Why do I want to write?

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I have been meeting up with a friend a couple times a month for writing practice. Nothing too structured, we just pick a prompt and try to keep pencil moving across paper for fifteen minutes at a shot. One of our recent prompts was “why do you want to write”. After, it felt relevant to this space so I decided to share my stream of consciousness response, lightly edited.

Why do I want to write? Because I want to order my thoughts, because I want to connect with the world around me, because I want to capture the fleeting ideas so I can come back to them, so that I can know my former selves.

Writing is a medium for the left brain. Any idea that can be captured in written word is necessarily limited in dimension, contained, bounded, tamed. I am both drawn to this and frustrated by it. I want to live more in my right brain; I want to understand the world more in a holistic, expansive, interconnected sense that is beyond words. But how can I share that? How can I reach out to kindred souls from the formless ether?

The written word may be inadequate and limited, but it is accessible. Writing as a process is tangible evidence that I am right here, capturing this moment, this idea, this life. I want to write because I want to live well and words are a mirror.

Words are just a tool, but they are the tool that calls to me, that feels natural. So really, it’s not that I want to write as much as I want to capture what it is to live and the way that I can do that is by writing. Why writing? Because it feels safe but also because it allows space for the reader and the words to create something new in another mind.

I want someone to read my words and to feel profoundly still, the kind of momentary full-stop that vibrates truth in one’s bones. Words bridge great distance and penetrate thick walls. Words are there when the time is right. I resist the idea of permanence and yet I’m drawn to the idea of creating something that can stand on its own, apart from me, and exist in the world because I put the words out there together.

Race to Alaska

My alarm went off at 430a this morning, and I was on my bike pedaling to town in the lightening dawn a few minutes later. When I got to the waterfront at 530a, there were a couple hundred people milling about and a growing number of boats assembling in the bay.

IMG_1461I joined the main crowd in watching the parade of boats being paddled and peddled out of the marina. It wasn’t far, but it was into a stiff breeze, and most of them were sailing vessels, never intended to be propelled by human power. But they were heading to the starting line of the Race to Alaska and while there are very few race rules, one of them is “no motors on board”.
IMG_1468The basic facts go like this: Began last year, the Race starts in Port Townsend and ends 750 miles north in Ketchikan, AK. Any boat without an engine can enter, and all participants must be self-supported.

I don’t know much about boats, but there were all shapes and sizes…
IMG_1475 IMG_1476 IMG_1478And then they were away!
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Clearly, I’m not a huge boat junkie, but here’s the thing: the Race brings out all of these ordinary and extraordinary people – decorated racers, badasses, drinking buddies, fathers and their grown kids – who are living their dreams. Race management and whole community around it are all about celebrating every one of them for being out there. Genuinely cheering them on, not for being flawless or winning or even for finishing, but just for being out there. And I love that.

I peddled back home, thinking about how good it feels to dream and how amazing it is to be among people trying to live their dreams and how much better off the world is when more people are doing just that.

And then I made pancakes and settled in for a regular day at the desk job. Not exactly the dream, but a little easier to take after that start.

PS – If you are even a little bit interested, I highly recommend following the Race here. I skipped the pesky details of Stage 1 vs 2, but the push to Alaska starts Sunday. You may spend days glued to the tracker but it’s totally worth it.

Soaking them in

DSC_3980 We went camping this weekend with some dear friends, a little getaway that I had been looking forward to for many weeks.

It was an ideal trip. We discovered a new-to-us campground in an enchanting mossy forest along a river; it was spacious and quiet and appropriately dark. We spent hours poking at a fire and watching flames dance and marveling at the generous piles of windfalls-turned-split-firewood in nearly every site. We went for a little hike in the rain to see a waterfall and throw stones into a river until we were soaked and then wandered into a national park lodge to warm up and I had the best hot toddy of my life. I slept better than I have in weeks, including an amazing one-hour nap on Saturday afternoon. There was an endless game of “chase” with a gleeful almost-two-year-old. On Sunday, the sun came out and we put our canoe into the lake for it’s inaugural paddle on calm water beneath glorious mountains. It was only two days without phones or screens or even a book or journal or knitting, but it felt like two weeks’ worth of recharge.

Of course there was also the part of the weekend where we planned to stay at the campground on the lake but it was full when we arrived. And we remembered there were backup options but had failed to take a map that showed them. The damp and gray gave way to showers overnight and rain and then the kind of drizzle where you can’t tell if it was falling or just hanging in the air. As soon as the sun broke out for a few minutes Saturday and coaxed us out of our defenses, it started raining harder. I under-packed clothing and found myself soaked and shivering. We’re rusty on car-camping and packed at the last minute so messed up countless little things like packing loose leaf tea but no way to brew/strain it. But none of that mattered.

