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Archive for the ‘Wilderness/Out-of-doors’ Category

Just Plain “Thank You” Period

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[NOTE: This is an update of a blog first published in 2013.]

Can we be overwhelmed with gratitude but have no need to thank anyone or anything?

This question came to me as I finished the last pages of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. This 2012 memoir was reviewed in The New York Times and made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon in 2014.

She took her grief on a 1,100-mile backpacking trip

The story is about loss and backpacking, two abiding interests in my life. I’d probably write favorably of anyone who takes their grief on a 1,100-mile backpacking trip. Cheryl Strayed did and wrote about it.

Strayed has an abusive father, her beloved mother dies prematurely, and her stepfather and siblings later drift away. After Strayed’s destructive behavior ends her marriage and leads her to addiction, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, inexperienced and alone. She encounters the elements, animals, people, and her own demons and angels on her months-long journey.

Reese Witherspoon in the movie version of “Wild”

I have never attempted long-distance backpacking. The most I have ever lasted was four nights. So, I only have a hint of what Strayed went through on her arduous journey. I met many through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail within a half-hour of my home in Virginia. The people I met on the AT had completed one thousand miles on their way to Maine, another thousand miles to the north. Strayed’s stories of the people she hikes with for a few days at a time ring true.

In the end, GRATITUDE was the feeling at her core

At bottom, Strayed’s story is about her spiritual journey to emotional wholeness from what was once the wreck of her life. She never portrayed herself as a religious person in any sense of the word. But, in the end, gratitude was the feeling at her core.

There are many moving passages in the book, but I was caught by one line on the next-to-last page of the book. Cheryl touches the bridge on the Columbia River, the site at the end of her journey. She walks back to an ice cream stand to buy herself a treat with the last two dollars she has to her name. She enjoys her ice cream, chatting with a lawyer from Portland who stops for ice cream, too. She says goodbye to him and

“I leaned my head back and closed my eyes against the sun as the tears I’d expected earlier at the bridge began to seep from my eyes. Thank you, I thought over and over again. Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know, though I felt it somehow already contained within me.”

Religious types thank God. Others thank a “higher power” or “the universe.” Strayed felt no need to tell us who the “you” was in her “thank you.” In my life-long quest to understand the spiritual journey, I have never encountered a simpler yet profound expression of gratitude for being a recipient of the graciousness of life. Most of the dying people I met in my 30 years as a chaplain had that same humility and gratitude.

Thank you.

Just “thank you,” period.

Cheryl Strayed ends her book acknowledging the truth I try to capture in my poem “Giving Up, Letting Go, and Letting Be” with the words,

“How wild it was, to let it be.”

Thank you,

Hank

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

 

The “Thin Places” Between the Physical and the Spiritual

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Do you ever notice how often people post photos of sunrises or sunsets on social media? “Inspiring,” they say. Or the religious types write, “Good morning from God.”

In my personal photo collection, I have scads of dawns and dusks. Sunrise in the swamp. Sunset from a mountaintop.

Then there was the sunrise etched in my memory when I found myself without a camera. I spent the night alone on a platform in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. It was chilly, so I braced myself against the cold covered up in my sleeping bag. At first light, I sensed something special was about to happen.

Indeed, it did. I sat up with a start and looked east. Moments before the sun inched above the distant ridge of mountains, a deep purple line separated the night sky from the ridgeline. It couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes. I had never seen such a beautiful mountain dawn before. I haven’t since.

The “Thin Place” between physical and spiritual worlds

Iona Abbey, Scotland

That mountain was a “thin place.” The term is used to describe places of sacred power, where the separation between physical and spiritual worlds seems “thin.” There are sermons about thin places, like in the story of the Transfiguration.

In that story, Jesus shines with bright light on a mountaintop before his disciples. The mountain becomes a symbol of the meeting point between humans and God – between the physical and spiritual – with Jesus representing the connection between both worlds. Long before cameras or social media, Peter wanted to capture the moment and build three shrines to contain this heavenly appearance. Jesus would have none of it.

