To the woods, much to learn

Resource: Edward Abbey’s « Desert Solitaire, » chapter titled « The Heat of Noon: Rock and Tree and Cloud. »

« We need  wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there…We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope. » 

We weren’t meant to live together like this, as sardines in a can. It brings out the worst in us. As I was writing my book about the goodness of people, I fought rage and disbelief at the impolite, ignorant and unkind actions of my fellow commuters on public transit. People didn’t hold doors, didn’t say hello before asking my order, seemed completely obtuse to the little acts of politeness and kindness that make living so closely together pleasant, or, at least, bearable. I struggled with how to reconcile these feelings of negativity and disappointment about the state of metropolitan humanity with what I was writing and concluded this: when we have space, both physically and mentally, we are our best selves. The people I met in the suburbs or in the country along my bike ride were so relaxed, open and friendly. They had the time, space and money to be at peace, present and kind. In the city, we are rushed, stressed, neglected, and very distracted. Unconsciously and unintentionally, we trample each other in our fight to survive. The smog, the crowds, the line-ups, the competition, the inadequacy of resources for all, the inequality in our faces. Modern societal infrastructure is not beneficial to our mental nor physical health. We need to spread out and get out. To the woods!

« We may need [the wilderness] someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. »

Refuge, indeed. The wilderness is the pinnacle of social distancing. Living like sardines is what has enabled the COVID-19 virus to spread as quickly as it has. Not only do we need the sanctuary of forest to escape authoritarian government and political oppression, but also from the spread of disease. (However, since our education system only teaches us how to survive in cities, to be a cog in the machine, we don’t even know how to go off and live in the woods, even if we wanted to.)

« Yet history demonstrates that personal liberty is a rare and precious thing, that all societies tend toward the absolute until attack from without or collapse from within breaks up the social machine and makes freedom and innovation again possible. » 

I am incredulous at how appropriate is to read these words at this time, amidst the growing pandemic of COVID-19. Personal liberty in society is precarious and limited, and this « attack from without » certainly is forcing us to recognize that. Had we each been living off in the woods somewhere, like the hermit Christopher Knight did (The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel), this pandemic would not exist.

« The city, which should be the symbol and center of civilization, can also be made to function as a concentration camp. »

Definitely food for thought. Let’s take a conspiracy theorists view of things, shall we? A concentration camp is a place where large numbers of people are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labour or to await mass execution. » Well, with the closing of nearly everything, schools and all non-essential businesses, the forced labour possibility is looking pretty slim. At least, labour as we’ve known it. So that leaves mass execution. Sequestered in our populace cities, we are sitting ducks. But why? Population control? I am clearly not a clever conspiracy theorist, but I have a friend who is. He tells me that the whole virus is « the excuse for the vaccine that will alter our DNA forever. » The spread of the virus itself is scary enough. Conspiracy theories are scarier.

« Large masses of people are more easily manipulated and dominated than scattered individuals. »

Quite ironically, due to the threat of catching and spreading the Corona virus, I had to cancel my trip to the remotest known hiking trail where I would have lived alone in the woods for a week, the perfect self-isolation and quarantine possible. Large masses of people are also less likely to think for themselves and, more relevantly, are more easily susceptible to contagions!

« Of all the featherless beasts, only man, chained by his self-imposed slavery to the clock, denies the elemental fire and proceeds as best he can about his business, suffering quietly, martyr to his madness. Much to learn. » 

By contrast, this featherless she-beast has chained herself to a self-imposed curriculum that feeds her elemental fire. And though I suffer from anxiety-induced paralysis that flourishes in large doses of unstructured time, the Corona Curriculum is helping me to go about my business, enjoying creativity and learning, quietly and at leisure. No fear, no distraction, no madness. Much to learn.

 

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The Corona Curriculum, Part 2 of 2.

Identifying the curriculum helped. For a day. Yesterday. I washed the floors and dusted, read one chapter from each of the three books I have on the go, wrote a blog post, ran out-of-door errands despite the rain, bottled kambucha and downsized my kambucha-making station, and marked student assignments. Sufficiently productive.

I awoke this morning to the paralysis caused by anxiety I am sometimes familiar with. Already! I don’t do well with large pockets of time. They loom over me, suffocate me, hold me down, render me unable to start. And, as much as « people, not a fan » is my mantra, the lack of social interaction is also taking its toll. A troll in a cave. The minutes slip by like more quicksand as I sink deeper in the mire of my mind.

I found the gumption to call a wise friend, but when we got disconnected, the fortitude was used up and calling back felt daunting. She called me back, thankfully. I liked her phrasing, « What helped me, was… » No use of the word « should, » no unsolicited advice, just something to consider, without telling me to consider it. Brilliant.

So in addition to the curriculum, a syllabus might help. Identifying all the things I can and want to do is not enough. I need a schedule, a daily checklist. Keep it simple and attainable. Here it is:

  • read one chapter from each of three books
  • write one blog post
  • go for a one-hour walk (or longer) (or the stairs) (or a home workout)
  • play the ukulele for one hour OR watch a film from your carefully-collected collection (or both)
  • mark five student assignments

That’s it. Let’s start with that. Despite my struggle, I am still appreciative of this pause in time. And even though I know it’s okay to do nothing, it’s simply not how I’m wired. I’m feeling better, I’m up, breakfast has been eaten, a second cup of coffee nearly finished, and I am the press-of-a-button away from the first tick on the syllabus for today…

 

 

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The Corona Curriculum

Three books on the go: American Isis, a biography of Sylvia Plath; The Hidden Life of Trees, a science book in layman’s terms about how forests function; and Desert Solitaire, reflections of a part-time forest ranger in the Moab Desert. I have also taken out my ukulele and song book from the closet. The home gym is good to go, too, and the thirty flights of stairs outside my door are ready to be climbed. Walking outside. My French film collection, slowly and carefully built during each of my visits to Paris over the past eight years, still contains un-watched titles. This blog, and a myriad of other writing projects and ideas, lay in waiting. And even more books to be read on my own private shelves, or online through ebooks and audio books.

YouTube. Netflix. Cooking. Cleaning. The « bird courses. »

And, for me, perhaps, even, the unthinkable: some wu-wei. Nothing at all. A « spare. »

Outside, in the forbidden world that perhaps is enduring a Second Flooding, in part not a bad idea at all if the « vulnerable sector » were defined in more sinister, karmic terms, it snows. Here, inside, at least two weeks of « self-isolation » begin. « The school is on lockdown. » I, for one, am giddy about it. And I hope it lasts longer than just two weeks.

Not that I want anyone to fall sick or die. I cancelled my trip, it seemed the responsible thing to do, even when I didn’t understand the hype, and still might not, fully. Since the most dutiful thing I can do in these times is stay home, and considering all of the occupations listed above are accessible to me here, I have a personal curriculum that will last me well beyond this pandemic.

« The difference between bliss and distress generally seems to be whether solitude is chosen or involuntary. »
– Christopher Knight, in « The Stranger in the Woods, » by Michael Finkel.

This solitude may be involuntary, but good comes of every bad, my mother always said, and I welcome the anomaly of an extended down-time where travel and my regular metropolitan distractions are not options. If I could ignore the « why » part of this equation, this would all be absolute heaven. I will need to run out to get wine, though.

The proverbial bell has rung, writing class is over, I’m off to my reading class, ciao for now, classmates.

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Not Enough Nothing

The wind howls outside my tenth floor apartment. It is negative twelve degrees Celsius outside, with a wind chill of negative eighteen. It is Saturday morning, five o’clock. What will I do with my weekend? Anxiety and pressure begin to mount. I really should do something with the time, take advantage, profit, right? But I hate the cold. And « should » is a red flag word for me.

I go in waves…sometimes it takes me a month to read a book, sometimes a day. Right now I am enjoying the latter, nourishing, through my eyes and my ears, my brain and my imagination. In the book I finished yesterday, « The Stranger in the Woods » by Michael Finkel, which I’d begun only the day before, Christopher Knight explains that for most of the 27 years he spent living alone in the woods, he did nothing. He watched Nature. He just was, just lived. « There isn’t nearly enough nothing in the world anymore. » How true. So much flash and bling and crash, boom, bang. This one little phrase helped me; gave me permission to do just that: nothing, something that is such a challenge for me. (I think that’s probably why I enjoy hiking so much; it is like doing nothing and doing a lot at the same time.)

Furthermore, I consider it a lovely marvel how each and every day, even after eleven years living  here, in my simple, modest, warm, perfect, little 420-square-foot rented apartment, that when I return home, I still think to myself: « I love my little place! » I really do. Tomorrow an Airbnb guest will arrive and share this tiny space with me for two weeks. So maybe I should just stay home and enjoy my space while I still have it to myself. I have no commitments today. Why not just relish in the elusive focus that is allowing me to read and feed my soul and my dreaming? I could just stay home all day long and read and drink coffee and eat and do absolutely nothing. What a thought! There is also my eclectic collection of old French films that I could blow the dust from and indulge in. Shelves and shelves of books here to read, or read again. There’s a downright wonderland of adventure by proxy here, where it’s warm, and quiet and free of stupid humans.

And…AND…it’s February 29th! It’s literally an extra day. A day off from the year. Oh, it’s settled. I’m staying home. Home, peaceful, home.

Farewell to rushing and bustling and people and places,
for a day.

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Nobody is going to listen to an asshole.

Happy Family Day, my fellow Ontariens, and everyone in Canada, no matter which day you get to celebrate this provincial holiday. To enjoy this lovely holiday, I awoke early, then made my way to the gym, a necessary evil in these cold winters. After a good sweat, I treated myself to a nice breakfast at a local diner, Hazel’s on Mount Pleasant Road. It was my first time there. It’s my kind of place: simple, no nonsense, friendly service, and reasonable prices. My server, Joanna, was lovely. I read a chapter from « Beyond the Trees » by Adam Shoalts. The sun was shining, a beautiful day, so I decided to go for a walk and headed north on Mount Pleasant.

I had only been walking for a few minutes when I passed a smartly-dressed gentleman in his sixties coming from the other direction. As he passed me, he wagged his finger in my face and began shouting at me, « You should be ashamed of yourself! You should be ashamed of yourself! » Stunned, I stopped. He kept walking. « Are you referring to my coat? » I called after him. I was wearing a Canada Goose jacket, something I purchased long before the controversy surrounding the company’s inhumane treatment of wild coyotes came to light. No answer. « Excuse me, sir, you can’t just go around verbally attacking people! If you have some information to share, please do! » He turned around and gave me double-gunned middle fingers and shouted, « Fuck you! »

I wish I could have seen the humour in such ridiculous behaviour at that moment. Instead, all I felt was bewildered and wounded. And angry. He thinks he can just shit on a random person walking down the street then scamper off scot-free? No way, Mr. Coward, not on my watch. So I followed after him.

« Sir, do you think anyone is going to be receptive to you verbally attacking them on the street? If you have information you’d like to share with me, I’ll listen! You’re being a coward! Why won’t you stop and have a conversation with me!? » I shouted  as I followed back after him in the direction from which I’d just come. He stopped again, wagging his finger in my face again. « I have to go visit a very sick grandchild in the hospital. Fuck you! » And off he scurried again. « Who says « fuck you » to a random woman on the street!? » I cried out, exasperated and incredulous.

At this point, a man from a business or restaurant nearby came out to see what was going on. It was clear something was going on from the man’s aggressive body language and the distraught look on my face. The man who had accosted me said something to the newly-arrived man, again with aggressive body language and pointing in my direction, then off he hurried again. He seemed determined to not have to face up to what he started with any intelligent or respectful conversation. Then the newly-arrived man turned to me and said, « I just came out to see if you were okay. By the way, I support the teachers. »

Oh. Right. I was wearing two pins on my coat; one that says « Class size matters » and one that says « Just let me teach. » Then, and only then, did I realize that this gentleman’s tirade, and I use the term « gentleman » loosely, may have had to do with the teacher strike and not my Canada Goose coat at all.

But, you know what? I’ll never know for sure, so articulate and effective was his attack.

Which brings me to the point of this blog.

If you have a point to make, be intelligent and respectful in making it. Even if you have insightful information to share, it will get lost in an angry and rude delivery. Even people who are « right » will lose their argument if they deliver their argument in a demoralizing and condescending way. And even if you don’t change the other person’s opinion or viewpoint, you might make them think differently about some things or consider new angles if you share your viewpoint in a kind and non-attacking way. BE KIND. Always.

I think what upset me most about that angry man’s actions was that his cowardice and lack of accountability. Did he give a second thought about the ramifications of him angrily lashing out to a woman alone on Family Day? Afterward, I cried. I’m thin-skinned, it’s true. I wish he’d seen that. Furthermore, what account, if any, of this incident will he share with his friends and family? « Hey, guys, check this out! I verbally attacked a random woman on the street today and made her cry and she doesn’t even know what my issue was! Who wants to give me a high five!? » A rule of thumb when dealing with fellow humans might be this: if you can’t go home and proudly tell your friends and family how you treated someone, you  should probably re-think how you treat people. He is entitled to have his opinions and voice about the teacher’s strike and Canada Goose jackets just like I am entitled to wear that jacket and my education pins. What neither of us nor any of us is entitled to do is to be randomly cruel to one another.

The kicker of all this is that I really don’t know if it was the jacket or the pins on my jacket that caused his inarticulate, hurtful, embarassing behaviour. I guess he sure made his point!

I’ll share a quote from the introduction of my book that quite applies here. « Our shared humanity and the impact we have on each others’ lives…can happen in the briefest of moments and can be either profoundly positive or deeply negative. » This incident happened 600 meters from my home. We are a community. We’re stuck with each other and our differing opinions. You won’t always be able to hide behind a screen or scamper off into anonymity.

To that gentleman, to myself, to all of us, a gentle reminder: Think before you speak. Be able to discuss what you feel strongly about in an intelligent and respectful way. If you speak, also listen. Think about the impact of your words and actions. And, above all, be kind, man, even if for no other reason than knowing that nobody is going to listen to an asshole.

 

 

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Fear and growing in This Oasis

Machines and paved roads
Comfort and ease
Survival instincts forgotten
The adventurous soul placated, suffocated
By trips to the grocery store in a car

My heart feels the pull of wild places
And strange, new faces
My mind is clearest in the woods
In the mountains, a speck in the plains
These two feet that work, and a backpack

The freedom and simplicity of solitary wandering
The kindness and majesty of trees
Quenching my curiosity, not squandering it
Being numbed by the system, the status quo
A feast for the imagination, and a pen

Make room for my mettle
I blaze an impermanent trail
No path to lead or to be left
Never-ending wonder and discovery
Nature, and worlds other than my own

The magical allure of unknown places
Of uncertainty
Electrically alive being uncomfortable
Fear and growing in This Oasis
Beyond the paved roads, infinity…

 

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Adrift

Maybe they weren’t award-winning, but I had the fire to write them. And I liked my poems. They are finished products. And perhaps my songs are simple, but I had the affliction to write them. Finished products. And maybe my book wasn’t a best-seller, but I had such passion in writing it. And I am proud of my book. Also, a finished product. I have always written. I had always wanted to write a book, I just didn’t have that unique subject to write about, until the bike ride. The bike ride was more than three years ago. The book was published more than two years ago. Since then, I have been hungry.

I thought giving up alcohol would be revolutionary. It’s wonderful that it isn’t. I am the same me, though a little more bored. It is disappointing, because I need a revolution! The dust needs a blowing, the soul needs re-calibrating. « A precise use, application, appeal. » The love of writing, the adventurous spirit. I knew writing about the Camino de Santiago was not in my heart. I tried to write about hiking up the southern coast of France, I tried to write about my solo hike and camp excursion on the Ozark Highlands Trail. These were not in my heart, either, as it turned out. So what will my next muse be? That is the torment.

No closer to finding love, though much more comfortable without it. Nothing good ever came from being safe and comfortable, though.

Fourteen years until I can retire. I can finally see this on my radar, though not what it will look like, but I’m starting to visualize. Buy three acres in Arkansas and build a yurt? Live there a third the year, live at home in Toronto a third the year, and live in Paris with  my dear best friend, Anthony, a third the year? Sounds charmed, and vaguely possible. Four months until summer. What will my next adventure be?

So many compass points, so little magnetism, at the moment. A little CPR for the blog, then. Not lost, just…adrift.

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