I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
I am not fond of Thoreau.
I think he’s a bit of a prick, really.
Have you read Walden? Full of contradictions and coming from a place of such unacknowledged privilege. To aspire to a kind of poverty tourism… while looking down on the poor…
Let’s not get into my dislike of Thoreau.
I took Friday off of work and spent the morning cleaning house while Nova rolled in the patch of dirt in our back yard. I cleaned the kitchen counters and packed our bags.
I was away last weekend for work, and I’ll be away again this week. But I wasn’t packing for that trip yet.
No, I was going into the woods.
A friend picked me up and even as the blur of a migraine aura crossed my eyes, we headed south. My eyes closed. Letting the migraine wash over me. Letting the Excedrin wash over me.
I went into the woods because I needed it.
My favorite poem by Robert Frost is Build Soil: A Political Pastoral.
While I may not agree with Frost’s politics, I do agree with his metaphor. To build soil is to feed the earth. To turn the earth and mix it with compost, with air. To give it the breath and food of life that will make the soil rich and bountiful.
I went into the woods so that I could build soil.
There is a perception of selfishness around the act of withdrawal. Of discovering your campsite has no cell service and then letting your phone drain to dead on the dash while you wander in the woods. Of taking your dog and your friend and side stepping the world and going and for a night living a reality in which there is no one but you and the dog and the people you meet for fleeting moments.
How could waking up and opening your eyes and looking up to the stars be a selfish act?
How could walking the dog and eating breakfast in down parkas be a selfish act?
My favorite stanza in Build Soil is the last one, presented here. (The entire poem is here.)
Probably but you’re far too fast and strong
For my mind to keep working in your presence.
I can tell better after I get home,
Better a month from now when cutting posts
Or mending fence it all comes back to me
What I was thinking when you interrupted
My life-train logic. I agree with you
We’re too unseparate. And going home
From company means coming to our senses.
I do not go into the woods to live deliberately, although that may happen. I do not go into the woods to look at any one true life. Because there is no one true life and the best way to live deliberately is to live.
But I do go to build soil. To cultivate a space in me that is separate from you, separate from even the people I am with when I go into the woods.
And while I may reinforce the boundary line between me and you, I erase the line between me and this.
This landscape. This earth. This path beneath my feet and this air that flows in gusts into my lungs. This rain as it fell and these clouds as they hovered and the rock flakes we traced with our palms. Glacial till.
In the soil metaphor, this is the organic matter. The compost, the half-chewed stalks of whatever was growing before.
(You are the rocks pulled by hand from the loam.)
This week, I leave my dog for five nights. I go back to the city a stone’s throw from where I grew up. I go back to an accent I know is under my skin and will never fully leave my throat.
So, I needed this. I needed the time away to come to my senses. To mark out the boundaries between me and you.
I went into the woods, in short, because I wished to come to my senses.
She’s sleeping, curled in a crescent, on my bed. Half in a sun beam. Every once in a while, her toes twitch as if she is running, chasing rabbits in her dreams.
Are you real? I ask her.
She moves awake, turns to look at me.
Of course I am. Why would you ask such a thing?
I ask such a thing because I have been waiting for her for so long. Ten years, approximately. More than a quarter of my life has been spent waiting.
And now I get to say it: this is my dog.
I get to speak these words over and over again. This is my dog.
The day I picked her up from her foster home, she greeted me as she greets everyone: silently, at the door, pressing her face and shoulders into my hands to be pet. She leaned into me. And I took her home.
In the car, she looked politely out of the window as I talked to her, nervously, as one does when there is too much silence to fill.
You’re coming home, Nova. And I won’t let you leave.
I don’t remember exactly where the name Nova came from. It’s been on my list of dog names for ages, but it was close enough to the name her fosters had given her that it wouldn’t be difficult to switch to. And, it is also the name of one of my current Shadowrun characters. And, more importantly, the week before I picked her up, I dreamed of her every night. In my dreams, her name was Nova.
I gave her a middle name. It’s Popcorn.
She’s named after my parents’ first dog together, a mutt they found in their barn in upstate New York.
