How failing to climb Timpanogos turned into a metaphor for the Second Coming of Christ (it works, I promise.)

Meet my nemesis for the past 43 years: Mt. Timpanogos, in Utah County, Utah.

It’s massive, gorgeous, and has no idea that I’ve felt it mocking me since I was 9 years old.

That was when my dad—born and raised in Germany and loving all its mountains–finally relented to take me on his yearly hike. For years, every August, he’d leave before dawn with a group of neighbors and teenagers from our church, and guide them on a 13.5 mile hike, with a 4,800 foot elevation gain, ending at an elevation of 11,749 feet and fantastic views of Utah Valley below.

I always wanted to be part of it, and when I was nine, Dad agreed.

He shouldn’t have.

For as excited as I was, I spent the first five hours complaining and whining about the switchbacks and steepness, but did pause to admire the waterfalls my father loved. He’d tell me kindly to enjoy the views and conserve my oxygen by not talking.

Once we reached Emerald Lake, aptly named for its deep blue-green water, I was too exhausted to continue up the last steep stretch to the summit. Nauseated and dizzy, I confessed it was all too much for me. My dear, gentle father merely nodded, then squatted. “Get on my back,” he said.

Now, understand this: He was in his mid-40s then, did this hike only once a year, and wasn’t in the greatest shape himself, although he liked to pretend he was. Yet he didn’t hesitate to carry me along dangerous scree fields and narrow trails, to the summit of Timp. I remember him sweating, although the temperature was only in the 50s with a steady breeze. But he maintained a steady pace for another 1,300 feet up, depositing me at the summit.

I’ve never forgotten that view, his immense service, and the fact that I couldn’t make that last, hard stretch on my own.

Ever since, I’ve sworn to myself I would summit that mountain without assistance.

To sum up, I’ve never scaled it again because of motherhood, living outside of Utah, and simply knowing I’d never make it.

Just last summer I found a journal entry my dad wrote about that ill-fated attempt. Always a little ashamed that I begged so much to go, only to fail my dad at the end, I was astonished to read his account: he felt immense guilt for taking me, for seeing me “suffer at Emerald Lake with clear signs of altitude sickness.”

Altitude sickness?

He wrote that he prayed earnestly that I wouldn’t get worse, and knowing that he was responsible for the other dozen people in our group, carried me the rest of the way, also praying the last hour that his footing would be sure, that I would be ok.

That shifted 43 years of guilt and filled me with renewed gratitude and sympathy for my sweet dad, who did the climb for the last time in his 70s (which took him and an even older cousin visiting from Germany about 12 hours round trip).

Next month I move away from Utah for the third time, this time to Florida. I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll move back.

I’m now 52 years old and last week realized that if ever I was going to tackle that mountain, it had to be NOW. Never mind training or practicing (I always had lists in my head of what I’d do to prepare for it). Time was running out. Work circumstances mean that my husband and sons have already moved to Florida, while I remain here with my teenage daughter for another month, couch surfing with relatives and friends.

But last Tuesday morning she was to leave early for a day camp, and I realized I had no other obligations after I dropped her off, so . . .

Why not hike Timp?

When else would it ever happen?

I could take it slow—that’s what I read about high altitude sickness: taking lots of breaks helps. I didn’t need to summit. I really just wanted to see Emerald Lake again. I have only vague memories of it, and included it in my books as a “glacial lake.” But I wanted to be there, just to show my dad—and me—that I can do it. Dad died a few years ago, but he’d still know.

Honestly, though, I’m not in the greatest of shape. I’m overweight, but I have great endurance. I’d just have to walk steadily upward, for about 3,500 feet, for 7 miles, over 4-6 hours’ time. Easy.

(If you’re not yet seeing how naïve I was just a couple of days ago, keep reading.)

That was my thinking as I packed a backpack with protein bars, gluten free rolls, dried apple rings, two Vitamin Water bottles, a plain water bottle, and a 32 oz water bottle. I also packed a jacket, bandaids, first aid kit, toilet paper, wipes, and plastic baggies, because I’m a mom and I go everywhere prepared for a minor emergency.

My husband, 3,000 miles away, was concerned.

“But I’ll go slow,” I promised him, “Besides, Timp is a hugely popular hike. The websites even say to get there before dawn because you can’t get a parking place.”

My husband had one condition: “No matter where you are, by 12:30, start heading down. I know it’s faster going down, but you shouldn’t be up there, alone, that long.”

“I won’t be alone!” I reminded him. “There will be dozens of people passing me every hour.”

But when I got to the parking lot at Aspen Grove at 8: 15 am, was startled to see it so . . . empty.

“Weird,” I murmured as I got my pack and put on my jacket. It was 45 degrees even though it was a sunny morning on June 9.

The more astute of you already know why the parking lot wasn’t full with hikers. You noticed it on the first photo I posted. But I wouldn’t see it for another few hours.

I put on my hat, took two aspirin to stave off the migraines I always get when I’ve been in the sun, said a prayer of gratitude that my knees felt great, my chronic back and hip problems were absent (I’m telling you, I’m really NOT in the best of shape), then ended the prayer with what I’d been saying for the past five days: “Dear Father, if at any time I’m about to do something beyond my abilities, make it clear to me. Thank you for the opportunity to say good-bye to the mountains before going to Florida, and please keep me from doing something dumb.”

I end a lot of prayers like that.

I headed out on the peaceful, quiet trail, dutifully signed in at the hiker’s register with what time I arrived and what my destination was, and took a photo of the map of the trail, then began.

And became winded about half a mile later when the path began a very slight climb.

Did I mention that I’m asthmatic? But never got it diagnosed properly so I don’t have an inhaler?

Also that I have a tachycardiac heart that likes to suddenly jump up for no reason and stay at 120 bpm, even when I’m sitting?

I needed motivation, already, so I put in my earbuds and let the heroic trailer music of Audiomachine, Two Steps from Hell, and Satou Naoki propel me.

