Light on the Path Ahead

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.

~Traditional Irish Blessing

The day starts with the promise of beauty lit across the sky and concludes with the same light on the other side of the horizon. Yet everything in between can be darkness with no relief or stark brightness leaving no place to hide.

We can endure both if we endure it together. We can travel this long road if we have each other alongside in case we stumble. We can live out our days in gratitude even through our tears.

God does not leave us to journey alone.

The Hinge of Faithfulness

No one compels you, traveler;
this road or that road, make your choice!
Dust or mud, heat or cold,
fellowship or solitude,
foul weather or a fairer sky,
the choice is yours as you go by.

But here if you would take this path
there is a gate whose latch is love,
whose key is single and which swings
upon the hinge of faithfulness,

and none can mock, who seeks this way,
the king we worship shamelessly.
If you would enter, traveler,
into this city fair and wide,
it is forever and you leave
all trappings of the self outside.

~Jane Tyson Clements from  No One Can Stem the Tide

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
~T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding” The Four Quartets

I can, with very little effort, remember the restlessness of my late teens once I learned homesickness was not a terminal condition.  There was a world out there to be explored just beyond the gate of my childhood barnyard, and I just knew I was meant to be a designated explorer and traveler, seeking out the extraordinary.

Ordinary simply wouldn’t do.  Ordinary was plentiful at my childhood home on a small farm with a predictable routine, a garden to be weeded and daily chores to be done, with middle-aged parents tight with tension in their struggling marriage.

On a whim at age nineteen, I applied for wild chimpanzee research study in Africa, and much to my shock, was accepted.  A year of academic and physical preparation as well as Swahili language study was required, so this was no impulsive adventure.   I had plenty of time to back out, reconsider, choose another path and retreat to ordinary again.

It was an adventure, far beyond what I had anticipated and trained for.  When I had to decide between more exploration, without clear purpose or funds, or returning home, I opted to return to the place I started. I saw home differently, as if for the first time,  after  experiencing the world in all its glory and ugliness. The next path I took, I needed to leave the trappings of myself behind, unlatch the gate with the key I had been given from the very beginning. The hinge of faithfulness opens the gate wide.

I must remember I have chosen the path that leads to forever, though neither smooth nor easy. Entering that unknown, unremembered gate means I will arrive where I started, back at the beginning and knowing the place for the first time.

What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning…
Suddenly a wall becomes a gate.
~Henri Nouwen from A Letter of Consolation

The Road Ahead

He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware…

The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?
~Dana Gioia from “The Road” from 99 Poems: New and Selected

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
~J.R.R Tolkien from “Roads Go Ever On”

Like many others, I have experienced the disconcerting feeling of traveling a familiar route with my mind completely disengaged. Suddenly I find myself at my destination without a conscious realization of how I even got there or what I saw along the way. Or maybe I was doing a routine daily task and later couldn’t remember having done it (did I shut off the barn faucet or are the water barrels flooding over all day?) because my head was somewhere else.

We describe this as “auto-pilot” or “body memory” or more distressingly “dissociation” — most therapists prescribe “mindfulness” to reengage us in our daily lives and thoughts. I’m not sure it is mindfulness that I practice, but I do force regular “brain check-ins” to anchor me to a time and place and task. (“yes, I have just passed that intersection where that truck and trailer almost hit me years ago and I am grateful to still be alive” or “I am now shutting off the barn faucet and won’t have to think about it again until tomorrow, thank you very much!”)

I regret “missing out” on experiencing my journey because I was so busy scanning the horizon for what is to come or looking back at where I’ve been, or watching where my feet will land or thinking about anywhere but where I was in the moment.

I need to acknowledge the milestones and not pass them by unawares — stopping at the view points, reading the historical markers, taking a breather at the rest stops. I seek to find the hidden paths and explore them rather than be solely destination-driven.

I must pay attention to who is alongside me and be ready to steady them if they trip or stumble, and pray they’ll catch me if I start to fall.

And most importantly, may I stay pointed toward the lighted inn that is awaiting all of us.

The Winding Pathway of Least Resistance

One day thru the primeval wood 
A calf walked home, as good calves should, 
But made a trail all bent askew, 
A crooked trail, as all calves do. 
Since then three hundred years have fled, 
And I infer, the calf is dead; 
But still behind he left his trail, 
And thereon hangs my mortal tale.

The trail was taken up next day 
By a lone dog that passed that way, 
And then a wise bell-weather sheep 
Sliding into a rut now deep, 
Pursued that trail over hill and glade 
Thru those old woods a path was made.

