Saturday
Aug102019

WHAT IF? (Part 3a: What if we owned our shadows?)

 

       Holding Onto the Shadow Self.   © Loretta Mae Hirsch   Used by permission of artist.

This is not the post I planned to write today.

I thought I was going to write about something else, but after about an hour at my computer, I hit a dead end. I have a bunch of ideas, an outline, pages of notes, but I can’t fit the pieces together. The harder I try, the more stuck I get. And as I get stuck, I get more and more frustrated. So of course, I do what I know best—I keep trying harder.

As I am struggling to find a path through this confusion, I hear a motor start up outside and an intermittent hissing sound. I step out the door to see two people swathed in yellow hazmat suits, complete with full headgear and respirators, spraying a young hazelnut orchard planted in recent years next to Tom's parent's house.

As I watch them driving their cart filled with metal tanks, dowsing the trees in God-knows-what just a short distance from our trailer, I am livid. Any thought about loving my neighbor or accepting the world as it is flies out the window in my fury at the utter arrogance of our approach to this planet. At how everything is geared to efficiency and appearances. That anyone could think that there was anything healthy about a field of bare dirt in someplace as lush as the Willamette Valley. Or about spraying something all over our food that requires a hazmat suit to apply. Or that our perfect nuts are worth destroying every insect (and the chain of creatures that feed on them). I feel sick. MY home has been invaded, my little island of privacy and safety and peace, and it is no step at all to imagine how all the other creatures in that field feel. And worst of all, I have no voice—it’s someone else’s neighbor’s property and they can do what they want with it. What I feel like doing—running screaming at them to STOP IT—would get me nowhere.

Gone is any plan I had for the day to continue writing about good will and tolerance. This may be nature expressing itself as a pest-control service, but I am having none of it.

The irony of the timing of this is not lost on me.

The day goes on and they continue their work in the field—the silver mist of spray floating out in the breeze, the psssst of the nozzle, the rattle of the engine. A series of other unfortunate events doesn’t help my mood and late in the day I break down crying and ask Tom to help me sort through my feelings. What I discover as I talk about the day is that I am using the same words to describe the men in the field as I am using to describe my own behavior this morning trying to write this post.

“We get so focused on achievement or efficiency or perfection that we aren’t attending to the real needs.”

This is my first clue to the deeper layers of what is happening.

Just the night before, I had read that when conflict arises, the first work to do is inside ourselves. In this case, the first thing I am finding in my intense emotional reaction is something that I didn’t see in myself. In Jung’s word, part of my “shadow”— all the things I haven’t accepted or admitted to in myself.

When I was writing this morning I was not paying attention to what I needed (time to think, a calmer brain, perhaps some help) I was just focused on meeting the deadline I had set and how to construct a rational argument. I was ignoring the real needs, like honesty or connection.

So part of the shadow was that what I was reacting to “outside” myself was a mirror for what was inside.

But the deeper shadow work is not just about sheepishly admitting to my behavior, as though it was a fault to apologize for and improve on next time. This is just as much a quest for perfection as the original projection. Claiming my shadow also means recognizing that not only do I possess whatever I am condemning outside of me, but that I actually “need” those qualities to be a whole human being. That I need access to my arrogance, my thoughtlessness, and my will to power in order to be a whole person. That claiming my anger, my fear, and my violence is necessary. If I don’t acknowledge all these things as existing in me, and existing as a part of a full spectrum, then my choice about how to behave is actually no choice at all. It is just repression of everything that I don’t like, as though I could choose one side of a polarity and live there. And things that get repressed, tend to come up sideways eventually.

What if I claimed my own capacity for destruction? Or the ways in which I am thoughtlessly efficient? Or just my own basic will to live, which always comes at the expense of other life?

What if I owned my fear?

I started writing these posts as a response to my fear. I am concerned about wildlife habitat, the health of the earth, the future of human society. Most of all, I am concerned about the polarizing nature of much of the conversation surrounding these issues. The primary question on my mind is: how do we address the issues we face without creating more “us and them” energy?

Owning this part of my shadow helps me to address the “us and them” division that lives inside my own head.

But though I am less reactive now, I honestly feel no closer to knowing how to respond to the hazelnut sprayers than when I started.

As I am wrestling with this, trying to figure out how to finish this post, I find myself getting frustrated again—I feel that familiar "pushing" stance where I try harder and harder with fewer and fewer results. This time, though, I notice. And I do something different.

I stop.

Let’s go do something else for awhile, I say to myself, and decide to go cut up an old sheet for a rag rug I am making. Cutting a long straight strip of cloth is the perfect mind relaxant, and as I focus, my thoughts settle and the path forward clears.

I began this series with the idea that help can appear when least expected. And what I realize is that this small invasion of my life in the form of the hazelnut sprayers is actually the help I need right now. Getting triggered into my own “us and them” thinking is not a distraction from these posts; it is a real live test case for the ideas I am working out. It is the perfect opportunity to learn by doing.

I don’t have to have all the answers; I can just stay open, follow my responses to this event, and see where they lead me. And this basic trust—in myself and in the process—opens up some ideas to try next.

       Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow.    Used by permission of artist Amy Bogard

Knowing this is enough for today.

(to be continued...)

Sunday
Jul212019

WHAT IF? (Part 2: What if we remembered our relations?)

    Pine Marten

While everything that humans make and do is natural, our “making and doing” has isolated us from many of the rest of the world’s inhabitants. We have forgotten our relations.

This seems at least partly due to the “human” and “nature” split that I talked about in the last post. When we use the terms “human” and “nature” we begin to think of them as somehow equivalent: as though “human” were on one end of a see saw and “nature” was on the other. We forget that we are just one species—ONE—among millions. One current estimate is 8.7 million. That looks like this:


1    (That’s us.)


11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111
11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111
11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111
11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111
111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111………

That is only 352, but you get the point. 8,700,000 is a lot.

It is easy to forget that those zeros stand for more than the space they take up on the screen. Imagine 8,700,000 written out fully rather than symbolically. If we continued with the hatch marks, each page in a typical book would hold 2860 of them. A book with a hatch mark for every other species on the earth would be 3042 pages long. That is a very, very, VERY large book.

    American Red Squirrel

So to recognize that there is us.

AND there are 8,699,999 OTHER kinds of life that we share the world with.

This would be the place in this post where it would make sense to talk about extinction rates. Where I might mention how the usual background extinction rate is something like 5 species a year, and about how the extinction rate at this point is 1000 times that. About how we are in a time of rapid die-off of species on the scale of the extinction of the dinosaurs. About the effect this has on us. But one of the reasons I am writing these posts is that I am looking for a different route through this material. We have all heard about habitat loss and fragmentation and climate change, but this doesn't change how we live. I suspect that anyone reading this blog knows this, has heard it before. I know when I hear things like this I feel despairing, discouraged, and mostly helpless.

I get glimpses every now and then—mostly when I am still and silent—that there is a subtle but profound shift in my awareness in which I get a sense, for lack of a better word, of "okay-ness." I can't yet fully identify this shift and I certainly can't yet reliably live it. But I know that it exists, and every now and then I find it for a few minutes. Perhaps it is a sudden recognition of myself in the eyes of another creature. Perhaps it is really wondering what it means to do something as radically ridiculous as turning the other cheek. Perhaps it is actually letting in the idea that I am a light in the world.

What I do know is that motivating people to change through fear and shame doesn't seem to be working. Though it may galvanize short-term action, it also creates divisions—both in our hearts and in our communities. We can only care for what we love. And in order to love our relations, we first have to love ourselves.

    Western Screech-owl

So instead, I will start by saying that forgetting our relations is pretty normal. I don’t believe that ants pay much attention to the well-being of plants that can’t grow around their ant mound. Or that the cougar worries about the rabbit. Or that deer are concerned about grass. For the most part, this kind of worry would not be very helpful to that animal—it would simply create a creature that could not survive. This is not adaptation; it is neurosis.

Most species pretty much take care of themselves. And up until now it has mostly worked. Different species came and went, populations increased and decreased, but in the long run life on earth has become increasingly more complex and specialized and interwoven, mostly as a result of the collective effect of individuals going about their individual business.

    Metalmark Butterfly

But we find ourselves in a different situation now than the mountain lion and the ant. We find ourselves in a situation where our ability to problem solve and our communal reach has extended our impact in a way never before seen. We have not only developed more efficient ways to find food and shelter, allowing us to expand where we can live and in what numbers, we are also managing to reduce many of the factors that would have previously limited our population growth.

Human population estimates as of June 2019 (according to the US Census Bureau) list the current number of people at around 7.57 billion. If you thought the number of species is a lot, try wrapping your head around these numbers.

7,577,000,000

If it took a book 3042 pages long to hold a hatch mark for every species on earth, how long would that book be to hold a hatch mark for every human being on earth? Ready?

2,649,301 pages.

    Green Shore Crab

So this is another reason why it is easy to focus on ourselves. There are a lot of us. And we are big and noisy and interesting. We take up a lot of space. We make race cars and operas and World Cups and best sellers and satellites and movies. We wage wars and claim water rights and drill for oil. We can talk to someone from any country in the world by tapping our fingers in a magical pattern on a little glass screen. We can see pictures of ourselves (maybe even videos) from the time that we are born to the time that we die. 

There is so much about nature expressing itself as humans that is fascinating and beautiful and dizzyingly awe inspiring. And also terrifying and terrible. I do not understand a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the things that we are capable of as a species—physically, mentally, or spiritually. And I can turn on a screen that will show me pictures of human beings doing fascinating and courageous and stupid and inspiring and horrifying things from all corners of the planet at any hour of the day or night.

Where is there the time or the inclination to think about bobolinks or blister beetles?

    Blister Beetle

And this is not even taking into account the effect of wars, natural disasters, scarce resources, or just the daily effort of making a living and raising children on our ability to take the time to think about other creatures, or the systems of the earth as a whole—the air, waters, forests, fields, and lands that sustain all of life. There are many reasons why we have forgotten our relations.

I believe our relations are worth remembering. That having empathy and understanding for other creatures is part of knowing ourselves. That when we see the connections between things—can see the systems rather than just things in isolation—that we can find our place in the world. That what we do to the least of them we do to ourselves.

    White-tailed Deer Fawn

Wise men and women of all peoples throughout the ages who have known these things. Have known that life depends on other life. Have known that our well-being is tied to the well-being of the web. Have known that our nest is our nurture.

What would it take for us as a culture to remember our relations? Would it take nature developing a new mind—one that has more consciousness of the whole? Is this mind already in us and just needs practice and discipline to access? Are there indigenous cultures that know more about this? Is there a spiritual force in the universe that connects us to a larger reality?

And what would we have to give up? What would we risk? What would we have to face in our own hearts? What would we have to feel?

What if we were to remember our relations?

These are enough questions for a lifetime. But when I think about what it would look like to remember our relations right now, right here, today, I think of this:

From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.” 

                       --Ursula K. Le Guin

    Coyote Pup

 

All photography by Tom Talbott, Jr., licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Saturday
Jul132019

WHAT IF? (Part 1: What if we were never separate?)

     Nature Man -- Michael Tomaka (Copyright Creative Commons)


 

The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it.

                   --Paul Kingsnorth 

 

             He is

a wilderness looking out

at the wild.

          --Wendell Berry

 

This all began for me with a feeling of unease with the way people use the word “nature.” We go out into nature. We take a break in nature. We struggle against nature. Depending on their orientation, “nature” was something they revered or subdued, tamed or preserved, enjoyed or feared. But in all cases—no matter what their attitude toward nature—their language irrevocably and unconsciously separated “us” from “it.” 

There’s “nature”. And then there is “human”.

When I realized what was bothering me, I could then see clearly—oh how lovely our ability to project is!—that I was doing exactly the same thing. I just want to live closer to nature. I want to tap into natural cycles. I feel more comfortable in nature than in the city. But when I tried to do something different—to change my language—I found that I couldn’t. I couldn’t because there were no words (at least not in English) for what I was trying to say. The only difference was that now there was a little pause before I finally spit out the word “nature”. I would like to help to create more……um…...natural systems.

