Category Archives: Life
It all started innocently enough the last time I was with my sister. We were talking about how different we are, and I invoked the old teasing trope that my sister Allison was switched at birth (though there is anecdotal evidence, nothing has been scientifically proven at this point). As we were talking, it clicked in my mind that maybe we should take a DNA test to solve the matter. In recent years, at-home ancestry DNA test kits, like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have become quite popular and affordable. I proposed to Allison that we could find out definitively once and for all if indeed we were siblings or not; I would take a test if she would take a test. I have since gotten my test results back, but as of this writing, Allison still has not yet even sent her test in. I’m taking this as a sign that Allison knows the truth and is still trying to hide it…
Aside from settling the matter as to whether my sister and I are actually blood-related, I was mostly curious where the bulk of my DNA comes from. Growing up in America, especially in white populations, we often like to talk about where our ancestors migrated from, whether we definitively know where or not. White people will list off a smattering of European nations, proud of their heritage as a European mutt in this country we refer to as the American Melting Pot. I grew up, however, in a fairly homogenous town, the aptly named Holland, Michigan area where most everyone is to some extent Dutch. It’s no surprise, then, that I considered myself Dutch, and not much else. If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much! But aside from growing up in a town with windmills, wooden shoes, and an annual Tulip Festival, there wasn’t a lot of evidence to say how Dutch I actually was—or if I had any other surprises in my genes. Sure, I had a pair of Great-Grandparents who emigrated from the Netherlands, but other than that, my not-so-distant relatives were American-born. My family has a few historical records that show when a small number of distant ancestors migrated, but other than that, it was just generally assumed that my forebears came from the Netherlands. Or northern Germany, as they are geographical neighbors. But the Germans never really got more than a passing mention in my family’s lore.
Upon recommendation from a friend, I decided to go for the 23andMe test kit. The test kit breaks down recent ancestry into a multitude of regions and sub-regions, as well as giving genetic information on phenotypic traits and health risks with a provided scientific backing behind it all. Once I received the at-home test kit, I spit a copious amount into a tube and then mailed the sample away to a lab to await my results. I mostly wanted the results to show how ‘Dutch’ I actually am. Or, if in fact my DNA would have a surprising trace of genes from another ethnicity. Some Euro-American individuals, in an effort to bolster their feeling of diversity, may talk about how one of their distant ancestors was a Native American or an enslaved African-American. There was no such talk of this in my family though. Would the DNA test reveal otherwise?
After getting my results back, it turns out I am indeed very white—or more appropriately, of European genetic origin. 100%, in fact. All of my genes come from European heritage (it should be noted that 23andMe types DNA according to particular genetic sequences which are held in common by a reference population with known ancestry to a particular region. These results mean that I share particular DNA segments with people of a known regional European ancestry).
Not surprisingly, as the story told by my living ancestors attests, the bulk of my DNA originates from the Netherlands. 73% match in fact for the category 23andMe titles ‘French and German.’ Within this grouping of countries, 23andMe does not break down ancestry by percentages; instead, ancestry DNA matching is listed by likelihood of a DNA match. Turns out, I’m a ‘highly likely’ match for the Netherlands. This is followed by a ‘likely’ match for Germany. All other countries in the region—Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland—I did not have any likely DNA matches from. Looking at my results, I am mostly Dutch ancestry, as I believed, with the smattering of Germans that my family only slightly acknowledges.
The biggest scandal of the DNA test, the big surprise that I had been waiting for, was that I am 25.5% Scandinavian ancestry. No one in my family had ever mentioned anything about Scandinavian ancestors! To think that my family has been hiding the fact that somewhere far back in the family tree are a few crazy Swedes or Norwegians! (Given this new information, it now all becomes clear why I fit in so well with the primarily Scandinavian ethnic population of northern Minnesota. Uff-da!)
To round things out, the last remaining 1.5% of my DNA is defined as Broadly Northwestern European. These are genes that are common in Northwestern Europe, but not specific to a particular country. To sum it up, I suppose, I am of broadly Northwestern European ancestry. No big surprises in my genes, I’m afraid.
Reflecting on what I learned, I can’t say that my life was changed too much by finding out my DNA ancestry. It pretty much confirmed what I had already known, or had at least suspected. Before any person takes the test, though, 23andMe does go through a fair number of disclaimers aimed at educating participants in how learning the results of one’s DNA makeup can be upsetting. I am not upset, though. If anything, getting my results makes me even more likely to pursue a long bicycle tour of Northwestern Europe. But I was planning on dong that someday anyway.
Aside from just learning the background of your ancestral DNA, 23andMe offers an outlook into certain genetic traits and health markers. Many of these of course are for disease risk and are quite serious to look at. But there is also the much lighter side of genetic traits, which range from the standard to the inconceivable.
Some of these traits seem intuitive that there is a strong genetic component. For example, 23andMe correctly predicted most of my phenotypic features—blue eyes, unattached earlobes, little to no back hair, an uncleft chin, and no dimples. In regards to hair loss, much to my relief, I have an 82% chance of not going bald before age 40 and an 87% chance of not having a bald spot.
And then the genetic results get more bizarre and interesting, as the trait report begins to list not just physical traits, but also behavioral traits and preferences. These more far-flung personal attributes do have certain genetic markers in common among populations with said trait, as per 23andMe’s research, though the company also acknowledges other physical and cultural factors are at play too. For example, I have about average odds of hating chewing sounds and I am about as likely to get bitten by mosquitoes as others. But, fortunately I’m less likely to be afraid of heights, and also less likely to be afraid of public speaking (I can attest to both). Apparently, according to 23andMe, my circadian rhythm should wake me up naturally at 8:16 AM. I also have less than two percent Neanderthal DNA.
Aside from that, 23andMe says that I’m more likely to detect a distinct odor in my urine after eating asparagus (that’s true…), but also that I’m more likely to think cilantro tastes like soap (I don’t). And apparently I don’t have a particular preference for either chocolate or vanilla ice cream. I’ll actually eat any ice cream. And on that note, I’ll say thank you to my Northern European ancestry which has blessed me with an incredibly high dairy tolerance.
Snapshots from a few ‘Experiences of a Lifetime’ I’ve already had, as determined by others.
Here I find myself about to embark on what many people would describe as an ‘experience of a lifetime.’
And, true, canoeing 700-miles down a wild, western river is an experience. Perhaps an experience of a lifetime for many.
But by my estimates, in my one lifetime, I’ve already had at least five ‘experiences of a lifetime’ as determined by other folks. Most of those experiences have been trips I’ve taken. Some of them have even been paying jobs.
There is a typical conversation I’ll have with strangers who ask what I’m up to. This conversation goes like this:
Stranger: “What kind of trip are you doing?”
Me: “I’m canoeing the length of the Green River, through Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. It’ll be about 700 miles and take 35 days.”
Stranger: “Wow…that sounds like an experience of a lifetime.”
When people learn about another person’s epic trip, it does seem to warrant a response of an appropriate scale. But often confounded about relevant things to say, these people will frequently fall back upon the old ‘experiences of a lifetime’ cliché. They mean well in saying it, though, as a way to be simultaneously wowed and encouraging.
But every time I get the old ‘experience of a lifetime’ line, I think privately to myself ‘but I don’t want this to the experience of my lifetime!’ After all, I just want this trip to be an experience, not the experience.
When I think about past trips that I have been on, it would be disappointing for me to look forward and to know that I have already had my singular experience of a lifetime. And, if I’ve already had my one experience, then what more do I have to look forward to in life? None of my future endeavors could ever be as good. All I would be able to do is look back at my experience of a lifetime instead of looking forward to more adventures to come.
Fortunately enough, I have found it possible to have more than one ‘experience of a lifetime.’ And I’ve even got more in the works. Why do we so often limit ourselves to the thinking that we can only have a few adventures in life? Why not be able to make it a lifestyle? Why not collect ‘experiences of a lifetime?’
So that’s what I’m up to right now. Making a few experiences of a lifetime for myself…first by canoeing the Green River in September and October, and then by working as a dogsled musher in northern Minnesota afterward in the winter (and although mushing will be a way to pay the bills, people would still often consider that an ‘experience of a lifetime’ as well).
So I’m happy to have you join along on one of my (hopefully many) experiences of a lifetime, a scenic adventure paddle down the magnificent Green River. And I’m happy to live vicariously through your experiences of a lifetime too. Who says you can only have just one? And by sharing our adventures, we can experience so many more journeys—some in person, some vicariously.
