Each of us has a well of images within, which are the saving reality and from which may be born the individual myth carrying the meaning of life. 
 -Helen Luke

Thursday
Nov242016

Day 78: Antelope Island meditation

Blue skies this morning after last night’s wind and rain, and I sit in the sun at our campsite facing Great Salt Lake.  It is nearly perfectly quiet here. If I hold my breath I can hear the faintest echo of a car on a distant road. A slight murmer of voices rises occasionally from another camp where three women are packing a tent into a car. Now and then a magpie chatters or there is a tiny tseep from a sparrow or the small flock of campground starlings passes through. But for long stretches of time there is no sound. If the salt flats and the wide stretches of rock and grass had a voice, this would be it—silence.

This silence is a palpable presence. Once I notice it, it becomes the steady backdrop to everything else. Every sound I hear falls into it like a light rain landing on the ocean.

A magpie makes a more determined squawk and draws my eye to what he is scolding—a single red-tan coyote moving in the red-tan field past my campsite as though the grass itself had grown legs and was trotting toward the water. In the distance, on the tawny hillside is a single bison, grazing. I have been told that “bison” is the correct word for this animal whereas “buffalo” is better used for Asian water buffaloes and such, but I still prefer the name “buffalo.”  I think of Janet Frame’s novel Daughter Buffalo and how different Turnlung’s long demented poetic ramblings about death would be if she had called it Daughter Bison. Sometimes the right word is the wrong one.

I draw my attention out of my thoughts and back to the landscape. Everywhere is space and more space. The brown grass fields sloping down to the flat plane of light-blue water which stretches away and away to the thinnest serrated edge of mountains. Overhead the blue sky reaches across the whole world, as if mirroring the lake below. Even the towering flank of the Wasach Mountains, with their long line of 11,000-foot peaks covered in fresh snow, seems insubstantial next to the land and sky opening out all around.

The space around me also opens up space on the inside. The constant activity of my mind—my fears and hopes and plans—dissolves into this great stretch of sky and lake and land. It is this spaciousness that has been tugging at me since the beginning of this trip, that has been half-hidden behind all the busy days. It is what I have been trying to capture in the hundreds of photographs I have been taking with my cell phone of the horizon line, wide bodies of water, and the sky at sunrise and sunset.

As I continue to sit, the space begins to fill again with daily life. The sun rises, warming the air and the back of my fleece jacket. With the warmth, the birds grow more active. Meadowlarks send their cascade of liquid notes back and forth from the tops of the sagebrush. The starlings have convened a heated committee meeting. Behind me a flock of chukars makes an escalating burbling like a pan of water slowly coming to a simmer. Two magpies pick charred remnants of food off the campfire grill, their bills clicking on the iron bars.

I am reminded of the stereopticon in my grandmother’s cupboard when I was a kid—a frame that held a piece of paper with two nearly identical photos at just the right distance from your eyes so that when you looked through it the two photos merged into one 3-D image. I used to be fascinated with how you could shift your focus back and forth to see either the two ordinary images or just the one image with its magical experience of depth. As I sit here I can feel that same shift happening inside me: how I can see in one moment my ordinary experience of life—planning and worrying and making sandwiches and folding the trailer and watching the birds—and then shift to this other experience of the silence and spaciousness that surrounds us all.

Like stereopticans, places like Antelope Island (or meditation retreats or temples) make it easier for us to make this switch. Hopefully, with enough time spent in places like this, I can also hear that silence and feel that spaciousness wherever I am and whatever I am doing—can see that there is no difference between the two pictures and the single image other than my point of focus.

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We stayed at Antelope Island on the east side of Great Salt Lake, Utah on Nov 20 – 22 and got to hang out with pronghorn antelope, bison, coyotes, mule deer, and a porcupine. There isn’t a large variety of birds here in this season, but tens of thousands of Northern Shovelers winter on the lake near the island and spend their days puttering back and forth in great rafts with their big bills in the water, filter feeding on the lake’s brine shrimp. A large flock will often take off all at once to move to another feeding area, and the sound of thousands of wings resounding like a jet engine or a distant landslide is always a thrill! We are spending Thanksgiving in Provo, Utah. Happy Thanksgiving to all our friends and family!

Saturday
Nov192016

Days 51 - 67: Malheur and more

Sunrise over Frenchglen at Malheur NWR, Oregon

Days 51 – 60: We stayed ten days at Malheur NWR (Oct 26 – Nov 4) and thoroughly enjoyed spending time with a group of photographers who camp there every November to photograph the mule deer rut. Some of the best bucks this year were right in our campsite, wandering around our trailer with their necks outstretched, sniffing the air looking for that special doe. Thanks to our new friends, we got to see the herds of wild mustangs, almost get stuck in the snow on the top of Steen’s Mountain, learned more about living in Harney County, and cooked and ate our first Wamdingers. We also now have a new regulator for our propane tank (and know that it is not supposed to stop working when it freezes) and we figured out which end of the tool to use to lower the spare tire for the truck (thanks, Jeff, for reading the directions!)

