Category Archives: Reflection
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
You cannot stay on the summit forever. You cannot live in the wilderness eternally. So why even venture off into wild places to begin with? Why put forth the effort, go through the hassle, and willingly subject yourself to hardships, privations, and lack of modern amenities? The reason is simple—what is gained from the experience changes you. The wilderness, though it physically surrounds you only for a fleeting moment, influences your character persistently.
This summer has been one of wilderness travel for me. From the canoe country of the Boundary Waters and the Quetico, to the backpackers’ paradise of the Rocky Mountains, I have spent countless hours leading others through wild places. Each trip I led, though some of them were lengthy, had to come back eventually. We couldn’t stay out there forever. Food, shelter, medicine, modern conveniences, human connections, and societal obligations all dictated that we must ultimately return. We live lives incontrovertibly connected to the civilized world. We are now dependent on technology and society to meet our daily needs. Though wild places may sustain us spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, few of us are truly prepared to have the wilderness provide all our physical needs.
But it is the non-physical lessons we learn in the wilderness that might be the most powerful. Wilderness travel lies in contrast to our otherwise ordinary lives in the front-country. The wilderness is a place to break out of our comfort zones, a setting where we are forced by necessity to be different, more capable human beings. Out in the wild, you survive on your own wits, or with the companionship of traveling partners. You learn to make do with what you have, or you learn to do without. You begin to realize that small things can lead to big consequences—and, instead of procrastinating, you learn to check problems before they become too big to handle. You become more organized in your daily life, more resourceful with what you have on hand, and you become adept at recognizing cause and effect. You become better at planning ahead. You are forced to live in the moment; foul weather can either foil your prior plans or fine weather can just as much beckon you to linger on. You learn to embrace and deal with the uncertainty of changing plans. And the people you travel with—whether you chose them or not, you will learn to entrust your life with those people, and you will take risks and grow close to them too.
All of these things are lessons we can learn and take away from experiences in the wilderness; because, we cannot take the wilderness itself with us—we can only take the memories of our time spent in the wilds. And all of these lessons transfer quite readily to life in civilization, because, you don’t necessarily even need the wilderness to learn these lessons in the first place. But in venturing out into the wilderness, you learn these lessons quickly, and you learn these lessons more thoroughly. Every time you venture out again into the wilds, you are reminding yourself of what you’ve already learned. Though you cannot bring the summit with you, the knowledge and skill of being the person the wilderness made you out to be is something you can carry with you indefinitely. This is the art of living that Daumal was referring to. But you needed that summit first to get there.
And what better place to learn these important life lessons than the wilderness. In wild lands, where nature lies stark and beautiful, “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain (1).” Beauty in the wilderness is intrinsic, and the feeling of remoteness is simultaneously intimidating and enlivening. Endless summit vistas and labyrinth-like waterways have an inherent value of their own. It is worth visiting these wild places regardless of any life lessons gained there. But critically important is the knowledge of who we can be that we take away from wilderness experiences. It took the summit to get there, and once there we could not stay forever. But we can keep the memory of the summit, and we are better people for having gone.
(1) Wilderness Act of 1964
As an outdoor educator, I get this interaction all the time with school children. A child in my study group will see something very enticing in nature, be it a rock outcropping to climb or the edge of the water to explore, and they’ll look at me imploringly and ask ‘am I allowed to do that?’ They ask permission for they come from a world of rules and expectations enforced by supervisory adults. But in the realm of outdoor education, of course you’re allowed to do this, kid. You don’t need my permission to explore and wonder. The outside world is so full of fun and interesting things to interact with, and it’s my goal to encourage you to explore what’s there of your own volition. Boundaries about what you’re allowed to do or not only come into play when safety is on the line, and quite frankly, you can be very adventurous outdoors while still being safe.
When I am these children’s outdoor instructor, I momentarily become the supervisory adult figure in their eyes (and for a few hours at a time, I become the actual responsible party for their safety and well-being). As that adult figure, I am often viewed by them as the permission granter. But at my last outdoor education job, one of the program’s main objectives was to teach children to explore the natural world on their own accord. To discover their own limits and abilities. To get wet, messy, and uncomfortable. To understand their own power and agency, all in the context of the natural environment. The limitations for such explorations were dictated by maintaining acceptable behavior, both in terms of environmental Leave No Trace standards and the ethics of belonging to a safe learning community. What these kids often don’t understand is the incredibly wide range of things that are acceptable behavior. It’s okay to climb a tree. It’s okay to pick up insects. It’s perfectly acceptable to get your feet wet and clothes muddy.
