The Urban Trail on a Saturday

The directional sign at the Spencer Butte trailhead. Photo by Tim Graves
The directional sign at the Spencer Butte trailhead. Photo by Tim Graves

The shiny and clean luxury cars in the parking lot were my first clue. The glossy trailhead directional sign was my next. I was not in eastern Oregon (or even my beloved Gorge)!

It wasn’t a bad trail. Quite the contrary, the hike up to the top of  Eugene, Oregon’s Spencer Butte was a physical challenge (though short) that elevated my heart rate. As I made the final rock climb to the top, my endorphins were already doing their job with my mood. Still.

Still, it wasn’t quite right in other ways. Maybe “right” is the wrong word. It wasn’t what I’m accustomed to on a hike. Even the less-used, more difficult west route was less rustic than most of the trails I hike. Sanitized is too strong a word to describe it but, well, even with the forest around me, even with the cougar and bear warning sign at the trailhead kiosk, it was hard to shake the city around me.

Most cluster in groups Photo by Tim Graves
Most cluster in groups at the top of Spencer Butte on a Saturday morning in Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

I know. I sound like a purist, or God-forbid a snob. Still.

When I reached the top there was a crowd! Most of the folks were chattering to one another. You know, that kind of  chatter? It was the kind of chatter with a wall around it that says, we are a group and you are not a part of it. “We don’t even see you.”

It is not that I expect to have long conversations with those I encounter while hiking. (I usually hike to be immersed in nature and the One I call God.) Typically hikers acknowledge one another’s presence. Sometimes we comment on the natural beauty that surrounds us.

Instead, I heard people chattering that kind of chatter with a wall around it. From time to time, phrases about peoples’ daily life escaped the walls. One woman even stared at her smartphone!

As I hiked down the crowded but easier, if longer, trail back to the trailhead I thought. Maybe the One I call God was still speaking to me even in this environment that felt simultaneously familiar and alien to me.

Reflecting, this trail serves a very different purpose than most of the trails I hike. It is a place for a quick jaunt for exercise. For some, it is like a morning jog. For others it is a place to gather with friends as you might for brunch on a Saturday morning after a stressful week. Clearly, not my cup of tea (or cheese omelette) but legitimate use nonetheless.

Is it an Apartment or Swiss Cheese?

Screen shot of trail map.
Screen shot of trail map.

Climbing the Cook’s Ridge trail I paused at the tree stump and exclaimed internally, Rodent Apartments! Moments later my hiking companion came up from behind and exclaimed audibly, “Swiss Cheese!”

So, who was right? Were either of us right?

In my thinking, I noted the multiple holes. I proceeded to think about which creatures might be using this old stump. Then, I overlaid my human conception of a place with multiple residences to describe it as Rodent Apartments. Of course, I did this in seconds.

Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves

I didn’t ask my partner about her thought process. I suspect she reacted to the visual appearance of the stump. In her mind, she then went through objects with multiple holes. Donuts, nope not quite. Golf course, not so much. Finally, her mind arrived at swiss cheese. Yes, she may have thought, this tree stump looks most like swiss cheese. She, too, did this in microseconds.

Each of our descriptions use pre-existing understandings of the world around us. Each of us lay previous learnings on top of a new experience.

We all do this. A lot. We use our own internal thoughts and ideas to describe the external, particularly when encountering the novel or new. The creatures that live in the holes (if any even do) have no conception of apartment building. The holes in this stump were most likely not created in the same process that results in holes in swiss cheese.

The trouble with using our own internal thoughts and ideas to describe the external is that we can begin to think of our descriptions as objective fact. For example, we may describe someone else as “liberal” or “conservative” using our internal ideas of those terms. Our definitions may not be the same as another person’s definition.

We also do this with the one I call God. (I use the term “God” to describe the loving, non-coercive essence that connects each of us, that lives within each of us, and that encourages all that is to respond in each moment to respond in the most-loving way.) For me, the Christian narrative helps me to make sense of the divine. The person of Jesus serves as my teacher, rabbi, guru, and model for how to respond lovingly and become who I am created to be.

However, if I become so tied to the Christian narrative as objective fact that I do not respond in love to others, then I’ve not only become idolatrous, I’ve missed the truth: the love and interconnectedness that underlies all that is.

