Journey for Pure Life

That we may be overwhelmed by the wonder and beauty of it all.

When the wilderness inspires faithfulness.

Two weeks ago I finally received that phone call I’d been waiting on. Officially, we’d just become licensed foster parents. And I’d waited seven years. Seven years to receive that phone call. That is where our journey to become foster/adoptive parents began.

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My Disney version had me, a smile plastered on my face, a heart so overflowing with love and snuggles that I could fix anything, save everyone, erase the bad past, be the hero. I can’t tell you how many times I’d pictured the scene. A child arriving at our door, siblings even. The door swings open, our smiling family waiting behind it, open arms for a big embrace. The children outside that door, they smile as well, of course, so happy they are to arrive. Somehow, in my picture to save the children of the world…somehow, I forgot the brokenness, the heartbreak, the deep wounds, the traumatic rip from family. I forgot the reality, and the ugly truth.

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That week also marked nine months of three little additions to our home. There isn’t one single second of that time that has looked like that picture I’d held in my head. The day my own nieces and nephew had to walk through that door…a fairytale shattered all around me…probably no one was smiling. Though perhaps I tried, I don’t remember.

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Later in the week, after the phone call, we pulled the popup out of the driveway, the eight of us, and headed into western-end counties we hadn’t yet covered in my pre-kinship care goal to experience all 100 of North Carolina’s counties. After a day and a half of having my husband there with us, grilling, zoo visiting, staying at the campsite with the kids while I visited the bathhouse, he had to leave us for work.

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There I sat, in front of the campfire, full realization that I was in the woods, in the dark, without the easy comforts of my home, utterly outnumbered even by the children under five. This could be total disaster.

My mind flutters to that moment in the courtroom. That moment everything changed and I realized just what we were taking on. And there would be no turning back.

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Wilderness, literally. That’s where I was. I hadn’t taken on this much before. I didn’t know if it would work out. There would be no easy exits if things went awry. As the kids fell asleep that night (thank you, Jesus), one in my arms and my fire crackling before me, it wasn’t lost on me that the past nine months…the wilderness of my life. And I would take on this camping trip the same way I had taken on those months. If nothing else, one. small. step. at a time.

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Arrowhead Campground is situated on a hill on the edge of 5,000 acre Badin Lake. It lies in one of North Carolina’s four national forests, the Uwharrie. Horseback riding and off-roading subcultures are present in and around the campground. Canebrake, a horse camp, is just around the gravel bend. Off-roading trails are maintained throughout the forest. 4×4 jeeps came in packs throughout the campground. One large group, mud slung across lifted tires, a perpetual game of corn hole going, flew a blue stripe American flag at their site across the loop and had themselves a very different sort of good time than I.

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A shooting range, also in the near vicinity. My closest neighbors, the ones who set up their cozy tent for two while we were away at the zoo and from whom I noticed the “oh, hell” look when we all piled out of the van, spent an afternoon there shooting. (I’m proud to say we were not the loud, obnoxious ones on the campground. I hope they were grateful…I sure was.)

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The east side of Badin Lake is bordered by 50,000 acre Uwharrie, which lies in Montgomery, Davidson and Randolph counties.  A short, paved loop for hiking and biking circles the campground. From our site it leads to a 5.6 mile lake trail, a rocky, rugged, somewhat hilly path just at water’s edge.  The still lake water, a lovely green hue. Dogwoods in bloom, the woods a bright green with the onset of early spring. Only a few buildings dot the horizon I could see. Occasionally, a boat sped by, to or from the ramp that sits just below Arrowhead. Eventually, it found a quiet spot to throw out a pole, and all was undisturbed again. Until a certain two-year-old tripped on a half-buried rock and her shrieks tore through the silence.

Weeks of relative quiet, movement in a good direction…errupted by days of sadness, attacks, complexities…

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Other campgrounds are situated within the Uwharrie. At Arrowhead, the showers are hot and the fire rings are large. The bathhouse is nicer than most, perhaps to make up for the fact that there is no water hookup. Our site, 25, is one of the best, view-wise. There is drinking water access directly across the camp road. Bathhouse, however, on the exact other side of the loop. Have you ever dumped a pee pot every morning?

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We spent one day in Randolph County at the Asheboro Zoo, about a 45 minute drive from the campground. Because we have a yearly family membership to the NC Aquarium, all eight of us received free admission.

Random blessings from those who have eyes to see the need…

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We spent one full day only at the campground, hiking the trails, digging up rocks (I literally just found a backpack full of rocks someone snuck back), playing in chilly streams, catching tadpoles and crayfish and itty bitty baby skinks so new to the world you could see through their translucent skin to the developing organs inside. So cool.

It was lovely and picturesque and adventurous.

But the truth is, camping with children who still need naps is…challenging. Camping with a mama who’s camping with children who still need naps is…risky.

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The ups and down…yeah, we had them. The tantrums and loss of self-control…those too. Battle scars…well, just a few. Unpredictable weather, technical difficulties…only slightly, thank goodness.

And yet, every second of the roller coaster is…worth it. In a world growing in the disconnect, we connected out there in the Uwharrie. With each trip, with each struggle, connection multiplies. Appreciation deepens. For running water, for learned abilities and practical life skills, for the earth and creatures around us, for each other, as we stumble along together. What may seem at first an opposing force (the natural world, difficult people, complex situations, heartbreaks, deep wounds) may actually be our greatest ally, our refining tool.

It may be, if we let it.

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A young woman whose own situation recently fell short of Disney quoted me Charles Spurgeon just hours ago…

“I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”

Yes, that’s it.

I ventured on that solo portion of the trip mostly how I’ve ventured through life these past nine months. One small step at a time. One foot in front of the other. Because I don’t know what lies even a few feet ahead. Today, I am utterly blind to the challenges that will present tomorrow. And I don’t even feel qualified to handle any of them. One minute on this rocky path the sun is out in all its warmth, and in the next moment, all goes dark and cold.

And so, though I go on a bit blindly, because life with children, life on the road, life in foster care is a life that cannot be put into a box, a life of uncertainty and daily question marks, I walk forward in faith. Because that’s all I’ve got. Faith that the sun will light again, just in time to illuminate the way.

Thankful for the wave, crashing me towards something far greater than myself.

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When our hearts are hurt (and how to accept and let go of expectations)

 

Sawdust pile feet

Someone hurt me recently. Went back on their word, had a new priority. Altered an experience for not only me, but a child of mine. Man, that really hurts.

As I wrestle with my anger and hurt, the wounds of being rejected yet again, with the pain this person has caused me, I falter. What do I say? What do I do? How do I expect more but keep the peace? How do I stand up for justice while being loving, kind and good?

The line between extending grace to those who hurt and standing up for just treatment will always be a delicate one for me. The preservation of relationship is always desired, but equally so is relationship foundated on true love and respect. Each situation and relationship is precious and unique, to be handled with thoughtful care and careful thought.

Sawdust pile foundation

A few things I would do well to remember….

1. It could always be worse.

I have people. They are imperfect and they fail to meet my expectations, but they are still my people. There are children wandering a slum right now, waiting for someone to come along and be someone for them. There are people sitting in a court room right now discussing children who literally have no people, no family. Too many of them. There are children around the world today whose entire families have been obliterated by war or disease. I am not one of those children. I am so blessed I scarcely have the ability to recognize it.

