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

Monday
Jun122017

Day 280: What is home?

May 25: Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

In a couple weeks, Tom and I plan to be at my family's farm near Spokane where I grew up. Even though I have not lived there for nearly 30 years, I have continued to call it home, something that always confused things when we would drive from “home” in Seattle to “home” on the farm. Sure, I knew it wasn’t where I lived at the time, but it was always a more fundamental kind of home—a place that I originated from, that defined me, and by which I measured all other things.  It was a kind of center of gravity; something that you never really left.

For months now I have thought of arriving back on the farm after all of our traveling this year, as going home. But it suddenly hit me tonight, completely out of the blue, as I was in the middle of cooking a sausage for dinner:  the farm is not my home.

I am not sure I can explain the impact of this thought to anyone who moved frequently as a child. Those of you who did, got this lesson long ago.  But for someone who lived in the same place growing up, a place that was such a force of life, a place which still exists essentially unchanged today, this idea felt like a small revolution in my mind.

The farm is not my home. Yes, it is the place I grew up. Yes, it will always be part of me. Yes, there are people I love there. But it is their home, and it seems important, at this point in my life in particular, that I stop calling it mine.

Which of course raises the question: What is home? Is home the structure I live in? Is this trailer, that we have now hauled around the West to 60 different places, home? It certainly is no small comfort to have this little island of familiarity to return to each day, but is that all that home is? Is home where the heart is—with the partner that I have chosen to live with? Or with family? Or with the community of people I work and share friendships with? In the past, I have associated home with a location—a piece of land or a kind of landscape. I remember when I first moved west of the Cascades in my early 20’s how utterly lost I felt immersed in unfamiliar weather and plants, and how long it took me to begin to recognize this new place as somewhere I belonged.

May 10: Winky at Sunny Flats Campground, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mts, Arizona

This past year, though, has given me a new perspective. That perhaps it isn’t something on the outside that is home, but rather something inside myself. And that perhaps when I am in touch with this inner home, my outer home can expand. Perhaps (as I began to consider in earlier posts) the whole world is my home. Perhaps wherever I happen to live is part of a much larger whole. Perhaps this is another way to “hide the world in the world.”

And perhaps letting go of calling the farm home, and recognizing that I am a visitor there, is a step toward embracing a fundamental contradiction: that while I am at home everywhere I go, I am also a visitor everywhere I live. As my sense of belonging widens, perhaps my sense of possession can lighten. Perhaps I can learn to be a partner with the place I live rather than its master.

What I can be master of is myself. And that mastery brings with it confidence. The confidence to say: Where am I today? And to answer: Today I am at home, in myself and in the world.

Thursday
May252017

Letting Go

You think you do right to hide little things in big ones, and yet they get away from you.
But suppose you were to hide the world in the world…

--Chuang Tzu

This trip began with a death and a theft.

The death was the death of my mother after a several-year decline. When she passed away, not only were my care-giving services no longer needed, but something I had taken for granted my whole life suddenly disappeared. The resulting emptiness was freeing and disorienting. I felt like a horse who had been hitched loosely to a post for a long time and now the post was gone, and there was no guidance about the many directions I could wander off in.

The theft came a few months after that, in late June of 2015, on a trip we took to the Oregon Coast. We had parked at a trailhead early in the morning to walk to the sand dunes, and when I got back to the car, someone had stolen my bags with all of my clothes in them out of the back seat. All that was left was what I was wearing and my pajamas back in the tent. Everything that was gone was either useful or sentimental—for example, the last crocheting project my mother was working on with me before she died. But though I felt angry and sad at first, I noticed that I felt a great lightness at not having bags to carry, or having to decide what to wear the next day, or having to protect things from getting stolen. The freedom I continued to feel from this simple loss made me start to wonder what the price was of owning things. How much did I want to own, and why?

So it shouldn't come as a surprise to me that this trip is turning out to be about letting go. At first it was about letting go of physical things—cleaning out our house of 20 years and selling or giving away (or throwing out) most of our belongings. Leaving my office and our familiar surroundings in Seattle. Being separated for a time from friends and family. But I am finding that it is also about letting go of inner things. Letting go of my plans. Of strategies for getting along in the world, like being helpful, accumulating knowledge, or staying busy. Of old reactions and habitual responses.

What I feel drawn to over and over again as we travel is a kind of inner emptiness. The kind of emptiness that is not so much precursor to something else, (the space in the bell / allows it to ring) but a state of awareness in and of itself. A condition of Being completely separate from my plans and projects.

