One of the Benefits of Living in Town…

trash-canOK.  I have to say it.

I love curb-side garbage collection.

You drag piles of unwanted stuff to the end of your driveway and, by the end of the day, its gone!  That’s fantastic!

We always do a big purge after Christmas.  Since the house is totally bombed out from the holiday and we are typically home together, it is the perfect time to go through boxes and closets and the garage and chuck the stuff we just don’t need.

We used to live in a place where you had to haul your trash to the dump.  We used to go every three weeks or so- typically when the garage was getting a little ripe and the garbage needed to go away.  The best part of that was recycling.  Specifically, glass recycling.  The kids, when they were small, loved to come along so they could throw the bottles into the big steel bins.  Breaking glass makes such a joyful racket!

But now, the stuff just disappears.  Civic magic.

So good…

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to be…

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “New Skin.”

I have spent so much time and effort trying to be the best me I can be.  For my children.  For my wife.  For my friends.  For the world around me.  For myself.

If I were to change:

  • should I be the salmon or the river?
  • should I be the eagle or the sky?
  • should I be the cedar or the soil?
  • should I be the wood or the fire?

If I were to choose, I would be Everything.  I want to deeply understand how it all works, how we all interconnect.

Besides, after you have been Everything, it wouldn’t be so hard to just go fishing, now would it?

The Way Things Are

downtown BIIf you have ever had the opportunity to live in a small town, I am sure you’ve noticed how, when one merchant closes their doors or moves to another location, the rest of the shops in town adjust accordingly.  One may simply expand their current location to include the vacated space but, more frequently, somebody calls “dibs” on the new space (or was in conversation with the ex-tenants prior to the move).  Once that happens, a cascade of adjustments washes over the retail core and into the surrounding community.

Perhaps it isn’t a new store but road work or a new building, or adjusted traffic patterns that change the habits of the town.  Long-time residents will grumble about adjusting their well-worn habits, newer community members find the changes exciting, and returning tourists will notice something is different but won’t be quite sure what it is.  Over a period of time, the newness of the situation will wear off and it will just become “the way things are.”  Folks will cease to complain about it but will, from time to time, reminisce about “how it used to be.”

The excitement may be centered on one particular location but the changes do ripple out into the community at large. While things at that center will “go back to normal” pretty quickly, these outer ripples often take some time to settle back out. Maybe you venture into a part of town that is outside your usual routine and are again reminded of the “new thing.”  Perhaps you sail right through that new stop sign and nervously look in the mirror for flashing blue lights, thankful nobody was coming the other way.  Or maybe you just fondly recall a wonderful dinner you shared with your spouse at that restaurant on the hill that is no longer there- “they used to make this drink called a ‘Midnight Ferry.’  So good!  Nobody does that anymore…”

Having spent a lot of time in my kayak, I visualize these interactions as the spreading ripples and currents from a paddle pushed through the water or the sudden drop of a stone into Puget Sound.

I read a book by Ital Calvino while I was in architecture school that described this same structure of a society as a tangled web of threads.  Each thread, a distinct connection stretching between two points but overlapping and intermingled with all the others. When one changes, it causes shifting all across that web of lives and experiences.

However physically incompatible these may be, I find the combination of these two perspectives begins to describe the apparent interwoven permanence of our lives but the fluid and easily disrupted quality of the lives we actually live.

However you chose to envision it, I believe our lives and that of our families, in many ways, share a similar structure.

rippleAs my wife and I go through the process of getting rid of excess possessions, not only do we have the immediate result of lightening our load” but these actions have consequences that ripple across the rest of our lives.  We have become much more aware of our possessions and are finding that, aside from food and replacing worn out items, there is very little that we do need. Going to the stores this Christmas season was unique, in that our new awareness allowed us to feel quite removed from the crush of holiday shopping.

While I expected some adjustment in our outlook on “stuff,” I was not expecting this strong, across-the-board awareness of how many of the things we buy are completely unnecessary.  Its not a fierce realization of the college freshman who has just become a vegetarian and is lecturing everybody they see about the evils of consuming meat.  It is a much broader understanding of where our lives are and where we wish them to actually be.  (Before I complete this thought, I felt it amusing to note that I am indeed writing about this in my blog for everybody to see… I just don’t think I’m lecturing, am I?)  It is like a blanket was thrown over the whole commercial landscape- indistinct forms are still visible but the crowd,color, and intensity are now hidden from view.  The real benefit here is that it has opened up some quiet space in my head.  I was also surprised by how uncomfortable I find myself when confronting that mental space.  It is a struggle to not go and fill that space with other things, to keep that space open.

This is the ripple caused by the small stone of simplifying our lives.  This year was a difficult one because we lost a family member to cancer.  Looking back on it with nine and half months of hindsight, I can see a similar structure (caused by a much larger stone) sending vibrations throughout our entire web of interactions.  Not only were there internal adjustments but mourning affects everything we do and how we think about our lives.

Why do we let the little things in life pile up and keep us from doing what we love? We used to take camping trips.  We used to do a lot more hiking.  I used to spend my free time fishing when the salmon were in.  It just seems we used to have more fun together.  I am sure we knew this but to actually confront it with the emotional ferocity that comes from dealing with loss is quite another thing.

One of the most beautiful gifts we can give ourselves is the freedom to step back and gain an understanding of how tentative our lives really are.  Sometimes it takes a devastating event to force us to take that step but there can be clarity in pain, understanding in that vibration across the web of our lives.

So, as we cross the threshold of a new calendar year, it is a time to take stock of where we have been, what we have done, and where we would like to be.  It is a time to bid farewell to those we have lost.  As the light returns to the world, this is the time to let go of old frustrations and begin to move forward again.

I will be forty four years old in a couple weeks.  I no longer have access to the absolute surety of youth but, I believe that is a good thing.  I have come to see that “the way things are” isn’t a fixed point but one that evolves along with our lives, with our communities (whatever form those may take).  Viewing the world in black or white is an easy way to get through life.  Something either is or it isn’t.  You don’t have to think about it.

Maybe I’m just stubborn but I don’t want to just “get through life.”  This is the only one we get.  No rehearsals, no do-overs, no rewind.  There is so much to see.  So much to experience.  If you only do things one way, you never make the effort question why we do what we do.  It is certainly safer to stay on the well-beaten path but, if you don’t have the courage to step off the trail to see what else is out there, you miss so many things.

Seeing the world in shades of grey may not be the easy way to live but it offers a much richer palette to live by.  I truly look forward to what 2015 will bring.

A short tale of Road Complaints, Compassion, and Good People

toll gate threeI came of age in the Pacific Northwest.  However, I learned to drive in Massachusetts.  Here, you need to be constantly attentive and a little pushy just to keep your spot on the road.  Folks cut you off, switch lanes without warning, and generally act like they are completely entitled to the entire highway.  Around here, we yell at the windshield, “What?  You think you OWN the highway??”

That is actually a defining trait of the Massachusetts driver- bitching out loud about the other drivers on the road.  If you watch closely as you travel, you can see people’s mouths working soundlessly behind their windshields as they drive.  Sometimes they are singing but, more often than not, they are berating some other driver who just did something stupid.

A couple days ago, I was in my truck, heading down a four lane road to the gas station when I came up on a car that was coming to a stop with its hazards on.  Two people got out and started walking in the direction of the nearby church.  As a native driver, I started my dialog about “who the hell parks on the road like that?  Doesn’t the church have a parking lot?  Somebody is going to hit them and won’t that be a mess.  What were they thinking?  Andover drivers…”

As I blew past them, it belatedly dawned on me that they were most likely out of gas.  Well.  A little embarrassed about my tirade and a little to far beyond to stop and offer a ride, I continued on to the gas station.  While the attendant was filling my tank, I stepped into the office to ask the manager Dan if they had a loaner gas can.  I told him that I had passed a car on the road that looked like it was out of gas and figured I could give them a hand.

“Kinda like a Boy Scout thing?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I guess so,” I replied.

“OK.  No deposit on the can but you need to bring it back yourself.”

So, with both truck and gas can full, I pulled out of the lot and headed back toward the car.  The two folks, a father and son, were almost to the gas station, so I pulled over and asked them if their car was out of gas.  Surprised, they confirmed that was indeed the case.

“Hop in!  I’ve got some gas in the back of my truck for you.”

With Jose and Javi in the truck, I got us back to their car.  On the way, Jose kept asking if he could pay me back or “make me whole” as he put it.  I declined thinking that a couple minutes of my time and $4.00 of gas was just the sort of thing we should be able to do for our neighbors.  As a Boy Scout (I actually was in Scouts when I was a kid), we were told to “do a good turn daily” which meant to do at least one thing to help others every day.  This felt like my good turn for the day.

Fueled up, I led them back to the station to return the gas can and to make sure their car didn’t misbehave like some do after running out of fuel.  Jose insisted that I wait five minutes so he could run to the bank next door and get some cash to pay me back.  I sighed with a smile and agreed.  He returned just a few minutes later with a smile of his own.  “I know you didn’t expect anything in return but please allow me to ‘pay it forward’ today.  Merry Christmas.”  He discretely handed me some folded bills.  I looked down to see five $20 bills in my hand!  I looked up in surprise and he waved as he was walking away.

“Merry Christmas” he repeated.

I am sure there are a number of ways to relate to this story but I chose to see it as one small connection with another human being.  Even if it was just for a couple minutes, we both reached out to trust another and found, not the danger and demons we all fear, but kindness and compassion from the heart of a neighbor.

Merry Christmas indeed.

 

stand up eight

The Buddhist quote I posted a couple weeks ago had been rolling around in my head for several days prior and it really speaks to the perseverance and determination needed to make changes in our outlook on life, the way our families and communities operate,  and how we choose to inhabit this world.

We can all think of examples of where people have made a difference through conscious action- equal rights, marriage rights, the right to make a decent wage for a days work, etc.  These fights all took time to develop public support and to change deeply-held opinions.  Some were decades-long struggles that were won through commitment to a vision of how to make our society a better place for all of us.

cigarette buttThis same sort of dedication needs to be applied if we wish to make improvements and changes in our own lives because we will face similar difficulties with social pressures as well as our own deeply-rooted habits.  Ever try to quit smoking?  It is not as simple as just not lighting up.  The habit is woven into the fabric of your day and it takes time to remove that particular strand.  There will no doubt be days where you miss a thread.  But if you keep working at it, it is indeed possible to change your life.

Those days, where strands are missed, are the ones where doubt creeps in.  Where we begin to question our motives.  When we are perhaps unable to see the vision that was so clear just yesterday.  Fall down seven times, stand up eight speaks not just to determination but to trust as well.  If you can reaffirm that you set yourself on this mission for good reasons, then standing up, facing down your doubt, and retracing that missed strand of bad habit is your only next step.

Strength isn’t the absence of weakness, it is acting in spite of it.  It is believing in the face of doubt.  Rather than giving up and trying something easier, we keep to our decision and work around the difficulties.

I think that we may be in for a few years of difficulty in the United States.  Our misguided culture has elected a governing body that does not have our best interests in mind and there will be unpleasant repercussions from that action.  In light of that, we need more than ever to create stronger communities and take better care of ourselves.

  • We need to not buy into the politics of division and negativity that tear us apart.
  • We need to not follow every shiny new trend created to distract us.
  • We need to shed unnecessary expenses and some of the daily luxuries that have made us soft and weak as a people.
  • We need to want less and live a more economically realistic life because our outsized needs are forcing us into debt and ruining our lives.
  • We need to regain a sense of compassion and understanding for our fellow human beings- this is not a weakness, it is the source of a community’s strength.

In effect, we need to retrain ourselves to be a self-sufficient and confident nation that has the strength to wrest power out of the hands of corporations and big money interests and give it back to those that matter- you and me.

This won’t be done through outright battle with the entrenched powers.  We won’t win.  I believe the way to take our country back is by changing our own habits and helping others to do the same.  If we control our own lives, it is much less likely that we will allow others to control us.

Veteran’s Day and the Peace Corps

While this post may seem a little off-topic for this blog, I felt it important to post today because I believe that service to others is a necessary part of building community and that, by helping others, we can also help ourselves.

Commemorative Art by Shepard Fairey

50th Anniversary Commemorative Print by Shepard Fairey

Every year on this 11th day of the 11th month we celebrate Veteran’s Day here in the United States.  Since my friend Brian returned from his tour of service with the Peace Corps, I also feel compelled to offer my thanks to him and the others like him that have given 27 months of their lives to our country.  They have volunteered to be sent to towns and small villages around the world, often without much support, to help foster a sense of community and understanding between disparate peoples and cultures.  This can be dangerous at times and while they do not send volunteers into active war zones, these passionate young people often find themselves in unstable areas with far fewer resources than they have had previously- “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

It has become somewhat of an expected thing around our house, that I get a little defensive about the lack of attention given to Peace Corps volunteers.  I am proud of Brian for doing what he did and would hope that he and the others like him would get just a small nod for their sacrifices.  There are many ways to serve our country.  The current and retired members of the Armed Forces are given their due respect on Veterans Day.  Why is it that we don’t have a day to honor those that quietly sacrifice for their nation through the Peace Corps?

Well, in looking into this, I found that there is an annual event called Peace Corps Week that is celebrated internally at the agency.  On peacecorps.gov, it is explained that,

“Each year, Peace Corps celebrates Peace Corps Week to commemorate President Kennedy’s establishment of the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. During this annual event, the Peace Corps community celebrates all the ways that Peace Corps makes a difference at home and abroad and renews its commitment to service.

This reaffirmation of service is a way to restate that while the way might be difficult, the need to give of one’s self for the betterment of all is still valuable and necessary.  If we, as a national community could find the strength to push for March 1st to be Peace Corps Day everywhere, we would honor not only those men and women that join and serve, but the idea of service to others is a very human and very necessary way to build communities and trust between cultures.

If you want to learn more about what the Peace Corps does, there is a great press release of the then Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet speaking at the National Press Club about the relevance of the Corps into the 21st century.  I found this to be really informative and her passion for this program was obvious.

So, while I graciously offer my thanks and respect to the current and past members of the US Armed Forces, I am also grateful for those who “serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries,” and look forward to, one day, being able to join the rest of our nation in thanking them every March 1st.