2. I must recognize them as the humans they are.

Humans are not God. They are quite flawed. I may write well occasionally, but in daily life I mess up pretty often. I can be awkward, say the wrong thing, fail to be supportive where I should have been, the list goes on. Just like my messy self, so are my people. Most of us are still trying to heal from something. And most likely, we’ll be healing from it, working hard against its negative influence every day for the rest of our lives. Show grace. Amanda, show grace.

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3. Each of us are not only human, we’re also on our own journey.

What illumination (or lightbulb moment) appears to me at 33 another may not realize until 45. Or they may have realized it at 15. Our genetic makeup, our histories, our experiences, personalities and inclinations all work intricately together to make each of us so unique that there’s no way we could all always understand the importance of the same thing at the same time. Our journeys were never destined to be identical, and that is truly a beautiful thing should we have eyes to see it.

4.That person that hurt me has a hurt too.

Somewhere along the line, this person has felt pain as well. In tense moments, it can be hard to remember that. Maybe as recently as yesterday they were hurt. Maybe as a child they were deeply wounded in ways I have no privy to, ways that could have left lifelong scars. Have compassion. How others act out of their own hurt often has nothing to do with me. Remember, it most likely isn’t a reflection of the love and treatment we all deserve. Because we all deserve love overflowing, even that person who just hurt me.

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5. People are not my Savior.

They WILL fail me. They will fall short. Just as I will. My husband said to me several weeks ago, as I cried in the kitchen after a hard day, “you are never going to be her savior,” speaking of a child. I thought I could be. No, not a Savior. I have deficiencies in my character, limits in my energy, resources, confidence and compassion. That’s where we, people, end, and God must begin.

6. Give it up.

I may not ever receive the perfect relationship I crave. I must let it go. Today. I can’t let my high expectation change who I want to be, who God knows I can be. I can pray for our relationship, I can act on those prayers, but I ultimately cannot change anyone. That’s between their heart and God’s.

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7. Most likely, I’m going to do the same sooner than I’d like.

I’m so flawed. I take people I deeply love, admire, laugh with, want more time with…I take those people and I say things to them that immediately put an uncomfortable and unfortunate space between us and I just as immediately wish I could unsay it.

But I’m learning. Slowly, ever so slowly, making better decisions than I did in the decades prior to this moment. I’ll still slip up, I’ll still need to ask forgiveness, check myself…but those moments, God willing, will become fewer and farther between as I recognize and grow from them.

Those people who hurt me…will they grow? Well, that’s in hands not my own. In my hands….my response. What will it be?

Madison's First Sawdust Pile

The Fire That Refines, and the Joy Nuggets Within

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New day. NEW day. Pancakes and tree decorating and live nativity and good friends always there. That cozy, wintry feeling and hot coffee and a husband who graced your dreams last night just to hold your hand there and holiday cheer and fruit  that is the evidence against all the ways the enemy wants to crumble the confidence of who you are.

People who love you. People who know you and want still to love you deeply, faith that this too shall pass and tomorrow will bring yet another new  day.

Children playing in the floor with the Christmas village people, a warm, slow breakfast on a cold December morning. Truth, wisdom, forgiveness.

But Yesterday. Yesterday brought with it challenges brand new to my home, complexities never before sorted through, terrain highly uncomfortable to an easily bruised soul. I spend some time on the kitchen floor, in a peaceful little corner after a done day. And then to bed, where mind and heart can find an eight-hour reprieve.

I grasp a warm mug in the morning, gaze out to the rising sun, look around at all these tidbits of things that I love and that fill my new day, and I feel that nudging reminder about yesterday (and so many days)…

Isn’t this the fire that refines?  The pressure that forces us to choose which road we will take, that presses us to decide who it is we will be?

Isn’t it the heartache that reminds us where to find our joy, for there is joy, always joy, somewhere. The same ache that reminds us where to focus our hearts, that we always have lists, tucked away behind the momentary discomfort, of those things to be truly thankful for, those little nuggets of all that is so, so good and worth the flames. Those little gems that are the result of very small but good decisions day after day, that make up a life and make it wonderful.

I’ve lived on the other side. The side of making very bad decisions day after day. On this side…I’m still one flawed human among other flawed humans. The fire still comes.

This time, on this side, I use it as fuel.

I once heard a pastor say,

“where there is growth there is seldom comfort. Where there is comfort there is seldom growth.”

I wrote it down amidst the scriptures to have as a reminder always.

“And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong.”                 Isaiah 58:11

Please, do that…for I am not so strong.

The pressure will be on, and I accept it not for its pleasantries, but for its polishing process in me, for I am nothing yet that I hope to one day be. And all that I am (and am not) extends far beyond myself and my years.

“And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, you shall raise up the foundations of many generations.”                                                    Isaiah 58:12

Though the waters may rise, my prayer for this day is that our confidence will not be shaken.

Though the waters may rise, may where we stand in the hearts of those who know and love us never be in question.

Though the waters may rise, may we stand firm , never growing weary, in doing the right thing…and the next right thing and the next right thing and the next right thing…despite the heavy attack.

Anyone who ever stood for anything was also called to sacrifice.

I know I am not alone. May you also find confidence, peace and joy nuggets within the fire. And may your new day come quickly.

When The Ideal Falls Away

My husband has always told me that I live in the clouds, less and less often as our years together have passed. I want my dreams,  I want exotic and exciting and grand and picturesque and amazing and fairy tale and beautiful and romantic. I want it all the time and I want it right now without ever counting the cost….but, here’s what I now know…there’s no life in the clouds. Life is here, where I am, in the messy, ugly, extreme, unfair, disappointing, relentless, exhausting, overwhelming, heartbreaking, dark, dark places.

  “Isn’t it here? The wonder?”  ~Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

The ideal has fallen away. You know, that perfect picture. That this-is-how-it-should be picture. That right picture. And so I pray. I beg for answers. I put one foot in front of the other, again and again, day after day. It’s hard. It’s exhausting, it’s frustrating, I get angry. It’s a drain some days and a strain on others. But oddly, as I press through, chug slowly and carefully along, fail and pick myself up over and over, I am filled. I am all of these things but I am filled to the brim with love. With purpose. And I am thankful. For health, for life, for love. For six little faces. For so many things that the ugly struggles attempt to mar and fade. But deep, deep down there is a fire burning. Thanksgiving its fuel.  The fluff, the extras, they are falling away. The core, the important, it alone remains.

Haywood after Matthew

I don’t know the path, I don’t know the right direction, but I’m praying for clarity on the road ahead, for truth to reveal itself. I think of that trail I ran one day in the spring, the Weetock Trail. A portion of it was so heavily overgrown with the fresh green undergrowth of the Croatan forest that the trail was incredibly narrow, just wide enough for me to fit on, just wide enough for me to see the way and the danger ahead. If I hadn’t been so diligently watching the path ahead, preparing myself for what I could come upon, I never would have seen the rattlesnake slowing moving across my path. Its rattle inching, creeping its way from under the lush green into view, my eyes growing wide. Wonder intermingled with fear. My destination, on the other side of that rattle. I had to put one foot in front of the other.

