Dolomite rocks and unfinished jigsaw puzzles
Reflecting on an intentional autumn retreat
Hello Finding Out friends! This is our last planned newsletter of the calendar year. I'm taking off publishing for the next three weeks, and will be back with a new issue on January 13, 2022. In the meantime, feel free to pop on over to the Finding Out website for back issues, though I won't be offended if you don't. Peace!
A month ago, I took a solo vacation to a place with hiking and a lake view and a cozy space to read.
Planning the trip, my criteria and Airbnb searches lead me to choose a cabin on the Lake of the Ozarks, about a three hour drive southwest of St. Louis. As I daydreamed what I'd like to do with days to myself, I decided I could take whatever I wanted that fit in the car, without feeling guilty for overpacking. I added to my list whenever inspiration struck: a jigsaw puzzle and my yoga mat and a pile of books. As the list grew, I warned myself that I might wind up sleeping the whole time, and that would be a wonderful use of my vacation, too.
I even planned—and succeed in—buying a new pair of hiking shoes, just two days before my departure to the lake. Remembering the havoc of Cheryl Strayed’s too-tight Pacific Crest Trail shoes, I carefully followed Wirecutter's advice on how to buy well fitted boots. That night, I finally made time to research what hiking trails were actually near the cabin I'd rented. I discovered that I had lucked out and inadvertently selected a home base that was halfway between two different state parks: Ha Ha Tonka and Lake of the Ozarks. I would be just twenty minutes from a dozen trailheads.
As soon as I departed for my journey, I practiced noticing what I wanted to do at any given moment. I allowed myself to let go of any feeling of what I "should" be doing. At a gas station, I picked up favorite road trip snacks: savory Chex Mix and sour gummy bears.
My first morning in my vacation spot, I woke up energized by the opportunity to explore. Heading out daily, I hiked through woods dotted with dolomite boulders and along the coast of the lake and a gorgeous spring. Each trail I finished made me excited for the next, and added to my confidence in reading the maps to choose between them. My new shoes served me beautifully, protecting my feet as they carried me.
When I wasn't hiking or relaxing in the parks, I was reading or resting at the cabin. I didn't read as many pages as I'd imagined I would, but I had the time and space to savor the wisdom of the authors I brought with me: Alison Bechdel, Audre Lorde, Margaret Atwood, and Robin Wall Kimmerer. And I enjoyed cruising through half of the Murderbot novel, too.
I even picked up my nearly-abandoned ukulele a few times, surprising myself as I rediscovered how much I enjoy singing.
One of my proudest moments came on my third night at the lake, when I finally accepted that the jigsaw puzzle I had brought was too difficult to finish before I left. I took the few sections I had completed apart, putting the puzzle in its bag. As I picked up the last piece from where it had fallen on the floor, I took a selfie to celebrate. It’s still hard for me to choose to quit, even when I'm quitting something that was supposedly "just for fun," and even when I know it’s the best decision for me.
Throughout the trip, I felt a whole range of emotions, from elation to contentment to quiet discontent and reflection. Temporarily alone, my world felt gloriously expansive.
What’s wild is that although my partner enthusiastically supported my adventure, I almost didn’t go. I picked up on his reasonable worry about how tough solo parenting could be for that long, and I misinterpreted his anxiety for reluctance. I nearly prioritized easing his discomfort over my own restoration. When I told him about that temptation a few days after I’d gotten back, he was astonished, and he reiterated how glad he was that we had done it.
Now that I’ve been back awhile, my memories of the trip are fading, but I am working to remember its lessons. Some nights before bed, I pause to set down my phone or my book, and I gaze softly into space while I remember the day’s heartwarming moments and small victories. When I have a moment to myself, I try not to strategize how best to use it, but instead to listen to what my body says to do next.
After 20 months of pandemic parenting, it was revelatory to spend a week without responsibilities to anyone but myself. As we move into a new year which looks like it may be regrettably similar to the last, I wish for you, too, to find the audacity to prioritize your own healing and growth.
Mentioned in this issue: The Lake of the Ozarks; Cheryl Strayed's boots, as described in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail; Ha Ha Tonka State Park; Lake of the Ozarks State Park; and the books I brought with me: Alison Bechdel's The Secret to Super Human Strength, The Selected Works of Audre Lorde (as curated by Roxane Gay), Margaret Atwood's Dearly, Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, and Martha Well’s Network Effect: A Muderbot Novel.
Action update: I’ve researched becoming a poll worker in St. Louis, and even got to talk with a friend about her experience with it. Here, it means a two hour training ahead of time, and then a 15 hour day on election day, helping voters get set up with their ballots. Poll workers are paid $125 per election. I’m looking into giving it a try for the next election.