Karmic Community.

I’m sitting in front of my computer screen for the first time in days, feeling torn between the need to put my epic experience of the Lost Coast into words and the desire to spend as little time indoors as possible in the few short weeks I’m in this amazing place.   This trip, initially planned as an attempt to slow myself down and unwind in the weeks before leaving the U.S. to teach overseas, has itself become an extremely valuable experience- a curious blend of synchronicity, adventure, and unintended transformation.

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My trip to visit family has brought me to Petrolia, a hidden town of less than 300 people, nestled in a river valley that cuts through the Kings Range Mountains.  I’m about five miles inland from California’s longest stretch of wilderness coastline.  It’s surreal, a town that exists in the past and the future at once, it’s citizens paying homage to tradition while remaining refreshingly open to new ideas.  The town itself consists of the intersection of several treacherous mountain roads, steep inclines created by the intersection of three fault lines, a lush river, ranches where cows graze alongside the ocean, a general store and post office.  Aware of the negative potential tourism could inflict on the almost untouched region, people here are justifiably wary of outsiders.  Luckily, I have an “in”;  my uncle, who might be the one person in my family who outdoes me in his adventurousness and love for the outdoors, landed a gig helping to restore a five bedroom cabin in town, moving  to Petrolia a year ago so my sixteen year old cousin could benefit from the unique structure of the incredibly small local school.

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Maybe upon first impression this is just another country town in the woods, but stay here for more than a few days and you’ll realize something special is going on.  I’m convinced there is something in the water, and whatever it is, it’s rocket fuel for the divine imagination.  People in this town have an unspoken commitment to sacred community, kindness, and shared plenitude.   The more I witness it first hand, the more convinced I am that I’ve found a place where intention becomes reality seemingly within moments, and where the rich connectedness of people creates effortless prosperity.  It’s as if the wind blowing through the Eucalyptus trees,  the Mattole river rushing, and the not-so-distant crash of salty seawater into jagged cliffs combine to create a symphony… and  the universe has been delighted into a graceful dance of “ask and you shall receive” magic. 

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A morning in Petrolia

I wake up wrapped in quilts in a lofted bedroom, shaking off the urge to hide from the crisp morning air.  I open my eyes and remember that this is the view out my bedroom window, and that my family has stumbled upon one of the most magnificent locations in the U.S.

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I sip on coffee that was prepared and packaged here in town, then throw on sandals and head next door to the town’s one room community center, where a handful of local women are discussing the new energy that last night’s rainstorm seems to have brought.  From just a few moments of conversation, I decide they are a treasure trove of knowledge on all things nature, spirit, and history.  I’d love the chance to learn more from them, but it will have to wait. The morning’s Qi Gong class is starting, taught by the local acupuncturist and town’s only doctor.

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I’m not just enthralled because I am getting my “Asia fix” before I even leave the U.S., but also because there is something magically synchronous about Qigong discovering me while I have time off.   Two years ago, during the most intense portion of my Master’s program, my aikido teacher suggested that I try the practice, as I was having a bit of trouble staying grounded in the midst of one of the busiest, most chaotic periods of my life.   She advised that it might help me cultivate a deeper meditation practice- having the discipline to sit still has always been a challenge for me.  However, somewhat ironically, the same busy chaos qigong might have helped me regulate was the same reason I’ve made excuses not to seek it out.  It seems absolutely perfect that when I finally allowed myself some downtime, Qigong is not only available, but literally happening in my front yard.  How could I not go?  Thank you universe!

I struggled in my first class, probably for the same reason Aikido was a challenge; because Qigong requires getting out of your head.  Maybe that’s exactly why I need this whole trip; to step out of my constant stream of internal babble and get back in the flow of my physical energy.   Besides the benefits of the practice itself, discovering Qigong at the community center opened up another perfect opportunity;  while waiting for my second class to start, I strike up a conversation, and am thrilled to discover that one of the women in class with me is the school principal.  While normally this would just be only mildly interesting,  I’d been chomping at the bit to talk to someone about the local school, because it fascinates me- it’s a public school, yet  because of the size of the area, has only 36 students including the preschool and high school, and about a 1 to 4 teacher to student ratio.  Students here go on frequent field trips to coastal conservation areas, and high school age students spend their last month of every school year doing a career internship of their choice.  My inner education enthusiast was jumping for joy when offered the opportunity to pick someone’s brain about the benefits of a school like this, especially when part of the reason I’m leaving next month to teach abroad is to expand my culturally based perspective on education.

Qigong ended at 11am, and by lunchtime, tickled at the opportunity to learn from the unique perspective of these teachers, I had followed the principal back to the school, met half the staff and became a volunteer.  I had no idea how my day was going to go when I woke up, but I definitely hadn’t expected to find myself sitting in the sunshine reading Dr. Suess with a little boy from Nicaragua, as he  told me all about using papaya on a sunburn. This day was fantastic!  I learn that the K-3 students share a classroom, which creates a unique opportunity for collaborative learning.  At recess I decide I adore their teacher (although I admit I may be biased because she got her undergrad in art).  We talk about how she incorporates creativity in her lessons, using visual art, theatrics, and song to teach science, math, and social studies.

