Terror

I have led a lucky life. I nearly died as a child, but I survived. I have a loving family who helped me become a resilient adult. Because of my experiences, I have a finely honed sense of how tenuous and temporary our life here is on earth, so I try to remember to make the most of that time every day. I try to live my life to the fullest and to be as kind as possible.

But I’m not Pollyanna. And while I try to practice positivity and resilience, today I want to focus on another, less popular human emotion: Terror.

What experience can I possibly have had with terror, you might ask? I’m a middle-aged, middle-class white woman with a good education, a good job and a stable family.

And yet when I close my eyes and fall asleep, terror often invades my subconscious.

I don’t remember most dreams, but I remember the nightmares. They change slightly each time, but the theme remains the same. There is always a house. Usually I am in it, or I run into it, or I run out of it, because death is coming for me. And I am terrified.

One time death came for me in the form of thieves who snuck into the house and planted a bomb that blew up my house as I ran out, screaming. Another time the moon exploded, hurling giant chunks of matter that smashed into the house, destroying everything around me as I cowered under a desk. Recently death visited my house in the form of an assassin wearing a black face mask carrying a fully loaded semi automatic.

I wake up breathless, screaming, sweating, sobbing. Terrified.

Emotions present a conundrum, particularly for a 7-year-old child who is running around a playground one day and a few days later lays in delirium, fighting for her life. At the time this happened, I needed all my energy just to survive. I didn’t have time for terror. Later, when I had mostly recovered, I didn’t have the language for terror. And pretty soon the years slipped by, and I covered my terror in happiness and resilience. Yet how do you ever reconcile the fact that what almost killed you is the very body you rely on every day? And that your body could turn on you again at any moment?

So my subconscious tries to work it out for me.

I write this here because in our world of selfies and social media, we spend a lot of time projecting the awesomeness of our lives, and when we become that one-sided, we lose the opportuniy to connect with people in an authentic way. We curate our images as “funny,” or “fit,” or “cultured,” without delving into the messy, complex, contradictory, very human morass of our lives.

There is no answer to my nightmares I can give my 7-year-old self that will make her feel safe, or better. I can only continue on the journey of exploration of this terror that lies beneath the surface of my joy. It does not rob me of my happiness, but instead teaches me to be grateful for all aspects of my life – even the terrifying ones.

Tour du Mont Blanc, Part 1: Unofficial Beginning

My son Emile and I started our tour du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, nestled at the base of Mont Blanc on the French side of the mountain. The town teems with an eclectic mix of locals, outdoor enthusiasts and high flyers wearing expensive leisure wear. Every outdoor company imaginable seems to have a storefront here: Patagonia, Arcteryx, North Face, Mammut, Helly Hansen and many more. Paragilders descend into the valley like giant butterflies. A silty, light blue river runs through the city center.

Our first night on the trail was at Les Houches, which was a short bus ride down the valley, but we wanted to get acclimated so we decided to take the trail down from Chamonix to Les Houches The day before we had done a short hike down into the valley from Mer de Glace, an ice cave at the end of a glacier, so we wanted a bit more before we hit the trail in earnest.

We filled our water bottles, packed up our gear, adjusted our poles and stopped at a pastry shop to buy breakfast and lunch. We took the telepherique up the mountainside to Plan Praz, where the paragliders jump off of a ledge, and we started the trail at 6,000 feet. We were headed up, straight up, up the side of the mountain. The trail zig-zagged over rocky switchbacks. There were no trees, nothing to stop a tumble down the bare mountain if you missed a footstep. I was breathless at first, and nervous about the edges of the trail and the dramatic drop off. I told myself to put one foot in front of the other. We stopped often for water and to see where we had been. Plan Praz fell away, and the houses in Chamonix looked like tiny toys almost a mile below. Helicopters hovered in the air beneath us. We were walking on the roof of the world.

We reached the pass at Le Brevent at about 7,500 feet. We could see into another mountain range beyond, mountains as far as the eye could see. There was a rock pile to one side of the pass, and our trail continued up the side of another mountain towards the peak. We rested for a while and then carried on.