Thin places are most often associated with spiritual retreats, like the Scottish island of Iona, which I visited while on a Celtic Christianity pilgrimage. Being in places like this invites thoughts of things spiritual.

Hank’s “thin place” – campsite on The Big Schloss

There’s also a thin place, for me, on The Big Schloss, a rock outcrop on the Virginia-West Virginia border. I have probably spent thirty nights sleeping near the peak of this mountain, watching the sun rise and set. My children slept up there with me. We saw Halley’s comet there.

Even atheist author Sam Harris speaks of his own thin place experience. In his book, he describes how he was touched by a walk in Jesus’ footsteps. This happened on “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.” (Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, p. 81)

“Thin Moments”

Photo by RODRIGO GONZALEZ on Unsplash

There are also “thin moments,” or moments in time that are transformed into a spiritual experience. In an earlier blog, I wrote about my sense of connection with others at the post office the first time I wore a mask inside. I quoted the monk (and sometimes hermit), Thomas Merton, and his sense of connection to all the busy shoppers at an intersection in Louisville.

Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

More thin moments: Gazing into the face of an infant who is smiling for the first time. Walking outside at night and hearing an owl or a whip-poor-will. Listening to music that moves you. Then of course, there is always watching those sunsets and sunrises.

Thin moments could happen more often if we just paused long enough or weren’t so distracted or busy taking pictures to post. We don’t have to be at the top of a mountain or by the seashore. The promise from scripture is, “I am with you always.”

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

My Life At 100

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I made it to one hundred! 100. The Big One-Oh-Oh.

This is my 100th blog post. It took a while. I started blogging in 2011 and made six blog posts that year. For the first nine years, I only published 51.

From my very first blog post, May 11, 2011: “How to start a blog about end-of-life decisions? I have been professionally dealing with these issues for 27 years.… One thing for certain . . . the fact that patients and families often struggle with decisions about medical treatment at the end of life will not go away.”

(BTW, shout out to Kelly Brachle, of Quality of Life Publishing Co., who edits my ramblings into a coherent thought. And while I am shouting out, nothing leaves our home without the approval of my wife as she stands in for the “average reader” [when I showed her this post, she reminded me she is “above average”]. More than once, her suggestions have saved me some embarrassment.)

It’s all about the stories — family, friends, wilderness

Although I often stick to the theme of making end-of-life decisions, other topics get some attention. I share my own family’s experience with death and dying, like with my mom’s decline and death in “How did your mom feel about her dementia?” Grief is a repeated theme, like my recent post on the funeral ritual for my brother 42 years after he died.

I really try to tell stories, like the post about my friend who died with dementia. I wrote about our friendship since junior high and how we fished together in the years before his death. Occasionally, I share my adventures in the wilderness, like the one about my love of swamps.

I have been writing my whole adult life – before the days of the blog. A few of those older writings made it into the collection. I reprinted a story about riding my bicycle the length of the Outer Banks from a 1993 newsletter published by the nursing home where I was chaplain. For several years following a difficult time in my life, I sent letters (essays, really) to family and friends. In a 2014 post, I shared a piece I did in 1998 about my friend, mentor, and author, Elizabeth O’Connor.

Writing and videos for short attention spans

We have become a people with short attention spans, so I try to limit each post to about 500 words. I have even ventured into producing two-minute videos on various topics. Sometimes I’ll tell the same story in both formats. I did a blog about the lesson my father taught me about letting go in the blog “How to get to ‘It doesn’t Matter!’” I then did a YouTube video about the same story.

By the way, you can subscribe to my YouTube channel and look through my “Hank’s Deep Thoughts” playlist.

I have found that writing for others helps me think things through. I can clarify thoughts in my mind when I have to explain things in a way others can understand. So even if no one else reads these, I will keep on writing these blog posts.

