The Duck

Today, the Big News is The Duck. 

That is, the big news here on this particular section of the Neponset River where it rounds the bend and opens into the wide, reedy-brown marsh.

That is, the big news for my friends and their concerned and watchful neighbors. 

It seems last summer, someone abandoned their pet, a domesticated white crested duck down here at the river. Over the past months, The Duck’s new human neighbors have been much interested in tracking the distinct white duck with the awkward nob on the top of his/her/their? head.  

They’ve reached for their binoculars each morning, recorded, and FaceBooked their sightings. Marveled as the wary duck and mallards built a slow connection and camaraderie. But these past weeks with the river now frozen and another icy storm on the way, they’ve been watching with worry.  

My friends look out on the icy river this Thursday evening, thick fog descending. No sign of the duck. 

Would The Duck be able to find warmth in the company of the mallards? 

How would The Duck survive if the mallards flew off? They’ve watched with concern as the poor Duck has tried to fly with them, alas cannot.  

Sometimes I’ll admit I’ve rolled my eyes and been downright dismissive of stories like this one. Sometimes, been all too quick to judge such stories as silly distractions amidst all the sorrow and struggle, incomprehensible violence and disasters in the world. I mean, look at us, pouring all this care into The Duck when there are people down the street who are longing for this kind of connection and care. I mean, look at us humans, able to see and notice a lone duck and so unwilling to see each other. 

But This Duck, well, got to me. Broke through my icy dismissal and opened my heart.   

On Thursday I’d outpaced the winter storm coming across upstate New York and arrived safely at the warm home of friends in Milton, Massachusetts late that afternoon. Along the way, wonderful vistas of fog rising through valleys, rolling fields of yellow corn stalks poking up through the snow. So many wonderful scenes and no possibility to safely pull off the road and take a a picture.  

Friday morning the storm caught up to the Massachusetts coast here in Milton. I woke to pouring rain soon turning to sleet. Took off for my morning run down the trail next to the T, puddles deeper than I anticipated, icy water pouring down into my shoes. Glasses sleet speckled and fogged. So cold. So wet. So fun!

Circling back to my friend’s condo, I head down by the riverbank for one final loop. Much to my surprise, I spot the brace of waddling mallards coming up over the ice.  

Turn and share the surprise of a warm greeting with white haired and blue jacketed Mike, who’s ventured down here on this cold morning to check in on (of course!), The Duck. 

As he explains how the duck’s top-heavy crest makes them much more adept on water than land, we look out and see there just beyond the mallards, The Duck! 

By now, I’m as happy as he is to see The Duck I’d only heard of. They’ve survived! I can’t wait to tell my friends!  

Onto these critters we throw our personification, pour out our empathy. Why? Is it our longing for a story of survival and grit, for what we pray is possible amidst impossible odds? Is it our need for a new story to break open our tired and diminished imaginations? Is it love?  

Survival of the vulnerable and overcoming differences to survive together, is not the big news in the Sunday paper today. Perhaps its because we don’t know what to do with all that’s in today’s news that we pour out our empathy and are stirred to action by the orca nursing her sick calf, the lone bird far off course trying to find her way home, this resilient Duck.

Perhaps need these little nature stories to recall us to our own better natures.

Yes, perhaps drawn to them to break free our imaginations from icy cynicism or despair.  

Perhaps, need these stories of daily hope believing that if The Duck can survive this night, perhaps we can as well.  

Perhaps, drawn to the awe and beauty of witnessing creatures connecting across difference when all too often we can’t see beyond our own. 

I don’t know, perhaps for all of that, and perhaps for what we don’t even know and struggle to name.

What I do know is two strangers, me and Mike, are chatting merrily together in the shower of sleet because of The Duck. 

Later that morning, my friend Anne comes down with a handful of cracked corn. The mallards see her coming and waddle over to devour the corn. 

Our friend, The Duck, remains out there paddling, ignoring her call, as if to say, “Thanks very much, I’m doing just fine.”

And much to our delight, thanks to you, Duck, so now are we.

Labyrinth

I trace my index finger slowly carefully, up and around and one more time around the labyrinth. Whoops a quick turn here I almost missed.    

