Leaving Nha Trang

By Amethyst

Saturday, December 22

There was another cockroach in the bathroom when we got out of bed. Water bugs, Ruby calls them. They certainly look like cockroaches, and their proud, unafraid traipsing across the kitchen floor induces screams in the house’s two young children just the same as their smaller North American cousins. Animal lovers though we might be, it met a quick end at the bottom of a sandal.

A street market in Nha Trang

Owing to the entirely imaginary time constraint that we faced, there was no coffee had that morning. Instead, we packed our things and left our Nha Trang home stay, just a few blocks from the beach, and headed for the train station. Since we were expected at a Buddhist monastery near the end of our trip, we were also sure to fit in a twenty five minute meditation session before we left (recently upgraded from twenty minutes), lest the monks be able to detect our lack of dedication to mindfulness upon our arrival.

We arrived a healthy and unnecessary two hours early to the station. Employees of ticket counters usually speak enough English for us to get by, we’ve learned.

“Two tickets for the Danang train, please.”

“Two ticket, eight o’clock train. Ok.”

Ruby grimaced. “Is the one thirty full?”

The woman behind the counter cocked an eyebrow. Why anyone would take an eight-hour sleeper train during the day was beyond her.

“One thirty, ok. Hard bed, thirty three.”

“No soft bed?” No. “Soft seat?” No. “Ok. Hard bed.”

“Thirty three” meant thirty-three thousand Vietnam Dong, or about $15.

Having secured a ticket, plenty of time, and not having eaten, we set off for a cafe that serves food as well as coffee. Cafes are easy enough to find; there are usually two or three on both sides of the street on any block of any Vietnamese city that we’d visited. Food and coffee at the same time is a Western novelty, though. Undaunted by this knowledge, we embarked on our doomed expedition, finally settling after a mile’s wander on a pho spot that, like many others, had a picture menu above the counter for foreigners to point at.

This restaurant did not have the sort of liberal seating policy to which we Americans are accustomed. We sat at a table that was for cafe only. Once it became clear that we were going to be delivered food from behind the counter, our hostess instructed/pantomimed to us that no, we had to move to the table next to it, which was for dining. This was not a matter over we we could object, it was simply a fact. Ruby’s protestations that she wanted to sit at the original table, which was on the other side of a small brick wall and in view of some plants, was not an expression of a desire of hers, no, it was clear to the hostess that Ruby simply did not understand that it was a cafe table. Defeated, we complied.

Two bowls of seafood pho, two bottled waters, and two teas later, we paid our seven dollars and returned to the square in front of the train station for the coffee we had missed a few hours earlier. The coffee in Vietnam, much like our earlier time constraint, is mostly imaginary. A “black coffee” is perhaps a third actual Robusta coffee beans (you, my wealthy American friend, are used to Arabica beans, which have much fuller flavor and are proportionally more expensive). The rest of the grind is largely a mystery, but one can taste at least the soy, coconut oil, and sugar that have been added to produce a cheap but drinkable beverage.

While there, Ruby responsibly took advantage of the required coffee accompaniment, free wifi, to download some documents to review while on the long journey to Danang. (Our nomadic lifestyle affords plenty of travel time that can be thus taken advantage of: Ruby works her legal magic a few hours a day, more than paying for our travel expenses. Not feeling credulous that day in supernatural powers, even her own, the time on the train was actually spent reviewing clips for the forthcoming year-in-review Gemstone video. Get excited!)

Ruby working at a café

Back at the station, we joined the other Danang-bound travellers waiting for the blessed gates to open. When the light finally cracked from behind those doors, it prompted a stampede into what may have reasonably been assumed to have been the waiting train, given the fervor with which a good spot in line was pursued. However, predictably, we merely were fighting over the right to arrive first at the track, where we were to wait another half an hour for what we learned was a perennially late train.

When it did arrive, we watched as the cars filled with the soft seats and soft beds passed us. The lower-quality cars in the back of the train stopped in front of us moments later. Quickly taking his place at the entrance to the train, the conductor seemed to be very interested in the validity of some tickets, but simply waved us aboard. Tourists rarely try to swindle the railroads, it seems.

A hard bed was, thankfully, not just a plastic shelf, but did in fact include a padded surface, a pillow, and a blanket. Six to a car, though, meant we had to climb. We thought about the ADA as we scrambled into our top berths, using the fold-out footholds and various bars to support ourselves in the attempt.

Half hour into the ride, a uniformed man came through.

“Bạn có thể cảm nhận được tình yêu đêm nay?” he asked the occupants of our cabin. There was a twitter of responses.

“What?” Amethyst asked Ruby.

He looked up at us and saw we were white. “Dinner? Chicken and rice?”

We were wondering if that was a thing that was going to happen.

“Dinner. Yes. Vegetarian? Vegetables? No meat. No ga.” No ga: no chicken. Ruby had used a tenth of her Vietnamese vocabulary.

“Ga? Chicken? Yes, Chicken. Seventy.”

“No. NO ga.”

“Say khong, not no.” Amethyst reminded her that in not every language is the word for “no” the same.

“Khong ga. Khong bo.” No beef.

“Oh! Chicken, beef, tofu.”

“Tofu! Yes. Tofu. Two.”

“Ok. Seventy.” We exchanged our seventy thousand dong (roughly three American dollars), wondered why they didn’t just drop three zeroes, and received two dinner tickets. The official disappeared. We wondered if we would ever see him again, or if the tickets meant anything.

