Oregon Pilgrim

writings on nature and travel


52 Weeks to Simplicity

Week 32: Giss

In Malcolm Gladwell‘s enjoyable read, Blink, he builds a case for how to “thin-slice” situations. By honing our abilities to focus on small, but important, things, we can make quick and correct judgments. We have words to describe this particular gift of reading deeply into the narrowest slivers of experience. Basketball players have “court sense”. Napoleon and Patton had “coup d’oeil” or “power of the glance” when making sense of the battle field.




The ornithologist David Sibley says that in Cape May, New Jersey, he once spotted a bird in flight from two hundred yards away and knew, instantly, that it was a ruff, a rare sandpiper. He had never seen a ruff in flight before; nor was the moment long enough for him to make a careful identification. But he was able to capture what bird-watchers call the bird’s “giss” — its essence — and that was enough.

“Most of bird identification is based on a sort of subjective impression — the way a bird moves and little instantaneous appearances at different angles and sequences of different appearances, and as it turns its head and as it flies and as it turns around, you see sequences of different shapes and angles,” Sibley says. “All that combines to create a unique impression of a bird that can’t really be taken apart and described in words. When it comes down to being in the field and looking at a bird, you don’t take the time to analyze it and say it shows this, this, and this; therefore it must be this species. It’s more natural and instinctive. After a lot of practice, you look at the bird, and it triggers little switches in your brain. It looks right. You know what it is at a glance.”


Birding with experienced birders I find this to be true. I’m begging the bird with telepathy to sit still while I lock it in my binoculars so I can see the nape of the neck or a flash on the crown and Scott Smithson (who we’ve had the pleasure to bird with a few times) will casually tell me what it is without lifting his pair of binoculars to his eyes. He doesn’t even squint to see it. The lighting is bad but it doesn’t matter. It’s unnecessary. In a glance, he knows. 


(Paul and I have to use equipment and squint):)




Now, I know I have my own areas where I can grasp the “giss” of a situation. Ingrid might leave the table, pouting, because none of her sisters will listen to her, stomp upstairs, loudly abusing them because “they never listen and no one ever listens to her and I’m always the one left out and …” and I know in a glance that her sisters have nothing to do with it. So I force a hug upon her and hold her until the struggling stops and change the subject, talking of other things, until I can convince her it is time for bed. She’s tired. She needs some sleep. Wherever we focus, our minds become more practiced in being able to make snap judgments accurately and so promote our success in that situation.






But where I wish I could get at the “giss” of a situation is in just plain ol’ ordinary life. Those who are great seem to have an early grasp of their destiny and rocket to it with lightning-like quickness. For me, it definitely feels like forty years wandering in the desert. I mean, I’m not complaining too much. It’s been wandering in the beautiful high desert with a beautiful man (inside and out) and beautiful girls (inside and out) and with health and loving friends and family. But, as to my destiny, I’ve wandered. Sometimes I romanticize the notion by calling it a pilgrimage, but other times I wonder whether I’m just unwilling to admit I’m lost.




In the old days, the stars, seers, strange prophets, angels, and other clear-sighted beings spoke into people’s lives. Today, we scoff at such things and whine about how we’ve nowhere to go. How I wish for a Flannery O’Connor character like a one-eyed priest to come into my room and point a thick finger at me and tell me what’s up.




Still, I have hope. As I become a master at grasping the “giss” of how to love my family and as I keep poking at the “giss” of what is really important in life as I write, perhaps my destiny is just around the bend. Or, I might find the path I’m walking is the destiny I’ve been searching for all along.











Week 31: Keep On

I don’t have much to say. I’m starting a new job. I’m managing the homeschooling of our four daughters.

I’m trying to be strong for a husband frustrated with his life in the world.

His little brother committed suicide a few days ago.

We are all stunned. It can’t be true. Where did Lil’ John go?

I feel tired. And very sad. And small. And irrelevant.

Sometimes life feels so … absurd.

I can’t even believe the stupid, pointless thoughts which run through my head.

There was once a time when people held a cohesive set of values and people could find meaning in the world. I would have been successful in such a world.

But I live in a world where no one agrees upon anything and we’re all okay with it. There is no form to work with. Life is void and without meaning.

I have to dig very, very deep to discover what matters.

It takes so much time.

And my beliefs must stand alone without the bolstering of a common culture, either to condemn or affirm who I am.

This too, shall fall or be abandoned. It is a tower of Babel — everyone affirming each other in their isolation.

We speak different languages — not just in the world or in regions, but within families and within ourselves.

Obviously, I am very low.

I am angry and I’m not sure why.

My gut says just one thing, don’t give up.

So I won’t. I’ll keep on. I’ll walk in faith that every small choice matters. I’ll believe I count.

I may not know what will come of it. But I must trust something will.

I’ll keep on, though I don’t know why.

Because I must. Because it matters.

Sometimes I imagine I’m paving the way for a great age to come — like the Dark Ages before the Renaissance. The Renaissance gets all the glory but it was all on the broken back of the years before.

Perhaps these are the years before.

If anything confirms we matter in the vast universe, it is an untimely death, for the hole is so utterly visible when he is gone. He didn’t think he mattered.

He mattered.


Week 30: Things I Know

Today, I found a crumpled piece of paper at the bottom of my briefcase. This is what it said.

Things I know:

* I am a writer

* I am a reader

* I have committed publicly to complete a novel

* I love sports

* I teach because it pays

Things I don’t know:

* whether I’ll succeed

* whether I have talent

* what I’m supposed to do

* how I’m supposed to live

I write little notes to myself all the time and leave them all over the place. When I find them, I feel like I’ve traveled in time to the future to encourage myself or guide myself. Life is not linear; it’s circular. I’m not much wiser than when I was fresh out of college. The same lessons I needed to learn then, I’m learning again … and again … and again.

August is almost over. My master plan was to have finished my novel and begin looking for agents in the fall. I declared publicly I would finish the novel in my post Pledging.

I didn’t make it.

I got 75 pages done but I’m only through chapter four and a lot of it is crap.

I kind of feel bad about it.

But this failure tells me something about myself.

With all that time “wasted,” and no real results or end in sight, I still want to write.

I’m not giving up. Not ever. Writing is becoming more a part of me. I can’t really picture myself without it. It’s part of my makeup.

So … I’m making a new pledge. I’ll be done by Christmas. I’ll look for agents at the beginning of the year.

Some of you made pledges when I made mine. Anyone do theirs? If so, congratulations. If not, would you like to renew it? And if any of you need to declare publicly for the first time what your secret dreams are so you’ll be brave enough to do them, I invite you to declare them loud and clear right here.

I am a writer. This I know.


Week 29: An Alphabet of Grace

Martyrdom is out of style today — at least in relationships. Sacrifice is often spun as dysfunction and accepting abuse.

The key to sacrifice is having a self to lay down. Without possession of a self, sacrifice becomes oppression.

Think of Lord Farquad in Shrek saying:

Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

If sacrifice is a willing, loving giving of oneself, it is a beautiful and necessary act. If it is forced, coerced, or manipulated, we pervert the true nature of sacrifice.

I’m reading Madeleine L’Engle‘s The Summer of the Great-Grandmother. She carefully and painfully describes the long series of sacrificial actions in caring for her declining mother. She paints the glory. She paints the darkness. The darkness sets off the glory.

Through it, her writing redeems many of my own sacrificial actions. She helps me find my self so I can lay it down again. Here is one of her quotes about her great-grandmother to meditate on:

I have her battered Bible, which Mother had rebound for me. It was much read, much marked, and there are stains which came, I think, through private tears. Perhaps through it she will teach me an alphabet of grace. She had that spontaneous quality of aliveness which illuminates people who have already done a lot of their dying, and I think I am beginning to understand the truth of that.

When I feel resentful or angry about being unappreciated, sacrifice helps me regain power. I must either set boundaries or willingly and lovingly lay down my life for others. Sometimes I choose the first (which is not wrong) and sometimes I choose the second (which is not weak). But when I choose to sacrifice, I will remind myself I am doing some dying so I might have “that spontaneous quality of aliveness which illuminates”.

Week 28: A Pipe Smoke

We don’t have a single “clean freak” in the family. Some of us have always had a high tolerance for “messy”; some of us have learned over time that “messy” isn’t worth stressing about. That would be me.

I grew up with my mother and life with Shirley is a very clean life. She cleans all the time. She cleans while she talks, while she watches television, before she leaves and when she gets home. She hates dirt and dislikes conflict, so she’d rather just take care of it — immediately and thoroughly — herself. This made life very nice for me. I grew up in a clean, clean home. Everything in its place. Knick knacks arranged. Pictures hung on the wall. Very little work.

When I met Paul, he lived with another bachelor who was as messy as himself (both complained the mess was the other guy’s fault) and a ferret who used the dashboard of his Volkswagen van as a latrine. When they arrived in our driveway and met my mother, it was a clash of two different worlds. My mother saw that van and had to clean it — which she did. The boys were really thankful.

Within a month it had returned to its previous state.

Without the changing of habits, things in our lives don’t change. My mom has a saying to help her stay on top of cleaning: C.A.Y.G. (Clean As You Go). We can huff through a dreaded a chore once in a while and bring about short-term results, but the problem is still there. Forming a good habit creates a rippling effect of good change. It affects many other things in our lives.

When I’m having a problem with Ingrid being argumentative and attention-seeking, I try to form a habit of spending 15 minutes of focused attention everyday with her. If sibling fights trouble me, I try to reinstate a homemade breakfast around the table. Talk together. Start conversations. I figure by focusing on forming a positive habit, the negative one will disappear.

A nail is driven out by another nail. Habit is overcome by habit.” Desiderius Erasmus

Sometimes we get too focused on the problems and we get frustrated with short-term results. Change our habits; change our lives.

Thanks to the Fly Lady and Charlotte Mason, I’ve tried to focus on forging good habits and not getting results. In regards to cleaning, results mean I walk around the house shouting at my family, “This is ridiculous! How do you people live this way! What is it going to take to get you to take some pride in yourself, our family and our home?” (All the while, piles of clothes sit on my dresser and hair gathers in the corners of my bathroom). Something had to change.

A few weeks ago, I had a breakthrough. My parents came for a visit and, for the first time, I didn’t freak out on my family trying to get the house clean. After analyzing the situation, I went through a series of steps to deal with a long-term problem.

First, I realized I was feeling judged (even though my mom has never said anything) about my own choices of priorities being different from my mother’s. I needed to accept myself for choosing differently. For her, clean is a top priority. For me, it wasn’t. I could choose to accept it or change it.

I chose to accept it.

Second, I realized I did need a certain level of clean in order for me to feel comfortable. It was at a far messier level than my mother’s but I still had a level. I needed to figure out a plan for us to keep at that level. I hate cleaning, so I offered to exchange with my family the other chores such as cooking and laundry for cleaning. They gladly accepted. Moreover, I decided to attach a wage to cleaning so they would learn to translate work into money received. I often hear others say they prefer not to do this because kids need to understand that contributing to their families is the motivation. Good point. But, since I hate shopping, my children rarely, rarely get all those little perks that happen so often in other families — that ice cream treat, a new outfit, new shoes, a new toy, etc. I just don’t ever get around to doing that for our girls. Paying them means they can treat themselves to these things — an iced coffee with friends, a new swimsuit, whatever. I hate shopping. They like it. If they have their own money, we’re all happy. It suits us.

So the house got cleaned to a level in which I felt comfortable. The girls got paid. My parents visited. No one got yelled at. We were all happy.

Next case in point — the garage. The garage is not my responsibility. I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut about things which are not my responsibility. I believe because the state of the home generally reflects upon the woman — especially when she’s a homeschooling mom — there is a certain discomfort in having an extraordinary mess in what others would consider “my area”.

Again, I have to distance myself from perceived or real judgments from others. I either must take personal responsibility for cleaning the garage or leave it alone. I’ve chosen to leave it alone. As I walk through the garage, I sort of close my eyes until I reach my office. I shut the door, close the curtains, and do what I’m supposed to do: write. I keep my mouth shut and negative comments to a minimum.

But …

I did suggest to Paul that perhaps he could create a habit of cleaning the garage during a pipe smoke. He likes to smoke his pipe. He must do it outside. The two could go together. He could clean while his bowl of tobacco lasted. I know he would appreciate having a cleaner space to work in.

We’ll see.

We’re really a bundle of small rituals. The key isn’t to do something once. The key is to create a ritual which will lead to a lifestyle you love and enjoy.

I’m realizing this with my writing. I shouldn’t focus on “getting this novel done.” I need to create a ritual or habit in which writing gets done regularly. I’m not accomplishing a task but creating a lifestyle.

What kind of “pipe smokes” would help you create lasting habits in your life?


Week 27: A Few Forces Below

I’ve worked hard at my novel and my progress is ridiculously slower than what I hoped it would be. I must admit, I thought once I set aside time to write, the sessions would act like the priming of a pump and the words would just … flow. I actually had grand delusions of writing a book in a few weeks like Jack Kerouac.

Jack taped hundreds of feet of paper together so he wouldn’t have to stop typing.

For me, not so. Sometimes the words flow. Sometimes there is only a trickle and at the end of a writing session I have little to show for the time spent staring at the screen. Still, I show up. I sit down. I write. These simple actions have profoundly changed me. Success matters less. Assigning meaning or value to what I do matters more.

The act of creation is one of the most difficult processes I’ve experienced — akin to giving birth. I don’t even know why I am trying to do it. There is no guarantee of a return. It may invite criticism and controversy … which would be a step up from invisibility. It may show a weak and ignoble character or incompetence and a small mind. Still, I keep scratching at it to see. I must see what’s inside.

This is the quote I’ve said to myself lately. I love the triumphant nature of the speaker, whose work is seriously criticized, but who had enough courage to say something. I often reach out at nights, asking God to take part in preparing the material, giving the “forces below” notice I will be there to write.

Over the years, I found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write. Norman Mailer.



Week 26: Sacred Rituals

Last week, Paul baptized the girls in the Deschutes River. Friends and family witnessed the sacred proclamations made by our daughters.




Rituals, when done right, help us tap into our imaginations. They help our minds and hearts to leap beyond our abilities. Sacred bonds and sacred vows invite the supernatural to enliven our lives with legend and myth. They open the way for miracles. They burst limits of endurance. They stretch boundaries.

Death to our old selves. Repentance. Resurrection and a new life. Is there any ritual more beautiful than this one?

Rituals are out of vogue. Our fragmented culture corresponds with our fragmented rituals. Get a roomful of people and ask them about a ritual they hold sacred; no two people will give the same answer — perhaps they’ll mention baptism or communion, but they will each do it differently. Many won’t take part in any of those things — their sacred rituals are dinner around the table or a giving of gifts. I’m not bemoaning the fact, I’m recognizing it.

In a fragmented culture, everything’s okay. The only thing not allowed are opinions about how everyone should do it. Religious rituals cater to personal preference — like us, baptizing our own children without any ordained authority.

Yet, I wonder what it means.The rise and fall of civilizations is the nature of the world since the beginning of history. I realize baptizing our own children in the river means we no longer feel much solidarity in a larger group. If you take a moment to meditate, you can feel the creaking and crumbling of civilization about to fall. This personal path we follow as a family is like a raft we’re leaping to from a ship that’s sinking.

Many people have done this before — leaping from a dying ship (civilization). Some people have laid the groundwork for something new to build (before it, too, crumbles). Even with this knowledge, I hope we’re laying the groundwork for something lasting. I hope the path we follow leads to new life.

Week 25: Sacred Idleness

Certainly work is not always required of a man. There is such a thing as a sacred idleness – the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected. George MacDonald.

This week we gained access to a third car which freed my schedule up considerably. Elsa, with her sisters in tow, can now follow her busy schedule without running her ragged mother to death. Monday and Tuesday mornings passed quietly with my efforts to write 2000 words a day on The Isle of the Dead. The mornings were quiet, strangely quiet. I have often longed for lengths of time for quiet.

Soon, it was too quiet. I fidgeted. I rotated the laundry and emptied the dishwasher. I banged around and turned on a book on CD. I was positively restless. I did not know what to do with myself. For ten years, I have spent my summers ushering my daughters to tennis practices. Now, what was I to do? The answer was Write, of course! I did. Still, an emptiness settled over the house. A pall descended upon my quietude and ruined it.

My addiction to running children around to activities began in the cabin high up in the Ochoco Mountains when any excuse served to get me out in the world with my children. Looking back, the forced solitude in those mountains is bathed in a romantic hue. I remember the walks along the forest paths. The little knees kneeling to examine forest flowers. The snow covering the porch. The girls playing along the creek. The rope swing dangling from the aspen tree. They were days of utter simplicity. Getting the children to bed by seven was my most difficult task.

If I tell myself to think objectively, however, I was lonely, too. Perhaps all stay-at-home mothers feel the natural isolation stemming from following nursing and napping schedules with multiple little ones. But the lonely mountains compounded my isolation. True, I had some neighbors but people who live in the mountains understand we live in the mountains for a reason. Privacy is an implied rule. Mountain-dwellers are not unkind though there is no Southern hospitality with neighbors bringing over iced tea to welcome you. You knock on the door in great need or dire emergency … a cougar or bear sighted, a lost dog, an accident.

In the long, lonely days I discovered reasons to visit the little town a half an hour away. Tennis was a cheap and enjoyable diversion which lasted a month at a time. All other activities were twice as expensive for half as long. Tennis filled our summers.

Now I am left alone. I am thankful for the transition, for the gift of time to myself. I am also uncomfortable. I am a Rip Van Winkle, waking to find the years are gone. I feel the pain of irrelevance. The widening gap of relating to the new world. The rug of “how things are” being pulled from under my feet by progress.

 I am exaggerating, perhaps, a little. I speak of feelings, not of realities. I wish I would have cultivated more sacred idleness in my life — especially, these last four years when we had so little structure on which to hang memories upon.

If I had given more time to sacred idleness I would know my reflection in the pool of water. I would recognize the world in which I live.

Week 24: More on One-Liners for Life

A few weeks ago, I said I would publish my one-liner for life. A one-liner for a novel is a quick summary. So many people ask, “What is your novel about?” It’s important to answer that question in a sentence. For instance,

The sole son of one feuding Verona family falls in love with the darling daughter of the rival family and tragedy ensues. Romeo and Juliet.

Or, I’m reading this one:

A man wrestling with his nihilistic ideals brutally murders a greedy pawnbroker; eventually, he confesses his crime and seeks redemption. Crime and Punishment.

And I’m reading this one:

A boy traps a pregnant wolf and decides to return her to the mountains of Mexico where he meets strange sages and experiences poignant moments of beauty and brutality. The Crossing.

I’m writing this one:

Penelope Puckett attempts to rescue her late little brothers from the Isle of the Dead unwittingly changing the course of cosmic events. The Isle of the Dead.

(how does that sound? I’ve never put it in print before.)

And I’m living this one:

Danielle Harris falls in love and raises a family while trying to keep her dream of writing a novel uncorrupted.

This exercise causes you to discern whether you have focus in your reading, writing and your life. With it, you can hold up particular characters and scenes and find whether they belong in your story.

A warning. As much as we would like to have as much control over our lives as an author does over his story, we can’t. Remember, we are not the authors of our lives but the characters in the novel. But … any writer will tell you characters take on lives of their own and make decisions. They interact with their author. A writer realizes very soon her characters have wills of their own and sometimes they decide their fates.


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