You Are Climbing

Taking a break from the series for the moment. This is a story I wrote this morning before hearing the news of the death of one of my heroes (mine, and so many others’)–now, it seems eerily/oddly fitting. Lest we ever forget that there is no peak in life that will save us. It is so easy to forget to simply live. But maybe this will help someone (anyone) remember. I know I need the reminder often enough. (God, but he reminded me…)

While something more specifically in memory of his marvelous existence will surely be here soon, this piece is in his honor. Tony, you were and are loved.

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You Are Climbing

You are climbing.

And there comes a point wherein you begin to wonder: Will I ever see anything that tells me I’ve reached An Apex—if not The Apex? Will there ever be a sign? Will the vista be enough?

You keep climbing, yet you harbor this doubt in your heart.

Then, suddenly, there is no more stone shielding your eyes. The mountain face falls away. Pink clouds greet you in the belly of a pale blue sky.

And all you can summon is,
This is it? This can’t be it.

You were climbing. And now you are not climbing. How foreign it feels to you.

What to do?

You can choose to sit or stand, and to stare and linger, because the view is, admittedly, beautiful. Even if it is not the Utmost of anything.

Or, you can choose to keep going. To return to that constant sense of Up that you know so well. To, as the song puts it, see what you can see. Because maybe there is an Utmost and maybe it feels more potent and powerful than this.

Letting the crisp thin air filter through you, you decide, yes, that must be the answer.

You begin your journey once more.

Or so you think. Because as you turn to depart, to descend,
The light catches your eye in a way subtle and strange.

It is for a half of a second; no longer. But something about the colors that strike you then—
It sends you reeling.

It reminds you of a summer, years ago, where all you did was walk by the riverside and watch sunsets and read. Sometimes you painted. Sometimes you swam.

Mostly you did not, though. Mostly you embraced this—what would you call it?

Ease.
Nothingness.
Solitude.
Quiet.

Freedom.

How could you have been capable of that, though? It feels so near
And yet
So far away.

But that flash of Then, that memory, is yours. No doubt about that.

Once upon a time—once there was no Apex. It didn’t matter.

I wonder, are the words that cross your mind now. I wonder. Could it not-matter again. When did it even begin to.

There was a story that was told. Wasn’t there?

A myth. It should have been called what it was. Mythology. Fantasy. Fiction.

But it’s not too late. Right? You step back to where you were before, and you sit. You breathe. You watch the light move through the clouds, like a gentle waterfall. You remember.

You remember that there was someone who you loved before all of this began. That there were grounded dreams you had, dreams with shape and texture and definition, absolved of the Utmost. That there was a world beyond this mountain range, a world you wanted to see and explore.

It could be, the volleying cries of the birds seem to say. It could be again.

Couldn’t it?

It is nearly time to descend; you know because the light is shifting in the direction known as Late Afternoon.

But, you think, let’s give it a minute longer. Let’s linger here. Let’s remember what that really means.

To linger.
To live.
To be.

How to get free: step one is to run

I run quite a lot. Not to an ultramarathon extent, or, frankly, even a marathon one, but maybe a little more than what’s considered average. It’s the path I’ve chosen for over 12 years now; while there’s no real physical reason to have kept with it this long, it’s proven to be mentally and emotionally stabilizing, so there it stays, a mainstay of my days. Give me a quiet morning, a riverside trail, and a solid pair of trainers, and I’m at peace for the rest of the day. Or at least a few hours, anyway.

Over and over again, this is about overcoming inertia. Not just of my physical self, but of my mental and emotional selves, too. It takes trying (and/or trials) to get something new out of running, and likewise, out of life. We alone contain our brightest ideals and shadowiest fears, and the work of overcoming inertia is that of choice. Do I choose to believe in the bleakness, or in the brightness? Do I choose balance? What will it be today?

Running through the woods is beneficial, yes, but only when I choose to (a) actually do it and (b) put my heart (and lungs) into it. Or, as some say, “embrace the pain.” What I mean is, even though it’s a habit, sometimes it’s still a hard choice to make. But it’s rare that I regret choosing it.

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Sometimes that pain-resisting instinct – the one that makes decisions difficult – is part of my running and regular life at the same time.

For example: have you ever used physical pain to try and numb the emotional kind? I have, more times than I can count. The worst time was a sunny spring day in Southern California – mid-morning, dusty, and hot. Deciding to go far and fast enough to escape seemed helpful at mile one, but by mile four or five, there was a sinking realization that I wasn’t getting anywhere good. Just angrier, thirstier, and more confused.

It’s too easy to forget that pain can have purpose, and so much of life can be redeemed from its dark corners. Avoidance, resistance – can there truly be resilience when those two lead the way?

No, but a hard look at oneself – embracing that pain – can change everything.

Sometimes when you face the hard things, you come out on top.  There was another run on the North Shore of O’ahu, where I was living at my hanai aunt’s and dogsitting for the summer, on a gut-wrenching trail frequented by those who want to reward their physical efforts with a gorgeous sweeping view.

The day before I took on this steep switchback had been a tough one, workout-wise, and my legs were zapped. Yet somehow it seemed right, on this particular day, to get submerged in the thick greenery, choke down just one more bite of challenge.

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It was a rainy morning – not a rarity here, but still captivating in a gentle way. Permissive, not foreboding. It said, “Go ahead. It’s okay to feel this. This harsh uncertain feeling. It will be useful to you.” The grade was steep and the rocks were slippery, but the end of the climb did not disappoint. Gasping for air, already tired after three miles straight up, I looked across the expanse, to the ocean and the trees and the island rolling out in its majesty.

The challenge was redeemed. As they always are, even though it’s hard to see in the thick of it.

I like to think that’s what is so compelling about the natural world, even in a time when we live in houses and apartments and, generally, places with walls and roofs. Our spirits – they belong to the forests, the oceans, the rivers, and we can see ourselves more clearly there. Through the refracted light of the clerestory and canopy. A long trail jaunt, instead of a means of running away, becomes one of redemption.

Here are some of the places I find that respite in the city:

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  • Pony Pasture (pictured above), a beautiful quiet place by the James.
  • Buttermilk Trail, for when you want to disappear for a few hours and be absorbed in the natural world. The ups and downs and obstacles make for a better adventure than I ever dreamed I’d find here.
  • Monument Avenue, aka the street where we live. Can’t get better cushioning than eight miles of straight grass.

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  • Bryan Park (pictured above), not for mileage but for peace. This is a gem.
  • Byrd Park, a quick jaunt south on Boulevard from us. Makes me feel like I’m in a bigger city, and the fitness loop is pretty fun!

And for you globetrotters, some faraway faves mentioned in this post: