Remembering to Pause

I am probably not alone in feeling an inward pressure to keep moving, to stay productive, to make the most of my time. In late October, for some reason not clear to me, I remembered to pause rather than push.

Every year, if the weather allows, I try to make a paddle in late October or early November. Paddling at this time of the year allows me to honor the season in which my father died and his love for messing about in boats. I spotted a day between autumn storms and a few responsibilities. I loaded the boat the night before. In the morning both Bluebird and the windshield were coated in frost. I started the engine, and after the windshield cleared, drove north, pulling into the Finley Point Campground. The air was still cold, a hard wind blew out of the north, and waves, as predicted, rolled south. I paused in the truck to consider my options: drive back home; wait out of the wind to see if the waves would settle; or pause and observe before making a decision.

While sitting in the driver’s seat I struggled into my dry suit so that I could stay warm. I sat reflecting on my choices and watched the waves. Looking north, it was very clear that I could not take a direct route to Bird Island, one of my favorite places on the lake. Even from the parking lot I could see big waves crashing on the rocky shoal off the cliffs west of the peninsula that forms Finley Point. Looking west, I tried to imagine myself in the waves between the marina and Bull Island, an intermediate point of a large triangle that might eventually lead to the avian refuge of Bird Island. If I were cautious and patient, and took one wave at a time, it seemed possible to make the lee on the south side of the island. I launched but paused just outside the marina to get a feel for the swells. I did not need to commit myself to the island until I felt confident that the waves were manageable. Pausing gave me this clarity, so I proceeded.

When I reached the coves on the south shore of Bull Island I noticed that three fishing boats had also sought refuge out of the wind and waves. I slid between two of the boats and braced for balance. Like me the fisherman had grown tired of a rising and falling horizon. In addition, one boat needed patient attention with needle nose pliers after nylon fishing line had become wound around a drive train. We visited about the conditions and the prospect for a calmer afternoon. Eventually I backed away, found my own gravel bar and took time for lunch. All the while I listened to the wind in the trees behind me, telltale indicators of conditions to the north. I knew to wait.

While waiting on the island I wandered around, found little compositions of autumn color,

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eagle plumes stuck in a chokecherry beneath a roosting tree,

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and a pile of bear scat that proves hungry bears swim to the islands in a desperate search for food. After about an hour I sensed that the wind was beginning to subside and that gravity would eventually settle the waves. I paddled up the west shore of the island, but paused again before rounding it and heading into the fetch. I stayed out of reach of big waves crashing on the ramp of stone at the northern tip of the island and paused to study the more rounded waves in the open water. Trusting my boat and my experience, I advanced into the channel, taking each swell off the port quarter.

When I reached my favorite north-facing cove on Bird Island I took time to watch waves break and slide up the steep gravel. As the lake is being drawn down for winter, I could see that this beach was not a good place to land solo, so I swung right and rode the swells and wind down to the lee of Bare Belly Island. Though this is a small private island, I paused here to rest and eat my Honey Crisp Apple. I would not leave a trace of my presence. Now out of the wind and finished with the workout of crossing the channel, I shed my fleece hat, neoprene mittens, and opened up my dry suit. I waited long enough to come back to equilibrium and took time to look around. A few feet to my right I found a dog collar hanging in a cottonwood tree. Studying its position on the branch, the tag identifying Abby, and five phone numbers if she were ever lost, I realized that this was a memorial to a much-loved dog, a dog that probably liked to swim in the same shallows where I paused to rest. I could easily imagine the mutual affection between this animal and its owners.

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In time I resumed my position in the boat and coasted back to the marina, finding that beautiful rhythm that times a paddler’s effort to the assistance provided by waves on a downwind run. About half way across Finley Bay I simply stopped, said to myself, This will be your last paddle of the season; take a moment to feel the lake under you. I lay the paddle across my skirt and felt the enormous pulse of the lake’s body. I took time to acknowledge how my boat supported me through another season of paddles. I paused to notice the larch trees, their color like spilled gold across the mountains, and felt grateful for people who had the foresight to insure that the public has a few places to gain access to this world. Remembering to pause revealed options, made for safe passages and helped me gain a deeper awareness of the lake and the forces that affect it. It felt good to pause before saying goodbye, at least until next spring.

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Clearings

Sometimes we wait a long time for things to clear up. Day after day of undifferentiated gray eventually gives way to more definition in the clouds, a kind of coagulation of vapors with patches of blue in the background.

A change in the weather may be metaphor for clearings in other aspects of our lives. We can wait a long time before we are clear about vocation, avocation, and the line in between. One day, after muddling around in the options, we wake up and say to ourselves, I am more a person of this region of the earth than this one, more a person of the forest than the desert, more urban than rural. Or, after some confusion in the realm of relationships, causing pain in someone else’s life, or on the receiving end of such pain, we realize that one particular person is the true companion of our lives. And sometimes these things never come into focus; they remain blurry, obscure, and without clear margins, as the surgeons say.

When things do become clear it feels like a gift, something that arrived in its own time from another world. Clearings lift the heart. The energy we spent feeling around in the dark suddenly becomes available for a deeper exploration of where we are and does not dissipate itself in all the half-hearted starts and stops of our confusion. Though such clearing came at the end of our stay near Lakeside, it did eventually arrive. The clouds congealed over The Missions and the way, even if only the way home, became clear.

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Sheltering Place: Return to Deep Bay

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In 2015, the plight of refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq is on the mind of most people. Whatever our private thoughts or acts of charity, I cannot help but give thanks for various forms of shelter in my own life. In mid-September friends allow us to rent their cabin just south of Lakeside. From the deck we look north and see the flats of the Flathead River delta and Glacier Park’s peaks in the distance as well as waves breaking around Angel Point to the south. During a week of unremitting wind it never seems prudent to make the long, open-water crossing to Bigfork. Instead, I honor the pull toward Deep Bay in the south, a pull as sure as the one that causes cliff swallows to return each spring.

As I paddle south I let memories of Deep Bay come to me. For at least twenty years Deep Bay has seemed like a sheltering place. My wife led retreats here for organizations and small groups. When we were remodeling our home we came to Deep Bay to recover from the effects of sheet rock dust, hammer drills, and concrete saws. This cliff-side perch with a deep green bay below has always seemed like a place to restore the mind to stillness. Recognizing the difficulties of maintaining this place and its original vision, we understand that Deep Bay Center is no longer available to the public and may be up for sale. Nevertheless, I feel pulled toward this deep notch between the cliffs and the quiet I have always found here. Whoever owns the land and timber-frame structures, Deep Bay will always seem inviting, like a place of safety and rest. So, I continue south past Angel Point, Hockaday Bay and Hughes Bay. I pass the reef on the northeast corner of the refuge and make a right turn into the quiet. In the pocket of the bay I wander among drift logs.

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Continuing to wander, I find a perfect apple in the wild depth of the forest. There is no way to know if it sprung from a picnic’s tossed core or a bear’s secret deposit. Either way it shines bright against the gray light. Not equal to Augustine’s scruples, I reach up and pick the apple hoping to turn what might be considered theft into a present for someone else, my way of expiating the guilt and sharing a beautiful surprise.

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On the return paddle I slip the right blade under the bungee cord, lift the loop of my skirt and carefully extract my camera for a shot of the meditation center on the top of Angel Point, a structure I have always admired.

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After I come into the narrow slot between the dock and the cliff I think of lines I wrote long ago after my first encounter with Deep Bay.

Deep Bay Swallows

From the top of the cliff above the lake

swallows launch themselves into air,

never wondering if air will support them,

never doubting that air

will lift their pointed wings.

They seem not to need to rehearse

first lessons, nor do they hesitate,

hundreds of feet above the rocks

or the flat plate of the lake.

No, in the insubstantial medium of air

they draw their unselfconscious arcs.

They do not seem to have suffered a fall

that did not end in flight.

What wings have we with which to fly

except the trust

that for now someone or something

holds up all our falling,

intending for us to learn

to lean forward into apparent emptiness

and push off from where we cling

into all that waits to meet

our outstretched faith.

The Return

The Return

On August 16-17, a friend and I made one of my favorite mid-summer paddles. We put in at the Walstad Fishing Access point near Big Arm and paddled north against waves and wind past Wildhorse Island and then on to Cedar Island.

IMG_2713Before setting up camp we decided to walk around the island. I showed my friend the remnants of a craftsman style home and the cold cellar where geese now build nests, the meadow, untended orchard and derelict corral, the cistern now filled with garbage instead of cool, clear water. We found goose eggs lying open on the now brown moss covering the deep forest floor. But we also found trash—a margarita bottle balanced on a drift log, aluminum cans that never burn in fire pits, lots of toilet paper, a few diapers, an empty potato chip bag, bottle caps and plastic on the beaches. In this exceptionally dry year, with 86 fires burning around us, the sere conditions help to preserve garbage as if it had been sealed in a desert tomb.

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On our walk I complained about what we were seeing. I felt the disjunction between this island outpost in the largest lake west of the Mississippi and the effects of human visitation. Internally I asked, how can someone not care about this place? I could acknowledge pure accident, the way a gust of wind whips an object out of an upraised hand; but my judgments about the carelessness that follows the consumption of too much alcohol and the thoughtlessness of the privileged piled up like logs on the beach. As I walked along I felt unprepared to pick up the garbage I found. I needed gloves and nose plugs; I needed a garbage bag with a tie; I needed an empty boat, not one full of camping gear.

In the same way that one should not pray for the hungry without being willing to feed them, I do not want to complain about garbage on Cedar Island without being willing to do something about it. I need to return to the island, leave Bluebird’s chambers empty so that I have room to pick up what I find. This island has given me a vantage point on sunrise, a high perch to watch the sun go down and cast its red glow on the Mission Range. This island sails like a ship through the night sky. On one level I feel as though I have a debt that I want to find a way to repay. I can work off this debt to beauty by making time to return to the island and come prepared to transport its garbage to a proper depository. I cannot do anything about Syria or help immigrants on Greece’s shores, but I can do something about the condition of Cedar Island. I must return.

Early on Monday, August 24, I headed back to the lake. My boat was empty except for emergency gear. I slipped Bluebird into choppy conditions around the Westshore campground and sped south, timing my strokes to coincide with the push of the lake on my port stern quarter. I covered four miles in 45 minutes, lifted my boat into the drift logs, and took gloves and bags out of the stern hatch.

I circled the island counterclockwise, alternating between the forest interior and the beaches where people had burned their fires and left their trash. Predictably, I picked up glass, plastic and Styrofoam, but also managed to free a rope tied around a tree, and steeled myself to pick up the paper trails; but I drew the line on corrugated steel and plywood. On one beach I saw how a beach fire radiated outward, its flames following the flammable roots of cottonwoods, then climbing the trunks and killing the grove.

When I reached the east side of the island I heard the voices of a young man and woman. They had spelled a name by laying little stones on the bleached back of a drift log, their cell phones nearby as they swam in the coves. I eventually completed my circle and returned to the beach where I had left Bluebird and saw that the young couple had crossed to the island in a small open kayak and a stand-up paddleboard. They eventually joined me on the beach as I paused to eat a snack before heading north. They had figured out what I was doing and were willing to take a photo of my trash before I tucked it in the wide mouth of my stern hatch. The young man kindly inquired about the shin I barked on a broken limb from a fallen fir. As they left the beach for nearby Zelezny Bay, I felt happy watching them play on the stage of their mutual affection.

Using a kayak as a garbage barge is a strange thing to do. Drawing the moral lines sharply, one might even argue that it was wasteful to drive the distance from Missoula to clean up the island. Further, the garbage on Cedar Island does not compare to plastic in the Pacific or on Caribbean beaches. But I have learned how important it is for me not to suppress the empathic or moral response. With every suppression the impulse to respond to the world grows weaker. As often as I can I try not to let this happen. I don’t want the sympathetic response to the world within my reach to die out. Ultimately, this is why I returned to the island.

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On the Other Side of the Range: A List of Riches

On the Other Side of the Range: A List of Riches

On the morning of a day predicted to reach the mid-nineties I load Bluebird and follow The Blackfoot River east and then a chain of lakes north to Lindbergh Lake, on the other side of the range from where I usually paddle. I plan to paddle to the end of the lake,

logged outhike the trail to Crystal Lake,

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go for a short swim and return to camp for a late supper. Then I hope to watch a full moon rise over the Swan range.

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As I sit at the picnic table before and after my paddle I make a list of riches:

my wife’s soft kiss as I depart

yesterday’s massage that left me almost pain free

an old tent that still provides shelter depending on how hard it rains

a multi-grain bagel, a can of sardines and an apple

a water filtration pump in a campground without a spigot

a place to sleep, even if on the ground, in a sleeping bag that feels perfect

memories that tell me how to get to this place and where to find the trailhead at the end of the lake

memories of having been here with dear deceased friend John and my friend Lee who is still more than alive

a Werner graphite paddle

an eight-year-old kayak that is almost good as new despite scores of paddles

a clan of warblers in the chokecherries

clothes that are comfortable and safe in a variety of conditions

a tube of sunscreen I can tolerate

two mini-monster cookies now, and three later

a butterfly on my right shoulder

sunlight in the leaves

not needing several people to help me park or diesel fuel for a generator that runs all night

an extra tea bag

an Optimus Svea stove that is almost as old as I am

a hot moist washcloth in the morning

a visiting rabbit that pads soundlessly through camp

a larch tree the sawyers missed or recognized should stand five more centuries

Big Larch

geese that swim past my stillness

a hawk on the path as I go for a walk at dusk

a female American Redstart who allows me to watch her while she forages on the ground.

After making my list of riches I pack up my tent, other equipment, and cinch down my boat. Ready to drive home, I suddenly remember a warm conversation the day before with a man who was new to the campground and lake. I decide to walk over to his site and say goodbye. I see that the man and his wife are packing up, but clearly they are eager for more conversation. Maurice and Polly ask me for more local knowledge, intending to return. Then the conversation drifts toward discoveries of things we have in common—years of teaching, friends in common, the sense that the earth is rapidly changing. This year rain in February washed all the mid-level snow out of the mountains and left many of the lowland streams de-watered or dry, a bitter foretaste of things to come. Walking along the trail around the lake, and then along the trail up to Crystal lake, I could not find a single huckleberry where there would normally be buckets of berries. The three of us are able to talk freely and openly about the evidence of change and the consequences, especially for wildlife, our children and grandchildren. This conversation feels like a drink of fresh water on a day that is already hot.

I could count my riches in objects or experiences in the natural world. But as I turn away from the red van Maurice and Polly have outfitted for camping, I also feel deeply grateful for human interaction and talk about things that matter. We discover shared concerns and values on both sides of a dry stream bed. This, too, is part of what makes us wealthy on either side of the range that rises above the lake.

 

 

Beginner’s Mind

Beginner’s Mind

From two decades as a woodworker I have learned that sometimes I need to approach a problem in the shop as if I know almost nothing. I need to return to what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” To solve the problem at hand, like imagining a jig that allows me to perform a safe cut, I sometimes need to put aside habits that dull perception and assumptions that prevent me from thinking in new ways. A few days ago I had an opportunity to return to a version of beginner’s mind in relation to paddling a kayak.

Last October a local church held an auction to raise money so that girls in Myanmar could go to school. A friend who belongs to the church asked me to offer a guided paddle on Flathead Lake. Wanting to support the education of girls, I happily wrote up a description of a day-trip on the lake and submitted it to the church. After the auction, I heard who won the excursion and kept in touch with her over the winter. The night before the trip, this last Monday, I loaded Bluebird, my Current Designs Gulfstream, and Kestrel, my Perception Carolina, onto my wooden rack. I went through a long mental list of everything I might need, including some emergency gear if we got caught on an island during a thunderstorm or mid channel when the wind kicked up. The next morning I met the person who made the winning bid at her house. She was ready with red bag, sunscreen and water bottle in hand. We drove down to the local Italian deli and picked up sandwiches, drinks, cherries, and chocolate I ordered ahead of time.

On the way up to the lake I gently inquired to learn more about N’s interests and abilities, her motivation for submitting the winning bid, and the kind of experience she hoped to have. As I listened I held two paddles in mind, one to Wild Horse Island that would include a hike, and the other into The Narrows where the archipelago might offer shorter paddling distances and a little more shelter if monsoonal weather suddenly descended on us. When we crested the Polson moraine I got my first view of the lake and its conditions. Wind out of the south and a choppy surface led me to turn right at the light and go for the nearer islands, choosing safety over adventure.