And yet it feels scary to watch birds without making a list, or to not have a plan for how we will get back to Washington, or to not be creating something. At my most doubtful, I wonder what is legitimate emptiness and what is just aimlessness. After I graduated from my master's program in June of 2011, I took a couple months off to rest before deciding what to do next. In September I started building my private therapy practice. Looking back on it, I can't remember what I did during the summer at all, while the fall is bright and clear in my memory. When I go back to my journal I see that I had lots of ideas that summer—I painted, I planned interesting workshops with friends, I took some trips, I thought about the future—but somehow that time off was not nearly as memorable as actually starting to create something that I loved.

This emptiness I am sensing now seems different, though. It is not just a void, it is actually something alive. When I woke this morning I remembered the poem I wrote in 2015 about what my work is: to guard the silence / at your center. It takes an alert vigilance to guard, and I notice that most of the time, I am not tending that silence—especially when I am feeling irritated with something or caught in some kind of mood. As soon as I begin to believe these feelings and act on them, it gets very noisy inside. If I took that poem seriously, it could be a guide for this time:

So lay aside your lists,
your plans,

and your intentions.
The silence

of this space
contains everything.

Its words
are your words.

This morning (May 1st) we are leaving yet another place that we have fallen in love with—another kind of letting go. Saying goodbye to the calming presence of Mt. Wrightson, to the Mexican jays, to the alligator junipers with their distinctive checkerboarded bark, to the Rincon paintbrush and the sycamores. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and I feel this in my gut as a kind of ache every time we leave somewhere.

But as I just feel this sadness (and let it go, too) there is an emptiness that replaces it that is expansive and full. After having over 50 different “homes” this year, I am getting used to endings. I am beginning to see that grasping onto things to try to keep them the same also creates an emptiness, but one that is fearful and lonely. This new emptiness is different. It resonates with energy. It is large enough to contain everything we have seen and done—and more. It is indefinable. And it requires trust, something that is easier said than done.

I can remember other times when I felt this kind of emptiness. When our cat Lionel died at home after a long decline, I sat with the body afterwards trying to feel what had just happened. As I sat there, I had the sense that what I considered Lionel was dispersing out into the universe. He wasn't there, and the emptiness of his passing was heart-wrenching. But now he was everywhere—in the trees and the grass and the air and the stars—and if I sat quietly, thinking of him, I could feel in that emptiness a connection to everything, if only for a moment.

Perhaps if we do not shut down when things are taken from us or when we are sad, there can be room for this. Perhaps this is one way of hiding the world in the world.

*****

This part of the trip is hard for me. We have done many of the things we set out to do. We don’t have a lot of plans between now and the end of August. In the absence of structure or purpose, I often find myself depressed. Or, to put it more exactly, I cycle between extremes: one day I feel a deep sense of awe or contentment. The next I find myself aimless and lost, unsure about myself or the point of anything.

Jim Corbett speaks to this difficulty in his book Goatwalking. He talks about these feelings as the natural result of the search for this emptiness, which he calls detachment or selflessness. Detachment requires an end to our addiction to social busyness, and in order to even see this addiction, we have to step outside of the usual social structures for awhile—which is not as easy as it might sound.

Wandering purposeless and without human companionship, one sometimes experiences emotional crises that are...similar to culture shock and cabin fever.... In the absence of socially supported identities we may discover ourselves possessed by naked demons who have the good manners to appear only in acceptable disguises when we are in polite society. During extended periods of isolation working as a sheepherder and cowboy, I discovered little of this kind of emotional conflict. After all, I was doing a job and earning a living. Each day had its work and objectives.... But in full solitude—free and easy wandering without purpose or schedule—the demons appear.

Society provides most of the make-believe that prevents one's hells from surfacing into full consciousness. But whoever leaves the world to wander alone...should be prepared to meet a devil or two, when busyness ceases to drown out the dream side.... Old wounds become fresh injuries. Unresolved terrors become immediate threats. I've come awake in the close darkness of a cloudy new-moon night, sobbing from an early-childhood rejection, so overcome with its lasting presence that I could only gradually remember my way back into middle age. I've come awake old and senile, awaiting death with dumb, motionless panic. (Corbett, p. 10-11)

Jim's descriptions of his experiences help me recognize the moods I feel for what they are and to understand how to continue to orient myself by naming them and re-focusing on the bigger picture. Without this perspective I would have headed back to something familiar long ago. But it is clear to me that this pain—though not the point—is necessary. That this breaking open is the first step in receiving the world.

*****

A few weeks ago I took a nap in the trailer in the heat of the day and woke up thinking that I was a child again on the farm and that my family was just in the other room. Then I started having sense memories of taking care of Mom at Manor Care—the smell of the building, the long faceless hall, all those blank hours in which she had to occupy herself. I felt groggy and disoriented from sleep and had a jolt of empathy for her confusion while she lived there—how difficult it would be to not be able to get up and walk, or to go outside to find your present self again. I was surprised at how fresh all of those memories still were for me, and how often these days I feel like I imagine Mom did during that time. Perhaps this is another kind of letting go—the need to let go of the past.

