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A Year to Live — Day 352

The Last Birthday

Till the last few days, I had never before considered the possibility that every birthday could be my last. Like many people’s, my birthday is a sensitive subject. While I hadn’t really obsessed much about my age since my 19th birthday (when I felt hit by the realization that I was leaving my childhood behind), my birthdays have become for me a symbol of appreciation and love. Or, more often (and whiningly so), the lack thereof.

When the children were younger, and after my divorce, I made up my mind to treat my birthday as an opportunity to show kindness and love to others. I was disgusted by and impatient of what I considered my unhealthy habit of looking for love outside of myself. Instead, I reasoned, I would radiate love out. This brought about several years in which rather than expect gifts for myself, I shopped extensively for gifts that would bring pleasure and love for the kids. Rather than dream about waking up the morning of my birthday to my own surprise table full of gifts and treats, I decorated the house and created a surprise table for the kids.

My famous angel food cake with pink clouds and strawberries, our traditional cake during all birthdays.

My famous angel food cake with pink clouds and strawberries, our traditional cake during all birthdays.

In the last few years, however, a new factor was brought into my tenuous status-quo with this need to be loved. This factor was a new boyfriend, and one, moreover, who showed himself right from the start as considerate, thoughtful, and prone to giving gifts. On our second date (which was on a Christmas Eve), Dar showed up with a ribboned and wrapped box containing a Spot device (a device that helps locate lost hikers), the perfect gift for an avid hiker. For our third date, he showed up with chocolate-covered strawberries which he made himself (I had told him they were my favorites). For Valentine’s Day, he gave me two bouquets of flowers. One was a bouquet of pink tulips, I think. I loved that one. For my 39th birthday, Dar gave me several gifts. One, I remember, was the most elaborate box of chocolates I have ever seen. The chocolates came in a pink ruffled box that I still keep. Can you blame me if my expectations, after this beginning, reached an almost hysterical peak? Add to this my 40th birthday, the next year, which included two birthday cakes (one baked and hand-decorated by a friend’s talented daughter) and a cartoon artist who drew the guests.

I think you will not wonder, then, at hearing that I consider my next three birthdays a gigantic flop. The worst, perhaps, was the birthday we spent with the kids playing badminton (they fought so much, the two of them, that I had to remove myself before I started screaming) and then having lunch at the Cheesecake Factory (the waiter and manager claimed they had nothing either wheat-free or dairy-free they could bring me to eat, and I spent the meal food-less watching the others eat).

My 44th birthday is coming up in a few days, and even before I figured out that it was going to be my last, I’d been thinking what I could do to make this birthday different. I tried to see my patterns of behavior that lead me again and again to be afraid of asking for what I need, instead trying to please the rest of the family with my choices as to how to spend my birthday. If it was really and only up to me, after all, we’d spend my birthday camping out for a night somewhere in the wilderness. (Eden: “NOOOO!” Uri: “No way. Do it on your own time,” and, “Even Dar doesn’t want to go with you”). Every year I try to find something to do which, heaven help us, everyone might enjoy, and every year it looks like my best efforts do not pay off. Not to mention, in addition to this, the small voice in my head which says: “Why are they not planning my birthday? Why are they not trying to please ME for a change?”

I’m not sure this birthday is going to be all that different, except, perhaps, in my own mind. The gifts for my three important people are already piling up in a secret location in the bedroom. I’ve also decided to decorate the house — I deserve it, after all, just as much as they do. I’ve made a reservation for fondue at a restaurant which pretty much we all like. What is different, however, is my acute realization that this birthday might very well be my last.

Of course, any birthday might be our last. The not-knowing the day of our death is built-in, unquestionably present every moment we are alive. For all I know, my last birthday may have been my 43rd — after all, like all of us, I am not really assured of surviving till February 20th, 2017 — I am only committing to live till then as though that day is my last. But if this coming birthday is the last birthday I am going to celebrate, I would like to give myself the gift of at least some of the time celebrating it the way I’d like.

Inside of me, I can just barely touch the well of sadness and anger about the way I’ve let my other birthdays go, the way I never said what I needed, never expressed what I wished, never insisted, never taught the kids that my dreams too deserve to be a factor in our relationship. Instead, I’ve been teaching them quite dramatically that a parent needs to live for his or her children. A part of me, in fact, still believes it. Any deviation from this belief is a huge struggle that I overcome only rarely, and only in bits. But the rational part of me, the part that thinks that, actually, I deserve to exist as a separate human being with her own needs and wishes and dreams, that part keeps saying: “Sigal, this belief is not the truth.” And it says: “You have to teach the kids that. You have to teach them to be free.” And it remarks, ironically: “In the hurry to teach them that they matter, you may have taught them that they won’t matter when they’re adults.”

On Wednesday next week, in honor of my 44th birthday, I have taken the day off, and I am going to head up to my most beloved park to check out the wildflowers. I haven’t been up there in a long time, and I’m eager to revisit my favorite spots. In a five-hour hike, I will not be able to cover all thousands of acres of park, so many of which I know like the back of my hand, but I will be able to get a taste of wilderness. Later that day, we will go to fondue, and it will either be great, or it won’t. But in any case, the success of the dinner will not matter in the way it usually does, because I will have already celebrated my birthday for myself earlier that day in the park I love.


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.


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.


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.


The Ducks’ Stadium, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things

(Title borrowed from Carolyn Mackler’s fabulous book of almost the same name).

**This blog is dedicated to the USC football team, who my son Uri really wants to win the championship this year, and who have absolutely nothing to do with this particular blog.**

For most of my life, I never obsessed about my weight. This was partly due to the fact that I was extremely skinny as a child, and my grandmother, instead, obsessed about how little I ate.  Even after I discovered food and began to eat a little better, I did not have to worry about my weight, because, of course, I had great metabolism (whatever that really means), and I stayed wonderfully skinny.

This lack of neurosis regarding my weight did not, unfortunately, translate into loving my body. I learned in geometry class about the difference between concave and convex, and realized, to my horror and dismay, that unlike the perfect female human body, I was cursed with a convex belly, while everyone else’s was concave. Fortunately for me, this brought about an attack of a desire to change this unacceptable phenomena, which led to a lifetime of abs work. My stomach remained convex (more so now than ever), but it is likely that the stomach muscles beneath are holding me up till today.

All this remained in something of a status quo until the kids, Dar and I went to Oregon this summer. Do you know that wonderful (and true) statement that says: what you don’t know can’t hurt you? Well, during our visit to the Ducks’ Stadium (initiated by Uri’s obsession with football — doesn’t he know he’s supposed to obsess about his body instead?), Dar took my picture. From behind. With the Stadium in the (near) background. A completely harmless maneuver, you might think, and unlikely to cause any major upheavals in anyone’s life. That remained to be seen while we continued traveling through college-football Oregon, as we made our way back south through Ashland and Shasta, and all the way home, and to the computer, where the pictures were duly downloaded.

As the aforementioned photo came into focus on my computer, I was struck by the realization that while I obsessed about the unwanted convexness or desired concaveness of my stomach, my behind had been busy with her own set of mathematical equations. In her case, exponential multiplication. Oh my god, how did my butt get to be larger than Ducks’ Stadium? So large, in fact, that said stadium looks small and delicate in comparison, despite the fact that I remembered it large and tall! When did this wholly unexpected enlargement occur? And how come all my exercising did not help in keeping this unnaturally overgrown backside at least a little bit from its extreme, surprising, and unforeseen droop?

I once read a romance novel about a woman hiking guide. As her love interest watched her walking about for the first time, he commented on the heart-shape and tightness (really!) of her behind as she walked, with the claim that it was the shape women’s tushies get because of all the hiking. As though the butt size and shape could tell him she’d been hiking all her life! Worst lie I ever heard!!! Let me tell you, at age 42, and after hiking like an obsessive madwoman for years now, all you get from this form of exercise is a big, droopy, and much more rectangular than heart-shaped somewhat flat pillow to sit on. That woman, in the book, must have stood in the butt line when god gave out bodies to people. I stood in the one for brains. So there!

The problem, however, remains. How can I leave the house again, now that the secret of what I look like behind is out, and I know exactly what the people behind me see when they look ahead? Here, again, the fortune (or misfortune) of having a convex belly came to my assistance. After all, for years now, I’ve been able to leave the house knowing what people see when they look at my front. Moreover, having stood in the line for brains (at least somewhat early, even if not as early as some other people in my family, who really got a lot), I am aware of the fact that most of the world actually looks like me, and not like the pictures on Vogue or on television. So I’ve been leaving the house since the summer, and, I’ll confess, most of the time I don’t even think of that large backside I’ve developed over the years, and which, I suspect, is here to stay for all the ones to come.

Yesterday, however, I went clothes shopping with Dar. I wanted something presentable to wear for today’s energy-work open house. And so, I found myself in one of those fitting rooms that has mirrors on all sides, to make sure you can see how fat and droopy all your parts look to other people — which, by the way, seems to me completely unnecessary, since aren’t I buying clothes for myself? In any case, I found myself face-to-face with my butt. Somewhat like the president in Space Balls. Except now, I was prepared. Dar has already shown me what it looks like in the summer, so I couldn’t yell out: “Why didn’t anyone tell me my butt was so big?”

At night, lying in bed next to Dar, I complained about the injustice of having a bottom that is larger than Ducks’ Stadium. I paused dramatically to allow Dar time to disagree, or at least to enthusiastically disclaim. Nothing. I knew he was not sleeping yet, so I held my breath. Surely, now, he would say something. Perhaps: “I love your butt.” That would be acceptable. Or he could say, “Your butt looks totally heart-shaped to me.” Or maybe: “You have the cutest butt in the whole wide world and it’s not at all as large as the Ducks’ Stadium.” He’s in love, right? Surely that’s how he sees me, butt and all?

The silence, however, continued to reign. He was not asleep. I knew that for sure. I could hear his uneven breathing (even breathing, in case you never learned how to cheat your parents into thinking you’re asleep, is a good sign he’s asleep), and he wasn’t snoring yet. Which he does, by the way. Finally, the pressure got to me, and I started to giggle. Well, more like laugh out loud with gusto. It was just too much. Apparently, no matter how much Dar’s in love, he refuses to lie. And the picture did tell all.

And so, I decided right then and there to write this blog and dedicate it to all you lovely women out there who have the same problem as me: when you came into this world, you did not get the body advertised by Vogue. Instead, maybe you elected for brains, or compassion, or love. Maybe you wanted children, or a garden, or to have fun. Now all that remains is to be happy with our decision despite the dictates of fashion. I think, all in all, as long as there aren’t too many mirrors, or too many football stadiums in sight, I manage to feel beautiful, young, slim and fair. And tall.

If you’d like to read my other blogs about body image, here are some links:

In Favor of Belly Liberation

Repainting Body Image

Food! Food! Food!

That Flat Stomach


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
Adding himself categorically, without my asking,
First, and not alone, to a new list of
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.


The Tip of the Pyramid

Dar and I returned home last Saturday from our Tahoe Rim Trail backpacking attempt. We had planned to hike 12 days, with ten nights spent camping and one night (on the sixth night) at a hotel in South Lake Tahoe, where we were also going to resupply. Planning, however, (as is often the case) was not enough. On the third day, an ignored injury in my feet became so aggravated that, when we arrived at that night’s campsite in Mount Rose, we gratefully accepted, instead, a ride down into Incline Village and the ER. The next day, saddened and disappointed, we made our way home.

The doctor at the ER had told me that rest was important for my feet to recover, and so for a few days I tried to lie on the couch, the bed, or the hammock, with my feet resting on cushions for most of each day. Such a small part of the body, and yet so critical that it can easily turn our whole world upside down. I was irritable from not being able to do much and from some discomfort in my feet, but mostly I struggled with strong feelings of inadequacy and failure. Why did I ignored the injury? Why did it have to flare up so strongly? Why could I not just walk through it despite the pain? This trip seemed yet another failed project in a long list of unfinished, unexplored, or un-pursued dreams.

As I lay harassing myself with my list of failures, a cheerful part of me piped up and said, “But what about the list of achievements?”
“Which achievements?” The critical part responded.
“Mount Rainier?” Suggested the cheerful one.
“Climbed with a group. Doesn’t count.” Retorted the Critic.
“Mount Olympus?” “Group. And Alan was a good leader. Doesn’t count.”
“Mount Shasta?” “Easier. With a group. Doesn’t count.”
“Yosemite Matterhorn?” “Cried all the way to the top. Cliff basically had to pull me up. Doesn’t count.”
“Half Dome?” “The guide (Con) had to carry my backpack down because I was so exhausted. Doesn’t count. And,” the critical part slyly added, “Notice all of these adventures were with a guide?”
“Ok, then what about the MBA?” “Liat forced me to study. Doesn’t count.”
“Stanford?” “They accepted me because my essay impressed them, and it wasn’t even about me, and it’s easy to graduate from English once you get in. Doesn’t count.”
“The kids?” “Don’t even get me started about that one!”

