8. Mr. Initiation by Leslie Seaton

I started writing this at the beginning of the year, but I set it aside for a while…because that is what I do with creative work. Although, if I am being more charitable towards myself, I could also say for the past six weeks, I’ve been distracted with an unexpected move that wound up taking me from Seattle to Port Townsend, a smaller town about two hours away.

This weekend, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time and she asked, “So, like, who are you going to be in Port Townsend?”

I knew what she meant. I have, in many ways, an incredible amount of freedom in my weird life, and now I’m starting completely over, know no one. It’s a sort of a blank slate to do/be whatever I want.

Prior to the last year, the bad year, though, I most likely would have come to a place like this and just replicated all those accessible happinesses.  I probably will still, to some extent. It’s spring and there are new-to-me wildflowers trying to flirt their way into tiny bouquets.

But I feel some part of myself holding back from rushing to fill up that blank slate and my calendar with my usual shenanigans because what about that bigger vision? What about those other things I’ve wanted but not actually made myself truly work toward getting because of self-doubt, fear of making a wrong move, a dumb move? What about switching my loyalties? What about not turning my new empty house against myself?

The song in the previous post, "Deadline," had been my soundtrack during the initial writing of this, with that one line so often circling around my head. Then, nearly coinciding with the day I made the decision to move, Young Father’s new album came out.

I am not normally an album person; my ADD and I would prefer you set it on shuffle, thanks. But I crawled into this record and it became the soundtrack to my drives back and forth between the city and my new town. All its messy, jangly, masculine energy revived the thoughts started by the men I learned about on my winter road trip, and a new line from the song "Rain or Shine" came in to replace the one from "Deadline:"

I could do more/I could care less.

Normally, the construction of “I could care less” as it’s used in current language to communicate “I could NOT care less” drives me nuts. But in this case, for how I want to interpret this lyric, it’s being used correctly.

I’m in a new place and I’m entering a new decade this year. The novelty of this move has – so far – drowned out the menacing rumbling of the last, bad year. One more hole in the net and I slipped through.

I suspect, though, after last year, that small domestic pleasures will eventually run their course here, too. It's not to say that chasing after something more is some guarantee I will avoid the net of badness in the future. That's just another form of zealotry and I'm hoping to not make that same mistake again.

But I feel like it is a guaranteed losing bet to not ask more from myself, and instead always listen so intently to some internal voice of fear and caution. 

There are bigger happinesses to pursue, and I’m going to have to ignore the part of me that doesn’t want to hurtle myself off a mountain (metaphorically; I don't plan to care THAT much less) to get them. That Young Fathers’ line, with its neat and tidy to-do list consisting of two clear actions, seems like a good place to start.

7. What Do We Sing Now by Leslie Seaton

Upon my return from my winter trip to Arizona, I stocked up on some new music and fell in love with the song "Deadline" by Young Fathers.

This line from the song seemed to dovetail into the thoughts my winter trip had started in me:

Don’t you turn my home against me/even if my house is empty.

My good years were good for a good reason. I got happy within my means. I made 15-second videos where nothing happened and arranged tiny bouquets of free weeds.  I put on a jeweler’s loupe and focused on small accessible pleasures. This is good. It’s not a bad thing to find happiness within what’s readily available. Sometimes this character trait will save you.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be enough.

There are bigger things I have wanted for myself that I haven’t truly worked towards. Partly for standard reasons of poor self-discipline. But partly because on the occasions I have made little efforts, I sometimes failed or was met with at best indifference and at worst outright scorn.

And, of course, has so nearly every human being who has ever taken a risk. The possibility of a negative outcome is precisely what makes it risk instead of a comfortable nap in a couch made of marshmallows and surrounded by compliments.

After my road trip and seeing and hearing the stories of these men who pursued their own visions for their own lives – Forestiere digging his underground mansion, Knight building a mountain, Corliss flying off them, the men of The Big Year chasing birds – I’m left circling this one question:

What does it take to be loyal to your own vision above all, to not be tossed away by setbacks or failures or scorn or rejection or indifference?

And I have a follow-up question for myself: why have I shown such loyalty to the story of failure, to scorn and indifference, welcomed it in, given it a seat at the head of table and let it make the decisions for me? Why have I asked my own bigger vision to please go sit down and be quiet because the adults are talking here?

What am I getting out of that disloyalty to myself? And I know I’m not unique in this behavior. Why do any of us do this? 

next part:

8. mr initiation

6. Bird Dream by Leslie Seaton

After the stop at Salvation Mountain and a brief drive around Slab City, it was time to get back on the road for the final push to Phoenix.

I finished listening to "The Big Year," and started a new audiobook: “Bird Dream.” Despite my fears of both heights and grievous bodily injury – or maybe because of them – I’d recently become interested in BASE jumpers. Not BASE jumping, the activity, rather the character and nature of people who do this kind of jumping I will never ever ever in a million years ever do ever

The book covers BASE jumpers, and –  arguably even crazier – wingsuit pilots, people who put on flying squirrel suits and jump off mountains to take a controlled (one hopes), gliding flight-like fall before deploying a parachute to land.

To be honest, before I started listening to the audiobook, I think I only really knew about BASE jumpers, and – while I later realized I had come across wingsuit flying footage before (aside: in, of all things, a fanmade video for the Salem remix of Britney Spears Until the World Ends) – it wasn’t until I got a ways into the audiobook that it clicked that this was a different flavor of daredevil from a BASE jumper.

So I believe it was on a rest stop on that final push to Phoenix that I looked up a video of wingsuit flying to better understand it and came across this one. It has almost 30 million views right now, so you might have already seen it too.

Once I watched it, I could not stop watching it. I watched it almost daily for most of December, I made other people watch it, I watched the Google Earth reenactment of the flight line, I bought the song (one I think I’d previously had some kind of Gen Xer disdain for), I started following Jeb Corliss on Facebook, I watched all the other wingsuit videos of his I could find.

As a person who claims to be, at her core, a writer, I suppose I should be able to quickly and clearly articulate why this particular video and particular man so utterly took hold of my mind. But at the center of my own understanding is something akin to a blind spot. I can sort of understand it peripherally but not if I’m trying to look at it head on.

Maybe it’s something about this: Corliss speaks openly about his levels of black depression as a young person until he discovered skydiving, then BASE, then wingsuits. Now he’s a person who literally punctuates his sentences with smiley faces in his Facebook posts. As a kid, he dreamed of flying and he now he does. And taking on this risky activity seems to have been the key to making the world a joyful place for him.

Many people have come of out that kind of dark place, but there is something so…bracing and stark about seeing a person commit to a life of throwing himself off a mountain to find his own particular joy. At the end of the video, it is thrilling by proxy to hear his crazy laugh and see his look of pure happiness when he takes off the helmet.

He takes these risks because this works for him; it’s given his life direction and meaning. He’s seen friends die doing this. He’s almost died doing it. But he still does it. This loyalty to his own happiness…along with the heights and the danger, it makes me a little dizzy.

next part 

7. what do we sing now

5. Salvation Mountain by Leslie Seaton

From the Salton Sea, I drove on to Slab City. I didn’t intend to spend long, just wanted to have a look.

On the way into Slab City, you pass by Salvation Mountain, a three-story manmade hill constructed of adobe and straw and covered with bible verses and colorful paint.

Leonard Knight, the creator of Salvation Mountain, was a New Englander, Korean war vet, and jack of several trades who had a religious awakening at the age of 35. He became focused on the Sinner’s Prayer: “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.”

Eager to spread the word, he became convinced a hot air balloon printed with the words would be perfect. For ten years, he prayed for a balloon. When praying didn’t work, he decided to sew it himself.  He worked odd jobs and bought fabric when he could.

From the Salvation Mountain website:

“It became a wonderful patchwork of colors with big red letters proclaiming ‘God Is Love’ on a field of white. Alas, his enthusiasm betrayed him. Over time, the balloon became much too big to manage and, after an endless amount of attempts to inflate it, the fabric and its stitching began to rot and fail.”

He finally gave up on his balloon while he was staying in Slab City. He intended to leave the area but…

“Forever trying to promote what was burning so deeply inside of him, Leonard decided to stay one more week to make a ‘small statement’ before he left for wherever his van and his faith would take him. Armed with half of a bag of cement, he fashioned a small monument. One thing turned into another - days turned into weeks and weeks turned into years.”

The Salvation Mountain that exists today, though, is not that original effort. After four years of work, his original hill made of sand, cement and junk collapsed.

“Instead of being discouraged, Leonard thanked the Lord for showing him that the mountain wasn't safe. He vowed to start once again and to ‘do it with more smarts.’”

next part:

6. bird dream



4. The Big Year by Leslie Seaton

The next day was my final day of travel, but instead of heading straight to Phoenix, I took a dogleg detour down to the Salton Sea and Slab City.

On the way, I continued listening to the audiobook of “The Big Year.” A big year is a quest to see the most species of birds within a calendar year, and the biggest of Big Years is to top the record of North American bird species.

The book focuses on three men and their individual quests to break the record. They crisscrossed the country, racking up tens of thousands of miles, chasing species rumored to have been recently spotted.

One of the men featured in the book, Greg Miller, was recovering from a recent divorce, and was still holding down a job while trying to find the time for the travel he could barely afford. The other two guys had better resources of time, money and support, but they all faced the challenges of trying to get to sometimes remote locations at a moment's notice with the hope they would find the needed bird at just the right time. And all faced disappointments when nature did not cooperate.

The book was entertaining, but I couldn’t find a way to relate to this kind of birding. I thought the driven, acquisitive nature of the hunt seemed at odds with what appeals to me about birding. My style is spacier, dreamier; I’ve never even bothered to start a life list. I like identification for the way it brings me closer to nature, helps me recognize that this wren is not that wren, giving each its own individual identity. But the idea of obsessively tracking just to rack up numbers, turning this into a competition…something about this just does not appeal to me.

Nevertheless, all the bird talk made me receptive to the idea of a little exploration when I reached the Salton Sea. I’d heard so much about it being a dead zone, I was surprised when I spotted it and saw the shore seemed quite busy with bird activity.

I walked down to the shore, took the obligatory pictures of dead fish, then got closer to the water’s edge to get a better picture of a pelican. A few feet from the water, I suddenly postholed through the crust of the shore into muck and my foot was sucked in, trapped.

I got momentarily off-balance, and briefly imagined falling forward and getting slowly sucked into the layers of decomposing fish, bird poop, agricultural runoff and whatever other nightmare made up this disgusting quicksand. There was a couple in the distance; would they even notice if I suddenly started sinking or I cried for help? A brief horror at the idea of a singularly inelegant death flooded through me.

After that nanosecond, I was able to extricate my foot, if not my shoe. I fished down into the hole with my hand, and extracted it, now filled with ooze.

I tapped it and myself off as much as possible, and began trudging back to the car, one shoe off. I rinsed myself off and changed, then hightailed it out of there, no new birds identified, no more of the shore explored.

I felt an outsized embarrassment, an embarrassment that was wholly unnecessary because a) who cares? and b) there were barely anyone there anyway, as evidenced by my flash of worry about getting sucked into the shore unnoticed. 

This is not an isolated kind of event for me. The postholing part, that was novel, but abandoning an activity I was interested in because of an obstacle: yes, very familiar. I think whenever this kind of thing happens, even when laughably minor, it somehow feeds into some internal narrative about an essential and universal incompetence. In the face of that, retreat seems like a better option. 

Maybe it was easier to categorize my lack of identification with the characters in The Big Year because I had some kind of earthy, holistic, communal relationship with birds. Or maybe I just couldn’t identify with each man’s single-minded focus to pursue his goals, despite encountering challenges.

next part:

5. salvation mountain