About an Unlikely Community

After day three of my PCT journey, I was on my own. My friend, Jonathan, headed home and I adjusted to solo backpacking. The first night on my own, I found myself camping in a large group of thru hikers. There can be quite a bottleneck at the beginning of the trail until people start to spread out.

This first night included people from England, Canada, and the U.S. There was a middle age married couple, another single woman my age, and a large group of twenty-something males (two of whom had just rolled themselves in the mud for natural sun protection and were hiking the trail barefoot). Thus was my introduction to the variety and uniqueness of the thru hiker community.

Over the course of the trail I found myself often hiking alone during the day but running into new people at each water and lunch stop. I generally camped each night with new people, too. As I got further down the trail and fell into pockets of hikers with a similar pace, I started to see the same people in town and on the trail.

I hiked with people from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Korea, China, Israel, Croatia, Finland, England, France, Switzerland, and almost every state in the U.S. (I’m sure I’m forgetting some other countries, too!). I hiked with Protestants, atheists, Catholics, Mormons, agnostics–these are just the backgrounds I know about. There were so many more religions and worldviews represented but we didn’t always have those conversations.

Some hikers find someone at the beginning of the trail and stick together until the end. Others hike in and out of people the entire journey and never have a consistent group or hiking partner. There were a few longer periods of time when I hiked with the same people. My first hiking partner for about a week was a college student from Washington state. Next, I connected with a university professor who immigrated to the U.S from Croatia a number of years ago. He is a seismologist and I had the opportunity to walk along the San Andres fault with him, soaking in as much knowledge as I could.

The first larger group I hiked with was in the California desert someplace between Wrightwood and Tehachapi. A group of four in their twenties from across the U.S., a retired gentleman from New Zealand, and myself. In Northern California and Northern Oregon, I spent time with couples from Seattle and Switzerland. Then, I hiked the entire state of Washington with a group of four. Two of them I met over a thousand miles earlier and one I met the first day hiking in Washington.

3 Goat Rocks Crew 3x5

The Washington hiking crew in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, August 2015.

There were also many other people I shared the trail with along the way!

I write all this to give you an idea of how hiking partners and community ebbs and flows on the PCT, and more importantly, to give a glimpse of the variety of people represented. I remember processing on the trail the uniqueness of the community I was hanging out with. I wondered if we would be friends in our normal, everyday lives off the trail. Would we hang out if it weren’t for this common goal we were all pursuing? Would we have these same deep conversations so soon if we weren’t alone in the woods? Would I spend the time getting to know people different than me if I had my close friends with me on the PCT? My answer to these questions is, “I hope so.” Yet, I know it only happens when I’m intentional about choosing to go there.

For five years of my professional life I lived and worked on a Christian college campus. Into year two I realized that I lived, worked, worked out, ate, went to church, and more all within a few blocks of my building on campus. Not only was I in a bubble, the bubble consisted of a majority of people who looked like me, thought like me, read the same books as me, and heard the same speakers as me. There was a similar language in how we talked about faith, spirituality, politics and issues facing our world.

I learned and grew during those years; it was a strong community that helped continue building a solid foundation for me. But I also noticed some things that were lacking. I was being challenged but it seemed as if only within the context of my own religion and background. I loved and respected my community of friends, church, and co-workers. However, I also wanted to learn from and know people who had a life experience, belief system, and worldview that would challenge me in new ways and help me understand different perspectives.

So, I sought out opportunities to be involved and volunteer in areas outside of that community context. I didn’t do this perfectly or consistently but I worked at it in my own way one little interaction at a time.

It’s easy for me to stay in my cozy world and live life with people who have similar beliefs and values, lifestyles and interests. In fact, I like it. And, it is easier to make decisions about what I believe in that context.

Once I move outside of my cozy world, I get to know people who think differently and live life differently than me. Each is their own person with their own story. Once I know about their life, their realities and beliefs, it makes it impossible to think of them as a stereotype. We have a greater capacity for patience, empathy, grace, and understanding for each other. These interactions help make the world less divided and fearful. And, I am changed.

It is also really hard. Putting aside my own desire to be right, to be heard, to persuade others to my way of thinking? If you’re familiar with the personality assessment “Strengthsfinder,” then it will make more sense why this is hard for me. Two of my top strengths are Belief and Command. Talk about a dynamic duo! Not only do I have a strong sense of what I believe and why, I’m not afraid to voice it. In fact a direct quote from the definition of the “command” strength is, “Unlike some people, you feel no discomfort with imposing your views on others.” Eek! I have to constantly be aware of this in my conversations with others. Let’s just say during my lifetime I’ve gotten really good at going back to people and apologizing for something I’ve said.

What I’ve learned along the way is that when I ask questions and keep my mouth shut for a while, when I seek to understand before being understood, I connect with people on a different level–on a level that breaks down walls. But I forget. I don’t agree. I get really fired up about something and want someone to see things my way (because I’m right, of course!). It’s a constant choice and a fine balance of asking, listening, learning, and sharing.

For me, this unlikely community of thru hikers is a huge part of what the PCT was about. A group of people coming together, learning each other’s stories, laughing and traveling together towards a common purpose. People challenged me, disagreed with me, taught me, and accepted me. It was a beautiful experience of setting aside differences and finding commonalities. I have a high level of respect and affection for my fellow thru hikers.

13 Seiad Valley Hikertrash 3x5

Thru-hikers taking a brief resupply stop in Seiad Valley before hiking on to Oregon.

Now we have this common experience of the PCT that will never be lost. We have a common story we can share with the world; a story that brings people together from many walks of life instead of alienates. A journey that removes walls instead of builds them.

I love this.

I don’t always know how to incorporate what I learned on the trail back at home. As I process my experience and find myself back in my cozy community, this is one of the areas I have been wondering about. One thing I know for sure is that I want to be a part of understanding people’s stories and helping remove walls in our world. Maybe today that starts simply with saying, “hello” to someone I might normally walk by without acknowledging. Baby steps, right?

Addendum: Just last week, after I had written this post, I was sitting on a bench in front of the twelfth station of the cross at The Grotto, reading and journaling. A couple walked by and asked me how often I come there. As we started talking I found out they are a Muslim couple from Iran doing a road trip in the U.S. We had a 20-minute conversation about their experience in the U.S., why they had decided to visit The Grotto on their drive through Portland, and about similarities between the world’s major religions.

A Quaker from Portland and a Muslim couple from Iran spending time together at a National Catholic Shrine asking questions about each other’s world and beliefs. This. This was a breaking down walls moment. It was also a “thin place” moment for me, a Celtic Christian term for a space in time where the distance between heaven and earth seem to vanish. The presence of God felt very near. Baby steps. 

Advertisements

About Unclear Yet Clear Paths

I remember the first time I got angry on the trail. It was a couple weeks in and at some point in the morning I realized I was hiking, and had been hiking, southeast for quite a while. Southeast? I was supposed to be walking north to Canada. What was with this southeast stuff?! As the next couple miles continued I could feel myself getting angrier. There may have been a couple choice words said when I asked no one in particular (but very much out loud) why I was hiking south. “I’m supposed to be going NORTH”, I said to the cacti, lizards and general wilderness surrounding me.

This wasn’t the only time I got frustrated about the direction of the trail. In Northern California, near Mt. Shasta, there was stretch when I hiked west and southwest for around 70 miles. By that point on the trail I had gotten used to it but was still annoyed.

I have spent enough time in the wilderness to know that trails are never straight and often wind through the trees, around knolls, switch backing up and down grades, following the natural lay of the terrain, landmarks, rivers, and more. For some reason, this was really hard for me to remember when my goal was north and finishing the PCT. Going southeast for a day or 70 miles west was using a lot of my time and energy.

When I paid attention, though, and checked out my maps I could see the trail was heading a certain way to stay on national forest land, avoid private property, or travel along a specific mountain range. Sometimes when I looked back I would see huge cliffs or rock faces that the trail was skirting around in order to take the best and safest route. There were things I couldn’t see from my position on the trail and with my limited knowledge of what was beyond 50 feet of me. As I kept moving forward, the trail would make sense. It was as if some experienced people with all the needed info, maps, policies, and etc. created the trail and knew what they were doing! Imagine that!

Some days, especially in the desert, I could see miles of trail ahead of me. I could tell exactly where I was heading. I enjoyed those open expanses and ridges that allowed me to look both ahead to where I was going and behind to see how far I’d come.

15 Desert Trail 5x_

Miles of clear path ahead in the desert of Southern California.

And, then there were the days of hiking in continuous fog and mist, unable to see anything beyond 20 feet, not knowing what the views or terrain were like. Doing the hard work of hiking up and over a pass only to be rewarded with . . . More clouds and fog. Mentally, these foggy, cloudy days got to me. It was hard to hike for 10 hours just being able to see a short distance ahead. The scenery was such a big part of the PCT journey and I didn’t want to miss any of it. It was on one of these foggy days, about four weeks in, that I finally broke down and started listening to podcasts, needing a little something to help get me through the day.

I realized pretty quickly that I could either be frustrated by the sometimes non-north direction of the trail and these foggy days or trust that whoever created the path knew where it was headed, even if I didn’t. I could sit down and refuse to walk anymore because I wished it was another way or I could keep hiking. I made a conscious effort to stop trying to figure out every detail of the trail and just . . . Walk forward. The less I tried to control it the more I appreciated the trail and the views around each bend.

My state of life when hiking the PCT was fairly up in the air. I knew at the moment what my purpose and goal were–get to Canada and soak in what I was learning along the way. Once I got to Canada? I had no plans after that. As in, the path was completely fogged in with zero visibility and definitely not a straight path! That’s how it felt anyway. So, needless to say, I spent a lot of time reflecting on this as I hiked along the winding, foggy, and sometimes clear trail.

There was one moment in northern Yosemite when this “Lesson From the Trail” started to sink in deeper. I received some #trailwisdom from Sister Simone Campbell while listening to the OnBeing podcast one afternoon. She said, ” Looking to the future . . . It looks dark . . . Faith is walking through a mist with your eyes wide open. And that’s what it feels like when you are trying to find your place. But then the amazing thing is to look back; it looks like it all was a straight line. You can see the straight line of light that makes us who we are.”

I have experienced all of these along my life path–certainty, fog, and what seem like southbound routes when I think I should be heading north. I have also experienced the looking back and seeing the straight line after what felt like a tremendously curvy trail. I look back and see that things make sense after all; that the questions I had about how different pieces of my journey would come together have been answered. And, that the Creator of my life path knows what they are doing. “A straight line of light that makes us who we are” . . . I love this line as it recognizes how all the parts of our journey–good and hard, joyful and devastating, common and extraordinary–are constantly shaping us into our present person.

Now that I am back from the PCT, the path ahead still seems foggy with limited visibility. I had hoped for clarity about my next job by the time I left the PCT. I really wanted to hone in on what my career path was going to be specifically. While I do have a greater understanding of my vocation and calling after the PCT, I did not walk away with any tangible, clear-path-ahead vision. This has made it difficult in the job hunt as I daily look for jobs that can help support how I want to live and give me the freedom to pursue what I’m interested in.

207759524580474

View from the summit of a big climb in Northern California . . . cloudy and socked in.

I look forward to a time ahead when the fog lifts and I clearly see the path ahead of me, as well as that line of Light that has led me perfectly. Lately, I have been praying, quite persistently, that the clouds would clear up . . . Even just for a little while.

A big part of my role in this journey is about having the faith to keep walking forward, trusting the Creator and making decisions, even when things don’t make sense and are unknown. Sister Simone Campbell refers to this as, “the groping in the dark, that piece of listening to the nudges and paying attention . . . You’ll know the right way forward.”

What is your path looking like right now? Foggy or clear? Winding or straight? Certain or uncertain? Some days I feel like I’m experiencing all of these things at the same time! Whatever the trail is like for you right now, may you find the faith to keep walking forward “through the mist with your eyes wide open.” May you have the experience one day of looking back and seeing a straight line of light. And, in all of it may you find joy and peace in the present moments.

 

About Vulnerability

When I first started thinking about this writing project as more than just something for me, I mentioned it to a mentor of mine. I told him I was writing and had the idea of a blogging but said, “No, I don’t think I can do it.” “Why not?” he asked.

Because there are hard things I’m writing about. Honest things that I don’t usually say to more than the handful of people in my inner circle. My life doesn’t come across as perfectly put together in all these stories. “Ah, it’s vulnerable,” he said. He knows me. And he knows me well enough to know that vulnerability is not my strong suit.

I am a fairly open person about many things. I can laugh at myself and tell stories about dumb things I do. In my work with college students, I’ve found that being honest about my life experiences and mistakes is helpful for them to hear so I’m happy to offer that as part of their learning process. I don’t have many inhibitions when it comes to doing goofy skits at camp and wearing crazy costumes in public (see Exhibit A below).

wig 1

Exhibit A . . . one of many costume moments in my job working with college students.

These things are easy, often because I’m in control of the stories or activities. I get to call the shots and push boundaries I feel comfortable pushing. I can use only the parts of my experiences I think are helpful teachable moments. It’s on my terms and generally about other people. This is totally great.

But if you want to know what I really struggle with? And I can’t make it into a joke or use it as a teaching tool in a safe way? If you want this to be about me? If you want me to ask for help? Yikes. Peace out.

Vulnerability makes me feel out of control and I like to control things, to make things better and function seamlessly. Vulnerability might show my weaknesses and I am pretty adamant about not showing those to the world or asking for help. Vulnerability only happens between certain people and myself… People that I have grown to trust and respect and identify as safe.

So, yes, actually letting people see what I was writing sounded terrible and scary, especially when one of the topics I kept ruminating on was… Yep, vulnerability. Here I go!

I feel fairly confident in my backpacking and survival skills in the wilderness. I’m a trained guide and wilderness first responder. I take calculated risks and try to think through potential scenarios so I don’t end up on the six o’clock news. I typically backpack with people and have a built in support system if something goes wrong. When I guide, I feel the need to be the strong one, the one with the answers, the one who isn’t freaking out when someone gets hurt or the weather turns bad. I stay in control and I don’t let them see if I’m scared or uncertain.

But, essentially, if you’re traveling through the wilderness, everything is out of your control to an extent. Mother Nature doesn’t take your comfort, feelings, and needs into consideration when the weather changes or when a water source you are counting on is dry. You’re left feeling exposed. Solo backpacking especially opens you up to even more situations where you might need to rely on someone and ask for help.

One area that I feel particularly vulnerable in when backpacking is during thunderstorms. I had an experience a few years ago leading a group on a wilderness trip that left me with a love/hate relationship with thunder and lightning. We had a couple close calls . . . Too close. During a massive storm in the middle of the night, I spread out the students into lightening position. A tree was struck near us and I spent the next hour wondering how I would decide which student to do CPR on if multiple people were struck. The weight of responsibility for my students’ lives left me with anxiety. The “what if’s” after the fact left me fearful and not confident in my skills as a guide. The situation also left me acutely aware of how quickly things can change in the backcountry and how out of my control situations can become.

I love thunderstorms if I am watching them from inside my house snuggled up in front of a window. I hate thunder and lightning if I am exposed in the wilderness, lying in my tent wondering who will come perform CPR on me if I get struck. This is what goes through my head at 2 AM as lightning lights up my tent.

(I should say I mostly hate these moments in the wilderness. There is always a part of me that is completely awestruck by the power and magnitude of these storms . . . A reminder of how God created all of this to be part of an incredible, detailed system working together to sustain the world.)

Due to my experiences as described above, this means hiking solo during thunderstorms was not my favorite thing about my time on the PCT. I did it because it was part of the experience, a reality on the trail. I stayed strong and independent, my normal resolve being to prove I didn’t need help or to rely on anyone.

However, one day in July, on a section of trail in northern California, I had enough and vulnerability won.

I had been hiking in and out of other groups, leap frogging with fellow thru hikers, but had been mostly hiking alone for a few days. Not just hiking alone in the sunshine but through about six or seven days of thunder, lightning, and rain. This means I had been hiking for many days feeling nervous in the pit of my stomach, really wanting people around me but not willing to allow others to see my fear.

Earlier that morning I had met a couple from Switzerland. We had started the PCT a day a part but were only just now meeting after 1560 miles. We hiked together for about an hour, chatting the whole time.

I stopped for a snack break on a ridge but my new friends decided to keep going. We said, “Farewell” not knowing if we would ever see each other again. This is part of trail life, running into people and then never seeing them again because you have different schedules, town stops, hiking pace, etc.

As I sat on the ridge, I noticed the clouds in the distance–thunderheads looking miles high and growing darker. I pulled out my phone and turned it on. Much to my surprise I had coverage (a luxury)! I clicked on the weather app and . . . 100% chance of thunderstorms the rest of the afternoon and into the evening.

Nope. I couldn’t do it. Not one more afternoon alone exposed on a ridge with lightning all around me. If I had been hiking with people the past few days I probably would not have hit this “I’m done” moment. I didn’t have many of these moments on the trail but being alone in these storms had been hard. It wasn’t that I wanted to quit the PCT, I just knew I couldn’t do another day like this by myself. I needed people around me this afternoon. I quickly packed up my backpack and started hiking. I wasn’t sure how far ahead the couple from Switzerland was but I was determined to catch up.

I caught them about 45 minutes later. They looked at me, surprised. This is what tumbled quickly out of my mouth, “I’m sorry. I’ve been alone in these thunderstorms the past few days. I don’t like it and they make me nervous. I don’t want to be alone this afternoon. We don’t really know each other but would it be okay if I hiked with you?” There, I said it! I was scared and lonely and asked for help . . . From strangers.

11 Trinity Alps Storm Clouds 4x6

Storm clouds brewing in the Trinity Alps on the same day I met my friends from Switzerland.

Not only did they welcome me to hike with them, one of them also assured me of her own dislike of the stormy weather we had been having. No judgment. No looking at me like, “Really? You’re 36 and you can’t handle a thunderstorm by yourself?”

We hiked together the rest of that day and the next day. They shared their delicious Swiss chocolate with me and we hitchhiked together into town. We stayed in contact for the remainder of the trail, checking in and finding each other in town stops. They even came through Portland after finishing the PCT and we got to hang out. And, we had some of the best life-giving conversations and I feel like we got there faster simply because I let them in on my secret of feeling alone and afraid.

I don’t know where it came from in my life, but the story I tell myself is that I have to be strong. I shouldn’t show people my weaknesses or uncertainties. That my life needs to look put together and mistakes are a reflection of my failure. Maybe it’s growing up with two older brothers and wanting to always show I could be as tough as them. Perhaps it is because as a woman I feel like I constantly have to prove myself as a capable leader in the workplace. Or possibly that growing up in the church there is so much emphasis on making right choices that I still struggle with the potential of making the “wrong” choice.

If I’m honest it’s a combination of all those things and more. As I have become more aware of my modus operandi, I am working on telling a new story. A story where vulnerability and authenticity become a natural choice. I have seen and experienced the freedom and deep connection that comes when I have the courage to say, “I don’t know”, “I struggle with that, too”, “I made a mistake”, and (insert whatever statement is vulnerable for you). The truth of vulnerability is slowly starting to sink into my heart: freedom, joy, community, growth, self-awareness, and grace. All things I cherish and want in my life more than the appearance of perfection.

Vulnerability is still a daily challenge for me as I step back into life off trail. Am I offering people my authentic self? Am I allowing myself to be fully seen? That’s what I want to do, that’s the goal. And the reminder of how I was shaped on the trail by practicing vulnerability gives me the courage to continue embracing the challenge.

Back to my mentor, who totally pegged why I didn’t want to share publicly what I was writing about. He was one of the people that I asked to give me a quote to memorize for my discipline of study. The quote he chose? Brené Brown’s definition of authenticity from her book Daring Greatly. Perfect for me and my lifelong journey as a recovering strong-willed perfectionist!

I’m going to let Brené bring this blog post home because she says it much better than I do. I’ll only add that vulnerability is worth it. It’s worth the risk and unknown because it brings life and depth and freedom to be authentically you.

“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing authenticity means:

  • cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable;
  • exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and
  • nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe we are enough.

Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we are afraid to let ourselves feel it.

Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.”

Cultivate your courage to be vulnerable. Exercise compassion when others are vulnerable with you. Nurture your sense of belonging. May you know the grace, joy, and gratitude that are part of wholehearted living and loving.

If this is a topic you sense you want to dive into a little deeper I encourage you to start by watching Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability. I re-watched it twice in one sitting a couple weeks ago simply because I needed the reminder and motivation to continue on the journey!

 

 

About The Art of Flexibility

I love plans. And I love when all the work I have put into something unfolds perfectly in front of me. I plan and organize things well beforehand so that I can enjoy the experience and not have to worry about details or be surprised by anything.

So far, my entire life seems to be one big lesson in learning to let go of my grip on these plans and the PCT was no exception.

Food packing party

A pre-trail food packing party: 360 meals prepped plus snacks and drinks for each day.

As I prepared for my thru hike on the PCT, I had spreadsheets, to do lists, labels, and books to read. The basement in my house was a designated storage and preparation zone for my gear and food. I had a food packing party so all my resupply boxes were ready to roll and contained everything I would need. I had the details laid out from getting to the trailhead to arriving in Canada. The organization of it all made my heart happy and I could breath easy as I set off on the adventure!

But . . . From day one my hike did not go as planned.

I got to the southern terminus the morning of April 27 with my friends Rachel, Jonathan, and Crystal. Jonathan was hiking the first three days with me and Crystal was joining me for the first three to four weeks. We took pictures, wrote in the trail journal, and put on our backpacks. We were ready to roll!

As we stood at the monument I looked around and realized I didn’t know where the trail was. I was so prepared and just assumed the trail would be easy to find at the start, right? Everyone was looking at me to start hiking and I said, “I don’t know where to go!” After some hysterical laughter, we took a couple minutes to look around, eventually finding the trail (which, by the way, is not right at the monument).

The hike began.

The morning of day two brought another unforeseen change to the plan. My friend, Crystal, who was hiking with me for the first few weeks, has some food allergies that can be really hard on her body. As we woke up that morning, Crystal was sick and, from experience, we knew it would take awhile before she felt better. We were about 5 miles from a town so we at least needed to get there.

When we arrived in town the decision was made for Crystal to leave the trail. Jonathan and I waited with her until a friend could drive out from San Diego and pick her up. By early evening, Jonathan and I were headed back to the trail while Crystal drove away from the PCT.

This was a big adjustment for me. Mentally, I was prepared to have someone with me as I learned the thru hiking life and rhythm–a partner to make decisions with and make camp with each night so I wasn’t sleeping alone. Now I had one more day before Jonathan left and I would be alone. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it did affect the next few weeks of plans Crystal and I had made. Plus, I was really sad to see her go. I had to make a mental shift, take a few deep breaths, and open myself up to the reality of trail life.

This was just the beginning of my lesson in flexibility on the trail. These lessons came in many different ways: Two surprise snowstorms in the desert delayed my journey. Store and post office hours in small towns are limited and meant waiting for businesses to open. Hitchhiking was always on someone else’s time and their willingness to pick me up on the side of the road. Wildfires closed the trail in more than one area, which means I have a couple sections of trail left unfinished. A calf strain in southern Oregon slowed my pace and mileage for a few days. I left town stops a couple of times forgetting to purchase things I needed.

Whether it’s with big dreams like the PCT or normal daily tasks, life changes in ways I can’t predict. I get blind-sided. I get tired of having to adjust when things shift and change without any warning.

As I journeyed through the uncertainties, joys, difficulties, and highlights of the PCT and life in general, I have became more and more aware that the only thing I have control of is me and how I respond to situations as life happens.

I have journals from the PCT full of what I call “Lessons From the Trail.” These things even have their own journal hashtag: #trailwisdom. As I hiked, processed, and learned new things daily, it was usually accompanied in my head with this hashtag. One of the most consistent and relevant lessons for me was what I started to call “the art of flexibility.”

I started to think of flexibility as an art form on the trail as I realized the refinement that was taking place in me as I came up against different roadblocks (or perhaps “trailblocks” is a better term?). There are no hard, fast rules in learning to be flexible; each situation is different. For some people it comes naturally but for me flexibility is something I have to embrace and work on. Similar to how my 13-year old niece can sketch incredible pictures and I can still only draw stick figures as an adult . . . We are all uniquely created!

As I have become more aware of my reactions to things and let go of control, I have learned to get creative and dial in on tangible things that help me keep perspective. For example, I practice deep breathing and step away from situations which helps me think and not say the first thing that comes to mind (which I have a tendency to do and it can get me into trouble).

The most helpful question I am learning to ask in the moment is, “In the grand scheme of the world, how important is this?” I don’t say this to minimize issues I’m experiencing but to put it in perspective. It may still be something that needs to be figured out rather immediately but I find that I am kinder to people around me and have a more gentle and calm demeanor as I work through the problem. This question also helps me to maintain a good attitude and practice gratitude.

During situations that require my flexibility or interfere with my plans, I have become aware that my reaction is to find someone or something to blame. Often the person I blame ends up being me. I should have known better, I should have researched this more, if I just would have thought through every possible scenario maybe I could have prevented this. Apparently, I expect myself to know the future! I am learning to quickly recognize when I am out to place blame and have to remind myself to offer grace to others and myself.

50747695346354

Surprise snowstorm in southern California

Over my four months on the trail, I was so excited about the transformation I was seeing in myself, especially in my ability to be flexible and adapt as needed. With all the uncertainties that came on the trail, I decided I could either fill my time with blame and stress, frustration and pride or I could live life in the present moment seeking to graciously greet the surprises I encountered.

As I got off trail and headed home I wasn’t expecting to be tested in this area so much and so soon . . .

In September, as I was adjusting back to the life of beds, houses, cars, and multiple clothing options, the first thing to hit was my dad’s cancer diagnoses. This isn’t what anyone ever expects is coming, and instantly you are living in a world of uncertainty. In the following two months it seemed that each week something happened that tested and pushed the flexibility I had learned on the trail. My oven broke, my car was broken into, my brand new computer and tons of personal information were stolen meaning updating all my accounts and initiating an identity theft alert, my car broke down twice and was towed twice, the computer to replace the stolen computer didn’t work so I had to replace the replacement, my phone was stolen, the borrowed phone to replace the stolen one stopped working . . . Just to name a few things.

It was constant and hard. By the time my phone was stolen, I remember laughing and saying, “Of course this is happening!” On the positive side I have become an expert in navigating customer service phone calls, filing Portland Police Bureau reports, and the “Find my Mac” feature on my computer and phone. If anyone ever needs help in these areas let me know!

Besides those very useful life skills I acquired, there was another bright spot in all that happened this past fall. I noticed my demeanor and attitude in each situation. I felt my resiliency and strength. I moved forward and adapted as a new challenge came my way each day. My perspective was changed as I compared the inconveniences of a stolen computer with my dad’s cancer diagnosis. And I realized I was functioning in these situations with grace and, yes, flexibility. I was responding differently than I would have pre-PCT. This “lesson from the trail” had sunk in deeply. What a life-giving thing to recognize growth and transformation in ourselves!

There are so many good things that come from my personality; the Type A, planner and achiever in me gets things done. There are times when my stubbornness can be super helpful in situations. I’m not trying to get rid of these good things but with every strength there is a shadow side, as well, that can cause problems in my relationships, work, spirituality, etc. And these are the things, like loosening my grip on my plans, that tend to continually come back around for me to work on. Instead of fighting it, I want to live my life embracing the work . . . Some days this happens with a better attitude and less heels dug in than other days!

Maybe flexibility isn’t hard for you. Maybe it’s something else that you notice affects how you live in the world and interact with others. Whatever it is I want you to know that the hard work of embracing growth areas has been worth it. This coming from someone who resists and sometimes has to get to the end of her rope before that embracing happens. The give and take, the letting go, the compromise, choosing others before myself . . . This is when the good life happens. If only I could remember this more quickly in each situation!

May you know the struggle and joy of whatever “art” it is you feel drawn to refine and may you experience the freedom it brings.

 

 

About Intentional Spirituality

Besides the question of “Why would you want to walk 2650 miles in the wilderness alone,” I have a wonderful, deep, thought-provoking community who ask things like, “How are you hoping this will change you? Do you have thoughts or hopes for how it will be used by God in your own development? I can’t help but think this journey will be transformational for you . . . Tell me about how you’re hoping to be transformed.”

Sheesh, can I get an easy question like, “What kind of water filter are you using?” (A Sawyer Mini Filter . . . Worked like a rock star) or “What was your favorite piece of gear?” (My Purple Rain Adventure Skirt . . . Simply the best gear choice I made.)

Seriously, though, I knew this journey would be transformational. How could something like this not be? And I knew that I wanted to be open to what the experience had to teach me and not manipulate it. I also wanted to go in with a bit of a plan so I could direct some of my time on the trail in order to help facilitate growth in specific areas. So, for my over-scheduling, list making, achiever personality, I was seeking rhythms and disciplines that would be life-giving while trying to balance those disciplines with open hands, allowing God to direct the journey as needed. Easy, right?

Speaking of God, when I started my planning I was in a bit of a rough patch in that relationship. I was having a difficult time spiritually in the midst of some things going on in my life. Remember the angry, cynical, bitter Tami I wrote about in the last post? Those things have a way of taking over your heart and mind if you let them, not leaving much space for hope, faith and love. I knew those good things were still in there at my core and I knew God was still a central part of my life but it was becoming more difficult. I felt strongly that I needed to grab hold of the opportunities this experience would offer to be transformed and renewed.

As I prepared for my journey, I looked forward to getting a glimpse of what it is like to be comfortable with so much solitude and be alone in my head all day without my normal myriad of distractions. To give my mind and heart the much-needed space to process hurts and questions without having a place to run away. It’s easy in my Portland life not to process things in a way that brings health and vitality. Instead, I just work harder, play harder, and entertain myself more.

So, I began the process of choosing very intentional and specific spiritual disciplines. If the term “spiritual discipline” is a new one for anybody reading I would encourage you to check out The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster or The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. The general idea is to pursue practices or actions specifically for the purpose of spiritual growth and transformation, a focus on our inward journey and heart. I wanted to see what it was like to practice a discipline with consistent dedication over a longer period of time. I was also hopeful that choosing to engage in the same daily practices would focus my mind as I walked.

The first discipline I chose to do was the Prayer of Examen at the end of each day. I love this part of Ignatian spirituality. The Prayer of Examen would provide self-review and reflection to help me be more aware of God’s presence in my life, name what I am grateful for, and notice patterns and areas of growth.

The second practice I chose was the discipline of study. For one-week periods of time I would memorize a passage of scripture, quote, poem, etc. and meditate on it daily while I hiked. I tend to read over things so quickly without letting the words sink beyond my head and into my heart. I was really excited about the practice of holding these words for a longer period of time and seeing what I noticed as I mulled them over. I asked a number of close friends and family to provide these pieces that I memorized. I loved carrying parts of these dear people with me as I hiked!

Finally, I decided to engage in journaling. I already loved journaling but had fallen out of practice over the past couple years. My hope was that it would become a normal daily routine again. The journaling had no specific focus . . . Just to write about my day and whatever else flowed onto the paper.

So, these are the disciplines in which I chose to engage. Now, for what transpired over the course of my journey.

Like with any discipline, or desired habit change, I started with the greatest of intentions. Similar to the intention I have that I will be disciplined and won’t buy the Chicago Mix Popcorn each time I walk into Trader Joe’s . . . If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, right?

As soon as I set foot on the trail, I was in a new reality, trying to figure out my daily rhythms in the wilderness and trying to simply keep myself hydrated and fed and to get to my next campsite each day. Around day five I realized I had written in my journal twice, done one Prayer of Examen, and had memorized nothing. I’m a perfectionist. This was not a perfect record.

I heard the voice of my friend, Martha, in my head saying, “Tami, be kind to yourself.” (For anyone else who finds this phrase helpful here’s a song for you to listen to from the wonderful storyteller/musician, Andrew Peterson. Actually, just listen to the the whole album!)

So, I took her advice, offered grace to myself, and looked at it with new perspective. I was essentially getting used to a new way of life. That by itself was so much transition! I allowed myself another week to adjust before focusing on the spiritual disciplines. I was reminded that I couldn’t change everything at once. Sometimes it’s just too much. I settled in for the long haul.

The Prayer of Examen, which I thought would be the easiest discipline for me, turned out to be the most difficult to engage. At other points in my life it has been really instrumental so I assumed it would be the same on the trail. However, I found myself so exhausted at the end of the day that I would crawl into my sleeping bag and forget all about it. Or, I would fall asleep in the middle of my reflection time. By the time I was in Washington, the Prayer of Examen had become a distant memory.

Unlike the Prayer of Examen, the discipline of study became the BEST PRACTICE EVER!! I had my doubts about this one and how much I would get into it. I was just memorizing stuff . . . How great could it be? Well, let me tell you! I started with one quote, memorized it and meditated on it. The next week I added another quote and then another and another. Each morning of my journey I would go through my entire repertoire of memorized quotes. By the time I reached Canada this would take me a little over an hour. I loved it so much that I started going through the list each afternoon, too. After going through the quotes I would then focus on the piece for the present week, saying it over and over, wondering about the words, the author, the context, and how it spoke to me at that time. Each day I would become aware of new things. Words would hit me differently throughout the journey and be exactly what I needed at the moment.

Between reciting each quote I also breathed a prayer, “Lord, my Lord, help me to listen to your voice and decide for your mercy.” This prayer got added onto during the journey as I realized what a difficult time I have fully trusting the Bible. Each time I read scriptures there are tons of questions that come up. Sometime in the Sierras I added “and trust your word” to my prayer so it became a rhythm of saying, “Lord, my Lord, help me listen to your voice, decide for your mercy, and trust your word.” This prayer brought each quote back to a central focus of listening and loving well.

The discipline of study has become a part of my daily life. It turns out when I really connect with something, I want to keep doing it! As I walk or run around Portland I find that the movement of my body automatically brings these memorized quotes to mind. The words are like old friends, reminding me of who I am, what I’ve learned, and what’s important to me.

Journaling was what I expected it to be. It didn’t surprise me too much. I used it much more as a record keeper for the journey (daily mileage, who I met that day, who I camped with that night, cool things I saw along the way, etc.) and sometimes I found the energy at the end of the day to document what was happening in my heart, as well. It has become a daily practice again. Mostly. No extreme likes or dislikes with this practice. It’s a staple discipline for me that consistently seems like a helpful way to process.

And, now for the greatest surprise of my trip! Prayer! I had not chosen prayer as a daily practice because, honestly, I was scared. I had not felt the desire to pray for a while and didn’t want to feel the weight of disappointment if I failed at this discipline. I was struggling to find the words to engage in conversation with God as I muddled my way through my spiritual life. With my cynicism hanging over me, I wasn’t sure what to say and felt overwhelmed by the heaviness of things going on in the world around me.

Then, one morning about a week into my journey, I felt so overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before me, the beauty surrounding me, and the gratitude I felt to be out there. The words just started coming out! I had tried for the past year to formulate words to prayers that I could authentically say and here I was just being present while the unformulated words started tumbling out of my mouth from deep within.

11746343335794

This location is where the praying started.

And that was just the beginning. Any of you who have backpacked for long periods of time with a group of people know that there is something about being in the wilderness that opens you up. You talk about things with your fellow backpackers that you would never talk about in the “front country.” This is how my prayers felt–the most open and authentic prayers. I said honest things and asked hard questions and trusted that God would hold those things with me.

This was exactly what I meant when I said I wanted to balance the trip with intentionality but also open hands to allow God to direct the journey. Since there was an opening, I jumped in and engaged fully in this gift.

So, now I’m off the trail, living a perfectly disciplined spiritual life. Ha! Not so. I write this not as someone who has not mastered anything (especially in regards to that popcorn at Trader Joe’s) but as someone embracing the journey of honest and messy spirituality.

Discipline is hard. It takes effort, intentionality, and determination, which can be exhausting at times. But if we want something bad enough, we’ll continue pursuing it. Change happens when we fully engage in opportunities for the growth and health we desire. And, now, after an intense encounter with these specific disciplines I find that my soul craves these life-giving practices.

And we won’t do it perfectly. No matter how dedicated we are to our spiritual life or change we desire some days are just . . . Blah (for lack of a better word). These are the moments when the phrase, “Be kind to yourself” is especially helpful. It isn’t, “Be kind to yourself, don’ t care anymore, throw in the towel, and give up.” It is about receiving God’s grace, offering grace to yourself, noticing where we got side-tracked, adding what we learn to our self-awareness file folder for next time . . . And choosing to try again.

It is a balance of discipline and open hands. Along the way we may find that the thing we are so adamant about engaging in just isn’t working for us (like the Prayer of Examen for me) or maybe doesn’t connect with how we learn. This is okay! Offer yourself the freedom to explore, practice something different, and release it if it doesn’t seem like a good fit. You may also find that God has something surprising and better in store for you that you hadn’t thought of. Like my prayer experience!

We all have to figure out how we honestly and authentically pursue Christ in our daily life depending on what that daily life looks like here, now, today. You may not have four months of free time to hike on a trail. I get it. I think sometimes we feel like we need some grand, big “thing” to help us pursue the Christian life while really it’s the little daily things that I’ve found are the most important–making the choice to intentionally interact with God even when we are tired, busy, uncertain, not sure what we believe, or when things seem to be going perfectly.

What does this look like for your daily life–here, now, today? Maybe there is a specific spiritual discipline you want to commit to daily for a month. Or, maybe you’re where I was before I left for my trip and any form of engaging with God would be a good place to pick up. Wherever you are in your journey I encourage you to just take one step down this path. That’s all there is to hiking any trail–metaphorical or literal–one foot in front of the other walking towards your desired destination.