“This is actually pretty nice, maybe we should have taken the night train. We would have been able to actually sleep.” Ruby was right- that had not been the case on the night busses.

“Ok, next time.” Amethyst was, of course, pretty sleepy and already thinking of a nap.

After another hour and a half, a woman appeared at our door.

“Cafe? Banana? Banh?” Coffee, bananas, and bread. These are the available snacks. We weren’t sure if dinner was going to happen or if we’d been swindled. Ruby jumped on the opportunity.

“Banana. Yes. Two? And two coffee. Hot.”

“Hot? Two? Banana?”

“Yes! Thank you.”

The woman disappeared and returned with a bunch of seven four-inch bananas and gave them to us.

“…Oh. Are these… all for us?”

The woman nodded and clearly did not understand.

“Iunno,” Amethyst offered, helpfully.

She returned again with two two-ounce hot coffees in flimsy plastic cups. With straws, of course. The Vietnamese love having extra things to throw away after the purchase of to-go food.

“One hundred.” This was way too much, but Ruby didn’t care enough to argue. She gave her a 500,000 dong bill; we didn’t have anything smaller. The astronomical numbers resist parsing into relatable amounts, but rest assured we were not Americans flashing our extravagant wealth: 500,000 dong is about $22.

Ruby tried to return the excess banana.

“Wha? No.” They were all for us.

As the woman left, Amethyst implored, “What about dinner? Dinner? Hello?” She did not hear or did not want to hear him.

Our sleeping compartment (with convenient banana-hanger)

We sipped our coffee (no reason to let those straws go completely to waste), had a couple bananas, and wondered if that was going to be our only sustenance for the evening.

“So I guess when the trains stop, these women hop on, try to sell us stuff, and hop off?”

“Guess so.”

One of our compartment-mates interrupted us. “Ma trận là gì?” He pointed at his friend’s food. “Ma trận là gì?”

“Oh. Dinner! Yes.”

He opened the compartment door and yelled down the passage, “Tôi đến từ một vùng đất phía dưới!”

Ruby climbed down and scuttled off to find our dinner.

Meanwhile, the man gestured at Amethyst. “Bốn điểm số và bảy mươi năm trước.” He pointed at the floor.

“Uh.”

“Bốn điểm số và bảy mươi năm.”He smiled, pointed at Amethyst, and pointed back at the floor.

“I guess I’m supposed to get down? Ok, sure.”

With the grace one might excuse if Amethyst did not have opposable thumbs, he made his way down to the floor. The Gemstones’ Vietnamese compartment mates had pushed up the middle beds so the four of them could sit upright on the lower ones.

“Sit down!” The man was proud of the English phrase. Amethyst complied, and concurrently Ruby returned.

“We’re eating with them!”

“Cool! We got chicken, not tofu.” Ruby said, rolling her eyes.

“Yeah, of course. We tried, though. Pretty hard, actually.”

An interesting and romantic story would be if we then all became friends, swapping stories and learning between cultures. Ah, rolling slowly through the mountains of Vietnam in a wooden boxcar, the faces of our new friends lit by kerosene lamps.

But we couldn’t, of course. As the reader will recall, our Vietnamese vocabulary hardly broke double digits. Instead, for the umpteenth time, a Vietnamese person, frustrated with the ignorance of foreigners, took it upon himself to show us how to eat.

Amethyst had just begun eating his chicken with the chopsticks he had removed from their plastic, leaving the napkin still wrapped. Amethyst is not an Olympic chopsticks athlete, but he was doing a fine job. The Vietnamese man across from him took the plastic wrapper and removed a spoon that was still inside.

“Oh, I didn’t realize-“

The man pantomimes scooping up rice with the spoon and putting it in his mouth.

“Right, yeah, a spoon, got it. Thanks.”

Removing the napkin, he puts it in his lap, then pantomimes cleaning up around the tray of food.

“Oh, a napkin! How novel. Thank you.”

Finally, a toothpick is removed. The man judges that Amethyst surely knows how to use a toothpick, and sets it down on the tray. Not trusting Ruby’s ability to learn except by personal direction, he picks up her spoon.

“Got it, thank you.” Ruby takes the spoon back and laughs.

It is genuinely difficult to tell if the Vietnamese Good Samaritans who so frequently insist in re-teaching us the basic processes of dining are genuinely trying to be helpful, are having a bit of fun, or both. To them, we clearly do not know the very basics, like how much of the plate of greens to put in the hot pot and when, and so we must not know anything about eating. It thus is reasonable to start from the very beginning, as if we were infants.

The train finally pulled into the Danang station. As we left, our new friend, who was continuing farther north, waved at us.

“Bye-bye!” he again addressed us as one would an infant.

“Bye-bye!” we returned.

And indeed, surrounded by a culture that is at once completely foreign to us and also striving in many ways to cater to our interests, we often feel as if we have entered an entirely new world. This life we’ve chosen, we realize, is a dream to many. We feel like we’re still waking up.

What do you do?

By Amethyst

What are you going to be when you grow up?

A ballerina? A cowboy? An astronaut? (That was your humble author’s response)

What’s your major?

International relations. Economics. Pre-med. Business. Business. Business.

What do you do?

Have you heard this question answered as stated? Rarely does a person who is asked The Question hear the words and not the implication. But when it does happen, one realizes the cultural weight behind this, the most American of questions.

“Oh, I read a lot. I’m taking this course online on modern psychology and Buddhism and…”

Ah, no, I meant, what do you do for money?

Ruby, not afraid to show her truest self.

