Mother Nature Attachment Theory: Why Living in Harmony with Nature is Essential for Healing Ourselves, Others, and the World (Unabridged capstone presentation speech)

As a first year graduate student at Naropa, in my first semester, I was taking a class taught by Diane Israel.  We were learning about Erikson’s stages of development and Bowlbly’s and Ainswoth’s theory on attachment. It was late September. I was getting into the flow of school as Colorado’s Aspen trees were turning gold.  Diane had originally given us the assignment to observe a child and write about it, but with the class’s excitement about the trees, Diane decided to change the assignment to “go observe a tree.”

And so I did. With my pup in tow, I drove up the canyon to 10,000 feet at the Fourth July Trailhead outside Eldora.  In my journal I wrote:

I don’t feel young, like I do at times in the summer when I am running down a trail. Nor do I feel old. I just am. I wonder if this is how the trees feel. Not tired, but just ready for a slow down. Along with the trees, I am fully here for this change in season.

Driving back along the bumpy, Aspen and pine strewn trail towards Eldora, I wonder: what if there was a nature attachment theory? A theory that stated all living things are connected, from the dirt to the sky, from trees to humans. And if one was to let herself slow down, to remove the superficial thought and material things and just be, that she would be able to re-connect with nature, to be held by Mother Nature. In this re-connection, healing from the trauma of the “created” human world, harmony would be found. The attachment to Mother Nature has all

the love and safety one needs to be securely attached. In this oneness with nature, humans could become whole within themselves and with the world.”

That day, I began to create Mother Nature Attachment Theory.

Now before I dig into the presentation, I’ll very briefly describe attachment theory.  The theory states that in our earliest years, a safe and secure attachment to a primary caregiver is critical to development.  If a young child does not have her needs met, then the child will insecurely attach not only to their caregivers, but this attachment will carry on through life and later relationships.  

From my own definition,  Mother Nature Attachment Theory states that growing up and living with a secure attachment to nature is essential for humans to find harmony within themselves, as well for society to find harmony in itself.  An insecure attachment to nature leads to dis-ease among humans and destruction in society.

With this in mind, I came up with two principal questions:

Can Mother Nature help heal our attachment wounds in relationship with humans? And what happens when we, Mother Nature’s children, separate ourselves from the Earth?  Can we re-attach?

I also have to note the main limits of my research, the first being that I am personifying Mother Nature.  However, my hope is that this view helps me explain my theory a little better. Second, I did not have time to include adverse experiences with nature, such as those people who have survived natural disaster.  And finally, while many of my ideas are backed in research, much is also backed in passion of the teachings I have learned from spending countless hours wandering in the valleys of Ohio and the mountains of the Rockies.

While I did grow up with loving parents, I developed an insecure attachment in childhood.  In my teens and early 20s, my insecure attachment showed itself as anxiety and depression. Then I found service and trail running.  A shift happened. My perspective on life got brighter. In 2015 when my dog and I moved to Colorado, we hiked the nearly 500 mile Colorado Trail which runs through the state.  Despite our misadventures, I had never felt more at home. Despite the elements, I felt held, unjudged, like I belonged.

Several years later, I found myself interning at Harmony Foundation, a substance abuse rehabilitation treatment center located just outside Rocky Mountain National Park.  A majority, if not all, of the clients come their with attachment wounds and score highly on the Adverse Childhood Experience test. In addition to being surrounded by nature at the treatment center, we also go on weekly outings.  In these moments, gratitude is often present for clients and we discusses it on an individual basis and as a group. Studies show that nature reduces rumination by lessening the activity of the subgenual prefrontal cortex, often linked with depression and mental illness.  In place of rumination, the mind opens to allow a sense of wonder and awe, a change in perspective. Something as simple as laying in the grass and watching the clouds, or the guided imagery meditation of tree firmly rooted into the ground, can help people feel stable and secure, also regulating the nervous system.

In addition, another recent study found that in laboratory mice, a friendly bacteria often found in soil activated brain cells and produced the chemical serotonin, which affected the mice’s brain in a way similar to anti-depressants.  Of course, as someone who believes we, humans, animals, and plants, are all our connected, I would say leave the mice a lone and just go outside and seep the benefits in that we already know our there, with the intuition Mother Nature bestowed us with at birth.

And so, while I still feel it is necessary for humans with insecure attachments to find security in attaching with other humans, I believe nature can supplement and enhance the process.

My second question, can humans on a societal level re-attach with Mother Nature, is a bit more complicated.  It is quite obvious that humans, especially in the United States, have separated ourselves from Nature. Even more obvious are the effects this has had on our world, and I’m not only speaking about climate change.  Ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinnings calls our separation form the Earth the “original trauma” and that this trauma has been passed down and interwoven with other trauma’s such as abuse. Is it a coincidence that as we rape our women, we rape the Earth?  Or that we’re seeing high rates of infertility as we spray farms with chemicals, and that we numb our own pain with substances and medication? Furthermore, statistics show that the majority of people have barely anyone to lean on for help and that we also spend more time indoors than ever before in our history.  Is it any wonder that in this separateness, we have mass shootings and are facing extreme changes in weather?

In this insecure attachment, a sense of “dis-ease” has swept through our society.  We see it in the consumption of material goods, drugs and alcohol, and what we call mental illness.  Psychologist James Hillman writes “to grasp the disorders in any subject we must study carefully the environment of the disorder: the kind of water, the winds, the humidity, temperatures, the food, the plants; the times of day; the seasons.  Treatment of the inner requires attention to the outer; or, as another early healer wrote, “The greater part of the soul lies outside the body.” End quote.

It’s hard to say when this separation began.  Some trace it back to Descartes’ great chain of being, where he presented a hierarchy of humans and animals, later adapted to humans and skin color.  Others trace it even farther back to early writings of the bible. In America, we can most pointedly find it as we murdered and uprooted the Native Americans, the people who had the most to teach us about Mother Earth and Her wisdom.

