Desert Rains

For days now it has been raining here in the Sonoran Desert. There have been moments of downpour, but it has mostly been a quiet, insistent rain, steady and soft and unceasing. Flowing Wells Wash runs next to our little RV park, under the railroad tracks and down towards the road and I’ve watched as it transformed from dusty ditch to tumbling stream. Water has pooled in every dip, every dimple, reluctant to sink into the hard and unyielding earth. The mighty winds that proceeded the storm seems to have pushed back the unseasonably warm temperatures and it is cool and damp and raw on this February morning, even as the rain recedes and the sun tries to push some watery light through the mist and overcast skies.

The desert has sprung to life. The creosote has filled the air with the very essence of the smell of rain, earthy and fresh and sharp. The ocotillo has sprouted tiny leaves overnight and the palo verde has deepened its green into a rich, Dr. Suess inspired color. The birds are ecstatic and their songs drown the distant rumble of traffic and trains. They are deafening as they sing in celebration, the cactus wrens and mourning doves and white-throated swifts, the golden plovers and vermilion flycatchers and even the flighty Gila woodpeckers as they race in and out of their homes in the stalwart saguaros. The small creatures scurry, jackrabbits dart behind the jojoba and bursage and pocket mice horde the short-lived windfall in their nests beneath the prickly pear. Even the coyotes could be heard in the wee hours, yipping their gratitude for the wealth of water.

This desert landscape is a relative to the dust-bowl survivor, to the grandmother who tells stories of the Great Depression as she eyes her stock of canned goods protectively. There is no room for waste, for ingratitude here. Every drop of water is earmarked for survival. The lazy or slothful don’t last long and the desert is short on second chances.

This is the lesson, and the desert teaches it well. Opportunity doesn’t wait, doesn’t hang around hoping we will eventually recognize its proffered gifts and take advantage of them. Opportunity often arrives in the midst of high wind and a bit of chaos, blowing around the order in our lives, and presents a small door to the observant, a fleeting invitation to do the work that can mean our deepest sort of survival. It is to be celebrated with song and scurry, and allowed to bring richness to the colors in our lives. Because work doesn’t have to be drudgery- it can be a gathering, a washing clean, an elixir that nourishes our parched hearts. 

It won’t take long for the last dewy remnants of this rain to soak into the soil, for the ocotillo to drop its newly sprouted leaves and the palo verde to fade back to its usual shade. We can batten down the hatches and simply hunker down through the storms of our lives- wait, protected, until the status quo returns. Or we can take the lesson the desert offers and step into the rain, listen for the quiet and insistent invitations to grow, to thrive, that are hidden in the discomfort and thrown about by the winds.

 

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On the road west...we craned our necks for days across the prairie center, on the lookout for the first sign that mountains had returned. Hours after crossing into Colorado, we saw them peeking up along the horizon... 

2017 In Pictures

I will warn you right out of the gates...this post is a beast! So. Many. Photos. But 2017 was a big year and these images still barely skim the surface. In a nutshell...

  • We visited 22 national parks and monuments (and a bunch more state parks, national forests, and wild and scenic rivers!)
  • We road-tripped a total of just over 12,000 miles (these are road-trip miles, not the miles put on in daily life or excursions made from where we were located at the time...our truck actually put on more than double that!)
  • We lived in 4 locations: Alna, Maine / New Braunfels, Texas / Reno, Nevada / Hollis, New Hampshire
  • We took just shy of 13 weeks of designated vacation time total, generally in three-week increments
  • We visited six whiskey/bourbon distilleries (and more micro-breweries than I could even begin to quantify...)
  • We spent more than 50 nights sleeping outdoors either in a tent or the back of the truck (the camper doesn't count and I stopped counting calendar dates when I hit 50...)
  • I guided close to forty whitewater trips down the Truckee River (with just the one "dump-truck" that ended my rafting season!)
  • I shot more than 25,000 images for myself and for clients

There are a million things I can't count...number of campfires sat around, wildlife seen in action, hours spent in the hammock, friends visited and made, belly laughs, wrong turns, gps failures, mountain lakes swam in, moments of awe, moments of growth, moments of clarity.  

