The Secret to Happiness and Peace
lies in the seeming paradox between two Great Truths:
Nothing Ever Changes
and
Nothing Stays the Same.
The only question is this: what are you going to do about it?

To Carlos,

I owe my life to my father in more ways than one.

First, of course, because he and my mother brought me into this world in the first place.

Second because he pulled me from the swimming pool at the age of three when I had fallen off my kick board alone and sank quickly to the bottom, surrounded by pearly round bubbles of air.

Third and most significantly, because he took me to the mountains, set me on skis and taught me to turn, showed me how to dig snow caves, how to swim and dive and catch crawfish and salamanders in mountain lakes. He taught me to ride motorcycles and bicycles, and how to push on up a trail even when I’m tired and want to turn back. He taught me to love nature and that has changed everything.

Twenty now-distant years ago
I planted a tiny tree
In the front yard
Of my childhood home.
I held it in one small hand
And scooped the dirt away
With a trowel.

Just Yesterday
I finally recognized
The inalterable fact
That people never change.
We never will change.

The tree towers
Over my head now.
Swaying in the wind
It houses the plump robins
That winter here
North of the border.
The tree is green and wide and tall
And every bit as much a Blue Spruce
As the day
It fell from its cone,
split its seed,
And began its hundred-year trek
Toward earth’s center
And the warmth of the sun.

Nothing ever really changes
But if I hadn’t seen it for myself
I’d never have truly understood
How far the tiny sapling
Can come in only
A few short years.

The End

A mile or two to the west, a jagged line named the Continental Divide slices Canada into British Columbia and Alberta. This line decides whether water will run west into the Pacific Ocean or east, making its slow way over the great plains and finally disgorging into the Gulf of Mexico.

My kayak glides noiselessly over the deep, black, cold glacial depths of Lake McDonald in the Canadian half of Glacier/Waterton National Park. Trillions of gallons of recent glacial runoff below me are already destined for Kansas and Missouri—where they will turn a muddy chocolate brown and lose all resemblance and all memories that they once belonged to a cold, clear Rocky Mountain lake.

Water drips from the end of the paddle as the kayak glides across the perfect glass surface. I’ve been paddling for half an hour now and my camp site lies hidden somewhere along the pitch black shoreline at my back. Only bright stars shining in the sky and reflecting on the water light my way. Only the Big Dipper and faint outlines of steep mountains give me direction. Inside my head, my step mother’s voice echoes again and again, her last words tumbling forever in circles like the endless churning white water of Cameron Falls emptying into the lake.

"Don’t be used to it," is what she told me, and I’m trying very hard to do as she said. I’m trying very, very hard to believe that she was right and I was wrong for all these years.

I left her standing on the patio where she had been weeding the bed of red and gold tulips. I had walked outside to tell her goodbye and give her a going away hug.

"What’s wrong?" she asked when she looked into my eyes.

I didn’t know quite what to say. "Nothing."

"No, really," she asked again, "what’s wrong?"

I still didn’t know what to say. It was true that I didn’t feel happy inside. I didn’t feel peaceful. I felt alone and empty and out of place in the world, but I had come to accept that. I stood for a moment as she continued staring into my eyes, reading my heart.

"I guess I’m just used to it," I finally answered.

"You don’t see an end to it, do you?" Carol asked after staring into my eyes for a moment longer.

"Is there an end?" I asked back. Honestly, if twenty one years had taught me anything, it was that life was a continual struggle. That everyone was being washed downstream and out to sea. If you were lucky, you found a raft, a log, a piece of drift wood to hold you up or a beach where you could temporarily pull yourself up to dry off and catch your breath. If you weren’t so lucky, you spent the years treading water or swimming. Fighting to keep from being dragged under. Sputtering when the waves covered your head and poured down your throat, threatening to choke the life from your chilled body. Always keeping your feet pointed forward to protect against unseen rocks coming your way below the surface.

Carol took one of my hands and held it firmly. She reached up to my chin and turned my face until I had to look into her eyes. "Don’t be used to it," she told me.

I raised one corner of my mouth and gave a faint nod, then walked into the front yard where Robert leaned against his car waiting. "Ready?" he asked.

"Let’s go," I answered and climbed in the passenger door. Fifteen hours later, we stopped and set up the tent next to the car in Montana. Now here I am, three days later, drifting through the blackness on a Canadian lake, trying to see an end to it all, trying to learn how to stop being used to it.

