All the Zero Days

Going Fast vs. Going Far

There’s a quote that goes something like this: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That quote was in my head when I began last weekend’s 26-mile trek in southwest Virginia over Sinking Creek Mountain, Brush Mountain, and Dragon’s Tooth – my first “semi-solo” hike on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s another hiking axiom I’ve heard, as well. “Hike your own hike.” Ever since I started hiking again three years ago in 2014, I’ve struggled with hiking my own hike when I’m in a group of hikers. Sometimes, I am capable of keeping up with my companions, but more often I have a slower pace. My natural tendency is to think I should just go alone rather than hold anyone else back.

Fortunately, others don’t feel the same; on my first long distance hike from the Pennsylvania/Maryland border to Harper’s Ferry last fall, the group leader stayed at my pace while the others took the long miles in stride and out-paced us by at least a mile. He was happy to do it but I felt guilty almost every step of the way. He could have gone faster if he had left me alone. But I wouldn’t have made it over the mental hurdles that hiking alone would have thrown at me on that trip. I’ve had a lot more practice and conditioning since then, and I thought I could handle “alone” just fine this time.

So, this weekend I got a taste of both alone and together, and my ultimate lesson is that alone has a bitter aftertaste when it equals fast.

My plan was to meet my group (who had already been hiking since dawn Friday morning, and some of them since Wednesday) at the shelter where they planned to camp. The closest parking area was about three miles down the hill, which means I had to hike up three miles, alone, to the Sarver Shelter. (Side note: Google “Sarver Shelter” and you’ll find several stories about the ghost that supposedly haunts the ruins of this homestead.)

Those three miles up, alone, were lovely. I was truly hiking my own hike, getting a sense of my own natural pace, resting when I needed it without the shame I often feel at getting winded faster than the more seasoned hikers. I stopped and took photos at scenic overlooks, or interesting wildflowers, knowing I wasn’t irritating anyone with my camera. (I’ve been on hikes with people who do get irritated by that sort of thing, especially if it keeps them from maintaining their steady pace.) Being alone meant I wasn’t carrying the burden of someone else’s judgement.

However, I was carrying the extra unnecessary weight of something else – my own ego.

Three miles alone is very different than 16. And as often happens, there were aspects of my physical hike that mirrored the mental one. I was physically carrying my ego, in the form of a 2 lb, 1 oz bear vault. (That doesn’t count the weight of the food.)

Ounces equal pounds, pounds equal pain – another trail axiom. After three miles uphill on day one, I didn’t feel the pain. But after about seven miles on day two, I felt that pain for every one of the 10,000 steps I took to catch up with my group, alone.

Why on earth would I add two extra pounds to my gear? The reason made sense at the time; I didn’t want to hang a bear bag, which for me requires the help of other people. The canister would afford me complete freedom from waiting for everyone else to be awake to get my morning food. (Also, the last time I tried to be the one to get bear bags down, I cut off circulation in my finger. So it scares me.)

Thanks to the bear vault, I could wake up early without disturbing anyone else, and could get an early start on the trail alone, so that I wouldn’t lag so far behind at the end of the day. That was my plan.

It was a sucky plan.

I got about a 30-minute head start on the rest of the group, and the first wave of them overtook me at about 2 miles, while the second wave caught up with me at 3.5 miles. Downhill from that point, I flew down the mountain to our next stopping point, earning my new trail name “Hopper” because the guy following me – trail name “Rudy” – had to jog to keep up as I hopped over the rocks.

If you want to go fast, go alone. But expect to get blisters. Expect to get winded. Expect that bear vault and ego to get heavier with every step. At the bottom of the hill, not only was I winded and ready for a good, solid snack, I needed a serious break, and something for the hot spots on my big toes. The extra weight and speed gave me a pain I’d never experienced before, and I wasn’t adequately prepared to handle it.

