Entries in beginning (3)

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.