Road tripping in the time of pandemic

You can tell the photo above was taken early in the trip by the amount of stuff in the van. For example, you can still see the seats. That’s more difficult now.

The seats are covered by sleeping bags and travel pillows, hoodies and beanies, small coolers and bag chairs and other necessary items purchased along the way, mostly at Sam’s and Goodwill.

No matter where you go in this beautiful country, there is a Sam’s and there is a Goodwill nearby.

Goodwill is by far my favorite. It’s so much more interesting. Give me a tent with a little bit of history. Preferably with all the tent poles, though. That’s the trade-off for interesting. You might get a story, but you might also get a lopsided tent. You have to decide if you’re okay with it.

I didn’t mean to start talking about our road trip — which has been epic, challenging, and deeply profound, at least for me — by talking about buying stuff.

How typically 21st century and typically American and typically fill-in-the-blank. But our stuff tells a story about us: what we value, what makes us feel comfortable, what forms our identity.

When you’re living in a van (with your entire family) for a few months, the stuff you choose to take along is even more significant.

Each child has made a little nest of basically the same ingredients: sleeping bag, blanket, small pillow, backpack, clothing bag, a few personal items. Despite the sameness of the ingredients, the end result is as unique as they are, with varying degrees of organization and clear priorities.

Joe drives 99% of the time, and has the most unpersonalized area. Even with a bare minimum, though, there’s a story: phone, cable, earphones, and battery pack for learning, listening, and connecting. Hat and sunglasses. Current book on the dash, notebook and atlas tucked in the door. Hoodie over the seat. Iced coffee in the cupholder.

In fact, the “bare minimum” is him: staying light, unencumbered, agile, leaving space for the new.

Meanwhile I have turned my area into a vestibule of recording, remembering, analyzing, understanding. And napping. There’s a pile of books on one side and a pile of pillows on the other. A “mobile work station” and water bottle at my feet. Almost always, there’s a cup of coffee in the holder, which I often forget to drink. It’s a security blanket. I don’t need to drink it, per say; I just want to have it near me.

We’re in our 22nd state — South Dakota — and we’re getting the hell out. It’s beautiful, but there’s a winter storm warning. It’s the first week of September. We are not prepared for cold-weather camping.

Time to move on.

We don’t have much of a route planned. We’re headed to Minnesota. Then we can drop down through Iowa and into Missouri, where we started: have a rest, see family, turn in the van, get rid of the gear, buy tickets, fly home.

Or we can keep going.

We didn’t start this road trip with the idea of visiting all 48 states in the continental US but here we are, almost halfway there.

Maybe we keep going. Maybe we zip into North Dakota, scoop down for those Midwestern states we missed, zigzag up by the Great Lakes and down the East Coast. How long would it take us? Another month?

48 states in four months would be cool.

Then I think about waking up in my own bed in Puerto Rico. Making coffee in my own kitchen. Sitting on the porch and staring at palm trees and listening to the sounds I know and love, familiar sounds. The magical rituals of everyday life. The exquisite treasure of routine, of familiarity, of known faces and places.

It’s easy to take those things for granted: I know I did, especially after three months of quarantine. I couldn’t get on a plane fast enough. Contrast has a way of making us see what we overlooked.

Notice. Take it in. Appreciate it all.

My literal perspective has changed daily for the last few months. When you’re traveling, you don’t look out the same window twice.

The landscape rolls by. I watch in wonder. It changes. I change. Where is the line between me and this world I am experiencing? Where does the “I” end and the experience begin?

Driving through desert, I feel expansive, unlimited, open. Driving through mountains, I feel a depth of grandeur and purpose, wildness and power. We are visiting new places and I am meeting new versions of myself in every place. It’s exhilarating and overwhelming.

I don’t want it to stop, but I’m not sure how much more I can take.

Today there’s a cold rain and gray skies. We drove by Mt. Rushmore and assumed it was still there, under the fog. I took a photo of the kids in front of the Mt. Rushmore replica at Wall Drugs, then we ate a donut.

Sometimes you don’t get to see what you think you’ll see. You can wait, or go back, or experience something different instead. You have to decide if you’re okay with it.

I don’t think they have donuts at the real Mt. Rushmore, so I’m okay with it.

I thought I would write more than I have. I’ve kept a journal, made notes, logged places in my calendar, and taken a million photos. I’ve written, some, but not nearly as much as I anticipated.

Maybe I was too busy taking it in to write it out.

I have been wandering the States like a giant Pac-Man, munching up sensations and emotions. Maybe I was malnourished and now I feel full and ready to share. Maybe things needed to ripen.

