About Playing It Safe

In my second PCT post, About the Why and Why Now, I wrote about things like daring greatly and pursuing dreams and going for it . . . whatever “it” is for each of us. All of it was very sincere, honest, and a part of my experience and how I seek to pursue life. But today I also want to tell you about how I played it safe. Some of this feels similar to what I wrote about daring greatly, however, maybe it’s a bit of a different angle that will connect with someone in a way the second post didn’t.

As I write this post it is exactly 11 months since I left for the PCT. As I was preparing to go last year, I would say there was 91.2% pure excitement surrounding what was about to happen. Then there were the days or random moments where I wondered, “Can I do this?” “Am I crazy?” “Am I being irresponsible to quit my job?” “What if I get out there and hate it, don’t want to keep going, or want to quit?” “What if I can’t finish?”

So I played it safe. I let myself want it . . . but not TOO much. I would get excited and dream about the finish . . . but always with the reminder that I might not get there. I told myself to hold it loosely and be okay with not finishing.

Conversations with people before I left generally went something like this:

Person: Wow, you’re doing PCT! The whole thing?”
Me: “Well, that’s the goal but it’s a really long trail and I’ve never done anything like this so we’ll see what happens.”

I’m sure some of you heard this safe response from me.

Part of this is the reality of the trail. There are things that can happen, elements are out of our control, people get hurt and sick. I knew there was a possibility that I could be one of those people–something might happen to me that ended the journey. I wasn’t confident in my body’s ability to handle it.

However, part of this was that I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to say I was going to do something and then not have it come together. I didn’t want to get out there, hate it, and then come off the trail having not done it. If I really believed I would finish, it would hurt worse when it didn’t happen. I protected my heart, and my reputation of being someone who does what she says, told myself that it might not work out, and put some back-up plans in place–safety nets for the just in case.

Some of this self-protection comes from past experiences, times when things didn’t work out even when I really wanted them to or believed they would. This self-protection skewed my anticipation for the PCT. I anticipated the hard things that could happen instead of focusing on the potentially incredible opportunities that were also sure to be part of the journey.

Also, this “playing it safe” comes from my own understanding of how my personality works. There are these things called “high expectations” and I like to reach them all . . . even the expectations that are unrealistic. Over time, the striving can be exhausting. My expectations for myself on the PCT were extremely high and I was trying to rein them in a bit. In this sense, taking a cautious approach wasn’t necessarily a bad thing–after all, having realistic goals is important. But in some ways it was self-protection and not living wholeheartedly wearing the disguise of “realistic goals.”

I remember the moment when I realized I could and would finish the trail. I was entering the Northern California section, hiking by myself that day, and broke into a big smile. My body and mind were strong. I was in my element, feeling like I was created to be hiking the PCT at that moment. I was exceeding my expectations. I knew without a doubt that I was going to thru-hike the PCT. There were two things at that point that might stop me: injury and if I didn’t stay strong mentally. I felt confident about staying in it mentally. With my track record of being clumsy and tripping, injury was definitely a possibility (my friend Rachel can fill you in on some good stories)! I chose to not think about that!

This moment on the trail felt like a big transition for me. I hiked differently after that. I wasn’t playing it safe anymore. I chose to believe it was going to happen, that I would reach the end of the trail, and I allowed myself to get excited about it.

I’ve been thinking about this lately. About how the way I live when I play it safe is drastically different than the way I live when it’s with my whole heart. About how it affects my relationships, job performance, lifestyle, decisions, and how I love and care for people. I hold back when I play it safe. I might not hurt as much if I don’t get too excited about the possibilities. When I’m in 100% I find more joy, more freedom, more drive, more confidence, and more hope.

I thought about this on the trail, too. One particular day on the last section of trail in Yosemite National Park I had a realization. Every time I came around a bend in the trail on the PCT, I anticipated and believed that what was coming was the best view, more beauty, and another great moment. Even if the trail was difficult or I was tired I still anticipated good things up ahead. As I reflected on my life “trail” I realized so often I’m anticipating that what is coming is going to be hard, another challenge, something that isn’t going to work out the way I hoped.

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Anticipating good things up ahead.

