Green Table

Storms are brewing across the desert and rolling toward my campsite from 80 miles away, the rain giving life to the parched earth. It’s monsoon season in the desert, as evidenced by the torrent of hail that greeted me in Wolf Creek Pass. And the summer storm that approached weeks ago, when I was on the summit of La Plata, only to miraculously change direction due to a last-minute shift of the winds. Somewhere else must have needed it more.

Now, though, the storms are coming right at me, and Willie Nelson is crooning Eddie Vedder’s words in the background, “nothing you would take, everything you gave.” Like he’s singing to the storms. The storms themselves take nothing from the earth, but give everything they are – sometimes giving too much. They give water, a break in the heat, life, but they can also give lightning, creating fires when the land is too dry. Causing damage, but in moderation, also cleansing from disease. Everything is necessary, but everything must also be balanced.

Sometimes it seems as if we’ve lost sight of that balance. We take so much and give so little. Or give everything, without putting heart into the things we do. We disrespect the ground growing above the bones of our ancestors, people whose sole purpose in life was simply to live – survival as a way of life, practiced to a form of art. But now, we don’t even have to try. I feel my own frustration with not having been born six hundred, four hundred, even two hundred years earlier, so I could have seen this place in its prime, seen the land before European contact, or ridden up the cattle trails, a face full of dust with a good horse beneath me. Living intentionally, living with purpose. Today, everything we could possibly need is at the tip of a finger. Just a quick trip to the store, or the opening of a plastic container, or even just a tap on a phone screen and something is delivered right to the doorstep.

We are better than that. Humanity is better than that.

Mesa Verde. This place’s name means Green Table. I feel honored to camp here, a campsite near the ancient civilizations carved into the cliffs. Spindly cedar rows, scarred and burned, stand sentry to the centuries like the Terracotta Army of the American high desert. And through those centuries, the table’s bounty has been preserved and protected, so today we are able to understand and appreciate the effort it took to live life for the sake of living. I think it’s possible to get back to a mindset of living for a reason.

We have accomplished incredible things and can continue to do so, as long as we don’t allow our tendency toward a life of ease to take over from the wildness in our nature. We need to find a balance between modern conveniences and the backcountry of our hearts. And looking out at these palaces in the stone, I realize that we have to leave something behind that means something – not a sign of how we made life easier; rather, a sign of how hard life was, but how we worked harder. We can conserve and protect and fight for the things that are wilder than we are, and therefore the things that make us human. And by doing that, we can leave behind Green Tables all our own.

 

Coming Round To Get You – Farewell Milwaukee

Just Breathe – Willie Nelson

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Half a Year of Gratefulness

On January 1, I dug out a Moleskine notebook that I won in a Facebook handwriting contest, and labeled each line with its own number, one through 182. It took over six pages. My plan was to write one thing each day that made me feel grateful.

Not the best thing that happened each day, not something I was afraid to forget. Not something that made me happy, although often, it was something that brought me joy. But rather, I wanted to write one thing that I was grateful for, because even on the worst days, there can always be something for which to be thankful. Something to appreciate.

That’s exactly what this project has become – something to appreciate. This little Moleskine has traveled all over the place with me over the last six months. It’s been through the Midwest, the South, and the West, as well as Canada and Ireland. It’s seen me through some really difficult transitions and life events, loss and but also some really wonderful days filled with laughter and love. And it’s seen days of gratefulness for things as diverse as “celebrating life”, “seeing a lizard”, “making progress toward living the dream”, “faith in the face of fear”, “having a warm house when it’s cold outside”, “Eggo waffle and Duck Dynasty lunches with Dad”, and “loping a good horse through rippling dark green meadows”.

It shows that there are little joys in each day, and that no matter what happens, having a positive mindset can help you grow and learn and enjoy life. You have to recognize the silver linings some days, but they are always there, you just have to look a little harder sometimes. It might require diving a little deeper and leaning into the difficulties, but the gratefulness is there, just as much as it is on the days when I can’t choose between all the great things that happened. And a lot of times (most of the time, in fact), it’s so hard to choose just one thing I’m the most grateful for, that I fall asleep smiling.