First I thought that what we must need are new words. Wouldn’t new words create a new way of thinking? That was what I started to write this post about several years ago. But as I followed this thought deeper, I realized that I don’t think new words are possible. This split is so deeply rooted in our psyches that we will not be able to come up with new words without changing our story.

Our language reflects and reinforces our assumptions. And this assumption I am circling around is fundamental to who we are, at least in western culture. Somewhere along the line we began to assume that “nature” and “human” were two different things. I am not going to go into the details of how this happened. We look to the shift to agrarian culture, religious texts, Descartes, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, etc., as though those things were responsible for this shift. I suspect these were the outgrowths of changes that were already occurring inside our own psyches—they were the manifestation of shifts that had already occurred. The important thing now is recognizing where we are.

We believe that humans are fundamentally different from nature.

So rather than proposing new words, I propose a radical new orientation: What if we are in no way, not ever, not at all, never were, and never will be, separate from nature?

Not only are we not separate from nature, but nature is not separate from us. Put simply: there is no separation, no matter how hard you look. There is no line, no break, no division, no us, no them. There is only the world—the whole breathing, living, integrated world in all of its fabulous beauty and terror, with everything in it together, humanity fully embedded in and embraced by it. 

If I take this idea to its logical conclusion—that whatever we are is nature expressing itself—this means that everything about us is nature, even our desire to be separate. Our thoughts, our tools, and all of our creations all are the result of nature doing what nature does. Consider this:

Nature is dancing en pointe in a tulle dress. 

Nature is building a bridge across a canyon. 

Nature is surfing the internet. 

Nature is lying drunk under the Aurora Street Bridge. 

Nature is circling the planet in an orbiting space station. 

Nature is translating a poem from Chinese into French.

Nature is singing itself to sleep. 

Our brains, opposable thumbs, language, tool-making, and social activity are all the natural outcome of the upwelling vital force of life on earth. Even our capacity to destroy ourselves and all other life along with us is natural; even our denial, our egocentricity, our violence, our narcissism. Also our love and our wonder. There is nowhere you can point to that is not “nature.”

What is, is.

And everything that is, is connected.

So when we think about coming home, there is nowhere to go. It is closer than close. We are here, already in our own nest. We are it and it is us.

What if nature and human are one?

Tuesday
Jul022019

WHAT IF? (Introduction: You never know what you'll find in an RV park)

          Boromir's Death — used by permission of Anke Eissmann

I have recently been reading about models for the future that don’t have happy endings: the possible collapse of our current economy and food production; wild unpredictable variations in climate; the extinction of large numbers of species on earth, our own species included. None of these global scenarios leave me feeling like any of my actions have much effect.

It is easy in the face of this kind of information to either deny that anything is happening, collapse in despair, or adopt a kind of the-Hell-with-it attitude and go about business as usual. I can say (from personal experience) that while these strategies provide some immediate relief, none of them satisfy in any meaningful way.

A couple weeks ago I happened to pick up The Two Towers—Tolkien’s second book in The Lord of the Rings—from an RV-park book exchange, and started reading it again while I was waiting for a load of laundry to finish. The book begins with despair. The group of “peoples” charged with the task of destroying the ring is in shambles. Gandalf is dead, Borimor has tried to steal the ring for himself and has been killed by attacking Orcs. Frodo and Sam have struck out on their own, two small hobbits against all the might of Mordor. The other two hobbits have been taken prisoner by the attacking Orcs. And Aragorn, who wasn’t there to help with any of the fighting, is left with Legolas and Gimli (and his aching conscience) to lay Borimer to rest and decide what to do next.

Aragorn feels the tragedy of their plight deeply. He recognizes that he has failed in his duty, he doubts the ability of any of them to succeed in their goals, and he mourns the deceit and untimely death of Borimer. He is clear-eyed and open-hearted in his assessment, and he is honest about it with his two friends.

And yet in the midst of his grief and doubt he is able to act with integrity. When he has fully felt the despair of their situation, he returns to his own inner values and chosen commitments, and uses these as compass points to make decisions at a time when decisions could seem futile. This leads him to act, not necessarily in the ways that are "biggest" or "best", but in the ways that are most "him"—in the ways that are most true to his own abilities and place in the world.

For example, he doesn’t follow the ring-bearer, though he was charged with his protection. Frodo—he reasons—has made his own decision. Merry and Pippin, who were carried off as prisoners, did not. Aragorn is “responsible” in a way to all of them, yet he cannot be all places at once, so he chooses to follow Merry and Pippin for the time being, because to him their need is greatest.

And once this decision is made he acts on it. It is true to him, and he is true to it. He can’t know, will never know, if it is the “right” decision; all he knows is that his insides and his outsides are in agreement.

I can think of worse models for personal action in our current world than this man of Middle Earth.

And once again, I am reminded of how help can appear when least expected. Even in the middle of a long afternoon in the dingy laundry room of some RV park in Winnemucca, Nevada.

*****

Tom and I have been thinking a lot over the past three years about our place in the world, both individually and as a species. It is no little subject, and I am struggling to put the pieces together into a whole.

This next series of posts—which I have called “What if?”—is my attempt to bring together some of the ideas I have been mulling over. I think of these ideas as sparks from a fire I am stirring late at night. Maybe they flicker out and don’t go anywhere. Maybe they flare up, create a larger blaze. Maybe they illuminate something for just a moment in the corner of my vision. This is a place where I can poke around in the embers, see what happens. Where I can ask that potent question: What if?

Reading about Aragorn helped me realize that writing these posts is my next action. It is definitely not the biggest or best action. As I am sitting in front of my computer all morning it may look like no action at all. But working out my thoughts is what’s in front of me. It's my way to be in integrity—to match my insides and my outsides. And like Aragorn, I am not sure where following these thoughts will lead.

I don’t expect, or even want, everyone to agree with what I have to say. In times of change we need all of our perspectives in order to be adaptable and to see the big picture. We need more richness rather than less. And in order to have that richness, each part of the system needs to be true to what it is. We need our heart cells to be heart cells and our liver cells to be liver cells. I am not sure what kind of cell I am, but this is the view from my perspective. I am interested to hear the view from yours.

What if.......?

Thursday
Mar282019

Part 5: The story of our lives

When I was training to be a therapist in graduate school, our first assignment was to write our autobiography. This was partly to see how we were shaped by the first system we lived in—our families. But I think an even deeper purpose was to show us that our very idea of who we are is a story, and one that we largely construct ourselves.

In the second year of graduate school we revisited and updated these autobiographies. I found that some things that seemed important to include the first year no longer mattered the second. Through the work I had done, some hurts had healed. My story had changed. Perhaps only a little, but those changes gave me a lot to think about, and led to many more small changes over the years.

With the death now of both of my parents I feel the need to update my story yet again. So much changes with their passing, not least of all my ideas about myself. I feel a strong urge to write, to make meaning of these events, to integrate this new information. Things change. Nothing stays the same. Even parents pass away. We will follow too, soon enough. Given this, what matters to me? Where do I want to put my energy? Where is this story headed?

*******

My story of my life with Dad begins with a mixture of pleasure and discomfort. Especially as a little girl I have warm memories of playing together: learning to ski, playing hockey on the frozen lake, fishing for perch with worms we dug ourselves in the mud by the spring, playing Yatzee on winter evenings, or curling up with him on the couch to read the funnies. But I also have memories of being uncomfortable around him.

Dad was an unusual person. He had definite opinions that were often outside the norm. He didn’t communicate easily, though he talked a lot to the people closest to him, and he wrote voluminously on topics that he was wrapped up in. He wasn’t that good at empathy or seeing other people’s gifts—or if he was, he didn’t waste time expressing it. He was better at talking at you than with you, and if you wanted a conversation with him you’d better find a topic he was interested in.

Dad had strong principles and was a champion of truth, which meant he was bothered by the natural inconsistencies of government, religion, or people just trying to live together. And though he was usually pretty calm, his emotions were intense when ignited. When he got started on something that involved both his principles and his emotions, he was like a rat terrier with a rat—he just wouldn’t let go. There was an obsessive side to him that led him to spend years of his life trying to “straighten out” various disputes. And when he was involved in one of these issues, it took up all his time and all the space in his mind. As I said, he talked a lot to those closest to him, and one of the reasons Mom knit so much was to have something to do with her hands while he was talking to her about whatever dilemma he was immersed in. Mealtimes were dominated by the topic that was uppermost in his mind. And there are stacks of comb-bound booklets left in his office that are several feet tall (each), on disagreements he was involved in over water rights, government regulations, or religious differences.

Quite frankly, as a girl I was afraid of him, especially at the dinner table where his obsessions got aired as lengthy monologues or rhetorical questioning. My story at that time didn’t include any ability on my part to protect myself from his emotions and his need to work things out that were weighing on him, and I often felt trapped and voiceless. I mostly outgrew the fear (mostly), after a long struggle to develop my own answers and my own inner resources. In recent years I felt a lot of love for him—and also a growing realization of our kinship and how similar we were in our essential values—but even then it was hard to know what to do with him or how to express that love. 

Largely, this was because Dad wasn’t that comfortable with expressions of affection. At his memorial, a grandson told a story about his amazement when he actually got a hug from his grandpa—sometime in his 20’s. As a young woman, my memories of Dad expressing his appreciation are spare. I remember getting my first “grown-up” clothes in high school, a tailored gray suit-jacket and skirt, but when I wore it to show him, his only comment was, Well, you won't be doing any carpentry in that. As I tell this story now, it seems ridiculous that I couldn’t see that he meant this as a compliment, but at the time I felt offended and hurt. My story wasn’t big enough yet to include his kind of love.

This summer, when we stayed with Dad for three months, Tom and I lived in our trailer and would come into the house to share a meal with him, or read together, or watch the news or Lawrence Welk. Dad would head to bed around 7:30 and he and I had a ritual way to say goodnight to each other of reaching out and holding hands for a moment. At the beginning of the summer I would give him a hug, but somehow it evolved into this short hand squeeze, which seemed like just the right distance for both of us. I still remember the feeling of his hand, so roughened by farmwork that it felt like he was wearing leather gloves. I felt so loved by that simple gesture. And when I just let that into my heart my story changes again.

Now, after his death, none of the past seems to matter much at all. It feels like some kind of artificial barrier has been lifted and there is just a field of love around me now from him. I spent so many years of my life cowed by him, then so many years developing the inner strength to be my own person with him. Then all of a sudden the whole story is turned upside down, irrelevant, and all that is left is this sensation of this warm presence behind me, all around me.

Our summer together was the rehearsal for this. My need to be right dissolving in the sprinkler-moving antics. My need to be helpful dissolving in his ownership of his own fate. My story of his lack of affection dissolving in my reaching out and having him reach back. 

When we left the farm, he dressed up in his town shirt and stood in the driveway leaning on the ski pole he used as a cane, watching us pack up and fold the trailer away. When we were ready to go, he and I had a minute alone while Tom got something out of the house. We stood silently for a moment, then as he heard the door to the house slam, he reached out, not with his hand, but with his whole body, and squeezed me hard against his chest in a tight hug. Then he let go, and through my tears, I could see that he was saying goodbye, probably for good. And in that goodbye, he was giving me the only real gift he ever had to give.

I go forward with my life, however my story unfolds, wrapped up in his eternal love.

 

-----------------------------

This is my last post in this series on Dad's death. I have appreciated having a place to write where there are people out there receiving these words. Grief is both deeply personal and completely universal; it is something that you experience alone, and yet feels lighter for being shared. I am grateful for all of you reading this. Your presence means a lot to me.

And that reminds me of the joke that one of my brothers kept telling the week after Dad died.

There was a man who was at the funeral for his wife. Toward the end of the funeral he got up and asked, "Is there anyone who would like to say a word?" A friend of his got up, faced the congregation and said: "Plethora." Then he sat back down. The bereaved man teared up at hearing this and said, "Oh, thank you. That really means a lot!"

I think Dad would have liked that one.

