Awake Our Hearts is a gentle, beautiful online literary publication for the female voice exploring faith and life in full. Please enjoy my short piece, Mountain Metaphor, in the Fall issue.
Always on the alert for a bargain, I suggested my husband buy the pre-paid, discounted breakfast pass for the two days we were planning to stay at a mountain lodge.
The first morning, we queued up at the counter, where the sullen hostess shoved a menu at us and blurted in a monotone, “You get a choice of breakfast, numbers one through five. Which one do you want?” When she glanced up to take our tickets, her eyes were dull and veiled, like the ocean when gray clouds dim its twinkling reflection.
I looked at the menu and said, “I’ll take the omelet. Can I get fruit instead of the fried potatoes with that?”
“Okay,” I said slowly. “Potatoes are fine.”
“What kind of bread do you want?”
“Oh, no bread, thanks. Just the omelet and potatoes, please. And coffee. Can I get some juice, too?”
“Juice OR coffee.”
“Um, okay. Just the coffee, then.”
After my husband had given her his order, she waved her hand at the half dozen empty tables and said, “Sit wherever you want.” Then she stumped over to the coffee machine, poured a cup for my husband and me and brought it to us without a word. When our meals were ready, she plunked them unceremoniously on the table in front of us and returned to her chair behind the reception desk.
“I hope we don’t get Ms. Sociable again,” I commented to my husband the next morning. But sure enough, there she was. Treading carefully, I ordered the same meal as before—with no substitutions--and moved towards a table. My husband paused, though, and asked her, “How’s your foot today? It looks like it hurts.”
I hadn’t even registered that she was wearing an orthopedic boot.
That tiny glimmer of kindness was enough to ignite a sparkle in her eyes and illuminate her face as she responded, “Oh, thank you! It’s not too bad. I landed wrong stepping off a ladder a few days ago, and I tried to get by as much as I could without the brace yesterday.”
“That’s got to be tough,” my husband commiserated. “You must be on your feet a lot in this job.”
“I am, but it’s okay. It doesn’t hurt too much till later in the day. My boss doesn’t mind if I sit down when I need to.”
“Sounds like you have a good boss,” he replied. “Tell you what, we’ll sit right here at the first table, so you don’t have to go as far. If we need anything we can just grab it ourselves.”
“Oh thanks, I’m fine. You guys can sit wherever you want. Your food should be up in just a few minutes.”
She set a cup of coffee on the table for each of us, then returned with glasses of orange juice. When she brought my plate, I found not just the omelet and potatoes, but a slice of melon and a couple of little strawberries.
Sullen and grumpy? Or hurting and barely hanging on?
God, give me eyes of compassion to look for the difference.
See 10/14/2012 article in Long Term Care News
At nearly 10,000’ altitude, I had dropped far behind my fellow climbers, stopping every few steps up the mountain to let my pounding heart slow its frantic gallop. My walking sticks dragged behind me, tracing a drunken pattern in the dust as my shoulders stooped and my feet grew ever heavier.
Such was my painful first backpacking experience, five years ago. My husband and kids are avid backpackers, who go as often as adulthood allows. But I swore I would never attempt it again.
So why was I kitting up for another trip the weekend before our anniversary?
After 30-plus years of marriage, we’re looking at retirement in the not-too-far-distant future. And I don’t care for the prospect of devolving into separate lives. I want to have some shared hobbies. He wants me to stay healthy and strong, around to enjoy them for as long as possible. So I began exercising more diligently and mentioned that I might be open to considering a modest trek again.
That’s all it took. Before I knew it, permits had been secured, supplies purchased, and equipment assembled. No such word as “tentative” exists in my husband’s vocabulary.
As the date got closer, I started looking for excuses to bail out. What about our business? COVID? The drought? He was undeterred.
Two days before we were to leave, though, we received an email from the forest service, pulling our overnight permits due to the potential for fire. My husband was disappointed. I managed to look sufficiently downcast and suppress the fist-pumps of relief.
