Christmas Present

Regardless of which version of history you believe and what holiday(s) you do or do not celebrate, I think it’s worthwhile to have a “winding down” of the year during which we shift focus from frenzied work and socialization to calm time with family and friends–and with ourselves in quiet reflection.

For me, it goes kind of like this:  work extra hard for weeks getting ready to be (mostly) out of the office; run like mad for a couple of days to get ready to go visit family; spend a day traveling; relax, unwind, and enjoy being with people I love for a day and a half; discover when I relax that I am exhausted and require frequent naps; spend a day traveling back home; collapse and relax (relatively) quietly until New Year’s Eve, reflecting on the past year and working on some sort of self-discovery that I optimistically believe will lead to life-improvement.

The time with family and the week “off” between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are the times that matter most to me.  I’ve given up on massive consumerism in favor of minimizing the gifts and enjoying the visit.  For gifts, I go with silly stocking stuffers and money for my college-aged nephews.

Tisen is the only one I go overboard on.  I bought him a fleece that fits him like a dress, a bigger Lamb Chop, and some treats.  He’s easy to buy for and he thinks every gift is perfect.

Oddly, now that Christmas is so much easier (stocking stuffers for 4 and money for 2; I don’t even do cards anymore), it’s less enjoyable.  Having removed the majority of the consumerism from the holiday seems to have also removed much of the potential thrill.

After all, the best gift I ever got wasn’t a gift I received, it was the gift of having thought of the perfect gift for someone else.  It truly is the thought that counts–but I want the thought to be “I know you; I see you; I love you as you are.” Not “you really need this thing you’ve never heard of because I think you do.”  Or, “I have no idea what you would want, so thank you for making a list.”

Gone is the feeling of connectedness and belonging that comes along with knowing someone else so well or at least having paid close enough attention that you came up with that perfect gift for them.

On the flip side, after years of failing to think of the perfect gift for the people I love, I go in with realistic expectations and come out without disappointment.

Perhaps the secret is not tying the spiritual calming of year end reflection and time with loved ones to gift giving.  Perhaps we could give gifts when the perfect idea presents itself instead of based on a date on the calendar.  Then the only problem is if the perfect idea never comes.

A Missing Dog (or, Gratitude, Part II)

I feel bad that I only made it through 3 things I am grateful for in last week’s post.  Last Monday night, I found myself thinking about this while I was sitting in a running mini-van with the brights on, pointed down railroad tracks.

I watched my husband disappear from sight with my window cracked in spite of the cold, listening in case he was attacked.  He headed beyond the reach of the headlights to an abandoned homeless camp in search of an abandoned dog.

A homeless couple we often see in the park had recently disappeared.  Supposedly, the man was arrested and the woman found a job and is living in a motel.  Rumor has it they left their dog behind.

With temperatures dropping into the low 20’s and arctic winds making it feel like the teens, my husband was determined to rescue this dog.  It was his second of 3 trips down the railroad tracks–so far, no sign of the dog.

How can I not feel gratitude for having the kind of man in my life who is both brave enough and compassionate enough to wander into potential danger to save the life of a dog?

I should mention that this couple has always seemed both lucid and happy.  We are under the impression they have chosen a homeless life for their own reasons and that they are capable of choosing a different course.  The dog, however, has no choice.

And so, I sat in the van on that cold night poignantly aware that I have much to be thankful for:  a reliable vehicle kicking out hot air; my own cuddly dog, healthy and happy beside me; a husband both strong and gentle; a hot meal to return home to; a comfortable bed to sleep in; hot running water; the list goes on and on.

But in the end, it’s the people who have been part of my life and/or who are part of my life now that I am the most grateful for (and yes, I include animals when I say “people”).  While mountains, clouds, and oceans provide much needed respite from time to time, it’s the people that keep me going day in and day out.

From passing acquaintances that make me laugh in the middle of a tense moment to friends who know me well enough to ask the most pertinent questions that allow me to see a situation in a new way, I don’t know what life would be without all of them.  Even the strangers who fail to acknowledge my “hello” remind me that I have been there, making me feel connected to them in an odd sort of way.