We Gemstones find The Question difficult to answer these days, living our nomadic life. Then there’s The Question’s younger brother, “Where are you from?,” for which we also have a complicated answer. It’s not that we don’t enjoy answering these questions fully- we do. However, taking this for a teaching moment sidetracks from the questioner’s intent, which was an attempt to know who we are.

“What do you do for money,” we have been taught, is the quickest way to find out what a person is about, to find the hole into which we can pigeon them. An explanation of how our lives work financially is really just a small part of who we are. You already know it is also a small part of who you are. But don’t just know it in the way you know you should be exercising every day. Refuse to be that pigeon.

What do I do for money? Me? I’m retired.

You what?

It is here that I can take the conversation back to wherever I want it. While the person is trying to decide if I am lying or if I am crazy, I can take us back to that Buddhism class, building our tiny house, our chosen Burner family in Baltimore, our goal to never experience a cold winter again (or at least for the next several years). This small list tells a new person much more about who we are than our income strategies. We can turn the automatic filing away of a person into an actual connection over something that matters.We simply need to be willing to push back against the automatic call and response of American communication.

I don’t pretend that my little essay is going to change America’s mind about The Question. But I hope it might change yours. I hope you might answer the question as stated. When someone asks you what you do, tell them. Tell them your passion. When they press you on your job (which they will), give a three word answer. The person doesn’t realize that the default question is just an American bastardization of “Who are you, really?,” a question that, if asked, would probably not go over so well in our culture.

When “What do you do?” stands in for “What makes you unique?,” is not just as a shortcut, it is a reflection of our values. What you “do” in this country is who you are. But it doesn’t have to be. You can push back, and it works. This resistance has two benefits. First, as a personal reminder, a cue to “wake up” and to live just a little more fully in that moment as yourself. Second, it can also gently suggest to the asker the question they should be interested in.

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I never did become an astronaut…but I did go to Space Camp

And when you find yourself wanting to know more about a person, don’t take that shortcut. Instead, make the person think just a little:

What are you working toward right now?

I’ve just finished my book, do you have any recommendations for me?

If you didn’t have to work, what would you do?

If the person doesn’t have answers for these questions, they have also told you quite a lot about themselves. And yes, these questions might strike you as a bit uncomfortable. But you won’t make a real connection without pushing past the comfortable and automatic.

The most telling question is one that many will not answer. Many don’t have an answer to give, but asking it may alert them that they should. It is a question the Gemstones try to ask as soon as the person seems just comfortable enough with our presence:

What’s your dream? What are you doing right now in your life to get there?

Well, reader, what’s yours?

You are a fish. You are water. You are a snowflake. You are asleep.

By Amethyst

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

-David Foster Wallace

You are a fish.

This is water.

The automation that poses the most danger to a fully lived life is not the robotic specter that threatens to upend manufacturing. Rather, it is the human failure to recognize the opportunity to make a choice- any choice.

Hi. How are you. Good, you. Good.

Boredom, routine, and frustration turn into anxiety and crushing loneliness. If you are open to breaking out, you will realize there are other options. All you have to do is pay attention. This is water.

If you can see that this world is, at all times, sacred, you can escape. You have, at all times, access to the wonder of reality. Feel your breath fill your lungs. Let it out. How does it feel to be alive?

Look at the back of your hand. Now close your eyes.What if you could never again open your eyes? How much would you give to see again, just for a moment, the back of your own hand? How wondrous it would be to see it again!

But in every moment you have access to the most amazing symphony of color. Every interaction with a stranger can be made into a small affirmation of life.

Hi. How are you? Tell you what, I’m really lucky to be alive. Oh! Well, wow, that’s great. Thanks. Have a good one. Hey, you too.

Open your eyes. This is water.

But our metaphor is incomplete. It is not change that you swim in. One of the greatest blunders of our civilization is the idea that you are separate from the world. It’s obvious, but bears repeating: you are part of the world. When change happens, you change with the world. You just have to pay attention. Paying attention is bringing a gun to a knife fight. But no one’s fighting water. If you try to fight water, you’re only fighting with yourself. You aren’t swimming in water.

You are water.

Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.

-Heraclitus

You can’t step in the same river twice, they say. They should say, you can’t step in the same river twice. Both you and the river are in constant flux. But, you and the river constantly are the same. You are still you, even if you’ve changed.

Now I’m going to talk about how you are One with the Universe, right? Om and all that. Infinite karma or something. No, calling all things “One” cuts at all that wonder I was just talking about.

But I thought I was water? Here’s one of our blunders again. We have to learn that we can have opposing natures. We hold the idea of a “flower” as a separate concept, but we can’t separate it from the rest of the cosmos that contains it and that it contains. The sugars that hold a flower’s energy were moments before that light from the sun. We cannot say what a flower is without the sun, just as we cannot tell what we are without our parents’ DNA, without the influence of our teachers, without the chain of events that connect all things. I am unique, I am special, but I am still part of that constantly flowing reality. You are water, but water is part of a cycle. It flows through rivers into oceans. Later, it is part of a cloud. Right now, you are water’s greatest, most complex, most unique form. That is to say,

You are a snowflake.

If you learn to look around, you can see this is water. Then, if you can learn to step back, you see that you are water. But don’t step back too far: you are still you. You still have the ability to think, to see, to love. To paint, to dance, to sing, to dream. To suffer, to cry, to mourn.

We humans, the universe’s masterpiece, the only piece of which that can be in awe of itself, are blessed with innumerable creative avenues, richness and depth of emotion, intelligence to improve our world and ourselves. These abilities come with their respective downsides, but make no mistake: we as individuals are incomprehensibly complex, and our inner lives can be rich beyond description. Being part of one thing, the “water,” in no way diminishes that; rather it adds another affirming layer. On our daily commutes we forget that all of life is a painting, and being able to experience it is a wonder that we can never fully grasp.

But to be in awe of that experience is a state that we can enter at any time. Every person has the ability to step back from an argument and ask themselves why a person is so red in the face about this idea of theirs that is so clearly wrong (to us, of course). But instead, nearly everyone goes about their lives without seeing the sacred place of the bird above a traffic jam. Even the traffic jam is a thing of beauty. Why can’t we see it?

You are asleep.

If I’ve done any job at all, you should be feeling life right now. I’ve tried to show you what we miss, being asleep. Seeing it – waking up – is simple. It is not easy.

Let’s remember together an experience we had. It was a great speech, a book, a quote on Instagram. We had an inspiration, a supreme motivation, and it was great. For a few days. Or an hour. But it went away. We clutched at it, but it was gone. Do you remember?Sometimes, a speech or an idea can bring you fully into life. But no matter how strongly it pulls, it is only temporary. That’s why you must learn to pull yourself into life in every moment.

It is not easy to learn how to wake up.

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

-Maya Angelou

You are a fish. You are water. You are a snowflake. You are asleep.

You have a choice.

This isn’t religion. I am not talking about magic. I don’t want to know if you’re a pisces, the Earth Mother didn’t reveal all this to me in a dream. I’m sure your chakras are doing just fine on their own. I’m not sure essential oils are really all that essential. Gems are pretty, but they are rocks. They are sacred only if we make them so.

Now, you don’t want me to quote David Foster Wallace, Alan Watts, Maya Angelou, Buddha, Catholic priests, Eckhart Tolle, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, and Sam Harris at you: that stuff is too out there. You live in the real world. But thing is, I already did. Those were my sources. Nothing is new under the sun. You have a choice.

You can think, “Oh, that was nice.”

You can think, “That guy was strange.”

You can think, “Yeah, but it sounds hard.”

And you’d be right three times. But you have the choice of whether to stay at your default, which is cynicism, self centeredness, and closing off to the joy of the world. To be lost in the past, sick over the possibilities of the future. Or you can practice making the decision in every moment to wake up. It takes practice every day to remember in each moment that you have a choice. Your animal nature would rather take the safe, known, low-energy approach. Your animal nature also doesn’t really appreciate art, togetherness, or being at peace.

You are a fish. You are water. You are a snowflake. You are asleep. But you have a choice.

————-

Camp Gemstone’s writings are about their attempts to learn to wake up. See more at

Campgemstone.wordpress.com

The rain

By Amethyst

We stood, naked, arms outstretched, and waited for the summer storm. No, we did not seek a natural baptism from a perceived “original sin of civilization.” Rather, we simply sought to relieve ourselves of that uniquely human sense of being unclean after hours of work. Though covered in its iron-red clay and innumerable flakes of its trees’ detritus, the land had already refreshed our sense of accomplishment. We now sought the well known and comfortable refreshment of a shower.

And so we stood. We had run out of clean water (like we imagined real hippies also often did), and our resourcefulness and open mindedness told us to embrace the rain, not to hide from the storm clouds.

And so we stood.

As it winds eastward from Cumberland, carving equally well the soft shale of what is still called coal country and the white granite of the world’s most powerful city, the Potomac turns briefly northward before returning to its gradual southeasterly flow. It is along this northward diversion that our own little mountain to heaven, Parnassus, sits. It is inexplicably unconcerned with the timing of a summer storm. Just to the west of this part of the Potomac, troubled even less with the comings and goings of clouds, is a ridge of the great Appalachian mountains, half again as high above the distant ocean as is our little paradise. And though we call it a mountain, really it is a foothill to another ridge just to the east.

As they do over every paradise and hovel on this earth, the clouds move in from west to east. We see them in the afternoons, just over the ridge, threatening. We feel the winds flow across the Potomac, bringing cool air quickly across the valley as the weather changes. But our cumulonimbus friends, with hubris opposite that of Icarus, are too close to those ridges, and the winds squeeze them northeast, around the mountain. Route 40 is often very wet, have you noticed?

And so we stood. Half an hour, soaped up, ready. Our resourcefulness, open mindedness, and sense of adventure was not accompanied by anything resembling a degree in meteorology, nor even had we even briefly considered the above topography.

But then, the rains came. We lathered, danced, and were clean.

Nature-Friends at Parnassus: End of Summer Update

By Amethyst

The forests on Parnassus are rich with life. The species come and go, with some appearing only briefly while migrating, or, in the case of mushrooms, for just a week while fruiting.

We are always finding new species. We’d love your help identifying more, either online or in person on Parnassus.

Newly Identified Friends:

New Mushroom Friends:

We find a new species of mushroom at least twice a week. Often they change colors over the course of their brief lives, making identification very difficult. We’ll only post those we’ve identified. That is, unless they are very cool. Like this one.

New Species: Orange Jelly Mushroom, Red Raspberry Slime, Turkey Tail, Russula Cremoricolor, Cat Dapperling, Ravenels Bolete, False Virgin’s Lepidella, Fly Agaric (below)

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New Tree Friends:

Amethyst continues to be fascinated by the diversity of tree life. He found what we believe are sugar maples- ones large enough that he can’t wrap his arms around. We won’t say they are sugar maples for sure until we tap them for sap.

Our wonderful book, “What Tree is That?”, from the Arbor Day Foundation, only includes some 100 species. So, we picked up the full Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region. We’ve identified many more trees as a result, and are revisiting some identifications we’d made earlier.

New Species: Sugar Maple, Hophornbeam, Serviceberry (two species), Witch Hazel, Table Mountain Pine (not Loblolly Pine), Pignut Hickory (not butternut), Shagbark/Shellbark Hickory (not pecan), Black Tupelo

New Fruiting/Flowering Plant Friends:

Morning Glory (below), American Burnweed

New Bird Friends: Our avian friends usually sit on the tops of the trees, so identification by sight is difficult. Learning to recognize birds’ voices, though, has its own rich rewards. Their calls are more varied and individual-specific than we ever realized.

New Species: Wild Turkey, Cedar Waxwing, Barred Owl, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Wood Pewee, American Goldfinch

New Reptile/Amphibian Friends:

Red Eft Salamander (below), Hog Nosed Snake, Ribbon Snake (see “scary things” post on Facebook for snake photos)

New Insect Friends:

Black Widow, Wolf Spider, Walking Stick, Puss Caterpillar (these ones are truly testing our resolve on the “nature is friends” refrain that Camp Gemstone has adopted), and this butterfly that we have been unable to identify but which is very abundant on Parnassus:

Previously-Discovered Friends at Parnassus:

Tree Friends: Chestnut Oak, Pin Oak, White Oak, Red Maple, Sassafras, Sycamore, Flowering Dogwood  (removed: Loblolly Pine, Butternut, Pecan, Chinkapin Oak)

Fruiting/Flowering Plant Friends: Blueberry, Blackberry, Raspberry, Concord Grape

Mammal Friends: White Tailed Deer (and fawns!), Squirrel, Chipmunk, Deer Mouse, Woodland Jumping Mouse

Bird Friends: Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Whippoorwill, Crow, Raven, Red Headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Robin, Great Horned Owl, Cardinal, Turkey Vulture

Reptile/Amphibian/Crustacean Friends: Eastern Box Turtle, Five-lined Skink, Fence Sitting Lizard, Common Toad, Crayfish

Insect Friends: Hoverfly, Honeybee, Bumblebee, White-Lipped Forest Snail (?)

Sideways Momentum

By Ruby 

I want to tell you the story of how I accidentally became a high-powered corporate litigator. This story is true.

After having spent a few years practicing architecture, and then interior design, in DC and Baltimore, I knew it wasn’t the right field for me. It turns out the feeling was mutual – architecture broke up with me. In the throes of the 2009 economic collapse, I was laid off two times in three months. I took it as a clear sign to move on, but I had no idea where to head next.

After some soul-searching (with a touch of depression), I decided on law school. I thought that I would be good at it, and that I would like it – I loved history, politics, logic, and debate. Everyone I consulted agreed: I was a great fit for the law. So, I started law school in September 2010. I didn’t know what I would do with a law degree once I was through, but I felt confident that at some point during my three years of law school, I would figure it out.

I was right – very right – about my hunch: I excelled in law school. After my first semester I learned that I had gotten the highest grade in two of my five classes. When class rank came out at the end of the first year, I was shocked to learn that I was number one in my class.  That’s when unexpected, un-planned-for opportunities started knocking on my door.

Law school is insane in many ways. For example: the law school recruitment process. In the summer after the first year of law school, large firms conduct on-campus interviews of the best and brightest first-year law students based upon class rank. These firms compete heavily to hire the cream of the crop at each law school across the country so that this upper crust of first year law students can join their firm the following summer (after the student’s second year) for a paid summer internship position – the “Summer Associate.” The standard goal of Summer Associates is to wow the firm during the summer program so as to secure an offer at the end of the summer to join the firm as an associate after law school graduation.  In sum – law students start interviewing for their first legal job two years before they would start, and with only a single year of law school under their belts.

As you have surely imagined by this point – I went through this process, I was recruited by a premier Mid-Atlantic law firm*, and the following summer I was a star Summer Associate. I received my offer to join the firm to my great excitement. Little old me? The failed architect from humble beginnings on the eastern shore of Maryland? – I was invited to join this glamorous, fast-paced world? I could not believe it. I was honored, flattered, and energized. This is not even mentioning the starting salary (I’m sure you can imagine that, too).

Upon accepting my offer, I knew that I was going to work very hard and would have a lot of demands and pressures placed upon me. I was ready and willing to accept these conditions. My life had felt so listless and dull before law school – even if I had to spend all of my time at the firm, the position felt something like a new identity I could assume – a prestigious part to play. I had never, ever imagined myself here, but here I was. How could I say no?

September 9, 2013: I became an associate litigation attorney for a big law firm. From then until I left on February 28, 2018, I worked hard. I lost myself in the work. I forgot what it was like to just be; I was constantly trying to maximize every moment in order to become the best attorney possible. I detached from the things I loved to do. I had no space in my mind for the stillness necessary for art, creation, self-reflection, or personal growth. And it worked – I was a superstar associate. My work was extremely well-respected and I was building a reputation as one of the future leaders of the firm. I was on the fast track to making partner, and to more, more, bigger, more…

I don’t tell you all of this to brag. Although I am proud of my accomplishments in law school and at the firm, I no longer attach my self-worth to those titles and accolades. I tell you this so that you can understand how a ball can start rolling down a hill before you notice it, and suddenly you are in a place you never planned for yourself. Sometimes, that experience is a godsend. Sometimes, it can just… happen. I didn’t mean to become a fancy lawyer at a big firm. But an opportunity arose and, because I was directionless, I let the prestige, the power, and the money act as a substitute for passion and authenticity.