Popcorn found her way into my parents’ life.
I went looking for Nova.
I am a dog person.
An introvert. The kind of person who thinks maybe the anchorites have the right idea.
But I am also a dog person.
Maybe it’s because I was a lonely child. Don’t misunderstand me – I was happy. I was always happy. But I was lonely. I created a rich and wonderful world in my mind, but I had no real way of sharing it.
I didn’t have a dog when I was young. Popcorn died when I was a toddler. We didn’t get Sophie until I was 11.
Instead, I wrapped myself up in books. Books of horses in the desert. Of hawks in the Catskills. But best of all were the books that took place someplace cold. I read them at midnight under the covers with a flashlight. They were books of sled dogs and wolves and the northern lights.
And I dreamed of a dog that would be my friend.
It must be a family trait.
Once, I found my brother’s journal. In it were Robert Frost poems and one entry about Popcorn the First. In it, he wrote that she was his best friend and companion.
I wanted a best friend and constant companion.
I remember the first moment I saw Sophie. She was a puppy, her ears still folded over. A little strawberry blonde and white ball of puppy barreling down the hallway to greet me when I opened the door.
I was sweaty from soccer practice.
My father walked in after. He had no idea that we would be coming home to a puppy.
We’re really good at communicating in my family.
When I turned 16, I’d help Sophie into the passenger seat of my Geo Tracker and we would drive. Usually just to the drug store, where usually I would park for a few minutes just to turn around and drive home. Just for something to do with her when I was bored and lonely.
I would take her hiking, a girl and her corgi, when no one else would go.
My mother sometimes calls me Sister.
I called Sophie my little sister.
For some reason, the dogs in my daydreams were always male and either pitch black or blue merles. Sheepdogs, the lot.
Instead, I have a white female husky mutt. She is strikingly beautiful, her coat pointed with red like a Siamese cat. Her features foxlike.
Another strawberry blonde. It must be a family trait.
Her eyes are brown. But in one, a smudge of white like an iceberg adrift in a murky sea. Or, maybe, in her eye is the reflection of a mountain peak only she can see.
I mentioned it briefly in an earlier post, but I had foot surgery in September. 18 days later I had a dog.
I’m two weeks away from the day when the bone they broke will be fully healed. Two weeks away from the day when I can run and jump.
I can’t wait to run and jump with her.
I can’t wait to disappear again into the high alpine, this time with her by my side.
I can’t wait to see how far we’ll go.
You should see her smile when she’s on trails. Like me, she isn’t made for concrete. She’s made for dirt and snow and the high alpine.
On Saturday, the two of us drove up to Breckenridge to visit with family friends. We ended the trip with three circuits of a tiny .7 mile loop. I stubbed my bad toe three times. I was limping long before we stopped back at the car.
On the way home, she slept in the back seat and I played Blind Pilot as I drove on mountain roads.
And I wanted to cry from happiness.
Because I was a lonely child.
Now that Nova is here, that little girl never has to be lonely again.
Nova takes up almost the entire bottom half of the bed. She’s sprawled out with a squeaky Kong ball that her godfather, my roommate Kenny, bought her this afternoon.
She’s not a cuddler, but she must be warming up, because she’s using my shin as a pillow. Every once in a while, her toes twitch.
I don’t know if she’s ever seen snow before.
This thought struck me the other day. Prior to coming to Summit Dog Rescue, she was a stray in Arkansas. There is a chance that she has never seen snow.
I drove by snow on Loveland’s slopes. Low enough down that even I, gimpy, could reach it without a problem.
We’re going to find snow this weekend.
A friend asked how I felt just a few days after I found out I was getting Nova.
I told him, it’s scary. But not for the reasons people think. I’m not worried about the responsibility or the cost or any of that.
Rather, I have been dreaming about this dog for years. Thinking about her, wondering about her, planning for her for a decade.
And now she’s here.
I don’t like life goals. I don’t like bucket lists. Even my birthday lists are sort of haphazard and half-assed. I barely have dreams.
But Nova has been on my list. On every list. For a decade.