Since I arrived, every person I meet is a vast source of diverse knowledge, and it’s blowing my mind… it seems my journey off the beaten path on my way to starting teaching job has once again made me a student, each day meeting more people I’m supposed to be learning from.

Just when I think things can’t get better, I find out Petrolia also has weekly aikido and yoga classes, and a farmer’s market selling everything from homemade beauty products to locally made granola bars called “Honeydew Hummers”.  Plus, I can’t forget to describe the sheer joy induced by being surrounded by this much natural beauty.  It seems to be perpetually sunny with a calm breeze, and if I walk more than half a mile in any direction, I am surrounded by ancient wilderness.  I think I might actually be in a postcard.  I’ve been hiking river beds, deserted beaches and peaks overlooking miles of wild coastline, and when I get tired from all that exploring, I can relax, drink wine from the vineyard around the corner, and play ping pong at the weekly BYOB tournament  at the community center. I even meet some fellow Americorp alum who educate local youth on conservation.   It’s official, this place has it all.

The coastal view from “Windy Point”…

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Maybe the secret power of Petrolia lies in how it was founded.   White settlers originally named it New Jerusalem, changing the name when it became home to the first oil well in California.  The oil dried up shortly after, leaving behind a small community of ranchers with an innate knowledge that treasure often lies hidden beneath the visible surface.   It seems fitting that while I’ve been here, I’ve tapped into a part of myself that has been buried under layers of sediment; this place has been a tonic for my soul.  Thanks to this tiny coastal town, I am recharged, fueled by a sublime combination of nature, new ideas, and karmic community.

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The Greater Yet To Be

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The greater yet to be…

As I write this, I’m sitting at a place called Weirs Rapids, a spot alongside the Maumee River where, when the water is at the perfect level, it creates a series of gentle water falls, and a magical mist that creates a series of faint rainbows on the surface of the water.  On this particular day, it strikes me that this place and I have a rich history together.  We first found each other eight years ago, when I was feeling overwhelmed, and took a random drive, searching for answers to questions I didn’t yet have the courage to ask.

I’d thought I’d taken a country drive simply to clear my mind, yet as I drove, I found myself desperate to find something. As I took turn after turn, it felt like I was trying to get lost, losing all sense of where I’d started, seeking any point of interest I could find in what had become a monotonous Midwestern landscape.  I had a sense of anxious yearning, thinking, there has to be more than this.

As much as I was looking to find something new outside myself, I later realized I was also seeking an internal change; at the time my life felt as flat and ordinary as the farm fields stretching in every direction.  Nothing lit me up anymore, I was tired and uninspired.   Maybe because I expected to find very little on this drive, I let go of all sense of logic and let my intuition take over, sometimes seeking points on the horizon that felt right, other times letting myself be pulled by the way it felt when I read the name of a road. Eventually, I turned down a tiny road that led to the rapids, and the small spot on the bank where I’ve come time and time again.  Driving without a destination led me to find this incredible hidden place, so when I come here, I am always reminded of the beauty that I find when I feel free enough to let myself wander.

Sometimes years have passed before I return, sometimes only months, and this time I am returning for the second time in a week, needing a moment of centering in the midst of necessary chaos before I pack my life into a small suitcase and begin a nine month adventure.  Surprisingly, though I was here only three days ago, today the spot where I laid a blanket out and enjoyed a sunny, warm spring day is underwater and the river, lazy only days before, is a powerful force, tugging at tree roots, debris rushing by as rainwater angrily tears away anything in its path .

Maybe that’s another reason why this place holds meaning to me; no matter how short the period of time between visits, the river always changes.  Sometimes I find a muddy bank covered in skeletal winter trees, struggling not to be pulled downstream, and other times a dry sandy shore, an entire river bed exposed and a perfect path of stones laid out encouraging a lazy stroll from one bank to the other.  Likewise, there are never the same sounds; some days I’ve been enveloped in a howl of cold wind and other warm days the rumble of motorcycles has faded into the distance revealing the noisy proclamations of flying geese returning for Ohio summer.  Some days I’ve been here alone, and other days the rapids were full of fisherman, laughing and shouting to each other, standing knee deep in the flow.

The philosopher Heraclitus once said, “You cannot step twice into the same river.”  I love this, and it’s so true- the natural world brilliantly and repeatedly reminds us of the inevitability of change.   Sometimes it’s through the gentle change of seasons, change barely discernible in each moment but constantly occurring nonetheless.   Other times we are violently shaken awake to the force of change as floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, or tornadoes sweep away humanity’s invented sense of security.   Whether quiet and gradual or loud and abrupt, nature never fails to open my eyes to something I’ve easily forget, that I live in a dynamic universe.  Sometimes I try to hide from this truth, and other times I think I’ve often tried to create change in my life in an attempt to beat nature to the punch; irrationally hoping that if I seek out change it won’t be able to catch me by surprise, that I’ll somehow be in complete control.  Yet here I sit, feeling incredibly aware of how little I can know about what lays ahead, a blend of fear and excitement rumbling in my stomach. It’s paradoxical, because while I don’t want to say goodbye until I know what it is I’m saying hello to, it’s also the mystery and the intoxicating unknown that have always moved me forward, and allowed me to embrace new experience.