And many men wound in and out, 
And dodged and turned and bent about, 
and uttered words of righteous wrath 
Because “twas such a crooked path” 
But still they follow-do not laugh- 
The first migrations of that calf.

The forest became a lane 
That bent and turned and turned again; 
This crooked lane became a road 
where many a poor horse with his load 
Toiled on beneath the burning sun, 
And traveled some three miles in one.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet, 
The village road became a street, 
And this, before the men were aware, 
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.

And soon a central street was this 
In a renowned metropolis; 
And men two centuries and a half 
Followed the wanderings of this calf.

Each day a hundred thousand strong 
Followed this zigzag calf along; 
And over his crooked journey went 
The traffic of a continent.

A hundred thousand men were led 
By one poor calf, three centuries dead. 
For just such reverence is lent 
To well established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach 
Were I ordained and called to preach.

For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf paths of the mind; 
And work away from sun to sun 
To do what other men have done.
~Sam Walter Foss “Cow Path”


Each day and night fly by more swiftly than the previous.  It is as if minutes are exponentially more compressed than in the past, hurtling forward to an inevitable destination, but the estimated time of arrival is unknown.

I struggle in late middle age to keep perspective while traveling this road of life, looking back at where I’ve been, and hoping for the best about where I’m headed, and trying to stick to the winding path ahead without deviation.  My regret about this journey is that I haven’t stopped nearly often enough to simply take in the scenery, listen to the birds, smell the orchard blossoms, and feel the grass under my bare feet.

It is the conundrum of following the cow path laid down before me, traveling the well-worn pathway of precedent.

Nevertheless, as with all cow paths, there may have been no greater reason for the bend or curve than a patch of tall appealing grass at one time, or a good itching spot on a tree trunk or a boulder obstructing the way.  Still I follow the curve, dodge the boulder, tread the zig zag. My path may appear random without focus on the destination and that’s okay:   I need to stop once in awhile, settle down for a really good nap, enjoy a particularly fine meal, read an insightful book, or play a lovely hymn.  It is not which path I’ve traveled to my eventual destination but the quality of my journey along the way.

I enjoy the twists and turns of life if I take the time to appreciate them.  Just maybe – I’ll throw in a few curves of my own for those who are following behind me.


A Bright Sadness: Walking His Paths



All the paths of the Lord are loving and faithful
Psalm 25:10 


“All does not mean ‘all – except the paths I am walking in now,’
or ‘nearly all – except this especially difficult and painful path.’
All must mean all.


So, your path with its unexplained sorrow or turmoil,
and mine with its sharp flints and briers –
and both our paths,
with their unexplained perplexity,
their sheer mystery – they are His paths,
on which he will show Himself loving and faithful.


Nothing else; nothing less.
~Amy Carmichael–Anglican missionary to India 1867-1951

Sometimes we come upon forks in the road where we may not be certain which path to take. Perhaps explore the Robert Frost “less traveled” one? Or take the one that seems less tangled and uncertain from all appearances?

Sometimes we have chosen a particular path which looked inviting at the time, trundling along minding our own business, yet we start bonking our heads on low hanging branches, or get grabbed by stickers and thorns that rip our clothes and skin, or trip over prominent roots and rocks that impede our progress and bruise our feet.

Sometimes we come to a sudden end in a path and face a steep cliff with no choice but to leap or turn back through the mess we have just slogged through.

Navigating the road to the cross must have felt like ending up at that steep cliff. There was no turning back, no choosing or negotiating a different pathway or taking time to build a staircase into the rocks. His words reflect His uncertainty and terror. His words reflect our deepest doubts and fears–how are we to trust we are on the right path?

When we take that next step, no matter which way, we end up in the Father’s loving and faithful arms. He has promised this.

Nothing else; nothing less.



The Path of Pathlessness

Wind finds the northwest gap, fall comes.
Today, under gray cloud-scud and over gray
Wind-flicker of forest, in perfect formation, wild geese
Head for a land of warm water, the boom, the lead pellet.

Some crumple in air, fall. Some stagger, recover control,
Then take the last glide for a far glint of water. None
Knows what has happened. Now, today, watching
How tirelessly V upon V arrows the season’s logic.

Do I know my own story? At least, they know
When the hour comes for the great wind-beat. Sky-strider,
Star-strider–they rise, and the imperial utterance,
Which cries out for distance, quivers in the wheeling sky.

That much they know, and in their nature know
The path of pathlessness, with all the joy
Of destiny fulfilling its own name.
I have known time and distance, but not why I am here.

Path of logic, path of folly, all
The same–and I stand, my face lifted now skyward,
Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling
Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,

With folded feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage,
And my heart is impacted with a fierce impulse
To unwordable utterance–
Toward sunset, at a great height.
~Robert Penn Warren from “The Collected Poems”

I wish I could be as sure
as the geese and swans
flying overhead in unwordable utterance~
they trust where they are led
is where they belong.

They may not make it there
but nevertheless they go when called.

I wish I might fly into the setting sun
on such a path of pathlessness
knowing only
I am sent
because the call is stronger
than I am.


It is All That It is

 

 

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The woods is shining this morning.
Red, gold and green, the leaves
lie on the ground, or fall,
or hang full of light in the air still.
Perfect in its rise and in its fall, it takes
the place it has been coming to forever.
It has not hastened here, or lagged.
See how surely it has sought itself,
its roots passing lordly through the earth.
See how without confusion it is
all that it is, and how flawless
its grace is. Running or walking, the way
is the same. Be still. Be still.
“He moves your bones, and the way is clear.”
~Wendell Berry “Grace”

 

 

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If I’m confused (as I often am)
about where I’ve been, where I am, where I’m going,
I look to the cycles of the seasons to be reminded
all things (and I) come round

what is barren will bud
what buds will grow lush and fruit
what flourishes will fade and fall,
and come to rest and stillness

All things come round
making the way clear.
Grace forges a path
I need to follow.

Shining in stillness,
still shining.

 

 

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The Whole Journey

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Night is drawing nigh.  How long the road is.  But, for all the time the journey has taken, how you have needed every second of it. 
~Dag Hammarskjöld

 

 

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It is easy to be grateful for the pretty times of life: those picture-perfect moments that end up on Christmas photo-cards and in detailed descriptions in holiday newsletters.  What we want others to see and what we wish to remember does not always reflect the experiences of the whole journey.  We are naturally programmed to concentrate on “The Best of…” rather than surveying the whole shebang, warts and all.

It isn’t all glorious sunsets, rainbows and happy endings.  We don’t usually take pictures of the potholes, or celebrate the obstacles and flat tires along the way. It is rare to acknowledge and honor the failing grade, the chronic illness, the rocky relationship, the mortifying mistake, the tragic accident.

Yet it is all a part of the journey, every second of it, even the moments we try hard to forget are worthy of our appreciation.  Even the difficult times move us a little closer to our destination, perhaps looking bruised and scraped, still making our way slowly, shakily yet surely.

How long the road is.  And night is coming.

How fortunate we are to be heading home.

 

 

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The Path of Life

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Our last five minutes on earth are running out.

We can spend those minutes in meanness, exclusivity,
and self-righteous disparagement of those who are different from us,
or we can spend them consciously embracing every glowing soul
who wanders within our reach – those who, without our caring,
would find the vibrant, exhilarating path of life just another sad and forsaken road.
~Alice Walker from Anything We Love Can Be Saved

 

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During these summer weeks of orientation of new college students and their parents, I speak to several thousand people, all looking nervous in unfamiliar territory among strangers.

They are about to embark on a road that rises to meet them and leads them to parts unknown.

I try to say, as I shake each hand, and give out my card with my personal phone number:
this too will be okay.  This too will bless you.  Even when there are potholes, uneven surfaces and times when you want to turn back to more familiar territory, you will find the road to your next destination fulfilling and welcoming.

Embrace the journey…and each other.

And I embrace you.

(Thanks Ann Voskamp for sharing your message to your college-bound son here)

 

 

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Leaving a Footprint

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…And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
~Robert Frost from “The Road Not Taken”

 

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photo by Per Wolfisberg this morning from north-central Montana

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Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled.

Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home.

But I didn’t go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out.

I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.
~Robert Frost from “Selected Letters”

 

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When a man thinks happily, he finds no foot-track in the field he traverses.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson from “Quotation and Originality”

 

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Robert Frost enjoyed how readers misinterpreted his ironic “The Road Not Taken” poem.  His point was not “the road less traveled”  “made all the difference” but that the roads were in fact the same.  As humans living our daily lives, we have to make decisions that take us one way or the other, not knowing and very uncertain where our choices may lead us.

Our assurance lies in understanding the Hand that guides us, should we allow Him.  We may choose a path that leads us astray; God continually puts up signposts that will guide us home.  Our journey may be arduous, we may get terribly lost, we may walk alone for long stretches, we may end up crushed and bleeding in the ditch.

He follows the footprints we have left behind, and we are found, rescued and brought home, no matter what, and that — not the road we chose at the beginning — is what makes all the difference.

 

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