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!

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 .

Winter’s Good Graces {and Why to Keep Track}

Winter Gifts and Graces

The bleak midwinter, Christina Rossetti called it. And while her poem is lovely, living with continual strings of short, cold, sunless days is not.

I believe that there is a time for everything, even bleak days. And yet. It’s at such times when my practice of pausing occasionally to ponder the path, to take stock of each season’s gifts and graces saves me from giving in to cabin fever and its ilk. Winter’s good graces are less obvious than those of the more temperate seasons. I find it’s possible to uncover them, though, when I’m intentional about looking.

Here, at winter’s midpoint, is a list of some of the gifts and graces currently keeping me sane, reminding me to be grateful, saving my life in the little ways that matter.

  1. Fire, as in, that it’s not a mystery and I can build one:  Whether atop a candle or tucked into our wood burner, it warms our home and lifts my spirits.
  2. Down: Over the past few years I’ve turned into one of those cold people. Down makes winter survivable.
  3. Unseasonable weather: A reminder that even in the deepest winter, autumn existed and spring is on its way.
  4. The sun: No matter how rare its appearance, it reminds me of fresh starts and new mercies.
  5. Tea: Because cold, dark mornings.
  6. Coffee shops: Even though I’ve never taken to coffee, I like people and people like coffee.
  7. Boot weather: Because boots just don’t work in the summer.
  8. Cast Iron: Because the crock pot doesn’t cut it for The Pioneer Woman’s Spicy Shredded Pork and this beef stew. (I adapt these recipes to make them friendly to a lower-glycemic way of eating by cutting the brown sugar out of the pork, and skipping the flour and substituting radishes for the potatoes in the stew. The family didn’t notice when I axed the sugar even though I’ve been making the pork according to the recipe for years. Also, I won’t eat radishes raw, but roasted or cooked in a stew, they’re mild and lovely.)
  9. Fleece Sheets. (See #2) Sleep comes faster when I’m warm.
  10. The sky: Even during a winter that’s given up precious little sunshine, the sky often puts on a quiet show as the sun sets. Somehow, this gives me hope.
  11. The days following winter solstice: The longest nights give way more quickly than I’d realized to increasing daylight. It’s noticeable by early January.
  12. Home: After lots of days running here and there with extracurriculars, I’m grateful for a landing-place.
  13. Rhythms: That abundance precedes want.
  14. Bedtime reading: Because sometimes there just isn’t enough time during the day. This winter’s favorites (so far): Jane Austen’s Persuasion (a regular reread) and Michelle DeRusha’s  Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk.

What gifts and graces are are making a difference in your life this winter? 

 

Joining the conversations at Modern Mrs. Darcy and 3-D Lessons for Life.

 

Taking the Best of One Year into the Next

I parked and considered my options. Distracted momentarily by the sun rising in the direction of home, I stepped out of my vehicle to take a picture and I turned around to look at the capitol. And when I got back in, I noticed a sign across the road: Mercy Urgent Care.

City Sunrise

The problem wasn’t the Garmin. It was me. I’d picked the wrong destination.

I needed to make a course correction. I still couldn’t picture Mercy or the roads that led there, so I followed the Garmin from where I was to where I needed to be. I had to take the interstate during heavy commuter traffic. And because I managed to make a wrong turn, I ended up in the tangle of one way downtown streets before I made it to the hospital. But I arrived in time to see my mom before surgery.

And at the end of a long day, I got into my vehicle and chose my own road home.

/ / / / /

For some of us, these unclaimed days between Christmas and the new year are days of picking new destinations and plotting paths to get there. Some years, in the rush to get from where I am to where I want to be, I’ve made navigational errors. I’ve set a course for where I thought I was going only to find myself in the equivalent of a dark, empty parking lot across from a tiny clinic when I needed to be at a sprawling hospital.

I’ve been guilty of trying to create a whole new way of living when I needed just a course correction, a tweak to the path I was already on.

Here’s one practice that helps me figure out the difference: Take a pause to look back over the last year. Ponder the path with an eye for what’s already happening, for what’s working and what’s not. Then press on, holding on to the things that work and looking for ways to correct what’s not.

