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What actually happens to us when we go on a hike? This is what I’ve been asking myself lately. Sure my muscles are getting exercise, my lungs expand, my heart rate shows its ability to handle temporary stress and I come home with a tired, satisfied feeling that allows me to manage the daily stuff of life. Hiking is a stress reducer, a resiliency builder, a cognition enhancer - YES, hiking improves cognition! But is this how we want to categorize walking and hiking, as a healthy activity? Or is there more to it?
In my book Walking Gone Wild, I approach walking and hiking as a healthy pastime and encourage those of us who are on the downhill slope of living to engage in it and extend their years or at least make these later years more enjoyable. Hiking though, isn’t just walking gone wild, meaning doing it more and more, an addiction; one you get hooked on because of its benefits. It also isn’t just a gateway to going into the wild, a way to being in the wilderness. Hiking is all that, but of late I’ve been wondering if we’re missing something when we talk about hiking only as an activity; a way to lengthen our lifespan.
The word “wild” is on my mind. This last summer I went on a 3-week solo backpacking trip, hiking a section of the PCT in Northern California. 24-Hour immersion in the wild, and because of Covid I met very few people. It was just me and nature with an occasional stop to re-supply and an occasional road crossing that hinted to another world, a busy world, a world of cars, people, consuming, franticness, fear of Covid, political division. A world wild with stimuli.
Wilderness that isn’t Wild
What happens when I retreat into the wilderness? And I have to admit, a well designed and marked trail isn’t real wilderness even if the surroundings are wilderness. Forests that have grown up after being harvested by humans, aren’t real wilderness, even if we leave them alone to become wild again. Rivers tapped for energy aren’t wild, we control their flow, we protect their banks to sustain the energy industry. The “wild” isn’t wild anymore. This compromised, cultured wildness however, allows me to hike safely at my advanced age with the help of maps, GPS, light-weight gear and the advice of many who’ve gone before me. All I bring to this wilderness is my determination, my will and training and my wish to experience something I can’t experience in my daily life with a safe home, a controlled environment that protects me from heat, cold and predators.
A Cooperative World
This summer I met the trees in a way I have never before. Since there was no-one talking to me and I don’t listen to podcasts or music when I hike, the trees were my companions. I observed things I hadn’t seen before, I connected the dots between shapes, light, density, undergrowth, animals, and soil, the elements of a forest. I slowly understood the “why” of my environment. The world I hiked in started making sense. The elevation, the temperatures, the light, the rainfall or lack thereof, all worked together to sustain these trees. The bigger trees sustained the smaller ones, the dead ones the next generation, the tree’s fruiting sustained the animals. This was a world that hung together. My intellectual knowledge became intuitive and somatic knowing. The trees taught me that the world around me is cooperative and transformative.
I realized I wasn’t really part of that world; I am a visitor and at some point I go home to a shelter. I don’t offer myself up to sustain the trees, the undergrowth, the animals. I may try to not disturb the ecological balance by staying on the trail, a deep scar carved into the wilderness, by sleeping in a designated camp spot to decrease disturbance of the environment; by eating food brought from the outside world and burying my waste deep enough to not pollute the water nearby and leave little trace. But even though I may spend 3 weeks or 3 months living in the wild, hiking doesn’t make me a link in this amazingly cooperative world. Being in the wild does change me though. When I return to civilization my body is different, my perception more acute, my mind more at ease. I'm transformed.
Observing the Familiar
I’m back in my cultured, safe world. I go out for day hikes, I watch the seasons change, I admire nature as she dresses in her splendor, I climb her rocky sides and look out over the distant mountains, the valley with a river flowing toward the next river, and on toward the ocean. I’m an observer. Living in the comforts of my home, the transformation that took place in the wild doesn't last. I gain weight, I'm less flexible, my eyes don't work as well, I'm affected by the daily stimuli of news and people, less at ease.
The Covid pandemic has kept my wanderings closer to home this year. I hike known trails. The familiar vistas and landscape don’t bowl me over with awe. Slowly, it’s dawning on me that only if I slow down, listen and interact like I did on my longer hike, will I enter deeper into the familiar. I want to learn and bring the familiar home to me in a way that lets me part of the whole. Do I have the courage to slow down? Hike fewer miles, saunter on the familiar trails, listen to the wild part of this world so it can teach me what life is about, and what our place in it is? Only in the slow lane will hiking become being and will we figure out how to live in a responsive way to our environment.
Winter, the season when nature’s growth slows is here. Covid is still with us and we too can go a little slower. May we use this time to our advantage, and learn something from our familiar environment for the next season, the next political fight, this and the next pandemic.
While the morning news tells me about the polls and the last frenzy before the elections keeps the messages in my inbox coming, I look outside and see that the first frost killed the tomato plants, the peppers, basil and tender marigolds. I take a stroll in the garden to assess to frost damage. The dahlias that struggled to emerge above ground this year but eventually formed a healthy green plant, never made it to bloom as the flower heads hang in sorrow. Do plants feel sorrow? On the other side of the fence, the frost colored the leaves of the deciduous trees red and yellow and put a smile on the world.
