this is a new year's letter

Happy 2015!

I sent out this New Year's letter to friends and family a couple days ago. Writing an annual letter has become a decade-long tradition, and it continues with this one. Enjoy.


Dear friends and family,

I am sitting on the floor of a friend’s one-room cabin in Mendocino with a gash on my right knee. It’s a red ridge with blue, bruised edges—nature’s brand upon my body, proof that earlier today, when we were hiking through Russian Gulch, we went off the trail and found ourselves on the wrong side of the river in a fern canyon. There were fallen trees all around us, and we kept climbing over them, swinging our legs over their slippery, fungi-speckled trunks. We were heedless, determined to make it through the forest on a mere semblance of a trail with treacherous and muddy, leaf-swamped ledges. Losing ourselves in the wilderness was not a loss; rather, the experience was intimate and serendipitous, as we embedded ourselves deeply into the forest folds.

Somewhere along the way, a sharp nub of a branch scraped me badly and dug into my skin—I was careless, but sufficiently carefree. And no matter, you can’t blame nature for your pain when you collide with it, or when, like a storm, it heaves itself upon you. You cannot question the logic of the seasons, or coerce the rain into watering the earth. These are matters of fact, the mysterious ways of nature to which we ascribe beauty (a sunset) or catastrophe (an earthquake) on our own terms. The same waves that collapse boats also thrill surfers. When a tree falls, the earth grows over it, and life flourishes on it and through it and within the hollow cavern of its trunk. The sun that brings life also withers, also burns up.

This past year contained so much grief—that is what I remember most clearly about 2014, despite its many moments of shimmering joy, because tragedy echoes loud and long. Its afflictions spread surely because grief has no bounds, and it permeates, without losing its intensity, in the spaces where affinities are deep and bonds are strong—where there is love and empathy. Within community, grief is amplified, but healing is also easier. Community makes grief less terrible to bear because no emotion is possessed in solitude; true community refuses to alienate.

But still—as family members fell sick, as friends were taken away, as loved ones passed, as relationships were broken, as bigotry begot slaughter, as death followed and haunted us, as tragedy befell and uprooted us—, we asked, How could this be? How does the world rage on this way? How do we live in this darkness? I am reminded of a sorrow-filled scene in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in which 11-year-old Cal Trask is praying and crying in his bedroom: “Don’t make me mean. I don’t want to be,” he says. In agony and desperation, he pleads to God, I think, not only because he sees darkness and evil in himself, but also because he sees in the world what he sees in himself, and he hates what he sees. The brokenness in him is the brokenness around him. Where is the light in all this?

I’ve tried to make sense of these passings. At first, it seemed as if understanding the logic of tragedy would offer some consolation, but when I looked for logic, I only found pain. Among the few consolations I find to be true—the ones that don’t diminish or write off sorrow—, one is in nature herself, which helps me to see beyond the immediate without dismissing the present. These systems, cycles, and phenomena that we witness in the natural world—so intricately wrought, nuanced, and complex—are in fact, in all things—they must be! Surely our human lives, so short and fleeting, are mysteries we cannot solve, mysteries that abide, mysteries by which we must abide. Mortality, however, reveals itself: in our freedom, as well as in our limits. Perhaps our helplessness is revelatory.

In the hidden gulches and throngs of mountain trees, let me not forget I am so small, walking among giants! Let me remember how grand and majestic this universe is, hidden and revealed according to God’s principles. If light can cast itself differently everyday, if the ashes of wildfire can nourish the soil, then there must be some hope of renewal to cling to. “Salvation might ache before it heals,” wrote Leslie Jamison. There is more here than what my eyes can see, rhythms that I still cannot hear. Because there is more than I can take in and understand, disavowing resolution can be a relief. Letting go of my compulsion to know and understand requires humility and willingness. The all-embracing arms of nature demand that we let go of all that is petty and unimportant. As such, every hike, every seaside sojourn, and every forest wander has felt like a sigh. Every rain and every arrival at a mountain peak has been a reminder of hope, that there is a better world to come. The world whispers, Forget not my beauty, forget not God’s grace, in spite of it all.