Most importantly, though, is the ongoing opportunity for us to stay open to different views and experiences. Our world in Seattle had become isolated as we focused on what was comfortable to us and what we were good at. As we travel, we keep learning again and again how much we don’t know. We are humbled by the warmhearted generosity, hospitality, and help we have received from so many people. We are challenged by the different truths that arise out of different landscapes and economies. This is not to discount what is true in our own lives and from our perspective in Seattle, but rather to add to it. I hope that our hearts can expand a few sizes to be able to hold more of the suffering and wonder, discord and beauty, and incredible variety of the world.

On Nov 4 – 11 (Days 60 – 67), our adventures in contrasts continued, as we traveled to Caldwell, Idaho to visit friends from Whitman. I attended a Buddhist church (where my friend is the assistant minister) that was started by Japanese-Americans who moved there after being released from WWII internment camps. We experienced the election of Donald Trump in a town where I didn’t see a single “Hillary” campaign sign. We attended the International Students’ talent show at the College of Idaho where our friends teach and mentor, and enjoyed the energy, talent, and bravery of these young people from all over the world. One student ended his performance poem with: “Donald Trump made a mistake / America is already great / because of us!”

Sunday
Nov132016

Day 69: Something binds it all together

Something binds it all together—
forest, field, canyon, and coast.
The edges of things when we look close
are missing—our mind alone thinks whether
we use this name and not another.
Which is not to deny there's difference:
each thing is certain that it is
no other.  A cottonwood is not
a rock. A rabbit is not a hawk.
Junipers grow here and firs grow there.
The ocean eventually ends in sand.
But what strikes me more than 
the differences in land, is continuity,
the shared destiny of each stand
of trees or shrubs or lichened rock.
A great cycle of effects turns always
even in the farthest place—and mountains,
deserts, woods, and water
all together make a space where we
see both: whole and part, different and same—
the everything that transcends
each name and also gives names
their breath and flame.

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We have experienced many different ecosystems already, and appreciate how this way of traveling allows for a special kind of perspective: we stay long enough to feel the unique character of a place, but move on soon enough to recognize the way it is linked to the next very-different place. Not sure if I have quite captured what is in the back of my mind yet, but I thought I would go ahead and put this out so I can set it aside and work on the next post. Click here for a small photo album of some of the ecosystem variety we have seen so far. Photos include Cape Disappointment, Skamakowa on the Columbia River, the Willamette Valley, then over the Cascades to Sisters, Oregon; Malheur NWR, OR; Steens Mountain, OR; and Bruneau Sand Dunes in southern Idaho.
Wednesday
Nov092016

Day 65: Post-election Reflection

Chickahominy Reservoir, OregonAs I reflect today about what is important for me in the midst of this election, I come back to what supports us at all times no matter who or where we are: mother earth. I am reminded of all of her different landscapes, all of her plants and animals, the variety of her soil and rocks, the fluidity of her waters, and the vibrancy of her surrounding air and weather.

Being so close to the earth this year is helping me to learn how to honor the feminine that lives all around us. Today, the day after this election, feels like an especially good day for me to consider this, beginning with my own self as a woman. To feel my inner strength. To connect to the clarity of my mind and the power of my voice. To remember that the feminine is comfortable with not knowing, with waiting, and with patience. To re-commit to compassion as the core of my spirituality. And to know that I can choose to stand up for what matters.

I am thinking of my mother today. Of my girlfriends. Of my sisters and neices. Of the teenage daughter of my friend who is just learning who she is and how she fits into the world. And I am thinking of all the men we know and love. May we all live in safety and harmony with each other. May we all have respect for each other. May we all remember our common roots.

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I was planning to post a piece about our last few weeks on the road, but it didn't seem right to not acknowledge the election today, so I will save the update for later.  Right now we are staying with good friends in Caldwell, Idaho for rest and repairs. The above picture was from October 23, when we spent a couple days at this beautiful reservoir watching the many ducks and geese that use this as a stopover on their migration through the desert.

Tuesday
Oct252016

Day 17: Feeding frenzy (Who says these posts need to be in order?)

At the Cape Disappointment State Park, we did not have any cell coverage at our campsite, so in order for Tom to work he had to drive to find service. On this day I stayed at the trailer while he drove a couple miles to the jetty—a long stretch of rocks extending into the ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River—and parked at a turnoff alongside the road. From there he could hear the ocean and see some weedy sand dunes and the back-side of the jetty. He worked for a couple hours before he realized that he was hearing a LOT of sea bird chatter, as well as an intermittent "whooshing" sound that he didn't recognize. Deciding to investigate, he walked over and climbed up on the jetty only to see a mob of sea birds and amongst them, whales!—at least five humpbacks circling about in the protected water just offshore, following some unfortunate school of fish. 

After taking some photos, Tom drove back to the campsite to get me and together we headed back to the jetty, parked, and ran to the top of the rocks. Just then—with splendid story-telling timing—a whale breached directly in front of us, so close we could practically step off the jetty onto its back—that is if we hadn't been paralyzed with awe.  

