Marking Time

Tomorrow is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the longest night. 

I like to pay attention to such things. I like to notice when the moon is bright and full and also when it’s dark and making room for the stars to shine. I like to stop and look with wonder when the first crocuses push through the snow in spring or when the maple trees begin getting tapped and feel the stirrings of spring potential begin to rise within me as well. Or when there begins to be light late enough in the day for a post-dinner run in the woods. Or when the very edges and tips of the leaves begin to fade from green to orange or yellow or red.

I like to pay attention to the seasons and the cycles and rhythms that are always circling around us, beckoning us if we’d only pause in our bustling long enough to notice. Part of this is trying to better attune myself, my life, to the natural rhythms around me in hopes of flowing more seamlessly through the seasons and cycles of my own life, to do the work of embracing where I am right now, this age and this stage, rather than looking back on youth with rose-colored nostalgia or aging with fear and regret. I'll turn forty this spring and as I continue this shift into and through middle age, I want to appreciate the true beauty of this stage of my life honestly. To recognize this summer season and make use of its long days as I move toward the fall and then finally the winter of my fleeting existence. By noticing the seasons and cycles of the natural world, I practice drawing strength and enjoyment of each season in turn and work toward integrating those patterns into my attitudes about myself and my life and my work.

But just as important (maybe even more on a day-to-day basis) is that noticing these shifts and cycles allows me to mark time. This is absolutely vital in my life. I think it was Gretchen Rubin who famously said “the days are long but the years are short” and boy howdy, is she ever right. Between grocery shopping and deadlines and dealing with the laundry and cooking dinner and the general minutia of daily life, I often feel like weeks go by where I fall into bed too late and the alarm goes off too early and the days begin to blur together taking care of I’m-not-exactly-sure-what. The pause to notice the moon or the tides or the smell of woodsmoke or lilacs on the air helps me roll back that blur and see the days that make up my weeks, the weeks that make up my months, my years, my life.

I find myself naturally turning inward this time of year. The long nights and the end of the calendar year simply lend themselves to reflection, to looking back over the year, over the hundreds of days of errands and alarms and conversations and hugs and all the things we did and didn’t do. After tomorrow the sun will begin its return, each day growing infinitesimally longer, and it’s impossible not to turn toward the year ahead with fresh hope and resolve, to see the renewal of spring off on the horizon, even while we allow ourselves the space and rest of long winter nights.

Tomorrow is the longest night of this year that is drawing to its close. I will take the pause and I will mark the time, ever grateful for the reminder to be right where I am.

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Have you ever seen the incredible geothermals of Yellowstone? Make sure you get there someday if you haven't yet- they must be experienced in the flesh, the warm sulfurous clouds that kiss your cheeks as they pass through you, the jewel-blue pools and their mysterious depths, the white mineral crusts on the tree trunks. It's ethereal and primeval and taps something primitive. Get there. 

Traffic

“You aren’t stuck in traffic, you ARE traffic. Get a bike.”

I saw these words on a billboard next to a busy highway once and while at the time they simply struck me as funny, they have stuck with me over the years. We complain about crowds in the places we want to go, conveniently forgetting that we ARE the crowds, and we overlook solutions that might remove us from adding to the density.

On our way here to Reno, we stopped at the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t my first visit there, nor Justin’s, but it was the first time either of us had allotted a mere day for the visit. It is a famously crowded park and a destination for people from all over the world. There are cameras and selfie sticks and plenty of people who have never spent any time in the outdoors. And I will be the first one to admit that I felt irritated at the lines and cars and crowds. We hiked a portion of the South Kaibob Trail and never for a moment found ourselves out of hearing or sight range of any number of other people.

We knew going in that we were making rookie mistakes, that we were setting ourself up for exactly the experience of the Grand Canyon that we got. But we had several factors that had to be considered, from our travel schedule to having our dog with us to time for the other places en route where we wanted to visit.  The Grand Canyon got the short end of the stick, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to skip it altogether.

And so we became “traffic.”

That experience got me thinking about that billboard and things we might have done differently as well as other times when we did do better and I thought I’d share a few thoughts on how to “get a bike”:

1. Pick your timing with care. Because of when we left Texas and had to be in Reno for work, we didn’t have much flexibility when it came to the Grand Canyon. If we could have waited another two weeks, the North Rim would have been open, which is significantly less crowded  than the South Rim (where we were). We saw this in action a few years ago when we visited Florence, Italy in February. While the weather was a bit brisk and it drizzled on us a few times, it was certainly much milder than the Maine winter we’d left behind. And our vast rewards included no lines at the Uffizi, sitting in the room with the David with only a handful of other people present, and having Michelangelo’s Pieta all to ourselves for nearly 40 minutes. No crowds on the Ponte Vecchio or the Piazza Michelangelo or in the Duomo…or anywhere, really. For the price of having to wear a jacket, we never felt rushed or claustrophobic when seeing any of the sights that one comes to Florence to see. And it was all due to the timing.

2. Wake up early. Sometimes hitting a location during the high season simply can’t be helped. This is the time to consider waking up much earlier than usual and heading out while most tourists are sleeping in and lounging over breakfast. We left our campground in Flagstaff much later in the morning than we’d intended and found ourselves pulling up to the gates of Grand Canyon National Park alongside hundreds of other cars. And then waiting for buses to the trailhead alongside hundreds of other people. And then hiking alongside those same hundreds. Had we arrived at the park at sunrise, we certainly wouldn’t have been alone, but we likely would have enjoyed moments of solitude, which can change the feel of an experience significantly. When I traveled to Prague for work several years ago, I remember being overwhelmed my first afternoon by the throngs at the Charles Bridge and Old Town Square- it felt as if the press of people would suffocate me and I was distracted from noticing the gorgeous stones of Prague's ancient buildings or the craftsmanship of the Astrological Clock. The next morning I woke before the sun rose and made my way to those very same places, my solitude interrupted only occasionally by someone passing by on their way to work or the bread truck pulling up to one of the cafes near the Square. In that quiet, I could truly connect to this famous city and the places within it, a feeling that I was able to carry with me even when the hour grew later and the crowds thickened once more. This has been true time and time again and I have never regretted waking up early to find a little space.

3. Pick an alternative site (trail/museum/city). Okay, this isn’t always a realistic option. After all, if you’ve traveled to see the Grand Canyon, no other canyon will quite do. If the Trevi Fountain in Rome is the lifelong dream you are finally realizing, then a small mountain village won’t quite cut it. But if we’d planned (and budgeted) a little differently, there are one or two single-day rafting trips in the Grand Canyon. While they might not have the full appeal of the longer trips, seeing the Canyon from the river is simply an entirely different (and far less crowded) experience than hiking the South Kaibob Trail. Even better would be a longer river trip or planning ahead to acquire a backcountry permit and spending a night or two in the park, since the vast majority of our fellow tourists are only passing through and don’t tend to make it far past the usual spots. Similarly, if Florence is jam-packed with tourists in the summer, consider one of the smaller villages dotting the Italian countryside instead and perhaps experience a more intimate connection to Italy as well as avoid being pushed through a site en masse. Or skip the Uffizi in favor of a visit to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, a much smaller and less visited museum filled with sculptures that once called the Duomo and Baptistry home (including the Pieta that Justin and I got to enjoy in solitude for so long). It can be worthwhile to pause in the planning to think carefully about what it is you really want to see at a given location and to consider an alternative way to experience it.

4. Suck it up, Buttercup. Sometimes there is simply nothing for it, we are simply “traffic" and there is no good way within the constraints of our travel limitations to “get a bike.” So the only changeable thing is our mindset and our attitude unless we want to forego the location altogether. To look around at our fellow tourists and stop considering them an impediment that frustrates us and instead thinking of them as co-participators in a shared experience. By virtue of the fact that we are standing in the same location, having gone to some effort to be there, we can begin with the sure knowledge that we share something in common with each person we are there beside. I wrote briefly of this in a caption on Instagram last year when I was visiting Athens for work: often the touristy spots are popular for good reason and sometimes it’s simply worth enduring a little claustrophobia in order to see them. I would truly have missed something spectacular had I opted to forego the Parthenon while there, despite the throngs and their selfie-sticks. And sometimes a smile and an offer to take someone’s photo for them can lead to conversation and recommendations and cut through the frustration of so many people and elevate a “tourist” experience to a “travel” experience. When we were in India and waited upwards of four hours for the office selling passes to the Dalai Lama’s teaching to open, it was the experience of the other people waiting alongside us that made those four hours one of my most cherished travel memories ever. Stay open and grateful to be able to be visiting a treasured location in the first place and foster an atmosphere of sharing and cooperation instead of competition and scarcity. 

Our Grand Canyon visit wasn’t our most ideal way to spend time in such a moving and wild place and we would love to have had the time and notice to get a backcountry permit. But alongside hundreds of other people who were as eager as we were to stand for a moment in the presence of geologic splendor, we were gifted with the opportunity to pause at the edge of the very grandest of canyons and feel small, to remember that both our egos and our failures are blips in the grand scheme of time and space and importance. 

Traffic or not, that’s always worth waiting in line for.

Dreaming...

...of pink skies and flowing water and all that the coming year might hold.

Farewell, 2016.

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