A Simple Act of Kindness

Plump, swollen, frustrated tears formed around the edge of my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. I sat beside the riverbed, the misty rain beginning to chill my bones, feeling utterly defeated as I held our broken water filter in my mosquito-bitten hands. I had been trying to get the pump to work for nearly twenty minutes, all to no avail. I pushed myself up, wiped the mud from my knees and headed back to our campsite.

What had already been a tough day filled with steep elevation gains, constant rain and sadistic mosquitos that could fly in the rain and bite through rain gear, was now made a whole lot worse by the realization that our primary method of water purification was broken; and the nearest road crossing was a 4 day walk from where we were. Crap.

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Yet another very wet day on the Appalachian Trail

Ale and I had been on the Appalachian Trail for 9 days, we were just beginning our 5 month journey walking on foot from Maine all the way to Georgia. Prior to this “little” adventure of ours, neither of us had really done any backpacking; we’d both done a good bit of camping before, but nothing like this. Everyday seemed to hold a new lesson about what it would take to live on the trail.

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Simple lessons learned on the trail: best technique for climbing over fallen trees

I guess you could say the mountains were “testing” us, giving us a run for our money, proving whether or not we had the wear-with-all to walk the entire 2,189 miles to Georgia. Blisters were forming on our feet and I had them appearing ominously on my collar bones, right where my 45lb overloaded backpack sat rubbing heavily. An overloaded backpack filled with everything EXCEPT a back-up water purification method…Crap.

When our water filter stopped working, we were in the middle of a remote  stretch of trail called the 100 Mile Wilderness, which is essentially 100 miles of trail with zero road access; so once you go in, it’s totally up to you to get yourself out. It’s pretty much the worst place on the entire Appalachian Trail to have a critical piece of gear, like a water filter, fail.

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Taking in the vast, expansive section of the 100 Mile Wilderness

Ale and I surveyed our options and decided to boil all of our drinking water for the next few days rather than risk a bought of giardia. We would be cutting it close, but if we took care we should have just enough fuel to get us to Monson, the first town at the end of the 100 Mile Wilderness where our first re-supply box awaited us.

The next two days were brutal. Each morning we pulled ourselves from our warm, dry sleeping bags only to be greeted by cold, damp clothing that never dried in the wet night air. The mountains battered us with steep ascents to cold, windy summits followed by slippery, knee-jarring descents. At the base of the mountains, we were met by swollen, freezing, fast-flowing rivers that had to be crossed carrying our packs overhead, soaking us to the bone. All the while the mosquitos tortured our psyche, swarming our heads and attacking any exposed flesh.

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Ale going “all in” to cross the swollen rivers and find the trail. He came back to carry my pack across, as I was afraid if I slipped it would pull me under and I’d drown

I was jolted awake on the morning of the third day sans-water filter by a terrible dream that ended with us running out of fuel. I looked around the dark and quiet lean-to, reassured that it was just a dream. We were 19 miles from Monson, about 2 days of hiking (at this point we didn’t have our “trail legs” and hiking 11 miles in one day was a pretty big deal). I pulled out our camp stove and fired it up, pouring in water to boil.

Just as the water began to boil I heard the distinct sound of the canister emptying it’s last bit of fuel and *poof* we suddenly had no way of purifying our water or cooking the rest of our food.

Once again Ale and I surveyed our options as we gulped down our half-cooked mac and cheese. After nearly a week of soaking rains the likelihood of finding any wood dry enough to start a fire was low to none. Neither of us had much drinking water left, I had maybe half a canteen and Ale had half his Camelbak. Aside from Nutri-grain bars and trail mix, the only food we had left required cooking for eating. It looked as though we would have to try to push out the last 19 miles in one day with no water.

We left camp with a sense of urgency, climbing up Mount Barren, quickly soaking in the views and moving on. The sky was finally clear and the sun was warm, a nice change from the rain, but not really helping with the thirst. We hiked onward for hours, soon running entirely out of water.

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Taking that very last sip of water

My mouth was parched as we hiked along, sweat beading up on my brow. As we came around a bend in the trail, we saw two hikers ahead of us, walking along the river. They didn’t have any backpacks, and appeared to have just hiked a short distance to check out the trail. Ale ran ahead to ask if they had any water they could spare.

