Monday, December 14, 2015

Letter to my Students: 10 Ways to Stay Sane

Letter to my Students: 10 Ways to Stay Sane
Dear Student:

I hiked out here alone, with Chico. He bites at snowballs clustered to his fur around his paws. I’ve learned to just let him do his thing--he has more instinct than I do in this world. The doctor confirmed I broke my sesamoid bone on my left foot a year and a half ago. I kept hoping it would heal and it wasn’t. I finally went to a specialist.
The snow is coming down harder now and I tuck up closer against the trunk of the tree to stay out of it. There is no one anywhere near me now. Doctor says I need to stay off my foot. My sanity is connected to hiking out into nature--it is where I go. So, I decided to write a list of 10 things to stay sane. The list is as much for me as it is for you.

1. Go on walks with a dog. If your foot isn’t broken or, I guess, even if it is. Maybe you don’t need the dog, but I suggest it. It is snowing, I stop under a fir tree just outside Butte Meadows to write. Chico runs up and lays down next to me. It is quiet and there is nothing except the soft sound of snowflakes bouncing off the needles above me. On the drive up, people were stuck in the snow, lines of cars of people cutting Christmas trees. These traditions are part of our identity, our exploration and rite of passage into the world--young families with sleds for the first time. One car was jack-knifed with their trailer, but everyone helped pull them out. People were out of their cars, talking, drinking, and letting their dogs play in the snow. These are the narratives we build with each other, they are family and food, a reason to come together with shared intense bonds, stories...from manger to Hallmark to this strange hold-on from ancient pagan worship of a tree. I am not sure about the whole cutting down part.

Find a routine. Dogs like routines...and it ends up, I think, so do humans. The dog allows you to just real destination. Someone once told me there are two kinds of hikers, those hiking for a destination and those who are always there. Be there. Walk your neighborhood. Say hi to your neighbors. Ask them their names and try to remember them. Pick up your dog’s poop.

2. Know your direction. We hike northeast along Colby Creek towards Colby Mountain lookout. I can’t hike very far or long because it does actually hurt my foot. It has for over a year now, but I ignored it. Now, because I know what it is, I feel more sensitive towards the pain.
The storm is coming out of the Northwest from the Gulf of Alaska. Being a surfer, I love the idea of spinning storms sending waves to crash on the ocean. It is not the water moving per se, but the energy of a storm moving through the water. I would always pay attention to buoys out in the ocean to see the rise and fall of the swell, the period, and of course the direction. Know your cardinal directions. Stop saying you turned left, and say you turned east. Talk about the western entrance to a building, or the north facing slope of a mountain. A world that moves in lefts and rights is a world that rotates around you. Instead, move in the world.
Don’t be afraid of the south side. It might be more dangerous, mostly because it doesn’t have good people like you there.

3. Go back. We turn around and start the hike back. I want to stay out here forever. I always do. But the snow is coming harder and faster. My own tracks are beginning to cover up. The famous Himalayan Climber Willi Unsoeld once asked, why not stay out there forever? His answer, and mine, is because that is not where the people are. Go back. Always return even though it isn’t the same place and you aren’t the same person. You can’t be, it can’t be, they can’t be. That is the trick of time. Go back to places just to see how time changed it. Celebrate the phases of the moon (there is a full moon on Christmas and make your family go watch it rise together). Pay attention to the tides, watch a tree change through the seasons. I turn my compost every three months and I know to do this because I choose to turn it on the solstices and equinoxes. Winter solstice is soon. The perseids meteor shower is tonight. Go back. Even when you don’t want to, even when you are mad, they are mad, you were stubborn, and you know she was right, but you don’t want to admit it and your ego hurts. Leave that out there and go back. Everything has changed and will change...allow that of yourself.

