I woke up this morning, made coffee, fed the beasts and read an article about a guy from Knoxville who died of a heart attack while hiking in the smokies. That’s a thought that is always with me now just four years after my own heart attack. But, oddly enough, it’s also become one of my guiding principals. Like a double-edged blade, however, it can act as both a negative and a positive force. Without it, however, I would not have achieved all that I have or changed in ways that I could not even begin to imagine before my event. For instance, the main reason I started hiking, with a backpack, on multi-day treks, well, honestly it was to get a handle on panic attacks and depression. What happened as a result of those efforts is what this post is about. Really, it’s about three specific things that I sort of realized as a result of this slow tidal movement in my head over the past four years. Plus one that came to me while finishing a book on Thoreau last night. But for now, it’s summer in Ohio. The last full month in fact. And this is where the story begins.
There’s something magical about mid-August. It’s still, usually, hot as blazes. The sunny season here in the midwest. I live in a State which is typically shrouded by grey clouds most of the year with only 175 days of full sun annually. It’s the last full summer month which, even as the outdoor fun is going full tilt, makes one think about the season as it gives way to September and the fall harvest to come. It’s been a full couple seasons for me to boot. I just finished up work on my first client since I decided to go back into tech consulting on the cloud side of things this time. Completed some tattoo research on Henry David Thoreau. Hiked the Smokies and Big South Fork. Performed several alcohol fasts (two and four-week intervals – post to follow sometime in the future). Hired a personal trainer in an effort to make the transition from pure cardio workouts to some strength training with a goal of doing the Wonderland Trail next year. (That would be a singularly impressive feat for me if I can swing it). Car camped during the buggy, spider-web covered and abnormally wet summer season, all which make backpacking not so much fun unless you are 6000+ feet above sea level that is. But yeah, I returned to two campgrounds where I have a good number of buddies here in Ohio and one in Indiana as many times as I possibly could, sometimes upwards of three weekends a month, while making some fantastic new connections and enjoyable times had. All told, it’s been a summer I won’t soon forget.
This leads to the first thing that kind of stands out in my head which marks a shift in personal process. My growing dissatisfaction in being an online customer. Well, online ordering in general. I’ve been having an increasingly lackluster experience with online retailers over the past year. Admittedly, I don’t have a finger on the pulse of the industry. My superficial discomfort, I suspect, is related to how our reliance on these outlets has grown. Keeps growing, and how the delivery and customer service models are changing. All those trucks we see on the road. Delivering things, or in my case, mis-delivering things like cat litter, every week. I mean, who has cat litter shipped to them in giant cardboard boxes right? Oh, wait, that used to be me.
I am left thinking about a colleague of mine. He told me recently that “I am taking a time out from [un-named] online store.” Presumably for many of the same reasons. Of course, he went cold turkey. That’s who he is. Me? I am sort re-calibrating and trying to divert more of my dollars locally, where I can, for the things I need. Online ordering is fine for what it is, but we all have choices as consumers. It’s funny though, truth be told, there is no fault with the retailers, it’s really my own problem to solve. The never-ending pursuit of stuff and the means by which we come by it. Perhaps my discomfort all along has been a nagging suspicion that I really don’t need some of this stuff after all?
Without much thought, I was feeling the same way food-wise. Our grocery chains are solid and serve a great many people extremely well. At least for those of us who are lucky enough not to live in rural food deserts in the wake of movements like Mega-Super-Giant Stores and the insidious Dollar Store industry. Yet I wanted something different. Something that was outside the bounds of the awesome but self-contained farmers markets here in Columbus. Available only during the bountiful months. In fact, we used to belong to a food co-op in Dallas and I missed that experience. That’s where our affiliation with Yellow Bird began. Pretty much as an experiment. We decided to become members. Reducing our reliance upon big-box grocery chains. Instead, we turned toward a family run distributor, who are themselves farmers as well. They source locally raised/grown Ohio farm products. Initially, it was for the challenge of not knowing what was coming in our box, we like to cook and to have a culinary puzzle to solve every week. Food should be fun. Like what the Hell do we do with Kohlrabi? Or in the winter months when we have cabbage coming out of our weekly shares with regularity, as we hate cabbage. Yet we learned to enjoy it in things like stir fry. While it was about eating locally at first, it became about eating by the calendar and learning to adapt to a simpler way of thinking. Asparagus in the spring. Blueberries and strawberries at the beginning of summer. Watermelon, corn, and summer squash mid-summer and so on as the year rolls on ahead of us like a big wheel.
The second realization that presented itself, a lesson previously learned but one which represented itself through a simple act of sharing. It came when I sent a book to a very close friend of mine, named Mike, this week on minimalism. He’s in the process of re-architecting his life with his partner. They are long-distance at the moment. He is a car camping buddy of mine who lives here in Columbus while his boyfriend lives in Kansas. Their goal is to move closer to Chicago if not actually to Chicago. When I first met him, his house presented a problem for me. I am an order guy. A recovering Type-A. I have a bullet list for fucking everything. I like low key spaces where all things have a place and there are never too many objects anywhere. All my workspaces are like that too. Nothing but the very bare essentials anywhere at any time. Spartan. Mike, however, has pile after pile of objects. Everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a hoarder. Just a guy living like a guy by himself. Living well in fact. But, as he is facing a move across the country, he’s got some challenges. Pair down or remain stuck under the weight of those possessions. The truth is, however, as I opened my closet bursting with camping, hiking, backpacking gear, and all my clothes… I had to wonder, again, how is it that we “need” so much stuff? I suppose we all have our areas f focus to work on at any given time.
Again, I have to think about my aunt Lora decrying our human habit of acquiring stuff for the sake of stuff. Having moved across the country myself, twice, I know what it’s like to pair down. Sometimes while in transit, embarrassingly enough. I know I have another purge coming. Things to box up for donation. Stuff has a way of landing in everyone’s houses. Ridding ourselves of things is an iterative process. On a related note, my husband sent me an excellent article from GQ recently, “The Sound of Silence: Here’s What Happened When I Did a Month-Long Sound Fast,” Joel Pavelski. Which brings the whole idea of clutter full circle. Perhaps it’s mental, emotional and physical “stuff” that we need to pair down on in an effort to dig ourselves out of the mess that piles up around us as we move along through life? (It’s why I plan to burn about 30 years worth of my own journals in the near future – post to follow).
The third idea that presented itself this summer was discovered while doing some tattoo research for a full hind leg tattoo. Ankle to ass. In a big heavy font. My first literary piece in fact.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.”Henry David Thoreau
All these trains of thought are leading somewhere. I may not have the ability to plot the course on a magic map, but I feel the pull. One of the books I picked up on Thoreau this summer, “The Thoreau You Don’t Know, What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant,” By Robert Sullivan, makes me wonder about something he said, “the only remedy for love is to love more.” It makes me wonder if there is a corollary in there somewhere about life? Maybe something like “The remedy for life is to live more?” Therein lies the deepest of all questions.
The three big questions. How do you want to live? What gives you purpose. Where do you find joy?
When I read that guy’s headline this morning, “man dies while hiking in the Smokies,” I thought of my own drive to get out on the path, way outside of cell service, 911, medics and such in an effort to force myself to choose between anxiety and grueling effort of climbing up a mountainside while surrounded by natural beauty. He was where I was not four weeks ago. Doing the same thing. Which serves as a stark reminder of the deadly real consequences of my choice, as a heart attack survivor, in taking off to the backcountry for long-distance hiking and camping either solo or with friends. Yet, as my proposed corollary states, while life is finite, we can choose to live as dead men or we can choose to live like living men. Yes, I might indeed die up on some mountain, crossing some stream, in a lake or out on a wooded trail somewhere – just as easily as being “hit by a bus” as so many well-intended folks, unfortunately, tell people who have suffered a catastrophic event only to fall short of empathy in the end. I think the emotional freedom we fight for is freedom from our fear of mortality and the dogma we build up all around us like walls. Keeping us from actually living well.
It may take Herculian efforts, and more emotional/mental gymnastics than we ever thought possible, but I’ve also found a fourth, and possibly the most important axiom over the past four years of searching. It’s the people you let your guard down around and allow yourself to form friendships with that give us the most joy and meaning in life. I think the best human energy that we are capable of is love. While I may not be the most articulate writer, or thinker, I suspect we have a better chance of accomplishing what I suggest as answers to the Big Three Questions, listed below, when we strive to see more clearly. That is, by freeing ourselves from attachments and debris. Both physical and emotional. Seeking experiences and friendships that move us closer to our core, showing us just how profound our short lives are.
My big three answers. Love of self. Love of life? Love of others.