The worlds of these children are likely structured a lot differently than at camp. Ours is an age of helicopter parenting and risk aversion, and the kids bring this ethos with them to camp. A lot of their lives are already dictated and laid out by permission-granting adults, and ‘no’ is a word quite familiar in their lexicon. If these children see something that intrigues them, they often look to the adult who is present to gain implicit or explicit permission that, yes, indeed, they are allowed to do this. They do not believe strongly in their own agency in decision making—instead, they are accustomed to following along the path of acceptable behaviors as dictated by adults, unlikely to deviate from that path. Hearing ‘no’ is a response they so often receive that many of these children don’t even bother to try asking if they can do something.
My analogy with children, of course, is not one-hundred percent transferable to adult life (children, after all, need a lot more guidance and boundaries) nor is every child the same, but the sentiment of seeking permission is quite relevant. Even though I’m an independent adult and have been for a few years, I still often feel like a child who still needs to seek permission in life. Somehow it still feels as if there is some authority, older and more powerful than me, hovering above watching me, ready to either grant or deny permission to do certain things available in adult life. As an adult who faces adult-size opportunities, I often have to stop and think to myself ‘am I really allowed to do this?’
Growing up, I was an extremely obedient child—not only to what the multiple adult authorities above me dictated, but also to what I felt was expected of me as a child. Upon becoming an adult, I realized that there really is no one left above me to grant permission to do things (save for legal authority, but that’s a different related subject). After age 18, you can sign on the dotted line yourself. You can grant yourself permission to do the things you desire to do. But becoming a legal adult doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you instantly become your own independent person; you are still subject to the ties of relationships with those who have ethical authority over you. Older adults, parents in particular, are still evaluating your actions with a critical eye. Your employer still has expectations for you to uphold as their subordinate. And most importantly of all, you still have to live within the realm of what greater society deems acceptable behavior and within the bounds of legality.
But even given all that…there is so much stuff that you’re still allowed to just up and do without even asking permission. The most compelling—and also frightening—example of this is that I could chose to create a child. Who granted me permission to have that option, seriously? Procreation is such a weighty decision that it really feels like the procreators ought to first write in to a governing board to get permission to reproduce. But oddly enough you can just go ahead and do it anyway. Exploring relationships is similar too. You don’t have to get your parent’s approval anymore to go out or to be back in time for a curfew. You are free to engage in relationships to the depth and level that you desire. Other, much less extreme examples of what you don’t need permission for exist as well. For example, as an adult you get to choose where you live. Again, there is no governing board that reviews applications for which geographical region you wish to reside in, nor do you need permission from a parent or teacher. You can just pack up and move house. You don’t need a conventional salaried job either—and whatever job you have, you don’t need to keep it forever. You are not an indentured servant to your employer; terminating employment agreements is always an option if the match is no longer right. Your free time is yours to explore your own interests as well. Set your own sleep schedule. Read whatever book you want to…or don’t read at all. Vacation somewhere obscure…or stereotypical, if you will. You don’t need people’s permission in order to determine if eccentric pastimes like playing accordion or LARPing are acceptable. Go ahead and do it.
So as an adult there are not specific people who reside above you with the final authority to either grant or deny you permission to do things. The choices are wide, and the choices are yours. But even then, the freedom to choose certain things still doesn’t mean that everything is a good option. I’m allowed to smoke cigarettes, for example, but I care not to do so because of health risks and a dislike of the activity. Even though we are free to choose, a wide swath of our decisions are nevertheless still based upon the general aura of what is acceptable to do in our society. But even then a lot of what society decries as irresponsible is still acceptable or optional behavior. Dumpster diving is still an oft-frowned-upon choice I will pursue. So is dirtbagging—living out of my car for stretches of time while playing in the outdoors. But so long as what you’re doing isn’t morally reprehensible or illegal, then you’ve got a lot of free reign of things you’re allowed to do.
You don’t need permission to do these things anymore.
Although sometimes it still feels like you need to get permission.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” —Traditional Proverb
It used to be that when I read this old adage, I would favor and emphasize the going fast part of it. Though it may appear otherwise, the proverb doesn’t really offer up going fast and going far as two equal options to be chosen from; in the context it is most often used, there is an open bias towards uplifting as correct the latter as opposed to the former. But the choice is included in the proverb nonetheless, and fair being fair, one could, like me, focus on the benefits of going fast alone versus going far with others.
Most often I think of this proverb in its relation to travel. More specifically, recreational travel. My travel history is one of mostly solo ventures. I used to prefer it this way. I valued the independence of making my own choices. I valued the efficiency of being the only person to coordinate. I didn’t like having other people around to be forced to compromise with, as that might have infringed upon my personal travel desires. In that old perspective, traveling with other people either slowed me down unnecessarily, or forced me to participate in things which I didn’t really care about.
Even though I did favor the ‘fast’ side of the adage, I was never really a fast traveler on my own accord. At least in regards to speed. On my own personal trips, I usually, and predictably, fell further and further behind schedule. I like to take my time, though out of thoroughness and not out of leisure. Thus, I realized that I am a bit slower taking in the places I travel to, but I prefer the relaxed pace nonetheless. When traveling alone, I had the freedom to take all the time in the world to visit a place and not feel pressured to leave earlier because the people I was with got bored and wanted to move on (very true for visiting museums with me). Maybe the proverb should be changed to “if you want to go thoroughly, go alone.”
As a result of these preferences, I took many long trips by myself attempting to see it all, and to see it all thoroughly. I wanted the freedom and independence of travel to be able to follow my own whims instead of making compromises with the desires of other people. My little solo travels gradually got longer and longer until they culminated in my six months spent dirtbagging down under. Australia was a solo venture, and even though in Australian backpacking culture solo travelers frequently coalesce together, the longest time I ever traveled with someone was four days. And I was glad to be rid of him by the time we parted.
But during that time in Australia, my outlook on long solo travels began to change. On the whole, because I was traveling primarily by myself, I don’t think I got as much out of the entire Australian experience as I could, or even should, have. Sure, I did end up seeing more places than the average Aussie backpacker. But in reality, that additional travel looked similar to this: drive alone to a cool place on the map; get out of the van; walk around said cool place; think about all the cool stuff you could be doing in said cool place; do nothing because you have no one to do cool stuff with; repeat. In addition, I just eventually reached a mental space where I began to feel a little bored of keeping myself company all the time.
I began to realize that my preferred style of travel—solo—may have been leaving me short of the deeper gains of journeying. The going ‘far’ part. Reflecting on the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken, I realize that all of them were with people. And on my solo travels, encounters with other people—you know, those really-inefficient, freedom-compromising, dissimilar-interest kind of other people—were usually the most memorable moments.
But it is still hard to deny the benefits of traveling alone—speed and efficiency. I mean, much of my solo travels have been done simply because making solo travel plans is so quick and easy. On solo travels, you only have to consult with yourself. And you don’t have to see if your schedules align with other peoples’, or check in about travel styles or activity preferences. For solo travel you don’t have to wait to find other people to join you either. Seriously, I feel like half the stuff I’ve done in my life I wouldn’t have gotten to do if I had been waiting for people to join me. So, in some respects I have done a great amount of solo traveling and exploring simply because it is so efficient. But, the most memorable trips have always been with people when the inefficiencies and mishaps abound.
Traveling with others, as I’ve found, is a much richer experience. Since other people are just different from you, naturally, they will bring you to unexpected places and force you to do things that you wouldn’t have otherwise chosen for yourself. And, surprisingly, you will appreciate it. For the diversity. For the different perspective. For the opportunity to try something new. Because, traveling with other people is a surefire way to get exposed to a lot more cool stuff than you would have found on your own. Not to mention, you’ll have those memories and experiences to process and reflect on together.
With my increasing value on group travel, I’ve got a whole slew of upcoming adventures planned, all with people. A 300-mile bike trip along Lake Superior’s North Shore with a friend from college. A 700-mile canoe trip on the Green River with a spattering of friends and family along the way. And not to mention a whole summer of guiding canoe and backpack trips for summer campers.
When I think about my change in perspective concerning the different modes of travel, what often comes to mind is the scene near the culmination of the film Into the Wild, where Christopher McCandless sits emaciated and alone in his bus in the Alaskan bush, reflecting on his solo venture of surviving in the Alaskan wilds while coming to the sad realization that happiness is only real when shared, and that he will (SPOILER ALERT!) slowly starve to death by himself in an abandoned bus. It’s a true story with a heartbreaking ending about an idealistic young man who valued extreme independence in adventure a little too highly. And all at once but much too late young McCandless realized that real happiness lay with sharing the journey with others. Fortunately I’m not as extreme as McCandless. Some lessons I can learn second-hand.