Now- mind you, we are looking pretty worn and torn by now. Neither of us have had a proper shower in 12 days, we smell…simply awful. Our clothes are covered in dirt and sweat. By most accounts we probably looked a little bit crazy, suddenly emerging from the woods. However, none of that seemed to phase Jake and Gram. Without missing a beat they immediately invited us to follow them back to their campsite nearby where they had bottles of water in ice filled coolers.

Ice. Filled. Coolers. I never thought I would looks so forward to hearing those three words. But after two days drinking boiled/hot water and hours of hiking without a sip of anything, this suddenly seemed like a dream.

We followed Jake and Gram back to their campsite where we met their four other friends- Matt, Russ, Loney and Chad. All six of them had been best friends growing up, and even though they had families now and lived all over the country, once a year they had an annual guys weekend out in the woods.

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Ale and the guys

Before we had even finished introductions I had an ice cold bottle of water in one hand and a double stacked cheeseburger in the other. As we guzzled our water and inhaled our cheeseburgers, they peppered us with questions about what on earth we were doing and how we’d ended up in our current situation.  As I finished my burger, without missing a beat, they passed me another and replaced my empty water bottle with a beer.

Not only did the guys maintain a consistent flow of food and beverages along with their questions and endless jokes, but they offered to drop us in Greenville on their way back to civilization that afternoon. I was overwhelmed by their kindness, their unhesitating willingness to help and their genuine openheartedness.

As we jumped in the back of the truck bed and pulled away from the trail, the wind whipped my hair and I closed my eyes, smiling, relishing in the speed at which we could suddenly move. We’d moved so slowly for the past 12 days, to suddenly be cruising at 80MPH down the dirt logging road was exhilarating to say the least. I let out a belly laugh and watched as the forest zipped by with dizzying speed.

As promised, the guys drove us to Greenville where we were finally able to buy water treatment that would hold us over until we fixed our water filter. We offered them money for gas, which they refused, and instead they offered take us all the way to Monson (a good 20 minutes out of their way) so that we could resupply food. Their selfless generosity flowed like a swift moving river, and it lifted us up and carried us onward, momentarily allowing us to lay back and simply rest.

When we reached Monson, they wished us luck on the rest of our crazy adventure, shaking their heads and laughing as they piled back into their pickup trucks to head home to their families. Ale and I shouldered our heavy backpacks and walked toward the nearest hostel where we would sleep in a bed for the first time in nearly two weeks. My feet ached, my muscles ached, my blisters threatened to pop and my bug bites itched- but all I could feel was the lightness of my dancing heart, so thankful for the simple act of kindness from a few random strangers. For the next 2070 or so miles, this lightness would remain with me in many ways, carried forward by the kindness of many more strangers, and would play an essential part of my journey toward Georgia.

Our capacity to be kind to one another is truly remarkable and one of our greatest treasures. We all share this capacity, regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnicity. Throughout our lives, opportunities to offer simple acts of kindness often arise out of nowhere. Our lives intertwine unexpectedly in the most essential of moments. Each time we cross paths with someone, each time we have a conversation or share a random encounter, we have the opportunity to choose kindness. And when we do, we can only imagine how far that simple act of kindness may travel…

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Live to the Point of Tears

Three months ago I was wiggling my fingers and toes as I rocked back and forth in the saddle, willing my body to maintain whatever heat it could generate to keep my extremities from going numb. I pulled my wool hat a bit lower and tugged on the hood of my jacket to keep the cold rain out of my face. I held my reins in my right hand, my thin gloves soaked all the way through, the tips of my fingers poking out of the holes; I tucked my left hand under the saddle pad, feeling the warmth of Picante’s thick coat, still dry beneath his saddle.

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Picante resting as we traverse a deep mountain valley in the middle of Patagonia

It had been raining for three days straight. Our equipment was soaked. Our tent was soaked. The dogs and horses were soaked. Our boots and socks were soaked. Dampness seemed to be creeping into my bones, the days of wet travel through Patagonia were wearing on us.

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Another rainy day of riding

Ale turned in his saddle, calling back to me- “How’re you doing?”

