An Abundance of Life Shrouded by the Dormancy of Winter

Photo: Shaun C. Williams, Creative commons, some rights reserved https://www.flickr.com/photos/oceanstater/5479815772/in/photostream/

Although I may live in one of the tiniest houses in my suburban Chicago town, the best part about it is its location. What I didn’t realize or really even notice when my husband and I planted roots in our neighborhood sixteen years ago, just a mere two blocks away there exists an 19th century estate, surrounded by an old stone wall reminiscent of those found endlessly lining the lush green fields of Ireland. The best part of this property is that it is adjacent to a beautiful river and long ago was acquired by our county to become part of the forest preserve lands. It wasn’t until five years after moving in, when I took up running, that I first discovered the magical universe that resides on the other side of the stacks of crumbling limestone.

One spring afternoon, entering the preserve through an opening in the wall I had no idea the new world that was about to be opened up to me. The beauty was unbelievable and there was so much to discover—forests of enormous old trees, a plethora of enchanting wildlife, a perfectly manicured Japanese garden, interesting architectural structures and gates leading to paths along the river for miles and miles with bridges that connect to the other side. Crossing over to the Eastern shore, there are bubbling streams to be found which flow into and feed the river and an old windmill that sits high on a hill reminding all of days gone by.

Very quickly, it became apparent to me that this was my happy place and I couldn’t imagine how it was that I had lived without it for so many years of my life. On the days I was able to carve out time for a run, the very minute I crossed the street and entered the forest, it was as if the burdens of everyday life were lifted and I experienced a sense of freedom and deep connectivity. Here, surrounded by alluring sights and sounds, I felt able to think and see and hear more clearly. Here I felt able to connect deeply to the One who had, it seemed. created it all to delight my body, mind and soul. These encounters we had in this Cathedral of Creation returned me to myself and connected me to a sense of my purpose. Such extravagant displays of nature in spring, summer and autumn led me to embrace the belief in our collective belovedness before our Creator.

Though hibernation remained a daily temptation every winter, I sought to continue some semblance of an active running schedule throughout the cold days. My great sadness, however, was the forest paths became most difficult and treacherous to navigate. The fear of twisting an ankle or enduring another ice-related injury that could end my active life kept me playing it safe on the plowed and salted streets of town. These runs which led me past houses and cars and stores never provided the same sense of freedom and connectivity that my beloved forest and river always did. Running along the road adjacent to the forest preserve, I would peer lovingly at the trees inside the forest, longing to immerse myself in their shelter and glory. I dreamed of the first days of spring when I could once again breach the wall and find all to be well with my soul.

This past fall, as colder and shorter days were approaching, I knew I needed to figure out a way to continue to immerse myself in this Cathedral of Creation even throughout the winter. There were some new challenges I was facing on the daily and without the perspective so generously imparted by the immersion in nature, I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with them. After much thought, research and reflection, I made the decision to bring my running inside to the gym a few days a week and committed myself to walking outside a couple more. It is surprisingly easy to stay warm while running outside in the winter, but walking the 5 1/2 mile loop was an entirely different reality. It took a lot longer and seemed much colder. After some experimentation with layers, I finally figured out my standard configuration of warm gear and set out for a new adventure into a winter of walking in my happy place.

At first glance, the winter landscape seemed quite monochromatic and uninspiring to me. The shades of blah found in dead leaves and mud and faded wet grass were rather underwhelming. As a girl who has always been most captivated by the sea of colors liberally furnished by spring, summer and autumn, this was quite an adjustment. However, the more days I have spent walking the river path, my eyes have adjusted to see more clearly the subtle abundance of life shrouded in the dormancy of winter. And although there is a different energy found in nature at other times of the year, immersed in this winterscape, I am able to think and see and hear more clearly than when cooped up in my tiny house.

On one particularly difficult day in December, I found myself burdened with the weight of worry over my daughter’s current situation. Feeling quite helpless and unsure of what I could do to move her forward, I set out on one of my winter walks. A light layer of snow covered the trees and natural grasses that line the pathway. Coming into my focus was a tree with several buds springing forth from its many branches. Never before had I noticed this occurrence on trees in the winter, but I did on this particular day. It signaled to me that even though the worst of winter hadn’t yet come, and it would be many months before these buds would swell and flower, an abundance of life is promised to spring forth from this tree in due time. “So it is with your daughter” the still, small voice whispered deep within my heart. During subsequent bouts with fear and doubt, I have returned to those words time and again, believing that despite a time of dormancy, her time to blossom is coming. I need not try to cajole or force the growth, but instead, wait in joyful hope.

In January, after the wind had died down from a storm, I couldn’t wait to go outside into the freshly fallen snow. Much to my delight, as I entered into the forest, mine were the only human footprints to be seen. Yet all around were big footprints and little footprints and all the sizes in between. The wildlife who call this place home were quite busy, out and about, not allowing the storm to stop them. I felt privileged to join them and sensed a oneness as together we enjoyed the pure and clean covering which made everything seem new. Along the way I laughed at the goose footprints, triangular, clever and intelligently designed! For a while I followed the prints of what looked to belong to a raccoon. It had walked for over a mile down the very middle of the trail, out in the wide open, before veering off into the woods. I felt amused by the fearlessness of this creature in the absence of humanity, as if it was strutting down the runway at a forest fashion show. The elements of pure whimsy I observed in the aftermath of a winter’s snow filled me with deep and childlike joy. As I returned the way I had came and saw that mine still remained the only human footprints, I felt so blessed to experience such solitude in the midst of my busy life.

During a string of recent walks there remained a backdrop of gloomy and grey skies, without as much as a wink from the sun. In the absence of bright light or color, I began to notice the shapes and textures that surrounded me. There were the branches, unencumbered by leaves, showing off their naked and unique artistry. Some were wide and curvy. Others were narrow and straight. The river, it too was displaying its many different looks. In certain places along the journey it was frozen and placid. In others it was unfrozen and flowing with a gentle and soothing sound. At the end of my expedition, it could be seen showing off tall waves with peaks preserved in icy motion by the biting winds. Being awakened to all of these exhibitions of abundant life returned me to myself. It reminded me of the complexity of beauty there is to discover in each and every person, even those we would normally overlook, if we but pay close attention.

Stepping outside for my walk today, I was gleefully greeted by the bluest of skies and the warm glow of the sun. The slushy, melting snow yielded to each step I took and at times revealed the black asphalt of the path underneath. The faint taste of the earliest days of spring was in the air and I walked with a lightness in my stride. Basking in the warmth felt especially amazing and life-giving. After such incredible encounters this winter in the Cathedral of Creation, I felt pregnant with the expectation of what today’s experience would provide. Rounding my way through the boardwalks on the peninsula found at my halfway mark, I paused to gaze out at the river.

Hand in hand they entered the covered gazebo just behind me. A grandfather and his granddaughter who looked to be about 3 years old were joining me at the same lookout point. Peeking out from the top of his zip front jacket was her well-loved teddy bear, along for the adventure. Though I was close by, all he saw was her. He looked at her with incredibly deep love, as if she was the best thing that ever happened to him. “Look at them! Do you see them?” he said excitedly as he pointed at the river. “They’re Canadian Geese,” he explained with great joy. Then he picked her up and put her on his shoulder so she could get a better look. “There’s hundreds of them!” he exclaimed. “Can you hear them?” he asked. And with a sense of wonder and awe and joy, she responded with a resounding “Yes!”

In this moment it is all so clear to me the loving exchange I had just witnessed between this child and her grandfather is the same one I have been having all winter with my Creator. He looks at me with eyes who see a beloved child. He keeps lifting me up and giving me a higher vantage point with which to view more clearly all that has been made so intentionally. He keeps drawing my attention to the abundance of life to be found all around me, even though it might seem to be shrouded by the dormancy of winter. “Look! Do you see? he says excitedly. Can you hear? he asks. Here in this moment, surrounded by alluring sights and sounds, I am able to think and see and hear more clearly. Here in this moment, I feel able to connect deeply to the One who has, it seems, created it all to delight my body, mind and soul. And with a sense of wonder and awe and joy, I respond with a resounding “Yes!”

Light Waiting to be Found in the Shade of the Forest

After a week of some seriously formidable heat which forced all attempts at exercise to be done inside the confines of an air conditioned sweat box called “the gym”, this morning’s 70 degree temps, coupled with low humidity was a much welcomed invitation to return to nature. These past days have also been filled with seriously formidable political angst, fueled by hurtful words and chants against those who are different than others. I found a great need within to escape it all and reconnect with that which is life-giving. I hopped on my bike and headed down to the path along the river for a ride.

I left the headphones at home so as to take in not only the sights, but the sounds as well. The birds seemed extra sing-songy. I imagined maybe they too were thrilled with the break in the heat and their song was one of unencumbered joy. I headed south for about 5 miles taking in the colors and shapes and scents and sounds. Then I crossed the bridge and turned back to the north when the most exhilarating breeze greeted me. It was one of those blissful moments when it feels as if nature and I are in tandem. Me, delighting in its beauty and Nature, showing its appreciation with the first burst of cool refreshment I can remember feeling in quite some time.

This got me thinking about God and all the ways in which He is seeking to get our attention to let us know how much we are loved. Lavish colors, sweet fragrances, the distinct noises of rushing water and blowing winds — it occurs to me that on one level, all of it has been created as an expression of love to woo me, to delight me, to communicate to me. This awareness of light arrives in the midst of the shade of the forest and I am filled with wonder and awe. Welling up in my heart is immense gratitude for the immeasurable gift of this love, of this extravagant expression found in the wild.

We are always in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.”

Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

Forest bathing. Currently its all the rage in Japan. The city dwellers escape to the forests on the weekends in order to experience this therapeutic practice in the midst of their crazy busy lives. As it is defined at http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/, “Shinrin-yoku Forest Therapy, the medicine of simply being in the forest. Shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.”

This term, it comes to mind when I reflect on the oneness I feel with the Creator at this moment surrounded by creation. It strikes me both how depressing and how comical it is that in our contemporary times, when many have schedules which permit the luxury of being in nature on a daily basis, it is “discovered” by scientists that there are real physical and mental benefits of being in nature. Our Creator knew this all along, creating what we need for when we need it; always waiting to welcome us with a bounty of alluring and healing experiences in the diversity of landscapes in which we find ourselves living.

Towards the end of my ride, before ascending the hill which leads to my neighborhood, I sat for a few last moments to bask in the experience. Within eyesight I noticed a plethora of shapes, colors, sizes and species of plants and animals. This creative gathering of diversity blends together to create something far more glorious than any of its individual parts. Within earshot I appreciated the symphony of sounds that accompanied my view. I listened to the cacophony of songs from insects and mammals; the rustling of the leaves in the breeze, the splashing of the water when a fish jumped. Though nature is all so wild and unpredictable, I was most certain in the moment it is also particularly designed and well-planned by the Creator. He makes no mistakes.

In the last leg of my journey out of the forest I am convinced this too must be the same with the creation of the human race in its plethora of shapes, colors, sizes and cultures. We are created in the image and likeness of God. To reject one color or one culture or one individual part of the whole is to reject Him. To refuse one color, or one culture or one individual part of the whole is to refuse the gift of generous creativity given freely as an expression of love to delight us, to woo us, to communicate to us. To throw away one color, or one culture or one individual part of the whole is to throw away a bounty of alluring and healing experiences meant to benefit us. Though humanity is all so wild and unpredictable, I am most certain in this moment each and every one of us has been made with complete and loving intentionality. And it is precisely in this creative gathering of diversity the reflection of the fullness and glory of God is most perfect.

Sweetness of Body & Soul Found in the Embrace of My Enemy

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Continued from Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled My Soul

When after years of struggle I finally made the decision to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, climb off my proverbial horse and embrace the leper in my life, my interior shackles began to loosen. That which predominantly tormented me spiritually and emotionally was my need to control life and the people in it. This need for control controlled me. It made me a slave to its every impulse. And as my husband, the psychotherapist taught me, one definition of crazy is trying the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. I had to try something different if I was going to get healthier. Running was the last thing I ever wanted to try, but try it I did.

Giving alms and a kiss to this leper meant giving it the precious gift of my time and conjuring up some sort of affection for it. At first, the kiss I gave it was like the ones I was made to give as a child, on the cheeks of aunts and uncles and grandmas upon arriving or leaving a family gathering—obligatory, lacking in sincerity, sometimes followed by wiping the lips clean of the germs left by the one embraced. But like the good girl I was taught to be, I did it nonetheless.

»The Early Days

It was winter. Never would I have entertained the idea of running outside. Lucky for me, there was a new indoor track nearby. About four times a week, usually early in the morning (when no one else was there to whom I could negatively compare myself), I made my way there and I began to walk the straight parts and run the curves. I won’t lie, at first it seemed so boring and repetitive and a waste of my time, but I brought along music which became my saving grace. Music had the ability to transport me away from the monotony. It served to drown out the sound of my heavy breathing, so that I wouldn’t become discouraged when I heard how out of shape I was. It became my partner in this new relationship. Without it, I don’t think I could have kept up the routine past a couple of days.

I was nearly 40 lbs. overweight. Changing this reality was my main motivation for beginning. Slowly, but surely, I began to see that embracing my enemy was something I should have considered a long time ago. Nevertheless, what mattered now was to remain faithful to this new relationship in a consistent way. As I did, measurable transformation began to take place. Physically, I was becoming stronger and leaner. My endurance grew. Clothing became too big and new clothes had to be purchased. The number on the scale decreased steadily. As my confidence increased, so did my affection for running. It was giving to me things I couldn’t experience without it in my life.

When winter turned to spring, I moved outside to a track at a nearby college. By now I could run an entire lap, walk a lap, run a lap. And the fresh air was a change I welcomed. For years I had avoided the great outdoors. I hated the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow. I despised how uncomfortable it all made me feel and the mess it created. Feeling cold or hot or sweaty or wet was not in my comfort zone. However, since spring in Chicago is practically over before it begins, it wasn’t long before we were slammed with a hot and humid day. I was at a crossroads. Was I willing to leave my comfort zone in order to continue the journey I had begun, even when conditions were not within my control? Even when it would leave me feeling hot and sweaty and messy? Yet that which had once seemed so bitter to me, running, had slowly turned into sweetness of body. I looked better, felt better, slept better and somehow, the anxiety disorder that had plagued me since childhood, it no longer controlled my every move. The decision was made. I kept on running, even in the heat.

»Revisiting My Past While Looking Forward to the Future

Beyond the investment of time, I now found myself investing in a pair of authentic running shoes, a couple pair of running shorts and tanks. Before long I could run an entire half mile, then 3/4 of a mile. Finishing with sweat pouring down my forehead, my hair drenched; it felt strangely empowering. Who was this person I was becoming? Though I didn’t entirely recognize her, I really liked being with her.

One day in a bold move, she took me back to visit my old elementary school. At the very same playground where I had finished dead last in the annual mile year after year, she led me in a one mile run. This time I ran the entire mile, finishing in a decent time, with my head held high. Tears of healing and joy streamed down my face as I imagined speaking to the broken, demoralized little girl of my past. “You are stronger than you know”, I told her. “One day, things will be better. Don’t give up hope.” For good measure, I did a victory lap before I left the playground that day; the theme song from Chariots of Fire playing as the soundtrack in my mind. I felt unstoppable.

It was the beginning of June; my 40th Birthday was fast approaching. I set my sights on kicking off this new decade of my life by running my first race. There was one being held on my birthday on the lakefront in Chicago. It was a 5K race; 3.1 miles. For the next six weeks, I followed a training plan and ran more than ever. I ran off of the track and ventured into my neighborhood. Living within just 1/2 mile from a beautiful river, I decided to explore the trails alongside it and a whole new world was opened up to me.

»Undergoing Deeper Transformation 

Crossing the finish line at that first race on July 26, 2009 was, in retrospect, a definitive starting line for a deep spiritual transformation that continues to this day. Crystallized within me at that moment was the resolution to enter into a lifelong embrace with my former enemy. This embrace had already brought such sweetness to my body and mind in such a short time; just now was I beginning to savor the delights it brought to my soul.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that the healing of my soul was somehow tied to my resolve to do as much of my running as possible in the great outdoors. Predominantly, my miles have been traversed outside, in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, in the calm, in the extreme heat, in the extreme cold, in perfect conditions, in imperfect conditions and everything in between. Cooperating with nature several times a week, especially here in the Midwest, has demanded of me to become very flexible. Each day of each season presents to me a wild variety of requirements for the way I need to dress, the way I need to plan for my hydration, the route I need to take and the attitude I need to develop in order to accomplish my goal. Day-by-day, if I want to run, I am required to adapt and flex.

On days like today, adapting and flexing looks like checking the weather to assess the day’s forecast for precipitation and temperature in order to determine when is the optimum time for running before the sun sets at 4:24 p.m. It means dressing in three layers on the top, donning a hat, two pair of gloves and running shoes with spikes in them to prevent me from slipping on ice. Since my favorite route is temporarily impassable due to snow and ice, I will run the streets in my town and set my mind to be inspired by nature and the occasional sighting of dogs, squirrels and bunnies. With all of the outdoor water fountains shut off during winter, I will plan to stop by the local 7-11 for some hydration.

In the summer, adapting and flexing looks like planning on leaving super early, before the heat and humidity render me incapacitated. It means dressing as lightly as possible, with a headband in my hair to catch the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Since my favorite path provides shade, I will run along the river, through the woods and anticipate being inspired by nature and the occasional sightings of foxes, deer, beavers, turtles and the predictable encounters with Canadian Geese and Mallard Ducks (and their abundance of poop) along the waterfront. With all of the outdoor water fountains working, I will rely on them for hydration. However, if I am going to be running for awhile, I will to drive to spots along the path ahead of time and drop some Gatorade.

Slowly, but surely, I am being transformed through the ongoing embrace of running. The lessons to adapt and flex with every single changing condition, first learned in the physical and emotional realm, now have taken root in my spiritual life. With each stride I take, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I am awakened to the presence of the Creator, both outside of me and within. I am being taught to accept the things I cannot change, being strengthened with courage to change the things I can and being graced with the wisdom to know the difference.

»By No Power of My Own

Dominican historian, Fr. Augustine Thompson wrote this about St. Francis and the affect that his embrace of the lepers brought to him:

What before was truly ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but viscerally and physically.  The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins that had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

More than seven years have passed since I crossed that finish line for the first time. In the process of training and completing seven half marathons, I have logged thousands of miles. Sometimes when I glance at my Nike App after finishing a run and view the total distances I have traversed, I am shocked that it is me who has accomplished this. Truth be told, even after all this time, I still don’t love the act of running itself. Yet what before was truly ugly and repulsive now causes me delight and joy. I sense by the grace of God and no power of my own, I am being remade into a different woman and a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing is mine.

This post was inspired by a podcast entitled, “Running as Spiritual Practice”, from “On Being with Krista Tippett”. If you would like to hear others’ stories of how running served to transform their lives, click here.