You Snooze, Maybe You Don’t Lose

I missed it.

Fifteen years ago, a friend and I trekked in the beautiful snow white Sierras toward Tamarack Ridge alongside a group of experienced snow campers. We were wearing snowshoes, and it was the earliest of Spring. The plan was to camp in tents overnight. Secretly, as a rookie snow camper and likely not going to repeat the experience, I was most excited about enjoying the view from the ridge at sunrise the next morning.

As we neared the campsite, my cheeks ached from beaming with crinkled eyes while observing the snow covered pines along the way, each cluster of needles blanketed by thick miniature piles of white. Our snowshoes crunched beneath us, leaving deep prints to mark our arrival before anyone else since the last snowfall. This is what what life is all about, I confirmed to myself. Clean, crisp air…blue skies overhead, good friends…the exertion of the mild hike pumping the blood joyfully through my veins, as it should.

By the time we reached the ridge, the sun was about to set, so our guides began shoveling a deep trench of about 3 or 4 feet which would serve as our “kitchen”. Meanwhile, the rest of us pitched our tents and pulled on more layers of protection in anticipation for the evening’s chill. I remember wishing I’d done a little more research on the best socks for such an adventure, as my feet were already cold.

Later we gathered together to share a meal under the crystal clear night sky, and brilliant show-stopping stars slowly arrived on their stage of indigo deep. My eyes were glued to their mysterious blinks and twinkles as I ate my simple dinner of chicken and potatoes wrapped in foil. Glad, I was, for a hot, decent meal—but nature is nature, and when you’re not really starving it can be the most stunning force of attraction.

Soon enough it was time to climb into our tents and snuggle deep inside sleeping bags meant for colder weather. Again, I thought of my lack of consumer knowledge as I wished my bag insulated me better than the cellophane that it felt like. However, my socks and sleeping bag were warm enough that I wasn’t in danger. Between my excitement of the coming sunrise among the heavenly snow scene surrounding me and rubbing my feet together trying to warm them, I slept a little.

Until my head flew up when I heard the zip of my tent, whereupon my friend had come to check on me. I lay my head down again, burying it under my pillow like a bear cub to its mother and mumbled something about me getting up in a minute. But my brain caught up with my eyes as it belatedly processed the view behind his shadow. A flash of blue.

I shot up, a rogue rocket bumping her head on the dome of nylon and polyester. Pulling on my glasses, I squinted into the aquamarine eyes of my traitor friend. For I was as mad at him as I was at myself. He did not come by to wake me up, to see the blend of indigo meet gold, to hear the night creatures salute the day creatures as each respectively retreated and appeared.

But neither had I woke myself up. The morning had already begun without me. My lack of speech went unnoticed as he happily chattered from the tent’s zipper that he didn’t want to disturb my sleep, but oh what a glorious morning it had been for him admiring the view from the ridge of night turned to day.

In a move quite unlike my normal character, I hushed him mid-sentence as I hastily zipped up the tent fast as I could, nearly catching the head on his hair in my haste. He on the outside, me on the inside, all I could hear now was the other campers talking yards away and the disappointment in my heart—my very soul—in not seeing what I had come to see. I huffed a few times while I stared at the thin, burnt orange walls of my shelter.

My soul thrives on the fantastic, intriguing beauty of the earth and too little do I see, hear, smell, touch, and taste of it. Encased in four walls of occupational obligation on a regular basis, sadly it’s not every day I go snow camping or see a sunrise…or even see a sunset for that matter.

So when given the opportunity, it’s a rare spectacular thing for me to explore and experience the wonder of nature. To inhale the scented redwoods, to experience rain in sunlight even as the fire warms…to walk along cold sandy beaches with white foam being birthed from translucent ocean waves…those are extraordinary memories. And this one I missed.

But I am in charge of me, and I could have set an alarm. I mean, I was not the early riser back then, and even though now I love to wake up in the morning early it is still quite the battle. So even as I heard his sturdy Timberlands back away in confusion, I knew I could not be mad at him. I’d never even mentioned my sunrise ambitions. I could only be mad at me. I tried to console myself by taking note that the sun “truly” rises in the East, anyway…right?