4. Seek Quality. We get back to my truck and Chico is a giant ball of snow. He lays down and starts to try and bite them off his fur like he does with burrs and stickers. I call him my little seed vector. I put down his wool blanket, load him into the is really his truck and he lets me drive. My truck is a mess because of him...OK, I guess that is me too, but if it is his truck then it is his dirt. I try to keep it clean. Take care of things and make them last. Do repairs when needed and don’t put them off. Even when you know your foot is hurt, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. That knocking sound in the engine, if it stops all of a sudden, be worried. Find experts and trust them, but also do your own research. Seek quality over quantity. The wool blanket Chico sits on is a poncho my mother made me from a used army wool blanket for a ultra-light backpacking trip I did with the Boy Scouts well over 25 years ago. Patch holes, sand down the table and put a new finish on it. I have learned to respect something well-made and well-taken care of. My dad and uncles joke about my grandfather that he wasn’t one to give up on a piece of clothing just because it had a little bit of wear. I respect my step-dad because he has good taste. He chose my mom after all. While it might seem quite anal, he buys quality stuff and takes good care of it. Use a drink coaster.

5.   Get above it all. The snow is coming down harder as the sun is beginning to set. We drive out underneath the snow and the sun bursts through the clouds from across the valley as we careen west back down highway 32 towards town. The sun ignites the white coated hillsides. One of the stories about the Christmas tree is that Saint Boniface, seeing people worship an ancient oak for Jove, Jupiter, the god of the sky, cut it down and he told the Germanic people instead to plant pines and firs, evergreens because their triangle shape represented the trinity. Either way, I can see why trees seem to worship the sun. I find a turnout up on the the edge of the canyon looking down to Chico Creek below and pull out to watch the sunset. The golden colors bounce heat off the basalt rock exposed by weathering storms from the ocean. The heat evaporates water back up into the sky and steam rises off the satiated forest. Stop and watch sun sets.
Everywhere I have lives I have found a place to go and get a vantage of my town and watch the earth spin. All of nature is built of this strange spinning and orbiting and rotating universe. Everything is cyclical and orbital, and it helps me put things into perspective. I have my places: Old Oak Park Road in Arroyo Grande, Dry Canyon in Logan, Utah, Eagle’s Nest in Karluk, Alaska, the southern beach in El Paredon, Guatemala, Upper Bidwell park on the canyon rim in Chico, California. I even have my favorite pullouts on drives I typically do: Just outside Battle Mountain in Nevada, just past Pinnacles National Park in California, alongside Goose Lake at the California-Oregon border. I will drive this soon on my way to see family for Christmas too.

6. Pull over. The sun sets behind the Mendocino Mountains, I remove all my warm winter clothes, get back into the car, pull out and look to see if any other cars are coming. They aren’t. I get up to speed, then put my truck into neutral and coast. Nobody is behind me for now. Drive defensively...for your own safety and for that of the earth. I suggest finding a vehicle larger than yours, going at the speed you want to go, and getting a safe distance behind them. They run like blockers for a football team, deers, accidents, cavernous fucking holes opened up from the earth subsiding from lack of water or too much water or hydraulic fracturing of the earth...who know, but the earth sometimes just opens up and eats asphalts like a doomsday prayer; if that large truck in front of you hit the brakes, you must be able to stop before them. For all else, they will find first and clear your path. You should be able to stop before they can if your brakes are good and you are paying attention. Pay Attention! If you can’t find a good leader then be out alone. 

Beware of the car behind you at all times...that is the person who is going to crash into you. Pull over and let them pass. When you pull over, people always wave to you. You've increased happiness in the world. When you pass someone, they flip you off, curse at you, honk their horn, flash their lights, and they scowl and you might scowl too and you carry that forward and so do they into the world and we don't need that anymore.

If possible, learn not to be in a hurry. I drive a manual transmission and I love coasting places. I like seeing how far I can make it without using extra gas or tapping my brakes. I have tried this coast many times. I dream of making it all the way into town, but I rarely make the last light, or worst, someone gets behind me and can’t fathom why I am going so slow, and I relent, put into gear, and use the gas. Today, I think I might make it, the light is green, nobody is behind me, but as I approach the light it is stale for too long and sure enough, right before I reach there, it turns yellow. I brake and wait my turn. Remember, learn to drive little and when you do, be conservative. You are burning the future a little bit each time. Especially if you are driving back from cutting down a tree. Plant two new ones when you get the chance.

7. Know the maker. As we drive into town, I stop at the CoOp to get some food. Shop at the CoOp...well, shop at the farmers market, well, actually, grow your own food first, but if not, shop at the CoOP; buy into the CoOp. Buy your food in bulk and don’t use plastic. Look at the ingredients. Know what is in season and try something new. The CoOp labels where their produce came from and if it is local. I got some great looking carrots from Pyramid Farms. I highly suggest their carrots. Say hi to Jeff if he is at the cashier. Today, he remembered my name. I must be slowly making a presence in this town. It takes a while. I forgot my reusable shopping bags, but he lets me use a cardboard box. They usually have a few under the potatoes just for people like me who forget their bags. Remember your reusable plastic bags. Darn.

8. Think metaphorically. We drive home. All the lights are timed and if you drive about 25 MPH through town, you will make them all. Once through downtown and onto Esplanade, you can increase to about 30. Stay in the middle lane. The right lane is terrible. People stop to park, trucks stop to unload, cars want to turn right, but pedestrians get in the way. Watch for people turning right. They often don’t use blinkers. They start to turn right, but people are crossing the street and sometimes they wait. I have found that it is best not to be too far to the right.
Think metaphorically. See the world around you as a metaphor for learning. We get home. Chico still has snow stuck to his paws, but it is just water. Often, it is only water. And if it isn’t, and it has dirt, well, it is only dirt. As my poetry mentor always reminds me, from her mentor, that “it is only hard.” That is to say, it most likely isn’t going to kill you...not yet.
9. Look up. So, we get home, unload the truck, take the groceries in and start to make dinner. I first make Chico’s dinner. He is becoming less and less patient in his old age. He stands over his dish and makes little sighs. I have learned to love his sighs. He reminds me to breathe sometimes. So, I make a soup from the fresh ingredients I bought. I decide to bake cookies for our class. Everyone should learn to make a couple of good dishes. This is like memorizing a poem. You want some stuff with you, even through the hard times. As you change and grow, so does the poem, so does your tastes. This gives you perspective. I love baking. It takes time and patience. Kneading bread is stress relieving. I get a batch started that I will bake in 24 hours from now. Too often, we don’t plan food enough in advance. My uncle says everyone should plant a garden. You can always, at the very least, have one tomato plant. And when those tomatoes get ripe, enjoy them over a fresh salad with friends.
I am eating alone tonight. Do as I say, not as I do. We finish eating and Chico looks like he might have to poop again. So, we do our walk. We walk out around our neighborhood. I know so many of the houses now. The people know me. Soon I will leave this place and move to a new house and new neighborhood. I will miss this walk. We walk around the Church like we always do. I stop and watch the stars for a while. The perseids are out and I can see a few. The city isn’t the best place to watch stars, but I always do. Humans have watched the stars as long as we have been humans. Orion’s story is part of my story. It is humbling to look out across the vastness of time and to know that the light you see started before the earth even existed in some instances. I used to try and identify stars that were my to speak. The light started when I was born and just now reaches me. For some reason, when I look out there and think about the endless abyss, think about this lonely planet floating on the western arm of a spiraling galaxy, I can let everything else go.



  1. I especially love the photo of Cheeks ahead of you in the snow. Making trail. That's what dogs do for us sometimes; they make trail.

  2. He was running ahead, like, what is your problem. Come on, hurry up. I swear, he loves it out there more than me...or just as much.

  3. Geez, Nate - one of your most beautiful blogs. I know they are all incomparable but this one really soothed my sore heart. at this time. I had no idea there was so much snow in Butte Meadows! You and Chico are such a team! I hope your foot heals quickly. bummer. Sounds like you are onto getting it healed. This is such a beautiful piece, maybe the pain is spurring you on. Thanks.