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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Our home was not a center of hospitality as a child.  I remember no shared dinner tables, no regular activities with friends, no social interaction with neighbors..   However, I do  recall a few non related people who seemed to appear for a few nights, mostly because it was so rare. There was the visit from Sumiko, who had worked with my dad when our family lived in Japan, and a Franciscan Friar with a kind spirit who appeared in a dark robe and white clerical collar. To this day, I have no idea what his relationship was to our  normally socially isolated, spiritually devoid family.

And then there was Margaret Altmann.

Margaret was legendary in our family, the way that some families have an elder in their matriarchal lineage who is revered.  Born in Berlin, she had three strikes against her as the Nazi Party rose to power.  She was highly educated, she was Jewish, and she was gay.  My mom told us that Margaret saw the handwriting on the wall, so she immigrated to America and began an illustrious career that would include earning a second doctorate from Cornell and eventually becoming the leading authority on moose and elk in the United States.

But it was not moose and elk that first brought her to my mom’s attention. It was a miniature Schnauzer puppy.   

My mom had also emigrated from Germany and was raising her four children in Virginia near the Hampton Institute where Margaret first worked. .  After purchasing a puppy from Margaret’s latest litter, they became fast friends, and Margaret took my mother under her wing, even forgoing her scholarly duties once when the whole family became very sick while my father was deployed overseas.  Mom shared how Professor Margaret lovingly cleaned up the home and cooked for everyone and tended to us children so my mom could get some much needed rest.  Mom never forgot that kindness.

They became fast friends for life, and when my dad was killed by a drunk driver the spring of my junior year, my mom decided to take me and my brother, who was a sophomore, to stay with Margaret at her cabin in  the Buffalo Valley overlooking The Grand Tetons.  Perhaps she thought that visit would take all of our minds off the tragedy that had blown up our lives.

She was right.

My brother and I listened to animals prowling the dark in the only night we dared sleep in a tent in a meadow behind the cabin.  We watched thunderstorms light up the Tetons as they raced into the valley.  We listened to the crackle of the wood stove in the one bedroom cabin where Margaret stayed each summer doing research.  We rode her horses into the hgh meadows, and she taught us how to be invisible to an elk.  And, for that one week, we rested from the trauma, our hearts too filled with the mystery and majesty of the Tetons to entertain thoughts of sorrow.

Fifty years after that experience, with my husband in tow, I drove the backroads of the Buffalo Valley in search of that cabin.  As we meandered up the first road, I saw where I had jogged the first morning and encountered fresh bear prints in the mud.  I saw the Buffalo River Bridge, where years later my mom and I and my twin daughters “fished” and feared passing bears.  But I could not find the cabin, and so we went further down the road to try and find the dude ranch where Margaret had taken us to meet her friends during that first visit.

It was still there.

Tim went inside to the small restaurant as I parked the car.  I stepped out and glanced across the valley.  The view had not changed.  In the distance, the Tetons loomed like sentinels over the valley profiled against a sky darkened by an impending summer storm.   The Buffalo River wound through the landscape, and the inescapable smell of pine was trapped in the breeze.

And then it hit me.

I had come to know these mountains as a teenager, bereft and struggling to find a language for my complex sorrow.  The father who had abused me but had also infused me with a love of literature and music was gone.  Forever.  There would be no reconciliation in this life.  But I could not let myself process that sorrow then because once my father had died, I received a lifelong job assignment..

I had to take care of my mom.

Over four decades later that job came to an end with the death of my mom at 95. And now I stood there overlooking the valley as the hint of a storm brewed, and a spasm gripped my heart. For all these long years, my seventeen year old self had never fully processed that unexamined sorrow. For all these long years, the Buffalo River had flowed through this valley waiting for my return. For all these long years, the Tetons had loomed in the distance, holding my tears, waiting to release them to me.

I cried them now, helpless against the flood.

I was free to grieve.

Though I have always considered these Tetons my spiritual home, I have not been back since that last day in the Buffalo Valley.  Those mountains graciously held my sorrow all those decades, and in some ways, it feels like we have both gone our separate ways, no longer burdened.

But the Creator who painted their grandeur against a rugged sky still calls me daily to rest in untamed spaces,  no longer in sorrow, but in overwhelming gratitude for the endless healing capacity of wild, beautiful places.

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Some days come with their own unexpected beauty.  Beyond the sunrise, beyond that first sip of dark, hot coffee with a treat of sweet cream, beyond the dreaming puppy alongside me on the couch.  And perhaps it is the unexpectedness that is the most sweet.  But on most days, I simply settle for the expected.

You see, I am not a visionary.  Ideas are crammed into my head like cotton balls, but I mostly leave them there in pursuit of other goals.  Or no goals at all, honestly.  But I love coming alongside visionaries in whatever way I can to support their grit and determination to make the world a better place, one person at a time.

Last week, for some reason, every person we love dearly who is on the front lines of their visionary work sent photos and updates for the fields in which they work.  And that one day alone, my texts were filled with joyful news and even more opportunities to participate in a more just world

Honestly, my heart was so full from joy that even the prospect of the chaos of a necessary mid day trip to Walmart could not dampen my spirit. It was one of those days when the entire world seemed to expand around me.  Every person in the store seemed more friendly.  The colors in the aisles seemed brighter.  The very air seemed filled with goodness.

And then I heard it.

