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STORIES are everywhere
I hiked 4 days in the German countryside. You may envy me when you see the picturesque hiking photos of quaint villages with slate roofs dotted among green rolling hills, topped with conifer and evergreen forests, but there’s a price for quaint and ordered nature. The Germans manage the forests, exemplary for production, reproduction and environmental responsibility. The hills are green, mono-culture fields and grazing lands. The corn and hay they grow isn’t enough to feed the animals. Animal feed is imported from Brazil where agricultural practices aren’t always so pretty. Not all material for the slate roofs, required building practice in the area, hales from the local slate mines. Local slate is expensive, as salaries and mining practices raise the cost. Slate from Spain and Argentina is cheaper and used to augment the local industry. Quaint and ordered landscapes come at a global cost.
In the USA nature is messy. Where I hike, fallen logs may cross or block the trail. Vistas from the ridges include clear-cuts and eroded mountain sides. The trails are often narrow and overgrown with wild berries, grasses and wild flowers; rocky or sandy trails slope dangerously toward a deep canyon. The occasional homestead sports rusted machinery and dilapidated buildings. The USA is too big to control. Messiness and decay is visible.
I have nothing against proprietary orderliness; I encourage it. Let’s keep our dens in order is my motto. The tightness I felt in my chest when I walked around the manicured woods and the ordered villages came from feeling boxed-in. The societal rules have eliminated the wildness in the German landscape. Where is the personal expression; where is mother nature’s wildness? Personal expression is relegated to artistic and craft domains. A carved door, a pattern in the slate wall, an ingenious product.
Power versus Opportunity
I visited an ordered University Hortus, a garden that held species from all over the world. Afterward I went to a Museum exposition on Medieval gardens, where I read: “Gardens are a demonstration by the monarch that he can subjugate nature to himself and thus a sign of his power.” If orderliness in nature as I experienced it in the German countryside, is a sign of power than the wildness I experience in the US is a sign of potential, an opportunity to rise to great heights.
Humans have lived in ordered societies since tribes roamed the earth. Societies offer protection and a chance for survival. I ask myself how much order is enough? Can too much order stamp out creativity, exploration and responsibility? Social-democratic systems that take care of people from cradle to grave popped up after world-war II in Europe; it was an effort to share and take care of each other after experiencing and witnessing the horrors of a war based on neo-nazi ideas, horrors of believing that one race is superior to another. The social-democratic systems provide healthcare for everyone; everyone has a home to live in, everyone gets a job or if a job is unavailable unemployment coverage; everyone gets yearly vacation pay on top of their salary. The streets get cleaned, the parks are neat, the trains run on time. Who wouldn’t want such a society?
There’s a catch. High taxes, restrictive building codes, restrictive business practices keep and pay for an ordered society. Large administrations make and apply the rules to make sure you don’t step outside the societal box. While the rest of the world wants free trade, creates start-up companies, takes capitalism to its highest reaches (good or bad), the members of the ordered societies lag, have to jump through hoops before they can join the wild plays OR go rogue as Volkswagen engineers did to be competitive in the marketplace and yet comply with the pollution standards for diesel-operated cars. The members of the ordered societies want their cake and eat it too; the riches and the securities. Those who live here have forgotten or don’t know the ravages of war anymore and entitlement has replaced a sharing society. Stories of aging boomers who expect the state to take care of them even if their own monetary contribution has been minimal, abound. People who see the state as their caregiver, their medical provider, their retirement fund, their family replacement, want to travel and go on paid vacations, have someone organize a ‘nice’ life for them until they die.
A Wild Society
I’m generalizing. Not all people fit this mold, but it helps to see that each societal form has its pros and cons. We’re in the race for presidential elections in the US; it’s a time to think about what society we’re in, and for what we vote. The freedom US citizens hold so dear, is a freedom that comes with draw-backs and opportunities. Freedom that allows each of us to make it big or to suffer. It’s a raw society, a young society, a wildly diverse society. In US society you can stand on top of wilderness pass at age 72, knowing you got there on your own power. But in this society you need your friends and family to help you grow old. Relations matter and caring for each other is a tool for survival. We are a society of explorers and dreamers who need each other. Let’s not forget that it’s up to us to be kind, to share, to develop and maintain a healthy balance between safety that springs from order and planning, and opportunity that comes from initiative and taking chances. Make your security arrangements but dare to leave the well-trodden paths behind and give yourself a chance at discovery no matter what age you are.
