About Living a Life

Today is the 13th, and final, post for my Pacific Crest Trail writing project. As of April 27, 2016, it will be exactly one year since I started walking north at the US/Mexico border trying to reach Canada on foot. When I started this blog project about my PCT experience, I didn’t know exactly where I was heading with it. And, maybe today I’m still a little unsure, feeling exposed and strange about having shared so much with the World Wide Web but I feel confident that it is what I was supposed to do.

Recently, I have spent time reading back through my Facebook posts from last summer, my blog posts, and my trail journals, continuing to wrap my brain around my growth and journey on the PCT. In this re-reading and listening I have noticed a pattern for living a life that I shared at the beginning of this project and am realizing its powerful presence throughout the narrative of my life. In my first post I shared this section from the Mary Oliver poem, Sometimes:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

This is what I want to focus on today . . . these three very important instructions.

Pay Attention:

A couple years ago, my spiritual director suggested I try a practice of each day taking time to answer the questions, “Where did I notice God’s presence today” and “What am I thankful for today?” When I intentionally look for God in my day, when I take time to pay attention to others and look for the “Imago Dei” or image of God in them, when I pay attention to what is going on inside of myself, I notice God’s love, creativity, grace, and presence all around.

God is present . . . All. The. Time. This is something I believe but sometimes forget in the midst of daily life happening. Over and over again on the trail and now back at home, I have been reminded of this truth. I have been reminded that paying attention–practicing awareness and being present to what is going on in and around us in each moment–is the first step to recognizing the Divine Presence in our lives. We must take the time to pay attention.

Paying attention helps me stay grounded. Paying attention shows me how to care for creation–others, the earth, and myself. Paying attention helps me find joy and reverence in each day. Paying attention reveals how God is at work in the world, offering me hope when I am pulled towards fear and despair. Paying attention and answering the question “Where did I notice God’s presence today” is what leads us into being able to live out the second instruction.

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Sunrise summit of Mt. Whitney. Astonishing.

Be Astonished:

When I am present, when I truly pay attention and notice God’s presence, I can’t help but be astonished. This instruction goes hand in hand with the second question my spiritual director had me answer, “What am I thankful for today?” Practice gratitude, be amazed, find beauty, say thank you. Don’t let life go by without letting that feeling of astonishment and amazement wash over you. Let yourself feel it. Even in the hard, messy, yucky moments of life, eventually–eventually somewhere down the road sometime–I think we will find something we are grateful for and astonishes us.

The third quote I memorized on the PCT comes from theologian and writer, Frederick Buechner. From the time I memorized the quote, I said it each following day as I hiked, a constant reminder to notice how precious each day is:

In the entire history of the universe, let alone your own history, there has never been another day just like today. Today is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious today is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all.

Pay attention and be astonished, friends, because this day, today, is the moment all things have lead to and all will proceed from.

Tell About It:

This is the tricky part, the part where we get a little reluctant, nervous, and closed off. I’m not talking about sharing a post on Facebook that showcases how cool our life may be or what we want others to see. I’m talking about your honest story, the narrative that you are co-authoring with God, the story that you have been given to live and share.

In an earlier post I shared that I had asked different people in my life to send me on the PCT with quotes, scripture, songs, etc. to memorize along the way. I had also asked this group of people to share any other thoughts they felt led to offer or suggestions of things for me to process. My brother, Luke, gave me a couple of the more difficult. One was a verse and the second was this question:

“What would the world miss if you didn’t share your story?”

Seriously? Luke . . . have we talked about how hard this question was for me to answer?

I’m in my mid-thirties, quitting jobs, with a messy sometimes confusing spirituality, trying to very intentionally navigate life with a bunch of dreams that may or may not happen. What would the world be missing if I didn’t share my story? I had no freaking clue.

But I stuck with it. I thought about the question over a few weeks; even shed a few tears of frustration over it because life was looking quite different than I ever thought it would (still awesome for sure, but different).

As I hiked and spent time with other thru hikers, sharing bits of my life with them, I realized more and more what the world would miss if I didn’t share my story and what the world would miss if none of us shared our stories: Perspective, hope, courage, and solidarity.

When someone tells me his or her life story it is a sacred moment. When someone trusts me with their doubts and questions, shares how they have overcome, makes me laugh over an embarrassing moment, brings me joy in telling me about their passion for something, I receive a new way of looking at things. I receive hope that I, too, can overcome, pursue abundant life and have the courage to be honest about the good and the hard things in my life.

Most importantly, this instruction to “Tell About It” is vital because when we share our narratives with each other we hear these two words, “Me, too.” I think this is one of the most powerful things we can say to each other as we seek to live authentic, whole, and love and grace filled lives. “Me, too” tells us we are not alone, someone understands, and we aren’t the only one.

As I have shared blog posts of my learning and growth on the PCT I have heard “Me, too” almost weekly. This doesn’t mean that I had anything new or mind-blowing to say, in fact, all of it is something that someone before me has written about, talked about, made into a movie, etc. It means we are craving honest and authentic encounters with people who are on a similar journey, encounters that remind us we are connected. Even if we have heard it before, there are moments when we need to hear it again or it speaks to us in new ways. In his book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell writes about this connection that happens as we share our stories:

This is one of the reasons we watch movies, attend recovery groups, read memoirs, and sit around campfires telling stories long after the fire has dwindled down to a few glowing embers. It’s written in the Psalms that “deep calls to deep,” which is what happens when you get a glimpse of what someone else has gone through or is currently in the throes of and you find yourself inextricably, mysteriously linked with that person because you have been reminded again of our common humanity and its singular source, the subsurface unity of all things that is ever before us in countless manifestations but require eyes wide open to see it burst into view . . . when we talk about God, we’re talking about the very straightforward affirmation that everything has a singular, common source and is infinitely, endlessly, deeply connected. We are involved, all of us. And it all matters, and it’s all connected.

Deep calls to deep. Telling about it reminds us “of our common humanity and its singular source.” Whether it happens in movie, book, campfire, living room, hiking, blog, or around the dinner table form, when you have done the mindful work of paying attention and experienced the gratitude of being astonished, I hope you find the courage to tell about it.

Moving Forward:

Life never seems to be what I expect. It’s so much more. It looks extremely different than what I would have planned for myself when I was younger but as I pay attention to how things unfold I am continually grateful for the life I have been given to live and share with others. I believe that we have the opportunity to co-author our lives with God. There is the intricacy of who we are created by God to be, there are things that happen to us, there are choices we make–all of these things direct our paths.326773185608664

I chose to finally pursue the PCT because I wasn’t sure what else to do at that moment in my life. Now that I’ve been home and off the trail for almost a year things have not magically come together perfectly or always made sense. In fact, there is still a lot of ambiguity about what is down the road. But through these lessons from the trail and listening to themes of my life the past few months, I am learning to be more present, to embrace the space in which I find myself, and be faithful in whatever circumstances to pursue the trail I am given to walk. As thru hikers say on the trail, “Hike your own hike.”

There is so much impatience in me, such a tendency to want answers now. To be on the other side of hard things now. To overcome now. It is in the paying attention, in being present, embracing, and being faithful in the circumstances, that I notice the slow work of God in my life and am able to rest in the unknown, recognizing and savoring life happening now, and be astonished.

My friend, Erin, shared this prayer of Teilhard of Chardin with me last week. I think it sums up so well what I’m learning on this journey:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

As you hike your own hike, may you be reminded to trust in this slow work of God. As you pay attention to life happening in and around you, may you be astonished by what you notice. And, in telling your story, may you know the deep connection of someone responding with, “Me, too.”