I think of all the letting go she had to do those last years. Letting go of her memory and her ability to make sense of the world; of her ability to walk or take care of herself; of her capacity to make her own decisions and of most of what was fun. Eventually letting go of her body and of her life itself.

When I think about this, I am pretty sure that I don’t fully understand the implications of letting go, or even what I am giving up. All I see at first are the positive aspects of living lighter along with a little collateral sadness, something along the lines of not having luggage to carry out of the car. But when I think about Mom, and I consider losing parts of myself that I consider central to who I am—memory, interests, skills, my home, my work—it is much more unsettling. I can feel the desire to clutch fiercely at these things, uncertain that what will take their place is worth it.

Then I feel the wind blow, I see the tips of all the trees move in concert like a green ocean, and I know that these trees are connected all the way back to the canyons of Utah, the sage brush of Nevada, the pines of the eastern Cascades, the great fir trees of the Olympic Mountains, and on and on. I feel the whole earth breath. I feel the pull to keep trying to understand what it means to hide the world in the world. I know there is no going back.

When you let go
you relax
open your hand—
everything falls to the ground.
You don't have to choose
any more.
This does not mean, though,
that you are bereft—
that things won't choose you.
That things with wings
won't land on your open palm,
or that little feet
won’t make the long journey
from the ground to your lap.
Just wait.
Open.
Everything
is a part of you.

------------------
Corbett, J. Goatwalking. (1991). New York: Viking.

Wednesday
May172017

Day 229: Mountain time

Imagine this.

You start by driving away from the city, into the desert. A few flat, hot hours go by. You are surrounded mostly by cactus. The only signs of water are the dry washes carved into the ground by summer storms.

Eventually, you begin to gain elevation. Cactus dwindle, replaced by grasses. There is less bare ground between plants. As you continue to climb, you begin to see more trees—short, twisted oaks and junipers that are still more shrubs than trees. Farther up, these get taller, now providing a little filtered shade. Yuuca’s outnumber the cactus. There is dry bunchgrass everywhere.

When you run out of road, you park the car and start walking. The steep trail ascends rapidly up the side of a vast, craggy mountain. You begin to see views of the valley and the city you started from in the distance. The oaks are taller, especially in the ravines, but there is still no visible water. Here there are manzanitas and little forest flowers—heuchera in the shade and paintbrush where it is sunnier. The trail is steep and dusty. The sun feels like a hot bulb suspended directly overhead. Every scrap of shade from the scattered trees on the ridges is a relief.

After over an hour of climbing you are high on the mountain. The valley below spreads away into distant haze. There are real trees here—mostly pines. The trail levels off close to the rocky ramparts of the mountain peak. You traverse a ridge then drop down into a fold in the mountainside.

As you enter the bottom of the ravine the world changes completely. For the first time in all these hot miles, a little stream gurgles up out of the ground. The air is quiet and cool. Long-needled pines and a Douglas fir tower an impossible height above you. Huge, white-trunked sycamores glow in the lighted shadows. Light-green ferns grow thick on the duffy ground. Moss covers the rocks. Even a little purple violet blooms in the stream. Sunlight slips through the leaves in sparkling patches on the water.

But most magical of all, the air above the stream is alive with wings. Hundreds of butterfly-like moths are rising up from the short stretch of flowing water in a loose flittering cloud of color and light. Each moth’s hind-wings are shiny metallic blue, their thick bodies are a soft powder-blue, and their round heads glow vivid red. At rest, with their orange-veined wings folded over their backs, they blend into the needles, but they are not often at rest, but are in constant twinkling, sparkling flight.

As I watch this swirl of colored wings, I feel like there should be music. The creek purls and trickles and crescents down over the wet rocks. The sun shines silently. I ask humble forgiveness for all the times I scoffed at fantasy movies in which the forest air was filled with fluttering, gossamer drifting stuff, as being “unreal.” This, too, feels unreal, but it is right here, moths rising and falling, tumbling and circling, landing on mud, opening and closing their wings, taking to the air again. This is also reality: as real as the long, hot walk to get here; as real as the fast, hot city in the distance.

And like most of reality it is fleeting. By the time we leave the stream late that afternoon, many of the moths have either dispersed or are stuck and drowning in deeper pools, littering the shore of the creek. Over the next weeks we see them many times in ones and twos, but never again in such numbers, even back at the same spring.

From what I can tell, these are Veined Ctenucha or Ctenucha venosa, a moth of the southwest that is active by day and whose larva feed on grasses. Why was there such a swarm of them? There must be some good reason—there always is—but I don’t know what it was. All I know is that it was memorable, as was all of Mt. Wrightson, its richness rising island-like out of the sea of desert.