When I hit the first waterfall, I was feeling confident. Stopping frequently to take pictures of scenery and wildflowers gave me time to slow down my breathing and heart.

Occasionally I wondered why I hadn’t seen ANYONE else on the trail, but that thought would pass quickly, because I had a perpetual smile on my face.

It’s rare for me to have a day where NO ONE needed me—none of my nine kids, or grandkids, or high school students I teach, or anyone. It was a day just for me, all alone.

Some people are afraid of solitude. I embrace it.

Besides, when no one else is on the trail, you can sing out loud with “Moana” and no one will glance at you with pity.

It was an hour before I heard something behind me: “May I pass?”

I looked back in time to see a man jogging—yes, JOGGING!—up the trail behind me, in only thin shorts and a t-shirt, with a water bottle in one hand. He was as agile as a mountain goat, and my jaw dropped to realize he was at least in his 60s.

I stepped aside, astonished as he continued jogging up the steep terrain which had me gasping and stopping every 100 feet. (I’d already taken off my jacket, sweating too much with it on, appreciating the cool breezes when they came, the temperature in the 60s by then.)

And, I’ll admit, I was very humbled by Grandpa Runner.

For about 15 seconds. Then I realized he must be one of those Iron Man runners and that this was not typical “hiking Timp” behavior. I didn’t have to be like him. I just had to be me.

And I went back to singing (gasping) along with “Moana.” (“So . . . <wheeze> shiny!” <wheeze>)

Another half hour passed with me stopping frequently, panting, crawling up rocks, sitting under pine trees, waiting for my breathing and heart to calm down again, listening to music and soaking in the sheer audacity of those giant peaks. I noticed that nearly every time I started again, I was only a dozen paces away from a flattened area, or a waterfall I could hear but not see. In other words, I almost gave up a little too soon, but was always rewarded for continuing on.

But it was hard. Really hard, especially with no one to push or encourage me. Why was I insisting on this? No one would know or care if I gave up.

Weirdly, experiences with childbirthing came to mind, times I had to endure because I no other choice. As I struggled over a twist in the trail requiring climbing up rocks and my backpack felt like 50 pounds, I remember my last delivery where for hours my unborn son and I battled each other for life, and I felt my own start to slip away. But we obviously made it. So could I, again.

It was at the end of that second hour, and probably another 1400 feet in elevation, that I saw the next two people on the trail, coming down, which meant they started much earlier that morning than I had.

And they were OLDER STILL!

What was this, Geriatric Day on Timp?!

This couple was at least in their 70s, but in great shape. Slender and sprightly, they both had hiking poles and boots with spikes, and were startled to see me.

“How far are you planning to go?” they asked.

Something about their question prompted my own. “How far do you think I can make it?”

They shook their heads. “Only to the second snow field,” they said sadly.

“The what?”

They pointed up the mountain side, to the snow patches that looked only a few inches deep a few thousand feet lower, but now I realized must have been several feet deep.

Suddenly I saw it, what some of you likely saw immediately: the trail was buried under snow and ice. The treacherous switch backs between fields of loose shale and rock was layered with slick, slushy snow.

That was the reason no one else was hiking that day.

THAT’S why my dad always went in August, not early June.

Suddenly I understood I wouldn’t make it to Emerald Lake. I could see where it was, and it was literally impossible to reach.

That filled me with both disappointment and relief. I wouldn’t have to try to make it all the way on my own.

And once again, the mountain defeated me, just by being itself.

The elderly couple advised me to be careful, that they expected to see me down at the bottom “soon.” “Even that jogger couldn’t get across the second snow field,” they told me, and a few minutes later I saw him come back down, still at a clipped pace as I caught my breath once again under a pine tree.

The second snow field was now my goal.

Eventually I reached a point where I could see where the steep set of switchbacks were supposed to be, buried. For the first time that morning I was filled with concern.

I was alone on that mountain at that elevation, and going too far would be DUMB.

I came to the first snow field, proven to be accessible by senior citizens, and marveled how they went across. The slope was noticeable, the snow—probably still a foot deep—was melty and slushy and very slick. Hunched over, I ventured across, keeping my feet at sharp angles for traction (have I mentioned that I wore only well-broken in tennis shoes, with no tread?), and plodded across the 40 feet with only a little sliding.

I felt something, for just a brief moment, and it wasn’t until I reached the other side that I identified it: fear.

I rarely feel fear. Oh, not that I’m super brave. I’ve got buckets of anxiety to spare. But fear isn’t in my daily repertoire of emotions.

Except for right then. Maybe this was God, keeping me from doing something dumb.

Enormously relieved, and ignoring the fact that I’d have to go back the same way, I headed for my final destination: Second Snow Field. It’ll never show up on any map, but it will forever be my New Goal which I reached proudly about 15 minutes later.

I paused to evaluate the challenge, a little disappointed that such a narrow patch thwarted those older and fitter than me, then realized why the others turned back. It wasn’t far across, as you can see, but very, very steep, even with boots with cleats and hiking poles. And take a look at the snow fields beyond. Even worse.

Should one slip, it’s quite a slide down, maybe a couple hundred feet, and at the bottom is a pile of flat, sharp rocks which would continue your slide for another 50 feet until you hit the trees. There’s no easy way out of that, and I didn’t fancy the idea of a helicopter lowering my broken, scraped-up body a rope.

And there was no sign of any members of AARP coming up the trail.

Still I sat there for a moment, looking critically beyond the field to where the trail was supposed to be, momentarily annoyed that my goal was seemingly so close (it really wasn’t) and that I’d come so far (again, not really–maybe only four miles and 2,000 feet in elevation; my blue dot of progress looked even sadder on Google maps).

And that’s the second time I felt it—fear. Only this time, the feeling stayed, boring deep into my soul, along with the words that going on would be “foolish, possibly fatal, and worse—wholly unnecessary.”

