Dirt and Sky, Part II

Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing. -William James (1842-1910)


Okay, I am back this morning, finally…

Yesterday I let myself be dragged down into the depths of worry and despair.  A depressing conversation about my health insurance options, a similar discussion about my life insurance, the realization that there are a ton of legal obstacles standing between what I want to say and actually saying it in a book, and a mild case of writer’s block.  Sigh, poor, poor pitiful me, and isn’t the world in a terrible place?

That attitude carried over into my personal relationships yesterday, leaving a sour taste, and before I went to bed I realized that the joy that had been so profound recently… was gone.

And that truly is a reason to sigh.

I recognized instantly my fear – fear of the uncertainties in front of me, fear of not having a well laid plan, fear of the unknown – all of my usual fears, built up and made worse than they actually are by years of habit, years of not trusting myself, and I so easily  slipped right back into those patterns yesterday.

In this past year, grief has forced me to confront so many of my fears, to look them straight in the eye.  Death was always one of my greatest fears, and the fear of losing a loved one seemed insurmountable.  So I chose not to look at it.  I gave it power by avoiding it and not letting myself recognize that it was only my fear, and that others, like Debbie, didn’t have it.

Fear is the opposite of joy, the opposite of love, and fears come in all shapes and sizes, some bigger than others.  But if death can be reckoned with by some folks, certainly figuring out life insurance and how to write again is surmountable.

And I know now, in my heart, that I want to live joyfully.  Like I have been these past couple of weeks; not fearfully, like I had for so many years.

So I decided I wanted my joy back.  I didn’t know how right then, and I was too tired to try at that point anyway, but I threw out a prayer for a joyful return, and then went to sleep…

And sleep I did, right through my normal 5 a.m. wakeup time.  Hmmm, that’s weird, I know I set my alarm, but the clock is flashing and three hours slow, like the power went out.  But no other clock in the house is doing that…

I was kicking around possibly sleeping in anyway, so I guess that has been decided for me, and now it is too late to get my run in before the kids need up and readied for school.  But to be honest the extra sleep felt really really good – maybe I needed it.  I certainly handle things better when well rested.  So I will run later after the bus picks up Trevor.

Running always calms me, always resets me, always slows me down, especially my racing mind; maybe someday I will actually be able to outrace my mind!  But that is not necessary today, I just need to feel my muscles moving and my heart pumping and my lungs filling deeply.

And the endorphins kick in, and I settle into a meditative pace.  And I leave the subdivision to run through the woods of a local park.  The grass is still wet with morning dew, and the bright sunshine on this clear crisp day is a long way from burning the moistness off; it seeps through my shoes and socks.

The sensation awakens me.  I notice the dampness, I appreciate the slightly chilled air, the golden sunshine, the birdsong.  And then it hits me like a ton of bricks – I hadn’t noticed it before…

I have been up for a couple hours, mindless going through my routine, getting the kids ready, small talk at the bus stop, making plans for the rest of my day, not really feeling anything, like watching a movie.  I didn’t even notice this gorgeous day…

Tell me, what is more joyful than a morning like today?  Bright sunshine, no humidity, white puffy clouds and the energy of fall migration in the air, the promise of colorful leaves and campfire smores, the slowing down of fall?  How many times had I driven to work the past 25 years longing to do what I am doing today, walking my boys to the bus stop and then going for a run?  How is it that I am so wrapped up in my thoughts and worries as to not recognize the gift of this morning before this?  I am ashamed…

But I forgive myself quickly, for the day is too bright, the joy is too real.  I can feel the water enveloping my feet, my breathes are fresh and clear, and the blood courses vibrantly through my body.   I am alive!

I strikes me now that there really is only one true “sin”, the sin of not really living, of just blindly running through it.  And sin is not the right word because it is really just a forgetting – forgetting that simply living our joy every day is enough.  It is so easy to get distracted, so easy to get caught up in our worries and fears.  But this comes with a steep price – you might not notice the sheer joy of the moment.

I grew up near the woods I am now running through, and I pass a clump of sumacs in a field.  I remember as a boy climbing into a similar clump of small trees, and just sitting there.  I had entered a new world, a world that completely changed its perspective from the wide open fields around it.  This world was bounded by the tangles of stems and trunks, and formed a green universe unto itself.  I entered by worming through a portal at the base of two of the larger trees, and then I was just still, taking it all in.  Soon this new universe accepted me, and it came alive with its own presents.  The sounds in here were different, filtered by the leaves, and the light more muted with no direct sunlight, and it had different insects and vegetation.

