Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I'm a story fanatic.

When I look back on the trajectory of my life, the things that have brought me awe and fulfillment fall into two categories: relationships and stories. Story telling is the light of my life. I'm enlivened by writing and conversation; communicating my stories and reveling in other people's. The arc of every interaction with another person is a story shared. 

I've been a voracious reader and consumer of movies my entire life. I spent every latch key kid afternoon devouring three books at a time, alongside endless movies rented at the local video store. I'm completely fascinated by personal voice shared through narrative, as well as the way we use stories to define ourselves.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” - Joan Didion

To be a storyteller is to communicate our place in the world and our experiences here. It's how we find communion and oneness as human beings, but it's also how we sort ourselves apart.

Telling stories to explain and understand the plot of our lives, and the many outside forces that have shaped us does more than just make sense of things. It's a form of survival. Sometimes telling a story is the only way to develop a container around a thing or experience, a feeling or loss that isn't rational or bearable otherwise.

The question is, when does a story become an excuse? An explanation for lack of agency and ability, victimhood, or immobility?

The stories we tell ourselves are usually the ones we tell others. If the container we draw around ourselves is too tight and too limiting, the path ahead suffers into submission. Never doubt the power of the spoken word. The universe responds in kind to the energy and words we live by. The way we value and define ourselves becomes the way others do in response. In this way, our stories quickly become self fulfilling prophecies without much conscious effort at all.

I have a bad habit that you might be able to relate to. I pretend to know my life's limits and opportunities based solely on a small sample of experiences, in other words what's already happened. "I can't..." "I won't...." "This will never be possible for me because...." "This always happens, so here we go again..." For some control freaks, there's a perverse satisfaction in being able to predict our lives- even when we predict bad outcomes. Expecting negativity or scarcity is a way of sheltering ourselves from the cruelty of dashed hopes.

I'm sick and tired of this sad practice. I don't want to be a broken record, repeating stories of lack or letdown. I don't want to limit the scope of my life with stringent beliefs that aren't on par with the flexibility of reality. I'm done with outdated stories; done with falling into the trap of repeating limiting things about my circumstances. Instead, I'm seeking new opportunities-miraculous ones!-for abundance and comfort. Rather than lamenting over constriction and challenges, I'm going to focus on and speak warmly about my future and my power.

Not everything that happens to us/through us warrants the context of a story. Some things just are. They happened because they happened, and imbuing them with constructed meaning makes them more powerful than they need be. This is especially true for situations of suffering that we need to move on from in order to reclaim our life. 

It's not your job to explain yourself to anyone. We don't need to be defined or contained, we just think we do. Start small. Practice coming up with answers to standard questions like, what do you do? As well as tougher ones, like what happened to that job/relationship/idea you had? Respond with a new story that isn't defined by lack, failure or turmoil, or say F it and tell a joke instead. Whatever you do, don't put yourself down.

Imagine that the stories you tell about yourself and your circumstances are an invitation to the world to meet your words. It takes practice to develop an in-the-moment awareness about the tales we are mindlessly repeating about ourselves and our options. We can paint our world with words, dress our wounds with words, and create new narratives that invite miracles. Just as we have the ability to assign meaning to things, we also have the power to remove or re-associate meaning as well. Our lives are stories in constant draft and re-write, always open to a different ending.

*More photos from my trip to Zion National Park. These were taken in and around Checkerboard Mesa*

Saturday, October 26, 2019

East Temple Zion

I said fuck it to finances and took the week off work to travel to Virgin, Utah. My dad and his friends-on-wheels boondock here every Autumn to hike in & around Zion National Park. I've joined my Pops on quite a few RV adventures now, but only once before to this mystical section of the Southwest. I LOVE UTAH.

I cherish these trips with my Dad and will always find the time and means for them. I'm acutely aware that these days spent exploring and lounging together are ones I'll look back on in absolute reverence. These scarce experiences, when you're living out a future memory and you're actually aware of it in the moment, are so rare and delectable.

Many beautiful scenes, trails, and photos to share from another glorious week in the desert. The most memorable moment though, was one of me choking down some humble pie- and that's the one I choose to commemorate.

On our second day of hiking, resident badass Mark suggested we do a scramble up to the saddle below East Temple and attempt a loop they had never done before. Now, these guys have done damn near every trail in the area, so I was instantly intrigued. We started on the Canyon Overlook Trail, probably one of the busiest within the East Canyon as it's super easy and accessible. It's a fun one though, with some standout crossings.

Once at the view point, I took the obligatory photos before we turned to face the obstacle behind us. The East Temple is a 7,000+ foot Navajo Sandstone peak and it's daunting as hell to an out of shape, under practiced, sea level Seattlelite.