 

Tuesday
Mar052019

Part 4: Polarities

Dad wasn't one to reach out. He didn't like the phone, and as he aged he wrote fewer and fewer emails. Over the past years I got used to long stretches of time without hearing from him. Now that life is starting to return to normal again after his passing, it is easy to forget that he is gone. It startles me when I suddenly remember—he’s dead. I come across a draft of an email to him that I didn’t send and realize that he will never read it. Or I imagine him sitting down to eat dinner where he has sat for the past 50 years, before realizing that not only is he gone, but so are the chair and the table.

Last month I was flying back to Arizona from Seattle and passed over Cascade Locks on the Columbia River where Dad worked for awhile as a young man. I always think of him when I am near this place and try to imagine his life here; or imagine how he would feel about this place now, so many years and miles away from those experiences. I feel a jolt in my stomach this time, as though I pulled on a rope and no one was holding the other end. These thoughts have always been a connection between me and my father, like I could touch him from wherever I was. Suddenly that connection is slack—and I feel as startled by that as if I had suddenly fallen backwards, the rope snapping toward me in a loose pile.

We have moved to another spot in Cascabel—a place that someone else owns—with a yurt, a screen room, composting toilet, and outdoor shower. It had been unoccupied for awhile and we have done some cleanup and repair. I keep catching myself wanting to tell Mom and Dad what we are doing. There is no substitute for a parent, not even other family members. And it is in the transitions that I especially miss their physical presence—those times when something in my life is changing.

There is something about watching a parent who seemed so fearsome when you were a child weaken in old age. An image arises of Dad walking across the lawn from his truck this summer at the Fourth of July party. A nephew of Mom's is visiting for the day and Dad has a home movie from the 1950's of a Christmas when this man was a little boy. Dad has his iPad in one hand and cane in the other, and has driven across the farm to my brother's house to show this video to his nephew. His frailness as he lists across the thick grass, the vulnerability of his eagerness to show the video, his slightly awkward social timing—all of this pulls at my heart, even now.

Part of me still feels shock and confusion about how a person who is part of the foundation of my life can suddenly just disappear, can be here one moment and gone the next. Part of me is still grieving. Most of the time, though, I don't think about it. Life goes on. I get busy, get swept up into daily life. And that makes the pain sharper, I think, when I am suddenly reminded of the absence.

A man at the rest area walks slowly at the elbow of his elderly father. My tears come suddenly as I watch them shuffle together toward their car.

*******

For weeks after I got back from the farm after the memorial, whenever I meditated on my chakras the only one that was active was my first—the family chakra, group energy, belonging, community. All the rest of them were shuttered, dark, tiny lights buried somewhere deep inside. Finally, I got curious about this, explored a little deeper.

I find that I am staying on the level of the physical with my grief—I am not allowing my other feelings, which, once I look at them, are surprising, almost shocking. What my spirit feels about Dad’s death, what I have been suppressing, I can only describe as joy. A bright light encompassing me and everything around me.

It is like Dad spent his whole life—even as capable as he was—caught up in a tin can. And now all that energy is free.  It is as though a flame has been lit—both inside me and around me. I feel energy flowing through me that is not my energy. I feel held. Peaceful. Content.

Light and dark, risk and safety, autonomy and community—these polarities cannot be resolved one way or the other. Somehow they exist together, simultaneously. Somehow they negate each other and define each other all at once. Somehow we need both.

I am beginning to know this too about death—that the grief of the body and the joy of the soul are intertwined. I no longer believe I can deny one in favor of the other. They are both essential. I miss my parents deeply AND I am joyful at their presence. I long for what I used to have AND I feel new energy. There is no “but” anywhere in those sentences. They all exist together, all connected.

...the tree, the bark, the root, the fruit, the seed, the life that animates it all...

*******

And then there is love. As I talk to a friend awhile ago I find myself saying to her, “I think part of what hurts right now is how much love I feel. It’s so intense—like a pain in my heart.” I am taken by love as though I have been struck by a wave on the beach. I feel love for my siblings, for my nieces and nephews, for my ancestors, for my friends and clients back in Seattle, for the people we are getting to know here in Cascabel, for the land and mountains and plants and rocks and animals. I find myself trying to manage this love, this pain, by limiting it—by understanding it or by restricting it to certain people. But it is like Dad’s death (and everything associated with it) released some kind of dam that kept me bound up in cause and effect, and beyond these individual forms we take for awhile is a universe of energy.

This is a little like the perspective of riding in an airplane. From that vantage everything seems elegantly connected, part of a larger pattern, beautiful.

But what happens when I come back to earth? Once landed, here come all the same old difficulties—irritations, frustrations, disappointments. People who don’t do what I want, suffering that is out of my control. I can feel this immense love one moment, then be hurt and angry the next.

Again, I remind myself, you can do both. The difficulties don't negate the love. And the love doesn't mean you ignore the difficulties. When I am connected to both I have both perspective AND empathy. I know that "all will be well" at the same time that I am willing to deal with what is here in front of me.

We are big enough to hold it all.

Tuesday
Jan222019

Part 3: The fertility of the senses

I hope you take time to feel all there is that’s offered because the fertility of the senses RIGHT NOW will not return. It’s precious. It asks for nothing but your presence. I have the sense that’s why we feel so tired when someone we love deeply dies—so we’ll float in the deep end for awhile and forget about exerting ourselves.

                                                    --Gail Baker(1)

Thanks to my friend for the reminder that with death comes some kind of opening—cracks through which we glimpse our inner life, or the hearts of our loved ones, or different dimensions of awareness.

I keep feeling that I am ready to return to my usual life, but one thing after another interferes. Most recently, I got sick enough to stay in bed for several days. Though I felt terrible, I also knew I was longing for time to reflect and write, and honestly just time to do nothing. It felt so good to just lie in bed and allow. To let everything flow through me. To just feel everything that has happened.

*******

My brother asked me the other day what would I have been writing in my blog if I hadn’t been worried about what Dad would think? At first I don’t know how to answer the question. There is a little girl inside me squirming and stubbing her toe and mumbling, “Oh…just stuff…

Good grief! I think. Get a grip on who you are, lovely one!  This is an important question he is asking you! And maybe he really wants to know. Maybe your Dad wanted to know, too, and didn’t know how to ask. And, besides, whether anyone wants to know or not isn’t even the point. You know who you are. Speak up!

When I was young, my subjective inner world was hard to talk about. I lived it inside myself in my life with books, but my emotions, my personal will, my creativity, and my spirituality were all things that I felt cut off from in the outside world. It’s no wonder, when I think about it, that I became a therapist who could help people value those things in themselves. Our greatest gifts often begin with a wounding.

Now I treasure my subjectivity. This is how I know who I am and what matters to me. It is the root of my unique contribution to the world. It is the rich variability between people we need as a species. And it is those subjective experiences I am wanting to talk about here today.

*******

Five days after Dad died, my sister sent me a text with the quote from H.D. that ends the last post I wrote before Dad’s death.

            …last night

      was the first night that it came,
      the distant summons, the muted cry, the call,

      and my bones melted and my heart was flame,
      and all I wished was freedom and to follow…

                          --H.D.(2)

And she brought tears to my eyes by writing, out of the blue: This quote from your blog sounds like Dad saying goodbye.

*******

The night before Dad passed, I lay awake unable to sleep. As I lay there I could feel my body quivering and shaking slightly with the anxiety of knowing he was in the hospital, of my rush to make travel arrangements for the next day, of trying in vain to relax and get some rest. At some point—late, and very unexpectedly— there was a feeling as though a tremendous wing of joy had passed over me in the dark. Then just as quickly as it came, it was gone, leaving me with my own anxious restlessness again.

I have no idea what this was. All I can say is what it felt like. And I say this knowing that it may only hold meaning for me. But it felt to me like some kind of presence. It felt like Mom waiting for Dad. Like the energy of all our loved ones out there waiting for us. Like Dad recognizing this was there for him.

If you knew my Dad, you would know how big a leap this is to make. If you knew how much of his life he spent arguing against the offenses of religion, the way that it has historically separated us from each other, the violence done in the service of specific beliefs. Yet Dad always believed in love, and knew that there is power in love. He didn’t often talk about it, and his love was often obscured by his strong personality, but it was always there at the center of who he was.

*******

When I would visit for a weekend when we were caring for Mom at the rehab center, Dad would spend the night with her and I would drive in from the farm house in the morning to replace him for the day. One day as I was leaving the house, I noticed that he had left a lawn sprinkler on overnight. I thought he might have forgotten about it, so I shut it off when I left, not realizing that if the pump was still on without any sprinklers running it could ruin the motor. When I met Dad that morning and told him about the sprinkler he got mad at me and hollered at me in the hallway of the rehab center, “You have to trust me!” This startled me and hurt—especially because I was trying so hard to do the right thing—and though I could understand why he was short-tempered, his reaction upset me for the rest of the weekend.

At first when I thought about it, the idea of me trusting him seemed ridiculous. We were all stressed, and he was 90 years old and had been forgetting all kinds of things—I would find the stove on hours after breakfast or the water running after he had left the bathroom. And he wants me to TRUST him? On what grounds? I felt like shouting back at him.

But that statement stuck in my head, and over time I got curious about it. Did I trust Dad? What does it mean to trust someone? Was he talking about something deeper than his lawn sprinkler? I started using that as a kind of barometer for my actions in the last years that Dad was alive. What would I do right now if I did trust him?

One day last summer I happened to hear Dad throwing up. When I came to the bathroom door and asked him how he was doing he admitted that he wasn’t that keen at the moment. He had taken some old supplement that had been open for awhile and he thought that had disturbed his digestion. But when I asked him if he needed any help, he said that he didn’t. Just let me suffer on my own, was the gist of his response. Ok, Dad. I will trust you. And I went off to bed.

Or when I took over moving his lawn sprinklers this summer when he got too unsteady on his feet, I thought I would just go figure it out on my own, but Dad had all the details down to the inch—where to place the sprinklers, how large to make the hose coil when I was finished, what order to move the sprinklers in. Everything had its place and its purpose. In the past I would have felt constrained and offended, but pretty soon I realized that I could just trust him. And as obsessive as his system was, it did actually work. All the lawns got watered in a short amount of time. His hose never had those annoying kinks in it. And after I started trusting him I could relax and follow him around as he showed me exactly where to place the sprinklers, and just enjoy doing something together with him.

I am finding that his request to trust him doesn’t end with death. As we are cleaning out the house and I am deciding what to keep and what to throw away, I start hearing those words again in my mind. Only this time they aren’t angry. Now they are kind. Warm. Comforting. Trust me, I hear. Which now translates into: It’s ok to let go of things. What needs to be done will get done. I have taken care of the things that were important to me…save what you want and get on with your own life.

*******

Virginia Woolf’s father died tragically and early, when she was in her 20’s, and though she was devastated at the time, she reflects in her diary much later that if her father had lived it would have been the end of her literary life. "No writing, no books;--inconceivable." (3) I have to say that I recognize her feelings. I am thankful for the years I had with my parents—that they got to know my husband, and saw me become part of my community in Seattle and find work that I loved. But I am also grateful to be so young when they died. I feel like there is possibility for me to focus on my own life and my own calling—and perhaps specifically on writing. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I have written so much since Dad died. There's room for books now that there may not have been room for before—at least not inside my own head.

But the expansion I am feeling isn’t only about not having the extra duties of caring for an elderly parent, or the loosening of old identity. I have also had the sense—first after Mom died, and now also after Dad’s passing—that when someone close to us in our family dies, it makes something available to us. It feels like there are “family resources” created by the lives of my ancestors that are stored up for me to use, and that when a person passes, the key to those resources is passed on to the next generation.

I don’t even really know what I mean when I say this, or how to put it into words. Anything I say is certainly meant as the finger pointing at the moon. But it feels like there is some kind of reservoir of love, patience, kindness, wisdom—certainly way more than any person showed in their actual life—that is available to me now to draw from, and that I will pass on when I die.

