Notes for Spring

The Eastern Shore is not known for cherry trees or Pablo Neruda, but with his line, “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees,” watching, smelling, being outside in spring on the Shore, I think he was describing here as well. Blossoming, coming to life, opening into the fullness of what we can become.

Spring belongs to those who go out into it, who look for it.

Spring belongs to those who go on sea glass and treasure hunts on beaches at sunset.

Spring belongs to those who are mulching gardens and planting flowers.

Spring belongs to those who are paddleboarding in cold water, before it is sensible to be on the water.

When we were younger, spring belonged to the kid who got the nerve up to be the first to jump off the ferry dock on a warm day in April and re-open the river for the season.

Spring belongs to kids and coaches playing lacrosse and baseball on newly cut ball fields until the sun goes down.

Spring belongs to those who wake up camping on cool mornings.

Spring belongs to Jack Kerouac when he writes:

On soft Spring nights I’ll stand in the yard under
the stars
Something good will come out of all things yet
And it will be golden and eternal just like that
There’s no need to stay another word.

Spring belongs to those who walk outside on a clear, starry night in short sleeves and look up and wonder.

Spring belongs to William Wordsworth and his walks through the Lake District.

Spring belongs to those who plan epic trips for April birthdays.

Spring belongs to dogs running into rivers.

Spring belongs to those who look forward; those who get out and breathe in. Spring belongs to those who show up.

On Vocation: Five Golden Things

“It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure,” was an ad slogan the U.S. Navy used in the late 1970s and early 80s. It must be pretty good since it still sticks in my head. What if we could go through life like that? What if we felt that way about our jobs? Our lives?

Not all jobs feel that way. But for the life adventure attitude, we’ve got to dig deeper than just a job and look at vocation.

A man knows he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live, and begins to live. – Thomas Merton

I don’t claim to be in that space Merton describes, but I am getting closer, and I am getting a pretty good lay of the land for what that looks like. For our purposes here, let’s think of vocation as a hand; as the work we do in the world with our lives. Our hand, like most hands, has five fingers. The fingers are all part of the hand, and the hand is made up of the interconnecting fingers. You can’t separate them from each other, they are all part of the same thing/work/life/vocation.

Disclaimer: I am a work in progress and things change and evolve over time. In describing these things, I am putting words towards things I have found in life to this point to be the things that seem to make up aspects of vocation/calling. Check back frequently.

1. Fatherhood. This is the one role in life I am least prepared for, it takes improvisation, winging it, frustration, questions, blood, sweat, and tears. And it’s the role that means the most, rewards the most, defines the most. Nothing else I do, or could ever do, compares to it.

2. Writing/Reading/Learning. This has been a part of me, a defining part for 30 years or more and counting. From the notebook in my back pocket, to grabbing a book with coffee in the morning, it is a part of me that never turns off. For the past six months, Tidewater Times has been a great outlet for me to write about everything from nature to history to incredible people and cool goings-on in our community. I hope to make this more and more a part of my life over time.

3. Being outside. I feel most alive outside, in nature. I can be running (preferably trails), walking the dog, hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking, bird watching, skateboarding, but being outside is where my soul feels both most alive and most at peace. Recognizing that and making sure to recharge that way and make the time for it is a daily practice.

4. Building/connecting community. It’s not a coincidence that when I was at a major crossroads in life and career, it was the Oxford Community Center that needed a director. When I think about my family being in the area since the 1600s; the evolution and changes in the town and the community; the players and personalities that have helped shape this place in the past and during my lifetime, it seems like a place I am supposed to be, involved in work that I am supposed to be a part of. I can look around and see and feel a connection to the town and the Eastern Shore in ways I have never seen or felt anywhere else. I’ll just leave it at that for now.

5. Spirituality. I saved this for last for a reason. This is where the change has been taking place and the reason for my reflection on vocation and for this post. I have been a lifelong spiritual seeker. My path has taken me in wonderful, rich, and unexpected directions at just about every step of the way. Over the past year and a half especially, that direction has revealed itself more through a deepening relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the love that flows through the Trinity, through our hearts (my heart), and into the world. I’ve never felt anything like it, and how could I have?

It’s when I have let go and allowed God to work that I have felt most free, most driven, and the most connected. On an October Friday, I put a gameplan out into the Universe, which I have no other way to describe then that I just knew those things were what I was supposed to be doing. The three parts of the plan are: 1) writing/sharing, 2) learning and studying, and 3) helping to create a community of Christian small group study. That Sunday, Father Bill Ortt stood in front of the Christ Church Easton congregation and said that they were looking for someone to lead small groups. He said you don’t need any experience, he had more than 30 years worth and that he would look to help train/mentor the right person.

