Plan B

A couple of weeks ago I had my first “dump truck” on the river. That’s raft-guide jargon for hitting a rapid in such a way as to make one side of the raft dip down (or the other side get much higher) so that the raft nearly flips over but doesn’t, and instead just dumps everyone (in this case, guide included) out of the raft and into the river. Everyone was fine- I was able to swim to my raft, pull myself back into it, and eventually get the three awesome women I was guiding all back into my boat before we had to run the last two good rapids of the day. We got through the rest of the river without major incident, but as the adrenaline began to wear off, I realized that I’d tweaked something in my back. As it turns out, I damaged my “QL” muscle and spent the better part of more than a week walking and moving as little as possible as I waited as patiently as I could for everything to heal. Even now, more than two weeks later, I’m still not back to 100% and am still not back on the river and at this point, I have all of my fingers and toes crossed that I will get a few more days of guiding in before we wrap up our time here in Reno-Tahoe and move onto wherever we head next.

But I digress.

As they say, “the wind from one door closing opens another” and while I hope I’m not done rafting just yet, these weeks of rest have reminded me how beneficial (and productive!) a bit of real down-time can be. It’s also reminded me how vitally important it is to have a “plan b,” a list of things that interest and stimulate and energize us when life doesn’t go according to plan. As it turns out, injury (or illness or grief or job difficulties or…or…or…) happens to the best of us and it can be easy to allow a few days of sitting around at home to begin to take a downward spiral toward a feeling of purposelessness and stagnation. I remember how lost I felt all those years ago when I first started chemotherapy and my body, which I’d relied on not only to carry backpacks and guide rafts to make my living but also to run through the woods and climb rocks and ride bicycles to keep my emotional self balanced, began to be unable to do all of the things that I’d built my identity (and mental health) around. I didn’t know who I was when I couldn’t move my body with the same strength and dexterity I was accustomed to and this lead to a bit of an emotional crisis that I’m only now, nearly fifteen years later, fully grasping.

While I’m in a much different place in my life now and this injury doesn’t carry nearly the terror or long-term incapacity that came with cancer, I can feel tiny echoes and reminders of how detrimental feeling purposeless can be. It’s lead to some fascinating conversations and I’ve drawn a few preliminary conclusions from talking with others who have experienced similar setbacks:

~ We need purpose in our life. Period. I’ve talked about this here on the blog before, but for a long while now, I’ve believed that the key to “happiness” is not an overabundance of leisure time, but rather challenge and purpose. Where I think sometimes people go wrong with this is in thinking that their purpose has to have some level of grandiosity to it. If you feel a deep calling to facilitate peace in the Middle East, then please, by all means, forge ahead with my admiration and best wishes. But if your purpose is to re-read the entirety of the Little House On The Prairie books or clean out your garage or learn to speak conversational French or make restaurant-quality pad thai, then that counts. It can change whenever you want and you can course correct in whatever way works for you. Just. Do. SOMETHING. And then, when you are done, go do something else. And while you’re at it, make sure that if your current purpose gets derailed, that you have a few more ideas waiting in the wings so that you can switch gears when you need to.

~ “Find Your Passion” is a crock of shit. Elizabeth Gilbert was far, FAR more eloquent than I am when she addressed this in her absolutely-fantastic-if-you-haven’t-read-it-yet-do-so-right-this-very-second book Big Magic, but the gist of things is that for most of us, we don’t have some single clearcut passion that drives us (if you do, then I’m thrilled for you! Congrats! Go pursue that!). For most of us, finding our purpose(s) means that when something is interesting to us, we check it out. And maybe we pursue it for a bit. Wander around a bookstore…do you gravitate to a certain section? Gravitate away. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book or walked away from a conversation thinking, “I wonder what all goes into building a boat with hand tools/ how hard it is to play the banjo/ if I could draw a cartoon of a cat…?” Look it up. We all carry tiny little Google machines in our pockets…within those little Google machines lives an app called You Tube. Everything you’ve ever wanted to learn is available there for free. Okay, MOST everything. Even better…make use of the resources around you. Public libraries are a THING, y’all. Stop by yours, get a library card, and look at their events calendar. There is a better-than-decent chance that something is happening that feels at least mildly interesting to you. And following that interest is how you figure out a purpose and perhaps a passion. Or google “adult learning” or “community/ continuing education” or some variation to find classes in your area. I’ve found everything from art classes to classes on computers and how to book travel and wild food foraging and beyond. There are often free movie nights and lectures and options that cost you nothing beyond marking your calendar and showing up. Which leads me to…

~ Even us introverts need some community. I am an introvert by nature. People often don’t think that because I’m outgoing and enjoy people and love to have great conversation with friends over dinner, but at the end of they day, I need quiet alone time to fill my tank and almost ALWAYS want to cancel any and all plans that require that I put on pants and interact with humans. I’m energized and fulfilled by my own company and tend to get my best creative ideas and work done when I have plenty of time alone. But. That tendency can lead us to isolate ourselves past the point of being healthy. Sometimes I get downright irritated with myself for obligating myself to a weekly drawing class or a coffee date with a new acquaintance, but these sorts of interactions are, indeed, important. Its been shown over and over that connecting to others and having some sense of community is necessary for our general well-being, especially as we get older, and it really is worthwhile to suck it up and put your damn pants on.

~ It’s unlikely that your “plan b” will drop out of the sky and into your lap. This is really a variation on the second bullet point, but let me hammer the point home again. We have to do the work. If you don’t have any interests at all, you aren’t looking very hard (or you have a mental illness that should be addressed by a professional…seriously, one of the most common signs of depression is a sense of listlessness and disinterest, so if this is you, please, PLEASE go talk to someone…it doesn’t have to be this way and you can’t do it on your own, help is out there and I implore you to find it). But barring mental illness, the idea that you’ve already been exposed to all the possible interests in the world and none of them is for you is ludicrous. Don’t expect purpose to find you…take an active role in finding out what lights you up (see the above suggestions to get started!).

~ If you are stuck at home or in bed or have limited mobility, make use of technology- it’s your bridge. We live in an age of technology. Often this technology is lamented as we feel overwhelmed by things beeping at us or overstimulating us or we allow ourselves to get sucked down the rabbit-warren as we scroll through social media or dive headlong into the black hole that is mindless internet surfing. But all of this technology has a good side and often that good side comes in the form of connection. Either connecting us with other humans or with the knowledge or tools to learn and grow. Skype or FaceTime can put you face to face with people all over the world. Try an online meetup or perhaps a group such as a book club. There are audiobooks (by the way, these are often available for free from your local library as are e-reader books that you can instantly download...just sayin') and online classes (I also like these and these, or what about learning a new language or for free here?). Screen time doesn’t HAVE to be mindless. Avail yourself of the benefits of our technological age. 

At the end of the day, it’s unlikely that any of us will live out our lives without ever hitting a hiccup of some sort, whether it’s an injury or illness that limits our movement, or a career change or retirement or moving to a new place. We feel untethered and unsure of what to do with ourselves and it’s easy to hang out in the intersection of indecision. But that intersection is a good place to get hit by a bus if we’re not careful, so it’s often better to pick a path and begin down it, even if we realize it’s not the right one for us and have to veer off to find a different one. 

As I eagerly await my back’s full healing and a return to the river and the running and activities that are at the heart of why we chose to hit the road in the first place, I will implement my plan b and switch gears to discover and pursue the unknown worlds that are available to me. I will follow my curiosity and make the most of this time of rest. Because the alternative is misery, and, well, who the hell wants that?  

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A few shots of a hike we took a couple days before my “dumptruck”…we left from the Galena Creek Visitor Center, less than 30 minutes from our RV park, and walked an easy nine-mile loop over the course of a few hours. It was a lovely reminder of the beauty that lays right outside our door...

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Lately...

...we've been soaking in this springtime sunshine and forcing time to slow down to our pace...

It Was Enough

We woke early and poured our steaming coffee into travel mugs to go. We loaded up food and the little bit of gear that doesn’t live in the truck and hit the blue backroads, eager to leave the highway and the press of people behind us.

We drove in the morning light, winding through the scrubby ranch land and feeling muscles we hadn’t realized were bunched tight begin to loosen and relax. We rode along in companionable silence, taking in the passing mesquite and herds of cattle chewing the rough grass. The land was rolling and golden and dotted with livestock and cactus under a wide bluebird sky.

We arrived and frowned at the crowded parking lot, hoping our quest for quiet wasn’t in vain and determined to make the most of what silence we could find. Veering away from the summit trail, we ambled with our slow-moving mutt until she’d clearly had enough and laughingly loaded her into our newest carrying contraption for a 35-pound dog. We relished the noticeable absence of road noise and smiled warmly at the few people we saw on the trail…it’s hard to stay mad at like-minded souls.

The going was easy but slow with our furry load. We didn’t mind. As we walked, we began to talk. Of nothing, of everything. Of this life we’ve chosen for ourselves and its ups and downs. Of our plans and our uncertainties. Of the work we do and the work we crave and the work we love. Of the work of love. Of fear and courage and honesty. Of space and wildness and how to cradle the feral in ourselves.

When we were through with the walking, we made our way to an open place to rest for the night. Justin chopped wood for our fire and I gathered words and light and the peace of silence again washed over us. As the night rose dark, we were staggered by the stars in their multitudes, jostling for place in the desert sky. The pond frogs and cicadas bellowed, drowning out all other sound, and we listened to their stories as we watched Orion and his constellation companions move across the night.

In the morning we woke to daybreak peering through the truck cap’s windows, nudging us out of our sleeping bag cocoons and into the shining, dew covered day. We snuggled deeper and smiled at one another, caffeinated with the simple joy of a night spent outside. Eventually we climbed out and our smiles spread to the sprawling live oak tree we’d camped beneath, the golden rim of the cactus patches, the cardinals fighting for attention in the straw-like grass. We waited for water to boil and then coffee to brew and there was pleasure in the waiting.

We refilled our travel mugs to go and wandered back the way we’d come, unloading what was left of the food and the gear that doesn’t live in the truck. We waved to our neighbors and let the distant roar of the highway move itself to the background as we resumed the duties of home. 

It wasn’t an epic adventure. There were no summits bagged, no miraculous vistas, no trials of man and nature. It was a simple outing- just a bit of walking and a bit of fire and a bit of quiet. But it was enough to unkink our necks and our shoulders and our weary souls and fill us with the everyday miracles of pond frogs and cicadas and the stars in their multitudes. It was enough to allow our laugh to come easier, our patience to last longer, our kindness to extend farther.

It wasn’t an epic adventure, but it was enough.

Carry Me

We just needed some time outside. Some quiet hours spent among trees and rocks, where the dings of "smart" phones and the glare of computer screens couldn't quite reach us. And we needed to see mountains. Any mountains, so long as the earth rose up to touch sky.

So we went. 

We skipped the traffic jams and the gathering around food. We skipped the football games and political arguments. We skipped the time with family and friends. We traded those things, some of which we love, for a dirt road that ended at a trailhead and a path that led up.

It wasn't an impressive hike. Tumbledown Mountain is an absolutely wonderful place with the incredible reward of a stunning mountaintop lake at the top and is one of my very favorite day hikes in Maine. But on this day, the skies were a flat grey, the leaves had fallen, and the snow was a mediocre dusting that only hinted at the winter glory to come. 

Our dog, convinced that walking outdoors for more than ten minutes is an act of torture that we concoct solely to inflict pain upon her, wanted no parts of our plans. We put her little booties on her delicate paws, but around the half-mile point, she began to sit down and refuse to walk- she does this when she's decided she's had enough. So we carried her (and by "we" I mean "Justin", of course). 

Up we inched, intermittently putting Tessie down to "let" her walk at her crawling pace. There is simply no hurrying this dog, so we let go and slowed down. We looked around. We talked. We dreamed. We made plans. We laughed at our pathetic dog. We paused to watch as the snowflakes began to fall, just a few at a time. We saw no one. We heard no one. Our phones didn't ding or beep or ring. Only the wind and the trees and the little brooks of bubbling, half-frozen water broke the silence surrounding us. 

Even carrying her, we were moving too slow to be able to make the short hike to the top and back before darkness fell, so we turned around short of the mountaintop lake on whose banks we'd planned to eat our peanut butter and jelly feast of thanksgiving. But we laughed at our fluffy excuse for a mutt and snuggled her as we walked and held hands as we made our way back down. 

Because it was never really the summit or even the lakeside view that we were really after. It was quiet. It was slowing down. It was the beauty found among the trees even in their "ugliest" season. It was uninterrupted time together. It was laughter. It was a break from technology. 

It was the moments that carry me through the rest of my days, through the busy-ness and demands of work and life, that we were seeking and it was those moments that we found, once again, at the end of a long dirt road where a trail led upward.

The Grandeur We Behold

Labor Day was Monday and it seemed that all the world was basking in the sunshine and cool breezes, out and about and determined to suck the marrow from the last hoorah of summer.

I found myself wondering about the roots of this holiday, where this weekend that so universally, though unofficially, marks the end of summer came from. So, in the way of super cool kids everywhere, I looked it up on the Department of Labor’s website. This is what I found:

"Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."

Later, the article quotes one of the contested founders as suggesting a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” While I take exception to the 19th century idea that the manipulation of nature for the sole purpose of benefitting and profiting mankind was to be celebrated, I do think that a re-interpretation of his words contain a deep truth: that our own labors and hard work can transform our own own “rude natures” into real grandeur to behold. 

We all know that this is true in the “doing your work” sense of addressing our personal and emotional baggage through everything from therapy to stress-management, etc. But I mean this in the more literal sense of labor and work…in the work of our chosen professions and the work of goal-setting, literally getting shit done.

I think it should be obvious if you’ve ever talked with me for more than five minutes or read anything I’ve written that I am quite firmly in the camp of believers that life is meant to be utterly lived and enjoyed. But I no longer believe that the path of enjoyment or fulfillment or real, lasting happiness is a life of unlimited leisure. On the contrary, I think too much empty leisure is often a good recipe for discontent, listlessness, and dissatisfaction. 

Whether it’s the labor of pursuing excellence in a field or profession that fascinates and excites you, or training for a marathon, or learning to play the viola, or simply the work involved in actually noticing your life and being present with it, there is real joy in work well and truly done. In his book, The Happiness of Pursuit, Chris Guillebeau explores the idea that it’s the pursuit of a challenging quest that brings real and lasting happiness to our lives (by the way, if you haven’t checked out his work, do it- he’s awesome). Alistair Humphreys brings this idea to life over and over in his work, and I am constantly inspired by his investment in small, close to home adventures as well as big, life-altering ones (check out his most recent quest where he taught himself the violin and then busked his way across Spain, singing for his supper). 

So I've come to think of Labor Day as more than just a day to take a well-earned break and bbq with friends, but a celebration of the growth and satisfaction of pursuing our labors, of pushing ourselves to learn and excel, of exploration and discovery that can only come with peeling back the layers of what we’re capable of, of transforming our own rude natures into grandeur.

What grandeurs are you laboring to build in your life? 

Alpine Lakes and Big Tall Mountains

Is this weather making anyone else this insane to get outside? I have mountains and water on the brain these days...it's wreaking havoc on my productivity...

Mt. Yale from Mt. Harvard in Colorado's Collegiate Range

Mt. Yale from Mt. Harvard in Colorado's Collegiate Range