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Soldiering On

There is a dead calm in the trees today after a string of gusty days. The calmness amplifies animals’ movements; looking out just now, I can see a doe raise a front foot, then continue her slow browsing in the woods across Trout Creek.

Though a calm is often just a comma between storms, we should pay attention to it, because it invites introspection and watchfulness, a time heavy with anticipation like a maple leaf just waiting for the wind to ask it to dance.

I am at a point in life of watching and waiting. Watching sick loved ones cling to life, waiting for God to answer prayer. My eyes see misery clawing at hope. My pulse drones in my ears and pacifies the waiting like an undisturbed river flowing deep and sure.

Vigil is the gutsy response to life’s gusty times.

It is a posture of watching with loved ones, and waiting for an outcome while in the eye of the storm.  Every day I see adult children in their 60’s and 70’s visiting aged parents at the nursing home.  The visits are difficult-many residents can’t even remember their kids’ names-but the children soldier on out of respect, accepting the duty to honor the last days of a parent’s life. There is calm, and order, and rightness in the watching and waiting.

Vigil gives time for forgiveness and reconciliation, for sharing old memories, and for meditation on the way all of life soldiers on.

At the bluff, there is a lone cedar tree about 10 feet from the dune’s edge.  The dunes along this stretch of Lake Michigan have been unstable since the ice age created them, crumbling in the constant onslaught of waves and winds. The property my grandparents bought has lost 88 feet since the early 1960’s. This means that the cedar soldier was once deep in the forest at the back of the dune, playmates with the grand, towering beech, the stately ash, and the playful maple.  But, time has marched on with unstoppable force. The other trees succumbed to the storms of disease or the loggers’ saws. The dune continued to roll into the deeps.  So, now this cedar stands alone and bent, facing its inevitable demise with deep roots and grace in its vigil of watching and waiting. Each morning it greets the eastern sun and takes delight in the jays and cedar waxwings that haunt its branches, and the bald eagle who hunts from its crown. At night, it lifts its face westward, basking in the sun’s glow, a view it never had in its youth.

Today, my dad would have been 90 years old. But, like the ash and beech, disease took him before he could have a better view, a vigil cut short. Like the cedar, my mom stands at the edge, soldiering on through the indignities of Parkinson’s disease, in a vigil for glimpses of heaven.  Watching. Waiting. Praying.

~J.A.P. Walton

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What Are You Listening To?

It is not a quiet morning here on the bluff.

Last night’s storm blew the haze and humidity away, bringing a stiff north wind and choppy whitecaps on the big lake.

I haven’t been awake long, but already two sailboats have bounced past, sails full, hulls thumping the wave crests. A cardinal has hopped close with a chip-chip to peek in the screen. The hummingbird has been buzzing at the feeder. And two bald eagles have skimmed south on the breezy uplifts like stealth bombers.

It is easy to write about what we can see, but trying to convey the sounds is a distinct challenge. The leaves in the maple dervish in ecstasy to the gusts, their bodies swishing like so many petticoats. The waves themselves thrum in the ancient rhythm that pushes them ever coastward, and crashes them ashore with a distinct split-second of surprised gasp before sucking back out and under the next swell.  The crows and jays jabber and scold as the eagle approaches, while the breeze tells them to hush their hyperbole.

I asked my husband the other day if the wind would sing aloud in the absence of obstacles.  The trees stand before it to give it voice and treble. But, what if it were blowing in the middle of a vast desert? He said

even the grains of sand would joyfully lift to the wind’s call to give it speech.

Creation is rarely silent.

Even in the stillest of nights, the owls hunts, its prey screams. The mole’s paws scratch the dirt, and the deer snorts.  In August, the cicada sings, and the cricket plays its dusky violin.

I think it is good to listen. Here is the still, small voice of God, lifted on the breeze of his creation, burrowed in the rabbit hole, slithered in dry leaves as the snake creeps. But, we rarely pay it much attention, going around with our ear buds, always blotting out the beauty of the music already all around us. Oh, what the music of heaven must be like!

What have you heard lately?

~J.A.P. Walton

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It’s Going to be All Right

The weather along Lake Michigan has been noticeably unsettled this summer, like a nervous groom before his wedding.  We are missing the long stretch of sunny days under high barometric pressure that bring such deep blue skies and the warm assurance that winter is still far away.

What we need is a really good storm.

Of course, the weather takes special watchfulness in paddling situations. You don’t want to be caught out on the water in wind and lightning when a big blow rises up. It’s one of the rules of paddling: to pay attention to the signs and barometer when heading out.

Once on a paddle on the Au Train River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we got caught in a late afternoon storm. The lightning was too intense to safely shelter under the big trees that leaned over the water. Paddling furiously back upstream, we returned to hunker down under a bridge we had passed earlier. The fury of the storm flashed and crashed all around us as the wind was funneled under the bridge. Trees came down, and grasses were flattened while the sedate river of just minutes ago became a roiling, angry maelstrom in pure, unleashed cacophony.

Life is filled with unexpected blows.

Things are sunny and pleasant, and we loll happily in our unwary hours. Then out of the blue, the skies darken, the storm threatens, and we are caught unawares. Examples abound: the day of 9-11; a cancer diagnosis; an accident; a death.  There seems nowhere to take shelter. Nowhere to turn. Nowhere to hide, or huddle.  Life’s storms can be terrifying, and sometimes they pile up and train down on us one after another.

