“Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, ‘Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be? Is today the day I die?”
-Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie
I was hiking with my girlfriend in Amnicon State Park in Northwestern Wisconsin and we came upon a grotto along the river, a sort of hidden waterfall area at the end of a spur trail that led over gnarled cedar roots. It was a beautiful spot, cloistered from the main trail and filled with dappled sunlight and mist. My girlfriend immediately took off her shoes and socks and began to wade across the top of a small waterfall. I sat on a rocky outcropping with our two dogs and gazed at the rushing river water, awash in white noise and cool spray. I ate a piece of dried mango and zoned out.
A year ago to the week I had just finished going through the process of a divorce and I was moving all of my worldly possessions, including fifty pigs and an old tractor, to a rental property that I had leased with a good friend. I remember feeling intensely exhausted all of the time. My internal dialogue was like a faucet left fully open. I was drowning in all that water, but fortunately I had learned one lesson in my life that served me well. On my first attempt at backpacking the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota I had packed extra books and jeans in my brand new backpack. I believe the pack weighed over 60 pounds, and I was out of shape and overweight. I quickly learned that the best strategy to get to my destination, without hating everything about my journey, was to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. When I stopped to rest, I could widen my perspective, but in order to keep moving, I had to keep it narrow.
Even after that first trip on the trail, as I gained experience and packed lighter and smarter, there were still plenty of times when I became sweaty and exhausted, irritated at mosquitoes, and short tempered when I smacked my head on an overhanging log. Sometimes on the trail rain soaked my gear, and occasionally I developed huge blisters on my feet that made every step painful. But no matter how I felt or what happened on the trail, I still kept setting one foot in front of the other in order to get to my destination. I aimed my hiking stick toward a beautiful destination, as best as I could figure from maps, and set myself into motion. Occasionally those places turned out to be wet, muddy, and not as nearly as beautiful as I had hoped. It paid to be mentally and physically flexible, ready for whatever the trail offered up to me each day. Every one of the steps that I took down a trail was meaningful; they made up my journey.
Mostly, we let life pass us by. But there are times when we remember to stop and smell the roses. Smelling roses is nice enough, but jumping in puddles and getting dirty is much more enjoyable. Kids know this inherently. Some of our crazier grown-up friends remind us of this occasionally. The popularity of extreme obstacle course events like Tough Mudder makes it clear: we want to reconnect with the physical. We want to push our bodies and our minds to the max. What draws us to to jump in puddles and scramble up a quarter pipe slick with mud?
It reminds us that we are alive right now.
When I was a Buddhist I adopted the practice of imagining Death sitting on my shoulder to constantly remind me of the impermanence of life. Each breathe that we take and each step that we make is its own journey, its own wave. They say every seven years our body is made up of entirely new cells. We don’t have to wait to die to see if reincarnation is a reality because we are being reincarnated in every moment.
In my divorce things were messy as they usually are. My ex-wife and I lived on the same piece of property but in different dwellings for about a year as we finalized our legal separation. At that point my way forward was obscured, and I did not have the map for that particular area. I struggled to let go of the things I knew.
Letting go can be a painful feeling when our ego wants to hang on to some person, place, or thing . But if we always held on to our breath or never took another step down the path, then we would cease to live. Letting go is that down slope of the wave that we surf as we move through life, and letting go almost always helps us to heal and move on to different experiences.
My ego wanted to hang on but my soul wanted to let go.
It rained the morning that my girlfriend and I packed up our camping gear in order to head home after our little mini-vacation up north. On our way home we decided to stop at St. Croix State Park for lunch, and then we took a four mile hike down a mosquito infested trail. After experiencing the serene beauty of our grotto at Amnicon, I was underwhelmed with this hike. But it was good to stretch our legs for awhile.
We made it back home to the farm as the shadows grew long and set up the camper so that it could dry out. The dogs were tired and headed inside the house to collapse on the carpet. After making the rounds to check on all my pigs, I settled into a folding chair and enjoyed the cool breeze and green leaves of my own front yard. My dad had done a good job keeping the farm running while we were away. My girlfriend jumped into a puddle before heading inside to take a shower.
We have to choose our path and we have to start walking. We have to trust that the path will lead us somewhere beautiful. If we don’t think it will, we need to choose another path. Occasionally our path will lead us to a swamp, but if we take a few more steps we can reach a waterfall.