Again the Light: Oslo

Oslo was probably destined to be anticlimactic after seeing the northern lights in far northern Norway, but winter travel in Scandinavia can easily be disrupted by weather, so we built a long weekend in the capital city into our agenda before returning home.

Oslo is far enough south of Tromsø that the longer days and higher angle of the sun were easily noticeable, though the light still had a diffuse, silvery quality that shimmered delicately against bluebird skies and soft gray snow showers alike. The weather was mild by Norwegian standards, and on a 40-degree Saturday in February the parks were thronged with people remarking on how warm and pleasant the weather was.

We cut a wide swath through Oslo’s museums (and yes, of course we saw one of the four versions of The Scream). However, it was the outdoor spaces that were most entrancing in a light that was trembling at the edge of dreams of spring. We started in Vigeland Park, the world’s largest sculpture garden composed of works by a single artist. Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures of nude human figures depict a raucous, expressive vision of the circle of life.

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Later that day we visited Akershus Castle, which lies along the Oslofjord, and has served as both castle and fortress. By this time it had started to snow, and the grounds of the castle evoked visions of Narnia.

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We began our last day at Ekebergparken, a large park that sits on a hill above Oslo and contains a sculpture garden. The skies were ablaze with blue and the previous day’s snow added a jaunty defiance to the human figures in the collection.

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Several abstract silver sculptures sparkled in the whitened landscape:

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And a hidden-away grotto invited a meditation on the meaning of Plato’s Cave in the era of digital communication:

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We later stopped at the Nobel Peace Center, a sobering, uplifting, and moving place that holds up its own light across the world.

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Such a brief stay in Oslo gave us little time to absorb the culture or neighborhoods in any great depth, and no doubt the city has a very different character in the warmer months of the year. But for 48 hours’ worth of a silvery sun glowing fiercely behind half-serious clouds; glimmering snow showers that swallowed up all sound; and blue skies bright as ice; we found our way back from the Arctic night into the light, and we found our own version of Oslo.

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Getting Things Done

Last Thursday we gave thanks with family, and on Friday we took to the woods. The path we wanted to take was closed to all but “ice climbers and experienced hikers properly equipped for dangerous conditions,” so deeming ourselves the latter we pressed on into the Glens Natural Area via Ricketts Glen State Park in northeast Pennsylvania. Here, Kitchen Creek flows down a steep escarpment, and trails loop through a stunning 22 waterfalls in just over 7 miles. Dear Reader, you know my penchant for metaphor; however, on this hike the waterfalls offered none. Their lessons on authenticity and persistence were literal and immediate.

Water is relentless. No matter how massive the obstacle, it will find a way.

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Water doesn’t try to be something it is not. Its true nature is its constant guiding force.

15232186_10211433573217964_8953990106787255144_nWater changes form and seeks any pathway necessary to continue moving. It follows the easiest path it can find, and creates an epic journey.

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Given the smallest opening, water will get through.

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Water doesn’t complain about the path that happens to be available. Water just follows the path.

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Water can be still, or rushing, or mist, or ice, but it is always water.

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Water does not yearn for the path it cannot take. Likewise, last Friday we gladly followed the path the water had made, hugging the rocks that have shaped the creek. Where the water was ice, we stepped to the side; where the path grew steep, we took to all fours. No metaphor. No need. No effort. No turning back.

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Escape to Jones Mountain

When I booked one of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s primitive cabins for the first weekend in November, it didn’t occur to me that I’d be opting out of civilization for the last three days before the presidential election. When the time came, however, the chance to escape the endless, grueling news coverage of a nasty and downright embarrassing campaign felt nothing short of magical.

The Jones Mountain Cabin in Shenandoah National Park is one of the few dwellings from before the Park’s creation to have escaped burning as the land was returned to wilderness. The hike in is lovely, rising gradually alongside the Shenandoah River before turning steeply up the mountainside to pass through tunnels of mountain laurel and towering old-growth forests.

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We arrived in late afternoon and set about gathering wood, collecting water, and making dinner. The ancient wood stove quickly made the cabin toasty and an early bedtime beckoned us to the sleeping loft.

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The next day we continued up the mountain for a stop at Bear Church Rock, one of my favorite overlooks in the park. Here, there is no hint of civilization upon which the eye can land; there are only mountains, exuberantly rolling westward.

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We pushed upward a few more miles to Cat Knob, before looping back down the mountain beside the river once again, through a dark, chilly hollow filled with bright green ferns and moss. At the cabin we chopped and sawed more wood for the night ahead before carrying our hard-earned treasures inside at dusk (fact: a fire fueled by wood you have labored to prepare yourself is exponentially more cozy and rewarding).

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A small collection of local history books sat atop the mantel, and after dinner I sat at the table and read one about Jones Mountain. Millions of years ago the mountain and its valleys knew conflict only of the geological kind; volcanoes erupting, mountains sinking, seas rolling in, and then mountains rising once again, higher than ever as the seas receded.

I went on to read, though, of the cruelties inflicted by English settlers on the Native Americans who lived on and near Jones Mountain; of the lives of slaves on nearby farms; the deer and bear who were hunted into oblivion; the ravages of the Civil War; and the forcible evictions in the 1930s of the mountain-dwellers whose land would be taken to form a National Park. The Jones Mountain Cabin itself figured heavily in the story, and a middle-aged man gazed out at me from the pages of the book in a 1979 photo. He was sitting beside the very hearth in front of which I read: his first visit to the cabin since his parents were evicted from it by the federal government when he was 2 years old.

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So in the end, I escaped the horrors of the 2016 presidential election, but was reminded that those horrors are but one particular modern expression of a long history of interpersonal violence, of one kind or another. Jones Mountain is a very peaceful place today, but its previous inhabitants would have many different kinds of stories to tell, both joyful and sad. Their history, long known to me intellectually, briefly entered my soul in a candlelit cabin in the dark of night.

Of tomorrow’s election I have little to say (I did intend to escape, after all). As individuals we may often feel powerless, but our hope lies in the individual relationships we nurture; the connections that come to fruition when we least expect it; the chances we have, every day, to make every single human encounter one of peace and love. No regime, no matter how misguided, could ever stop such a power.

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The Things That Summer Brings

Summer won’t be bringing potato salad, because she knows at least three other people will. Frankly she prefers to show off a bit more, as she did this weekend at Magic Pony Mountain (um…cough, Mount Rogers National Recreation Area). In no particular order, here’s what summer really plans to bring.

  1. A cool, gushing chute of water in a fern-filled glade. Summer can be a dirty, dirty girl, but she cleans up quite nicely.waterfall
  2. A cozy campsite framed by blooms of mountain laurel. (Pro tip: Summer won’t actually bring a flask of bourbon that tastes like butterscotch on fire, but it is strongly recommended as an excellent complement to your campsite in any season.)mountain laurel
  3. A creek. Yes, it’s there all year round, but summer seriously knows how to put the cherry on top of a good creek. Need I say more?creek
  4. Fresh salad greens everywhere, much to the delight of magic (um, I mean feral) ponies, who always adore a healthy, plant-based meal (or an unlawfully obtained granola bar, as the case may be).horsies
  5. A nondescript bush that might not catch your eye for 11 months out of the year, but that is suddenly alight with beauty that lures you off the trail like a siren.

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    Native Flame Azalea
  6. Lush growth along paths that soar out to blue skies and endless mountains.

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    Rhododendrons cascading above the Appalachian Trail
  7. At the end of the day, summer’s a flirt and she’s always trying to seduce you into coming back.

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    Coming soon: blackberries!
  8. And finally, if you’re lucky, summer will bring you home.home

 

 

What We Need is Here

Winter camping does not come easily to me, though it tempts me endlessly just the same. Perhaps there is no such thing as bad weather, as our Nordic friends like to say, only the wrong clothing; but there is a certain baseline coldness that just comes with the territory during winter, no matter how good your gear.

The siren call of the woods knows no season, however, and while a day hike might be more physically comfortable it is an overnight trip that best allows the spirit to settle. I opted for the middle path this year and rented one of the primitive cabins maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (primitive = no electricity or plumbing). There was a wood-burning stove that would exact its share of sweat equity, an outhouse down a short path behind the cabin, and a spring 20 yards away. Everything we needed.

We arrived at Shenandoah National Park late on a Friday afternoon, and stopped first for a out-and-back jaunt on the ridge of Neighbor Mountain. Then a short drive down the road to the Piney River ranger station, where we parked our car, strapped on our backpacks, and headed just a mile down the Appalachian Trail to reach the one-room Range View cabin, built in 1933.

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The first order of business was to get the stove going, and though the cabin was slow to warm, once it did it stayed toasty throughout the night, with regular stoking. We hung our collapsible, battery-powered lantern (perhaps not quite in the primitive spirit of things), unpacked, and organized our gear. Then we settled into the glorious rhythm of nothing in particular to do, nowhere to go even if you wanted to, and the meditative crackle of the fire.

One of the best things about backpacking is the sunrises and sunsets. The cabin was situated over a small cleared area with a view down into the valley, and the first light of day through the cabin window promised a kaleidoscopic sunrise. We went out to watch the entire performance, and were well-rewarded:

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We then packed up our day packs and headed out to play in the woods. We traversed the Appalachian Trail to the Piney Ridge Trail, all the way down the mountainside, then crossed up into the Keyser Run ravine via the Hull School Trail before hitting the Little Devil’s Stairs trailhead. Here, Keyser Run beckoned us all the way back up the ravine.

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We’d hiked Little Devil’s Stairs two springtimes ago, when the wildflowers were unfurling, the breeze was gentle and kind, and the water made a joyous riot. On this midwinter day, the landscape was barren but for the burgundy hepatica and still-brilliant green moss, and the cold wind showed no mercy. If every landscape reflects the state of one’s spirit, the soft murmur of Keyser Run on this day was echoing a somber yet deeply peaceful interior, much like the woods around us.

Back up the mountain and 14 miles later, we returned to our temporary home. The fire was stoked and the lantern hung, as we sat down to feast on curried pumpkin soup and quinoa with roasted vegetables. The next morning, cloudy and grey and definitely smelling of snow, we swept and tidied the cabin before turning back to the trail, and away from this humble refuge. Though we’d initially planned more hiking for our last day, the sky boded otherwise; and as it turned out we left a few hours before Skyline Drive closed due to snow and ice.

Two nights of primitive luxury gifted us with everything we needed and then some: still, quiet warmth while a brutal wind whistled outside; absolute solitude in the winter woods; a transcendent sunrise; and a profound sense of place to revisit and draw upon time and again.

 

Comfort and Joy

Sue is not her real name, but rather the name that somehow became attached to my visual memory of her over the years. She was shorter and smaller than the other girls in my 2nd grade class; her hair was usually matted to her head; and there were sometimes smudges of gray dirt on her face. Her clothes fit poorly and were often torn. Sadly, the rest of us were not kind to Sue. We were scared of her. She was different. She had a slight speech impediment, and she always seemed to say the most awkward things. We did not invite her to play, or sit with us at lunch, and when we had to line up to move between classrooms no one wanted to stand next to her. Some kids taunted her, but most of us just completely ignored her. After a while, Sue never talked at all. She was never invited to any birthday parties, and I never saw her smile–until the day she met my mother.

The retrievable details are few, but I recall that my mother volunteered to read to my class one day. We all gathered round her cross-legged on the floor and my heart swelled with pride. She held up her selected book, title lost to the ages, and started to read. When she read aloud her voice always held a tremor of excitement, as if she knew a really amazing secret she couldn’t wait to tell us. Everyone was enthralled, and then I noticed that Sue was slowly creeping around the edge of the circle to be closer to my mom. She crept right up to my mother’s side and snuggled against her arm while my mom read steadily on without missing a beat. Toward the end of the story my mom pulled Sue close and hugged her, whereupon Sue looked up into my mother’s eyes, smiled radiantly as a single tear fell, and said, “I love you.”

My emotions teetered between jealousy and embarrassment (I suddenly and painfully saw the humanity I’d been horribly pushing aside), before something else entirely emerged. It wasn’t pride in my mother’s ability to transcend Sue’s outward appearance, but rather true wonder as it dawned on me that transcendence wasn’t even part of the equation. If it was, that would have implied something sad, unattractive, or undesirable in Sue that had to be looked beyond. None of that was true—my mother’s unconditional love and respect for every child in that room was present in her being before she ever walked into it. It didn’t have to be earned, or deserved, or even wanted. It just was. I couldn’t have articulated this then, but the awareness of it instantly came alive inside me like an animal presence. It was the moment that I first actively contemplated the true nature of love.

My mom gave us an amazing childhood. She taught us archery, helped us run backyard fairs, hooked me up with a local dig the summer I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist, and never missed a school concert or track meet. She also was (and is) ridiculously fun, and really knows how to party down with Santa.

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Most importantly, without ever needing to explain it, she showed us love in action. I didn’t exactly become a perfectly loving being overnight, but I saw something more in Sue after that day, and I was kinder to her in the best way I knew how. I wanted to emulate this new, mysterious thing I’d seen my mom do even if I didn’t fully understand it. I never forgot the magic in the room that day, and I draw upon it often. Merry Christmas, Mom. I’ll be on my way first thing in the morning. I love you.

Come On Up to the House

A whole lot of head-clearing needed to happen, and fortunately we had plans to head for the hills. In fact, a pair of summits was on the agenda: Big House Mountain and Little House Mountain, which sit adjacent to each other near Lexington, Virginia.

The trail leading up to the saddle between the summits is a wide, uphill path of moderate grade. Winter is the ideal time for this mostly treed-in hike, as vistas normally obscured by leaves open up all around.

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We reached the saddle, a meadow with a lovely multi-tent campsite, and headed up the Big House Mountain Trail. The climb quickly becomes very steep, and the last 100 yards or so to the ridge is a quasi rock scramble (the shorter you are, the more scrambling you’ll do). At the ridge we turned left to Goat Point Overlook, where a local goat is known to visit and exact a snack tax, but alas he was nowhere to be seen. Nonetheless, the vista from the overlook was gorgeous on this clear day.

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A short bushwhack along the ridge led us to Tabletop Rock:

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We headed back down to the saddle and made our way up the Little House Mountain Trail. It meanders for a short while before a few switchbacks spill out onto a steep, rocky section that leads straight to the ridge, where the first vista opens up quickly.

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From here the hike takes on an introspective tone, with a lengthy walk along the ridge through evergreen tunnels of mountain laurel, pieris, and rhododendron. A light snow had fallen, and it tufted atop the bright green moss that lined the path:

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The path eventually descends, leading through a small rock tunnel and more views down into the valley.

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No matter how mindfully and gratefully we try to live, the holiday season can bring emotional challenges that sneak up on us ever so quietly. The trap of self-pity lies in wait, ready to snap shut in a heartbeat if we don’t watch our step. Here is a tonic: a long steep climb on a crisp day, thin winter sunlight dancing in ever-shifting shadows, a touch of snow to show us the beauty without the pain, and the fat red buds that promise that spring is always coming.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/1889099″>Tom Waits – Come On Up To The House</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user632049″>xo</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

To Risk it All Against the Sea

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” ~ William G.T. Shedd

In a recent conversation with a friend, we talked at length about risks we have taken. That night we mostly focused on relationships, but we touched on travel, new jobs, new projects—all carrying varying degrees of risk, some of it fairly great. As I expressed trepidation about some recent decisions, my friend reassured me with exactly the right words: “If your choices were based on honest self-assessment and come from a place of genuineness, it doesn’t matter if you fail. It was still the right thing to do, and you will just go on from wherever you land.”

Like much wisdom, this was simple and obvious–and utterly inaccessible to me at that particular moment because of a temporary flurry of anxiety.

Much of my work with people who have serious mental illnesses has been inspired by the concept of “the dignity of risk.” This phrase was coined in the 1970’s by Robert Perske, an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities, and the idea has since been applied to persons with physical disabilities, psychiatric illnesses, and those of older age. Many such individuals have lived in settings where there is a concerted effort to shield them from all risk of failure, where decisions are made for them in the interest of keeping them “safe.”

However, we all learn skills and discover ourselves through a series of risk-taking experiences. As children we acquire basic sensory and motor abilities by exploring the limits of our little universes, and we gradually expand those limits as we delve into the relationships, opportunities, and adventures that arise. These experiences help us define who we are, and dream of who we may yet become. “Dignity of risk” refers to the basic human dignity inherent in being allowed to make our own choices, take our own risks, and sometimes fail—as well as the meaning and purpose we find along the way.

Having worked with people who have serious mental illnesses at both a micro level (as a clinician) and macro level (as an administrator), I’ve been privileged to help people explore their personal goals, dreams, and limits. I’ve also been reminded daily of how privileged I am to choose my own risks every day. For people receiving inpatient psychiatric treatment, or who have received it in the past, the societal stigma and limits they subsequently encounter can severely curtail their risk opportunities no matter how creatively clinicians, families, and advocates try to empower them.

So I treasure my right to risk, even when it’s scary. From relatively mundane risks, like getting in my little car and commuting 50 miles to work every day, to the big (but fun) risks, like embarking on a really difficult hike or buying a plane ticket to a place I’ve never been just because it happened to be on sale. I also try to embrace and value the toughest, scariest risks of all—the ones that have shaken the foundation of identities I’ve developed, and then moved on from. Most of the time it’s not too hard—embracing risk is a habit one can cultivate. When it is hard, I remember the people I’ve known who craved risks they may never be allowed, and I also remember my friend’s wisdom: if undertaken mindfully, all risks result in “safe” landings, because we end up exactly where we belong.

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Home in a Heartbeat

Recently I drove to Pennsylvania for a weekend visit with family, and during the drive found myself communing with Zen master Tom Waits while meditating on the meaning of home. It’s an idiosyncratic concept, even a highly charged one. Having spent my whole career working with people who experience a high rate of homelessness, it’s hard to think about the concept of home for very long without being reminded of the extraordinary degree of privilege I’ve experienced. And of course, there are huge cultural variations in what “home” means: the United States is a highly mobile society, but there are many places on Earth where people live their entire lives in a single place.

Perhaps there are some commonalities. For developmental reasons, we all tend to develop some sense of “home” as children: it’s where we feel safe, tethered, and protected. For many, that is the dwelling in which we were raised, the family crucible in which we developed an understanding of who we are and how to enter into the wider world. For me, although I lived in the same house from the age of 3 until I left for college, I don’t think of the house itself as home. My sensory memories of the house have dimmed, but never my memories of the wondrous people who surrounded me, lifted me up, and taught me to face the world with love and never fear. That home doesn’t exist in a single physical place—some parts of it are in Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, Colorado, and New York. However, that home does exist as a very real place in my heart and mind, and to which I can retreat at will, in a heartbeat.

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Many of us, perhaps most, have some mental/emotional representation of home, forged in childhood, that travels with us for life. As we move into adulthood, though, the idea of establishing our own home can become thrilling. This can take many forms, and evolve across the years. I still remember the moment of awe I experienced when I realized I had saved enough money to rent my own apartment, fair and square, without help from anyone. I furnished it with thrift store finds and a few donations from my mom, and to this day I still have a clearer visual memory of it than of my childhood house. At that time I was making minimum wage and material things meant a lot to me—every possession I collected made me feel safer, somehow, and more real.

Eventually I had quite a lot of stuff (not hoarder-level, but far more than I needed), and there was a tipping point. I was no safer, and no more “real”. In fact, I realized all this stuff made me feel more like a representation of a successful person than a person truly successful in the ways I had come to value. And it certainly didn’t make my house feel any more like a home.

The stuff started to go, slowly but surely, and the effect, of course, was liberating. The material things I had collected had nothing whatsoever to do with home. Instead, home is really just the sanctuary I create for myself every day, with the people and experiences I love. Much like my childhood home, it’s not a place in the physical sense—it’s a process of developing the means to access and share love and acceptance everywhere I go. Once I began conceptualizing it this way home became a more portable concept, and theoretically that means I can be home anytime (in a heartbeat).

I still want a physical shelter, and hope I will always be lucky enough to have one that is comfortable, clean, and reasonably pleasant. However, it’s a much more utilitarian need now than it was once, and I invest a lot less time in my living space than I did. I particularly value the simplicity of a home that makes travel easy and more possible, and my psycho/social/spiritual needs are met primarily within my relationships to others, and to myself.

The adult years hold many different paths for all of us, and vastly different experiences. It took me years to realize my own current truth about home, and it may yet change again. At some point though, all of our concepts of home will converge in a more unified way. Without dipping more than a toe into the topic of religion, regardless of what any of us believes about what comes next after this life (heaven, oblivion, reincarnation/moksha, etc.), we all live with the truth that at any moment (perhaps this very moment, or some moment next month or next decade) we are all absolutely going home for good—in a breath, in a whisper, in a heartbeat.

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Here and Gone

I fell in love with traveling as a teenager, long before the rise of social media, smartphones, and internet cafes. Getting on a plane meant going incommunicado; going to another country for a week or two meant no one knew for sure you were still alive till you came home; and going away for a month or two meant letters home written in words carefully selected to convey the exquisite otherness of a place the reader might never see.  From the beginning, I savored the vanishing–the fact that no one from home could possibly know I was on an impromptu backpacking trip in the Alps, or watching the moon rise outside a seaside hut in Cape Cod, or getting swept up in a spontaneous late-night party in the streets of Buenos Aires as the country celebrated a World Cup victory. Nowadays, I admit, I probably would have shared many such experiences immediately on Facebook, or via text or email. In that sense, I’m nowhere near as good at disappearing as I used to be.

Having officially entered midlife, I am also daily more aware of another disappearing process that has nothing to do with skill or intentionality. I am (have always been) in the process of disappearing from this world. Every year I leave people, places, and things behind that become part of my past. They recede from my view, as I recede from theirs. As always the present exists in abundance, but there is a lot less future than there once was.

I started thinking about creating a blog, and challenged myself to be able to say why I wanted one. Some people (especially my mom!) have told me I should write more, and I do enjoy writing. Words (more so than fully-formed thoughts) often roil about in my mind jockeying to configure themselves, and the writing process helps me name the feelings and formulate the ideas that percolate like completely nonsensical Beat poetry in my head. I also like the idea of using this blog as a travel journal (very broadly defined). There’s another simple reason I think many of us blog (or Facebook/Twitter/Instagram): we want to be seen. We want the world to know we exist, even as (or because) we are aware of the ephemeral nature of that existence. So sure, let’s call this a travel journal. But I do hope people will read it (maybe even share their own thoughts and adventures), and watch me–while I disappear.