The last year or so has been a challenging one. I am getting a divorce after 23 years and there is a lot to learn, and even more to un-learn; about the world, about myself, about relationships. I have been thinking a lot about “groundwork” and how I believed for a long time in a paradigm that said if I worked hard and diligently and laid a solid ground beneath my feet, at some point I could rest easy and revel in that. It’s that same story we hear in the West about getting to retirement or busting our asses in high school so that we can get in to a good college or killing ourselves in college so that we can land a good job and … rest.

I am un-learning.

I am reminded that people who embody their purpose and their passion, who trust their instincts and intuition and forge a path from that, centered in it, steeped in it, are the people who most inspire me. These people don’t lead with fear, they live with it, walk with it until it falls away. It is, at most, an occasional companion on their journey, not the engine that drives their motion.

I wanted, at some point, to stop living moment by moment, breathing deeply and re-centering myself. I wanted to have built a solid path already so that I wouldn’t have to keep laying one cobblestone at a time, breathing always, focused always. I wanted there to be some magical point in time when I would have laid enough “groundwork” that the path would simply be there, shining and solid before me, so that all I had to do was step out and follow it with ease.

As I say that out loud, I realize that the only way that can happen is if I go backwards. The path in front of me hasn’t been laid yet. It can only be laid by me.

Some days, I want to lie down on the path I’ve already made, at the place where the last cobblestone is set before dropping off into Earth, and rest. And I think that’s ok. Rest is ok. This is hard work, laying your own path, staying grounded in who you are and being true to your own deepest pull.

If I am to forge my own way, I have to keep building one stone at a time. I have to keep asking, ‘is this who I am?’ I have to believe that what lies behind me is only important because it is how I got here. It is not worth going back to.

So while I don’t know exactly where I am going, I know that I am getting there one brick at a time and I also know that each brick is laid with care and determination. The point is not to get “Somewhere” or to “Finish” or even to look back and show how far I’ve come. The work is the point. The daily inquiry – what is most important and true today? what is the highest and best expression of my Self? what is the next right step?

If I embody those things, the work is centering and grounding and I am grateful for it.

Suddenly, I have no more longing for a clear path ahead. I know that what I’m creating is its own purpose, and that gives me joy. And I know that all around me is an abundance of materials and support, reverence and love, and that if I can remember that I am part of something bigger that sustains me and to which I am responsible, in the moments when I falter, I am held firmly.

The house we lived in when Lola was born bordered a protected salmon-spawning creek. While I’m certain I had seen it on television or in a film at the science center somewhere, nothing quite prepared me for what it would be like to see spawning salmon in real time.

The creek itself was about twelve feet across and, in the summer and early fall, rarely more than five or six inches deep except for some hidden pockets.  Because this is the Pacific Northwest and we take our salmon seriously, there was a 150 foot setback on both sides of the creek that prevented anyone from altering the vegetation even slightly. Both banks were crowded with alder saplings and older maple trees, thick with Himalayan blackberry and stinging nettle and holly that choked out the Oregon grape and ferns.  Using his farmboy skills, Bubba whacked a deer path wider for us with a rusty machete handed down from his father so that we could walk out and stick our toes in the thick mud in the summer.

The first October we lived there, I smelled the creek fifty yards before I got there – the rich, sour smell of rotting fish hung in the air like fog.  Another ten yards and I could hear splashing but couldn’t conjure a picture in my head of what was causing it.  Finally, I stood on a piece of plywood we had laid across two rocks on the bank to keep our shoes clean and gaped.

Hundreds and hundreds of salmon whipped their tails side to side, packed in next to each other so tightly I could have crossed the creek on their backs. The water was so shallow and these fish so large that fully two or more inches of their bodies protruded above the creek.  Water sprayed in wide arcs as they frantically pulsed their tail fins to push forward, upstream. Their heads were silvery-grey and their bodies flashed red-orange in the daylight.  When I scanned the sides of the creek I saw dozens that had given up the fight and lay dying or dead on the banks.  There were a few who had found refuge behind fallen branches, in pockets of deeper water, where they hung out resting before they forged ahead again and I nearly wept in recognition of their fatigue.

There have been times in my life when I was that fish – the one taking a quick breather before heading back into the fray, barely holding on to breath but knowing that there was no going back, if only because there were others behind me that were plowing ahead and I would get in their way.  And I have wished for the world to stop for a bit, for the flow of the creek to hit pause so that I could breathe without quickening my pulse, without watching the clock, without steeling myself for the rest of the journey.

In a dream the other night, I had a change of perspective.  Instead of being on the outside looking at that fish and empathizing, I was the fish. I was surprised to discover that, instead of dreading what was to come, hanging out in the cool, deep water, I was anxious to continue on.  Instead of focusing on the fatigue of swimming upstream against the current, I was excited for the journey towards something, and I felt the solidarity of all my fellow fish in the water. We were all swimming with purpose, certain of where we were going and why, clear in the knowledge that it was bigger than all of us.

The phrase “like a salmon swimming upstream” is forever changed in my mind.  And as long as I don’t linger too long on the fact that the salmon all die shortly after completing this journey, when I begin to feel too tired to go on, I can remind myself that I am moving in the direction of something important and kindle the excitement instead of giving in to exhaustion.