Joy, Nakedness, and Tolstoy.

Cabin life is enjoyed by nearly everyone. This is due to its stripped-down minimalism that emphasizes the things that really matter to one’s self. Possessions, clutter, busyness, and a frenetic lifestyle are all left behind. Being in tune and in touch with the natural world promotes true reflection that can lead to positive and lasting change in your life.

In order to fund my family’s lavish lifestyle, I’m selling my prized collection of the complete works of Leo Tolstoy—released in 1900, while the author was still alive and living an eccentric life. This picture, the frontispiece artwork from one of the volumes, shows the man at Yasnaya Polyana—which he referred to as his “inaccessible literary stronghold.”

IMG_4604

The occasion of selling these works—packed with so much wisdom and beauty—is bittersweet. I acquired them a decade ago, at a fraction of their value, with high hopes of reading them all. Alas, their true worth has been squandered. They sit in “display” on the bookshelf, partially concealed by a disarray of other books in various states of consumption. This is a travesty. I can see they need to be sent to a home where they’ll be appreciated and USED. This is the trap of anything that is potentially “valuable.” These sorts of items frequently clutter our lives—stored uselessly away as if in a bank vault—and fail to enrich our lives. The moment in childhood that I learned that baseball cards were potentially valuable comes to mind similarly. It was a loss of innocence and of the pure joy of collecting. The albatross of tens of thousands of cards continues to haunt me to this day.

People should read Tolstoy. Period. It takes work. SO MUCH WORK! However, after you’ve cracked the code of various names in the first 100 pages or thereabouts, his world comes alive in such vivid color that the experience verges on the ethereal. You might be asking at this point, “How does this relate to cabin life?” Great question! For years I wanted to live alone in a tiny shack for at least a full winter, or even a lifetime, where I’d spend my time reading, writing, contemplating, exploring, and occasionally entertaining. Ultimately I chose a wife and family over this ideal, and was happy to do so.Following my engagement in the winter of 1999, however, fulfilling some aspect of this dream became imperative.

I had previously spent a winter in a wilderness cabin near the Canadian border, written about at length in my upcoming book, but I had a roommate and I wouldn’t consider it a tiny shack. Additionally, my writing at this time consisted of keeping a journal and dispatching lengthy letters to the outside world. I didn’t aspire to crafting books at that time. To partially fulfill this dream—my equivalent of sowing my wild oats—I exhausted the contents of an entire week during a college break by spending it alone at a friend’s cabin deep in the woods 50 miles north of Duluth, Minnesota, near the sparsely populated old Finnish settlement of Toimi. I immersed myself in the world of Leo Tolstoy’s amazing novel, War and Peace, engaged in various chores, and luxuriated daily in a genuine Finnish sauna, which, thanks to my friend Brandon, became a lifelong obsession.

The sauna was the conclusion to each day, a splendid opportunity to reflect on lessons learned, but the real gift of the experience was completing this book. I had purchased a paperback version of War and Peace, containing tiny font cast voluminously across 1,456 pages, and had even brought it with me to Russia during a six-week stay—where I failed to become interested in it in the least. I was stuck around page 80, and merely picked at a page or two at a time. Reading a work like this requires commitment and devotion. Perhaps it’s a bit like wooing a potential lover.

The book came alive beautifully within Brandon’s cabin. Action is interspersed with tragedy, loss, family, and a love story. I thrilled in the love story especially. It made me into a better lover of my future wife actually! I became more passionate, gutsy, romantic (at least temporarily), loving, and all that stuff that doesn’t come so naturally. I had no other real examples in life outside of this book. Shawna, now my wife, was also my first girlfriend. My parents were divorced when I was very young (they separated the day after I sparked a fire that nearly burned the house down, but that’s another story).

While thrilling in the book I even heard the occasional bullet whistling through the forest. Was my imagination carrying me back to epic battles from the War of 1812? At first I thought this must be the case. A bullet sailing through the air travels at twice the speed of sound, and glides through the air alarmingly quietly as it whistles between the trees in your vicinity. SO FRIGHTENING. Twice a day, all week long, the alcoholic that lived between a quarter and a half-mile away as the crow flies, fired his rifle randomly outside his cabin door. Later I learned from Brandon that this is how the man spends his offseason away from the large ships where he earned his living on the Great Lakes and on the high seas. I’d hear the bullet sail by, and all I could do was pray to not be hit while trying to stay concentrated on the story. Ten or twelve bullets were fired randomly over a period of perhaps 10 minutes. While terrifying, the War of 1812 certainly became more vivid as I was put into the place of women packing up their belongings to flee their homes while Napoleon’s troops advanced, and husbands and sons were tragically killed.

