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Heros

I think everyone needs hero’s.  Someone they look up to that inspires them and awakens them to dreams and desires in their heart that would lie dormant otherwise.  These people help us to link the gap between humanity and Divinity.  They cause us to see beyond what we would consider looking for and to try for what might otherwise be considered unattainable.  My hero is Bill Mason — a famous canoeist, painter and “environmentalist” (before that started to be a big thing.)  I have watched his film “Waterwalker” on NFB.ca about 50 times.  If you ask me why I love him so, I couldn’t even begin to explain it.  There are scenes I will watch a thousand times in that movie and it will always bring me to tears.  I’m not ashamed to say it, even though it makes no rational, worldly, logical sense whatsoever.

At the end of Waterwalker, Bill Mason is sitting by candlelight in his tent talking about faith and fear and he makes the statement “Sometimes I think we have forgotten how to walk on water.”  That statement alone holds myriads of meanings and possibilities for me.  In my life there have been so many times when I have almost given up- where hopelessness and fear – rejection and abandonment – illness and depression were more than seemed bearable.  Sometimes you need to face external life threats and “natural” dangers so that you are no longer able to see and hear the internal fears and threats.  Sometimes you have to be in a place where life and death are starkly obvious to eliminate the darkness and choking hazards of a toxic inner life.  People who haven’t had to deal with the demons of depression, abuse and trauma have no idea what it is like to need these outside “markers” of life and death.  Those markers set a concrete standard for reality; a physical measure of danger and safety.  I will lay in my tent at night and measure my fear of a bear against the fears of my past and then sleep like a baby.  I will grasp and claw my way along the wall of a canyon trail to reach a waterfall, glancing down every so often at the empty space below me– heart hammering in my chest — and feel the loosening grip of the night terrors I experienced while recovering from PTSD associated with childhood trauma.  Standing on a mountain of solid Canadian shield rock with Lake Superior thundering below me — I glance up at beacon of light slowly fanning out from the lighthouse above me and I think about what it means to feel truly safe and to have a beacon.  During the course of recovering and putting the past behind me, I have found many of these “beacons” and Bill Mason is one of a few whom I have clung to.  Over the years I have tried to emulate his gentleness, his respect for nature and his faith — in my own small ways.

In our farmhouse, here in the prairies and cornfields of southeast South Dakota, I have a painting of Cascade Falls on lake Superior.  It is a reproduction of a painting done by Bill Mason.  For years I have told myself that before I die, I want to visit that falls.  I want to see it with my own eyes.  It doesn’t matter why it is so important to me, but it is.  Last week I was able to take that trip:  A trip to the one of the most remote shorelines in the world.  Lake Superior is a cold and dangerous lake – an inland sea – and not one I would paddle in an open canoe.  Should a person tip over in the water, they have less than 10 minutes before losing function of their arms and legs.  In an hour you would die from hypothermia.  The solution was a water taxi from Heron Bay to Cascade River in Pukaskwa National Park, Canada.  We were scheduled to leave on Monday morning at 5 a.m. But a storm blew in the night before churning the big lake into a writhing, heaving white and green monster.  We stayed over at Neys Provincial Park and took a day to explore the beaches there.  The fog and rain created a surreal environment and the historical significance of the area made it a great place to lay over and explore.

The Chosen Rose

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come into my garden” at dusk she whispers

fervent twilight prayers moves tenderly

through gates of steel takes his hand in hers

 

upon smooth stones with bare feet tread

softly down the perfumed path amongst

blossoms radiant white and glowing crimson red

 

would you choose one?” she bids him seek

his fingers graze silken petals growing blushed

dew drop tear bejewels her wondering cheek

 

chosen rose he longs to hold her gently clasps

whence pierced by beauties thorns withdraws

open palm from stabbing pain involuntarily gasps

 

doleful gaze beckons he follow further still

beyond the bed of roses into an orchard fair

wiser for his wounds and yet she captivates his will

 

beneath the weighted boughs of fruit abundant sweet

branches break with harvest ripe remaining out of reach

stirs desire to pluck and taste what neither dares to eat

 

in fullness life expectancy “is it good?” she breathes

nectar from her lips first kiss his heart lies siege

allure of joy transcendent hunger fruitfulness intrigues

 

sudden ache as he recalls the garden of the first

where banished two share fruit forbidden and he toils

for it is written “all your days the ground is cursed”

 

darkness falls covers all with the shade of night

song of dove floats on chill breeze trembling damp

blades of dew drenched grass shine in pale moon light

 

naught shall be their reprieve from heat of fiery needs

her rescue and his burning thirst drive them to the deep

heart of secret garden to a cistern where she pleads

 

will you remove this seal?” haunting pools in her eyes

danger cracks precious pride with task he should not risk

from covered well echo sounds of distant child’s cries

 

wavers he upon that place casting glance toward open gate

to break the seal might save the child who mourns within the pit

thirst once slaked the stone removed would still seal his fate

 

for beauty would I dare to bleed and mystery never cease

to labor though my life in ardent sweat be steeped

nor from this battle shall I flee while tears ravage they peace

 

yet should I open now this well pursue the one that’s lost

my thirst abated too therein but sadly ne’er return again

what would you that I do for you at such a grievous cost?

