Embracing the Slow

Morning quiet

“Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window

toward the mountain presence of everything that can be

what urgency calls you to your one love?

What shape waits in the seed of you

to grow and spread its branches

against a future sky?”

– From “What to Remember when Waking” David Whyte

It was one of those magical mid-June mornings in between the typical 4-day long rains of June and the Great Rain of 2022. A brilliant sun broke over the cloud-enshrouded mountain causing my rain-soaked lawn and leafy trees to shimmer just a bit. A few birds continued their morning song while the rest of the world rested. Including me.

I gazed at this foreign wonder before me. Unable to rush off to church or get on with the endless chores of landscape maintenance or go for my once twice weekly 17-mile long-run – I realized that in the last 6+ years my parents died, I bought my house, my marriage came and went, I completed 2+ years of theology studies and began my role as a Lay Pastor while continuing to work 40 hours a week but I have not once done this – just sit and take things in. Just rest.

And as I gazed upon this scene, I realized that I really do love my yard now that I am not a slave to the constant mowing of it (I had to hire someone for this summer as I recover) and I actually look forward to tending my garden beds rather seeing it as yet another invasion of my busy scheduled life.

And oh, how I love Ember – my now 4-year-old Brittany. He is such a light in this unsettled world. Just watching him amuse himself is a joy. Even at 4 years old he discovers everything anew with such gusto! A leaf on the grass, his chewed-up tennis ball, a piece of bark, not to mention the starlings teasing him – all were a feast of joy for his eyes and induced exuberant frolicking.

We played fetch and he brought the ball back willingly about 8 times. Remarkable! On the occasion he decided to do his own thing I laid back in the chair and dropped my hand down and closed my eyes.  After a minute he walked up and dropped the ball and laid his head on my lap and looked at me with the most adoring eyes.  It just about made me cry. I sadly realized I had never made time for these moments before, or at least I can’t remember the last time I savored the simple pleasures of a quiet Sunday morning. I felt an ache inside at the realization of what I have not only missed, but lost.

And why? For what reason?

For years I have been plagued by an inner restlessness that has yet to be soothed. I always have to be doing something – even if that means pacing back and forth before moving on to the next must do. I live by the principle of work before pleasure at all times and my form of pleasure was always something highly active and results oriented. I never rested. I never balanced the go with the slow.

It saddens me how much our culture encourages constant doing and striving and achieving. It is all too easy to get tangled up with everything – the demands of life, the inner must-do’s, the expectations of others, the rigidity and comfort of routine.

It seems like the right thing to do – even noble – to be constantly working on something and never take breaks. I’ve heard myself make the same excuse over and over again for not taking time off – doing so always creates so much work before and after. It’s easier to just keep plugging on and letting life slip by. Keep going – go faster. Don’t be the slow car in the fast lane and while we’re at it – blast that slow car in the fast lane!! How can anyone drive slow like that – oblivious to the world racing by?? 

But now I wonder how can anyone sustain a lifestyle that is all go and no slow? How did I do it for so long and how unsettling it is that it took major surgery to make me realize this!

All of this serves as a reminder that we need to pay attention to balance in our lives.  Too much pleasure and free time can be as detrimental as too much work and too much structure.  Constantly punishing workouts will weaken the body as much as being a couch potato.  Constant striving will at long last bring us to a place where there is no meaning to our endeavors and nothing left of us to enjoy our achievements once realized.

It’s up to us to determine how to balance all of the parts and pieces, people and places that contribute to us having a healthy and satisfying life.

There is a wonderful opportunity awaiting all of us in the very next moment. Perhaps it is a brilliant sun breaking over the cloud-enshrouded mountain causing a rain-soaked lawn and leafy trees to shimmer just a bit and your heart to sigh. Maybe it is the final chord of the morning birdsong. Perhaps it is just a quiet stillness waiting for you to gaze upon its foreign wonder and rest.

Let your light so shine.

Those Big IFs

“It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, in regard to what he has given me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”  John 10: 22-30

Yes, Jesus, just how long is it going to be? Yes, Jesus, just what is going to happen to me, to us, to all of us? Yes, Jesus, just tell me, show me… because, you know, what if?

What if this isn’t the right choice? What if things don’t go as planned? What if something goes wrong? What if I am not as strong as I think I am? What if I am not who I think I am? What if You are not who I believe you are?

What do we do with questions like that? What do those questions reveal about the questioner and whom we question?

I am preparing for a significant “life-event” you might call it. Total Hip Replacement. Just saying it seems so unreal. I’m too young for this sort of thing! I don’t have room in my life for this kind of disruption! While I am thankful I have the opportunity to prepare for it rather than have it suddenly forced upon me, the whole process is raising significant questions, unsettledness, and apprehension within me. For someone who boldly professes her conviction in the things unseen and her assurance in my hope for things to come – the state of unknowingness I find myself in has me feeling untethered; as if I need to suspend my life until I can feel grounded again – if I can ever feel grounded again. I wonder if I am ungrounding my life by taking this leap of trust and why ever would I want to do that – because – WHAT IF?

What if the things to come are not what I intended? (As if I have any control over that!) What if my choice was wrong? What if I am not as strong as I need to be? What if I am changed – CHANGED (gasp!!) forever? Why, Lord, won’t you answer me these things?? I need facts, certainty, vision, reason – give me the straight talk!

When have you asked these questions? When have you wrestled with the discomfort of uncertainty reigning over your circumstances?  Life in the world today is fertile ground for questions of this sort. Perhaps you are facing a decision or a conversation you feel unprepared for or fully inept at making or having? Maybe you are facing a difficult or painful change. Maybe your career, your finances, your health, or your family are at a critical crossroads. This is the stuff of life. The choices and decisions we make determine our course. It is a daunting position to find ourselves in.

No matter how the questions arise, they ultimately reflect our spiritual condition. It’s more about what’s going on within us than around us. And yet most of us would much rather deal with the circumstances – the facts of the matter – than the swirling dervish inside ourselves.

Of course, I tell myself I have no choice than to deal with myself – because I. Am. It. in this go around. The fiercely independent, keeps things close, doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone – me, the me who always commands control of her situation longs to believe – no, make that knows – that it is all up to me. I have learned enough hard lessons in life to know all this is true. And I have absolutely no faith in myself right now.

I sometimes wonder if Jesus ever had questions like this as he made His way through this broken world. As the Messiah, surely, He believed as I do, that it was all up to Him. Yet He was questioned over and over again by those He sought to convince of His truth. Did those questions ever chip away at his grounding and conviction? Was he not fully human?

In 1946, in a lecture given by Victor Frankl, after he survived the horrors and dehumanizing conditions of the Holocaust, the Austrian neurologist, philosopher and writer posited: “We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life.”

The Stoic in me recognizes that our lives are made of a series of questions – each requiring answers. Every adversity or challenge presents to us an opportunity to find meaning – to think anew – start anew – live anew.  It is how we go about answering these questions and responding to events that challenge us and change us that we find our purpose and meaning. We are refined and strengthened in the process.  We become our authentic selves – separating us from the crowd.

Over and over again Jesus was tested – by Satan himself and cajoled by the crowds and the religious leaders to prove himself – and yet he remained steadfast in moving towards his goal. How did He do that? How did Jesus walk the straight and narrow?

The Jesus lover in me wants the simple answer of faith. Faith. But there has to be more, right?

Throughout His life, Jesus used every occasion he was presented as a lesson for his followers. Some were tests of his identity, some were simply the potholes of life – but with each gave a new perspective, a deeper knowledge of who He is and who we are. Each lesson brought him closer to fulfilling his work of salvation and love. He showed us who He is by staring down Satan in the desert – rising above temptation for “glory” and rising to the occasion of Messiah; in the midst of a grand social foo-pah He changed water into wine; when commerce and gluttony threatened sanctity He cleansed the temple; in the face of hunger He fed five thousand with a scant collection of bread and fish but abundant hope; in the shadow of sickness he enabled a lame man to stand up, take his mat, and walk and gave a blind man his sight; in the wake of scandal he forgave the woman caught in adultery; against the sting of despair and doubt He  raised Lazarus from the dead. And at Easter, He showed us that life comes out of death.

With that in mind, I now see Jesus as the greatest Stoic that ever lived, died, and lives! And I take great comfort that He calls me, in all my independence, His own. Now, if I would just accept that that is indeed enough.

Ultimately, my BIG IF questions get right down to my ultimate need for security and sense of being – both of which will be completely disrupted by this surgery – but will also have the opportunity to be bolstered as well.

I am determined to make the down-time ahead of me worthwhile. I am being presented with a challenge – and yes – a learning opportunity. Not only am I terrible at asking for help and allowing people to help me – which I am being forced to do – I am terrible at resting in God’s plan. I profess that I do – but trusting in His plan for me? No, I tend to hold on to the reins a bit too tight.

As theologian Henri Nouwen wrote: “(I)t seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”  I am mortified by this – but I have come to realize that in many of my approaches to life I am the God of my life! I cannot give up control. And yes, it is easier to control people than to love them! Our society and politics magnify this blatantly (but our politics are a reflection of the people which is me and you.) It takes a lot of chutzpah to put that into words – but we need to – I need to. And finally, there is a big difference between owning and loving life. I can have all the control of and security in myself that I can muster – but if I do not have meaning and belonging – that isn’t much of a life and there is not much to love.

So, maybe God is using this down-time in my life – literally and figuratively – to remind me yet again that I already belong – to Him – and to show me that only He can fill the void that my incessant going and moving and doing and seeking keeps me from attending to. To teach me that letting others help me may actually help them and show me that I can rely on – even trust – others to care for me. To make me stop and listen – to His voice and hear what He is saying.

I am quite certain I am going to go insane not being in perpetual motion but what a lesson this will be – not being in perpetual pain and resting in real truths. In a sense I am going on a fast – to help me appreciate the other gifts I have in life and hopefully enjoy life for its truest pleasures once I am able to again. 

Where will your questions lead you? May the answers always be life changing.

“And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin

Let your light so shine!

Fading Away

A stormy drive

It has been five very long and very short years since I last heard Dad say my name. He knew, for a moment at least, that I had made it home. And with that his journey home began.

5 years ago, tonight, after the longest, fastest drive of my life across this great big state that held his heart, I sat at my Dad’s side – holding his hand willing him to open his eyes just one more time. I’d heard him say my name one last time an hour or so before. It was just a whisper over the annoying din of an old western movie playing on the TV. I will never forget the sound of his voice – it jarred me so. It was not the voice I wanted to remember my Dad by. But that aural memory of my father that I want to hold on to oh so badly – is slipping away into the ocean of noise created by THIS world. Why didn’t I save ANY of his phone messages????

I would not have expected to be in this austere room facing his ending just a few days prior but there I was looking at the shell of the man who with our wonderful mother, had created for me and my brother, lives we wouldn’t trade for anything.

In the last hours of his life- as his body was shutting down, betraying him every step of the way – he seemed so meek and so willing to go on his way while I wanted him to fight, FIGHT with all his might to stay with me. But I could tell he was at peace – and finally –  he gave that incredible gift to me  – to be at peace with the way things were going to be.

I still struggle with how his life came to a close. But that struggle does not come close to the mighty love I have for him still.

I have thought about my last moments with Dad a lot lately – moments I didn’t have with Mom when she died. As someone who is single without children of my own – I wonder what my last moments will be like. Morbid yes, but as I watch death take hold of so many lives of late, it is hard not to wonder about things like that.  

What a blessing it was to share his last breath and commend his spirit to the Lord. To lay my head on his chest for one last heartbeat. Those last moments were the worst moments of my life. I wanted to die with him right then and there and yet, at the same time felt raw and alive with the wonder of the liminality of life. That experience is a gift in itself. I am not afraid to die anymore – of the process of death – yes – terrified – but dying – not so much.

I am so thankful I was able to be with my Dad to send him home. My heart breaks for who don’t get to say the same goodbye.

I’m grateful for their momentary visits now and then, but I can’t wait to see Mom and Dad again.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” – John 14:27

When the Darkness Hits

I hate not feeling well and I hate not being able to go 100% all the time. I have been dealing with nagging pain since December 3rd (I remember the day exactly!!!) and then for Christmas I got the awful non-COVID crud which really knocked me off my feet for the start of the new year… It’s been a slow comeback and that frustrates me to no end!! I have opted to sleep my weekends away – because why bother any way???

Depression can really creep its ugly ways into life and do awful things. It colours my perception of things – and makes my world feel very small. I watched my mother struggle with depression throughout much of her life and I vowed THAT would never happen to me. I became angry with her at times and lost my patience and my cool far too often when she was in her dark place. This is a painful memory that haunts me in my own trying times. Unfortunately, it really isn’t something I could set vows against. It is an illness that anyone can suffer from.

While I certainly didn’t choose this affliction – I can choose how I combat it. I won’t give in to it as Mom finally did. Watching my mother’s journey has helped me know the danger signs and driven me to create a tool box I can turn to when the darkness hits.

The tools I implement come from being humble enough and not too prideful or afraid to ask for help a few years ago and this past summer – something that wasn’t encouraged in my mother’s generation – nor mine. I turn to them time and time again. Real connection and reaching out instead of looking in, sunshine, fresh air, and self-compassion instead of judgment. Taking a break from social media is a big one… Finding light wherever I can in the dark grey winter of NW Montana – be it the brightly lit Christmas tree still up in my living room on January 25 or lighting candles every night. Being able to see the sky again certainly helps.

Knowing that Ember, my faithful, loyal, oh so loving dog, needs me keeps me grounded in the here and now and not what was or should have been. This weekend I finally started to feel normal again – not pain-free but somewhat alive again. Like perhaps my light can still shine. Thank you, God.

“but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:31

“Let me hear of your unfailing love each morning, for I am trusting you. Show me where to walk, for I give myself to you.” Psalm 143:8

Let your light so shine!

4 Years and Counting

“Out of the ashes of the past two years – the loss, the grief, the growth, the discovery – comes the promise of hope and the light and warmth of a new life. Meet Ember. Elkhorn Mountain Southpaw’s Ember of My Heart.” December 9, 2017

4 years ago I made the longest 5 hour drive home on icy, snowy roads in the dark with a yipping, yowling bundle of joy as my co-pilot!!!  Today, I can’t imagine my life without Ember. He may not be this tiny ball of fluff anymore but he doesn’t know that. He still talks and squarks (an odd mix of squeaking and barking when we walk), his fur is soft as velvet, and he still won’t go to sleep unless he has commandeered the entirety of my arm. Ember is the first dog I have ever climbed mountains with – and I must say there is something amazing about sharing a summit view with a pup. Seeing the world through his eyes is so much more exciting.

Of the 5 Brittanies I have loved in my life – and this is hard to say because I loved them all so very much – Ember is the most gentle, loving and mindful. No, he isn’t my first like Patsy who set the bar high for her successors, he doesn’t sit on top of his doghouse like Bisken, he doesn’t come at the sound (yes sound) of cheese like Hunter, or strike a pose quite like Tucker would, but his insistence on sharing my space, his energy, his silly fear of cats, and his sheer joy of life and being loved is like none before.

With each passing day I love him even more – even as our life together grows more routine. I want to stop time.  I want his youthful energy and puppy eyes and wiggles (still at 4!!) to last forever. I want to hold on to him forever and I know I will. He brought light to the darkest time of my life and he will forever live in my heart.

Let your light so shine!!

Going West

“I’d say Lord has blessed us all today. It’s just that he has been particularly good to me.” – A River Runs Through It

Amen.

Let it be so. I could leave it at that sweet word of thanksgiving to sum this wonderful day up – but I am too much in love with words to be so concise. 😊

Go west, young lady, go west.

So west I went and I almost didn’t come back.

Have you ever been so relaxed in God’s creation that you cry? As the miles and hours passed en route to my destination I could have pinched myself. This was not a Glacier Park experience by any means. No 3 a.m. wake-up blasts to beat the maddening crowds, no seeing nothing but red taillights on the road before me, no wondering if I would find a place at the trailhead to park, or a private place on the trail to find a tree, no spiking of my blood pressure or clenched teeth. No, none of that!!!

As this peaceful Sunday morning unfolded, I was transported by Dvorak and Vivaldi into a place and time that I used to know. Pulse quickening anticipation of what awaited me – something new and unknown.

The autumn tapestry before me was like a warm quilt embracing me – not a red tail light in sight – just deep russet berry bushes lining the creek and river banks, rich cinnamon and sienna reds bringing Ember to mind, and leafy golden splashes of soaring light.

It was as if God was in His studio painting away – reading every thought of mine and knowing just the “thing” I needed.

Joy.

What I needed was joy.

Unadulterated, uncalculated, uncomplicated joy.

Honestly, the whole day seemed to be a simple gift, an answered prayer, a whisper of grace with every step leading me to joy.

Theologian Henri Nouwen writes that a joyful vision of life only can come when we realize just how short an opportunity we have to say yes to God’s love. Poet David Whyte says that to find joy you must become a living frontier. To both I can attest.

Amen. Let it be so.

Thirsting for Adventure…

“If you don’t die of thirst, there are blessings in the desert.”
Never before have I considered drowning myself in a lake… yesterday, I came very close to doing just that.

After navigating the insanity of the 5am traffic on the west side of The Going to the Sun Road (ah, I remember way back when….) My two hiking companions for the first leg of the day – who were backpacking in for a two-night stay – and I were pleasantly surprised to find the Saint Mary Valley void of anything but expansive views, 2 bears, and a few respectful humans. Clouds hung o’er the valley from the previous night’s storm giving definition to the sky and the mountains below. I was a bit frustrated at first, having missed the early light of the day casting its glow on their eastern faces thanks to the d#$@ traffic, but the mountains still sang their morning story. I rethought my initial ire – giving thanks instead that so many people value something as beautiful and life-giving as God’s creation as I do.


The trailhead was deserted! A bit daunting when one has never hiked this way before, but even for me it was a straightforward route (Though my Alltrails app kept saying otherwise.) We soon realized those clouds were our friends but unlike true friends, they deserted us when we needed them most.


The morning light was soft as I made my way to Red Eagle Lake – thank God for the neverending views of my destination – though the water would only come into view the last 1/4 mile. Fire has decimated any earthly source of shade in this valley and by 9am I was becoming increasingly aware that this day would be a long hot one. The eight + miles to the lake passed fairly quickly. The wind shrieked through the stands of petrified trees at times, hauntingly so – even on a HOT and bright day. I felt as though the spirits of my past were walking with me – and soon I was working things out with them. Amazing how 8 miles can disappear when one is lost in thought.


