It’s a desperate attempt on my part. I’m crawling on my belly under a chain-link fence cheered on by my grandsons, who with their wiry, small bodies wriggled through the side opening a few minutes ago. We took a - for them -daring leap and veered off the beaten trail, and marched through thickets and dry leaves on a ridge above the dump. “The dump is down there!”, my oldest grandson yells, “I didn’t know this is where we are! If we follow the road through the dump, we’ll get home,” he adds. “Let’s not”, I say, “the dump can be dangerous terrain with chemicals and stuff.” I hear their mother’s voice of caution in my head, “if we can get to the other side of this fence, we can cross the fields.” I had seen a safer route on my GPS. So I must wiggle my bigger body underneath the fence to where we can enter soccer fields on school property, a short way from home.
My grandson keeps expressing his amazement over finding known territory in a - for him - wild place. That’s the adventure of going on a walk, I tell him. He asked me earlier as we started our walk why I wanted to walk. After a quarter mile on the familiar trail from his house, he expresses boredom. “You never know what you’ll find”, I tell him. If you walk far enough, boring becomes an adventure. And indeed, the day’s walk becomes adventurous. We follow a small creek near to the groomed woodland trail, move leaves and debris to improve the creek’s flow, come upon an unknown little waterfall, watch skunk cabbage leaves float downstream and over the fall and work on trail finding. When we leave the marked trail again the boys find old deer bones in the dry leaves; a first violet stares up with dark eye markings from the moss. Nature keeps offering surprises.
I rip my coat crawling under that fence. A small rip. I scratch my calf on the steel point of the chain link, a bleeding gash, looking worse than it is. Adventure trophies. The real win is the feeling we have inside us, a feeling of excitement, aliveness, newness in days destroyed by routine and order.
Raising kids is a hard job. Raising privileged kids is hard because we lace the days with expectations, achievements that need to be met, as the college funds grow in the stock market. The daily routine of eat, sleep, play and learn shave off the individual idiosyncrasies that could spell genius, sense of adventure, and freedom of thought. We groom the children to fit into an affluent society of 2-acre properties, million dollar homes with separate bedrooms, bathrooms, play rooms and offices. The children meet peers with the same privileged life on sports fields, and play flag football, baseball or whatever game the season offers in competitive games. At 5 years old, they already know the rules of the game. They are born into a family that wants the best and follows the rules of the upper class.
Feeling stifled by the rules, bored by the affluent sameness, I suggest we pick up garbage for Earth day. A raised parental brow, a yes-vote by the boys because the local township gives out ice-cream for turning in bags of trash picked up along roadways. With gloved hands and bag we set out to find the things people throw out the window of their BMW and Lexus vehicles: soda cans, paper, plastic, a pencil. Even the trash is groomed.
A world of comfort and privilege takes the feeling of adventure out of living. I don’t begrudge my grandchildren a privileged life. I wish the best for them. My idea of best though, is living with zest, creativity, newness, and advocacy for the underdog. It means living a life with just enough suffering that it breeds compassion for others; a life that makes you want to learn how to improve things for all people, not just for a privileged corner of the world. My idea of best is when you turn a neighborhood walk into an adventure because you look around, encounter hardship, witness unusual things, and make spontaneous, positive decisions.
Is your life feeling stale? Maybe it’s time to shake things up, add newness with its inherit discomfort. Try something you haven’t done before, explore further, reach out to the less privileged. You will be the richer for it.
Her name is “Chooch”, (“tsjoots”), she spells it out for me and says, “that’s Italian slang for a(xx)-hole”. She laces the story of her life of abuse and disappointment with expletives, her face weathered under the woolen hat. Leaning on her cane, she seats herself next to me. “I have to sit this way”, she says as she turns away from me, leaving her left leg outstretched on the grass. She must have something wrong with her hip. Eyes blue, and cracking a smile, she asks me what brings me to the temple. I tell her my story. While we’re chatting, people serve an Indian lunch after morning chants. My conversation with a man across from me ends. He has expressed his doubts about the world, his insecurities about going anywhere besides around town. A large woman with an unusual name mills around with an older Indian man, calling him her “honey” for offering to get her food. I’ve met her a few weeks ago and notice that she is a regular. “This is the only hot meal I get, during the week,” she told me.
