Entries in unexpected (2)

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.

Tuesday
Feb202018

About a boot

Last week Tom got a hole in his boot. He also—on the same day—fried his computer beyond repair when he plugging it into the truck to charge and then started the truck. Not sure what went wrong with that one, but that is another story…

In order to get some context, I need to start back at the beginning. In late November last year, about the time the winter rains arrived on the west coast in earnest, we left Winky in a nice, dry garage and set out for a winter of couch-surfing and short-term rentals. Our first stop was Seattle—this time for business, as we had decided to take the plunge and......sell our house. If this sounds sudden, that is because it was. We had not planned on selling just yet, but our renters made us an offer, we knew we weren’t moving back, and—plans or not—it was time.  So, we have now taken one more step in this long adventure in letting go.

After Seattle, we spent several weeks visiting family for the holidays, and then embarked on a winter back in the world-of-water, otherwise known as the Samish Flats—the delta where the Samish River meets the Salish Sea, about an hour and a half north of Seattle. Honestly, after a year of perpetual sunshine, I missed the rain. I missed the low skies, the sound of water dripping from the eaves, the space for inward reflection, the infinite variety of clouds, and the amazing displays of light those clouds create.

There are lots of places west of the Cascades where I could be wet for two months, but we chose the Samish Flats specifically for its birds. Originally a flood plain, it has been diked and drained for farming, but its shorelines, rivers, bays, creeks, sloughs, canals, channels, and flooded fields still support an immense number of wintering waterfowl (mostly snow geese, swans, and masses of ducks) as well as mesmerizing flights of dunlins, blackbirds, and starlings, and a smorgesbord of eagles, hawks, falcons, harriers, shrikes, and owls.

This is a place vibrantly alive with wings and water. You might not know it if you just drove through once on a gray day, but if you stay, you can feel the constant flux from both above and below—rain, wind, tides, mist, clouds, seeping groundwater, and the constantly shifting flights of thousands of birds, calling, flocking, gleaning, fleeing in front of the eagles and peregrines and hunters—everything in circling, washing, restless motion.

All of the rain that supports this teaming ecosystem makes it attractive to have a real roof, so we stayed at a guest cottage at an organic farm for a month, and a house on Samish Island for two weeks. I was focused on writing; Tom was focused on photography—that is, when it stopped raining long enough to take the camera out.

Which all brings me back to the boot. To photograph birds Tom has to go where the water is. And honestly, there really isn’t much of anyplace where the water isn’t. The “Flat” part of Samish Flats means that if there is water one place, there is water everywhere. One night of heavy rain, and you wake up to a lake in your back yard and water over all the roads into town. In this “university of mud” (as Tom Robbins calls it) the boot is essential.

Tom’s first impulse these days when something breaks is to find a way to fix it. Since duct tape didn’t seem like an option in this case (though we did think about it) Shoe Goo was the next obvious go-to, but it didn’t seem adequate for the size and placement of the hole—right where the boot bends. So Tom did some research and someone suggested having a patch put on at a tire repair shop. Since we were in town anyway (for the computer) I decided to give this a try.

The thing about living this way for so long—it has now been a year and a half since we “left home”—is that the lines between “normal” and “weird” start to get fuzzy. So by the time I got to Discount Tire I had somehow forgotten that most people don’t bring boots here to get patched. I had gone on a trip with some girlfriends from grad school over the weekend and hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep for a few nights, and was probably more concerned about the computer—I don’t know what it was exactly, but somehow this had become just one more thing to check off my to-do list.

So I go into the store, walk up to the service desk, put this big, muddy, man-sized, muck boot up on the counter, and in the tone of voice of someone ordering a hamburger at Dick’s say, “I would like to get a patch put on this boot. How soon can you have it ready?”

The nice service man on the other side of the counter is just staring at me. So far he hasn’t said one word past, “How can I help you?” His eyes have enlarged a few sizes and his jaw muscles don’t seem to be keeping his mouth closed anymore. His face has taken on a kind of deer-in-the-headlights expression as though he wants to run but doesn’t know which way, and he just rotates his torso slowly toward his co-worker at the register next to him with this mute appeal for sanity in a world gone sideways. This probably only take a few seconds, but time, for him, has come screeching to a halt.

The other guy sees what is happening—even in the midst of cashing out the other customer—and takes it in stride. He leans over and very matter-of-factly explains why they would be happy to help me, but the patching process that they use probably won’t adhere to the material the boot is made out of. He pokes at it a few times professionally and suggests that I might try finding a neoprene patch at a dive shop. “And have you tried Shoe Goo…?” I thank him for this information, and turn to leave. This action seems to release the first service tech from his sudden and complete paralysis. “Well!” he bursts out. “Now THAT’S something you don’t see every day!!”

Back in the truck, I can’t stop laughing: both at myself for being so oblivious, and at the thought of my service guy going home that night with a story about the crazy lady who brought in a boot. I am glad to have been part of bringing some humor into the day (for all of us), and also at maybe being the bearer of a little bit of unpredictability. This is the way it all starts sometimes—something doesn’t line up with our expectations. Our worldview has to shift. A crack opens up—reluctantly perhaps, but once that crack is there who knows what else might slip in? I feel like maybe coyote was here, working through my sleepy, distracted self without me even knowing it.

And even though the boot isn’t fixed yet, THAT feels like a good day’s work.