Life Unfettered: June 2018 Edition

Life, glorious life, keeps happening here – it’s hard to find time to write about it all! This is my catch up photo essay of some of June’s happenings! Enjoy!

Wild delights!

Locust blossoms (top left): We experimented this year with locust blossom pancakes. We had been enjoying dandelion flour pancakes (using just enough pancake batter to hold the dandelion petals together, they turn out more like fritters than pancakes) when locust blossoms started blooming. They are almost too sweet to eat alone, so we experimented by making pancakes in the same way we did with the dandelions. It was a smashing success!

Wild strawberries (bottom left): Our field was FULL of wild strawberries throughout the first weeks of June. I could not walk up or down the hill to the yurt without getting hopelessly sidetracked following the trail of bright red sweetness! Occasionally I had the restraint to collect them without immediately popping them into my mouth. In those cases, I enjoyed them smothered in heavy cream. The joy is unreal. I have learned that wild strawberries are an unfortunate sign of soil fertility. We are listening, researching, and planning on how to bring fertility back to our eroded hillside. While we look forward to signs of increased soil fertility, we will miss the abundance of wild strawberries in the coming years. But this year, our first summer, we enjoy the earth’s sweet gift. Even when we have taken too much from her already, she continues to give.

Red Clover Blossoms (right): In the latter weeks of June and early July the red clover blossoms adorned our meadow! When the early July heat wave made most afternoon work unbearable, I walked slowly through the field plucking these beautiful blossoms. Our new loft (see below) became a perfect place to dry these beautiful flowers. The dried red clover blossoms will be used for tea – an herbal support for reproductive health.

A Two-Storied Yurt

In late spring, we covered a quarter of our yurt with a sleeping loft. I’m always so nervous when we do projects that significantly change a space. I was eager for extra room the loft would provide, but I was worried it would break up the oh-so-beautiful openness of the yurt. It took some tweaking and adjusting, but I actually like the space more with the yurt than without it! Project win!

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Catching Raindrops

It’s been a dry spring and summer with one particularly sweat-drenched weak of high heat. Our water source is a decent haul from the garden, so when we heard we were going to get rain for the first time in over a week we schlepped together this contraption:

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Never have a felt more like a legit homesteader than I did in stepping back and admiring this piece of work. We have plans to build a more permanent rainwater collection system that doesn’t clog up access to the woodshed or use material (like the sawhorses) that we need for other projects. However, for a 15 minute throw-together job, this temporary system is earning its keep – one inch of rain gathered over 20 gallons!

Dreaming of Winter Nights

My husband, Mark, spent the 90 degree days of summer preparing for the -20 degree nights that are much closer than they feel as sweat pours down our faces. Piece by piece, he carried a huge, storm-felled oak out of the woods to our woodshed in the early mornings before the sun crested the hill turning our vale into a radiant oven. The result is beautiful:

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A nearly full woodshed is a picture of stability, of seasonal rhythm, and of attentiveness. Last winter we got our wood as we needed it – our summer was too busy and our arrival on this land too recent to have a full woodshed going into the cold. This year, we are that much more in step with the season. Next year, we plan to be two steps ahead – splitting wood for the that winter during this winter.

We are sinking into this place.

 

Gardening and the Vulnerability of Doing Things

I started my vegetable garden on May 22nd on a patch of ground on our central Vermont hillside. By “started” I don’t mean transplanting seeds I started indoors – or even purchased elsewhere. I don’t mean making rows and planting so the seeds can burst forth as soon as the sun warms the soil. No, I mean the latter half of May is when I first put spade to sod and started the laborious process of turning field into garden with hand tools.

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The hugel beds in process.

Of course, making beds took way longer than I thought it would – specifically because I decided to make hugelkultur beds which are built with decomposing wood, plant material (in my case sod), compost, and sod. All this meant that by Memorial Day I had no more than 45 square feet of ready-to-plant soil and a huge packet of seeds. This, of course, is the moment I chose to begin research on when and how I should start planting…

The first consequence of my failure to plan was space. By the time the end of May rolled around I knew I did not have time or energy to turn over any more soil. Looking over the spacing requirements for the veggies I most wanted to plant became a demoralizing exercise. Well – looks like we’ll get one salad of the garden this year! I was feeling quite sorry for myself. My shoulders ached from hauling wood up the hill for the hugel mound and turning up sod by hand. I didn’t have enough hours in the already-late spring days or the energy to make more beds. It became clear rather quickly that I’ll be enjoying the fruits of other people’s gardens (and their planning) for most of the growing season. I can expect my first fresh picked vegetable sometime in August.

