Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Change is in the air

      There's just something about the last week of summer before school starts. There's a bittersweet tug to slow down and linger a bit. We opted to take a late family vacation this year to the High Country of North Carolina. We stumbled upon a lovely swimming hole beneath a plunging waterfall at Elk Falls. As I watched the kids leap into the air for a cold plunge, it was as if all time stopped. There was only this moment in the sun, flash frozen by the splash.

Savannah and Freckles, the leopard gecko,
on the way to Texas

     I heard it in one word.  After 1,232 miles, pulling a u-haul across six states, reading Harry Potter aloud in the car to pass the time, the move began to happen when I heard Savannah refer to "my" apartment.  Then, the University of Texas became “my” school and Austin  “my” city.  It’s when you begin to accept the newness and claim it, that change begins to happen.  
     Even with a lot of grief and anxiety in the mix, a fresh start opens up unexpected possibilities and dreams.  Let's hope Freckles is ready.

     I made this cake weeks ago, dark chocolate with buttercream frosting, all from scratch. It was heavenly. That was before I started tracking everything I eat. I decided when I turned 35 that I have to stop eating like someone half my age, unless I want the health problems of someone twice my age. The necessary weight loss is happening, but not nearly quickly enough, and I have to fight for every ounce. The weeks when I work out until I am exhausted and achy are the weeks I will lose a pound or two. The other weeks, when I just need a break, I will maintain, or maybe even gain. It is demoralizing. Now in the past two weeks, I've reached a plateau. It seems no matter what I do, the scale won't budge. And God help me, I just want to go back to eating chocolate cake. I think about it all the time. I've even had dreams about it. I am an addict in withdrawal. Every little thing gets on my nerves. My patience is paper thin. All I want is sugar. Sugar. SUGAR. But as I keep telling myself, several times an hour, what we want isn't often what we need.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

It's all about spirit.

     I always love watching the Olympics. Seeing world class athletes give their all and achieve things most of us could only dream of inspires me. One athlete in this year's games in particular has left an impression, which I didn't fully realize until I was on my way to a boot camp workout one evening. The August humidity was oppressive, and even before I got out of the car I was aware of how heavy I felt. "It's way too hot to be doing this," I thought, "especially for somebody as overweight as I am." My next thought, from a more positive part of my brain obviously, was, "I bet Oscar Pistorius wouldn't whine about that crap!" 
     If you somehow missed hearing about Oscar Pistorius, he is the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics. Born without fibulae, Oscar had to have both legs amputated below the knees before he was a year old. Now he runs on carbon fiber blades and is known as "the fastest man on no legs." Though some people have protested that his lightweight prosthetics give him an unfair advantage, and he was barred from competition until scientific reports proved otherwise, Oscar has had to overcome incredible obstacles to succeed as he has. Walking, much less running, for long periods of time is painful for amputees, and Oscar trains until his legs are bloodied. He literally has to come from behind in every race, as his prostheses cannot generate the force to push him out of the starting blocks as efficiently as the ankles and calves his competitors have. The list goes on and on, as you can read in any number of articles about him in the Washington Post,  Policymic,  and on NPR.
     Watching Oscar run through all those challenges to place second in his quarter final heat -- running the length of four football fields in about 45 seconds! -- was breathtaking. It perfectly captured for me the Olympic spirit, inspiring me to strive for "faster, higher, stronger" in my own life, whatever obstacles I may face. 