(Red squiggles on the photo below indicates the likely path I would have made struggling on the switchbacks.)

I sighed, then backtracked a few feet to a wide ledge where I decided was a perfect spot for my lunch. I sat down in the deeply awesome stillness, alone in the vastness, feeling to my left peace and joy, and to my right, intensely sinister fear.

(The parking lot is to the left of my shoe.)

And weirdly I found my thoughts filled with my ancestors, Germany, and WWII.

I’ve researched a lot about the War which plays such a big part of my ancestry. And I have wondered if my relatives could have done anything more against Hitler.

But as I looked again at the rugged, snow-covered slopes, a new understanding came to me: my ancestors had done all they could, gone as far as was possible.

My maternal great grandfather had been coerced by the Nazis to join their party and lend credibility to their cause, and he rebuffed their advances, finally embarrassing them away to leave him in relative peace.

My paternal grandfather was threatened at least twice at gun point by Nazis trying to extort money from him, and he talked his way out of every conflict.

But there were no stories of outright defiance or hiding of Jews (although my mom’s family knew of a few Jews who weren’t taken, but forgotten by the Nazis, and no one in their city ever turned them in. Those Jews survived the war.).

And as I stared at the treacherous slopes, I understood that their trying to do more would have been “foolish, possibly fatal, and wholly unnecessary.” As if they single-handedly could have stopped the Nazi war machine. Sheesh.

Sobered, and feeling foreboding ahead–physically and metaphorically–I leaned back against the rock and closed my eyes for a 15-minute nap to let my tired, wobbly legs become stable again.

And spent 15 minutes smacking giant ants who must have just emerged from hibernation and decided I was good enough for lunch.

I finally said farewell to the mountain which suddenly seemed threatening, and started down.

This time the first snow field filled me with stabs of fear until I got across it.

About 15 minutes later I came across a hiker, and I was not surprised at all to realize he was another senior citizen. He was also well-prepared, and asked me how far I made it. Then he asked, “Do you have a spare water bottle?” Not long before, he encountered a couple of 17-year-olds, wearing shorts, tank tops, and with only bottle of water, already empty. “This is their first hike,” he told me, rolling his eyes, “and they think they’re going to summit. Ha!”

A few minutes later I found the clueless kids, leaning against a tree and panting. I smiled and said, “So you’re the teenagers who think they’re going to climb this today yet know nothing about hiking?”

They sighed. “Met that old guy, huh?”

“Yep. And he’s right.” I handed them my spare water bottle which they eagerly, happily accepted.

“Can we make it to the saddle?” they innocently asked, showing me the spot on their map on the phone.

I looked them up and down critically, now that I was an expert since I’ve spent two hours more on the mountain than they have. “Nope, not without boots, spikes, jeans, and poles. And not even then.” I pointed out a snow field, explained how it was slick, showed them the scree fields, explained how shale is sharp and unstable, then said, “I don’t want to see you on the 10 pm news, being rescued by helicopter. The saddle? See that area on the mountain, wholly covered by snow?”

They nodded soberly.

“It’s impossible, guys. Go to the first snowfield, then call it a day and head back down.”

They looked at me as if I was there to kill their joy, but I saw in both of their eyes secret gratitude that they didn’t have to try to go any further than a mile or more.

I continued on my way down, surprised at my stamina, thrilled with how fast the descent was (I never needed my trailer music) and in about an hour and a half, I was at the bottom, having never met any other hikers.

And it was over, just like that.

I think the time went so quickly because my mind, which connects everything in metaphors, realized that much that day is symbolic of the Last Days.

Russell M. Nelson, prophet for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in April 2020 that the return of the Savior was coming, and that “It is our charge—it is our privilege—to help prepare the world for that day.”

We need to prepare ourselves first in order to help the world. My five hours on the mountain taught me this (and I can see why Moses, Enoch, Nephi, and others learned so well from God on mountains):

  • First, the Last Days are coming, sooner than many may expect. We keep thinking we’ll have time later to prepare, but we’ll quickly discover time is running out. I did my hike earlier than I expected, and was not as ready as I wanted to be. But I did as much as I could, and that was enough.
    We have to hike anyway when the time comes.
  • It will be a lot harder than we expect, with greater problems than imagined. I underestimated the mountain, and I had to dig deep into my memory for times I had endured and continued to keep me motivated. Remember that up until now, you’ve survived 100% of problems thrown your way. Make a mental list today of what you’ve overcome, so you can remember when you feel you’ll never succeed again.
  • Take time to pause and rest, but NEVER leave the path. Few of us would be able to run up that mountain, nor is that expected. There will be times we sit in frustration and exhaustion to catch our breath, but never take a foot off that trail! Never leave the covenant path.
    Just get moving again once you’re able again.
  • There will be fewer on this journey with us than we imagine. For whatever reasons, a lot of people won’t see the need or desire to deal with what’s coming.
  • Interestingly, a lot of older folks will be. I speak to many my age (50s) and older, and 9 out of 10 of us are prepping, bracing, watching, waiting.
    But with younger generations, it seems to be about 1 out of 10. In my very narrow observations, they don’t see it or want to see it. (Maybe you witness better ratios? I’d love to hear what you’ve noticed.)
  • And those few younger ones who are trying to brave the “coming mountain/challenge” are ill-prepared. We have to help them with whatever we have.
    But, like the parable of the Ten Virgins, we can’t give so much that we no longer have anything. Had I made it to Emerald Lake, I know my water supply would have been gone, and I would have had nothing to share with the teenagers I met.
    We need to be teaching younger generations what we already know, not just send them out with their phones and hope they’ll do ok.
  • We have to know how far we can reasonably go. Just as I realized my ancestors couldn’t go any further in their efforts to fight fascism in Germany—efforts which would have been foolish, potentially fatal, and unnecessary—so too may be some of our desires to help in these Last Days. We may want to “conquer the mountain,” but it would destroy us instead, and the mountain wouldn’t even notice. But our families and friends would.
  • The “secret combinations” of darkness that are in power now will be impossible to take down, nor do we need to. Not that Timp is a secret combination, but it’s a massive entity that didn’t even notice my presence. That wasn’t the hill I wanted to die on, metaphorically or literally.
    This is God’s fight, and He asks us to help here and there, rescue as we can, but it’s not our job to stop what has been prophesied. (See Revelation and Ezra for explanations of how Babylon will destroy itself.)
    The best we can do is get out of the way of Babylon and help those we find trying to escape it. That’s hugely comforting and doable.