This is all terribly embarrassing for me to admit to you. You see, I grew up in the garden. Many of my friends are farmers. I volunteered at farms and worked on a farm. I don’t think of myself as a beginner when it comes to growing food, but yet, I am. This is the first time I’ve done my own garden and that endeavor is a whole other bag of potatoes (of which I’ve planted zilch.)

This idea that I ought to be more competent in a certain area than I am (or feel like I am) is a regular source of spiritual fodder for me. I don’t know when, why, or how, but at some point in practicing a new skill or art, I get the crazy notion that I suddenly need to be really perfect at that thing. This little demon voice, demanding perfection, accepts no mistakes and no learning curve. Of course, this makes things NO FUN AT ALL and it is oh-so-tempting to just forget the whole thing and retreat to things that don’t feel as new and uncertain.

I don’t experience this just with gardening – this little perfectionist monster has poked and prodded my musical endeavors, my writing, my baking. Basically, all the creative outlets in my life – all the ways in which I enjoy bringing life into form.

Shaping raw material – sound, words, flour & water, seeds & soil – into something more beautiful and nourishing than the raw stuff is what it means to create. The humbling nature of creating something is that what was once inside me – ideas, inspiration, knowledge – is suddenly outside me. It is utterly new and can be experienced by others apart from my commentary and clarification. They hear, they see, they taste a part of my heart that I lovingly poured into the music, the poem, or the bread. Ugh. Is there much in the world more vulnerable than this? This fear of others interacting with my created forms – poking, prodding, judging – has kept too many songs unsung, poems unwritten, gardens unplanted, and dreams unpursued.

This is part of the nerve-wracking thrill of this homesteading endeavor – incarnating inner dreams. I’ve never had a shortage of dreams, of ideas, of inspiration, but I have often feared this terrifyingly beautiful step of making them real. Choosing to steward this Vermont hill – to shape it into a home, a productive landscape, a place for hospitality, creativity, and prayer – is a radical step in bringing a big dream into form. You know what that means? In the dream’s process of becoming real, it’s going to lose a lot of its current gleam. It will get dragged through the mud and need a slew of patch-up jobs.

Like my little garden, many things will fall through the cracks, the timing will be off, and the rows won’t be straight. I’ll make big mistakes along the way. I will be faced with my inadequacy and my over-identification with perfection. I’ll need to grow if I want to keep doing this thing.

As my dreams become real, so will I.

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One hilarious consequence of my poor planning – my first harvest was this lovely sun gold tomato (photo taken a couple days before consumption). Not many Vermont gardens reap a tomato before anything else, but hey! I grew a tomato! 🙂

You want more details about the garden? Sure!

As I was trying to figure out how to get anything out of the beds I built, Mark told me about a book we had stowed away called The Square Foot Gardening Method. As you can see, you divide your bed into foot by foot squares and plant in squares rather than rows. I was skeptical, but Mark assured me that he has had success with the method so I decided to give it a shot. I was totally re-inspired when I realized how much could be planted in such a small space this way!

Where I put plants was still quite haphazard and a little crowded for some of them, but things are definitely growing. We’re having kale out of the garden for dinner tonight and I’ve already popped too sumptuous sun gold tomatoes in my mouth! If nothing else I’ve learned a good bit about gardening the hard way – which means there’s a chance I’ll remember what I learned by next year. 🙂

Oh – and where did those beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers, winter squash, and brussel sprouts come from? They were leftover starts from good friends and good neighbors who were way ahead of me. Doing real things + vulnerability = discovering the good gifts of community!

Last Saturday: June 25

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Chard. Kale. Kohlrabi. Tomatoes. Cucumbers. Beets. Brussel Sprouts. Onions. Snap peas. Carrots. Winter Squash. Mmm…

 

Today, a week later: July 6

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They’re happy!