Life feels a bit like that trail right now. Dangers, count on them. Hardship, a certainty. Sometimes we don’t get to say goodbye. Sometimes a child is taken home sooner than our heart could ever be ready. Sometimes our broken earthly home hurts us so badly that we are shuffled from dwelling to dwelling, family to family, all with the shaky hope of mending that shattered picture. He promises to be with us through the struggle but He never promises its absence on earth. He knows, removing it would cripple potential growth. We may forget to give thanks for all that is. And so, He leaves it right where it is. And us, right on the path with it. Just enough is clear to tell me to keep going, but my watch must be constant. Should this path end, change or become a less than ideal one, I’m going to want to know about it. Life is a lot longer than the 11-mile Weetock, and there’s much more at stake.

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And there’s this…All around me, as I’m staring down the rattlesnake, the blue of sky peeking through the abundance of carefully preserved pines, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the eastern grey squirrel crafting their tiny homes, a low-lying still and marshy pocosin giving way to the mayapple nearly blanketing the forest floor with its new growth, the deep valleys left behind by ancient streams in a coastal woodland, the rattlesnake itself a strangely beautiful sight I’ve never before witnessed in this wild, brave creatures taking a peek at their world after a quiet winter, springtime and all its beautiful beginnings. All around me, as I’m staring down the rattlesnake, so much beauty to behold.

“Isn’t it here? The wonder?”  ~Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

The Embrace of the Village

Carver

We walk through the metal gates of the middle school football field, the seven of us. Over my shoulder is a fold-up chair, a cooler bag filled to the brim and a giant purse with all the necessities for the day—sippy cup, diapers, wipes, little toys and candy for bargaining good behavior. In my other hand I grip a little one. To all the other littles, who trail along behind me, I have doled out helmets, pads, water bottles, blankets. We stop to count heads and pay our entrance fee, and I realize with a frown that it’s chilly out. And really wet. I had woken at 5:30 am to be here and dressed in 85 degree weather clothes. I am not amused by chilly and wet.

We trudge slowly across the field, freshly cut grass collecting on our flip flopped feet and legs, before settling our blankets, toys and snacks somewhere around the 50 yard line under an overcast, misty sky.

Two hours later I am sweaty, my white shorts are dirty on the seat, I have given up my chair to Ma (my grandma) and am on the ground with Legos and trucks spread all around me. One of the littles is crying and snotting for no other reason than that I had woken her before the sun was up, the other kids are huddled under umbrellas in an effort to hide from the hot sun, I can’t keep enough water in the bottles to satisfy all the thirst, I have already pulled out my secret candy plus some, one little has fallen on the wet bleachers after I told them all not to get on the bleachers (after which a cry erupted, I almost lost some cool and half of the team parents turned to look at our scene), and I’m texting my husband, who is probably blissfully driving from one job site to the next listening to pre-children music in the solitude of his truck, “Never again…”

I attempt a few photos and video with my big, obnoxious lens that makes it look like I know what I’m doing. Football is so new and foreign to me that much of the time I don’t know what I’m looking at it. Behind a camera lens, forget it.

I put away the camera to focus on my son and the game.  I find myself watching a play where the other team fakes to the right and quickly passes to the left, my son’s corner. He has already left the corner to head right and completely misses the handoff. I take in every detail, understanding it, a rarity for football and me. I don’t scold, I don’t yell, I resist the frustration that many other sideline parents don’t. I don’t really have the energy left for it anyway.

The littles are occupied with other children and I stand to watch the next play, camera hanging by my side. My oldest, he’s close to the end zone, on defense, when he’s knocked off his feet by a kid who, though lean, towers over him. He catches himself with his hands as the other team scores. I watch him get up, then wince and baby his left arm. “He’s hurt,” I say to no one. Ma hasn’t even a clue where he is on the field. I’m not really sure if she’s aware of what sport it is she’s pretending to watch. I quickly walk the sideline to meet him and in a whirlwind of team moms and players and water bottles he’s given ice and benched, wincing and teary-eyed. I stand behind him, alone and unsure of what to do.

Halftime arrives minutes later and we all realize he’s out for the remainder of the game. His jersey is turned inside out, moved gently around his wrist and he watches the last half with his ice pack on his arm. His dad, who’s been trying to get a play-by-play from me all day, calls to talk to him, wishing so badly that he’s here with us. He’d know what to do.

It’s Monday morning now and my daughter colors at a child’s table of the doctor’s office while my injured one sits by a window holding his ACE-bandaged wrist. The woman at the front desk explains to me that there seems to be a problem with the insurance, possibly on our end but probably on theirs. At the same moment she realizes there is a glitch on the insurance end, our pony-tailed doctor with the big white smile spots us and brightens. She immediately tells the front desk woman not to worry, we are good, she didn’t realize it was us, and waves us clear. Our sons play football together. Before that it was baseball, I think, and scouts. Suddenly I feel the quaint smallness of my town and I feel less alone.

We talk for awhile in the exam room about the team, the coaches, the game before she sends us about half a mile down the road for an x-ray. Despite all my initial “it’s fine, I’m sure it’s just a minor sprain” we soon receive the call that tells us our oldest has his first fractured bone and he’ll need to go see Dr. So and So this afternoon.

As I stand there in my living room, listening to pieces of my husband’s conversation with the doctor, I almost physically feel my world getting smaller, good smaller, and my people crowded all around me. The desert island I sometimes occupy has vanished and I’m standing in the middle of the village, a charming one that I don’t acknowledge often enough. Dr. So and So had been at our house the night before, delivering a meal to us with his wife and children, one of whom I used to tutor in my homeschool co-op class. My community seems to grow each year, friends move far or we don’t talk often, but somehow a safe, supportive haven of people has been intricately knit together within the larger community, and they show up just when you need a reminder that God has not left you alone, not at all.

As those people find out about my son’s weekend injury, added to the pile of recent heartbreaks and challenges, they call, they message, they pray their concern for us. In recent weeks needs have been provided for, dinners have been served (which my husband and I secretly wish could continue all year! Why stop a good thing?). One says, “you must be a really strong person for God to feel like you could handle one more thing.” Not at all. I’m just a girl relying on love to carry me through one day at a time. But all these kind words are sent to me, because of a situation that can’t be changed and in normal circumstances would be a minor one…and well, words are my love language and they communicate love. Just when I need to feel love.  Last week I felt I was on an island (an island with wild four-year-old boys and no babysitters). This week I feel the embrace of the village. The village makes my heart swell so much that I almost embrace the hard days as well.

I’ve always tried to surround myself with those who are better than me. Not prettier or wealthier, but soul better, better inside. Wiser, more loving, more giving, more kind, because that’s who I want to be. So though I may place myself on the island at times, I can’t be there for long. These people I surround myself with, they’re all still there, and they won’t let me.

As we head off the field that sunny Saturday afternoon, my arms are more full than when I came. Helmets and pads have been added to my pile, chair and bags still slung over my shoulder, while my oldest walks beside me cradling his hand. We are just about to stop for a hot dog when a man runs up beside me and offers assistance.

