I’ve been feeling anxious. On the outside it seems as though I have everything under control. I seem deliberate and methodical as I manage the day to day work tasks and hospice care decisions. I continue to promote a positive outlook on life that is filled with gratitude. But there are moments like this morning where I feel a lump in my throat and my heart racing and I can’t put my finger on what it is that is bothering me. I feel like I am perpetually waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.
Friday the contractor wrapped up all the work he and his crew could do for us on the house until some replacement kitchen cabinets arrive at the end of April. Sarah and I celebrated that milestone and our own eight years of dating milestone by going out to dinner at the Lucky You Lounge shortly after the contractor pulled away with his trailer.
Yesterday we woke up extra early with anticipation for finally setting back up our dining room and living room. We had two large cardboard boxes filled with custom built chair parts that needed assembly that we had ordered several months ago but couldn’t get at due to the pile of furniture and other residue of the construction site. Our dining room rug and 8 foot dining table and chairs were a big obstacle so we made moving those back in place our first priority. By 7am we were building the second chair and had the living room back. We were relieved that the chairs weren’t damaged because we had held on to them unopened far beyond the return date.
As we moved stuff out of the bedroom and back into their normal space, I felt like a new bud uncoiling the petals of a blossom. I didn’t realize just how tightly bound I had felt all these winter months.
We had spent the last 5 months cramped up in our master bedroom and bathroom. Now suddenly we had cleaned up our downstairs den, dining room, living room and we had our guest bathroom back which meant we reclaimed some of our privacy lost by biological needs of our contractors who walked through our bedroom to get to the only functional toilet in the house.
We were deeply satisfied to be back in our spaces. I spent the afternoon studying my sailing textbook in the den while Sarah flittered about the upstairs happily dusting every surface she could find. As I read I noticed that I couldn’t settle in and concentrate like I normally can. I felt restless and jumpy.
After taking the self test for three chapters and studying the answers I gave up and came upstairs to sit by the fire. I pulled out my cell phone and opened the kindle app and started reading a book I just acquired titled Syntax of the River: The Pattern Which Connects by Barry Lopez and Julia Martin.
After just a few pages I got really excited as I realized I had attended a lecture by Barry Lopez many years ago. What triggered the memory was his description of having lived on a piece of land adjacent to the McKenzie River for over 40 years. He described the process of becoming intimately aware of the landscape to where he could know if the river had risen or dropped by three inches just based upon the sound. He describes the anxiousness that comes every September 17th when the Chinook Salmon arrive. They are like the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano that migrate on the same day each year.
Lopez talks about how “being intimate with a place helps you understand the pathways to become intimate with complex ideas.” Essentially what he is saying is that if we observe the patterns of nature we can gain insight into what it means to be alive.
In one section he describes observations he has made of the movement river water that resonated with my life at the moment. He says that if you watch a river and see a leaf floating on the surface it will move slowly. A leaf that is waterlogged will sink below the surface and move very fast because there is no surface coefficient of tension from the air. But if you can peer down to the bottom you will see leaves that have sunk to the bottom and no longer move.
I think that these observations are parallel to my own experiences right now. On the surface I appear calm and deliberate in my actions. I am attempting to navigate the friction of a home remodel, work challenges, and the stress of helping elderly parents and managing the relationship with hospice and caregivers.
Just below the surface hidden from view is my elevated heart rate and blood pressure. There is that lump in my throat that tells me that I could cry at any moment, and I probably should, just to release the tension. It is tempting to avoid the tension by turning to social media, scrolling through the news or work emails, but it is a distraction that gives the illusion of life under control. Being busy all the time is a sign I am not wanting to address some vulnerability in my life at that moment.
Thankfully, my art leads me back to a more centered place. Just observing light move across the landscape can help me enter into a more peaceful mindset that recognizes the interconnected nature of things.
In my earlier years I would often travel to make photographs. The travel was good as it exposed me to different cultures and world views that expanded my own, but at a certain point I became aware of how travel itself can be used as a distraction. As my life became more fulfilled the more roots I set down.
These days I am finding a better balance between travel and staying home on our almost acre of rural land where I have lived for the last 16 years. My wife and I have kept a list of more than 28 species of birds that have passed through our yard. Many of these would have been missed if I had not been home and working outside as the flock came through for an hour or a day before passing on to their eventual seasonal destination.
Just a couple of days ago a chickadee landed on a birdhouse that was intended for a bluebird and was just about head high to me. The little bird and I stared at each other for a long moment and then the Chickadee rose up from the roof of the box and hovered directly in front of me for another moment before landing on a branch directly next to my ear.
The chicadee’s behavior wasn’t as aggressive as the female hummingbird that builds her nest near our back deck and flies patrol every spring and throughout the summer months. This hovering and landing near me seemed more like an acknowledgment of mutual respect and interdependence for one another and a recognition that each of us shared in a common cause of living in harmony together on that small patch of land.
For me the place that has the most meaning is my home here in the Columbia Plateau. For others their landscape they feel closest to might be in metropolitan city or a remote desert. The British Explorer Ralph Bagnold spent years observing the sand dunes in Libya. He wrote about the question that came to mind as he observed two sand dunes converge and then diverge leaving a small dune behind in the wake. He pondered, “was I watching a biological or geological phenomena?”
Awareness of the surface tension in my life and slowing down helps the moments pass as I step deeper into my faith practice and seek comfort in prayer and meditation. Getting in touch with my spiritual self is what allows me to continue to cross the stream of life that is rushing up against me. Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.“
From fly fishing I have learned to observe the insects, weather and water conditions. Fishing helps me practice my faith in the hidden and unseen that is sometimes rewarded with a quick tug of the line on my rod.
In my daily busy life I take these experiences and observations with me and I try to remember that I can make it across any river by wading slowly and connecting with the stillness of the bottom.
I made this photograph while camping at Big Lagoon County Park on the California Coastline in 2021. I stopped there after a long day of riding my motorcycle. I could hear Elk calling from the darkness and saw some the next morning. There weren’t any campers there that day so I had a quiet moment alone which felt like a tremendous gift.
The most powerful line I have read so far from Lopez is, “We can learn about GOD from anywhere.” I think he is right.