"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wild Meditation

My consciously-designed, leisurely schedule since being out work has slowed my body down.  (See earlier post about this decision.)  I notice my shoulders are lower, not raised in tension.  My facial muscles and jaw are relaxed, my breathing is slow and easy, and I smile often.

My body slowing down has been an entrance for my brain to slow down, and the twice-daily meditation is doing WONDERS for my otherwise-racing mind.  I meditate at least once a day for ten minutes, sometimes twice if I remember or make time.  I see this time as preventative medicine, much like taking vitamins or exercising.  It keeps my brain in shape.

Me last weekend on my Gettysburg backpacking trip

I also often spontaneously decide to meditate at various points throughout the day, especially if I notice my mind starting to race or crowd with worries.  Wherever I am, I simply:

  1. Sit up straight and close my eyes
  2. Take three, deep, cleansing breaths
  3. Focus on the sensation of breathing, either by feeling the coolness of the breath coming in and out of my nostrils, or noticing the way my belly expands and contracts with each breath.
  4. As I do this, I notice thoughts coming in to my mind.  I don't judge myself for them.  I simply think, "Oh, there's that thought," and I picture it sliding off of the movie screen of my mind.
  5. Sometimes certain aggressive thoughts come back over and over, and I just think, "Oops, there you are again," and let it slide away again, as many times as necessary.
The important thing is for me to distance myself from the thoughts; to realize that they are not ME.  I practice not engaging with them as they come.  There is a difference between thinking "Oh I notice that I'm thinking about moving," and "I'm thinking about moving.  Oh god where am I going to go?  What if I run out of money?  How will this all work out? etc." Because then I have lost my observer; I am engrossed in the thoughts and no longer at peace.

When I meditate, things slow down. When things slow down enough, I can see the spaces between decisions. There is room enough to choose happiness. Happiness is an available choice all the time.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Small Wonders, Both Beautiful and Violent

Last weekend, I went backpacking through Michaeux State Forest near Gettysburg, PA.  My inspiring mountaineering friend, Shelley, drove up from Virginia to join me.

I have gone on many backpacking trips, and blogged about nearly every one of them.  While I could certainly write about the excitement of night-hiking through dense rhododendron paths on Friday night, the great time we had drinking moonshine by the fire, or the incredible (and illegal) swims we took in the crystal-clear reservoir, I actually want to focus on the very small aspects of this trip.  Like literally, very small.

I want to write about the critters, y'all.

I just finished reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, so was primed to observe and appreciate all life around me in the woods, not just mammals as usual.  That combined with the fact that I have been meditating more regularly these past few weeks which has caused me to slow down quite a bit, and I found myself noticing so much more than I usually would.

For example, when we made a fire on Friday night, I noticed one particular log that seemed to be undulating.  At first, I thought it was the waves of heat coming from the flame.  But I looked closer and saw hundreds of ants scurrying out of the cracks and holes in the wood.  One end of the log was sticking up in the air, and the ants that had apparently been inhabiting it were frantically running to safety, away from the fire.

When I looked even closer, I saw that each one was carrying a tiny, white egg larvae.  And they weren't frantic at all.  They were carrying their offspring out in orderly lines, like little firefighter soldiers.  Amazing.

When we reached the reservoir that would be our second night's camping spot, we were awestruck by the clear water, and sweaty from our day's hike.  We immediately jumped in - before noticing (or caring about) the "No Swimming" sign further down the path.

Shelley enjoying her swim

Me gazing across the beautiful water
Little sunfish came up to greet us, curiously hovering just near our legs, but never daring to touch us and say hello.  We could see straight down to the bottom, so noticed every time the sun caught their tails and caused them to light up a neon turquoise.

We also watched a little head that bobbed out of the water every now and then, about 10 yards away.  It was sometimes a box turtle, and sometimes a water snake in our imaginations.  We never did find out which.

To dry off, we found a sunny spot near the water's edge and spread out my tent groundcloth.  We were visited by dozens of dragon flies while we relaxed and dried off in the sun.

On Shelley

On me
That night, we fell asleep to a chorus of frogs.  

The next morning, something incredible happened.  Nature had saved her best act for last.

As I was sitting back at our sunny spot by the shore, boiling some water for breakfast and coffee, I noticed something different about the grasses that yesterday were the playground to the large, purple dragonflies.  They were littered with tiny, translucent, molted skins of nymph dragonflies.

During the night, the dragonfly nymphs must have descended en masse and jointly emerged from their baby skins.  Then I noticed that one was still in the act!  She had saved her show for us!  Shelley and I saddled down on our elbows and watched in awe as over the next 20 minutes, this white, mucousy glob turned into a dragonfly.