“I’m walking your way so I’d be more than happy to carry some of that.”

I may have let him had we not been stopping but I actually have a pretty controlled chaos organized at the moment. I decline, drop all our gear and buy my son a hot dog. Most of the time we don’t need the help; certainly we’ll survive without it. But indeed, it lifts the load when others offer to carry just a bit of it. It brings others alongside us, to take part in the fellowship that disruption and hardship can bring if we allow it, it reminds us of the great beauty and selflessness of so many among us, it inspires us to mimic the same when it’s our turn. To be on the receiving end of all that greatness…well, it makes the load worth carrying.

To my village, thank you. In every magnificent or tiny way you’ve been there, I feel the embrace. It’s everything.

50 yard line

I thought I had time to tell you…

Gdaddy Britt

I was at your house today, but you weren’t there. The house you grew up in, moved back to in retirement and cared for with all your heart. The beautiful old house with the garden you carefully tended and the workshop you built my daughter’s doll bed in and the small woods you cleared for walking through and building a fort in for the littles who came to visit, the field behind it where you let the small boys “drive” your truck, and the countless photographs of all of us throughout the years placed in every last room of the house.

And you weren’t there.

I hugged my dear struggling but striving sister more tightly than she’d ever let me before, and she hugged me just as tightly back, and we cried for you.

I looked upon the lovely bathroom that was remodeled just for you, the great and long ramp that was built just for you by your own son’s hands, the hospital bed that had been brought in just for you and set up in front of the windows overlooking the backyard. But you weren’t there to use them.

I didn’t get to say any of the things I wanted to say. I didn’t get to do any of the things I wanted to do. I thought we had more time. And now you’re gone.

I let this blown-up photo on wood sit on my table for one whole week. I sat on these words I wanted to say. I let them mull over in my mind, I waited, I hesitated. Afraid of how they’d be taken, afraid it was too soon, too much of my heart. It wasn’t too soon. Maybe it’s never too soon.

Life, being the complex, intricate, crazy design that it is, has recently placed me with six little people under my care, all your great-grandchildren. So on these words I waited, I got busy. Legitimately busy, shuffling these six to appointments, visits, school. Dealing with tantrums, meals and baths. And that night was busy…your last night. We tried. Oh, we tried. But we were too late.

The call came around breakfast time, when neighbors were out walking their dogs and sipping coffee, and I sobbed in a ball on my back porch. I dropped everything. I should have dropped it all when you were still with us.

I’ll never be sure of why life robbed my little sister of those last few moments with the one true and good man she’s ever known. But I’ll forever be thankful for the moments she spent with you in your last weeks. And I’ll forever pray that she honors you with her life. You were there for her when no one else was.  You loved her like no other man ever has. Thank you so much for that.

My childhood was incredibly richer because of you. Some things I forget easily these days, but some things are etched in my memory so clearly and forever…the countless hours I spent playing with Barbies from the 70’s in your Greenville attic, the old Tomcat and the smell of his cat food, the Atari in the back bedroom, the little shadow box in the kitchen and all its tiny little pieces I can’t believe Grandma Britt let me play with, roaming your neighborhood and getting hurt on a construction site, exploring the small bit of woods behind your house, having lemonade stands with the neighborhood friends I made, attending beauty pageants for the girl across the street, being fed loads of sweet potato casserole every Thanksgiving (which is my one Thanksgiving contribution today), reading books in the hammock on the screened-in porch of the cottage at the river, taking sink baths at that river cottage, getting stung by five wasps while exploring a wooded hillside, catching fireflies and keeping them for our nightlight in a jar.

During that short union between your son and my mom, you were the silver lining. The true blessing. You let me in like I was one of you. And I was never anything but.

One month ago, on August 9 I wrote these words. I meant to share them with you. But one month later, I didn’t get the chance.

“We grew apart for a time. I got older and drifted. I probably thought I’d lost you, as I’d lost all the others. I hadn’t. Not really. Not for one second in our hearts. I just know it. I can feel it. If only I’d known then. If only I’d known what family meant, and who that family was. Family isn’t built in the blood. Family is crafted in the heart. You were, you are, a part of that family. I’m so sorry for not knowing that, for not staying in the picture, for not holding you so tight that you couldn’t go away from me even if you tried. It’s hard to know when to do that…and when to just walk. But to you, I’m sorry, because I love you. You rare epitome of love.

But I did get lost for awhile and when I came back you let me right back in, like we’d never missed a beat, like I’d never done anything I shouldn’t have, like we were real family, like you loved me. For me. And I know you did. And for that, I thank you, because that is everything. Not everyone does, even those who probably should. You did.

So I can’t imagine a world, my world, without you. I don’t want to. My sister, who needs you, doesn’t want to, shouldn’t have to. You see, it’s strong, kind-hearted, caring, genuine men like you who make this world worth living in. It’s men like you who care about people, are kind to other people, who accept people just as they are, who love them the very same no matter if they’re making all the right decisions in life or all the wrong ones. You’re the kind of man I look up to and hope my sons and nephew will one day be…and if only they had more time with you.

I have never, never known tragedy as I have this past year and a half. With each blow I say, “Ok, God, that’s too much now.” Then another comes. And that’s life, I suppose. It sometimes just does what it will. I get angry. I want to undo it and I can’t. I. Just. Can’t. With most things in life there is something you can do, some move to make even if its effect is minor. But this, but death…I can’t do anything. None of us can do anything. It’s difficult for a heart to grasp.

Like you, I will also have my time to go. Please don’t feel like you got the short end of the stick while the rest of us are to remain here, living it up. There will forever be a void. And I am only an ex-step-granddaughter. There will always be a void. I’m going to blink and it’s going to be me. Please don’t feel like you are alone. I’m no longer ignorant to the fact that one day, which will feel like much too soon, it will be me also. It will be all of us. We will go with you. Will be with you.

You. You are….stability. You are a rock. You are love. You are a foundation upon which one can build on even after being torn down. You are steady. You are never changing. You are kind. Oh so kind. You are hospitable. You are standing there with open arms. All the time. No matter what. You are golf and summers by the river and Spill the Beans and Greenville and the perfect reading hammock and Richmond with Uncle Leon and a picnic table on the porch and that hill by the river where Becky had to use her cigarette tobacco on my stings and blueberry muffins and a winding country road and Thanksgiving and slow Christmases and an old country museum.

I have six of your six great-grandchildren, like you said. I have no idea what the road ahead looks like. I pray to God everyday that He works out the right one. But I can tell you that where it concerns me, no matter what the path looks like, your loving spirit will shine through and guide us. We will make you proud. Have no fear of that.

I know where you’re headed. I’ve read about it, I’ve dreamt about it, prayed about it, thought about it, questioned it. But if you’re going, well, that’s where I’m going. No more questions. Please tell Jesus that I appreciate His example. Unquestionable love for everyone, anywhere, anytime. I appreciate His sending us the few, like yourself, to remind us of His heart.”

Heaven, universe, people, please get the message to him for me. I just didn’t get the chance to tell him.

Asheville, Cades Cove and Elkmont

In June, I was scheduled to go tent camping in the mountains of Tennessee with my three children. We were to spend two nights at Elkmont for the annual synchronous fireflies and stop at Cades Cove for a night on the way.

I had just had six children in my home from Friday to Sunday. I loved every second of it, but my grand plan for Monday was to rest. Eat good food that someone else prepared nice and slow, maybe even watch The Help. Actually sit on my new couch, possibly even for an hour at a time. Monday was looking good.

But then I got to to thinking…three nights in the mountains after driving nine hours to get there isn’t enough. “Ooooh, maybe I can leave early and stay in Asheville for a night! Ooooh, I love Asheville, though I’ve never been there. That’s it, I’ll leave early and finally see this funky, eco-friendly, hipster mountain town.” And just like that, my lazy Sunday evening turned into a whirlwind of packing for my first actual tent camping trip alone with my kids.

Lake Powhatan 1

Lake Powhatan 2

We drove to Asheville, camped at woodsy Lake Powhatan, named for Pocahontas’ father. The campsite we had here was probably one of my favorites of all time. It was tucked up into the trees on a large elevated camp pad. Once we climbed its wooden stairs to the pad we were mostly secluded from other campers. The kids played hide and seek in our own private forest area before we settled down to a hot dog dinner cooked by my ten-year-old. Before leaving, we swam in the campground lake, explored a little of downtown Asheville and ate breakfast at Tupelo Honey, where there was already at line when they opened at 9 am on a Tuesday and the biscuits and jam were the best I have ever tasted in my life and the grit bowl with avocado on top that I got was so amazing and the service was so good that my eight-year-old commented on it. I can’t wait to go back. Then we headed west. To Cades Cove.

To Cades Cove 1

Cades Cove.

“Two bears per square mile. 1600 bears. 800 acres. One was in camp last night,” the ranger at check-in told me.

Ok. O.K.

We drove to our campsite and I found we’d been given a prime bear-target spot at the very edge of the campground, the big, wide 800-acre forest directly out our tent door.

I slept with a machete next to my head.

Cades Cove 2

I awoke early the next morning with every ounce of my body telling me to stay there on my egg crate bed, sleep longer, take the day slow, enjoy the friendly neighbors we had met two sites down, let the kids ride their bikes round and round the safe campground roads to their hearts desire, rest from the packing and unpacking, the bike rack wrestling, the tent up and down, sip my tea as my kids whizzed by or got as close as they could to a mama deer in “our” woods. Just, you know, pause and enjoy.

But I didn’t. We had a plan. Ok, I had a plan. We had to get to the fireflies. I told a friend we’ll call AQ, the friend who’d given us her Elkmont campsite,  that we would. I couldn’t flake. It’s not like she would be there or we were meeting anyone, but I hate to be a flake. So, I skipped my tea altogether and rushed us down to the bike rental shop.

This is where it’s helpful to get all the little details from someone with experience. Cades Cove is a beautiful valley where wildlife and the preserved homes of early settlers can be seen and toured. Our plan was to bike the beautiful 11-mile loop of Cades Cove before it opened to vehicles at 10 am. It was the reason I borrowed a bike rack and struggled with it every single time I attempted to hook up the bikes, the reason I borrowed a large bike trailer to pull my three-year-old in, the reason I got up so early to rent a bike for myself when I wanted to sleep. Even the best-laid plans go awry.

There are no bike trailers allowed. There are no tricycles allowed. That’s it. So we simply couldn’t bike Cades Cove that morning. I was heartbroken and distraught for a moment, but once we hit the loop in the van we were far from disappointment (and given a reality check about the hill climbs and three-year-olds and bike trailers). It was gorgeous. One spot in particular we all had a hard time leaving, the Dan Lawson house. Barn swallows flitted in and out of the simple 1840s cabin to a nest they had attached to a wooden rafter. The kids found bats hanging in the loft room upstairs and were just as ecstatic as if it had been some friendly bear cubs. They told everyone who came in.

The view of the cove from that deep, covered front porch was one I imagined must have been paradise to wake up to in the quiet 1800s, before the line of cars came through, when all you could hear were the chickens pecking behind the house and an occasional rooster crow, when it was probably common to look out and see wildlife most misty mornings in the green expanse before you.

Cades Cove 3

Cades Cove 4

Cades Cove 6

By day three we had put up and taken down the tent three different times, cooked over a fire at least as many times, blown a bike tire, given up decent hair and true cleanliness, argued over one too many non-argumentative topics for my liking (is it just my ten-year-old?), searched for bear but seen a chipmunk, deer, a monarch butterfly cluster, bats and barn swallows, listened to the incessant chatter of my three-year-old, and moved to a more isolated campsite than the friendly, social one at Cades Cove, where I’d felt strongly we should have lingered.

I was getting tired. Maybe we all were.

I didn’t know it yet on that third night but the next day I would lose yet another pair of Reef flip flops in a river. My friend AQ had been all “oh yeah, there’s a river flowing past the campground and you can tube and it’s great!”

A failed rocky tube ride, a dump into an unexpectedly deep portion of swiftly moving ice-cold water and a rescue from my calm-under-pressure oldest as I balanced my tip toes on the one rock I could grasp beneath me while my two youngest screamed and cried their heads off as they clung to me was this trip’s mountain river experience.

My littlest had the nerve to say, long after the screaming had subsided, “that was ack-chewy fun.”

Cades Cove 7

The next night we sat on an unpaved road, the Little River flowing along one side of it, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s forest filling up all the space on the other side. Hundreds of other firefly watchers lined the path with us, all the flashlights covered with red cellophane so as not to disrupt the mating ritual that is the synchronous lighting of the hundreds, no thousands, of fireflies in the forest that June night. They shuffled past us, most in hushed, reverent tones, but just a few (of course those who landed next to us) in obliviously obnoxious voice levels. Some came from our campground, Elkmont, but it seemed that the majority of those around us had been bussed in, or rather, trollied in from nearby Gatlinburg after getting lucky in the firefly lottery.

Each year the synchronous fireflies light up the sky at Elkmont for a few short weeks. As the sky darkens and the watchers wait, a few fireflies ever so slowly become a glorious twinkling in the pitch black night. By 9:30 or 10 pm they all light up at once, filling you with a mystical, sleepy feeling, wondering if it’s real or you’re just half-dreaming there in the dark. Then the fireflies all go dark themselves. One by one they all burn out until it’s just black again and you know you must have imagined it. And then the incredible, all at once twinkling again.

It’s like an understated natural forest magic, back there where there’s no cell service and the bears are abundant and the old buildings and graveyards of a long-abandoned village loom. The kids had begged me not to go looking for those old cemeteries. As it turned out, lying there amongst the enchantment of the fireflies was quite enough.

Elkmont 1

“Is this a mom and her kids?”

The guy had passed behind me in the dark as I sat breathing in the peace the fireflies had brought. He had turned, come back and leaned down beside me. An ounce of fear struck as I wondered what this stranger could want. It was gone when he asked me that question.

“Yes,” I softly answered.

“Wow! Five golden stars to you! That’s just great! Good for you. And the three of them lying there in the dark against the white blanket…that’s a great picture. Well done.” And then he was gone.