When I started this project, which I named “The Gratefulness List”, I only wrote in half a year’s worth of days. I think it was in case I lost interest or started overthinking the things that happened each day. The opposite has proven to be true: I’ve found that choosing one thing to be grateful for is a great way to recap the day, and I can’t imagine not seeing this list through to the end of the year. It’ll probably go beyond.

So now it’s July, and I’m writing in days number 182 through 365. There’s too much to be grateful for in life to let it go by unnoticed.

 

Something Just Like This – The Chainsmokers

Atlantic City – Levon Helm (probably one of the best covers of anything ever)

Blame It All On My Roots…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of visiting Ireland. Those rolling green hills fascinated me, tugging my heart across the ocean since I was small. St. Patrick’s Day was always important to me. I liked decorating with shamrocks and rainbows and pots of gold, and I liked trying to trap leprechauns as a child. (I didn’t actually like the corned beef and cabbage that went along with our American version of the holiday, but I powered through.) Many of my school projects about family history centered around my Irish side – a history which was made even more interesting to me when I found out we lived in a castle during feudal times. I flew over Ireland when I was 17. I remember looking out the window on that clear night, and I could see the lights on the island below. My heart leapt. “Someday, I’ll be there. I’ll be back,” I thought. I watched the country pass below my plane window until I couldn’t see it anymore.

I don’t know why I’ve always felt so strongly connected to my Irish roots when I have so many different countries in my blood, and my birth certificate simply says “American”. Maybe it’s because green is my favorite color, or because I look more stereotypically Irish than a lot of people who actually are from Ireland. Maybe it’s something deeper. But going to Ireland was always high at the top of my bucket list.

Ireland drew me, just like the mountains have always drawn me. So, when I decided to take this winter to travel, I knew right away that I was going to Ireland. It was perfect timing. My friend Megan, who I was going to visit, helped me get the trip all planned out, and I booked my flight. Even so, it didn’t seem real. All the places I’d dreamed about and seen pictures of still seemed so far off, like somewhere I’d imagined but didn’t really exist. Like something from a dream.

When the plane broke through the clouds on the descent to Dublin, the sight of those rolling green patchwork quilt fields took my breath away. My eyes misted up. I realized I was really there, that when the plane landed, I’d get an Irish stamp in my passport. I’d be on Irish ground.

And for the whole week, I had to keep reminding myself that those were real shades of green. Those low stone walls were immemorial, not just built for the aesthetic of looking old. That the land there is so ancient, my brain has trouble fathoming the decades that have passed since my family was Lords of the Route.

The one thing I was dead-set on seeing during my visit was that old family castle. We needed to get to the north, and when the rental car didn’t work out, Megan had the genius idea of taking a bus tour, staying in Belfast for an extra day, then taking the train back home. So that’s what we did, and we got to see some pretty incredible things because of it. (We also got to live our Hogwarts Express dreams on the train…anything off the trolley?)

We stopped at several places throughout the North: The Dark Hedges, Carrick-a-Rede, Giant’s Causeway. And because we weren’t trying to drive on the other side of the road, we could just sit back and enjoy the scenery between destinations. At first, I was so upset about not having a car, but the change of plans just went to show me that sometimes things don’t work out the way we think they should, so that they can come together in an even better way.

Dunluce Castle was the last stop of the day. It was just about golden hour when we got there. Everything was backlit. The castle is built on a cliff that drops straight into the ocean, with waves crashing below. The turrets rose out of the rock like they were a part of the land itself, standing as a sentinel to the water. Reaching above like some sort of backbone built into a cliff. The backbone of a piece of my family history. It was so amazing to imagine my ancestors walking around in there, living their 12th-15th century lives. They lived there longer than America has been a country. I bet none of them ever even thought that one of their descendants would be looking at their home, after traveling across that very sea to get there. That journey would have taken months in those days, typically a one-way trip for most passengers. I made that trip in six hours, and did the same thing in reverse a week later. What are the chances that we’d have the ability to travel the way we can, when we’ve only had the opportunity to fly for a little over a century?

And what were the chances of me even having been born? All the exactly right combinations of people in Northern Ireland, Poland, Belgium, Germany, so many other countries in Europe had to meet, fall in love, get married, and have babies that would grow up to do the exact same thing, then cross the ocean and continue that same circle of life here in America, just for me to be standing there, looking at that old castle ruin on a windy day in February. It really humbled me, brought me back to my roots, and made me realize (once again) that nothing can happen by mistake. Everything we do teaches us something or gives us something of such importance that we can’t begin to understand it until much later. From that perspective, it just goes to show that we must be intentional in everything we do, for we don’t live our lives for ourselves. We live for others and for the future and for eternity.

The next day we spent in Belfast, with no real itinerary other than the suggestions of the baristas at a little coffee shop on the way into the city. I absolutely fell in love with Belfast, and I think I liked it because it reminded me of home. Belfast and Detroit are really very similar. There is so much rich industrial history in each city, be it building boats or cars, and each city is known worldwide for the Titanic, for Ford, Dodge, and Chevy. Industry continues, even though today, both cities are better-known for violence. And both cities recognize the fact that they’re not perfect. They both had tanks rolling down the streets fifty years ago or less. Both are known for roughness and blue-collar grit, division and troubles. Yet, turmoil produces character. And determination. The power to rise above the ashes.

Things are getting better. The cities are pulling themselves back up. Through it all, Belfast and Detroit have beauty – some retained from the past, some formed by the struggles they’ve seen. The walls of old buildings are now the canvases for new murals depicting the past, serving as a reminder of each city’s recent history. They’ve both established quality coffee and art scenes. They are promoting museums and tourism without ignoring or overlooking the lingering shadows of the past. Those shadows are part of each city’s culture, an important piece of history and a contributor to the arts. A tribute to the beauty of overcoming adversity. A reminder of how far we’ve come, and the distance we have yet to go.

And because of all the past’s darkness, you’ll meet some of the kindest, most compassionate people you’d ever imagine meeting. In both cities, it’s normal to smile and say hi as you pass a stranger. These people know what it’s like to feel down, or looked down on, because you’re from a rough city. And people from both cities know that they don’t want to make others feel that way. Because they’ve seen the dark, they know how they don’t want to be treated. I’d imagine if everyone showed that kind of compassion, the world would be a kinder place.

So you’ll see both sides of both cities. In Belfast, you’ll see Peace Walls, shopping centers, and the college Liam Neeson attended. You’ll see the docks and the Titanic museum, history and new hope. Across the pond in Detroit, you’ll see the abandoned buildings made famous by urban explorers, but you’ll also see Indian Village, the River Rouge plant, and a hip bar and music scene in Midtown. You’ll see it all the way it is – candid and honest, not trying to hide the past, but ready to move on to a better present and future.

All of this I knew in Belfast, because I lived all of it in Detroit. The heyday of industry past (on the docks or in the plants), the division of cultures (religious or racial), and the coming back together, knowing that we must not discount our shared past to continue working toward unity in the present. And I think the strangest thing about all these similarities is how part of my family came from this area of Ireland, so similar to my hometown. And somehow, I was born in Detroit, so similar to this area of Ireland. It must be hereditary, traits that are somehow in my blood from way back.

I could go on and on about the time I spent in Ireland. As much as I enjoyed the Republic, I guess this is my love letter to the North. The land is wilder, more rugged, just like the places my heart feels home in the States. My ancestors came from County Antrim. Blame it all on my roots, but I felt like I belonged, even though I’d never been there. I felt like I’d been there in another lifetime. I think there’s something to be said about going back to where it began, even if it was almost a millennium ago. You might find that it’s not too different from the place where you are today.

 

“They say mother earth is breathing with each wave that finds the shore. Her soul rises in the evening, for to open twilight’s door. Her eyes are the stars in heaven, watching o’er us all the while. And her heart it is in Ireland, deep within the Emerald Isle.” – Ireland by Garth Brooks

The Cattle Guard

During my fall road trip in the west, I got to spend some time at the first ranch I worked for, in northern Colorado. I love the ranch, I love the valley, and I love the people it’s brought into my life. Normally, when I’m there, whether for work or just for a visit, I reflect on all the good times it’s brought me. Magically, each visit makes those good times multiply.