The face of a person who does not yet understand what they are about to hike

I had a great attitude to start, so onward we went; zig-zagging our way across and up mostly firm sandstone to crest each new level of shelf. This was achilles stretching vertical grade, bordering on achilles snapping. It felt cartoonish, walking straight up a rock incline with no trail and no rope. I struggled to trust my footing on the unfamiliar stone and kept reducing myself to a crab to hoist my weight up. In the process, I bumped my Hydroflask out of the side pocket of my pack. It banged its way down, echoing fiercely thanks to the 5000 ft. gaping canyon below.

It was really that simple. The ricochet of my water bottle cascading out of sight, top breaking free, water flying, instantly made me nauseous. Suddenly what I was doing felt very literal and not at all adventurous- rather absolutely fucking crazy. Here I was, awkwardly ascending the side of a mountain on all fours like a demonic creature, sweat lining my palms, with zero experience in technical climbing. I completely freaked out. The idea of actually having to come down what I'd already come up suddenly consumed me. I felt so incredibly sick, dizzy, and emotional. My legs were weak, and I began to tear up involuntarily. I have never once cried or lost it this brutally on a hike. Not on Angel's Landing, nor Mt. Storm King in snow, even in the midst of a winter white out.

As it turns out, I am merely human. I am equally floored and relieved by the reminder. I don't know how I got in my own head so severely that afternoon, but I did. Suddenly I hated the feeling of straddling that rock more than absolutely anything. I desperately wanted to chicken out, ironically frozen in the desert heat.

Eventually I accepted my state: suspended, closer to the top than the bottom, with three other people who had not experienced the mental and gut wrenching shift I had once that bottle dropped off. Cajoled, forced, implored, whatever you call it- I made it up to the saddle eventually.

The triumph of success was met on equal ground with embarrassment and self analysis. Why'd I freak out? What happened? Am I not cut out for this kind of adventure, so easily accessed by the people I am drawn to and respect? These stories of inadequacy are always hovering in my consciousness. 

We can come a long way in our lives. Be a lot of people. The experience of freezing on this route brought me back to uncomfortable memories of my childhood self. I was the emblematic scaredy-cat. Always homesick, forever worried, prone to hide away with a book rather than engage in any kind of competitive or risky activity. Honestly, I think I called home crying from camp every summer until 7th grade. I struggled tremendously to let go.

It still amazes my family how far I've come. What I'm willing to do alone, which is everything. They were flabbergasted when I continued to hike solo after dislocating my kneecap and having to half-crawl my way out. Many remain surprised by my dedication to living alone and my willingness to spend so much time away from...everything. Out here in the boonies, living the dream. My Dream. My, how we change..

Fear of misstep, failure, and falling is so rational and valid. Regardless, somehow we have to invite moments where we can make peace with the fact that life will repeatedly become unmanageable or unsafe. If we can't invite them, we can allow them. If we don't allow them, we will crumble. If you are looking for a place to test this fact, I highly recommend the desert.

The durability of the desert and its commitment to persevere is nothing short of astounding. Long gone eras exposed in layers of weather worn stone. The red rock and sandstone monuments of Utah are distinct and deliberate in their resistance to being overthrown. Yet, there is also an undercover vulnerability to the rugged aesthetic of the desert. Nights that see temperatures drop to shocking digits, winds that can rattle the teeth out of your mouth. Rocks turned to crumbling shale, and mountains quilted by years of freezing and unfreezing. Everything that exists is tested. Nothing is as untouchable as it may appear.

The desert isn't particularly safe, and certainly not predictable. Its an ecosystem of extremes, and it serves its purpose to any who chose to wander in. Or, to scramble up-

"I am learning to pray again. Not in the way I was taught as a child, but in all the ways the desert has taught me to listen" -Terry Tempest Williams
What a wild and wondrous blessing to hike through one of the busiest national parks in the country and rarely run into another soul. It sure is good to know the right people!
Many thanks to Dad, Bobbie, and Mark for another great trip. 

For those who have been to Zion or are otherwise interested, we completed Joe's East Temple Loop: Canyon Overlook trail ---> East Temple Saddle ---> the other side of the Temple, making our way down past Shelf Canyon and into Pine Creek Canyon.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

As Much Me

The one year anniversary of Mac Miller's death came in September, and as an homage to his time on the third rock from the sun, I spent the 7th of September consuming a collection of his interviews.

I love hip hop, and though I'm a real fan of Mac's, his story is significant to me not because of celebrity or talent but because it envelops the turmoil of addiction. For me- my mom's long term struggle, its crushing impact on our relationship, and losing one of my oldest friends in April to an accidental overdose.

Talking with music legend Rick Rubin just weeks before his passing, Mac said something so succinct and profound that I've been returning to: "It’s been an interesting journey for me to realize that the goal here is just to be as much me as possible."

The goal isn't to be the best, or even constant improvement, it's just to be as much me as I can be. Rather than obsessing over recognition and legacy, we can turn instead to the guarantee of our innate value. It's a radical concept, really-rather than earning love and admiration, we can receive it simply because we exist.

I know some people hell bent on self development will shudder at this thought. An earlier version of myself would. To say that you have innate value and are unequivocally lovable as you are is not to condemn self improvement or personal responsibility, however. Just understand that even if you do nothing at all, and garner no accolades or trophies whatsoever, your mere existence warrants love. 

As Mister Rogers famously said, "We can be loved exactly as we are." We don't need to accomplish our to-do list of self improvements, wear the trendiest outfits, or be the best at anything in order to be worthy of unending love. That's the very notion of unconditional. Far too often we believe that we need to produce constant output in order to earn or 'deserve' anything in exchange. Again, the man in the sweater knows better. During a commencement speech at Dartmouth College, he reminded the crowd: "You don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you."

Mister Rogers and Mac Miller aren't the only ones to share this message. Buddhists have been teaching the concept of innate value for a very long time. Famous Zen author Sharon Salzberg wrote, "To truly love ourselves, we must challenge our beliefs that we need to be different or inherently better in order to be worthy of love."

What a sweet and soft release; being as much you as you can be is the gentlest way to honor your life. The paths towards radical authenticity and unconditional love run parallel and strengthen one another in turn. When we share our whole self without restriction or desperate need for commendation we open our short and fleeting lives to real love rather than conditional praise.

"If you keep shining the neon light of accountability on the tender tissue of your belonging, you make it parched and barren" -John O'Donohue 

*Photos from local river ambles  - Lower South Fork of the Skokomish and Upper Big Quilcene*

Friday, September 20, 2019

Kaleidoscopic Collision

Good God, it's been a season of trial and error. Weird weeks abound, and I'm learning to combat a decrepit cynicism that aims to turn me into some kind of haggard witch of a human.

I planned to spend Labor Day weekend with my Dad at the park he's been hosting this summer in Oregon. That plan fell through, so instead we agreed to meet for a much needed hike at Rainier. Neither of us had done a single hike since we scaled High Rock in the end of June. Wow, what happened to July and August?!....

Some shots from that very lovely, albeit very crowded, trail:

High Rock tops out at 5,865 feet, and we both felt the gain from sea level in our lungs as we climbed the seemingly modest trail. An unmanned fire lookout balances at the top of the natural rock spire. With views of Rainier, Adams, Tatoosh, and St. Helens, it's truly a glorious peak. If you need a refresher as to my deep and abiding love for lookouts, click here: With Love From The Top

Back to Labor Day weekend, though. We started our journey early in the morning, meeting in Ashford and hopping into Dad's car to hike to Van Trump Park, a lesser known trail past the very popular Comet Falls which Claire had recommended. We both struggled up, feeling vastly out of shape and in need of training before we venture back to Utah. The trail provided a host of fun and unexpected wildlife sightings. Parting a sea of constant cobwebs, we were very clearly the first to tread the path beyond the falls that morning. I had seen a slew of recent trip reports regarding bear activity in the park, but instead of a lumbering figure in an alpine meadow, we encountered the following: an absurdly fat and lazy marmot, a family of questionably friendly grouse, three mountain goats, and a plethora of burgeoning fungi. We completed the day with something like 7.5 miles and 2300ft of elevation gain. Had the clouds parted, we would have continued on to Mildred Peak, but it just didn't seem worth it. Rainier showed herself for only a moment, just long enough to snap some proof of Dad's first visit back to Rainier National Park in two decades.

On the way home from Rainier, I totaled my car, along with someone else's. Stop and go traffic at 5pm on Labor Day Friday could be to blame, or my deeply distracted mind state; realistically some combination of the two. I didn't have collision insurance, a clear indication of where my finances were already at, so I won't be getting a dollar for my VW. Sayonara, sista..

I'm so lucky to have the support of key individuals in my life, making this disaster bearable. My best friend lent me his extra work van, but I returned from a long (and ARDUOUS) work conference last night only to discover that it needs some immediate work done. Fingers crossed that my bad car luck is hit with a cease and desist stat.

So much more has been going on in my personal life, but let me be clear. I'm really, really lucky to have walked away from this accident in one piece, feeling mostly in tact. Life is all about money moves right now, which I can't help but resent. I'm almost 32 years old, shouldn't I be more financially capable by now? And- does it even matter, if I can't take it with me when I go?

In the mean time, I've written down this quote from naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, and I keep it next to my bed to re-read every night. Powerful words to focus on:

"The essentials of a healthy and happy life...(are) ample relaxation, adequate change of occupation, and the means of enjoying the beauty and solace of nature on one hand, and art and literature on the other."