I looked down at my kids. They were all asleep on the white blanket I had carried up the trail. Rief was on his stomach, the other two lined up beside him and curled up in their sides, their poses almost an exact match.

This is why we’d come. To see those fireflies light up the night sky in a way we’d never seen. And my kids had fallen asleep. They were missing it. And I was ok with it. Because I so needed the peace. Because, if we’re honest here and I am, I was exhausted. I was grumpy. My head hurt. He hadn’t been the only one to comment on my making this trip alone with three kids. A friend of mine recently took a road trip to Texas alone with her four. Her takeaway from that long haul: “Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it!”

The fact is, this trip of mine, three children (one argumentative, one dramatic, one wild), one mom, 4 nights in a tent, cooking every meal over a fire…much of it was new to me, most of it was utterly gorgeous, but it was hard. For an introvert like myself, the body and mind need rest. Time alone to recharge. And that’s ok.

The funny thing is, the friend who gave me the Elkmont spot, AQ, she practically planned my trip.

“I have these campsites and we can’t go…do you want them?”

“Hey, you should also go to Cades Cove…”

And if it’s AQ recommended, I’m most likely always going to do it.

I repect this fellow homeschool friend, she makes me laugh, and she has pretty grand adventures of her own. Another mutual friend once casually commented, as we were discussing camping, traveling or some such, that AQ is tougher than me. My brow furrowed, my jaw set, my inner determination grew about 1000 times bigger, and I never forgot it.

Elkmont 3

But I realized through camping with my three that I’m just not AQ. We are totally different people, with different personalities, skills, passions. The trip was beautiful, but helped me realize where I need to set limits and listen to my own intuition. At times it was clearly telling me to do one thing, and I just didn’t listen to the wisdom of my own heart.

So as I lay there in awe amidst the fireflies, I let them sleep. I woke them toward the end of our time, they looked up with a “whoa” and were asleep again. This was just for me. Some things take many years, much life and an empty tank to appreciate. And that’s ok.

Elkmont 2

Winter Along the White Oak Part II: The Sawdust Pile

 

Saw Dust Pile 1

I first started coming out here, really coming out here, when this yucky thing happened, or rather, multiple yucky things at once with one unresolved, persisting, that completely broke my heart and overwhelmed my soul. We’ve all had those things, those gut-wrenching, horrible, ugly, cry on your pillow, cry while driving down the road, cry from your very core when there’s little else you can do except watch it happen and endure. We all have those things. They shatter our innocence and harden us just a little more for having lived it or been witness.

Maybe I came out here to grieve some losses. Maybe I came out here to get away and find some peace. Maybe to get quiet with God and creation, away from the pounding, joy-stealing noise. Maybe to gain perspective, to know that this too shall pass, to know that God and all the good forces on this earth are bigger and grander than the fairly large pieces of yucky I’ve seen. Maybe all of that rolled into one magnificent landscape that calms an aching soul.

And so I keep coming back.

Each time it is with fresh eyes, a new corner yet unknown to me…a still and beautiful pocosin, sunning turtles having found their very own private Eden…a quick and terrified squirrel finding his way into a tree hole high above the ground…ducks at rest on a hidden water, the warm sun beaming off of its quiet surface…

And one ginormous sawdust pile.

Saw Dust Pile 3

The first day I came upon it, I had been on the Weetock Trail for a couple of hours and needed to get off. It was a gorgeous day, but I had somewhere to be, evening would be coming on and I wasn’t sure how far I was from the southern end. There was no map and according to the sign at the northern end I should have reached some pile of sawdust by now. I had begun somewhere around the middle of the trail. I had asked my husband to pick me up, thinking I was approaching a stopping point and a simple exit onto a forest road. Except that I wasn’t. There was no sign of a road or anything I was familiar with, and though I knew the direction to go I didn’t want to leave the clearly marked trail to find my husband’s truck. So, walking more quickly, I kept going.

 

Saw Dust Pile 2

On the trail ahead of me I saw something. Some type of path, wider than the trail, cut across it perpendicular. I stood in this new path, forest rising up all around me, and glimpsed field to my left and a dirt mound to my right, but I was far more interested in what was in the woods in front of me. The brick remains of civilization. A chimney? A foundation? It was small but seemed larger than a chimney would have been. I had read about the possibility of old homestead remains off of the Weetock Trail, and I was intrigued.

About half a second after I saw it I thought I heard faint voices. I brushed it off, knowing I was utterly alone. But then I heard it again. Ghosts from the old homestead?

“Hello?” I called.

No response. Then, the sound of a dog and I immediately thought I must have come upon hunters, who sounded like they were on the other side of that mound, where perhaps a field lay. Not only did I want to make myself known if they were hunters, but I needed to find my way out. My husband was still waiting somewhere out there.

I crunched back through the brown oak leaves that carpeted the trail beneath me to the wide path and called out again.

“Hello?”

As I peered around the trees towards the mound I saw them. People. People! The three of them looked down on me from their high perch atop the dark mound, quietly puzzling over my appearance for a moment. I shadowed my eyes from the sun that was shining brightly directly behind them. My heart sank at their young appearance and I found myself thinking, “They’re not going to help me!”

“Hi…do you know where I am?” I asked awkwardly.

“Are you lost?” one answered.

The girl, in between two boys, yelled down to me with excitement, “This is the Saw Dust Pile!”

This is the Saw Dust Pile?” I called back in surprise, both of us speaking of it as though we were standing at the pyramids at Giza.

She smiled and laughed, “Yeah!”

Saw Dust Pile 4

 

Saw Dust Pile 5

A minute later I was standing at the top with these 20-somethings, doing things we won’t mention up there, but comfortable enough that they felt no need to hide, overlooking not a field on the other side but Hunter’s Creek, as it meandered down below us. Young trees as far as we could see on its far bank, for we could see above their tops. A big, black dog romped and played in the almost black sawdust.

Saw Dust Pile 6

 

Saw Dust Pile 7

“It’s been here since, like, the 1920’s,” the girl said. “It used to be an old mill.”

“They used to float logs from here over to Swansboro on the river,” one of the guys, the one with the shirt, said as he pointed down the creek.

“I haven’t been here since I was a kid,” the girl said, sipping on her bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. “We used to come hang out at the Saw Dust Pile, “ she giggled.

I stood there with them, total strangers, watching the dog run down the pile for a quick swim in the creek, listening to their stories about the old mill and the girl’s chatter about the weekend festivities in Emerald Isle at the St. Patrick’s Day Festival and her attempted recovery from it, the sun just beginning to lower in the sky, answering, “Yes, that was my minivan you saw parked at Long Point” and feeling old, listening to the gentle rustling the breeze made when it passed through the trees.

They walked me back through the fields, the girl talking the whole time, taking me on a route that is so easy now that I know it but one I would never have found my way through that day, where we came out directly at the spot they knew my husband would be parked.

Saw Dust Pile 8

 

Saw Dust Pile 9

My littlest had fallen asleep in the truck during their search for me and when he awoke, hours later, he said, “we came to find you because you were lost in the woods!”

I wasn’t lost. But in places like this, and with people willing to help you find your way out when it’s time, it’s kind of nice to feel like it sometimes.

