the practice of presence

The human spirit is thirsty for grandeur. It’s important to honor that thirst and to seek to slake it by stepping beyond the simple comforts that box us into familiar modes of existence. We are compelled by our wild hearts to peel back layers of uncertainty and risk proximity to the unknown.

There’s a depth of maturity to cultivate in these endeavors. This cultivation is a skill acquired through the practice of presence. Without it, the grandest of canyons, the highest of peaks, and the swiftest of rivers all become mere fodder for conquest. 

But with the practice of presence, a simple stroll through the park, a visit to the grocery store, a kiss from a lover, or a kindness from a stranger all hold the power to hydrate our thirsty spirits.

One of the challenges of finding a regular relationship with renewal is to temper the consuming urge to conquer ever greater swathes of wilderness, and to consider instead the practice of befriending the wildness within our most basic encounters.

popcorn and sprinkles

This past weekend I hosted my niece’s birthday party in the front yard at my house. Last year, at the same location on the same occasion, we had the afternoon scheduled full with an organized slate of activities and initiatives, complete with adult volunteers to ensure logistical success. 

This year, when asked what sorts of things she wanted to do during her birthday party, Rosie responded with a confident shrug: “We’re fourth graders, we’ll figure it out.” There’s a photo that I took in the midst of the festivities that suggests she was correct.

In the photo: There is a makeshift picnic table holding cupcakes and a giant bowl of popcorn drizzled in white chocolate and sprinkles. A few people are lounging in lawn chairs around the bonfire. Behind them (at a safe distance from the fire) someone is mid-cartwheel.  Two guests are swinging on the hammock up by the house. A mom grabs at a stray little brother (to keep him at a safe distance from the fire). Three girls are piled on to the inflatable couch (yes, inflatable couch) about to tumble over and roll down the slope by the flower garden. There are jump ropes and ring toss and marshmallows and capture the flag and a giant purple soccer ball and a blanket piled with presents. 

They figured it out.

So too will you. Whatever you’re up to today, I invite you to sidle up to the challenges you face with confident nonchalance. Channel the child that you once were, look your adult worries in the face, and with a shrug and a smirk assure them: We’ll figure it out.

old green backpack

I have this old green backpack that I’ve carried on trails, in deserts out west and in mountains out east, during the last couple of decades. When I hike with it there's this moment, a day or two into the trek, when the pack begins to creak. It makes me think of the sway of saddle bags on a horse, the noise of leather rubbing on leather. That moment comes as the heft of my provisions settles in with the aches in my shoulders and hips.  With the creak I begin to feel powerful. Not invincible, but entirely capable.  

The weariness from walking the trail doesn't disintegrate.  The aches don't disappear.  But I experience a shift toward a fresh rhythm of being and awareness. I find myself tuned in. 

I notice how the stones burst with color when they’re kissed by the wet of the river. I see the way the trembling leaves on the trees play with the sunlight to make shadow puppets on the canyon wall. I can feel the wind announce itself with authority as it brushes by my ears. 

When I settle into the rhythm of my stride, of my day’s endeavor, the world invites me to share in its vitality. 

Wherever you are on the trail — whether you’re just hoisting the pack, whether you’re struggling through that first stretch of terrain, whether you’re settling into the sway and the creak of a long carry — I hope you find a moment or two today where life invites you to take note of its sustaining rhythms.

the vagabond and the homesteader

When I look at the world, so beautiful in its natural processes of renewal and so laden with the need to be tended, I wonder: How do I orient myself to this place I live with both urgency and patience?

I participate in the pursuit of justice, attempting to help right the world where it is wrong. 

I aim to engage the world — right, wrong, or otherwise — with compassion along the way.

Without the pursuit of justice our practices of compassion might ease into complacency. Without a posture of compassion our sense of justice tends to tilt toward fanaticism.

One, the Vagabond, prods us to wander and explore, with imagination and action, the possibilities of new ways and new worlds. The other, the Homesteader, urges us to sink roots into a steady plot of conviction and reap a harvest of equanimity.

In a world so vast and diverse it’s good for the Vagabond and the Homesteader to find for themselves a strong and dynamic union in our hearts.

human survival

In his unveiling of a plan to build the infrastructure for a path toward the eventual human settlement of space, Jeff Bezos framed his argument for the necessity of such efforts with this rhetorical question: “Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?”

