On Walking Barefoot, Giants, Having No Money, and Gratitude

I am walking barefoot down a trail, surrounded by giants. Real giants. Recently I picked up a book titled “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien and read the first chapter. It was sitting in a cafe on the coast of Oregon on a foggy and rainy day. That day the only reasonable thing to do was to sit down, split a chai latte, and read. This particular cafe had a selection of books one could read while enjoying a beverage. I chose “The Hobbit.” Anyway it has had me thinking in fables and myths ever since.

Lydia and I are in The Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park on the coast of Northern California. Trees that are one thousand years old, three hundred plus feet tall, and up to thirty feet in diameter are towering all around us. This is among the last of the old growth redwood forests left on this planet. In the nineteenth century there were two million acres of these old growth redwood forests in California and Oregon. Today, after the onslaught of industrial scale logging and development, there are only one hundred thousand acres of it left.

The earth is soft under my feet, gentle and welcoming. Back in the days of old, when there used to be so much more old growth forest, I wonder if that is the seed of truth that the giant legends sprouted from. Maybe, however long ago these stories came to be, there truly were more giants on this earth than there are today.

I always feel strange when I walk barefoot in public spaces. I often feel like it makes me stand out more than I like. People seem shocked by it when they walk by, but they don’t understand. When I was at Plum Village in France I was taught by the monks that walking barefoot is a great way to deepen ones connection to the earth. We were encouraged to take off our shoes during walking meditation and “kiss Mother Earth with our feet” with every step we made.

The earth is our mother. The food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the ground we walk on all is provided by this mother. She truly cares for our every need, physical and emotional. I love how Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the earth as a mother in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass.” After drifting on her kayak in a lake one day with her heart full of sadness, she says:

“The earth, that first among good mothers, gives us the gift that we cannot provide ourselves. I hadn’t realized that I had come to the lake and said feed me, but my empty heart was fed. I had a good mother. She gives what we need without being asked. I wonder if she gets tired, old Mother Earth. (pg. 103)”

I can’t count how many times I have come to the mountains or the forest with a deep sadness and emptiness in my heart, and without me asking Mother Earth feeds me and I feel full again. My own mother is like that as well, so truly. I recently texted her: “Headed down the Oregon Coast! Just put our last thirty eight dollars in the tank, yikes!” Not long after I received a response: “I was going to send you some surprise birthday money. Do you want it a couple days early?”

Life on the road has had me constantly, in one way or another, thinking about money. In Vermont Lydia and I lived paycheck to paycheck. We would hit zero every week until the next paycheck would come in. On the road, we live paycheck to…theoretical paycheck that we’re not sure how were going to make yet. It can get stressful and we have to get really creative. We cook every single one of our meals from bulk foods and fresh veggies. We drive thirty minutes out of our way to find places we don’t have to pay for to sleep. It can be a lot of fun too. All of those nights we’ve spent bumping down dirt roads in the middle of nowhere looking for free camping and wondering whether we are going to be either eaten or killed have added up to some really fun memories.

Also it helps us drop our ego and the whole American mindset where its important to do everything oneself and not need anybody else to help. We have had to let go of our pride and say hey, we need a little help right now, more than a few times.

Both Lydia and I are grateful to have families and friends that are so supportive of the lifestyle we choose to live. Though we try our best to support ourselves and not ask for too much, when we do need to reach out those people in our lives have never denied us. We’ve come to discover that being self-reliant is a myth. No matter how hard we try, in one way or another, we are not independent, but interdependent and tied to every other living being on this earth in some way or another.

Living with little money has also opened us up to the incredibly beautiful experience of being unexpectedly helped by strangers along the way. After a conversation with a couple on the coast of Oregon about the way we live, they decided to surprise us by giving us all of the food left in their cooler. They told us they were about to be fed at a convention for a couple days and didn’t need it anymore. Another stranger we met at a rock climbing store in Jasper, Alberta did a similar thing. Lydia and I were talking to him and I mentioned that I had lost a couple quickdraws (a piece of rock climbing gear) so far that season and needed to buy a couple more whenever we got the money. He encountered us later that day on the street and asked us to wait at our car because he had a gift for us. He showed up on his bike five minutes later with a couple of brand new quickdraws and just gave them to me. Before I could even say thank you he told me to stay safe and rode his bike away. To give a little context new quickdraws are about twenty dollars each, so this was very generous!

On top of that, its given us the chance to have the incredibly beautiful experience of feeling like we are giving something valuable to a lot of strangers along the way. Picking up odd jobs on craigslist and through random connections we make has been a valuable crash course in networking. Its also been a chance for Lydia and I to choose projects we feel really good about accomplishing for people, which we maybe wouldn’t have had the chance to do if we just worked a standard nine to five.

For example, in Seattle I had the unique opportunity to build a cedar raised garden bed for a woman we stayed with. Meanwhile Lydia weeded out an area that had been totally overgrown and planted local clover as a cover crop. Of course this woman paid us for our work, but it still totally felt like we were giving her something of deep value. Because of our work she was able to plant a fall vegetable harvest for herself and enjoy the environmental benefits of clover in her backyard, including soil erosion prevention, carbon fixation, and local pollinator attraction.

In Montana we got the chance to work at a local brewery called Homestead Ale run by an amazing younger couple at their homestead. They were so busy keeping the brewery and restaurant going they didn’t have time to tackle odd jobs like weed whacking or small carpentry projects. I was hired to put up a sheet metal roof over their chest freezers, which they needed done for health inspection purposes. Lydia weed whacked a trail all the neighbors would walk down to come visit the brewery for live music and good food. As we sat inside the brewery after finishing our tasks, we sipped on our complimentary Kombuchas given as thank you gifts to us by the owners. During this time several locals walked in talking about how happy they were to have their trail opened up for them! That certainly was a good moment.

