Among other welcome visitors, the sun made a week-long appearance during the holiday week quite unexpectedly. We hoped for one, maybe two days without rain. We would take an overcast day with not showers. Instead, we got day after day of cloudless, sunny skies. Where did that come from? What did we do to deserve this? These are the questions we ask following nearly a month of solid rain. We had been conditioned to expect it, to see it as normal life. If we step back far enough from the picture, it generally shows us that there is no normal. It’s all subject to change, and that change might be good, bad, or both. It becomes not so much a question of, “is this normal, abnormal, how it should be, something earned or gifted?” The important question becomes, “what do I do with this?”
I began the week 60 feet above ground, connected by rope to the biggest Sitka Spruce at Camp Magruder. I was with one of best friends, Danielle. She was the first of our house guests for the Thanksgiving week, traveling from her home in Atlanta. We have both been trained to climb trees with ropes and harnesses, both love it enough that we have our own equipment, and occasionally travel into the woods with a backpack full of equipment to ascend a tree that speaks to us. On the rare occasion that we are at the same place, have the time, good weather, and our equipment, Danielle and I will get to climb together. This is such a beast. I’m no expert on it, but I would estimate it’s 400-500 years old. When we got to the top of our ropes around 60 feet high, we still couldn’t see the top of the tree.
When climbing a tree like this, the experience becomes more than this thrill-seeking adrenaline rush. We aren’t climbing just to get the view at the top. We aren’t seeing how fast we can ascend the line. It is an exploration of sorts. It’s developing an intimacy with this living thing, so much bigger and older than we are. You get to know places on and around this tree that few others know. You see an interaction of life that isn’t as evident on the ground. You gradually rise through new levels, the light changes, the air changes. In the right tree you feel like you are in something like rooms, the type of rooms a tree would make. Danielle and I repeated these cycles: climb about 6 feet, tie a safety know, comment on what we were seeing/feeling/hearing/touching, then catch up in personal conversations about life. Then, climb 6 more feet, repeat cycle.
To finish your climb, you slowly glide back down the rope. The views replay in reverse order, until your feet touch down on the Earth again. I try to always immediately look back up to the top of my rope to remind myself have just been that high. It is a sort of, “can you believe it,” reminder. I try to breath deep, put my hand on the trunk of the tree, offer up some sort of thanks for the safe landing, the experience itself, for a sense of wisdom you can’t help but infer from something this old. My hands are rough and swollen from holding the rope, I smell strong of tree bark, I am likely chilled or sweaty. My arms will be stiff the next morning, my lower back will have a bruise sitting so long in the saddle. I will feel like I’ve done something important. This is an encounter I should draw something from. The fact that I see all this happening to Danielle right next to me, makes it that much more powerful.
Later that evening, the rest of our guests arrived. Our good friends Amanda and Justin made it from Atlanta, and former Camp Magruder summer resident, Hope, came from Boulder, Colorado. Amanda and Danielle accompanied Allyson on her cross-country journey to move to the Oregon Coast in July, and Hope worked as the Summer Program Director with me from June to September. This was Justin’s first time in Oregon. There were hugs, how-are-yous, a circle in the living room floor around the fireplace, and a night way later than their more eastern time zoned biological clocks told them was prudent.
This felt a bit like a retreat, like a camp of our own. There were enough people in the house that we didn’t all have to be constantly together, but the number was small enough we could all be together (though we had 6 people and a 5 passenger vehicle). We mixed time between these wonderful shared experiences as one body, then moments when we broke of for 2-3 person conversations with a person who had a much more specialized interest in what we were talking about. I got to share times like this with everyone. These times seem easier to come by when we are young. There are programs in place to give this time to adolescents and college students. As we age, we are expected and expect ourselves to make these moments ourselves. We are generally bad at this, though. We even see these types of gatherings as someone bygone, something like recess, summer camp, school desks with the tabletop connected to the chair. We don’t need them any less, but we sure do treat it like we do.
