What If?

My husband was away recently for a few days of out-of-town work and instead of going to sleep at reasonable hour, I stayed up and binge read the blog of a writer I’d heard interviewed earlier that day. I read her entire blog–all five years of it–over the course of two late nights. (Because what sane woman would need a good night’s rest when everyone in the family is just a wee bit off because a Key Member of the Household is gone?)

On the bleary-eyed morning after the first night, I staggered down the hall, through the dark living room, and before my foot hit the kitchen’s wood floor, my apparently alert brain asked me a question: What if {a situation I’d been discouraged about} isn’t actually {the name I’d given it}? 

What if?

Back in college, my Children’s Lit and Creative Writing instructors said that the What if question is the basis for a compelling story. What if water from a spring hidden deep in the woods made people live forever? (Tuck Everlasting) What if an American man from the 1800s found himself in Arthur’s Camelot? (Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court) What if a mysterious wardrobe that transported children to a magical world in which an epic battle between good and evil took place among mythical creatures? (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

Compelling stories have all the usual elements of fiction: characters, setting, theme, conflict, and plot. Our stories, the ones we live out every day, are no different. Every element is there and together they give shape to our story.

Our lives have characters (family, friends, neighbors, enemies), a setting (the unique circumstances and situations in the places where our lives are lives out), conflicts, overarching themes, and plot (what the story is really all about and who the enemy really is). Our understanding of every one of those elements is affected by that simple question: What if?

What if I took a risk?
What if I waited?
What if I stayed calm?
What if I just took a walk? or a nap? or a bath?
What if I wasn’t distracted?
What if I listened?
What if I loved?
What if I believed, hoped, and endured all things?
What if I believed, period?
What if I didn’t worry?

Who of us doesn’t want to live a good story, one that matters?

To ask the What if question isn’t all that difficult. To answer it, though, can be the starting point of a transformational journey, one that begins at the fork in the road between The Way I am (or even The Way I See It) and The Way It Could Be.

The way I am is familiar and comfortable. The Way It Could Be requires a step onto a foreign and strenuous path covered with trip-hazards and obstacles, a trail that will surely leave us bruised and maybe even a little bit broken. It is, however, the starting point of the most compelling stories.

So let’s ask. What if?

Sharing stories today with the writers at Small Wonders.

 

 

 

 

One Step Toward Perspective

 

It’s early April, and here in the midwest, already spring’s verdant march across the lawn toward the front door is more than a hint or a dream. The bright landscape leaves no question that winter, though it could at any moment clench its frosty fist, has lost its grip. A new season is under way.

Here at Along This Road and in my life, it’s a time of quiet, a silence I’m breaking for a moment to ask about your season. I ask because I believe there is a time and a season for all things and, for me, remembering is one step toward perspective.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

What is it time for in your life?

For everything there is a season

The Wonder of Winter

Chico Candle There is a time for everything.

I know this. I believe it. The thing is, when a sliver of life overwhelms me, I forget it.

I tend to operate on the assumption that whatever is going on in my life–good or bad, joy or sorrow–will last forever. The seasons, especially as they change, remind me that this is not true. Seasons give me hope. They prompt me to take stock and be grateful. These are the silver linings, the small wonders, the little comforts that have contributed to my sanity in this season of cold, of short days and long nights.

  1. Snow. Just snow. It makes it so much easier to endure the cold.
  2. Darkness. A blanket of comfort.
  3. The fox who regularly treks across our frozen pond, occasionally diving below the snow.
  4. Wood burning in our stove. (And the men who provide it.)
  5. Indoor hot dog and marshmallow roasts. Just for fun.
  6. Sunshine. Especially after long strings of grey and gloomy days.
  7. Snow days. Every single one of them. They were gifts of unexpected time, even–or maybe especially–the ones that pried my grasping fingers off of the Very Important Things that the snow interrupted.
  8. Bananagrams. We play after lunch, after dinner, or when it just seems like a good idea to circle the wagons for a few minutes of lighthearted together time.
  9. Homemade marshmallows. This recipe is simple and delicious. Also, molten when roasted: consume with care.
  10. Crockpot Chicken Wild Rice Soup. So much more manageable to make a quick roux at dinner-time than to begin anything at that weary time of day.
  11. Birdsong. I heard it on Sunday morning, an unmistakable reminder that spring will come.

What comforts or wonders or silver linings has winter brought your way?

For everything there is a season

Sharing this week with the writers at Small Wonders and Thought Provoking Thursday.

On Bison and Geysers

IMG_1511Our breath bit our lungs as J and I trudged toward Norris Geyser Basin, our boots squeaking beneath our feet. Yellowstone’s winter landscape of sculpted snow stills and silences the atmosphere around it. To step outside even the quiet of a single family cabin is to enter a world that, in my dad’s words, “almost sucks the noise out of your head.”

I could use a little more silence like that.

