Thursday, August 23, 2007

Freshman at 43

They say age is a state of mine, but I will tell you it is also a state of body. There are things that at 18 I could do without thought, that now require preparation and perhaps even a new pair of shoes. Hiking across campus is one of those things.

My mind, which still thinks I am 20-ish, doesn't register the distance between Columbine Hall and Dwire Hall as any big thing. My body, and in particular, my aching feet, say differently. With 10 minutes to get from one part of campus to the other, and parking such an issue that I cannot drive from one building to the other, park, and arrive in time. This is a hike, and an uphill one at that. Moving as quickly as I can, I am easily outpaced by the flip-flop set in their short shorts, and barely make it in time.

What I found upon arriving at my first class on Monday was not what I expected.

I had just finished reading about an elementary school teacher and her excitement about getting the room ready, the chalkboards freshly cleaned, the floors buffed to a high shine and the desks situation just so. I had similar expectations of freshly cleaned rooms, bright white, whiteboards and neatly ordered rows of chairs/desks.

The first room has more desks than can reasonably fit, and the stacked ones take up room that the setup ones need. The one-armed chair/desks are so closely shoved together that it is hard to get beyond the first chair, and I have no explanation for the rows being so crooked. If there were a fire it would be nearly impossible for me, seated in the back to maneuver my way to safety. The whiteboards show the remnants of many other classes, even though this is the first class of the first day of the first semester of a new year. All in all, not what I was expecting, but I'm still probably the happiest and most excited student there.

This semester I am going half-time, so my two classes are Logic and Reason and Public Speaking. What a lot of fun.

Another thing that changed since I was 18 is my eyes! I'm having trouble reading my textbooks and can't get new glasses 'til our insurance kicks in sometime in September or October. Yikes.

Hike to Mysterious

I found this piece while cleaning out my nightstand. I wrote it in November 2002 for a class on nature writing. Hope you enjoy it.

I have often told my family not to bury me when I die, but instead to sprinkle my ashes in the place which calls to me in the stillness and quietness of my spirit. Instead of a manicured lawn covered in precisely placed headstones, I want to be remembered in the place which in its serene wildness speaks of who I am and who I want to be. It is the place I think of when I remember my dad before age and illness stole his strength and vitality. It is, of all places I love, the place I consider my true home, my church, my cathedral, where choirs of trees sing to the music of the water and the birds harmonize an anthem of praise to their creator. The memory of it calms me when I need it most.

Our first attempt to get to Mysterious Lake had us gasping for air above timberline, with no lake in sight—Mysterious in name, mysterious in location. Following that attempt, my Dad made other trips and, with my older brother, had found his way in over a punishing seven-and-a-half mile trail. Too long and strenuous for the entire family, Dad sought an alternate route.

As I sit here in the city, I think back…and in the blink of an eye I am back. Back in 1972, eight years old, ready to embark on a trip that could bring success or failure. I can still be eight years old and back on the trail, any time I close my eyes—drying my boots by the fire, looking out over Mysterious Lake, just the way it was the first time we hiked in. Back, before others discovered our trail, before dirt bikes and ATV tires tore up the trails and churned up the creek beds—when it was as innocent and untamed as I was.

That first successful trip begins after a journey over the Continental Divide, past the large expanse of Taylor Reservoir, past the beaver dams where we’ve camped and fished for years, and up rough logging roads, where our small Toyota stations wagon scrapes and groans over rocks and downed trees. At the end of the logging road, we leave the car behind, tugging on our outerwear and check for the last time to see if we have the essentials for a trip in the backcountry.

After an uphill hike of nearly an hour, we reach an unmarked road. (On our return trip we will trace this road back down and find that we could have entirely eliminated the first hour of the hike.) We follow the road up to the end and stand in our heavy clunky boots, overweight packs on our backs, staring up an impossibly steep hillside. We are following Dad with his axe, ready to blaze the trail, topographical map in hand.

Moments later, I am scrambling up the hill, tiny rocks skittering down, kicked loose by my boots, still damp from crossing the creek. I can smell the pines and hear the heavy breathing of my family, the path too steep and too hard for talking. I can’t quit, I tell myself, though with each step I want to stop and wait for their eventual return.

At the top I half sit, half lean against a boulder, not taking my pack off for fear I won’t be able to lift it back onto my screaming shoulders. There are faint sounds of camp robbers (gray jays) and robins calling each other and rustling sounds of chipmunks in the underbrush.
The sun is warm through the pines as a cool breeze dries the sweat on my face and neck. The rest is all too brief. “Let’s go.” Dad is ready, so we rise to follow him.

There are six of us on the trail, but up here, with the sound of my heart pounding in my ears and the sound of my own labored breathing, I feel alone, but not lonely. My boots are heavy, and their sure footing gives me a feeling of confidence and strength as I follow Dad down the hill.
Thwack. The echo of metal striking wood is followed by the sound of flesh being torn from a tree ahead. As I pass, I admire the fresh blazes, the sap beading and glistening in the fresh wooden wound.

At the bottom of this hill we must cross another stream and then across the mire of the marsh, the muck clinging to my boots when I step off the high ground. I slap at the multitudes of mosquitoes rising from the vegetation to feast on my blood, drawn by my exhaled breath. The grasses are lush, the leaves wide and green, making a lovely swishing sound as I pass.
At the far end we stop before taking on the second steep hill, and I try to knock the mud off my boots, drinking water from my canteen (We didn’t worry about giardia in those days.) It tastes so good, so refreshing when I’m in the high country. No chlorine. No impurities. Liquid silver poured by heaven’s hand.