We had the luxury of two full days set aside to do nothing in particular and we were soaking them in.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “surrender” in recent weeks. Not the kind of surrender where you give up and stop trying, but the kind where you let go of all expectation, release all attempts at imposing your will. Surrender to what is. It doesn’t come naturally for me, but when it happens, it sure feels magic.

Like an ideal camping trip with dear friends.

Hawthorne season

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I started last weekend with plans for a long run, collecting hawthorne and wild roses in blossom, and many hours of garden time. Saturday morning I ran and went on a hawthorne mission and was sorting out my afternoon garden priorities over some lunch when it started raining. I was somewhere between confused and indignant. It had not occurred to me that rain was a possibility.

I surveyed the sky and guessed it would be half an hour until it was done and I could carry on. Instead it rained most of the weekend, and I never did make it down to the garden. After a bit of time wandering around the house lost, I did recover and remember that there was a nearly-forgotten list of things I had been meaning to do indoors. I turned over my closet for the season, tackled some mending, blended tea, sewed myself a new shirt, and started my cucurbit seeds, all the while musing at how llloong the weekend felt, how time seemed to expand as space contracted.

Monday morning I found myself standing at the top of the driveway, overdressed in a long-sleeve quarter-zip despite the overcast morning. I had just finished my short morning run and before I went in for breakfast, I was enjoying a few ripe salmonberries. And right then, it hit me: it’s not spring anymore. Somehow, the season slipped right into early summer, when the rain is out of place and the berries are coming on and it’s time to swap out the winter woollies for summer skirts. I’ve been checking in all week… it’s not quite dark when I go to bed at night but there’s no sign of dark when I wake. We had our first picnic on the bluff overlooking the bay. Sure enough, all signs point to summer.

Of course, I have mixed feelings about this – it means both that I survived the frenzy of spring and that there are rather a lot of things on the spring task list that I failed to complete. But then I remember that maybe it will be easier to tell which of those things were never necessary in the first place from the perspective of summer. And of course it really doesn’t matter how I feel about it, but I think I’m ready to embrace some long days of the light.

Shaker life

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Our recent trip to the Berkshires was all about visiting family and friends, not being tourists, but I saw there was a Shaker village museum nearby and secretly hoped we could fit it in. As you can see, we made it, and it did not disappoint.

The Shaker’s emphasis on handcraft and functional design was an obvious draw, and traditional farming is another of my soft spots. But I didn’t remember many details of the order of daily life for Shakers – it really is rather monastic. Put it all together and it would be hard to devise a combination better suited to lure me.

I realize that not everyone is seduced by monastic life, but honestly, that realization is more recent than you might imagine. I thought everyone read the bit in a book about pre-dawn chanting and not needing any possessions and extended periods of daily silence and wished it could be so. Of course there is that pesky detail that I’ve never been a bit interested in the religious content of that life, but I think the rest looks pretty damn good – the simplicity, the ritual, the communalism, the contemplation, the reverence.

So I’m sure the beauty and the sunny spring weather also contributed but I wanted to move in to pretty much every room in the village, either for the furnishings or for the lessons the ghosts would surely impart after hours.

Zooming toward spring

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The light is returning. It’s been just about a week now since I first noticed a narrow band of brightness on the horizon at 6a. Which means we are in that sweet spot where, for a few weeks, my daily schedule aligns with the earth’s and I get to watch the distant mountains backlit and the sky slowly turning color every morning as I rise and go about my morning routine.

As much as it is a welcome change, though, it also feels a bit like we’re zooming from the quiet, fallow, dark days to the frenzy of spring. I’m noticing how the changing light is unsettling me and leaving me more susceptible to anxiety. It makes sense, just like how the rapidly diminishing light of September can unsettle and trigger depression, but I hadn’t connected my seasonal anxiety about all. the. things. to. be. done. with the accelerating changes in the light.

This winter was very much an inward season for me. Not that my mind was especially dark or sad or withdrawn from the world. More like a season where quiet felt right. While I’ve devoured a pile of books, many of my explorations were the sort where words weren’t really necessary and didn’t quite translate. It’s a big part of the reason why I’ve been more scarce in this space. It’s just been a season of quiet. And now I feel the light pulling me back out, beckoning me out of the quiet and into the chaos of another year in this world.

I’m not entirely sure what the thread of this ramble is, but it has me thinking about a lovely prayer from John O’Donahue so I think I’ll leave you with that. His book Eternal Echoes has been on my bedside table for the last couple months and he opens it with a version of Matins, poetry for the dawn, which ends with this:

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Hope and light

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Well, it seems that I took an unplanned December break from blogging. I hope you are feeling filled with hope and light after the solstice turn and that your Christmas was full of joy and merriment, if you celebrate.