Nestled at the base of a few of East Glacier’s impressive red peaks, Red Eagle Lake is a beautiful destination – the journey to and from less so – at least on a 90-degree day. The wind off the water was invigorating though – and I actually got a bit chilled. I would need that distant memory later in the afternoon. The lapping of the water, a lullaby that almost made me forget I still had a long journey back.


Cognizant that sun and heat were not on my side and would only grow more intense as the afternoon wore on, I departed the cool waters and headed east. The expanse of which did not thrill my eyes as my destination’s alluring views had. I had a long, hot, and dry solo journey ahead of me.


It’s funny what you think about when you realized you weren’t thinking when you packed your pack. I did not bring enough water for one thing – a very bad one thing to do… I started playing a game with myself – when I crossed a footbridge or suspension bridge I could take a sip of water. While the river that rushed next to me could be a source of water, it was only a tease as accessing that rapid refreshment wasn’t as easy or safe as needed. I felt my skin dehydrating and crinkling. Small patches of shade created by the brush were like desert oases to my eyes. And then I discovered the biting flies – I had sweated away all the bug repellant I had previously applied and now the flies were hungry. If I stopped to open my pack they attacked so I just kept walking – as fast as I could – which created a slight breeze – so there was a small blessing realized.


I love challenges like this. No, it is not the same as climbing a peak, but the will to keep going always kicks in whether you are summiting a peak, or enduring a hot, desolate trail. The body can withstand a lot if you train it properly. The mind can too. I can handle days like this long, hard, sweaty – it’s the other ones when I can’t prove myself through physical means that get me.


Needless to say, in 17 miles I learned what a precious commodity water is and reaffirmed how very much I need this natural escape from reality on a regular basis. (It seems lots of people do). That I pretty much had this trail all to myself aside from two backpackers hiking out from a night’s stay and a group of Hutterites in full-garb I met at the end who inquired if they had much farther to go (!!!) was good and bad. Though I detest the masses of people clamoring for selfies on the prime trails, I enjoy meeting the random kindred hiker in the middle of nowhere.


The water of Saint Mary Lake was an incredible reprieve after 6 hours (was that all it was??) in the scorching sun. I wanted to drink the entire lake and let her waves wash me away. The fact that I left my car window wide open and nothing had been disturbed – was a sign that there is still lots of good in this world.


A long hot day is once again in the books. Another page in the adventures of Erika Morck written. I am grateful for it.

A Little Less Broken

Last night I enjoyed my first live concert in 16 months! By. Myself.

This was huge for me. Not only is music an intrinsic part of my being, but doing this on my own was life-giving! You see 18 months ago, my brief marriage ended. Up until my marriage, I was just fine being independent, doing things on my own for my own enjoyment. It is what I had known for most of my adult life. Sure, at times I longed for a companion, but I did not let that stop me from enjoying life. But then my marriage ended and COVID hit and I found myself navigating this all too strange world by myself and something happened to me. My singleness suddenly became something that was to be ashamed of, I was alone and had no one to “pod” with and God forbid I reach out to anyone for fear of burdening their already COVID-stressed lives with my neediness. And so, for the last 16 or so months I have been trying to pick up the pieces of my life by myself – and growing more and more inward and self-conscious of my singleness. The monotony of just getting through became my safe place and default. I started to think that I didn’t deserve to enjoy things on my own – that I had too much work to do – both real tangible work – and cleaning up the broken pieces of my life.

Well last night, the COVID-cancelled concert season I had bought my single season-tickets for long before COVID hit resumed and I had to make a decision – did I dare go, alone?

I almost didn’t. I had spent 4.5 hours mowing the lawn (push mower) and was tired. I could easily have taken a hot shower and spent the evening on the patio with a book. BUT I didn’t.

I am friends with Mike, the creator of this concert series and one of the main performers. This was a special night for him, his first live concert in 16 months. He needed an audience!! Because I am a sponsor, I get reserved seats. When I arrived at the performance center for this “concert in the round” where we sit right on stage with the performers, there it was – a single seat saved for me in the front row. Mike greeted me heartily when he saw me come in and the rest was history. The couple sitting in the next seat grouping told me to move my seat over and join them! I had never met them before and they have no idea what a gift from God that small act of compassion did for my soul!

