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The Kind of Bucket Worth Filling: A Divine Recalibration

In my youth I had a long list of the things I wanted to “do” someday: build a log home in Alaska, climb China’s Great Wall, explore the Roman Coliseum, watch Wimbledon from center court eating strawberries and cream, and complete a host of nature-conquering escapades. I most especially wanted to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, hike in New Zealand and Scotland and the Pacific Northwest, kayak the wild rivers of Wales, visit every US National Park, trace the ghost of John Muir in the Sierras and recreate the sailing adventures of the Swallows and Amazons in northern England. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swallows_and_Amazons

Today we would call this a bucket list-making plans to “do” things before we die (as in kicking the bucket). Creating such dreams takes little energy, and I think we each have a natural longing to “do” and “see” as much as possible in our short lives, particularly now that global travel is so easily accomplished.

There’s an inbred alter ego that lifts us out of everyday humdrum life with fir-scented visions of creation’s beautiful, seductive allure.

Some people so over-romanticize their bucket list that the end (checking it off the list) is more fulfilling than the process (actually doing the activity). I have seen people race up to the sign outside a national park, snap a picture next to it, then turn around and drive away without even entering the park. Taking pride in having the deepest bucket but the shallowest mind is an ugly thing.

Lately, I have been doing a great deal of thinking about the folly of the bucket list.

True, in retirement we have visited several national parks and seen things we’d always hoped to see. But life has also narrowed for us, as naturally happens with aging. The parameters of the list have been newly dictated by life’s interruptions: our only child moved to France, our aging parents sorely needed us, the family home required maintenance and stewardship, and visits to the doctor became more frequent.

I do not resent the smaller bucket.

Moreover, I am thinking of remaking the bucket list altogether. It is a divine recalibration of sorts. I am no less adventurous (though Covid did do a gut-check on me), but my goals seem to be changing. Now it is less about the glory of doing and seeing, and more about the humble delight of being. Sunrises are stunning. Noontime is energizing. But the

sunset of life calls me to a quieter, more contemplative mindset, with a silent nod to the deep need to be present and prayerful.

In the Bible Peter encourages us to make every effort to add a 7-fold list of character qualities to our living, each built upon its predecessor like a great crescendo (2Pet1:5-8). He tells us that to possess these qualities in increasing measure will keep us from being unproductive in a life of faith. Goodness-right living and thinking; add to that knowledge-stay informed, and develop a deeper knowledge of who God is; add to that self-control-expunge petty selfishness and self-glorification; add to that perseverance-the patience of waiting on God’s timing for everything; add to that godliness-wise and moral thinking, speaking and devotion; add to that mutual affection-truly loving without judgment and fostering a kind and benevolent outlook; add to that love-the deep delight of living out the two greatest commandments to love the Lord God and to love your neighbor. I wrote earlier about the later years being an ascent toward heaven. https://jpraywalton.com/2022/10/25/the-advent-of-aging/

Practice this music of Peter’s teaching, and your life will awaken to the very kind of bucket that is worth filling.

Thank you for reading,

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

jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com

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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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The Junco

When the sun is at a certain angle, birds see a reflection of the vast expanse of trees and lake in the west windows here at the bluff. A junco flew into a window just last week, falling onto his side, eyes shut tight, tiny talons stiff and thrust laterally.

It is rarely good news when our feet go out from under us.

As the junco lay stunned and panting, I wondered at his presence. Why is he here so early? It is sunny and delightfully warm for early October. 

Around here, on the edge of dune and dense forest of maple, beech, and hemlock, the junco is a harbinger of winter. A flock will stick around all winter scrabbling the earth for seeds. Dressed in drab, dark coats with a buff white undershirt, they forage and flit in the cold, short days. They are as colorless as many of the cheerless gray days of the far north in winter, and as hardy as the cedar and dune grass and snow-bound trillium patiently waiting for spring’s warm kiss.

Still, they hold a fascination. I like that they flock together and am reminded of the reason God calls his church to be serious about fellowship. In that community we are afforded a measure of safety, companionship, and encouragement. The society we keep is a salve to some of the drag of winter’s bleakness. 

The juncos’ cheerless plumage makes me appreciate their contentment at keeping a low profile, nothing flashy, no brash “look at me” behaviors. They are happy to wear what God designed and shun being the center of attention. I marvel at my own lack of such inherent humility and contentment with what God provides.

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Matt 6:25-27.

Basically, the junco is a bottom feeder, a forager snuffling through grasses and low foliage for insects and seeds.

I inherently like anything or anyone who is willing to work at the bottom rung of the ladder in humility, without compunction to produce or hoard. For me, the junco is a perfect example of the difference between the innate drive to work and thrive, and the big lies we swallow when we become driven, competitive, and overly ambitious. I am reminded that I must not think more of myself than I ought.

I most especially enjoy the juncos’ indifference to the cold and snow. Like their chickadee cousins, they seem to embrace the loveliness of that stark splendor only winter can serve up. I always resonate with any creature that welcomes winter’s caress and finds beauty in the sharp coldness of vapory breath and tingling cheeks.

Within minutes my tough, determined little junco had rolled onto his feet and opened his eyes, his milky breast pillowed and fluffed on the deck. It wasn’t long before he flew off to nurse his headache under the umbrella of the low-lying bluestem at the edge of the dune.  An omen of winter?  Perhaps. But I prefer to believe that the juncos are here as a God-given reminder to be humble and content and quietly diligent in all circumstances and seasons.

Thanks for reading,

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D. 

email: jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com Instagram: jpraywalton_writing Facebook: Julie Pray Walton Image by JackBulmer from pixabay.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