In the end, I didn’t “conquer the mountain.”

Nor, more importantly, did it conquer me.

I simply walked away from it, satisfied with what I could accomplish and glad that I still had strength for the rest of the day.

It’s no longer my nemesis. I felt strangely indifferent to it as I drove away. Maybe it’s because I have more vital tasks ahead of me, and I can let this prideful one go.

Maybe. (My dad was in his 70s when he last climbed it after all. Surely I’ll be in better shape in 20 years.)

There are no coincidences, especially when trying to track down your mother’s childhood home in Poland

I hadn’t realized it’s been so long since I’ve last posted. I’ve been deep in a new project which won’t let me go, and has been nagging at me since I was a teenager.

My mother’s early life has always been a mystery. She spoke of parts of it, but not the details, because they were too raw. I’ve met only one of her family members, a cousin, back in the 1980s when I was a teenager and he was visiting from Germany, but no one else.

I’ve never had the pleasure of driving by a house and hearing her say, “And that’s where I grew up.”

My mom, about 12 years old

Because my mother, Yvonne Neufeldt Strebel, grew up in a part of Germany which is now Poland. She lost her parents before her first birthday and was adopted by her grandparents.

And then World War Two happened, and essentially destroyed her childhood. By the time she was 17 her uncle and two cousins, along with many friends, were forced to fight for Germany and were killed; another two cousins were held as prisoners of war, one in America and the other in Siberia; another uncle and a male cousin, age 16, were abducted by the Russians in 1945 as forced labor and never returned; her aunt and a female cousin, age 11, were forcibly removed from their home by the Poles in 1945 and put in a labor camp for six months, on starvation rations.

That’s when my mom escaped to the west, all her belongings in a backpack, with some family friends. As a refugee renting a bedroom from some acquaintances, she was starved by the French in Ettlingen for several months.

She never went home to Neisse, Germany, which was 80% destroyed by the time the war ended in May 1945.

My mom’s hometown of Neisse, Germany, at the end of the war.

As you can imagine, she didn’t have as many happy memories as a lot of teenagers do. She shared what fun times she did have, before everything went rapidly downhill. The rest were stories she told only a couple of times.

And much of what she lived through permeated into me as well. I’ve been both equally disturbed and fascinated by the horrors my mom experienced, and have felt compelled since a child to understand it.

Decades ago my mom told me to try to write and publish her story, and she gave me journals and stories to help. But details have been lacking, and her reticence to relive her miserable years has left me with huge gaps. (She passed away a few years ago.)

Finally this summer I’ve decided to tackle this project which has sat on my shoulders since I was 17 years old. Calling siblings for photos and gathering bins of papers has shown we have little more than a few dozen photos and some old postcards from her childhood, but it was more than I expected.

Using FamilySearch I found someone willing to translate her grandfather’s 10 postcards to her, a couple which were very revealing. These are the only words we have of the man who so loved and cared for her, who she last saw as a 17-year-old. He died only four years after she escaped to the west. He never was able to leave Germany, now Poland.

Beautiful cursive, but impossible for this American to decipher. A generous and anonymous helper has been translating these for me, and even figured out the address: Marienstrasse No. 4

But digging for details about where her cousins and aunt and uncles were taken, along with the destruction of her city, now Nysa, Poland, have meant hours and hours of research. (And I’ve discovered how brilliant Google Translate is, because my German is horrible, and my Polish is non-existent.)

So I finally got smart, and using Google Translate, wrote an email to a librarian in Nysa, Poland asking where I might find details about the city during 1945 and specifically what dates it was bombed by the Red Army. I know my mom’s second house in Neuland had been obliterated by the war.

The Nysa librarian wrote back yesterday politely saying it was too bad I didn’t have addresses—

But wait! I do have addresses! From the postcards that had just been translated last month!

I sent her back, “The first house my mom lived in was Marienstrasse 4.”

Her response was swift, coming in less than half an hour, although by her Poland time her shift was nearly over and she should be heading home.

And her response left my chin on the floor: “I live in Marienstrasse 5!”

This random librarian, in a city of 43,000, lives NEXT DOOR to where my mom spent her first 12 years of life. WHAT ARE THE ODDS!?

I stared, astonished at her response, as I imagine she stared at my email that the home I’m looking for is the apartment building that’s literally attached to hers.

Then she sent me a photo—this one which she found in a book—of how the building looked in the 1920s. The same time my great-grandfather Emil Neufeldt would have bought it. The previous owners were the Rudolfs–they owned a store on the ground floor–and their two sons would in a few years marry Emil’s two daughters.

The caption of the photo reads “Block 4 and 5: Marienstrasse (about 1921/1922)”

I wrote earlier that I’d never had the pleasure of seeing the house where my mom grew up, but there before me was the house where she grew up, where her aunts grew up, where their future husbands used to live with their parents—the family house, as it looked.

I stared at that photo which I received yesterday morning for several minutes, knowing that the first floor was a store the uncles’ parents used to own, that the second floor contained two large apartments which my mom’s grandparents turned into one to accommodate when their other grandchildren came to visit and play with their cousin Yvonne.

This morning, the librarian wrote to me again: “Before work I took pictures of Marienstrasse for you. Here’s what it looks like today.”

And for the first time in my life, I got to “drive” by the family home of where my mom grew up.