Oops! I just passed 500 words. Bye!

“Find in Yourself What You Criticize in Another”

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Picture yourself at a restaurant with family and friends. The server places plates of delicious-looking food in front of everyone. Then one of your table companions says, “WAIT, WAIT, NOBODY EAT. I HAVE TO TAKE PICTURES.”

Then she takes out her phone, photographs each plate, and posts them to Instagram and/or Facebook.

When this happens to me, I think, “Oh my god! Can we just eat? Who cares what we are eating??”

The curse of social media: Every event is a photo op

Three years ago, we were living in Florida and my daughter was home on break. Out of the blue she says, “Hey. Let’s go for a walk on the beach.” I was so flattered that my college-aged kid would want to spend time with me. And as a bonus, I could get in a little cardio.

So, we drive over to Jupiter Island, park the car in the parking lot, and start walking north away from the crowds. After about a hundred yards she hands me her phone and asks, “Would you take my picture?”

Sure. No problem.

After about ten shots I hand her the phone. She looks at the photos and says, “Take some with more beach in the background.”

I do. Hand her the phone. She looks at them and says, “Maybe you should stand farther back.”

I do. My cardio op has now become my daughter’s photo op.

Photo ops in the swamp

In December, I posted a blog about my love of paddling in swamps. I really do love swamps. I was disappointed in my last trip to the Chakchiuma Swamp in nearby Grenada, Mississippi. This was back in the fall and we had gone through a dry spell. I could only access a small portion of the swamp for lack of water.

For a couple of months, I have been looking for several days of rain followed by a sunny morning. Last Wednesday was the day even though it was to be 32 degrees at my preferred launch time of sunrise.

It was all I had hoped for. Still water. The rising sun struggling to penetrate the fog. Quiet.

I had been thinking of a video I could make while paddling in this idyllic setting. I have been trying to increase my own social media presence by posting short videos on YouTube and Facebook. My plan was to condense that blog post by recording myself sharing my thoughts while paddling. So, I set up my tripod and mounted my phone.

I shot a video. And another. And another. And many more takes saying pretty much the same thing each time. Most were two minutes, but I shot five that were less than a minute so I could post one on Instagram. I shot seventeen videos in one hour and twenty-five minutes. I added up the times of each video and it came to a total twenty-seven minutes.

My many selves

Almost fifty years ago I was encouraged by an exercise in a book to discover my dark side, to look at my life and “Find in yourself what you criticize in another.”*

Bingo! I turned a wonderful time in the swamp into a photo op.

*From Our Many Selves: A Handbook of Self-Discovery by Elizabeth O’Connor, 1971. I wrote a previous blog about Elizabeth and the influence she had on my life.

Drain the Swamp! — I Think Not

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Drain the swamp!    …I take personal offense at the idea.

Drain the swamp!   …But they are some of Creation’s greatest achievements!

Drain the swamp?   …Some of my best friends are swamps.           

How did such a place of beauty and life and light come to have such negative connotation? Perhaps it was John Bunyan’s “Slough of Despond” in Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) that shaped our view of the swamp as a place of evil. He wrote:

Hank and his sister, Janice, Half Moon Lake, Florida, in front of “the slough”

“This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”

My first encounter with the swamp was when I was a child. Our family bought ten acres of lake property outside of Tampa right after WWII. After clearing much of the land and building a house, they put in a large lawn that stretched from the house to the lake. Just beyond the lawn there was a swamp in a thicket of underbrush and cypress trees. This was — for me and my sister — a place where you never ventured. Coincidently with Bunyan’s allegory, we called it “the slough” and it appeared only in the background of family photos.

Drain THAT swamp?—It can’t be drained

Platform for camping in the Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia

As an adult, I grew to love the swamp.

I once paddled thirty-one miles with ten teenage boys across the width of the Okefenokee Swamp. For two nights we slept on platforms one foot above the water. We paddled part of the way through the swamp in a canal next to what once was a railroad.