OR [So where does our story of disconnection begin?  Our story that we are not acceptable, that Nature is not acceptable as it?  Perhaps with the story of Adam and Eve, where the serpent told Eve she was not good enough as she was and to be like God she should take a bite? And Adam in his jealousy of Eve knowing more than he, took a bite as well.  And the story of separateness of death began? In America, the picture is a little easier to see, as explorers and settlers came to our country for freedom, escaping dictatorship. Unfortunately, some of the settlers brought their fear of not being accepted, the need to be better than with them, and they separated by themselves by killing of the very people who knew the land the most, who could have helped us re-connect to the Earth. And we continued that pattern of saying “Mother Nature, you are not good enough as you are.  We must make you better.” And so we poised her land with chemicals thinking we could grow plants better. We took her animals, our siblings capable of great emotion and knowledge, and put them on industrial farms for slaughter, feeding them with the chemical plants. We cut down Her trees, drilled holes in her body, always wanting more. And now we see this separation is our own disease. We eat the food lined with pesticides and GMOs, and end up in the hospital with diseases like cancer. We’re beginning to see the Earth self-destruct, saying “no more” as we see the effects of climate change. ]

Renowned author and doctor Gabor Mate says in his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghost “The pressures of urbanization are cutting millions of people adrift from their connections with land, tradition, and community” and later in the book goes on to say “We have seen that addiction arises out of dislocation.  The absence of meaning is yet another type of dislocation that we human beings, spiritual creatures that we are, cannot well endure.” End quote. As we’ve separated from the Earth, we have lost one of our primary roles as humans: caretakers of the Earth, the body that we are all part of.

How I look at things is that humans are the microcosm and Earth is the macrocosm. What we do to one we do to the other and vice versa.  Or, as Chief Seattle stated “Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”  

Speaking of webs…Did you know that trees are intricately connected and talk to each other?  There can be hundreds of trees in one grove, sharing nutrients, giving out distress signals, and holding each other upright in bad weather.  Even bigger is the web of mycelia, a fungus, fondly referred to as Earth’s Natural Internet by mycologist Paul Stamets, with one organism expanding to 2.4 miles in Oregon.  These plants show us that when we stand together, connected, we are stronger. The Earth’s natural internet is not unlike our world wide web of the internet, though ours is a superficial example of what it means to attach to one another.  Trees and plants are willing talk to us too, if we are willing to listen.

Right now our trees are dying.  And as they die, our world has less filters to give us clean oxygen.  Our natural landscapes are changing in scary ways, almost as if Mother Nature is telling us “enough is enough.”  So my question is, “is there hope?”

At times I have been tempted to say no.  

“As I see pictures of animals being brutally slaughtered, pipelines being built through sacred land, forest being destroyed, and mass shootings on the rise , my heart wants to bury itself in despair, but I scream to myself: be the light, be the light!

One of my favorite speakers on the subject of hope is Zach Busch, a doctor who advocates for natural farming practices and againsts fertilizers like RoundUp. After giving a speech that sounds like doomsday is right around the corner, he gives a profound message of hope. He reminds us of Mother Nature’s amazing ability to renew and heal.  Farms that were once depleted of nutrients can regenerate to full capacity with a little love and time. In a podcast with Rich Roll, Busch reminded listeners that sometimes we have to reach our death before being reborn.  I see this with my clients too. Many of them come to Harmony Foundation having hit their rock bottom.  Truly, if they would not have come to Harmony, they’d may be dead.  So in the shadow of the mountains, we offer them a new hope, a rebirth.  We remind their souls that life is worth living, and something greater is out there.

And then, there is the great Joanna Macy, the environmental activist who wrote a book entitled Active Hope.  Joanna Macy says:

“Active Hope is not wishful thinking.

Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued . . . .

by some savior.

Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life

on whose behalf we can act.

We belong to this world.

The web of life is calling us forth at this time.

We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part.

With Active Hope we realize that there are adventures in store,

strengths to discover, and comrades to link arms with.

Active Hope is a readiness to discover the strengths

in ourselves and in others;

a readiness to discover the reasons for hope

and the occasions for love.

A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts,

our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose,

our own authority, our love for life,

the liveliness of our curiosity,

the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence,

the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.

None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.”

And the truth is, hope is all around us, which is shown in the hearts of humans and from scientific studies.  We know that the brain, at any age, can create new neurons. Research now shows that heart disease can be reversed by following a diet rooted in plants.  We have evidence of forests regrowing and regenerating when native species are planted and then left alone to heal, with the animals who once lived there returning. There are farm sanctuary’s opening up around the country because they know animals are loving, sentient beings. We know that attachment wounds can be healed.  

Furthermore, kids across the world are marching in their cities to demand action is taken on climate change.  People in my midwestern hometown of Parma Heights, OH are recycling, something I didn’t even know existed as a kid.  Even more astonishing is that their local grocery store has a vegan section! Psychologist in Scotland are now permitted by their government to prescribe nature rather than pills.  And in Boulder, CO there are graduate students getting their degrees in Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy.

As Suzanne Simard said in her 2016 Ted Talk, “Give Mother Nature the tools she needs to use her intelligence to self-heal.”

If Mother Nature can heal herself,  and if more humans realize that we are part of Nature, we can heal too.

So how do we re-attach?

In the Spell of the Sensuous, writer David Abram states that “When a Navajo person wishes to renew or reestablish, in the world, the harmonious condition of well-being and beauty expressed by the Navajo word hozho he must first strive, through ritual, to create this harmony and peacefulness within his own being.  Having established such hozho within himself, he can then actively impart this state of well-being to the enveloping cosmos, through transforming the power of song or prayer.”

