Ahead, the Unexpected

Finding where peace is possible

My Canadian Rockies trip in August didn’t start out well. For all the training and preparations, I miscalculated how early I needed to be at the airport that Saturday morning. The lines were historically long. The wait for an agent as long as the lines. By the time my travel companion Pat and I reached the kiosk to check our bags, the message on the screen told us we were too late. Checkin for international flights must be done at least an hour before departure. That meant another line, another wait, to rebook on a flight that evening.

Things don’t always go as expected.

By the time we arrived at our hotel in Calgary, it was midnight. The others in our group, from as far away as New Zealand and Boston, had arrived much earlier, met each other, and had dinner with our two guides, who left a note that we were to meet for breakfast at 7 a.m.

When we came down to eat, we looked around, expecting, well, our group to be assembled and holding a sign that welcomed us. Instead, I felt like the newly hatched bird that keeps asking, “Are you my mother?” to anyone who looked like they might be about to spend seven days in the wilderness. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to be dressed for that occasion.

A mother and son finally joined us, then others in our group stopped by. An hour later, we were all in a comfortable van, on our way to Lake Louise campground, our base for the week. The days revolved around the weather, which changed often. After setting up our tents, we drove to a trailhead close by and hiked on a forested path in a light rain up to Sherbrooke Lake. As we admired the turquoise water and the mountains rising all around, our guide said, “On the other side of this mountain is the Continental Divide.”

The Canadian Rockies are vast, covering some 75,000 square miles. Each day our hikes—carefully chosen by our guides—took us to incomparable vistas. We climbed to the Lake Agnes Tea House above Lake Louise. We walked to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, then climbed Parker Ridge to view another glacier tongue of the Columbia Icefield from above.

IMG_1767.jpgSome of us made the steep climb to a secret lake tucked deep in the mountains, stopping along the way to view Takakkaw Falls, the tallest in the Rockies. What else might I see, I wondered, if I stayed longer?

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Our longest hike started at Moraine Lake and took us up switchbacks and through an evergreen and larch forest before we came out to an alpine meadow on our left, scree pitching sharply up on our right. There, before us, was the Valley of the Ten Peaks, each one more than 10,000 feet high. My eyes filled with tears. I stood in awe, hearing only the sound of the wind. It was nothing less than a mountaintop experience. Here was the bare, unfiltered love we spend out whole lives seeking. Here was the God within me who had always been there, the God I could stand before and feel as one. Here was the peace I had come to see was possible.

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These moments change us. They stay with us, become a part of who we are. Life is never the same afterwards. I still feel aftershocks when I recall that place, even choke up when I try to describe my trip to a stranger.

Moments such as this bring me to the tender time, when I mark Chris’s passing nine years ago today. Things don’t always go as expected. A hard lesson for me, who likes order, control, and a plan.

One afternoon we went rafting on the Kicking Horse, a class III-IV river, swollen from recent rains. I’d never rafted before and needed coaxing by the group to overcome my fears. During the orientation, our guide said she would use three simple commands throughout our seven-mile float.

I climbed into the raft. Within a minute we were hurrying downstream. “Hold on!” our guide shouted as the raft pitched forward and a cold spray crashed over me, finding its way under my wetsuit. “Get down!” she hollered over the roar when rapids swirled around us. And between these harrowing moments, between the unexpected and the seemingly impossible, “Paddle!”

From somewhere deep within came a swell of energy and I laughed at the pure joy of living.

When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks—when you hear that unmistakable pounding—when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming—then row, row, for your life toward it (Mary Oliver, West Wind, 46).

I have many wonderful memories from my trip, but these three commands may be all I need. The past nine years I’ve held on, wanting to survive. I’ve ducked some hazards, faced others. And in between, I’ve navigated the river, paddling, paddling, with all my heart toward the unexpected.

 

A Walk Taken

When not having a purpose is the purpose

My father loved to walk. Walking was simple, functional, and the purest form of exercise. He walked in his wingtips to the train station, then across the Chicago loop daily for 37 years. He maintained a healthy weight because of the 3 miles he walked every day.

He would be delighted that his youngest daughter has been logging her own miles this summer in preparation for a hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies. On weekends Father liked nothing more than to take a walk in the woods, at the arboretum—wherever he was surrounded by the natural world.

I will be thinking of him as I scramble across boulders and stand before snow-capped peaks and glacier-fed lakes. He will be my reminder to walk for the pure enjoyment of it. I won’t be tracking number of miles or speed. I certainly won’t be breaking any records. My goal is not to have a goal. I’m eager to see a magnificent part of the world, meet new people, and appreciate being able to have this opportunity.

Walking has recently become the subject of several books that promote the activity as a goal-driven pursuit. Writers, one book documents, are invigorated by walking, which fuels their creativity. Another author argues that walking is a form of protest against our busyness, going so far as to suggest that walking is a way of imagining a more sustainable future.

Norwegian writer Erling Kagge believes that “walking is among the most radical things you can do.” He speaks from experience, having been the first person to cross North and South Poles and climb Mount Everest on foot. For him, walking is a protest against growing the GDP and then resting whenever we aren’t doing so.

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In my own preparations, I admit to wanting to have the right equipment, training a lot, and becoming the consumer I’d rather not be. At least I haven’t joined the “Order of Walkers” just to head out my door.

My great hope is to keep all things political and purposeful out of my week of hiking. I intend to walk every day, period. I will put one foot in front of the other and imagine Father at my side. More than anything, he and I would agree, walking is good for the soul.

What to Say to a Writer

Writing takes courage and no small amount of faith

At my writer’s group recently, we were going around the circle and checking in—giving the others an update on our own writing, perhaps raising an issue we’d been facing. One woman, when it was her turn, expressed frustration over a question she is asked often by those who know she’s working on a memoir. “When are you going to get your book published?”

When indeed. For anyone who doesn’t make a habit of wrestling with words and calling it her livelihood, let me tell you a secret. This is the question every writer dreads. It’s a question that pokes us, taunts us, by way of saying there should be a measurable outcome to everything we do and perhaps we’ve chosen the wrong thing to spend our time on.

A journalist writes to meet a deadline. An academic writes to stay relevant. A copywriter writes to sell.

The writers in my group are not the publish-or-perish type. Our work has a more subtle intent. We are trying to solve something that may not have a solution. And we won’t know that until we do.

We aren’t capitalists. We don’t keep a time sheet. We don’t have a business plan. We don’t build empires. We don’t insist on deadlines that force us to a place we don’t yet know exists.

We aren’t lion tamers. We don’t train words with a whip, making them do tricks for others. Writing must maintain its wildness. We’re just along for the ride.

This is why we don’t know how to answer these questions. They seem to be in Farsi, and we only speak English.

• How long have you been working on your book?

• When will you be done?

• How long is your book?

• What’s your next project after this one?

• Do you have a publisher yet?

As Annie Dillard writes, “Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.” (The Writing Life)

Let me tell you something else. I came to the end of my latest revision this week. For a quick minute I breathed. But my first thought wasn’t to begin researching literary agents or tell you how to preorder copies on Amazon.

My first real thought was, “Now that I’m done, I can sit down and write my story.”

This is how writers think. We arrive, hoping for greater insight, a clearer path that then requires going back to the beginning, rubbing that new insight like a smooth stone.

It takes courage, believe me, and no small amount of faith, which is assailed most days when we look at our words from the day or week or year before and they’ve lost their sheen. Still we persist, sometimes taking a necessary break, sometimes diving even deeper into the murky waters we’re trying to see our way through.

Here are a few thoughts on what to say to the writer in your life:

• What feeds your writing?

• I’m interested in what you’re working on.

• How has writing changed you?

• I admire your commitment to your writing!

• Courage, my friend.

When we write, we put symbols (words) on the page. We don’t know yet what meaning they contain. We can’t because we are traveling in new territory. It is full of mystery. “Right now,” Dillard says, “your job is to hold your breath.”

The Art of Grieving

If we can’t confront our own pain, we can’t be present for others

Yesterday I spoke with a group of about 30 women and 2 men about how writing has helped me grieve. Then I asked them to think about how they learned about grief.

The stories they shared were heartbreaking. One woman’s first child died at 6 months. When she told her father, he replied, “That’s water over the dam. Just have another one.” Another woman admitted, “I stuffed my pain; I simply couldn’t face it.” A few of us recounted how a grandparent’s suicide was kept a secret for years, as if not talking about the loss would somehow make grief go away. Many shared platitudes they’d heard, like “we shouldn’t be sad because our loved one was in heaven,” that became excuses not to take time to honor the pain of loss.

Most of us admitted that these former models reflect a different, unhelpful attitude about death. Now our generation has been left the hard work of trying to dismantle these lessons in order to arrive at a healthier way of grieving.

When poet Gregory Orr was 12 years old, he went hunting with his father and younger brother. Orr accidentally shot and killed his brother. He became a writer in large part because language gave him a way to grieve. “Words don’t change the disorder,” he said, “but hold the chaos.”

Like Orr, I’ve discovered that when I write about loss, I bring my chaos to words and language meets me with a container to help reorder the chaos. Talking with a grief counselor—or anyone who understands grief as necessary—can serve the same purpose. Those conversations can be the vessel into which we pour the emotions, the tears, whatever we can’t make sense of about our loss.

The loss of a loved one touches us all, so why do we have so few examples from our own lives of healthy grieving? “Death is scary, ” says writer Meghan O’Rourke, “and people don’t know what to say.”

I agree with O’Rourke, but I also think her response is too often used as an excuse, not an opportunity to change how we view death and our response to it. We need to learn a new vocabulary for loss and grief.

Each of us faces loss differently. Any feeling we might have is legitimate, not “abnormal” as we may be inclined to think when the world is moving to 4:4 time and our tempo keeps changing as we stumble through grief. We desperately want to fall into step with everyone else, to prove that we’re coping and will soon be fine. But what about the questions and anguish that haunt us at night? Aren’t they worth our attention?

Death is part of life, and nature is our best teacher. The seasons cycle through birth, growth, and dying year after year. Why, then, is it so hard to grieve?

I think it’s fear that stops us. Fear that if we unlock our heart, our pain and vulnerability, our own mortality, will stare us in the face. Fear that our faith is insufficient for the sorrow we feel. Fear that this natural cycle will stop with us and the end will be THE END.

We avoid grief at our own peril. And that peril is this: if we can’t confront our own pain, we can’t be present for others. We perpetuate the sense of being all alone with grief, instead of recognizing that honestly facing the inevitability of loss in our life connects us as humans.

Writer Gail Caldwell may have made the best case for why we should grieve. Near the end of her memoir Let’s Take the Long Way Home, about losing a dear friend, she writes, “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”

Grieving is a holy way to feel the ongoing presence of a loved one who has died. Who doesn’t want that for themselves?

Signs of Spring

What we all need after a long winter of discontent

I’ve been more than tempted to malign Spring’s slow arrival this year. I’ve succumbed. I guess a 7-month-long winter will do that to a person who likes to garden, if not simply be outside without wearing several layers and spikes on my shoes. The long winter of my discontent (political and climate) had turned my thoughts more foul than the weather. Even with hints of change, I wasn’t willing to stop complaining.

Still, my determination is a formidable foe. Nearly every day for the past three weeks I’ve managed to spend a few hours in the garden, raking leaves from under shrubs, cutting back dried blooms, moving perennials, and making discoveries along the way.

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Today when Mike the Mailman pulled up and got out of his truck, we greeted each other and commented on the lovely day. “You know,” he said, “I kind of like that Spring has been gradual this year.”

I had to agree. It was pleasant being on my hands and knees without sweat dripping in my eyes. It was nice to transplant perennials before the heat stressed them. It was comfortable working in long sleeves and not seeing (or feeling) a single bug.

A friend who isn’t from here helped me with some of the digging. The temperature hovered around 50 with a slight cloud cover and no rain. In other words, perfect for the tasks at hand. After a full day of gardening he said, “Minnesotans like to complain about the weather.”

I’m going to try not to be one of them.

NOTE: The first person within a 20-mile radius to identify all the plants shown above will win a FREE elephant ear (not the pastry). They get BIG and are great in large pots or planted directly in a sunny spot in your garden.

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The Sense of an Ending

Writing and life: where nothing is tidy

Growing up, I read a lot of mysteries. I cut my sleuthing teeth on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but eventually moved on to Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Patricia Cornwell, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Maj Showall and Per Waloo, Ngaio Marsh, and British TV series such as “Inspector Morse,” “Prime Suspect,” “Vera,” “Sherlock,” “Broadchurch,” and “Shetland.” Now when I walk, clean, cook, or garden, I listen to mystery-thrillers.

Mysteries are inherently satisfying. A crime is solved, a criminal apprehended, and order is restored to a family, a village, a country. I liked this tidy resolution that restored my belief in good triumphing over evil.

I was into my twenties before I stopped flipping to the last pages of a mystery I was reading. I couldn’t wait to find out “who done it” and why. Then I would go back and read to the end as I was supposed to, all the while knowing exactly where the story was headed. The element of surprise was gone, but I liked to think that I noticed clues I might have otherwise missed.

Who doesn’t like happy endings?

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, stars of the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” were my favorite secret agents in the 1960s. Like James Bond, they always resolved some international situation. The book Boys in the Boat tells the story of a group of rowers whose homegrown grit and teamwork lead them to Olympic victory. In Educated, Tara Westover finally escapes a suffocating life. Easter is the happy ending to Lent, when Christians say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

I’ve been working on the ending to my manuscript. For awhile. At times I’ve thought I could just tie all the themes up neatly, cinch the bow on top, and declare, “Done!” But a thought—more a correction to my thinking—keeps surfacing. There is nothing tidy about life. And what is literary nonfiction but a person’s experience artfully told? To be true and real, that experience must include all the messiness and pain that come with life—relationships, parenting, aging, a diagnosis, dreams derailed, and, waiting for all of us, death.

IMG_1198.jpgWhen I shared my struggle in writing my final chapter, a friend suggested I look more closely at the endings of other memoirs I admire. What a good suggestion that was! Revisiting what we think we know nearly always yields something new.

“[W]e never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder creatures . . . the pain is what yields the solution” (Gail Caldwell, Let’s Take the Long Way Home).

“If we are to live ourselves, we must relinquish the dead” (Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking).

“I opened the door to the rest of my life, this new life without a living link to the old world” (Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter).

With these rich examples steeping in me, I appealed to my writing coach. “I’m spinning my wheels,” I wrote to her, “wondering if what I have to say has value, uncertain as to how to land, questioning my faith, even revisiting the story’s heartbeat. No wonder I’m stuck!” At least I didn’t add, “hoping to run a marathon this weekend without training.”

With her help and my perseverance, I will find the elusive ending. But it will require patience, instinct, the gentle wisdom of others, and trust in the process itself. In the midst of my writing block are loved ones, activities of purpose, a good poem, a good meal, nature—all sources of inspiration and hope.

Truth and Reconciliation

A process not just for nations but for ourselves

First, some background.

The truth and reconciliation concept emerged in the 1970s as a strategy for dealing with war crimes and other human rights abuses. As one website explained, “It seeks to heal relations between opposing sides by uncovering all pertinent facts, distinguishing truth from lies, and allowing for acknowledgement, appropriate public mourning, forgiveness and healing.”

 The most famous example is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the end of apartheid. More than thirty nations have used this model during the past three decades. (Imagine what restorative justice we could achieve if our country had a commission that confronted slavery.)

So why not apply the process to ourselves?

I asked myself this question at a recent writer’s group. Isn’t this what we’re about when we tell our stories? Isn’t writing the most intimate form of truth and reconciliation? Done openly, the process helps us confront and reckon with our past so that we can move beyond old hurts and inaccurate versions of ourselves to a place of authenticity and healing.

As one of the women in our group haltingly described what her story is about, tears came to her eyes and her face reflected utter anguish. So much in our past, in our lives, to reckon with. So much to process and forgive before we can love ourselves.

This is why I write. This is why many of us write. Some of us in our sixties and beyond know that it’s much more than a desire to be published that puts us in our chair. It’s more than “morning pages” or a 200-word daily goal. Writing the truth—naming it and reckoning with it—takes us deeper as we seek an Eden we will spend our whole lives hoping to reclaim.

What would it mean for each of us to speak our own truth?

Today is Ash Wednesday. It marks the beginning of Lent, the Christian church’s 40-day journey of truth and reconciliation with ourselves and God.

Today is also any Wednesday, a day like every other when, regardless of our beliefs, we can begin the process. There is always truth to uncover and reconciliation to come.