Bury your dead

13 11 2015

elephant skullI buried my sister yesterday.

That’s not quite true. I was present as a small, cherry wood box containing her ashes was put into the ground at the family plot in the Morrison Cemetery in Deerfield. My brother-in-law and cousin did the actual deed. I just stood by, uncomfortably aware that the focus of this ceremony probably wouldn’t have wanted me there.

It was three years ago almost precisely that my sister succumbed to cancer after taking care of everything, including my deliberate exclusion. (Sordid details in a previous blog.) Her husband is a gentle, sweet man who respected her wishes in all things, even if he didn’t agree. He has been nothing but kind to me in an ugly situation.

I have never gotten on well with my family. We are people of strong opinions who pass judgement and then stick by our guns. I can still be harsh on myself and others, but I’ve been trying very hard to change that. Forgiveness and tolerance are our duty to one another, the only path to peace. At the heart of the wisdom taught by nearly every spiritual tradition in the world is compassion towards all, even those who do not wish you well.

Standing there on that bleak, sunless November day, the cold dampness of that hard earth creeping up to chill my feet, I realized I had failed in my duty. The remaining fragments of my family–my sister’s husband, my mother’s cousin and my cousin–reminisced about the dear departed; I was frozen into silence by a wrenching flood of violently conflicting emotions.

On the one hand, I clung like a lost child to wisps of memory: names and events barely familiar, ghosts from a distant childhood; a half-forgotten song my mother and grandmother used to sing about a field of new-mown hay, a cottage by the way, and a mother dear to shield me from all harm.

On the other hand, so much they talked about was part of a past I never knew. My sister was twelve years older. Families build a shared stock of stories, a kind of mythology that holds them together. I wasn’t a part of most of that. I was born late to a family already starting to show the craze lines. Affluent, socially prominent, both my parents movers and shakers in Seacoast New Hampshire who had built up their positions from humble beginnings. It was always emphasized, we came from good stock, Swedish and German immigrants who were educated, upright, God-fearing people of quality.

I did not fulfill expectations right from the get-go. First of all, I was not the boy they planned for. And I was not the dutiful, obedient, lady-like girl they would have settled for, a suitable sibling for my accomplished and lovely elder sister. I was difficult. Colicky as a baby, loud and boisterous as a child, rebellious as a teenager. Judgement was passed, and I was found wanting.

To be fair, they did the best they could with me. But my mother began a battle with cancer that she would lose when she was fifty and I was twelve. My father never recovered from her loss. The craze lines deepened into fractures and the family fell apart. At seventeen I was out on my own, nursing deep wounds and resentments.

I’m fifty-eight, now, and a very different person. In a way, I got religion. But not the conservative, Anglican/Episcopalian theism of my family. Much of my inspiration comes from the likes of the Dalai Lama, solidly atheistic. So I still didn’t fit in. And my attempts in the last few years to forgive, understand and reconcile have not worked out so well. Standing there by that small hole in the ground into which a box with my sister’s remains had been put, listening to my brother-in-law reading from the Book of Common Prayer, the cousins with whom I do not get along on the other side of the hole, my sister’s deathbed rejection of me an elephant looking over our shoulders, tears streaming down my cheeks, I realized.

I had not forgiven, could not forgive, no matter how hard I tried. All that anger and bitterness, sense of loss and alienation, the goddamned unfairness of it all, welled up and screamed. My family had not, and could not, forgive me for being who I was, who I am. And I furiously resented them for it.

So I have not buried my sister. That small hole could not contain all the toxin that remains behind. And no matter how much I try to let it go, it clings with diabolical tenacity.

If you aren’t terrified, it isn’t courage

23 10 2015

North Percy summit

So Mary invited me up to Colebrook for a couple of days, to stay in the cabin that is sanctuary, and wander the trails that are therapy. I seized the opportunity for a few days respite. On the way I visited Laura, my friend who has a house on Balch Lake. She put aside a mountain of miserable paperwork (she straddles the roles of doctor and administrator) to go out for one last kayak tour of the lake before the powers that be pull the plug and drop the water table to winter levels. The weather was beautiful. We skimmed across the surface of the water. Autumn color, not quite at its peak, reflected in the ripples.

I love kayaking. Propelling oneself with little effort through still waters to places otherwise inaccessible, like small islands and remote coves. Surprising a turtle on a half-submerged log. Watching loons bob and dive, sometimes to surface mere feet away, regarding one curiously with their ruby eyes. The soft sound of lily pads brushing against the hull, their delicate lotus faces looking up. I recall once paddling out in the middle of the night on a remote lake. The shore was dark; there were no cottages, no camps, no glow of man-made light. The moon hung in the sky above, the water was black and opaque. Such an exquisite sense of silence and isolation.
Mel kayak

But this day was rich with color, the glow of autumn foliage, a vivid blue sky, as Laura and I toured the maze of islands and inlets.

In Colebrook, considerably further north, the annual foliage display was peaking. It was Columbus Day (a.k.a. Invasion Day, Imperialism Celebration Day, and Subdue the Savages in the name of Church and Greed Day) weekend, and the tourists (a.k.a. Leafpeepers) were massing. I took the back roads from Balch Lake through Maine to avoid the inevitable pandemonium on Route 16. I got to Colebrook late, and in the morning, I awoke to moose outside the cabin window.

I feel like such a coward sometimes, afraid of things most others seem to think nothing of.

How do people do it, day after day, being with each other? Making small talk, chatting. Having so many friends and acquaintances, running into each other unexpectedly or through planned meetings and dates; how do they remember everyone’s names, and the names of their kids and relations? How do they know what to say to each other, what questions to ask, what not to ask? And it seems so easy and natural to them. They seem to enjoy it, and in fact go out of their way to arrange social situations. I go out of my way to avoid them. Not out of any animosity towards anyone. Not at all. It’s just that alone is easier.

Most folks see someone they know and feel a rush of pleasure. I feel a rush of adrenaline.



Mary and Nick volunteer extensively in the community. They are incredibly generous and kind, always ready to help out if they can. Same with Laura, who works long hours at a clinic in Manchester. She is much in demand, being multilingual. Many of their patients are refugees and immigrants. Laura is devoted to helping others, and toys with the idea of joining Doctors Without Borders when she retires.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have friends like these. But I worry that I’m being a bother. I try hard to be a good guest when I visit, but it’s difficult to know sometimes what I should say and do. My hosts are such good people, they’d never let on if I were a bother. Do they genuinely enjoy my company? Or do they feel sorry for me and are being kind? I can’t tell. I just can’t read people.

So I try to take them at their word and not worry about it. Enjoy my time with them and try to relax. Still, I’m always on a bit of an edge, making sure I say and do the appropriate thing. Even when it’s pleasant and fun, being with people can be exhausting after a while. Being around strangers puts me in a sweat. Being around people with whom I have a history of miscommunication and ugly episodes makes me feel as stressed as a deer in hunting season.

Mary and Nick

Mary and Nick

I feel pretty sure I know where I’m at with Nick and Mary. (So I’m chiefly concerned with not doing or saying anything to screw this up.) Their delight at seeing me seems genuine, and they often go out of their way to make sure I feel welcome. Our shared interest in hiking, in the beauty of the trail and the natural world makes for easy and spontaneous conversation. Often they will take over the conversation, especially Mary. I can relax and just listen, nodding, preparing an appropriate comment here and there. And what they talk about is interesting to me. Politics, history, intellectual stuff at just about the level of sophistication where I am. We agree on most things, or disagree just enough to make it interesting. I forget to worry about how I’m doing.

I envy people like Nick and Mary and Laura. People who are easy around people. They can do so much good in the world.

On Monday we decided to hike North Percy Peak. Driving up route 3 to Colebrook one can’t help but notice the Percy Peaks, two conical mountains, the northern one distinguished by a bald, ledgy summit. I’d been curious about them, so leaped on the suggestion to hike the Percy Peak trail. The day was unseasonably warm, sunny, rich with autumn colors.

North Percy trail ascending

North Percy trail ascending

The Percy Loop is about six and a half miles, starting and ending on Nash Stream Road with about a mile and a half to walk along the road in between. The first mile or so going up was pleasant, the climb moderate, through a mixed beech and hemlock forest. Then it got steep, climbing to the right of a rock slide slick with runoff. Through the trees I could catch occasional glimpses of the peak, with its steep slabs of rock. Mary assured me that we wouldn’t be going up that side; the trail would swing to the right and ascend more gradually.