UPDATE: The librarian did more research and realized that the house ACROSS the street was my mom’s, and it looks more like what she had described. It was NOT destroyed in the war, amazingly! [She emailed me again this morning, June 9, with the clarification. Sounds like she was so excited by the coincidence that she jumped the gun a little.]

This doesn’t seem to have been destroyed by bombing, miraculously. Photo taken June 9, 2021
The sidewalks where my mom, her grandparents, her aunts and uncles and cousins walked in the 1920s-1930s-1940s. Photo taken June 8, 2021
Morning on the street of where my mom used to live, Photo taken June 8, 2021

I was initially staggered by the coincidence, then immediately remembered there are no coincidences.

I’ve often heard that searching out your family’s history is a great blessing, and that your ancestors want you to find them. I never quite believed it until I connected with a random woman thousands of miles away who lives next door [actually ACROSS the street] to where my mom grew up.

My immense thanks to Basia Tkaczuk, my new librarian friend whose last name I’ll never be able to pronounce.

“You can still choose to be cynical and see only coincidences. But I choose to see miracles. And I’d much rather live in a world full of miracles than in one filled with random chances.” ~Book 5, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti

Leave the world and find your purpose; Ask Him

“Leaving the world” means setting aside all of that which distracts us from focusing on God. For some that sounds dreary and dull (what, just reading scriptures and singing hymns?). They believe the world is exciting and vibrant.

But consider that maybe we have that reversed.

Focusing on the world is exhausting. The world is hounding you with so many unnecessary expectations and demands.

You may find yourself:

  • fixated with fashion or physical appearance;
  • preoccupied with the look of a house and yard;
  • needing to be seen as “successful,” especially on social media, in your business and personal life;
  • driven to possess the next best thing either in technology, or vehicles, or housing, or vacations;
  • consumed with a desire to be popular and recognized as part of the “right” group.

That’s exhausting. And it’s dreary and dull, trying to keep up with the world’s changing trends.

Keeping the world “happy” is as tedious as reasoning with a toddler having a tantrum. What they want changes frequently, and they’re never satisfied for long.

Now think about what your life would be like without that pressure to impress the world.

Really think about it: no demands, no expectations, no guilt or shame for not being “good enough yet,” and no fretting about what someone will think—

Doesn’t that make you feel like it’s the first day of summer vacation when you’re in high school? Remember that feeling? No more assignments, no more demands, no more busy work to earn a label of “success” or “failure.” (I realize that as a high school teacher I’m condemning myself here a little, but teachers probably rejoice at the end of the school year more than students do.)

Instead, you feel that release, that sudden joy and lightness of realizing you get to do what you feel you should.  Explore, work, play, sleep—you can just enjoy the world.

That’s what God wants for us. Focusing on Him is summer vacation, while being obsessed with the world is the third week of a gray, cold February with no holidays in sight.

Ask Him what “summer vacation” and focusing on Him looks like for you. It will be different for everyone. For me, this month, it’s focusing on my family, writing new books, studying ideas I’ve always wanted to, and preparing for the future. Next month may be different. And I eagerly look forward to it.

Building Zion is all about finding your purpose and leaving the world behind. You won’t miss the world, and what’s more, the world will not miss you. (Because it doesn’t care about you and it never has.)

He can fix everything; do your part, and He’ll make up all the rest (.01% vs. 99.9%)

Recently I had an incident that left me feeling misunderstood, chastised, and utterly stupid. For days it’s been hanging over me, leaving me with zero motivation.

Yesterday morning I feebly prayed, “Dear Lord, sorry I’m so stupid. Please help me function through this day. Amen.”

Then I spent the morning and afternoon doing what I felt least like doing: conferencing online with my high school students on their last major paper. But I acted as their encouraging cheerleader, and halfway through the day I was feeling a little lighter.

That evening I went with my teenage daughter to see “some Christmas lights,” (I didn’t know exactly what we’d be seeing) and was overwhelmed by millions of lights on a one-mile path that meandered through a statue garden about the life of Jesus Christ.
And I felt lighter still.

That night I reluctantly joined a brief online meeting with women in our church, and left it later than expected after laughing about babies and books and having made a new friend.
And I felt lighter still.

Before going to sleep I was skimming one of my books to find forgotten details (I’m finally drafting the prequel series about the Great War and Lek and Lorixania–woot!) when I ran across these words from Perrin in Book 4: “Only the Creator knew him well enough to fix him. It was the Creator who gave him the strength he needed . . . It was the Creator who won that battle and turned the momentum of the war—not him.”

I remembered my pathetic prayer that morning, and realized that God was fixing me.

He had set before me exactly what I needed: reminders of how much I love teaching; time with my daughter in a beautiful place; connections with a new friend.

The incident from earlier which has weighed me down hasn’t been erased, and I still feel stupid (because that’s a common theme in my head, and yes, I know I need to work on it—I have been for fifty years and I feel stupid about that . . . can you see a pattern?).

But I am also a Daughter of the Creator, who loves me and guides me, and if I do my part—especially when I don’t want to—He lifts me beyond my stupidity and lets me continue onward, once again, with hope.

If He’ll do that for a slow-learning goober like me, He’ll surely do that for you, too.

(And no, I don’t have a date for when the first prequel book will come out, it’s all in the drafting stage right now. But so far I’ve got Terryp just about to enter the ruins in the east, General Lek Shin having to trek north with his sergeant Barnos Zenos to quell violence, and Guide Pax arguing with King Querul about who really is the cause of that violence.
The characters are coming alive more each day, and gloriously are starting to tell me their stories, just as Perrin and Mahrree and Shem told me theirs. Only 20,000 words in, and I think it’ll be at least two new books in the future–we’ll see. So fun to be back in their world again, and I can’t wait to get all of their stories right to share with you! Have an amazing Christmas, in spite of everything!)

Merry Christmas Images, Pics, Photos | Xmas Pictures 2019 ...