And what a transformation in the bay! What had been a relatively calm scene just the day before had turned into a storm of birds. Hundreds of pelicans were crash-diving into the water, each followed by a train of indelicately squawking Heermann's Gulls all converging on the pelican's pouch as it surfaced, hoping for spilled fish. Other gulls of all shapes and sizes flapped and soared about squabbling for scraps. Cormorants dove and surfaced smoothly; grebes and ducks bobbed here and there; terns shrieked overhead. Flocks of migrating Surf Scoters shot through the throngs like handfuls of fat black darts. But most impressive was a tremendous (and I don't use that word lightly) swirl of Sooty Sheerwaters out in the open water near the end of the jetty, a dark cyclone spinning over the ocean, being fed by birds streaming down the coastline. Here, right in front of us, was a river of birds, a riot of birds from all directions, all being swept into this rapidly wheeling funnel-cloud before being spun out to land in swathes of diving, snatching, squawking, flapping rafts feeding on the fish below. How many were there? It felt like millions. It had to be in the tens of thousands. There were too many to count, too many to even think about birds as individuals, only as this giant force of nature descending on this speck of ocean. And amid the frenzy, the dark bulk of the heavy whales rising unexpectedly for a glistening moment before descending again into darkness.

All evening, as the sun set over the ocean, we watched and listened to the spectacle. The light dimmed, the school of fish shifted here and there. We stayed until it was too dark for pictures, and still birds continued to collect from all directions, drawn by the shrieks and calls of the flock. The whales made a couple passes along the jetty, then moved off into more open water. The sun disappeared behind a cloud bank. The air cooled. We walked back to the truck in the failing light, full of wonder. We had a long evening ahead of us of packing everything up in prepartion to move camp tomorrow in the predicted rain, but tonight we were happy, exhilerated just to have been here. This evening all of our hard work of the past year was worth it. To be outside, close to life—our own and that of so many other creatures—was exactly where we wanted to be.

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(This happened on September 22, but I have not had a chance to sit and reflect much since we have been on the road, and there are some experiences that I don't want to miss noting, so I will have some retrospective posts. The picture is one Tom took of the whale surfacing near the jetty. This is the underside of the head with some barnacles stuck to it.)

Sunday
Oct162016

Day 40: A pause for perspective

Before I embarked on this trip, a friend of mine told me of taking three years to travel around the world. Like me, she closed her business, left her home, sold most of her belongings. She departed her country eagerly and in high spirits, but a few weeks into her travels, doubts appeared and she began to wonder if she had made a mistake. She told herself that if she still felt this way in another two weeks she could go home. At the same time she also made plans to meet a friend farther down the road. And at the end of those two weeks she had found the confidence she needed to continue her journey.

Her story prepared me for uncertainty. Like her, I have had my share of those kinds of feelings during the last 40 days—doubt, sadness, worry, fear. I have at times felt lost and aimless, uncertain of who I am without my familiar work and surroundings. But thanks to the gift of her story, I can be gentle with those feelings while continuing to have faith in the path I am following.

As Day 40 approached, I realized that it felt like a symbolic milestone for me. I kept thinking of the story of Jesus going into the desert for forty days and forty nights to fast and pray. How at the end of those forty days he was clear enough to know who he was and what was important to him. The silence of the desert helped him not be tempted into thinking he was more—or less—than himself.

As I reflect back on the past forty days I can see that leaving behind my familiar world has brought up many things in my mind that were easier to avoid in my regular life. I can see the patterns and beliefs that arise under the stress of unfamiliarity and close quarters. And I also have the time to see that these are just thoughts, and that these thoughts are not all of who I am.

The gift of these first forty days has been the time and space (and triggering circumstances) to just feel these states of being—to simply know they exist. As I fully experience these well-worn mental pathways, I am not so upset by them when they show up. They may not be pleasant, but they are bearable, especially when I stay focused on what is important to me. I also remember that I have no idea, really, what function they play. Just as a swamp seems muddy and mosquitoey and full of smelly rot when you are in it but is essential to the fertility and renewal of the larger ecosystem, these thoughts that I would like to swat like biting flies are also part of some whole that I can only vaguely comprehend.

So today, on Day 40, as the rain hammers down on the roof of our trailer, I am taking a minute to be thankful for all of it. To realize that when one thought or another tempts me to think that it is everything, I can choose the broader view—to see this thought at home in the Whole, and to feel the peace of knowing who I am.

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(We have been staying in Salem, Oregon for the past couple weeks making several small modifications to our truck-and-trailer-home, and are just about ready to head back out on the road again. This picture is from kayaking on the Willamette River on October 12. Day 40 (October 15) was the day the Big Storm was predicted for the PNW, as the remnants of a typhoon brought high winds and rain to the area. We survived with no damage other than a few minor leaks.)