And so on, and so forth. That critical part always has an answer. No achievement ever counts.

I live my my life at the stressful tip of an upside-down pyramid. Every project I start is all-important, pivotal. If only this project succeeds (and succeeds according to a very specific set of rules and judgements), then I would be able to keep going to build the rest of the pyramid. Except, because each project is so pivotal, and because each project is so all-important, it is impossible ever to get out of the tip of the pyramid. Every project is again, and again, and again, the tip of the pyramid. Every project is all-important. Every project is pivotal. In every project my entire opinion of myself, my confidence, my worth, hangs in the balance. Each project is the tip, carrying a pyramid of personal failure and unworthiness.

Seems a bit hopeless, doesn’t it?

While hiking on our third day, both my feet were burning with an almost debilitating pain. There was no escape. Each step was excruciating. I tried putting moleskin and second-skin blister pads over the inflamed spots in an attempt to relieve the pressure. It helped, some. Mostly, however, I had to struggle with my thoughts. What is this pain? Is it just a blister? Did I just call pain from a blister debilitating and excruciating? Am I just spoiled? Is this something serious? Will I be able to keep hiking? Will we be near a town when we get to the road? Can we find a doctor? Is this the end of our hike?

In backpacking, many people say that 99% is mental, and the other 1% is mental as well. Fortunately, I am often my higher self in nature. That third day, I breathed in and out and tried to focus my thoughts away from the unhelpful ones. I trained my mind toward accepting the pain in my feet as it was. I reminded myself that most other parts of my body (my hands, for example, or the tip of my nose) were not in pain at all. I repeated some mantras (“I am well, I am safe, I am loved”). I sang songs to myself (“My Favorite Things” was more helpful than the moleskin, let me just say). Dar and I walked nearly 16 miles that day and climbed (and, worse, descended) 2500 feet in elevation. When we got to the ER, I still shouldered my backpack and walked in. After all, I was well, I was safe, and I was loved.

It’s nice to remember these things that I appreciate about myself. It’s nice to remember that on Mount Olympus I had so much energy that I ran circles around everyone else. It’s nice to remember that despite crying I was able to climb to the top of the Matterhorn, that I swung myself out to the crazy ledge and succeeded in climbing up, that (with Cliff’s support and protective rope) I did get myself all the way up and then down, that it was the most difficult climb I had ever done. It is nice to remember that I got good grades in classes with but also without Liat, and nice to remember that I had fun at Stanford and got to do some pretty fabulous things (like go to England and New York to research an author for my honor’s thesis). It’s nice to remember that the fabric of my being is made up of some shining spots, and even nicer to remember that I am the one deciding where I’m going to keep my focus, on those shining spots, or on the less brilliant ones.

I am realizing that in writing the last few paragraphs, I managed to turn the pyramid right-side-up.


Just by focusing on some positive things.

Dar and I will be back at Tahoe. Probably not this season, since we still have a lot of plans this summer. But we’ll be back. In August, I am going to Glacier Peak (Washington) with Cliff. In September I signed up for a weeklong outdoor meditation retreat at Spirit Rock. We would like to take the kids to Oregon for a few days, maybe check out the coast there and the dunes. I also wanted to see the waterfalls around Oroville and to walk 20-lake basin in Inyo National Forest. And Dar said that when my feet are all healed (which they almost are), we can go on the backpacking trip I’ve been planning from Yosemite Valley to Wawona. That should be fun. So, yeah, I still have that fire burning beneath my backside, but I promise, this time, to take good care of my feet – and the rest of me, including my wandering, often critical mind. That, in itself, is an adventure for life.


Getting Lapped

Every once in a while I find myself hiking the Dish, a nearly-four-mile loop in the Stanford Hills, where seemingly all of Palo Alto and the neighboring communities come for a taste of nature and some daily exercise. An eclectic crowd: healthful Stanford students, mothers pushing strollers, athletic women in sports bras, shirtless sweating men, joggers, hikers, people of all sizes and shapes, even irritable-looking children. Like a London height-of-the-season promenade, the Dish is the place to people-watch and be seen, and it is all too easy to fall into comparing myself — my pace, my level of fitness — with those of the other hikers and joggers there.

Sadly, the comparison nearly always falls short. I would like to sing songs of my glory, but I am a slow hiker, and my fate at the Dish is to be passed by. Worse, I often see the same joggers or hikers twice. I am not just passed, but lapped! Lapped by younger, sexier, fitter looking individuals! And it doesn’t help to remind myself that I’ve climbed mountains, or excuse myself by saying that my legs are short, or to imagine that my perseverance is great even if my speed is nil. I am getting lapped, and in the moment of seeing one hiker or jogger after another zoom past, it seems to me as though I am barely moving, or even standing flat.

The impression of standing still while getting lapped often plagues me in my writing and my spiritual work. I struggle with feeling left behind, with stuck-ness. Just like when lapped at the Dish, in the dust of other people’s seemingly speedier achievement of dreams, I imagine that I am standing motionless. Comparing myself to others (always a dangerous pastime) and the feeling of lack of forward motion is dispiriting. At the Dish, signs on the trail, trees or other features give me a sense of movement even when lapped, no matter how slow I walk. But in the path to spiritual enlightenment or to publishing a book, I am left not only with the question “Am I there yet?” but also with, “Am I anywhere nearby or even on the right road?”

downriverWriting these words, I am reminded of Abraham’s metaphor of the river. Everything we want, Abraham promises, is down the river. All we need is to let go and allow the river to carry us there. The struggle of how far along I’ve come is really a desperate swim against the current, an attempt to see progress back where I came from. But there is no going back to the past, no retracing my steps. Words cannot be unwritten and steps climbed on the spiritual path cannot be undone. And yet, to surrender to the river can be as scary as struggling against it — depending on my perspective, going with the flow can also give the illusion of lack of motion, or, perhaps worse, it can give the impression of too much speed. And how would I be able to snatch at anything I want if I am hurtling uncontrollably along?

Just as in everything, it is up to me to track forward progress, to notice changes, to appreciate my own work. Only I can remind myself of the twenty thousand something words in my new book, give credit to myself for the ideas I wrote in my head during a morning hike, or appreciate that this blog has now been alive for more than 28 months. Only I can really remember where I was emotionally eight years ago and notice where I am today. Am I there yet? No, probably not. But am I on the right road? I believe I am.

I guess all that is left is to surrender to the flow of the river, to believe there is meaning in where I’ve been so far and in all I’ve done, and to trust that the river knows best —  that I had manifested well what is to come. And perhaps some folks who are good at the letting go will pass me by, cruising on tubes, or on a gondola or two, looking enlightened and well-to-do. I will wish them happiness and joy on their journey and let go of comparing our relative speed. Whether I am ineptly flailing around in the water, floating on my back, or carried downriver by twin silvery dolphins, I have chosen my path. The path is enlightenment, alignment, joy, grace. All I wish for now is the confidence to follow it through all of its different twists, waterfalls, and turns.


Go! Go! Go Strong!

“I want to be strong,” I told my trainer, and he took me seriously, challenging my resolve with workouts that had me, after about a year, doing push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups easily. From the girl who hid under her desk to avoid P.E. and who could not hang from the ladder for more than ten seconds without all her muscles trembling, I became, to my surprise, an athlete. I discovered that I had a lot more stamina and determination than I thought possible.

Physical strength gave me confidence. I found myself at the top of mountains which I never would have thought to see: Mount Shasta, Mount Rainier, Mount Olympus, the Yosemite Matterhorn, Cathedral Rock and more. I embarked on solo backpacking trips. One day I hiked for twenty five miles and over five thousand feet in elevation to get to the waterfall in Henry Coe State Park. On Mount Olympus I spent four nights and five days backpacking and climbing with a group that included seven other guys and me. I went rock climbing all over Yosemite, venturing even to Tahoe and Mt. Whitney with a guide.

I love feeling strong, physically able, hiking for miles, existing in the peace that envelops me when I climb. I love the strong, capable me, the doer, the one who is always on the go, go, go! The one who is adventurous and active. I don’t take vacations sunning myself on the beach, and even in the Bahamas or Hawaii, I fly from one side of the island to the other, hiking, jogging, kayaking, exploring.

I’m not very good at resting or taking it easy. When my Inner Lounging Goddess raises her head and tries to remind me that it might be good to sit down, lie down, or get a massage, other parts of me stifle her gentle suggestion. Rest? Whatever for? I have to go, go, go!  I haven’t done anything yet! I still want to write and paint and organize and do. There is no time for rest. And anyways, don’t I rest all the time? It’s not like I do any work!

That, I think, might very well be the root of the problem. I am forever proving to myself that though I do not work in an office, I still work. And whether I’m writing or spending time with the kids, it is never enough, never legitimately work. If I rest, if I miss a day of writing, if the kids are not there, the parts of me who need the action are appalled. Resting is just not done in my world.

I suspect that if I listened to my Inner Lounging Goddess more, the end result might be more energy and output, more productivity and creativity. I ask myself, what if I started taking time to lounge every day, take long baths, enjoy my breakfast while reading? What if I walked slower, took deeper breaths, looked around me, and closed my eyes more? What a wonderful world this could be, would it not?

How I Climbed the Matterhorn and Came Back Alive — Up, Up and Up

Up, up and up we walked, single file, Cliff leading, Dar following, and I struggling in the back. High Sierra Climbing describes the approach to the Matterhorn: “This is a HUGE approach that starts out pleasant and gradually gets steeper, more difficult, and less fun.” Cliff estimated that we would take five hours to hike the five miles to Tarn Lake. I felt comforted by this number. To me, it meant we were going to walk slowly. To Cliff, it was a reflection of the steep and strenuous trail.

The path climbed steadily uphill, switchbacking by a creek that stampeded down a series of waterfalls. So symbolic, I thought as I fought to keep my shoulders back under the pulling weight of the pack: Here I am, once again, walking against the current.

The trail, meandering surreptitiously

After an hour, we had covered a thousand feet in altitude and about two miles distance. I quickly calculated: fifteen hundred feet in altitude and three miles to go. Not too bad, I thought. Everything is going to be okay. But the trail flattened, meandering in a lovely meadow by the creek, seemingly forgetting the “HUGE approach” promised in the book. I relaxed, let my guard down, started to enjoy the walk.

We had lunch on some rocks, basking in the sun, listening to the gushing creek. Collecting our packs, we found ourselves before our first real obstacle. The trail faded under a garden of boulders, reappearing to tantalize us only to disappear again below the rocks. Beyond the boulder field stretched the scree slope, reaching steeply to the sky. Suspended in limbo, no matter how often my legs lifted, my knees bent, or my feet struck the rocks, the scree slope still limited my horizon.

The scree slope. Try to find Dar and Cliff

My face heated. Dar and Cliff shrank, their tan clothing merging with the scree. The earth concentrated its malevolent gravity on my pack, my feet struggling to keep moving forward in the never-ending rocky landscape. Finally Cliff and Dar stopped against the trees. The end, I breathed out, wrestling with the last few steps to reach them. But no, beyond them the scree stretched upward, relentless, and above that, Cliff said, one more ridge.

My brain shut down. I slipped and slid on the rocks and the dirt, barely avoiding the trees. We stopped for a rest. Suddenly, a voice, a head. A Brit hopped up, jauntily swinging his long legs and arms. “Only a few feet, I think!” he announced, and continued his dash up.

Cliff smiled indulgently. “People always wonder why climbers have to turn around sixty feet from the summit,” he commented. “Sixty vertical feet are not the same as sixty feet distance.” Feeling wise and realistic, we followed the Brit’s hopeful footsteps. And there, not sixty feet from us, lay Tarn Lake, warming its frigid, glacial  waters in the sunny afternoon.

Tarn Lake

It had taken us six hours to get here. I stumbled, exhausted, barely taking in the scenery, as the Matterhorn serenely watched.  When I nearly crushed my finger, helping Dar set up the tent, he asked me to please sit aside. I looked at the snow and stones, the steep terrain leading up to the mountain, and in my head only one thought ran in circle: there’s no way I’m going to do this climb tomorrow. No way at all.

To be continued….

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109