I wonder: Is there a third option? Is there a way to inspire investment in long-term human survival that doesn’t stem from a narrative of fright and scarcity? One that doesn’t cast its lot with the myth of limitlessness? Wherever we are, on planets or in pods, is there a way to engage the spiritual practice of living in mindful and balanced relationship with the elements required to sustain us? Is there an option that doesn’t pit our exhales against our inhales, but that inspires us instead to form a robust relationship with our breath?

the passage of time

I realized on Tuesday that the date on my watch was a day behind the date on the calendar because my watch has an analog dial that I have to manually wind past “31” after months that have only 30 days, which I hadn’t done after April turned into May. 

I took care of it and everything matches now. The symbol on my watch matches the symbol on the calendar. I’m back in sync with our narrative of time. I’m aligned again with the story of hours and weeks and months that helps to orient us in our day-to-day business and relationships.

The stories and symbols that we organize our lives around are useful. And it’s good to remember that they’re meant to function for us, not dictate our lives. It’s good to remember where the most prominent stories take root. It’s good to remember the source of our most influential symbols.

If we trace the lineage of our measurement of time we don’t need to go far before we bump into the earth and its relationship with the sun. Our sense of time corresponds with our orientation in space.

Some days the passage of time makes me dizzy. Some days I’m oblivious to it. Some days my pulse speeds with anxiety about the too-fast tick of the seconds hand. Some days I ignore the symbols for a spell, and instead I heed my body’s knowledge about what needs to happen next.

ears to hear

In the most recent issue of Parabola, Julie Morley points out that the complicated problems of human impact on the earth and on each other “require that we become compassionately and respectfully curious about the knowledge systems of other species.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass, encourages us to heed “intelligences other than our own.”

Bran, in pretty much every episode since becoming the Three Eyed Raven, wargs into the consciousness of nearby creatures in order to glean insight from their perspective.

The birds across the street are sharing something — ancient wisdom, practical bits of daily advice — something of use, interest, or intrigue for those who have ears to hear.

This weekend I went to hear Sherri Mitchell give a talk. She assured us that we each have our own creation song to sing. She implored us to learn it, and then to learn how to harmonize our contribution with the chorus comprised of the tonal offerings of others.

As you lean into your movements, thoughts, and interactions this week: Be attentive. And in so doing, may you find confidence and hope in the company you share.

goals and projects

I took the Christmas lights down from my gutters yesterday. I know, I’m a little late. In my defense, it was still snowing a few weeks ago. But May Day has come and gone, and we have entered into the portion of the cycle of the year that brings with it ample daylight and wakeful days.

I have a list of several things around our house that I want to accomplish before the light starts to dwindle again later this year. Some of my intentions will come to pass. Some goals and projects will linger on my list and end up hibernating through another winter. Then wake again when we find ourselves, during the next cycle, positioned to the sun as we are now.

My greatest aim, the heartbeat behind my list of projects, is to be ever deepening my commitment to place. To notice where things are waking. To notice where things are worn. To notice how the tilt of the earth and the moods of the sky affect my ability to make repairs. To be an active participant with place. To trust the solidity of my persistent presence in it.

The spiritual practice of wildness centers on being in attentive and dynamic relationship with my present environment. It’s about daring to dwell here and now, without getting stuck. It’s about carrying with me a sense of place, without succumbing to complacency.

everyday wildness

What does it mean to practice an everyday wildness?

It means having a playful and purposeful awareness of who you are in the world. It means being all the way and only yourself while remaining cognizant of the relationships that give you substance. It means to move in and out of quotidian interactions with curiosity and confidence. It means making an effort to seek insight from the people you meet and wisdom from the traditions you encounter along the way. It means heeding, from time to time, the allure of transcendent notions that point beyond the simple senses of your wakeful body. And it means always returning to the multi-sensory experience of embodied existence as the bellwether of spiritual life.

Ineffable and incarnate. Individual and collective. Curious and confident. Singular and related. Purposeful and playful.

As you go about your day, whether things feel hazy or illuminated, whether you’re in need of the comforts of home or the thrill of a quest, may you find courage in your inherent and wonderful wildness.


All up and down Washington Avenue the bulldozers, excavators, and steamrollers are in full force. They have been for a while now. But yesterday I had the windows open, and every now and again the heavy machinery would reverberate and I could feel the pulse of it vibrate through the whole office.

Last night (while we watched the one where ice and fire finally meet for a standoff at Winterfell) I spent ninety minutes on the couch, just the way that Kali the cat likes it. She stretched out along the length of my legs that bridged the couch to the coffee table where I was resting my feet. All throughout the evening I could feel the tiny rumbling pulse of the soft purrs of her contentment.

This morning I woke up to the buzz of my alarm on the bedside table. Not the sound of it, but the feel of it. The volume was turned down so I didn’t hear anything, but the vibration of its proximity whispered me awake.

Now I have a Beach Boys song stuck in my head.

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.