The news tells me about 400 fresh cases of Covid in my state, 4 recent deaths, all seniors. (85,000 new cases nationwide, 923 recent deaths). These are seniors, past blooming. Did they want to continue to live? The prediction is that the pandemic will get worse as winter approaches. As a people do we have the will to turn this trend around?
Katie Mack, a PhD cosmologist, gives a lecture addressing the question: “Will the universe die?” She gives the scientific rationale and theories, nothing more than speculations about what we don’t know. The universe will continue to expand and contract. Our planet will most likely burn up as the sun gets hotter. Already the forests are burning up as the climate gets hotter. Can we avert this heating trend? Put off the inevitable for a while?
Wherever I turn there’s death. I walk and hike to talk with the trees, to feel nature breathing. It doesn’t feel as if nature is taking its last breath. I see change, movement from one season to another. I know the forests and mountains are morphing as some species disappear and new ones enter because of climate change. A nature columnist who’s been writing for the Audubon Society since the seventies, says that we have saved many species. They’ve come back from near extinction in the last 50 years, since we’ve created the endangered species act in the US.
The Sand Conference on Dying and Living brings together science and spirituality. Smart voices point out the process of transformation we call death. There’s no birth without death, no individuality without the cosmic experience, no fear without hope. We cannot have a world without disease, without death, as we have developed into ever more complex creatures. The creatures that don’t die are regenerative; they don’t have sex to create offspring. Do you want to be a worm, and live forever? Death and disease is the price we pay for living with love, emotion, and awareness. We will dissolve and return to the universe, the cosmic being.
While we need to accept our human condition we can know our connection with the greater universe. We can witness the amazing growing, expanding and contracting of forces around us, in the form of stars, galaxies, rainbows, plant and animal life, of water flowing in iridescent colors over rocks into the great oceans of our planet where plant life and water creatures live in a world of marvel.
In my newest book “Fly Free” I describe the experience of being in a state of awareness of the growing, expanding, and transforming energy this universe comprises while sitting at the feet of a master. At the time, I would have exchanged living an ordinary life for continuing to be in that state of awareness. Luckily, I didn’t get the choice and so I learned to find the perspective in living that gives me joy.
How can we be sad or fearful when we can experience joy? If we stay in touch with, and renew our awareness of our place in the universe of things, we can feel the love that permeates all that’s alive. Not an earthy, from you-to-me, me-to-you love, but an endless emerging force of energy that creates and transforms all that is. My body as it ages and disintegrates will dissolve in that energy and my narrow body consciousness will expand and fly free.
All death we see around us then is only a reminder of the force that keeps going, keeps transforming, keeps living. Living with the seasons and turning the frosted dead plants into compost is a promise for spring growth. Living fully, and taking the time to grieve when a loved one dies, to grieve the deaths that are happening around us everywhere - to be a grieving society at this time - is an opportunity to be part of the transformation this world is experiencing and find the life force that will emerge.
The deeper we sink into the darkness of the unknown, the darkness of death, the greater the change will be. Our world is experiencing a time of darkening but like after a long, dark winter, the light will come back. We may not be here to experience it but we’ll be part of that energy that keeps on changing. Knowing this, eases my days and lets me step back from the craziness of pandemic ignorers, climate change deniers, the frenzy of the political scene as if the outcome of these elections can make everything okay again. The outcome of the elections will make us sink deeper, or turn the tide, but neither change will end or make a better world. One thing we can be sure of, there will be change, always.
“Yes there is isolation
but there does not have to be loneliness”
from the poem “Lockdown” by Br Michael OFM Cap, Capuchin Day centre
The trees are breathing together. The trees are standing together. They’re not going anywhere, no Covid virus affects them and they accept whatever comes their way, even wildfire.
For two hundred miles I’m walking among them, day in, day out, alone, or better said, I’m hiking solo. Solo hiking has a unique ring to it than hiking alone. Solo hiking shows a choice, it has a notion of empowerment and being in charge. When I hike solo I’m in charge of everything I do, every action I take has a consequence - good, or bad -. No-one will reach for my hat when I drop it and walk on. When I notice it gone, I have to walk back since going without is not an option with the constant sun exposure. No-one tells me to look again when I take the wrong turn at the trail sign, and I walk on until something tells me I better look on my GPS to see how far I’ve come. No-one feels sorry for me that I have to backtrack and add 2 miles to a tiring afternoon. No-one says hurray when I make it across the river dry and safe. There’s no reward when I haul my 32 lb pack, filled with water for the night, up a steep slope and camp among the trees a half day further south of the fire that broke out that morning. My reward is I sleep better knowing that I’ve put the fire behind me. My reward is knowing my body can carry me up a steep slope when needed. My reward is that all’s well at the end of day and I can relax and sleep soundly in my hammock, possessions packed away, pack covered with a rain cover, food hanging in a nearby tree, and a rain fly at arms length in case the starry sky with its Perseus showers clouds over and raindrops fall. All’s well at days end and I trust that the next morning I will wake and do it all over again: make my morning tea, break camp, load the pack and start walking in the cool morning air, energized and curious about the day to come.
We as people develop anxiety of the unknown, the wild, by living in houses and walking on streets. This separation from the natural world creates an existential angst and cuts us off from living intuitively, in tune with our natural environment. I let the natural world teach me and connect me with my primordial existence when I go on a longish solo hike. It doesn’t happen in a day; it takes at least a week to become part of the rhythm that rules nature, to hear the silence and read its messages, to know the light in that place as it moves through the day. The silence among the trees breathes with promise, is heavy with knowledge, doesn’t harbor fear. Dappled light falls on baby trees, nurturing them to reach higher. When the light is heavy with smoke it slants sideways, yellow, sucking away the oxygen the trees so readily give. Soon the wind blows the smoke away again. Everything changes, every mile I hike, every step I take. There is an end to an endless stretch of exposed rocky trail and after I accept that the change will come when it does, the pain in my feet lets go and I can just walk balancing from rock to rock until the duff takes me by surprise and the trees reach with their limbs to protect me from the sun.
This solo hike during a Covid pandemic was especially solitary. I met maybe one or two people in a day, going the opposite direction. Some talked a while, others didn’t. After two weeks, everything around me became animate. In the morning I thanked my place of shelter. When I asked the trees questions I got answers. Looking through the hole in the lava rock I let it tell me about pouring across the land aeons ago. I sang with the rustle of dried leaves, announcing that fall was on its way. The abundance of cracked open pine cones told me it was harvest time. The light agreed and as the sun rose a little later each morning affirmed that soon it would be time to go home and tend to my harvest. Home, as in a house, sheltered from the cold weather that will come. Now that I’m home, it’s still 95F degrees during the day. The sun is still strong. Tomatoes and melons are ripening and the green beans are producing a second crop. But I know deep in my bones that the change is here. I have walked day after day digging up the strength I needed for the climbs and descends, for the long-mileage days to take me from one place of shelter to the next, one source of water to another. The water ripples, dances, keeps on giving even when I’m not walking anymore, even when I can just turn on the tap to get a drink, turn the stove knob to heat the water for a cup of tea. No daily packing and unpacking of my belongings, no bath with a cup pouring water over my dusty, sweaty body while balancing on a log at the end of day. When I step into the shower I can let warm water rain over me. I am clean and separate from the dust on the trail. Stacks of clean clothes, piles of clean dishes, an abundance of fresh food lull me into forgetting that I’m most alive when I use all my senses to guide me safely through a day on the trail. On the trail I never felt alone, even though I knew I was hiking alone. My simple belongings didn’t give me the illusion of being invulnerable. I walked with my vulnerability, just like the animals in the wild, alert but not anxious, observant but not worried, letting my strength carry me forward. As one of them, the creatures, rocks, trees and plants, I lived my part.
I’m home to write, to share what it was all about. For 3 weeks I was intimately and rudimentary alive. I hope to carry that knowledge inside me and let it seep into and enhance my daily living. Like the squirrels, I am busy putting up food for winter because the season is changing.
Some hikes take you beyond yourself. My recent hike to Grizzly lake in the Trinity Alps has a wildness only imagined in fantasy stories. A place where the green is greener, the rocks craggier, the water purer, the trees taller and denser. A place where mankind hasn’t done its damage. Oh, it won’t be long before that happens. But it hasn’t happened yet. The access to the lake is difficult, enough to avert all but the courageous, the experienced, or the fools.
I consider myself an experienced hiker and didn’t give the rating ‘difficult’ much credence. I’ve done difficult in the high Sierras, on the Knife Edge in Washington, on Icelandic glaciers, in the high Himalayas, in Tibet, how bad could it be in my backyard, the Trinity Alps of Northern California?
It was the hottest day we had experienced yet, the start of summer, as we hiked out in 90F heat, our packs filled with water, food and comforts for 3 days. We started from the China Gulch trailhead with a 2000 foot elevation gain over 1.5 miles, a 14% incline, tough but doable if you go slow and steady and make frequent stops. Blow-down trees to climb over loosened up our muscles and got us into a “can do” mood. At the top of the ridge we could see snowy Thompson peak, backdrop for Grizzly lake, in the distance. Down we went, a 1500 foot drop over a 1 mile steep and a hard-packed granite slope with few switchbacks. The heat and exhaustion got to us and my legs started shaking uncontrollably. Time for a rest and electrolytes. That helped, so we moved on to the bottom of the slope where we started following Grizzly creek up; up and still more up, a seemingly endless 2000 ft elevation gain over 4.5 miles. Luckily we had stretches of shade and moments of putting our feet in the cold, rushing water. We arrived exhausted at Grizzly meadows at 7:00 PM, having completed a 6.5 mile hike in 7.5 hours! A hike that seemed so innocuous when first reading about it.
It takes skill to read trail descriptions, to listen to the story of other hikers who’ve gone before you, to ask the right questions and interpret what it means for you. When you are an experienced hiker you file the information; you know you’ve climbed up bigger slopes; you’ve done longer mileage in a day; you know your limits are fluid and you gloss over perceived difficulties.