 

for lest our love in Eden grew it simply can not be

that blood nor sweat nor tears would cease

nor set the garden of they heart from thorns and toil free

 

many years I’ve wandered in this garden questioning

was this place not glorious and worthy of inhabiting and

asked I not for anyone to banish pain or wholeness bring

 

others too have come and gone their absence still I grieve

’twas not from thorns sweat of brow or battle fierce they fled

when strength proved not enough did they make haste to leave

 

love grows roses without thorns gives to eat from any tree

a fountain there bursts forth with life and we shall thirst no more

love not strength brings this to pass.

 

Will you stay with me?”

 

 

Rivers and Relationships

“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.” ~ Pooh’s Little Instruction Book inspired by A.A. Milne

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Henry David Thoreau wrote that “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” I wholly agree with Thoreau’s observation but I love a river! If a lake lets you measure the depth of your nature, it is a river that defines it. If a lake is the earth’s eye – her rivers are her voice.

Much of my childhood was shaped playing in the bends and under the bridges of Little Turtle creek in the heart of South Dakota. I watched her swell in the Spring rains, engulfing the old wooden bridge on the dirt road south of our farm. I watched her dwindle away- tired and subdued in summers when the heat and droughts took hold. Season after season I wandered there, inhaling the fragrant blossoms of the wild prairie roses wafting on the evening breeze. I tried my best to catch crawdads and build small rafts out of twigs and leaves. Mostly I listened. I would listen as the voice of the creek would gurgle and coo poetically beneath me while I watched from the iron rails of the bridge. The river was speaking life to the gentle rolling prairie hills. Speaking life – and peace – to me.

Since that time I have grown more and more fond of rivers. To my mind, there is nothing more blessed than the babble of a brook. Nothing is more calming than the cool caress of a creek on hot, dusty, bare feet or a dry spirit.

It is one thing to sit near a river or stream or to wade in and out of it or to fish from its banks. It is quite another to pledge yourself to her in the form of a canoe trip. I never perceived how very much like relating to people is like relating to a river until I went canoeing. Each time I set my canoe into the current of a new river, that “ka-sploosh” sound signals something in my heart: Anticipation. A tinge of worry. A commitment to trust. An understanding to cooperate. Hesitation. Decision. Exuberance. It’s all there, mixed up and churning like the waters in the path of my oar as I point the bow downstream and wait to see how the partnership will play out.

Rivers and Relationships: It’s a perfect metaphor actually. As I pause to consider it, God used it Himself in a book He wrote about a River of Life. New rivers and new relationships pose many questions. Will they be good to me? Will the current be strong or gentle? Can the river carry me and all my stuff or will I have to portage a lot? Will it be rocky underneath the waters – or smooth? You can never guess. One thing is certain though; once you “put in” there is no turning back. Only in the end will you be able to answer those questions. As the relationship between you and the river (or person, or God) evolves along its course you will find your nature being redefined and shaped. You will learn how much you can love and what you love most. You will discover the degree of respect you brought with you to the experience. Your fears will be uncovered. Before all is said and done, you might wonder to yourself, “Do I really need this?” But if you abandon her– will you return again? Will you love more than you fear?

I had to answer these questions for myself at the end of last summer. If canoeing is my metaphor for relationships then there are a lot of actual events that happened to me on rivers bearing an uncanny resemblance to my personal relationships.

I’ve sat on a lot of river banks pulling stickers out of my bare feet. Sometimes the river is possessive and she punishes you for trying to get out.

I’ve waded waist deep next to my canoe trying to sneak by a bull in the river, or around a log jam. Obstacles are almost a given.

I have lamented the prospect of endless portages, my heart sinking to the riverbed with each sickening grind of rocks or sand dragging my canoe to a standstill on the river bottom. In some relationships you end up doing all the work!

I have had to claw my way up the steep bank of a river, dazed and dehydrated, to walk half a mile through a desert and ask to be rescued. In utter exhaustion and with resignation I watched while a Native American cowboy, smoking a cigar, hauled my canoes out of a river, up a 15 foot embankment with a lariat rope. It wasn’t the rivers fault. I knew I couldn’t go any further. Sometimes you just aren’t aware what you are getting into.