With clients, our job as therapist is to help them begin to create harmony within themselves, to love themselves.  At the same time, we can help them create a life of harmony with nature, with therapists remembering that healing client wounds is the same as healing nature and vice versa.  Simple practices that can be done with clients are:

-going outside and walking rather than staying in an office, then highlighting the experience as my supervisor Gretchen Leezer reminded me.

-Using a nature basket to help clients describe how they are feeling.

-Using guided imagery that lets one feel grounded like a deeply rooted tree or one that allows them to escape to their “happy place” in nature

-giving homework to go outside

-creating metaphors with plants and the landscape with clients, which I often consider to really be parallels.  Examples include comparing the curves of Mother Nature to the curves of a woman with a client challenged by body-image, or looking at a tree on a windy day and comparing that to staying grounded in ourselves in the midst of life challenges.

-Have clients share their nature story from childhood to adulthood.  (Most people can report having a secret spot outside that they went to as a child, or have fond memories of summer vacations outside with their family..)

-Create ceremonies and rituals using Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water.

Finally, there is service.  We can encourage clients to volunteer for their local parks, cleaning up trash, planting native species, or building new trails.  We can suggest volunteering at animal shelters or farm sanctuaries that care for and give a new life to animals like sheep, goats, and pigs that were once neglected and abused.

O, did I mention all of this isn’t just for our clients, but all of us?

Throughout the day, my classmates will be sharing more brilliant ways to strengthen our connection with the Earth.  

In summary, by healing our own wounds and client wounds we are also healing nature’s wounds, and by healing nature’s wounds we are healing our own.  When we live a life in harmony with Mother Nature, with plants, trees, animals, insects, fungus, and all, we can live in harmony with ourselves, bringing out the best and beauty in all of us.  

“There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.”

– Brené Brown

aspens
Taken on the day of my journal entry.

 

Why are People Trashing Our National Parks?: A Wilderness Therapist’s Theory

While the government closure goes on into it’s 4th week, the once protected National Parks are left vulnerable without rangers, volunteers, and respectful citizens to protect them.  Like many of my Facebook friends, I’ve been both angrily and sadly watching my feed with updates on more news of parks getting trashed, human waste building up, and even trees being cut down.  Why, why is this happening?  What would make a human so lazy as not pack out their trash, or be so motivated to take a saw into the park and cut down it’s historic trees?

Over the past few years, I’ve been observing and studying what I have dubbed “Mother Nature Attachment Theory.”  This is based on human attachment theory that, in short,  states our earliest relationships to our caregivers affects how we attach, securely or insecurely, in our other relationships throughout life.  In other words, if you have a negative relationship with your mother, or maybe she was never there, or sometimes there, or was always there looking at you for comfort rather than vice versa, then as adult you might either embody these same characteristics or go overboard in the opposite direction.  The underlying feeling left is often one of fear or distrust. (That’s just a brief summary of attachment theory).

(Cuyahoga Valley National Park)

In my own Mother Nature Attachment Theory, I see this in a similar way.  If a child doesn’t grow up spending time outside, climbing trees, building forts with sticks, then the child didn’t grow up with an attachment to Nature.  Or, maybe the child was told “don’t get dirty”, “it’s not safe out there”, and handed an iPad to keep busy, then the child grew up without trusting Nature, and an insecurity to it.  Then, there might be the child who was given a dirt bike before ever taking a hike in the woods, never recycled, or grew up with the perspective from parents that we must dominate Nature.  Again, this kind of relationship creates another form of insecurity.  These types of attachment to Mother Nature create not only a fear but both a disconnection to the land and to the self, for all of us who have grown up with a secure attachment to Nature knows that we are all connected.

If you didn’t grow up with the view that nature is an abstract object, then leaving a wrapper behind is no big deal.  If you grew up fearing nature or with the a privileged view of separate equals better than, than the damage of cutting down a tree might not be worth a second thought.  Actually, those acts might be your way of trying to cope from that missing connection with the Earth.  Temporarily, it might make you feel better.

The sad thing is for the people who grew up with an insecure attachment to Mother Nature is that their outward destruction usually reflects their own inward pain.  While I’ve only been interning as a therapist at a substance abuse center for 6 months now, I’ve clearly witnessed the turmoil many of our clients face from growing up with an insecure attachment to their early caregivers.  Most of them self-destruct with drugs and alcohol, don’t trust others, and don’t trust the world.  It’s a tough, unbearable way to live.  While I’m still angry at the people trashing our National Parks, I can find a little sympathy and sadness for them because I have a sense of what they’re lacking.  Having lived several year’s by Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park and now next to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Parks, I have re-gained a sense of wonder and awe, felt at home, found my Higher Power, and cried in the beauty mountain shadows.  Just thinking of my life without Nature leaves me feeling like I have void centered in my chest.

Rocky Mountain National Park

If your feeling sad or angry about the state of our National Parks, that is actually a positive feeling.   It shows your love and secure attachment to Mother Nature, and a justifiable angst that She is not being respected or taken care of.  These feelings can either eat at us, or motivate us to do something.  What can we do?  For those of us who don’t live by National Parks* and can’t inform visitors or trail or park etiquette at this time (which may be dangerous and I don’t necessarily suggest) or clean up like this little boy, we can support our National Parks with donations, visit them the next time we are on vacation, and speak with our actions by recycling and trying to reduce of consumption of heavily packed products.  We can also get to the heart of the matter by encouraging others to have a secure attachment with Mother Nature.  If we have or work with children it’s a bit easier.  We can encourage kids to get dirty, to sit outside when they need to calm down or had a bad day, or make comparisons like “wow, that flower needs food and water just like I do!”.  It’s a bit trickier with adults, and we already know preaching usually doesn’t work, but we can sneak in comments, maybe at work, such as “Whew! I had a really tough day.  I need to make sure I get outside for a run today.” or “I had a great weekend hiking with my family.  I feel so much more energized now.”  We can also use our actions like recycling or bringing in re-usable silverware to eat lunch with.  If you have time, I suggest volunteering for your local or National Park a few times a year too.