I recognize that there are terrible experiences that happen to people. There are reasons we play it safe, self-protect, anticipate hard things, and hold back about getting too excited about what we really want. It’s hard to be excited about what’s around the bend when we’ve learned that sometimes what’s ahead is difficult. I know this and feel the pull to play life in defense mode sometimes, too.

But then I have these moments of life and get glimpses of what it can be to live and love wholeheartedly, to anticipate goodness and beauty around the corner, to acknowledge the failure, hurt, and fear but not let it have power over how I live . . . I know this is how I want to operate. Can I posture myself in this way?

It can be a risky and sometimes scary way to live, which runs counter to many pieces of my personality.  Is it worth it, though? I believe it is. When I have made the choice to live this way, it certainly has felt like it’s worth the risk. Maybe I won’t be able to do it all the time, but I’m going to continue trying.

How have you played it safe lately? How do you anticipate what’s coming around the bend? What holds you back from pursuing experiences and dreams with your whole heart? What differences do you notice when you jump into things fully and when you play it safe? As you continue on your journey, may you find the courage to be hopeful about what’s coming your way down the trail.

 

About Simplicity

 

I am an over-packer. No matter how hard I try I always end up with too much stuff on trips. This isn’t a huge deal when it’s a road trip. I toss stuff in just because “you never know.” I am also a game person who likes to have fun activities for people so, yes, throw in that football, frisbee, kite, lawn game, and . . . you get the idea! When I fly and have limited space it can take me forever to make decisions about what to pack.

So, imagine an over-packer trying to make decisions about what to carry in a backpack for 2,650 miles! Quite the process of researching, decision-making, packing, weighing gear, switching out gear, repacking, and whittling down the items I would take. Sometimes this was literal whittling–like cutting the handle off my toothbrush to save weight (a few ounces goes a long way!).

Knowing you’re going to carry everything on your back as you travel changes your perspective on need and want, necessary and luxury. I thought through systems for cooking, water filtration, sleeping, and more in order to hone in on exactly what I wanted to carry. I processed the pros and cons of each item, especially if there was a lighter version available or something with fewer breakable parts. In addition to weight, I wanted systems that were simple to use and did not take much effort at the end of the day because I knew I would be exhausted in the evenings.

As I researched long distance hiking gear I discovered a few things. First, people are EXTREMELY opinionated about the “right” gear, which can make it overwhelming. Everyone is telling you what to buy and I had to decide what was best for me. I also discovered that my current systems for backpacking were heavy and, while perfect for group backcountry trips, the gear was not great for a solo backpacker trying to get in high miles each day. Finally, I realized pretty quickly that a person could spend thousands of dollars on new gear for this trip . . . thousands of dollars I didn’t have so I would need to be resourceful.

While I geek out over new outdoor gear, I also try to have a balanced perspective of what is necessary. I have led students on backpacking trips who don’t have the best gear, shoes, and clothes for what we are doing and they survive. They still love it and end up having a great experience. I also remember seeing pictures of former PCT thru hikers from the 1970s with massive packs wearing heavy boots and jean cutoffs. Any gear I had was lightweight compared to what they used. If they could do it, I could do it! This awareness was helpful for me as I processed the words “necessary” and “adequate” when deciding what gear to replace and what I could get away with using that I already owned.

Even with all of this thoughtfulness and research, over the first month on the trail I switched out gear, sent things home, and left things behind at town stops. If I hadn’t used something within those first few weeks, I determined I probably wasn’t going to need it.

And, even with this continual paring down, I still had things I didn’t necessarily need! Some thru hikers I ran into got rid of things like stoves and sleeping pads over the course of the PCT in order to save weight and simplify their systems of travel. Now, I understand that a hot meal and having something to sleep on are not necessarily things I need in order to survive but I decided that for me those luxuries and weight were things I was willing to carry. They were small items that gave me some respite at the end of the day.

Over the course of the trail I found an ever-growing love of the minimalist life. There was simplicity in this way of living: Having my meals planned and just eating what was in the ziplock bag for that day; not having a choice of what clothes to put on in the morning and wearing the same outfit for a few months; donning my rain jacket and rain pants in the laundromat because all of my clothing items needed to be washed; the reality that what I had with me was what I was going to use because I didn’t have the resources to buy the newest and glitziest gear, nor was I interested in carrying the extra weight of anything more than what was necessary.

