So, what IS the highest art of living? …

“The highest art is the art of living an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner.” – Tibetan proverb.

Mmmh. Does that make the lowest art the art of living an extraordinary life in an ordinary manner?

If so, then I’m afraid that’s exactly what I’ve been up to.

I guess, first I need to define “ordinary”.
Ordinary – a life that resembles that most commonly lived by the majority of people in one’s culture and society. In my case, I associate “ordinary” with working a 9-5, getting a paycheck, having an immobile home, with flush toilets, and a stove that requires neither denatured alcohol nor lighter. In an ordinary life, people wake up, get dressed, commute to work, spend the day on tasks possibly unrelated to their felt or imagined life-purpose, then maybe fit in some exercise for an hour or so after work, connect with friends, eat a meal, fall asleep, repeat.

(Please note that I count among my friends many who fit this description, yet each shine in a precise, unique way as to never EVER make their lives any less remarkable or fascinating than that of my other friends’, the wildlings, the transients, the roamers. But for the sake of labels and description, let’s use this definition for now.)

For the past 5, 6, or maybe 7 years, I have lived an “extraordinary” life.
Extraordinary – The opposite. No 9-5, no paycheck, no shower, flush toilets or kitchen, unless provided by providence, no schedule, dress-code, lunch breaks, coworkers, boss, time-sheets, no place to which to return at night, because home was with me all along.

Recently, after roaming the reds, tans and browns of the southwest desert for a few months, I began to crave green, as I often do this time of year.
I have that extra bit of hematite in my pineal gland, the same kind that launches flocks of wild geese across the globe. Twice a year, migration knocks on my mind’s door.
And when it does, I can think of little else.
So, I flew north. As they do.
Green meant New Hampshire this year.
New Hampshire meant driving 3,000 miles.
3,000 miles meant the complete bottom end of my saved funds.

Now, I could have, and have in the past, just tighten my belt, followed my whims and expected a miracle. This has been my M.O. for all of my extraordinary years. But this time, something was different. It wasn’t the fact that I got here fasting (and dropped about 10 Lbs) so that I’d have enough cash for fuel to even get here. I’ve written that particular story-line in my life often, and always with a happy ending. It wasn’t the fact that the Catmobile is approaching 280,000 miles and can barely break 35 mph uphill. My love needs love of the mechanical kind. Again, a familiar story-line, harbinger of miracles. It wasn’t, either, the pressure to conform, the need for security, or anything of that sort. I wasn’t tired of roaming, or confused or shameful about my lifestyle. No, none of these … my extraordinary had just become my ordinary, and I needed to shake things up.

So, I did something out of my ordinary – I got two jobs, and parked the Catmobile in a stationary spot. A spot where I have access to friends, a lawn, flush toilets, a shower, a shelf on a fridge and a 4-burner stove (and also, of course, mountains, rivers, woods, etc). Oh my!

I get to be a barista and a yoga instructor for the summer (at least). I am loving waking up in the morning and knowing exactly what I’m doing – I’m going to work. Yay! Normally, I sit on my tailgate for a while in the morning, pondering what, out of an infinity of possibilities, I should do with my wild and wonderful life for that day. Oh, the freedom of not having to decide or even think. I wake up with an alarm, at the same time every day – not when I feel like it or when the sun has made the truck too warm to continue sleeping, but at a precise number on the wheel of human arbitrarily segmented time. I then get to walk through the woods for 35 minutes. That’s my commute. I have to keep a fast pace or I’ll be late. If I’m late to clock in, even by a few minutes, a notice dings on the manager’s phone – because technology now allows such things to exist. Because I work for kind people, it isn’t an issue, but still, if I’m going to have a 9-5, I intend to do it well.
The next 8 hours of my life are not mine to ponder or manage. I make smoothies and fresh pressed juices for health-conscious, wealth-comfortable people. I create espressos, lattes, mochas, iced and steamed, and practice my budding latte foam art. I arrange health food on the shelves and ensure the cooler of iced teas and kombucha is fronted – which literally means bringing all the bottles to the front, in an OCD fashion. When the flow of customers allows it, I retire to the back parking lot with a plate of food from the selection we serve, for 30 minutes exactly. There is a beautiful field we call Narnia and a small beach by the Saco river down a dirt road from where I sit, but it would take about 15 minutes to walk to the river, so 30 minutes there and back, my entire lunch break. So instead, I just sit in the parking lot, in the sun, often with friends, who are also co-workers, and enjoy it. I have a boss. He tells me I’m doing a good job. I get a paycheck. It’s not a big paycheck – it’s not like guiding Grand Canyon or trimming 650 Lbs of marijuana. And because it’s a legal job, I have to give some of it to Uncle Sam. But, it’s a regular influx. And I don’t wonder what miracle will feed me next, because I know there’ll be a paycheck. And that is relaxingly nice, for a change..

So,
I can live and hike in the most mind-bogglingly beautiful desert and barely notice, because my child-like awe for the world is filtered through half-closed eyelids, weighed by personal existential quandaries.
And/Or
I can make each latte, each smoothie the best I’ve ever made, with exact proportions and an extra dose of love with each added scoop of pea protein or spirulina, and align each kombucha bottle with precision, and feel as alive as I have in my most epic moments.

Was I living an extraordinary life in an ordinary manner? Am I now living an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner. What is the measure of one’s life’s normality? And does it even matter? What story do I create for and about myself when I meander the world or rush through the woods to clock on time?

Do I bring any added value to the world when I live one way rather than the other? Does it matter to the world what I do? Does it matter to the woods? Do trees find me less extraordinary because they suspect my destination? By a tree’s standard, am I more ordinary when I act like a wildling? Isn’t that what all the creatures of the woods do? Don’t they also just wake up when they do, look for food, and wander? If the paycheck allows me to buy a bag of nut I share with a squirrel, do squirrels find me extraordinary?

On the day when I had my interview and was hired as a barista, I walked across the parking lot – the same one where I have lunch now – back to the Catmobile. Right there on the ground, as though left for me, a humbly muddy piece of paper with an ancient-scroll-like handwriting caught my eye.  “The highest art is the art of living an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner. – Tibetan proverb” it said. I thought it was so fitting for the occasion that I pinned in on the inside wall of my bedroom, in the back of the truck. But with each passing work day, the less I feel this is right.

If the trees and squirrels don’t care what I do, and I don’t care what humans thinks about what I do, then the judgment is solely internal, a direct reflection of conditioning, a learned reaction to the perception of “ordinary” vs. “extraordinary”. And suddenly, both loose all meaning.

All lives are ordinary, all lives are extraordinary, and the amount to which we are able to love our lives, beyond any labels, I think THAT is the highest art of living.

Isn’t it?

 

witaker
(My daily commute to work. 🙂 )

 

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All Hail the Power of the Mighty Flu! – and a bonus story

I enjoy the flu. It’s not like its politically-correct cousin the cold. It doesn’t make you sniffle for weeks or let you dwell in the illusion of being functional while slowly draining your life juices away. It doesn’t care that you have prior plans or commitments, responsibilities, duties, chores or a life. It walks in like a cocky Senior IT tech, looks around and says “Little lady, you’re about to experience a complete system shutdown. Grab what you need and stay out of the way. We’ll let you know when you can resume.”

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[That’s the guy – pretty, isn’t it?]

I got the notice on Sunday, but my magician of a mechanical friend, Richard, had dismantled the Catmobile’s leaky air-intake system, and the new fancy replacement parts weren’t due to arrive until 3 pm. I crawled in the back of the truck stranded in the grocery parking lot – One of Richard’s many “repair shops” – and let the man speak to my engine while I made mental plans to accommodate my imminent and unavoidable collapse. The way this one was coming on, I knew I’d likely be down for days.

In non-nomadic life, I imagine people prepare by arranging for their kids to be taken to school, for food to be available for their pets, for bills to be paid, and so forth. In my world, the key components are 1) Find a place where I can park for days without a ranger asking me to move. 2) Orient the truck so that it is not only level, but also with its head to the east and back to the west. If the back points south, too much sun beats on the bed during the day, and I get too hot. If the back points north, I get no sun, and I get cold. And because I grow plants in the truck (Mint, Rosemary, Sage and Aloe Vera) and they prefer morning sun and afternoon shade, there’s just really one orientation that works. 3) I need two gallons of water for about 3 days. 4) The moon is about to be an exceptionally potent blue-blood-supermoon, so prepare for moon-time-female shenanigans (and double it). 5) That’s it. Everything else is already built-in. I have my whole life with me.

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The Catmobile got its shining new parts in. I drove up a hill, parked at the top, with the bed level and the back to the west, overlooking a huge vista of desert expanse from the red cliffs of Sedona to the Cottonwood-lined banks of the Verde River. I lodged a large rock behind each wheel, crawled in my den, and was instantly gone.

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I ran out of water Wednesday morning. I don’t remember much in between. Or rather my memories of the interim days and nights are like a jumble of slides in a dusty box. There’s no date or time stamp on the slides, and the dust in the box is mathematical. My fever dreams are always mathematical in nature. My brain forms and gets caught in loops it must then exit. It believes its survival depends on it. And the only way out is to painstakingly attempt to organize the fractal nature of Life into clean, measurable, Euclidean shapes. The slides are those moments in between when I come up for air out of the mathematical madness, open my eyes to the world and take stock that it’s still there, in all its fractal beauty, and remember that it requires nothing from me.

One of the slides is of the blood moon, a perfect full lunar eclipse, positioned exactly in the center of my back window as viewed from my pillow, as though it were hanging on my wall, and the truck was its frame, and its shade of red had been carefully chosen to match the new comforter my friend Frieda gave me for my birthday last year.

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Another slide finds me angry, because somebody said I couldn’t have a Spirit Animal because I am a nonnative (A Facebook post from a few days prior). I see my brother Coyote, my companion of so many dreams and quite a few waking moments. It always visits when I need. It reminds me I’ve chosen to live nonsensically, and to just have fun with it. He’s a tiny shadow in the distance in a big desert, but I know his movement pattern. “Go ahead, tell Coyote he cannot be my Spirit Animal because my skin is white.” I think I say it out loud. And back to sleep.

Another slide is of gun shots. The gun shots are there the whole time, because at the bottom of my hill is a shooting range . There are acute metallic high pitch shots, others with drawls and rumbling voices, yet others boom up the hill and shake the truck and my bones with their shockwave. They’re at it all day. One man is less than 10 feet from his target. A puff of dirt to the left of the target. Half a second later, I hear the shot. Half a second delay between sight and sound, how far am I? The next mathematical puzzle. I check on the man a few hours later. Puff of dirt now to the right of the target. A few hours later, he’s hitting the target. Good job! At sunset, he packs and leaves. Quiet returns.

Another slide. My warm water bottle against my body keeps all the chills of the night away. I wake up at sunset for a few simple well-rehearsed gestures. Stove on. Water in pan. Boil. Water in Nalgene bottle. Put stove away. I can do it all from my bed, yet it’s the most exhausting set of gestures I’ve ever performed in my life. The Flu and the medicine run through my body. My heart thumps in my ears. My fingers tingles. I feel I am journeying elsewhere, out of my body. But the water bottle is my anchor in the waking world. Whenever I feel its warmth, I know I’m still here. I’m safe in the truck.

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I dropped down the hill on Wednesday. I wasn’t fully coherent yet, but functional enough to drive to the store. I filled up my two one-gallon jugs and bought a yogurt – first food since Sunday. Richard had settled in the parking lot of a long-gone Denny’s restaurant and boldly posted a Facebook invitation to anyone in need of mechanical consultation to stop by and visit. He’d check the leak he had repaired in my power-steering hose, he said, but only if I kept my flu at least 10 feet away from him. I stayed in the driver seat while he slid under the engine. But, Donnie Darko, his canine sidekick, did not understand why the usual petting was being withheld. He jumped out of Richard’s van and came to my door to demand his dues.
“Great! Now I have to disinfect my dog.”
Richard ran some alcohol wipes on Donnie’s coat where my infected hand had made contact, and sprayed a generous cloud of Lysol in both our directions for good measure. He made me laugh, which made me cough.

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I drove back to the desert to heal for another couple of days, but this time away from the shooting range, into the red dirt I used to call home. I found “my spot” was still occupied, by the same hunters. The large tent was gone, but a stinky pile of antlers and nondescript animal parts informed me that this particular “spot” might never be mine again. Even if all traces of them were gone, I’d remember that pile and the energy about it, and it would make me sad. So, I drove further.

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The first twenty or so spots I found along road 525 were occupied by either a van, a tent or an RV. In all the winters I’ve spent in the Sedona backcountry, I have never seen so many desert-dwellers. I finally found an unoccupied level area, but upon inspection discovered the prior occupants had pooped all around the campable spot, and left their soiled toilet paper for the desert maid to clean up. Same story in the next few spots. In fact, I hadn’t noticed prior, but there was toilet paper all over the desert – caught under the mesquite  bushes, in the juniper branches, and startlingly white against the red dirt everywhere – this is a different topic than the one at hand, but seriously, hasn’t anyone heard of Leave No Trace ethics anymore? Anyway, I finally settled on a little secluded piece of dirt, crawled in the back, and resumed sleeping for another day and one night.

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BONUS STORY:
I was awoken on the second morning by the sound of a man’s voice. A very close sound of a man’s voice! I had been out of it so completely that I didn’t exactly remember where I was, so I sat up to see whose voice that was, and how far from the next encampment I had set my home. There was a small city-type car about 500 feet away, but nothing closer. Then I heard him again.

He was less than 20 feet from my truck, a man about mid-fifties, with a grey hoodie over much of his face and cut-off jean shorts, sitting in the dirt. His legs were crossed and his hands in prayer position in front of his face, which I couldn’t see. His hands shook with each desperate incantation as though the man was pleading God to spare his very life. This was a new one … I wasn’t sure what to do, so I lay back down. He must have known there was someone in the truck, and this is a very big desert, so why pray right here, next to me? Out loud?

You’d think I’d have been more worried about it, but for one, I always feel safe in the truck, and for two, I was still sick and actually just fell back asleep immediately.

His prayer woke me up a second time. Still only 20 feet away. This time he had knelt in the dirt and placed his forehead onto the ground, facing the red rocks of Sedona in the distance. He whispered his wails, but I sensed he wanted to be heard. I turned my phone on, just in case, and got dressed with minimal movements within the truck, all the while keeping a discreet eye on him, but also allowing him some privacy for his prayer.

He finished his second round of imploration, walked a wide arc around the truck, got in his car, slammed the door, and stayed there for 5 minutes. He then got out of his car, walked a wide arc around the truck, sat back in the dirt, same spot, prayed, returned to his car … and so forth.

On his fourth of fifth visit, I decided my curiosity was greater than his need to pray right next to my truck. I waited until he was just within earshot, and pushed the back open to reveal myself and my home. He stopped dead in his tracks and stared as his feet with his hoodie pulled as far down as his nose.
“Good morning.” I yelled to him.
No answer. No movement.
“Are you okay?”
He shook his whole body “no”, then said “I go over there to pray.” and immediately turned around in place and still stared at his feet but facing away from me.
“Okay. That’s okay. You can pray here, I don’t mind.”
He shook his whole body “no” again, and walked away towards his car. He got in the car, slammed the door, waited 5 minutes, and came out. Same routine. This time he walked a very wide arc around the truck, then changed his mind, walked a very wide arc back to his car. With gentle, non-threatening nor fear-based gestures, I began preparing the truck for departure. I was about ready when I noticed him approach the truck with a large Tibetan singing bowl. I had crawled in the back to water my plants, so I met him right at the entrance – the tailgate.
“Hi!” my friendliest voice.
He shook “no” again, and moved his hand along the Sanskrit on his Tibetan bowl. I grabbed my notebook and a pen and handed them to him with an inquisitive look. Is that what you need?
“I broke my vow of silence.” He wrote very slowly in small caps, and I watched as he wrote trying to decipher the letters as they appeared.
“Ahhh. I understand.” I told him.
“I am not in a good way.” he wrote on the next line.
“Okay. I hear you.”
“I can only be friends with spiritual people.” on the next line. And upon writing it, he looked at me for the first time, with an apologetic look, as clearly, I didn’t qualify.
He then bowed and returned to his car.

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And I drove out of the desert, to Chris’s, to get a shower and attend to the aftermath of the flu – melted chocolate and wilted greens, fever-smelling sheets and clothes, and stories to tell.

The end.
For now.

XOX – Roaming Bobcat.

fractal

Fractals!