Entries in gratitude (5)

Wednesday
Jul182018

On smugness

May 13: After a morning crammed with too many tasks, I rushed through lunch, jumped in the truck to drive to the farmer’s market before it closed at 1:00, and in my hurry, tried to make a tight turn out of our campsite to take a shortcut to the park entrance and…

…ran right over our solar panel.

I still cringe when I think of that moment—that tiny bit of resistance on the tires, then an unusual crunching sound—really quite slight, actually; I could have continued driving and not known anything had happened—and then Tom’s furious shout, the sudden horror hitting me in the belly of what I think that sound may have been…then the image of the mangled metal and glass ground into the dirt, our beautiful solar panel broken beyond recognition.

In that moment of seeing the wreckage, there was no way to avoid my responsibility. Or deny the destruction. I felt shocked and furious at the pointlessness of it. What a waste! Of the solar panel itself, of our time, of our carefully made plans. To make matters worse, the solar system is Tom’s baby. He researched it, bought the pieces, and put the system together. He puts the panels out and repositions them during the day. He checks the water level in the batteries, monitors the storage levels. The freedom it gives us to travel to places without hookups is especially important to his pursuit of photography—not to mention his psyche.  As I look at what is left of it, I feel sick to my stomach. I feel like I have run over his pet dog. And I can tell from his reactions that he feels that way, too.

When we have calmed down enough to hold a screwdriver and a hacksaw, we work in silence to try to salvage something out of the broken mess. Tom notices that amazingly the panel is still generating some electricity, and when we look more closely we see that only one of the two folding panels is crushed. Also, even though I drove right over the controller, when he unhooks it and rewires it to the intact panel it actually works. We hacksaw the two panels apart and remount the controller and the legs on the single functional panel. At least it is something. It won’t generate enough power to stay off grid for long, but if it is sunny, and we are careful, we can get by. Tom makes a weak, but valiant attempt at a joke. I appreciate it, but am not yet ready to laugh about this. I still feel sick to my stomach; even feel a hesitancy to get back in the truck. The farmer’s market is definitely out of the question.

**********

This is a solvable problem. I realized that where it hurt us really was not in a practical or economic place—certainly we could problem-solve a solution and we could afford another panel. Where it hurt the most—after the first shock of the wreckage—was in some kind of pride tangled up in my identity. We have been doing this for awhile now, and I was proud of our system. I was proud of the independence it gave us, its flexibility and mobility. It was compact and portable, easy to set up and store, and—as long as it was sunny—easily generated all the power we needed. I was even proud of the fact that Tom got a good deal when he bought it because the box had been damaged slightly at the warehouse.

Ultimately, this is not a very big problem, especially considering what many people in the world face daily—volcanoes, war, rising seas, loss of home or loved ones. Neither of us were hurt. Life went on with all of its daily joys and challenges. A month later it has become (mostly) a funny story.  

But the pain of this was worth listening to. It was real, in that moment. And it also opened a door to reflection.

This pain was a signal that I just needed to STOP. Slow down. Find my way back to my own body. What happened was the natural outcome of being in a hurry and of being pulled in too many directions. I was already on this path when I slammed out of the trailer earlier—feeling harried and rushed and irritated at something—I don’t even remember what. This hurry is why I didn’t check the blind spot on the truck, why I cut the corner to drive the wrong way on the campground road, why I just didn’t take a moment to think.

And this pain also pointed to a certain smugness that had crept in as we got “good” at what we do. There is nothing wrong with appreciating things that work. But in my smugness I was basing my identity on them working. I had begun to forget what it is like to not have enough—whether it is electricity (or water or food or shelter) or more abstract things like safety or choice. I had forgotten the discomfort of being a beginner. My pride in our setup was stretching toward feeling superior. My smugness was separating me from other people.

Now we have half a panel with a broken leg and sawed-off hinges. We can’t generate enough power on cloudy days to keep up. This is sobering and feels like a good reminder. A reminder that resources are not unlimited, and that in the end, nothing lasts.

But most important, I think it is a reminder about gratitude, which I think is the antidote to smugness. Gratitude keeps me in the present rather than hurrying to get more. It helps me find my own calm center again. And gratitude is a way of appreciating something good without setting myself apart from others for having it. Gratitude recognizes that I can’t take good things for granted. That they come and go, and their presence is always a blessing.