I’ll leave you with this. My friend, Sara, sent me letters on the trail. What a fun surprise to get to a trail town and have a letter at the post office when I picked up my resupply packages! One letter got lost along the way and I didn’t receive it until I was home in September. Included in her letter was this prayer from The Book of Common Prayer. I’m kind of glad the letter got lost because the prayer was exactly what I needed when I got home. I’ve read it almost daily since I received it.

Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity. Lord, teach me to listen to my heart; teach me to welcome change instead of fearing it. Lord, I give you these stirrings inside of me. I give you my discontent. I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longings I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open trail.

Much love, friends. Thanks for reading. #PCTami out.

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About A Quiet Center

A number of people have asked me if I was lonely while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. This question usually comes directly after they find out I hiked the trail solo. The “lonely” question is often followed by a comment about how they don’t think they could do something like that alone.

I’m a strong extrovert, as in the first time I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory I was on the extreme end of the extrovert/introvert spectrum. As I have gotten older and re-taken the assessment I have swung a little closer towards the middle but still . . . Extrovert! Thru hiking the PCT did mean I would be by myself a majority of the time so I, too, had my concerns about getting lonely!

I am also the queen of filling my schedule with activity, people, work, and more. I sometimes don’t recognize my limits and exhaustion until it is too late. In college it took getting both mono and pneumonia at the same time during my sophomore year to slow me down. Thru hiking the PCT meant I only had one thing on my schedule to do . . . One!

And to top it off, besides the extroverted-ness and pushing the schedule limits, I grew up in the U.S., in a culture where I was taught to compete, win, be the best, climb the ladder, succeed–maybe some of you learned these same things? When I listen to the world around me, I find myself measuring my worth by my work, involvement, and achievements and finding my identity in “doing.” Quitting my job and leaving behind my involvement in things meant I was eliminating much of the identity trap into which I so often fall.

I was definitely curious about how this was going to go on the trail. One of my biggest concerns was wondering what it was going to be like to be alone in my head . . . All. Day. Long.  No noise to tune out my voice, no people to verbally process with, no Netflix to binge watch and distract me, and no busy schedule to make me feel productive and useful.

It was just me–sweaty, smelly, unemployed, hiker trash (hiker trash is a term of endearment on the trail).

And, “just me,” as I was reminded on the trail, is enough.

It was in the solitude of the trail that I slowly made my way back to the center of my soul. To a place where being is more important than doing, where listening is not something I avoid, where my drive and achievements are not needed. The solitude of the trail helped bring me to a quiet place where I had the space to think, process, ask questions, listen for answers, make decisions, and find clarity. I noticed the boredom in my day resulting in creativity and open dialogue, with both myself and God. In this quiet center I found my emotions were free to be purely felt in the moment instead of pushed aside, jaded by cynicism, or controlled to please the people around me.

Most importantly, in this quiet center I was reminded of where my worth lies. I believe I am not only created by but I am loved deeply by God. This is not a love that operates within a set of rules but a love that has no rules or boundaries or restrictions. This love requires nothing of me. My worth and identity lie in the simple, yet profound, truth of this love.

In a world of constant activity, people pleasing and striving, I am pulled away from this truth of my worth and identity. I learn to wear the many labels that are put on me and live out of my false self–an identity that comes from forgetting who I am at my core. I feel I must earn love instead of resting in the truth of God’s love. I seek to gain approval instead of remembering the gift of freedom God offers me. Over the course of my life, I have become increasingly aware of how my life looks and feels when I am living this way–out of my false self –and how it affects my spirituality, my self-confidence, and living at peace. As I have learned to be aware of these pieces of who I am, I have sought to find healthier rhythms of operating.

It was in the solitude of the trail that I was reminded of these truths. And, I was reminded that having a rhythm of solitude in my life is essential to not only living out of my true self, but it is essential to how I care for others, interact with my community, and seek to be an agent of change in the world. In his book, Show Me The Way, Henri Nouwen writes,

In solitude we can listen to the voice of him who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others, and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts. In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It’s there we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; that the love we can express is part of a greater love; and that the new life we bring forth is not a property to cling to, but a gift to be received. In solitude we discover that our worth is not the same as our usefulness.

