About Living a Life

Today is the 13th, and final, post for my Pacific Crest Trail writing project. As of April 27, 2016, it will be exactly one year since I started walking north at the US/Mexico border trying to reach Canada on foot. When I started this blog project about my PCT experience, I didn’t know exactly where I was heading with it. And, maybe today I’m still a little unsure, feeling exposed and strange about having shared so much with the World Wide Web but I feel confident that it is what I was supposed to do.

Recently, I have spent time reading back through my Facebook posts from last summer, my blog posts, and my trail journals, continuing to wrap my brain around my growth and journey on the PCT. In this re-reading and listening I have noticed a pattern for living a life that I shared at the beginning of this project and am realizing its powerful presence throughout the narrative of my life. In my first post I shared this section from the Mary Oliver poem, Sometimes:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

This is what I want to focus on today . . . these three very important instructions.

Pay Attention:

A couple years ago, my spiritual director suggested I try a practice of each day taking time to answer the questions, “Where did I notice God’s presence today” and “What am I thankful for today?” When I intentionally look for God in my day, when I take time to pay attention to others and look for the “Imago Dei” or image of God in them, when I pay attention to what is going on inside of myself, I notice God’s love, creativity, grace, and presence all around.

God is present . . . All. The. Time. This is something I believe but sometimes forget in the midst of daily life happening. Over and over again on the trail and now back at home, I have been reminded of this truth. I have been reminded that paying attention–practicing awareness and being present to what is going on in and around us in each moment–is the first step to recognizing the Divine Presence in our lives. We must take the time to pay attention.

Paying attention helps me stay grounded. Paying attention shows me how to care for creation–others, the earth, and myself. Paying attention helps me find joy and reverence in each day. Paying attention reveals how God is at work in the world, offering me hope when I am pulled towards fear and despair. Paying attention and answering the question “Where did I notice God’s presence today” is what leads us into being able to live out the second instruction.

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Sunrise summit of Mt. Whitney. Astonishing.

Be Astonished:

When I am present, when I truly pay attention and notice God’s presence, I can’t help but be astonished. This instruction goes hand in hand with the second question my spiritual director had me answer, “What am I thankful for today?” Practice gratitude, be amazed, find beauty, say thank you. Don’t let life go by without letting that feeling of astonishment and amazement wash over you. Let yourself feel it. Even in the hard, messy, yucky moments of life, eventually–eventually somewhere down the road sometime–I think we will find something we are grateful for and astonishes us.

The third quote I memorized on the PCT comes from theologian and writer, Frederick Buechner. From the time I memorized the quote, I said it each following day as I hiked, a constant reminder to notice how precious each day is:

In the entire history of the universe, let alone your own history, there has never been another day just like today. Today is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious today is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all.

Pay attention and be astonished, friends, because this day, today, is the moment all things have lead to and all will proceed from.

Tell About It:

This is the tricky part, the part where we get a little reluctant, nervous, and closed off. I’m not talking about sharing a post on Facebook that showcases how cool our life may be or what we want others to see. I’m talking about your honest story, the narrative that you are co-authoring with God, the story that you have been given to live and share.

In an earlier post I shared that I had asked different people in my life to send me on the PCT with quotes, scripture, songs, etc. to memorize along the way. I had also asked this group of people to share any other thoughts they felt led to offer or suggestions of things for me to process. My brother, Luke, gave me a couple of the more difficult. One was a verse and the second was this question:

“What would the world miss if you didn’t share your story?”

Seriously? Luke . . . have we talked about how hard this question was for me to answer?

I’m in my mid-thirties, quitting jobs, with a messy sometimes confusing spirituality, trying to very intentionally navigate life with a bunch of dreams that may or may not happen. What would the world be missing if I didn’t share my story? I had no freaking clue.

But I stuck with it. I thought about the question over a few weeks; even shed a few tears of frustration over it because life was looking quite different than I ever thought it would (still awesome for sure, but different).

As I hiked and spent time with other thru hikers, sharing bits of my life with them, I realized more and more what the world would miss if I didn’t share my story and what the world would miss if none of us shared our stories: Perspective, hope, courage, and solidarity.

When someone tells me his or her life story it is a sacred moment. When someone trusts me with their doubts and questions, shares how they have overcome, makes me laugh over an embarrassing moment, brings me joy in telling me about their passion for something, I receive a new way of looking at things. I receive hope that I, too, can overcome, pursue abundant life and have the courage to be honest about the good and the hard things in my life.

