The last week of 2016 began with Christmas Day, Allyson and I spending the morning with her family in Murray, Ky and then the afternoon with my family in Medon, Tn. We made the familiar drive through Hazel, Puryear, Paris, Mckenzie, Huntingdon, and Jackson, and down the drive of the house my parents began building when I was a 10 year old. Returning to the place you grew up is a pretty standard holiday movie theme, and I really felt it this year. It has been a challenging year, and that’s also usually the setting of these holiday-going-home movies. The world had knocked us around a little and we needed to go back to our roots, to our small town home and remember who we were, and maybe a Christmas miracle would help us get our lives back on track. This trip was nothing nearly so dramatic, but I did feel a bit of that need to escape to something quiet and familiar.
My parents live in a big brown house on the side of a hill above a pond. It is on land my grandfather bought back in the 1970s. Several family members live on these 50 acres. There are three ponds total on the land with lots of trees and clay gullies in wash-out areas. When I lived there, I would go out into the woods for hours exploring. This is one of the places my love of backpacking and exploring comes from. Whenever I’m home during a holiday with a lot of extended family gathered, I will typically go walking with whichever kid wants to join me, making our way through the forest, climbing fallen trees, looking for signs of animals, and slowing down our multi-task centered brains.
I spend a lot of time reflecting on my experiences, trying to pull some sort of meaning from them. That’s what this blog is all about: trying to be more mindful about my experiences by retelling them, then visiting what thoughts are left with me. I’ve been asking myself what 2016 would ultimately mean to me for months and months, and the questions have not slowed down. In fact, they’ve just gotten more and more complicated. It has been a year with a great deal of disappointment, sometimes even sorrow. It has been a year with great triumphs too, but they were often bittersweet. It has been a year that has exhausted me whether through good times, bad times, or gray. Because of this, any rest, any activity that normally gives me fulfillment and joy feels a bit like rehabilitation after a difficult surgery or disease. I feel like I’m being wheeled out onto the porch of a convalescence home on a nice afternoon. I will get up and slowly walk around, remembering happiness with a lot of reservation. I know this sounds overly dramatic, but that’s what it feels like now to go on a hike in the woods, to sit at the table with friends laughing, to look out my window on a quiet evening at the sky.
Probably the thing I wanted most for Christmas as we traveled home was to take a day to go to my land and do some work on it. Allyson and I own a stretch of land in Benton County, near Lakeshore. It had been bought, logged, sold, logged, and once it had made someone all the money it could, it went on the market for cheap. It basically became my inheritance, and I feel such a call to help it be a forest again. Allyson, my dad, mom, my nephew Elliot, and I drove up with loppers, chain-saws, and my trusty pick-axe. I find something very life giving about doing trail work by hand. There’s a great deal of trimming and pruning, there’s a lot of turning the dirt over. There is something in that part of the work that feels like gardening or farming. Then, there is the choice of how to route the trail, which trees to spare because they are interesting or rare, putting the trail in spots that will offer interesting or beautiful views, creating a trail that isn’t all up or downhill. There is some art in this part of the work. There is beauty in creating this tool to get from one place to another more easily, to spend time thinking intentionally about what you want to experience in that trip each time you take it.
I’ve primarily built this trail alone, squeezing it in on mornings or afternoons when I could get away. I hadn’t touched it in nearly two years, and I was happy to see it still intact. Having my family there helping make the work much quicker and more communal. It took me back to the days we trained staff on trail building at Lakeshore the last week of the summer. It was difficult work in hot, summer temperatures, but it was a great counter balance to the weariness we carried from a long summer of emotional interactions. It was good to let our bodies take on some hard work, giving our minds and hearts some rest. There was a sense of pride seeing the progress, knowing we would walk this trail in years to come. There on my land with my family, my body remembered the familiar rhythm of the pick-axe swing: swing it up in a circular motion, lift it over your head, position the head above your target, let it drop, squat as it falls/don’t bend with the back, don’t try to get it all at once–scrape it, loosen it.
I’m longing for more work like this in a larger sense. Work that pulls together different parts of us, work that brings people together side-by-side, work that creates the opportunity for more people to experience beauty, work that instills a sense of pride, work we will remember for a long time. This year has left my longing for things simpler and clearer–just to have a task, for us to bind together and roll up our sleeves, to do something good. It seems like such a challenge after this year. This year has swirled up so much doubt, so much fear, so much anxiety. I have experienced so many difficult encounters and put so much energy out to help heal that I’ve taken on some of the pain and doubt and worry. It seems like routine for difficult, painful things to happen, even when it is not. Joy seems so much more elusive and complex than it did before this year began. Friends have left, friends have revealed terrible things, friends have been broken, friends have ended their life. And, I know from many experiences to stop and listen in the dark silence, and a voice will answer. But, I have such a hard time listening now, and I don’t know why.
This week, I spent a great deal of time helping, which I enjoy doing. There is great pleasure in knowing you are lightening someone’s load, making something that seemed difficult less so. Allyson and I helped my mom take down Christmas decorations and replace them with standard Taylor house decor. I’ve always been a sucker for all things Christmas, and I hate when parts of it become a chore. As we put these items away, there are many of them that attach very easily to memories all through my life. I remember myself, who I was, how I’ve changed, how I’m the same looking at these things, telling Allyson about the ones that carry the most sentimental meaning for me. Mom and I walked up to Nana’s home to take down her lights, walking a trail I’ve known before my parents even built their house. This felt like a timeless sort of work, something that has been going on before us, something I hope will go on after us. Walking through the woods towards a destination where we will help each other with these projects that center around how we decorate our space, how we remind ourselves what we find beautiful and meaningful.
I saw a facebook post from my friend Zach that said something to the effect of: “While you complain about how bad 2016 has been, remember that there are people all over this world who would give anything to have a year as close to “bad” as you claim your year has been.” This is a sentiment I’ve really tried to keep in my mind as this year took its toll on me. I don’t mean (and I don’t think Zach means) that we don’t have the right to feel what we feel about the year. Denying those feelings usually doesn’t help. I think it mostly encourages us, though, to look beyond our own fear and pain and realize there are many with greater challenges than we have faced who need our compassion and empathy in the hard times. It is a feeling that pushes us to be more open with each other, to want to make the world better because of our pain instead of lashing out. I have felt many times that I wanted to lash out, to yell at someone, to “put ’em in their place,” to disappear a little while, be a hermit. I think we’ve all felt some of that in 2016. I am hopeful when I look back, I’ll see that I was brave, that I knew when to be patient and when to take action, that I showed people what I believe in. I hope that I was out planting seeds the day after the fire.
I hope the good from this year grows in stature. Good often works that way. It is small and unnoticed at first. We tend to disregard it when we have great challenges. I forget sometimes the beautiful place I am surrounded by, and how much the natural world soothes and recharges me. My Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years in a phenomenal epic playoff series, and I got to see nearly every playoff game. That is bucket list stuff for me. I am creating new friendships and still seeing old ones grow as people visit us, as we get to continue to open our doors and share our life with friends and family. And, Allyson and I created life back at the close of some of my most stressful moments this year, and our girl is growing, flipping around, punching and kicking. This fight, this pluck, this restlessness I see in her already makes me want to be that now myself, so I can help her channel those feelings, so we can both continue to grow into our best selves.
On New Years Eve, Allyson and I spent time with my sister Tracye and her husband Adam. I was able to spend a lot of time with them and their children. We had sushi, then eggnog. My good friend Steven came over. We played 90s music/movie trivia on youtube. Different entries brought up different memories between all of us. It took me back to a time where I was becoming who I am. It was a time that looks very sheltered to me now. Things look so new in my memory. I was more romantic and idealistic, like the cliche for young people goes. It reminded me of when we saw each other more, when we had less responsibilities, when we hadn’t yet gone in different directions. But, it also reminded me that we still share a great deal too. When the clock passed over to midnight, we were still playing 90s trivia, didn’t even do a countdown. The year 2016 passed with small fan fare, which I think is fitting. I told it goodbye with a few expletives laced in, and we got back to the business of remembering the 90s.
Allyson who has never been a night owl and now has a baby in her stomach, retired first. Tracye and Adam were next, leaving Steven and I to continue catching up. It is basically tradition for Steven and I to stay up way too late talking if we are left alone. I don’t just mean a little after midnight late–we’re talking close to dawn too late. I think if we make it to our 80s, we’ll still do this. In the early hours of 2017, we talked about some of the shocking moments of 2016 together, how much doubt it put in us, how disillusioned we have come to feel. I’ve been thinking a lot about Star Wars lately, and this year feels like The Empire Strikes Back. I feel like Luke Skywalker at the end, just getting his ass kicked by Darth Vadar, just getting news that totally confuses his world view, having to learn a new robot hand, but still alive. The music starts out tentative, and it makes you feel not so sure of itself. Still, they have a plan, and Luke gets up and stands there at the window with his friends, looking out on that big beautiful galaxy as Lando and Chewey fly off to rescue Han. At least there are still some friends, at least there is a plan, at least we are still here to build the trail.