And now that I have her.
Now that this dream has come true… I can’t help but be afraid.
What else can I do?
We are going to go find snow.
And in two weeks, we are going to go to the high alpine.
Here is a short, incomplete, non-sequential list of things that, once upon a time, I wish someone had said to me when I was crying.
May it, perhaps, help you.
1. Right now, in this moment, who you are is bright and brilliant. You don’t think you are, but you are. You are amazing right now. I know you don’t believe it. But you are a miracle. And you don’t know it right now, but you will be amazing. You are going to be so brave and strong and courageous and vivid and passionate that you will marvel at where you stand.
2. You will belong. You will be loved and you will love so fiercely that it will make everything else, everything else. I promise. It will happen. Not when you think. Not in the way you think. But you will open your eyes and realize that there are people who you have chosen who you belong to and with… and who you will belong to and with forever, even when you live half a world away.
3. The people who love us will do very cruel things without knowing that what they are doing is cruel. They will probably never apologize. Because they will have no idea. These things they do do not negate the fact that they love us. These things do not negate the good. But all of the good doesn’t mean the bad doesn’t exist.
4. You still get to love the person they were to you when it was good. You have that right. But, you also have the right to stop loving them because of who they are when it is bad.
5. What you did just now was so brave. I am sorry no one noticed. I am so sorry they did not understand. I am so sorry that you held out your hand and asked in such a small voice to be helped. You ask for help so rarely. I am so sorry they smacked your hand away. I am sorry they yelled when what you needed was for them to sit beside you and watch the sun set over the lake. I am so sorry. Be brave.
Someday, you will be in tears and someone will help you. These people will welcome you and they will let you sleep on their couch for a week and they will wonder, truly wonder, why you didn’t ask them sooner. And they will not understand when you try to tell them. But they will accept you anyway. And they will help you. And then, you will find more people who will hold your hand. And one day, completely by surprise, you won’t need their help anymore. Not like you did. So, finally, it will be your turn to hold their hands.
You will hold so many hands. Strangers. Friends. You will be there when people you barely know and people you love sit down to cry. When they rage. When they hurt. And you will make them cry harder and you will make them laugh and you’ll make them punch their pillows and it will be enough. You will hold their hands because the pain you’ve carried has made you kind and brave.
6. You don’t have to put your head down and take it. Not anymore. Not ever again. It’s easy to fall back into that. But please don’t. Try really hard not to. You do not under any circumstances deserve it. You did nothing to deserve it.
7. You are bright and brilliant. think you need these people who, whether they know it or not, are trying to make you less bright and brilliant. You don’t need people who tell you to close your mouth. To get in line.
Do you remember when you were little and you were drawing on the floor of your grandmother’s house?
A woman stood at the door watching you. She asked your mother: “Does she color in the lines?”
“Color in the lines? Oh no,” your mother said, sounding insulted. “She makes the lines.”
You are that. You are the one who makes the lines. If you can, as often as you can, remember that.
8. It is okay to be afraid. But you don’t have to be if you don’t want to be. You are braver than you know. Move toward it.
9. I know. I know. You don’t believe in yourself right now. You think that this moment is proof – final, irrefutable proof that you deserved it. That you are weak. That you are small. That you are an unworthy. A coward. You’re not any of those things.
You make the lines.
You get to choose.
You can stay here with me for a little while. You can cry here as long as you need. But before you know it, you’ll be standing up and you’ll be going out there to face the wolves as you have a hundred times and as you will a hundred more.
I went expecting an important, pertinent, pivotal moment. A point of growth. A marker, a beacon in the narrative of life that would highlight this very moment as significant.
I went, only to find that the point was insignificant. It was, in fact, pointless. See, while I wasn’t looking, I had changed. I have moved beyond the fixed, imaginary point that I held in my mind, and I moved beyond it before I had even reached what I had imagined would be its symbolic place.
Let me share a secret with you.
In every thing I write, there is something central, pivotal that I do not put into words. In every thing I write, I am writing around something unspoken. Something I may never speak out loud, let alone write for everyone to see. And yet, if I removed that invisible pillar, the narrative would crumble.
