Adventuring takes community

Adventuring is not a solo sport in my experience. We hear the stories of people, mostly men, conquering iconic features in the landscape. We hear about the men who have conquered Everest. We hear hardly, if ever about the others without whom, they would have never gotten there. The hero’s story goes that one man heeds the call of an adventure. Off he goes into the unknown to eventually face a crisis that will test his mettle. He is victorious in the face of this adversity and returns home a changed person – a hero. It’s not that these aren’t great stories, it’s just that I suspect they aren’t the full story in most cases. Stories that leave out important details can be misleading. They can make aspire to do things that were never possible in the first place and to feel like a failure when we aren’t able to achieve them.

If you’re going to adventure, you are going to need a community behind you. It’s not that you need the community to be entirely built and in place before you take the first step. You may have only a couple of people who think you should give your adventure a try. You may have no one. Don’t wait for them to take that first step. Often people will show up as you take those first steps. Maybe they have been watching from the sidelines to see if you take them. Maybe they weren’t aware of you until they noticed you were poised on the edge of an adventure, until you started moving. If you adventure they will come. They will be drawn from the wood work, by the energy of your forward motion. Often people want to be part of an adventure, even if they don’t want to go on it themselves.

So your community will grow around you as you go on your adventure, but there is another thing you need to know: If you want to be part of a community, you have to be open to receiving. Not just receiving in a superficial way like you might graciously receive a lovely housewarming gift. I mean receiving generosity that startles you with it’s enormity; generosity you may never be able to repay; generosity so embarrassingly large that you feel it clearly highlighting how much you are lacking.

This recently happened to me on a scale I had never experienced before. In August last year, our family moved from Australia to the US. Although we had visited the place we were moving to many times, we’d always been on vacation when were were there. How we would run our everyday lives in our new remote home, make a living and find the infrastructure we needed was unknown. We had made international moves before and they had been difficult. But this time, in the midst of a pandemic, our landing was a particularly turbulent one. It was hard to meet people because no one was gathering publicly or privately. It was difficult to find work, the real estate market was running away with people like a spooked horse and we were isolated in a new place. As the winter darkness set in the collective family mood plummeted.

One day a good friend called to check in on me. We were both going through major life changes and had been keeping closer tabs on each other. We talked about the turmoil in her life. She was leaving her partner of 20 years. Then she asked how I was going. I told her that I’d had a six-month contract that had not been extended as I had assumed it would. I was out of work and my husband was still looking for work. We’d had to move rentals before the lease with the first rental was over, causing us to rent two houses for two months with no income. She asked, “How much is the rent for the place you moved out of?” “Three-thousand dollars.” I answered. Without a pause she said, “I can send you six thousand dollars right now.” I sucked in my breath and was unable to say anything. Then she said, “It’s not a loan.”

I was stunned by her unhesitating, extremely generous offer. I felt her words physically thump into my chest and my eyes watered. Then I cried. One of the things that made this gift so extraordinary was the context of my friend’s life. She is not someone who has $6000 to spare, as far as I know. She grows a good proportion of her own food, lives in a cabin she and her partner restored from and uninhabitable state and for her annual vacation she drives from Maryland to Michigan with her parents to stay in their cabin for two weeks. She does these things partially because she likes them, but also because they keep costs down and allow her to be an artist, which doesn’t bring in a salary. When I finally found my voice again, I said, I couldn’t believe she would offer me money like that. She said, “Well, what’s it there for?”

Accepting this money made me feel ashamed, grateful and like I was part of something almost magical at the same time.

When you are scared and you have to ask for help you don’t feel entitled to, that you shouldn’t be asking for because you should have it all worked out and under control at this point in your life, but you don’t. You feel like it reveals gaping holes in your facade through which people can see the small scared, undeveloped parts of you. And when they say, “I can see how you’re hurting, let me help you.” and when you break down and accept their help and they then say, “Thank you for letting me be a part of this.” That’s when you are experiencing grace.

Take a moment. Divert you attention from your shame and notice, in the midst of the mess and pain that is currently your life, that there can be great beauty in your life – the sort you don’t come across when you have it all worked out and things are humming along. That’s when you know you are part of a community. You are home.

Dear Northern Hemisphere,

I meant to write sooner. But to be honest, I was exhausted after our COVID winter. We spent the month of January recovering at the beach in Queensland. It was glorious and exactly what we all needed. Anyway, by now you are truly in the throes of your COVID winter, so you may be more interested in the advice I have for you than you would have been in December.

