The presents are opened; the food is eaten; the relatives have gone home. The Christmas holidays are over. But the very best gifts of Christmas don’t have to be packed away until next year. We can enjoy them all year long—especially by spending time outdoors!
May HOPE, LOVE, JOY and PEACE be yours, all the year through!
Some families and churches celebrate Advent in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Each week an additional candle is lit on the wreath, reminding us to focus on the true gifts offered to us: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. Even for folks who follow other religions (or no religion at all), each one of us longs to experience these qualities in our personal lives. Daughter and I have discovered that being in Nature gets us away from the hectic schedules and to-do lists of daily living. Time in the woods brings us these simple gifts:
HOPE: Anything feels possible when we head outdoors for adventure. Even when the trail is difficult and we have a bad day, we comfort ourselves that tomorrow will bring new beauty and fresh challenges. Out here there are always reminders that nothing is so dark that light cannot shine into the shadows…
LOVE: Being outdoors helps us experience different facets of this gift. We better love the earth itself when we spend time in Nature. For us personally, our love for the Creator God grows when we experience the beauty around us. We deepen our connections with others as we overcome challenges together. (Yes, even when we want to kill each other…we are still building relationship! Haha!)
JOY: We are often reminded of this verse while we are hiking on the Appalachian Trail: “Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice; (Let the sea roar and all that fills it); Let the field exult and everything in it; Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy!” (Psalm 96:11-12) One particular morning, we were in awe to find this tree, singing for joy with arms raised toward the sunlight!
PEACE: Even science affirms that we need time in the woods to lower stress and counter the noisy, hectic world in which we live. It is never completely silent in the woods, but the sounds of birds singing, insects buzzing, wind blowing, and water flowing are calming, soothing noises. Sometimes we talk or sing while we hike together, other times we savor the peace that surrounds us when we walk in Nature.
As we put away the decorations of the Christmas season and look toward the beginning of a New Year, let’s make more time to get outdoors. Let’s celebrate the real gifts of Christmas all year long.
(I would love to hear which gift you want more of in the coming year. Please share any plans you may have for spending time in Nature by commenting on this post!)
It’s the holiday season and some folks are struggling. They don’t feel much joy but they “should” be excitedly celebrating, right? Nope! Don’t let myths and stories fool you. Every “big epic” has highs and lows.
Every adventure in life has moments like this:
Times of bumbling, wandering, following ever changing paths. But, keep moving and eventually you get to somewhere else!
I’ve written about some of those raw moments before. (One example is found HERE) Read any gripping book about adventure and you will discover there are always difficulties and challenges. That’s reality…and that’s okay!
Of course, we alway prefer the dancing on the mountaintop moments. The joy of Christmas. The besotted love for a new baby. The wonders of a new house (or new job, or new relationship, or new place to go on vacation.)
Go ahead and dance! But don’t expect to stay there. Life is never that simple. The title of this blog post was actually a trick. We never live in just one movie. Some days we are crawling in a bug’s life. Other days we are twirling like Maria in Sound of Music.
A more accurate title for this post would be “Which Movie Clip Fits You…RIGHT NOW?” Whatever you are feeling at this moment is okay. You haven’t lost your way but you also can’t stay on that mountain forever. As another movie says, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming!” And this holiday season? I wish for you at least a few moments to twirl.
(I’d love to hear your answer to the question in the title–from these movies, or another one that fits your life better right now!)
The Appalachian Trail offers relatively few overlooks with stunning mountain views. Much of the time, the hiker follows the trail through the “Green Tunnel,” surrounded by woods. Occasionally, the trail wanders through pastures or over grassy “balds.” Wherever that simple path goes, however, the hiker is surrounded by splendor.
When I’m backpacking on the Appalachian Trail, I often think of this traditional Navajo blessing: “In beauty I walk, With beauty before me I walk, With beauty behind me I walk, With beauty above me I walk, With beauty around me I walk, It has become beautiful again.”
Whether we are enjoying a brilliant panoramic mountain view or savoring small details along the way, hiking on the Appalachian Trail IS walking in beauty!
Like everyone, we have had many challenges in life. Through counseling, comfort from God, and encouragement from others, we have learned how to walk through difficult things. It is always inspiring when we can pass these blessings on to others we meet who are struggling.
