Entries in awareness (9)

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 that comes before 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.”

Friday
Feb032017

Day 143-148: Finding Cottonwoods

One of the hardest moments of this trip for me was when I learned about the destruction of the cottonwood-willow forests of the lower Colorado River. These unique riparian habitats, the ribbons of great trees following the river, were submerged by flooding behind dams, cleared for agriculture, and cut for wood to power steam ships. The land has undergone many changes at our hands, but somehow this felt like a direct hit to my heart. Perhaps it is the rarity of trees in this desert landscape. Perhaps it is the fact that so many creatures depend on these oases of water, shade, and food.  Perhaps it is simply that I fell in love with cottonwoods, that they seemed like friends.

So it was a great pleasure when we arrived at Cibola National Wildlife Refuge to see large tracts of planted trees and to realize that many of the southern refuges on the Colorado River have replanted cottonwood and willow stands in an effort to recreate that habitat.

Cibola NWR was established in 1964 to mitigate the effects of channelization and dam construction on the Colorado River in the 30’s and 40’s. Its 18,500 acres are home to a wide variety of wildlife, including wintering geese, ducks, and cranes; migrating songbirds; and native fish. In one portion of the refuge they have planted cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite as habitat for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and other wildlife.

A trail follows a mile-long loop through this planting. When I walk into the trees I am reminded of something the poet W.S. Merwin said about his effort of the past 40 years to reforest 19 acres of ruined land where he lives on Maui.

I have come to recognize that no human being can plant any forest. A forest is not made by a human being planting a few trees. It evolves as a complex society of soil organisms, and other plants besides trees. Only a forest can restore a forest—a section of forest that had once grown beside it. Our human destructions are often irreparable, like the extinction of species.
(from What is a Garden)

These plots of planted trees are not yet quite a forest. I can feel the imposition of outside order: the arbitrary square border instead of the meandering line following the water; the equidistant spacing of the trees instead of the clustering in good soil; the suggestion of grid lines instead of groves and copses.

But I can also see that, like Merwin, we are doing our best. And that is a lot. In these 36 acres, the cottonwoods, willows, and mesquite are planted in loops and arcs and bunchings that tries to recreate the diversity and variety of the forest. And it works. This place is a haven for many creatures and a delight to all my senses.

These particular cottonwoods were planted in 1999 so they are not old, as trees go. Yet they are still impressively tall. Their trunks are slender, and no matter what route their limbs take, they all tend up, creating single-pointed or narrow, umbrella-shaped crowns.  The bark is white. Or at least it appears white at first glance, shining pale in the strong sunlight or silhouetted against the blue sky.  A closer look reveals many shades of silvers and soft browns.  The young trees are smooth-barked like aspens but as they age and the trunk expands, vertical splits form in the bark, eventually creating a deeply-ridged network of vertical grooves.

After the recent rains the trees are bursting with new life.  There is great variety in the timing of their spring awakening. Some trees are still covered in the hard shells of last year’s dead leaves.  Some are just breaking their flower buds open. And some are covered already with wet-looking new leaves, like a green froth kicked up where the airy white branches meet the hard blue sky.

They are so tall it requires some help for me to see what is happening at the business-end of the branches. I feel a little self-conscious watching plants grow with my binoculars (as if bird-watching wasn’t already nerdy enough!) but this feeling passes as I see all the life that this closer look affords. The new flowers push out of their sticky calyxes like mounds of yellow-green frosting from the end of a cake tube. A low hum surrounds me from the honey bees swarming the flowers, their legs weighed down with their orange pollen sacks. Ants climb up and down the trunk. A redtail hawk rests on a branch and two owls hoot from the end of the grove, making me look without success for a nest. Yellow-rumped warblers comb the blossoms for insects. Towhees scratch in the thick leaf litter underneath. The slight wind shifts, and the breeze informs me of the unmistakable presence of skunk.

If I stand quietly for long enough in a forest I can feel the silent power flowing through it—that hum of life and energy of the whole. This reminds me of William Stafford's poem, "Is This Feeling About the West Real?" Is this feeling I have about this forest real? Listen—something else hovers out here... some total feeling or other world / almost coming forward...

Whether it is or not, this place gives me hope. That people tend these trees. That enough people recognize the importance of the network of life we live in that they planned this project. Even though a few strong men with chainsaws could cut all these plantings in a week, there is hope in the simple fact that right now they exist.

As I sit among the slender white trunks, these trees feel a little like ghost trees—a kind of memorial to the felled forests that used to line the river. I can see why trees are so often depicted as at least partly human.  Cottonwoods carry male and female flowers on separate trees, so there are girl trees and boy trees. It wouldn’t take much for me to feel like I was surrounded by people—calmer people who talked less and took their time making decisions. And this company gives me strength. With all the recent political turmoil, any hope for quiet living things is balm for my spirit.

Tom sent me a review the other day of a new book by astrobiologist David Grinspoon called Earth in Human Hands: Shaping our Planet’s Future. Grinspoon argues that we are entering a new epoch called the Anthropocene: a time when human activity can and does have planet-wide impacts. Rather than being discouraged by this, Grinspoon remains optimistic.

…our obligation now is to move beyond just lamenting the job we've done as reluctant, incompetent planet-shapers. We have to face the fact that we've become a planetary force, and figure out how to be a better one.  By seeing our role clearly, we take the first step toward assuming our responsibilities.

I think I will read his book. His ideas seem a little grand, but optimism is a necessary antidote to the fear I feel when I see our capacity for destruction. In order to move forward, we need to be able to think, and it is hard to think when you feel frightened or demoralized or paralyzed by despair. Whether the specific ideas he presents are ultimately useful, this could be as good a place as any to start a conversation.

Wednesday
Nov232016

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.

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

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!

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.

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

(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.)

Thursday
Sep292016

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.)

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.