I’m on my way to the Himalayas. I’ve done all the planning and safety measures I could put in place. It’s time to take a chance on fate, and find insights at new heights.
I look forward to your comments below.
I’m living in another country, speaking another language and adjusting to the smallness of things here. After two weeks I notice I’m thinking in Dutch again, I write in my journal in Dutch and I can sometimes not find the English word for what I want to say. Am I Dutch or am I American? What does it mean to be of a nationality? Does nationality define me, tell me who I am? Or am I free to be who I am as I’m bridging more than one nationality?
The question "Who am I?" is psychological, philosophical and spiritual.
The Psychological Me
To function in the world, we must figure out if we’re a girl or a boy, tall or short, light-skinned or dark-skinned, a smart or slow learner. From the day we’re born our parents and caregivers give us messages about who we are and who we need to become.
I learned that I was a blond blue-eyed girl, attractive to the other sex, smart enough to do well in school and too adventurous to fit well into my family of origin. I loved my country, its dunes and beaches and felt emotional listening to the Dutch anthem.
I moved to another country, became fluent in another language and took a long time to identify myself as an American national. But I did; I let go of my native nationality reluctantly like letting go of a first love. That letting go felt like a psychological loss, a change in how I knew myself. I learned I’m not a finite collection of genetic and acquired attributes.
The Philosophical Me
Plato told us we’re prisoners in a cave perceiving shadows of what’s real on the wall in front of us. Philosophy tells us we’re an entity defined by our surroundings. Does this entity become a different entity in a different space/time/cultural context? Or does me, my entity just take on hues of different manifestations of reality, i.e. cultural and linguistic differences. My hair color doesn’t change because I speak a different language, I’m still a woman even though I’m walking in a different country. Philosophically, me, my entity, is the same, even if it manifests different aspects of that entity. Adopting a new nationality has taught me I haven’t lost my original being; who I am has expanded, has become more complex, acquired another layer. I’m richer for it.
The Spiritual Me
The mystics tell us to ask ‘Who am I’ as an exercise to know oneself. By questioning who we are, we can connect with a greater consciousness, and discover an expanded self. By loosening up about our psychological and philosophical self we can realize our true self. Moving between nationalities, languages and countries is stretching my awareness and grounding me deeper in the ‘me’ that is connected with the whole.
I feel a happy me when I move through nature wherever I am. Nature is universal in its message to me: you breathe, you move, you belong. My nationality has nothing to do with this feeling. My tastebuds, my eyes and smell senses expand when I become Dutch for a while, old grooves come to life, temporarily, because when I’m back in the States, I forget the smell of the Dutch hayfields, the taste of a particular childhood treat. My being is like a ghost, a spirit moving about and absorbing the local flavor without becoming it. My being has a memory that takes me back to other moments in time, full of other flavors. I am not the flavor.
Today I’m acting on the Dutch stage, next week I’ll be on a German stage, in two weeks I’ll enter the Himalayan stage and I will return to the American stage eventually. I am me, less attached; local determinations don’t define me as I respond to what the stage presents without becoming the stage.
Nationalistic tendencies are raging everywhere as global migration is increasing. People fear losing their sense of identity, their sense of ‘me’ when faced with other nationalities. I asked a family member who kept talking about how different we are as siblings, to look at how the same we are. By doing so we’ll develop a sense of oneness this world desperately needs. We’ve got a long way to go!
Actually, there isn’t that much soil where I was born.
Water is everywhere, crisscrossing the land retrieved from the sea and riverbanks. Windmills pump excess water back into rivers, canals and ditches to send it back via the main rivers to the sea. Land is a marshy commodity, but a fertile commodity and the locals know how to mine their gold. Dairy products, meat products, fruits and vegetables grown in meadows, fields , orchards and acres and acres of glass greenhouses have flooded the European market for years. Oh, and let’s not forget the flowers, grown on the sandy soil behind the dunes. When the soil isn’t marshy, it’s sandy and has just the right qualities for growing bulbs and sending the flowers all over the world. The Dutch are the 2nd largest exporters of agricultural products behind the USA and 90% of those exports are produced in the country. https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/actueel/nieuws/2019/01/18/nederlandse-export-landbouwproducten-in-2018-ruim-90-miljard
I’ve been rowing and swimming in the small rivers, bicycling along its banks on the narrow, cart-wide roads, stopping at fruit stands and tasting the luscious berries and tree-ripened fruits of summer. Fruit tastes like fruit here, soft, sweet, and deep flavored. Even the fruit from the supermarkets have real fruit qualities because that’s what people expect. The Dutch are discerning about what they feed themselves. I don’t know yet how they do it, but I suspect smaller operations and less transport and storage costs keeps the price down. Eating local is the answer. They don’t subscribe to irresponsible agri-business and are implementing a circular agriculture; it is innovative, efficient and deals responsibly with the side effects of producing so much food in such a small area. https://www.wur.nl/en/newsarticle/Circular-agriculture-a-new-perspective-for-Dutch-agriculture-1.htm
It’s a small country, 17 million people on 16,000 square miles and one of the most densely populated countries in the world. And yet, they make it work. They carve out green spaces, maintain their national parks, build high-rises on re-claimed land. People live close together, people have postage stamp yards, or if they live several stories high they maintain a community garden nearby where they can nurture their connection to the land and the water. They all hail from farmers, traders and sea-farers.
It’s summer and the Dutch who are still in the country (many set out for a two week paid (!) vacation to other lands) are putting along in their pleasure boats on the rivers and waterways, watching the waterfowl, herons, Nile geese and flocks of birds diving for fish, plants and insects, or bicycling the dense network of bicycle paths that crisscross the fields, marshes, dunes, moors and forests. They’re an active bunch, industrious they say. That industriousness has earned them a front-row seat on the international market. The smallness of their country allows them to carry out new ideas on a small scale and when it works sell the idea to the bigger economies. It’s easier to make changes when you’re dealing with a smaller population. Easier to communicate, easier to reach out, easier to make the change visible.
One of these changes has to do with dealing with a dwindling bee population. In the US we’re realizing the devastating effects a lost bee population will have on our food supply chain. In Holland they’ve already litigated against neonicotinoids that kill the bees. But not only that, now they’ve come up with a cheap and positive way to increase the bee and insect population: berm management. The farms and small towns are surrounded by roads with berms and waterways with riparian zones. Instead of spraying and cutting the grass one community after another is implementing ecological Berm Beheer - berm management, not as catchy in English - by sowing wildflowers along berms and riparian zones and letting the flowering plants attract bees, butterflies and insects that will pollinate the agricultural products, beautify the road and river sides and delight the locals who walk, bike and boat. How simple can it be? https://www.zuid-holland.nl/actueel/nieuws/januari-2019/start-ecologisch/
When we travel to other places, we can learn. I’m learning again that living close to the land creates an economy of happiness. I buy fruit at the local farmer’s stand. I will drive to a cheese market to watch, taste and experience the ancient ritual of bargaining over the cheese produced in the area. Go find yourself a local market, go taste the fresh fruit and veggies and support your local economy. It will make you and those who produce these products happier. If you can walk or bicycle there even better.
I look forward to your comments below
I’m setting off on a journey to the Himalayas to retrace steps I took both 48 and 14 years ago, and to take steps I couldn’t take then. I want to see how things have changed.
Forgetting and Letting Go
Since 1971 and 2005 I’ve aged. Aging means losing short-term memory. That means forgetting where you put something and having to retrace your steps to find the thing. Sometimes you don’t find it until months later in an odd place. I found the sunglasses I traveled to the Himalayas with in 2005 in a flower pot under my deck, a year after I had “lost” them. How they ended up there, I will never know. Why did these glasses come back to me? I had moved on, bought cheaper ones readying myself for more losses and let go of the pair. Finding things when you least expect it reveals the mysteries of life. It was the year of a big personal loss in my life and the glasses became a metaphor for life returning even when you don’t expect it.
The Bucket List
My journey to the Himalayas is one of those journeys that rose in my gut. I stood on top of Forester pass in the high Sierras last summer, reveling in my brush with the transcendental as the clouds raced in the sky and the terrain was nothing but awe inspiring, when the voice inside me (I feel the voice in my gut) said: “if you want to see Tibet, do it now, while you still can”. The wish to see Tibet was born after I met Tibetan refugees in India in 1970 and 1971 and fell in love with their presence, their calm ability to roll with what life dealt them. They were the embodiment of detachment I thought then. That wish increased when in 2005 I lived and trekked with local guides of Tibetan descend in Ladakh and saw their way of life with its inherent human flaws in more depth. Ladakh is also called Little Tibet, apparently it’s a replica of Tibetan life and Tibetan landscape and architecture. You could say Tibet has been on my bucket list. I will retrace my steps in Ladakh, revisit the Kathmandu valley where I lived for 2 months in my younger years under the painted eyes of the Swyambu stupa. I’ll walk in the valley from where I hiked to the Mt Everest glacier in 1971; a glacier which has turned from snow and ice to rock and talus. I will visit Tibet, the North side of Everest and walk around Mt Kailash if my body can deal with the high altitude.
