Tending the Temple

More Than “Mental Health”

A week before Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain ended their own lives, I wrote a piece that touched on the topic of suicide, inspired in part by my son. He tells me the reason he is on his phone late at night texting is because some of his friends are suicidal and reaching out to him.

A generation ago we might have said he must be exaggerating or overstating it. But I know better than to brush it off as teen drama. This past fall, an accomplished young musician in the marching band at a neighboring high school took his own life while his parents waited for him to take the field with his peers for Senior Night at the last home football game. When my kid says suicide, I take it serious. Deadly serious.

Out of curiosity, I ask my son why they are suicidal. He says it’s because everyone’s family sucks.

“Everyone’s?” I ask, probing. I wonder if “everyone” includes him. His family. Our family.

“Everyone’s,” he says, his tone communicating the answer I don’t really want to hear.

But I know he’s not wrong. I was a teenager once, too. Everyone’s family does kinda suck when you’re 15.

I want to tell them all that if it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t leave the nest. It’s nature’s way.

But if it’s nature’s way, why is it now causing kids to consider ending their lives before they’ve even begun? What has changed? I’m sure every one of us thinks we have “the answer” to that question. There’s a lot about modern life that’s anything but “nature’s way,” and I’m sure that’s the most significant contributing factor.

There’s a lot to unpack in that brief exchange I have with a boy who will be 15 next week. It challenges me, as a parent, to rethink my assumptions about what causes teen suicide, and to contemplate my contribution to the problem, as a somewhat reluctant adult. Nothing about our little family is the ideal for which I had hoped when I was his age. I did not expect to be a working mom, not even part time, and I certainly didn’t expect to be divorced. Like many young women who struggle on and off with depression, I had what I now know was a fantasy – that becoming an adult, marrying the love of my life, owning a home, making a living from my passion, and having a family of my own would somehow “cure” me. I’m still waiting for all of those things, except the family part.

I wonder how many of my son’s friends have parents who had similar fantasies when they were our children’s age. It’s a safe bet that half of them are, like me, divorced, a bit disillusioned, and struggling with depression themselves. Is it any wonder our kids are feeling the anger and especially fear that accompanies this battle, no matter what family member is on the line of scrimmage?

Like other parents, especially mothers who do battle with depression, I carry a lot of guilt about how it has affected my kids. Certainly it’s one of many factors contributing to the divorce that has left them without a dad in their home every night. I grieve that more than anything, even though I also have peace about it.

I carry guilt about the time I spend working, and I carry guilt about the time I spend NOT working and thinking I should be. I feel like I’m constantly running late for something or playing catch-up, or lagging behind, or neglecting a relationship or responsibility. Letting someone down is a persistent fear that is realized regularly. I feel guilty about spending money on the kids, I feel guilty about spending money on myself, and I feel guilty about not practicing good self-care if I put my kids or my bills before myself. I feel guilty when I lose my temper and lash out, and I feel guilty when I’m too lenient.

I work hard to keep the outside of my home looking nice; you might never guess how cluttered it is inside. The shutters are faded and the trim needs repainting, but the lawn is immaculate and the flower beds are weeded. Never mind that the bathrooms haven’t been cleaned in months. It’s a perfect analogy for my personhood. I make myself modestly presentable and well-groomed in public, but under the surface my emotions are all over the place, like so much unopened mail and old school papers piled on the kitchen counter, too overwhelming to be sorted, addressed, or put in their place.

Having let go of my former fantasy about adulthood, I’m tempted to replace it with another. If only I could be living life pursuing my creative talents, or had a partner to help me raise my children, or someone to clean my house … I could go on, but I stop myself because I recognize it for what it is.

I think this is why Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths have hit home for me.

Anthony overcame great difficulties, published a book that changed his life, and pursued a life of adventure and brought it to millions like me who had got to experience it through him. Kate found great success in creative expression, and seemed like the kind of person who had achieved balance and joy; the kind of working mom I aspire to be, creating, setting an example for her child. I thought her smiles were genuine.

And they probably were. You can have genuine smiles and still have genuine mental pain when no one is looking.

The public me smiles when she says hello; it is a family trait passed down from my grandmother, who was the oldest child and worked in her family store from the time she was very young. Putting on a public face is in my blood. Even during her last years in a nursing home that was hell for her, Grammy put on her lipstick most days. She wasn’t trying to “fake it till you make it.” She did it because it was who she genuinely was. It is also who I am. My smiles are as real as my private tears, I promise.