I will (ideally) post pictures and updates of the journey as I progress along the river. But, as you know, digital technology and wilderness are often not found in the same place.
√ Make Bucket List
I’ve heard it been phrased once before, quite interestingly, that the more items a person has on their bucket list, the less satisfied that person is with their current life. If that’s the case, then I myself must be quite dissatisfied with my own life, for not only do I have an extensive bucket list, I have also made multiple iterations of a personal bucket list over the years. How deeply dissatisfied I must be to have made so many lists of all the cool things I’ve never done! And all the other people out there—the abundance of bucket lists everywhere must indicate that the mass of people live lives of quiet desperation (Thoreau must have been so satisfied with his life because no record of him making a bucket list exists). But, in a way that line of thinking makes sense. What is a bucket list, after all, but a visual record of all the things you still haven’t accomplished in your life, and perhaps never will? When viewed this way, having a long bucket list indeed is a sad thing.
If you are, in fact, looking at your bucket list and fantasizing over all the things you haven’t yet done or the places where you haven’t been, it may indicate a longing for something different than your current life. Maybe you are actually dissatisfied with your life in the fact that you aren’t going scuba diving every single day or that you haven’t visited every single foreign country. That’s probably a few folks out there. But for the rest of us, not accomplishing a bucket list item doesn’t even break a sweat. The bucket list, as it is used most beneficially, is a tool to help in defining and pursuing goals. It is a creative and fun way of imagining all the possible things you could do in your life, with the added oomph of some motivation and satisfaction from checking off a box.
I hate to think of the bucket list as a measure of how we are performing in our lives, in terms of whether we are satisfied with them or not. Instead, the bucket list is more a grab-bag of fun and adventuresome activities that you’d like to at least try once. At least for me, most items on my bucket list are dreamy and tend to be long-shots at best. Skydiving? (check!). Go diving in a submarine? (uncheck). Why would some activities, such as skydiving, even exist if not for the sole purpose of being checked off bucket lists?
Though I have long been a fan of making lists, the very first ‘bucket list’ I ever made was for a school project in seventh grade. In an elective class, we learned about the man with perhaps the most famous bucket list ever. His name was John Goddard—and he didn’t refer to it as his bucket list either. John Goddard was a man of life, and instead of thinking about all the things he wanted to do before he died, he thought of all the things he wanted to do while still alive to include on his so-called ‘Life List’ (perhaps that’s only a rhetorical difference, but it changes one’s perspective nonetheless). On a rainy day in 1939, at the age of 15, Goddard wrote down his initial Life List of 127 goals. Most of them were very difficult or lofty, encompassing explorations into uncharted lands or a desire to set the record for speed in an airplane. Lofty goals can often fall by the wayside, but young Goddard didn’t just tuck his Life List away and forget about it. The most exceptional thing Goddard did was not to make his list in the first place, but to actively pursue his goals after the fact. With his list in mind, Goddard found a path to accomplishment, attending college to become a traveling anthropologist and joining the US Air Force to fly planes. Throughout his life, Goddard continued to add items to his Life List—and yet he was a man who was not dissatisfied with the life he lived, becoming one of the greatest adventurers of the 20th century. In 2013, Goddard died at the age of 88 having accomplished many, though not all of his initial 127 goals.
The greater purpose of learning about the Goddard list, I believe, is not to marvel at the man who accomplished all this in his lifetime. The greater purpose is to show that not only are far-out goals attainable by average people, but also that it is still very acceptable to not accomplish all of your goals in your lifetime. John Goddard fell short on many things, but he is still highly regarded as a successful person.
Even though I have made a ‘bucket list’ of sorts, I don’t like to think of it as such. The items on my list, for the most part, are not things I’d feel like a failure if I didn’t accomplish before I “kick the bucket.” That’s why I refer to it as my ‘Non-Bucket List.’ Crossing things off the list before I die will be appreciated, but is not the point of the exercise. My list is more about things I would enjoy doing than a to-do list which I am obligated to complete. I would much rather walk away from the goals on my list rather than let them consume me.
Unlike Goddard, I don’t really refer to my list frequently and check off my accomplishments. My latest list was made in a short bout of inspiration. And then, instead of printing it off and following along with my goals, I largely ignored the list, losing it instead to the recesses of my hard drive. Much to my delight when I looked upon my list more recently, I had found that I had in fact unknowingly accomplished a few of my goals! But then there are some goals on my list that can never be checked off, because they are fundamentally immeasurable. I’ll never know if I accomplished them even when I die. Some of my loftiest goals relate to fundamental questions of life. Was I a good person? Did I live a good life? Some goals you can never cross off a list, but you just have to keep striving towards nonetheless.
I’m sharing my own non-bucket list here because it is helpful to see other people’s list when you make your own, just like how John Goddard’s list served as the inspiration for my seventh-grade project long ago.
“The Summer Day”
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Outdoor trips into the backcountry are special for a multitude of reasons. Some of those reasons are for things that are in the wilderness itself—like pristine vistas and contact with primeval nature. Other reasons to go to the wilderness are for what’s not in the backcountry. In the wilderness, the ubiquitous conveniences of modern life are stripped away, and we enjoy for a time a life more rugged and simplified. One of the most impactful conveniences that goes missing in the backcountry, for instance, is Wi-Fi and cell service for our smartphones and internet devices.
Now, in our everyday modern lives in civilization, we get accustomed to having this technology omnipresent, and internet access is only ever a few swipes and clicks away. This access to instant information has changed the way we live and relate to each other. For example, if we have a pondering or a debate with someone over a fact, we can easily whip out our phones and fact-check via the internet. Swipe, click. Information accessed. Case closed.
But in the backcountry, we don’t have this luxury…or, maybe this curse. Without ready access to the internet, countless intellectual debates of ours remain unanswered while on trail in the wilderness. And without on-screen entertainment to control our minds, we find plenty of time to banter with those around us. Quite naturally, a lot of questions will arise and small arguments will develop as to which certain facts are true or not from such conversational chitchat. On the trail, we find ourselves thrust back into the dark ages of when all we had available for the reference of knowledge was our own mere speculation on the subject.
But the speculation is often the funnest part, even more so than finding out the answer. Such speculation forms much of the conversation building among a group, especially in wilderness travel. Without a definite answer available immediately from the inter-webs, we are free to sit around and banter without fear of the subject being put to rest definitively and prematurely. The point, after all, is not to figure out what is the technical difference between a fruit and a vegetable, if water is wet or not, or if ‘funnest’ is actually a word. The point is to use these meandering conversations to build rapport with your fellows.
If you come across a burning question on your backcountry trip, you’ll just have to delay the satisfaction of finding out the answer until later. Delayed gratification in finding out an answer can really build the anticipation of finally knowing. Or, maybe you’ll just forget the question entirely by the time you emerge back into civilization. And just maybe, when you do find out the answer to that question you’ve been wondering about for so long, you will all of a sudden be flooded with nostalgia for the trip and all the conversations that occurred on it.
But then there is the realm of ponderings beyond what the internet can prove to be true or not. These ponderings arise on wilderness trips, but also in civilized life as well. We as a culture have become so accustomed to having our questions answered so quickly and easily by a quick Google search that we take knowing things with certainty for granted. But on some matters, the internet just has no say whatsoever. It remains silent, no matter how much you Google search. Some parts of life’s mysteries just have to remain unanswerable. This is myth. This is folklore. And this stuff is interesting. While on a wilderness trip, or in everyday life, the speculative conversation may turn towards the legendary side of things. This is where tall-tales really take off. Why doesn’t Camp Widjiwagan, for instance, travel to the Sturgeon Narrows anymore? Are they haunted, as some say, or just patrolled by unwelcoming locals? And is Nye Cabin really haunted? Have spooky things happened in that cabin, caused by the lingering ghost of old-timer Bud Nye? Or is it just your imagination? Either way, the internet remains silent.
As much as you’d search and search, the internet will provide no information on the matter. These fables are folklore only. Unprovable, but still growing more magical and mysterious by the speculative banter and hearsay surrounding them. They are the stuff of myth and legend. And I remain very happy that in some parts of life, there are places where the internet can’t touch.
“For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes or what he hopes for, but what he loves.” –St. Augustine
Years ago, when I first moved into an intentional living community, one of our initial get-to-know-you activities was to create what was known as a ‘Loves List,’ a collection of things, experiences, and ideas that each individual described as being among their loves. This exercise was a novel way to get to learn more about my new housemates right away. In the course of everyday conversation with new acquaintances, a lot of the things that people admire don’t frequently get brought up. The Loves List, instead, aims to put all those loves out there in the open right away. It is a way to discuss and learn about the things people love—that is, to say the things and ideas that people value and cherish and esteem. These things are the tiny traces and connections that make up the gestalt of who people are. As philosopher Gideon Strauss put it (who is a mentor to my mentors who taught me the Loves List) “it is in consideration of what we love that we come to know, most deeply, who we are and who we can become.”
My first Loves List was created in 2011. I have since created subsequent versions of my Loves List, some as revisions from past lists, and others created independently. It is an act of self-discovery to look and re-look over past lists to see what made the list and what was left off. My own loves have migrated through time, yet have also stayed fairly consistent too.
The latest version of the Loves List that I have made, stemming from an independent re-evaluation in 2016, has gotten pretty complex. I guess it turns out that I have been growing fond of quite a number of things. For the sake of clarity, I categorized my latest Loves List into different categories, but this is not necessary. I encourage you to try the activity yourself. Take some time to write down a list of what you love, and see what you learn about yourself. Here is my Loves List as an example, or perhaps inspiration for you to try it yourself.
Ty’s Loves List
|Beachcombing for seashells|
|Cold snowy moonlit winter nights|
|Crisp, cold winter days|
|Living in a place with four distinct seasons|
|Plants and trees—of all sorts|
|Quiet walks through a garden or forest|
|The changing seasons|
|The first few crisp nights at the end of summer, signaling fall is on the way|
|The way clouds are colored at sunrise and sunset|
|Warm, humid, breezy nights|
|Watching ants crawl around|
|Watching plants grow|
|Watching thunderstorms roll in—and getting caught in the rain|
|Weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalk|
|Always trying to learn something new|
|Cuddling up with a good book|
|Eastern philosophy and religious traditions|
|Finding a good podcast unexpectedly on the radio|
|Keeping a journal of my thoughts and activities|
|Learning about geographical differences|
|Making plans/alternative plans|
|Monastic Life and Monastic Communities|
|Personal Reflection Time|
|Public Media (i.e. NPR, PBS, BBC)|
|Reflecting on shared experiences|
|Sitting in quiet contemplation|
|Understanding how things work.|
|Urban Planning and City Design|
|Adopting second hand goods and giving them a good second life|
|Avoiding doing things the easy way|
|Being friendly to people|
|Being tolerant about how others live|
|Encouraging positive growth in others|
|Envisioning possibilities for the future|
|Having well-thought out reasons for even simple decisions|
|Imperfection—loving things with visible flaws that don’t hide behind the veil of artificial perfection.|
|Looking for the good in the situation|
|Reading the directions—and then doing it my own way anyway|
|Sleeping on any important decision I have to make|
|Supporting local communities|
|The Circle of Life|
|The feeling that what I’m doing might make a difference in the world|
|Thinking about things philosophically|
|Throwing myself wholeheartedly into what I do|
|Abandoned objects and places|
|Alternative music (or instrumental/foreign language songs)|
|Aquariums, big and small|
|Brown Road Signs|
|Cacti and Succulents|
|Dr. Bronners Soap|
|Ginger, prepared in all kinds of varieties|
|Independent coffee houses/cafes|
|Locally brewed micro-beers|
|Nalgene Water Bottles|
|Puzzles, of all varieties|
|Browsing used bookstores|
|Buying something used and giving it a second life|
|Finding seaglass on the beach|
|Fixing broken things|
|Growing a garden|
|Making food items from scratch—especially if it’s grown or foraged by me|
|Making music on an instrument—or at least trying to|
|Perusing Thrift Stores|
|Picking up litter|
|Spending time on the water: in kayak, canoe, paddleboard, boat, etc.|
|Staring at maps|
|Swimming—pools, lakes, and oceans|
|An evening at a wilderness campground|
|Being outside in inclement weather|
|Caring about those who are close to me|
|Collecting things—and experiences|
|Creating something one-of-a-kind for myself or someone else|
|Finding coins on the sidewalk|
|Hanging around people who know who you are and are ok with it.|
|Having a discussion after watching a movie with others|
|Indie bands and coffee-shop performances|
|Living communally with others|
|Lying on my back staring up at the sky through the branches of a tree|
|Nighttime walks along the ocean|
|Reducing our impact on mother earth|
|Sharing a home-cooked meal|
|Sharing conversation with friends over a beer|
|Singing in my car or in the shower|
|Trying anything once for the sheer experience of it.|
|Using my hands to perform a skill|
|Waking up before the sun rises|
|Watching campfires burn wood down into embers|
|Watching the sunset|
“Of Love,” by Mary Oliver
I have been in love more times than one,
thank the Lord. Sometimes it was lasting
whether active or not. Sometimes
it was all ephemeral, maybe only
an afternoon, but not less real for that.
They stay in my mind, these beautiful people,
or anyway beautiful people to me, of which
there are so many. You, and you, and you,
whom I had the fortune to meet, or maybe
missed. Love, love, love, it was the
core of my life, from which, of course, comes
the word for the heart. And, oh, have I mentioned
that some of them were men and some were women
and some—now carry my revelation with you—
were trees. Or places. Or music flying above
the names of their makers. Or clouds, or the sun
which was the first, and the best, the most
loyal for certain, who looked so faithfully into
my eyes every morning. So I imagine
such love of the world—its fervency, its shining, its
innocence and hunger to give of itself—I imagine
this is how it all began.
There are people who are talented orators, who can weave a fine yarn out of any small thing that’s happened to them. There are also those folks who can continually fill the air with chatter, cracking jokes and making small talk out of anything. These folks always seem to have something interesting to say, a charismatic way to attain an audience with even the slightest bit of substance. When they speak, they themselves seem interesting.
But I’m neither of those types of speakers. I’m more of a matter-of-fact kind of orator. When I do tell stories of my experiences, they tend to be dry and straightforward; a distillation of the story into the most important parts and facts. I don’t possess much flair for the dramatic, but stay firmly grounded in the brief reality of what happened. And mostly, when I think of things to say, I often chose not to actually say them because they seem to me so uninteresting.
So, with my limited capacity to pique people’s attention through sensational storytelling and my absence of readily making small talk, I seek to have an arsenal of things to chat about that are inherently intriguing to the listener. If the oration can’t gain people’s interest, then at least the content should. And I do want to be seen as an interesting person; I want to be the type of person with many different and unique experiences to share with others. For me, traveling around and trying out different ways of life has greatly added to that arsenal of small talk subjects (though that is an externality of what I have done, and not a primary motivation for it; my inherent curiosity of trying new things and seeking new experiences are done for intrinsic reasons alone). With my tendency to talk about things that have actually happened to me, I can now use as conversation starters (for example) my months in Australia living out of a van and picking fruit, or what its like to serve as a deckhand aboard a historic sailing vessel, or what it’s like to complete a 19-day, 1,200-mile bike ride. I can easily ramble on about all the trips I’ve taken in the outdoors and all the places I’ve gone and the things I’ve seen. To a lot of people, I’d assume, this stuff would be interesting. And I, in turn, would appear to be an interesting person for doing it.
However, eventually all this stuff too begins to seem mundane. After all, I’ve done it all and experienced it already, so it can’t be too extraordinary. Let’s talk about something even more interesting, that is to say, something I haven’t done yet. The things other people have done still seem even more interesting than myself.
And so goes the cycle. The past experiences I’ve had have been retold enough times by me that all the novelty and the inherent interest they have to me has worn off. This even includes experiences that people would describe as ‘once in a lifetime,’ such as my fruit-picking foray in Australia or the five months I spent on a western American road trip. To me, in retrospect, those experiences have become such a commonplace occurrence in my personal narrative that they cease to be extraordinary. Do I commonly forget that others still might think of these things as interesting? Perhaps. But no matter how much stuff I do that others would find fascinating, I never feel like it’s enough. I never think that I am yet that pinnacle achievement of an interesting person. So I continually seek to do more interesting stuff and become an even more inherently interesting person.
I’d like to think of myself as an interesting person who others would like to converse with, but my reserved nature often limits my inclination to engage. Trying to make myself more interesting, to have more cannon fodder to chat about, seems to be a coping mechanism to be more pro-social. I love conversing with people, and I can be quite gregarious at times as well, but small talk has always been something I have struggled with. I know that presentation is important, and a lot of great ideas and stories get overlooked because they are not presented in the most engaging sales pitch. But my standard is that I want the content to speak for itself. My philosophy is that if people are going to listen to me, it’s going to be because I have interesting things to say, not because I merely say mundane things in a charismatic way. It’s the stories I have to share that are the things to be treasured, not merely the way I present them.
Even though small talk and engaging in conversations is difficult for me, there comes a point in some conversations where I reach a state of flow, when conversing and sharing details becomes not only easy but also enjoyable. It is in these moments when I’m not on the outside trying to appear as an interesting person; it is when the subject of discussion itself becomes the uniting factor between the conversers. Discussing things, even mundane things, in-depth seems to be more of my forte. I find it extremely enjoyable when my conversation partners, instead of just hearing the sensational part of the story, stick around to ask deeper, more probing questions about the experience. The conversation grows from there. I can dig through the archives of my past lived experiences, and can readily list off a bevy of facts and details to share about things that I am interested in. My conversation partner, interested in the same subject, will happily engage in the listening and conversing process. My theory is that as long as there are people who are interested in the same things I am passionate about, who are active and courageous listeners, then I will always have a supply of people with whom to be conversation partners. That doesn’t mean that I always have to talk about things that are inherently interesting, or to present things in a nauseatingly engaging manner. Sometimes it can be the subject, or the art of conversation itself, that speaks for itself through you.
In my room, hidden way back in a drawer behind some inconspicuous items of clothing, I keep a few shoeboxes full of a spattering of mementos: old ticket stubs, tattered maps, random photographs, past letters, and much of the standard sentimental bric-a-brac. It’s a collection of worthless trinkets and scraps of paper, mostly. The contents of my box are all items I have collected here and there over time, relating to things I have done or places I have visited. I keep them because they remind me of all the inputs that have gone into my personal development.
This habit of mine was started earnestly in college, as I was beginning to collect all these new ideas and experiences through the course of my formal education. I desired a way to keep track of what I had been part of, and thus the genesis of the shoebox receptacle. Summer internships followed college semesters, and my collection continued to grow. Graduate school saw the start of my second shoebox. Souvenirs from rambling travels and post-graduate jobs are now filling up a third.
It’s not often I go back and look through these shoeboxes. Mostly they just wait in silence, ignored by their own creator. But sometimes I do go back. Sometimes I remember something small—a scrap or a brochure—that I stowed away in there and will rummage around in search of it. Oftentimes in the search I will get sidetracked, mesmerized by little tokens I had once set aside and had since forgotten. I’ll sit and reminisce for a spell. These little tokens in the box help remind me about what has shaped me.
I feel much the same way about my journals as I do my shoeboxes. I have kept a semi-regular journaling habit ever since graduating from high school, an anthology of thoughts and words instead of a collection of paper bits. Often I don’t look back at what I had written either. Most of it no longer concerns me. But I still cherish my journals dearly, and would feel deeply grieved if they were lost. And, when I do look back into the archives of my old entries, I am able to see myself at a different stage in life. It’s a personal historical record found nowhere else. It is often helpful to remind ourselves of who we once were in order to see who we are becoming.
I think of my shoeboxes full of keepsakes and my journal compilations collectively as my ‘paper trail.’ They are the acquired evidence of the life I have lived. While in other aspects of my life I tend to be reserved and cloistered out of a penchant for privacy, I have been very intentional about maintaining my paper trail evidence. However, I don’t show anyone my paper trail—at least I haven’t yet. They exist for my own perusal only. Though it is a collection of intentionally kept evidence, it is evidence that is not ready to be released to inquisitive eyes.
Yet, I don’t anticipate this always being the case. Call it conceited, but I live with the background imagination running through my mind of being important enough that a biographer will one day write the story of my life. From what I have read about the lives of my personal heroes, most of them left a lot of traces of their passing in life—even the most enigmatic of the bunch. I want to be kind to my future biographer by leaving them this paper trail, this life-long collection of scraps that leads them to discover insights about who I was as a person and how I got to be there.
My shoeboxes slowly continue to fill and my completed journals gradually pile up. My secretive paper trail gets cumulatively larger as I build this life for myself. I am quite fond of my paper trail. Do you have one of your own?
i keep asking God why, but he just laughs
Am I standing on Holy Ground?
Amidst the corn stubble, dusted in snow, sits an antiquated country church. Abandoned to both time and the elements. Forgotten. Little more than a weather-beaten beacon of unexamined scenery lost in the agrarian milieu.
For only God knows what reasons it remains empty. Or, if some humans do, they are not around to speak of it. What has come of them?
The solitude and decadence of this scene now seems ungodly. Was this place ever holy? Does this sacred gathering place now lie forsaken?
Ages past, the faithful once congregated here. This was a gathering place. A space for worship and community, a living, breathing fellowship. The Bible says that ‘where two or three gather in my name, I am there also’ (Matthew 18:20). But no one gathers here anymore. Or, if they do it is surely not in the name of God. It is in the name of vandalism, or a dare taken. The name of rural teenaged angst looking for a secret reprieve, perhaps. Is anyone who happens by seeking God in this place?
I came myself in the name of curiosity, beckoningly lured by the mélange of sacred and profane. I am a seeker of sorts, a seeker of understanding, but with many questions left unanswered. I peer into the broken windows at the peeling paint, the debris scattered on the floor. I am inquisitive of the story of this place. What has transpired here that this building now rests irreverent and forlorn?
Can God still be found in this place? If you ask directly, no reply is received—at least not one that you can understand. Maybe the rustle of the wind through the cornstalks or the occasionally passing car calls out for your attention. Was this God’s answer, or just his laugh?
keep asking why, and maybe someday you will understand
Given my parent’s penchant for bestowing gifts on each other during the Christmas season, it came as quite a surprise to me, upon arriving home for the holidays, that this year they would refrain from buying gifts for one another.
And to learn that after I had wrapped up all my holiday shopping, buying all my gifts on my drive home through Canada. I even thought I had outdone myself this year with thoughtful, unique presents. Now, no gifts at Christmas?
In the end, it wasn’t a giftless Christmas at the Bleeker household after all. Instead, the reduction on presents was targeted at mandatory giving—the kind of gifting one does because one feels obliged to at least buy something for another. My parents, after years and years of buying similar items for each other every Christmas (shirts, kitchen gadgets, gift cards, cashews), finally decided it was time to put an end to the convention. During the rest of the year, they could just as easily buy anything they needed for themselves or each other. And, the pattern of gifts given at Christmas had become standard and predictable. No need, then, to buy and consume more just because the culture around the holidays dictates it. This year, no to the stress of shopping crowds, no to obligatory gift-giving, and no to mandatory consumerism.
Except that for me, I had already purchased all my gifts. Darn.
As much as my parents’ new perspective on gift-giving surprised me, I was delighted by the change in practice. I for one actively decry materialism and bemoan consumerism. I have, at more than one Christmas, broken the heart of my well-intentioned mother by rejecting gifts and returning them instead. I can be a quite the difficult gift-receiver. Though I do love the joy and surprise at receiving a gift, the holidays are held in a strange tension for me because I don’t really like owning that much stuff. Is there a way to practice the meaningful expression of gift-giving while avoiding the downfalls of becoming bogged down in excess material extravagance?
Reflecting on the gifts I gave this past Christmas, I think that’s where my own shopping tendencies have been taking me. Seventy-five percent of what I bought was food or drink items—things that can easily be wrapped up and handled, but magically disappear after a few months. Consumable items like these provide the benefit of the gift, but one without the long-term conundrum of storing more stuff for perpetuity.
What’s more, behind the gifts I gave, there was something more I wanted to say with them. I had done all my holiday shopping while traveling by myself for three weeks in Canada, visiting some pretty spectacular places along the way. When I purchased each present, it was a way of saying to the intended receiver ‘I wish you could have been here with me.’ The bottle of cider I gave to my sister was a way of saying ‘it would have been fun sharing in the taste-tasting at the cider mill with you.’ The maple sugar candies from Quebec which I gave my friends were small tokens of physically sharing my trip with them too. In the absence of actually traveling and spending time with each other, sometimes a small gift with meaning behind it can say ‘I wish we could have done this together.’
In the end, the notion that gifts have to be material and given primarily at Christmastime misses a lot of the larger points behind gift-giving. For me, the best gifts I have received have often been immaterial and have come at many different times of the year, often unexpectedly. At Christmas, gifts of experiences are often the best gifts you’ll receive. Spending time with those you love in a shared activity can beat any pair of socks.
It’s challenging to wrap up a Christmas gift of experience in a box. Until then, I’ll keep wrapping up small tokens of my experience as my gifts.