Fortunately, Rudy was. He generously offered me some of his KT Tape to wrap my potential blisters. It’s like a medical tape, and it works great to keep friction from forming a blister on your feet if you use it before you have a problem. After wrapping my toes and having a snack and refilling my water bladder, I still needed more rest, so as the group went on, I stayed behind, alone, to relax, to receive “trail magic” (an orange, from a couple who does trail maintenance), and to hike my own hike.

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The next 2.5 miles were the most brutal I’ve ever hiked. After a short downhill stretch, it was a 1,500-foot elevation gain. Also, the weather was unseasonably warm for April, reaching into the upper 80s, humid, not a cloud in the sky or a breeze in the air.

I thought I could handle it. I thought it would be no different than the 1,500-foot elevation gain I’d accomplished the day before as I’d hiked alone into our designated meeting spot. I thought wrong.

I made it up that mountain checking my GPS every half hour or so and being depressed at my slow progress. My pace had slowed from a 20-minute mile to something more like a 90-minute mile. The ache in my shoulders was indescribable, and nothing I did to adjust the pack helped. I was sweating and stopping to catch my breath every 50 feet. I was praying a lot.

I was thinking about when my son was born: 36 hours of the most physically grueling experience I’d ever endured. I had wanted to go drug-free, which I did because I was so committed, and I told myself, if I could birth three babies drug free, I could make it up Brush Mountain. With a quarter mile left to go, I jokingly said to God, “If this is like labor, I’ve gotten to the point where I’d be begging for an epidural!” I rounded a turn and started another steep climb, and as I looked up, I saw Rudy, sweating and smiling.

He had heard the clicking of my hiking poles and had come down to help me carry my pack the rest of the way to the top. I almost cried.

According to Rudy, my pack weighed more than his (and he’s a big guy) – around 30-35 lbs. If his estimate is correct, I was carrying at least a third of my body weight.

There’s no weight limit that’s set in stone, but guidelines used by most backpackers are that individuals in good health should be able to carry about 20% of their body weight. A more experienced backpacker may be able to carry 25% of their body weight, and a very experienced and well-conditioned backpacker may be able to carry as much as 35%. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Gender and age make a difference even when a hiker is in really good shape.

I had about 5.5 miles left to go carrying that pack, despite the brief reprieve. Sure, it was mostly downhill. But even downhill miles are heavy, and hard on the feet and knees. I rested on the top of the mountain while Rudy and our leader, “Flops,” went on ahead to catch up with our other two companions. I put one foot in front of the other and trudged down, doubting myself more with every step. Then I ran out of water.

I was trying to figure out the logistics of quitting. There was a parking area and road at the bottom of the hill, about a mile from our designated camping spot. Maybe I would have cell reception and could call a shuttle to come pick me up. There was no way I’d be able to make it up the next hill to the shelter. Sweat was pouring out of me; my clothes were soaked. My tape-wrapped toes were starting to ache again. I couldn’t even imagine having energy to set up my tent and cook my dinner. I kept thinking about the next day, and climbing the dreaded “Dragon’s Tooth” peak. It wasn’t as long a hike, but the way I was feeling in that moment, I didn’t believe I could safely climb the summit and climb back down. Not with 35 lbs.

I had made up my mind. According to my map, there was a small camping area and stream near that parking lot. I would stay there for the night, and hope that one of my companions came back to check on me when I didn’t get to the shelter. Just as I’d made that decision, the area came into view, and the sound of rushing water urged me onward. And there were tents. Familiar tents. Familiar shirt colors. “Is that you guys?” I yelled? I didn’t wait for the answer. “I love you!!!!” I shouted as I nearly ran down the hill with a big grin on my face.

That afternoon, I baptized my sweaty, soaked body fully clothed in the creek. “Hopper” came up from the frigid water a new woman, refreshed by the spirit of community. I changed into dry clothes, and ate whatever snacks I wouldn’t need the next day, starting with that heavy orange. I expressed my doubt about being able to continue tomorrow, and Rudy said, “Well, you don’t have much choice.” He was right. There was no cell phone signal there in the hollow. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re going to sleep like a log and wake up feeling like a million bucks.” I hoped he was right.

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I considered leaving my heavy bear canister and some of my gear behind, hidden by the side of the road; I could come back for it later. I considered leaving my wet clothes and Jetboil stove and fuel as trail magic for a hiker in need. One of the other hikers, “Inferno Man,” offered to carry the bear canister. “Nah, I packed it. It’s my responsibility to carry it out,” I said. He was visibly relieved.

After replenishing my calories and enjoying our companionship by the fire, I crawled into my tent. I left the flap open and stared at the stars. Rudy was right; I did sleep like a log. I did wake up feeling like a million bucks. I wasn’t even sore. I replenished my water, ate breakfast, and started to pack up as the others started out. Vlad, who was prepping for a hike in Europe requiring the ability to carry 50 lbs, offered to carry my Jetboil and my stuff sack of clothes. Inferno Man took my sleeping bad. I had eaten some of my weight the night before, and burned much of my trash. My once-heavy pack was now a reasonable weight and felt more like a day-pack.

The hike up and down Dragon’s Tooth was not easy, especially the rock scramble down. There was a lot of cursing. But I was not alone. This time, I hiked with Inferno Man, who was nursing a sore calf muscle, and our conversation made the miles fly by quickly. We climbed the rocks at the top, which I would have been unable to do without him spotting me and guiding my feet. His presence on the rocky path down gave me the encouragement I needed. About a mile from the end of our multi-day trek, we caught up with Flops (so named because she had hiked in flip flops due to the ugly blisters on her heels.) She jogged down the last stretch of the journey and I speed-walked to catch up with her. I was like a horse headed back to the barn. Flops stopped about a mile from our final destination to change into her flip flops, and I pressed onward, leaving her and Inferno Man behind to keep each other company. I started running down the hill like the trail runners I had seen. If you want to go fast, go alone. I made it to the road, a half mile to go, and there, at the base of the shelter, was a the hostel shuttle, dropping off two hikers.

He offered me a ride for the last half mile to the hostel, where Rudy and Vlad were waiting for us. I jumped in and didn’t even take off my pack. I couldn’t believe I had made it! I was so pleased with myself! My homecoming at the hostel was glorious.

Until it wasn’t.

While I was reliving myself on an actual flushing toilet, Rudy had gotten in his car to pick up Flops and Inferno Man. As they pulled up the driveway, Flops shouted out the window, “Next time you get a ride, wait for the folks behind you!”

A double serving of humble pie.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

I want to go together. I really do. As much as I enjoy my solitude and solo activities, I’m desperate for companionship, encouragement, comraderie, support, shared memories. I love being of service to others when I can get out of my own head for half a minute and see those who are around me. I guess years of believing I’m not good enough, that no one could ever actually want to be my friend, have warped my basic social sensibilities. I hate that.

But fortunately, I learn from experiences. I learn from pain. Last weekend, I learned that I need to lighten my pack. I learned that I don’t have to try to be a super hero. I learned that we all have liabilities, whether it’s a heavy pack, or blisters, or a pulled calf muscle. I learned that people are worthy of trust. I learned that I need to focus on being trustworthy and reliable to others.

I learned that I can go far, if I go with others. If I wait for others. If I ask others to wait for me.

Next time, I will have at least two less piece of gear – my bear canister, and my ego. Hopefully the lighter load will be a little more manageable, for everyone.

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Holey Heart

Just Keep Walking

Olivia is afraid of bees. I suspect most of us were when we were six; I know I was. Last week my parents took her and the other two to the Norfolk Botanical Garden, and apparently there was a lot of screaming.

This Sunday, I decided to take the three of them to our botanical garden here in town, and sure enough, the fuzzy bumbles were out in force. I long ago made peace with bees when I discovered the delight that comes from trying to photograph them. Olivia still has a way to go. But as we were walking through the buzzing sentries escorting us through the garden, she clung to me and said, “Nana says they will leave me alone if I just keep walking.” Throughout our visit, “just keep walking” became a mantra.

