Like most of life’s best things…nature is best up-close.
Yesterday—deep in the woods of the Olympic National Park—I found a little part of myself.
I’ve been lost for a while. Maybe you know the feeling. The uncertainty that comes when life turns upside down and the memory of who you were before slips away like dreams in the morning.
I was healthy…then I wasn’t.
I never thought about my breathing…then I thought about it often.
I was enthusiastic and full of energy…then I couldn’t remember what that felt like.
I didn’t forget who I was overnight. The loss was almost imperceptible. Faint moments of forgetting replaced by whatever pressing matter was at hand. Old thoughts replaced by new concerns, bigger concerns.
I know you used to do that…but NOW you do this.
I used to hang out with friends…now my social calendar included my doctors.
Stumbling across little bits of me was a process. Wandering down the trail I saw myself scattered like rose petals dropped carefully by a flower girl. A little here. A little there. I had not lost myself all at once. It made sense that I wouldn’t find myself all at once either.
It started in the ranger station parking lot.
- The familiar confidence of my hiking boots.
- The daypack with enough water and snacks.
- The extra Ziploc of emergency essentials—a pocket knife, small flashlight, a lighter, and a small first aid kit among other things.
My first step on the trail was a moment of pride.
Oh yes, I remember now. This is who I am.
I picked up that part of me and made space for it in my pack.
Further down the trail, my feet falling into comfortable cadence, my breath escaped. This part was New Me. Short-of-breath-me. Can’t-quite-get-a-full-breath-in-damnit-me.
New Me—like a needy child—asserted herself and announced, “I’m here too! And I’ve been here awhile, so don’t go hiking off without me!”
So I told Old Me, “Hold on a minute. New Me needs some attention.”
And I slowed down a little and fought the short of breath, incomplete feeling. Then I kept hiking. I have this place to myself.
After 15 minutes, the trail begins to climb. Nothing drastic, but enough to make my thighs start to burn and send my pulse to thumping. The nature worship of only minutes earlier is not replaced with Ok, just get to that point up there and you can rest.
Soon, the trail levels out and I find myself again at the top. I see the Oh yes, I can do this. I remember this. I put that part of me in the pack and keep hiking. My photos along the way are my proof that I did this. They are my evidence that I remember Old Me.
This trail, this green and mossy trail, with its Douglas Firs and Cedars standing protectively nearby, is my last 7 years. And I am back.
I am humming Stephen Sondheim’s closing song to his musical Into the Woods. All respect to Steve, I claimed the lyrics as I hiked. He must have known my story.
The way is dark,
The light is dim,
But now there’s you, me, her, and him.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help when you return there…
Into the woods–you have to grope,
But that’s the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.
I’m not the same me now as I was before all of this started.
But we’re in the same neck of the woods.
In a rush of a possibly naïve attempt at personal growth, I stumbled on the documentary “Into Great Silence” about monastic life inside of Grande Chartreuse. It follows the lives of Carthusian monks in the French Alps. Here’s the kicker; they have taken a vow of silence. There is almost no speaking. No background music. No commentary. (Think feet shuffling, creaking floors, and the quiet that accompanies no cars, no airplanes, no sirens…)
It took 16 years to get permission to film it and even then, only the director was allowed to film. He used no artificial light. I thought that I would learn about the “Great Silence.” I didn’t expect to experience the great silence.
In my defense, it wasn’t like I’ve only watched Law and Order and West Wing.
I’ve tackled books on faith, spirit, the Tao Te Ching, compassion, the Amish, trials, prayer, meditation, the Quakers, the Mormons, solitude, forgiveness, love, fearlessness, grace, dharma, Buddhism, inner peace, grace, enlightenment, atonement and the Holy Ghost among other things.
I’ve read a handful of books about the lives of nuns (Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns and Stalking the Divine) and priests as well as Buddhist monks. I have read books on silence as well (Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality and Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings.)
I felt prepared to watch “Into Great Silence,” to learn about monks, to get a monastic fix without having to actually take vows. I hoped to siphon a bit of spiritual deepening by watching others. Truthfully, I hoped to learn something.
And I did.
Here is the truth:
My brain is chaos.
I have the attention span of a fruit fly.
I could not sit still. 8 minutes into the film and I am jumping out of my skin.
Beautiful, rich, deep bells echoing over a snowy mountainside
More snow? Am I really sitting here watching it SNOW????
A monk in creamy thick robes, kneeling and still in prayer.
Could they cut this to get to the next part? What is he praying about? Do his knees hurt? (insert 100 questions I have but will not be answered because I am quickly realizing that this is not just going to be about “great silence” but is going to actually BE silent.
A single, small candle in an ocean of black. On my computer screen it is the size of an eraser head.
How long is this going to go on? I wonder if there is anything else to watch on Amazon Prime? How am I supposed to learn anything if they don’t tell me what I need to know??
The monks are singing. Their voices echo in foggy complements of each other.
Ok. That’s nice. Singing monks. I like this.
14 minutes into the movie. It is 162 minutes long.
Here is where the learning happened. It occurred to me that my reaction to this movie—which was delivering exactly what its title said by the way—was an indication of my monkey mind. The swinging monkey that flung itself across the bars of my brain, from one reckless thought to another. That undisciplined, inattentive, spiritually immature monkey.
What does that say about ME?
My mind looked to check email, learn interesting facts about the monks, find out the weather tomorrow and check to see if there would be a movie on later. Anything but sit quietly and be with the monks. Anything but slow my pace. Anything to not reflect on how much I was totally lacking in the qualities I saw before me on the screen.
Prayerfulness and meditation.
Attentiveness to the task at hand and only the task at hand.
The importance of consistent spiritual practice, rather than occasional or spiritual practice that is an after-thought.
I’m 84 minutes in and only now am I starting to appreciate these guys.
So I’ve decided to stop writing and actually watch. Just watch. Not watch and do something else.
Let’s see how it feels.
Recently–in a moment of Who the hell knows what’s happening!–I became a practitioner of Spontaneous Yoga. Yoga that required no training, no class, no online video, just walked inside and within 2 feet of the door dropped to my knees in a pose that looked something like this.
It is a called balasana pose—according to the always accurate internet—but I won’t insult yoga aficionados by presuming to understand what or how to do it correctly.
Here was my method:
1) drop my bags
2) plunge to my knees
3) smush my face on the carpet
4) fling my hands in front of me
I am fairly certain I didn’t look like the picture. Put her in jeans, chop the hair and throw a sweatshirt on her and tennis shoes and the picture is clearer. She—on the other hand—looks like she meant to do that. My sudden yoga nature appeared unexpectedly and without permission.
It looked a lot like prayer, but a less romantic vision. Had someone been in the room, their comment wouldn’t have been, “Look at that quiet moment with God,” but more likely, “Did she just slip on something? Should we call a doctor?”
Mostly I was impressed with the ability of my life to drop me to my knees. I had forgotten the way an experience, a conversation, a moment, could liquefy the bones in your legs and—like a bag of potatoes—drop you, rendering you helpless on the floor.
Suddenly the floor felt welcoming, like an old friend who says “Where ya been?” The kind of friend you don’t see very often, but when you do, one of you inevitably says, “Why don’t we do this more often?!”
When I fell to the floor—the carpet brushing my cheeks with threads of comfort—I heard it say, “It’s safer down here anyway. Stay as long as you like.”
The truth was—in that moment—life had floored me, just like my legs had. Falling to the floor was a physical manifestation of having the energy sucked out of me. It caught me off guard. But walking in the door, away from the car, from all the noise outside, from all the everything, well, I was no match.
Standing is overrated anyway.
When I’m ready, I’ll say a prayer….then look for lint.
“Well let’s see what’s going on” the doctor says. She is older than I am, likely in her 50’s and warm. The fluorescent lights brighten the windowless room.
My dad is quiet in the chair to the side while I sit on the exam table, my legs dangling beneath me like a kid on the bars at school. In a t-shirt and sweats, I look like I’m hanging out. I look like I’m fine. I wonder if the doctor thinks, “She’s 36, why is her dad here?”
“Well…” I hesitate. Then I scoot back so my legs are straight in front of me and I carefully pull both of the pant legs of my thick cotton sweats up to my knees.
“Oh my.” She says. I’m not sure if this is what doctors are supposed to say, but I appreciate her honesty. I am glad she doesn’t hide her shock like other doctors might. Her oh my validates what’s happening. It gives me a little doctor street cred.
It acknowledges I am not imagining how hideous this is.
From the knees down, my legs have 20 boils all over them. Each one to two inches in diameter and easily ½ an inch off of the skin. They are full, deep red and raw from the blood beneath the surface and they hurt like hell.
When I start to cry around her later from the cumulative stress of the past 7 days of this, she comes over to my side and hugs me.
The hospice room is large—the bed, its center—but it is empty. Where are you?
In your room, perpendicular to the bed, and there’s a chair where your awkward body sits, slumps really. You’re propped up like you’re feeling fine—that’s what healthy people do, they sit—but instead of attentive and alert, you are a rag doll. Your head flopped useless to the side, your mop of brown hair piled on top of your head like this is normal. Your bloated stomach from the swelling and the tumor looks wrong on you. This is not how cute, college girls of 23 look. You do not belong in this place with old bodies, bald heads and loose skin on bones like lace. This place, where death hangs on the walls like yellowed paint.