What Happens When the Journey Ends (a Tracks Postcript)

By Shannon Cutts
IMAGE: ROBYN DAVIDSON ON THE COVER OF NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC 1978 (RICK SMOLAN/AGAINST ALL ODDS PRODUCTIONS)

IMAGE: ROBYN DAVIDSON ON THE COVER OF NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC 1978 (RICK SMOLAN/AGAINST ALL ODDS PRODUCTIONS)

A few days ago two things happened.

I finished reading “Tracks” by Robyn Davidson, and I posted my first attempt to make some sense of her beyond-the-sensible and amazing journey.

While the book caused me more than a few sleepless nights, I now feel it was a good kind of sleeplessness – the kind that occurs only with the most profound and unstoppable of wake up calls.

Unlike so very many in our culture today (and even me for a time earlier in my life), Davidson did not wish to be famous. She wasn’t interested in being anyone’s inspiration or role model or icon or heroine.

She was searching for something – something private and personal.

She was searching for some kind of continuity within herself, her path, her past, her future – and at that point in her life, the search seemed to require a dog, camels, and a trek across 1,700 miles of desert.

So be it.

In the Postscript to “Tracks” (written in 2012), Davidson states she can hardly relate to the girl in the book she herself wrote, much less the character in the movie by the same name.

I totally understand.

Looking back now, I hardly recognize the girl who flew alone to India, and then to Israel, in search of ….. something. I admire her sometimes – her courage, her innocence, her hope – but I don’t really know her as “me.”

So why did she do it? Why did Davidson spend nearly two years learning to train camels, raising cash, assembling gear, even giving part of herself away to National Geographic in exchange for a cash sponsorship to buy what she lacked?

Continue reading… »



Tracks: What Robyn Davidson is Teaching Me about Journeys

By Shannon Cutts

TracksBookLet me just start by saying – oh. my. goodness.

I can’t remember how I heard about Robyn Davidson or her extraordinary journey.

I just remember, the moment I heard about it, I was online hunting down her book.

Titled simply “Tracks: a Woman’s Solo Journey Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback,” the story she has to tell is simply mind-bending.

Davidson embarked upon her solo adventure in her mid-20’s.

When I was in my mid-20’s, I, too, was embarking upon a solo adventure. Mine was to India and Israel, hers through the Australian desert.

But I will confess it took me many more years since then to unpack even a portion of the wisdom she unearthed within herself during her 1,700 mile journey.

For the record, it also seems pertinent here to mention I have never once in my life had even the merest inkling of desire to walk across any large, hot, dangerous body of sand accompanied only by camels and a dog.

Clearly, my life is the poorer for it.

During the early stages of her journey, Davidson frequently gave in to bouts of panic, which, to hear her tell it, were largely initiated by intense inner battles between the order/regime/structure she had previously relied on and the freedom to live in the moment that desert life demanded.

As the desert’s ever-changing environment did its work on her and she slowly learned the wisdom of opting for the latter, her panic eased and inner wisdom arose in its place.

That inner wisdom was – is – as timeless and profound as the desert itself (click here for amazing vintage photos from her journey).

Davidson on her love of animals:

I am quite sure Diggity [her canine companion through the desert] was more than dog, or rather other than dog….She combined all the best qualities of dog and human and was a great listener…..The trip, of necessity, had brought me much closer to all the animals, but my relationship with Diggity was something special. There are very few humans with whom I could associate the word love as easily as I did with that wonderful little dog…..Animal lovers, especially female ones, are often accused of being neurotic and unable to relate successfully to other human beings. How many times had friends noted my relationship with Diggity, and, with that baleful look usually associated with psychiatrists, said, “You’ve never thought of having a child, have you?”

Davidson on love:

I had discovered capabilities and strengths that I would not have imagined possible….I had rediscovered people in my past and come to terms with my feelings towards them. I had learnt what love was. That love wanted the best possible for those you cared for even if that excluded yourself. In the past, I had wanted to possess people without loving them, and now I could love them and wish them the best without needing them.

Davidson on freedom:

I had understood freedom and security. That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one’s weaknesses…..we relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe. I had learnt to use my fears as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, and best of all I had learnt to laugh.