That began a conversation that has helped reveal a calling (of sorts) and that has turned into a part-time job as Assistant for Small Groups and Christian Education with Christ Church Easton.

Vocation is the big picture. It is doing the work that you feel called, charged, fulfilled to do. It isn’t necessarily connected to a job, but it can be, and when it is, then you know you are doing the work you should be doing.

As God has revealed life and vocation to me, and helped me see what those things are that charge me and that I can give back, I have Frederick Buechner’s words in my head a good bit, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I don’t know about the world, so I’ll start with myself, my family, our community. And we’ll see where it goes.

Stop, Look, Listen, Believe

“Perhaps it is time to look and listen without seeing and hearing.” This has been a common theme in Father Bill Ortt’s last two sermons. It’s a message I connect with; one that resonates. The idea is to look with fresh eyes and listen with new ears, to shut off what we expect to see or hear, and really take things in. Flaubert gets it:

I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony. – Gustave Flaubert, November

But this isn’t a specialization, it’s not exclusive. Looking and listening are things any of us can do. But it is so easy not to. We are in a hurry to get to work. To get our Christmas shopping done. To get to the next meeting. To check off our to do lists. And we know people, we know what they are going to say. We have heard stories or we know their soapboxes. What can we learn?

Flaubert’s quote above is about making the time. It’s about being quiet. Looking and listening without expectation. Being alive to what is really there in front of us.

In many ways, those are the only times we are open to God–when we turn off our small minds and wants and open ourselves up to what is real and what is now.

The other morning I walked the dog along the shoreline. I could feel the cold in my bones. I dropped into a catcher’s crouch to pray at the edge of the river and took a few deep breaths. I can still feel that moment, those breaths, and the creak of my knees.

When we got back home, I picked up Mary Oliver’s “American Primitive” and read “Morning at Great Pond” for the first time.

It starts like this:
forks of light
slicking up
out of the east,
flying over you,
and what’s left of night–
its black waterfalls,
its craven doubt–
dissolves like gravel
as the sun appears
trailing clouds
of pink and green wool,
igniting the fields
turning the ponds
to plates of fire.

I know those mornings. I’ve felt them when running; I’ve seen the sun paint away the night. Great Blue Herons, ducks, geese, songbirds in motion. Looking and listening in the morning, but it opens up to more:

and you’re healed then
from the night, your heart
wants more, you’re ready
to rise and look!
to hurry anywhere!
to believe in everything.

Mary Oliver is clearly a morning person. So am I. That’s when my energy runs deepest. But looking and listening isn’t limited to the sunrise hours. God’s paintbrush reaches the west as well. In the evening, it’s just as easy to look, listen, and believe.

“Start Your Life Afresh”

A blind girl sees for the first time after getting her sight from cataract surgery. Annie Dillard describes the girl’s experience visiting a garden:

“She is greatly astonished and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it,  and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.'”

I don’t know how many times I have gone back to Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” but I’d forgotten that passage until coming across it again, afresh, while reading John Eldredge. I love the description of “the tree with the lights in it.”

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. In his sermon this morning. Father Scott Albergate invited us to look at Advent as a time to “pause and seek a fresh start in your life.” He described Advent as having a couple points, which resonated with me: 1) to live in hope, and 2) to live with a sense of a call to action and a purpose.

This has been a year of a lot of reflection for me, of trying to figure things, life out (nothing new there). It’s been a year where I have felt God and Christ in my life in ways I haven’t before, and I have tried to get out of the way, to surrender to these rolling waves that come over me, which I don’t have words to describe. They come in prayer, on walks, while running, while writing, raking leaves. All I can do is ride them as best I can.

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Advent is new for me in that way. I’ve been through 40-some Advent seasons, and yet T.S. Eliot could have been using my eyes to say:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It’s not coincidence that I’ve written about Dillard and Eliot before, quoting some of the same passages, but now they circle back via Eldredge or others, and they are new, changed, even though the words are the same. I read them differently.

These waves of faith and feeling and newness aren’t constant. I misstep, get turned around, make mistakes on a regular and frequent basis. Life is still confusing and I still struggle.

But I hear Father Scott invite us to look back at “where we see God’s movement in our lives in the past year,” and I know He is at work in new ways; starting things this year that haven’t been there in the past.

