All the Zero Days

WWJD

In 2016 on my first ever long distance hike (organized by a Meetup group, the Maryland section of the AT) I met another female hiker about my age. Like me, Jenna was a single mom, working a full time job, and making time when she could to section hike the Appalachian trail. She was, in my estimation, a hiking machine. Long legs not withstanding, she took the rocks in Maryland like a mountain goat. She was my hero, and on subsequent section hikes with her, she cemented her hero status in my mind. Her pace and her attitude (especially while hiking with popped blisters) was something to which I aspired.

When her schedule or the weather couldn’t allow her to access to the Trail, she would day hike the James River trail system in Richmond, starting at dawn and walking until her body told her to stop, often logging more than 30 miles in a day (with quick stops at local breweries in between).

I was supposed to hike with her as she finished her final section of Virginia, having completed the entire length of the AT from the Tennessee border to Pennsylvania. Never had I needed my own brand of “zero days” so badly; school had just started, my parents were on a two week trip to the Republic of Georgia visiting my brother, and I’d been managing three children’s extracurricular activities without the extra support. High school band, Boy Scouts, dance class and physical therapy every night of the week were taking their toll. So was my job. Commitments to my design clients and activities at my day job had to come first. I made the difficult but necessary decision to bail on Jenna’s section hike. It was a gorgeous fall weekend, and as it passed, I knew I’d made the right decision, but my heart grieved. I wouldn’t have another free weekend until February.

Then I took a second look at the calendar, and the weather. The following weekend my kids’ dad was scheduled to have them again. There was a tropical storm on the horizon but it wouldn’t hit until Sunday afternoon, when I’d be driving home. My work schedule was lighter that week. I could go, guilt-free!

I chose a section that was manageable for me – Snickers Gap at the Bear’s Den Hostel in Bluemont, Virginia, to Harper’s Ferry, 21 miles over two days, camping at what was reported to be one of the nicest shelters on the trail. It would be my second solo hike, requiring me to hire a shuttle driver and find a place to stay Friday night, neither of which I’d done before. Fortunately, I had been to Harper’s Ferry the year prior (on my first section hike with Jenna, in fact), and past experience with a group had given me the confidence I needed to do all those things on my own. I stayed at the Town’s Inn, just as I’d had the year before, and I reached out to my hiking resources for a very reasonable shuttle driver named Mark who could drive me to my starting point for $25.

As I sat outside in the balmy evening breeze sipping jasmine tea on the Town’s Inn stone porch, I struck up conversation with a weary-looking hiker who appeared to be in his thirties. He was from the Philly area and had been out for a week, hiking northbound from Shenandoah National Park, and he was looking worse for wear with his knees taped up with KT tape. He told me he’d started that morning at the Blackburn Trail Center, a cabin owned by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club that I’d be passing on my hike the next day. After 13 miles in one day, he told me, he was ready to pass out in his bed upstairs, and he looked the part. I asked him about trail conditions, and water sources at the shelter where I was planning to camp. He confirmed what I suspected: after a month without rain, all the streams were dry, and the spring at the shelter was but a trickle, with a long, steep climb to get to it. “Fill up at the spigot at Blackburn,” he recommended before dragging himself up the stairway to the comfort of his private room. A few minutes later, I did the same, taking myself down to the basement of the inn, where hikers on a budget can get a cot and a shower for $35 a night.

The innkeeper lives just above the basement, is a bit of an insomniac night owl, and wears loud shoes. I didn’t get much sleep, but I did wake up early enough to have the cook make me a scrambled egg before driving to the Harper’s Ferry Cavalier Heights parking lot where my shuttle driver was meeting me. I saw the sun rise over the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers as I drove out of town. Mark took me through the back roads of the northwestern tip of Virginia, some of the most beautiful countryside you will ever see. It’s difficult to believe this is such a short distance from Washington, D.C.’s suburban sprawl and legendary highway (and legislative) gridlock.

We talked about hiking and the impending weather. Mark said he’d had a couple of cancellations, which was hard to fathom; all the forecasts we’d both heard had the rain starting on Sunday afternoon. We pulled into the parking area of Bear’s Den, and he expressed shock at the lack of cars and tents. Typically on a Saturday morning in October the grounds would be filled with cars and people out for a weekend of outdoor recreation. The weather was warm and sunny. What did they know that we didn’t?

According to one hiker there, the rain was going to start at midnight that very night. This was the first we’d heard of it, but I started to question the wisdom of camping out and hiking into Harper’s Ferry the next day in the rain. I had a poncho in the event of drizzle, but I was not prepared for hiking in a soaking downpour. One of the benefits of being a section hiker is cherry picking the weather. I avoid hiking in rain at all costs; even on a hot day, rain can mean hypothermia.

“I wonder if I could make it the whole 20 miles?” I mused aloud to Mark. I wasn’t more than half joking. I’d hiked 20 miles once before, and even without the weight of a pack, the mileage had been beyond my limit. I hit a wall around 15 miles; around ten miles is my sweet spot. I waved goodbye to Mark and headed to the trail at 8:00 on the dot, with every intention of enjoying a leisurely pace to the David Lesser Shelter about 11 miles away.

The moment I stepped onto the Trail I felt at home, as if I were being welcomed by an old friend, or putting on my favorite pair of jeans or old slippers. I’d never walked this particular section before, but somehow it felt familiar, probably because so much of the Trail in this part of the state is so monotonous; it is referred to as the “long, green tunnel” by thru hikers. This particular section around Bear’s Den is known as “the roller coaster” because of its series of back-to-back ups and downs.

Fortunately I had only the last three hills of the roller coaster to contend with for the first 4.5 miles of my hike, none of them much more than 500 feet of elevation, and a nice view at Raven Rocks promised. The temperature was warm but breezy, and there was not a cloud to be found in the brilliant blue sky.

A lot of non-hikers in my life worry about me going out alone, and I regularly reassure them you’re never really alone on the Trail. Although the bubble of southbound thru hikers had already passed this area, a few stragglers were still trickling through; I saw at least two couples who had started in Maine. I also passed a few section hikers who had started in Harper’s Ferry and were headed south for several more days. There were also day hikers and trail runners, most of whom were just doing out-and-back hikes up to the overlook at Raven Rocks. I met a man with a dog named Mercy, a young female runner who warned me of a snake, and an Asian woman in her late 50s who give me a huge peeled and cored apple that was a delicious treat when I got to my first stopping point two hours in. Trail magic is great! More than one passing hiker commented on my JMU tshirt and asked if I was a student – perhaps another form of trail magic? I also picked up a great pair of sunglasses, a Columbia rimmed hat, and a clean empty ziplock bag; unintended trail magic probably dropped by accident. God provides, I thought to myself as I picked up each item.

The sunglasses in particular would come in handy after lunch.

About four hours into the hike I made it past the “roller coaster” for a mile or so of ridge walking, which is mostly level and easy walking. I rewarded myself with lunch, took off my pack and shoes for a brief rest, and a look at my map and my pace. I was close to 6 miles behind me, another 5 or so ahead of me, mostly downhill, and at this pace I expected to get to camp around 2 or 2:30, with plenty of daylight left.

While I ate lunch I seriously started to consider the feasibility of hiking on to Harper’s Ferry. What if there was no one staying at the shelter because the prospect of rain kept section hikers away? What if the rain really was going to come at midnight? What if the spring was dry? Besides, the idea of hanging out alone at a shelter waiting for nightfall for five hours with nothing to do didn’t appeal to me. I don’t like camping without other people around, and there were definitely fewer folks on the trail than I’d expected.

What would Jenna do?

I chuckled as I thought about that Christian cliche that had been popular in the late 90s – WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? Jenna would probably laugh hysterically at the thought of becoming part of the WWJD acronym.

Jenna would press on like the badass that she is, I thought. But Jenna was also taller than me, better conditioned than me, and more experienced. She took herself backpacking about once a month; I hadn’t logged any miles since July. It didn’t matter what Jenna would do, because right then it was my feet on the Trail, and my hike to hike. The real question I had to ask myself was, what would Christy do? What would Hopper do?

Hopper decided not to decide. Instead, she put on her shoes, took a pee, adjusted her pack, and swiftly headed off along the ridge line, intent on seeing if she really could make it to camp by 2. If yes, she thought, then maybe depending on how she felt she could press on the other ten miles.

Hopper was pondering this when suddenly, she found herself airborne, and just as suddenly crashed on the ground. Hopper, who earned her trail name because of her ability to hop down rocky declines with ease when she had a destination in site, had tripped over a rock in the middle of the most even footing on the trail.