On Thanksgiving morning, we were all up by 9am. Allyson put the turkey that had been brining overnight in the oven. We laced up our tennis shoes and began our own 6 person, 1 dog “turkey trot.” We jogged and walked to the jetty and back to the house. It was cold, frost was still on the ground, but there’s something about getting out early on a holiday and feeling the air on your face, when you could easily stay indoors all day, warm, snuggled on the couch. Add the ocean to that equation, and there’s something sort of magic that happens, something memorable that puts decades of holidays into a new perspective.
Amanda, Hope, and I (the runners of the group) were the first to finish. Some of us had boasted we might jump in the ocean at the end of the run, but I was still sitting the fence. Hope was more sure about the whole thing, and began kicking off shoes. I had one of those moments where you think about doing something crazy. You know it will be uncomfortable, but you also know it will be memorable. In life we have to find the right balance of comfort and stand-out memories. I looked around at the beach, my friends who would only be here for this short time, and it felt like something so unique and fleeting. Any opportunity to indulge in something new and fresh should be taken. I kicked my shoes off and shed my shirt and sprinted into the cold Pacific Ocean. Soon, Justin finished his run. I could see in his eyes he was considering, wanting to do it, but doubting too. Hope and I said we’d go back out if he went. Justin said, “I gotta be able to tell people I put my feet in the Pacific.” So, we sprinted out again.
The water was cold, not unbearable, but cold. The waves were relatively calm and there were no rip currents, so we were not in the kind of danger the Pacific Ocean can often be. We let the waves knock into us. We stood with our arms out, rinsed our faces and hair in it, and spun around. Amanda came back as soon as she saw Justin in the water to take pictures and see her new husband taking such an exhilarating plunge on such an notable day for us all. My legs were red, burning a little from the cold water, but I felt so awake and alive. Other beach walkers had on thick coats and toboggans. My friends and I were walking out of ocean, shirtless and barefoot. Our turkey trot had ended with a polar bear plunge.
We were welcomed back to the house by the smells of butter infusing itself with turkey. The house was warm, the kitchen calling. We would build a fire and sit around the card table working a puzzle. Allyson had been compiling recipes, learning to cook turkey from her parents, all so she could prepare a special Thanksgiving meal for all of us. She spent hours and hours this week, preparing, then cooking most of what we would eat at lunchtime Thursday (and in leftovers for days to come). As we sat down at the table to pray together, to eat together, to enjoy these crossed paths that brought us to friendship, all the goodness from the converged there. All the good things we’d ever done for each other, all the late night conversations we’d shared, all the sites we visited this week, all the ways we’d pushed and made each other better, all the food we’d made each other and ate together, all of it was there as we shared this bounty.
That evening, we loaded up the car and drove to Cannon Beach in time to see the sun set behind Haystack Rock. We looked for starfish, took artistic pictures of colors settling around the silhouettes of the rugged Oregon Coast that would flaunt our experience to all our Instagram followers. We would also stand together, quiet, as the wind picked up and blew against our faces, our hair, our eyelashes and ears. The waves would rise and fall, and we would stand there, knowing we were in the presence of something great, with no way to articulate what we were experiencing together. On the way home, I pulled the car over to one of the scenic parking lots on the side of Neahkhanie Mountain. We watched the waves roll in, the lights of the ocean towns, the sunshine giving way to moonlight. Again, we just stood and took it in together.
The next day, we would travel to Portland for one last day all together. Amanda, Danielle, and Justin would take the red-eye flight back to Atlanta. Hope would leave the next day for Denver. Allyson and I returned to our home on the coast and cozied up with plate of warmed up turkey and dressing, resting from our wonderful holiday. I have experienced a lot of thankfulness this week, for my group of friends, the chance to live and work at this place, privileges I never had to ask for, food, safety. I look at these things, and the work I’ve done hardly matches their greatness. This is a more compelling reason to feel a humble thankfulness, one that makes you well up with tears and kneel down in gratitude. It’s not all that hard to get there. I’m hoping, though, I won’t stop with that. I’m hoping it pushes me to show a gratitude worthy of the blessing. I hope I don’t squander the blessings. I hope I don’t horde them for myself. I hope I don’t overlook the blessings, wondering why I don’t have more. I hope I will unload them on people who don’t get them like I do. Whatever reason, whatever chance happenings, I really hope other people get to feel this kind of humble gratitude. I should give it freely. It will surely fizzle out, stored away inside me.