Davidson on prettiness:

I probably looked like a senile old derelict in fact, with my over-large sandals, filthy baggy trousers, my torn shirt, my calloused hands and feet and my dirt-smeared face. I liked myself this way, it was such a relief to be free of disguises and prettiness and attractiveness. Above all that horrible, false, debilitating attractiveness that women hide behind. I pulled my hat down over my ears so that they stuck out beneath it. “I must remember this when I get back. I must not fall into that trap again.” I must let people see me as I am.

Davidson on social mores and customs:

I’m amazed at how quickly and absolutely this sense of the importance of social custom fell away from me. And the awareness of its absurdity has never really left me. I have slowly regained a sense of the niceties, but I think, I hope, that I will always see the obsession with social graces and female modesty for the perverted crippling insanity it really is.

Davidson on her top FAQ trip questions:

It is extraordinary that the two most commonly asked questions about the trip (after “Why did you do it?”) are….one, What did you do when you ran out of toilet paper? and two (and this is always whispered over in the corner by women who giggle a lot), What did you do when you ran out of Meds? 

And there you have it.

It dawns on me that there are many in this world who may at one time or another grapple with the kind of questions that can literally transform a life.

But only a very rare and wonderful few ever set out – as Davidson did – to track down those questions AND record the answers she unearthed.

Reading Davidson’s story – told mainly from memory with assistance from a few diary entries and letters to friends – is now putting many pieces of my own journey into place.

I understand now why I struggled so hard with the “Twenty Questions” others had about my journey – why was I going?, why on earth India?, how long would I be gone?, was I worried about disease?, what would I wear?, how would I live? (this last usually about money) – before and during my trip, and even for some time after, I had no idea how to answer many of these questions myself.

Yet others clearly needed answers NOW and they weren’t happy about waiting.

As well, like Davidson, I found my sense of femininity and its place in the greater society tipped completely upside down…and was glad of such a refreshing change and oh-so-eager to hang on to it (which proved very difficult indeed once I was back stateside).

And like Davidson, throughout my travels I did battle at times with crippling loneliness and depression, even wondering once or twice if suicide was better than grappling with questions at once so ethereal and addicting.

Looking back now, I understand what Davidson means at a gut experiential level when she says, To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.

In the interim years between that trip and now, I have realized that security and freedom, people and animals, solitude and togetherness, questions and answers, beauty and custom – each has their appropriate place and time.

But most of all, I learned that I can’t be fenced in by any of them and expect my spirit to survive its captivity intact.

Perhaps none of us can.

Today’s Takeaway: Have you ever considered taking an extended period of time to make a journey of personal importance? If so, and you haven’t yet begun, what holds you back? If so, and you are in-progress or already through to the other side, what gifts did your journey bestow upon you?



What are We Doing with Our Lives?

By Shannon Cutts

shutterstock_158221817This was the title of a recent Time magazine article – more of an infographic, really.

The infographic spans the gamut from whether we use all our vacation days each year to how much time we spend checking email at home each night.

There are statistics for whether men or women watch more television daily (men), how much student debt the average graduate carries (far too much, IMO), whether we rent or own, and what we do with each 24-hour allotment.

There is also a preceding four-part infographic that attempts to summarize how SAT scores, education level, age of death, smoking, sex life, and drug use correlate with income earning potential.

Reading through this, I discovered I may have multiple personalities.

By which I mean, according to my SAT scores and level of higher education, among other aspects, I should be in a different class of folks than where I am income-wise.

Interesting. I guess.

By far the most actually interesting part of these infographics is the section labeled “time use.”

Here (in order of time spent) is how we – regardless of SAT scores, income level, drugs/cigarettes/sex/etc. – use our time each day:

  • Working
  • Sleeping
  • Leisure activities (sports, etc.)
  • Caring for others
  • Eating/drinking
  • Household activities
  • Other

While I’m not sure which category this falls into (other? household activities? leisure activities?), we only spent one-quarter hour per day making phone calls, checking (non-work, I assume) email, and sorting through our mail.

We spend three-quarters of an hour daily on the computer, which includes playing video games.

We watch just under three hours of television each day (guilty as charged).

And we leave an average of four vacation days unused annually (totaling 577,212,000 unused vacation days nationwide).

Finally – despite our so-called “workaholic” culture, average daily reported work hours hover between just 7.73 and 8.34 hours per day, which hardly gives us a nationwide case of burning the midnight oil.

I’ve revisited these statistics a few times now over a period of a few weeks.

What strikes me again and again is how much less extreme the numbers actually are than what much of the media likes to report.

