Beauty Balm

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With Krista Wallace, on the drive back from Big Blue Trail, CO, following our 13 mile hike.

There are 2 significant things I have been learning this year – presence and expectancy. I have my continuing struggles and frustrating patterns, but I have come to expect God to meet me in the middle of them. I expect him to work on me and show me things, and I, in turn, try to be agreeable to the process. The “work” I have been called to when it comes to my own healing and growth can be hard at times, but there is a part of it that consistently brings me immense joy. That is the work of paying attention.

Richard Rohr draws a wise connection to these words from the gifted photographer, Ansel Adams, who said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Rohr continues the train of thought, “So the waiting, the preparing of the mind for “chance,” the softening of the heart, the deepening of expectation and desire, the “readiness” to really let go, the recognition that I really do not want to let go, the actual willingness to change is the work of weeks, months, and years of “fear and trembling.”” –Breathing Under Water

I was struck to the core by all of this – It wipes away every bit of the shame of struggle. In fact, it is the struggle itself that allows grace to do its best work!

I have taken some lovely photos the past couple of years. Someone asked me recently, “Why do all of the beautiful things find you?” I was a little taken aback, and as I glanced over my photos, I thought for a moment that there was some truth to it. But I quickly reailzed that’s not really the way it works.

I am astonished at times when beauty finds me, but it is easier for beauty to find me when I pay attention to the urging to get up at 4:30 in the morning, climb out of bed at 2 a.m. to see the stars, listen to the birds and educate myself on their migratory patterns, work on a writing or editing project till 10 p.m. instead of watching T.V. so that I can spend the next morning at the state park, or sacrifice a little physical comfort.


“Softest of mornings, hello. And what will you do today, I wonder, to my heart?” ~Mary Oliver, Devotions


None of these “sacrifices” guarantee that I will find beauty, but I sure give myself a better chance. In all of the photos in the slide show below, I gave up something to get them – I got up early, stayed up late, stood still for a long time, turned off the TV, hiked a long way, got hot, got cold… something kind of hard, or really hard. I did nothing to make the scene beautiful, but I was willing to put myself out there.

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Sometimes working with God means I wake up early, read challenging books, step into tough but necessary conversations, place myself among people who are not like me, vulnerably confess my struggles to a friend, or say I’m sorry, frightened or hurt. None of these things is guaranteed to make me beautiful, but all of these things, in cooperation with a caring God, give beauty a fighting chance.

Job 12:7-12 The Message (MSG)

7-12 “But ask the animals what they think—let them teach you; let the birds tell you what’s going on. Put your ear to the earth—learn the basics. Listen—the fish in the ocean will tell you their stories. Isn’t it clear that they all know and agree that God is sovereign, that he holds all things in his hand—Every living soul, yes, every breathing creature?”

Note: It is becoming a trend among some of my favorite authors to use “he or she” every time they reference God. I get it, and, as a “she”, I commend them, but it makes for some very clunky sentences!:) 

The Long Hikes

Thoughts of Colorado dance in my mind this morning. This summer is flying by, and our trip snuck up on me. 10 days till check in!magicmountain

The Crested Butte hikes await. I love the short, steep climb to Meridian Lake, the scramble to the CB peak, Judd Falls, Lower Loop – meandering, photographing birds. These little hikes are the morning walks of Crested Butte. What a treasure!

But there is another kind of hike I want to experience with my kids this summer – the long hike – Copper Lake, Rustler’s Gulch, Aspen to Crested Butte kind of hikes – hikes that push you beyond your current fitness level, that get hard enough at times that you have to force yourself to see the glory that surrounds you.

These hikes are a reminder of the long hikes of life – the ones that involve deep grief or toil. These times take us on a path deep inside ourselves – strenuous, painful, lonely paths. But if we will endure, they lead to these beautiful pools – pools so deep and wide and pure that they have room for the divine to join us for a swim.

As Mary Oliver writes: Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” I would add that if we are brave and willing to do the work, we might find that the unimaginable was there inside our heart all along.

When the divine is invited to swim in our deepest places, we are transformed. We come back to our lives, and the glory of the deep colors everything.