It took a while to find my rhythm at the cabin, but eventually I fell into a steady groove. Each day ended in the sauna. The structure is over 100 years old, and is comprised of hand-hewn squared old-growth timbers. A fantastic woodstove graces the sauna—a sturdy barrel stove. It is more than capable of heating the room to the desirable temperature of 185˚F and to uncomfortable temperatures beyond 200˚ even. Another barrel rests vertically, which is filled with water. The water naturally circulates without any kind of pump through pipes that run along the heated stove. This water is transformed thus, as if it were removed from the Fountain of Youth, and provides the most amazing bathing experience I’ve ever had. Shampoo and soap are slathered on generously. Sweat, grime, and suds are washed away with ladle after ladle of warm water, and followed by a douse of cold for a sense of minty freshness.

I have never felt so clean as after emerging from this portal into Finnish culture (very similar to Russians in this respect) to stand out in the snow wearing nothing but a smile as steam wafts from my bright red cooked-lobster-looking body in the frigid night air. This is a microcosm of what it is like to spend time in cabins deep in the woods. They leave you naked and bare, and can sometimes bring you to tears while showing you what kind of person you are without the masks so often worn when dwelling amidst civilization. Out there it is just you, your maker, the creatures of the forest, silence, along with your own thoughts and capacity for enjoying the stillness.

I awoke at 4:00 am this morning, pondering such thoughts. I attribute this to Tolstoy and a great clearing of belongings as I continue to press on toward a more minimalist existence. Yesterday I purged several bags of papers that had cluttered the basement for nearly half a decade. I find it ironic that clearing out this forgotten debris, which absolutely failed to spark joy, would enliven my imagination so much, even though they were squirreled away in the basement! This is why I am utterly committed to getting rid of excess stuff. Even items as wonderful as a beautiful collection of works from my favorite author cause a needless cluttering of life.

I compare this to growing up in the mess of my childhood home, where it was impossible for any creativity to be birthed. The same principle works out similarly for all of us, albeit to a lesser degree than in extreme cases of hoarding. We need space. As Debussy says, “Music is the space between the notes.” It’s marvelous to sense my imagination waking from a slumber, which has been induced by a laser-like focus on the details of putting my book into print, kindle, and as an audio version. Alas, it takes time. Life must go on!

I’m under no illusions that my Tolstoy collection will actually sell. Such items may be worth money on paper, but reality can be a cruel friend in such cases. It’s a matter of connecting with the right collector, and even on Ebay this is not assured by any stretch of the imagination.

Here’s the link, just in case you’re curious: http://www.ebay.com/itm/261825041075?ssPageName=STRK:MESELX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1555.l2649

Finally, I’ll leave you with the first color portrait ever made in Russia. Tolstoy in 1908:

169px-L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-Gorsky

Photo credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasnaya_Polyana

BOOK UPDATE!!!

The Emancipation of a Buried Man is now available on Amazon as a print book. Soon the electrons will be configured for the Kindle format if you’d like to save space and money. Finally, an audiobook version will be released in the coming weeks as well. I greatly enjoyed making these recordings in my closet! It has been digitally mastered professionally, and turned out pretty swell if I do say so myself.

A “Divergent” Speaks Out on Love and Reverence for Possessions

When you spend the first 18 years of life in and among random belongings like this, your relationship with stuff is going to be somewhat “divergent” from the norm…

IMG_3602

I have come to accept this for what it is, and actually am grateful for my utter “differentness.” At the time, however, I was the one being consumed. Day after day, and year layered upon year—like a rigid scab that easily bled.

Like any recovering hoarder, I maintain a sentimental attachment to my belongings. In fact, at this moment I am wearing a 24-year-old shirt that commemorates the 1991 Wisconsin state cross country meet. At that point I was still mired in a bedwetting problem that failed to resolve itself until I left home upon reaching adulthood, after many months of dorm-living. Lets just say that surreptitiously stripping your bed of sheets while your roommate snores on obliviously—the morning after shelling out $3 in the laundromat to launder them—brings its own set of challenges, lest I digress. Ironically, it occurs to me that I still have a set of these twin sheets. Good memories here????

Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, is helping me to appreciate some of my natural inclinations, and use them for my family’s benefit. The author’s main premise is that all your possessions should “spark joy.” She advises one to literally hold each item in their hands. If it produces a thrill of joy, keep it. If not, purge it. She paints a picture of the transforming power of being surrounded only by belongings that you truly love.

I’m the only guy I know that reads such books, and avidly at that. The other day I asked an interior designer if she had heard of Marie Kondo, and while commencing with a description of her ideas I observed a gal looking at me—clad in a wool flannel and well-worn rugged outdoorsy apparel per my usual—like I had three heads. Indeed, I am an oddity. I eat this stuff for breakfast.

Kondo’s book has more of a spiritual bent than any other book like it. While her beliefs are radically different than my own, being influenced by Shintoism, I find many of her principles compelling nonetheless. Furthermore, she helps me see the benefits of truly loving and caring for my possessions (without being possessed by them). I have even adopted her practice of thanking items being purged. “Thank you for clothing me so well for so many years.” Or, “Thank you for teaching me what I do (or don’t) like.” Items being put back into their respective drawer are likewise folded and treated respectfully, rather than being carelessly tossed onto the floor. Such ideas are powerful for someone with my background.

In a sense, though, virtually all of us in the western world have a long history of being awash in too many things. Clearing out the excess is nothing short of liberating.

Here are a couple specific instances I’ll share, only because they are meaningful to me. (No worries, I don’t spend any time dwelling in such trifles in my book, but I find that daily life is filled with such “meaningless” decisions and actions.)

The picture below contains a dried rose that I have stored and carried around since the end of the last millennium. It is a memento from my wedding. The t-shirt was obtained at the Potato Museum on Prince Edward Island during our honeymoon—long story, but suffice to say I love the tubers. It is festooned with holes. Shawna has begged me to get rid of it for years. The pocket prayer book was given to my dad when he was confirmed in his church as a little boy. He gave it to me when I was ten or twelve. I haven’t looked at it since. It means nothing to me now. Each of these have been very difficult to part with. The determining factor in getting rid of the rose, for example, is that I don’t feel a thrill of joy when holding it. Instead I get a pit in my stomach as I ask myself, “What am I supposed to do with this?” I have learned that such feelings are generally a signal to get rid of the item.

IMG_4588

My method of dispersal is admittedly going to veer wildly into the weirdness spectrum on this, but I could care less. It helps me to follow through with it. I’m going to cut a swatch from the shirt and wrap it around the stem of the rose, mix it into one of my glorious compost piles, and allow them to rot and become part of some garden in the future. Pretty good idea, huh? Well, I think so at least. The cotton fibers will take quite some time to break down, but when the time comes I’ll till it right into the soil along with the rest of the finished compost. Every time I see it I’ll be reminded….

Which brings me to the fact that it’s the memories we are attached to, and not the actual physical items. It is extremely helpful to be reminded of this. I almost never look at the rose, which has hitherto been kept in a box—useless. At least now it can be plowed into future beauty and memorable experiences waiting to be made. We shouldn’t be chained to the past by belongings. All such items will be ushered out of futility and into future lives of usefulness.

The next shot depicts my first pair of big boy pants. My new wife purchased these at Goodwill for me nearly 16 years ago. I needed a new wardrobe while entering schools for kids of all ages. In the high school my baby face caused me to be mistaken for a student more than once. Anyhow, they had outlived their useful life. The trail-running shoes were my first pair of running shoes obtained after rekindling my passion for running several years ago. They were stellar hooves for my feet, as I galloped for hours through unspoiled wilderness, thrilling in a fantastic method of exploration. Over time they devolved into various other uses, and even after a full four inches of the soles separated from the shoes, I had trouble disposing of them. Setting these items free on garbage day was a bit like the scene in one of the Star Trek movies, when Spock (killed by radiation while saving the ship) was fired into space in the shell of a torpedo (which ultimately landed on the planet Genesis and rebuilt him—oh how I hate to sound like a Trekkie here)….

IMG_4576

One last nugget I’ll share from Marie Kondo’s book is her philosophy on papers, which is one of my problem areas. She says to basically get rid of them all. They do not spark joy. So helpful!

Upcoming Book Release!