The COVID winter was a rough one here in Melbourne. As far as the weather goes, our winter is like four months of your November strung together. It is cold, dark and rainy. As you can appreciate, this made the gloominess of COVID even worse. We had two lockdowns. The first started for our family in April. Less than 48 hours prior to my husband’s return from an overseas trip, the Prime Minister announced that all travelers retuning from overseas would have to quarantine for 14 days at home. I took the kids out of school and began working from home. Although I had stocked up on groceries beforehand, we inevitably ran out of things. Our neighbors were champions, delivering milk, bread and the hot-crossed buns we craved in the lead up to Easter. The local bookstore delivered stacks of books. We had all the essentials covered. But by  the time we emerged from quarantine, schools had closed and we were heading into the first phase of lockdown in our city.

As you can imagine, my job at the Health Department got hectic. What had once been a moderately paced, public servant role became one in which I could have worked like someone making twice my salary. The work was urgent, always. On top of the fact that the whole department was figuring out how to respond to a pandemic, we knew how many lives could be at stake.

At the same time, remote learning began. The nightmare looked like this:  one child rolled around on the carpet behind me in a continuous tantrum while I was on a continuous zoom call. The other child got a laptop shoved in her hands and was more or less left to homeschool herself. This went on for months as it became darker and colder both outside and inside the house.

By mid-winter our lockdown had been effective in stemming the tide of cases. Restrictions began to ease and schools were reopened. Parents across Melbourne breathed a collective sigh of relief. It didn’t last long. COVID got into the nursing homes and spread like wildfire. At its peak, our city of 4.5 million was experiencing upwards of 700 new cases every day. Restrictions were tightened, resulting in what would be the harshest, longest and most successful lockdown in the world. Face masks were required the moment we left our homes. Everything that wasn’t essential closed – schools, shops, restaurants, libraries, cinemas. A “ring of steel” was enforced around the city, preventing Melbournians from leaving the city and spreading the virus to rural Victoria, which had few to no cases. People were not allowed to travel further than five kilometers (three miles) from their homes unless they were attending a medical appointment. Police checked peoples’ movements and a curfew was enforced. The lockdown lasted 112 days.

Despite the oppressive weight of the restrictions, we knew we were lucky. We were healthy and we still had our jobs. The inner city townhouse we pay an exorbitant rent for, suddenly seemed worth it as its location placed us in a 5k radius of a sprawling park, a river, a local shopping strip and a fabulous community. We also had state and federal governments we trusted to call the shots in the best interest of its citizens. The government provided the financial support people needed to comply with restrictions. All the effort and sacrifice took our city from a situation that teetered on the brink of becoming out of control, to zero community-transferred cases within months.

Our COVID winter in Melbourne was difficult for us as a community and difficult for us as a family. Here’s what helped us stay somewhat sane at our house:

Feasts

Soon after we went into lockdown, my husband decided it would be morale-boosting to cook a feast from a different culture every weekend. He is an excellent cook, so we all got excited in threw ourselves into the task of suggesting different feasts. We started with Ethiopian – one of our favorite things to eat out, but something we’d never tried at home. While the injera was sadly a fail, the dishes that topped it were as delicious as we’d remembered having in restaurants. The warmth of them all the more satisfying in the gloominess of our COVID winter.

Preparing feasts was one of the few things we could do for entertainment, but it also gave us a sense of celebration and a marking of the week’s end as the dark days ran into weeks and months. One of the oldest and most human ways of celebrating, brought warmth and light into the darkness.

Dogs

If you’ve been thinking of getting a dog, now is the time to do it. Our kids had wanted a dog for many years and we put if off waiting until they were older and able to help take care of one. As COVID hit, our 11 year old ramped up her campaign for a dog exponentially. Every time she got one of us alone, her sentence would start with, “So about that dog…” followed by a pledge to take care of the dog or arguments extolling the benefits of dogs. She followed up by searching for dogs on animal rescue websites and presenting us with adorable candidates. She did an excellent job presenting her case, but what got us to say yes was her sadness. This is the kid who was given a laptop and had been homeschooling herself for months without a complaint. She missed her friends, she missed school, she missed going to circus practice, she missed the life she’d known before lockdown. We got a dog for her but in the end he saved the entire family’s mental health. Here are some tips I’ve picked up from our dog:

