Category Archives: Life

The Abandoned Country Church

 

 

i keep asking God why, but he just laughs

Am I standing on Holy Ground?

Amidst the corn stubble, dusted in snow, sits an antiquated country church. Abandoned to both time and the elements. Forgotten. Little more than a weather-beaten beacon of unexamined scenery lost in the agrarian milieu.

For only God knows what reasons it remains empty. Or, if some humans do, they are not around to speak of it. What has come of them?

The solitude and decadence of this scene now seems ungodly. Was this place ever holy? Does this sacred gathering place now lie forsaken?

Ages past, the faithful once congregated here. This was a gathering place. A space for worship and community, a living, breathing fellowship. The Bible says that ‘where two or three gather in my name, I am there also’ (Matthew 18:20). But no one gathers here anymore. Or, if they do it is surely not in the name of God. It is in the name of vandalism, or a dare taken. The name of rural teenaged angst looking for a secret reprieve, perhaps. Is anyone who happens by seeking God in this place?

I came myself in the name of curiosity, beckoningly lured by the mélange of sacred and profane. I am a seeker of sorts, a seeker of understanding, but with many questions left unanswered. I peer into the broken windows at the peeling paint, the debris scattered on the floor. I am inquisitive of the story of this place. What has transpired here that this building now rests irreverent and forlorn?

Can God still be found in this place? If you ask directly, no reply is received—at least not one that you can understand. Maybe the rustle of the wind through the cornstalks or the occasionally passing car calls out for your attention. Was this God’s answer, or just his laugh?

keep asking why, and maybe someday you will understand

 

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Christmas Gifts of Experience

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Is a Christmas without gifts still a holiday?

Given my parent’s penchant for bestowing gifts on each other during the Christmas season, it came as quite a surprise to me, upon arriving home for the holidays, that this year they would refrain from buying gifts for one another.

And to learn that after I had wrapped up all my holiday shopping, buying all my gifts on my drive home through Canada. I even thought I had outdone myself this year with thoughtful, unique presents. Now, no gifts at Christmas?

In the end, it wasn’t a giftless Christmas at the Bleeker household after all. Instead, the reduction on presents was targeted at mandatory giving—the kind of gifting one does because one feels obliged to at least buy something for another. My parents, after years and years of buying similar items for each other every Christmas (shirts, kitchen gadgets, gift cards, cashews), finally decided it was time to put an end to the convention. During the rest of the year, they could just as easily buy anything they needed for themselves or each other. And, the pattern of gifts given at Christmas had become standard and predictable. No need, then, to buy and consume more just because the culture around the holidays dictates it. This year, no to the stress of shopping crowds, no to obligatory gift-giving, and no to mandatory consumerism.

Except that for me, I had already purchased all my gifts. Darn.

As much as my parents’ new perspective on gift-giving surprised me, I was delighted by the change in practice. I for one actively decry materialism and bemoan consumerism. I have, at more than one Christmas, broken the heart of my well-intentioned mother by rejecting gifts and returning them instead. I can be a quite the difficult gift-receiver. Though I do love the joy and surprise at receiving a gift, the holidays are held in a strange tension for me because I don’t really like owning that much stuff. Is there a way to practice the meaningful expression of gift-giving while avoiding the downfalls of becoming bogged down in excess material extravagance?

Reflecting on the gifts I gave this past Christmas, I think that’s where my own shopping tendencies have been taking me. Seventy-five percent of what I bought was food or drink items—things that can easily be wrapped up and handled, but magically disappear after a few months. Consumable items like these provide the benefit of the gift, but one without the long-term conundrum of storing more stuff for perpetuity.

What’s more, behind the gifts I gave, there was something more I wanted to say with them. I had done all my holiday shopping while traveling by myself for three weeks in Canada, visiting some pretty spectacular places along the way. When I purchased each present, it was a way of saying to the intended receiver ‘I wish you could have been here with me.’ The bottle of cider I gave to my sister was a way of saying ‘it would have been fun sharing in the taste-tasting at the cider mill with you.’ The maple sugar candies from Quebec which I gave my friends were small tokens of physically sharing my trip with them too. In the absence of actually traveling and spending time with each other, sometimes a small gift with meaning behind it can say ‘I wish we could have done this together.’

