We Are Not Boulders

agnes-vaille-falls11Every now and then something profound happens that makes you realize how fleeting life can be. Something reminds you how fragile your existence is and sharpens your awareness of the fact that no one is immune to the fatal flaw that is simply being human…

On an ordinary autumn morning, six family members were hiking along an easy trail in the central Colorado Rockies to bear witness to one of the state’s beautiful natural gems waiting for them at the end. It would truly be a breathtaking reward for such a brief mountain stroll. Except that this excursion would ultimately be anything but rewarding.

Carved into the side of towering 14,000 ft. Mount Princeton and surrounded by sheer rocky cliffs, evergreen trees and quivering golden aspen, the ice-cold waters of the AgnesVailleFalls tumble over the rocks thundering and crashing as they emerge from the mountain. Perhaps the recent rains or dramatic changes in temperature had caused the boulders to shift from their perches high above and the giant monoliths began sliding and falling to the observation area at the bottom of the falls… and onto the family watching below.

Of the six hikers, only a 13 year old girl survived. It is indeed moments like these that make us newly aware how quickly life as we know it can change. However, for me personally, this struck on a whole other level. You see, I did not know the family, but I did know the falls. I used to visit them frequently, hiking that very trail many times while living and working just a few miles down the road. It was a place I went to watch for wildlife, or to sit in quiet meditation and write.

I have stood where they stood—where they perished—and looked up in awe and wonder at this towering, rushing spectacle time and time again and marveled at its strength, endurance and majesty. I have climbed up high amidst the boulders to catch a better glimpse of a mountain goat and eaten my lunch surrounded by the rolling mist coming off the water when first it broke over thrusting rocky ledges. And although I thought I appreciated the power of nature and I’d like to think I respected it too, I felt perfectly safe and secure inside my mortal shell.

We human beings have an incredible knack for thinking of ourselves as boulders. We consider our life, our stature, our “situation” to be immovable and permanently grounded… as though life, like water, should flow around us but never actually MOVE us. We think if we root ourselves in the soil of whatever we deem important that everything else will get out of our way. We believe that illness, death, loss and change cannot happen to us.

How humbling it is to be reminded—in times like these—that we are not boulders. We are breakable and fallible and nothing in this life is certain. I don’t know about you, but it is during circumstances like these that I want to hold my loved ones tighter… keep them closer. Watch what I say and how I treat the people who matter most. Enjoy the beauty of a crisp fall day or the musical sound of pure unadulterated laughter. And I want to bask in thankfulness for all that I have experienced and been given. I want to put away the cares and worries of tomorrow… Living only for today.

Written in honor of the Johnson Family of Buena Vista, Colorado. And dedicated to some dear friends of mine who’ve recently found themselves in battle against forces beyond our comprehension.  

…and to the Republic for which it stands…

TitleI was driving to work yesterday saying hateful things to my uncooperative hair, getting stopped at every, single red light and growing increasingly impatient as I secretly cursed the slow-moving guy in front of me for consulting his dashboard GPS on his EVERY move because he was clearly LOST… when I looked out my driver’s side window toward the shopping plaza across the street. On the corner I noticed the flag flying at half-staff and thought to myself with a lump suddenly lodged in my throat: “Oh. Yeah. That’s right.” And just like that, I remembered Sandy Hook. Suddenly none of my petty “issues” mattered AT ALL.

I remembered that somewhere, not too far from here… people are deeply hurting. They are grieving instead of baking cookies and shopping and considering what to stuff inside the stockings. On the week before Christmas—a child’s most cherished holiday—parents are burying their babies instead of reading them stories and tucking them in for a brief winter’s nap. I remembered that somewhere, not too far from here… a community is drowning in devastation as they grapple with the largest, most difficult questions anyone will ever ask.

The flag, flapping silently from it’s revised position only half-way up the pole, was a solid slap in the face forcing me to gain the proper perspective about something as minor as slow-moving traffic. Yet it was an even harsher reminder that so much of what I worry about on a regular basis is utterly futile. But there won’t always be a flag flying at half-staff to serve as such a wake-up call. Eventually the flag will be raised again as we attempt to move forward and the evening news will begin to cover something else.

