Entries in beginning (5)


Beginning again

Triple Divide Peak, Glacier National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now.

And now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Sardine sandwiches by the seashore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


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.