In the end, the notion that gifts have to be material and given primarily at Christmastime misses a lot of the larger points behind gift-giving. For me, the best gifts I have received have often been immaterial and have come at many different times of the year, often unexpectedly. At Christmas, gifts of experiences are often the best gifts you’ll receive. Spending time with those you love in a shared activity can beat any pair of socks.

It’s challenging to wrap up a Christmas gift of experience in a box. Until then, I’ll keep wrapping up small tokens of my experience as my gifts.

Life Lingering

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It stared with a single strand of lights and then became more: the results of lingering with a project

 

I’ve been in a bad habit recently of staying up late. I’m not a night owl, and I don’t even need to stay awake either. I’ve just been finding it difficult to get to bed early because I just don’t want each day to end. I am simply too enamored of daily life and all the activities it brings to want to put each day to an early close.

My term for this behavior is lingering. Its symptoms include wanting to stay in the present moment. Yearning to eke the most out of every hour. Not desiring to move on to the next thing until the present experience is fully consummated. When afflicted with lingering, it can be difficult to switch activities or to call it a day.

I find myself lingering quite frequently, and not just late at night. If I get my mind on something I like, then I’ll keep working at it until I fully accomplish it to my liking. Maybe I’ve got a project to fix, and I keep chipping away at it, irresistibly beginning the next stages of my project until its completion. Or maybe I’m reading a book and want to continue on, just a few more pages at a time, until I’m finished. Though I’m great at making schedules, I’m also great at willfully, consciously, breaking them. It’s easy to give myself just five more minutes at a task. I can easily justify that. And then I can just as easily justify five minutes more. And again. And again. And again. Lingering.

Naturally, with this tendency towards lingering, things tend to take longer than planned. And, little irks me more than feeling in a rush; my preferred modus operandi is giving each thing its due time needed to complete it fully and completely. In terms of time schedules and to-do lists, I’m always quite constantly behind. But on the flipside, what I do accomplish I can be very satisfied with.

Lingering is quite applicable to spending time with people too. As an introvert, I don’t frequently visit with other people. But the time I do spend, I spend as someone who is fully present, immersed in the moments as they happen one by one. I don’t tend to leave early, and if I do, I am quite conscious of what I may be missing out on in my absence. No, I’d rather linger on in the moments more, until the peak of socialization has all but wrapped up. I feel more complete leaving a place when all the fraternity has naturally come to a close. And I’ll usually stay on to linger for just a little longer.

At its core, I believe this notion of lingering is rooted in the human propensity to settle down. To put down roots. If a place, if a situation is good, then it compels one to stay for a bit more. No need to rush off to try something new. No overwhelming urge to discover something different. Just keep on doing what you’ve been doing. The more you desire to linger on, the less easy it becomes to realize how much time is going by. Nights of lingering turn into weeks of lingering, and yet you always find more to do while you’re in the present. One can never really leave a place without experiencing it to the fullest of its myriad possibilities. To do so, you need to linger on a bit longer, and in lingering on you discover just a bit more to do, again and again…

Though I like to linger on in the present places and moments, I realize this tendency can also lead to stagnation and prohibit future discoveries elsewhere. It is true that with a creative mind, one will continually find new inspiration in a single place, and equally true that getting to know somewhere or someone can never be fully exhausted. But there are just so many other things to try out there. As philosopher Henry David Thoreau once reckoned about leaving his Walden shack after two years—a place he thoroughly enjoyed to linger—“perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.” Thoreau knew how to linger. But, he also knew that sometimes one has to move on as well.

Ultimately it is the external pressure of a change in my life history that halts the lingering and compels me to move on. I’ve lived in many places and have worked many jobs. If each job I’ve held was indefinite, I could have easily imagined myself staying on longer with each one. Doing so would be a tendency for lingering on a larger life-scale. But outside forces oblige me to move on, and though I’m often sad that I have had to leave the present situation, leaving also makes way for the new. You can’t linger on continually into the night; eventually you’ll have to go to sleep and wake up fresh with a new morning.

But in the meantime, enjoy lingering in the moment…especially this holiday season.