The first thing I heard was the crack of my glasses breaking. “Shit!” I said. I was careful not to move right away, doing a quick body scan to see what hurt. My knee, my hand, but not too bad. My 20 lb pack pinned me to the ground, so I unbuckled everything and wiggled out. My pinkie finger was very swollen and bruised but moving. My knee was skinned and bleeding. The side of my face where my glasses had been had a small bleeding cut, and my glasses, on the ground a few feet away, had broken on the corner and could be repaired easily with duct tape. Which I cursed myself for not bringing. I got out my first aid kit and patched them together with tiny bandaids. They were a little loose but definitely still on my head. I cleaned my wounds, drank some water, and decided the adrenaline that was pumping should be put to good use. I set my sights on the next waypoint, the Blackburn Trail Center about two miles ahead.

My glasses were so loose they kept sliding down my nose. It was irritating and slowing me down, but I thought of the sunglasses. I put them on over the glasses, and they held everything firmly in place. I thanked God for providing in advance the tool I would need to get through this minor difficulty. He must have known, I thought. Then I got irritated at the thought of a God who knows in advance that we will stumble, provides for our comfort after the fall, but can’t be bothered to remove the damn rock that would trip us up in the first place.

Then I thought of all the possible ways I could have fallen, or not fallen. God didn’t just know about that one spot, I meditated. He knew about every possible trip up and stumble I might potentially face, depending on my choices. And He knew every possible outcome, simultaneously. His intervention couldn’t interfere with my choices. It could only take the form of giving comfort and making use of what was around. I didn’t have to pick up those sunglasses left on the Trail. I didn’t have to credit God either. But there was a force out there I could thank. So I did.

Doubt also started to speak, especially as the Trail got rockier and steeper. If I had tripped over a rock when I was “fresh” and had just eaten, how the hell was I going to stay upright at mile 15, when fatigue would be setting in? How would I handle hiking in the dark for the last two miles into Harper’s Ferry? What was I trying to prove anyway? I ruminated on other options: pressing on to Keys Gap seven miles up, and calling Mark the shuttle driver. It was an option.

Adrenaline did what I had hoped, carrying me to the Blackburn Trail Center in about an hour’s time. There was a very steep quarter mile access trail down the side of the mountain, and I did not look forward to going back up. I briefly considered not stopping at all, but I needed another snack break and my water was getting low, with no prospect of reliable water for the remaining 13 miles. I took the advice I’d been given the night before and headed down to the beautiful property maintained and operated by the PATC.

What a welcome site after the steep descent! I was greeted by a section hiker named Michelle who was headed south to Shenandoah. She had gotten a late start from the David Lesser Shelter, only 3 miles away at that point, and had decided to stay put until the next day. “Why kill myself?” she said. I told her of my fear of the rain, my choices, to camp at the shelter, push on to Key’s Gap and call a shuttle, or hike in the dark all the way to Harper’s Ferry. She was surprised at my pace and determination. I couldn’t tell if she was impressed or thought I was crazy; maybe both.

I ate second lunch (hummus and crackers, small apple, fun sized Snickers bar, and a jelly packet). I unpacked my bag to refill my water bladder, which was almost empty. Stopping here had been a good decision. After repacking I took another look around the property, checked my GPS map and the time, and set my sights on climbing back up the gnarly hill to the Trail and the shelter in an hour. It was an ambitious and nearly impossible goal, but adrenaline was still flowing, and with each step I became more determined to get to town and finish my whole hike in one day.

The “long green tunnel” is not so green in October, especially after a month without rain. I was hiking what I knew to be my best pace ever along the ridge line. More than once I felt evaporating water from the canopy above sprinkle down on me like a sun shower – miraculous to me, as there was still not a cloud in the sky. Surely it wouldn’t really rain that very night? I pulled out my phone and took it off airplane mode to check the forecast. According to my weather channel app, clouds would roll in around midnight and rain chances became significant around 5 am. I would not camp, I decided.

Shortly before I arrived at the side trail to the shelter, I passed a young man whose wife had dropped him off at Harper’s Ferry. He’d started that morning at around 9:45, he said, and she was picking him up at Bear’s Den, where I had started. So my plan was doable, he agreed, if I didn’t mind hiking in the dark. “This is about the halfway point,” he said. Encouraged, I pressed on. I came to the shelter trail and checked my clock. 3:30. I’d done 3 miles in an hour and a half. Not bad. Keys Gap was another 3 miles ahead, all downhill. I should get there at 5. That would give me about two more hours of daylight. I had another quick snack and kept moving.

At Keys Gap I checked the time. 4:45! I was going at phenomenal pace! I started to think about how far I would get before sunset. I was racing the sun, and I knew it was a losing race. I was definitely feeling the fatigue in my body now. My hips hurt, my toes hurt, my shoulders hurt. I’d hiked 14.5 miles. My physical wall was looming. Surely I wouldn’t be able to keep the pace?

Another backpacker stopped by as I was resting on a log, thinking of how great a shower at the Econolodge would feel. I told him of my plan, as he, too, had come from the direction I was headed. “The path is fairly level and easy for the next little stretch,” he said, “but then there are just lots of rocks.”

I groaned. I am not a fan of rocks while going downhill, regardless of what my trail name is, and I really didn’t want to be navigating rocks in the dark. “What’s it like at Loudon Heights?” I asked. Loudon Heights was the next major waypoint, about 3.5 miles up the Trail. I calculated that the sun would be setting about the time I got there, and I’d have 30-40 minutes of twilight hiking before needing to pull out my headlamp. “I think that’s about where the rocks stop,” he said. We wished each other luck and both took off.

He wasn’t lying about the rocks. The 3.5 miles from Keys Gap to Loudon Heights were physically and mentally challenging. Was I just trying to satisfy my ego, I thought? Did I make a mistake not calling the shuttle? Maybe Jenna would have called. There was no reasonable place to camp between here and Harper’s Ferry, though, so there was not much choice but to keep putting one sore foot in front of the other as swiftly as possible to make the most of daylight. I didn’t even eat snacks, just drank water to stay hydrated. At least I didn’t feel dehydrated, I thought to myself. My pace didn’t lag, even on the rocks, and I made it to the Loudon Heights sign just as the sun was beginning to set through the trees. There were still plenty of rocks to contend with, though.

As the light grew dimmer, a young buck crossed my path and stared at me from the woods on the other side. I had a little conversation with him as I continued on. I took out my last snack, a DumDum lollipop. By the time I had finished it, the light was all but gone, but my eyes had adjusted and I could still see. The downward trail became steeper, a sign that I was nearing ever closer to the great Shenandoah River that had cut these steep banks millennia ago. I started singing “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you!” at the top of my lungs. No chance of passing day hikers at this time of day, and no self-consciousness even if there had been one.

Suddenly, I could hear the cars crossing the bridge. I could see lights in the distance through the thick trees. I heard the unmistakable whistle of the train crossing the Potomac in town. Although my pace had slowed in the dark on the steep rocky path, I was encouraged. Soon, I could see the river through the trees, and the bridge where Route 340 crossed. Not long now. I checked my GPS.

According to my app, I was not on the trail.

I stopped there, looking at the river and the bridge, knowing exactly where I was, but feeling very lost. I had no idea how to get down to the base of the bridge from this cliff.

I looked around for white blazes. I found them. The trail I was on did not match up with my GPS, but I carefully kept my eyes peeled for white blazes as I made my way down the bank. Had it been daylight I’m sure the trail would have been clear. Finally I found my way to the base of the bridge, the rumbling of traffic and civilization. It was solidly dark now, about 7:30. I hiked across the bridge, my eyes blinded by car headlights, and I sang all the verses of Amazing Grace. ‘Twas grace that led me safe thus far, and grace would lead me home.

20 miles. 12 hours. 20 lbs of gear. It was a personal best for me, and I felt like a badass thru hiker for a day. There was no room at any of the hotels nearby, so I took the three hour drive home to my own bed and a soak in the tub. I fell asleep with a smile on my face, and texted a hiking buddy in the morning to share my success.

WWJD got me there. Jenna, my hiking hero, did what heroes are supposed to do: she had unknowingly inspired me to exceed my own limitations and ultimately become my own hero. Really, I have no idea what Jenna would have done. But now I know what Christy, “Hopper,” can do when she puts her mind to it.

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Holey Heart, Uncategorized

Right, or Happy?

“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” That quotable rhetorical question is attributed to TV talk show host Dr. Phil. The first time I heard it posed, my immediate internal sarcastic response was, “I’ll be happy when ‘they’ acknowledge I’m right.” I resented the suggestion the choice was binary. I resisted the idea that my happiness could only be achieved if I allowed others to be painfully wrong, uncorrected.

