The perfect grown up game

When I was maybe 8, there was this game I would play with myself where I’d pretend that I was a grown up and I’d try to act and speak as cool and sophisticated as I equated with grownup-dom. The goal of this little game of mine was to have a ‘perfect’ day. One where I stayed in my fantasy through the whole day and managed to act like a perfect grown up the entire time.

EIGHT. Which means wanting to be ‘perfect’ has been a consistent thought in my brain for at least 34 years.

……….

I discovered meditation in college at a time in my life where I felt very lost and alone. I did so with the desire for the magic fix, the thing they would turn me into the serene, balanced model I saw in magazines (this was long enough ago that social media hadn’t been invented yet). A new version of the The perfect grown up game. Something where I could be not me.

And since that didn’t magically happen after a few sessions, my practice has been inconsistent. I WANTED to like meditating and get something deeper from it so sometimes I’d do it often enough that I seemed to have more equanimity. But then I would go weeks without thinking about it, only to get back to breathing and sitting when the static of overwhelm would fuzz over my brain.

This went on for YEARS. 

……….

I just recently surpassed 60 straight days of meditation, at least 10 minutes, every day. I do it in the mornings or after dinner or in the car in my office parking lot. Whenever I can fit in in. And something pretty remarkable is happening. I have not suddenly morphed into the serene, still beauty on the mountain top. I’m just slowly becoming more and more okay with who I am. I’m able to step back from myself and observe slightly more objectively, not only when thoughts and feelings bubble up on the mat, but at the grocery store and work and after a long day. Which means I can handle every day stressed with less soupy emotions.

And the other day, after an error at work that I’d normally spend a little too much time thinking about, I realized the part of me that would normally be upset with that kind of shrugged instead, knowing I’d corrected my mistake and there wasn’t anything else I could do about it.

……

That is a big reason, I think, to stick with this meditation game. Because the perfect grown up game seems to be going away.

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Living the dream

I never allowed myself big dreams really.

I grew up broke and raised by hard working practical parents who were the children of immigrants and coal miners.

There was no room in our house for lofty goals.

You went to college and sacrificed so you could get a practical, stable job so you could have a normal comfortable life.

That was the most dreaming I allowed myself, to be comfortable enough to do a little traveling and afford trips to Whole Foods.

It took me awhile to get there but I did it. Scraped my way through college, slowly worked my way up in a corporate environment, paid off some debt, got married, bought a house. Finally went on vacation.

By my mid thirties I’d achieved the most I’d allowed myself to dare to hope.

And if you’ve been following me for awhile you know the rest. The complacency underscored by discontent. Then a run in the woods that changes everything.

For awhile that was more than enough.

But then a dream started sneaking in. A wish to feel what life was like in the mountains. Living in north Texas means there was no real way to live that experience without a lot of travel expenses or a major move so there for awhile, I did what I’d always done and dismissed these thoughts as impractical and told myself to be grateful for what I had.

I was grateful. But still…the dream persisted. And worse, it keep getting louder. I’ve talked before about finally taking that step and how hard it was so I won’t go into it again but we did it. We packed up and moved to place where I can fully experience life in the mountains.

The only big expansive dream I’ve ever allowed myself to have that came true.

And this, friends, is where the intention of my story turns. Because I was going to do my best to lay out plainly-tell you how hard a realized dream actually is compared to the pretty little Instagram worthy snippets you build up in your mind. How no matter how beautiful the outside, your insides don’t magically change. I was going to talk about regret and missing my old life and tell you I don’t know if it’s worth it, this dream life.

But then I went for a long walk in the woods the other day and was at the point in my sojourn that everything started to feel really uncomfortable. I’d been on my feet for hours, my IT bands were getting stiff, my toes were getting blisters and I had been dreaming of doritos and cherry coke for the last three hours. I was ready to be done and still another hour or so before I got back to my car. 

And the tape was playing in my head. The cranky, tired voice of discomfort was wheeling right along with its usual extortions. It’s hot. My feet hurt. I want to be done. It’s hard. WHY ARE THERE SO MANY HILLS????

