To survive

Hello; is anyone still out there? (echoes into the ether)

This space is in dire need of a refresh, isn’t itso let’s get moving. No time to waste.

Back in May (how far back it feels), I left a story here about running. About my own evolving relationship with it, my questions about why we do it at all, and, in the simplest sense, a trail race. Concluded, closed, done. Box, meet check.

Right?

Perhaps not.

Occasionally, lately, I’ve still been pondering this conundrum of health-seeking in this as well as other spheres. Meaning, not only exercise, but also food, psychological and spiritual practices, relationships, and work habits. After recently exploring this with a friend on her blog, I still am left with the question of why so many people, mostly in the U.S., go to such lengths for so-called ultimate or perfect health.

One easier answer is this: that, on a certain level, we possess a simple desire to be well, to feel good, and to take care of the gift that is the body. It is the soul’s sole vehicle for navigating this world, after all.

Another possibility, more difficult, is this: that, perhaps, we must cope with that age-old problem of mortality somehow. That problem of not just navigating this world, but of how to actually do that. And of course, this past week (or these past months) (or this past year) (or years), this has become that much more potent; when so much is senseless, including how we live and die, running and walking and eating and stretching and so onthey are simple and they make sense.

All that in mind, it is interesting how, sometimes, this cultural concern with health can become borderline religious. Not necessarily surprising—nor is it an outright good or bad thing. Rather, it’s a curious thing, and has the potential to go in dangerous directions as well as beneficial ones.

But of course, it’s only one side of an enormous subject, and there are so many other reasons for being concerned about one’s wellbeing. So the question remains unanswered, which is frankly how I like most questions anyway.

And all of that aside, this long preamble is for an idea that might better be represented elsehow. Thus:

“To Survive: a docupoem”

Making friends with mountains

Between Georgia and Maine, the Appalachian Trail winds its way along the spine of the mountains, cutting through Eastern towns and highways, bringing people from one edge of their lives to the next. Between Georgia and Maine—almost smack in the middle—is Virginia—and in Virginia is McAfee Knob, an overlook that is apparently the most-photographed spot on the AT. (You may recognize it from this movie poster if you have not had the pleasure of visiting.)

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McAfee Knob is just outside of Roanoke, where I went to visit an old friend and take on the trail alongside her. By which I mean this section of it, starting in Catawba and ascending to the apex in question. The whole AT? No, though that may have to be an adventure for another time.

There is not much I can say here to do justice to the state of flow in which we found ourselves. In movement, in ascent, in a criss-crossing wind through the rocks and trees and flora and fauna, there was a sense of moving closer to authenticity, to purity of thought and speech. Our words flowed as effortlessly as a river after rain, our thoughts unencumbered by the physical and mental walls that surround us from day to day.

And we sweated. The southern Virginia summer is back, in all its humid presence, and so we sweated. In so doing, we also sweated out at least a few of the hot-blooded demons trying to drag us down—the kind that try to drag you from direction.

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When we reached the peak, we were immersed in blue and green: sky above, rows of trees below on the sloping Blue Ridge mountains. That old growth, humbled by time, was welcoming. We breathed it in: relieved, joyous. So far from where we started, and yet so at home.

This surprised me, feeling so at home, when I thought about it. Sometimes arriving at such a peak or point brings incredulity—a sudden sense of being thrust into the unknown. Yet this was one of those other times, when you arrive and something in your spirit settles down. It says you were meant to be there all along. The place seems to have been always waiting for you. You are here, or there, and you can believe it.

Maybe, perhaps, it is related to awe. Though rather than coming from a fearful reverence, it comes from a place of respect, one that acknowledges the obvious nature of a place’s beauty and majesty. In this case, that of the Blue Ridge, and the Appalachian trail, and southwestern Virginia’s beauty. It’s funny—I grew up driving through it often enough, yet so easily I forgot how striking it could be, this environment. Standing on that overlook was such a poignant reminder of what is here.

