Stir-Crazy

(Second of two new posts on the same day. See the first one.)

There’s a feeling we’ve been getting to know very well lately. It’s the feeling of waiting. And waiting. And waiting—all while being unable to make any plans because, each day, it feels like what we really need to be doing is waiting some more.

When we started this trip at the beginning of April, we had an action-packed few months. Everything in our schedule fell into place, one thing after another—the Ozarks trip, the Possibility Alliance, the month at the Draw, the fast at Ni­gig­oons­imin­ikaa­ning,1 Feral Futures, Crowduck (for me anyhow)—and even the times in between seemed to fill up with awesome experiences with no effort on our part. In the last couple months, though, everything seems to have fallen out of joint.

When we met in Portland in mid July, we had nothing planned from then until the wild rice harvest at the beginning of September. Having no plan, we ended up doing nothing. It took us quite a few days of sitting around in a dimly lit room and watching TV before we hit a threshold and went crazy enough to jolt ourselves back into gear and make some plans, because plans weren’t going to just fall into our laps.

By then we barely had enough time to do anything, by our estimations. But once we started moving we were reminded of something that we’d learned in the beginning of the trip: that Newton’s First Law of Motion works in a more metaphorical sense too—a body in motion tends to stay in motion, and two bodies maybe even more so, and even when the motion is via hitchhiking.

We made a mad hitching dash out to the redwoods, through the Emerald Triangle of pot farming and all the bizarre and wonderful rides that entailed. Then after spending a few days in the mist underneath these indescribable trees, on our way back away from the coast, we got a ride from someone who asked us if we knew about the Frog Farm. Which is how we ended up, unexpectedly, staying for a week and working at said farm, a little spot in the Siskiyou Mountains where for twenty years or so Deb and Steve have been growing herbs and turning them into tinctures, salves, and other medicines, while also raising goats and fruits and vegetables for their table.

We picked so many blackberries at the Frog Farm. I had forgotten about Himalayan blackberries before I got to the Pacific Northwest this time around. They’re the Northwest’s tastiest plague. They have conquered the region and blanketed it in juicy delicious berries. We ate them at onramps and at our stealth camping spots and while walking down streets, but most of all we ate them and picked them at the Frog Farm, where the humans have made peace with the blackberry and now turn it into jam and wine. We also both got to carry goat kids one day, and we helped out with loading and unloading at the local farmers’ market, which is full of a strange mixture of dirty hippies and dirty conservatives, some of them the selfsame person, like the guy wearing both a skirt and a Make America Great Again cap. We swam in some of the clearest river water I’ve ever seen, and I read a preposterous profusion of books from a library in their house. We talked with Steve about environmental actions back in the old days, and learned some of what he’s picked up in many years of putting permaculture into practice on the farm. We heard the story of Deb and Steve’s marriage, which was conducted as an operetta, in which Deb was an oak spirit and Steve was a frog—

But wouldn’t he just?

—and at the end they kissed, and Deb turned into a frog. We made friends, as much as one can in a week, with some of the other folks living there—a number of people our age who are taking their own looping paths back to the land. Not to mention a number of very friendly cats. It was quite a week. And we didn’t plan any of it.

But we wanted to get back out to Minnesota to harvest some wild rice. So we said goodbye to everyone at the Frog Farm and started hitching again. And when we did, strangely, we began to know the frustration of waiting again. Now this was a bit strange. The last time we’d started moving physically, when we’d left Portland, the frustration of waiting had lifted off us and we’d found ourselves having fun. This time, we were moving physically, but as we crept gradually eastward amid rides that were slow to come, we woke up each morning a little bit more annoyed than the day before, and a little bit more nostalgic for our brief but amazing week at the Frog Farm.

When we reached Missoula at about five o’clock one evening, we broke down entirely. Misty had left their favorite hat in someone’s truck.

It was the best hat.

We strode around town trying to find the truck—the guy had told us very approximately where he lived—and of course came up empty-handed. As we searched, though, we talked: this, we conceded to ourselves, didn’t happen because of a momentary lapse of attention. It happened because we didn’t have our hearts in it.

When your heart’s not in it, you make mistakes. Like our friend Carrie, who mindfully, slowly walked up to the top of a mountain in Arizona, enjoyed the view, and after a calm moment, suddenly noticed she had ten minutes until her parents were going to pick her up—and ran back to the bottom unthinkingly, tripped over a rock, and sprained her ankle.

We stopped trying to make any distance that day. Just stashed our packs and hung out in Missoula. They were having a folk music festival, as it turned out. I know this was luck, but in my mind Missoula is the kind of place that’s just constantly having a folk music festival. We listened to music and drank beer. When we went to sleep, we weren’t as far east as we might possibly have been, but we were happy.

We got to Minneapolis very excited to learn how to harvest rice. At the fast in May, we’d committed ourselves to following the seasons in the Anishinaabe way as much as we could—ricing in the fall, sugaring at the end of winter—and I’d wanted to learn to rice for years even before then. It was finally time.