 

 

 

Let the Wisdom of the Earth Seep Into Your Bones

The beginning of my summer has been filled with long, glorious days on the homestead. Settling into this place and learning the way the sun and moonlight bounces off the contoured land. Familiarizing myself with the habits and voices of those that share this hill. Slowly working and dreaming alongside Mark with nothing marking time but the turning of the earth and the liturgy of the hours.

Most of this post I wrote last fall. With each day I don’t get in my car, the longing for intimacy with this place is both satisfied and continues to grow and deepen. When I read an article in the Northern Woodlands magazine this morning, I knew I had to dig out these words. 

More soon on what my hands have been doing during these long days, but first an update from my heart…


 

“Whh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh! Whh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh!” “Mmeeep! Mmeeep!” These sounds accompanied our meditation one evening last October as the day transitioned into night. Our friend and neighbor, Tom, was with us and as we eased back into conversation, he and Mark (my husband) began to comment on the unusual sounds. They knew exactly who the wing flutters and calls belonged to – the woodcock. The sounds themselves were not unfamiliar, rather the time of year is what was odd. The fluttering of the woodcock’s wings and his piercing call is part of the springtime’s symphony, not the fall’s. As the woodcock called out, Mark and Tom, who have been witness to Vermont’s rhythms for 20 years and 30 years, respectively, had the feeling of spring in their bones even as we sat under a warm October dusk.

I, however, being new to northern New England did not have the same experience. I heard the woodcock, proudly knew it was woodcock, but had no idea what was so significant about its presence in mid-autumn. In my two years of lived experience in New England, woodcocks fly and sing in the fall just as often as they do in the spring. The next time I hear a woodcock in October, I may now know in my head that woodcocks aren’t typically around in the fall. But I will never know the original rhythms of the woodcock the way Mark and Tom do. I will never know it in my bones.

Over breakfast this morning, I read the Editor’s Note in the Northern Woodlands – a quarterly magazine about the northern New England woods. The author, Dave Mance III, wrote about the recent news that the Emerald Ash Borer was found in Vermont. This news is a 5-10 year death sentence for a whole genus of trees. As a professional forester, he writes about his grief – “like loving someone with a terminal disease.” He tells of a black ash basket-maker in Minnesota who made a “burial basket” in her mourning. He wonders about what his daughter’s memory of the ash tree will be and how we will begin to explain the loss to the coming generations.

The title of the article is “Bearing Witness.” (You can read the article by purchasing the current issue – Issue 97: Summer 2018 of the Northern Woodlands Magazine. It’s only $6.00 and WORTH IT.)

Bearing witness. Listening. Fostering intimacy. In the wake of environmental crisis, I believe these are the ways we must turn back to the earth. We must welcome the rhythms, the joys, and the sorrows of the land into our very bodies – into our bones. Local ecosystems are already changing as the earth’s temperature rises. I have already lost the opportunity to know deeply the old rhythms of my Vermont home, but I can begin where and when I am. With each passing day, season, and year, the wisdom of the earth, even the earth in a rapid state of change, will seep into my body.

In June and July 2017, I had the honor of co-guiding a 40-day pilgrimage down the Connecticut River in which we prayed with the land, honored sacred sites, and mourned places of desecration and destruction at the hand of our species. On the morning of the fifteenth day, I woke up with a sense of intimacy with the created world in general, and the Connecticut River in particular, previously unknown to me. I realized all at once, as if waking up from a dream, that the river and I are equal players in the same story. We have the same Creator. We have the same home. Our stories our intricately interwoven with each other in such a way that I cannot thrive, or even survive, if she does not thrive. We will live together or we will die together. I could feel the river’s life, her pain, and most astutely, her patience with humanity. Throughout our shared history – the river’s and my people’s – she has literally carried the burden of our sins in the form of trash, factory run-off, eroding topsoil, and stagnation-inducing dams. That day, she became for me an image of the body of Christ, bearing all things in gentleness and in love.

In the same moment, I saw another face of her patience, a forbearance of our inattentiveness. I have come to glimpse, incrementally and in the gift of sacred moments, that our most destructive habits as humans cannot be solved by recycling, electric cars, wind power, or our favorite green initiatives. The human behavior most destructive to our precious home and our fellow earth-dwellers is a pervasive culture of inattentiveness. Our fractured relationship with the earth is not simply a result of what we have done (and are doing), but of what we have failed (and are failing) to do.