The people who ultimately made all of this gratitude possible are, of course, my parents.  I am grateful they were flawed human beings who made remarkable parents.  Of course, I didn’t think they were remarkable when I was growing up.  I’m also grateful that perspective changes.  🙂

Ascending Stone Door

Having descended as far as we were willing to climb and absorbed the scenery, we decided to start back up to the top of Stone Door.  We started our way back up the steep ascent.

Scrambling back up the fallen outcropping proved easier in terms of keeping our footing, but more difficult when it came to heart rate and breathing.  I was quickly reminded that I haven’t been spending much time on my bike of late.

Truthfully, there is not much that seems to prepare my body for steep climbs other than, well, steep climbs.  Every time I take the steps, I am reminded that riding a bike, rowing a sculling boat, doing yoga, and walking are not really comparable exercises.

This day, I was reminded that only stair climbing is good preparation for ascending steep slopes.  I am not fond of stair climbing.  I’d much rather climb a steep hill out of breath than spend hours going up indoor stairs in preparation.

When we reached the first plateau, we stopped.  I pretended to want to take more shots of the cliffside above us.  I really just wanted to catch my breath.  But, the cliffside was fascinating.  The volume of rock that had fallen next to the volume of rock still standing made my knees feel a little weak contemplating what it would be like to be standing on top of the overlook when it suddenly caved away.  I hope no one was there the day the rocks fell.

A chunk of the cliff fell in what must have been the same position it was in at the top

A chunk of the cliff fell in what must have been the same position it was in at the top

This chunk of cliff must have fallen long ago to have been reshaped into a smooth mound

This chunk of cliff must have fallen long ago to have been reshaped into a smooth mound

The natural overlook at the top of Stone Door framed between the trees

The natural overlook at the top of Stone Door framed between the trees

We continued slowly up the rest of the ascent.  I’ve learned that racing up steps doesn’t pay.  Racing leads to having to stop for long recovery times.  A slow steady pace allows the heart and lungs to keep up so the turtle passes the hare.  I learned this when hiking in the Rockies.  In my twenties, my friends and I sped past a woman who was probably the age I am now only to be passed by her when we were all sucking wind later.  We repeated our folly, passing her and being passed again 3x before reaching the end of our hike.  She finished well ahead of us.  That’s when the lesson sunk in.

We made it back up the wooden stairs and slowly made our way up the slippery, dripping stone steps through the stone door.  I paused at the top to take a shot of the pitcher-handle tree at the entrance.

This crazy tree marks the entrance to the Stone Door

This crazy tree marks the entrance to the Stone Door

Having worked up a sweat, we decided it was a good time to find a flat rock to sit on and have our picnic lunch.  We stayed much further back from the edge of the overlook this time–the image of that overhang was still fresh in my mind.  While we feasted on our wild-caught smoked salmon, carrot sticks, and apples, the dogs chewed happily on pigs ears.  Tisen had to be convinced it was edible.  But once he got a good grip on it, he was sold.  Good thing–he’s allergic to salmon.

Tisen enjoys a tasty treat at the top of Stone Door

Tisen enjoys a tasty treat at the top of Stone Door

Descent Below Stone Door

Once we reached the bottom of the Stone Door, we continued downward beyond both sets of manmade stairs.  If we’d been feeling more in shape, we might have gone all the way to the bottom of the valley.  However, it was Christmas Day and we weren’t prepared to make the return climb back up, so we limited our descent to a distance we could comfortably climb back up.

The path went through fallen outcroppings of rocks.  Rough natural steps were formed (or maybe occasionally placed) from the fallen limestone.  But the steps were uneven with cracks and slippery spots.  I nearly fell on more than one occasion while working my way down one of the larger rocks.  All I could think was “protect the camera.”

When we reached the point we decided would be the end of our descent, we stopped and looked back.  The outcropping we’d been standing on earlier looked a little more frightening in the context of the enormous chunk of fallen rock we’d just scrambled down–particularly when we saw just how much that overlook juts out from the cliffside.

An example of a rock shelf that looks like it will slide off down the hill at any time

An example of a rock shelf that looks like it will slide off down the hill at any time

Looking back at the overlook we'd been standing on, we realize how much of an overhang their is

Looking back at the overlook we’d been standing on, we realize how much of an overhang their is

So much of the stone looked like it was precariously perched, just waiting for the wind to pick up enough speed or water to pour down hard enough or lightening to strike or a few too many hikers to jump up and down on the overlook to break free and find its way down to the valley below.

