“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” -Rachel Carson
This last weekend was Grand Marais’s Wintering Festival, a time where the community gathers together to celebrate the longest season of the year. For those who, like me, have had lifelong overdoses of winter grumbling, seeing the people come together in excitement to celebrate the love of this snowy season was so refreshing. With impeccable timing the first winter storm of the year decided to arrive last weekend too, bringing a fresh new covering to the woods and hills. Walking at twilight through the silent forest paths and observing the snow’s ethereal glow in the dusky light brings a peace and wonder to eradicate all traces of the day’s troubles. Winter is a magical season in the northland.
The Rachel Carson quote I shared was one I heard on Saturday at a presentation by Dave and Amy Freeman, a couple who spent an entire year exploring the Boundary Waters to appreciate the wilderness and raise awareness about proposed sulfide-ore copper mines near the Boundary Waters, which would contaminate its lakes and rivers. Their stories and photos were remarkable, but what stood out most to me was the peace and reverence with which they spoke about their experiences. A short walk in the woods or a quarter hour spent on Superior’s shores brings such refreshment—how much would a year in the wilderness change the way one views and responds to things, the pace of life, or the focus on what’s important.
Though I don’t have a whole year to spend in the wilderness, I’m trying to gather little bits of nature’s healing during this month: a glimpse of sea, a flash of stars, a short jaunt among the trees. During this time of transitioning, getting our bearings, and planning our next steps, being surrounded by such beauty and silence as there is here has been most enriching and vitalizing. Even though life feels stuck in almosts right now—almost settled, almost home, almost at peace, almost happy—there is comfort in knowing that just as night will give way to morning, so this time of almosts will give way to a time of fullness. And just as the hills and lake and rocks stand strong and constant, so can a constant trust and serenity be found even when everything else seems to be changing.
If you want to find out more about the Freemans and their mission or learn about America’s most visited wilderness, I’d recommend checking out this link:
All the best,
3 a.m., November 14, 2015. A suburb of Paris.
A piercing sound jolts me awake. It’s dark, and too early for an alarm. What is that sound? Groping around in the dark with 3 a.m. cognitive capacity, I finally find Stephen’s wailing phone. “What the…”
A device locator alarm has been activated. Turning it off, I find our phones flooded with notifications of every kind: voicemails, messages, emails. All of them ask if we are okay, if we are alive. This is unexpected. If we are okay? A knot begins to form in my stomach. I open the BBC news homepage, and there the horrible truth of what had happened comes hurtling at me. The darkness is overwhelming. “Can you turn on the light?”
A light comes on, and my eyes ache. I explain to Stephen that a terrorist attack had happened in Paris, the very city we were visiting. I send a hasty reassurance to everyone who had messaged me, mind whirring and heart pounding as I try and fail to make sense of it all. An attack? How could this happen? How did it happen? How bad was it? I read and re-read the early reports but they have little details. A message comes in from my brother, saying that he had used my Google account to set off my phone’s alarm. I set the phone down again.
My heart continues to sprint and the knot in my stomach tightens. I hear a faint sound downstairs and jump violently. The shadows of the tree branches outside give me goosebumps. We should turn the light off again to try to sleep, but I don’t want to. Maybe we’ll just sleep with it on.
“Are you still awake?”
Sleeping is futile. How can one calm the mind enough to rest at such a time?
I keep thinking of the dissonance between the news we received and how ordinary life had been that day. How could a day so normal bring about a night so tragic? I had sat outside a sunny café in the very neighborhoods where the tragedy would later happen, drinking coffee without a care in the world. The Christmas market had been so bright, so lighthearted. I had bought a fuzzy scarf. I watched a young bride and groom get pictures by a fountain. The Eiffel tower sparkled in joy. How was it possible for all of that to happen so freely and then be shattered so suddenly only a few hours later? It doesn’t make sense, I can’t make it make sense.
I turn over, unable to wrestle with the complicated, repulsive feelings welling up inside of me. The light comes on. We read Narnia until the early hours of dawn. I fall asleep breathing thanks that we had been tired and took the early train back home.
Heartbroken faces, dismayed thoughts, comforting gestures.
Our host family shares the sadness with us. The house fills as friends and family members come from Paris to stay in this safe, quiet suburb. A radio offers a constant stream of updates. At least 100 people have been killed, maybe more. The borders are closed, and we are not to go into the city. Our host makes brunch.
Upstairs, I watch the neighbors from our room’s window. An older gentleman works at taking a French flag out of a bag. A neighbor bikes by. They chat a little, and then together raise the flag by the side of the house.
We get a message from the next host we are planning to stay with in Versailles. He writes that we are welcome at any time we need to come, and that he won’t let such acts of hate ruin his family’s love and hospitality. Later we will learn that one of his coworkers survived the Bataclan, despite being shot in the forearm.
Monday, November 16
We go back into the Paris city center. In the spirit of our future host, we won’t let the hateful actions of a few ruin our few days here with fear.
Guards are everywhere, and the sky is gray. We watch a group of police question a man sitting in a park. Slowly we meander to the Eiffel Tower. It is closed, but we stroll around the park area and have a picnic of bread, cheese, and cold clementines. It’s too quiet for such a world-famous landmark as this, but we eat our lunch in gratitude for the simple fact that we are able to do so.