The literal memory lane begins in town, and as the houses decrease, the reminiscing increases. There’s the hotel where I was picked up for my first summer of work. There’s my church. There’s my favorite store in town. There’s my go-to gas station. The beef unit sign. The big buckskin horse I always liked. The pond where you lose cell service. The best cowboy bar in the world. Then ranch by ranch, until you get home. Because since I first experienced it, this valley has been a home to me.

There’s a cattle guard across the road, right as you pass from pavement to dirt. It marks 5 more miles to the ranch, as well as serving as the county line, and the Wyoming-Colorado state line. It marks a transition. In the past, that cattle guard has been a symbol of excitement. Crossing it, and hearing it rumble under the tires, signals a turning point. I didn’t realize how great of a turning point it really is, until my last visit in the fall.

As I crossed the cattle guard in darkness, and the ground beneath my wheels changed from a whir to a crunch, I found myself thinking back to the very first time I crossed it. It was a sunny day in the middle of May. Three of us wranglers were crammed into the front bench seat of a Toyota pickup, having met not even an hour ago. But we were singing along to country radio, and talking about Carhartt kids’ clothes, and how it felt like we were going north instead of south. I now consider those two girls to be two of my best friends, but none of us knew each other then. We didn’t know anyone at the ranch, either. We were just travelling on faith, full of hope for what the summer would bring.

Last fall, driving into the valley again, I wished I was back in that Toyota. I got caught in such a deep flashback to that moment, and I started thinking about how much has changed since then. In my life. In their lives. In our friendships. I was so nervous when we crossed that cattle guard for the first time. We probably all were. It was a transition period. We were leaving our comfort zones in each of our respective home states, and setting out into the unknown. Literally. Of course, we were excited, but the nerves were there, because it was a transition. I remembered that in the fall, because the nerves were back. In a way, I was back in that Toyota, only this time, it was a GMC, and I was alone. I was in yet another transition period. That cattle guard helped me realize it, yet again.

Today, the adventures and the newness and the thrill of that first summer overpower the nervousness that was so real in that first cattle guard crossing. The positives outweigh the negatives so much, it’s hard to remember that there even were negatives. But when you’re right in the midst of a transition, it can be hard to see all the ways things can go right. I’ve seen enough transitions in the past few years to know that by now. I’m right in the middle of another one, again. It’s a part of life.

Unlike the drive from town to the ranch, there is no road map for life. Honestly, as cliché as it sounds, life is a highway and all that, there are all sorts of metaphors in mountain roads. There are twists and turns, up and downs, and bumps along the way. Sometimes there are other obstacles that force you to slow down for a while – on these roads, they’re usually livestock or wildlife. But in life, they’re often unforeseen. Unpredicted.

And of course, there are cattle guards. Ever since I came upon this metaphor for cattle guards as transitions, I can’t get it out of my head. They usually mark pasture or property boundaries, so crossing them signifies a change of sorts. They’re often flanked by potholes, making for a rough ride, and they make a lot of noise. And if you try to make things easier on your truck by slowing down, lingering, it often makes for a bumpier crossing. You just have to take them as they come to you. Yet, cattle guards are not only necessary, they are valuable. They keep cows where they need to be, and they keep you going where you need to go. The momentary discomfort they create serves a greater purpose.

Just like transitions in life.

 

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” – Theodore Roosevelt

The entire Jekyll + Hyde album by Zac Brown Band

Country Roads by John Denver (…duh.)

New Leaves & Auld Lang Syne

I think it’s funny how we choose to turn over a new leaf at a time of year when all the past year’s leaves have fallen. The old leaves have been raked, composted, or burned. And it’s not like the new leaves will be coming in anytime soon. Often, we have to wait at least 4 months to see any hint of life from those tired branches, looking like skeletons scratching the sky. Yet, nature teaches quite a bit. It’s where I’ve learned some of my most valuable lessons. So I think there’s a lot of symbolism packed into the “new leaf” metaphor for resolutions.

There was a while that I refused to make a New Year’s resolution. I thought, if you want to make a change, why not just do it? Why wait until the New Year? Part of this stemmed from my irritation with the hordes of people flooding into my gym every January, when I was there every day, every week, every month. I think the bigger part of my aversion to resolutions came from disappointment, after seeing so many new gym-goers give up after a few weeks. It made me feel disheartened, and my outlook on resolutions became jaded for several years.