This month I’m taking a class on “Navigating Transitions” and today our teacher has invited us to take a few minutes to trace our way through this finger labyrinth. As we trace our way, she encourages us to remember and reflect on how we have walked through our own journeys of transition.  

What I know this afternoon is how incredibly good I am at this. I mean look at me, so carefully following the lines, so quick too! Whoops — not so quick. I guess I’m not at the end yet. More careful tracing, careful, careful. Yes! The middle successfully reached and in record time!  

Most students in our class on “Navigating Transitions” don’t think much of the finger labyrinth and I thought I’d be one of them too. 

But then something happened when I tried to trace my way out of the middle and back to the beginning. I start back, so confident and clear and then I can’t get out. I mean, I keep coming right back to the middle again. This silly game and I am so frustrated. What’s happened? What’s wrong? 

And then my frustration breaks into laughter. It comes to me as it has come so many times before and will time and again as I never seem to get the point of it before I forget it again — its not really about being so good. That’s not even the question.  

Tracing or walking a labyrinth can be a way to get in touch with your intention for your path ahead.

Tracing or walking a labyrinth can reveal you and how you walk.  

Sometimes I think, I’m so good at this! And maybe for the moment, I am. So bright. So careful and quick. And then here I am the next moment circling right back to where I began, slipping in mud and covered in paint.

Today, I get another lesson in humility and reminder that the way I walk the path of life matters. Learn yet again that I’m better walking mine with a little lightness and ease than with some surefire fixed intent to show how quick and competent I am.

The impact of our way of walking was all brought home to me later this week in a walk through a pueblo with anthropologist Martha Yates.  

The Tsankawi Pueblo, part of the Bandelier National Monument, was established about 1400. And what I think is like the coolest thing here is that the paths of the people who lived here are worn away into the pumice on the mesa. We literally are walking the paths they walked here some 600 years ago. Some of us in our group realize they were quite smaller than we are while some of us stride through the narrow paths with ease. Martha tells us there are seven, eight miles of these trails here. I want to explore them all.  

Once again, a reminder that time is not linear, its vertical. Its not that we have stepped away from our past, moved on from the lives we have lived. The past is here beneath our feet. We walk as we do, stumble as we stumble because of the paths our ancestors have worn before us.  

We learn that some 800 to 1000 feet under the earth here at Ghost Ranch are the footprints of those who have walked here before us. Last year archaeologists discovered in White Sands, New Mexico, the footprints of children playing by a stream bed 21,000-23,000 years ago.  

We wear a way as we walk in the way of those who have gone before us.  

How we walk, where we walk, matters.  

The paths we trace, we leave for the children who come after us.  

How mindlessly I tromp through the snow, slip through the mud, so unaware of my path and the consequences.  

The people who walked here knew as they walked that their feet were massaging winter seeds.

Imbolc

Today is Imbolc, and we’re halfway between winter solstice and the spring equinox. The days are continuing to grow slowly lighter though its still dark and cold. It certainly is here in Hamilton, New York, well below freezing when I’ve been out for my early morning runs and afternoon walks in the woods. But today, its warmer, up near thirty and the trees talking to each other in sharp crackling, warmed by the sun and warmer temperature. 

I’d never heard of the ancient Celtic holiday of Imbolc until last month when archaeologist Martha Yates mentioned it in her lecture at Ghost Ranch on archaeoanthropology (yet another word I’d never heard of.) She explains how ancient people here traced and tracked the cycles of the sun and moon, equinox and solstice in petroglyphs and stone formations. Noted the path of moonrise from its most southern to northern point on the horizon. 

“Does anyone know how long that takes?”, Yates asks. 

One hand raised.  

18.6 years. Who knew? 

Why did they do this? For sure, they were scientists of their day and curious. But for all we don’t know about why they marked the growing and fading cycles of light, we know that alignment of their ceremonial life with the celestial and natural cycles and seasons mattered. They knew bad things would happen if things got out whack between the cycles.  

Alignment? I don’t even think about alignment until my car starts easing to the left. Alignment of ceremonies with the stars and seasons? It all sounds very New Age-y and perhaps it is. But it’s also, Yates reminds us, very old, as old as our ancestors in Africa, Ireland and the Southwest.  

Today, I’m quick to think I can overcome and outsmart the cycles of stars and nature herself. Perhaps with track lights and central air we’ve proven we can. And of course we can see as well today the dire consequences when we’ve forget that we’re not really that separate from cycles and seasons larger than ourselves.

Alignment matters. Can we remember our way back to it? And if we did, what might it mean for how we mark our days, for what we pause and notice? What might arise if we recovered ancient festivals to pause and celebrate, reground and reroot?

In the Southwest, the wide open landscape and sky, the absence of light and not a heck of a lot of other stuff going on, makes it a natural place for me to notice such things as sunrise, sunset and moonrise.

I notice with thanks the difference the growing light makes in seeing the potholes and ice when I’m out on my morning run. Grateful for the gift of the light of the Wolf Moon that helps me see my way back down to my room. 

I call out to my workmates to come see the dark clouds of the storm coming up the valley. Step out into the immersive cold chill of this dark morning, wonder on the slow warming of the day as I shed my jacket and gloves. Yes, get slippery red mud tracked all over me and around my room as a reminder that I’m actually not that separate from all this muck and majesty.  

What is happening here is of course happening everywhere, its just that so often I don’t notice. Or I notice it sometimes and then forget. Already, I’ve lost track of the moon today (New Moon to Waxing Crescent).  

Alignment with what is happening out there in the world and in here in us and our life together feels very earthy and incarnational, very Christian to me or perhaps the possibility of what Christianity could be again. The kind of alignment that Jesus knew who speaks of the care of lilies, stands in a boat to speak to wind and sea. 

So today, bright light,

And tomorrow, a snowstorm. 

Winter, not done with us yet. 

Today, trees cracking,

The sound of a turning. 

Service Corps

If you had told me that I’d actually enjoy tearing out old cabinets and measuring counter tops, learning to use the power drill and sander (or actually sanding at all), I’d have said, No that doesn’t sound like me.

I’ve never been particularly good at or interested in house projects and repair, but here I am loving our tearing apart and putting together work, loving being part of our little service corps team at Ghost Ranch.  

Yesterday we took apart a bookshelf. Today, moving dinosaur bones and pulling out a dusty rug. Tomorrow, blue taping the walls and preparing to put on a coat of fresh paint and add some new life to this little room.  

I’ve scurried up scaffolding and popped out rivets, plastered holes in the wall and sanded them smooth, learned how to measure the space between two walls. 

For sure, its the gift of our wonderful foreman, Art, who patiently shows us how to do such things.  Yes, wonderful teammates, Mark and Eric. 

Yes, good work that gets me out of my head spinning and into the slow presence of now. Slowed to the specificity of tape measures and pencil markings, slowed to the careful blue taping of the edges of walls and rinsing paint brushes. Slow enough to be present.

The agreement is to serve 25 hours a week for such things as painting and plastering, and then for a nominal fee, receive the gift of room and board and Ghost Ranch.

Every morning I’m up in the dark following the beam of my headlamp down the dirt road to the highway or out past Georgia O’Keefe’s house. Back for morning yoga, a bowl of hot oatmeal, eggs and green salsa and back to work. 

Days marked tracking the orange sunrise and sunset, the slow moonrise and changing light on the mesa, red and tan, now dark purple and gold. In between, good company, good work, great joy.

Over the next two weeks I’ll hike all the trails, get caked with slippery ruddy mud that sticks like plaster to my pants and boots (and still’s here on my boots weeks later), leaving a fine trace of red dust and Ghost Ranch wherever I go. All the while, the snow, slowly melting, the moon quietly growing.  

Sometimes I’m surprised by remembering something from years ago, like that silent watcher in stone that towers above the path to Box Canyon.  

Early one morning, I stop on the trail. Hear, Receive.

I look up, open my hands. I do, I am. Receive it all.

Am I the one “serving” or is this place serving me?

Ghost Ranch

Last month it had become clear that the coming together of my next step forward was taking its own time. Where in this liminal time, between the home I had left and the home that was yet to be, would be a good place to place myself in January? 

My question led me to the memory of a place I’d gone in another such time, Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. A quick search and a few emails later affirmed that the “Adult Service Corps” for three weeks in the “January Term” might be right what I was looking for – an opportunity for community and solitude, some good work to do and a good place to ponder, a chance to return to a place I’d loved. 

29 years ago I’d arrived in Santa Fe on the overnight train from Chicago in the middle of a snowstorm. I read William Least Heat Moon’s story of his own travel odyssey, Blue Highways, as we passed through the long rolling hills of Kansas and shared breakfast with an Oklahoma rancher in a white brimmed hat. We arrived at the small train station hours late, on towards midnight, greeted by the surprise of falling snow and relieved as well to see the pickup’s headlights in the small parking lot of the staff member who had waited for me.

The week before I’d left my position as executive director of a community-based AIDS organization in Evanston, Illinois. I’d been hired as their first director three and half years before and in that time BE-HIV (Better Existence with HIV) had grown from 1 staff member to 8, from 1 volunteer to over 200. The fast growth outgrew my passion for bringing people together to create something new. I believed they now needed a new leader with experience in nonprofit management to take them to the next level.

That’s what I usually said. 

What I didn’t usually say is that three months earlier Rob had walked into my office. Actually, limped down the hall, leaning heavily on his wooden cane. He was 35, tall, thin, neatly trimmed brown hair. A long tender face and the saddest of eyes. Last week he’d been diagnosed with AIDS. In 1992 receiving an AIDS diagnosis meant you had two years to live. I’d seen it happen so many times, almost to the day, like some horrible, relentless clockwork. That afternoon when Rob walked in, I looked up into his brown eyes and knew, I cannot do this one more time.  

I was 31. I had plenty of energy. I knew how it to work hard and long hours. It wasn’t that. What I didn’t know was what to do with this grief. 

After so many deaths and the inevitability of so many more, after so many people who I had cared and hoped and grieved for, I knew when I looked up at Rob, that I couldn’t do this one more time. Couldn’t imagine one more intake, one more Monday night dinner sitting around the table and hearing the stories, attend one more funeral. Couldn’t give my heart one more time to someone I would too soon be saying goodbye. 

Some months earlier, I’d found myself in the emergency room. For months I’d been finding it hard to take a deep breath. That afternoon an ache in my chest led to a call to my doctor and being hooked up to an EKG, sticky ointment and cold tubes stuck on my chest. No, not a heart attack but a good case of stress.  

It was one of the first times I’d come up against this reality called “limits” and I didn’t have a clue what to do with them. I’d learned well how to push through, get through, climb over and see beyond. But what do you do when pushing harder won’t get you to where you need to be?

Today, 29 years later I sit here in the empty conference room, grey tile floor and grey wall, Kitchen Mesa glowing red and brown in the afternoon sun. Hear the slow clicking of his cane down the hall, the surprise of moistness at the corner of my eyes all these decades later as I remember the names and faces that had brought me to Ghost Ranch those many years ago.  

I don’t know how I knew I needed this, this “solace of fierce landscape” as the theologian Belden Lane speaks of places like this. I knew nothing of New Mexico but something in me knew it was the place I needed to be. And so a slow rumbling train to this vast, starkly beautiful landscape of red and brown stone and the bluest of sky, a place big enough for all my questions and empty enough for all the grief I did not know how to hold or name.  

The next week, the gift of time and space I needed.  

Each morning I set out to explore a new trail. As I climbed the mesas and buttes, I learned the joy of hiking without a clear destination. No peak to conquer, but a trail to discover. Along the way, paused to take pictures of craggy rock formations that became a broken communion table; a grey gnarled snag, a weeping Christ. 

Practiced silent rituals opening empty hands to honor, release the young men and women I’d loved into a care bigger than I could hold. Lifted and tossed the weight of anger and sadness for families and church who would not say the name of AIDS, the names of lovers and partners, as if the silence would take the pain away.  