Then when my ex-husband and I split up, I heard another variation. “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be divorced?” The meaning was clear; in order for the separation and divorce to progress there would inevitably be things I’d have to compromise on.

Another person put it this way, “Is that the hill you want to die on?” What a refreshing dose of perspective! When I don’t see eye to eye with someone, this is the question I strive to ask myself before engaging in a confrontation. I’m naturally non-confrontational, so the answer is almost always, “no.”

Except on Facebook.

I didn’t start out nine years ago as confrontational internet troll. I shared photos of my kids and my meals and kitten memes like everyone else. But two presidential election cycles took their toll, and I found myself asking that question a lot. Then, I found myself asking it a little less. Nine times out of ten, I ask that question, and nine times out of ten when I ask that question, it has been my choice to be happy rather than publicly right. If I had a dime for every time I didn’t respond to someone I disagreed with, I’d be a very rich woman. Still, it has been disheartening to discover so many other people I know and love who appear to care more about being right than happy. With so many people drunk on their own self-righteousness, is it any wonder I found it difficult to remain “sober” myself?

Those one times out of ten when I chose being right offered me enough proof that the choice really is binary – being right did not bring happiness, but its opposite.

I hit bottom, you could say. Someone posted something that I took personally, that I experienced as a public shaming, and instead of letting it go, I took the bait. I responded. I knew (and still know) I was right. And it made me miserable. So, I quit, cold turkey. No more Facebook on my phone or on my computer. No more Messenger. If someone wants to have a relationship with me, let it happen the old-fashioned way, with interpersonal communication. They know my phone number, I reasoned.

In Sunday’s old testament reading the prophet Ezekiel gives his reason for choosing to be right over being happy: “If . . . you don’t speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked will surely die from his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” I think of all the self-righteous jerks (yours truly among them) who have used that passage of scripture to justify their nanny-state finger wagging, and I shudder. Last time I looked at my birth certificate, the name on it was not “Ezekiel,” and I don’t know anyone else by that name either. Sure, we may have been baptized “priest, prophet, and king,” but we were baptized into Christ, who gave a richer, more descriptive directive for us for when we find ourselves right, or being wronged.

Matthew’s Gospel passage last weekend lays out step by step the approach to be both right and happy. First, confront the person who has wronged you privately, one on one. If that doesn’t work, confront him with one or two witnesses (not an entire social network). If that still doesn’t work, take it to the church (or the socially trusted arbiter of morality and justice, which again, is not the court of public opinion on Facebook). And if he still refuses to listen even to the church, then, and only then, is it acceptable to treat him, as Jesus puts it, like a gentile or tax collector; in other words, like an outcast.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He reminds us all that while we may be justified in shutting out the evil-doers in our lives, we still have the authority, power, and choice to let it go. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

I can let my righteousness bind me forever to a person whose beliefs, actions, and attitudes irritate or run contrary to me. Or I can free myself. Jesus gave us that power. We can be right, but we don’t have to be smug about it. We can even let it go.

When I was in seventh grade, there was a girl in one of my classes who for some unknown reason decided she didn’t like me and wanted to fight me. I’m not talking a verbal argument; she wanted to physically beat me up, and she tried to bait me into fighting her at lunch. It would have been no contest. She was twice my size and mean as hell. She was also all bark and no bite. “Why won’t you fight me?” she taunted. “Are you scared?”

In seventh grade I’d stay awake for hours at night thinking up witty retorts to the insults I would receive daily from my verbally abusive classmates. I was never very quick in the moment, but hours later, I’d fantasize about what I could have said. I can’t say that it brought me peace, but at least it helped me sleep at night.

So when this girl wanted to fight me, I don’t know where the words (or the courage) came from, but the words that came out of my mouth were, “No, you’re just not worth it.” That mean 160lb 12-year-old who’d had it out for me all year never bothered me again.

Most of the time, being right isn’t worth it either. “Being right” is the bully who wants to make others feel small so they can feel important, or relevant, or smart, or righteous. Today, I can take some pointers from my 12-year-old self, wise beyond her years, and my Savior. Being right is not worth it. Taking a break from Facebook is the best strategy I could employ to avoid the bullies there who want to pick fights, or worse, to avoid becoming one myself.

I don’t plan on dying on any hills that social media serves up.

All the Zero Days

Embrace the Brutality

Last night at about 4 am I found myself sobbing. Ten days ago I gave up Facebook. Not permanently, but a 30-day fast. (I could write pages on why, but that’s not what this post is about.) I’m pretty sure the sobbing is part of the withdrawal process from what I must admit was, is, an addiction.

Being away from Facebook has shown me I turned to that social media platform almost constantly throughout the day when I had feelings of disconnection and loneliness. Whenever I felt alone, I’d check the feed for updates on what was going on with friends and acquaintances. This didn’t take care of the loneliness itself, just the fleeting feeling of loneliness, which of course always returned, sometimes only moments after logging off.

To a lesser extent, I was triggered to use Facebook when I had the desire to share a thought, insight, frustration. I was a prolific poster and reposter of stories and memes. I wanted attention. I wanted to be relevant.

The irony is that using Facebook, the great global village predicted by my media theory classes 20 years ago, has not solved my loneliness problem, but has made it worse. It’s been nine years and I must honestly say my relationships (except with my parents) are more superficial than they have ever been. I have a lot more friends than I did nine years ago, but fewer friendships.

Is it any wonder, then, that after I stopped using my loneliness “crutch” I’d end up sobbing at 4 am? I’m surprised it took ten days.

Fortunately I instinctively knew that doing something creative, like writing, would help. So here’s what I wrote:

It is about 4 am as I type this, and I’m feeling desperately lonely with no end in sight. I have heard of this being a pretty common hazard of the trail, and one of the main reason thru hikers quit even after making it more than half way to Katadin. The way I feel right now, I would quit in a heartbeat if that would end the hurting.

But I’m not on the trail.

I’m in my bed. In my house. With air conditioning and the promise of a hot shower and fresh eggs for breakfast. With my children sleeping in their rooms down the hall, my boyfriend a phone call away, my parents planning dinner tomorrow night. There is nothing to ‘quit.’ No escape from loneliness.”

After that, I slept a deep, restorative until 7:30.

This morning I googled “combating loneliness as a thru hiker” and the first hit was a post by CDT and PCT thru hiker Russell Mease:

http://www.unconventionallife.net/fear-of-loneliness-the-1-killer-of-thru-hiker-dreams/

According to Mease, hikers on the CDT have spawned a catch phrase, “Embrace the brutality!” That applies to the physical challenges, as well as the mental ones.

That phrase cuts through my hopelessness.

It is not, “Give in to the brutality.”

It is not, “Get over the brutality.”

It is not, “It’s not THAT brutal.”

“Embrace the brutality” is the ultimate declaration of acceptance. And my time spent with alcoholics working a 12-step program of recovery has taught me that acceptance, not resignation, is the key to all our problems.

Loneliness is brutal. It registers as actual physical pain in our brains. It triggers primal fears related to survival, because humans through anthropological and biological adaptation are social animals. It is also a universal experience; we are not alone in our loneliness. And research is showing social media is making the problem worse.

Last night I made the mistake of googling “loneliness” and what I read gave no practical solutions, other than to find people with similar interests, or join a bridge club. Like I have time for a bridge club. I have three school aged children in three different schools with three different sets of after school activities on every single day of the week. And I am not the only parent, or single parent, in this situation. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who was sobbing at 4 am last night.

Loneliness is not something we can just wish away. It’s not something we can just “get over,” or “give in to,” or minimize. Before I went to sleep, I prayed. I surrendered the loneliness to God. I said, “Please help me, because I am powerless over this.”

Today I recommit to embracing the brutality. If I were out on the trail, I would give myself short goals and then celebrate when I achieve them. I would take time to talk with other hikers I meet on the trail, and practice unconditional love and curiosity and openness. I would wake up early and go to bed early. I would regularly refuel my body, and I would savor every piece of food I put in my mouth. I would take brief rests every few miles. I would sometimes curse and swear and cry. I would pray. I would take zero days.

I can do all of those things as I embrace the brutality of everyday living, including the loneliness. Simply being able to call it what it is and admit my feelings is a huge step.

Tending the Temple

Surviving the Matrix

I envy my mother. She is not on Facebook. She doesn’t know her friends’ and acquaintances subtle and not so subtle political leanings (except for the few who actually talk politics when they have lunch or a phone call), and she doesn’t care to. What a luxury.

She doesn’t receive a daily (hourly) feed of the people she loves collectively losing sanity and sensibility. She hasn’t witnessed everyone she knows become unpaid content providers for the largest news source in the world. She gets her news from TV and radio. The old fashioned way. The one sided way. She has never been trolled. She doesn’t feed trolls. She has never inadvertently become a troll. She doesn’t know what a troll is.

Oh, to be like my mother. It is too late for me. I’m too far gone to be saved. I’m in the matrix, fully aware, unable to take a pill and escape.

In the wake of Charlottesville, I’ve joined many of my friends in losing our collective shit. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost a friend or two because of how jacked up we all are. On the positive side, I’ve learned who is “safe” for me also. And it’s not who you might expect. It’s not always the people who agree with me. It’s the ones who are capable, and more importantly, WILLING, to see things from another person’s perspective. It’s the people with empathy in the face of the self-righteous nuclear fallout that is social media.

For months I’ve been using a tool which helps make the “matrix” more manageable. The “unfollow” button. It allows me to restrict content in my newsfeed from people who are temporarily toxic to me because of their smug, smoldering rage. A few years ago “blocking” and “unfriending” seemed like the only options you had when dealing with toxic posts, but neither of those options is anonymous. The person knows when they’ve been unfriended or blocked.

My experience in non-virtual life is that boundaries work best when the other person doesn’t know I’ve set them. For example, at one time there was a person in my life who liked to gossip and criticize. And for my part, I really enjoyed participating! Then I realized that I didn’t like how I felt. I couldn’t say to this person, “It’s wrong to gossip and so I can’t talk to you anymore.” That would have provoked a lot of anger and ugliness, and this person was a fairly significant part of my life, not someone I could just cut off or avoid. I had to set the boundary for myself and not tell her. I had to take responsibility for my behavior and avoid gossiping, rather than avoid her.

Initially I kept our conversations very brief. Basic information exchange, nothing more. After a few months, my gossip habit had stopped and over time I could have more intimate conversations with her, while avoiding the temptation to get into gossiping or criticizing other people. I had a few slips, but I’m happy to say this relationship is a very healthy one today because of HOW I practiced the boundary. I tended to my side of the street and didn’t treat her to my condemnation. I followed the dictates of my faith and was a person of peace.

If only there were a way for me to have that kind of boundary in Facebook! The good news is, the “unfollow” option is one such way. I can stop the flow of tempting yet toxic content, in a totally anonymous way, without certain friends and familiar members knowing I’ve unfollowed them. If I’m tired of cat pictures, unfollow. Tired of Trump posts? Unfollow. It works for the pseudo-news sites that pop up too. On the top right corner of every post there is a little arrow. Click it to see the options. Unfollow.

You can refollow friends at any time. You can still see their posts by going directly to their wall. You just won’t be barraged by their posts and opinions on your feed.

The one danger of the unfollow is that it can create an echo chamber if you unfollow everyone who has a different opinion. Thankfully not everyone with different world views is toxic; I only unfollow people whose posts make me tempted to engage or think uncharitable thoughts. If you find yourself thinking uncharitable thoughts about every post with which you disagree, then perhaps you have an anger problem yourself. That’s the time to heed Jesus’ advice and remove the log from your own eye.

The unfollow tool is great for restricting what comes in, but it doesn’t stop those same toxic people from seeing what we post, or from commenting, or from getting into online confrontations on our own postings. Some people I know deal with this by only posting innocuous photos of their pets or kids or dinner plates, or sharing funny or inspirational quotes and memes. That’s one very solid option; in fact, that was kind of the whole point of Facebook before it got warped by politics, media, fake news, and the mass manipulation of public opinion.

Most of us want to feel free to be candid about our opinions and beliefs. This generation is not private about anything. We value our ability to express ourselves. Gen-Xers like me especially value this because growing up we felt ignored and dismissed. We still do, as the media and marketing machines are focused on baby boomers and millennials. Justice is important to us. Freedom and liberty is important to us. In general we distrust authority and want to make sure the world knows why. All these traits are what make us vulnerable in the matrix of Facebook. Meanwhile the millennials have an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong, and very little resilience to the emotional upsets of life, and they more than any other group engage in a collective shaming of anyone who doesn’t submit to the prevailing narrative they are fed by their helicopter-parent media. Meanwhile baby boomers bemoan the loss of the good old days of Woodstock and civil rights protests, or Ronald Reagan. It’s a recipe for a multi-generational clash of values and perspectives.

Sitting on the sidelines isn’t possible for most of us, but even the most innocuous post sharing sadness or dismay can be met not only with sympathy, but personal attacks about why feeling that way is wrong because it’s based on a false view of things. And both sides do it to each other. I’ve done it, and you probably have too. We are human. Let’s cut ourselves some slack as we take that log out of our eye.

The tool I find most helpful for this dilemma is the “friends list.” Facebook allows us to create lists of our friends based on their relationship to us. There’s “Friends,” which is every person with whom we are connected on FB, but under that there are subcategories, like “Acquaintances” or “Family.” Maybe you’ve never used these lists before. I didn’t until just a few weeks ago. But you can change your privacy settings on any post to be seen by ONLY the people on a specific list.

The best part is, you can create your own custom list. That way I can be friends with people from work, but restrict them from seeing my political posts. I can be friends with volatile family members, but restrict them from seeing a heart-felt post about something personal in my life. I can be friends with people whose politics is completely opposite of mine, or even the same, and who feel the need to do battle on my posts. I will not tolerate my friends being ugly with each other, and the best way to set this boundary is to deny them the opportunity to sully their own dignity on my little piece of internet real estate.

I now have a “safe friends” list. This list includes people I trust to not get their nose out of joint if they disagree with me or one of my other friends. They are diplomatic and moderate and open minded and supportive. If I feel the need to share a news story with like-minded people, and can restrict the privacy to “safe friends” and feel confident that it will be accepted with respect and calm.

There are a few other people who are not in my “safe” list. People with whom I need to keep a safe distance on social media because I value their friendship too much in real life. I feel no need to make politics a wedge between us, and I do my part to keep those divisive topics out of our friendship. So while I’m sure they are, in reality, “safe,” I restrict them from seeing certain posts, in the same spirit that I restrict my children from seeing me when I’m overly emotional and reactive. I value our relationship too much.

These two tools, unfollow and friend lists, are allowing me to safely stay in the matrix of social media without losing relationships or losing my voice. If this helps you in any way, please share. Perhaps we will see a return to civility in the social media sphere. Maybe we can prevent a second civil war.

All the Zero Days

Going Fast vs. Going Far

There’s a quote that goes something like this: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That quote was in my head when I began last weekend’s 26-mile trek in southwest Virginia over Sinking Creek Mountain, Brush Mountain, and Dragon’s Tooth – my first “semi-solo” hike on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s another hiking axiom I’ve heard, as well. “Hike your own hike.” Ever since I started hiking again three years ago in 2014, I’ve struggled with hiking my own hike when I’m in a group of hikers. Sometimes, I am capable of keeping up with my companions, but more often I have a slower pace. My natural tendency is to think I should just go alone rather than hold anyone else back.

Fortunately, others don’t feel the same; on my first long distance hike from the Pennsylvania/Maryland border to Harper’s Ferry last fall, the group leader stayed at my pace while the others took the long miles in stride and out-paced us by at least a mile. He was happy to do it but I felt guilty almost every step of the way. He could have gone faster if he had left me alone. But I wouldn’t have made it over the mental hurdles that hiking alone would have thrown at me on that trip. I’ve had a lot more practice and conditioning since then, and I thought I could handle “alone” just fine this time.

So, this weekend I got a taste of both alone and together, and my ultimate lesson is that alone has a bitter aftertaste when it equals fast.

My plan was to meet my group (who had already been hiking since dawn Friday morning, and some of them since Wednesday) at the shelter where they planned to camp. The closest parking area was about three miles down the hill, which means I had to hike up three miles, alone, to the Sarver Shelter. (Side note: Google “Sarver Shelter” and you’ll find several stories about the ghost that supposedly haunts the ruins of this homestead.)

Those three miles up, alone, were lovely. I was truly hiking my own hike, getting a sense of my own natural pace, resting when I needed it without the shame I often feel at getting winded faster than the more seasoned hikers. I stopped and took photos at scenic overlooks, or interesting wildflowers, knowing I wasn’t irritating anyone with my camera. (I’ve been on hikes with people who do get irritated by that sort of thing, especially if it keeps them from maintaining their steady pace.) Being alone meant I wasn’t carrying the burden of someone else’s judgement.

However, I was carrying the extra unnecessary weight of something else – my own ego.

Three miles alone is very different than 16. And as often happens, there were aspects of my physical hike that mirrored the mental one. I was physically carrying my ego, in the form of a 2 lb, 1 oz bear vault. (That doesn’t count the weight of the food.)

Ounces equal pounds, pounds equal pain – another trail axiom. After three miles uphill on day one, I didn’t feel the pain. But after about seven miles on day two, I felt that pain for every one of the 10,000 steps I took to catch up with my group, alone.

Why on earth would I add two extra pounds to my gear? The reason made sense at the time; I didn’t want to hang a bear bag, which for me requires the help of other people. The canister would afford me complete freedom from waiting for everyone else to be awake to get my morning food. (Also, the last time I tried to be the one to get bear bags down, I cut off circulation in my finger. So it scares me.)

Thanks to the bear vault, I could wake up early without disturbing anyone else, and could get an early start on the trail alone, so that I wouldn’t lag so far behind at the end of the day. That was my plan.

It was a sucky plan.

I got about a 30-minute head start on the rest of the group, and the first wave of them overtook me at about 2 miles, while the second wave caught up with me at 3.5 miles. Downhill from that point, I flew down the mountain to our next stopping point, earning my new trail name “Hopper” because the guy following me – trail name “Rudy” – had to jog to keep up as I hopped over the rocks.

If you want to go fast, go alone. But expect to get blisters. Expect to get winded. Expect that bear vault and ego to get heavier with every step. At the bottom of the hill, not only was I winded and ready for a good, solid snack, I needed a serious break, and something for the hot spots on my big toes. The extra weight and speed gave me a pain I’d never experienced before, and I wasn’t adequately prepared to handle it.

Fortunately, Rudy was. He generously offered me some of his KT Tape to wrap my potential blisters. It’s like a medical tape, and it works great to keep friction from forming a blister on your feet if you use it before you have a problem. After wrapping my toes and having a snack and refilling my water bladder, I still needed more rest, so as the group went on, I stayed behind, alone, to relax, to receive “trail magic” (an orange, from a couple who does trail maintenance), and to hike my own hike.

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The next 2.5 miles were the most brutal I’ve ever hiked. After a short downhill stretch, it was a 1,500-foot elevation gain. Also, the weather was unseasonably warm for April, reaching into the upper 80s, humid, not a cloud in the sky or a breeze in the air.

I thought I could handle it. I thought it would be no different than the 1,500-foot elevation gain I’d accomplished the day before as I’d hiked alone into our designated meeting spot. I thought wrong.

I made it up that mountain checking my GPS every half hour or so and being depressed at my slow progress. My pace had slowed from a 20-minute mile to something more like a 90-minute mile. The ache in my shoulders was indescribable, and nothing I did to adjust the pack helped. I was sweating and stopping to catch my breath every 50 feet. I was praying a lot.

I was thinking about when my son was born: 36 hours of the most physically grueling experience I’d ever endured. I had wanted to go drug-free, which I did because I was so committed, and I told myself, if I could birth three babies drug free, I could make it up Brush Mountain. With a quarter mile left to go, I jokingly said to God, “If this is like labor, I’ve gotten to the point where I’d be begging for an epidural!” I rounded a turn and started another steep climb, and as I looked up, I saw Rudy, sweating and smiling.

He had heard the clicking of my hiking poles and had come down to help me carry my pack the rest of the way to the top. I almost cried.

According to Rudy, my pack weighed more than his (and he’s a big guy) – around 30-35 lbs. If his estimate is correct, I was carrying at least a third of my body weight.

There’s no weight limit that’s set in stone, but guidelines used by most backpackers are that individuals in good health should be able to carry about 20% of their body weight. A more experienced backpacker may be able to carry 25% of their body weight, and a very experienced and well-conditioned backpacker may be able to carry as much as 35%. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Gender and age make a difference even when a hiker is in really good shape.

I had about 5.5 miles left to go carrying that pack, despite the brief reprieve. Sure, it was mostly downhill. But even downhill miles are heavy, and hard on the feet and knees. I rested on the top of the mountain while Rudy and our leader, “Flops,” went on ahead to catch up with our other two companions. I put one foot in front of the other and trudged down, doubting myself more with every step. Then I ran out of water.

I was trying to figure out the logistics of quitting. There was a parking area and road at the bottom of the hill, about a mile from our designated camping spot. Maybe I would have cell reception and could call a shuttle to come pick me up. There was no way I’d be able to make it up the next hill to the shelter. Sweat was pouring out of me; my clothes were soaked. My tape-wrapped toes were starting to ache again. I couldn’t even imagine having energy to set up my tent and cook my dinner. I kept thinking about the next day, and climbing the dreaded “Dragon’s Tooth” peak. It wasn’t as long a hike, but the way I was feeling in that moment, I didn’t believe I could safely climb the summit and climb back down. Not with 35 lbs.

I had made up my mind. According to my map, there was a small camping area and stream near that parking lot. I would stay there for the night, and hope that one of my companions came back to check on me when I didn’t get to the shelter. Just as I’d made that decision, the area came into view, and the sound of rushing water urged me onward. And there were tents. Familiar tents. Familiar shirt colors. “Is that you guys?” I yelled? I didn’t wait for the answer. “I love you!!!!” I shouted as I nearly ran down the hill with a big grin on my face.

That afternoon, I baptized my sweaty, soaked body fully clothed in the creek. “Hopper” came up from the frigid water a new woman, refreshed by the spirit of community. I changed into dry clothes, and ate whatever snacks I wouldn’t need the next day, starting with that heavy orange. I expressed my doubt about being able to continue tomorrow, and Rudy said, “Well, you don’t have much choice.” He was right. There was no cell phone signal there in the hollow. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re going to sleep like a log and wake up feeling like a million bucks.” I hoped he was right.

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I considered leaving my heavy bear canister and some of my gear behind, hidden by the side of the road; I could come back for it later. I considered leaving my wet clothes and Jetboil stove and fuel as trail magic for a hiker in need. One of the other hikers, “Inferno Man,” offered to carry the bear canister. “Nah, I packed it. It’s my responsibility to carry it out,” I said. He was visibly relieved.

After replenishing my calories and enjoying our companionship by the fire, I crawled into my tent. I left the flap open and stared at the stars. Rudy was right; I did sleep like a log. I did wake up feeling like a million bucks. I wasn’t even sore. I replenished my water, ate breakfast, and started to pack up as the others started out. Vlad, who was prepping for a hike in Europe requiring the ability to carry 50 lbs, offered to carry my Jetboil and my stuff sack of clothes. Inferno Man took my sleeping bad. I had eaten some of my weight the night before, and burned much of my trash. My once-heavy pack was now a reasonable weight and felt more like a day-pack.

The hike up and down Dragon’s Tooth was not easy, especially the rock scramble down. There was a lot of cursing. But I was not alone. This time, I hiked with Inferno Man, who was nursing a sore calf muscle, and our conversation made the miles fly by quickly. We climbed the rocks at the top, which I would have been unable to do without him spotting me and guiding my feet. His presence on the rocky path down gave me the encouragement I needed. About a mile from the end of our multi-day trek, we caught up with Flops (so named because she had hiked in flip flops due to the ugly blisters on her heels.) She jogged down the last stretch of the journey and I speed-walked to catch up with her. I was like a horse headed back to the barn. Flops stopped about a mile from our final destination to change into her flip flops, and I pressed onward, leaving her and Inferno Man behind to keep each other company. I started running down the hill like the trail runners I had seen. If you want to go fast, go alone. I made it to the road, a half mile to go, and there, at the base of the shelter, was a the hostel shuttle, dropping off two hikers.

He offered me a ride for the last half mile to the hostel, where Rudy and Vlad were waiting for us. I jumped in and didn’t even take off my pack. I couldn’t believe I had made it! I was so pleased with myself! My homecoming at the hostel was glorious.

Until it wasn’t.

While I was reliving myself on an actual flushing toilet, Rudy had gotten in his car to pick up Flops and Inferno Man. As they pulled up the driveway, Flops shouted out the window, “Next time you get a ride, wait for the folks behind you!”

A double serving of humble pie.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

I want to go together. I really do. As much as I enjoy my solitude and solo activities, I’m desperate for companionship, encouragement, comraderie, support, shared memories. I love being of service to others when I can get out of my own head for half a minute and see those who are around me. I guess years of believing I’m not good enough, that no one could ever actually want to be my friend, have warped my basic social sensibilities. I hate that.

But fortunately, I learn from experiences. I learn from pain. Last weekend, I learned that I need to lighten my pack. I learned that I don’t have to try to be a super hero. I learned that we all have liabilities, whether it’s a heavy pack, or blisters, or a pulled calf muscle. I learned that people are worthy of trust. I learned that I need to focus on being trustworthy and reliable to others.

I learned that I can go far, if I go with others. If I wait for others. If I ask others to wait for me.

Next time, I will have at least two less piece of gear – my bear canister, and my ego. Hopefully the lighter load will be a little more manageable, for everyone.

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Tending the Temple

Loneliness vs. Depression

Author and blogger Jason F. Wright recently wrote a column on loneliness, encouraging readers to reach out to someone if they were feeling lonely (including the suicide hotline). You can read it here.

After reading it myself, I read some of the comments criticizing him and assuring us all that loneliness has a name – depression – and that the only truly “helpful” advice is to tell people to get professional help.

The piece was timely for me. I recently discovered that I have been lonely, some days debilitatingly so. I use that word “discovered” because it came as a surprise to me. I would have assumed a feeling like loneliness would be pretty easy to identify, but that was not the case. I’ve felt tired. I’ve felt sad. I’ve felt unmotivated. I’ve felt apathetic. At times I’ve felt despondent. Hungry. Sorry for myself. Sometimes I’ve felt physical pain, in my neck, my back, my chest, my gut, my eyes. Sometimes I’ve felt rejected by others, and sometimes I’ve felt like rejecting others myself. I’ve also felt a lot of shame about having all these feelings. I had a lot of feelings I could identify, but wrapping it up in a bow and calling it “loneliness” was not immediately obvious to me.

The obvious name for it was depression, and I did call it that from time to time. As the article suggested, I did reach out to my spiritual director when I was feeling especially depressed. It took every bit of effort I could muster to send those texts to her, and I could do so only because 1) I was desperate to unload the burden just a little, and 2) I trust her unconditional love, her non-judgement, and her ability to restrain herself from giving advice.

(Side note: When you are feeling those feelings and can finally muster the courage to tell someone, there is a very real risk that “someone” will assault you with well-meaning unsolicited advice, the worst of which includes, “Have you considered professional help?” and “There’s no shame in taking medication if you need it.” I can’t publish the words I want to say when I get advice like that, but I can say I’d rather be slapped in the face than hear those things, because it would sting less. What I can publish is that yes, I’ve used professional help and medication in the past, and neither worked very well and are very expensive, especially when your insurance has a deductible of thousands before you get any coverage. Finding a good counselor was like finding a needle in a haystack. Regarding antidepressants, the side effects were worse than the feelings I was looking to cure. I don’t say that to discourage others, nor do I look down on those who need and choose pharmaceutical solutions; they just aren’t for me. If someone has the courage to share their darkest pain with you, don’t offer solutions. She isn’t sharing with you so you’ll fix it. Sharing with you is the fix. Hug her and affirm her and thank her for opening up. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Then shut up and wait for her to ask. Maybe a listening ear is all she needed.)

I also reached out to a very special group of friends for support. No broadcast status updates to everyone on Facebook for me; I don’t want to draw attention to myself in the midst of my emotional darkness. But reaching out to this select group and asking for their prayers helped lighten the burden, especially the feeling of shame. I can’t overstate how ashamed I was of the way I felt, and my instinct was to hide myself. But we are only as sick as our secrets, and sharing my secret struggle, not with the world, but with individuals I trusted, dissipated the shame. Thanks to their unconditional love, now I can share about this experience with the world in a way that maybe will help someone else instead of make people feel uncomfortable or sorry for me.

One woman with whom I shared is around my mom’s age. She said she experienced the same thing when her husband retired and was at home all the time. The irony, of course, is that her loneliness set in precisely when she was no longer spending time alone. She asked me point blank, how much time do you actually spend with just yourself? The answer is complicated. Although I’m a single mom of three, with a boyfriend who’d be happy to see me every day, I do have solitude built into my days. I have alone time each morning when the kids go to school, then I go to a job that usually involves just me in my office, alone. I tend to think I have a lot of alone time. But even during my “alone” time, my head is focused on others. Worrying about my son’s grades. Working out the family schedule and folding everyone’s laundry. Creating for clients. Answering emails. Learning music for church. My recreational time is spent with the fella or with hiking pals, not giving myself undivided attention.

Last weekend the fella took me to the Outer Banks for a much needed getaway. We did lots of fun things together: seeing the site of the first flight, climbing a lighthouse, flying a kite at jockey’s ridge, and eating gourmet dinners. But the part of the trip that rejuvenated me the most was the hour I spent alone walking on the beach to catch the sunrise Saturday morning. That one hour fueled me more than anything.

I had an epiphany that morning. I don’t have many complaints about my relationships with the people in my life. I have a pretty solid relationship with God; I can see Him at work in my life and in the lives of so many others, and I trust His care. But my relationship with myself kinda sucks.

I judge myself so harshly. I hold myself to impossible standards. Regret and anger turn inward, and I neglect self-care that used to be a regular part of my routine – weekly trips to the Y, yoga classes, support group meetings, nutritious food, writing and journaling, and most importantly, spending time alone.

It is paradoxical that one of the solutions for my loneliness is to spend time being truly alone. But it makes sense. I am lonesome for a relationship with the only person who has known me since the moment I was born and will be with me until the moment I die – myself.

Unlike my boyfriend, my close friends, my children, or even my parents, she knows and, more importantly, understands everything about me. She’s been with me through every heartbreak, every mistake, every triumph. Yet I routinely reject her. And then I wonder why I struggle with depression?

We can’t have meaningful social connection with others unless we first have that connection with ourselves. Healthy relationships are not possible without self-respect and a sense of self-worth, neither of which can develop if our focus is always on our relationships with others.

Loneliness is NOT the same thing as depression; loneliness is a symptom of depression. I think it is also a cause. There are studies demonstrating loneliness and lack of meaningful social connection are the precursors to addiction, more so than any other factor. This also helps explain why 12 step fellowships are effective for so many alcoholics and addicts, and those affected by alcoholism in their families. These programs give a sense of community and connectedness through shared struggles, and the 12 steps themselves, if actually followed, restore a relationship with oneself. No wonder there are 12 step programs for all the addictive behaviors to which we turn when we are avoiding ourselves – booze, drugs, food, sex, shopping, gambling. 12 step programs have a failure rate, too, probably because not everyone actually does the work required in the steps, or goes to meetings routinely enough to break though their isolation.

Mental illness is real. Clinical depression is real. But not everyone who experiences the symptoms of mental illness or clinical depression does so because of a chemical imbalance they can’t control. Sometimes addressing these crippling symptoms is very much within our control. A friend of mine who’s an avid cyclist reminded me that just 20 minutes of cardio a day can have the same effect on the brain as antidepressants. Another friend who’s a yoga instructor says her spiritual practice of yoga and meditation, along with some other spiritual practices, are what stave off her depression. Still another friend said that it’s when he’s helping other people that he finds relief from self-pity and low self-worth. “If you want high self-esteem, do esteemable things,” he says. And there’s always that reliable stand-by, the Gratitude List.

I practice all of these techniques occasionally, and I know from experience how much they help with my symptoms. That’s not to downplay that some people do need professional help. As my former counselor told me, sometimes we need the pharmaceutical solution to get us to the place where we are capable of embracing the effective non-pharmaceutical benefits of talk therapy and other activities. I understand that. But you can’t medicate loneliness away, either.

For me, depression is resentment and anger turned inward. It’s what happens when I set unrealistic expectations for myself, fail to meet them, and then hate myself for it and assume everyone else does, too. Often it comes out sideways in my judgement and criticism of other people, or envy and jealousy. In my recent struggles with loneliness and depression, my reaction to this cycle of negativity has been irritability, fatalism, and cynicism, a “why bother” attitude.

This week, I stopped asking “why” and got down to the business of “bothering.” I bothered myself to go on two early morning hikes after the kids left for school. I bothered to read my daily readers. I bothered to eat breakfast and have nutritious meals instead of fast food. I bothered to share my “dark season” with a couple people who would understand. I bothered to do some work I’d been procrastinating. I bothered to journal. To put myself first.

It helped a lot.

I’m bothering to write this because there’s no simple fix for loneliness and depression, whether it’s my own or someone else’s. Feelings can be overwhelming. Reaching out can seem too hard a task. Medication and therapy may be financially out of reach, and a depressive episode doesn’t schedule itself during office hours. Self-love is a choice that is always within reach. Not the feeling of love; the action of love. The kindness of taking a bath, eating a salad, walking in the sunshine and really feeling the warmth.

I recently saw a quote from Anne Lamott’s most recent book, Hallelujah Anyway, her newest book. “Love is seeing the darkness in another person and defying the impulse to jump ship.”

I bother to love myself. To accept myself just as I am, knowing only love has the power to transform loneliness and depression into unity and compassion.

Holey Heart

Recycling With Joy

In my garage there’s a bin I use to collect recyclables. An assortment of cereal boxes, milk jugs, and jelly jars accumulate there until I put them out for pickup.