And while we ought not remain mired in the darkness that so often spreads from unspeakable tragedy, it IS worth pausing to remember that whether we see the flag raised high with pride or lowered with respect in mourning… it’s fabric wraps all the way around us… All of usEvery day. And well, if we can remember that we’re collectively covered by the same cloth… maybe we can remember that this life is about so much more than ourselves. And maybe that’s a start.

Laminating Sarah

Like a lioness waiting in the tall grass for her prey, I swear they could smell the fear. I walked through the door and 10 pairs of eyes stared up at me from their seats. How bad can this be? I thought to myself. They look harmless enough.

Sitting there quietly around a circular table playing with Play-Doh, the 10, two and three year olds seemed content and well behaved. I’m not sure what I expected… I think something resembling pure pandemonium, but much to my surprise, they were sitting still. I spoke with one of the other teachers. She gave me some instructions on what worked and what didn’t. She told me some ways in which to prevent all hell from breaking loose—which I really appreciated. And then, she closed the door behind her and headed toward the sanctuary.

OK. I’m alone with 10 kiddlets. TEN. That’s… A LOT. I take a deep breath. And I am alone with them for over an hour. An even deeper breath. Exhale. “Hi kids! My name is Joanna and we are going to have some fun! We’re gonna play, listen to some music, then hear a bible story, and play some more! Doesn’t that sound like fun!?!” They’re just blinking at me. WHY are they just BLINKING at me? Isn’t anyone excited?

Frantically, I rummage through the papers I’ve been given. I am supposed to tell these little ones the story of Abraham and Sarah. “Who wants to hear a bible story?” I say with as much excitement as I can muster while thrusting my hand up into the air, hoping desperately that they’ll catch my enthusiasm and do the same. More blinking. Not a single hand goes in the air. OK, now I’m positive they can sense my terror.

Let me just take a moment here to interject that I am not very good with kids. I don’t have kids. I don’t watch other people’s kids. I’m never around kids, save for nieces and nephews. And they don’t count because they have to love you no matter what… that or you can usually just buy their affection with candy & video games and stuff. So when I was asked to teach the 2s and 3s class during the church service every 3rd Sunday of the month and actually agreed to it… I really had no idea what I was in for. OK… back to the story…

“So NO ONE wants to hear a bible story!?” I try for a second time to get them excited about this. However, one by one I watch the children get up from the table and just… wander off. Where are they going? I ask myself. What are they doing? I am dumbfounded at the fact that they are TOTALLY IGNORING me. Initially I try gathering them back to the table but soon realize that this, like herding cats, is a totally useless endeavor.

I DON’T WANT TO HEAR A BIBLE STORY! I hear one girl whine from a far corner of the room. She is pulling blocks off of the shelves. Another child starts putting plastic grapes on a toy plate and waddles over to a… MICROWAVE? Surely it isn’t plugged in. Surely it is there for preparing snacks or food during the regular school week. Surely he can’t reach… Oh @#$%! It IS real, it IS plugged in and he CAN reach it because he is now microwaving plastic grapes!

“OK, Jeffrey, we aren’t going to PLAY with the microwave. That isn’t safe.” I hear myself say as I take him by the shoulders, remove the plastic grapes from the appliance (thank God they aren’t on fire) and redirect his attention elsewhere.

Mercifully, my sister enters the room then. She is in charge of the church nursery, plus is raising 7 children of her own, so any advice I can get from her at this point would be welcome and appreciated.
“How’s it going?” she asks. “Ummm… good… ummm… (my eyes are darting around the room peeled for inevitable disaster) they… uh… don’t seem to want to listen to me…” My voice trails off as I take MORE things away from Jeffrey who seems to only be interested in contraband.