Here I could say their names, and recall their stories. Here find the solitude I craved and the companionship I needed, meals with the dozen or so seniors in an elder hostel course, the only other guests on the ranch. Every evening, the men in the group would lean across the table, longing for me to tell them where I’d gone and what I’d discovered, jealous of my freedom as they’d sat in class while I wandered the valley and explored the trails. 

The men and women we served at BE-HIV had found their way to strangers to an anonymous office site in a church basement because they couldn’t find what they were looking for anyplace else. Here in a basement of concrete block walls and small windows looking out on grey window wells, they found the compassion, the care, the friendship they craved. Here could talk about what they feared and ask for what they needed. Here find something of that love and care that the people and places they would have gone to for such support were unable or unwilling to provide. When they died, I attended their funerals where so often the name of AIDS was never named, partners and lovers uninvited or unrecognized.

That winter I’d begun to talk a bit more about the call I felt to help make the church upstairs from our office basement more open and welcoming to the people we served at BE-HIV. Over the next years, Dave and I knocked together on many church doors as we sought a place to serve together in ministry. Knocking on the door of the church and inviting it to live into its name of being a place where “all are welcome” became our passion and call.  

Now, decades later, I’ve come here again to open my heart. To discern, to receive the next step in the call to walk with a people out beyond the limits of their familiar into the mystery of their becoming. Out from their home that was into the home unseen that is yet to be. Out into the possibility and discovery of the wild and wilderness, this place for exploration and adventure, of learning and limits, for trying and failing and trying again. For finding that next step as we make our way to the new way of life we all need as a people and planet in this dark and deep season of change and transition. 

To this vast emptiness, this stark beauty, I open my heart. 

Friendship

I’ve been thinking of friends. The gift and wonder of those particular friends who show up in your life unexpected and unplanned. Friends who in some mysterious way just by their presence along the way have shaped who you are and who you have become. Those friends who changed you not necessarily because of what you did with them, but just because of who they are. 

Wes was one of those friends, one of those wonderful friends I was so blessed to have part of my life. When Wes’s wife Marcia called me a few weeks ago to tell me Wes had died and to invite me to say a few words at his memorial service, I, who have spent my life using words, found myself speechless. How do you even find words, how do you even speak of what a friend means in your life? 

As I pondered how to possibly find words to share to speak of my friend Wes, I found myself drawn to what is beyond words and says it so much clearer – pictures, music, stories, memory. 

For me, memories that began of me as a 27 year old young man who had recently moved to Chicago with his partner Dave. That winter we met Marcia and Wes at church. 

What a surprise it is of these people who somehow show up in our lives. Why of all these people who come in and out of our lives have made these particular people our friends? Perhaps they were just the friends we needed, the kind of friends we didn’t even know we were looking for.    

The late 1980’s, early 90’s in Chicago were a challenging time, a hard time. Here we were in a strange new city far from family and friends. It was our first time living together, Dave in social work school, I the director of a community AIDS organization in Evanston. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and with it so much loss and fear, anxiety and uncertainty. A time of missing the stability and comfort of the lives we once had, wondering if we would ever get them back. A time perhaps not that different from this time. 

Amidst that challenging and growing time, Marcia and Wes recalled us to the gift of ordinary time. The gift of evening card games and puzzles, laughter and play, to wonderful meals around their dining room table.  

In the years to come, as our friendship grew, there were hard and disappointing times, uncertain times when we wondered if and how we would live into our dreams and doubt if we ever could. In the midst, there were our friends Marcia and Wes with us and for us along the way, recalling us to the gift of this present moment and time. Recalling us to wonder and joy, to puzzles and pranks, to life. 

Yes, there were joyous times as well. Dave and I celebrated our commitment service at St. Pauls Church where I sat with them in the pew each Sunday and Dave sang in the choir. Marcia and Wes hosted our families after the service back at their home. They were those kind of friends.

When we moved away, our friendship moved with us. Yes, it was different but every time we got together we were right back at it like no time had passed.  

It’s now many decades later and life has been full of joy and blessings, yes, thanks be. And yes, of loss and grief, of disconnection and dislocation as this is the way of life as well. The kind of lost and wordless times it is hard to find words to make your way out of.

