Defcon 1

After a steady diet of CSI shows and Netflix, most of us know how to set up a bad guy for interrogation: sleep deprivation, isolation, poor diet, bright lights, overstimulation and noise. Then at the beginning of questioning, fill them with fear. Sound familiar?

This is the American lifestyle (my past lifestyle that I am trying hard to change) – sleep deprivation, loneliness, inadequate nutrition, constant exposure to blue light and information from our e-devices, and noise. We are primed and ready, so when the political party of our choice bombards us with tales of terror from the other side, we fold – or more likely explode.

Our lifestyle puts our brain in continuous fight or flight mode, flooded with cortisol. Twitter, Facebook, CNN, and Fox News all lead us to believe we walk out our door in constant danger. Is it any wonder that we feel like we live our entire lives at Defcon 1? We no longer debate, banter or agree to disagree. We instantly scream, curse, hate and burn anything we consider a threat.

Our friends and family who we believe have gone to the dark side are not possessed by evil. They are in fight mode. They are primed by our fast-paced lifestyle and then triggered by the constant assault of information and fear, and they are reacting like any normal human does when filled with cortisol and adrenaline.

Maybe if we can step back and understand the mechanics at work, we can remember that people are not their political party. Most people don’t even fully understand their political party. They only know what has been fed to them by their information faucet of choice, and those sources of information keep them on the hook by reinforcing their fear with every “news” segment.

Stress hormones can be addictive like any other substance. They give us a temporary high and power to overcome dangerous situations. Most of us are probably walking around with cortisol levels far higher than what is healthy. Some of the signs of this? Moodiness, overall fatigue, addiction to coffee, drinking too much alcohol, brain fog (high cortisol shrinks the hippocampus, the part of your brain where you consolidate memory and regulate your emotions), and extra weight around our midsection due to chronically elevated blood sugar levels (so that we can be constantly ready to flood our cells with energy in case of attack).

Most of us need to be actively pursuing lifestyle changes to lower stress hormone levels and break our addiction to the cortisol/adrenaline high, but I’ll save that for another post. The point I wanted to make today is that we need to extend GRACE to each other through understanding. We are not our true selves!

If we understand that our friends and family who have “gone to the dark side” (the dear readers of my blog fall just about equally on both sides!) are set up to be easily triggered, we can see them as more than their politics. If I understand that I am set up to be easily triggered, I can remember to take a deep breath before responding or take the social media apps off my phone.

One side or the other will “win” the election in a couple months. Only one person will be elected president in 2020. We all lose if we let hate rule our hearts and stop seeing each other as fellow human beings.

The power of the people is being decimated by hate and fear, but it can be restored by love and grace. Pollyanna! I know… but I do believe that it’s not too late. We can change our filters, then our minds, and finally our hearts – one family, one friend group, one neighborhood at a time.

A Web Atremble

IMG_6948Humanity is like an enormous spider web, so that if you touch it anywhere, you set the whole thing trembling…The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place and time my touch will be felt. Our lives are linked together.” – Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark

2 days ago, I had a delightful conversations with my kids regarding specific teachers in their past. The topic of the week was history class. My middle child made the decision to ditch AP World History for on-level, much to the shock of her brother and sister. Here was the gist of the conversation.

The child making the move had very mature reasons for doing so. She is wise well beyond her years sometimes.

My oldest said he understood, but thought if she had Mr. Parson’s for history, she would love it. He concluded that Mr. Parson’s had not only given him a love of history, but also encouraged him to engage with philosophy and read great books. I would add that I think Mr. Parson’s also gave my kid permission to be his quirky, nerdy self no matter what other kids thought about it.

My youngest chimed in with a story about 2 of her teachers. In 2nd grade, her teacher managed to connect the dots of modern community, ancient civilizations, and dinosaurs into some creative, engaging project that ended with breaking open concrete eggs — or something like that. My kid found a T-Rex toy when she broke open her egg. She said, “T-Rex was my favorite, so I thought it was a sign that I would always want to learn more about history. I was hooked and have been ever since.”

Then she launched into reflections about Mr. Novosad and how she hoped she would one day be able to make kids love history and science the way he made her love history and science. A side note about how deep this love of learning runs with this one – I found her secretly studying her older sister’s AP Human Geography study guide, to which she admitted to stealthily doing at night throughout the summer.

After all of this, my middle child who started it all said, “I’m still going to on-level. Maybe if I’d had a teacher like Ms. Eaton for history when I was younger, I’d love it, too.” Then she went on to explain that Ms. Eaton had changed her life, made her love writing and feel confident about it, and made her want to ask better questions about spiritual things. Wow. I think she is still sneaking back into Ms. Eaton’s classroom to decorate her whiteboard. 

In his beautiful book, Learning the Vocabulary of God (amazing), Frank Charles Laubach asks, “God, what is a man’s best gift to mankind? To be beautiful of soul and then let people see into your soul…” I think that is what these teachers did for my kids.