This year was harder and better and fuller than I've had in longer than I can guess and I am deeply proud of what we've done with our time. As we begin winding up our time here in New Hampshire and prepare to head west in just a few short weeks to pick up the camper and begin the next year of adventure, it's been a gift to go back through these images and my journals from the year and to step back and process just a bit. I suspect that I will continue to process these experiences for years to come, but for this one moment, I'm simply going to revel in the reflection of this year in review.

 

Maine > Texas (mid-January through April)

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Pulling away from the Alna house...

In front of our wedding venue in Williamsburg, VA...

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Let the Kentucky distillery tours begin...

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Not every night is a scenic campsite...there were plenty of Wal-mart parking lot nights this year!

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New Braunfels, Texas...

One of the perks of being in Texas was getting some time with my family, especially some outside time with my little brother!

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Texas > Nevada (May through September)

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Driving out of Death Valley's 100-degree temps and into the high Sierra's freezing ones in the same day was mind-boggling...a 70-degree difference in a matter of hours!

My love for Reno began with the bulging snowmelt currents of the Truckee...

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California > Oregon > Washington (12 days in September)

Nevada > New Hampshire (October through January 2018)

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Once back in New England, it's been a whirlwind of client work that has taken me all over this region as well as to New Orleans combined with reuniting with friends and family we haven't seen in a year. Snow and walks in the town forest and laughter over dinners with friends. I haven't had my camera out for much of the personal stuff, but I can feel that itch beginning and you can bet you'll see a bit more before we leave this place in a few short weeks...

A safe and happy New Year to all of you. My gratitude for your presence here is unceasing. Onto 2018 we fly, my friends!

A Morning Walk

I took a long walk in the woods yesterday. It was early, just after sunrise, and I’d brought Tessie along with me to pick Justin up after his night-shift at the hospital. On our way home, Justin dropped Tessie and me off at one of the entrances to the town forest so that we could walk home through the woods in the morning light.

For those of you who have never witnessed our dog walk, let’s just say that if Tessie walked any slower, she would go backwards. Seriously. She ambles and pauses and occasionally simply lays down and refuses to get up. The less-than-two-mile walk home was not going to be a “fitness walk” to say the least. But that was fine with me. I feel as though I’ve been hurrying a lot lately. Rushing about hither thither for reasons that escape me as I sit here now to write. Perhaps it’s the holiday season, all bustle and preparation. Perhaps it’s living in a household of four adults running on schedules that vary wildly, rarely a moment when someone isn’t making their way to or from. Perhaps it’s the sense I often get in December as the final days of this calendar year seem to be barreling toward me and I look with panic at the unchecked boxes on my year’s to-do list. Whatever the reason, there has just been too much rushing and we all know by now that “busy” and “productive” are not the same thing. We all know that we rarely put our best selves forward when we act from a place of urgency instead of a place of calm decision.

So I decided to take a long walk in the woods at Tessie’s pace. I let her lead as we moseyed along in the morning chill. There was just the slightest frost on the fallen leaves lining the wide bridle path trail and every now and again, one of the long, bony, fingers of light cast by the sun as it rose low on the horizon would catch one of the frosted leaf edges and set it alight and sparkling. It’s been an unseasonably warm fall here and there are still patches of green ferns dotting the forest floor as well as soft moss carpeting the tumbling rocks of the piled fieldstone walls that meander through the trees. I love those walls, so ubiquitous in New England. They are beautiful, of course, but they also make me pause to wonder about the farmers who worked so tirelessly to wrest this land from the forest, and the trees who simply would not yield their ground indefinitely. The white pines and eastern hemlocks and paper birch fill in those old cleared fields alongside sugar maples and red oaks and balsam firs. Moss and lichens cover the stones and gravity conspires with time to pull them out of their pile and return them to the ground. 

The only wildlife we spotted, despite the early hour and our slow and watchful pace, were squirrels and chipmunks. No foxes or deer or the coyotes I suspect call this forest home. But I love the little rodents despite their mischief, and I often feel downright inspired by how earnestly and unapologetically industrious they are as they scurry to and fro, always preparing for the lean times ahead. I also love their fondness for pausing in their labors to chatter a lecture at me about sloth, yelling at me for my leisurely pace, reminding me that the days grow ever shorter. They are certainly the worker bees of the woods and yet, somehow, they never manage to let their labors interfere with their curiosity. I imagine a sophisticated rodent communication pipeline where everything that happens in their forest is sent out for report.

I wandered along at Tessie’s lolling pace, tarrying with her when she stopped to sniff a twig or turn her head to the breeze so that the fur around her ears could flutter while her eyes half-closed in contentment. I breathed in the chill air and felt it in my lungs, watched its fleeting cloud as I exhaled. I listened to sounds that sing life in a forest, branches rubbing and creaking, small creatures hopping along in the papery dry leaves, the winter birds and their intermittent songs. I felt the tension that rushing brings with it begin to melt away. I gave my attention to the lectures of squirrels and the lessons of tumbling down rock walls and recalled the balance that must be struck between pursuing our labors, earnestly putting our greatest efforts forth, and keeping our curiosity and humility, lest we mistake those labors for important in the grand scheme of time. 

Mostly, I just reveled in the sublime joy of taking a minute to enjoy the fresh air and lovely trees and the pause. It took us nearly two hours to make it home and having made the choice to embrace it, to let it simply take as long as it takes, I felt released from the constant push of faster, faster, faster, more, more, more. Which was amazing. It’s not rocket science or some kind of major revelation. It was just a walk in the woods. Afterwards I poured another cup of coffee and sat down at my desk to begin what ended up being a long workday at my computer. But I didn’t mind the long workday as much as I sometimes do, and I spent a little less time than usual staring longingly out the window at the swaying trees. 

Sometimes that’s all we need to reset. Just a simple walk in the woods. Just a simple refusal to rush. That’s it. That’s all. May you find the space to do just that today. 

Happy Wednesday, y’all.

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I promise a whole slew of photos next week, but in the meantime, here's a favorite from a different walk one sweet evening in Yellowstone...

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Traditions

Green eggs and ham. 

The eggs were scrambled, enough food coloring added to complete the transition from yellow to a sort of chartreuse. Ham leftover from yesterday’s big Christmas dinner was fried in a big skillet before being piled onto a platter in the center of the kitchen table. Still in our pajamas and buzzing with the excitement of recently unwrapped gifts, Mat, Karissa, and I would pour red ketchup over green eggs, and devour one of our family’s most notable traditions- green eggs and ham for Christmas breakfast.

This wasn’t our only tradition. My dad is a talented guitarist and our family always kicked off the holiday season with friends and neighbors and a motley assortment of young sailors from the Navy base all gathered at our home late on Thanksgiving for pie and singing Christmas carols. We closed the holiday season the same way, those same neighbors returning Christmas night, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and the ringing of off-key voices filling our home. There were the usual customs, of course, cookies and stockings and decorations that become iconic over the years, the putting up of the tree and whose turn it is to place the star atop the (in our case, artificial) branches. There was midnight mass and new pajamas on Christmas Eve, and the family- my grandmother and uncle- who I can’t recall ever being absent from a childhood Christmas, no matter where the Navy sent us.

Looking back now, I can see other “traditions” at play. The late nights that my mom stayed up cleaning and fixing up the second-hand toys she’d spent Saturdays yard-saling for so that Santa could visit our home regardless of the salary the Navy paid its enlisted sailors. The careful planning, the saving of wrapping paper, the making of homemade decorations with popcorn and salt dough. How my mom, especially, had a talent for infusing the season with ritual and celebration as she went about the tasks of daily life singing along to old Statler Brothers and Kenny Rogers and Amy Grant Christmas records. 

We get older and often the holiday season begins to lose its magic. We get caught up in complaining that the decorations go up in stores earlier than we think is appropriate, or that the mall parking lots are full, or that our kids' wish lists are full of expensive technology that they disappear behind. We say to each other that the holidays just aren’t the same as when we were kids, that things just don’t sparkle like they once did. We can forget that, quite often, it was the combination of someone else’s hard work (thanks, Mom!) and our wide-eyed openness to the magic of the season that made our childhood holidays so special. When was the last time you heard an 8-year-old complain about carols playing at the grocery store in November? You don’t. They simply grin and sing along to words that fill them with excitement. 

