And the sun came over the hills

It was bright and early on a Saturday morning in November.  I popped my head out the door and tested the air, debating how many layers I would need to put on.  I had agreed to help out at the 3rd annual Rock n’ Run in Renfro Valley, a 5k/Half-marathon that donates part of its proceeds to CAP.  What I was doing once I got there, I didn’t know.  And as I bundled up in a long-sleeved t-shirt, two sweatshirts, and a fleece-lined vest, I started to question my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants decision to sign up to help with this thing.  It was cold.  It was a Saturday.  It was a run, something that I knew nothing about.  Maybe I would’ve been better off staying home…

But I had signed up! So I was going.

Erin (our new short-termer) and I stuck our bundled-up selves into the van and hit the road.  We had a bit of a drive.  As we wound our way along the Kentucky roads, passing communities too small to be called villages, trees rooted in rock, old barns leaning precariously to one side, and pastures dotted with fuzzy beef cattle, the sun started to come up over the hills and shine on the tops of the trees.  Bare branches crowned in sunlight: a promise of what was to come.

We made it to Renfro Valley (a lovely little tourist trap) in good time.  Runners in brightly colored sneakers, shorts, leggings, and ‘boggins (also known as winter hats in Michigan speak) stuck numbers to their chests and stretched their legs against a backdrop of old-timey cabins.  Erin and I found our posts where we were given our neon STAFF t-shirts, and watched as the runners took off, dropping the early morning chill behind them as they went.

I was posted near the finish line, where the runners had to follow a sharp turn that led them down into a tunnel that dug its way under the road and to the other side, where the time clock awaited their arrival.  I was there to be a road sign, pointing the way so that the runners wouldn’t miss their turn.  As the runners started to veer past, I soon realized that I had been given a highly entertaining post.  I was right next to the DJ’s station, from which erupted both energizing tunes and the DJ’s witty banter.

A small man dressed in running gear, the DJ bounced around the part of the course that I was stationed at, greeting runners as they came around the corner (To a senior citizen runner:  “Here we have a member of our 21 and under class coming up towards the tunnel!”), running alongside the runners as they got closer (“What?  Don’t stop running now!  There is no walking allowed as you go into the tunnel!  You’re almost done!  You know what?  I’m going to run with you and help you out.”), and cheering them on through the tunnel to the finish line on the other side (“You’re almost there!  Just go through the time tunnel and you’ll be at the finish!  AND going through the tunnel will make you five years younger and more energized!”).

Meanwhile, I stood at my post, swaying to the music and raising my signpost arms whenever a runner got close.  As the morning progressed and the sun rose higher in the sky, I gradually shed more and more of my layers and laid them on the bench beside me.  And I realized something very quickly:  I was really enjoying myself!

As I tapped my feet to the music and laughed at the DJ, I couldn’t help but grin as the runners passed by. There is something very heartening about seeing such a wide variety of people getting up in the early morning light to all go for a run together.  There were 70-somethings disregarding the aches and pains that come with age, there were the young and well-seasoned runners who’d been to several of these things already this year, there were little girls with their hair tied up in bows, there were teenagers wearing their high school sports uniforms, there were people dressed up for the costume competition,  and there were people who had never done something like this before and felt like they were absolutely dying but kept going anyway.

I think those are the runners that I like best.  The ones who are hurting but keep going anyway.  Because sometimes, if you’re going to get the most out of life, you’ve just got to put aside the aches and pains and the doubts.   And just be there with a smile.  To run 13 miles just for the satisfaction of being able to say that you did it.  To be a signpost for some preoccupied runners.To put aside your comfortable homebody ways and volunteer for something you know very little about.

When the van dipped into a valley on the way to the race that morning and the sun came over the hills, I had a feeling that it was going to be a good day.

And it was.


The Beauty and the Pain

A yellowed leaf floated down from a tree top and landed next to my leg.  I was sitting on the blacktop with my beat-up-Keds-encased feet tapping on the air in front of me.  It was volunteer retreat, and the ever refreshing Janean had pulled out her guitar, which had led the Ukulele-toting Micole to join her in some impromptu tunes.  The rest of us gathered around and added our voices to the mix when we knew the words.