Final-Cover-Happy-Gilmore-(WEB)

I’ve completed my book! This has been a real LABOR of love that wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t so painfully lost my corporate job last year. Becoming suddenly unlatched from the corporate teat was the impetus I needed to finally pursue my dream. The opportunity given through this horrible event was not primarily the gift of additional time. The sudden infusion of pain somehow enabled me to drill down into the emotions and write about them more vividly. Rather than fleeing pain, I’ve learned how to harness it—much like astronauts are essentially strapped to a rocket (similar to the design and character of a bomb) as they are propelled beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Sometimes as I write I find myself penetrating deep down into the depths of emotion, auger them up into my mind and heart, and can almost feel them flow out through my arms and fingers as they tangibly become written words. I love this.

Time has also helped me to see the many good things that have been birthed from my difficult childhood. These bright lights punctuate the story as I recount the sights, sounds, smells, texture and touch, and even tastes, from my experience as the child of a hoarder. I had become a hoarder myself, through the acquisition of 100 animals that were housed in my bedroom. The second part of the story brims with hope as it tells of how I was emancipated from a quagmire of meaninglessness.

Body, mind, and soul connected in unique ways. Previously the different aspects of life were a jumble of isolated competing parts, much like the piles of random belongings in my childhood home. Understanding supplanted confusion. Equilibrium displaced imbalance. Peace overwhelmed anxiety and insecurity. Contentment flooded the wasteland of want. Love ambushed a heart that hitherto had merely been a mechanical pump that kept my body on life support.

Epic adventures abound, but the main adventure transpired in my inner world.

This story will become available by March 30th as both a paperback and electrons for the Kindle on Amazon. Soon thereafter an audiobook will be released. Stay tuned!

Perhaps I’m a little too excited, but I can’t resist showing y’all the back cover as well (less the bar code anyway)….

Back Cover

Learning from Parasites, Blood-Suckers, and Grinding Adversity

To everything there is a season, a reason, and a purpose (under heaven). Punches to the gut like unemployment, head lice, a scabies-like mite that once bored deeply into my flesh, and thousands of biting flies, all fit snugly into this category. Amazingly, I find myself loving each and every one of these occurrences in my life (some memories, and others ongoing).

Time. An absolute abundance of it. I’ve been blessed with my first surplus of time since I concluded a sabbatical from the real world 19 years ago, at the age of 19, and discovered who I was. In some ways the current experience mirrors the earlier one, but in vastly different ways, and within a new context of need. I’ve found myself fortunate enough to be weaved more fully into the rhythm of my family’s life. Sometimes I’ll find myself feeling like the only thing I’m good for is doing dishes and laundry. Then, like a match suddenly struck to light the way in a dark cavern being traversed, everything comes together into a remarkably sublime focus. A minor crisis, the kind that most young families must face eventually, brought this into sharp relief today.

I kept the train going ALL DAY today. The engine was an insatiably greedy washing machine and dryer, and the fuel I shoveled into the “fire box” was an inexhaustible supply of sheets, blankets, pillows and their cases, teddy bears, jackets, hats, and (pardon my British here) an endless supply of other shite. An occasion like this can really show you just how much extra non-essential stuff can hold you back, while cluttering your life unnecessarily. That’s another conversation, an important one, and interesting to me in that this is what I thought I was gaining from the toilsome experience.

I discovered that I’m actually learning tenderness, something far more valuable than my endless quest for minimalism. Role models have never been present in my life, so I’ve never found parenting to come “naturally.” Tonight while combing my daughter’s hair, and taking two or three times as long to finish drying it as my wife, I found myself grateful for the head lice that invaded and upended our home. Though I’m feverishly working to put out this book, which is the culmination of a life’s dream—which itself wouldn’t have been possible without the gut-wrenching experience of losing my job—I’ve found these past 24 hours entirely consumed by the menial, but necessary, chores of delousing and keeping a home running through it all (my wife soldiers on admirably, but is sick and run down). Calmly, gently, and in unhurried motions I went through my child’s long hair. So lovely. It seemed to mean the world to her too. For this I’m grateful. Hours and hours of work today, with virtually nothing wise being uttered, and this was probably the most meaningful part of the day for both of us. I had simply shown up, was fully present, and available to help. Slowly, often painfully slowly, I am becoming increasingly more vital in the daily life of my family. Frequently being impatient, busy, or distracted, times like this are incredibly valuable. Thus, I can thank the job-loss for this as well as the coming-to-fruition dream of writing and publishing my memoir. Lemons really do make lemonade. It’s not just a catchy phrase. Amazing…

