The other day we were hiking up in the mountains where the air is clear and the clouds are so close you want to touch them and we lost the trail. We'd stopped to take in some rest and sunshine in a clearing and when we got back up we didn't know which way to go. I don't know about you but I feel like that a lot in life. I'll have a clear direction and then there will be a distraction, a break or a roadblock and the way forward isn't as clear as it was moments before. In life, as I did in this instance, its helpful to take a step back, closely observe your surroundings, look at where you've come from with an eye toward where you want to go and then peer around closely for a way forward. In time a path will appear. Thank goodness because three extra granola bars will only get you so far.
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If you need help to dive deep, think of a problem you're facing. Go ahead and challenge yourself, choose a tough one. Now think about 3 things you've done or overcome in your past that were hard. What qualities or attributes did you rely on or cultivate to make it through those situations? Write them down. If you can't think of any ask a friend or relative to help you. Were you dedicated, quick thinking? Creative? Faithful? Now figure out how those attributes serve you in this situation and trust that they'll come through for you again. Now building on that sturdy foundation of your own personal growth, look forward to where you want to go and assess what other qualities you need to make it through this specific stretch of life. Do you need patience, ideas, bravery? Whatever it is confidently cultivate it (you can do it!) and let it lead you onward. The path is there you just need to find it again.
Around the age of 14 I learned to slalom ski on Lake Mojave in California. I had been water-skiing for a number of years and I was getting increasingly comfortable and ready to put another sport in my recreational repertoire. Sometimes life offers us the choice of taking on something challenging. Sometimes it doesn’t. This is one of the times I got to choose and here is what I remember about slalom skiing: Until experiencing it, I had little understanding of just how much work it takes to stay steady and rise above the water.
I had watched other people, snugly fit in their life jackets, hop into the cool water, wrestle with an unruly ski, fitting one foot in first and then tucking the other behind it. I’d watched them struggle to keep their heads up as they waited for rope, jostled in the water at the mercy of the current and the boat wake. I’d seen them grab the rope and straighten the ski, positioning their bodies directly behind the boat. And then I’d watched them call “hit it” to the boat driver and endure the pull of the boat, rising almost effortlessly out of the water as the ski would plane out and they’d fly across the lake with exhilarating freedom.
What I learned when it was me in the water is that those few seconds that seem effortless are, to the skier, quite challenging. And that the hardest moments of skiing are the moments of endurance between “hit it” and gliding across a lake of early morning glass. No matter who you are and how strong your body is, those few seconds of extreme pull require commitment, endurance and vision. You have to tell yourself that you won’t let go until you reach your goal. You have to remind yourself that you can do it and you have to see yourself skiing on that lake. Sometimes struggle is like that and when you’re in the thick of something hard, those moments where everything seems more than you can bear, you think you can’t hang on or that you’re the only one who struggles or that you’ll never move through the stretching moments you find yourself in. It’s not. You can. You’re not. You will. Believe & hang on.
Every summer when I go to Lake Powell I like to slalom ski at least once to remind myself what it feels like. I usually have to make a few attempts because I’ve forgotten, as it’s easy to do, how to hang on to the rope when every muscle in my arms and legs screams for me to let go. I ski to practice skiing, to get some water up my nose, shake it off and try again. I ski to remind myself that I am capable of enduring the pull of the boat for as long as it takes to get me up out of the water. I ski to practice steadying myself in positions I know will move me forward as the wake of the boat and the water of the lake rock me back and forth. I ski to remind myself that it’s worth hanging on because there’s nothing quite like watching the sun rise as I slide across the lake with a smile on my face, the wind in my hair and my fingers grazing the top of the water. Like most things in life, the price we pay for experiential knowledge can be steep but it’s worth the effort.
The other day Ritchie came home from work, donned his athletic garb, grabbed a ladder and the loppers and took to the backyard. As I wrestled with an unruly crab bisque in the kitchen, I repeatedly glanced out the back window to see him carefully pruning one of our peach trees. He would stand below the tree thoughtfully and look up through the scattered branches seeking to work with the tree’s growth, the space we have for it and it’s purpose in our life. Each winter, when the trees have shed their leaves they give us a clear view of their branches and we’re invited to take an intentional look at their growth.
As he went about the work of pruning this tree over the next few days, he’d check with me about a particular branch and we’d discuss the direction of it’s growth, how much to cut, where to make the cut and where the fruit would be. We’d talk about the size of last year’s fruit, it’s flavor and accessibility at picking time and our plans for next year’s growth. The branches cultivated this year will bear fruit next year so it’s important to train the tree in the direction we want to see the fruit. We always leave some low-growing branches for Jessica and her friends to pick from and we try to avoid having branches that require precarious ladder arrangements in order to harvest the peaches.
We’ve been tending this tree for 11 years now. When I look out at it I am reminded of our pruning choices of the past as I see sealed scars where thick branches were excised. I can see long and awkward angles where we allowed growth to continue in directions that extended the tree beyond usefulness. I can also track our progress as pruners. Our initial pruning efforts, while well-intentioned and enthusiastic, represent the work of learners. We pruned it in arching open ways like a shade tree instead of the more stocky and accessible fruit tree that it is. And honestly some years the loppers never saw the light of day and we didn’t prune it at all. Those years are the most evident in this tree’s unique shape. Growth allowed to continue past the point of it’s usefulness creates reparative work that can go on for years. Thankfully, the tree, like life, is ever-evolving and very forgiving. Thanks to the experience and the counsel of gardeners wiser than ourselves, we’ve learned to make gradual changes at pruning time to help the tree contain and channel it’s growth in ways that honor the distinct place this beautiful tree occupies. As our six year old and her apricot labradoodle scampered about helping us collect the downed branches, we looked forward to this year’s growth and watching her enjoy the fruits of our labors.
Have you ever wondered about John using the phrase “whom Jesus loved” in reference to himself? In a New Testament class I was in, the teacher would joke that John felt pretty highly of himself and didn’t hesitate to remind us. I would always laugh and I will admit to feeling a strong sense of inferiority when reading John’s writings for that very reason. I was burdened with the idea that John was elevating himself above the me on the totem pole of the Savior’s regard so I instinctively gathered up all my insecurities and withdrew, casting a wary eye at his words. The trouble is, there is no totem pole. It’s more like an ocean, vast and powerful and deep. There may be times when we are especially attuned to the natural ebb and flow of it but there is absolutely no distinction between the Savior’s love for me or you or John. The pull of it connects us to each other in sometimes humbling and magnificent displays. There’s the possibility that it might send us crashing around each other but the idea is that we all re-group and rejoin the tide. Sometimes it moves in mysterious ways and the sheer magnitude of it is profound. I think John knew all of this and I think he’s actually banking on us figuring out that the Savior loving him is the Savior loving us.