Finding Freedom in Impermanence

In her new book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron writes about an author who talks about “humans as transitional beings—beings who are neither fully caught nor fully free…” Pema says, “I find it helpful to think of myself this way. I’m in the process of evolving. I’m neither doomed nor completely free, but I’m creating my future with every word, every action, every thought. I find myself in a very dynamic situation with unimaginable potential. I have all the support I need to simply relax and be with the transitional, in-process quality of my life. ”

Yesterday was my first day off without big projects to finish or open houses to plan. I felt like a combination of a giddy six-year old that was skipping first grade and an old retired lady who was scared of a boring, meaningless existence.

I have an intensely restless spirit, and whenever things calm down, I get terrified. Calm and peace are ideas that I love in theory, but in reality and in practice, they scare me. There’s something very exciting about running frantically from one activity to the next, which is probably why I’ve done it for so long.

Stress and busyness can be a huge distraction from dealing with our fears and the mystery and uncertainty of life. It’s scary to think about the impermanence of things. But I also believe there’s an unimaginable freedom that comes from facing it head on.

Even with my restlessness and the small internal war that was happening inside me, yesterday was an awesome day, and I hope to continue to ask myself the question, “Are you doing this because you love it and because it makes you feel more alive, or are you doing this to run from something that scares you?”

And I hope that once my life is centered around the things I love the most, rather than avoiding what I’m afraid of, maybe that’s where I’ll find the freedom I’m searching for.

I think there’s freedom to be found in accepting the human conundrum of being caught somewhere between complete freedom and complete stuck-ness! And it’s amazing to think about how we create our own futures with every moment we live, every belief we manifest, and every connection we make.

One Year Later

At many times a long the way I’ve wondered if change was possible. Sometimes my old beliefs and habits can feel so ingrained, that it’ll make me question whether or not humans are truly capable of change.

When I started this blog about a year ago, I was hoping to have my new home built by now, but more importantly I was searching for a shift within myself and a different outlook on life.

And a year later, I can honestly say that a lot has changed. My life has become less frantic, and I take time to do things that truly nurture me. I’m saying “no” a lot more, and I have a new overall commitment to my own well being. I cook healthy meals for myself. I take my lunch to work. I’ve reduced the amount of clutter and waste in my life. I take time to write. I spend time most days doing stretches and exercises that help me realign my posture and stay out of pain.

It’s amazing how good I can feel just by taking care of myself.

It’s very different than trying to force myself to live a “healthy” lifestyle or “be good” or “save the environment.” It really comes from a deeper place of wanting to truly live my life in alignment with what’s best for myself and the world around me. And I really don’t believe that those are two separate things. Of course I don’t do it perfectly (not even close!), and I don’t think I would want to. But I’m grateful for what this project is bringing me, and I hope to be able to continue sharing the things that are changing and the ways I hope to shape my professional life to line up with that vision as well.

I watched a you tube video this past week about a family of four who manages to only have one tiny bag of trash every few months. Here’s a link if you’d like to see how they do it.  They say that some people have criticized them and called their lifestyle extreme but that they are truly happier and healthier and their expenses have been reduced significantly by living this way!

Like with so many things, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing. I try to continually, gently incorporate smaller things into my life and see what habits I can gradually change. Things that feel really awkward at first, can become second nature over time. The last time I went to the grocery store, I looked at the conveyor belt and saw how nearly everything I was buying came in a package. So I’ve been saving my packages and buying more in bulk, using cloth bags to put the bulk items into. I keep a couple of tupperware containers in my car or purse to use as to go boxes at restaurants and take my water bottle at work, so I don’t have to use disposable cups. It’s fun; remembering is the hardest part! I’ve also been more conscious about only bringing things into my home that I really want or need. So just a few small changes at a time, that hopefully over a lifetime can make a difference!

Later this week I’ll write more about our progress with the house! I’ve been working on a few construction projects lately, so here are some photos from a Homewood bathroom remodel I just finished, and a screened in porch we tiled in Mountain Brook. In the bathroom, we used a low flow toilet and plumbing fixtures, an LED light fixture over the vanity, low VOC paint on the walls and ceiling, and we re-used the medicine cabinet over the vanity and painted it to match the vanity wood! All of these options were comparable in price to their conventional equivalent.

