Summit a mountain or a glacier and see what arises. Yes, there is that moment of pure wonderment and love of all earthly beings. With a string accompaniment, heavy on the percussion. And because we always carry our dead with us, there is also a moment of reverence for what was lost: my brother, Edward, the moutaineer, the rock climber, the bike racer, the cross-country skier. On the cusp of 36, heart disease killed him. His lucky carabiner is on my pack and I rub it between my fingers every time I make it to the top of something, honoring all the years he pushed me up rock faces and steep slopes with patient bits of advise and teasing quips, “Don’t fall or dad will never let me come over for Thanksgiving dinner and eat both drumsticks…ever again.” He’d be so proud, without even realizing how much of him drives me onward.
And then, once you’ve sucked in the gorgeous view through your pores, your mind begins to wander…to…well, high school. Yo, bitches, how do you like me now!
High school is a special kind of hell when you’re the kid hiding in the library with thick glasses, a bologna sandwich and an asthma inhaler. PE class meant choking back tears when teams were drawn and I was always, and I mean always, the last one chosen. Usually, I was what was left over when the numbers had to be equaled out. Walking to the circle of girls, I tried not to wilt at the sound of their collective groan, and lowered my gaze to their eye rolling. I was the weak link. Everyone would have to work harder now.
Sports were big in my school so I tried out because all my friends were on teams and I wanted to be like everybody else, hoping to mask the fact I’d read Anna Karenina by the first grade and could deconstruct the Tet Offensive for my fifth grade teacher. My dad didn’t read me Dr. Seuss at night. He read Newsweek.
The basketball coach said, “too short, too slow.” The volleyball coach smacked her clipboard against the bleachers when the ball came flying over the net, and I wrapped my arms around my head and ducked. The cross-country coach didn’t want to take on the asthma. Finally, I made the track team. Running the mile. Apparently, I’m built for distance, not speed. I did okay. Garnered a few ribbons and made it to state one year. But I didn’t love running. I didn’t yearn to go round and round the track. When my teammates swooned over that feeling of flight and freedom, I thought that was crazy talk. Running was hard and every minute my feet pounded the track, I just wanted it to be over. Then there was that short stint as a soccer goalie, an embarrassment we shall not discuss.
By college, it was clear I just didn’t have the “right stuff.” No natural athletic ability. Everyone agreed. “Stick to what you’re good at,” my teachers said. “You’ve got a great academic future,” said my guidance counselor, “Go with that.” I was relieved, really, to finally be off the hook. I didn’t like being on a team. And trying to beat the clock. Charging this way and that. Speed, barely controlled. Bodies pushing and shoving. Chaos waiting to break your face, shatter your knee cap, snap your arm. Really, I just wanted to lie down on the sofa and read a book.
This vision of myself as someone destined for “the bench” not the heat of physical endurance, has stuck with me my whole life. Even after I became a personal trainer and a yoga teacher in my 40s, I always felt a bit of a fraud, working against the grain, succeeding despite myself. I’m not an athlete, I just play one on TV.
And then I hiked to this glacier last week. And cycled 33 miles across every single Portland bridge the week before. And the week before that, I put in more hill time on my bike than I ever have. Today, the kayaks are launching into the river.
It’s taken me a long time to figure out, “what changed?” Really, I think it boils down to three things:
- When I started doing yoga 16 years ago, it was to address low back pain. But then I stuck with it because it not only made me a nicer person (no more flipping off slow pokes in the fast lane), it also showed me that movement could feel good. Invigorating and delicious. And it connected me with something larger, intangible and even holy. A church where everyone shares the same goal, to love and be loved. I don’t do yoga to master poses, or get ripped, or even to stand on my head. I do it so I can enjoy some kind of grace in this narrative, this life.
- When my brother, Edward, died it was three weeks before he and his climbing team were scheduled for Yosemite, the goal, of course, El Capitan. It was a lifelong dream and he wanted that climb so bad. After two years of intense training, he was in the best shape of his life — lean and muscular, agile and sure-footed — except, of course, for his coronary arteries. One of my jobs, after he went to bed on his birthday and never woke up, was to call each member of his team and tell them he was dead. On bad days, I can still hear their keening, the stunned wailing of helpless men. To their credit, they all drove to Albuquerque for the funeral and one by one, wearing full climbing gear and coils of rope across their chests, they filed up to Edward’s coffin to place a favorite carabiner. Witnessing this quiet ceremony, the room broke apart. My brother committed his whole heart to exploring the wilderness. Right then, I decided I would, too.
- When you marry a Ranger, you have to be okay with sand in your coffee. And a Frisbee for a plate. And the sky as your ceiling. It’s best to invest in a good pair of boots, some rain gear, a tetanus shot. And no whining. You will never get diamonds for your birthday, or fancy technology for Christmas. You’ll get seashells, sand dollars and agates, fossils, wool socks and perfect pieces of driftwood. Your husky will carry a pack and so will you. And it will be heavy, so yeah, eat all your breakfast. Because the road is long and much of it is uphill. Give up your cute Italian boots because they won’t zip up your beefy calves, and donate those silky shirts because they won’t cover all your mosquito bites. To love a Ranger is to love the forest, the ocean, the starry darkness where things go bump in the night. To love a Ranger means you will be fiercely protected, cherished and honored in ways that will take your breath.
These three things have formed a perfect circle in my life that is not always easy, sometimes sad, sometimes maddening, but it’s what I have gathered in my years of roaming and it’s what I’ve decided to cradle on this stretch of perfect coastline. I wake up happy most every day and I’m old enough to know what an incredible gift that is, no matter how pedestrian it sounds.
So to that other circle, that circle of girls who groaned, year after year, because they had to take me on their team…start pumping your knees, ladies. Lace up and get moving.
I’ll wait for you at the top.