At the beginning of the last century they logged the trees and hoped to drain the water to make room for agricultural land. Didn’t work. It wouldn’t be drained.

The Okefenokee actually has a natural outlet — The Suwanee River. I paddled that river for ten days and camped out ten nights starting in the swamp and ending more than halfway to the Gulf of Mexico — 166 miles downstream from where I put in. The first night out, I was

The Everglades

still in the swamp and found just enough ground a few inches above the water to sleep under my tarp in the rain.

Drain the swamp?—Lose some drinking water

I also slept on the ground while backpacking in the vast Everglades. I dragged my then grade-school-aged children along — sometimes walking in thigh-deep water. Sadly, this swamp has been mostly drained, although governments and NGOs are trying to restore some of what has been lost.

Swamps take runoffs and river overflows. They filter the water, leaching out the contaminants as it percolates into the caverns below. Turns out, all of those condos on Miami Beach depend on the water in the aquifer below the ‘Glades.

Drain the swamp?—A home for wildlife

I share my temporary homes in the swamps with other creatures. Many a night, I have slept on the ground at the edge of a swamp on Cumberland Island, Georgia. A favorite pastime at night was to stand in the darkness with a flashlight pointing toward the water, trees, and grass. If the eyes shining back were low, it was a ‘gator — if they were high, it was most likely a raccoon.

Limpkin in the headwaters of the Loxahatchee River, Florida

Of course, when you think “swamp,” you think alligators. These guys have been around at least for 37 million years, 125 times longer than we have. Who gets first dibs on the swamps?

Also fishing the shallow waters are many graceful birds; the egrets, herons, limpkins, ibises, and anhingas.

I remember walking on a dirt road cut through the swamp next to my campsite on Cumberland Island one sunny, cool March morning and stepping around four cottonmouth moccasins. One time paddling under low-hanging trees in the swampy headwaters of the Hillsborough River near Tampa, I looked up to see one of these very poisonous snakes sunning just above my head.

My swamp adventures continue…

Speaking of swampy headwaters, Florida rivers often start in wet woodlands. Paddling Fisheating Creek on the western edge of the Everglades and the Loxahatchee River on the eastern, both presented problems in pathfinding amidst the cypress and other dense growth.

I’ve also paddled into The Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia. Up until the Civil War, this once inaccessible land, for generations, was home to “maroons,” whole communities of formerly enslaved people. It has been said that these communities were so isolated that some of their inhabitants had never seen a White person. (Drain that swamp and people lose their freedom.)

Dawn in the Chakchiuma Swamp, Mississippi

Now, living in Mississippi, I have been on a quest to find new swampy waters. A birding friend suggested I look west where there was one of the last sightings of the now thought-to-be extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. The White River National Wildlife Refuge, just over the Mississippi River in Arkansas, has been calling my name and I have heeded the call. The earth where I lay down here is under six feet of water much of the year. When the waters recede, lakes and swamps appear. Priceless.

Closer to home, within the city limits of Grenada, Mississippi, one half-mile from the town square and its Confederate statue (now wrapped in tarps) and not far from the gravesite Mississippi John Hurt, is the Chakchiuma Swamp — three hundred acres of cypress wetlands in connected oxbow lakes cut off from the nearby Yalobusha River. I have timed my visits there to put in just as the sun is rising.

Drain the swamp?—I don’t think so

Sunrise in the swampy waters of the White River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas

A swamp at dawn is a moment of serenity to behold. The birds are awakening at first light. Fish are rising and gently break the water’s surface. A turtle’s head occasionally peaks out only to quickly disappear upon seeing an intruder. Even the expanse of the Okefenokee Swamp has a special beauty at sunrise. Light and sky and trees and fog and water and wildlife and the organic ooze at the bottom of it all. Yes.

Drain the swamp? I don’t think so. To connect the worst of Washington insiders to these majestic creations of nature is an insult to swamps.

 

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