Thursday, March 14, 2013

Use both hands

Taking hold of your adventures

That early August evening I rowed the little boat out across the lake from the dock like I had so many times earlier in the summer. Two loons were off on the far side of the lake calling each other, the sun was slowly setting, and I was free. A late summer mist had begun to set in on the northeast corner where the lake meshed into swamp, and I recall the realization of how it would be the end of summer before long - a sort of wistful foreboding, dulled by the comforts of sweet air and the soft trickling of warm lake water.

In the boat with me there was nothing but the oars, the anchor, a fishing rod, and a small cooler; I dropped the anchor so there was even less. The boat hardly drifted at all on the placid lake, and so there I sat for a moment before baiting the hook. Just then, one of the two loons called, a smoky shrill that set the slightest chill up my bare arms.

"This is real life," I murmured to myself as I scanned the darkening shoreline where the pines and the birches stood quietly in the calm of evening. Peace, serenity, oneness with the entire world - it all settled upon me there, in that instant that spanned eternity and back again.

There were no questions and no answers. There were no troubles or turmoils. There was no anger and no sorrow to be had - just peace… peace and quiet. I had escaped my life, cheated stress, gone beyond reach of other's expectations, judgments, and opinions. There I sat, with each hand on an oar, and I felt alive.


Early in the morning I arose, sickeningly early if you had asked me then. I remember hating myself for committing to an early morning workout routine in the middle of November - one which involved me running outside in the pre-dawn light three days a week.

"You don't have to do this," said a soft voice in the back of my head. "Work is still hours away. Stay under the covers where it's warm and catch up on some much-needed sleep." It was a convincing argument; the voice knew me well.

"Treachery!" I yelled back at the voice and shot out of bed before it could woo me any longer. I dressed and grabbed a water bottle on my way out the door. Soon I was at the track. On lap seven of eight, I had completely forgotten the soft, safe comfort of bed. The cold late-fall air was nothing to me now. I was limber, warm, strong and even, perhaps, fast. I kicked it hard for the last lap to prove to myself and to the world slowly waking around me that I was, in fact, powerful.

I ended the final stretch in a sprint, digging hard at the black track with the balls of my feet. My shoes were light as feathers, my legs screamed for more speed, more muscle - I needed more muscle to go faster - but I kept pushing with what I had. When I came across the finish line I let myself slow into a trot and then a walk. My breath was vapor in the air, my mind wide-awake, and my body roaring as I walked a lap to cool down and recover.

"This is real life," I said to myself, grinning ear to ear as I looked out at the highway of cars slowly awakening to the hustle and bustle of the day. A brilliant pink sky was shaping up in the east, and I had plenty more to get done later in the day. None of those things bothered me though, because no matter what else came later, I had the hardest thing already checked off the list for the day and nobody could take that from me.

I had overcome an inner struggle, gone against the grain, taken the narrow and less-traveled path. I had come, and fought, and conquered. I wove my fingers together and placed both hands on the top of my head as I walked. I felt alive.


The snowfall collected on my shoulders and would slide off my coat in heaps when I stooped. It was really coming down now, falling in sheets like white linen. I pushed forward with the shovel again to collect another load, and then used the inertia from the movement to lift the snow and toss it onto the pile at the edge of the sidewalk.

Pass after pass I worked like this, clearing the heavy white powder from the walkway. My back had started to ache a while ago, but I was almost done now. The way the snow was coming down, within an hour it would probably be hard to tell anyone I had shoveled at all, but someone had to do it. Another pass and I was finished. I straightened myself to right my back, and that's when my eyes settled on the neighbor's place.

"Well, I suppose I'm already out here," I mumbled to myself. "No need for two crooked backs and four soggy feet in one afternoon." With that my mind was made up and I meandered over to the next sidewalk to continue the work.

I don't have to describe this much, do I? Shoveling is shoveling; it all looks pretty much the same. So, let the record show that I shoveled some more and we’ll be on with it.

Two sidewalks were cleared, for however long it would last, and I was done for the day. I went inside to shake the snow off myself and put the tool away, content with the fact that, if nothing else, I could help make someone else's day a little less snowy. I locked up the house and headed for my car, glad to have gotten a little exercise in for the day.

However, as I was trudging through a drift out the back door, a voice rang out from next door.

"Hey!" I thought it sounded aggressive at first, so my turn towards it was more alarmed than receptive. "Hey, thanks for doing that," said the neighbor man. "…for shoveling - I appreciate that."

"No problem!" I responded and waved to my neighbor before continuing on course through the snowdrifts. When I got into my car I let out a sigh, and then the slightest smile. "This is real life," I whispered to nobody. I helped someone on a whim, and it didn't go unnoticed. I had helped someone out by the honest work of my hands. I felt good and I felt alive.


Throughout this project of defining a woodsman, I have been asked multiple times how I come up with something to write about each week. The straightaway response I have when asked in conversation is something eloquent like: "I don't know," or "because it's important to me," or sometimes "some are better than others."

Really, I think storytelling is more about perspective than anything else, but let’s face it; the best stories take us on some sort of adventure. And therein lies the endgame - how you define adventure.

Please, humor me and let’s call each instance above a micro-adventure. In each I want to detail a moment that I really connected with, and in each of these the connection is some instance in which I felt alive. I don't mean alive by the strict terms of yes, I have a pulse, and true, I am breathing. I mean alive as in: Whoa, I'm really glad I'm here, now, connected, disconnected, real, one, alive.

Sometimes it's the solitude that talks to us deeply. When we create a void around ourselves, the void often speaks to us in hard truth the way the clutter distracts us from being honest. Other times it is engagement, whether that is physical or mental or both. When we test our existence and push ourselves hard we find our boundaries, like flying to the sun on wings of wax. And yet other times, a simple act of kindness that costs us virtually nothing, returns to us something unexpected. Giving must be truly the greatest moment in which to feel alive because it asks us to open up. 

You have these moments too. Perhaps you arrive to them in different ways, or perhaps you haven't thought of them as adventures before, but maybe you will now. Maybe the next time you have a chance to take a deep breath you'll see that where you truly are is on a journey. You, like all the rest of us, are on a journey to the end of the world. Sure, we're at different points on the same map, traveling by different roads and at different velocities, but we are all part of the same exodus.

There are joys and victories strewn before you - aim for them. There are triumphs and holidays in your past, appreciate those. The roads, all the roads, yours and mine and his and hers and theirs and ours, are set with snares and pitfalls and certain damnations. Fear, though, is the one show stopper that can dampen our adventure so completely we forget we're on it.

You're already on the journey, whether you like it or not, so make the best of it, no matter who tries to stop you. Take the bull by the horns and use both hands on the steering wheel. Recognize your adventures, even the smallest ones; even the short moments where all you have is a brief moment’s grasp ahold of something and know you are alive.

“Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little of his despair over his fate... but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins.” 
- Franz Kafka

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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