The perfection of social services
Is this the homeless hand-out, I wonder? I see the perfection of a well-off minority helping a struggling minority. A Hindu temple in Northern New Mexico is an unusual sight, and I have questions about its function. For me, visiting the temple is a return to the early 70ties when I was traveling in India. The heart-opening chants, the clanking of bells, the offerings, the pictures of a guru long ago passed away. Now Indian families pay their respects, prostrating themselves in front of a Hanuman statue. White people with matted hair and hippie clothing sit in silent meditation or clap along with the chants. It is a throwback to days long gone. Who maintains this place? Chooch has an answer: the 70ties famous hippies are gone, she says, the current board means nothing, the Indians have taken over and are doing their religious duties, there’s enough money to feed everyone. It sounds perfect!
Seeing the perfection of things
When I stayed at the ashram of Mahara-ji (the man in the pictures in the temple hall) in India, he told me: “feed people.” Here at this temple they still practice the tradition of handing out Prasad, or blessed food; volunteers prepare food for anyone that comes. A church, a social service, where society fails the poor and the mentally unstable. Perfection? Ram Das said in one of his talks, when we achieve the state of eternal love-joy, and embrace the destruction, suffering and death in this world with empathy, we will see the perfection of things.
Perfection in nature
I have trouble seeing that things in Ukraine are perfect, and for that matter in Sudan, Jemen, Syria, Afghanistan- do I need to continue? My heart aches, my brain shuts off. I walk to rid myself of my anger, my hopelessness in a greening desert landscape with twisted dry sage bushes and hard rocks. This thirsty ancient land has suffered under the sun, wind, and snow. Gnarly and dry the bushes sprout new green twigs, the rocks are a host to beautifully patterned lichen. Lichen break down the rock into sandy soil that provides shelter to prairie dogs, rabbits and other small critters living in holes under the ground. Big ravens soar over the canyon, finding food and water. Big-horn sheep clamber down the steep ravine to slake their thirst in the river. A balanced eco-system. Perfection!
Life is a balancing act. Much goes wrong from the start of life to its fulfillment. Much goes right and life offers beauty, balance, and new creations. A Pasques flower lifts its fuzzy purple head to open its inner white petals. The white reflects the warmth of the sun onto the yellow heart, warming the stamens and attracting bees to this tucked away corner near a rock in the desert. Perfection. I’m between homes I can call my own, but have a comfortable place to live. I can’t do what I intended, but I have time to re-design my life, step out of ruts that no longer serve me. Perfect! Adversity can be an opportunity.
The perfection of a pendulum swing
I don’t wish the horrid adversity we’re witnessing every day on the news. But the violence in Ukraine offers the Western world an opportunity to do better, to lift the veils of apathy, slough of indulgence and inertia. I am no starry-eyed idealist, but I see the perfection of a pendulum swing. It’s not too late to change direction, and create a better, more balanced world.
His hand touches the glass of the train window. Through his phone in his other hand, he talks to the woman inside the train - his wife? A child’s hand tries to match his hand from the other side of the window. The station platform is near empty. All passengers have boarded; the train is about to leave.
Sending your family to safety when war breaks out, is what we all would do. Saying goodbye to family is a common scene at airports and train stations. Saying goodbye with the knowledge you may never….
I’ve said goodbye to family quite a few times in my life. Young and thinking I was invulnerable, it was easy when I traveled from Holland overland to India. Of course I’d be back. Adventure called. Saying goodbye when I emigrated from Holland to the USA was a more conscious separation. It would be a long time before I saw my family again. The desire to build a new family was stronger; the urge to find a better place to live, fierce .
I did see my family again. Privileged as I was and living in a free world, I could travel. After gaining enough financial security, I could travel across the globe yearly. Family and fresh adventures were wrapped in one.
My son relocated to the other side of the country. I felt the same pang my mother felt when she let me go to the USA. It wasn’t “never” as she feared, but “rarely” was true for me. My heart ached. The girls left home; not as far. My parents died; my husband passed away. The word “never” became real.
