Friday, September 01, 2006

Giant of the Valley

When I was a kid, I read a biography of John F. Kennedy; one of those youth bios, cleaned up, Marilyn Monroe-free, which focused instead on his huge, friendly family, his speed-reading of five newspapers a day, and his heroics as a World War II purple heart recipient. When the author remarked on how competitive the Kennedy family was, especially in touch football games and politics, I thought, “What’s weird about that? Isn’t that the way all families are?”

In my family, we play tennis, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuits, golf. We argue about politics, even though we all fall roughly on a demographic between very left of center and extremely left of center. And in August, we climb mountains in the Adirondacks—a New York state nature preserve where there are forty-six peaks over 4000 feet. These forty-six peaks-known colloquially as “Forty-Sixers”(or, cutely, “46rs”)- range in difficulty from an hour and a half’s fairly easy hike (Cascade) to a sixteen-hour day’s bushwhack to bag a viewless mosquito-infested peak (Allen). I climbed my first forty-sixer at age 8 and finished at age 26, along with my sisters. We were fairly incongruous members of the forty-sixer club, most of whom are the kind of outdoorsmen and –women whose idea of a vacation is careening down white water rivers in those little boats that tip over, and then cramponing up glaciers in January. Me, I wear old running shoes to hike and eat my lunch with a knife and fork at the summit.

Nevertheless, in case it hasn’t become clear to you by now, I did not completely escape the competition virus with which everyone in my family is infected. Like Anne Lamott, when I brought home a B+, my parents wondered why I couldn’t have worked just a little harder to get an A-. Though I was a fair athlete as a child-a pretty good field hockey and tennis player, an average but competent dancer—my parents were practically professionals (both are nationally ranked in tennis; my mother was her high school’s star of track and field; my father is actually listed as the 189th forty-sixer in the world). So I have a pretty weird relationship with my own athleticism, which mostly translates to thinking that either I am a disappointment as an athlete, or I am not an athlete at all.

In reality, I am just average. But average athletes can still have a really good time being in their bodies and learning from that unique experience. As a lifelong yoga practitioner, I know that “yoking” body and mind as one does (or can do) in any athletic endeavor brings a oneness and presence that’s incredibly wonderful when achieved. Still, when I compare myself to my one sister who can run a seven-minute mile or my other sister whose serve absolutely devastates her opponents (especially me), I wonder why I even bother to use my body for anything other than loading the dishwasher. Since Lila was born, I have resumed my daily running, something I did in the days when I lived in a sixteen passenger van and considered myself perpetually in training. But then as now, my fastest speed was about a 13 minute mile. Honestly, I am really more of a plodder than a runner. My special talent is that I actually show up and do it every day. Like the proverbial turtle or his new 21st C cousin the Energizer bunny, I keep going and going, even if my speed is glacial. (When I came back from my run just now and moped to Tom, “I run only a 13 minute mile,” he looked up from feeding Lila and said, “Um…did you have fun?”)

My existential sherpa says I have the disease of comparing. Comparisons are odious, goes the 15th century saying, but they sure are fun when you’re winning.

Anyway, I found myself spending a day of my August vacation on Giant Mountain in St. Huberts, NY, following my very athletic husband up the three-mile Ridge Trail. Tom was carrying 9-pound Lila on a front pack plus ten pounds of water, sweaters, a first aid kit, bananas and gorp on his back. Nevertheless, I lagged behind, traveling only as fast as my unenergetic heart and weak knees would allow.

Two years ago to the day, Tom and I had climbed a small, gentle shoulder of this very mountain, a shoulder called Nubble, which took us maybe 45 minutes and gave us a pretty great view, albeit from a low altitude. On top of Nubble, Tom had pulled a box out of his backpack—one of those boxes that won’t open unless you spin it on a flat surface. The flat surface he provided was an old copy of Rubber Soul. Inside the box was a beautiful antique diamond engagement ring. We shouted to the opposing peaks, “We’re getting married!” We kissed, we shrieked with delight, we ran down the mountain to tell my family and we celebrated for the rest of our vacation.

