After the anger
Into a pool of grief
My little dog
Licks my cheeks
That seem to have
After the anger
Into a pool of grief
My little dog
Licks my cheeks
That seem to have
There was a girl at summer camp
when I was eight years old
Who wore gold dangly earrings
that said: “Daddy’s Girl.”
I was a “Daddy’s Girl” too
But not in the gold,
dangly earring kind of way
Not the kind
that even called my Dad,
I was a Daddy’s Girl
In the way
That my soul was hitched to his;
That the world felt right
Because he was in it
When I lay awake
Unable to sleep
With anger coursing
Through my body
So intense that I viscerally
Understand how snakes—
Armless, legless snakes—
Can propel their bodies
Up vertical buildings
I think about those earrings
And I imagine them
Young, tender earlobes
Leaving them bloody,
Into a dead
The anger is so huge
It doesn’t fit
Inside a human body
It mushroom clouds out of me
Into a fuming, black,
That I wear in place
Of his love that I used to know
There are a few book titles that are so brilliant that they can stand alone as wise entities unto themselves. One of them is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are. Because indeed, the one thing we can’t leave behind when we go away from home is our own self. This is not to say that external landscapes don’t have impact on internal landscapes—because they do. But a heavy heart and a worried mind can worm their way into any setting eventually. Or as Thoreau said, in Walden, “the fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.”
External shifts can offer much needed respite or distraction or perspective shifts. All of which can be profound and life altering. But external shifts are rarely the full answer to life’s heartaches. I say this as a person who has tried out the “external fix” route to life’s problems dozens of times, only to find that what I was running from was with me all along. Some people learn not to touch the hot stove after one misplaced hand, others of us, need to get burned a few times before we remember the lesson. I fall into the latter category.
Which is why I take comfort in Portia Nelson’s poem, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,”
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I still don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I am in the same place. It isn't my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it there, I still fall in. It's habit. It's my fault. I know where I am. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down a different street
I am recently back from spending two weeks leading a backpacking trip in Wyoming. Mountains in general, and the Wind River Range of Wyoming, in particular, are my happy place. Laughter and joy are easier to access when I am out in the mountains. But even my happy place can’t fully guard against my unique array of “deep holes in the sidewalk.” I re-used a journal this summer from a month long backpacking trip I’d led in 2016. And the journal of my 31 year old self was a fairly accurate emotional map for my 33 year old self, which leads me to believe I’m hovering somewhere between chapters two and three of “An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.”
One of my old familiar deep holes is grasping for contentment “out there” rather than locating contentment in my current reality. The mountains, with their harsh insistence on staying present, on attending to the needs of the moment are the most helpful teachers I have for seeking contentment in what is in front of me, rather than in what eludes my grasp.
And I’m looking at that old familiar “deep hole” in my life with news eyes as I puzzle over the recent choices my dad has made for his life—the wild external shifts he has made as his bid for happiness. And it lends credence to the idea of emotional baggage becoming the unwanted heirlooms that somehow keep passing from generation to generation.
And I hope that someday, I’ll have learned enough to know that I don’t need to keep falling into the same old hole. That instead, I could walk down a different street.
I started 2019 out with a Blog Post titled “The Fig In the Hand.” It’s more of a prayer than a post. A prayer that perhaps I’ll be able to savor what is good in my life in the moment rather than dwell in Kierkegaard’s aptly named, “despair of too much possibility.” Or what we call, less elegantly, in modern parlance: FOMO (fear of missing out).
The fig tree quote from Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has taken root in my imagination and become an important metaphor in my life.
With friends, when I talk about “my figs,” they know I am referring to my ghost lives. The lives I watch from the shore of reality, sometimes with incredible angst or nostalgia, and sometimes with great relief and peace.
A few weeks ago I got a message from a friend who was reading The Bell Jar. It’s been quite a few years since I read the book in full. And so I was surprised and delighted to get a photo of the page that follows the fig tree scene. The next page unfolds like this:
Along with the quote above, my friend, who is also a student in the despair of too much possibility, wrote, “She could have just been hungry. Something for us to consider.” There is something refreshing about considering the possibility that despair could have a tangible remedy. That yogurt and berries can, on occasion, move a person from existential dread to wanting to a romp with Constantin.
Not all problems have such a simple solution. Slyvia Plath’s life famously ended in suicide. But, it is worth holding onto the possibility that distress can be fleeting. That distress, can sometimes even be fixed.
When my world was thrown into chaos this spring by my dad’s reveal of his hidden life, I heard many things from many people. From one person, I heard: set an alarm to remind yourself to drink water.
The basics: water, food, sleep, are all part of “psychological first aid.” When everything is falling apart, by necessity you need to focus on just surviving. Just remembering to drink water. To eat. To get in bed to try to sleep. And it helps. Not a lot, but a little.
One of my friends works as an Ayurvedic Health coach—bringing the wisdom of an ancient Indian healing system into modern American life. So much of what I’ve learned from her is about attending to the basics in an intentional way.
So I’m adding to my list of possibilities that I maybe should just eat a fig, instead of lusting after metaphorical figs.
I say this knowing full well that I will spend the rest of my life feeling nostalgia for things being “the way they were” with my dad. But “the way they were” is gone. And surviving the void needs solutions great and small.
My dad has always been my person. My anchor. The one who made the world bearable, even on the darkest nights. I’ve tried several times on this blog to capture the essence of my dad: In a pre-emptive eulogy, a Father’s Day post, a Moth live story-telling event, where I won first place for the story of my dad as my refuge, and in a poem about loving him always. But none of these attempts could fully capture just how important he was to me. The first time I went to therapy I bawled about losing my dad. “Is he sick?” the therapist wanted to know. “No,” I replied, “but I won’t be able to handle life if he isn’t here.”
I recognize now, from my work as a therapist, how rare and life giving it is to feel seen and heard and understood by someone. For the first 33 years of my life, that person who saw and heard and understood me, was my dad. Having one person, consistently and unfailingly play that role for over three decades is a minor miracle. I am lucky. I know that many people have to function in the world without having a person like that, maybe ever. I just didn’t know how they did it. And I was terrified for the day when I would have to find out. For the day I would inevitably lose my dad.
It is developmentally appropriate for children to begin, at some point (most commonly in adolescence), to see their parents’ flaws—to begin to see them as humans, not just as parents. I was right on target with this trajectory with my mom. We were at odds with each other off and on when I was an adolescent, and by my late twenties we were coming into a place of mutual understanding and appreciation. That trajectory and transformation has been incredibly powerful. Both my mom and I have been committed to our own growth and it in turn has allowed our relationship to open up in incredible ways. Again, I am lucky. Not everyone has a parent committed to their own growth.
My mom is a woman of uncommon elegance, strength, and heart. A woman who has been given more than her share of significant lifetime challenges; who knows how to carry on, and who is learning, at age 65 how to let herself come undone. Watching her becoming, and paralleling it with my own becoming, has been one of the greatest gifts of the last half decade of my life.
I didn’t follow the same trajectory of seeing flaws and normalizing with my dad. My dad remained on a pedestal for me for 32 years and 363 days. Until three days prior to my 33rd birthday when I received a message that exploded the pedestal into a million fragments, fundamentally turning my world on its head, leaving me unmoored and charting unfamiliar waters.
The explosive missile was a brief but utterly devastating text. Revealing an affair he had been having for the last half decade with a woman my age--letting me and my older brother know that we would be getting a half brother this summer as a result of this affair.
Some children are relieved when their parents split. After months or years of fighting the separation, and then divorce, feels like a natural and necessary conclusion. Part of what was so shocking about my dad’s announcement is that he and my mom, at least to an outside observer, seemed to be having some of the best years of their nearly 38 year marriage.