For some reason I can’t resist sharing some other stories of blood-suckers. This particular story ends with me sitting in my underwear, and under the watchful care of a nurse-practitioner who just happened to be the mother of a child in the same class as my kids. FREAKIN’ GREAT! I’ve been awkward around her ever since. Additionally, my wife had been calling me a hypochondriac for a solid month as I scratched the little red bumps gracing my lower abdomen with increasing intensity. I had recently returned from a visit to my childhood home to help clean it out again, and followed this up by reading a book by another child of a hoarder, Jessie Sholl, called Dirty Secret. The author goes into great deal about her own raging case of scabies, which she picked up from her mom’s house, and which proved to be resistant to multiple treatments for the better part of a year or so. Her whole life was becoming devoted to ridding her house and body of scabies. HORRIBLE! Anyhow, in a remarkably ironic coincidence, my symptoms continued to develop unabated as I persevered through the book. My case wound up being easily treated through the smearing on of a disgusting pesticide all over my body. We’re talking every crack and crevice—scalp, eyelids, deep into the belly button, and further on down the line. I’m pleased to say my mite wasn’t scabies, but the treatment of it is the same as that of the other much more dreaded parasite. Also, I did not catch these hitchhikers from the old house, thankfully.

19 years ago, at the very beginning of my sabbatical—I actually prefer referring to this nine-month period of marvelous self-discovery in more gestational terms—I had an amazing encounter with thousands and thousands of biting flies. Coming down from Eagle Mountain, the highest point in Minnesota, I saw 3 heads in the waters of lovely Whale Lake at the base of the large hill. At first we took them to be ducks, and after we realized they were moose I dropped my bag, got my camera ready, and ran as fast as I could for a beach toward which they appeared to be aiming. Just 200 yards down the trail, perhaps half the distance to my goal, I heard loud splashing to my left and stopped in my tracks. A medium-sized cow moose stood in stunned silence, wearing the same expression of surprise and fear, just five feet away. She had two calves with her, so I greatly feared being charged as I remained frozen as a stone. Suddenly she jumped into the water in panic, her two calves slowly followed, and they swam back across the lake.

While reveling in the adrenaline and euphoria, we watched the young family for a short time until we realized we were covered in biting flies. We were so close to the water’s edge that the cloud of deer and horse flies had migrated from the animals to us after they plunged back into the water. There were thousands of them. They were so thick that I couldn’t even see my friend’s back through the swarm as they covered every square centimeter of real estate. It was like a scene taken from a killer bee movie. I cannot fathom how the beasts of the forests can handle such an onslaught all day long. As we sprinted back up the trail in frenzied hysteria we came across a porcupine waddling in the same direction. Our flight path carried us around the animal, and it seemed as if the beasts of the forest were all fleeing the same forest fire. Real adventure and discovery often doesn’t come until adversity strikes in some way.

Ironically, I seem to recall the remarkable army of biting flies with more fondness today than those three magnificent moose. Lacking a picture of deer flies and horse flies, I’ve provided an inadequate picture of the moose fleeing the scene (circa summer of 1995)…

The Power of Writing Letters

images

Each and every day, I wait expectantly for the mailman. I am fortunate to receive my mail as early as 8:30 am, and still this often doesn’t feel early enough. Anticipation builds and builds. Inevitably, I’m crestfallen to discover nearly useless junk mail. Day after day the scene plays itself out in the same way. Not yesterday though. For the first time in two months I received something of worth from the mailbox.

Ten months ago I stoked up a fire in the woodstove in my “shack,” and penned a letter to an old friend that is as close as a brother. I have no siblings, so these precious few relationships of mine are vital. Thoughts and feelings bubbled up from deep within my heart, pouring out on the page, as I struggled with a job that was taking me nowhere, and wrestled with feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. I also apologized for any over-confidence I may have had with respect to various opinions in my youth. I’ve since come to appreciate the gray areas. I hadn’t heard from this buddy in nearly ten years, so I eagerly anticipated a response.

Then, nothing…..

That all changed yesterday when I received an incredibly honest letter from my friend in reply. The wait—nearly a year—was entirely worth it. The experience, an exercise in patience, was somewhat akin to waiting on a letter from family in the Old Country (praying the ship carrying the precious dispatch from the other side of the world wouldn’t sink).