Go back and read. Can you feel it? The way the words dance around a ghost?
This time, I will tell you what the unwritten is, and in this telling, I unburden myself of my private shame.
I came here to Medicine Bow Mountain because once upon a time, I came here with someone I loved. Someone who then betrayed me and in a single act tore me asunder.
Confusion. Embarrassment. Disbelief. Shame. Grief. And finally white hot rage.
I came here because I sought to erase him from this memory and in his place, recreate space for myself alone. I sought to claim this mountain as a space I love, no strings attached.
It is beautiful here.
I’ve always been drawn to mountainous places. The more rugged, the more remote feeling, the better. I like the way Medicine Bow strikes up from the ground, pushing toward the sky. Stone and air.
I’m in really good shape this summer, thanks to the century ride, so I hoofed it up the mountain, summiting in half the time that it took us when we together. And then I kept going, past where we turned around. Out along the spine of the mountain.
For long stretches, I ran along the trail, not minding the unergonomic weight of my pack, ignoring the pain in my foot.
I laughed when I found snow at the summit. I pressed my hands in it, the unexpected gift.
Funny – I don’t remember seeing a single man hiking alone. And yet, I wasn’t the only woman traveling with a pack and solitude.
Like a child, I went into the mountains to prove a point.
But I’m at the point now where I’m wondering who the hell I’m trying so hard to impress. It’s certainly not him. It’s certainly not you.
Who is this specter I’m railing against?
There is a photo of two of us from this place. I look so happy in it. I’m standing on a rock, so we’re about the same height, and I’m leaning into him.
In fact, it’s one of my favorite photos of me. Wide smile. Crows feet erupting from the corners of my eyes like fireworks.
That smile is not reflected in him. He humored me when I asked him to take it with me.
The smile in my eyes is for the alpine. His is just waiting for me to put the camera away.
Friday night, I lay in my tent on my own. My first solo camping trip, tucked in a nook off of a dirt road, away from the RVs and Tacomas.
On my stomach, I read the last few chapters of Catherine the Great. It struck me: laying in a tent in Wyoming and reading about Robespierre and Marat in a book about a German princess who became the Russian autocrat.
Which, as it’s wont to do, brought this Star Trek quote to mind:
It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.
Human beings are beautiful, improbably creatures. We climb routes up cliff faces that we could much more easily walk around. We build shelters with our hands. We set the sky on fire. We break bones. We break hearts.
And more grossly, we do these things on purpose.
We are careless and thoughtless in love.
We place our own limbs under the knife and ask the man in scrubs to make the pain stop. Hurt me now. Wound me. Cripple me. But promise me the pain will stop and that I will be as if I were new.
(I’m getting a bunion removed in a couple of weeks, hence the unsettling imagery.)
I am wasting my breath fighting a ghost I don’t know. It’s a chip on my shoulder that cuts down to the bone.
For as long as I can remember, I have felt the need to prove myself. To claim my right to occupy space, to exist, to be seen and heard.
I’m not sure what I’m fighting now. It’s not him. It’s not them.
Is it me?
Is that feeling so ingrained into me now that what was once an external ghost is just a mirror’s warped reflection?
Friday night, after setting up the tent, I lay cocooned in two sleeping bags, too busy thinking about bears to think about him.
The next morning, pulling into the parking lot, I really didn’t think about him all that much.
Instead, I offered my palms to every dog I met on the trail. I wondered in the power in my own legs, made strong from cycling. I thought about Catherine the Great. I imagined what my nephews were doing at the lake right in that moment.
(On Sunday, my father took the old meat grinder in the basement and set up a makeshift cider press. In the photograph, their three heads are bowed over a tupperware container of juice, feeding crab apple slices into the teeth of the machine.)
And, I also looked inside of myself for the face of the one to whom I have something to prove.
I found no one to whom anything was worth proving.
I don’t have to prove that my heart was broken. Neither do I have to justify it.
I don’t have to fight for my space in the world. I just have to occupy it.
