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Seeds of something fine

Fear and wonder in Seattle

Staff writer

I took a much-needed trip recently to visit old friends. On my own. A chance to be a woman and friend and not so much a mom or wife for a few days.

I’m normally quite obsessive about making arrangements before heading in to any new venture. I’ve relaxed over the years and even made a point of doing so with this trip.

Still, when I left, I was relatively certain there wasn’t much that could happen I wouldn’t be able to take in stride. In fact, I thought, I might even enjoy the kind of challenge I used to encounter all the time as a young, single woman, figuring out the world. Maybe it would make me feel more connected to the woman I used to be and often find myself missing.

My first day I had planned to explore an unfamiliar city several hours on my own before meeting up with a friend I hadn’t seen in more than eight years.

I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say by the time I reached my friend I’d waited in a rental car office for three hours to prove I was who I said I was, lost a cell phone charger, missed a bunch of appointments, gotten lost and trapped in the center of an unfamiliar city, and then lost again when I got off the highway in the rural area where we were supposed to meet.

I called my friend to get help finding the location but my cell phone died (and, of course, the charger was missing). So, I was an hour late.

But despite all that I kept finding myself slowing down on the winding roads to look at a bird or barn or body of water in the rain.

Despite the challenges I faced up to that point, I was taking in the natural beauty as though I had never seen trees before.

The time with friends was so nourishing to me, and I definitely appreciated eating on actual plates at a table for every meal like I never did as a single gal — but the trip continued to hold irritating snafus every day.

There was even a point I faced the very real possibility of being unable to get back to Marion without hitchhiking or selling my organs.

In all my years as a single woman, making mistakes and learning, I had never encountered so horrific a series of events that challenged my abilities and resources and problem-solving skills.

At one point, driving from Portland to Seattle on the last fumes of fuel I had paid for with the last cent I had access to, floods of hot tears streaming, I realized something: I had done all I could to solve the problem. The only thing changing as I continued to wail was my soul, my spirit, my heart — the very things I went out there seeking to restore.

I had to accept I might run out of gas and be forced to thumb it to the nearest gas station where I was hoping my wit and charm might at least get me a free phone call.

I could keep freaking out about it. Or, I could accept that, just as I had survived everything in my life up to that point, I might survive that, too. And if I didn’t, well, what a shame it would have been to have spent the last hours of my life so focused on my troubles I was missing the trees outside the window or the beautiful dark clouds parting every now and then to let a determined ray of sunshine gild a spot on a lake.

The beauty of the natural world has always felt a bit like a love note from the universe to me and here I was missing some of the most spectacular natural beauty in the country, crying, in effect, over spilled milk — over things I could not change.

Days earlier, driving winding wet roads through the spectacularly lush beauty of the Pacific Northwest, I had been so totally distracted by the birds and sights I kept missing my turns. That’s part of why I was so late. Now, a few days later, I had run out of wonder in such a short time. The beauty around me hadn’t changed, I had. Or rather, I had let the changes in my circumstances change me.

A few days before I had been consumed by awe, and in such a state I saw a bald eagle, a blue heron inches from the car, fields of tulips, and on and on. I was, as Albert Camus describes it, “on the surface of myself.”

In one of my favorite Camus passages he writes, “What gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have.

“Far from our own people … stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks … we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value … we are aware of every gift.”

I had been reading this passage as I sat in the rental car office the first day, and it came flooding back to me as I willed the car to make it the last 100 miles.

I did make it. And the rest of my trip held moments that continue to fill my heart. And I made it home thanks to the incredible support of loved ones.

And while the sight of rare birds and time with old friends was amazingly restorative, I think the biggest gift I took from that trip was knowledge of myself.

Being stripped of all comforts forced me to choose who I wanted to be in that situation independent of the circumstances. That lesson holds true even in the very familiar life I live every day. I know who I am and who I want to be and am now more determined than ever not to let circumstances change that.

Last modified May 26, 2011

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