What Freedom Looks Like

My wife and I were on vacation at a resort in Hawaii. Picture a perfect day: hot and sunny, a bright blue sky, palm leaves stirred by a warm, sweet breeze off the ocean. We strolled across the immaculately manicured lawn of the resort; lush and clipped like a golf green. Happy people could be found here and there. Some were lounging by the pool, others played catch, chatted or, like us, sauntered about soaking it all in. Paradise.

Perhaps twenty-five meters ahead of us, a father was dressing his toddler after some fun in the pool. Yet another scene of bliss and tranquility.

Then it happened.

The little fella broke free. Buck naked, he squealed joyfully and set out at a sprint—or at least a toddler’s version of it: elbows flexed, fists up around his ears, round belly proudly leading the way. His little legs pumped vigorously, monkey-style, chubby feet flapping down one after the other on the soft green grass, scampering along with all the grace and finesse of a penguin.

I’m not sure how old he was. (How old are children when they first learn to run?) But toddler though he was, he knew a few things. First of all, he knew that this was temporary. His dad would chase after him (hence the squeals) and he would ultimately be caught (just as much fun as being chased). But even though capture was inevitable, he also knew he had to make a run for it; this because he remembered something that his father had likely long since forgotten: he was born naked! Clothes, to him, were a ridiculous nuisance. A symbol of bondage, even. This, frolicking au naturel under the warm summer sun, was sweet, sweet freedom.

As this amusing little pantomime played out in front of us, the Newsboys song “I am Free” immediately popped into my head. Ever since then, when I think of the kind of freedom that Jesus came to bring, this is the little 10 second video (complete with soundtrack) that plays in my mind. “I am free to run, I am free to dance, I am free to live for you. I am free!”

Seeing my dog run off-leash creates a similar picture for me. In last week’s post, I recounted a typical trip to the dog park. (If you missed it, just click here: http://wp.me/p863BT-2A) Last week I suggested that Casey on the loose was evocative of worship. Unrestrained, she does what she was born to do with joy and abandon, just like the wee little nudist. But it is important to note that freedom is the catalyst; given the chance, she becomes fully alive, unable to do anything but what she was made to do. This in turn brings glory to God.

The same is true for me. I worship most fully when I remember my freedom. It might be in a moment when I am feeling especially free, such as when I go for a walk on a beautiful day, or when I enjoy a drive alone through the countryside (at precisely the speed limit) listening to my favourite music. Or it may be when I recall some of the things that used to hold me captive, and those times in my life where God intervened, usually in the midst of pain, to emancipate me. I see who and what I was, and how I am now, by comparison, like that little boy dashing across the grass, a picture of joy.  

Of course, the tiny tot’s dad did eventually catch up with him. It was only a matter of seconds, really. 238 frantic steps for the little one, and two easy strides for his laughing father, who scooped him up and bundled him into his clothing. Life will do that to us, and so we seize these joyful moments when they present themselves, knowing all too well that this fallen world so frequently seeks to constrain us.

My prayer for that child, and for the child in each of us, is that he never forgets. That he remembers what freedom feels like and always seeks it, never losing hope, knowing that there is One who offers it without reservation. May he recognize and fully enjoy the reminders of it that are all around him, and may he faithfully endure those painful moments that will be needed to loosen the shackles that will inevitably be placed upon him. And finally, may he (and we) rejoice in the certain hope of a future where the sun shines warm, the grass grows soft and green, and (dare I suggest it?) clothing will be entirely optional.

 

If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

— John 8:36

What My Dog Has Taught Me About Life and God (#1)

My dog inspires me (please do not tell her this, as she’s a little cocky as it is). She actually elicits a variety of reactions: amusement, irritation, frustration, laughter, anger and heart-melting affection. But inspiration is the one we’ll talk about today.

Casey is a Brittany, a medium-sized dog originally bred for bird hunting. As such, she possesses many of the characteristics one might expect in a bird dog: athleticism, high energy, strong sniffing instinct, alertness, enthusiasm, intelligence. She also exhibits a number of traits that seem to be in no way related to her calling, such as stubbornness, moments of mindless mania and excessive cuteness. And lots of shedding.