But it made me wonder: am I taking something for granted in this here that I know so well?

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I wondered, because, for a contrast, on my first trip to Utah, which was also my first trip to a non-coastal Western state, reprieve and calm were not what I would say came over me. Rather, the sheer bigness of the sky, and the majesty of the red rocks and canyons, overwhelmed me. I was overjoyed, unable to contain neither that joy nor my enthralled girlish squeals of it.

(My apologies to Dave Blakkolb, wherever he is; he had the job of driving the car in which I, riding shotgun, did so incessantly. May your ears be at peace.)

Utah is a gorgeous state (yes yes, pun entirely intended, &c.). There’s no denying that. Yet I found it interesting that, when I visited O’ahu for the first time a few years later, it was the calm that came instead. My gut instinct was a sigh of relief: the ocean met the sky, and then they both met me, and it was as if they were expecting me all along. How kind of them to be so hospitable.

So, what changed? Did anything change? Are these reactions really so different?

Yes, the overlook was a place of rest. Yet while we hiked, everything seemed eye-catching and marvelous; verdant, green, and bright. As I write this, I am reminded of an oft-passed-around quote on living as if nothing is a miracle versus living as if everything is. (Attributed to Einstein usually, but I’m doubtful about this, just for the record. I’ve spent enough time on That’s Not Shakespeare.)

It seems maybe there is a middle place of knowing the extraordinary lives within the ordinary, and of being at peace with those extraordinary elements.

It seems simple. But simple ain’t easy. Everything ordinary seems exhausting sometimes, and I wonder: do I do this? Do I let my days be intruded upon by small marvels?

The Utah experience was one of amazement, and typical awe. I was less accustomed to what the earth had to offer then, in all its shades and shapes and varieties. Yet becoming more accustomed, surprisingly, has not meant losing this sense of joy. Rather, it’s granted the privilege of being able to appreciate beauty from a place of stability. A sustainable, un-drainable place.

Do I do this? Do I live there now, even when the marvels are smaller, less noticeable?

Am I grateful to the forests and the flowers for being there? Are we friends? Do we live alongside one another, as if both of us can belong?

Is this something some of us know how to do? And if not, how do we start to learn?

Maybe it starts in this sustainable, un-drainable place, emptied of ego and full of love for what pulses with life all around us. Open to it, unafraid of it, authentic in its midst, and immersed. Inside, outside, wherever, in every circumstance.  It seems simple. Maybe it is that simple.

Acquiring fire

If you can’t start from scratch, how do you fix a broken system? How do you shift into new practices? How do rediscover a part of you that seemed lost?

These questions echoed in the back of my mind while moving through two seemingly disparate experiences last week. It started with the Arrabon conference, a time of discussing racial and socioeconomic reconciliation when it comes to faith communities as well as the community entire. A firemaking workshop followed (held by Owlcraft Healing Ways/Blue Heron), which was a time of, frankly, learning how much I don’t know, how easy it is to ignore what your intuition knows (and how challenging that makes your life), and that I am perhaps a bit more out of touch with Nature than I realized.

How do you rediscover a part of you that seemed lost – that part of you that knows we are all connected, even when your monkey mind dwells in fear that it’s not so?

I don’t know the answers, at least not out of any place of logic, but what I have realized is that “acquiring fire” is not quite it. It’s not all about brusquely seeking out that fiery energy.

What do I mean by this? The instructors of this workshop said it best – you don’t “make” fire. You invite fire to come and be with you. And this posture informs not only the lay you set up, but also the way you do so. The climate, weather, and environment inform what of the Earth’s offerings you use.

After that, all you’re really doing is creating space.

So to me, more than anything else, the act of making and tending a fire is about awareness. What materials have you been given? How can you use them to create a hospitable place for warmth and light?

What’s interesting is, the same could be said about the topic of “race, class, and the kingdom of God” that was the focus of the conference. Reconciliation is less about making an inner fire that bids one to fight injustice and more about, instead, creating space within you for that fire to catch – because the fire already exists.

It is about creating space for warmth and light to radiate from a new way of relating to people. A new way that is, actually, an old way that already exists.

And perhaps this fire is a different kind of fire than one would expect. Perhaps it is the kind that does push against injustice, yes, but from a place of understanding exactly what tools are needed to do so – the tools of narrative, of cultural context, of frameworks that are not your own. The tools of experiences from people who have already learned about this over and over again.

It is a fire that comes from a place of desiring to see the world and other people (who are not so “other,” of course) in a better way.

That’s really the only way to make these changes: a mindset of generosity. Be generous with yourself, forgive yourself for the past, and be willing to receive new experiences. Be generous with others, and what you perceive their intentions to be; be willing to make space for them and their reality in your own reality.

This seems simple but it is not always easy. For me, it is a process – a journey. But it is a journey that will be well worth making, I am certain. No matter how bruised my knuckles get while trying to strike flint with steel; no matter how bruised my heart gets in trying to strike up hard conversations.

There is a thread of love and light that draws us back to who we were, the world that once was, and I am starting to feel it draw near. Can you?

Where we go from here

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It has taken me a week to process the Women’s March. Yes, in this high-speed world I remain impossibly slow. But in this case, and from my big picture perspective of a culture on the edge of change for the better (and it is), I think that’s not a bad thing.

I had my hesitations about being part of what promised to be a big moment. But most of them stemmed, I admit, from what-ifs – worries that, even if they were valid, should simply not have been entertained.

Every what-if was a strain of one disease: fear.

There was the initial concern, related to my experience at Richmond’s March on Monument (my first such march since college), that it would be too overwhelming to handle. (Overwhelming, the Washington one certainly was.)

There was the sense that something scary or violent could happen. (Though it didn’t, there had been violence in DC the day before; the spectre was all too real.)

And then there was the worry that maybe it wouldn’t mean quite what I thought it would. That it would ring insincere, or hollow, somehow.

The latter proved to be entirely wrong, and that, I think, speaks volumes.

Here are two truths about, at least, my own experience.

img_0136First: it was incomprehensibly encouraging and eye-opening. It was the togetherness that made it so. Moments of despair over others’ suffering leads me, as it does so many of us, to feel utterly alone. This protest proved that this is not so: we are not alone. None of us is alone. No matter the struggle, no matter the suffering. It cannot be said enough.

When we feel alone, many of us (myself included) continue to isolate ourselves, for – of course – fear of others knowing how strong we are not. But there is another story we can choose to tell ourselves. That story is: when we feel alone, we decide that the medicine is love and understanding. We come alongside one another to prove that you don’t have to be alone. Then we get to stand in a shared strength that says: your sadness, confusion, and grief are mine, too. No matter what the issue at hand is. Even if there is no issue at all.

Which brings me to the second truth: the march was very physically (and at times, emotionally) uncomfortable.

I live in a highly walkable city that’s not very densely populated, in a life that rarely requires driving a car or using mass transit. Never before have I stood on a metro train so tightly packed as those we rode this weekend, or in a crowd with as little space to move. It is difficult to describe how little, but imagine being able to stand without putting weight on your feet, and you’ll get a vague idea.

Panic was my first instinct. There was so much heat and so little air. There were so many people. A disaster could be imminent, with so many people. The thought of how do I get away floated through my mind.

But then I remembered: of course. This is the point. And I, for one, have some work to do when it comes to getting this kind of uncomfortable.

Too many people – too many women – have had to live this way, in systems and structures and even families packed so tight that they can barely breathe or be. Too many people – women and men alike – have been wrongfully kept in quarters like this before, too – be it on a slave ship or concentration camp – with no choice but to keep going until they could no longer.

In short: on Saturday in DC, we were all exposed to some very extreme empathy, if we so chose to let the experience affect us.

