Where there's smoke... ~Pacific Northwest
The day I arrived in Seattle, my mother kept saying there was a fire somewhere. When I arrived, I was easily swept up into the house activities – she and her friend Terry were installing lights on the deck. I passed along plastic clips that Terry nailed down. I watered her throngs of potted plants. The giant metallic containers are big enough to be bathtubs, and house Japanese maples, hibiscus, sweet peas and hydrangeas. Hoopla and Tala, my mom’s German Shepherd, chased each other on the fake grass. As we worked, every now and again, my mother would look out at the Puget Sound, and say, look at that smoke. I saw nothing.
We see what we want to see, and we see what our five senses take in. I had just arrived, and I was happy to be spending time with people I love in a city I know well. At six o’clock, with a glass of chardonnay in hand, and a suite of veggies in front of me to chop for our dinner, I saw comfort and ease. I just didn’t see it. That day.
My mom moved from Madison Park to West Seattle about five years ago. She wanted a water view, and absolutely found it. Her house sits high on a hill, and the backyard looks East over the Puget Sound. On clear days it’s easy to see the ferries scooting along between Fountleroy, Blake Island, or Whidbey. The Olympics cut the sky with a jagged edge behind the water, and sunsets are always magical.
The next morning, before I’d even poured my via coffee into hot water, my mother told me it was going to be a tough day – her eyes were burning. I walked out on the deck to discover a swath of white where there should have been water, island forests and sky. It was as if someone dripped water over a wet watercolor painting, and washed the image away. We saw the houses below, and bits of the forest north and south, but the water blended into the sky, and everything between them was gone. I saw the smoke before it affected me. I was still fine.
A bit of googling led us to discover that the smoke was caused by wildfires burning across British Columbia, Canada. A wind had pulled the air south into our range, and the smoke would last a few days. I only planned to stay in Seattle for a few days.
For the bulk of my day yesterday I had a Kleenex glued to my upper lip. If I could have timed my sneezing, I would have had an all day beatbox sneeze-snare. It was only a couple weeks ago that I oozed through a horrible stomach flu in Los Angeles. Last night when I checked into my Airbnb I was quick to bed. My head hurt, I was wheezing, and I felt too stymied to explore. When I woke up in my friend Amanda’s bed yesterday morning, my eyes felt raw and itchy. I thought maybe it was her cat Olivia. If not the cat, the smoke. But by the time I arrived here in Hayden Idaho, I wondered if I wasn’t actually getting a cold.
In the past couple days I’ve finally had enough time to work on some of the logistics of my journey. Some of the places where I planned to stay are no longer feasible. While it bums me out, I can’t get upset. Friends and family have put me up for free, and it’s not easy for everyone to take in a guest traveling with a small dog. So I’ve spent a lot of time hunting for campsites, hotels and perusing Airbnb. It’s Sunday, and I don’t know where I’m sleeping this Friday.
The restlessness that felt like the seed of this adventure is still so strong here. I have felt like there is something amazing just around the corner. I’ve been blessed enough to find that to be true – whether it’s a lake I didn’t know to expect, a snow capped mountain, a field of sunflowers stretching as far as the horizon. But I’ve also felt uncertain about what I’m doing. Today I’ve felt a clinginess like codependency – but to nothing in particular. As the summer weans into fall, I am thinking about school, about endings. I am maybe halfway through my journey, if even that, but I keep looking forward. What am I going to do when this is all over? What will last? What is it I’m looking for that I didn’t have before?
At Teachers College Columbia, I learned a pedagogical theory called Backwards Design. It’s more or less goal setting – before planning the activities, texts, and assessments for a school unit, you decide what you want your students to take away from the experience. In teacher jargon, we often write, “Students will be able to” do this that or the other. And then, when you know where you want the kids to learn, you plan the trip. Or, I guess the unit.
I know I plan to arrive in New York City in a few weeks. I know I plan to arrive in Hamilton Montana tonight. But I don’t know where I plan to arrive in winter. I left in June knowing only that I had to hit the road. I had a general plan of places I wanted to go, people I wanted to see. I had faith in the process of discovery. I felt, and feel, called. But it’s not consistent. And to trust a voice in my gut with such unspecific direction is hard. Am I just insane?
No. I’m not. But doubt works on me like this smoke in the air. It appears at first from somewhere you can’t identify. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you don’t. It’s insidious, and before you know it, you’re breathing shallow, scratching your skin, trying to push something out that you never owned to begin with.
Through my travels, I’ve also been participating in an online course run by Gabby Bernstein called Spirit Junkies. The course is about spiritual growth, and becoming a teacher in your own right. Lately, I have been crafting my higher power statement. But in the course, it became clear that some of us just don’t know how to name or identify what a higher power is. We grow up in churches that damage us, or ping-ponging between our parents’ faith systems and get lost. Is god within us? Outside of us? Both?
To change my life this much, quit a secure job, move out of a beautiful house, leave the people I love, I had to trust so hard in myself. Or my higher power. It doesn’t mean I don’t doubt it often. Falling out of faith or health makes us appreciate it more.
I do believe there is an infinite power within and around everything in our world. Maybe it’s a desert goddess, a biblical god, Jesus, Buddha, or Amma. Maybe the stars guide us more than we know, maybe it’s just quantum entanglement, and there is a parallel soul in the world so attached to us that we can’t even identify the force of our movements. But when I fall into smoke, into doubt, I have to remember that this force is so powerful that any name or concept I offer is less than succinct. It is creative and life giving. It is trustworthy, generous, and gentle. It is available. We are each called in different ways to grow and love through this amazing force, and once we say yes we will be pummeled with miracles.
I wanted to write about smoke and doubt, and I suppose I ended up writing about divine fire. Not a bad diversion.