Friday
Sep302016

Well, I can never eat corn again

Day 13: Our first night at Cape Disappointment State Park, we shopped for groceries at Thriftway and bought fresh corn, not so much because we intended to get corn, but because it was labeled Sauvie Island Corn, so was (relatively) local, and we have fond memories of birding together at Sauvie Island when we were both just learning. So in the basket they went—four ears, two for each of us—though each of us being raised on our father’s corn which must be picked in the hour before eating or it was “too old,” we did not have high hopes.

Once back at camp, I realized I did not want to boil a pot of water for four ears of corn inside the trailer (so much about trailer-living in wet climates being about managing moisture.) Well, we have wood—how about roasting? Neither one of us had ever roasted corn over a fire, but Tom suggested I stuff some butter in the husk, wrap the ears in foil, and put them on the built-in grill over the fire pit. So that’s what we did, and after about 20 minutes of turning and peeking and wondering, we had The. Best. Corn. We-had-ever-eaten. EVER! Smoky-flavored and crisp and sweet, and somehow when we bit down on the cob, the whole kernals would pop out like little nuggets of toasted delight instead of the tough, mushy, sticky things we expected from store-bought corn. Must be the roasting, I thought. That’s the secret!

So last week when we arrived in Skamokawa, Washington (Day 18) and found ourselves just in time for the Puget Island Farmer’s Market that listed “CORN” as the feature of the week, I bought six ears. Back at camp, we eagerly bustled about—making the fire, poking butter into the leaves, wrapping the ears in foil. Now we know what we are doing! This is great!

But when we unrolled the charred packages we discovered what we expected before—kind of tired, end-of-season corn, with that soft, starchy, slightly-overripe texture that mushes instead of crunching, and leaves a flock of sticky corn-skins stuck in your teeth. And not only that, but it was a little too late; the wood a little too wet; the fire too smoky; we were too tired from traveling; and the neighbor RV’er was just too loud…

Let me say that the rest of the generous bag of goods we bought at the market was amazing.  REALLY amazing, especially for September—crisp leaf lettuce, perfect brocolli, plump zucchini, tender carrots, fresh-baked focaccia and chocolate chip cookies. That market was a blessing to us in what can sometimes feel like a desert of canned and packaged vegetables. But I should have known better about the corn, known that you can’t step twice in the same river. I should have been content with what I had instead of trying to recreate a perfect evening.

This is what happens so often when we get something good. We want more of it. We want it again. We want certainty. We want control, instead of simply trusting the good graces that brought the good thing to us in the first place to bring us the next thing in its own time, unasked for and unearned, and possibly after a string of not-so-good things, but coming to us as certainly as one season after the next.  Because that goodness is all around us, and inside us. It is already there without being sought out, created, or preserved. It only needs receiving and re-receiving on its own time. Always fresh. Always unexpected. Always new.

So I will likely have corn again, as I do like corn; and really, even when its bad, it’s pretty darn good. But I might wait for awhile. And I won’t expect it to live up to that first corn-roasting experience. I will recognize that that night is unrepeatable. That though it is precious in my memory, it has passed on, like every other thing, both good and bad. I’ve moved on; life moves on. That is the way it is. Traveling like this makes that clearer to me. But the more I know this, the freer I am to step into each moment, whatever it brings, with my whole heart, and with all my feelings, just experiencing everything for what it is.

Saturday
Sep172016

Day 12: Another ordinary day

Somehow almost two weeks have passed since moving out of our house and into our trailer. The month before the move is a blur of busy-ness; the two weeks since have been spent mostly recuperating from the move (sleep is a miraculous thing!) and getting oriented in our new life.

With a venture like this, nearly everything about it is unknown, so it is easy to project onto it our hopes and our fears. We will be free; life will be simple; it will all be a grand adventure!  Or we will be wet, dirty, and cramped for the year, or robbed of all our possessions after a week.

What I am finding is that this life is neither as exciting nor as scary as it might seem from a distance. Really, what stands out to me most is how ordinary it all feels. Much of my day is often filled with the tasks of daily living. Though there is simplicity in having only what we can fit in our truck and trailer, this also means that our basic chores can be more complex than when we lived in a house.

For example, when we don’t have an electrical hookup, the solar system needs to be managed throughout the day in order to have power. It requires unpacking and setup, regular orienting toward the sun, protection from rain and theft, and packing up again and storing at the end of the day. No more just flipping a switch for power! Water is the same. We need to locate fresh water, fill our tank, make sure the system is kept clean, and carry the waste-water bag to empty it in an appropriate spot.

No showers? Then we set up the shower tent. Time to move on? Then everything we set up needs to be taken down. New town? Then we need to locate a new grocery store and find a laundromat. And then there are all the miscellaneous things: Having the right kind of change for shower tokens and washing machines; what to do with your wet towels; how to fit bulky vegetables in a small fridge; where to store our recycling until we can find a drop-off-center…the list goes on.

At first, all these extra chores felt like, well…kind of a chore! Shouldn’t I get this stuff “out of the way” so I can do something “more important” or “more exciting?” But as I have continued to slow down and relax, I am finding that when I focus on what is at hand—whether that is washing my shoes or folding the trailer to leave camp—that I enjoy doing these daily tasks. That it is pleasant to do the work of caring for ourselves, especially when we are often outside doing it.

There will definitely be time for adventures and writing and meeting people and exploring and learning. But right now it is enough to figure out how to stay fed and clean and dry. To have clothes to stay warm in and a bed at night. To have fresh water and a light when it is dark.

Perhaps this is the meaning of simplicity: to understand the importance of the basics. Food. Water. Shelter. How much work they really take to create and maintain. How necessary they are to our well-being. How damaging it is when these needs aren't met. I feel grateful for all that I have in a way that I didn't feel when I had "more." And that is an exciting adventure!

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(After leaving our house on September 5, we stayed a couple days in Seattle, then headed toward the ocean and have been exploring Ocean Shores and Westport.)

Saturday
Aug062016

Kite string

 

Making stringFor the last two weeks we have been considering selling our house instead of renting it out. The market is right, it would make the next month much easier as we would not have to do the major repairs needed for renting, and there is a certain appeal to “leaving it all behind”—putting all our energy toward the next thing.

However, all the time we were pondering this decision we felt anxious and upset. We lost the thread of our direction and started spinning in a whirlpool of indecision. We found ourselves drifting into old and highly unhelpful (!) patterns of relating to each other. We did not feel grounded in our own truth and knowing of ourselves.

A couple days ago it finally all came together again and we were able to see the decision that we needed to make: we are renting out our house instead of selling, and in hindsight I can see clearly why this is the right decision for us at this time.

Keeping the house is an important physical and symbolic tie to our community. Uprooting our lives in preparation for this journey has made us acutely aware of the value of our bonds to our community here—friends and family and place and work—especially since we are not yet moving into a new community.

Our community is kind of like the tether for a kite—the string is what allows the kite to fly steadily, and not just head off into the stratosphere or crash into the trees. This tie actually gives us energy rather than holding us back.  It is the string that allows a kite to stay aloft so long, that continues to hold it in just the right place for the wind to lift it up.

I think sometimes it is easy to miss the importance of the string. If I am not looking at the bigger context—ground and sky and kite together—I can just think it is something in the way. Something to trip over. Or something insignificant—what’s the point of this slip of cotton thread? Or something to be annoyed at as it gets its inevitable tangles. But though the bonds of love and affection and trust may be complex and sometimes hard to see, they are essential to our wellbeing. They are part of how we know who we are. They let us know where we have been. And when they are at their best, they help us to continue to fly true, showing our full shape and color.

Saturday
Jul092016

But wait...how long IS 25 feet?

So it turns out that our first parking spot for the trailer at my nephew’s house was picturesque. It was level, and looked out at a beautiful view of the trees in their front yard. It was also out of the way of the other cars in the driveway. How nice! However, HOWEVER…wait a minute!…it is too far away from the house to plug in the trailer to charge the batteries, or to hook up the water hose to fill the water tank! Lesson learned. This is the beginning of thinking about water and power in a way that I have never had to do in a house, unless a lightning storm shut everything down for a couple days.

In my mind, I want to just pick the trailer up and move it sideways a little closer to the house. But you can’t just carry a trailer around like a tent. It takes a laborious (for us beginners) process of folding up the trailer, backing up the truck, getting the tow hitch oriented and locked on, connecting the power to the truck, remembering to remove all the chocks and blocks and jacks and locks, backing into the new spot, and starting all over again. This is good practice, I think, as an antidote to the part of me that is calling me a dope for not even thinking about the length of the water hose and the placement of the electrical outlet on the outside of the house. And it is good practice. Both at the tasks themselves and with being patient—with each other and, just as importantly, with ourselves.

Because I am writing this over a month after the fact, I now know that it all gets easier the more times we do it. A year from now this will be so second-nature we won’t even think about it. Even now, only a month later, it is hard to remember what the big deal was. I think this is why it is so good for me to try things that are completely new now and then, if only to have empathy for those who are faced with difficulties that threaten to overwhelm their capacities to think and cope. A diagnosis of cancer, an accident, an injury, a loss of work, a death—and suddenly our minds don’t behave the way we want them to anymore. When I get frustrated with how hard it is for me to visualize something new, I think of my mother’s struggle at the rehab center after breaking her hip—and a possible stroke—with finding her way to the dining room. I realize that no matter how odd it seemed that she couldn’t reliably navigate the hundred yards of hallway by herself even after four months, there was no point in being frustrated with her. When my brother tried to help her orient herself by showing her the map with the red dot labeled “You are here,” her question was, How does it know where I am? After my recent experiences of being up to my neck in new information, I am starting to understand how she could think this.

Friday
Jul012016

Starting to get real

First time backing up

(I am a little behind on posting these entires, so this one is actually from May 6.)

It honestly only now occurred to me that there might be anything foolhardy about deciding to live for a year in a travel trailer when we had never actually been in one before. Somehow it didn’t seem like a big deal in my imagination, but now faced with the prospect of a real trailer that needs to be picked up today, I feel anxious and uncertain. Though we both have some experience driving trailers on the farm, that was a long time ago, and neither of us have ever driven with one in urban traffic or on the freeway. We have only just gotten used to driving our truck after 23 years with our little Honda Civic hatchback, and now we are adding another layer of complexity.

As we drive to the RV store the back seat is full of things that we might need to get the trailer ready to live in: tools, a voltmeter, pillows, sheets, a few kitchen utensils, a box of soup, some empty notebooks, a camp chair. We have no idea, really, what we are getting into, but we have the whole day ahead of us to begin.

Picking it up is a blur. More things to buy—caulking for the seals, extra fuses, a potable water hose, a lock for the wheel, dehumidifier, wheel chocks. What is essential and what is just a good idea? So many decisions. Hitched up…engine started…here we go! We feel the extra drag on the truck as we start to roll, turn right coming out of the lot so we don’t have to cross any lanes of this busy arterial, and ease into the flow of traffic. I feel like I am embarking on a voyage to the moon. I wonder if I brought enough oxygen. I don’t even know what I think will go wrong, but certainly something will? But the trailer just follows along behind us like an old dog going for a walk. Even on the freeway it doesn’t even consider any kind of excursions off by itself in its own direction. Good trailer!

After a short drive, we arrive at my nephew’s house, where we are planning to store the trailer. Now the next phase of learning begins—backing up. You would think that I would have a hilarious first-time-backing-up story, but I don’t. It turns out that my brother made my nephew back up through an obstacle course every year before he could drive the hay wagon, and so he is a trailer-backing expert. His calm guidance and clear distinction between “pivoting” and “pushing” turn our morning into a pleasant learning experience rather than a escalating escapade of mis-communication. Tom was even able to back in a U-shape around a tree. No funny story. But lots of gratitude!

We take the day to start to get to know how our new home works: the batteries, the propane system, how to light the stove, how to park and level the trailer, how to hitch and unhitch it, how to operate the refrigerator. I feel a more than a little overwhelmed by all the new information, but we made good progress and I know it will get easier.

Tuesday
Jun282016

Being a beginner

photo credit: Kelsey Ann Fein

The emotions I am feeling as I prepare for this trip have been difficult to name. Even when I think of combinations of emotions—excitement and fear, eagerness and sadness, anticipation and regret—none of them seem quite right. What I finally realized is that I think I am feeling what it is like to be a beginner at an age where I have gotten used to being competent.

We all start out life as beginners, unable to do much of anything but cry and wave our fists. The first dozen years of our lives are really nothing but one new thing after another. However, by middle age we are used to being able to do many things without a second thought. Daily tasks have become rote, we have some skill at a profession, new ideas seem novel. True beginner-ness, though exciting-looking from the outside, may actually be something we avoid.

For me, being a beginner brings up some combination of unsettled-excited-terrified-ashamed-anxious-eager-and-worried. After 21 years of living in the same house and shopping in the same neighborhood, I am used to knowing where I am and what I am doing. Even studying to be a therapist and opening my practice in the last eight years felt like something I had already been doing my whole life. Now I am embarking on projects that require me to face up to some things that I just don’t have any experience with—at ALL. I have not travelled much. I have never lived “off the grid” for any extended period of time. I am not what you call “handy.” This coming year brings me face-to-face with all the simple (and not so simple) things I don’t know. I may know how to write a poem, make a stew, prune an apple tree, or conduct a therapy session, but how do you hitch a trailer to a truck or fill a propane container? How do you maintain a wet cell battery? What is a rabbet joint and how do you make one? And what exactly do I need to get that solar panel to work?

I think this feels more unsettling to me because these are all things that many people in my family do easily as part of their everyday lives. To them none of these tasks would seem difficult. But when you are born last in a big family, one strategy for making a place for yourself is to find something that no one else is doing already, claim that as yours, and avoid the rest. After all, when someone else is already building a barn when you are just trying to figure out which end of the hammer you pound the nail with, why bother? It makes more sense to strike out into uncharted territory and avoid the whole issue of competition altogether.

So it probably isn’t surprising that there are whole areas of life-skills that I have never attempted—electrical work, carpentry, plumbing, and engine repair come to mind. I wish now that I had paid more attention to my father when he tried to teach me about electricity or that I had watched my brothers welding irrigation pipes together. And it is not lost on me that now at 50, these skills from my childhood are the very ones that I find I need to move forward—like I am going back to weave in these loose threads to the larger tapestry of my life.

Which brings me back to the question of how to be a beginner. First off, I need to simply admit what I don’t know, even though it is embarrassing to me that I continue to confuse amps and watts.

Then I need to recognize what I am feeling and thinking—that when faced with something I don’t know, some part of me feels paralyzed with shame, fear, and worry, or with thoughts of being inadequate or incapable or stuck. In the past, these feelings and thoughts might have automatically led me to avoid the task at hand. But as I actually take the time to name these feelings I also notice that I can tolerate them long enough to learn from them and do something different.