1. Seeing the people you love every morning is reason to dance with joy.

2. When one of the people you love, leaves it’s reason enough to stand at the door and whimper a bit.

3. You should have a nap in the sun every day.

Games

Sure, our Netflix account got a good workout. When we were recently looking through the offerings in the kid’s section for family movie night, it became clear that our nine year old has watched everything available. So there really is only so much you can watch. At some point, you need to turn from the screen and face the other people you are locked up with. One of the best ways we found to do that was with a good old fashioned game. We played a lot of Cluedo, Yahtzee and Uno and its successor Phase 10. Gathering as a family to play a game brought us together as Netflix never will. We bantered, talked shit, mourned our losses and relished our victories – but all in the playful spirit of a game. We all went to be happier and more satisfied than we did when we’d watched a show together, it ended and we all dragged ourselves in the post-TV depression from the sofa.

Letters

At the risk of sounding quaint, I’m going to suggest you write letters. Right about now in your COVID winter, you’re zoomed out. In the beginning we thought, “We’re locked in our houses, but no problem, we’ve got zoom!” By now you’d probably rather stare at a blank wall than be involved in one more virtual meeting. This means you’ve arrived in the headspace for letter writing.

Before you dismiss the idea, imagine going to your mailbox today and finding a letter amongst all the bills and junk mail. That is the joy and wonder you will bring to whomever you choose to write now. Sit down with a blank piece of paper and start writing to the first person you think of. It might just be a note or it could turn into a full-blown letter with multiple pages. After traveling from your hand through the post to the hands of your friend, that simple piece of paper will be transformed into a gift like nothing available on Amazon. It won’t just have an effect on your friend. When I write a letter, the small talk I use in emails, or on the phone, falls away. I write more about what is essential to me. I ask my reader about what is essential to him or her. My letter becomes I message from my heart to my reader’s heart.  The long evenings of winter are a perfect time to write letters. Take a break from scrolling through your social media feed and write a letter or a quick card to the first person you think of when you picture someone going to get the post from the mailbox.

Naps

See the advice from my dog above. You may think, “Why am I so exhausted? I’m not going anywhere or doing anything!” Lockdown exhaustion creeps up on you and slowly saps you of energy. I’m sure there are plenty of psychological reasons for this, but what matters is that you take care of yourself. I like to have a short nap after lunch, followed by a coffee to wake me up for the afternoon. It not only refreshes me, but the little routine helps add just a bit more structure to the haze of lockdown days.

Walks

Get out for a walk every day. Again, this is where the dog comes in. When you have a dog, you have to go for a walk. Every day. Rain or shine. You think it is for him, but again, he is doing you a bigger favor and again, saving your mental health.

Connect

Call your loved ones more than you usually do. Call those who live alone. They need to know they are still connected to other people. Your short, frequent calls can be a life line. Send uplifting or funny texts to your friends who are homeschooling. They may not have the time to talk, especially if they are also working from home as well, but they sure could use a laugh right about now. Call the wise people in your life. They will steady you.

Know we are thinking of you. We went through our COVID winter six months ahead of you. We know how dark the COVID winter can be and we are with you in spirit as you trudge through these long, endless days. Summer came for us here and we were able to enjoy some freedom and rest. You will too. In the meantime, know we are thinking of you every day.

Sending love,

The Southern Hemisphere

Traveling with Mary Oliver

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

I found all kinds of wonderful sentences, paragraphs and trains of thought in her collection of essays “Upstream”. Here are two of the sentences that keep coming back to me, “I am not a traveler. Not of that sort.” She writes this after listing overseas trips she has taken noting that she has, “never forgotten how it felt to think I was going to fall off the planet.” So she wasn’t an adventurer in the classic sense that often includes travel, but no one who has read her work could deny her adventurous spirit.

While traveling to far corners of the globe unnerved her, she held that nerve on so many travels that others would shrink from. She escaped from a difficult childhood home whenever possible into the the woods, into books. She chose a career as a poet at a young age. Maybe she couldn’t refuse that call, but it still seems daring.

I don’t claim to know her work in its entirety, but what I know of it tells me what kind of traveler she was. She was willing to expose herself to the unknown, to question the natural and spiritual worlds, to probe further, seeking. She had the intrepid spirit of an artist traveling into the darkness before us all, holding her lantern high. She could look unblinkingly into the abyss and then turn and send back poems to light our way.

