Saturday, November 19, 2016
I have surrounded myself with wings.
It wasn't a consciously intentional act, but wherever I look from where I sit, I see wings. Dragonflies. Eagles. Hummingbirds. Angels. Fairies. Hearts. It's a collection that has accumulated over years. Whether they're lacy and insubstantial, or muscular and heavily feathered, wings comfort me and lift my spirits. Never more so than right now.
If it were possible, I would have wings.
Not much imagination is required for me to feel my shoulder blades sprout beautiful furls of feathers attached to hollow bones that unfold into appendages that might lift me high above the ground. They carry me beyond myself, and defy the weight of gravity. When I walk on a particularly windy day, the air dancing on my face and pushing against my body allows me to feel the lift, even though my feet remained firmly on the ground.
Wings would allow my body to soar as my heart often does.
Maybe to join one of the myriad V's of geese that fill the air here this time of year. Maybe to float high currents of air with the eagle who has returned to the river in the last few days. Maybe to migrate to warmer climes to wait out the cold and dark of this season in a place of light and abundance.
With wings I could rise above this unthinkable new reality and my sadness.
I could look down and see a much larger world than the one my human, grounded, eyes can perceive. One that might offer hope. The view from beneath the buoyancy of extended wings might allow beauty to shine more brightly against the shadows. I'm not trying or wanting to escape this grief. I know better than that. But I am seeking relief, air, lightness, from which to bear it. I search for the particular and unique beauty that comes only in the days of mourning, to hearts that are broken and tender and raw.
The whispers of wings deliver truth to a listening ear.
It's the small still voice. The one that encourages love and kindness. The one that is the opposite of shame and fear. Sometimes the whisper is so low it sounds like silence. It offers a space in which to simply be with it all: the sadness, the beauty, the joy, the hope, the ugliness, the shock, the uncertainty.
Things with wings are messengers of the highest order. I wrap myself in the protection of their strength and breathe in their fragile beauty. I fill my eyes with the unlikeliness of their form and function. Their existence, bird and dragonfly, make angels seem probable. Their existence and my ability to know them make now seem less hopeless, and tomorrow as open as the wide sky that those beings paint with their wings.
Thursday, October 27, 2016
I've grounded myself, not as punishment or out of fear, but to catch my breath and to recharge. To process and absorb. To reflect and find places in my being for all that's happened in the last year. So that I can feel grounded again. Yet I feel twitchy, edgy, left behind. Like a detox. I also feel with absolute certainty that this is what my soul needs most of all right now.
I'm already missing summer, longing to return to any of the many islands that have provided the settings for my most recent adventures: Hawaii last winter, Vancouver Island this summer, Impala Isle in Texas, Orcas Island for a wedding, and Vashon Island for time with my sisters. Surrounded by water and friends and for all but the last two trips, sunshine and heat. I long to be on the small island of a raft floating the Colorado River held in the embrace of ancient stones and accompanied by people whose spirit of adventure matches my own. I long to have the next island to look forward to - New Zealand or Australia or the Galapagos.
Two friends (two of the Vashonistas) are in Greece right now, volunteering at a refugee camp. I was invited. I played with the idea seriously. I wanted to go badly. Greece is an island, my urging voice said. Look at all the islands in your life these days. It's a sign you should go. They need you there. You'd matter there. But somehow in the excitement of the conversations about one friend's return to the camp and the other's first trip, a quiet voice kept insisting that it was not the right time or the right choice for me for now. And so, reluctantly, I declined.
I stand now on home ground, being thoughtful and intentional with how I spend the hours of my days. Imposing a gentle structure that has at its core being present and honoring my writer self and resting. I look at travel sites (when I'm resting), and talk to traveling friends, thinking if I only had something on the calendar, I would be able to really relax and accept this grounding time with a whole heart. But then I would be looking forward - looking into the future and anticipating (with great pleasure) something that's going to happen.
It's not like the present is something I'm trying to escape. I love home. I love my life. I love the solitude and stillness of these days. The rain soothes. The soft breezes and songs of arriving winter birds lift my heart to the point of tears. Watching Toby chase scents through leaves his same exact color with joyous abandon makes me so grateful to be alive, to have him as he turns 9, to be able to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us on our walks. Even the shorter days offer gifts. I walk into yoga in the dark (6:00 a.m. class) and come out to sunrise. Several days recently I've driven home under glorious skies with precious metal flashes of light radiating against Impressionist gray clouds.