People have since asked me how the rest of the night unfolded after receiving “the text.” It unfolded like this: I was physically ill. Vomiting repeatedly throughout the night. Folklore, and recent science, indicate that we have three centers of knowing: the head, the heart, and the gut. My gut was the first line of defense, trying to reject information I could not bear to metabolize.
My heart, on a physiological level, and of course on an emotional level, came apart too. My annual spring physical had revealed a heartbeat irregularity, and in the follow up, which was the week following my dad’s reveal, my echo-cardiogram showed that the irregular heartbeat had increased six fold and that I was having mild mitral regurgitation. In essence, my heart was following my gut’s lead, and gently throwing up too. The cardiologist stated that it was most likely a stress or caffeine induced shift. Since I don’t drink coffee, it feels reasonable to assume that my heart was also rejecting the news about my dad.
One of the stories I loved to tell about my dad was that when I was a very young child, I asked him if the tooth fairy was real. I was so young at that point that I hadn’t even lost a tooth. In response, my dad double checked if I really wanted for him to answer, and when I insisted that I did, he replied with a simple, “No.” My dad’s honesty felt like one of his immutable qualities. One that made me feel incredibly safe, because I knew whatever he said, he meant.
My gut and my heart and my head have been on a spin cycle of grief and anger and numbness since March 23rd. Rejecting the dissonant information that my dad who was the most honest and selfless person I knew, in fact has a deeply dishonest and selfish part.
My initial insistence was on wanting to understand why? Why would someone so good do something so incredibly deceptive and wounding?
My dad has given me his story of why. That as he gazed into his final decades, with retirement from a long medical career on the horizon and growing deafness that was making his world smaller, he couldn’t survive without something that would give his life meaning--and that meaning for him comes in the form of feeling needed and useful. He has explained his inability to see other options for achieving this desired outcome as a result of the tunnel vision that depression creates. He has said that in the tunnel of depression having a baby seemed to be the only way out. He has said this baby was his bid for survival. That he did what he had to do.
Of the other woman, he has said that she too was desperate for a baby, and that they united over this shared desperation. She is a 33 year old who for various reasons, per my dad’s reporting, felt she had no other prospects for a child, and my dad a 65 year old man, who per his own reporting, also felt he had no other prospects for a child.
His story feels brittle and full of holes and riddled with sharp edges. How could my dad, the man who could always see beyond the margins, not have had more of an imagination about how to have meaning in his life? How do I understand his explanation of this new reality being the fallout of depression when he never displayed any of the signs and symptoms of depression to those of us who adored him?
His why is a hard story to swallow. We are the only species that tell stories—stories are integral to the human experience. Whether my dad’s story is one that is grounded in reality, or one that has unfolded to fit the shape of the reality his actions have manifested, is probably unknowable.
But the territory where my gut and heart and mind churn the most these days is not on the why, but rather on his inability to acknowledge the intense hurt he has caused people he purports to love so much.
Five years ago when I called off my engagement to a man I loved, but was feeling doubts about getting married to I felt destroyed. I felt destroyed for many reasons. One being that I wasn’t sure if it was a huge mistake to have called things off. The other being that I hated hurting someone I loved. And the third, belated reason being that I had to face the reality that I was capable of causing someone I loved intense pain.
My ex was incredibly generous, as was his family, saying that they forgave me. I’ve not yet fully forgiven myself. My capacity to hurt is a shame I will carry with me always, though that shame has lessened in intensity as the years have passed.
But my dad’s reaction to the pain he has caused doesn’t read as shame or regret. He does not lead with his sorrow for the pain he caused. He leads with his joy for having gotten this child he wanted.
And, his apparent remorselessness, calls forth an anger in me that is monstrous. An anger that leaves me screaming into the phone, hoping that somehow if I get louder he’ll finally hear me again. But he doesn’t. It’s as if overnight the dad I knew disappeared, though somebody in his form still walks on this earth.
I imagined that I would lose my dad when he died.
The greatest surprise of my life is that I’ve lost my dad and he is still alive.
The wild hope, that I can’t imagine ever fully losing, is that somehow my dad is not lost forever.
My dad has always been self destructive, in a way that up until this March, seemed charming. He was a daredevil young adult, riding a motorcycle around Europe sleeping on park benches, swimming with sharks in Mexico, heading off for day hikes that would turn into hikes by moonlight. His willingness to be in the center of outlandish, often scary, situations carried on into adulthood. He was always experimenting, pressing up against the margins. Just last summer, less than a year ago, I got a text from my dad calmly describing jumping away from a mugger who held a knife to his belly on a cliff over the ocean in Honduras. He swam to safety. Had he died at that mugger’s hands, my dad would have been immortalized in my heart and mind as the dad I knew him to be.
Instead two months later, he and a woman my age would be conceiving a child--my half brother born this May.
It is not, in the end, a bad thing for my dad to be off his pedestal. It was probably long overdue. I have growing awareness about the ways in which idolizing my father has gotten in my way in other parts of my life. And in the end it is quite unfair to expect a human to be anything more than human. What is so impossible about this moment in my life is that I’m still watching my dad in free fall. Because the pedestal was so high and this new reality is so very low. And watching someone you love in free fall is the most torturous thing I’ve ever experienced.
I’ve never struggled on Father’s Day until this year, which puts me in the category of lucky again. But this year, I’m in a Father’s Day hangover. Not from drinking, but from drowning in the cocktail of anger and grief that is born out of feeling unheard, unseen, and unknown by the person who always accomplished those tasks seamlessly in years prior.
The last few months I’ve thought often of Arlie Hochschild’s On Being Interview, where she discusses the concept of a “deep story,” --which is the story where the facts don’t matter, it’s the feeling that matters.
The facts of this new part of my family’s story—of my story— are so bewildering and confusing and convoluted. But the feeling for me is crystal clear: it is a feeling of being abandoned by the one person I never could have imagined abandoning me. Not in the sense that my dad won’t spend time with me now—but in the sense that he no longer seems to have the capacity to see, hear, and understand me.
And my dad cannot tolerate that this feeling of abandonment is real for me. And so he denies it. Declares it isn’t true.
But my feeling is true--I do feel more deeply hurt than I could ever have imagined feeling. My world is spinning; my head is dizzy from watching the fragments swirl; my heart is an unknowable wild animal, learning to navigate in a foreign land.
Waves of nostalgia
Like swimming through
An ocean of honey
That I start to choke
holds a ghost
of a life
Of a life
That no longer is
I want to thrash
My way through
Back to the time before
Back to the time that was
Back to the time when I knew
Just where to find you
But back has fallen off the map
Now there is just this wave
Of who you were
Crashing over me
Reminding me of
what I had
I no longer have
Reminding me of
all that is good
And all that is horrible
About being human
They say your 33rd year is your Jesus year
A year of death and resurrection
Years ago on a camping trip
I told my friends that I didn’t know
If I believed in God
A biblical lightning storm
Descended that night
Thunder ricocheting off the
Granite slabs encasing
Our grassy valley
Cracks of lightning so huge and close
That my arm hairs stood on end
Flashes of light illuminating
scared faces that were
So brave and bold
On the mountain pass
God, I said,
I’ve changed my mind.
I believe in you, I bargained.
Please, don’t kill me, I plead.
Spared that evening
Death would come years later
Three days before my 33rd birthday
A text hurtling across the ether
Shattering everything sacred
Slain by the man I’ve loved the longest
By the man I felt most loved by
Robbed of my memories
Robbed of future joys
Robbed of my anchor to the world
Robbed of the person
Who made everything okay
Even when nothing was okay
The grand heist of my life
God, what does
resurrection look like
When everything has been
Burned to ash?
What grows in this barren
Despite having a beautiful life, I am intimately acquainted with the Green-Eyed Monster. Jealousy is a pretty odious bedfellow, but for many of us, a well-known, if unfortunate, companion.
I got engaged when I was 27, which for my group of close friends was young. I was engaged to an incredible man I’d dated for most of my twenties, and so when doubt about marrying crept (and then flooded) in, I was confused and dismayed. Calling off our engagement shattered my world and my self-concept. In the aftermath, I constantly berated myself for calling things off, and hoped he would take me back despite the huge damage I’d done.
Slowly, over the course of several years, as the realization dawned that the damage was too deep, and as my own capacity to actually trust the confusing part of me who could not commit to marriage with my first love grew, I opened up to the possibility of falling in love again.
In the meantime, my friends who met their great loves around the time I was exploding my life, started to announce their engagements. The incredible friends who held my broken, sobbing self, together when I imploded were getting married.
These friends I’m talking about are people I love fiercely and without end. I want them to lead the happiest, fullest, most joyful lives. And yet, each of their weddings brought me to tears. And I’m not talking about the tears of joy as they came down the aisle (though those happened too). I’m talking about the less socially acceptable, snot-nosed guttural sobs in the quiet of my bedroom. In part it was an intense jealousy: “they have what I want (and to add insult to injury, what I gave up when it was so close at hand).” And in part it was an intense fear: “their lives are moving on… will there still be room for me?”
It doesn’t feel good to be anything but happy for the people you love when they are in a moment of great happiness in their life. In fact, it feels wretched. But I’ve realized berating myself over my jealousy doesn’t make it go away, and certainly doesn’t make me feel any better.
I spent much of the half decade following my broken engagement single. During my single years, my friends were my everything. My fellow single friends (who wanted to be coupled) held a particularly special place in my life, as they knew with intimacy the way a simple pronoun like “we” could cut straight to the core on a bad day. With each passing year it felt more and more like my coupled friends and I were living on different planets. And in some tangible ways we were. And that is not to say the bonds of friendship disappeared or that we loved each other any less—our friendships remained intact even while the distance between our daily realities grew.
Part of the reason I think support groups are so powerful is that they gather people who have a shared experience, who relate palpably to each other’s unique flavor of sadness. My single friends were my defacto support group. We related with each other in that we’ve each passed through the halls of jealousy around our loved one’s wedding announcements. And we’ve each been slighted by our loved ones for being single in overt and covert ways, that we knew were not intentional, but hurt nonetheless.
There are a million buttons you could push that might cause another person pain. News of a new job shared with someone who is feeling trapped in their current job. A baby announcement to someone struggling with fertility. A description of a vacation or a dinner out to a person who is scraping by financially. A statement of being happy to someone who is in the throws of depression. And on and on. We can never fully anticipate all the ways in which we might push someone’s buttons, and some are impossible to avoid even if you are well aware of your loved one’s sensitive buttons. Some pain is just a reality of life.
So it feels nothing short of a miracle when a close friend who happens to know the constellation of your sore spots, is able to navigate them with kindness, especially when their happiness and your sadness are diametrically opposed. Many of my friends have walked this tightrope with incredible skill and grace, and I am enormously grateful to them for this kindness.
In recent months, my life, has very happily shifted towards partnership, and I feel like I am in the liminal zone between the world where “we” felt a million miles away, and the world where it tumbles, without thought, off my lips.
No matter what happens in the future, I don’t want to forget what it is like to be in a place where I was yearning for something that felt essential to my happiness and yet totally elusive and out of my control. If my life does move in the direction of marriage, I hope that I can say to friends I might invite to a wedding, please know that you don’t have to come if this is financially, logistically, or emotionally fraught for you. Not because they’d necessarily heed this, because we often go out on limbs for people we love, but because it makes such a difference to simply acknowledge that joy can cast a long shadow.
Valentine’s Day, in particular, with its myopic focus on romantic love, is tailor made to cast a long shadow on those single people who want to be coupled. (And of course, not every single person falls into the category of wanting a partner, but many do.) There is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating romantic love if that kind of love is available to you today, but there is real grace in pausing to acknowledge that romantic love is not a universal commodity and that there are people for whom February 14 is a day to endure, not a day to celebrate. We cannot always be in sync with the people we love. Our seasons of joy and despair will not always align. It seems to me that the hard and essential work, is remembering that joy and despair are two sides of the same coin, no matter which side you find yourself on, in this exact moment. And in this remembering to be kind, to yourself and to others.
2018 was a year of slowing down and settling in for me. In some ways feeling settled is in fact unsettling for me. A hallmark of my adult life has been movement. Moving homes, moving countries, moving through different mountain ranges. But despite always being on the go, the knowing place in me has always known that there is real value to staying instead of going and to being instead of doing.
But pressing pause on the action is hard for me. As Jonathan Safran Foer captures so well in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: “Sometimes I can feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”
I’ve always related to Sylvia Plath’s image of the paradox of choice in the Bell Jar: “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” This is, of course, a wildly privileged lament. One that Kierkegaard, aptly named, “the despair of too much possibility.”
It's not an affliction I’m especially proud of, but it is one that is present for me. A desire to live all the lives. A sadness that reality dictates I have but one life, and nobody knows how long that life will be.
Part of my tendency to do more, be more, and see more is an attempt to subvert this reality of only one life…of limited time. But there is a perversion to this mentality too because so much is missed when you race across the surface and never dive deep where you are.
I know this intimately because for six years I’ve spent a month moving at a slow hiker’s pace through the wilderness. These months in the wild have been my antidote to my tendency to rush. Cell towers haven’t yet penetrated the Wyoming wilderness, and so your whole backpacking world is the world that is directly around you, and nothing more. And the pace of life is slow. And the beauty that exists in an unknown field of wildflowers out there is more exquisite than any art collection I’ve ever seen. And the contentment with life as it is grows naturally.
But I’ve never known how to translate that capacity to slow down into life in the front country. 2018 was my first year where my regular job dictated that I couldn’t go lead a monthlong backpacking trip. And so it felt important to find ways to slow down even while living in the buzz of a city. I’ve been experimenting with slowing down while remaining in the city for the last few months. In September I shut down my social media accounts. Given my tendency to want to live all the lives, it was a little too much having a visual playground of the many lives I was not leading. And it was a distraction from the good that was directly at hand in my own life.
I committed in a more significant way to my meditation practice. I am abysmal at staying with my breath, but I practice anyways. I practice because I am abysmal at the art of staying present. I practice because even though I’m abysmal at it, I get slivers of the freedom such a practice can deliver.
And I intentionally worked to “close doors” on some relationships. I’ve never been a hoarder of stuff. Growing up with a mom who is a professional organizer who espouses the virtue of enoughism, I drank the Koolaid early that too many material things leads to indigestion of the spirit. But I am a relationship hoarder. Closing doors on relationships—even ones that have run their course and should be let go—is profoundly hard for me. But it’s impossible that every relationship will run the course of one’s life, or that it should. So I’ve been considering Paulo Coelho’s advice, “Close some doors. Not because of pride, incapacity or arrogance, but simply because they no longer lead somewhere.”
None of this is to say, I’ve radically altered who I am or how I imagine my life unfolding. I’ll always have wanderlust and will want to go and see new places and meet new people. I’ll always struggle with closing doors. I imagine no matter how long I practice I’ll remain a meditation novice. But as 2019 opens, I know that the life I am living…the fig in my hand…is a truly incredible life. And I’m experiencing the value of going deeper rather than racing in a wide arc across the world. And my hope for this year is that I will continue to become more and more adept at savoring all the good that exists in this present moment.
The rhythm of the
The clay growing taller
Under my hands
Shelves once empty
Are filling with mugs
and cheerful fat bellied
Until the little jewel
Crashes into the window
Across from where I work
I find him in a heap
Rising and falling
In stuttered stops and starts
I hold him in
Flecks of dry clay dusting
his emerald brilliance
His little body
A stone the size
Of my palm
Marks his tiny grave
I try to return
To the clay
But I can’t
make it dance
I kept looking up
Hoping to see
A shimmering jewel
Flying by my window
I have a friend, who I think is actually a saint masquerading as a commoner. She is one of those rare people who simply sees the best in others—who lives in a world of non-judgment. Many of us can value non-judgment, but it is a rare breed that can live it. It’s not something you can fake, but you know it by feeling when you are around it.