Maybe all of these teachers know what a huge impact they are having on the world, but I wonder if they have days like me, when they wonder what it’s all about and if it’s worth it. If they had a bigger platform than a single classroom, would the power of their reach grow? I’m not so sure.

In the introduction of Gilbert White’s book The Natural History of Selborne, this caught my attention this morning: “By focusing attention on Selborne alone, White was not limiting the reach of his work but expanding it.” I think it might be the same with teaching, and with parenting and mentoring, too. By focusing our attention on a small group of individuals, the depth of our imprint reaches further than it would if we instead had a diluted influence over many.IMG_6442

I contemplated the math of a teacher’s influence this morning – take the 100’s or maybe 1000’s of students a teacher has over his or her career. Now, let’s be conservative and say that even a great teacher only makes a huge impression on 10 percent of those students, but then those students have children and enter into their own careers. Who will those students then influence? What about their children? Their children’s children? It starts to boggle the mind.

In his book, Prayer, Richard Foster contemplates the age-old conversation concerning the sovereignty of God and the power of the human will. “He invites us into the workshop of his creativity, where we can be co-laborers with him, working together to determine the outcomes of events.” What a wonderful filter for the way we view our work!

Much of what most of us have to offer seems small. I photograph my corner of the world and write my little words. I volunteer and vacuum, clean toilets and grocery shop in order to create a kinder environment for my family. It is easy to write off these simple tasks, but they are important. Who knows what trembles on the web of humanity my small acts of kindness might cause?

French philosopher (as well as Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist!) Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Do not forget that the value and interest of life is not so much to do conspicuous things…as to do ordinary things with the perception of their enormous value.”

For good of for evil, whether you know it or not, you are changing the world.


I Shall Not Want!

I am mildly anxious much of the time, but there have been periods of my life when anxiety has risen from a simmer to a boil. Once was during a twenty-something transition and who-the-heck-am-I crisis, once when each of my girls was 10 months – hormonal, postpartum craziness that landed me in the hospital the first time for cardio tests, and for reasons that are yet unclear to me, it’s gotten pretty bad in the last 3 months. During these times, I have occasional, debilitating panic attacks out of the blue.

My kids all have big stuff going on. That is usually the case as they are all teenagers, but my ability to handle it with healthy boundaries broke down this week. I don’t let them in on that, but it can trigger me. So, I was sitting in my living room a couple morning’s ago, worry-praying for one of them and stuck in a significant panic attack. It felt like my chest was filled up with cheap polyester stuffed animal filler and it was creeping its way up my throat. My heart pounded, and my brain felt like slime. I couldn’t process or see straight.

I started whispering, “The Lord is my shepherd,” over and over again. That’s a new one for me as I’m not much of a chanter, but it’s what came out. After about the 20th utterance, I went one phrase further and managed a faint, “I shall not want.” And BAM, a light went off – my slime brain returned to its natural sponginess and the polyester filling that threatened to choke me receded.

The “I shall not want” part has always felt like a passive thing to me, but it occured to me that if it was passive, David would have said, “I do not want.” I checked in on the Hebrew (as if I knew what I was doing) and remained convinced that “I shall not want” was indeed his direct intent – he was choosing it, or at least strongly agreeing to it. Remember Gandalf on the bridge in the The Fellowship of the Ring movie? “YOU… SHALL… NOT… PASS!” Worth watching again:

Anyway, that’s the scene that came to mind, so I gathered my inner Gandalf and said out loud, “I SHALL NOT WANT!” It has stuck with me ever since. I keep repeating it in my head every day, over and over again, because the truth is, no matter how many green pastures I lay in or how many quiet pools of water I wander by, I still want. I still want what I want when I want it. I struggle finding contentment in the midst of chaos, especially when that chaos is surrounding my kids.

It’s not that the temporary wanting of peace and prosperity for my kids is a terrible thing – it gets ugly when I elevate that want to the point of worship, when I center my emotional stability and joy around things going well for them. It’s a real problem when my want of temporary victories trumps my want of long-term growth and deeper love for them and for me. The question is not what do I want, but what to I want most? “I SHALL NOT WANT TEMPORARY SUCCESS IN EXCHANGE FOR LEARNING HOW TO LOVE!” Gotta go full-Gandalf on it.

My kids will certainly know the other part of the passage, the valley of death, during their lives – death of people, dreams, security, esteem, jobs and confidence. I will struggle when they find themselves there, but I want them to know that they do not need to fear the evil because God is with them every step of the way, just like he is with me when I panic.

Psalm 23

A Psalm of David.

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2     He makes me lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside still waters.

3     He restores my soul;

He leads me in paths of righteousness

   for His name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk

   through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil;

   for You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff,

   they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me

   in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

   my cup runs over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

   all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord


Jennifer (2)

Beauty Balm


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.


“…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…

Enlight352 2

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):

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.



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