The Internet is chock full of pastors who preach that fear is the opposite of faith. I don’t see it that way, and here’s why. I think of myself as a person of faith. I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, and I believe with all my heart in Romans 8:28. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in other people’s lives, and I’ve seen it in mine. Yet there are still times when I’m brimming with fear. It generally manifests in the question, “What if I’m wrong?”

What if I keep walking, and the bees don’t leave me alone?

And then, I catch myself questioning my faith, questioning my very belief in God, and pretty soon I’m not only feeling fear but am paralyzed by it.

Fear is not a lack of faith. It’s a feeling; just a feeling. One of my favorite moral axioms is “Faith is fear that has said its prayers.” That quote is a reminder to me that my feelings of fear are no reason to berate myself for lacking faith, but a call to act in faith in spite of my feelings.

So if fear is not the opposite of faith, what is? Doubt? This weekend’s gospel was the iconic story of “doubting Thomas,” who refused to believe in the risen Christ until he saw Him with his own eyes and touched His wounds. For 2,000 years, the poor man has been pegged as the poster child for what it means to lack faith.

Thomas doubted not because he lacked faith but because he was human. He was my kind of human, really. You can tell me until you’re blue in the face that something will or won’t work, but I’ll stubbornly disregard you until I try it myself. I put a lot more stock in my own experiences than I do in neat, tidy platitudes about how I should live or the consequences if I don’t. Unlike Thomas, I am willing to at least consider the experiences of others. Your lecturing will turn me right off, but if you tell me what happened to you when you found yourself in shoes like mine, you stand a good chance of changing my mind, or at least opening it to a new possibility. But given the chance, I’ll still run my own experiments, thank you very much. I need my own evidence.

Can any of us blame Thomas for doubting? They saw Jesus die. That’s some pretty hefty evidence, and rising from the dead is an outrageous claim.

Writer and speaker Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.”

The moment I think I know something, I’m in trouble. When I think I know something, I cease to be teachable. I become arrogant, and pride cometh before the fall. Knowledge is the currency of my ego, my “Edging God Out.” This is true whether I’m talking about evolution or heaven or the Resurrection, or having enough milk in the fridge to make a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Knowledge has its place, but not when it takes the place of imagination, especially God’s imagination.

I may believe things that I cannot know from personal observation, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t ever doubt my beliefs. Did Jesus really rise? I don’t know. I can’t know. What I do know is that His friends were pretty convinced that He did, so much so that they went to their deaths and started a movement that completely changed the world. It defied the might of the Roman Empire, Europe’s dark ages, the intellectualism of the Renaissance, the brutality of the crusades, the inconsistencies of the reformation, several Christian holocausts, and the hedonism, moral relativism and fundamentalism of the modern era. I have seen with my own eyes how people can be transformed when they become just a little bit willing to acknowledge some kind of higher power. So I continue to “just keep walking” in spite of whatever doubts and fears I might have. That stuff is just space between my ears, anyway. My actions are what matter.

Faith is not the the same thing as belief. Olivia believes that bees are scary and worthy of fear. She believes that bees can sting and she is convinced they will sting her. But she trusts Nana. And she just keeps walking because she can see with her eyes that Nana who doesn’t appear to be afraid. Olivia can choose to trust her belief, or choose to trust her Nana who loves her. She has decided to trust her Nana.

Faith is first a decision, followed up with action. It isn’t an opinion or a belief or a feeling. That’s what makes it so powerful. Belief and unbelief can be wrong, and our opinions can be fickle as our experiences and attitudes change. Facts and statistics can be used to justify our fears just as easily as our fantasies. But as this weekend’s epistle of John tells us, “the victory that conquers the world is our faith.”

How can I that be, especially in times when the world seems to be conquering faith?

When my fear says, “What if you’re wrong?” faith answers, “Then I’m wrong and with any luck I’ll have learned something.”

When fear says, “What if you lose your house or your car or your life savings?” Faith answers, “Something good will come of it and things will work out.”

