Boundless Beauty & Sustained Wonder

By Mandy Cloninger

As we made the cross-country drive home and our epic wild west adventure was coming to an end, my friend Jenni and I were talking about her favorite moments from the trip. Jenni joined Luna and I in Oregon at Crater Lake and then helped to drive half-way across the country from Oregon to Minneapolis – talk about an amazing friend! Jenni shared a phrase that for me really helps define our whole trip. She said there was a sense of “sustained wonder” in our travels!

With Jenni, we traveled across six states: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota on our return home. The terrain was vastly different day to day: national forest, rivers, hills, creeks, lakes, mountains, flats, badlands. We wondered at the changing landscape. We were in awe at the sights. We tried to capture often what a camera cannot, that inexplicable feeling you get when you are confronted with boundless beauty.

We sleep around!

Luna and I traveled for 62 days together! We journeyed through 26 states and logged 10,710 miles. We slept around and stayed in one cabin (Hummingbird Cabin, TN), one national park (Crater Lake), two hotels (The Gordon in Eugene & The Huckleberry Lodge at Mount Hood), two state parks (Valley of the Rogue & Honeyman), three family campgrounds and 12 KoAs (Kampgrounds of America). 

When looking back on all the places, attractions, hikes and boundless beauty we experienced, it’s difficult to call out just a few favorites! I have failed miserably trying to share this with my friends in person as they humor me and let me chatter. 

I’ve pushed myself to capture a few of our favorite places, hikes and attractions and as a fan of lists, I couldn’t help but include a journal of lists to share and capture in our memory. 

Our favorite places we slept were Honeyman State Park, Crater Lake National Park, the Hummingbird Cabin and Valley of the Rogue State Park earns an honorable mention. 

#1 Campsite: Honeyman State Park and #2 Favorite Hike: Sand Dunes

Jesse M. Honeyman State Park was a late addition and a recommendation from a fellow camper while we were staying at the Valley of the Rogue State Park. As we transitioned from the Rogue River Valley in southern Oregon over to the Pacific Coast, we were so enjoying our time there that I adjusted our reservations and was able to squeeze in four weeknights at Honeyman. Honeyman had Whoooohooo Hill, an awesome hill on one of the campsite loops that Luna and I rode our bike up and down countless times screaming, “Whoohoo!” 

Whoohoo Hill

Honeyman also was adjacent to the sand dunes, so we walked straight out to hike the dunes (which was no easy feat), and in fact, earned us the distinction of “brave souls” by our sand dune buggy tour guide as he shared how challenging it is to hike on dunes that are constantly moving. The sand dunes were so fascinating, how they shifted right before your eyes with the wind. Every step I hiked, I’d sink deeper and ended up in a caveman-type uphill climb on all fours while Luna ran ahead like she was skating on top of the dunes.

Sand Dunes

On our dune buggy tour, we learned how in winter the dunes are underneath snow, and that the rich nutrients from the snow melting create dense tree islands that grow in the sand. The islands are filled with wildlife that you rarely see because they are so thick and dense with vegetation that they provide all the wildlife need. Beyond the sand dunes was the Pacific Coast, so not only did Honeyman boast the dunes and the coast, this stop also had a lake with a sand dune beach. We rented a peddle-boat, and Luna caught a salamander on the beach as well. All of this combined to make it our favorite campsite on the whole trip – an unexpected last-minute addition to our journey that had countless moments filled with beauty, wonder and “whoohoos.”

Salamander fishing

#2 Campsite: Crater Lake & #1 Hike: Cleetwood Cove Trail

Crater Lake was such an experience and earns top billing for places we slept and hiked! We camped at this national park that intersects with the Pacific Coast Trail for four nights (I booked it back in April), and while the site had no frills, no hookups, and only four showers (for all the campers and PCT hikers,) it still made the top three. We really got to experience the depth, beauty and natural wonder of Crater Lake because we stayed at the park. We learned so much on our trolley tour and in Luna’s junior ranger packet that we became Crater Lake encyclopedias. As we visit other natural, geological sites that expose different periods, we will look for the white, Mazama ash, that traveled the world 7,000 years ago. It took three days for her to erupt and just a few hours for the crater to be formed when all those rocks finally came crashing down and created the deep crater. Another 200-300 years passed, and rainwater and snow filled the pristine lake. Trout and salmon were imported, and the four boats on Crater Lake were flown in by helicopter and dropped into the lake. 

The only way down to the base of the lake is Cleetwood Cove Trail, a magnificent hike and my personal favorite, that we flew downhill. We also climbed the 700 ft in elevation back out with Luna chasing a little boy who went faster than her! The day we hiked Cleetwood Cove, it rained all morning, so we went down to the Visitor Center and shopped. We then had a picnic in our SUV as we waited for the rain to clear at the trailhead. We started the hike in our jackets, wet and cold with rain, but by the time we made it to the base of the lake, the sun was shining, and we slipped into our swimsuits. 

Crater Lake

I’ve never seen so many shades of blue. All the different blues are caused by the changes in depth of the lake, at its deepest it is 1,943 feet (592 meters), and the views and the blues are different every single day! It was spectacular. I jumped while Luna eased herself into the lake. We cheered as young men cliff jumped into the lake while both of us wished aloud we could do it too. It might be my only regret of the trip that we didn’t jump! But I couldn’t reconcile in my head how to jump with Luna or without her, I would need another responsible adult to make sure we were both ok on the cliff and getting out of the water. So, we cheered for others and now have a reason to return!

Crater Lake

Top 3 Hike: Silver Falls State Park, Trail of Waterfalls

One of my other favorite hikes boasted a trail of waterfalls at Silver Falls State Park. The boundless beauty and the soundscape were remarkable as we hiked to the top and behind the falls. The views were breath-taking and ethereal. Luna and I enjoyed how the mist of the falls kissed our faces. When Luna’s energy sapped after about four miles, I had to hike the return with her on my shoulders and back. It was a workout worth remembering for the serenity of the falls, and I couldn’t help thinking I won’t be able to carry her much longer.

#3 Place We Slept: Hummingbird Cabin

Near the end of our journey, we stayed in a beautiful cabin in Tennessee with the Indian Creek beside us that Luna nicknamed the hummingbird cabin. The babble and rush of the creek outside became the kind of nature-filled noise we pay money for to help us sleep! It was so relaxing and beautiful with the Smoky Mountains around us, and the porch became an oasis as we transitioned back to the southeast. It was energizing stretching out after just two nights outside our little 21.5-foot camper. We were visited by wild turkeys, fed ducks, and watched beautiful hummingbirds sipping sugar water from the feeders, and thoroughly enjoyed the creek view and the rest before we trekked the final two-day drive home.

Honorable Mention Top Campsites: Valley of the Rogue State Park

Valley of the Rogue State Park earns an honorable mention because it was our first stop in Oregon, and its location next to the Rogue River offered tons of awesome hiking and biking trails. Luna became well-known as a speedster on her bicycle, and I offered tandem bike rides for the youngsters too as we cruised the river and our campsite loop every day. We enjoyed decorating her bike for the fourth of July parade with the rangers and dancing at a weekend concert. We made campsite friends who invited us to share in smores and glow sticks. I even enjoyed a night on the town at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with sushi, a cocktail, a Caribbean concert and the delightful musical, Once on this Island. After the hard miles to make it across the country, Valley of the Rogue State Park made it worth it to stay in Oregon!