Why your kids will be fine without “schooling” for a few months; 4 myths we should toss now

We’re spiking with unnecessary anxiety that our kids are going to fall behind because of our current school mess. But as a public school teacher for the past three years, and a homeschooling mom of six kids before that, I promise that these March-June months will NOT delay your child’s learning.

Unless we push too hard.
Then we’re ruining everything.

So let’s not. Too many educators and parents are steered by myths that should be tossed out the window (and leave that window open–we need the fresh air).

Myth #1children and teenagers learn at a steady and constant rate of progression.

Reality: Kids learn just as they grow—they shoot up rapidly, then plateau, then they burst again, then rest again, and with no predictability. Growth is exhausting work—physically, mentally, and emotionally. No student is ever “on task” every single day, all the time. Even my most ambitious AP Literature students will have days where they say, “Do I have to ‘poem’ today?”

One of my daughters struggled to read, weeping daily from age five until age eight, trying to sound out even simple words. Then one day it all “clicked,” and two months later she was reading Harry Potter, finishing the entire series before she was ten. She’s now a successful college student.

Every insightful parent and teacher will tell you that they see peaks and plateaus in their kids, and even in themselves. The “steady progress” we try to impose on students has never worked across the entire gamut of students, but only for a handful of children, which makes us think that if we just push hard enough, all of the students will fall into line.

No. That’s never, ever worked. Let’s abandon that faulty premise right now. Kids need routines, yes–but don’t expect methodical progress from creatures who are fundamentally irrational and still developing. (And when hormones kick in? Oh, heavens help us all.)

Myth #2If we don’t consistently teach children, they’ll suffer. Skipping even one day will set them back.

Reality: If kids miss a day, or a week, or even a month or three, the long-term effects are negligible. Since children are learning in unpredictable stages of peaks and plateaus, nothing we as educators or parents do can change that.

When my adult children were teenagers and younger, we had a period of a couple of years where we moved four times around the country and added an eighth baby. Sometimes schooling was set aside for weeks, and even months. My kids still read books, created art, or explored the nature and history of new towns, and—with no interference from me—still learned.

Not formally, but naturally.

They chose what to discover, and that’s what they remember even years later: exploring new places and learning what they wanted to.

When we got back to “formal” learning, they were on track within a couple of weeks. How do I know? Because later these kids all entered school. Those attending public school for the first time in junior high were straight A students. Those who went to college (three skipped their senior years) all succeeded and graduated, or are on track to graduate.

Missing school, even skipping an entire year in some of my children’s cases, made no significant change to their ability to succeed.

Consider the missed time as a natural plateau, and allow kids to explore and learn naturally.

When they return in the fall, I predict most kids will be more than ready to run to the top of the peak, eager to see which of their friends are already there.

Myth #3We have to make sure they finish the curriculum for this year.

RealityCurricula are created by governmental or private entities who know nothing about your child, or, I would assert, even how children naturally develop. “Standards” are a collection of “that sounds effective” ideas that are quite often unrealistic, unnecessary, and/or just plain boring.

Kids should never be bored of education.
Learning is a natural part of their development—it’s hard-wired into their progression.
If kids are bored by “education,” we’re doing something seriously wrong.

Aristotle once said, “All [children] by nature desire knowledge.” We don’t have to force it, just allow it.

Governments and school boards set standards and teach incrementally for diagnostic and testing efforts, in an to attempt to educate large masses of students. But that’s never reflected the needs of kids, only of the evaluators.

(Blessedly, some of us get to teach in schools where the curriculum is left up to us; I’m extremely fortunate to teach at a school that says, “Do what you think would be most engaging for the students.”)

But ask any other teacher: Do you like the structured and scripted curriculum you’re directed to follow?

They will respond with, “No! I know what these kids need, because I’m with them every day. If only I could teach them what I see they really need!”

Parents concur. In fact, many parents roll their eyes at how and what their children are being taught and the homework they bring home, and wish all of that could change.

It can! Here’s our chance!

There’s no reason why the current curriculum MUST be completed. Most schools aren’t bothering with standardized testing, and many universities are waiving SAT/ACT requirements. The big testing monsters have been locked in a closet for the year.
(Here’s hoping they never get back out.)

In some regions, schools are no longer requiring grades, or aren’t penalizing students for struggling in classes, or are moving to a simple pass/fail assessment.

So while these testing and grading “monsters” have been removed from the equation, let’s truly experiment with education!

Parents, let kids learn what they want! If they want to do the homework pages, let them. If they don’t, forcing them to graph linear equations while holding their phones as hostage won’t actually teach them anything about math, but will teach them a great deal about your relationship with them.

Plato once wrote, “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds.” And “Nothing forced into a mind will be induced to stay there.”

In other words, we can’t force learning. We never have been able to, in thousands of years.

So let’s just accept that reality and let kids explore and learn what they want to, just for a few weeks.

Myth #4—But without constant homework and assignments, students will be unproductive and lose academic ground with their peers!

RealityRemember that learning is a natural part of children’s growth. And I agree with Mark Twain that schooling often interferes with education.  Our current form of mass education has never been the best for kids.

It’s like throwing a gallon of paint in a room. It’ll cover everything, but sloppily. Some walls may feel pretty good about themselves, but the couch is wondering what just happened to it, and the lamp will want to limp off to another room to cry.

Maddeningly, our education system still believes children are simple computers which function with the right data input, although every parent and educator in the country knows otherwise. Every decade we have reforms, and every result is still more factory-line education.

Here’s the hard truth: formal education is already unproductive, and has been for a hundred years. Kids filling out worksheets at home isn’t accomplishing much, if anything. Some parents are expressing extreme frustration, and so are their kids. We’re spinning wheels in the mud, making no progress but creating huge messes.

All that some families are learning is that they hate doing homework sheets together.

(And I’m sorry, but I’m teaching my 2nd grader how to carry the one and borrow the one.)

