Reach For the Sky

My family and I recently visited Pigeon Forge and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I hadn’t been there since I was a child. The drive in, leans easily into rolling green hills. Just when you think the views can’t get any more awe inspiring, the park sprawls out ahead, peak, after magnificent peak. The lush tops are shrouded in a veil of clouds, even on the sunniest of days. I yearn to be close to them, to be embedded in their midst.

Standing out on the covered deck of our cabin, my eyes scan the trees. The sweet melody of an Indigo Bunting, swirls in the pristine air. There he is, perched at the highest limb of a decaying tree. His small blue form pops against the forest landscape. I watch him for a few moments through the lens of my binoculars. The stillness of everything covers me like a weighted blanket. I draw in breath, slow and deep. Holding on to this slice of time, pressing it into my chest, not wanting another minute to pass by.

We are here to celebrate our parent’s 50th Wedding Anniversary. This milestone, fraught with uncertainty, in a world that seems to have gone mad, still glimmers with light. We are together. We are healthy and able. Our photographer takes us to a location, with a backdrop that only God could have created. We draped ourselves in navy and yellow, casual and flowing, hoping to compliment the nature around us. Mom and Dad are front and center, flanked by the products of their love, grit, tears and commitment. Two people, three children, four grandchildren, still reaching for the sky.

The next day, we climb. Up the trail, curving left and right, contouring it’s respective mountain. Giant rhododendrons and leggy tulip trees provide cover. The kids scale stone outcroppings, around every bend, crying “take a picture!”, so I indulge them. Then, to our amazement, we are greeted by a rustling black bear, as he makes his way to the canopy. We watch from afar, allowing him his space. Safely continuing, I hear the rushing sounds of our reward ahead. Coming into view, the waterfall tumbles over boulders, landing in a cool, clear pool below. Shoes and socks are removed in earnest, seeking out relief for our cramped feet.

Our last evening, within the hills, is spent in communion. We grill chicken and cook arroz con gandules, washing it all down with cold lemonade and sodas. I help myself to seconds. After dinner, Dad sits in the recliner watching a documentary about WWII, while Mom is distracted by false claims about the dryer downstairs. I quickly open the box to the buttercream frosted cake and set out wine glasses and a bottle of red. I snap a few pictures, before it is revealed and devoured. This unexpected final touch, brings Mom to tears. They both cut the cake with a single knife, hand over hand. We all toast. To them. To us.

It is so very hard to leave, to say goodbye. I want it to last forever. There is nothing more I crave and nothing more I need, than to be enjoying the company of my people, my tribe, and the outdoors.

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”-John Muir

The Morning After

The soles of my shoes hit the crushed gravel trail early this morning. I had to get outside. The images and stories pouring out from news outlets, are more than I can tolerate. My mind swirls with sadness, disgust and questions. Questions I have no answers for. So, I set out on foot.

Right away, the sun warms my hoodie, while a cool breeze hits my face. Climbing over flagstone outcroppings, down to the pond. I hear “kerplunk”, into the water, as frogs make their escape. A school of minnows flutter from the shallows, under my gaze. Most of the native fauna has yet to bloom. Mounds of greenery billow around me. The trail takes me up and over a hill, to the boardwalk.

Squeals and scratches of two small red squirrels, capture my attention. They chase each other around and around the trunk of an old oak tree. They don’t notice me there, consumed with their own dramas. The soft trails have been washed out by recent heavy rains. Deep crevasses along the edges, remind me of the Grand Canyon, and the power of water. My shoes are now coated by the wet mud.

A looping side trail, offers solitude, so I follow. Coming around the corner, I am greeted by a swarm of honey bees. Their masses take up a large branch of a fallen tree. I stop far enough away to stay safe, but close enough to hear a great symphony of humming and buzzing. There is no fear, only entrancement by this marvelous wonder.

Along the boardwalk and out of the corner of my eye, a flash of tawny brown moves within the foliage. A lone doe grazes, undisturbed by my presence. I am all at once grateful for this day. For the stunning beauty and magic, surrounding me. This is where I am meant to be, where my soul comes to life.

Ahead of me, a brown thrasher pecks the dusty ground, looking for insects. Above me, the shrill cries of blue jays echo through the canopy. An eastern phoebe flies back and forth, between trunks, catching flies mid-air. The occasional jogger passes me, we exchange quick salutations and I move on down the trail.

I feel stronger now, more able to let go of things I cannot control. Focusing inward, bettering myself, so that I can be an instrument of love, a light in the dark. Fostering appreciation for the natural world and the goodness and oneness that is experienced within its midst.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”-Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Springtime Showers

Visceral memories of Spring always bring me back to my Grandma’s house. She lived ten minutes down the road, in a post WWII ranch, built in the 1950’s, on a half acre lot. Grandpa had built a screened in patio, along the back of the house, before he died. A narrow corridor between the garage and the house, led to the backyard and patio door. Funny, we rarely used the front door to enter the house, instead we made our way to the back, sure to find Grandma sitting on the porch swing, drinking tea or smoking a cigarette.

I spent many a Spring weekend, staying with my Grandma. Sleeping with the bedroom windows cracked open, I loved waking up to the sounds of birds and the pitter patter of raindrops on the panes. The smell of bleach coming from the laundry room, a sign of towels or “whites” tumbling in the wash machine. I would slowly rise, eat a bowl of corn flakes with broken pieces of fudge striped cookies and milk in it. A yummy trick I learned from my Uncle.

After I had brushed my teeth and gotten dressed, I would step into the wonderland that was the backyard. A flat stone path, of varying colors and sizes, led down the length of the screened in patio. It was lined with field stones, a border for the flower and shrub garden. A burning bush sat at the center, with a menagerie of annual and perennial blooms and medium sized evergreens. Fuzzy lamb’s ear, orange and yellow marigolds, red, white, and pink geraniums, delicate inpatients, and tall peonies to list a few.

The path led around a corner, where a towering arborvitae stood. The downspout from the top of the patio roof, terminated under the tree. I crouched down to listen, as the water tapped along the metal. It would trickle out onto a pebbled catch basin, where I ran my hand over the wet bumpy surface, breathing in the freshly washed air. I felt one with nature, connected and grounded.

I turned and headed up the hill into the wooded yard. The maples and oaks seemed enormous to me as a child. It was a mystical place to wander. My imagination came to life and I would play out scenes of survival and adventure. Singing songs out loud from my favorite Disney movies. Grandma never bothered me. I was left to my own senses. This little piece of Earth, at my disposal.

Later, after the rain stopped, Grandma would educate me on container planting and vegetable gardening. We would walk together, as she showed me her growing tomato and pepper plants, guarded from pesky rabbits and birds, by wire fencing and pieces of tin pie pans. She would tear off some green onion and place it in her mouth, chewing and nodding her head. I looked at her in astonishment, and then followed her lead. It was tangy, chewy and slightly spicy. “Not bad”, I thought to myself, “Not bad at all”.

She brought out a plastic pot from the garage and poured in a bag of black dirt. She ran her hands through it, creating spaces for the flowers that would soon flourish. One by one, she gently pressed them in to place. Snug in their new home. She filled the watering can from the spigot, taking care, so that it was not too heavy for me to lift. Then I let the water rain down, sprinkling the leaves, saturating the soil. Cultivating new life with Springtime showers.