“Freezing, I’ve lost feeling in my toes again, do you mind if we get down and walk for a while?”

Ale nodded and we pulled the horses off to the side of the dirt road. I loosened Picante’s girth, hung his stirrups over his saddle and gave him a hug. He lowered his head, his ears pointed forward and he curiously nuzzled my back. Check and Curi Cuyen ran up behind me, tails wagging, searching for some explanation for our dismount. I gave them both a quick pat before rubbing my hands together and stepping forward to follow Ale and the other horses. The rain continued to fall heavily, and we continued our long journey north.

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Together we walk

After an hour of walking, the blood was sufficiently flowing in our bodies again and the feeling of cold limbs was replaced with the feeling of hungry stomachs. Luckily we found a brief escape from the freezing rain in a small refugio on the side of the road. We let the horses graze in the rain as I quickly pulled out our Jet Boil stove, a cup of instant mashed potatoes, a carton of cooked vegetables and a can of tuna. The dogs curl up beside our backpacks and slept as we cooked.

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A welcome refuge on a cold rainy day

I paced around the refugio, trying to stay warm, grateful for the roof and walls that were momentarily blocking the wind and rain. This place felt like a little paradise after days of riding and walking outside in the elements. The water quickly came to a boil; I combined the ingredients, adding a dash of merken, a pinch of salt and a healthy dose of oregano. We feasted quickly as cars sped by, splashing cold puddles on our feet.

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Happiness is shelter and warm food on a cold day

The warm food disappeared just as quickly as it had cooked, our bodies seemed to be in a constant state of hunger as so much energy was required to simply stay warm. There were no leftovers when it came to meals on the trail.

We loaded the chiwas (packhorse packs) back on Zalig, bridled Aysén and Picante, pulled on our wet backpacks and climbed back into the saddles. The rain had turned into a drizzle and the clouds seemed to dissolve into fog, drifting in between the mountain ridges. Maybe, if we were lucky, it would stop raining by nightfall. Maybe, if we weren’t so lucky, it would rain everyday for the rest of the week. Either way, onward we rode.

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Rain or shine, we travel on.

About a year ago, I was listening to one of my favorite poets giving a talk about the depth at which we must be willing to dive, in order to fully embrace the lives we are given. During his talk, he mentioned the famous quote by Albert Camus- that we must “Live to the point of tears.”

Those words grabbed hold of me in that moment, they captivated me in a manner that made my heart beat a little faster. That was it- those words captured the essence of what I was seeking. Living to the point of tears felt like an invitation to pursue the grand adventures that visit us in our dreams, that give us such stunning experiences while we live them that we could cry with delight and gratitude.

I wrote down in my journal that I wanted to live to the point of tears- that this was my intention as I moved forward with this grand adventure called life, and I believed that my adventure on horseback in Patagonia would allow me to do just that.

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Standing in awe as I look out into the expansive wildness of southern Patagonia

In some ways, that’s exactly what it is. Our ride across Patagonia was an unbelievable dance with the rawest forms of being present that I’ve ever experienced. We witnessed wild places that were so beautiful they did invoke tears. We faced hardships that resulted in tears of frustration and tears of overwhelming gratitude when relief was realized. We met strangers who embraced us as friends, and were overwhelmed by the gratitude that flooded our hearts after they showered us with simple things such as homemade bread, sharing a warm stove together, and giving us their undivided attention.

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Waving farewell to Don Patricio, a deaf gaucho who opened his simple home to us late one evening after we’d ridden for hours into the night in search of water for the horses

Embracing grand adventures that demand a larger experience of living is important- but I’ve found it’s not entirely the essence of this whole “living to the point of tears” business.

What I’ve realized since finishing our ride, and returning to the “day-to-day” post-adventure living, is that the wholesome act of living in the present and acknowledging the simple things that bring us joy, continuously nurtures a deeper appreciation for life in general. When we find gratitude in our moment-to-moment existence, we may find ourselves living with the same fullness that we experience in those “bucket list” pursuits.

The inspiration for this post was a simple moment that happened a few days ago. After dinner, I poured the leftover curry into a recycled pickle jar and strolled over to the refrigerator. As I held the door open, scanning for a spot to stuff the jar, I suddenly felt goosebumps and tears well up. I leaned back, shaking my head with a smile.

My refrigerator is so full, practically overflowing, and it suddenly took my breath away. Fresh vegetables spilled out from the bottom drawer and lower shelves; a chicken sat on the middle shelf defrosting; on the door there were a dozen eggs of varying shapes and sizes, homemade cheese and butter – all bought the day before from the neighbors down the road. We don’t have a huge refrigerator, but as I looked at it’s contents and tried to squeeze in leftovers from our last meal, I was overtaken by a wave of gratitude by the abundance before me.

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Acknowledging the abundance of our community

There I was, staring at a refrigerator full of food, on the verge of tears.

These days I could cry with joy each time I step into a hot shower, or put on a lovely smelling lavender lotion. The waves of gratitude are palpable. Each morning I awake and I look out my front door and see our horses grazing, the joy bubbles up in my heart and I’m again on the verge of tears of gratitude. I notice more moments in the day that delight me- the moment the sunlight dapples the forest with shimmery gold, the hay we have neatly stacked to feed the horses for a month, the way the sun bursts through the clouds on a rainy afternoon, the warmth of the house when I come inside after working outside all day with the horses. I take a moment to simply close my eyes and smile, so thankful for this roof, these walls, and this wood heating our little home as winter settles into the mountains of southern Chile.

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Crisp early winter sunrises with the river and volcano in our backyard

“Live to the point of tears.”

Looking back, I didn’t actually think that living to the point of tears would be so literal. But it actually is. Not to say I’m walking around all day crying (don’t start worrying), but the fierceness of the joy that overwhelms me when I acknowledge this underlying gratitude- for incredibly small things- it brings me just to the point of tears, quite literally.

I do experience a heightened sense of gratitude for hot showers and a warm house on a cold rainy day, for a full refrigerator and left overs after being able to eat to my heart’s content. To be sure, that heightened sense of gratitude is easily invoked thanks to all those cold rainy days we endured riding across Patagonia.

But, what I’m continuing to discover is that living to the point of tears is actually a way of being that we can carry with us through our daily lives. It can elevate us in moments of everyday hardship and uncertainty by allowing a constant celebration and acknowledgement of the small things we can easily be grateful for.

After all, life is not always a grand adventure- and in fact, the small, quiet moments make up much more of our lives than the risky bold adventures do. With each breath we take, with each new day, we have the opportunity to wholeheartedly live to the point of tears.

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Life after the grand adventure continues to invoke incredible moments of gratitude

So, what inspires a deep sense of gratitude in you, one so powerful it may just bring you to the verge of tears, followed by an outburst of joyful laughter?

 

The Quiet Urgency of Life

It’s a quiet moment. Dawn.

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We sit on the side of the bridge, the dawn light casts pink hues across the three volcanos on our right. The river rushes swiftly below us. Slowly, silently, several birds float across the sky.

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The wind is cold. My fingers are frozen as I fumble with my camera lens. I pull my hood up and huddle close to the ground, half-knocked down by a flurry of puppy kisses as Curi rushes over to jump in my lap.

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I turn around, the nearly full moon glows brightly at the other end of the river. It’s a stunning morning, with none but one cloud in the entire sky. I zoom in, trying to capture the face of the sleepy moon as she begins to retire for the day.

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The wind picks up, playing with my hair, whirling it around my face.

“It’s happening, here it comes!”

I turn my back on the setting moon, readying to welcome the rising sun. We all face east, looking up the river to the mountain-lined horizon. Warm golden light suddenly races down the mountains, rushing across the volcanos and forests.

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I find myself holding my breath as the rays of the sun pull themselves just above the horizon, casting dramatic beams of light and shadows all at once. My heart beats a little faster with excitement of the beauty I know is about to unfold.

I exhale and the beams stretch forth beyond the curve of the earth.

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Quickly, the sun pulls itself fully above the horizon filling the entire valley with sunbeams. We bathe quietly in the morning light, feeling it’s warmth wrap itself around us, warming our frozen noses.

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And just like that, a new day begins; and with it, it brings opportunity to experience something amazing.

“Somebody ought to tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit every minute of every day. Do it, I say, whatever you want to do, do it now.”- Michael Landon

We come into this world like the rising sun; one moment we’re not here, and the next we are. Our life exists in the course of the day, as we age we climb across the sky, our light extending to all within our reach, slowly we descend until the furthest curve of the earth is reached and once again we disappear. Some of us have lives the last like the long days of summer; others are brief, rising and setting with the winter solstice of the most northern reaches of the planet. The one thing we all share is that we will rise, but we will also set.

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Acknowledging this ignites a quiet urgency of life.

This year I lost four people of sincere significance in my life. Two whom I knew and loved very closely, and two whom I didn’t know so personally, but deeply respected and drew insurmountable inspiration from. All four of them died at a moment those of us left living would describe as “far too soon”; and yet, they all accomplished and created so much beauty in their brief moment in the sky. They all emitted intense beams of light; they all lived with intention and passion. This is how they will be remembered.

“We all act as if we aren’t going to die, or our loved ones aren’t going to die. And how do you act like you are going to die and your loved ones are going to die, without being overwhelmed by it or made smaller by it, but are made larger by it, and more privileged.”- David Whyte

We’re all going to die one day, and yet life will continue anyway. Life will go on. That’s the cycle of life in all aspects of nature. It’s the ultimate duality of existence. The awareness that we will die is uncomfortable, so we distract ourselves from this reality by planning for the future. But the moment we take ourselves out of the present, it is another moment of our precious life lost.

Personally, I struggle with this duality. I struggle with the desire for long term security, for assurances that everything will be okay, for a fail-safe plan just in case my leap into the unknown takes me somewhere frightening.

And yet, it’s that urgency of life that pulls me back; it grounds me in the present. In an odd way it gives me roots and gives me wings all at once. It urges me to wake up at an uncomfortable hour to witness another sunrise- simply because of how that sight will make me feel as the sunbeams break the horizon. The urgency of life keeps me from worrying about being able to afford buying a home “some day”, or stressing out about how to define success in my professional life. It’s the urgency of life that pushes me to break trails, to color outside of the lines, to embrace and celebrate the unconventional. The urgency of life is what inspires me to seek experiences that will take my breath away, experiences that constantly remind me what a gift my life is and that I better not take it for granted because in the end, it’s all I’ve got.

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How are we made larger and more privileged by the acknowledgement that one day we will die, and our loved ones will die? To do this, I believe we must lean into life. We embrace it with love and we honor it.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you must climb more mountains, or have more adventures. For me, personally, it does- but that’s because I draw so much joy from these actions. This is why I am building a life where I can fill more moments with these things I know make my heart sing. For you, perhaps it is writing music, or painting, or building homes. Maybe it’s spending more time with your kids or your partner, or exploring new countries.

Whatever it is that you love doing, whatever it is that makes your heart overflow with gratitude- that’s what you lean into. That’s how we make ourselves larger and more privileged by the acknowledgement that one day we will die. We take this day that we have before us and we fill it with life.

We never know where we come into this world- on what latitude and longitude, how much time we’ll have as we move across the sky. All we know is that each new dawn brings with it the prospect of something wonderful happening, it brings with it the opportunity for us to live our lives in a way that expands us beyond the horizon, in a manner that keeps pace with the quiet urgency of life.

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I Am a Little Bit of Many Thing

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The air is crisp this morning as I am shuffled forth into the sunlight. I yawn my way open, stretching widely and feeling myself settle in the morning light. The ocean sits quietly on the horizon, dropping beneath the edge of the cliff where I am perched. Just to my left, the sun breaks forth, a bright orange ball bursting from the coastline, as though it is suddenly released from the embrace of the mountains.

To my right, high in the sky, the moon sits peacefully, still residing over the ocean and the land, remaining bright in the moody dawn light, still untouched by the sun’s rays. Her evening watch is nearly done and she will soon retire; but for now, she remains with her waves and her breeze, with her meadows and her trees.

I did not know where this particular journey would take me. Yesterday I was picked up, carried off through the traffic of the city, cruising north beneath the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Quiet anticipation traveled with me as I wondered about the destination, about the sights I might see, about the tales I might tell. Now I sit and recount those tales, beneath the light of a setting moon and a rising sun. Lovely little moments lived are captured for future moments of reflection. My tale is also captured in these pages, but just one chapter of it- there is really so much more to tell.

I was born in several different countries spread across this world. Before I was what I am today, I was a little bit of many things. My pages are compiled from trees gathered from a forest in northern Oregon. My cover is a strong leather made from the hide of a calf born in the countryside of China. My binding is linen thread made from flax fibers grown in India. And these days my pages are tattooed with ink that is made up of carbon black, drawn from the deepest depths of this planet, either coal or oil, depending upon which of various pens were used. I now exist as many different parts of this Earth, all combined as one.

As a tree I stood tall, breathing deeply every day and night. When it rained, I drank the raindrops through my leaves and my roots. Animals and bugs ran along my thick bark, birds sang from my long arms, I danced with the wind and I stretched for the sun. Eventually, I was cut down, lifted with chains into a very long truck and hauled to a factory for processing. The air in this factory was different, and I no longer used my leaves to breathe. My bark was removed and I was cut into chips. These chips of me were then mixed with chips of others, and then with water and cooked into a paste. Afterwards bleach was poured on me along with chemicals- caustic soda, sodium sulfide and melamine- to give me the desired texture and a different kind of strength than the one I had that allowed me to stand so tall as a tree. After this process I was flattened, and all of the liquid was squeezed out of me. I spent hours drying until finally I was considered finished and was cut into individual pages.

After my brief life in this factory, I was transported to another where my pages were stacked upon one another and I was sewn into my cover, the leather embracing my outer pages. I came to learn my cover had traveled an even greater distance than my pages, first being born as a calf in the fields of mainland China. I had a brown coat and a rattly voice. I spent most of my time grazing and eating corn, I had strong hooves and enjoyed sunbathing on hot sunny days. I think other cows may have thought this odd about me, as they lounged about in the shade, chewing their cud with suspicion.

Eventually I was loaded up with many other calves, and taken to a facility where my life as a calf was ended, and my life as a cover began. The air in this factory was also different, and I no longer used my lungs to breathe. Once the skin was removed, I was coated with salt and sent to a leather tannery, where I was covered with chemicals to remove the grease and hair. After my chemical treatment, I was handled by many workers as they moved me back and forth between various processes. They breathed in the chemicals, and as it soaked into my skin it also soaked into theirs. Finally I was inspected for quality and deemed appropriate to live the life as a journal cover. I was stacked with many other hides, placed in a box and began my very long journey by truck and shipping container destined for the USA, where I would meet my pages and begin this next form of existence as a little bit of many things.

From the factory line where I was bound, I was stacked with others, wrapped in a thin plastic film and placed in a box. This box was lifted onto yet another truck which drove me to this next new home. The next chapter of my life would be lived in a side alley shop in San Francisco. Upon arrival, my plastic was removed and I took my place quietly sitting on a wooden shelf, stacked tightly between others who resembled me. I had a lot of time to reflect on the places I had been, on the pieces of this Earth that had been combined to bring me into this new existence. Little did I know my travels had just begun.

Eventually, my companion lifted me from the wooden shelf, holding me lightly, flipping through my empty, crisp pages. After so many seconds and minutes and hours and days I finally felt the warmth of the sunshine again as we stepped outside of the shop together. I smiled with delight, the sunbathing joys of my youth momentarily relived. As we sat together at the cafe, my pages breathed deep the warm breeze, flapping softly as my branches once had.

As destiny would have it, I would travel all around the world with my companion- we climbed mountains in the Trinity Alps, we paddled rivers and traversed glaciers in Alaska, we visited strawberry harvesters in the fields of Morocco and Mexico, we even spent time walking the floors of factories in China, factories similar to those where parts of me had been created. I’ve flown across the oceans more times than I can count. I’ve opened my pages to capture and share memories on ferries, subways, monorails, cars and airplanes. I hold all of these details within the warm embrace of my soft outer cover, they have become another part of me. 

This cover has been worn soft from such constant travel, and a few of my pages have begun to pull loose. Heavy ink is now scrawled across all of my pages, and I spend most of my time on that windowsill, sitting in the sun. My life as a traveling companion has evolved into the role of an old friend to reminisce with, to share laughter and learning. 

I am no longer the tree, or the cow, or the coal or flax that I once was. I am, however, still here. I am, after all, a little bit of many things. I cannot determine how my life continues. I cannot determine how my shape and form may change if I am discarded, retired to a landfill somewhere no one will again open my binding and spread my pages. Perhaps I will be recycled, my pages pulled from my cover, and again melted to mix with others in chemicals and water, these stories washed from my folds, bleach replacing the ink, a brief chapter of my life washed away. Who knows, I cannot tell the future. I can only embrace this moment to bask in the sunshine, and each time my cover is parted, my pages breathe deep the wild air, and I will continue to hold tight the stories of this life.

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Ever since I first stepped foot on a factory floor and witnessed the thousands of workers hand painting the simple packaging of a plastic toy we were manufacturing, I realized what an incredibly complex system we had created to make the things that we consume. I was taken aback by the realization that every single thing has encountered a remarkable journey to come into existence- from the fields, mines or forests where the raw materials were drawn, to the factory floors in countries all around the world. All for the sole purpose of their arrival to us, the become our possessions. Some of them are tools, some are used to bring pleasure, some we hold onto for years, others only for moments. Regardless of the purpose they ultimately serve, our things share this world with us, and their existence, our demand for their existence, has a direct impact on the state of our planet.

Personally, I’ve gone through all the phases of emotions when it comes to my “stuff”- the guilt of knowing the negative impact the production of that thing likely had on this Earth; the helplessness in my own ability to change the bigger picture, and have any measurable impact beyond my own buying decisions; the ultimate justification for buying things I want but might not need. I don’t believe that feelings of guilt and helplessness inspire change in behavior or a better understanding of practical solutions. I believe curiosity does. I believe that seeking knowledge about the lives of the things we own can inspire a whole knew vision of the world, our place in it and how we choose to interact with it.

I’ve written other pieces about conscious consumerism, about how my own perspective on buying things changed as I learned more and more about the actual cost to our planet and the communities making them. Now I am exploring another perspective, one I hope you might find interesting, a perspective that might ignite a curiosity within you as well. This story is a glimpse into the life of one of my things. It is bottled up in about 1500 words, hardly enough to do the life of this beloved journal justice, but it is meant to only be a glimpse. Just going through the act of writing this has me curious about many of my other things, and the secret lives they’ve lived before coming into my possession.

What kind of stories do the things you hold dearest to your heart carry with them? What kind of a life have you given them? What do you know about where they originally came from, what parts of this Earth were combined to create that one special thing? Who had a hand in bringing your thing into existence? Where will it go once you are finished with it?

Are you curious?

Acting as a Vessel for Fate

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Caught up in a moment of exhaustion after climbing up and slipping down many mountains along the Appalachian Trail. Later this day we would receive the wonderful “Trail Magic” from the lovely family described below.

The day had been absolutely exhausting and I was spent.  I had spent several hours at the DMV in Greensboro trying to get my Pennsylvania license transferred over to North Carolina where I had recently declared residency and bought a new car.  The day had turned grey, rain was pouring down and I had spent the past 25 minutes trying to find my way back to the highway from some random corner of the city I had never ventured into before.  All I wanted to do was get home.

I finally merged onto a road that looked half familiar and felt reassured I would be back in my comfy apartment within 45 minutes.  As I was cruising toward the edge of the city, I saw a woman walking on the side of the street, a look of desperation strewn across her face. She was very skinny, probably in her early forties although she looked worn in a manner that aged her and rain dripped off her dark skin.  I slowed down, rolled down my window and asked her if she was okay. With a look of shock and surprise at my stopping, she told me how she had just missed the last bus, and she had to get to this address before they closed at 6 o’clock or else she would not be able to begin her new life in Florida.  I told her to get in, that I would drive her and we would make it by 6.  It was 5:47.  I stepped on the gas and away we went.