That beautiful July morning, waking up to the river flowing as she has for millions of years, I turned to the natural world in a new way. I realized that our species will continue to be a destructive force until we turn back to our rivers and our land, engage with them like the keepers of wisdom they are, and seek to be their pupils. We must know in our bones the way in which this world turns.

This is why we live the way we do – in an off-grid 314 square foot yurt on a Vermont hillside. We sold (or in our case – bought) the farm for this one audacious hope– that the world’s hope rests in individuals, and then communities, turning their full attention to the earth and to her Creator.

This is why we lead people on wild pilgrimages where we pray for and with the land, bless and be blessed by the natural world as we move slowly through it. We pray this helps more and more people turn to the earth, allowing her wisdom to seep into their bones. I believe the future of the world – the trees, the birds, the rivers, and the people – depends on it.

As we listen, as we let the wisdom of the earth seep into our bones, our behavior will change. It has to, because it is then that we realize our well-being cannot be divorced from the earth’s wellbeing.

But first, we must pay attention. We must bear witness. We must listen, for the earth has much to tell us.

Instant Spring – Just Add Sun

Spring has finally reached the hills of Vermont! Without warning – but with much anticipation – the sun melted winter’s final white dusting and called forth the dormant seeds and trees. Our 314 square feet of living space has expanded (literally) overnight to 10.3 acres of space to romp, work, & rest. Spring ephemerals, trees, & so, so many birds are finally awake! Spring has come!

Here’s a taste of spring on our hill:

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Colt’s Foot
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Trout Lily
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Spring Beauty
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Spring Beauty soaking up the sun!
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My current favorite place to visit – I call this stump our fairy castle!
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Trillium
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A Maple Seedling!
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A slightly more mature maple waking up
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One daffodil of THOUSANDS on our property – pure gift from the previous steward of the land!
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Rushing streams cannot be captured in a photo – the sound, the coolness, the smell of earth and water waking up!
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Perhaps my favorite sign of spring – bare feet! ❤
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Oh and this – the morning of April 30th taken two days before all the other photos in this post. Oh what a little sun can do!

I hope your spirit is waking up to and with all the signs of spring wherever you are!

It’s so easy to notice beauty this time of year. My spring prayer is that my eyes and heart remain attentive to the tiny signs of hope and life all the year through!

Lenten Reflection: We Too Are Creatures

In the summer of 2017, Mark and I led the River of Life Connecticut River Pilgrimage – a 40-day journey of prayer and reconciliation with the land. I invited the more than 50 pilgrims who joined us to return to the prayers from our pilgrimage this Lent. Throughout the season of Lent, I am writing weekly reflections drawing on the themes from the Connecticut River Pilgrimage. They are also being posted by Kairos Earth, the organization that sponsored the pilgrimage. Enjoy!

“The world is like our bodies. It, too, is formed by many limbs and directed by a single soul. Yes, the world is an immense being directed by the power and the word of God, who is, so to say, its soul.” – Origen

Modern life is lived out almost entirely in a human-made bubble. Within the world that Origen describes – the natural, God-created world of which our bodies are part– there is a manufactured sub-world of machines, concrete, currency and climate-control. Through the power of our technologies it is easy to forget that we are creatures, dependent on a world not of our creation for our food, water, and air. All too often this sub-world becomes all-consuming. It begins to feel like THE world itself, all that there is.

Thanks be to God, this is not so. This manufactured sub-world rests within the larger, God-created world. This God-created world holds and sustains us and this smaller world we’ve made.

But how can we remember this? How can humanity return to the lived understanding that we too are creatures? That we belong first and foremost to the world Origen describes? That our very destinies are interwoven, not with the powers and principalities of our human-made sub-world, but with the earth, the rivers, the birds and the beasts? How do we know in our hearts and bodies – not just our minds – that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return?

I believe our first and most important step is to immerse ourselves in the God-created world as much as possible. Or as Steve Blackmer much more simply puts, “Go outside!” And when we go outside, we go to listen, trusting that the earth will remind us who we are and whose we are. We go not to retreat from our manufactured sub-world, to fuel up and go back into the fray. We go to relearn how to be creatures that live in balance with our precious home every moment of our lives. This is the intimacy, this is the relationship with creation, for which our souls and the world’s soul longs.

