Solitude in Life Off the Grid

Since graduating college last May, I’ve spent more and more time by myself. I lived in a trailer by myself in Washington, I spent many solitary, unemployed afternoons strolling through Chicago, I even did a hike along the Pacific Ocean beach where I didn’t see another human for 48 hours. Now I find myself alone again as I wander around the country. Not just alone in a physical sense, but  alone in a technological sense. That is, I’m (mostly) off the grid. Or #OTG as Matt would say. That means I can’t text a friend when I’m reminded of a shared memory, I can’t mindlessly browse Facebook statuses from my couch, I can’t google the definition of an unfamiliar word in my book (“Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner), I can’t check-in, I can’t update, I can’t share. I usually get one of two reaction to this: “that sucks” or “that’s great.” And yes, sometimes it sucks and sometimes it’s great. Sometimes I’m anxious and sometimes I’m peaceful. Sometimes there is loneliness and sometimes there is solitude. 

“Loneliness is solitude with a problem.” -Maggie Nelson

Solitude is a peaceful moment with the self. A chance to explore the soul. An inward dialogue to discover the great truths of the universe. Unraveling the path within- one’s purpose, passion, place. It requires a confidence reaffirmed from within, not from friends, family or anyone else. Loneliness is wishing for something more. Someone to distract. When insecurities and anxieties blitz the mind and the need for someone else becomes overwhelming. What else? What if? It is confusing, frustrating and yeah, it sucks.

Last week I found myself on the lonely side of the spectrum. After a long, exhausting day of work, I was overcome with a crippling sense of uncertainty. I felt like I was the only person in the world. Alone and lonely. A quiet took over, running deep through every muscle, silently walking and wandering without purpose, yet always seeming to make the wrong move. I didn’t know what caused it. I didn’t know what to do, where to go or what to think about. I was at such a loss. My gut, my natural tendency, was failing me. I lost the path.

But I didn’t panic, I took a breath, brought the uncertainty and loneliness into my awareness, held it in my consciousness and walked with it. Sat with it. Tried to understand it, dissect it, find its origin, but mostly I just let it flow. Succumb completely and helplessly to its hold. Don’t hate it. Don’t fight it. Just be it. For it is only a moment and it is only a feeling.

Soon enough, with the help of some tea and a pen, it transformed into a great sense of peace and solitude. I was comfortable again. I returned to myself. Sometimes that’s all it takes. But it takes that. It takes deliberate effort. Intentionality. And it’s worth it. Those brief moments of loneliness are far outweighed by the more frequent, more powerful, more enlightening moments of solitude.

“The blessings for which we hunger are not to be found in other places or people. These gifts can only be given to you by your self. They are at home at the hearth of your soul.” – John O’Donohue

Many of our greatest innovations and creativities rise from moments of solitude. Connecting with The Source, our intuition, a deepened relationship with God, with the Tao. We are given the “Power of the Slowing.” We find new meanings. We find solutions to old problems. We find ourselves. 

“Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” – Pablo Picasso

Today, we live in a hyper-connected world. I’ll be the first to admit that when I’m on the grid, I browse Instagram & Facebook for hours, I snap selfies while “reading,” I’m constantly distracted from myself. That’s why I love being #OTG, because I eliminate that urge, that addiction. Cold-turkey.

Often we refuse solitude because we’re scared of what we might find within. What if I’m boring? or stupid? or distracted? or judgmental? or average? So instead we avoid it, concluding that the self is simply the mirror’s reflection, nothing more. We’ve become so reliant on the approval of others in likes, comments, tinder matches and constant connectivity, that we forget to ask ourselves for approval.

“Many people suffer from the fear of finding oneself alone, so they don’t find themselves at all.” – Rollo May

We’re all unique in our strength and weaknesses and that’s OK. No, it’s wonderful. It’s what makes life interesting and exciting. We are not set in stone, completely defined in personality or opinion. We are constantly adapting, learning from every new experience, living. So take a picture for yourself, write a letter to yourself, take a moment for yourself. You’ll be amazed at the dynamic, thoughtful, and fascinating individual within. 

Life at Ghost Ranch

Well this place is pretty spectacular.