What happens in almost 50 years to a landscape, a people? Globalization and climate are the biggest changers. What was an unsophisticated trek 50 years ago, our white faces a novelty in the mountain villages, is now a booming tourist industry. An industry the people depend on for survival. We trekked without maps, used only local directives, had no GPS devices, no cellphones, no WhatsApp to communicate with the outside world. Tibet was elusive closed to us. The people suffered, were oppressed and looked to us to give them what we had: freedom of expression, money to buy our way out of difficult situations, a level of comfort I had not appreciated until I saw their often squalid circumstances. The romance of simple living, of spirituality drew me to them; they only saw what I brought with me: comfort and wealth.
There is no going back to what was. Changes abound. I will notice the changes and discover the new. But more than that, I’ll find the changes that have taken place in me. The places will tell me who I’ve become. The young woman on a quest for meaning, the mid-life woman on a journey to get lost in her grief in the mountains, are gone. Who am I now? This journey isn't about losing and letting go, it's about finding a new me. The place will tell me. Tibet has called and I’m answering the call.
I look forward to your comments below.
A Sunday Hike
It was a simple event. I organized a hike for women over 50 on a Sunday morning along a lake and through the woods. Nine women showed up at the carpool connecting spot. Nine women who’ve come on Sunday for the last 6 months to challenge themselves, to find camaraderie, to get away from grandkids, husbands, or aloneness. Everyone has their reason to do this on a Sunday morning.
We missed the intended parking lot and trailhead. We found another one that would do. Maps, pages from a trail guide, phone apps and common sense told us we could connect with the intended trail from here. So we set off in a single line formation. Sunlight dappled the woodland trail, the early morning air was still cool, the poison oak ubiquitous. I listened to the high voices ringing in the cathedral of the trees, a morning song to connect and celebrate being together. Soon the voices quieted, and we heard the leaves rustling, saw the turquoise water shimmering deep below the trail, felt the swing of our legs, the softening of the creaky joints. We were on our way. The alarm cry from a bird high above us, led to searching a bird app. It was an osprey we had alarmed as we hiked below its nest. There would be babies high up in the tree! The trail wound down to the edge of the lake, scat identification left questions, raccoon or fox? We found a small fire ring filled with plastic bottles and empty beer cans. Several women filled a garbage bag to the tune of “leave no trace”. We added pileated woodpecker, lizard and the difference between Manzanita and Madrone to our knowledge and naming of nature..
Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book “Gathering Moss” says: “In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other but also with plants.” The book will come out in early July (link)
We named the plants and animals and built a relationship with nature. Women who didn’t know each other six months ago shared bags, water, maps, apps, laughter, huffing and puffing when going up a hill. Women reached out and held hands to help each one in the group climb over big blow-down trees. Short legs, long legs, nimble legs, stiff legs, the log showed us who we were, and we laughed about our climbing antics and rejoiced with the success we had.
Making the News
Nothing special, nine older women going on a hike on a Sunday morning, you think. It won’t make the news. The news doesn’t share the small successes. The beauty of a Sunday morning in the woods won’t make the news. The news isn’t interested in the fact that women learn about local habitat, share resources, help someone over a log.
This hike may not be news worthy, but it certainly is life enhancing. Research from the University of Exeter here tells us that spending 2 hours in nature per week is a key for promoting health and happiness. For the last 6 months I have watched these women develop confidence in their abilities, find a new resilience they didn’t know they had. I’ve seen them stretch their physical abilities by going farther and climbing higher, lose necessary weight, and try to learn to navigate in the natural world. They now come prepared with the tools of the hiking trade, they share work-out routines to strengthen their bodies so they can keep hiking.
This Sunday hike was nothing special, and yet I saw the growth that has taken place over time both in mind and body for these women. The Sunday hike has transformed their life. Now isn’t that news worthy?