As adults, we have to do our own hard work. We have to pull out the decorations on a Saturday morning instead of sitting on the couch continuing to scroll through our phones. We have to set aside our snarky eye-rolling and sing along to Jingle Bells for the eleven-thousandth time in our lives. We need to go to that tree-lighting and bake those cookies and watch Elf yet again and do whatever things allow us to open up to the very best parts of the season. Even better, we have the opportunity to smile at the sparkling lights and festive cheer, and then reach out further, to extend forgiveness where we once gave anger, to share our love and our compassion where we once held back, to renew our resolve to carry that love and forgiveness and compassion into the new year with us as we work to be kinder and more empathic in this world that can sometimes feel so full of pain.

For years, I put all of this off. I didn’t take any kind of active stand against the holidays, I simply didn’t put any effort in, didn’t go out of my way at all. I assumed that someday I would have kids and then I would pick up where my childhood left off, complete with Statler Brothers and Amy Grant and maybe even a little Dolly Parton thrown in for good measure. The first holiday season after I knew for certain that I would never have children, I was shocked at the waves of grief that would hit each time I realized that this would not be the case, that the images I’d carried for as long as I could remember of turning eggs a bizarre shade of green on Christmas morning to the delight of my kids would never actually take place. 

The holidays have a way of bringing our losses home to us. The absence of my grandmother and my uncle on Christmas morning reminds me every year how very much I still miss them. The shimmering ghosts of the children I thought I would raise, the mother I thought I would be, often dance at the edges of the kitchen as I bake cookies or put the star at the top of the tree. But those losses and ghosts and the bittersweet nostalgia of holidays past only lend more texture to this time of year, I find. These things allow me to see some of the scaffolding under the celebrating, erected of love and duty and hope and grief. As a child, my wonder could extend only to the magic and the gifts and the delicious food. As an adult, I can see the great depths of love and the sacrifice that provided those things for me, and my wonder can now more fully embrace true gratitude as well as the deep joy of reciprocity, of contributing and giving of my own heart and hands. 

We can continue to complain about mall crowds or consumerism. We can take offense at which words the cashier at the grocery store uses to wish us well during this season. We can sink into sadness over who is missing from our tables or how time has changed our dreams. 

Or...

We can take responsibility for our holiday season ourselves. Grief and sadness are not mutually exclusive with joy and gratitude, after all. Sometimes I think they are all more powerful when paired, actually, and to take responsibility for our holiday seasons means that we embrace the tough parts too. That we acknowledge our own pain and that of those around us so that we can add sparkle to not only our own lives, but take the opportunity to sprinkle it around for others as well. We can put up trees and string popcorn and bake delicious things that have too much sugar and butter involved. We can beam at the photos on the holiday cards that arrive in the mail and leave them up way past the season just because they make us smile. We can pay for a stranger’s coffee or leave a toy under a tree for an unknown child or stop by to sit and play checkers at a nursing home. We can choose to wait patiently in long lines and still smile and be kind to our fellow shoppers as well as the exhausted and abused clerk behind the register. We can hug the people that are at our tables and tell them an extra time or two just how much they mean to us. We can look with love at the ghosts of other lives we may have led and then turn with real and genuine gratitude at the many gifts in the lives we are actually leading. 

As for me, I think I’ll go with belting out some Statler Brothers off-key, baking up a storm, holding Justin’s hand tight, telling my family and friends how much I love them, saying thank you to anyone and everyone, and maybe even seeing if I can find organic green food coloring for my Christmas morning eggs.

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A Gratitude Practice or A Gratitude Habit?

With Thanksgiving rolling in tomorrow, the idea of gratitude is at the forefront of all of our minds. Actually, it’s not just Thanksgiving…the idea of practicing gratitude seems to be everywhere lately. Everything from self-help books to morning shows have a headline about gratitude and how to practice it, generally all summed up with a bubbly little quip. And really, there’s good reason- a daily gratitude practice has been linked in study after study to everything from heightened social connectedness to increased happiness to a general feeling of abundance and possibility. (Interested? Try this article or this one or this one or this one...) But there is a catch- it must be truly genuine.