The forest changed to firs and stunted birch, the deep, rough and rocky terrain of North Country mountainsides. The occasional mountain ash startled the eye with its scarlet berries; on the slopes below red maples punctuated with vivid crimson the orange and yellow of the other hardwoods. Then the trail opened up as we reached the ledges. The way was marked by cairns and faint daubs of orange paint. The only trees were dwarfed by the harsh environment, poking jaggedly up amid the profuse burgundy of blueberry bushes and mountain laurel. Although the rock is rough, and easy to get traction on as long as it isn’t wet or icy (which it wasn’t that day) the pitch is fairly steep. One look around and you realize you are utterly exposed, the sky stretching out above and all the world to the curve of the horizon spread out below.

I knew there was little danger, and my companions had no trouble walking up the slab. But fear sent out its tendrils. I was going to slip and fall to my death, or at least to grievous injury, impaled on sharp branches and jagged rocks below, limbs breaking and flesh torn.

Irrational fear is, well, irrational. There is no arguing with it. So even though I knew there was little actual danger, I still fell onto my knees, panting with terror, scrambling up the ledge in a cold sweat. When I finally reached the level plateau of the summit, I stood for several minutes trying to catch my breath, my heart racing. I made it. Hopefully way down would be easier.

The view from North Percy looking towards Christine Lake

The view from North Percy looking towards Christine Lake

We sat on the summit, glorying in the 360 degree view. While we ate our lunch, a small critter, some sort of mouse or vole, popped out of a dense clump of shrubs to inspect us. The little guy was remarkably fearless, busily at work gathering small mountain cranberries and disappearing into the tangle. I imagined that he had a burrow in the rock, following where the roots of the stunted fir pushed down into the cracks. There he had made himself a cozy home lined with plant fibers, perhaps stray down from grouse or juncos, with an adjoining pantry loaded with goodies. Perhaps he supplemented his stocks with the crumbs from other hikers who, like us, stopped here to eat their sandwiches and Clif bars. He might have peanuts and raisins, even bits of chocolate, plenty to sustain him through the bitter winter months. The winds would howl and the snow would fly, but he would be snug and warm and well-fed.

It was a delightful interlude.  Ravens croaked and soared on the updrafts.  The contours of the White Mountains rolled away around us.  Then I found out as we prepared to leave that we were going down the way we had come up. There was only one trail to the summit, a spur off the loop trail, and I was going to have to brave the rock slab again.

Going down is worse. Descending a trail, especially a steep one, is essentially an exercise in controlled falling. Going up, you are facing the mountain as you climb. Going down you are facing away from it (unless you turn around and scramble backwards, which is tricky because you have to keep looking over your shoulder to see where you are going). On a trail surrounded by trees, lowering myself over the tumble of roots and boulders typical of the White Mountains, I have no problem. But this was bare rock, sloping downwards, nothing to hold on to. I was certain to slip and fall.

Unless I was going to spend the rest of my life on the summit of North Percy Peak (if only I could shrink myself down to mouse-size and bunk with the little critter!) I had to go down over that slab of exposed granite.

So I did. Crabwalking, gripping every crack and pressing my toes into every dent, hyperventilating, fighting the urge to freeze and press myself against the surface and squeeze my eyes shut against the impossibly steep, unendurably long stretch of rock I was navigating.

It’s embarrassing being terrified at something irrational. Nick and Mary were patient, encouraged me, hovered close by reassuringly. Fear blended with shame.

I was being a bother.

The moment passed. I made it to the end, to where the trail became roots and rocks with trunks and branches to hang on to. To where I could stand upright and not be seized with the unshakeable conviction that I was going to pitch forward into oblivion.

The remainder of the hike was lovely. The grade became moderate, and we eventually descended into a golden forest lit with the slanting rays of the sinking sun. We talked and laughed, exclaimed in wonder at the effects of light and leaf, the beauty no camera can faithfully capture. Tired but happy, we reached our cars and I said goodbye to my friends. They would drive north, back to Colebrook, and I would head south, back to Deerfield.

On the drive home I remembered something I’d heard once. Courage doesn’t mean being without fear. It’s doing what one must in spite of it. We have little control over feelings of fear; it rises out of a primal part of the brain with the best of intentions, to warn us of a perceived danger. That danger might be real–the stranger with the gun, the venomous snake, the oncoming car–or it might be minimal. Even completely imaginary (we are really good at imaginary). Doesn’t matter. The feeling of fear is just as urgent

It’s how we react that makes the difference. We can judge the threat genuine and take immediate steps to avoid it. We can realize the threat is minimal or even imaginary, but we avoid the situation anyway because it is easier than trying to fight the fear. Or we can understand the threat but risk it anyway because of some pressing purpose that trumps it. That takes courage.

