have seen your head rise. I watched as you went from looking down and in, to up and out. I watched with a smile as you stood proudly looking up and out and proclaiming that you had finally been able to get rid of those boxes “with help.” Could you have done it any other way?  “Where two or three are gathered in my name, then there I am among them.” You can’t do it alone.

You are the man who has made it through.  You are the man who stands taller and straighter because you have been there before, the man that looks up and out because to look down and in blinds and incapacitates. You have a good heart that is open and ready for what the Spirit has to offer.  Wherever you go from here is where you are supposed to go. I feel that in my heart. Be well my friend,

                                                                                    Tom Dewey

I roll up the tent, tarp and groundcloth. Stuff it all into my over-stuffed pack. Take off up the trail, knowing my direction. Keep looking up, keep looking out.  

Monson

Just over a week ago, October 3, I stepped out from the home that had been into the discovery of what might yet be. Set out to do something I’d never done before – to take a week hiking and camping alone on the Appalachian Trail. Now, a week back from the trail, my story of what happened.

Monson is the place up the road. That place in the North Woods at the end of the road where the pavement turns to dirt.  That place where you’re headed after leaving what had been your home.  

The kind of place where people say, “Monson?…What’s that?… Where?… Why?…”  Only one “uh-huh” of recognition from a local who’d been there.

Monson was where I headed on that Sunday afternoon after the final service, after the cake.  The place I was headed like I told people I would, the place that gave an answer to their question, “What’s next?”  

I’m heading to Monson.

Monson, a crossroads, a supply town just off the trail. The place between this way or that.  

Early that morning, at last had stopped. Done with the final sorting and packing. Done with checking behind the door and under the bed to see what I might have left.  Done with all of it but to stop and sit for a cup of coffee and found the tears that had been eluding me for months. 

These tears as they came and come again now in remembering that I don’t understand. Not the wrenching tears of loss, not the quiet tears of grace, but the full and flowing tears of leaving a people and a place that you have loved because the time has come, your work complete, our time together at a close.  It’s not that its unexpected, you’ve been working towards this since you came.  But then its here and amidst all that was done and all left undone, is just this love, the love in these tears for this place and these people, the love I have shared and the love I so richly received and how it all and grown and changed me, dislocated me from who I was to what I might yet be, as these tears are doing now.  

The gift of grace, after that final service, after the final words of thank you, forgiveness and release.  After passing on the church keys that had been entrusted to me 20 months before, the snow shovel and ice scraper that you need to be a minister in Maine.  The gift of the grace of tears in the masked hugs and handshakes, all the words already spoken and all that is left, these tears of love.  

Tom slipped me a note as he said goodbye, “You are going in the right direction.  God is with you. You will not be led astray. Just be you.  You can’t go wrong.”

And so, I take that last trip up 27 North heading to Monson. A slice of cake by my side.

Stop along the way to take it all in. The abandoned old church, the little table of squash, the colors that cry out at the side of the road. It is all so beautiful.  

Text Phil that I’ll be arriving by 4.  Receive a text back, “Who is this from?  Not expecting anyone.  I’m sorry but I’m closed for the season.  You’ll need to find someplace else.”

I’m surprised and rather awed that I do not panic.  Don’t beat up on myself for not confirming the reservation I thought I’d made, not mad at him. Curious instead as these past months have taught me to be instead, wondering where I can camp for the night and find a bite to eat. Learned these past 20 months that things not going according to plan is the way of things these days. 

Then, on my way to another plan, another text,   “Go ahead and make yourself at home. You’re all set with me.  No worries.  See you in the morning.”  

So tonight, here, these stars, so bright!  Home found where I didn’t think I’d have one.  

Phil will drive me to Caratunk tomorrow and I’ll spend the week following the trail back to Monson, that place where you’re headed after the life you had ended. That place that finds you, the home you never expected to find, at the end of the road.