I took Casey to the off-leash dog park the other day. This is her favourite place on the planet. Let me describe for you what it looks like every single time we go there. First comes the whining in the car. Once we get about halfway to the dog park, she knows exactly where we’re going, and begins to articulate her feelings through a series of mournful wails and barks. Roughly translated into English, she says, “Hey! We’re going to the dog park! Right? I love the dog park! That’s where we’re going, right? To the dog park? Can we please go to the dog park? I love it there! Are we there yet? You’re not going somewhere else, are you? Cuz I love the dog park! Are we there yet? We’re not there yet! It’s coming up—do you remember the way? Straight ahead, and it’s on the right; I can smell it! Don’t turn left! I LOVE the dog park! There are dogs there! And a park! Dog park dog park dog park!” (etc.)

Upon arrival we wrestle. Imagine a kite in a windstorm. Imagine that the kite is a dog and the string is a leash and that the windstorm begins in the back of my parked car and continues until such time as I manage to land her inside the park’s gate.

Our dog park has a cleverly engineered dual gate system that allows one to unleash one’s animal inside the first gate, which is itself fully enclosed by a fence. This is brilliant, and effectively protects the dog park’s innocent patrons from Casey’s inevitable insanity upon arrival. I unclip her lead and she bolts for the next gate, nose pressed to the ground, and throws herself at it paws-first. The gate miraculously holds, and I take a moment to recompose myself before initiating the next phase: the launch.

I take a few moments to scan the area; ideally it is deserted. This ensures that my dog will not bowl over any children, jump up on any old people, or blindly run over any smaller dogs. (Yes, these things have all happened. I beg that you do not judge me. I am a good dog owner. But 5 years in with this particular dog—who has calmed down, mind you—and I remain helpless in the face of her we’re-finally-here-I-get-to-run-now insanity.) Once a safe perimeter has been established, I unhook the gate. (It is not necessary that I actually open it; her head does that.)

She shoots out of that chain link enclosure like a torpedo from  submarine. Her initial trajectory takes her about 100 metres straight into the park, before slowing slightly, looping around, and accelerating back towards her original launchpoint. Once there she sprints from exciting object (another dog, a human, a bush to sniff, etc.) to exciting object, rarely making any significant contact—strictly sniff and run. And then she’s off, racing away again at maximum speed in whatever direction compels her. In spite of my best efforts, there is usually someone around to witness all of this, and they inevitably react, depending on their temperament, with some version of “Wow!” By way of response, I typically shrug, smile and quote Bruce Springsteen. “She was born to run.”

The Boss is right (of course), and she demonstrates this fact for the rest of our time at the park. She runs and runs (and sniffs) and runs and runs (and sniffs; she was also born to sniff, but I doubt that Springsteen will write a song about that) and runs. She runs through the long grass especially, because that’s where she finds birds to flush in the summer. It’s winter now, and there are very few birds, but just the possibility is enough.

This is where Casey inspires me. I walk, and she runs, and watching her I see pure joy. She’s a pretty happy dog most of the time, but here, in her element, she reaches a whole other level of bliss. I am reminded of the words attributed to Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”*

Can a dog worship God? In Isaiah 55, the mountains and hills burst into song, and the trees of the field clap their hands. As He enters Jerusalem, Jesus tells the Pharisees that even if He silenced His disciples, “the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:40) There is clearly some metaphor in play with these examples, but I think also something more than that; scripture taken as a whole (including Romans 1 and Psalms 19 & 148) suggests that all of creation attests to the glory of God. A mountain, a sunset, a starry night sky—all of these, just by virtue of their magnificence, honour their creator. A dog, then, doing what it was meant to do with joyful abandon, does likewise.

Humans, made in His image, are unique amongst creation in their ability to take it to the next level. Neither a mountain nor a dog chooses to glorify God, I don’t think. They just do what they  were made to do. We alone have the capacity to look up, and say, “Hey, maybe there’s more here than meets the eye. Look at that majestic mountain, and that crazy-fast dog. Someone made that. Wow. God!” And then, to choose to worship Him; or not. Given this singular capacity—the ability to (somewhat) comprehend, and then to chose—human worship is both a precious gift (to ourselves, and remarkably, to God Himself) and a privilege. And greater is the tragedy when we neglect, or worse, eschew it.

And, so back to my ridiculous dog. I see her do what she was born to do with such unfettered joy and I am inspired to do likewise. Some of the things I was born to do are the same as the things you were born to do; those things that we have in common as human beings made in the image of God. And some of them are part of the distinct set of passions and abilities that God wove together into the unique creation that is me (I’m doing one of those things right now, writing this).

I want to be more like Casey, launching myself into everything that I am meant to be with unbridled enthusiasm, and revelling in the joy of it. And then, because I can, taking it to that next level, and choosing to acknowledge and honour the One who makes it possible. Worship.

 

 

*“Surprisingly, this line was actually written by Colin Welland as part of his script for the film Chariots of Fire, but is widely misrepresented as having been said by Eric Liddell in real life.” http://www.ericliddell.org/ericliddell/quotations

Happy New Year?

2016 has taken a lot of heat. A lot. And I get it. Bad news came in waves this past year, with events ranging from shocking to sickening to simply very sad. Brutal terrorism. Racism. Violence by law enforcement officers. Violence against law enforcement officers. Protests and riots. Olympic doping. Zika. Extreme weather: earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, winter storms, record high temperatures and flooding. Airline disasters. Economic woes. The brutal war in Syria, and the tragedy of refugees that no one quite knows how to handle. Political upheaval: Brexit, a failed coup in Turkey, Trump versus Clinton, left versus right, Russia versus the US, and North Korea versus . . .  everyone. Hacking. Fake news. Creepy clowns. And of course the never-ending stream of celebrity deaths.

I’m not going to say that the horrible (even horrific) events listed above weren’t that bad (they were) but I would like to rebut 3 of the more common responses to the previous year. First, many  have gone so far as to call 2016 the worst year ever. (I mean, look at Mariah Carey’s performance on New Year’s Eve!) Others, Christians in particular, point to the year as evidence that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. (A handbasket? Why not get an Uber? Or do they do ridesharing there? Anyway . . .  ) Finally, some have taken a more positive approach, suggesting that while 2016 was rough, we can hope that 2017 will be much better. In my opinion all 3 of these responses are ill-informed, and I would like to advocate a more rational response. In this digital age, there are a multitude of voices clamouring for our attention, and it is perhaps more important than ever that Christians remain anchored in reason and truth.

So, let’s start with “the worst year ever”*. I think it would be fair to suggest that there may have been other years that would rival 2016 for that dubious title. For instance, there would be a number of scientists who would lobby in favour of that time when an asteroid collided with our planet, wiping out up to 75% of previously living species. That was probably a rough year. Too speculative for you? How about the year of the Great Flood? You know, that time when everyone died except for Noah and his family? Or the Black Death? You could pick one of the years during that dark time in the mid 1300s and make a pretty strong argument for that as the worst year ever.

Okay, some might argue, but those are just natural disasters. What about economic downturn and political upheaval? Well, my parents’ generation would suggest that the Great Depression and World War II would give anything that occurred in 2016 a run for its money. Man’s inhumanity to man? How about the Holocaust? The Cambodian genocide?

Which brings us to the hell in a handbasket theory. It goes something like this: The good old days are gone. This world is just getting worse and worse! If people would just (insert preferred ideology; essentially it involves some version of other people agreeing with their worldview and taking up their pet cause) then everything would improve.

One of the problems with this rather simplistic approach is the fundamental assumption that the world is getting worse. Of course, by the world, they mean people. And I’m going to suggest that people have been doing some pretty awful things for quite some time. Racism, tyranny, insurrection, corruption and greed are not new. People have been crafting creative reasons for the implementation of cruel means to impose their will upon others for millennia. Some examples would Genghis Khan, Caligula, Maximilien Robespierre, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler—all of whom did their deadly deeds long before 2016.

So what am I saying? That life just sucks; always has and always will? Nope. Simply that bad things have been happening for a long, long time. They happened in 2016, and they’ll continue to happen for as long as we’re all here. Perhaps the reason it seems like more of it happened in 2016 is that in a media saturated, digitally enhanced, on-demand world, we get to see it all up close. Not that long ago, there was a comfortable distance (both chronologically and geographically) separating us from events in Syria, or Turkey, or France. In today’s digital world, that distance is rapidly shrinking. What happens on the other side of the world pops up on our smartphones, live and in HD, almost immediately.

Here’s a second theory: more people. I remember as a kid learning that the world’s population was just under 4 billion (3.7 in 1970). Since then, it has doubled to 7.4 billion. Does it not seem reasonable that with twice as many people, there might be twice as much strife? I think that these 2 factors might also explain why there seem to be so many celebrity deaths. As a result of increased population and higher media consumption, there are simply more celebrities on the planet than ever before. In fact, it could be argued that celebrities weren’t even really a thing until the mid twentieth century. Well, those people are very old now.

So what do we do with all of this? Let me repeat what I said earlier: it is perhaps more important now than ever that Christians remain anchored in reason and truth. And where might we look for truth? Let’s start with the Bible.  It tells us that God created a beautiful world for us to enjoy, designed for us as a place to thrive and to exercise our true nature as those made in His image and likeness. But leaving us in charge came with a risk—the possibility that we might discover ways to selfishly manipulate things to our own supposed advantage. Of course, that is exactly what we have endeavoured to do, and the result is the tragedy and heartache that has infected what was once pure and perfect. Hence, the barrage of bad news that daily presents itself through our computer screens, smartphones and televisions.

If the story stopped there, life would all be rather hopeless. Unfortunately, so many have come to that very conclusion. Or, alternatively that we can fix it all if we would just (once again, insert ideological solution). Or that maybe we’ll all just get lucky and 2017 will be better.  

But the gospel offers real hope—the good news that we just celebrated at Christmas: that God is for us. That He has come, has conquered it all, and has made Himself available to walk us through even the worst of it. That beauty is alive and well in His world. It doesn’t all get reported in the media, but it’s there nonetheless. Babies are being born. People are celebrating 20th, 40th and 60th wedding anniversaries. Art is being created. Doctors and scientists are saving lives. The sun is rising and setting. And because God is at the center of all that is good, and with us in all that is not—and because He promises one day to restore all things—there truly is hope.

Let’s not be sucked in by the hopeless negativity of a world that cannot see beyond the obvious. Rather, let us walk into a new year with our eyes open to the reality of a world where tragedy and beauty exist side by side, our confidence based not upon ourselves, or our personal ideologies, or anything in our circumstances or surroundings, but with our eyes firmly fixed “not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)

 

 

“Cause the players gonna play…and the haters gonna hate…heartbreakers gonna break…and the fakers gonna fake…shake it off!”

— T. Swift

 

I just quoted Taylor Swift. Wow! 2017 is already shaping up to be a year full of surprises!

 

 

*In researching this post, I particularly enjoyed this article by Rebecca Onion of Slate magazine: 

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2016/07/is_2016_the_worst_year_in_history.html  

She debunks the “worst year ever” notion very thoroughly!

Christmas

At the foundation of my Christian faith, there lies a fundamental belief: there is more to this life than what we can see.

People can be found all over the place on this spectrum of thought. For some people, what you see is what you get. Observable evidence equals truth. Anything beyond that is speculation, or worse: a wishful-thinking fairytale. At the other end of the scale are those who are most intrigued by the unseen. For them, our material existence is an illusion, a counterfeit reality that masks a superior life to be lived on an unseen plane.  The goal is to escape this illusory and meaningless existence in order to level up to a better life.

I can’t accept either of those extremes. And perhaps that’s why I love the message of Christmas: Immanuel—God with Us. The divine positions itself amidst the mundane.

We were put here on this planet, the material world, with a purpose. It’s a beautiful home, designed for us as a place for us to thrive and to exercise our true nature as those made in the image and likeness of God. But something went horribly wrong (sin/the fall), and the planet spins slightly off its axis, tilted just enough to throw everything off so that we know it’s not quite right, yet we still catch occasional glimpses of what it ought to be. We can see the physical, but it is much more difficult to track the spiritual.

Jesus came to reconnect the two. To restore what was lost and reestablish our true identity; to help us see our existence for what it is: as human beings, we live right at the intersection of the visible and the invisible.

Why do I believe this? I’ve asked myself that question on many occasions, and over the years, have come up with many different answers. Some of them would sound a lot like Christian apologetics, which I’m a fan of; it’s important to know why you believe what you believe. Some of my answers would come from a far more subjective place; I could talk about experiences I have had—encounters with God, if you will. The kind that would make some people nod knowingly, and others smile politely. But recently, the answer that is most compelling to me (it might not be the “correct” answer, or the most convincing to the skeptic, but it is the most honest) is that I just have to. The thought that we might be all alone—mere biological accidents pinned by gravity to a rock randomly hurtling through the vast emptiness of space—is depressing at best, and horrifying at worst. I’m not equipped to cope with life on those terms. I need more than that. Desperately.

As a result, what we call the Gospel—the Good News—resonates deeply with me. This narrative—which begins with Immanuel, the God who condescends to make a personal appearance in the form of a helpless baby, and continues on as the story of a simple working man, then a great teacher and miracle worker, then an executed criminal, and finally the One who saves us by overcoming it all—confirms that there is more. And, even better, I don’t need to do something remarkable in order to escape all of this, but rather He Himself has intervened so that I may live fully right here where I belong, until such time as I am invited to continue on to the next glorious stage in the journey.  

How one views (and celebrates) Christmas then becomes a microcosm of how one views (and lives) life itself. If this is all there is, then this holiday is nothing more than a cultural tradition: parties, decorations, days off, songs, special time with friends and family. All good stuff; in fact, some of it is even great stuff! But when it’s over, it’s over—for the next year, at least. Life then becomes something very similar: enjoy it while you can, and squeeze as much goodness from it as possible while you still have it.

But if there is more, and the Story is true, then Christmas is so much more than all of that. It includes all of the fun stuff, but it’s primary role is to remind us of the truth of who we are: fragile beings living in the midst of both beauty and tragedy, just like Mary, Joseph and the shepherds in the stable on that long-ago night. And like them, we find ourselves to be recipients of the greatest possible gift: Immanuel; Jesus, the God who chose to dwell among us. The holiday in this case simply reminds us of the unseen reality that is so easy for us to lose sight of: there is more, and it’s always around us, 24/7. We are not alone, and this isn’t all some big cosmic coincidence. Rather, each of us has been painstakingly woven into a much bigger, greater story of infinite purpose and beauty.

May the upcoming celebration of Christmas restore our vision and enable us all to see anew the great gift of eternal life that is ours today, and on Christmas Day, and every day, forever.

 

The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

— Matthew 4:16, NIV

Worst Field Trip Ever

Note: This was originally two separate posts (Parts 1 & 2), but I have since combined the two for your reading convenience. 🙂

 

This past September was the first in 50 years where I did not head off to school, either as a student or a teacher. I can’t even guess how many field trips I’ve been a part of over that time period. But I can tell you which one was the worst.

It began innocently enough. A colleague flagged me down in the hallway at the end of a teaching day. Would I do her a favour? The 2 grade 5 classes were scheduled to attend an upcoming field trip that she, as their Social Studies teacher, had booked some time ago. A lovely trip, she explained, but with a rather long hike upon arrival. Alas, being approximately 11 months pregnant, she felt it would be more than she could manage at this time. Since I also taught her class and knew her students well, would I consider going in her place?

Of course I said yes. For two reasons. First of all, I like to be accommodating whenever possible. Secondly (and mostly) it’s very difficult to say no to a very pregnant woman. My knee had been acting up, which concerned me a little, but I had far less swelling there than she had in her abdomen. That pretty much sealed the deal right there, along with the fact that there was significantly less chance that I would spontaneously give birth mid-hike.

We’d be going to Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, which I’d never heard of. In Social Studies, grade 5 students learned about the history of the First Nations peoples of our province, and this would give them a chance to see an actual buffalo jump. I mean, there would be no actual jumping buffaloes, but still. Pretty cool. I was guardedly optimistic.

A couple of weeks later, I boarded a yellow school bus along with 60 very excited 10 year olds. It would be a ride of little over an hour each way, which is frankly a rather long time to travel in an enclosed space with 60 near-delirious children. The only other teacher was driving the bus that day, so essentially it was me and . . .  them.

Before continuing with the tale, let’s just pause for a bit to talk about the good old fashioned cheese wagon. What a marvel of engineering it is! Completely uncluttered by anything resembling modern technology, it remains frozen in time like a great dinosaur in amber. One can only assume that the team of engineers that originally designed it (in, say, 1903?) looked upon their creation and exclaimed, “Yes! Perfection! Never change it!” And for so many obvious reasons!

First of all, comfort. If these guys had been completely unconcerned about it, the seats would be just rudimentary benches constructed from two almost perpendicular sheets of steel. But no, they added several millimetres of a rare type of foam so subtle as to be virtually imperceptible. Then, the luxurious plastic outer layer, perhaps even thicker than its foam foundation, supple as rhinoceros hide. Nothing but the best for our children!

Then of course, the ride. Most vehicle makers these days endeavour to make the driving experience something akin to a day at the spa. The seats embrace and caress you, the suspension eliminates any evidence of vehicular movement whatsoever, and factors such as engine or road noise are obliterated by state of the art noise cancellation technology. The designers of the venerable school bus, however, threw all of that nonsense out the window. Instead, what they have left us with is an organic, visceral experience that ensures that no matter what you do (and you try many things, including conversation, listening to music, texting, playing games, reading, etc., etc.) you will not under any circumstances forget that you are riding in a very large, loud, slow-moving albatross of a vehicle. Think: homesteaders bouncing and lurching over untamed prairie in covered wagons (but accompanied by a convoy of Sherman tanks, to titillate the eardrums).

We could also talk about aesthetics (minimalist, evocative of the Great Depression), safety features (including prominently displayed first aid and bodily fluid cleanup kits), climate control (gigantic windows movable by only those imbued with the strength and skill of a Greek god) and entertainment systems (radio, tuned to the mandatory country music station). But we must move on with our tale, so I shall conclude this meander down memory lane with a comment on one ingenious feature that is so tragically overlooked in discussion of the brilliance of cheese wagon design: acoustics. Yes, school bus engineers were careful to ensure that exterior noise would flow unhindered into the vehicle, but they didn’t just leave it there. No! Their true genius is shown by the way in which they skillfully multiply even the smallest sounds that originate from within the bus. A meticulous search of the interior of any school bus will reveal a complete absence of any material that will in any way dampen sound. Instead, stark steel surfaces await sound waves like so many enormous radar dishes designed to receive, amplify and rebroadcast any noise at any wavelength, ranging from prepubescent squeals to proud and pungent farts.

We arrived at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park and disembarked. Here, we were met with a surprise. I shall preface this by saying that we were in the midst of an unusually warm, dry month of June, and that our destination was known to be exceptionally hot and arid even when the rest of the region wasn’t. I mean, the word dry is right there in the name. So imagine our surprise when we arrived to find the place absolutely sodden from the previous night’s deluge. How much had it rained? So much that when our bus departed the sun-drenched prairie highway and rattled onto the road that descended into the Red Deer River valley, we immediately found ourselves enveloped in a thick fog formed by the mists rising from the rapidly evaporating water that had pooled in innumerable places upon the normally parched earth. It was a little eerie, to be honest. Or maybe foreboding would be a better term.

Standard procedure calls for one teacher at the front of the pack, ostensibly leading the way. In reality, this person’s primary job is to keep the high-energy go-getters from racing ahead and unleashing untold destruction on what or whomever lies ahead. The other person in this scenario plays sweeper, ensuring that no stragglers are left behind. The pace is easy, but there is generally some stress associated with the need to relentlessly prod the habitually inert. Nonetheless, given my wonky knee, the back of the line seemed the most reasonable place for me, so almost everyone had vanished into the mists by the time I set out with my band of sluggards.

The first 100 metres or so were disarmingly pleasant. There were some mucky puddles to circumnavigate, to be sure, but the kids at the back of the line aren’t the sort to dive headlong into those—given the chance, they would be more inclined to stop, cast a line, and find out whether the fish were biting. But at this point it wasn’t too difficult to shoo them along. There was a nice, wide, level path, the fog kept away the hot sun, and everyone was in good spirits.

But then the trail began to narrow. We started out 2 or 3 abreast, but soon the tall, wet grass on either side of us began to whip at our legs even when single file. Now the only way around the many puddles that blocked our way was off the trail and through the long grass itself. Many back-of-the-line kids are of the sort that do not like to be touched by icky things like grass. Morale began to fall.

At about this same time, the fog burned off. This had several negative consequences. First of all, it allowed us to see exactly where we were, which was at the bottom of a deep wide valley. This in itself was of no concern; it was actually a very pretty landscape. However, in seeing where we were, we were also able to see how far we had to go to reach the buffalo jump. I’ve never been great with distances, but to the naked eye, it appeared to me to be roughly equivalent to the distance across the Serengeti. Now, remember who I have with me on this little excursion: these are the kids who, upon hearing of a class outing to a local park—3 blocks away from the school—ask, “Do we have to walk?”

A second concern raised by the clearing mists was the newfound exposure to the blazing sun. It wasn’t even 11 o’clock yet, and we were already feeling it. Now, being from Alberta, when we experience heat at all, it’s a dry heat. This was not that. Rather, this was humidity unlike anything any of us had ever known. We were about 12 minutes in, and bodies began to drop.

Teachers employ a variety of strategies to coax reluctant children to do things they think they cannot (or simply will not) do. I was an experienced child whisperer, but we were still very early on in our journey, and I was already struggling. As educators tasked with caring for precious young lives, the last thing we want to do is leave any child behind. But to be honest, at that moment I figured that if I had to sacrifice a half dozen or so for the good of the pack, well, so be it.

What happened next solved my problem for me. Remember I alluded to the negative impacts of the sun’s arrival? Well, can you guess the third of these? Here’s a hint: recent moisture, immediately followed by extreme heat. On the Canadian prairies, that means one thing—mosquitoes. All of a sudden, rising as if from of the depths of hell itself, millions and millions of mosquitoes.

At least now no one wanted  to sit around any more.

So we slogged on. There was no real trail, per se, any longer. Just a ragged line of diminutive travellers up to their armpits in grass, weaving their way around (and often through)  puddles and muck. Knee throbbing, I was able to avoid most of the worst wet spots (even the kids who had wanted to stay out of them had stopped trying by now), but I remember a  particularly large muck pit that was just too big. I figured that if I launched myself just right, I could land on my other foot and spring off of it to the far side with minimal damage to my favourite leather basketball shoes. I executed the maneuver rather splendidly, but unfortunately I had not taken into account the peculiar consistency of the mud. Launch, soar, land, push off. My body did everything correctly, but my one high-top shoe stayed firmly behind in the mud. By the time I was finished retrieving it, I was every bit as muddy as the any of the 10-year-olds who accompanied me, which is saying something.

I would like to say the day got better, but it did not. It got hotter. We got more mosquito bites and bigger blisters (the result of wet, muddy footwear + soggy socks + heat). Complaining increased dramatically.

I arrived at the buffalo jump with my ragtag group, crunched a few numbers, then quickly realized that we would have about 5 minutes to gulp down some lunch before turning around for the journey back to the bus. Making that announcement was a real morale booster. What follows is a sampling of some of the discussion that ensued.

“Hey,” I enthused, “we made it, right?”

“Made it where?”

“Here! To the buffalo jump.”

“This is it? It’s a hill.”

“Uh, it’s a cliff,” I corrected.

“Uh huh. Where are the buffaloes?”

“Well, they’re dead . . .”

Mild interest. “Ooh. Where?”

“Well, there might be some bones in the dirt . . .”

“The mud you mean.”

Stink eye delivered in classic teacher style.

“So no buffaloes,” obnoxious child continues, undeterred. “Which means we came  all this way to see a hill and some mud that might have bones in it?”  

“But just imagine! Hundreds of buffalo stampeding over the edge of that cliff,” I pointed up for dramatic effect, “and landing here, right where we’re eating our lunch!”

“Ew. If I wanted to imagine a bunch of dead buffaloes, I could have done that from home.”

Truth be told, in my heart of hearts, I knew that the kid had a point.

The trip back to the bus was predictably gruelling, but of course we made it. Crazy how I had been so grateful to escape the wagon of doom only hours before, yet for that entire journey back, the slowly growing yellow speck in the distance was the one thing that kept hope alive within me. I had never been so grateful to clamber aboard a school bus in my life.

Of course, that was before I realized that a day in the relentless prairie sun had raised the temperature inside the great steel box to the equivalent of the surface temperature of Mercury. Or considered the collective effect of 60 sweaty, muddy bodies being added to the environment. Oh, the sweet, sweet aroma!

But at least they would be tired. After everything those poor children had been through that day, most of them would probably fall asleep, right? Unless . . .  unless that other thing happened. That thing that happens sometimes with kids when they’re beyond tired, beyond exhausted even. That thing where they absolutely lose their minds. For over an hour. In a smotheringly hot, odiferously foul, acoustically cruel box of  horror.

Yup, that happened.

My pregnant colleague greeted me brightly the next morning at school. “Thank you so much for taking my place yesterday,” she began. “How was the trip?”

Pause. “Great!” Warm, enthusiastic smile. “Best field trip ever!”

Sometimes, you just gotta lie.