Do you know of a nothing special transformation travel in your life? Please let us know!
I traveled on foot for 30 days in the mountains bordering the Mojave desert in Southern California. I carried my belongings and exposed myself to the outdoors 16 hours a day. I saw the world in wide vistas of mountain ranges and small detail of a speckled pebble. I met people who had time to talk and give of themselves, be it a well-meant tip about the trail conditions, a life story, a meal, or a place to shower and get clean.
Being in the outdoors and walking every day changed my body. My body is lighter and stronger. My vision clearer, my mind uncluttered, emotions calm. This bodily feeling opened my heart and I experienced waves of love for people I met. I like loving people. Loving people feels like swimming in a pool of warm liquid, effortless and soothing.
I live alone in my daily life. My family members have moved or passed away one by one, for good or not so good reasons. Life doesn’t have reasons. This is how life unfolds. Nature has shown me this unfolding when a flower opens in sunlight, or the soft rotted wood of a giant tree fallen in a storm, crumbles in my hand. I have accepted my single status and like the space it gives me to be me. I can immerse myself in the emptiness of living alone. Walking gives me the space to be me. When I walk, nature is my company. I have to consider its ups and downs in temperature, its wily winds, and the terrain it offers to walk on in the day and rest on during the night. Nature surprises me with glorious colored displays of sky, delicate blooms and unusual forms of growth. A fresh morning sunrise is like a child’s kiss on my cheeks, a warm languid sunset a hand stroking my skin.
I shared my recent journey with others who seek to find space for themselves. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail draws those who want to challenge themselves, figure out who they are or get away from their daily life. My timing for hiking the desert section of the PCT put me in the middle of a slow moving group of people walking North. Many of us hiked alone, or started hiking alone, but I found that I kept meeting up with the same people. We became a hiking unit, greeting each other, helping each other when needed, sharing camp spaces and rest stops. The intermittent contacts with other hikers accentuated the vulnerability and strength I simultaneously experience when hiking solo. The unspoken understanding of not relying on each other, yet being there to help if needed, formed a reality check about living: we’re all on our own life journey, yet others can ease the harshness of nature’s laws. When crossing a steep snowfield I know that only my attention and agility keeps me from a harmful slide down the mountain. Yet having someone on the other side of a strong flowing creek ready to help, watch me while I cross, tells me I’m not alone on this journey.
When I step out of the protected environment of my home, I get to experience both my vulnerability and the support available. I enter a shared wilderness and find the humanity in people. I surrender to the forces of nature and find my strengths. I bring back an open heart from my journey and confidence in a body and mind that can stretch itself and reach for the seemingly impossible. They say as we age and our work and family obligations diminish, our world shrinks. I defy my aging by going into the world and let it teach me I can climb a mountain, that I can live without the comforts of home and still be happy, that I’m not defined by relationships of family and close friends, but that I will meet others who care when I step out into that world.
I am not the same person I was when I set out on this journey 30 days ago. My body has new cells and my mind has new ideas. A friend who hugged me upon my return home said: “Wow, you are all muscle, you feel strong!”
“What stands out about this trip?”, someone asked. It’s knowing that I can love total strangers, find shelter in a tent and sleeping bag when a thunderstorm rocks the sky, that I can fall into a deep and dreamless sleep after a day of walking, and that an angel can show up when I need him. It lets me trust that all will be well as long as I’m open to change and transformation.
For more blogs about the Mojave section click here; for a slideshow go here
Despair is everywhere
Images of people in despair cross our screens. The last two weeks were full of intense news in the media: plane crashes and corporate America trying to thwart its responsibilities; a hate induced massacre. The death penalty under scrutiny. A Brexit stale-mate from a government which like a 3-yr old, can only say NO to what’s put in front of him, but can’t name an alternative. And yet another aspiring politician who wants to throw his hat in the ring for the presidential election. Oh, yeah, and let’s not forget that Congress is debating if it wants to support the House’ statement not to give weapons to the Saudi-Yemen war any more… Aren’t we ashamed of ourselves?
I have suppressed my feelings, I’ve been self-involved, keeping my show on the road by filling boxes with trail food, and going on training hikes. "Me" first, after that calls to the family, or a walk and tea with a friend, followed by my walking posts to my online-community, and the bigger world comes last. I’m numb, I have a blank stare and eat another piece of chocolate when I hear the news.
I hate that feeling of helplessness, drowning in a world that is so big that my actions don’t make a dent in the pile of awful things that happen. Our brains weren’t made for processing such bigness. Our brains were made for taking the world in at a lesser speed - such as when we walk at 2 miles an hour. Yet the modern tools of communication bombard us with news of disasters we are a part of, maybe distant now, maybe not so distant tomorrow. As in the darkening sky of a distant storm, the winds of the world are blowing disaster after disaster our way, and each night we close the shutters of our individual on-line world hoping the storm won’t come. I know my emergency kit in the closet is as useful as a sandbag pushed up against a breaking dyke.
The heaviness of the state of the world is palpable in the images where people are rummaging through wreckage, carry body-bags to the mortuaries. The images contrast with the frenzied statements of the politicians that say, “we’ll get through this”, “we’ill find a solution”, “we'll make a change”. Face of people holding candles in a vigil, laying flowers and wiping tears. None of it makes sense. How did we get here?
In my native country of Holland, when the government can’t form a governing coalition where the different parties agree to work together, the queen sends the government home until they can work it out. They don’t shut the government agencies as we do in America when we can’t agree on a budget. They don’t make the regular folks suffer for their inability to compromise. Life goes on without the leadership, taxes are paid, money is doled out, services offered. I used this method with my children when they were fighting. I would tell them: “Go to your room until you’re ready to work something out among yourselves. Then you can come out and play.”
Don’t you wish we could send the government home? Not just go home to take a break from Washington and do a few town-halls, but go home to the farm as the founding fathers did; put your hands in the soil, refresh your survival skills, work out things with neighbors and family, and then come back to govern. Go home, and remember what life is about.
We’ve taken people off the farm, automated their lives, and eased hard labour. People stuff themselves full of artificial convenience foods we’ve made available; they find entertainment with hyped up violence in movies, video-games and sports displays. The economy expects them to buy and consume more products in a year than our forefathers could use in a lifetime. The pace of living has sped up to a frantic beat, a must-have push to own, experience and display. In an ongoing storm of hyped up living people have lost their sense of purpose. Caught up in a frantic race they can’t reflect and sort out what’s important, what matters for happy living. Too many rats are racing to find respite.
No wonder that when a dogma, a train of thought, that promises order and a better life, comes along, the tired ones, the despairing ones, the ones living on the fringe, grab on to this train of thought and adopt a life that will give them purpose, belonging and survival. They will follow the dogma, the teaching, the new diet for living, the black and white thinking to save their sorry selves from racing over the cliff.
Imagine a world in which people wake up in the morning to do the work of the day, take care of the animals that provide food for them, craft the items they need, cook the food they grow, work with their neighbors to build a road to sell their ware at market. Imagine a world of less, a world in which we cherish new life, watch life pulsate as seeds grow into plants, and watch the sun set that tells us it’s time to rest.
Too simple you say? Is it? When do you feel better? After you’ve taken a walk in nature and not spend a cent, or after a rushed ride in traffic to a mall to buy new clothes you don’t need? We think, we can have it all: our walk in nature, the abundance of clothes. It isn’t so. If you want the world to continue with a sense of sanity, do with less.
I’m going on a long trail walk and do just that, get away from the news version of the world and see the world through my eyes, not the eyes of the news media. I hope and know, I will find a new purpose.
Send the government home, let’s start over again, let’s get along among ourselves.
If you want to follow me on the trail, go to Wordpress, https://walkingwoman50plus.com
Are you a walker? I challenge you to find the story of a place. If you find it, it may give you a reason to go on. I found a story as I walked with a group of women on a walking trail in a nearby town. It was a Sunday and near a parking lot the Compassion Highway Project (CHP) was setting up to distribute food and clothing for the homeless. A long line of people, in their twenties and thirties waited patiently. We walked by with our bags full of trash picked up that morning along the walking trail where many of them live. When you’re homeless, you don’t have a trashcan. A man and woman passed us. They smelled and were as dirty as long distance hikers after three weeks on the trail without washing. I wondered when this man and woman would get their next shower, a roof over their head, a bathroom to use? Remembering my long dusty summer hikes, I thought, we all are just one or two major circumstances away from homelessness
My story could end here, a story about compassion and caring for the homeless.
But the story doesn’t end. As we walked along the creek glittering in the late winter sun, Canadian geese rose from the water and flew up to the sky only to land again 10 feet further along the bank. In the Rogue Valley where I live, the Canadian geese don’t migrate. The geese find enough open water and food to stay and survive. They’re called resident Canadian geese. Like the resident geese population, the homeless population has exploded along the greenway that runs north along Bear Creek in our valley. It doesn’t get dangerously cold here in the winter, and every Sunday the CHP distributes free food under the overpass near the creek. Why leave when they hand free food out and you can find shelter in nature? Along the riverbed they erect shanty structures made of plastic and cardboard, a tent here and there, and even a plastic teepee made with poles from the abundant trees that grow along the creek. The teepee has vines growing on its side and an umbrella above the smoke hole to keep out rain. Smoke is rising, it must be warm in the teepee. Along the creek the walkway is littered with garbage, food and drink containers, medical packaging, including needles, and an abandoned shopping cart here and there. Canadian geese can be a nuisance as they produce a copious amount of bodily waste. So is the homeless situation producing a copious amount of garbage (costing $4000 a month to remove it by city patrol I’m told). By giving the homeless food, clothing, and money we inadvertently support the homeless lifestyle. We offer warmed shelters when the nights get below freezing. But we complain about the homeless when we face the results under bridges and along walking paths created for outdoor enjoyment and for exercise.
Maybe this is a story about compassion creating a problem.
A tense debate about the migrant issue is raging in our political world. Shall we call it an emergency? Build a wall? People, like birds, try to survive.
When too many Canadian geese land, a bio mess shows up along our lakes, ponds and rivers. Protected as they are, we can’t shoot them. We’re always lagging with our policies to protect and support vulnerable populations and once we have a policy the slow administrative machine can’t adapt to changes that take place and need attention. So we do what humans with an altruistic bend have always done, we support - temporary and partially - those who are suffering.
Let's give this story a dramatic turn. What if we don’t support them?
Like the birds, the homeless will migrate if there isn‘t enough food and shelter. Humans have migrated as long as they’ve been on the planet. Migration shows the human entrepreneurial spirit and will to survive. Migrants find new opportunities and they integrate in society. What if we stopped dabbing at the wound of homelessness, pooled our resources, paid our share to offer housing, education and training to get the homeless off the street and into a job? What if we accept that a certain group always needs our support to stay alive, a group of people that will never thrive on their own?
The climax of the story: Solve the problem for the long run and take back your backyard
A wall won’t keep migrants out. They’ll climb over, tunnel under or learn to fly like the geese and land where food, water and shelter is available. A program that processes claims for asylum and offers work opportunities, will absorb the flow without creating more misery. Food distributions don’t stop the homeless problem. Food distributions tied to decent shelter and skills training funnels the problem toward solving it. Other countries have shown that this solution works. Government programs and appropriated taxes can solve the homeless problem. If you don’t believe in government programs, I leave you with partial humanitarian dabbing at the wound of homelessness.
The moral of the story found on my walk: homelessness is a complex issue. Complex issues need multi-prong approaches. Round-ups and walls don’t solve the problem.
I hope the story I found along the Greenway will encourage you to act toward clearing up the problem. I hope we can take back our greenway for what it was intended: a place in nature where residents can walk without fear and enjoy nature.
The Wanderers Night song
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
THOU who comest from on high,
Who all woes and sorrows stillest,
Who, for twofold misery,
Hearts with twofold balsam fillest,
Would this constant strife would cease!
What are pain and rapture now?
To my bosom hasten thou!
On a recent winter morning with a partial government shutdown and a world full of “strife”, I went cross-country skiing in the woods around Hyatt lake near my home. I had to abort my cross-country ski-tour because the tracks were filled with conifer debris because of the soaring 25-50 mile an hour winds that were rocking the trees of the forest. Even though the trees protected me from the wind surges, when I heard the loud creeks around me and a loud cracking of one giant as if the world was coming apart, I knew it was safer to return to my car. Once there, I wasn’t ready to leave the forest; I walked from my parked car through the wooded campground to the lake. The woods, uniform in their winter green color, towered over me and only let their tops sway. These woods are my refuge when in the bustle of daily life I lose my connection to what life is about. The trees in the woods are a reminder of summer nights spent sleeping among them in my hammock, a memory of overcoming fear of the unknown, of letting myself become part of nature.