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How my friends found me in Cascade Locks, OR–hanging out on the floor of the laundromat in my rain gear. A content and happy moment.

Conversations with other thru hikers at the beginning of the trail constantly revolved around gear comparison and how light your pack was. It often felt like a very judgmental conversation, which I got tired of. Eventually I decided to not engage in those conversations. I had chosen my gear based on my needs and the resources I had available. There was a peace that came in choosing to be content with what I had and not trying to “keep up with the Jones'” or being envious of other people’s gear.

The PCT is one of the most tangible experiences of my life in choosing simplicity, living simply, and being content with what I have. This simplistic life and the rhythms I discovered on the trail took away a level of stress and daily decision-making I didn’t have to deal with. This simplification of life freed my mind to think about more important things and allowed more time for relationships on the trail. I found joy in what the trail offered, like watching the sunset each night and sleeping under a starry night sky and not in owning the best things.

When I finished the trail in August and stepped back into a life of options, I was really overwhelmed! There were so many choices of food, clothing, movies, activities, and more. Even something like deciding what coffee mug to use in the morning seemed like a chore! Why do I need 20 coffee mugs in my cupboard when there are just two of us living in my house?! As I unpacked and settled back into my house, I made piles of items I decided I didn’t need. After seeing on the trail I could get by with so few clothes, I was able to cut my wardrobe in half.

While I try to orient my life in the direction of simplicity, it has always been a really hard value for me to embrace. I like nice things and activities that cost money. I like outdoor gear and cute clothes and cars that don’t break down. I like to decorate my house with cool treasures from antique stores. There is clutter around me because I just might use that [enter item name here] again. I get caught up in the newest thing I’m told I need in order to be a better person, rock climber, runner, professional, Christian, etc.

I grew up in the Quaker, or Friends, tradition so the value of simplicity has been a part of my life experience for as long as I can remember. It was a value I saw my parents and others living out. My experience in our meetings for worship included “queries”. The queries are questions that remind Friends of our values and help us reflect on our life as we seek to live out these ideals in the world. The query below comes from the Friend’s community I am a part of and focuses on the value of simplicity:

Is your life marked by simplicity? Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions? Do you avoid waste? Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?

This query of simplicity has helped direct my life choices for many years and how I spend money and time. This was no exception on the PCT both as I made decisions about gear and also as I recognized the gifts of traveling light while on the trail. Because of my understanding of scripture, I want my life to be “marked by simplicity”. Choosing simplicity helps me value relationships over possessions. It helps me create space in my day for spiritual disciplines instead of more activity. When I am able to put possessions in their proper place, I find more freedom and less stress and worry.

Most importantly for me, a simple life orients me towards better understanding the needs of others and caring for the oppressed and marginalized. The posture of choosing simplicity as a way to identify with and respect people in my local community and around the world is a daily choice that I try to make. I’ve found that it helps bring me back to a dependence on God and reminds me of the realities many people face.

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It’s impossible to beat the beauty of the wildflowers along the trail and the joy that came from walking along side them.

Just like most of my learning from the PCT, simplicity seemed easier to live out while on the trail. Trying to figure out the balance back at home takes much more intentionality and grace. This balance is especially important in order to discover the freedom and contentedness simplicity can bring but not have it become legalistic and overwhelming. And, while I don’t practice this value perfectly, I do recognize that the freedom and contentment that come from living simply are what I desire for my life. This desire helps remind me to reorient my life in that direction.

 

What is necessary? What is adequate? Is this item a luxury? Will this activity or thing bring joy and life? How does it affect my relationships with others and the earth? Can I use something I already own and be creative instead of spending money? Is this a healthy use of my time and energy? Will this refresh my soul and build up my relationships and community? These are some of the questions that run through my head as I interact with a world offering me so much to buy, consume, and engage.

The path of simplicity will look different for each person as we interact with our life “gear” and make decisions about what is most important to us. If simplicity is a value you strive toward, what self-check questions do you ask yourself when faced with the pull towards “more”? Beyond possessions, what other things clutter your life and pull you away from living simply? What are the gifts you recognize in your life that come from seeking to live simply?