At the end of the short but rough trail, we come out of the pines into a wide meadow, at the top end of a small lake. We have arrived.

I am as yet unaware of spectacular places like Niagara Falls or the Mediterranean, so the dark waters reflecting the pale blue sky and wispy clouds overhead strike me as the beauty of a daisy—hardy, cheerful and pure. The waters are as clean as the first snow, as cool as the first winter chill, as refreshing as the first drought-ending rain. The lake seems to hide great mysteries in the depths. To the south, above a broadening meadow, treeless peaks fill the vista, snow clinging to the ramparts. We won this view by virtue of our sweat and blisters, by the climb that leaves us sitting, thighs trembling from the unaccustomed exertion, shoulders aching from carrying all our gear over one and a half of the most grueling miles I will ever encounter. I feel triumphant, healthy, alive—and tired. My older brother takes his pack off, lays back, closes his eyes and goes to sleep.

I made that same trip many times as I was growing up. I hope to hike that trail ‘til the hair on my head is a white as my father’s and the skin on my face as lined as the map that showed him the way in. I long to follow the still visible blazes into my favorite spot on earth.
No matter how many times I’ve been there, the first time, the effort the newness, and the wonder remain etched in my mind. Each swing of my father’s ax is a tick in the clock marking the days of my childhood, so quickly gone. Each step is imprinted in my muscles and memory by the sheer will to dominate that trail and soaked into my skin by the rewarding delight of swimming in the shivery shallows of Mysterious Lake.

Today, despite the damage left by others, and the occasional discordant roar of a motorbike engine destroying the peace, what’s left is the soaring hawk above, the trout below the dark water, the quick sighting of an elk across the lake. There is a vista without power lines, without roads and without the trappings of a modern civilized life. It is a place where you must be alert to the ever-present danger of nature in all its wildness, and the inattention that can cause catastrophic injuries so far from assistance.

I close my eyes and hear my boots crunching on the trail, smell the sweet pines and decaying undergrowth, feel the sun filtering through the trees, the gentle breeze and the strain on muscle and will. That first trip is the pinnacle, and when I am too old or too feeble to climb that trail again, I will still remember cold water, warm sun, hard boots, and the sweet scent of pines. Life never gets better.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Ordinary and Sublime

Huge things are happening in lives around me. A very little boy has suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and is in Children's Hospital. It's awful. The family goes through such incredible strain. The emotional toll can only be understood by someone else who has gone through something similar. For the rest of us, the best we can do is to love them, pray for them, bring meals, take part in fundraisers, send cards, visit, or other small kindnesses. There are parts of this that we can do nothing about.

Sometimes it seems odd to be going about normal everyday things while some people are in the midst of such life-altering events. Sons go off to war, husbands die, children are hurt, jobs are lost, finances are stretched to the breaking point, and yet we register for school, buy socks, do laundry, fill ice trays... When I stop and think about Jackson and his family, I momentarily feel guilty, as if living my life denies the pain and tragedy this family is going through.

But if everyone were to feel the intensity of this emotional situation, there is no one they could count on for support or strength. There would have been no one to volunteer to help with the fundraiser this past weekend, no one to make meals, no one to be the shoulder to cry on.

So I am grateful that there is some sense of normalcy to my life right now. Going back to school and all the preparation for that takes my mind off of our financial problems and gives me something to look forward to. This is a positive step toward reaching lifelong goals, and eventually will make me able to make a better living, which will, in turn, make our financial life better.

Long-term goals are not promises for the future, but without them we are living a life with no hope. I can live the same lifetime without making any plans, striving for any goals, but that is stagnation. Stagnation is worse than death, it is the growth of putrification. Without forward movement--striving toward something, we become a smelly, molding pool of yuck.

I am moving forward. It kind of goes along with my favorite story about Abraham Lincoln. A contemporary of his said he was the only man he knew who became a better person the older he got. This has been a goal of mine for years. Better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today. I can do nothing about the past, but I can strive to always grow and be better.

This is easier said than done. It means facing fears, and it means examining yourself to determine if you are getting better. It means facing your flaws, the times when you are unkind, when you are irritible with people who don't deserve it, when you are selfish, unjust, when you judge others unfairly, or when you simply think too highly of yourself. It means seeking to live without excuses (I'm sooooo not there yet.) It means guarding my tongue, harnessing my thoughts, seeking to use my time more wisely. All of these are rather lofty goals, but since they needn't be accomplished all at once, I strive toward them.

Anyway, today was church, worship team, women's ministry meeting, baby shower, and picking up books for classes tomorrow. A very full day. I put in 9 hours by 3:30. I'm beat.

I should probably get my clothes ready for tomorrow. I have to be in class by 8. I can't believe it. I finally get to go to school. I must go now.

Oh, and one last favorite guy at the local Starbucks, Ryan, is moving to Oregon. I will miss him. He is unfailingly cheerful and friendly. I will have to go in during the next few days to say goodbye. Wednesday is his last day. So if you get to the Starbucks at Flintridge & Acadmy in Colorado Springs, stop in Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, say goodbye to Ryan and tell him I sent you in. Better yet, call me and we'll go together!