“Come out of your miseries!”

“Come out of your miseries!” This is the calling of the meditation retreat I attended.

Did it work? Did it help? Yes. I don’t know. Yes. I don’t know.

First, let me say that it was an amazing experience. To keep silence for nine days, and sit still for many hours of each day in a group effort was unique, of course. The things I thought I would struggle with were easy, and the things that I expected to be easy were surprisingly difficult.

The retreat was held in a rural camp in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a short distance from Yosemite Park. Imagine a kid’s summer camp, only one with no swimming, no arts and crafts, no team competitions. The men and women attending the event were housed separately, ate separately, and only saw each other at group sittings, three times a day, and during the evening program. The silence began on the first evening and lasted until mid-way through the ninth day. Then the silence was lifted so we could discuss joint clean up efforts and end-of-event logistics.

The silence was easy. The sitting was hard.

When I thought about group silence, I thought about it in the context of how it is to be silent in normal life. When you’re silent in a crowd, you either feel anti-social, or a sense of loneliness. But in this setting, because we had all agreed to be silent and to maintain that at all times…no chatting except to ask questions, very softly, of the staff…it didn’t feel awkward at all. In fact, on the ninth day when we could speak and the atmosphere was full of voices, I missed the quiet. It felt like something precious had been lost.

The schedule was rigorous, up at 4:00 am and meditating by 4:30. Breakfast break at 6:30, with the first group sitting from 8:00 to 9:00. There were additional meditation hours when you could choose to meditate in your room or in the hall, and a lunch break, then a rest time between noon and 1:00.

At 1:00 there was another period of private meditation, followed by another group sitting from 2:30 to 3:30. We had a simple tea at 5:00, just fruit and hot tea or beverage of choice (no carbonation though). The evening sitting began at 6:00, followed by an evening “discourse” on the techniques and the philosophy behind them. There was another short sitting after the discourse, and then lights out by 9:30.

I can’t do justice to the whole event in a blog post, so I’m not going to try. I’m going to write a book about it, sharing the details of the days and some of my personal struggles that prompted me to attend.

It was powerful. I can’t claim to have perfected the meditation technique, and I’ll also be honest to say that I think the silence and being disconnected from the electronic world (another thing I thought would be hard, but was surprisingly easy) were as important as the actual meditation for me.

The sitting was hard. We sat in rows, eight across and eight deep, everyone sitting on large foam cushions, piled with more cushions, bean bags, some using special little wooden stools, or even stadium chairs to give better back support. It was still hard. For the group sittings we were asked to maintain our positions without movement if at all possible: these were called “Sittings of Strong Determination.” The first few minutes of sitting still were not difficult, but it’s amazing how you begin to stiffen even in a short period of time, or how you begin to feel an itch or tickle or some other distraction of sensation.

The whole point was that we were learning to observe our respiration and physical sensations and to recognize: this too shall pass. The idea is that you retrain your mind to not react to the sensations you feel…you keep a calm and balanced mind as you sit and ignore the impulse to move or scratch a tickle. I sneezed twice and had to wipe my nose…couldn’t help those movements.

We used no mantras, no visualization…just silence and our bodies. As the hours of group sittings went by, you could hear soft creaking noises as people tried to shift ever so slightly to relieve their positions, without a real motion of movement. You would hear coughs or throat clearings, and occasionally someone would get up and leave…you could hear footsteps and then the door to the entry area open and close.

But for the most part we sat. We sat and sat and sat.

And between sittings, (sittings themselves were not supposed to be a time to think about your miseries, or your life issues, or the big questions, just focus on your breathing and sensations). Between sittings and the times of private meditation, I did think.

The process is supposed to help you master your mind and purify your mind. The whole program is based on a universal code of morality and goodwill and compassion toward everyone. If it sounds hokey, it wasn’t. If it sounds simple, it certainly wasn’t.

But neither was it difficult.

It was a rich experience of clarity and creativity, and I found that surprising, though I’m not sure why. I think it is that I had no idea silence and sitting could be so powerful.

Am I glad I participated? Yes! I don’t know if I would do that same event again, but it has made me curious about other events of this nature. I learned that there are many different styles of meditation, so I assume there are other resources for learning and experiencing.

One of the things I came away with was the realization that although I regularly read and have a quiet time of reflection, I have never had a set time or a disciplined approach to my quiet time. Meditation is not something you do between reading emails or getting a second cup of coffee. This made me want to be more intentional and deliberate about my quiet time, choosing a time of day to sit and focus, and creating a goal of being disciplined about keeping that routine.

I’ll have more to say I’m sure…after nine days of silence, I feel words pouring out of me! But for now, that’s the quick version. I need to have some time to sort out some of what I learned, some of what I thought, and some of what I hope to gain.

And hey…even though I didn’t work out once during that time, missing my cream in my daily coffee and eating only fruit at night was a pretty good diet! Though the scheduling was pure coincidence, I think I’m in pretty good shape to head into Thanksgiving. Well, that’s one immediate benefit, to say nothing of the ones to come as I make sense of the whole experience.

More to come!

~ Sheila

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In Between

I’m in the land of in between. That is, I’ve left my last permanent home, and I’m not sure of where the next will be. That’s ok, and was part of the plan. Now that I’m here, temporarily situated in a small apartment, thinking about next consumes a lot of my time and energy. I’m working, finishing some projects that I’d begun for this small clinic, so I’m busy enough. But after hours and on weekends, the task is to focus, to research, to outline.

We’ve had a nomadic course through life, staying put in some locations for years…I think 12 years was the longest time we lived in one location. Other places were home for two, or three, or five years. We’ve roamed about the country, sampling different regions and climates, and there’s been good about most of our choices.

Now, I’m feeling the pull of family again, feeling the need for a road system, and for a choice that can serve for the years to come.

Closing in the on the year, the goal is simple: pick a ferry date for January, and a plan for driving out. We’ll keep work going in Alaska, but it’s time to invent a new formula for living. And that means a new location for the down time.

We’re looking for four seasons, a soft winter climate, something on the western side of the country. Looking for a smaller community but with access to a regional airport. We’ve considered everything from Sonoma County, CA to Lane County, OR, to Walla Walla, WA, to Grand Junction, CO…and we’re still looking, still sorting.

So, anyone have a suggestion? Where would you choose to live if you could go anywhere?

“Even the smallest actions are steps in the right direction.”    

“This is the beginning of anything you want.”

Selling a house, packing a home

Tomorrow the movers come. I’m not quite ready. And by not quite, I mean I have a few days’ worth of work left to do. Somehow I’ll power through, just like I’ve done for past moves. There’s an adrenaline born of sheer panic that kicks in, and suddenly the stacks begin to disappear into boxes. I’m more ready than it appears to the eye. But still, there’s a lot to accomplish in the next 24 hours.

The good thing is: this is an Alaska move. That means: the things I’m shipping out go to Seattle by barge, and by sheer good luck I chose to have the movers come on the day the barge comes through town for pick up. I’m missing tomorrow’s barge. But that’s a good thing. Because that means that the bulk of my shipment will go down to the container at the barge line yard, but I’ll have access to it and can add the boxes that I’m not quite done with later tomorrow, or even Friday.

Friday is D day, because that’s the last day we have the use of the house. So I have to be done by 4:00 on Friday.

And it’s good to have a deadline…otherwise, this could stretch out for another week, or even longer.

The definition of moving is: one big decision, followed by a million little ones.

I think I’ve looked at everything I own. Twice. Maybe three times. If I have to make another decision about what to do with anything, it may be the end of me. I think there are only so many decisions in a person, and I’ve surely reached my limit with this move.

I’m doing another multi-sort…store, sell, donate, trash, keep with me. I have different areas of the house designated for each stack, and as I progress, some of the stacks have diminished. The sell/donate/trash area is almost done. I have a couple of things being picked up at the last minute, but most of those items are dispersed.