God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others who are also suffering. — 2 Corinthians 1:4
As I’ve mentioned previously, our most recent AT adventure was very hard emotionally. Both daughter and I wanted to quit multiple times. Looking back, I realize we would have missed opportunities to bless others and to receive blessings if we had given in to those negative emotions and left the trail early. Here are stories of blessings which occurred after our breakdown moments:
Daughter Andowen has worked with a therapist for many years to gain coping skills to deal with severe anxiety and suicidal ideation. A key technique is “reframing” negative thoughts. One afternoon at a shelter, Elizabeth* shared her struggles with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. Before I could say anything, Andowen jumped in and talked about how significant reframing has been for her. She explained the process step by step. It was exciting for me to see my teen daughter teach her hard-earned coping skills to an older adult.
Another day, some first time backpackers showed up at a shelter we were at for a night. They were tired and discouraged. They were baffled as they tried to set up their new tent and use their fancy stove—things they had neglected to practice before leaving for the trail. Andowen went over to introduce herself, and then proceeded to calmly teach them how to use their gear. When I wandered over a little later, they raved about how helpful Andowen was, how wonderful it was that she was so skilled in the woods, and how grateful they were. Because of her encouragement, they said they plan to return to the trail for more adventures in the future. Way to go, Andowen!
One night another hiker and I stayed up late, talking about some of the profound challenges our kids face. David* shared his heartbreak that his young adult son was often in self-inflicted crisis. As is often the case, the anonymity of sitting with a stranger around a campfire allowed deep sharing. I mostly listened, occasionally encouraging David with stories from our family’s life. The next morning, I grabbed a private moment to explain what I’ve learned about grief. We can’t help others or dream of new things until we recognize and acknowledge challenges, and then grieve losses and disappointments. This process allows us to truly accept present realities even as we hope for change. Sharing these things with David reminded me of the progress we have made in our family…and sent him on his way, pondering how these ideas could begin to heal his own broken heart.
Twice on this trip, we were able to attend local church services. Both times, we were accepted, prayed for, and encouraged. Both times, it felt like some of the teachings were exactly the words we needed to hear. God used the people in those little churches to bless us as we headed further down the trail. At the same time, in both settings, the congregations were facing challenges that we have had experience with. I was able to privately encourage leaders by telling stories about what God has done in our own lives in similar situations. Warren Wiersbe, a noted theologian says, “True worship should lead to…the kind of spiritual strength that helps the believer carry the burdens and fight the battles of life.” In these little small town churches, we experienced the mutual blessing of true worship!
Sometimes being blessed and blessing others takes far less effort. Small words can echo for days: “I love spending time with your daughter.” “You have the most beautiful eyes, so full of life.” “You are doing a good job, mama. Keep it up!” Simple actions can encourage: “I picked up two wild apples, would you like one?” “I’ve got some extra water, do you need it?” “This is a tough spot. I waited to give you a hand, if you want…” When we stopped for rest-breaks, I often found myself remembering these little kindnesses.
Occasionally I am reminded of the importance of bravely sharing the lessons we learn as we walk through dark places. We never know where those bits of light might shine. After writing a blog post about “Hard Days” (you can read it HERE), a friend across the country told me the following story: Stephanie* volunteers monthly at an outreach for homeless people in her town. She found herself listening as one man poured out his desperation, telling her of his plans to kill himself after he left the park, too discouraged to reach out again for help that never changed anything. Stephanie grew more and more upset as she struggled to find any words to respond. Suddenly she remembered the closing words from my blog post that morning. When she told the man “Never quit on a bad day,” he burst into tears, and then allowed her to get him to a psychiatric emergency room where he checked himself in for treatment. Wow!
As we in American have just finished Thanksgiving Day, it is a good time for all of us to ponder: How have I been helped in my own life, especially as I have walked through hard things? But let’s not just stop with gratitude for ways we have been blessed. Let’s start a chain of encouragement as we pass those blessings on to others!
