Finding Joy, Peace and Gratitude In the Darkest Chapters of Our Life

Sunday, September 10, 2023

It's become somewhat of an annual tradition to visit Grafton Lakes State Park in late summer to search for mushrooms...not the eating kind.  For the average person, that exploration might involve walking through the forest but my M.O. is capturing photos from the passenger seat of our car.  That not only eliminates the fear of ticks, but increases the challenge of the catch by a landslide.  

With the exceptionally wet summer we had, we were pretty confident we'd be successful, but I couldn't believe how many we found. I didn't realize mushrooms came in so many varieties. Did you know....

Fungi are critical to the health of the forest, decomposing woody debris and helping trees obtain required nutrients. Fungi are neither plant nor animal, and biologists place them in their own kingdom.

Our annual hunt for mushrooms is a little like a toddler's version of a scavenger hunt.  Each discovery evokes a tap on the brake, sometimes a short drive in reverse, a squeal of joy (from me, not John), and a photo capture for posterity.  By the end of our visit, I'd captured a bumper crop of fungi, some varieties I'd never seen before.  I imagine my excitement and sense of accomplishment may be a little like what my dad must have felt after a good day of fishing.

This annual tradition has become a somewhat philosophical exercise, reminding me of the challenges of life.  Specifically, it reminds me that in times of darkness, when it's hard to find hope, when the light at the end of the tunnel seems too far away to discern, when we're in that dark place, we are called upon to not dwell in the darkness, but instead to look hard for the bright spots.  Just like when in a dark forest, we must turn our eyes to the rays of sun to guide us out.  We must focus on our blessings, on the things we are grateful for to help us overcome the darkness.  I've written about this idea more than once here on the blog, but today that concept of focusing on the light is inspired by a person - a person who is facing what most of us would consider the worst kind of darkness....only she isn't consumed by that darkness.  She is focused on the light.

Last week I had the privilege of visiting a dear friend who is nearing the end of her earthly journey.  I was apprehensive about seeing her in this state, worried that I wouldn't have the right words - or any words - worried that I'd not be strong for her and break down.  I feared that I would be weak when I should be a comfort to her.  I spent about 30 minutes with her, and all of my fears faded quickly, not because "I" was strong, but because SHE was.  In those 30 minutes, my friend talked about her wonderful family, about the great care they are giving her.  She shared the kindness of her neighbors and of the friends who had sent her cards - over 100.  Every word was of gratitude, joy, love and faith!  There was no fear, no anger, no resentment over her limited time.  All she seemed to feel was immense love and gratitude and peace.  How?  How does one reach the last days of their life and have a heart so full of grace and peace?  What an inspiration!   I didn't have to worry about what to say, she filled the conversation with ease and I suspect it's because she understands how difficult it is for her friends and family.  I believe it's also because her faith has replaced fear and she knows where she'll be when she leaves this earthly place.  

Too often we become entrenched in life's small struggles, in the daily frustrations, the things that don't go as planned, the things we wish we had in life, the have nots instead of our blessings.   It's just how we humans sometimes operate in this world of convenience and instant gratification.   My exercise in treasure hunting colorful mushrooms in the forest is an exercise we all need to practice in our everyday lives.  Not for mushrooms, but for finding the little joys around us and feeling gratitude for them instead of wishing things were different than they are.  We need to stop dreaming of what might be and find the jewels all around us.  We are called to live with gratitude and grace.  Finding all these mushroom was challenging, just like fighting to focus on the light when all we see is darkness is challenging.  Just like the mushroom are critical to the health of the forest, the dark times in our lives serve to teach us to appreciate the bright spots, the blessings if you will.  If my friend can do that as she faces saying goodbye to her large, loving family and many friends, certainly we all can do better in our own lives.  Instead of mourning that she's writing her final chapter, she's celebrating that chapter and writing it with the same strength, grace and faith she lived her life.  She's not just focusing on the light, she is the light that is enabling her family and friends to walk this difficult walk. 

Life is not always as we planned or imagined.  Some days it feels hopeless and we are forced to walk miles in the darkness and face unimaginable challenges and impossible goodbyes.  I think we are called to be like my friend and rise above those challenges, celebrate the small victories and have faith that tomorrow will be a little brighter. These little jewels of the forest remind me of that and of the special people who have stood quietly at the edge of the darkness in my life, cheering me on, holding my hand, reminding me how very much I have to be thankful for.  I'm so blessed to have so many of these people in my life and I hope that one day when I'm writing my final chapter, I'll be as joyful and grateful, and that my light might shine on after I'm gone.  Thank you, my friend, for being the light that helps others see.

 Matthew 5:16 says, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven".  Godspeed my friend!  The world has been brighter for having you in it and your light will live on in all the people you've touched.  Carol, may the road to heaven be as beautiful as the life you created.

Post Script: 
When I finished writing this post, this memory from 2013 popped up on my Facebook page.  It's what I refer to as a God wink - not a coincidence, but a wink from God whose Hands are in everything we do.
Post Script:  My friend went home to her Lord on September 26th.  RIP Carol.

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