Archive | adventure

California Naturalist Class, Part 4: The Perseid Meteor Shower

David and I are lying in the middle of the road, our heads propped up by a slowly-deflating air mattress. David says the mattress may not have been the best buy in the world, but here we are putting it to good use. Paulette and Trish are leaning their heads against David’s car, their eyes glued to the night sky. We’re in the middle of the road in an area usually busy with cars and tourists, but it is past midnight, and we think we’re safe enough. Hardly anyone comes to the Bear Valley Visitor Center at midnight. And if they did, well, it’s the dead of night, and we’ll hear them, or see their headlights, long before they are near.

It’s the perfect place to watch a meteor shower. Dark as dark can be. Of course, part of the darkness is due to the fact that the fog is thick in the sky. Only one less-than-dusky patch is showing a single star twinkling above us. Paulette claims to see not one, but three stars. I’m not about to argue about it. Her eyesight, I daresay, is better than mine, and even if not, her optimism is an asset. For us to see the shower, the meteors will need to streak exactly through our one patch of unclear skies.

We are all giggling uncontrollably but still keeping our eyes on the heavens. I no longer know why we are laughing, only that everything is funny. For some reason, David and I started calling the mattress the Guillotine. This is hysterically funny to us. Perhaps every word, even the word “guillotine,” becomes funny when it’s way past your bedtime, and you are lying on the cold ground in the middle of the road on a fast-deflating mattress, hoping to see a meteor shower in a foggy sky.

“I saw one, there!” Yells out Paulette. We all aim our eyes at the spot to which we think she points, but nothing is there, of course. Meteors tend to do that, I hear. They streak across the sky, and then they are gone.

“Which direction did it go?” I ask, remembering that the only time I saw a falling star was when I knew which part of the sky I should look at. It’s a lot of space to cover, otherwise.

Paulette spans the whole night sky with her arm. “This way,” she says.

The fog rolls in, threatening to cover our patch of sky. I no longer see even the one star. Nonetheless, I scan everywhere. We’ve come all this way. I know we’ll see a meteor shower tonight.

A car approaches, its beams scouring the road. We watch it as it passes slowly through the parking lot behind us and then turns, its wheels crunching pebbles, onto our road. David and I jump up and move to the side. David snatches at the mattress, which droops feebly in his hand. The car pauses, its headlights wavering, then backs up, tries to go forward where there is only a trail. I wonder, briefly, if the car would breach the barrier and head up the Bear Valley trail which eventually will lead the occupants to Arch Rock and the ocean. Now, that would be an exciting drive in the dark.

David jogs toward the car to see if he can help. Perhaps they had taken a wrong turn. I notice that I am not afraid of murderers and rapists. The car is a minivan, the backseat probably filled with children sleeping in their carseats. I watch David for another moment, then remember the shower. I cannot fall asleep on my watch. I return my gaze to the sky.

A light, like a racing, single firecracker, arcs through our one clear patch, disappearing before I can yell, “There!” I feel redeemed. I saw a meteor. We can go back to the Boathouse now if we must, though if it was up to me, we’d drive to Mount Tamalpais to see if up there we’d have better luck.

We drive back, tired but satisfied. Paulette of the sharp eyes had seen two meteors. David, Trish and I each saw one. The drive back is nearly uneventful. As we make the turn toward Chimney Rock, a pale shape materializes on the side of the road. David stops the car, and we all hold our breaths. It’s a barn owl, just sitting there, as though waiting to hitch a ride. The owl stares back, unblinking, its white face remarkably expressionless. Every detail of it stands out in the darkness. A frightening ghost. A predator to be feared. Suddenly, it opens its wings wide and soars up and away above us. We let out our collective breaths. Meteors and owl. There can be a no better end to our foggy foray.

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California Naturalist Class, Part 3: Barf Car Vignettes

Rumbling down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, cow ranches on either side, the sky is heavy with fog above us. In the car, some of us concentrate on surviving the nauseating drive, breathing in and out, staring ahead. David, both hands on the wheel at all times, foot perhaps too attached to the accelerator, recites J.R.R. Tolkien poetry:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”

We discuss which character of Lord of the Rings is closest to our hearts. I choose Sam, the hobbit, for his honesty, loyalty, bravery, and trustworthiness. He is not the hero, and yet the hero depends on him utterly for his success. Tonya interjects, pointing out that Sam is tempted not to return the ring to Frodo after he rescues him from the spider. I counter by saying that actually, though the ring tries to gain control over Sam, and arguably perhaps succeeds momentarily, Sam proves stronger and does, in fact, return the ring (unlike Gollum, if we want to compare, who kills his brother for the ring, Sam’s love belongs first and foremost to Frodo, and no ring can breach his loyal heart).

David, perhaps predictably, chooses the elf, Legolas. I poke fun at his choice, saying the elves don’t really and fully participate in the adventure. Higher beings, immortal, they seem somehow above any danger encountered by mere humans and hobbits. David’s reddish hair glitters and his eyes shine as he speaks of Legolas, his honor and courage. The elf from the book, he emphasizes, not the movie. David mentions Gandalf, too, as a possible choice, because of his humility. Gandalf’s hand is in every instance where help is needed, and yet he wanders the countryside humble and unobtrusive. You’d never know he had done anything to change history. I agree with that choice. I love Gandalf. I’d be Gandalf in a heartbeat if I could.

Tonya and Lesley, sitting in the back, choose no character for themselves. Perhaps they have not dreamed of living in Middle Earth the way I have, the way I sense David had. Perhaps their hearts are inextricably tied to some other book. Or perhaps David and I dominate the conversation too much with our Tolkien passion, our need to dive into the world of the book.

*********

I look out the window as cow ranches turn into marshy yellowing grass. Drakes Estero stretches to our right. I know somewhere there is water, fresh mixing with salt, but from where I’m sitting my view is mostly blocked by the bushes that frame the road. I search for wildlife, and suddenly, far in the distance, I see a tan shape of what looks to be a cat. I yelp intelligibly. David breaks the car at the side of the road, and we all run out, holding onto our binoculars (in my case, a monocular). I jog breathlessly after David and Lesley, both of whom, far ahead, seem much more used to running (or else, just younger). Tonya chooses to stay near the car. If it’s a mountain lion, perhaps she’s being wiser than us, but at the moment, it doesn’t matter that I may be running toward a carnivore that could kill me. My heart races with the joy of discovery, of something new, with the joy of being alive.

The estero lies before us, green and yellow and grey, punctuated by stretches of pristine, transparent water, and there, right in front of a little boulder mound, is the cat. I jerk the monocular to my eye and squint through. Tan indeed. Muscular. A cat for sure. But what kind of cat?

“I don’t think this is a bobcat,” David says.

“It’s a mountain lion,” I say with confidence, because I want it to be so. In the eye of the monocular, the cat walks regally up the boulders. Its muscles ripple. I have never seen any animal look quite this powerful, quite this strong. Nothing exists but its shape in my monocular. No estero, no birds, no grass. Just me and the cat. I wonder if it’s looking back. The monocular is not strong enough that I can see a face. Just a shape. Just the blatant power of a wild, living body.

The van with the rest of the class turns the corner. David runs to tell them to come see the cat, just as it walks around the boulders and disappears behind the grass. “It was small, but I think it was a mountain lion,” David says. I hear Chris say in reply that it was a bobcat. I gnash my teeth in frustration. It was a mountain lion. I know it was. I saw, as clear as day, the long tail, the tan, sleek body. This was no kitten. This was it, the king of the beasts, the top predator.

“A bobcat,” Chris says later in class.

“A mountain lion,” I insist quietly to myself, wondering why I feel so irritated. “I know what I saw.” But (fearing what?) I don’t speak up. The mountain lion, now a part of the estero and the park and the mythological journeys of the Barf Car, remains, for the time being, singularly mine.

*********

David likes raptors, and not just any raptors. I’d guess his favorite is the harrier,  He never says it in so many words, but I can tell. Every time we see a raptor in the sky, David pulls the car over. “It’s a harrier,” he says with bated breath, hands locked around his binoculars, eyes peering through with an intensity no plastic instrument can hide. “I can see the white band on the back.”

“I don’t know,” Lesley says. Her eyes, too, are glued to the binoculars. “The tail looks very red to me.”

A pause, followed by a slight sigh, “Oh, it’s a red-tailed hawk,” David admits. Then, “No, it’s a harrier. Look at the white band. Oh, no, it’s a red-tailed hawk.”

The hawk flies beside us over the golden hills of the coast, its wings spread out as it catches the wind. I watch it, entranced. Ah, to fly like a bird. To swoop down close to the waves. To dive through the air down the cliffs, wings tight at my side. To soar above dolphins as they slice through the waves. Ah, to fly like a bird. Like a harrier. Or a falcon. Or a red-tailed hawk. Even a sparrow would be fine.

“Now, that’s a harrier,” David says and pulls over the car again. “Look at the white band.”

*********

I must be feeling comfortable with David, Tonya and Lesley, because here I am singing to them a Hebrew song. David’s entranced. He’s a musician, but I can’t tell if he’s excited because he’s hearing a new song in a different language or because he actually likes it. The song is an Israeli rendition of a poem, “A Walk in Caesarea.” The poet, Hannah Szenes, was a young woman on the brink of volunteering to be the first woman paratrooper to Nazi-held Hungary. The poem can be translated like this:

“My God, My God,

May it never end,

The sand and the sea,

The rustle of water,

Lightning in the sky,

The prayer of Man.”

“Can you teach me how to sing it?” David asks.

In Israel, “A Walk in Caesarea” is often sung as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies and has become, for many people, a song of sorrow about a lost life. Hannah Szenes was captured by the Nazis, tortured, and eventually executed. She was twenty three years old when she died. Despite that, to me her poem is a symbol of hope and love. It reminds me that humanity deserves to be prayed for. Sometimes, as I look at the trash which we humans carelessly throw out, at the toxins we thoughtlessly pour into our rivers, and at other damage which we believe our right to perpetrate upon the earth, it is hard for me to remember that everyone is worthy of prayer and love, even us humans. Hannah Szenes’ poem does not separate lightning, sea, sand and man. Standing on the beach in Caesarea and watching the Mediterrenean’s waves calmly wash upon the sand, she puts her faith in the power of regeneration, in life itself. She will parachute into Nazi-held Hungary to save other people precisely because she sees the interconnectedness of every grain of sand, every human soul, every drop of water.

I lean my head back against the Barf Car’s seat and think of Hannah Szenes as she stands, so many years ago, not in front of the firing squad but on the beach. I think of Hannah writing her poem in the tranquility of the sand and the sea, of the Roman archaeological ruins in the background. The Barf Car rumbles on back toward the Lifeboat Station. Harriers and red-tailed hawks fly by and owls hoot. Baby peregrine falcons balance on cliff tops as elephant seals and sea lions roar in the water below. Somewhere, a meteor rockets through the sky, and ahead, at our destination, our cook, Yaella, fills the Lifeboat Station with the good smells of food and love. For this moment in time, all falls into place as planned by the Great God in the Sky. Later all might be chaos again. For now, here is life and love.

Watch Ofra Haza, an Israeli singer, singing the song “A Walk in Caesarea.”

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California Naturalist Class, Part 2: From Back of the Pack to Front of the Van

Lesley, Bruce and I have fallen behind the rest of the pack. Chris, our teacher, strides behind us purposefully, spotting scope and tripod resting on his shoulder, herding us before him like a sheepdog guarding wayward sheep. Lesley peers into every crevasse looking for critters. I am frantically trying to draw a flower in my notebook while pretending to move forward. Bruce is also fascinated by the plants. We just need a little more time, but the rest of the group is already walking around the bend, and the pressure to move is greater than the wish to stay behind.

We’re hiking the Muddy Hollow Trail down to Limantour Spit, and it is gorgeous! Next to us, but mostly out of sight, is the creek. So many plants grow happily here with all the water. Hedge nettles bloom below overhanging willows and alder trees. Coffeeberry cradles red and black berries inside rounded green leaves, and a blackberry vine sprawls luxuriously nearby, its fruit having been already consumed, perhaps, by a passing deer. Ocean spray, past its bloom, still pours bouquets of dried flowers from every branch, and lilac hides its now forgotten flowers under a dark-green canopy of leaves. Birds are twittering from every direction, and the group stops to listen. Our guide, David, can tell the birds by their call as well as (so it seems to me at least) by their shadow. Tit wren, he says. Rough-wing swallows. Towhee. Gold finches. Song sparrow. Natalie, Chris and he set up scopes to allow everyone to take a close-up look at a great egret. A little bird darts by. A swallow, David says. I try to take note of some characteristic of the fast-moving bird so I’ll remember. Perhaps the shape of the wing? The fast flight? The V-split tail?

“When the group stops, this is your chance to get upfront,” Chris observes with some impatience as Lesley, Bruce and I find ourselves in the back of the pack again. He strides behind us in a way that makes it impossible to fall too far behind, bodily blocking the sandy trail. Lesley tells me in a soft tone that she would, if possible, do what he says, but she doesn’t want to push aside the other people. I agree with her, but I think that both of us don’t really want to be in the front. We want to be in the back: she to look for critters under the leaves and in the trees, and I to check out all the plants. I want to know all the plants’ names. I want to be able to recognize them by their leaves, stalks, general shape. I want to know what they are even when the flowers are gone.

We see Tule elk in the distance. Another egret, or perhaps the same one. A blue heron. We’re getting closer to the beach. The plants change, turning into a coastal community. Lower bushes and shrubs. Then, the dunes. Lesley and I eat lunch on the beach, staring into the bay. It is windy, and our food fills with sand. I can feel its grittiness against my teeth. Our geology instructor from the day before told us that Limantour Spit was a flowing river of sand, and I believe him. I can see the movement of it before my eyes. Seagulls watch our every bite. I remember another picnic on a beach, on Santa Cruz Island, being warned about the seagulls. “They will grab food from your mouth,” the kayaking guide had told us. “They will grab anything you drop or put on the table. The only thing they haven’t learned to do yet is unzip a cooler.” On Limantour Spit, we are not attacked by ravenous seagulls. We finish our food and rejoin the group, ready for a walk on the edge of Limantour Marsh.

Obedient, Lesley and I take the front, immediately behind David, turning after him onto a side trail leading closer to the marsh. Turns out European grass is not just invasive. It also cuts into unprotected legs like a knife. “Deal with it,” says David after he warns us against it. Lesley is looking for critters. I stare at little yellow flowers and wonder what their names are. We peer through the scopes at sand pipers flying in a cloud, spiraling an infinity near the marsh, their wings turning silvery as they dip in and out of the sun. We learn how to recognize pickleweed and eel grass, but my favorite is the tiny marsh lavender. I now notice it is everywhere, growing like a cute little tree out of the pickleweed-covered sand.

On the way back, Chris points out a rare plant: the Point Reyes rein orchid. It’s green and spiraling on a single stalk. I’m impressed. I would never have noticed it on my own, but now the other students recognize it in several spots along the walk. I find I am tired. All this walking and stopping in the sun had taken its toll. The names of plants swirl around my head, and I try not to remember any for fear of forgetting them all. When we arrive back at the Boathouse, I will transfer them to my journal and look them all up in my book.

In the parking lot, I push my way into the front seat of the van. The other David, our David who had been driving Lesley, Tanya and I in what he termed the Barf Car, had to go to the office, and there is no choice but to ride in the van with everyone else. I’m ashamed of pushing my way to the front, but there’s no choice. Sitting farther back a few days ago had ruined my entire afternoon with nausea and headache. I don’t want that to happen again. I stare forlornly out the front windshield, feeling like I’d done something wrong, forgetting all about the magical day in the wobbly, dizzying ride out of Limantour. Had it even happened — the walk, the plants and the birds, Chris herding us — or was it a dream? Perhaps, a dream. Or perhaps a week later, when I sit at my desk and write this blog, it is the opposite: the walk will be real, and the memory of the ride in the van all gone.

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California Naturalist Class, Part 1: Blissful Discovery

Lesley and I were still strangers when we parked our cars side by side in the Chimney Rock Parking lot, at the very edge of the continent in Point Reyes National Seashore. Lesley had a big, friendly smile and long, blond hair. She’d arrived slightly late to our first session of the California Naturalist Immersion Class, and I couldn’t remember what she’d said was her favorite natural phenomena. Octopus, maybe? I made a mental note to remember that she must like intelligent marine life.

During our ice-breaker circle earlier, I had chosen the ibex to represent me. An animal like a cross between mountain goat and big-horned sheep, the ibex lives in Israel’s Negev Desert. I loved seeing them hang out, like over-sized, tan, misshapen birds on the low desert trees, munching thoughtfully on leaves and branches as though they belonged up there. They represented the essential me, I felt, desert-loving and freedom-seeking at my essence, rock-climber and route finder, Israeli despite living here in the United States.

I returned Lesley’s smile, allowing myself to feel happy being there despite my trepidation about the California Naturalist class. The rooms at the Lifeboat Station, where we were to stay, were so crowded. The bathrooms uncomfortable and lacking in privacy. The entire building we were going to stay in seemed cramped, and the area where we were going to be eating a frightening potential abode of dust mites. I knew I could find hundreds of reasons to be worried about the week — they all were knocking on the inside edge of my consciousness. Instead, I tried to concentrate on Lesley’s wide smile.

We walked companionably down the hill, each step bringing us closer toward the on-the-edge-of-consciousness dreaded Lifeboat Station. Drake’s Bay stretched to the left, unflappable and blue, surrounded by yellow cliffs (the same rocky shores, according to legend, which made Sir Francis Drake think of the Dover Cliffs when he first landed). Elephant seals roared in the background, and here and there the desolate cry of a seagull flying overhead pierced the air. It was evening, and yet the sun still shone bright above the hills, and only the slowly lengthening shadows of the Monterey Cypresses hinted that night might come before long.

As we passed by the Chief’s house, where the Coast Guard captain had once resided with his family, an owl hooted, and then another. We paused, listening. The air quivered with the scent of the cypresses and the sound of the waves rushing onto the rocks below. The owl hooted again from our right. Looking up, my breath stopped, for we could see it, framed by the cypress as clear as the Point Reyes sun-setting daylight. My first Great Horned owl, right there. As though to confirm our discovery, the owl hooted again, its unseen mate echoing the call.

Others from our class appeared, coming up the hill toward us, curious faces I didn’t yet know attached to name tags which soon, a day or two later, I would not need. Binoculars were pulled out of bags, trained at the owl. The owl was silent, perhaps unsure of what the commotion was about, wondering if it was safe to advertise its location. Too late. We already knew exactly where it was, could see it on the bare branch, discovered its pellets on the ground below. Secret no more, the owl and its partner were ours for the watching and remained ours for most of our week’s stay.

“I lead you to make your own discoveries,” our teacher Chris said during one of his talks. “I could have led you to the owl, but I wanted you to find it yourselves.” My subconscious knew, of course, that the owl had been on that tree before Lesley and I discovered it. I knew, too, that other people had seen Great Horned owls before me, had seen this one more than once. I was neither the first to see it on that particular cypress tree, nor the first to discover the species. And yet the discovery was precious to me. I had heard the owl call, raised my eye in hope of seeing it, and met with success for the very first time. Seeing it was magic, surprise and miracle combined. For me, my owl sighting was unique, and the owl was the first, primordial owl, a wonderful beginning to a week still mysteriously looming before me and on which I placed so many hopes and expectations and innocent trust.

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A Year to Live — 361 Days

Holding Onto Grudges

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

A deer at Rancho from a few years ago. I thought it appropriate to the idea of freedom and letting go.

On Tuesday, I went for a hike with a new friend, J-N, who I met that morning for the first time. We were supposed to hike with another woman, a mutual friend, but since she couldn’t come, J-N and I found ourselves in the funny position of meeting for a hike without ever having seen each other before. Despite our lack of familiarity with each other, we quickly dove into the depths of a rather personal conversation. From talking about love of the outdoors, to sharing how we met our life’s partners, we soon progressed to speaking about life itself, and through that, to my year to live and my death in (now) 361 days.

As we talked and walked, I found myself time and again complaining about grievances from my past. “Wow, I am still bearing a grudge,” I commented each time, wondering at myself for my ultra-long memory in keeping resentments. I was carrying my usual, regular backpack, as I always do, but as one grudge after another flickered to life in my memory, it occurred to me that my physical backpack was not the only one I was carrying. There I was, in the greenness and beauty of a gloriously wild place, in the sunny clarity of a California summery winter day, carrying on my back a gaggle of grudges, seemingly without any intention to let them go.

Our walk passed through rolling meadows, low oak forests, and inside the brim of a gorge almost completely overrun by fallen and uprooted trees and shrubs (perhaps the result of the last storm). Still-green trees and shrubs lay in the path of the creek, creating what could almost be a dam, and we wondered what would happen in the creek bed when the rains came again. “Erosion,” J-N said, looking at the destruction around us. We couldn’t help but imagine the violence of the storms that brought about so much collapse, that worked their way by wind and water around the roots of these trees, till finally those mighty beings could hold onto the ground no more, and even they, the giants of the earth, succumbed to the inevitability of the circle of life.

Grudges work the same way, I thought. They insidiously wear away at the foundations, exhausting good will, trust, and peace of mind. Even the tallest tree or the hardiest shrub cannot withstand the repeated corrosive efforts of resentment. I looked in the face of each one of my grudges as they came up, and I was surprised to see how little true emotion was left in them. Rather, these grudges I was holding onto, as though my world depended on them, were like a frayed tale, told so many times that it no longer held any meaning.

“As you hike,” a friend once suggested a meditation, “imagine you are carrying with you a backpack filled with all your sorrows, upsets, ill will, and anger. While hiking up a mountain, pause once in a while, perhaps during switchbacks in the trail, and imagine yourself opening the backpack and taking something out. Leave these by the side of the trail, one at a time. You can always pick them up on your way back, if you need to, but perhaps by the time you hike down you will realize you no longer need those burdens you’ve carried, and you can leave them there to be recycled back into the earth.”

In these last 361 days which I have before I die, I would like to let go of as many grudges and resentments as I can. For a moment there, during my hike with J-N, I could see with utter clarity what it would be like not to carry these grudges anymore, to hike without the backpack of resentment. If you’ve ever gone backpacking before, you know the relief of setting your pack down after a long day of hiking. The backpack, containing everything you need to live in the woods for a while, becomes a part of the body, turning you into a big turtle who is carrying its house. Setting it down is like a revelation, a release, a freedom that can only be experienced, impossible to describe.

I have carried my grudges long. I have brought them with me so far. But now, I think, it is time to set them down, one at a time. Like ultra-light backpacking, or like John Muir hiking only with his tin cup and a blanket, so do I too wish to complete the journey of my life with as little baggage as I can. Whether this means forgiving myself, forgiving others, or begging others for their forgiveness, I am getting ready to step into the creek bed and allow the water and the wind to wear the foundations of my grudge-constructs down. These stories I’ve been telling myself for so long, unlike the trees downed that I saw in my hike with J-N, were never really alive. It is time, as Jack Kornfield says, to let go of all hope of a better past. I like this idea. Wish me luck.

 

The class “A Year to Live” is offered by Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF. It is based on the book A Year to Live by Stephen Levine.

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A Year To Live — 364 Days

Yesterday, during a somewhat innocent meditation class, I received a prognosis for an untreatable condition called Life. I have only one year to live. Perhaps less. The prognosis did not surprise me too much. I had been preparing for the class (which is based on the book, A Year to Live, by Stephen Levine) and for the prognosis for a few weeks now. What struck me, though, was the realization of how fleeting my life really is.

Eight years ago, I signed up for a trip which fascinated me to no end. It was a backpacking-and-mountaineering trip into the depths of the Olympic Rainforest to climb Mount Olympus. Who among us did not long, at least for once in their life, to visit the abode of the gods? I never wondered at the Greeks for believing that their gods lived on top of a seemingly unreachable, snowy mountain. Had I been a god, I would have wanted to live on a pristine snowy peak, with the view of a thousand mountains, valleys and plains around me. Best of all, reaching Mount Olympus required passing through all these mountains and Valleys. I loved the idea of backpacking 15 miles in order to reach the mountain. The remoteness, the scenery, the adventure, all appealed to me.

A few days before I was due to leave, my son fell off a slide and broke his arm, a moving fracture that looked terrifying and required a reduction at the hospital. For a moment, I was not sure if I would be able to leave for my trip, but then it was the day of my flight, and I was going. My son was alright with the cast, not really requiring any extraordinary amount of care other than, perhaps, with showering. His dad was to take care of him, and I gave myself permission to go.

I still remember getting to my hotel (it was a Holiday Inn Express not too far from the Seattle Needle). I remember having breakfast the next morning, inquiring about leaving my huge, now mostly empty white bag with clean clothes and some toiletries with the front desk till I returned, dragging my blue pack, so full of stuff that my ice axe and boots and crampons were hanging off the back like I was some medieval peddler. I remember seeing Pat and Alan, the two guides, and thinking they might be a father and son. I remember the equipment check on the floor in the Mountain Madness office, and what I thought when I first saw Mel, Mel who turned out to be my best friend on the trip.

And then we were away and driving and crossing the sound and driving some more and in the parking lot, checking equipment again and splitting up the food and group equipment, and I remember shouldering the heaviest pack I had ever carried, quite possibly 45 or 50 pounds to my barely 115. And then we were off, hiking fast through some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen, swallowing up the miles.

Seemingly, I remember everything about this trip: the rainforest teeming with green life, the Hoh River flowing merrily and twinkling next to the trail for most of the way, how cold it was in the early morning when we began our climb, and how steep Snow Dome was. I remember getting to know the other seven men in the group (I was the only woman), crossing the avalanche zone, the beauty of the Blue Glacier. And of course, the top of Mount Olympus, and rock climbing up and down-climbing and rappelling down. But most of all, I remember our last night on the trail. We slept on an island in the middle of the Hoh, except, I couldn’t sleep. I lay on the sand in my sleeping bag, and the echoes of the trip pounded in my blood and the river flowed through my veins, both calling to me to stay forever. Stay, every leaf whispered, every grain of sand. There was only the river and the forest and the wonderful people on the climb. Home seemed far away and unreal. Only the Here was alive and true, and it seemed impossible to me that the night, stretching starry and bright around me, would ever end.

On Snow Dome with the tip Mount Olympus peeking in the background.

Mel and I on breaking our first camp, comparing the various sizes of our packs. His weighed more than I did.

Mel and I on breaking our first camp, comparing the various sizes of our packs. His weighed more than I did.

 

I climbed Mount Olympus in August of 2008. Back in the car, we drove with the windows slightly open — everyone stunk after five days with no showers. We had lunch together (I remember the waitress asking Alan for an ID — he was twenty-two at the time), and then we were dropped off at our hotels. I showered and soaped several times before I was clean, wandered around Seattle for a time, and had dinner by myself at a pizza parlor near the Needle. The next day I flew home. The adventure was over, then it was gone, and then, before I knew it, it lay buried under the dust of many days, weeks, months and years, a shiny memory with mothballs.

This year, my last to live, I would like to live as I have lived on Mount Olympus, enjoying every breath, every smell, the sight of every blade of grass, feeling raw and real. Because this year, the last year of my life, is going to go by the same way as my trip had. Here today, with 364 days to go, it seems like it would go on forever, but as I blink, only 60 days will remain, and then 3 and 2 and 1, and soon a marker will be the only thing reminding you where you put the last physical remnant that I’d been here. And then, while you blink and take your breaths, it will be 2025, and you would wonder, could it really have been seven years?

Isn’t life surreal? Isn’t life just so, so real?

The adventure, so soon to end, begins, and it was only appropriate, you know, that it would begin with a blog post.

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Walking My Dream

A few days ago I had an illuminating conversation with my daughter Eden. I had asked her, Would you like to hear about a dream I want to do?

She replied: “Does it include me?”

I said: No….

She said: “I don’t want to hear about it.” And then she added: “I think parents should only have dreams that include their kids.”

Not quite knowing how to react (were her words a cute thing to say or completely unfair?) I did not respond directly. At first I was blown away by the realization of just how much resistance I could expect from the kids when I tried to go for one of those dreams that do not include them. Then, after talking this over with my therapist, I was startled by another realization:

When my daughter has kids, if she still subscribes to this belief, she will think that she can only have dreams that include her kids, and if she has any dreams that do not include her kids, she will not follow them.

One of my dreams that does include my kids is that they will be free.

At least partly, I think, my kids watch me following my dreams. I’ve climbed mountains and gone on backpacking trips. Dar and I even ventured as far away as Prague and Israel without them. I try very hard, however, to fit the timing of fulfilling my dreams so that it does not disrupt the kids’ schedule. I go hiking and backpacking when they are with their dad. I went on a meditation retreat on dates that promised the least days away from them. I cancel anything if it interferes with their needs.

Me on top of Rainier

Me on top of Rainier

If I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2688-mile-long trail that traverses California, Oregon and Washington, I would not be able to fit it on the days that the kids are with their dad. I would not be able to be there if they had a cold. It would take me at least a day (or likely more) to get back if they needed me or if, heaven forbid, some emergency threatened them. I would be really, really far away.

But I would be walking my dream.

Some people have said to me: “Why don’t you wait till the kids are older? People hike the PCT even in their sixties.”

I don’t have an answer to the question, not a good one anyways. Except, of course, that I could say: When you look into your own heart, and touch your own dream, do you really want to wait for some imaginary better time to do it? Until the kids are older? Until you’ve retired? Until some made-up set of conditions are met? Or would you like to spread your wings today, now, this moment? Would you like, right now, to be free?

Next year, come May, I would like to spread my wings, pick up my backpack, and go hike the PCT. Uri will be almost 16. Eden will be 13. I will be 44. Dar will be kissing the other side of 50. I feel in my heart that it’s time, that I am ready for taking this freedom. In the last year I was beset by asthma, an inflammation in my foot, the flu, and back pain. I would like to follow my dreams now, while I still, maybe, can. While I’m still young enough and healthy enough and fit enough. While I still want those dreams. While they still mean something to me.

I hope that by walking my dream, my kids will see that dreams matter and that fulfilling them is as important as anything else we do in our brief, magical flash of life. I hope that my kids will learn and remember that they matter, and that while many things are important, so are those dreams that lie in their heart.

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The Silver-Lined Cage

My mother sent me yesterday a story by Israeli author Shlomit Cohen-Assif. The story tells of a yellow bird that had been caught by a hunter and was being kept in a cage near the window. Unable to fly, the bird soundlessly sings inside her heart her longing for the open, free sky. One day an old woman passing by asks the bird to sing for her. While the bird sings, the old woman weaves her silver hair inside the bars of the cage, making it lighter-than-air so that the bird, though still in the cage, can fly again.

The story saddened me. Sure, the bird can now see the world, but she is still trapped inside the cage. She cannot move her wings. The cage, though silver-lined, is still around her, and for as long as she is inside, she will always see the world through its bars and be forever limited by its size and shape. She will never be truly free.

I, too, like the bird, live in a silver-lined cage. Some of the bars of the cage are of my own making: my responsibilities as a parent and my responsibilities as a daughter, sister, cousin, and granddaughter, my social obligations to friends and acquaintances. Some of the bars I have accepted because I wish to fit in the society in which I’ve chosen to live: moral and ethical rules, social norms, and other societal expectations. My perceptions of these bars change. At some times the bars seem more rigid, less able to give way. The bars can be light as air, allowing me some illusion of freedom or they can be inflexible, appearing to trap me in a small and cramped cage.

Jack Kornfield tells the story of a tiger in a zoo who lived most of her life in a small pen. As the zoo began to shift its animals to larger, more natural living areas, this tiger too was moved to a much bigger yard. Despite having all this new space to explore, the tiger spent the rest of her life pacing a small area, the size of her former pen, never venturing away from it. Like the chickens who always return to their coop and the cows who return every night from the meadows to their barn, even when there’s a chance of freedom, we often choose to stay in, or return to, the place where we feel safe, even when we perceive it as a cage, even if we feel trapped inside.

That is the secret of the silver-lined cage and what makes it most difficult to escape: its door is unlocked. We can get out any time. The tiger, the yellow bird and I are the only ones with the key to our cages, and we are the only ones who get to choose when the door stays open and when it is shut. Despite its disadvantages, inside the cage we are safe and can pretend to be anything we want to be. We can fly over the moon (remember, the bars are light as air with the woven silver hairs), without ever needing to risk the strength of our own wings.

But this flight is not a true flight — it is a flight by the same standards as reading a book about climbing Everest would require heavy mountaineering boots or watching a movie about glass-blowing would produce a pumpkin or playing a football video game would make us sweat. If this kind of freedom was true then I would have made three touchdowns during Wednesday night’s game against the Browns when I played with my son on his playstation. In order to fly in truth, I must unlock the door, open it, and acknowledge that I am the one who has made this cage, and because of that, it is for me to decide that I can leave it. Perhaps I will never climb Everest or get a touchdown in an NFL football game (the last, especially, seems unlikely, because at 5’1” and 120 pounds I am possibly too small, even if I was the right sex and age), but there are many other adventures freedom allows. I did get to play a flag football game two years ago, and I ran the ball once. My flag was pulled almost before I started moving, but it doesn’t matter. People, I played in a football game! For a moment, I was a high-flying running back!

The buffet of life is extensive, limitless. All we need do is pick what it is we’d like to have. But perhaps its very boundlessness, its very infinity of choice, are what make this buffet so frightening, so unnerving. We humans like limits and rules. We like the safety that lack of freedom gives, because… imagine the chaos that would ensue if everyone was free, if everyone took from the buffet whatever they wanted without caring about any one else’s needs! We cannot fathom the true limitlessness, the true infinitude of the buffet. We cannot fathom that there is enough space for us all to be free.

For this new year, I wish you and me a chance at liberation. I wish us a chance to see the world outside the bars of our cages, even if they are silver-lined. Take a chance this year. Do something you love. Plunge into the unknown. There is a lot in the buffet of life for you and for me to enjoy. Perhaps this year will be the year to climb a mountain or to hike the longest trail, to start your own company or get your own apple orchard farm. Perhaps this year, 2015, is the year for our dreams to come to be.

It’s a beautiful world out there. Open your windows and doors and come with me outside. Come out, come out, wherever you are. Smell the air. Touch a flower. Fly like a bird. Live a little. Live a lot. It’s a good life.

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Setting an Intention for NaNoWriMo

There is a novel in my head, with characters and a plot, that is yearning to come out. It’s been there for years. So many years, in fact, that they can be numbered in tens rather than ones. Princess Anna Mara first came to me as I was sitting outside Ostrovsky High School waiting for my friends to get out of class. It was October, I believe, and my sister and I were visiting Israel while our parents decided where our family was heading next. Not that there was much question about it. They were not going to stay in South Africa, where we had lived for the past 9 months, nor where they coming back to Israel, no matter how much my sister and I hoped they would.

Partly out of that hope, and partly because I truly loved to learn, I got permission from the high school to attend classes with my friends. I took that permission and my request very loosely, only going to classes that interested me, namely math and physics. The rest of the time, I sat in the courtyard and wrote funny stories to amuse my friends while they had to sit in their dreary classrooms. Annamara, as I named her then, was the protagonist of a short fairy tale about a princess living in New York who is kidnapped by a wizard in a flying car. She screams so loudly in the car that he loses consciousness, whereupon she jumps out of the car and into a chimney (no one said I had to be historically consistent). Down the chimney she goes and into a room with (surprise, surprise) a chimney sweep. The wizard climbs through the window, fights the chimney sweep, loses, and, now consistent with fairy tale rules, the princess marries the chimney sweep.

Somehow, Anna Mara stayed with me through the years, popping out again when I was in the army as the subject of a presentation (which was so successful it ended up being filmed and used as an example), and again, ten years later, when I took a class writing for children. There, when I began writing her in earnest, I discovered Anna Mara was not some silly screaming princess but a fully-fledged character with a novel behind her who wished for independence and truth and disliked being a damsel in distress. Anna Mara wished to be a revolutionary, a heroine.

Seven years later, a full novel lay on my desk, printed and ready to be sent to publishers and agents, and that was when the rejections began to flow in. Something was wrong with my novel, and I could not quite figure out what. Something was wrong enough that perhaps, just perhaps, I couldn’t fix it. Version 4, version 5, version 6 later, I had to admit that perhaps it was time to let Anna Mara go. Perhaps it was not meant to be, this novel. Perhaps it was time to move on.

No matter how much I tried, however, Anna Mara stuck to me. She, her new beau Anders, the Wizard Calypso Maximilian the Great, the wonderfully compassionate aquatic monster Fangarm, and the dragon Gozlianus, evil and yet wise at the same time. They simply wouldn’t leave. A new frame was required, I realized, something different to breathe new life into them. I began to rethink my old story. What is it these characters want? Where do they want to come to life? What is it they want to tell? And slowly but surely a new story began to take form, similar and yet different, full of exciting possibilities.

This new story is what I plan to work on during the month of November through NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The goal: 1,666 words a day for 30 days, reaching a whopping total of 50,000 words, or, you could say, the length of a first draft novel. I am hoping that working within a structure and a deadline (especially one that has an end in sight) would encourage me to write. I’ve made myself a profile with the username sigaljoy, and I uploaded a summary and excerpt and applied to be part of their cover lottery. I even have one buddy, my wonderful cousin Iris, who is also an aspiring author, and who is going for it too at NaNoWriMo this year.

I wanted, however, to set an intention for the month, especially with the new direction my thoughts have been going lately with regards to simply being instead of taking on goals and purpose and such. This may sound strange when I’ve elected to take on a 1,666 word a day goal.… But, since this novel inside me simply burns to be written, here are my intentions for this month:

I am letting go of ego
I am letting go of fortune and fame
I am letting go of my needs with regards to this novel
I am letting go of any expectations
I am letting go of any hopes
I am letting go of control
I am letting go of direction
And I am letting go of all external or internal goals

I am writing because writing seems to flow in my blood
I am writing for the passion of writing
I am writing because I always wanted to write and still do
I am writing for the life of this novel whose heart is beating inside me, yearning to be born
I am writing for love of words and for the pictures and scenes those words create
I am writing for me, and for the characters, and for the sake of the story
I am writing for the love of these characters who are chattering away in my mind all day
I am writing because I want to read my own book and get to know my own characters
I am writing because I want to know what happens to these characters, kinda in the end, though it will never be the end
I am writing because I want them to be free to tell their own stories and live their own life
I am writing because, quite frankly, I must write

I am letting it happen, the way it will happen, even if I don’t quite know what “it” is, but I am allowing for the possibility that this novel, just the way I always imagined it, will flow out of me, one words at a time, coming into shape and structure and plot and conflicts in the way that I dreamed it would. I am realizing that all “I” need is to get out of the way, and so, this is my intention: to get myself out of the way and let the writing happen.

Wish me luck. 🙂

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A Dream During the Holy Fire Ignition

In my dream, I reached mountain summits.
Everest, the Top of the World, turned out
Both warm and cold,
Deprived of sufficient oxygen yet abundant in the essence of life.
Startled to find myself up there,
Without having ever climbed
And frightened of his height,
Clouds merging with snowy peaks,
My heart tightened —
How could I possibly deserve to be up here
So effortlessly?
I retreated as the dream flew me down
And across continents and oceans to

Shasta, magnificent in her aloneness,
Sheer in her glaciers and cliffs,
Her spirit grand and giving,
Filled my heart with health, confidence and joy,
Reminding me, this much is true,
This has already been done.
There I stood, alone on the summit of rock and snow,
Flinging my hands up in triumph,
Awash in the glory of my connection to the mountain
Vibrating to her spiritual song.

I flew north, the dream reminded me
There’s more summits visited —
On Rainier, my tears washed away
Sadness from my heart
Illuminated by the barely risen sun.
Cool and solid, the mountain
Received my tears yet reminded me
Breathe,
Adding himself categorically, without my asking,
First, and not alone, to a new list of
Successes.
My breath, not quite enough,
Left me whizzing, my lungs screaming for more oxygen —
All this crying left me lacking in air,
My heart heavy with the knowledge of the
Burden I had carried for so long,
Overcome by the mountain’s generosity
And the weightlessness of my burden
Now left buried in the mountain’s mantle of snow.

The dream then flew, wings at my back
South and East,
Over low-slung trees
And herds of tiny elephants
A desert, not a desert.
There, lonely on the Serengeti planes,
Kili rose above me, a goddess of freedom,
Surprising me with her majestic ridges,
Making me laugh and sigh with longing.
I strained to see her snow, her glacier,
But so close only the mountain rose,
Like a hump over the plane.
Up here, she whispered, come here next.

I wondered at this influx of mountains
Climbed or unclimbed in my dream, when
Once again the scene changed
To a path, made of a sudden
Into a river, an ocean of sparkling gold
From the rays of the sun,
Leading me,
(So it said in a gravelly, cascading voice)
To joy, with joy;
To peace, in peace;
To love, with love;
A path to path.

I walked, floated down the river, soared overhead,
And found that
There is only love and love,
There is only peace and peace,
There is only joy and joy,
There is only path and path.

An abundance of love,
And that love, nothing like I ever imagined:
Not a consuming love
Or an enfolding love,
Or a holding-on-to love,
But a space
A freedom
A limitlessness
An openness.

In my dream, I reached the tops of mountains,
Touching them with my feet and my heart,
A fire burning
In the palms of my hands.
In my dream, from these summits,
I sent out a message
Of peace and love.

Because, remember?
There is only peace and peace
And love and love
And joy and joy
And path and path.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109