I’ve been flipped out of my canoe by rivers. I’ve been run aground. I’ve cursed her coldness and her heat. Her shallowness and her unpredictability.

And I have tried to cut a lot of deals with God in my tent at night.

August 2007; Big Sioux River

“Dear God, Don’t you listen to the weather forecasts? It was supposed to be clear and mild tonight! Zero percent chance of precipitation. I checked on that before I left home! So why this sudden storm– (lightening bolt explodes a tree on the riverbank opposite of us) Wow that was close!!! You know I like thunder and lightening but this is insane. We’re going to die out here. I’m sure You noticed we are lying at the edge of the water next to a large metal canoe under a tall tree? Ok. That was disrespectful. I’m sorry. Please don’t smite us with lightening. I promise I’ll live better. I’m sorry for all of that stuff I said to You earlier about not meddling in my life. please meddle! Get us out of here alive and I’ll be more respectful?”

July 2007; Cheyenne River

“Dear God, Please forgive me for canoeing on the Cheyenne River. I know it’s July and it’s always warm, but 114 F? C’mon? There’s no shade out here! Yes, I suppose I did see all of the dead trees at the river’s edge before we put in. I’m so tired from portaging. Yes. I guess the water seemed a bit shallow and warm when we launched. I just thought it would get better once we got going. Remember earlier when the sand flies were tearing our skin off? Is that some kind of new plague? And now the wind is so violent it is flattening the sides of my tent into my face. If the wind wasn’t howling so, perhaps that other sound wouldn’t be so terrifying… what is that? Coyotes for one.. but something else. Another sound, like a woman screaming or crying is piercing the dark. I know it’s a mountain lion. Please get me out of this God-forsaken place! I’m sorry I’m so stubborn. I should have paid attention to the warning signs – the smell of burnt earth filled my nostrils when I stepped out of the Jeep this morning. I hesitated. But I should have turned back. I should have swallowed my pride and respected this land and this river more. I wasn’t prepared. Forgive my stupidity. Please get my children and I out of here safely? Please deliver us. Save our lives.”

September 2007; Voyageurs National Park

“Dear God, I’m sorry to bug You about this again, but I’m sure I saw bear poop when we were hiking earlier. Could You please keep the bears out of our camp and away from my tent? I know earlier today my friend said “thank you” to Mother Nature for the beautiful day that we had. I thought it was a beautiful day too but I didn’t say thanks to You at all. That was rude. I’m sorry about that. Please keep the bears from bothering us and I promise I’ll be more grateful.”

After sharing my canoe misadventures with our neighbor, he laughed and shook his head in wonder and disbelief before telling me, “I don’t think God wants you to go canoeing.”

I thought about that for a while. It did seem like everything was against it. No canoeing?

I guess the rivers would still be there. I could see them and listen to their voices but not have to take the real risks. Relationships with rivers… well, relationships involve risk. Period. I knew what I wouldn’t miss but what would I miss?   What could I possibly not live without?

Sometimes I think it is the beauty that keeps me coming back for more. More often I think it is the suspense. Not knowing how things will turn out or what I will have in me to face the good and the bad is the essence of adventure.

How could I pass up the opportunity to share a moment of delight with my daughter as we turn a bend in the Vermillion river and set a herd of deer to flight? Oh how I would miss the beauty of fall leaves on the Cottonwood trees convening overhead, making a narrow tunnel where we paddled on Brule creek. There was also the majestic sight of a bald eagle as it soared effortlessly ahead of our canoe on the Big Sioux River. The surprise of witnessing the currents power as it reshaped the landscape right before our eyes when an entire river bank – ten feet high- broke off and fell into the river creating a tidal wave behind us that crashed on the opposite shore. There was the velvet dome of night sky arching overhead, bejeweled with stars that we pondered in silence while a driftwood fire kept the autumn chill out of the air. And as harsh as she was, there was no prettier sunrise than on the Cheyenne river: The glint of morning sun coloring her waters a shade of rose opulence scintillating into the rugged bluffs of the Reservation. I can’t imagine not having had the thrill of watching horses stampeding next to us on the high bluffs of the Cheyenne and curiously looking down at us as we played in a pool of water and ate our lunch. No, I could never believe that God didn’t want me to canoe. Nor could I believe that He would not want us to take the risks that relating involves. “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal… The only place outside Heaven where you can be safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” (C.S. Lewis)

In any instance when I choose to be safe rather than to let my heart risk loving someone that may or may not care for me, I have chosen a facet of hell. Following rivers has taught me that we choose our heavens and our hells right here. Right now. Every time we turn out back on someone who has wanted or needed our love because we were too afraid to work it out – we forfeit some part of heaven. How do we know what we have chosen so far?   Have we been patient, kind, forgiving, fair, honest, full of faith? Have we hoped, believed and endured ‘through every circumstance’? (NLT 1 Cor. 13:7)

In all of the relationships where I have loved and lost perhaps the blame falls to me. I know in every case it was because of some fear on my part that I drove them to finally “quit” me. I became their Cheyenne River. My heart was as cracked and parched as Little Turtle creek in a drought year.