My sister recommends that I try counting down from 10 minutes to Bible Story Time. Let them know that in 10 minutes we are going to put the toys away, come back to the table and listen to a story, and then go to 5 minutes, 3 minutes, etc. until it is time. This, she says, prepares them for what is to come and therefore it doesn’t become a big “issue” when it’s time for the story. I don’t see how that is going to work any better, but I’ve got nothing to lose. Meanwhile, she offers to bring down some snacks for the kids to have later. And she leaves.

I do the countdown thing, announcing every few minutes how much time we have left just as she suggested. I have no idea if it is working, but we’ll find out. I also turn on some music hoping it will calm me down and lighten the mood.

I DON’T WANT TO HEAR A BIBLE STORY! I hear the same girl cry out from a different corner of the room. What do these kids have rockets on their butts? How are they moving around so quickly without my noticing?

I WANNA HEAR A BIBLE STORY! Another girl yells out. What a sweet little angel. 



“6 minutes! In 6 minutes we’re going to pick up our toys and listen to a bible story!” I announce again. By now, my teenage nephew has joined me… much to my relief. My sister, sensing my panic, has sent in reinforcements! God Bless her!! It is another set of eyes, ears and hands to help me corral these little ones for story time.

I DON’T WANT TO HEAR A BIBLE STORY! She cries out again from the toy kitchen.

I WANNA HEAR A BIBLE STORY! My precious little angel answers back.


“4 minutes! In 4 minutes we’re going to pick up our toys and listen to a bible story!” I announce again. My nephew informs me that it has been much longer than 2 minutes since the last time I reminded them of the countdown. “What does it matter Cameron… they don’t know the difference! Just so long as the number keeps getting smaller!” I hissed at him through a plastic smile. And Cameron just shrugs while helping 2 little guys make baseballs out of Play-Doh.

“Nuh-uh!” A boy says to me… “I know it’s been longer than that!” And I think to myself: Since when does a 3 year old know how to SUBTRACT!?!

I DON’T WANT TO HEAR A BIBLE STORY! She cries out from inside of a bookshelf.

I WANNA HEAR A BIBLE STORY! My darling, adorable, peaceful angel answers back.

Since the one little boy is onto my “fudging the numbers” with the countdown thing, I point to my watch and say: “When the BIG hand is on the 12, we’re going to pick up our toys and listen to a bible story!” And he comes over and grabs my wrist, examining my watch to see just how long it is going to be.

I DON’T WANT TO HEAR A BIBLE STORY. She says a little quieter now while standing right beside me.

I WANNA HEAR A BIBLE STORY! My giving-me-hope-and-keeping-me-sane angel answers back.

“OK! It’s time! Cleanup, cleanup everybody do your share…” I sing the song as I gather up Play-Doh and blocks and plastic food. Cameron makes quick work of the cleanup too and surprisingly the children are joining in! It’s working!!! “Time to come sit down at the table now everybody! We’re going to hear a story about Abraham and his wife Sarah!” I practically sing as the children are miraculously doing what I’ve asked! The countdown worked!! It actually worked! And even my little Bible-Story-Protestor is magically seated at the table. I turn off the music.

I’ve been given a packet of materials for story time which includes the story (of course), some worksheets and several large, paper cut-outs of the biblical characters and their props in order to “act out” the story for them with visual aids. I begin telling the story by showing Abraham first. I talk about Abraham and then give him to one of the children to hold. I figure this will keep them interested if they get to interact with the teaching tools rather than just sitting there empty-handed. 



They seem to like holding the paper characters and they even raise their hands to be the next child to receive one to hold. However, they won’t simply HOLD the paper cut-outs like I’ve shown them. Instead, as I work my way through the telling of the story, I see that Abraham is standing on his head, the shepherds and their sheep have gone missing and Sarah is crumpled into a ball. So much for that idea.

Something I want to mention here that I have observed over the years is that young children who have been exposed to church and Sunday school have 2 standard answers that they will give NO MATTER WHAT THE QUESTION IS. They are (in this order): “God” and “Jesus.” Every time. No matter the question. So if I ask them: “Kids, what does it mean to make a promise?” The answer will always be: God! And when I hesitate and say: “Noooo… try again…” Then the answer will be: “Jesus!” And they seem NOT to answer with anything else until they get a bit older.

