The sun was blinding me through the library windows. We’ve had rain, rain, and more rain for weeks on end, so the sunshine was a big deal this morning and was more than welcomed. It was worshiped.
It felt like a long awaited vacation, like springtime and flowers, like a throwback to “normal life” at a time when I was forgetting what “normal life” felt like. I couldn’t wait to grab my gloves and trowel, get outside, and dig around in the sunshine. Nobody bothers me when I’m in the garden.
I was about to transplant some Sarah Bernhardts into a sunnier spot when I got a text from our daughter-in-law, our next-pasture neighbor.
“How about a hike?”
The three grandboys were strapped in back listening to Harry Potter. Lollie seemed different. Once we were on our way, she blurted out, “I told God this morning I think he’s kinda mean. ‘I think you’re a jerk,’ is what I said. If he’s got all this great stuff, all this love, why can’t I connect with it? Where is he? Why is it so danged hard to find him?”
That was definitely different.
I wanted to quote a verse that came to mind, but I didn’t. This mother-in-law would let her next words be silent ones. Lollie went on for a little while, and finally settled on the bottom line by the time we got to the foot of our mountain. “I think I’m angry at him. You know, I’m really mad at God.”
Alarms went off inside my head. Can you say God’s a jerk and live to tell the tale? Suddenly I felt a little sweaty, and I cracked my window. I don’t believe Ida told that flashed through my mind to say as it often does, but I put it in the “Maybe Later” file along with the Bible verse.
I glanced over. Yep, angry, I thought. But there was something else about her, too, something stronger, more direct. I was experiencing all of her, not just the dressed up parts. She had depth and breadth, not just length and width. She had weight. Her usual soft and steady presence was suddenly kick ass, like Arwen from Rings when Frodo was hurt, when she had to be both tender and tough to protect him.
I thought about the dichotomy of this new Lollie, how she was both tender enough to admit she wanted more with God and tough enough to tell him the truth about it, even if the way she told him wasn’t exactly “nice.”
I didn’t know why, but I liked her better.
We turned right on Hog Jowl Rd and then left on Pocket and followed it to the end where we found the beginning of our trail. The Pocket Trail is nestled against Pigeon Mountain in our neck of the woods in northwest Georgia. It’s best known for its abundance of springtime wildflowers and the boardwalk that leads through them to a secluded cove with a spectacular waterfall.
Purple Phacelia and Virginia Bluebells were blooming in a sea of lavenders and blues, as if the plants were growing petals of water, not flowers. Trillium mixed in great swaths of white throughout, like a giant’s spilled bucket of popcorn, so stunning I hardly knew where to look first.
The boys were eager to explore and ran ahead, leaving Lollie and I to ourselves. We saw the water rivulets streaming down the mountainside over mossy rocks and roots, limbs and leaves. The cultivated profusion of wildflowers everywhere was as wide and high as our eyes could see. As we took it all in, we agreed: we were standing in what was easily the most beautiful natural setting we’d ever entered. And we hadn’t even seen the waterfall yet. Having just remembered Arwen, it wasn’t hard to imagine we’d slipped into a hidden, real-life Rivendell. I half expected Lollie’s ears to elve-up.
And then she said the most irreverent thing she could say in a place like this, at least from where I was standing: “You know, I just don’t want a damn flower.”
Her words hung in the air between us as I turned my eyes to meet hers. What the heck did she just say? I repeated her words back, just to make sure. “You don’t want a damn flower?”
“Nope,” she rasped. “All this? Yes, this is amazing. But it feels like something for you or maybe for that family over there. It doesn’t have my name on it. You know, I don’t need all this. I want something personal, just for me. I don’t want to have to look at all this and tell myself ‘God loves you. See all these flowers he made? Aren’t these meaningful?’ Because they aren’t. They don’t move me.”
I thought she might be acting out her millennial stereotype (another thought for my file). Should I shake her loose and make her see? Should I shame her with sarcasm, “Gee, the most glorious place on earth, and it’s not enough to ring your Lolliebelle and crack her wide open?”
But she was already on that train. “And I feel like a brat to say it,” her words choked as she teared up. “Who am I to need more than straight-up magnificence in order to praise the One who made it?” It was then that her voice changed, coming from somewhere other than her larynx. It crawled out of her depths, shot through her eyes, “But you know what? If he’s God, why doesn’t he know what moves me? And why doesn’t he give me that? Why do I have to work so hard to feel his love here, of all places?” She nodded toward the mountain. “If his love for me is real, shouldn’t I feel it–at least every once in a while–without trying?”
All the judgment in me drained. I remembered being exactly where she was (and more often and more recently than I want to say), desperate with longing, begging to be filled by the Only One who could actually do it. “Yes,” I said. “Every once in a while is not asking too much.”
I looked past her at the boardwalk beyond us. Hawk, age 2, had been keeping in step with his older brothers, but suddenly, there he was way ahead of them, almost beyond our sight. “Lollie! Look!”
Hawk had been entranced by The Pocket since arriving and was relishing it in a way the rest of us hadn’t. Or couldn’t. As we’d ambled along, he kept getting too far ahead, and by the time we finally caught up with him, we were near a swift spot in the creek. Thankfully, he wasn’t too close.
He was first to the turn-off to the waterfall with its beaten path of mud and gnarled roots, moving faster and climbing higher than his older brothers. We hustled to catch up with him again, just in time to grab him from slipping and sliding through a spring we crossed and into the creek below. Whew. The grandma alarm between my ears is loud for that boy.
The older boys were marveling over centipedes crawling along the path and stopping to look for minnows and crawdads in the creek. A tiny butterfly attached itself to Roan’s finger and hitchhiked. Lollie lagged behind to connect with them and their love for all creatures, while I signed on for Hawk-duty.
“I’m mad at God,” was banging around in my brain while we hiked. I hadn’t liked how it had sounded during our ride into Rivendell that morning. I was raised by a father who never curbed his anger and a mother who never admitted hers, so I wasn’t taught how to handle my own, nor did I feel very comfortable with anyone else’s. Until as recently as well, that very day, I’d believed that I rarely had any at all.
But the truth was, I was feeling a lot of anger that morning. I just didn’t know it. I didn’t have the freedom Lollie did to feel it. But her anger had pried open a window and let in some honest air. Truth sank in with it and took root.
Hawkie and I clambored on ahead–he tugging my hand and me enjoying the ride. Wild hydrangeas grew out of large rocks along the creek with no visible dirt to hold them. Massive rocks that grew moss and native succulents were lined up in the water like a giants’ game of dominoes, waiting to be knocked down. Nature’s stair steps beneath our feet were random rocks and tangled tree roots with delicate Rue-Anemone, Woodsorrel, and wild Hyacinth tucked in among them.
But Hawkie wasn’t interested in wildflowers. He leaned in and pulled harder, headed higher, and eventually broke free, scampering up with the energy of a child hearing a piper’s tune all his own. There was a wild hope of something he couldn’t see but knew was there because he wanted it so badly. A deep calling to deep.
I was glad when his mama caught up.
I stopped to get my bearings. We had been scrambling along the base of a rock face crammed with mosses in every crack and crevice, one on top of the other, piled up like puppies at naptime. It had been raining for days and weeks and months and the run off must’ve been something like Miracle-Gro for moss: lush beyond belief.
Above the moss garden, the rock face was strewn with Columbine and Trillium, Bloodroot, fern, and Dwarf Iris, all of it spilling out like flowers in tended window boxes–only without the boxes and without the tending–a wild and glorious garden rooted and thriving in a wall of rock.
And then the waterfall came into view.
The water that thundered over the cliffs ahead was split into twin streams that pounded against a semicircle of stone below, a massive amphitheater for frogs or water sprites, and carved, no doubt, by elves in this magical mountainside. Water poured out from other unseen spigots, too, smaller fountains flowing from fissures beneath the twins, like leaky pipes you forgot to wrap before winter.
Hawkie took one look at the waterfall, dog-legged left across a fallen tree beside the path, and was over the edge and gone before we knew it. The next I saw him, he was scrambling across those stone steps on his way up the falls, which was a strange thing to experience as I thought he was still right beside me. Unharmed and on all fours, he beckoned his mother to chase him with every wild and gleeful glance back, which, of course, she gladly did.
It was a joyful thing to watch them, abandoning the more civilized path and frolicking in the chase across those rocks. Hawkie’s face was as delighted as any little boy’s I’d ever seen, like he knew the magic, like he held a treasure, like he’d found the thing he’d come looking for, made better by their game. The spray from the falls, filtered with morning light, ringed their heads with halos against the dark, wet rocks.
It was such an other worldly adventure with such lush verdancy, I felt full-up for the rest of the afternoon. Which is why what happened next was such a surprise.
That night as I got ready for bed, I realized that while I’d admired the beauty and bounty of The Pocket, I’d also felt disconnected from it. I don’t know why I thought of that since Pigeon Mountain wasn’t mine. Of course I wouldn’t feel connected to it. I thought about what Lollie had said, too. I understood what she meant about wanting something gifted straight from the Giver, something small, selected just for her, a token of his love that said, “I know you this intimately.”
But I wanted something else.
I wanted joy. I wanted to feel what Hawkie felt as he scrambled. Even more, I wanted to feel connected to the overwhelming, exuberant joy of the One who created it all–the wildflowers and trees, the creek and the falls. And I didn’t.
And I wondered about that. Is connection with God a possibility simply because I want it so badly? Said another way, can I want more from God than he’s got to give me? Because I don’t think I can. That would make me capable of imagining more than he is. And I’m sure I can’t do that.
Besides, I’ve had some deep stabs of joy with God, of feeling like all my longings were met in him, like he was my prize, my treasure. Getting up to hang out with him has felt like the best part of my day some days. But not lately. Lately I’ve dreaded waking up. I’ve gotten up and just gone through the motions.
Hawk’s delight rattled me, and I felt angry. What had happened to my joy? Where’d you go, God? It’s hard enough living life as it is. I’m mad about that, too. But having to live it without feeling your presence? Just shoot me now! I can’t do it! Your words say your Spirit’s gifts include love and joy. So where are they? Where’s HE?
I didn’t know. But I decided then and there, I was going to find out. And I wasn’t going to pretend I’d found them. Like Lollie, I wasn’t going to say a bland, “thank you so much for the flowers, Heavenly Father,” when my heart wasn’t exploding inside my chest over them. I wasn’t going to settle for the children’s Sunday School rhetoric, monotoned and robotic in one rushed breath: “thankyoujesuswhodiedonthecrossformysins,” while my heart felt, meh. Because I’ve tasted the joy. I’ve seen how good God is. He’s knocked my socks off over and over.
And I want more.
The next morning, there were words in my head before I got out of bed, something about “no one understands what God’s prepared for those who love him.” I googled to find where they came from:
“No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no human mind has conceived
the things God has prepared for those who love him.
These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” I Corinthians 2:9
There it was in the Bible, what I’d tried to figure out the night before: my human mind cannot think up more good things from God than he has already thought up for me. And he reveals them to me by his Spirit.
Game on, God. Amaze me.
I sat down with my journal and wrote down everything that was wrong, everything that wasn’t joyful about my life. There was a lot, so it took a while. I realized that I hadn’t been paying attention. Clearly I was in a desert. And as far as I could tell, I’d been there for quite a while. And I was acting like everything was fine. Putting down a rug. Painting the walls. Pretending it wasn’t hot. No wonder I felt distant. And pissed.
“I know the answer to what’s wrong isn’t in me. I’m writing all this down, not to dig up wisdom–I don’t have it–but to dig out what’s inside. Some days I get up and want to dive right into your words, but lately, there’s all this angsty stuff choking me. I’m so full of sad, there’s not room for you or your words. I’ve gotta bleed out.
“I’ve thought it’s because I love you that I get up to hang out. And maybe that’s a little true. But maybe it’s also true–more true?–that I’m getting up for me. I want to find relief from my life. I want to make sense of it. I think maybe now when I do that, I can start telling you about it, too. Believing you care about what hurts me might help me to let go of it. I’d sure like to move on.
“I feel wrong to be angry. It’s taken me a long time to admit I feel it. I’m telling you about it now, because I think it’s what’s been keeping me feeling distant, the way keeping secrets from someone you love makes you distant. But I see now that admitting anger is honest. And honesty connects us.
“I really need to see you today in your word. Show me your glory? Blow me away by your power and might. I need to see something spectacular so that I can take my eyes off me. God, I exhaust me. Open my eyes to you.
I opened my One Year Bible and turned to Deuteronomy 9 and 10, which was the scheduled reading for the day. These words grabbed me right off the page: “But be assured today that the Lord your God is the one that goes ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you.” Deuteronomy 9:3
It was relieving to read that God is the one who’s up ahead, destroying what’s in my way. My fears need burning off, my feelings need refining. There’s a lot about my life that’s out of whack. I can’t do it. But he can. He’s the Holy Fire of Fury unleashed for me, cleaning out the undergrowth and briars, the rotting wood and poison ivy, giving me a fresh scourge in my forest, saving only the good trees.