When fear says, “What if you are killed?” faith answers that nothing goes to waste in God’s world, and that even the worst tragedies and atrocities can be the foundation for the greatest changes for goodness and light. (For what it’s worth, I don’t have this level of personal faith. But because of the saints and martyrs, including modern day ones, I have hope that this kind of faith is possible, even for me.)

We have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Olivia has faith that if she keeps moving in spite of her fear, the bees will leave her alone. I have a personal experience that proves otherwise; when I was about her age, I was stung by a yellowjacket. I didn’t provoke it, and I didn’t even know it was near me, but I was in my front yard and it got me right in the fleshy part of my behind that was exposed when I bent over. Fear of flying insects with stingers is not irrational. But I have faith anyway. I have faith that not every insect will sting me unprovoked. And I have faith that if by chance I do get stung, it may hurt but I will be ok. Faith teaches me that I can just keep walking.

Oh how I wish I could apply this faith to other parts of my life and not just garden walks with bees! But the thing about faith is that it takes practice, and it grows. None of us starts out with complete trust in Nana or bees or God or the divine providence of the universe. We let it grow in one area of our lives and it takes root elsewhere, and not just within us. Courage is contagious. Courage turned a small rag tag group of backwater fishermen into a force large enough and powerful enough to transform even a Roman Empire intent on extinguishing them. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was it toppled in one. Faith takes time and practice. In the mean time, just keep walking. What else are you going to do?

Holey Heart

Playing It Safe

I have been a writer ever since I could pick up a pen and craft a sentence. My elementary school had an annual “young author’s contest,” and every year, I participated and placed. Ironically, my very first “book” was not a story at all, but about the true meaning of Easter, with illustrations. (It was in the shape of an egg; how cute is that?) I was six years old and won first place in my grade. Funny how our souls know our life’s purpose long before we do.

When I was in 6th grade, my annual contest submission not only won my grade level at school but also went on to win honorable mention in the city-wide contest. I attended a ceremony at the Marriott hotel where famed children’s author Lois Lowry gave a speech and presented our awards. I know this not because I remember it, but because I kept the printed program, along with all my childhood stories.

What I DO remember is what happened when the results were announced to my sixth grade class. One of my classmates said, dripping with sarcasm, “Of course she won. She always wins.” And it wasn’t just anyone who said this. It was cutest, funniest, smartest, most popular boy in the class. I’d had a positively paralyzing crush on him for three years and counting, and his words crushed me. That’s what I remember.

I still wrote stories in seventh and eighth grade. But I started to bury my talent. In high school I wrote mediocre poetry. Four years of high school literature introduced me to “real” writing, and when I compared myself to that, I just quit writing stories altogether. An F on my senior term paper ended any ambition I may have had to become an English teacher (never mind that the teacher failed over half of all the Honors English term papers that spring), and I avoided literature classes in college, mostly out of laziness.

Instead, I majored in mass communications and excelled at a skill few others could master – editing. You know, using a red pen on OTHER people’s writing.

I also found an “outlet” for my outspoken nature as an opinion columnist on the school paper. I titled it “Just Say Yes,” making the most of my unusual last name. Occasionally my spiritual side would leak out around the holidays or other special occasions. I felt somewhat legitimate when an “anti-fan” created a Christine Yesolitis hate page (back when the internet was in it’s infancy) called “Just Say No.”

I had lots of artist and writer and photographer friends in college, all of whom seemed much more talented and focused on their dreams than I was. I envied them and their passion, but I decided to play it safe, taking a pragmatic approach to my education, career, and creative aspirations: learn the skills I would need to land a newspaper job so I could edit and opine myself into a position where I could really influence people.

It would have been an excellent plan, except that columnists don’t get hired fresh out of college; they work their way up as beat reporters and feature writers and calendar editors and copy desk assistants. They work as part of a team. They pick up the phone and make cold calls to sources. They play the “game” and promote the “agenda.” I’m an introvert, I was not much of a team player, and if you hadn’t noticed, I don’t care much for agendas. I had too much integrity (or stubbornness?) to write the way some editor told me to write.