About Forgiveness and Healing

If you have been reading my other blog posts about the Pacific Crest Trail you may have picked up on the fact that prior to starting my adventure I was in a bit of a rough patch. I was yearning for health and vitality and for space to do some soul searching. I realized at the time I started planning for the trail that I was holding on to a lot of anger and I wondered how the trail was going to affect that. There were people I needed to forgive and I didn’t even want to think about it.

So, I didn’t think about it . . . Until a few weeks into the journey. Well, technically I did think about it every once in a while before then. I just chose not to engage.

As I traveled, my soul felt lighter and stress melted away. I enjoyed the wilderness and rhythm of life on the trail. However, I noticed that every once in awhile a thought would creep into my head about a situation and I would get so angry thinking about it.

I had been ignoring the anger, trying to push it aside so I could go on my merry way along the trail. I had acknowledged pre-trail that working through my hurt and anger on this trip would be important and necessary. Some days it seemed easier to just ignore it and move on. My prayers sounded like, ” No, I don’t want to think about this. I don’t know where to start. Just let me hold on to it.”

Sometimes holding onto my anger helps me justify things. I feel justified in my actions and words towards people who hurt me, making things seem acceptable even when they aren’t. My anger fuels me and even gives me the idea that I’m right about a situation. This seems okay for a while until I take a good look at how the anger is affecting me, my relationships with others and my connection with the Divine. I knew I couldn’t go through this whole experience and waste the opportunity for healing. As Richard Rohr says in his book Everything Belongs, “In terms of soul work, we dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us.”

Dealing with it meant I would probably hurt. Wading through the darkness meant I might cry (well, knowing me I would definitely cry at some point). It meant I would have to process why I was angry. I would have to willingly open up my heart to be changed.

The fourth quote I memorized on the trail, for my spiritual discipline of study, was what finally pushed me toward really engaging with my hurt and anger. It is from a passage of scripture–Ezekiel 36:26. “And, I will give you a new heart and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive one.”

While daily pondering and memorizing a quote like this about new hearts and new spirits, about the transformation of a stubborn heart to a tender heart, it soon became impossible to not look introspectively at my own stony, stubborn heart. And, when looking so closely at a stubborn heart but knowing this gentle promise for a tender heart is offered, how could I look away?

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The open space of the trail helped open space in my heart to process, grieve, and heal.

So, I looked long and hard at my anger and hurt over the course of my time on the trail. I was nervous about this process and was honest in my prayers about not knowing where to start. Last week, as I re-read my trail journals, I found this simple prayer I had written in May, “Lord, bring to light the things I need to process.”

Two specific things were “brought to light” as I examined my heart. First, I realized one of the key pieces here was my stubborn heart. I was placing a lot of blame on other people but, when I honestly examined situations, I realized I also had played a role. It wasn’t until I could acknowledge my own actions, which were not always honoring to people, that I then could look at things with different eyes, with empathy, understanding, and a desire to let go.

Second, I realized I was grieving. My hopes and heart had been wrapped up in something that didn’t end up working out how I had wanted. I was sad and hurt. In acknowledging my grief, I also knew that I had to allow myself to feel it, and maybe continue to feel it for a long time, as I walked through the pain. In Everything Belongs, Rohr goes on to say, “Don’t try to rush through it; we can’t leap over our grief work. Nor can we skip over our despair work. We have to feel it . . . Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid. When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God, who works in the darkness–where we are not in control!”

As I allowed myself to grieve, I noticed my anger controlling me less. I found my heart was more open to loving people I felt hurt by. After being on the trail for three months and processing so much, a friend came to visit me in Central Oregon and asked how I was doing with all of this. I was so happy to find I could talk and think about things without anger in my heart and vindictive words spilling out of my mouth. I was on the pathway of healing and forgiveness, to new life.

During my time on the trail I’m not sure I could have put in words how this grieving process was helping me move towards forgiveness. It wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that what had happened on the trail really clicked. I was watching this video by Work of the People, in which Brené Brown talks about her research on forgiveness. Brown quotes her pastor at one point saying, “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die.” Brown found in her research that “grief is an inherent part of forgiveness.” That sometimes we have to kill off something (perhaps the power that comes from being right), or recognize the death of what was, for forgiveness to happen.

What clicked with me as I watched the video was that during my time on the trail I recognized the death of what I had hoped for. I felt the pain. I decided to bury being right. I had needed to get to a point of relinquishing control and not avoid God working in the darkness. These things were essential on my pathway towards forgiveness.

There was something about moving through the physical wilderness of the PCT that drew me towards recognizing the wilderness I was moving through in my own soul, where there was a need for watering, pruning, weeding, and planting. The physical wilderness offers so many insights and parallels into our spiritual life. For example, one of my favorite things about the northwest forests in the spring is the new bud growth on pine trees. As you walk through the rainy forest you see dark green branches and then light green, soft, fuzzy buds of new growth on the tips of the branches. If you touch the tips they feel more fragile than the older needles. Seeing this new bud growth is always a reminder to me that we made it through another winter, through a season of death and cold. The roots are reaching deeper into the ground each season, offering nourishment and steadiness to these trees.

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New bud growth…a reminder of the seasons.

New growth in my life often feels more fragile, too. The journey to forgiveness and healing on the PCT is still fresh and new, needing tending and care. But with each season of death, of grief, of relinquishing control, and choosing to not avoid God, my roots grow deeper and the new growth offers hope. Hope that the cycle of transformation will continue with the seasons I encounter in life and the reminder that walking through the darkness of winter is worth the life and joy that spring brings.

Are there places where you are avoiding the darkness, moving around the pain instead of through it? What have you learned on your own path towards forgiveness and healing that gives you hope? As you are on your journey, may you know the peace that can come from embracing soul work and embracing God’s promise of a tender, responsive heart.

Addendum: This past week, after a long day of work, I was in an elevator with a group of people. A man that I don’t know was trying to be funny and made a comment to me that was actually hurtful and inappropriate. I reacted to that situation in a way that made him feel small and insignificant and probably shamed. The words that came out of my mouth were angry, which I justified in the moment by the fact that his comment was not okay.

I felt so ashamed by the way I reacted to this man. That evening as I processed, I confessed to God my wrong in the situation. In my tiredness and narrow margins from the day I was not operating out of my best self. There was definitely a better way to handle the situation.

However, as I continued to process it that evening I realized that what I was most sad about was I had made someone feel insignificant and hurt. This is the opposite of what I want to be about. People don’t need or deserve to feel more smallness and shame in this world. There is plenty of that going around all ready. 

I had just been on my own journey of forgiveness and healing from people who made me feel insignificant and hurt. And, now I have placed those hard things in someone else. What a reminder of the power I have to be light or darkness in someone’s life. What a reminder that I am never done learning and growing. What a reminder of how easy it is to tear someone down and how long the journey can be to healing and forgiveness. My only landing place in moving forward from this situation is trusting that the mercy and love of God are more powerful than my angry words.

About Beauty

All that is sweet, delightful and amiable in this world, in the serenity of the air, the fineness of the seasons, the joy of the light, the melody of sounds, the beauty of colors, the fragrancy of smells, the splendor of precious stones, is nothing else but heaven breaking through the veil of this world.  

-William Law (an 18th-century English cleric)

I’ve always been drawn to being in and experiencing the natural world. As a child I ran around outside on our farm as much as I could. The open, spacious landscape of southern Idaho, the smell of freshly plowed dirt or wheat fields hot from the summer sun, watching heat lightning over the Owyhee mountains, plunging my hands in the dirt and irrigation water in our garden to make mud pies . . . These memories still connect with me someplace deep in my soul. I can still smell, feel, and see the sacredness of these moments clearly.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I connect best with God in nature. I’ve never really had the words to express why that is. And, I don’t know that I am going to do it justice in this post either but maybe I’m getting closer as I journey through life. My experience on the PCT helped me to identify a main factor in this connection: Beauty.

