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Pilgrimage Day Two: Tears in the Desert

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If you’re prone tears as I am, you’ve got to expect that at some point on an eight-day spiritual pilgrimage in the desert, you’re going to dampen a few hankies. Especially when your one prayer for the pilgrimage is to open yourself to God. God is real and raw and authentic and takes no part in denial, false pride, or stiff upper lipping.

I see my emotions as part of who I am, gifts from God that help me understand what is going on in my soul and recognize areas in which I want to grow and heal. I used to stuff my emotions in a misguided effort to protect myself from pain, and then I tried simply hiding them so that I wouldn’t riffle anyone else’s pond. But now I’m a grown-up and allow myself to be fully me (mostly).

Mortification and Defeat

Nevertheless, I was mortified to find myself on the first full day of our pilgrimage, standing on a dusty trail in the middle of nowhere with ten virtual strangers, sobbing kindergarten tears onto a nearby shoulder. I knew none of these people and was pretty sure that none of them would want to know me after witnessing my wailing: “I’m so frustrated! I’m so tired of hurting!”

I had not been sure that I could make the hike, but thought I’d give it a try. Thrilled that I needed no cast on my recently fractured shoulder, I wanted to take full advantage of the beautiful surroundings at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. I’d taken care of myself and honored the limitations of my injured arm by skipping 7 a.m. body prayer yoga (always glad to have an excuse to smack the snooze button), and by resting after lunch, journaling and reading J. Brent Bill’s little Quaker book, Mind the Light.

Now I took a handful of Advil and responded to my father’s Texan voice in my head telling me to “Buck up! You can do this, you’re a Griffin.”

I laced up my hiking boots — a feat that would have been impossible just a week before — slung my daypack over my good arm, and headed to the trailhead to meet my fellow pilgrims. Our trip leader Tiffany had asked me to wear my arm brace for her own peace of mind and advised me to carry a walking stick for the steep trails.

I quickly fell behind the others, juggling my pack, stick, and clumsy brace. A sweet guy quoted some scripture about helping one another with our burdens and reached out to carry my pack. His kind gesture, coupled with my pain and the growing realization that I was already slowing everyone down, sapped my energy as surely as the altitude had sapped my breath.

When Tiffany said kindly, “I don’t think you should go on this hike,” I threw myself on her shoulder and moaned “I don’t either,” and the waterworks started.

I was face-to-face with my imperfection, my brokenness, my inability to do absolutely anything I put my mind to, and yes, my age (this trip being a sixtieth birthday present to myself). My familiar mantra, “I should be able to…” was crumbling like the red sandstone cliffs that surrounded us.

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Even rock cliffs crumble

Letting Go

That morning we had begun our main work of the pilgrimage, looking at the cycles of call — the phases and transitions in life — and reflecting on resistance and the need for release. What’s holding you back, and what do you need to release in order to move into the next calling in your life?

“What needs to break is often our competence,” warned our pilgrimage leader Marjory, clearly prophesying my afternoon breakdown. “Call often comes after suffering.” Moses had lost everything before he was “called” by a burning bush in the desert, and Jesus spent forty days in the desert suffering trials and temptations before he was ready for his earthly ministry.

The desert is a great place for suffering. It’s a harsh place, a place that reminds us of our mortality. Droughts, razor sharp foliage, whipping winds, and killing sun. One doesn’t look to the desert for mercy.

No mercy here

No mercy here

Now I headed back the way our group had come, my broken competence stowed in my daypack and my broken shoulder throbbing. I turned to watch the other scrambling up the rocky trail and felt humiliation and defeat.

Desert Mercies

After I’d walked a while, I sat down by a narrow creek and took my water bottle out of my pack. As I leaned my head back to drink, I noticed that the branches of the cottonwoods lining the creek were bursting with tiny buds, reaching fuzzy chartreuse fingers into the brilliant blue sky. I wiped the dusty red tears from my cheeks.

Two robins arrived, tilted their heads at me, decided I was safe, and then hopped into the creek and began to splash exuberantly, creating haloes of sparkling water in the air above them. The juxtaposition between their mood and mine made me laugh out loud.

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I pulled out my binoculars, camera, and notebook and settled in for an afternoon of desert mercies. As She so often does, God was speaking to me through the natural world. I realized that I was now feeling intense relief — relief that I did not have to prove anything to myself or to anyone else. I could just be, like the robins . . . Day two.