Priceless. Immeasurable worth. Timeless. Receiving a physical, tangible letter in the mail can be one of the highlights of the year. Seriously. Receiving these few pages from my friend was more valuable to me than the cumulative “joy” of 500 texts that could have been exchanged over the course of the preceding decade (if I had a cell phone – I’m still proud to remain as one of the few holdouts in the year 2015).

My friend didn’t insult me with a bland description of a perfect life. Rather, he was honest about various struggles and doubts that most of us can relate to. Rather than call him on the phone with concern or out of a misguided attempt to “fix” things, I’m eager to engage in a lively correspondence so I may gradually learn more about it. I just want to rekindle our friendship, and pursue a back-and-forth conversation. Frankly, I need letters from him every bit as much as I hope he senses he needs them from me.

I can’t imagine what a surprise phone call or email from him would have been like. I suspect it would have been somewhat stilted and awkward. I was affected so much by the receiving of this single letter that I hardly got any sleep last night. Thus, I’m sharing a bit of the experience with you.

I receive perhaps five letters a year, and hope this figure might double in the coming year. Frankly, I write  damn good letters that I hope bring cheer and encouragement to the recipients. I have struggled with whether or not there is any purpose to this “last stand” sort of crusade to revive the art of writing letters. Truly, with all modesty, I really do write a fantastic letter. And yet, I receive so few in the mail. This finely honed skill of mine, however, seems anachronistic in the digital age. Being in the throes of a period of reinvention and transition (having lost my job last year), this passion of mine can seem useless. It certainly doesn’t help feed the family. Reducing skills to potential bullet points on a resume has a way of calling such things into question. Receiving this one letter addressed that nagging doubt.

I learned to write letters during my nine month hiatus from the “real world” when I took a break from college at the age of 19. At that time I communicated my intention to not return to school while sitting above the most beautiful waterfall in Minnesota, Partridge Falls, on Labor Day weekend of 1995. I had spent the night in the secluded location—my sleeping bag laid astride a roaring campfire that provided light to read A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins. The curvature of the earth seemed to fit perfectly into the small of my back for support. The Canadian border was just 20 feet away, on the other side of the river, and I was content and at peace for the first time in my life. From this spot I communicated my plans to pursue an education as a sort of wandering and inquisitive man. Institutional schooling was doing nothing for me, and I had so so much to learn (see the tab regarding my upcoming book for further background). I had been lost in every conceivable way. Anyhow, A WRITTEN LETTER IS THE BEST WAY TO COMMUNICATE SOMETHING CONTROVERSIAL LIKE THIS!

Living in a cabin without a computer, telephone, television, or radio, it was surprisingly simple for me to leave the stress of a world I did not understand far to the south. If my parents, or anyone else, wanted to argue with me about my potentially “life-ruining” decision, they would need to take the time to write a letter. I can’t underscore enough how freeing this was! I cannot imagine being a young person today, wrestling with a similar decision, and having to contend with a cell phone, social media, and email. They would be inundated with “advice.” I had no such trouble. I was completely free. Emancipated…. Hence the name of my book, The Emancipation of a Buried Man, which I believe should be ready for release within a couple weeks (I’m completing the editing of the audio version now, and it’ll be available in print and Kindle as well).

There was no mail delivery at my semi-remote cabin on a lake up in border country, so I received mail at work (a popular lodge and restaurant on the North Shore of Lake Superior). Returning home with one or two letters was an event to be cherished. This only happened once or twice a month, so such opportunities for communication from the outside world were not taken for granted. I spent hours crafting letters in response. There was so much to share. I was changing in every conceivable way. These were my dispatches from a new world of wonder, and I patiently waited for weeks and months for a response.

This is so much more satisfying than the simple exchange of information via text or email! A letter, on paper, has the potential to convey the true you. Your very DNA is left on every page, and even your saliva is used to seal the envelope. Remarkably special, one-of-a-kind, and significant. Write a letter to someone today. I guarantee your friend or loved one will be touched in some way. Perhaps you may even benefit the most….

Grandma Lights the Way

One final breath. Then, with a subtle exhalation of release, nothing. She was gone. Her body remained, but grandma was no longer there.

