Category Archives: Gratitude

Short essays on things I am grateful for in my life.

Back to Nature on Boreas Pass

I keep thinking about the first paragraph of Moby Dick, the whole of which is on my fall reading list.

A portrait of Herman Melville from 1860.  He has longish hair for the era, and full beard, on the long side, but tidy.  He wears a black suit coat, and his arms are crossed.
Melville in 1860, 9 years after Moby Dick was
published, and 6 years before then Breckenridge
Pass became a stage road.
Unknown author / Public domain

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or the Whale

It is undoubtedly a damp and drizzly November of the soul now for many of us. I find myself restless and cranky, with much to do but little motivation. My ongoing search for work and the self-directed retraining I have undertaken feel grim and relentless.

Fortunately, Mr. Melville’s ideas about the ocean (just in this paragraph, I’m not speaking to the book) are incomplete. It isn’t only the ocean that one can turn to in such conditions. The majesty and grandeur of nature in all its manifestations can be an antidote to the desire to knock everyone’s hat off.

Bearing this in mind, Mom and I took advantage of a break, earlier in the week, in the pall of wildfire smoke hanging over Colorado this late summer and early Fall. Mom is recovering from a bout of non-COVID-related pneumonia. On Monday, I bundled her, her oxygen tanks, and her battery-operated yellow pulse oximeter into the front seat, packed the dog into the back seat, and headed for the high country.

My Mom, an 82 year old woman wearing an oxygen cannulae, looks out the passengar window of my gray SUV.

We were a little early for proper leaf-peeping, but brilliant gold branches gave us a preview of what is to come. We drove up Fall River Road, stopping to investigate the glacial rock deposits, and then headed on up I70 to Silverthorne. Years ago, driving back to the front range from Buena Vista, I had spotted the sign for Boreas Pass. At the time, I didn’t dare take my little red Scion on the rough dirt road. But now I have the vehicle for it, and we aimed for the pass from its northern end, accessed via Breckenridge.

Boreas Pass follows an old railway grade of the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road. It crosses the Continental Divide at 11,482 feet above sea level. There isn’t a lot of air up there, and we had to crank Mom’s oxygen up to its max.

It was worth it, though. The spectacular views of the Tenmile Range, Boreas Mountain, and Bald Mountain were a balm to the soul in these troubled times. There is something both terrible and reassuring in the reality that whatever happens in the coming months, those peaks will stand, pushing into the sky, impervious to our short time frames.

My pointy-eared black dog, with white around her muzzle, looks off to the side, sitting in front of a dramatic view of the Tenmile mountain range from Boreas Pass.  She wears a blue dog backpack.
Dog was not impressed by the scenery, but did think there were lots of interesting smells to check out.

And there is something to consider, too, in the history of the place. I suspect it is likely that it was known to the Ute for centuries, but for white people, it started as a route for prospectors looking for gold to get to the valley of the Blue river around Breckenridge, called Breckenridge Pass. In 1866, they widened it into a wagon road that could accommodate stagecoaches. In 1882, the railroad began laying narrow gauge tracks and renamed the pass Boreas in honor of the North Wind. When they built it, it was the nation’s highest narrow-gauge railroad. They made a little town at the top, of about 150 people, to keep the line clear, and put in lots of snow sheds. The town boasted the highest Post Office in the country, and the only one to straddle the Continental Divide.

The Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad (DSP&PRR, apparently known to locals as Damned Slow Pulling, and Pretty Rough Riding) gave up its narrow gauge right-of-way in 1937, and during World War Two, the government pulled up the track for the steel. In 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers created the current road on the railroad grade.

A large wooden water tank, painted orange, is on the right side of the image.  The road (Boreas Pass) comes in from the middle and goes off to the left.  You can see my car on the left, also, and lots of trees.
Baker’s Tank served the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road.

Just think of all the individual, fascinating lives in that tale. Every prospector had a story. Every stagecoach driver, every railroad engineer, every man whose job was to live in that tiny town at 11,482 feet and shovel snow off the tracks had a story — a full, rich life, with at least as many, and probably more, uncertainties and complications as our own. There is something reassuring about that. If they could survive History, surely we can, too.

These are people who lived in an environment that is simply built to a different scale than that of humans. It is a scale we have tried to match throughout civilization’s history, from pyramids to skyscrapers. It is a scale that we cannot match, and likely should not. It is a scale that puts us in context.

The view coming in to South Park from Boreas Pass.
The view coming in to South Park.

On the other side of the pass, going down into South Park, thousands upon thousands of aspen line the road. It will be stunning next week, or the next. It’s stunning now, for that matter.

It’s hard to put your finger on why getting out into that environment that is so much bigger than you, be it the sea or the desert or the mountains or the vast plains, is such a remedy to human mental health woes. It is easy to return to the idea that many humans live in a built environment that doesn’t much resemble our evolutionary habitat. But I live in the woods. There are houses and roads, yes, but still, it isn’t that different from the world where my great-great-grandcestors lived.

Perhaps it is simply that it puts us and our troubles into a larger, much larger, context. Or maybe it is about taking time away from the busyness and complexity of our lives as social animals. During the pandemic, I haven’t had much by way of a social life anyway, but even the twice or more removed interactions of social media and TV demand something of us.

A mountain peak, mostly above tree-line, pushes into a sky with clouds and crepuscular rays on Boreas Pass.  There is a meadow of brown grass in the foreground and pine and fir trees in the midground.
This may be Mt. Silverheels or Little Baldy Mountain, I’m not sure.

The high mountain peaks and the vast single organism that is an aspen grove demand nothing of us, really. They are simply there. If we wish to survive them, and to appreciate them, we must demand things of ourselves. We must demand caution and respect for the power of nature. We must demand reverence and honor for forces so beyond ourselves. And we must demand humility for our place in the vast scheme of things.

If we’re lucky, we come back refreshed when we make this demand of ourselves and we are not so tempted to knock hats off.

How to Worry in a VUCA World

A collage illustrating our VUCA world, with a woman printed with circuit boards, and globe made of portraits, and complex cables.  Volatility, complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity are spelled out in German, and the acronym VUCA overlays in the center.
Apparently it almost translates into German. Mummelgrummel / CC0

I learned a new acronym today from the business world.  VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  

VUCA stands for 2020.  

Nature did not equip humans to live comfortably in a VUCA world. There are sound evolutionary reasons to prefer a stable, placid, dull environment. Even at our most adventurous, we like a calm, constant refuge to return to at the end of the day or the trip.  

And it was already a VUCA world, even before COVID-19 showed up. A statistic I ran across in an August 2019 article tells us that one in three Americans will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. I wonder how much that statistic will change as we all live through this upheaval of everything predictable.  

May you live in interesting times has never been a Chinese curse. Nevertheless, it is apt. Our age will not make the dryest chapter in the history books, but living through it is fraught and exhausting.  

Worry, when it is not dominating our conscious thoughts, is an ever-present background buzz in our minds, like an old fluorescent light that needs a new ballast. It keeps us on edge, unbalance, ungrounded, uncentered. It would be easier to deal with if the current crises were finite, but they’re not. We have no time frame, no point we can look forward to by saying to ourselves it will be over by next month, or next season, or next year.  

A lit up check engine light is shown next to a speedometer.  Worry is like a check engine light in our minds.
Wikiuser100000 / CC BY-SA

So what can we do with all this anxiety?  This article, which prompted me to think more deeply about worry in September 2020, espouses some benefits to worrying. It’s like a check engine light in your mind, giving you a heads-up that trouble awaits on your road. Just as with our car’s warning light, worry should prompt us to take action to mitigate or eliminate that upcoming trouble. It should help us to problem-solve and make plans and preparations.  

Of course, if you are living with your metaphorical dashboard lit up like a holiday display, it’s hard to use worry as an adaptive evolutionary tool. I would assert that you can look at most mental health disorders as too much of a good thing. Anxiety disorders certainly fall into this category. I figure they would be a lot easier to vanquish if irrational preparedness didn’t pay off in such a big way, now and then.  

Where is the line between adaptive worry and disordered anxiety? The above article suggests that worry graphs in a U shape, dipping down into productivity somewhere between too little concern and too much.  

A graph of worry is shown with a U shaped curve and a x axis of not enough worry to too much worry and a y axis of productive to not productive.

There is also, perhaps, a distinction to be made between actionable worry and helpless worry. It is one thing to be apprehensive enough to wear a mask, shop less frequently, and take other reasonable precautions. It’s something else to agonize over the course of the pandemic; something you don’t control in the slightest.  

If an anxiety disorder or even just excessive worry is simply the overstimulation of an adaptive trait, the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate that trait. There are so many articles on getting rid of worry, but it’s really about managing anxiety, not abolishing it.  

In social services, sometimes, a client may not be ready to change harmful behavior altogether. Many practitioners use a harm reduction model. Someone using IV drugs might not be prepared to stop, yet, but they can use clean needles. An alcoholic might not be able to stop drinking immediately, but they can give up their keys.  

Mitigating a trait one doesn’t want to eliminate might be seen as a different kind of harm reduction.  

An icon is shown of a worried stick-figure face with hair sticking up to the right.  A VUCA face, if you will.
worry by Alex Muravev from the Noun Project

Looked at that way, some strategies to “get rid of” worry in all those articles have some good tips. You can assign your worry a time of day, and deny it space in your head until its appointed hour. You can address procrastination and make a point of letting yourself feel the emotions worry may be suppressing. You can journal, talk about it with friends or a therapist, and address negative thought patterns.  

But my favorite ideas come from the article about the benefits of worry and a document on wellbeing developed by Edward Watkins at the University of Exeter.  

Give worry a job, as Kate Sweeny, a worry researcher featured in the article, puts it. Figure out what you can literally do to address the situation or potential situation. There is almost always some preparedness or precautionary action you can take.  

Worried about the election? Volunteer to phone bank or make social media posts, and plan out your voting strategy in advance. Concerned about the virus? Make sure to take all sensible precautions and be prepared. Go ahead and stock up for the next lockdown, but spread your purchases out over a more extended period, so you aren’t running stores out of crucial supplies. Freaked out by climate change? Make a point of making sustainable purchases.  

And if you don’t have time or money to do the things that feel most effective, do whatever you can to not make it worse.  

Just doing something proactive makes us feel a lot better. That was the deal with the national shortage of toilet paper before and during the lockdown. People felt helpless, and stocking up on TP was at least actionable.  

Even making a plan helps in and of itself. Setting up a series of if/then triggers for yourself can help reestablish (or just establish) a sense of control. If school goes all remote again, then I will… If I get sick, then I will take care of myself and others by… If there is another fire in my area, then I will… 

These things allow us to take helpless worry and turn it into actionable worry.   

Branches of a tree are shown with paper leaves attached by zip ties.  Things that people are grateful for are written on the leaves.  The nearest leaf is legible and says "my cat and my dog."
A gratitude tree clients made with me in my old job.

I also liked the suggestion to find something that is going right. It goes along with counting your blessings or the evidence-backed practice of listing the things you are grateful for every day. And you can project it into the future by figuring out some things you can realistically look forward to.  

There are other ways to use time, too. Looking back over your life, it is worth identifying the crisis points and figuring out how you got through them. Chances are, what worked before will work again, even if you must adapt it to different circumstances. And imagining how you will look back on today’s events ten years from now can put things into a different, calmer perspective.  

When it is all too much, worry researcher Kate Sweeny identifies at least three anti-worry states. Mindfulness, flow, and awe are incompatible with worrying, and beneficial in and of themselves. She suggests that mindfulness might work better for finite situations. Flow, when you can get lost in a project for hours at a stretch, and lose track of time passing, might be the best (and most productive) distraction in a situation where there is no end in sight.    

Awe might be why going for a walk or bike ride out in nature works so well for me. It is hard to focus on worry when the aspen leaves are fluttering just so, when the sky is brilliant blue and adorned with puffy clouds, when the wind blows through a field of grass, riffling in choreographed waves.  

An icon from the Noun Project representing adapt.  Three lines run vertically in the center.  Two arrows push in on the lines horizontally from either side.  The two lines on the outside bend inward to accommodate the pressure of the arrows.  Adaptability is key in a VUCA world.
adapt by Ralf Schmitzer from the Noun Project

And of course, to an extent, acceptance should be a strategy. We live in VUCA times, and will be living in them for the foreseeable future. We should be worried. We should even be worried in helpless, unproductive ways. Given the times, it is probably a sign of mental health, rather than mental illness. I’d say we all have an anxiety disorder now, but it is too appropriate to be called a disorder.  

Perhaps again in our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, as in evolutionary times. Adaptability, not serenity, may be the end goal of mental health.  

Day Forty: Spring

Escobaria vivipara or Spinystar in bloom.

Spring has finally gotten it’s act together and shown up here in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It’s about damned time! Like many people, spring is my favorite time of year. The green of new growth is one of my favorite colours, and the bustle of the birds and proliferation of plants suggests an optimism that has been lacking these last few months.

We will get through this. And if we’re really lucky, and all pitch in, we might just come out stronger. The recovery from the Great Recession left so many of us behind. The economy hasn’t met the needs of the working class in decades. This is our chance to reset, reassess our values, and pull a phoenix.

That might just be the weather talking. Sunny optimism isn’t my default setting. Still, it’s nice to think that through a horrible circumstance, we have been given a once in generations chance to change course.

Noccaea fendleri or Fendler’s Pennycress.

The season also reminds us that no matter how awful COVID19 is, it’s not the end. Individual outcomes will vary, but babies will keep being born, the grass will keep turning green, the flowers will keep blooming, the songbirds will keep returning. The planet will certainly survive this hit, and so will humans on the aggregate.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Thirty-Four: Luminous

Pulsatilla patens or Pasque Flower.

Spring is finally here, and the days are utterly luminous. I’ve written before about living in the Märchenwald, the fairy tale forest where all the stories are true and urgent. This never seems more so than when spring is on the land. The generative mystery of sprouting seeds and the sudden appearance of flowers where there were none is a form of magic. The clouds billow and spread like runes, or semaphore, or celestial hobo signs.

When I am out in nature, especially, it seems, in spring, it feels like my glasses have suddenly gained clarity and saturation. Stepping outside is like stepping into a high def world with a stunning 3D feature. The old slogan for audio was ‘it’s not live, it’s Memorex.” It’s not Memorex, it’s spring!

A lot of people in my area are frustrated that folks come up from our nearby city to crowd our parks, and I’m on board with the principle that if the lot is full, you should move on. But I’m always glad to see people from the city, often obvious from their clothes or shoes.

Leucocrinum montanum or Star Lily.

Humans need nature. We crave it like vitamin C when we are deficient. And so often, when we’re living in urban space, we don’t even realize what we are craving, we just know there is something missing. How could I justify being jealous with “my” nature? How can I not celebrate people having a chance to fill the hole in their relationship with the environment?

I live in the woods because I am lucky. I live in the Märchenwald because I understand that the universe(s) is an awefully big place, and everything in it isn’t always apparent. Today I went for a walk around the lake, and went for a run in the park. I wish everyone had an opportunity to do the same so easily.

Day Thirty: Quiet

The littlest birds sing the prettiest songs.

The birds seem louder now. The phenomenon has been much observed, but I was surprised to realize it applies even in my semi-rural area. Spring isn’t just here, it is burgeoning and bustling. Now that we are, at last, hopefully, done with snow, the early flowers are blooming, and the songbirds are congregating.

Living in the woods, it’s easy to miss how crowded my area is. My abortive attempt to deliver the mail here was a revelation. If Evergreen ever incorporates, it will probably qualify as a small city! It doesn’t feel like it, because the various developments are hidden by trees and folded into creases of the foothills.

But the sound of traffic carries a long way. A car passed me on the very short paved section of my run today, and I was struck by how loud tires are against the asphalt.

Hearing the startling increase in tweets, twitters, calls, and songs makes me think of the title of Rachel Carson’s famous book. Our springs have been growing quieter and quieter, barely able to be heard over our clamor. And that’s without even considering all the species and habitat loss.

But if you give nature half a chance, spring comes roaring back. How can we build on this chance?

Signing off. Take Care and Take Care of one another.

Day Twenty-Eight: Dog

Dog is back in commission!

She had picked up stiff little limp, so I benched her for two weeks. I missed her terribly on my walks and runs. It really got me thinking about why a walk or run with a dog is so much better than one without.

1. Happy Dog Butt. She doesn’t just walk on our walks and runs. She sashays and saunters and prances, tail switching like a metronome.

2. Getting compliments on the dog. It makes me irrationally happy when other people like my dog.

3. The occasional urge to take a selfie feels less self-involved if the dog is in it too.

4. Evergreen’s dangerous carnivorous elk may hesitate to attack two of us.

5. Every walk is a new voyage of discovery. Going around the block is like the resurrection of Marco Polo. Every. Single. Time.

6. Expressive ears.

7. Without a dog, squirrels ignore me. With a dog, they come down to yell at us, and I can sneak in a picture.

8. Everyone needs a photobomber in their life.

9. I talk to myself. Out loud. This is marginally less weird if you are addressing another mammal.

10. Sheer, unbridled, joyous enthusiasm!

Bonus. In winter, dogs sometimes get a snose.

Signing off. Take Care, everyone, and Take Care of one another.

Day Twenty-Five: Instagram

I posted my entry to Dorian Mases’ #challengemirrorimage Instagram challenge today. These challenges are everything social media is cracked up to be, but often isn’t. I’m not sure how Dorian, in Lincolnshire, ran across me in Colorado, but he invited me into a great group!

In an online world where tides of toxic sludge lap on shores of hatred, and grievously cynical manipulation is almost a given, how cool is it to find a community that highlights the wonderful potential of our technologies? Through these challenges, I have had rewarding interactions with people all over the world, from diverse walks of life, from multiple generations, and in an endlessly fascinating array of professions. I get positive feedback on my images, and the opportunity to give the same to others.

So often, our online life increases alienation. It can feel like the whole world is full of cyberbullies and ugly political agendas. I feel so lucky to have found a refuge where the internet actually does what it is supposed to, connecting people across our divisions. And I strongly suspect there are many more such communities out there.

The human brain is wired to focus on the negative. It makes sense — too much looking on the bright side and not enough attending to danger can get you knocked right out of the gene pool. But it also makes us prone to missing all the things that are going right.

Looking for the positive is especially difficult right now. It almost feels disrespectful to the people who have been hit the hardest. But it is a really important way to protect our own well-being, and likely even our immune systems. And the more that people can turn themselves to optimism, despite the buffeting of this virus, the better chance we have of putting our economies back together.

So it is worth turning our attention from all the negativity and just general ickyness online, and looking for the communities that are getting it right. I bet there are a lot more of them than we have been led to expect.

Share the good stuff you find. Use your likes and comments to positively reinforce content of decency. And please post links in the comments.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.

Day Twenty-Three: Introverted

It’s hard to dwell on your troubles when this is happening.

Someone once explained to me that the difference between being introverted and extroverted isn’t really about gregariousness. It’s how you recharge your batteries. After a long, intense, and stressful day at work, are you eager to go out with your friends to decompress? Or do you need to hole up for a while with a good book and no company but the cat?

I found this definition entirely useful. It gave me permission to be both outgoing (except for around cool strangers, with whom I am shy) and an introvert.

I’ve been making a real point of counting my blessings during these strange times.

For introverts who haven’t had loved ones come down with COVID19, and who haven’t gotten it themselves, this has been an amazing chance to recharge. I feel like my batteries are full for the first time in many, many years, despite the ever-present anxiety causing a constant drain.

I think even the dedicated extroverts can get something important out of some solitude. Or perhaps it’s that I associate solitude with getting outside and going for a walk, preferably in a natural environment. Everyone can benefit from that, as seen from the popularity of the badly translated (from Japanese) shinrin-yoku, which can mean taking in the forest atmosphere, but is generally rendered in English as Forest Bathing. Who can I talk to about getting that changed to Forest Immersion?

For me, nothing is as conducive to mindfulness as a walk in the woods, or even just the park or a neighborhood with mature trees and limited traffic. Mindfulness isn’t always the be-all-end-all simple fix that we seem to think it is. Yes, it has a lot of benefits, but it’s both a lot harder for some than others, and more beneficial for some than others.

I find that I have to sneak up on mindfulness. My photography hobby keeps me grounded in the present moment, always intentional about looking around and drinking in my surroundings. Dog’s wagging tail and delighted grin are an antidote to negative rumination. And if a dog is unavailable for some reason, just try dwelling on your problems when being vigorously scolded by a squirrel.

Introvert or extrovert, mindful or less so, what a blessing it is to have time and inspiration for long walks. The future is terribly uncertain, and I’m terrified about my job situation. But in many respects the crisis has, itself, given us a mechanism to cope.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.

Day Twenty-One: Waiting

Image courtesy of

My siblings are older than I am, and when Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled around, I remember spending hours in an agony of anticipation, waiting for my brothers to come over.

Now we’re all waiting. Waiting for our suspended economy to restart. Waiting for our stimulus checks. Waiting for businesses to start hiring again. Waiting to see our friends and family. Waiting to go out without a mask. Waiting for our daily exercise outdoors. Waiting for better weather. Waiting for school. Waiting for the gym. Waiting to eat out. Waiting for spring to burst into bloom. Waiting for normal, any normal.

Waiting is a forgotten skill.

We aren’t even practiced at waiting for web pages to load anymore. We’re a culture that collectively fails the (discredited) marshmallow test.

What does it mean to learn to wait? defines wait as:

Verb (used without object): to remain inactive or in a state of repose, as until something expected happens (often followed by for, till, or until): to wait for the bus to arrive.(of things) to be available or in readiness: A letter is waiting for you.

Verb (used with object): to continue as one is in expectation of; await: to wait one’s turn at a telephone postpone or delay in expectation: Don’t wait supper for me.

Noun: an act or instance of waiting or awaiting; delay; halt: a wait at the border.a period or interval of waiting: There will be a long wait between trains.

I’m not sure I’d call this a state of repose, but I like the definition for things: to be available or in readiness. I’m available and ready for a video call. I’m available and ready to take Dog for a walk. But the third definition is really what we’re all doing – continuing as we are. Holding out.

The fractal nature of branches

While we hold out, we have a once in a lifetime chance to really observe the world around us. Our precious time to exercise outdoors can be filled with the wonder of nature; the fragile intricacy of a leaf, the fractal nature of branches, the pattern of a pebble. Our time inside can be filled with all those little projects we have never had time for. We can really pay close attention to the shows we watch, catching all the nuances of good TV. We can read experientially, diving deep into our imagination to co-create a world with the author.

And we have the chance to create. We can make content and memes. We can do drawings and paintings. We can knit, we can sew, we can crochet, and needlepoint, and embroider. We can cook and try new things in the kitchen. We can photograph and take video. We can write. There is no reason that this time shouldn’t be remembered as much for a flowering of creativity as for the COVID19.

Perhaps it isn’t so much about learning to wait. Instead it is about what we do while we wait.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.

Day Twenty: Wonder

God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.

— Dag Hammarsköld

Here are some small wonders I have seen recently.