Gaining perspective

For years now we have been living in a city. It’s a good city with excellent public transport, parks, a good arts scene, amazing food from all over the world, a mediterranean climate. As cities go, it’s and excellent version. But we are all tired of the city. Worn down by the noise, the closeness of buildings and people. We are craving space and all of us fantasize about having more room in different ways. My husband wants a shed for his adventure gear and a workshop. My older daughter wants to grow her own food and have a horse. My youngest just wants a bigger room she can dance in and paint blood red. 

I’m thinking of a room outside that. A room defined on one side by a mountain, on the other by the ocean with a vaulted ceiling of sky above. I’m dreaming of stepping outside into snow and inhaling the the sharp winter air like a peppermint in my lungs. I’m dreaming of wandering through the woods carpeted with soft moss and wild blue berries. I’m dreaming of sliding into the silken water of the lake and disappearing from the land for a few moments. All of these things are very beautiful, but I want more from them than their beauty. 

The natural world has a way of talking sense into me. I enter this room wringing my hands and lamenting, maybe loudly. The ocean gives me a sideways glance and goes back to kneading water against the shore. I thump down on the damp sand. Fretting. Before long I notice a little crab I’ve never seen before navigating the canyons of my foot prints. I notice that the tide seems to be going out. I wonder what kind of fish might be in the water right in front of me. 

Then I remember, “Oh yes, I was worried about something.” Not just worried, so anxious I couldn’t think clearly and had to go for a walk. “Yes, that is a problem.” I think, but my relationship to it has changed. The problem no longer has me by the jugular. I’ve stepped back and gained some dignity and composure. I think about it some more while watching the sunlight glint along the skin of the ocean. Now I can see the possible solutions. I can listen to reason. 

There is something that wilderness can cure that other forms of self medication simply can’t. The usual escapes like drugs, sex, money, shopping… They just create more void. The wilderness creates a void, but then fills it. Fills it with – itself, the grander scheme of things. For me it puts things in perspective. For many it makes space for healing. Brings people back to themselves. A quieter, wiser version of themselves.

Plans for the weekend

Photo by La Miko on Pexels.com

Today I attended a medical appointment. Nothing out of the ordinary in usual times and medically, it wasn’t out of the ordinary. But socially it was. I hadn’t seen anyone outside my family or my colleagues on zoom for months. While the practitioner prepped for the procedure, we made small talk. “Plans for the weekend?” he asked in the routine manner. The question struck me as funny. Melbourne has been under lockdown orders of varying degrees since April. At the moment, we are under stay at home orders, which prohibit people to travel more than five kilometers from their homes (medical appointments are an exception). Kids are home learning, business are closed, everyone is on video calls…

“I’m off to Paris.” I said. We chuckled about the absurdity of that and the banal reality of what we might really do. He expected the highlight of his weekend would be taking his kids to a playground which had reopened for the first time in two months.

After my appointment I sat in my car for a few minutes, savoring being alone for a few moments before driving home, and jumping on a work call. My mind wandered back to Paris. It had been an offhand remark, a joke, but now my imagination latched onto it. Maybe I will go to Paris this weekend it started… Obviously my body is locked down in Melbourne, but there is nothing keeping my mind here, it continued.

I imagine stepping onto the Rue Greffulhe in the ninth, where we stayed in January 2019. At the end of the street I could turn right to the bakery or walk straight ahead to the shop that seemed to have a small, perfectly packaged version of anything you may be lacking in your perfect little kitchen. The fruit was so beautifully packaged and displayed, I took a picture.

When I was studying psychology, I read about a woman who had been imprisoned for years, much of it in solitary confinement. She survived those times by visiting the cities she knew and walking every street. She said did this to occupy her mind and maintain her fragile grip on sanity. I have a very good sense of direction and often travel around places I’ve lived in my mind. When I read her story, I immediately identified with what she had done. I could see myself doing the same thing in her situation.

I’m certainly not in her situation, but my mind wants to go much further than my body can right now. I want to travel the 12 kilometers to see a good friend I’m missing, 15 to the ocean, 230 to the mountain range we visit every September. Beyond that, there are so many places I haven’t been in Australia: the Kimberly, the Daintree, Uluru, coastal northern New South Wales. Then there is the international bucket list: Japan, Iceland, sailing the Northwest Passage, sailing from Croatia to Venice, dog sledding in the Arctic…

But for now I’m content to wander the streets of Paris this weekend. If I’m feeling adventurous I might board a night train from Paris to Berlin, which no longer exists. There I could wander around my old neighborhood, visiting my favorite places. I just might; nothing can stop me.