One thing this trip is about, is time; and having time allows a different perspective. With this kind of time, watching a flight of moths might be the most important thing I do all day. And with time I tend toward a certain kind of watching—not observing so much for the sake of knowledge or understanding, but simply for the delight of it. The kind of watching that is a kind of homage or a prayer to what is, in all its magnificent detailed variety.

-----------

We spent a week and a half at Madera Canyon on Mt. Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, walking and working and writing and being amazed at the incredible variety of plants, birds, lizards, and insects who make their home on this “sky island.”

Wednesday
Apr262017

A little love letter to Cascabel

   Secret cliffs stand silent in dry canyons.
   The sun stretches from horizon to horizon.
   Every rock is hot.
   Still, some places keep their names close,
   and hide plants there that love shade.

   In the mornings, mountains wake up first.
   Like cats they are alert watchers.
   The plants mostly endure.
   Contained for years they wait 
   for exhibitions of dazzling excess.

   Ants build fantastic homes in the worst soil.
   Beetles multiply even in dusty pastures.
   Snakes thrive.
   At night the toads suddenly bend the darkness
   with their wretched love songs.

   And the people? They too endure,
   holding something rare away from the wind,
   keeping watch—
   and like the bees, gather the slightest slips of sweetness
   into a golden labor of honey.
Sunday
Apr232017

Day 178-224: Cascabel finale

I have been struggling to figure out how to write about our time in Cascabel, and in the end, I have decided to keep it simple.

There is so much I could talk about. There is the community history, things like Jim and Pat Corbett’s work in the 80’s that began the Sanctuary Movement. There is the commitment of the Saguaro-Juniper covenant to conduct human activity in partnership with everything else that lives here. There are projects to restore native grasslands. There is the hermitage program which supports solitary retreat in desert wildlands. There is the community center built by volunteers from recovered materials, and the community garden with its cadre of fun-loving gardeners. There is the eclectic mix of people who live lives that are both highly independent and closely associated. Amongst those people, there is enough creativity, advanced education, and international experience to start a small college. And most important, there is the land itself that grounds everything else—the San Pedro River Valley, a rare, vital, relatively-intact, desert river ecosystem, whose miles of willow-cottonwood forest and mesquite bosques provide food and shelter for a staggering number of local animals as well as being an essential migratory corridor for many of the birds who summer in the Pacific Northwest.

Like I said, there’s a lot. But whenever I try to focus on any one of these things I find myself caught in generalizations or comparisons, or tangled in some kind of “educational” language that does not do justice to my actual experience.

So in the end it comes down to this: that both Tom and I came away from the last seven weeks with a deep affection for this place—the people and the land—that is like the bonds we feel with our family and friends. This affection comes from something greater than the accomplishments of the people or the beauty of the plants or the variety of the birds. It comes from the spiritual soul of this place—the wholeness of it, the spaciousness, the vast wild network of creatures connected to the vitality of the community.

   If I am still—
   if I let my hands rest, my heart broaden
   to the width of the valley, to the height of the mountains,
   then on to the next range beyond,
   to the cities, the rivers, the sea,
   then I too may find my place here,
   if I can stop grasping long enough
   to remember how to be vast.

   Of all the places I could be
   how did I end up here, in this moment?
   I mean in this very moment—
   at sunset, the cusp of night reaching out over the wide valley;
   the white cliffs at my back and the rangy peaks of the Galiuro Mountains
   pushed up in the distance; the whole wide green body
   of the valley laid out in-between in low rolling hills
   of creosote and saguaros; the little houses of people I know
   folded into them like nuts spotting a batter;
   and below, the cottonwoods assembled along the river
   like cows trailing loosely toward fresh pastures.
   The sky is about to reveal its stars.
   The moon is a ghost disk in the periwinkle wash.
   The barest threads of clouds mottle the air from east to west,
   and here I am—
   here I am with nothing but the wind
   and all this space
   to speak with.
Monday
Apr102017

Day 178-216: Cascabel, part 1

Two years ago in April, Tom and I rented a 100-year-old stone cabin in Cascabel, Arizona, in the San Pedro River Valley, a couple hours east of Tucson. To the uninitiated this might be considered the middle of nowhere. The nearest grocery store is 45 minutes by car, the best road here is unpaved, water is scarce, and a census might have to include cows to break 300.  It didn’t take long, though, for us to realize that Cascabel is actually somewhere, and not only that, it is somewhere special. Even after just a week we knew that we wanted to come back. It took us two years to do so, but on March 1st we arrived for a seven-week stay.