There are people who are fearless, able to walk into even extremely dangerous situations without breaking into a sweat. But that isn’t courage. (In fact, it might be pathological, or even outright stupidity.) It’s not courage if you aren’t scared out of your wits.

Going up that ledge–and then down again–terrified me. But I did it. I wasn’t a coward for being scared. I was brave because I overcame my fear.

That’s what is admirable: when we pull ourselves together and get on with it, not in spite of the danger, but in spite of the fear.

On Signal Mountain

On Signal Mountain


26 09 2015

Bard Owl

I am a fool. Yes, an idiot. I know nothing. I lay on my back looking up at the vast spread of the cosmos, astonished at the audacity of thinking I have anything to say at all.

I overthink everything. My every unoccupied moment simmers with anxiety and rumination until my mind pops open like a milkweed pod. Thoughts fluff out into the wind and float away. Watch them drift in the air against the stark blue of the sky. Free. The pod dries in the sun and curls up like a smile.

I overfeel everything. I believe in the chimera. While cities burn around me, I weep over a crumbled sandcastle. Silly of me, to be so undone by emotion, seeing tragedy and triumph in a spider’s web. However quiet the gnat’s buzz may sound to others, it is thunder when it is in your own ear.

Let go of dilemma’s horns, stop battling to no victory, talking to no purpose, grasping at snakes and phantoms, cringing from the mirage.

Another book slides off the assembly line to drift down into the accumulation like leaves in an October forest. Oh, look, there’s a pretty one! And another and another, becoming buried to slowly decompose into humus. It’s deep and soft where I pitch my tent and spread my sleeping bag, zipped up snug within the gathering gloom. The bard owl silently descends to a branch above, curious, and after critical examination, concludes, “FUBAR.”

“Wise bird,” I murmur as I fade away.

[Author’s note: “Samsara” does not translate as “weeping into my beer because my books aren’t on the NYT bestsellers’ list and have not been nominated for a Hugo.” Granted, that’s a part of it, given the profound importance my writing has to my sense of personal identity. But it is only one river flowing into an ocean of dukkha.

I am currently dealing with a personal situation that confounds all my coping strategies. Intellectually I know that all things change, that nothing is permanent, nothing and no one can be depended on. But anxiety is not a rational thing. Fear is difficult to reason with. I make a firm resolve to pull myself out of this morass, and recover some of my inner control and optimism, only to have the toxic situation I’m in corrode my resolve away like acid.

Well, you say, get out of that situation then. Right?

It’s complicated. Too complicated. Impossible choices, insoluble problems, unanswerable questions. It is defeating me.]


20 09 2015

Chimera Smyth

Got my license back. Yay. I should have felt excited or eager as I went to the DMV. I felt anxious. Intensely anxious. During every step of the process I was braced for it, to see the clerk look at the computer screen and shake her head, to be told regretfully that I had failed to file some form for which the filing date had already expired, or I was missing a necessary slip of paper from the insurance company, or that the law stipulated another 30 day waiting period before my reissued license would actually be valid.

I left with a paper license. There’s a 5 year probationary period because I did a very bad thing and cannot really be trusted. But I’m allowed to drive. As long as I’m very careful and behave myself. I can go anywhere I want without a chaperone. I felt…

Neutral. Blank. It wasn’t real. I guess the damage done over those months couldn’t instantly be undone by a piece of paper.

So after work (I bicycled to the library; other people needed the three cars available to me) I got in the RAV and drove out to Northwood to pick up pizza, to celebrate. Once behind the wheel I felt a small stirring of positive energy. Not much more than a pilot light, but definitely there. I remembered something my sons each said at some point after they had gotten their licenses: “Wow. I could just drop everything and drive to New York if I felt like it. I don’t need anyone’s permission. I could just get in the car and go.”

I’m like they were. A child again, given permission to be an adult, granted the responsibility to make adult decisions. I could take the car and go. I didn’t need anyone’s permission, didn’t need to scrounge a ride or work around somebody else’s schedule. I am allowed to get in the car and drive.

As long as the car is free and I’m not inconveniencing anyone else.

