Clarity From The Outside In

Originally submitted as part of research for M.S. Grad program through MSU Mankato, 2019.

 
The French Valley, Torres del Paine Nat’l Park, Patagonia, Chile

The French Valley, Torres del Paine Nat’l Park, Patagonia, Chile

 

Finding Clarity: Lessons in Emotional Understanding by Way of Patagonia

        One hour before we were supposed to board the bus to take us to our starting point for a week long trek through Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chile, we received a call from my husband’s mother. Tim’s aunt, Jackie, had lost her decades-long battle with breast cancer. It was a devastating moment, and our hearts grew increasingly heavy as we were forced to carry this overwhelming sadness from the very beginning of our hiking trip. Jackie was Tim’s biggest fan, and by sheer proximity, mine as well. She was the most supportive of us even through her struggles, and she was always inspired by our willingness to jump into unfamiliar adventure territory (like trekking through the mountains of Chile).

        Our hike through Patagonia was deemed a “bucket list” item from the very beginning. We spent months planning, researching, packing, and dreaming of the trail that would (hopefully) provide us with reprieve from our over stimulating lifestyle. This trip was a chance for us to clear our minds and connect with unfamiliar and, quite frankly, intimidating terrain. What we didn’t realize was that this emotional curveball would hit us so hard that it would be the driving force for an exploration in where and how we seek out mental clarity. Death often provides an unexpected learning experience. Add in the highs and lows of time spent in the wilderness and the experience becomes a cinematic reel of overwhelming emotional and internal awakening.

       My own personal desire to connect with the outdoors has long been something stronger than the need for a quick walk through the local park. Sigurd Olson captured this feeling when he wrote, “For [some], the out-of-doors is not enough; nor are the delights of meditation. They need the sense of actual struggle and accomplishment, where the odds are real and where they know that they are no longer playing make-believe. These men need more than picnics, purling streams, or fields of daffodils to stifle their discontent, more than mere solitude and contemplation to give them peace” (Olson, 2006, p. 7-8). Trips to distant places like Patagonia instinctively ignite a sense of calm for me. With the death of Jackie looming over us, every step was heavier; every overlook seemed more majestic and meaningful. We were alive and really living. We weren’t glued to our phones while walking through a fenced-off city park. Rather, the intensity of this trek provided a sense of humbling pride we couldn’t find elsewhere. This human-nature interaction we experienced taught both of us the value of giving wilderness the respect it deserves. I felt a connection—physically and spiritually—to this place I had never been before and amidst the struggle, I discovered a profound need to protect it. My time in this new place made me so grateful to be able to visit and, simultaneously, unclear as to what had to happen on this land for me to be able to access it. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my emotional confusion was due in part to a lack of what Robin Wall Kimmerer referred to as Traditional ecological Knowledge (TEK).

TEK is comprised of the understanding of indigenous and local peoples and their philosophies/relationships with the earth (Kimmerer, 2012, p.317). According to Kimmerer’s research, TEK is widely omitted in the traditional science classroom, depriving the next generations of potential ecological scientists the understanding of diverse epistemologies. He argued, “TEK, which is inherently integrative of social and biophysical processes, offers an alternative to the dominant materialist worldview which conceptually separates people from nature and instead focuses on the understanding and managing relationships between land and people for mutual benefit” (Kimmerer, p. 317).

Essentially, Kimmerer is making the point that we can’t achieve sustainability without the proper cultural awareness and understanding. He argued, “We are surrounded by the aftermath of wounds we have inflicted on the earth. We need to recognize that it is not the land which is broken, but our relationship with the land. Cultivating a relationship with the living earth should be an essential component of higher education” (Kimmerer, p. 318).  

I am willing to admit that my trip to Patagonia was intended for my own selfish pleasure. The understanding of how Torres del Paine National Park (or Patagonia as a whole) came to be was not a particular priority in my early stage research, but rather an anecdote surfaced during a question and answer session with an outfitter in the small town of Punta Arenas. Patagonia’s livelihood has drastically changed over the years due to reliance on tourism as a major industry – a far stretch from its beginnings as a hub for only the hardiest of farmers (Díaz & Webb, 2018). As more people seek unique opportunities for human-nature connection, Patagonia is quick to answer with stunning untouched glaciers and towering rocky peaks unlike any other mountain range in the world. The trail is harsh and unforgiving, and we were often warned of the serious dangers and unrelenting changes in altitude. Through all of the warnings, we survived high winds and negative temperatures; sudden waves of heat followed by hours-long streaks of persistent rain. Whenever the natural world of Patagonia tried to surprise us, we challenged back with unwavering fortitude.

I tell this story often. Not to gloat, but to encourage others to seek out the sensation of experiencing the wilderness for what it is really worth: an opportunity to interact with an area that is messy, dirty, and unpredictable. Resiliency was Jackie’s superpower. She fought cancer head-on with true grace and positivity. Our trip through Patagonia became a silent salute to the woman Jackie was – fearless, strong, and endlessly optimistic. I tell this story because our relationship with nature changed drastically during this trip, as we found ourselves connecting our physical world with our spiritual world in ways we had never dreamed possible. A recent study recounted the many benefits of Nature Language and it’s impression on our interactions with the natural world. Kahn, et al. wrote, “…we think language needs to be used to articulate, save, and recover the human relationship with nature. That language–what we are calling a nature language—needs to focus not just on nature “out there,”…but in meaningful and deep forms of interactions people have with the natural world” (Kahn, et al., 2010 p. 64). The importance of our relationship with nature is that it connects us to our world as a living species. The patterns we experience such as listening to the waves crash against the beach or the sound of wind sweeping through a glacial valley will all but be lost as generations are not exposed to such natural phenomenon.

The mental clarity encountered on a long hiking trip like ours cannot be bottled up and sold online. I cannot recreate the feeling of waking up absurdly early and hiking to the top of Torres del Paine – only to be greeted by one of the most stunning multi-colored sunrises dancing across the snow-capped peaks. While many people consider us lucky to have experienced such a rare sunrise, we know deep down that the land we fell in love with and felt instantaneously connected to was reciprocating its gratitude.


References

Díaz, Emilio Fernando Gonzalez, and Kempton E. Webb. “Patagonia.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 26 Oct. 2018, www.britannica.com/place/Patagonia-region-Argentina.

Kahn, Peter H., et al. “A Nature Language: An Agenda to Catalog, Save, and Recover Patterns of Human–Nature Interaction.” Ecopsychology, vol. 2, no. 2, 2010, pp. 59–66., doi:10.1089/eco.2009.0047.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. “Searching for Synergy: Integrating Traditional and Scientific Ecological Knowledge in Environmental Science Education.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, vol. 2, no. 4, 2012, pp. 317–323., doi:10.1007/s13412-012-0091-y.

Olson, S. “Why Wilderness?” The View From Listening Point Newsletter, vol. VIII, no. 4, Fall/Winter 2006. Retrieved from https://listeningpointfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/VFLP_Winter_2006.pdf.



Fotos de la Patagonia

Dealing with Change

 
Somewhere between St. Jean Pied de Port, France & Roncesvalles, Spain

Somewhere between St. Jean Pied de Port, France & Roncesvalles, Spain

 

If you had told me…

How many times have you heard someone start a sentence like that? “If you had told me two years ago that I would be making a billion dollars per minute just for eating cheese with a wooden spoon, I would’ve laughed in your face!”

You’re right, Karen, two-years-ago-you definitely could not have predicted that outcome. Despite our desire to believe that someone can predict the future, lifestyle changes and career 180s are inevitable. We can’t always plan for the exact future we want, but we can at least mitigate the stigma around changing your mind.

Why is it often considered a bad thing to change your mind? Change your career? Change your plans? Change your life?

To put it simply, change is a form of uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds fear. When things are not constant, we find ourselves becoming wary and suspicious of its merit. As someone who has willingly changed their life in a myriad of ways, I am of the belief that change is an opportunity for growth and discovery.

Of course, I didn’t wake up with this mentality; I had to learn it. And, because I’m a human person, I still struggle with it.

About two years ago, I set out on a month-long trek across Northern Spain with my mom. We were following the Francés route of El Camino de Santiago - an infamous pilgrimage from the border of France heading west to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. When you start the 500 mile trek along El Camino de Santiago, it is tradition to set an intention for the journey. Along the way, you ask/answer others about “the call to walk.” Everyone’s reasoning is different and a large part of the intrigue of this trek is being exposed to their unique purpose. I found this part of the journey the most satisfying - the instant camaraderie and unwavering support of everyone’s personal goals made walking in blisters much more tolerable. Also, wine.

My intention for the Camino - along with spending time with my soulmate mother - was to find meaning in something I’m very good at but often unsure of how to manage properly: listening

I have the tendency to use my skills as a “good listener” to better myself and the situations I’m in. I listened to myself when I wanted to work for a magazine. I listened when I felt unappreciated as a young entry-level employee at a startup company. I listened when I felt burnt out, overworked, underpaid, and unhappy. I did all of this “listening” to make a change for the better, but I still felt empty. My listening skills were useful but seemingly unfulfilling.

On the Camino, we found ourselves constantly walking through different types of weather and terrain, and every time something would change, we would adapt. We circumnavigated parts of the trail that were too muddy to trek; we put up and took down umbrellas; we rushed to escape wind at the peak of a mountain and slowed down on the steady inclines. The most daunting, however, was the fog. The thick, daunting fog engulfed us in the early mornings making it impossible to see even 5-10 feet ahead. We were blindly following a trail with no real idea of what was ahead of us.

Do you see where I’m going with this?!

The Camino forced us to listen - to ourselves, our surroundings, and to each other. We relied on our most basic senses to stay safe, motivated, and on track. Despite the fog clouding our vision of the impending destination, we found clarity in listening to our instincts.

I LOVE this metaphor because I have not always been a catalyst for change. I didn’t always treat “change” with the appreciation that I do today. This came as a life lesson after traveling for a living and being forced to adapt to unfamiliar scenarios. The ways in which I came to accept this detour-filled lifestyle are best represented in these four categories: understanding, acceptance, planning, and opportunity. Also, wine.

UNDERSTANDING

There is nothing worse than someone telling you to calm down in a stressful situation. I often refer to my time as a Marketing Coordinator at a law firm as The Wildfire Years. Things were constantly changing for no comprehensible reason. Lawyers like to change their mind…and those of us on the receiving end are forced to adapt quickly. This made for a very toxic work environment at times - because opinions and capabilities differ greatly across a department and not everything is as easy as a “can you do this yesterday?” email. Communication, as usual, is key. Gaining a solid understanding of the what, who, when, where, why, and how massively decreases the possibility of confusion, frustration, and the tendency to react instead of respond.

The understanding of possibility makes a huge difference as well. Sometimes things just can’t be done, but perhaps there is another way. A previous manager I had was amazing at seeing the possibilities - nothing was impossible, we just had to change course.

When a major shift presents itself, ask questions. Ask all the questions. Pepper the room with questions - I guarantee there’s a new hire sitting near to you just dying to hear the answer.

ACCEPTANCE

Change is inevitable. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you are able to control your reaction to it. In the many times I’ve had to switch to plan B after a flight has been cancelled or an apartment stay didn’t pan out properly, I found that accepting the situation as it was in that moment helped me calmly make other plans. Quitting my job and moving to Thailand was a giant “wtf” in every capacity, but I made the decision and the only way for me to thrive was to accept the change and get started.

Acceptance is a fickle thing due to our minds being able to rapid-fire panic in the form of “easy ways out.” You know how it is - your heart is beating fast, you feel hot and sweaty, and all of a sudden you realize you’re on WebMD and positive you’re having a heart attack. You’re probably not (fingers crossed?) but your brain has the ability to lead you straight into Panic City. I’m not lying when I say I’ve found myself sitting on a metal folding chair at 3am in the Riyadh airport audibly coaching myself into accepting the rerouted flight plan that turned a 12 hour travel day into a 36 hour travel day. Acceptance goes a long way in calming you down and preparing you for action.

PLANNING

Here is something I am not an absolute expert in…planning. I have a need to have a plan, but I am often overwhelmed when it comes to details and itineraries and logistics and on and on and on. To me, this can feel suffocating. But one thing that stands out in my first few weeks of the Experiential Education program at MSU Mankato is the theory behind Project Based Learning (PBL). Essentially, PBL demonstrates the benefits of enabling students to observe, interact, experiment and discover solutions through critical thinking. Learning to utilize resources (or thinking creatively with what you have available) is invaluable knowledge that comes from experience and exposure to unique problems.

Kaija the Kangaroo

Kaija the Kangaroo

My niece, who is five years old, couldn’t understand a small 3D puzzle she received recently. There were a few parts that she just couldn’t fit together to create this multi-colored foam kangaroo she so desperately wanted to build before her dad got home (she wanted to give it to him). When you’re five, trying to sequence things to complete a finished project is a new adventure in itself, so I helped her (sparingly) by sorting the pieces and giving her the opportunity to envision the end result. After multiple tries, failing, a little bit of crying and possibly a swear word, she made a plan to build it multiple ways until it made sense. Trial and error? At five? Let’s send her Harvard.

Planning is essential in easing your mind of being overwhelmed with thoughts and endless possibilities. Planning, in the face of a problem, controls your chaos.

OPPORTUNITY

Halfway through our trek along El Camino de Santiago, my mom started to experience debilitating pain in her left heel. We made our way into Burgos and took a few days to let her rest up and (hopefully) heal. After a lot of downtime and pain meds, it was clear that walking another 250 miles was, quite simply, out. We had spent three days honing in on the past few steps - understanding the issue, accepting our fate, planning an alternate route. Now came time for opportunity, whether we were ready or not.

We made it to Santiago de Compostela (in a very roundabout way) and while we didn’t think we would be there for another two weeks, we found that the timing was impeccable. Up until this point, the entire trail was overcrowded and we never had a chance to slow down and take in the experience, even though we were walking 8-10 hours per day. Once we arrived in Santiago, time seemed to stop. We ate paella, mingled with locals, stumbled upon a classically-trained opera singer in an underpass after a soul-reviving mass at the cathedral. I suppose you could say we made lemonade out of lemons but, most importantly, we took what we had available and really listened to what it was we hoped to accomplish.

Creating opportunity isn’t always going to be as easy as taking a quick detour, and while each circumstance is different, acknowledging the process of dealing with change will at least make things a little easier on you and those around you.

In the words of Peter Bailey, President of The Prouty Project, “It’s not that people don’t like change, they don’t want to be changed.” It’s all about the value of that change.

So, if you had told me two years ago that I would be sitting in a coffee shop reading Ex Ed textbooks and writing about ways to best deal with change, I like to think I would’ve said “Honestly, I believe it.”

 
 

Photos from El Camino de Santiago, 2017