So I don’t doubt that Kate Spade’s effervescent persona was real. It’s a confirmation of what I know to be true – that we humans are not all or nothing, but a mix of the dark and the light, and that financial or creative success does not make us any less vulnerable to the ravages of distorted thinking that accompanies depression. If anything, it apparently makes us more vulnerable as the gap between our outer and inner selves widens. As much as I’m nervous about publicly sharing my darker side, it keeps the gap narrow, and keeps me from feeling like a fake.

Let me just pause here and say that I’m so tired of us crying “mental health” and sharing suicide hotline numbers every time a notable person ends their life. It’s like “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. It feels like an empty reaction. Yes, our mental health resources suck. I can say this from my own personal experiences. Although the therapists I’ve seen in the last 20 years have been exceptional, both kind and helpful, they are not accessible. My current therapist squeezes me in once a month. When I was in crisis enough that I found the courage and resolve to finally ask for help, I had to wait three weeks for my first appointment. Three weeks. Not three hours, or three days. And I won’t tell you how much I had to pay before my insurance kicked in.

He recommended a specialist for evaluation of some of my mood issues, and they don’t take my insurance at all. I’m managing well right now, so I’ve decided not to spend $300 for the evaluation and $100 for follow-ups at this time. This is, in part, because I have past experiences with pharmaceutical therapies, and the side effects were worse than the depression. The fact that I was willing to entertain drugs at all was simply a sign of how much emotional pain I was in. I’m grateful the pain has passed for the moment.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. If the pain comes back, I have money in my savings account to cover the cost. If I didn’t, I have parents who could help me financially. I have a flexible job that allows me to set my own schedule and practice good self-care when I’m having a dark day. I have an ex who supports our children financially and emotionally, and we have an extended family who help us both be the best parents we can be in these less than ideal circumstances. I have a beautiful, if cluttered, home in a neighborhood with excellent schools and neighbors who genuinely care for one another. I have friends and a good church community and creative outlets and good physical health and the ability to get out in the sunlight and hike 15 miles in a day, which seems to be the most effective treatment I’ve found. My children are well-adjusted, healthy, and smart.

My biggest problem is between my ears – my brain and its distorted thinking. And fortunately, I’ve learned some strategies over the last 42 years that help me manage that brain, some days better than others.

Many, many people have it way worse than me in any number of ways. These days we use the word “privilege” to describe that, and I count my blessings every day without judging myself or feeling guilty that I have what others do not. Gratitude is one of my “strategies.” If anything, being mindful of my privilege helps me to be less judgmental of others. We could do with a little less judgment, because it’s not helping anyone. But for the grace of God, there go I.

“Mental health” is not a solution to the problem. Oh, how I wish it were. That’s not to disregard the miracles that can happen when mental health is squarely addressed. I know more than one person with bipolar whose life changed when they finally got a diagnosis and proper medication. But for far more people, there is no magic pill, which is part of why they are so despondent and without hope. I count myself in that group at times, which is why I get irritated when people cry “mental health” as so much emotional cover when faced with the reality that some people might be beyond “fixing” because they don’t have any easily diagnosable “condition,” other than being human.

I don’t want to be fixed.

I just want the pressure to “get better” to end.

I want to be OK, just as I am.

I want someone to take care of me, but only long enough so that I can get some rest. Any longer and I’ll lose the dignity and self-esteem that comes from being able to support myself. I want a just a temporary reprieve from my responsibilities.

I don’t want to be told what I should do. I want mercy and grace. Not from God, but from the people with whom I share this planet, especially the ones closest to me.

That’s probably what Kate and Anthony wanted too, and the boy in the high school marching band. And the kids who are texting my son. And my son. And you.

And, I want affordable access to effective mental health resources, too.

Is this too much to ask?

I want resilience. I want the ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other on a bad day. Actually, I have that; otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. I want thicker skin so the haters won’t hurt me. Judgers gonna judge, you know? But I don’t want to stop feeling. I don’t want to be numbed out. I want courage; I want to experience the highs and lows of life without dreading them, the way I voluntarily ride a roller coaster knowing it will be over before I get used to it, allowing the ups and downs to make me feel more alive instead of terrified to live.

And everything I want for myself, I want for others, and I have no idea how we make that happen. I take some comfort in knowing I work for an organization that provides financial support to a group dedicated to improving resilience for children who’ve experienced trauma. But I want resilience for all of us, children and adults, especially the adults who are responsible for the children. I want us to be able to bounce back, to dust ourselves off, to embrace the pain as a teacher, not a foe. I want us to share that pain, not stigmatize it, so that others, especially the children, will know they are not alone.

