Tracks and Transitions

Out west, our family sometimes stays in a cabin on a parcel of land plunked down in the middle of a national forest. There—with no cell service, no cable, and no wifi– we watch the weather unfold in the sky rather than on radar.

A couple of years back, a sunny September afternoon was overshadowed by clouds that rolled in over the Absaroka mountains, dropping rain and then snow as the temperatures plummeted. A splashy snow, it clung to everything it touched—the meadow’s tall grass, the aspen’s still-green leaves, and us. It fell through the afternoon and into the evening. As darkness descended, a movement in the distance prompted us to pick up our binoculars and search. A bull moose was plodding across the meadow, a dark shadow making his way between the hillside and the stream.

Until that moment, the only wildlife we’d spotted at the cabin had been trout and the occasional deer. We knew animals lived in the surrounding woods, of course. The cans of bear spray lined up on top of the refrigerator and three spotting scopes stationed by the windows silently testified to that. We’d just never seen them.

We went to bed, content with the falling snow and the company of the moose.

Morning brought a cloudless sky and a balmy breeze and we left the house to explore. Fresh tracks in the snow revealed that the moose had not been the only wildlife to pass by in the night. A rabbit had wandered around on the deck. A pair of deer had meandered across the dance floor in the meadow. A coyote had preceded us down the driveway between the cabin and the road.

The snow revealed their presence. Click to read the full essay at Kindred Mom.

 

 

 

 

Sparkling in an Unfamiliar Life

My great-grandma was a woman of summer. She kept a garden. She grew the flowers and vegetables that graced her table. She picked the berries that topped our ice cream. Once in a while I helped her in the garden or the berry patch and it always shocked me when she showed up wearing slacks. The garden was the only place I ever saw her dressed that way and even there she wore a dress over them, with a long-sleeved shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. She was dressed to work.

Right there are four important lessons she taught with her life: Wear appropriate attire. Protect your skin. Shade your eyes. And, of course, keep a garden.

I should have paid more attention.

She was teaching all the time. She just wasn’t obvious about it. Maybe she wasn’t even aware.

Grandma knew how to respond to her circumstances. In the garden, she wore slacks. In the face of a deer standing in the yard looking like dinner, she became a hunter. After an unexpected move, she looked to Jesus.

She’d moved before, first with my great-grandpa from the river valley to a rural acreage and then alone to a tidy mobile home on her daughter’s farm. When her health failed she moved again, this time to a nursing home.

Her sorrow hung in the room as we stood with awkward smiles, trying to make conversation while she arranged her few belongings on top of a dresser. She’d been there just a day or two and it was through a set jaw that she mumbled something about trying to make the best of it. I knew she wanted to. She wanted to even in the midst of her mourning.

It wasn’t long before she noticed that there were other people there with her, people who might not know Jesus. That was all it took. She got up, left her room, and went out to where the people were.

Life in the nursing home gave Grandma something she’d never had, something none of us expected: freedom. She’d never driven. She relied on her husband, and later her daughter, to take her where she wanted to go. In the nursing home she needed neither car nor chauffeur. She had shoes and a Bible, and that’s all she needed to carry out her purpose in that place and season.

Her favorite hymn was “Trust and Obey” and that is how she learned to live an unfamiliar life. She trusted. She obeyed. And it was enough. She was free to be happy, not in her circumstances but in Jesus.

My husband and I have lived in four different cities, which is exactly three more than I imagined we would. Each move was unexpected. While some have been like coming home, others were a step into an unfamiliar life.

My grandma’s quiet lesson about how to live with trust and obedience is another one I should have paid attention to long ago. It’s one I need every day, especially as I step into the unfamiliar areas of my actual, everyday life.

Not long after her move, Grandma made a small change to her wardrobe: She began to wear bead necklaces. I noticed but never asked why. At the time it seemed simple. They were pretty and she liked pretty things. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to believe they were more than mere adornment. Each was a badge of contentment. When the direction of her life’s road led away from her garden and her home, she found freedom to thrive, not in her circumstances but in Jesus. And that, like the necklaces which graced her neck, made her sparkle.

How about you? What do you hold onto as you step into unfamiliar places in your life? Where do you find freedom to thrive? Do those things give you sparkle?