“This song’s for you.  And you.  Well, it’s for all of us really.”

Janean strummed her guitar and started singing words that struck a personal note for a veteran CAP volunteer like me.  And her.

And in that moment, I couldn’t help but smile and think about what a beautiful soul this blacktop musician was.  And how beautiful it was to be sitting in this circle, in a parking lot in the middle of October, with several other equally beautiful people.

The next day was Sunday.  I sat in a church pew in Berea and searched for the source of some unexpected post-communion music.  I looked to the choir.  They were stock still and not a peep was coming out of them.  I looked to the front of the church, and discovered the source:  the priest, gray-haired and hailing from the missionary fields, had pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and started playing “Immaculate Mary.”   I couldn’t help but grin an “I’m-so-durn-happy-right-now” smile.   It’s not every day that a priest bursts into spontaneous song.  After Mass, I was unexpectedly greeted by Carlo, a former camp volunteer who was visiting friends for the weekend.  More cause for grinning.  More beauty to add to the Jackson House wall of gratefulness.

Monday.  My birthday.  I was at Mary’s house working on the roof that we had put over her camper and the porch that we had built on the front of it.  This is the Mary that I have written about before.  A Mary of the kind you don’t forget.  The Mary of music, pictures, stories, and smiles.  But this day was different.  Mary’s son lay in the hospital, dying.   A heaviness had crept into her voice that weighed down her sentences and dropped her words at my feet.  She wandered from the inside of the camper, where the ringing of the telephone bounced off the walls, to the outside of the camper, where she gave us updates on her son.  I went home carrying the weight of her words and prayed for a man that I have never met.

Saturday.  A sunrise hike at the Pinnacles had been planned, but was cancelled because a walk out the door revealed rain drops dampening the sky.  I went to my room and turned on my computer, then found myself crying tears for a family that I have never met.  A mother.  A father.  A one-year-old with down syndrome.  The doctor sent them home stripped of any last vestiges of hope for a cancer healed by medicine.  So now they wait and write of the heaviness in their hearts.  I listened to the mother’s beautiful voice and cried to think that her daughter may not hear it for much longer.

Thursday.  Mary’s son has passed away.  I sat on the sofa while she sat in her recliner next to her breathing treatment machine.  She told me about her son’s last days and showed me the pictures that she had picked out of him for them to have out at the funeral.  A chubby elementary schooler dressed in his Sunday best, smiling for his school pictures.  A teenager with shaggy hair and oh-so-stylish checkered pants, ready to go to a dance.  A full-grown man sitting on the sofa in her old house next to his wife. He is the second son that she has lost.  The first, Paul, is buried in her family cemetery next to her husband Jerry.     She tells me that something happened last night that helped her in her grief.

“You know, Elizabeth, last night I was sitting here in this chair – I have to sleep in it, you know, because of this COPD that I have – and suddenly I could just feel Jerry, and Paul, and all of them around me, right here in this room.  And I just knew that they were letting me know that it was okay and they wanted me to keep going.  And I woke up this morning feeling really peaceful.”

I could feel one of those sad/happy smiles coming on.  The type that curves up into your eyes and squeezes out the tears.  I had not been feeling very productive this week, but I suddenly got the feeling that maybe that didn’t matter.  Maybe, within that moment, I was just meant to be there to sit and talk with Mary.

It is Sunday, and I am back in a pew again.  Thinking about beautiful souls with a song to sing, harmonicas with hymns on their lips, children whose mothers are taken from them far too soon, and mothers who bury their children.

The world is full of cancers that eat away at families, of hearts that stumble and cease to beat, of weighty things that make even words heavy.

There is far too much pain in the world.  And, unfortunately, we humans tend to add to it far too often.

But there is also beauty.

There are leaves that color asphalt, music that touches hearts, prayers that shine down love, and faith that can give peace even in the most devastating grief.

And I have come to realize that as I journey through this crazy forest called life, full to the brim both with bright colors to make me smile and roots to trip me up, that this, more than anything, is my purpose in life –

to do my best to add to the beauty, and never to the pain.

Pretty House 2015