Coincidentally, the opening song, a Larry Gatlin oldie I had never heard before almost made my already emotional state of joy of just being on a stage again, spill over my cheeks:

She’s a broken lady, waiting to be mended
Like a potter would mend a broken vase
A broken lady, waiting to be mended
And have what’s left of the pieces put back in place

Her love is like a fortress around a man she would have died for
Taking care to take of all he needed
But the ladies fortress slowly turned into a prison
And the warning signs he gave, she never heeded

She vowed every morning that what God joined together
No one else in the world could pull apart
Then the walls came tumbling to the ground
And her world came crashing down around her heart

Now she’s a broken lady, waiting to be mended
Like a potter would mend a broken vase
A broken lady, waiting to be mended
And have what’s left of the pieces put back in place

She’s a broken lady, waiting to be mended
And have what’s left of the pieces put back in place

Broken Lady – From the album High Time, written by Larry Gatlin

It was a magical night and I left floating – by. myself. I am not putting my life on hold waiting for my pieces to be put back together any longer. I finally accepted and believed that my worth is not measured by my relationship status! I am not a failure – my marriage failed. I deserve to enjoy life – as much if not more than I did before. Blessings to all of you who may be on a journey to put your broken pieces back together! I feel just a little more whole today!

Dropping the Mask

As I drove into the parking lot of the grocery store, I weighed my options. Would I be bold and fearless or continue to color within lines that have been drawn around almost every public activity for over a year? If I was bold, would I also be deemed a rebel with or without a cause? If I stuck to my modus operandi of benefitting the common good, staying obedient to the “science,” would I now be deemed anti-science or a flaming liberal?  Who knew that a quick trip to the market to pick up bananas could become a study of societal norms and my psychological un-doing?

The last time I shopped here, I found myself an oddity and the recipient of eye-rolls from those breathing free and easy as I observed the rules set forth by management to wear a mask while in the store – rules that were not enforced but highly suggested.  And now, here I was, mask in hand – not certain whether I would once again cover my face as I entered or go with the flow. The day before, the much anticipated and argued about news rang throughout the land –   the mask wearing edict had been lifted from on high!  Despite news to the contrary just days before, the science now said that if I was fully vaccinated, I could go places without a mask on – inside and out – and not have to socially distance with minimal to no risk to myself! 

The news seemed to come out of nowhere – like a swift gust of wind announcing the arrival of a storm. Only this time it was like the wind we had all been running into headlong all year suddenly changed direction – leaving me feeling a bit short of breath. For well over a year, we have been told to look out for each other – that it wasn’t just about me but what I could do to another person just by exhaling in their presence. With a long way to go before the population is vaccinated and immunity to the viral presence that has inhibited our livelihoods is reached, especially in my community, this all seemed rather abrupt. Not wearing my mask left me feeling a bit vulnerable as I contemplated going inside but what would wearing one say about my confidence in the vaccine? What message would I send?  What would I do?

The fact that we are all sick of wearing masks should not be lost on any of us. We are weary of not seeing each other’s faces, of not knowing whether someone is smiling or frowning – not to mention tired of smelling our own breath and walking around with fogged up glasses. The very notion of such a thing becoming a habit has spurred many a social media rant. And yet whether we know it or not, every single one of us wears a mask every moment we are conscious of others. Not unlike our recent accumulation of masks for every outfit, many of us have an assortment of masks we don for different situations – and without them we feel exposed, vulnerable, if not right out afraid.  Afraid of being found out, afraid of not fitting in, afraid of being seen for who we really are. Suddenly our innermost flaws – the ones we regularly scheme to ignore or hide – seem to be on full display.  And so, we don the mask of the moment and present a vision of ourselves to others that will get us by. A new experience, stressful moments, or times filled with great uncertainty seem to be those occasions I reach for a mask. In essence, we make ourselves out to be what we think others expect us to be. Done often enough we risk losing sight of who we really are.

This past year I have had a marked decrease in opportunities to don my assortment of masks. I will admit to having breathed a sigh of relief at the chance to just be me on a regular basis. But it hasn’t been the mental sanctuary I had hoped for. Rather, the reprieve brought to light that I have lost sight of just who I am in my own eyes. What is my story?

What am I hiding from others? If I felt secure and sure in the presence of others, what is it that I would want them to know about me – all of me?  How earthshaking would it be if the real me stepped forward all the time?  What if we all were the “real me’s” in the presence of others? How might our relationships change? How might our lives in community change?

The stories we tell others about ourselves – the good and bad – of what we have experienced in our lives help us make sense of the world and shape us as individuals. These stories are what Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology, calls our narrative identity. We tell these stories to give our lives meaning and help others understand us. While many people may experience a similar event in their lives, each person interprets the event differently and assigns different levels of importance to it. Some people will simply move on from an experience like a swimming lesson gone awry, while others are transformed by it, perhaps emboldened to face their fears throughout life or traumatized by the experience they viewed as a broken trust.  McAdams calls these “narrative choices” and they predominantly fall into four thematic categories: redemption (stories that transition from the bad to the good that follows), contamination (stories that transition from the good to the bad), communion (stories that emphasize connection, love, friendship, intimacy, caring, or belonging), and agency (stories that emphasize achievement, self-mastery, empowerment, status, and influence).