The things to store are in decent shape, although I have a few hours left for the final touches.

The things I’m keeping with me for the in-between are the ones that are causing me a little angst…I think I have more than I can fit in my car. I could be in a wee bit of trouble.

Fortunately I have friends in town I can ask to hold a box or two, or ten, until I can get back to pick up. Initially I’m just going about 15 miles to another community. This is a soft landing, a temporary apartment that we can use while we sort out the long term plan.

While I do my last emptying of this drawer and that cupboard, I wipe down, and clean, and think.

Just when I’m all ready to do this, I get a lump in my throat, and the simple act of wiping down my kitchen range makes me weepy.

It’s been a home, and a good one.

It’s been a source of some conflict. Rob never wanted this house, and I did, and it’s been a source of angst between us. No doubt about that.

And yet, it’s been home too, a grand old lady, born in 1920, standing proud almost a century later. A comfortable nest in a rainy spot, it’s seen us through family holidays, quiet nights of talking, movie nights of laughter, teary nights of conflict. It’s been home the past almost-six years.

It’s taught me the value of good bones of an old structure, and the reality that the gracious and sturdy character of craftsman building are worth having, if you can get them.

I’m not particularly excited to hand it over to the buyers. They’re getting it with a low offer, born of my need to sell and a constellation of issues that made even a low offer palatable. But still, they seem difficult and cheap, and I have to admit, I feel a bit of a grudge handing over my home to people that don’t seem worthy.

Now that’s judgmental, isn’t it?

They’re probably lovely. I just feel irritated that they seem to disrespect this old house with their low offer and their difficult demeanor during the buying process. But it’s done, and now it’s time for me to dredge up some graciousness and present the house and the keys with a generous spirit.

That’s what I think the house deserves. Silly, I know. Houses are things, albeit big things. They don’t feel, or know, or think.

Do they?

I know that truth with my head, but tell that to my heart.

I wipe down surfaces and want to present it with its best foot forward. Because that’s what I think is due the house, never mind the buyers. I’m doing this because this is a lovely old place, and it deserves to be handed over in good style.

Silly, I know. But somehow I feel that leaving it in its best shape honors the house, and the way I’ve felt about it. And it’s the right thing to do, so I’m doing it.

I’ve had a fire sale to get out of town. It’s so expensive to ship out of state I’ve sold almost all the furniture and a lot of the household stuff I’ve accumulated. I’m leaving Alaska with eight small pieces of furniture and a lot of boxes. And that’s it. No appliances, no dining or living room or bedroom furniture. Just sold it all and waiting to see what “next” looks like.

Some minutes I feel I’m resetting, embarking on a great adventure. And the next minute I wonder where my mind has gone. Only time will tell which is the version of the story that’s true.

I know one thing…there’s nothing like moving and paying for it yourself to make you evaluate everything you own. And though I’ve said goodbye to some things I loved, I feel lighter, and free-er, and the flicker of excitement because I don’t know what the next chapter looks like.

I hope I’m brave enough and old enough for this adventure! At 54, I ought to be old enough for anything. But I’ll admit, changing the pattern without much of a plan in place, other than the temporary apartment, is a bit drastic, even for me. I hope I don’t get lost in the big world.

I hope my house will be in good hands, and will have a long life, looking out over the Tongass Narrows, watching the cruise ships come and go each season, and the float planes and other sea-going traffic buzzing round.

There’s a part of me that wants to say: RIP. But that hardly seems appropriate, much less gracious. I’m leaving the house, but it’s not going anywhere.

So I’ll just say: goodbye, 1320 Water Street. You were a good place to land.

Birthday joys

Today is my birthday, and I’ve already heard from so many of my family and friends. So fun to see the notes on Facebook or the texts on my phone, to have morning calls and birthday cards. All sweet!

