Lessons from a Lookout Tower

Sign posted in Swan Lake, Montana

Last week, in the first noted occasion of something in my world that hasn’t been cancelled in over 2-months in the wake of covid, I stayed for a spell in the Mission Lookout Tower in Swan Lake, which is a little thing you can do here in the great state of Montana: stay in old decommissioned fire towers. I reserved the tower 6-months ago, and based on my findings online assumed my stay was cancelled. Then, four days before my reservation was set to start, I got a call from the ranger station telling me I was good to go. So I went.

I started venturing – solo saunter style – to this particular tower in May of 2018, making this recent trip my third annual pilgrimage there. I think I stayed 3 or 4 nights my first time. Last year I stayed a week and this year, too, I booked it for a week long stay. (Merch plug: I compiled my writings from my tower stay last year into a homespun book called Sky Perch: One-week worth of writing from a lookout tower. If you’re interested, let me know and I will send you a copy for $10.)

As a writer, staying solo in a tower rocketed 40-feet up off the ground is simply a stellar venue for putting pen to paper. And my last two trips there were periods of great reflection, refreshing solitude, stillness, nourishment, and energetic refueling. My trip there this last go-around, however, was not any of those things.

This is me now imagining that you’re looking at the above pic and wondering how the heck I had less than a super amazing time. I’ll tell you. In short, it just wasn’t what I needed last week.

I arrived at the tower on Monday around noon and stayed overnight and by Tuesday afternoon I wanted to return home. I didn’t want to be solo in the tower, away from people and the workings of the world. In the wake of covid, the conditions for my tower stay were quite different than in previous years. I was lonely and I wanted to be home. I felt too removed; too isolated; too alone.

When I first came to realize that underneath my uneasy, restless feeling at the tower was the root of loneliness, I felt a cultural teaching spring up telling me I was weak for feeling lonely. But fortunately, the strength of my mindfulness practice stepped in soon after that voice arose and chimed in: loneliness isn’t weakness, it’s a helpful messenger! And with that, I listened to the message and landed on a new story: Ah, yes. It’s time to go home. So, I went home.

On Friday, I went back to the tower with my husband Mike in tow. We stayed overnight and for the better part of two days and then decided to head home a day early. It was chilly and the tower is sans heat (and also sans electricity & water). We were ready to be warmed up. So back home we went.

This year, the tower taught me a lesson I continue – and hopefully will continue – to keep learning: things change. Just because things are one way one time doesn’t mean they’ll be the same way the next time around. And just because I had a lovely and enjoyable time at the tower last year doesn’t mean that since I didn’t have the same kind of time on this trip I must’ve done it wrong.

Things change. I change. Seasons change. The world changes. For me, it’s really easy to intellectualize impermanence. Sure, sure, everything changes. Got it! Yeah, well, most of the time, I really don’t get it. Personally, I have to keep learning this one over and over. I have to experience it; feel it; allow it to penetrate into the realm of my active practice and not remain some abstract thought process.

Another continuing lesson the tower gifted me with last week: sometimes what’s called for is to stay put, to feel a feeling all the way through; and sometimes what’s called for is to remedy a situation by redirecting one’s attention to an action that’s soothing and comforting. There is simply no one right way to do any one thing at any one time, ever.

My practice? To stay close in touch with my inner landscape; to listen to what’s alive, and to regard every single bit of what I discover as a messenger, helping to show me the way home.

 

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