I don’t have to stay up all night, like a child, thinking about bears and wondering where I packed my spare headlamp batteries to prove that I’m tough. I am tough. I used Catherine the Great as a pillow. How many people can say that?
As I hiked, the strangest couplet came to mind. It played on loop, like a commercial jingle set in Old English.
I want to live where the color of summer is green.
I want a quiet dirt road where I can feel the mountains in the air.
Where the spring snows cling to the shadows.
I want a place on this road that will always feel like home.
And in it, a room full of books.
I want to work hard.
But, I will find joy in that labor. To write words that will – in some small way – help. To rake mountains of leaves in the fall and cut wood for the fire that will – on some winter nights – feel like a treasure stolen from the gods.
I want to play.
By this I mean to be in motion. To climb trees and behind their leaves pantomime hide and seek until I am very, very old and very, very gray.
I want the freedom to wander away, to disappear for days on end.
It may not always matter where or when, but simply that I can and, most of all, that I can always, always come home to warm my fingers on a cup of black coffee…
In Satre’s play, No Exit, three people wake up in hell. Their new world consists of each other, a small room, and a door.
Once all three subjects enter the room, shepherded in by a demure psychopomp, the door locks. Though they may try, none of the characters are able to budge it. Their shouts of protest go unheard.
But, wait. Let me tell you something first. Keep reading. I’ll get back to No Exit, I promise.
Besides Ultimate, my sports are essentially individual. Running, skiing, cycling. These are things I do because even if I go out with other people, I can do these things alone.
It’s cycling I’m writing about now.
Two weekends ago, I finished my first Century. 100 miles in the rolling hills north of San Francisco.
This was the farthest I’ve ever ridden and the longest I’ve ever been in the saddle.
Months earlier, my brother called me up with the intention of scaring me. putting the fear of hill climbs in me – goading me to either back down or buck up.
I was more irritated than frightened, but the outcome was the same. Hours spent going uphill.
I am known among my bike-riding friends for descending fast, losing myself to gravity and momentum. It pulls me down, propels me forward. Descents are an out of body experience.
The uphill is completely different.
Do I love the push? The halting, painful climb? The screaming lungs, the protesting thighs?
Moving against gravity, I am aware of my own weight. I feel sweat evaporate on my skin. My mind staggers along its own course, lurching from the color of the asphalt to philosophy to lunch to mistakes to half-forgotten dreams.
I must love it.
Why else would I bother?
Why else would my life be riddled with skin tracks, with thin tires spinning through muddy roads, with scraped knees and skin tight shoes pressing against stone.
The descent isn’t difficult. You just find yourself on the top of a hill and you go.
But the uphill is a hard.
It is Sisyphean. Imagine me happy.
See, it is the process of moving upwards with the full awareness that you are just going to turn around and go up again. Why?
Why do you push?
Why do you go?
“Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” The New York Times reporter asked George Mallory.
“Because it’s there.”
He added, “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge.”
One year and three months later, Mallory was dead.
I call myself a downhill person. But the downhill is not necessarily why I go up.
I go up because it’s there; its very existence is a challenge.
It’s like this:
You sign up for a century ride having never biked more than 40 miles before. You strap your skis to your back not knowing if there will even be snow. You stand at the door of a new job, a new state, a new face, and you do not know what you’re getting yourself into.
The race is there. The mountain is there. The door, you see, is ajar.
So, you walk through — not in spite of but because you don’t know if you’ll succeed.
You have to try anyway. Because it’s there. Because it’s what you love. It’s Freud’s Eros throwing itself against the walls of your heart.
And you must go.
Near the end of No Exit, the room’s only door flies open, followed by a long silence between the assembled damned. I’ve never seen the play performed, but that’s the stage direction, written in capitals: (THE DOOR FLIES OPEN: a long silence.)
The three characters bicker among themselves. Goading first one, then threatening the next to go through the open door and into the hall.
Here is where Garcin cries: “Hell is other people!”
I think you missed the point, Garcin. And I think, ten years ago when I read No Exit for the first time, that I missed the point as well.