And then, the gift of words that finally come. An email, a phone call, “Hi, I’m coming to the city and would love to see you.” And the friendship was right there; it of course had never left.  

It was a few months ago that I last had the chance to talk with Wes. He was at the nursing home and that day, a good day. We talked of ordinary things and as our time drew to say goodbye, the words that were always there and had never left, I love you, Wes.  

When Marcia called to tell me Wes had died and when the memorial service was planned, the words came right away as well, I’ll be there. No question, no doubt, no second guessing or second thoughts. Maybe I’d learned the cost of not being there at such times when I could have. Maybe the words for where I needed to be were just given, quick and clear. I’ll see you soon.

Yes, so glad I was there last weekend. Such a privilege, such a gift to just be a friend who is there with a friend in times like this. 

As I look back on last Saturday afternoon, and remember the faces of Wes’s friends in the sanctuary I give thanks again for the gift of Wes and what we experienced and shared that day in memories and music, pictures and the words that finally found us,  

We love you, Wes.

We miss you.

We thank you for being our friend.

Unexpected

It’s one of my favorite places in the world. Here, just up the snow-covered hill by the fire pit at the edge of the forest. Here, with the view down the valley of blue-grey hills and fields of white, the gold dome of the Chapel peeking through tree tops. 

Much has changed since I first came here 43 years ago – the trees so much taller, grand stone dorms at the far edge of the field. But much is the same as it was that first summer I pulled out my blanket here at the top of the field to read Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. I was a high school junior and here for a summer term at Colgate. I never expected or wanted to come to college here, but a year later here I was back lying at the top of the hill watching billowing clouds drift down the valley. 

Despite my plans and expectations, something about this landscape of rolling hills, this patchwork of forest and field drew me back. Yes, Colgate lacked most everything I wanted on my list of chosen schools – I wanted a school without fraternities, a smaller school than this, a school in New England. But it had the one thing no other place had – these hills, this sky, this view, this landscape.

Following the call of a landscape changed everything. Would I ever have been called into ministry (again not at all what I imagined or planned for my life) if it hadn’t been for my experience at Colgate? Would the questions have been planted that have guided my life? 

Despite all I believed and planned, this unexpected place gave me the gift and surprise of unexpected gifts.  

So now here again today, at the crest of the hill, ankle deep in snow at the edge of the woods. There down to the left, the grey stones of the college cemetery where so many teachers and mentors like Coleman, the University Church Chaplain, are buried. Coleman had met me at Chapel House the last time I was here for a retreat, decades ago now, and took me to lunch apologizing to the Chapel House host for breaking the rules and taking me off site. 

It’s here to Chapel House, at the edge of the field that led me to this place, that I’ve returned this week.

The little brochure at the entry notes that Chapel House aims to be “an oasis for peace and healing for individuals, Colgate University and the world.” Founded in 1959, it was a gift of an anonymous donor who requested that her name never be mentioned. 

“I am an old woman,” she said, “and soon I shall be going over to the other side where I’ll see all my friends. If I had done something for the Lord and added my name to it, I’d be ashamed to see them.”

Everytime I’ve wandered through the glass doors over the years I’ve wondered what’s taken me so long to return. This gift of beauty and solitude, these blue wing-backed chairs at broad windows looking down the valley. This beautiful place to write, read, sit or meditate, rest and receive this old woman’s gift of space and time. 

I’d planned on coming here this fall, but the unexpected gift of coming here now serves even better. Yesterday afternoon as I drove north from Maryland I’d pulled off I-81 for a phone call in the parking lot at Burger King that confirmed that this interim time of four months is now coming to a close with a new beginning. No, not a position I ever expected (of course!) but a gift that I so heart-full of gratitude and expectancy receive. Another reminder of what this interim time these past months has opened– the gift of time for the unplanned and unexpected to unfold.  

Yes, I’ve done many of the things I “planned” on doing during this sabbatical time. I’ve taken time to hike and write, time for solitude, time with friends and family, time for adventures and the discovery of places I’d never been. And yes, things I never planned and expected as well – discoveries like Ghost Ranch where I spent a few weeks in January that have led to new possibilities and openings as I’ve had space and time to listen for call and discern a deeper calling to what I’d not “planned” and “expected.”  

The last weeks have been a flurry of conversations and interviews, possibilities and hopes for next steps. Late yesterday afternoon when I arrived I could feel how fast my heart and mind were running. If I didn’t have times of intentional pausing like this, I wonder if I’d even notice. 

To gift yourself, to give myself the gift of a pause is a rare and precious privilege. How many people couldn’t imagine such a time as much as they might desire it. And yes, how many who could choose a time like this don’t for all the good reasons we know.  

And so, such a true gift to be here in this place dedicated to the Cultivation and Spirit of Slowing and Quiet. The only “structure” and guidance provided — emptiness, woods, silence, the contemplation of books, art and music, an open day and schedule punctuated by the ringing of the gong and invitation to the next delicious meal.  

I come expecting and planning to look back on this interim time and remember. Come expecting to write and draw what I want to hold to before stepping out into the next new chapter.  

But even more, I want to give myself to what I never planned and expected, to open myself to the gift of this time to offer its unplanned and unexpected gifts.

So yes, now out for that walk to the top of the hill and the view down the valley. Now, time for a walk in the woods. 

As I rise from this writing, I plant this prayer of gratitude for all the unexpected, unplanned events and relationships, choices and connections of life that have led here to this space and time. For the gift of an old woman who believed in the possibility for this emptiness, this silence to be an opening for what is waiting to be revealed beyond our wildest expectations.  

Chicago Snow

“You’re not actually going out there are you? It’s slippery! Do be careful!”

I assure the couple sitting in the lobby that I indeed will be careful and will come back if its not safe. But it’s blustery and snowing on this early Sunday morning, how could I not go for a run?  

I step out into more snow than I expected – 4-5 inches of puffy light snow that comes up over my shoes. A shock of cold at my ankles. But I am dressed warmly and well. I take a few strides forward. Not too slippery.

Yesterday I ran from my friend Marcia’s condo down to Lake Michigan and would have told you that the wild was nowhere to be found along the streets of grey brown brick and concrete. The wild, or Chicago’s closest thing to it, was down at the lakeshore where I was headed. There in the wild of bright ice at the rocky shoreline, pelting of wind, crunchy brown grass and gnarly bare limbed trees.  

Today I see the wild everywhere. I’m immersed in it as snow swirls down my neck and fogs my glasses. The wild is here and with it this morning all this brisk snow-covered joy. I delight in the surprise of a plowed sidewalk but soon head back to the puffy snow-covered sidewalks which are so much more fun.  

I turn back and into a furious wind. Tuck my head, press into the wet and cold and the wonder of joy in it all.  

There’s a little early morning crowd of six in the lobby who exclaim how surprising it is to see someone out for a run on a day like this. I tell them how enlivening it was – and not too slippery – hoping I might entice them to step out into the wonder of this wild morning.

Dog Walk

Sometimes its not about hiking the 100 mile wilderness or crossing the Knife Edge on Katahdin. Not about the anticipation of stepping out into a week long solo backpacking trip on the AT from Caratunk to Monson. 

No, sometimes it’s a different kind of walking as its been here these past three weeks in Maryland where I’m enjoying the gift of time with my sister, nephews and niece for card playing and movies, conversations and cooking interspersed with dog walks. The walking these days in the ordinary, everyday, several times a day little journeys of taking the dog for a walk around the block.  

Chet the dog is 12, deaf, arthritic and can’t see too well. His favorite activity of the day is sleeping in his bed or better yet, snuggled up next to my sister on the couch. Except, that is when you pick him up from his slumber and place him by the door. His little stump of a tail starts wagging and though he no longer barks in joyful anticipation, sometimes he will muster a croaky yelp of delight. 

A carry off the front steps that he no longer can navigate. Gently placed down at the crest of the hill outside the house followed by his wheezy cough. Sometimes, especially at night, he’ll bound for a few steps down the hill remembering perhaps what it was like to be a puppy again, ears flopping to the edge of the curb. He’ll stand there for a moment and then leap out like he’s about to take a jump off a high diving board, ears flapping.  

John Muir hated the word “hike” and urged people to “saunter” through the outdoors instead. Chet agrees. He doesn’t care how far we go, and knows that is not the point of the walk. Sometimes we make it all around the block. Sometimes, he turns around part way and heads toward home. What he cares about is all these smells. The smells that will keep his nose in the grass, at the tree, by the bushes   until with the tug of his leash he’s encouraged to keep on sauntering along. I haven’t gotten down to smell what he does down there nor do I plan to. But it must be a world of wonder from his focused sniffing out the evidence of dogs and the wayward fox. 

When was it I forgot the joy of the slow saunter on a gray sidewalk going nowhere but here, around this slow curve up the hill, past the house construction, gnarly bare limbs against the gray sky, brown leaves crumbled by the curb. The green wreath, blue and yellow flashing Christmas lights, a tree through the window.  

Dog walking brings everything down to here and now. Nowhere far to go, not a lot to do but be here, steady and slow, to wait and watch.  

There is something perhaps to be said for this steady circling, the daily ritual walks that bring all the uncertainty and expectancy, anxiety and anticipation of these days down to this time, this moment.  

On this gray drizzly night, I’m ready to be home. I pull Chet forward, “Come on, come on.”

It will be a slow walk to get there and no rushing the smells at the next corner. But slowly, steadily we’re making our way.    

I hope this new year may bring you walks of challenge and discovery, and yes, even more so, the gift of the wonder right here in the ordinary, everyday walks around your block. 

This Christmas Eve: Putting Down The Burden of Desire

Michael Gerson’s column in today’s Washington Post (“This Christmas, hope may feel elusive. But despair is not the answer”) provided me the turning phrase I’ve been seeking this Christmas Eve, the gift of a night that invites me to put down “the burdens of desires.” 

“The context of the Nativity story is misunderstood hope,” Gerson writes. The characters in the story expect the Messiah to “deliver them from exile and enemies. This was essentially the embodied belief that something different and better was possible — that some momentous divine intervention could change everything. But the long-expected event arrived in an entirely unexpected form.”  

Gerson writes, the God who comes this night “offers a different kind of security than the fulfillment of our deepest wishes.” Instead, “He promises a transformation of the heart in which we release the burdens of our desires.”

I have long tracked the desires of my heart, sought to discern the texture and tug of my longings and how they are calling me to respond. Tried to distinguish the desire of God from the desire of my ego. Tried to be faithful and yes, failed when the desire of yesterday has turned from the desire of today. Puzzled over that, the why and wherefore of the whims of desire and whether they can be trusted. Known the heartache of longing for things to turn out as I have desired them to be and the grief of when they have not. Yes, known the burdens of my desires.  

Almost two years ago now, I came to Boothbay Harbor full of desire. I had pockets full of expectation and desire of what I hoped might happen in our journey together. Came full of my passion and my ideas of who they might become and what we might explore together. Came, yes, full of desire to be successful in my first interim experience and to do something that mattered together. 

But five weeks after my arrival, with covid surging in mid-coast Maine, I had to begin to put down all my desires and longing for how I wanted things to be and face the reality of how things were. Had to put down all my wonderful plans, all my longing and hopes of how I imagined things to be, and lean in with the church leaders and community to wonder. Had to slowly let go of what I now had to accept was my outmoded desire. Had to learn and discern with others in the desolation of the present moment how to respond when we could not predict how things might be in the next. 

It’s easy to run to the longed for desires of this night. 

Easy to get lost in the grief of things not being as we may have desired them to be. 

Easy to have it be a time of aching and sometimes, yes, this is how it is.  

But what if the possibility of this night is a gift that comes from releasing the burden of our desire?

What if the possibility of the transformation of our hearts comes this night in a breathing out, a letting go of the weight and restlessness, grief and despair, passion and potency of our desiring and welcoming in the emptying of this night?

An emptying which makes room for Christmas, makes room for everything beyond what we even dreamed hoping for.