For the past month, the tenuously-structured education system has collapsed like a poorly-played game of Giant Jenga. Some people are still frantically trying to build back up that tower into some semblance of what they knew, and as the weeks drag on, their efforts seem even sadder.

But many others are quietly taking away planks and letting their kids use the boards as see-saws or catapults or bird houses.

Conscientious administrators are stepping back and noticing that now is not the time for a heavy hand and observations, but to let teachers and parents do what they’ve always wanted to do: nurture children.

Brave teachers are setting aside formal curricula and creating projects and activities that make sense in these times, and not money for curriculum developers. Some of us have reduced by 75% what we try to teach, distilling lessons and activities to the most essential parts, and discovering just how much fluff we can carve away.

Smart parents are taking what parts of the homework sent home makes sense for their families, and are watching their children with love and open minds to perceive what they need, and what they want to learn.

Parents are sharing videos of their children joyfully doing science experiments at home, or learning to change a tire on a car, or discover what all the tools in the shed can be used for, or how to run grandma’s sewing machine, or creep around in forests looking for signs of spring.

And children—if the adults in their lives are paying attention to them—will discover that the world, while closed off in many ways, is now suddenly opened in brand new ones.

This is a huge opportunity to change everything—for us and our kids and our country.
Let’s not blow it.

(My AP Lit class of 2019, happy students on the last day of class. My 2020 class never got to take a similar picture.)

Image may contain: 15 people, including Trish Strebel Mercer, Matyas Nachtigall, Bára Bajgarová and Uyen Nguyen, people smiling, people standing and indoor

 

The joyful heartache of growing up

I seem to stay the same, but all around me children are moving on. The semester is ending this week, my students will wave good-bye and new groups will come in, many I’ve had before but are now older, many seniors for whom this will be the last semester of high school. Then they’ll walk away.

At home, I will have new grandbabies this year, a new in-law joining the family, and adult children on the move in all directions. I feel the need to chase them down, as I did when they were toddlers racing to the toy section of the store. But now, they run faster than I can.

My only consolation is that my adult children with families also express their happiness at their babies’ milestones, then complain that their children are growing too fast.

I think every generation for thousands has endured the same joyful heartaches.

Children grow away

 

Try to smile, even if it looks scary

After spending a wonderful but fast week with my children and grandchildren in Washington DC, and getting home late last night after driving through snow and ice, and taking down all of Christmas this morning, and trying to wrap my head around the idea of returning to school tomorrow (who thought a two-day week after Christmas would be a good idea?!), and realizing that I’m very far behind in grading, but still trying to plaster a hopeful smile on this weary, weary face, this quote seems quite appropriate to begin the new year:

strained smile

I’ll do my best to face my students tomorrow with a “naturally pleasant face,” but it’s gonna be tough. I just checked the weather, hoping for a sudden snow day, but alas–the weather gods are against me. It’s going to be partly cloudy and 36 degrees. Curse you, decent weather!!!

IMG_6131.JPG

But being with all of them again (even though two sons, two daughter-in-laws, and a granddaughter are missing) is totally worth it. I’m a wife, mom, and grandma first, and always.

Get Book 2, Soldier at the Door, here.

No, your teen isn’t the only one . . .

If you’ve ever dealt with early teens, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Nothing is more worrying than a thirteen-year-old wanting to help in the kitchen or the garage (except trying to teach a sixteen-year-old to drive a car).

They want to use knives, or Kitchenaide mixers, or power tools, or axes, and you smile encouragingly but subtly reach for the box of bandaids, hoping you won’t have to call 911.

Even Perrin Shin was once a gangly, floppy creature. That should give us all hope for our youth. Nearly all of them outgrow it.

Nearly.

p handsome clumsy boy

Get the prequel The Walls in the Middle of Idumea here!

All boys have some brain damage or they’re not real boys. (or “You’re not going to believe what happened . . .”)

I have five sons, ages 7-25. All of them have some brain damage, and it happens something like this:

“Anyway, the little guy came barreling in there, and just as I stepped out, he turned and smacked right into my sword! Clanked his head, I’m sorry to report, but all little boys have to have some amount of brain damage, otherwise they aren’t real boys. And that’s how I met him.” ~The Walls in the Middle of Idumea, coming summer 2019

It starts when they’re babies and they roll into walls. On purpose. Again and again.

Then as toddlers they run into corners of tables, couches, and the walls, again. Sometimes on purpose, just to see if it will cause as much pain as before; sometimes on accident, because they’re actually running for the couch and somehow the wall got in the way.

As gradeschoolers, the brain damage occurs in too many ways to count, but here’s a short list:

  • bike crashes,
  • skateboard crashes,
  • walking crashes (they literally crash their foreheads into the driveway, and there was nothing around them to cause it, not even another brother),
  • tag-you’re-it crashes,
  • riding in a wheeled garbage can crashes (I refused to go help with that one, but got a hose instead),
  • let-me-hit-you-with-this-wheelbarrow crashes.

You get the idea.

When they’re high schoolers, brain damage occurs in more dramatic if not bizarre ways, such as falling out of 60 foot-high pine trees, or getting tossed out of a wheelchair a week after foot surgery when a friend (a teenage boy, of course) decides to entertain his temporarily invalid friend by taking him “four-wheeling” through the fields behind the house. (Fortunately the wheelchair suffered more damage than my son did. He moved to crutches sooner than he had planned.)

Then there are the real dangers: cars, boats, four-wheelers, motorcycles, walking down the street (STILL they trip over themselves and get road-rash in the oddest of ways).

And now after teaching high school for two years, I believe this even more:

Walls meme brain damag boys

I love boys, little and big, my sons and others’ sons. Their daring makes them courageous, powerful, and hilarious. My three adult sons seem to be managing all right, despite their earlier mishaps. Or maybe, because of them.

They see that they recover from their exploits, learn something useful along the way, and now have an awesome story to share.

