Here Be Dragons

This past January a dragon roared right into my face. Today I climbed onto its tooth.

Usually I write about hiking and travel, but this time it’s an inward journey. Almost six months ago I was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, and it’s been a rough go. Although I didn’t plan to write about it, I’ve benefited so much from reading others’ stories online I felt I owed the internet mine as well. If you’re here because you love hiking, don’t go! It was a beautiful weekend in the Blue Ridge and I’ll share a few photo to prove it. If you’re here because you or someone you love is facing Bell’s palsy, perhaps my story will be another piece of the puzzle as you chart your own way forward.

I went to an urgent care clinic on a Sunday morning after a night of intense earache, and upon noticing that my mouth drooped downward on one side. Bell’s palsy was immediately diagnosed, and I was cheerfully told that if I kept my eye lubricated I’d be fine in a couple of weeks. I bought an eye patch on the way home and was ready to go with the flow, but then I got home and started reading.

Many people do recover spontaneously in a couple weeks, but there’s a broad continuum. In my case, the paralysis continued to worsen, and I ended up at the doctor again. Then I was referred to a neurologist, and found out I had a lot of factors associated with poorer prognosis: older age at onset (a couple weeks before my 49th birthday); gradual rather than sudden onset; disruption of taste sensation; and total paralysis. The neurologist went so far as to imply he thought I might not recover at all, and that was hard to hear. I couldn’t eat or drink without dribbling or dropping bits of food, I couldn’t smile, I had a speech impediment, and the right side of my tongue felt abraded and painful. The worst part, though, was my eye.

I’ve always had an aversion to anything involving eyeballs, my own or anyone else’s. They’re useful and important things, but I prefer to pretend they don’t exist. When Bell’s palsy hit, my world began revolving around my right eyeball. I struggled to keep it lubricated, and after several corneal abrasions (fun!) an opthalmologist ended up gluing it down. The ungluing process was off-the-charts painful, and for several weeks all I could do was sit immobile, holding a compress over my eye, waiting. Afterward, I still had to set an alarm every two hours to lubricate my eye, which involved pulling down the lower lid to squirt ointment at the base of my eyeball. For someone with an eye phobia, this was sheer torture.

For several months I wore an eye patch 24/7, to avoid any further corneal abrasions.  During this time, I struggled with significant depression. None of the doctors I saw prepared me for this, but I read others’ accounts online. Total paralysis, accompanied with a poor prognosis, is a very difficult pill to swallow. I forced myself through all the motions of healthy living, but inside there was a dark well of sadness and out of it flowed all kinds of self-pitying thoughts.

Reader, it got better. The weather warmed, and one day I simply couldn’t bear to put the eye patch on. I haven’t worn it since, and nothing bad has happened. Then finally, about four months in, I noticed that a tiny muscle just beside my nose could be moved, with great effort. It was so subtle no one else could see it, but I knew it was happening. Then I was gradually able to move the right side of my mouth a bit. The lower lid of my right eye stopped sagging quite so much, and I could no longer see the white of my eyeball below the cornea.

I’m close to the six-month mark now, and my smile is about 50% back. The wrinkles around my eye have returned (so happy to see them!), and I can close my eyelid with great effort (it still can’t do involuntary blinks). I am an absolute whiz at putting ointment in my eye, and the exposure therapy of the last five months has largely cured my eye phobia. My speech impediment persists, but is slightly better. One of the little things no one told me about that I still live with: there are tons of tiny muscles in your nose that control the egress of its contents, and when they stop working you should definitely start carrying tissues everywhere.

The depression and self-pity are not totally gone, but I’ve beaten them back pretty well. On the full spectrum of health conditions an almost-fifty-year-old woman might need to face, this could have been far worse. When I look in the mirror, the person there is not quite me, but perhaps a wiser and stronger version for having battled a dragon she didn’t even know existed. This October she will put on a wedding dress, and dance, and scarf down vegan cupcakes, and, for the first time in her life, what she looks like seems pretty darn inconsequential. There may be further healing, which will be welcome. There may be none, and that will be ok.

