Wayfarer

person standing on top of rock
Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

I stayed up too late and woke up the next morning later than I wanted, and then had to make the decision to do my run late in the morning when it was hot. Too hot. I was tired from our week in the Sierras. Tired from all of the things I have to do. Tired from single mothering, but not resentful. Just tired.

The kids ride their bikes while I run in this quarantine life we now lead. Pre-COVID, I could find times to run when they were at school, daycare, or with a sitter. I am less than a pound away from pre-COVID weight and determined to keep up my workout routine. There is a lot of work still to be done to reach my goals, but I am finally seeing more muscle definition and movement in the right direction. Pre-COVID, I was paying for a gym and a trainer and pilates, but always finding myself not able to make it over there more than once or twice a week, max. I don’t know why or how, but right now, at this moment, the mental switch for working out is on in my head. I am hyper aware that this switch can easily turn off. My life is spent trying to keep the switches on. Coaxing them to stay on. Finding ways to avoid turning them off. So I ran in the heat, because the switch is on, and because I’m worried that it can easily be turned off when I’m not looking. Also, I’ve learned from years of pursuing fitness, that the conditions are almost never excellent. You just have to go for it.

The kids whined.

“Why do we have to ride bikes while you run?”

“Can’t you run tomorrow?”

“I’m tirrrrred.”

“This is boring.”

It’s always the same. Resistance to doing. Gravitating toward the path of least resistance– staying home and doing what they want. Putting up resistance to whatever I propose that interferes with their plans. It’s all very predictable, so I thank them for supporting my exercise, just like I spend endless hours supporting their activities.

They usually stop their whining at this point. I can never tell if it’s because my point resonates, or just regular guilt.

“Next year Peter Jack is old enough to do the family retreat at Plum Village,” I told Ethan as he rode his bike parallel to my strides, the other two kids ahead of us on their bikes.

He grunts a response. He has no idea what Plum Village is.

“It’s in France,” I add.

This didn’t impress him. But he usually goes along with most of my plans. And likely we won’t be going anywhere next year anyway if this COVID-19 business isn’t resolved, which he knows.

I remember hearing about Plum Village place years ago. There are family retreats. Kids need to be at least six-years-old, which has always disqualified us. Four weeks. Mindfulness. Meditation. Countryside. Community. Peace. It all seems romantic.

“You know,” I said to Ethan. “The reason I want you kids immersed in Buddhism is because it’s like a pair of glasses you put on– it changes how you see the world.”

Ellie was now around to hear this part.

“I wear glasses,” he said neutrally.

“There are different kinds of glasses we wear in life. These are the ones that help us find happiness.”

Ellie listened, interested. This is the girl who already cares about smooth skin and maximizing creature comforts. I’m positive she will also be in the market for happiness hacks.

Happiness, I’ve concluded, is a way of processing the good and the bad, and finding a way to land on the side of gratitude. If there are any tools I can give my children early to help them in their pursuit of happiness, I want to provide them. Whether or not it resonates will depend on their own will, but at least I did my due diligence as their mother.

I was baptized Catholic. We didn’t go to church, but I tried to go with my aunt. I tried several times, for several years, to be a part of it. I even became someone’s godmother. I wanted to believe. It would have been easier to believe– the path of less resistance. It just didn’t work out that way. Guilt is not the way to make something resonate in your bones. I’ve always struggled with compliance when something didn’t feel right.

Years later, I would go to a Buddhist temple for the first time with my husband, then boyfriend, in a little place tucked away amidst farmland in Sebastopol, which is about an hour away from San Francisco. We attended services there almost every time we visited his son, who lived nearby. I did not put my hands together during service. I did not repeat any chants. I liked it well enough, but at this point I had convinced myself that anything organized bred sheep, and I would not be a sheep.

When we had our own kids, I agreed to raise them Buddhist, which didn’t conflict with my atheist beliefs, and was something my husband had stronger opinions about and cultural history. I gave my husband the green light to take our children to dharma school on Sundays. Sometimes I would join them. Most of the time I stayed home with a baby because it was easier– the path of least resistance.

Until he unexpectedly passed away.

I guess I could have stopped taking the kids to the temple, but that never seemed like an option to me. This was during the stage of my grief when I clung to any and all reminders of my late husband.

But I felt like a complete fish out of water. I had no idea what the social norms were. I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t feel like a part of any group there. Before, I could follow my husband’s lead or hide behind him. Without him, I had become one of the few non-Japanese people there and I didn’t know anyone’s names. I also suffered from an existential crisis. Did I belong there? Should I be there?