Tisen and Twiggy were unimpressed by the scene.  They were busy searching through the leaves for interesting new scents.  Did they find evidence of a bear?  Perhaps just a deer.  Whatever smells they found, they buried their noses in them and wagged their tails feverishly.

Thankfully, Pat had them back on leashes and was able to keep them from running off on down the valley tracking whatever scent they’d picked up.  To be honest, Twiggy probably knew exactly what scent she’d found–she’s a true hunter.  Tisen was more likely to just be imitating Twiggy, going through the motions, trusting that Twiggy had found something really good.

We stood gazing at the fallen rocks with trees growing out of them and tried to guess how long those rocks have been lying there.  I have no idea how to guess how old the trees decorating them are–they could be 20 years or 100 years old.  The rock no longer looks like a disaster scene but rather like it’s settled into the earth it met with some time ago.  The sharp edges have softened and fissures have opened in the rock, allowing for more trees to grow.

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I like this metaphor.  A big crash that seems like total destruction creates a place for new life to flourish. Lichens cover the rocks.  Leaves decompose on and around the stone, creating rich new soil.  The rock collects and redirects water into the fissures, watering the seeds the have fallen in the cracks.  Life reclaims the fallen and uses them anew.

Through the Stone Door

When we went to Stone Door for our Christmas hike, we decided to go a bit further than the last time we visited.  On our previous trip, we had a second hike scheduled and didn’t have a lot of time to spend at Stone Door.

This time, having no other destination and not having worked up an appetite for lunch yet, we decided to take the steps down through Stone Door to see what it was like from below.

The steps, I’m sure, have been improved since ancient civilizations used them long ago.  The rocks look to have been cut and placed for easier access.  This does not, however, make them an easy descent.  Especially not with two dogs on leashes.  Fortunately for me, Pat took the dogs ahead and carefully made his way down the steps while I took some shots from above.

Twiggy takes the lead down the Stone Door steps

Twiggy takes the lead down the Stone Door steps

Pat holds on to the Stone Door frame while working his way down with the dogs

Pat holds on to the Stone Door frame while working his way down with the dogs

The way down was made more treacherous by the water dripping on the rocks.  Slippery in places, steep, and uneven, I had trouble making it safely while protecting my camera from dripping water.  Good thing Pat had the dogs.

At the bottom of the stone steps, I paused to take a shot back up the crevice.  The “pitcher handle” at the top of the steps is a misshapen tree that looks like it might have been one of the forces that originally pried apart the rocks (not really, but its shape is pretty mysterious).

A tree forms a pitcher handle at the top of the Stone Door steps

A tree forms a pitcher handle at the top of the Stone Door steps

The stone steps only took us down about 50 feet or so.  The river at the bottom of the valley was still well below and out of sight.  We continued down a bit further, curious to see if we would have a view of the river.

Once through the Stone Door, a big chunk the rock face has slid down the mountain, leaving a flat spot.  The park added wooden stairs for the next section of the descent.

At the bottom of the Stone Door, wooden steps make for easier access

At the bottom of the Stone Door, wooden steps make for easier access

We had a bit of a dog logistics issue at this point.  About half way down the stone steps, Pat had let the dogs off their leashes, feeling it was safer for all.  They decided to go around the wooden stairs and headed off on a rock that came to a dead end over a big drop.  I got a little frantic that they were getting close to the edge and in calling them, caused Tisen to panic and, instead of meeting us at the bottom of the stairs, which would have been easiest, he decided to leap up the 4-foot retaining wall to get back to my side as quickly as possible.  He did a belly flop into the wall on the first attempt.  He made it the second time and showed no signs of injury, so we allowed ourselves to snicker a little.

Tisen flopped into the retaining wall trying to jump back up to get to the top of the steps

Tisen flopped into the retaining wall trying to jump back up to get to the top of the steps

We all made it to the bottom of the stairs together safely.  We stood for a few minutes looking back at the rock face we had just come through.  I imagine the stories if it could talk!