I saw his power and might in Deuteronomy. I felt it. And I was overwhelmed all over again to believe that GOD is GOD. He’s the one going before me. I’m just following along behind him, doing what he says. I cried for the comfort that it was to read and believe that.
Somewhere along the way, I guess I’d gotten caught up in how well I was walking, and I’d wandered right off the path. I’d forgotten that God was the Mighty One up front, leading me, making the way, bearing my burdens, and letting me rest as we went.
I’d been walking alone, thinking I was heading off to find him, rather than believing he was already with me. Lisa Brown, my friend from church, said it’s living “as if he’s the destination and not the friend who’s with me on the road trip.”
I’d been up a long time lamenting about my desert, and I was weary. “God, my brain is fried. My heart is tired. I want so badly to lie down and sleep. Maybe I should stop striving to figure it all out, and just be weak and lean on you? I want to trust you to be the one in the whirlwind of fire up in front, burning the way clear, smiting enemies. I’d really love to just tuck in behind you and take a nap.”
So I did.
When I woke, I felt refreshed and light, like I’d just been at the beach while the maid worked back at my house, washing the sheets. The angst was gone, and in its place was peace. Could joy be far behind? Oak, Roan, and Hawk were due any minute for our “special day” together. When they arrived, we set about to plan it.
Lollie normally paints on her “special day” without the boys, but this time she headed to The Gorge, a ravine on our property, looking for wildflowers to plant in the woods around her yard. The Gorge is littered with fallen trees, Mountain Laurel, hemlocks and fern. There’s a creek at the bottom and lots of poison ivy and other plants I’ve never paid attention to. Inspired by The Pocket, Lollie was collecting as many free plants as she could find.
After our hike, she’d told me that their neighbors in law school in Mississippi had a woodland area of Mayapple. She’d always hoped to have the same sort of native landscape, and she especially hoped to find Mayapple for it one day. I’d never even heard of Mayapple and googled to see what it looked like. She also confided that telling God how angry she felt had made her heart melt a little. I squeezed her hand.
The afternoon of our “special day,” she called me, breathy and upset. I immediately thought she was in trouble. “I’m in The Gorge. I can’t…” but the rest was garbled. Cell phone reception in The Gorge is hit-or-miss.
“You’re where? What?” I panicked, my heart raced. “Sorry. Can’t hear you. Repeat that?”
“I’m in The Gorge. I can’t believe it! He did it. There’s…”
“You’re breaking up. I missed that. Who did it? What?”
“Mayapple! Mayapple! There’s a whole hillside of Mayapple down here!”
Mayapple? How had I lived here 23 years and never seen a Mayapple? But it didn’t matter how it had gotten there or that I’d missed it up til now. What mattered was that today, it was Lollie’s love note from the God of the Universe, just one of the countless good things he’d prepared for her, an intimate gift that moved her heart to worship.
It wasn’t her anger that brought her closer to God. It was telling him the truth. Anger gave her the courage to be honest about what she wanted. And telling him about it opened her heart to him. He’d always been right there, but now she knew.
Deep down where you know things no one teaches you, Lollie knew that if she longed for intimacy, it had to be possible. It was the same kind of knowing that Hawk had, that told him there was an adventure farther down the path because he wanted it. If Lollie longed for intimacy with the God who made her, then it had to be possible. Who can long for any good thing without God having already thought of it first? And here was proof, in a whole hillside of Mayapple.
But that was the second gift.
The first was something that surprised her before she saw the Mayapple. She’d stopped to pray when she got to The Gorge, feeling moved by the beauty around her. When she finished, she looked down, and there on the leaves beside her hand was a piece of box turtle shell, a favorite treasure since childhood.
What were the chances? When she looked up, she saw a few of the Mayapple nearby and was moved to tears. And when she’d stood up and turned around, she saw that the hillside was covered with them.
“You didn’t want a damn flower. You had to have a whole gorge full,” I teased.
“And a damn turtle shell.”
“How are you feeling now?” I asked.
“Like a brat,” she laughed. “A beloved brat.”
A cool breeze wafted across the sand. The rock beside me oozed honey. A vine grew up for shade.
And then came Joy.
This is a 360 video of The Pocket Trail at the waterfall.