Top 5 Best Hikes: Trillium Lake & Mount Hood

When the West Coast heat wave caught up to us in Central Oregon, we relocated to Mount Hood, and enjoyed a hotel and the much cooler weather. Snow skiing occurs year-round due to the glaciers, but the heat wave had an impact on local businesses who didn’t have air conditioning. The Huckleberry Inn, the brewery and restaurants we visited all had limited hours and menus due to the heat. 

We hiked around Trillium Lake with the view of Mount Hood in the distance and also rented a kayak. Luna made friends everywhere we went, and in the middle of the lake exclaimed, “I want some!” when she saw a fellow kayaker enjoying some Cool Ranch Doritos. In the middle of the lake, a new friend obliged and passed off the bag to Luna, and even snapped our picture together!

Trillium Lake with Mount Hood in distance

Luna was so brave riding the ski lift to the top of Mount Hood. We enjoyed a snowball fight, played in the snow and watched the snowboarders and skiers. We even did an experiment where we transported snow in her Peppa the Pig baseball hat down the ski lift as Luna shared with everyone’s path that we crossed, “We’ve still got snow, and it hasn’t melted!” After almost an hour of toting the snow, we put it in a water bottle to see how long it took to melt, and Luna disgustingly drank the snow water! We even found a summer snow slide run at the Snow Bowl adventure park and rode another ski lift and slid down the run half a dozen times. Luna’s daredevil side appeared as she bore down on the stick shift to go faster and outrun the others sliding down. I even had to run to catch up to her as she tried to secure her own slide and go alone!

Mount Hood

While most of our adventures were spent in the great outdoors, and great hiking seems to be a prerequisite for most of my travels of late, one attraction Luna requested again and again to go back to: the Albany Historic Carousel. It was an enchanting morning as we picked from the more than 40 animals on the carousel to ride. We bought token after token to ride again and again. This fantastical carousel has hand-painted animals, each with a unique story.

Albany Historic Carousel

As I’ve written about and reflected on our experiences during the last few weeks and months, I’ve revisited the pictures, I’ve shared them with Luna, and I sigh in wanderlust at when we might do this again. I remain so grateful for the time Luna and I had together on this adventure, learning more about the beautiful places in our country and ourselves.

For even more pictures, you can visit our album at: https://share.icloud.com/photos/05ffrwXRr0kCvDzTbWkhjBBTg

As you might expect, Luna wants to know when the camper gets back on the road. We’ve already booked a couple local campsites, and I’m searching the earliest reservations for next summer’s adventure.

The best hikes (in order):

  • Cleetwood Cove Trail, Crater Lake (to base of the lake)
  • Sand Dunes
  • Silver Falls State Park (4 miles – last mile with Luna on my back/shoulders)
  • Trillium Lake (kayaked too)
  • Mount Hood 

Where we stayed: one cabin, one national park, two hotels, two state parks, three independent campgrounds and 12 KoAs. 

State Parks:

  • Valley of the Rogue State Park, OR
  • Jesse M. Honeyman State Park, OR

National Park:

Crater Lake 

3 Campgrounds: 

  • Flat Creek Family Campgrounds (FL)
  • Red Tail Campground
  • Coyote Run RV Park

12 KoAs: We appreciated the KoAs for their consistency and availability on our journey. Most had beautiful pools, easy pull-through sites and were very family oriented, but they don’t get the top billing even though we stayed there often! 

Sleeping Around (stops on our route)

  • Baton Rouge, LA
  • Grants, NM
  • Wendover, NV
  • Reno, NV
  • Bandon/Port Orford, OR
  • Albany/Corvallis, OR
  • Redmond/Central Oregon, OR
  • Three Forks, MT
  • Bismarck, North Dakota
  • Minneapolis Northwest, MN
  • Milton, WI
  • Horse Cave, KY
  • Savannah South, GA


  • The Gordon (Eugene, OR)
  • Huckleberry Lodge (Mt Hood, OR)
  • Cabin:

Mountain Bird/Hummingbird Cabin (TN)

20+ hikes:

  • New Mexico
  • El Malpais Monument
  • Utah
  • Park Avenue Trail (Arches)
  • Oregon
  • Rogue River Valley
  • Ti’Lomikh Falls (eagle, capsized rafters)
  • Table Rock (2 hours up, 40 mins down)
  • Mill Creek Falls
  • Avenue of Boulders
  • Oregon Caves
  • Port Orford Heads Trail (sea lions)
  • Floras Lake Park
  • Bullards Beach (driftwood playhouse where Luna added the finishing touches, including a rock garden)
  • Sand Dunes
  • Silver Falls State Park (4 miles – last mile with Luna on my back/shoulders)
  • Redmond Caves
  • Trillium Lake
  • Mount Hood
  • Vidae Falls, Crater Lake
  • Sun Notch Hike, Phantom Ship, Crater Lake
  • Cleetwood Cove Trail, Crater Lake (to base of the lake)
  • Kentucky:
  • Mammoth Cave National Park
  • Tennessee:
  • Rock Creek Park
  • Beauty Spot
  • Appalachian Trail
  • Blue Hole
  • Martins Creek Falls

National Monuments & Parks:

  • El Malpais National Monument (NM)
  • Arches National Park (UT)
  • Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve (OR)
  • Crater Lake National Park (OR)
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
  • Mammoth Cave National Park (KY)
  • Smoky Mountain National Park (TN)


  • Heceta Lighthouse
  • Mount Blanco (westernmost point)


  • Fort Worth Zoo
  • Oregon Shakespeare Festival
  • Safari/Rescue Wildlife Park
  • Hughes House
  • Sand Dunes Buggy Tour
  • Albany Historic Carousel
  • Snow Bowl Adventure Park
  • Trolley Tour, Crater Lake
  • Hands On Museum
  • Pretty Little Chapel


  • RiverPlay Discovery Village Playground, Eugene, OR
  • Monteith Riverwalk, Albany, OR
  • Waverly Lake Park, Albany, OR
  • Every Child’s Dream, Winona, MN

26 states (in this order):

  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Alabama
  • Mississippi
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Texas
  • New Mexico
  • Arizona
  • Utah
  • Nevada
  • California
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • North Dakota
  • Minnesota
  • Wisconsin
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina


We are so small

By Mandy Cloninger

I firmly believe that spending money on travel and experiences indeed make us rich! If every day is a lesson, the values that I hold most closely and want to teach my daughter Luna include faith: loving God and loving others, a sense of adventure, a love of reading and life-long learning. These values are cultivated every day, and I often ask Luna when I pick her up after school, what adventure will we find today? 

We indeed made adventure happen! Upon returning from a more than 60-day camping and cross-country adventure, it makes sense to reflect and share what we learned.

The dream for our camping adventure was nurtured in a year’s worth of tent camping trips during the pandemic in my faithful Toyota Corolla. On our first one, I actually brought my friend Brigitta’s shade tent accidentally since I didn’t know the difference (the orange one – not an actual sleeping/camping tent) to Disney’s Fort Wilderness with a queen size air mattress. I had no idea what I was doing. Then I spent a month researching the world’s easiest tent to setup (our pop-up Coleman) and became a pro! Luna and I have explored quite a few Florida State parks within just a couple hours’ drive of home: Highlands Hammock, Fort De Soto, Hontoon Island, Colt Creek and then a crazy dream started percolating where Luna and I had our own camper and an upgraded camping experience! When I returned from truck and tent camping in Yellowstone late last year with my friend Leslie, Luna had caught that dream too and was channeling it as she played with her Chelsea doll and a little camper. The synchronization in our thoughts and dreams was a little eerie.

We learned lessons about RVing, camping, nature, and most importantly, about ourselves!

We can do really hard things – (thank you, Glennon Doyle!) It was hard learning to tow, back-up, setup and break down the camper, to dump. It was all new to us. We had to build new skills, new routines and habits. Tons of mistakes were made along the way. Several missteps and shady, predatorial RV repair places (that’s you, Lazydays) delayed us leaving town. We learned to trust the recommendations of people who had gone before us! What’s a wise person do? Ask someone who is wiser and smarter for help! We even had to get a repair once we arrived in Oregon, which involved us having to backup, setup and break down the camper three different times all in one week – by the end I was an expert.

The driving days were long and lonely heading out west. Those first few days of towing and travelling were all designed to test our perseverance. I joked that if I decided I didn’t want to go any further, I could always just change my mind in Texas. On day two, after a 400-mile day took more than 10 hours and those terrible Louisiana roads had me questioning my own ability to drive while bumbling along, I thought I would quit. I held my breath and prayed crossing the Mississippi River and going through the tunnel in Alabama. 

After a 10-hour day of driving and challenges, this is how Luna unwound!

When we finally arrived, we ate dinner, swam, biked and showered, and my mood started to improve. Then a man creeped me out in the pool. His steady gaze and line of questions had me responding, I am traveling with my daughter, but we also have a pit bull and a shotgun in my camper, so I’m not really alone. He shut up quickly and while his stare lingered, we did not. Then the gray water tank backed up in the shower while Luna was rinsing off. I called my most-experienced RV friends for advice and used a cup to bail the water from the shower out and toss it into the toilet, fighting a dirty water river running straight down the little hall of our camper. I went to bed crying, frustrated, and ready to throw in the towel.

But, the next morning, a new day dawned, and the sun rose. The campground had a lovely breakfast that Luna and I enjoyed, and the woman in the kitchen suggested I talk to the manager. Her husband was very experienced with all things RVing, maybe he could help. He did; he cleared a clog in the u-bend that blocked my grey tank from emptying. Then his lovely wife offered some kind words, sharing that she thought I was brave and adventurous to travel cross-country with my daughter. It was just the fuel I needed to keep going.

The strangers who were kind, friendly, and helpful had me recognizing more than once that asking someone for help also blesses the giver as much as the receiver! Folks loved to help us back-up, give us directions, share recommendations of places to eat, camp, and help wrangle kids around a campfire for smores.

On the journey out west, Luna and I stopped in Moab, Utah, to visit Arches National Park. I was exhausted from my first experience with towing through the mountains and 6-7-degree grade inclines. There was a whole lot of fear, shoulders up by my ears and tension from driving that were hard to shake each day. Luna easily shook her tension off as she jumped in the pool or on her bike, but I kept second-guessing myself, my abilities and the negative soundtrack played on. We headed to Arches after 5pm when you didn’t need a timed entrance. We bought a grocery-store dinner and planned a near sunset hike. We said hello to fellow tourists at one of the lookouts and hiked the Park Avenue Trail. Luna ran ahead as the trail was flat and mostly downhill at the beginning. Huge boulders invited her to scramble and climb. It was quiet, serene and void of other hikers.

“Look how far I came!” Luna exclaimed. We sat down after a mile or so and simply looked up at the arches, 

“We are so, so small. The world, and all that God has created are so big,” I said. Nature has a way of reminding us that she is grand, and we are miniscule. We sat in awe and wonder.

There we found the joy in nature, basking in God’s creation and simply being together, and a reason to press on.

As we drove across a new landscape, I would urge Luna to look – check out that view. We talked about the colors. We played I spy. We shared wows and oohs and ahhs. Our conversations in the car and in nature often turned towards God, our friends, thankful prayers reflecting on the beauty and highlights of the day. 

Our daily dialogue often included, “What state are we in? Where are we today?” When something caught Luna’s eye, she’d shout: “Look at that view – it’s amazing, spectacular, magnificent.” Each day she’d vary the adjective as her vocabulary searched for a bigger word to convey the wonder and beauty that she experienced!

This morning (about 10 days home so far) Luna and I battled getting ready for school, brushing her teeth and her hair. It’s hard to transition home and back to a regular schedule after so much ease, adventure and camper baths (a cleansing wipe for the face, feet and hands, and swimming totally counts as a bath). 

As we were getting into our SUV for the ride to school, Luna asked, “When are we going hiking again? When are we taking the camper on our next adventure?” She is her mother’s daughter after all, and at the end of our trip as we reflect on the memories we shared, the miles we logged and the tears we cried, I’d say if the goal of the journey was to teach Luna about important values, it was a success!


Lenten Flash Prayers: A lot is said with six

By Mandy Cloninger

As I mature, I find my prayers getting shorter. If you’ve read much of this project, hopefully you’ll recall my three part series, “Help! Thanks. Wow.” inspired by Anne Lamott’s book of the same name. But sometimes my prayers are only sounds. A deep breath in. A sigh. A cry out. I find sometimes they are a gaze, a skyward acknowledgement, that I see you, I see what you’re working in my life. Other times I shake my head, unbelieving just like Thomas, begging to stick my hand in the wound for proof.

My Lenten season was filled with prayer. It was my commitment to give God prayer and six words each day. Through this practice I created a journal – if I look at my calendar, my photos, my notes, and each prayer, I can recall vividly the moment that inspired the prayer, the circumstances, and the feelings it evoked.

On one particular day, walking my familiar neighborhood path by the Hillsborough River, I observed two men also enjoying this beautiful slice of nature in the middle of a bustling city. I wrote about them and played with six-word story structure to capture the moment. I also prayed for Ukraine.

I see you; you see me.

Grounded in you. We seek peace.

Grounded. Feet in earth. Seeking peace.

Two men were at the river. 

One on bicycle. One walking barefoot. 

A few were inspired by my daughters. 

Wild. Wild children. Wild with love.

Found these shirts in Arizona – we are a wild bunch!

A few people inspired prayers. Many were inspired by nature as I traveled to the Grand Canyon and Arizona (3/10-3/17), Philadelphia (3/24-3/27), and the Rainbow River (4/10-4/13).

I love the one that captures Luna tossing leaves in our neighborhood. She would pick up an armful, throw them over her head, and shouted, “God is joy!” 

God is love. God is joy.

One of the prayers, I initially went to edit and delete before sharing this post, because I thought it offered too much of a window into my soul at that moment. Vulnerability is uncomfortable.  

Take the pain of self-loathing away.

I felt like an imposter. I was in a very new environment at a writing conference surrounded by artists that have far more talent and success than me. I felt so yucky about myself. I hurt a friend’s feelings because I was projecting my insecurities. I felt guilty. I didn’t like myself very much. These days happen — maybe you’ve had a few like this, too. God wants all our prayers, especially the ugly ones.

What did I learn during the season of Lent? 

God wants them all! All prayers.

A lot is said with six.

2/28: You are enough. I am enough.

3/1: Grateful for flow like a river.

3/2: You can have all of me.

3/3: O God, beauty is all around.

3/4: I see you; you see me.

Grounded in you. We seek peace.

Grounded. Feet in earth. Seeking peace.

Two men were at the river. 

One on bicycle. One walking barefoot. 

3/5: God, I want the answers now.

3/6: God is love. God is joy. 

Why struggle? I am already forgiven. 

3/7: Wake up. Now move. It’s yours.

3/8: Anxiety. Hard to breathe. Take it.

3/9: Lift up women. Change the world.

3/10: Adventure is calling. Grateful to go!

3/11: Beauty is in all of it.

Burn it, grow it, rebirth it.

3/12: Sunshine, energy, positivity. Walk that bridge. (Devil’s bridge)

Pulsating energy. Seek only the light.

3/13: The earth carries a divine signature. (Walnut canyon)

3/14: What further evidence do you need?

Your fingerprint is in all things!

Grand grand grand. Wow wow wow.

3/15: Sing. Praise. All praise. All day.

Your canvas is full of colors.

3/16: Wind reached out to embrace me.

The wind is a playful friend.

Airport mesa vortex: wind teased me.

I wrote about this particular day and the wind in: Playful Friend or Fierce Foe?

3/17: Your path. Your doors. Open wide!

You provide! All glory! All praise!

3/18: All things work together for good!

3/19: Rest in you. Breathe you in.

3/20: These girls are my whole world.

Wild. Wild children. Wild with love.

3/21: The sun’s light kissed my face.

The son’s light kissed my face.

3/22: My heart and soul sings, Jesus! 

3/23: Your provision, your path, your way!

Use my strengths for your kingdom!

3/24: Strong, powerful, women lift their voice.

3/25: Love them all. Love them anyway.

3/26: Take the pain of self-loathing away.

3/26: Your grace is in small things.

3/27: We see God wherever we look.

Help me see with your eyes.

3/28: A butterfly is a new creation.

God, Create something new in me.

3/29: The caterpillar 🐛 delights in its transformation!

Your work is all around me.

3/30: Delight. Pleasure. Joy. All good things.

4/1: When joy overflows, bathe in it!

4/2: All joy, all praise, all day.

Big faith like a precious child!

4/3: Mary’s Alabaster Box: fragrance of love

Reckless, extravagant love in Jesus’ presence.

Bathed feet with hair & nard. 

4/4:  Faith over fear. Make me brave.

4/5: She is a gift. Thank you.

Overwhelming, satisfying, cup is overflowing love.

4/6: Bless, Nikki, and all her relationships.

4/7: Friendship with Leila enriches my soul.

4/8: Serving you and others fills me.

Hands, feet and heart to love.

Hands, feet and heart to serve.

4/9: Nature is the energy that fills.

Nature has the energy to heal.

4/10: When it flows, it flows steady.

4/11: This love is all I need.

Your love is all I need.

4/12: The present moment is the gift.

4/13: The otters played, and we rested.

Resting in nature with you restores.

4/14: Jesus did that. He washed feet. 

4/15: His suffering and death: our forgiveness.

4/16: Grateful for girls, family and cookies.

4/17: Let me be amazed like Peter!


Playful Friend or Fierce Foe?

By Mandy Cloninger

We ascended very quickly, up the steep climb, to the top of a large, red, rusty rock outside of Sedona. We breathed in the view of the Airport Mesa Vortex. Beauty beckoned from every vantage point. We selected an edge, sat down and crossed our legs, and I asked, “Do you want to meditate?”

I turned on the calm app, as I’ve done many days since December, and hit play. We were guided into a thoughtful meditation that encouraged us to find one element in nature to focus on. I selected the wind that had reached out and tousled my hair. My niece, also named Mandy, shared that she had felt the sunshine warm her skin and selected that element.

Mandy X 2: at the spot where we meditated that morning at the Airport Mesa Vortex.

Sedona is known for its vortexes. We had already experienced a few eerie occurrences around various stones and minerals as well as the loss of center and direction a couple times. Coincidence, serendipity or simply getting lost in the moment? Truly not all of us who wander, or wonder, are lost. 

I often laugh and share that I’m directionally challenged. I show my dirty blonde roots at times getting lost but not caring which direction I’m headed when in nature. I firmly believe that often a spirit, a presence, God winking, whatever you may prefer to call it, a guiding force is shepherding us around almost every corner, chasing us, inviting us in, and reaching out to embrace us.

As I focused my breath and my attention on the wind, I observed a playful friend. She would linger just out of my reach, and then surprise me with a puff and a gust of air. As we warmed to the climb, and the temperature rose to more than 80 degrees, I sought out the wind, shedding layers and missing her, wishing she would playfully cross my cheeks and my lips. 

As we rounded the backside of the mountain and proceeded in the semi-circle of the hiking trail, we were greeted by wildflowers swaying in the wind, vibrant purples, oranges and pinks, dancing amidst beautiful prickly pear cacti. Earlier on our trip, I claimed the prickly pear: my spirit flower. My closest friends have a “safe word” to use when I get cranky, and will gently warn me when I’m getting “prickly.” I’m a lot like that prickly pear. I’m unique, independent, sometimes beautiful in an unexpected way. I’m sweet and fruity on the inside, but I have some sharp edges, some barbs, that when you get close, may prick you if you’re not paying attention. 

After I tried the prickly pear fries at a local restaurant, on our next hike, I reached out to see if I could pierce into the hard exterior of the prickly pear to touch and taste the fruit in the wild. The shell wouldn’t give. I was only able to make a fingernail-like gash in the exterior, and felt a tiny bit of moisture, but when I pulled my hand back, carefully avoiding the large needles sticking out, I accidentally grazed the tiniest of fibers, which stung and splintered my first three fingers. That cactus was tough; she took it all in and protected herself. The prickly pear did not dance with the wind. She was rooted in the soil, firm, unmoving. Yet, the wind was all over her.

But the wind isn’t always friendly, she can be brutal. Like the first day we hiked outside Sedona, and we found ourselves chilled to our core when she blew. We were unprepared for the sleet that soaked our clothes, and her fierce gusts pushed us around at Bell Rock. The sleet progressed into snow and an eventual blizzard had me clenching my jaw and the steering wheel as we tried to reach our destination in Flagstaff. I couldn’t avoid the huge gusts that sent snow enveloping and whiting out the windshield. My teeth grinded; my shoulders were rocks. I was scared to death to try to pass the semi-tractor trailers on the winding road. 

As I recalled the stress in my body, a childhood memory was jarred loose.  

Growing up in West Texas, we lived in Tornado Alley. I was probably seven or eight, and I recall sirens that rang out to seek underground shelter, and daddy and I rushed a couple blocks to the city hall. We crowded underground with our neighbors in a secure shelter. When a tornado touched down, you ran. The wind was no friend. She was a random, God-finger, with destruction, mayhem, and death in her path.

I cried for my mama. Mom worked 12-hour shifts in the denim factory, and she wasn’t yet home. I had seen that factory. I could picture the large machines ripped from the ground, and my mom in danger while we were safe.

The memory from childhood, embedded in my body, sprung from my depths as I encountered that same fear of the wind in a blizzard. Our bodies remember. 

In nature and in life, we often encounter both a playful friend and a fierce foe. In many moments, it simply depends on where we focus.

I wrote three flash prayers the day I played with the wind at the vortex. I clearly wanted to spend my prayer in praise and cement the place in my mind:

  • Wind reached out to embrace me.
  • The wind is a playful friend.
  • Airport mesa vortex: wind teased me.

Grateful for flow like a river

By Mandy Cloninger

A friend of mine shared that she’s in a flash fiction class recently, and one of her assignments was a six-word flash fiction story. It inspired me for the season of Lent to begin my own assignment and to write a six-word flash prayer each day. 

I’ve really enjoyed starting my day in meditation and then brainstorming a prayer in my head.

Six words can say a lot.

A theme for this season of life and Lent has been gently coursing through me, and it was so abundantly clear as I walked along the Hillsborough River earlier this week.

Grateful for flow like a river.

The view from my side of the Hillsborough River on my daily walk.

It was a beautiful crisp morning. The river was still and quiet, yet still flowing. Ducks walked along the bank. The woodpecker pecked loudly. The sun shone brightly. A nice breeze brushed across my face.

I felt the same feeling later in the morning as I stood at my office desk and worked on a project for a client. Everything flowed. The work felt challenging but rewarding. 

Flow is so enjoyable, that smooth uninterrupted progress, when it’s all clicking. It’s all coming so naturally. The ease can energize you to do more.

As a recovering pessimist, it’s a bit of a challenge sometimes to just stay in the flow. I can vividly project an unexpected stress or crisis to interrupt the flow. 

For now, I will be grateful. 

The river flowed. Until it didn’t.


How Time Expands

By Mandy Cloninger

Once a year, around my birthday, I rent a beach house at Anna Maria Island. It’s one of my favorite weeks of the year. I arrive, park my car, and try my best not to move it again. We walk, bike or ride the trolley everywhere we need to go. Our daily rhythm follows the sun. If we’re up before the sun, we hustle down to the beach to watch it rise. A short walk is always rewarded with a beautiful display. At the close of the day, as the sun begins to set, we similarly make sure we’re in prime position to see those colors change and shift. Every day is marked by a gentle, natural, fulfilling rhythm. We joyfully sleep past the sunrise many days. We rarely miss a sunset.

Anna Maria Island – we rarely miss a sunset!

If the sun is already up, we leisurely lounge, eat breakfast, read, and watch cartoons. Then, we head to the beach. We ride our wake boards. We build sandcastles. I watch Luna make friends and read as she plays. We spend a few hours sunbathing and then head home for lunch and a nap. We lounge. We go out for ice cream, gourmet donuts, a grouper sandwich, or we grill dinner at home. Time seems to expand all around us. There’s no agenda – no must dos or have tos. Friends sometime join us for a day or two, and the rhythm welcomes them.

The 168 hours that we have at the beach each year seems like so much time, yet I’m always a little disappointed when it comes to close. I want to bottle how I feel at the beach and carry it home with me like sand in its little glass container that marks the passing of time or the seashells we collect and put on display to remind us of our time at the beach. I want that renewed feeling and that natural gentle flow of time every single day.

Time is such a gift. Yet, it’s an asset that is ever depleting. Time feels very expansive at the beach and when I’m in nature. 

My daughter Luna and I became campers last year, and we have visited quite a few of Florida’s state parks. While we tend to have short camping trips, a day or two, three at most (so far), I’m observing that the same relationship I have with time at the beach, also occurs while we’re camping.

On our most recent camping adventure to Highlands Hammock State Park, Luna and I felt time expand all around us. The sun shone beautifully on this Saturday afternoon in February, and the temperature creeped up to 80 — just one of the reasons 1,000 people a day move to Florida.

Luna was so excited she was unable to even nap on the two-hour drive there. (This tends to make the days a bit longer with a four-year-old!) 

About an hour before sunset, Luna and I set off on our bicycle. We paused at a little gated bridge where an SUV had pulled off and found our first alligator who was slumbering in the muck near a stream. 

Luna cannot yet differentiate between crocodiles and alligators – a very important distinction for this University of Florida alumna, and I frequently corrected her throughout the trip, that we were spotting alligators, not crocodiles. 

Then we biked on down to see one of the oldest oak trees in Florida on one of the trails. Luna climbed the tree and found some ants. Then we started to walk down a wooden, elevated bridge through the swampland. Not halfway across, we heard a low growl and snorting. The bridge was completely exposed on one side, and in mama bear mode, my protective instinct kicked into high gear. My adrenaline pulsed. I turned us around, sprinted down the bridge with Luna in my arms, and rushed back to our bicycle.

It felt like that first Ferris wheel that I took Luna on at the Strawberry Festival last year. I love rides, roller coasters, elevations, that plummeting feeling in between your throat and stomach when you’re surprised by a dip or drop. Luna had just turned three and was excited to go up way high in the sky! We were seated across from one another in the Ferris wheel, when my eyes immediately zeroed in on the child-size gaps open and exposed on each corner edge of that tiny tin death pod. My mind immediately jumped to the very rational fear of Luna jumping up and down, slipping and falling right through those cracks. Why would they design this with even a possibility of falling out? My heart raced, and my chest tightened. My eyes widened, and my breath started coming in short bursts. I held tightly on to the edge of the seat, and I begged Luna to stay seated and not move around. As we paused at the very top, of the longest ride ever, I scanned every threat, and Luna merrily pointed out the small people and rides down below. I held my breath the whole time and questioned my own parenting by taking the ride at all.

Time couldn’t pass quickly enough until we were back on the ground safe. Until we were on our bicycle racing away from that snorting threat.

We hopped back on our bicycle and as I buckled Luna in her seat, we spotted an otter crossing the dirt road a few feet away. He shimmied with his tail, flop and pull, and quickly crossed, then we heard a splash as he hit the stream. Immediate crisis averted, I took a deep breath, and we adventured on and crossed the path to find the little otter as he poked his head up to say hello and then dipped back down to swim with the current. We followed him a bit, and Luna named him Ollie, the otter. He was a cute little fellow.

The sun started to descend lower on the horizon, and I warned Luna that we did not want to be too far from our camp site at nightfall because of all the nocturnal animals. This state park boasted bats, bears, panthers, deer, wildcats, otters and more. 

We sped up on our bike, and I covered Luna’s eyes when a car passed us and stirred up the reddish dirt. We continued down the path and chattered about how scared we were of the gator sounds, and then how cute Ollie was. When all of a sudden, to our right, another set of loud snorts and grunts, made us both jump. The leaves and dirt stirred with loud rustling, and three hog tails jetted away from us.

Gator. Otter. Hogs. Oh my.

Luna, 4, wisely connected the dots and implored, “That sounded like what we heard over there. What if it was a pig and not a crocodile?”

“An alligator, sweetie, those are alligators, but yes, it could have been a pig or hog we heard, it sounded just like that didn’t it?”

Luna continued to chitter on about all the wildlife and couldn’t wait to tell her friends at the campsite. 

I gave her a little squeeze and a big smile, as she sat between me and the handlebars on my bike, I said, “Luna, this is why we go camping! What an adventure we’re having already!” I peddled, and we reviewed all the animals one by one. 

Then just a few yards later, we were interrupted again by even louder grunts, snorts and hog sounds, this one’s hog hiney twice the size of the other three, as he retreated away from us.

Luna decided we just saw the daddy, and the mama and her babies were the ones we stumbled upon earlier.

We stopped to brag to a cotton-headed couple who were checking out the same alligator we’d seen at the start, and the grandpa asked Luna, “Do you know his name?”

“What’s his name?” she asked and cocked her head.

“Cornelius, because he’s on the corner here. And we are a little corny naming the animals we see,” he laughed.

Luna exclaimed, “We saw a gator and pigs and Ollie!”

We rushed to make it back to camp before sunset filled with excitement. After dinner, the moon lit up our campsite, and the stars danced on a clear evening. The family next door planned to head on a night hike, and of course, we joined. One moment we rush to camp for safety, and the next, we venture out into the wild. 

Highlands Hammock State Park, the sunset’s natural rhythm found us again!

Our primitive campsite had maybe a dozen tent sites, a couple group sites, and one toilet. We walked the circle, and then turned down an almost beach-like white sand trail. The dad showed us how to put the flashlight right up to your nose and spot the twinkling, blue eyes that sparkled from hundreds of spiders along the sand. Once the eyes twinkled, we zeroed in on each spider to see how big or small it was. Luna was fearless and mesmerized. I felt the spidery tingles all over my body and wanted to itch.

Time marks so many moments. How we view each one is colored by the emotions, awe, wonder, fear, and pain, we feel. Each day’s rhythm might be draining or energizing. 

In stark contrast, I found myself crying to go home the following evening.

Luna’s knee went straight up, connected with my aging neck and chin, and I screamed. The pain shot straight through my jaw, my neck, my face. I saw stars.

Insert any four-letter number of choice curse words, that I may have screamed with clenched teeth in a hushed voice. The white light shot across my field of vision. The tears began involuntarily. My ears rang. I shook my head and stumbled forward.

I cried. I heaved. I fell into child’s pose. It hurt so bad.

I looked back at my daughter.

I snatched the phone away from Luna. My eyes narrowed. Yet, another reason to not give a kid a phone. Where was her compassion, her empathy? She was intently watching Bubble Guppies on youtube, ignoring the obvious pain that she had caused.

“Luna, look at mommy. When someone is crying and hurting, we need to check on them. It’s not ok to ignore them.”

The bold clarity of what I needed and the only human available, my 4-year-old, collided in this teachable moment. 

“Luna, come here. We are putting the phone away. You need to put your hand on mommy and ask if I’m ok.” I cried.

Luna complied reluctantly, scooting over the tent floor to place her little hand on my back, and asked, “Are you ok?”

“No, I’m not. That hurt really bad. I just want to go home it hurts so much.” I cried.

“I’m sorry, mommy.”

“I know, baby, you just need to be careful.”

I sat and cried a full-on eternity, or five minutes. It was so dark and windy outside, and I couldn’t bring myself to pack the campsite up this late and drive home. Yet, what did I want most desperately as I was hurting? To be home in a cocoon of safety or to have someone be there with me in my pain. 

An evening can feel like an eternity when we’re desperate in pain.

Whether it’s the physical pain of a swift kick in the face or the metal pain of loneliness. Time expands or contracts with the wave of our deep emotions. 

Time expands as we seek adventure and joy. Yet, that expansion feels too massive when we’re in pain or hurting.

A little whine and wine made for a good night’s rest, and we were back to exploring the hiking trails the next morning. 

When I observed Luna rush over to comfort a little boy crying at the playground a few days later, when she placed her hand on his back, and asked him how he was feeling and if she could help, I thought — that was time well spent.


Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

By Mandy Cloninger

Picture your best friend with his or her arm twisted around the back writhing in pain. Straining and struggling against the pressure and force. Pushing and pressing. Squirming but unwilling to relent or give up.

What might your advice to him or her be?

I bet it would be kind, warm, loving. It would likely offer mercy.

Webster’s actually offers three ways of defining mercy:

1. kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly

2. kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation

3. a good or lucky fact or situation

Each of the definitions has a gentleness that sometimes I think we only offer to others, and not necessarily ourselves.

When I scream out, “Mercy,” it is typically after I have exhausted every other possible option. It’s like the end of a wrestling match, and I’m pinned in a way that I cannot escape, and the only option is mercy, surrender.

Micah 6:8 instructs the way to love God and to love others:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micha 6:8
  • Love mercy.
  • Love kindness.
  • Love forgiveness.
  • Love help.

It is both an inward and an outward call to action. How we respond to our God, how we treat ourselves and how we serve and love others.

Mercy and meadows is a creative mantra — a call to action and adventure. 

As I brainstormed names for this writing project, I wanted to capture the feeling of surrender, the ease that I find in nature. I also adore alliteration.

This year is a year of creation for me. Creating something new. Mercy and meadows calls me to consider how mercy shows up in my life and this grand adventure. 

My youngest daughter’s name is Luna Waverly, which means the moon and meadows. She really lives into her namesake: a night owl guided by the moonlight and happiest outdoors. We often take the moon for a walk (if you’ve read this book, you’ll get the reference, if not, check it out: I Took the Moon for a Walk by Carolyn Curtis).

And honestly, three Ms: the moon, mercy and meadows, seemed like too much alliteration.

I was reminded in a wonderful self-care workshop that I attended in January that if I want more of something, I also have to be willing to do less of something else. So in the spirit of more mercy, surrender, and doing less…

Settle. Rest. Let gravity guide you. Not every pose has to be a struggle. Mercy can be a sign of loving-kindness to ourselves, especially when you’re on the mat in yoga.

Lay it down on your mat (or the sand), surrender to the pose and offer mercy to yourself and others. The meadows will guide you.

Now that’s a Savasana – the ultimate surrender!

The Wonder of a Child!

By Mandy Cloninger

Luna’s first yoga class, Mommy & Me Yoga, with Lisa, my favorite yoga instructor! Yoga has been a big part of Luna’s life, in utero, in the living room and helping us both learn to breathe together!

“A mark for every breath you took, every blink, every sleepy yawn. One for every time you sucked your thumb, waved hello, closed your eyes and slept in the most perfect darkness. One for every dream you dreamed within me.

It isn’t pretty any more. That’s ok. It was your home. It’s where I first grew to love you, where I lay my hand as I dreamed about who you were and who would you be. It held you until my arms could, and for that I will always find something beautiful in it.”


My prenatal yoga instructor Amee shared this meditation, and as she read, “It’s where I first grew to love you…” I sucked in a deep breath, touched my belly and a couple crocodile tears rushed down my face. The maternal energy and connection between mind, body and spirit was so palpable. My growing child was twirling and flipping around inside me. My hand resting on my expanding belly has become a common occurrence now, and I send light and love with each stroke.

Amee asked us to put one hand on our heart and one on our belly. The words in my mind were, this is where I first grew to love you. In this tiny yoga space, I was connecting to my physical sense of you, my intense mental and emotional connection to you. The abundant maternal energy in the place, and the amazing spiritual experience of growing you and becoming a mother, deeply moved me to a place of wonder, and I thank God for the opportunity to be a mother to you.

Author’s note: I wrote this reflection when I was pregnant with my daughter, Luna, and today is her fourth birthday! I also shared and included it in Hyde Park United Methodist Church’s 2017 Advent Devotional, Wonder, which I served as editor.



By Mandy Cloninger

Yellowstone deserves more than, “Wow!” Yet it’s such a simple, small word to convey that I don’t have words: the awe. It conveys through its simplicity, the vastness, the creation, the majesty and the divinity all wrapped in a pretty profound, three-letter word.

There were moments each and every day that the awe and wonder, the WOW! of discovering the beauty around every turn, just washed over me. It was like bathing in the beauty of creation. 

Yellowstone’s caldera and beauty were created by at least three cataclysmic volcanic eruptions 600,000-800,000 years ago! It’s termed a super-volcano, now considered dormant, but you can both see and feel the heat, the geothermal bubbling, gushing and hissing from the magma chamber underneath your feet that is about 37 miles (60 km) long, 18 miles (29 km) wide, and 3 to 7 miles (5 to 12 km) deep. More than half of the world’s geysers, geothermal and hydrothermal features are in Yellowstone, fueled by this ongoing volcanism. (All of this acquired knowledge from the Yellowstone app as well as Alex – our amazing REI guide!!!)

You can see the generations of time exposed in the caldera, the rocks, the valleys, the layers. Something beautiful was born in those first few eruptions, and nature has evolved and recreated itself over and over. It has burned, risen and recreated itself again and again just like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. It was created long before I was and will be here long after I’m gone. Yellowstone has a way of helping you to examine your own smallness in the greater landscape of nature. 

There is something to be learned in its vastness, the diversity of terrain, its consistency and yet its ever-evolving nature. Because it is still an active volcanic area, it is always evolving. Don’t we have that opportunity though too? To recreate ourselves, to rewrite our story, to try anew each and every single day? It also framed in my mind how subtle changes every single day, each year, help mold the old into the new. How when you look at the same landscape years or decades later, the cumulative changes can be breathtaking. Our lives are like that too. Each year may only have slight nuanced differences, yet when you look at the whole, or each decade, the changes seem immense. I seem different, yet I am still me. Wherever I go, whenever I go, there I am.

I was wowed by the hydrothermal features: the hot springs, the geysers, the mudpots and fumaroles. There are more than 10,000 hydrothermal features and 500 geysers in Yellowstone. Some of my favorites included Dragon’s Cauldron, where I could imagine the dragon sleeping in the dark, moist cave, and the steam, bubbling and gurgling sounded like his snore. The Lonestar Geyser, the largest backcountry geyser in the park with a 40′ eruption every three hours, marked the start of our group hike, and there’s nothing that a Texas-girl likes more than a nod to her home state. It was more subtle than Old Faithful, with fewer spectators, and yet, still shooting water straight from the ground to the sky, a feat to behold. I mean the day that the Lonestar Geyser & Old Faithful do not spurt on cue, we might as well just all sit down and watch the Big Show!

Mr. Bubbles was easily one of my favorite spots and moments of the whole trip! A water girl by nature, I was as I self-proclaimed: the first in and the last one out. I’m certain that my smile was Texas-sized as I waded into the water and navigated the pulsing heat and cool stream. I endeavored to find the right pocket with just enough heat to soothe my aching muscles, and be able to quickly swim over to the cooler stream when the heat got to be too much. It was a delightful challenge. I could have stayed here all day. I wish I had stayed there all day. But like so many moments that WOW! you in Yellowstone, there is literally always more right around the corner. 

The challenge with so much that we love in travel, adventure and the outdoors is balancing the beauty and moment that is right in front of you, relishing and basking in it, with the next place to see, next spot to hike and next meal to enjoy. It’s a tenuous balance enjoying and being fully present in these remarkable moments of wonder and yet, feeling a constant pull to continue moving forward.

Yellowstone is one of these immense wonders that has millions of sparks of beauty in her! You could spend a lifetime discovering all of her exquisite features. The backcountry alone has at least 300 waterfalls! The water features including Yellowstone Lake and the number of falls we encountered left me feeling wet all over!

Yellowstone Lake isn’t just big – it’s freaking gi-normous! I tried but there was no capturing the lake in a single photo. Had we had more time I would have loved to kayak across or fish for the day. 

At Fairy Falls, I recorded a little video for my daughter Luna, and sent a blessing and a prayer to the fairies. It was a dainty waterfall and you could imagine, even hear the tinkling of fairy laughter in the falls.

Grand Prismatic was a rainbow of colors — on the ground! It was something spectacular. Circular, evolving, full of color, heat and beauty.

I honestly lost count of tracking all the waterfalls we encountered, Collonnade, Gibbons, Fairy, Iris Falls, and more. Each one was stunning, unique and worthy of sitting down and pausing to bask in all the glory.

One of my favorite moments that really showcased Alex’s mastery of Yellowstone and its rhythms was when we came up on Iris Falls. As we navigated the last few steps up and around a corner, Alex, like a giddy parent on Christmas morning said, “Wait here just a minute.” We could hear the sound of a huge waterfall; we could already feel the mist. But Alex knew just what he was doing, as he watched the sky. 

A few clouds rolled past the sun, and he said, “Come on.” He waited patiently, for just a minute or so, to ensure that the sunshine broke through and as we came around the corner, we were blessed with the beauty of the reflection of a rainbow in the mist of the falls. That scene alone encompasses so much about clarity that can come from nature: patience to wait for the right moment, how the same steps you take might be different if one pays attention to the surroundings, and the holiness that comes from just sitting and holding a moment. There was nothing more to do for one beautiful moment than to just sit and watch the beauty of that amazing waterfall.

Iris Falls, the magic of a moment and a rainbow

Yet, we did more, and hiked to the top of the fall – standing on the precipice took my breath away and given the fact that “Grace” is so not my middle name, I worried that my overall clumsiness would tumble me right over! 

Don’t call me, Grace, I might fall over! Photo Credit: Gretchen Hull.

The water elements, the crossings on logs, rocks, nature-made bridges and navigating cold, brisk water in mid-thigh to knee deep water, made me say, “Wow!” more times than I can count or recall!

Wow! also captures the number of wildlife we saw on this grand adventure. We encountered: elk (both a loner and a pack), bison, a wolf or a coyote, geese, chipmunks, squirrels, big horn sheep, a fox, a moose, and even a black bear and her baby!

On the last day of our hike, we spotted berry droppings all along our early morning path. As I hiked in the middle of our group, I came up on the front five hikers who had all stopped and were quietly waiting. They had heard what they thought was a bear. Alex expertly cautioned us, and asked us to turn back, we were too close. Now, I was leading our pack away from any danger. I hustled and hunted around to see what I could. As we stopped again, I turned and saw the bear expertly climbing the rock wall. She headed into some trees, and just a few moments later, we saw her cub peek out on a ledge and simply watched us. Like, oh, that’s what my mom saw, that group of hikers, I’m just going to sit here and let them capture my stillness, and I’m going to watch them too. 

Even the baby bear stopped to say wow, what are you doing here in the backcountry?

Nature has an infectious quality. It gets under your skin. It invades your thoughts. Nature doesn’t ask you what you do, what value you bring.

Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.

Gretchen Ehrlich

WOW! Be what we are. Be who God designed us to be. 

Yellowstone surprised me. It WOWed me. It helped me remember who I am. The me I am that continues to evolve, micro-changes that combine and enable me to shed the old and create something new. Yet, I still remain me. I am chosen. I am worthy. I am loved. I can’t earn it. It just is.

No matter where I am. That is true. I can choose to acknowledge God at work in my life by simply saying: Help, Thanks and Wow! Thank you, Anne Lamott, for helping me to simplify my own prayers and use them as a tool for reflection.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

At the airport returning home, I was pulled aside by the TSA attendant. When I walked through the scanner, my legs lit up. They asked if I had anything under my jeans. Why were my legs glowing so brightly on the scanner? 

I laughed and said, “It might have something to do with the fact that I spent the last week hiking more than 90 miles, and my legs are on fire!”

She pulled me aside and used her wand up and down each leg and all over my body. She patted my calves and my thighs.

She paused, and said, “I feel something here,” on my left calf.

And like a perfect bookend to my Yellowstone journey, I reached in, and pulled out… my panties.

Not once, but twice, I hiked right out of my panties.

To view the best photos from my trip to Yellowstone: https://photos.app.goo.gl/XtVmJ2TDBAXEJtd3A

Part One: Help!

Part Two: Thanks!

Cultivating & Choosing Joy

By Mandy Cloninger

Joy was a means to an end — a way to transition. Joy was a focus, a simple way to have a purpose but to not do what I typically do: over-schedule, focus on productivity, achieve some new goal and then burn myself out, only to repeat the same cycle again.

It was the first December in my 20-year nonprofit and fund-raising career that I would not be watching the end-of-year gifts accumulate and comparing them with budget. I would not be at my desk or phone comparing each gift against the expectations, last year’s giving and evaluating my own worth in comparison to how the calendar year incoming dollars totaled.

I felt lighter. I began to choose things to bring me joy. I said no to things that would not bring me joy. I chose to delay and punt to another time if I wasn’t sure it would bring me joy. It was a centering experience. It gave me complete agency over my time and my schedule. Well, not complete agency, I still have a four-year old and a 20-year old, friends and framily, and Christmas and New Year’s would come like they do every year as well!

But it felt like I was in the driver’s seat to create joy-filled days and experiences. So what did cultivating joy help me learn?

My sense of accomplishment and achievement-oriented nature shows up in choosing joy. I gain a sense of accomplishment and joy from a lot of activities: reading or finishing a book, writing a piece of work, working towards larger goals, and learning something new.

I enjoy a lot of very simple things that bring me joy: food, especially Wright’s cake and Christmas cookies, movies, books, yoga, being outdoors in nature, creating and sharing a meal with my friends and family.

Reading remains one of my favorite joy-filled experiences. I am naturally restless. I like to be moving and doing something. Much like when I was a child, it’s still one of the only things that keeps me still, calm, and I feel like I actually rested. I read about six books in December – I think. I’m often reading more than one book at a time and not always great at tracking. I loved Christmas Pig by J.K. Rowling, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s: The Signature of All Things. I chose to read rather than do so many other things in December. I actually fell into a pattern if I was struggling with what might bring my joy, instead of my to-do list, my e-mail or checking social media, I read. I read that Warren Buffet spends half his time reading. If it works for him, it works for me too. If we’re reading, we’re learning.

My four-year-old daughter, Luna, brings me a lot of joy, and spending time with her is a gift. It’s also very hard sometimes. It is also a gift to ask for help with her and have her go play with a friend, her dad or go to a morning of camp. 

After a recent bike ride downtown to the park, I caught Luna rolling down a hill without me! I did teach her that and now she’s doing it all on her own and making new friends. I felt the sting, the knowing that I was already missing out on so much with her.

Honestly, I didn’t expect Luna to prevail so heavily in my decisions around joy, but she has. It has brought a lot of clarity to my big three. My number one is family adventure! We seek adventure every day. Though adventure for us is often cultivated in a lot of small moments, rituals and daily practices.

Fun has shown up a lot while cultivating joy this month! We’ve baked. Created ornaments from construction paper and pom poms. We’ve biked. Played with her new dollhouse. Snuggled on the couch watching movies. Napped together. 

I’ve taken more than one nap! It’s a miracle. I didn’t even know it was possible.

I didn’t feel the guilt when Luna was sick one day, and I just stayed home with her. It was a messy, vomit-filled day. So much laundry. But, as I held her, stroking her hair and back, I thought, she’s not going to let me do this forever. She’s growing so fast. 

I’m savoring this time with her. If we don’t do the things that bring us joy now, when will we? We love family adventure. We went to Michigan to see snow! We sledded! We made ice cream snow. We made a snowman. We played with our friends in the snow. We shopped.

Snow angel = joy!

I would catch myself noting moments of joy and pausing to write them down throughout the day, but I also paused at the end of the day, every day, looking back and reflecting on the day, and I added some more moments of joy.

Choosing to find joy-filled moments even when there is vomit everywhere, you’re on the fifth load of laundry and the delivery of bleach wipes isn’t quite there, is a leap, but it’s easier to see the moments when you’re not in the middle of the hard stuff. When she’s asleep, for example.

Joy is a choice. It can be a daily choice. It can be an in the moment choice.
It can become a mindset.

It can be deciding do I laugh right now or just hang on to being frustrated from 10 minutes ago?

I also can choose to keep chasing and cultivating joy every day, and I have, my joy journal continues!

Joy Journal: Decembercheck out the moments that had me filled with joy day-by-day

Dec 1

Hair cut and color

Wrights alpine cake and banana bread

Dec 2

Day of fellowship: three colleagues and happy hour party

Read my book for an hour when interview canceled

Ate cake!

Dec 3 

Volunteered at Trinity Cafe

Lunch w/ a few inner circle peeps at Bamboozle

Dinner and drinks w Cindy & Jeremy

Dec 4

Movie w Judy: C’mon C’mon

Wrapped Christmas presents

Dec 5

Setup and organized home office

Finished the Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert – such a beautiful read!

Dec 6



Zoo w/ Luna

Dec 7

Wrote and organized/read all my work

Watched the voice during my lunch break and sang along 

Repaired and cleaned Alyssa’s car for her

Spin class – walk this way singing out loud!

Salmon meal – yummy!

Dec 8

Attended Tampa Bay Chamber Lunch with my LT11 Classmates, many of whom I had not seen during the pandemic – socializing and building relationships

Girl’s night dinner

Cats with April

Dec 9

Luna sick and vomiting

Snuggled and held her

Tons of laundry

Drank some wine

Winter clothes from Kelley

Packed for trip!

Dec 10

Travel day!

Luna running through airport – walking sidewalk, escalator and excellent traveler

Dec 11

Wow! Where’d all that snow come from! Luna’s reaction to seeing snow for the first time when we woke up!

Luna sliding, climbing, big snow piles to play in!

Making dinner for Jenni and the girls

Dec 12

Luna and Billie – lambs at church – wild sheep!

Joy this weeks theme of advent

Hallelujah Christmas song 

Kitch iti Kipi – big spring, 45 degrees year round

Big Spring – boat, snow, ducks w/ Rick & Sheila

Big Spring Tavern 

Dec 13

Sledding w Luna and Billie

Yoga w Katy & Jenni

Beers at Shutes saloon

Dec 14

Making Christmas Crack w/girls

Park and Luna sledding on her bootie because we didn’t have the slide and she found a hill with snow

Christmas tree and magic


Dec 15

Finished One by One – Ruth Ware, thriller murder

Tried a pastie 

Shopping w/Luna in downtown Houghton

Dinner w/ the Holmes

Dec 16

Craft time w Luna & Billie – made ornaments

Took a nap

Read the Christmas Pig by J.K. Rowling

Dec 17

Interview and writing wow! time

Balloons w/ Billie & Luna

BAT sandwich and beers in the cold snowy day

Sledding at playground w Luna

Dancing w/ Jenni

Dec 18

Sledding w/ Luna

Reading The Impossible First – staying up late to read 

Dec 19

Sledding w Luna at big hill w Jack & Billie

Fitz’s for lunch on Lake Superior

The vastness and beauty of Lake Superior

Dec 20

Travel day (in contrast to joy of travel to!) – quite a bit long and frustrating

Chick-fil-A shakes


Dec 21

Body flow

Lunch w/ Jamie & Vicki

Watched a movie while Luna napped and finished it after bedtime: CODA

Dec 22

Snuggling w Luna to watch a movie

Walking on Riverwalk w/ Jeremy & Luna

Dec 23

Baking w/ Luna, April & Gavin’s family

Christmas lights w/ Brad & Luna

Dec 24

Putting together Luna’s dollhouse and conquering that 65-step project including the elevator!

Christmas Eve service

Dinner w/ the family

Santa magic

Dec 25

Magic of Christmas w/ Luna 

Took a nap

Made dinner – only the things we love to eat at Christmas – nothing extra!

Snuggled w/ Luna and fell asleep on couch watching Christmas movies

Dec 26

Played with unicorns and dollhouse w/ Luna – a lot!

Sent birthday invite out

Worked on blog – frustrating not quite yet joyful

Dec 27

Took Luna to Doublemint camp – asked for help babysitting since Luna’s out of school

Worked on blog site all morning!

Biked on Riverwalk w Luna

Dec 28

Finished blog site and sent to inner circle for feedback – joy in accomplishing a small goal!

Felt some flow for a bit writing and with blog!

Took Luna to the park

Dec 29

Zoo day w Gavin & Mackenzie & Luna

Got wet on roaring springs w/o a change of clothes for anyone! 

Dec 30

Yoga w Lisa @ Y

Wrote all afternoon 

Said yes to Karen asking for Luna to come over and play! 

Dec 31

Fort Desoto beach w/ Luna

Byblos for dinner

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