Bright Angel
       It has to be one of the prettiest trails in the world. I recently hiked the Bright Angel Trail from the south rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River. My doctor had given me Percoset, anti-inflammatories and some other drugs in case I didn't make it down or had problems once I got onto the 8-day rafting/hiking trip that offered spotty satellite cell service. My low back had gone out just a week before, a rare occurrence, but one that unfortunately struck just before the trip.
        My friend had hurt her shoulder and didn't know if she could bear the weight of her pack. We weighed the options, how long it had taken to get this trip set, and how unlikely if we postponed again, that we would make the trip. We opted to take the chance. The day before we left, we scouted the trail from the top, marveling at all the switch backs, the steep vertical descent of the four-to-six hour hike down.
      With an anxious tone, my friend noted the trail just seemed to fall off the cliffside.         "Where does it go?" After she asked the question again, I smiled.
       "Don't worry. 'It will all become clear.'"
        She turned to glare, and the phrase became a joking 'mantra' of sorts along our trip. I reminded her of another trail we had done in the canyon and how the geologic layers and sculptures seem to make the trail disappear into nothing in the distance. You have to walk it to see the rest of the path. 
       We ate a lovely dinner, with a desperate sense of it being our last meal, both of us fretting away. Would we be able to make the trip down? Would we have to be evac'ed by helicopter? Would we have crazy people on the trip? Would we be able to survive the scorching oven heat and sleeping on the ground? How about the rapids? We began laughing at all our creative worry scenarios we were able to conjure. I thought of the Mark Twain quote:  "I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." 
      The photo above was an early morning shot, with the sun shining through an archway at the top of the trail just before we headed down. After all my fretting about my back, it wasn't a problem. I should have worried about my right knee. It the things you don't worry about that can get you. Mostly, I let go to let the magic happen. I walked through the lit archway, and let the unearthly, surreal beauty of the canyon seep through me, the fiery heat of the stones baking me.
        We did make it to the bottom. I resisted the urge to kiss the ground by the rafts, thankful that my back hadn't seized somewhere along the trail requiring me to crawl back up. As beautiful as the trail was, though, I realize now it will always stand out in my mind as an inner journey of courage. I'm not exactly an adventurous person, and it would have been smarter, especially given my back, to stay home, safe.
        But where's the fun in that? How does it all become clear without walking through a lit archway like that? 


     I was navigating the old-fashioned way with a large, folded paper map as we drove around Lake Ontario last week.  This part of Canada had been settled by British loyalists who fled the United States after the American Revolution.  We were traveling the Loyalist Parkway through picturesque small towns, reading their history in our small guidebook, and looking for somewhere to stop for lunch.
       Suddenly, a large road sign warned ROAD ENDS 5 KM.   Then, after 3 kilometers, ROAD ENDS 2 KM.  Traffic came to a stop.  The driver in front of us got out, lit a cigarette and leaned against his car, looking out at Lake Ontario.
       Don and I looked at each other.  There was no helpful information posted on the road sign.  On the map, it looked like the highway just continued over the Bay of Quint on what I assumed was a bridge.  There was nothing in the guidebook.  
      It was very unsettling, especially since we had been looking for a lunch spot for more than a hour and we were both getting hungry and cranky.   It would be much better to experience the end of the road on a full stomach. 
     The guy in front of us finished his cigarette, got back in his car and traffic started moving again. We rounded the curve and found the answer - a ferry!  And it was free!
     It was an unexpected bit of fun.   In all my adventures, I had never taken a car across a ferry. And so we drove aboard, parked, then climbed out and stood at the railing for the short ferry ride across to Quint's Isle. It was fresh cool lake air on a long, lovely drive.  We crossed the bay and ended up at The Acoustic Grill  in our new favorite town of Picton- eating steak sandwiches and fries with gravy and listening to great new music. 
     The end of the road was not so bad, after all. 



Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Telling the story

St. Lawrence River

If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, 
but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life. 
                                                                                           ~Siberian Elder
     In the St. Lawrence Seaway, between New York and Canada,  you can find over a thousand islands (1,864 islands - to be precise).  Any spot of land in the river that is above water all year round and has at least one tree counts as an island.  Some are tiny and uninhabited. Others served as pirate's lairs in years past.  Some are privately owned with only one home and a boathouse, while larger islands boast roads and housing developments.  Don and I spent several days last week visiting this beautiful and blessedly cool land known as the Thousand Islands region.
     And yes, it’s where Thousand Island salad dressing was created. There’s some debate over who actually first created the dressing but the most popular story goes like this.   In the early 20th century, Sophie LaLonde of Clayton, N.Y.,  created the recipe and served the dressing at a dinner party for her husband, who was a popular fishing guide. One of the dinner guests was actress May Irwin from Ontario. It was Irwin who christened the dressing  and asked for it to be served at the Herald Hotel in Clayton.  May Irwin also gave the recipe to George Boldt -  who happened to be the owner of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The rest is history, bottled up and sold in every grocery store in the country. 
    Finding these tidbits of knowledge when I travel makes me happy.  I assumed that some marketing guru just made up that name for that dressing.  Who knew there was a story behind it?  
      But I should have known. There’s almost always a story behind things and it’s usually worth ferreting out.  Even the simplest things in life, something as ordinary as salad dressing, come with a story.  Stories connect us to things, to places, to each other.  I’ll never look at a bottle of Thousand Island Dressing again without remembering those beautiful days on Wellesley Island: a dinner overlooking a small marina, an island wedding and a trip around Lake Ontario.  Stories not only help us remember our lives, at their best, they define who we really are. 


