“you’ll miss the water + the trees”: north shore getaway (pt. 2)

palisade head 4It’s summer, the fourth of July, but cool temperatures and the possibility of rain had us awake early on Wednesday. Day two of our little getaway was my to play. I wanted to drive northeast to Palisade Head, and pick our way back south, stopping as we wanted.

Palisade Head rises in sheer cliffs, three hundred feet above Lake Superior. On clear days, it’s a stunning panorama. The Sawtooth mountains and Shovel Point to the northeast, Split Rock Lighthouse to the southwest, and across the lake, the Apostle Islands.

We only stop once on our way up (for me to jump out of the car and snap photos of lupine along the shore — the first I’ve ever seen growing wild), but by the time we reached the lookout, the lake had vanished. Banks of white fog obscured everything, leaving only the base of the cell tower, and the rocks immediately in front of us clear.

A man with Ontario license plates shook his head at me when I joked about the view.
“Waste of your holiday,” he said, then warned me of coming storms.

The man had a camera on his neck, and I understood his gruffness. This lake is unruly, dangerous. It has its own weather patterns, and if you expect anything from your visit, you’ll likely be disappointed. I didn’t care though. That we couldn’t see the water, but could hear the waves roll over boulders at the base of the cliff was its own experience, gave the day its own beauty. We didn’t leave, but climbed down the billion year old lava formations.

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In the white fog, I thought, strangely, of death. This lake is, historically, treacherous. The “graveyard of the Great Lakes,” Superior has more than 500 ships on her floor, and as Gordon Lightfoot said, Superior doesn’t gives up her dead. The water is too cold for a drowned body to release the post-mortem gases that would, in a kinder lake, bring it to the surface. (As I told Chris on our drive up, I was really into shipwrecks for a while.)

I tried to explain how its in this space between beauty and danger that I find my love of Superior. It’s like the mountains, or the Grand Canyon. Like any wild place of beauty, we come to it, because it dwarfs us. We come to it, because we need it to dwarf us.

Lake Superior exists separate from us. Beyond our intervention or desires. It’s unruly and dangerous, and in this largess is its majesty. This lakes is powerful in the ways that it is, resonant and restorative and clarifying, because it exists beyond and beyond and beyond us.

Climbing these cliffs with so little visibility, I felt closer to the raw power of the lake. It’s large enough to have its own ecosystem, its own currents, and the fact that it’s landlocked and not ruled by global tides makes it somehow more powerful, more set apart from all its comparisons. It’s 2018, and we don’t navigate by lighthouses anymore, but this lake still demands respect. Just a year, a girl slipped from the very place we were climbing, and died on the rocks below.

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We were quiet in the fog, careful on the rocks, and cautious when we looked over the edges on our hands and knees. There was so little lake to see, but still, it was there. Just before we were about to leave, the fog shifted, and I could see the low waves that, previously, I’d just heard. The eddies of fog broke, and the lake to the northeast opened for us. Behind me, the cliffs we came to see.

For all I’ve said about the lake not existing for us, this felt like a gift, like the lupine on the highway felt like a gift. I didn’t expect it, didn’t need it, but oh my god, to receive it. The cliffs rise up, reds and oranges and grays, above sheets of hammered metal. You see the forests that rise and fall with the low mountains, and the lava formations that stand above the water. The fog kept the coast and water hidden, but I’ve seen, on clear days, the shore recede to haze and the lake stretch farther that you can see. I snapped photos furiously, then put my camera down. It’s a kind of worship, to sit before so much.

The clearing only last ten, maybe twelve minutes, and when the fog returned, we climbed back to the road. Growing between the lichened rocks, I came eye level with a blueberry bush, the berries still waxy and green. I snapped a photo, and kept climbing. I took hours for me to realize that I’d be gone by the time they ripen.

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Preparing to move away has left me with so many separate pieces. There’s the deep sadness of being away from family, but that sadness doesn’t diminish the sense of adventure. The waves of fear that we’ll fail (finances are my anxiety) are separate from the excitement that we’ll will be building something entirely our own. I hadn’t yet tried to reconcile all these jagged pieces, but they were with me as we picked our way down the shore.