Born a century ago in 1915, this dreaded moment loomed for years. It seemed she had been around forever, and would go on indefinitely. Indeed, another lifetime like her’s takes you back to Thomas Jefferson. You could depend on her like bedrock.

The morning of the funeral found me alone in her kitchen, washing dishes. An old tape I had recorded 14 years ago was playing. In no particular rush to hurry off to the more formal event in the church down the street, I lingered at that sink for as long as possible, saying goodbye in my own way. And yet, I discovered she was still with me in a place from which she can never be removed: my heart.

The sounds of the conversation recorded in that very kitchen with Grandma and Grandpa cascaded in gentle waves into my mind and soul. The occasion of the recording was the foreknowledge that I was unlikely to see my grandfather again, which proved to be the case when he passed away soon thereafter. She was as much a part of him as he was of her. I am grateful for this single recording I have of them, together.

One or two salty tears—bubbled up from a wellspring—splash into the dishwater as I busy myself with this necessity of daily life. This is what Grandma specialized in. As the conversation continued to play on, as if everyone in the recording had poured out their hearts in concert specifically for this weighty moment, I made out the clinking sounds of Grandma washing dishes as the rest of us relaxed at the table with tea and cookies after yet another amazing meal. Occasionally she added details to the gregarious chatter from her post at the sink.

Time stopped. At that very moment Grandma and I were standing at the same sink on the same worn out patch of linoleum. Our hands, along with the very same utensils and other implements of the meal, descended into the depths of soapy water, from which they were lifted out renewed.

Both experiences are as vivid in my mind as on the days they transpired. Though this most recent encounter occurred only two weeks ago, it is as if the earlier conversation nearly a decade and a half ago is forever linked with it.

I entered the chore out of obligation, and with a sense of loss. By the time I was finished, still lingering but desperately needing to wrangle the family together for the final sendoff, I had gained much. For the first time I realized that I had not lost my grandmother. In a sense she is still with me. Between me and her are two generations begat and begotten from her DNA. The memories and feelings live on forever.

The only deficit in our relationship was a frequent gap of hundreds of separating miles. This is why I am so drawn to the power of place, and sinking down deep roots. The mobility of the modern era has robbed the populace of much of their identity.

A very large percentage of Duluthians possess true love for our community, and hunger for our resurgence to continue. The impetus for this is not primarily economic growth, but rather an alternative way of being from the norm that many of us have rejected.

People and place. The two cannot be separated. I have been overwhelmed by the love and care of this community. Generous individuals have literally put clothes on the backs of my family, such as the gifting of Laughingstock Design t-shirts from the fine folks downtown at Happy Space. Some kind soul even paid my tab at Marshall Hardware recently.

My love for grandma has nothing to do with anything she ever said or did. She was just always present and available throughout my entire life. It’s like this when we embed ourselves into a community for the long haul. People care for and support one another.

“Faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love.”

Embracing the Challenge That Comes From Observing a Successful Unschooler

Families that choose the unconventional path of unschooling for their children are rarely boring. Typically they are utterly fascinating. After all, boring people rarely have the fortitude to do anything as counter-cultural as this. Ben Hewitt and his family provide a fascinating case study of this movement that I was previously unfamiliar with. I urge you to read more of their story, which appeared in the same Outside Magazine issue that named my city, Duluth, the best outdoor town in the country this fall. You can see Ben’s article here: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/nature/Unschooling-The-Case-for-Setting-Your-Kids-Into-the-Wild.html

This article provides a fascinating summary of the content appearing in Ben Hewitt’s book, Home Grown, which was the most challenging and empowering book I’ve read in some time. The most impressive aspect of his family’s story is just how remarkably resourceful his two boys are. At the ages of 12 and 9, these boys are actually productive members of the family. They engage in meaningful chores like tending to farm animals, splitting firewood, making their own hats out of wool they felted from their own sheep, can be trusted to collect wild edible mushrooms, and on and on. These kids aren’t micro-managed, and they are trusted with great responsibility. They’ve independently handled potentially dangerous axes, hatchets, knives, and traps, from a young age. Even at the tender age of five, onlookers stared at the children open-mouthed while watching the kids in disbelief as they unsheathed fixed-blade knives (always available and attached to their belts) to engage in chores on the farm or out in the community. They are more proficient in bushcraft and survival skills than most outdoor-oriented adults could ever hope to be. I even place myself in this category. The brothers roam the fields and forest for hours at a time, build watertight structures out on the land, and always carry a hook and line in their pockets just in case. Sometimes they’ll build a fire with their flint and steel in order to cook freshly caught trout, cleaned and prepared themselves, on a flat rock heated by the conflagration that they can be trusted to keep under control. I could go on with further details, but the effect would only reduce them to the level of mythology. I am providing only a glimpse of how set apart they are from the average expectations society has of young kids.