This, friends, speaks to the utmost importance of solitude as we live in a world that needs the help, love, healing words, freedom, and gift of life that God offers to others through you and me.

I was recently listening to a podcast by Rob Bell called “Letting the Land Lie Fallow”. Bell talks about the rhythm of rest that is built into creation. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, there is a law called “Shmita.” This is a six and one rhythm of working the soil for six years and then allowing the land to lie fallow during the seventh year, similar to the creation story of God resting on the seventh day. This allowed not only the soil to be replenished but also for people to rest, as well. This is one of the things that connected to me as I listened:

There are rhythms built into creation. Rhythms built into the soil. There is a rhythm that your body wants, and your heart and your soul and your mind want to live by. And if you don’t honor those rhythms things start to unravel . . . when we don’t give our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our brains, when we don’t give them the rest they need to be restored and refreshed then they can’t give us what they need to give us and things begin to breakdown.

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Learning the art of the siesta in the desert section of the PCT. This afternoon rhythm meant finding a shady spot and resting during the hottest part of the day . . . and made me stop when I would have kept pushing.

When I started the PCT, I was coming off an almost two year stretch without good rhythms of rest. Things were beginning to unravel and breakdown. Compare that with the stark contrast of my experience of solitude on the PCT and the health and vitality that came from prioritizing rest, Sabbath, and a quiet center.

Have you seen the movie, “Hook,” with Robin Williams? I promise this is going somewhere . . . stay with me. Williams plays a grown up Peter Pan who has come back to Neverland to find his children. He’s been away for awhile and isn’t quite sure of the whole scene. The “Lost Boys” aren’t sure of this grown up Peter Pan either. There is a point in the movie, after Peter has been back in Neverland for a while, where one of the “Lost Boys” takes Peter’s face in his hands and starts manipulating the skin–stretching it and looking deeply–until he finally finds Peter Pan in a forced smile. “Oh, there you are, Peter!” he says. If you haven’t seen it here’s a short clip of the scene (watch out . . . tear jerker).

I had a moment similar to this on the trail. Not with a kid stretching the skin on my face (weird!) but a moment when I said (yes, I actually said it aloud), “Oh, there you are, Tami!” A moment when the solitude had done its work, when I saw a glimpse of my true self again, when I decided to listen to the voice telling me I am deeply loved and that my worth is not the same as my usefulness.

So, was I lonely on the trail? Sure, sometimes. And, there were still distractions, still the tendency to compete, and still people and activity to fill my time. But the solitude was not lonely, nor did I miss the chaos of a busy schedule. I embraced the opportunity and discovered that solitude is not the same as being alone . . . solitude means being fully present with myself. One of my favorite authors, and fellow Quaker, Parker Palmer speaks to this in his book, A Hidden Wholeness, “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

I don’t know about you but it is tough to incorporate a rhythm of solitude into my life–to be fully present with myself. I had quite a bit of space to slowly ease back into life at home when I came off the trail. Now that I’m working more, I’m noticing my tendency, before cutting anything else out, to eliminate my solitude, or quiet space, on days that are busier.

Obviously, we have to work. There are bills to pay, people to care for, and daily life to live. Things will be busy sometimes. But if we don’t have a quiet center and take time to step back, if we ignore the craving of our body, soul, heart, and mind for rest, then we run the risk of unravel. We run the risk of listening to voices telling us we are worth only our usefulness rather than hearing the One who created us telling us we are deeply loved. We run the risk of living a life that is not our own.

What does it look like for you to incorporate a rhythm of Sabbath, solitude, and rest into your life? How do you get back to your quiet center? Are there regular practices you engage in that keep this in the forefront? For me a few of these practices are:

  • Saying no–to activity, involvement, and people–as hard as that is sometimes. As my friend, Jeff, would say, “Say yes with caution and no with confidence.”
  • Pursuing things that align with my vocation and calling instead of every opportunity that comes my way.
  • Turning my phone and computer off at certain points throughout my day and week.
  • Having specific disciplines I practice for certain periods of time.