I’m also going to keep praying to my Higher Power, Mother Nature, that the parks re-open ASAP.  And when they do, profusely thank the rangers for all that they do.  I’m going to count my lucky stars (which, by the way, are amazing living right next to a National Park) that I”m blessed enough to live in the mountains and that I grew up with parents who allowed me to play in the mud and build tree forts.  Last, I’n going to try to send a little love to those who haven’t been as blessed, as angry as I am by their actions, because I know what they are doing on the outside is a mirror of what is going on inside.

*While I live right next to Rocky Mountain National Park, I’m very fortunate to not have witnessed any damage from my outings, which may speak to the community of Estes Park whose residents see themselves as the parks caregivers.

**I have to add this Rich Roll podcast with Zach Bush, MD of Food Independence & Planetary Revolution because it is relevant, both from a scientific and spiritual standpoint.

Love Letters to the CVNP

Dear Cuyahoga Valley National Park,

You were my first true Love.

The one that never left.

The one that I still carry with me wherever I go.

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In childhood, there were the 20 mile bike rides my sister and my dad. 20 miles along your towpath, following the once burning river, now home to turtles and river otters.

Providing me with the adventure my young heart yearned for and the  memories my wizened heart now cherishes.

As an adult, I discovered your winding trails, like veins pumping bloods to the heart state.

You were the escape from what others told me was the “real word” and taught me that actually, I got create my own trails, shape my own journey, and decide what my “real world” would be.

I had forgotten what it was it was like to be held.

You reminded me.

You reminded me what it was like to be lost…and then found.

To feel alive.

In your valleys, I found home.

You were a reminder that there was always sun behind those seemingly encompassing grey clouds.

I still visit you at least once a year for Christmas, and more many more times in my dreams.  I picture myself entering the Portal Tree, blue jays perched on Her branches, to a place of safety, wonder, and answers.

Truly, I know you are always here with me.

While I now live in the land of high summits and alpine lakes, you’re here too.

Different, but the same.

And in me, you’ve created both a valley and a mountain girl.

Dear CVNP, I love you.

 

 

 

 

(Love) Withdrawl

9/14

(For You)

While I’ve never had a substance use withdrawal, I’ve had it described to me enough that I can imagine what it must feel like.

And I think I’m in a love withdrawal.

I understand why there are so many songs about drugs that sound just like love songs.  My song is in reverse.

I’m sad and in pain.  I’m numb.  And for a little bit I’m free.

This plays on repeat several times a day.

Looking back, I only remember the good times.

The laugh shared over coffee and a board game in Ned.  Our first 14er summit.  Lying naked in bed.

I remember the times he made me feel beautiful.

I forget the bad.

The evening arguments.  Crying down mountains.  Sleeping on opposite sides of the mattress.

But my body is yearning for those few times of coziness and warmth, the two of us snuggled beside Pacer.

I crave the dopamine surge of a text of Facebook message saying “I love you.”

I resist my own urge to text “I miss you.”

I want the highs but not the lows.

Finally, my dread of the lows surpassed my want of the highs.

I didn’t like myself anymore when I was with him.

And so I quit.

So we could be ourselves.  So we could be happy.

My stagnant refusal to relapse isn’t just for me.

It’s for him, because I still love.

The withdrawal pains slowly subside.

Each hour, each day, brings a little more relief.

But his taste, his essence, will never leave me.

Relapse.

 

Finding My Way: My Trail through Society

This blog started with a Facebook post, written shortly after returning from a (1-day) trip the mountains (Leadville/Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert):

Every time I come back from the mountains, I ask myself “Why the F did I come back?” (In reality, I know the answer. Society asks that I have a job and a physical place to live). I’m tied between wanting to contribute to society, to make a difference, and the want to escape the complicated and busy structure of our world (of course, it isn’t all bad). Does anyone else face this dilemma?

I have my own further thoughts on this topic (perhaps a future blog post), but I’d love to hear the insight, questions, and wisdom (not necessarily advice) of others who also question this dichotomy.

*I added in the not necessarily advice part later.

I got quite a few replies, some advice, some various perspectives, and mainly a “I feel that way too”.  Which upon reflection, was really what I was looking for.  A sense of universality, that others both felt and questioned (society/life) the way I do.  When I realized the post had gathered some heat/interest and that I personally had more exploring to do as well, I decided to write a bit more.

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8/17

Living in the world, being part of the world, making a difference in the world does not mean, at least for me, living in the confines of society.  That, for myself, is the answer that I have come to, but my conclusion is not so easy to put in words, though I can not say it is complicated either.  It’s just what is.

The dilemma I mention in my Facebook post is not so black and white as it seems.  It is not between being a hermit in the mountains and praying for a better world or living in the city and working in an office for 9 hours.

And, while I do believe energy, prayer, and intention does have an impact on the world, I am not so ethereal to believe that is all that is needed…that I could just live in a cabin and meditate and play outside all day.  I am a big believer in action too.

My work as a (wilderness) therapist will involve both, the energetic and the physical manifesting.

So if I choose to live in the mountains, can I be a giver of both as strongly as if I lived in the city (or in a small city like Boulder)?  Really, that is the heart of my question.

While I believe that the answer is very individual to anyone who asks the question, I’m starting to figure out my own truth.  Admittedly, part of my answer might go against the simplicity I crave (I’m reminded of a particularly sarcastic blog by Dakota Jones on car camping), but modern technology and transportation might help solve some of my conflict, or help me find harmony in the dichotomy.

Then there’s the bigger question.  Despite the fact that humans are living closer than ever before, that wifi and cell phones let us connect to hundreds of people, even across the world, are we becoming more lost, more disconnected? (For more on the topic, read Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections) And not just from other humans, but from the land that bore us too, to our Mother Earth?  Are we supposed to live in apartments, or with the land?  I could go on and on…and on with questions like this.  But I’ll save you my words and ask that you have this conversation with yourself.  And if you don’t find an answer, that is okay.  Just keep questioning, stay curious.  Because while it is the mountains that make my soul sing, and often the cities that make me cringe, I’ve also found profound beauty in the mass humanity of the city street as well.

 

[The Boy just got done finishing the Kodiak 100, a 100 miles race in the San Bernardino mountains, and we were reflecting on his journey on the drive back to the airport.  He said is favorite part was nearly 80 miles in, when he was running down Sugarloaf Mountain and the 50k runners, who had just started, were coming up.  People were smiling, hi-fiving, and struggling, all together.  That, I thought, might be the best of both worlds, the crowds and mountains.  People connecting and encouraging each other while journeying through the wilderness.]

And maybe all this girl really needs is her dog.

 

Tips for returning from the mountains/wilderness:

  • Before you depart from your adventure, ask yourself “What am I bringing back with me?”  Are there any reminders from being in the wilderness that you can bring back with you into everyday life?
  • Create extra awareness on the drive back.  Don’t speed out as fast as you can.  Choose your pace/speed wisely.
  • Use your phone with awareness.  If possible, give yourself sometime before checking your inbox and text messages.
  • Practice self-care.  Take extra time (space) to do things.  Get enough sleep.  In other words, don’t just jump back into the hustle and bustle of life.
  • For long trips, and trying to communicate your experience with family and friends, consciously choose what you share and who you share with.   It is often difficult to communicate the sacred.  (It also often helps to ask what others have been up to first, before diving into your experience.)
  • Remember, continuing change takes time and practice.  If there is something you want to bring back with you, like journaling or slowing down before dinner, create action steps to make them a habit.
  • Be kind to yourself.  Your going to forget.  It will seem like the mountains have left you.  But they never leave you.  They are in you.

Thoughts on Thirty: Home, Family, and Adventure

8/3/18

I’m currently sitting on the couch at my dad’s house in Parma Heights, Ohio.  He’s on the other couch, doing a word search/snoozing.  It’s summer, not a time of the year I usually come back to visit.  However, when my older sister was diagnosed with breast cancer before Christmas, I’ve been back three times: the yearly Christmas stay, a few days in April during her chemo, and now 2 weeks after her double mastectomy.  I’m trying to find harmony in my life between family, grad school, and living a 2,000 miles away.  I ponder my choice to live in Colorado, where the mountains call to my soul, versus being with my family in Ohio, a place I like and enjoy but currently does not feel like wind I need underneath my wings to fly.  I question myself, I question society, and I do so over and over.  In terms of choices, I’m not sure if there is a right or wrong one.

Are these the questions that come with being 30?

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I turned 30, with my twin sister, on June 28th in Chamonix, France.  My family had sent cards from Ohio to Colorado before we left.  To celebrate my 30th in France with my sister was a dream I couldn’t even have imagined as a child from a suburb 20 minutes outside of Cleveland, Ohio.  Actually, living in Boulder, CO wasn’t even something I imagined, with seemingly never-ending mountains and adventures starting just a few miles from “home” with Pacer…which brings me to my first question.

Home.  There’s so many different ways to define home.  I’ve tried to define it before.  I’ve leaned towards the saying “home is where the heart is” and turned that into “home is where Pacer is” in one of my first blogs on this site.  So even though I’ve only lived in temporary spaces with Pacer in Boulder, not all exactly “homey”, I guess I could call them home.  I’ve also referred to the mountains as my home, as well as the Colorado Trail, where Pacer and I slept for a month (though always miles ahead from our last camp spot).  Actually, whenever I go back to the Colorado Trail, it feels good, like home I guess, though I can’t define it.  And when I go back to Ohio, to my family, and still to the homes I grew up in (my parents are divorced), I say I’m going back home too.  Are all these places my home?  Or are none of them home?  Does a home have to be permanent? I have an answer I’m leaning toward, despite it not being correct according to the dictionary’s definition of home.

The second question has always been on my mind, though it has increased its intensity with the number three at the front of my age and with my older sister’s health.  But for this question, I need to back up a bit, as I can’t fully put it into words.

I left Ohio over three years ago.  My main worry then was my dad’s health, though he was doing well before I left and currently remains to stay steady.  And the mountains, adventure, and grad school (though I didn’t quite know it at the time) were calling.   I believed that, for the most part, my parents wanted me to follow my heart and to be happy, so I left.  Still, I knew that in that choice, I would be missing family birthdays, watching my younger cousins grow up, and not be there in family emergencies.  That part still isn’t easy.

Now my older sister is still undergoing treatment for cancer, and while my parents are still relatively healthy, I consider their future.  I’ve always admired cultures that take care of their elders and bring them into their home, rather than sending them to a nursing home.  One of my sister’s doctors is moving to PA to be closer to her parents.  A friend of mine moved back Colorado to Ohio to help her mom.  And a few weeks ago, the Boy and I met a couple in their 80s who were selling the gorgeous cabin they had built together because they could no longer take care of it, especially with their kids out of state (albeit, it was the parents who moved back to Ohio after years spent in Colorado).  When the time comes, I don’t want to just send my parents to nursing home unless it is something they want.  Nor do I really think it would be fair to move them across the country to be closer to me.  But could I have them live with me?  I’d like to think so, though the world we live in makes all the options difficult.  Unfortunately, society values our time and money, rather than the preciousness of our lives and those of aging parents, our wise elders.  Again, it seems like there is no right answer, though I do know each answer is individual to each family.