This is the photo of Tom and me when we got engaged in 2004.

Having grown up climbing these peaks every August, I have always known that mountain climbing is the great metaphor for life, itself. It’s the ultimate meditative practice, and by coincidence (perhaps) this very mountain-Giant of the Valley—is the one I visualize when practicing Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “mountain meditation”—the one where you’re supposed to imagine yourself as a mountain, calmly watching the weather go by, watching the people crawl all over you, sitting impassively for thousands and thousands of years, losing a tree here, gaining some rock face there. And so, midway through the ascent, I was certain we’d made a terrible parenting mistake and were surely scarring our child for life. Moreover, I got to watch my mind react in all sorts of predictable ways: “why are we doing this?” “I hate mountain climbing!” “I’m starving” “What’s the point? I’ve seen this view three times before!” (Aversion) “This is dangerous!” “The baby’s going to fall out of the pack/Tom’s going to trip/she’s going to freeze/we didn’t bring enough clean outfits/diapers.” (Fear). And “Wow! This is amazing! How can we make time to come up here for more than 5 days a year so Tom can become a 46r too?” (Greed). And finally, ‘”God, I’m bored. This is the most boring thing ever. When will it be over? When will we get to the top?” (Restlessness.)

We had some external voices in our heads too, in the form of an older woman, most certainly a professional mother, who glared at Tom and said, “How old is that baby? You’re going to the TOP?? Don’t you know there are places where you’re going to need both of your HANDS?” Even my father, who had recommended the climb and the route, said, with a pained look as we drove off with his granddaughter in her car seat, “Be very careful with her! She’s only three months old!” And then there were the voices who said to Tom, “Wow! She’s only three months old? Cool! And her mother’s climbing too? You got yourself a couple of sturdy ones!”

Maybe, but I sure didn’t feel sturdy on the way down, when my knees and hips went on strike and refused to work anymore. For two hours and forty-five minutes, I made my way down, sometimes on my rear end, other times on the backs of my hands like a kid playing a game of crab. I fell a lot (Tom is NOT a fan of my wearing of old running shoes on rock face, just for the record). At one point the skies opened up, and it poured on us. Lila wailed for fifteen minutes straight and we felt like DSS should come and take away our child and permanently eradicate our right to be parents. I sat in the middle of the wet trail and let Lila breast-feed, and stared miserably straight down (I think the trail was at a 60 degree angle at that point) and watched a pack of college freshmen from SUNY Cortland zip up past us.

“This is so selfish of us,” I said to Tom, my aversive and judgmental mind hard at work. “What right do we have to stick our child in a pack for six hours just so we can say we climbed a gigantic mountain?” In my mind, I added, “This disease of comparing and competition could kill me and my baby girl! I am the worst person EVER!”

Tom shrugged. “Maybe,” he said. I pulled the waterproof shell over my head and Lila’s body and listened to her hum as she fed, which is this totally adorable new thing she does. She actually seemed really happy in that moment.

“I guess the work is to see this incredibly sucky moment at just as noble and worthwhile as the one where we got engaged,” I grumbled.

“Yes,” my existential sherpa nodded. “Because this moment is the only one you have. Two years ago doesn’t exist. It’s a memory.”

We got up and continued to trudge downward. I inched along, scooting on my butt, grabbing onto small trees. Behind me, Tom made up a poem for Lila, telling her how he would take her up again when she could walk herself; describing how the trail rose like an upside down stream. He told her the story of how she was born. She stopped crying and, like her mother, listened, captivated.

She was fine at the bottom, when I took her into my arms and snuggled her and fed her again. We drove home, stopping by the vegetable stand for corn on the cob. That evening, I iced my knees and Lila nursed and hummed; Tom cooked dinner. The mountain, no longer real, seemed a benevolent giant, rising calmly above our town.

So how do I feel now, a week later? Still a little sore, but my knees do work again. I found out that formally pregnant people go through a phase where their joints and ligaments don’t work so well and heavy hiking isn’t exactly advised. But I’m fine, and my daily two-mile run seems like a breeze now. NOT that I’m competitive or anything.