There are times when I feel beat down by life. And there are times when I feel like the tree with the lights in it.

Light. Having new eyes, seeing things differently. Starting life afresh is choosing to be awake to what is going on around us; choosing to be awake to God at work around us and through us.

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I was pulled into this photograph today, and the photography of Pete Muller more broadly afterwards. There is something about the landscape, the river, the boys tending their cows, a beauty in the present moment. It takes me around the world to Kenya, a place I have never been, and connects me through the human experience, nature, caring for animals (it is Muller walking his dog that puts him there). I can’t say for sure why, but the scene gives me a deep sense of peace; if a scene can smile, this one does for me.

Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty–”

 

Hopkins, Eliot, Dillard, each are awake to everything around them, each moment.

Advent is a time to pause and reflect and a call to action. It is both a looking forward with hope, and a being awake to life and what God is doing right now. Part of our job, going back to Father Scott’s sermon, is “to usher in the realm of God in the present moment.”

Amen.

Off-Road Spirituality: Finding a Compass

Sometimes I feel like I need a guide. Someone who’s been there, walked it, looked around, and can report back. I think we all get there. I don’t want someone to walk for me–I want to take it all in, experience it, know it for myself, but someone pointing a finger in the right direction, throwing a knowing smile that I’m on the right track can be huge. Those people pop up in our lives, sometimes in the form of actual people we meet or know, sometimes through books they’ve written or the story of their lives, which can be an example. John Muir is someone I come back to a good bit.

The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love. – John Muir

Muir understood the correlation between our interior lives, what is inside us, and the natural world. That is key for any spirituality for me. And though Muir made that connection eloquently, beautifully, and all the more so because he lived it, his life’s work was getting that point across to people, finding the Divine in nature, finding the Divine in us, and connecting them, encouraging folks to get outside, this was not a new concept.

I think there is a misconception that Christianity happens in a church, is all about “thou shalt not” and is generally boring. For those that would knock it, it seems more about keeping people in line, a blinding form of mind control. And there is some validity to those criticisms, when you look at some of the fundamentalism and the parts of what it is to be a Christian that some churches decide to focus on. Those churches aren’t focusing on what Christ did with his life, how he lived, what he taught, or how he encouraged us to be. There is so much more to it, to Him, if we just take the time to find out for ourselves.

It’s the Christian mystics who light me up, who seem to come the closest to communicating what Jesus taught and lived. They are interested in experiencing God’s love, following Jesus, living out his teaching, not simply sitting passively, or being talked to, or taught.

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If we move our idea of wilderness into metaphor for a minute, it’s a wide world out there, and we are all wandering, looking for something. Spirituality is maybe that notion of trying to find the right path, trying to make our way through the wilderness to get somewhere. No one walks it for us, but we could use some help.

Finding Christ, in the deep and mystical sense, the experiential sense, Jesus as the coming together of the Divine and the world, is finding our compass, the way to point us and show us the way to get where we are trying to go. The even better part of finding our compass, on our walk, is that it’s not just about the destination (it never is), it’s reassurance, it’s guidance on our walk, in a way that makes each step that much better, that much more loving, that allows us to fully be in those moments.

I’ve been getting a double dose of Richard Rohr this week, reading his book “From Wild Man to Wise Man,” and really drinking in his daily meditations, which this week have been focused on the “Cosmic Christ.” Rohr talks about the Eternal Christ, as part of the Trinity, who goes back to the beginning with God, as well as His becoming human to show us, teach us, give us an example of how to live, how to love, how to navigate the wilderness of our lives. Rohr points out St. Francis of Assissi, the Desert Fathers, and others, who got it and lived their lives knowing:

Jesus is the union of human and divine in space and time, and the Christ is the eternal union of matter and Spirit from the beginning of time. When we believe in Jesus Christ, we’re believing in something much bigger than just the historical incarnation we call Jesus. Jesus is just the visible map. The entire sweep of the meaning of the Anointed One, the Christ, includes us and includes all of creation since the beginning of time. Revelation was geological, physical, and nature-based before it was ever personal and fully relational (see Romans 1:20).

As someone who thinks deeply, who (on a good day) meditates and prays on things, who tries to open myself, I find Christ to be the way to go deeper to a real understanding of things; the way to embrace life and love and recognize God in all things. And not in a way that dismisses cosmology, or science, or logic, but in a way that picks up where those things leave off, where they end in paradox. Because the mind stops short. The trail ends and we have to look for a new way to continue. That way is the heart.

The compass that we are given is the Trinity–it’s in each of us, as the Holy Spirit, flowing through our hearts. Our compass is our heart and life lived with and from the heart.

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It’s opening ourselves up to a new, deeper way of knowing. It’s finding our spiritual compass, built into our heart, that can guide us in our walk. It’s recognizing, heeding, and living our lives from the heart.

“Awakening to New Wonder”

God is bigger than church. Church isn’t the only place you’ll find Him. For a long stretch, church was one of the last places I looked. Nothing against it, but I felt like I connected with God better in nature than in a building.

I still talk to God more outside than I do inside. My most prayerful places are by the water. I treasure those times and those places. Yesterday, Harper and I took our dog walkabout to Wye Island, a place where I have run close to 30 miles at once, have run at night, have lost keys, hiked, reflected, prayed. Our walk didn’t disappoint, following trails, sitting, listening, reading and praying by the river; and Harper would have liked to have chased down her first buck, though I’m not sure what she’d have done with it if I had let her go.

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I’m a slow learner, and have never been one to take anyone’s word for anything. I have to find things out for myself, experientially, even though it frequently means falling on my face and dusting myself off, eventually coming to the same realization that was suggested at the beginning.

If we only look for God in church, we are selling ourselves, and Him, way short. But I realized I was selling myself, and Him, short by choosing to only look for Him outside a church. And part of what that comes down to is misconceiving “church,” as being just a building, or a set of beliefs. And not seeing it as a people, coming together to worship, quite literally to be the body of Christ, alive in the world. I like the way Richard Rohr looks at the Trinity:

God for us, we call you “Father.”
God alongside us, we call you “Jesus.”
God within us, we call you, “Holy Spirit.”
Together, you are the Eternal Mystery
That enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things,
Even us, and even me.

It’s that understanding, of having God alongside us, and working through other people, and finding that, feeling it, knowing it much deeper when I started to find other people walking their own walk, struggling with their own questions, coming together to worship and to pray and to help one another. Finding church.

Yesterday sitting along the Wye River and this morning in church, I felt grateful; an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Thomas Merton explained what I felt better than I can explain it:

To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything… Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise the goodness of God. – Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”

I’m a work in progress. That’s all I will ever be, trying to put one foot in front of another along the path and not be distracted chasing every other SQUIRREL! life throws at me. But gratitude and prayer are pretty good at helping sustain and focus me when I pay attention.

This morning’s sermon was about praying. Can I pray? Can I pray always? Can I pray proactively? Can I be persistent, not just praying when I am troubled, but also when and because I am grateful. The sermon closed with a prayer from Archbishop Desmond Tutu (which he adapted from Sir Francis Drake), which I felt in my bones:

desmond-tutu

Disturb us, O Lord

when we are too well pleased with ourselves
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,
because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord

when with the abundance of things we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the abundance of life
when, having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build a new earth
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord

to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas
where storms show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes
and invited the brave to follow.

Amen.

Last Child on the River

We floated homemade skimboards across a chest-high channel into Boone Creek. That was the entrance to our after school and weekend reality. Park on the side of the lane and rescue the stashed boards from the brush, then spend the hours through sunset cruising atop what seemed an endless perfect sheet of water–water being the upside to growing up on the Eastern Shore.

The thing that takes me back there most quickly is watching the girls experience all the same things I loved.

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Seeing them on the water, exploring beaches, hunting for minnows, crabs, shells, sea glass, and found treasure. There is a simplicity that seems universal.

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The built world fades away.

We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist. – Richard Louv, “Last Child in the Woods.”

These are the experiences I never want to stop having with the girls–when they are outside with friends, family, other kids, adults, lost in time and fun on a beach, on a river, or in the woods.

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The pictures here speak louder and more clearly than my words, which is as it should be. It’s a visual and tactile world. It’s a world we found as kids, discovered as if we were the first to come across it.

Prize the natural spaces and shorelines most of all. because once they’re gone, with rare exceptions, they’re gone forever. In our bones we need the natural curves of hills, the scent of chapparal, the whisper of pines, the possibility of wildness. We require these patches of nature for our mental health and our spiritual resilience. – Richard Louv

There is something to being outside on the water. There is something to watching the girls discover it with their friends, and seeing it become a part of who they are.

But in the end, and to the girls’ laughter,  those experiences just as easily beg the question of who is the child on the river?

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Wonder and Wildness

Jesus was not a city slicker. Sure, he hung out and preached in towns, but when it all got to be too much, or he had stuff to work out, or just needed a break, he went for wilderness. Wilderness, both literal and figurative, was his place of transformation, of discernment, of revelation.

Over the course of my reading life, anytime I have found my peeps, ancestors to whatever aesthetic, experiential, existential tribe I belong to, it’s been the folks who hit the wilderness. Whitman, Thoreau, and the American Transcendentalists; John Muir, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder; and the British Romanticism crew. When I read Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and company, it almost felt like Superman ditching his tie and collared shirt. Wordsworth in particular, had come to grips and written about his soul’s need to go to nature and finding his way:

The earth is all before me: with a heart
Joyous, nor scared of its own liberty,
I look about, and should the guide I choose
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again:
Trances of thought and mountings of the mind
Come fast upon me.

Wordsworth Prelude

Wordsworth’s “Prelude” is getting back to nature. The importance and role of nature in the unfolding of our souls and minds, as individuals, was a spark for the Romantics.

One of the things about wilderness, is that it can inspire us, and reconnect us to our own wildness. I could feel that the first times I went trail running. Nothing felt so freeing as running through the woods, the mountains, in tune, in touch, heart pounding and smiling from the soul.

Delaware Trail Marathon 2008

The times I feel most lost, most disconnected, are when I realize I have lost touch with that part of myself. Going outside, way outside, helps. But it’s not the only way. I have to remember to bring something from those times back with me; to ignite that spark; turn it to flame; and keep it burning through the work week; through daily life. Not to lose touch with it.

It often seems like we live in a world where we get points for being tamed. From schools, to cubicles, the better you sit still, assimilate, regurgitate, and fill out your TPS reports, the further along you are.

Yeah… no. That’s never been my path. And anytime I’ve seemed to start down it, God has seemed to redirect and remind me… wake up, look around, is this what you want? There is so much more.

There are daily reminders in town. There is a fox who lives in our neighborhood, whose gait and speed, and coat make me smile and wake me up a bit. Paddleboarding or kayaking. The sublimity of a sunrise. The power of a storm rolling in on the water. The vastness of the stars on a clear night.

At the same time we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. – Henry David Thoreau

We lose our wildness at our own risk. We lose it in as much as we are happy to be tamed. That doesn’t make me happy.

Sparking our sense of wonder. Rekindling our wildness. Every time I do those things, God seems to show me more–about life, the world, myself.

* Featured image from Space Attraction.

Of Herons and Intentions

Herons are personal for me. It’s not easy to explain, but they are somehow a connection, a link to nature and the broader Universe. Mary Oliver calls a Great Blue Heron a “blue preacher.” If you’ve ever watched one–methodical, thoughtful, graceful, you can see why.

My connection to Great Blue Herons deepened when I was training for my first marathon. I could be struggling on a long, low energy run, see one sitting on Papermill Pond or some cove, and instantly feel energized, recharged. It happened often enough to be weird (in a cool way). It would make me smile as I pushed on. A heron run was a good run. And that still happens.

Great Blue Herons are flighty. They take off as soon as you get close to them. Their take offs and landings are so awkward and take enough time and effort that it makes sense for self-preservation why they would be quick to bolt. Lately my interest has been equally on watching the more versatile, cagey, and dexterous Green Herons–there is a rookery on Town Creek in Oxford and they are everywhere. On a lazy evening paddle, we watched one scamper along rip rap in step with us, looking for something to eat. I’ve been thinking about a Green Heron tattoo to keep my Great Blue company.

2016 GB and Green Heron

Peter Matthiessen traveled five continents searching for 15 species of cranes. His adventures are chronicled in the book, “The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes.” I’m not as ambitious as Petey, nor do I have the time or budget to spread such a wide net. But I dig the notion as a model.

Sometimes I find putting my intentions out there makes me more accountable and more likely to make them happen. I’m making my scope regional–whether Eastern Shore, or Maryland, or Mid-Atlantic, we’ll have to see how it comes together. There will be road tripping involved. The goal is to find and see as many types of herons as can be found in the area. Word went out yesterday morning that a Tricolored Heron had been spotted in Grasonville. That’s the kind of occurrence to take note of.

tri colored heron

I’m not a biologist, nor am I looking to make a documentary. I’m going to try for a more creative approach to whatever writing comes out of this, and take a carpe the diem, fun, road trip, and enjoy nature approach to looking for them.

We have a finite amount of time spinning around on the globe here. That’s a perfect reason for going after things that move us, connect us, ground us, inspire us. It’s time for me to expand on what it means to have or make a heron run.