So their passing gives me this gift. Not only the gift of time and space, and the perspective to see myself more accurately in relation to them, but the gift of support. As I am quiet and listen, I can feel energies coalescing around me in new ways. I am surprised today to realize that what I feel, even in the midst of sadness and grief and uncertainty, is power. The power of knowing who I am. And the power to create from that.

*******

I open one of the books of poetry that I bought recently in Fruita and read:

      In the depth of the ground
      my soul glides
      silent as a comet (4)

Yes, I think. That is how it would be for Dad.

------------

(1) www.gailbakerartmaker.com
(2) p. 61, H.D., (1972). From "Sagesse" in Hermetic Definition. New York: New Directions.
(3) p. 17, Virginia Woolf, quoted in Tillie Olsen, (2003). Silences. New York: Feminist Press.
(4) p. 217, Tomas Tranströmer, (2006). the great enigma: new collected poems. Translated by Robin Fulton. New York: New Directions.

Tuesday
Jan082019

Part 2: The Dig

When Mom died nearly four years ago, Dad didn’t move any of her belongings. Her shoes stayed next to the door, her pillbox on the table, her clothes by the dryer. He just went on living around them while his life piled on top. So with his death, one of our first tasks was to clear out their home, which meant going through both of their things at once.

My parents have lived in this house for 50 years—my brothers and sister moved here as teenagers, but this is my only childhood home. After so many years of stasis, the house and its contents felt like a tightly compressed ball of energy. When Dad died, it was like a fuse was lit, and all that energy exploded immediately in all directions. Keepsakes went out the door with children and grandchildren. Bags and bags went to thrift stores and recycling. But the majority was ready to be released as heat and light, and we filled an entire farm truck (twice) with things to be burned in Spokane’s waste incinerator. There was something so right about all that accumulated history and memory being turned into electricity, about clearing the house of the old to make way for the new.

As we cleaned, it struck us that we were conducting an archaeological dig. The top layer was composed of the remains of Dad’s last years alone since Mom died. This layer was mostly things that were clearly disposable: junk mail, old birthday cards, broken sprinkler heads, grocery lists, medication fact sheets, dried up pens and paper clips and popsicle sticks, and all the other little odds and ends that accumulate from daily living. In the parts of the house that he didn’t visit much, this layer consisted of a thick coating of dust.

Below that were the remains from Mom’s last couple years of illness before her death—foot braces, medical bills, memory books from the nursing home, pill bottles, well-worn clothes with her name written on the collars in permanent ink. And below that was a poignant layer of disorganization before we recognized that Mom’s mind was deteriorating. Books on the floor next to the bookshelf. Emails printed out but not filed. Unanswered letters and half-finished projects. I find in a wastebasket a particularly painful note marking the exact edge when Mom suddenly went from her capable self to no longer being able to write an email or care for herself. The note mentions an upcoming concert, then reads: “My condition is deteriorating noticeably. Katie is coming to go to the appointment with the neurologist with me.” This is her rehearsal for one of the last emails she wrote. And this is the only piece of paper in her garbage can. Before that she emptied her can regularly; after that she never used it.

*******

When we skim all this recent history off the top, run the vacuum, and dust everywhere, suddenly the house that I remember when Mom was around is there underneath, still intact after all these years—the same tablecloth, the same memorabilia on the mantelpiece, the same piano music and books and pictures. It is a shock to realize how much the house had changed slowly into “Dad’s house” and to find this familiar place below.

Then we dig even deeper, past the recent history into closets and drawers where we unearth each of our childhoods. First mine—as I was the last to live there—in the puzzles and projects in the dining room cupboards. A replica of a saber-toothed tiger skull that I was chipping out of plaster. Colored plastic strands for braided bracelets. A pelican half-carved out of a bar of soap. Magazine pictures pasted onto scraps of plywood. Bits of lichen and seeds and dried flowers and shells.

Then the life of my siblings appears. In the filing cabinets there are folders for each child of their artwork, grades, school pictures, hospital records for tonsillectomies, and a packet a memorabilia from each birth. There are music lessons, the Learn to Draw with John Gnagy art set that they all drew from together, electronics kits and science fair projects, a row of my sister’s tennis trophies, window sills full of my brother’s pottery from a class he took in college, a quilt that my brother and sister-in-law made that is so well-worn from years of use that Mom had given up patching it. And for all of us, skis and ice skates. Pull toys and blocks. Caroms and Monopoly and Space Shot and Pit. Giant ancient flannel sleeping bags and army surplus camping gear. And the yarn and patterns from all the sweaters and blankets and socks that Mom knitted over the years for children and grandchildren.

Below that we find their life before children. Letters and photos from graduate school. A collection of scientific papers from the lab where my mother worked while Dad was studying physics. A box of unused wedding gifts. Photos of college ski trips. Biology notes, textbooks.  Then younger still—4-H ribbons, a red metal horse, a monkey that climbed a stick when you shook it, a little Japanese box with a secret drawer, a tiny candle stub, some “Willkie for president” pins, a pair of steer horns, an old bell with a strap small enough that it must have gone on a lamb.

We dig and sort, clean and cry, share memories and frustrations, and haul box after box out of the house. The sheer volume of information is overwhelming. I feel dizzy with it all, as though I am living in a house of mirrors and I can’t find the passage out. I am not even sure who I am grieving for anymore. Who just died? Is it Dad? Mom? The house? My childhood?

But as we uncover hidden stashes, sort closets and drawers—as room after room slowly empties, I feel like the house is breathing a sigh of relief. It is coming into the present. Soon it will be a place where the current farm owners can live and work. And at the same time, my ideas about my parents are coming into the present as well. My picture of my parents as people is filling in. Now that they are gone I can see in the reflection of their belongings more of who they actually were, rather than just my ideas about them. It’s so clear in this dig through the past that they lived for forty years before I showed up, and that all of my experience with them—all those events that are so fraught with significance to me—are just one small part of who they were. And if this is true of them as people, how much more true it is of them as souls, whatever that connection is to the vast fabric of the universe.

*******

After two whirlwind weeks, I fly back to our trailer in Arizona. Two weeks of very little sleep left me physically tired, but more than that, I felt profoundly unmotivated. A good part of my energy still seemed caught back at the farm, 1500 miles away. Though I felt a sense of freedom in the first days after Dad passed, I didn’t have any plan for moving forward. No longer do I have to wonder whether I will be needed to care for him. No longer do I have to hope he won’t break a bone or wreck the car or burn the house down. And yet all I wanted to do was curl up around my memories and hide.

It has taken me a few weeks to get my feet back under me. It’s like I have been whirled in a blender and my ideas of who I am have been tossed around and broken apart. It is not an entirely unpleasant feeling, but I am still waiting for the present to coalesce again—waiting for the new reality to feel real.

Tuesday
Jan012019

Part 1: "May we have your father's grace"

Marynard A. Cutler (1923 - 2018)

After almost 96 years of life my father passed away on December 3, nearly a month ago now. As I start to write this, I feel a wave of sadness, as I always thought of Dad when I composed a post. Though he almost never said anything to me about my writing, he was a fan, and I know he read every word. His greatest compliment was when he commented once that he didn’t know how I could put all those words together in the right order. He wondered (in his usual understated way) “If someone took all the words from one of your stories and mixed them all up in a box, could they make something like this out of them?”

On the other hand, I also worried about what he would think of what I wrote. My life is quite different from his and I have tended to keep a lot of it to myself around him. This blog pushes my comfort zone about sharing my inner world. Would he judge my choices? Would he understand what I was doing? Would he think I was nuts?

So as I write, I feel an odd combination of loss and relief. Though in a way I feel freer to speak my mind, there is a hole out there where he used to be receiving what I sent out. I had gotten used to him being there like a light in the night showing me the edge of the world I lived in. Now that little light is dark. I feel the emptiness where it once was.

*******

There's so much in my heart since Dad's passing. My mind is a log jam of thoughts and feelings. Where to begin? I realized today that I didn’t have to fit all my thoughts in one post. That helped. And with the pressure off, it was clear that the first thing I wanted to talk about was his actual death.

Both of my parents were capable, intelligent, independent farm people. Mom, however, became incapacitated at the end of her life by small strokes and a series of falls and broken bones. She needed full-time care for her last two years of life, and spent many months in a rehab facility.

Dad never wanted to go to a nursing home or even have someone care for him in his own home. He said to me once when he was younger that he would crawl around on the floor to take care of himself before he would have some stranger come into his house to help him. And the thought of going to any kind of retirement home always made him grimace like he was in pain. Though he would gladly accept help from his children in his later years, even that was always on his own terms.

Over this past summer when I stayed with him he was clearly declining. He tired easily, was often dizzy, and would occasionally collapse without warning. Though he could still take care of all his daily chores, his world had shrunk down to the house, the iPad, and the television, with an occasional drive on the farm roads to see what my brothers and niece were working on. 

After Tom and I left in September I think he was about the same, but later that fall he started letting my brothers know that he was ready to die, and even looking into what hospice provided. Then on December 2nd my brother found that he was having some small seizure-like episodes. He had also thrown up and just wasn’t feeling well, so in the evening my brother took him to the emergency room. When he got to the hospital they found that his heart rate was very low—I believe the doctor’s comment was, “How can you be talking to me when you have a heart rate of 35!”—and that he would need a pacemaker to survive.  At first Dad was uncertain about what he wanted. What would the pacemaker do for him? Was it a good idea? His sons were uncertain how to advise him. So much seemed like it hung in the balance. What was the right decision? And who would make it and how?

Sometime in the last three years I had read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande—one doctor's exploration of how to help people do what is really important to them at the end of their lives, and his critique of how and why the medical professional sometimes fails to achieve that. It seemed like the doctor who attended to Dad on his last trip to the hospital must have read the same book, because his ability to help Dad with this decision was noteworthy. He spoke directly to Dad, not to my brothers who were in the room with him. He made sure Dad could hear and understand him. And he asked Dad very specific questions about what really mattered to him. If Dad contradicted himself he would simply point that out and continue to patiently hold space for Dad to make his own decisions.

Further tests had showed that Dad’s heart had been damaged by a heart attack. And the doctor’s careful attention to him allowed Dad to take that information in. At some point in the conversation, Dad became very clear. No pacemaker. No surgery. It was time to let nature take its course.

Dad was moved to a room where he could receive comfort care. I was able to say a few sentences to him on the phone, and when one of my brothers left for the night Dad was still arguing with him that he wanted to run the remote control himself. A couple hours later he drifted off to sleep. The next morning he gradually stopped breathing and died.

Dad wasn't someone who shunned medical care. He had a quadruple heart bypass in his 70's as well as surgery for prostate cancer. Just in the past few months he had had some cancerous skin growths removed from his face. He got angry with my brother when he recently tried to help him fill out a form specifying what kinds of medical care he would and wouldn't want in an emergency. "That's what the doctors are for!” he shot back. “They are supposed to make those decisions!"

But he knew what he wanted, and he knew when it was time. For him, life was not worth living if it meant moving out of his home or being helpless. He wanted to be able to cook his own turkey loaf in the oven and play ping pong even if he had to hold onto the table with one hand to steady himself. He took every opportunity to live a long life, to enjoy working and playing, but in the end he didn't grasp at it. He was able to open his hand and let go.

As a good friend wrote to me after Dad's death: May we have your father's Grace.

 

Sunday
Nov112018

Poetry is energy

     What dies before me is myself alone:
     What lives again? Only a man of straw—
     Yet straw can feed a fire to melt down stone.

               --Theodore Roethke (1)

When the poet Theodore Roethke died, he left 277 notebooks to be archived at the University of Washington's manuscript library, which along with 8,306 loose sheets, takes up twelve horizontal-feet of library shelf-space. In those notebooks are the fuel for poems—fragments, ideas, observations, jokes, quotes, aphorisms, lists, philosophical commentary, bits of dialogue, false starts, unfinished projects, partial drafts—all in Roethke’s “favorite forms of disorganization.”

Roethke’s student and colleague at the UW, the poet David Wagoner, selected twelve of the notebooks at random from the collection and created the book Straw for the Fire by arranging selected fragments. In his introduction he says of Roethke’s process:

Roethke apparently let his mind rove freely, moment by moment in the early stages of composition, from the practical to the transcendental, from the lame and halting to the beautiful, from the comic to the terrible, from the literal to the surreal, seizing whatever he might from the language, but mulling over and taking soundings of every syllable. (2)

**********

In my own writing practice I make an attempt at some kind of order. I have kept a written journal most of my life, but with the advent of smart phones, in the past few years I have started a digital poetry notebook where I can keep poem ideas and fragments in chronological order in one place. If I think of something during the day I make a note on my phone in a note-taking app and download it later to its final resting place into a document where it “belongs”—meaning that there is some hope of finding it later. Is it a journal entry? A dream? A poem? A bird list? The start of a blog post? A letter? A book I want to read? A place to go to? All of these get recorded in separate files on my computer.

This seems like a good idea, but I find recently, especially if I have written a lot of notes, that this cataloguing makes me irritable. I have begun to feel that there is something artificial and forced about this organization. That “putting things in their place” constrains something essential.

**********

I have discovered in our travels that many small towns don’t have poetry stores. I don’t really know why; there is nothing about small towns and poetry that is incompatible. I still remember an uncle of mine—who was a farmer his whole life—reciting Milton’s sonnet on blindness to me at the dinner table before going back out to the tractor for the afternoon.

Last week we stayed in Fruita, Colorado, a small town just west of Grand Junction with a population of around 13,000. The town has a small historical main street, the usual houses and shops, the usual nimbus of small green pastures dotted with black cows. It is close to spectacular red cliffs and canyons and vast swaths of juniper and pinion pine and sage and is a popular destination for mountain bikers and hikers. Based on past experience, I would not expect to find a poetry store in Fruita.

So when I walked into town from the state park to buy a new bike tube, I thought I was just checking off a task on my to-do list. But about a block from my destination I noticed a small sandwich-board sign for Lithic Bookstore. The sign pointed toward an older building divided into offices, and once inside, another arrow pointed upstairs. This did not seem like the usual bookstore arrangement, so—intrigued—up I went.

On the second floor at the end of the hall was the doorway into the bookstore. On entering, I could feel immediately I was someplace unusual. Rocks lurked everywhere—tucked into bookshelves, hanging from the ceiling—and an array of found wood hung in graduated sizes across half the room like an oversized percussion instrument. There was also an eclectic array of art and many other artifacts—shells, mala beads, fossils. But though the room was full, it wasn’t cluttered. The bookcases were beautifully constructed and arranged spaciously in small islands. Couches and easy chairs were gathered in corners for reading or conversation.

And as I turned my attention to the books themselves, I found that the bulk of them were poetry—and a very wide-ranging collection. Sappho, Swenson, Snyder, Stafford, Stevens, Yeats, and Zukofsky.  Donald Hall. Anne Carson. Gertrude Stein. Robert Duncan. Robert Bly. Adrienne Rich. Rita Dove. H.D.

Over the next few days I returned several times and heard more about the store’s origins. What came first was actually Lithic Press—the bookstore was an add-on, a way to use some extra space when the press upgraded to a larger office, and a place where they could host events.

But what really struck me was how the press was started. Its owner, Danny Rosen, began as a geologist, then moved into education, teaching geology and astronomy. Somewhere along the way he started writing poems. And somewhere along the way he met Jack Mueller.

Jack was a central figure in the post-Beat poetry scene in the Bay Area in the 70's, 80's, and 90's. He knew everyone. And everyone knew him. He wrote prolifically, read his work, created thousands of events, connected people, and in general was a firecracker in a haybarn.

Eventually Jack moved to the western front of Colorado, and that is where he met Danny. He and Danny got along great, Danny having some of that firecracker gene as well.

Danny admired Jack’s work so much that he began Lithic Press as a way to publish it. Kyle soon joined as the graphic artist. When they talk about Jack you can hear how deeply he affected them both. They have created several books of Jack’s work (as well as publishing other poets) and Kyle has created a documentary film about Jack, who passed away from cancer in the spring of 2017. Right now they are working on laying out a long sequence of Jack’s poems (they waved a stack of paper at me that was about six-inches tall) that they hope to have finished next year.

Danny walks over to the crowded desk and comes back with a large plastic container. “This is what Jack did all the time,” he says, opening the box to show me that it is stuffed full with a conglomeration of 3x5 notecards, scraps of paper, coasters, cocktail napkins—whatever was available to write on—each one with a few words on it, or a little pen sketch, or both. Evidently there are thousands of these, and this is just one box of many. “He would just be there at the table writing these things and giving them away to people. Even at the end of his life, in the hospital, up until a few days before he died, he kept doing this.” I ask if they kept the ones from the end of his life separate, and he looks at me a little sideways, like maybe I wasn’t listening. “No,” Danny says, “people just took them—people who were there with him a lot at the end. I have some. Other people have some.”

He picks up a scrap at random and reads to me. I look at the wild drawings, listen to these words reaching out to me. Even languishing in this Tupperware box they seem so alive. It feels like a box of matches—that any of them struck at the right angle and the right time could warm you for a night; or perhaps burn down the house of your life. I think of the power of his poetry (coming through his person) to start this place I am standing—press, bookstore, gallery, meeting space. Reliquary. Incendiary torch. Seed bank. Munitions depot. School of phosphorescent fish. Oasis.

And this is just one effect. How many countless others have there been? And will be?

Poetry is energy. And Jack knew this—allowed it to flow like electricity or sparks or the life in our bodies. Roethke knew this—and kept writing and writing even though he could never hope to “use” even a fraction of what he wrote. This energy could not be contained or organized (though by necessity, perhaps, we try). The best of it flowed through them, flowed out of them, and is gone, starting a few fires in its passing.

I leave Fruita with a stack of books, but most importantly with new inspiration, feeling electrified myself.

Before poetry is sound or sense, it is energy.

Let it flow.

            …last night

      was the first night that it came,
      the distant summons, the muted cry, the call,

      and my bones melted and my heart was flame,
      and all I wished was freedom and to follow…

                          --H.D. (3)

------------

(1) p. 9, T. Roethke, (2006) Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke (1943-63), Edited by D. Wagoner. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.

(2) p. 3, Ibid.

(3) p. 61, H.D., (1972) From "Sagesse" in Hermetic Definition. New York: New Directions.

Sunday
Oct142018

Beginning again


Triple Divide Peak, Glacier National Park

If I listen carefully I can feel a little shift inside when something is right for me. It is a kind of knowing that is hard to describe; there are no sounds or words or fireworks that go with it. It is actually kind of ordinary, a matter-of-fact feeling. I imagine it feels the way a compass would feel about north—if compasses had feelings.

This was the feeling I had when I heard about Triple Divide Peak in Glacier National Park. As soon as I read about it, I knew that it was important to me for some reason—and I knew that I wanted to go see it.

Triple Divide Peak is unique, not only in Glacier, but on the continent. As its name suggests, it is the intersection of three of the main North American watersheds. Simply put, a raindrop falling on the top of Triple Divide Peak would end up in the Pacific, Atlantic, or Arctic Ocean, depending on which face it fell on. Of course it is never that simple—specifically, there is some disagreement about whether the Hudson Bay drains to the Atlantic Ocean or the Arctic—but it was this metaphor that captured my attention.

We set aside our last day in Glacier for this hike, which would take us to the pass just below the peak. Starting from the deserted Cut Bank Campground, the walk up was uneventful, other than coming suddenly across the broad, slab-face of a big mama-moose browsing in the underbrush, and being amazed that such an enormous animal could melt so quickly into the forest and disappear. The trail to the peak was not a popular route.  We didn't see another person all the way up to the divide, and once we arrived at the top, we were alone. This allowed me to take a good long look at the peak and to savor the sensations of being perched on the narrow ridge, imagining the connections that stretched from here all the way across the continent to those three far-away oceans.

Then after eating lunch we walked back down. Other than the welcome solitude and the mindfulness, I can’t say that I experienced any major revelations. It was a nice day and I was pleasantly tired at the end of it.

But somehow the image of the peak kept returning, as though it had a message for me, but one so subtle I couldn’t quite hear it. It wasn’t until I had rolled this experience around for several more weeks that I could begin to put its meaning into words.

Part of the metaphorical power of this place for me is that it points to our ability to begin again. I once attended a weekend workshop with meditation instructor Sharon Salzberg in which she spent the entire weekend focused on the idea of beginning again. Your mind has wandered away from your meditation? Begin again.You have made an error in judgment? Begin again. You have suffered a defeat? Begin again. And again now.

And now.

And now.

Her message, I think, is embodied in this peak. This peak is the physical equivalent of the mental practice of beginning again. So often a thought or a habit takes off and we are barreling down the slope to the Atlantic again. Or the Pacific. As long as we are in that thought, there is no turning back—the path ahead is inevitable. When we begin again we return to the top and to this larger perspective, to a place that includes all the oceans—and all the paths to them. From this place we have the ability to choose again and again which path we will take this time, to choose our attitude and our orientation.

This peak also feels like a metaphor for discernment. Discernment about the things that matter—things at the core of who we are—is a subtle activity with profound consequences. Just one step to one side or the other of this ridge sets us on a path which ends thousands of miles away from the others. A little deviation from our own integrity or values doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, but pretty soon we are so far away from ourselves it can feel impossible to get back on track.

The good news is that no matter where we have ended up, the peak is always there, and mentally or spiritually we can always begin again in any moment.

These are both useful ideas, but when I hold the image of the peak in my mind, there is a still deeper image, one which I can sense, but don’t quite understand—an intimation of a kind of awareness. I imagine a practice of actively balancing on this thin edge, not as a way to find the “right” direction, or the right answer, but as an answer in and of itself, an awareness that lies outside the realm of “answers” at all.

I have been practicing imagining being at this peak and noticing how this affects my thinking and behavior. I notice that I feel calmer when I do this, more disinterested, freer to respond to things authentically in the moment. There is a perspective here that is all-inclusive. From this place there are no wrong paths, no wrong ocean to end up in. If this peak leads everywhere, how would you determine that one place was any better or worse than another?

From here I can also feel how connected everything is. Those raindrops that start on this peak don’t stop someplace—they keep going, transforming all the while into creeks, rivers, rain, snow, plants, animals, people, and yes, even pee and poop. One thing turns into the next in an infinite chain. And this chain doesn’t end at those three oceans. Those oceans stretch across the globe to other continents. The water in those oceans rises up into the air as rain again. The oceans and the earth itself are pushed and pulled by the moon and the sun and the other planets in our solar system. And on and on… It is all connected, and my usual linear cause-and-effect thinking is a tiny fragment of those great cycles of activity.

And I can sense ever-so-faintly that even those great cycles are embedded in an infinity that I can’t even begin to imagine, the vast swathes of galaxies in the night sky giving just the barest hint of the actual stretch of reality.

Back here on my imaginary seat on the rock at the top of the peak, my head is spinning and my imaginary butt is getting sore from sitting. I think I need to get up and stretch; eat something; see what the weather is. Our real-world perspective is always present and needs tending. But the image of the balance point helps me to live with more grace and ease in the midst of all the pulls toward one slope or another—helps me to see the bigger picture that my tiny world is part of.

And this ending reminds me of a Haiku I read last night by Claire Everett of North Yorkshire, England:

     earth from space...
     and here I am
     dotting an i

********

So much has happened since I wrote last. We finished our trip up the east side of the Cascade Mountains this spring. We spent the summer on my family’s farm outside of Spokane, Washington. We passed the two-year mark of leaving our house in Seattle on September 7. And now we are traveling again, heading south for the winter via the Rocky Mountains. We started with a week in Glacier National Park and a little longer in Yellowstone (with stops in towns for work and supplies.) This just barely gave us a taste of those two great landscapes, but that taste was memorable. And we will definitely be back...

Wednesday
Jul182018

On smugness

May 13: After a morning crammed with too many tasks, I rushed through lunch, jumped in the truck to drive to the farmer’s market before it closed at 1:00, and in my hurry, tried to make a tight turn out of our campsite to take a shortcut to the park entrance and…

…ran right over our solar panel.

I still cringe when I think of that moment—that tiny bit of resistance on the tires, then an unusual crunching sound—really quite slight, actually; I could have continued driving and not known anything had happened—and then Tom’s furious shout, the sudden horror hitting me in the belly of what I think that sound may have been…then the image of the mangled metal and glass ground into the dirt, our beautiful solar panel broken beyond recognition.

In that moment of seeing the wreckage, there was no way to avoid my responsibility. Or deny the destruction. I felt shocked and furious at the pointlessness of it. What a waste! Of the solar panel itself, of our time, of our carefully made plans. To make matters worse, the solar system is Tom’s baby. He researched it, bought the pieces, and put the system together. He puts the panels out and repositions them during the day. He checks the water level in the batteries, monitors the storage levels. The freedom it gives us to travel to places without hookups is especially important to his pursuit of photography—not to mention his psyche.  As I look at what is left of it, I feel sick to my stomach. I feel like I have run over his pet dog. And I can tell from his reactions that he feels that way, too.

When we have calmed down enough to hold a screwdriver and a hacksaw, we work in silence to try to salvage something out of the broken mess. Tom notices that amazingly the panel is still generating some electricity, and when we look more closely we see that only one of the two folding panels is crushed. Also, even though I drove right over the controller, when he unhooks it and rewires it to the intact panel it actually works. We hacksaw the two panels apart and remount the controller and the legs on the single functional panel. At least it is something. It won’t generate enough power to stay off grid for long, but if it is sunny, and we are careful, we can get by. Tom makes a weak, but valiant attempt at a joke. I appreciate it, but am not yet ready to laugh about this. I still feel sick to my stomach; even feel a hesitancy to get back in the truck. The farmer’s market is definitely out of the question.

**********

This is a solvable problem. I realized that where it hurt us really was not in a practical or economic place—certainly we could problem-solve a solution and we could afford another panel. Where it hurt the most—after the first shock of the wreckage—was in some kind of pride tangled up in my identity. We have been doing this for awhile now, and I was proud of our system. I was proud of the independence it gave us, its flexibility and mobility. It was compact and portable, easy to set up and store, and—as long as it was sunny—easily generated all the power we needed. I was even proud of the fact that Tom got a good deal when he bought it because the box had been damaged slightly at the warehouse.

Ultimately, this is not a very big problem, especially considering what many people in the world face daily—volcanoes, war, rising seas, loss of home or loved ones. Neither of us were hurt. Life went on with all of its daily joys and challenges. A month later it has become (mostly) a funny story.  

But the pain of this was worth listening to. It was real, in that moment. And it also opened a door to reflection.

This pain was a signal that I just needed to STOP. Slow down. Find my way back to my own body. What happened was the natural outcome of being in a hurry and of being pulled in too many directions. I was already on this path when I slammed out of the trailer earlier—feeling harried and rushed and irritated at something—I don’t even remember what. This hurry is why I didn’t check the blind spot on the truck, why I cut the corner to drive the wrong way on the campground road, why I just didn’t take a moment to think.

And this pain also pointed to a certain smugness that had crept in as we got “good” at what we do. There is nothing wrong with appreciating things that work. But in my smugness I was basing my identity on them working. I had begun to forget what it is like to not have enough—whether it is electricity (or water or food or shelter) or more abstract things like safety or choice. I had forgotten the discomfort of being a beginner. My pride in our setup was stretching toward feeling superior. My smugness was separating me from other people.

Now we have half a panel with a broken leg and sawed-off hinges. We can’t generate enough power on cloudy days to keep up. This is sobering and feels like a good reminder. A reminder that resources are not unlimited, and that in the end, nothing lasts.

But most important, I think it is a reminder about gratitude, which I think is the antidote to smugness. Gratitude keeps me in the present rather than hurrying to get more. It helps me find my own calm center again. And gratitude is a way of appreciating something good without setting myself apart from others for having it. Gratitude recognizes that I can’t take good things for granted. That they come and go, and their presence is always a blessing.

In the end a broken solar panel is a small price to pay for this.

Sunday
May202018

Ravens

photo credit: Tom Talbott, Jr.

April 22: We are camped at a primitive campground north of Redmond, in the volcanic high desert of eastern Oregon. Surrounded by sagebrush and juniper-covered hills, we look out on fields in the valleys below us greened by irrigation from the Deschutes River and its tributaries. It is sunny today, weather that is not uncommon for a place that gets 12 inches of rain a year, though the liquid calls of the meadowlarks from the tops of the junipers all around us flow like streams over the dry landscape.

Yesterday, Tom and I went for a long hike over the hills between us and the dramatic rock formations of Smith Rock. The pleasures of a landscape like this are often small, but somehow all the more deeply rewarding. We meet some black cows with bright-eyed calves. We find three tiny, tender-green ferns tucked between two rocks where a little patch of damp earth reveals a seep from the basalt above. We watch an orange-carapaced scarab beetle with white fur on its body clamber through some dead stems. We pass a great horned owl guarding a nest of sticks on a cliff face, two white, fuzzy chicks tucked below her. As the day warms, butterflies flutter in bright circles through the air—orange tips, whites, the vivid painted ladies.

Midday we arrive on a ridge above the spectacular formations of Smith Rock—the remnant of much more ancient volcanic activity than what we see all around us. As we pause to drink in the line of snow-capped Cascade volcanoes on the horizon, we notice a red-tailed hawk diving at a group of ravens below us. The red-tail folds its wide wings into impossibly daring stoops on the raven clan, then emerges into the sky with red feathers flared out in the sun. Its dives don’t faze the ravens, who still squawk noisily in the trees below us, and the hawk eventually gives up on chasing them from this part of its mountain and circles off over the valley.

The ravens stay, soaring higher now, and we notice two of them flying in unison. They loop up and over the ridge, then down into the valley, then back up high again in the blue sky, then dive and shoot past us unexpectedly from behind with a sudden tearing roar of wings through air. All the while, they are locked in a tandem formation: as one bird they rise, fall, turn, dive, often just a wings-breadth apart.

As I follow them with my binoculars, I can see that one bird—the larger of the two—is pursuing the other. It flies powerfully, and closes the gap between them easily, but whenever it does, the leading bird makes some slight adjustment. It slides sideways, or changes directions slightly, or stalls and pulls upwards a bit allowing the following bird to shoot past it—some small evasive maneuver to create a little gap between the two that the pursuing bird soon closes again.

This keeps going, on and on—pursue, feint, fall away, pursue again. I am mesmerized by their flight, in a kind of trance. But just when it seems as though they can keep doing this all afternoon, the bird in front rises high above the ridge, then…turns upside down and tackles the following bird with its feet! Now both birds are locked facing each other, grappling and tugging, their sudden lack of forward momentum setting them spinning in tight circles, falling fast out of the sky straight down toward the rocks below, spinning wildly in a dizzying, tumbling, impossible whirl of shimmering black; wings outstretched, feet locked tight, falling fast toward the ground…and just as they are about to enter the canyon below, seem set on crash-landing together, they pull apart, taking air again under their own wings.

I am breathless with the unexpected intensity of this fall after the long mesmerizing loops of their unison flight. Seen up close through my binoculars I feel as if I too were locked in that helpless tumble out of the sky. What was this? Play? Fighting? Mating? It all happened so fast, I am not sure. I think about looking it up online to see what answers I might find from other people's observations, but by the time I get back to camp I realize I don’t want to.

For me, this wasn't about understanding—this was a time to just experience. For those few moments I was not observing or studying; I was a witness, and even a kind of participant. I could feel the reality of this other world—could feel the hearts beating in those shiny, black-feathered bodies; could feel the power in those wings; could feel the actuality of other minds, minds that are simultaneously so different and so similar to my own.

So while I love knowledge, I also recognize that I often use it to order the world around me and keep it at a little distance. Today I got a glimpse beyond that ordering and outside myself. Today I will accept these real lives for what they are: themselves.

photo credit: Tom Talbott, Jr.

Tuesday
May012018

Flow

photo credit: Tom Talbott, Jr.

In Progoff Journal Work one of the first steps to examining one’s life is to identify what “period” one is currently in. This is not something that you can measure from the outside, as these periods don’t have a specific length or content—it is something that you only know from the inside.

When I think about my own life, I can feel how I have been in a period of “dismantling.” This period began with my mother’s death in March of 2015 and probably ended around the time we sold our house at the end of 2017. As I have written about often already, this period was mostly about letting go and allowing old forms to disintegrate—possessions, identity, the structures I had created around work and home. However, as I look back over the past four months, I can start to feel the beginnings of a different period, a period defined by something new: something that feels like flow.

This period feels more fluid and more relaxed. In this period, “letting go” is still necessary, but it is more interwoven with new growth. Instead of the avalanche of letting go that the past few years brought, this feels more tidal, an ebb and flow of give and take. Or like a stream, whose course is created by the simultaneous arrival and departure of its water.

The activity that has most defined this new period is a practice I started in January of writing “a poem a day.” I should say right up front that these “days” sometimes stretch out over the course of a week or more when my life gets busy or I get distracted. But I like the simplicity of saying it this way—a poem a day, meaning not just thinking about poetry, or writing lines of poetry, but actually writing a poem, which, however brief, is something complete in and of itself.

             …capsules
        containing the whole…

        a stone
        a bone
        a shell

After several months of this, I am starting to learn that in order to write a poem today, I have to let go of the poem I wrote yesterday. And I am also realizing, after sitting down in a completely un-poem-like place and then finding a poem there after all, that the possibility of a poem always exists, even if I am not aware of that possibility in the moment. This means that my job is not to “make up” a great poem every day, it is simply to tend my connection to the source of poetry.

Or as William Stafford said: “I think you create a good poem by revising your life…by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about.”

Stafford also said: “That poem is best that is most congruent with who you are,” and this is the goal of this practice for me. I am not in this for the good poems, I am simply practicing writing in ways that feel more and more congruent with who I am.

One way of letting go of the poem that I wrote yesterday is to share it with other people. So, if you are interested in reading some of the poems from the past four months, I have posted them on the Poem a Day page on this website. I will likely take a break over the spring and summer, as this is the time of year to be outside, but this has been an enjoyable practice for the past four months.

--------------------------

As of April 14th, we are back on the road again in our own little rolling home. We spent the month before that getting Winky out of the garage, fixed up, aired out, and packed again and ready to go. In recognition of her limitations, we headed over the mountains toward a drier climate and have been spending a few days in Sisters, Oregon, amongst the big ponderosa pine trees. We don't have an exact plan yet, but the general idea is to spend some time in eastern Washington and Oregon exploring some areas where we have considered settling down.

Tuesday
Feb202018

About a boot

Last week Tom got a hole in his boot. He also—on the same day—fried his computer beyond repair when he plugging it into the truck to charge and then started the truck. Not sure what went wrong with that one, but that is another story…

In order to get some context, I need to start back at the beginning. In late November last year, about the time the winter rains arrived on the west coast in earnest, we left Winky in a nice, dry garage and set out for a winter of couch-surfing and short-term rentals. Our first stop was Seattle—this time for business, as we had decided to take the plunge and......sell our house. If this sounds sudden, that is because it was. We had not planned on selling just yet, but our renters made us an offer, we knew we weren’t moving back, and—plans or not—it was time.  So, we have now taken one more step in this long adventure in letting go.

After Seattle, we spent several weeks visiting family for the holidays, and then embarked on a winter back in the world-of-water, otherwise known as the Samish Flats—the delta where the Samish River meets the Salish Sea, about an hour and a half north of Seattle. Honestly, after a year of perpetual sunshine, I missed the rain. I missed the low skies, the sound of water dripping from the eaves, the space for inward reflection, the infinite variety of clouds, and the amazing displays of light those clouds create.

There are lots of places west of the Cascades where I could be wet for two months, but we chose the Samish Flats specifically for its birds. Originally a flood plain, it has been diked and drained for farming, but its shorelines, rivers, bays, creeks, sloughs, canals, channels, and flooded fields still support an immense number of wintering waterfowl (mostly snow geese, swans, and masses of ducks) as well as mesmerizing flights of dunlins, blackbirds, and starlings, and a smorgesbord of eagles, hawks, falcons, harriers, shrikes, and owls.