Joys of Nature Color Shadows of Grief

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Grief remains my shadowy companion, sometimes storming my boundaries and overwhelming my body, but more often traipsing behind at a respectful distance. Nevertheless, color is returning to my world. Like spring foliage that begins subtly and then suddenly bursts, I’ve been surprised by joy several times this past week. Here’s what’s happening in my yard and in my heart:

  • I saw the first hummingbird of the season at my feeder, a lovely iridescent male still slender from his migration and very hungry.
  • A pair of cardinals is nesting in a tree across from my kitchen window and I’ve been a witness to their morning and evening ablutions at my birdbath. They take turns, one keeps watch while the other splashes with abandon.
  • Sitting on the porch, I was mesmerized by sweet birdsong that I first thought was one of my favorite neighborhood songsters, the Carolina Wren, but when the tiny guy appeared he had on a bright red cap – a Ruby Crowned Kinglet! I have a soft spot in my heart for Kinglets because I once found one that had been stunned, and I cradled the delicate beauty in my hands for several minutes before he took off. Thirty plus years later, I still treasure that sacred moment.
  • BATS! The first sighting of these angular acrobats is always big for me. As I sat by my fire pit sipping Carbernet and attempting to read in the deepening dusk, I heard them before I saw them. Two bats were arguing about territory, swooping around and chittering and careening into each other. Quite the power struggle!
  • While the bats argued, I saw a dark shape wobbling along a high branch of my neighbor’s willow oak and then slip-sliding down to the ground. After a few minutes, I heard something not very graceful rustling in the bushes and out popped a big, fat opossum. He waddled towards me as I fingered my fire-poking stick and pondered its very sharp teeth. Fortunately, he was suspicious of a canvas bag of firewood and took a detour around me. No defense was necessary on either of our parts.

Resurrection!

On Easter Sunday, everyone in my church brought home a chrysalis in a little plastic cup. Lots of the pupae were wiggling, but mine didn’t move all week. I was pretty sure it was a dud and then yesterday – a butterfly! It might be a Baltimore Checkerspot, but I’m no lepidopterist. (Isn’t that the *best* word?)  We had a minor crisis when it got stuck to a banana slice, so we’re not trying that again. It’s now moved to a bigger home, and I’ve given it an apple slice and dropped in some lilac blossoms.

Enjoying apple juice on a Q-tip for breakfast

Enjoying apple juice on a Q-tip for breakfast

Speaking of lilacs – they are blooming and their sweet scent fills my garden. Even though they always bring on a slight melancholy because they were in bloom when my father died in 1975, how can you not smile at a blooming lilac bush? They are just friendly, homey spirits. My grandmother told my mother who told me that having a lilac by your front door is good luck – all three of us always chose homes so graced.

So Graced

So Graced

Rejoice Anyway

People tell me I’m smiling more, and I actually wrote a blog post about laughter last week.

As I said, grief still shadows me. In fact, the last couple of weeks have been some of the worst since my brother passed away four months ago. My birthday? Don’t even ask. Worst ever.

Making oatmeal raisin cookies for the church bake sale brought on tears because I should have been baking extra for Biff. Buying bread at a farmer’s market was touch-and-go because he loved bread and I liked surprising him with exotic loaves. More than once, a simple trip to the grocery store has been a struggle.

I’ve been indecisive, unfocused, and scattered. I’ve had periods of anxiety and even extreme grumpiness, which is rare for me, thankfully. I’ve been very clumsy, which is not at all rare for me, unfortunately.

All the grief “symptoms” are still hovering. I can’t pretend all is rosy. Still, since a number of people have said that they pass my blogs on to grieving friends who find them helpful, I thought I’d let fellow grievers know that the colors do return. The birds will sing and the flowers will bloom and the butterflies will hatch, and:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Ancient Christian Mystic Julian of Norwich

Morning Metaphors

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The redwing blackbird is full of himself this morning, loudly announcing to the neighborhood that his scarlet wing bands have been freshly preened and making known to the world that he is a master flutist, a regular Jean Pierre Rampal except that this maestro’s melody disintegrates into a shrill rasp, as if a child had burst into the concert hall with a toy percussion instrument.

An attentive robin hops tip-toe across the wet grass, cocking her head to discern whether there might be worms whispering below, and purple periwinkles chuckle around her feet, flaunting their presence to tease whomever might have scattered grass seed around. That would be moi.

perfect crocus

Spring Crocus

 

A Healing Winter Walk – A Photo Poem

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My world is muted, not colorless as many mourners report.

All brown and grey and silky white. Gentle colors.

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winter walk ice crystals

There are patterns and intricacies visible only in winter, when life has seemingly stopped.

winter walk ball

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winter walk.leaf pattern

There are reflections of life in the muddy water and tiny buds despite the thorns.

winter walk muddy pond

winter walk bud

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I am walking through a long, bare tunnel. The cold air echoes in the emptiness.

winter walk.tunnel

As I emerge from the darkness, a surprised robin surprises me.

He’s here early.

He tilts his head towards me, all attention as if I’m a worm underground, which he decides I am not.

He flits from branch to branch before flying off, beckoning me to follow his melodious call of spring.

winter walk crocus

Postscript: I decided I wanted a clearer photo of the flower bud, so I went outside and traipsed through the slushy snow only to find that the hydrangea buds had turned black in the recent arctic blast. Ah well, I guess that’s why they call it seasons of grief. The good news is, this made me laugh. Also, the crocus is from last year. But I know they’re coming . . . 

One day at a time.

Flying Crab Apples: A Daily Prompt

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What’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled? I’ve been to Uganda, and the experiences were so overwhelming that I found it hard to write about the trip. I did write this, which was published in Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine:

I saw her through the dusty window as our bus bounced along a rutted Ugandan road, headed back to Kampala. She was crouched over a muddy waterhole, rinsing clothes in the brown water. Her hair was covered with an orange head wrap, and she wore a long print skirt which was hoisted up to her knees, revealing bare feet.

I had witnessed so much, after three weeks in Africa, that I barely registered the image at the time. I’d like to say that our eyes met, but I don’t think they actually did. She just slipped inside my head and made me cry when I got back to the States and started a load of laundry.

A Blackjack Poem

Today the WordPress gods have given the prompt: Come fly with me — what’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled? So there’s my answer. Uganda. But what I’d really like us to do today is fly with the crab apples. For fun.

I told you I had joined a group called Blackjack Poets – seven syllables, three times, for a total of twenty-one. That’s the rule.

In response to today’s Daily Prompt, I offer this — how far might a crab apple go?
♦ ♦
Crab apples litter the ground,
A red carpet just waiting
To welcome the winter snow.
♦ ♦
Where will they go in springtime,
Plucked up by birds and taken
To germinate far away?
♦ ♦
In the bird’s gut, seeds may dream
of Paris or Amsterdam,
More likely, they’ll splat on cars.
♦ ♦
The Red Carpet

The Red Carpet

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/daily-prompt-travels-2/

Autumn’s Red Plastic Ritual

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All summer, it’s a chore. Not a big chore, just something that must be done, like groceries and cat’s pans and mowing. It’s on the list.

But when the sun hits the equator to signal the start of Fall, which it does today at 4:44 p.m. EST, my chore becomes a ritual – sacred because it will soon be no more.

I pick my favorite pot, the small one that belonged to my roommate Eileen back in the seventies. I fill it with exactly two cups of water and watch as the liquid comes to a boil: round rolls that are at first full and viscous turn to thin bubbles snapping and spitting.

As the steam rises, I measure one-half a cup of sugar — honey-colored, raw, organic sugar — and pour it into the water, stirring with a well-worn silver teaspoon that belonged to my mother, the woman who taught me to love nature and to talk to animals.

I add a few ice cubes to the pot and set it by the sink where the red plastic containers soak in white vinegar and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Peppermint Castile soap, the scent of which graced every good hippie group home back in the day.

Hey, man — did you ever read this label? Far out, man!

Mom used Ivory Liquid.

I scrub the plastic with a toothbrush to remove every spot of dirt and mildew, rinse well, and then carefully pour in the sweet water.

By now the hummingbirds are hovering around their vacant feeding spots outside. They look puzzled, shiny heads tilting first this way and then that, examining the empty hanger from one direction, then buzzing over a few inches to see if things might look different from the other side.

It was here a minute ago.

“Coming, coming,” I say, as I moisten a paper towel with Avon Skin-so-Soft and wipe the tops of the feeders to repel the lines of ants that also await my return.

The red feeders are still dripping, and a sticky sugar trail trickles across the kitchen floor as I head out the door.

I never know which will be the last feeding, the last time I’ll see the hummers before their long flight and before my long winter devoid of their bejeweled company.

See if you can see her - she's looking directly at you!

Can you see her? She’s looking directly at you! (Click on it.)

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Is this fresh?

Fueling up for the flight

Fueling up for the flight!

Have a blessed Autumn!

Related Links:

http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/everything-you-need-to-know-september-equinox

http://www.defenders.org/hummingbirds/basic-facts

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