There were, unfortunately, a few individuals nearby who were not ready to do that. There were complaints. There was a palpable dismay. It was disheartening, for a few moments. But I understand them; I do. I was there not so long ago.

But the thing is, there are costs to comfort. And to this woman, it is too late to continue to be afraid of getting uncomfortable. There are too many people who will suffer otherwise.

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contrary to what the picture shows, we are actually the ones (pl) we have been waiting for. but anyway.

And frankly, more intense than the discomfort – more beautiful, and more freeing – is this sense of pride that I carry with me as I return to my regularly scheduled life. It’s strange, that this pride is so foreign and new. It feels as odd a fit as a style of overcoat I’ve never worn before. But this sense is that I am proud to be a woman.

It’s unreal. What if we were all so joyous? What if we decided that we are proud of each other?

Maybe this is where we go from here.

Awe-importance

Lately I’ve been magnetically drawn to the idea that, as humans, we need to regularly experience awe: it has a positive – even transcendent – effect on our perspectives, lives, and relationships. It’s heartening to see that this eternal truth – something poets, writers, great thinkers, and outdoorsfolk have taught us through the ages – getting more of an intellectual and scientific platform.

Awe: what is it? Per this Psychology Today article on the latest studies, it can be defined as  “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.”

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Yeah… that.

In literary terms, this is what is called the sublime. The sublime is the counterpart of the beautiful. It is greatness: something bigger, deeper, and more endless than anything else.

And what is most compelling about sublimity, and about awe, is that it does not necessarily have to be inspired by something physically big. No: connectedness, too, creates awe.

I’m convinced that one of the biggest contributors to hopelessness is a shrunken sense of the world. In the context of inner depression and external oppression, it’s an apparent enough symptom. Or, perhaps it is a cause; or, perhaps it is both, causing a vicious cycle of trying to escape from that gloom and failing to, something all too familiar to anyone who has experienced either depression or oppression (or both).

But seeing and trying to comprehend anything massively sublime is enough to radically alter your perspective.

This is what happens when we see the ocean after months of being landlocked, or find ourselves beneath a deeply starry sky free of city lights. Unexpectedly, knowing that we are very small – a piece of a larger puzzle, one design element in a larger framework – somehow makes life more meaningful; more manageable.

To me, mountains and oceans have this effect every time. But this symbolic act of atonement at Standing Rock also had made me realize how much beyond-ness there is, even on a daily basis.

This week, I turned 26. The gravity of that number – of moving past my mid-twenties into the late ones – was weighty. But perhaps I let it be heavier than it was. As a symbolic act, I chose to visit the town where I effectively grew up, and absorb that energy.

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While there, I chose to walk along a favorite trail whose expansive view – and steepness, mind – never fails to take my breath away. As for the drive itself, somehow I had forgot about the way the mountains framed the journey, just peripherally but all the same, extraordinarily, too. The traffic I waded through, and the time it took to finally catch a glimpse, was well worth it. For what did I feel filling my heart but this true sense of awe, this sense that the tiny crowded spaces are not all there is?

For some reason, it prompted me to remember this poem:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, dont know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

Emily Dickinson

While we don’t always recognize the exact what beyond our awe, part of its compellingness is that intangible quality. We see the mountains, and cannot help but stare at every ridge and shadow, slowly comprehending, and yet never coming close to true comprehension. It comes in waves, in moments; it washes over in its complexity, but does not stay, and that is life – to continue to seek it out in completion. Someday, perhaps.

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Those miles, to me, represented a vastness that ties us together. And beyond that, the human capability of enduring even in difficult circumstances because of our connectedness to one another.

That is awe-inspiring. That is worth remembering, always.

A sense of place

We moved a few weeks ago. Moving, to me, is exciting – in spite of the obvious stress I let it breed. Moving, to me, is yet another chance to start over. Even moving a half-mile offered this feeling of newness, this electric sense of change. Even if, as they say, no matter where you go, there you are.

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Walking through my new neighborhood lately has left me with a new perspective on this. What I mean is: there has been a constant thread in my life of wanting to be somewhere other than I am. I’ve dreamt of it, been thrilled to anticipate it. You could call it wanderlust, or a rabid desire to reclaim a wasted youth, or anything else that is probably is.

Problem is, occasionally this has even happened while living somewhere gorgeous, unreal, and enviable. Even there, somehow I allow the sense of new, of now, of appreciation to slip away.

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To an extent, this is simply the way of familiarity. The Pinterest-led desire to find the next shiny new spot, and the Instagram-soaked sense of wanderlust, are deceptive. It is easy to want to see an entire city or town through the eyes a single snapshot tends to lend. But as you know, if you’ve even once been a tourist or encountered one, snapshots are only windows – mere second-long slices of yearlong realities.

But there’s a way of looking at an old city with new eyes. Richmond, with its old age and new, youthful pulse, has its own personality, but is also a kindred spirit to many other blossoming places in this country. (Both Portlands, for sure.) The houses hearken to another time, I think as I walk down Ellwood Avenue, but there is activity that brings us all to this time, and there is promise, and potential.img_0710

There is an open vegetable garden nearby. It’s part of a local community gardening initiative, and people – neighbors, really – maintain its plots year-round. It reminds me that beauty can be found in what is so usual if one only chooses to look.

Richmond is, maybe, teaching me to see all things as they are, and to see the city in its many different colors, in both its beauty and ugliness and history and present and what’s-next. Maybe it is similar to Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine, and Louisville, Kentucky, and so on.

But maybe it is also uniquely itself, and I can appreciate and bask in that for now.

All this is to say – thanks for being you, Richmond.

You could be anywhere

You could be anywhere, but you are here. And it’s for some reason, whether or not that reason has been properly pinpointed (while, in the meantime, you have been).

Sometimes when I walk (or run or bike) through Richmond, there is this sense of fluidity in the places and people I see. That is, I find myself in pockets of the city that, freed of context, could belong to many other places. This apartment looks like it would be at home in Montmartre. That section of trail reminds of Snoqualmie in summer. If you close your eyes and breathe in the late summer aromas – the heady threat of rain, the musty brown grass and leaves, the fresh breeze off the river – you could be somewhere just hours north or south.

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Bertha’s Country Lane, as it’s called. Not exactly in the country. But it could be!

Or, you could be right where you are.

It’s a transitional time of year. Likewise it’s a transitional time of life for me. Weighing past and future options, learning to appreciate the moment: is this why I find myself in a tug-of-war between being here and craving elsewhere?

Maybe it’s as simple as wiring: we have a need for the stability and safety of home, coupled with an innate desire to wander and roam.

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The paradox continues: stability is not always so easily defined. Entropy likes to worm its way in my daily routine, for example, and sometimes too much stability makes me feel… well, unstable.

Likewise (as we know from Up In The Air), sometimes, too much transience is stagnating. Roots don’t go that deep without the opportunity to stay in one spot.

These are the thoughts that crop up when I find myself shuttling back and forth between Richmond and the DC area, as I have been this month. But then again, even when I stay to try and absorb what is around me, how much possibility there is! How much transience, and activity!

A visit to a local brewery deep in the Virginia countryside, halfway between my old home (Charlottesville) and new one, gave me this sense, as did the languid, lazy time spent there picking sunflowers. We are always growing and learning, yet somehow there lives an inner child who is only too happy to spend a Saturday picking sunflowers.

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So did an evening at a local concert on the James, a day that was really a tribute to life itself, and living it well with others. Music from the past made its way to the present and that’s it’s job, isn’t it? To bring us all to life and lend hope for the future?

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Even in the ordinary, yes, there is so much transience and change. Sometimes it is beautiful change. How clear it is becoming that, yes, perhaps I could be anywhere. But I am here. And that deserves to be appreciated.