My heart aches for this man who is sending his family to safety. What is safety worth if you can’t be among loved ones? The pandemic taught us that safety can be very lonely. I’m used to living alone, far away from family and children. I’ve bridged the gap through travel, long visits, FaceTime calls. Nothing replaces the immediacy of living near each other; being able to touch and catch the look in each other’s eye, unclouded by a screen, or a window. Knowing that, I moved near family again. I left a warm circle of friends, a familiar place I’ve called home for 36 years, a garden that thrived under my watchful eye, hillsides ablaze with the light of sunsets. Never to return. It’s too far for a quick visit. I’m too old to be hopping around on the spur of the moment. NEVER is sinking in, as I feel the new earth I walk on, look at a different mountain view, that doesn’t feel like home yet. Sadness lines my heart, soft, teary, a wobbly feeling. I haven’t sprouted roots to help me feel stable and turn the sadness into energy for living.
I practice meditation, I walk. Each hour of sitting in meditation brings me closer to being here. The universe embraces me through each walk I take. Each hour helps me let go of what I had. Never results from change. Change happens in each moment. It helps to witness change. In small increments I am present for the “nevers” in my life. I feel the sadness and sense of freedom that accompanies letting go.
The Ukrainian man saying goodbye at the train window, chooses to stay and fight for freedom. He chooses to give his loved ones the freedom of safety. He’s a big-hearted man whose heart will ache for a long time, maybe forever if change won’t let him re-unite with his family. Love is the currency of the heart. Only love will heal this man’s heart.
On one of my long hikes in the eastern part of Holland, I passed through what was a concentration camp in WWII, now an open air museum. This is what I saw. We must NEVER let this atrocity repeat itself.
“In the early ‘50s, Paul Reps, who was in his forties, had traveled to Japan en route to visit a respected Zen master in Korea. He went to the passport office to apply for his visa and was politely informed that his request was denied due to the conflict that had just broken out. Reps walked away, and sat down quietly in the waiting area. He reached into his bag, pulled out his thermos, and poured a cup of tea. Drinking his tea, he pulled out a brush and paper upon which he wrote a picture poem. The clerk read the poem, and it brought tears to his eyes. He smiled, bowed with respect, and stamped Reps’ passport for passage to Korea. Reps’ Haiku read: “drinking a bowl of green tea, I stop the war”.” (from a post in “Better Listen” by Steve Stein)
Moving toward mindfulness
I heard this story during a two-week meditation retreat I just attended. Voluntarily cut off from news and media, I knew the war in Ukraine was brewing. I wondered if the teacher mentioned the story in her evening talk not only to help us double our attentiveness in the moment, but also inform us indirectly that a war had broken out (it had at that point). The next day outside, on my slow, deliberate walk while minding my breath, a pair of neighborhood walkers greeted me with the words: “I won’t walk with you, too slow, like the Ukrainian army”. I knew then that the war had broken out; I could do nothing about it. Back in my hermitage, I watched the water boil for my daily tea, watched my hand lift the kettle, and pour the hot water in the thermos with the tea. I waited, mindful of the urge in my body to multi-task, while making the perfect cup of tea. I poured the tea in a glass. The green color lit up as the light shone through the glass. I sat and sipped the tea, feeling the sensations as the liquid moved down my throat, the bitter taste on my tongue, the wetness of my lips.
Between sits and meditative walks, I made many cups of tea. My concentration grew, my awareness of what was going on in my body/heart/mind increased. Tranquility set in as I loved my body on the cushion. Happiness coursed through me as I moved while walking with open sense doors (eyes, ears, skin). I took in the brilliant sunlight, listened to birdsong, watched the sagebrush hold its own as the snow covered it and the sun uncovered it with its warmth. Discomforts in my body and deep fears in my mind fell away, one sit at a time, one step at a time. In the 2nd week when the teacher guided us to not only love ourselves, but send loving kindness to others, gratitude and warmth I wanted to share filled me.
When I watched the first Newshour after the retreat ended, I sat there and cried. My heart was open, I couldn’t shield myself from the suffering I saw. The many cups of tea I drank didn’t stop the war.