So perhaps we should change the proverb. “If you want to see a lot of stuff thoroughly, travel alone. If you want to create a memorable and fulfilling experience, travel together.” But, that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily.
It’s tough sometimes being a perfectionist. The constant struggle of realizing that everything you are ultimately striving for will fall short of your expectations. The notion that everything, inevitably, has its flaws. That there is nothing in life you will encounter that will match your 100% ideal situation.
And maybe it’s hardest of all to be that perfectionist while coming of age. So many big life decisions are to be made in the process of adulting. Who do I want to be? What do I want to do? Where do I want to live? Who do I want to be with? These are some of the big unresolveds that those who are adulting face. To the idealist young adult, those questions must be answered with only one adjective: perfectly.
But here’s the trouble: perfection doesn’t exist. Or, if it does, I haven’t found it yet. Five years out of college for me now, and I’m still refining my answers to the fundamental questions of adulthood. I’ve still been on a quest to find the ideal situation for me, getting closer and farther away all at the same time.
This search for the 100% ideal situation is part of the reason I have been ambling around all this time with a resistance to settling down to one particular set of answers. To settle down, in a sense, is to accept something that is less than perfect. To settle is to give up the quest for the ideal situation early—to sell yourself short of your full potential. As that strident idealist, I’m unwilling to compromise on perfection. The end result of this, however, looks like I’m aimlessly wandering all over undecided on the big adult questions: where do I want to live, what do I want to do for a vocation, and what people do I want to surround myself with.
In all that time of trial-and-error, I would have thought that I’d have gotten a better definition of what is the one ideal for me. Instead, I’ve found that there are, in fact, a lot of different options that work surprisingly well for all of the major life questions. Each place I have lived has had its pluses and minuses. Each job I have worked has had its positives and negatives. All the people I have associated with have had their good qualities and their not so good qualities. Nothing I’ve found has ever been 100% perfect, in the sense that it was 100% perfect for me, in my characterization of the word. But from what I’ve found, a lot of options, while not being 100% ideal, have been much, much better than I could have ever anticipated.
Nor am I a flawless match for anything either. In my quest to find the ideal situation for myself, I also have to stop and acknowledge (though it can be difficult) that I myself am flawed and imperfect too. I have shortcomings as well. I can never be the perfect employee, the ideal friend, or the flawless member of a community. But it is heartening to know that these things don’t require perfection as a pre-requisite. Friends, communities, and employers aren’t looking for perfection; they’re just looking for your best effort.
So then, I suppose, settling for something less than ideal isn’t selling yourself short of perfection. Instead, it’s a realistic acknowledgement that nothing can ever be 100% ideal, especially from the start. We often take things to be just as we know them in the moment, but forget that everything is slowly growing and changing too. By settling down in a place, or in a job, or with a community, or with a person, you are acknowledging the fact that though the current situation may be less than ideal, in time and with work and effort the relationship between the two can grow and expand beyond any level it is at the start. And everyone’s idea of perfect is different too. Certain situations may match other people’s preferred ideals more than mine match theirs. But that’s part of the beauty in getting things to work—since we’re not all looking for the same perfect as each other, a degree of imperfection is—ironically—perfectly acceptable.
So maybe we should lower our perfectionist standards—not our hopes and dreams for perfection, but what level of idealism we find acceptable to make things work well. As that uptight perfectionist, it’s hard to settle for anything less than 100%. But even 85% ideal is still very high, especially considering that absolute perfection is unattainable. I was a straight-A student in high school. But when things got more difficult (and also more interesting and fulfilling) in college, I relaxed my uptightness and ending up learning to accept a few B’s here and there. And yet, even short of absolute perfection in the grade point average, I still grew incredibly as I found myself in some very imperfectly ideal situations outside of the guise of 100% perfect.
“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.
Recently I bought a $200 pair of designer snowpants. Seriously. I know. Totally not like me, right? As I have written before, most of the stuff I own has been acquired through very frugal means (head nod to dumpster diving here). So what’s behind the recent splurge?
Though I do have a penchant for acquiring things that are pre-loved and homely, I do also have a rabid lust for things that are new and nice. This lust compels me to page through catalogs of beautiful objects and to browse through websites staring at all the enticing images of attractive things. Psychologists are right when they explain how buying things releases a flood of endorphins in the brain, those feel-good brain chemicals. For the most part, the objects of my desire run the gamut of fancy outdoor gear designed for outdoor enthusiasts. As an outdoor industry professional, outdoor gear is at the top of the list of things I pine after, and surely is also the most expensive stuff I desire to acquire. I can easily spend hours in any outdoor sports store mindlessly meandering through all the aisles and tactilely handling all of the gear with imaginations of future adventures running through my mind.
Of all the people who buy expensive items like this, I’d like to think that I’m in the upper-half of the bell curve who actually put this stuff to use. I frequent the outdoors for my job, plus my wild recreation time puts extreme wear-and-tear on my gear. Thus, whatever I buy doesn’t end up just sitting unused in an attic. I put this stuff through the wringer and then some. Just ask my old pair of snowpants: acquired used in a swap with a friend four years ago, they were used and abused until they ended up in their present state full of ember holes, small rips and tears, medium holes patched over with nylon or duct-tape, long rips in the material or at the seams that have been stitched back together multiple times, and the more generalized state of well-worn abrasion. Any other person would have given up on that pair of pants ages ago, yet I kept mending them contrary to my naysayers. And I didn’t even spend any money to acquire those snowpants either—I simply traded an extra bike-pump for them! If I do take that much care of my gear that costs me nothing, then how much more might I value the things that cost a pretty penny. Hence, why I decided to drop so much money on a single pair of snowpants. If the quality of the brand holds up, then I should be wearing that pair of snowpants for a decade at the very least. If you think about it economically averaged, in ten years the annual cost of those snowpants would be only $20. That’s a pretty reasonable investment indeed.
And it’s an investment that I feel is not only admissible but also justifiable. It’s not a sin to own nice things if you take good care of them and use them well. After all, the stuff that I do own I take splendid care of, whether I bought it at full price or pulled it out of a dumpster. And I don’t consume much in the way of new things, either; I will constantly mend and repair the things I own until they are no longer useful. When it comes to actually purchasing new things, I’m a very reluctant consumer, to say the least.
But there is a lot of baggage with owning nice things, and that just doesn’t account for the expense of having to take care of those items. The nice things that I so frequently lust after—those designer snowpants, those fancy outdoor clothes—they project a status symbol, and one that I am not entirely at ease with bearing. Designer outdoor clothes from the major brands are expensive, and are in fact purveyors of status and privilege. I myself am unconsciously brand-conscious, even though I don’t try to be. Other people I interact with are also brand-conscious, and wearing such brands feeds into their perceptions who I am as a person. As an outdoor professional, I should feel like I have permission to wear such clothes with impunity. Especially since, as an outdoor professional, I basically get 40% off retail price on virtually anything with industry pro-deals, on top of my good nose for bargains. But the average, everyday person I meet doesn’t know this about me. They don’t know that I can buy my clothes at a deep discount. To them, it all looks the same, and in a sense it is. The premium you pay at the cash register is not for the garment quality, but for the label. Wearing those brands, I appear as someone who was willing to pay the premium for the status of the label.
I’ve wrestled with this question of brand-image for quite a long time. I didn’t wear designer outdoor brands growing up, though they were quite popular among my high school and college classmates. I, too, lusted for the status that wearing such brands represented. Yet at the same time, I also felt uncomfortable with that status. I was too conscientious of all the baggage.
After many years of deliberation, I finally caved in and bought myself a garment. It was a very nice green Patagonia fleece, comfortable, durable, beautiful. But it also came at a hefty price tag. Being my first piece of outdoor designer clothing, I was very nervous about wearing it. My friends would see it and would notice the change in attire. They would make comments. I would feel uncomfortable with all the attention. It would feel as if I had started walking around with a giant hickey on my neck—an incriminating mark as to my underlying behavior and values.
But that was four years ago. I still have that green Patagonia fleece, and it still is my most frequently worn item of clothing. Sticking to the intentions I had when I purchased it, I aim to get at least another six years of heavy use from it to make the purchase justifiable. And since that day it still has been the only piece of outdoor designer clothing which I had purchased for myself, until the snowpants. I still am conscious of the impression I give off on people when they see the brands I wear. But the few holes and increasingly pilly texture of my fleece are things I am proud of—signs that I have been putting my clothing to use in the manner it was designed—in the rugged outdoors. The wear and tear, especially on my nice outdoor clothing, gives the purchase of the item some more credibility and eases the conscious just a little.
But still, I remain somewhat uncomfortable with these items and the image it presents of myself. Wearing Patagonia and the like brands are hallmarks of the affluent white culture. By purchasing and wearing such garments, I am making a statement that I am part of that culture. But what about relating to other people, from different, less affluent cultures? Is the clothing one wears a barrier to connecting and empathizing with the less fortunate? Especially those who can’t afford a pair of pants, let alone a pair of $200 snowpants?
As you can see, I enjoy owning nice things, but sometimes I wonder if I can afford to live with the baggage such privilege comes with.
What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in
Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been
a Pond I Used To Visit Every Summer Afternoon
Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.
Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?
Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.
Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.
And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.
With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all the other cleverly-named days which promote consumer spending behind us, the holiday shopping season is well on its way once again. The lure of irresistible deals and the culture of acquiring the latest fads spur us to accumulate endlessly more and more stuff. I myself have had stuff on my mind lately, though it’s not because of an inclination towards holiday shopping. Rather, ending one out-of-state job recently and preparing to re-locate to another has got me sorting through all my stuff in preparation. And with my parents moving houses in the past few months as well, I’m coming home to all my possessions haphazardly boxed up and scattered about. It’s been a time to re-analyze all that I consider ‘mine.’
As I’ve been sorting through my possessions, I’ve begun to pause and go through them more deliberately. When I’ve been away working my various seasonal jobs, I’ve always kept my possessions to a few duffle bags, or a comfortable car-load at the very most. But, I’ve realized, I have a lot more stuff that I’ve left behind—stuff I own and keep, though I don’t actively use it or even remember I own it. Actually, going through my possessions again, it surprised me the sheer amount of objects I could say are still in my possession—even though I like to think of myself as a minimalist. I always enjoy considering how light a packer I am, and how well I can improvise using the few possessions I do have. But I also know I am a collector of things, a pack-rat as some may call it, and I have acquired a considerable amount during my time on earth. Though I may decry the negative rampages of American imperial consumerism, I too am complicit in the lust and greed to acquire more. I too see things I would like to have, and take steps to ensure that I acquire them and keep them solidly in my possession. The primal urge to accrete does not leave easy.
And now, I’ve found myself in this more reflective situation, as I go through my many possessions box by box. I do tend to be quite utilitarian in my philosophy of things, viewing objects as tools to be used in life, caring mostly about function over form. But even though I concern myself with the practical value of items, I also feel strongly that things should not be treated with careless indignation, as though they were simply disposable without consequence. Utility also means looking to gain the maximum use and value out of every single object I possess, to use and wear things out until they are no more. If each object has a purpose, then each object also has a value. The things I’ve found myself to be holding on to are things that still have some sort of value left—practical, sentimental—and most likely only I could see the value in maintaining these things indefinitely.
As I open each box to rediscover what had been placed inside long ago, I take out each object and cradle it in my hands slowly, reverently. These are merely things, but they connote more than that—they have stories of mine interwoven in them. They have the stories of how I acquired them, of how I used them, and—having made the decision to keep them around—they hold some aspiration for the future as well. Holding each object, I try and recollect as much as I can about it. It may help that I have a particularly detailed memory, but I can often recall when and where I acquired each object, and the circumstances of my acquirement. Everything I find are artifacts of myself, intricately connected to my history of being. I amuse myself by speculating far off into they future, imagining that I have had a long and famous life and that upon my passing my possessions are being sorted by museum staff for a curated display of my life. So many of these objects I hold, rather than having a monetary value, have something much more priceless. Airline boarding passes, concert tickets, maps of places I’ve traveled. Yes, so many of these objects, rather than carrying a practical value, hold an emotional, sentimental value. They are relics of my past, reminding me of where I have been but also hinting at the trajectory I am going down.
Though mindless consumerism disheartens me, I remain quite ambivalent about the acquirement of stuff, on one hand cherishing what I own but on the other hand feeling the imperative to make do with less. Having been of modest means through most of my adult life, my metabolism for objects has been slower than most. Few objects, a minority I would conjecture, I have actually purchased for myself with money. The objects which I do own came from other means: trades and barters, unclaimed remnants of lost and found boxes, things pulled from the trash, participation prizes, gifts from friends. My boxes of things are filled with second-hand clothes, book-exchange finds, and rocks which I have collected during my travels. I am an opportunist in my acquiring of things, and usually it is not the object itself that is important, but the use it presents. So long as the object is useful to me, even if just for memories sake, then I will adopt it into my litany of things.
The fact that I can recall so much information about my history with these objects proves just how much emotional weight these things have on me. For now, I do not find it a burden; I have enough memory space available to justly devote to each object. But as I continue to acquire, and file more and more things into the repository boxes in my parent’s basement, I wonder how long this will still last. You see, whenever I make the decision to adopt an object, I gain the burden of seeing that object to the end of its natural life or re-homing it to another possessor. Once I acquire something too, it is incredibly difficult to part with it, to imagine no longer being in control of it. I am very glad to have avoided the worst of the lures of American consumerism with its throw-away mentality and the lust for more and more. But I also wonder: might I feel freer with less stuff, with more time to devote to this grand organic world which I love?
When I moved from one house to another
there were many things I had no room
for. What does one do? I rented a storage
space. And filled it. Years passed.
Occasionally I went there and looked in,
but nothing happened, not a single
twinge of the heart.
As I grew older the things I cared
about grew fewer, but were more
important. So one day I undid the lock
and called the trash man. He took
I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing — the reason they can fly.
“Though your mind continually searches for order and pattern in the ocean waves, there is none to be found. The ocean is perfectly chaotic and achieves a deep sense of beauty which our minds recognize but are scant to understand” —Paraphrased from an Alan Watts Lecture
At times you may find yourself unsettled: angsty, pensive, unsure, angry. These emotions welling up inside of you need a reprieve, an outlet; they need an environment conducive to processing those feelings. Someplace gloomy, foreboding, immense; somewhere to connect with your mood. In times like these, you seek out water, wherever it may be—the beach, on the ocean or a pond, a raging river or gentle stream. Whatever it is, there is something special inherent about that landscape. Something in its sublime beauty eases the tension in your mind. In these over-bearing alien landscapes, there is solace, solitude. Sitting, strolling, or wandering aimlessly lost along the water’s edge, you can feel a change in your psyche. Your anxious thoughts lessen, your mind begins to process what conflicts you. There by yourself, you begin to delve into your inner being. The landscape you have sought has become your conduit towards introspection.
I am one who seeks the water when anxious. The primal nature of the powerful waves awes me, and I feel small and insignificant compared to their might. The calm reflection on a still pond reaches me too, and my mind is soothed by the gently undulating ripples on the surface. Alone in these environs I can recollect myself, dive deeper into myself, come away with a deeper understanding of myself. The water, I have found, is a prime landscape for self-reflection.
Yet angst and anger—that troubling slew of emotions—is not the sole reason one visits the water’s edge. At other times, you will be experiencing different emotions: tranquil, curious, joyful. In those moments you may not be alone, or even want to be alone. You may be with other people. Regardless, the sheer beauty of the waves and water still works on you and those around you. This environment is different, you can tell. You feel something tangibly distinct here, though you cannot name it. Somehow you feel more at ease, like the water is a trusted friend there to support you in your relations. You can feel yourself opening up to the souls of those around you. Maybe those you are with had been introspecting the same as you, and have now became ready to share these quiet ruminations outside of themselves. Whatever the cause, you begin to open up. The landscape has fostered a window of special extroversion among those you are with.
I have had many deep and meaningful conversations by the water. So too I have had many deeply difficult conversations in similar places. On these occasions, the bond between the people involved was challenged—twisted, wrenched—and yet ultimately deepened. It’s not that meaningful conversations happen exclusively by the water—it’s just that this particular landscape seems to coax it out of me more easily. It seems to coax it out of those I’m with as well. These landscapes serve as a catalyst for our human connection.
Maybe different landscapes serve this same purpose for other people—deserts, mountains, forests—all have some sort of special power to connect us. For me, it is the water that is most impactful. It is a landscape that lends itself both to a powerful introspection yet also opens me up to meaningful relationships with others.
“In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth.”
On a calm October morning, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” And thus, I went to those particular woods—the ones surrounding Walden Pond—in a sojourn along the path of one of my intellectual forebears, the irascible hermit Henry David Thoreau, to see if I too could eke out the life discoveries which he had made upon the pond’s shores. This unassuming Walden Pond, the site of Thoreau’s most famous personal (and far-reaching) social experiment, lies an hour west of Boston amidst the regional forests and farmland. It is here where the entirety of the dissertation Walden takes place.
My trip was a pilgrimage to visit the namesake pond to visualize the setting of the lengthy tome I had just finished. “The scenery of Walden,” as Thoreau describes it, “is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach the grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore.” Walden is a simple pond indeed. A mere half mile long and only half as wide. Its perimeter is smooth and predictable; few coves or inlets add dimension to its waters. The landscape surrounding the pond, though hilly and thickly forested, does not strike an air of distinction. But as Thoreau championed in his many intellectual ramblings, “Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify!” I could picture Thoreau finding no more an ordinary pond home than this.
Yet at the same time Walden Pond is entirely magnificent. In his personal rhetoric, Thoreau was a fiery exceptionalist, never shy of embellishment or hyperbole. The waters of Walden Pond, he described, were the purist and coldest waters around. He writes about how the quality of Walden’s waters rival the purist known springs. But for his continual exaggerations, he was correct about one superlative; at 102 feet deep, Walden Pond is the deepest inland body of water in the state of Massachusetts. The banks of Walden Pond drop abruptly off into azure oblivion; the water, in this deep watery well, stays cool and refreshing year round.Thoreau knew these depths well, for among his many intermittent occupations, he was a trained land surveyor.
I came to Walden Pond to pay homage to a man who has influenced my own thoughts on life and meaning, if not in words exactly, then by sentiment alone. Intellectually, we share many similar ideas concerning social progress and the higher humanistic yearnings for the species. Thoreau is loud and brash with a pen and passionately rants against the things he disagrees with. His words echo a fiery passion burning deep in his soul. He loathes the nearby railroad and laments material progress for the sake of a dollar. But he also advocates for his better society, seeking to improve the man in the culture; Thoreau preaches continually on freeing mankind from slavery to self and to society. The reclusive Thoreau rants against the ills of contemporary civilization in the mid-18th century and seeks his moral salvation in the woods. Though little appreciated during his own time, and living unwed, unknown, and with his parents until his young demise, Thoreau has become a prophet of the modern day.
Although I feel a tie of kinship to Thoreau, he comes off as a man one would not have wanted to spend time with, myself included. To his village contemporaries, his nature wanderings and isolated hermitage made him appear aloof, yet he was a keen observationist and a scientist at heart, daily making acute observations of the environment and human kind. Though he exquisitely bemoaned the lives of others with his words while simultaneously boosterizing his own noble endeavors—ones that he alone perceived he was discovering in an insipid sea of ignorance—he was quite sociable and gregarious with the right type of company. He lived alone, yet kept three chairs in his house: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Though Thoreau the man may have been petulant, his ideas are familiar to anyone seeking self-improvement. His writing is at times very off-putting, egotistical, self-righteous, and even shaming and chastising (with way too many verbose phrases strung together with endless commas), yet his heart and ideals were with the people. His goal: to achieve in humankind a fierce independence and self-reliance to live genuinely and whole-heartedly as one’s best self in society.
I can see a bit of myself in Thoreau. I see a bit of myself in his perpetual longings and desires for something greater and nobler in life, Thoreau’s self-described ‘higher laws’. I see myself wanting to live deliberately and intentionally to the fullest extent, where I can ‘suck out all the marrow of life’.
I can also see myself venturing down the path of Thoreau, whether intentionally or by unplanned drift. Simplify, simplify! A one-room shanty seems plenty accommodating to me. Living independently off the land with little money but lots of means—that too I can see. Work, for Thoreau, was never a major priority either. He spent his days in idle employment ranging the forests, the self-appointed ‘inspector of snowstorms’. At its roots, Thoreau’s Walden experiment cuts to the heart of a desire to break away from society and to live a true and unconstrained life, unhindered by the bonds of artificial society. Like Thoreau, the unpretentiousness of nature provides the means of escape to a better existence.
The Walden Pond of today looks different than in Thoreau’s time. Shortly after moving out of the woods, Thoreau’s shanty was relocated to the village of Concord. The forest lands around the shack as well, harvested many times previous to Thoreau’s day, grew thick and dense, obscuring the very foundations of Thoreau’s presence. Thoreau’s expansive bean field, too, has reverted back to forest. The Fitchburg Railway, the rail-line skirting the pond that Thoreau so loudly laments, has been upgraded to a busy commuter line to Boston. The lands surrounding Walden Pond have become protected as a state reserve. No longer the spot of solitude and isolation, Walden Pond has become a popular destination for recreation in Massachusetts, for both its natural beauty and the outdoor recreation aspects.
Do the many visitors to Walden Pond on a sunny day think about the ideas that were developed here? As they sun-bathe on the beach or swim across the cool waters, do they ponder the intellectual history of this place? Do they know the historical significance of this parcel of land where they are picnicking? Is it perhaps that the modern-day visitor to Walden subconsciously accepts Thoreau’s importance of nature without even realizing it? Surely they must have internalized some of Thoreau’s ideas, given the crowds of people who come to spend time finding themselves in nature.
Alas, after paying my pilgrims’ visit to this important site, the time to leave had come. After all, “I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”