Fireweed

The first weekend I lived in Alaska, two weeks freshly wed, Derek and I drove up the Steese Highway in Fairbanks. It’s an incredibly scenic drive and we lost phone service almost immediately, a perfect recipe for quality time.

As we drove I noticed a pink flower on the side of the highway, and I remarked at how beautiful I thought it was.

“That’s fireweed,” he told me, his eyes fixed on the winding road ahead. “They call it that because it’s the first thing to bloom after a forest fire.”

I never knew until moving here that Alaska had a forest fire issue, but lightning strikes, hot summer air, and abundant wilderness make for quite a few forest fires in the summer.

I looked at the fireweed, a stark contrast with the overwhelming green on the Steese, and it struck me what a grace it is that God made something so beautiful to be the first thing to come from a fire. The fireweed was a little phoenix rising from the ashes.Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

This morning, two years after that drive up the Steese, I was talking with some friends about God’s faithfulness, and how refining trials can be. I think difficult and painful seasons of life always bring with them their own fireweed. They bring lessons, truth, wisdom, and grace. The caveat is we have to be attentive–and patient. Maybe sometimes that fireweed isn’t visible for years, or even until eternity. (This is not to say trials or pain are easy, either. They are difficult and hard, and I don’t want to be dismissive of that. Sometimes answers are few and tears are many. But I am a person who tends to dwell on the negative, and I want to be more focused on the graces and lessons of trials, and fireweed helps me to do that.)

Whenever I see the fireweed, and it is everywhere in Alaska in the summer, I try to remember that grace. The grace that something beautiful and bright comes from ashes of a forest fire, and in the same way God is in the business of bringing truths that are beautiful and bright to our lives in the midst of trial and pain.

Eyes Up

    My school year ended almost three weeks ago, and since school has concluded I have had much more time to run instead of squeezing in a short run while feeling exhausted from a full day of work. I was sad to see the school year end, but I am very much enjoying having a bit more time to myself.

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   With more running time comes more thinking time. I have the tendency to get words or phrases stuck in my head, particularly on runs. (Usually it’s a line from poetry, because I am me.) One thought that keeps coming back to me is something my high school coach would tell us during cross country season.

    “Keep your eyes on the shoulders of the girl in front of you, not on her feet. If you look at her feet you’ll start running whatever pace she’s running, and you’ll never pass her. If you look at her shoulders, you’ll pass her.”

    I am not sure why this phrase keeps rolling around in my head, in part because most of my runs these days are alone on an Army base with no one to pass in sight. But when I find my eyes dropping and scanning the pavement in front of me, counting cracks and divets, I remember what he used to say.

    Lately I have found it really easy to look at the metaphorical feet of other people and started trying to run whatever race they’re on. It’s so easy to wish ______ for myself, and usually it boils down to something someone else has (whether it be a talent, skill, or even tangible thing) that I want. It’s hard to admit that reality.

    Alaska is not a terribly hot place in the summer, at least not compared to other places in the Lower 48. But it feels really hot because the sun is smack in the middle of the sky for so much of the day. Today as I write sunrise was at 3:11 AM, and sunset will be at 12:24. It feels like the earth is baking in sunlight, and it makes running outside unpleasant at times. Yesterday as the sun beat down on my arms I kept hearing my coach’s old words in my head — eyes up, eyes up — as my eyes drifted down to the pavement the more fatigued I got.

    The race of the person in front of me is their own, just as mine is mine. If I keep looking at their feet I minimize my own efforts. It’s not so much about passing people as it is about running my own race that’s set out for me by God as fully mine, intended for me, at my pace. I think that’s part of why I love Hebrews 12 so much – “the race set before us.” It’s a metaphor I find relatable. Let us run it with endurance, and eyes up.

On Falling

    This past fall I ran in the Equinox Marathon Relay in Fairbanks with two dear friends. I lucked out with the easiest leg of the relay – the first one. While my leg of the race contained more elevation gain than I have ever experienced in a race, legs two and three were absolutely brutal. One is completely uphill, and one almost completely down. The Equinox is a trail marathon and marathon relay. It was my first experience with trail racing.

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    The race was in September, which in Alaska means the temperatures could be anywhere from chilly-but-manageable to I-am-in-pain. That morning was beautiful, but cold. As a result we huddled in a gym near the start line until right before the race so our muscles wouldn’t get too cold. While standing there I heard my friend remark to another runner,

    “You know, it’s important to fall down during a race like this, because you need to learn that you can get back up.”

    That comment nestled itself into the back of my mind as I was shaking my legs out and preparing to run. I was nervous because I’d never done a trail race before and had no idea what to expect. I had only run road races before and cross country in Illinois, where an elevation gain of 2 feet is labeled a hill. I had never fallen while running, and suddenly I began to worry.

   The race started, the most relaxed race start I have ever experienced, and off I went. As I ran I started thinking, “maybe I do want to fall”. I wanted to learn that I could get back up.

    The thing about running is that every race, every run even, can teach us something if we let it. We just have to be willing to sit in the discomfort and pain to learn. I wondered if maybe this race was meant to teach me that I could fall and recover.

    Sure enough, about five miles into the race, my foot got snagged on an exposed root and I could tell I was about to fall. Instead of tensing myself up like I probably would have before, I tried not to let anxiety control my muscles, and I fell. It hurt, and my knee throbbed a bit. I was right by a group of volunteers who swarmed over asking if I was okay, and I smiled and told them I was fine. It hurt, and I was embarrassed, but I could tell I wasn’t injured.

    I got back up and kept going, and finished my leg of the relay. After it ended and I passed my race bib on to my teammate, I noticed a giant mud stain on my running tights where I’d fallen. I assumed when I washed them it would wash out, but it didn’t. I’m pretty proud of that mud stain. It is a reminder of what I learned during that race. Falling hurts, it’s embarrassing, and sometimes it can cause serious injury. But a lot of times it’s tiny aberration from what we’re doing that teaches us resilience.

    My friend’s comment helped me to not fear falling, but instead approach it with curiosity about what it could teach me. Looking back the Equinox is one of my favorite races I’ve run, primarily because it taught me that I can fall and get back up.