Torn

We are a torn species.

We are torn by nature: pulled in many directions all promising fulfillment.

On one hand, we are water, seeking the path of least resistance, always flowing downward, giving in to the tempting force of gravity. Sometimes this tendency carves out Grand Canyons, sometimes it tears up banks and washes away trees and bushes and all life laying in its path. Sometimes this course leads to the rolling ocean, sometimes to dark, stagnant pools fit only for mosquitoes.

On the other hand, we are trees, harnessing the water, joining the molecules one by one, linking them with their own surface tension, their own covalent bonds, and siphoning them from the ground to broad leaves waving high in the air. We gather the elements from dirt at our feet and build towering masterpieces that inspire, provide shade in summer, feed and shelter the chirping birds who nest in high branches. Have you ever sat in the top of a weeping willow in the night wind, watching the midnight star-spangled sky, swaying so far back and forth that you fear the tree must soon topple?

We are forward and back, progress and entropy, life and death all rolled into one.

Which force will you obey? Which direction will you roll when gravity pulls?

 

To: Fam & Friends
From: Shaun
Date: February 12, 2000
Subject: Carolina more than just on my mind

Hi everyone, from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Yesterday just before flying home, I realized that I wouldn't be flying
home-work had scheduled me to stay out here for two weeks in a row. So I got
back in my car, bought a map of the Carolinas, and drove south. Now I'm
sitting in an old hotel with all kinds of atmosphere (with a James Taylor CD
playing, of course) on the Outer Banks-a strand like a coral reef that
ranges from 2 blocks to half a mile wide and stretches on for miles. Endless
beaches, lighthouses every 40 miles, ferries between islands, etc. After
another day here, I'll take a ferry back to the "mainland" (takes 2.5 hours)
and head north again. Wish I had brought my camera!

When I went to watch the sunrise this morning, I got the
rental car stuck (high centered) in deep sand (oops) but got it
out by jacking up the car, one side at a time (with the help of a stick and
floormats placed under the jack) and sliding these big 4x4 boards under the
tires to get a good backward run. The 4x4's were signs that prohibited
driving beyond them. Nice of someone to put them there for me.

I spent maybe 4 hours total riding ferries between islands and the mainland,
and over various sounds (dozens of miles of relatively shallow water) on the
way home. One of my favorite things of the entire weekend was feeding the
seagulls (they got an entire loaf of bread, minus two slices, and half a
package of cookies) off the stern. Since we were headed into the wind, the
birds would hover and glide right along, just feet or inches away. I could
have reached out and grabbed them more than a few times. Sometimes I'd throw
the food out and away and watch the gulls dive swiftly, then go into a
smooth, graceful turn and rise. Watching that so many times, I practically
know how it feels. And with the sun setting over the horizon on the sound
(the horizon is 12 miles away, unless you go up on the upper deck), the
soft, red glow against the birds' bodies was so perfect. I really regretted
not bringing my camera, but maybe I'll go back next time I'm out here.

Today on the ferries, I'd toss the bread and cookies right above me and
sometimes have to duck as the birds swooped past. Other times, I'd toss the
stuff just a few feet over my head, and I got to stand right under a dozen
or more of these white birds-a dangerous position, I know, but I escaped
without casualties this time. I know it sounds cheesy unless you were there,
but they totally reminded me of the winged-version of angels. I also thought
about the Wright brothers, of course, and the thought came, "How could you live here and *not* invent the airplane?"

It’s late. Time for another run down the beach. See you all in a week or so.

xoxo shaun

The cold wind
Rushes from the canyon’s mouth
Like a hundred thousand invading Huns
Every morning
Before dawn.

The gnarled juniper’s hands
Branch westward
Fixed in a permanent, woody scream
Begging to not
Be left behind
Again
By the warmth of
The setting sun.

Wrapped tight
Inside the thick tree skin,
Water flows
Wood pulp grows
The juniper knows
The call of life to live
And thrive and extend
In whatever direction
The sky calls
And the wind blows.

Create Your Own Crises

I create my own crises for good reason. Think about it for a minute, and I bet you’ll decide to do the same.