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“…but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” ~Romans 5:3-4

Hello, my name is Alyson…

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My son left for college last fall. He’s not coming home – not really. He has become an occasional visitor, no longer a resident. I’m very excited for him as he’s heading straight from school to a fabulous summer job in NM, but the loss of his presence is hitting me all over again, maybe even harder than it did in September.

He is one of my favorite people and one of my closest friends, and he was woven into the fabric of my daily life for 18 years.

I have been super busy with my girls, my saving graces (also my dear ones), so I have not had much time to sit around and contemplate feeling lonely. But as the emptiness hits me anew this week, I realize that it has been lurking under the surface causing chronic, mild (sometimes not so mild) depression. I have struggled with this sadness in my body, because in order to get through my days, it was not convenient for my body to be sad.

My brain and my heart obviously colluded in my subconscious and decided that a numb body was better than a sad body, and that deep desire to be numb took me straight into my addictive struggles. Instead of picking one single addictive vice and ending up in rehab, I take a more “controlled” approach and engage in moderately addictive behavior across a broad spectrum – eating, drinking, Netflix, and shopping for cool sneakers and sharp t-shirts. 

I don’t eat a sleeve of Oreos in one sitting, but I might eat twice the recommended serving size – and maybe I eat them right before my dinner, so the second piece of dark chocolate after dinner is just a normal dessert as the Oreos can technically be categorized as a snack. I might sip on enough wine to keep me a little relaxed between 6 and 10 while never being tipsy. I can spend 2 hours browsing Marshalls and come out with a $7 t-shirt, but those 2 hours are brainless bliss. 4 or 5 Doctor Who episodes in a sitting? Well, I’m just trying to catch up with my daughter.

With my deft addiction management, I appear socially acceptable, an addict undercover. Any one of my given vices is completely understandable to most people. However, the cumulative effect is quite deadly. I don’t type that phrase that lightly – if I maintain my current course, I will end my life earlier via heart disease and diabetes.

This is a very personal confession, so I hope you stopped reading a while back if it’s TMI, but it’s helpful to me to bring it into the light. It makes it real, and I’m tired of the social media showcase where we all appear to have it all together. Now for the good part…

My past response when coming to grips with deep struggle was to feel shame and self-contempt. There is a generally agreed upon list of responsible, grown-up behaviors, and I somehow cannot manage to follow that list.

A year ago, I would have berated myself as a childish hypocrite, but what I’ve discovered is that my shame response is actually pride in disguise. Hating myself means I think I’m too good to fail. Humbly embracing my whole self brings acceptance of my humanity – my shared humanity. It makes me seek community and support instead of withdraw into my shell and deeper into my addictive cycles.

This morning, while working out (yay me!), I listened to a brief podcast – Krista Tippett on Becoming Wise, was interviewing Matthew Sanford. The subject? Compassion for our bodies. Oh, my goodness. Here is the first sentence of the podcast:


“Grief and gladness, sickness and health, are not separate passages. They’re entwined and grow from and through each other, planting us, if we’ll let them, more profoundly in our bodies, in all their flaws and their grace.”

~Krista Tippett


 

Now stop reading and listen to this (it’s less than 10 minutes): https://onbeing.org/blog/compassion-for-our-bodies-matthew-sanford/

There I was huffing away on the stairclimber, and instead of judging my lack of stamina, I chose to notice how well my muscles were still working for me. Yes, my heart rate was higher than it should be and I bench pressed 15 pounds less than I did in September, but my body kept me going through a really hard year! It did not give up on me. And the few extra pounds that have accumulated are the evidence that I have been grieving because I LOVE my kids like crazy. 

I do want to be around for my kids, however. Rejecting shame is how I break free and return to better self care. And taking care of myself is one of the best gifts I can give my family.

As I left the gym this morning, I could feel more keenly how my intake of breath makes the tips of my fingers feel connected to the rest of me, how my ears are more attuned to the joyful birdsongs than they were a year ago, how I really need to get to the eye doctor because I cherish seeing the beauty around me and can’t do that as well as I could a year ago.