A dear friend called my the other day while I was shooting hoops in my dad’s driveway, just like I did as a kid.  My friend offered me praise that I did not ask for or want to accept.  They said they admired how I was handling my life in CO and family, that I was doing what I needed to do.  Before their call I was questioning “but is this enough?”  not far from my old question (that I always think I’ve squelched until it pops it’s ugly head back up again) of “am I enough?” But their words seemed so confident and sure.  They believed in me more than I believed in myself.  Their words made me feel a bit more confident too, that I had made the right choice, at least at this moment in time.

I realized that maybe things aren’t so black and white.  Maybe I’m not choosing adventure and myself over my family (plus, my twin, uncle, and cousin do live in CO)…and even if I am a little bit, maybe that is okay too.  Maybe that/this is just where I am in life, and maybe it is all okay.

(The “home court” and Brandywine Falls, CVNP- a place where I spent most of my time during my last years living on OH)

And as things change, I’ll evolve, and continue doing the best I can and try to make the best choices with the tools I have.

Tomorrow, I fly back to Colorado.  I’ll be back with Pacer, in the mountains, and I’ll be at home.

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The goodbyes have been said, emotionally, but no tears have been shed.  My heart just beats a pang of sadness.  I realize that is beautiful too, that I am lucky and so grateful to have a family that I am going to miss and love so deeply.  Everyone thanked me for my help, though I told my mom “I feel bad that I can’t be here more.”  But no one seemed to judge me the way I judge myself.  The lesson revealed?  To be grateful for the time I do have, with family, in the mountains, lying in my bed with Pacer.  All of it.  Because time is ticking.  We’re all changing, growing, moving.  The same yet different, just like Brandywine Falls.

Are these the thoughts that come with 30?  I was going to say that my 20s came with more freedom, but that’s not true, as I believe my freedom is my choice, which includes my move to Colorado.  Care-free may be a bit more accurate.  I’ve inherited the “worry gene” (not scientifically accurate, though there is a gene that relates to sensitivity) from my mom, so I’ve always worried about my family (though I’m really trying to re-frame my worry and use my energy for things I can do something about, and surrender the rest).  Now,  the concerns are just a bit more at the forefront.  I could brush the away, but I rather confront and explore them.  Because I think they have more to tell me about life, it’s beauty, even if it comes with a bit of sadness.

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‘Til next time Cleveland.

The Birth

In Mother Nature’s birth canal

I find myself once again.

Small, vulnerable, naked.

Needing to be nurtured.

Her waters rock me gently,

to the lullaby of the land.

Soon, I will be reborn.

I am waiting.

This may be the hardest part.

Awaiting to be.

I can tell that I am full of promise.

That with me I carry the wind, water, fire, and earth.

I will be a healer among the people.

To the elements I give myself.

I think I almost ready.

Once more, I inhale the sacredness and comfort or my surroundings.

Then the wind picks up.

It is time.

I am being pushed out.

To the opening of the canyon, into the world.

I am ready.

I carry with me the love and strength of my Mother.

She will never leave me.

Together, we will heal the Earth.

Fleeting Beauty

6/29

Yesterday, I turned 30 with Sandi in Chamonix, France.

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Already, the day is nothing but a nostalgic moment. A beautiful memory.  I want to cling to the moment, but as soon as I grasp, it is like a cloud escaping my clenched fist.

I want to go back to the moment, standing on alpine ground with the wildflowers all around.  The marmots hiding behind rocks.  The avalanche in the distance with its powerful sound cracking through the sky.  Witnessing all this with my sister by my side.

Or that moment where we stood inside the glacier, surrounded by icy blue, magical walls.

But those moments, the ones I want to last forever, like when I am in the “land of in-between”*, or on Christmas Eve when I’m surrounded by love ones and joy, that go by so fast.

I try to stay on the mountain top, but the sun moves, the clouds come in, and I grow cold.

It is all impermanent.

I realize all I can do is be present, accept the present that I am in.  To soak it in, and move on with the precious moment now inside of me, part of me.

And I let myself be sad.  When I let the sadness come in, I realize I am also rejoicing.  Rejoicing the blessed and beautiful life I am living.

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Me and my other half on our 30th birthday in Chamonix, France.

*The places between Heaven and Earth.

A Better Way: Competing without Comparison

 

(A few old racing pics from my early running years)

In one of my previous blog posts, The Thief of Joyous Running, I questioned whether comparison and ego improved running performance:

“I’m sure there is someone out there thinking “But comparison is a motivator, it makes you want to get better.”  And maybe it does.  My issue with comparison in running is the “beat the other guy/woman” piece.  The ego steps in.  I’m not enlightened enough to say that comparison and ego are always bad, but at least from what I’ve witnessed, ego and comparison might help get you ahead for a bit, but it doesn’t last…”

If I were to add to this now, I’d include that this is a more painful way to compete and live.  Each win or loss proves how one “measures up” to others on some arbitrary scale of self-worth.

I thought about what I wrote in my previous blog long after I wrote the words.  I knew my bias and what I wanted the answer to be, and I figured that because I did not compete on an elite level, I might not have the answer.  Scott Jurek almost turned my bias in his new book, North: Finding My Way on the Appalachian Trail.  In one chapter (and as I researched this I found out he has said this before) he mentions that when he feels his drive is coming back, his want to push through the pain, is when he felt his ego coming back.  I was hoping he would come back to this at the end of the book, after he broke down and became a shell of his former self, 19lbs lighter and barely cohesive. Vulnerable. But he doesn’t mention it again.  What he does mention are the times he wanted to quit, but his friends urged him on.  He had made a commitment to his wife Jenny, and he wanted to reach Katahdin with her.  Did ego push him through?  It didn’t seem like it, it felt like something deeper, but I can’t say for sure.  If I run into him in Boulder one day, I’ll have to ask.*

Then, I was listening to the Run this World podcast, where Nicole DeBoom interviewed  confidence coach, Christen Shefchunas.  At one point during the conversation they start talking about ego and Christen says “The bigger the ego, the more there is to hide.” Bam. Let that one sink in.  There’s probably a few ways to look at that statement, but the direction I’m inspecting is the fear part.  What is it that one is trying to hide and why?  In competition, that answer I’ve heard most commonly from those willing to be open is a fear of not being good enough.  Or, put in another way, the ego finds a way to get bigger, identifying most with which one has been prove successful at, because of a fear of lack.

In a bit of a sidetrack, I also want to state the obvious:  I have a blog.  Doesn’t that seem a bit egotistical?

Maybe.  But there are two parts.  When I started this blog a little over a year ago, my primary reasons included a want for a creative outlet, catharsis in sharing, and hope that I could use my words to help others.  The last part could also be looked at in another way, that in my “special-ness” I had something important and worthwhile to say that people should read.  Honestly, that part is still in me.  I can feel its leaden weight in my chest as I write this.  But when I re-read the words I laugh at them, it seems silly.  There is a sense of detachment.  Awareness of the ego is often the first step in overcoming it.

So then the question turns to “Can a full-filled person, a person secure in oneself, race fiercely? Or, out of the race scene, be competitive and succeed in other areas of life?”

In her book, On the Wings of Mercury,  Olympian Lorraine Moller tells a story of how she “threw love bombs” at her fellow competitors.  Now these love bombs were obviously imaginary, but essentially she was wishing the best to her competitors while racing as hard as she could.

And with Moller’s example in mind, I propose a better way.

I call this better way, a way in which racing and achieving is not grounded in ego or comparison, compassionate competing.  No, not revolutionary, but let me break the words down for you, which I hope will set off a little spark.

As my sister Sandi and I have both mentioned before in previous blogs, the Latin meaning of the word compete is actually to seek together.  What I recently discovered is the  Latin meaning of the word compassion is to suffer with (by observing another’s pain).  So when we put the words together to form compassionate competing, we get to suffer with while seeking together.  In my own interpretation of this, what I have come to conclude is that when we see another runner working hard, suffering as she pushes her own limits, we are inspired to push ourselves harder.  And together, we push past barriers that take us beyond our perceived limits and onto the possibilities of our true potential.  

On our grander level, we can compete compassionately in the same way.  When we bring in our own true selves and personal fierceness to our everyday lives and the communities in which we live, we are no longer fighting against each other but a world that has become too complacent.  We can have the strength to look honestly at another’s pain, recognize any injustice, take action, and transcend beyond the (hateful and negative) perceived limits of the world we live in.

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In my first draft of this blog post, I wrote that I still didn’t have the answer to whether or not ego played a necessary role in competing and winning.  Then I realized that wasn’t true.  The idea that I couldn’t have an answer because I am currently not competing was also my own, scared-of-not-being-good-enough-ego planting false thoughts in my head.  Intuitively, and I having an flipping strong intuition when I’m courageous enough to trust it, I always knew the answer.  Ego and comparison do not enhance but limit our best performances, our best selves.  They create pressure, fear, and take away our energy.  Heart, and a desire to explore the spectacularness of the human spirit (in the midst of group), is the answer.

 

 

(Supergirl and I climbing together, reaching new heights, and discovering places of beauty not always found in the flat land of complacency.)

With Compassion,

Ray

* Scott on my rollerblades on the Boulder Creek Path while he was running and pushing one of his little ones.  Totally missed my opportunity!

 

 

The Wander Years

5/29/2018

This is another throw-back post from my old blog, several years old.  While my writing has changed (and hopefully gotten a bit better), the message is still powerful and I’m amazed at the wisdom I had in my early 20s.  Looking back at this now, one of the great part is that I have had the chance to study what I call “the wander years”.  Common terminology calls this the liminal phase, or the phase between who a person once was and who they are becoming.  In case you want more, I did add my academic response to a discussion forum on this topic below. 

The Wander Years
I am in the middle of a forest. The trees are thick with a vibrant shade of green, but peaks of sunshine still manage to seep through. Purple, pink, and orange flowers line the either side of the trail. To the east I can hear the gentle babble of the sparkling blue river I just crossed. To the west, large purple mountains clash with the clouds, dotting an azure sky. When people talk about things being beautiful, a day being perfect, this is surely what they mean.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to fully appreciate all the natural wonders around me. I’ve gone mile without picking my head up.The constant chatter in my head blocks out the chirping birds, the light wind brushing the leaves, and even the crunch of my footsteps on the soft dirt trail scattered with twigs. My vision is skewed, not because of a lost contact, but because I am too busy searching for another trail.
I passed another trail a few miles back heading towards the south, and another a few miles before that heading toward the east. Neither felt quite right, so I kept going. Now I am second guessing that decision. I know there are a few more side trails coming up ahead, but will they lead me in the right direction? Where am I going anyway? I think I am…
Lost.
Well, maybe no quite lost.
I am….Wandering.

 

The term “wander” probably best explains the past 2 years of my life. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it means to:
1a : to move about without a fixed course, aim, or goal
b : to go idly about
2: to follow a winding course
3a : to go astray (as from a course) : stray <wandered away from the group>
b : to go astray morally : err
c : to lose normal mental contact : stray in thought <his mind wandered>

