Between us, by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;
Yea, there is strength in striking root and good in growing old.
“To Edmund Clerihew Bentley,” G.K. Chesterton
(Here I am, again haunted by four solitary lines of poetry, in effect making this a Part II post. Read Part I here, if an odd Edwardian poem and its influence on my current life interests you. If not, read on. It will still make sense.)
When we’ve finished putting up our tents and shelters, quiet pours in gently with the late afternoon sunshine, filling to the brim this bright green bowl in which we’ll spend the night. I listen intently for a moment, thinking I’ll hear the faint roar of the interstate, which isn’t all that far away, or the chatter of wildlife in the dry undergrowth. But no. In the whole of this little dell, the only sound is the occasional murmur of the creek, slowed to a trickle in these last weeks of summer. It’s been a while since I heard this kind of quiet.
I’ve come up to Kendall Lakes with a group of young adults, mainly women in the first few years out of college, as a part of the Ancient Paths ministry through Bethany Community Church in Seattle. Ancient Paths is a ministry that seeks to lead people toward wholeness in Christ through practicing spiritual disciplines of silence, solitude and meditation, all in the context of an overnight wilderness trip. The title comes from Jeremiah 6:16, which reads:
Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
Before we left, I spent a few minutes talking through this verse, explicating it with the only tool in my English-teacher arsenal: grammar. Look at the verbs, I told the participants. Stand, look, ask, walk and rest. This trip is just the first three: a chance to pause (stand) long enough to look and ask. The walking, the resting, they’re part of today, yes, but they’re also ongoing. The “good way” is everything that comes next.
We shouldered our packs, swaying under unaccustomed weight, and hiked a few miles up into the North Cascades, the interstate and the Snoqualmie Pass ski area receding below us as we walked into the remnants of yesterday’s rain. By the time we’d eaten lunch and set up our individual shelters, everyone just out of sight of everyone else, the clouds had burned off, revealing a serene summer afternoon and evening, in which the solitary hours melt together, fading from day to evening.
Around sunset, I climb up to the top of a fallen log, with the dusk at my back, and watch the mist roll onto the lake. Across it, the seven participants are sleeping, praying, reading in their tarp shelters. We’ve given them tools for reflection and physical safety; from my log, I realize that the rest isn’t up to me. I pray for them, for the various seasons that each is walking through, in which this experience stands to be an important moment.
So much has changed about my life since I was last a mountain guide, in the summer of 2011, but the sacredness of this space has followed me through the years, all the way to this sunset on the second night I’ve ever spent away from my two daughters. I’m not twenty-five anymore, but I can still encounter God in the wilderness if I make the time and space to do so.
A phrase came to me six weeks ago on our practice guide trip: “Don’t be mad that you’re not twenty-five anymore.” I don’t usually worry too much about aging. The preacher of Ecclesiastes wrote “For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart” (5:20). Most of the time, that’s how I feel: too busy enjoying and experiencing my life to reflect on its finiteness. But once in a while, when I’m doing something like this, that I used to do often and with ease, I remember it. I’m not twenty-five.
It almost makes me laugh to see it written down, but I also have to resist the urge to delete it altogether, as if insecurity around leaving that part of my youth is something to be hidden, rather than something every woman—perhaps every person—encounters at some point in her life. Don’t be mad; it’s fine not to be twenty-five.
Not just fine, I think now, sitting on my log. It’s actually pretty grand. Life has gotten more complicated than the days when I moved to another continent with just a backpack, but the complications are beautiful, intricate, detailed. My burdens weren’t lighter then, as it’s so easy to remember them from a distance; it’s just that carrying them has made me much stronger now.
Our introduction to Ancient Paths referred to the rites of passage undertaken by various non-Western cultures throughout history, all designed to put away one season of life gently while transitioning to the next. I think about the hiking pants that didn’t fit when I tried them on a few weeks ago, which I finally gave to one of our participants this weekend. It’s OK to put some things away; that’s part of every transition. But I still went on the hike. I bought some new pants and came out anyway. Some things we carry with us into each stage, and for me, these encounters with God in the world that God made are as important as ever.
The time away, the quiet, the solitude: these are limited commodities in these child-raising days. As the sun dips below the mountains behind me, I’m struck with a desire to bring other mothers out here with me sometime. My need to connect with God, for quiet and reflection, didn’t go away when my children were born, but my spiritual practices needed to change. Gone are the days of long devotions, leisurely walks through the forest listening to sermons or writing in my journal on a bench above a sunset. I had to find new routines, new practices for this season. But here, in the mountains again, I’m remembering the preciousness of this space, wondering what it would mean to share it, even just for a short time, with other moms in my life.
When the sun goes down, I climb carefully down from my log, thanking God for the strength and agility to do so, for the body that still works well, that I’m learning to respect and care for in this new season. I crawl into my tent and look up at actual stars for the first time in ages, sharp and clear. The smell of the warm earth and heather of the meadow, the icy stars, the just-ripe blueberries, for way the cliffs disappear into the dusk—all of them are unchanged since I was a little girl, steady as God’s love for us and for this, God’s creation.
And I’m thankful for all that has changed, and also for all that hasn’t.