As we began to unload the boats and all the gear I felt a little tension. I wanted to insure N’s safety and give her the best experience possible. I wanted to impart necessary information without loading a new paddler with anxiety. Knowing how fear blocks the integration of information, I decided on a very gradual approach. I placed both boats on the lawn, not on the shore. This way we could take our time getting ready. I tried to keep in mind how excitement and fear might vie with each other in the mind of a beginner. In response I tried to pare down instructions to the bare essentials that I gave her a little at a time: skirt first, pfd second; this side of the paddle blade faces forward, this side toward you; this is how you get into a kayak without tipping it over; I’ll adjust the foot peddles until the boat feels like it is part of you; attach the rear of the skirt, then the front, then the sides; if you happen to tip over, grab this loop, pull the skirt loose and you will roll out and float to the surface; try not to paddle with your arms, paddle with your core (a way not to get tired). While speaking I noticed N’s respiration rate go up and down. Whenever it rose I slowed down or became still.

After a few things made sense to N. on land, I decided that it was time to get near the water. We lifted Bluebird over the concrete curbing and gently placed it on the boat ramp, half in, half out. I helped N. settle herself in the keyhole, handed her the paddle and again paid attention to her breathing. I could tell that she had practice calming herself. When she seemed more at ease I returned to final assurances: the skirt will protect you from waves and drips from the paddle; the hatch gaskets will hold and the boat will not fill up with water if waves wash over the deck; we can’t prevent power boats from making waves but we can ride through and over them; its Monday, so few boats will be on the water.

Eventually I slid her in the water and encouraged her to simply hang out while I picked up Kestrel. N. sat in the shallows of the marina and waited for me. When we were side-by-side I said, Go ahead and rock side to side. Get a feel for how the boat moves. Now take a few strokes and see how it feels. When I could tell that N. sensed the initial stability of an already stable boat we paddled out of the marina and into the open water between the campground and Bull Island about 1.5 miles to the west. I rafted up with her, showed her how two boats together, paddles across each boat, felt even more stable. I said, let’s just sit here in these little waves and see how the boat responds; let the boat move a little; don’t try to freeze it; your safety is in the boat, not in being able to touch bottom.

When N’s breathing settled toward something like a resting rate I encouraged her to take a few more strokes. I tried to reassure her by saying, as we make the crossing I will stay very close to you. We are going to a beautiful bay where we will have our picnic. Let’s take one stroke and then the next.

Ever so slowly we began to advance into the channel. I slipped upwind and just ahead of her to break the effect of small waves and a little wind coming from the south. I kept N. in the corner of my right eye at all times. We paddled for several minutes in complete silence. I wanted her to find her own rhythm, to work the fear-born tension out of her body. After a long stretch of quiet I thought it might be helpful to provide a distraction. So I asked some questions about her previous adventures: When were you in Saudi Arabia? What took you there? How did you decide to become a diver? Have you ever traveled to Asia? We went back and forth, stroke after stroke.

The conversation worked like a tail wind. Before we knew it we glided over the foundation of the island and entered the green water of the first of two south-facing bays. With the sunny shore at hand I sped ahead, telling N. that I would land first and catch Bluebird as she came in.

As she stepped ashore I could tell that N. felt relief to be on land. I raised my right hand to congratulate her and got a palm slap in return. After securing both boats I laid out the picnic on a drift log. I was not surprised when she said, “I’m hungry.” She reached for half the roast beef sandwich known as The New Edition and half of the prosciutto and walnut chutney version known as Kiss. We ate the dark red cherries, tossing the seeds over our shoulders, hoping for an island orchard, and then topped things off with Blood Orange Sanpellegrino and chocolate.

We took time to digest our food and told a few more stories. Though the forecast had been good, I knew how fast weather can change and that the lake responds to the slightest change in wind velocity or direction. As soon as I could I laid out some options for extending the paddle, but trusted her own judgment when she said, “Let’s paddle back.” Again, I helped her feel settled and centered in the boat and gave her a gentle push off the beach. I turned to Kestrel, tucked myself in and sprinted to catch up. On the way back I could tell that N. felt renewed by lunch and much more comfortable in the boat, perhaps even enthusiastic about being on such intimate terms with the lake. The conditions were calmer than during the initial passage, almost glassy as we paddled east. Ring-billed gulls called overhead and an occasional ski boat passed in the distance.

I entered the marina first so that I could keep Bluebird from grounding on the course concrete ramp. I gave N. a hand as she got out and found her legs. This was a successful first paddle for her. My guest on the lake had covered the distance. She had done something new and felt proud of herself for overcoming her initial fears at being in a kayak on the largest lake west of the Mississippi, a lake that feels like an ocean.

We worked together to re-load the boats and all the gear. I kept an eye on clouds racing in from the west. The wind began to blow and within ten minutes a once- placid lake turned into a gray-green milkshake. With some apprehension we watched a paddle border stroke through the whitecaps and waves that crashed against the breakwater. N. got into the truck for shelter while I finished tying down the boats. We drove home grateful that we had gotten off the water when we did. The lake was no longer a safe place for a novice paddler.

On the way home we soaked up the beauty of the Mission Valley, the way hayfields abut the high peaks of the range. In the distance we saw lightning spear the clouds over St. Ignatius, so we turned west to take the back road through Moiese and avoided most of the storm. We drove the rest of the way talking about community theater and family, took a shortcut to her house and arrived safe and sound.

After dropping N. off I felt relief. I had not exposed a new paddler to anything like the dangers of paddling in a storm. I had not forgotten anything and been forced to improvise. I had not asked too much of her in relation to distance or time. Now I can return to my own adventures on the lake, trying not to let assumptions and habits dull my perceptions or shut the door on the unexpected. I will try to be as open as I was twenty-five years ago in Sitka, Alaska, when I took those first wondrous strokes. I feel glad that in October more girls will be at school in Myanmar.

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Dandelion Day: First Paddle of 2015

I hope I’m wrong, but I have a sense that this summer may be hot and dry with all the consequences we’ve come to expect. The best paddling this season might be in May or June rather than later in the year. When the forecast for a Tuesday in late April predicted 75 degrees and waves less than a foot tall, I decided to ignore the laundry, dandelions in the front yard and my need for a haircut, as well as a few more serious responsibilities.

IMG_2482After winter, even a mild one by Montana standards, I need reassurance that life at 47 degrees latitude shows signs of rejuvenation. On a scale larger than my back yard or the slope leading down to the stream I want to see evidence of the generative and recuperative power of the earth. I want to see arrowleaf balsamroot in bud and bloom, a bee bathing in pollen, shooting stars in moist and shady locations, evidence that deer dropped the antlers they displayed last summer and fall. I want to see white syringa on the slopes, blooming stems on orchard trees, lambs and calves in the pastures on the way to the lake. I want to sea bald eagles where I have found them before, osprey cutting out territory in the sky, meadowlarks among the meadows and pileated woodpeckers hacking out cavities in old pines. I want to see signs of life where I remember them. I count on this confirmation.

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I decide to paddle to Wild Horse Island and circumnavigate it counterclockwise. I make my first stop at Eagle cove, and then hike into the interior of the island from Osprey Cove, eating a lunch of anchovies in lemon-flavored olive oil on sourdough bread. I see the things I am looking for, earlier than normal in this warm dry year. They rise out of the ground, make the most of the light, the little moisture that has fallen, and honor their one opportunity to reproduce.

IMG_2481 It felt good to slip into the water like Rilke’s swan, to feel the boat glide in response to each stroke, and to come home as thoroughly and satisfyingly tired as the first paddle of the season leaves me. I can report that the world is vividly alive.

Because things are deeply and inescapably connected for me, something else is true. On the same day I left home to paddle a pristine lake, people in Nepal were still trying to dig family members and friends out of the ruins. People in the neighborhood of burned out buildings in Baltimore were sweeping the streets and hiding or discarding weapons used to express outrage and frustration with a system that kills unarmed men of African American descent. Wherever we are, in the Himalayas, or Baltimore, we want to see signs of life and some people do their part to establish the conditions for it to re-emerge. The least I can do with my privilege of being able to paddle toward an Island in bloom is to remember other lives.