Here’s a link to my first post around this time last year if you’d like to read more about what this project means to me!

Kisses from Katie

I just finished reading a book called Kisses from Katie, about an 18 year-old girl from Tennessee who left her home and family to work with orphans in Uganda. She had planned on staying only for a year before returning to the states for college. But she fell in love with the country and the people, and now Uganda feels like home. At age 22, she lives in Uganda and is a mother to 13 adopted children.

The book resonated with me in so many ways. Although my own mission isn’t a religious one, I believe the essence is the same. It’s what Buddhists call groundlessness, and Christians surrender. It’s about love and connection and being a part of something much larger than myself. It’s about surrendering to uncertainty and getting away from all the static and excess that interferes with that larger purpose in our modern Western lives.

As I read the book, I began to think harder about how I could create that same sense of purpose and connection in my own everyday life.

The paperwork and the monotony of the work I do as an interpreter kills me. I can feel the liveliness leave me, every time I have to say, “Please sign these 15 pieces of paper,” as I proceed to ask the same 10 questions over and over again, while pondering how many trees die to supply hospitals with excessive amounts of paper, most of which goes straight in the trash. I despise that part of my job, and unfortunately, that’s most of what I do. On the days where I have to stand under fluorescent lights, registering 20 kids for routine doctors appointments, sometimes I feel like I can barely contain my frustration as I try to merge our bureaucratic, litigious society with people who come from a totally different world where healthcare and education are never a given. Often I’m the bridge between someone who hates their desk job and a person who doesn’t know their child’s birthdate, and I feel like pulling my hair out.

But the moments when I’m sitting in the Emergency Room with a mother whose daughter is dying from a rare genetic disorder, and the doctors insist that she won’t live much longer; I watch the mother refuse to give up on her daughter, and I can feel myself come to life.

In April of last year, I fell in love with two boys who had lost everything, their home, their mother and their brother to the tornadoes, and in the few months I spent working with them, I’d never loved my job more.

When I sit with children who have been sexually abused, and I see them slowly learning to trust someone again, or I watch as parents come to therapy themselves, recognizing their mistakes and learning to be better parents. When I see a sickly, precious little girl recovering from a stem cell transplant, or I have to tell a family that their child has just been diagnosed with cancer, their pain breaks my heart, but those experiences yank me back to the present moment. I feel so connected to those people, and those moments are some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Much like the feeling of being in the woods with only my backpack, I feel at home.

It makes me sad to think about how many years I’ve spent doing less than the most meaningful things in my life. I’m constantly searching for meaning, but I wonder if I’ve been searching in the wrong places.

I’ve spent most of my adult life being responsible, trying to enjoy the moment, while I plan for my future. At my first real job, I would have them deposit half of my paycheck into my savings account to begin investing in my retirement plan. But I don’t want to obsess about the future anymore. I don’t want to be reckless or put anybody else out either, but I’ve been living as if I could somehow avoid pain and tragedy if I just planned or invested well enough. As if enough planning could protect me from the messiness of life. I don’t think it works that way.

I have rental properties, and although they probably cause me more stress than anything, my goal was to pay off my houses in another 15 years and retire. And by retire I mean, only pouring my heart, work, and energy into the things I love the most.

But I can’t wait that long! My life is slipping away while I wait to have enough money to live the life of my dreams. So I’m thinking of trying to live the life that I want and trust that the money thing will work itself out. It may or may not, but the worst-case scenario would probably just be me living with my mom and trimming her bushes in exchange for some of her delicious organic meals.

As I write this, I’m thinking to myself: “You know you have a life that many people would dream of. You get to travel, you have loving friends and family, you have your health, a decent job, a beautiful place to live, an adorable dog, a boyfriend that loves you.” But that’s not enough. It’s not enough because I’m still spending A LOT of my time, dealing with paperwork, sitting under fluorescent lights in an environment that stifles me.

And I don’t feel very alive.

After my divorce, I was in so much pain that the whole world lit up. The intensity of pain I was experiencing opened me up to a whole new world. I couldn’t possibly hurt anymore than I was already hurting, so there was nothing to run from. I could be totally open to anyone and everything because there was no need to protect myself. And that openness brought me such joy and showed me parts of myself that I never remembered having experienced.

Although I don’t miss the pain, I miss that feeling, that openness. As I move further away from that painful time in my life, I become more and more comfortable and less willing to be uncomfortable. And the more I run from discomfort, the smaller my world becomes.

I know this is not a linear process, and I’m not a linear person. I struggle to focus on one thing, and the details around what I think I want can change as quickly as Alabama’s bipolar weather. I’m interested in and passionate about so many things. One day all I can think about is building this Passive House and how much that means to me. Then the next day I want to either take off into the woods or go care for dying children in Africa, and my Passive House dream starts to feel incredibly privileged and pretentious.

I go in circles, zig-zagging back and forth, just hoping that ultimately I’m moving in the direction of my deepest desires. I know that I will continually swing back and forth between my desire for safety and comfort and the longing for aliveness that only comes from first feeling incredibly uncomfortable. Simplicity is my luxury, and I can only hope I’m slowly headed that way, whatever concrete form it may take.

I was looking at an old journal and found this poem I had written a few years ago:

I feel a terrifying peace
Something that says,
“You don’t have a choice.”

It’s something infinitely bigger than me
Yet at the same time as small as me

I realize that somehow
I’m the most and the least
Important thing in the universe

And I think maybe I don’t have to be scared
Or maybe I do

Maybe being terrified is part of it
I’m terrified of my peace being stolen from me…

It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted out of life
I believe it’s all any of us ever want

I want to spend the rest of my life
Being with that peace
And looking for it in places it can truly be found.

Perspective and Slot Canyons

We’re driving back from the Grand Canyon today. A group of us through UAB Outdoor Pursuits has spent the last week driving cross-country to the slot canyons in Utah. We spent three days in the backcountry of Paria Canyon, hiking through freezing river water that they call a trail and pooping in plastic bags.

The canyon walls are beautiful and terrifying. I would find myself thinking of what I would have for dinner or planning my escape route in case a flash flood were to come. It was like those thoughts were keeping me grounded. They were keeping me in touch with the menial tasks of this earthly existence, so that I wouldn’t be terrified of the vastness and wilderness surrounding me. At times while I was hiking, I felt extremely happy and grateful, splashing through the freezing muddy water. At other moments, all I could think about were my painfully frozen feet as I struggled to make it through the shaded areas of the canyon.

Everything is more complicated in the wilderness. It’s difficult to find a clean, flat rock to set your morning coffee cup on. It’s hard to pee without getting your shoes wet. If it’s cold, I fall uncomfortably asleep with several layers on, dreading the moment when I’ll have to crawl out of my warm sleeping bag into the freezing air. I miss fresh fruits and vegetables and cappuccinos.

But I love it so much. I love how ridiculously simple everything becomes. I love that I totally forget about my to-do list at home. The things I was worrying about the day before I left, suddenly seem extremely petty as I’m surrounded by hundred foot red canyon walls. It’s a humbling experience that reminds me how fragile, yet how strong we are as humans. It gives me the perspective and feeling of aliveness that I so desperately long for.

Yesterday as we left the Grand Canyon, I felt a physical ache. I wanted so badly to be down in the canyon by the river staring at the canyon walls and the layers of earth’s history. It’s hard to get too caught up in my obsessions when I think about them in the context of 4.5 billion years!

There are moments when I want to leave everything to be a backpacking vagabond. The park rangers live in dilapidated trailers, tents, and most of them get no retirement plan or health insurance. Why is it hard for me to be happy with a 2,000 square foot house and $3,000/ month? Why not risk a secure future that may never come to truly enjoy the moment?

I know for me it’s about balance. As much as I love travel and the wilderness, I also like stability, comfort, and being close to loved ones.

These trips are my reset buttons. They bring me closer to the things that I value most, and they help me appreciate the luxuries I have in my day-to-day life. They remind me that more than fancy things and retirement plans, I value simplicity, relationship, nature and authenticity. It’s important for me to remember that as I build my house, so that I create a home that provides me with more freedom to be closer to what I love most.

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