Monday, November 30, 2015

"When something seems impossible, do it anyway."

In our nomadic fashion, Dave and I have experienced some incredible natural phenomena in the past few years. Reading Leigh Ann Henion's book,  Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World, has made me itch to see more--especially the great migration in Tanzania, the bioluminescence in Puerto Rico, and the Northern lights in Sweden (and to stay in an ice hotel!).

Leigh Ann (right) with reindeer herder Johanna Huuva,
taking a break from sledging on the Torne river near JukkasjÀrvi, Sweden
Her book is more than a travelogue; it's a journey into the physical and metaphysical mysteries. For my "Books That Inspire" series, Leigh Ann and I had a chat about how chasing eclipses, migrations, and other natural phenomena around the globe helped to reawake her sense of wonder. 

It's fun that both of our books have "Wonder" in the title/subtitle. What is it about wonder that's important to you?
I've written that wonder isn't about finding answers; it's about becoming more comfortable with questions. Wonder is an emotion that can provide perspective and overpower fear.

"Hesitant" is also in your subtitle. What has made you a "hesitant" adventurer? And what might you say to others who are hesitant about exploring the natural world?
Popular culture often presents the "adventurous" archetype as someone who is fit, very young, and unencumbered. And I'm not fit, very young, and unencumbered. One of the great discoveries I made while researching Phenomenal is that there are a lot of adventurous people who wouldn't make the cover of a fitness magazine. There are eighty year olds mapping out cave passages, elementary school teachers chasing tornadoes during school holidays.

I used the word "hesitant" because I'm often nervous before trips, but I go anyway. As for advice, I think that depends on the individual and the situation. But one of my new favorite mantras has become: When something seems impossible, do it anyway. Everything about Phenomenal seemed impossible until it wasn't.

You didn't set out on a spiritual journey, but your odyssey into the world's phenomenal events developed into one. Why do you think your journey unfolded in this way? How as a spiritual outlook affected your life?

I think my journey became a spiritual pilgrimage because, if you look into nature—via science or your own eyes—you're going to discover deepening mysteries. And spiritual and scientific modes of discussion are some of the only frameworks we have to talk about mystery. As a writer, I'm more artist than scientist, so spirituality dominates my vocabulary.

Thinking in terms of metaphor and mythology has opened me to spiritual discussions, even though talking about mystery—as a layperson in spiritual or scientific circles—opens one to a great deal of criticism. But it's important, I think, to have a variety of voices in dialogue about big questions.

When you start looking into one natural phenomena, you find it's connected to another, on and on. Awakening to that interconnectivity has given—and continues to give me—a sense of spiritual solace.

I noticed in your book that in addition to the sense of vision, you focus a lot on the sense of sound. Why is that?

We're a screen-obsessed culture, and we've started talking about the world mostly via sight-based language. But when you're witnessing a wildebeest migration in Tanzania, you're not just seeing rivers of animals—you're hearing their hooves, you're breathing in the dust those hooves kick up. You're present. I think that growing awareness influenced me, and it's why sound became a character in the book. Of course, hanging out with modern-day shamans and listening to deer-antler organs in the Arctic also influenced things!

You quote eclipse-chaser and writer Kate Russo as saying that the "real issue is that people don't feel free. They feel they have to live according to this script that's for everybody." What would you say to people who might want to challenge the script and live more freely?
What seems impractical to others might be supremely practical in the context of your life.

What natural marvels have you not seen that you would like to?

The list is ever-growing. If you'd asked a month ago, I might have said I'd like to witness a murmuration, a mass of birds twisting and turning as if a single creature. To do so, I thought I might have to travel to the UK, Israel, or another locale where they're common. But, just last month, I was driving through Kentucky and one appeared right over the highway. One of the enduring gifts of my Phenomenal journey is that I'm always on watch for wonder.

Leigh Ann Henion's essays and articles have appeared widely, and her stories have been noted in three editions of The Best American Travel Writing. She lives in the Appalachian mountains.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Nomadic California Fall

Ruby with her great granddaughter.
It's funny how our nomadic schedule falls together like puzzle pieces.

We accepted a housesit for September in L.A. intending to drive down to Baja afterward. But then I was asked to lead a writing workshop in Northern California in October. And we were invited to Dave's nephew's wedding. Soon we scored a housesit in Alameda. Then we were offered housesits in Santa Cruz for November and Tahoe for December. Clearly, California was calling to us to hang out longer.

One of the great pleasures of October was spending time with family and friends. We were able to visit my 92-year-old Aunt Ruby in the Sacramento. She played honkey tonk on the piano and we hung out with my cousins. Then we went to the wedding in Marin...

Regina and James
 Which also meant hanging out with a bunch of Dave's kin.
With Dave's sister and bro-in-law.
Next we drove east, to Sonora, where I was set to lead a workshop called "How to Believe in Your Writing." After more than two years away from teaching, I was excited and a little unnerved.

The energy in the room was electric. Many of the participants said they felt inspired and had breakthroughs on their projects. My longtime friend Dawn showed up with her mom. Two participants were teenagers, and several were in their sixties and seventies.

My friend and writing compatriot, Patricia, and her partner Cindy hosted us--and introduced us to their writing community.

Dinner with writers
I was also able to spend time with my sister and a group of her awesome women friends who had read my book, Call It Wonder and invited me to meet with their book group. It's wonderful and surreal to talk to people about the book. I'm especially touched when they say it inspired them or prompted them to reflect on their own life paths.

Call It Wonder-ful!
We couldn't be that close to Yosemite and not pay a visit. So after Sonora, Dave and I spent the night at the utterly charming Evergreen Lodge ...

...and hiked to a magical waterfall.

One of California fall's jewel-like days.

Next we scooted west to get to Alameda for our house (and cat) sit.

Uma, our charge.
Dave and I grew up in California and have lived a lot of years in the Bay Area--but Alameda was one place we didn't know much about. The site of a now-closed naval based, Alameda is an island tucked next to Oakland.

You can take a ferry from Alameda to San Francisco.
Our apartment for ten days was in the charming downtown, situated on a main street above a taqueria. Within steps were innumerable restaurants and an old, restored movie theater.

We have friends who live in Alameda we were able to visit. In the past few years, we've hung out with our friend Mark in Yellowstone, Zion National Park, and Tahoe. Finally, we were on his turf. He was our bike tour guide, a great way to explore this flat terrain.

Checking out the neighborhoods.

Enjoying a waterfront cruise.
We also met up with Kathleen, an old high school buddy. She took us to Rock Wall Winery, a fantastic waterfront venue with excellent food. As the sun set, the lights of San Francisco twinkled across the bay.
Kathleen, her friend Amy, and me
I hadn't seen her kids in few years. They had transformed into bigger human beings with exceptional talents.
The old naval airbase takes up about one third of Alameda's land. A number of ships are still docked there, including the USS Hornet, which is open for tours.

Some of the buildings are being used in  varying ways. One is Kathleen's impressive gym--a huge space with, among other things, a full-size indoor soccer field. She took me to her yoga class, followed by a spinning class--an Amazonian workout that was fun and intense.

When we started housesitting a year ago, we had no idea that it would provide us opportunities to explore old/new terrain and window-in on the lives of people we love. Life on the road continues to surprise and delight.