We walked in the woods on a cold day. The wind blew off the lake, a constant presence, the kind of breeze you always feel but never actually notice. A flock of seagulls stood on the ice in the marina down the hill, oblivious to the freezing temperatures and making a noise that would fill the summer. It sounded like they longed for warm beaches and bags of Doritos left behind. Oh the dog days of summer, the gulls cried. Where have they gone?

I said just about the same thing as I zipped my coat up to my chin. Where have they gone? Not just hazy summer days, but all the things I thought I’d be doing by now. Maybe for me, the question is better framed this way: Why am I where I am? I’ve been without a job since early June and without a steady paycheck since the end of August. Now, it’s mid-January, which feels like an eternity from August and equally as far from what’s next. Lately, when I wake up in the middle of the night, an eerily specific moment from the past two years will play over in my head. My brain’s too webbed in sleep to analyze it any deeper than was this the moment everything changed?

I’m not usually an advocate for such minute deconstruction. Trajectories can be shaped by small moments, sure, but once a trajectory is sealed, I’ve historically been pretty good at accepting that direction, at rolling with the punches. This time, though, there’s too much space and too much weight; this time, it feels vocationally important. I feel emptied out and hollow, mostly because I’m not the kind of person who can grip tightly onto purpose or calling without my feet on the ground. Not that I completely distrust my calling into ministry. But sometimes I do.

Back in the woods, my dog freezes at a sound. The noise reminds me of quickfire squirrel chatter, or maybe the same animal tapping into a nut. Blue stands on high alert, ready to go after the source, as soon as he can find it (which we both know he never will). I’m confused, too, because the clicking sounds nearby but I don’t see anything. No squirrel, no skunk, no chipmunk, nothing. An eerie fear creeps in, the kind that grows in stature the longer you don’t know where a sound is coming from. The longer you don’t know.

At last, I see a thin branch on a sapling, wrapped around the trunk of another sapling. The noise sounds so unfamiliar because there are three leaves still clinging to the end of the branch. The wind, the ever-present and all-knowing wind, rattles the branch against the trunk, and the crisp leaves clack together repeatedly.

“It’s just a twig and some leaves,” I say to Blue. He looks at me, not entirely sure what I just said.

“It’s okay, bud.” Those words he knows. He leaps ahead on the trail, the sound forgotten, his paws settling on the ground and then pushing off, full of energy and play. I take a step forward, pause, and turn around to look again at the rattling branch. At first I didn’t understand, but now I think I do. It’s okay.

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