Admittedly living on this financial edge can be really hard also. When money starts dwindling and no place in town will even let you use their bathroom without making a purchase everything can start feeling really cold. All of a sudden the homeless people in the cities start feeling more relatable. I can’t help but realize that if I were born in to a situation that had no way to support me I would very easily be in their shoes. I feel so much empathy for these people. Our society can be so cold to the people who live in it with no money. It’s truly heart breaking.

When I start doubting the choices we have made about how we live our lives, I have learned in these moments to recognize all of the gifts that we have. When I reflect in this way I feel so grateful for all of the people and places that have kept my heart, soul, body and mind nurtured and cared for. Thich Nhat Hanh likes to write about how we never stop and feel grateful that we don’t have a toothache. Its only when we do get a toothache and realize how miserable life can be that we see how fortunate we are day to day to not have one. He writes that its a good daily practice to thank ones eyes for allowing one to see the wonders of the world. He goes on to thank the ears, heart, liver, spleen, and so on for performing their necessary functions so well for us.

Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass” writes a chapter titled “Allegiance to Gratitude.” In this chapter she talks about a day when the local high school calls to tell her that her daughter had stopped standing up for the morning recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Robin Wall Kimmerer is Native American, as are her children. She goes on to describe what is recited in the morning at Native schools. They call it the Thanksgiving Address, and it starts like this:

“Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one. We are thankful to our Mother Earth, for she gives us everything that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love, and respect. Now our minds are one (pg. 107).”

The address goes on to thank the water, the fish, the plants, the berries, the birds, etc. in a similar way. It is quite long, but the children repeat it every morning. Robin Wall Kimmerer goes on to write about this morning address. She says:

“Imagine raising children in a culture in which gratitude is the first priority. Freida Jacques works at the Onondaga Nation School. She is a clan mother, the school-community liaison, and a generous teacher. She explains to me that the Thanksgiving Address embodies the Onondaga relationship with the world. Each part of creation is thanked in turn for fulfilling its Creator-given duty to the others. ‘It reminds you every day that you have enough,’ she says. ‘More than enough. Everything needed to sustain life is already here. When we do this, every day, it leads us to an outlook of contentment and respect for all of Creation.’ You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That’s good medicine for land and people alike (pg. 111).”

So admittedly maybe we are pushing our finances a bit close to that “edge.” I related to my mother when we were talking that it wasn’t my intention necessarily to live this close to my means. Sometimes I feel a lot of guilt for asking for help with the car bill or for a little gas money when I know how hard both of my parents work. I know Lydia and I are trying to live a heart centered life, one of balance and giving. For whatever reason on the financial side of things its just not flowing as easily as other aspects of our path. Its a constant learning process for us for sure. But when the financial pressures start to feel heavy and things get tight, maybe amongst the stress and fear this can offer a chance to reflect on all we already have. So much of this world cannot be bought or sold.

We arrived in Trinidad, CA at an old friend of mines house later that day with about eighteen dollars to our name. We weren’t to bad off though. The next day, Friday, would be my birthday and the day after a farmers market was happening in town. My friend told us how to volunteer there in exchange for fresh veggies and mentioned there were probably some odd jobs around he could find us. By some miracle right when we were running out of money and food we found some refuge and a way to resupply.

By the time we left Trinidad, one week later, we truly felt wealthy. We had filled our cooler with enough organic vegetables to last two weeks, re-stocked our dry food, and saved up some money to get us over the Sierra Nevada’s. We also got the same feeling of “giving back” with the work we were hired to do. My friend who we stayed with lived on the property of an older man who rented out his airstream trailer to him. Over the years, this older man had accumulated lots of firewood that was way to long for his stove. It was stacked in huge messy piles in his back yard. Piece by piece we unburied the long wood, cut it in half with a chainsaw, and stacked it neatly in his wood shed. Having both lived off of wood heat through the winters in Vermont, Lydia and I knew how comforting it is when the season starts to turn to go in to ones wood shed and see a neat stack of wood waiting. We felt really good about giving this as a gift to this stranger!

The organization we volunteered for at the local farmers market outside of Trinidad in Arcata was called The Food Project. It was a project based on “gleaming,” which back in the day was the process of going through a farmers field after his harvest and grabbing all the vegetables that they missed. Whoever did this got them for free, because they would have just rotted back in to the ground anyway. The Food Project “gleams” at the local farmers market for food the farmers didn’t sell that won’t make it back to the farm in good enough condition to be sold again. All the food collected is donated to people with aids, HIV, or just people in need like the homeless. Because there is such an incredible bounty of food collected during this “gleaming” in the summer, the volunteers are welcome to help themselves to some of the free veggies also. It felt so good walking around the farmers market gathering fresh organic vegetables for people who needed it the most. The fact that we were able to fill our cooler also was of course an added benefit.

In Trinidad we not only filled our van and our pockets, but also our souls. My friend lent me his surfing gear and every morning at 9am I got to sit in the ice cold salt water, watch the waves break over the rocks, and try to catch some rides. Lydia stayed on the beach, where she painted the water and did yoga. At night the sun would set over the Pacific Ocean, reminding us that we had made it all the way across the country and then some in our 1982 VW Vanagon. Without knowing it we had shown up amongst the redwoods and the ocean and said feed me, and Mother Earth and the community here fed our bodies, minds, and souls.

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