Still, we had reservations at a high-elevation hotel, which was to be our base for a couple days’ acclimation hikes. It was the perfect solution, in my opinion. Hike by day; a shower, clean sheets, and warm meal at night.
We found a route that looked challenging but (possibly) do-able. After a bumpy 40-minute off-road drive, we arrived at the trailhead.
The path started out gently, through a beautiful forest. Then it got steeper. The uphill climbs were as brutal as I’d remembered and after a couple of hours, I was ready give up and turn back. Exhausted, I asked some hikers coming the opposite direction how far to the lake.
With halos visible only to me, they said, “You’re almost there. Maybe 10 minutes.” An end now in reach, I pushed on ahead until we saw sparking waters in the distance.
My husband found a soft place to sit on the banks of the lake with a convenient boulder backrest. No other hikers in sight, we paused to breathe in enjoyment with all our senses. Pungent pine aroma. Cool alpine water caressing my bare toes. Breezes whispering counterpoint to the chorus of a neighboring creek. The intense tang of hard cheese and sweet dried fruit. Brazen aspens, rustling their golden leaves like dancers’ coins.
After we had returned to the hotel, my husband filled a cooler with trail grub and took me to a local park for a modified outdoor dinner, which he prepared with plastic dishes over a small camp stove as children played on the nearby swing set.
Back in our room, we fell into a comfortable bed, where my man dreamed of the trail and challenges ahead, while I slipped into a contented and dreamless sleep.
With its extreme joys and angst, new love gets all the media hype. But in the quiet confidence of long-time love, adventures still await.
Featured guest post on Titus Two: Leading the Way
Philippians 4:6 “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
My new sales assistant’s voice bubbled over the phone. A prospective customer had contacted our company with lots of questions. He said it was near the end of the budget cycle and he had some surplus funding.
I listened while Terra talked him through the product line, promising sample videos, a price list and catalog. She typed like the keyboard was on fire, hit “send” with a flourish and looked up proudly.
“Who was that?” I asked.
When she told me, my marketing antenna twitched. He was from the same region as one of our most aggressive competitors. I pulled up their website and saw what I dreaded: the prospect’s name and organization in a glowing testimonial. He had been sent to pilfer intel about our company and he took liberal advantage of my assistant’s naiveté.
The day — or at least my attitude — was pretty much shot and I hadn’t even finished my first cup of coffee.
Some days, it’s easy to lose touch with Jesus in the workplace. We grab a few moments alone with Him, walk away buoyed; and then, whether we work inside or outside of home, our peace seems to evaporate like steam from a latte. With our job’s constant barrage of demands and decisions, we can forget Who’s in control and allow the events of the day to dictate our thoughts, unhindered and unanchored.
But what if I could remember to keep God’s perspective at the forefront of my mind? How might it affect my attitude, my emotional outlook, even my job performance?
Philippians 4:8 offers a practical prescription for maintaining a godly perspective throughout the workday:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things Philippians 4:8
Notice how many characteristics there are in Paul’s encouragement? That’s right, eight. As in 9-to-5. So the next day, I decided to jump on one of Paul’s thought elevators every hour.
The first hour, I ran my thoughts through a filter of truth, like fresh-squeezed orange juice through a strainer, separating out the seeds of distortion and discontent. Is this situation really as dire as I believe? Or is it merely an obstacle to be overcome?
Next hour: noble. Now that’s not a word you run across often these days. I found it in the quiet dignity of the employee who sanitizes the office twice a day. Her knees hurt, but she cleans without complaint, pausing with a funny story or a kind word for everyone. I saw a noble servant’s heart, having “the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
The exercise became a game of hide-and-seek: where would I find the attribute of the hour? About noon, I struggled to find anything lovely in my stark, industrial workplace. So I looked out the window at a modest bush across the parking lot, flecked with cheerful crimson blossoms that I’d never noticed before. My heart did a little happy dance.
