The Glue is Holding

26 10 2014


It is sometimes difficult to meditate when you share a house with cats. I am sitting, trying to be mindful of my breath, of what is happening in this moment, of sounds and sensations, of thoughts passing through my mind, and I become aware of it. The soft patter of paws approaching. The purr begins. The weight of a small animal climbing into my lap. The sensation of a cat face pushing against my hands. Human, your attention will be upon me, now.

Like most animals, cats are perpetually in the moment. They spend little time in planning ahead (unless you subscribe to the theory that they are constantly plotting something nefarious, which their narrowed eyes often seem to imply) or dwelling on the past. For the most part, the present moment occupies them fully.

Humans, on the other hand, are constantly obsessing on what we have done and what we are going to do. We burn through our day on autopilot, getting things done and anticipating what to do next. We “multitask”, which psychological tests have proven is actually a frantic toggling of focus between several objects of our attention one moment at a time. At the end of the day we collapse into bed and inventory what we did, how well we did it, and make our list for tomorrow. Or we distract our poor frazzled brains with a book, video, or game. And still, while we watch, play or read, thoughts about what we did and what we need to do intrude, like a cat insistently crawling into our laps and nudging our hands.

I set aside time each day for meditation, at least half an hour, more if I can manage it. I sit and let my breath keep me in the present moment, quietly aware. The thoughts and plans, ideas and worries, come parading into my mind because that’s what human minds do. Busy, busy, busy. But instead of hopping onto these trains of thought and letting them carry me away, I just wave to them as they leave the station. More trains come. Some are happy trains, brightly colored, full of excitement and interest. Some are pretty awful, blowing dark smoke, hauling cargoes of guilt, worry and fear. I let them all go.

The demands and obligations of my life require that I pay attention most of the time. I’ve got to plan, got to evaluate what happened, figure out what to do next, just like everybody else. But meditation, and the habits of mind it encourages, gives my brain and emotions a break. It refreshes my spirit and provides perspective. When I was sick with depression, I couldn’t keep myself anchored in the station; one of those dark trains with its load of anxiety would arrive, pull me on board, and off I’d go. The more I rode them, the worse I got. It exhausted me to tears, because the damn trains never seemed to reach a destination. The problems were never solved, the mournful whistles just kept on blowing as the train rumbled on into the night.

I’m better at choosing the trains I ride, now. Better at climbing aboard the ones that actually take me somewhere useful and interesting. Better at sizing up ones that go nowhere, flashing the conductor a smile, and shaking my head no thank you.

In less metaphorical words, here I am, going into week six of the MBCT therapy course, and I can say with certainty that it’s working. I’ve put myself back together and the glue seems to be holding. So, cats willing, I’ll continue the practice and gradually begin reintegrating myself into the pressures of living that I’d put aside to devote my energy to healing.

For the geeks, here’s a link to an article on what MBCT is, how it works, and why it’s being studied as a possible answer to patients with long-term, treatment-resistant depression. For the less geeky, the gist is this: Mindfulness meditation helps people recognize when their mood is beginning to plummet, and to focus on their present experience rather than on fears of the future or reliving past negative episodes. In one randomized clinical trial, MBCT cut the relapse rate in half for people with recurrent episodes of depression. In another randomized clinical trial published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, people with recurrent depression who participated in an eight-week group course of MBCT were significantly less likely to become depressed again than people who continued on antidepressants without therapy. During the study, people in the mindfulness group reported greater physical well-being and enjoyment in daily life, and 75% were able to discontinue their antidepressant medication.

Asking the right question

12 10 2014

Curious Owl“Are you worth it?”

A challenging question, posed by a therapist, specifically designed to provoke a response. It’s meant to prod the ego, to summon a sense of defiance. Yes, I am worth it. I am worth this deeply painful struggle to recover a strong and healthy sense of self. I am fighting for myself, and I am worth it.

For many patients, this would be a good energizing tactic. But you need to know your audience. It’s not a good question to ask someone whose self-esteem has tanked. Because the response is not a chin-up, fist-shaking, “Yes!” The response is a pause, a frown, a plunge into anxious introspection. Am I worth it? What am I worth? What is my value? Is it found in the service I can be to others? Is it in my work? What I have created? If the sum total is unextraordinary, meaningless, then am I, too, unextraordinary, meaningless? Unworthy of salvation, as the theists might say?

And even presuming that my works have worth to those around me, how does that relate to me? Who am I, apart from what I do? How do I calculate the worth of the “I” in the center, the ultimate Subject, apart from all the verbs and objects?

In other words, here we go again. New material for the Ruination Chorus. Of course I’m not worth it. I can ruminate for hours on all the ways I’m not worth it. “FUBAR!” says the Owl.

Let us rephrase the question: “Is it worth it?”

This not mere rhetorical sleight of hand. There is a critical difference in the two questions, although they might seem to amount to the same thing. In the first, the subject is the person wrestling with the sickness. The second refocuses the attention to the struggle itself. Is the fight worth what might be gained? This requires only a moment’s reflection. The alternatives to continuing the struggle are, quite simply, giving up and living in misery, or ending the whole mess with suicide. The first alternative is unacceptable. No, I most certainly do not want to spend the rest of my existence in joyless despair and self-loathing. The second alternative is equally unacceptable. Not only does it end all possibility of future moments of joy and happiness, but it would leave in its wake profound damage to those I leave behind. I’ll be dead eventually anyway. It makes no sense to rob myself of what opportunities remain for me in the days I have left.

That leaves a firm “Yes” as the only possible answer. Even now, with the Ruination Chorus at my back, the painful memories, the sense of loss and regret, the fear of failure and abandonment, the whole bleak, tear-drenched march through the grey and gloomy forest, I still have moments of joy. I still can laugh. I can take delight in people and things. Slowly, it is getting better as my poor, age-addled brain, creaking with its loss of plasticity, trains itself to respond more skillfully and effectively to old bad habits of thought. In week four, going into week five of Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness Meditation practice, I can feel the difference.

I can grin at the Owl and say, “Who you calling fubar?”

Colebrook Journal: Being There

4 10 2014

Curious Owl

I’m ready to go home.

It’s not that my work is done. I feel like I’ve barely started. But I have started.

Hiking the Western side of the Grafton Loop did not begin well. It was chilly and damp, and although it never actually rained, it might as well have. The trail and the campsite where I was headed were within the cloud cover. I hiked six miles in through gloomy, dark forest with mists trailing through the trees. Beards of lichen draped firs beaded with moisture. So I dug out my earbuds and iPod and played Beethoven (The Eroica, to be precise), pretending I was hiking though the Black Forest of Germany. I reached a ledge which my trail description said provided “limited views.” Oh, they were limited, all right. Limited to swirling mists and walls of featureless grey. I reached Sargent Brook Campsite, and in spite of the abundant water in the atmosphere, the brook was dry. Lovely. The three liters of water I’d packed was not going to last me the three days and eighteen miles I had to go.  Nothing to be done about it.  Just had to hope I could find water up the trail.

Next morning I packed up as well as I could in the dry confines of my little one-man tent, and emerged into the world of wet leaves and eye-level clouds. But part of my MBCT practice was learning to accept with equanimity whatever happens, dealing with it, not crying into my cold breakfast that things were not as I wanted them to be. They are what they are. Pack up and get going.

And lo, when I reached the summit of Sunday River Whitecap, the mists thinned and the sun burned through. Clouds still rolled through the valleys, but the tops of the mountains rose above. It was glorious. I found a sunny ledge, stripped off my wet gear, and laid out my tent to dry. Two hikers coming through going in the opposite direction told me that the brooks were running at the next two campsites, so not to worry.  In fact, the next two days were sunny and clear.  (The night got pretty chilly, which made it hard to leave the snug warmth of my sleeping bag in the morning.)

The trail between Sunday River Whitecap and my next planned stop was beautiful, easy to moderate grades through golden forests rich with the smells of autumn.  My goal was six miles away, which would leave me about another six miles to hike out the last day, including four hard miles down the other side of Old Speck. (FYI for hiking readers: besides the brook being dry, the bear box at Sargent Brook campsite was foul and the outhouse was even more foul. Makes me appreciate campsites with caretakers all the more. Bull Run campsite was smaller but cleaner with a lovely rushing brook full of good water.)

But this hike wasn’t so much about the trail as it was about the Practice, the therapy, if you will. More metaphor than exercise. I traveled slowly not because the terrain was difficult (although in spots it was) but because I was stopping frequently just to mind my breath and pull myself fully into the moment, practicing my awareness of what I was feeling and experiencing. Because of that, something happened that would not have, had I been motoring along at full stride, intent on getting somewhere rather than just being where I was.

As I stood, perfectly still, leaning on my staff, I saw out of the corner of my eye something silently come through the trees and settle on a branch. There was a screen of leaves between, so I couldn’t see what it was. I resisted the urge to move to get a better look. I stayed frozen. After a moment or two, a large bird flew to a branch just above me and perched. A barred owl examined me curiously, and inquired, appropriately, “Who? Who?” I looked back into its large, unsettling black eyes, remaining still and silent. It swooped down to get a better look, moving its head up and down, back and forth, scrutinizing this uncharacteristically motionless intruder in its territory, probably accustomed to seeing critters like me tromping along and chattering away to its fellows. Finally it concluded with a hoot which sounded very much like “Fu-bar!” and took off.

“Who you calling ‘fubar’?” I murmured, grinning from ear to ear.

Getting to the summit of Old Speck on the last day was pretty easy. I climbed up the tower at the top to make the requested calls from my cell phone to assure anxious folks at home that I was fine, had not fallen and broken my neck or been mauled by a bear (or psychotic hiker), and admired the breath-taking 360 degree panorama. Then I climbed down and shared my lunch with the inevitable pair of whiskey jacks (a.k.a. Gray Jays, famous for their trail mooching), and finally hoisted my pack and headed down.

Late afternoon. The wind is getting cold and the sunlight is slanting through the trees, rapid disappearing behind the high hills. The wind has taken many of the leaves off the trees and covered the ground, including the trail. It is hard to see what the terrain is like, easy to step wrong, slip or lose your footing. Loose rocks and roots lurk ready to trip the unwary. I had four miles of it, some of it very steep, much of it wet and slick. I was tired after all the miles I’d covered. A recipe for disaster, and boy, I knew it. I crept and crawled and tested each doubtful foothold with my staff. The light was fading but I knew better than to hurry. It was the longest four miles I’ve ever hiked in my life (except for Jefferson, but let’s not go there). At times I was almost in tears, the pack unbalancing me, the trail disappearing in the fallen leaves and fading light and still a long way to go. At times it was beautiful, emerging onto a ledge to see the moon rising over the peak I’d just come down from. (Now, which way does the damn trail go?)

I made it down, found my car unmolested in the parking lot, and headed home in the purple dusk, my leg muscles so tired I could barely drive.


I’ve done hard work here in Colebrook. Good work. But just a start. If I’m not careful and let myself get distracted, I’ll slip into old mental habits. I’ll fall into depression again. Which is not to say I’m going to be happy all the time now. I won’t. Some days I’ll be sad. Some days it’ll hurt so bad I’ll think I can’t stand it. But I’ll keep going, accepting what I must, letting go of what I have to, doing what I can, the best I can, moment by moment.

Hiking the Trail.  Walking the path.

Colebrook Journal: Looking Myself in the I

30 09 2014

The Buddha Approves

There’s a point in any practice, whether it be artistic, athletic, or intellectual, where the beginner, after many sessions of going through the motions, suddenly “gets it”. Something clicks in the brain, some gear shifts, and there is a sudden revelation. “I’m doing it! I get it! This is what the instructor has been trying to teach me!” It all makes sense, the mind or body slides into a mode of doing or being that comes from inside, no longer imposed from outside.

I was waiting for my host, who had business in town that morning. We were to meet at noon and then drive to Evans Notch to camp overnight at the Wild River Campground. Well, noon came and went, and Mary hadn’t come. So I decided to make use of the time by sitting in the sun and practicing.

I’d listened over and over to the guided practice on the audio, the gentle voices of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams teaching me how to understand depression, depressive rumination, and how mindfulness can break the cycle. I understood the theory and how it was supposed to work, and even felt distinct moments of success in dealing with my own Ruination Chorus, tearing back the curtain to reveal the self-destructive habits of mind, furiously whining for my attention: not the bleak truths of my wretched life, but mere events in the mind, thoughts and emotions as insubstantial and fleeting as soap bubbles, with only as much reality as I grant them. As analogy, consider the scene in Labyrinth when Sarah confronts Jareth and says, “You have no power over me.” I imagine the look on the face of the Depression Demon to be much like that of Jareth, knowing he has lost.

But I still suffered the less substantial, insidious effects of negative emotions, the tar pits that I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of. No specific thought patterns to identify and call out. Just a creeping mist of grey melancholy that blocks out the sun. So while I waited for Mary, I sat on the picnic table, struck a proper meditation pose, and talked myself through the steps.

What is in this moment? I asked myself, and began methodically inventorying the sensations in my body, what was going on in my mind, the emotions and thoughts in the mind stream, always gently returning to focus on my breath each time I found my mind starting to leave the station on some train of thought. Not pushing the thought away, or blocking it out, just making note of what it is and letting it evaporate in its own time as I attend to other things. What sounds are coming to my ears? What can be seen from where I am sitting? I can feel the breeze and the sun on my skin. What else is there?  I am reminded of something, I begin to follow that thought, emotions associated with that thought rising up. Then I realize I have begun to be carried away by the mind stream, and I return to the breath. Now. What is in this moment?

And there it was. With sudden clarity I recognized the “I” that is the subject for which everything else is the predicate. Distinct. Aware.

I saw the image of my little Buddha talisman, sitting on the windowsill back at the cabin, smiling, laughing with delighted approval.

Mary was quite late, apologizing profusely as she got out of the car. I told her, very sincerely, that it was all right, I didn’t mind. In fact, I had become quite oblivious to clock time. I had spent over an hour, fascinated by this new perspective, this awareness, this Being distinct from all the Doing, Thinking, and Feeling. This new sense of “I” calmly, curiously, contemplating the content of each moment, the workings of my mind, the busy-ness all around me that I could be aware of, but not a part of. It was astonishing.

But of course, in returning to clock time and the habits of living, I lost that sense of awareness, although I could remember having it. We followed our plans, going to Evans Notch, setting up camp, cooking dinner, enjoying the experience of being outdoors.  We spent the night in our tents.  The next morning Mary told me she had heard a owl hooting in the tree right above us.  Alas, I’d missed it.  The group at the tent site near to us had been partying rather loudly and late, and I’d resorted to earplugs to get to sleep.

We had our breakfast and made our plans for the day.  Mary, who can’t do strenuous hikes right now because of problems with her knees, was going to enjoy the brooks, ponds and autumn woods at ground level.  I would hike up over Basin Ridge and down the other side, where she would meet me with the car at an appointed time that afternoon.

I set out on the trail, pausing now and then, standing still, seeing if I could recover that sense of awareness as I listened to the forest, to the falling leaves, to the woodpecker drumming in the distance, small creatures furtively rustling in the leaves, birds calling and squirrels scolding. I observed the light, the colors of the foliage, noted the scent of decay from ferns killed by frost, the richness of dried leaves crushed underfoot. And my own interior landscape. As inevitably happens, sad memories, regrets and unpleasant thoughts emerged in the mind stream. There you are, I thought, I know you. Say what you have to say, and then disappear downstream. I will not follow you.

But somehow melancholy caught up with me as I toiled up the rough path to the top of the ridge. This is a wilderness area, so the paths are not maintained. One hikes them at one’s own risk. There are signs at intersections to keep the hiker from getting lost, but one cannot count on blazes, or bridges, or walkways, or any of the other niceties. I am an experienced hiker, and this is a fairly well-trodden trail, so I had no difficulty finding my way, exercising the special care essential when hiking alone. I made it to the top of the ridge. But I felt sad, not exultant. It was a beautiful day, a splendid view, I had achieve my goal. Why wasn’t I happy? What was wrong with me?

And so I sat down. Don’t start with that business. There is nothing wrong with me. Nothing at all.

Breathe. What is in this moment? The beauty around me. The amazing view of the pond below and the distant mountains, ablaze with autumn color. The breeze on my skin, evaporating sweat, cooling. The small creatures around me, doing their thing. And sadness. Vague, amorphous sadness. It could pull me down, engulf me, rule me, if I let it. But I see it for what it is: a state of the mind, created in a conspiracy of mind and body. It is as impermanent as the weather. I am aware of it, but it is not me.

And it has no power over me.

I am not sure how long I was up there; I guess about an hour. It would be my turn to apologize to Mary for being late. But when I packed up my things and took up my hiking stick for the tricky, steep and treacherous descent, the melancholy was gone. With good humor I negotiated the loose dirt and fallen leaves, erosion, logs and dislodged rocks, and got to the bottom. I bathed in the pond, splashing the salt and dirt from my face and arms, relishing the delicious, cool sensation of water.

Grinning like my little Buddha.

Colbrook Journal: Coyote Waits

28 09 2014

Chimera Smyth

And then there are the dark times, the weak times.  During the light of day, walking in an old orchard, exploring the winding paths made by deer and bear, sitting quietly in the sunlight, I was fine.  That evening, listening to a story my host was telling me about a young child at her school from a troubled home and how difficult it was for him, I began to feel it.  That deep sadness for suffering I could do nothing about.  Suffering I could relate to. 

Then the conversation wound around to her own past, a story of family interactions, and the melancholy deepened.  Tears formed, with the sense of loss and longing, regret and resentment.  That great toxic stew of vague memories and unanswered questions, the void that can never be filled.  A miasma that thickens like an internal fog.  No specific thoughts I can identify, hold gently and then let go.  Emotion, welling up like oil, blinding, choking, impossible to control or suppress. My mind can’t get a grip on it; my hands come up black and oozing. 

All evening it bubbled just beneath the surface: a poisonous petroleum that I can barely keep my nose above.  And when I left to go back to my cabin, I could hear coyotes in the distance yipping.  We’d seen their tracks in the mud behind the cabin, mingled with the tracks of moose and deer.  Coyote the Trickster, grinning, waiting to trip up the over-confident, the unsuspecting.  The night sky spread vast and cold above me.  Black, brilliant, infinite, filled with things my mind will never comprehend.  I am so small, so unimportant, and will die, fading into oblivion.  All I have ever done, my actions, my words, my works, will slide away with me into the indifference of eternity.  Desolation thick as mud overwhelmed me and by the time I reached the cabin I was weeping uncontrollably. Great, gasping, choking sobs like a hysterical child.  Reduced to groping among the items half-seen in the waving illumination of the flashlight, looking for my anxiety medication.  I guess I’m not there yet.  The sickness still has a grip on me.

I miss home so much.  I find myself thinking about it more and more.  In absence, I appreciate just how much it means to me.  How much I love my boys.  How much I love my husband.  I needed this separation to test how I would feel.  Now I know.  I still have a week before I return home.  In that time I have a great deal of work left to do.

Colebrook Journal: Great Expectations

26 09 2014

Chimera Smyth

Baldpate is in Grafton Notch, right on the Maine Border, the first leg of the Grafton Loop hike I’d planned. The west peak is 3,680 and the east is 3,812. No big thing after taking the 5K Presidentials. Well, numbers don’t mean anything. I toiled up the ten thousand steps to the top of West Baldpate. An exercise in endurance, sure, but much better than scrambling over roots and boulders like on some trails. No, the challenge came when we crossed the saddle between the peaks and started up the ledges of East Baldpate.

At first it was grand. We were totally blanketed with clouds as we came over the top of West Peak and down into the saddle in between. And then came one of those glorious moments when the wind blows the curtains aside and the magnificence of the mountains is revealed. A grand panorama looking across Grafton Notch towards the Whites, their slopes turning brilliant with autumn color. Looking north, Dixville Notch with its line of wind turbines (which I have decidedly mixed feelings about). And dominating the scene before us, the rough, bare dome of East Baldpate. The ascent looked simple, all ledge, terraced and marked clearly with cairns. Ah, but to the right, the valley boiled with clouds which churned up to cover all the peaks and landscape to the southeast with dark, scowling, opaque turbulence.

We started the ascent, an easy climb over open ledges. The wind was furious, but it wasn’t all that cold and it wasn’t raining. Should have been a piece of cake. So why, partway up, did anxiety take over and freeze me with indecision? Maybe the menacing, roiling clouds close by and the scramble up stone triggered a memory of (shudder) Mt. Jefferson. I don’t know. Point is, I backed down. Couldn’t do it.

Nick was cool about it, readily calling it off and following me down to a ledge out of the worst of the wind, where I shrugged off my pack, sat and ate a Cliff bar. A chorus of familiar voices began chittering like monkeys in my head.

“You failed. You couldn’t cut it. Chickened out. You’re not going to be able to do the Loop hike, either. You aren’t strong enough and you haven’t got the grit. And you’re getting old. Face it. Old bag. Muscles going, stamina giving out. Rotting from the inside out. You aren’t good enough.”

Oh, the rush of emotion. Depression leaping in, eager to help with its arsenal of weapons, hastening to point out that I always let everyone down. My parents, my sister, my uncle and cousins, my friends, my husband, my kids, and especially myself. Lousy at everything. Third-rate writer, nobody takes seriously. Disappointment to my family, mediocre at everything if not outright incompetent. A joke. A disaster. And here we go again. Can’t even do this simple climb. Give up, go home and get drunk.

Either Nick doesn’t notice the tears, or attributes it to the wind, or is just polite enough not to say anything. Inside, I’m scrambling to remember what I’ve been practicing, the mental defenses against this poisonous litany.

Right, I know you. The whole “not good enough” thing. You aren’t me, and you aren’t reality. You’re just a melodramatic recitation composed of solidly linked synapses in my brain. Well, okay, you’re here now, go ahead and say your piece, seeing as you’re going to anyway. I’m not going to stop you. I’m not going to waste my energy arguing with you or trying to reason with you, or trying to placate you. Not going to engage with you at all. Just say what you have to say, and I’ll sit here, breathing, separate, a bored, disinterested audience. And when you’re done, you can get up and go. The next moment will come. I’ll keep breathing, keep moving on into the next moment. A moment that won’t include you.

“Hey Nick, how about if I ditch my pack here and try it again?”

By now those clouds had boiled over. The wind was driving them across the peak. The view was gone. The Demonic Repertory Theater seized its opportunity for another performance. Because of my dithering around, wasting time, we’ve lost the opportunity. Won’t be able to see a thing, it’s starting to rain, and it’s all my fault. I’ve ruined the hike with my stupid weakness.

No, it’s just what it is, and I accept it, as it is. Keep moving, keep breathing, keep focusing, until the chorus gives up and goes away. Because it does. If I don’t engage it, if I don’t feed the troll, if I don’t let it grip me and tear into me, eventually its energy is spent. The mind is a busy place. New thoughts are always rushing in, like the next wave at the seashore. Like the weather in the mountains. Always changing. This moment is thick with biting winds and clouds. Next moment, the clouds could all blow away.

Well, they didn’t, and it was completely socked in at the summit. We followed the path through the mist to the signs at the top, where the AT diverges from the Loop trail, heading on up to Katahdin, the ultimate goal of the thru-hikers. Nick took my picture. I’m smiling, but inside, all I want to do is lay down and cry. This business of battling demons is more exhausting than climbing any mountain.

On the way home, we noticed the colors of the trees were much richer than when we’d left in the morning. We thought it was our imaginations, or a trick of the light. Turns out it was quite real. Somehow conditions had been just right with the recent frost and all, and the chlorophyll drained from the trees in an afternoon. A big change in a short time.

The crippling ache in my legs the next day was confirmation. I wasn’t in any shape to do a 40 mile hike. This was a huge disappointment. I’d thought I’d kept in shape, all the walking I’d done over the summer. But the steep ascent and descent of a long mountain trail uses very different muscles. And I hadn’t done a lot of serious mountains since Mary and I finished bagging our 48 last year. I was devastated. It had such significance to me, and I’d prepared so well for it, at least as far as equipment and provisions. But physically, I wasn’t up to it.

Oh, no. Here comes the “Not good enough!” troupe. Do I really have to listen to you again? Okay, get it over with.

Yesterday, I took a walkabout with Mary around the area where they live, through the woods and by the cabins of summer folk, empty at the moment. Since last year, Mary has suffered a terrible turn of events. Her knees have given out and she can’t hike anymore. Talk about a crushing blow. She can manage short walks with the aid of poles, taking it slowly. But no mountains. She swims and rides a bicycle to keep up her muscle tone, and is looking into an operation for knee replacement that could get her back on the trails. She’s not a woman who gives up easily. But she also knows how to accept what is and work with it.

“Hey Mary,” I said as we sat in the sun on the porch of one of the little empty summer houses, admiring the view. “What do you think of this? How about if I just do the western half of the Loop?  18 miles instead of the full 40?”

Mary loves to talk about hikes, and we began discussing it. My legs were still a bit sore, but recovering nicely after Baldpate. I could try doing a couple small climbs in the meantime, to keep building up my strength. I still had over a week. It could work. I could take it slow, go at a gentle pace. The campsites are spread out along the trail at good intervals, plenty of reliable water sources, no need to worry about hustling. I’d get my solitude, my time in the woods, my sense of strength, self-reliance and independence.

Not what I had planned, not in line with my expectations. And if the weather turns foul, my plans could well fall through again.

Just have to accept it.

Colebrook Journal: of ponds and people and what goes on beneath

24 09 2014

Chimera SmythI am siting with a hot cup of tea up at the house of the folks who own the cabin where I am staying. My hosts are gone at the moment: Mary is in Santa Fe for a class reunion and to visit family, due home in a day or two. Nick is in town flipping burgers for a Kiwanis fundraiser which somehow involves ATVs. In this part of the state, starved for income, ATVs and trails equal a lucrative attraction not unlike snowmobiles or skiing. Railroad tracks have been ripped up and paths through the woods refined so people can roar along for miles, appreciating Nature as it whizzes by them.

They may have it. I’ll refrain from launching into my accustomed rant, and yes, I am sure that, like gun owners, ATV riders can be very nice people with good reasons for their choices. But I have a gut dislike of guns and ATVs that cannot be argued away. It is possible, however, to separate that gut dislike of the thing from a dislike of the people associated with them. That is how peace among neighbors of differing persuasions is possible. I wish it were possible to cultivate that distinction on a national level.

[By the way, I am a few days behind with these posts. In real time, Nick is off again this morning, again on a Kiwanis mission, this time delivering a hospital bed. Seems they have a program where they scavenge discarded hospital equipment and store it, then donate or loan it to people in need. As I mentioned, money isn't too thick around here, and many folks can't afford and have no insurance to cover their dire medical needs. So Kiwanis steps in to help. Yes, same folks with the fondness for ATVs and guns.]

I can see a small farm pond from where I am sitting in their living room, looking through the sliding glass doors over the deck to the marvelous view beyond. Apple trees and fields, rolling hills and forests, the maples anticipating the season with colors ahead of their fellows. The way the wind disturbs the surface of the pond is fascinating. On a still day, the surface is like glass, punctuated from beneath by tadpoles and small fish. Water beetles carve erratic Vs in the surface, urgently racing to get wherever it is they are going, which to the uninformed eye, seems to be pretty much nowhere.

Today, the wind whips the trees and sends the leaves spinning up towards the grey sky. No rain, in fact, the sun periodically comes through enough to lend a richness to the color of the trees. There has been a hard frost, but the leaves are only just starting to turn from green to autumn and the wind isn’t able rip them from their stems as easily as it will in another few weeks. The smaller pips and trails of aquatic life are erased by the invisible force of the wind which, like the theists’ God, can be seen only in its actions. The shades of green and yellow of reflected trees and shrubs around the pond are blurred and chipped. Gusts roughen the surface with rapid, irregular, racing streaks of pale grey. It’s a violent scene.

Yet beneath the surface, the residents of the pond go about their fishy business in their customary ways. The violence above doesn’t penetrate to where they are. Surely they can feel the chill beginning to creep in, the sun warming the waters less as the season changes. Time to think about transitioning to winter. But all this present sturm und drang, the whipping of the trees and the scuffing of the surface, the wild wind rattling every loose board and thrashing leaves into a frantic dance, all irrelevant to the fish and frogs.

I want to be down there with them. I want to be a crayfish poking along through the mud on the bottom, stalk-eyes occasionally glancing upwards towards the surface, vaguely aware that something is going on up there. But down in the still waters, there is peace.


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