       It was inevitable that we would think about it, I suppose. I had originally wanted to see "The Dark Knight Rises" on opening weekend, but after the horrific mass shooting at a midnight showing in Aurora, CO, I needed to wait a while. A week later, my friend Sarah and I went to a nice, safe Saturday afternoon matinee. I had expected that Aurora would be in the back of my mind, as I had heard many of my friends say it was in theirs when they went to see the movie, but I was unprepared for the sense of fear and sadness that rose up in me as the lights went down. In the seconds before the movie began, I whispered to Sarah, "I can't help thinking about the shooting." Before I had even finished the sentence, she answered, "I was just going to say the same thing." The first time a gun was fired onscreen, I flinched, and my eyes went automatically to the emergency exit doors in the front corners of the theater. It happened several more times during the movie, and it didn't help that employees with red flashlights came in periodically and checked the doors to make sure they were still secure. I wondered if they were doing the same in other movies, or if this was the only one they thought presented a potential danger. It seemed a little
ridiculous. Copycats are possible, I know, but in all likelihood the next mass murderer will come up with an original plan, one that no one is prepared for any more than the patrons of the Aurora theater were prepared at the midnight premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises."
     The movie itself deals with issues of violence and heroism, fear and mortality, and so my mind was often on the victims of the tragedy. I thought of the three young men who died trying to shield their girlfriends from bullets. I remembered stories I heard on the news of some moviegoers who tried to pull others to safety across the floor, often in vain. I wondered what I would have done in their place, and I was terrified. I can't put myself in their place. My imagination won't go there. But I can imagine the scene at the hospitals a little while later, as dozens of shooting victims were brought in and triaged. I see gunshot wounds as a chaplain in the emergency room often, though not usually more than two or three at a time. I can imagine sitting with the victims' families in the waiting room, bringing them water and tissues, trying to keep them calm, relaying updates in layman's terms until the doctor could come and speak with them. I can imagine doing my best to be for them, in pastoral care terms, "a non-anxious presence." But my prayer would be, as it always is, that I would be more than that.
     When Mark Twain was devastated by his daughter's death, he wrote to a minister friend of his that he hardly wanted to hear from anyone, because well-meaning people could say such hurtful things. "But I do want you to write to me," Twain told his friend. "You have the touch that heals, not lacerates." There have been some very hurtful words tossed around by high profile people about the shooting. I hope the victims and their families have not heard them. I hope that some of the people around them have a touch that heals, or at least that doesn't wound. I hope, and I believe, that for those who died, the last thing they felt wasn't a bullet tearing flesh, but the touch of a loving God who is always present with those who suffer. Surely there was healing in that touch, even there, even then, that was greater than all the fear. "The Dark Knight Rises" ended on a note of hope and redemption, which I think is why I liked it so much. All the stories I really believe in come around to such an ending, eventually.


Dawn Brazell is on vacation. Filling in for her this week is guest writer, Jan Culpepper. 
 Jan is a mother, pastor and friend.   She blogs regularly at SimplyJan. 

     They are a part of summer, you know – these afternoon thunderstorms marked by dark clouds, torrential rain, bright flashes of lightning, and rumbles of thunder. They are as much a part of a Charleston summer as sand and sunshine, Riverdogs baseball, and hamburgers on the grill. They often seem to pop up out of nowhere and dissipate just as quickly, leaving behind a summer sauna. Sometimes they leave us with a promise as well. After this particular storm, I spotted not just a rainbow, but a double rainbow outside my window. A rainbow is a reminder of God’s presence and God’s promise. A double rainbow is a reminder that God’s grace exceeds our every expectation.
      They are a part of life, you know – these challenges marked by anxiety, uncertainty, sleepless nights, and chewed fingernails. They are as much a part of life as the rewards of hard work, the love of family, and the laughter of friends. They often pop up out of nowhere and dissipate just as quickly, hopefully leaving you stronger than before. I have tackled some scary challenges this summer, things like publicly claiming my identity as a writer and sharing a secret from my past that has followed me for over 30 years. Doing these things have required giant steps of faith. I am stronger than I was before. That much I know. I am so thankful for reminders along the way – things like encouragement from family and friends and signs along the way assuring me I am on the right path. Oh, and not just a rainbow, but a double rainbow to remind me that no matter what challenges I face along the way, God’s presence and God’s promise is with me always, exceeding my every expectation.

"Life is like a rainbow.  You need both the sun and the rain to make its colors appear."