If I become so convinced of the rightness of my description of the hole-y tree stump as Rodent Apartment versus my hiking partner’s Swiss Cheese, I risk severing our relationship. That’s serious business when it is neither.

Perceiving & Becoming

Joy of Wet
The clouds hung over the summit like a wet towel and, as if the bathroom fan were broken, my eyeglasses fogged up. Photo by Tim Graves

The clouds hung over the summit like a wet towel and, as if the bathroom fan were broken, my eyeglasses fogged up. My first hike to the top of Washington’s Wind Mountain was ill-timed for taking in its views of the Columbia River Gorge, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Adams.

Though I appreciate new trails, I often visit the same trails multiple times. And so it was that two days after my initial hike I was back on this challenging, though relatively short trail. Unless I’d time traveled between seasons, the weather could not have been more different. On my first journey my focus was on small details. A myriad of miniature suns lining the trail lifted my mood. The drops of rain collected on vegetation while moisture saturated my skin and clothing.

A foggy view toward the northwest from the top of Wind Mountain. Photo by Tim Graves
A foggy view toward the northwest from the top of Wind Mountain. Photo by Tim Graves

Conversely, my attention the second morning was drawn to expansive vistas peeking through tall trees. My yellow mini-suns seemed duller and fewer as Sol peeped through trees. Upon reaching the pinnacle of my journey, rather than a windowless penthouse, I arrived in a glass house affording phenomenal views of the river below and snowcapped mountains above.

Each journey afforded me perspectives I needed to intimately know my new friend, Wind Mountain. Both trips around switchbacks, under and over fallen trees, and along its rocky, muddy, and packed dirt surface taught me something about its character. While each perspective is true, neither one fully reflects the who of the mountain. Two summer mornings spent with my new companion do not wholly inform me of the mountain’s nature either.

Approaching the thirty-fifth anniversary of our wedding, I know my wife better than any other human being. Yet, I do not know her

thoroughly nor she me. Part of the challenge in understanding and empathizing with others — even those we’ve known for decades — is that we are moving targets. I am not the same person at this moment as I will be this evening. Like Wind Mountain, we are each living, growing, and evolving life forms.

A view Photo by Tim Graves
A sunny view  toward the northwest from the top of Wind Mountain. Photo by Tim Graves

Change is inherent in our nature. If we are undistracted, we perceive it in ourselves, our relationships with one another, and with the Divine. For many, it is in Nature that this universal characteristic is most obvious.

Gaia, our living planet of which we are a part, is in the continual process of becoming. As part of the living body that is creation we, too, are becoming. Consequently, as I re-hike a trail or relate with my wife, we influence one another. We have a novel experience.

And, so, I wonder. I wonder why we insist on quantifying one another. Why do we label ourselves and others? When we label or quantify, we seek to define the indefinable. We seek to control the Divine mystery when all we can really do is be. All we can do is be present with each other. All we can do is become together.

Perhaps this is why each trek on a particular trail inspires me. Each pilgrimage affords me another opportunity to experience the essence that permeates all that is,  the One I call God. Each hike is about being and becoming an integral part of the unfolding realm of extravagant love.



Freak Accidents & God

Freak Accidents & God

Yes, the photo is gross. Without the photo, however, you would not grasp the severity of the burn on my toes. The unofficial medical diagnosis (via emailed photos) is that I received a second-degree burn.

I am en route to the International Democratic Education Conference in Boulder, Colorado from my home in eastern Oregon. I chose to drive the scenic route, taking my time. So, why when I am intentionally focused on God’s creation would God allow this to happen? Why Would a loving God allow my foot to get burned in a freak accident when I have trails to hike? 

The short answer is like the major accidents, like hurricanes, like all manner of trauma in the world, God did not cause me to burn my foot. God did not cause the cheese on the microwave pizza to slide off the crust as I moved it to a plate. God did not cause bubbling cheese to land on my bare foot in a roadside motel. That is not the God that I perceive and experience.

My foot twenty-four hours later after a day of driving AND my insistence that I put on my hiking boots long enough to walk a trail at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Photo by Tim Graves
My foot twenty-four hours later after a day of driving AND my insistence that I put on my hiking boots long enough to walk a trail at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Photo by Tim Graves

Sadly, that is what too many people perceive as God. Too many religious (and even too many atheists) define God as capricious, arbitrary, and a chess master with us as pawns. God in this view is all-powerful and all-knowing. The trouble with that God is that you end up blaming God for cancer, bad weather, and for scalding cheese.