My husband used to cheat and slip in right before dharma school– avoiding the hour service– but I was too embarrassed to do that. I’m a rule follower. So, I’d take the kids to service: the 1-year-old, 3-year-old, and 6-year-old at the time. It was a battle. At first we were always late, never finding parking and having to park in a nearby neighborhood, where I would lug the baby and pull the toddler by the arm and be out of breath and sweaty before we even found a pew– if we found a pew. When you’re late, you have to do the embarrassing make-everyone-get-up-and-squeeze-by-them-while-everyone-looks move. The baby would inevitably be loud and squirm and try to scribble on everything while throwing a service book on the ground. I was a silent observer, listening to the chanting, watching everyone else press their hands together in gassho but not participating. Just an observer. Not a sheep. Half the time I’d be reduced to tears over the entire experience, wishing my husband didn’t leave me to do everything on my own. Wishing I belonged somewhere. Wondering if I had been permanently sent to live in exile.

But over time, I started to explore Buddhism deeper. I learned why they pressed their hands together and why they chanted and what different symbols meant. None of it compromised what I had already believed. If anything, it articulated what I already felt to be true. I’d listen to adult study discussions.  I started getting to service early and finding parking, making the experience a little easier. I read and read, and one day I realized: I think I need this to live a happy life. Attending on Sundays no longer felt like a chore or obligation, but something that felt good for my body and mind.

I didn’t need it anymore to feel close to my late husband. Rather, it ended up being a tool that he inadvertently gave me to continue being happy after he was gone. Everything I learned resonated with my being. It gave me a lens to look through in life to help me process my suffering, helping me sift through the good and the bad, and stitching together a new normal that could still bring me joy and gratitude.

In 2008, when I went to that tiny temple in Northern California, they were trying to legalize same-sex marriage in the state. I remember the reverend telling the congregation that she had been getting phone calls from other religious groups demanding to know what Buddhists think about same-sex marriage. She shrugged and said, we don’t comment on those matters. It’s for the individual to decide. She said life was like climbing a mountain. We are all headed in the same direction, toward the same fate. How you choose to ascend the mountain is your choice. That always stuck with me.

My quarantine runs aren’t ideal. I can’t listen to my music, go at my preferred pace, or do as many miles as I would like. Such is the nature of single parenting and always being on duty. Ten minutes into the run and the kids transition from whining to the bickering phase. It’s typically over who gets to be in the front.

“I want to be the leader,” Peter Jack will cry.

“It’s my turn!” Ellie will protest.

“No, it was your turn last time, it’s my turn,” Ethan will whine.

It’s like clockwork. It doesn’t matter how fair or unfair the situation is, they’ll find a way to bicker. I have to go into my spiel about leaders not always leading from the front. They also lead from the back! And the middle! We can all be leaders!

And they’ll quiet down. Later, through my heavy breathing as I run, I’ll praise their leadership from wherever they are in line.

“Great job, Petey. You’re such a great leader in the back, protecting me!”

“Great leadership in the middle, Eloise! You really know how to keep enough space between other riders and work hard.”

“Excellent leadership in the front, Ethan. Good job looking both ways and watching for cars!”

It goes on and on. Parenting can be exhausting, but if the kids don’t learn perspective from us, who will they learn it from? And if we don’t work on our own mental toughness, we will guide them toward cycles of trauma instead of giving them the tools of resilience to work through their own experiences.

It’s a huge responsibility, and one that I don’t always get right. But I keep trying. For their happiness, but also for my own.

I decided to rent a house in Oakhurst, where it would be secluded and we could hike and spend time in Yosemite with social distancing. It wasn’t a risk-free plan, but after agonizing over our options, I decided it would be safe enough. Even safer than camping, because we wouldn’t have to share a bathroom with anyone.

As we began to hike the Lewis Creek Trail on our last day, Peter Jack started like clockwork with his whining. He was tired. Hot. His feet hurt. We hadn’t even crossed the trail head yet. Same story, different hike.

It’s a lovely trail, with the sound of rushing water from the creek, lush forest all around providing a canopy of foliage during most parts of the hike.

Peter Jack still whined.

The kids kept stopping to look at rocks and wildflowers. There was a spider who made a bowl-shaped web. More flowers. Poison oak. My dad, eternally impatient, was noticeably swallowing his impulse to keep hiking instead of dawdling, probably realizing that it was a losing battle to convince me to speed up my kids. Kids want to touch and feel and look and listen and smell. We have immense responsibility to help shape the way they navigate life, but kids also have a lot to teach us about being present and noticing the small things and simple pleasures in life. We should take their lead too.