I Nearly Died Because I Cared So Much About What A Complete Stranger Thought Of Me

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Things were going well up at Mono Pass…

 

It was late on a Thursday evening, high up in Tuolumne Meadows in the Californian Sierras. I had just returned from an hours-long hike up to Mono Pass in Yosemite National Park. With the August daylight fading earlier each day, I rapidly got to my post-hike business of cooking a hot meal of gnocchi and red sauce over my camp stove. Already a couple of months into an extended road-trip in the great American West, I had gotten the dirtbag lifestyle of camping and living out of a vehicle down to a science.

Yosemite National Park, with its sweeping vistas and monumental scenery, attracts millions of visitors each year, with visitation peaking in the summer months. Up high in Tuolumne Meadows, though, it was quiet. I was the only person at the trailhead, and few cars even drove by on their way to the Tioga Pass. For nearly a week I had been hanging around the park, just biding my time for the coveted lottery permit to climb the iconic Half Dome to fall. In the meantime, I had spent my time exploring the far reaches of Yosemite. Just a day before, though, I had found out my lottery results came back positive: I had secured a permit to climb Half Dome on Friday. Tonight was the night before the big climb.

As Yosemite’s popularity makes it nearly impossible to find camping in the park in the summertime, I had settled for a camp spot in the Stanislaus National Forest land just outside the park. There, the camping was plentiful, but had the drawback of a long commute. From my perch up in Tuolumne Meadows, it would be a two-hour drive back, along the curving Tioga road, gradually descending 7,000 feet to the valleys below.

 

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Half Dome, coveted prize of inaccessibility

 

I appreciated driving at night in Yosemite, since the park was generally free of the heavy tourist traffic that plagues the daytime. I got in my sedan and pulled out of the trailhead lot onto the main road and began my drive. Even though the road was empty of traffic, a car immediately appeared out of nowhere and followed closely behind.

“Oh joy,” I mumbled audibly to myself.

I have always hated vehicles driving right behind me, especially at night. Their presence always meant another factor to consider in safe driving. Their headlights, too, continually glare from the rear-view mirror, providing a constant reminder that—as I always tend to believe—someone thinks you’re in their way. This car joined my tail right from the start, and since the road would approach no intersections for over an hour’s drive, there was little chance that they would be changing directions anytime soon. With it nearly impossible to find a safe turn-out in the dark to allow the other driver to pass, we were going to be together for a long while.

However, the car behind me patiently followed along. Though they made no indications of dissatisfaction with their slower counterpart, I couldn’t help but to project my own feelings of annoyance whenever I get stuck behind a leisurely driver. Most likely, I told myself, they wanted to pass me. They were probably very familiar with the road and just looking to get home as quickly as they could. I too had driven this road a few times already. Its curves had begun to feel familiar. The long, slow drive could easily become monotonous.

With a boosted confidence by my previous experience of the road, I increased my speed to 50 mph. Though the speed limit was 45 mph and a fairly generous speed for the road during the day, at night that rate of travel seemed, in my better judgment, just a bit too much. Nonetheless, I thought optimistically, that if I could just increase my speed a little, then my follower would slowly get left behind in my wake. No such luck. The car behind me matched my speed perfectly. I gained absolutely no distance.

Now convinced that the driver behind me must be annoyed at my slow speed, I began to feel the frustration that I imagined they must have. “If they can match my speed, then they must know the roads pretty well,” I conjectured. “Or, maybe they are in a hurry to be someone else?” My speculations ran rampant. Without much else besides driving to occupy my attention, my mind came up with all kinds of ideas of what this other person must be thinking about me. “What if they think I’m a lame driver?” “What if they think I’m not skilled at handling these mountain roads?”

My mind was pre-occupied with all these assumptions this other driver was making about my personal character.

And then it happened:

I lost control.

Traveling around a corner I had rounded multiple times before, I hit a rough patch of pavement. My car skidded and began to careen further down along the road at 50 mph. I corrected left and began to fish-tail out of control. My fate was no longer in my hands.

What transpired next seemed to take an eternity. The situation became unreal; my windshield turning into a virtual reality screen. I careened down the road for what seemed an impossibly long time, my car shuddering and bouncing up and down like a sickly realistic rollercoaster ride. Suddenly, a huge abrupt jerk and I was off the road. The windshield cinema played out a thicket of Manzanita shrubs flowing past. I was rolling right down a ravine.

And then it was over.

The Manzanita bushes in my windshield became still. My car had stopped moving. I sat soberly in the driver’s seat, unable to react. Just viscerally processing what had just transpired.

My sedan was still running. I turned the ignition off. At the steep angle my car was tilted, I couldn’t open the door to get out, so I rolled down the window to make my egress. I scrambled hands and knees up the embankment.

A man was running towards me, exclaiming “we thought you was dead!”

Dead I was not. Very much alert and alive, fortunately. My Good Samaritan rescuer, Mike, had been driving with his son in the oncoming lane when he saw from a distance my headlights swerve and disappear down into the ravine. Fearing the worst in the situation, Mike’s retired firefighter instincts kicked in as he rushed to assistance. As Mike’s son called for help, Mike assessed me for injuries. Physically, I emerged unscathed. Psychologically, though, it was a shock.

The aftermath ended up making a long night for all of us. Mike stayed with me until the much-delayed rangers came, then the rangers stayed with me until the tow-truck finally arrived. I was questioned in detail about what had caused the accident, and to my surprise, the rangers were very sympathetic to my situation. They knew exactly where the rough patch that caused the accident was. They even gave me a Gatorade to boost my stamina. The tow truck driver managed to pull my battered sedan out of the ravine back onto the road. Aside from one large dent to the passenger-side bumper, it was little worse for wear. To turn tragedy into jubilation even more, my car started easily and the tow truck driver had forgotten his payment binder and thus couldn’t charge me for the service.

Eventually all issues from the incident were resolved. The rangers, the tow truck driver, and I parted ways. I drove myself back to my campsite. It was a fitful night for me, trying to chase elusive rest as I dozed in the driver’s seat. My mind kept racing around all of the horrible things that could have happened, but didn’t. What good stroke of fortune did I hit in order to avoid tragedy?

 

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My sedan, just a little worse for wear from the accident

 

The next morning, I traveled back to the very spot where my accident had occurred. It was true that I needed to retrieve some pieces of undercarriage flashing which had been torn out from my wheel-wells by the brush, but more importantly I needed to piece together in my mind what exactly had happened the night before. Looking back at the scene in daylight, I tried to recount where everything had transpired. The very exact spot where my car had left the road, there was a short shoulder made of soft red dirt. My feet sunk easily in when I stepped in it. This was not really a shoulder, per se. Could it have just been a patch of dirt left over from nearby road construction? Whatever reason for its existence, it must have slowed down my car significantly before I veered down the ravine. And of all the spots, that was the exact one where I had gone off the road. Just up the road in the westbound lane, there was a long roadcut of exposed Yosemite granite. I just as easily could have smashed into that. Along the eastbound lane, there was a sharp drop-off into the forest. I could have easily gone off into that direction as well. And then, there was the spot where my car landed as well. It was all Manzanita. The trees were around, for sure, but incredibly not where I had landed. There were several large trees straight ahead if my car had continued to travel forward, and one tree had been inches away from the passenger side. But miraculously I had avoided everything.

And then I thought back to the reason I had lost control in the first place. To think that I was driving too fast for the conditions just because I was so pre-occupied with what a complete stranger thought about my driving speed. Ridiculous! What could have easily turned into a lethal accident was based primarily on imagined conceptions!

My near-catastrophe was a product of me being overly concerned about what another person thought of me. Though this was an extreme example, there are so many ways our own decisions in life are made based on the judgments and expectations of others. We tend to go through our lives so disproportionately concerned about what others think of us, even people who are complete strangers. I, as you could probably surmise, am quite prone to doing this! What trivial things do we do just to keep up appearances for others! What interests do we either pursue or not pursue based on what other people would think appropriate for our personal archetypes? What do I say and how do I act, in order to fulfill some social role that I think others expect me to act? Oh how we let ourselves be so inhibited from true expression of our inmost being! What words do I say or not say? What books do I read or not read? What food choices do I make in the grocery store just based on what the check-out clerk might think of me? How can so many of our simple, everyday choices be so influenced not by ourselves, but by the perceptions of those around us?

The day after my accident, fatigued and emotionally drained from the night before, I made a successful summit of my prized Half Dome.

And what about the car that was following me the whole time down that mountain road?

They never even stopped.

 

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The day after, up at the top of Half Dome, none worse for wear