McAdams’ studies have shown that those whose narratives fall into the redemption, communion, or agency themes have a better outlook on life, find more meaning and purpose in their life, achieve more of their goals, seek out and find more connection, enjoy deeper relationships, and generally report a greater sense of well-being. People who tell their stories through a contamination lens tend to see themselves as victimized, less-than, and fail to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits.

How we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction for the course of our life. In order to do this successfully and have a positive course going forward, we have to sit with our past experiences, savor or make peace with them, learn from them, grow from them, and be willing to let them go. Whether good or bad, our past experiences, the stories of our lives, made us who we are today but do not have to define how and who we are tomorrow. We also have to be willing to honestly share them.  If I present myself to others as one thing but my past experiences have shaped me to the contrary – I will never be my authentic best and my relationships will be missing out.

Recently, I wrote here of a very difficult, life changing time in my life and also shared the story on social media. It’s not something I often share with even my closest of friends but something inside spurred me to tell “my side” of the story. I wrote into the night, hit post and went to bed. I awoke in the morning in a panic. What had I done?!! I had revealed too much!!! I raced to login and delete my revelatory words, but it was too late – I had shared a side of me that made me who I am today – and people had already read it – at 5 a.m. in the morning!! Who reads a blog, let alone my blog, before 5 a.m.?  Don’t people sleep??? Not only had they read it, but some had commented and some even took the time to send me personal messages as well – thanking me for sharing and confiding in me similar thoughts, regrets, and hopes.

Instead of deleting my post in shame, I experienced a sense of relief and connection I had not felt in a long time. Not only had I helped myself by revealing my true self, I had helped others express their reality as well.

As we begin to emerge from this pandemic, we will all have a different story to tell of a shared moment in time. Each of us will have experienced life differently from the moment we were born right up to the last 15 months. Each of us has the opportunity to put our mark on this world. I encourage you to drop the mask(s) and share YOUR story. We will all be better for it.

***

And now for the rest of the story… What did I do? This woman whose life has always been about following the rules and seeing that others come first, donned my mask as I read the same mask notice I have passed by every visit for recent history. I will admit, no matter how much I detest it, the small piece of cloth that covered my mouth and my emotions – gave me a sense of security – necessary or not – for the moment.  Was I rebel or a complaisant? I’ll let science settle that one.

“There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. “ 

– Matthew 6: 25-26 The Message

LET YOUR LIGHT SO SHINE!!!

Miles Apart

It can be a long drive to my “other life.” When the weather is favorable for windshield time, I actually relish the time behind the wheel as the mountains of NW Montana give way to the big wide open of Eastern Montana. When the weather doesn’t cooperate with my travel plans (which is at least 75% of the time) it can be the longest butt toning session ever undertaken! I had both experiences for my Easter trip home this year.

Armed with road snacks, MT’s own John Denver aka Mike Eldred and Phil Aaberg CD’s (yes I am old school) ready to rock me across the Divide, a plethora of podcasts loaded for my intellectual advancement, and 3 seasons worth of clothing (this is Springtime in MT) for 4 days of travel, I departed the Flathead on a very fine Good Friday.

It was a wonderful day for a road trip! Especially on the backroads that I love. Blue skies and dry roads were abundant. As I crested the Continental Divide and saw nothing but flat land and open sky before me, the deep freeing sigh that occurs every single time escaped my being. The open road ahead of me is not only the way home but an invitation to what I lovingly call my prairie wondering. It takes me awhile to get to this place of thinking deep thoughts. The stresses of packing and repacking, dropping the talkative dog off for his staycation at the ranch, and navigating the traffic to get out of the Flathead take a while to loosen their grip.

The Big Wide Open

As I delighted in the multitude of calves finding their bearings in this great big, sometimes cold and harsh world, I couldn’t help but say a little prayer that all would be well, that all matters of being would be well – for them and for us, and yes, for me. For life has been uncertain of late – not unlike the lives of those darling mooers frolicking about in the warm sun – within moments a predator or sudden spring storm could snuff out all that was to be.

But while one could dwell in that particularly unsavory side to the cycle of life – which has been easy to do during this yearlong global pandemic (another cyclical event)  – it is all part of the eternal pattern of change and transformation. Franciscan contemplative, Richard Rohr, says that for change and transformation to happen, we must move from Order (those warm times of carefree frolicking in the sun) to “a period—or even many periods— of Disorder.” Often that means loss and disappointment. “There will be a death, a disease, a disruption to our normal way of thinking or being in the world.” The ways of being and doing are disrupted and our notions of control and certainty are displaced by a sense of restlessness, an unease with our very nature and place.