All I can say is that with perfect predictability, all storms pass. In our canoe, after 30 long minutes of hanging on by our fingertips to the overhead girders, the tempest grudgingly moved on, leaving the river to calm its nerves, the trees dripping with diamonds, and a permeating whiff of fresh-bathed forest in every direction- abrupt silence, achingly beautiful crystal lighting, and a newly-birthed loveliness.

God himself set up the physical laws that create storms. He also has his reasons for allowing them to roil our lives.

But, no matter what assails us, God works only good for those who love him.  He is always for us, so that the storms of trouble and hardship cannot separate us from his love.

Not storms. Not evil. Not hate. Nothing high, nothing low, nothing in all of creation can separate us from how much God loves us.*  The most oft-written phrase in the Bible is,
“Do not be afraid.”

In a storm?  Let God be your bridge. Your shelter. Your hope. It’s going to be all right.  Don’t be afraid. Just hang on and let it blow.

~J.A.P. Walton

* loose paraphrase of Romans chapter 8 in the Bible

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Where Words are Unnecessary

I must confess that I covet the times my husband and I paddle a river alone together. Being surrounded by boats, family, friends, and visitors, we are more often than not on the water in big groups.

He is a much stronger, abler paddler than I. He can read the currents and the wind in ways that let him slither downriver like a water snake-completely at home and at one with the boat. It is a marvel to watch him, when the edges of man, boat, and river blur into lovely moments of being in nature, rather than standing over it.

We met 57 years ago as children.  Now, the canoe and the wild river are symbols of our relationship. Stable and still in deep quiet water, swift and determined in the face of life’s challenges and submerged snags. We seek out the wilderness for our own restoration as individuals and as man and wife. We travel the rivers and lakes because this is how man has traveled the deep, dark forests for centuries, taking us where no road can go, no cell phone can reach. We go quietly. Reverently. Following the world’s first paddlers past rocks and pines, scrub oaks and scarred outcroppings, shallow sandbars and towering eagles’ roosts.

Out here, life hangs on; a tree’s roots cling with enduring hope, it’s branches reaching for God. Every breeze lifts a melody. The deer snuffs and stamps. The kingfisher scolds. The milkweed suckles the Monarch.

And all the while, the waters flow down, the land bowing to its power and majesty. John Muir said, “The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.”

My husband and I need to be where words are unnecessary that we too might glide, and where creation does all the talking and singing for us. Where there is healing at every bend.

Where the earth’s broad sighs, and the sun’s nightly farewell give the soul hue and heft, and space and weft. Like candy at a parade, the wilderness tosses us joy with remarkable abandon, and we unwrap each treat with childish wonder that our hearts, together, could know such timelessness and beauty.

It is breath. It is gift. It is life. It is marriage. And it is ours.

~J.A.P.Walton

Thanks for reading!

 

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Safely Into Port

A peculiar delight of my childhood summers in northern Michigan involved the dueling foghorns of the Coast Guard stations in Frankfort and at Point Betsie. The old fog signals were automatically activated when sensors detected fog.

All through a foggy night, the two lighthouses would sing their duet, the throaty bass booooommm from Frankfort followed 30 seconds later by a nasal middle F note from the Point.

Big ships, obscured in the mist, would echo back with their own howls accompanied by their thrumming propellers. Whenever the horns were bleating at dawn, my brother and I could lazily roll over, cozy in the cottage blankets, sleepily glad because there would be no 9:30 a.m. swimming lessons today.

Just such a day occurred last week, when I had a dozen things on my to-do list, but awoke to the musical thrill of the foghorns.  I rolled onto one side to enjoy the concert, secretly glad that I would not waste a “good beach” day on so many errands. As I rolled, however, I could feel the sun on my face. What in the world? Why would the fog signals be singing out if the sun was out?  Sure enough, it was a clear morning with just a hint of mist on the far horizon.

The foghorns lied.

It turns out that, over the last decade, the US Coast Guard turned its automatic coastal warning system into one that is, instead, an on demand system for mariners.  It means that any sailor, or fisherman, or tugboat captain can activate the coastal foghorns from the cockpit of their boat.

Now, I find it disorienting to know that it can be densely foggy and the signals won’t sing. Or bright and clear yet the horns are bleating. It robs one of the assurance that things are as they should be. We can no longer rely on the signals to tell us the weather. Talk about getting your signals crossed!

It brings to mind a scary crossing in thick, disorienting fog that we undertook on a sailboat across Lake Ontario when we were newly married. The captain had paid us to help him crew his new boat from the Toronto shipyards, across Lake Ontario, and through the locks of the Welland Canal. He needed to get his boat into Lake Erie, and we needed the money. But, we should not have been out in that fog. It was my job to stand at the bow with a tight grip on the fore-stay (I am unsure, had I fallen over, if they would have been able to find me in that fog), and blow the air horn- one prolonged blast at two-minute intervals to indicate we were underway by engine.  Perhaps it would have been less nerve-wracking had we had the ability to summon the coastal signals at will.

Today’s onboard navigation systems make being fogbound a less daunting circumstance. Even so, I take great comfort in hearing a foghorn trill on a truly foggy day.

It is a lot like life; we can rarely see what’s ahead, and we often feel we are just barely muddling through, but we can have confidence that God will see us safely into port. He may even be calling to us on a sunny day.

~J.A.P. Walton