I thought of this on my bicycle, slogging up hill on a 3 and a half hour training ride along the peak to Peak highway. I had hit the spot two thirds of the way through when I was spinning uphill, but my mind was spinning down into the dark bilge of unwelcome thought. This was the place of what-ifs, the who-do-you-think-you-ares, the how-could-yous.
Hell isn’t other people.
Hell is standing in front of an open door — and not walking through it.
There, with your family, you play in the snow. You ski, wondering at the jagged Andies, the air salted with a language you do not understand. You have chocolate hazelnut spread for the first time, scooping it from a tiny plastic carton the same size and shape as the single serving jams at your hometown’s diner.
Your luck doesn’t run out.
You happened to be staying Portillo at the same time as the US Olympic team. They’re young. They seem young. Some not even as old as your eldest brother. This surprises you, but they still seem so big and bright and fast.
Was this before or after you started ski racing? You only did it for a few winters. You never had a coach, just your dad shouting pointers from the sidelines, but you tried. You might have already given up, outsized and out practiced.
Whether or not you were racing at the time, you don’t actually follow ski racing very closely. In the winter, you spend your days and nights skiing and swimming and reading and going to school. You don’t watch much TV.
But you know what it means to be on the US Olympic Team and being in their presence makes you shake
One night, they open the building they’re staying in to the public. Your dad encourages you to walk in. He stands close, making sure you don’t bolt.
You are clutching a note pad and a purple gel pen.
You can’t believe the only pen you have is a purple gel pen. How embarrassing…
The first person you ask for an autograph jots her name down quickly. You have no recollection of who she was.
But the next, a young man with a bright, smiling face says, Hold on. I can do better than this.
He gets you a mini poster and personally walks from racer to racer, collecting autographs. (With your purple gel pen.)
You clutch that piece of paper tight, tongue tied, heart racing.
When you leave, a young man on a balcony says, “Goodnight Elizabeth.” (You manage to wave, but stumble over your own feet.)
When you go back to school, you bring the poster with you; it is, after all, your most prized possession. The gel pen is smudged in places. You try to show your classmates – Look! I met the US ski team!
What was it, exactly, that they said?
“No one cares.”
Those words crush you.
That afternoon when you get home from school, you stuff the poster in the back of your closet. You cry.
It doesn’t make sense to you. If they, the other kids, had met the US Soccer Team or the Red Sox, wouldn’t that have been cool? Wouldn’t that have been a story worth sharing?
Why isn’t mine worth sharing?
You throw the poster away because you came across it one day and you feel that crushing pain all over again. You hope you forget about it forever.
But you don’t.
And you still wonder if you did the right thing.
The things that haunt me, the memories I really hate, all seem so trivial in the retelling. So what? It’s stupid to feel the pain still. No one should care about something that happened almost 16 years ago.
But I remember these things, and I wonder why they mattered, and I wonder if I’ll ever forget.
I like to write about the bright things. The seeking things. The joy that restlessness can bring. I like to write about reaching out to fear and discovering myself to be, yes, alive.
From a young age, I was discouraged from writing about the dark. Don’t show the painful things. So, obediently, I don’t tell the stories that are behind the times I cannot be brave. The meltdowns, the tears, the mean reds.
But so many boil down to this:
You are stupid. The thing that brings you joy is dumb. Why won’t you just fit in?
And yet, I keep going. (Please keep going.)
I don’t have a lesson for you, dear reader. I can’t tie this up in a bow. This isn’t about facing fear or suddenly experiencing the revelatory moment of overcoming a petty childhood scar.
I just felt like you should see: I’m not all café crèmes and rappels and love songs to speed.
I am small, senseless scars. Like the pock marks on my knees from when I fell of a bike as a little kid (resulting in a decade long fear of bicycles). Like the burn mark on my right wrist from the worst Christmas I can remember.
The big things–the dog bite, the unfortunate collision with a bed post, removing the supernumerary nipple, the appendectomy, the concussion–seem to fade. It’s the big stuff that I can fight. These are the marks that become part of my epic songs, the stories I tell at parties to be cool and funny.
Perplexingly, it’s the ones that should be insignificant that remain.
