alter ego nicknames

Practices of spirituality — by which I mean the exploration of being alive and the possibility of having an impact on the world — manifest in all sorts of ways. One of the gifts of integrating the idea of wildness into your exploration of life and impact is how it can crack open (like a weed busting through concrete) preconceptions of what does and doesn’t count as a legitimate practice of mindful living.

My niece turned ten this weekend and hosted an evening of celebration with her parents and a table full of both literal and surrogate aunts, and an uncle. We played games. We made up alter ego nicknames to use during the games: Phoenix, Shadow, Pretzel, Lightning, Ellipsis. We laughed a lot. Phoenix cheated a little. I lost without fail. We pressed against the concrete burdens of adulthood with the verdant authority of childlike laughter.

A chuckle, a snort, a smile, a moment of amusement are each as sacred as a prayer.

I started walking

I pulled into the parking lot on the south side of the Back Cove today at 1pm after spending a full morning in a room in the basement of a local hospital as a vendor doling out offers of renewal at their employee wellness fair. 

During the morning at the hospital I had brief conversations with 80 or so people. I wished each well in their efforts to hold together some semblance of balance and health in the midst of the challenges they faced in the work that they devoted to an entity committed to providing care.

Some days I forget to practice what I preach. 

Today though, I stopped at the cove between engagements. I parked the car. I got out of the car. The air was heavy with drizzle, but I was jacketed against the wet. I started walking. And breathing deep damp breaths. And loosening the hold I had on my thoughts. For several miles that stretched out underneath me over the course of an hour I walked in a loop. Ultimately getting nowhere. Which was precisely what I needed.

grit and glory

Like any other human made symbol, we as humans are responsible for how we use the idea of wilderness.

Any substantial conversation about wilderness needs to include this acknowledgement: That just because a place is unfamiliar to me does not mean it isn’t or hasn’t been home to others.

The history of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny is a tragic example of how one group of people - white settlers - used the symbol of wilderness (the idea that the continent was vacant and their’s for the taking) to justify violent acts toward indigenous populations and the forceful cooptation of indigenous lands.

Symbols can be tools that cause immense harm.

Symbols can also tell stories of hope and beauty and possibility. Wilderness is a key symbolic ingredient in the fortitude and tenacity of the American spirit.

Hope and harm. Grit and glory. The idea of wilderness is complicated.

I hope that in recognizing the complicated nature of what wilderness is, we can find an invitation into our ability to navigate complicated realities.

That ability to navigate complicated realities, that is our inherent wildness. Our depth of being. Our creative capacity to forge better worlds.

Stewarding, engaging, relating with our wildness requires attention and diligence. It takes practice to be wild whether we are in a designated wilderness place or here at home navigating the other wildernesses of life.

Tend your wildness today. Use it well and wisely.

the most obvious selection

I’ve decided that — along with wilderness medical training, an affable disposition, a solid menu of camp meals, a few good knots, and several canoe strokes — every wilderness guide really ought to have at least one Mary Oliver poem committed to memory. 

I’m starting with the most obvious selection: The Summer Day.

My dogs looked at me funny while we were walking beside the river yesterday. I don’t usually recite poetry out loud on the trail. I think maybe, now, that is something that I will usually do.

“…who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.” That’s the line that spoke to me yesterday. That image of the wild creature way of bearing witness to the world. That’s the verse that’s informing my movements, intentions, and interactions today.

our wild and wondrous birthright

In The Outermost House, Henry Beston wrote: “Nature is part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man.”

With some adjustments to shift away from gender exclusive pronouns, he goes on: “When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of very flesh and bone, [humans become] a kind of cosmic outlaw, as it were, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity.”

Regarding our wild and wondrous birthright, bear in mind that it’s not a matter of entitlement. Our birthright, as members of the community of wild nature, doesn’t correspond with simple narratives of wealth and the inheritance of finite resources. Yet neither is it an assurance of abundance that comes from overreaching narratives of transcendence and infinity.