Downtown Cascabel

There is so much to say about this place—both the land and the community— that I get tongue-tied just thinking about it, so I am going to come at it through the back door. Instead of painting the grand picture, I am going to start with some humble bits, sidling up to it with a little whistle, as I have seen some people here approach a cow they needed to move.

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

After having been in the desert now for the last four months, we are getting used to the "don't touch that" rule, whether it is the furry-looking cholla cactus, or the cat-claws of the acacia, or the long spikes on the mesquite trees. It seems best to just assume that rule applies to all plants and, well, pretty much anything that moves. Having grown up in the soft-and-friendly Pacific Northwest, I like to touch things, and I have to be reminded to keep my hands in my "Haydn-pockets" here.

Every Wednesday there’s morning coffee at the community center, followed by a work party at the community garden. Our first Wednesday here, the guy who sits down at our table is recovering from a scorpion sting on his foot. I am talking to someone else and can’t hear the details, but the length of his story and the size of his gestures suggest that he has been in a lot of pain.

I heard about fire ants on my previous visit, so I am careful to avoid ant mounds when I am walking. When we are visiting a neighbor here, looking at the native grass plantings he is tending in his restored pasture, I stop for a closer look at some unusually large black ants swarming in and out of a hole in the ground. "Oh, those,” he says, telling me the name, which I can’t remember now. “Don't mess with those, their bite is way worse than a scorpion sting!" Move along, in other words. Maybe over by that prickly pear cactus or in that stand of velcro grass. Or in a patch of that bristly plant with the yellow flowers that someone warned me would give me hives if I touched it without gloves.

Javalinas look like small, vertically-flattened, pointy-toed pigs that wander around in packs looking for mud. Mostly they seem interested in hiding, and the few times I have seen them it was from the rear as they ran hysterically away from me. But one woman mentions that she doesn't like to walk along the river in a place where the javelinas gather, not so much because they are dangerous, really, but because "javelinas don't have a sense of humor." Woody, the ranch's herd manager, tells a story of one angry javelina waking him up from a nap in the fields and chasing him into the stock pond. His description of the smell of the sludge he stirred up from the bottom of the pond when he fell in made me think that being bitten by the javelina might have been preferable.

After moving cows one day we sit in a little house next to the corral having cookies and cheese and I notice a good-sized spider (a solid inch in diameter with all the legs pulled in) on the wall over our host. Spiders aren't a trigger for me the way snakes are, but I think she might like to know about it so I mention it. Oh yeah. That guy is just a baby. It is deadly poisonous, of course, and moves really fast, so I am waiting until I can focus on it to catch it.

Oh, and I have now seen my first rattlesnake. I should have been forewarned, as Cascabel means “rattle” in Spanish, and refers in this case to the tail-end of a rattlesnake. Sure enough, our first night here I “discovered” a good-sized rattlesnake coiled up by the end of our trailer, and get my first lesson in snake catching and moving.

A few weeks ago most of the community gathered for a memorial service for a very dear friend of theirs who recently died. After a spacious hour of silence, meditation bells, and remembrances we sit for potluck lunch. The woman next to us asks us how we are doing here, and we tell her how much we are taken by the valley, to which she responds, “Well, with the warmer weather, you will need to watch out for the Kissing Bugs." Kissing Bugs! What? No one told us about Kissing Bugs. Turns out these are stink bug look-alikes that hide behind your cushions and come out at night to bite you while you are asleep, attracted evidently by the smell of your breath. Their saliva has a little anesthetic in it so you don't even feel them when they "kiss" you and they are able to fill to exploding on your blood like a leech. Great. Bed leeches.

The next Wednesday I am back at the community garden when someone walks by the young man who is helping with our tomato transplanting team. "I hear you got hit by a burn worm," he says in the sort of somber tone you might use for someone who has had a limb amputated. Burn worm?!? What now? Turns out these are some kind of caterpillars (also known as mesquite stinger caterpillar) covered with stinging hairs, that fall out of the trees and feel, as the unfortunate young man reported, like four bee stings at once. At least now I know how to treat it, which is to apply duct tape to the burning spot and then rip it off to pull the little stinging hairs out of your skin. This is also supposed to work with cholla glochids, though my previous experiences with sports tape make me wonder if this cure might add insult to injury.

I say all this to emphasize how amazing this place is. That even though the list of poisonous, prickly, and painful things to be avoided is longer than our trailer, I still wake up every day feeling like I have landed in paradise. Perhaps the threat of harm makes me pay more attention and take less for granted. Perhaps there is a kind of awe at the lengths things go to survive in harsh environments. Perhaps there is a longing to be as at home in this wide, arid land as the creosote bush and the cactus.