This is a place vibrantly alive with wings and water. You might not know it if you just drove through once on a gray day, but if you stay, you can feel the constant flux from both above and below—rain, wind, tides, mist, clouds, seeping groundwater, and the constantly shifting flights of thousands of birds, calling, flocking, gleaning, fleeing in front of the eagles and peregrines and hunters—everything in circling, washing, restless motion.

All of the rain that supports this teaming ecosystem makes it attractive to have a real roof, so we stayed at a guest cottage at an organic farm for a month, and a house on Samish Island for two weeks. I was focused on writing; Tom was focused on photography—that is, when it stopped raining long enough to take the camera out.

Which all brings me back to the boot. To photograph birds Tom has to go where the water is. And honestly, there really isn’t much of anyplace where the water isn’t. The “Flat” part of Samish Flats means that if there is water one place, there is water everywhere. One night of heavy rain, and you wake up to a lake in your back yard and water over all the roads into town. In this “university of mud” (as Tom Robbins calls it) the boot is essential.

Tom’s first impulse these days when something breaks is to find a way to fix it. Since duct tape didn’t seem like an option in this case (though we did think about it) Shoe Goo was the next obvious go-to, but it didn’t seem adequate for the size and placement of the hole—right where the boot bends. So Tom did some research and someone suggested having a patch put on at a tire repair shop. Since we were in town anyway (for the computer) I decided to give this a try.

The thing about living this way for so long—it has now been a year and a half since we “left home”—is that the lines between “normal” and “weird” start to get fuzzy. So by the time I got to Discount Tire I had somehow forgotten that most people don’t bring boots here to get patched. I had gone on a trip with some girlfriends from grad school over the weekend and hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep for a few nights, and was probably more concerned about the computer—I don’t know what it was exactly, but somehow this had become just one more thing to check off my to-do list.

So I go into the store, walk up to the service desk, put this big, muddy, man-sized, muck boot up on the counter, and in the tone of voice of someone ordering a hamburger at Dick’s say, “I would like to get a patch put on this boot. How soon can you have it ready?”

The nice service man on the other side of the counter is just staring at me. So far he hasn’t said one word past, “How can I help you?” His eyes have enlarged a few sizes and his jaw muscles don’t seem to be keeping his mouth closed anymore. His face has taken on a kind of deer-in-the-headlights expression as though he wants to run but doesn’t know which way, and he just rotates his torso slowly toward his co-worker at the register next to him with this mute appeal for sanity in a world gone sideways. This probably only take a few seconds, but time, for him, has come screeching to a halt.

The other guy sees what is happening—even in the midst of cashing out the other customer—and takes it in stride. He leans over and very matter-of-factly explains why they would be happy to help me, but the patching process that they use probably won’t adhere to the material the boot is made out of. He pokes at it a few times professionally and suggests that I might try finding a neoprene patch at a dive shop. “And have you tried Shoe Goo…?” I thank him for this information, and turn to leave. This action seems to release the first service tech from his sudden and complete paralysis. “Well!” he bursts out. “Now THAT’S something you don’t see every day!!”

Back in the truck, I can’t stop laughing: both at myself for being so oblivious, and at the thought of my service guy going home that night with a story about the crazy lady who brought in a boot. I am glad to have been part of bringing some humor into the day (for all of us), and also at maybe being the bearer of a little bit of unpredictability. This is the way it all starts sometimes—something doesn’t line up with our expectations. Our worldview has to shift. A crack opens up—reluctantly perhaps, but once that crack is there who knows what else might slip in? I feel like maybe coyote was here, working through my sleepy, distracted self without me even knowing it.

And even though the boot isn’t fixed yet, THAT feels like a good day’s work.

Monday
Oct162017

Sardine sandwiches by the seashore


Since all we have to cook on in our trailer is a propane burner, I have expanded my repertoire of things-to-make-in-a-frying-pan. One of my new creations this year is a fried pocket. I take a large tortilla, fill it with something yummy, fold it into a little package like an overstuffed envelope, and fry it on both sides. Voilà! Something hot and crispy that you can eat with your fingers and that doesn't get the frying pan dirty.

I started making these with ground beef flavored with taco seasoning—originally thinking of it as a fried burrito—but I have branched out into egg, sausage, ham, vegetables, beans, and mushrooms and cheese.

About a year ago, in my quest for variety in the meat department, I purchased a can of sardines. Whenever we were a little low on meal options the subject of the sardines would come up.

ME: We could have sardines.
TOM: Is there anything else to eat?
ME: It would be like a picnic.
TOM: Why did you buy those in the first place?
ME: Well, I thought they would make good emergency food.
TOM: Is this an emergency?

Since there has never been anything that would qualify as a real emergency, the sardines continued to languish in the back of the cupboard.

When you live in a tiny rolling house, even the space taken up by a single can of sardines is coveted. I kept thinking how that place where the sardine can was would be just the right size for a can of tuna or chicken—something we would actually use.

So finally last week, I had a brilliant idea. Sardine pockets! I laid out the tortillas, covered them with a layer of pepperjack, then the sardines, some salsa, and some sharp cheddar. You could hardly even smell the fish, and once I had folded up the tortillas, their slick little bodies were invisible. The pockets cooked up nice and toasty, brown and flakey on the outside and warm on the inside, and I laid out dinner.

We start out eating as usual. Tom eats his salad, a little bit of apple. Then he starts on his pocket. After a few bites he stops.

TOM: What's this?
ME: Fish tacos. (Said with almost a straight face.)
TOM: What KIND of fish...?
ME: There's salsa on them...

So much for that idea. Tom was not fooled for an instant. My sardine sandwiches worked about as well as trying to hide a pill in a ball of meat when we had to pill the cat. And much like the cat, he is now a little suspicious. These pockets have been a fan favorite for dinner, but now he looks at them a little sideways. I don't know if it's a good thing that you can't see what's in those, he says.

I guess that old saying about "what you don't know won't hurt you" doesn't apply to sardines. Some people ALWAYS know about sardines. But, honestly, I thought those pockets were pretty good. And if you are going to eat a sardine, it may as well be fried with cheese and salsa.

**********

Since we left Salem on September 7th, we have been rolling slowly down the coast of Oregon and California between Florence and Crescent City. When I say slowly, I mean that the bicyclists on 101 are going faster than us. In the past six weeks we have averaged about 40 miles per week of distance-moved-south. One cyclist I met in northern California had left Seattle the week before and planned to be in San Diego the next, for an average of 600 miles per week. At a relaxed walking speed, I could easily be traveling 75 miles per week. Anyway, we will leave speed to the bicyclists and the hikers—this is our favorite way to travel in Winky. We drive for an hour or less, find a place to set up camp and then hunker down for a week and see what we can walk to.

We have been listening to an audio recording of Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck’s account of a three-month trip around the United States in his 1960’s truck camper with his blue standard poodle, Charley. He says:

A trip … is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

What we are realizing is that we are now on a new trip, one with a whole different character than last year’s journey. You would think that where we are now would all flow smoothly out of last year’s travels, but it feels like we are starting all over, and once again there is so much that we don’t know. This time we are much more skilled at the practical parts of living this way—all of that has been seamless—but the trip has not revealed its purposes to us yet, and this can be mentally unsettling. Any effort to resolve this discomfort through planning has not been very successful. It seems that this trip is asking us to be patient, to see what it has in store for us. And to keep remembering, we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

So while we are waiting, I have been working on completing some old writing projects, and we are always on the lookout for wildlife. On the wildlife front, it has been kind of quiet, but there have been some highlights.

One morning we walked out to the sand dunes in thick fog and early light and found Snowy Plovers moving all around us, half-seen like little wraiths, looking so much like the beach itself that it was as if little balls of sand had suddenly started up and come alive.

It was also a delight to watch the seals pulled out at the mouth of the Smith River do their sleepy calisthenics, stretching their flippers and flexing their rubbery bodies into tight u’s; and at Elk Prairie, the big bull elks with their heavy antlers grazed right up next to the trailer, their bodies steaming in the early sunlight.

Living so much of the time outside leaves us with myriad sense-memories. The wind hard in the salt grass sweeping down a wide expanse of beach. The massive presences of the redwoods, each one a cathedral to itself. The huge waves breaking over the sea stacks in great white gouts of spray. Sitting on the gravel bar of the Smith River in the early darkness before dawn and feeling my adrenalin spike from a nearby loud, unseen, ker-plunk in the water. Startling a little skunk outside the restroom and watching it run away in a circle around me, its long black and white fur flying in a graceful fringe. And all the little things: rust-red salamanders, delicate tree frogs, and bright banana slugs; unexpected swarming hatches of insects after an afternoon of rain; a fast garter snake in the grass; a large black widow spider treking across an open dirt road in the middle of the day; Red-shouldered Hawks lurking on low perches; a peregrine shooting through a flock of gulls along the beach, scattering the white birds like seaspray.

And for the past six weeks, the ocean has been a constant, restless, roaring presence. Near or far, we are always oriented toward it. Its long beaches—rocky, sandy, or covered with pebbles; the knobby, grass-covered capes jutting out into the surf; the protected bays sheltered behind seastacks and jetties; sheer cliffs fronting the swells, with their narrow, secret canyons worn by streams emptying onto the beach; fog rolling off the water in a solid wall at sunset; the green flash of the sun setting on a clear horizon; the long ropes of kelp rolled up in huge, snarled tangles along the beach; all the rotting weed and shell and fish and flesh at the waterline—that crust of grime tossed up like a dare to us air-breathers; and everywhere the endless shifting patterns of waves—water and light caught up in hypnotic, eddying swirls of foam and silt and surf.

We don’t know from day to day where we are going next. We do not yet have a long-term trajectory, though we are constantly rolling ideas around. The uncertainty of this surfaces lots of inner demons for us both. But deep down, I am so grateful to be here, to see what we have seen, and to be able to learn and grow together.

Monday
Sep182017

The way it is


When I began this blog last year, I chose the opening line of William Stafford’s poem “The Way it Is” as the tagline:

There’s a thread you follow.

I knew this poem was important to me when I first read it many years ago, but I didn’t realize just how appropriate it would be for this past year. As I reflect on where I am at now, I realize that this poem puts into words what has been most important to me in our travels.

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.

********

Over the past year, we have lived in 80 different places. All of this moving around has made it clear what does change—which is pretty much everything. The people, plants, and animals all change. My thoughts, emotions, hopes, dreams, and fears all change. My relationships change, as does my personality. Weather, seasons—even the sun, moon, and stars all change, though you might have to wait awhile for that.

As Stafford says:

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

And yet, even in the midst of all this inevitable change, there is this thread.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

The thread isn’t something I can describe directly. Like Stafford, I can only assert that it exists. There is no proof of it other than the action of following it. And I can only indicate where it is by recognizing where it is not. But when I returned back to familiar people and places this summer (noting the changes that had happened there as well) I realized that the true gift of this year was this simple: that in the quiet, I could feel that thread inside me.

********

I thought I was going to do a lot of reflecting and writing on the past year. I expected to spend this month creating a thorough retrospective of everything I had seen and done and learned. But though there are many experiences for which I am grateful—seeing Zion, meeting the community in Cascabel, getting comfortable using a laundromat, living for a while around cattle and horses, learning to walk in the desert, feeling the vast expanses of the Southwest, returning to friends and family…to list just a few—I think that my retrospective is done.

It is not the breadth of my experience that is most important, but the simplest thing that can be distilled out of all that experience. And that simple thing is this:

There's a thread you follow.

Following this thread led me into this year. It led me through this year. And following my thread will take me wherever I go next. That is enough.

So in the end, all that I learned this year was already there, right in front of me, all along.

The Way it Is
by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.


---------------------

p.s. I noticed that this was the only picture I took on our one-year anniversary two weeks ago. I guess some part of me was already tuning into the meaning of this year...and has a sense of humor...