Of course this case is no exception. Every question I asked them during the story, the answers they gave were always: God and Jesus. And that, folks, concludes the question and answer portion of our time together. After what has seemed like an hour (though I know by my watch it has only been 10 minutes) I reach the end of the story. I think we are all relieved. I pass out the worksheets and TRY to help them fill them out. I figure I have GOT to send these kids home with something to show for their time spent in here. We haul out the crayons and no sooner do I attempt to tackle the first illustrated question… I notice that they have ALL scribbled ALL OVER THEIR PAPERS.

It’s time for potty-breaks and snacks.

Potty-breaks and snack time go over rather smoothly save for the boy who is “helping” pass out the animal crackers by giving everyone else 3 a piece while stuffing 6 more into his mouth each time. That and there was the little girl who wanted so badly to be helpful by giving everyone a paper towel for their crackers… that she eventually pulled ALL of the paper towels out of the dispenser and onto the floor one at a time.

So with one crumpled Sarah… a paper-towel, crayon, worksheet and Play-Doh scrap strewn floor… A boy running around with a death-grip on the animal cracker box… A table covered in crayon marks and cookie crumbs… And three kids arguing over a plate of microwaved plastic grapes… The first parents arrive to retrieve their children. I have no idea what the expression on my face must have been, but it could not have been one of a confident, competent and comfortable child-care provider.

And as each parent left with their child in hand, one by one they asked me: “So how did it go? How was <insert name of child here> today?” their anxious faces desperately searching mine for the truth. And straightening my sweater, I answered each parent by replying: “Oh. It went just great. <said child> was such a good little helper and a good little listener. They played nicely with the others and they picked up their toys when I asked.” In other words… I totally lied. Yeah. I broke one of the commandments. BUT, the relieved parents then smiled and happily walked out the door with their children.

And it was then that I thought to myself: You know… actually… it went just great. The kids were pretty good little helpers and good little listeners (for a few minutes anyway). They played nicely with each other and they picked up their toys when I asked. And a month from now, when I do this again… I probably won’t change a single thing… except for maybe laminating Sarah.

A Postcard from the Other Side

So I said I’d see everyone on the “other side” when I signed off a little over a week ago to take my teensy blogcation. But you may be wondering… the other side of what? I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say it wasn’t a very good place.

It was ugly, dark, miserable and lonely. And worst of all, I put myself in this horrible place. I didn’t exactly go there willingly, but once I found myself stuck in the proverbial deep, dark forest… I didn’t really try very hard to get out.

Hence, the little vacation.

As most of you already know, creativity is a must when you’re writing and it’s REALLY hard to be creative when you feel imprisoned. As my mother said: Creativity comes from a place of freedom… and a bit ago I felt anything but free.

Nothing has changed. My life looks exactly the same today as it did then. But my mindset has changed. And that, my friends… changes everything.

Will I stay on this healthier side forever? Will I continue to tread the soil of this better, happier and safer side? Probably not. I’m sure I’ll occasionally wander back into the forest or at the very least skirt dangerously and precariously around the edge of it.

But I hope that from my self-imposed time-out, I will remember a few very important things…

~ I hold the pen that is writing the story of my life.

~ I choose the thoughts that play like recordings in my mind.

~ My very best will never be good enough for some. But that cannot mean that it isn’t still good enough for me.

Note to (the Perfectionist) Self

Finish each day and be done with it…
You have done what you could;
Some blunders and absurditites no doubt crept in
Forget them as soon as you can
Tomorrow is a new day;
You shall begin it well and serenely.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I flipped to this quote one night before heading to bed at the end of a particularly difficult day. Lately I’ve been trying to read encouraging and/or inspirational thoughts to close my days and when I saw this quote on that day, I broke down in tears.

As my breath caught in my throat at the sheer timliness of reading these words, I felt the weight of the day literally being lifted from my shoulders. I felt relieved at the reminder that I did not have to take these worries to bed with me.