Aside from 3b, I’d say, yes, that is about right.
After college, I thought I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. How quickly that all became blurry. For starters, things happened that I couldn’t have predicted. Then I began to learn more, read more, and do different things. My thinking began to change. This took effect on the ideas I had for myself and my future.
Many times, I became frustrated. I knew I was on this Earth for a purpose, but what the heck was it!? Too many times, I let my frustration turn into disappointment, bringing me to tears. Running was not the answer, nor were the two jobs I tried out. Life satisfaction was a far off concept for me.
So, I wandered. And I’m still wandering. But I think I’m getting closer to that one path, that one trail that was meant for me and me alone.
Funny thing is, I’m getting there because of all the things I’ve learned along the way in these past two years. I’ve learned I hate driving an hour to work, in a busy and crowded city. I also hate dressing up and wearing heals. On the other hand, working with kids in an unstructured environment isn’t for me either.
I’ve learned people can’t read my mind. Sometimes, I just need to say how I feel, even if that’s not that natural thing for me to do. Communication is key.
I’ve learned to be me, and I’ve learned what I value. I like to be warm, happy, and well fed…but I don’t need a whole lot. I don’t really like BIG things, just small, simple things…and things that are as eco-friendly as possible.
I’ve learned I love running…but not when it becomes my forefront. Then it becomes work, and with that comes unnecessary pressure. I like running for its serenity, and how it enhances who I am.
I’ve re-learned what my values and my morals are.
The list goes on and on.
All these things have helped shape who I am, and expanded my horizons.
If only I would have slowed down, picked my head up, and enjoyed the views along the way…
Yes, I was wandering. But, as it turns out, wandering is what I needed to do. I may have gotten a few bumps and bruises along the way, but my wandering wasn’t really such a bad thing after all.
I haven’t done too much research on the subject, but I don’t think I’m alone in my experience of these “wander years”. Actually, I think the majority of the population goes through the same thing. Usually though, it’s given a negative connotation.
For adults, it’s most often known as a mid-life crisis. For teens and young adults, they’re either lazy or “dreamers” who need to come back to “real world”.
There are the exceptions of course…
There are the child prodigies and young entrepreneurs, some millionaires before they reach adulthood, who know exactly what they are born to do. Then there are those who have a calling so strong that they know, even when still playing in a sandbox, that they were meant to lead, preach, or heal.
It’s hard not to be jealous.
But truth be told, we are all meant to be on this earth for some reason, and most of us have to do quite a bit of digging to get there. And that’s okay! Because it is when we wander that we make mistakes, fall, and learn. It’s a time of exploration, self-discovery, and beauty…if only we take the time to pick our heads up and enjoy it.
[Again, it’s unfortunate that our society looks down on wanderers, instead forcing many people to take on jobs that they really don’t enjoy (yes, you can find meaning in those jobs too, you can find mean in your life in anything you do, but that’s another blog!). Recently, I listened to an audio CD, “Thrive” that listed Copenhagen, Germany as one of the world’s happiest places. A huge reason for this is because people have the freedom to try different job without fear of debt or others opinions – the sacrifice is that the majority of a person’s income goes to taxes, but hey, who cares if your happy!]
My hope in writing this blog is to encourage others to embrace their “wander years” because they are important parts of our lives. It takes a lot of trust in oneself, and maybe a Higher Calling, but there is no point in worrying or getting down on yourself in these years. Our wander years having meaning and purpose, whether they are spent exploring the mountains or working at a restaurant just to get by. As long as we don’t give up and believe in ourselves, we will all find the direction we are supposed to be traveling in and reach our destinations…or destinies.

So wander on my friends, and enjoy the adventure.

Image may contain: Ray Nypaver, smiling, mountain, sky, outdoor and nature
We wandered A LOT during our 2017 trip to Montana.

From February 2018:

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

“Not all who wander are lost” is a line from one of my favorite poems by J.R.R. Tolkien* from his Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  It’s become a common bumper sticker (or in my case, a car air freshener that lost its smell long, long ago), but it has always held great meaning for me.  I was able to put words to that meaning as I read the assigned readings for the week.  Bridges (2004) calls the gap between one life phase and the next the neutral zone, while Stein (1987) describes the phase of a person’s internal structures from a former identity being dissolved and new structures constellated as the liminal phase.  Personally, I can going to call this “the wandering phase”, a phase that seems aimless at first, as if one is lost in the woods at night, grasping for direction by the light of the moon, and finally begins to find purpose at the approach of sunrise.

Further building upon the work of Bridges (2004) when he describes surrender as a time when “one must give into the emptiness and stop struggling to escape it” (p.140), I liken it to the hiker who must give into the darkness, make camp, and wait until morning to find help, also acknowledging that help may come in many different ways.  Four pages later, Bridges speaks of the “wilderness”, which he reveals in Hebrew also means “sanctuary”. To extend this analogy (or truth?) one more step and call upon the work of Brene Brown when she says “there are times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty…this is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself “I am the wilderness””. In that sense, we are both our own wilderness and our own sanctuary.  The gap between phase of one’s life is not an abstract place, but a place when one needs to go inside oneself and seek one’s own truth.

The Hine (1987) reading reminded me of my own ceremony during a transitional phase in my life a year ago, though at the time I did not call it such.  It was just something that I felt called to do, which, when reading, alleviated my anxiety in being creative enough to create a ritual.  During this time, I was doing my best to surrender my identity as an competitive athlete.  In the year and a half previous to my ceremony, lots of tears, frustration, and anger ensued. Finally, after a lot of praying, journalist, and soul searching, I was able to begin to let go. I wrote a letter to my “old legs” and then, on Christmas Eve at dusk, I buried the letter into one of my favorite trees in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  This ceremony, like the ones described by Hines (1987) helped me to begin to find gratitude for my past self and embrace who I was, and still am, becoming.

 

References

Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Hine, V. (1987). Self-created ceremonies of passage. In Mahdi, L. M., Foster, S., & Little, M., Betwixt & Between: Patterns of masculine and feminine initiation (pp. 304-326). La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company.

Stein, J. O., & Stein, M. (1987). Psychotherapy, initiation and the midlife transition. In Mahdi, L. M., Foster, S., & Little, M., Betwixt & Between: Patterns of masculine and feminine initiation (pp. 287-301). La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company.

https://themarblejar.com/products/i-am-the-wilderness-print

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All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king -J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring