Every summer crowds
escape to the lake
Every spring the lake
comes to see me.
It’s Saturday morning and laundry load #2 spins while I enjoy a tea latte and rays of sun. More chores require my attention, but they are content to wait, to allow this day to unfold purposefully and leisurely.
I scroll through some pictures on my phone, thinking that it is time to delete a few.
And this one stops me.
Not because it is particularly unique or stunning – it’s just a little hillside path from a brief bike-hike a few weekends ago. At the time what caught my eye was the contrast between angled green foreground and horizontal purple background.
What stops me today, however, is the unintended focal point of the composition, the juxtaposition of two trees – one dead, one alive. One black etching on a background of green. One skeleton on a hillside of life.
And then I realize that this unassuming snapshot is actually a perfect visual metaphor for living with loss. The grief doesn’t go away. It is always part of the picture somewhere.
But only a part.
The rest of the picture teems with life that keeps reaching for light and anchoring in steep rocky soil and waving and whispering in even the slightest breeze.
Just because death exists doesn’t mean that life stops.
And because life continues, sometimes we forget to acknowledge that for many there is a resident grief-tree. A photobomber of life moments.
But maybe, just maybe, the presence of grief makes all the green-ness of life that much more meaningful and rich and appreciated.
By grace alone.
It’s a new year and I’m thinking about snow. And not because it is actually snowing (intermittently) after several days of cold too brittle for freshly formed flakes. No, I’m thinking about snow because I like the way it covers and hides the Uglies: roadside litter, dead leaves, brown grass, brown everything. It creates a pristine white blanket that sparkles fresh and clean. A new year often carries that same sense of clean promise; I’m not fond of looking at last year’s Uglies.
It’s a new year and I’m thinking about snow because it not only hides and cleans, it reveals. The Uglies may not be currently visible, but my backyard is hardly a glistening untouched rendition of white Christmas dreamscapes. No, my backyard and beyond are riddled with evidence of lives lived. Thoroughfares, interchanges, exit ramps, fence-crossings, and assorted detours carved out by pointy-hoofed deer and moose would befuddle even the most skilled cartographer. A private frontage road runs along a section of the marsh berm, thumped out by some rabbit road crew. Teeny-tiny paths imprinted by a gazillion teeny-tiny mini-rodent toes form scurrying connections between shrubs and bulrushes. A meandering single track across the frozen marsh signals that a lone fox is on a hunger-prowl.
I’m ever so grateful that I do occasionally see some of the critters that inhabit my backyard and beyond, but the snow reveals how little I actually know about the nature of their presence, their comings and goings, their patterns of movement and hunting or foraging. Snow even reveals where they burrow for shelter or crater their beds.
I’m thinking about snow as a new year begins because I wonder what my last year would look like if it was etched out like the intersecting freeways that have pockmarked and crumpled the pristine covering of snow around my home. What would be my most worn pathways – worry? grief? love? Where did I burrow most often – in work? in front of a screen? in prayer? If someone was observing my ‘tracks’, what would be revealed about my priorities, my faith, my fears, my weaknesses, my integrity?
As we step into the pristine newness of this year and each day it contains, may we give careful thought to the paths for our feet. May we pause at this crossroad of time to look and ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and choose to walk in it. *
May I live in such a way that my comings and goings reveal a life surrendered to the Giver of life, Creator of snow, Sustainer of the millions of sunrises that we group into days and months and years.
* from Pr. 4:26 & Jer. 6:16
To the northeast hot dry winds breathe fury into a beastly fire that engulfs neighbourhoods and propels thousands toward safety and temporary shelter.
Only weeks later, slightly to the northwest, winds pummel heavy, sodden clouds, forcing them to release their payload in a pelting deluge that swells over banks and rips away roads and bridges.
Somewhere in the middle is where I live.
While the land around us felt the aching thirst of impending drought, we were far enough away to be spared the devouring hunger of the flames so devastating to our fellow Albertans. The storm, however, settled in on its haunches for three days, haphazardly pruning our trees, and pouring itself into every conceivable low spot. We were saturated, to be sure, but still only on the fringes of the real destruction an hours’ drive to the west.
Sometimes being in the middle provides a measure of safety.
Sometimes being in the middle, the in-between spaces of life, is messy and hard. “Middle-ness” is everywhere: between hope and despair, expectation and reality, idealism and practicality, past and future, here and there, beginning and end. I am a middle child, not the perfect middle usually associated with odd-numbered siblings, but a ‘middle’ none-the-less, sandwiched between an older brother and the sister next in birth order. Society classifies me as middle-aged – no longer young, but not yet a senior either. Sometimes it feels like the last twenty-odd years of my life have been lived in the middle –either in the middle of something really hard, or in the brief spaces between consecutive really hard things. The pattern has repeated so often that as I sit here still catching my breath from the last Hard Thing, I keep looking to the horizon for ominous signs of the Next Hard Thing. A perpetual middle-ness that has at times left me wary and weary. My soul resonates with Mark Hall when he honestly sings about living in the incongruous place between who we are called to be in Christ and the failure-ridden realities of the daily effects of sin – our own and others’.
Sometimes being in the middle is fertile space for growth and blessing. For those of us living in the more northerly climes, the middle of the year means summer warmth and green growing things – that important space between planting and harvesting. As a school teacher, these middle months also provide a pace of days not measured by bells and marking piles. What resonates most with my soul though is the fact that grace is also most at home in middle-ness – in that space between salvation and sanctification, though not wholly separate from either of them, it brings meaning and purpose to our existence here in the middle between what was and what will yet be. It sustains.
Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien was more insightful than imaginative when he wrote his epic saga of Middle Earth. Although my lived version is very different than his created one, I think there is a deep truth hidden in the reality of living somewhere in the middle. We were created for greater things, but live with the daily pull of the lesser. Earth is indeed only the middle ground, an in-between place where battles are fought and ground lost or gained, a place where hearts are broken and mended, a place where grace saves and sustains. Ultimate victory, healing, and sanctification await beyond the middle – beyond this messy, hard, humbling, redeeming process of becoming what God has already made a way for us to be.
Somewhere in the middle is where I live. With thankfulness – not the glib, trite, or even politely appropriate kind, but the kind that is fought for daily and arises out of submission to a Sovereign God – for what was, and is, and what will yet be. Sola gratia.
There is something about being on a mountaintop. Although I’ve never done anything that could even remotely be considered mountain climbing by aficionados of that pursuit, I have scaled a peak or two in my lifetime. There is something about a mountain that tugs at adventurous longings which everyday life tends to squeeze into some dark forbidden corner. Whenever I am within sight of a mountain, I find myself scanning its wrinkled, rugged face, searching for possible routes that would lead to ridges, meadows, or peaks from which the eye might feast uninhibited on vast expanses on all sides. In my ideal world, I would sit there for hours, just breathing it all in. In reality, such places are often cold and windy or replete with black flies and mosquitoes, so hours are usually truncated to minutes. But they are never forgotten.
This past summer on a backpacking excursion, my young companion and I hiked several kilometres from a high, glacier-carved valley up to a small cave. After a careful foray into the cool darkness of the cave, we scrambled our way to the top of the ridge above it. From there we had an unobstructed view of large portions of the valley below and a new perspective on the mountain peaks that rose to heights still far beyond our lofty perch. It was windy, but we lingered, heady with the exhilaration of the climb, the mystique of cave exploration, and the overwhelming majesty of our surroundings. How to put into words the way such moments permeate the soul and explode in worship of Creator God?
But mountaintops cannot exist without valleys, as every prairie-dweller who lives in the absence of both knows full well. On the same day that we sat spell-bound and worship-full, another friend received news that ripped her from what had been a mountaintop experience to the heart-squeezing depths of a breath-restricting, joy-eviscerating canyon. I don’t think I will ever forget the imagery created by the words she used to tell me of her pain – so vivid, visceral and raw, emanating from deep places within a wounded soul. My mountainside, ridge-top experience was quite literal, but her valley is no less real and the contrast between the two has been a source of pondering and reflection for me over the past few weeks…
Mountains and valleys are almost cliché metaphors for the vicissitudes, the victories and disappointments of life. We glory in one and abhor the other. Even though most of life is lived somewhere in the spaces between both extremes, it is these polar opposites that create the deepest emotions. Exhilaration and despair. Joy and sorrow. Hope and defeat.
As cliché as the metaphor may be, it is strong enough to make us long for, even actively seek out, the euphoria of the mountain. We feel alive in those moments; although describing its fullness seems beyond words, we know it is good.
Therefore, the valleys of life must be bad.
But there is something about valleys, too. From our perch above the cave, we looked down on the milky green waters of a glacier-fed lake nestled in a valley between mountains. Our hike up to the lake and then to the cave had largely followed along rivulets, streams and rivers that naturally fell into the lowest places of crevice and valley. Always going down, never up. Always carving even deeper into soil and rock.
And along the edges of these multiple waterways life flourished. Trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers. Rocks were there too, of course, but even then life sprouted from spaces in between wherever it could.
Contrast this with the mountains draped in snowy glaciers that surrounded us; barren regions either entirely void of growing things, or sparsely populated with only the most resilient lichens, mosses and short-blooming alpine flowers. As majestic as mountains are, it is only in the valleys where real growth is facilitated, where life can root deep and strong, where fruit can ripen and nourish others.
While the perspective from the mountaintop may renew me, may I be ever mindful of the lush growth that exists in the valleys and embrace this grace, too.
In response to my last post, Dan the Balloon Man told me that I had it all right, except that I forgot the part about the feeling of floating away into the freedom of the skies. Well, said I, since I was still very firmly planted on the ground as that balloon soared off into the evening sky, I was not exactly qualified to write beyond my perspective of the experience. Obviously not a very imaginative writer.
A few weeks later – a surprise and a chance to broaden my perspective. So here it is…
Treasured moments: the Sequel.
All hands release…the lift off is simple, understated, effortless. So gentle. Calm. Free.
The freedom of the launch is somewhat of an illusion, however. The vast azure sky-bowl quickly becomes the playing field for a game of wits. Today the players are well-matched.
In the basket, one hand, gloved in experience, rhythmically controls the fire which, contrary to its blasting, raspy harshness, results in graceful quiet ascent. The pauses between breaths become gradual descents. Like the chess king, this soaring majesty plays within its prescribed lines of movement.
Outside the basket, capricious winds, free to roam at will, play a mocking game of catch-me-if-you-can.
“Here we are! Down here!”
Yes, there they are indeed, loitering low over a marshy mirror. Catch them long enough to glide across…oh no! Gravity is interfering from the sidelines, threatening a watery dunk. Breathe hard, fire! Breathe long! Up! Up! Up!
Treetops slide by – reach to pick a leaf or two for luck. Reaching too far is bad luck.
Rising higher still provides an unobstructed view of the quilted landscape with its nuances of harvest colour that dissolve into hazy horizons. Like a child’s game of tag momentarily interrupted by some new discovery, the winds are forgotten as eyes feast on the handiwork below.
Straight, tidy road seams both join and separate patchwork crops: tractor-stitched standing wheat, corduroy-ribbed mowed canola, worn-velvet green pastureland, and French-knot embroidered hay bales. Free-form appliqué lakes, lagoons, and dugouts curve comfortably into various dips and hollows. Dark green windbreaks wrap protectively around tiny rectangular houses and barns… Gotcha!
Just like that the game is on again.
Zephyrs zig and zag, relishing the chase. Mischievously, they sometimes push from below but refuse to blow forward. So…let’s soar high, high, high to find a breeze too tired for games, but not so gusted out that it lacks navigational value. Airy voices whisper and play in hair as altitude slips by, but vanish completely at 4000 feet above sea level. Palpable stillness envelopes and holds close.
Hover here. Be still. Breathe gentle. Breathe it all in.
Treasure this moment, this perspective.
Another chase now ensues. Far below a truck with pairs of eyes and hands peers upwards, tracking, predicting, waiting. From above – more predicting, calculating, and out-maneuvering wind to find a safe place to return to terra firma. Perhaps the field punctuated with hay bales? Too far. The highway ditch? Hmmm… Maybe not. What about that nice green backyard by the white house? Who lives there? Who knows…but go ask if they mind having a giant balloon land in their back yard.
And who in their right mind would ever say no?!
The white house people don’t, of course. Just try not to hit my new trees, he says. The balloon people aren’t about to argue.
The landing is gradual, gentle, leisurely, enacting a slow pirouette and inviting a final panoramic view until the final airborne moments… one hand in the basket quickly tugs the red cord to let hot air escape high in the crown. Outside the basket, feet rush and hands grab dangling wooden handles and pull, pull, pull to bump gently down on green mowed lawn. Riders tumble out as mighty balloon lists and basket topples.
Graceful majesty flounders, engaged now in a silent struggle as remnant hot air pushes hard to rise against gravity’s leaden downward tug. Gravity wins. The many hands are back again…this time not to resuscitate, but to squish and squeeze and squelch every last breath of air until it lies once again limp, wrinkled, lifeless. How sad and seemingly cruel.
The community of hands reach wide, hug and lift fabric folds back into the canvas bag – stuffing, dragging forward until everything is safely in its resting place. Heavy basket and bulging bag are stored in bed of truck. They will wait quietly for another opportunity to billow into life and soar again…
But there is not silence among the helping, riding, or piloting hands. The balloonist’s celebratory ritual fills the evening air as everyone gathers around the tailgate – a recited prayer, a timeless story, a raised toast. Once-strangers, now gracious landing-hosts fill gaps in the circle. Laughter. Warmth. Camaraderie.
Walking reflectively home later, I feel like that listing balloon, floundering and yet fighting to soar above heavy earth-bound perspectives. So much down here blocks my view, limits my vision of the grander story and greater purpose of my two-footed shuffle along earthen paths of life. But I fight to soar, to live in rich and full awareness of the vast and eternal perspectives of a God who has made my life, as minuscule as it seems, an integral part of His vast redemptive handiwork. Grace upon grace. Hover here. Rest. Breathe it all in.