I know I have grown increasingly unsettled – despite being pretty much homebound for the last year. With the busy trappings of my pre-pandemic busy life stripped away, I have had to come to terms with the core foundation of my life – the bare essence of who I am without external forces laying claim to my identity. I haven’t always liked what I have uncovered. And I wonder if others have found themselves in the same state of dismay.  Rohr says this “is necessary if any real growth is to occur.”

The Disorder stage is all about letting go of control and stepping “out of the driver’s seat for a while,” Rohr says. (The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder [Franciscan Media, 2020].) Then we can open ourselves to Reorder, where we radically “let go and let God.” Which is why the template for “Order, Disorder, Reorder” is Jesus, who surrendered to God’s will, was crucified and was resurrected.

“Letting go and letting God” is easy to do when you’re driving across a landscape uncluttered by the demands of modern life and mirrors that dare you to compare your lot in life to those around you, not to mention bathe in the murky waters of your failures and regrets. It’s easy to hide behind the guise that while our world is plagued by righteous hate, sadness, power, fear, and judgement -thinking that I am somehow not a  part of that – until I realize that I most certainly am!  I sometimes feel I am stuck in a never ending state of the Christian observance of Good Friday – that darkest of days when all of humanity’s sin and ugliness were foisted upon a divine savior, Jesus, and hung on a cross to die a bloody death.

It’s times like that which inspire thoughts of putting the pedal to the metal and driving off into the sunset in search of an escape from it all – from me, from the world, from life – a place to start over – to start fresh.

Thankfully on this particular Good Friday, I had a rendezvous with Easter and family awaiting my arrival, which got me to thinking about which side of the cross I tend to live on on a daily basis – because Easter is not just a single spring Sunday once a year, nor is Good Friday a single dark day preceding the celebration of resurrection and new life.

Have I ever truly opened myself to the Reordering of life that God offers us – all of us – freely  – freely if I surrender all my sins, failure and regret from my inherent need to control them – have I ever paid more than lip-service to surrendering them all to Him?

As the miles (and there are a lot of them on this particular journey) rolled on, I realized just how far apart the life I am allowing myself to live is from the life God wants for me. In my heart, I felt alienated from myself. In that moment, I knew that I knew little or nothing of my own heart. I have kept my distance out of some disabling fear of what I might find. 

Henri Nouwen wrote: “Where we are most ourselves, we are often strangers to ourselves. That is the painful part of our being human. We fail to know our hidden center; and so we live and die often without knowing who we really are. If we ask ourselves why we think, feel, and act in such and such a way, we often have no answer, thus proving to be strangers in our own house.” [You Are the Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, by Henri J. M. Nouwen]

Jesus didn’t go to the cross for me or you to remain wallowing in fearful despair, regret, or sin. Nail those gifts from Satan to the cross, right now!  Jesus longs to make his love known to us in the seclusion of our hearts, to free us from our fears, and to make our own deepest self known to us – even the parts we would like to hide. Only through Jesus can we come to know and love ourselves so that we might love as Jesus loved. Only then can we help others know and love themselves – free of their failures, regrets and the righteous hate, sadness, power, fear, and judgement that pervades our world.

That is the side of the cross I want to live on. It’s not far away at all – it is within me and you. The journey however won’t be easy. Jesus knows that well.

Just like those calves tasting life for the first time, amid the harsh landscape of their vulnerable reality, we need a savior to tend us. Jesus knows what seeks to destroy us from within and without and He will seek you out, yes, even you wandering wretchedly in the wilderness. Jesus will bring you safely home. Jesus gladly gives you His life to fend off the wolves and promises you a reordered, resurrected life – every single day you walk with Him.

More calves than cars.

That’s a promise that will stay with you for the rest of your journey down the highways and back roads of life. You won’t always frolic in the warm sun like those Easter calves, but you will always have Jesus shortening the miles between the life you live and the life God wants for you – life on Easter’s side of the cross.

Oh, and here’s one more for the road – a timeless guitar melody that will take you places fast! Don’t Look Back Turn it up and let it all go! 

“Look at this: look!  Who got picked by God! He listens the split second I call to him. Why is everyone hungry for more? “More, more,” they say. “More, more.” I have God’s more-than-enough. More joy in one ordinary day, than they get in all their shopping sprees. At day’s end I’m ready for sound sleep, for you, God, have put my life back together.” – Psalm 4: 3, 6-8

The Message

Let your light so shine!

Looking down on home. Shining bright in God’s freeing light!