As I continue paying attention, I notice that being a beginner takes time. It takes time to know what I am seeing, time to learn a skill, and more time to assimilate it. There is nothing efficient about being a beginner—especially since learning and assimilating seem to take more time at age 50 than they did at 15. A good deal of my anxiety arises just because I value efficiency and get impatient with myself when I think I am “too slow.” This could change.

Being a beginner also requires an adventuresome spirit, the willingness to screw up, and the acceptance that I WILL break things and fall down sometimes. Anyone who has watched a toddler learn to walk knows that trial and error (a LOT of error!) is the way that learning happens. With kids we are kinder and call that “play.” As adults this kind of learning can get framed as “mistakes.’’

This all leads me to think that I need some new rules if I am going to enjoy my beginner-hood. And it helps me to have a little pithy prompt when I learn new things, so here are some reminders:

  • Curiosity trumps efficiency.  (Sometimes.)
  • Tasks take as much time as they take. 
  • “Not knowing” is inherent to learning.
  • It’s ok to break things, do it wrong, miss a step, or otherwise screw up.
  • Begin again when needed.

In the end, I think I need to appreciate being a beginner because it is actually a fleeting state. I need to enjoy it while it lasts, because pretty soon I learn something, and then I start to think I know what I am doing, and then those wonderfully-uncomfortable doors of possibility start to close up again. Being a beginner is a good reminder of the breadth of the world and my smallness in the face of it. It helps me to have humility and wonder and awe all at the same time. It is worth embracing and enjoying—while it lasts.

Note: Thank you to Kelsey Ann Fein for her perfect image of the feeling of beginner-hood. Click here to enjoy more of her sensitively-attuned vision.

Thursday
May052016

Spring bumble bees


I was talking to my neighbor Rich the other day and he mentioned something in passing about bumble bees that I didn’t know—all of the bumble bees you see in early spring here are queens. Bumble bees live in underground colonies, consisting of a single female queen bee, female worker bees, and male drones. Most of the bees die off in the winter, but queens that have been fertilized but have not yet nested, overwinter and emerge from hibernation in the spring.

In mid- to late-March this year I had started noticing some especially big, round, furry bumble bees rattling around in the back yard. I like knowing now that they are all fat with progeny, and that they are looking for a spot to nest. I read that they sometimes nest in abandoned rodent burrows, so I have been peering into every hole I find to see if there are any bees using it. I also read that at least some bumble bees dig their own holes. Amazing to think that something the size of a piece of salt water taffy can dig a hole in the ground!

As for the bee in my backyard, I suspect now that I am seeing the same bee repeatedly. She is a yellow-faced bumble bee, with a black body and a striking yellow head. She is native, and one of the most common kinds of bumble bees in our area, so I hope to spot more like her over the coming months. Now that I am paying attention, I have also started to see some bumble bees with black heads—three of them at once were pillaging the spreading geraniums yesterday. I haven't identified what kind of bee they are yet, but now I have my eye out for them.

This all makes me realize that somehow in the last couple of years I lost sight of paying attention to the great variety of life around me. I look forward to having time on my sabbatical to remember to stop and notice. But I also don't want to wait to do this until the conditions are "just right." I think it is this kind of attitude that led to me doing less observing in the first place. So I am starting now. Today. And when I open the door to walk outside I see a stinkbug on the wall of the house. "Stinkbug" my mind says to itself. "I know what that is." But then I take a moment to actually look, and I see the angled arrowhead shape of its body, the precise black and white stripes along the edges of its back, the beautiful slate-gray of its coloring next to the purple-gray of the house. And somehow in that moment of pausing, time feels more expansive, the world feels less cramped, and the tasks of the day seem more joyful.

NOTE: To see more of Tom's loving portraits of wildlife, click here.

Monday
Apr182016

The "Betweens"

We are at the stage of preparation where the old life and the new life collide. Sometimes it feels like I am standing in strong surf at the edge of the ocean.

We are still very much in our old life—fixing up the house, closing my therapy practice, replanting the garden, distributing our belongings, finishing creative projects. At the same time, we are also working to create our new life—making a home out of a truck and trailer, thinking of how we will do the things we take for granted (like make pizza!), setting up ways to stay in touch with friends and family, planning where we will go.

Last winter it was easier to know where to focus: most of our energy went into dismantling what we have. Now it is less clear. So many projects demand our attention. New things need to be built. Old things need repair. Every day brings the challenge of doing something I've never done before, or the challenge of letting go of something I am finished with. I am grieving the loss of the old life. At the same time I am impatient for the arrival of the new. Both of them demand daily attention. It is not always clear where to focus.

This is a little like walking toward the ocean. At first we were on familiar solid ground, listening to the surf in the distance and dreaming about the water. As we walk forward, the sand gets softer and the waves get louder. We can smell the salt and the decaying kelp. As we continue, the sand underfoot becomes wet and hardpacked. Water sits in little pools around us. Then a wave rushes up the beach and touches our feet. The hard sand we are standing on starts to melt beneath us.

If we keep going, we will eventually wade out into the water and remember how to swim. Or find a boat. But for now we have to look to both land and ocean at once. We have to watch for rocks or holes underfoot, while also gauging the waves approaching us, keeping our footing as they wash around us, trying not to get knocked over before we are ready.

It takes a lot of energy, but it is also invigorating. Change is happening all the time. There is an abundance of life—and death. Sometimes I feel like a bit of seaweed dragged around at the water's edge, flung up on the shore and then pulled helplessly back out to sea. I need to remind myself at those times to take a bigger persepctive. To look up from whatever is occupying my attention and see the shoreline, see the giant wedge of land meeting the great swell of ocean. See myself as part of that landscape. Know that whatever happens, I am at home.

Sunday
Apr172016

There's a thread you follow

The tag line for my blog comes from a William Stafford poem which has been a guiding image for me for many years. It was written 26 days before he died at the age of 79. The older I get, the truer it rings to me. If I could only have one poem for the rest of my life, this might be it.

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.

Sunday
Apr032016

To begin with ... endings

I stare at the 40 emails in my drafts folder and know I should click "send." But I can't move.

This feels like the moment when you bring your cat to the vet because you know she is dying and ask them to put her to sleep.  Everything in you says "no." There are tear stains on the inside of your glasses from crying so hard. All you want is more time. But some part of you knows that today is the day. That this is what needs to happen. That this is part of the deal—what you signed up for when that adorable kitten showed up all those years ago.

These emails sitting in front of me are addressed to my clients in my therapy practice, letting them know that I am taking a year-long sabbatical. Not only that, I don't know what will come after that, don't even know if I am coming back to Seattle. This is a big change. There is no way to make this feel like it isn't coming out of the blue. I know people will be surprised, and some will be unhappy.

Besides that, I am having a hard time letting go. I grew this practice myself. It is something I have wanted for a long time and I love the work. I work with great people. I can walk to my office. I have no complaints.

But I have realized that there are other things calling to me and if I don't pay attention I will no longer be living my own life. No matter how enjoyable it is, no matter how many people benefit from it, a path that is not my own starts to gnaw at me, and eventually creates havoc in myself and in others.

You have to follow your thread.

People have said to me in the past, "You are courageous to do....(bla bla blah.)" I never really took that too seriously, and I have never felt courageous. I don't think I even knew what it meant. But today, as I finally pressed "send" for each one of those emails, I could feel that it was courage that allowed me to do this. That courage allowed me to face the pain of dismantling something I built myself. Courage allowed me to acknowledge the fear of disappointing people. Courage challenged my doubt about whether "good therapists" take breaks. It was courage that kept me moving forward, the everyday kind of courage that we all have access to.

I used to think of courage as some badass thing, like wrestling with mountain lions. I am realizing that courage is more ordinary than this. It is simply the thing that gives our lives structure during uncertainty or difficulty. Courage is not just some special ability that arises in crisis, like being able to lift a car off a loved one; courage is also like the nails that hold the roof together during a windstorm. We don't even think about those nails most of the time, but without them all we would have is a pile of lumber.

I like thinking of courage this way. I imagine all the nails in the roof above me right now, the rafters and beams and joists and sheathing and shingles all shot through with their little slips of metal, creating a safe place from the rain. And I can feel the courage inside me, something ordinary but awake, like a tiny fire in every cell, ready for the next storm.

Thursday
Mar312016

What's next?

Over two years have passed since I stopped running the Community Art and Mindfulness Center that I called Present Sense. A lot has happened. I will leave the details for other posts, but after a year of intentionally "not doing anything new," and the death of my mother the following year, I am making some changes.

Starting in July 2016, I am taking a "sabbatical" from my therapy practice, and my husband and I are moving out of our house to live in a small travel trailer for a year. Our intention is to live more simply, be closer to the natural world where Tom practices his photography, explore options for the next phase of our lives, and, most importantly, take time to listen. 

This blog is a way for me to keep in touch with the many people I care about while we are on the road. Though we are leaving Seattle where we have made our home for over 25 years, we are not leaving the hearts and lives of the people we love, and I hope this will help us stay in touch while we are gone.

It is also a place to begin to think about the intersection of several subjects: poetry, sustainable living, spiritual growth, and the myriad forms of life in this world. This is a space to bring my different interests together and see how they might integrate into a whole. In this, "Present Sense" is the key, the awareness that binds it all together.

Though "Present Sense" most recently referred to the community center I ran from 2009-2014, it has also been the name I used for my work since 2001, through shifts in focus from writing coaching to meditation training to gardening.  Now the name is moving on again and I am using it to refer to this blog—and whatever comes of it.

We are still in the preparation phases for this trip. I will be closing my therapy practice at the end of June. We plan to leave Seattle by the end of August. My intention for this year of travel is to simply stay open each day, to see where my present sense leads me. Your love and support means a lot to me and I look forward to keeping in touch!