The giant coastal redwoods of California were one of the highlights of my recent trip to America.  I loved their immense and ancient stillness.  It was good to share the experience with my family.  They put me in my place.IMG_2437

I am writing now on Easter day, back in Sheffield, England.  Having broken my weekly blogging routine while away, I had many reasons to avoid writing again – the usual inertia but also a desire to do some creative woodworking instead.  Spare time is limited.  Yet I have come back to writing after reading ‘The War of Art’ by Steve Pressfield.  (I recommend it, whoever you are and whatever you do.)

Writing is how I make sense of things; by weaving a thread through what I have seen, finding connections that help me understand life.

Another highlight of our stay in America was visiting a Christian 12-step recovery group that my brother and sister-in law are involved in. It was such an authentic and attractive expression of church – love, acceptance, humility, and so much wisdom from the mouths of people without pretensions, who really meant what they said. Broken people, so very like me, yet (at least for the duration of that meeting) freed from the burden of respectability.

It strikes me now that the way I felt listening to the details of these struggling people’s lives, was very similar to how I felt reading my holiday novel ‘The Red House’ by Mark Haddon. That shock of recognition in the well observed details of real life:  ‘I though it was only me who thought/said/did that sort of thing!’  It interests me that very good writing often reveals to us the things we already know to be true, yet somehow haven’t faced up to.  Good writing can give us a welcome break from life.  It can also return us to life with fresh insight.

A line that keeps keeps appearing in print or being quoted to me lately is this one from T S Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

One of the books I saw it quoted in is called ‘How to be an Explorer of the World’ by Keri Smith.  I had to buy it when I saw it at the Royal Academy bookshop just before leaving for America.  The ‘eyes-wide-open’ approach to life was something I immediately knew I wanted to encourage in my daughter’s upbringing.  I also knew I needed to rediscover it for myself.

In one of our experiments while staying with my mother-in-law in Folsom, we collected pond water from 3 different sources in a large jar.  It was fascinating to see the life that thrived in this new ecosystem, and continued to thrive up until we had to leave.  Tiny living things I had never even noticed before.

We also collected interesting and/or beautiful things in a tin.  Here are some of them:

Driftwood Seeds, wood and stones

Before flying home, and after saying farewell to family in Folsom, we stayed 2 nights in the Fort Mason youth hostel, in a stunning location in San Francisco.  I would recommend it above a fancy city-centre hotel any day.

We collected some seeds of the Eucalyptus trees that surrounded the building.  I noticed that most have a 4-pronged hole in the centre, but some are divided instead into 5 and some into 6.

Eucalyptus Tree Seeds

To me this was beautiful.  (Especially when, looking up and around from this detail, I could see the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog, the ominous island of Alcatraz, and the varied architecture and dipping and rising streets of the city of San Francisco.)

It was good to spend a final few days just the 3 of us, in this exciting place, before returning home.

It was great to really feel present in the beautiful places we visited.  To forget about business and put my family first.

Sometimes a change of place brings with it a lot of  expectations.   What the place really represents to us is a feeling – peace; escape; adventure; healing; success etc.  That feeling, as represented by a place and as imagined in our minds from a distance, is pure and unsullied.  Yet on arrival it is immediately diluted by the things we carry with us.

However I’ve noticed that the essence of what I hoped a place would be can be extracted and purified again in hindsight.  I can separate the beauty or peacefulness of the place from the distracting thoughts I had with me whilst there.  Both looking forward, and looking back, I can remove the preoccupations of my mind.  One of the ongoing aims of this blog is to live that way in the present.  To be fully present.  And I am glad to say that I am closer to that aim than when I started.

One of the things my wife talked about early on in her stay was the need to let go of expectations for her time with her family – particularly the desire to change things that make her sad but are beyond her control – and to embrace things as they are, knowing that if she wants to bless others, it will happen by being herself and loving others as they are.  Embracing the present moment.

One of many thoughts that struck me in the 12-step group was the need to accept hardship as part of life, part of the path to healing and wholeness.  I often live as if my goal is to avoid all hardship, to have an easy life.  Yet experience has proven that hardship brings out a lot of goodness and a lot of rewards.   Hardship brings growth and to live is to grow.

Which brings me back to the giant redwoods.  (There is much more I could say about the special times we had with family, and also the sadness of my father-in-law’s Alzheimers, but I have decided not to make this blog too intimate in regards to the lives and feelings of those close to me.)

When a redwood undergoes stress it may produce a burl.  These burls produce some of the most beautiful and sought-after timber for fine work.

All our time away there was the knowledge hanging over us that we would return to our old life in Sheffield – but hopefully a slightly different life.  As you will know if you read this blog, I decided to lay down my own woodworking business and the stresses it imposed on us, to start working for someone else.  Well, when we returned to England, we heard that this was not going to be possible, at least not yet, and I would have to return to my business.

fallen trees

On the last day of our excursion to the Humboldt redwood forests we had a walk in the Rockefeller forest.  It was a short loop route, and the trees along the way – living, fallen, or burnt-hollow – were astonishing in their grandeur.   At the far point of the loop, before heading back to where we started, was a rushing river.  And across it was the magical site of 2 trees fallen from either side, one balanced on the other, yet somehow neither quite touching the water.  I had an urge to cross the river by walking on these logs.  Yet I could see the upper log was finely balanced on the lower one and might have rolled off at any time, sending me helplessly into the current.  I also had my precious daughter to look after.  We stopped a while to absorb the place before walking back up the bank and on with the loop.  Shortly after this we saw a deer in the sunlight through the trees.

My desire for a thread of truth, for a story to everything, helps me to see this as an illustration of where I am at.  I have been away, seriously considered different paths, and come back to where I started.  Yet I do feel changed, and I see things differently, living where I do, running this business.  I believe I am capable of running it and I shouldn’t doubt myself so much.  I believe that I can do what’s best for my family through it all.

I am aware of the tug of old habits and the fear of old problems.  Yet I think my adventure lies in this place and I am eager to face the challenges and to get started again.