All I know is that this land feels deeply, vibrantly alive—an understated aliveness mirrored by the people who choose to live here. I have experienced a profound gentleness in many of the people here, coupled with a willingness to act decisively in service to what they believe in. There is a commitment to being partners with the land, rather than the land being a possession or only a means to making a profit. These ideals seem to arise at least in part from the desert itself, which is absolutely unforgiving and absolutely itself, while also offering an intense spiritual aliveness.

Not everyone who lives here ascribes to these ideas. There are many different faces to Cascabel, and what you see depends on where you stand and who you talk to. What is clear to us, though, is that we are here to learn—about generosity, about community working together, about how to live in challenging circumstances, and most of all about the land.

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

Tom and I are staying at a ranch which is the central location for Saguaro-Juniper, the cattle-raising part of this community, and have parked our trailer amidst the welter of houses, trailers, corrals, sheds, horse trailers, trucks, and the kind of equipment and raw materials that accumulates on every farm. We feel so lucky to be here. To the west we can walk to the San Pedro River and can get to an area where the riverbed has year-round water. To the east we can walk for miles out into the saguaros and creosote bush of the desert. Our hosts are some of the original founders of this community and it has been a pleasure to get to know them and hear their stories.

This is also the location of the Sweetwater Center, the organization that I am volunteering for while we are here. I am helping with some pasture improvement projects as well as caring for two new plantings of pollinator plants. What this really means is I do a lot of weeding, which is something with which I have loads of experience. I am surprised at how much I am enjoying it. I think it feels good to just do something familiar, simple, and rote after six months of so much change.

When I am not weeding or walking in the desert with Tom, I have been immersed in the busy social life of this community. Coffee gatherings, Quaker meeting, potlucks, horseback riding, folk dancing, meditation group, writing group, road cleanup, cheese making, game night, celebrations of all sorts of things, committee meetings, mesquite-pulling work parties, conservation work, and tending the community garden all somehow get squeezed into the short weeks around here. The result of that, though, is that after only six weeks here, I have met just about everyone who lives along about a ten-mile stretch of the dirt road.

There is so much more to say about this place, but it will have to wait for another post. I am still digesting the incredible vastness of the desert, the life-giving presence of the river, the principles of the people who have been drawn together in community, and the work of the organizations that have formed around the intention of tending this valley and its inhabitants.

In a week we will pack up our trailer and move on. We aren't sure where we are headed or what the next five months will hold for us. We don't know when we might come back here. But the people and the land are in our hearts now and give us strength. We feel different after being here—a little more relaxed, a little more aware, and warmed by many memories.

Saturday
Mar042017

Day 171-177: Community  

A picture without any people may seem like an odd beginning for a post titled "community." But this picture would not be possible without the work of many different people coming together in common cause.

Most obviously, the cottonwoods below mark Sonoita Creek in the Sonoita Creek Preserve, a Nature Conservancy preserve founded in 1966 to protect one of the few remaining permanently flowing streams in Arizona. This mostly undeveloped watershed and riparian area provides crucial habitat for migrating birds and wildlife of all kinds. Trails from this site lead upstream to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds (an Audubon education site) and off into the surrounding hills.

The mountains in the distance are part of the Coronado National Forest, an excellent example of land that we hold in common. This forest is composed of at least 12 distinct mountain ranges in Arizona and New Mexico that create "Sky Islands"—cooler, moister pockets of forest separated by large desert basins. These forests are the remnants of larger forests that covered this area when the climate was cooler and wetter during the last ice age. If you hiked up the side of the mountain you would travel through changes in climate equivalent to travelling from the deserts of Mexico to the forests of Canada. The mission of the Forest Service for this forest is to sustain the unique biodiversity of the sky island ecosystems and provide a variety of high quality visitor opportunities and services within the capabilities of these ecosystems.

And in the far distance, out of sight but just over the mountains, is Mexico, whose influence is felt everywhere in these southern states--in the language, the food, the history, the people. Nothing really stops at the border and the plants, animals, weather, people and culture all intermingle here.

Just a few miles away from where this picture was taken is Deep Dirt Farm, on the other side of the town of Patagonia.

I had the opportunity to work with Kate Tirion, the owner of Deep Dirt Farm, for a day with her Women Grow Food group. Kate cares for 34 acres of grassland and is integrating organic food production with habitat and watershed restoration as well as doing permaculture education and leadership training for young people. Everything you see in the greenhouse below is grown by the Women Grow Food group for their own use and for the senior center in Patagonia which provides the main meal of the day for a number of elderly people in the community. The farm is based on biodynamic permaculture principles and no fertilizer is used on these crops other than compost.