There’s an expression – “Mephobia” – for which the popular definition is “A fear of becoming so awesome that the human race can’t handle it and everyone dies.” But there was a book in a stack I was processing (the boss is weeding the shelves, and anything stale or not circulating well is being discarded). It was one of those self-help books, this one primarily directed towards women in unhealthy relationships. Dr. Karen Blaker’s definition of Me Phobia is the fear of being authentic in a relationship. The deep fear that if you assert yourself, your own needs and feelings, you will incur the displeasure of others and be rejected. Abandoned. You will only be loved if you put aside your own needs and work to satisfy the needs of those around you, especially those you depend on.

Being authentic is difficult, because it sounds so close to selfishness (putting your own needs ahead of the needs of others) and we condemn selfish people and praise selfless ones. But somewhere along the line the “selflessness” becomes unhealthy. You literally lose your self. The self becomes something without value, undeserving, whose needs must always come second. Or not at all, if it means someone else’s needs must be sacrificed.

I can’t recall if I’ve always tended in this direction, or if it’s been a gradual or even recent evolution. I can recall some vivid episodes where trying to assert my own needs over another’s didn’t go very well. Pretty disastrously in fact. In fact, some of those assertions of “me” got pathologized. Or denigrated and vilified. Or just led to failure, and the lesson learned was that I should have kept my mouth shut and done what I was told instead of trying to do what made sense to me.

The remaining controversial bits of me that I haven’t yet buried to “get along” are aspects of my life that I either can’t change, or that I know from experience would be just too difficult and painful to change. The cure would be worse than the disease. So I just live with the disapproval that goes along with my stubbornly insisting on “having it my way.”

Seems I’m still being driven. Even though I’m now supposed to be able to drive myself.

Daring not to be strong

18 09 2015

Bard OwlI was curious when I saw the book come across my desk. Rising Strong, by Brene Brown. I opened the book and read through the jacket flap blurb.

“Vulnerability–the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome–is the only path to more love, belonging, creativity, and joy. But living a brave life is not always easy: We are, inevitably, going to stumble and fall. It is the rise from falling that Brown takes as her subject in Rising Strong.”

Certainly I had put myself out there, stumbled and fallen big time. I could use some advice on how to get up again. So I took it out and started to read.

Her previous best-sellers, Daring Greatly, The Gift of Imperfection, and I Thought It Was Just Me, had gotten great praise. And the rhetoric sounded good: Risking vulnerability, acknowledging the pain of shame, having the courage to be present and take charge of your own story. She studied the experiences of Fortune 500 CEOs, military leaders, couples in loving, long-term relationships, teachers and parents, people who have known struggle and success in their lives. Her research details what these people all have in common. How they used their failure to learn about themselves, trying again and again, daring to put themselves out there in spite of the difficulty and uncertainty. Her work applies to all sorts of life struggles, like relationships, families, workplace issues.

Willingness to lean into vulnerability and discomfort. Courage and tenacity. Challenging assumptions about what’s truth, what’s self-protection, and what needs to change to lead a more wholehearted life.

After struggling through several chapters, I dropped the book, feeling twice as discouraged as I’d been before I started. Brene Brown was telling me what it takes to get back up after you’ve fallen, and she pretty much convinced me that I don’t have it.

I am not daring. I am not brave. I am not tough. I haven’t got grit, and the more I’m told I need to have it the less I seem to have. I feel like the kid laying scratched, bruised and exhausted on the playing field who’s told by the coach, “Get up! Sure it hurts, but suck it up, push through it and get going! That’s the only way to win!”

My response isn’t to suck it up, push through it and get going. My response is Screw You. Take your winning attitude and shove it. I’m going home.

I’ve done the brave thing, taken risks, pushed my limits and tested myself. I’ve risked loving and committing myself to someone. I’ve put myself in situations of vulnerability and uncertainty. I’ve fallen on my face so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve screwed up. Badly. I don’t want to be hurt anymore. I can’t summon up any motivation to put myself out there, exposed and vulnerable, to be shamed and rejected again.

Brown uses the analogy of the courageous gladiator in the arena. I don’t want to be a gladiator. I want to be a monk tending a garden.

The gladiators are admirable. We need heroes and leaders, those inspired to dare greatly. If you’ve got what it takes, go for it. Dream big. Accomplish great things and be proud of yourself. You deserve it. I wish I had that kind of strength, that kind of courage, that kind of dogged persistence. For me, the greatest struggle of all is accepting that I don’t, and being at peace with who I am, small and obscure, weak and fallible. Letting go of my dreams.