And, on some level, we just have to choose to make space for rhythms into our life. As simple (or hard) as that sounds, intentional choice is the first step to a quiet center.

May you discover the gifts that come from incorporating a rhythm of rest and solitude into your life–a clear mind to listen, a heart to love others well, an openness to the truth of God’s love and care for you, a deep knowing of where your worth lies–may you discover these gifts and the freedom to live out of these truths.

A Little Extra:

As I was writing this post I kept thinking of books that have shaped my awareness and practice of solitude, and also helped me understand my inner life, the nature of my true self/false self, and how to move then from a quiet center to a place of outward expression and service. I wanted to share a few with you for future reading:

Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen: This is a tiny little book that I used to have my student staff read at the beginning of an academic year. It’s a gem!

Show Me the Way by Henri Nouwen: This is a book of daily readings that I have used during the Lent season the past few years. Simple, profound reminders.

Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer: By one of my favorite authors, and fellow Quaker, I first read this book in college and have read it almost annually since.

A Hidden Wholeness by Parker J. Palmer: Again, PJP, coming through with an incredible read about living an undivided life.

Sabbath by Wayne Muller: I used this book in an elective I taught at the university where I worked. I love that Muller writes about the theology of Sabbath but also includes simple, tangible ideas for practicing Sabbath rest.

Just a few of my favorites . . . Enjoy!

 

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
Trillium Snowshoe 2016

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.”

 

About Intentional Spirituality

Besides the question of “Why would you want to walk 2650 miles in the wilderness alone,” I have a wonderful, deep, thought-provoking community who ask things like, “How are you hoping this will change you? Do you have thoughts or hopes for how it will be used by God in your own development? I can’t help but think this journey will be transformational for you . . . Tell me about how you’re hoping to be transformed.”

Sheesh, can I get an easy question like, “What kind of water filter are you using?” (A Sawyer Mini Filter . . . Worked like a rock star) or “What was your favorite piece of gear?” (My Purple Rain Adventure Skirt . . . Simply the best gear choice I made.)

Seriously, though, I knew this journey would be transformational. How could something like this not be? And I knew that I wanted to be open to what the experience had to teach me and not manipulate it. I also wanted to go in with a bit of a plan so I could direct some of my time on the trail in order to help facilitate growth in specific areas. So, for my over-scheduling, list making, achiever personality, I was seeking rhythms and disciplines that would be life-giving while trying to balance those disciplines with open hands, allowing God to direct the journey as needed. Easy, right?

Speaking of God, when I started my planning I was in a bit of a rough patch in that relationship. I was having a difficult time spiritually in the midst of some things going on in my life. Remember the angry, cynical, bitter Tami I wrote about in the last post? Those things have a way of taking over your heart and mind if you let them, not leaving much space for hope, faith and love. I knew those good things were still in there at my core and I knew God was still a central part of my life but it was becoming more difficult. I felt strongly that I needed to grab hold of the opportunities this experience would offer to be transformed and renewed.

As I prepared for my journey, I looked forward to getting a glimpse of what it is like to be comfortable with so much solitude and be alone in my head all day without my normal myriad of distractions. To give my mind and heart the much-needed space to process hurts and questions without having a place to run away. It’s easy in my Portland life not to process things in a way that brings health and vitality. Instead, I just work harder, play harder, and entertain myself more.

So, I began the process of choosing very intentional and specific spiritual disciplines. If the term “spiritual discipline” is a new one for anybody reading I would encourage you to check out The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster or The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. The general idea is to pursue practices or actions specifically for the purpose of spiritual growth and transformation, a focus on our inward journey and heart. I wanted to see what it was like to practice a discipline with consistent dedication over a longer period of time. I was also hopeful that choosing to engage in the same daily practices would focus my mind as I walked.