Things were a mixed bag here, if we’re being objective. The last gift box is still sitting here, and will finally get in the mail on Monday (sorry, dad). The baking plan got truncated halfway through when we realized how many treats we had to eat already. Our cards were finally mailed on December 22. I was up too late too many nights.

But after all that, I assure you it was a near-perfect holiday. There were days filled with a steady trickle of treats that supplanted any need for meals. Days when I never got fully dressed. Days when I did venture out to gather with new friends and was richly rewarded with good conversation and new connections. Days with nothing more pressing (or productive) than putting together a puzzle on the dining room table for hours on end while catching up on podcasts, or listening to The Little Drummer Boy album from my childhood on repeat.

In other words, exactly what I needed after a December that was so full. Full of goodness, but so very full. It was a lot to fit into a few short weeks and I know better than to drive myself crazy with expectations and preparations. But the list had been honed to only those things that I couldn’t bear to let go. And it was still a very long list.

I was reflecting over the last couple of quiet days, when it all felt just about perfect, why all those things felt so necessary. And then I read Stephanie’s Christmas Eve post here, and realized that she had an awfully good translation. She’s talking about knitting specifically, but the sentiment applies pretty precisely to ALL the making that we do:

Knitting is, I have often said, a container for love. We work hard to make something for someone, pouring our time and energy and love into a tangible thing. When we hand knitting to someone, we’re hoping they’ll hear what we’re really saying, which is “I love you. I think you’re wonderful. I value your happiness, so much so that I’ve spent this time on you. My love is in this.”

It feels good. Even if the other person doesn’t understand that the hat you just gave them is love made firm and real (sometimes they think it’s just a hat) we do, and it’s an amazing trick to be able to do it. 

Yup, that’s it. Time translated into tangible love. Gratitude for dear ones. When your life is rich with such things, of course the season is full.

We made old-fashioned fruitcake this year. A new tradition that was born rather on accident last year, when we felt brave and curious and decided to try it just once. A half-recipe, even. And then watched each others eyes grow bigger and bigger as we sampled it, and immediately started scheming for this year.

One of my favorite moments of the week was delivering a little loaf to our neighbor who generously shares her office space with our weekly meditation group.  Over my lunch break on Tuesday, I bundled up against the cold, walked the half-mile out our driveway, and knocked on their front door bearing a quirky homemade card and the heavy loaf. She graciously received the unexpected visitor and my simple gesture of thanks, we had a brief friendly visit, and I walked home smiling, thinking YES, this, exactly.

It was just one of many little moments of spreading love around and catching its incoming forms. Utterly ordinary and yet perfectly how I want to spend these dark days that compel us to pause, to reflect and remember, to be grateful, and to turn toward the light with hope.

November sunshine

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I snapped this picture on Wednesday afternoon. We were heading towards Seattle and had a little time to kill before our ferry so turned down a road that we hadn’t before. In real time, it was a strikingly beautiful spot; in photographic record it is strikingly monochromatic. So very… November-like.

The descent into the dark days has felt gentler this year, maybe more of a slide than a tumble. But we have certainly settled into the gloom and I am feeling the familiar need to resist complete hibernation. Most days, it’s a challenge to break the gravitational pull of my semi-permanent nest at the end of the sofa under the good lamp. But it feels vital to get outside and move and breathe in the cold or the rain or the rare sunlight, and when yesterday dawned bright and blue there was no question that we were heading out for a bike ride.

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We drove about 30 miles west and jumped on a section of the Olympic Discovery Trail, which is mostly a rail trail conversion. It was our first ride on the trail and it was great. Without a set destination, it was really tempting to just keep going “a little farther”, “just to see what’s over/around/past this”. Lucky for us, we came to our senses at the point when they warned us about the steepness of the descent ahead (i.e. ascent on the way home) because we were both pretty well beat by the time we got back to the truck. Beat, but filled up on November sunshine and happily dreaming up plans for next time.

Ghosts of past lives

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A few more images from my trip to the Girl Scout camp in North Dakota last month. This old smokehouse was just outside the camp boundary, and always intriguing to me. It’s the only sign left of somebody’s former homestead although as a kid the basement also remained, holding a few rusty metal bedsprings and pieces of broken ceramic and glass. Just enough to remind you, unequivocally, that it was once a home.

I’ve always been fascinated by the ghosts of past lives. I feel a magnetic pull in my chest from every weathered, falling-down barn I see. It doesn’t matter if it’s abandoned or in a neat farmyard; if it’s standing proud or mostly in a heap; if it’s my first sighting of it or my thousandth. I don’t need to save them, I just want to love them. All.*

I find myself especially fascinated by the ghosts in places like North Dakota, where those past lives really aren’t all that distant. The dam was built and the lake created in the 1950s. How many stories were drowned under the water in the fertile river bottomland and the towns that had to be relocated? Who stewarded all the hills around the lake before the US Army Corps began doling them out for recreation and wildlife?

I know nothing about the past stories that smokehouse holds but when I stand inside and look out over the hills, I can hear the whispers… of life and loss and time and timelessness.

 

*An example: A few years back when Dean and I were designing our house, we reached a point when we had pretty much settled on the interior layout but were struggling with the overall look/feel of the exterior. So we took a couple drives to tour neighborhoods for inspiration. It went something like this:
Dean: “That’s nice.”
Bethany: “Maybe”
D: “What about this one?”
B: “Meh”

B: “Ooh, I like that!”
D: “That’s a shed, not a house. That’s a shed that is actively crumbling…”
B: “Yeah, I kind of love it…”
Pretty quickly it became clear that I am mostly drawn to outbuildings in various states of disrepair and this was not in any way helpful in the home design process.

Wednesday inspiration

DSC_3543Feeling inspired this morning. I saw Elizabeth Gilbert speak to 2,500 people last night in Seattle about creative living, which she defines really broadly, as “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear”. Yup, I am definitely on board for that.

I loved that she was full of inspiration and also entirely pragmatic about creating this life. One of the (many) things I found whirling around my mind this morning was the idea that sometimes you have to let go of the good for the great. As in, let go of the things it would be good to do in day in order to make time for the things it would be great to do. How many days have I worked diligently through the list of housecleaning, errands, etc – things that seem like basic requirements of being a good person – only to run out of hours in the day before I got to the really juicy stuff.

Which is probably top of mind this morning because it’s an especially un-scheduled Wednesday for me. Wednesdays are my favorite day of the week, the day that, more than any other, I do exactly what I deem is important to me. Which is pretty much my definition of the ideal life. Not that it will be all fun and relaxing, but it will be satisfying and not based on the whims of someone else’s priorities. I dream of creating a life where most of my days can unfold that way but in the meantime, I treasure my Wednesdays.

Which is why I popped in here, frankly. I don’t have anything in particular to say, but on a day of my own design, sending a few words into the world makes the list.

Perfectly frozen in every time

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageThe older I get, the more I find the concept of linear time wholly insufficient. A little like I imagine the idea of the earth being flat felt in the age of the explorers. I had that experience of the present intersecting with several pasts a few days ago, when I made an unplanned visit to a place that’s awfully special to me.

It was my last day in North Dakota and I had a few hours without plans, so I borrowed my dad’s car to go for a drive. I figured I would troll some country roads with my camera, maybe head down toward my hometown in search of familiar scenes. The Girl Scout Camp was halfway between so maybe I’d swing by… “The Girl Scout Camp” was indeed where I attended scout camp but it was also where I spent nearly every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day for the first two decades of my life (my parents traded volunteer caretaking for access to the camp when it wasn’t in use). It was a couple hundred acres where life was simpler; where we ate outside, played in the lake, roamed freely through the shelterbelts of trees and across the prairie, and ended most days watching flames dance. In retrospect, it was the place where I felt most competent, most peaceful, most free, most myself. It was the place where I most felt I belonged, in a childhood when I so often ached to belong.

For all that, I can’t remember when I last visited – I moved west, my parents stopped using the camp, and then in 2012, the US Army Corps of Engineers rescinded the lease. It’s no longer a camp, just a wildlife area.

As I drove up, I encountered a new gate, maybe half a mile back from where the property was previously gated. I parked and got out, thinking this was perhaps the end of the line. But there was pedestrian access, and the signage didn’t preclude public access, so I immediately threw my camera in my pocket and set off up the road. It felt… fraught. The road was really overgrown, and I found myself searching for landmarks. As I walked on, I felt more and more anxious, worrying that it would be unrecognizable, worrying that I was walking into something better left alone.

When I got to the site of the old gate, the nature of the road changed abruptly. It went from “there might be a road under the weeds” to “there’s some grass growing up in these tracks”. It looked like it might have if we were opening up for the summer and hadn’t yet mowed. And the smell was unmistakable – dewey grass and sunshine, with a touch of dust and white sage. I stood there blinking, and I swear with each blink time flashed from 1990 to 2015 to 1983 to everything in between. I walked the last quarter mile or so into camp proper and wept at the sight of the rutted track and the old camp buildings. All those years of footsteps and tire tracks had left a mark in the very earth that time has not yet erased. It was real and tangible in a way I never imagined I would see it again.