I did escape (more on how I did that in another post), but I know in my bones that had things gone differently I would have never given myself the opportunity to stop and ask myself: is this really what I want for my life? Is this really who I am? Oh, and by the way – WHO AM I? I know there is a great likelihood I could be sitting in an office overlooking the Inner Harbor of Baltimore right now, counting the minutes I have worked that day (literally) and strategizing as to how to make partner – a goal I had never truly set for myself.

And now I turn to you, Camp Gemstone enthusiast, and I ask you: Are you driving the bus, or are you along for the ride? Are you living authentically, or did this life just… happen… to you?  If your answer is the latter, can you change?

That’s a false question – you absolutely can change. I promise. I believe in you.

 

* The firm I spent 5+ years working for was, by all standards with which one can measure a large law firm, fantastic. I made deep connections with lovely, thoughtful, fun people, was given tremendous opportunities to grow and learn, and was fostered through countless hours of mentorship and sponsorship. They did the best they could in a model that I have come to believe is deeply flawed. I do not blame these people for my story at all – I thank them for everything they have given me.

Getting more, wanting less: a pair of snowballs.

By Amethyst

How much do you love your ritual hot shower? How soothing to massage the shampoo into your scalp, then to rinse, letting the warm water flow over your face and down your back? This ritual is an American obsession. We love it. We need it.

But you don’t. You know well you don’t. And not only that, but you may be aware of the potential harms of a daily hot shower.

We fight against even recognizing our national addiction. The morning ritual is too ingrained, too much a comfort, and the drawback (dry skin and hair) isn’t too great a price to pay.

There is a moment after people learn what Ruby and I are doing – that is, quitting the day jobs, living off the grid, traveling the world. After people hear that – right after telling us we’re living the dream they ask about money, and they ask about creature comforts. No, there are no twenty minute hot showers when we’re living in a tent on Parnassus. Yes, we are very fortunate that we are in a stable financial condition. No, we are not “glamping.” Yes, we have learned to go without. Yes, living in the woods is a big hassle.

What’s your big hassle? What are your comforts that you’ll have to give up to live as your truest self? Are they worth it? Like the shower, we make a calculation: which do we value more? These comforts, or our very essence, our sense of fulfillment, achieving our personal legend?

Sure, I can get all poetic and make it seem like an easy choice. But it isn’t easy. The lust for comfort lulls us to sleep*, makes us unaware that this is the very choice that we are making.

I am here to tell you that, yes, you have two options when it comes to being rich: you can get more, or you can want less. An old and simple idea, but what isn’t so simple is wanting less in a culture that tells us we need more, more, ever more. A lot of money advice is about how to “make do” with less. Life is not about making do. With a bit of self-reflection, the problem becomes psychological, not practical. You don’t have to “maple do” if you realize you didn’t really want it in the first place.

At some point, if you keep your eyes and mind open, something will happen and you will realize that getting more is a never ending snowball. Once you get that bit more, you will want yet a bit more. And more.

I can see you there. You’re nodding, you’re agreeing, you know that already, and frankly, I am repeating myself. How many blog posts can Amethyst write about freedom from material desire? Is he a monk yet?

Once you get it though, really get it that these things are not your key to happiness, that you’ve had the key all along, it gets into your bones, and it becomes your super power. The snowball starts rolling down a different hill altogether, and you start looking at things and saying, “You know, I don’t really need this. In fact, I don’t even want it.”

This isn’t “own one hundred things” minimalism. An obsession with cutting away can be almost as unhealthy as the obsession with getting more. Your latent superpower isn’t an active one, letting you identify excess and toss it merrily into the bin. No, it is passive, where you realize that your satisfaction as a human being passing through this world is no longer contingent on one of the things you are carrying.

“Ugh, I have so much stuff! I need to just get rid of half of this.”

Perhaps you should. Going through and purging can be a life-changing, almost holy experience. Attach, though, your purge to a new understanding of ownership. It is not the space the things take up in your home that prevents you from crossing the threshold, it is the space they take up in your mind. That space must be cleaned more regularly than your physical spaces. Things can occupy that space as ghosts: from the store, yet to be purchased, or from the junkyard, already dismissed but not cleansed.

Just as we get carried away in the energy of cleaning house, so too can the energy of clearing the mind of its possessions build upon itself, and we end up with a sparkling clean mental state before we realize.

*phrasing credit: Khalil Gibran

Nature-Friends at Parnassus: Can You Help Us Make More?

By Amethyst

Every time we visit Parnassus, we make new nature-friends. The more we make, the more about them we notice. For example, how different species of plants grow or how healthy [or unhealthy =( ] our trees are.  It took months of observation before I realized the reason for all the bunches of trees growing right together was a big forest fire many years ago – something a neighbor then confirmed.

Animals friends are the most exciting to meet, of course. No new ones in recent days, though. We are not always too great at identifying all species, but we are getting better. We’d love your help!

New Friends Recently Identified:

-About 100 mushroom friends, including…

Russula Silvicola  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russula_silvicola

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…this mushroom friend, which doesn’t exist according to our book (this is common, and probably not actually the book’s fault)

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…and these mushroom friends, for whom we haven’t had the time (or, frankly, the ability) to identify yet. Any ideas?