This hike had all the elements of hardship mixed into one hiker stew. Heat, lots of elevation gain, slippery descending terrain, rocks. But it was only 6 miles in to base camp, one day of hard work before the actual climb to the lake would begin, which we could do without our heavy packs. That first night I stood in the meadow, looking at the imposing rock wall around me, watching the waterfall coming from Grizzly lake up above, drop 900 feet. I knew I had to do a rock scramble with a 1000 feet elevation gain over 0.75 miles on a barely visible trail if I wanted to reach the coveted pristine lake at the top and I wasn’t so sure of myself. Recent injuries made me less surefooted; I didn’t want to injure my old knees again, sprain an ankle or tear tissue, all very reasonable possibilities with one misstep, one awkward slide on the rocky slope. The summer sun set in rose colors on the snow above, hinting at the unearthly beauty that would await us tomorrow. I knew I had to try for the top.
Climbing mountains involves breaking out of your routine. Either you have to get up in the middle of the night to get high enough before the snow melts, or you have to mentally prepare for a slow ascend, counting each breath, each step as your lungs ache from lack of oxygen. This time we had all day to make the scramble up and back down; we had time, and temperature or altitude weren’t an issue. The issue would be way-finding and paying attention to each step, each handhold to make sure we wouldn’t hurt ourselves. When you have to pay attention for hours on end without being able to let your mind wander, it’s like having a loaded gun to your head, or as Castaneda would say, death sitting on your shoulder. Don’t look down at how far you can fall; don’t look up too far or you’ll lose heart as the chutes and rocks keep coming.
It takes mental discipline and stamina to keep the needed focus. You have to be present, take it one step at a time, one foot of elevation gain after another, and then you’re there! You got to the top! The world of an alpine lake hidden by white granite rocks, surrounded by snowy slopes, dotted with wildflowers growing out of cracks in the rocks while holding on to granite soil, shows its aqua colored water. Water that is funneled by snowmelt to a lip, to flow over a rock that sends the water tumbling in a powerful rush of foam and rainbows to the meadow below where you came from that morning. The bottom of the lake is visible and showing its innards. You’ve arrived in a place where the gods whisper in the few trees that cling to the rocky shore, where the short summer lives at an accelerated pace and produces dazzling blooms, ancient fungi and cones filled with seeds that carry the life of trees of next generations. Can I be still like a tree on a rocky slope and endure the seasons life bestows on me? I will take the image of that tree with me when I descend, an image that will help me deal with Covid, with anguish over racism, with the suffering that is happening in my “civilized” world.
I sit on the lake’s edge and draw the cirque, follow its contours with my pencil; outline the clusters of trees on its slopes, fed by runoff from the snow, each cluster following an indentation, a hollow in the rocky slopes, a place where soil can build up just enough to allow trees to take root. My hand feels the interaction between rocks, trees, soil and water, blessed by the sun as it rises and disappears. This world is bigger than mine, I touch the universal forces that keep the planet alive. Keep me alive. There is more to life than my daily housekeeping, my garden husbandry, my family’s love and my community problems. For three days I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and touched the heavens and universal forces. I have put myself in the hands of fate, and survived. Hiking has connected me with the core of living: acceptance of what is, attention to what shows itself, and love for the world’s immense beauty.
The scramble down requires attention and trust. The safe return to the meadow produces gratefulness and the hike back out is infused with happiness, cooler temperatures and the knowledge that each hike brings unknown experiences and renewed confidence.
The tentacles of my bean plants in the garden have reached the top of the tee-pee I gave them for support and are waving in space looking for something to hold onto. This wild search in space reminds me of the outcry from African-American people: driven by a strong life-force, tired of fighting the current structure, they’re breaking loose.
Natural forces affect all of us. They say nature is the great equalizer. Natural disasters, such as smoke from wildfires, floods from hurricanes, destruction from tornadoes and earthquakes affect everyone. Even though they affect everyone, some of us are better situated than others when dealing with disasters. And now we’re in a pandemic, a natural phenomenon that doesn’t know borders, race, or status.
Pandemic and Inequality
The pandemic is transforming our life, transforming our thinking. Maybe the pandemic is affecting everyone, but it’s not affecting everyone the same. Poor people, and the non-white people are afflicted 4-5x as much, because they lack safe jobs, they lack the opportunity to work from home, they lack shelter, they lack access to health care. When the police murdered George Floyd, pandemic stress and racial tensions were the perfect storm that opened the wounds systemic racism has burned into our society. A cry of pain is reaching into the sky, suffering is visible and unmistakable.
As Hanuman Goleman, founder of More than Sound LLC, says: “Racism is fundamental to our power structure and benefits white people every day. There is a lot of work to do to before we arrive at equality.”
The Examined Life
While the pandemic rages, the doors to our racist societal structure have been ripped open. It is time for white America to examine their actions, language and policies. What can a white person who has been socialized in a racist society do to answer the cry?
This is what we can do:
Building a Functional Society
So here are the basics: money, communal input, education, language, housing, and jobs, the corner stones of a functioning society. We can work on creating racial equality through these cornerstones . What can I, an elder white lady who owns a house, loves nature, doesn’t need a job and has access to affordable healthcare, contribute to do my part?
I can speak up in my city council. I can write to my representatives, support and encourage legislation that opens the doors to people of color. I can ask people of color who live here to form a council if they haven’t formed one already, and let them tell us how we can invite and bring other people of color to this region.
The Long Road
It’s a long road to make these changes. It’s been too long of a road to freedom and equality for African Americans, Native Americans, aspiring Hispanic immigrants, and Chinese escaping a totalitarian political system.
We cannot sit still or walk for our pleasure on this land without sharing it with others.
The pandemic is forcing us to shelter at home. It doesn’t force us to be silent, inactive, or non-caring. We can take advantage of the fact that there is less distraction and more opportunity due to Covid-19 to reflect and develop much needed compassion.
If the pandemic hasn’t changed your life that much, lucky you! What will you do to change yourself and make a positive change for others? Pick one thing out of the list of options and get started. There is work to do before we reach equality.
I hear the words again in my mind: “You’re hurting me, I can’t breathe!” For me the scene is on the floor of the youth correctional facility where I worked, while two or three adult staff persons had a teenager in a “take-down” hold. The words that went around among staff was often, “fake calls; as long as they’re screaming they’re OK!” The truth was these teenagers messed with staff minds, tried to outwit them in their acting out. Twelve or fourteen other teens, laying flat, face-down, hands on the back of their heads on the floor of the same room after the command, “everyone down!”, would hear what the teen said and the words could enrage the whole group, turn it into a mob.
To avoid bodily damage, they trained all staff in take-downs (including myself as a mental health counselor). They considered it a necessary part of maintaining safety and order in youth corrections, in juvenile detention, and in residential facilities for emotionally disturbed youth. I have worked in these places. I know how difficult the power dynamics are when working with disenfranchised and disadvantaged youth.
Take-down training involves positioning the youth in a hold that allows breathing and avoids kicking, punching and spitting. Youths have kicked me several times. Sometimes a shield has to be placed over the youth’s head to avoid spitting. Spitting is the weapon of disdain and threat for a youth who feels powerless. Transmitting disease is a weapon they have learned to use in their upbringing. Twice a youth has spat on me during my correctional career. I felt fear afterwards about contracting an undetected illness, aids or something that transfers through mucous. I understand the rage. And as a white woman of privilege with power over the youth’s release it skewed the dynamics from the get-go.
It was my job to build trust, to listen, to acknowledge my privilege to these youths if I wanted them to make progress in learning skills to return to society and freedom. Freedom for most of these youths isn’t freedom. Their life is tainted by race, class, abuse, drug-use and poverty; to summon it up, they are the disadvantaged.
I understand the rage our nation feels upon seeing the video of George Floyd in a take-down hold with a knee on his neck. As far as I can see, the officer didn’t use proper technique, but then again he was holding down a hefty man. Why was the other officer standing there instead of helping him in the take-down? Was it because they had to be ready for crowd control? Or were they trying to avoid a video of three-on-one that could cause rage among the public watching the scene? Were they avoiding attacks? I don’t know what the current training strategies are in the police force. The answers aren’t obvious, the methods of control aren’t easy.
The question we need to address is how to keep order and keep it humane and safe for all parties involved? In my place of work I saw the bullying from certain staff, the power plays, the intimidation. Some of the youth would cower, but most would return the challenge with power-plays of their own. During my tenure, I put effort into improving communication, building trust long before an outburst or power-play would erupt.
It takes guts to stand with a youth (or grown-up) who has just received a terrible message from home, or one who was caught in taking something that wasn’t his, and who wants to strike out to anyone, anywhere. Keeping distance without being too distant, providing safety without boxing the youths in, allowing expression of feelings without arguing or talking down to them, but listening if they need to talk. It’s a dance, and you never know where the dance will take you. Even with a youth you think you’ve built rapport, that rapport can break in an instant. Meeting such a youth/grown-up on the street to negotiate a non-threatening interaction while in uniform, as a complete stranger is a monumental task.
I’m not here to defend the actions of the officers who had George Floyd under their knee. I’m writing this piece to offer some background, offer a bigger picture. The frustration over the years of police brutality, the racism that doesn’t seem to abate is justified. Much training has to go into forming a caring, competent security force. In my 13-years in corrections I learned that people (staff) will change if they see others be successful. Very few want to use violence, but it’s all they know; or something has triggered them and they can’t access non-violent tools because they are coming from fear. It took leading by example, active-listening training, restrictions on the use of force, meditation and awareness training - all strange and new-fangled techniques for many of the security people — to turn the tide from brute force to cooperation. But we convinced many staff members and officers, and as a result the atmosphere we worked in was much less tense. As one staff member told me, “I’m no longer afraid when I go to work.” It takes time to make these changes. It became clear that the female staff were much better at using communication skills to de-escalate situations than the male staff, and they hired more women as a result. The number of take-downs decreased. It became a badge of honor to keep order on a unit with the least take-downs.
In this time of a pandemic many of us are hurting, grieving, struggling to make ends meet and envying the privileged. It doesn’t take much for emotions to erupt. I am privileged, living in my small town, in a bubble where one rarely sees violence on the street. I want to offer compassion for all parties who have to keep order and keep people safe. I live in a society that thrives to keep me safe. It’s not that way for everyone even if some politicians tout their slogans about safety for all. Many of the systems in our society, such as healthcare, social services and education are under funded and can’t address the issues of the disadvantaged. Therefore their neighborhoods aren’t safe, their way to a better life is barred. The disproportionate military spending maintains a system of dominance, not a system of building trust and safety.
I can try to shine a light where there’s division and opposition, offer a helping hand where needed. My actions will not change the world; it will not be enough, but I can count on the fact that change will happen. If we avoid extreme positions, talk with and listen to those who veer toward positions of “power over”, the world will make progress toward the change we want to see: a world where color of skin isn’t a determinant of how others treat us or how we treat others; a world in which we all can breathe freely.
The days in social isolation have a rhythm of their own. A rhythm determined by the body, the weather and the immediate environment. Similar to when I trek in the mountains and my body, the weather, and the terrain determine my movement. Now that it’s May, the days are long and sunny from sunrise to sunset in my part of the world. Nature is showing itself in all its glory.
I have a garden that needs tending, a few hours each day. The first harvest of artichokes and lettuce, spinach and greens adorn my kitchen counter. A May turnip offers its taste of sweet white flesh inside its purple skin, a delight for the palate. Cooking with these fresh delicacies brings forth new recipes. Today it’s sourdough pizza with greens, artichoke hearts and the pesto left over in the freezer. Each day something new grabs my attention. Today I wanted to make pizza and build a squash-plant bin, a wire tube filled with compost, manure and a drip line to water the contents. The plants will grow long tentacles outside the bin as the ingredients decompose inside and feed the squash’s roots. Life changes I can see right under my eyes, nudged by my hands. I can’t wait to see how big they’ll get and all the different winter squashes that will appear!
Life is happening right here, right now. My weeks are no longer scheduled full. I make up the day’s doings as my mood requests, and my basic needs demand. As the weeks go by, the world news has become a hum in the background; a litany of data and uncontrollable changes in peoples lives. It’s as if I live on an island ruled by a far away government that decides over my living circumstances. The strife between maintaining a lockdown and opening the world up again with all the contingent risks is not my struggle. As a privileged elder living on a pension, I’m not waiting for the outside world to move my life along.
Living in isolation reminds me of hiking solo on the long trail. Cut off from the buzz of news and media, surrounded by nature and tuning in to a body that walks, eats, sleeps and rests. As I’ve mentioned in some of my hiking blogs, hiking lets me experience life at 2 miles an hour. A pace that allow my senses to take in and process the environment. A pace my brain can absorb. Life in lock-down effects the brain in a similar way. Life is slower, not so jam-packed; there are no places to go; no-one to entertain. Zoom get-togethers lose their charm quickly. So it’s me and the daily routine, determined by my bodily needs and nature’s offerings. Each time I think up a project and what it entails, I soon realize that only essential stores are open, so I have to improvise, make my own, or go without. When I eventually do go to an essential store, I find most of what I need. The times of having what you want at the click of a button — now! — are a thing of the past. I don’t know if I want that time back again. I like this simple living. Each day my awareness expands a little more. I take time to sit, think, observe and be. I hear a bird singing at sunset and I am listening, even if it may take me three days to learn its name.
My birthday balloon, a mark of the beginning of the lock-down - still half-inflated after 8 weeks - the air/gas contained in flowered plastic, dances lower in the breeze from the ceiling fan. How long will it be before it is totally deflated? How long will things last when re-supplies aren’t coming? We may run out of pork on the grocery shelves, I hear. I can be a vegetarian. We may run out of toilet paper, I can create a bidet. Water is still flowing, rain will come again, wind and water can drive our turbines to make electricity. And haven’t I lived without electricity before when I was on the trail? I feel like a child again; a child who doesn’t know yet what can be had, and entertains herself with what is within reach.
This may be a year-long journey, a trek into the unknown. I look forward to what I will discover about life. For now, the change feels expansive. The unseasonal heat of this day is winding down. While the pizza is baking, there’s weeding to do in the shady part of the garden.
It’s quiet in my house. Ordered to be on lock-down as we are, I don’t expect anyone to stop by for a visit. The sun is sending its rays to the garden where new life is sprouting. The garden has been on lock-down for the winter, but life was happening underground and the daffodils and tulip heads bursting into bloom attest to that. Frozen little bunches of green are expanding and growing as the weather warms. I even see a few seed heads sprouting: summer and a cycle of seed making isn’t far away. Our society’s lock-down is in sharp contrast with the budding spring forces.