Around 1820-30 German poet and writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe allegedly went into the woods of the Etterberg, near Weimar, his hometown and sit under a mighty oak tree alone or with his lover and let nature soothe him. Goethe alleged wrote “The wanderers night song” under that same tree.
The famous oak tree was the only tree left standing when the forest of Etterberg was cut to make room for concentration camp Buchenwald in 1937. It was the only tree the prisoners saw from inside the camp. The mighty oak died alongside the prisoners as it became bleached from lack of water and isolation and by 1944 was barren. The bare boned trunk burnt in an allied bombing just before they liberated the camp in 1945.
Goethe’s poem may cause the reader to think Goethe is talking to God (comest from on high, who all woes and sorrows stillest), but you could attribute it to Love in its purest sense that enters us when we meet someone or experience something with whom or which we make that out-of-the-ordinary connection.
As I trudged through the snow, the frozen lake opened before me and showed me a display in white, gray and blue. A field of dried mullein stalks let their decaying bodies stand together on the edge of the lake against a threatening stormy sky in an eerie beauty of death, a reminder of pencil thin bodies, emaciated from hunger and hard work waiting for their death in a different forest, a different country, Buchenwald in Germany. Even though Buchenwald means beech forest, I like to think of another translation of this word: book forest - German word “buch” means book in English -, since camp Buchenwald was built around the mighty oak tree Goethe, a writer of books frequented. The forest inspired Goethe. Forests inspire me, help me connect. As I walked back from the mullein cemetery following someone’s snowshoe tracks, I felt a sudden surge of love in this forest, where these trees stand together, hold each other up, protect the young ones below and sway their tops in the mighty winds. And I wished we as people could stand together, hold each other up, nurture our young and give oxygen so life can continue. Goethe was right in saying:
“THOU who comest from on high,
Who all woes and sorrows stillest,
Who, for twofold misery,
Hearts with twofold balsam fillest,
Would this constant strife would cease!”
On my way back to my car I followed what I thought was an exit road. It wasn’t, and I ended up on a detour and a momentary realization how easy one can get lost in the dark woods, where the trees look alike, where direction is circular and the sun doesn’t shine. The woods hold both sides of the coin of living, danger and connection. I found the camp bathroom buildings that led me back to a road I recognized. If only our politicians, our opposing parties, our allies and our enemies could take a walk in these woods on a cold winter day and reflect on the strife that fills their life. I wish the mighty trees would bring them blissful peace and give them a warning about how small their power really is.
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I take the concept of transformation-travel loosely. Any way you move through your day, be it literal movement from one place to another, or travel from one moment to another with awareness, it can change your perception and change you as a person. Done with intent, the change is more noticeable. Since listening a month ago to a TED radio hour program about where joy hides in our brain, I’ve been on a little journey of finding joy during the holiday season. I’ve long ago left the experience of finding joy in a church with bells ringing, voices resounding in an arched cupola with my eyes on a colorful stained glass window. At my age I’m no longer a candidate for holiday cocktail parties with a sleek sequined shiny dress finding joy in a glass in my hand. Instead, I’ve been paying attention and recording shapes, colors, abundance, sounds, and movements that produce a jump for joy inside me. Joy differs from happiness, is momentary, and relates to a feeling of aliveness. Happiness is more enduring. It rises out of the ability to do something, to have or engage in a relationship. It often signals potential, a promise for the future. A whole bunch of joyful moments strung together produce happiness.
This is what I’ve learned as I went around finding joy:
The holidays full of sparkles, lights, glitter and round balls on the tree are a sampling of ways we can find joy if we are open to it. Not only do the sparkles and lights offset the darkness of winter, they are a sample of how we can keep a feeling of joyful aliveness if we look for it, even after the holidays. Donald Hebb, a psychologist once said, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” This means that the more you find and experience joy, the more your synapses thicken and “remember” the positive moment.
You can change your brain AND your experience of living by seeking joyful moments. Go find the surprises of light and abundance in nature, move your body and feel the joy of the movement, sit in quiet contemplation to empty your mind and let joy arise, look at the shape of the moon, surrounded by thousands of sparkling stars in the night sky, surround yourself with brilliant flowers, let your hands curve around a face you love, wrap an arm around a shoulder of a friend. Find your aliveness and share your joy.
To listen to the TED Radio hour on Joy go here: https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/668359164/where-joy-hides
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