Don’t worry. There is plenty more light on the way. There are sunny days and patches of snow and laughing until I cry and standing in streams with a fishing pole. There are bike rides up Sunshine Canyon and plane tickets and words. There are strangers and old friends. There are dogs and sandstone and granite and cluster flies.
Okay, here’s a lesson. Don’t take it as something sad or melancholy. Take it, perhaps, as a proof of bravery. Take it as the fact that we “in this captious and intenible sieve” still go forth. Your lesson: behind every beautiful thing is a thousand scars.
None of them are shameful. Even the small ones. Especially the small ones.
One of my greatest gripes about personal blogging is that I think we, public journalers, myself included, tend to speak in absolutes. We repeat our mantras over and over again as if they are carved into our bones. As if we never forget them.
We have this idea that when we discover the truth, it hits us all at once. You know; we see what’s real and what’s not in a flash of understanding. In fact, the thing we call an experience like that is the moment of truth. That’s what we say: a moment of truth. We do not say the dragged out year and a half of the truth. That’s how it goes sometimes. Sometimes you come to accept the truth slowly. In stages. Sometimes we have reasons to hold on to a lie. We’re not ready to let go of the world the lies preserves. The people the lie keeps to us. And we release the lie from our hand one finger at a time.
Not just for the hard lessons of falling out of love, as covered in the episode.
But for the hard lessons of living by love, as e.e. cummings invites, though the stars walk backwards.
And it has everything to do with living in fear.
(And the stars, by the way, do walk backwards. That’s retrograde.)
There is something I know about being afraid. I have learned it over and over again, and I wish that I could carve it into my bones.
Mars rose in the east, bright and red. If felt so close, closer than the moon, and on it, Curiosity.
We snuck into Goblin Valley and as the sky darkened. The park was closing, but we were arriving. Venturing out into the forest of hoodoos and sand. We were looking for Goblin’s Lair. An appropriate adventure for the cover of darkness, don’t you think?
When I was little, I was afraid of the dark.
I imagined werewolves outside of my bedroom windows. I locked and unlocked and locked and unlocked and locked the front door, side door, every window in the house.
But I didn’t like being afraid. No one likes being afraid.
I didn’t like cowering in my bed imagining robbers and murders and the vampire that lived in my closet and the crocodile under my bed.
So, I started my nights by sitting cross-legged on my bed with the lights out. I stared out into the dark corners of the room as my eyes adjusted, thinking: I am not afraid. There is nothing there. I am not afraid.
It wasn’t until I was 21 and looking up at the Southern Cross for the first time that my fear of the dark really disappeared.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
– Sarah Williams, “The Old Astronomer”
We didn’t find Goblin’s Lair that night, but we did get lost. Lost in the dark, squinting into the west trying too find landmarks, anything, that would lead us back to the car.
The Big Dipper above our heads.
Have you ever noticed that running in the dark feels like flying?
Mars in retrograde at our backs.
We made it back to the car, hours later than we intended. (I sent a silent thanks to Mars and on it, Curiosity.)
The next morning, we went back for Goblin’s Lair. We found it, eventually.
From above, it’s a wide hole in the ground hidden in a forest of hoodoo pillars, a labyrinth of sandstone and silt.
A large outcropping. Four lengths of webbing wrapped around an soft, sandstone anchor.
Keese sets up the ropes as I slip into an unfamiliar harness. I’m hot and sweaty and starting to shake.
The rappel is 90ft from lip to floor. I haven’t rappelled since college. The grigri is different from the grigri and belay devices I’m familiar with, but the figure eight seems far too simple to be safe.
He ropes himself in. He shows me how to use the belay device).
I say: “I’m afraid of heights. You may have to talk me through this.”
He says: “I’m not going to be able to talk you through this.”
My mouth goes dry and he descends over the lip, and did I mention I am shaking?
In New Zealand, a friend and I decided to go bungy jumping. I didn’t care how far the fall, so I let him pick. Michael chose the Nevis, a 134 meter drop into a dingy brown gully.