I’m not going to be a famous, best-selling author. I’m not going to be a CEO, a success, admired and revered, making a big difference in the world, being a shining example to others. I guess I’m going to miss out on all that love, belonging, creativity, and joy. And yes, admitting that hurts. It’s one more blow to my self-esteem having to accept that I don’t have what it takes to “show up” as Brene Brown says I have to do. And society has a name, with a strong social stigma attached, for people like me: Quitter.

But how many times do I need to strike out before I accept that I am just not very good at baseball?

And why do I have to be good at baseball?

So it’s back to the gentle teachings of mindfulness. Back to modest aspirations to inner peace instead of outer greatness. Words that speak comfort. Yes, life is filled with suffering. Be compassionate with one another. Be compassionate with yourself. Accept it all as best you can with equanimity. It’s no shame to be weak, to be inadequate, and in fact, those labels are meaningless. Pass judgement on no one, including yourself. We are all, even the most awkward and cowardly, doing the best we can.

Fame and worldly success are seductions, sweet and insubstantial as spun sugar. The glue that holds our lives together are kindness and tolerance, simplicity and humility, and the willingness to get up each day, clean up after the cat, the kids, the dog, go to work and do whatever you are able, try to earn enough to pay the bills, help others when the opportunity presents itself. Some days you are not able to do even this; you fall short, but you go to bed forgiving yourself, and getting up again the next day. That is good enough.

When Life gives you lemons, and you haven’t got what it takes to make lemonade, you just learn to appreciate lemons.

Sweat Therapy

9 09 2015

Bard Owl

It was short notice. On Friday, I got an invitation to hike up to Carter Notch and stay at the AMC hut with my hiking buddy Mary and her husband Nick. She’d made reservations weeks ago, but the couple that had planned to join them fell ill at the last minute. It was too late to cancel the reservation, and the weather was supposed to be excellent. So Mary called me and another friend who lives near me. It all fell into place. Lorraine picked me up Sunday morning at 7am and we met Nick and Mary at the 19 Mile Brook trail head in Jackson for the 4 mile hike up to the hut.

It was, of course, Labor Day weekend, the last great hurrah of summer. By the time we passed Pinkham Notch, the parking lots had overflowed and cars lined both sides of the road for half a mile. No doubt every campsite was filled for miles around. Tourist traps were packed with prey. Nick and Mary had saved us a spot in the 19 Mile Brook trail head parking lot so we didn’t have to start our hike by walking up Route 16 from the end of the line of parallel parked cars. I expected the trails would be busy. They were. And the hut was overrun with families. The normally peaceful Carter Notch ponds reverberated with the shrieks of children and barking dogs.

Don’t get me wrong. I am delighted to see parents sharing the wonders of nature with their children. I am pleased to see the wilderness being appreciated. This is a good thing. But it was not the best thing for me. At my best I am not fabulously good with people, particularly children. And I was, if not at my worst, hovering down near the bottom. The first thing I did was wade around to the far side of the pond and hide in the bushes.

Dinner at the hut is boarding house style, a very social occasion. I was late getting to the table and wound up having to sit between two strangers. I sucked into my shell and closed the lid. Excused myself as soon as decently possible and retreated to my bunk with a book. I was, in short, lousy company and no doubt my friends were thinking twice about their decision to invite me.

I slept badly. At around 10:30 or so I got up and slipped out to sit down by the pond, finally having it to myself. Just me and the fish, toads, and whatever was rustling furtively in the bushes. And uncountable billions of stars spread out above me in the kind of breath-taking spectacle that you only see in remote places far from the light pollution of human civilization. I should have been enjoying myself, and I was miserable. All my failures danced before my eyes like midges. I toggled between feeling sorry for my wretched self and feeling like I deserved to be drowned in the pond for being such a stupid, self-pitying jerk.

The plan for the next day was to take our time and hike out the way we’d come. Four pretty easy miles. Mary is recovering from knee replacement surgery and Lorraine is in her sixties and, while quite healthy and fit, is not used to really strenuous hiking with a backpack. Nick, however, relishes a challenge. He proposed to take the long way around, hiking up the steep side of Carter Dome, going over to Mount Hight, then down to Zeta Pass and pick up the trail that intersects with 19 Mile Brook. An additional two and a half miles, and hard ones. He looked over at me. “Want to come?”

He actually wanted my company? I’d only slow him down. And bring him down with my lousy attitude. I was a waste product. A failure with a bad attitude who couldn’t get out of my own way. I’d regret it if I went. I’d hiked that trail before when Mary and I were peak-bagging back in 2011. I knew how difficult the slog up Carter Dome was, like a steep, irregular staircase made of rocks, gravel and tree roots that seems to never end. And then the descent to Zeta Pass from Mt. Hight is just as bad. Plus I’d feel pressured to keep up with Nick and worry that Mary and Lorraine would get to the intersection where we were supposed to meet, and they’d be waiting for us, we’d be running late and it would be all my fault. It was a stupid idea.

“Sure,” I said.

Bless Nick. As we labored up the rocky incline, I started to apologize for being slow; he threatened to throw me off the mountain if I said the word “sorry” one more time. He got me talking about politics, religion, philosophy. Every time I was forced to stop to catch my breath, panting like an old dog, he kept me distracted from embarrassment with metaphysics. I realized after a quarter mile or so of climbing that I wasn’t doing all that badly. I had to pause frequently, but not for long. Evidently my summer of being grounded, commuting to work by bicycle and walking everywhere else, had improved my wind and muscle tone. I was starting to feel pretty good about myself. As we approached the summit the grade moderated a bit and I was able to move right along.

It wasn’t like hiking with Mary, pausing frequently to remark on a flower or a bird call, or to take a photo of a toad or interesting mushroom, or to gaze into the the brook trying to spot a trout, or admiring the view and trying to identify which mountain or ridge we were looking at. No, we powered up that trail like the jihadists were in hot pursuit. At the summit of Carter Dome we paused briefly to shrug off our packs and suck down some water, and to chuckle over a cairn wearing sunglasses. Whoever had put them there likely hoped the owner might pass back by and see them, reclaiming them. In the meantime, it gave the rock pile a distinct personality, way cooler than all those other rock piles.

We checked the map, figured out where we were going, then hoisted up our packs and motored off. Now the trail sloped downwards or held fairly level and we made for Mt. Hight, which is a bit shorter than Carter Dome, but commands the best view of all the peaks in the area: a full 360 degree panorama of the White Mountains, dominated by Mt. Washington to the west. It was less than a mile of pretty easy grade. I was rolling right along.

There’s a long-standing debate in the scientific community about what causes “runner’s high”, that sense of euphoria that comes on during an extended session of strenuous exercise. Whether it is attributable to a release of endorphins, as has long been believed, or some more complicated bio-alchemy, it’s real and measurable. And somewhere between Carter Dome and Hight I started feeling it.

We paused briefly to get our bearings and take in the glorious view at the top of Hight. The breeze was deliciously cool as clouds rolled over the peaks of the Presidentials, a good thousand feet higher than where we were. A spruce grouse was feeding in the low alpine vegetation just off the trail. Hikers were passing by it barely three feet away, and although it kept a watchful eye on this parade of crazy humans, it felt unthreatened. After all, there are signs sternly warning hikers to stay on the trail and not to damage the fragile plants and lichens that grow in this harsh environment. The grouse trusted that we would obey the rules. Most hikers do. The whole reason they’ve come is out of love and respect for the wilderness. Rare are the contemptible scum who ignore the rules and violate the sanctity of a place like this.

Now, I was truly enjoying myself. Nick led the way down to Zeta Pass, a treacherous scramble down rocks and roots and over loose dirt. Just as steep going down as Carter Dome was going up. I could feel the stress in my knees. But I kept up. The grade got easier as we made our way through the hardwood forests of the Carter Dome Trail to meet 19 Mile Brook, and I booked along, minding my step, watchful of slippery or loose rocks.

Wow, I thought, I feel like myself again. I feel good. I feel great!

When we reached the intersection and met up Mary and Lorraine, they said they had only been waiting for about 45 minutes and hadn’t minded at all. They thought Nick and I had made pretty good time, considering that we’d hiked a hard four and a half miles to their two easy ones. We had some lunch and then made our way down the last leg of the trail, a pleasant couple of miles of gradual descent along side the brook. We hiked Mary-style, stopping frequently to look for trout (we spotted four good-sized adults and a number of smaller fry). I breathed deeply and was mindful of every step.

The mood stayed with me as we said our goodbyes and parted in the parking lot. I clung to that sense of normalcy right through until the next day, when I began to feel the weight of reality tugging me down again. Two days later, my legs hurt like hell, but I am still clinging to the clarity of thought and mood that mad race over the peaks gave me. The past several months have been difficult on me. Bad habits of thought and behavior have crept in as events and emotions have worn me down. It’s discouraging to realize that I’m back to where I was a year ago. I’m dealing with all the same crap I was then and more.

I’ve been down this hole before. But I know the way out. And I have the will to do the work, because I remember now what it’s like to feel good, to feel normal, and I want to be there again.

When the Solution is part of the Problem

4 09 2015

Chimera Smyth

Okay, I know I’m in trouble, and I’ve got to do something about it.  I know what I have to do, as soon as I can.  And I know what not to do.

Counseling. Therapy. That’s what they always recommend, don’t they? You go there and sit and talk (getting the words out of your head) and the kindly expert helps you to work through your issues and deal with your problems. It’s a sensible, appealing, thought. But, like all those uplifting motivational memes I ranted about in my last blog, counseling just doesn’t seem to work out for me. I’ve tried.

The worst was the couples counseling. I faced every session in a cold sweat of terror. I’d sit there, my brain frozen in panic, while the counselor and my husband looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to respond to some comment or question hanging in the air. It was like standing up in class and the teacher has asked you to summarize Proust.

I’d manage to stammer out something, and it would come back to haunt me. Perhaps I was trying to figure out some aspect of myself, and I blurted out whatever my working theory was at the time. Once spoken, it became Fact. If later I decided I was totally off-base and tried to recant, I was judged to be In Denial.

Or perhaps I just couldn’t force myself to say something I knew would hurt badly someone I cared about.  It went against all my instincts.  Sometimes I did force myself to say it, telling myself, That’s what I’m supposed to do, isn’t it?  That whole honesty thing?  I always ended up regretting it, hating myself for causing harm.  So instead I’d try making up something safely plausible, just to satisfy them. Making up stuff is not a good idea. That too, once spoken, becomes Fact.

I was pushed into trying to examine the influences of my parents and childhood. Certainly a valid course, if one has any material to work with. My memories of my parents and childhood are scanty at best, and there is no one left to ask. Anyone in a position to provide any useful information is gone. So this line of questioning is pointless. Yet I dutifully tried to oblige when I could, becoming confused when I was questioned more closely, finally dissolving into tears because, frankly, much of what I do remember isn’t terribly happy.

Oh, but I must confront such unpleasantness as part of my therapy.

Been there, done that. In private. Wept, grieved, sorted, sighed, taken stock of the ill-fitting pieces I have to work with and figured out how best to make do. Asking me to go through it all again for the benefit of a stranger, however well-meaning, is humiliating and pointless. Undress for us. Show us the ugliest parts of your body so we can all look at them. It’s all right; we’re trained professionals. It’s all part of the therapy.

Except that none of it ever made anything any better for me.  Quite the opposite.  And I get the blame. I’m told I “resisted” counseling. I didn’t “let it work”. Is this how a dyslexic kid feels when he fails reading? After all, the teacher used methods that worked for everybody else in the class. Obviously he isn’t trying.

I think it was during these nightmare sessions that my emotional self went out and bought the box and began lining it with thick padding and soundproof insulation.

Honestly, I did my best. After the initial disasters I refer to in my blog, I tried twice again. Went through the whole tedious process of searching data bases, figuring out which practices my insurance covered, filling out the paperwork, sitting through the initial awkward introductory sessions. Granted, I’m a difficult patient. Already burned, slow to trust, uncomfortable with opening up to a stranger (or anybody, for that matter–except on paper, so it seems). But each time, after several months, I gave up. I got more out of listening to MBCT lectures on CD and meditating (and writing) than I’d ever get out of these uncomfortable, unproductive sessions.

So, yeah, I know I’m in trouble.  And I know I have to do something about it, although right now it feels like trying to treat PTSD in a war zone.  But please, no counseling. Isn’t it more logical to do something I’ve tried and I know works (see my Colebrook Journals) than to keep attempting something that I’ve tried and I know doesn’t work? I am absolutely delighted at how well talk therapy has worked for other folks. Good for you! Keep at it! I promise I won’t push MBCT on you if you don’t push counseling on me.

Because, looking back, counseling has been a huge part of the damage done.


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