According to the calendar, spring has arrived, but in western South Dakota, we know better than to put too much store in that! For us, winter lingers sometimes into June, but we’ve begun to taste the springtime and I’m itching for those warmer temperatures, those springtime tasks, mud instead of ice, warm dirt, growing things, and baby animals!
Our relatively mild winter was punctuated with days and weeks of unseasonable warmth, and then punctuated again with unseasonable, bitter cold. And, as always, it starts to feel like it has always been winter, sometime around the middle of February. Those little tastes of springtime that tantalize and taunt us every year, tease us with the warmth that is so close, so close. And we are so ready for springtime, and we’re praying for rain, or a good spring snowstorm to bring some much-needed moisture to the parched landscape.
Of all the seasonal changes, perhaps the most bewildering and wonderful is the change from winter to spring, from the time of slumber and death to a time of waking and birth, from a time of fading to a time of renewal, from surviving to thriving, a time of preparation and planning to a time of action and initiation.
Everything that is easy to accomplish in warm weather is a challenge in the winter, especially when the temperatures plummet and snow and ice freeze us in. A five-minute outdoor task takes fifteen minutes to prepare for inside, and twenty minutes to warm back up after coming inside again. A snowstorm wreaks havoc on travel when you live 30 miles outside of town, or your driveway is a mile long. The ground is frozen solid, everything seems poised to break, the cold creeps into the house until the best way to get some heat going is by turning on the oven and opening the door. An unfortunate calf born in the middle of a frigid cold snap is a struggle to keep alive.
And through the sleepiness and struggle of winter, we dream of spring. We dream of spring, and begin preparing. Gardens are planned, seeds are ordered, harvests are imagined, and a million other projects start forming in the mind, ready to send into action when the cold snap breaks, or when the snow is gone, or when the ground melts. Ranchers watch their cows get heavier and heavier, and pray for a good calving season.
And then at last, spring arrives. We see it on the calendar, and we see a 10 days at time of forecasts for temperatures in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. We see the first shoots of green grass. We feel the first raindrops. We feel the first truly warm breezes and smell the earth warming up. Rock-hard, icy ground turns into a mud slick, and how wonderful the mud smells! The multiple layers of jackets and sweaters diminish to the ease of a shirt and light jacket, stocking caps are replaced with ball caps, and I always cherish the first day I can wear a tank top and sandals!
The garden beds begin to soften under their preparatory layer of plastic. The first load of laundry is hung on the clothesline outside. The first meadowlarks appear. Seeds are started. Those calves that were unlucky enough to be born into the cold snap are now a month old, frisky, and thriving.
What a transformation!
In the winter, we are forced to slow down. It is a sabbath of seasons, in a sense. We are forced to slow down from the seemingly self-sufficient business of the rest of the year and only do those things that are necessary, limited by the cold, the frozen ground, the shorter days. It is an exercise in trusting God for the day-to-day necessities in the day-to-day struggles. And then in the springtime, God turns that trust into joyful action.
The last time I did a year in review was at the beginning of 2020, and apparently 2020 was crazy enough I never felt like doing a year in review following it. I was rereading a few posts from that timeframe, the beginning of that year, and had to chuckle to myself. 2020 began with so much optimism, and a few short months later the world was turned upside down. We can plan and dream all we want, but if we aren’t planning and dreaming with the heart conviction that God is the One Who is ultimately ordering and ordaining everything, we are bound to be disappointed. Massively.
But if, on the other hand, we look ahead with eagerness to embrace whatever it might be that God brings about, we will be ready for that time of growing and challenge.
This March 1st marked seven years since we drove up to this little cabin I’m sitting in now, unpacked ourselves, and called this place home. Seven years. In Biblical contexts, the number seven is associated with perfection and completion. How fitting.
As I think about the seven years since moving to South Dakota, it occurs to me that every year has been fraught with challenges. This last year has been, however, the year of the most stark extremes, sometimes the extremes interwoven and indistinguishable.
The year began with massive change and ended with massive change. It began in a sense of chaos yet confidence, and ended in a sense of…well, a different kind of chaos and confidence. My world got turned upside down a year ago, and got turned upside down again in December. But the year that began with a knuckling down and facing the future head-on has ended in a peaceful and optimistic outlook on the coming years. Loneliness and contented resignation have been replaced by companionship and peace. A lonely heart warmed. An empty hand clasped tight. Unkissed lips tasting the sweetness of a kiss. The future’s uncertainty no longer looks bleak. Emptiness has been filled up.
I began working fulltime as a firefighter-medic for a city fire department in January of last year, while up to my ears in paramedic school. Talking about one’s world being turned upside down. Although I have it on good authority that others have had it much worse in paramedic school, I’m honestly not sure how I managed to survive those months, other than because “you can do anything short term.”
All too often, a 24 hour shift on the ambulance (probably not sleeping) would be followed by 24 hours to recover and hit my books hard, followed by 12 or 24 hours of clinicals or ambulance ride time, and then back to my regular 24 hour shift. At times I was driving an hour and a half to start a student shift at 6:30 in the morning, dealing with the uncertainties of weather and bad roads. Also, as I was able, I was also responding to calls for the volunteer department I serve on. Incidentally, it was on one such fire in February, a cold, nasty haybale fire, that I learned the important fact that a certain rancher (another volunteer firefighter) I’d always admired was as single as I was. Whaddya know.
I finished up paramedic school in June, and went into the summer with a sense of relief that that was over, and already bracing for the next thing, a three-month long fire academy that would take me out of my routine, away from my colleagues and partners, off the streets where I was becoming very comfortable as an EMT and new paramedic, and put me through the ringer physically and mentally. I braced for that and prepped physically.
As my summer rolled to a close, those sparks from the haybale fire in February finally kindled a flame. God brought into my life in the most timely of ways the kindest and most supportive man I’ve ever met. Never in a thousand years had I expected to find someone so well suited for me, or to whom I was so well suited. We enjoyed roughly a month of almost uninterrupted courtship, with my every-third-day 24-hour shift the only interruption. We made the most of that time. We enjoyed beautiful weather, coffee before my shifts, hiking, working cows, and countless other things, and in three weeks our relationship had deepened beyond what I would have thought possible in months or years. In a matter of a few weeks, I had a best friend, a favorite person, and I knew without the shadow of a doubt that I’d marry him. And I mean without the shadow of a doubt. I’ve never known something with such certainty.
The fire academy started at the end of August and finished up at the end of November. It was three intense months that left me exhausted in more ways than one, and during which I am so thankful I had a kind, compassionate man to lean on. I went back on the streets as a paramedic in late November.
And in December, into all of the work-related craziness, that sweet, simplest love turned into a beautiful ring on my finger and a wedding to take place in June.
As I write this and think back over the last year, my mind is spinning a little. How very much can change in a year’s time! What exactly was I doing a year ago? What were my dreams, my hopes? Did I have any anymore? Or had I effectively sidelined many hopes and dreams for a career that often leaves people rung out and used up? Where did I picture myself, five years down the road? Was I excited? I know I was exhausted, exhausted but resolute, and determined to face the future head-on and conquer it. That’s not really the same as excited, or optimistic. Occasionally in conversation I refer to having made some “survival decisions,” and although that sounds a little dramatic, that was my frame of mind. The hope and optimism and peace that God has blessed me with through our courtship and into our engagement are balm to the soul. I’m no longer looking at the bleak-seeming future and trusting God for survival. I’m looking into the future, thanking God that I’m thriving.
And then I look back seven years and my mind spins a little more. But standing that far back, I can begin to see the bigger picture of God’s unfolding plan, the seeds planted then that have begun to bear fruit, the dreams and desires that have stirred in my soul for decades even, just now poking their little leaves above the soil of the garden of my life. Glancing back through pages of this blog, I see that again and again. I see hopes and desires spelled out or hinted at from 7 years ago, when I first started this blog, just now being answered and brought to life. Everything happens for a reason, and that reason ultimately is that we have a sovereign God who loves us and loves to do that which brings good to His children.
If you had told me a year ago that right now I’d be counting down the days until I marry the love of my life (88 days!), planning a garden, learning how to drive a tractor, eagerly waiting for an order of chicks to get here in April, helping my rancher in this calving season, buzzing around on four-wheelers with him checking cows and doing chores, and caring for little calves needing extra TLC, I’d have called you crazy. And yet.
One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia is when Susan, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, asks Mr. and Mrs. Beaver if Aslan is a tame lion. The Beavers laugh and say to the children that of course he isn’t tame! But he is good. And then like Martin Luther’s chastisement of Erasmus, “Your thoughts of God are too human.” Our God is neither tame nor human. But He is good.
And so, what a crazy year it was. What a crazy, wonderful year.
This Christmas wasn’t been “as planned” in any way, shape, or form. Initially, I was quite disappointed that I’d be having to work on Christmas Day, especially with a new fiance, a sister about to get married, and almost-inlaws to spend time with. I’ve been feeling pretty worn out and run down with work lately, and I wasn’t looking forward to a holiday week, during which I would be exhaustedly trying to keep up the energy to see people and share in the fun and joy of Christmastime while recovering from 24 hour shifts on an ambulance.
Well, a week ago I started feeling puny and got tested for Covid, at the request of my work. Sure enough, I had Covid and was promptly put on quarantine. My family wanted nothing to do with me, since there’s a wedding in two weeks, but my fiance also came down with Covid, and in God’s graciousness it was mild for both of us. We spent our first Christmas together after all.
We’ve already begun making traditions that we will carry into what we trust and pray will be a Christ-honoring marriage. We have been reading an Advent devotional since December 1, which I’m sure will become a tradition for us. We cut and decorated a beautiful spruce tree. We’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life, and listened to a radio theatre adaptation of Charles’ Dickens beloved Christmas Carol. We’ve baked, and cooked, and worked on a wintry puzzle, a birthday gift to me from his mom. And our Christmas Day, though not what either of us would have chosen, was likewise delightful.
We made crepes for brunch, with homemade yogurt and the last jar of my homemade plum jam from a few summers ago. We also had homemade ricotta cheese and sausage that my rancher man and his brother-in-law made. It was a lovely start to the day. We finished our puzzle, drank coffee, exchanged gifts, went on a walk, made wedding plans, and ate a wonderful dinner of pork roast, grilled cabbage and sweet potatoes, and rice pilaf. We finished the day watching Murder on the Orient Express, an excellent movie for a winter evening.
This Christmas and holiday season is challenging for a lot of people right now. So many people are sick, and beloved Christmas plans and traditions have gotten sidelined in an effort to keep people as healthy as possible. But if those temporary disturbances distract us from the truth of Christmastime and steal our joy, we have repenting to do. The fact of the matter is that the God of the Universe willingly gave up the comfort and perfection of Heaven to stoop to become a mortal man, for the express purpose of dying a grusome death on our behalf, to give us a salvation we could never earn. Don’t let either the enjoyment of this time of year, or the disappointment either, distract you from that.
In spite of everything, this was indeed a Merry Little Christmas.
My heart has always been drawn to and touched most by those simple things. Those moments of pure sweetness. Those sights of pure beauty. A flower just so in the sunlight. An arrangement of old lanterns and colored glass on an end table. One single brightly-colored autumn tree in a sea of pines. A summer hike. A starlit snowy night. A warm cup of coffee and a cat on my lap. Wild fruit on tangled branches. A shelf lined with bright, sparkling jars of hand-harvested, homemade jam. The smell of sweat or the pages of old books. A well-lived-in home. The comfortable, worn seats of a dusty old work truck. A simple, nourishing, homemade meal.
