We broke from our trend of mostly warm, sunny days this week, returning to chilly temps and lots of clouds. It wasn’t uncomfortable, it just did not feel like something approaching summer. This is typical Spring, lulling you into thinking it will be one thing, then pulling the rug out, switching it up on you. It is too late, though. I have the excitement for summer in my bones now, and I will not be thwarted. I am getting out, come hell or high water.
Early on this week I accompanied Allyson to PDX for her trip back East, this time for a month-long stint doing her annual work at the Commonwealth Honors Academy. Her flight left at 6am, which meant we would need to leave the coast about 3am. It’s painful just to think about that kind of sleep schedule, but when you actually do it, you’re hardly in a state of mind to register what it feels like. Living on the West Coast, I’ve grown to marvel more about how these days you can wake up on one coast and be on another one in this strange time-warp of a day. The airplane, the layover airport really feels like this total different dimension. Your are in a place, but you’re not fully there. It’s a portal. You spend some time sitting there, and the portal will deliver you to another part of the world.
I dropped Allyson off at our local transport portal about 5am, when light was just emerging over Oregon. A new day was dawning, but we had been awake for quite some time. For some reason, this is a satisfying feeling to me, the knowing feeling of being awake long before everything else has awakened. It’s similar to the calm that comes with being the last one to go to sleep, watching the world retire. It makes me wish I didn’t need sleep, didn’t love the feeling of sleeping in so much. I could explore so many mysteries, know so many other faces of this world.
We unloaded Allyson’s month worth of luggage (only one checked plastic tub, a carry-on bag, and a personal item) and we hugged, knowing too well what this hug was for. There’s no way I could hug her long enough or tight enough to tell her what adequately what I want her to know from me. How I hope she’ll feel a great deal of joy on this trip, that she’ll be challenged and grow and be proud of that, that she’ll know her value and humbled by it, that she’ll know how fortunate I count myself to have what we do, how hopeful I am to see where we take it. It’s too much to say in one gesture, if you try to put it all together, it sounds hollow. You hope you will have enough time for all your love, all your presence to accumulate to match the feelings welling up inside you for another person.
So, with Allyson catching her flight, I had four hours before I needed to be at work and a coastal mountain range between me and home. I could have easily gone home and slept for about two hours, but I would have had a hard time dealing with my conscience for passing up a chance to hike among the mountains in the quiet of the waking day. I took a meandering set of gravel roads through stands of fir that are being harvested right now to the trailhead for University Falls. A car can feel like another portal of sorts if you’ve spent a few hours in it. You sit in a seat, the climate is controlled, you listen to what you choose to listen to, then you get out and you feel the air on the outside of your vessel. You hear the sounds that you couldn’t hear for the engine and the radio. You’ve just stepped from one world to another.
This is particularly obvious when you step from your car out into a forest. The air was cool and crisp, the air you feel when daylight is new. I could hear songbirds going to work for the morning. I could also hear the sound of quickly moving water. My body felt this change pretty immediately too. My brain went from a focus that mostly involved my eyes staring and my wrists and ankles doing the brunt of my work to all of my senses being used, my arms, legs, back, and abdomen all working in conjunction. It was a much fuller physical and mental experience. I walked, breathing in the strong, soothing smell of the Douglas Firs, feeling the air get cooler and wetter as I got closer and closer to the falls.
I had to consciously work to slow my urges down. My body has been, for quite some time now, in this mode of sticking to a schedule, moving from one task directly into another, having so many things on the agenda to check off that time to reflect and be still had to be very strictly manage. My body was being a good obedient body, getting with the program, pushing me not to dwell on something too long, lest we get off task. It is a very efficient way to be, but not something you want to get stuck in too long. I felt myself feeling a need to move on right after making it to the falls. I had to tell myself, “No Troy, you’ve got nowhere else you need to be right now. Stay here. Relish it. Listen to it. Let it speak to you.”
Back at camp, later that afternoon, we were visited by a choir group from Africa University. They are in Oregon because of General Conference, the gathering of world Methodist leaders that happens every 4 years that this year happened to be in Portland. Newberg UMC has been providing host families for them and serving as tour guide for them during their stay. I took some time from my current incessant summer prep to spend time with these people, because I knew this would be a unique opportunity. I met college students and a few professors from all over Africa: Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and probably several more. I sat out on a driftwood log with a professor from Zimbabwe watching the students play chicken with the waves and take selfies with the ocean behind them. I would need to get back to the office, though.
I took a break to say goodbye to the group just before 3pm. I would have to make it quick, because I was meeting a counselor over skype to train for the summer. I felt it important, though, to tell them goodbye, because they would leave to go back to another continent in just a matter of days, and I should at least make time to wish them well. I met them back in the dining hall, just as they were about to do a brief devotion. I told them what a pleasure it was to meet them and how I hoped the rest of their trip would be fruitful. Then one of the Newberg members said to me, “You might want to stay a little longer. You may get to hear them sing.”
I knew that I had another obligation, but I also knew I did not need to miss hearing this choir do what they traveled across an ocean to do. I texted my counselor and said I would be a few minutes late. She said it was no problem. When the group began to sing, I felt myself transported to somewhere else. They were repeating the same simple phrase, that I couldn’t discern that well, but it included “hallelujah.” The words were of little importance, because their harmony and spirit in their song was what filled up the room. The music was so beautiful and watching them giving themselves over to their song sent me into a fresh, new feeling. Life went on hold for the moment. Time seemed to stop. I was listening to something bigger than the people in the room making these sounds.
On Saturday night, I vowed I would go out to the beach, build a fire, and sit with it until it was dark and the coals had burned down. Digby and I went out to a section of beach with long stretches of wash-up drift wood, and I constructed a small tepee shaped campfire, while throwing his blue rubber ball towards the flowing tide. The growing camp fire contrasted the setting sun over the ocean. I read for a minute, took pictures, but then settled into a comfortable seat next to my fire, a large driftwood log behind my back. I wanted to take a self portrait, one that captured the fire, the ocean, the openess. It was a little too dark, and the lens on my phone just could not capture it the way I wanted to without someone else with better photography skills than me.
Then, I thought, “This one will just have to be mine. I’ll just have to keep this image for myself.” I thought too about the feelings I would have about this evening as the darkness took over and I drew closer and closer to my fire. I thought about what other sort of self portrait might come from this. I thought:
Here is a man with a dog by the fire
under the stars and the rising full moon.
He is the accumulation of blood mixed,
calling back thousands of years, thousands
of men, women, their houses, their songs
their pictures, their love, their fear,
what they protected, what they left behind but kept.
He is his parents, their parents, a nation made from
nations who chanced at crossroads. A fire on a night
warmed someone with his blood, his dog
drew closer too, and sighed too. And, he and she
looked into the sky and knew it from its change
like the blood they would make and pass, growing,
changing, but keeping something, remembering
the feel of fire on skin at night, of God singing, sensing
he is the sum of millions, knowing he cannot
comprehend it, but hope he can gather,
stack it over his years and see it is a mountain.