Mountain Top

One of our sons, the outdoor adventure guy, wrote to offer to lead us on a backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon. My Muse and I were floored. First of all, we were floored that one of the kids would want to do something like that with us—after all, we are their parents not their BFFs. Then we noted that we haven’t done anything like that before (at least not together), so we immediately began to wonder if we are actually still able to do such a thing. Adventure Guy argued that we are still doing half marathons, so surely we would be able to do this. For some reason, this argument sounded plausible, so we bought in to it and agreed. Yes, the half marathon distance is similar (actually greater than what the planned canyon trip would require), but I don’t usually do a half wearing a big pack or those damn boots.

We may not be experienced or have the skills needed to do multi-day hikes (or the equipment), but we are smart enough to realize that different muscles will be used, so we found a friend who would show us some of the local trails. We have also heard that the Grand Canyon involves some up and down, but we are lucky to have a mountain in our back yard, so we figured that up followed by down might suffice as training for down followed by up. We haven’t proven that yet, but I still believe it.

We started bravely, once a week, an hour up hill and then an hour down. It worked pretty well for the first couple of weeks. We’re tolerating the booPhoto Apr 29, 10:18:55 (HDR)ts but carrying only light packs—we’ll get to more weight than just 4 pounds of water, but we have time. Then our friend took off with her husband for a real hike—3 weeks on the Camino de Santiago in Spain—and we are suddenly on our own. We’ve used the excuse of busy schedules to explain why we are waiting for her return.

We haven’t gone as far as the mountain top. That would be about 3000 more feet of up, but we have certainly gone far enough to see why people get hooked on this. There is a feeling of altered reality up there that is hard to describe. In this picture, the “civilization” we came from is not quite visible at the bottom of the mountain. It was a little hazy or dusty on this day, but it is really much clearer than the picture would suggest—the next mountain west (the picture faces southwest) is just out of the picture to the right, 80 miles away. It would be clearly visible if the camera had been pointed in the right direction. The mountain is beautiful, and, most especially, it is not the city. You can experience it alone, even with other people around you.

I had a similar experience decades ago sailing off of Los Angeles. When you get a mile off shore, the city is beautiful, but you can’t hear it, and you can’t smell it. You can be alone on the ocean even when in the company of other boats. What a glorious experience.

So, much more than conditioning is happening as I walk up and down this mountain. I feel the silence. I see and feel the beauty of the world. The cares of life fall away. The pressures of our civilized world do not reach here, and I find I can love people again (as a whole) when I’m not constantly reminded of the senseless things we do to each other. My mind fills with loving kindness, and I can feel it begin to pervade the space around me (read this to understand the reference).

I am not of the generation that wants to measure and document every detail of my life. I am often content to absorb what is happening around me and weave it into my story. I don’t need to conquer the mountain, and I won’t have a need to conquer the Canyon. I won’t preserve everything I see in either pictures or words, but I will see it all and I will bring back stories, some of which I will relate. I might even relate some of them to Adventure Guy, just in case he didn’t see the right things. The Canyon, at least, will be full of loving kindness when I leave.

Silence

A few days ago, Victo Dolore published Étude to Silence. It fit my emotional state exceedingly well since I had just returned from a trip that embodied silence in several forms. This post is a few variations on the theme of silence.

Victo and several commenters talked about being alone in the car and being uncomfortable with the silence that occurs when you don’t have your usual distractions–the children, the radio, music from your phone, or whatever. On the surface, to my literal little mind, given the actual meaning of the word “silence” as being without sound, this is a strange interpretation, since the car is a pretty noisy environment. But, it isn’t a lack of sound that produces the “silence,” it is the lack of distractions. The background noise in the car doesn’t count. We don’t hear that, and if we don’t hear it, it isn’t there. Without distractions, we are in silence.

I live and work at home in a variant of the silence of the car. There is no radio or tv in my workspace, no music from a computer player or Pandora; there is only fan noise from lots of computer equipment. But, mostly, I don’t hear that. I don’t listen to it, and if I don’t listen to it, it isn’t there. Then, there is the tinnitus. I don’t listen to that either, so I work in silence. For me, this “silence” is the best work environment. I could not work with audio distractions because it would be––distracting. When I play music, I find myself listening to it.

Last Saturday, the men’s ensemble I sing with performed a concert at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. Ghost Ranch is remote: 15 miles from the nearest village or small town; an hour or more from anything you could describe as a city. A place of great beauty and great silence–no cell phone coverage with my carrier; no road noise; a noisy airplane 35,000 feet away every few days. At night there is no visual noise from city lights, and you can see so many more stars than in the city. One of the great beauties of the earth available only in silence.