Finish this day and be done with it. It is over. You did what you could do. Not necessarily what others expected you would do or what they thought you should do. You did what you could do. Now let it go.

No doubt you made some mistakes or said some stupid things. Forget about it. Others probably have. You are your harshest critic.

Tomorrow is a new day! You shall begin it well and calmly. Choose peace over turmoil and serenity over fretfulness.

The day will be what it will be. It will bring what it will bring. You can only do what you can do. And when it is over… the second most important thing will be to know that you did your best… And the most important will be to release it.

Kicking Up the Leaves

In a little red raincoat, jeans and sneakers her blonde hair bounced as she ran. The sun was glistening on her golden locks and there was a look of pure joy on her face when she plopped down in a pile of crispy, brown leaves. With both arms outstretched she gathered as many leaves as she could and scooped them toward her lap. She then proceeded in kicking her legs back and forth and back and forth watching and listening as the dried leaves flew about and crunched while she did this.

Total abandon. Total happiness. Totally in the moment.

I both delighted in and envied her. Why couldn’t I feel that way anymore? Why couldn’t I be free from worry and concern as she was? I wanted so badly to be able to flop right down beside her on the ground and mimic her actions. To me, this precious child who couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 years old, looked like she was having the time of her life! And all I could do was sit by and watch and worry about my bills or my deadlines, my laundry or my dirty house, my weight, my relationships, my health or the orange flashing light on my dashboard indicating the car’s dangerously-low level of windshield-wiper fluid.

So many worries… so little time. It seemed like only yesterday I was playing in the leaves like her. Watching her I remembered a photo in our family album of me at just about the same age, jumping in a pile of freshly raked leaves and tossing them in the air without a care in the world. And I wondered: Where did all that time go? And more importantly… Where did all these worries come from? Then I couldn’t help but consider, if the woman I am today could meet the little girl that I once was… what would they say to one another? Would the older me warn the younger me of the pitfalls that lie ahead and how to avoid them? Would the older me counsel the younger me about future mistakes or poor decisions?

Of course not.

How could I burden that little one, so full of hope and promise and zest for life, with the concerns of adulthood? That wouldn’t be fair to say the least. But I also gave some thought as to what the younger me would say to the older me… and that, my friends, was an entirely different story. With her inability to even relate to the future and such things as “mistakes” or “poor decisions,” she would tell me that today… right now was all that mattered. That right now the weather is nice and there is a big pile of leaves just calling my name. That right now she has everything she needs to get from this moment to the next. That right now there is nothing more important than running at full speed and diving head first into the heap before its all gone for the winter.

There is a favorite verse of mine that reads: Who of us, by worrying, can add a single hour to our life? So I ask myself then: What am I sitting around here worrying for? Why am I NOT out there gathering and kicking up the leaves?

Colorful Despite the Clouds

In late September, there isn’t much light outside at 7 in the morning on a clear day… let alone a cloudy one. So on a dreary morning, you might imagine my surprise when I noticed a vibrant orange tree just a few blocks away from my house.

Cars still had their headlights on and the streetlights burned brightly as the shrouded sun was barely peeking out of the east… Yet there stood this tree, practically glowing by the side of the road, not even partially illuminated by the assistance of a street lamp. Still you could see that its color was magnificent.

Wow! I thought to myself. How amazing that the luminous fall colors of that tree are still noticeable and even radiant despite the darkness!

And then I considered how the same could be said of people too. Just like the brilliance of that tree, the gathering clouds and darkness of tragedy, illness, abuse, loss or depression that sometimes surround us do NOT diminish our colors. We may believe we’ve lost our luster when we’re hidden beneath the heavy grey fabric of our circumstance. We may feel drab and ineffectual. We may think we go unnoticed by most. We may even seem completely invisible. But do any of these conditions actually have the ability to change the design of who we really ARE?

Our unique and vivid colors exist whether we are able to see them or not.

If I say, Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me, even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. ~ Psalm 139: 11-12