*These stories really happened, but names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
The Holiday Season is looming. For those of us who are missing a loved one, this time of year can feel like being flattened by a runaway truck. Everywhere we look, there are stories and images of (mythical) happy families celebrating together. In the midst of grief, this can increase feelings of isolation and despair. So…what can you say or do to support a grieving friend? Here are some things to remember, whether their loved one died last week or last decade:
“Showing up, in whatever way you can is what really matters most.” – Jodi Whitsitt
You probably don’t know what to say. That’s okay. There really are NO “proper” words for dealing with death. Simple acknowledgement of that fact is helpful. I recently discovered a CD about grief by Olivia Newton John and others. They perform a song about this uncomfortable lack of words. You can listen to it HERE. (The rest of the songs are excellent reflections on grief, as well.) Just BE with your friend. After our son died, I have a special memory of a dear friend who came over a few weeks later and just sat in silence with me on my couch, both of us curled up under cozy blankets, drinking mugs of hot tea.
It might make YOU feel better to spout platitudes: “he’s in a better place;” “God works everything for good;” “she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Don’t do it! Find ways to make yourself feel better on your own time. When you are with your grieving friend, it is better to say something like this: “I have no words to say” or “I’m so sorry.” It might feel inadequate…but you really can’t “fix it” so don’t try! I have forgotten what most friends said after my son died…but I always remember the co-worker when I finally got back to work who said “there are no words” then gave me a long hug.
Wanna help in practical ways? Please do not make the vague statement, “if there’s anything I can do…” Folks who are grieving have foggy brains. They have no idea what they need help with! Pick a specific task that fits that friend, then do it. THIS ARTICLE tells a story of the significance of polishing shoes. For me, the friends who took turns picking up my younger kids for playdates were an invaluable help. Bringing a meal for the family is traditional…and helpful. But one friend thought of something others hadn’t. She brought us bags of useful paper products: TP, Kleenex, and paper plates/napkins.
THIS ARTICLE makes suggestions for 13 practical ways to help a grieving friend. As she says, “Just Show Up!” Awkward is better than disappearing. Remember to continue reaching out to help in the months and years after the funeral. More than just asking how we are doing (which at least acknowledges that we are not forgotten), give opportunities for us to talk about our loved one. We long to know they are not forgotten. I treasure the occasional photo or anecdote about my son that my friends continue to share with me (like this one, posted on fb eight years after his death).
There aren’t many resources for using art and words to process grief. From my experience, I have written a few online classes. Consider sharing this information with a grieving friend—or check it out for yourself! The first class I wrote is relevant right now: “Hope for the Holidays.” Contact me if you would like more information about taking this online class!
As I have written in previous blog posts (HERE and HERE ) death and grief are perhaps the greatest (unwanted) adventure. Please reach out and encourage others who are in the midst of a life-changing grief-journey, especially now as the holidays approach.
When we are on a long backpacking trip, we are homesick for friends and routines left behind. And when we get home, we are homesick (trail-sick?) for the adventures and the simplicity of backpacking.
Our (tiny) hiking pals regularly remind us of favorite places we enjoyed along the Appalachian Trail.
Tiny S most enjoyed the challenges posed by jumbled boulders or fallen trees. It was a fun puzzle to figure out whether to go over, under, around, or through the obstacles. (See another blog post about this challenge HERE.)
Tiny A frequently talks about the fun she had playing near the streams. The rocks and roots overhanging the water were perfect to climb on. The cold water was a great way to cool off at the end of a sweaty day of hiking. And the sound of flowing water lulled us all to sleep at night.
Both Tiny-Mes agree that they don’t want to miss next year’s adventure in the woods. They plan to join us again when we head back to the mountains to hike more miles of the Appalachian Trail. There are rumors of a trip to Maine to complete the 100-mile Wilderness. Or possibly a repeat visit to see the wild ponies in Grayson Highlands. Or maybe the new challenge of a few days of winter camping.
We have been home for a few months now. We love our small town in Middle America. We treasure chatting with friends when we unexpectedly meet them running errands around town. We enjoy reading books, lounging near the cozy warmth of our fireplace.
Memories and Possibilities. We cling to them as the weather gets cold and winter approaches. Time to plan our next adventures!
I recently read the Summer 2017 issue of AT Journeys magazine from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). One article included the official ATC policy on the AT experience. I found these policies interesting to ponder…especially as they relate to the therapeutic value of hiking the Appalachian Trail with my daughter “Andowen.” (Read more about how hiking helps her HERE and HERE.)
“Integral to the trail experience are:
–Opportunities for observation, contemplation, enjoyment, and exploration of the natural world.
Time for contemplation when camped beside a waterfall along the AT in Virginia
–A sense of remoteness and detachment from civilization.
The world disappears when sitting atop a mountain above the clouds!
–Opportunities to experience solitude, freedom, personal accomplishment, self-reliance and self-discovery.
Writing in a journal and making drawings is a great way to record and process our experiences
–A sense of being on the height of the land.
Sometimes it feels like “on a clear day, you can see forever”
–Opportunities to experience the historic and pastoral elements of the surrounding countryside.
If only the ruins we pass could talk…what stories we would hear!
–A feeling of being part of the natural environment.
Hugging Keffer Oak–the second largest tree along the AT. It has an 18′ diameter and is over 300 years old!
–Opportunities for travel on foot, including opportunities for long distance hiking.”
“The mountains are calling and I must go…” –John Muir
I’m sure many of these experiences can be found in other places in nature…but they certainly are part of why we continue to return to the Appalachian Trail for more backpacking adventures!
The number one rule of successful adventure is–Never Quit On a Bad Day! As John Denver sings “Some days are diamonds, Some days are stone…” It is important to remember that there WILL be sparkly, bright days again, even when this particular one feels dark and heavy.
Most days we can celebrate the “diamonds” found by spending extended time in the mountains/woods. We enjoy seeing the beautiful views, hearing stories from fellow hikers, and feeling tired pride at the end of the day–the pride of a job well done.
On other days, however, this all feels like a heavy, cumbersome “stone.” We wonder why we are out here. We get teary and angry and just want to quit. (Join me in a moment of silence in sympathy for my poor hubby when we finally have cell coverage after a few hard days in a row….)
A few days into our trip, daughter Andowen pulled off her backpack and plopped down beside a cross-trail. She was adamant that we were going to hike down to a hostel, call daddy and go HOME right then. I insisted that we would talk about it two days later–after a night in a soft bed and a belly full of town food. We argued about it…but eventually she grabbed her pack and angrily stomped off down the trail.
Another day I was exhausted. I was physically tired of hiking day after day…and mentally weary of worrying about whether or not there would be water at the next shelter. (The drought in this area causes us to have to carry pounds of extra water each day…ugh!) Being careful to save water so we can make dinner even if the water source near the shelter is dry causes us to skimp on drinking while hiking. Dehydration is a terrible thing! The unrelenting steep climb at the end of that day made things worse. By the time I got to the shelter, all I wanted to do was crawl in my sleeping bag and give up.
On hard days, adventure comes down to attitude. It is important to acknowledge and feel the full range of emotion. But then, we need to choose. We remind Andowen to reframe the negatives–and look for the positives. This is the first time she has felt homesick—but that also means she finally has friends and roots in our new location. For me, I remind myself to let go of worrying about things I can not control (my daughter’s emotions, the lack of water, how much my muscles ache).
And we remind each other on those hard days—Never Quit on a Bad Day!
(On Hard Days it also helps to look for “Three Good Things” described HERE or “Ta-Dah Moments” described HERE)
This backpacking trip we have seen amazing variety in the fungi found along the Appalachian Trail. Every imaginable color, shape, and type is represented.
When we noticed this one, Daughter made an interesting observation: what if they aren’t really fungi but are the Corals of the Forest? Or perhaps, scientists have it wrong, and the colorful collections in the oceans should be called Fungi of the Sea…
Sometimes the “Coral” are standing tall and proud, in plain sight beside the trail.
Other times, they are shyly hidden under leaves or in the crevices of tree trunks.
Here are some of the most interesting we have found so far. What do you think they should be called–Coral or Fungi?
These look like budding plants…but they are slimy.
This tree wears a skirt full of ruffles!
This one must be related to jellyfish…it’s translucent!
According to Mario, this is a mushroom. But perhaps that is just another type of “Coral”?
We still aren’t sure what classification these things should be given. We found Sponge Bob’s pet snail the other day. If his Pineapple appears in these woods, we will all know that these should properly be called the CORAL of the FOREST!
UPDATE: by the time we finishe’d our hike, we found two more connections to the sea: suckers from octopus tentacles, and another jellyfish wanna-be.