What was the meaning of Paul Reps’ Haiku? He didn’t stop the Korean war by practicing with his Zen master. Why did the haiku bring tears to the clerk’s eyes? As my mindfulness increased not only when I practiced on the cushion but also when I walked, when I made tea, when I ate, when I turned over to go to sleep (even in my dreams), I let go of the accumulated tension of months of prior stress, I uncovered self love, and love for everyone else. I became an aware human being that felt kindness toward others. I stopped the war inside myself and between myself and others. Paul Reps’ haiku told the clerk, I practice mindfulness, and by doing so I create peace. The Japanese clerk understood this as tea ceremony and practicing mindfulness was part of his cultural heritage.
Fear and Power
Putin doesn’t practice mindfulness to improve himself as a human being. Putin pays attention to the inner voice of desire for increased power, and his fear of losing that power. As Trump said in an interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on March 31, 2016: “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word— fear”. During the retreat, I watched fear rise in my mind over an issue that is brewing in my life; I wanted to fight, argue and plan what I would do. Committed to being in retreat, I could do nothing but watch the fear and notice the sensations it caused in my body. As I watched with acceptance, the sensations changed. The image of myself as a girl emerged, a girl taught to be afraid of authorities. I wanted to embrace this little girl and tell her that now is not then. The fear released; stiffness in my back (frozen in fear) let go, and I could move on to the next sensation, and the next and the next.
The Moral Balance
My mindfulness work doesn’t stop the war. But it changes how I interact with others. Everyone’s mindfulness changes the world as we know it, one act at a time. Your patience with the grocery clerk, the smile you give to the harassed ticket collector in the subway, the words of understanding you offer to the customer service agent at Amazon — mine thanked me, and I could hear him breathe easier as I didn’t get angry when he couldn’t solve my problem that instant —-, it all adds up.
As the world comes together to support the victims of Putin’s greed for power, it shows us and him that his actions hang in a moral balance with the rest of the world. As the words from an ancient Buddhists chant say: “May the noble and the not noble have karma as their true property”. Putin will face his karma some day.
The cars are lined up along the street. Like predators, they lay waiting for the door to open at 9:00 AM, so they can pounce on the goods I’ve displayed. The sense of the hunt is palpable. One after another they wind their way among the piles of stuff, searching for that just-right item; finding the thing they forgot they need. Like expert hunters, they let the prey come to THEM.
I become their inner voice and point out a special tent, a bundle of parts for garden greenhouses, buckets of coloring pencils. Can’t you use this box of caulking, rust remover, and paint thinner? I whisper in their ear. If you like this basket, let me show you these bowls you can put in them, I suggest. You lost your home in the fire? I have bedding, plates and cook pots for you! I help the crafty woman sort the rolls of material that can become a quilt or curtains.
The aging bohemian collects old things, tools, cracked pots, an 8-inch-thick dictionary embossed in gold. “I have acreage and display these things to let the past come alive”, he tells me. Literally history in the making, I think. The younger ones are sparse in their hunt. They like to live lean. They choose a few books, a special candle holder, a small backpack. A friend stops by. “You don’t need anything, do you?” I ask. She looks around and spots the Japanese soup bowls. “I want these little ones”, she says, “I’ll think of you when I eat.” I wonder if I’ll live on through my discarded stuff. “My teenager will sleep in this bed”, a mom says. “Just as my teenagers did”, I respond. I don’t add how long ago that was. They need not know about this furniture’s time passing.
In the late afternoon, a young man visiting friends in the neighborhood stops in and finds his treasure, my box of caulking, paint thinner, and rust remover. I show him the rusty gigantic bolts and hooks. “Great”, he says, “a little vinegar will make them good as new”. He takes ‘em all. “Let me text my wife about that coffee table”, he adds. Soon they walk out ready to fill the cracks in their home and enjoy a drink with friends on the cherry wood table. Life continues. It is good this way.
By the end of the day, the furniture has found a new home. I sweep the floor of my emptied house; rearrange the two chairs left in my living room to face the hearth and the view of the mountains. I lean on a cushion in front of them; I experience the sparsely furnished room, and take in the view out the window. Excitement about my new, unencumbered life rises.
Turns with the Earth
Sitting in my writing chair, I have watched many sunsets on the mountains across the valley. The mountains are green this early in the year, green from grasses sprouting, green with conifers. These mountains have invited me to go hike, explore, dream of summer evenings on the trail, and sleeping under the stars. Grizzly Peak has called me to the trail year after year. The sun streaking through from the west has awed me with its play of light, has reminded me of places far away where I travelled, has soothed me at day’s end and let me rest. The light of the sun across this valley has been my companion. A friend, day after day.
There is an average of 198 sunny days in this valley, a number slightly below the average for the United States. We count on 109 days of precipitation here. This is an average climate, not too hot, not too cold; not too much sun, not too much rain and snow. The clearly marked seasons have given me the change I crave. I’ve lived here 36 years.
I will move to an area where there is an average of 285 sunny days per year. More sun, less rain or snow. I will look out at mountains, desert and sky. Sunsets on the mountains and thunderstorms over the mesa will mark my days. The earth’s and sun’s movement gives me a daily experience of what life is: a circular experience; lets me realize who I am: part of a bigger whole. Will I become a different me, I wonder, when I’m awed by colorful sunsets, called to explore a sage green mesa, a dark green pinion pine forest?
Places shape us. Natural places let us know our place in the universe. Hiking solo in 2020 on the Pacific Crest Trail allowed me to become intimate with the trees. I learned how they grew as a family of trees, how they supported one another, how they protected each other (and me) from harsh weather. The trees became my friends. I experienced my place in the whole of things. As I age, I may not hike with a backpack, sleep under the stars and claim myself as part of nature. But I can sit on a porch, feel the wind in my hair, the hot or cool air on my skin and let my eyes rest on mother nature to which my body will return.
The sun has set. The pale blue sky is losing light. A white full moon contrasts with pink clouds. The green mountains across the valley casts their dark shadows and will soon hide the shapes of trees and houses. I will turn my gaze inward, watch the flames in the hearth, let darkness settle before I turn on the lamps.
Sorting Books, Leaving Friends
Between skiing and snow walks, I’ve been sitting in my dismantled living room sorting and packing books. While doing this I remembered sitting on the floor in the aisle of our neighborhood bookstore when I was a young teen, smelling and touching the books on the shelves. Paper and ink smell in my nose; smooth glossy bindings, rough linen bindings, under my fingers.
New worlds opened up as I leafed through these books. I’d choose one to take home and add to my small collection. A book I could keep differed from a book I’d read from the library. The books I kept on a shelf in my bedroom contained stories that became my trusted friends. Soon I expanded to buying art books in a second-hand store. I added paintings to my collection of treasures. Then poetry entered my world and the slim volumes full of thoughts and feelings became go to friends.
Ever since, I’ve lived a life of hauling books. Bookshelves filled with books are an essential part of a home for me. The contents of my bookshelves have changed as I changed. When images and words of the digital world inundated me in the late nineties, books took a quiet backseat in my living room. I still buy hard copies. I still treasure holding a book in my hand to read. But in the new life i'm choosing, a simplified life with less space, I can’t keep them around any longer. And so I’m thinking hard as each book passes through my hands. Will I want to re-read this one? Will I need that information? I read a pruning book and put it on a to go pile. I know how to prune the grapevines, the apple tree, the espaliered peach. And there’s always a YouTube video, if I’m in doubt. The herb books follow the pruning book for a similar reason. And then come the novels with stories that live in my mind and touched me. They are my friends. But I cannot take all the friends I’ve had in my life, with me. I have to choose. The ones that’ll play an active role in my new life, I save. The ones that can teach me about story structure, about writing a scene, about a good plot, I save. Poetry volumes, the wise lines for living when I need it, get to come with me. But the rest has to go. I’ll let myself travel less padded with words, open to new experiences. I look at the stacks of to go books around me on the floor. I must find people who want my books as friends.
Out with the Old, In with the New
It’s New-year’s eve. Boxes line the walls of rooms in my house. My library now comprises three boxes, taped shut. I like how fitting things in boxes creates neatness among my stuff. Four boxes not taped shut are the books that have to make new friends. As I reduce, I remember an earlier time in my life. 26-Years-old, my boyfriend and I planned to travel the world for a year. Our rented quarters at the time, consisted of a room and shared kitchen in a big house. Though we had few things, a bed, some cooking utensils, clothes, a chair, and books, we reduced until what we wanted to keep, fit in a 317 cubic feet pine shipping box. My parents let me store the crate at their house until we could ship it upon returning to wherever we lived. We didn't know where that would be. We were on an adventure. Leaving a 317 cubic feet home base for future use and having what we needed on the road in a backpack was exhilarating and freeing.
As I reduce the possessions I’ve accumulated while living a householder's life for 36 years, the lightness of being rises in my body. The tremor of excited anticipation sneaks through the anxiety resulting from making contracts with buyers, repairmen, and movers. I won’t come back here. My new world will be a small home base. The new environment will force me to change my habits. I hope this transition will be easy on me and let me land softly. So far, so good. Things are unfolding in a way I like. I don’t trust life as much as I did in my twenties. An older body, a memory filled with experiences, has made me wiser about what can go wrong. I’ve lost my youthful innocence, but I haven’t lost my comfort with going on an adventure. Isn't life always an adventure if you have the eyes for it?
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It’s my last Christmas in Southern Oregon and nature is putting on a show I won’t forget. While I’m dreaming in my bed the snow keeps falling during the long night from Christmas eve to Christmas morning. In my dream I meet with the buyers of my house. They are choosing things in my house they can use; things I’m ready to let go. When they touch a piece of furniture, a painting, or open a kitchen drawer, the item changes color, changes form. They hold out a bundle of clothes for me and as they hand it over the bundle becomes a baby. I am standing naked across from them, shivering from cold. My limbs are stiff and I have trouble holding the baby. I hesitate on what to do with it. As I stare at the pink child, I think, I’m done with babies in my life.
I wake up. I’m naked under the quilt. My feet are sticking out of the covers and feel icy cold. The morning light outside my window shows stiff branches covered with snow! I pull my feet under the covers, linger in its warmth and look out at the white world outside. I ponder my dream of the baby. Does the dream mean the buyers will have a baby in this house, or are they handing me a new life? Will I get a bundle of new energy, a "baby", from selling this house, I wonder? Of course I will walk away with a bundle of money. Will that be the energy I transfer to my next home? Or?
I roll over and look out at Mt Ashland in the distance, pristine in its whiteness. The snow cover reshapes the world, wipes out all its blemishes. The restfulness of the snowy landscape lets me think. I wonder about the possible inner changes this move may bring. I believe that despite change the past connects with the future. The past energy, my life in this place, will linger awhile after I leave, just as a person’s energy hangs around after he or she dies. Eventually the energy of the past will disappear in the waves of new life that’ll inundate me.
Thoughts of my dream fade. Nature calls and drives me out of bed. I must ready myself for a snowy outside world. I sleep in a cold bedroom and the frigid air makes me hurry to get downstairs where it’s warm.
It’s Christmas morning and I look forward to a quiet celebration with phone calls from loved ones. As I prepare a cup of tea the phone rings. My son asks me how I’m doing with the move. Not everyone leaves their cocoon so easily and becomes a butterfly, he says. I tell him I’m doing okay, I’m taking it one problem at a time, I say. The inspection report revealed just a few things to fix on the old house. I tell him that we're having a white Christmas. Relieved he focuses on his own life again. I’m glad I’m managing this transition without needing his help.
While I enjoy my tea and a slice of Christmas stollen, I make plans for the day. I will take a day off from moving-related stuff, go for a walk in the snow, and enjoy dinner with friends. Change involves work, but I don’t have to work at it constantly. The work of moving is like preparing for a long trail hike. There are problems to solve, papers to sign, things to pack and get rid of, logistics to figure out. But just as I train my body while I prepare for the trail, I take walks, snowshoe and ski to keep myself in top shape for this transition. I know that as long as I move my body, I have a lifeline to the future. I’m ready for today in a winter wonderland.
oving to a smaller house means getting rid of stuff. While I’m sorting bedding into “go” or “keep” piles, I remember a news post I read earlier. A local shelter will open its doors for the homeless as they predict big snowstorms for the valley. As I wonder what I’ll do with the “go” pile, besides putting it in the landfill, an ‘aha’ feeling surges through me. I can donate sleeping bags, blankets to the shelter! Perfect! Excited with this solution for my stuff, I climb into the loft and find sleeping bags in the “go” pile. Then I look in the cedar chest and find a heap of woolen hats, scarves, mittens and blankets that will warm somebody!
As I put my departed husband’s hat in a bag, an image of his large slender hands donning the hat flashes through my mind; hands I loved so much. I can almost feel them again. My son’s smile comes to mind as he held up the first mittens he knitted and the image warms my heart. The hat he wore as he learned to ski, the pink balaclavas my daughters sported while sledding a hill remind me that time passes. A scarf a friend made me, a sweater my mother knitted, creates happy feelings in me. Happiness lives in strange places. An innocuous item can pull strings in your mind and connect synapses with memories. What I remember today makes me happy. The items will find a new home; the memories will fade. When I clear out stuff, I make room so I can collect fresh memories; maybe I’ll get to a place where I’m just creating emptiness.
Cold and Starry Nights
The big old sleeping bag doesn’t spend much time on the shelf in the shelter. It’s the first one to find a new owner. The bag has lingered in the attic at least 15 years. Why do we keep stuff for so long when it no longer serves us? I weave my way through the aisles of people who share a free community meal. They enjoy being indoors and warm. These are people who, on other nights might sleep under a bridge or in a thicket. People who appreciate a warm sleeping bag during a cold night. That bag may just save someone from getting hypothermia.
I go home. I have a warm home where I can sleep. As I crawl under my down comforter, I imagine sleeping under the stars in a sleeping bag. I remember nights on the trail. If you have a warm sleeping bag, to lay, swaddled like a baby, on Mother Earth under the watchful eye of Father Sky is an expansive experience. I hope to experience many more happy nights looking up at the sky.
The weather forecast predicts snow. To avoid getting stranded on mountain roads, my hiking buddy and I drive to the edge of the watershed around our town where the forest begins. Deep in our rain gear and with warm boots, we hike the familiar trail that leads us higher and higher to the ridge with views of the valley. Even though my moving date is still 2 months away, I suspect it will be the last time I will hike this familiar trail. Snow will cover the higher elevations when winter sets in. Hiking this trail will be impossible then. Drops of rain patter on my Gore-Tex jacket, then rain turns to wet snow, and it becomes quiet. The path turns muddy and snow covers the fir, pine and manzanita trees with a light white dusting. The red madrone berries against the green leaves, shiny wet, with red branches and a trimming of snow, make for a Christmas feeling in the woods.
As we climb, my breath labors, my body moves slow. Deep into the dark days of winter, I lack the energy I have on summer days. I’ve been sleeping more, eating more and moving less. We reach our highest point on the trail and loop around to go back. No views of the valley. It’s snowing hard now and the clouds hang low. Will I miss seeing the valley from above this last time? My legs swing easy again as I descend and the speed gives me that happy hiking feeling. The air is chilly but my body feels toasty warm inside my rain gear. It’s so good to be alive!
My buddy and I do not need to talk. We wind our way to a side trail that leads to a waterfall. Other spring and summer hikes flash through my mind as we cross the creek several times. I hiked here with friends so many years; on this hike I made new friends; because the trail is steep, I trained with long-distance buddies to build stamina. This hike led to so many adventures! I’ll find new trails and make new friends in New Mexico. I’ll be living at 7000 ft altitude and hiking higher. How much longer will my body carry me uphill? The woods are quiet, as if to shush me. Be here, listen! The crunching snow, the babbling of the little creek show me their beauty one more time before I leave. As we return to the car, the sky opens blue and gives a stunning snow picture of the mountains across the valley. It’s a view that is embedded in my mind and will live on inside me.
Clarity comes in strange ways. The first year of the pandemic, 2020, forced me to stay home, away from people and let me settle into myself. I couldn’t travel as I usually do. I still hiked and even hiked a good distance that summer. I hiked solo and met few hikers. Solo hiking let me connect to nature in a deeper way.
At home, I noticed what was happening to women around me. I saw women my age in isolation have health problems and being fearful of their future. People with friends were less isolated, and their aging related problems seemed to be delayed. Good, I thought, I have friends, I’ll be okay. I noticed that when people’s health declined, friends didn’t offer ongoing support. Family’d arrive and move the woman into a new home closer to family, into a nursing home or worse, hospice.
I’m a realistic person, not afraid of looking truth in the eye. During my 36 years of living in Ashland, I’ve seen friends come and go. My activities are the driver of my connections. I say, every passion of mine produces one long-term friend and a bunch of temporary friends. But long term friends move as well, or their focus shifts to other things. A yearly get-together among old time friends is fun, but doesn’t offer support for serious aging issues.
I considered my family. Family far away in another country, children far flung in the US. Will they come and rescue me when needed? They will. Shall I wait and burden them in five to ten years?
During that pandemic year 2020, I missed my youngest daughter, who had moved to a new place just the prior year. I took a risk flying to New Mexico while Covid was raging. She and her husband shared their back-to-the land plans and invited me to live with them if I wanted. I cried. It’s rare a 73-year old gets invited to join a community. Even though I was deeply touched, I wasn’t ready. We thought it’d take at least 5 years before I’d consider.
Forward to summer 2021. Vaccinated, I planned to hit the trail and complete another section of the PCT. Maybe I could finish the 450 miles still left to hike. Drought and heat ruled during the summer of 2021; the desert was super dry and we hauled water for long stretches. Temps at home rose over 110F. Wild fires erupted everywhere on the West Coast. The garden suffered. The dry heat even stunted the growth of the tomatoes. Everything had to grow under shade cloth. I didn’t want to spend my old-age summers in such heat. I’d look for the best next place to live near a child of mine.
A Sense of Place
After visiting my kids in the Bay Area and on the East Coast, I landed again in Taos in July. 89F Temps warmed me at midday; afternoon monsoon rains with incredible sky displays over the mesa refreshed the air for dinner on the porch. We took alpine hikes at 10,000 ft, where wildflowers were abundant. My favorite summer flower, hollyhocks, grew wild everywhere in the Taos valley. I knew, I would thrive here.
I told my children that it was time for me to move and that I’d start the move to Taos after I’d finished the PCT in August. August came; the Caldor fire broke out and pushed me off the trail. A trip to Holland to walk and attend my brother’s late-life marriage happened instead.
Pregnant with a Move
On my return home, I rested and made my plan. The housing market in Taos was tight, a seller’s market, but so it was In Ashland. I flew to Taos to see what I could find. At first glance, nothing interested was listed. Earlier I made my 10-point list of things important in my new home; things that made me happy and smile. #1 Was an inspiring view. #2 Was location and walkability for daily needs. I’d searched for a week. When I stood on the porch of a small Pueblo style home surrounded by sage brush, I watched the sky put on a late afternoon light show that was awe inspiring. My heart jumped. I knew this view would enliven me and fuel my creativity, encourage my daring with nature, and pull me to the trail again and again. I asked questions and did my due diligence, checking everything on my list. At the end of my week’s stay, I made an offer on my new home. I was pregnant with a move!
I wanted a winter to let things unfold. Lucky for me, escrow in Taos takes at least 4-month due to lack of title companies and Covid lay-offs. I had time to be pregnant with the move. I could do my shedding and selling at an easy pace in Ashland.
The last Trimester
I’ve entered my last trimester before this new birthing in my life. When escrow closes on the Taos house in March, 9 months will have passed since I decided i'd move that day in July. What started as an idea is becoming reality. I’m putting one foot in front of the other as I solve one problem after another. The skills and resilience I’ve developed in long distance hiking have helped me. Many aspects of a long distance hike — such as figuring out logistics, developing trust things will work out, working hard during the difficult stretches, knowing when to take a zero day, getting support crew lined up by using trail angels — are similar when preparing for a big move. It takes stamina, resilience and trust.
Resilience, Stamina and Trust
If you’re a hiker and are thinking of doing long distance hiking, you will not only discover new worlds outside yourself when you get out there, you will discover and build resilience, stamina and trust inside yourself while you’re hiking. Distance hiking will help you in your decisions about the next phase of your life. Let the trail teach you!