Ten Years of Wandering

Ten years ago, I went to the Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon for a Day of Mindfulness - a one-day Zen meditation retreat. The monks welcome groups from many different contemplative persuasions to their stunning 1,300-acre sanctuary. Interestingly, they even have a zendo-like meditation space, because their founder was deeply inspired by Eastern philosophy. I've been on retreat there many times, often for four-day silent retreats. I was there the other day and realized I'd been quietly walking the same trails and looking out the meditation hall window at the same lovely trees for a full decade - and it really struck me.

I spent a good portion of my life moving every couple years, bouncing around Asia, changing homes so much I'd often wake up in the night unable to remember which country I was in. Because I grew up in such far flung places, I'd never even revisited a childhood home until recently, when I was back in Korea for a photo festival. To think I've been wandering the same Oregon trails for ten years of my life is kind of amazing. That kind of continuity is not something I'm accustomed to. 

Every time I'm at the Abbey on retreat, I spend about half of each day hiking and photographing. I make quiet little images inspired by my love of the place. Photography really can be a mindfulness practice, a tool to help us appreciate the present moment in a more charged, focused way. So, I tromp around in the puddles, snag my sleeves on blackberry vines, stand and breathe and rejoice when I'm lucky enough to see a buck or hear an owl hoot - and I make photographs that feel like little moments of solace and grace. Once I ran up to the top of the Abbey's mountain and stood exalted, panting, and muddy while the trees swayed above me, and it felt like heaven. Every now and then in my wanderings, I happen upon a humble, DIY shrine tucked away in the woods, the pet project of one of the resident monks. A few colored stones from a fish tank, a woven belt, a baseball hat as a tribute to a monk who loved the game, a crystal hanging from a branch - there's even an old, weathered ironing board in a very out of the way spot with a little shrine set up on it. 

Praying Figure, Woodland Shrine 

Praying Figure, Woodland Shrine 

One reason the Abbey is so dear to me is that I've seen it change dramatically over time. When I first visited, it was thickly forested with lovely but overgrown "crop" trees from previous landowners who had used it as a tree farm (the monks still practice some forestry on the land, to support their living expenses). A couple years later, they mounted a large-scale restoration project to return some of the land to its original state - a grassland and oak savanna. The first years of the restoration were shocking. They cut the trees and burned the rubble in massive piles that smoked ominously for days and made the ground run black with ash in the rain. It looked post-apocalyptic for a good two or three years. We'd do walking meditation along charred, muddy paths and I'd look out my window at night and see the brush piles glowing red on the hillside. 

Slowly, though, the land came back into itself, as it always does. The savanna began to thrive. The ancient oaks that were choking in the thick of the plantation growth have air and light around them again, and they look magnificent against the open sky. It's amazing what ten years can do.

I've changed a lot in the last decade, too. I was just 29 when I got lost there for the first time, and I'll be 40 later this year. It took me a decade to learn every trail. I love how photography can help us connect more deeply with the places we love. Of course, we can use photography to trace changes in a landscape, but it seems to me it's also a practice that helps us explore the evolution in our lives. I've wandered and photographed at the Abbey when I've been stressed about my work life, giddy on the cusp of a new adventure, heartbroken and isolated, and happily in love. Who knows what the next ten years will bring. Whatever else may happen, I imagine those same quiet trails will be there, patient and welcoming as they always are.

I can faintly hear the hum of the city from inside my home here in Portland. It's comforting to imagine the land out at the Abbey, now quietly settling in for the night. Perhaps there's a light wind in the grass, maybe a few deer are stepping softly along my beloved, familiar paths, maybe the chapel bells are ringing out over the landscape. I often think about the beauty and power of impermanence, and the Abbey is certainly a reminder of change. But, it's also a lovely expression of constancy - at least in the span of my one, small life. As William Stafford wrote, "There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.....Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread."

Sakura, Spring at the Abbey

Sakura, Spring at the Abbey