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Verso L’Alto and Slippery Slopes

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We went on a hike to celebrate an accomplishment. It was a hike unlike any other.

The climb was a bit steeper than we expected.  

We decided to never look back. We kept our eyes fixed ahead and above.  

We paused for a few brief moments to catch our breath. When we did, we lingered and contemplated the glorious view that surrounded us.

We stayed in the moment—it was easy to do. 

We were tested, but we laughed.

We started to sweat, but we relished the magical autumn breeze.

We kicked up dirt, listened to silence.

We made memories, and we reminisced.

We stopped to smell the flowers.

We leaned on other another; we may have shed a tear.

Legs burning, skin glistening, huffing, and puffing enduring the rocky terrain, we arrived at the top — an unknown destination.

Love endures everything, love is stronger than death, love fears nothing.

St. Faustina 

“Love endures everything, love is stronger than death, love fears nothing.” -St. Faustina 

We paused to acknowledge how high we climbed, how far we have come on this rugged terrain.

We summoned and flexed muscles unknown to us and learned we are better for having traveled this unfamiliar path. 

We thanked God for arriving at this moment; His Divine Mercy never ends.

Verso l’alto. 

It felt right to mark this moment for conquering the unknown. 

Once at the top, we raised an Alleluia.

As we cautiously navigated down the steep incline, we found ourselves lost in time and discovered it was okay to lament and still know joy. 

We were reminded of our love and laughter on this journey. 

Your journey in this world is the trip of your sanctity.

St Charbel

“Your journey in this world is the trip of your sanctity.” – St Charbel.

I wrote these words on the last day of Jon’s radiation treatment after we went on a hike to celebrate. I shared them here.

They were to mark a moment, rejoice in an accomplishment and dug deep to move to higher ground.

We could have done many things, but getting out and moving to lift our hearts felt like the best way to celebrate. 

Getting out and moving toward higher ground felt like an achievement to match and celebrate the journey we had been walking until that point.

Verso l’alto.

The day was beautiful. It was worth celebrating our 6-week daily dates of driving back and forth to the city, finishing radiation, and healing from surgery over the weeks leading up to that day.

Keep moving, we have been told. It will help with fatigue, side effects, and maybe it helps to sort out things—with each other, with what’s in our hearts, and with God.

Over the years, I’ve learned that my need to get outside in nature for regular walks is a slight compulsion to reset my mind and heart. Ask my kids how frustrating it is for me when I don’t get to breathe in the fresh air, to release all that is pent up inside. 

During Jon’s hospital stay, I couldn’t get in my daily outdoor walks for apparent reasons. I quickly discovered an alternative by accident, perhaps out of sheer need.

While waiting in an insanely slow, long elevator line, I learned it was best to take the stairs. Thank you, social distancing. I made friends with the stairs—climbing the stairs was my move to reach the heights.

Sometimes the pain from climbing was my redemptive suffering.

Sometimes it felt like my penance.

Sometimes it’s where I worked it out with God and recited a few Hail Marys as I climbed the stairs.

The more stairs I climbed, the stronger I felt arriving at Jon’s bedside. 

Verso l’alto. 

We managed to walk almost every day on treatment days, but it felt like we needed to move a bit higher to see it all from a much better perspective.  

The higher we go, the better we shall hear the voice of Christ.

Bl Pier Giorgio Frassati.

“The higher we go, the better we shall hear the voice of Christ.” Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati.

Last week, we took a moment to celebrate another milestone with a cake (I write about another cake here) tasting of grief iced with a layer of sweet hope. But, there was no cake—just a metaphor. To the heights we go to celebrate.

Verso l’alto

We realize celebrating may come across as an interesting word to mark this moment— we arrived a six months since an emergency surgery and a diagnosis on a journey marked by brain cancer.  

But 6 months ago, I know for sure the summation of days upon days, weeks upon weeks, is truly a gift when we speak of a journey like this. 

Without being dramatic, we want time on our side.

You see why it’s a worthy cause to mark these moments.

Last week we felt moved to stretch those muscles on a familiar steep path once again with a new set of eyes, called healing and time. 

We returned to hike the hill, where we found ourselves rejoicing when the first part of the treatment was over. Our clever and courageous journey, Jon’s 6-weeks of treatment were over and we were good, just as our dear priest announced to the church (and a message directed to my heart) after 6 weeks, “all would be good.”

He was right, we are good.

The visit to this brittle landscape in this season was quite different than the first trek we made back in the fall.

As we approached the first steep hill, we saw other hikers with muddy feet, and noticed a few puddles.  

We were unaware of the overnight rainfall. 

