Saturday, April 30, 2016

Celebrating growth, and avoiding "shrink-wrapping" comfort zones...

There is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there will be those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold onto the shore.

The elders say we must let go of the shore, 
and push off and into the river,
keep our eyes open, and our head above the water.
See who is there with you...and celebrate.*

It was a perfect day to be on the North Sea, there was every reason to get out on the water, and to let go of the shore.

But there are other times we cling to the shore...and shouldn't. Those times are never about personal safety, which, of course, would be sensible. 

They are about, for whatever reason, the unwillingness to make the effort. 

Dickmont's full flood.
Effort, after all, can be demanding. It pushes boundaries, and requires us to leave comfort zones. What effort does promise, however, is growth.

The fullest experience of life, after all, comes with participation, not spectatorship.

Cliff dwellers.
Life needs to be large. It begs exploration, continued learning, and continually expanding horizons. Life, by its very nature, issues a never-ending invitation to seek out new sources of meaning, to explore new directions, to risk, and then savour the promised new experiences. 

The alternative is to fuss and fret about the consequences of leaving the comfort zone, the "shore" - and ending up settling for less than life offers. 

We must never tempt "regret".

Dreams need to be nurtured with confidence and expectation - there is usually a way to fulfil them. Even in the trying, there is a sense of satisfaction and the discovery of new sources of meaning. 

A compass, a horizon, and the faint image of a destination are all any of us really need to entice us on. They bring us the magic and mystery of unexplored places.

Shore time.
Emerson, essayist and poet, said, "Always do what you are afraid to do." I've found that that has almost always been the secret. 

Taking that counsel has a way of satisfying the hunger for adventure.

Tortilla, home-made hummus, lettuce, and chunky-crunchy Ploughman's (Heinz) pickle...mmmm!
Effort, however, is always the key ingredient.

Roz Savage, world record holder for ocean rowing (the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans) writes, "I believe that if you don't keep pushing the boundaries, keep expanding your comfort zone, your comfort zone actually gets smaller and smaller, until you're shrink-wrapped in such a tiny comfort zone that you can't move, you can't achieve anything, you can't grow."

Roz, and the Hopi elders were right, we have to be willing to leave the shelter of what's comfortable, let go of the shore...and choose to grow.

Safely inside a cave, with a view to where we need to be.
We will always find others there, sharing the very same journey...and there will be much reason for celebration. :)

* Part of a statement by the Hopi Nation elders (Oraibi, Arizona, June 8, 2000)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

North Sea Paddle: the fabulously fine art of faffing...and its quiet gift of focus.

Scotland has a deep and delightful richness of language and expression...there are the coolest words and figures of speech, like "faffing". My own definition: "to spend an inordinate amount of time on some activity that may appear to be inconsequential." Some may understand faffing as wasting time, or simply dithering.

But...nothing, could be further from the truth. :)

Faffing is a fine art, to be appreciated, cultivated, and enjoyed.

The other day, for example, was an absolutely perfect opportunity to be on the North Sea. We drove to one of our favourite launch spots, the ruined harbour at the foot of the cliffs beneath the tiny village of Auchmithie, just north of Arbroath. 

Part of the routine of a sea kayaking expedition, multi-day or for just a few hours, is in the preparations. There is the loading, the unloading, the carrying of the boats and gear to the shore, the checking and double checking that everything is in order...and then, for me, the faffing. 

Now it is readily admitted that this component can frustrate those intent on "getting on with it". Most paddlers I've enjoyed spending time with, however, exhibit gentle patience and an appreciation for the quiet, introspective moments of a good pre-launch faff. 

Time, after all, is precious. Every moment needs to be massaged. While Joan continued to load the boats, I faffed along the shore of the harbour, picking up one beautiful pebble after another...

...and allowed my mind to wonder about the marvellous story each could tell. There must have been billions upon billions of pebbles, and not one alike in shape or form.

I tried to imagine the molten rock, forming an intrusion into the mighty sandstone cliffs, maybe 250 million years ago.

A tiny arch, leading to another shingle beach, just begged to be explored.

So much faffing to do...and so little time.

Faffing might be thought of as the antithesis of that much admired activity of modern industry - so-called "multi-tasking". When we multi-task, however, attention to any one matter must be shared with another. Of course, it's possible to be on the phone, take notes, listen to music, and munch on a sandwich - all at the same time, but there can be no real or full focus on any one thing. 

Our human brains are simply not capable of fully focusing on more than one task at hand at a time. As we attempt to tend to several matters, all in the same moment, no single activity receives full focus. Without focus, there cannot be clarity. Sometimes I pat myself on the back, thinking I have attended to several matters, simultaneously. But, it often astonishes me, to think of how little clarity (or memory!) I have of any of it on any given day.

Time, deserves more focus.

When we faff, we tend to put out of our minds everything that can distract us...our worries, our agendas, our concerns for a future, still beyond the horizon. When we allow our minds to simply "be" on one thing at a time, the mind finds deep contentment, even peace, as it rests in that place. It is happy to be there.

It's probably why searching for sea glass, or listening to the waves rush up on the shore, or gardening is so relaxing, so calming, so restorative.

Faffing...spending moments every now and again, with just one delightful thing at a time offers a quiet gift of focus. With focus, comes clarity. With clarity, comes a richness beyond words, remaining with us in memory.

Having nurtured this fine art, yet one more time, it was launch time for another paddle on the North Sea, between Auchmithie and Arbroath.

And it was a cracker. :)

Much more to come...

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Walking with my father, across these gentle Perthshire hills...balance in life.

"Walking with my father, across these gentle Perthshire hills..." The words are from a lovely song by Dougie MacLean. A couple of days ago, Joan and I were out walking, not in the Perthshire hills, but in the Angus Glens. My dad wasn't walking with us on this outing. He's been gone for twenty years now...but he wasn't far away. I could feel his presence. He would have enjoyed the day very much. We walked many miles together when I was growing up. Mostly he would talk...about nature, about the stars, about the need to spend time outside. He would tell tall tales that I actually believed...well mostly. He and my mum believed in balance, and they demonstrated it with the way they lived. Nothing gives greater balance in life than the effort of making a connection with nature. But, of course, there's more to it.

Balance is really an evenness of mind. It's a feeling of equilibrium, of mental poise. It's a place of harmony and wonder. Balance keeps us steady, and safeguards us from being overwhelmed when life's "rocks and roots" boldly threaten to trip us up.

Balance, over rough terrain, is surer when we use hiking poles. They increase stability and ease of travel. They distribute the weight of the body, lessening pressure on vulnerable ankles, knees, hips, and back.

In life, the mental poise, the equilibrium, that we all seek comes when we pay careful attention to all the factors that contribute to balance. The body requires sound nutrition, adequate hydration, sufficient rest, and plenty of exercise. The mind needs stimulation, and every opportunity to be challenged by openness to new ideas and perspectives, and fresh ways of thinking. The spirit needs to think beyond self, and find meaning in altruistic and compassionate living.

We also need to be aware of the situations that cause us a sense of imbalance and be willing to take the steps that we know will restore balance. The willingness to be "burned twice (or more) by the same flame" is strangely common amongst we humans.

I have learned that there are at least three things that help us achieve a sense of balance in life.

The first is accepting and being comfortable with change, and not being afraid of the uncertainty that comes with change. There is no doubt that uncertainty is unsettling. But change, after all, is proof positive we are alive. Everything and everyone changes. Our thoughts change, our perspectives change, our relationships change, our understanding of the world changes as we gain wisdom and experience. But change opens doors to growth. And growth reveals a banquet table of new possibilities. There is nowhere to run from change, and in trying, we simply exhaust ourselves.

Of course facing change is a little scary, it takes courage. This plump Scottish grouse, with his very impressive red eyebrow wattle (much adored, it is presumed by the opposite sex), demonstrated courage when he stepped out of the heather onto our path.  He came to no harm. :)

The second ingredient to achieving balance in life is moving from concern for self to concern for others. We've all had the experience of feeling quite overwhelmed, as if we are in the midst of a stormy sea, at risk of being tossed and blown by wave and wind. We also know that if suddenly, in the midst of this storm, we discover that our children or a good friend needs us, everything changes. We move from the storm to a far different place...a place where we can be there for those we love. Suddenly, the storm is left behind as we allow compassion to take us to where we are needed.

Moving focus from self, to the happiness and the needs of others, almost always restores balance. It also reminds us that we are not alone in life.

The third contributor to a sense of balance, is to maintain a sense of play. Life is serious enough and heaven knows, there are a lot of matters to take seriously. Ourselves? Not so much. When we take our imperfect selves too seriously, we invite rigidity of mind, and constant disappointment. When we are playful, we are like a tree, willing to bend in the wind, and in so doing, rarely at risk of any broken limbs. Playfulness ensures our spirits will not be broken and lives will not be overwhelmed. It is a powerful source of balance.

This very large tree at the end of the trail, in Glen Prosen, reminded us to ground our lives with the kind of strong roots that will ensure balance...a degree of comfort with the inevitability of change, the need to move focus from our inner self to others...and the wonderful inclusion of a sense of playfulness in each and every day.

These three things help bring to us the evenness of mind, the balance, we seek.

At the end of the trail is a most delightful cottage, its red doors and daffodils, bringing warmth to a chilly April day.

The Glen Prosen Church, built in 1802, stands at the trailhead. Several members of the "flock" were there to greet us. :)

My father would have enjoyed this walk, across these gentle Angus hills, very was just the kind of day he always said would bring balance. 

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Final fling on bonnie Loch Tay (for now)...and when set-backs bear the seeds of come-backs.

Kenmore, where Burns wrote "Admiring Nature in her wildest grace".
It was a grey, overcast, dreich day on Loch Tay, in the Scottish Highlands...perfectly atmospheric for a good long paddle. The loch is fourteen and a half miles long and, on average, a mile to a mile and a half wide. Ben Lawers, the tenth highest mountain in the UK, graces the north shore with six other Munros (mountains over 3000 feet). Needless to say, on this day, the snowy peaks were tucked into the low overcast.

It's a deep, mysterious and fascinating body of water. I've previously written (here) about the crannogs, the man-made islands in the loch. Over twenty have now been identified and dwellings built on them were inhabited from Neolithic times (5000 years ago) until into the 17th Century. They were built out over the water, making them defensible positions against grumpy neighbours.

Image of reconstructed Crannog in Loch Tay, taken in November, 2014.
Today, however, there would be no lingering over these tantalising elements of history. We were there to paddle hard, put in some serious nautical miles, and enjoy a good exhilarating workout on the water.

Except...I had a rather sore arm. 

Admittedly, it had been that way for quite a while, several months in fact. There had been a perverse pleasure in simply ignoring it, but it was clearly not getting any better. It was, in fact, getting worse. The symptoms suggested the rather innocuous sounding "tennis elbow". The clinical name of this musculoskeletal condition, lateral epicondylitis, sounds much more impressive. Although I play neither tennis, nor the violin, it is a repetitive strain injury and can be caused by many activities. Clearly, ignoring it had been a mistake. 

Hmmm...who would have known?

Pain or no pain, this was the first opportunity to launch the Scottish kayaks since returning...I elected to "soldier" on. Joan gave me "the look", which I cheerfully pretended not to see.

Many folks have the advantage of common sense, which I greatly envy. "Motion IS lotion", right? Well yes, in fact it is...up to a point. 

Today we would paddle, after all, "no pain, no gain". Now isn't that a lot of rubbish? :)

We paddled for a couple of hours, and then it was clearly time to turn around and head back to the launch.

With a sense that we might not be out again for awhile, but with motion's "lotion" providing a temporary anaesthetic, we paddled hard, back to the gravel beach at Kenmore. 

A visit to the doc, a couple of days later would confirm the suspected diagnosis. Ah but, set-backs are a part of every journey. And as someone (whose name escapes me) once wisely said, "it is in the set-backs, that we find the seeds of come-backs."

Until then, the faithful boats will wait patiently, and with anticipation, for their next adventure on loch or sea.

Given good behaviour, it hopefully won't be long! :)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Pausing" to find focus, clarity, and peace...on the clifftop trail from Arbroath to Auchmithie.

Arbroath harbour...a misty day.
A close friend was recently hiking on Vancouver Island, not far from our Canadian home. She came upon a little fir tree, growing out of what amounted to a barren pile of rocks. The sight gave her reason to pause, and reflect on how brave and how strong the little tree was. It was an important observation. Growing, against all odds in such an apparently inhospitable place, the fir might well one day become as tall and robust as any in the forest. 

Nature has a way of reassuring us that everything is possible...but we have to be vigilant for its "voice", and be willing to pause long enough to hear its message. Taking time each day to pause, isn't always easy. Some folks might even suggest that being "still" is a precious waste of time, time better spent being busy. Goodness, if they only knew. 

While waiting for winds over the Scottish North Sea to calm sufficiently for an opportunity to launch the kayaks, we returned to one of our favourite walks along the red, Lower Devonian, sandstone cliffs between Arbroath and Auchmithie. 

Arbroath, home of the world famous "Arbroath smokies"
- even the name is patented.
It's raw, dramatic nature at its best here...ancient rock continues to be shaped and reshaped by the erosive forces of sea and weather. Immense rocks, and tiny stones, captured in the settling sand, hundreds of millions of years ago, fall from the cliffs, onto the beach, to be washed by the rising and falling tides.

Dickmont's Den, a fault-controlled geo...paddling right in on high tide is thrilling.
"Pausing" is easy here...nature calls out for one's attention, and it's irresistible. The passage of time seems to slow, even cease its once-determined march into the future. Willingly embracing fully the "now", the future no longer matters. The past is no longer important. Both pale in the presence of...the present

This, of course, means that in the fullness of an awareness of the present moment, there can be no worries, no regrets, no distractions.

The Deil's Heid.
Pausing our busy and distracted minds brings focus. Focus brings clarity. Clarity brings peace. Peace nurtures is a lovely and beautiful cycle.

Traversing the intertidal zone, the heart rate slows...there is simply so much to take in. There is such diversity of life, filling the little tidal pools, but only if one pauses, is it possible to observe the movement of their tiny bodies. 

Low tide at Castleheugh Beach.
For too many years I felt there was some inherent "good" in being busy. That was silly. It is in "pausing" that we learn to pay attention to life around us, that we become attuned to the lessons of the natural world. It is in pausing that we become attuned and connected in meaningful ways to one another. Pausing is a prerequisite for listening, a gift we need to give to one another far more often.

The clifftop trail from Arbroath to Auchmithie never fails to remind us to pause...and in the pausing, to embrace the present moment. It is the beginning of awareness. It is there that the possibility of focus, clarity, and peace can be found.

Now it has to be said, even such a "contemplative" activity in nature can work up an appetite...

Tiny Auchmithie's "But n Ben"...we've heard it's VERY fine dining.
On this day, however, the "But n Ben" wasn't open. The garlic mushroom pancake (mushrooms, sauteed in cream and garlic folded in a savoury pancake) sounded very intriguing. Another time - maybe after a paddle along the cliffs. :)

A But 'N' Ben: a small crofters cottage in the Scottish Highlands, with white walls and thatched roof. The "but" is the living room, and the "ben" is the bedroom.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Return to Base Camp 2...the Romans, the Picts, Sir William Wallace, and AC/DC.

Returning to Base Camp 2 (Scotland), from Vancouver Island, it's lovely to be back in Forfar. Once the centre of the Kingdom of the Picts, this little market town in the maritime council of Angus, has been described as "intriguing", and "almost as old as time itself". There have been folks here since Neolithic times. The warmth and charm of the people, the layers of history, the hillwalking paradise of the Angus Glens, and the dramatic opportunities for sea kayaking on the nearby North Sea make this place irresistible. And, we have some personal history here too.

Back, before the "day", the Romans invaded the area, four times, between 83 AD and 306 AD. In the Early Middle Ages, the Picts gained the upper hand, but only until the 9th century, when Kenneth MacAlpin, new King of the Scots was allegedly victorious. In the 13th Century, Edward 1 of England briefly took over the battle-weary castle but surrendered it to Sir William Wallace just a few years later. And there's a lot more.

And who would have thought that the lead singer of the Australian rock group, AC/DC, the late Bon Scott, would also be born here. 

Newly arrived, and still jet-lagged, a modest walk this morning was in order. 

There's a lovely ten kilometre loop just out the "back door", along the Forfar Path Network. The walk traverses fields along country roads and up to the top of Balmashanner Hill. Locally known as "Bummie", the walker finds a stone tower, built in 1921 to remember those who died in the Great War. It has a stately presence.

From the tower, there are fine views over the town, and towards the still snow-covered hills of the Angus Glens. The hills gently called out, and we called back..."Soon".

There's something about this place that evokes an ever-present smile...perhaps it's just the nature of where one calls "Base Camp", wherever it is. And even if there's more than one. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Making "friends" with life's mindful moments...

Just "being" Gabriola Island, with a soft focus towards Howe Sound.
There are so many occasions on the water when the beauty and magnificence of this planet become almost overwhelming. Joan captured one such instant in time, in the image above. As I relinquished control, the sea kayak's forward momentum slowed in response to wind and water. Body, mind and spirit were massaged by each passing wave. Spellbound, I did not want to let go of the moment. The west coast of Canada is stunning...and all too often, I have been too busy, even paddling, to notice.

This time, I embraced the moment, and didn't let go...not for a very long time.

There are very special people in our lives, some we have known a very long time, and some not so very long at all. All were once strangers, and yet each has become so precious. We are so thankful for each and every one. How are such relationships built? 

The answer is that we spent time together, patiently learning about one another, developing and nurturing a growing relationship together. There were, and continue to be, times of listening...and times of sharing. We embraced one another as fellow travellers on life's pathways, sharing both joys and times of sadness, successes and failures, hopes and dreams. We grew to understand one another...forgiving, caring, loving. The secret to all of it? We were present and attentive to one another...and continue to be. 

I think of time, and how it passes so quickly and how easy it is to barely make an acquaintance with each passing moment. Hours, and days, weeks, even years can pass...and through busyness and distraction, we can somehow miss them. Yet, they are here but once, never to return again.

I am slowly learning to value each moment, to be present and attentive, in part through daily meditation and intentional mindfulness. It is the process of simply befriending each moment, giving value and meaning to each moment.

Embracing each moment, engaged in the here and now, brings clarity, peacefulness, and reason for gratitude in life.

That very special time on the water, just off Gabriola Island, was a lovely reminder to pause our "paddling", or whatever busyness consumes our time, just for a little while each and every day. We need to simply be...present and attentive. It's the very best way to make "friends" with each of life's passing moments.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Arbutus...and the mystery of the "ordinary".

They are all around, and yet they had quietly and over time, almost slipped away from my awareness. Familiarity had nurtured a sense of the "ordinary"...

Base Camp 1 is located close to the sea, on south Vancouver Island. There are many Arbutus trees that fill the woods around our home, sharing the forest floor with the towering Douglas firs. In some ways, they are a most unlikely, but delightful pairing. As with many things in life that "have always been there", we have tended to take them for granted...and forget to appreciate their special uniqueness and beauty. The Arbutus (Latin word for "strawberry tree) truly are a gift - rare, splendid and delightful.

Arbutus trees (Arbutus menziesii), also known as Pacific Madrone, are the only broad-leafed evergreen trees in Canada. Growing up to 30 metres in height, they are native to the Pacific Northwest and Northern California and are usually found only within 5 km (3 miles) of the ocean. Other than their desire to be near the salt water, they ask for very little, and are content to live in shallow, nutrient-poor and rocky soil. Like their neighbours, the Douglas fir, they are drought-tolerant which make them a perfect fit for the hot, dry summers.

Paddling along the coast of Vancouver Island, and the magical Gulf Islands, is to be welcomed by the Arbutus as they reach out - often, completely horizontally - over the water, their crooked trunks bidding us welcome. They must have some marvellous stories to tell...of other mariners they have observed over the millennia, storms they have faced, seasons through which they have transitioned.

The bark is thin and delicate, a warm combination of red, chartreuse, and brown. It flakes off and covers the ground, "crispy" beneath the hiker's feet. For countless generations, the Coast Salish people used the bark for tanning hides and making a medicine to treat stomach aches, skin ailments, cramps, colds, and even as a basis for contraception. 

When the bark is wet, it simply shines, as if highly polished by a patient and devoted artisan.

In the Spring, clusters of bell-shaped white, flowers hang from the end of twigs, attracting bees and providing a source of honey for beekeepers. 

The red berries of the Arbutus are edible and fruit-eating birds such as thrushes, robins, waxwings, woodpeckers appear to experience a mild form of intoxication as they gorge on the brightly coloured treat. Apparently the berries can ferment, while still on the tree...offering a slight "buzz" - also enjoyed by bears willing to climb up into the branches! Perhaps more of interest to we humans, the antioxidant capacity of polyphenols, found in the berries, have revealed a high potential to treat diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

We have lived amongst these Arbutus trees, here on Vancouver Island, for just over thirteen years now. Stunning and eye-catching at first, over time they became "part of the forest", almost invisible to our busy and distracted eyes. They became, in many ways..."ordinary". 

They are, however, extraordinary, not unlike a glass of cool, fresh water...or a sunrise or a sunset...or the sound of rain falling, or the rush of waves releasing their energy upon the shore...or the colours of a gentle rainbow. These trees are full of mystery, like the invisible current that powers our a message, sent 5000 miles in a brief the wonderful infectiousness of a smile.

I began to realize, that even those around us who are very precious - family, friends, neighbours, co-workers - can become as an Arbutus in a forest. Part of our every day, they can quietly slip beneath our consciousness, and become part of life's backdrop. We must never let that happen.

Today is a good day to remind someone we love, someone we appreciate, someone who has touched our lives, even a stranger who has yet to become a friend, that they will never become "ordinary"...for they, like the Arbutus, are gifts - full of wonder, mystery, potential, and infinite value.

I must never let the Arbutus trees, who faithfully greet us every single morning and bid us a fond good night at the end of each day, slip from my awareness again. They are, indeed, precious.

"The wonder is that we can see these trees 
and not wonder more..."

Ralph Waldo Emerson