Nature is sorrow. Even when it relieves sorrow, nature does not transfigure sorrow the way grace, I think, transfigures all things, all people. I have seen grace in practice most clearly in my community this year, a community of friends—of brothers and sisters, really—that bestows grace upon one another. In 2014, I found a rootedness in San Francisco, which means that for the first time in my life, I feel the possibility of longevity in a place. Early in the year, I moved from one side of the Mission District to another, and now I live around the corner from four of my best friends. This has been a strange and surreal blessing. We share so much, both tangible and intangible; we possess in common; we have committed our lives to one another.

The greatest joy this year, by far, amidst all the sorrow, has been deepening these friendships: rejoicing and mourning together, seeking to understand who we are in relation to each other, and inviting others to partake in our sweet communion. We feasted on tres leches cake, we made granola, we cried so much, we planted fava beans, we hiked, we wrote letters, we climbed Bernal Heights, we collaborated on art projects, we went succulent-hunting, we took nightly strolls—every minute of all this strengthened our ability to love one another, especially when sorrow descended upon us.

To be rooted in a place, I have learned, is to be rooted in its people. It is community that grafts together the broken branches. Regarding grafting scions onto trees, I read: “When roots make physical contact with each other, they often grow together.” In what I have seen among my community this year, I believe this to be true.

In 2014, I quit my steady tech job. I traded a sheltered and bounded office life for the possibility of more meaningful work. No more than a month after I left, the founders of Edition Local—merely an idea then—found me, and I began writing the stories of craftspeople and artists living in West Marin, which was a serendipitous privilege. If my own community of friends helped to plant my roots in San Francisco, then learning the history of these towns, surveying the geography of hope in these landscapes, and discovering the narratives of the people who have lived here for decades has surely fortified and anchored those roots, stirring in me a deep sense of belonging and sensitivity to the land. These words from Rainer Maria Rilke’s diary resonate: “I feel that I am on the way to become an intimate of everything that beauty preaches; that I am no longer a mere listener who receives its revelations, that I am becoming more and more … someone who heightens their answers and confessions with discerning questions.”

Yet despite the feeling of rootedness in San Francisco, I am still wandering, as I think we—pilgrims on this earth—are always doing. Quitting my job was an explicit point of departure, but I think, whether physically or metaphysically, we are departing and arriving everyday. In these comings and goings, we can choose not to be complacent; we can choose how we want to live, by which principles we will conform our lives, instead of conforming to the cultural narratives and ideals that have been thrust upon us. We can see beyond the illusion of parameters. We do not need to know where we are going, but we can choose how we will walk.

Even without a destination, wandering is not without a sense of direction, for you can orient yourself around what is good and true and constant. Stephen Prothero suggests that wandering is not exile, but rather an opportunity that fosters new ideas and creative insights. The essence of wandering, he says, is “moving without destination into the unknown and opening yourself in the process to surprises.” No matter how daunting and unknown, the wilderness is rich in beauty and hidden glories; do not dismiss the possibility of miracles. Know this: you do not have to travel the world to see it. It is right here before your eyes. You only have to commit to seeking, and surely you will find. You will find what John Haines calls, the “hidden [places] obscured by what we have built upon it … Whenever we penetrate the surface of the life around us that place and its spirit can be found.” So go on, seek and find. Know and unknow. Root and uproot yourself. The new year lies ahead, and in its wake, I am hopeful. Happy 2015.

My friends, I hope to continue to tell the stories of where I pass through and how I walk. I started an email newsletter this year, and I continue to write on my blog. I would love to hear from you. Thank you for listening, thank you for reading, thank you for responding.

I leave you with this line from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, one of my favorite novels of 2014:
“So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.”

With love,

1 comment:

  1. Hey Natalie, I found your blog via Shanna's (FLW) facebook, and I wanted to say, I loved this letter. Especially this beautiful line that rings loud and true - "We do not need to know where we are going, but we can choose how we will walk."

    thank you for sharing your thoughts so truthfully and transparently. I hope your 2015 is filled with unbroken joy and light that shines through any sort of darkness.