Hidden in the valley off highway 84 in northern New Mexico, Ghost Ranch provides people off all ages, backgrounds, and faiths the opportunity to explore the wonders of nature, find their spiritual self and achieve a greater sense of peace. They welcome school groups, religious gatherings, thru-hikers from the Continental Divide, families on vacation, Georgia O’Keeffe art-enthusiasts, you name it.

At one point last week there were four distinct groups on the ranch: a 4-6 grade Montessori school from Phoenix, the Hanover College geology department, an 8th grade Quaker school from Philadelphia, and a collection of spiritual leaders from different faiths all across the world. Many people, myself included, would be worried about the potential conflicts that could arise within such a diverse collection. The spiritual leaders requested that they eat their meals in silence…in the same dining hall as 5th graders on a field trip! But all it took was a simple rope and a sign to separate the dining hall and it worked. No, it better then worked, it flourished. Everybody came together as one, exemplified by a tree planting ceremony.

On Thursday evening, the landscaping department had planned to install two new fruit trees outside the Welcome Center. Most places would simply dig a hole, throw the tree in and be done with it. But here at Ghost Ranch, they held a “Tree Planting Ritual,” where 75 people from all of those different groups joined together for the occasion. Encircling the trees as one unified people, we read excerpts about trees from five different faiths traditions, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Indigenous Australian, each followed by a contemplative moment of silence. To see 10-year-old Cooper next to 80-year-old Pastor Bill, both reflecting on the importance of life and growth and beauty, was a remarkable experience. We took turns tossing in handfuls of dirt, singing “Wade in the Water,” and concentrating positive thoughts to help these trees grow. Those trees, just saplings now, will be here long after all of us expire, providing shade and fruit to the future generations that will walk the Ghost Ranch land. It is wonderful thought.

That is the power of this ranch. There is a peace to it. My Mom, who last visited for her 30th birthday a couple years ago, remembers being totally engrossed in her metal-working class, sitting next to the creek, creating piece after piece of beautiful jewelry that she never thought possible, opting out of her spa-day in the city so that she could stay with her work, with herself and with God. It is a place separated from the hustle and bustle of the “real” world where people can pause, take a breath, and reconnect with themselves as part of a greater world of life and love and spirit.

Here are a few pictures of my stay so far:

Meditation beads and Pedernal

 

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Sunrise from Kitchen Mesa

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Hike to Chimney Rock

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My Trailer

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“Go make Your dreams happen”

After a great stay in Denver, I’ve made it to Ghost Ranch! For those that don’t know, Ghost Ranch is an education and spiritual retreat center located in Abiquiu, NM. My grandparents have been very involved in the ranch over the past few decades and I decided to revisit the American Southwest (my last trip here was in 1996). I’m living the #trailerlyfe again (thank you college education!) with no TV, no phone service and minimal internet access and I couldn’t be happier. I’ll be working on the farm and cleaning out the other volunteer trailers. I’ve got my kindle, my journal, my music and a wonderful community of welcoming people with whom I share my time. OffTheGrid!

Today I climbed to the top of Chimney Rock, a short 3 mile round-trip hike that overlooks the ranch and the surrounding area. The view up there was spectacular- massive orange-red-brown-yellow-gray clay mesas that seem to change color throughout the day, a reservoir of aqua green water off in the distance, sitting low from the unending drought. New Mexico at its finest. 

At the top of the mesa, I stumbled upon a memorial. A simple, perfectly smooth, red rock laser-engraved with the following message:

“One world.

One life.

Go make Your dreams happen.

We miss you, Guy!

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He was 25 years old. I never met him, never saw him, never was aware of his existence during life. I don’t know what he did or liked, who he was connected with or how he died. And yet, sitting next to that memorial overlooking the vibrant clay mesas, I felt connected to him. He was young, adventurous, and followed his dreams. His life ended, just like every one of ours will someday, but his spirit remains, through everyone that knew him, everyone that didn’t, and every living thing in this world, through the interconnectedness of all beings. It is the most common theme in all literature, the one inevitable truth of all beings, often ignored in day-to-day life and never fully understood: Life & Death.

