Learning to soften - #63
Want an easy present for the holidays? Gift them a subscription to Shangrilogs. And if you want me to mail them some stickers and a bookmark, just shoot me an email with your receipt and their address.
Earlier this year, Ben and I instated a new marriage policy: every month, we would exchange planning responsibilities for an elaborate date. I was lacking romance, he was lacking novelty, this was a fix. It’s not terribly taxing, given you only have to plan six dates a year, and because we like a lot of the same things, you can pretty much plan a date for yourself and feel confident the other one will at least sort of enjoy it. November’s date was a bit of a tag-team. By the time this arrives in your inbox, I’ll be fast asleep and likely hungover in some not-yet-revealed-to-me hotel near Santa Fe, New Mexico, after seeing St. Lucia at Meow Wolf. I bought the concert tickets, and Ben planned a big weekend around it. All I know is to pack my mountain bike gear, my best bouldering shoes, and a bathing suit.
Something I love about these dates is the level of control. You are either the captain or the passenger — there is no “what if we…” or “how do you feel about…” The date is planned, and the other surrenders to the plan. But the best part for me is that it was Ben’s idea. In 2018, at the height of my own burnout and stress, Ben planned us a trip to Europe, and he planned everything: the flights, the hotels, the car, all the destinations. I have never felt so loved — not because it was particularly lavish, but because all I had to do was enjoy it.
I am incredibly self-sufficient, but it’s easy to idolize self-sufficiency to the point of excluding people from your life. In 2012, I flipped over my handlebars after misjudging a jump at the Valmont Bike Park outside Boulder. Despite a serious concussion, I was back on my bike a couple days later because I needed to get cat litter. A coworker saw me riding with two boxes of litter strapped to my back and pulled over.
“Get in,” he yelled out the window. “I’ll throw your bike in the back.”
“Oh, I’m fine!”
“I don’t care.”
He got out of the car, grabbed the cat litter, and loaded the bike. In the car, the radio playing quietly, he said, “you’re not an inconvenience, Kelton. But it is annoying when you act like one.”
As any Gen Zer on TikTok will tell you, hyper independence isn’t always the American ideal we crack it up to be. At best, it’s a disconnect from the joys of being human. At worst, it’s a trauma response. In every relationship, I’ve had to learn to ask for what I want. Not just what I need, but what I want. In the solitude of my dream world, I am still alone. I still fight armies by myself. I still escape with no one by my side but the cat. I still believe no one is coming to help me. But here, in the land of the living, I know the best way to change how I dream is to change how I live. So I ask for help, and I cower in the shame of it until I succumb to the joy of it.
A few weeks back, I needed some help. I needed someone to watch the cats while Ben and I visited my parents in Idaho. Cats are notoriously self-sufficient, tiny killers who dictate when and how they need you. In high school, my best friend sent me some lyrics she said reminded her of me:
The one person who really knows me best
Says I'm like a cat
Yeah the kind of cat that you just can't pick up
And throw into your lap
No the kind who doesn't mind being held
Only when it's her idea
Yeah the kind that feels what she decides to feel
When she is good and ready to feel it
And now I am prowling through the backyard
I am hiding under the car
I have gotten out of everything
I've gotten into so far
I eat when I am hungry
And I travel alone
Just outside the glow of the house
Is where I feel most at home
I first read those lyrics at 17, and I hold them dear still, despite sort of hating the song itself. All those years of prowling, of choosing the barn over the warmth of the house, left me feeling like that’s where I belonged. I mistook all the plates of milk left out for me as pity when they were almost always invitations.
Finn and Snoots are the best of cats — companions that want to play and cuddle and talk to you. When I come home from even a few hours out, they come running to say hello, so when I’m gone for a week, I want someone to stay with them. Not because they need it, not because they might want it, but because I want it for them, because I love them. And I get desperate when I love something, which is how Michelle Juergen came into my life.
I asked Instagram for help. I needed a cat-sitter.
Michelle and I became fast friends in that week leading up to cat-sitting, and through the week, and now, weeks later. After her time in the cabin, I asked if she wanted to write a guest post for Shangrilogs. I didn’t need help covering the newsletter, but I wanted it. It’s easy to forget, but sometimes the things we want satisfy the wants of others. So thank you, Michelle: for loving my cats, for seeing me, and for writing the essay below. It made me laugh, and then when I was least expecting it, softened things long hardened.
For years, I’ve been threatening to move to a cabin in the woods and become a crotchety old hermit. Most days, I’m two out of three of those descriptors, so it’s not far-fetched to think I’d actually make good on my pledge.
So this fall, when Kelton needed someone to watch Snoots and Finn for a week at Shangrilogs — a chance for me to role-play as Old Man Mountain and shake my fist at the pristine blue sky in a remote town some 10,000 feet above sea level — I jumped.
But the thing is, while I might have some vague “outdoor skills,” I know fuck-all about remote living. I can make a fire and pitch a tent, but I don’t know how to change a tire, let alone de-ice a car. I don’t know how to chop wood or use a chainsaw, I don’t know how a septic system operates, and I have no gardening abilities to speak of. I don’t even own long underwear; I’ve only ever lived in hot climates — Houston, Los Angeles and, now, Albuquerque — so being in snow makes me giggle nervously and wonder if I’m about to die.