For me, God is all-knowing only in the sense that God knew it was a possibility that, given the free-will I possess, I (and those who designed the cheese and microwave) that events might lead to a second-degree burn on my foot. God who loves each atom as much as each human being encouraged decisions that would lead to good. Sadly, free-will led to blisters.

In the moment of pain, in that time when I screamed out in my motel room, dancing with bubbling cheese on my foot, God felt my skin burning. Waking to the blisters on my foot, my disappointment at what this might mean for my planned journey, God also felt my worry and frustration. But the loving One who is in each of us (and each teeny speck of Creation), the loving One who is in the connections between us, and the loving One who lures us — never forces us — doesn’t allow bad things to have the final say.

Just as in the Christian narrative through which I come to the Divine, even something as heinous as a crucifixion does not stop the power of love from changing the world. God uses what happens for good. God does NOT cause bad things to happen. The distinction is significant because it speaks to the nature of love.

The Divine One continues to speak to me as I continue my journey, albeit driving in my slippers instead of my hiking boots. Extravagant & relentless Love is like that, it sticks with us, it empathizes with us, and it helps us and encourages us to see the unfolding realm of God no matter what challenges befall us.

A Place to Gather

A Place to Gather

Though there are many reasons to avoid McDonalds, I am often tempted by the (relatively) clean facilities and free wifi. I now find myself sitting with a Diet Coke on my laptop writing on a semi-regular basis.

I have learned this about McDonalds: it is a place for people to gather and visit. It is a place where people can have a bite to eat and sit and catch up with friends. They do not feel rushed to finish and leave. I often see people sitting laughing and smiling with one another long after meals are finished.

This morning while traveling alone to Boulder for the IDEC 2013 conference, a place where educators from across the globe are gathering to connect with one another,  I got off the freeway at Mountain Home, Idaho. In pursuit of the McDonalds’ free wifi, I found human connections.

I have had friendly conversations with multiple people I do not know. I smiled and listened to one older man’s incredulity at the salaries of sports figures. I nodded as a woman shared with me her frustrations and fears about her financial future. I observed a young family enjoying time together. I smiled, catching the emanating joy, as a group of older women laughed and talked. Two teen girls — staring at their phones — remained connected to one another as they giggled and talked quietly to each other.

Older women catching up. Photo by Tim Graves
Older women catching up at McDonalds. Photo by Tim Graves
A young family and teen girls find a place to connect. Photo by Tim Graves
A young family and teen girls find a place to connect. Photo by Tim Graves

Like the One, in whose image we are created, we crave connection. We are social creatures. We need one another. We also need a place to gather. For many, that is a fast food restaurant.



The 10,000th Tweet

The 10,000th Tweet

I surpassed a significant milestone in social media terms this week. I reached ten-thousand tweets. With only one tweet left before the 10,000th, I downloaded my Twitter archive. (I could not remember what my first tweet had been.) Perusing my microblogs from 4 years and 2 months ago, I discovered my first tweet was not only boring but misspelled. Twitter-style, I solicited advice from my 573 closest friends on Facebook using the hashtag: #WhatShouldMy10000thTweetBe. The first response came from a young family member who suggested, “It should say that i’m ur most favoritest niece.” Others suggested particular quotes or types of quotes. Some gently chided me with, “That’s all folks” or “Tim, you have to get a life! Lol.”

Wanting to tweet the perfect 10,000th tweet I went to bed separated from my Twitter account. The next morning, I woke to the magnitude of tornado destruction in Oklahoma. Compelled by current events I responded in tweet with the following:

Screen Shot 2013-05-21 at 6.43.41 AM

Whether or not is was the perfect 10,000th tweet, it was done. In some ways my tweet represented the nature of Twitter, a place where we pass along found information to friends, a place where we respond as community to current events, and a place where — at its best — we share, collaborate, and discuss deep thoughts and ideas. Twitter at its best connects us to our human family around the globe. And, yes, sometimes, as it was for me fifteen times in my first month, Twitter is about the food we eat.

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 1.55.09 PM