I had an amazing pre-birthday last weekend, and that was sweet too. Spent a long weekend in Sonoma County and soaked up warmth, sun, delicious food, biking, and beautiful scenery. What a treat that was! Driving the winding country roads, seeing the grapes hanging ready for harvest, stopping to make a photo of a picturesque view or beautiful winery was the perfect way to end the summer. More about that later…that trip deserves much more than a passing mention in today’s post!

Looking across the valley

Looking across the valley outside Healdsburg, CA

DSC00788

Chateau Montelena, Calistoga, CA

Harvest time!

Harvest time!

And on Thursday this week, I accepted an offer on the house. This is from the same couple that looked at it before, so we’ve already gone through the nitty-gritty of inspection, appraisal, offer and counter. They came back with a better deal, so now closing looks set for October 10th.

Aaahhh.

I remind myself again..life works out. Not always as I thought, and certainly not always neat and tidy, or even as I’d like. The house is still selling at a loss. But it is selling, and I won’t have to live through a 2+ year street replacement project. (Apparently that doesn’t trouble these buyers.) If I thought this was a forever home, it would be worth it. But that’s not the case.

As to what’s next, that’s still up in the air. For now, completing some fall work commitments, a break for the holidays, spending time catching up with family, and taking time out to make a good decision is the plan. The things that will ship out will go to storage in Seattle, so that’s an easy solution for a while.

Aaahhh.

I’ll admit my anxiety level has been high. Nice to see some light peeking through the clouds, and to acknowledge: it’s important to step back, take a breath, await events. I learn again that solutions sometimes come, not at once, but at last. And there’s probably a reason for that.

I can’t see the reason at the moment. I certainly can’t make sense of the house selling at a loss, and I’m not suggesting that there’s divine meaning behind everything. Just that I find it helpful to evaluate…is there a lesson here? Some takeaway I should file for future reference? Sometimes I get it, and sometimes not. Or maybe I’m overthinking.

But regardless…today is a good day, and I’m thankful to be spending at least a part of it sorting and boxing, taking up that task again.

And I think about “next” and the options on the horizon. There’s a piece of my brain that wonders about all this. I’m 54 today. Shouldn’t I be snug and dug in?

Yes, that would make sense, so of course that’s out.

The funny thing is I don’t see myself as the adventure loving type, not really. I’ve stumbled into some interesting choices, but I’ll be honest to say that’s been more a result of following the leader, rather than my own instincts.

But I’m curiously excited by the chance to mix it all up again, to live in anticipation, to wonder where the next birthday will be. And today, it’s enough that I can dream as I sort, letting my imagination roam at will, thinking about the constants in my life that keep me sane, regardless of the mailing address.

Faith. Family. Friends. That’s security, and that’s continuity.

The rest is just temporary anyway, and I know that more surely today than on any of my previous birthdays. It’s a good thing to understand, a good place to land.

Full time, temporary

There are many different work styles. I only knew of a handful until the last few years. I knew people worked regular 5 day work weeks, traditional schedules that you could count on. People worked in rotating shifts, or worked out of town, doing things like flying planes or driving trucks. I knew of part time work. But living in Alaska has been an education in work style creativity.

The energy industry in Alaska seems to run in two week shifts…two on, two off, and people commute from other states, or great distances within Alaska, to accommodate this schedule. There are people who live here during the school year, then live in “America” (aka the lower 48) for summers. Some, like Rob and me, work in varying blocks of time. Full time when working, but working as temporary staff. I didn’t know, until Alaska, that many, maybe all, healthcare professionals can work this way. Physicians, nurses, lab, x-ray, allied health professionals…all can work from a few weeks to a few months, then move on to the next place. In a hospital setting, they’re called “travelers.” Travelers often rotate with a particular health care institution, cycling in and out. Even temporary faces become familiar after a while. Many other professions have a seasonal cycle here. Tourism, construction, even forest service jobs are full time and temporary, typically excluding winter months.

So what’s the benefit to working this way? The two week on, two week off workers and teachers are in their own category. These folks really are employees. They have employment with benefits and diversity of location. Those working in block time are typically contractors, and may or may not have some benefit structure in place. Rob and I do not have benefits. We pay our own health insurance, to the tune of about $1000 a month for the two of us. We make a better rate for unit of time, but there is no paid leave, no access to other employer benefits for us.

What we do get is freedom, and change of pace, scenery, and people. We are free to commit when and where we want. That doesn’t mean we don’t work, but it does mean we can decline to work if we want to be “off,” or we can choose which organization we will work for. Currently we have multiple options for work, so we have choice. Commitments are typically a week at a time, minimum, and we are able to plan weeks, even months, in advance.

What does all this mean? It means we are sometimes in Ketchikan, working in the clinic there, and at home. The rest of the time we’re working, we’re in small bush communities in SE Alaska, living in furnished apartments, not quite living out of a suitcase, but definitely not at home either.

If your family structure is flexible, if you can weather weeks when you are not working, and are thus without income; if you are not climbing a corporate ladder, or running your own business empire, you too could work like this. Maybe the question is: why would you want to?

This is our transition plan to our next stage. Not sure yet what that will look like, but in the interim, we need time to explore other geography, other ways of earning an income, and our own interests and desires. We also still need income. I describe it as being at that awkward age…too young to retire, but ready for change. Working in block time gives us ability to structure travel and time to think, which is essential when you’re planning a reconstruction of your life.

To live this way, and assuming you’re not just working for the fun of it, you’ll probably have to cut some expenses. And you have to have financial cushions. You have to think outside the box. And you have to plan. This takes a lot of planning.

At this point in my life, I’m relaxed enough to enjoy living this way. I have to be honest to say that Rob invented this lifestyle for us. I wouldn’t have done this on my own. I’m not inventive. I only go outside the box when I’m dragged out. But once I get out, I usually like it.

So, on with our year of transition. That’s what we’re calling it. It may or may not be a year by the calendar. But I can already tell: we’re definitely in transition. See you on the merry-go-round!

Craig, Aaska, take two

It’s Monday and we’re back in Craig, Alaska. Rob will be working here the next three weeks, and I’m here to do some training for PeaceHealth. I’m winding down, about to enter my last full month of full time. Scary, daunting, exciting, a little surreal. Here we go!

This time we’re staying in a different place. When you do locums work (filling in for a permanent provider), a place to stay is part of the package. The accommodations can vary greatly. We’ve stayed in bed and breakfasts, efficiency apartments, cottages, hotels…The nice thing is that usually the place comes with basic kitchen stuff so you can have coffee and do as much cooking as you choose without going out for every meal. (I like to go out, but on rainy dreary nights, I just want home, and the comfort of getting cozy.) The place we stayed last week for Thanksgiving even came with a Butterball turkey in the freezer, the clinic’s holiday gift to each staff member. However, I did not choose to make the turkey for the two of us. We shared the holiday meal with several others and I brought my southern-style creamed corn and sweet potato casserole. The turkey (still frozen) flew home with us on Saturday and is now living in my freezer in Ketchikan. Hey, I’ll make a turkey dinner sooner or later…just won’t be this month, or in December.

We’re only a half hour flight from Ketchikan, on the island of Prince of Wales. We came over Sunday afternoon and I was surprised to see there is a lot of snow here. There’s a much bigger road system here than in Ketchikan, though not all of the roads are paved. This island was a major logging site years ago and a lot of the roads are from that era.

These little outposts are interesting. You never know what you’ll find in the way of stores and amenities. It can be hit and miss. I’m actually amazed at what is here when I realize that everything is either flown in or barged in. When you can’t drive in, the price of everthing goes up. Way up.

I enjoy the glimpse of small town life. Well, Ketchikan is small, but this is really little. I grew up in a small town, so this feels familiar. What’s different is the degree of isolation you experience on remote islands. Ketchikan has Alaska Airlines flying in and out several times each day, and the major state ferries stop there. You can’t drive out, but you can get out pretty easily. Not cheaply, but easily enough. The ferry from Prince of Wales (POW, locals call it) takes three hours to get to Ketchikan and the connection point for other travel. Or you can fly, but that’s pricey and baggage allowance is limited. Most folks here do an occasional ferry trip to Ketchikan to make a Walmart run or for some specialty need in healthcare. Women go over a couple of weeks before giving birth to deliver in the hospital there. There is no hospital here, just a couple of clinics on the island doing primary care and visiting clinic care.

Tuesday…Today the clinic has a visiting specialty provider coming over, and someone is coming for the day to set up the scanner and computer for the training I’m doing. Weather yesterday pushed both these visits to Tuesday. No planes were flying on Monday. But people around here are used to weather ruling. Ir makes a lot of decisions easy…bad weather, no flying. Really bad weather, no boating, although the ferries are big enough they usually keep to their regular schedules.

Ah, life on the frontier! Some things are so “normal,” you’d think you were on Main Street USA. There’s cable tv and Starbucks coffee in the grocery store and everyone has cell phones. But just when you think you know what to expect you’re caught by surprise…some pieces of life just work a little differently.

I’ve learned to accommodate. I bring my heels for work in a backpack and wear my snow boots. I bring snacks and a few basics. In some of these small communities the grocery closes at 6:00 and restaurants may or may not be open. Some businesses are only open seasonally. I’ve learned the hard way to be self-reliant, at least for the first night in a new place.

I often wonder if life will look different here years from now. Change comes slowly, but it does come. Who knows? But the weather, the remoteness, the ocean…nothing will change that. And for the people who choose this as home, maybe that’s a good thing.

Birthday wishes

Today was my birthday, and I had a plethora of good wishes on my Facebook page, in my mail, via text, and even a few old fashioned phone calls to mark the occasion. I’m happy to say I did NOT jump out of an airplane (that was Rob’s birthday event this year, which I participated in because I couldn’t ask him to take a leap that I wouldn’t do myself). It was exciting to do the dive, but I think once in a lifetime will be enough of that activity for me, thanks very much.

Most of my wishes revolve around luxuries that I get to enjoy on a limited basis: massage, or shopping for a special item, or sometimes a vacation to a beach that has my name on it. But when someone asks me what I want for my birthday, I usually draw a blank. At that moment, I can’t think of a thing.

Well, this is a post-it note to myself for next year. This is what I really want.

~ I want to begin writing professionally. Not sure I’m good enough for that, but I want to look for ways to grow and stretch; I want to use the tools I have and the tools I can acquire to change the way I earn my living, and ultimately, the way I live.

~ I want to do a coast-to-coast road trip and play games along the way…eat in funky little places, stay in romantic old inns, visit the out-of-the-way parks and sites, and avoid the major attractions. I want just enough structure to give a general direction, and enough serendipity about the trip to be surprised by detours and finds along the way.

~ I want to learn another language. I took years of French and never really used it, and of course long ago lost what I knew. If you don’t use it you lose it…maybe this time I’ll try Italian? (This is about challenge and fun, I don’t expect to be posting in Italian a year from now!)

~ I’ve had quite a year in the past twelve months. I want to build on the things I’ve learned, the changes I’ve already made, to add more adventure, curiosity, margin, and creativity to my life.

I have a lot of wishes for other people, ones that I’ll be working on fulfilling. I’m better at knowing what I want to do for others than what I need for myself. So today I thought about it, and this is my very own to-do list for the coming year.

Here’s to birthdays, to days that make us think, and to the good stuff life has to offer. My birthday challenge to myself, and to anyone who cares to take me up on it for their own list: next year on this day, I’ll review this and see what I’ve been able to accomplish. I have a whole year…think there’s time for a little ice cream to celebrate! But I’ll have to get started soon. It may take a while to get an Italian accent down with my southern/mid-west/Colorado/Alaskan background.

Alaska hummingbirds

This video features some hungry hummingbirds at a local lodge near Ketchikan. Fun to watch the birds, and keep watching the clip after for some scenes of this area. It is beautiful, even if the rainfall is epic!

Enjoy!