Heavy rains truncated our plans, but we stopped once more to visit Split Rock Lighthouse, a Minnesota icon Chris has never seen. We skipped the tour to walk the grounds on own own. The thick white fog that had obscured the lake at Palisade Head was gray and heavy here. It hung over the trees and buildings, and turned everything to shadow.

Here, again, is a shore I know so well. Even under blankets of fog, I can trace the outlines of the cliffs and rock patterns. I’ve seen this beach on hot summer days and in crisp fall weather, with fat snowflakes falling on and in the earliest spring when the ice was breaking up. Its broken pieces made music riding on small waves.

For two days I felt this returning. All the ghosts of who I’ve been, from my childhood to my adulthood, are here. This lake is part of me. All these memories, all these stories kept coming to me. That’s my favorite beach, and if you climb past the no trespassing signs, it stretches all the way to the mouth of the Beaver River. When he was a toddler, my brother wore his flippers and goggles on the walk to Gooseberry Falls, but when he got there, there was barely a trickle  of water coming over that wide terrace. Six years later, he and another almost-brother scaled that rock face. We watched waves on this beach the year my dad turned 50, and if you keep driving north, that’s where we spent Thanksgiving.

On the beach beneath Split Rock, I submerged my hands in the water, a holdover from childhood when I wanted the water, the lake itself on my skin. We were getting ready to leave, fog heralding more severe weather on the way. I expected to be bowled over by grief. How many times in the last nine weeks have I asked myself ‘am I really leaving? And I really leaving the home I love, the land that feels apart of me, the family to whom I’m anchored?’ That we’ll be back is a given, but when? I’ve never left home with a plan to return.

The water was cold and clear and bracing, and with my hands in it, I felt clarity instead of sorrow. All the pieces of fear and hope and sorrow and excitement and possibility, all gathered into something that felt whole.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild came to me. How she wrote, “Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

I think about what my friend told me about leaving: It’s not easy, but it’s not scary, and the doors that open make it worth it in the end.

But I’ll miss the water and the trees.

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ps: read part 1 here

questions that don’t need answers: on the what’s next of it all

“Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far guide you onward to whatever crazy beauty awaits. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you’ve got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.” — Cheryl Strayed, Tint Beautiful Things

Back in 2011, when I was a college kid losing myself in the black vortex of untreated mental illness, I told everyone who would listen what I was struggling with. Anxiety, depression, daily panic attacks, Zoloft to treat it. I had known so few people to have mental health conditions, and the few people of with conditions, I only knew about through backroom whispers. It was foolish of me, but I thought what I was going through was so unique. No one else I knew was frightened by meeting friends for a movie! No one else I knew had their chest go tight and their vision blurry and their stomach sour three, four times a day! No one was irritable like I was, sad like I was, unnamably hopeless like I was.

Of course, that wasn’t true, but I didn’t know people who had – or at least who talked about having – any mental health conditions. There were some backroom whispers about tiny pills swallowed daily, but nothing or no one that said to me ‘mental illness is real, is common, is treatable.’ As the number of people who told me “I experienced the same thing” mounted, I wanted to shout why didn’t anyone tell me?

Why didn’t anyone tell me that this blackness has already been charted?

After writing last week about my depression, I was overwhelmed and grateful, as I always, always am, at the number of people who reached out to say that they got it. My god, people, life gets so lovely when we all stop hiding what’s supposed to make us lonely.

I’m also really happy to report that this week was better than last. After historic snowfall over the weekend, winter seems to finally be breaking. The sun has shined every day, and I finally ditched my down jacket. I read a sharp, intimate, breathtaking book, wrote two short stories back to back in a voice I barely recognize, and got really excited about bullet journaling. Then, on the one low day of the week, when I raged about stress and cried at the DMV, my sweet, sweet boyfriend reminded me that it’s okay to not always be okay. Like they say, a day at a time.

These last twelve months have been momentous and beautiful, and have given me the opportunity to, above all else, ask myself, to pull from Mary Oliver, what it is I want from this one wild and precious life.

I’m twenty five, and this seems like a good age to ask big questions. Or maybe every age is as good as any other, and I am ready now. What do I want out of life? Not just out of my days, but the whole grand sweep of it. What do I want it to have been when it comes to an end? How do I give my heart to someone, and what do I do when they give me theirs? What is purpose, and how do I find mine? What’s a career path, and how I build mine? How do I tend my roots without sacrificing my growth? What does desert feel like when you life in?

What comes next, and how do you decide when next comes? How do we even make that decision? Or do we just wait until there’s not decision left to make?

I think, again of that question Elizabeth Gilbert asks: who are you going to blame your life on today? Who get to be in charge of me today? And when will I learn to give myself permission to let that person be me?

Even when I can provide an answer, they only breed more questions. Like fruit I’m plucking from a tree, new ones ripen every day.

I know a few things for certain. That I must write. That I must love someone deeply and let them love me deeply too.

For a long time, I was a girl with no windows. No way for the light to get in. Then I torched my tiny room, and watched it burn. Unanswered questions thrill me. I’m young, and I’m curious, and I’m just the right amount of broke to be neither optionless nor tethered. It’s a miracle. That’s what I keep thinking: it’s a goddamn miracle to be here.

So what do you do? How do you build a wild, curious, thoughtful life? How do you love yourself and love your loved ones and love this world well? How do you keep these questions from becoming boxes that require answers, and allow them to be a journey in themselves?

how did we wind up with so much stuff?

I never thought much about the stuff I owned until I needed it haul it across my city half a dozen times last summer.

I have so much of it. So much clothing. So much kitchen gear. So much hand soap. (Why I own so much hand soap is beyond me). So many books (but we’re not touching those, ok?). At one point this summer, I sat on a sidewalk, ringed in boxes and furniture, and I cried, because why do I have so much stuff to haul up and down so many staircases?

There’s very little psychology behind what I own or why I own them (except perhaps my books, but again, untouchable. Let them be fat in peace). I own as much as I do, because of circumstance: For a few years, I lived in one place, and had the luxury of being still long enough for stuff to accumulate in corners. My village, the friends and family who love me, have been generous with what they own, and I’ve become the (grateful) recipient of many items they’re removing from their home. This past summer, I rebuilt my wardrobe, giving myself permission to buy clothing that fit and flattered my body. For many years, I largely only wore second-hand or clearance clothing that only sometimes fit me, only sometimes made me feel confident.

There’s little to no pathology behind why I own what I do, buy oh my god, why do I own so much?

I think often about the kind of life I’m building. That’s what this whole space is dedicated to: the process of becoming who we’re meant to be. What I don’t want is for my belongings to overtake me. I want my collection of items to be slim and agile. Utilitarian and well-loved and appropriate for small apartments. (Except! For! The! Books!).

Since my move this summer, I’ve been slimming down what I keep. Kitchen gadgets that only do one thing, clothing that doesn’t fit, decorations aren’t sentimental or don’t serve a purpose. All into bags to be given away. I was jubilant one day when I opened a drawer in my kitchen and found it empty, even though all my dishes were clean.

This all goes back to my desire to cut back, to reduce. To cut back on all the noise. All the commotion. Everything that demands my attention.

I want to travel.

I want to write.

I want to build relationships where I am known and I know them.

I don’t want my time, or my attention, or my money monopolized by gadgets or trinkets. Do you ever think about how much time you spend attending to your stuff? Cleaning it, sorting it, dusting it, arranging it?

What donation bags of clothing has to do with my desire for deep friendship, or the tentative ways I’m returning to (and trying to finish) my first novel, I’m not sure. But they seem connected. I invited people in to my home a few weeks ago, and I glowed with all the commotion, all the happy conversation. So few people have been to my apartment, so few friends have visited me.

I’ll move again this summer, and when I do, I don’t want to haul dresses I bought when I was a different person. I don’t want to pack souvenirs collected in places I can’t remember.

On the morning after I moved in to my apartment, I fell in love with the light. It was clean and bright, and it spilled into my empty apartment like an invitation. Like something essential. I keep thinking about that morning. How I had seven books, and my laptop, one pocket sized notebook, and a coffee maker. How everything else I owned was somewhere else. How even though I’d gone to sleep lonely and a little bit frightened, I woke in a room suffused with light.