I walked from one end of that camp to the other, letting the waves of time and place wash over me, every familiar detail coming back alive: the lilacs and the “units” cut into the shelterbelt where we slept in musty canvas tents during camp, the muddy beach where we whiled away endless summer days fueled by sunflower seeds and pop, the boat in perpetual motion pulling someone on water skis or a tube. I heard Taps sung around the flagpole, where the cactus still lurked to bite the unsuspecting who dared sit without a sit-upon. I looked across the field and saw the big tents erected for my dad’s company picnic, a child me competing in the gunny sack race and cheering the popcorn-eating contest. I stood at the fire pit overlooking the water and saw the Milky Way overhead, the glimmer of the northern lights shimmering over the treetops. I looked down the path through the archery field and felt worn jeans on sun-kissed legs as we took our twilight walk to see the deer feeding. Riding moped, walking on old electric spools, helping park the camper in its spot, the wheels settling into their holes dug into the ground so we could be assured it would be level.

There were signs that nature is slowly but surely reclaiming the camp. But right then, it felt like a time capsule, perfectly frozen, if it was possible to be perfectly frozen in every time I was there.

I’m struggling to tie this one up neatly, still processing what it all means to me now. But I’ve spent countless hours already reliving that visit with a smile and misty eyes. The universe is kind.

Symposium skies

IMG_1018DSC_3494IMG_1027IMG_1021IMG_1028All of the photos are from my weekend at the NW Herb Symposium, which was pretty fantastic. You may notice that I don’t have any photos of the the other participants, or teachers, or classes, or even the beach walk. Instead, and rather predictably I might admit, I have pictures of the sky, and the moss in the grain of the wood of the picnic table where I ate my lunch, and more sky.

I went into the weekend a little uneasy – I really wasn’t sure what I was getting into, just what a symposium on herbalism would look like. And I was very much unsure if I would belong. I had no reason to worry. The other participants were overwhelming inspiring and the teachers were amazing. I felt completely outclassed and utterly welcome.

The thought I had most frequently over the weekend was how exhilarating it is to be learning. I absorbed so much that I don’t know when or if or how I will ever use, but it was thrilling to take it all in. And there is no substitute for face-to-face learning. I’ll never stop teaching myself random things from library books and internet videos, but for things I really want to know, it’s a pale substitute.

And in retrospect, I can see that the thing that allowed me to get so much out of this weekend is that I have recently become much better at listening and noticing and managing my needs.  Being around that many people, out of my element… it was a classic recipe for getting overstimulated and crashing. And I did get overstimulated, every day. But I also packed knitting and a novel and spent a hour or two every day sitting under a tree re-charging. Only have 10 minutes? Great, walk in a beeline for any viewscape that is as natural as possible, do a bit of stretching, and take 5 slow breaths. So much better. And 5 minutes to spare. And when I reached my fill, I let myself off the hook and went home to rest instead of squeezing one more session into a long, full day.

All of which seems really obvious, but I need regular reminders of the obvious.

It’s still summer

DSC_3466 IMG_1010See that? The sunset from our picnic Monday evening, and the sunrise as I was heading out the driveway to the ferry Thursday morning. It’s been a long few months since I ran into sunrises and sunsets, just going about my days. The long, seemingly static light of summer is fading at the edges, the days curling at the corners just a bit.

There have been so many little signs of summer’s winding down this week. I can’t pretend that it’s still light when I sign off at night, even if I’m early to bed. Yesterday I went for a run at my usual morning time, and realized that all the headlights were on. If there were any streetlights on my route, they would have still been on. Granted, it was extra grey with passing rain clouds, but the light is noticeably weaker.

The gold cardigan I hope to wear on my trip east in September is looking much more like a sweater (I like to think of this as wooly sunshine, a little stash for when the regular sort is in short supply):DSC_3485And yet, I need to wrap this up so that I can finish packing my backpack, because Dean and I are headed up to a high pass to (hopefully) watch the Perseid meteor shower tonight. It’s still summer. Just that part when I have a hope of staying awake long enough to see stars.