So I cringe every time a son or a student begins a sentence with a sheepish expression and the words, “You’re not going to believe what happened . . .”

Because actually, I will.

I know it’s scary; do it anyway.

This is my mantra, because I am a coward, always have been.

Yet I recently found myself sitting in Logan Airport in Boston, MA and realized I’d gotten there all by myself which, just a few years ago, would have been impossible.

I’m scared of traveling because too many things can go wrong.

I hate new things in general, like moving to new cities because I don’t know where the grocery store is, I don’t know how to set up my house, and my kids have no friends. And new states? Oh, even worse!

I dread starting new jobs because I worry my ineptitude will disappoint others.

All I’ve ever wanted is to hide in a corner and live a small, quiet life. I wanted to get married, get a house, and never go anywhere again.

To recall an old metaphor, I’m a ship most comfortable in the harbor.

Which is exactly why God shoves me out, wailing and flailing, because nothing ever happens where it’s safe.

I did get married over thirty years ago, and did get a house, and then another one, and another one, and another one . . . all together we’ve moved 15+ times (three times in eleven months’ time in 2017-2018). With every moved I clenched my muscles for months until I had boxes unpacked and figured out the new grocery stores. Understanding the new city or state could take years and I never feel completely at “home.”

We’ve also traveled all over the country, with up to eight children in tow, often camping and even flying, which means I’m constantly counting heads and bags. I once had a panic attack before taking off in a plane, and only because my husband was petting my back like a cat did I not leap to my feet and cry out, “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” (Since that was shortly after 9/11, the incident would have likely banned me from flying.)

But I’m different now.

My anxiety is greatly diminished, my fears held in check, my confidence stronger.

Medication? Nope.
Therapy? Not really.
Living in that secure corner of the basement? Not always.

So what changed?

Just over two years ago, my husband who was working in Maine told me I needed to visit him and realize this was where we were moving to. I hadn’t flown since that panic attack years ago, and had never alone. I was so terrified that I asked some people in my neighborhood to pray with me and for me. I drove in a blizzard to the Salt Lake City airport at 5 am chanting calming ditties like, “I won’t die, I won’t die, please don’t let me die.”

And I didn’t die. I made it.

And I flew again home four days later.

But everything I worried about going wrong did: my flight out of Bangor was cancelled because of mechanical issues so I had to wait 12 hours for another plane.

Then that flight got delayed because of snow, and in Philadelphia my plane was overbooked so I volunteered to wait for another flight taking off hours later. (My itinerary was shot to heck by then anyway.) That flight went to Texas and got in late which meant I was running full tilt in Dallas/Ft. Worth trying to find my connection. My new mantra was, “Crap, I’m lost! Crap, I’m lost! Crap, I’m lost!”

But I got to my plane with a whole three minutes to spare. When I finally landed in Salt Lake City—and in more snow—it was 2 am and I was so exhausted that I stopped halfway home and pulled over in a dark road to sleep in a freezing car for an hour, all by myself.

I reached home about 26 hours later than originally planned. But I survived and netted $500 from the airline for giving up my seat. I felt strangely triumphant.

I had realized that I could face problems and actually work through them. This little ship that I am (ok, rather a tubby tug boat) made it through the storm, rather late and very tired, but successfully.

That’s when I began to notice the change: I don’t need to fear and worry during stressful situations—I need to work through and overcome them.

Running away from scary situations doesn’t work.
Running through them does.

And then we moved to Maine—our third cross-country move. The first two long-distance moves were incredibly difficult, made worse by traveling with newborns, but I learned what worked and didn’t work. In fact, this third move driving for six days was, dare I say it—enjoyable? (The youngest child was six, which made everything much easier.)

I was glad that I hadn’t avoided those earlier scarier moves. I didn’t stubbornly stay in the harbor and declare, “I’m not going!” I confess I shed tears about leaving—in the past and this most recent move—and I needed friends’ and family’s help to get going. But we eventually succeeded.

And then in 2017 I took on a new job—teaching high school.

For the first three months I kept thinking, “It’s too hard, I’m too incompetent, every day is a new surprise. My gut is in constant knots, my tachycardiac heart is at 120 bpm every day, and I’m exhausted by 7 pm, but I still have lesson plans to write. It’s going to break me.”
Then I decided, “I’ll quit over Christmas vacation—they’ll have time to find a replacement.”
Then, “I’ll quit at the semester break in January.”
Then, “I’ll quit at February break.”
Then, “I’ll quit at April break . . . Wait, the school year’s over in less than two months . . . Can I actually finish?”

I did finish. And I didn’t break.

In fact, I didn’t even flinch when they asked if I wanted to come back for the next year. I’d already been planning how to rearrange my classroom and redo lesson plans.

I didn’t run away from the stress; I ran through it.

I didn’t stay safe in the harbor; I headed out into rough seas and am surviving and even occasionally enjoying myself. (And yes, I’ve been out on a lobster boat–twice–so I’m practically an expert on the ocean, thank you very much.)

Earlier this week I headed out alone again: drove two hours, then took a bus for four hours, then flew from Boston to Philadelphia to Roanoke, VA to visit my daughter and her family.

I didn’t even start stressing about the trip until two days earlier, and even then the stress was minimal, as in, “I need to do laundry and get my husband a freezer full of meals . . . nah, he can just take the kids to McDonald’s.”

I’m still a coward, but I do what scares me anyway. I think of the scripture where God declares that He will “give unto men weakness that they may be humble . . . if they humble themselves before me . . . then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

I’ve been very weak, and God’s making me stronger.
But what if I ran away from every challenge? What if I quit too soon?
Then I’d still be a terrified, paralyzed nothing in the corner basement of my first house.

But now it’s been five states, half a dozen houses, thousands of adventures—and none of that would have happened had I stubbornly stayed in that safe harbor.
I’m still scared of the rough oceans but now I’ve also learned to enjoy them.

And I haven’t drowned yet.

And neither will you.

scary do it anyway