 

Yes, my body is declining, but it’s a good body. My heart has been numbing itself, but it’s good, too. It was simply trying to find a safe place. The more compassion I find for myself exactly as I am right now, the more compassion I automatically extend to every other declining human body and vulnerable heart.

My body will eventually fall apart and stop breathing – might be 40 years from now, might be this afternoon. But while it’s still moving me along, I will live in a more connected way than I did yesterday. And as the other bodies and hearts that I love so dearly leave me over time, and I grieve again and again, I will remember the tender, softer grief of this year and the compassion I felt towards myself. In the future, I will be deeper, kinder, and more present in my grief and remember that it is intricately entwined with my joy.

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Banner Birding

I was bemoaning my to-do list because it has prevented me from going to the coast for a birding trip during migration. I gave myself an attitude checkup a week ago and decided to let it go and to savor the beauty in my own area. I wanted to share a little of what I have seen in the past 4 days. It has blessed me immensely.


“She is one of the most noticing people I’ve ever met, always paying attention to the birdsong in the background, the leaf on the tree.” ~Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time To Spare


These fascinating flying friends bring me joy. Enjoy my little slideshow. XOXO

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Clinging to Contempt

steadfast loveWhen Jesus says to lay our burdens down, I think one of the heaviest burdens he is referring to is shame.

When Jesus took on our sin, he did it with the full understanding of why we sinned, the hole we were trying to fill, and what hurts carved out that hole to begin with. We were locked in a cell, a life sentence, and he decided – ENOUGH! He did not simply excuse the life sentence, he served it for us. Then he opened the door of our prison cell to set us free. And yet many of us choose to stay there in our cell, a condemnation of our own making.

When I let shame fester, I am filled with self-contempt. Ironically, this is a form of pride. It’s me saying to God that somehow his solution is simply not good enough for the likes of me. It is me saying that my view of myself is more reliable than his view of me. 

Choosing the cage of shame is sad and small. Free life is offered to us, but we stay in a dark, dank room because we decide we don’t deserve freedom. We didn’t earn it. Oh, dear – there’s that pride again. If we earn something, we can hold it up to the world – look at me! I did this! When it’s a gift, the giver gets all the credit.


“Shame works like the zoom lens on a camera. When we are feeling shame, the camera is zoomed in tight and all we see is our flawed selves, alone and struggling.” ~Brené Brown


To reject this precious gift of freedom is to be like the fearful servant who buried his poor little talent in the ground. We despise the very gift that cost Jesus so dearly. We take LOVE and stuff it in a box and hide it in the back of our closet. Now that is a shame.

What if we took our “talents”, our freedom, the grace we have been granted, and invested it all in life, expansive and fearless and full of mercy for our family and friends, for ourselves, for our enemies? What if love became our filter instead of shame? That is the kind of laid-down-before-Jesus life I am after.

Nothing is out of the bounds of his grace.

Tennis Troubles

The stress last night was palpable. It seeped from her pores, visibly crept into her muscles – I could see the change in her posture as her shoulders tensed and her head slumped. A 3-day tennis tournament – in a room with 3 other girls, a new, real swimsuit (the last 2 years a swimsuit consisted of running shorts, sports bra, and tank top), anticipating the lack of sleep, knowing there will be no pause from social interaction. My heart ached as we navigated a stressful, exhausting 30 minutes of packing, trying to prepare and figure out what to pack that would help her feel comfortable and also maybe blend it a little bit.

Today, after 4th period at school, I met her at the tennis courts to exchange school bags for tennis and overnight bags. I could almost taste her ambivalence – she was thankful that I was there and wishing I was in Hong Kong at the same instant. The white bus with the head coach was filling with the cool kids. My heart sank. She’s not a cool kid in that book. Don’t get me wrong – I think her unique, artistic brain and her tender, insightful heart put her in a league of her own, but that does not make her fit into their club.

Oh, but then there is hope! The sweetest 2 cool kids – sophomores (one from our church:)) – climb into the black bus. I see her light up. And they see her light up. They are kind and motion for her to sit behind them. And her shoulders relax and her jaw loosens. Her smile is “her smile”. “Thank you, Lord,” I whisper under my breath, getting ahead of myself. Because 2 seconds later, a cool kid pops into the black bus: “Um… what are y’all doing? We saved you seats on the right bus.” 

“Oh… see ya, girl – have fun…” And they are gone. And she is there with her usual crew – the stragglers – the strugglers – the ones that don’t check enough of the boxes. 13 kids on the white bus, 5 on the black bus. At least she’ll be comfortable…

My heart feels like it has a vice clamp bearing down on it, but I’m also grateful that it did not occur to her to fight for a seat on the white bus. I hope she always finds herself with the strugglers and the broken ones. I hope she is driven by love to bring them kindness and healing when the world tosses them aside.

I have also prayed every moment since (the last 7 hours) that somehow God will meet her this Easter weekend, that somehow her suffering will connect with Jesus’ suffering, that the celebration that He is alive brings her life and hope of a better world to come, a healed and loving world.

Note: Text from the hotel: she says she’s doing “amazingly well” – all the girls are 4 to a room except for her and one other struggler. They each get their own bed.:)  

And one more thing… My other 2 kids and I showed up for the last day and a half and we really enjoyed each other. She took the photo below when she went birding with me – said she was capturing the sadness in post-hurricane Port Aransas. What a blessing when your parents and siblings are your real friends – they tend to stick around. Life can be hard, yet grace abounds.

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Gloomy Goodness

IMG_5011I want to disappear for a while – to read British mystery novels, sleep, drink grownup hot chocolate and not see a soul. Even better, I want to hibernate in an isolated cabin instead of my house – I’m tired and lazy, so my house is a mess, and that distracts me from my books and Netflix.

In the past, I would fret, with what little energy I had, about this winter slip into what many would describe as mild depression. This year, I look at the dreary rain drops dripping from the bare, gray branches, and I welcome the slight sadness with a warm fuzzy blanket.

For I have learned that this feeling always precedes the buzz of anticipation that happens like clockwork at the end of every February, when the first buds appear and the early migratory birds arrive. I would not appreciate the coming light without first knowing the darkness.


“For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water.” ~Mary Oliver


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Forget New Year’s Resolutions

This week, we reflect – Christ came. He came as a baby at a particular place and time, but in an eternal sense that no words can explain, he comes again and again. He has come to me. He comes to all who call upon him in the midst of the current chaos of this world, in the midst of the chaos of their own internal world.

Fully man, he continues to enter our fleshly, decaying world as only one who has lived in a fleshly, decaying body can.

The advice lists for new year’s resolutions 2018 have started to float across social media networks. The more sophisticated lists now advocate “new year’s intentions” and sound deep and mature: things like kindness to the grocery cashiers, time in nature, daily focused meditation, simplifying, etc.

All good things, but then I read this in my favorite prayer book, The Valley of Vision.  I think I have found my new year’s, my rest-of-my-life hope and intention, because everything else loses its luster in the light of it.


“Give me a deeper trust, that I may lose myself to find myself in thee, the ground of my rest, the spring of my being… Plough deep in me, great Lord, heavenly Husbandman, that my being may be a tilled field, the roots of grace spreading far and wide, until thou alone art seen in me, thy beauty golden like summer harvest, thy fruitfulness as autumn plenty. Quarry me deep, dear Lord, and then fill me to overflowing with living water.”


As anyone who knows me can tell, I am a woman who often processes in images. I called to mind the last time I saw a huge commercial tiller running through the rich, deep-black soil. Have you seen a tractor plough up close lately? Those are some awfully big blades. Isn’t that how life feels sometimes? Like huge blades are shredding our hearts? What if that shredding could be laying the groundwork (couldn’t help it) for the person we are meant to grow into?

(Side note – I was looking at images online of tractor ploughs as I wrote this, and I came across a website from the UK called The Society of Ploughman – it’s awesome. They have competitions and everything. Check it out. The internet is amazing.)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quarry close up. When I think of a quarry, I always think of this scene from the film Garden StateGarden-State-Screencap-indie-films-1931521-1024-436I consider the violent demolition needed to create a gash in the earth the size of this, and I shudder a bit when I consider applying that image to my life. But the writer I quoted above longs to be quarried so that he might overflow with living water. That makes me tremble with excitement.

It is life in Jesus Christ, life in the one God-man, the one whose birth we celebrate this week, that can plow and quarry our hearts for the purposes of love and expansive grace. This is the life that I am scared to want, but still, want it I do. Oh, quarry me deep.

Shrouded Supermoon

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My lens is pointed directly at the setting supermoon, and yet a billion tiny things stand between my lens and that moon, rendering it invisible to me. Countless droplets of water conspire against me, each so tiny that I cannot make out a single one.

This is often a picture of my life. The BIG THING is right in front of me, and yet I am oblivious to its presence because I have let a billion tiny, almost-invisible things get between me and it.

My busyness, my wandering or fretful thoughts, the noise, the tweets, the news, the TV, the sugar and caffeine, other people’s expectations and their subsequent disappointments… I am so used to the bombardment. It has become my constant background, so I rarely notice it is there.

But sometimes I feel fretfully lost and see the path fading in front of me. For a brief spell, I acknowledge the dense fog and consider what grand thing might be right before me, hidden from view.

(I’ll be back for you this evening, my moon.)

Read More Stories!

Angle of ReposeLast night, I finished Wallace Stegner’s lengthy masterpiece, Angle of Repose. I set it down and contemplated what a privilege it was to have time to read. I read a lot of books, a lot of amazing books.  Because of the sheer length of my booklist, if your book is not well-written, it will be quickly discarded.

I have pages and pages of highlighted quotes, notes, and references from my favorite wise non-fiction writers (Krista Tippett, Parker Palmer, Richard Rohr, Brennan Manning, Frederick Buechner & David Brooks come to mind – all highlights of last year), but there is something different that happens when I read a great novel. While non-fiction works tend to ping around in my brain and sometimes sift their way into the deeper places of my heart, stories just march right in my heart’s front door. What is it about a story?

We are all living stories. God’s story telling confounds me sometimes. Bible stories, especially the most ancient ones, can pull up confusion and even revulsion. But I do believe God is the grand storyteller, and a story weaver in our lives. He created us in his storytelling image – story is quite literally in our DNA.

Written story stands apart from any other form of storytelling. I was staring at a page in a real book – printed on actual paper. The font was small enough to challenge even my 1.75 readers (I love my Kindle). I took off my glasses so I couldn’t make out the words, and I noted that the vast majority of the page was white. All those tiny black letters probably took up 10 percent of the space. And it struck me – that’s what a satisfying novel does – it’s leaves us space to bring our own stories, our personalities, and our circumstances with us into the reading. No one will leave Angle of Repose changed in the same way it changed me, for no one else brings what I do to all that white space.

Characters are filtered through my life’s characters, whether I mean to or not. Their faces, their voices and smiles and joys, the way they move, their successes and failures take on unique forms in my mind based on what I know. So each novel, if it is written well, becomes customized to my soul.

I have a hard time remembering Jesus’s specific theology from his sermon on the mount, but the parables stick – I often think of the lost sheep, the woman desperately hunting her coin, the scene where the prodigal son is at last spotted by his father, the struggling seeds, the grumbling workers – these are the things that inform my spiritual life automatically.

My point is made. We should all read more epic stories. Maybe one day I’ll even write one. Every time I finish a remarkable novel, I wonder why I don’t read more! Here are a few of my favorites from the past few months. Please take a moment to comment and tell me a couple of your favorites. Or connect with me on Goodreads.

Wallace Stegner:  Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose, Ann Patchett: State of Wonder, Fredrik Backman: A Man Called Ove, Marilynne Robinson: Gilead and Home (these probably top my list), Kristin Hannah: The Nightingale, Adam Johnson: Fortune Smiles, Wm. Paul Young: Eve and Cross Roads, Frederick Buechner: The Storm and Godric, John Steinbeck: Travels with Charley.

Your turn…