In 2015, I decided to try making a resolution again. My resolution? Give up multitasking. What?!! That’s a pretty crazy thought in a society driven by the concept of “more”. But I realized that whenever I tried to multitask, I just did two things halfway. It took me longer to do them both at the same time, and I was never happy with the results of either task. At the end of the day, my to-do list was checked off, but I felt unfulfilled. I hadn’t poured my heart into anything I’d done. Making this resolution forced me to focus on doing one thing at a time. I found that each task was done faster, better, and I was happier with the end results. I still catch myself trying to multitask from time to time, but overall, giving up multitasking has brought me greater quality of life.

Last year, I tried to tackle another habit of mine: apologizing for everything. Living as close to Canada as I do, I frequently find myself saying sorry. (Sorry, Canada.) Of course, there’s a time and place for apologies, and they are certainly very necessary. But I found myself taking blame and apologizing to avoid conflict, or to ease my own unnecessary guilt. So, instead of apologizing, I aimed to say thank you. For example, “I’m sorry I’m late” turned into, “Thank you for being patient with me.” This new leaf was not so easy for me to turn over. I wouldn’t say it was a success, but I do still think about it from time to time. And I try.

I’m still thinking about what I’ll resolve to do this year. Maybe something with time management. Maybe something to give up. Maybe trying to get a little less heated and a little more patient. There’s a whole year ahead of me, and now is the time to do things differently.

You see, I’ve come to realize that January 1 is the perfect time to make a change. First of all, you have an entire empty calendar spread out before you. You can do with it whatever you’d like. Second, don’t we instinctually follow the patterns of nature?

I think we turn over new leaves in the dead of winter, not only because an arbitrary New Year begins, but also because of what’s going on outside. The world is grey. It’s cold. It’s dark. There are no signs of life. Yet under the surface, things are happening. The leaves will grow, and spring and summer will be filled with life. Then in the fall, the leaves will change color, rewarding us with the beauty of the efforts of growth. That reward becomes a part of the year, something that lasts for a short time before it’s time to prepare for more new leaves.

So don’t give up on your resolutions, just because you don’t see the results right away. It may just take a couple of months for the new leaves to grow. And those leaves will bless you with the beauty of the reward.

 

It’s Dark, It’s Cold, It’s Winter – Sleepmakeswaves

“Don’t let me into this year with an empty heart.” – Empty Hearts, Josh Ritter

“I love the past so much because I love the present. I know I have to go into the world and become shaped, altered, bent, myself – individuated – and that there will be pain and joy in the process. I am not the land itself, neither am I a clone of my family. But the magnitude of my attachment to these things – and the stability it affords – staggers me. What strengthens or protects these things strengthens and protects me; that which harms them, harms me. There is still a connection to these things.” – The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness by Rick Bass

Hometown Hindsight

Growing up, I was always fascinated by my grandma’s recollections of our hometown. Her blue eyes would shine as we drove. She’d recite the street names, often knowing their namesake families and sharing stories of their school days together. She would look wistfully out the window as she said, “This was all farmland.”

My grandma lived in this town for her entire life. Almost one hundred years. Today, I’m living in the house where she was raised, where she later raised her own family. And while I may not be one hundred, I’ve spent most of my life here, too. That’s long enough to remember some changes, myself.

I remember when we didn’t have banks on every corner. There were family diners, instead. There was no McDonald’s, and it seemed like all we had were hair salons and Italian restaurants. I remember thinking it took forever to get across town. We would drive slowly past the lakefront homes, in awe of their extravagant Christmas displays.

There used to be a patch of woods on my way to school. It was home to coyotes and deer. Right outside Detroit, can you believe that? There were pheasants and foxes and rabbits, too. We still have horses grazing in the middle of town, but there have been fewer and fewer since the fire. I knew all the families on my street, and even some on my grandma’s and cousins’ streets, too.

Sure, the layout has changed. The land has changed. The city is expanding, and I’ve realized just how small this town really is, even though it used to be my entire world. I think the thing that’s changed the most is our culture. And I think that’s a reflection of how the world is changing. We used to get outside, ride our bikes, shoot hoops, go swimming. See, we didn’t have cell phones, or computers, or wifi, especially not in the early days.

Even in high school, when technology was beginning to be introduced in the classroom, we were still skeptical. When we were required to make Twitter accounts for an assignment, many of us deleted them after the assignment was completed. But today, that kind of assignment seems to be the norm, and I haven’t even been out of high school for five years. I had college classes so entirely online that I wouldn’t recognize my classmates or professors if I bumped into them on the street.

Most of the changes I’ve witnessed over my lifetime have been brought about by technological advances, but I think technology creates a feeling of closeness to others, while actually pushing us to a disconnection. And I think there’s some value in being the last generation to grow up with and without it. Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe I’m an old soul, maybe that’s why I am the way I am. But I’d rather eat dinner around the table than around the TV. I’d rather play a board game than a video game. I’d rather chat over coffee than Snapchat. I’d rather watch the stars than watch Netflix.

I certainly see the benefit of technology, and take advantage of it, too. It’s been amazing to be able to stay in touch with family and friends for the weeks, or months, or sometimes even years in between visits. I love seeing pictures of places across the country or across the globe, and trying to find a way to see them myself. And I enjoy creating community and business through social media. Yet I often wish technology was avoidable. I wish we could get back to the honest, meaningful connections we once had.

We understand most situations only after we’ve had time to process them in hindsight. All of these changes make me wonder – how else will everyday life have changed when I get to be my grandma’s age? This town went from farmland to upscale suburbia in less than a hundred years. In my twenty-some years, I’ve seen vast changes, as well. Even in the three years since my grandma passed away (in which I split time between Detroit and Colorado), I’ve seen changes here that I know she wouldn’t have ever imagined. I can sit here all day and imagine how different things will be when I’m old, and I know that what actually happens will be far beyond my imagination’s reach. And I guess that’s the beauty in it – we’ll never know what will happen until it happens. I just know that somehow, my hometown will know how to tell the tale.

 

“But don’t you forget it, as big as we’re getting, this town’s too small to be mean.” – This Town, Kacey Musgraves

I’ll Be Home For Christmas – Bing Crosby (I love Bing’s Christmas music. A lot.)

Strangers & Sonder

The world is smaller now than it once was, and I revel in the things that make it at once bigger and smaller. The discovery of new species makes the world seem bigger. There are things out there that we don’t know, things I hope we’ll never find. Parts of this earth need to stay wild. At the same time, the formation of new friendships makes the world smaller. One more face that feels like home. One less stranger on this earth.

Strangers. As children, we’re told to never speak to them. As adults, speaking to those we don’t know almost becomes a necessity. I was shy as a child. Still today, I frequently have to push myself out of my own shell. Because today, strangers present themselves in the form of interviews, dates, friends of friends. Sometimes even former friends, those whom at one point, I couldn’t imagine life without. Now, I remember them illuminated by headlight circles and bonfires, yelling Bohemian Rhapsody into the Colorado night. And I hope that they are well, wherever they are.

That is my version of ones that I once knew. We all carry versions of each person we encounter every day. There’s a driver who kindly let you into their lane, and another driver filled with holiday road rage. Two fleeting instants. Two people remembered in two different ways. Such moments could be a mirror of a person’s everyday self, or they could be completely incongruent with one’s character. Nine times out of ten, we won’t know. We’ll never find out. Yet, every person lives a life just as complicated as our own. There are no formulas. Each life is filled with its own beauty, its own trials, its own joys, and its own sorrows. So much so that even on your darkest days, there is never an excuse to practice anything but kindness.

Kindness has a way of making things better, on both sides. The giver of kindness will feel good about their actions. The receiver will appreciate these actions, and often feel a need to pay it forward. So today, and every day, embody kindness. Maybe you’ll reach an understanding with someone facing difficult times. Maybe you’ll turn a stranger into a new friend. Maybe the smallest thing that could happen is helping to make someone’s day just a little brighter. And as the holidays approach, why not try to be merry and bright?

 

Strangers – The Trishas

White Christmas – Bing Crosby (I always gotta love the Bing version. Classic.)