Straight, even, and not slippery, the second section of the descent went much more smoothly

Straight, even, and not slippery, the second section of the descent went much more smoothly

Stone Door Christmas

What does one do for Christmas when one is far from family?  Well, we decided to go hiking.  This is not so far removed from what we normally do on Christmas.  Although we were without my brother, sister-in-law, and nephews, we normally at least go for a walk on Christmas if not an out-and-out hike.

This year, we decided to undertake a slightly more strenuous outing.  Not a lot more strenuous, mind you.  We opted for a relatively easy and short hike given we’re a bit out of shape these days.  Plus, with Twiggy staying with us over the holiday, we weren’t sure what she would be like on the trail.

Wanting a low-stress outing, we decided to revisit Stone Door in the South Cumberland State Park.  The walk from the parking lot to the main overlook is only about a mile and the first portion of the trail is paved and wheelchair accessible.

We layered up although it was in the low 50’s here on Christmas day–the wind was strong enough to make it feel cooler.  We’d actually planned ahead for once and had provisions for a special Christmas picnic with wild caught smoked salmon, deli rolls, and cream cheese.

Twiggy’s mom had also provided a care package for the dogs for Christmas, so we packed pigs ears and lamb sausages for them to snack on.  The care package also included two new toys–a white fluffy ball for Twiggy and a squeaky green reindeer for Tisen.

Tisen claimed the white fluffy ball instead and wouldn’t let Twiggy near it.  Notice the ball next to Tisen’s head while riding in the car.

Tisen uses Twiggy's new toy as a pillow while Twiggy snuggles with Tisen's Big Dog

Tisen uses Twiggy’s new toy as a pillow while Twiggy snuggles with Tisen’s Big Dog

Stone Door is one of the more surprising places near us–at least to us.  The drive from Chattanooga to Stone Door is beautiful in and of itself.  The highway winds its way through the tree-covered mountains and through Nick-a-Jack lake, making the hour plus drive enjoyable in and of itself.  Then, the first overlook on the Stone Door trail is a breath-taking experience, even though you don’t have to leave asphalt to get to it.  It’s the kind of scenery that I grew up thinking you had to travel a long way to see.

An easy-access spectacular view

An easy-access spectacular view

From the easy-access overlook, you can see the rock outcropping where the Stone Door overlook starts

From the easy-access overlook, you can see the rock outcropping where the Stone Door overlook starts

Further down the trail, the top of the Stone Door (which is really a crevice that has provided a path down to the valley below for thousands of years) affords even more breath-taking views.

Cliff-side trees always impress me--good thing they're not afraid of heights

Cliff-side trees always impress me–good thing they’re not afraid of heights

This tree seems to have given up the ghost, but it still clings cliffside

This tree seems to have given up the ghost, but it still clings cliffside

I sometimes get a little closer to the edge than I'm really comfortable with--unlike the trees, I am afraid of heights

I sometimes get a little closer to the edge than I’m really comfortable with–unlike the trees, I am afraid of heights

Between the rocks, a huge hole provides a window to the valley below

Between the rocks, a huge hole provides a window to the valley below

This is the kind of rock that makes me suspect the ledge I'm standing on is really jutting out over the cliff--makes my knees weak

This is the kind of rock that makes me suspect the ledge I’m standing on is really jutting out over the cliff–makes my knees weak

The "gulf" seems to go on forever

The “gulf” seems to go on forever

The mostly limestone geography creates spectacular outcroppings

The mostly limestone geography creates spectacular outcroppings

What I love the most about the Stone Door overlook is the sound.  We sat on the stones at the top of the cliff and just listened for a while.  The only sounds we could hear were the wind blowing through the needles of many evergreens and the river tumbling down the valley far below, out of sight.  It’s a magical experience to close your eyes and feel like you are air and water and know that life is good.  Seems pretty appropriate for Christmas.

Even Tisen and Twiggy seem impressed by the view

Even Tisen and Twiggy seem impressed by the view

Looking back at the mountain from the overlook provides this view

Looking back at the mountain from the overlook provides this view

Tisen freezes for me for just a moment

Tisen freezes for me for just a moment

Happy Christmas

I am re-posting my blog from last year Christmas Eve.  Feeling both nostalgic and concerned about what small things we can each do to make the world just a little bit better, it seemed like a good time to repeat this post.  This time, I decided to add photos.  I asked myself “what looks like peace?” when I went poking through my photos.  I wish I had more portraits, but, turns out I’m a landscape photographer.  Who knew?

