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A Closed and Common Orbit
by Becky Chambers

Started Nov 2, 2020
Finished Nov 8, 2020

Back to Reality

A couple weeks ago we took a much-needed vacation to Ithaca, New York. Ithaca is a small city in a remarkably beautiful setting on Lake Cayuga. All around the lake, including right through the city, rivers have cut their way through the rock to form waterfalls that cascade through forested gorges. It really is a special place, and we have now visited three times.

Since I’ve become a parent, vacations have become less about relaxing and more about having fun while trying not to do too much. I think we struck a good balance with this trip. We did less than we might normally have, partially due to being cautious about COVID, and partially because the weather was mostly rainy. But we still did a lot, more than we have in months, which was greatly appreciated by our stir-crazy daughter.

Halloween yesterday was a blast and almost felt like the before-times. Things were a little different due to the pandemic, but people made the best of it. We set candy out on a table in our front yard so trick-or-treaters could help themselves; Others had clever ideas like sending treats down a chute or delivering them by a longer grabber pole. Our little witch loved it all so much she was crying when the night was over. Such is childhood.

Now we’re back to reality for a bit. The election looms. Work continues.

I added a couple more reviews about books I’ve read recently:

Reading notes

I’ve been reading more in an effort to avoid the relentless 2020 news cycle. I added a page to track my progress, and have added some notes about a few of the books I’ve read recently:

Wanderlust

I’m itching to get back to traveling. Since that’s not in the cards, I’m remembering some of my favorite recent trips and documenting them on the new Travel page.

Forest Bathing

I try to use my lunch break each day to take a walk outside. The neighborhood where I work is one of Pittsburgh’s nicest, full of charming houses, brick and cobblestone streets, and towering sycamore trees. Usually when I start out, my mind is racing from whatever problem I was just struggling with. As my heart rate increases and I start to breathe deeper, my head clears as well and I gradually relax into the rhythm of walking.

I walk the perimeter of the neighborhood, which abuts Frick Park, a massive woodland in the middle of the city. Along those perimeter streets there are lots of places where trails dip into the woods. I know the park well, but in the past I’ve avoided venturing in on my lunchtime walk; I figured there wasn’t enough time, and I’d get drawn in and miss an important meeting.

Well, the other day, before I knew what I was doing, I was on the trail, winding my way through the woods. There is a palpable difference between walking tree-lined streets, however lovely they may be, and walking in a real forest. The winding path, the dappled light from the canopy overhead, the soundscape of trickling water and rustling leaves. I felt an immediate sense of relief, well-being, and vitality. After a few minutes I was overwhelmed with emotion and had tears in my eyes.

I’m not sure what provoked that sort of response, but I guess it had been quite a while since I took a walk in the woods by myself. I craved it. As I settled into the rhythm of the walk and let myself be pulled along by the trail, I got to thinking: If a walk in the woods is that therapeutic for me, why not do it more often? What are the stressors in my life that make basic self-care so difficult? What long-term harm is that doing to my health? To my relationships? What am I missing out on? What can I do about it?

The older I get, the more I realize this problem isn’t just about adjusting my priorities. There simply are not enough hours in the day to work full time, cook healthy meals, exercise regularly, read broadly, make art, and be an attentive parent, a considerate husband, and an engaged community member. I can prioritize all I want, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that roughly half my waking hours are spent getting ready for work, commuting to and from work, and working.

That’s hardly an original thought, but maybe it’s worth considering why so many people are so vexed by this same problem. The rat race. I’m lucky enough to have a job I enjoy… I just want to spend less time doing it, and more time in the woods, or with my family, or sitting on my porch swing doing nothing at all.

A stone waymarker reading "Skalholt 49 KM" in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland.
A stone waymarker reading "Skalholt 49 KM" in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland.

There and Back Again

And just like that, we’re back from our long-planned adventure to Iceland.

Every part of the trip went about as well as it could have. We explored an incredible variety of landscapes, from seaside cliffs to sulfur-steaming volcanoes to glacial lakes to sheep-dotted grasslands to black-sand beaches to the charming urban streets of Reykjavik.

Each day was busy, but the combination of fresh air, exertion, and wild landscapes nourished me in a way I didn’t know I needed. We explored only a small fraction of the island (from the capitol city to Snaefellsness peninsula in the west, then to the south as far east as Vík). But after eight days, Iceland left us wanting more.

We will be back.

Dies the Fire review

One of the goals of this website is to catalog all the various stuff I enjoy. TV shows, movies, music, and yes, books. In that spirit, I’ve decided to make dedicated pages for all the books that have meant a lot to me over the years, complete with a plot summary and totally subjective review. As a start, I chose Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling, one of my favorite books and a really fun piece of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. Read my review.

An artist in the city of Kouroo

There’s a quote in the footer of this website from the conclusion of Walden by Henry David Thoreau:

There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.

The story continues:

He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth.

When I first read those words as a young lad of seventeen, devoting my life to making one single perfect thing was a very appealing prospect. Back then I was about to start my first year at college, and I was processing the implications of that new phase of life and all the choices it entailed: Choosing a concentration, choosing classes, choosing friends and social activities. Choosing a career. How would I spend my time? The answers I chose would have lasting effects.

Walden and Thoreau’s philosophy affected me deeply. I believed then, and still do, that we can be happier with less. Owning less, doing less. But until that point in my life, it had all been theoretical. I lived with my parents. I had only really worked for a few summers, without the pressure of earning a living. Still, I worried I was stepping into the rat race unwittingly. I enjoyed taking photos and writing and making little websites. Would those passions go by the wayside? Only if I let them.

College provided a few years to change course, and Walden was my touchstone the whole time. I read it every day. I would finish it, then immediately start over again, gleaning something new with each re-read. For a while I was the artist in the city of Kouroo. I tried to work on my writing single-mindedly. I tried to pare my life down to the essentials, although I had a lot of books. I became a really unhealthy vegetarian, then a really unhealthy vegan. But I still couldn’t manage to make time stand still.

You see, I was also dealing with crippling anxiety and depression. The Kouroo story, and by extension much of Thoreau’s philosophy, really did a number on my perfectionist and purist tendencies. I wanted to be a Boddhisatva, or, if that didn’t work out, at least a philosopher. But mental illness had other plans.

It’s been at least ten years since I’ve read or had the desire to read Walden. It informed a critical period of my life, and I would not be who I am without it. But at a certain point it became clear that it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all philosophy, at least not for me. I needed to do my own navigating.

So why do I still love that quote? Sentimental reasons, I guess. But I don’t take it quite so literally anymore. I will always “strive after perfection” — it’s in my nature. But now I see the passing of time as a beautiful thing. My depression has receded, my anxiety is in check, and I’m learning to cope with perfectionism. I want to make things that are pretty good, then let people judge for themselves.