But then another voice popped up and very subtly said you know you don’t have to think this way if you don’t want. And I know that. The difference here is that usually even if I know how to be better, I feel resistance to the change and in this case, all I felt was relief. 

In the past, I am ashamed to say that part of me expected gratitude to be like the blue pill. That if I was just grateful enough, I would somehow magically become this uber person instead of my neurotic self. 

That day I was still in pain, still ready to be done but without the yammering in my head to make it worse. Gratitude quietly rode along with the blisters and the doritos cravings for the remainder of the hike and she’s been pretty consistent since. 

And while I was out there changing my mind about the hike, I was also changing my mind about this dream that I’d walked into, the one that felt so different from how I imagined. Apparently when the complaining got put aside, the regret and doubt got set down with it.

Because you know what embodying this dream feels like? ALIVE. There is work -hard work- and missteps and backtracking and wayfinding. I am being challenged mentally, physically and emotionally. But I am IN IT and there is not a hint of stagnancy. Like the hike, a part of me just wanted it to be over. Wanted to go back to what I knew, go back to comfort. And like the hike, I am now so excited to see what’s around the next bend.

On being brave

Every saturday the Starbucks lady calls me brave whenever she sees me walk in half awake, same ratty ball cap on my head, same worn flannel, same basic white girl coffee order.

I’m brave, apparently, because I hike or trail run alone.

Now I could get into my irritation at the gender hypocrisy as my husband and male friends have never once been told they were brave for hiking alone but dismantling gender norms is for another post.

The thing is, mountains are straightforward. I can see what I’m getting into. There is no hiding the difficulty-I know it’s going to suck and that I’m going to want to quit at some point. I know there are inherent risks involved. And if it goes south, I know it isn’t personal. If mother nature were a triage nurse, the spiderwebs I clear with my face have a higher priority than I would. They can do some good out there where as I am a human, and therefore have a natural bent towards destruction.

This complete lack of concern for my continued existence is a comfort in a way. It is what it is and you either shoulder your pack and get on with it or you don’t.

Life though. All of it so unclear, all of us so unsure, with no signs to point you up the trail. We are all getting up every day and navigating the murky waters of work stress and decisions about kids or parents or money or boundaries without directions or a map. Then the coworker whose wife lost the baby at 16 weeks. The friend bravely speaking up about her struggles with bipolar disorder. 

Physical vulnerability can be mitigated or at least significantly lessened with gear, training and practice. The vulnerability of being human though, seems to remains raw and terrifying no matter how many years I accumulate on this planet.

So I don’t bother to correct my Starbucks lady as I realize her intention is complimentary. I just know that when I’m brave, it’s not for any mountain I climb. 

And I would tell anyone that has a dream they are afraid to pursue, the bravery to do so already lives within you.

Stories from the backcountry: Mt St. Helens

The land surrounding Coldwater lake in the Mt St Helens national monument area stands with her shoulders drawn back and her head held high. This is not lush and pampered land. It’s land that’s been fury and fire and grief and grace in equal measure. You would think that this land would feel imposing or intimidating but I don’t find her to be unwelcoming. In fact she seems be standing at an open door, inviting me into her home so that I may learn her stories.

There is death here to be sure, and deep scars. She seems very matter of fact about this and prefers to get on with living. She knows that in human time she is slow to heal. But that is the short sighted-ness of squishy, impatient humans. She knows that her bedrock is strong and that healing comes when it’s supposed to. Just like the deep upsurge that tore her apart came when it was supposed to. Life and death and life. 

I am a puny human, slow to learn, slower to understand. But her voice reverberates on some level and I find myself starting slow as well, settling in to a comfortable walk for the first mile or so before breaking into a jog.

Soon I find myself officially in back country and I stand in awe at those sharp shoulders of rock razoring the skyline above me. This place is the big country I saw in my daydreams, when I imagined myself an explorer. Now I am standing in it and still I feel about as far from an explorer as I possibly could. 

I can hear the frogs in the boggy area that’s accumulated where Coldwater creek rushes into Coldwater lake serenading the spring sunshine. And when I can take my eyes away from the peaks before me, I see humble buds still tightly bound on spindly branches brushing across the trail. It is an odd juxtaposition-the jumbled mix of mundane elements, the scramble of talus and rotting logs and trickles that drip down mossy rocks-yet all these bits of ordinary somehow make up majestic peaks before me.

I was 4 years old when Mt St Helens blew her top (and her back) in 1980, ushering in the largest natural disaster this country has ever seen. Thirty eight years later, I find myself traversing across land that even my untrained eyes recognizes as still wounded. 

I can feel my impatience around this. I find myself wanting to see victory where there is still recovery. I can feel myself, as usual, pushing at the edges. Her edges. My edges. Constantly looking for it, the moment that is full and whole and complete so that I can be complete too. The moment that tells me that I’ve become worthy of my dreams.

I can almost hear the land laughing at my silly longings. I’m climbing into snow pack now, post-holing around elk prints. It’s getting warmer and I’m climbing higher and the sky is getting bigger.

And it’s all such a colossal mess. We are all such a colossal mess and this land doesn’t seem to have a damn problem with that so why should I? But how do you accomplish anything then, I wonder, without pushing?

I’m standing on Coldwater peak now, looking down at the lake. I’m completely alone save the wind and the rocky scrabble of the butte underneath me. I’m here but I’m still searching for the thing that makes me real. I guess I’m slow to heal too. I make my way back down the peak, across the bridge over Coldwater Creek. Hot and parched. Head down against the sun. One of the things I’ve always loved about exploring is how inconsequential I am. We humans like to be significant, important, worthy. Here I am just another tree, another frog, another drop of water. Part of the weave of life. It’s the part of me that wants to be significant that also tells me I’m not. Because nothing will ever be enough.

But I am enough here.

The Kings-Elks traverse and a new focus

I had it built up in my mind. I’d gotten to the top of Kings mountain in the coastal range before and the thought of encountering the same sheer drop terrain on the downhill and then traversing over to Elks and heading up again…and then down again…made my knees hurt just thinking about it.

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But as you well know at this point, something about being miserable in the woods appeals to me. I’d set out to do the route that boasted 4600 feet of elevation gain over 11 miles once before but shit was falling apart in my life at the time and I aborted the hike to hang out with my dying dog instead.

It was time. Because I’d found the thing.

A little more than a month prior to this little adventure (which was several weeks ago because I am stellar at timely updates) I’d undergone a little experiment. I’d gotten sick one week and because I was tired and achy, had stayed away from my phone. And felt so damn good mentally that I decided to extend that a little longer. But then the little voice-the same one that told me to start running almost five years ago and then you know, turned my entire world upside down and now I’ve moved halfway across the damn country to go run in the mountains-piped up with a little idea. What if in addition to less screen time, I also got into the woods every day for that 30 days instead? How would my brain feel then? How would my body feel?

I often wonder where our little inner voice gets these ideas and if there is some sort of catalyst that causes them to pop into our brain and why some I listen to and some I don’t.

And also how it’s possible that this tiny little voice can casually throw out this idea to go for a run around the block or put the phone down for 30 days and that somehow changes everything.

When those 30 days were up, I’d put 100 miles on my legs. I’d explored more of the state I’ve come to call home. I’d accumulated approximately 15,000 feet of elevation gain. I’d read 9 books. I felt the delicious, satisfying fatigue of a mission accomplished. But most importantly, I found a direction after wandering around a little aimlessly for the past year.

Don’t get me wrong, wandering is a great thing to do. There is something so freeing about picking a trail, any trail, and going until you feel like turning around and then going home to eat an entire plate of nachos. I’d probably needed the time as well to get adjusted to the move and my new job, our new home. I needed time to learn my routines, to feel a sense of stability underneath my feet. It’s hard to fly if you don’t have a stable jumping off point.

It’s not lost on me that this little experiment started a year after I’d moved here either. Cycles. They are a thing.

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So what’s the next big thing for me? I am going to attempt to summit 50 peaks throughout Oregon and Washington in 2 years. It’s a tight timeframe-especially considering many of the peaks are inaccessible in the winter (or accessible to someone way more versed in mountain climbing than me). And some are going to require major training, the kind that requires ice axes and rope skills, as well as cohorts to do this with. There are peaks I’m nervous about and peaks that I think are going to suck. I’m taking it really seriously. And I’m so excited.

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But back Kings-Elks. Sometimes I do this thing when I’m nervous about something where I imagine it’s just going to be the worst thing ever. And then when it’s not, because most things aren’t ever as bad as the worst thing you can imagine, then it’s a nice surprise. That was Kings-Elks for me.

Okay. One down, 49 more to go.

I’ve been roaming

I recently spent 30 days almost entirely off social media. And during those 30 days, I spent some time almost every day in the nature.

This was not planned. Over a long weekend when I was at the tail end of a particularly stubborn sinus infection and completely over feeling like crap, I found myself outdoors several days in a row and mostly away from my phone. I welcomed the marked reduction in my anxiety levels. Like many, I live by my phone and specifically by my social media apps. Facebook and Instagram are how I stay connected with friends and family, especially since I moved across the country a year ago. They are my news sources. Hurricane Harvey was still stubbornly hanging over Houston and we have family in the area. The political arena was as contentious as ever. I felt obligated to worry over, understand and comment on every event in our country. I was tired, overwhelmed and now more aware of it because my body was tired and worn down.

The sinus infection that gave me a reason to rest and put down my phone may have started this little experiment but once I was back to 100%, I wondered what would happen if I continued the trend. With work and home life, could I even find time to get in the woods every day? And how would my body handle it? I’ve had knee and foot problems off and on since I started running and hiking 4 years ago-would i be physically able to sustain a daily practice, even if I took it easy?

So I did the one thing I’ve found that works for me when I’m uncertain or scared about moving forward, I just told myself that I’d just see how far I could get and if I needed to quit or take a rest day I could. This takes the pressure off of a brain that very much feels an obligation to finish and check off to do lists. And the point was not necessarily to stick to an admittedly arbitrary schedule just for the sake of the schedule, it was to see what happened when I made consistently more time for the outdoors and less time for the screen. 

Here’s what happened:

  1. I read 8 books (and actually finished a 9th the day after my official 30 days was up)
  2. I put approximately 100 miles on my legs and accumulated somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 feet of elevation gain
  3. I started a poetry project that I’m calling Words Hewn-every time I step into nature I take a photo and write a poem inspired by that experience. The goal is to continue this for a year and see how many I accumulate. Still figuring out if I want to post it somewhere or not.
  4. I was in nature in some form or fashion-from local nature parks or gardens to 7000 feet above sea level on wind swept ridge lines-for 29 of the 30 days (I took one day off when my body gave me the very clear message that I needed a damn break).
  5. My husband and I spent more time together in nature. Normally my weekend excursions are done alone as he is not a masochist and doesn’t enjoy spending 5 hours trudging uphill. However, increased frequency meant I often needed to decrease intensity (though I still indulged in a few sufferfests-old habits and all that). And since the goal was to get outdoors every day instead of my usual schedule of 3-4 days a week, I had many more opportunities to get outside in a variety of ways. We explored a state park, a trail in the Tillamook State Forest, a local nature park and Portland’s beautiful Japanese garden, in addition to our usual haunts. There was more time spent walking and talking and I feel more connected to him than I have in a long time. I also noticed that he seemed to put his phone down more once he saw I wasn’t reaching for mine at every lull in conversation or commercial break though I never asked him to or made an issue of it. Which led to more discussion or just being with each other in shared space.     
  6. I realized I feel like I haven’t learned anything new in a long time and I want to change that. So far I’ve found an online naturalist program (like a continuing education sort of thing) that starts in a few months, started reading about the history and geology of the area and am contemplating all manner of classes-from how to set rock climbing anchors to wildlife biology.
  7. When I got free of all the clutter, I found I was able to get more engaged in the world and what was going and ready to be more involved since I wasn’t feeling so overwhelmed and helpless due to a barrage of information, opinions and issues.

On the flip side, I also missed really important happenings in my friend’s lives-family deaths, wedding announcements, job changes, moves-not to mention the regular, normal, happy interactions I have with friends.