Lately, though, the cardboard boxes aren’t making it out to the curb. My youngest child “liberates” anything made of cardboard and transforms it into homes for small toys, or “computers,” or anything else her imagination can conceive. Back before Christmas she turned a Cheez-Its box into a working Shopkins vending machine using plastic wrap as the glass front. A vending machine! The other day she tried to save an old bologna container out of the trash, and I drew the line.

She’s eight, and clearly she’s made in the image and likeness of God; just like her Heavenly Father, she uses everything. She’d rather play with trash than anything else.

This Sunday in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we heard: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.” Olivia chooses the discarded refuse of our modern suburban life to create and experience joy; like my little one, God also recycles the very things we try to discard, whether that’s people, or personality traits, or even less than ideal circumstances.

It reminds me of an old adage I’ve heard about ministry. “God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called.” I can attest to that. Two years ago I felt God calling me to get involved in music ministry, even though I didn’t think I could fit it in my already busy schedule with three kids. Deeper still was a feeling of inadequacy about my musical abilities. And yet, I did as I was called, and much to my surprise God used me, not only to encourage young musicians in my church, but to become a cantor leading our entire congregation at our evening service.

If you had told me two years ago that I’d be doing this in 2017, I’d have told you about the time when I was 22 and subbing for our church cantor and totally choked, or a number of other stories documenting my musical failures. I guess God does qualify the called, because people clap after Mass. I don’t believe church music should be a performance, but rather, an invitation to participate. Still, it feels good to sing strong and well and to be acknowledged. I can boast in nothing but God, because it is only through his grace that I can stand up there and not panic.

I also think of times when I made serious errors in judgement, yet God made use of them (and not just to teach me a lesson the “hard way”). I was fired once. I made a mistake that cost me my job. But because of that mistake, I looked for freelance work on Craig’s List. I took a $30 design gig because I was desperate for anything. The client liked my work and sent me a few other small jobs. Eventually that freelance gig became a part time source of regular income, supported me through the early days of my unemployed divorcehood, and also stretched me creatively and professionally. I’ve learned how to publish books, have gotten referrals, and gained the confidence to produce my own inaugural publication, soon to be for sale on Amazon. If you had told me when I was fired in 2006 that I’d be self-publishing my first book in 2017, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s because of my hard work, yes; but it’s also because God used my failure as a foundation for something new.

I recall when my dog died two years ago. I never knew how much that could hurt my heart. I’d never understood before how people grieved their pets so hard, but when Jake died, I discovered a compassion and empathy I previously lacked. In fact, every tragic thing I’ve ever experienced is something for which I am now grateful, because those experiences have allowed me to connect with my fellow humans on a deeper level, whether it’s the death of a pet, or a terrible year of bullying in middle school, or a painful and confusing divorce. God has used all these to help me be a better friend.

When my ex and I first started accepting the reality of separation and divorce, our first concern was, of course, our children. And he said to me, “I feel as if my whole life has been preparing me for this,” meaning being a divorced parent. His own parents divorced when he was very young, and there was a lot of unpleasantness for him, but God didn’t let those experiences happen in vain; thanks to God’s grace, and their father’s choices, priorities, and sacrifices, my children have a very different kind of “broken” home than their father had. Our family may be broken and blended, but we are a family first.

If you had told me six years ago when we started living under separate roofs that we would be able to handle birthdays and holidays without awkwardness and resentment, I would have been skeptical. It is not without ups and downs, but God uses even those. We are better today at communicating than we were when we were married, because we have to be, whether we like it or not. God uses our relationship to teach me to be a more inclusive person, to put myself in another’s shoes, to express myself even when I’m scared, and to focus more on the common good and less on my own personal convenience.

I can think of friends facing what most of us would consider a “tragedy:” cancer diagnosis, a child with special needs, chronic unemployment. I could also tell you how God is using these circumstances to enrich the lives of so many people in a positive way. Never will I believe that cancer or disease or the indignity of unemployment is “God’s will,” but I will always believe human tragedies are God’s opportunities.

This, for me, is the real grace being illustrated in the Beatitudes, which we also heard this past Sunday. Only when we grieve can we know what it is the be comforted. Only when we long for righteousness can we truly appreciate justice. Only when we find that God is all we have do we realize that God is all we need. When I turn to God in my need, I receive blessing beyond measure. If I had no needs, I’d never know the joy of receiving God’s blessings.

All of this weekend’s readings were in some way speaking about the quality of humility. It is what all of us are called to as Christians, but do we really embrace humility? I don’t think so. More often we embrace perfectionism, which is about as arrogant an attitude as Lucifer thinking he could be an equal with God.

Perhaps a better way to think of humility is “joyful acceptance.” That is the humility of the Beatitudes. My daughter joyfully accepts the discarded boxes as the raw materials for her creativity and inventiveness. Joy is what shames the wise, the proud, the strong, the powerful. Resentment and resistance only embolden the Enemy.

There is a lot going on in the world today, especially my own country, which concerns me deeply. It triggers my very human desire to resent and resist. But as a person of faith, I know without question that God is using it all, even the worst of it, in ways I may never see or understand. This is God’s justice, which goes so far beyond any attempt at human social justice. So I strive to accept it with joy, just as the early martyrs of the Church accepted unimaginable persecution with joy.

What we resist, persists. What we accept, is transformed.

Holey Heart

Hope for the Tribeless

Sometimes when we hear the Word of God proclaimed on Sunday, a word or phrase jumps right out. This is how I know it’s the living word of God, as if He is speaking right to my heart, and this Sunday, that word was “belong.”

My regular readers may recall this past Saturday, I was bemoaning my feeling of not belonging. This is a chronic problem (both the feeling, and the act of bemoaning). It goes back as far as I can remember; even as a three year old I felt I didn’t belong with my peers in preschool. It’s an enduring theme in my life story, and I’m sick of it. I’m also kind of embarrassed that at 41 years old I’m still struggling like a three year old.

Thank goodness feelings aren’t facts. The living word of God challenged my idea of belonging this Sunday through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

“It has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

The message didn’t really hit home until Mass was half over. I stood at the mic like I do every Sunday, leading the congregation in song during communion. The refrain was familiar, one of my favorite songs:

We belong to you, o lord of our longing,
We belong to you.
In our daily living, dying and rising,
We belong to you.

Side note: you can see the composer, Trevor Thomson, singing an abbreviated version of the song here:

https://youtu.be/uHdGJvbjy7E

Listening to the sound of my own voice singing those words, I had a revelation. There is only one solution to my feeling of disconnect, and that is to do exactly what Jesus did in Sunday’s gospel – reach out to others. When Jesus started his ministry in the Roman city of Capernaum, in Galilee, the land of the Gentiles, he did not wait for disciples to come to him like most rabbis did; he went out and recruited.

His first recruits were two sets of brothers, fishermen who were bemoaning their lack of a catch after a long night of casting nets and coming up empty. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said to his bewildered new friends Simon, Andrew, James, and John.

When we follow Jesus, community is the result. We don’t belong to a community, or a church, or a political party, or a country, or even the world. We don’t belong to our parents, or our children, or our friends, or our lovers. We don’t even belong to ourselves, though we may sometimes think we do.

We belong only to the One who created us. The one who died for each and every one of us.

Even when we don’t believe in him, we belong only to him. Even when we don’t like the others who belong to him, or they don’t like us, still we belong to him.

You and I may be united in nothing else except that we both belong to the same creator. And miraculously, that is enough.

In the waters of your mercy,
When the old becomes the new,
Souls united in the myst’ry:
We belong to you.

Filled with gifts and filled with goodness,
Spirit breathing life into
All who seek to find their purpose:
We belong to you.

When we share the bread you’ve broken
With the many and the few,
We are blessed and we are broken;
We belong to you.

We are called to share your word, Lord,
In all we say and all we do.
As our journey moves us onward,
We belong to you.

After Mass, I put into practice the message my heart received. I invited two of my friends who were at there to join me and the other musicians in singing. We could use a few more regular vocalists and had been hoping some additional singers would respond to ads in the bulletin. What would Jesus do? Ask, person to person. Time will tell if anything comes of it; ministry happens in God’s time, not ours.

Feeling “tribeless” is only the first step in recognizing a greater truth – that all our tribes are just illusions. There’s only one tribe, and we are all members whether we like it or not, with one leader, whether we acknowledge Him or not. There is hope for the tribeless, and it won’t be fulfilled by finding the “right” church or moving to a neighborhood where I feel like I fit in or making friends who “get” me. Those things are nice and help us feel comfortable, but a tribe isn’t a comfort zone. If Jesus wanted a comfort zone he would have started his ministry in Nazareth where he grew up, or Jerusalem where he found himself as a teenager. He’d have stayed with his fellow Jews in the land of Judah and certainly wouldn’t have crossed the Jordan into “enemy territory.”

Tribes weren’t important to Jesus. Rivalries certainly weren’t. Relationships were. Relationships with each other, yes, but first a relationship with Him. Sometimes I can get so caught up in feeling excluded that I inadvertently exclude others with my sour attitude. That net doesn’t catch much fish. Jesus crossed the Jordan into my “no man’s land” bringing the hope of belonging to him. When will I finally leave my empty nets and follow where he leads?

Single On Saturday

Tribeless On Saturday

It’s Saturday, and I’ve never felt more single in my life. Not romantically; like a stranger in my own country. I feel tribe-less.

I have friends marching in Washington the day after other friends attended inauguration balls. Still others share red- or blue-tinted outrage on social media, and I feel tribe-less. I’m not outraged by much these days; resentment is a luxury I can’t afford, and I have too much for which to be grateful.

A few days ago a good friend, who would attend Saturday’s rally in D.C., asked those of us staying home if we’d like our names added on the back of her poster so she could carry us with her. I thought it was a lovely sentiment and was moved by the idea, but I didn’t respond. I didn’t think I belonged there, on the back of my friend’s beautifully crafted piece of art (created by another mutual friend who was homebound with the flu).

I could have gone in person. It was my ex’s weekend with the kids. My fella is out of town on business. I know plenty of people going, so I wouldn’t be by myself with 500,000 strangers. But I don’t belong there.

I won’t go into details about why I don’t believe I belong there. For the record, I wouldn’t have belonged there on Inauguration Day, either.

Never have I felt so separated from my fellow countrymen. I hesitate even using that word “countrymen” because a good portion of the people I love would say it’s a misogynistic, non-inclusive word.

I’m a writer, and I’m afraid of using the word I want to use. Let that sink in.

Ok, maybe I get a little resentful sometimes.

In 2010 I attended a march at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, on those very same steps. I thought I had found my tribe then, a couple hundred thousand of them, but I was wrong. Many of them have since been distorted by fear and resentment. Winning became more important than principles.

My mom and dad were there with me, and they are still in my tribe. We don’t always see things eye to eye but I trust beyond the shadow of a doubt their unconditional love. I have that trust with my children, and my brother. Do I have that level of trust with anyone else?

I feel like a pariah in my own country. If my conservative friends knew what I believed, I’m afraid they would disown me, or worse, lecture me. If my liberal friends knew what I believed, they, too, would give me labels I know aren’t accurate. This is why I’ve been so solitary my whole life, I remind myself.

It goes beyond politics. I see division in my church, too. Theological differences. Hatred of my Catholic faith communicated in snide comments or outright insults. Some of my favorite people call themselves “recovering Catholics,” and when they use that term to describe themselves, they unknowingly insult a large part of my identity. In those moments, I feel like I don’t belong. I’m not looking to convert or re-convert anyone. I made that mistake before, and I learned better.

In the midst of all the marching and chanting and celebrity ranting on TV, I sit at home doing very real battle with my deepest fear – that the people I love unconditionally are not capable of loving me back unconditionally. That your tolerance extends to some but not all. I am not angry at the hypocrisy so much as saddened by the rejection. You draw battle lines not realizing I’m on the other side.

I’m the independent voter stuck in no man’s land (can I use that term, “no man’s land?”) with thousands of other voiceless, tribe-less people seeking a spiritual solution while the rest of our country lines up on the left and the right demanding political solutions that are doomed to failure.

This Saturday, I found a few in my tribe. A motley crew of people who couldn’t be more different from each other. A long-haired, metal-head biker recovering addict. A mom of a special needs child who leans right, and a recently ordained deacon who leans left. A millionaire real estate broker, and a bank teller who moonlights as a rock music critic. A high school classmate who homeschools her four kids, and friend of a friend whom I’ve met only on Facebook, living as the only liberal in his conservative Texas town. I know who they are because they have the courage to be themselves unapologetically. I have so much to learn from you.

14 years ago when I was awaiting my first child’s birth, I was a member of an online support group of other moms with the same due date. One of them was a Catholic, conservative, vegan yoga instructor in northern Virginia whose online name was “Pixiepunk.” I said at the time, “It must be neat to live inside your head!” I know nothing else about her except that she has a daughter my son’s age. If you’re out there, Pixie, I’m pretty sure you’re in my tribe, too.

When I was a teenager, I got into an argument at Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house, about caring for the homeless. I had to leave the table in tears, but 25 years later, I still still have a heart for the homeless and I still share thanksgiving with them, and we have learned to talk about other things and respect each other’s differences. Maybe they are in my tribe, too.

My biker friend posted on Facebook, “Some people will only like you if you fit inside their box. Don’t be afraid to shove that box up their ass.”

One of my mom friends said the only answer is prayer.

Still another posted a selfie of he and his wife holding a handmade sign reading, “What happens next is up to us.”

These are the anthems of my disconnected, leaderless tribe of misfits who don’t fit into anyone’s box. Who might not be welcome at a woman’s march because of their pro-life stance. Who might not be welcome at a church because they are ok with monogamous committed relationships between two people of the same gender being acknowledged as a legal marriage. Who dare to disagree with some of their respective political party platforms. Who just want the shouting to stop, and the listening to finally begin.

It’s Saturday and I’m listening. And I’m longing to be heard, and loved anyway.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” These words from the Gospel of John remind me that I’m not a tribe-less member of a leaderless tribe. I have a leader who loves me even more unconditionally than even my parents, and his love is all that matters. His power is the only power that is real. Righteous indignation is his alone; it is too toxic for me. Far too toxic. May I practice his unconditional kindness and strive to find unity in Him alone.

Tending the Temple

So, Help Me God

January 20 is the inauguration of one of the most controversial leaders our country has ever had. Some of my fellow Americans are ecstatic at the hope of a new administration and a return to former prosperity. Some are struggling with fear and anger at worst case scenarios and likely outcomes.

When it comes to politics, I am one part cynic about elected and appointed leaders, and two parts trust in the goodness and decency of people. I could have said that no matter who was take the oath of office on January 20.

Some of you reading this are in the first group, some in the latter, and maybe a few of you are like me, balancing cynicism and faith. Many of us find ourselves asking the question, in the midst of such deep division, what are we supposed to do? I have a lot of friends traveling to D.C. Not for the inauguration, but for the women’s march on Saturday, and I applaud them for taking part in one of the most American of rights, to assemble and make their voices heard. I participated in a similar rally several years ago in the national Mall, and it was beyond words.

But not all of us can get to the inauguration to celebrate the peaceful transition of power, or make our way to the march the next day. Earlier this week I asked myself, how am I going to participate?

First, I’m going to pray for the people who are traveling. May they be safe and return home to their families. All of them.

Next, I’m going to pray for the friends with whom I disagree. All of them. My love for you is more important than our political differences. I’m going to pray you feel the same way.

Then I’m going to pray for the people in power whom I fear, whom I resent. I know hating them only hurts me and gives me the rush that comes with the illusion of power. I know fear and love cannot co-exist in my heart. I can be concerned, but I trust the ship will right itself no matter who is at the helm.

After I pray, I will look at my feet and ask myself, “Where are my feet?” And I’m going to tell myself that I’m right here, right now, and in this moment I have a roof over my head, food in my pantry, gas in my car. I have a job, I have my health, I have my family. I have everything I need just for today. I’m going to choose to trust God that He will continue to provide, and I’m going to do my part to support myself.

Then I will make a gratitude list, not just for all the gifts I have in my personal life, but for the gift of living in a country where even in the midst of deep division we can count on a peaceful transition of power. I will be grateful for elections, and mid-terms, and presidential term limits, and the balance of power. I will be grateful no one gets to stay in that office indefinitely. Rotation of leadership is healthy.

Finally, I will reflect on the oath our new president will take.

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

There is so much richness in those 35 words. Faithfully. The best of my ability. Preserve, protect, and defend.

I will never be President of the United States, but I can’t help but feel as if we all could stand to take that oath on Inauguration Day, renewing our commitment and citizenship. His job is my job, too. Sometimes our leaders’ best sucks. They have all fallen short one way or another, which is why we have a congress, a Supreme Court, and 50 state governments to share the burden. This country won’t work unless we all do our part to keep the ship upright, even if that means some of us lean left during the storm, while others lean right. If we all leaned the same direction we’d sink.

Most presidents add four additional words after reciting the oath. “So help me God.” I prefer to say it with a comma; it changes the meaning ever so slightly, from statement to humble request.

So, help me God.

Help me be a good citizen. Help me be a good neighbor. Help me preserve, protect, and defend. Help me to be my best. Help me, God. Help us all.