Looking Back, Thinking Ahead

Changing out the calendars in our houses tends to make us reflect on what we’ve done in the past year and what we want to do differently in the next. I’ve always hated the concept of making “New Year’s Resolutions,” because there’s always cynicism leaking in about how long they’ll last. I don’t make them. But I’ve always thought it would be great to make the drunk version of that phrase happen—the New Year’s Revolution.

In a way, that’s what I’ve been leading up to throughout all of 2015. I saw places I’d never seen before, tried and learned new things, met and befriended people I’d never have crossed paths with before, put myself in unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations, connected with nature in new ways, wrote 50k words in 30 days, taught myself to play the ukulele and to crochet, and transformed my body by losing 50 pounds. One day at a time, I overthrew my old life and put a new regime in power.

In 2015, I traveled across the country twice, the first time alone by train. I got to see 6 states I’d never seen before in landscapes that were completely unfamiliar. On my second trip, my partner and I drove 6,000 miles and saw 14 states, 3 national parks, some state parks, and a wolf sanctuary.

More travel is ahead for me in 2016, this time across the pond. My daughter will be performing as a violinist in the Kentucky Ambassadors of Music in 7 countries this July, and I’m flying over to see the performance in London. Then, as she heads out to have her amazing European adventure, I’ll set out to see the nooks and crannies of the United Kingdom.

On the train, I talked to a lot of people, which was good, because I was headed off alone to live with a group of 9 strangers for a month—at that time, I couldn’t imagine who besides myself would be interested in a buffalo intensive. None of us were from the same place, but we came together in the Methow Valley of central Washington and formed a clan. By the time I came home, I was changed by these people in ways that people in my home community didn’t understand and I couldn’t always explain. On my second trip to the Methow Valley, the community was larger and different than on my first trip, and in many ways uncomfortable for me, but I got to see some familiar faces and explore different worldviews than my own.

Like my mom, I’ve never met a stranger, so I’ve had conversations with such a diverse set of people whose names I don’t know or don’t remember in the past year. Just by being friendly, I saw a huge silent Montana man go from sulking over his eggs to talking excitedly about hunting season, an upbeat kid talking about his troubled past and the love of his life, a recluse ask for help on re-entering society, a widow staying hopeful about her future despite her grief, and so many more. Though this year, only one of those strangers I got to know had a Scottish accent, this year, many more will—and English, Welsh, and Irish, too.

During my travels, I learned a lot of traditional, so-called primitive, living skills. I picked up roadkill, ate it, and made useful things from its parts. I made my own skirt out of buckskin and my own rawhide shoes. I slaughtered a sheep and prepared her meat, fat, bones, and hide. At home, I continued my education on hide work and also started learning about furs, primitive weapons, and tracking. I’ve learned which native plants in Kentucky to use for food and medicine. And I’ve foraged, much to my daughter’s chagrin.

At the time, I told myself I was learning all these things to be a better writer. After all, I’d gotten a grant for that initial trip out to the Buffalo Intensive so that I could do research for a novel I’d started. I didn’t realize that learning these things would change me at the cellular level in some ways, but it did.

Living in a tent for 25 days, having to haul water for everything, doing work that left me in blood, shit, fat, and dirt up to my eyebrows, adapting hourly to the weather changes of the high desert: all this changed me, made me tougher, more utilitarian, less sentimental. I came home to a desk job and found myself unable to sit there all day, anxious as a caged tiger in front of the large windows overlooking the campus. At home, my bed was too far off the ground and my pillow obstructive. Things I used to stress over seemed petty, and things that I used to put a lot of effort into seemed unnecessary. I started getting rid of things I realized that I don’t need, and I stopped adding things to my to-do list that I didn’t want to do.

No matter how important I ever think that I am, the earth has taught me otherwise this year. Being transplanted from Kentucky’s Bluegrass to the North Cascades high desert would kill any plant, take a toll on any of us animals. Shivering alone in a wet tent at 26 degrees, more than two thousand miles from home, makes one feel pretty small. So does huddling in that same tent in the dark, hoping it will protect you from the mountain lion just yards away (or, later, the bear, and then the coyote).  So does looking up from a squat to see a ton of bison bull looking right at you. So does looking up at one of the few remaining glaciers in Glacier National Park. So does standing on a rock at 10,000 feet and realizing that mountains still stretch up higher around you. So does struggling with pneumonia for 3 weeks. So does getting a call that your child has a head injury and you’re too far away to do anything about it, and then watching the slow road to recovery that is just time, time, time.

I’ve learned to slow down, put my energy into the right things, prioritize what must be done to get through to the next thing, discard that which weighs me down. What I’ve realized this year of slow revolution is that I begin a lot of things with good intentions but have trouble finishing them or just don’t try to finish them. I already knew this, of course, but I didn’t really know it. Thinking things like “I’ll get back to that…eventually,” gave myself a pass to let things accumulate and weigh me down. Over the years, I’ve decided that life is too short to waste time finishing books that aren’t speaking to me or watching movies that bore me (just because people say they’re good). I just hadn’t applied the same viewpoint to other areas of my life.

When you’re tanning an animal hide, you’re on “hide time,” which means that you have to do what the hide needs when it needs it or else something will go wrong. It can rot, break, return to rawhide, catch fire. You might have to throw the whole thing away and start over, or just redo everything you have already done. The point of hide time is to be present so that you can do it right and get it done, so that the hide will be useful in whatever its final intended form.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would look like if I were to live my life on hide time. November (aka National Novel Writing Month) was a great example of that for me. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. I accomplished that goal this year. Four times before, I’d never cracked 13k, but this year I did it like I was on hide time. I gave the novel the time it needed to manifest in my imagination, and then gave myself the space and permission to do the writing. That meant a lot of early mornings, a few late nights, and a couple of days of retreat. It felt like a lot at the time, but through the whole thing I was happier than usual, more focused at home and work, and had a calm about the process that isn’t my norm.

Now I’m walking into 2016 with some ideas about how to bring the spirit of hide time into this next revolution around the sun. This year, I will turn 40, will travel outside of North America for the first time to watch my daughter make her international debut on violin, will become an aunt yet again, and will revise the novel that I drafted in November. My health, my travel, my family, and my writing all require what they need when they need it, so I must be present, prescient, and prepared to work.


Categories: MemoirTags: ,


  1. Would love to know how to get a copy of the novel.


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