But once we got there, it started seeming that the universe was telling us that this was not our year to learn to harvest manoomin. We found out first that our friends Liz and Brandon had already gone with our teacher Pebaamibines up to Canada to harvest (and that there wasn’t much rice there anyhow). That was okay, because Memegwesi, a teacher from another language table we’ve gone to, was going as well, and invited me and Misty. But on the morning we were going to leave with him, we got a text from him from the previous night to tell us that his car’s front axle had broken almost in two and he wouldn’t be able to make the drive. I thought Donavan, who was planning to go with us and Memegwesi, might be interested in finding some other way to get out and harvest, but he told me his hand was actually hurt and he was going to call it off. I called and texted other people; none of them were going, or knew anyone who was going. Every road dead-ended before it got to the water.

Meanwhile, as I was searching, days were going by. The manoomin season was drawing toward its end. And the old restlessness was coming back for another round.

We’d planned to stay in Sprout House for a day, maybe two tops. As that number rose to a week and then kept on rising, our unease with how we weren’t doing anything became annoying, then pervasive, and finally existential. We watched many hours of Twin Peaks and felt useless. We watched our old housemates’ lives go by with purpose and goals, and felt bereft of reasons for being. I questioned our whole trip. Misty questioned whether they could really enjoy traveling with me. At the beginning of our relationship Misty said we should wait to commit to each other long-term until we’d had a good fight and recovered from it. After 2½ years we still haven’t managed to really fight, but we got pretty close this morning talking about the trip.

This trip was meant to be a joyful whirl of picking up wisdom around the continent. Somehow, though, we had managed to transform a year or more of freedom from obligations, with the opportunity every morning to start heading to almost anywhere we wanted to be, and visit anyone we wanted to learn from, into a bitter slog. After a day or so on the road to anywhere, I would start feeling little besides resentment at how the world had prevented us from arriving yet. And after a certain amount of time at any of our destinations, I would start to get antsy and wonder whether we’d make it on time to our next one. Misty is better at enjoying the present than I am, and I’m constantly learning from them. Yet they got frustrated too—not, usually, at our present circumstances for having the gall to not be the future yet, but with me for refusing to slow down for fear that we would never catch up with the future.

To turn such an opportunity into such an ordeal is a real trick. But sometimes dark magic comes more easily. I have a lot of learning to do, and I’m doing some of it right now.

I’ve always envied Misty’s ability to enjoy the moment, but I’ve always put off developing that skill myself until a different moment. Traveling has made me confront the destructiveness of that procrastination. Being present in the present is, as any Buddhist can tell you, a key to a life of enjoyment. But learning it requires changing yourself, and change is hard. I started traveling this time so I could get wisdom. I knew I might learn lessons I didn’t expect, but I didn’t expect that while I was traveling to such distant corners my lessons would come from regular old introspection.

We think we’ve figured out a good way to keep our eyes on the now. Basically, we need to stop using hazy plans.

Solid plans, those are good. No plan at all, that works too, as long as we always remember to be on the lookout for something to do, because there’s something to do everywhere. (On our trip back east from Oregon this last time, in fact, at least two people who drove us across parts of the Plains told us they knew someone who needed help on their farm.) The awkward middle ground, though, is what kills us. When there’s a plan, but we don’t know quite when it’s going to happen, or what specific place we’re going to go to (just a region), or whether the people we’re doing something with are still planning on that, or whether any number of other variables are actually going to work out. It draws us out of the moment, and into constant fretting about the next thing. A hazy plan can be okay, but only if we’re willing to toss it out the window as soon as something more definite comes into view.

So, our solid plan now is: we’re going back to Portland. Last time we met Misty’s birth mother. This time we’re meeting Misty’s half-sister. Misty’s never met any of their half-siblings before. Laura lives in Michigan. She really wants to meet Misty, because she doesn’t have much time left. About six months now, according to her doctors, before the cancer wins. We just came from Portland, but when we went the first time we didn’t know Laura was going to be visiting, or that the cancer had progressed so far—that news came to us at the end of the trip. It’s a little of a backtrack, I suppose, but given the circumstances, it’s pretty clear that it’s the right thing for us to do next.

I suppose we’ll see what happens after that. We’re working now on adding definiton and body to the hazy plan we’ve been working with for where we go from Portland this time. But at least we know that, so long as we respect the present, we’ll get along okay, and we’ll have more fun and learn more lessons more deeply.

  1. Which I do still intend to write about. I’ve run into a problem in that the fast was an incredibly meaningful experience for me, to the extent that it’s taking me a lot of effort to really do it justice in writing. That, and I’ve been having a hard time finding time to write. 

File under: Year of Transformation, mindfulness, deep thoughts · Places: Cascadia, Great Plains, Minnesota


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