Bigger Than Me

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Sometimes, I just need to get away.

Leaves

No matter how much work is hanging over my head, I know I need to make the time to hike, or bike, or kayak—and always, to find a quiet, beautiful spot to sit and be still. It’s necessary for my mental health. Sometimes I get a twinge of guilt, thinking of those I love who also need this time but don’t get it. But I realize that depriving myself of it won’t help them. If I’m grounded, my head is clearer, my stress is lower, and I’m better able to ease the stress of others.

Plus, in the silence—away from the dings and red “new” notifications on email—I can get a better perspective on situations that seem frightening or overwhelming. I can see myself more objectively—better recognize my faults, not just in the abstract, but in the specific situations I could or should have handled better.

Yesterday I sat beside the Missouri River at flood stage. It’s been flooded most of 2019, and the already-steep slope of the riverbank has been carved into a sheer drop. Shrubs whose branches used to bob under and resurface in the shallows have washed away. The river is running fast these days, a wide, noisy, roiling, swirling thing. Sometimes a whirlpool rushes by, sucking at something invisible, until suddenly a whole tree, stripped bare, surfaces for one gasp before submerging again.

River

A towboat pushing three big grain barges was roaring its way upriver when I first arrived. It was struggling make any headway—it took nearly forty minutes for the barges to pass by and disappear around the bend in the river, leaving silence. Meanwhile, a two-foot piece of driftwood shot past the other direction, headed for the Gulf of Mexico. I thought: even great big powerful things, things that make lots of noise and leave a wake that takes twenty minutes to settle, are small compared to the earth they inhabit.

It reminded me of Danny Glover, in the movie Grand Canyon, saying, “When you sit on the edge of that thing, you just realize what a joke we people are. What big heads we got thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much. Thinking our time here means diddly to those rocks. It’s a split second we been here, the whole lot of us. And one of us? That’s a piece of time too small to give a name… Yeah, those rocks are laughing at me, I could tell. Me and my worries, it’s real humorous to that Grand Canyon.”

Poignant words. I’ve been wrestling anxiety again lately. I’m watching myself carefully, giving it a few days to see if some distance from the trigger will sort things out. (I think it will. It seems to be so far.) But if not, to be ready to reach out for help.

Sitting beside the river puts everything into perspective. There’s so much to be thankful for out there: the beauty of the light dappling the leaves; the clarity of the blue sky; the silence and solitude; the sparkles out on the water; the pattern of light and dark on the leaves; the 5-mile bike ride required to reach this spot I love; the gnarled beauty of the vines hanging into the water; the way the light plays with shadow and color on the leaves (are you sensing a pattern?).

Leaves sparkles

Being out here gives me that sense of distance, of perspective, of the relative importance of these things that so preoccupy my thoughts. It allows me to relax a bit, to remember, in the deepest part of my soul, that whatever comes next, everything will, in fact, be all right.

Anxiety 2.0

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The Alluvial Fan at Rocky Mountain National Park

Years ago, when I was in my first bout of full-blown anxiety, Christian passed on to me a book he’d been given called Telling Yourself the Truth. The point of it was that the words we use in describing to ourselves our reality have the power to shape our emotional state for good for for worse.

I realized anew how important this is this past week in Colorado. Just for a single illustration, let’s take Nicholas’ and Christian’s reaction to a sign posted at the Alluvial Fan in Rocky Mountain National Park. It said something like Warning: Swift Water, dangerous. And Christian was telling Nicholas to stay out of the water because it could sweep him away and he could be killed.

Well, the thing is, NIcholas wanted to put his feet in the water. He said, “I can be killed even if I put a pinky in?”

And this is the thing: putting a pinky…or a hand…

…in the lower parts of the Alluvial Fan stream isn’t going to get you killed. In fact, Alex and I tried hard to cross that stream on exposed rocks and were thwarted at several spots, and the last time in turning back, I lost my balance and landed both hiking boots in the stream up to my ankles. Clearly, I’m still here to tell the harrowing (cough-cough) tale. In fact, I didn’t even notice the current.

And see, this is the thing: anxiety takes healthy caution and turns it into certainty of death. The sign doesn’t say “if you touch this water you will DIE!” It says, in essence, “Be careful and respect the power of nature.”

A few weeks ago, we all went for a short hike and cookout at a state park. Alex was the only one who didn’t put on bug spray. He went digging in the foliage for ripe wild blackberries, and he came home with two dozen ticks. (Seriously. Two dozen.) We were still finding them three days later, crawling around his room, presumably from the clothes he didn’t wash as ordered when we got home. It was incredibly traumatic for him, all the more so because for the first two days he tried to deal with it himself, without telling us.

He spent the entire week in Estes Park complaining and resisting going hiking, because that experience left such a scar. I totally get it, but he loves rock climbing, and he loves stargazing, and he’s always been a nature lover until this. So we’ve been having to really talk about the truth of the matter—the actual scope of the risk, and the need to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Yet I know his anxiety around the idea of ticks is branded onto his psyche forever. If I needed proof, it came when, ten hours into the twelve-hour trip home, he found a single tick crawling on his hair and fell apart. It breaks my heart that he will be fighting anxiety around the idea of the outdoors for years to come.