 

 

100 words of today

IMG_0891[Blatantly inspired by Susannah]

July. Sun. Heat. Breeze. Hammock. Another hammock. Skirt. Nap. Languid. Sink. Holding. Knots. Shoulders. Jaw. Gut. Desk. Spreadsheets. Inadequate. Incompetent. Overwhelmed. Breathe. Here. Enough. Tea. Sun tea. Salsa. Frozen treats. Soothing. Porch. Poppies. Borage. Nasturtiums. Sunflowers. Weed. Water. Hoe. Bees. Chickens. Pigs. Growing. Feeding. Grinding. Stronger. Stretch. Bike. Run. Free. Sweat. Trickle. Braids. Ceiling fan. Bare feet. Concrete floors. St John’s Wort. Meditating. Searching. Seeking. Kindred. Unsure. Stumbling. Guitar. Song. Strum. Rhyme. Repeat. Picnic. Beach. Sea. Sand. Kindness. Writing. Mail. Email. Journal. Hoping. Dark chocolate. Dreaming. Hiking. Swimming. Tractor. Fences. Garden shed. Home. Together. Trusting. Today.

Homestead history… and hope

We have an appointment tomorrow at the title company to sign our names dozens of times on a mountain of paper. It will be my third and, I sincerely hope, final time through that ritual for this property – first the land loan, then the construction loan, and now we’re refinancing into a plain vanilla mortgage. The occasion set me to thinking about where we started, and just how far we’ve come here. So… a little homestead history photo tour:

2008: Our first outdoor kitchen, under a tarp hung off the shipping container
2008: Our first outdoor kitchen, under a tarp hung off the shipping container
2008: Future house site
2008: Future house site
2008: Cabin construction
2008: Cabin construction
2008: Cabin construction
2008: Cabin construction
2008: Our first winter. Note the patch of paint left of the door.
2008: Our first winter. Notice the arbitrary patch of exterior paint.
2010: New shed/privy at the cabin
2010: New shed/privy at the cabin
2012: House foundation
2012: House foundation
2013: Septic installation. Perhaps our biggest accomplishment to date. Certainly the most aggravating.
2013: Septic installation. Perhaps our biggest accomplishment. Certainly the most aggravating.
2013: Construction progress
2013: Construction progress
2014: Still working on finishing touches
2014: Finishing work
2014: Settling in
2014: Settling in

What’s hard to see in photos is how the most basic infrastructure of this place has changed in really dramatic ways. We’ve probably done as much on/below ground work as above-ground. Power and water came in via easements across neighbors’ property, and started with a single port. (Oh, the days when a single electrical outlet and a trouble light were real upgrades.) The utility networks, the septic system, more than half a mile of driveway… it’s all been installed and extended and upgraded.

I’ve said nothing of how this place has grown up around us, despite our best efforts to tame it. The first alder saplings that we were distinctly excited to see along the road that first year are now 20-some feet tall. This piece of land was logged just before we bought it, and it’s been amazing and frequently overwhelming to witness the ferocity with which the forest has grown to fill the voids created by that.

Of course there’s plenty more that we’d like to do, wish we had been able to do already, and will continue to do for many years. But there’s something newly tangible about it all. Fifteen years of set payments – it all seems so finite, so known, so simple. In what is most certainly a sign of my advancing age, fifteen years just doesn’t seem like all that long. It feels imminently… doable. Hopeful, even.

That’s right friends, mortgage papers give me hope. Surely you’re not shocked.

Body over mind

A little story from my recent retreat (I promise I will stop talking about it like band camp soon):

A few days in, my back was feeling pretty rough. I had been stretching and moving diligently, but it’s just not in shape for that many hours of sitting each day and I was feeling the cumulative toll. I had anticipated precisely this scenario and set up a chair as well as my floor cushion in the meditation hall at the start of the retreat. But for a few days, I spent each sitting on my cushion. Then came the day when, more than once, a sitting ended with my back aching and I swore I would give it a break the next sitting. I would re-enter the hall after a nice stretch and walking period reminding myself that I was going to sit in the chair. And then I would walk directly to my cushion and think, “maybe it’ll be ok this time”.

It’s absurd, and a small example. But then it clicked. The chair was uncomfortable for my mind – it was unfamiliar, it was different, it required a bit of adaptation. (Yes, we are seriously describing the act of sitting in a chair here.).But it wasn’t my cushion, which is where I sit to meditate at home, which was in the exact spot in the hall that I had grown comfortable in over a couple days’ time. Given the choice between discomfort of the mind or discomfort of the body, my mind threw my body under the bus. Unflinchingly.

Since then, I can’t help but notice how often this happens… This morning, I went for a short little run. But not before I looked longingly at the couch and my mind imagined me wrapped up in a blanket sipping a mug of tea instead. It was a beautiful morning, and it felt great to move. My body appreciated starting the day with some movement, but my mind would have happily skipped it.

Yesterday evening, I found myself going back for yet another helping of easter candy. The sort that is the perfect cocktail of things that irritate my gut and make me feel terrible. But I bought it and continue to eat it because my mind convinces me that the chemical nostalgia will make me happy.

I’ll stop. But suffice it so say it has been eye-opening to notice just how many ways I abuse or deny or ignore my body’s very real needs in order to satisfy the very contrived whims of my mind.

Silence, stillness, solitude

DSC_2945It’s been five days since I returned from my meditation retreat, and I’ve pretty much transitioned back to “normal”. I want to share a little something about that experience, but it’s difficult to put words to it.

The whole retreat environment creates an extraordinary sort of space. After you strip away the chatter of speech and the outside world and relinquish the everyday tasks like feeding yourself, all that is left is time and space to be – to be quiet, to be still, to be with your heart and mind, but mostly just to be.

I spent hours sitting quietly each day, hours walking through the forest and along the beach. I watched the great blue herons fishing in the tidelands. I listened to the muddy ground snap-crackle-pop after a squelch. I sat down with the chatter in my head, with the time not just to listen but to understand. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of moonlight, fog, birdsong, cherry blossoms, and countless other details of the natural world.

No matter how I try, the best I can do is to make it sound mildly pleasant if awfully mundane. And yet that doesn’t even approach my experience. Some days were delightful; some days were battle. In just over a week, the cumulative effect of those days was profound. Part of it fills a well that I can tap into when I need a bit of collectedness over the next months. Part of it is just a shift, little insights that once you glimpse you can’t unsee, let alone imagine living without.

I can’t in good conscious tell anyone that they should do this and yet I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t. In a world of meager time away from jobs and routine and the endless quest to optimize everything, nothing in my experience comes close to the transformative power of a meditation retreat in a single week’s time.

And did I mention that someone walks around ringing a bell to wake you in the morning? If I was living an absurdly lavish life with a passel of staff, one of them would ring a bell outside my door every morning. I’ll keep going back just for that.

 

Cabin relief

We’ve been trying to chip away at the spring projects list, and the long Presidents’ Day weekend was deemed the time to get after the cabin.

Dean and I lived in a little one-room cabin for nearly five years between when we bought our property and when we finished our house. We moved into the house nearly a year and a half ago, but it took us a lot longer to actually move out of the cabin. For awhile, we simply didn’t have places to move things to – until we had bookshelves in the house, it made more sense to leave the books in the cabin than to fill boxes and pile them in our new space. By last spring, though, the cabin was empty. And it has been waiting for a deep clean and a fresh coat of paint ever since.

A year languishing on the to-do list… you know that’s going to be a rough task, but I psyched myself up to suffer through in order to bask in the glow of getting ‘er done. Or at least getting ‘er started.

And then a funny thing happened. I enjoyed it. Like, genuinely enjoyed spending 4 hours with rubber gloves and a bucket of hot water. Or more accurately, genuinely enjoyed spending a weekend in our cabin. We built that cabin and everything in it; and I’m proud of it. Stripping away the cobwebs and accumulated grime to let that little space shine again was immensely satisfying. It held five years of our lives, and being in that space brought back so many memories… And daydreams about who it might hold next, and how they might shape it and love it and add to the stories.

The scrubbing itself really did go better than I expected (ammonia! where have you been all my life?). But it’s only 250 square feet and it’s empty – the scrubbing was never going to be an overwhelming project. It took getting to the other side to realize that what I was really avoiding was facing my own shame and judgement about letting it go. In a bit of congruity, I read this week about Rick Hansen’s idea of sorting the things you need to forgive into three buckets – moral failure, unskillfulness, and everything else. My mind’s default is to throw everything into the first bucket. I’ve spent years trying to remember and convince myself that my car needing repairs, or my cabin needing cleaned is not moral failure. But at least in this one case, it really sunk in this week. The cabin needed a scrub, but it wasn’t falling into disrepair. No one was suffering, and perhaps I could have re-prioritized to make it happen sooner but it wasn’t shear laziness. If it wasn’t moral failure or even unskillfulness, there was really nothing to forgive myself for. With all the emotional baggage removed, it’s just a cleaning project followed by a painting project. One that comes with a whole lot of nostalgia, and possibilities. What a relief.

My guide to hitchhiking

I passed a hitchhiker the other day when I was out for a run and it got me thinking…

I have a firm belief that everyone should hitchhike in their life. Periodically, even. I think the world would be a better place if we all did.

First, let me address some basic requirements: Hitchhiking is for adults. And I don’t think there’s any real incremental benefit to hitching solo, so for god’s sake, take a friend. Maybe two, but not a crowd. The distance needn’t be epic, but it must be long enough that you wouldn’t be willing to walk it. Or get there another way. If there’s bus fare in your pocket and a back-up plan scheduled in 20 minutes, you might be sticking a thumb out…  but that’s not the hitching I’m talking about here.