Every time I spend time with this friend I come away with a nugget of wisdom. On our most recent visit, she brought up the idea of “stolen time.” Her mother died when she was five, and my friend said, she has worked hard to use her profound grief around this loss to shape her life in a beautiful way. The way it manifests is viewing moments with loved ones as stolen time—the ordinary moments as something to be cherished and savored and celebrated.
How many times have I heard that it’s a good thing to practice gratitude? Truly countless times at this point. But hearing my friend talk about it earlier this month shifted something for me. It left the realm of “eat your vegetables” advice, and entered into a different stratosphere.
I’ve been an off and on meditator for the last fourteen years of my life. I’m in an on period at the moment, and so I’m using meditation as an opportunity to practice gratitude. Over the last fourteen years, I’ve spent two months living in an ashram and a handful of other weeks in similar settings doing meditation retreats. Each of these stints, I’ve been advised by teachers to create an altar for a home meditation practice. And I’ve generally cringed at the suggestion. But this year, I made one. Because it is helpful to have tangible reminders of the intention when you sit down to practice.
The most important reminder on my altar is a little plastic pig that used to belong to a dear friend’s son who died when he was quite young. His son and I share a birthday, and my friend gave me the little pig this past March when I turned 32.
The month before I turned 32 my friend had been in the audience at the Moth GrandSlam where I’d told the unconventional love story of my little pig Hamish, who I’d raised for a summer, bottle feeding him at all hours of the night and keeping him warm tucked into the bed beside me, all the while knowing that when Hamish was big enough he was destined for the slaughterhouse.
So the little plastic pig on my altar, reminds me, for many reasons, that life is ephemeral. That the only fundamental certainty of life, is that it will end in death. Some day. And that day could come far sooner than we imagine. And so, like my friend who lost her mom when she was so young I want to remember that each day that I have with the people and animals and places I love, I am operating on stolen time. That we are all operating on stolen time. And of course I can forget this wisdom immediately, and I can be annoyed by something inane seconds after leaving my practice, but then there it is: a little plastic pig, that belonged to a dear, young boy, reminding me to return to gratitude for the stolen time again and again and again.
In the dark of the forest
The prayer on my surprised lips
Is thank you
There on the earthen floor
the giant trunk
Trace the moss
On the spines
Of exposed roots
And the miracle
Of small patches
The canopy above
Does not escape
“Did you carry her up here?” the people on the summit wanted to know, when Pia, my six-pound dog, emerged on the rocky top of Mt. Moriah this weekend. “No, she made it on her own.” I replied.
People are always incredulous when they see Pia on the trail. Incredulous, and often delighted. That something so tiny is hiking so far and scrambling up such big rocks all on her own. Pia has been on numerous hikes, a few backpacking trips, and even some fairly long runs. When I told my vet I was running with Pia, he said, “Oh that’s great. A dog her size can probably do a half mile or a mile.” “How about six?” I’d said. His eyebrows shot up.
In the first season of the Invisibilia Podcast, the episode “How to Become Batman” explored the impact that people’s expectations have on influencing outcomes. In the show they reference Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist who has focused her research on growth mindset. Her studies have highlighted the importance of process praise vs. innate ability praise. Instead of telling a child that he/she is intelligent (innate ability), you praise the effort (process) they put into solving a problem. She has found that praising a child’s intelligence can in fact make him/her reticent to challenge themselves, lest they fail, and lose claim to their “intelligent” label—whereas children who are praised for their effort are in fact inspired to try new, harder challenges. They are more resilient to failure, and thus riper for growth.
The episode explores the outer limits of just how much expectations can shift a person’s reality. Daniel Kish is at the center of this story. Kish lost both eyes (literally) to cancer before he was 13 months old. A Smithsonian article describes how “he developed his own method of generating vocal clicks and using their echoes to identify his surroundings and move about.”
On how he learned to do this Kish says: “My parents really valued my freedom. They didn’t get hung up about the blindness, they were just more concerned about me growing up to be a relatively normal kid, to then emerge into becoming a relatively normal adult, which is to say someone who is able to enjoy the same freedoms and responsibilities as others. I was encouraged to get on with being a child, and being a boy of any given age was much more important to them than the fact that I was blind at any given time. Kids adapt to their conditions very quickly, and the more supported they are in that adaptation, the quicker it will happen. I taught myself to use flash sonar in much the same way that you taught yourself how to see.”
And it’s not just the expectations we say out loud that can influence outcomes. The episode looks at how our internal musings shift our body language in such a way that our expectations get silently communicated to those around us. Our so called private thoughts, are perhaps not so contained after all.
So much of my work centers around trying to help people get unstuck from old patterns or habits or beliefs that no longer serve them (or maybe never did). Often the expectations that are the most ensnaring are the ones they hold about themselves. The critical voice inside their head saying, “You can’t change. You can’t do this. You are stuck.” That voice is tenacious. I know it well, because it is part of my own internal clamoring. I imagine it’s part of the internal clamoring for most of us.
If what we expect of others shifts their outcome, it stands to reason that what we expect of ourselves has an enormous influence over our own outcome. Carol Dweck preaches the importance of the “not yet” mantra for growth mindset. I haven’t gotten my budget in check, yet. I haven’t lost the weight, yet. I haven’t mastered the piano, yet. “Not yet lets you understand that you are on a learning curve,” she says, “It gives you a path into the future.”
There are times when I think hopefulness and optimism and lofty expectations are unhelpful—maybe even harmful—because they can seem to brush aside the suffering a person is experiencing in the moment. For this reason, the Pollyanna, “chin up” response to hardship makes me furious, so I’m in no way suggesting that we all just think positive thoughts and sail off into the sunset.
What I wonder is how I can acknowledge for myself, and for the people I work with, the heartache of the moment AND the possibility (expectation?) of moving towards a place of greater freedom.
Meanwhile, as I puzzle over that, Pia will continue to spread the good news that small dogs are not just made for pillow perching, but are indeed great, wild beasts ready to take on the mountain.
Each summer of my adult life I've spent a significant amount of time living out of a tent in the mountains. It's technically work, and sometimes it very genuinely feels like work. But more often, on the whole, I think about those months away as my annual retreat. I am unplugged from the world, and my universe shrinks down to the small community of people on my course--my co-instructors and the students I am responsible for. And in that shrinking and shedding, my world, paradoxically always expands.
It takes a little time, to stop worrying about the world out there. The to do lists. The people I love who are not with me in the mountains. My dog, who is no doubt wondering where I've gone. But with some time, I realize that the world out there is still spinning on just fine without me, and I get to wake up and be present to my life in the wilderness. And the old mental machinations eventually die down and new and better questions and perspectives always arise.
This summer, I didn't work a backpacking course. I took a job that required me to be in the city for the summer, and fall, and winter, and spring, ongoing. And now that summer has passed, I find myself looking into fall wondering what it will be like to move through a year without that touchstone of a retreat.
My previous work as a teacher allowed me to take off for the summer. But I don't have that luxury now. And neither do most people. So I am wondering if it is possible to distill some of the wisdom and spaciousness I got in those months in the mountains into my life in the front country.
I was delighted when my friend Shelley approached me to talk about co-facilitating a retreat this fall. While we don't have a whole month, we do have a three day weekend on the horizon, and we are pairing up October 5-8 to lead a Women's Circle Retreat in the mountains of North Carolina that will focus on, "Life Examined and Designed." We still have a few slots left, so if you know a women who is in need of a pause, of a chance to step out of the current of daily life and gain some wider perspective, please consider sharing the link above.
The retreat will incorporate creative expression, personal and group reflection, yoga classes, and authentic conversations all set against the backdrop of a beautiful lake in the NC mountains. Shelley brings her experience as a life coach, an artist, and a musician to the retreat, and I bring my experience as a 500 hour certified yoga instructor, a wilderness trip leader, and a mental health counselor to the retreat. We are joined by our dear friend Hannah Barry, co-creator of the Brevard Women's Circle, who will serve as lead chef for the weekend. Hannah is a jill of all trades: making exceptional food is just one of her many talents.
Mary Oliver famously asks, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" If it's been a long time since you've considered who you are and what you are doing on a deeper level, perhaps you get to give yourself the gift of a pause this October.
Email email@example.com for more information.
Reepicheep, was our most regal farm resident. The tips of his curious brown ears stood well over six feet tall and his liquid brown eyes were the most expressive pools you could ever hope to swim in.
My family became accidental farmers when I was ten years old. My dad, was called up by a distant cousin, when he was in the thick of his medical career, and was asked if he wanted to buy the family farm. “You are the only one who would do it,” the cousin said. And he was right. My dad is the necessary mix of crazy and dedicated to do something as audacious as moonlighting as a farmer when he already was working long days and nights as a surgeon.
And so we bought the farm. And then animals to populate the farm. Reepicheep, the llama, came along when I was 14 years old. Ostensibly, he was procured to protect the herd of minor ungulates: the sheep and the goats. And he did this job well. But I liked to think about him as the King of the Farm. He scared the living daylights out of people. He would run full force across the pasture, his long brown legs galloping towards you, and stop on a dime, with his inquisitive nose inches from your face. I wrote my college admissions essay on kissing my llama. His breath changed with the seasons; spring onions were the most memorable. With me, he’d lean his muzzle in and brush his velvetly split lip across my own.
The winter my world came apart, I came home to the farm for a week. Reepicheep was fourteen years old at that point, and he had become painfully thin. He developed a sore on his long neck that was slowly leaking blood. My dad thought it was cancer. Eating him from the inside out. Farms familiarize you with death, in a way that city living does not. We’d lost goats and sheep and even a few cows over the years. Difficult births, injury, illness.
That winter it felt like everything in my world had come unhinged. And Reepicheep, King of the Farm, dying was further proof that the world was splitting at the seams. I was with Reepicheep when he died. He laid down in the pasture for the last time, and I put his head in my lap, and sang to him as he slowly faded. This gentle giant who had kept watch over the farm for so many years, closing his huge liquid eyes one final time.
Just over a year later, I’d spend an hour on the side of the road in Wyoming holding the head of a man I didn’t know as he lay dying after being ejected from his car when he lost control and it crashed ingloriously into sagebrush ejecting him into the dry, hard, earth.
Last night I was with a friend at the local climbing gym. She’s new to the sport, and I’m newly re-interested in it. We had just tightened our harnesses when there was a sickening thud. The sound of the weight of a full-grown man hitting the floor after forty feet of free fall. I don’t really know what happened. It was so surreal, I can’t even reconstruct the details. Just his eyes closed, unresponsive, his elbow split open to the bone. A doctor was climbing nearby, so I ceded civilian duties to his vaster knowledge and stepped away. “I think he forgot to clip in” the doctor said to me after the paramedics took the man away. The man was alive when they carried him out in the stretcher; I don’t know how he fared last evening. I doubt I’ll ever know.
My friend and I reluctantly tried to climb after the ambulance pulled away. “Get back on the horse” mentality I suppose. But carrying on with the night as planned felt impossible, so we headed home early.
Poetry, as always, is the only thing that has a prayer of coming close to touching what these moments have felt like. David Whyte’s “The House of Belonging” comes the closest:
in the gold light
turning this way
it was a day
like any other
the veil had gone
It must have been the quiet
that filled my room,
it must have been
with which I breathed
myself to sleep,
it must have been
the prayer I said
speaking to the otherness
of the night
this is the good day
meet your love,
this is the black day
to you could die.
This is the day
how easily the thread
between this world
and the next
and I found myself
in the quiet pathway
close grained cedar
me like fire
and all the angels of this housely
through the first
roof of light
the sun has made.
This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.
This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.
There is no house
like the house of belonging.
What does it take to lift the veil from your darkened heart? Why so often for me, does it take something like a man crashing out of the sky and landing at my feet for the veil to lift?
I couldn't sleep last night. Over and over on our walk home, my friend and I kept saying, “Life can change in an instant.” And as I lay tossing and turning in my bed last night, David Whyte’s words: “This is the day you realize how easily the thread is broken between this world and the next” provided the chorus to the repeating thump of a man’s body hitting the ground that was playing on a loop in the back of my head.
What I love about Whyte is this: he doesn’t just alert us to the possibility that death could be closer at hand than most of us care to think about, he also reminds us, “this is the good day you could meet your love.” He holds the light and the dark in equilibrium, and reminds us per the title of another poem of his, that “everything (both good and bad) is waiting for you.”
Perhaps we would be paralyzed if the veil to this stark truth were always lifted. Or perhaps we would live far more fully than we dare to now.
When I lead backpacking trips, part of the risk management curriculum is teaching about lightening safety. The first part of the lesson, in the backcountry, is this: when you are out in the mountains in a storm, there is no such thing as safe, there is only safer. Relative safety.
You teach students that when the dark sky rolls in they shouldn’t keep climbing up to the exposed peak. But the truth is, the side of the mountain isn’t safe either, it’s just safer than the peak. The only truly safe place during a lightning storm is inside a modern building or car. And spending a life hiding inside a building or a car is a death of sorts that makes the perils of a lightning strike in the mountains seem tame.
“Security is mostly a superstition,” writes Helen Keller, “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”
We have so many safe guards for our physical well-being in place in the world now. Phones to dial 911 when things go awry, AEDs hanging in public places to shock our hearts back into a normal rhythm when necessary, airbags, and alarms, and shin guards, and superfood smoothies. Each passing day we have a greater and greater capacity to bubble wrap our physical existence.
And while each of these things in isolation may save a life, I worry that they contribute to a growing expectation that true safety is attainable. Part of the lexicon of today is the concept of a “safe space,” which implies both physical and emotional safety. And if physical safety is an unattainable goal, then emotional safety seems truly beyond the pale.
I’ve been to many weddings in the last few years. And I’ve watched as some of the people I love best make vows to the people they love best. Promises. So many heartbreakingly beautiful promises made between two people who love each other fiercely. But in the afterglow of wedding ceremonies my mind can wander to David Whyte’s poem, “All the True Vows” where in a few brief lines he captures a dissonance that exists at the intersection of hope and reality:
All the true vows
are secret vows
the ones we speak out loud
are the ones we break.
There is merit to the pageantry of weddings. Merit to starting out a relationship on the foundation of hope. Perhaps the hedging thoughts and ideas that are hope’s bedfellows are actually best left unsaid. But said or not, they are a silent presence next to our spoken vows.
I had my first brush with duplicitousness in partnership earlier this summer. If there were a grand scale of infidelity what happened to me was perhaps the lightest form of infidelity. And still, it sent me reeling. But as the spinning has started to slow, I’m realizing that it’s not so much the experience of being hurt that I'm circling around.
There is no relationship, no matter how loving or good that escapes hurt. We are in fact, uniquely capable of causing the most hurt to the people we love best. It’s the what happens next—after the hurt—that feels more important to me. Do you stay? Do you sit with the pain? Do you rebuild? Do you try to trust again? And maybe most importantly, are both people in the relationship invested in exploring those questions together? The hopeful aspirations or vows that begin a relationship are becoming less interesting to me than the question of what we do when we inevitably fall short of our aspirations or when the person we love falls short of theirs.
As I get older and become more aware of the ways in which I have hurt other people and other people have hurt me, I'm questioning more what the vow “to love always” really looks like. Part of reimagining for me is considering that it is an incredible act of love to just stay and try to ride out the wave, when you are full of rage or hurt. And that perhaps another paradoxical part of of loving always is knowing when and how to let go if repair isn’t possible.
Years ago when I was inching my way towards self-forgiveness after hurting a person I loved, I found my mooring in this quote by the poet Rumi:
I wrote what follows in my journal that summer: “I will always feel sad when I think about the profound hurt I caused a man I loved—a man I will always feel love for. But somewhere along the way I came to know that there is room for profound joy and love alongside that sadness. Somewhere along the way, I started to realize that I am worthy of love—messy, full spectrum, wide-open, deep love. Somewhere along the way, I came to trust that someday I will meet a man out in Rumi’s field—'out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing'—and we will say to each other: 'I thought I’d find you here.' And that we won’t live happily ever after, because those fairytales are for the birds, but that we will live happily, sadly, madly, crazily, joyfully, profoundly, wildly ever after, and that faith has been the greatest learning of my life.”
Rumi’s field is an elusive place. Somedays, quite by surprise, I find that I’ve woken up there, and then it can vanish just as quickly as it came. So I’m still searching. And it seems that the only way to the field is to forgive. Forgive ourselves, forgive others. And for me, learning to forgive, is far more hopeful and important than aspiring to never err.
When I was falling apart most spectacularly (an event that was preceded, and followed, by lesser meltdowns) I started to mainline self-help, psychology, and philosophy books. Surely after all these years of human existence someone had the answer, or if not THE answer, surely someone had MY answer. I just had to find it.
The tab on this website called “Collective Wisdom” was born out of that period in my life where all I did during the hours I was not at work, was lie in bed going from one book to the next, highlighting and scribbling furiously in the margins. The first two points that emerged, “You are your own teacher” and “the only certitude in life is change” were heartbreaking for me at the time.
I desperately wanted someone (anyone) besides me to claim expert status over my life. And I desperately wanted to land on a solution that would be stable and stand the test of time. But over and over these wise thinkers, writers, social workers, philosophers, and poets told me, I was the ultimate expert of my experience, and the terms of life would always be a moving target.
As liberating as it is to be in charge of your own life, it is exhausting too. And when things don’t go well, it can be crushing when the only person to blame is the one staring back at you in the bathroom mirror each morning.
And the shiftiness of the world almost feels tailor made to drive humans crazy, though we’d no doubt be bored to tears without it.
I spend a lot of time thinking about these first two nuggets of “collective wisdom.” How do I become a better version of myself? How can I cultivate adaptability and resiliency for the shifting terms of the world?
But I don’t spend enough time thinking about this collective wisdom point: “Self-compassion is essential.” The truth is, some days it’s impossible to be the expert of your life, or to ride the waves that roll in with equanimity. Some days you just have to survive. I had one of those days yesterday. A day where my morning started with hard news from someone I love and ended with my phone getting stolen when I’d distractedly left it in a public restroom.
I came home after work and laid on my kitchen floor and just wept for a while. And felt terribly sorry for myself. I know I am one of the lucky ones, because I have good people who show up for me when I am in a pile on the floor. But to be clear, I wasn’t in the mood for counting my blessings. I just wanted someone else to take charge, someone else to corral the chaos and help me regain some stability.
And as this was all unfolding, my thought was, “I am a 32-year-old child” “Why can’t I keep it together?” It wasn’t until this morning that any shred of self-compassion made it onto the scene.
And I re-read this poem, “Advice to Myself” written by Louise Erdrich
Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from the screws from the saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.
And I thought to myself, maybe I should burn the books, and just re-read this poem until it is tattooed into the folds of my brain and the chambers of my heart. “Your heart, that place you don’t even think of cleaning out. That closet stuffed with savage mementos.” The good work is never done. The world spins madly on. Maybe the only real necessity for the day is this poem, and this perfect dog, stretched out beside me.
My love affair with running, began as a mandatory, unwelcome first date: middle school track. Track was supposed to be my training regimen for a family trip up Mt. Kilimanjaro summer of 2000. Never mind that running a few loops around a flat track in the piedmont of North Carolina isn’t really a great training regimen for ascending the slopes of the 19,341 feet high ancient volcano, but that was my plan.
Thanks mostly to our incredible guides (and maybe nominally to my efforts on the track), our trip up Kilimanjaro was a very successful. Wildly so, really. Memories of our time together on Kilimanjaro rank among my favorite family memories to this day. That trip was my first experience of going somewhere truly different from home, and of doing something that pushed me to my physical edge. I was fourteen years old when I stood on the summit of Kilimanjaro. And I was hooked. Hooked on experiencing different ways of being in the world. And hooked on finding my edge.
Beyond Kilimanjaro being the genesis for these important life quests, the preparation for Kilimanjaro was the genesis of what has become one of my longest love affairs in life: running.
I ran cross country in high school. The setting—southern California—was an idyllic place to fall in love with the sport. Perfect conditions were the norm. The avocado orchards in the foreground and the Pacific Ocean in the background made idyllic conditions even better. I was never was the best on the team. And in fact, I didn’t love the meets all that much. But I did come to love the long training runs during my years in California.
When I arrived to rural Ohio fall of 2005 to begin my freshman year of college, after a summer spent in my tent in the Rockies, I wondered at my haste in picking a school so far from the geography I love best. But while rural Ohio can’t boast any spectacular peaks, it is actually incredibly beautiful. Rolling hills, slow country roads, corn fields as far as the eye can see—it was in fact a perfect landscape for long runs. And so since I was missing the mountains, and coming off of a summer of long days of physical activity, I started to explore my new home by going on longer and longer runs.
My sophomore year, the athletic department in conjunction with the Environmental advocacy group on campus announced that they were going to host an Earth Day Kenyon College Marathon. The entry fee for students was $20. At the end of the race, you’d get a sapling to plant instead of a medal. Without much forethought, I signed up.
My longest run before my first marathon was 15 miles. A marathon is 26.2 miles. It is ill advised to have those last 11.2 miles be new territory on race day. It’s being generous to say I was not prepared for the marathon. In addition, the race started at 10am, in late April, and the course largely followed a converted rails to trail path that was in direct sunshine. At mile 17, I felt a little bit like I was dying. I was dehydrated, overheated, and bull-headedly determined. I drank a cup of the sports drink they were passing out at the aid station and plodded on. And on. And on. My friends were working the aid station at mile 26, just before you turned onto the school track for the final .2 miles, and I started to cry openly when I saw them. I finished that race in 4 hours and 22 minutes (exactly 10-minute miles on average). I was destroyed. Sun burned. Sore (for days). And I had immediate race amnesia: I was ready to sign up for another marathon hours after I crossed the finish line.
The next year, I was studying abroad. During our orientation, we went around the room and shared what we were most nervous about for the year ahead. My fear was not being able to run. My trip leaders assured me, that if I got creative, I could make running part of my life abroad. And so I did. I ran through the streets of Dar Es Salem, where smog no doubt did more damage to my lungs than the run did them good. I ran through the winding streets of Arusha. I ran on the beaches of Zanzibar.
My homestay mom in Zanzibar was an elderly woman who was worried about me and my friend, Tarini, running alone. So she asked her friend, a local fisherman to be our chaperone. We’d go with our homestay mom to the beach and meet our chaperone and run along the shoreline at sunrise as fishermen were preparing their nets for the day, and we’d come back sweaty to find our homestay mom floating out in the gentle surf, her black burka blooming all around her.
We left Tanzania after two months and landed in India, and I ran through the most gorgeous Indian countryside with cows and farmers as company. Then it was through the twisty, fern filled roads of New Zealand, and finally through the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. Every place I've traveled since that year abroad, I've gone on runs without maps or a plan, as a way to start to get to know the place I've landed.
When I finished college and I took my first job teaching at a little outdoorsy school in the mountains of North Carolina, I used to go out into the forest and trail run on my days off. My “weekends” at that point were on Tuesday and Wednesday, so often I’d have the mountain to myself.
Don’t you get nervous? People would sometimes ask. Isn’t it dangerous to run by yourself in a place you don’t know. Isn't it dangerous to run in the woods where your cries for help would be muffled?
No. No, was always my resounding reply. I don’t get nervous; I get free.
I will never be a human gazelle. I’ve run nine marathons total at this point in my life and my pace has always hovered around four hours and twenty minutes (plus or minus about fifteen minutes), regardless of how I train. I’ll never win a tangible award from my running or bring home a prize. And that’s just fine.
Because running for me is more about finding peace than it is about my pace. Running is my consistent meditation practice. It’s the best way I know for letting the internal noise get a little quieter.
On my 30th birthday, I decided to celebrate by running my first “ultra-marathon,” a self-designed 30 mile run that began at my doorstep and ended in the nearby national forest. Friends and family and my beloved dog joined me for legs of the race. It was my perfect way to usher in my next decade. Over the last two years I’ve completed two more official ultra-marathons—a 31 miler and a 32 miler. At some point on those runs, you start to laugh at the absurdity. You are already a marathon in, and you still have miles to go. And it’s ridiculous and wonderful.
I have friends who think a jog down the driveway for the Sunday morning paper is a drag and I have other friends who think a twenty-mile run up a mountain is a casual start to the day. I live somewhere in between, which is fine by me. Someday maybe I’ll push myself even farther, or maybe not. One thing that feels certain though is that I’ll never voluntarily quit running.
This month, I was invited by a dear friend who is on the board of the The Nyaka Aids Orphan Project, to join their NYC Marathon team as a charity runner. Nyaka is doing the work of bringing education, healthcare, and community development to rural areas of Uganda. I happily, immediately signed on. I don’t need a higher purpose than the pure goodness of running to run, but pairing running with such a forward thinking, necessary, and hopeful, project like Nyaka makes the miles even sweeter.
Most of my friends have incredibly deep hearts, but those with deep pockets are few and far between. When I shared this concern with my friend on the board, he replied, “It’s okay.” Part of the fundraising mission is simply sharing the story of Nyaka.
The story, is told best by the people who are writing it. But in short, I will say, it’s a story of unimaginable hardship, incredible resiliency, deep courage, and boundless ingenuity and compassion. The emotions that you start to access in a real way when you are pushing up against your own personal edge, are the bedrock of Nyaka.
To those of you who read this blog, a request: if you can contribute, either financially* (every little bit helps) or by spreading information** about the project, please do. And if you’re in NYC on November 4, 2018, I’ll be out there in the sea of humanity, weaving through the city, making my way towards the finish line of my tenth marathon.
Perhaps only after we’ve done something substantially wrong or harmful, do we realize the full importance of Rumi’s field, that exists beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing. Rumi’s field becomes the place of salvation when your own self-concept has been ground to dust, and the humility born out of this process makes you wake up to the world in a different way.
A dear friend recently sent me this On Being blog post, written by the Quaker elder, Parker Palmer called, “Meaning Changes as Life Unfolds.” He begins the post with the poem, “Thanks Robert Frost,” by David Ray, which starts like this:
Palmer, who was in his mid-seventies when he wrote this post, reflected on the poem saying, “The past isn’t fixed and frozen in place. Instead, its meaning changes as life unfolds…I’ve made mistakes and often failed to live up to my aspirations, but I don’t need to look back with regret. Instead, I can see all my mess-ups as humus or compost for the growing I needed to do.”
I quite agree with Palmer, that the past isn’t fixed or frozen. Only, since the advent of social media we have a new format for publicly crystallizing snapshots of our history that can make it harder to thaw out the past and move forward.
I was on the job search this spring. The faculty in my grad program advised us all to “clean up” our online footprint. This is pretty basic advice. In the past mistakes and transgressions weren’t so heavily documented. Privacy was possible, and as such future employers could only judge you on the limited information you chose to share with them. Now, we’ve collectively ceded privacy (for the most part) in order to participate in social media, and windows into our lives and our pasts are more accessible than ever.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the NY Times published an article stating that new technology had allowed them to see through the brown paper Anne Frank had pasted over two pages of her diary that she’d wanted to keep hidden. An example of digital tentacles reaching deeper into the carbon world.
Following Facebook’s recent privacy violation and subsequent knuckle wrapping, I’ve been getting emails from various online services all spring telling me how they care about my privacy and what they are doing to update their settings. Fine. The truth is, I don’t buy it. There is no such thing as true security in the carbon world, and thus it follows that I have a hard time imagining that there could ever be true security in the digital world. Part of the human experience is fundamental insecurity and uncertainty and change. I don’t think we as a culture have any capacity to contain the digital world.
I used to rail against technology and social media. It was my soap box issue. I clung tenaciously to my flip phone until 2015 and had a several year sabbatical from social media. And then I stopped swimming upstream, because there were ways in which it was isolating me from people I loved and from the world I live in.
I no longer spend so much time or energy wishing for a way to return to yesteryear when technology was less ubiquitous and social media didn’t exist. Instead, I hope that alongside all the darkness that I so easily can see attached to this digital dawn, that there is also a real capacity for human growth. Most of us are self-publishing a public diary of sorts these days through our social media accounts. And most of us are trying to curate a very positive spin on our lives. While there are a few brave souls willing to be more vulnerable and share the full scope of their experience, I believe that with time, even those of us who have curated a shiny, happy review of our lives will look back, and our pasts will give us pause.
Facebook launched fourteen years ago. The initial users can scroll back to 2004 and see the benign, “what was I wearing?” mistakes to the more significant questionable things they wrote or captured in photos years ago. And perhaps as this experience becomes more universal, we as a culture get to move closer to Rumi’s field, which is the place of ultimate forgiveness. Perhaps we get to view our past selves, in a more charitable way, like Parker Palmer. And instead of cringing at our faux-pas or shrinking with guilt or shame from the things we once did that now feel unconscionable, we get to be kinder to our past selves, and to the past selves of people around us, precisely because we get to see that mistakes are universal. And maybe instead of mistakes making us shrink they will be, as Palmer suggests, "humus or compost for the growing we need to do."
It feels like we’ve got a ways to go before we arrive to Rumi’s field. We are living in a call out culture at the moment, where mistakes can crucify you, and it’s never been easier to make a public mistake. There is a reckoning underway that is vital, only all too often it feels devoid of forgiveness.
Forgiveness starts at home, at the level of your own life. I wrote a blog post two years ago called, “Regrets,” where I talked about the things I had done in my life that made me ashamed to remember. The ways in which I’d hurt myself or someone else. In his blog post, Palmer writes, “Regret shuts life down. Humility opens it up.” Perhaps my own growth gets to be setting those old regrets down. Letting them rest. Truly believing, that they were “mistakes made by the self I had to be, Not able to be perhaps, what I wished.” That those mistakes were grist for the mill, shaping me into the person I am today. That the mill grinds on, and that my future self perhaps won't just grudgingly accept my present self, but will be grateful for who I am today, mistakes and all.
I attended a lecture this week where the topic was “Miracles and Medical Futility.” The case being presented by a panel of doctors and nurses and a hospital chaplain was of a family that wanted the medical team to take every measure to keep their dying family member alive, so that God could work a miracle. The medical team, felt that they were causing great suffering to a body unable to physiologically recover by continuing “care” and that the medically ethical thing to do would be to let this patient die. Furthermore, they were using valuable resources on this patient, like blood transfusions, that could have gone to another patient with a more favorable prognosis.
Enter the dichotomy: God v. Science, Family v. Professionals, Hope v. Reality.
So much of the discussion centered around how to align the two parties. How to stop pitting the two sets of values against one another and find common ground. Could physicians steeped in their scientifically backed understanding of the body make space for God? Could a family steeped in religious conviction make space for biological limits?
To me, common ground seemed like the wrong target to be aiming for. The wrong conversation to be engaging in.
My mom has said, on several thousand occasions, that if her quality of life declines to a point that she no longer wants to be alive, it is our duty as her children to take her out into the pasture and “put her down.” This is not a turn of phrase. We have a family farm. The pasture is a real, geographic location. My mom simply wants us to extend to her, the same kindness we extend to our animals who are suffering.
I grew up in a household that talked death. My first research project when I was in third grade was on Dr. Kevorkian, the famous proponent of physician assisted suicide. Perhaps it was that my mom’s mom died when she was just fourteen that made it paramount for her to discuss death with us. And so we did. And so we do. There is a file in my parent’s home called the “Dead Parent File.” A step by step guide for what to do when the day comes. When I was home most recently my mom was busy reading The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. “Let’s read it out loud!” she suggested gleefully after dinner, “It’s fantastic!”
My mom is one of the least dying people I know. She is 63 and teaches about twenty hours of yoga each week. Each year on her birthday she sends me a picture of her doing a headstand. She eats rice and beans and mountains of kale. She runs and swims and knits and canes chairs and feeds cows and does the crossword puzzle and writes books. She is very alive. And very obsessed with being dead when she can no longer be very alive.
We joke with my mom that her tombstone will read, “Here lies Robin, she once sprained her ankle.” Because several years ago when she did sprain her ankle and she had to slow down on her activities for a bit, she was morose.
The truth is, what constitutes a “quality life” is a moving target. Perhaps my mom will decide, as she ages, that life is still worth living even if things get compromised. But I know she has a threshold where being alive for the sake of being alive will not suit her. And this is why she likes to remind me and my brother that it is our duty, when that day comes, to take her out in the pasture and put her down. When we roll through this familiar conversation, I remind her that this is why she had both a son and a daughter, and it is decidedly her son’s job to carry out that task.
But even having brow beating, explicit permission to help my mom die when the time comes (which to be clear is not going to involve a shot gun in the pasture, but perhaps will involve fighting on her behalf to make sure her “do not resuscitate” orders are fulfilled), it’s still a terrifying idea. I don’t want to be the one who pulls the proverbial plug on my mom. Even though I know it is what she wants.
I want that burden to live with someone else. And I was thinking as I was listening to this discussion about this family who was waiting on a miracle, that perhaps the medical teams goal should not have been to get the family to align with their perspective or for them to align with the family’s perspective, but rather should have been to bear the burden of being the “bad guys.” Of being the ones who let the family down, and let the patient die.
I learned in my years as a teacher that part of my job was being a vessel that received parent’s pain. I worked in residential schools with some of the most remarkable students and families I’ve ever encountered. Truly—they were/are some of the best human I’ve ever met. And still, letting your young teenager fling the coop early, and start to discover parts of their identity away from you, challenges even the most remarkable parents. And sometimes in their fear about their child’s struggles or suffering they would lash out. At first when this happened, I was desperate for the parents to know that we were part of the same team—that we both wanted what was best for their child. But eventually, I realized that that wasn’t the most important outcome. The most important outcome for those conversations was to hold the parents fear and grief and to serve the student in the best way I possibly could.
And so as uncomfortable as it might be, I think perhaps the duty of people in the helping profession is to be both a vessel and a shield. Shielding your identified client from undue suffering and becoming a vessel for the grief and pain of the constellation of other people who surround your identified client. It’s an un-enviable position. And one in which you will never be “right.” But being right shouldn’t eclipse being helpful, especially to those who are suffering unimaginable loss.
I turn 32 today, and in looking back at the first blog post I wrote, on my 29th birthday, I am struck by the reality that words written then feel fresh to me now. “Boulder Fields” was an appropriate title for that first post. There is nothing quite like having your internal experience mirrored on a geological scale to get you to pay attention. The first month I spent in the Wind River Wilderness in Wyoming, we hiked by expansive boulder fields nearly every day. With backpacks well north of fifty pounds, the shifting of these ancient giants underfoot was terrifying. I went to great lengths to avoid the boulders—going far out of my way to pick a different path over the mountains. But there were times, when the only way over, was through the boulders. Ultimately there is no escape from reality. And when something as sturdy as a mammoth rock can move with the weight of a single human footstep, the world starts to feel like an incredibly unstable place.
I got to see my favorite poet, David Whyte, in person last weekend. He began his talk by saying:
The edge. The margin. The fringe. Whyte says that this frontier is the only place where things are real—that the liminal is where true conversation happen.
The fact is, I’ve always gravitated towards the edge. It’s not that I am particularly brave or that I crave an adrenalin rush, because I categorically don’t. I am happier in the rolling alpine meadow filled with wildflowers than I am on the rocky crags. And yet, I keep seeking out that edge, even while I long for the comfort of the meadow.
My mom’s style of mothering did not mirror the style of other moms I knew. She had a remarkable capacity to let my brother and me go out into the world. She let me board a plane by myself when I was three, go to summer camp for weeks on end when I was six, and travel internationally by myself when I was fourteen. She thought baby talk and pacifiers and diapers were demeaning. So she never spoke to me in baby talk, she clipped the nipples off the pacifiers I was given and tossed them in the trash, and she got me out of diapers just as soon as I could possibly toddle my way over to the toilet. In essence she believed from the beginning in my capacity to be an autonomous human, and she celebrated my independence. Her mothering embodied the line in Khalil Gibran’s poem, “On Children,”
My dad also celebrated me as an autonomous being, but he continually reminded me that home was always waiting, whenever I needed a soft place to land. And so given blessings by both of my parents to explore and having the faith that if I crashed I had a place to heal, I chose to explore the edge over and over again.
Exploration of the physical world that dominated my adolescence and young adulthood took me all over the world and got me to push my body to carry huge backpacks over mountains and run marathons and then ultra-marathons. And I learned that the edge is forever receding, because when you get close, you realize in fact, you can go further still.
But as I’ve moved into my thirties, the outer landscape is becoming less important to me. This is not to say my soul isn’t happier in the mountains, because it is. But with time, it’s become clear to me that the most important edge exists in my internal landscape. And the question that I am leaning into at this moment in my life is this: is there any thread of constancy in this ever-changing world? Do we have any right to call ourselves human beings or are we only human becomings?
And as I look back through the blogs I’ve posted over the last three years, and I leaf back through journals I kept starting in early adolescence, it seems that I’m still wrestling some of the same dragons now as I was then. And I’ve stopped wondering if that will change. I’ve stopped wanting to put a punctuation mark on grief and losses I’ve experienced. I’ve stopped hoping that one day it will all make sense. And instead, I’m leaning into the truth of poetry, and into the idea that life is, as Rilke says, a “widening circle.” We are obsessed in western culture with linear progression. But I’m convinced that linear progression doesn’t exist. That our great loves and losses are with us always and that the wider circles of our lives just afford different perspectives. That the wider circles create space for all the conflicting emotions and thoughts to co-exist more amicably. And it seems to me that perhaps the most hopeful possibility is that our life of becoming will move us closer to our life of being.
My dad’s favorite story to tell about me as a child is this: Molly, our beloved family dog, was hit by a car when I was four years old. My parents asked the pastor from our church to come over for a backyard funeral. We stood in a little circle, the four of us and the pastor, around the fresh mound of dirt in the garden, and the pastor asked us if we wanted to say anything, and I said, we should also pray for the woman who hit Molly, because she was sad too.
Six years later following the death of our next family dog, I was screaming in my parents’ bedroom that I wanted to kill the dogs that had attacked and killed our little dog, Winky.
So I can only hope that with time, I will in fact be able to access again the wisdom and generosity I had as a very young child. That my becoming is more of a process of stripping away the layers of dirt that have accumulated over the years and finding again the center of my being. That the spaciousness of years will grant me access to what I’ve known forever but forgotten along the way.