Sin has complicated our existence. It complicates everything. It complicates love.
Compromise complicates love. Selfishness complicates love. Desperation complicates love. Fear complicates love. Mistrusting God complicates love. We strive and weep and lust and wallow in our loneliness, and think that a relationship born out of those things will bear good fruit.
But this is key: God is a God who loves us. And He is a Father who gives good gifts. He doesn’t always provide what we want or think we need. And He often uses waiting as a tool to cultivate our dependence upon Him and His goodness. He tests us with loneliness, with waiting. Will we thank Him for what He does provide, or will we be angry for what He doesn’t provide? Will we trust Him in joy and not in sorrow?
God is a God who loves us. He is also a God who doesn’t owe us anything. Any good we receive from God is good we haven’t earned, given by a Father who loves us. And any pain we receive from His hand is meant to make us more like Christ, from the hand of a Father who disciplines those whom He loves. And that pain of waiting, the pain of loneliness, the growth and humility and triumph of contentment and Christ-dependence, all serve to make God’s blessings, both the expected and the unexpected, that much sweeter. I wouldn’t know how to truly appreciate the sweetness God’s gifts if I didn’t also experience the bitterness of want. The best things wouldn’t be recognized so clearly if I hadn’t also seen those hard things, loneliness and isolation and disappointment and heartache and loss.
And so when God withholds something, we are to rejoice, and trust that He is withholding the desired object out of love for us. And when He provides, we rejoice…And then marvel at His provision.
My heart is so thankful. I am thankful that God saw fit to replace my loneliness with companionship, and my longing with love. What God provided, He provided in lavish simplicity, in abundant peacefulness. Without confusion, or question, or complication.
And it would make sense, wouldn’t it, that this simple country girl would love a simple country man?
God brought love in those best things, those simple things. Seven gallons of chokecherries picked together. A freshly cemented stock tank and a little sunburn on a hot August afternoon. Countless home-cooked meals on chipped dishes. Laughter over a game of cards. Bushels of apples from my grandpa’s apple trees. Baking pies for a pie auction. Arms wrapped around me and a peck on the cheek while I’m washing dishes. A hasty cup of coffee together out of his battered Stanley thermos, with the sun just cresting the horizon. Lively banter. Tears of sorrow and of joy. Companionable, comfortable silence. Tuneless whistling from under my car as he changes the oil. His smile at me over the backs of a hundred cows. His voice beside me singing hymns in church. The warmth of his strong hand in mine, that calloused, work-weathered hand.
So this simple country girl said Yes.
Yes, to a simple rancher man. Yes, to the best and kindest man I know. Yes, to a strong, gentle man. To a peaceful man. To a Godly man. To a flawed man with a perfect Savior. To a man who offers me his shoulder to cry on, his arms to hold me, his heart to love me, and his wisdom and faith to lead me. To my favorite person. To my best friend. To a hand to hold.
What simple love. What a kind God. What undeserved abundance.
2019. What a year. For those of you new to this blog, I love to do a post sometime around the New Year (give or take a couple of months) as a recap of and reflection on the blessings of the previous year. And it’s fun to look back through pictures and remember why I took them, and the circumstances around them. As I scroll through picture after picture, I feel so blessed with the memories I have of this past year, and God’s gracious generosity in giving me so many wonderful times with family and friends.
This past year was not a year of ease – There were trials, temptations, struggles, grief, uncertainty, pain, fear, death, goodbyes…But through all of it, God is so faithful, providing work to do, friends to encourage, family to love and to be loved by, and so much else. The highlight of last winter (and really, the whole year) was the sheer amount of time spent hiking. As I look back through pictures, I see hike after hike after hike, from Sunday Gulch to Harney Peak to the Hidden Waterfall hike to Hell Canyon. Temps ranged from balmy winter weather to frigid, blue skies to snow. I discovered a few simple gear items that wonderfully changed my enjoyment of winter hiking! In past winters, I’ve struggled with a sort of seasonal depression, but not this past winter. There was too much beauty, too much muscle soreness, too much glorious exhaustion, too much freezing hands and feet and nose, to be bothered by depression. Another noteworthy memory was my first experience with search and rescue, when the fire department was called out to help with ground searches in the winter and spring. As sad as the circumstances were, I loved the teamwork and camaraderie of the few days I spent on line searches, and the physical challenge of the terrain we were in. I also had my first ever structure fire, another vivid and exciting memory from the fire world. The call came in around 11pm, and we finally got back to the station around 4am or even later. I think I got about one or two hours of sleep that night!
In March, I was thrilled to be able to spend nine days in Spearfish for the NOLS Wilderness First Responder course, thanks in large part to the generosity of friends from church who opened their home to me for those nine days. WFR was a great experience, and it peaked my interest in wilderness medicine, as well as boosting my confidence in my ability to survive in the event of an accident, or to offer help to someone else.
April came, bittersweet, as we said goodbye to Grandma for the last time. It is hard to lose a loved one, but it was also a time of rejoicing, knowing that my faithful Grandma had been ushered into the presence of her LORD. She had patiently endured so much pain over the last few years, and all that was now gone. I also got to feel the joy of our church family coming around us and supporting us, loving us. If you belong to the household of God, there truly is sweetness in sorrow.
A visit from a college friend in May was a great beginning to the summer, and we spent a fun several days exploring the Hills and hiking!My Uncle Scott was here on and off for a lot of the year, since he recently retired from his job and is in a time of transition in life. He is a great uncle and a dear friend, and his company is always a highlight. And yes, we hiked. And hiked. And talked. And hiked. Once again I spent the summer working at the greenhouse with my sister, Sarah, and hiking whenever I could. My poor brain needs a break from teaching in the summer, and the outside beckons, beckons, beckons. We had some great hiking adventures, including our fondly-remembered Fourth of July hike up Harney Peak, into the middle of a thunderstorm. Another trip to Bozeman for the Biblical Counseling Conference was a great almost-end to the summer, with camping and hiking bookending the trip. My friend Katie and I drove up ahead of time, camped and hiked for two nights and two days, went to the conference, and then camped and hiked again, with the addition of a few more friends. We were able to explore Hyalite Canyon with three solid days of hiking. So much beauty. The bigness of God’s creation is astounding. Katie also talked me in to going climbing with her, and after the first day, I was hooked. I was able to go a few times this last summer, and I’m already looking forward to getting back out there when the weather warms up. Towards the end of the summer, Sarah and I began training for our Rim-to-Rim, and I loved the time spent hiking long miles with Sarah and how our relationship grew. We hiked Harney Peak a grand total of something like 20 times this year, most of those hikes in preparation for our Rim-to-Rim. It was great prep, as all our training occurred between 6000-7200 feet, getting our bodies accustomed to less oxygen and having to work harder at higher elevations. It was excellent. I would have thought that hiking Harney that many times would get boring. It didn’t. We saw so many different faces of our little mountain, from the early morning light streaming through the dew-wet trees, to the afterglow of the sunset, to thunderstorms and hailstorms, got soaking wet in a downpour, tromped through puddles, sweated through afternoon heat, and in short never got tired of hiking our mountain.
Mid-August, I began my EMT class through the Custer Ambulance, which was a fantastic class! I had a blast. Testing all went well, and I can’t describe the excitement of having Ruth shake my hand after the psychomotor examination. “Congratulations,” she said. “You’re an EMT.” Definitely not where I thought I’d be 5 years ago. I’ve since started with the Keystone Ambulance Service, and am looking forward to getting some experience, particularly over the summer. The fall was mostly a chaos of teaching and EMT, except for a crazy trip with Sarah and our cousin down to Bryce Canyon, Grand Escalante, and Grand Canyon for our Rim-to-Rim in October. What an amazing trip. I haven’t done a lot of traveling, and definitely not road tripping, so this was a wonderful adventure and challenge. I also had the opportunity to join Custer County Search and Rescue, and getting plugged in there has been a really neat experience, opening doors to a very different branch of emergency services, but one that more specifically taps into my interests and abilities.