And of course, the obsession with safety in kids is another example of how we, culturally, have inflated reasonable prudence to six-alarm paranoia.

I am really conscious of this tendency to allow anxiety to inflate real causes for caution into guarantees of annihilation, because it is something both Christian and I struggle with. (His anxieties are about temporal things, mine tend to be emotional. Both of them can be crippling.) If we can do one thing for our children, it will be to teach them to be clear-eyed about danger, to recognize which ones are causes for concern and which ones actually call for an all-hands-on-deck anxiety response.

Note: If you want photos of our Colorado trip, they’re here. I was going to do a photo post but I already did the photo essay on Facebook.

Butting Heads With Siri

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Photo by Jimmy_Joe, via Flickr

Siri stopped talking to us when we crossed the Michigan border.

Christian had been worried the entire day about running out of battery, because he’d forgotten his car charger. Now he was even more uptight.

Perhaps it will not come as a surprise to most of you to hear that I was not particularly sympathetic to his plight. I am, after all, the woman who has a “dumb” phone, with prepaid minutes, only so that people who have my kids can call me if there’s an emergency.

The next morning, we left our hotel in Byron Center, MI and drove to Holland for the day. By that evening, the phone was even closer to running out of power than it had been the day before. We tried to get back to Byron Center by checking in only periodically with Siri, but Christian had no memory of anything: no highway numbers, no landmarks, nothing.

I was really irritated—not only with him, but with myself.

I mean, really. Here we are, two intelligent adults with masters degrees, and we were both completely lost going back to the hotel we’d driven to and from–twice, mind you, because we’d gone out for fireworks. Why were we so clueless? Because we had turned off our brains and become automatons, turning right and left when the Magic Box told us to do so.

The next day, heading into Grand Rapids proper, Siri made us cross six lanes and a double-white line to take an exit that was clearly illegal, and then couldn’t find the way back onto 131. I’d had it. “You and I,” I told Christian, “are perfectly capable of finding our way around with a map. Everything in this town is within six blocks of this hotel. We do. Not. Need. The. GPS.” For the rest of the week—at least when I was with the family—we navigated by the seat of our pants. I looked at the buildings and got them straight in my head, and I took us between them to cut off walk time for the kids. Sometimes I got the wrong street. But we could always, always figure it out.

I tried for two days to figure out why this whole helpless-as-a-baby dependence on a GPS bugs me so much. Am I just being crotchety? Stuck in the mud?

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the more heavily you rely on the Magic Box, the less in touch with the world you are. You lose your sense of place in the world: east, west, upriver, downriver, a sense of “the hotel is in that general direction” and “it should take about five minutes to get back to where I started.” You end up following skywalks for half a mile when you could walk one tenth of a mile outside.

We don’t look at maps anymore, so we don’t really get a layout of a place or a route in our minds. We just turn right and left on command, because the stupid apps make it such a Thing to try to see the big picture. We lose that sense of short distance versus long distance, the ability to say, “Oh, there’s a road that runs next to Lake Michigan, roughly parallel to the interstate. We have time. Let’s just see where it goes. We’ll find a way to get back on the interstate somewhere up the line.”

The more you depend on your phone for ev.er.y.thing, the less you trust yourself to figure things out on your own. And then you just stop paying attention to the world around you. We are, collectively, badly out of touch with nature, because the Magic Box is the world where we really live.

Photo by Tim Harding, via Flickr

There was a blackbird nesting behind the convention center in Grand Rapids that kept dive-bombing people; the joke is still running among those of us who attended the NPM convention. It’s such a novelty, because in this one instance, nature refused to be ignored.

There’s something really empowering about going to a new place and getting the lay of the land, figuring it out, making it familiar. Being able to have a conversation with someone and they say, “Do you know where CitySen is? Just up the street from there.” And you can visualize it in your mind and be able to get there purely on the strength of your own spatial intelligence.

The smart phones are great tools. But they’re tools. I want to challenge everyone to turn the thing off periodically and use your own God given sense to find your way from point A to point B…if for no other reason than to remind yourself that you still know how.

Things I’m Loving Right Now

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Books:

A Marginal Jew. This is a series of four books, actually, and I’m on the second. They are dense reading, with the end notes to each chapter taking more space than the text, and it is ponderous and takes real mental effort to get through. Yet the level of detail in Meier’s analysis brings to light connections I’ve never seen before in the Gospels. Brace yourself for some heresy. 🙂 I’ve often felt like Jesus is kind of tiresome and deliberately obtuse in the way he talks (an impression that really is underscored this Easter, listening to the entire Last Supper discourse in John day after day after day after day). But as Meier sifts through history and context in order to determine what parts of things were actually said by Jesus, and which were later additions, he ends up distilling the essence of passages in a way that brings humor and emotion and exasperation to the front. It helps me see Jesus as, well, a real person.

The Language of Flowers. Just enchanting, and heartbreaking, and mesmerizing.

Music:

Love. This. Song.

Food:

Steel cut oats. (Thanks, Kelley!) With dark chocolate. Although I’m less than enamored of the way they overboil in the microwave.

Miscellaneous:

Manual Mode on my Canon Rebel. The pictures have so much character. They’re often not worth much, while I’m learning, but I’m newly cognizant of just how bland and generic that “auto” setting I’ve been leaning on is. I went out to the Pinnacles again this week. The last time I went, it was still late winter, and I hadn’t started playing with manual yet when I took the pictures for that slide show. Here’s a sample of this week’s pictures.

Blog 1
Blog 3
Blog 5 Blog 6

Blog 2(Can you guess which ONE of the above pictures was taken with the camera’s auto settings?)

My new novel. I am in love. Is it naiveté to whisper in my head that I really, really think this might be The One, at long last? Or is that still second-draft talking, before I hit the “love-hate” stage? The above song is my theme song for this book. And I’m using the Pinnacles for a setting. I just feel like everything is coming together. If I could sit down and work on it all day, I would be a happy woman indeed. But it’s probably fresher and more efficient because I have to stop and think. Stare at your own words too long and you start to get in love with the sound of your own prose. Distance helps me ask questions that need asking.

There are my happy places for this mid-May Friday morning. What’s making you happy today?

Early Spring in the Woods

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Photo by Milos Golubovic, via Flickr

I could swear I can hear the earth breathing in and out around me. The tiny sounds that I would attribute to rustling leaves, except there aren’t any leaves in the trees. Or to the drip of water from rock to rock, except it isn’t water dripping. It’s as if the thick carpet of dry leaves shifts, one click at a time, as somewhere, buried beneath it, the earth begins to push the new year out from within.

Two birds are singing to each other in turn, a falling call. C-B, calls one. A-G, responds the other. C-B. A-G. C-B. A delay, then A-G, almost on top of the next C-B. And then they sound together in faulty thirds.

The breeze picks up, and now it really is the rustle of dead leaves, still clinging stubbornly to branches, that whispers. A leaf taps against an adjacent branch. The birds have shifted. Part 2 in the duet has notched up a degree, as if trying to match pitch. C-B. B-A. C-B. B-A. And another shift, until they are a quarter tone apart. Part one drops a pitch, and they sing in unison.

The air spreads out all at once, like a muscle relaxing with a whoosh that can’t be heard or seen, only felt, spreading warmth across mossy rocks—dull brown-green and vivid lime-green. Across empty seed pods quivering in the breeze. Across fallen trees reduced to mahogany piles of sawdust. Across cedar trees growing from sedimentary rock, clinging to life by a thread. And across me, the lone intruder, sitting high on a hillside soaking in the sunlight.

Favorite Places: The Pinnacles

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All of a sudden, it decided to be spring. And on day one, I went out to commune with God in nature in one of my favorite places in the whole world.

I came here as a teenager with a youth group. I came here with my husband when we were first dating, and I swam in the creek. I came here and napped with nursing babies on a blanket in the shade. I have come here with a cousin and with children and with friends and most especially, again and again, by myself.

It’s not as quiet here as it was when I was a kid. Not since they built the four-lane. Then again, maybe my memories are skewed. I never realized, until I left the farm for college, how noisy the world beyond my haven is. But I know the spots where I can put the rocks between me and the highway and hear only running water.

The topography of this area is wild and unruly. It will never settle into the kind of organized beauty we usually prefer in our nature scapes. I love organized beauty, but something in this rambling, cluttered, ever-changing landscape speaks to me, reaches through the cluttered mess of my crazy life and strokes a heart-string deep inside, setting it to humming.

And so, in the middle of yet another crazier-than-it-should-be week, I pause to share it with you.

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I Got Nothin’

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I had two ideas for blog posts to enlighten and enrich your Monday morning, but one of them fell apart as I tried to pull the ideas together, and the other turned out to be so banal I recognized it even before I started writing.

So I thought I’d skim through the most recent batch of picture uploads for inspiration, and the result is a post full of cute pictures of Christmas tree hunting.

Hide n Seek

A Christmas Tree Farm is a great place to play hide and seek.

Up close & personal with creation...even if they are shaped and painted (!), as we discovered this year.

Up close & personal with creation…even if they are shaped and painted (!), as we discovered this year.

Love this shot.

Love this shot.

The Ponderers

The Ponderers. (Les Penseurs?)

And now, to demonstrate a principle of life, namely: You Will Never Get All Your Children To Pose For A Picture At The Same Time:

Illustration A

Illustration A

Illustration B

Illustration B

Illustration C

Illustration C

Cute? Check.

Deep and insightful? Not so much. But hey, I can’t be deep and insightful every day, can I?