A simple weekend of wilderness solitude on the Oregon Coast turns into couch-surfing with recovering heroin addicts, evading gunshots while chanterelle foraging and learning the true essence of Acceptance.
“Accept and you become whole,
Bend and you straighten,
Empty and you fill,
Decay and you renew,
Want and you acquire,
Fulfill and you become confused.
The sage accepts the World
As the World accepts Tao;
He does not display himself, so is clearly seen,
Does not justify himself, so is famed,
Does not boast, so is credited,
Does not glory, so excels,
Does not contend, so no one contends against him.
The saints said, ‘Accept and you become whole’,
Once whole, the World is as your home.”
– Tao Te Ching
Tent. Sleeping bag. Ripped canvas sack stressed with books and notepads. Fierce cup of burnt coffee wedged between dash and glass, a mug unwashed. Ukulele in trunk, severely out-of-tune. To the West! Where Sun dips into the depths and Shadow dances in delight to its homecoming. To the jurisdiction of Soul.
Urbanism weighs heavy. Head and heart drenched and unruly, like a surrendered raincoat sticking to skin like cellophane. Returning to Portland after 3 weeks in Southwestern Colorado and Utah wilderness left me deeply inspired but supremely rattled. So much gained. So much to make sense of still. So much work to do. Endless notebook scribbles, cryptic dreamtime hieroglyphs begging to be deciphered. What better place to venture than to yet another threshold, one of rugged, wild coastline?
Benton MacKaye, 1950’s forester and prominent conservationist, placed human tendencies into two general categories: the gregarious and the solitary, with “wilderness lovers emphatically belonging to the latter.” Alone. I need to go some place alone. I need to go where Earth sings symphony with wave crash, sea spray and gull mockery. Not sirens, pervasive billboards and clogged arterial traffic. No, this restless soul demands restless coastline.
Come, strength of Shore Pine and Hemlock. Furtive Sandpiper, Elusive Oystercatcher. Tend with me to this clairvoyant maritime call.
Cascading sheets of celestial tears slap windshield and enter the turbulent turbines of thought churning within. Wrinkles of elation and anxiety commence trench warfare on my forehead, a result inconclusive. Cerebral laps. Just put in my two-weeks notice at work. Decided to leave Portland in a month to pursue a deep resonant call no longer residing here. Leaving a place and community I’ve loved and called home ever since returning from my 2006-7 solo trip around the world. Moving parts, lots of them.
Without destination, Wind directs me to Astoria. Stepping into a small bookstore downtown, I interrogate the owner about nearby camping options, while Richard Louv’s second book encourages my purchase. I buckle. A young girl enters, and I see her selected books revolve around mushroom foraging. Her name is Clover. Amicable. Curious. Slight guarded. I spark up conversation and learn that she and some friends plan to forage for chanterelles in the morning. She invites me and I accept, thrilled to learn of coastal foraging sites. We decide to meet in the morning and I return the favor by buying her books.
We both leave the store with much more than we had arrived.
Suggestions lead me to explore camping options near Fort Stevens State Park. Driving through the campground, rain drums a steady beat while grey skies weave through groomed forest. Pavement. RV hookups. Chugging generators. Sites marked with yellow painted numbers. Gaggles of pimply Boy Scouts running everywhere. A scene bloated with unnecessary order and civility. Not what I have in mind. I park somewhere hidden, to poach a spot in the tall dune grasses. But something just isn’t right. Exposed beach invites sideways rain to pummel visitors, while heavyset rangers constantly comb the park looking for dissidents. I swear one passing ranger truck has a gun rack. Stay inline or die.
I begin to hate this place. I curse it as a recommended option for natural human recreation. Really? Another protected site to honor some fossilized military base? I shell its exterior with pockmarks of disgust that my people get off on such war machinery while making us pay $21 for a paved “wilderness” experience here. So I call. I call the number Clover gave me. Not sure why. A young guy picks up and introduces himself as Ty. Friendly enough, hard to read. I learn he will be leading the expedition tomorrow.
I ask, “Might there be anyway I could toss my tent in your yard tonight?”
He responds, “Yeah, definitely. Just head on over and we’ll set you right up.”
I hastily exit following scribbled directions. A young hitchhiker joins me, fragrant with desperation. Drug money pickup at the Dairy Queen. Fresh out of the military. I attend fully to his disjointed story as he cares little about mine. Wounds run shallow beneath the skin.
I arrive to the house. Large, white and alone. Cradled between a church to the South and a cemetery to the West. Seeker, meet Maker. Pulling up, I am greeted by Ty and several other young men in their early 20’s. Inside, TV projects a bad action film. Walls lined with fraying couches. A framed inspirational quote under an image of a swimmer performing the metamorphic butterfly stroke hangs crooked on the wall.
Awkward silence cartwheels across the room with my entrance and all eyes latch onto me. Clover sits quietly in the corner. I thank them for the foraging invitation and offer to buy a 6-pack in return, but Ty responds that they are all not into alcohol anymore. He then launches into a monologue that this is an Oxford House, a place for recovering substance addicts to live together and regain a clean, sober existence. Five housemates, each from every corner of the country. All fresh out of a local treatment center, working local jobs and sharing living expenses to get back on their feet.
Okay, I think to myself. This day just got even more interesting.
I decide to lean in. To say “yes.” I release any reservations to stay here and instead sink my teeth fully into this microclimate of recovery, addiction and resolve. And so, we begin to share. I listen. I learn. I relay my own exposure to alcoholism and substance abuse. Channels open. Channels of trust, of relatedness, of sameness. A drumset hides in the garage so we all migrate to experiment with shared sound. The ukulele is tuned and plucked. Our instruments harmonize and we all begin to feel a collective resonance, shared octaves of mutual respect and understanding between absolute strangers.
Evening falls and cools, and we all prepare dinner together — bloody elk steak and potatoes. Two housemates head out to their Saturday night Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and ask if I would like to join. Having been to meetings before in support of friends and family, I accept. Driving to town, I uncover more about their battles with substance abuse. Years of heroin addiction. Severe dependency to painkillers, 80 times the recommended dose. Cold medicine benders. They’ve tried it all. Yet, despite all this, their maturity is stunning. Clearly, through such early wrestling matches with adversity, they’ve cultivated a fierce sense of Self and purpose. I am reminded here how some of our biggest leaps in personal growth are taught through defeat.
The meeting room is overflowing. Men. Women. Teenagers. Mothers. Elderly. Waiting for the meeting to start, I peer outside the window to watch the fluorescent, blinking world of bars, beers and bourbon entice the weary, the domesticated, the vulnerable. Take a load off! Knock back a few! Cut the tension! I switch eye sockets with the jittery lady adjacent to me and review the scene from her vantage. Dilated pupils absorb fully this circus spectrum of color, this universal texture of temptation. I see clearly that substance indulgence calls us at every corner.
The facilitator is a young guy, not a day over 20. Yankees hat cocked slightly, fleeting eyes, he introduces tonight’s topic: Acceptance. And for the next hour, everyone digs into what Acceptance means to them along their respective journeys with sobriety. The stories and perspective in this room leaves me absolutely floored.
Many had lost everything — families, partners, friends, homes, businesses. Everything. All from a deceptive allegiance to alcohol or drugs. “I have accepted that I am an alcoholic. And by accepting my powerlessness over things I cannot control, I can move forward with strength knowing that there is nothing I can do about what’s already been done. What I can do, however, is look forward with strength, with dignity and pride in knowing that it is now up to me.”
The stories told turn me again to the scene outside. I widen my lens to include how “acceptance” might help us when applied to something larger: our addiction to Western civilization. How might Acceptance help us move on from our widespread addiction to technological gadgetry, profit margins, economic expansion, cheap products, disposability, bottled water, gasoline, a life overworked, underlived, hypersexualized, fast-fed? As alcoholics are unwilling to let go of their poison, it seems that Western culture is also unwilling to give up our poison: a destructive, ego-driven, psychoadolescent way of living and consuming. Ecopyschologist Chellis Glendinning helps identify six major symptoms of such addiction:
1. Denial. “Business as Usual.” I’m going to continue on the path I’m on because there’s really no big problem here. My job pays the bills, puts food on the table, enables me to pursue other interests. This is denial.
2. Dishonesty. Addicts habitually lie about their activities, about where they are going, what they are spending their money on, etc. This is evident too with our Western ways of living. We see politicians and business leaders deliver lie after lie about making any significant change.
3. Control. Western culture repeatedly manipulates the natural environment to control. Author and activist Jerry Mander speaks to the propensity for centralized power as a perfect example of this. Cyberneticist Gregory Bateson uses our excessive use of DDT in the Vietnam War as a primary example of our addiction to controlling nature, knowing well the chemical’s long-term effects.
4. Thinking Disorders. Substance abusers consume recklessly, knowing fully that a nasty hangover or unpayable bar tab will repeatedly meet them at the end of their binge. Such irrational behavior is clearly found in our techno-addiction, driven to short-sighted fixes with long-term unviability and obsolescence.
5. Grandiosity. Addicts are often also addicted to power and prestige. So are we. More cars. More profit. More growth. Subscribing to such empty affluence propels this unsustainable model forward.
6. Disconnection from Feelings. As addicts often suppress emotional torment and loss, so too is their an increasing inability in modern culture to express our full range of emotions to peers, family and partners. Such stunted communication limits any viable recovery or transformation.
To move forward, we must first accept that much of what leads our lives is an addiction to an irrational and unsustainable model, an antiquated way of living that is clearly affecting our psychological, physical, societal, spiritual and ecological integrity.
We must first accept this.
Then we must make change.
And we must do this now.
A few cups of watery coffee and a full hour later, the room is dizzy with stories of emotional, radical honesty. The strength and insight leaves me silenced as we exit into the misty evening and drive back. They offer a couch to sleep and I accept gladly. Cocooned into my sleeping bag and staring at a foreign ceiling, pummeling highway traffic nearby rattles the window. Lonesome truck slices southbound into the ink of night. Truck driver. Ty. Me. All journeyers experiencing life as it comes. Nothing to be done about the past now. The pleasure, the pain. What we have done, how we have acted, loved, hated, cheated, abused, been abused. I lay still and accept was has been done on this day. I celebrate my intention, my boldness, my strength. I also take record of my anxieties, my self-doubt, my jealousy, my selfishness. I accept the good. I accept the bad. And then I sleep. And I dream. And if tomorrow ever comes, I hope for another chance tomorrow to live with even greater authenticity than the last.
I awaken to Folgers and cigarettes copulating in the kitchen. Sufficiently caffeinated, the four of us depart for the hunt. Blankets of clouds overhead, pregnant with rain. A short drive gets us into a labyrinth of coastal forest roads. Backpacks and blades slung, we head out on foot into the dripping evergreen. Gunshots are heard dangerously near, from hunters of a different breed. Dark rain coats do little to distinguish us from other terrified fauna, so we decide to stick together.
Golden chanterelles eventually reveal themselves from beneath fern and grass. Upon my first discovery, I spend a moment to admire its characteristics. Delicate and soft. Strangely shaped. Unique. In the presence of this suspended fungal firework, I am reminded of my own uniqueness. My own odd, blossoming shape. My fragility. My exploding, awakening treasure from this Mycelium of Mystery.
As we all tramp across spongy forest floor, I inquire further about their drug recovery. What has helped you wake up, stay clean? Community support, they say. Healthy activities. Exercise. Meditation. Art. And Acceptance. Accepting that what has happened, well…it happened. Feeling depressed about the pain you incurred, the people you hurt or the years you have lost does nothing but encourage further escape. Learning from the past is critical, but living in the past is simply energy wasted.
Several hours later, we return to the car with a healthy portion of mushrooms and Ty insists I take all of the bounty home with me. Being together in the woods with a new friend was enjoyment enough, he says. They see it no other way. As if we had all spent years together, we exchange muddy hugs and I wish them strength and courage a thousand times over in the coming months.
Then I drive away.
My return to Portland leaves me processing. My tending to a tug for coastline led me to a completely different adventure than I could have ever imagined. Instead of wilderness solitude, I joined a house full of strangers, while fully neglecting to read or write a single word.
But what I found was greater. What I found was a world suffering on many different levels. I was reminded of the scale, the ubiquity of pain, of addiction surrounding all of us, and within us. In our fast-moving, techno-addiction, there are so many wounds left unaddressed and repressed. We cover them up with substance, with toys and material, with obsession over sport statistics and the stock exchange. Millions are left in the wake unfulfilled, void of purpose, unloved. We deal with this pain by controlling the world, to tame the external as we are repulsed by our inability to fully address our own internal warfare.
So, it seems that the first step is to understand and accept such a problem exists. Heave your TV set off the balcony and tune into your heart for a moment. Step into the Real. Perhaps, through the flap of Raven or the morse code of Woodpecker you will hear. You will hear something True. And you will also hear friction. Friction caused by our culture, our habits, our middle-way profit-driven green-washing environmentalism, our toys, our retreat into cathedrals of consumption, into repressed wounds and guarded communication. What of this remains within us must be recognized, understood, accepted…and then released. Sure, it got us here, to this moment. And we must thank it. But we must let this addiction go for something far greater. Or, we can do nothing. We can stay in our bubbles. We can stay guarded and clouded and addicted. We can remain small.
But why? How beautiful of a moment is this! What a grand opportunity we all have! The chance to be one more awakened soul of an evolving, complex species, of an animate world growing into its own soulful skin. A golden chanterelle spear wiggling bravely through soil to mark the Cosmos with Her one unique shape, ridges flayed fingerprints. From mycelial beginnings and endings, this must be the way of the world. Carl Jung’s “ephemeral apparition” of your life is blossoming right now, and it will be over soon. So be fierce. Scream up towards Scorpius with piercing conviction and radical transparency. Dig into darkness, celebrate triumph, laugh at foolishness and learn leagues from loss. In Rilke’s words:
“Winning does not tempt man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.”
In the end, for all of our strides towards wholeness, towards the unfolding poem of our life constellated by accomplishment and defeat, perhaps we will then be rewarded with a standing ovation from the Ancestors, from the Future Ones and from Mystery itself.
It’s your choice.