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Tree Friends…

…Black Maple (Red Maple?) and Mountain Maple: Hooray! We have maple trees! We’ll see if we can tap any of them for syrup, though…

Previously-Discovered Friends at Parnassus:

Tree Friends: Chestnut Oak, Pin Oak, Chinkapin Oak, White Oak, Loblolly Pine, Sassafras, Sycamore, White Walnut (Butternut), Pecan, Flowering Dogwood

Fruiting Plant Friends: Blueberry, Blackberry, Raspberry, Concord Grape

Mammal Friends: White Tailed Deer (and fawns!), Squirrel, Chipmunk, Deer Mouse, Woodland Jumping Mouse

Bird Friends: Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Whippoorwill, Crow, Raven, Red Headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Robin, Great Horned Owl, Cardinal, Turkey Vulture

Reptile/Amphibian/Crustacean Friends: Eastern Box Turtle, Five-lined Skink, Fence Sitting Lizard, Common Toad, Crayfish

Insect Friends: Hoverfly, Honeybee, Bumblebee, White-Lipped Forest Snail (?) (and a lot more buggies, but we aren’t really friends, if we’re being honest here)

On the road on the way out of Parnassus going toward Paw Paw, West Virginia (yes, that is a real place) is Vulture Manor (that’s not a real place, but we gave it that name even before this week). We have previously passed this creepy cracked-in-half house and seen several vultures perched on its roofline or circling above. When we drove past it last week, no fewer than fifteen full-sized turkey vultures emerged and flew away before we could snap this photo. These are the largest birds either of us has ever seen in the wild.

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It will take a village to catalog all the creatures on Parnassus. Clearly, mushrooms are abundant, but there are plenty of birds, snakes, and other animals we have seen evidence of but haven’t been able to identify. If you are a bird watcher, a snake-charmer, or just a casual friend of nature, we’d love your help. Building community of all kinds is what Parnassus is all about.

The Parnassus Vision

Parnassus, our sliver of daydreams, our gateway to Elysium, our muse, our five-acre plot of (no longer quite) raw forest land in the middle of nowhere, West Virginia, has been central to our plans for Camp Gemstone and our life in general. For you, friends, a primer and an introduction. For us, a place to get our ideas down.  

Where is Parnassus? What is Parnassus?

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A bit west of Berkeley Springs and just northeast of bustling downtown Paw Paw, in the eastern West Virginia panhandle lies Parnassus, soon to be a place of wonder, nature, and community. For now, though, it is this:

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Turns out, “wet-weather streams” means something different than what we thought. When we purchased Parnassus, those blue lines that meet on the left side of the image above and make the “point” of our property (the red shaded area) were dry and cracked. A wet weather stream, we thought, meant that when it rains, water flows through there for a few hours, like a sidewalk gutter.

Not so:

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For about the first half of each year, we are treated to streams that wax and wane from a babbling brook to a roaring river, complete with several waterfalls.

When we first camped on Parnassus, we noticed a little shrub growing all over the hill. Acres of the stuff. No big deal, but since we needed to start making some paths to connect our French kitchen (the fire pit) to our chauffeur’s stand (the parking circle), we began pulling the plant up, only to soon discover with great lamentation that it was all interconnected underground.

Onward we must go! We got our leather gloves, our cutting tools, and tore hundreds of these small but stubborn plants from the ground, covering the area around the path with their corpses as a warning to other weeds.

Several months later, it is Fourth of July weekend of 2017, and we are walking around Parnassus for the first time in the grandeur of summer. Amethyst, of course, is noticing every little thing. He notices under the leaves of the underground-running shrub is a peppercorn-sized, blackish berry.

“Don’t eat it,” says Ruby, immediately seeing what was on Amethyst’s mind.

“I just…” Amethyst pops it in his mouth anyway. “…These are blueberries.”

The camera zooms out. Ruby and Amethyst are standing in a giant mass of blueberry plants. Not hundred, but thousands.

Yes, there will be blueberry jam.

Anyway, enough gushing about the beauty and splendor of the land. Remind us some time, and we’ll tell you the stories of the discovery of pecans, of concord grapes, of (miles of) blackberries.

To get our construction chops, we built a pergola (the blue polygon on the map) right below the “parking area” (light gray under the big blue pin) on the private road that leads into the property (thick yellow line). There were a few missteps, but we think it turned out just great:

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Next, the green polygon is the raised garden, in which we have just planted our first crops, sweet potatoes:

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As you can see, the garden has quite a bit of space. The goal is for next year to have it provide fresh vegetables for us all summer and into the fall.

We have built the platform and the walls of our one-room outdoor shower and composting toilet, or “the bath house”. The platform went up easily and quickly after our experience with the pergola, giving us more confidence for the house. It isn’t on the map yet.

Finally, we’ve cleared a big campsite area at the very eastern point. That is where we host friends and, for now, where we stay. There’s enough space for at least twenty tents.

The Dream

That’s what we have now. What’s the dream? It is many parts, both physical (Tiny houses! Art in the woods!) and not (Build a community space?!).

The Physical:

First, we will build the Solarium, taking advantage of the view that we feature oh so often and that maybe you are tired of seeing (but how could you be?):

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You may know that Ruby has her undergraduate degree in architecture. As a result, we can share with you our very good idea of what the Solarium will look like:

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On a slope and raised above the hill, the house will be on a square platform, where one quarter is a deck, and the house is an “L” shape. The front part of the L’s three walls will be constructed entirely of salvaged windows. We imagine a bright and sunny space, with plants and light – hence, the Solarium. A large curtain will separate the window room from the rest of the house, as we will hardly be even trying to insulate that glass room.