I have struggled so much to be loved. Now I wish only that I had all that I needed inside me to be able to love without being loved in return. I would be braver. And more gentle. I would never give up. There’s no doubt that I could have tried harder to work things out. I’m not sure I could if the other person no longer wants things to work , but I did try to leave it open ended. Somehow I tried to communicate that a loss of relationship would break my heart. Sometimes with words and often in streams of tears, I have tried to say, “You’re beautiful – You’re amazing.” I wanted you to know it. I’m sorry if you didn’t. Song writer Patty Griffin wrote, “You can’t make somebody see, with the simple words you say — all their beauty that’s inside. Sometimes they just walk away…”

If they walk away, then there is nothing more, for this time, that can be done about it. I carry them in my heart though. My life, all my years and friendships stretch out before me like the twisting, winding ribbon of a great river. Indeed, each of our lives is a river; flowing into the river of Life and on still further into the great ocean of God’s mercy and grace. All things will become one. We will know all, be known by all, and be reconciled to all. Every voice will be joined in one chorus without fear. But we must “put in” here and now. Doing our best and striving towards that shining horizon.

“Each of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question, “We are willing to help Lord, but what – if anything – is needed?” though it’s true we can seldom help those closest to us.   Either we don’ t know what part of ourselves to give or more often than not the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely without complete understanding.” (from the movie, “A River Runs Through It”

“Maybe fear can vanish before love. Oh God, don’t let this love be denied. Cause I know the river is deep. I found out the currents are tricky. And I know that the river is wide and oh, the currents are strong. And I could lose every dream I dreamt that I could carry with me. But I will reach the other side. Please don’t let me have to wait too long.” (Rich Mullins~”The River”)

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Conversation with an X therapist

My apologies in advance for the profanity and cynicism in this post.  I wrote it a long time ago and I post it now because I think others will relate to it and I want them to know that it is possible to move past this.  It’s not a good place to be.


Conversation with an X-therapist:

Me: “I have a hard time with relationships.”

Him: “I guess it all comes down to that ‘T’ word.”

(long pause)

Me: (venturing a guess) “Try harder?”

He laughs.

Him: No not “try harder”. TRUST.

Well that didn’t work out. (He got sued for his counseling “practices” but not by me.   Instead, I wrote scathing journal entries about it and quit therapy.)

May 14, 2001

The “Double Bind”. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. How many times have I found myself in that predicament? People put me in this bind. I put myself in it. And I believe God puts me in it. And from there… the bottom line is trust?

I trust no one. I don’t trust what’s said to me and I don’t trust what I hear. I don’t trust what I think and I don’t trust what I know. Nothing and no one can be trusted. Nothing and no one is safe:

Not me.

Not you.

Not God.

I can only do what I know how to do – do it as much and as hard as I can, and that is all I can trust to be “true”. My performance.

And of course it has to be perfect.

Do you hear my anger? It’s there in the words I scream when my performance is challenged. What if what I can do for you is not good enough?

So I rage: “Is it perfect now?! Is it?! Because I want it to be fucking perfect!”

Oh if you could taste the venom behind those words.

It is NEVER perfect.

It is always a struggle.

I am so tired.

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My Favorite Poem

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*This has to be the best thing that was ever written by anyone.  Ever.  I am sure I’ve read it a 1000 times.

The Shulammite by Jacob Fichman

You are the Shulammite.

A bird forgotten in a vineyard;

a heart that flowered in a desolate land.

And lost among the spicebearing mountains,

heartsick, you seek your lover.

Are you so overwrought because

your brothers shamed you?

So hurt because the shepherds sneered at you?

You only, with your innocent charm, like a sword,

split the heart of the world.

You are loved.

Sunday School

I’ve heard all about You.

I know the things you do.

They preached it from the pulpit

And way back in Sunday School.

How awesome You are…

Worlds exist at Your command

How powerful and righteous –

Life and Death are in Your hand.

Perfect judge of right and wrong,

Victorious reigning King.