We are finishing our snacks when a strange sight catches our eye. Across the green two men in suits and ties stand around a strange contraption. Part of it is certainly a bike. The other part looks like a trailer hitch connected to a beat-up grand piano and bench. What?
I watch as one of the men gets on the bike and starts pedaling. The piano and bench follow. We start laughing. “Let’s get a picture!” We get up and follow to document this bizarre sight. As we walk, the cyclist slows to a stop and the other man takes a seat on the bench. They begin to take off again. We follow, and the pianist commences the steady, thoughtful chords of John Lennon’s Imagine.
We’re no longer laughing. As the music begins to fill the park, people look up from their conversations and lunches. Smiles, but not of amusement, begin to grow on downcast faces. I don’t know whether to smile or cry. They continue to travel and play under the gray skies. Imagine all the people living life in peace…
The song ends, and we stand in reverence at their…hope? resilience? love? It doesn’t matter the term. Whatever it was it was moving, powerful. They had the healing gift of music and were sharing it in the city where it was most needed.
As they roll away they begin another song. I watch them as they leave the park, moving peacefully onward to share Let It Be with the next block.
Following nearly two months away I am now home. Home in a quiet room of a colorful cabin bathed in November’s low-hanging sunlight and fenced in by thickets of birch and pine. After the maniacal streets of Kathmandu I can’t imagine anywhere more dissimilar to find myself. The clean air and deep silence are new sensations which I drink in like never before, each bursting with a freshness and healthiness that nears overwhelming. That somewhere so pure, so wholesome as the woods, the clear lake, or the bright sky can exist seems a miracle. Yet thousands of such miraculous gifts surround me every day, and I’m learning to stop and appreciate them all as little bits of living a fully present life.
In this little corner of the north woods we’re transitioning into the next phase of our lives. Several years of classes, travel, moving, starting jobs, quitting jobs, traveling, and moving some more is giving way to a time of less movement and more peace. This place feels like home, and I hope to call it home for a long time to come. The little cabin we are renting is the perfect host to welcome us into this new era, with plenty of lovable quirk and character. The maple floors creak with experience, the front porch greets me with that endearing musty, old-house smell, and I ponder its past in the boundary waters before being moved here to Grand Marais. It’s seen a lot, like we have, and seems a fitting location to begin a new phase of settling in, of healing, of slowing life down to cherish what needs to be treasured and cut what needs to go. I will write about these things in time and share my reflections from the northland as the days go on, but for now I will look back a bit and share a story from my time abroad.
I had every intention of continuing to write while in Nepal, but it seems third-world internet and WordPress don’t cooperate. Compounding that was the feeling a sore lack of inspiration and creative energy, and so I did not put a whole lot of words to paper in the first place. Perhaps I’ll return and give more accounts of our time abroad, once the dust settles. We’ll see. But for now I’ll content myself with this simple story that I hope not to forget.
It happened after some friends and I jumped on a decrepit bus to take the rough, pothole-ridden road across town. Thousands and thousands of people crowd the skinny dirt lanes, travelling here and there in the plume of dust and black smoke pouring out of every vehicle’s tailpipe. Some people smile and laugh, but most wear the careworn expression of constantly battling life in this nearly unlivable place.
On this particular day, our bus trip followed a huge thunderstorm, and the roads and alleys were transformed into giant pits of mud. I watched from the window as people tried to avoid the lakes in the sidewalks or utilize the fraction of road that was actually usable. We travelled along block after block of tiny shops, me starting to wonder if walking would be more efficient than putting up with this bus’s snail-like pace. As I looked out the window, searching for patience, the normal wall of buildings gave way to a recess resembling a miniature courtyard. This nook was piled high and packed tight with garbage: old wooden planks, broken pieces of metal, rotting furniture; all of it stacked haphazardly and staying in place by what I assumed to be a miracle. It would take days upon days to go through every piece stuffed into that space. Yet there was a certain order to it, and as the bus slowed I noticed a small, old man with a little twig broom in his hand.
He stood on a pathway of slate stepping stones that led into this great rubbish pile, steps that were surrounded on all sides by the deep mud of last night’s storm. As I watched, the man stooped over, took his broom and carefully swept off each stone step. I marveled. Why clean stones stuck in a mud pit that leads to a bunch of trash? I guess I don’t have an answer, and that’s fine. I don’t have to understand. But whatever the reason, to this diligent man the little set of steps mattered. And since they mattered, he was faithful in taking care of them. It didn’t bother him if others perceived his efforts as a lost cause or a waste of time. To him they were important, and they were in his care, and thanks to his faithfulness there is a set of fresh, clean stones in the middle of a chaotic city.
As small people in the middle of a wild world, we can’t change everything. There will be corruption, poverty, and darkness beyond our control. It’s heartbreaking, truly, but just because the problems of this world can daunt, overwhelm, and abound, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. This man could have easily considered the little bit of property in his care a lost cause, but he didn’t. He could have stood complaining about everyone else’s messes, but he didn’t. He helped the little bit that he could, even if the rest of the world saw it as a waste of time, even if the rest of the world was letting what was entrusted to them fall apart.
And still today I’m thankful for that man. For his faithfulness, for his care, and for the well-loved set of stone steps.