I am officially back in the hiking saddle. The first month I didn’t hike at all, terrified a twig would snap into my frozen-open eye and blind me forever. I gradually set out on longer day hikes wearing safety goggles, and this weekend was my first overnight on the trail since the onset of Bell’s palsy. No safety goggles and no fear! I ate dinner on a rock in the middle of a creek. I rose before sunrise to beat the heat and savor the misty Blue Ridge mountains:

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I scrambled up some baby dragon’s teeth on the Appalachian Trail:

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And then I climbed right up onto the Dragon’s Tooth itself:

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Bell’s palsy roars out of nowhere, there is limited treatment, and you may temporarily feel completely at its mercy. However, the best treasures are found in the lairs of the fiercest dragons. Even if your prognosis is poor, as mine was, keep the faith. There’s healing to be had, in body and soul. The dragon can be taught to take a few steps back, even if it never goes away. Eventually you may walk right up to it, laugh in amazement, and crawl right up onto its tooth. What more can it do to you? Your world is yours alone, and that fact is the treasure the dragon guards.

The Unrepeatable Life

June is a season of joyful exuberance in the mountains of western North Carolina. The waterfalls are giddy and abundant, lit with love by a sun shining high and strong; and the mountainsides suddenly tumble downward with the blossoms of mountain laurel and rhododendron.

Nature absolutely adores the theme of impermanence, and in her expert artistry she layers her interpretations over minutes, days, years, and eons. In the slow, still season of winter we may meditate more on the work of eons, but in June everything is happening all at once. The senses are ablaze with the here and now, and the soul is engulfed by the wordless knowledge of connection to all that has been and will be.

The flowers of the summer mountains are showy and exotic. Once you get into your hiking groove, their brilliant presence infuses you with energy and you barely notice the miles. At the same time, every bush is in a constant state of transition: some buds are still tightly furled, others are at their fulsome peak, while the petals of those that have lived out their few days of existence are being trampled underfoot.

The tunnels of mountain laurel are cool, mysterious portals, particularly on a misty early morning. The individual blossoms sparkle with dynamism, while from a distance the plants have a soothing, quiet presence.

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Rhododendrons and native flame azaleas are like tropical birds that unexpectedly stopped for a visit in the mountains. Their neon hues and large blossoms electrify the landscape as they hopscotch out across the highlands.

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In waterfalls, though, nature is playing the long game. We can visit the same waterfall year after year–our entire lives even–and never notice much difference, if any. Of course, change is always happening, if far more subtly. The rock wears down; the river changes course; or (less subtly) a landslide or earthquake completely changes the shape of the falls.

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Upon casual observation the landscape might look just about the same every June. Your favorite waterfall, framed by bright-pink rhododendrons, is a familiar, anchoring sight. But we know that nothing is ever the same: each petal, each blossom, each bush has a brief and singular life.  Some you will outlive, and some will outlive you. Each waterfall will be what it is right now only for this moment, and you will likely never know what it will become. Even the glistening paths of our little snail friends are here but for a moment, and no two will ever be the same. This is what nature wants us to know (and really she’s not terribly subtle, although she makes up for that in so many other ways): this is it. This is your one, unrepeatable life. How will you live it today?

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Morning Time In This World

There is a great deal of company in the mountains, especially in the early-morning hours when few people go there. Every fern frond swells with anticipation of the creeping first light; the birds cheer on the sun with great joy; and paths practically tumble forward to welcome you (though they will be cautious about sharing all their secrets until they know you well).

We recently found exquisite solitude and not a whit of loneliness on one of Virginia’s most beloved and well-trafficked peaks: Old Rag Mountain, where on a weekend day there are often lines of people waiting to pass through the more challenging passages of its well-known rock scramble. Determined to have the mountain to ourselves, we succeeded by choosing a Wednesday for our hike, and by donning headlamps for a pre-dawn start up the trail.

The first few miles are a steady rise through the forest. On this May day, the abundant recent rains had left a glowing green carpet of ferns and moss. As you ascend, larger and larger boulders dot the trail, until all of a sudden you are scrambling up a bit of rock face into a labyrinth of exposed rock that goes on for a mile and a half on the approach to the summit. Here you will shimmy, squeeze, and crawl through fantastic rock formations worn slippery by legions of hikers before you (and if like me you are somewhat challenged for height, you’ll need an occasional assist).

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As you draw near the summit, the hike becomes more of a boulder-hopping adventure. We had a bright, sunny day with strong, cold breezes powering us to the top, and across crevices that looked just ever-so-slightly impossible to traverse. At the summit, 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are a stunning reward for an expedition already thrilling in its own right. There is a significant amount of elevation gain on this hike, but the journey  is so fun you barely notice it.

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After seeing nary a soul through the entire scramble, we savored half an hour alone at the summit, exploring its multiple viewpoints. On this particular day I was mourning the death of a friend who had passed the day before, and there was much comfort to be found in the cool, smooth rock against my hands, and the soaring, miles-long distance into which the winds delivered my thoughts.

We then descended the back of the mountain, looping to our starting point and, as we neared the trailhead, greeting several fellow hikers starting their treks. This gentle transition back to society served to underscore the value of the treasure we’d been gifted. Few Virginia hikers would think of Old Rag when restorative solitude is the goal; yet it is there in full, glorious measure if you know when to go looking for it.

“For my panacea, instead of one of those quack vials of a mixture dipped from Acheron and the Dead Sea, which come out of those long shallow black-schooner looking wagons which we sometimes see made to carry bottles, let me have a draught of undiluted morning air. Morning air! If men will not drink of this at the fountainhead of the day, why, then, we must even bottle up some and sell it in the shops, for the benefit of those who have lost their subscription ticket to morning time in this world.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

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A Prayer For All Goodness

On the day before the spring equinox we hiked Blackrock Summit, Trayfoot Mountain, and Paine Run in Shenandoah National Park. As we exited the car in the thin early morning light, a cold and brutal wind immediately pounced; a tiny part of me wanted to jump right on the road and back under the covers. But hike day had arrived, and when it arrives, you hike. We layered on the winter gear and hit the trail.

Heading north on the Appalachian Trail the wind was relentless, the sky was gray, and a few snowflakes even whirled through. A mile or so brought us to Blackrock Summit, where the path soars out to sumptuous views of mountains and valley:

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The frigid wind was hard at our backs though, so we did not linger. We turned toward Trayfoot Mountain, which offers a viewless summit and a rolling ridge walk before reaching a view of Buzzard Rock:

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Here, at about the halfway point of our route, the wind began to still, the sun was noticeably higher in the sky, and the clouds began to clear. We descended toward Paine Run and spent a couple miles hopping over streams and puddles that sparkled with spring secrets.

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Finally, we started our long, steady trek up the Paine Run Trail. Hats, gloves, and extra layers had all been shed long ago and we reveled in the sunshine and a gently cooling breeze. Winter had swept us into the mountains, and spring was dancing us out.

Every season has its beauty, and its time to go. May we perceive the howling wind with the same open spirit that we perceive the fattening buds of the mountain laurel. May we see the gray clouds and foggy valley with the same unjudging eyes that delight in a shimmering creek. May our knees accept both ascents and descents with equanimity and quiet observation. May we embrace the spring that is coming with our whole hearts, and may we simply watch it go when it is time.

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Again the Light: Oslo

Oslo was probably destined to be anticlimactic after seeing the northern lights in far northern Norway, but winter travel in Scandinavia can easily be disrupted by weather, so we built a long weekend in the capital city into our agenda before returning home.

Oslo is far enough south of Tromsø that the longer days and higher angle of the sun were easily noticeable, though the light still had a diffuse, silvery quality that shimmered delicately against bluebird skies and soft gray snow showers alike. The weather was mild by Norwegian standards, and on a 40-degree Saturday in February the parks were thronged with people remarking on how warm and pleasant the weather was.

We cut a wide swath through Oslo’s museums (and yes, of course we saw one of the four versions of The Scream). However, it was the outdoor spaces that were most entrancing in a light that was trembling at the edge of dreams of spring. We started in Vigeland Park, the world’s largest sculpture garden composed of works by a single artist. Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures of nude human figures depict a raucous, expressive vision of the circle of life.

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Later that day we visited Akershus Castle, which lies along the Oslofjord, and has served as both castle and fortress. By this time it had started to snow, and the grounds of the castle evoked visions of Narnia.

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We began our last day at Ekebergparken, a large park that sits on a hill above Oslo and contains a sculpture garden. The skies were ablaze with blue and the previous day’s snow added a jaunty defiance to the human figures in the collection.

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Several abstract silver sculptures sparkled in the whitened landscape:

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And a hidden-away grotto invited a meditation on the meaning of Plato’s Cave in the era of digital communication:

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We later stopped at the Nobel Peace Center, a sobering, uplifting, and moving place that holds up its own light across the world.

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Such a brief stay in Oslo gave us little time to absorb the culture or neighborhoods in any great depth, and no doubt the city has a very different character in the warmer months of the year. But for 48 hours’ worth of a silvery sun glowing fiercely behind half-serious clouds; glimmering snow showers that swallowed up all sound; and blue skies bright as ice; we found our way back from the Arctic night into the light, and we found our own version of Oslo.

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Against the Night: Tromsø

Tromsø lies in northern Norway, 217 miles above the Arctic circle, where it experiences the midnight sun from May to July each year, and a long, dark winter that includes two months in which the sun never rises at all. We spent four February nights in Tromsø because of its reputation for being one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. That mission succeeded beyond all expectations; however, we also discovered a warm, glowing lamp of a town held up against the cold, blue-gray Arctic days and deep indigo nights.

The center of town is mainly composed of wooden homes and buildings from the 18th century, and a little bit of imagination allows one to easily imagine this as the jumping-off point that it was for several major Arctic expeditions during that time. It snowed almost continuously throughout our visit, and on the first day we visited the Polar Museum, where glowering bronze busts of famed explorers looked down on the snowy streets below.

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The sun rose late and set early, and the little town harbor was aglow with lights at each transition.

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Weaving in and out of shops and small museums we met kind, good-natured people who loved to talk and laugh. As twilight neared, candle flames danced in frosty restaurant windows, beacons against the encroaching dark. We ate dinner at the same tiny vegan restaurant  each night (Sivertsen’s kafe), against a backdrop of books and Billie Holliday, and where I happily could have eaten for many more nights, embraced by the generous welcome and cozy space.

At last it was time to seek the aurora borealis, and though she can be coy she too was ready to welcome us to Tromsø. We were barely out of the city when we caught our first glimpse, along a country road:

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From there we headed to Sommeroy island, where an incredible display arced across the sky from one horizon to the next. It was impossible to take it in all at once, and I stumbled backward through the snow, neck craned upward, attempting to absorb its vastness. To the naked eye the aurora rarely appears green; rather, it is a glowing silver. The shapes are constantly shifting and yet you never quite see them move. Against the night sky behind it, the aurora weaves an incandescent, wordless, and liquid tale that simply fills your heart with knowing.The night was cold (just 4 degrees Fahrenheit), but I barely felt it as I stood in awe at the deep sense of bonding the lights evoked. Very briefly I felt infinitely connected, beyond words, to lives and realities known and unknown, everywhere, always.

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On our last day in Tromsø we took the cable car up the mountain that overlooks the town. The snow was coming down thick and fast and we barely had a view, but there was a snug restaurant perched at the top where we warmed ourselves before a short hike along the ridge.