Grabbing my fleece beanie in one hand, I tugged the tent zipper down with the other.

“Wait!” I called. The others, holding steaming cups of coffee in blue freckled tin mugs, turned to look. My cheeks warmed with the realization that I was, indeed, the last one up.

My sidekick smiled at me, my rudeness forgiven in a glance, and nodded toward the ridge’s drop off.

“Let me show you.”

I followed his footsteps to get closer to what my eyes were already drinking in. Where the ridge ended, and sky and view of valley should have been, a puffy blanket of white tricked me into thinking the snow we stood upon extended further out, as far as the eye could see.

Above was only sky, the color of the blue gingham pinafore Dorothy wore in The Wizard of Oz. The sun shone mid-sky, already tempting the snow around us to rest a little softer. All of this I saw at once, and all of this caught my breath, suspended and eager, ready to dance with the air the minute I exhaled again. It was like I imagined heaven to be.

For a few more silent moments I felt with my eyes, and then turned and looked at my nature-loving pal who grinned back at me in understanding. Not saying a word, we sat in tandem right where we were, a few feet apart, each feeling more alive than ever because of the shivery white beneath our snow pants.

Leaving that day, I stayed in contented silence for most of the peaceful trail back to the parking lot. Instead of grinning like the day before, I smiled soft while humming worship tunes. Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, Open the eyes of my heart…I want to see You. The realization hit me that sometimes when I miss the things I set out to do, it’s not all opportunity lost. Sometimes even better memories come along.

Actually, that’s pretty much guaranteed. All I have to do is shut off the disappointment and open my eyes to what is around me. Not only that, but it gives me a hopeful eagerness toward the future of still catching a snowy sunrise…someday. And that inspires more hope within me, of which I can never get enough of.

At least that’s what I learned that beautiful morning.

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Broccoli Bird

My breath…I can feel it finally returning from a few weeks lost. Caught up, it was, in excitement and self-doubt—too impatient to go deep and swell, too busy to give clarity as it ought to do.  It takes wistful, eclectic Celtic music on a chilly Sunday afternoon to find the rhythm of the air which enters and leaves my lungs, peaceful and long. Staring up at the timid sunlight stripes at the tops of the windows, I pause to be thankful for this solitary moment.

Away from the music, outside, the wind chimes are right on cue to begin their daily two o’clock performance. It makes me wonder about the silky black cat who loiters frequently in our flowerbeds.

As I walk on bare feet from the couch to the back door, I think about the next chapter I’m about to read in a book recommended over at Higher Purpose WritersBird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I’ve peeked ahead to see the next chapter is called “Broccoli”. In the middle of that thought, I rub the bottoms of my feet on the cold hard floor to somehow warm them. On days like these, they miss carpet.

Do I really want to read several pages who introduce themselves as “Broccoli”? The tree-like vegetable is something I simply tolerate out of necessity. Thinking on necessities, I turn the knob on the door leading to the backyard, curious about the cat….believing that after I check on him, I will need water and chocolate. My mind nags that only one of those is truly a necessity, but I don’t have the heart to choose a winner. It will have to be both today. My eyelashes touch the blinds as I spy midnight fur on wood.

Yes! My mind both celebrates and decides at once. Yes, the black cat lounges in the tangled tanbark yet again. The corners of my smile lift higher at the evidence of that small joy. A furry creature is good news, because life itself is always welcome here. Even though we are not cat lovers. His head swivels quickly at the first sound of the door cracking open, only a bit, just enough to peer out with both of my hazel eyes and the tip of my nose. I breathe in cold afternoon sunshine.

Will he come closer today? My breath holds, just like it has for weeks. Waiting, anxious, excited all at once. Like with the writing. We stare each other down….one heartbeat, two…my hope floats as the third and fourth beat pulse silently between us. His yellow green eyes so like mine are fascinated with something in me. He stretches his arms and legs out slowly, eyes still glued to mine—a small victory, as it is a clue that he grows more comfortable near our home. Maybe he is a she. Maybe someday we’ll make introductions. Mike and I would like that. Even if he is cat.

Before my veins pulse for a fifth time, he-she sprints to the intersecting boards where four properties meet. With one swift leap, he is up and over the other side of the fence heading to the place we assume is where he calls home. Today, though, he stops a moment and bends his neck to look backward at me one more time. He stares. I don’t cower. My turf…but I plead with my eyes for him to stay. To add a little mischief and laughter to our forsaken backyard now that Amber has gone. With a slow blink, he reassures me he’ll return. I wave small, hopeful, and pivot back to face Bird by Bird waiting on the arm of my reading chair.

Yes to the broccoli, too, then. Because just like the hope that someday I will pet that cat and be close enough to hear him purr, I want to learn more about writers and how they think. What works and what doesn’t. If I am like them. And with each word, the author draws me in to a sense of familiar and home. She’s already had me whispering yes to her sentence that says “Writing can be a desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”

Hand on the door, pulling it closed, I recall my jaw dropping—like that moment when you realize there’s a surprise birthday party going on and you belatedly realize the party is for you—when on the fifteenth page I read, misty-eyed as it hit me, “Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth.” 

And so, as this adventure of carving out time to write for some kind of meaningful purpose sometimes has me breathless with many emotions, defeat will not be one of them. I’ll even read about broccoli, if need be. As I leave this page to go dive into another, I can’t help but be thankful for music, which leads me to nature, which leads me to cats, which leads me back to learning, which leads me back to writing.

Time, patience…perseverance. Breath.

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Unique Friends

I’ve known silence. Maybe not as oppressively as some. It can be a soothing, needed balm to the soul. It can also be the destination of lonely. Being my mother’s only child, I grew up in a quiet house. I was reading before I ever remember learning how to read. And in my books, I found gateways to worlds I could visit, introducing me to life beyond the walls that knew me. When I wasn’t escaping into fiction, I stared dreamily up at the ceiling as I discovered the power of music. Books and music—lenders of comfort…a comforting joy. My first friends.

I’ve had a few amiable pets throughout my lifetime, but about a dozen years ago, I met the best dog friend ever. A round bellied chocolate lab puppy named Amber, she pranced around the grass in a backyard filled with her already adopted brothers and sisters. She sported a white ring around her tail, which we think may have been the reason why she hadn’t been picked yet. It was down to two, and even though the other puppy left had a perfectly good tail, we chose Amber because she ran straight to Mike when he called for her from across the green, silky autumn grass. Silly people…they missed out on the greatest dog in all the world.

As soon as we brought her home, she dominated her new backyard. Only about twelve inches tall back then, she was, and she made it clear to every bird and squirrel in her dominion that she ruled the roost. “Don’t mess with Amber”, said her little proud stance guarding her backyard world, “and don’t mess with my mom and dad.” That would be us.

She was our little girl…this bouncy, seriously hyper little ball of brown fur. She failed puppy school, she ate a hole in the carpet, and socks cried in fear of her presence knowing they would disappear from the world if she crossed paths with them. We spoiled her. Not a single night did she sleep outdoors. Even when Mike had to stay in the hospital overnight and I stayed with him, the kind neighbors next door took our girl over to their house to sleep inside. She was older by then, taller and full grown…but every bit still the best dog ever.

She was entirely sweet, though, and only gruff when protective. Amber won the medal in our hearts for “Best Companion”. On hard days, she was there to lick the tears which would drip onto my shins as I sat in momentary defeat. When I got ready in the mornings, she was there to supervise my makeup routine, tail whacking rhythmically against the linoleum floor in contented approval. When we went to sleep at night, it was hard not to notice she was there…stubbornly digging in for snuggles on the bed and then trotting off about a half hour later to the couch where she would settle for the night.

Sometimes, I can still hear her nails click clacking on the hard floors. I imagine she’ll slowly meander and stretch her way up to the dishwasher to “help” put the dishes in as always. When the doorbell rings, once in awhile I forgetfully pause and wait for her curious bark.

Oh…my girl.

The day we came home without her was unbearable. Healthy until just a few weeks before she went to heaven, her loss was a shock. Our hearts ripped out of our chests, our shoulders shook with grief. We had known all along we loved her, doted on her, and relied on her for laughs. We had never taken her for granted, knowing the unreasonably short lifespan of dogs. She was family;  she meant the world to us—but we didn’t know just how much until she was gone.

If I were given the option to never know her if it meant we would never experience the pain of losing her, I wouldn’t trade a single day of having her in my life. I can truly say with all my heart that I can relate to Tennyson’s line ” ’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Because of Papa, because of Dad, because of others I have loved…and, yes, because of Amber.

The loss of her friendship was rough. I wasn’t prepared for the thick silence that came with her absence. It was the kind of silence that squeezed my throat and beckoned tears which held my breath captive. The kind of deafening void that compounded the reality of knowing she was really not going to be sitting on the doormat outside the back door waiting patiently to be let in.  The silence that sharply teases with phantom musical shakes of the collared dog tags lost to heaven.

I felt abandoned once again, forsaken. Lost. A dog, yes. But one of my best friends. She filled my afternoons with joy, and was the best secret keeper I had. Funny how we can find such sincere companionship in four-legged creatures. Hard to explain, yet so easy to accept. I had to accept and relearn the silence.

But with her loss, I regained something amazing. I realized that I’d nearly forgotten about the One who was still there with me all along.

One afternoon in late March of this year, eight months after Amber passed away, I’d flung myself onto my bed in overwhelm. My temples pounded a heavy drumbeat while warring against processing a heap of new knowledge that my crowded brain had no room for. I had decisions to make, and uncertainty to conquer. I was mostly happy, yet in that moment I felt exhausted and confused. In need of cheer. In the past, Amber would have sensed my discontent and would’ve burrowed in for a comforting cuddle, or nosed her ball at me to distract me with a game of fetch.

So on that day, without her, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. My Christian textbook answer was prayer. “Time to pray!”, my memory called out to me faintly. I wore the label of knowing Jesus, but when was the last time I really sought Him in prayer for my own tender heart? It had been awhile. I prayed for others, but when was the last time I spent quiet moments sharing with God about my needs? My slowly hardened heart had been filled with assumptions that He didn’t need to hear all about me, when in reality He longs to spend time with us. However, instead of praying, I still just sat idle and contemplated how to overcome this emotional avalanche. On my own. In need of a friend. I was geographically far away from my friends at home, and…

I didn’t have my BFF anymore. Amber.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I searched my mind for a solution. The silence would always be there, loved ones, beloved pets…they would inevitably come and go. Amber had served us well as a happy, loving pet. But I wanted to retain the joy that she brought to us. I needed to have something, Someone to hold onto that would never die. My memory tickled my brain again…“The first, the last…the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13)….and then the words became stronger from the inside, from the deep cellars of my ears, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).  I have believed in Jesus for thirty years, but it had been a long time since I remembered what a friend we have in Him (John 15:15). I remembered that day.

After a long breath, laying there with the words of the familiar bible verses floating around in my mind, clarity unfolded in my heart—a butterfly emerging slowly from its cocoon. A thought had fluttered into my mind—one I knew I could hold onto forever–and I sighed with adoration at the beauty of it. The comfort in it. The silence can be lovely, and not unsettling because we are never truly alone. As dear as they are, friends come and go…but ultimately there is one friend who outshines them all.

And if the love and joy we have from our wonderful friends in our presence and in our memories can feel so good, isn’t the love and joy we can receive from our God and Creator a million times more? Smiling, soul-relieved, I pulled out my hot pink leather journal from the bedside table…the one that boldly says “Amazing things can happen” across the front…and I wrote down six little words which I knew wouldn’t be denied:

“Jesus, will you be my BFF?” 

And then I prayed. I knew Amber would joyfully approve with a great big “Woof!”.

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