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Mark getting to know some honey mushrooms!

Are you interested in exploring a greater intimacy with God’s creation? To awaken evermore to your own creatureliness? Consider joining us for the first Earth Credo retreat April 22-27.

Earth Credo is a 5-day immersion in the practice and spirituality of living in right relationship with the natural world. Rooted in the Christian tradition of care for the earth, participants will learn contemplative disciplines that support intimacy with God through Creation and learn practical outdoor skills needed to be comfortable interacting more closely with nature.

Lenten Reflection: Waking Up With the Earth

In the summer of 2017, Mark and I led the River of Life Connecticut River Pilgrimage – a 40-day journey of prayer and reconciliation with the land. I invited the more than 50 pilgrims who joined us to return to the prayers from our pilgrimage this Lent. Throughout the season of Lent, I am writing weekly reflections drawing on the themes from the Connecticut River Pilgrimage. They are also being posted by Kairos Earth, the organization that sponsored the pilgrimage. Enjoy!

Spring comes slowly to Vermont. The day’s light lengthens incrementally and the sun warms. The chickadees come alive with their glorious tunes. The red squirrels come out and begin to scurry and play. Yet, with all this pre-spring activity, a foot of snow still covers the earth I so long to dig my hands and feet into! Spring comes so very slowly to Vermont.

Taking in these little hints of spring available to me (and at this point impatiently wishing spring would come rushing at me all at once) has lead me to reflect on how our inner lives mirror the change of the seasons, especially as it relates to baptism and immersion – the River of Life Prayer Book’s theme for this week. As this week’s intro says, “Baptism was understood in the early church as a ritual drowning – dying to the old self to be born anew in God.” Every year we have the opportunity to watch how the earth herself dies each winter and is born anew each spring. It is a rhythm that will not be rushed and one that is essential for the vitality of our ecology.

So it is with our inner life. The spiritual path is a lifelong process of dying to our false self and being reborn into the fullness of life. The liturgical calendar invites us into this rhythm every year during the Lent and Easter seasons. The earth invites us into this rhythm with each setting and rising of the sun. Our own bodies invite us into this rhythm with our very breath – taking in the new and releasing the old with each inhalation and exhalation.

In the Gospel of John, Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The spiritual life is saying yes to the possibility that with each year, with each day, even with each breath the gift of a new life – the gift of spring – is available to us.

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This is why we have Lent. To remind us that we need not stay locked, frozen, and trapped in our false selves. The new life of spring, the resurrection of Easter, is always as near to us as our very breath.

May we wake up to this reality this Lent, this day, this very breath.

The Underbelly of Simple Living

February has been a difficult month – the frequent dreary skies have mirrored my weary and restless soul. Mark and I have taken turns being ill or fighting illness the entire month. Our two weekend programs this month were cancelled – one because of our illness, the other because of climate change.¹  Because of physical illness and psychological weariness, daily chores and work have felt particularly burdensome.

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A dreary fall day – pre snow!

This is by no means my first hard season, yet this season is still a first. It’s my first time going through a time of inner isolation, a sense of lost purpose, and pervasive weariness while immersed in this simple way of life. In some ways, this lifestyle has made my felt experience of this season much more difficult. Naturally, I’ve been tempted (and I’ve given in to the temptation) to blame our way of life for my inner restlessness. If only our life was easier and more convenient, I wouldn’t be so lonely, foggy and grumpy. If only I had a bigger home, then I’d be happy. Ha! How short and feeble is my memory! How quickly my mind forgets similar seasons living in a four-bedroom house in the middle of town thinking, “If only I was living closer to the land, then I’d be happy.” Or “If only I had a husband to take care of me, pull me out of this state, etc.” Happiness is not a consequence of environment.

I adamantly reject the idea that more convenience would make me happier. However, I am discovering that living simply requires me to feel my unhappiness at a deeper, more raw level, hence making the felt experience more difficult. This way of life, you see, makes it very, VERY hard to check out.