Saw Dust Pile 10

A couple of weeks later, after spring had sprung and my kids had already been to the Sawdust Pile once, they asked to go again. We walked across the field that leads to the pile, fishing pole and worms in hand, the sun warm on our faces. Halfway across we spotted a forest service truck and trailer, and were soon after stopped by its driver, who stood waiting for something outside of it. He let us know that there would be a prescribed burn in the Croatan Forest that day, and we’d have to cut our trip short. I barely had time to register my disappointment when he asked us to step towards the truck so his helicopter could come in and land.

“Wha…now?” I gaped as, sure enough, a helicopter was landing right in front of us in the formerly quiet field. The last time we had been so near a helicopter Emma was being airlifted to the Greenville hospital after a severe head injury and we had both flown in a light rain through the dark night sky for 30 of the most prayerful, high-anxiety minutes of my life.

Sawdust Pile helicopter

The guys (and one girl) from the forest service gave us such a treat that day. We never made it to the Sawdust Pile, but we left with a new and good helicopter memory. They were incredibly welcoming, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the fact that someone had wandered in on their fire starting. The kids sat in the helicopter, tried on the gear and would have taken off if they could have. Instead, the guys showed us how they start the fire with small chemical balls and the machine used to activate them. The helicopter pilot, who lives in Seattle but travels all over the US starting controlled fires or putting wild ones out, had me wait and meet his wife and dog, who both work and travel with him. He was smitten with our Dixie dog, who we had with us and who I’ve been, in theory, trying to find a permanent home for. So close they were to adopting her, but she just got a lot of extra love from some forest people in the end.

We ended the day at Haywood Landing, just a short forest road away but not on fire, and Emma caught a small sunfish (the first for any of us at that spot), despite the noise from the rowdy boys camping nearby.

We left hours after setting out, sun-kissed, refreshed, and soul happy. Just what we were looking for.

Saw Dust Pile 1

Winter Along the White Oak: Part I

White Oak 1

I had purposed in my mind to spend the winter outside, no matter how cold, gloomy, rainy, or dreary. There are, after all, excellent benefits to getting outside during the cold weather months. Continue reading

Misadventure on the White Oak

Old Bridge 2

“You’re not invincible. You can’t just do whatever you want.”

I unpack my little bag and look down upon everything I was able to salvage, those things that seemed of so little value when I packed them. Those things that now seem miraculous to have made it out of the river today. A completely sopping black towel, an apple, granola bar and a Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie, my Audubon Society tree identification book, also waterlogged. The White Oak River Trail map I had picked up only moments before the accident at the campground, still attached to my daughter’s pink leopard print lunchbox where I had safely stored my new camera. And the two best things, my glasses, new and necessary at most all times now, which I was wearing at the time of the incident, and my tiny green journal with a sprig of a plant and the word “Inspire” etched on the front.  I took a deep breath of gratitude for these, at least.

Those items lost today…my flip flops and phone, I never even saw them go they were gone so fast. A towel. My oldest son’s green water bottle. I remember catching sight of that bright green in the river during my distress. A pocketknife my oldest had leant me. It had been sitting between my legs…in case I saw a bear. My kayak, my actual bleeping (feel free to insert any and all words, I certainly did that day…and if you know me, you’ve probably never or only rarely heard them out of my mouth) kayak. Not that it was gone, just stuck. With hundreds of pounds of rushing water holding it in a position it wasn’t likely to come out of anytime soon, especially with more rain on the forecast. And finally to my deepest sorrow, my new camera. My days old, very expensive, the one I had my heart set on, the only thing I really wanted for Christmas, the doesn’t have insurance on it yet, camera. I got it. And then I watched as the beautiful White Oak River submerged it in milliseconds.

Old Bridge 1

I had wanted to kayak the day before, and put in at White Oak River Campground and Lakes in Maysville (not to be mistaken with White Oak River Campground of Stella). I hadn’t kayaked that far up river yet and had put in at Dixon Field Landing the day before that, just a day or two after Christmas. I planned to take my youngest two with me. No big deal, the river was tame. They’ve come with me on different trips. But by the time we drove out there it was overcast, drizzling and the temperature had dropped significantly. So we headed back home, stopping to play in the woods for a bit at Dixon Field off of HWY 58 on the way.

I received a text from my husband the next morning:  “If you want to go kayaking today I can come home and watch the kids.” My weather app showed less than ideal conditions and shortly after his text it briefly showered at my house. If I was going to blaze a new trail I really wanted it to be beautiful outside while I was doing it. So I held off…until about 1 p.m., when I saw that it was windy but sunny and warm. So I talked my husband into dropping me off at the Maysville campground launch. (Normally, I make a round trip and drive myself back home, but this time I wanted to be able to explore further without turning.) I had a slight unexplainable funny feeling, but all my experience on the river thus far had been great and so I dismissed it.

I packed up a little backpack with essentials. I waved goodbye to my husband and littlest, who stood on the bank and watched me go. I snapped a few pictures of them as I went, to which my husband shouted, “You should be using your old camera out here!” I could tell he wasn’t happy but I smiled and lightheartedly called, “No way!”  I’d done this many times by now and knew there was no way my camera wasn’t safe with me. It’s not like I was rafting down the Colorado River, for goodness sake. The White Oak is more like a lazy river. And I thought so as I sat back, a smile on my face and in my heart, happy as a clam, and let the river slowly take me.

White Oak River Campground

As I drifted away from the campground I remembered the so-called “rapids” I had read about and seen photos of. From other’s recordings it was completely manageable. Plus, two days ago I passed the first people I ever had on the isolated river, three adults and a child, who told me they had put in at the very spot I just had and seemed to have been having the grandest time of their lives. So I knew what was coming and from what I had researched, it wasn’t dangerous.

White Oak 1

The narrow river wound behind a few houses before turning away from the highway and in towards the dense forest. The sights of civilization fell away as the trees and thick brush rose up on each side. I began to hear rushing water then. I did get a bit nervous, but reminded myself it was nothing. If the others had been fine, so would I also be. And I truly believed it.

An old steel bridge came into sight, small rapids, ripples really, below it. The bridge, the whole scene, was quaint. Sunny late December day, tall pines and bald cypress lining the cool black water between, wilderness so close to and yet untamed by the world around it, and then the old bridge. Abandoned and hidden, overgrowth cutting off any pathway that would have ever been on either side. It stood at the end of the enchanting tunnel I was in.  Obviously no longer in use I didn’t wonder too much about the small bridge until later, when I discovered it was probably built around the late 1800s as a part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and is one of the few pieces still remaining. Today it stands alone and I doubt very little of the nearby residents even know of its existence, or remember it in its heyday.

Old Bridge 3

I took a quick photo, put my camera away and gently rolled over the first rapids. Ah, nice, I thought, as I smiled. At the end of that first set water came up and over the front of my skirt-less kayak, a little making its way into the front end where my bags were. My smile became a shaky one. A little close but ok, still manageable, I thought. Everything had to be fine, after all. It was then that I realized I was quickly heading directly toward a piling instead of in between them. As fast as I could move I attempted to right myself between them but was unsuccessful. I had no life jacket on.