 

“Sparkling in an Unfamiliar Life” is an edited version of an earlier post.

Christmas In August

 

Yellowstone Christmas in AugustSteamy air radiated from the asphalt as we crossed the road in front of the diner. Dad and I had traveled to Yellowstone for a nature writing seminar and a quick stop at Mammoth Hot Springs for an ice cream cone marked the transition from our leisurely tour of the park and three days of learning at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Huckleberry ice cream cones in hand, we wandered over to the hotel to see if Randy Ingersoll  was playing that evening. Inside the lobby, cool air carried the sound of music and slowed the purple flow of ice cream down our sugar cones. I could see Randy, but he wasn’t playing one of his original, Yellowstone-inspired compositions. He was playing something different, something I knew but couldn’t quite place.

We wove through the people milling around the more heavily decorated than usual lobby and into the Map Room where Randy sat at the piano. I waved and at the end of his song he stood and gave me a hug. He was wearing a tie.

I’d never seen Randy in a tie.

It was a Christmas tie. The song I hadn’t been able to place? A Christmas carol. And the overly decorated lobby? Christmas greenery. In August.

It was August 25. Christmas in Yellowstone. I’d forgotten.

Once upon a time, Yellowstone had a summer snowfall. Actually, Yellowstone gets a lot of summer snowfalls. This snow, however, fell on August 25. People—park concessionaire employees, probably—got a little festive. They celebrated and they decorated. Now, every year, Yellowstone’s establishments celebrate Christmas. It’s not about commerce. It’s about tradition.

According to park lore, for a lot of years, park concessionaire employees forded the Firehole River, hauled themselves up onto a boulder to decorate a tree which had managed to carve out space for its roots and its existence on top. The decorating was reportedly then undone by rangers who subsequently crossed the river and climbed the boulder themselves. It makes sense. There’s nothing natural about a Christmas tree in the middle of a river.

Christmas in Yellowstone. I’d forgotten. Actually, some days–the balmy ones and the cloudy ones, the snowy ones and, maybe especially, the scorching ones–I forget about Christmas.

That makes me sad, because Christmas forms the bedrock of my actual, everyday life. It’s as much the foundation in the middle of summer’s hottest months as it is  in December. Christmas is a celebration of a birth and a life, of a death and subsequent resurrection, of rebirth and new life. Christmas is not a one day deal.

It’s a celebration of a baby, God’s son, who came to earth to grow up, as baby boys do, into a man. He lived a fully human yet sinless life. He bore sin on his shoulders and suffered separation from His father. He died an unjust but necessary, sacrificial death to pay the debt for our sin so that we could—once again—be in relationship with God. And after three days, God raised him from the dead.

That’s something that matters every day. I live with the mercy and grace  of Christmas every day, but sometimes I forget to remember Christmas. And Christmas is worth remembering all year long.

If you’d like encouragement to remember Christmas in the coming months, I have something for you: I’ve recorded three short Christmas audios that can be delivered right to your inbox on the first of October, November, and December. If you’d like to receive these, just email me at natalie at alongthisroad dot com (or click the email icon at the top of this page) to let me know.  I’ll get you all set up.

Linking at Lyli’s place today.

Summer Notes

Summer Notes

Seasons–the days, the weeks, and even the months they are made of–are easy things for me to give away. I saw this tendency when my son and daughters were small and I referred to them as the age they would be on their next birthday rather than the one they were in that moment. I see it more often than I’d like, when I give away bits of a day that had stretched into the distance like our straight gravel road to things that don’t matter. And with a month of summer still left, I struggle not to feel like it’s already over. 

Do you feel that way too? If you do, I have good news: It’s not.

Summer still holds thirty-seven days on the calendar. Recounting the gifts, the graces, and the things that have made a difference helps me remember that. Care to join me?