In the end a broken solar panel is a small price to pay for this.

Thursday
Jul062017

A different kind of public space

Highway rest stop, New Mexico

We have seen many kinds of public land in the past ten months—state parks, national forests, BLM holdings, etc.—but not having a bathroom in our trailer has given us an appreciation for a more basic kind of public space: the public toilet and shower.

My attitude toward public restrooms—especially the showers—helps me realize how much has changed for me in subtle ways since we began. At first, the challenge of taking a satisfying shower in my flip flops in some dank, spider-infested, coin-operated, concrete cubicle pretty much cancelled out the pleasure of the shower. How do I keep my clothes dry when there’s no shower curtain? How do I know when the two minutes that my token buys is almost up so I am not left with a head full of shampoo? And what IS that in the corner..??

Now, though, I feel nothing but appreciation for any kind of shower—dank or not. And over the last ten months of depending mostly on public restrooms I have acclimated to the parade of options, from the KOA that was lined floor-to-ceiling in fake-gilt-edged mirrors, to the most basic pit toilets—hole, pit, cover, door and that’s about it.

I am not sure exactly what caused this change—probably it just comes from repeated experience—but my initial squeamishness about unfamiliar conditions has been replaced, mostly, by ease. It feels normal now to be living so much of the time in public space. It feels normal to not own anything other than the toiletries I carry with me. It feels normal to walk a few hundred yards to get to the bathroom, or to stand in line to wait at “rush hour,” or to perhaps meet someone from another country during the wait.

All of this has given me a more basic sense of connection to the rest of the human race—to the reality that we share resources and fundamentally depend on each other for our survival, especially in our increasingly interconnected social structures. Using a public toilet is a visceral reminder several times a day that the way we conduct ourselves—our "aim" in life, so to speak—affects other people.

And, oddly, one of the best things about this arrangement is directly correlated to its inconvenience. Some of my best memories are from nighttime walks when nature called at two a.m.: the brilliant stretch of stars across a black canyon; the smell of frost on the grass; the chatter of elf owls calling back and forth between the trees; or just the vast simple silence of the night, full of the life-breath of the world. I would not have had these experiences if I had been able to stumble half-asleep into my own private indoor room.

I do appreciate a well-designed shower and have developed some opinions about what that looks like. I have joked that there is a career out there for me as a state-park-shower-stall-design consultant. (A shelf! They have been around for years…how hard is it to put one in the shower so your soap doesn’t dissolve and float away!) But the trend in my thinking this year has been toward more gratitude and less evaluation. That really anything that delivers warm, clean, running water (and even the warm part is optional) is one of the wonders of the modern world.

And it is easy to get entranced by bathroom design and forget what the purpose of it is and how it is connected to the rest of the world. My favorite toilets of the trip were the simple composting toilets designed by David Omick that many people have built in Cascabel. In fact, when we stayed there two years ago, the composting toilet at the cabin was one of the things that drew me back. It was a relief to begin to see how this most basic form of "waste" could be a resource instead of a pollution problem. Likewise, David and his wife Pearl have also created a simple outdoor shower that has a natural water-saving device: they can use as much water as they want, but they have to carry every drop they use from the holding tank to the simple gravity-fed shower bucket.

This is the main thing that is making me want to settle down again—the desire to do things like have a compost pile and an herb garden, or to build some simple structures for daily living that directly connect our bodies and the land. Until then, I am grateful that we can still get along well enough as a society to have public restrooms.

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We made a brief pass along the west side of New Mexico, but realized that we had seen so many new things by then that we needed some time to assimilate our experiences. So instead of going further into New Mexico and Colorado, after a few weeks on the Rio Grande River we angled briefly into the southwest corner of Colorado before traveling fairly directly (for us) up through Utah and Idaho to my family's farm near Spokane, WA. It felt a little strange at first to be in trees and green again, but it has been good to return to familiar landscapes and faces. While we may be getting comfortable in public spaces, we also appreciate the hospitality of friends and family who have hosted us along the way. Things seemed to work out just when we needed them, like our friend in Idaho being home briefly on the very weekend we needed a place to park the trailer for a few days in order to take a side trip to attend a funeral in Portland. Sometimes the flow of the river of life is more powerful than planning...

Lots of green things at Hyrum Reservoir, Utah

Wednesday
Apr262017

A little love letter to Cascabel

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

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

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

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

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.