"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Glow of Success

Here are some things you might not know about me:

I don't like being hot. I hate sweating. Somewhere between 70 and 80 degrees, sitting in the shade, with a gentle wind kissing my face, is my ideal state of being.

Except for walking or hiking regularly, and cleaning and weeding in spurts, I'm not big on physical activity. I'd much rather spend my time visiting with friends, curled up with a book, or here. I've done all the exercise stuff over the years. I don't like any of it, except for walking, which while wonderfully satisfying, offers limited benefits to my late middle-aged body.

I'm not a big fan of pain - of any color. In the pursuit of no pain I've found myself in the last few years moving less. I'm careful with my body, afraid something will break or strain or require more attention than I'm willing to provide. As a result, I find myself asking for help to open jars, stumbling more over nonexistent objects on the ground, often nearly crying when I go to stand up at the end of a movie because of my knees' objections to being asked to unbend.

Here's why you needed to know those things:

I went to yoga on Thursday. Not just any yoga, but Bikram yoga. Also known as hot yoga.

My friend and counselor, Pat, has been going for months. Pat is in shape. She used to go to the gym faithfully and it shows. She's healthy, has a great body, and is one of the most balanced and centered and joyful people I know. All of that has gotten even better since she started yoga.

My acupuncturist told me last winter that she thinks people should break a good sweat every day.

The yoga studio's website promised relief from all the things I'm feeling plagued by these days - at least the physical woes.

So I put on as few clothes as legally possible, packed my mat, a huge towel and lots of water, and went to class. Where for an hour and a half, in a small room where Satan himself would have complained about the heat, I did my best to coax my body into a variety of poses, while breathing through my nose to avoid triggering my body's flight response, without throwing up or passing out or running screaming from the room.

Since my primary goal for the first visit was simply to stay in the room, the experience was a complete success.

One purpose of the heat is to facilitate sweating to clear toxins from the body. Again, I was a complete success. Sweat was waterfalling off the shelf of my brow into my eyes. My feet and legs, hands and arms were all so wet some poses were almost impossible because I couldn't hang onto myself. I looked like I had wet my pants. And I stunk! I had no idea it was possible for me to smell that bad.

Another purpose of the heat is to loosen things up so that one can work harder and accomplish more. I was surprised to find how many of the poses I could at least approximate. I remember yoga classes from years ago where even the approximation was impossible. More success.

Kay, a grandmotherly woman who looks more like she should be baking cookies than teaching yoga, was kind, patient, and encouraging. "Do what you can. Give yourself credit for being here. This is hard, but you'll be really glad you came." I did. I gave. I'm glad. Success.

My back pain is no worse. Other than some strange twinges near my armpits and some general stiffness, there is no new pain. The heat stayed with me well into the next day, enough to make me less hungry. Less. Hungry.

I'm headed back this afternoon. How could I not go back to a place where success is measured in such generous terms and achieved so simply? I am taking a bigger towel this time.

image from Flickr

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lost Ground

My back hurts. The lower part. The part of my body connected to grounding, connection to the earth, security. It's hurt since early last spring, but I managed to ignore/baby/doctor it into levels of pain that didn't interfere with my life. Until recently. As the days of summer dwindle, the pain intensifies.

I'm pretty sure it's no accident that the pain began shortly after I made the decision to leave teaching for a year, and to spend that year pursuing my dream: a career as a writer. And while it's really no surprise that the pain is at it's worst now, when the school year is beginning and I'm facing this enormous canyon of unknown possibility, I wish it weren't so.

I don't want to be afraid.

I don't want fear to have any more power over my life at all, ever. I've spent years getting to know her, comforting her, choosing new ways of empowerment. Yet there she sits, across the lowest part of my back - pulsing, stabbing, gnawing with relentless vigor.

I don't want to be starting the school year. I'm not feeling sad about not getting a back-to-school letter for the first time in over two decades. I'm not feeling a strong urge to run to the nearest teacher supply store to buy bulletin board borders. I'm not wishing I could be sitting in the inservices and start-up staff meetings where my husband and friends are these days. Truly.

When I left my classroom last June, I was finished with that part of my life. Among the many reasons I had to teach that one last year, being absolutely certain I was done may be at the top of the list. Because without the memory of that certainty, the security just might pull me back in.

Known challenges. A consistent paycheck. Confidence in my ability. The safety of the known world, as boring and energy-sucking as it was, offers itself as an antidote to this pain.

My heart says no to safety. But my muscles are frozen. The fear laughs at me and wrestles me to the ground.

Since last spring, I've anticipated some form of this. Whenever a tremor of fear would make herself known, I acknowledged her and then put her off until after. After my reunion. After our vacation. After school started. After is here, and fear is demanding her due.

While I spent most of the summer playing and finding joy and love and happiness at every turn, I've also been studying. I've read magazines and books and site after site after site about writing and agents and publishing. It's a harsh reality that offers only the encouragement of persistence and confidence and professionalism. I've made myself an expert on query letters and agent preferences and proposal writing. I have a list of potential agents sitting next to my computer.

I have a back that is so frozen with fear that I can barely stand or sit or write. What felt like flying last spring now feels like free-falling without wings. What seemed like listening to my heart and following my dreams a few months ago now sounds like midlife delusion.

I have faced fear before. She does not give ground, ever. The only way to unpower her is to act regardless of her voice. I know that.

The quiet voice, the one that always has the answers in a loving and gentle voice, is saying the same thing she's been saying since spring. "Send one letter. Write one paragraph. Your ground is your heart. You are not lost. Leap."

photo from Flickr

Friday, August 21, 2009

Moving On

We stood at the back of the ferry that churned with surprising speed from Vashon Island to Tacoma. At the end of a three day adventure we leaned over the rail, three middle-aged women, each holding a paper umbrella, like the ones used to garnish drinks, waiting to release them into Puget Sound and forever, along with the wishes of our hearts.

Mary invited Lisa and I to join her at the cabin her family had been renting for the summer since she was a girl. She told us to bring a sleeping bag. Everything else was provided. We'd work out meals when we got there. The word rustic might have come up in conversation, but beyond that I had little idea what was in store for me.

We are amazingly easy together, the three of us. Lisa and Mary became friends because of husbands with common careers, and became sisters when first one and then the other husband took off with other women. Lisa and I became friends after her son was in my fifth grade class and after she went back to school to become a teacher, and became sisters while she tried to make sense of a world turned upside down by betrayal. Mary and I became friends when Lisa introduced us at improv game nights, and through our blogs, and were, I believe, sisters before we even met.

The cabin was a bit of a shock at first - beyond rustic into the territory of primitive. Swiss Family Robinson. Sleeping on an open air porch shared with spiders and a bat. The kitchen in which all three of us could fit, but only if we didn't move. The bathroom out the back door, along a short boardwalk with slug escorts, ivy growing around the base of the toilet. The memories of decades of family summers and much of Mary's recent history rustling in the dark corners where the single light bulb hanging from each room couldn't reach.

A huge, gnarled weeping willow guarded the small bridged path leading to the front door. The tinny musical trickle of water springing from the hill behind us played a duet with the deep rushing thrum of the ocean in front of us. Hummingbirds chipped and buzzed around us on their way to the fuschia at one corner of the yard, often resting on the reaching fingers of the nearby ancient madrona .

We were at summer camp, without the counselors or homesickness or poison oak.

Swinging on the rope swing, shrieking with little-girl glee. Paddling over the clear cold water under a pure hot sky while a bald eagle hunted along the shoreline. Giggling over peanut butter s'mores shared at the community fire with the three families staying next door.

Playing with the candy cigarettes Lisa brought. Disappointed at how small they were. Indignant that the red tips were mostly missing. Laughing ourselves silly at our memories of these and other childhood delights.

Making boats of driftwood, leaves, flowers, candles, glitter, candy cigarettes, hopes and dreams. Sending those boats into the receding tide at dusk, along with wishes that would move each of us farther along on our journeys. Watching the lights from the candles on our boats march steadfastly across the bay, flickering occasionally, but burning long after their star cousins filled the sky.

Walking along the shore at low tide watching red rock crabs scoot here and there in the dancing sea lettuce. Gathering shells for the sand candles Mary planned as our craft, and for the sheer joy of holding the ocean's treasures in our hands. Marveling at the fountains shot by escaping geoducks and irritated anemones.

Woven in and around our play was the kind of conversation that can only happen in the midst of total safety, deep relaxation and earned sisterhood. Shared joy and pain and fear. Shared hopes and dreams and desires. We've suffered, all three of us, and survived. More than survived - we are thriving and healing and traveling the unworn path. We're also all at crossroads places in our lives.

My career change. Confronting the fear growing in the shadows of all the unknowns stretched out in front of me. Trying to understand my feelings about my own marriage and what I really want from it - and Walt.

Lisa managing the single parenthood of two brilliant and amazing teenagers, taking classes to become a principal, processing the divorce legacy of grief and anger and loneliness. All with singular grace and dignity and great humor.

Mary releasing the final remnants of pain from her divorce and facing a life much longer than she had reason to hope for after two cancer diagnoses. Now husband and cancer free, with a recent past created from a list of last wishes and a future as open and clear as the skies we played under, she was ready to mark the change.

So we smudged the cabin. The place where carefree childhood summers formed the foundation of her life. The place where her husband first proposed and then years later called her to tell her he was "moving on." The place she goes for rest and healing and serenity.

And while the purifying smell of sage filled the cabin, pushing ick from the dark corners; while it cleansed the spot outside where Mary received the final phone call; while the soft white smoke wrapped her in its healing embrace, I could feel all of that for my life as well. Purifying. Cleansing. Healing. A perfect end to a summer full of letting go. In the company of companions who understand and know and embrace it all.

Mary released her umbrella first, and in the custom of wishes meant to come true, did not share. When hers was no longer visible floating in the wake of the ferry, I let mine fly. Shortly after mine disappeared, Lisa's whipped through the air. We stood quietly for a bit, still connected to our wishes, savoring the memories of the previous days, storing it all away to be brought out for light during the long darkness of the winter to come.

Then one by one we turned and walked to the front of the ferry where Mary's car waited to carry us home. Moving on.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bear Safety

Bears don't like being surprised. I don't blame them. I don't either - unless it's with a fun adventure or chocolate or a great new book.

While we were on our recent vacation, there were warnings everywhere about existing safely with the grizzlies and black bears that live in the parks we visited. In truth, we saw far more warnings than actual bears. And I really had to wonder what the people who wrote the warnings were thinking about the people they were writing for.

Two protection products were promoted widely: bear bells and bear spray. One is meant to keep a bear from being surprised by your presence. The other is meant to save you if you do surprise a bear.

All of the tourist shops had a rack just for bear bells. They're pretty, single jingle bells, held on some sort of outdoorsy looking fabric or connector with which to attach them to your pack or belt or walking stick. The idea is that a bear will hear the bell coming, abandon its tasty stand of huckleberries or buffalo berries, and politely skedaddle into the brush allowing humans to pass by peacefully.

According to my Lonely Planet book, bears will eat as many as 200,000 buffalo berries a day to get ready for hibernation. That's a lot of little red berries for a 700 pound creature to pick and consume during the waking hours of one summer day. I have to wonder, really, how many bears would be happy about having such an urgent meal interrupted, and be willing to take a break in the woods to get out of humans' way.

One site I read even suggested that bears might like the sound of the bells, be curious about them, and be more inclined to investigate the possibility of a whole different food source at the sound. On one of our hikes, we passed a family: mom, dad and middle school aged son. The son was the only one with a bell. First warning, or first meal?

Of course you didn't have to buy a bell. All the free tourist literature had information about hiking safely in bear country. Making noise to warn bears of your presence was highly recommended: singing, shouting, clapping. Some trails required that at least four people travel together "in tight formation" leaving no more than 3 meters between members of the party at any time. Noise and crowds. Pretty much what we go on vacation to get away from.

The literature also recommended carrying bear spray just in case all your precautions didn't work and you did surprise a bear. Bear spray is monster pepper spray. It bursts forth in a noisy fog of nasty hot irritation designed to distract a bear from her attention to you and annoy her into retreat.

One tutorial we saw on television advised starting with a short burst of spray aimed downwind at the charging bear. If that didn't work, a second, longer burst was recommended. If that or a third even longer burst didn't stop the by now really pissed off bear, you were told to hold down the sprayer until the can was empty. Which in the real world is probably what most of us would do first.

The directions for what to do if you were unable to avoid or deflect a bear were no more reassuring than those for prevention.

Apparently bears have two attack modes: defensive and predatory. Most will be defensive, in which case you are to roll yourself into a ball (no running - it makes you look like a food source), protecting the back of your neck with your hands and your tender middle with your curled up legs. After knocking you around for a bit, the idea is that she'll get bored with your unresponsiveness and wander back to her berries. You are not to make any noise because that could be construed as aggression in which case the bear could go from defensive to predatory.

If you feel, while rolled up in a little ball being batted around like a cat toy, that the bear has become too rough, she may have moved into predatory mode whether you screamed or not. In that case you are to fight back with anything at your disposal, as hard as you can. You are invited to climb a tree even, but only as long as you can get up the thing more than 15 feet.

While I appreciated being informed, it seemed to me the best thing was to let the bears have their space. I didn't see myself having the presence of mind to employ any of the suggested methods to save myself if faced with aggressive ursine ugliness. Praying, pants wetting and pleading with the bear, maybe. Thinking and acting rationally, not too likely.

Several trails were closed due to grizzly activity. Several trails allowed hiking only for group access in tight formation. Up-to-date information about bear activity was posted at every park and trailhead. More than fair warning.

Besides, I wonder who all the safety advice was really meant to protect.

photos from Flickr

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


We're home. After almost 4000 miles, 9 National Parks, four states and two provinces in two weeks, we're home.

We traveled on the Going To The Sun Highway, Icefields Parkway, and Meadow In The Sky Parkway. We visited the jade green waters of Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Bow Lake. We followed the Madison River, the Missouri River and the Bow River. We hiked around the aptly named Emerald Lake, to the rustic tea house at Lake Agnes above Lake Louise, and on the city trails of Canmore.

We stood at the toe of Athabasca Glacier, its vast ice fields spread out before us, its ancient snow breath rolling down and into our bones, vivid blue lights shimmering here and there beneath the gritty gray surface.

We stood at the Continental Divide, one mile above sea level, a place from which rivers run both east and west.

We stood alone in the chilling mist at the base of 800 foot Takakkaw Falls exploding from the mountainside. We walked around the muddy roar of stubby Athabasca Falls, trying unsuccessfully to find a place free of elbowing, camera-toting, tour-bus tourists. We marveled at the surprise series of nameless falls as we explored the trail around Marble Canyon.

Everything was done in the looming shadows of craggy mountains, glacial giants wrapped in green buffalo robes of lodgepole pines. Grandeur became commonplace. Each bend of the road revealed whole new vistas of breathtaking postcard beauty.

For a while in the vacation I struggled with the fact that none of those things really touched me. Not in the way I anticipated, not in the this-is-the-best-adventure-I've-ever-had way that makes a vacation a success for me. The long miles, even longer days, and hulking mountains left me tired and overwhelmed.

On our second day out of Yellowstone, driving the majestic and world-famous Going To The Sun Highway through Glacier, I found myself turning again and again to the vivid patches of color that lined the sides of the road. While the glaciers and the mountains and the sheer drops into green nothingness more than lived up to the promise of what we'd read, it was the simple, close-up comfort of the wildflowers that made my heart sing.

When we stopped at Logan Pass, the tourist-packed centerpiece of Going To The Sun Highway, I was more absorbed with the ravens and the ground squirrels and new-to-me varieties of flowers than the behemoth glory rising on all sides around us.

And so it went for the rest of the vacation. Those things that planted themselves in my soul and altered my being were the small intimate bits of delight that I wasn't looking for:

Indian paintbrush in every shade from magenta to ruby to lemon.

The just-long-enough glimpse of a Hoary Marmot at the side of a rock-lined road.

Prairie sunflowers lining the highways with bright gold faces saying, "Welcome! Come this way."

Stopping on the shoulder of a four lane highway, along with a dozen other cars, to watch a young grizzly bear forage on the hill at the boundary of the other side of the road.

Marking off new flowers in my field guide, each name a small poem: Rocky Mountain Bee Plant and Wild Bergamot (the wild cousins of flowers growing in my front bed), River Beauty (also known as Dwarf Fireweed), Pipsissewa (whose name sounds as happy and sweet at the blooms look). Some names belonged in a zoo: Elephant's Head, Pink Monkeyflower, Rosy Pussytoes, Beargrass, Dalmation Toadflax.

Tossing grapes to a raven whose drunken-sailor hop and wild-eyed attention made me laugh. I would have had him eating out of my hand except for the interference of a Harley rider's yapping terrier.

Seeing my first ever loons, a pair floating in a nameless pond at the entrance to Waterton. I was driving and pulled over (sort of suddenly and mostly safely) because I couldn't believe my eyes at first.

On the relentlessly steep ascent from Lake Louise to Lake Agnes, leapfrogging with fellow hikers, exchanging encouragement and greetings and celebrations of accomplishment when we met at the top.

Paddling a canoe with Walt across the shifting blue waters of Moraine Lake under a floating cloud sky in the protective embrace of The Valley of Ten Peaks.

Sitting together in the breeze-tempered sunshine on a bench along a Canmore town trail, watching the bright Bow River rush by with an osprey hunting directly above us.

Field after field of hot-pink lipstick fireweed spikes filling in the spaces left by wildfires at Marble Canyon, framed by the skeletons of dead trees.

The baby black bear lolloping across the forest road directly in front of us as we made our way to the next bigger-than-the-last sight.

A random piece of sculpture in a Canmore park with this quote inscribed at the top: "The wind which elates me without moving - which makes the trees dance - and of the silence of the mountains - makes a great noise - He is the Chinook and his arc came as a friend - to warm up the souls numbed by the snow, the rain and the cold - and when he cannot control his power - one should not be upset with him because he is a clumsy giant - with an immense heart."

This was not the vacation I was expecting. It was not the vacation I wanted. Like everything else in my life right now, it didn't quite fit the person I'm becoming. And so I'm especially grateful for the steady, unfailing, God's-voice experience of the small wonders that I'll carry with me as I begin my personal journey into a land of impossibly high peaks and freezing rivers and unseen predators.

Photos by Walt