My feet pound along the gravel trail 2 miles up the canyon. The sun beats down hot, my legs feel heavy and lethargic, lungs ache ever so slightly with each breath, and sweat is running down my bare arms and chest. This slight discomfort serves as today’s crisis.

The key, the point of creating today’s crisis along this trail, is to ignore the discomfort and focus on the positive, which is not difficult. When the trail runs near the river, I’m taken by its power and beauty. The last few days have been warm and the river is high and fierce with snowmelt. I stare at the frothy rapids and don’t worry about tripping on the smooth trail.

The warm breeze feels cool against my damp body. It seems spring has finally settled in and all the leaves have spread out in the last two weeks, leaving the lower canyon a glowing green that can’t help but brighten your day, not to mention provide a good amount of refreshing shade along my afternoon run.

Deep inside, I feel traces and remnants of stress left over from extended periods of spreading myself too thin. This practice of looking beyond negative feelings and focusing on the positive makes any stress shrivel and fade. It keeps any anxieties evaporating from pores and blowing away in the warm breeze.

Here’s how it works: Whatever you focus on grows. Running in the canyon, it’s easy to focus on the positive, the peaceful, the beautiful. It’s easy to sense the same things growing inside as well, nature’s tendrils wrapping around my heart, growing permanent branches into my thoughts.

At the three-mile point, a shady bench convinces me to stop and stretch. Sitting in the shade, I notice four distinct bird songs splashing through the thick green canopy above, falling around me like the patterns of light and shadow dancing over my arms and legs.

After the stretch, I stand and start up the trail again. This time the heaviness is gone from my legs and I can’t help but run along at 13 miles per hour.  Fast.   I won’t keep this up for more than half a mile, but for the moment, it feels good.

I like this freedom to choose my own crises. This way I get the ones I like, ones I know I can handle successfully. This way I know I can build myself up without first tearing myself down.

So many people live out their lives with the same habits and ruts until they are faced with the necessity of reevaluation and change. Until cancer or fatal accidents or lay offs or broken relationships knock the world out from under their feet. Until real crises stretch them to their limits and beyond, and they are not prepared.

Many people, when put to the test, snap. They become overwhelmed and spend months or years or decades or forever recovering from the trauma, seeking to restore a sense of order and control over their lives.

Others find such epic trials liberating. They rise to the occasion and discover themselves capable of far more than they ever dreamed possible. As the crisis subsides, these people lead happier, more productive and balanced lives. They live to bless their heart attacks and bankruptcies, thanking divine providence for valuable lessons and powerful opportunities for growth.

I’m doing everything I know how to avoid the big ones. Life’s tricky enough without incurring real difficulties. I’m trying to build a savings account. I watch my diet a little and exercise a lot. I look both ways before crossing the street. But even though I don’t expect any major crises to come my way anytime soon, I’m unwilling to sit and wait, leaving all growth and preparation to chance.

I find what growth I can by reaching past small difficulties and trials, petty annoyances and discomforts. And I find myself refreshed and happy after each exercise of will, attitude and determination.

I’ve covered seven miles of trail today and have nearly returned to my parked car. I stop to walk the last hundred yards, to let my muscles cool down, take in the scenery, and enjoy this perfect summer day. The mini-crisis is over except for the hot breeze and sun that bakes my scorching skin.

I stop on the last bridge to stretch out again, but a better idea comes to mind. I climb over the bridge’s railing and look down ten feet to where the river slows behind a short dam. Just the thought of what I am about to do is enough to tighten the muscles around my chest and make each breath shallow.

So I stop thinking and peel my fingers away from the railing. The fall through air is brief and the frigid water swallows me whole. Invisible currents tug at my limbs as I push off the bottom and claw my way frantically toward shore.

My fingers nearly feel numb as I climb the rock wall out of the river, but if you stopped and asked, I’d grin and tell you "Come on in, the water’s fine!"

Gravity

I’ve been sitting at Deadhorse Point in Canyonlands National Park with my feet dangling over a hundred foot cliff for about an hour now. A light breeze blows through my hair and I’m humming to myself and kicking my heels against the side of the cliff.

The brown Colorado River flows steadily along below me around the vast horseshoe curve where it has cut down through a thousand feet of sandstone over the past few million years.

Chantal has fallen asleep behind me. Today’s spring sunshine warms the rock around her and she’s been dreaming for the last half hour. Her tan arms curl around a fleece jacket-turned-pillow and the breeze gently blows her short brown hair back and forth across her peaceful face.

