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At Home in the Here and Not Yet

It has dawned a clear, crisp early November day at the Bluff following two days of gales on Lake Michigan. As I sit at my desk writing, Mark is out with his chainsaw helping saw up the neighbor’s fallen ash tree. The whipping wind pushed it right out by its roots.

There’s something doleful yet timeless about a tree’s newly exposed roots- it is death, and homelessness, and loss, and capitulation and rebirth all rolled into one.”

I have been thinking about home lately-all the places I have called home, making a new home here at the Bluff after pulling up our lives at Trout Creek by the roots, and all the years my heart was searching for a home when what it really needed was God himself.

Being at home is a sense, a feeling of being nurtured yet challenged, content yet ever searching, with a pillow for your head and loved ones within reach. I have been at home in hiking boots on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the rain forests of Costa Rica, and the stony paths of the French Alps. I once had a home in Wales for a semester, rope-climbing the steep cliffs that face the Irish Sea, and paddling the wild Welsh rivers. I have made my home in a flat in Paris, writing for a whole blessed month while my daughter was at work. I was at home for many years in my calling as a college professor, enjoying the gift that thousands of students unknowingly gave me to fill the emptiness of infertility.

Nowadays, having endured the moving of the house back from the bluff’s edge and reconstructing the entire lower level, we are finally settled into home at the Bluff. Since I was five years old, I knew I would live here someday. That is because it has always been the place I come back to; on this side of the river, this has always been my one true home. This is where I set down roots and made lifelong friends, clothed in the balm of nature’s call and care. Here, I am embedded in forest and dune, blissfully at home on the long, lonely stretches of beach with a cherished petoskey stone in my sandy pocket. Here is the delight of slowing down, of welcoming the unplanned coffee and conversation with a new friend, and of taking the time to read, and reread some timeless favorites.

We are one short step from heaven here, figuratively, and literally.

 I know full well that this home is as temporary as all the others.”

Even as I wait on God in prayer and obedience, he too waits for me to finish my upward climb to my last and forever home with him. On that day, that most glorious day, my physical body tumbled like a dead ash tree by the gales of age, my soul will be loosed to heaven, my new and forever home. I can’t know from this side of the river what that will be like, but I suspect the surprise outweighs the not-knowing.

Keep climbing-your home awaits.

Thanks for reading,

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

Contact me at jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com

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The Advent of Aging

The fall winds have picked up intensity here at the bluff, mercilessly stripping the bluff-top maples of their leaves. Although I welcome the changes autumn brings, I must steel myself against the knowledge that winter will be fast on fall’s heels. 

The nakedness of the maples always shocks me, and that jumpstarts a sort of nesting instinct. The to-do list is long. Wash and store the outdoor furniture and bird baths. Do a final weeding. Pull and compost the garden and plant the winter greens in the greenhouse. Ready the tiny milk jug “greenhouses” to plant the saved milkweed, butterfly bush, and black-eyed Susan seeds for overwintering. Get more firewood split and stacked and top off the propane tank. Fertilize the evergreens and blanket their hems in fresh mulch. Make applesauce and apple butter. Start up the soup pot. Get the outdoor Christmas lights up before the polar vortex takes its first frosty bite. Lay in the baking supplies-all that butter, and flour and sugar and cocoa that the holidays will demand. Waterproof the winter boots and get out hats and gloves. Re-dress the beds with flannel sheets.

I am, obviously, just a giant squirrel with lists.”

And the lists seems endless. Still, it is good to have things to do that anchor us in the present while preparing us for the future. But I must yet do the harder work- to see the coming of winter as a gift, the advent of salvation as the real hope that it is. 

How incongruous that the maples shed their clothing just as I reach for more; I cannot go naked into winter like they do.

And all this reminds me to hold fast to my hope in the future God has ordained. We watched our parents leave us. Dust to dust. God gave them first breath, and gently helped each one to take their last. Naked they came, and naked they left. We have had to wear our hope like a stole to fend off the snows of grief. 

It has always been human nature to understand aging as decline, as the loss of robust strength and youthful vigor. To see it as a descent into nothingness. My own entry into my elder years has me thinking much differently, much more hopefully. 

This aging is not a mournful descent but a peeling away of the things that keep us from God.”

It lightens our souls for the glorious ascent to heaven. God removes our health, our energy, our ability to will an outcome through sheer hard work to strip us bare in preparation for “next.”  

Aging is not descent but an advent. 

Entering our older years is the beginning of something mysterious. A victorious yielding of what was and what is to what will always be

May you find your own aging less about mourning what you lose, and more about an ascent that promises to be breathtakingly beautiful.

Thank you for reading,

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

jpraywalton.com

jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com

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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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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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Litany of Praise at Dawn

Yesterday I was awakened at dawn by an oriole’s soft, sweet whistle. He’s been haunting the hummingbird feeder, and seemed to be quietly reminding me it was time for breakfast (we pull feeders in at night to outsmart greedy raccoons).

With hot coffee in hand, I stood with the trees to watch the sun arrive, lighting up the treetops, then soon angling down to swathe the forest floor. With a penchant for keeping my nose in a book far too late at night, I rarely catch the sunrise anymore. But, yesterday, it caught me…in wonder and hope.

How rare it is to greet the day with God’s creation, and for the confirmation that, for today at least, life goes on.

I was treated to a feast of birds at every point of the compass- the oriole and the hummingbird, the pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers, those ancient cousins. A pair of indigo buntings timidly nipping a few sunflower seeds, and a scrum of blue jays laughing and nattering in the maple.

In the lane, a doe limped across my way, hindered by a broken ankle. I tenderly told her to take her time, because time would heal the pain. Not long after, the turkeys started gobbling… why the word for bolting down food is used to describe a turkey call I will never know.

The point is that dawn reveals the vitality and fecundity of the world, particularly when you are in a place that is undisturbed by the human awakening of car, horn, bus and garbage truck.  Why would God make such beauty, with its threads of genetic similarity woven into complex cloaks of myriad colors and distinctive sounds?

Why wasn’t one bird, or even three enough?  How did God know when to quit creating?

I guess I liken it to the simplest delight we get when we see something we think is beautiful. It catches our eye, pauses our hurry, and interrupts our breath.  Perhaps God created beauty to arrest our souls that we might, even for a moment, think and thank the creator, to marvel in this glory, which is his glory.

Glory comes in many forms, but the best is in a litany

of praise that rolls off our tongues. 

May your days be filled to overflowing with eyes to see, and ears to hear.

 

~J.A.P. Walton