“The ones who push the limits, discover the limits sometimes push back.”  Chasing Mavericks

I hit the concrete piling at an angle, more perpendicular to it than parallel. I used my oar to push off of the piling. The now rushing water proved stronger. A small amount of water came over the left side, reaching my bags. Problem. Bleep. Then I watched as, in what could only have been milliseconds, water rushed in, flooding every corner of my yellow kayak, capsizing it and dumping me out. It happened so fast that I don’t remember the actual moment of exit. But I too vividly recall watching with horror as hundreds of pounds of water pushed my kayak on its side, pinning it and me against the piling. In complete panic and desperation I gripped the kayak and grasped inside the black hole where I hoped my bags still were. I had no idea if they were but as the water roared around me I had to try to retrieve them. Unable to see, I plunged my hand inside, frantically swatting it from left to right and up and down, water fighting against me with each movement. My hand landed on something and I yanked it up on the piling. The blue and orange backpack that held my food. Bleep. NOT the camera bag. Not that there was any hope for it. I plunged my hand back into the darkness, deeper this time, grasping, grasping. Nothing. I couldn’t find it. Had it already been washed out? My eyes focused on nothing as my hand fought the loud, overpowering deep and dark water. And then, I pulled out that little pink bag that held my prized possession. I can’t recall getting on top of the piling but suddenly there I stood, panting, stricken with shock and horror at the sight before me, bleeping away. I should have felt cold but I felt nothing but survival adrenaline. I pulled off my glasses, covered in water droplets but thank goodness still on my head. After assessing my desperate situation, registering what could have been and what was quickly, I almost immediately began yelling. “Hello?! Help!” Over and over. Nothing. I put my glasses back on to inspect the shapes I saw beyond the steep bank on one side. Bleep. Not buildings, as I had thought. They were what looked to be those massive piles of dirt and rock, characteristic of the nearby and totally isolated quarries. I had come across another one just two days earlier, the first I’d ever seen.

Old Bridge 4

Shaking, I looked around. Below me, the river was roaring, rushing and apparently deep. My brightly-colored kayak was still pinned hard directly beneath me. Several attempts with all my muscle power to free it were in vain. It wasn’t coming out that way. I walked to the other end of the piling. The water was still rushing pretty decently on this end. There was no way I was hurling myself, without my stuff, back into that mess. I walked back to the kayak, noticed my hot pink jacket attached to the seat, which was submerged, and pulled with all my might until it was free. I paced the piling. I looked up river and down river and to each unreachable bank on my sides.  I had no idea what to do. My phone had apparently been washed down the river, and my husband was obliviously on his way back home at that moment. I was completely stuck.

My eyes fluttered up, to the steel above me. They quickly followed the length of the rectangular beams upward and over the thin x’s crossing them, up to the parallel rails above, one to two foot gaps in between, that led out to the riverbanks on each side where a jump (or something) would have to be made in order to get back on land. It became clear then that the only way out was to scale the old bridge, and hope that it didn’t crumble beneath me.

I put on my coat, packed everything left into the backpack and put it on my back. Not only did I have to do this thing, I had to do it sopping wet and with weight on my back. Still trembling, I attempted a few times before finally and miraculously finding my footing and balance on the maybe 3 inch wide flat beam that had a raised piece of metal along one edge, making it difficult to keep my foot on.  I gripped what metal I could with my hands while I made my way up the diagonal beam, and then shifted my weight as it ran higher in the opposite direction. At the top I hoisted myself up onto the metal rails. Shaky inhale. Shaky exhale. I was sitting 20 or so feet above the rapids and concrete pilings. If the rusty bridge didn’t decide today was the last day it would stand there was also the good chance of slipping between the rails, to the rapids below. But I had to do it. I moved towards the middle to lessen the risk of falling over the side. Carefully and incredibly quivery I made my way to the side of the riverbank with less overgrowth, the quarry side. I made it to the end and exhaled at being over land again, despite the fact that I was still a good distance above it. Jumping was not an option, I concluded. The land was at too steep an incline. I would only topple over and down with all my stuff. I had to scale my way back down the small beams. Wet beams, now that I was dripping all over it. After a few false starts I managed to half slide down those diagonal beams and step down onto blessed, glorious, beautiful dry land. Oh my heavens, I was going to make it after all.

Barefoot, I made my way through a couple yards of underbrush, thorns digging into my feet and tearing at my clothes the whole way. Just as I emerged my foot sank about six inches into what was not a sand pile as I had thought (was I thinking at that point or just moving?) but a massive ant hill, with red ants that began swarming my feet. I barely cared. I stepped out, wiped them off and kept going. Before me were towering sand and rock piles. There were a few scattered trailer buildings. I yelled, I knocked at the closest, but I was all alone. I made my way through the maze of quarry piles and rock beneath my feet. I could hear the highway then. Thank God. I wasn’t far from it and as I came to the highway I found there was a mini mart just beyond the quarry. I made a call to my husband (“You’re camera??”), the attendant running his eyes down to my wet, dirty bare feet as I spoke. I left his floor muddy as I mumbled an apology and sat down on a log by the highway, looking and feeling wretched as I laid out all the pieces of my Christmas gift in the sun to dry…

I had received this luxurious, soft, snow white robe for Christmas. I came home and changed out of my still-wet clothes, took a hot shower, put on new pajamas and that cozy robe. I stayed in it for the rest of the day.

“You’re not invincible. You can’t just do whatever you want.” That was my husband. He barely spoke to me that evening, though he did spend a lot of time talking to the phone and camera companies. He spoke to me only to lecture me. About taking a new camera on the water, about not going out without a life jacket, no matter what. I didn’t blame him. And then: “I won’t bring it up to you again. I’m just glad you’re ok.” And he didn’t, as both of our shock and horror at the loss of my belongings turned to realization and horror at what could have been. But wasn’t. My legs were bruised from my ankle to my femur. I had cuts and sore spots and what looked like leprosy from those ants but I was ok. We were all ok.

I reluctantly went to bed that night, and prolonged the event. I wanted to stay asleep once I hit the bed. I was shaken up over what had happened and I knew all I would see that night was that horrible scene. And I did. I awoke over and over again, each time hearing the roar of the water, rushing all around me, filling my kayak, the forgotten bridge, no way out but up…and then seeing what could have happened…to me, to my children had we gone the day before like I planned….

The thing is, when we walk away from scary situations unscathed we do tend to focus on those valuables we may have lost in the midst of the great misadventure. But had I not walked away, no one would have cared about those items. A kayak and a camera. They’re just things. Just things. Nothing more. Not health, not a child, not a life. I may have pushed the limits, but I still have all of those things.

And those “what if” moments, they do happen, with no forewarning and in seconds. Things go from great to really bad, with everything on the line. Happy as a clam one moment, and then everything changes. Keeping it all in perspective. Just in case we forget how blessed we are.

White Oak 2

*Note: The river was several feet higher than normal the day I set out, creating a class one rapid, which I just happened to hit wrong. The people I had seen had been put in at the Quarry Lakes, a point past the old bridge because of the dangerous rapids. Campground staff just failed to tell me. I have learned to wear a life jacket always. My kayak has since disappeared and Canon was unable to fix my camera. Ah, such is life. It’s a good one.

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