Summer’s Gifts and Graces:

  1. Kittens. Period.
  2. Warm sun on my skin.
  3. Summer school. AKA reading by the pool.
  4. Shade. Because too much of even the good gift of sun is too much.
  5. Watermelon. I’m not usually a fan. This summer, though? Different story.
  6. Long days and late nights. Even though it means the sun is up before I am.
  7. Breezes. There’s nothing quite like the gentle rustle of wind through the leaves.
  8. The return of school. My girls mentioned their desire for its rhythms and routines before I did.
  9. Gardens. Where else is it so evident that worthwhile things require time, effort, and cultivation?
  10. Rain. It waters the roots, settles the dust, and, some years, there doesn’t seem to be quite enough.
  11. Time. Even though summer is still busy, the space-time continuum is just different during this season.
  12. Central air. Because even morning’s singing birds and evening’s chirping frogs can’t make up for the heat of high summer.

I keep track of more of each season’s gifts and graces on Instagram. If you’re on IG and you’d like to join in, use the hashtag #thegiftsandgraces.

Learning:

Diligence is good but deadlines are better.

I’ve never been one of those works-best-under-pressure sorts of gals. Back in college, I believed it when professors told me I would need the whole semester to complete an assignment. I started right away and finished without a lot of stress and pressure. In my current life I’ve been working diligently on a project. For a long time. I added a deadline and made huge progress. Fast.

Diligence paves the way. Deadlines provide the fuel to actually arrive.

Liking:

Watermelon, Cucumber, and Burrata Salad. Find it here. Sweet watermelon. Savory lots of other things. Love it!

Listening:

To my body: It needs more sleep. Either the 5 a.m. wakeup call or the late bedtime had to go. I’m getting up a little later. I’m not getting as much done, but that really isn’t the most important thing in life.

Looking:

At some public gardens and a nearby pretty little city: The flowers demand attention. They’re reminding me that effort and patience produce good fruit.

How about you? What gifts and graces have been part of your summer? What have you learned, liked, listened to, or looked at that’s made a difference this season?

Linking over at Emily P  Freeman’s today, with lots of others sharing what they learned this summer..

No: A Long Bridge to Yes

HA Spring Bridge Collage

When I slipped off the wide gravel road and into the woods, I knew it was a risk. The worn, earthen trail between the trees was wore a dark, saturated look, as if just a few drops of rain would transform it into shoe-sucking mud. At first it was solid and often grassy. Before long, though, I heard the unmistakable squish of a boggy trail under my feet. I picked my way over and around and through the sloppy path and emerged at the edge of a clearing that could have been called a swamp. Because it was shallow and my toes were already wet, I tiptoed in and picked my way across. There was something on the other side I wanted to see.

A bridge.

Finding a bridge in the woods is one of my favorite things. It’s unexpected. A gift.  After walking and walking and walking on dirt, suddenly there’s something different, something meant to make the way easier or maybe even possible, depending on the nature of the impasse.

As I approached the bridge, I thought it seemed a little odd. Out of perspective. Off somehow.  When I reached it, I saw that to cross the bridge required three steps down and three back up on the other side. Usually you just walk straight onto and across a bridge. It’s a zero-depth entry operation. To cross this bridge required me to climb down onto it just to cross.

I thought it was weird.

The people who built the bridge could have used a little extra wood and added a few feet on each side and it would have been like the others. Straight on. Straight off.

Those bridges are easy. Familiar.

But this one, I realized, as I leaned over the railing and inspected the cleft in the earth below, mirrored one I’d been walking for a while. Not a literal bridge, of course. This one mirrored one of those figurative bridges I’m fond of. They’re as unexpected as the ones in the woods, and possibly a greater gift.

No. That’s the bridge. And it’s taking me to yes.

It’s a long one. I climbed down onto that bridge one yes at a time only to discover that I’d yesed myself into a whole lot of noes. Noes to people. To sleep. And to fun. All those noes prompted my husband and me to take a close and prayerful look at our life. A close and prayerful look led to the realization that what we need now are more, different, noes–noes to Big And Very Good Things, things we enjoy, things we’re good at, things where we make a difference. All in the name of crossing the bridge back to yes.

Yes to people. Yes to rest. And yes to joy.

It’s a long bridge and I’ll be on it longer than I would like. It will take a lot of  steps to cross from one side of the chasm to the other, steps I know will be small and halting because I’m more prone to overcommitting than to cutting back.

But now that I’ve walked down the steps and onto the bridge I can see that it’s a good place to pause and count the cost, to ponder the conditions of current commitments and attend to God’s leading in order to press on, better able to stand behind my yeses and my noes. It’ll be awhile before I make it across the long bridge and climb the stairs on the other side. Along the way I’ll be learning to make better use of my noes, my yeses, and—for now—my summer, a season in which I’m trying to put my yeses in the right places, places like people—including my kids and the pool.