In a speech in 2005, Steve Jobs told a story of his everyday routine. He used to wake up each morning, look himself in the mirror and ask, “If today were my last day on Earth, would I want to do what I am about to do?” And if the answer was “no” too many days in a row, he would make a drastic change in life. He understood the fragility and brevity of his own existence and he made sure to live it to its fullest, without complacence or settling. He had great visions for the future, but he valued the present because he knew the future was never guaranteed. Nobody’s is. He said this in a commencement speech to Stanford University to thousands of driven and excited graduates, eager to fulfill their dreams and find happiness. I’m sure many of them did just that. I’m also sure many of them put off those dreams for later, distracted by the fast pace of life’s happenings: jobs, relationships, bills, apartments, cars, money, etc. “Today” turned into “tomorrow” turned into “one day” turned into “some day.” Living in the prospect of some hopeful future success that will finally give them peace and satisfaction.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.

In Breakfast with Buddha, author Roland Merullo discusses the anxieties and frustrations of an unfulfilled life of someone on their deathbed. They scream out to be saved as all the should-ofs, maybes and might-have-beens flood their mind. But those that seek peace in every step, and live fully aware in each moment, they do not cry or stress at the end. They are at peace, content with their existence and their journey. I do not like to ponder death often, but try not to ignore it. I do not welcome it, but try not to fear it. It is inevitable. I will die one day. Maybe soon, maybe not. But when that time comes, I hope to be at peace with my life, living without ragrets, following my dreams. I’d rather die young doing something I love than die old doing something I hate.

The past is unchangeable and the future is not guaranteed. The present moment is the only place to live fully. Now is the time. To travel to Europe, open a gluten-free bakery, tell her how you really feel, learn a new language, get married, run a marathon, climb a mountain, swear, practice mediation, write a book, build a house, teach a class.

Go make Your dreams happen. Life doesn’t last forever.

Rest in peace, Guy. Thank you for your inspiration. 

Happiness is a Journey

After a failed attempt at an overnight backcountry trip due to a snowed in parking lot, I spent today hiking in Chautauqua Park just outside Boulder, CO. And I mean literally just outside. Have a free afternoon? Climb a mountain!

Lunch packed and map in hand, I set out to climb to the top of Green Mountain. It was spectacular up there. To the east, the uniform brick buildings of the University campus gave way to the vast emptiness of the Great Plains and to the west, rolling green hills led to snow-capped mountains, hazed by the approaching afternoon storm. A melted Snickers bar to reenergize the body and a few deep breaths to reenergize the mind. It was a spectacular sight and a great sense of accomplishment.

But I don’t want to talk about the peak. It’s overrated. The truly spectacular moment is the final approach.

I’ve been climbing for hours and I finally start to sense the peak. The trees thin, the snow thickens. Jagged, loose rocks replace the packed dirt of the familiar trail. The exhaustion felt a mile ago is a long lost memory-Anticipation builds in it’s place. My eyes focus on each step and the path ahead, anywhere but the exposed valley below- I must save that gaze for the peak. A 2nd wind. A 3rd. Finally, just around the corner, spotting the cairn marking the top, I race up the final steps. Euphoric. I’ve made it. Success.

Those are the moments I love for they are still a part of the journey. Once you’ve reached the top, the journey is over. Yes, the satisfaction feels great but it is fleeting. How long can you sit at the top of the mountain before it loses it’s mystique? In those approaching moments however, the goal is still unknown and exciting. Those are the moments of true and lasting happiness. Success and happiness are not destinations, they are journeys.

I don’t know where I’m going to end up in life. I don’t know where I’ll live or what I’ll do or who I’ll be and I’m OK with that. Yes, I doubt myself as the anxieties of “what will you do?” flood my mind just like any other thinker with hopes for the future. But they are just thoughts and they do not define me. Hopefully one day I will look back upon my life and label it a success, but for now I’ll continue intentionally wandering along the epic journey, searching for success in each moment.

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It’s a Family Tradition!

I was born and raised Catholic. I remember staring at the classroom door waiting to get picked up for noon services on Ash Wednesday, racing out of Easter Vigil mass to get home and indulge on whatever it was I gave up for lent that year, and even washing the feet of the elderly on one Holy Thursday with my Mom.