During my four months on the PCT, I was immersed in some of the most incredible landscapes that can be found in the U.S.: six different eco zones, seven national parks, 25 national forests, 33 wilderness areas. I spent time barely above sea level in Cascade Locks, Oregon and over 14,000 feet atop Mt. Whitney. I swam in glacier fed rivers and lakes, slept under the stars, and watched the sunrise and sunset almost every day of those four months. During that time, none of this got old. I never tired of watching another sunset. I never got over seeing giant old-growth trees. I was always excited to soak my feet in ice-cold water and see the variety of wildflowers along the way.

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A little flat ground between two passes in the Sierras.

A few weeks ago, I read this article in the New York Times by David Brooks. Brooks writes that, “Beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal” . . . “beauty incites spiritual longing.” I love that line about educating emotions and connecting us to the eternal. That is definitely my experience on the PCT and in my childhood outdoor adventures!

The beauty that surrounded me day and night on the PCT constantly helped me be aware of God’s presence, of God’s creativity and detail, of God’s care for my life. The beauty of the landscapes I traveled through offered me perspective and connected with my emotions and spirit. Sometimes I would stop in my tracks and look around; being still for a moment, soaking in the natural beauty around me and feeling an immense level of gratitude. Looking out at such beauty ignited in me a desire to pray and continue pursuing the spiritual disciplines.

Not only was I immersed in this beauty constantly, I had little distraction from it. I wasn’t hurrying through my day stressed from work or merely trying to get from place to place, meeting to meeting. I was in a time of life where I could soak it in fully. I didn’t have to remind myself to notice the grandeur around me because it was just a part of my existence.

One of the quotes I memorized on the trail comes from John Muir. Muir spent most of his adult life working to preserve natural places for people to enjoy for generations to come. He also found a sacredness in the beauty of the natural world that connected with his soul. Muir said, “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to pray in and play in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” I, too, believe that healing, health, peace of mind, spiritual connection and more can come from spending time in the natural world, immersed in beauty.

I know that in our busy schedules we can zoom through our day without seeing what’s going on around us. I also recognize that not everyone has access to this type of natural beauty 24-7 or at all sometimes. But I do think we can find beauty if we look for it, if we take a minute to see what’s around us . . . To stop in our tracks and notice.

Coming off the trail I moved back to the city, a place of concrete, buildings, cars, and constant energy. I’m not walking all day, everyday through granite mountains or watching the sunrise and sunset each day. I have to remind myself to not only be aware of beauty around me but also to invite the beauty of what I’m noticing to sink deeper into my soul–to take note of how it stirs me or moves me to respond in some way, just as on the trail I was frequently inspired to practice a discipline or pray in some way.

As I write this post, I am sitting at a coffee shop on Portland’s Hawthorne Boulevard. I walked here this morning trying to stick with my commitment to continue walking as much as possible post trail–a discipline and way to create space in my day. On the way here I engaged in a practice of awareness, intentionally looking for beauty around me and noticing how my soul responded. Here are some of the things I took in:

  • Daffodils and crocuses blooming bring joy
  • A color combination of a paint job on a house in my neighborhood makes me happy
  • The Giant Sequoia in front of Western Seminary incites awe
  • A turquoise VW camper van gives a sense of excitement (and the desire for a road trip soon . . . Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)
  • The smell of cherry blossoms stirs memories of previous springtimes and feels familiar
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Finding beauty snowshoeing through the forest and in the conversation that comes from over a decade of friendship with these fellow adventurers!

When I take time to look, I see beauty all around. When I take time to ask what I feel in those moments, I recognize the presence of the Divine–beauty is educating my emotions and connecting me to the eternal. There is also beauty to be found in our interactions with people, which help us to recognize the image of God in others.  The other day I saw beauty in the street musician downtown Portland creating an incredible beat on plastic buckets. I experienced beauty in the depth of conversation with good friends last weekend as we snowshoed through the forest. I noticed beauty in the playful interactions of three sisters I was babysitting. Seeing the image of God in others is the best kind of beauty to be able to recognize and soak in!

I encourage you sometime today to stop. Take one minute to step outside–of your office, house, self. Take a few deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. And, look around. Take notice of what you see around you. What is beautiful to you? What do you feel when you see, smell, hear it? As you soak in that beauty may you be aware of “heaven breaking through the veil of this world.”