How about you? What are you doing with your yeses and noes? 

Linking over at Lyli Dunbar’s place today.
Click on over and see what she’s been up to!

What Gives Her Away

 

Backyard Brilliance

Elyse was four when she first showed us how brave she was—and what mattered enough to bring that bravery out. We’d moved, pulling into the driveway at a new house after dark on a Sunday night and popping out for a pre-school visit at nine the very next morning. During our tour she cast clandestine glances at the other children and when they invited her to stay for their Valentine’s Day party, she smiled and took a chair at their table.

It was her smile that gave her away.

Elyse is known for her smile. It’s ready and open and real. But not that day. That day it was manufactured and careful and maybe a little bit hopeful.

Thirteen years and another move later, we watched as the landscape of her face gradually flattened from its gentle contours into the hard line of a midwestern highway. Her smile gave her away again. It was gone. I knew why, and that we had to act because when my own smile had faded away a few years before, it was action that saved me.

I’d been lonely. Devastatingly so. We’d moved again, this time to a place where I found myself surrounded by people who called me friend but hadn’t made room for real relationship. Without companionship, I lost hope and withered away spiritually, emotionally, and physically, enduring rather than enjoying my life. So when I stepped out of the shower one morning–already weary and ready for the day to be done–and turned on a random podcast, I expected diversion. What I got was direction: There are friends who need you and friends who you need. If you need a friend, go out and find one. It sounded like a simple solution, but it was new to me. Click here to continue reading. 

Loneliness. It’s painful,  deeply personal, and seemingly pervasive in our culture today. There’s  a conversation underway over at kindredmom.com  this month about combatting loneliness. Join in and read more at Kindred Mom about our family’s experience with loneliness and steps we took to combat it . Click here to read the full essay.

 

Embracing a Big Summer {& a Giveaway}

Summer Scene: Morning on Table Rock LakeWhile the rest of the world waited for February 2 and  Punxsutawney Phil to declare just how many more weeks winter would hold on, I looked to February 1. That was the date I allowed myself to count the days until my kids would be done with school and off on summer break so we could all be home together and do summer things.

The key words in that sentence are home and do, because one always seemed to exclude the other and I ended up fragmented and frustrated in my approach to life.

The kids are older now and so am I. More than that we homeschool. I don’t have to count the days until we’ll all be home together. Still, every February, I find myself counting the days until we can focus more on the freedoms and gifts of summer.

But my desire to be home and do are still at cross-purposes, leaving me feeling as though I’m living in the battle field of my mind, my calendar, and my expectations. And I too often find myself a summer version of Ebenezer Scrooge, bah-humbugging away the season I was anticipating—feeling too overwhelmed to do all of those things I was looking forward to, telling my littlest that we don’t really need to go to the pool, and sometimes counting the days until fall.

This isn’t how I want to approach summer. It’s not how I want to live. But I’m learning that the way I meet seasons and months and days becomes the way I live  my life. So I’ve been working on it, putting on a new mindset about summer–the one I actually have instead of the one that exists only in my mind and Hallmark commercials.

Here are a few ideas that have helped me on my quest to better embrace a big summer. I’m more successful at some of these than others, but I’ll take progress without perfection over the pursuit of perfection with no progress.

  • Let summer be summer. Not a continuation of spring. Not a runway for fall. Just summer.
  • Let this summer be this summer. Not last summer. Or next summer. Every summer is different.
  • Look at every opportunity as a blessing rather than an obligation. 
  • Ask and adjust. Ask yourself what you want to do this summer. (Which isn’t the same as what you’d like to accomplish this summer.) Ask your family. Ask what’s realistic. Adjust.
  • If you need to let some things go, let them go and move on. Without guilt. Don’t dwell.
  • Say yes to the people who live in your house. It’s their summer, too.
  • Plan a few no days. Most days you’ll do things. Set a few apart to not do things.
  • Go to the pool. Or the lake. (And maybe get in the water.)
  • Eat outside. Even better: Put your dinner in a basket and go on a picnic.
  • Simplify your meal planning. During the summer we eat taco salad most Mondays. My girls love it, especially when we take it to the lake and go for a walk afterward.
  • If you travel, lighten up. Take less stuff. Make packing less of thing to contend with.
  • Consider this question: What is summer for?

I’d love to hear your answer. Let me know in the comments. 

The Giveaway:

There’s a new book on the market: A Family Shaped by Grace: How to Get Along with the People Who Matter Most. It’s by Gary Morland, a believer in connecting the dots of life, in the power of encouragement, and in God’s care for the state of our family relationships. It’s practical and encouraging, a story and tool-chest for how to bring about small changes in your family culture, not by changing your family, but by changing your heart, attitudes, and actions toward your family. I’ve been privileged to be on the launch team for this book and because I believe family matters and am grateful for Gary’s voice, I’ll be giving away two copies of his book, one to blog readers and one to newsletter subscribers. To enter, leave a comment on or before June 29.

Blog reader winner will be announced June 30, in the comments on this post. (Newsletter subscribers will be notified by email. If you’re not a subscriber, there’s still time. Subscribe in sidebar.)

 

Sharing at  Lyli’s and Barbie’s.

When the Mind Won’t Stop {5 Ideas That Might Help}

For When the Mind Won't Stop

There you are, on the couch with your kids, in the stands at the game, at the coffee shop with a friend. You’re sitting. You’re supporting. You’re socializing. But you haven’t stopped.

You’ve pushed pause. Your body is still, at least enough to watch and cheer and talk, but your mind is running. Writing a grocery list. Rehashing a conversation. Remembering the mountain of laundry waiting at home for a reboot.

What’s to be done with a mind that resists the pause button, a mind that won’t stop?

Set it.

Set its direction. Set is tone. Set its limits.

Set it before it sets you. Before it sets you on a path that steals moments meant for restoration. On a path of duty rather than joy. On a path that distances you from others and even from yourself.

Setting the mind, it’s not a once and done kind of operation—not once a week, once a day, or once an hour. It’s a persistent, gentle shepherding, a returning of the mind from where it’s wandered back to where it belongs, a pointing it toward the path you want it to take rather than the one it’s used to, a cultivating of the discipline of mentally being where you are rather than back into the rigors of work or the woes of life.

And just exactly how does one set the mind? How do we shepherd it back, point it toward the path we choose, cultivate discipline?

Practice. That it takes time is unavoidable. There’s no easy plan. Here are some things that help me when I discover my mind won’t stop.

  1. Pause. Even if it’s imperfect. Open up some space for connection, for reflection, for rest.
  2. Predetermine: Often when the mind wanders it isn’t into the healthiest or holiest or even the helpful-est of places. It goes off borrowing trouble from tomorrow or dragging some of yesterday’s into today. Decide where you don’t want your mind to go. And where you do.
  3. Pray. Because what better way to renew your mind than to invite God in? Because human strength and stamina is limited and His is not. Because we can.
  4. Choose the present. Even if the present is chaotic, stressful, or even a little dull, the present is where our body resides. It’s where other folks with pulses live. It’s where our people are. Best if the mind and body reside there together, near their people.
  5. Persevere: The mind, like the body, gets stronger through use and exercise. A twenty-four hour day stretches out like a marathon course. Just as runners train the body, we who struggle to press pause must train the mind. Some marathon runners train to finish, to complete the course. And some train to win, to finish fast. None of us will finish first in a twenty-four hour day. It begins and it ends at the same time for everybody. Perhaps true perseverance is to train to finish well, not to finish first.

And you? What helps you set your mind in the direction you want it to go?

Sharing this week at Lyli’s and Barbie’s.

 

Waiting For What We Can’t See

Waiting for What You Can't See Along the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and  Cooke City, the meadows are open and greening, quite in agreement with the calendar: spring has arrived. Leave the dry, temperate north end of Yellowstone and try to head into the interior, though,  and you’ll see a place still in waiting.

The most obvious sign: You can’t actually get there. Many of the roads are covered in snow. And closed.

It’s too bad, because there’s something there I want to see and never will.

In winter, the Lower Falls on the Yellowstone River develops a cone of ice, constructed by cold air and the mist churned up the river’s three-hundred-foot drop. In spring, warmer air and the same mist break down the structural integrity of the cone, eating away at it until it can no longer support itself. Eventually, after a series of thunderous pops and cracks, it collapses.

I’ve wanted to see this ever since I was eighteen, since that winter’s day when I stood next to the Lower Falls, marveling at the shield of ice and listening to a guide explain what would happen later that spring. But when the cone collapses, there’s no way into the park. It’s completely inaccessible.

Waiting For What You Can't See The roads that close every November to accommodate the transition from asphalt to  snow  close again every March for the reverse. Unlike fall’s reliance on the natural buildup of regular, seasonal precipitation, the transformation from snow road back to asphalt is a systematic dismantling, one which requires heavy equipment and weeks of labor. It’s a slow process, one which renders most of the park effectively closed.

Yellowstone—its wildlife and its woods tucked away from the eyes of all but a few employees—is inaccessible but busy,  pressing on toward that  burst of growth that spring’s increasing sunlight and warmth will unleash. The park does fine without observation. It doesn’t need us to watch. Or wonder. Or worry.

Buds swell on their branches. Bears wake and wander hungry from their dens, ready to hunt and gather. And bison, the largest of Yellowstone’s animals, trudge through the receding snow and their final bulky weeks of gestation.

But, like the collapse of the cone, much of this happens out of our reach. It’s entirely inaccessible. No matter how much we might want to see it.

Waiting For What You Can't See

It’s spring. The calendar says so and there’s evidence all around.  Here at home green sweeps though the timber and makes its way across the pasture to the front door. Birds sing with the dawn. Morning and evening light cast their influence over our activities and our moods.

While the temperate regions in my life make their way into the light of spring with ease, there are interior pockets that are slow to join them. There’s no road to get there, so I can’t see what’s going on. I can’t hurry it along. No matter how much I want to.

Because I’m learning to pay better attention to the seasons, I’m starting to understand some things about those inaccessible, wintry pockets.

Just as the arrival of the vernal equinox does not mean that winter has fully released its hold on the earth, there is no one day to look to for the thawing of the wintry places in my life. What it does mean is that winter’s power is weakening. Spring is on the way.

Spring is always on the way.

Those wintry places will feel the light in their time. They don’t need me to watch. Or wonder. Or worry.

Spring’s got this. It’s blowing its warm breath across the landscape of life, creating the right conditions for the ice to crack and the cone to collapse. It’s slow sometimes and hard to wait, but the rhythm and inevitability of the seasons work in our favor, even when we can’t see it. Maybe especially if we can’t see it.

And you?  Are you prone to wonder and worry over what you can’t see? What could you do instead?

 

 

(You can see a photo of  the ice cone toward the end of its life here.)

Sharing at Barbie’s and Lyli’s places this week.

Gifts and Graces: Spring Edition

Spring on the Square

Yesterday I hurried into Walmart for a few things and emerged–much more slowly–pushing a cart. Right outside the door I caught the fragrance of something I’d seen but not stopped to appreciate on the way in: flowers for sale. It was the scent of spring.

I try, with varying degrees of success, not to focus so much on the difficulties of a season  that I miss out on the good. This winter, with its perpetual grey skies that delivered more rain than snow, proved hard not to wish away.

Already the best gift and amazing grace of spring is that it arrived, just in time to remind me that seasons were God’s idea, and that as long as there are lights in the heavens to govern them, seasons—no matter how long or weird or uncomfortable—will end.

So I’m thankful for spring, for days that can be counted on to get a little longer as they pass, for green that marches across the grass and through the treetops toward my doorstep, for teasing, balmy air. What I’m grateful for this Spring Which Followed the Greyest of Winters is that no matter the nature of that cold season, spring always comes again.

Gifts of Spring: A Short List of Things to Count On.
  1. Evening light. Glory.
  2. Rain. Even though it brings clouds.
  3. Growth: Even when it brings growing pains.
  4. Girls that want to go outside. During school. A lot.
  5. Change. Even though I never like it. At first, anyway.
  6. Buds on the branches. Calves frolicking in the pasture. Mama cats looking for place to shelter tiny kittens.

And you? What gifts, graces, and even glitches is this season bringing your way?

Sharing at Lyli and Barbie’s .