Out and Back: Coming Home

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Meadow Creek Trail, Lily Pad Lake toward Frisco, Colorado

When you hike, do you like loop trails or out-and-back trails better?

What metaphors for life can you make from hiking?

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Ptarmigan Trail, outbound, Silverthorne, Colorado

Out and Back

I used to think out and back trails would be boring.  What’s so great about getting to the end of a path and then going back the way you came?  Wouldn’t it be tedious and redundant?

But the more hikes I take, the more I realize how valuable it is to retrace my steps, especially on the trails with big elevation gain and diverse landscape.  The same path, going uphill and then downhill, heading north at daybreak then south at mid-day, is a vastly divergent experience.  It is a concrete, tangible exercise in perspective, if ever there were one.

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Ptarmigan Trail, looking toward trailhead from same point as above

Looping

On a loop trail, you get to decide at the outset the way you will go.  If you choose clockwise, you miss out on the counterclockwise experience—until next time, perhaps, when you get to choose it.  Or maybe you always go the same way?  That feels safe—you know what’s coming, perhaps?  But on any trail, especially in the high country, you just never know what you’ll encounter.  Time of day, time of year, recent events (wildfire, thunderstorm) all alter the path—you could actually never walk the same trail twice—whether it’s out and back (hereafter abbreviated “OAB”) or a loop.

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Meadow Creek Trail again

In life, do/can we ever really go back?  I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Heraclitus:

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Whether you choose OAB or a loop, when you arrive at the trailhead again, is it the same as when you started?  Are you?  And regardless, why hike in the first place?  What does it do for you, what do you gain?  Why step out from where you live every day, all the time?

Here’s what insightful writers I’m reading lately have to say about it:

John Gardner, in Self-Renewal:  “As the years go by we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception.  We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the face of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world…  That is why travel is a vivid experience for most of us.  At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us.  Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience.”

John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara:  “Hegel said, ‘Das Bekannte überhaupt ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt’–that is, ‘Generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.’ This is a powerful sentence. Behind the facade of the familiar, strange things await us. This is true of our homes, the place where we live, and, indeed, of those with whom we live. Friendships and relationships suffer immense numbing through the mechanism of familiarization. We reduce the wildness and mystery of person and landscape to the external, familiar image. Yet the familiar is merely a facade. Familiarity enables us to tame, control, and ultimately forget the mystery. We make our peace with the surface as image and we stay away from the Otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown that it masks. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation.”

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West Overlook, Ridge Trail, Dillon, Colorado

When patients see me for their annual exams, I imagine it can feel tedious and redundant.  But it’s always fresh and interesting for me, because I haven’t seen or heard from them in a year.  And I’m continuously learning, so I often have new questions and queries to apply.  They may not think much of the past year, it goes by so fast; I get to be their fresh eyes, and lend them new lenses.  What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you since we last met?  What do you want to focus on this day we are together?  When you look back at your life a year from now, what do you want to see and say about it?  I feel like a ranger at the common trailhead of inifinite paths, checking in with my hikers as they loop and retrace their ways back to me, stopping to debrief before getting back on the road of living and growth, of evolution and development.

Mei lakeside July

Chicago, IL

Homecoming

I was born in Evanston, Illinois, when my dad was doing his PhD at Northwestern University.  We moved to Colorado when I was six, and for as long as I can remember, I have considered that state to be my true home.  I go back every chance I get; I savor it, relish it, drink it in with fervor.  When I return to Chicago, where I have lived for all but those 12 formative years before I came (back) to NU for college, it’s always with a gnawing reluctance, even a little resentment.  I never call it ‘coming home.’  Last night when I arrived at my house after a week in the Colorado Rockies, I did feel myself relax, ready to settle into life as usual.  But I still longed to be home for good—back in Colorado—my only real home.

That perspective changed today.

These last days I have thought deeply about my life path.  I’ve really only lived in these two places, these vastly different places.  Until this morning I thought of my OAB trailhead unequivocally as Littleton, Colorado, where I grew up.  My plan is still to go back for good someday.  But this morning on the way to church, as I crossed the intersection onto the NU campus, I felt at home.  We left our house late and drove through a thunderstorm to get there, and like a flash of lightning, I recalled when I came for my campus visit in the fall of my senior year of high school.  It had also rained cats and dogs that whole weekend.  But I’m pretty sure I wrote to friends at the time that it felt like coming home.  I was born here after all.  It is my dad’s and my alma mater.  I met my husband here during New Student Week my freshman year.  I’ve brought my kids here since they were born.  Our church here is my spiritual home, no question.