I’m really good at checking out. It’s my go-to response to stress. When the outer world or my inner world feels like too much for me to handle I reach for Facebook, Instagram, or Netflix. Living without electricity or internet has made it painfully difficult to check out in my favorite and easiest ways! Even though I haven’t binged on Netflix since the fall and I haven’t been on Facebook at home since December, I still feel an inner tug to find something to mindlessly consume when my weariness overwhelms me. My cellphone gets 3G in the yurt (I have to smoosh my body up against the front door to get service, but I get it) and it’s been revealing and humbling to discover how much I find myself in that spot hunched over my phone looking for distraction and relief from my inner woes.

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Beech leaf tenacity

For Lent, I “gave up” accessing the internet when I’m home. At least, I’ve been trying to. It’s only been two weeks and an embarrassing number of my conversations with Mark start with, “Confession: I checked my email, but let me tell you about this message we got!” So often the miracle of my existence, the love Mark and I share, and the infinite wonder outside my door does not seem to be enough. I do not have the eyes to see, so I crave the distraction of what’s happening anywhere but where I am.

It’s not just the removal of distractions that can make it harder to check out of simple living. It’s also a lifestyle that requires regular action for our daily needs to be met. When I don’t have access to the internet – the means to endless abstracted distraction – my next favorite way to check out is sleep, or general mopey slothfulness. In our off-grid 20-foot yurt, I can only be so lazy. We do not have the luxury to distance ourselves from the elements by a mere flip of the switch, reserving contact with the natural world and our bodily needs to times when we’re feeling robust, invigorated and fully alive. On even the worst days, wood needs to be brought in and the fire needs to be stoked if we’re going to stay warm and fed, the ice in the ice box needs to be changed out if our food is going to stay fresh, water needs to be hauled if we’re going to stay hydrated, a 100-yard hill needs to be walked to reach our front door, and our small space needs to be cleaned and organized if we’re going to stay sane.²  Sometimes engaging in these necessary chores plunges me further into my isolation and grumpiness, but more often than not they serve as tiny sacraments – marks of grace – inviting me to be present with the moment, present with the task at hand, and – what is always the most difficult for me – present even with my despair.

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A mid-winter ramble following one of the streams that flows through our property

In our culture of consumerism, we have been trained that negative emotions can be placated, ignored, or even fixed by changing our external circumstances. It’s no coincidence that changing those external circumstances almost always costs money. It’s easy for me to fight this temptation during one day of weariness, but when the fog carries on for days, weeks, or months my mind starts looking around to see what’s wrong. The longer the weariness continues, the harder it is to admit that the fog is probably coming from within me. That perhaps instead of more space or things in my house, I need to restart my routine of walking by the stream each morning, or recommit myself to our rhythm of prayer, or spend a few days in silence and solitude, or pray for eyes to see the infinite beauty and wonder around me. Most likely, I should do all the above.

When the fog of weariness lifts a bit, I am reminded of what I know to be true. A weary and restless heart is almost always not the disease (or dis-ease). It is a sign and symptom of a deeper dis-ease, of something in my inner life keeping me from total freedom and happiness. When hard seasons arrive, they are not something to escape or check out of. Escaping through distractions or sleep may seem like it’s making things better, but it’s only numbing the underlying pain, medicating a symptom without removing the source of the unease.

The hard lesson I’m (re)learning this month is that seasons like these are opportunities to be led by grace into ever greater freedom and a more abundant life. This is the nitty-gritty, the underbelly of this radical simplicity. It’s not always fun and easy. Though the land of the infinite may be within and among us in each and every moment, it doesn’t always feel like it. My trust in this experiment is that, to the extent that I refuse to check out and embrace a life of simplicity, prayer, and love – and all the good, bad, and ugly it reveals – the life and love of the Divine will infuse more and more of my being, giving me eyes to see that even in the hard times, the infinite is at hand!

¹ The uncharacteristic heavy thawing and freezing created very icy conditions in northern New Hampshire, making cross country skiing and snowshoeing difficult and travel on the dirt roads dangerous. Hence, a weekend with Dartmouth College students promising hours of winter play was cancelled. Late winter just hasn’t been wintry enough.
² Of course, chores are not the only way to create obstacles to checking out. Mothers and fathers get the ultimate cred in my book for leading lives that require presence and action no matter how one is feeling.