It was peaceful, too, self contained, and I was filled with the anticipation of new discoveries.  And as I was still, just observing, just being with this new universe, a common yellowthroat entered too.  Since I was now a part of this world, it did not mind my presence, and flitted through the undergrowth, its natural habitat, right up to me.

What a handsome bird, bright yellow breast and leaf green back, broken by a jet black mask from bill to wings!  And so alive, a bundle of energy, always moving, its aliveness brilliant as it stared into my eyes from only a couple feet away.   And we connected, this tiny creature and I, and I felt his aliveness, and I felt his joy, innate joy, in being alive…

I feel it again, right now.  And no kidding, as I round a bend on my path in the woods, the sunbeams burst through the canopy, the diagonal white translucent spears piecing the morning fog from cloud to earth, the perfect picture of God and joy and sunshine and renewal and Jesus laughing and common yellowthroats and dew on the grass and fresh air in my lungs.  I run into the sunbeams.  And I laugh, I laugh out loud, and I raise my hands in joy, pure joy!

I am back, back to my place of joy, back to where I asked to be last night.  And the worries are put in their place, they will be taken care of when the time is right.  And the words flow freely this morning.  And I wonder, how did my clock get messed up?   For had I run at my normal time, well before dawn, I would have missed the sunbeams…

 Common Yellowthroat



When faced by any loss, there’s no point in trying to recover what has been; it’s best to take advantage of the large space that opens up before us and fill it with something new.” – Paulo Coelho

Lightning flashes light up the woods and rocks in an eerie electric blue, but only for a second, the pitch darkness quickly returning like a thick heavy wet blanket, the thunder rolling through the hills and up my spine until the hair on my neck stands straight up in perfect posture.  The leaves scream in collective protest, like the roar of a crowd building and fading with each gust.  The wind tosses the trees, stretching them to their breaking point, and in the far off distance snaps and cracks tell of those pushed too far.  I am alone and small, just like the leaves, just like the animals that cower for shelter wherever they can.  We dig in, and steel ourselves to the storm as best we can…

And it passes.  Every storm runs out of rain, eventually…

After the storm, with the lighting and thunder receding into the distance far up the valley, visible and audible but no longer threatening, a light gentle rain settles over camp.  It creates a mesmerizing white noise, interspersed by the tick-tocking of larger drops as they collect on the leaves of the now-stilled trees and fall to the saturated earth with a plop when their gathering burden can no longer resist gravity.  Adrenaline is replaced by calm, even a weird serenity, that comes from weathering the storm.  I will be able to sleep now…

The gentle rain continues through the night, and into the morning, and the song played on the tent walls is the sweetest lullaby; true refreshment greets the gray light of morning.  Emerging from the tent, I am met by a whole new world of lush, lush wet, and green of every hue, a jungle bowing down to the life giving moisture.

The birdsong is charged this morning too.  It is not the joy and spark of a sunny day, but the confidence of survival, a confidence that banishes any vocal wavers and cracks to passing adolescence, replaced by the maturity of graduating the storm’s test.

These tiny creatures, with only lightweight feathers for protection, many weighing no more than a dime, tossed and turned in the tempest last night like the leaves and reeds, surely they are even more joyous than I for surviving the storm.  And this sense of gratitude permeates the entire forest, and it flows through me without effort, like the fog that connects the earth and the sky now…

Mystique is the main character this morning, accompanied by possibility.  Creation is possible, dreams are refreshed, life is renewed, life is gloriously alive, and we are here to take part one more day.  And for now it is calm, and I go forward with cautious confidence into the beauty and mystery and storms that lie in wait down that foggy, wooded path…


“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness.”

They drop out of the sky, unexpected, descending on the grapevines and berry patches; where did they come from?  Why are they here, in my backyard, at this moment, when they have not been here most of the year?  What brought them here at this particular time, at the same time that I am here?

How do they decide where to go, and when they get there, how do they decide how long to stay?  How do they decide where to go next?  Do they have a plan?  Or do they just take to their wings and trust in the Creator to provide for them, to guide them to the next berry patch?  What if the next berry patch is days away, do they worry about that?

So strange, the events of my life over this past year; the people that have dropped in, the ones who have dropped out.  Where did some of these people come from, where did others go, what of the ones who are here now?  How is it that I have gotten through some of these things, the days and weeks between berry patches?  How has the right person place or thing always been there exactly when I needed it the most?

What a striking, handsome bird, smooth feathers of brown-yellow silk, tails dipped in thick, still wet yellow paint, inner primaries dripping with red wax, the more so if they have been provided for well.  A black mask adds mystery and intrigue, maybe even a bit of mischief, especially when the subtle, flowing crest is raised in excitement – a pirate swashbuckler.

The Cedar Waxwing cuts a striking, dashing profile, James Bond entering a cocktail party in tailored suit, jaw squared and eyebrow raised – everyone notices the entrance.  They descend in numbers, creating a buzz, an excitement, swarming the grape vines and fruit trees, gorging on the fruit.  They are called “irruptive”, meaning they don’t fit the nice clean map lines and home ranges of other birds; sometimes they are here, when the conditions are right; sometimes they are not.  They are not defined by maps and expectations, but by their needs and minimum wants.  I envy their freedom.

I can’t help but stop and stare, their acrobatics are fascinating.  They reach out from the tiniest branch, stretching to the farthest off berry.  They hang upside down, by one foot, if they must, or they hover just off the grape raceme, or pluck a grape in a midflight dive.  There is a grace about all their movements, as if they are built for this role, as if this is the role for which they were made – and it is.

I think of my own acrobatics today, hanging from a ladder to patch the siding on a house that weighs me down with its maintenance and upkeep.  There was no grace whatsoever in my chores, just doing what needs done.  I think of the acrobatics in my life now, the constant juggling and hovering and diving and hanging by my toes most days just to get through.

It was overwhelming at first – I’ve always had a plan.  All my plans have been trashed, everything in my life seems uncertain.  But it is okay, I’m learning to wing it, and things are not falling apart; in fact they most often work out better than I could have planned.  Maybe I need to be more irruptive; maybe I’m in good company now, at least as judged by these beautiful creatures.

What a perfect day, sunny and warm!  I sit cross-legged in the green moss, in the warm sunshine, and watch the cedars, bringing them closer through high powered optics.  They are truly gorgeous creatures, the avian epitome of grace here in the comfort of all they need.  Most have stopped feeding, and are simply perched, preening, at the top of the trees, aglow in their majesty in the low late afternoon light.  Content, the Cedars, me…I don’t recall the last time I allowed myself the luxury of just sitting in the sun with such good company.

Of course nothing is static, for how would we learn and grow?  We must all adapt when the winds change.  I am distracted by a request from duty and when I return, the cedars are gone.  Where did they go?  Will they be back?  Will they cross my path again in the future, in the past?  Perhaps their gift is only the present, and I don’t regret their leaving.  I am not paralyzed by their loss, nor fearful that they won’t return, but I look forward to their re-acquaintance when the time is right, whether in this lifetime or the next…

Dirt and Sky

You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields.  That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind….”  – Kahlil Gibran

Grief is sometimes like a transcendent gaze; you look down at yourself and what you are doing as if you have been detached from your body.  You watch the movie of your life alone from the back row of a dark, dirty little theater, shoes sticking to the floor, afraid every time light pours in from the opening door, hoping to forever hide in the shadows.  Some days you just go through the motions with no empathy at all for the main character in this movie, you; at the end of a bad day you wonder how you even accomplished the “normal” things.  Everything is different now, and you search for something to hold on to, something real…

Running is real.  Working out, pumping the weights, pounding the pavement, blood coursing through wide open veins, heart pounding, big gulps of breath filling screaming lungs; life courses through you, and you cannot deny it, you can’t hide in the shadows from it.  And it feels good.  We rent these incredible instruments for a spell, these vehicles for our light that can do these incredible, immaculate things, that are capable of carrying us to the greatest of heights, and through the lowest lows.

So I use mine now.  Let the rhythmic footsteps and breathing transport me to a better place, calming my mind and quelling my fears.  Let the endorphins soothe the pain, physically and emotionally.  Let the cleansing breaths refresh and rejuvenate at the cellular level, and let the sweat carry away the built up toxins of grief…

The Earth is real.  Today my footsteps pound the white rocks and yellow dirt of the great wide open Sonoran desert.  A solitary wilderness trail winds through the prickly pear and mesquite and yuccas, and the flat expanse of the desert is bounded on all horizons by far off purple mountains.  Large lobed jackrabbits and striking black-throated sparrows flee my approach, and I admire them for earning a living in a place that is so full of thorns and sharp edges.

At the top of a flat mesa I pull off trail and stop running.  From this vantage point I can survey the entire Verde valley.  A brown river cuts through it, its’ cottonwoods providing an emerald green necklace against the tan rocks.  After being penned in for so long in a beige cubicle and bounded by all these new responsibilities, the endless horizon is freeing.

The ancient ruins of Tuzigoot are outlined on a bluff in the river valley below me, marking human time and connecting it to the timelessness of the heavens and earth.  Burial plots from 1,000 years ago attest to the truth of the cycle of life and death; my grief is nothing special.  Indeed it is a necessary part of life; so I’ve been told.  What I need to understand now is how to uncover the gifts of grief, buried under the layers of vegetation and dirt that have accumulated around a topic mostly ignored and forgotten, like the ruins before archeologists did the tedious work to excavate it.

It feels right to kneel on this mesa top, to feel the rock cut into my skin under the bright sunshine, to say a prayer of remembrance to those that have gone before me, to those that would normally be here with me.  Alone on this mesa top, I let the wind dry my tears.

But as I gaze down on this valley, on the life giving river, on the ancient ruins and the thorny bushes and a trail cut through the desert, my heart begins to stir.  Instead of bowing in prayer to what I’ve lost, I can’t help but feel grateful for what I have right now – this view, this body, this experience of being alive right now!  I raise my arms in gratitude as my soul reaches for the sky…

And the sky is real.  This big desert sky, picture perfect blue painted with white cotton ball clouds, so crisp, so clear, so free here in the desert; I drink it in, and it fills me.  I must run!  It is downhill, my strides stretched full; I take off my shirt and let my skin soak up the warm afternoon sun, and let the wind evaporate the sweat that courses down my forehead and back.  It is exhilarating; it is freeing; it is like flying!

For the first time in a while I experience joy, pure joy, and my heart and soul are lifted high into the desert sky!  I run much faster than my normal pace, for I want to feel my heart pound again, want to feel my lungs burn and my muscles ache; I want to feel alive again, living, not just going through the motions.  And if only for this brief, glorious run, at least I know it is possible again…

But that is reason enough to rejoice.  My mind fills with song, and I sing out loud to the rocks and the trees and the rattlesnakes…

I fell back alone on a gray Sunday morn

[Heart aches with memories that are] tattered and torn

I stumbled along ‘til I stood [with the wide open desert]

The wind it blew cold as my soul finally started to stir

Yeah the afternoon sky it grew feathery wings

Lifted me high above everything

As darkness descended I knew I had only to sing

I had only to sing, yeah, yeah!

La la la la la la la la la la…

(Apologies to Bill Deasy for taking liberties with his lyrics [in brackets] to his incredible song “Levi”. Thanks for putting emotions to music, Bill – this song leaves me rejoicing and singing along every time…

You Tube video for the song:


Mountains and Canyons

“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is nature’s delight” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Vacations are supposed to be fun, right?  Well this certainly hasn’t felt “fun” for me, after a long travel day, getting from Pittsburgh to Phoenix with two kids and four bags of camping equipment and food and clothes.  The details are endless and overwhelming on my own, and the preparation and planning and packing that went into this tenting vacation over the last few weeks have exhausted me.  All these tasks that I used to have help doing – well, those are mine now, mine all mine.  And I no longer have a co-pilot to help navigate, to referee fights, to find a good radio station or a place to eat or to drive a little when I need a rest, or just to smile and tell me everything is alright when my face starts to twitch and the blood starts to boil after making a wrong turn.

Apparently I have been taking these frustrations out on the kids; Trevor is the first to crack.  After another command for him to take care of something that mom used to do for him, he stops and screams at me.  “God dad, you’re so mean!  All you do is yell at me!  I hate you!”  He bursts into tears, sobbing.  Instead of patience, I react by yelling more, and I tell them that they can’t be 9 and 12 anymore, dammit, they’ve got to grow up and help more because mom’s not around and I can’t do it all myself.  “Dad I’ll be 10 next year” Trevor sobs, before diving into the tent and crying in his sleeping bag.

Oh my god how could I have said that to them???  I hate myself right now; god I’m never going to be able to do this, to raise two boys on my own without scarring them for life, without passing on all my faults and fears.  God dammit Debbie, why did you have to go and die and leave me with all this responsibility that I just can’t handle???  This isn’t fair!

We are tucked into a remote forested canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff, far far from home.  That’s something that usually sets my soul afire, traveling to remote, spectacular places, being in the wilderness, sleeping on the ground, breathing fresh air, and not being in my beige cube.  I thought it would be a great idea to bring the boys out here with me, to share in my love of the outdoors, do a little bonding, maybe a little grieving, or maybe to just forget about everything for a while.  But as the darkness descends and the temperatures drop and the boys quietly cry and do their best to ignore me, my idealistic plans seem to go up in the campfire smoke…

Feeling completely alone in the darkness of the forest, my fears and demons reign freely over my exhausted imagination, and my dreams are haunted by the fight, and my whole body feels the crush of the overwhelmingness of having to do everything myself.  Sleep comes fitfully…

But there are good reasons why I go to the wilderness.  The healing peacefulness that permeates these places is real, and we need some healing and peace now.  In the middle of the night I get out of the tent for a bathroom break.  I almost crawl back into my tent without noticing, but the stars are too brilliant, even for my exhausted mind.  Wow, with no light pollution, the night sky is just spectacular.  I stare for five minutes, taking it in, feeling something good starting to stir inside of me, until the cold forces me back to the tent.  Something lightly brushes my soul, and this little hint of peace provides incredible comfort.

The morning dawns spectacular – we’re tucked into a beautiful forested canyon, and the morning mist is aglow from the rising sun just peaking over the canyon lip.  It filters through the forest and makes my boys look like angels, silhouetted in the glow, hoods from their jackets pulled tight to ward off the chill, the exhaust from their breath like smoke from a fire.  Scents of ponderosa pine and campfire mingle, and the smells and scenery push any remnants of last nights’ fight deep into Oak Creek canyon.  Even a bit of that starry peace remains with me, and I sense it in the boys, too.  Nature at work…

Today we have decided to tackle a big challenge – we want to climb to the top of Mt. Humphrey’s, highest peak in Arizona at 12,633 feet above sea level.  I tell the boys it will be a challenge, but it doesn’t register with them, having never climbed that high.  Even when we spot the mountain peaking through the forest along AZ highway 89, Trevor says it will be easy.

I want to warn him, and Jake, that sometimes things that look easy from afar certainly aren’t when the boots hit the ground.  Like this grief thing.  We’ve been going to the counseling, and I’ve been reading books, and it all sounds so simple to work through.  Until you feel it.  Until the words on a page become the body blow that takes you down, when you really feel the emotional impact of the tremendous power of loss; that cannot be comprehended or shared with anyone else, it can only be felt.  The boys haven’t felt it yet, haven’t let themselves feel it, and I’m worried about that.  I haven’t fully felt it yet, either, and worse, I’m dredging up feelings of incomplete grief for my own father’s passing over 30 year’s ago.  So much imprtant work yet to do, for all of us…

We are on the trail by 9:30, and the hiking is fun, the spectacular fall mountain scenery, aspens afire in bright yellow, the sky brilliant blue, the clouds perfectly white.  It is all uphill, endless switchbacks through the forest, and we take frequent breaks.  I try to get the boys motivated to keep moving, knowing the best plan is to get up and back down as quickly as possible, since us lowlanders are not used to the lower volume of oxygen in the atmosphere as we climb higher.  But I want them to enjoy it, too, so just like everything that I’m learning about single parenthood, I have to try to strike a balance.

And three hours later my balancing skills are truly tested.  We’ve cleared the treeline, hiking now through volcanic scree and boulders, and the slope is much steeper, and the view spectacular.  Jake is going on adrenaline now, and wants the top, bad – his first taste of summit fever.  I want it, too, probably more than Jake, for these are the adventures that make my soul sing, but Trevor is starting to slow down and complaining of not feeling well.  How much do I push him, and Jake?  Certainly we will all face situations where you have to push through the pain to achieve your goal, and this is a great teaching opportunity.  But how do you know when to stop pushing?  Again, I miss my co-pilot…

Today is October 8, 2012.  It has been exactly three months since Debbie died.  I feel my progress through my own grief has come to a standstill, too busy with work and single parenting, and my lack of sleep disrupting even regular thought.  It seems we don’t even have time to miss her anymore, what with work and school and football and baseball and CCD.  But we brought mom’s hat with us, along with some other pink hats, to wear at the summit for our summit picture…

Finally we make it to a saddle between Mt. Humphrey’s and Mt. Aggassiz, at about 12,000 feet.  Trevor has been crying intermittently to stop, to go back down, and Jake has been less than kind in telling Trevor to suck it up and keep walking.  At the saddle the wind is funneled through the narrow opening between peaks at high velocity, probably 30-40 mph, and this high up, it’s cold, very cold.  The boys huddle in their jackets, but even then they are still cold.  I give Trevor my down jacket, and the oversized puff ball swallows him like the stay-puft marshmallow man – but at least he is warm.  I make the decision that this is as high as we go.  Jake protests, and is mad; Trevor wants to go now.  We compromise and stay for 20 minutes, enjoying the spectacular views from 12,000 feet, and have our picture taken with our pink hats on and say a prayer for mom’s grace and love and patience.  But the unceasing winds force us back down, not a moment too soon for T.

And poor Trevor is really starting to feel the effects of acute altitude sickness.  His stomach is quaking, and he can’t eat much at our lunch stop out of the wind.  I carry his pack as we start back down, but not too far from our break, poor T has to throw up.  Up comes lunch and breakfast.  Once he recovers enough, I try to push him down the mountain as fast as possible, knowing that is the only thing that will make him feel better.

But we have to stop 4 mores times on the way down for T to throw up, and Jake develops a throbbing headache that he says alternates between a sledgehammer and a regular hammer pounding his brain.  I feel it, too, though having done this before, I at least am prepared for it.  The going is slow and miserable for both of them, and I feel miserable for putting my kids through yet another discomfort.  God, what kind of parent am I?  My confidence takes another hit.

But we do make it down, one foot in front of the other, the way most challenges in life have to be tackled.  I am so proud of them right now, even though they aren’t proud of themselves yet.  The boys don’t notice that the aspens have been plugged in by the low electric evening light, spectacularly aglow in their fall majesty.  But I notice, and I take it in, adding to the peace of the stars last night.  There is a smile on my face…

The boys collapse in the car and are instantly asleep, before I even turn the ignition key.  I get down the remainder of the mountain as quickly as I can, but I cannot wake them in the parking lot of Denny’s in Flagstaff.  So we all nap, working off the hangover of another adventure that dad has dragged the kids into that hasn’t turned out quite the way I wanted.

But funny things happen when you survive adversity together.  Once down safely, and feeling better, the discomforts seem further away, the achievements more profound.  T throws up two more times in Denny’s, but then feels better, and a big pancake breakfast for him and a Grand Slam for Jake, and unlimited fountain drinks, and we are all feeling a lot better.  In fact, we can even laugh about it now, and I think it begins to sink in that, yeah, this was a good adventure!  We didn’t make it to the top, but we climbed to 12,000 feet, only 633 vertical feet from the summit, and that’s pretty impressive for a 9 and 12 year old.  I can see the pride on their smiling, dirty faces, and I can sense an appreciation for this adventure, maybe even an appreciation that their old man just might be able to take care of them after all.  Dare I say we’ve even bonded a bit???

It’s dark when we arrive back at camp, but tonight’s camp is so much lighter than last nights.  We laugh and regal each other with tales from the trip and zingers that T and Jake slung all day (where do they get this sharp-witted sense of humor?), tucked into our sleeping bags and cuddled together against the canyon.  I can’t help but think how ironic it is that the highest point in Arizona is so close its most spectacular low point, the Grand Canyon, separated by only 70 miles.