The birthright of true humanity is about finding wealth in the impulse to share. It’s about finding assurance in the creatureliness of our being.

Our birthright is both burden and bounty. With our toes in the grass, we celebrate the gift of our presence on earth. With our gaze raised to the sky, we lean all the way into our capacity to give.

I love it here

I love it here so much. I love the way that the earth spins and twirls conjuring the gravity needed to hug me to its surface. I love the muscled flesh, made from borrowed dust and enlivened by borrowed breath, by which I pull and press my way along earth’s surface. I love the other instances of life that I encounter along the way. I love the way that water pools and sediment forms. I love the way that leafy plants and trees metabolize the sun, turning heat into shade and sustenance. I love the wind.

And it’s hard being here. It’s hard to lace up my boots and move through my days taking note of the instances of disregard for the things that are so beautiful about being here. It’s hard living a life devoted to the gravity of togetherness when narratives of division compel so much of the behavior that impacts our shared world.

My aim today is to press my feet to the earth with gratitude, and to keep my eyes on the horizon with diligence. I’m leaning in to the challenge of moving about as an expression of love even and especially when the odds are not in love’s favor. You with me?

the threat of burnout

When I got home last week, after spending several days on the beach in southwest Florida reading books and looking at pelicans, I dove right back into the deep end of work. My week away was refreshing. And then, within a day or two of my return, I was all bottled up with stress again. 

I found myself applying burnout-culture tactics to my stress. I swamped my need to de-stress with the expectation that there was a simple solution: Want to succeed? Hustle harder. Aren’t getting results? Double down.

Sometimes that’s good advice. In this case, it wasn’t.

I thought I was failing at the thing that I’m supposed to be really good at: Renewal. But then I tilted my head and squinted my eyes and took a moment to see my stress in a different way. Not as indication of failure, but as an invitation deeper into my relationship with renewal.

It got me thinking: For renewal to take root and become a lasting presence in my life, one that empowers me to have a lasting impact on my world, I need to nurture it with an accurate culture of expectations.

Burnout is seldom a tactical problem solved by the application of more efforts. The threat of burnout is reversed by cultivating an alternative paradigm, one that honors the wild and relational being that you are, a being who needs space to experiment with the rhythms that sustain you. Not just in this moment, but throughout the many and various seasons of your life.

the meaning of life

Some of the most interesting and insightful humans in the world are mathematicians. And, I’m speaking here from a place of mystique more than intimate knowledge, I think that some of the coolest things that humans have crafted throughout the ages are mathematical formulas.

The fun thing about formulas is the variables. And also the symbols. And ultimately the narrative they tell together. Let’s be honest, math is just all around awesome. Like our favorite films and the most lasting instances of theatre, oration, and authorship: Math tells us a story about relationships. Math is moving.

Now of course the meaning of life can not be distilled into a simple formula… is what you would expect me to say as a trained theologian with a poetic disposition and an appreciation for the wondrous and unknowable elements of existence! But, surprise, here it is, the formula for a meaningful life:

You + Wild Nature = Purposeful and lasting contribution to the World.

Alright, let’s discuss the variables.

You: This is who and how you are at a given moment, this moment for instance. This variable is dynamic. There’s a steadiness to it, but it fluctuates. It’s comprised of a whole ecology of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and responses to the immediate environment. It’s you, the mammal that you are, concerned with meaning, here and now.

Wild Nature: This is the interdependent web of life and death; the arena of wrestling and resting; the dynamic current that drives all existence. And at the same time (watch out now!) it is the hearty, soul-level stuff in you that corresponds with the stuff that drives all existence. It is the variable where identity dwells, where instinct and urgency reside.

World: This is all the stuff you care about. It’s also all the stuff other people care about, especially people without an exorbitant amount of power. This variable is comprised of the collective concern of the human populace.

What it takes to foster and sustain a meaningful contribution to the world is holding these variables in dynamic equilibrium. We do this by tending to the ways they relate to each other. We do this by experimenting with symbols that bind and connect. We do this by employing practices that prompt the variables of you and wild nature to be in relationship.