When the world is busying itself with production, travel, and entertainment, few think about the power of being quiet, the restorative value of retreat. The pandemic has forced the world into retreat, and societies are given an opportunity to rest, review and gather forces for a new season. Will it be a new season? Or will we hurry back to a world as we knew it? A world of "more is better”, a world of "survival of the richest”, a world where "alternative facts” are truths?
Things will be different after all this is over, they say. Like with most retreats, insight and experience will fuel a different way of operating. More people will work from home, if they still have a job. Schools may change and add a home-school component to let children be home more. Families may value each other and wish for more time at home with one another, working and learning. More gardens may produce home-grown fare. Seed companies have experienced a run on seeds this spring! We may vote for a better prepared health-system, health coverage for all. There will be changes. But will this forced retreat change people?
Do people value the power of quiet, do they retain the new insights fostered by rest? I watch a young boy outside my window jumping up and down on a trampoline. He isn’t looking for rest and quiet!
Is it in our nature to be on the ‘go’ until we collapse with fatigue? Are the pygmies who ‘work’ only three days a week to gather food and create shelter an anomaly? Did people want the long factory work hours during the industrial revolution that drove up production, or was it what a few greedy industrialists saw as an opportunity for extravagant wealth? The story that everyone benefits from economic progress is in question. We have time to question. When is enough, enough?
Will the billionaires give up their privileged status and start sharing their wealth? I don’t think so, the ones who do have been doing it already. Will big pharma and insurance companies give up their profits and allow for universal health care? I doubt it. Will our government make them?
In 1835 while discussing the American political system(1), Alexis de Tocqueville said: “There are certain epochs in which the changes that take place in the social and political constitution of nations are so slow and imperceptible that [people] imagine they have reached a final state; and the human mind, believing itself to be firmly based upon sure foundations, does not extend its researches beyond a certain horizon.”
There will be a shift when we get through this pandemic. There will be a reset of how we do business, how we value each other. But unless this virus opens the eyes of evangelicals, corporations, power grabbers, the die-hard individualist hanging on to their constitutional rights, the ones who believe in a system of small government, every-man-for-himself and trust-in-god, the system that produced America will still be there. The people will vote against their own interests because the beliefs they adhere to will explain away the cause and mistakes made during the pandemic. They will go back to business as usual.
Except for a few. Millennials who have dropped out of the American dream to live a simpler life with their loved ones in a rural small town, will feel confirmed in their views that a slower life is a "good life”. The teachers, who have had a chance to experiment with novel forms of education, will not want to return to large classrooms with standard testing. Small business owners who’ve had to re-create their business to survive may become like craftsmen and shopkeepers of long ago, who wove the fabric of the communities they lived in. We can support them if we value our communities.
And then the children. What will they remember of this time? Will they have a long breath out - time to think, watch the flowers come into bloom, find snails and salamanders on neighborhood walks? Will they learn the pace of keeping house and playing together, and refuse to be shuttled from activity to activity?
I hope so. Because these children will be the adults who will change the system. A system that has failed them.
1. Democracy In America, from a new translation by Arthur Goldhammer, published by Library of America 2004
Last month, when I wrote my blog about the value of laying fallow, I must have had a foreboding. Life has been turned upside down. The coronavirus — and for me a back injury— has made us hermits. Normally I am an active person, but this back injury has laid me low, very low. I’m sitting on the hard floor, legs stretched out and back slightly forward; it’s the only way I can be comfortable while typing. Thank god for my adjustable laptop computer stand. Walking sends searing nerve pain down my leg, and the doctor’s advice is to avoid bike riding to let my sacrum stabilize for a few days.
The pain in my leg has brought up tears and I’ve relegated them to the pain the world is experiencing right now. it feels good to cry for the helpless masses that are at the mercy of their elected leaders. Your political stance and source of information can come to bite you bad at this time. Thank you to the governors who are daring to take the crisis into their own hands and aren’t waiting for direction from the White House. Thank you, Kate Brown of Oregon for putting us on lock-down.
This morning I didn’t remember what day of the week it was. Not because I’m in cognitive decline, but because the days have been rolling by with no significant difference caused by events, meetings and activities. Each day is a blank slate, and, as long as there’s food in the fridge, there’s nothing I have to do, or show up for. I don’t have to dress for anyone but myself, so sweats and a top to match the weather it is. No decision but to pull it on in the morning after checking if it’s time for a clean pair. Life is so simple, and it reminds me of being on a long-distance hike, when I’ve made clothing decisions before I leave and I wear the same thing, day in, day out. Such freedom. This is my current state of affairs of sheltering at home. A toddler’s life without the flexibility of a toddler’s body. It’s funny, because I injured myself while doing the yoga pose my little grandson was showing me. I’m 73, not 4 yo. But hey! I’ve come this far, this long, without ever injuring myself like this. Aging is humbling. My mind is still not ready for it.
As with any retreat, forced or not, you can fight it, flight it or use it to your advantage. Fighting the Corona lock-down, ignoring it, will put others and yourself at more risk. Not a good idea, but many take the #mefirst attitude as the Florida and Italian beach scenes demonstrated. ‘Flighting’ from the Corona lock-down means drowning yourself in home distractions. We have internet, streaming and an endless supply of movies, shows and music videos. Often these activities are paired with snacking and comfort foods and we can anticipate the ballooning of people who practice ‘flighting’. As Rilke warned: “how we squander our hours of pain.”
I’ve never been one to fight or flight with a vengeance, so I’m using this lockdown time to my advantage. My self-imposed schedule and my entertainment needs are light, and I have time to explore new avenues. I read more books from my to-read stack. I use the internet (what a blessing!) for exploration as I scroll through blogs and articles on topics that interest me and find new ways to do things — even how to deal with my back issue. I just figured out how to set up a better backdrop for an online presentation I’m doing! I haven’t tried touring museums online, but it’s there if I want it. The outdoors is my backyard; I’m not working in it but I enjoy the spring flowers and am thankful for all that this garden gives me. As this blog shows, I'm getting some writing work done as well.
When we come to rest, and slow down, we can find a fresh attitude, new activities, creative endeavors, and Zoom-in for virtual visits with loved ones. Life can still be transformative, even if you can’t travel.
If you read this and work as medical personnel, first responder, or as someone who risks his or her life to keep the basics in our society running, THANK YOU!
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"Science is a powerful, exquisite tool for grasping an external reality. But within that rubric, within that understanding, everything else is the human species contemplating itself, grasping what it needs to carry on, and telling a story that reverberates into the darkness, a story carved of sound and etched into silence, a story that, at its best, stirs the soul."
Brian Greene, Until the end of Time: Mind, Matter and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
I’ve been a traveller most of my adult life, but when people ask me, “Where are you going next?”, I have no answer. There is no next. I’m here for now, and it’s a freeing feeling. No need to plan complicated travel schedules to take me to adventurous places, no need to train my body for changes in altitude, and tough hiking schedules. All’s quiet in my world. I’m paying attention to my needs: how much movement do I want and need to feel good; how much wildness do I crave in my day-to-day doings; how much time do I want to putter? My days have an uncanny emptiness. Few need my help. I only go places when I chose to do so. Even the commitments I made to do presentations are far enough away that I don’t have to feel pressured to produce.
The dust gathering on my window-blinds in the sun don’t compel me to a cleaning frenzy. I’m just watching the soft down lie there with its crinkly tiny white hairs hanging on a sloping surface. Someone is singing a melodious song on the radio, titillating small waves of feeling in my chest, making my body sway while my brain is finding words to write this piece. The new ring on my finger holds a stone, found on a faraway Tibetan plateau where I went to experience the outer edges of self.
These days I’m looking inward and am exploring the inner edges of myself. One way is no better than the other; one may be cheaper than the other, but money doesn’t hamper or determine my travel. What then holds me in this moment, this place, without great plans to explore the world?
They say the universe turns in on itself. The ever-expanding cosmos collapses into a black hole, and the whole thing starts over again. I guess a winter of hibernation wasn’t enough of a turning-in. I know to listen and watch the surrounding forces influence me, and right now they don’t pull me outward except for a short jaunt into the mountains around my home now and then. Last summer I let my vegetable garden lay fallow, I only put in cover crops to enrich the soil, while I was traveling. Maybe now is my fallow time, uncultivated, inactive, not producing. We know the importance of letting the land lay fallow, to allow the soil to rebuild its microbial structure. Not that we adhere to it in our current production-oriented society; we add fertilizers to make up for the exhaustion the soil is experiencing. So it goes with our bodies and minds: we drink coffee or red bull to give us energy, we peruse the get-away offerings to stimulate our tired minds. More money can be made by offering a product to enhance our exhausted selves than just plain rest. You may remember the days when a bout of the flu was a week of being sick and a week of lying around, aka healing? I remember my mother sending me out for a walk in the watery spring sunshine when I was recovering from the flu. How strange it felt to go for a leisure walk by myself while everyone else was in school or at work.
The roots of who we become are generated in our youth. I was born a wanderer. My baby wanderings took place out from under my blankets in frigid temperatures and out of my clothes as I stood naked on the tray of my highchair, my arms stretched out like the leafless winter tree outside the window with its branches reaching. As a result, my parents tied me in my bed at night so I would stay warm, tied me in my highchair so I would be safe.
At three years of age I went in search of frogs my brother had told me about. We were living on the outskirts of a medieval town in the southwest of Holland. A bulwark and a moat surrounded the original town, with sixteenth-century city gates and bridges to allow entrance into the town. A police officer found me, as I was standing on the edge of one of those bridges peering into the dark water in the moat. After that incident, I was staked out in the backyard like a goat, rope around my waist, rope connected to a pin in the ground. I saw a picture of myself, leaning my face into my four-year-old boy cousin’s ear. Was I whispering something about pulling up stakes together and exploring the world?
I became a walker, an explorer of the world. There was so much to love about life and living in all these different places. But being tied down every now and then, I also learned about being in one place. I came home last fall from the Himalayas with a renewed love for life and I’m loving the living daylight out of my days right here for now. If the microbes of lying fallow do their work, a healthy base for producing new ideas, a new story will come about.