We came around a corner and the ground fell away into a beautiful valley. We could hear cowbells clearly, but no matter where we looked, we could not see the cows. Finally I saw something else in the distance — two ladders straight up the rocky face of the mountain before us. I knew that there would be a few ladders on the tour, but I hadn’t realized we would come across them on the first day. I hadn’t prepared myself mentally for the ladders – I was afraid. But it didn’t matter, because they were there, and we had to navigate them. My attention became very focused on my hands and feet and each rung of the ladder. When we were finished, I breathed a sigh of relief.

After that, we continued to ascend, and finally reached the peak, where we could see down into an area with several lakes. We descended into the valley and crossed it to the point where we could see Mont Blanc and the peaks that surround it across the valley. The views were spectacular. We were as high as the peaks across from us. We ate ham sandwiches for lunch with a view of a nearby glacier. We watched clouds come and go across the mountaintops. It was as if you could reach out and touch the sky.

We spent some time eating and admiring the view, then we began our descent. The guidebook we had with us, by Kev Reynolds, described the trail down into Les Houches as “knee-wrenching,” and it was not kidding. The path was rocky, steep and winding. Occasionally there were iron rungs stuck in the rocks to allow hikers a grip to stop from falling. There were a few moments where I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

And then, after nine miles, we were in Les Houches. We stayed at the Hotel du Bois, which had an indoor pool, and we took a dip to ease the tension in our tired muscles. We had steak au poivre for dinner with fried potatoes and salad, and citron surprise for dessert, which Emile pointed out was a deconstructed lemon bar with pieces of meringue, bits of crust and a tangy lemon curd all on the plate together. It tasted like the best meal of my life.

The next day was the “official” beginning of our trip, according to our itinerary. But for us, the adventure had already begun.

Next up: Tour du Mont Blanc, part 2: Official beginnings

The Mountains, one step at a time

I just turned 50, which is the same age my mother was when my father died. I also had a total hip replacement in December of 2013. These events, coupled with my own near-death experience as a child, have taught me that life is fleeting, and it’s important to spend time doing the things that matter to you when you can.

Since my son and I have always loved backpacking, I proposed a journey: We would spend 11 days hiking in the high mountains surrounding Mont Blanc in France, Italy and Switzerland. The circuit, if we could complete it, would take 108 miles of walking and more than 30,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and we would carry all of our necessities save breakfasts and dinners.

We knew it would be a stretch. I had hiked since my total hip replacement surgery in 2013, with a pack and without, and up and down some peaks, but I live in Florida, where there are no mountains and no altitude changes. But there are long trails and stadiums and even a sinkhole with stairs descending 120 feet into the ground, so I packed my pack, donned my hiking boots and poles and trained as best I could.

The first day on the trail, the mountains looked daunting. The rocky path led straight up the hillside, zigging and zagging across the bare slope. A misstep would result in a fall that wouldn’t stop until you hit the valley 3,000 feet below. Above us, in the distance, you could occasionally see small specks moving — hikers that seemed miles above us in another world. In a word, it looked hard.

I looked up. I looked down. I looked at my boots.  Just figure out where to put your feet, I told myself. That’s how you climb a mountain; one step at a time.

And so we began. Sweat trickled down our necks. Our breath came out in short spurts. We paused occasionally to navigate a tricky set of stones or boulders. We paused again to drink water and catch our breath, only to have it taken away again by the view. One step after another up the steep mountainside, and eventually a glacier that had been far above us now appeared level to our eyes. More focused attention on the steps, then suddenly the top of the pass appeared ahead, and the trail below us fell away at a dizzying pace.

At the top of the pass, we could see for miles in every direction. Green valleys stretched out for miles far below. Small, puffy clouds appeared in the air above the valleys and beneath our feet. It felt as if we were on the rooftop of the world. Then we began our descent into the next valley, on our way to climb the next mountain.

We repeated this dance on almost every day of the trip, and although as time passed I became physically stronger and the hiking became easier, there was still that element of disciplining the mind, turning “I can’t go that far” into “I can take a step in that direction.”

The mountains teach me lessons every time I visit them.  They tell me to pay attention to what is before you. They remind me that it takes many steps to climb a mountain, but the most important one is the next one you take. They show me that even though life is short, if I put in the work, I can sometimes reap the benefits of peak experiences.

The Hike

Even at 7 a.m., it’s hot in Florida on the second of July. The rising sun cuts out patterns of dark on light through the trees. An occasional mushroom, bright white, pushes through the mud-brown leaf litter. The color green bathes the trees. An insect shouts a high-pitched, undulating hum. Birds chatter and sing, some melodious, some staccato; some chirp one after the other, others warble at random, adding to the chorus.

As you walk, you generate a slight breeze that wicks the moisture from your limbs, but when you stop, the beads of sweat return, along with every mosquito within a five-mile radius. Never mind that you bathed in insect repellent 10 minutes ago; they’ve been seeking a warm-blooded body and you’re it. When you slap them, spots of blood and insect parts begin to appear on your arms and legs.

And you may ask: What is it about all this that makes it worth being tired, sweaty, bloody and mosquito bitten? Aren’t there better ways to spend your days?

I would argue: No.

When I put on my hiking boots and strap on my backpack, I shed a lot of things. I shed my role as an employee, a colleague, a friend, a wife, a mother. I shed other people’s definitions, judgements and assumptions. I shed appearances and expectations.

I lose the distractions of modern-day electronics and advertising, the constant background rumble of technology and industry.

And once I shed these things, once I lose these things, I find myself. But I am not alone when I do; no, instead I am a part of everything.

Part of the light.
Part of the sky.
Part of the wind.
Part of the trees, birds, rocks, trails, leaf litter, moss, brush, and even the insects.

When I hike, I rapidly return to the fundamental nature of what it means to be alive.

As I move down the trail, everywhere I look, there is life; flowers unfurling, saplings growing, birds flying. Everywhere I look, there is death; decomposing leaves, felled trunks of expired trees, the occasional scent of a deceased animal. Everything is in the process of doing both, everything including me.

I hike to remind myself. I hike to remember that life is beautiful and uncomfortable and exhilarating and painful – sometimes all at the same time. That is the nature of all things. I hike to remember that I am a part of it, and I am grateful.

 

 

 

One day at a time

When I was seven, I became, for a few weeks, every loving parent’s worst nightmare. One day I was playing on the playground with the other children, and then a few days later I lay in a hospital bed, delirious and feverish, fighting for my life, and no one knew why.

This is not a story of that illness, but instead a story of recovery. The illness ravaged my body and particularly my right leg. After a month in the hospital and two months on crutches and in physical therapy, I returned to school. I wanted desperately for things to be back to normal, and I couldn’t wait to be able to walk home from school.

The way to school was on downhill, and I made it there easily with no problem. But that changed when I had to go back up the hill. I discovered to my dismay that my right leg felt “tired” – I would later come to realize it was pain. This was 1974, well before the time of cell phones and helicopter patients, so I was on my own, with what seemed like an insurmountable problem. How was I going to make it home?

And suddenly it came to me. I don’t need to make it home, I told myself. I just need to make it to the lamppost. It’s not very far, and when I get there I can rest.

I focused all my attention on that lamppost, and when I got there, I sat down on a short retaining wall to rest. I can stay as long as I need to, I told myself. And then I looked for the next lamppost.

Those lampposts got me home that day, and many days to come. But even so many years later, the technique has helped me through many crises. I’ve been on bed rest for a month, so weak at the end of it that I became breathless walking across the house. At times, anxiety overtook me – I’m an avid walker, exerciser and dancer, and I feared I might never be able to do those things again.

So I returned to the lamppost. And I realized that if I took life one lamppost at a time, or one moment at a time, I might just be able to make it through anything.

I can’t walk around the yard today, I told myself, but I can walk around the house three times. The next day: I can’t walk around the yard three times, but I can walk around the yard once today.

There are many things I’ve had to give up along the way. For instance, I used to be a long-distance runner, but I stopped at age 23.

But the lamppost technique has focused me on what I can do. Today.

In one of my favorite childhood book series, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the lamppost lights the way between the fantasy world of Narnia and real-world England. In my life, the. lamppost has lit the way between where I am today and where I want to be tomorrow. And it has helped me get there one moment at a time. So it seems a fitting title for the beginning of this written exploration. If you are still with me, thank for starting the journey with me.

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