By God’s grace I fell into graphic design. By God’s continued grace I found job after job in the non-profit world, where my strengths could grow and my weaknesses could be avoided. I’ve been blessed to use my artistic abilities to design books that other people have written. But I couldn’t keep ignoring my true calling. By God’s grace, a radio personality challenged his listeners to stand wherever it is God tells them to stand and do whatever it is God tells them to do, and by God’s providence I heard. Really heard. And that’s when I started writing for the bulletin. It was almost exactly five years ago; December 6, 2009.

I was 21 years old when I first heard the call to write about the Sunday scriptures, but I didn’t answer the call until I was in my mid-30s. I had some good excuses. I was busy working various full time jobs and having relationships and trying to cross off all the benchmarks on my “list” – marriage, babies, trip to Ireland, etc. I also told myself that I didn’t know anything about theology and that I wasn’t a very good writer. The truth is, I was afraid that I might really be good, and what that might mean.

I still am, by the way.

I share this abbreviated review of my creative self because I suspect we all have histories like this. Some comment or rejection causes us to question our creative self-worth, and like the third servant in Sunday’s parable, we bury our talent and justify it by being practical and realistic. We’re not that talented, we say. Surely God won’t miss our meager contribution to creation. We’d probably just muck it up anyway.

I have admittedly taken the easy route for a good stretch of my journey. Maybe I haven’t completely buried my talent, but I’ve been a bit too afraid to fully use it. I’ve felt like too much of a hypocrite to let loose. I’ve made some very human mistakes just like anyone else, but I often keep making them long after I know better, and it’s embarrassing. If only you knew! Who am I to use this unhoned gift of gab to talk about the spiritual life when I myself haven’t mastered either language or love?

This past Sunday’s Gospel, the parable of the talents, is one of the very few times when Jesus talks about condemnation. The woman at the well? No condemnation. The woman caught in adultery? No condemnation. The thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus? Not only is there no condemnation, he is promised entry to Paradise! These people broke commandments and got slaps on the spiritual wrist. But a fearful servant who played it safe and buried his master’s money because he was too insecure to take a risk? Condemnation, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Most of us play it safe because we doubt our own worth. We think we will be condemned for failing. We think that whatever meager talent we might have could not possibly make a difference. We think our sinfulness and imperfection makes us unsuitable vessels for God to work through.

The master in Jesus story calls that sort of thinking lazy and wicked. I call it SHIT – “Simply How I Think.”

I need to change how I think.

Those of us who were taught to have a “fear” of the Lord may also subscribe to a belief in a demanding God “harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.” This belief doesn’t have to be a source of insecurity about our worth, but a source of hope! God can harvest where He did not plant and gather where He did not scatter! It doesn’t matter if He gave me a true artist’s measure of talent, or the ability to draw only stick figures; whatever I create is added to the beauty of creation if I’m doing it to serve my creator instead of my fragile ego.

And that’s the key difference. Ego plays it safe. Ego does whatever it can to protect itself and its fantasy world. Ego Edges God Out.

A friend recently posted these inspiring words on his Facebook feed: “Small minds cannot comprehend big spirits. To be great, you must be willing to be mocked, hated and misunderstood. More importantly, you must be willing to be wrong and fail . . . Will you remain quiet about whatever it is that you have been quietly pondering in your heart one more day? Decide today. Promising yourself ‘tomorrow’ will leave you in the end with nothing but empty ‘yesterdays.'”

All of us are hypocrites one way another, if we have the courage to actually have standards and attempt to live up to them. Not a single one of us can use that as an excuse for burying our talent.

Inviting God in doubles our worth. The servant with ten talents grew it by ten. The servant with five talents grew it by five. And the servant with one talent would have grown it by one if only he’d had a little faith in the master he feared so much.

I gain nothing by playing it safe.

Jesus makes it pretty clear, however, that I have everything – everything – to lose.