Stacking a pile of rocks.

Picking up the perfect stick.

Finding just the right rock, and not being able to decide, so taking as many as can fit in your pockets, and then handing your mom several to hold too.

Staring at an exceptionally large ant.

Following the fluttering of a striped butterfly.

“Peter finally stopped whining,” I announced. “He always complains at first, and then he realizes that he actually likes whatever we are doing.”

“He’s just like his mother,” my dad retorted.

He’ll never stop reminding me about our backpacking days almost twenty years ago that involved me refusing to leave my sleeping bag until it was warm enough outside. That is who I am in his mind until the end of times– a whiner who wouldn’t comply.

Except, that is not who I am.

Actually, that’s exactly who I still am.

But! I object to the notion that I am still the 18-year-old version of myself. It’s more nuanced than that.

My favorite part of the outdoors are the creeks and rivers. We went to a swimming hole that I have been to as a child, and it made me think about something I heard about a river never being the same. Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that it is not possible to step into the same river twice.

It looked the same, yet it was not the same. The water was different– it melted from different snow packs. The rocks were different. The trees surrounding it had changed. And yet, it had the same name, in roughly the same place, with roots and soil that existed before human existence.

Like the river, I am not the same as I was when I was the girl whining in her tent. Just as it is not possible to step into the same river twice, it is not possible to step into the same day twice. What I know and how I feel today is drastically different than the girl who I used to be twenty years ago, even though we go by the same name.

Traveling is interesting. I live to travel, and I am pretty good at dealing with the good and the bad of a trip after decades of traveling experience. No trip is without elements of negative or unpleasant. They are not separate from your ideal– you accept the bad moments to get to the great experiences. It’s what I call the cost of doing business.

It usually starts with your accommodations– you will either be satisfied or experience something that doesn’t meet your expectations. On this particular trip, I expected to rent a cabin that would save me from the troubles of camping, and I envisioned doing lots of reading (packed two books!) and writing prolifically with the forest as my inspiration to fuel boundless creativity and motivation.

In actuality, we got a cabin that was clean and had a shower, but it was so hot it got up to 90 degrees inside. Oh yeah, and the kitchen almost caught on fire. Needless to say, I only read two pages total and I got no writing done. Overexcited kids wouldn’t fall asleep and bounced off the walls each night, keeping me from any sort of creativity. I’d fall asleep in complete exhaustion with a pile of limbs surrounding me.

I’m used to this though. I’ve rented places before that didn’t end up being what I wanted, and I’ve learned to roll with it. I’ve been a mother for a decade now. The flexibility and patience comes with practice, and yet I still have more to learn. You accept your deflated expectations in order to have a trip you will enjoy. Nothing will ever be perfect, so it is up to you to see what you will and make the best out of the rest. Experience can teach you to plan accordingly and make changes when there are problems. You spent time and money and energy to be there. The time goes fast and the money will be gone. It becomes a game of strategy figuring out how to make the best out of any situation. You learn by trial and error.

John Muir– considered the Father of the National Parks– once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Our good and bad experiences.

The earth and its inhabitants.

The people in our lives. The people not in our lives.

Our experiences.

Joy and suffering.

Public health. A virus that transcends borders, reminding us that we are not separate. If anything, our footprints in this life must be chosen carefully, because they impact others in ways we can not always see.

The Dalai Lama said, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.

We were not supposed to be in Yosemite this year. We had airplane reservations to be in Japan and Thailand, but a global pandemic had me looking for a Plan B escape from the confines of my home to release pent-up wanderlust causing restlessness inside of me.

Yet, being in the Sierras seemed like just the right adventure for my little family, especially during these trying times. Almost like we planned it in advance. Our destiny. Perfectly aligned with our souls.

Why do we find nature so relaxing? Is it because it reminds us where we come from? Why are the trees calming? Why does the sound of moving water lull us to sleep? Why does it have the ability to slow us down and ground us in the present moment?

Nature is both peaceful and violent though. One can not exist without the other.

Somehow we tune out the violent side when we make these visits to the wilderness, but I can’t help but wonder about the importance of noticing the ugly side of what is happening too. Understanding it. Letting it resonate inside of us so we can strive for better.

There are acres of barren, scorched trees that still stand from a fire.

We passed a tree growing out of a rock. I wondered how that particular tree managed to eke out an existence. What lucky seed landed in just the precise spot to grow and stretch toward sunlight when other seeds did not succeed, and how the rock managed to split over time to accommodate the girth of an expanding tree trunk, but not crumble? One day it will crumble, and maybe that tree won’t exist anymore. Maybe we won’t exist anymore when that happens.