The one time I lived in a cold place was during college, when I studied abroad in Oxford, England, in winter and spring. I thought I had hypothermia every day. And I could have easily taken the necessary steps to remedy how freezing I was, but I grew up with a German father who taught me that you make due with what you have (and suffer), and an immersion in the Christian faith, which taught me that you make due with what God gives you (and suffer).
So, every night, I rolled myself up like a burrito in my paper-thin blanket and hoped I’d awaken, not frozen to death, in my heatless flat. I sloshed through sleet and snow in sneakers, shivered during classes in my insufficiently warm Roc-A-Wear puffer, and grin-grimaced at my tutors and insisted, “I’m fine! I’m very self-sufficient!”
What does it mean to be self-sufficient, anyway? For a very long time, I thought it meant suffering. I thought it meant austerity and stoicism. It meant sucking it up, turning the other cheek, shouldering other people’s burdens. It meant proving to everyone how tough you can be, that nothing fazes you, that you have no feelings about anything. That you can let your friend’s brother punch you in the arm over and over without flinching until you have a bruise the size of a grapefruit. That all you need on a backpacking trip is a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and 12 oz. of water. That you smile humbly and tell the kids at your Christian university, “God is good,” while you think about swallowing your entire jar of antidepressants. That you nod quietly and adjust the bloody toilet paper stuffed in your underwear when the guy you’ve been seeing says, “I mean, it’s not like I raped you” as he walks you to your car. That you say, “Thank you for telling me” and give him a hug when your boyfriend tearfully admits he kissed someone else. That you delicately hang up the phone after your alcoholic boss calls to scream at you during work and you just keep type-type-typing like an obedient editorial assistant.
Then, one day, you’re on an international flight, and as you stare at the big puffy clouds and tears roll down your cheeks because he can’t contact me and he can’t hurt me for two whole weeks slides onto the big screen in your brain like a NYSE ticker tape, you realize you’ve never actually been self-sufficient. You just think it’s normal to let people harm you; that your version of “self-sufficiency” means taking all the punches until you’ve been pummeled so hard you’re nearly six feet under. It only takes being 35,000 feet above the earth to see how deep you were being buried.
Now, I know that self-sufficiency is self-care. It’s taking a moment when I feel a panic attack coming on to put my hand on my chest and ask, “What’s going on?” It’s setting boundaries. It’s cooking an epic meal during a camping trip. It’s labeling things that happened to me as “abuse” and “assault.” It's going to therapy, it’s texting a friend when I’m spiraling to ask for some grounding words. It’s packing a La Croix and a homemade muffin for the end of a long hike, and it’s telling my male co-worker that it’s completely inappropriate to speak to me that way. It’s telling my parents, no, I don’t want to go to church with them.
And, on a beautiful autumn day at Shangrilogs, self-sufficiency was sitting inside crying instead of going on the herculean outdoor adventure I had planned for myself. It was decidedly not hiking till my legs fell off or scrambling up to a waterfall, as I’d hoped. It was trying to write about what I was feeling, and failing, and then crying some more, and then giving myself permission to rest. It was spending two hours in a sunlit kitchen watching the neighborhood dogs go sniffing by while making tofu katsu curry. It was lighting a candle, putting on a cozy sweater, and cuddling with two adorable, strange cats who are clearly fiercely loved by their owners. It was softening to the gentle requests of my heart.
I see this version of self-sufficiency — my updated 2.0 version — at Shangrilogs. It’s in every room, every nook, even every stone of the massive fireplace, which is dotted with little artifacts — a bullet casing, a flower, a brooch, a ring, a bundle of sage, a pinecone — like a shrine to nature and to the soul.
Self-sufficiency is creating a home that feels like a companion. A place stocked with good food, warm blankets, tchotchkes from your travels, beloved books, thriving plants, photos of your loved ones, and a buttload of candles. A space that envelops you in an embrace the moment you walk in. It’s easy to see how intentional Kelton and Ben have been to design a house they love, that loves them back. To know that they might live and play hard, always looking for the next big adventure, always up for getting their hands dirty and knees scraped, but that they also value a long embrace, a warm drink in front of a fire, a relaxed sigh after a tiring day. There is so much softness in this cabin — so many reminders of tenderness — that I almost couldn’t be unkind to myself. It’s the kind of nest I can only hope to build one day, a physical representation of the grace I’ve learned to give myself.
Yes, there are some general skills that are handy for mountain living. Like basic first-aid and knowing how to split firewood. Like knowing car stuff. Like owning long johns. But there are a lot of underrated skills we don’t usually include when we talk about self-sufficiency.
Like knowing when to stop and breathe. Or dance around wildly, or grieve, or make a stew that takes four hours, or take a bath and do a hair mask. Self-sufficiency is knowing how to take care of your physical body, and that might be a warm coat and snow boots, but it’s also knowing how to nourish yourself emotionally — how to hold your inner child, how to be gentle, how to give yourself the compassion and sweetness you weren’t given for so many years. How to hold your own gaze in the mirror and say, I love you, I love you, I love you.
Every day, I keep learning that self-sufficiency isn’t how hard you can be. It’s how soft.
Thanks, Michelle. There’s always a plate of milk for you here.