The nights are dark and long in Tromsø, even in February, but the spirit that illumines the town is steady and bright. As in some other northerly locales there is actually a fairly low rate of depression in Tromsø, and researchers suspect an attitude of appreciation for the unique beauty of the Arctic at least partly accounts for that: the glistening snow, the glowing blue of twilight, the aurora borealis, the yellow candlelight behind icy windows, and the warm, welcoming hearts behind every door.

As we packed to leave Tromsø, I checked my email and learned a bright light had gone out at home–a woman with whom I had shared an orbit for the last 12 years around a sphere deeply important to us both had passed away. A sadness slipped over me but there was comfort to be had as well. Those lights, those northern lights, had suffused me with such a sense of connection: across generations, borders, cultures, and time. I found that sense of connection, and allowed my memories of my friend to dwell there. It seems like a dark world out there sometimes, but there is so much more light than we know, even in the gloomiest corners. Our hope, comfort, peace, and joy are what we hold up against the night, together.

 

 

An Expedition That Never Ends

A chilly hike in quiet, barren woods was a enticing closure to 2016. We started up the Scothorn Gap Trail in the Massanutten Range, a steady and occasionally steep climb that quickly throws out a web of shimmering options as it connects to other trails. On our last visit here, in autumn, the leaves were still so full on the trees that we never saw a small pond located alongside the trail. On this winter day it was more easily seen, though still a demure presence behind a dense stand of trees. A neglected path led to the pond, half frozen in the thin December light:

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Eventually the Scothorn Gap Trail intersects with the Massanutten Trail. We turned northward, and soon the first mountain views bobbed at the horizon:

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We walked through the valley a bit before pushing steeply back up the mountain toward Duncan Knob, accessible on a short out and back from the Gap Creek Trail. The ascent to Duncan Knob is a moderate scramble up a large rock slide; at nearly a 45-degree angle climb in certain sections, it requires some arm muscle.

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At the top, endless views are to be had of the Massanutten Range and the Shenandoah Valley:

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As we descended the sky became overcast and the wind grew fierce; on this blustery day there was plenty of solitude on the trail. These woods are well-loved, however, and plenty of seekers had been there before us (though there were very few traces of them, even in the campsites–great job, people!) Many will follow after us as well, and as we walked I imagined us as apparitions in that horde of unknown, unseen fellows who also sought the essence of the mountain for a day or two. It seems an expedition of such multitudes could never end, and yet it will. Crystallized somewhere in our wonder is the knowledge of the journey’s end. No paths left to walk, nor anyone to walk them. To walk the mountain is to know that in your core, and to be fully at peace with it: because what we know and what we think are often very different things.

“It is sweet to think I was a companion in an expedition that never ends.” ~ Czeslaw Milosz

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Getting Things Done

Last Thursday we gave thanks with family, and on Friday we took to the woods. The path we wanted to take was closed to all but “ice climbers and experienced hikers properly equipped for dangerous conditions,” so deeming ourselves the latter we pressed on into the Glens Natural Area via Ricketts Glen State Park in northeast Pennsylvania. Here, Kitchen Creek flows down a steep escarpment, and trails loop through a stunning 22 waterfalls in just over 7 miles. Dear Reader, you know my penchant for metaphor; however, on this hike the waterfalls offered none. Their lessons on authenticity and persistence were literal and immediate.

Water is relentless. No matter how massive the obstacle, it will find a way.

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Water doesn’t try to be something it is not. Its true nature is its constant guiding force.

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Given the smallest opening, water will get through.

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Water doesn’t complain about the path that happens to be available. Water just follows the path.

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Water can be still, or rushing, or mist, or ice, but it is always water.

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Water does not yearn for the path it cannot take. Likewise, last Friday we gladly followed the path the water had made, hugging the rocks that have shaped the creek. Where the water was ice, we stepped to the side; where the path grew steep, we took to all fours. No metaphor. No need. No effort. No turning back.

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Escape to Jones Mountain

When I booked one of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s primitive cabins for the first weekend in November, it didn’t occur to me that I’d be opting out of civilization for the last three days before the presidential election. When the time came, however, the chance to escape the endless, grueling news coverage of a nasty and downright embarrassing campaign felt nothing short of magical.

The Jones Mountain Cabin in Shenandoah National Park is one of the few dwellings from before the Park’s creation to have escaped burning as the land was returned to wilderness. The hike in is lovely, rising gradually alongside the Shenandoah River before turning steeply up the mountainside to pass through tunnels of mountain laurel and towering old-growth forests.

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We arrived in late afternoon and set about gathering wood, collecting water, and making dinner. The ancient wood stove quickly made the cabin toasty and an early bedtime beckoned us to the sleeping loft.

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The next day we continued up the mountain for a stop at Bear Church Rock, one of my favorite overlooks in the park. Here, there is no hint of civilization upon which the eye can land; there are only mountains, exuberantly rolling westward.

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We pushed upward a few more miles to Cat Knob, before looping back down the mountain beside the river once again, through a dark, chilly hollow filled with bright green ferns and moss. At the cabin we chopped and sawed more wood for the night ahead before carrying our hard-earned treasures inside at dusk (fact: a fire fueled by wood you have labored to prepare yourself is exponentially more cozy and rewarding).

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A small collection of local history books sat atop the mantel, and after dinner I sat at the table and read one about Jones Mountain. Millions of years ago the mountain and its valleys knew conflict only of the geological kind; volcanoes erupting, mountains sinking, seas rolling in, and then mountains rising once again, higher than ever as the seas receded.

I went on to read, though, of the cruelties inflicted by English settlers on the Native Americans who lived on and near Jones Mountain; of the lives of slaves on nearby farms; the deer and bear who were hunted into oblivion; the ravages of the Civil War; and the forcible evictions in the 1930s of the mountain-dwellers whose land would be taken to form a National Park. The Jones Mountain Cabin itself figured heavily in the story, and a middle-aged man gazed out at me from the pages of the book in a 1979 photo. He was sitting beside the very hearth in front of which I read: his first visit to the cabin since his parents were evicted from it by the federal government when he was 2 years old.

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So in the end, I escaped the horrors of the 2016 presidential election, but was reminded that those horrors are but one particular modern expression of a long history of interpersonal violence, of one kind or another. Jones Mountain is a very peaceful place today, but its previous inhabitants would have many different kinds of stories to tell, both joyful and sad. Their history, long known to me intellectually, briefly entered my soul in a candlelit cabin in the dark of night.

Of tomorrow’s election I have little to say (I did intend to escape, after all). As individuals we may often feel powerless, but our hope lies in the individual relationships we nurture; the connections that come to fruition when we least expect it; the chances we have, every day, to make every single human encounter one of peace and love. No regime, no matter how misguided, could ever stop such a power.

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Time and Choice

The thoughts we allow to enter in, and the actions we choose each moment, give birth to the next moment and all the moments that flow from there. Time will bend and shape itself to how we choose to spend it, but ultimately it comes in a limited quantity. The existence of choice affords a certain type of freedom, but none of us chooses from an unlimited menu. My mother, sister, niece and I were privileged to choose to spend this past weekend in the mountains of Virginia caring for ourselves and each other.

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It’s human nature to crave certainty. We want to know the right career; the right partner; the right place to live; the right time to change jobs/have children/retire, etc. We make lists, weigh pros and cons, and analyze our choices endlessly. In the end though, with each of these big decisions we are mostly just spinning a wheel and hoping for the best. Some of our efforts will bear fruit; others will become beautiful ruins. Regardless of outcome, all were right choices if they were undertaken with good intention.

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It is in the little decisions that our true path is charted. One moment at a time, we have the chance to choose the actions that reflect our values; define who we are; and walk in peace. We have the chance to choose kind words; to have the difficult conversations; to give the benefit of the doubt; and to spend time with the people we care about. In the end, these are the choices that are truly momentous. We walk in the dark, never knowing how much time we have or which choices we will never get to make. In each mindful moment, though, we make the small choices that light a path of purpose and love.

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