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.

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What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger (blech!)

From the title of this post, I reckon you can tell I am not a fan of this well-known and often used aphorism. I watched an old episode of Hell’s Kitchen the other day with my husband and one of the participants in the show said it to another participant who had broken down crying, which is what prompts me to pen some words on this particular thread.

For whatever reason, this aphorism seems to me to be close cousins of another unfortunately common saying: If I can do it, you can do it.

At face value and generally speaking: both sayings are nonsense.

Have I mentioned lately: words matter?

It would be much more accurate to say: What doesn’t kill us may make us stronger. Because the thing is: sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, the challenges/hardships/struggle/turmoil/or trauma we face serves as a means to shut us down, and armor us up against a world we deem as out to get us.

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The importance of reading hard books

There are some books I read because I really don’t want to (like the one I’m seen holding in the pic above). Books that are hard on the heart. Books that need to be written and read by those of us who don’t have a frame of reference or personal experience to add to a particular chorus of people who are suffering, struggling in shadows of silence to the detriment of us all.

There are some books I read because I am interested in being an agent of change in my world-sphere, and an agent of kindness and goodness that resonates throughout space and time; because I am deeply invested in doing my best to keep my love-light shining like a beacon in the darkness.

There are some books I read because not to read them is akin to a kind of death, a sterilization technique where I tell myself I don’t have the time or that reading is only for entertainment or intellectual learning. But I say this: what are words tossed on a page, bound into a book, if not a direct telling of a hard and terrible truth we are not permitted to voice aloud or able to hear with the same ears that subscribe to the old adage ignorance is bliss?

It’s like this: I can either further my jacked-up ego by never pushing myself to grow or I can intentionally choose to face discomfort for the betterment of my people.

Here’s to the books that tow a hard-freaking line; the books no one wants to read for fear of shaking our complacent world view up like a snow-globe; the books that will disrupt our inner matrix, resulting in the inevitable crisis of conscience: how do I dissent from the norm and rally against the system, without descending into an ocean of cynicism and despair?

 

Aspiration of Virtues

To have but not possess;
to lead but not control;
to love without holding on too tight;
to do work worth doing without comparing
or competing or praise-seeking;
to know when to act and when to rest;
to know when to speak and when not to;
to be confident but not arrogant,
strong but not rude,
kind but not weak,
humble but not timid –
there are the virtues I aspire to nourish in myself.
To hold steady onto when the whole world shakes,
or I’m standing alone,
or I’m surrounded by the masses,
or the day is calm and clear and uneventful.

A Difficult Week

Last week, I attended our local fall retreat up on the Flathead Lake. (This “peace is every step” pumpkin was a pic I took at said retreat.) Part of me wants to offer my typical post-retreat accounting here on this blog. But a bigger part of me has little interest in doing so. And part of me wants to tell you why I don’t have interest in relaying my retreat field notes and part of me doesn’t.

Instead, I think I’ll say this: it’s been a hard week. The hardest I’ve had in a very long time.

Over the last few days, it’s been interesting relaying this truth to people who have casually asked: how’s it going? I am someone who is interested in not answering on auto pilot with such empty responses such as: fine and good when confronted with that how are you question. However, I’m also interested in being brief. It’s a challenge, to say the least. On the best of weeks I am at a loss for how best to answer this question in such a way that is honest and also quick and to the point.

When I’ve told people: this week has been hard or I am being really challenged this week it solicited a range of responses I did not care for being on the receiving end of. It puts me in touch with how poorly skilled we are as a human collective to listen deeply and to respond in the spirit of interbeing.

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No one kind of tea is for everyone

… the paradox is one of our most valued spiritual possessions…only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.    – Carl Jung

Did you know there’s no one kind of tea that suits everyone’s fancy? Mint comes closest to being a crowd pleaser, I reckon. Still, it’s not for everyone. Nothing is.

Nothing.

There are countless ways to do life. And part of us knows this but it’s usually not a large enough percentage to equate to understanding on a deep enough level to make even a small dent in our delusions about such things.

There’s a persistent tickle whisper of a voice that serenades us, singing songs of fabled sameness to a shuttering detriment.

It’s worth us getting this one corrected.

We’re all one and We’re all the same are true only so much that it doesn’t interfere with another solid truth: the one about how we are all different.

Too often, we apply the lens of sameness in times when the lens of different-ness should be used. We get stuck in trite twirlings, insisting: This tea is sooo freakin good, you’re going to LOVE it! You HAVE HAVE HAVE to try it!! And if it turns out that said person who was supposed to love it does not, in fact, love it, well then clearly something is amiss with said person. Clearly their taste is flawed or their senses dulled from a sinus infection they don’t know they have or their pallet so under-developed they wouldn’t know good tea if it walked up to them like Bigfoot in the forest and said hello. Clearly, they are wrong.

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Four Elements of Lay Life

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what the foundational elements of my life are, as a lay practitioner in the Plum Village Buddhist tradition. A while back, I watched a Dharma talk online from a monastic Sister where she spoke of the founding principles of monastic life at the monasteries in our tradition and I think, if I remember right, what I’ve landed on is similar to what she shared.

I’ve identified four elements – and to be clear, theses are ones I’ve simply recognized are true and in play for myself personally, this is not any sort of official list adopted by anyone other than myself.

Nicole’s Four Foundational Elements of Lay Practice Life

  1. Practice (includes Dharma study)
  2. Work
  3. Rest
  4. Play (includes music/art/creative expression)

For me, it’s helpful to understand clearly what my foundational elements are as a lay practitioner so that I know what my priorities are and in what direction I want to be spending my time and limited energy. Life is about balance. And for me it’s about balancing these four elements, often on a daily basis.

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