Most importantly, this instruction to “Tell About It” is vital because when we share our narratives with each other we hear these two words, “Me, too.” I think this is one of the most powerful things we can say to each other as we seek to live authentic, whole, and love and grace filled lives. “Me, too” tells us we are not alone, someone understands, and we aren’t the only one.

As I have shared blog posts of my learning and growth on the PCT I have heard “Me, too” almost weekly. This doesn’t mean that I had anything new or mind-blowing to say, in fact, all of it is something that someone before me has written about, talked about, made into a movie, etc. It means we are craving honest and authentic encounters with people who are on a similar journey, encounters that remind us we are connected. Even if we have heard it before, there are moments when we need to hear it again or it speaks to us in new ways. In his book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell writes about this connection that happens as we share our stories:

This is one of the reasons we watch movies, attend recovery groups, read memoirs, and sit around campfires telling stories long after the fire has dwindled down to a few glowing embers. It’s written in the Psalms that “deep calls to deep,” which is what happens when you get a glimpse of what someone else has gone through or is currently in the throes of and you find yourself inextricably, mysteriously linked with that person because you have been reminded again of our common humanity and its singular source, the subsurface unity of all things that is ever before us in countless manifestations but require eyes wide open to see it burst into view . . . when we talk about God, we’re talking about the very straightforward affirmation that everything has a singular, common source and is infinitely, endlessly, deeply connected. We are involved, all of us. And it all matters, and it’s all connected.

Deep calls to deep. Telling about it reminds us “of our common humanity and its singular source.” Whether it happens in movie, book, campfire, living room, hiking, blog, or around the dinner table form, when you have done the mindful work of paying attention and experienced the gratitude of being astonished, I hope you find the courage to tell about it.

Moving Forward:

Life never seems to be what I expect. It’s so much more. It looks extremely different than what I would have planned for myself when I was younger but as I pay attention to how things unfold I am continually grateful for the life I have been given to live and share with others. I believe that we have the opportunity to co-author our lives with God. There is the intricacy of who we are created by God to be, there are things that happen to us, there are choices we make–all of these things direct our paths.326773185608664

I chose to finally pursue the PCT because I wasn’t sure what else to do at that moment in my life. Now that I’ve been home and off the trail for almost a year things have not magically come together perfectly or always made sense. In fact, there is still a lot of ambiguity about what is down the road. But through these lessons from the trail and listening to themes of my life the past few months, I am learning to be more present, to embrace the space in which I find myself, and be faithful in whatever circumstances to pursue the trail I am given to walk. As thru hikers say on the trail, “Hike your own hike.”

There is so much impatience in me, such a tendency to want answers now. To be on the other side of hard things now. To overcome now. It is in the paying attention, in being present, embracing, and being faithful in the circumstances, that I notice the slow work of God in my life and am able to rest in the unknown, recognizing and savoring life happening now, and be astonished.

My friend, Erin, shared this prayer of Teilhard of Chardin with me last week. I think it sums up so well what I’m learning on this journey:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

As you hike your own hike, may you be reminded to trust in this slow work of God. As you pay attention to life happening in and around you, may you be astonished by what you notice. And, in telling your story, may you know the deep connection of someone responding with, “Me, too.”

I’ll leave you with this. My friend, Sara, sent me letters on the trail. What a fun surprise to get to a trail town and have a letter at the post office when I picked up my resupply packages! One letter got lost along the way and I didn’t receive it until I was home in September. Included in her letter was this prayer from The Book of Common Prayer. I’m kind of glad the letter got lost because the prayer was exactly what I needed when I got home. I’ve read it almost daily since I received it.

Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity. Lord, teach me to listen to my heart; teach me to welcome change instead of fearing it. Lord, I give you these stirrings inside of me. I give you my discontent. I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longings I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open trail.

Much love, friends. Thanks for reading. #PCTami out.

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About A Quiet Center

A number of people have asked me if I was lonely while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. This question usually comes directly after they find out I hiked the trail solo. The “lonely” question is often followed by a comment about how they don’t think they could do something like that alone.

I’m a strong extrovert, as in the first time I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory I was on the extreme end of the extrovert/introvert spectrum. As I have gotten older and re-taken the assessment I have swung a little closer towards the middle but still . . . Extrovert! Thru hiking the PCT did mean I would be by myself a majority of the time so I, too, had my concerns about getting lonely!

I am also the queen of filling my schedule with activity, people, work, and more. I sometimes don’t recognize my limits and exhaustion until it is too late. In college it took getting both mono and pneumonia at the same time during my sophomore year to slow me down. Thru hiking the PCT meant I only had one thing on my schedule to do . . . One!

