The story of Lisa and Tom’s newlywed wilderness vacation in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota/Canada is well known to the longstanding readers of this article. Attempting to meet our outfitter for a ride home from our week-long wilderness vacation, in the pre-cell phone days of the early nineties, Lisa and I could not afford to wait out an ominous storm. Despite pulling on our paddles as hard as we could, battling stout whitecaps and wind, we conducted, “beauty checks” for many hard miles and hours until we met up with our ride home. To this day, we are convinced that it was our beauty checks that gave us the energy to successfully make our way to our original “put in” spot. The vocabulary of beauty checks, and the philosophy behind it—staying positive by intentionally savoring beauty in the midst of adversity— has been a part of the foundation of my family over the last twenty years.
This summer, we asked our college-bound oldest daughter where she would like to take her last pre-college family vacation. Without missing a beat, she requested a wilderness vacation in the Minnesota/Canada Boundary Waters. Like a salmon returning to the streams that gestated her, perhaps Annalise had some kind of preternatural instinct that “beauty checks” weren’t the only things conceived in the Boundary Waters nineteen years earlier (oops, TMI).
A month after that vacation, we delivered our daughter to her residential campus, and said our goodbyes. The convocation (i.e. opening ceremony) at her mid-sized university was as close to a liturgy as a secular institution could muster. Despite the beautiful speeches and rituals, it occurred to me that my convocation for Annalise spontaneously occurred a month earlier on the vacation that she initiated. It was on those lakes where Minnesota meets Canada that I found myself, once again, conducting beauty checks. But this time, nineteen years later, I found that all of the beauty was inside the boats that accompanied Lisa and me.
From my seat on the boundary where childhood gives way to adulthood, I found myself looking back, and once again, conducting beauty checks. In an instant, it was eighteen years ago, and I was at a warming table baptizing a dark haired baby girl with my tears. An eye-blink later, I laughed as my naked toddler chased a butterfly-playmate all around a Michigan campground. From my canoe seat, I reflected back on the tenacious soccer-player chasing down a ball kicked into green space. As I watched the retrospective video on the movie screen of my imagination, the ball fell out of the picture, and the green space became a track, and Annalise was crossing the finish line, taking second place at State. Plucked from the world of sports, I found myself several years earlier, seated in a large amphitheatre. Tears of silent gratitude rolled down my cheeks, as an auditorium full of adults listened, as my willowy seventh grader exercised her convictions, and a newfound powerful voice.
As I came back to the canoe where I was seated the whole time, I looked across the Minnesota lake, over Annalise’s shoulder. I tried to catch a glimpse of the woman foreshadowed by the eighteen years I was privileged to share with her.
It seems to me, that the natural flow of life’s current, has a way picking up the boats of our lives, and transporting them to boundaries. As the ancient philosopher, Heraclitus, once observed, the only constant in life is change.
As I write this article, I find myself, once again, at a boundary conducting beauty checks. It is time now for me to graduate from work I have been doing for a local parish over the last twelve years, to move on to a more full-time commitment to my own business (i.e. conducting more retreats and workshops, along with my private practice).
Someone once told me that “the only thing that likes change is a wet baby.” Despite my Ph.D., and twenty-five years helping people navigate the turbulent waters of change, I find that I still find transitions unsettling…even good changes like a daughter developing into a woman, and a practice that is flourishing. Once again, I find that the spiritual exercise that is most helping me through the boundary waters of these changes are beauty checks.
As I look back over my shoulder, over the last twelve years, what I mostly see is the beauty in the hundreds of faces of people who sat across a room from me and poured themselves out. Over and over again, my office was turned into a chapel by the sacred sharing of people who wanted to heal, grow, save, or enhance their marriages, or simply to become a better version of themselves.
My prayer each morning with my wife and kids over the last twelve years has always remained the same, “God give me your wisdom, counsel, and love to help the people you give me today.” The outlines of what awaits me on the other side of the boundary of this commencement will shift to other venues, but my morning prayer will remain the same. I will continue to maintain my practice in O’Fallon, as well as in Clayton, Mo. God willing, there will be many more retreats and workshops on resilience and spirituality, as well as more writing.
As I launch my boat toward new waters, I paddle away with a great sense of gratitude for the people I have been privileged to accompany on the journey. Today, you are my beauty check.