What I Would Say to Graduates of 2017

Graduates, this is good stuff. But not just for graduates, for anyone who sees life as still full of possibilities.

Russell J. Fellows

2017

I live in a fantasy world, I know this. My wife is an actual queen. My daughter is part horse, and my son is an adventurous knight (Nexo Knight to be certain…if you know what that is).

I say all this to let you know that it is only in this fantasy world that I would be allowed to impart any wisdom toward those graduating high school or college this year.

I take what I can.

Friends of ours have a daughter that is graduating high school this year. We’re all very excited for her and proud of what she’s accomplished. She’s quite the artist and has a bright future ahead of her. It’s this event, and the fact that you can’t look anywhere right now without being reminded of these young souls venturing out into the great wide world now, that got me thinking. What would I say, if…

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My Alarm Clock Told Me

My alarm clock told me it was time to wake up.

But it didn’t stop there.

It went on to remind me about yesterday.

I hit snooze.

My mirror told me I look rather haggard lately. Getting old and ugly and hadn’t you better work on your personality? The mirror disagreed strongly with my alarm clock.

My rusty minivan with the huge crack in the front bumper told me it too had a bad day yesterday. That was yesterday. We got the call while we were taking a walk in the park. We’d stopped for ice cream.

“Are you serious?” asked my husband, ice cream cone in hand.

All the fun conversations begin with the phrase: Are you serious? 

Today no one told me to drive faster. Or jeered at my habit of abruptly braking. I have bad depth perception, people tell me. I think things are closer than they are, more dangerous than they are. I see danger everywhere.

The Lexus, Mercedes, and Teslas with whom I share the roadway, they told me I could have made better decisions in my youth. My youth told me it doesn’t love me and wants to break up. My children told me I make their lives miserable, that I make everything harder than it has to be. My house told me I clearly don’t have feelings for it anymore. My garden wants a divorce.

The sunrise over the interstate told me that beauty and ugly can and do copulate. Most every day. That I can have faith and still grieve the death of my dreams. That I can get a friend request from someone dead set on being my enemy. I can be smart and dumb at the same time. I can seem to have it all together and be falling quite apart. Yes. That was yesterday. Today I am told by the birds that beauty hasn’t fled entirely. The dead squirrel matted to the roadside with his symphony of black flies, disagrees.

A fictional character told me it’s not about how hard I hit, but how hard I can get hit and keep moving forward. Jesus says to take the hit and offer up the other cheek. These two agree. I listen to these teachers as if my life depended upon it. Because of them, I listen to the alarm clock when it tells me to wake up.

 

Writer Mind

I’m in the valley every writer goes through. I keep showing up day after day intending to make something amazing. If I were an artist, I’d be making stick people. If I were making dinner, it would be haggis. If I were conjuring up an animal, it would be a platypus. Sure, I just got petted last Friday. Won a contest. Got to judge. But without a steady stream of word-gold, I become convinced the well is dry.  I’ll ever write anything good ever again.

I worry the story I’ve been working on, bleeding onto the page for eternity squared, is a total waste of time. I worry I’m selfish. I AM selfish. I ask myself, what have you done for others? Surely not this writing gig. So I try to list out the selfless …act I’ve committed recently. It’s a short list.

So I’m writing and writing and every so often is the thought: Why don’t you do something eternal like laundry or weeding or deep cleaning? The grime is holding my home together, I tell myself. The weeds have feelings too. Things get dirty again. I wax certain I’m an undiscovered C.S. Lewis (the moment I won a little contest) and certain I’m a grub (most other times, beginning a few minutes after I won the contest).

To really keep things interesting, I sabotage myself by revealing my political leanings to people who would’ve liked me well enough had I just kept my mouth shut. If I had multiple personalities, they’d be Ann Coulter, Ann Lamott, and little orphan Annie. I’m the most liberal conservative in our family, the most confident insecure person I know. The nicest mean person you’ll ever meet. I don’t know why I feel the need to cough up my worldview every now and again. I hope it’s an involuntary trait of a writer. Like how the kidneys clean out your blood without you telling them to. My soul churns this stuff out against the advice of a meek little voice: are you sure you want to post that? I plunge ahead.

Today I read a lovely, worthwhile blogger writing from the mountaintop I can see from my valley, where he talks about writing “whatever the hell he wanted” for five years and he has no regrets and over a hundred thousand followers. He “likes” many posts, including mine. I emailed him to ask, does he really read the posts he likes? Because if so, does he sleep? Is he human? He has not answered my email. Oddly enough, I also have been blogging for five years.

This is what I say when I’m a  grub: He didn’t even read your post. Some days a rational being who’s just finished running a few miles and done vitality yoga– that person will tell me I’ve got something important to say, that to give up is the only failure. And, some really weird people like haggis. Days like today must be climbed over or crawled under or blasted through. On the horizon are days where I’ll come away thinking I’ve made something worthy– and had a great time doing it.

 

Luke’s Missions Trip 2017

Luke, 2016. To donate to this summer’s trip, click his picture. Thank you! 

Every summer since he was eight years old Luke’s gone on a short-term missions trip to an Indian reservation. This particular missions trip is so physically exhausting that most people (myself included) can’t hack it a second time around. Sleep deprivation, strenuous and sweltering construction, and mosquitoes of apocalyptic proportions are what you sign on for.

Luke loves it.

This year Luke hopes to travel with his high school youth group to Santiago de los Cavelleros, Dominican Republic, to share God’s message of salvation and love. Like his usual summer trip, this is no pleasure excursion, no summer camp experience. The students show love tangibly: playing with the kids at the dump where they live, cleaning, digging out foundations, construction– anything that needs to be done. They get dirty. They get sick. They get the gift of perspective. I dare not say God’s perspective, for no one can reach that. But they get a bit closer when they step out of their comfortable lives and go.

With all the need here, why go there? Because there is worse than here. It’s not enough to study National Geographic covers. One must go.

It is faith-building to lean on God’s provision. I’m not saying God couldn’t drop a duffel bag of $1,700  on our doorstep, but generally He works through the actions of people, moved to do benevolent work. Luke was moved to sign up. I am moved to write this post on his behalf. Some friends and family have been moved to support him with a donation. THANK YOU!!! If God just dropped the duffel, so much would be lost.

So here’s Luke. He’s been rolling subs, waiting tables, and working at various church functions– to raise the needed funds. On Sunday the students stood before the church. (Luke’s right behind Pastor Jonathan on the big screen.) As of today, Luke has half of his support raised. Kindly pray for Luke and the other students, that they’d raise the needed funds, that this trip would be life-changing, that God would eclipse all in the lives of the students, the advisors, and the people they go to serve.

If you would like to help Luke get to the Dominican Republic, send up a prayer for him and/or make a tax-deductible donation here.

Swimming Over the Moon

I’ve decided, now that I have three years swim-parent experience, swimming is a sport about the following: 1. conquering your fears, 2. conquering your flesh, 3. extreme repetition, and 4. pressure. As a child, the extent of my swimming was the drowning preventative offered by the local pool. I had no idea there was a whole world of splashing and angst and sweaty bleachers where parents wring their hands and tap their feet like speed-jacked jazz musicians.

Gabe, Coach Mike, and his buddies.

Setting: the sweaty bleachers. I mention this is Gabe’s third year swimming. “And he’s here?” says a mom. I didn’t tell her he was here last year too. Mom-pride, rein it in.

Getting to the Great Lakes YMCA Zones swim championship was an achievement Gabe coveted in his first year swimming. Like I said. We were new. Zones was the pinnacle, so when the kids were told to make goals, a Griffiths makes them lofty. (Gabe’s dad ran the Boston Marathon just 5 years after his first 5K.)

I watched the coach’s face as she read Gabe’s goal, saw her body language. It laughed to the other coach standing nearby. It said, let’s be reasonable. Gabe didn’t make it to zones his first year swimming, but he did make it his second year. Gabe’s second year he was under a new coach, pictured above. If there is even a speck of work ethic in a swimmer, Mike draws it out. For Christmas Mike has the kids swim 10,000 yards (5+ miles). I’m convinced Gabe would swim the English Channel if Coach Mike told him he could do it.

Swimming is set up so that no matter how fast you are, there’s always someone breathing down your neck. Or more aptly, swiping at your toes. The races, called heats, pit like swimmers against like, and you’re ever-reaching for a better time, a personal best. There are harder and harder cuts to make, exclusive meets for which to qualify. This past weekend we swam the zones meet at Bowling Green State University. The hotel stay meant “team building,” aka romping the halls like a gang of street thugs. Who wouldn’t get heady on a cocktail of zones-glory, camaraderie, relief (the season’s almost over), and independence (parents? what parents?). “It was the best time I’ve ever had,” said Gabe. You’ve heard the expression over the moon? He was, we all were.