To me that is the key. We need to do something about our ridiculously low expectations. Whether or not we do something as radical as turn kids loose to pursue their own education by following their passions, we parents shouldn’t leave it to the specialists to shoulder the full burden of educating our children. I think most of us already intuitively realize this, but in practice we often don’t do much about it (due to distractions, busyness, and often a lack of confidence).

Ben’s family is completely different from mine. On Sundays his family splits firewood, while mine is in church. His children have never been in a classroom, while mine attend public school. They live on a homestead (MY DREAM!), and we live in the city. And yet, in some ways we’re kindred spirits. Each of us can learn something and be challenged by them.

I found myself wrestling with the fact that one of the themes of my upcoming book is that I needed to leave institutional schooling while in my freshman year of college, in order to learn anything. And here I am sending my own kids to public school! Rather than sweep this under the rug, I need to wrestle with this. My own experience in school was stifling, too controlled, and didn’t promote any independent thought whatsoever. Ben Hewitt dealt with this by dropping out of high school when he reached the age of 16, and he has become a tremendously talented writer by simply practicing this craft. As with many skills, writing is “better caught than taught.” I’m not advocating dropping out of school, or pulling kids out so a “more pure” form of education can be sought through unschooling. However, Mr. Hewitt makes a most compelling case. My wife and I must strive intentionally to help our kids have a better educational experience than I had. This can be done in more ways than one, and regardless of your perspective on the matter, nearly all of us most entrust our children with more responsibility. They have the capacity to develop meaningful practical skills that will serve them will throughout life.

I am increasingly excited to share my passions with my children, and to watch them pursue knowledge and interests without realizing that it’s an education. A key ingredient for success here is to leave my inherent perfectionism behind, and to not listen to my own insecurities that want to tell me that my efforts are inadequate. Of course I’m inadequate, but doing nothing is unacceptable.

For some time I’ve observed the necessity of challenging my kids physically, by providing them a physical education at home or in the woods. Slowly I’m extending this to other areas that I see are lacking in their lives. For example, last night I realized that they don’t know the first thing about classical music. Rather than listen to Marketplace Money on NPR by myself last night while doing the dishes, as I usually do, I cranked up the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (The Ode to Joy) for the full 20 or so minutes. I got tingles up my spine as the choir belted out the well-known chorus. I delighted in sharing just a bit of the uplifting message to my children, while also reveling in the fact that the composer was deaf when he composed this great work. They found that to be rather remarkable when thinking about the numerous instruments and voices that he combined into this great achievement. Similar conversations could be had about other musicians like Mavis Staples, Johnny Cash, or Bob Dylan. The inevitable comment, “His voice sounds funny,” is an opportunity to share why Bobby means so much to the culture. And doggone it, I don’t need to be a musicologist to instill some of this in them! The same goes for other fields of interest that any well-rounded person should be somewhat proficient in.

One such area is geography. My kids’ understanding in this area is nowhere near the level that I want to see it at. Rather than complain, I need to encourage further study. I plan on placing world maps in their rooms. Perhaps we could engage in paper airplane journeys to random countries, and then check out books from the libraries to learn more about the countries and people in these places upon which our planes land on the map. More non-fiction books from the library will be helpful. When we can afford it, perhaps a subscription to National Geographic, etc.

We’ve also begun a weekly documentary night. Netflix has a plentiful supply of these, and the experience has exceeded my expectations greatly. The kids are not only learning about other areas of study than they’ll receive in school, but more importantly, their curiosity is stoked as they slowly take on a broader scope of the world. Our problems were put in perspective, for example, when they recently observed the living conditions of poor families in Guatemala.

All this, and much more, can easily be done either before or after school. As a bonus, the family is drawn closer together as we more adequately seize each day, and find that we all are bettered through it. Either way, I encourage you to check out the link to the article above and also Ben’s blog at http://benhewitt.net

You will be challenged, and that’s a good thing. Here is a picture of his kids when they were younger…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA