Has your brain ever spoken to you so loudly that it feels like a voice external to you speaking?
Last night, in the dark, where just a moment earlier I had been falling asleep, came the not-sound, insistent.
“I want to write.”
I haven’t stopped writing. I write a dizzying number of emails. My journal is never far from my side. And yet, I don’t write.
Instead, the evenings and weekend hours when I would have written, I still write but I swap one language for another.
I’m sure I’ll talk about that more some other time. For now, suffice to say, even in this moment when I’m writing (finally), I feel the guilt.
I’m writing, but I’m not coding. I’m not studying. I’m not working toward something.
Let’s not get distracted.
Nova is curled up, a tight bun shape, on the couch. She’s tired because yesterday she ran.
Oh, how she ran!
We – my boyfriend, my dog, and I – went to St Vrain. There’s less snow than when he and I went last year, but the snow that is feels surprisingly soft. No melt freeze crust to punch through, just snow wind packed.
When I got Nova, I resigned myself to having a dog that might never be allowed off leash. Huskies aren’t known for their penchant for sticking around. But there is something else in her. And this other side is what I wanted – obedient, responsive, a white shadow at my heel.
Granted, she doesn’t actually know “heel.”
She is a mix of these things. A snow dog that loves to run and wander. An independent spirit who checks back to make sure I’m still there. Who learns quickly to run behind the skier, just to one side. Who comes when called – eventually.
But who gets distracted and has to be gone back for, calling her name as I carry my skis back up the skin track until rounding the corner I see her, just at the next corner up, looking down to be sure it’s me.
Can I try to tell you what it felt like to see her running with me?
I have new skis, new bindings, new boots, and new skins. I’ve skinned up this path on St Vrain before, but never with such comparative ease. The pain in my knee that plagued and crippled me all last winter, gone. The weight of my old equipment dragged me down and held me back. The right, light gear seemed to propel me forward.
And a white dog ducking in and out of the woods. She alternated between trotting along on the skin track and wiggling through the deep snow on her belly.
We hadn’t broken tree line when we decided to turn around for the day, but discomfort in my right foot (the previously broken foot) and rising wind speeds made the decision easy.
My partner and I switched to downhill, and so did she.
We alternated, finding it best to keep the dog between us as we skied.
When it was my turn to ski first, she ran at my tails as if she knew the command for “heel.”
She ran just at my periphery. A tilt of my head and there she was, tongue out and charging.
When we stopped to let her catch her breath, she dove into deeper snow. When we started again, she was there, running at the heel of whichever of us was first.
In me, with skis on my feet and dog at my heel, the sense of Vonnegut’s heaven; everything is beautiful and nothing – not my knee, not my tweaked shoulder, not my mind – hurt.
It’s been a while, and it will be a little while longer before I have anything new to share.
So, how about this instead. A note I just rediscovered. I wrote it after the events of this post.
That thing when you disappear into the hills with your dear and your phone dies but you have your dog and you let her eat bacon grease and lick the last of the soup. Then when you go back to civilization the car ride makes her stomach roil and protest. Then a fire alarm battery wakes you up at 3:00am and then her stomach wakes you at 3:30am and you don’t know what’s worse the beeping or the gurgling as you stumble, limping heavily with sleep.
But then on your back, your dear asleep, heavy with sleep, you can’t sleep. You can’t fall back to sleep.
So, you think of limping to the car with the dog and driving back and letting your phone die and sleeping through the sunrise. You would rather wake with a cold nose in a cold car than this.
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.
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.)