WHAT  WORKED IN 2016
  1. Sometimes, after thought and prayer, saying “yes” even when I knew it would be hard.
  2. Setting and sticking to a writing day. 
  3. A (mostly) low glycemic way of eating. More energy for me and fewer migraines for my husband.
  4. Asking for help.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK {AND THEIR TWEAKS}:
  1. Saying “yes” just because something needed to be done. It’s habit I slide into easily and it never ends well. The first people to suffer are the ones I have the most responsibility to.  Once the course is set it takes time and effort to find the way out the tangle and onto the right roads. {The tweaks: Admitting I’m in over my head. Asking for help. Deselecting.}
  2. Social Media. It’s a great way to keep in touch. And I like to keep in touch. But it slices off time, a limited commodity, in such tiny slivers I barely notice in the moment. Slivers add up. And there’s some research that indicates our brains filter out what comes in through the ears in favor of what it can get through the eyes. That means that my brain focuses the pretty images scrolling past on Instagram (my social media fix of choice) over the human beings standing in my presence. Again, the ones I have the most responsibility to suffer first. {The tweaks: Turning off notifications. Establishing times to check social media. Putting the phone down to look my people in the eye.}

Some of what works now won’t work forever and, with tweaks, some of what isn’t working may morph into something does. I’m thankful for these days that allow me to  pause, ponder the path, and press on.

What would you like to take into the next year? What would you like to tweak?

Gifts and Graces

Autumn Leaves Over the Pond

Gratitude. It doesn’t always come naturally.

grat i tude noun the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

Along with the continual quest to lift my eyes so I can see, I’ve been trying to acknowledge life’s gifts and the little graces of each season. It’s a practice that helps me cultivate gratitude and walk life’s road more grace-fully.

These are some of this season’s gifts and graces:

  1. Cats, because field mice and fall. And also there’s purring.
  2. The settling in that comes with shorter days and longer nights.
  3. Glimpses of the sun after a string of grey.
  4. Board games, because I too easily succumb to the pseudo-rest of DVDs and Amazon Prime.  A modified version of Bananagrams  continues to be something our family gathers around.
  5. Candles. They’re cheery company on grey days and when darkness falls too early.
  6. Maps. I’ve had an unusual amount of road time this fall and, while GPS is a gift of its own, it’s nice to see the whole route at once.
  7. My daughter’s navigational skills, a trait she got directly from her dad. When the two of us went on a road trip involving more traffic than I am comfortable with, I was grateful for her ability to get a map in her head and understand the landscape. More than even that, I’m glad to know that if she finds herself living in a city she’ll be able to find her way.
  8. On the subject of road trips: Grandparent willing to substitute teach. Reliable vehicles. Generous offers and kind invitations.
  9. Color.  God makes all things beautiful in their time and in their way.

And you? What helps you cultivate gratitude in your life beyond the Thanksgiving season?

Happy Thanksgiving,
Signature

For everything there is a season

Sharing with the writers at Kelly’s #smallwonder link-up.

Gifts of Spring

Spring Collage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring.

Like summer and fall and winter, it visits us every year. And like that bird I saw last summer, each of the four seasons brings a regular reminder to remember that somewhere down the road, things will change. That, along with each season’s inevitable hardships and gifts, are part of their rhythm and their charm. Some of these gifts are obvious and some are hidden, requiring us to search or simply be still. These are some of the gifts I’ve found this spring.

Birdsong: It’s so, so much better to wake to the birds than to the alarm clock.
Grey days: What better foil for the brilliance of the next morning’s blue sky?
Graduation parties: Celebrating with these kids and their families is a joy.
Picnic tables: My people linger longer when we’re seated outdoors.
Wildflowers: Even dandelions look fetching in an open meadow.
Baby animals. They’re baby animals, and that’s enough.
Open windows: They invite breezes and birdsong.
Campfires: They’re best when it’s a little cool.
Full streams: They sing one of nature’s songs.
Moss: I don’t even know why. Yet.

What gifts are you finding this spring?

For everything there is a season