A wood-burning stove will provide heat to the rest of the house. The corner square of the L will be a kitchen, and the remaining room will have a small dining table and four chairs. There will probably be some bookshelves. Above the kitchen area will be a lofted bedroom, accessible by ladder. Nothing more, nothing less, just right.

Up the hill, a small water tower will go up during or after the Solarium’s construction, piped from the streams. Yes, we’re hippies, but we don’t have to be dirty.

Next? The Library – another, as-yet-to-be-designed, tiny house. The focus, as perhaps evidenced by the name, will be books old and beautiful. The chairs will be leather, the area rug will be plush, the fireplace will be roaring.

There are dreams for a third tiny house in the distant future – its dream-name is the Provence House. This will be a place for Ruby to dedicate to the craft of cooking, with a big old farm table as the focal point, an herb garden in the window boxes, and a large open-air space for an outdoor kitchen and al-fresco dining.

And art! We have many artist friends who we hope will help us create surprises that we can hide around Parnassus, like fairy doors, sculptures, crystals, and anything else that will help to transform the land into something even more magical. An ornate lantern mounted on a tree in the middle of the woods? A piano hidden behind a big oak? Why not? We want coming to Parnassus to be like entering a sacred space. Which brings us to…

The Not:

Being out on the land has made us acutely aware of the need for connection and community. Because of the isolation, obviously, right? Actually, no – the internal challenge of changing the structure of our lives has made us realize even more the importance of not just friends, but connection and support. The goal has always been to have people on Parnassus, whether through renting out the tiny houses when we are traveling, or holding camping parties, we always knew we’d enjoy being hosts.

The clarity and stillness that nature has shown us, though, makes us want to do more, to bring more than a campfire and a few birds into people’s lives.

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We have the space and the perfect setting for a meditation weekend, a wilderness class, a yoga retreat. We have dear friends in Baltimore who have converted their warehouse apartment into what is now both their home as well as a community gathering place. Can we make Parnassus something similar in the forest?

We think we can, with your help. This part of the story is just beginning, and we need to hear your ideas and to borrow you, your old tools, and your experience. Building our dreams in the forest has been a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of work. We need our community to help us build a community.

Will you come out to Parnassus?

 

If you will: campgemstone@gmail.com

 

Ode to Parnassus

by Ruby

June 6, 2018, 7:30 pm. I am writing this from Parnassus, our 5-acre sliver of raw forest land and daydreams in West Virginia.  We have spent the last 3 days here working hard on projects. The physical work is good, it clears our minds of doubt and distraction. We feel at peace here. The calm is almost shocking, if is weren’t so, well, calming.

We wake up with the sun, to the sound of the birds greeting the daylight. Amethyst jumps from the tent and starts a campfire while I snooze. He comes to greet me a half hour later – “Coffee is ready!” We walk the property while enjoying a warm mug of lovingly-made coffee, and he tells me about all the early-morning delights he witnessed while I slept. We then begin our projects. It is barely eight am.

By ten we are hungry, so we stop for a late morning breakfast. Nothing extravagant – oats or granola. Then we continue until early afternoon, when Amethyst starts a campfire (all of our cooking is done by campfire) and nestles some foil-wrapped sweet potatoes in the coals. We wrap up our morning work as the potatoes bake in the fire, then unwrap them, top them with greek yogurt, and devour them.

Once we have eaten, we begin to slow down. We take stock of all we have accomplished thus far – it is amazing how much two inspired early-risers can complete in a morning. We set out for our afternoon work with less of a sense of urgency. The fuel we just supplied ourselves begins to burn quickly, however, and soon we have hit a second stride. We work with smiles. Suddenly it is 4:00. We realize we are tired and dirty and have done all we can do – it is usually a lot.

We rinse off with a camp shower, then crash into our tent, or onto the pergola, or any other patch of sun, and rest our weary bodies. Everything slows down, the air becomes thick. A deep sense of satisfaction of all we have accomplished and all we are surrounded with takes hold.

The sun begins to take on a glowing golden aura as we rise. We gather food for a feast and make our way to the fire pit once more. Amethyst prepares a fire while I prepare the food. Onto the grill go heaps of meat, vegetables, and other delicious morsels. We watch it, listen to it, and smell it all sizzle. Meanwhile, a glass of wine and a glorious sun embrace us. We dine surrounded by trees, birds, and our mutual love for this land.

Then, when the time is right and our bellies are full, we wander down the path we’ve made to where the cabin will sit. And we watch. We watch the most glorious sunsets over the mountain ridges, the view framed by pine trees. We stare at the horizon, and at each other, in pure amazement.

Once night falls, our neighbors sometimes gather with us here, or we make our way to their yards. We sit in a circle around a campfire, with bottles to drink and stories to tell. Other nights, we stumble into the tent before the sun has even really disappeared, and read books by a lantern until our eyelids can’t manage to open anymore.

We fall asleep, listening to whippoorwills and owls.

We want nothing more.

***

Mount Parnassus is to Ancient Greeks what Mount Ararat is to Christians: The point where life springs forth after a great disaster; the promise of a second chance. This land is, to me, much the same. It is the place where I come to learn who I am, what I want, and what I am capable of. It is the place where all my thoughts become clear. It is the place where I find stillness – my mind can finally stop its constant banter, its incessant efforts to find and solve all problems. There are no big problems here. Logistics become secondary. I can finally discover what has been waiting for me under all of the planning, the worrying, the fighting with myself.

It is from Parnassus that I spring forth.