This journey we’re on

When I began this blog, not so long ago, my intention was to write about adventure. I thought about what should define adventure. I thought about all different sorts of adventure – exploration expeditions, solo journeys on land, sea and air. I thought about adventures of the mind and soul. I thought about the arts and entrepreneurship. I thought about all of these different journeys and what united them and how they were different than the journeys people take when they have no other choice – when they must flee a situation that will destroy them in some way. The difference for me is the choice.

Now here we all are on what I’ll call a journey rather than an adventure. One of the interesting things about it, is that the whole world is experiencing the same thing at the same time. This has never happened. Even during world wars, some countries, where the wars are being fought, are much more impacted than those only contributing the war effort. Now, in every country in the world, every person living at this moment is experiencing uncertainty, fear, and loss to varying degrees.

We don’t know where this journey is taking us individually and collectively. I started picturing what this looks like. I imagine a large group of people in a clearing getting ready to go on a long distance hike together. Some have arrived with packs and hiking boots. They are well equipped and can indulge in the luxury of curiosity. Others are woefully unprepared. They’ve come in worn out sneakers, carrying a few supplies in plastic shopping bags. Some people are busily organizing what is needed for those who don’t have the right equipment. Others are checking maps and compasses trying to plan a route into unknown territory. There are a few people who have plenty of supplies, but are hoarding all the cliff bars. Some are ready to set off and see where the trail takes them others would like to return home to their couch and Netflix as quickly as possible.

I have no idea where we are headed as we set off from the clearing, but I have a sense of the kind of journey it will be. People will be pushed. They will be cold, tired, hungry and rain soaked, navigating an unknown slippery trail in the middle of the night… in moments like this we will see who they are, who we are. On journeys like this we get to see people’s true nature. Their grit, kindness, strength or lack of these things..

This is what it feels like to me at the moment. We are headed into the wilderness. Together.  

Why is adventure so important?

One thing adventure allows us to do is turn off the noise and really listen.

I feel more alive on adventures. Why? Well, maybe it’s because the minutiae of the everyday fades into the background for a moment and I can focus on one thing. If the adventure is a physical one like climbing a rock face, I am singularly focused on my next hold and nothing else. If it’s a traveling adventure, I am away from home and all of the everyday responsibilities. Maybe I feel more alive because I have more time just to be when I’m not managing my life and that of my family.

I get back in touch with myself. I’m not sure how or why this happens. Is it that we return to our child-self? Are we more like we were then because that’s how we used to go through the world – less encumbered by the emotional labour adults are engaged in? As a child, I remember asking my mother from the back seat of our car one day what she was thinking about. She said she was thinking about what to make for dinner. I thought to myself, “Adults think about such boring stuff!” I was right. Maybe when that falls away on a trip or even just the quiet of a morning swim, the more interesting thoughts have a chance to rise to the surface.

Perhaps adventure can be a form of active meditation we use to quiet the nose and listen to what’s important.

What do you get out of adventure in your life?

The work in blossoming

It sounds so inevitable. For flowers, and for some rare people, perhaps it is. For me, and I suspect the vast majority, staying in the bud is what’s inevitable. The bud is so much safer than the peril of blossoming – being exposed takes so much work.

I see plenty of people around me who will never leave the bud. One of colleagues is turning 60 next month. He is a lovely, gentle man with a wry sense of humor. Over the past two years I’ve shared an office with him. I’ve come to understand what he loves. He loves rare wines, good food, music and detective novels. He has a deep attachment to Italy where his father was born. But all of these things only make fleeting appearances in his life, they are not what his life is about. He’s not living in Italy on a vineyard where he longs to be. He is lives in Melbourne, working in a public servant job he is increasingly annoyed by during the day buying an occasional bottle of rare wine he’ll drink a glass of on the weekend. He is living a small version of his life. It’s like he is sitting on a bus looking longingly out the window at the person he knows he should be – as the bus drives away.

My colleague inspires me. I look at him and know that if I don’t take the risks I need to the live the life I want to, I’ll be deeply sad, trapped in a small life. It becomes crystal clear that the risk to remain tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.

Pulse check on your spirit of adventure

As you head into this weekend, think about where you really are in your life. Not all the boxes you’ve ticked, but where you truly are. This poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer might get your thoughts going in the right direction.

The Invitation

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.