Our “real” friendships and relationships are not being swallowed up by the internet – not at a daily rate of 15 minutes’ worth of checking email, anyway.

Our work and personal time is really rather balanced, overall (8.8 hours working, 7.7 hours sleeping, and the rest devoted to non-work activities).

After feeling so ab-normal for so many years in terms of lifestyle, income level, leisure activities, relationship status, and just about everything else, I am now finding I feel much more relaxed about each and all of these things.

I am also discovering I just no longer really care.

It is just stuff. Just statistics. It is an average – a bell curve – made up of either-end extremes as well as median-huggers.

It occurs to me, after reading through the five pages of infographics for the umpteenth time, that it is finally time to depart from my worries about what I am doing with my life, if I am where I am “supposed to be” for my age, education, IQ, gender, nationality, etc., etc., etc.

Eh.

This too is just stuff. It is just statistics. It can be interesting for a moment – the way watching a 30-second commercial for an upcoming episode of “The Real Housewives of Wherever” is interesting for a moment – and then it becomes oh-so-uninteresting again as it fades away in favor of my ever-changing, always-unfolding real life.

Today’s Takeaway: Where do you fit in with these statistics? Do you care? Are you at all curious? If so, why do you think you are curious? If not, why? Does reading through comparison-type statistics such as these offer you any practical help or life guidance – why or why not?

Busy mother image available from Shutterstock.



You are Living Proof that Gratitude Heals

By Shannon Cutts
One of my many mentors and "gratitude teachers."

One of my many mentors and “gratitude teachers” (my baby tortoise, Malti)

I used to dread the month of November.

And not just because of all the scary F.O.O.D.

I dreaded it because November is the “month of gratitude.”

I so wanted to be grateful – to feel grateful – to feel _genuinely_ grateful (as opposed to “faking it until you make it” grateful).

I wanted to be that kind of good person who could feel totally, deeply grateful for life’s blessings….without simultaneously wishing for so much more than what I had.

For instance – I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to have friends (besides my eating disorder, that is!).

I wanted to be able to sit down and enjoy a festive meal with loved ones free from fear.

I wanted to like what I saw in the mirror.

I wanted to love and be loved – to fall in love – to have romance and peace and joy and fulfillment in my life.

So I would start listing out the things I was grateful for, only to be confronted by this other list of all the things I felt I desperately wanted and needed that would never be mine.

In a word….PAIN. 

Continue reading… »



Beauty Sickness – Do You Have It?

By Shannon Cutts
Renee Engeln speaks on "Beauty Sickness" for TEDx.

Renee Engeln speaks on “Beauty Sickness” for TEDx.

A colleague recently sent me a YouTube video called “An Epidemic of Beauty Sickness.”

To be honest, my first thought was, “Ugh. Another useless rant about our cultural addiction to thinness.”

But, given that this is the year I decided to embark on a full-scale about-face in how I accept (or don’t) my own body shape and size, I kept her email to watch….later.

“Later” came today.

For the record, I am so glad I saved the link – so glad my colleague thought to send it my way – so grateful to the researcher (Renee Engeln) who braved the disdain of her own colleagues to pursue her research in this area.

I have discovered in Renee a kindred spirit – a no talk, all action, balls-to-the-wall, let’s call it like we see it kinda gal.

In 15 minutes (courtesy of TEDx), Renee outlines the issue, how it harms us, the choices we have, practical steps to make those choices, and the potential (positive) outcome if we do.

Continue reading… »



Celebrating Plumpness

By Shannon Cutts
The soft, plump, round seals of Cape Cod.

The soft, plump, round seals of Cape Cod basking in the warm morning sun.

Not so long ago, I found myself standing on a warm, sunny, sandy beach in my very favorite place on earth.

My folks and I were passing a pair of binoculars between us.

The focus of our avid interest?

Soft round brown harbor seals.

After struggling through half a mile of soft sand on foot, we burst over the top of the High Head dunes on Cape Cod to discover them by the hundreds, basking on the warm sand and bobbing happily in the surf with just their plump sweet noses upturned towards the sun.

We were riveted.

So soft!

So CUTE!

So round!

Soft, round, brown, cute, blubbery harbor seals. -Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Soft, round, brown, cute, blubbery harbor seals. -Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Suddenly I heard myself exclaim, “I love seals and all their round soft cute rolls of blubbery goodness!”