I didn’t know I was afraid of heights until we took the rickety cart out to the jumping station. The clear plastic floor made my head spin.
When I jumped, there was no rush of adrenaline. No intoxicating rush of endorphins. There was no sensation of flight. There was only fear.
I’ve been well aware of the fear ever since. I know it like an old regret, worrying at the edges of my consciousness.
“Off rappel!” Keese must have called. I heard him, but didn’t register the words.
I had no choice now. My friend was already in the hole. I could probably find my way out of the labyrinth by myself, but it wouldn’t be fun. SoI clipped myself in, locking the carabiner and checking it twice, three, four times.
I didn’t look down until I was over the lip and the rope took my weight. I didn’t look down until I was away from the wall and dangling free, suspended in a cave. And then…
Look down. Look around. And I’m in a beautiful cave, descending from the sky. Hikers on the floor gaped up at me. It felt like flying.
There is something I have learned about fear.
Move towards it.
Back towards it.
Don’t look down until you’re over the lip towards it.
Step forward and make small talk towards it.
Stand up and give your speech towards it.
Look down, look up, look around towards it.
After 9/11, my father called me into his bedroom. He must have had a long day, because he was already in bed with the lights off.
We lived in suburban Massachusetts at the time. I went to school in Rhode Island, but he worked in Boston. I’m sure it was a long, frightening day for him.
He asked if I still wanted to travel, to fly with him, just the two of us, like we had done for years. He asked if I was afraid.
I said I was afraid, but that I still wanted to fly.
He said, Good, then said a line I would hear repeated over and over. From him, from others, from the television in the coming days: “If you stop, then they win.”
I thought they meant terrorists, but I learned that they really meant fear.
If you stop, then fear wins.
The nameless terrors in the night, the anxiety that stops your breath and races your heart.
Someone asked me recently if I had learned to avoid the things that made me afraid and anxious.
That’s not how it works.
Go towards it.
Not always. Some days, many days, I curl into my safe places and I read my safe books and drink my safe tea and whisper my safe words into the leaves of my precious plants.
I may stay for days, weeks in a place of comfort without shame or apology. I do it so that I may have the strength to stretch out my hand to grasp fear’s arm.
Fear is there to pull me up over the rocks. Fear is there as I back over the edge, refusing to look down. And, beautifully, fear is there to watch me fly.
In Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, our heroes journey into the underworld. There, they meet their deaths–invisible specters that are with us from the moment we are born, morose shades who accompany us to our end.
I imagine my fear a little like that, a minor and malicious specter. And I turn to it, my specter, and I reach out to touch it, and I choose flight.
Not all of the time. But as often as I can.
Please. Even if you have to back over the edge. Even if you refuse to look down.
(Even stars walk backwards. Even planets move in retrograde.)
This blog was my public face for a life lived out-of-doors. Behind the scenes, it was my courage, a push in the right direction. It was my excuse for going places and doing things, whether or not there was anyone interested in joining me.
But, it’s time for this blog to evolve, as you can see from the fact I haven’t updated in… eight months.
Working in the outdoor industry, an intense space, has made me look at my outdoor pursuits very differently. I hold my outdoor time closer to my chest now. Each outing it too precious to share, and even if I did, the words would be touched by a self-conscious melancholy even I don’t know how to explain. (Let’s say, I’ll never be a bubbly, bouncing influencer.)
The logical progression for this blog, then, is for it to become a broader, more personal place that addresses far more than where I hiked or skied this week. Likely, I’ll talk a whole heck of a lot more about writing; it is both my work and my play.
And yes, of course I’ll write about the outdoors. I don’t love everything about Colorado, but I crave the high alpine like the flavor sweet. But I’ve lost all interest in impressing you with my feats. I don’t want to show off. I want to share something unnamed essential thing. It’s personal.
But personal is scary.
Personal is scary because personal is in flux. We are not singular. We are each works in progress with no endpoint. Full of contradictions.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
– Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
Hopefully, this opens doors to more self-directed writing, words that I can share here.
For the foreseeable future, I will be producing a lot of words for work and play. Read along with me. The best is yet to be.