As we zipped our way back into the city she repeatedly said, god bless you child, and then proceeded to tell me a little bit of her story, how her church community had collected enough money to buy her a ticket to Florida where she had a friend who had arranged a new job for her.  She was supposed to start this new job on Monday.  She told me of how she had lost everything, her family and her job in Greensboro, how this was her last chance to start her new life.  She described how horrible and hopeless she felt chasing after that bus on a rainy friday evening, knowing if she did not pick up the plane ticket before 6 o’clock she would not be able to fly the next day. It was now 5:54.

In my entire life I had never picked up a hitchhiker, nor had I ever invited a random stranger into my car.  There was just some indescribable feeling that I had, my gut telling me I was meant to play a role in this woman’s life.  We wound our way around the city, getting a bit turned around here or there as this was before iPhones and Google Maps and we were just using my atlas to navigate.  Eventually we pulled up to a very small little building, the address matching the scribble note she was holding- to our relief the light was still on.  I quickly hugged her and wished her good luck on her journey and her new life, and told her I was so happy that I could was able to help her today.  She thanked me again, over and over, before jumping out of the car and dashing to the building.  I sat for a moment, making sure the building was still open and she would be okay.  When she waved to me after entering, I backed out of the drive and again found myself lost in the city, in the grey rain. It was 6:01.

I no longer felt exhausted, I wasn’t dreaming of my warm bed or wishing myself home, I didn’t care how late it was or that I was lost again. I was laughing out loud. I was smiling so big that my cheeks began to ache.  Yes!! We had made it!! I had no idea what would happen to this woman, I had no way of knowing what would become of her or her new life, but I had played some magical part of her journey and wow did it feel incredible.  I acknowledged how fantastic it was to give with no expectation for oneself, to be able to trust and act as a vessel of fate for another human being.

Years later, when I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail I had this similar experience many times, but the roles were reversed.  As a thru-hiker you experience countless moments of tired exhaustion, days when you have walked for 25 miles, crossed rivers and summited three mountains, you are out of food and out of water and walking along the highway, trying to get a hitch into town so that you can have a warm meal and wash the six days of dirt and grime off of your sweaty body and your rotten smelling clothes.  Cars roll by without slowing, and on you walk, your aching feet begging for a rest.

One day, after a very rough week that had us hiking through mud and rain for six days straight, we were having “one of those days” and could not get a hitch.  After two miles hiking along the road, a minivan pulled over and a clean and cheerful family rolled down the window and beckoned for us to climb in.  The father up front had a strong Irish accent, the two children in the back seat stared at us with enormous eyes of wonder. Names were exchanged, and the questions began around what our story was.  When we told them had walked 845 miles to get to that very place, they stared at us in awe. We provided the name and address of the hostel where we intend to stay, but the father said first we must come for dinner.  They proceeded to take us home, offered us showers and washed our clothes, cooked and served us the most incredible salmon and steak dinner you could imagine, all the while asking countless questions about what our lives on the trail were like, why we were hiking and what kind of characters we had met along the way.

As we described countless adventures, the parents told their children to listen to us closely, to ask us questions and to imagine what a great journey we were on.  After treating us as honored guests in their home, they drove us onward to the hostel where we were able to finally sleep in a bed with full bellies and clean clothes.  As they dropped us at the hostel, the family thanked us for the time we shared with them. They thanked us…the vastness of their kindness was overwhelming for us, and there were no words that could express how much we appreciated their selfless generosity. Yet here they were, thanking us for being a brief part of their lives, just as I thanked that woman in North Carolina, for being in that place at that moment so that I could play some role in her journey.  Gratitude. Oh what gratitude comes when we encounter these vessels of fate, who deliver us where we are meant to be, in moments when they are most needed, the drivers of whom we also inevitably inspire, even if done unintentionally.

Our lives are intertwined with the lives of others; and even as we weave our own lives individually, we are constantly crossing the paths of one another, making connections and perhaps building bridges where they are needed, even if we are not the ones meant to cross them.  There is so much beauty in acknowledging this, and appreciating the moments when that little magic vessel shows up. Whether you are the driver or the passenger, you are ultimately equally blessed.

In what moments of your life have you experienced the vessel of fate arriving in the nick of time?  Have you had the beautiful gift of being able to be at the helm of the vessel, delivering some selfless act of kindness in the absolute perfect moment it was required?  How fantastic did you feel!?