All I know is that I have stared for hours at endless beauty and not tired of it. The empty cities have their own kind of glory. The highways weave together wide-open spaces and tight-knit towns, a giant thread running up and down and across our country. Nature is different from one curve of the road to the next.

People, though? People are the same everywhere.

Moving like satellites in unspoken orbits, longing for connection, unaware of our glory. Whether the face is masked or unmasked, the eyes are the same. We are the same.

Whatever stories we are being told about each other, let us listen to the larger, deeper, better story.

I can hear it. I have been hearing it. From one side of this country to the other, from Florida to California, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, I have heard it. Version after version. Fear and love and hope and despair, layered. A fronting of suspicion over a core of warmth. A self-conscious, uncertain introduction moving awkwardly into a dialogue of genuine concern.

We get lost in the sub-plots, confused by the footnotes. The story is simple.

Step back from the drama. Take a closer look at the characters, and you’ll catch the plot again: you and me and the rest of us, making our way together.

This is not the adventure I ordered

It’s a beautiful new day and you are in love with life and life is in love with you.

It’s a shitty awful day and you don’t feel in love with life but life is still in love with you.

Which one?

All this is life.

You are life. Life is you. Life is me. There is nothing without life. The originator, the force, the movement, the soul, the energy, the divine: it is in you, me, all of us, all of everything.

Even the pain and the tearing apart and the uncertainty and the absolute ripping open, even the wound that goes down to the bone: all this, too, is life.

Pain is beautiful, pain is a gift, pain is a reminder that you exist, that you are here, that you are alive.

No, I don’t like it either. But we can learn to accept pain, to be grateful for it, the way we are grateful for medicine, or pooping. Maybe it’s bitter, maybe it stinks: but we need it.

Pain wakes you up. Discomfort keeps you awake.

Do you want life? Do you want growth? This is what you are asking for: pain, discomfort, uncertainty, tension.

Tension keeps you awake.

You are awake! You are alive! You are here! You are now!

It is not what you expected!

“This is not the adventure I ordered,” you say.
Life smiles and nods. “Yes, it is.”

Can you accept that whatever surrounds you is exactly what you have created, have brought into being? Is exactly what you have given yourself?

If it is pain, maybe you are trying to wake yourself up, to heal the wound you have carried too long by poking it over and over until you quit resisting and avoiding, until you quit running, until you sit still and go to it, look at it, embrace it, love what it means to you: it means that you are alive. You have survived it. You have persisted. You cannot be stopped. You are alive. You are alive.

You are here in this tapestry, infinitely complex, this indescribable fabric of life. Maybe you are surrounded now by all the grays of giving up or the harsh reds of anger. You want the cool blues of rest and the mellow greens of fruitful growth.

“This is not the adventure I ordered,” you say.
Life chuckles, not unkindly. “Oh, but it is.”

You are still in it, maybe too close to see it. You are still breathing.

The story is not over. This story is not over. Your story? Not even close to over.

It is not over because you are writing it, you are living it, you are it.

You the Author, You the Hero, You (also) the Villain: the threads weave together, the plot unfolds, and it may all seem disconnected but it isn’t.

It may seem, at times, like the story is over. But as long as you keep waking up, the story isn’t over.

The adventure you ordered serves itself up. Dig in.

How to listen to your intuition

Intuition is important.

Listening to intuition is a skill we have largely ignored/lost and which we could benefit from relearning.

But how to do it? How do we listen to our intuition?

There is no set of instructions that works for everyone. When you try to give instructions, you sound… Well, kind of stupid. At the least, silly and vague and woo-woo.

Listening to your intuition, listening to your gut, isn’t something I’ve done much of. So I feel especially silly trying to explain how to do it.

However, almost everything I write turns out to be stuff I’m trying to learn. Not-being-an-expert is a position I’m more and more comfortable holding.

In short, I’m no expert in intuition, I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m certainly going to sound silly, and most likely none of this is going to be helpful.

Oh well, here it is anyway.

Things that help me listen to my intuition

Ignore your brain

You’ve got a situation or a relationship or a feeling or a choice. You want to listen to your intuition and get a feel for it, tap into some deeper knowing, so you sit still and try to meditate. And your brain is so eager to help. It will give you so many reasons, ideas, and strategies. It will analyze the shit out of whatever you’re in. It will give you lists, comparisons, potential outcomes, and risk assessments. IGNORE IT ALL.