Which brings us right to the crux of the matter. Hitchhiking means relinquishing control and trusting your fate to the universe. Not some overdramatic version of fate, but how and when you will get where you want to go. By adulthood, most of us take for granted the very real independence of being able to get ourselves to the next town, or the trailhead, or wherever we need to go. Most likely in our car, but alternately via public transit, bike, friends, etc. Sometimes, though, asking the universe to provide is the best option.

So, you’re hitching. This requires standing along a road and signaling any passing traffic that you need a ride. First, be considerate enough of your potential driver to make sure they will see you as they approach, that there’s someplace for them to safely pull over, and that it’s likely they will be going in the direction you want to go.

There’s no being coy about the fact that you are hitching; you need that one good, kind, generous person to know in no uncertain terms that you need a ride. And to help them decide at a glance if they are going to stop, you want to signal as clearly as possible to each passing car that you are good and pleasant and not at all scary. Experienced hitchers elevate this to an art form; use your imagination.

So you’re standing on the side of the road, and this will very likely be uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Most of us have ideas about the kind of people who hitchhike and you probably don’t fit your own stereotype. So reconcile that while holding out your thumb prominently. Most people will not stop; but most people will judge you and you will clearly see their amusement, confusion, sympathy, or scorn through the windshield as they pass.

Inevitably, there will be times when you have to wait longer than you imagined possible for a ride. Probably while cars stream past, indifferent. You will grow cross and despairing and think horrible things about the occupants of each car with perfectly empty seats clearly going exactly where you need to get. You will be tempted to act out your rage in fantastic and imaginative ways but mostly you will give a friendly wave in the faint hope you might convince them to reconsider for the next hitchhiker they pass. Over and over again, you will put on your friendly face and force yourself to believe that the next car will be the one that will rescue you from the blazing heat radiating off the blacktop and you will be wrong. Until one time, you will be right.

A car will pull over, and you will grab your bag and hustle up to the window for the awkward dance: “ohmygod, thank you so much for stopping!”, “where are you headed?”, and inevitably, “we don’t really have room but if you don’t mind both sharing the one seat, with the dog, and packs on your lap…” (Murphy’s law definitely applies here. If 99 cars pass with empty seats and cargo room, the one that stops will be packed to the gills but willing to warp the laws of physics to squeeze you in.)

And now, it’s game on. You may have thought that hitching was mostly about suffering indignities on the side of the road, but that’s the easy part. This amazing, generous, patient stranger just interrupted their day to rescue you from the side of the road and help you on your way. And all you really have to offer in return is friendly conversation. They might be dirty hippies, conservative fundamentalists, or angry loners. But you are going to try your damnedest to be polite, to return kindness, to not offend, to make them glad they picked you up. You will suddenly be curious and openminded about their choice of music, their life circumstances, their worldview. You will contort your own ideas and opinions to make room for theirs.

This driver is helping you out and therefore, you want to see the good in this person, and you also want them to be endeared to you. Because you are, to some extent, at their mercy now. They could drive recklessly or leave you someplace impossible to navigate on foot or get another ride. Or perhaps they will drive miles out of their way to drop you at your destination, call ahead to arrange your next ride, or feed and shelter you for the night. Both will happen, but mostly you will meet kind and fascinating strangers and have conversations you never imagined with people you would have never had reason to talk to or care about. And you will get where you are going in the process.

The system forces a special kind of humility, and when it works out, it inspires a special confidence in humanity. Which is exactly why more hitchhiking would make the world a better place. So please, do your part and stick your thumb out now and then.

Picking up speed

2015-01-30 16.53.302015-01-30 16.53.412015-01-30 16.55.502015-01-30 17.27.06Have you noticed? Perhaps not if you live in the northeast and are buried in blankets of snow. But just as surely, we are picking up speed toward spring, friends. Today marks the traditional halfway point, whether you call it Groundhog Day or Imbolc or just February, it is clear that the light is returning.

I can see the first hints of pre-dawn light on the eastern horizon when I wake up now in the morning. We’ve been in a pattern of brilliant sunrises followed very shortly by thick fog until the sun burns it all off sooner or later. Each morning that I catch the sky blazing pink and orange only to watch it disappear into a sea of flat shades of grey feels like a victory, a gift for the early risers.

And the evenings are noticeably longer as well. Sunset is late enough now that a couple nights a week when I head off for something after work, I do so in the waning light. Last Friday we caught a 515p ferry out of town and it was gorgeous taking in the light on Port Townsend bay while we waited and then watching the sun sink behind the Olympics from the boat.

And the green light is returning, too. I caught the Indian Plum buds this week and couldn’t help getting up close with the camera. Always the harbinger, it’s no wonder I love Indian Plum so.

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