There are trees dying from global warming and droughts. Overpopulation and overdevelopment. Human-caused destruction.

Yosemite Valley was eerily empty. I told my children they would never see it that empty again in July. It is not lost on me that the decision to limit visitors during COVID-19 can only be a good thing for the plants and animals. Maybe there is a balance we have chosen to ignore. Maybe we should find it. These are times for analyzing the good and the bad. We have an opportunity to stitch together a new normal.

Peter saw a picture of John Muir. “Is this the wizard?” he asked excitedly.

Yes, the wizard of dreaming and hoping and advocating for the preservation of nature. The wizard of bringing us back to where we started.

On one of our hikes, Peter did a double-take of a couple young women who walked in the opposite direction of us on the trail.

“They look fancy,” he said, watching them for a bit before resuming his pace. He is like his father with an eye of appreciation for the ladies.

I tried not to notice their cute yoga pants and matching tops, or the way they found time to put on make-up and smell like perfume. 20-somethings. Fancy. Lots of time and not a lot of responsibility. Those were the days.

But I remember being their age on the trails, single, watching the couples with their small children. I would try to imagine what my own future kids would be like. I couldn’t wait to take my own children on hikes. To travel with them. To be their mother and have that responsibility. There was envy in my veins each time I would see those little families, wondering when it would be my turn.

And when my husband passed away, I felt rage when I saw other people– husbands and wives– and their little families. Intact. Mine, irreparably broken. My turn stolen by nature.

We went to Yosemite with my husband one time, when my oldest was a baby. The other two children never went camping with him. They don’t even know the sound of his voice.

All of these years later, I held Petey’s sweaty hand, guiding him on the steep, narrow parts of the trail that looked down on a rushing creek below. I was not wearing cute yoga pants or smelling as good as the fancy young girls, yet I had what I once wanted. Maybe not entirely. But I no longer look with rage at the husband and wife passing us on the trail with their baby in a back carrier. That is their story. Their journey.

This is all mine. The good and the bad. The joy and the suffering. Requited and unrequited. Past and present. A future to forge and navigate, not replicate.

The river does not stay the same.

Neither does our lives.

And when it’s over, it’s over.

We can only strive for the most authentic life at this precise moment. Doing the best that we can. Excavating happiness during all turns in the journey.

At the end of our hikes, I would ask the kids if they had fun.

Yes, they would say, their pockets bulging with rocks.

I would remind them that it feels so good to accomplish something that required a lot of effort. To put in the sweat and energy to do something bigger than us, overcoming resistance.

Then, we go home and look at our pictures. We do not remember the sweat or sore calves, but only how picturesque the experience was. The pride of accomplishment. It’s easy to forget the bad when all we can see is the good.

That’s traveling.

That’s life.

That’s having the ability to choose what we focus on.

On our way home, we stopped at a gas station where I always used to stop with my husband. It was a tradition on our road trips. Those same long trips we used to make in the beginning of our relationship to see his son, to go to that little temple next to farmlands. I know exactly where the bathrooms are in my favorite gas station. The coffee. The candy aisle. The kids know where the stuffed animal rack is. I have traveled through this area as a young woman newly in love. As married new parents. As a widow. This year, the kids had to wear masks as they rushed in and out to use the bathrooms, not able to enjoy the stop like they usually do.

The same stop, the same aisles, but not the same. It never was. This is not good or bad. It just is.

We tie-dyed shirts to wear on our trip. The last time we tie-dyed was a few weeks before Kenneth died, at Ellie’s 3rd birthday party. In the four years that has passed, the kids have outgrown their shirts. It was time to do it again.

I have to say, tie-dye cheers me up. And it looks like Grateful Dead– my favorite. My husband hated them. Now I can listen to their music whenever I want–in my car, as I cook in the kitchen– just as I please.

Sometimes I catch a verse of a song that has me lingering in its meaning. I can feel the way it resonates in my bones.

“There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone”

-Grateful Dead, from the song “Ripple”

I don’t know, people. I’m kind of wishing that someone gave me a booklet in kindergarten telling me that life was all about being a wayfarer, navigating the trials and tribulations of the journey. The cost of doing business– of being alive. It would have certainly softened the blows of disappointment at various moments in my life. But now, it just feels like an opportunity to maximize the potential of each day. Happiness not being about good or bad. Not a game of keeping score. It’s just a mindset. 24/7. Using every instrument we have to find our way when we get lost. An eternal balancing act. Living wild and free just as we are– like nature– in a vast universe that promises us nothing.

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