Huh? What?

Did I really just utter the equivalent of “I love blubber?”

Yup.

Yet there I was, standing on the beach beside them, feeling uncomfortably, well, blubbery, myself. 

Continue reading… »



‘Honest Signals’ as Our Mating Mentor

By Shannon Cutts

WildConnectionsBookMy latest favorite read is called “Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships.”

Written by scientist Jennifer L. Verdolin, the book’s fundamental query is simple:

What can studying animal relationships teach us about our own?

Right from the start I identified with the author, who described her early experiences with the opposite sex as “a puzzle I couldn’t quite figure out.”

In the opening pages, she shares, “I realized that I knew the ins and outs of the mating behavior of the animals I studied, but I knew very little about my own species or even about myself.

Hear, hear.

From the first chapter, years of confusion, frustration, and disillusionment about how my own species dates and mates began to melt away. I began to understand why things often feel so messed up – so complicated when they “should” be so simple.

I felt validated as well – if only through realizing I’m not the only human being who just “doesn’t get” how our species facilitates romance.

Here is one example.

Continue reading… »



What I Need to Feel Truly Human

By Shannon Cutts

shutterstock_79866124I recently returned from our family’s annual pilgrimage to Cape Cod.

Cape Cod is my favorite place on Earth.

I can learn more there, unwind more there, rest more there, restore more there, in just 24 hours than in 24 days back in my hometown of Houston, Texas (or anyplace else, for that matter).

This year – my fourth year of visiting the Cape – I have finally begun to detect the reason why.

Here at the Cape, and especially in the small town of Truro where we stay (Truro is the most remote town on the Cape itself), the ratio of nature to humanity is much more balanced.

In other words, here, human beings are in the distinct minority.

There are 100 trees to every one human, and nearly as many wild turkeys, dogs, and assorted wild birds in similar ratios.

Same holds true for sea life.

In fact, much of the Cape is made up of national parks and reserves – places where wildlife merit much stricter protections than man.

For this same reason, Park Rangers are a big fixture here – and yes, they do wear the traditional green and khaki outfits, complete with hats that would make Smoky the Bear proud.

During tourist season, the Park Rangers lead all kinds of nature walks and talks. During these events, they like to tell tourists, “when you enter the sea, you enter the food chain.” 

Continue reading… »



Finding Your “Formula”

By Shannon Cutts

shutterstock_74587597The older I get, the more perspective I gain about what works for me – and also what doesn’t.

For instance, trying to manage the stressors of life by using eating disordered behaviors doesn’t work.

Drinking caffeine all day to keep my energy level at a consistent “high” doesn’t work.

Ruminating excessively on all possible “worst case scenario” outcomes doesn’t work.

Taking handfuls of over-the-counter mood management supplements doesn’t work.

These are just a few examples.

What works for me is quite simple: medication + meditation.

Specifically in that order.

Meditation without medication offers some benefits, as does medication without meditation.

But together, they have forged an alliance that has given me a quality of life I had no thought possible.

Continue reading… »



Who Wouldn’t Love This?

By Shannon Cutts
Promotional poster for the The Sapphires - the hit Australian movie of 2012. (Credit: Hopscotch Films)

Promotional poster for the The Sapphires – the hit Australian movie of 2012. (Credit: Hopscotch Films)

Such goes my favorite line from one of my new favorite movies, “The Sapphires” (2012).

The film is based on the true story of an all-girl singing troupe who entertained the troops during the Vietnam war.

As aborigines living in their native Australia, the girls were marginalized – even hated. They were not even classified as people by their own government, but instead were considered part of the “flora and fauna.”

A chance meeting with a white talent scout puts them on the road to stardom, but even before this occurs, it is so clear they already have what many stars-in-the-making (and people, for that matter) will never have – a solid foundation of self-esteem to live from.

In fact, when the film opens, one of the future girl singers has just been left at the altar. Even while crying it out in the presence of her mom and sisters, she looks at her face in a hand mirror and bravely says to her mother, “Who wouldn’t love this?” (technically, she names her former fiancé here, but one can substitute any name with the same effect).

And throughout the film, in similar fashion, the girls pull no punches with one another, their scout-turned-manager, or themselves.

They may be young….they may be inexperienced in the ways of the world….but they are not letting any of that get under their skin. 

Continue reading… »



 
 

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