A few years back, when I was charged with caring for my young niece and nephew in Hong Kong while my sister and brother-in-law jetted off for a dream vacation in Bhutan (#sisteroftheyearaward), I suffered some serious delusions. I thought that amidst shuttling them around to their various engagements, feeding them, and keeping them clean enough to prevent their teachers from sending them home, I would get caught up on my writing. I would read a read a literary classic or two. I would meditate by the windowed wall while inner peace and the distant skyline of downtown Hong Kong lit my face with a transcendent glow. Alas.
My stint as a Hong Kong surrogate parent came right on the heels of working in India and a whirlwind trip through Thailand plagued by the tenacious parasites I’d taken on board in Varanasi. By the time I got to Hong Kong to play Supernanny, my tank was very much on “E”. Transcendence was supplanted by the absorbing trainwreck of Keeping Up With The Kardashians and plowing through the remains of my brother-in-law’s ice cream stash. I could say that I was performing an academic critique of female stereotypes and archetypes in unscripted television while trying to win back the pounds India had stripped away, but we both know I’d be lying. I just needed to not think about the two precious lives in my care for a span of time, and the possibility that I might commit some tragic caregiver error (What if I forgot to water them?!?! Should I go wake them up and water them?).
Today, on this glorious, blue-as-berries day in Bellingham, Washington, I am steering clear of the Kardashians and frozen treats, but it still took me hours to get down to the tasks that want doing during the precious hours I have with my neglected laptop. Before I could get to any of that, I needed a brownie. I needed Facebook. I needed some “real time” time with a far away friend, and I needed to troll some tiny house porn so my brain could uncramp from the mind-expanding download of the previous days. A glorious backpack in the North Cascades, a group paddle north of the Diablo Dam peaking in a triple rainbow, going deep with scientists, activists, and musicians around Bellingham, and stolen moments scanning for Orcas on the horizon of the Salish Sea crowd the limited millimeters between my ears, and it’s only a few weeks into the fall semester.
In the last few days, we’ve learned something of how the indigenous tribes of the region (Washington has the fourth highest population of indigenous people in the United States) relate to their landscape, and it is rocking my world. It is commonly held that the people gained their language from the trees, and that each tree has a unique song. Furthermore, if you live a good life, you have may come back as an Orca (or “blackfish” as many indigenous people call them). The tribes consider the Grizzly an honored brother, and believe it was from this iconic animal that they learned what to eat, how, and when, in order to survive in this complex ecosystem.
I know that this intimate relationship with the natural world is not unique to the native people of the Pacific Northwest. Still, when one is sleeping on the ground encircled by ancient trees, anticipating the cresting of an ebony fin each time one looks out across the water, and living with the awareness that one might be walking in the footsteps of a Grizzly, cougar, or grey wolf, one goes from knowing something to capital “K” Knowing it. It’s magic and science, legend and fact all rolled into one incredible dose of what it means that humans are not the be-all and end-all of life on this planet. Sometimes a brownie is the only thing that can keep one’s brain from leaking out of one’s ears when the capital “K” knowing comes calling. (Note: put the brownie in your mouth, not your ears). In my case, it takes a brownie, a bunch of breaths, time to ogle tiny houses, and a stroll around town snapping pictures of the crazy things a person gets up to while waiting for her next life as an Orca.