Alright, enough math for now: What’s one way today that you can practice your relationship with wild nature?

leaning full tilt

I drove to work yesterday feeling restless and full of feelings. But I had slated the day for a very specific creative task and needed to find a place that I could sit and concentrate without distractions. I found a bench looking out at the chop of the sea where buoys bobbed in the harbor. I sat down with my notebook to work through the task. 

But it was too windy.

I looked up from my thoughts and looked out at seagulls combing the sand for snails to shuck. Watching the seagulls try to walk into the wind made me laugh. Their bodies pushed to a 45 degree tilt by the gusts as they took one step forward and were blown two steps back. They wrestled against the gales until they gave up their attempts at walking and spread out their wings to harness the stuff that was holding them back.

It made me laugh at myself, trying to be pensive while the wind ripped through the pages of my notebook and jumbled my thoughts. I was leaning full tilt into an attempt to force myself to create. I forgot that surrender and levity are the wings that harness creativity. 

I got up and set my face to the wind. I took in a lungful and stopped resisting the restlessness. I smiled at its disregard for my plans and let the wind have its way.

trees behind a house

I woke up the other day curious about the pine that I planted in my backyard when I was in elementary school. This would have been close to thirty years ago, probably on Earth Day in second or third grade. We were each given a six-inch conifer in a little bucket of dirt to take home and put in the earth. 

When I woke up last week, wondering about the pine, I followed my curiosity and looked up my childhood home online. I looked at satellite images of the yard around the home where I grew up, scanning pixelated stills that complimented my memories. I couldn’t tell if the tree I planted was still there. I could see where one that I played in as a child was gone.

Sometimes when I feel lost in the heaviness of day-to-day duties I pause to remember my childhood relationship with wild nature. I hadn’t explored backcountry rivers or desert canyons or slept in mountain forests at that point in my life. My wilderness consisted of 0.4 acres of midwestern lawn pocked with trees behind a house in the Indianapolis suburbs. 

And that was plenty. It was enough to give shape to a spirit of curiosity and wonder. It was enough to make space for exploration and formation. It was enough to experience the possibility of coming to know an environment with the intimate press of my palms to its earth as I tucked a fellow creature into the soil.

a fierce and steady devotion

One of my best friends turns forty today. To cling to the planet for forty spins around the sun is no small feat. Even more so to do as he has, with a fierce and steady devotion to his vocation.

Thinking of him this morning I thought of, what I consider to be, the most important essay pertaining to the pursuit of wild wisdom: Annie Dillard’s “Living Like a Weasel”. 

For those who haven’t read the essay it feels important to clarify: My friend is not a weasel in the derogatory sense. He is like a weasel in the way that Dillard paints the picture of a creature that lives according to a simple and exacting wildness.

Dillard writes: “The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse.”

It’s ideal and just when livelihood corresponds with vocation. It’s good to seek compensation that accords with your efforts. But in order to free your imprint on the world it’s also important to not conflate the two. 

Alongside of your duties when possible, and in spite of them where necessary, I hope you find the space to gift the world according to the stuff that gives your life its meaning. I hope you find the strength today and every day to be tenacious, willful, and wild about the necessity of your vocation.

letting the world know he's there

My Mom wrote this to me yesterday, I asked her if I could share, she said I could:

“I just read this morning’s writing about watching the pelicans. Yesterday, once I got home after getting your Grampie settled from the hospital, I took an hour to go across to the lake, I got the red folding stool that my Grampie made for me and parked it on the edge of the lake. I just sat there quietly. 

I noticed two, what I thought were, loons over near the island. I watched them disappear under the water and come up much later far away. Then a goose noisily landed on the water and proudly with his long neck entertained me for a while. Then there was one brown duck swimming around alone. I breathed deep, like you tell me to do, and just let the cares of the day melt away. 

I changed my gaze to the right towards the campground for a long time but sensed movement to my left. There were two of the most beautiful ducks I have ever seen, coal black and bright white and they were swimming with the lone brown duck. They were almost right in front of me but my movement made them go the other way. They were the birds I was watching earlier, not loons. 

A crow caught my attention on the very top of a high tree on the island letting the world know he’s there. I went to the coffee shop yesterday to get your Grampie some muffins to take home and we laughed at the seagull outside picking up a burger wrapper. 

Nature, the sounds and smells outside, the quiet, I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated it so much and see that it has a purpose in our lives. Always there for us, but in life we so often just tear by without noticing on the way to the next thing calling our name. Sit, and stay for a while. Always a good thing in the midst of life!”

watching the pelicans

I spent this week watching pelicans swoop at waves that bumped all day into an island off southwest Florida. Watching the pelicans, I lost track of time. I mean of all time. 

The artifice of the chair beneath me, the resorts behind me, the conversations around me faded and I slipped into a prehistoric moment.

The sand was there. The tides and the cry of the gulls were there. I felt the brush of wind. I noticed the various bodied bipeds, feathered and unfeathered alike, that lull and stroll and look about on the beach. I was present to the presence of each of these things that could have been there on that beach, and were in one form or another, any time during the evolution that shaped that particular moment.

The unhurried pace of vacation, and the sight of pelicans flying around like baby pterodactyls, helped to prompt my observation of such timeless serenity. But that thing is here as well.

Back home at my desk in the basement, tapping back in to the rhythms of work and responsibilities of day-to-day life, even here I bear witness to this moment as it unfolds, and to the next. We live as witnesses to a steady crash of moments. We are part of eternity lost in the elemental persistence of presence, the stubbornness of now.

finding space

In your efforts to contribute something of value to a world crowded with hurt and hurry, it’s important to honor your need for space. Space to stretch out your limbs, to open your lungs, and to let your heart find calm and quiet.

We foster a relationship with wild nature so that we may gain a portion of what we need to sustain our capacity to give. We seek the ministry of the elements so that each breath at home might be informed by their strength. We walk in deserts, on beaches, through forests, in parks, and with our eyes trained on the sky above because there is nourishment in finding space. 

Wilderness implies a return. Whatever sustaining rhythms you find while on your foray, there comes a point when you will return to your home community, when you will return to your work in the world. The return is a vital part of a wilderness experience. So it’s okay to step away for a while. You’ll be back.

motion and murmur

Here’s a fun thing: Next time you’re in a crowded place that’s busy with human conversation, take note of the animal nature of the exchanges around you.

Last week I was in a cafe full of the motion and murmur of a dozen interactions. I couldn’t make out all of the words people were using, but the pitch, volume, and gestures of communications around me still registered with meaning.

The tilt of a head. The squint of some eyes. Lips peeled back from teeth with a smile. Hands churning the air with enthusiasm. Someone leans in to whisper something intimate. Someone leans back to squawk and hoot with laughter.

The ways we offer our presence to one another are wild and varied. 

Today may the gestures you receive from kindred beings, human and non-human alike, convey a spirit of kindness, encouragement, and generosity.

mundane days

I wake up. I boil water and make coffee. I write in the basement. I wash up. I go to my first meeting, my second, make a phone call, make another. I go to the office. I work through a pile of tasks on sticky notes. I respond to some emails. I walk to my car and run some errands. Lost and found at the car rental place. Drop off a book for a friend. Pick up frozen pizza at the grocery store. I drive toward home. My mind is wandering. I miss my exit. I drive the long way. Get home and let the dogs out. Notice the wind. Bake pizza. Respond to some other emails. I welcome Lauren home. I talk with Lauren. We eat. Little bit of Netflix. Little bit of a book. Shower and to bed.

I need mundane days that are strung together by moments and interactions that each hide an element of intrigue. Where hot water dirtied with the seeds of an earth plant is an alchemical ritual that I call morning coffee. Where I revel in the different voices and ideas of others who are employing the same faculties as me. Where I get to tackle tasks on sticky notes with the singular devotion of a desert hermit. Where the lost and found becomes a playground of mystery and possibility. Where I welcome revelations from good stories, good conversation, and decent pizza. 

I need days where I wake up thirsty for life and go to sleep somewhat but not all the way slaked.

a careless relationship with wilderness

In his essay, The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon makes the case that, “Wilderness offers us the illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world.” 

This escapism results when the idea of wilderness is used to promote unhealthy postures of individualism and consumerism. These are problems that stem from a careless relationship with wilderness. 

It’s not surprising that we often seek quick-fix solutions to complex maladies. We need relief from over-stimulation. We need a boost out of our cultural malaise. And the promise that pretty landscapes will salve our spirits is enticing.

What’s important to remember is that spiritual sustenance is a relational affair. And that relationships are rooted in mutual engagement. 

A wilderness experience is not meant to be an escape from responsibility. It is meant to serve as an opportunity to strengthen our capacity to relate with otherness. It’s meant to affirm our sense of responsibility.

In his essay Cronon also points out that, “The special power of the tree in the wilderness is to… teach us to recognize the wildness we did not see in the tree we planted in our own backyard.” Or in the tree we encountered in the park. Or in the weed sprouting from that crack in the sidewalk. Or in the power of an encouraging word or kind gesture to plant roots and bear fruits in the lives of others we encounter in our day-to-day.

fog to burn

Once the earth spins itself to night on our side of the world I grab a book off the bedside table and read a few pages aloud to Lauren before we commit ourselves to sleep. These days we’re reading Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose”. How’s that for the title of a bedtime book?

One morning, in the story, Susan and Oliver are standing at the window looking out at a world washed in thick fog. Susan says: “In a way, I love it. It scares me a little. It’s as if every morning the world had to create itself all new. Everything’s still to do, the word isn’t yet spoken.”

Everyday the world is pregnant with renewal. Here we are again. The earth has spun itself back to light. The future is clouded with potential. Our hearts are full of vision. There’s a new day to speak into being. There’s a fog to burn off with the heat of our efforts.

where precocious creatures play

It’s good to be home, back at level with where the tides take place. Yesterday at the beach the wind swept over the loose parts gathering bits of sand and needling them into my face. The waves bounced a scent of salt into a mist that became my breath.

I stood for a long while surrounded by rocks made slick with kelp and small pools of salt water where precocious creatures play at the game of life. 

Sometimes this community of life is buoyed by the hug of water. Sometimes it is open to the onslaught of hard sun. Sometimes it’s battered by the crush of heavy waves, and sometimes it’s left to rest exposed to quiet skies.

I admire the hearty nature of life that dwells in interdependence with the tides. 

In my admiration I find gratitude for the variation of rhythms in my life. Thanks to the way that my work lifts me up and rinses me with the energy shared by an ocean full of efforts. Thanks to the moments when the active waters recede and I lay down on the rocks to gather insight from stillness. Thanks to the fierce variety that sustains me and gives me balance.

the house cat part of my heart

Emily Dickinson wrote: “The soul should always stand ajar.” This is true, and not without risk.

There are a couple of songbirds hopping around on the carpet floor looking for crumbs left by travelers in the Denver airport. These are instances of wildness seeking scraps of domesticity to fill their little bellies.

I got here early and found a seat by the wall of windows at the gate where my flight will depart. Through them I can see the snow melt on the tarmac and feel the seep of sunlight on my skin. This is me, in a domestic terminal, seeking scraps of wildness to fill me up during an indoor day.

I heard a local Boulder story about a mountain lion who crawled through an open window and  had an unfortunate run-in with her domestic kin. Living with openness to the wild world threatens the security assured by a sealed-off existence. 

Predator invasions aside, even the most housed of cats (I have one, I know) scramble outside, as often as they’re able, before the screen door shuts. They rush from their sealed existence into the open-skied world where hawks loom and under which lions prowl. 

When this happens I go out and collect her before she becomes a meal, or makes one out of our neighborhood songbirds. I bring her back in for a nap. And I welcome her reminder that the house cat part of my heart is never all the way safe from the allure of wildness.