We’ve spent the last two days mountain biking over long, hot miles of Slickrock Trail and rock climbing hard sandstone along Potash Road just outside Moab. We awoke this morning ready for a break.

"I almost don’t feel like we’re on vacation," Chantal told me in camp as I cooked breakfast over a gas stove. "We’re running around trying to fit a million things into each day just like back at school."

"Ya wanna just hang in camp for a while?" I asked. She didn’t. After breakfast we both walked to the edge of the river where the water gurgled and swirled swiftly past. We sat on a square block of sandstone and took off our sandals, letting the cool, brown water run between our toes.

"Do you ever feel insignificant?" she asked.

Feeling insignificant came easy below these vertical cliff walls towering straight up for thousands of feet. The only effect humans have had on these walls consists of ancient pictographs scratched into the surface and a few pitons hammered into the rock. I nodded my head.

A log floated by in the swift current and Chantal asked another question. "Do you ever feel like life is just dragging you along downstream, like you don’t have that much control over it?"

"No," I answered. "I think our attitudes and actions and choices make all the difference in the world."

"Oh, yeah, I didn’t mean it like that." She paused and kicked softly at the water a few times. "I mean, do you ever feel like there are forces pulling you along through life, making you want what you want and do what you do, and that you couldn’t sit still very long if you tried?"

"Yeah, sometimes," I answered. Sitting still had never been easy. Inactivity made me restless to burn some energy and explore. Even sitting along the riverbank was getting old and a few minutes later found us driving down the road looking for a new way to spend the day.

That’s how we wound up at Deadhorse Point. We walked to the edge of the cliff, Chantal with a book to read and me with a notebook to write in. I hadn’t written a word all vacation and I wanted to finish an article or two before we had to return home tomorrow.

I sat down and dangled my feet over the cliff, humming and kicking my heels against the side of the cliff, pondering the river’s motivation. "Gravity," Chantal said when I shared my thoughts.

"So what’s your gravity?" I asked next.

"My what?"

"Your gravity. What pulls you along and keeps you moving?"

"Hmm," she merely replied, then fell asleep before answering.

From high above the river’s smooth surface, the Colorado appears lazy, calm and gentle, but I know better. Billions of gallons of silt-filled water pass through this channel hourly. Currents and eddies swirl endlessly, cutting away at the banks and washing the earth endlessly, imperceptibly, to the ocean.

Soon I realized that the real reason the river flows down is because it feels like it. Gravity is what makes it feel like flowing. Some mysterious attraction to the planet makes all the decisions for the river—the direction it will travel at what speed and which washes and gullies will become mile-deep canyons.

Chantal is one of the most alive people I’ve known. A good student, interested in nearly every subject and idea, she is always open to try a new experience or make a new friend.

Now I realize that she does all this because she feels like it. She has no external motivations. Only inner passion for life. Only a genuine love for the beauty of learning and understanding and experiencing life that pulls steadily at her soul.

When I find myself wrapped up in too many concerns about how to make life turn out the way I want, I envy Chantal’s boundless energy and enthusiasm. I envy her patient calm, her faith that everything will fall into place in its own good time.

I wonder what the ingredients are in her own individual internal equation of love, passion, curiosity, fear, hope, desire, and everything else that makes us who we are. I wonder if I could learn it from her, if I could alter my own mixture of identity and be more like her.

I feel eager to learn and change. I’m anxious to understand and then write it all down in one clear, concise story. But despite my anxiety, not a drop of ink has yet fallen on the blank page.

I sigh and look down to watch the river follow its wide, inefficient, meandering course. The river is obviously in no big hurry to get where it’s going.

And maybe that’s the key I’ve been missing.

If I want to learn from Chantal, if I let that desire work on me, then it’s part of my gravity. If I let my gravity pull on me, it will eventually take me where I want to go. I may be able to push myself and arrive there a little faster but then I won’t enjoy the journey.

I look down at my empty notebook and set it aside. The words will come in time. In time, my gravity will carve its own grand canyon.

I look back at Chantal, still peacefully asleep, a touch of pink appearing on her cheek. I look down at the river and the deep gorge it has carved. I recap my pen and set it on the rock, then lay back near Chantal, close my eyes, and dream.

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