(All these photos are thanks to Shelley.)

Phase One: Just emerged, she clings to her shell

Phase Two: Her eyes widen, her body enlarges and darkens,
and her wing nubs become visible

Phase Three: She stretches her new, mucousy wings

Final Phase: This is not the same dragonfly as above.
We did not have time to stay and watch her to completion.
This is the end result of a different nymph's journey.
But nature couldn't end there.  She had to remind us that she is more than just pretty.  She is also not to be messed with.

As we watched the beautiful dragonfly pictured above, completely emerged and in full, glorious form, a bee swooped in and tackled her to the ground.  This little bee pulled her wings off, and then gripped on to her head, vigorously biting and twisting.  At last, the bee popped the dragonfly head off and flew away with it in his grip.

And with that full cycle of experience and wonder, we donned our packs and hiked home.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wild Rest

Most people have come to expect adventure from me.  Before I left Maryland, it felt like every conversation I had with anyone began, "So where are you going?  What's the plan?"  Asked with a big smile and wide, anticipatory eyes.

I had many possibilities in my mind (Nepal, Montana, Costa Rica, etc.), but they were all just ideas in my head.  I hadn't made any travel plans to go to any of those places, nor did I have the time or energy to do so.  I just dropped out names of possible adventures in the hopes that it would satisfy my listener's curiosity for the moment.

One day in May, I was alone with my thoughts.  I was exhausted from the increasing demands at work and overwhelmed with my impending move.  I broke down and asked myself, "What do you want, Melanie?  What do you want to do?"  The answer came immediately from within.


My backyard

When I finally allowed myself to let go of the pressure I had put on myself to go have endless, immediate adventures, I saw quickly that what I really wanted was lots and lots of rest.  Thus, my sights turned towards home.

I came directly to my parents' house in Pennsylvania when leaving Maryland.  My loose plan was to sleep as much as possible, never setting an alarm, and do a lot of exactly what I'm doing right now - sitting on the back porch in my pajamas, writing and reading.  Later today, my only plans are to take my nephews to the pool for a couple of hours, and then go see my nephew's baseball game.  That's what I'm talking about.

Hanging out in my back porch "office" on a warm evening

I also thought spending a little time at home would give me the chance to plan my next adventure.  But I've been here for a full week now, and I haven't done a lick of that.  I still don't have the desire or energy to do much other than sleep and lie around.  And I think that's just fine.

In fact, it's a little funny.  I thought that I would be moving so fast from the momentum I had built up at work and the frenzy of moving that I would have a hard time slowing down.  I thought I may still be tempted to make long to-do lists and stay busy once I arrived here.

Nope.  Not a problem.

My most common activities here have been sleeping, cooking, bird-watching, working in my parents' garden, reading, writing, playing with my nephews, chatting with my parents, and riding my bike around the neighborhood.  The only time I've even used my car in the past week was to drive to a yoga and meditation class last night.

The bird-watching garden

My favorite room in the house

The beautiful vegetable garden

And now, Oldman is slowly, gently, lovingly moving back into my life.  And I have the clock time and mental time to be present for it.  And I have the wide-open calendar to fill in with him, should I choose to do so.

But right now, I have some birds to watch.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


I think I'm doing things a little backwards.

Because from looking around, the marks of personal progress and success are moving out of your parents house, going to college, getting married, accumulating a bunch of stuff, and making a little home of your own where you independently run your life and enjoy all of your stuff.

Well, I'm 30, living at home, back on my parents' cell phone plan, and all I own fits into my beat-up Honda Civic.  So why does it feel so much like I'm moving forward?

Back in college, I pretty much owned nothing.  I took my clothes, some books, some posters, and a crap-ass laptop with me to Penn State.  Moving from dorm to dorm, then into an apartment, or coming home for a summer, was pretty easy.  Just load everything into a mini-van and go.

When I got married, the stuff-accumulation festival began.  I went ahead and did the registry thing, zapping everything from curtains to paper towel holders to bath mats with that magic bar code machine thingy.  Soon our house was carefully arranged and polished, stocked with brand-new furniture and artsy/hipster decor.  We had matching dishes and glasses, an awesome set of pots and pans, and a brand-spanking new vacuum cleaner.  It took a full-fledged U-Haul to move us now, which obviously signifies adulthood.

Well, when I left that marriage, I felt so guilty about leaving and breaking his heart that I wanted to leave him everything.  He let me take the vacuum cleaner (since it was from my parents), and a desk.  And I think some towels.

So I went back down to not-too-much, but I still had quite a bit more than when I was in college.  After leaving my ex-husband, I lived in six different apartments over the next six years.  Each time I moved, I shed a few more belongings.  This most recent time of moving from my farm house to Rockville with Oldman, I slashed my belongings in half.

But then when I packed up even that small amount of stuff to move to Pennsylvania last week, I still took three more bags to the thrift shop.  Sheesh!  Now I feel truly minimalistic and free.  I love it.

My packed trunk

So happy about all I own fitting into my Civic

My entire key chain

In case you're interested, here is what I still own:
  • A small assortment of outdoor clothing (for backpacking and climbing), a couple of yoga outfits, a bathing suit and beach towel, and 4 drawers-worth of "regular" clothing
  • one pair of cowboy boots, one pair of rain boots, one pair of hiking boots, one pair of sneakers, one pair of flip-flops, and one pair of nicer sandals
  • Two small baskets-full of medicine - herbal, homeopathic, and conventional
  • Two small baskets-full of desk-ish items - stationary, pens, art supplies, etc.
  • A backpack filled with backpacking supplies (tent, bag, pad, other small stuff, etc. - all I need)
  • Climbing shoes and harness
  • Two crates full of books (which I will leave at my parents' house if I set off to travel)
  • Two stuffed animals (which I will not leave at my parents' house if I set off to travel)
  • A set of suitcases and 2 tote bags
  • Electronics: phone, laptop, kindle, iPod
  • Only the toiletries that I actually use on a daily basis: shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant powder, lotion, essential oil perfume, mineral makeup
  • One jewelry box with necklaces and earrings
  • A few decorative items for the wall and my altar (tibetan flags, photos in frames, my feather collection, my green rock collection, incense, etc)
I've gotten so into the shedding-belongings swing of things that I find myself holding back from throwing away stuff from other people's houses.  I walked around my old place in Rockville and saw all the crap that my landlady kept and had to sit on my hands to not just get rid of it all for her.  And now, at home, I see stuff like four liquid measuring cups in the cabinet and think, why?  Would they notice if I got rid of three?

(Don't worry, mom, I'm not going to throw your stuff away.)

I think this is like reverse kleptomania.  Maybe I need some help.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Married to Wildness

Last weekend, I got married.

Well, or I had a send-off party, which I guess is "technically" more accurate.  But it felt like a wedding and a birthday and a retirement and a send-off all rolled into one.

My friend, Eshe's twin six year-old boys kept asking when I was going to open my presents, and I had to explain to them, yet again, that this wasn't my birthday party.  But there was food and people and music and decorations, so what's not birthday party about that in a six year-old head?  I get it.

And then my friend, Jacob, said to me when he was leaving, "I feel like I should say 'Happy Birthday' to you or something."

And all day, as I watched some of the people I love the most in this life come, eat, laugh, tube down the river, shower me with affirmations and love, leave, and then be replaced with another round of people I love the most in this life, I was struck with a realization.  I thought, I can only remember being surrounded by so many people from so many different aspects of my life celebrating me at one other time - my wedding.

Here are some shots from the day:

My parents, Bob and Susan Duggan (the founder of Tai Sophia and his wife who is
my acupuncturist), some classmates from Tai Sophia, and some friends from work, all
enjoying the beautiful bridge where we lounged for much of the day.

My gurrrl, Katie - thanks for co-throwing this amazing party!

Dela enjoying watermelon

My dad and Rick grilling up some tasty chicken
(notice the expansive beauty behind them)

Mama preparing the veggies for the grill

Soooo happy to see Anne all the way from South Carolina!
The generous, talented, inspirational host of the party and owner of the
magical farm - Anne Baker.

The most popular activity of the day - tubing down the creek.
My other gurrrrl, Eshe.  Thank you also for co-throwing
this amazing party, cleaning out the barn, and sending out the
invitations!  You deserve this moment of sun-basking.

Our crazy huge bonfire

James, an awesome co-worker and friend, with his son,
Jackson, an awesome student of mine, enjoying the fire's warmth.

Olu and I snuggling by the fire.

After the party was over, around midnight, I sat on a log with a warm beer in my hand next to two of my good friends, Anne and Katie, the only people left.  We stared at the smoldering embers from a gigantic bonfire that was around 10 feet in diameter, passing the warm beer, tiredly reminiscing about the day's events.  We sat in silent marvel at the juxtaposition of the twinkling fireflies in the trees that blended seamlessly into the twinkling stars in the sky above them.  And it felt like I could have been wearing a wedding dress, and they bridesmaid dresses, and we could have been sitting around in our bare feet after the wedding, laughing and telling tales.

The next morning, Anne, Katie, and I awoke at the farm house where we ended up sleeping.  Over a breakfast of fresh eggs from the hen house, I mentioned this observation to them.  I said, "I kind of feel like this was my wedding, but to myself."

Katie said, "It was your wedding to wildness."

Bam.  That's it.

I am committing to live a life of wildness.  I have pledged a vow to walk hand in hand with adventure, through sickness and in health, through better or worse.  I will still value jobs and relationships, but wildness is my priority.  It is wildness to which I have pledged my enduring love.

And then, to top off the analogy, Anne snuck out to my car in the morning when she left a couple of hours before me, and tied ribbons to my mirror.

She wrote with black sharpie on two of them.  They say:
"As always, so below as within, so be it without.  We call to the different directions - north, south, east, and west - deliver and protect Melanie."

"All blessings of soul and body and spirit.  May the wind carry you on your travels.  We love you!"

She might as well have also written JUST MARRIED on my back windshield.

So it is with great pleasure and gratitude that I introduce to you, for the very first time, Mrs. Wildness!


Friday, June 8, 2012

And the Gypsy Gardener Moves On

In September of 2005, I walked in to Friends Community School to teach my first day in my own, 5th/6th grade classroom.  My first "real" job.  One of my students threw up on the computer keyboard that day.  I figured, hey, it can only get better, right?

And it did.

On June 8th, 2012, I said goodbye to my students on the last day of school, for the last time.  I have been the Head of the Middle School for two years now, so I had the pleasure of deepening my relationships with all 90 of the 5th-8th grade students, not just one classroom like before.  That meant more teary goodbyes to make today.

This morning was filled with cards, flowers, gift cards, money, poems, hugs, and many tears.  It was beautiful, and quite difficult.  Difficult to leave, to say goodbye, but also to take in all of the love that was coming my way.  I was overwhelmed, to say the least, with the display of gratitude, appreciation, and love that was shown to me by my students and their families.  I expected some goodbye cards and hugs, but nothing like this.

A large group of parents came in to my room this morning to present the giant card, flowers, and money to me on behalf of the whole middle school.  At the end of her humbling and beautiful speech, one of the mother's asked that everyone rise and give me a standing ovation.  The whole room of students and parents stood, clapped, hooted, and hollered for me.  I stood, rooted to the ground, tears running down my face, smiling, allowing my whole body to fill with the sweetness of the moment.  I will never forget it.

I have enough fond memories from that place to keep me warm on every cold, mountain night I may face on my journey.  Here is a sampling:

(I'm not entirely sure if it's legal for me to post these. . . let's see)

Backpacking on the AT

Cutting firewood

Just hangin' around with some kids

Cleaning a hiking wound

Meeting for Worship at the fire circle

Playing cards with the boys at a hostel

About to go whitewater rafting

Cheering on some students on the climbing wall

Silliness with my class

Headed to the Solar Decathlon on the National Mall

One of my proud graduates - now almost a 10th-grader!

More class silliness

Teaching warm-up yoga before Language Arts begins

Girl talk

Today, I received one especially meaningful gift among the many.  One of my 6th grade girls wrote this poem for me.  I'll end with it here, because there are no words to follow it.

The Gypsy Gardener
I once knew a gypsy gardener
Who wore cool boots.

A nurturer of all life;
Plants, animals, and students

I wandered into her garden
And found her planting seeds,
Peace, focus and compassion
To name a few.

Her sprouts grew on a diet of
Organic brainstorming, practice, and all natural meditation.
She shone on them,
Giving light and warmth

When the seedlings were strong,
Off went the gypsy gardener
To find another sunny spot
To sow her seeds
And hike the hills
In her cool boots

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Nosey Kid. You're Worse Than My Grandmother.

Conversation with a 3rd grade girl in the bathroom today, over washing our hands:

Her: Are you really leaving the school, Melanie??  Is it true?

Me: Yep.

Her: But why?

Me: I'm moving.

Her: What?!  Do you have a husband?

Me: (confused) No. . .

Her: A boyfriend?

Me: (even more confused) No - what does this have to do with me moving?

Her: Well if your husband or boyfriend got a job somewhere else then you'd have to move for them.

Me: Hmm.  So is that the only reason to move?  Because my husband or boyfriend got a job?

Her: Pretty much.

Me: Well that's not why I'm moving.  And there are many more reasons to move than that.  Like what if I got a job somewhere else??

Her: Well did you?

Me: Well, no, but -

Her: See! Then why are you leaving us?

Me: Because. . . um, I want to be near the big mountains.  I want to climb big mountains and there aren't any here.

Her: (gives me a raised-eyebrow, skeptical look) So you're going to leave all 200 of us kids to climb some mountain, which isn't even alive?  I think you need to change your mind.  Have you really thought about this?

Me: I'm late for class. (I walk away.)

Her: (calling after me) Melanie!

Me: (yelling back to her, over my shoulder) Don't yell in the hallway!