On the Road Again, For Now

A week ago, last Wednesday, as I took off for my morning run, a sharp pain in my knee. A few more steps and more sharp pain.  

Runners run the edge of pain. There’s the pain that we learn to run with and the pain that we need to stop and pay attention to. I’d like to think that running has helped me listen to my body better but I’m not so sure its true. On days like last Wednesday, I recognized it was another kind of pain – the sharp kind that warrants a stop and a stretch or a rest day. But I had plans. A route I wanted to run, a morning I’d wanted to start the way I wanted it to start.  

So I did the run and the pain subsided and yes, I was laid up for the next few days with an ice pack on my knee. Good advice that I finally heeded from the camp nurse who said I needed a few days of rest and to listen to my body.

Injury is part of the edge that runners run. Every runner I know has dealt with some minor or major injury that has slowed them down or taken them off the road, its part of the game. I read once that these knees of ours have only have so many miles in them. Running is a time-sensitive sport and the day will come for all of us to finally hang up our running shoes for good. It took my father until 80-something to finally say goodbye to what had become a steady slow jog on the treadmill. I hold out hope that if I am fortunate enough to live a long healthy life, that running will be with me for a couple of decades to come. But we’ll see. What mattered for me last week was that I recovered from my injury and that running wasn’t done with me yet.

Lately I’m aware of more and more people in my life who have had to hang up their running shoes. A heart attack, COVID, illness, injury and yes, age – that steady, slow and relentless competitor that comes from behind while we weren’t looking and overtakes us. 

On days like last week, laid up with my ice pack, I wondered how they do it. I mean, on days like last week when I couldn’t run, I struggle to clear my mind, to find that good breath and pace to the start of the day that running helps me find. A kind of presence that nothing else gives me like running does.  

It’s a week later and I’m ever so grateful to be out on the road again. Whatever was up with my knee is not up anymore and so I took off up Bean Hill, the grandmother of all hills near here that goes up and up and relentlessly more up. Every year I’ve run it and every year I find that it isn’t as bad and yes, IS as bad as I imagined. 

I have friends that because they can’t run the Bean Hill’s in their lives anymore live in the memory.  They tell me they’ve made at best but a restless, uneasy peace with the way things are in their lives today. They struggle with the present moment being enough and find that it is not. All there is, is the memory they tell me.  

There are so many things that I am no longer. Sometimes I too let the “not’s” or “no-longers” of my life, what has been taken from me by choice, by age, by life, define and deplete me. Diminish me in a way that I need a good run to shake out of. And sometimes I find that the “not’s” and “no-longers” in my life expand and grow me as well. Brings forth a particular kind of empathy and compassion for others in their lack and losses. I wish I could more readily bring that same empathy to myself, to heed the wise elder in all of us that really does have a clue, who knows and understands. That one who lives in a wider perspective, holds a deeper wisdom, knows the way to a deeper peace and serenity. 

I think of others I have had the privilege to know like Jim who after a life of many races and much running around found himself in his final years spending most of his day lying on the little cot in his room. He would tell me about all he was learning those days about “being” when there was no longer anything needed to be running after and about. I was and am so in awe of how he lived with diminishment and loss. And yes, am sure it wasn’t always easy for him just “being” as being a human being with our relentless minds and aching bodies aren’t easy to live with.  

At the top of Bean Hill, a cardboard yard sign, “God’s Got This.” The other day, Iost in a moment, a spiral of sadness or dislocation or some nameless kind of out-of-sortness, a passing cloud of feeling that had no answer and that longed for some empathy, I saw the sign and felt a release, a kind of peace. A certain kind of hope that perhaps the folks who put out the sign in their front yard hoped I’d find. 

I imagine that the folks who put up the sign have a very different understanding and relationship with this “God” than I do. On the other hand, that’s just my own made-up story and indeed gets in the way of my taking in the gift of this simple reminder that a wider love and understanding is holding all I cannot imagine in my own small life being so held. 

Someday, if I am so fortunate, I may have the privilege of being an old man sitting on a porch at a cabin like this on the lake looking out on the Belknap Range, mountains that have been in my sight and heart for all of my life. Mountains that I will remember with fondness and joy skiing, climbing, picking blueberries. 

And perhaps as well I too will have the gift of visits, as we have these past weeks, of young people I will sit here and watch out swimming and running, doing the very things that made me feel like me and so very alive when I was their age. I might well be nodding off and napping on the porch, perhaps taking a gingerly step down the dock and into the water for a short dunk. And I’d like to imagine that I might as well hold a memory and hope, a present gratitude that God’s Got This – what was, what is, and yet to be.

All of it, no matter what. 

Camp Proud

I’m trading my sorrows

I’m trading my shame

I’m laying it down

For the joy of the world.  

I’m trading my sickness

I’m trading my pain

I’m laying it down

For the joy of the world.  

(My favorite song from Camp Pride – an adaptation and expanded imagination of Andy Green’s song, “Trading My Sorrows.”)

Last week I served as a chaplain at Camp Pride, an interfaith LGBTQ camp for 9th – 12th graders at Pilgrim Lodge, the United Church of Christ camp in Maine. Like many camps, this was the first summer the camp has been offered since 2019 when I first was introduced to Camp Pride and served as a sailing instructor.  

I’m not sure if being a chaplain was a promotion or demotion from sailing instructor, but what I do know is the privilege I felt again this year in being immersed in listening and learning about the particular joys, challenges, questions and realities the campers and counselors navigate in embodying and exploring gender identities and expressions, being trans or queer, ways of showing up in the world that too often are experienced by others as “weird”, “strange” or “wrong.” 

Everybody around the dinner table has their particular stories of exclusion, of being left out, of being hurt or threatened or made to feel unsafe. What an amazing grace and gift to have a week that is all about the opposite – of affirmation and celebration of the wonderful diversity of what it means to be human. A week to explore and celebrate who you are and who you are becoming. To go from “odd person out” to queer person “in”.  Where your name, choice of pronouns, hair color, style of dress is something that just IS. 

Like many youth today, this is a community that lives with depression and anxiety. A community where neurodiversity (variations in sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions) is just part of the texture and shape of creating a community where there is recognition of diverse needs and permission to take care of yourself. 

Each day I experienced a community of an ever widening and changing circle where kids who in other contexts would be left on the outside finding their place on the inside. It happened too for the straight boy who came to camp to support his queer sister and much to his own delight found a community of fun, joy, play and connection.

The United Church of Christ talks a good and powerful talk about inclusion and welcoming of all that is lived out in particular communities in ways that too often fall short and cause hurt and leave kids like these suspicious and distrusting if any church or spiritual community is truly a safe place to be and bring your whole self. This week I experienced a church living into its call, living out the words it proclaims. I experienced a group of kids who began the week suspicious of morning and evening “sacred gathering” finding joy in creating a holy and sacred time together that many had never experienced before.  

Yesterday morning I looked around our circle waiting to go into breakfast and felt so proud of these young people, the amazing people they are and are becoming.  

This Sunday morning as we gathered for prayers at the Church of the Woods in Canterbury, New Hampshire, my prayer was for all of the campers and counselors returning home. Waking in homes that for some are not easy places to return to or be.  Where it’s not easy navigating safety and being true to yourself.  Where instead of having your own name and pronouns, you have other names thrust and imposed upon you. Places where depression and anxiety, suicidal ideation is born. 

Yes, today, my prayer is that all of us might also wake up to the memory of Camp Pride and the promise of creating a community of such intentional inclusion and wild welcome that can make us all proud.  

Life Moves On

This morning 

The pastor returns home

The niece flies back to school

The sunrise red brilliance  

Hidden now beneath an overcast sky

Life moves on

Pausing at the curb with a tearful hug 

The lake rising pink and smooth 

Now rippling and grey 

I go to find a warmer shirt

What I’m trying to say is that it’s not bad

Just different

And we, not unchanged by any of it 

Birds chirping where once was 

Only the loon’s lonely call

Now a silence 

which too is but a memory

Last night the lake was dotted with red and green lights of boats 

As we stood by the window watching fireworks

Bats flying back and forth across the porch

This early morning, I rise to say goodbye

And sit here watching the day opening

Not yet ready to move on

I pour a second cup of coffee 

Hold this moment 

Where everything is here

Everything still possible 

Wonder Time

“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. 

Goodbye Brookline

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. 

“It’s Looking Grim”

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. 


Peak Season

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.  

The Trail

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!”

We laugh.

“Thanks Boss!”

They’re off.  

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. 

Wild Mind

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. 

COVID Mind

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.