During my freshman year at Pomona, amongst the atypically large concentration of Jewish students at a liberal arts college, I was introduced to Seder, the dinner holiday/event/tradition that marks the start of Passover. At the start, this being college and all, it was simply an excuse to drink Maneshewitz (always accompanied by a discussion of whether or not it is kosher and what kosher even means), eat large quantities of meat, snack on Ms Grodnick’s chocolate covered Matzah, and be with friends. As a group, we celebrated Seder and Easter every year and I always looked forward to those moments as the beginning of spring. Or at Pomona, the continuing of spring.

When I arrived in Florida last Monday, I celebrated a true Seder with Talia and her family, complete with songs that I didn’t understand (nor did Talia, so it’s OK), hidden matzah, gefelte fish and 3 specific themes: freedom from (the Egyptians), freedom to (live, love, laugh), and gratitude. I was grateful to be part of their tradition and celebrate their culture, something only understood through experience. This is part of their identity.

Throughout the evening and into the next week, identity became a common theme. I spent the entire week with my family cooking and eating seafood, reading The Goldfinch with my sister, dancing with cousins, drinking wine, deep breathing on the beach, and contemplating the world with Pops. The spring break vacations in Indian Rocks Beach have become a wonderful tradition for my family. They are part of our identity, especially with the countdown appearing on my Mom’s Facebook everyday. This time, the week was topped off with an Easter ham dinner in Denver with my cousin and sister-friend. While these traditions lack the formal structure of a Seder (we’re an informal family anyway), the common themes were astounding: family, feasts, heritage, spring hope, wine, and laughter.

So whether you celebrate Easter or Passover or just love spring weather, take a moment for some gratitude, no matter how large or small and reach out to someone that has influenced your identity. As a couple wise men once said, “It’s a great day to be alive” (Travis tritt) and “it’s a family tradition” (Hank Williams).

A New Adventure Ahead

After my longest stay in Chicago in the last 5 years, I will be leaving again tomorrow for the next adventure. I rode a roller-coaster of emotions during the last 4 months of living in my hometown, sleeping in the room I grew up in, seeing the friends I grew up with and enduring the worst winter imaginable. I taught a couple academic workshops for my 7th graders, developed a new ACT prep class that synthesized testing tips with mindfulness and the power of positivity, tutored my heart out, explored some unknown corners of the city, and got to spend some great quality time with my family. But now, it’s time for something new and wonderful.

One of my biggest fears is a life of routine. I don’t hate it. In fact, I tend to embrace it subconsciously. But it is not what I want. I value a life of uncertainty and the constant search for newness. New people, new places, new experiences, new knowledge. Not because I want to learn about them, but because I want to learn more about myself. Life is a beautiful journey of self-discovery, finding your inner Daemon, exploring the world and finding your place within it. Routine provides structure and definition. It is easy. It is comforting. It is normal. It is what you’re suppose to do in life. But it’s not for me. Just because I’m 22 years old and I’ve graduated from college doesn’t mean I’m well-defined and ready to settle down with the rest of my life. I can’t do it…yet.

“Once you define something, you no longer question it. Once you know something, it becomes your reality. But knowing anything is exceedingly restrictive.” – Pam Grout, “E-Squared”

Without routine, everyday is new. I don’t know where I’m going or how I’m getting there. I don’t know who I’m going to talk to or if I’m going to talk to anyone. I don’t have the comforts to reminisce about the past or worry about the future, I can only afford to live in the now. And according to just about every book I’ve read about peace and self-fulfillment, living in the moment is the key to happiness…one of the keys. “Just do what you want.” Well I want to travel around and sleep in a tent and throw freedom on my back (-Howdog) and reinvent myself everyday and see if I can’t keep this streak of happiness going.

So I’m packing my pack and I’m out. I’ll be in Florida with my family and catching up with my Overland co-leader Talia for a week, in Denver visiting my cousin Sean and his girlfriend/my sister-friend Steph for a week, working at an educational spiritual retreat center in New Mexico called Ghost Ranch for 2 weeks, and seeing where the wind takes me from there. If you’re coming through any of those areas, shoot me a message for some good conversation and a new adventure.