I also volunteered for a day at the plant nursery run by Borderlands Restoration, a group that is working on local community-based watershed and habitat restoration around the Mexican-US border. Borderlands Restoration greenhouses are located on land owned by Native Seeds/SEARCH, an organization working to preserve local genetic diversity of agricultural crop seeds. To come full circle again, Native Seeds/SEARCH bought this land in a cooperative agreement with The Nature Conservancy, who manages the portion of the land where Sonoita Creek is located. Borderlands Restoration also has a seed bank, theirs focusing on hand-collected wild native seeds, and they grow plants for use by organizations like the National Park Service or BLM in revegetating disturbed areas.

Borderlands Restoration is also working on a project which would preserve a wildlife corridor between two mountain ranges in the Coronado National Forest, one of the few areas in the U.S. where jaguars live. This project is attempting to integrate the needs of people and wildlife by turning a bankrupt proposed housing development into a much smaller, more compact set of lots for houses while protecting a important area for wildlife travelling between Red Mountain and Mt. Wrightson. This beautiful canyon with oak-grassland habitat is part of that project.

Deep Dirt Farm is now a demonstration site for Borderlands Restoration and all of these groups are working together to begin teaching sustainable principles and leadership skills through the Borderlands Restoration Leadership Institute. Their mission is to be a project-based learning laboratory cultivating a restoration economy in the US-Mexico borderlands.

Why am I writing about all this? I don't exactly know myself. Only I was drawn here by Kate Tirion's image of community as mosaic—that each of us is a tile in a picture which begins to form as we bring our talents together. Our first job is to make our own tile shine, but the picture doesn't arise until we find our place in the whole.

I have been part of many wonderful communities in Seattle: writing and dance groups, Freedom Project, graduate school, the Hakomi training community, Fremont Healing Arts, Present Sense, our neighborhood, and friends and family. I did not go on this trip because I needed to find better communities to work with!

However, as we travel, my sense of community is starting to expand. Rather than thinking of community as an isolated group doing a specific thing, I am starting to have a sense of how all these different communities work together to create the fabric of the society we live in.  I am beginning to assume that one organization will be connected to the work of another organization, and am surprised if they don't know about each other. Then I realize that these organization may be 100 miles apart, a distance equivalent to me collaborating with someone in Bellingham or Ellensburg when I lived in Seattle—something I wasn't likely to be doing.  But somehow this level of connection is starting to seem both more natural and more important to me now. That we are aware of other people doing related work in other parts of the country. That we are able to inspire each other. That we can enhance our creativity through diversity. That we are able to share resources and knowledge. That we can support each other—mourn together when things fail, celebrate when they succeed, and provide hope in difficult times. 

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

When we left Patagonia Lake State Park on Feb 23rd we didn't know where we would stay next. Friends that we met at the Salton Sea had recommended the town of Patagonia, but every time I called the only RV park in town I got the same strangely non-committal answer about whether they had available space. None of my other requests for a place to stay had panned out. As we were driving through town, I called the RV park one last time, and this time there was an unexpected availability for the night! Once in the park, the owner was able to find room for us for a week. I can't imagine having missed Patagonia, as our experience there was so rich in connection and learning. Definitely a lesson in trusting things to unfold as we go.

Tuesday
Feb212017

Day 169: Friends with trees


As I was writing my post on cottonwoods, I noticed my reluctance to say that I felt these trees were my friends. Would I appear too emotional, too fanciful? Or perhaps not serious enough—as though seriousness is what’s required to be credible.

But how are we inspired to do difficult work or make hard changes? Our feelings show us what matters to us: what we value, what we love, what gives us delight, what distresses us. And our feelings let us know what we know we are related to.

At some level, we are related to everything, but we are wired for smaller scopes—to care about and protect the immediate family, clan, or tribe. And our feelings show us who we consider part of our tribe: who is worthy of our effort to protect, who we will risk our own comfort for.


To feel friendly toward something is a recognition that our fates are linked. For your friends you wish good health and a good life. You care about what happens to them. You share their joys and sorrows. You are willing to get involved when they need support, and ask for help when the situation is reversed.

Feeling friendly toward a tree is the first step in a deeper relationship. It may be, as we say, “only a feeling”—not in it for the long haul. But if that feeling is honored, trusted, and followed, it can also lead to deeper commitment and understanding.

Saying I feel the trees are my friends, also says something about me. This morning, with that eerie synchronicity that brings things to me when I need them, I picked up the other book of poetry I brought with me—H.D.’s selected poems—and opened to some of her words about trees. Most of it doesn’t quote well out of context, but this passage from her autobiographical novel HERmione gives a taste:

The woods parted to show a space of lawn, running level with branches that, in early summer, were white with flower. Dogwood blossom. Pennsylvania. Names are in people, people are in names. Sylvania. I was born here. People ought to think before they call a place Sylvania.
Pennsylvania. I am part of Sylvania. Trees. Trees. Trees. Dogwood, liriodendron with its green-yellow tulip blossoms. Trees are in people. People are in trees. Pennsylvania.