By the end of the day, I had recaptured many negative thoughts and redirected them, setting “my mind on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).
Wherever your job takes you, you can transform your place of work into a place of worship as you set your thoughts into the context of God’s Word.
Try the Philippians 9-to-5 challenge and see how God blesses your day!
Lord God, Your Word can be such a practical guide! Thank You for the peace that flows as we focus on Your kingdom and take our thoughts captive in obedience to Christ. Help us to be intentional and creative, turning our workplace into a holy place with thoughts that honor You, blessing all those around us.
Buster started to take a little longer than usual to haul his brindled body from bed each morning. And his “Mom-and-Dad-Are-Home-From-Work!” happy dance just didn’t have the same zest. Given the choice of lying around and—oh, pretty much anything else—he’d do his bath rug imitation. Occasionally, though he could still work up enthusiasm for a game of catch.
Sure, he was nearly eleven, but I wasn’t ready for him to collect his doggie gold watch just yet.
“Do you think there’s something wrong with him?” I asked my husband, stroking Buster’s silky ears.
“No. He’s just getting old and lazy. Maybe he needs a buddy. Another dog to perk him up.”
Buster had been an “only dog” for nearly all his life. As empty nesters, we had installed the good-natured rescue mutt at the center of our small universe. I worried: would we be able to find an appropriate companion for him? Could he even adjust to another dog at this late stage? Were we doing the right thing?
The next week, we went to the animal shelter—sans Buster. A youngish male Beagle or Lab mix might be just the thing, we thought…five or six years old with plenty of energy but well beyond puppyhood. Not too large and certainly not one of those annoying, yappy small dogs.
I shot up a quick prayer as we entered the gate: how on earth would we know which dog would be a fit? We explained the situation to a helpful volunteer in a green vest, who gave us a cheerful smile and said, “I know just the one!”
My husband raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and followed her to a nearby enclosure. Inside, was an overweight, geriatric female Chihuahua with poor vision and worse teeth.
“This is Bonnie,” the aide gestured with a flourish. “She’s only been here a few days, but she’s a real sweetheart. Her owners were quite elderly and could no longer take care of her.” Dubious, I took a tentative step towards the pooch.
“Hi Bonnie,” I said, putting my hand close to her white muzzle.
Like an animated sausage, Bonnie wriggled her fat blonde body and wagged her short tail, trying to lick my fingers through the metal mesh, elated that her new mother and father had finally arrived.
“Dear?” I turned to my husband with a look of desperation. It was a no-kill shelter, but I just couldn’t leave the poor little thing in that cage. Bonnie was still optimistic and eager, unlike most of the dogs who had been there longer. She just wanted to go home.
Assured that we could return Bonnie should she and Buster not get along, we committed to the adoption (along with an astronomic future dental bill) and took her to meet her new brother.
Buster gave her a perfunctory sniff and meandered away, unfazed.
Later, after they played the equivalent of canine rock-paper-scissors for dominance (Buster won, barely), Bonnie settled in to her new surroundings, while Buster adjusted to the change in his, a bit perplexed but accepting.
Responding to a caring environment and new fitness regimen, Bonnie blossomed, surprisingly healthy for twelve years old. Like a pebble in your shoe or a pesky little sister, she did her job well, shaking Buster from his lethargy and provoking him to activity again.
There was just one problem. Bonnie turned out to be one of those yappy small dogs that we had always disparaged. (God does have a sense of humor.)
Whenever she was excited or anxious, Bonnie whined. Incessantly. From bird-like chirps to high-pitched wails, her oversized emotions manifested in decibels that should have come with a warning label. Dinner? Leash? Car ride? Owner returning home? Dog, human, or wind-blown bag crossing her field of view? All prompted eardrum-rupturing yelps, yips, whimpers, and squeals. Bonnie’s avatar is a tea kettle.
Eventually training, time, and the warm blanket of security have muffled the intensity of her auditory assaults. We’ve adapted, as well, learning to laugh at her funny inflections: tones that rise like a question or drop in disgust like a sullen teenager who has to be home by 10:00.
The irritating but lovable interloper has turned out to be exactly what our family needed. My pets have taught me many things, but especially this: it’s never too late for a new adventure, an opportunity to grow and learn and change. At the end of the day, I smile as Buster and Bonnie settle into their matching beds, content in this season together.
Oh, the cluelessness of youth. I cringe now.
In my defense, I didn’t have much context for understanding the aging process. My compact world consisted mostly of people who looked like me. I was Normal. My siblings and friends were Normal. My grandparents were Old. My parents? Well, they were timeless, like a sequoia.
In the rare moments that I thought about the difference between the elderly and myself, I saw them as other. A separate species. The species of Old. You were either Old or you were Not Old. People who were Old had somehow always been Old. That was their kind. In my robust ignorance, I could no more identify with their strange physical appearance than I could a mollusk or mole.
As a young adult, I recall meeting a cheerful woman at church who had deep vertical lines on the left side of her face. Shocked, I thought, “How on earth did that happen? How could she have let herself get like that?” I was sure she had made a conscious decision—or at least neglected a critical element of self-care—that allowed the wrinkles to form on one side of her face.
Father, forgive me. After more than four decades behind a steering wheel, I now have vertical lines forming on the left side of my face, where the sun has beat down on it many more times as driver than passenger. I can almost hear God chuckling.
When my husband and I were newlyweds, our neighbor, Dolly, was an octogenarian who had never married. Shy and sweet, she always wore a tidy dress, faux pearls at her neck, and a snowy white up-do. I sensed even then that Dolly was not old, but rather a young woman who had just lived a long time.
My dad and I had many conversations about the issue of aging when he was in assisted living near my home. At 88 with encroaching memory loss, he looked in bemusement at his deteriorating body, wondering—as I had—what had happened.
He spread his life-worn hands out before him, turning them this way and that. “I don’t feel old,” he observed.
No one does.
According to the Harvard Business Review (Your Messaging to Older Audiences Is Outdated, by Hal Hershfield and Laura Carstensen, July 2, 2021), “Most older people refer to ‘older people’ in the third person…they report feeling subjectively younger than they actually are. Seventy-year-olds report feeling as much as 15 to 20% younger than their chronological age.”
The reality is our bodies age gradually but inexorably. Even the most rigorous fitness and beauty regimen can only stave off the inevitable for a time. Yet inside, our spirits remain engaged, curious, vibrant. I believe that’s because we were designed for eternity; and as our bodies no longer look, work, or feel like they “should,” our soul leans into it, like a horse straining against bit and bridle towards home.
In a quote (sometimes attributed to C.S. Lewis), author George Macdonald wrote, “Never tell a child, ‘You have a soul.’ Teach him, ‘You are a soul; you have a body.’ …The body is but the temporary clothing of the soul.”
Old, young, or somewhere in the messy continuum between, we can look into the eyes of another and connect to one like us. We’ll find beauty, kinship, and—perhaps—a hint of eternity.
We should have foreseen it. A few miles after turning off the interstate, we found ourselves in the middle of a cellular black hole. No Internet. No emails, no texts, no calls. And definitely no social media.
We’d been on a business road trip, driving across country to visit customers for the first time since lock-down. As my husband drove, I was in full working mode, dashing off quotes, fielding calls, shooting instructions to my assistant.
And then all of a sudden, I wasn’t.
The county where we were headed had one claim to fame: its impressive inverse ratio of population to square miles. The seat had fewer than 100 residents. Yet they had need of our product, so we’d made an appointment to stop by.
Sidelined from productivity, I was forced to look up and outside my window at the spectacular, southwestern scenery. Terra cotta-colored buttes pushing up from acres of high desert scrub land, uninhabited except for the occasional grazing cow or horse. Wispy, ash-blonde grasses undulated in the easterly breeze as rambunctious seed-puffs skittered gleefully across the two-lane highway. Perky cliques of Black-eyed Susans gossiped, and scrubby dark evergreens—pinyon pine and juniper—freckled the face of modest hills that grew more assertive as the elevation climbed.
After a few reflexive attempts to check my electronics, I rested my hands quietly in my lap and felt the stress melt away from my mind and muscles as they absorbed the soul-nourishing beauty and its silence but for the wind rushing by.
I smiled at my husband. He smiled back.
The trip's only drama was when a shiny red snake slithered across the road, making the tactical mistake of pausing midway to consider his options, which at that point became regrettably limited.
Nearing our destination, a couple of cell towers rose in the distance. I took a glance at my phone, only to find that our carrier had apparently not felt the region worthy of its infrastructure, leaving it to the competition. Off-grid confirmed, I slipped the impotent device back into my purse and breathed thanks for the gift of this moment.
When we arrived, we asked for our point of contact, who had apparently been called out of state on a family emergency. Would we like to wait for 20 minutes for someone else?
“Why not?” we said, embracing our temporary vacation, sipping hot coffee and taking in the tiny town’s quaint pride in their centennial celebration, boasting a logo contest and plans for a parade of decorated automobiles, tractors, and horses. We wandered the grounds and observed the humble goings-on: passing pick-up truck drivers stopping mid-street for genial conversation. A pair of outraged goldfinches chasing off a crow. A barking hound tethered just out of range of the little terrier his owner scooped up in her arms as she walked by.
Our substitute contact point turned out to be the mayor, who arrived shortly in his own pick-up truck, dressed in scuffed cowboy boots and a ball cap. The town had a legitimate problem that our products could help address, so we launched into a discussion of possible solutions, which he interrupted for a moment to take a call. His ringtone was literally the sound of crickets.
I was in no hurry to wrap up our respite and return to “civilization” with its raucous demands and constant stimulus. For all its benefits, my digital existence had crowded out the simple delights of the natural world around me, and I hadn’t felt its crushing weight until it was lifted in that brief reprieve.
I was purely present. And purely happy.
Shuttle driver. Doctor. Janitor. Fellow resident. Everyone who encountered my dad heard the same story.
“I’ve got five great kids,” he’d boast, holding up his hand, fingers spread apart like exclamation marks. “Four daughters,” he’d say, carefully folding the fingers over, leaving a hitchhiker’s thumb—missing half its nail since that last power tool incident— “and one son. Five great kids and not a lemon in the bunch!”
If you lingered, he would slowly recite the names, sometimes struggling but never failing to come up with all five.
Though he’s been gone for several years, my sister and I still marvel at the miracle of this man we call “New Dad.”
The father we were more familiar with was driven: a scientist and entrepreneur, always chasing the next invention that would make him a millionaire and silence the “never-good-enough” inner voice of the boy who grew up, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. Other than the occasional memorable bout of paternal discipline, he left the child-rearing to our mother while he focused on business and loomed large but inaccessible in the periphery of domestic life.
It wasn’t until Alzheimer’s slowly and decisively shut the door on his ambitions that our dad was transformed—in the best way. Stripped of his dreams, his car, home, health, and even his wife of 63 years, New Dad emerged with gradual acceptance, twinkle-eyed humor, and a buoyant love for family that rose like a submerged beach ball, impossible to keep down.
Tragedy and redemptive beauty sometimes walk side-by-side. When all else is lost, love remains, triumphant.
You and your siblings haven't worked together as a team since the oldest packed up her VW and drove off to college. Now with your parents no longer able to manage independently, you have become responsible for managing their care. Studies have shown that sibling discord can be one of the greatest sources of interpersonal stress in elder caregiving.
Whether you get along well or simply tolerate each other, now's the time to set aside your differences and work together to support your aging parents.
To read more, check out my article in Long Term Care News: www.ltcnews.com/articles/columns/she-started-it-no-she-started-it