But when I first checked instagram after the 30 days were up, I immediately felt a wave of anxiety and the old comparison monster. Thoughts of: I’m not cool enough, I’m not doing enough, I’m not invited all tsunami’d through my head. Maybe I’d been so used to being inundated with social media that I didn’t notice it much before but the thoughts felt loud and sharp. Then I wondered: does my Instagram feed make someone feel that way? and immediately cringed at that thought. 

I’m posting this on a media platform because I want people to read it because I feel a need to share and be seen. What I’m realizing is I want to be a little more thoughtful and intentional in how I do that in a way where I can still be my snarky, ridiculous self. And also how I want to consume social media and connect with others. 

More to come but for now, just a few of my favorite shots over the last 30 days:

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Trail truths on the Cooper Spur

It was a shitty hike. There are a lot of things I could probably blame for it: a restless night of sleep, an even earlier than my usual ass o’clock wake up call, more altitude, more exposure, more wildfire smoke turning the horizon to opaque haze. I won’t though because it could have been a flat trail on a clear day at sea level after waking with the sun well rested and I still could have had a shitty hike.

Sometimes it’s just like that.

I say that now of course, it’s hilariously dramatic in my head as I’m chugging my way up the trail though. Oh the challenges I have to epically overcome. The first draft of this post was equally emo.

Sometimes I’m just like that.

The truth is, sometimes I would like to be better, faster, stronger. More adept at elevation, more versed in the mountains, less prone to injury. I wish I wasn’t so hung up on getting out on the trail because that would mean it wouldn’t be so crazy making when I can’t. I wish I was as passionate about something that came easier to me than this thing that I can struggle with so much sometimes.

This is actually one of the shorter excursions I’ve taken in awhile at about 6.5 miles round trip but also one of the more challenging. It’s pretty much entirely uphill with about the last mile off trail and picking your way over rocks without even the benefit of switch backs.

You start at the Cloud Cap trail head which is at the end of 8 miles of crappy gravel road and the skeletons of trees turned white by a forest fire, 5800 feet up the mountain. There’s a chemical toilet there, in a building with a door that locks and actual toilet paper, something I legit said a prayer of thanks out loud to baby Jesus.

From the trailhead, you’ll see Timberline trail in front of you, Tilly Jane to your left and then Timberline continuing downhill to your right. Go straight ahead on Timberline and make sure you fill out a form at the box as you enter into the Mt. Hood Wildnerness.

This trail is almost entirely uphill and that starts the minute you hit the trees before coming into Tilly Jane canyon then continuing to climb uphill through soft volcanic sand that is the bane of my existence. You will not see shade again until you are at this point on the way back to your car so stay on top of your hydration. Soon you’ll come to a junction with a sign for Cooper Spur. Go right onto Cooper Spur trail. The trail increases the incline a bit and the sun will be hitting your shoulder blades with all it’s might. Sun protection is key here.

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Soon you’ll come up Cooper Spur shelter, which has apparently stood for 70 years and somehow continues to survive the elements. Onward you go, the trail switchbacking and continuing to climb, sometimes following the ridge line that will give you incredible views of the glacier.

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All those wishes swarmed between my ears as the trail disappeared into a field of talus and scree and I started just picking the most direct route I could to hit the top of the spur.

Finally, finally, a deep breath as I top out and stand for a moment at the highest point on the mountain you can reach by trail.

In front of me, a stone circle, about thigh high and a large rock cairn. Buzzards circled overhead. I remember joking with a runner friend during a trail race that they probably smelled us and thought something was dead and thinking it was probably true at that moment as well. To my left, the magnificent Elliot glacier. Behind me, the spur dipped down from the point I was standing on to form a saddle between my feet and the terrifying north face of Mt. Hood. I followed it down for a bit and then felt that moment where I became unbound from my body and was no longer all the stories I tell myself.

I’m like that too.

And I think that’s the trick of all of this. To figure out how to live with all the contradictions that reside within you without the labels of good or bad, dark or light. Somehow we need all of it to carry us up the trail.

*

Trail head: Cloud Cap

Elevation at start: 5850 feet

Length: 6.4 miles (ish)

Elevation gain: 2800 feet

Difficult: Yes