And my list could go on. Beautiful summer days, fall snowstorms, wildflower hunts, snowmobile training for SAR, delighting in a power outage with Vienna sausages and a fire in the fireplace, picking apples with Mom, fire department trainings and events, and so many other delightful memories. And the year was topped off with a beautiful family Christmas, bittersweet without Grandma, but festive and joyful.So if I were to summarize the joys of this past year, it would be the new avenues of learning and work, the physical challenge of so much hiking, and most importantly, the growing friendships and relationships God is blessing me with, not least of which being those relationships with my family. I also cannot stress how important it is for single women to have other single women friends, or at least other women friends. But there is something extra special about those friendships (one in particular) where there is common faith, similar struggles, and so much empathy and love.
As I look back over this year, I see God’s hand of graciousness, His providence, and how He sustains through trials and struggles, and how He uses (ordains) those difficulties to increase our dependence on Him, and highlight our own sinful attitudes and idols, to make us more like Christ. I’ve seen how He takes away one good to provide in another good way, and I’ve seen how He uses struggles to loosen our hold on things we feel dependent on here. My own failings have highlighted my need for Christ, and increased my confidence in God’s gracious provision.
2019 was another year of change, change, and more change. I’m excited to see the story God has written for 2020!
We (Mom, Sarah, and I) welcomed the new year and the new decade from Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies! It was a beautiful, crisp morning, the stars were glorious at 6am, the snow crunched pleasantly underfoot, and the wind was gentle enough for us to actually de-layer shortly into the hike.
There wasn’t even a hint of dawn when we started up, and we trudged along in the dark, our headlamps casting pleasant shadows in the snowy woods. There were a few other cars at the trailhead, and evidence along the way of other first-day hikers, including this snowy tribute to the new year:
And then the first day of the year dawned: gloriously, slowly, from diamond-studded black, to silver and blue skies, then lavender, then pink and orange and scarlet, with the tips of granite spires just kissed with the first light. We reached the tower in the glow of the first sunrise, and watched the light spread over the Hills.
The wind was fierce at the Tower (it always is), and with a bitter edge, so we took shelter in the basement, warming ourselves with hot, black coffee and a snack before heading back into the wind.
The hike down was even more beautiful than the hike up, now that we could see the sculpted snowdrifts, the sun sparkling through the trees, and the sky and its blueness overhead.
What a wonderful way to bring in this new year and new decade, with two of my favorite people, doing one of my favorite things, on one of my favorite trails, in my (current) favorite place in the world, on the tip top of our highest peak, reveling in and wandering around and gazing at God’s beautiful handiwork.
I love experiencing the firsts of the new year.
The first morning.
The first drive.
The first hike.
The first time up Harney Peak.
The first picture taken.
The first cup of coffee.
The first sweet family time.
The first prayer.
The new year comes, fresh, unstained, and (from our perspective) unwritten. We do a pretty good job of staining it as soon as we open our eyes or our mouth on New Year’s morning, but the freshness and excitement and sense of newness remain, the gladness of a fresh start. There are things I’m anticipating, things I’m excited about, things I’m not looking forward to. But I’m glad to know I serve a sovereign LORD who isn’t just writing my story, as if He is still in the process of figuring it out. He has written it, already.
I wonder what He will choose to bring to this new year? I wonder what growing, what joy, what delight, what blessings and struggles and trials and pain? What adventures? What changes are coming that I haven’t even thought of yet? What triumphs? What failures? What of Christ will I see or learn that I haven’t yet known? How will He refine me?
2020 is open like a brand new book. I’m excited to read the story.