The first discipline I chose to do was the Prayer of Examen at the end of each day. I love this part of Ignatian spirituality. The Prayer of Examen would provide self-review and reflection to help me be more aware of God’s presence in my life, name what I am grateful for, and notice patterns and areas of growth.

The second practice I chose was the discipline of study. For one-week periods of time I would memorize a passage of scripture, quote, poem, etc. and meditate on it daily while I hiked. I tend to read over things so quickly without letting the words sink beyond my head and into my heart. I was really excited about the practice of holding these words for a longer period of time and seeing what I noticed as I mulled them over. I asked a number of close friends and family to provide these pieces that I memorized. I loved carrying parts of these dear people with me as I hiked!

Finally, I decided to engage in journaling. I already loved journaling but had fallen out of practice over the past couple years. My hope was that it would become a normal daily routine again. The journaling had no specific focus . . . Just to write about my day and whatever else flowed onto the paper.

So, these are the disciplines in which I chose to engage. Now, for what transpired over the course of my journey.

Like with any discipline, or desired habit change, I started with the greatest of intentions. Similar to the intention I have that I will be disciplined and won’t buy the Chicago Mix Popcorn each time I walk into Trader Joe’s . . . If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, right?

As soon as I set foot on the trail, I was in a new reality, trying to figure out my daily rhythms in the wilderness and trying to simply keep myself hydrated and fed and to get to my next campsite each day. Around day five I realized I had written in my journal twice, done one Prayer of Examen, and had memorized nothing. I’m a perfectionist. This was not a perfect record.

I heard the voice of my friend, Martha, in my head saying, “Tami, be kind to yourself.” (For anyone else who finds this phrase helpful here’s a song for you to listen to from the wonderful storyteller/musician, Andrew Peterson. Actually, just listen to the the whole album!)

So, I took her advice, offered grace to myself, and looked at it with new perspective. I was essentially getting used to a new way of life. That by itself was so much transition! I allowed myself another week to adjust before focusing on the spiritual disciplines. I was reminded that I couldn’t change everything at once. Sometimes it’s just too much. I settled in for the long haul.

The Prayer of Examen, which I thought would be the easiest discipline for me, turned out to be the most difficult to engage. At other points in my life it has been really instrumental so I assumed it would be the same on the trail. However, I found myself so exhausted at the end of the day that I would crawl into my sleeping bag and forget all about it. Or, I would fall asleep in the middle of my reflection time. By the time I was in Washington, the Prayer of Examen had become a distant memory.

Unlike the Prayer of Examen, the discipline of study became the BEST PRACTICE EVER!! I had my doubts about this one and how much I would get into it. I was just memorizing stuff . . . How great could it be? Well, let me tell you! I started with one quote, memorized it and meditated on it. The next week I added another quote and then another and another. Each morning of my journey I would go through my entire repertoire of memorized quotes. By the time I reached Canada this would take me a little over an hour. I loved it so much that I started going through the list each afternoon, too. After going through the quotes I would then focus on the piece for the present week, saying it over and over, wondering about the words, the author, the context, and how it spoke to me at that time. Each day I would become aware of new things. Words would hit me differently throughout the journey and be exactly what I needed at the moment.

Between reciting each quote I also breathed a prayer, “Lord, my Lord, help me to listen to your voice and decide for your mercy.” This prayer got added onto during the journey as I realized what a difficult time I have fully trusting the Bible. Each time I read scriptures there are tons of questions that come up. Sometime in the Sierras I added “and trust your word” to my prayer so it became a rhythm of saying, “Lord, my Lord, help me listen to your voice, decide for your mercy, and trust your word.” This prayer brought each quote back to a central focus of listening and loving well.

The discipline of study has become a part of my daily life. It turns out when I really connect with something, I want to keep doing it! As I walk or run around Portland I find that the movement of my body automatically brings these memorized quotes to mind. The words are like old friends, reminding me of who I am, what I’ve learned, and what’s important to me.