We were on our way to Echinus Geyser which, at that time, erupted on a regular, predictable schedule with regular, predictable indicators. It began with the gradual filling of its earthen bowl–from the bottom up–until the water spilled over the top and spread out across the slope followed by sudden bursts of steam and water forty to sixty feet skyward. Then the bowl would drain and thirty-five to seventy-five minutes later, it would begin again.

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We arrived at Norris on rented snowmobiles with four-stroke engines, quieter than the traditional two-stroke now required in the park. The quiet, so much a gift to a weary human mind, is for the animals–an attempt to disturb less their efforts to survive Yellowstone’s harsh winter. We left the parking lot and walked through the deep winter cold over the boardwalk. It wasn’t shoveled and we made our way over a path of packed snow left by visitors who came before us.

Provided you have some way to keep from getting lost, it’s permissible to wander off-trail many places in Yellowstone. In the thermal areas, however, both rules and sense require that you keep to the boardwalk. The surface is thin in these volatile places. Some who have gone cross-country in thermal areas have gotten burned or even died.

The animals get to go where they will. During the winter, warm ground and steamy air draw the bison in. There they’ll be, gathered near a pool, or a spring, or a geyser and resting on a plot of thermal earth, hoar-frost built up on their fur like suit of armor.

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When I see them converged around a geyser I always wonder what they do when it erupts. I wonder if instinct tells them it’s coming. Or if somehow they know how close they can get. If they get scared and run away. Or if they just get burned.

When we arrived at Echinus, we took a seat to wait for the eruption in company with a small group of bison congregated at the edge of Echinus’ bowl.

Some sat on the snowless ground, their legs tucked neatly under their bulky bodies. Others stood motionless in the rising steam. The bowl began to fill. The bison did nothing. The steamy tower thickened and grew in size. No visible response from the bison. Hot water overflowed the bowl and spilled down the slope. The bison just sat there. And then superheated water, trapped in the earth long enough that it rose above the boiling point, burst from the bowl and into the air.  Finally, after years of wondering, I learned what bison do when a geyser they are perched next to erupts.

They move. Slowly.

They hoist their immense bodies up and lumber away, just out of reach of the water.

It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t what I expected because it’s not what I would have done. I would have rushed.

But they just moved away, and not until they needed to.

Just like I could use some of Yellowstone’s winter silence, I could use some of that slow, timely movement. Because here’s what happens when I rush: I run right over the most important things and like the saying goes, The most important things in life aren’t things. They’re people. And while I don’t usually run directly over them, I squash their feelings. I miss the details that matter to them. I miss them.

So here’s what I’m trying to remember today: Just move. Slowly.

Sharing today at Thoughtful Thursday and Small Wonders.

 

 

 

On Breaking Trail

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We pulled into the gravel parking lot at the base of Bunsen Peak, piled out, grabbed day packs and water from the back of the vehicle, and set off. Dust had barely begun to accumulate around our ankles when we saw him: a lone bison, a bull, just twenty-five feet off the trail.

Someone was going to have to change trajectory and it was going to be us–my husband, our children, and me.

First, because it’s the rules. The park service has clear regulations about how close visitors can get to animals: Approaching on foot within 100 yards of bears or wolves or within 25 yards of other wildlife is prohibited. It’s up to the humans to keep the distance. Second, because J and I once visited with a ranger who had worked in close proximity with grizzlies in Denali National Park who told us that she found the bison’s irritable and unpredictable nature to be more dangerous than that of the bear.

So we stepped off the narrow dirt path and began to pick our way through the tangled grass and sage of the hillside. It was hard. It was slow going. And because I was dressed to walk down the trail and not to break it, it sliced up my shins. I don’t like breaking trail.

Apparently bison prefer not to, either–at least in winter.

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That’s just opinion, formed after sharing the groomed road with bison after bison. We weren’t on foot that day; we were on a snowmobile. The twenty-five yard rule didn’t seem to apply, but even passing them on the furthest available centimeter of road frightened me. They trotted down the groomed lane–sometimes toward us, sometimes beside us–their unsettled eyes level with mine.

If one decided–and they occasionally do–that they’ve had enough of the pesky, noisy machines that invade their space, their thirty-five miles-per-hour charge was faster than we could weave our way through the small herds that spread across the road.  The air and my snowmobile suit provided no armor against a horned and angry thousand pound female or two thousand pound male.

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Bison are made for winter. They are well insulated against the elements. Their shiver response, according to the snow-coach driver who took us from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful last winter, begins–begins–at forty degrees below zero. Their massive heads work like a bucket at the end of a crane, shoving deep and often crusted snow away to expose last year’s grass underneath.

Last year’s grass.

Not a lot of nutrition there. Spring finds them thin and bony, their fat stores depleted. About ten out of every one hundred will die.

Even though they’re made for the rigors of winter, it’s a hard life.

In her book, Yellowstone Has Teeth, Marjane Ambler writes that in the years after the park service began grooming Yellowstone’s roads for snow machine travel, the bison herd grew from two to three thousand. Perhaps not continually breaking trail has its advantages. Walking from one feeding area to another over a road expends far fewer calories than wading through deep snow.