Mom-delight, I won’t even bother to rein it in. 🙂

In this book David and Goliath, Malcom Gladwell writes about a dynamic I find true in swimming and in life: courage is acquired. “Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”  This dynamic explains how Blitz-era Londoners handled life so casually. It explains Stonewall Jackson’s near mythical moment when he sat upon his horse while bullets whizzed by him, earning him the name. In both cases the courageous ones had been through brutal experiences and had come out the other side, stronger.

Desirable difficulty is the phrase, and it quantifies the boon that is swimming, and perhaps all athletics, to young people.

Desirable difficulty is this: People who’ve been through hell, find the temperature wasn’t as bad as they’d imagined it would be. In other words, the fear of the future is actually worse than the future itself. Gladwell states, “We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to being afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration…”

Exhilaration. Well, if that doesn’t define Gabe and the other zones swimmers…

Gabe about to swim a relay split.

Throughout the season swimming places fearful moments squarely in front of a kid and then the kid must watch the horizon event come closer, closer. He’ll feel the curl of fear in his stomach, perhaps puke it up when he enters the pool. The swimmer must face the fear and step onto the block of his own volition.

Over and over again.

For the 1650 race (that’s a mile, friends), I had the honor of timing. The 11-year-olds who were about to jump in that pool– they were facing fear square on. But I was also there when they touched the wall after the 66th lap, exultant. They swam through the fear and came out the other side. Gladwell seems to describe swimmers when he’s describing surviving Londoners: “…the contrast between the previous apprehension [of swimming the mile] and the present relief [of surviving it] …promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”

The father and mother of courage: whatever we face that scares us. Makes me want to jump up off my couch and run bull-style into a public speaking engagement… or onto a dance floor. Makes me want to recruit kids by the hundreds into a sport or challenging activity.

…makes me want to smile at the weekend we just finished, to thank Coach Mike and all the RYD coaches for the work ethic they promote, and the swim parents who work tirelessly to provide the celebrations of a year well-spent.

 

Thankful for a great swim team!

A Volcano Hike: Mt. Liamuiga

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Mt. Liamuiga, aka Mt. Misery

A rust-ravaged truck would take us to the base of Mt. Liamuiga. After the 45 minute drive through St. Kitts, our 2+ hour ascension hike would begin. Behind me lay the Adventure of the Seas with its hushed hot tub waters and attendant waiters, plush deck chairs, everlasting soft-serve ice cream cones…

What had I done?

Across from us sat a young, solid-looking couple. How can you tell a woman knows exactly what she’s doing in the wild bush? By the handkerchief expertly tied around her tightly braided hair of course. Best I could do was a half braid and a camouflage ball cap. Pieces of my unruly hair already stuck out like wild feathers. This couple read the reviews too; they’d run half-marathons, Tough Mudders, trail races, etc. I sensed oncoming disgrace.

Then another couple climbed in the truck. Surely they hadn’t read the reviews. Both were older, somewhat heavy, and the woman– her overlong, manicured nails would never survive the crags and crevices we’d have to grasp in order to heft ourselves to the top of the 3,792 foot volcano. I simply could not imagine her completing. Thank God, I thought. I won’t be last.  

How does one have such ruthless, Darwinian thoughts on a cruise vacation?

Part of the fun of cruises is choosing your excursions. Amongst the taxi tours and beach visits, the volcano hike stood out as something different. We are lovers of different. The hike was labeled extremely strenuous, but on a cruise “strenuous” is taking the stairs rather than the elevator. So how bad could it be, this extremely?

Bad.

Trip Advisor used phrases like “way harder than described,” “you are looking at the ground most of the time so you don’t die,” and “of the 60 [hikers] only 15 made it to the top.”