Journaling was what I expected it to be. It didn’t surprise me too much. I used it much more as a record keeper for the journey (daily mileage, who I met that day, who I camped with that night, cool things I saw along the way, etc.) and sometimes I found the energy at the end of the day to document what was happening in my heart, as well. It has become a daily practice again. Mostly. No extreme likes or dislikes with this practice. It’s a staple discipline for me that consistently seems like a helpful way to process.

And, now for the greatest surprise of my trip! Prayer! I had not chosen prayer as a daily practice because, honestly, I was scared. I had not felt the desire to pray for a while and didn’t want to feel the weight of disappointment if I failed at this discipline. I was struggling to find the words to engage in conversation with God as I muddled my way through my spiritual life. With my cynicism hanging over me, I wasn’t sure what to say and felt overwhelmed by the heaviness of things going on in the world around me.

Then, one morning about a week into my journey, I felt so overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before me, the beauty surrounding me, and the gratitude I felt to be out there. The words just started coming out! I had tried for the past year to formulate words to prayers that I could authentically say and here I was just being present while the unformulated words started tumbling out of my mouth from deep within.

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This location is where the praying started.

And that was just the beginning. Any of you who have backpacked for long periods of time with a group of people know that there is something about being in the wilderness that opens you up. You talk about things with your fellow backpackers that you would never talk about in the “front country.” This is how my prayers felt–the most open and authentic prayers. I said honest things and asked hard questions and trusted that God would hold those things with me.

This was exactly what I meant when I said I wanted to balance the trip with intentionality but also open hands to allow God to direct the journey. Since there was an opening, I jumped in and engaged fully in this gift.

So, now I’m off the trail, living a perfectly disciplined spiritual life. Ha! Not so. I write this not as someone who has not mastered anything (especially in regards to that popcorn at Trader Joe’s) but as someone embracing the journey of honest and messy spirituality.

Discipline is hard. It takes effort, intentionality, and determination, which can be exhausting at times. But if we want something bad enough, we’ll continue pursuing it. Change happens when we fully engage in opportunities for the growth and health we desire. And, now, after an intense encounter with these specific disciplines I find that my soul craves these life-giving practices.

And we won’t do it perfectly. No matter how dedicated we are to our spiritual life or change we desire some days are just . . . Blah (for lack of a better word). These are the moments when the phrase, “Be kind to yourself” is especially helpful. It isn’t, “Be kind to yourself, don’ t care anymore, throw in the towel, and give up.” It is about receiving God’s grace, offering grace to yourself, noticing where we got side-tracked, adding what we learn to our self-awareness file folder for next time . . . And choosing to try again.

It is a balance of discipline and open hands. Along the way we may find that the thing we are so adamant about engaging in just isn’t working for us (like the Prayer of Examen for me) or maybe doesn’t connect with how we learn. This is okay! Offer yourself the freedom to explore, practice something different, and release it if it doesn’t seem like a good fit. You may also find that God has something surprising and better in store for you that you hadn’t thought of. Like my prayer experience!

We all have to figure out how we honestly and authentically pursue Christ in our daily life depending on what that daily life looks like here, now, today. You may not have four months of free time to hike on a trail. I get it. I think sometimes we feel like we need some grand, big “thing” to help us pursue the Christian life while really it’s the little daily things that I’ve found are the most important–making the choice to intentionally interact with God even when we are tired, busy, uncertain, not sure what we believe, or when things seem to be going perfectly.

What does this look like for your daily life–here, now, today? Maybe there is a specific spiritual discipline you want to commit to daily for a month. Or, maybe you’re where I was before I left for my trip and any form of engaging with God would be a good place to pick up. Wherever you are in your journey I encourage you to just take one step down this path. That’s all there is to hiking any trail–metaphorical or literal–one foot in front of the other walking towards your desired destination.