We were late today, arriving toward the end of the homily, in the chapel across the street, as ours is being renovated.  From the back, I first saw the silhouette.  Then I heard the voice.  Then I listened to the words—always words of connection, truth, service, and love.  I was overcome with emotion when I realized: It was Father Ken, director of our church from my sophomore year until I first became a mom.  He led my RCIA class for confirmation.  He nurtured my early adult development as only a pastor could, and has known me through inspiration as well as struggle.  I have only seen him rarely since he left, and missed his calming, comforting presence. Seeing him and hearing his homily today made it suddenly crystal clear to me: This, Chicago and my life here, are also my home, wholly and without question.

I can claim and love both—the places, the people, the cultures, the memories.  The mountains and also the lake; where my parents made their life and also where my kids are growing up.  Colorado is not the same now as when I left in 1991.  Chicago is not the same today as it will be when I finally return to Colorado.  Which is the Out and which is the Back?  Doesn’t matter.  Finally, after all this time feeling conflicted and divided, I really am home.

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Dillon Reservoir, Dillon, Colorado

The Loving and Entwined Life

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“Love and friendship dissolve the rigidities of the isolated self, force new perspectives, alter judgments and keep in working order the emotional substratum on which all profound comprehension of human affairs must rest.”

John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal, 1963

 

How often do you take a breath, take a moment, and reflect on the deep, thick connections that hold you up?

I say over and again that our relationships kill us or save us.  But it’s not merely relationships that save us, it’s connection.  I named this blog honestly!  John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, “We need more resonant words to mirror this than the tired word relationship.  Phrases like ‘an ancient circle closes’ or ‘an ancient belonging awakens and discovers itself’ help to bring out the deeper meaning and mystery of encounter…  Two people who are really awakened inhabit the one circle of belonging.  They have awakened a more ancient force around them that will hold them together and mind them.”

Friends really do take you further.

This past week I finished listening to David Brooks’s latest book, The Second Mountain.  I highly recommend it.  He makes a critical and compassionate assessment of the current state of society, what he refers to as a severely torn social fabric.  We are dangerously, existentially disconnected.

David Blankenhorn and Bill Doherty, co-founders of Better Angels, see the same, and seek specifically to address our perilous political polarization.  Last Saturday I attended their workshop to help us depolarize from within our own political tribes.  The goal of the organization and each workshop is to depolarize, not to convert. The method is communication to connect, not to convince.  Both Brooks and Better Angels seek to strengthen our most meaningful ties to one another.  In Brooks’s words, about his new organization, Weave: “The Weaver movement is repairing our country’s social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.”

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On Tuesday I returned to my desk after a productive and gratifying work meeting, to read that Toni Morrison had died.  I was overcome with sadness, which surprised me.  I have never read any of her acclaimed novels.  I was not a follower, per se.  But I felt a loss as if I had known her personally.  I think it’s because she had a profound influence on one of the most important aspects of my life, early in my kids’ lives, with just a single verbal expression.

“When your child walks in the room, does your face light up?”

Morrison told Oprah in 2000:

“When my children used to walk in the room, when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up.  You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. But if you let your face speak what’s in your heart…because when they walked in the room, I was glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see.”

It’s so small and simple, and yet it alters the entire encounter, every time.  More and more I understand in my limbic brain, the part of the mind where we humans make meaning and where our decisions and actions originate, that it is how we are with people that matters, far more than what we say or what we do.  The majority of communication is non-verbal.  Morrison’s description of a parent’s facial expression, and the profound effect it has on a child, applies to all relationships and connections, or disconnections, for that matter.  It was not until she died that I realized how far her influence really reached in my life.  And it felt suddenly, unexpectedly, too late to thank her for it.

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So whose face lights up when they see you?

Whose presence awakens you and invites you to ‘inhabit the one circle of belonging’?

I recently made a list of these people in my life.  It is gratifyingly long, and growing.  It started with my mom.  I’m embarrassed that I did not notice overtly before now, and my gratitude cannot be adequately expressed in words.  I imagine she got it from my grandmother, one of the people I have admired most in the entire world.  I have met the others, my Counsel of Wisdom, my pit crew, throughout my life, from age 12 to only a couple years ago.  They are my Kalyana-mitra, or “noble friend”s, as O’Donohue describes them:  They “will not accept pretension but will gently and very firmly confront you with your own blindness.  No one can see his life totally.  As there is a blind spot in the retina of the human eye, there is also in the soul a blind side where you are not able to see.  Therefore you must depend on the one you love to see for you what you cannot see for yourself.  Your Kalyana-mitra complements your vision in a kind and critical way.  Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness.”

In Self-Renewal, John Gardner takes this idea from the personal friendship to society:  “A tradition of vigorous criticism is essential to the renewal of a society.  A nation is not helped much by citizens whose love for their country leads them to shield it from life-giving criticism.  But neither is it helped much by critics without love, skilled in demolition but unskilled in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured and strengthened and made to flourish.  Neither uncritical lovers nor unloving critics make for the renewal of societies.”

David Brooks expresses the same in Second Mountain:  “Truth without love is harshness; love without truth is sentimentality.”  In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich suggests methods and exercises for engaging with our ‘loving critics,’ in service of improving honest and loving self-awareness, connection, and leadership.

Mesler book window

I have two goals this week on vacation:  Hike and read.

I brought Anam Cara by John O’Donohue, Self-Renewal by John W. Gardner, and What Moves at the Margins, a collection of Toni Morrison’s eloquent and important nonfiction writing.  Little did I know that the ideas in these books, read concurrently by cosmic accident (or more likely by divine inspiration), would weave in meaning with one another, as well as with my deepest and most meaningful life lessons to date.  How rewarding and awe-inspiring!

I pray today that my ‘soul’ and ‘noble friends’ know how much I appreciate their presence, guidance, support, and love; and that I may come even remotely close to serving them similarly.  May we all look to bless one another with our own souls every day.

Friends Take You Further

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Holy cow, friends!

This weekend marked the most ambitious cooking endeavor ever attempted in my kitchen!  I don’t know how I agreed to it, really…  I sat at our usual brunch with one of my oldest church friends, a fellow Chinese-American, and suddenly we had a plan to get a bunch of people together at my house to make potstickers, sticky rice bombs (zhong zi), ma tai soo, and stir fried bok choyat the same time.  [Insert Home Alone face here.]

My kids have severe seafood and egg allergies, and our fun new church friends don’t eat mammals, so we had to modify the recipes, each in different ways, and vigilantly avoid cross-contamination, all in an acutely crowded space.  We ended up doing ga li jiao (curry beef pastry) filling, but with chicken, in the ma tai soo instead of shrimp and pork.  I made separate chicken and pork potsticker fillings with dong gu mushrooms, napa cabbage, fresh ginger and garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  And for the rice bombs, the wrapping staff segregated pork-chicken-salted duck egg, egg-free, and pork-free versions, put to boil in separate pots for 3-4 hours.  We invited my sister and brother-in-law, and at the last minute my daughter’s preschool classmate and his mom, our dear friends for the past decade.  It was joyfully rè nào, as we say in Mandarin.

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My church friend did all of the grocery shopping and overnight prep of soaking glutinous rice, dried mushrooms and bamboo leaves, and meat marinating—both bird and mammal.  She brought her food scale, rolling pin, steaming pot, chef’s knife—basically most of her own kitchen—and drove an hour across town to my house.  Sister and BIL came bearing chocolate cake and soft drinks, and school friend mom brought her knife-wielding and rolling pin skills.  Husband weaved between us all, cleaning and washing—we ran the dishwasher twice.  Because that’s the thing about Chinese food—everything had to be rinsed, washed, soaked, seasoned, chopped, shredded, minced, mixed, kneaded, rolled, wrapped, arranged, fried, boiled, steamed, and baked!

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Is it any wonder that I experienced more than a little anxiety and possibly moderate panic at the prospect?  Not only am I the queen of shortcut cooking (I use store bought potsticker wrappers and pie crust rather than make my own dough—and most of the time I just buy ready-to-cook dumplings), but for some time now I have dubbed my house The Pigsty of Entropy for good reason…  One whole segment of counter space had not seen the light of day in over a year, buried under more and more Idon’tevenknowwhat.  Two nights ago I simply moved that pile to a paper box, to be organized later, and wiped the well-preserved Corian surface.  I had to leave the rest of the place as-is, counting on guests to focus their attention on the food more than their ridiculously cluttered surroundings.  My primary reassurance was that if the project failed, we could always order pizza.

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In the end, though, the gathering was a raging success.  A bright summer sun shone through the big windows from the west.  Everyone arrived happy and ready to participate.  And we had very reasonable expectations for the outcome—namely that taste and company mattered ‘way more than presentation (but it all looked pretty good!).  Conversation topics ranged widely and laughter punctuated questions about ingredients and procedures.  I found the vegetable chopping rhythmic and satisfying, and I even developed a double-fisted-chopstick mixing method that could rival any Kitchen Aid—someone just had to hold the bowl for me.  We planned the order of activities such that the three main courses would be ready to eat at the same time—and then we feasted with “Crazy Rich Asians” playing in the background.

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The oblong ma tai soo were made in a pig mold, but bloated beyond recognition in the oven.

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What would you never have done if your friend had not invited (instigated) you?  How do your friends’ confidence and experience hold you up when you try something new?  How can we nudge and support our own friends to step out of their comfort zones?  Besides cooking, what other skills can we love our friends into acquiring?

I already anticipate our next audacious culinary event—menu suggestions, please?

As I look around at all the people in my life, my myriad meaningful and thick connections, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and humility.  This weekend filled my belly and my heart.  Thank you, my dear friends and family.