All I Want for Christmas is World Peace

(originally posted December 24, 2011).

I would very much like to think of myself as a non-judgmental person.  But then I catch myself saying something like, “that crazy person is so judgmental–s/he thinks s/he is better than everyone else” and realize this is a lesson I’ve yet to master.

If you judge people, you have no time to love them.  Mother Theresa

Judgment riles me up, makes me feel righteous, justified, and even vengeful.  It separates me into the “right” and leaves those I judge in the “wrong.”  Having cast judgment, there is no need to listen or consider; all that can follow are proclamations.

Why do I judge?  There are practical reasons to make judgments.  For example, I choose to spell “judgment” with the standard American spelling instead of “judgement,” the standard British spelling.  Which is preferable?

In my case, this simple choice hides a deeper judgment.  I spell it “judgment” because I was taught that Americans who spell it “judgement” are ignorant.  If someone were to comment that I misspelled “judgment,” I could point them to a dictionary and explain that this is the correct American spelling.  I would be left feeling redeemed and, if I am painfully honest, even superior.

What I would not feel is connected to my fellow human being, negotiating the world together in harmony.

Love is the absence of judgment.  The Dalai Lama

What would I lose in giving up my judgments?  Clearly, my judgments benefit me in some way or I wouldn’t make them.  Would I be less smart if I never judged someone else to be stupid?  Would I be less hard working if I never judged anyone else to be lazy?  Would I be less competent if I never judged someone else to be incompetent?  Or do I make these judgments out of fear that I am what I judge?  Is pointing at someone else and calling them names a way of separating myself from what I don’t want to be?

I would hate to be discounted because I made a mistake.  What I would like is to be accepted for a flawed human being with the best of intentions.  What I need is to be heard and understood without being called good or bad.

 The moment that judgment stops through acceptance of what it is, you are free of the mind.  You have made room for love, for joy, for peace.  Eckhart Tolle

And that, dear reader, is what I want for Christmas:  love, joy, and peace.  I arm myself with the awareness that I judge.  I prepare myself to notice when I am judging.  I know that with attention, I can create more space for love, joy, and peace.  And in this gift to myself, I hope I can contribute just a little to a gift to the world:

World peace must develop from inner peace.  Peace is not the absence of violence.  Peace is the manifestation of human compassion.  The Dalai Lama

View of Downtown Chattanooga from Stringer's Ridge in the fall

View of Downtown Chattanooga from Stringer’s Ridge in the fall

The rising full moon pauses over Walnut Street Bridge

The rising full moon pauses over Walnut Street Bridge

This Eastern Bluebird--a harbinger of luck and happiness

This Eastern Bluebird–a harbinger of luck and happiness

While mountains offer dangerous adventures, viewed from a distance, their steadfastness always makes me feel peaceful.

While mountains offer dangerous adventures, viewed from a distance, their steadfastness always makes me feel peaceful.

Shot from Signal Point, the setting sun always puts me at ease.

Shot from Signal Point, the setting sun always puts me at ease.

What is more peaceful than a sleeping dog?

What is more peaceful than a sleeping dog?

Beautiful skies always make me feel hopeful.

Beautiful skies always make me feel hopeful.

Christmas trees alone in the dark always seem so quiet and still.  I can sit and stare at a Christmas tree for hours.

Christmas trees alone in the dark always seem so quiet and still. I can sit and stare at a Christmas tree for hours.

The ocean, when relatively calm, soothes all your troubles away.

The ocean, when relatively calm, soothes all your troubles away.

Looking down the Tennessee River valley after a long hike makes my day.

Looking down the Tennessee River valley after a long hike makes my day.

Fog filters through the trees in the Black Forest in Germany.

Fog filters through the trees in the Black Forest in Germany.

I love light beams peeping through clouds--"god beams" as at least one of my photographer friends calls them.

I love light beams peeping through clouds–“god beams” as at least one of my photographer friends calls them.

Beautiful sailboats sail peacefully on this calm day on the Bodensee in Germany.

Beautiful sailboats sail peacefully on this calm day on the Bodensee in Germany.