We’re continually breaking trail in our lives because something is always changing. And while we may not be sporting pollen smeared cuts on our legs or wading, hip deep, through crusted-over snow in search of something inadequate to fill the gnawing hunger in our bellies, we’re constantly moving along a section of road we’ve never taken before.

It’s hard. It’s slow going. And it wreaks a little havoc.

No wonder we’re worn.

At our house we’ve been away from the ease of the established trail for awhile now. Even though breaking a new one is hard, and progress is slow, and it wreaks all kinds of havoc with the emotions–it’s how we get from here to there, from where we are to where we’re going. We are not alone. Even when we’re weary.

No matter if you are on an established trail or finding your way through a brambly hillside, no matter if you are in an effortless summer or under a deep winter, even if you are stumbling through the dark over an unknown terrain, you are not alone.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9

 

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Everywhere

We’ve taken to watching a little football at our house on Sunday afternoons and when the talk turns to the Super Bowl, I remember the day I found some unexpected beauty in Yellowstone. Oh, I expected to find beauty, but not indoors, not around the television, and not watching football.

In memory of that day, a repost–because great good is on my mind, and it can be found in the most surprising places.


We DSC00291dragged ourselves into Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel according to plan, just after midnight Sunday morning. We’d driven twenty hours and that last one was hard. We were all road weary and my husband, who had driven most of the way, was done.

I took the wheel as the temperature plummeted, the wind whipped up and the clouds descended, alternately perching atop our vehicle and on the road in front of us . As I drove, the temperature climbed from fourteen below zero back to thirteen above, the clouds lifted, and snow began to blow across the road, shrouding it more fully than the clouds had done. This cycle–plunging thermometer, cloud-cloaked roads, warming temperatures, and blinding ground blizzard–repeated itself once more, then cleared as we entered Yellowstone through the Roosevelt Arch.

The next morning we slept as late a family of early and late risers crammed into a hotel room could expect to sleep and spent the dawning hours of Super Bowl Sunday walking together through the small community at Mammoth Hot Springs. Soft and substantial flakes floated to the ground, joining the fresh few inches that had fallen in the night. It was cold, not polar vortex cold, but crisp and clear and lovely.

My parents introduced my brother and I to Yellowstone’s winter when I was in high school and my husband and I made a winter’s visit a few years into our marriage. This trip with our children had been brewing since 2002. As much as we enjoy Yellowstone’s autumn, the intense beauty of Yellowstone’s winter is unsurpassed.

We returned to our room for warm layers suitable for exploring away from the civilized settlement. Our destination was the mountainside hot springs of the Upper Terrace. Just two miles away, it was where the grated road ended and the groomed one began. We drove to the end of the road, strapped on our snowshoes, and spent the late morning on our family’s first mountain snowshoe expedition.

The hot springs at Mammoth are different from others in the park. At Mammoth, water rises through limestone and becomes saturated with calcium carbonate along the way. When deposited at the surface, it transforms the constantly growing and changing travertine terraces. Some springs are grey and dry, some white, and others, hues of orange and red, colors indicative of the thermophiles which reside within.

As we walked along a steamy stream of thermal run-off by the road-turned-trail, two mule deer peeked through the trees, then darted deeper into the forest. Our youngest daughter had to be coaxed up one hill, where we found the source of the stream, a spring which resembled Snuffleupagus in both color and shape.

Upper Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone National Park

Upper Terrace, Mammoth Hot Springs
Yellowstone National Park

The excursion, was enough for the girls. My husband and son drove Yellowstone’s one open road deeper into the park in search of a more challenging trail to conquer and we went to the map room at the hotel where we read and played games. It was Super Bowl Sunday, so at 3 p.m. an employee entered the map room, unlocked the hotel’s one television, and found the game.

No matter where I am, I never really watch the game. I sit near the game. I visit. I watch the commercials and the half-time show, but I don’t watch the game.

Today was no different. As I read, I heard Queen Latifah’s soulful rendering of “America the Beautiful” and I absent-mindedly wondered where our national anthem had gone. Buried again in my book, I eventually heard its familiar melody and I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. People were standing. It could have been a replay of every high school athletic event I’d ever attended.

This, though, was different.

Of the thirty people gathered on couches and around tables, almost half stood, heads bereft of hats and hands covering hearts. They stood, not because they were surrounded by standing spectators; over half remained seated. They stood because apparently they thought it was right and good and were compelled to do it. As I watched them, I saw the American flag flying between the Post Office, the Visitor Center, and Federal Justice Center through the map room’s paned bay window.

It was beautiful, and it made me wonder how long it had been since I had been compelled to do anything. It was an uncomfortable question.

DSC00288 You know I’m watching. My eyes are open. I went to Yellowstone last week and expected to see beauty, but I was looking outdoors. That I found it indoors, in front of the television, surprised me. And that, I suppose, is something I needed to learn: inspiration is everywhere.

If you’re watching with me I’d love to hear what you’re seeing.