This intermingling of self and surroundings is something I have felt since I was very young. Trees are in people. People are in trees. There is a life-hum in the least grassy hillside. Even the gnats vibrate with shared life. Every rock has a say in the world.


Not to follow this sensibility—to hesitate to say something as simple as I felt a kinship with a tree—cuts off my strength. Plain and simple, it is hiding—in a time when we can’t afford to hide. H.D.’s editor says of her work:

What [she] is discovering in the pervasive earth, wood, and water imagery is the force of her natural love for all created beings: tree or flower, wave or meadow, man or woman. Her creative powers depend upon her ability to enter into the nature of other beings, other creatures, and to feel all the world about her endowed with powers…

I could say the same about myself: My creative powers depend upon my ability to enter into the nature of other beings… This could be a call to all of us who resonate with this knowing but keep it hidden, to wake up and have the courage to be ourselves, visibly ourselves.

To make a bold statement: This feeling of friendship with life is what we need most in our world right now. And being more open about my own natural love for all created beings is what I need most in mine.


Saturday
Feb182017

Day 166: Poem for the day


I love books. As someone who has yet to acclimate to the Kindle-Age, I mean by this, real books. The kind you can smell and feel. The ones you have to struggle to hold open while you fall asleep at night. The kind you can underline, dog-ear, loan to a friend, and return to over and over again as they soften and grow sway-backed.

So only being able to bring a handful of books on this trip seemed like one down-sizing I wouldn't like. I thought I would miss my library and the freedom of having options. However, to my surprise, I have found that this limitation has been a benefit. I actually do like it—a lot.

Mostly I like being able to focus. For example, one book I brought is the selected poems of William Stafford, which I had owned for years without reading. I started at the beginning and read all the way through. One poet. One lifetime. One way of seeing the world. Then, because there wasn't another book waiting in line, I started over and read it again. This way of reading allowed his words to sink into my mind in a deeper way than usual. I am beginning to have a sense of the scope of his worldview. I can feel the change in his subjects as he aged. I can ponder the poems he wrote during his last months. I have never been good at memorizing poems, but when I read this way I find his words settling down and making homes for themselves in my mind. I often find them rising up at just the right moment, as we pass through many of the same places he wrote about. Things like these lines from his poem about Malheur:

An owl sound wandered along the road with me.
I didn’t hear it—I breathed it into my ears.

Or the opening lines of “Lit Instructor”:

Day after day up there beating my wings
With all of the softness that truth requires…

Or from “Inheriting the Earth: Quail”:

And anyway, little quail, your job is
to go out there and lose, when the time comes.

Or from “Outside”:

The least little sound sets the coyotes walking,
walking the edge of our comfortable earth.

Now I am reading Frances Mayes' Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, another book I have owned for many years and never gotten around to reading.  I brought this for the opposite reason—instead of depth, this is about breadth, a chance to see the work of many different poets juxtaposed together. Whereas reading Stafford’s body of work connected the life of one man, reading this connects many different poets speaking to each other across hundreds of years.

All this is just preamble to say that I would like to share a poem from Mayes’ book today—a poem by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly. It gave me pleasure and the kind of hope that can come from art—whether words, pictures, movement or music.

        Allegro

   After a black day, I play Haydn,
   and feel a little warmth in my hands.

   The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
   The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

   The sound says that freedom exists
   and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

   I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
   and act like a man who is calm about it all.

   I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
   “We do not surrender. But want peace.”

   The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
   rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

   The rocks roll straight through the house
   but every pane of glass is still whole.



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

Spring is beginning as we work our way slowly across southern Arizona. The Fairy Dusters and the mallows are blooming, the Black-throated Sparrows are starting to sing from the bush tips, and Tom has found two Verdin nests. We spent a week at Organ Pipe National Monument, touched the border of Mexico, crossed the Tohona O’odham Nation's land, spent a week west of Tucson in Tucson Mountain Park (where the above photo was taken) and plan to head down toward the Patagonia area next. After that we will turn toward Cascabel, a small community on the San Pedro River east of Tucson that we visited several years ago, where we plan to spend the month of March. More about that later...

Tuesday
Feb142017

Day 162: Desert Valentine

This heart is best seen from a little distance!  

We send our love to all our friends and family. You are often in our thoughts and we appreciate your support in our travels. May you find peace in the midst of whatever the day brings, and may your heart be open to wonder.

And for those of you in Seattle, I hope you can see When Love Speaks, the latest play by our very, very favorite theater company, Thalia's Umbrella. See it once for you and then again for me. I am so sorry to miss it...