One of the pieces we sang was Loving Kindness by Stephen Paulus. It is a setting of a text adapted from the Digha Nikaya that begins “Put away all your hindrances, let your mind full of loving kindness pervade one quarter of the world…” You can read the text here. This is not a prescription for passive contemplation–these are acts that can only be accomplished with effort in an environment of silence.

Sunday morning we sang at a Benedictine monastery that observes the rule of silence. It is completely off the grid, 15 miles off the paved road on the side of a river valley in a place that is amazingly beautiful. They have a small church–20 visitors at their Sunday morning mass is a crowd. Our ensemble sang after the completion of the mass in a room so filled with smoke from the incense that you could barely see across it. The result was a sublime interruption of the monks’ normal silence. Combined with the surpassing beauty of the location and the chill of the spring morning, it was a perfect experience breaking the silence in just the right way. For the monks, it is a small break in the silence–not an end to it. It allows the monks to return to the silence with greater appreciation.

So, here are a few variations on the theme that highlight silence as something to be sought, rather than something to be avoided. Let the silence itself direct you to beauty. Let your mind fill with loving kindness.

Loving Kindness

The men’s ensemble I belong to included a beautiful composition for male chorus by Stephen Paulus entitled Loving Kindness. Its text is adapted from the Digha Nikaya, a scriptural text of Theravada Buddhism. We should all live thus.

Put away all your hindrances,
let your mind full of love
pervade one quarter of the world, and so too the
second quarter, and so the third, and so the fourth.
And thus the whole wide world,
above, below, around and everywhere,
altogether continue to pervade
with love-filled thought, abounding, sublime,
beyond measure, free from hatred and ill-will.

Pictures of my Heart

The front page of this blog has four pictures that show places I’ve been, but more importantly (at least to me) they give some insight into me. That is what this blogging stuff is all about, right?

The first picture is a place called Ward Lake. Ward Lake is in a state park north of Ketchikan Alaska. I took this after finishing a 10k trail run in the rain. I love this picture. It is so peaceful. It is so green. I have painted this scene several times, and will paint it again—somehow I don’t ever manage to get it quite right. It isn’t that the painting doesn’t look like the subject, but that  the painting doesn’t quite capture the feeling of repose that I remember. I would like to go back and experience the place again, although I probably never will. As a contrast to the peacefulness of the green, I especially like the drift of little yellow flowers on the bank. It speaks of optimism in the return of spring.

The second picture is Beijing at night. My Muse and I went to China with our local Chamber of Commerce, so I guess it was a business trip. I should probably go back and amend my tax return for that year. This was taken while waiting for the bus after dinner one night. Beijing, of course is a large city with all the expected hustle and bustle (well maybe more of that than we westerners expect), and Lots (and Lots) of people. We were taken to large restaurants that serve Chinese food that westerners would eat without asking too many questions. I think it was probably because we were Americans that one entree every night was French Fries. China is one of those places that you cannot adequately learn about by reading, or even by listening to someone who has been there. You have to go there and see it yourself. I remembered those pictures from the ’90s of a thousand people on bicycles waiting for the stoplight to change and I expected to see that. No. That’s all gone. Everybody has cars. Imagine a city of a million cars, all driven by people with almost no experience. That is what “chaos” means.

There is a concept in Celtic spirituality of places where the veil (between earth and heaven) is thin. Ghost Ranch, in northern New Mexico, is one of those places. This is a summer sunset—frequently spectacular. The feature at the left is, appropriately, Chimney Rock. The area is full of high mesas with steep cliffs of red and yellow rock. The ranch headquarters is in a canyon surrounded by these cliffs and looks west across a lake to mountains 20-30 miles away. The veil is, indeed, thin, and once you have settled into the rhythm of the ranch, the place itself encourages, perhaps even demands, mediative spirit. We spend a week there every summer, and just returned from spending yesterday and last night there. Even one day is enough to reset your clock.

There are a few other places I have been that appear to be thin places—places where the spirit feels the nearness of heaven. Another such place is St. David’s in southwest Wales. Small village, lovely old cathedral, but most of all the feeling that it is a sacred place and has been since long before these “modern” fixtures were put on the land. You may have been to places where you felt that there is something special here; this place is not like the rest of the world. Think back and find those places and tell me about them.

Thin places can also appear because of events that happen there. My Muse plays the harp and spends much of her time playing for hospice patients. I haven’t been there with her, but she says that the veil is thin at the time that someone passes out of this life.

The final picture is the Cliffs of Mohr on the west coast of Ireland, south of Galway Bay. This is a place where peace and ruggedness collide. There is a strong sense of remoteness even though the area is developed for sightseers and there are lots of people there. I read one travel writer who whined that, while visiting the cliffs is free, it is remote and there is only one car park for which you are charged 6€. They thought that demanded a boycott. What a mistake that would have been. I didn’t feel it as a thin place, but rather a place of power: 600 foot cliffs falling straight into the ocean; a pretty constant wind. The place is immense, and you are tiny. Strength and power abound.

So, you see 4 pictures. One representative of life in a dense urban area, and 3 exuding remoteness, peace, and the beauty and power of nature. You have some idea of where my heart lies.

 

Goals and Training

Setting goals and training for a race is pretty much a metaphor for the rest of life. Sometimes your plans work out exactly as expected–it’s exhilarating when that happens. You can pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself on your amazing predictive ability. Sometimes your performance turns out even better than your plans, and sometimes it is worse. Today was one of Those Days.

I’m still extending for my race next month, and today’s plan was for 18k (11.25 miles, for those of you still mired in obsolete English units). I planned a route that includes quite a few hills knowing that would slow me down–not the flat route where I usually do distance. I live in mountains, so the flat route by the river is at about 1400 m, and by flat I mean less than 20 m / km–none of the wimpy sea-level stuff here.

I didn’t meet my goals today for either time or distance. The route I planned was shorter than it should have been and by the time I got to the finish, I was too tired to extend it by the needed amount. Well, That’s the way training goes sometimes, and so does life. I didn’t do 18k, but I did do 17.4k. I did extend from last week, and I’m happy that my last kilometer was faster than my first one. I always try to put some sort of finish on my run by picking up the pace for the last few hundred meters, and I managed that. Didn’t meet my goals, but I’m still happy with the run.

This happens in life, too. Sometimes you fall short, but you can almost always find something in your performance that makes you happy; that enables you to move on to the next event ready to conquer it. If you are doing the “marathon shuffle,” then shuffle on friends.

The “End of Life”

End of life is a phrase with several meanings, each of which is a complex set of issues. I have watched my parents age, decline,and finally, pass. Have watched their worlds close in as they aged: world travelers after retirement; later San Diego county; then their town; their house and yard; finally, inside their heads. I see how that goes as one’s interests become more local and more immediate and the rest of the world fades in importance.

I have passed through my own spring and summer and am now in the fall of my life. I don’t see any New Year’s baby yet, and I’m looking for a long Indian Summer, but it will turn cold and I’ll want to be inside by the fire, surrounded by art, with a glass of wine, and a good book (or 50). So, I’m pretty interested in how to keep life being good for as long as possible. I’m through with denial (see my post on Denial for how much and how long I’ve been able to avoid all of this), but I have been thinking about the issues–ugly as they may be–for quite a while.

My Muse is a professional musician, or possibly an angel disguised as a musician. She works for a hospice and plays her harp for patients in their last hours or at most their last days. She is called in to help with pain management when, often, drugs no longer help, or she may help with “terminal agitation” when the reality of the situation has become apparent and denial no longer works. She is very good at this and has helped many patients achieve a graceful passage. This is one of the meanings of end of life, and an area where most of us would agree on what is important. The issue is how to achieve a graceful passage; what must we do and how should we so arrange our lives in advance to make this end is possible.

But, there is another, often much longer, period of life, leading up to those final days and hours that can determine how graceful our passage will be or whether a graceful passage is even possible. The beginning of that period is sometimes difficult to identify. It may begin when others start to feel that they need to check on you frequently, or when they become concerned because you are still driving, or when you begin to need help with activities of daily living. This longer period can also be referred to as the end of life. If you are lucky, it will come on gradually. If you aren’t, it may begin catastrophically with a heart attack or a stroke or a bad fall. If it begins with a catastrophe, you may be left with a life situation you do not like and do not want, but can no longer change. That is why I’m taking up these issues now.

I have just read an excellent new book, Being Mortal: medicine and what matters in the end, by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan Books, 2014), a surgeon from Boston, that leads me to thinking about these issues in greater detail. Another interesting piece that prompts me is Why I Hope to Die at 75, by Ezekiel Emanuel in the September Atlantic. They bid me for different reasons: Gawande because he is objective and lays out the issues so nicely; Emanuel because the pessimistic position he lays out, while carefully argued, is wrong.

I know that it is time for me to be working through the coming decisions, but you may think that you are “too young,” or you may not yet have given up the notion that you are immortal. Or, you might be starting to think about these issues on behalf of your parents because they still think they are immortal. Or you might already have assumed responsibility for your parents’ care and are wondering if there is anything better that can be done for them. How lucky you are in that case to be given the opportunity to take the lessons you learn for this experience and apply them to your own case. Your time is coming, unless, of course, you actually are immortal.

I’m thinking of this as the beginning of a series of posts about aspects of aging, maintaining a high quality of life (whatever that might mean to you), dignity, and control. I invite you to join a conversation about these subjects. What are your thoughts?