And to top it off, besides the extroverted-ness and pushing the schedule limits, I grew up in the U.S., in a culture where I was taught to compete, win, be the best, climb the ladder, succeed–maybe some of you learned these same things? When I listen to the world around me, I find myself measuring my worth by my work, involvement, and achievements and finding my identity in “doing.” Quitting my job and leaving behind my involvement in things meant I was eliminating much of the identity trap into which I so often fall.

I was definitely curious about how this was going to go on the trail. One of my biggest concerns was wondering what it was going to be like to be alone in my head . . . All. Day. Long.  No noise to tune out my voice, no people to verbally process with, no Netflix to binge watch and distract me, and no busy schedule to make me feel productive and useful.

It was just me–sweaty, smelly, unemployed, hiker trash (hiker trash is a term of endearment on the trail).

And, “just me,” as I was reminded on the trail, is enough.

It was in the solitude of the trail that I slowly made my way back to the center of my soul. To a place where being is more important than doing, where listening is not something I avoid, where my drive and achievements are not needed. The solitude of the trail helped bring me to a quiet place where I had the space to think, process, ask questions, listen for answers, make decisions, and find clarity. I noticed the boredom in my day resulting in creativity and open dialogue, with both myself and God. In this quiet center I found my emotions were free to be purely felt in the moment instead of pushed aside, jaded by cynicism, or controlled to please the people around me.

Most importantly, in this quiet center I was reminded of where my worth lies. I believe I am not only created by but I am loved deeply by God. This is not a love that operates within a set of rules but a love that has no rules or boundaries or restrictions. This love requires nothing of me. My worth and identity lie in the simple, yet profound, truth of this love.

In a world of constant activity, people pleasing and striving, I am pulled away from this truth of my worth and identity. I learn to wear the many labels that are put on me and live out of my false self–an identity that comes from forgetting who I am at my core. I feel I must earn love instead of resting in the truth of God’s love. I seek to gain approval instead of remembering the gift of freedom God offers me. Over the course of my life, I have become increasingly aware of how my life looks and feels when I am living this way–out of my false self –and how it affects my spirituality, my self-confidence, and living at peace. As I have learned to be aware of these pieces of who I am, I have sought to find healthier rhythms of operating.

It was in the solitude of the trail that I was reminded of these truths. And, I was reminded that having a rhythm of solitude in my life is essential to not only living out of my true self, but it is essential to how I care for others, interact with my community, and seek to be an agent of change in the world. In his book, Show Me The Way, Henri Nouwen writes,

In solitude we can listen to the voice of him who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others, and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts. In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It’s there we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; that the love we can express is part of a greater love; and that the new life we bring forth is not a property to cling to, but a gift to be received. In solitude we discover that our worth is not the same as our usefulness.

This, friends, speaks to the utmost importance of solitude as we live in a world that needs the help, love, healing words, freedom, and gift of life that God offers to others through you and me.

I was recently listening to a podcast by Rob Bell called “Letting the Land Lie Fallow”. Bell talks about the rhythm of rest that is built into creation. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, there is a law called “Shmita.” This is a six and one rhythm of working the soil for six years and then allowing the land to lie fallow during the seventh year, similar to the creation story of God resting on the seventh day. This allowed not only the soil to be replenished but also for people to rest, as well. This is one of the things that connected to me as I listened:

There are rhythms built into creation. Rhythms built into the soil. There is a rhythm that your body wants, and your heart and your soul and your mind want to live by. And if you don’t honor those rhythms things start to unravel . . . when we don’t give our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our brains, when we don’t give them the rest they need to be restored and refreshed then they can’t give us what they need to give us and things begin to breakdown.

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Learning the art of the siesta in the desert section of the PCT. This afternoon rhythm meant finding a shady spot and resting during the hottest part of the day . . . and made me stop when I would have kept pushing.

When I started the PCT, I was coming off an almost two year stretch without good rhythms of rest. Things were beginning to unravel and breakdown. Compare that with the stark contrast of my experience of solitude on the PCT and the health and vitality that came from prioritizing rest, Sabbath, and a quiet center.

Have you seen the movie, “Hook,” with Robin Williams? I promise this is going somewhere . . . stay with me. Williams plays a grown up Peter Pan who has come back to Neverland to find his children. He’s been away for awhile and isn’t quite sure of the whole scene. The “Lost Boys” aren’t sure of this grown up Peter Pan either. There is a point in the movie, after Peter has been back in Neverland for a while, where one of the “Lost Boys” takes Peter’s face in his hands and starts manipulating the skin–stretching it and looking deeply–until he finally finds Peter Pan in a forced smile. “Oh, there you are, Peter!” he says. If you haven’t seen it here’s a short clip of the scene (watch out . . . tear jerker).

I had a moment similar to this on the trail. Not with a kid stretching the skin on my face (weird!) but a moment when I said (yes, I actually said it aloud), “Oh, there you are, Tami!” A moment when the solitude had done its work, when I saw a glimpse of my true self again, when I decided to listen to the voice telling me I am deeply loved and that my worth is not the same as my usefulness.

So, was I lonely on the trail? Sure, sometimes. And, there were still distractions, still the tendency to compete, and still people and activity to fill my time. But the solitude was not lonely, nor did I miss the chaos of a busy schedule. I embraced the opportunity and discovered that solitude is not the same as being alone . . . solitude means being fully present with myself. One of my favorite authors, and fellow Quaker, Parker Palmer speaks to this in his book, A Hidden Wholeness, “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

I don’t know about you but it is tough to incorporate a rhythm of solitude into my life–to be fully present with myself. I had quite a bit of space to slowly ease back into life at home when I came off the trail. Now that I’m working more, I’m noticing my tendency, before cutting anything else out, to eliminate my solitude, or quiet space, on days that are busier.

Obviously, we have to work. There are bills to pay, people to care for, and daily life to live. Things will be busy sometimes. But if we don’t have a quiet center and take time to step back, if we ignore the craving of our body, soul, heart, and mind for rest, then we run the risk of unravel. We run the risk of listening to voices telling us we are worth only our usefulness rather than hearing the One who created us telling us we are deeply loved. We run the risk of living a life that is not our own.

What does it look like for you to incorporate a rhythm of Sabbath, solitude, and rest into your life? How do you get back to your quiet center? Are there regular practices you engage in that keep this in the forefront? For me a few of these practices are:

  • Saying no–to activity, involvement, and people–as hard as that is sometimes. As my friend, Jeff, would say, “Say yes with caution and no with confidence.”
  • Pursuing things that align with my vocation and calling instead of every opportunity that comes my way.
  • Turning my phone and computer off at certain points throughout my day and week.
  • Having specific disciplines I practice for certain periods of time.

And, on some level, we just have to choose to make space for rhythms into our life. As simple (or hard) as that sounds, intentional choice is the first step to a quiet center.

May you discover the gifts that come from incorporating a rhythm of rest and solitude into your life–a clear mind to listen, a heart to love others well, an openness to the truth of God’s love and care for you, a deep knowing of where your worth lies–may you discover these gifts and the freedom to live out of these truths.

A Little Extra:

As I was writing this post I kept thinking of books that have shaped my awareness and practice of solitude, and also helped me understand my inner life, the nature of my true self/false self, and how to move then from a quiet center to a place of outward expression and service. I wanted to share a few with you for future reading:

Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen: This is a tiny little book that I used to have my student staff read at the beginning of an academic year. It’s a gem!

Show Me the Way by Henri Nouwen: This is a book of daily readings that I have used during the Lent season the past few years. Simple, profound reminders.

Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer: By one of my favorite authors, and fellow Quaker, I first read this book in college and have read it almost annually since.

A Hidden Wholeness by Parker J. Palmer: Again, PJP, coming through with an incredible read about living an undivided life.

Sabbath by Wayne Muller: I used this book in an elective I taught at the university where I worked. I love that Muller writes about the theology of Sabbath but also includes simple, tangible ideas for practicing Sabbath rest.

Just a few of my favorites . . . Enjoy!

 

About Playing It Safe

In my second PCT post, About the Why and Why Now, I wrote about things like daring greatly and pursuing dreams and going for it . . . whatever “it” is for each of us. All of it was very sincere, honest, and a part of my experience and how I seek to pursue life. But today I also want to tell you about how I played it safe. Some of this feels similar to what I wrote about daring greatly, however, maybe it’s a bit of a different angle that will connect with someone in a way the second post didn’t.

As I write this post it is exactly 11 months since I left for the PCT. As I was preparing to go last year, I would say there was 91.2% pure excitement surrounding what was about to happen. Then there were the days or random moments where I wondered, “Can I do this?” “Am I crazy?” “Am I being irresponsible to quit my job?” “What if I get out there and hate it, don’t want to keep going, or want to quit?” “What if I can’t finish?”

So I played it safe. I let myself want it . . . but not TOO much. I would get excited and dream about the finish . . . but always with the reminder that I might not get there. I told myself to hold it loosely and be okay with not finishing.

Conversations with people before I left generally went something like this:

Person: Wow, you’re doing PCT! The whole thing?”
Me: “Well, that’s the goal but it’s a really long trail and I’ve never done anything like this so we’ll see what happens.”

I’m sure some of you heard this safe response from me.

Part of this is the reality of the trail. There are things that can happen, elements are out of our control, people get hurt and sick. I knew there was a possibility that I could be one of those people–something might happen to me that ended the journey. I wasn’t confident in my body’s ability to handle it.

However, part of this was that I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to say I was going to do something and then not have it come together. I didn’t want to get out there, hate it, and then come off the trail having not done it. If I really believed I would finish, it would hurt worse when it didn’t happen. I protected my heart, and my reputation of being someone who does what she says, told myself that it might not work out, and put some back-up plans in place–safety nets for the just in case.

Some of this self-protection comes from past experiences, times when things didn’t work out even when I really wanted them to or believed they would. This self-protection skewed my anticipation for the PCT. I anticipated the hard things that could happen instead of focusing on the potentially incredible opportunities that were also sure to be part of the journey.

Also, this “playing it safe” comes from my own understanding of how my personality works. There are these things called “high expectations” and I like to reach them all . . . even the expectations that are unrealistic. Over time, the striving can be exhausting. My expectations for myself on the PCT were extremely high and I was trying to rein them in a bit. In this sense, taking a cautious approach wasn’t necessarily a bad thing–after all, having realistic goals is important. But in some ways it was self-protection and not living wholeheartedly wearing the disguise of “realistic goals.”

I remember the moment when I realized I could and would finish the trail. I was entering the Northern California section, hiking by myself that day, and broke into a big smile. My body and mind were strong. I was in my element, feeling like I was created to be hiking the PCT at that moment. I was exceeding my expectations. I knew without a doubt that I was going to thru-hike the PCT. There were two things at that point that might stop me: injury and if I didn’t stay strong mentally. I felt confident about staying in it mentally. With my track record of being clumsy and tripping, injury was definitely a possibility (my friend Rachel can fill you in on some good stories)! I chose to not think about that!

This moment on the trail felt like a big transition for me. I hiked differently after that. I wasn’t playing it safe anymore. I chose to believe it was going to happen, that I would reach the end of the trail, and I allowed myself to get excited about it.

I’ve been thinking about this lately. About how the way I live when I play it safe is drastically different than the way I live when it’s with my whole heart. About how it affects my relationships, job performance, lifestyle, decisions, and how I love and care for people. I hold back when I play it safe. I might not hurt as much if I don’t get too excited about the possibilities. When I’m in 100% I find more joy, more freedom, more drive, more confidence, and more hope.

I thought about this on the trail, too. One particular day on the last section of trail in Yosemite National Park I had a realization. Every time I came around a bend in the trail on the PCT, I anticipated and believed that what was coming was the best view, more beauty, and another great moment. Even if the trail was difficult or I was tired I still anticipated good things up ahead. As I reflected on my life “trail” I realized so often I’m anticipating that what is coming is going to be hard, another challenge, something that isn’t going to work out the way I hoped.

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Anticipating good things up ahead.

I recognize that there are terrible experiences that happen to people. There are reasons we play it safe, self-protect, anticipate hard things, and hold back about getting too excited about what we really want. It’s hard to be excited about what’s around the bend when we’ve learned that sometimes what’s ahead is difficult. I know this and feel the pull to play life in defense mode sometimes, too.

But then I have these moments of life and get glimpses of what it can be to live and love wholeheartedly, to anticipate goodness and beauty around the corner, to acknowledge the failure, hurt, and fear but not let it have power over how I live . . . I know this is how I want to operate. Can I posture myself in this way?

It can be a risky and sometimes scary way to live, which runs counter to many pieces of my personality.  Is it worth it, though? I believe it is. When I have made the choice to live this way, it certainly has felt like it’s worth the risk. Maybe I won’t be able to do it all the time, but I’m going to continue trying.

How have you played it safe lately? How do you anticipate what’s coming around the bend? What holds you back from pursuing experiences and dreams with your whole heart? What differences do you notice when you jump into things fully and when you play it safe? As you continue on your journey, may you find the courage to be hopeful about what’s coming your way down the trail.

 

About Simplicity

 

I am an over-packer. No matter how hard I try I always end up with too much stuff on trips. This isn’t a huge deal when it’s a road trip. I toss stuff in just because “you never know.” I am also a game person who likes to have fun activities for people so, yes, throw in that football, frisbee, kite, lawn game, and . . . you get the idea! When I fly and have limited space it can take me forever to make decisions about what to pack.

So, imagine an over-packer trying to make decisions about what to carry in a backpack for 2,650 miles! Quite the process of researching, decision-making, packing, weighing gear, switching out gear, repacking, and whittling down the items I would take. Sometimes this was literal whittling–like cutting the handle off my toothbrush to save weight (a few ounces goes a long way!).

Knowing you’re going to carry everything on your back as you travel changes your perspective on need and want, necessary and luxury. I thought through systems for cooking, water filtration, sleeping, and more in order to hone in on exactly what I wanted to carry. I processed the pros and cons of each item, especially if there was a lighter version available or something with fewer breakable parts. In addition to weight, I wanted systems that were simple to use and did not take much effort at the end of the day because I knew I would be exhausted in the evenings.

As I researched long distance hiking gear I discovered a few things. First, people are EXTREMELY opinionated about the “right” gear, which can make it overwhelming. Everyone is telling you what to buy and I had to decide what was best for me. I also discovered that my current systems for backpacking were heavy and, while perfect for group backcountry trips, the gear was not great for a solo backpacker trying to get in high miles each day. Finally, I realized pretty quickly that a person could spend thousands of dollars on new gear for this trip . . . thousands of dollars I didn’t have so I would need to be resourceful.

While I geek out over new outdoor gear, I also try to have a balanced perspective of what is necessary. I have led students on backpacking trips who don’t have the best gear, shoes, and clothes for what we are doing and they survive. They still love it and end up having a great experience. I also remember seeing pictures of former PCT thru hikers from the 1970s with massive packs wearing heavy boots and jean cutoffs. Any gear I had was lightweight compared to what they used. If they could do it, I could do it! This awareness was helpful for me as I processed the words “necessary” and “adequate” when deciding what gear to replace and what I could get away with using that I already owned.

Even with all of this thoughtfulness and research, over the first month on the trail I switched out gear, sent things home, and left things behind at town stops. If I hadn’t used something within those first few weeks, I determined I probably wasn’t going to need it.

And, even with this continual paring down, I still had things I didn’t necessarily need! Some thru hikers I ran into got rid of things like stoves and sleeping pads over the course of the PCT in order to save weight and simplify their systems of travel. Now, I understand that a hot meal and having something to sleep on are not necessarily things I need in order to survive but I decided that for me those luxuries and weight were things I was willing to carry. They were small items that gave me some respite at the end of the day.

Over the course of the trail I found an ever-growing love of the minimalist life. There was simplicity in this way of living: Having my meals planned and just eating what was in the ziplock bag for that day; not having a choice of what clothes to put on in the morning and wearing the same outfit for a few months; donning my rain jacket and rain pants in the laundromat because all of my clothing items needed to be washed; the reality that what I had with me was what I was going to use because I didn’t have the resources to buy the newest and glitziest gear, nor was I interested in carrying the extra weight of anything more than what was necessary.

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How my friends found me in Cascade Locks, OR–hanging out on the floor of the laundromat in my rain gear. A content and happy moment.

Conversations with other thru hikers at the beginning of the trail constantly revolved around gear comparison and how light your pack was. It often felt like a very judgmental conversation, which I got tired of. Eventually I decided to not engage in those conversations. I had chosen my gear based on my needs and the resources I had available. There was a peace that came in choosing to be content with what I had and not trying to “keep up with the Jones'” or being envious of other people’s gear.

The PCT is one of the most tangible experiences of my life in choosing simplicity, living simply, and being content with what I have. This simplistic life and the rhythms I discovered on the trail took away a level of stress and daily decision-making I didn’t have to deal with. This simplification of life freed my mind to think about more important things and allowed more time for relationships on the trail. I found joy in what the trail offered, like watching the sunset each night and sleeping under a starry night sky and not in owning the best things.

When I finished the trail in August and stepped back into a life of options, I was really overwhelmed! There were so many choices of food, clothing, movies, activities, and more. Even something like deciding what coffee mug to use in the morning seemed like a chore! Why do I need 20 coffee mugs in my cupboard when there are just two of us living in my house?! As I unpacked and settled back into my house, I made piles of items I decided I didn’t need. After seeing on the trail I could get by with so few clothes, I was able to cut my wardrobe in half.

While I try to orient my life in the direction of simplicity, it has always been a really hard value for me to embrace. I like nice things and activities that cost money. I like outdoor gear and cute clothes and cars that don’t break down. I like to decorate my house with cool treasures from antique stores. There is clutter around me because I just might use that [enter item name here] again. I get caught up in the newest thing I’m told I need in order to be a better person, rock climber, runner, professional, Christian, etc.

I grew up in the Quaker, or Friends, tradition so the value of simplicity has been a part of my life experience for as long as I can remember. It was a value I saw my parents and others living out. My experience in our meetings for worship included “queries”. The queries are questions that remind Friends of our values and help us reflect on our life as we seek to live out these ideals in the world. The query below comes from the Friend’s community I am a part of and focuses on the value of simplicity:

Is your life marked by simplicity? Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions? Do you avoid waste? Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?

This query of simplicity has helped direct my life choices for many years and how I spend money and time. This was no exception on the PCT both as I made decisions about gear and also as I recognized the gifts of traveling light while on the trail. Because of my understanding of scripture, I want my life to be “marked by simplicity”. Choosing simplicity helps me value relationships over possessions. It helps me create space in my day for spiritual disciplines instead of more activity. When I am able to put possessions in their proper place, I find more freedom and less stress and worry.

Most importantly for me, a simple life orients me towards better understanding the needs of others and caring for the oppressed and marginalized. The posture of choosing simplicity as a way to identify with and respect people in my local community and around the world is a daily choice that I try to make. I’ve found that it helps bring me back to a dependence on God and reminds me of the realities many people face.

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It’s impossible to beat the beauty of the wildflowers along the trail and the joy that came from walking along side them.

Just like most of my learning from the PCT, simplicity seemed easier to live out while on the trail. Trying to figure out the balance back at home takes much more intentionality and grace. This balance is especially important in order to discover the freedom and contentedness simplicity can bring but not have it become legalistic and overwhelming. And, while I don’t practice this value perfectly, I do recognize that the freedom and contentment that come from living simply are what I desire for my life. This desire helps remind me to reorient my life in that direction.

 

What is necessary? What is adequate? Is this item a luxury? Will this activity or thing bring joy and life? How does it affect my relationships with others and the earth? Can I use something I already own and be creative instead of spending money? Is this a healthy use of my time and energy? Will this refresh my soul and build up my relationships and community? These are some of the questions that run through my head as I interact with a world offering me so much to buy, consume, and engage.

The path of simplicity will look different for each person as we interact with our life “gear” and make decisions about what is most important to us. If simplicity is a value you strive toward, what self-check questions do you ask yourself when faced with the pull towards “more”? Beyond possessions, what other things clutter your life and pull you away from living simply? What are the gifts you recognize in your life that come from seeking to live simply?

About Forgiveness and Healing

If you have been reading my other blog posts about the Pacific Crest Trail you may have picked up on the fact that prior to starting my adventure I was in a bit of a rough patch. I was yearning for health and vitality and for space to do some soul searching. I realized at the time I started planning for the trail that I was holding on to a lot of anger and I wondered how the trail was going to affect that. There were people I needed to forgive and I didn’t even want to think about it.

So, I didn’t think about it . . . Until a few weeks into the journey. Well, technically I did think about it every once in a while before then. I just chose not to engage.

As I traveled, my soul felt lighter and stress melted away. I enjoyed the wilderness and rhythm of life on the trail. However, I noticed that every once in awhile a thought would creep into my head about a situation and I would get so angry thinking about it.

I had been ignoring the anger, trying to push it aside so I could go on my merry way along the trail. I had acknowledged pre-trail that working through my hurt and anger on this trip would be important and necessary. Some days it seemed easier to just ignore it and move on. My prayers sounded like, ” No, I don’t want to think about this. I don’t know where to start. Just let me hold on to it.”

Sometimes holding onto my anger helps me justify things. I feel justified in my actions and words towards people who hurt me, making things seem acceptable even when they aren’t. My anger fuels me and even gives me the idea that I’m right about a situation. This seems okay for a while until I take a good look at how the anger is affecting me, my relationships with others and my connection with the Divine. I knew I couldn’t go through this whole experience and waste the opportunity for healing. As Richard Rohr says in his book Everything Belongs, “In terms of soul work, we dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us.”

Dealing with it meant I would probably hurt. Wading through the darkness meant I might cry (well, knowing me I would definitely cry at some point). It meant I would have to process why I was angry. I would have to willingly open up my heart to be changed.

The fourth quote I memorized on the trail, for my spiritual discipline of study, was what finally pushed me toward really engaging with my hurt and anger. It is from a passage of scripture–Ezekiel 36:26. “And, I will give you a new heart and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive one.”

While daily pondering and memorizing a quote like this about new hearts and new spirits, about the transformation of a stubborn heart to a tender heart, it soon became impossible to not look introspectively at my own stony, stubborn heart. And, when looking so closely at a stubborn heart but knowing this gentle promise for a tender heart is offered, how could I look away?

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The open space of the trail helped open space in my heart to process, grieve, and heal.

So, I looked long and hard at my anger and hurt over the course of my time on the trail. I was nervous about this process and was honest in my prayers about not knowing where to start. Last week, as I re-read my trail journals, I found this simple prayer I had written in May, “Lord, bring to light the things I need to process.”

Two specific things were “brought to light” as I examined my heart. First, I realized one of the key pieces here was my stubborn heart. I was placing a lot of blame on other people but, when I honestly examined situations, I realized I also had played a role. It wasn’t until I could acknowledge my own actions, which were not always honoring to people, that I then could look at things with different eyes, with empathy, understanding, and a desire to let go.

Second, I realized I was grieving. My hopes and heart had been wrapped up in something that didn’t end up working out how I had wanted. I was sad and hurt. In acknowledging my grief, I also knew that I had to allow myself to feel it, and maybe continue to feel it for a long time, as I walked through the pain. In Everything Belongs, Rohr goes on to say, “Don’t try to rush through it; we can’t leap over our grief work. Nor can we skip over our despair work. We have to feel it . . . Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid. When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God, who works in the darkness–where we are not in control!”

As I allowed myself to grieve, I noticed my anger controlling me less. I found my heart was more open to loving people I felt hurt by. After being on the trail for three months and processing so much, a friend came to visit me in Central Oregon and asked how I was doing with all of this. I was so happy to find I could talk and think about things without anger in my heart and vindictive words spilling out of my mouth. I was on the pathway of healing and forgiveness, to new life.

During my time on the trail I’m not sure I could have put in words how this grieving process was helping me move towards forgiveness. It wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that what had happened on the trail really clicked. I was watching this video by Work of the People, in which Brené Brown talks about her research on forgiveness. Brown quotes her pastor at one point saying, “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die.” Brown found in her research that “grief is an inherent part of forgiveness.” That sometimes we have to kill off something (perhaps the power that comes from being right), or recognize the death of what was, for forgiveness to happen.

What clicked with me as I watched the video was that during my time on the trail I recognized the death of what I had hoped for. I felt the pain. I decided to bury being right. I had needed to get to a point of relinquishing control and not avoid God working in the darkness. These things were essential on my pathway towards forgiveness.

There was something about moving through the physical wilderness of the PCT that drew me towards recognizing the wilderness I was moving through in my own soul, where there was a need for watering, pruning, weeding, and planting. The physical wilderness offers so many insights and parallels into our spiritual life. For example, one of my favorite things about the northwest forests in the spring is the new bud growth on pine trees. As you walk through the rainy forest you see dark green branches and then light green, soft, fuzzy buds of new growth on the tips of the branches. If you touch the tips they feel more fragile than the older needles. Seeing this new bud growth is always a reminder to me that we made it through another winter, through a season of death and cold. The roots are reaching deeper into the ground each season, offering nourishment and steadiness to these trees.

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New bud growth…a reminder of the seasons.

New growth in my life often feels more fragile, too. The journey to forgiveness and healing on the PCT is still fresh and new, needing tending and care. But with each season of death, of grief, of relinquishing control, and choosing to not avoid God, my roots grow deeper and the new growth offers hope. Hope that the cycle of transformation will continue with the seasons I encounter in life and the reminder that walking through the darkness of winter is worth the life and joy that spring brings.

Are there places where you are avoiding the darkness, moving around the pain instead of through it? What have you learned on your own path towards forgiveness and healing that gives you hope? As you are on your journey, may you know the peace that can come from embracing soul work and embracing God’s promise of a tender, responsive heart.

Addendum: This past week, after a long day of work, I was in an elevator with a group of people. A man that I don’t know was trying to be funny and made a comment to me that was actually hurtful and inappropriate. I reacted to that situation in a way that made him feel small and insignificant and probably shamed. The words that came out of my mouth were angry, which I justified in the moment by the fact that his comment was not okay.

I felt so ashamed by the way I reacted to this man. That evening as I processed, I confessed to God my wrong in the situation. In my tiredness and narrow margins from the day I was not operating out of my best self. There was definitely a better way to handle the situation.

However, as I continued to process it that evening I realized that what I was most sad about was I had made someone feel insignificant and hurt. This is the opposite of what I want to be about. People don’t need or deserve to feel more smallness and shame in this world. There is plenty of that going around all ready. 

I had just been on my own journey of forgiveness and healing from people who made me feel insignificant and hurt. And, now I have placed those hard things in someone else. What a reminder of the power I have to be light or darkness in someone’s life. What a reminder that I am never done learning and growing. What a reminder of how easy it is to tear someone down and how long the journey can be to healing and forgiveness. My only landing place in moving forward from this situation is trusting that the mercy and love of God are more powerful than my angry words.