Sunday, January 26, 2014
Among the contents was two pages of "Visitor's Acknowledgment of Risk." We need to sign the bottom of the second page, both Walt and I, and return it to the company before we'll be able to set foot on a raft. Those two pages are full of words like hypothermia, mental anguish, trauma, death by drowning, injuries.
The word risk is used twelve times. There are seven categories of specific risks, each of which is carefully described. Possible death, trauma and injury figure in all of them. Except for the last category: Etc. The company went to great pains to spell every possible risk out, but covered whatever they might have missed in that one catchall abbreviation.
Toward the end there is this phrase: I assume full responsibility for myself. . . . I also certify that I'm fully capable of participating in this activity. The company promises to do its best to keep me safe, but ultimately it's all on me.
While I like to think I'm a risk-taker, most of my risks have been pretty safe. Most have not involved physical challenges, but emotional, spiritual or cognitive instead. Even as a child I was reluctant to do anything that had a chance to hurt my body. I was afraid of pain. I was afraid of somehow harming myself beyond repair. Maybe I was even afraid of death.
So while my youngest brother scrambled up trees and ran across barn beams that were at least twenty feet off the ground, I wandered and explored and waded—feet firmly on the ground. When all three of my brothers wrestled and pummeled each other in frustrated rages, I resorted to pinching and sneak kicks and ratting-out.
The biggest risk of physical danger in my life happened in adolescence. An adolescence spent in the free-love, joint-sharing, hitchhiking era of the 70s. Even then I think I had one eye on just how far I could go before there was no turning back.
Early adulthood, actually most of my adulthood, held the safety of homemaking and gardening and teaching. While my time in the cult was certainly risky, there was no physical danger. Marriage is a risk, but in most circumstances, not one involving physical danger. Teaching carries risks as well, but except in the most extreme cases, the biggest chance of harm comes from being over-hugged, or being sleep-deprived.
A few years ago Walt and I started hiking. We started fairly easy, but graduated quickly to hikes involving some elevation gain and longer and longer distances. My fear of heights dogged me on many of the hikes like a pack of hungry wolves. Vertigo nearly tipped me a few times. But I kept going. The sheer pleasure of being outdoors, my blood fully oxygenated and roaring, every bend offering the potential for some new wonder, all made the fear seem more annoying than threatening.
Then came the year we went to Zion and hiked Angel's Landing. Walt would have skipped it without complaint, but the thought of accomplishing such a risky trail wouldn't leave me. Despite being very clear that a misstep could easily result in serious damage, I was determined to climb. That was a day I still remember with astonishing clarity. The feeling of looking straight ahead (up), and putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually looking down into a valley far far below. The fear didn't really get loud until the trip down, but by then there was nowhere to go but down, and so I did.
After that it became fun to challenge my fear of heights. Still in pretty safe ways, but the risk was there nonetheless.
Two summers ago, when we were in Belize, I took the biggest physical risk of my life by hiking/climbing/wading Actun Tunichil Muknal. While we had an amazing guide, the danger was real. My fear, however, stayed home as I squeezed through impossibly tiny spaces, climbed straight up high ladders, and pushed myself to the point of shaking-leg exhaustion. It was the single most incredible day of my life so far and I would go again tomorrow if I could.
Instead, I will sign the Acknowledgment of Risk for rafting the Colorado. I believe everything it says, but I also trust the guides and my own inner voice. As I travel the roads toward the end of my life, I want to be absolutely certain I don't miss anything important or wonderful or magical just because I was afraid of the risks, stated or otherwise. I am determined to challenge the false sense of security to be found in inertia and wrapping myself in soft quilts of safety. I am ready to ". . . be jolted, jarred, bounced, thrown to and fro, and otherwise shaken about during rides through rapids." I'm excited to discover what is revealed after things settle from all that action.
Sunday, January 19, 2014
According to the Grand Canyon National Park website, the average high temperature of the inner gorge in July is 106.3. The average low is 76.8. July is the hottest month there. And July is when we're going to be there.
From a cold gray January in the Pacific Northwest, where the temperature is at this moment a brisk 33, that sounds like heaven.
When we decided last summer that this would be our next big adventure, the heat wasn't a huge factor on the plus side. White water rafting, the canyon itself, birds (California Condors!), a break from the chaos of modern life, hiking - those were high on the list.
Right now imagining myself on a sandy beach on a night warmer than my house is now, darkness complete enough that the sky is white with stars, body exhausted in the way that only a day on water can bring—that picture is enough to counter the wet gray wool of January here.
The Grand Canyon has called to me from childhood. I spent hours scouring old National Geographic magazines that had been given to us by customers from the milk route. Those were the days when it felt sacrilegious to throw one away. I longed to see the colors and the grandeur for myself one day. I envied and marveled at the people with the courage to travel the Colorado River through the gorge, in the time before the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, before the river was tamed. I imagined myself among the tribes who called the canyon home, placing myself in the midst of the beautiful artists' renderings of what it might have looked like then.
Years passed and while the dream never quite left me, I never actively sought to claim it. Like so many dreams, I tucked it away in a place called Someday.
About ten years ago, Walt and I did a part of the Grand Circle. On one magical day we drove three hours from St. George to North Rim. I saw my first California Condor. We drank in the indescribable majesty, and soaked in the healing heat. I didn't want to leave.
For a long time I wanted to do the Bright Angel Trail hike down into the canyon. A part of me still does. I also wanted to do the mule ride until a good friend who is not afraid of anything did that, and said she'd never been that afraid before. Even so, a part of me still wants to do that, too. Walt, however, finds neither of those options even remotely appealing.
And so last summer we somehow found ourselves talking about rafting the Colorado through the canyon. It's the water that calls us both. And the camping, only this time with the luxury of having someone else pack everything.
I want my body to have this experience while the challenge and the pleasure still have the chance to occupy the same space. I want the feeling of connection with Walt that happened in Belize and that happens on every hike we take. I want to feel the aliveness that only happens for me when I'm a little afraid, when I'm outside, when I'm doing what felt impossible right up to the moment of doing. And I want to see California Condors.
It's been a year and a half since Walt and I went to Belize. I carry parts of that time with me like a smooth stone in my pocket. Always there as a reminder of who I am beyond a teacher of fifth graders and an aging woman whose life is dangerously close to settling permanently into the safety of conventionality. I really like the person who was in Belize, and the partner she shared it with. I'm looking forward to spending time with them both again in just a few short months.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Living through winter is very much like living through a season of grieving. Focus is narrowed, everything feels more raw and restricted, and the future seems a too-distant promise of relief. However, also as with grief, winter's gifts are profound and unique. Unlike the lush blowzy abundance of summer's sunny gifts, winter's are offered in singular contrast to its cold and dormant darkness. Because of that, each gift radiates particular meaning and light.
It's like stars on a night with no moon. The sky is dark—the world is dark—but each burst of light carries so much promise it takes your breath away. And the darker it is, the more stars you can see.
Some stars in my sky:
Every day for the last week I've seen or heard Bald Eagles. Yesterday as I began my walk, a mature adult wheeled out of a tall fir very close to me and flew toward the park where I was headed. She seemed to be leading me.
I heard, for the first time this year, the annual owl courtship in our field.
A frog greeted me loudly on my walk yesterday, his voice a hundred times larger than the tiny tight green body I know it came from.
On Friday, at the end of the day while playing silent ball, my kids were laughing. It was simple, happy, we're-a-family laughter that warmed the air and nearly brought me to tears.
This Malcolm Gladwell article that just happened to be on Facebook this morning somehow opened a tight space in my chest and left me breathing more deeply.
A cat sits on my printer looking out the window. Without his brother, Bunkie has accepted us as sufficient substitutes. He makes us smile with his antics. He warms my lap with his bulk and his purrs.
Contact was made this week by the company facilitating our summer adventure. It's time to begin preparing in earnest.
There are more—so many many more. And the more I'm able to acknowledge the gifts of a day, naming stars in a night sky that might overwhelm but cannot because of the multitudes of tiny gemstones, the more bearable winter is.
Sunday, January 5, 2014
January and February are my least favorite months. Even as I write those words, I wish they weren't true. I wish I could not even notice the cold darkness. I wish I could embrace each moment of each day and be grateful for what those offer. Enough that the light emanating from such gratitude drives back the shadows of winter.
There is plenty to be grateful for, even in these gray days absent the vibrant golds and reds and greens of the holiday just past. Sun, when it breaks through, warming like a kiss. Skies, both morning and evening, the pink of new love. A single resonant robin chirp in the midst of the wintery and tinny music of gold-crowned kinglets.
After some weeks of absence, Bald Eagles are back. While I know their comings and goings from my line of sight are not specifically about my needs, their appearance always feels like a personal gift. A reminder that I'm not alone. Yesterday's sighting was the most powerful in a long time. Walking Toby in late afternoon, the sun casting a glow and making unmelted frost shimmer, turtled in my thoughts, I heard the tell-tale chuckle. I looked up to see two mature adults sharing the top of a Douglas fir across the river. After watching them for a bit, I continued on only to discover a completely brown and slightly rumpled eagle, probably last summer's baby, perched on a snag close by.
In those moments I feel so glad for my life, so glad to be alive.
But in these two months, they are not enough, those moments of grace and glory. I feel on edge, restless, heavy. I want time to pass. Which goes against everything I believe. And still I want to be sometime else. Somewhere else. Maybe even someone else.
Because I've been living with the challenges of winter for a long time, I have developed strategies for getting through. For getting to spring ready to burst into blossom as soon as the sun and earth invite. For enduring the inner darkness at its work while the outer darkness provides a complete absence of distraction.
My favorite strategy has always been to have something to look forward to. Some grand summer adventure that will motivate me to do all the healthy things that winter offers no encouragement for. And I have that this year. An epic adventure to anticipate.
I spent yesterday reveling in, reading about, losing myself in the anticipation of next summer's adventure. I intended to start writing about it today and to use it as a focus for my writing until I'm on the other side of it. And it was that escape that brought me to this most recent place of questioning. If I spend the next six months forward focused will I miss something important? If I find a way to embrace winter completely, without distraction or escape, will I be happier, stronger, healthier? Does the artificial light of future happiness somehow diminish the healing power of darkness?
Any time an old strategy starts to feel uncomfortable, I know to listen. Something new is about to be revealed. For now I wait. And wonder if there's not a way to have both - the energy and light of anticipation along with the patience for and presence in winter's dark dormancy.