Drop into your feelings

Physically, to me, it feels like my attention slides back behind my brain and down into something else. My spine? My esophagus? I know, I know, it’s all metaphorical. It’s not turning off my brain, because 1) I don’t know how to do that and 2) I’m not even sure it’s possible. It’s just kind of ignoring it and letting my attention go elsewhere even though logically I’m thinking, “There’s nowhere else for my attention to go,” and suddenly my attention goes…. Somewhere else. And there I am, until I start thinking again about how I can’t be there and knock myself out of it.

Get into a physical activity

Run, walk, hike, climb, dance, do a hundred pushups (or ten, if you’re me). Jumping jacks. Burpees if you hate yourself. Ok, whatever. Exercise or dancing or playing, which is all kind of the same thing.

QUIT THINKING ABOUT IT

Really really really just ignore your brain. For a while.

Percolate

Percolate yourself like you are a steaming hot delicious fresh and highly desirable pot of coffee. Because you are. What I mean by percolating is doing one of those activities where your brain is kind of thinking about the activity but also not having to think too hard. Something like washing dishes or folding laundry or one of the other thousand mundane chores of life.

Free write

Free writing is just writing, but you a) set a timer and b) don’t stop writing until the timer is up and c) don’t censor yourself when writing. Any topic, any words, any ideas, any feelings. Nothing has to make sense. Write a list of vegetables or how much you hate sandpaper or write nonsensical phrases or whatever. Somewhere in there, almost always, something deep and real will start pouring out and you’ll be like, “Oh my god I didn’t even know I was thinking about that….”

10 to 15 minutes tends to do the trick.

Journal and then (after some time) read what you journal.

Journaling is most powerful when you do it consistently over a long time. Then you will see some themes and patterns and words and phrases and feelings emerge. Those are often things worth paying attention to.

For me, they’re often things my gut is trying to bring up: a hunch or emotion or hesitation. But if I can’t logically justify it or make it fit into some sort of analysis, I tend to ignore it. However, when I look back at what I’ve written and notice a feeling or hunch or situation repeating, I pay attention.

Write by hand

Writing by hand is more visceral and emotional and, I don’t now, three-dimensional than typing something. A notebook and a good pen (or a pencil for your pencil people; I loathe and despise pencils). Some time alone, if possible. If not, good headphones do the trick.

Draw/sketch

I feel like this might work better for people who have actual drawing skills. I have none. But sometimes I’m trying to work out a concept and it doesn’t work in words, or the words are too specific or not specific enough, and doing a quick sketch helps me get a feel for the whole. Does that have anything to do with listening to one’s intuition? Don’t know. But it might help. Drawing, like writing by hand, is more visceral and physical than typing up a neat essay.

Listen to music

Music is good. Headphones in or speakers on. Turn it up and zone out. If you can be in a hammock and doze off and on, add ten points to your score.

Lastly, quit trying so hard.

You know your intuition. It’s a place you’ve been before, or a state you’ve known before. It’s a place of rest, peace, trust, knowing that everything is okay. But it’s not easy to get there when it’s been so long.

Don’t expect yourself to be there 24/7 or immediately when it’s fairly new in the sense that you probably haven’t been operating this way in a really long time and it feels weird and vague and, well, it kind of is.

In the desert

The first thing you notice is the color. Ground, yellow. Hills, yellow and tan. Grass, tan and brown. A memory of green in there somewhere. Dirt, yellow to red to brown to gray. Stripes in the rock: rust red, peach, orange, white.

The second thing you notice is the distance. It doesn’t end. If you’re used to horizons you can almost touch, let go. Get disoriented by the spread in every direction. Squint to find the line. Feel small.

The heat bakes into your skin and eyes and hair and your breath is hot in your nose, cool in your mouth.

Things crack open here: your skin, the earth, rocks. The sun sits in the sky. The wind blows and you feel how light you are, how you could fly away, be lifted like a leaf and thrown into the dunes, skittering on the sand, rolling down the hill, weightless, disintegrating.

Rocks jut from hillsides like knuckles, the fingers curled back into the earth, holding it all together. You can put your foot on this rock or that one; put your weight there. Feel the heat it holds, the pressure, the memories of day and night, summer and winter, sun and rain.

Mostly sun. So much sun.

On this hill, the dry brown memory of grass bends with the wind. Opposite, yucca in mounds, waving dead flowers on high stalks, Hello Hello Hello, We Too Were Alive Once.

How do the leaves hold their green, how do the roots find their will to live? I think of green with longing, but nothing else is holding its breath for rain. It is patient, it is patient. Not waiting but being. If it is the season of dryness and yellow, of withering and brown, so be it. The heat waves carry the inhalation, exhalation of the desert. It keeps breathing through the drought. It does not wait to live. There is no ideal season.

There is only this moment, as season follows season. The glory of life is to be alive through all of them. Hallelujah.

The 3 most important lessons I’ve learned as a parent of 4

I’m writing this for the young mothers and fathers and for the bright-eyed soon-to-be parents.

These are the most important, helpful, meaningful, actually understandable lessons I’ve learned as a parent.

Please note, though: I’m no parenting expert. First, experience does not equal expertise. Second, I’m still deep in this mess. Our four kids are still not old, in any sense. Our youngest is 9, our oldest newly 14.

I’ve got no “finished product” to show as an example of my parenting wisdom.

But here’s the thing: childhood is short. You don’t have time to get good at parenting. You just have to do it.

In the woods

We drive two-lane country roads, smooth pavements and wide ditches, trees surrounding us. The hills are slow and gentle.

We go up and down, up and down without noticing until I look back and see the ripples.

The earth is soft.

It is full of undramatic beauty, the kind that doesn’t need to be made into a calendar to feel good about itself. It just is: here, quiet, content, profound. Soft-spoken beauty, easy to overlook if you want cliffside scenic views, jagged peaks, endless horizons, and other postcard-able scenes.

Here there are not scenes but surroundings, and that’s why this part of the country doesn’t work for postcards. It’s not one piece of it that gets you but how it keeps going, how it creeps up slow behind you, how it keeps rolling out in front of you. The generosity of it. The acceptance in it: of you, of the world, of being unnoticed, of just being.

The greens move from light to dark from the road out.

First the bright yellow green grass in the ditches, dotted now by Queen Anne’s Lace and Black-eyed Susans. The green darkens as it moves up the privets and vines—some you don’t want to touch, careful—then the shy dogwoods peeking out under maples and young oaks, then the darker green of the conifers: astringent cedars, pines tall and fragile and sticky. And here, the greens blur into something less distinct than trees, something wider and wilder: the woods.

Some people grew up in the forest, on the plains, by the river. Others, who had and still have my pity, grew up “in town.” Some people, apparently, grew up in places exotic and mysterious to childhood-me: the ocean, the mountains, the jungle, the city.

I grew up in the woods.

The woods always started somewhere just beyond where you lived: at the edge of the yard, on the property line, over the fence, past the gully, behind the shed.

The yard might have trees but the yard did not have the woods.

The woods have their own existence, hold their own peace. You can come into the woods and they can come into you. But you cannot take the woods out with you. You cannot tame the woods into a suburban yard or neatly cropped landscape.

The woods are trailing, dangly, messy, full of spiderwebs and twigs and broken fence posts and rusty, half-buried car parts and slightly dangerous hollows and thorns and ankle-twisting holes and sounds.

So many sounds, each one telling part of a story. Sounds that slither in and whisper and hint, that half-speak and half-sing a history. Sounds that point sideways at unknown worlds always just behind you, just there, in the shadow, close. If you demand more, the sounds and stories fade. You get further away. If you breathe deep and take what you get, you get more.

Walk quietly and notice the moss on the rock. See how the sunlight turns the leaf from green to yellow. Feel the give, the layers and layers of browned pine needles beneath your feet. Put your hand on the bark: the rough pine bark with deep grooves and ridges. The sugary sweet, peeling sycamore.

Here is the story. Here is the history and the meaning of it all.

You cannot bring it out into fenced yards and neat porches. You cannot chase it down like a deer or call it out like a dog. You must go to it: quiet, respectful, listening, humble. Sit down for a moment or a year or a childhood or lifetime—however long it takes—and listen. The woods will tell you all you need to know.

19 things to remember when your income disappears

These are strange times. Income can disappear, of course, anytime. Even regular, predictable, stable-seeming income. But that’s usually an individual or regional phenomenon. This is a strange time in that, for many people, in many places, all at once, sources of income are gone.

It is a dark and difficult thing to go through.

My income is not drastically affected right now.

But we have—as a family—lived through this situation in other times. Not too long ago. Lately enough to remember the pain and anxiety fresh and raw. (One journal entry from that time: “We have $30 in our account. We ate rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”) I also used to do a lot of writing work for finance companies (ironic, I know) so I’ve learned a bit about how some things work… not exactly insider/expert knowledge, but stuff that is often not common knowledge.

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Love is not safe

There’s a certain type of energy I want to talk about: the mother energy.

There’s a shadow side to this mother energy and it is deep and it is strong and it is destructive.

This is a tough thing to look at, in yourself. Tough to see it.

We have this ability and energy and drive in us to nurture, to teach, to protect. We use this energy to bring our babies (our creations of all kinds) into our world, and to keep them safe until they are ready to go form their own worlds.

Continue reading “Love is not safe”