Saturday, November 21, 2015

What lies behind the quiet

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While the wind and rains kicked up a blustery November gale outside, a large group of us packed in the Town Hall auditorium for Amperstand Live, an event hosted by a conservation organization called Forterra. We came with at least as many reasons as people present, but one shared reason drew us close to hear stories: our love of wild places and the Pacific Northwest. 

And stories came these two and a half hours, from poets and wildlife photographers, a paper artist and children's book writer, a chocolatier and a wild mushroom hunter, a conservation canine (i.e., black lab) and his human coworker, architects and a classically trained singer, a dancer and a gospel choir, an ecologically-minded clothing designer and two radio talk show hosts. They stood up and spoke of place, through words and pictures, through song and story, through dance and poetry. And I sat these hours on the edge of my seat, leaning in as these voices howled like an emerging wind inside me. 

I looked around the auditorium with a swelling pride of place. I live here, in this beautiful region, and I love it down in my bones.  I feel less alone. These are my people, strangers though they may be. We are lit with similar flames. 

Sitting there, I knew, I'm coming home to myself. 

* * * * * 

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Being the introvert I am, I’m not too keen on socializing. Period. I hate small talk and ice breakers and being thrown in groups where the pressure to connect with people creates a sense of forced relationship. That, and I have no clue where to go to find more like-minded, open-hearted people, after more than two decades in the church.

So as I’m walking to our neighborhood community center in the rain at eight o’clock a recent Saturday morning, preparing for a morning of planting trees in Seward Park, making new friends is the very last reason I’m doing this. The social aspect of participating in Green Seattle Day is not a perk for me, more a nuisance I have to endure to get to the real pleasure: giving back to the forest, the birds, the park. The satisfaction of hard physical labor, of smearing dirt on my face and pants and shirt. The tiny hope that these trees we plant today will one day be towering members of the forest, extending its borders.

Arriving at the community center, I draw a deep breath and walk inside to a small group of people gathered in the waiting area. Within five minutes, I’m chatting with a single woman in her fifties, Lisa, fully relaxed. Ten minutes later, we’re in the gym with a growing group of people and I’m having a conversation with Ted, who works at a Trader Joe’s, about the perks of our kind of jobs. Thirty minutes later, I’m walking out to a school bus with Tamira, a single mom, and her two adorable boys, Luke and Jonah. Luke, five, wants to sit with me on the bus, and he sticks close to me the rest of the day.

“Are you sure you’re ok with this?” Tamira asks with a raised eyebrow. “He isn't usually drawn to people like this.”

“Yeah, of course. He’s super sweet,” I assure her. I’m not exactly what you’d call a kid person, either, I think. That is, they aren’t usually drawn to me. But this one is and I have no desire to fight it. This little boy with the rocker haircut, one side flopping in his big brown,  long lashed eyes, with Spiderman pajamas peeking behind his ripped jeans, is an unexpected delight.

When we arrive at the park and climb off the bus, we gather in the rain beneath a tree for introductions and directions. Luke wants to stand by me and I reach out my hand to him. He takes it and all I’m aware of is the soft warmth of it, the smallness of it, in mine. The wonder that he took it at all.

We divide into groups - planters and mulchers - and I’m a mulcher. Which means I will make multiple trips from the planting site to the mulch pile with a wheelbarrow to fill and distribute around potted trees and shrubs. Again, Luke wishes to stay with me, so each trip down and back is peppered with puddle splashing, attempts to help steer the wheelbarrow, the removal of a rain boot to search for pesky pieces of mulch that inhibit his walking, a stop by the drinking fountain, instructions not to throw mulch on our heads as we’re shoveling, encouragement to hurry and catch up with me, and reminders not to play with shovels. I’m not used to being slowed down. And yet, somehow, it comes more easily today, adjusting my pace to include him.

We’re sweaty, streaked with mud, wet from rain, winded from the back and forth with heavy loads. I’d envisioned a morning that was more quiet, more reflective, more focused on the beauty of our surroundings, soaking in the peace of the trees and the songs of birds. But this, this was all about people working together. People caring for the forest and the birds. People of all ages, from babies to elders, showing up early on a rainy Saturday morning to give something back to the city parks. And a little boy tagging alongside me as I trekked and hauled and muscles ached, and all I could do was settle in and enjoy the companionship with strangers who quickly felt like friends.

It’s time to go and Luke and I climb the steps of the bus first, heading straight to the back where he says it’s his favorite spot. He squeezes in next to me on a small seat and heaves his jacket and water bottle across my lap, then turns to stare fixedly out the back window. Tamira calls to us from the front of the bus and asks me to take a picture of Luke and I with my phone and send it to her. I’m taking fish-faced selfies with a five year old at the back of an old school bus, covered in mud, and I wonder if maybe something was planted in my soil today, too.  Something like joy.

Back at the community center, I’m chatting in line for a hot lunch with Emma, a twenty-three year old software tech who was on my team. We sit with Tamira and the boys, who have saved us a space at their table, and laugh through our delicious meal of Ethiopian food and hot chocolate. Luke and Jonah are stabbing apples with their forks and calling me silly names, with their boyish giggles and mud streaked faces. Emma and Tamira are making plans to help out again next weekend to finish the tree planting, because Tamira says she wants to volunteer like this with the boys nearly every weekend, and I wish I was going to be in town to join them.

I leave the community center with two new names and numbers saved in my phone and a genuine desire to see them again, these ones who also love parks and forests and getting dirty and giving back.

* * * * *

  You know that feeling in your gut, perhaps especially after months and years of not knowing its dwelling, of finding your people? The core, the heart, of your life's work? I've known this, or thought I did, for brief periods of time in my young adult life - and it's been a long, long time since. 

The last time I felt a deep sense of purpose would have been in my twenties, when I thought mostly of Africa. It consumed me, to some degree, enough to shape my two years in grad school and aspirations beyond. But all they amounted to were aspirations, in the end, blowing away in the rubble of loss. This sense of purpose and ambition that consumed me was all about where I was going, who I would be when I arrived there, and what big things I would do with my life. It was so very well-intentioned - and largely theoretical. 

But this new-and-not-so-new sense of clear purpose is not about theory for me. It's not about arriving. Nor is it about defining identity, proving worth, warding off guilt or shame, or a deep-seated fear of failure. It's about living into: seeking, questioning, acting with intention, evolving, becoming. It's rooted in smallness, instead of bigness. The smallness of daily life choices. Of where and how to invest my time; of what to read and what to write; of what to eat and what to buy; of what to give and who or what to give to; of whether to walk or bus or drive or bike; of how to practice authentic faith and spirituality. The smallness of one human being showing up for life each day, as best she can, determined to leave evidence of love behind when she goes. 

* * * * *

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I've felt these colorful strands of story flapping in the breeze for more than a few years, side by side, not yet bound to each other. Crumbling of religion. Environmental stewardship. Advocacy. Deeper connectedness with the natural world. Artistic development. Insatiable curiosity. Slower pace. Sharper sight. Communion.  Love of non-human beings. Rumblings of a new faith.

And I need you to know, those who have read me for some time now especially, that I am truly well. I don't even remember the last time I felt this good. And while not much has changed in certain life circumstances, some big changes are abrew and hope is pushing its way out of the ground. That, and I am constantly changing in ways that are expanding and liberating and healing me. Ways that are helping me feel deeply rooted in the tumult of change, connecting me more with my true self. My blog may be more quiet than it's ever been, but I am still writing. The words are just not intended for this space.

And that's a big part of why I'm not here on my blog much anymore: I'm shifting my focus. Most of my writing is being accumulated for what may or may not culminate in a book one day. While the essence of beautiful rubbish is one I carry inside me, wherever I go from here, I also sense a honing in of my voice in accordance with my life's work. I wish to keep these writings separate for now, my blog and this honed in place of writing. I also know that my audience, if it hasn't already, is likely to change. As my faith has shifted, I know some (or many) of my readers may lose a sense of connection with my story. While this does not need to be the case, I also understand and respect it. And you are free, always free, to come and go as best suits you. The door is ever open to you; and also, I cannot remain the same in order to keep anyone from leaving. 

The truth is, I don't have any idea where my blog is going from here. And I'm at peace with that uncertainty. But for now, I'm still here, and I wanted to say hello - and thank you - to whoever is still reading.

Peace to you.