I am an avid journaler and have been ever since keeping a journal was assigned as summer homework for my ninth-grade honors english class. My journaling has ranged from daily pages of scrawled self-involved adolescent angst to sparse entries that give little insight. There are to-do lists and travel plans and more recently sketches and watercolors tucked in between reflections written longhand. A few years ago, I added a spread each month for a gratitude log. I've kept it rather simple, just space for a single line each day to note something I feel particularly grateful for. It’s a great idea and extremely effective at bringing real warmth and appreciation and richness to my life…when I do it meaningfully.

I noticed the other day that my November gratitude log is really line after line of just something that I did that day. It contains lines of “gratitude” that say things like, “met up with friends for lunch- great conversation.” This is fine, I suppose, but it doesn’t really reflect what it is that I’m actually grateful for, does it? It doesn’t reach past the superficial and connect me to the real blessings in my life. I might have come closer to the true purpose of the exercise had I written something like, “for having the space and flexibility in my schedule to be able to have lunch with friends,” or “that I have friends who are so insightful and informed and can engage in conversation that broadens and enriches my understanding of the world,” or “that I have such amazing humans as my friends and that there is so much love and laughter in my life.” And even better would be to truly pause long enough to really reflect on those facts and let them sink in as I wrote. That’s a gratitude practice. What I’ve been doing has been a superficial habit.

I’m using the term “habit” loosely here and I realize that part of the reason for developing a gratitude practice is to create a meaningful habit of recognizing the gifts and blessings large and small that are a part of our daily lives. But in this context, I’m using “habit” as the term to describe an automatic action done with minimal thought or attention. That is what my gratitude log has become, really. When I pull out my journal to write in the mornings, I flip to my gratitude spread and quickly fill in the blank before beginning my “real” writing. Ugh. No wonder it hasn’t really resonated with me lately. 

A key piece to an effective gratitude practice is the pausing, the stopping to truly and genuinely feel deeply appreciative for something. There are days in all of our lives where all we might be able to come up with is "that this day is only 24 hours and I can begin again tomorrow," but even that can elicit a warmth and hope that helps combat the feelings of fatigue and isolation and defeat that a really rotten day can leave us with. And really, let’s face it, most of us can come up with something far better if we actually stop long enough to think about it, even on our worst days.

I am in the midst of reading (again) the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and was struck by this passage:

“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires…The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need… That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

Gratitude as a revolutionary act. I just love that so much.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t also be acknowledging and dealing with the other emotions we might be feeling, especially during this time of year that can be so charged and raw for many of us. It is possible to be grateful without downplaying pain or grief or hardship. Gratitude doesn’t require that we see the world through rose-colored blindfolds- as a matter of fact, I would argue that false cheer is the antithesis of genuine gratitude. But allowing for real and sincere and thoughtful gratitude can allow us to feel less alone or overwhelmed in our pain, a gift unto itself.

So I resolve today to stop my gratitude habit and re-commit to a meaningful gratitude practice. I will pause and reflect before I scribble. I will let the gifts of my life truly sink in and connect. I will search out the light even on the very darkest days and allow that light to penetrate the places where I’ve allowed my heart to close. 

I’m so grateful for all of you- for the time you carve out to read my words, for the community you allow me to be a part of, for the beautiful ways large and small you’ve offered me support. Thank you so very, very much for being here. Truly.

A happy and safe Thanksgiving to each of you!

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More from Grand Teton...we had some crazy weather and I just fell in love all over again with these mountains once I saw them shrouded in clouds...

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The Sierra

Did you know that the proper shortened name for the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is "the Sierra", singular, not “the Sierras,” plural? I read that shortly after we arrived in Reno, but admit to slipping back to using “the Sierras” on occasion…forgive me, I’m working on it.

I’m heading home today from a whirlwind ten days in the PNW followed by a fantastic visit with a dear friend in North Carolina, so while you’re in the business of forgiving me, please add “didn’t write a blog post this week” to my sins and enjoy these images from a quick weekend getaway we took with our friend, Geoff, a few weeks ago in the Sierra (see? I’m improving already!). We hit up the fantastic Sierra Butte firetower and pretty much every lake in the immediate vicinity, most notably Upper Sardine Lake (the one I mentioned a few weeks ago)!

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