Tuesday
Sep052017

Day 365: One year ago today...

Today (September 5th) marks the one-year anniversary since we left our house to live in our trailer. I roll out of bed for a run before it is fully light. The sun rises red into a thick haze of smoke from nearby forest fires. Back inside, I light the stove to boil water, assemble the same breakfast we have most mornings, eat without ceremony. The list of things to do today is mostly maintenance—getting ready to leave the "base camp" of Tom's parents’ house and head out on the road again: condition our dry leather boots, treat the plastic skylights to keep them from degrading in the sun, cut some new scrap wood for support under the trailer stabilizers, buy tent cord for our new awning.

I think back to what I was doing a year ago. Packing our belongings in the trailer. Putting both kayaks on the truck for the first time. Cleaning out the garage at our house for the renters. Driving away with that dissociated feeling of not having a house to call “home” for the first time since…well, really, ever.

Now the way we are living just feels ordinary. So ordinary that some days it is actually hard to remember what it was like to live in a house. In fact it all feels so ordinary that without the calendar, I wouldn't know today was meaningful.

I was disappointed at first that this day felt so anticlimactic, as I have had one eye toward it for months. But then I realized that today wasn’t actually a real milestone. We decided a long time ago that we weren’t ready to settle down again after a year, so while this is the 365th day since we drove away from the house, nothing is actually ending or beginning on this day.

More relevant milestones were when we arrived back at the farm in Spokane in June (returning to something familiar after so many new experiences.) Or arriving in Salem on August 12 (our last planned destination.) Or the total solar eclipse, which has always been the one thing on this trip with an exact, non-negotiable time. Even the day about a week ago when the moon was the same phase as when we left somehow felt more significant to me than today.

And right now, all of our attention is on preparing to leave town soon and head toward the Oregon coast. Winky has been refurbished and repaired, we have overhauled our equipment, and we are focused on moving on, not on the completion of the year.

So our one-year anniversary passes without much more fanfare than a toast at dinner. But I trust that the changes this year has brought about in us are happening inside, and like all things in nature, will emerge when they are finished, regardless of the date on my calendar. Meanwhile, we will just keep on living…

Saturday
Aug192017

Day 348: Zen and the Art of Knitting


Sometimes doing the wrong thing can turn out to be the right thing.

Many years ago my mom gave me a book called Zen and the Art of Knitting. The exact history of this gift is lost to me. I have never had the best long-term memory—and arriving on the other side of fifty hasn't improved it—but I think the book was a present for a birthday, or perhaps Christmas. If it was, though, it was one of those presents that I think even she downplayed. An I’m-not-sure-if-this-is-your-kind-of-book, but-I-got-it-for-you-anyway, kind of present.

At first I didn't read it because I often don't read books I am given right away. It takes me awhile to warm up to them. I have to live with the book for awhile before I know whether I want to open it. Besides, there is usually a pile of half-read books in line already that I need to work through before getting to the new one.

Then there was the problem with the title. While Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a favorite book of mine as a younger person, I am suspicious now of books that start with Zen and… . There is a faddishness to it that seems very un-Zen-like. And I dislike the way that Zen gets used to mean just about anything we want it to, especially something we want to sell.

And, on the other side of the coin, it seemed like a cheap shot. Really, is there anything so obviously Zen as knitting? Do I really need a whole book to tell me that knitting is everyday meditation?

So it sat unopened, moving about the house sometimes from one bookshelf to another in one of my library-reorganization schemes. Sometimes I would look at it and think about reading it, but it just never felt compelling enough. But any time I would think about giving it away, its status as a gift, especially a gift from my mother, would stop me.

So I kept it. Even through last year’s great purge of downsizing from a house to an 18-foot trailer. But now after almost a year on the road, I am doing some even deeper culling and I have been going through book-boxes with an eye to letting go.

So I pulled it out yesterday with the intention of sending it on. After all, I don't even knit these days, and my mom died two and a half years ago so I can’t talk to her about this book even if I did read it. It seemed like an obvious non-keeper.

But as I flipped through the book, looking for scraps of paper or bookmarks, I noticed that it had an inscription. Surely I must have known this? But my long-term memory was doing what it does best, and if I had known I’d forgotten. The inscription read:

Katie,

Pages 28-33 struck a special chord with me.

“... I see the hand of God in the details of my everyday existence. In my life it all comes as a package.”

The insights I have gained into the spiritual and creative benefits of knitting seem Zen-like to me in their emphasis on finding the holy spark in everyday life, in sitting still, in letting things unfold.”

Love,
Mom

More than two years after her death, this inscription in her distinctive handwriting feels as if she has reached out unexpectedly with her old warmth from whatever realm she has disappeared to. And her invitation mirrors my current thoughts with an eerie accuracy. How much of this year has been about just this? Seeing God in the everyday. Recognizing that my life is an indivisible whole. And, most of all, simply learning to sit still and let things unfold. 

I turn to the section she references, and it begins with the author sitting on her porch watching a swarm of newly hatched butterflies: The air is thick with them. They make shadows across the pad of paper on my lap. Another moment of synchronicity snaps across my consciousness as I think about the post I wrote this year about the beauty of the swarm of Ctenucha moths hatching at Madera Canyon.

Further on I read: I’ve learned to make peace with the chaotic nature of life, to sit still when upheaval surrounds me, to do nothing when nothing is required. This seems to apply to both Mom and me. I think about how Mom had to do this in the last years of her life, had to learn to really do nothing, as even knitting—something she excelled at—became too complex to enjoy. And at the same time it feels like through this book she is also speaking to me, letting me know that she understands what this year has meant to me. In this moment, concepts like past and present, or her and I fall away. Some kind of healing is happening, some kind of reorganization of my habits of thought.

At first, I feel a familiar guilt for not paying more attention to who she was. Why was I not more curious about something that she sent me because it meant something to her? Why could I not set aside my own life for a day or two to read this? But I know that my own circumstances and personality have made my struggle not so much about how to have empathy, but rather how to have boundaries. If I couldn’t see my mother, it was not because I was too distant, but because I was too entangled. With a kind of terrible irony it was her death that allowed me the room to be curious about who she was as a person, as someone apart from her role as my mother.

As I read further, I find that the book begins when the author also loses her mother, sometime in college. It begins with the author taking a trip to her ancestral country of Ireland, initially as a way to avoid her grief, but through this travel, finding solace in her interactions with her extended family.

I think if I had read this book back when Mom gave it to me it would not have had the impact it does now—that it would have just been about her. Waiting this long gave it an additional message, as though she was also saying to me, I know how hard it is to lose your mom, but I am right here still. I am always part of you, whether you know it or not. As far you go from "home" I am still there: in the people you meet, in the land you live in, in your hands and mind and heart.

Perhaps the question for me at the end of this year is, How would I live if I carried absolutely no more guilt about my relationship with my mother? If I accepted every part of it—her natural limitations, my natural limitations, the things each of us did or didn’t do—if I saw all of that as just the way it was, and knew instead the deeper connection between her and me and everything else, what would I do?

I can see now, in this ignored and forgotten book, how Mom was aware of what is most important to me—the sense of that perfection that exists right in the center of what is already. That reality that means that there is nothing you have to do or be or strive for or achieve—that what I am and you are is enough already, right now, in the midst of all of our imperfections. That doesn’t mean she (or I) always lived from this awareness, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is here, all the time, all around us, “costing not less than everything.”

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

        from T.S. Elliot's "Little Gidding"

------------------------------

Tom and I have arrived in Salem, Oregon at our last planned destination of this year—his parent's house for the total solar eclipse. In the last couple months we have enjoyed time with my family on the farm near Spokane, a drive across Washington on Highway 20, and a brief visit to Seattle. Since being in Salem, I have finished reading Zen and the Art of Knitting, a book which now is a treasured reminder of Mom sitting in her favorite chair with her latest knitting project. Our year-long trip is officially over on September 5th. Now we just need to figure out what's next...

Thursday
Jul062017

A different kind of public space

Highway rest stop, New Mexico

We have seen many kinds of public land in the past ten months—state parks, national forests, BLM holdings, etc.—but not having a bathroom in our trailer has given us an appreciation for a more basic kind of public space: the public toilet and shower.

My attitude toward public restrooms—especially the showers—helps me realize how much has changed for me in subtle ways since we began. At first, the challenge of taking a satisfying shower in my flip flops in some dank, spider-infested, coin-operated, concrete cubicle pretty much cancelled out the pleasure of the shower. How do I keep my clothes dry when there’s no shower curtain? How do I know when the two minutes that my token buys is almost up so I am not left with a head full of shampoo? And what IS that in the corner..??

Now, though, I feel nothing but appreciation for any kind of shower—dank or not. And over the last ten months of depending mostly on public restrooms I have acclimated to the parade of options, from the KOA that was lined floor-to-ceiling in fake-gilt-edged mirrors, to the most basic pit toilets—hole, pit, cover, door and that’s about it.

I am not sure exactly what caused this change—probably it just comes from repeated experience—but my initial squeamishness about unfamiliar conditions has been replaced, mostly, by ease. It feels normal now to be living so much of the time in public space. It feels normal to not own anything other than the toiletries I carry with me. It feels normal to walk a few hundred yards to get to the bathroom, or to stand in line to wait at “rush hour,” or to perhaps meet someone from another country during the wait.

All of this has given me a more basic sense of connection to the rest of the human race—to the reality that we share resources and fundamentally depend on each other for our survival, especially in our increasingly interconnected social structures. Using a public toilet is a visceral reminder several times a day that the way we conduct ourselves—our "aim" in life, so to speak—affects other people.

And, oddly, one of the best things about this arrangement is directly correlated to its inconvenience. Some of my best memories are from nighttime walks when nature called at two a.m.: the brilliant stretch of stars across a black canyon; the smell of frost on the grass; the chatter of elf owls calling back and forth between the trees; or just the vast simple silence of the night, full of the life-breath of the world. I would not have had these experiences if I had been able to stumble half-asleep into my own private indoor room.

I do appreciate a well-designed shower and have developed some opinions about what that looks like. I have joked that there is a career out there for me as a state-park-shower-stall-design consultant. (A shelf! They have been around for years…how hard is it to put one in the shower so your soap doesn’t dissolve and float away!) But the trend in my thinking this year has been toward more gratitude and less evaluation. That really anything that delivers warm, clean, running water (and even the warm part is optional) is one of the wonders of the modern world.

And it is easy to get entranced by bathroom design and forget what the purpose of it is and how it is connected to the rest of the world. My favorite toilets of the trip were the simple composting toilets designed by David Omick that many people have built in Cascabel. In fact, when we stayed there two years ago, the composting toilet at the cabin was one of the things that drew me back. It was a relief to begin to see how this most basic form of "waste" could be a resource instead of a pollution problem. Likewise, David and his wife Pearl have also created a simple outdoor shower that has a natural water-saving device: they can use as much water as they want, but they have to carry every drop they use from the holding tank to the simple gravity-fed shower bucket.

This is the main thing that is making me want to settle down again—the desire to do things like have a compost pile and an herb garden, or to build some simple structures for daily living that directly connect our bodies and the land. Until then, I am grateful that we can still get along well enough as a society to have public restrooms.

---------------------

We made a brief pass along the west side of New Mexico, but realized that we had seen so many new things by then that we needed some time to assimilate our experiences. So instead of going further into New Mexico and Colorado, after a few weeks on the Rio Grande River we angled briefly into the southwest corner of Colorado before traveling fairly directly (for us) up through Utah and Idaho to my family's farm near Spokane, WA. It felt a little strange at first to be in trees and green again, but it has been good to return to familiar landscapes and faces. While we may be getting comfortable in public spaces, we also appreciate the hospitality of friends and family who have hosted us along the way. Things seemed to work out just when we needed them, like our friend in Idaho being home briefly on the very weekend we needed a place to park the trailer for a few days in order to take a side trip to attend a funeral in Portland. Sometimes the flow of the river of life is more powerful than planning...

Lots of green things at Hyrum Reservoir, Utah