Sugar Cookies at the Pentagon

Flowers floating beneath one of the benches at the Pentagon Memorial.

“Get over being a sugar cookie.” That’s what Admiral William H. McRaven says in his book, Make Your Bed. McRaven is a retired Navy SEAL and his simple book of truisms about living rang in my ears this September 11 as I stood in front of the Pentagon staring at the point of impact from Flight 77.

An American flag marking the point of impact on the Pentagon.

Life isn’t fair. In SEAL training you are “called out” for no apparent reason and required to dive into the ocean and then roll on the beach until every inch of your body and uniform is covered in sand. Then, you spend the rest of your day with those annoying grains itching and poking at you. That’s a sugar cookie.

On business trips to Washington I always take the Metro from Reagan International to downtown D.C.  I hear the Pentagon stop announced over the speaker each time, never giving it much thought. I gave it a lot of thought as I rode the train this September 11. And I got off.

Life is short. And it’s not fair. So I stopped.

The date and time of of the plane crash mark the zero line. The first bench is for the 3-year-old that died on the plane.

The Pentagon Memorial is a collection of swooping benches. One for each of the 184 people that died that day. The benches swooping toward the building are for those that died on the plane. The benches swooping away from the building are for those who died in the building. Fresh flowers adorned the seats and floated in the small pools of trickling water beneath each bench.

The fanfare of the morning ceremony was being cleaned up when I arrived. Workers were wheeling away speakers and stage gear. I wandered among the age lines marking the year of birth for each victim. The youngest was 3. The oldest, in her 80s.

A woman approached me and asked if I could help find Hilda Taylor, a sixth grade teacher, and her friend, who had died on the plane that day. I asked her what year Hilda was born and we walked to the appropriate age line to begin our search.

As we sat together on Hilda’s bench, her former teammate dug in her purse and pulled out an article written about Hilda for me to read. She filled in between the lines and told me about the real Hilda…the one with spunk…the immigrant from Sierra Leone who always spoke her mind…the one who loved her students.

As I heard her story unfold for the next 30 minutes, the benches around me all became people–each with a story and a life worth remembering.

All the survivors I saw and met that day had to roll in the unfair sand and move on, just like we all do when tragedy strikes. They have to live with being a sugar cookie, as those annoying grains poke at them again today on September 12…and every other day.

Communing with Goats

I hear the term “communing with nature” a lot. But I never really thought about what it meant until last week when I had a conversation with a mountain goat. My walks and bike rides in nature are more than exercise for me. They always have been. They’re spiritual. But I’m not sure I can say I commune with rocks,  mountains, and trees. I would call that more deep awe and appreciation of the world, as I commune with God.

Commune: share one’s intimate thoughts or feelings with (someone or something), especially when the exchange is on a spiritual level.

But last week on the top of Peak 9 in Breckenridge, Colorado, I communed, with nature itself. As I neared the summit, a mountain goat was also ascending. He took his place at the summit and stood his ground.  Though at the top, I was not at the true summit. He stood where I needed to be to finish my goal. About 12 ft from me, we stared at each other along the ridge. He began moving toward me. I put my head down, acknowledging it was his mountain and stepped to the side of the ridge, offering him a path to walk by me. As if he knew my intention, he walked right by and stood at the other end of the ridge, waiting for me to take my turn at the top.

My new friend “Bucky” standing at the summit of Peak 9.

After a couple pictures and a look around, he looked at me again and made it clear it was time to switch places and time for me to leave.  It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’ve seen a lot of wildlife. Studied them. Watched them. But never talked to them. Never had a friendly conversation and a civil exchange of intentions.

My new friend waits on the other side of the ridge while I take my summit photos and claim my prize.

In those moments I remembered this wasn’t my first experience with goats and high places.  I was reminded of my trip to Greece many years ago, where my journey led me to the highest heights in Crete. While backpacking, I was left dehydrated and tired one night only to awaken to the what sounded like fairies singing. The fairies were actually the bells jingling around the necks of  goats, and unbeknownst to me, I was asleep in their pen. The water I drank from their well that morning saved me.

My goat herd alarm clock in Crete (1992) , leading me to water (left). Standing at the summit (right) now hydrated and able to find a way down.

There’s something incredible about being so close to the sky. So close to heaven–heaven on Earth. An Eden, where the lion lies down with the lamb. Or in this case, the human with the goat.

After my time at summits, I sadly must always descend. It is over all too quickly.  The reality of the fall hits me hard…back down the mountain I go. Still communing, but with a harsh reality facing gravity and its less than gentle push forward.

But I’m so grateful for my time at the top. Thanks for the peek at heaven, my fluffy friends!

Ripping Off the Band-Aid on a Mom’s Heart

Love in the Band-Aids.

Moms have it rough. Dads, too. But I can only speak from the mom POV. You don’t understand your mom until you are one—what it is to love someone so much and be so helpless when your kids are suffering. Love so strong you would gladly take their pain in trade. When children are small you can take them to doctors. You can put on Band-Aids. You can help them with homework. But when big problems happen, the things that Band-Aids and math flash cards won’t fix, we are left abandoned with emotions almost too hard to bear–especially when the world around us judges our momabilities from a point of view of complete and utter misunderstanding. You must stuff your emotions deep where the world can’t see them and courageously wear them only as scars on your heart.

  • What do you do when your child spends the first seven years of school either under a desk or banished to the corner of the classroom?
  • What do you do when your middle schooler spends three years paralyzed by OCD and can’t participate in any of the activities he used to love?
  • What do you do when your child tells you he doesn’t think he’ll live past 14?
  • Or when your kids are wrongly accused and punished for actions they DIDN’T take?
  • Or when they are punished and ostracized for actions they DID take?
  • Or when your child is so mad at the world that he is mad at you —the person who probably loves him the most?
  • Or when your kid’s lifelong dream of military service is crushed by injury?

You worry. You treat. You advocate. You helplessly advise. You seek help. You cry. You cry. You cry.

  • And what do you do when years later your son hands you a fluffy stuffed sheep, for no particular occasion, and tells you he thought of you when he saw it?
  • Or when your child profusely thanks you for grilling pork chops after a long work shift?

You cry. You cry. You cry. And you rip the Band-Aid off your heart and see that the scar doesn’t look quite as bad as it once did.

Your kids only know the childhood they lived through. They don’t compare it to the one in their mom’s dreams —the one where they were high-fived by a soccer team, or had a best friend, or went to camp like other kids. They only know their childhood. The one you held their hands through and made the best of. It’s the only one they’ve experienced. And they only know their mom, for better or worse, the only one they ever had.

Embracing Failure

basketball

The hoop of life looks a bit like this after you’ve been shooting for so long. This is a good hoop.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
                                                                                                   –Michael Jordan

Failure has followed me around. And as I wallowed around in it again the last few days, I came across this quote from Michael Jordan and realized it was so true. Really true. When you take the risk to shoot the ball 9000 times, you are sure to miss quite a few. The more games you play the more chances you have of failing…but, on the flip side, the more practice you get, the more you learn, and the more you grow.  Growth is success. Not necessarily a job well done. Not always a swish. Instead, a backstop bouncing miss with five rebounds before you get it in the net.

I’m playing so many games right now that some shots are just going to be air balls. And I have learned this week that I need to give myself a little grace in the missed shot because I can’t stop playing. The stakes are too high and people are too important.

Busy People, Thank You

Be careful! Watching this video may give you an ear worm you may never ever forgive me for. I’ve had it stuck in my head for 23 years — ever since my kids were toddlers and watched Richard Scarry’s Best Busiest People Video over and over. Every now and then the theme song resurfaces and I can’t stop singing it.  Today was one of those days.

When people normally say they are “busy” it has a negative connotation. It is often another word for stressed or unavailable. But not to author Richard Scarry.  No. Busy Town is filled with lots of busy people. And they are all soooooo happy to be working. They all play their part in making life work for each other….and they do it with a smile. Today, I was in Busy Town, thanks a lot to my scooter (a.k.a. the Blackberry Blast).  There is something special about riding a scooter…something different from riding a bicycle. You notice different things. Busy things.  You really sit up and take notice of the rest of the working world.

Normally, commuting in the Cranberry Crush I am in my own zone, listening to my self-constructed playlist for my self-constructed life.  But on my scooter I become part of the working landscape. I talked to the construction workers and thanked them for paving the road. It was so smooth to ride on. Thanks, busy people.  I chatted with the gas station lady, who gave me a free cup of ice. Thanks, busy people. I talked to the security guard at the gate for my office as he stuck his head out to say hello. Thanks, busy people. I conversed with another motorcyclist at a stoplight on his way to work. And a person in a car smiled and gave me a big wave to let me go first at an intersection. I felt like I was in Busy Town. Suddenly, people weren’t just shadows of themselves behind a piece of glass, they were Richard Scarry’s busy people.

When I arrived at the camp I’m volunteering at this week, there were hoards of more smiling busy people. Busy snack people. Busy game people. Busy music people. Busy, busy people. And not in the Stepford Wives kind of way….in the Richard Scarry way. Sweet. Kind. Patient. Real.

Today, I’m glad to work in Busy Town. Not a bad place to be.

Lemonade with Friends

I had the pleasure of having lunch with an old friend.  What to do with all our lemons?  Cheers! Just feeling glad I can share lemons with you.

Lemonade

by Trish Cozart

When life gives you lemons
They say
Make lemonade
Lemonade?
I don’t even like lemonade
There isn’t an aid
That can turn lemons into something
Not lemony
Watered down
Sugared-up
Sourness

Life gave him lemons
He threw them
Hard
Hard lemonade

Life gave her lemons
She pretended
Lemons were good
They weren’t

Life gave sugar water
To some
Or so it seems

Be glad you have lemons
Lemons are a gift
Lemons are your fault
Lemons are not that bad
Just add sugar and water
 

But…I don’t even like lemonade.

 

 

 

Bottles and Hugs — Onward Toward the Midline

It is my 49th birthday and the beginning of my 50th year on this Earth. Twelve months. 365 days. 52 weeks. 8760 hours until I cross the midline. The big countdown has begun.

I was sitting on my back porch with fireworks going off all around me last night. America was celebrating independence. I was wondering what exactly I was celebrating.  Life, I suppose. Another year of it.

I started wondering if I could recall every year of my life and summarize in one thought what was meaningful or significant to me that year. It was harder to do than it seemed. Try it. Some years are just so life-changing they overshadow all the others. For me those years were 1979, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2013. The years in between were really just surviving or enjoying the repercussions of the events from the “significant” years. I’m hoping 2017 makes the list. I don’t really want another survival year. When next year comes and I actually do cross the symbolic midline, I want to be able to say, “Wow! 2017 changed my life.”

A portion of that change is in my control, but still, being master of your own destiny is a lie.  The very laws of nature are always against us as we try desperately to organize a disorganized system. Think about it. The very first thing we do when we enter this world is cry. The rest of the time we try to pacify ourselves with a bottle or a hug —stuff that makes us happy or love from others.  And because we live in community with others, we also have the responsibility of being a provider of bottles and hugs.

So, what to do with the next 365 days?

Love more. Live more. Give more.

More bottles and hugs FOR me, and most importantly, FROM me. That just may be how this year will make the list.

Stubborn Beauty

Beautiful even in death, this gnarly tree reached out its arms as a greeting, or possibly a warning, on my way to Lincoln Lake near Mt. Evans.

I’m always delighted and often surprised by the surroundings on hikes in my native Rocky Mountains. It is a rare day when a rushing rill or a sneaky squirrel doesn’t touch my heart and lighten my spirit. Today, it was death that amazed me. The death of trees burned in a fire. A burn area with remarkable trees—trees that refused to lay down their lives. Rather than pathetic scorched snags or trunks littering the ground, what remained were beautiful brown cores with scraggly branches forever reaching out —like the arms of lovers on John Keats’ Grecian urn.

“With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
–from John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn

Living trees give mankind shelter, food, and medicine, and thus, have long provided us with symbolic and metaphorical fodder for life. Yet not in life, but in death, did these trees leave me a poetic freeze-frame.  The stubborn branches whispered as I walked by: Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Cast in the shadow of a cloud, you can see how trees like these could conjure up the likeness of monsters or mystical beings. It is easy to see where Tolkien came up with Ents–tree creatures in Lord of the Rings.

48-Hour South Dakota Soul Safari

The sunrise greets the guardians of our campground, the American Bison.

It never ceases to amaze me what is possible to see and feel in less than 48 hours. Leaving Denver at 6:45 AM and returning the next evening at  6:00 PM, I managed to feel like I’d been far, far away on a soul safari. Wide open spaces and crepuscular moments will do that for you.

In an attempt to not let this summer slip away like last summer, I packed up the Cranberry Crush with her new tent and headed to South Dakota, a place I visited countless times as a child, but had never truly appreciated as an adult.

My experience blew me away. Not only did I see more than 100 pronghorn antelope (one with its two babies dancing merrily around it), I also saw wild turkeys, prairie dogs, bison, bighorn sheep, and  mountain goats. And I was sung to sleep by the howls of coyotes and the yips of their pups trying to imitate mom and dad. I’ve seen all of these animals before, but not quite like this — and not together. The wide open prairies in a National Park are magical. No fences. No houses. Just animals (and lots of them) roaming about as they wish.

Probably the most moving of all was the peaceful coexistence of camper and bison. The bison seemed to guard the campground. They owned it. And we all kept our respectable distance when they wandered through. Twice on my early morning mountain bike ride, I had to stop and wait for a bison to move before I could continue or wait for a car to come by so I could ride next to it for protection. When 2,000 pounds of bison are between you and your destination, you find another way.

Another spectacular crepuscular moment–sunset at the Sage Creek campground.

I was the first to leave the campground (on my mountain bike) and after carefully dodging bison and a swirling tornado of swallows, I was greeted by wild turkeys at this overlook in the Badlands.

I was moved by the beauty of the land and its creatures. But as I  hiked the popular Notch Trail in Badlands National Park, I was surprised at my emotional reaction as I saw a group of people coming toward us on the trail. They had just come up the steep ladder section and were traversing the narrow trail with a drop off to one side.

Boy Scouts. I knew it immediately.

My husband and I didn’t even need to discuss it. We’d both been around Boy Scouts for so long we can spot a troop a mile away. The boys at the front of the group were skipping over the rocks with ease and getting their buddies to take funny pictures. But as I kept going I witnessed something even more wonderful. The leaders, all three, were at the back of the group helping out one boy who was clearly scared of heights. With gentle encouragement they gave him pointers and blocked his “look down.” I was surprised by my reaction. As soon as I passed the four of them, I couldn’t breath. My heart was in my throat and I felt tears start to well up. My desire to work with youth has always been about this very moment. When I see, in action, adults walking alongside youth during their trials, failures, and successes— it hits me hard and it fires my passion for doing what I do. I was so glad to witness a bit of human nature as beautiful as the spires of rock around us.

My husband looks back at the ladder we climbed to get to the Notch Trail overlook.

An overlook of millions of years of geologic history is always a good way to end the day.

And my trip would not have been complete without a visit to Mt. Rushmore and to Rapid City, birthplace of my mom, and home to my great grandparents.  In a town full of summer tourists, I found my way out to sacred places that mattered most to me and brought them all home, tucked inside as precious memories.

Chapel of the Hills, an exact reproduction of the famous Borgund Stavkirke of Laerdal, Norway, is just a bike ride away down Rapid City, South Dakota’s main city pedestrian path. The meditation trail hidden behind the chapel offers a quite respite.

The last of the original historic terraces, looking out to Mt. Rushmore. Most of the original visitor infrastructure, including the visitor’s center and platform designed by my great grandfather, have been torn out and replaced. You can still see it, though if you watch Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

My great grandparents lived in this little house in Rapid City well into their 90s. I can still picture my great grandma sitting in a metal chair on the front porch in her lightweight, summer flower-print dress reciting funny poems and rhymes to me.

Everything Changes

“Mud season” in the mountains — fewer people and an evolving glacial landscape marks time for me.

Some things never change. Not true. Everything changes. Some things just change at a glacial pace. No where helps me grasp this more than my frequent stays in  Breckenridge, Colorado—a town and environment I’ve watched change slowly over my entire life. I’ve watched Uncle Frank’s house turn into the Starbucks on Main Street. I’ve watched ski tickets go from $12 to $120.  I’ve watched restaurants make it and break it. I’ve watched my children turn from toddlers to men.

My sons named this magical place Rock Island more than 15 years ago. It is still the place they run to first when we visit Breckenridge.

Time changes everything. Sometimes we mourn the loss. Other times we rejoice in the new.  As I spent a crepuscular moment this Mother’s Day dawn sitting by a new beaver dam, I was giddy with excitement. I’ve never been able to examine a beaver dam so close before. It was remarkable. Those industrious rodents completely changed the landscape. They made  a whole new environment for a host of other creatures to inhabit. As much as I wanted to see a beaver, I knew my chances were slim, but I was able to watch a muskrat dart happily in and out of his home along the bank.

A stellar crepuscular moment and an amazing change to the stream on the way to Rock Island.

Changes sometimes happen so slowly they are hard to recognize, like the snow eroding away the mountains. Other times they are shockingly quick and life-altering, like this dam. I felt both today, as my feet post-holed into melting snow near Crystal Lake and as I listened to my grown sons now navigate their lives in their own way—a way that will change mine forever. I’m swimming in a new pond. It’s a pond they built for me. It’s different here. Everything changes.

This muskrat (crepuscular) takes advantage of the new pond created by his friend the beaver (nocturnal).

starbucks

It’s still a house, but it’s no longer a home.