Forced to walk along the edges, in the dried, lifeless grass still standing tall, we had to walk more cautiously, guiding one another to not slip in the mud with the footprints from other hikers. 

I am not sure who was leading who more. “I wish I wore my hiking boots to protect my terrible ankle from turning,” I bellyached a few times.

As time passed we discovered the terrain was becoming harder to gain traction up the hill. But we kept going. It was either up or down. 

The walk was more precarious than our last celebratory hike.  In unison we laughed and muttered, “hiking shoes.” Yes we needed hiking shoes and perhaps a walking stick to give us better traction in the muddy, slippery conditions. 

But how could we have known? We had not encountered this before now.

I wonder, in truth, are we ever really prepared for all the things we encounter? What shoes or walking stick could help us on on this other journey (living with brain cancer)? 

The air temperature was comfortable with a slight chill enough to keep us from sweating, like on the last trip where we literally got lost in time and the cornfield.  

Getting lost from the world was a needed refuge to pay homage to the cross we carried and the playful, spontaneous spirits that needed to be found. We may have had to call the kids to guide us back to our car. Who was tracking who?

Over these months, we spend a lot of time taking walks, especially where we can accumulate steps up a steep hill. 

Sometimes life and our never ending challenges are a steep incline we don’t get to choose.

Verso l’alto

This hill felt harder than others we have walked, maybe because the recents rain created more slippery conditions or perhaps because time was catching up with us and wearing on our soles/souls. 

We debated not going up the incline, but we really didn’t want to let fear and doubt win. I was worried because I don’t need an excuse to fall. Surely it would land me on my rump breaking an aging and weary bone thanks to my ever weak ankles that often crumble during times of stress.

Like when Sophia was about to have her first cochlear implant surgery, I hobbled through the stores preparing for Christmas, and then as I pushed her in a wheelchair to the car after her surgery in 2016. 

I was in excruciating pain in my foot and made worse with the pain in my aching momma heart. 

I finally put on a boot to ease the pain in my foot. Only to find out about 10 days later, I had ruptured two ligaments in my driving foot, no less. 

Thankfully after my girl recovered from her surgery, there was a sliver of hope for this busy mom. While training her hearing and schooling at home, I sat in the passenger seat for months, healing my foot and teaching our new young excited driver. 

I couldn’t ask for a more perfect alignment of timing in the details. God is always a crafty Waymaker like that.

That way-making continues to amaze me in this journey. Those stories will be forever woven within us. It’s why we keep looking up.

It’s why we continue toward the heights, Verso l’alto.

We continued walking on the outside of the mud, creating a hilarious dialogue between Jon and me. Years and years of hilarious dialogue continues to surface even in this difficult time. God gave me the best one—a marriage made unbelievably strong in all of our sufferings and because we work to stay focused with our eyes fixed above.

Let’s not pretend I don’t see the precarious situation we find ourselves in, but I don’t stand in the mud and allow it to pull me down. Though I may have said, “Hey, let’s roll down the hill in the mud!”

We navigated that muddy trail on its outskirts, crunching in the dried grasses below our feet. It occurred to me, if it was plush and green, we might find those itchy hitchhikers and pesky bugs stuck to our pants and legs. 

This view of winter let us hike from a slightly different perspective, albeit precarious and cold. 

It allowed us to walk in a space we never had before; we now have a different set of eyes. 

We finally got to the top with little damage, few splashes of mud, and a bit more time on the clock as our  hearts were woven tighter than evermore.

We stopped and looked around at the open vastness of it all. Realizing that, without the trees dressed in their lush green leaves, our ability to see further was made more clear. 

In unison, we both said, “Verso l’alto.”

Many times that week, I noted the beauty of the deadness of winter. It was striking standing looking out at the rolling hills in the silence of the cold winter day. 

It was a peaceful silence, like when snow falls ever so softly, you can hear ever snowflake land.  Whispers so soft we could hear the voice of God speaking into our hearts.

Verso l’alto.

Colette Ohotnicky writes a beautiful reflection on Verso L’alto in her article, Seeking the Face of God. “You see, my friends and fellow lovers, mountains hold a deep and surpassingly beautiful secret. The human explanation is partially correct. When we go up, we can see better. We not only can view what is on the other side, we are also closer to the heavens. We can maybe, up on the heights, get a glimpse of heaven. We can see the stunning beauty which, the more beautiful it is, the better it is a reflection of the God of Beauty. On the top of the mountains we can, perhaps, get a glimpse of the face of God.”

At that moment, we talked about how standing atop that hill allowed us a clear, magnificent view of a community of people—friends, loved ones, and above all—God. 

I imagined a sea of souls, a lifetime of relationships, holding up signs filled with messages of prayer, hope, love, and generous support cheering us on as we climbed that slippery slope.