For now my feet carry me down familiar paths, and I release again and again the yearnings for more and different. I breathe in cottonwood, and wonder at perfect spider webs suspended in midair. Dogwood leaves, each leaf one perfect lick of flame, light my way. I marvel at mushrooms pushed through the hard earth, unfurling a little more each day, into glories of color and symmetry. Air and earth are sustenance enough. There will come again the time for a life surrounded by water and a heart on fire with new experiences, in love with a world so full of beauty and surprise it makes me want to live forever just so I don't miss one single sight or sound or smell.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Chairs on the dock look away
from the land
toward the horizon line.
Empty or occupied,
the chairs sit facing away
from all that's known,
from certainty and history.
Buildings on foundations
they occupy a space that
is both grounded and not:
the dock solid ground over
ever shifting fluidity,
waves lapping in and then out.
The chairs sit still, as chairs do,
as their occupants do.
But there is a sense of outward
Chairs on the dock can't follow the winds
or the waves
or the tides
or the sun setting in the west.
But they bear witness.
And if you sit in a chair on a dock,
that chair holds you in possibility.
Its longings awaken yours
so that you know you can
fly or float or find your way.
You know it even as you still
don't know how.
If you fall asleep, there will always
be another chair
on another dock
looking out on a body of water -
or at least this memory
of the balmy fall evening
you sat in a lavender metal chair at the edge of a dock
looking into a Texas sunset over
a softly breathing lake
and you felt you had arrived
Thank you, Julie, for providing the creative space from which this writing came, and the bottom picture.
Thursday, September 1, 2016
Facebook and the news are full of back-to-school this week. Walt met his new classes yesterday. My former teammates met theirs on Tuesday. This week marks the beginning of my second year of retirement. I feel tugs of something now as I sit in a quiet house looking out on a quiet yard on a cool quiet gray day. It's not sadness exactly. Or even nostalgia. This is the time of year when my whole being vibrates with longing for some unknown possibility. It's like the wall between what is and what can be is thinnest in the fall.
I signed up for Medicare yesterday. The process was easy and pain free. It took 15 minutes at the most. Then I went to the dentist to have whitening trays made. That took longer, mostly because the person making the trays has become my friend over the thirty years or more I've been seeing her when I go in for my checks. I also went to yoga and then walked 6 miles, 4 with a friend who is also retired. We both turn 65 this fall and so our conversations are full of how to navigate aging with as much grace and as little suffering as possible. The entire day focused on creating an end-of-life that is as full and alive as possible.
The wall between life and death grows thinner, and more obviously so, with each passing year.
The distance between my working life and this new retired life feels so much greater now than the actual time that's passed.
A year ago I was overflowing with joy and relief. Every day felt like a gift that I created as I went. For a while I did little that felt constructive: read, walked, sat on my patio. Lots of stillness. Lots of moments spent absorbing whatever was on offer. Hummingbirds chittering at the feeder. Two new cats. Fixing a dinner with full attention and care. Toby walks fully awake and present - no longer used as a processing time of a difficult day, but now a small pilgrimage into holy territory where kingfishers and eagles and salmon and deer and coyotes reign. Where Toby's joy and energy seemed a reflection of my own.
Slowly my days took on more purpose. A yoga practice established and maintained. Time with friends that filled me with light and energy and gratitude. Afternoons spent with books and cats and no pressure to do anything else. Travel - Vashon, Idaho, Tucson, Hawaii, Malibu, Grand Canyon, Vancouver Island. What a marvel that is. I look at the list and can't quite believe that that gets to be my life.
There were shadows. Of course there were. The biggest being my middle brother's Parkinson's diagnosis, his rapid decline, the awareness that whatever was happening to him was more than Parkinson's. As painful as the loss of the relationship we had when he was whole, is the loss of relationship that is the result of other siblings' choices around his illness. And then there is the ongoing challenge of recreating a marriage relationship in older age, in retirement, when our paths are no longer parallel.
Tears well often these days. Some are sadness, grieving the losses of sibling and spousal connections. Some are deep gratitude for the life of choice and privilege I lead right now. Sometimes in yoga my throat will close and my eyes fill for no good reason. So much feeling looking for an outlet. Without the distraction and fatigue of work, I experience so much more of what I feel.
For every thing I accomplished last year, there is another item on my list of things to do that didn't get done. I didn't get the inside of my house painted. I didn't get closets cleaned. I didn't write nearly as much as I intended. I didn't get thin. I didn't volunteer or sign up for mediation training or take classes. I didn't offer classes. I didn't get my pictures organized.
I care less about the didn't-get-dones than I thought I might. They are all things I'd like to accomplish at some point, but only one item has a certain urgency behind it. The writing. Always the writing. Some days I wish it would go away, that voice that urges and whispers and coaxes. Can't I just walk away from that part of myself? Isn't it done? A possibility that was never fully realized? And I suppose the answer could be yes. But then how would I know what anything means? How would I know myself, my soul, my purpose? And if it's so important - and it surely seems to be - then why do I resist the voice so strongly?
Last year I was a prisoner set free. This year I'm less dazzled by the endless variety of choices, the bright colors, the freedom to choose whatever I want. I am more overwhelmed by the possibilities, more aware of the time limitations, wanting to find a balance. Frustrated that I really can't do it all, all at once.
I was in Powell's last spring with my friend, Mary. We were there to hear Krista Tippett speak. As we wandered the store, looking at books, we talked about authors and titles we were drawn to, ones we'd read, and ones we wanted to read. Mary bought a Gloria Steinem title. I bought the book Krista Tippett was there to promote. The next day, Mary sent me an inspiring and relevant quote from the Gloria Steinem book. I replied that maybe I should have bought that book, too. She responded that I can't read all the books.
I can't read all the books.
It's a pretty obvious truth, but one that all these months later still stops me in my tracks. Because I can not only not read all the books, I probably can't even read all the books I want to read. And if that's true, then it's also true that I won't visit all the places in the world I want to see. It's true that the unfulfilled dreams of my 20 and 30 and 40 year old selves will remain unfulfilled. I could act on them, but my 65 year old self would not find them so satisfying. And it's likely even all my current dreams won't find their way to reality.
Which only means I need to make careful, thoughtful, mindful choices. With my reading. With my travel destinations. With my life decisions. But not too careful, either. There needs to be room for spontaneity, surprise, and acceptance of life coming from left field.
There was a moment in the Canyon this summer. We were floating on bright green water under benevolent blue skies dotted with story book clouds. The temperature was still friendly. My new friend, Shelly, sat next to me. No part of my body hurt. No worries plagued my brain. The thought wandered through, "This is happy." I breathed it in, and breathed it out. The River carried me on and into the next moments in time.
Last week I went north to help my brother sort through his possessions in preparation for his move into assisted living. We sat on his couch in a living room that less than two years previously I'd helped him decorate. Boxes everywhere. Piles of papers. Pieces of random furniture blocking our path. The air full of the smell of an un-housebroken dog, dust, and despair. He seemed so disconnected from the loss. I seemed to be feeling both my own losses and his. The loss of freedom, the loss of his dreams, the loss of a home we'd worked so hard together to create. And as I looked at his unsmiling, unshaven face I wanted to weep. I breathed it in, and breathed it out. We got busy and packed and sorted.
I can't read all the books. I can't travel to everywhere. I can't stop bad things from happening. But I can be fully present for each moment, savor the breath and the life and the possibilities. I have this moment, and probably the next few. If I am able to hold each with gratitude and wonder, then it won't matter quite so much how I spend my moments and minutes and months. In full mindfulness, the thinness of the wall enriches what is rather than diminishing it.
And so this new year begins.
Saturday, July 23, 2016
|The last morning.|
After an easy flight and a long wait I was finally being led to the shuttle that would take me from Phoenix to Flagstaff where I would catch another shuttle the next morning for Lee's Ferry. A man led a small group of us through the airport, away from the company's fleet, and out to the pickup area. There a small white shuttle sat with a familiar looking figure at the back helping someone load their luggage. Big Ed!
Big Ed, the Navajo driver who shuttled us to Lee's Ferry on the first trip, was going to be driving me the whole distance this time. Not me personally, although it certainly felt like that as I sat behind him and we chatted. He hadn't changed that I could see - the thin braid, the bandanna headband, the cheerful happy face. He asked where I was going and what my plans were. I told him and that I remembered him from before and I expected he would be driving me the next day. He confirmed that.
Toward the end of our trip to Flagstaff, Big Ed asked everyone where they wanted to be dropped. One women, sitting alone toward the back, said she was going to the Courtyard Marriott, which was my destination. I looked back and asked if she was headed for the Canyon. She was. At the next stop I went back and sat next to her.
There is no good explanation for what followed. So it can only be a miracle.
We went to dinner that night, traded stories, laughed, talked about the adventure ahead of us. She had questions. I had answers, and stories from my first trip. Shelly, short for Michelle. A California city girl. Young enough to be my daughter. Starting over at midlife after raising and teaching four children, now in their twenties. Tender heart. Adventurer soul. Courageous spirit.
We sat together on the shuttle to Lee's Ferry the next morning, chose gear next to each other, packed together and got in the raft together, talking the whole time. When we stopped for camp that first night, we decided to share a tent and a campsite. We rode together the next day. And so it went for the rest of the trip. An easy companionship that simply existed without either of us discussing or deciding. We took pride in our ability to pitch and break down our tent quickly and efficiently. We developed routines, again without actually deciding on them. People thought we were mother and daughter traveling together, and then shared in our state of wonder at our actual relationship.
At the end of the trip, after the long bumpy school bus ride from the river at Diamond Creek to the reservation at Peach Springs, we pulled into a lot where a now-familiar white shuttle waited to take us back to Flagstaff. There was Big Ed, standing with his big smile and bigger presence. I was so happy to see him that I surprised us both by hugging him.
At the rest stop halfway to Flagstaff as Shelly and I were chatting outside the shuttle, Big Ed came up to us. He was holding the medicine bag I'd seen hanging from the rearview mirror of the shuttle. He said he'd been thinking of the two of us the whole time we'd been gone, wondering how we were doing. He wanted to share stones with us that held medicine, that he'd been given and carried in that bag. He told Shelly she had seemed so sad at the beginning, but that she looked different now. He reached into the small painted leather bag, and a small group of stones and crystals followed his hand out.
Shelly received hers first. A round polished stone of black and white. Beautiful and smooth and compelling. The veins of black creating pictures that changed with every glance. A stone of stories and hope and promise.
There was a stunning clear crystal in Big Ed's hand that my eye was drawn to, and I almost reached for it. But he handed me a completely different stone. This one looked very much like a small finger, reddish, slightly rough, rounded at one end, with a slight indentation at the other. It's hard to tell if it was shaped by man or the forces that shaped the Canyon we'd just left behind. It looks like it could have been a tool, or a bead that just needed a hole to complete. Or it could just be a small symmetrical miracle of weather and water.
Big Ed said we should carry the stones with us, and hold them when we needed to be reminded of the gifts of the Canyon.
At first I was disappointed. Shelly's stone seemed better, prettier. Big Ed's words were for her. He offered no special words of wisdom or insight for me. What message was I supposed to take from that?
The message is the mystery. I have a stone that is more question than answer. He didn't have words for me because this isn't the time for answers or outer wisdom. It's a time of deeper questions, inner wisdom. My stone reminds me that while there is a part of me always looking for the one answer to all the questions, true perfection is at its core imperfect.
Shelly and I rode together with the same shuttle company to the airport the next morning. No Big Ed this time, but he was there with us regardless. I expect he'll always be a part of our friendship, as he'll always be a significant part of my relationship with the Canyon and the River.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
I won’t be in the Grand Canyon physically until next week, but most of the rest of me is already there. As I pack, every item I put in my duffel reminds me of the first trip. While I work to get things ready here so I can leave feeling like I’ve left ducks in a row for Walt, I already feel his absence next to me in the raft. Every story I read about the Canyon and the Colorado puts me back there. I feel my whole being lighten whenever I’m given a chance to talk about how much I’ve fallen in love with that place. Memories from the first trip resurface as I look at pictures, reread my journal, remember the person who was in this place two years ago.
Big Ed was the Navajo driver who took us from Flagstaff to Lee’s Ferry. He informed us early on he was Navajo, not Hopi, which turns out to be an important distinction. His single braid, bandanna headband, and slightly accented speech were the first indication that I was leaving the world as I knew it behind. He told us the Colorado River changes people. He joked that the changes would run deeper than our sunburned faces and blistered feet and two-weeks-without-a-shower fragrance. I was eager to discover what the River and the Canyon had for me, how I would be different at Diamond Creek 13 days down river. I had hopes: a deeper understanding of God, my marriage revitalized, renewed energy to finish a career that was sucking the life from me.
As it turned out, I was able to retire just a year after that first trip – three years earlier than we’d originally planned. After two weeks in the Canyon with no demands other than simply being and enjoying my experience, I came home knowing deeply that I was not willing to lose any more time than I absolutely had to. Now, at the end of my first year of retirement, I know that was one of the wisest decisions I’ve ever made. It’s an interesting symmetry, two Canyon trips bookending my last year of teaching and my first year of retirement.
While Walt and I left the Canyon feeling closer than we had in years, the day-to-day wiped that out pretty quickly. Both of us are at the beginning of old age, but each is traveling the road very differently. A friend provided the analogy of a bridge. I’m moving forward, eager to see what’s on the other side of the bridge in front of me. Walt seems uninterested in what’s across the bridge, and is content to stay where he is golfing and napping and watching television. While we decided together that I would do this trip solo, I worry about crossing one bridge too many. About losing sight of each other completely.
It seems like I’ve spent my whole life trying to understand God. The minute I thought I had an answer to a question about God, a new question would emerge and I would be left more confused than before. I grew up with a mom who used God as a weapon and taught that God hated liars. I went to churches where we were taught that following rules and Jesus made God happy. I joined a cult where I was taught that all the answers to all the questions were in the Bible. I had questions all along. Questions for which the answers always seemed weak or wrong. Questions that were taken as doubt and rebellion and answered with scripture that told me to believe and not question. The questions would not go away, so I asked them in different places. Buddhism offered sanctuary and a new way of seeing, being, thinking. I didn’t find answers there, but I did find new questions that left me feeling more alive and somehow on the right track.
I figured if I couldn’t find God in the Grand Canyon, I probably was never going to. Natural beauty, solitude, vulnerability – the perfect conditions for hearing the God voice. What I found was a realization that the mystery that is God, and the magnificence that is the Canyon, are both far beyond my human ability to corral and define and absorb with any level of complete understanding. The existence of one, the Canyon, seems to me to prove the existence of the other, God.
While we were in the Canyon, it felt like we were guests in God’s garden. Evidence of God’s presence was so palpable there was no way to deny it: the grand vistas, the falling trill of canyon wrens, the bright tropical blue of the Little Colorado. The rainbow that emerged over the canyon wall at dusk while we listened to the trip leader tell us stories. The full moon that lit our nights with the gentleness of candlelight, and the dark nights that revealed universes beyond comprehension. The River itself carrying us along like a sentient being whose purpose was to teach us how to be human, maybe more than human.
If I can’t really grasp the mystery and magnificence of either God or the Canyon, the next best thing is to spend time with them.
When I decided to go back, I didn’t really think about how I wanted to be changed this time. I wanted the feelings I had then. I wanted to experience the Canyon without the distraction of the anxiety inherent in any new adventure. I wanted to spend time in God’s garden, and maybe, just maybe, catch a glimpse of his face this time. I still want those things, but there is something else, too.
About halfway through the first trip we stopped at a place called Blacktail Canyon. At the back of the canyon there is an exposed place in the rock called the Great Unconformity. While this unconformity stretches through much of the Grand Canyon, in this place it’s low enough to touch. Geologically an unconformity is a place where there is missing time between layers of rock. The Great Unconformity spans over a billion years. In one of my favorite pictures from that trip, I’m standing with arms outstretched, hands on the canyon wall, a billion years unaccounted for in between. I’m grinning at the camera like that missing time makes sense. The truth is just the opposite. Like so much of the Canyon and floating the River, the vastness of it, the aliveness of it, the Great Unconformity is far too much to absorb.
The fact that no one has an answer for why a billion years are just not there leaves me both unsettled and almost giddy with the mystery of it.
One of my favorite things to do as we floated endless hours on smooth water under skies as moody as March was to ask questions of the guides. Most of those questions were of the “what’s that?” variety. Some were “who are you?” questions. Some were about the history of the Canyon. All of the questions had answers, and I found that satisfying, even as those answers triggered more questions. As I’ve prepared for this second trip, the company has sent a number of emails inviting me to ask them any questions I might have about the trip.
The logistical questions were all pretty much answered on the first trip. I’ve done as much research as is possible, and read every blog post the rafting company has written. The questions I have about who the guides and passengers are, I don’t want answers to until I can see for myself.
The most important questions I’m taking to the Canyon can’t be answered in an email. Certainly not by the employees of the rafting company. Maybe not at all.
I wonder what’s going to happen to my marriage as we seem to drift farther apart each day. I wonder what this next year of retirement will bring, and what might be the best next steps for me. I wonder how I can matter. I wonder what’s going to happen with my brother as he learns to live with Parkinson’s, and fades away from me like the last embers of a campfire. I wonder about my relationship with my other brothers as we all cope with the loss of our middle brother differently, and not always in a loving way.
I wonder how much time I have left. I wonder about dying and death and what, if anything, is on the other side.
The poet David Whyte says, “a beautiful question shapes a beautiful mind. And so the ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered.”
Soon I will make a second pilgrimage into God’s garden, his personal cathedral. I take my questions with me, tucked in my bag along with sunscreen and a map. Instead of looking for answers this time, I will release those questions, and search for new ones. Questions that will shape my end of days, my marriage, my relationship with my brothers. Questions that will reveal my true shape and calling and open my heart to all the uncertainties of life. Questions that will lead to more incomprehensible questions that will carry me home.
Friday, May 20, 2016
I felt fear three times on the first trip to the Canyon. The kind of fear that comes from the brain stem and calls on all bodily resources to do what it takes to survive. Heart pounding, stomach clenching, and breathless. An inner voice screaming, “Run!!!”
The first time was the dream, or not, in which something crawled over my bare arm in the night. I tried to scream, but nothing would come out of my mouth. I woke up enough to look for what had to be a snake, but saw nothing. Weirdly, I went right back to sleep.
The second time was as we approached Lava Falls Rapids at mile 180, rated 8-10 on the Canyon’s 1-10 scale of difficulty. We had run 64 rapids in the days before, one of which, Crystal, is considered as difficult as Lava. All the runs were successful. No one ended up in the water, no one was hurt, and everyone had fun. We had scouted Lava: all the guides and passengers who wanted to hiked above the rapids to determine the best way to approach them. The guides were the most sober they’d been the whole trip. All the instructions we’d been given at the beginning of the trip about what to do if you ended up in the water were repeated. Our guide (nicknamed Turbo), a constant trickster in camp and always smiling, became serious. He asked us to be silent in the approach to the rapid so he could concentrate on finding the best line – the route that had the best chance of getting us through without crashing into rocks or being sucked into holes that would pull us to the bottom of the river. The roar of the rapids warned us to enter at our own peril. Turbo shouted, “Hang on!” The raft crashed into house-high waves we couldn’t see until we were in them. At that point, there was no time or space for fear, and I released myself into the moment, screaming and shouting, along with everyone else in the raft.
The last time I felt fear in the Canyon involved jumping off a ten-foot cliff into the River. We were just a couple of days from our take-out at Diamond Creek, the end of the trip. I was feeling fully alive and fearless. Up to that point I’d hiked narrow ledges, climbed steep rocks, and was an old hand at hanging on through wild rapids. I was cavalier and even excited for the experience right up until the moment I stood at the edge of the cliff looking down. My body seemed to think I was standing at the top of a skyscraper and did everything in its power to make me walk away. Everyone else had gone once. There was a line behind me of people excited for their second turn. All but a couple of the two dozen passengers on this adventure were raring to hurl themselves off this cliff – again. I needed to decide, and quickly, so that I didn’t become the focus of well-meaning attention. The choice to do the trip in the first place was about facing fear. I knew I’d be sorry if I let fear dictate my actions this time. So I walked away from the edge, turned and ran toward it. And jumped. Screaming all the way to the River.
In the months, weeks, and then days leading up to that first trip I lived with more fear than I was willing to say out loud. It started with the Acknowledgement of Risk form we had to sign. I made fun of the language while at the same time wondering if I was up to so much risk at age 62. Trauma. Mental anguish. Impaired health. Injured. Death. Hypothermia. Heat stroke. Snakes, scorpions, fire ants. All were subtly downplayed. All were mentioned, I assumed, because at some time someone had experienced them. One of the books I read prior to that trip was about all the deaths that had occurred in the Grand Canyon, including deaths on the River. Oddly, that was reassuring. Most Canyon deaths in modern times involved alcohol and stupidity, neither of which were going to be factors for me. Still, what if my aging and moderately out of shape body wasn’t up to the challenge?
Not really trusting the list provided by the company, I was afraid of not being adequately prepared. I read and reread the list, scoured the company website and blog, studied pictures for clues. I worried about privacy, going to the bathroom, and living with complete strangers for two weeks. What if Walt and I didn’t get along? What if my new hip couldn’t handle the rigor? What if, what if, what if. I countered the fear voices with lists, and piles of gear, and reading everything I could get my hands on.
Ultimately, the anticipation of the absolute magic of what we were about to embark on won out. The minute our raft floated away from shore into the River, facing downstream in the hot June sun, all fear disappeared completely.
I didn’t even read the Acknowledgement of Risk form for this next trip until today. Walt typed my name at the bottom and sent it in last February. All the things I worried about before the first trip either happened and were handled, or didn’t happen. All the things that I didn’t worry about, and would have if I’d known, happened and were handled, and did nothing to diminish the joy of the trip.
It seems like I should be afraid, maybe just a little, as I prepare to experience the Colorado River for the second time. I do get little niggles of something gut-squeezing when I consider the ants and the scorpions and the rapids. I got lucky the first time. The more often a person goes through the Canyon, the more likely they’ll experience more of the less pleasant aspects. And this time I’m going alone. Without Walt to rely on or turn to or talk to, I’ll be on my own to solve problems and face the world in all its messy glory.
Passengers can be jolted, jarred, bounced, thrown to and fro, and otherwise shaken about during rides through some of these rapids . . . . It is also possible that some participants would suffer mental anguish or trauma from the experience of being thrown about in the rapids.
When I read that statement from the Acknowledgement of Risk form today, my mind went immediately to my brother. My middle brother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in March. Our journey with him in his physical and mental decline, much more rapid than any of us were prepared for, has been much like riding the rapids of the Colorado River. Fear sneaks up on me in the nether hours of the night when sleep should be healing me. It slithers across my arm, leaving me breathless. While I was relieved at first to have an answer to puzzling behaviors that emerged over the last couple of years, now I’d rather not make the journey through these particular rapids. Rapids that no amount of scouting will really help me travel through without a fair amount of mental anguish. I’ll think I’m getting used to this new normal, and then my brother does something uncharacteristically thoughtless. Evidence that he can no longer manage his life overwhelms hope that medication will buy him time. I look over the cliff into the unknowns of where this disease and his response to it will take us and I want to turn and run the other way.
I wonder what I’m afraid of with my brother. Snakes and cliffs and rapids all threaten physical harm. Those fears are rational, or at least have roots in something concrete. My brother’s decline will not harm me physically. The loss of him as I’ve come to know him in the last few years does not threaten my life. His is not my first major loss. But it is unique. He’s my brother. He’s still here and likely will be for some time. But all that makes him essentially him, all that our current relationship is built on, is slowly disappearing with each new cell-death at the center of his brain. So the grieving is unfamiliar. And the unfamiliar is fertile ground for fear. There is no amount of reading or information gathering that will ease the pain or smooth the journey. My newly acquired expertise in Parkinson’s Disease does nothing to soothe me or ease the fear of the huge unknown at the edge of this cliff.
What can I do except what I’ve chosen to do every time fear tells me I can’t. I do exactly the opposite of what it says. And so with my beloved brother, whom I hardly know any more, I walk away. I turn. I run full tilt and launch myself into the air. Screaming all the way, but airborne and committed and refusing to be dictated to by fear.
It may be part of the power of a River experience through the Canyon. There’s no way to get through it or life without being shaken about and suffering in some form. Living with my brother’s decline and the loss of relationship that brings is the latest rapids I’m finding my way through. I had decided that I didn’t need to jump off the cliff on this second trip on the Colorado. I didn’t want to experience the stomach-lurching, heart-freezing, run-like-hell feeling again. I might change my mind. Perhaps experiencing that real challenge of fear will give me the strength I need to continue launching myself into each new unknown as it presents itself with my brother’s illness.
When I head south in six weeks, I will travel with the sadness of the losses that accumulate daily. I will search for wisdom in the River and the billion year old rocks and the song of the canyon wren. I will seek peace under the blanket of the Milky Way. I will surrender myself, and my fears, to the heat and the beauty and the flow.