Because you’re not alone. You may feel alone, but feelings aren’t facts. My kid is answering texts at midnight to make sure someone’s kid knows they are not alone. Someone is on the other end of the line at that suicide hotline everyone is posting right now. I’ve never called it, but I’m pretty sure they will not tell you what you should do. Maybe they just listen. Maybe they ask you a question to help you let it all out. Maybe they just say, I am here with you.

Whatever they do or say, they believe your life, my life, all life, is worth continuing.

Because it is. Life, all life, is useful. You have the power, just by being yourself, sometimes even your darker self, to have a positive impact on someone else. When someone shares their failures and shame with me, I can’t tell you how honored, and relieved, and encouraged, and less alone I feel. When we give to others what we want most, it comes back to us. I believe this to my core. It’s why I write, why I sing, why I love, why I take the risk of sharing that yes, I too struggle with depression and it is not pretty. If it makes a difference to just one person, it has worth. If sharing my pain helps one person feel less isolated, it’s had a purpose.

So, let’s have the courage to change the things we can and start with being genuine. Restrain our penchant for judgement, and extend compassion. Check on our friends, especially the strong ones. The successful ones who seem to have it all together. Give what we most need. If you don’t know what that is, it’s simply this – your presence. Your presence matters.

All the Zero Days

Hike Your Own Hike

(A letter to my teenage son, who stays up far too late on his phone because his suicidal friends reach out to him for a listening ear, and who will be leaving home for a week of co-ed music camp with his girlfriend this summer)

Some might say it’s just a trite trail axiom. Others might say it’s a way of life, or the only way to live.

I would say we don’t get much say in the matter. It’s not like we can hike someone else’s hike through life, as much as we might sometimes want to. Certainly no one else can walk our walk for us, although every once in a while someone else might be kind enough to help us carry our burdens for a stretch while we continue trudging along, slowly putting one foot in front of the other.

But ultimately, only you can hike your hike. Only you can live your life. No one else can do it for you. You get no choice in the matter.

Being told we have no choice pisses us off. Anger is a normal biological response to a stimuli, meant to fuel our desire to act in our own best interest and survive. When we get angry enough, we fight. But anger is a mask for fear, so sometimes, we flight. In our own best interest, we run away.

Sometimes, we do both.

That, I think, is what causes suicide. The fear we experience when we’re told we have no choice about the cards we’ve been dealt toxically mixes with the rage that fuels our desire to take action, to rebel. We throw down our hand in disgust, and refuse to play. “I do, too, fucking have a choice, and I choose to fucking end it!” And in an act of great paradox, we win the argument and lose the war.

Obviously there’s a lot more to suicide than that. There’s also the immeasurable burden of emotional or physical pain that one carries, often (but not always) amplified by chemical dependency, biochemical disorders, abuse, or trauma. The desire for relief outweighs even the strongest instinct to survive if the pain, even if brief, is intense enough.

Fear tells us the pain won’t ever stop. If the pain does stop, fear tells us it will be back, that it will keep coming back, that it will get worse, that it will kill us.

That we have no choice.

Fuck that, we say. Pain can’t kill me if I do the job first. To someone in pain, this makes all the sense in the world. So in a moment of simultaneous fight and flight, we end it.

I have a friend living with terminal cancer. Living with, not dying of; the words we use matter. He fights the cancer, hard. He carries pain that most of us can’t even fathom. I would have given up long ago. I don’t know how he keeps going, knowing that eventually the cancer will win.

Except here’s the thing. It’s not really the cancer that’s terminal. It’s life. The cancer will lose and die when my friend’s earthly body dies. The cancer will contribute to its own demise by continuing to spread and take over its host. But it’s not cancer that’s terminal, it’s life itself; we all die, whether we have cancer or heart disease or diabetes or addiction or happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or live a perfectly chaste and continent existence for more than a century. With death, as with life, we have no say in the matter.

But like cancer, we may be contributing to our own demise.

And that is a choice.

So it stands to reason – if how we choose to live can impact how we die, then how we choose to live can impact how we live, as well.

We can choose how we hike our own hike.

Hike your own hike means making choices in your own best interest, even if they are not the choices others would have you make. So first and foremost, make choices in your own best interest, not someone else’s. But keep in mind that cancer, acting out of unbridled self-interest, is contributing to its own demise.

Hiking your own hike means making choices knowing you will have to live with those choices, and with their consequences, and that sometimes your choices will be ineffective and flat out wrong, and the consequences will hurt and could do great harm. But choosing not to choose and habitually allowing others to make choices for you is also doing yourself harm. Do not purposely choose to do harm to yourself or others; that is not in your best interest.

Choose to give yourself adequate time to consider what actually is in your best interest. The easy choice is often not the best. The hard choice is just as often not the best, either. Learn to discern by giving yourself permission to make mistakes. If you have to make the same mistake more than once, forgive yourself and accept that many lessons take repetition to achieve mastery. Practice, however, does not make perfect. Practice makes better, until you are consistently doing your best. And that is something of which you can be proud, even if you are not perfect.

Remember that life is still terminal even when you consistently make the best choices. In those moments when the burdens of regret and shame from your mistakes and failures feel heavy, remember those feelings are the privilege of the living. The honors student killed in the car accident, the man in his 30s whose heart unexpectedly stopped beating, the mom in her 40s who went to bed, had a brain aneurysm and never woke up, the music teacher who lost her life while riding her bike no longer have the luxury of carrying the burden that comes with the gift of making choices. So choose to write the song, or eat the chocolate cake, or sleep late, or climb the mountain.

Choose the job that pays less but gives you the time to hike your own hike. Call in late to work and put the phone on mute, and take the time to write the love letter to your child. Be grateful every time you pay for the roof over your head even if you can’t afford to buy a new car. Remember that you can only hike your own hike with help from a higher power, which most often comes in the form of other people, even people we don’t like, sometimes people we detest. No one hikes alone, even if we hike solo; at the very least someone else made the boots we wear.

Don’t use “learning” as a justification for knowingly making a mistake. Don’t deliberately make the choice that leads to regret or shame. Growth and strength come from the discipline of making effective choices repeatedly. Progress comes from choosing to walk, and choosing to rest, each when the time is right. Listen to your gut, especially in that rare (and it is rare) instance when you don’t have time for deliberation and discernment. Listen to your heart, because that’s where your higher power lives, and where that power will speak to you. If you have time, ask other people to share their experience so you can learn from their mistakes rather than making your own. In this way you avoid picking up the burden of shame while helping to lessen theirs.

And if someone (for example, your well-intentioned mother) gives you advice for which you did not ask, consider that perhaps the shame and regret of their choices is heavy, and it’s their way of trying to set it down. Let them. Take a good look at what it is that burdens them. You don’t have to pick up what they set down before you. Like you, they are hiking their own hike. Let them.

Tending the Temple

Don’t Forget the Presence

It’s 7:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve. I fell asleep around 8:30 last night, utterly exhausted from the emotional, physical and financial strain of the past few weeks; months really. The pace I’ve kept since school started in September has been catching up with me during the pre-holiday rush, and I’ve had a breakdown or two. I’m simultaneously comforted and saddened to know I’m not the only one.

So at 7:30, I’m already showered and dressed. I’m enjoying a cup of tea and making a list of all the things I need to buy and do before 1:00 this afternoon when the kids come home. Get the salmon and mac ‘n cheese for dinner, and treats for breakfast Christmas morning. Pick up a last-minute gift. Wrap the rest of the presents. And don’t forget the presents at Floyd’s house!

I did most of my shopping last month. Thanks to Amazon, I had most of my kids’ gifts done and wrapped the first week of December. And to prevent the attempts at shaking and peeking, I took them to Floyd’s house for safe-keeping. It’s Christmas Eve, and they are still there!

So don’t forget the presents, I say to myself at 7:30 in the morning. Don’t forget the presents.

But in the hustle of last minute buying, wrapping, cooking, dressing up, churching, eating, unwrapping, and singing at midnight mass, I need to remember something just as important.

Don’t forget the present.

I will never have this Christmas Eve again. Never again will my kids be 14, 11, and 9. It’s all to human for my heart to grieve over the loss of 13, 10, and 8, and all too easy to forget the present.

I may never again have both my parents at my house for dinner for this most special of family meals. I don’t like thinking about that possibility, because they are both healthy. But far too many friends have unexpectedly lost a parent in the last year, and I need to remember I’m not immune. In the stress of the season, it’s all too human to take them for granted, all too easy to forget the present.

Ultimately, Christmas is a holiday about The Presence. The ultimate Presence of God, taking on flesh so that He could truly Be with us, Emmanuel.

So today, as I shop and wrap and dress and cook and eat and sing and “keep Christmas,” I will remember the present.

And the presents. Please don’t let me forget the presents!

All the Zero Days


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.

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:


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.


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.


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.


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.