Monday, August 21, 2006

Over the river and through the woods...

Along with seven Spanish-speaking friends, I went on a hike on Saturday in the woods of Crowders Mountain State Park here in North Carolina. Between us, we carried a few water bottles, two or three cameras, high spirits, and great expectations.

As we walked along, we stopped to take notice of the serene beauty of the woods around us. We sang. We laughed. We talked. We told bad jokes. We made fun of each other's efforts. We tried to scare each other with warnings about bears, snakes, and wolves. Of the eight of us, six reached the pinnacle peak. Two rested together for a while and then made their way back to the park office on their own.

At one point, one of the women sat down on a large rock and said she thought she was going to faint. I stood with her for a few moments, insisted that she drink some water, and encouraged her to rest. She urged me to go on without her and promised that she'd catch up with us. Reluctantly, I pressed on, wondering to myself, "What if she passes out? What if she falls off the rock and hits her head? What if???"

As we ascended, we came upon a father and his two young children. He carried them alternately on his shoulders. He encouraged and urged them to walk carefully but to press on. I was impressed with his patience and obvious love for them.

After more than an hour of hiking, we reached the top. We could see far into the distance, mountain peaks all around, lush, green valleys, treetops, low buildings, a highway in the distance. One of the people in the group commented that seeing a view like that is a good reminder of how small we are, that looking down from the mountaintop, individual people were impossible to spot. The view from our vantage point was far wider and deeper than could be imagined on the ground below. Why is it that we take ourselves and our small lives so seriously? Good question, my dear, good question.

As we took photos from the pinnacle of the mountain, the woman who had almost fainted arrived. She had needed to rest, allow her heart and lungs to catch up with her body, and then she was able to continue to climb, on her own, in her own time, at her own pace. In the end, she made it. The young father and his two children also arrived at the peak. We congratulated them on their successful efforts.

Not far from where we stood sat a group of young men in camouflage. They listened intently to the three older gentlemen who were obviously in charge of their little regimen and whose words they didn't want to miss. Rudely, I interrupted their pow-wow and asked if one of them would take a photo of our group. One of the teenagers agreed to take the picture, and I asked him if they were an ROTC program. "No, maam. We are members of the Civil Air Patrol." Hmmm... Sounded a little like militia terminology to me, but I didn't ask for details. I heard the Brooklyn-born girl whisper to my wary spirit: "Yes, this is rural North Carolina, G, and don't you forget it."

Within minutes, we began our descent. With quivering quads and shaky calves, we stumbled over the loose rocks and struggled to find secure footholds as we made our way back to the lodge and civilization. A few of us agreed that climbing down was harder than climbing up. I've heard that more people are injured and killed on their way down from the top of Mount Everest than on their way up. Not that I'm comparing our outing to scaling Mt. Everest...

Into the woods. Into our lives. We sometimes travel in groups, walking, talking, laughing, telling stories, and even scaring each other with tales of woe. We stand alongside each other when challenges arise, when heart palpitations threaten to end our journey. We share water, wisdom, and wonder. We encourage, entreat, and endure each other. Sometimes the best thing and the only thing to do is simply to keep walking, in silence, in prayer, in awe, with gratitude, with perseverance, with grace. Don't stop because starting over is more challenging than remaining in motion.

Sometimes we travel life's journey alone. There are times when we must find our way without the help of others. We wander off the path, fall, injure ourselves, but then we get up, keep walking, and make every effort to finish the race that is set before us.

We cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed or undermined by the efforts of others. I saw one young man running up the mountain. Running. A group of three young men passed us on their way to the top and appeared to be walking without much strain or effort. I had to stop several times, put my hand on a tree, take a few deep breaths, and then proceed. I couldn't and didn't compare my experience to theirs.

One of the two women who didn't make it to the top was among the proudest in the group. She told us that she never exercises at all and she was thrilled by how much she had walked. She expected that the day's events had motivated her to begin to take better care of herself. Yeah for Estela!

Milton, the lone gentleman in our party told us that we shouldn't look up towards the top of the mountain, not lift our eyes to the goal, but rather concentrate on making our way there step by step. Sometimes raising our eyes to spot the peak in the distance is more discouraging than just keeping her eyes on the step in front of us and placing our foot carefully on the path before us. Wise words, amigo mio, wise words.

Lately, I've felt some serious quivering in my thighs. My calves feel tight and tentative. My heart races and my mind wanders when I sit down to prepare for homeschooling: what if I'm not teaching them enough? What if I'm doing them more harm than good? What if I'm supposed to be doing something entirely different with my life?

When I think about my health, I wonder: What if I'm harboring some dreaded disease that the doctors haven't found yet? What if I have a high threshhold for pain and I should get this sore foot checked out because it's bone cancer?

When I open the Bible and read it, when I am driving along in the car and thinking about the faith I claim to have, I wonder: What if I have no idea about what faith really is and how it's supposed to affect my life? What if this is all a hoax and I've been duped in some really big way?

When I think about the many people in my life who mean the world to me, I wonder: What if I die in a plane crash or car accident or sudden and incurable illness and never get to see certain friends and family members again before I die? What if I die without telling my loved ones that I love them? There are some people I know only through the internet; what if I never get to meet them in person? How will I find out if any of them pass away? Is there any provision made to inform their internet friends that something has happened to them? What if something serious happened to me? How would anybody let my blog readers know? What if??? Yaaahhhh!!!???

When those questions threaten to overwhelm me and give me heart palpitations, I know that I need to sit down in a quiet place, take a few deep breaths, drink a cup of tea, journal, read, pray, give thanks for my blessed life, and nourish my famished soul. I have nothing to fear. I have been careful to tell my loved ones how much they mean to me. I write letters, postcards, emails regularly, and I call my near and dear ones often. I am surrounded by many who hold me up in thought, in prayer, and in hand when I feel weak.

After I catch my breath, rehydrate my dehydrated spirits, and assure myself that I have not lost my way, I step back onto the path into the woods.
I sing a few songs. Tell a few stories.
Write a blog. Make a card and send it to someone special.
Have some tea. Eat some chocolate peanut butter ice cream.
Seek and find the joy of my life's journey.


Alejandra Garro said...

Dear Gail:

While I am reading your blog, I can picture those mountains and the trails in my mind.

That father carring and pushing his kids reminds me a what God has done in my life many times.

Keep writing Gail...


Nancy said...

"Why is it that we take ourselves and our small lives so seriously?"

I sometimes ask myself that very question. It's all a matter of perspective. In those moments that I can glimpse the larger picture, when I can grasp just a little bit the vastness of God, I begin to let go of all the seriousness. It's hard to stay there though when my mind begins to run with all the "what if's".
There's so much wisdom in what you have written here. It would take too long to comment on it all!Thanks Gail.

Jill St John said...

First I apologize for chiding you via phone for the delay in blogging..
Second...."why do we take ourselves so seriously?" Because we do fail to look toward the mountaintop, and we focus on the trail just two steps ahead, maybe there is a rock or a snake, or the incline is too much..we need to check out the mountaintop every once and a while, otherwise we may just choose to sit on that rock while the rest of the hikers walk on by us.