Entries in learning (4)


The way it is

When I began this blog last year, I chose the opening line of William Stafford’s poem “The Way it Is” as the tagline:

There’s a thread you follow.

I knew this poem was important to me when I first read it many years ago, but I didn’t realize just how appropriate it would be for this past year. As I reflect on where I am at now, I realize that this poem puts into words what has been most important to me in our travels.

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.


Over the past year, we have lived in 80 different places. All of this moving around has made it clear what does change—which is pretty much everything. The people, plants, and animals all change. My thoughts, emotions, hopes, dreams, and fears all change. My relationships change, as does my personality. Weather, seasons—even the sun, moon, and stars all change, though you might have to wait awhile for that.

As Stafford says:

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

And yet, even in the midst of all this inevitable change, there is this thread.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

The thread isn’t something I can describe directly. Like Stafford, I can only assert that it exists. There is no proof of it other than the action of following it. And I can only indicate where it is by recognizing where it is not. But when I returned back to familiar people and places this summer (noting the changes that had happened there as well) I realized that the true gift of this year was this simple: that in the quiet, I could feel that thread inside me.


I thought I was going to do a lot of reflecting and writing on the past year. I expected to spend this month creating a thorough retrospective of everything I had seen and done and learned. But though there are many experiences for which I am grateful—seeing Zion, meeting the community in Cascabel, getting comfortable using a laundromat, living for a while around cattle and horses, learning to walk in the desert, feeling the vast expanses of the Southwest, returning to friends and family…to list just a few—I think that my retrospective is done.

It is not the breadth of my experience that is most important, but the simplest thing that can be distilled out of all that experience. And that simple thing is this:

There's a thread you follow.

Following this thread led me into this year. It led me through this year. And following my thread will take me wherever I go next. That is enough.

So in the end, all that I learned this year was already there, right in front of me, all along.

The Way it Is
by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.


p.s. I noticed that this was the only picture I took on our one-year anniversary two weeks ago. I guess some part of me was already tuning into the meaning of this year...and has a sense of humor...


Day 71: At home in the world

(Note: Another post out of order--this one from November 15.)

Ever since our propane stopped working twice in the cold weather at Malheur, I have been feeling anxious about the approach of winter. We now have a new regulator, which should have fixed the problem, but the predicted winter storm that is supposed to hit tomorrow and Thursday with freezing temperatures, strong winds, and snow frightens me a little, as I am still not sure how robust our little trailer is.

Last night we stayed at a primitive campsite next to the Snake River just east of Twin Falls, Idaho. As we set up camp, I pick up the litter around the site—condom wrappers and their used contents, cigarette boxes, candy papers, beer cans, an empty bottle. After we crawl into bed a car turns into our pullout, stops for awhile with its motor still running, then drives down to the next pullout where it parks, stereo loud. Several times during the night a car or motorbike races by at full throttle on the narrow paved road leading to the campsites, tires humming over the cattle grate next to our pullout entrance. But somehow, unlike the predicted storm, this doesn’t bother me and I sleep soundly.

This morning when I wake there is a glorious sunrise over the blue-gray water of the river. Great balls of starlings flow over the sky in surging drifts. One flock lands momentarily in a tree next to me, then just as suddenly ricochets out again with a satiny, synchronized whir of wings. Across the river, just out of site over the basalt bank, I can hear sounds from a nearby feedlot—cows lowing, tractors grinding back and forth, several dogs barking sporadically. I sit by the river to try to calm my nerves about the coming storm.

As I listen to the sounds of the farm, I imagine the people out doing their chores and it occurs to me, This could be my home and this frosty morning could be just another ordinary day, and somehow this thought brings some peace. There is something comforting about realizing that any of the places we have been could be my home, and I could be here by the river on a short walk from my front door.

As I continue to listen to the invisible farm—the bawling of the cattle, a backup beeper, voices raised to be heard over the engines—I can imagine the life of the farm where I grew up, which is now run by two of my brothers. I can imagine them out in the fields or in the machine shop, taking care of the work of the day, adapting to whatever the weather brings. I imagine my father putting on his insulated coveralls to go out in the cold. I can smell the rich, cool smell of fresh earth in the fall when the fields are freshly plowed. Knowing that all the people I know and love are going about their usual days somewhere helps me get centered again. I can take a deep breath. And another. I can begin to realize that “home” is perhaps not just a place, but also a state of mind.

The question is, can I learn to be at home in the whole world? Can I learn to love it all? Snowstorms or sun, cold or hot, dusty or wet, smelling of cows or sweet sage—can I see that these are all part of life? And if I know this, perhaps I can feel at home wherever I go and whatever is happening.

This reminds me of a story the naturalist Tom Brown tells about asking his Native American mentor why he wasn’t cold in the winter or hot in the summer. His mentor replies:

“I am, but heat and cold do not bother me.“

I asked why not, and after a long pause in which he seemed to be weighing whether or not I was ready for his answer, he said, “Because they’re real.“


A postscript: After this experience, I realized that the sounds I was hearing from the farm were of the cows being rounded up and herded into the truck to take them to slaughter. Whether something is comforting or frightening depends entirely on your perspective—what is nourishing to the owl is death to the vole. This is not to take away from the comfort I felt, only to add another dimension. Life and death are inextricably entwined.

A few days later, I ran across this poem in a collection of Gary Snyder’s that speaks to this uneasy polarity so well.


         by Gary Snyder

   Moonlight landscape, sheep,
        and shepherd watching eerie beauty

The broad sheep backs
        resting bunched up under leafy oaks
        or hid in black moon shadow,

Lives of cows and sheep—
        calf mouth that sucks your finger
        the steer that pokes his head through
        pipe iron gate
        to lick lapel, and lightly
        touch and taste
        the buttons of your coat,

Cows that trail you as you cross the meadow;
        silent sheep    slow heads turning
        solemn faces
        hooves fringed in dewy grass.

They stamp and steam in chilly morn
        and gaze at length on clouds and hills

                before they board the truck.


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.


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.