Mighty Lord of Heaven and earth

Whose eyes miss not a thing.

The singers, they sang, “Holy! Holy!”

And the preacher pled, “Repent!”

And all of us, sick-hearted, broke-

Grew shame faced; learned to lament.

Oh God, it’s true – I should believe.

You’re who they say You are.

Still I long to find a place where Fear

No more my thoughts can mar.

A place where bruised reeds

Are not crushed.

A place where churning souls,

Sad cries are hushed.

Well, I’ve never seen this on a flannel board

Or heard it taught during VBS;

But when I picture Jesus, He holds me

Like a lamb close to His chest.

He never says I don’t belong or asks me

First to pass some test.

He simply, gently pulls me close and whispers,

“Come here, child.

Come find your rest..”

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Inside

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August 2000

INSIDE

(My response to someone commenting on my lack of ability to make eye contact.)


Please don’t look at me.

I’m not what you think you see.

There’s less here than you can believe.

I can’t look at you.

My eyes might not lie…

They might just reveal

that thing my soul needs most

To conceal.

Over there.  Not here.

Here is too close.

Look where I’m looking –

There’s your safe place.

Watch me from a distance

While I guard this space.

I know that you feel like

You’re missing something now –

But there is nothing to miss.

There is nothing where

You would look anyhow.

It is best this way.

Perhaps you will imagine well.

Better, it is, for you to believe

There was something there–

Than to look and see

There was nothing at all!

And if you looked and you saw

There was nothing to see –

Don’t you see?

That is why I hide.

You can pretend there were

Great and Beautiful things–

If you could see them–

Inside.

Building Joy

8

About 10 years ago my life nearly ended over a catastrophic outcome of a counseling relationship.  (Another person being counseled by this same individual actually sued them and won the lawsuit.  I couldn’t pursue the same course due to my overwhelming feelings of abandonment and betrayal about what this Christian counselor had done.)  In the middle of the fall-out I met another individual who became a very good friend.  He rescued me from the dysfunction of that former relationship.  He filled a place of a father and loved and supported me through a long and painful recovery.  He remains a close friend of our family to this day.  But it hasn’t always been easy!  This person challenges me on a level that I could have never anticipated.  In the summer of 2006 during a tour of Nebraska I made the following entry into my travel journal:

July 14, 2006

Traveling with a person who has Asperger’s is a little like trying to outrun a tornado.  You aren’t supposed to even try!  The whirlwind of words and queries, the incessant swirl of chaos and randomness of direction which pushes the conversation at once here and then again over there, the impulsivity and distraction sweeping across my mind in a twisting cloud of loose connections and illogical conclusions.  I don’t know weather to laugh or cry.  I suppose we are all an enigma of certain proportions to others but I really can’t figure out what makes him tick.  There are no roads through his wilderness and the wind is free to play.

We’ve covered a good part of Nebraska and I keep turning up the stereo in the suburban hoping to drown out the roar of the cyclone in the seat next to me.  The words of the song playing on a CD suddenly strike a chord in my heart. As I listen I can feel my eyes cloud over with emotion.  “If I can hold on through the tears and the laughter… will it be beautiful?  Or just a beautiful disaster?”  On the basis of previous relationship trauma and attachment issues, I have awarded myself a PhD in predicting relationship failures (PHD=Perpetually Horrified of Desertion).

Wow.  Relationships are so complicated!

Hmmm.  I laugh to myself a little when I write that word:  wow.

He says it all the time.  “Wow.”

It doesn’t matter much to me what it is: a dead tree.  A leaning barn.  A gray sky.  The name of a roadside gas station.  Ants on an empty pizza box.  A blade of grass.  The hills of Nebraska that have seemed monotonously repetitious for the past 3 days.   Rocks, chocolate, coffee, chips, sand, brick roads… Anything and everything seems to elicit the expression, “wow”.

For some reason it angers me.  I don’t want to stop for another picture.  Food doesn’t taste that good.  We’ve seen sunsets better than this one.  Why am I so angry?!

Anger.  That’s a complex thing.  I think it’s him, always “ooh-ing” and “ah-ing” over every little trivial thing.  But it’s not.

It’s me.

I’m angry because I’ve become so disenchanted.  I’ve lost my sense of “wow”.  Where did it go?  Why did everything used to enthrall me and now nothing does?  I’m sorry because I used to love so much and now – ?   Now I do what I think I would have done when I used to love.

I want back what he seems to have retained despite all of his struggles to communicate and structure the world around him.  I want the child-like sense of wonder that compels him to stop tearing down camp to kneel and investigate a busy colony of ants blazing their own trails across last nights picnic table. I want to feel desire again; to be awed by grass and clouds and tiny insects and LIFE.

We make camp at lake Calamus, and I repent of my cynicism as the world is baptized in the golden glow of the setting sun.  Running on the beach, catching turtles and photographing the moon over the Sandhills I begin to accept and appreciate that whirlwinds can not be put on a course.  After all, God appeared to Job in a whirlwind – and if it is a form that God can take perhaps I should try to hear Him speaking to me from within my own personal cyclone.  There are other moments that will clear the way for joy and celebration:  Hiking around Willow lake, savoring chocolate covered cherries in the Omaha Old market, putting up hay at our farm, tearing down an old shed, poking around the river bluffs for fossils, stuffing our faces with pizza on the way out of Pierce, coming to a screeching stop to get a photograph of a broken windmill or a shaded lane flanked by cottonwood trees.

At the end of the day, the cumulative effect of these moments of joy is powerful.  Like tiny leaks in a massive dam or streaks of sunshine that manage to peep through a storm gray steel sky – joy comes – penetrating my fortress of unfeeling.  Knocking at my door of safety.  Beckoning me to pull back the deadbolt of mistrust.

A Safe Place

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The wind blowing in the prairie grass

is like the sound of the whisperings

of a thousand angels’ fervent prayers.

I love to stand there, absolutely still,

and listen to the breeze move

in waves across a sea of grass.

Sometimes I find a place where a deer has lain down

— hidden away and sleeping;

so I lie there too and I imagine

I know what the deer knows:

that I am in a secret place.

I am safe.

Migrations

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“How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing, it is irresistible.” ~C.S. Lewis

Friday, March 16, 2007: Gibbon, Nebraska

I cut out of work early today. Struck by another irresistible case of wander lust. I left at 2 p.m. with my little red cooler packed full of strawberries, summer sausage, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and my favorite treat: a Green and Black dark chocolate candy bar with Hazelnut and Currants.

The sound of hundreds of thousands of Sandhill crane’s wings fanning the air over my head as the sun set, crimson and mauve over the Platte river was exactly what I needed. I arrived at the Platte river late in the afternoon. It seemed the birds wouldn’t come that evening. I had driven for four and a half hours in steady two-lane traffic against a raging wind. I hadn’t seen a single crane the whole way.

When I arrived at Gibbon, I hid myself in some reeds at the river’s edge where a thick cloud of tiny black flies rapidly descended on me. I sat in the mud wondering, “Did I come all this way for nothing?” Before the sun had set, the cranes came– swooping in from everywhere, filling the air with their haunting calls.

There are things about life’s pilgrimage that confuse and deter me. But one thing I have learned: I have decided that beauty and mystery are a salve for sorrow. Creation is holy. To be alone in it – to pass through it with your eyes and ears wide open – is to drink from an eternal spring of renewal. With the quenching of our spirit’s thirst there come an imbued sense of largeness, solidarity, grandness and peace.

Life can not always be full of doing and arriving. Our hearts implore us to take them down paths we have not traveled before ..to simply wander…and when we do we cannot help but exalt the God who makes all things beautiful and places us among His creation as His crowning joy.

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St. Patrick’s Day 2007 (Day 2 of Sandhill Cranes trip)

I woke up every hour during the night anticipating the alarm I had set for 5:15 on my cell phone. I arrived at the viewing area well before dawn surprising myself with my inability to have noticed it the night before when I was sitting in the rushes! I did at last manage to arrange my tripod and camera and join the other spectators staring across the Platte river. Not being a morning person, I had wondered if this early viewing was really worth the extra effort. As it turned out, I was humbled to find out I had been in entirely the wrong place at the wrong time yesterday. If I had turned around to go back home last night thinking that I had seen all there was to see, I would have missed one of the greatest things that can happen to us in this life; the surprise of finding something to be more marvelous than expected.

It is so easy to stop expecting wonderful things. The temptation to not show up is tremendous. We don’t know what we should be looking for. So we restrain our hearts from having to bear the weight of suspense and possible disappointment. I would rank the spectacle of this mornings uprising of the cranes from the sand bars as one of the most breathtaking events I have ever had the pleasure to witness.

Has anyone has ever questioned what God’s favorite song is? What is that holy “hum” or divine melody that all of the redeemed will utter compulsively at the sight of His majesty? I believe it may resemble this song:

The song of a thousand songs to the percussion of wings beating on the morning air combined into what I only know to describe as a “sacred scream”. That moment in time when no individual notes can be heard. The low and the high voices – the trills and staccatos all melding together to form one penetrating, feverish, soul piercing cry: HOLY!

We don’t know this song yet. Or perhaps we knew it once and we have all forgotten it. but when the rush of wings is heard, that which is deepest in us will be called forth.

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March 14, 2008 Canada Geese Migration

I’ve never known how to deal with obstacles. Religious people always think that obstacles and things or people- all pawns of the devil –will rise up to oppose you when it is definite that God has called you to do something. Satan the great sabatoger. However – I’ve never learned to distinguish between being attacked by Satan or being told by God that the proverbial door is closed. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do if Balaam’s ass was blocking my path. Do I rebuke an enemy or beat the ass?? I’ve encountered a few such obstacles to writing and photographing this portion of my story. Driving to work last week I wrestled in my heart with the value of the words I had penned. Maybe God had nothing to do with my so-called spiritual thoughts. Or maybe my doubts were a so-called “attack” of a spiritual enemy. I struggle with the sense of being alone in an endeavor that feels so eternally significant.

Gazing off into the horizon I watch as an immense flock of snow geese emerges from a blue mist over the Missouri River and my heart emerges from its own mist of longing. The geese continue in formation in their Northerly direction towards me. I fix my eyes on the goose at the point of the “V” as she strains forward. Wings beating strong and constant. Neck outstretched. Voices calling to each other -resonating on the morning air. When I think of the miles they will cover – not alone- but together, and the reason they do it, because they are meant to so that they can endure and push on. Together. The fog of confusion in my heart condenses into large teardrops. I recognize that there is something grand and mysterious about that compulsion that God puts in His creatures so that they know to pursue that …something. It is something that requires everything from them and yet fulfills and perpetuates their species.

In contrast, I witness on my morning drive, a solitary goose. Domesticated. She stands near the road at the end of the driveway to a farm where she is dependant to be fed. She will never take to the sky in heroic flight like her wild counterparts. Indeed; she can not. The age-old compulsion, inherent in all wild geese, that tells them they are part of a great collective journey: a life-giving journey; that knowing is buried under layers of corn-fed fat and clipped feathers. She is a tame goose without need of a flock or field. She can’t even feel in her breast the thing that wild geese feel that tells them to rise up at dawn and go a specific direction for 200-500 miles a day.

Sometimes I think that domesticated goose is me. Sometimes I believe it’s the church. More though, I believe it is all of our materialistic society. America. We are fat, corn-fed, visionless, grounded and have no need of one another. My thoughts return to the stories I’ve written and my hopes and ideals for relationships. In spite of all of the obstacles I feel something rise up inside me in anger and defiance. Like some part of me believes I can make things work if I ignore the problems and questions. Watching the wild geese migrate I suddenly understand that this desire to share the stories and to call for truth and commitment in relationship is my migration sense. I am called to it. It is a particular thing inside me that says : “Yes! Get up and go do this. See it before you and let your whole being, your heart, will and spirit be bent towards it.” It’s not a thing that has to be told from outside. It is not a thing which I must encourage myself to do. I feel I must. I feel I cannot live unless I do. I feel like the doing of it is in fact life. it gives me life and I put life back into it. It perpetuates me and the life God put inside of me. But what if God isn’t in it? I want Him to be but I may not be able to sort that out at the time. Absolutes are not worth waiting for and are often wrong. I must go with what I have. The stories and experiences, the doubts and fears and the vision of what could be. It’s not all perfected or purged of self-centeredness and ego. The wheat and chaff exist together. But that is not my business. I must go with what I have and ask God to use it, advance it, or thwart it as He sees best. Wild birds do not ask if they should migrate. They just go. Maybe the stories are only for me. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I need to do what is in my heart. In my heart I believe I am supposed to finish this story at the Platte river and God will show me why.

March 31st, 2008 (My second year photographing the Sandhill crane’s migration.)

There have been times when I have used the word “holy” and not completely understood it. I have to admit that it is a word often used in the wrong context which has made me bristle. To hear some speak of holiness immediately conjures up ideas of severity, discipline, perfection and sinlessness. The essence of it, to me, had always been, an unattainable state of being which was a requirement for my acceptance before an omniscient Judge. Frustrated by this kind of life and thinking, I gave up striving for holiness as I understood it. As a result, I think that some of the church and maybe some of my family think I’m lost.

I am not lost though. I am on the back roads. I have decided to take the long way home.

I’ll get there though! I’m sure of it now. I had let religion tell me I wasn’t holy. I couldn’t have believed it was possible for me to be holy until God showed me what it meant on the Platte river sleeping with cranes.

As a photographer you hope for all of the perfect conditions. You want the light in just the right place and the cooperation of your subjects. You are meticulous about your equipment and willing to sit and wait or to try again and again and again for the chance to capture a moment that has captivated your heart. It is an art and a science. It is almost impossible to do it perfectly and yet I derive infinite pleasure in simply trying.

The night that I stayed on the Platte river, the conditions for photography were dismal. It was overcast, dull and colorless. The North wind was gusting and making my eyes water which in turn created enough moisture and warmth to fog up the viewfinder on my camera. I took what pictures I could and then sat back and enjoyed the escalating symphony of crane wings and crane songs as the birds flew in from the nearby corn fields and congregated on the sandbars. At dark I crawled into my sleeping bag believing the experience was over until dawn the next day.

The Blind

I had visitors in the night. The first was a mouse I assume. I didn’t actually see him but he made his presence known by stealing a corner of my beef stick and then hoisting the remaining package onto my head. After being made aware of this late night heist I had much difficulty getting back to sleep. On the other side of the thin plywood wall I hear bird sounds: A soft, quiet chortle, distinct and astonishingly close. Cautiously I wriggled out of my three sleeping bags and peeked through the window. More visitors! My breath caught as I saw a mass of silvery gray bodies bedded down next to my tiny shack in the reeds at the river’s edge. I felt frozen in time. I could have reached my hand out and stroked one of their feathers, they were so close. Their bodies were all touching, with no ground visible between them. It was very dark and yet a meager light from somewhere, diffused by the fog, was creating a surreal effect on that throng of shimmering feathers and curled necks. it was an unspeakable beauty. Upon seeing it I felt myself grow weak- nearly delirious with joy – and unable to move with the shock of their nearness. I remained spellbound- transfixed to the spot for a few seconds before I started to wonder if I could somehow “keep” this moment and I began to fumble for my camera. I moved very slowly, in micro-movements, toward my camera bag. when my fingers found the zipper in the dark I stopped. How would I go about my 4×8 foot plywood blind setting up the tripod and changing the lens without making a sound? How would I even press the shutter release button without alarming them? Even if I managed all of that, the light from the LED would give me away in an instant. As these thoughts started to take shape, a crane turned its head toward me. I drew back further into the dark and gently replaced the hinged window in the closed position. Kneeling in the center of the shed, I put my hands on my knees and bowed my head. I was calculating. “I want that picture.” I thought to myself. I started to feel frustration and a hint of disappointment. Wasn’t I supposed to “be the photographer” and come up with a way to “capture the moment”? The soft vocalizations of the birds and rustling in the grass brought me back to the present and I opened the plywood window once more. This time when I looked out into the dark I became aware of a third, unseen Visitor.

God was with us.

In a section of the Platte river designated as a sanctuary for Sandhill Cranes, my photo blind had come to represent the Holy of Holies for just that moment. Through that experience He was showing me exactly what holiness was. I didn’t desire to move. I scarce dared to breathe.

Once I accepted that I wasn’t going to get a photograph of that moment, there were no ‘works’ left to perform. With that realization I felt a sudden wash of relief and purity of being.

Me. God. And 400,000 Sandhill cranes. All resting in each other’s company on a sandy river bank. I needed to do nothing. In fact, doing anything would have detracted from the experience of being there. As a result of being there, my idea of holiness was re-defined. It was not about a meticulous performance or a flawlessly executed action. It wasn’t about being really, really good at something. It was about being really, really close to someone and not needing to take anything away from it at all. Holiness was about respecting the relationship between me and them and a healthy fear of not wanting anything to jeopardize our ability to remain close. Holiness is relationship in its purest, most selfless state.

Holiness is being all together in the nearest possible proximity with the heart transfixed by greatness and the will intent to do no harm and cause no dismay.

It should be pursued but it cannot be captured. “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness…without which no one will see God.” (Heb. 12:14 NKJV) It doesn’t mean that you are banished by God for living a sinful, imperfect life. I believe it means, if you aren’t able to let yourself be quiet before Him, how will you ever be able to see that He is there? It is we who prevent ourselves from being able to see Him. God does not prevent it nor does He desire to. By “quiet” I mean an absence of striving rather than a cessation of physical noise. We are not accustomed to this way and we have been told wrong. It feels unnatural and somehow unproductive. But at all costs one must find this way to God, to nature and to one another. Holiness is constraining in a sense but not in the sense I had formerly thought. When you find yourself in that place you will gladly give yourself to being held by it. It is surpassing wonder and captivating beauty. It is a moment of rapturous joy, free from all forms of taking. Holiness is not something, if we can begin to fathom it, that we would ever say to ourselves “I should work on being holy.” If you ever get a taste of it – to glimpse it for even a second – you would truly find it is, as C.S. Lewis stated, “Irresistible.”

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