There is a real sense of camaraderie tonight, and a sense of peace and relief that comes from pushing yourself to your limits, and surviving.  I don’t tell them that this lesson can be applied to so many other things, and I certainly don’t bring up working through their grief.  But we talk openly of wishing mom were here, and how much we miss her, and even if it’s not the body blow emotions that need to come out eventually, it’s a start.  One foot in front of the other…


“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” – Robert Louis Stevenson


I haven’t left the house much in the past month, and I notice that when I’m at home I can’t escape my lists and chores.  I just can’t relax at home yet, and my days are an endless tapestry of not getting enough done.  How will I ever be able to juggle the demands of my job when I go back to work Monday, and kids, and keep up the house and yard, and still maintain some sanity?  So now I’m a blur of action, jumping from one unfinished task to another.  The stress level is through the roof, and I’m getting short with the kids at night when I’m exhausted and they don’t want to shut off the video games and brush their teeth.

So a trip to the woods is needed, I declare.  Nature and being outside have always been a salve for my soul, and this year my nature deficit is at an all time high.  The kids eagerly agree to the trip, too, and it will be great to unplug from our electronic tethers and spend some time at a slower pace.  That’s the plan, anyway…

Noon – Of course, getting ready for a camping trip has the immediate effect of increasing my workload; packing and making food lists and gathering equipment and feeding the cat.  Deb and I had our roles ironed out to share this burden, but I am overwhelmed.

Afternoon – I should be more excited than I am as we set up camp; something doesn’t feel right.  The kids offer to help with the camp chores – I know they are trying to lessen dad’s burden, too, and I am grateful.  But soon they are off and running, as they should be, enjoying the freedom of their bikes and the fresh air.  Alone in camp, I find the tent still has pine needles and red dirt in it from our last family trip, to Utah last year; the scents bring back a flood of memories and tears.  I am missing my traveling companion and best friend.

Evening – Our simple meal is missing mom’s touch.  The kids don’t seem to notice, their stomachs are just happy with the re-hydrated nutrients.  I forgot dessert, too, and pillows, dammit, and I set up our sleeping quarters at the wrong end of the tent.  The boys don’t care, so I try to shake my melancholy by walking through camp while they whiz up and down on their bikes.  But it is mostly couples in camp; I am lonely.

Night – The boys are cuddled together across the campfire from me.  In the orange glow we are back in Joshua Tree National Park, and Jake and Trevor are nestled in their mothers’ arms while she reads them Harry Potter.  We started our campfire that night using Deb’s hair as kindling; it was her first round of chemo, and we offered her hair to the desert gods.  The fire protected my children from the lonely, scary desert, from the coyotes howling all around us, and wrapped them in the warmth of their mother’s love.  How can you ever replace that?  I am sad, incredibly sad.

Midnight – A presence wakes me, calls me from the tent; it is calm, peaceful, otherworldly, like an apparition at the fuzzy far edges of the senses.  I can see only the darkened forest, enveloped in fog, bathed in the silvery glow of the moon.  Nothing moves, it is incredibly still, the only sounds are the katydids and cicadas; but something is here.  As a venture further away from the tent, something shifts, and the scene becomes eerie; I think of the kids and head back to the tent.  Was it only the dreamlike trance of someone who hasn’t slept in a month?  I am scared.

Sunrise – Morning, glorious morning, today trumpeted by a murder of crows, two of which sound like someone is stepping on a duck, according to Trevor!  Daybreak is always my favorite part of the day, and I enjoy the birdsong and solitude of camp while the boys sleep.  I am relieved.

Morning – The boys rouse, the sausage sizzles, the coffee steams and the sun burns off the dew that drips from the canopy. Everything is fresh.  There is laughter, hearty laughter, as us boys share raunchy jokes, a simple meal, the freedom of the woods and the pleasure of each others company.  I am joyous.

Forest – We take a morning hike through a stand of virgin hemlock along a river.  It is beautiful, even the boys comment on it.  The presence of the old ones is palpable, the pulse of life, layer upon layer of life, is affirming.  We breathe it in and drink deep of the wisdom of the forest.  The recent rains have brought out a cornucopia of mushrooms, beautiful mushrooms of all shapes and sizes, and we stop to admire their beauty.  Mushrooms, the forest janitors, who clean the woods of decay and death, who keep it healthy for the individuals that still thrive.  The mushrooms remind me that death is a part of life, a natural part of life; there is nothing to fear of death, it is okay.  I am at peace.

A broad-winged hawk sits above our camp when we return.  It is preparing to leave, also, to begin its journey to central and South America.  The boys and I are preparing for our journey, too, and all are thankful for the bounty of this forest…