Verso l’alto

After observing the breathtaking beauty in the nothingness surrounding us, we felt grateful for the far-reaching arms that wrapped themselves around us in the cold air; feeling the warmth of love from places in all corners of our lives. 

Our belly aching this time not for hiking shoes but because hunger pangs were real. Realizing where we were we decided to order dinner from a local favorite spot. We started to make our trek down. 

But before we did, we said a prayer to thank God for the abundance of grace, mercy, peace, love generosity and hope He has shown. 

And not gonna lie, we also thought about rolling down. 

We didn’t hang from trees (someone might have done that last time) nor roll down hills (we wanted to), but in the spirit of remembering people, 

We were reminded of a little kindergarten friend from a track team who once rolled down a hill. 

Jon said, “How much fun would “our little friend” (name left out for privacy) and I have rolling down this hill together?” 

Then we laughed while reminiscing about all the lives that touched ours during those years and how we’ll never forget when that awesome boy veered off from track practice to roll down the hill. 

I couldn’t help but think rather than reprimand him (like other coaches/teachers may have), Jon said, “hey “bud” next time you decide to roll down the hill during practice, you better ask me to join you!”  Jon is good like that.

That boy and his father still hold a special place in our hearts. We have stayed in touch over the years.

Tears fill our eyes how God has shown us so much love in the beauty of those around us.

Under the bleak and gray sky, I turned to Jon and said, “there is so much beauty in the death of winter.” 

It’s a beauty that goes unnoticed while the unseen stuff deep inside prepares for a birth. The earth is a lady in waiting, groaning in pain and discomfort. She is stretching in ways we don’t always see. Thank God, those stretch marks are hidden, but the reminder is always there for the work that has been done.

We started our descent, knowing full well, we got through some of the most challenging steps. And some of the hardest months. 

But this new path, even though  down hill seems easier, is more demanding (not unlike some unexpected challenges the last few weeks); we are a bit wearier, time catches up, as does shifting ones balance as we walk with trepidation.

I walked on the outside once again slowing down when necessary, allowing me to see the beauty of winter’s decay that lay below us. 

I was quite taken by the dried grasses that still had a purpose in giving us traction and protecting the spring preparing to emerge underneath. The harsh winter above the soil waits as the warm earth below prepares to birth something new and beautiful.

As I walked, my mind drifted, “God, what will you birth in us, for us out of this?” 

Rather than stay in that place too long, I continue to surrender. We continue with, “God knows, We trust.” 

Jon and I held on to one another, taking steps carefully, working on getting to the bottom without splashing too much mud on our backs.

I turned to my spontaneous and joyful fighter and said, “Race you down.” 

With a half-hearted smile, we nodded toward one another, holding on to each other’s arm. We join together to get to the finish line even if we can’t see it just yet.

We took off for the last small stretch to the bottom of the hill—laughing, embracing the moment as we let go of fear, running down with legs hurting and lungs panting through the last stretch of mud, and trusting each other and God to grab one another should we fall.

We got to the bottom and looked back up to see how far we have come, how much we endured. 

Yep, sometimes it’s better at the top. 

But getting to the end of that race has its own great rewards—like finding new life birthing through the winter soil— as does lifting our eyes and our hearts.

God knows, so we Trust. 

“As long as faith gives strength, I will always be joyful.”-Bl Pier Giorgio Frassati. 

“I think peace will be a long time coming. But our faith teaches us that we must always keep on hoping we shall enjoy it one day.”-Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati

Verso l’alto

To the heights. 

Lift up your hearts.


Thoughts on Verso l’alto…

“Verso l’alto, as a metaphor, is a descriptive symbol, emerging from the deep interiority of a saint, St. Pier Giorgio Frassati, to offer some orientation for those of us drawn to the mountains. Verso is an Italian preposition often translated as to or towards. It is not a verb concerning action, but instead a preposition concerning orientation. Alto is used as both an adjective meaning high, as well as a noun meaning height.  The latter, used by Frassati, is significant because it is not the word for a physical mountain summit, which is la cima. It is also interesting to note that Alto is used in the Liturgy, which may be the way that Frassati, a daily communicant, came to consider the notion. As the priest prepares for the Eucharist Prayer, he says to the congregation, “In alto, I nostri cuori” (literally to the heights, our hearts; in the English Missal translated as lift up your hearts). This beautiful moment in the Mass signifies that the true elevation of the human heart is about to take place in the summit of faith, the Eucharist.”  (https://creatio.org/verso-l-alto/)

This picture was taken not on the slippery slope, but after on another day to celebrate 6 months of continued healing for our favorite guy.

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