Very loudly, coming down the aisle, a young mother was singing “The ants go marching two by two hoorah, hoorah” much to the delight of her toddler son sitting in the seat of the cart.  As she came closer, I could hear her stop between each chorus and ask him, “How many next?”  And right after his answer, she would burst into the next verse.

As she neared me, I made eye contact and told her she had a beautiful voice, and that I too used to sing out loud in stores with my kids.  As I spoke, her son sat transfixed by her, smiling from ear to ear.  She smiled back at him and looked back up at me, pausing in her song, and simply said,

I would do anything to keep my son happy.

That was it.

I would do anything for my son.

I stood there and started to cry.  Right there in the middle of the aisle, as unembarrassed about my overflowing tears of gratitude as she was about her singing.  This day, this one day, I had been hijacked from my worries and concerns by unexpected beauty.  The beauty of knowing that someone, somewhere, might be working their way towards economic freedom. The beauty of knowing that someone, somewhere, was having a warm breakfast and fellowship.  The beauty of knowing that someone, somewhere was experiencing abundance in a new land.

I wiped my eyes and glanced at the woman and her son as I shopped the aisle. She continued to place items in her cart, now singing, the ants go marching six by six, and as she passed, she smiled and added,

And I don’t care who hears me.

Friends, today as I write this, my soul bursting with a song of gratitude, I feel exactly the same way. I cannot solve the problems of the world even with all the cotton balls in my brain. But I can do tiny things and you can do tiny things that will spill over into our ordinary comings and goings and bring hope and healing and unexpected beauty into a hurting world.

And that is worth singing about, no matter who hears you.

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

I believe this is the reason for the endless fascination of golf.

The game is a metaphor for the soul's search for its true ground and identity.

Steven Pressfield

Years ago, I gave up trying to explain to people that Tim’s life long passion with golf is a spiritual discipline.  But it is.

In the confusion and depression of his youth, he would take his clubs out to a field near his home and practice in the setting sun as the breeze rustled the trees.  He explained to me early in our courtship that when the wind came through those trees, he felt the presence of a Holy Soirit, and thus began his lifelong conversations with God on that field and all others to follow.

As you might imagine, since his preferred form of prayer was talking to God on a practice field, finding his “spiritual tribe” was a struggle. But, after coming into contact with the readings of the Shalem Institute,  I thought he would be drawn to the deep, quiet spirit of this group, and when they announced their first West Coast spiritual formation retreat, I signed us both up.

We arrived at an old monastery in California tucked between two deep hillsides on acreage filled with prayer circles, stone buildings and narrow paths into a small gorge. After our first day in meeting and prayer, Tim and I debriefed in our room, and during his reading of one of the selections, he turned to me with quiet joy and announced, “I known who I am…a contemplative…”.

He had found his tribe.

On the evening of the second day, we were sent into our small groups to prepare for the next day’s silent retreat.  Our given task during the silence was to watch and listen for what God had to say to us in our journey.  Tim asked in his group how to best prepare, and a seasoned spiritual director said, “Take an orange with you,” because, as she later explained, the smell and the touch of it would keep him grounded.

The next morning, each of us was given several passages of scripture to read to ground ourselves. Tim sat in his group and silently read the first line of the first scripture, which started with the word “Go”.  He could not get past the first word and rose after only a few moments called by the Spirit to be alone and drawn to the path that cut through the gorge to the top of a hill.

Coming to a small bridge over a creek, he noted a flash of orange in the distance upstream.  Pausing to watch, he saw it meander slowly towards him from ledge to ledge as it traveled down the gurgling stream.  As it got closer, he realized it was an orange floating down towards him. Incredulous, he waited until it bobbed down the current to the bridge and knelt down to pick it up. In that moment, he realized that the Creator of the universe, with a million other things to watch over,  had set a divine appointment with him.

Holding the orange in his hand as he walked, he placed himself in an attitude of open listening. With all of the baggage being an athlete carries, he had struggled his whole life to believe that he could actually be in communion with a Holy God simply by doing something he loved, something that brought him peace, something that filled his soul. The question on his heart was the same as always.

How can something like practicing a simple sport bring me closer to you?

He hiked higher, the hillsides crowding in on the trail, and as he pondered his question, a tiny flash of white caught his eye.  There just above his head, so stuck as to almost be invisible, was a golf ball.  He excavated it from the hillside and placed it in his pocket, continuing on.  Suddenly another ball appeared stuck deeply in soft earth.  And then another.  No golf course was within miles. Nothing had been on this trail when he hiked it the day before.  And now, there was abundance.

Hiking on and still holding on to the orange and the two golf balls he had decided to keep, he continued climbing to a small clearing in which stood a single spreading tree and a large boulder split through its middle.  Staring at the cleft in the rock, he realized he had received his answer.  A deep peace flooded him.

Yes, the God who loved him unconditionally could meet him in his quiet passions; He had, after all, created him that way.

Decades have passed since that divine encounter revealed to Tim his identity. He continues his daily practice of long prayer conversations as he tosses his questions and his concerns patiently in Spirit’s direction, and the breezes whisper to him insights and answers.   His relationship with his Creator is a moment by moment, living, breathing friendship.  And I have given up trying to explain to anyone his unusual spiritual discipline because his life speaks for itself.

He is a man who knows He is deeply loved by God.  He is a man who is at Peace. He is a man who lives in a state of grace.

And when the sun comes up in the morning and shines its light on the oranges now ripening on the tree in our own desert backyard, I am reminded daily that God will use whatever He can to get our attention and speak to us of Love.

Even an orange.

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