Or this, my favorite:

This is the hardest thing that I have ever done and I have biked a century, hiked mountains in Italy, Wyoming, and Montana. The best way to describe this is extreme hiking. Imagine doing Stair Treadmill for 2 hours and you are ready. Don’t take this for the scenic photo ops, no this is for people who love extreme challenges.
I took this tour from Celebrity cruise and they described it as extremely strenuous. That does not really describe it because you get the impression that this is just really tough exercise like running on a treadmill. No!! The elliptical machines don’t prepare you for this…   – Krsna T January 5, 2017

I’m a review-reader because I believe in being prepared, whether I’m buying a product or putting my life in the hands of a St. Kittsian Bushman to guide me up a volcano. I like knowing what’s coming. In this case knowing what was coming struck fear into me that I wouldn’t be able to finish, that I’d fall and break a leg (that was in one of the reviews), that I’d have a heart attack or (more likely) a panic attack and stop up the whole group, that I’d have to hold my pee for inordinate amounts of time (also in the reviews).

These fears plagued me especially because of a previous, extremely-strenuous hike I took in West Virginia. My hiking company: Bob, a marathoner, Luke, a soccer player, and Gabe, a swimmer. The three of them bounded up the mountains like billy goats on amphetamines while I straggled behind, heaving and gasping and feeling like a zombie.

Though I run five miles regularly, a set of stairs winds me. A part of me thought maybe it was foolishness, this volcano. The opposite pull was the idea of letting Bob down, of looking a challenge in the eye and letting it beat me. Let me be clear: Bob puts zero pressure on me. Bob wants only my happiness but he’s often stuck because I’m happiest when I don’t feel like a wimp. What to do? I decided to train for my cruise vacation.

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A wall of roots and rocks.

Before, I worked out with less-than-average intensity. With the hike looming, I became a fitness honor student. I Googled How to train to climb a mountain. I ran faster and harder and longer. I found HIIT routines and used weights. I even surprised myself by losing weight. “Good,” said Bob, “It’ll be less for you to pull up the volcano.” He was right. Much of the volcano is pulling your body weight up the rocky and root-infested face.

Excursion day. At first, Bob and I were in the slow group. When our guide called experienced hikers to the front of the pack, I could not in good conscience go. We were put in the second group, which was also the last group. At the first rest stop I had to use the “bush room.” This put us as the last two hikers of the entire group. I noticed the guide breathing as heavily as I, and it comforted me.

At the next rest, the lead guide said we were short on time, that we’d have to split up and he needed two climbers for the fast group. I raised my hand. Bob looked at me, wondering if I’d lost my mind. We were sized up and chosen to go with the experienced climbers. Was I afraid? Yes. But I was more afraid of missing the summit.

As the trail morphed into walls of rock and roots, I felt rather billy-goatish myself, though I breathed louder than a dragon. My walking stick became my best friend, grinding blisters into my palms but relieving some of the pressure off my legs. I focused on my next step and my next, and… bam! Rest stop. Bob and I, by placement of where we sat as we began the next leg, were in the front of the experienced climbers, right behind the guide. Now I really felt compelled to push. I didn’t want to hold up people behind me.

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Do you see that sweat?

Can I tell you what a delight it is to do hard things I can do? Just like little Anna said that day at Whipp’s Ledges, when her mom offered a hand over the slippery rocks and Anna declined because she wanted the full glory of her accomplishment. I love vacation. I love rest. But unearned rest is sloth.  I speak from both sides of this issue. I remember complaining to Bob about how awful running felt, the whole time.

“Try running harder for sections,” he advised.

“That’ll just make it even more awful.”

“No, that’ll make the other times feel easy. If you don’t ever push yourself, the whole run feels hard. Push yourself and you’ll get the reward of an ‘easy’ stretch.”

But I didn’t want to hurt. Hurting stinks, so I kept plodding along at the same slow pace for my runs– until Mt. Liamuiga gave me a reason to push myself. What I gave in extra effort, I got back in ease later. And the whole process was more fun. Yikes.

Truth: the hike down was harder for me than the hike up. I’d expended all my energy fighting gravity for 2+ hours, when it came time to pick my way over the slick roots and rocks, my legs were jelly. No one talked on the way down. Not only were many exhausted like me, but total focus was required “so you don’t die.” At the bottom of the trail we were cheered by the folks who’d turned back at some point. (That’s what all the extra guides were for.) Also waiting was a spam sandwich on white bread with iceberg lettuce. Bob had one.

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A kiss at the summit.

The rest of the cruise was as you’d imagine…  take one before you die. C.S. Lewis said it best: A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.  …it [the experience] was nothing. Now it is growing into something as we remember it, what will it be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then – that is the real [experience]. -excerpt from Out of the Silent Planet, the book I’m working through with my 5000 Words class.

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St. Maarten

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Formal night

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