Before the Snow

“Fall colors are funny. They’re so bright and intense and beautiful. It’s like nature is trying to fill you up with color, to saturate you so you can stockpile it before winter turns everything muted and dreary.”
— Siobhan Vivian, “Same Difference”

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Before the snow, I headed out to walk along Minnehaha Creek. The weather reports had been unequivocal: “Winter (i.e. snow) is coming!” And even though I knew when I chose to come here that winter would be bigger living in the north, the reports surprisingly filled me with dread.

Lately, when I ‘ve needed air and movement, I have gravitated toward neighborhoods and city blocks where urban life fills me with its bustle and energy. New views of the skyline, new shops to gaze into, new places to order a large Americano and observe my fellow city dwellers. Or I have looped the lakes – spectacular in their poetic beauty, sailboats bobbing on waters silver or blue, glass-smooth or frothy, depending on the mercurial light and wind.

Somehow, I knew I needed a quieter landscape this time.

I had ridden the bike trail along Minnehaha twice, both times with Mike. First, in the high heat of August, on the home stretch of a fifty-mile circuit of the city. Then, its lush green shadows felt like an oasis. The second time, we rode on a cool night in mid-fall, with only our cheap (and not very illuminating) headlights to guide us. That time, the depth of its shadows filled me with terror and the short moonlit spans with wonder.  As I thought where I could go, the adjacent walking path which meanders alongside the bike trail, mostly between it and the creek, came to mind. Trees and shadows and hidden spots would do nicely.

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For most of my adult life, I had very little appreciation of nature – similar to the way I sometimes felt about humanity, I appreciated it in the abstract: individual people, and the actual outdoors, were not always my cup of tea. Now I find that being outdoors is the best way to clear and focus my mind, or, when necessary, to alter my mood. In this pause before the snow, I knew my thinking was jumbled and my emotions were all over the place. I just didn’t have clarity as to why. The moment I set my feet on the path, I felt I had come to the right place.

The afternoon was damp and gray, but the woods were glowing. I’ve always loved the special quality of yellow and gold in autumn woods and fields. On sunless days, these plants radiate light almost as if in the long days of summer they had stored the sun’s actual rays and now – just as we are beginning to keenly feel the sun’s loss to winter – they give it back to us. I walked along the paved path, pausing as I crossed the bridges to watch the creek flow over rocks and into still pools. Though I followed the markers for the walking trail, I came to end of the pavement.

As I stood, indecisively wondering if I should turn around or take the unpaved path that beckoned me forward, a woman and large shaggy dog walked up, nodded, and continued past me onto the unpaved trail. I stopped to take a picture with my phone, then took off after them, thinking I would catch up, but they had disappeared. The woods were beautiful, silent and still – and I was definitely alone.

Suddenly, I found this a little frightening. I was unfamiliar with the area, I didn’t know where the path was going, and I was in the woods alone. And in that moment I realized that the internal disquiet I had come here to parse out was just a new manifestation of familiar life issues: uncertainty and expectations. When I moved here, I thought I came without preconceived ideas of how things would go. I thought I was ready to live with and through the uncertainty of creating something new for my life. I stopped walking and stood quietly as the synapses in my brain fired. What I realized, listening to the soft sounds of the creek and the woods was this: I had un-articulated expectations, with an associated time frame, that weren’t being met.

Before the snow, I had expected to be employed. Perhaps not perfectly so, but enough so that the fear of utter failure and destitution would have been alleviated.

Before the snow, I had expected to be equipped to face the winter – appropriate attire, new snow tires, the ability to winterize my bike so I could keep riding. Without the employment expectation being met, the likelihood of meeting this expectation was diminished.

Before the snow, I had expected my new life to be enriched by new friends and the opportunity to take advantage of some of the non-free things this city has to offer (classes at the Center for the Book or The Literary Loft, for example).

But most importantly, I had apparently expected that, before the snow, I would have traversed the path through uncertainty and come out on the other side with a clarity of purpose and a more firm sense of my life here. Instead, I was lost – both figuratively and literally. Despite my best efforts. And the snow was upon me.

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Once I realized what had led to my disquiet, I found I could think more calmly about my physical location in the woods. I took several deep breaths and looked around. Bright yellow leaves were dropping like confetti from the branches of trees. They covered everything: the ground, fallen branches and boulders in a spectacular, mottled carpet.

Uncertainty and unexpected detours from the path sometimes take us to magical places almost in spite of ourselves. If I hadn’t felt panic at the impending storm, I wouldn’t have experienced exactly this configuration of light and color. Also, I may not have gained clarity of thinking to know why I was troubled. Most importantly, I might not have been able to put my fear in its proper perspective: uncertainty sucks but I’m moving through it, not standing still. And if I let go of expectations and remember to take one step forward at a time, I will find a path. It may not be easy, it may not lead anywhere I ever thought I’d go. But it will be MY path. And isn’t that what all this was about in the first place?

Postscript:

Mike and I had planned to meet for a late dinner that night at our favorite restaurant (we had a Living Social coupon that was about to expire). We sat at the bar, catching up on our days and sipping wine. I was warm, surrounded by candlelight and interesting people, anticipating a delicious meal. My seat was turned slightly toward Mike, which afforded me a view of the front wall – all windows – and the fat snow flakes falling outside. It was absolutely gorgeous, this first snowfall in my new home. And I felt not a smidge of panic.

Invitations

It had been gray and raining for days, so sunshine on Monday was a welcome sight. Rather than wait and walk later in the evening, after dark (as you will know from last week’s post is my latest habit), I was determined to get outside and walking while the sun was still shining. I took off in the slightly sketchier direction – the one I wouldn’t head in if it were dark and I was by myself – so cheerful there was an actual bounce in my step.

The neighborhood was alive with people: a couple of punk teens with bad-ass hair on banged-up mountain bikes, a young mother trying to wrangle three toddlers out of a leaf pile and into the house, two girls walking slowly down the sidewalk in stocking feet. About two blocks from home, I noticed side-by-side yards. One yard had been meticulously raked of leaves, while the yard next to it was a matted carpet of orange and yellow. The boundary between the two lawns was clearly, meticulously, demarcated.

As I approached, I noticed an older woman raking in the side yard of the well-manicured lawn. She looked at me and broke into a lovely grin.

“Beautiful evening for a walk,” she said.

“Sure is. Looks like you’ve had quite the job keeping up with those leaves,” I replied.

“Right! There’s another rake if you want to join me,” the woman said with a mischievous smile. (I believe her eyes literally twinkled as she said it.)

We both laughed, and I continued on my genuinely merry way. About a block later, I stopped to photograph some graffiti which ordered me to:

but rather than consider the definition of art, as directed, I found myself contemplating an entirely different question. Why didn’t I take the proffered rake and help that woman finish cleaning up her yard? 

In the moment of our brief conversation, I had assumed that the woman and I were engaging in noncommittal stranger interaction. Just a friendly passing of a few congenial seconds. It had not occurred to me to take her seriously and join her at her labor. But as soon as the question came to my mind, I knew I had blown an opportunity. I had declined an invitation.

Lately, I have complained about being at a…pause point…in my life. Near the end of one road but not yet able to set foot on the next. I have been chafing at this, contemplating ways that I can experience forward movement or at least some kind of engagement in the NOW, so I don’t revert to old (nearly lifelong) habits of living in and for the future. I know from bitter experience that when I exist in a future context, I have a tendency to allow inertia to lull me into inaction. Suddenly, I have lost focus and months have passed without movement in any direction (except, perhaps, upward on my bathroom scales).

I have been contemplating different tactics, from purposely stepping outside my comfort zone in some way (um, do I really want to hang out at the biker bar by myself and see how that goes?) to setting up some kind of social experiment (eat for a week on the same amount of money a food stamp recipient receives) to see how resourceful and creative I can be as well as to understand how difficult it might be to live within externally-set limits. Don’t get me wrong, these kinds of activities are not necessarily bad. However, for me right now these ideas are inauthentic. Contrived. Right now, I need grounded and authentic.

In Hymns to an Unknown God, Sam Keen says, “Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.” In other words, expect invitations to enter into the lives of others, to engage with yourself and those around you in different ways. Invitations to journey in new directions and to try new things.

I believe these invitations (opportunities, clandestine messages) occur in each of our lives on a daily basis. But I also know I am often so caught up in my own scripts, my own daily agendas, that I easily miss them. I don’t realize something important or meaningful has just been offered. What if I had accepted the invitation to rake with that woman? At the very least, I would have taken a little time out of my day to help a neighbor. At the very most…well, who can say what might have been created in that space?! Either way, I would have been richer for it.

Sometimes, these invitations lead to life-changing encounters. The kind of encounters (with others or with ourselves) that give us pause, offer us insight, allow us to connect the dots from where we are to where we want/need to go. As Gregg Levoy says in Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “In whatever form these signal events come to us, they seem to indicate…a way in which events on the outside and the inside work together and match each other. The event and our state of mind become like the two eyepieces of a binocular microscope, they are both looking at the same subject, the same truth.” When this happens, the invitation extended to us is, in fact, a call to become our most authentic selves.

I am grateful for the reminder that I need to be on the lookout for these invitations, these messages intended for me personally. Though they might show up at odd or unexpected moments, it is vital to keep the following in mind : once I’ve received the invitation, the whole point is to accept it. To show up at the party (or conversation, lecture, volunteer site, relationship) – without attachment to preconceived outcomes – and see what there is to learn or to give.