Bold colors, drips

Openness and Play

After a very brief bit of soul-searching, I decided a few weeks ago to take a job leading backpacking trips for the YMCA in Seattle this summer. The training we’ve done for the program, along with a bit of traveling and an epic frisbee tournament, has got me thinking a lot about relationships, communication, openness, and play. Mostly about how wonderful all those things are, and how little emphasis we put on them in everyday life.

The backpacking training came first, and it was hands-down the best orientation I’ve ever had for a job. We basically went out into the woods and mirrored the experience we would be facilitating for our participants later in the summer. We spent five days building groups, playing games, talking about emotional intelligence and generally having an awesome time. There were about fifty to-be instructors, and every single one was down to create a fun environment and get real with some pretty deep and important conversations. By the end of the five days, the incredibly supportive environment had allowed us all to bond together as if we’d been friends for years. And I’m pretty sure I will be friends with some of those folks for years to come.

I went straight from the orientation to Boston and then Vermont to visit family, especially my three-month old niece. We had a really great time making eye contact and sticking our tongues out at each other and napping. A different kind of bonding, but maybe only in the sense that it’s broken down to its essentials and not yet cluttered by all sorts of baggage and language and anxieties. I also had some really good time to hang out with slightly older relatives and friends, which reminded me again of the difficulties of choosing a coast. For the moment I’m still sticking with the west, though.

Two weeks in New England and I flew back to Seattle in time to go rock climbing in Squamish, British Columbia for a couple days (Side note: holy crap. This place is amazing. A climbing dreamland.) before heading to the biggest and best and silliest frisbee tournament in the country, Potlatch. I’ve been to Potlatch about seven times, and it never ceases to amaze me. There is such an incredible wealth of goofing around and great costumes and old friends and new friends and dance parties and bagels with peanut butter. It is not unusual to call a time-out for the sole purpose of setting up a slip-and-slide or having a picnic on the field. Team bonding and community building happens quickly and effortlessly.

But now I am back in “Real Life”, where people do not spontaneously burst into song or dance or wear face and body paint or play games where you make animal noises because you need a let off some steam. The world here seems to run on different energy, or with different priorities. There is a little bit more sarcasm, and people have thick skin. I’m not necessarily pushing for costumed-silliness 24/7, but I think there are some important values that these experiences highlight, and which are often overlooked in our day-to-day routines. Play is big one. Being open, authentic, and real is another. Being supportive and silly in a group, being honest about fears and dreams. These activities may only appear to be passing moments pasted into a larger reality, just vacations we take to “get away”. But they are actually the things that allow us to create strong bonds of friendship and love, and those are the things that really matter. All the physical stuff we acquire along the way is not the point, and I think in a lot of instances it actually makes it more difficult to build relationships and community.

The frisbee community and the outdoor community are groups that are serious about having a good time, making cool things happen, and building strong relationships. It takes love and generosity and openness to create a space for all that to take place, but it is one-hundred percent worth it. These are the things that make life so precious, rewarding, and fun, and I think we could all use a little bit more of that in our day-to-day lives.

Goats rock.

Competition, Comparison, Vulnerability

I just spent a beautiful long weekend in Stehekin, WA, aka Magical Dream Fairy Land. It’s a town of about 85 full-time residents, accessible only by 50-mile ferry ride or a long hike through the North Cascades. There is not much happening in town aside from a kick-ass pastry shop, and it’s surrounded by gorgeous peaks and hiking trails in every direction.

Normally when I go out in the woods like this, I have some big goal: summit a mountain, cover a lot of mileage, climb some difficult cliff faces. This time, not so much. With the support of my group of friends, I approached the weekend with a distinct lack of major ambitions or goals to achieve. Instead, we decided to focus on being present, being open to adventure, and taking things as they come. This is something I think about a lot, but have a hard time doing in real life. The weekend was great practice. Even without having a plan, we managed to camp in beautiful places, go on long walks, eat delicious food, meet new people, have really enjoyable interactions with all sorts of characters and wildlife, watch the sky change color, find animal shapes in the clouds, do sunset yoga, clamber around rock formations, play music everywhere, deepen our friendships, talk about life and the universe, breathe deeply, race sticks down rivers, lose ourselves, find ourselves, forget about cellphones and email, be amazed, eat more, walk more, find a healthy dose of peace of mind.

On the car ride home from the ferry we listened to a podcast featuring Brené Brown on vulnerability, and it summed up wonderfully a lot of the thinking I had been doing. My natural state has always been to be ambitious, competitive, and a bit (ok, maybe a lot) of a perfectionist. In general, this has treated me pretty well so far. I’m good at a lot of things, so I can usually do well enough to be satisfied with my performance. I’ve done a lot of cool things that I’m glad to have done, and I almost always function well in society. But this is a dangerous path, and ultimately not the one I want to follow. It means deriving happiness from comparison with others, either by raising my own status or lowering theirs or both, creating an unhealthy feeling of self-importance and ego. This works really well for a lot of aspects of life, and it’s strongly encouraged by our society and capitalism in general. It doesn’t work, however, for cultivating happiness.

Here’s what I haven’t learned to do yet, but this weekend reminded me I need to be working on:

Being vulnerable

Putting myself out there, especially emotionally

Being okay when things don’t go as planned

Being okay with not being the best at everything

Asking for help

Letting the universe point me in new directions

Failing a lot

Doing what feels right

Taking things slowly

Getting hurt

Forgiving myself and others



It’s not a comprehensive list, but a good start. If you’ve got suggestions, let me know…

This is Life

I took a long run yesterday and thought about how people recently have commented that I seem to be doing so much with my life despite my unemployment. This seems like a compliment, I think, so thank you! And it’s true that I have been unemployed before and not done nearly so much. But there is something different this time. It’s not exactly a sense of urgency; I think I’ve maintained a sense of taking things slowly. It’s more a feeling of: this is my life.

This is it.

Right now.

I’m not in some transition period between jobs. I’m not transitioning between school and work, or work and travel. I’m deep into the only transition there is, the transition from birth to death, and what I do today and tomorrow and the next day is my life.

My last stint of unemployment was in 2009/2010 for about 9 months. I was looking for a job the whole time and felt entirely consumed by the process. I did a few other things along the way (mostly I got a lot better at guitar and rock climbing, and read Infinite Jest), but I never felt productive or fulfilled. I was able to stay relatively happy through copious amounts of exercise and coffee, but the job search was exhausting and distracted me from what I had long valued in my life. I didn’t feel like I had the mental time or space to make art, partly because I didn’t feel like making art was what I was “doing” with my life. I was looking for a job, making myself employable, and working hard to make that employment what I was doing with my life. I was not an artist. I was an office worker, temporarily displaced.

This time things are different. I am living consciously, and I have a better understanding of the fact that my life is a collection of days lived, routines established, routines broken, people met, people loved, good books read and absorbed, emotions expressed, and beauty created. What am I doing with my life? I’m not “doing” anything. I’m living. Life is not an activity to be completed, rather an adventure to explore, a wonderful opportunity to grow for a while and then fade away.

So I’m spending my time on a lot of different things, enjoying the fact that life is full and vibrant and profound and hilarious. My run yesterday was thirteen miles, part of training for a marathon. It took me through or past eight parks in Seattle and around one lake, and it was gorgeous. I’ve been painting almost everyday, aiming to have a solid portfolio to show sometime in the next several weeks. I go rock climbing two or three times a week, depending on my tendon integrity. I do yoga most days at least once, and try to meditate every day between five and thirty minutes. I’m part of a community garden, a book club, a string quartet, and an indie-rock band that is starting to pick up some steam in the Seattle music scene. I play guitar and sing almost every day, cook meals with my roommates, and spend quality time with them playing games involving throwing dried beans into jars. I go on outdoor adventures and road trips to visit friends and national parks. I just started helping out a friend with his business leading after school music programs, and I’m in the process of starting a hummus business of my own. I occasionally write blog posts.

These are the things I value, and I am so excited to be able to do them all. Not everybody values the same things, and some of those activities might sound awful to you. But here is the main point. Last time I had time on my hands, I forgot what I valued, what was important to me in life. Once I was employed, I had less time on my hands and my forgetfulness deepened. I became wrapped up in routine and busy-ness. Money felt important, as if it were an end goal in itself. My brain got used to frying in front of a computer screen for hours a day. These things were bringing me closer to death at the same pace I’ve always been moving, but they weren’t allowing my life to flourish. Eventually I realized that these were not my values and I worked out a way to change my daily life to reflect what is important to me. So far it has worked. I feel good. I feel alive. I still drink copious amounts of coffee.