I found this written in the back of an old notebook today; Half of the human life is saying goodbye- don’t be at war with half your life.  I don’t know where I heard it, but the reminder was welcomed.  What a battle I’ve often waged trying to prevent my life from shifting, to escape the inevitability of and perhaps ignoring the blessings that are inherent in change.   I don’t think I’m alone in this, we all have this tendency to cling to our favorite moments, wanting them to last forever, yet on some level recognizing their impermanence is what makes them magic.

The happiest moments are of course the hardest to let go of when they end.  Sometimes we stick around too long, hoping for a repeat.  I’ve often found myself clinging to relationships, jobs, and situations that have reached their expiration date, only to realize that whatever magic I was seeking has already passed, feeling sad that I didn’t recognize the meaning of those moments while they were happening.  In the midst of a period of great change, I’m trying to embrace the knowledge that any seemingly inconsequential thing that is happening right now might be the memory I cherish in a year, and to appreciate each accordingly.   I’m embracing change by breathing deeply into each moment and staying open to the possibility of more magic moments that are just around the corner.  I think Heraclitus is right, we can’t step into the same river twice… but we can choose to step willingly into the ever flowing river of change, allowing it to carry us the greater yet to be.

impossibility, terror, and taking flight.

I was having coffee with a friend last weekend, talking about the future, careers, and the often terrifying prospect of following our big dreams. You know the ones; the dreams that we decide not to follow because they are so huge and so scary that our rational brain tells us they are impractical… or my least favorite word of all… impossible

As we were discussing this idea of dreams vs. practicality, he reminded me of a personal truth that I try to live by. He reminded me that it ALL has a purpose, even what seems like confusion or misfortune in the present will make sense when we look at it down the road.  The truth he reminded me of was that even when it’s not clear, everything that happens fits together perfectly, that it’s all part of a path we are meant to be walking.

Someone once explained this much more gracefully… “it’s the path off the path that leads us to God.”  The idea that there is no such thing as a misfortune or mistake is a truth that is easier said than lived, especially when we are in the middle of tragedy or personal crisis, or really even when we just have a bad day.   It’s like we get so focused on what we want to happen, some goal we want to achieve, or some dream we can’t wait to be living, that in the moment we forget that it’s those twists and turns that are the real journey.

As a self-acknowledged accomplishment junkie, I am often guilty of  being so focused on my long term goals, the cause I want to champion, or my next big dream  that I get tunnel vision that prevents  me from seeing the beauty and divinity of the now. This is especially true right at the moment, as in a couple weeks I fly into California for grad school and visiting family and friends, and then fly from there to teach in Thailand for nine months.   Having a one way ticket to SE Asia has made living in the present more of a challenge than ever, my brain is a mess of future and past.  When I’m not distracted by  a mental  list of trip preparations, I find myself reflecting on the past, and the winding, unexpected paths that have led me here.

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So, I’ll indulge myself by lingering in the past for a moment, because as I look back over the last three years, all the pieces seem divinely orchestrated.  There were things that had to fall apart and come together, lessons I was meant to learn, friends I needed to meet, and places I needed to be in order to take this journey.   I feel like the last six months tested me in a necessary way.  Did I really want this?  Could I let go of the life I was used to in order to embrace a new adventure and perspective?   Most importantly, my gut has been telling me that going to Thailand is what I should be doing, but I’m not really sure why…so could I follow my heart when I didn’t know what it was leading me to?  When I answered those questions with commitment, and put my faith in the same higher power that continued to point me in this direction, I began witnessing each obstacle falling away.   I stalled on this dream for two years, avoided the signs, pushed forward on the practical career path I had chosen … until now. And now is perfect timing; had I not faced some of the challenges I did, I might not feel as strong, inspired or supported as I do.  I might not have the faith in my dream that I do now.

My experiences in the past couple years have granted me the ability to travel without seeking something out there, but rather stepping out of the known to see ordinary things with new eyes.  In this way, while I have no idea what the next step will be, I  know that coming home next spring will be just as valuable an experience as leaving.

Taking this trip represents only a first step; in doing the thing that no one thought I could or should do, I’m achieving my own impossibility.  Which is both exhilarating and terrifying, because suddenly I realize that the only thing that has ever limited me was the scope of what I believed I could be.  The way I see the world will change, because the things I ‘can’t do’ will suddenly be the things I choose not to do, and perhaps I’ll see doors where before there were none.   While this seems like a small step, I realize I am taking one more step towards letting go of fear and living the life I am meant to, whatever that ends up looking like.  So, thank you to all of the people who remind me to live fully and burn brightly, especially those who have loved me enough to let me take flight.

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