Andes Mint #24: The World Offers Itself to You

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,” says poet Mary Oliver, “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting. . .” I was 18 when my parents drove me over from the Adirondacks and delivered me and my belongings to college. I remember watching them drive off in their yellow station wagon. It seemed to me that, although I hadn’t known it until just that moment, my life had broken open. As if anything was possible.

What do I remember of those years? Moments, one after another, held inside as if all time is one time, and we are all still together, there on that beautiful hill.

I remember asking my friend Tom, late one night at a party, “How can you fling yourself off that tower?” For years I, the non-skier, had admired ski jumpers, how they arced their bodies into the unseen air.

“It’s no big deal,” he said. We were sitting side by side in two large green chairs. “The air is soft. It’s like a pillow. It cushions you. You just go into your tuck and do it.”

What he didn’t tell me was that the “cushion” was there and then not there, and it could move you all over the place, depending on air pockets and wind gusts. I know that now, but what I have always gone back to is that first, long ago comment: You just go into your tuck and do it.

I remember stretching to Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver before heading out on late afternoon runs. I remember Charlie R’s sweet smile as I ran past him one day near Hillcrest. I remember smiling back. Out of all those days and years of running, why that one fall day, why Charlie alone, walking through falling maple leaves turned to flame? But there it is, a memory like a photograph.

And I remember sitting in a Social Anthropology class, listening to others discuss the assigned readings, through which I had dutifully plowed (50 pages read = one Andes mint bought at the Crest Room, prior to the night’s studying). I remember Mima N. shooting her hand up and asking a brilliant question. I remember thinking, “How did she even think up that question?” It was clear to me that my critical thinking skills were far behind. But anything was possible, wasn’t it? Maybe someday I, too, could think up, if not a great answer, at least a great question.

I remember that on Sundays, the New York Times was delivered to the door of the girls who roomed across the hall from me sophomore year. I remember thinking, I’ve never even read the New York Times. I remember thinking, Someday, when I’m a real grownup, I’m going to have the New York Times delivered to my door.

I remember visiting my friend Absalom on the third floor of our dorm and noting that it was possible to turn one’s dorm room into a shrine to John Prine, cigarettes, and thrift store army jackets. I remember redecorating Peter C’s room with a small collection of moth-eaten fox stoles and four plastic beer mugs.

I remember driving late one night, miles and miles in the darkness, Steve K. behind the wheel, Greg M. riding shotgun, me in the backseat wishing Steve would give me another square of his Cadbury Fruit ‘n Nut. The car was quiet, and Steve beat his hand against the steering wheel to a song inside him. Where were we going? Did we know?

I remember emerging from the underbelly of Sunderland Language Center one winter night when the stars above were like diamonds scattered on black velvet. My mind rang with the cadence of Chinese voices on the Chinese tapes I had spent hours listening to. Suddenly, all around me like an invisible chorus, came the sound of cheering. It rose out of the snow and the woods and the dorms and the town, and I stood there in the cold, filled with wonder. We had just won the U.S.-USSR Olympic hockey game, but I didn’t know that. It seemed only that anything was possible. That even the mountains, if they wanted to, could sing.

I remember standing in line at Security, waiting for my i.d. card on that very first day, behind a girl with honey-colored hair and hiking boots laced with red laces. Now that is cool, I thought. If only I had the imagination to lace my hiking boots with red laces.

“Can you tell me where Stewart Dorm is?” I said to this girl. I did not tell her how much I admired her red laces. That would come years later.

“I’m heading there myself,” she said. “My name’s Ellen.”

I didn’t know then that from that day on, three decades now and counting, each of us would be the voice and the laughter that the other longs to hear. That we would see each other through hardships we couldn’t have then imagined. That if not all things are, in the end, possible, they are at least bearable, if you have a best friend.

I remember graduation day, crutching across the stage with a broken leg,  crying and crying and crying, because I did not want to graduate. I wanted to stay in that shining place forever.

Now here I am, all these years later, and I’m thinking about Neil Young, who wrote, “All my changes were there.” Not all of them. But that was the place where I lived all those moments. That place was the pivot for me, the place where I first turned around and glimpsed the wide horizons of the world. In some ways, I’m still there.

Like Tom said, the cushion might be there and it might not, and gusts of wind might move you all over the place. But you go into your tuck anyway, and you aim yourself into the future.

Andes Mint #20: Haiku Friday!

Your friend Absalom
vows Haiku Friday! Feeling
lazy, so do you.

Did you manage to
write your chapters? Yes. Good girl.
Now you can go hike.

Tromp up the mountain,
tromp back down. Same mountain, same
tromp. Never gets old.

Stay back, rocks. Don’t roar
down just as I’m climbing up.
I don’t want to die.

Altitude brings stars.
Swimmy head. Laboring lungs.
Up and up and up.

Hard to write haiku
about the wind this high, the
way it blows so strong.

Or how other sound
fades. Come. Stand with me here, on
the roof of the world.

Here, the trees are thin.
Here, the sky lifts and stretches.
I could float away.

In my father's house there are many mansions

There’s a one-room shop in New York City that features dozens of cubbies, like dioramas, of perfect miniature rooms, complete to the last detail. Doll house furnishings unlike any you’ve ever seen before – a rolled-up newspaper, headlines and print readable, measuring half an inch. A wooden tray, the size of your pinky nail, containing a folded napkin, half a dozen chocolate chip cookies and a pitcher of milk.

It’s easy to spend an hour wandering around that quiet little store admiring its precisely wrought wares. Tiny houses charm you and always have. Airstreams. Houseboats. Vintage, single-wide trailers like the kind your grandmother lived in when you were growing up. One-room studio apartments with miniature appliances, a miniature fireplace, like one you once lived in.

You’ve always wanted a miniature house for yourself. Once you once spent a couple of hours at a marina on the Mississippi, pretending to be in the market for a houseboat so you could check out the ones that were for sale. So perfect, all of them, with their built-in drawers and appliances and cupboards and beds and tables and chairs.

When you were little, you and your sisters used to make elaborate houses out of big cardboard boxes, hay bales, an abandoned chicken coop, a blanket thrown over a card table. Every square inch counted in those houses, and no space went to waste.

Why, then, given this love of miniaturization, do you keep having one particular dream?

In this dream, you’re in a house, a house that you live in. You like the house but you don’t love it, maybe because there’s somehow not quite enough room in it.

Then, in the dream, you suddenly discover that there’s a whole part of the house that you never knew about. The new part is usually circular, built in a ring around the outside of the house you’ve been living in. It’s made of wood, and very dusty, and the furniture in it –it comes fully furnished– is covered with white sheets. It’s been closed up for a long time.

You walk around opening door after door, peering into room after room. Balconies and hallways. Windows. High ceilings. So much room!

Whenever you have this dream, you wake up restless, half happy and half frustrated. Where is all that room? Where is the whole hidden enormous house that’s somewhere, somehow, part of the house you already live in?

When you were a kid you wanted a house like the one Batman lived in, with secret compartments and bookcases that revolved at a touch of a button to reveal a whole new wing of the mansion, including the Bat Cave where the Bat Car waited.

Last week you were at your shack in the Green Mountains with a big list of things to do, tasks involving a shovel, a spade, a pitchfork, a hatchet, an axe, a scythe and a wheelbarrow.

At under 200 square feet, the shack is tiny. It began life as a pile of labeled wood with instructions that you bought off eBay, kind of like a giant Lincoln Log kit. Over four days, one sunny November years ago, you and your friends framed it up on a smoothed and leveled patch of gravel.

The shack sits in a small clearing surrounded by towering pines, next to a sunny slope set amongst ravines and bluffs and woods and creeks. That’s it up there at the top of this page. It’s more faded now. If you don’t do something to the wood soon it will keep fading more and more until it’s a silvery color.

Inside it smells like pine and earth, like concentration of woods.

You built the shack thinking that it was the beginning of a future real house. The first step in a long dream of life in Vermont.

Last week you constructed an indoor sink out of a jug and a bucket and a  cart, and the whole arrangement was so pleasing that you ended up washing your hands and brushing your teeth much more than usual, just to use the new sink.

In the tiny pitched-roof sleeping loft, an air mattress spread with a quilt is a bed. At night you can turn out the light and lie by the window sipping whiskey and looking out at the stars through the pine branches.

There’s a heater at the shack, and a couch, and many books. There’s a miniature refrigerator and a toaster and a well with a pump. There’s an outhouse. There’s a tent for guests, not that you’ve had any. There’s peanut butter and Jim Beam. There’s soap and a toothbrush and towels. There’s a table with a pen and paper.

There’s a hammock hung between two pines. It’s possible to spend half an hour watching an inchworm make its way across the entire, enormous-to-an-inchworm width of it.







Is the inchworm brave? Dumb? Is it acting purely on instinct and, if so, is it braver or dumber than a human being who tries to plot out its life from start to finish? Does it know where it’s going? Does it  know it’s going anywhere? Is it going somewhere, or is movement itself the biological destiny of an inchworm? Does an inchworm stop inching to sleep, or rest, or take a short nap?

These are some of the questions you wondered about as you sat in the hammock last week, watching the inchworm. Early on in the watching you decided that no matter what, you wouldn’t interfere with the inchworm. Neither by helping nor hindering would you influence the outcome of this journey, whatever that journey was.

The entire time you watched the inchworm, it never stopped moving, or trying to move, even when it reached a particularly deep fold in the fabric of the hammock. When that happened, it stretched itself out as far as possible and then flung as much of its body as it could over the abyss.

When you returned to the city you showed your youthful companion a tiny video you took of the inchworm, inching, and before three seconds went by she said, “Honestly? I’ve always really admired inchworms,” and you had to agree.

At some point you lay back in the hammock and looked straight up, into the crowns of the white pines and the blue sky beyond. You heard nothing but birds and crickets and bees and the faint drone of an invisible airplane.

Suddenly you realized that the shack isn’t a shack. It isn’t the beginning of a much bigger future house. It’s not the start of a dream; it’s a miniature house, complete in itself.

Why did this never occur to you before?

All you had to do, in order to turn the shack into the miniature house you’ve always wanted, was see it in a new way. Your whole life you’ve dreamed of a miniature house, and all this time you already had one.

It comes to you then, looking up at those trees, that there’s so much space in your miniature house. And on the hammock. So much space in the trees, arching toward the sky, and so much space in the sky.

So many rooms in everything, and everyone.

Portrait of a Friend

You were listening to voicemails on speaker phone in the kitchen the other day, standing by the sink as your youthful companions and their friends sat around the table eating grapes. Most of the voicemails were short and to the point: Meet me then, see you there, can’t wait, talk to you soon.

One of the voicemails was not short and to the point. It was long and rambly. It included a brief pause: “Hang on, I’ve got the dog and I have to cross the busy street now!” and then picked up again: “Okay, I just crossed the busy street!”

Maybe you were laughing as you listened, or maybe you were just smiling, but one of your youthful companion’s friends turned to her.

“Who’s that voicemail from?” she said.

“Her bff,” said your youthful companion. “Can’t you tell?”

Yes. The friend could tell. They watched you as you hung up the phone (can you use the term “hung up the phone” for a phone that is shaped like a small flat brick and has no discernible buttons? Probably not). You must have still been smiling.

“Do you wish you lived across the street from your best friend, Mom?” asked your youthful companion, who, because she has grown up listening to you on the phone with your best friend, long conversations which often end with If only you lived across the street from me, already knew the answer, which is yes. Unequivocally yes.

There was a time when you lived, not across the street from your best friend, but down the hall. And then across the hall. And then a few hundred yards away. Those were the years that you were in college together, at that little school in the Green Mountains. Even then, back when time, although it was precious and you knew it, seemed endless, you knew how lucky you were to have all those endless days with her.

She was the first person you met on the first day of college. Your parents had helped you lug your boxes and bags out of the old station wagon and up to the fourth floor of the dorm, and then you had waved goodbye to them and watched the wagon disappear down Route 125, back to the Adirondacks, and then it was time to go get your student i.d. card.

You took your place at the end of the long line snaking out of the student i.d. card building and looked around at the golden trees, the mountains rising all around you, the chattering students, none of whom you knew. This was your new life. This was the beginning of a life that you hadn’t yet lived.

The girl directly in front of you was tall and slender. She had honey-brown hair that reached just below her shoulders. You couldn’t see her face. As you recall, she was wearing her jean jacket. She was also wearing hiking boots, and you remember looking down at them and admiring their bright red laces.

She must have taken out the laces that came with those boots, you remember thinking, and then she bought new red laces and re-laced them.

This struck you as unimaginably creative. Had such a thing ever occurred to you? No. You had gone your entire life meekly accepting the laces that came standard-issue with your sneakers and shoes and boots. This girl had not.

You decided to take action and tapped her on the shoulder.

“Do you know by any chance know where the dining hall is?”

This is what you remember asking the girl with red-laced hiking boots, but it’s possible that you asked her an entirely different question. Any question would have done the trick.

“I do!” she said. “I’ll show you where it is. What dorm are you in?”

That is what you remember her saying to you, and while it’s possible that she said something partially different, the dorm part of it is right. That much you know for sure, because as it happened, she lived just down the hall from the room into which you and your parents had just lugged your belongings.

That night you went to dinner, there at the dining hall, with her and some of the others from the fourth floor of your dorm. In your memory, that was the day that she became your best friend. Did it maybe take a little longer than that, like, a week or so? Maybe. But maybe it was just as effortless as you remember it: Stand in line behind a girl with red laces in her hiking boots, strike up a conversation, become best friends.

It’s worthwhile to remember that some things don’t take work, don’t have to be nose to the grindstone, don’t have to be struggled over. Some things really are effortless.

She was 17 and you were barely 18 when you met, and ever since you have been threaded through each other’s lives, warp and woof. When her number appears on the screen of your little mango-colored brick of a phone, you press the green button.

“Oh thank God it’s you,” you say.

“Oh thank God you’re there,” she says.

That is always the feeling that fills you, at the sound of her voice: thank God. The hugeness of your relief at the mere sound of her voice seems vastly disproportionate to the weight of your conversations, which are usually not weighty at all.

But there you have it; you give way with her. Now you’re thinking of how, when a football player gets injured on the field, the coach and the trainer put his arms over their shoulders and help him off the field, so that he doesn’t have to bear all his own weight on his own two feet. That’s how the sound of your best friend’s voice makes you feel.

Back at college there was a long, steep, tree-lined hill, the one that led up to your dorms. At the bottom of the hill was the library, classroom buildings, the gym. Farther yet down the hill was the little town.

“Allie, I just do not have the strength to make it up this hill,” she would say, after a long night of studying in the library or a long night of dancing at the bar. “I simply cannot do it.”

And you would get behind her and brace your arms against her back and lean in and literally push her up the hill. Strangely, the act of pushing her up the hill also made your own trudge up the hill easier.

Like so many of those you most love in this world, she has always been who she is. So, in a way, have you. Early on you knew things about each other: that she would spend her spare pennies on art, art of any and all kinds, from a pretty scarf to a handmade notecard to a tiny silver ring, that you would spend yours on a plane ticket to anywhere. And that both of you would spend it on a double-dip Steve’s ice cream cone.

In college, she loved the color blue and all its variations: teal, lavender, navy, and whatever the name is of that particular kind of blue that exists in bottles lined up on a white windowsill to catch the sunlight. She still does. There is a room in the house she lives in now that is blue, and it’s her room, and she calls it the “blue room.”

She has never been able to bottle up, for long, something that troubles her. This does not translate into a hot temper, or a quick trigger; what it means is that if something is bothering her, she will talk about it. She will work it out.

This is something that you have always envied and admired about her: she will not hold within herself anything that threatens her sense of who she is or what is right. You have learned so much from her in this regard. You can’t always put it into action the way she can, but still, even if it’s taken decades, you’ve gotten better at it.

Something else about her that seems unrelated and yet somehow, yes, related to this refusal to bottle things up is her astonishing and wondrous ability to nap.

“Allie,” she would say in college, in the late afternoon, after classes and before dinner. “Wake me up in 20 minutes, would you?”

At first you thought she was joking. Wake her up in 20 minutes? How could anyone just lie down on a bed and fall asleep like that?

Your own earliest memories include staring at the cracks on the ceiling above your crib, waiting. Waiting and waiting and waiting, for your mother to come in and lift you out of the damn thing.

And yet 20 minutes later, knock knock knock, there she was, peacefully asleep. It was like a parlor trick. To this day, she is a master of this particular parlor trick, and to this day, you still marvel at it.

Back then, one of your daily goals was to make her laugh so hard that tea would come out her nose. This was not a rare occurrence. It would happen near the end of dinner time in the dining hall, when you and her and your other friends would postpone the return to the library by drinking endless cups of coffee and tea.

Come to think of it, this tea-out-the-nose-thing is still one of your goals.

Back then you liked to go to parties or out dancing, her in the lavender shirt and you in the red shirt that in your memory you both wore every weekend. You’d wait until the cover charge at the Alibi was half-price and then in you’d go. That tiny dance floor, that long wooden bar, the pool tables downstairs, the bathrooms that everyone tried to avoid. That bar is still your favorite bar in the entire world, despite the fact that it exists now only in memory.

You typed papers to make money in college and she was a checker at the dining hall. This meant that she sat on a high stool at the entrance while students filed in, each reciting their i.d. number, which she then checked off a long list of student i.d. numbers.

Hers was a powerful position, a position of social engagement and deep intrigue, because everyone had to file past her on the way to the cafeteria line. Those were the days of myriad crushes, for both of you, and many was the time that you stood in line directly behind one of hers, trying with all your might to catch her eye, because you knew she would start to laugh, and then she would not be able to stop laughing, and then either the secret would be out or the tea would come out the nose, or, if you were really lucky, both.

Years passed, and you both left the mountains and moved to that city by the sea, where for those first few years you lived on the cobblestone street by the river and she lived three cobblestone blocks up the hill, just down the street from Primo’s Deli.

In the late afternoon she would come down to your tiny one-room apartment before her waitress shift at the chi-chi restaurant down the  block. She would be wearing her green chi-chi restaurant waitress apron, the one with the big pockets to hold a corkscrew and tips, and she would sit down in your one chair, the one you sat in to type out your stories on the typewriter balanced on the apple crates.

She would sit, and you would stand, and the two of you would talk as you French-braided her hair. Sometimes you would braid it in a single braid down the back of her head, sometimes two braids that you tied with ribbons. Once in a while you would braid a single braid that wrapped around her head; that was your favorite. It was the most challenging, the most unusual.

Off she would go for her shift, and late that night, when the restaurant closed, back she would come and tap on your window (you lived on the ground floor) to see if you were still awake. If you were she would come in and you would sit on the floor together. She would empty the big pockets of the green apron and you would count her tips together and talk about the customers, the tables, the other waiters and waitresses.

You might light a Duraflame log in the tiny fireplace that somehow, magically, was built into the tiny room, and you might talk late into the night.

You remember the party in that city by the sea where she met her future husband. It was late, very late, and there had been much music and much dancing and many drinks and much merrymaking, and he wrote her phone number on his palm with ballpoint pen and then kept his wits about him enough, once he made his drunken way home, not to wash it off.

That was it, for her and for him, and a couple of years later she was sitting on a chair in a distant bedroom, a long white dress spread carefully around her, and you were standing in back of her, slightly bent, your hands in motion, French-braiding her silky hair.

You don’t know, when you’re 18 years old, what life will hold. You don’t know that there will be more times than you imagine, back then, when you feel as if you can barely hang on. Those times have come for the both of you, as they do for everyone.

Unlike your best friend, you did used to keep secrets. One in particular. All the years of college in the mountains, those mountains that turned to flame every fall, and for years before you went to college, you were keeping a secret that was literally eating you up from the inside out. And yet it felt, back then, as if your very survival depended on keeping this secret.

You hated yourself for what you were doing, but even though you vowed every day to stop, you couldn’t. This is why you look at the trembling fingers and the dark eyes and the jiggling legs of certain people you know, some of your students, people you pass on the street, and you can feel their self-hatred, their desperation, and you look them in the eye and send them silent strength.

You kept your secret from everyone: your family, your friends, your boyfriend, and even her, your best friend. You never told it to anyone. It took two years after college –long, hard years of silent, solitary, daily, baby-step work, of sitting on the floor of your tiny room on that cobblestone street, the sun shining in the window, talking to yourself– to climb your way out of that wilderness of your own making.

When you knew that you were out of that wilderness, truly out, you sat down and wrote letters to the few people who knew you best, and told them what you had kept hidden all the years they knew you. It was awful, terrifying work, writing those letters.

You dreaded writing to her. You dreaded telling her what you had never told her, all those years of your best-friendship, when she had kept nothing from you. You imagined her opening the letter –it was not something you could tell her over the phone; it was not something you could tell her in person; you knew she would need time– and all your imaginings were awful. You felt your own self-hatred stealing back into your body.

You put a stamp on the letter anyway and carried it down the street and put it in the blue mailbox. Two days later she called.

“Allie, I got your letter,” she said. “This is going to take me time. This is terribly hard for me. I can’t talk about this now. But I had to call you and tell you that I love you. I love you. Just know that.”

I love you. She knew you so well that she knew you had to hear those words, so that you could keep going while she, on her end, did what she needed to do to get through. During those dark days, while you waited, you kept her voice and those words in your mind.

What did you learn, from others who called and wrote when they got those letters, who came to your tiny apartment and literally held your hand, who wrapped their arms around you, who told you how sorry they were that you had gone through that, that they hadn’t known, that it hurt them to think of you going through it all alone, believing yourself unlovable? What did you learn from all of them, but especially from her, your best friend?

That the power of love is formidable. That love can, in fact and in act, be unconditional.

You remember her standing with you outside the little stone church when you yourself got married, holding your hand. And you remember her voice on the phone many years later, when you could not stop crying, agonizing over the hurt that your children and those you loved would have to endure by a decision that you had to make, and her voice like a murmuring river. Her voice on the other end of the phone, telling you that everything, including your children, in the end, would be all right.

Oh thank God it’s you.

Oh thank God you’re there.

Best friends can live 1500 miles apart and see each other only a few times a year. But another thing about love is that it is transcendent. It knows nothing of physical distance or the clocks by which we measure out time.

You have been through the fire with each other. You have watched each other go through things that neither would have wished on the other, were you in charge of the universe.

There have been times when one or another of either of your children were in pain, true pain, and you hung on tight to the phone and said to each other, If only I could do it for him, or, If only I could go through it for her, so that she wouldn’t have to suffer.

Such is the nature of love. And such is the nature of life that you can’t. All you can do is hang onto the phone for dear life, lie awake at night breathing in, breathing out. Breathing in thank you, breathing out goodbye.

Once, you were going through something very bad, and she knew it, and you knew it, and you tried to pretend you weren’t, and she knew you were pretending, and it became something that you couldn’t talk about, but which you tried to talk around. That you chattered around, trying to fill the space of what you weren’t talking about with words, any words, none of which worked.

There came a period of time in which, because of everything that wasn’t being said, there were not many phone calls. Then one day the phone rang, and you could hear the determination in her voice, the same determination you have heard all your life with her. She is not one to keep things bottled up inside.

This has become something that we can’t talk about, she said, but I woke up the other day and I knew that if you weren’t talking about it with me, you weren’t talking about it with anyone. And you need to. And so I decided that all I can do is love you. And that is the easiest thing in the world for me.

Your entire body sagged with relief.

So, she said then, I’m going to listen. Now talk.

And finally, you did. Because you could. In your life there have been three people, including her, who see you as you are, for exactly who you are. For them to love you, without condition, all you had to do was be born.

This makes you a lucky, lucky person.

The years go by, don’t they? They just keep right on going by. Last October you were holed up in your one-room shack in the Green Mountains, trying to finish a novel. It was a lonely slog, and you were alone, and suddenly you didn’t want to be alone anymore. You flung your clothes into your duffel and got behind the wheel of the rental car. It was late afternoon. You called her.

“Oh thank God you’re there.”

“Oh thank God it’s you.”

“Listen, I’m at the shack and I can’t take it anymore.”

“Come on down!”

“I’m already in the car.”

You slept in her away-at-college son’s room. You wrote the novel while she and her husband were at work and their daughter –whom you think of as your niece– was at school. You sat on the blue couch in the family room, light pouring in the windows, surrounded by the things your best friend loves: the family photos, the heart-shaped rocks, the collection of sea glass that she picks up on the beach.

You were not alone. You were not lonely.

You are typing this at 23,000 feet in the air, which is neither here nor there in terms of your best friend, except that looking down on the patchwork earth below has the effect of making you envision all the years of your friendship as if seen through a telescope.

Has there ever been a day since that red-lace hiking boot day so long ago that she has not been a part of your life, and you part of hers?

The answer, no, feels like a revelation, although it’s anything but.

And the question that immediately follows —what would I do without her?— also feels like a revelation, although it, too, is not.

When you think of her, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Is it her smile, that wide smile that so often ends in a laugh? Is it the sight of her on the blue couch in her family room, her husband’s head in her lap, him half-asleep as she rubs his head? Is it her distinctive handwriting, which is not handwriting but printing, and the especially distinctive way she forms her “E”s?

Her letters and postcards and birthday cards? There are a couple of boxes in the wall of boxed-up letters from all the people you love, labeled with her name and sent from Vermont, from London, from Connecticut, from Massachusetts, from all the places that she has called home over the years. Is it her hair, that silken bob that has not changed in all these years?

Whatever it is, it’s not the red laces in her hiking boots. They already served their purpose, that long-ago day when you first thought up that “do you know where the dining hall is?” question, just so you could start a conversation with her.

It has been many years since you French-braided your best friend’s hair. Next time you see each other, a few months from now, maybe she’ll humor you and let you braid it again for old time’s sake.

Oh thank God it’s you.

Oh thank God you’re there.

The world is too much with us

Sometimes, in order to be able to keep living with the knowledge of it all –the emaciated children, the chaotic climate, the debt ceiling, the S&P, the downed helicopters, the endless fighting, the everythingness of it and the almost-nothing you can do about it except write checks and write your Congresspeople and try to be a good person– you have to chuck it all and head to the mountains.

Go commando, which in this case means no t.v., no NPR, no newspaper, no wireless. Make your vow: a mountain a day.

Hope that at the end of the four days you will be better able to wade back into the fray. Hope that a small, still place inside will be able to stay small and still.

Begin at the beginning, at the base of the mountain. Old mountains. You should climb some new ones, you tell yourself. But you don’t want to. You just want these mountains, the ones you’ve scrambled up and down many times before. You want the same views you’ve known for years and years.

Snake Mountain, for example. Snake is a long, undulating mountain, an easy hike where you know you’re climbing but it’s a slow climb on a former logging road turned wide trail. You’ve hiked this mountain for many years, beginning when you were eighteen.

You used to hike it with a friend who always ran down at top speed. He was, and is, more mountain goat than human,which meant that he could not not run down that mountain.

You’ve hiked Snake Mountain in the late night with friends, a few of you carrying flashlights, the rest of you intent on keeping your footing in the faint, zagging lines of light.

Once, in January a few years ago, you were teaching nearby for two weeks. You had an unexpected six-hour break and you jumped in your car and drove over to Snake. It was late afternoon and the sun would set soon. You tromped up the boot-beaten trail as fast as you could, the last rays of the sun turning the snow to diamonds. You couldn’t make it to the top, though; it turned so dark, and you were alone, and you headed back down while you could still make out the trail.

Once, years ago, you and a friend headed up Snake in the late morning. At the first bend in the trail you encountered another hiker, a man wearing only hiking boots and known to you both now as Naked Man.

Once you and another friend climbed Snake at dawn in the late spring. This friend had climbed it and run it and skied it so many times that in his presence it felt like a different mountain, full of trails you’d never known about. He led, you followed. You had no idea where you were, but that didn’t matter. Once in a while he stopped and squinted and you knew he was figuring something out and after a minute he would point and then you were moving again.

Now it’s a summer day, hot and sticky, and you stand at the trailhead. Your phone has one bar. Despite the easiness of this hike, you text your sister where you are and that you should be back within a few hours. This is a routine you began many years ago, after you hiked up Mt. Washington on a gorgeous fall day. You were wearing a t-shirt and shorts and you had a sweatshirt and a water bottle and a granola bar and you were sweating. At the top a sudden blizzard started. Yes, that is what happens on Mt. Washington, and yes, you were that stupid person who thought it wouldn’t happen to you.

You almost always hike alone because not many of your friends like to hike, or are free to hike, or have the flexible schedule that you do, or can take their work with them on the road the way you can.

Your youthful companions deeply dislike hiking, to the extent that they have mutinied on several mountains in the past. If a bear comes along, don’t back away, you remember telling them once. Don’t run. Talk, sing, wave your arms. You assumed that this bear advice would scare them into staying with you –it was your big gun of a threat– but no. Given the choice between a possible bear and the effort required to reach the summit, they would take the bear.

About half an hour into a hike, that feeling you crave begins to spread inside you. It’s a kind of calm exhilaration. It’s the same feeling you get when you run, but it’s more intense. You’re climbing. You’re leaving the world behind. The sound of the road recedes. The sound of the birds intensifies. The wind is blowing the leaves of the trees and the higher you go, the stronger it blows.

Be fearless, you tell yourself. From now on, be fearless.

You don’t know why this word comes to you. You start to ask yourself what you mean by it and you instantly decide that instead of thinking, you will just listen.

Long ago you were afraid to run down this mountain. You used to watch your friend’s red head disappear below you on the trail. He ran fast, and he used to laugh as he ran. You hiked down like most people do, bracing your knees a little bit with each step.

There’s a lot to fear in the world. Pick your poison: Bears. Mountain lions. Avalanches. Snakes. Car crashes. Bridge collapses. Tunnel cave-ins. Tornadoes. Sickness. Failure. Financial ruin. Loss. Violence. Heartbreak.

You used to be afraid of things you’re not afraid of anymore. You remember one morning in particular, when you glanced out the window and saw a big black bird on the lawn, staring at you. You knew this meant that someone you loved was in great danger. All day you stalked around, trying to convince yourself that the omen wasn’t real. You had tiny children then and you didn’t know if you should take them out or if you should stay in. Was the danger outside the house, or was the danger inside, maybe down in a hidden, coiled pipe in the basement, a pipe that could explode?

That long-ago day passed without incident. No one, in the end, was hurt.

But you were, you think now, as you make your way up and up, through the green and shining trees. You were hurt. All that worry hurt you, and all that fear. All that wondering how you could possibly stop whatever was going to happen from happening, when you didn’t even know what was going to happen.

It’s better to let go. Think of your friend who knew Snake so well, all the hidden trails, and how you didn’t think at all. You just trusted, and followed.

Here are the final yards of the hike, where the loam turns to grass.  You’re almost at the summit. You’re still in trees, but you know from all the years you’ve hiked this mountain that only a few feet away is a view that will take your breath away. A group of men stands just ahead of you, gazing out at that view that you still can’t see.

There is so much to be afraid of, if you let yourself be afraid. Take these men, this bunch of silent men standing on top of the mountain. Hikers, like you, right? Of course. But if you let yourself be afraid, you could tell yourself that you’re alone, a woman, and they’re a bunch of men, and there’s no one else around. If you go down that dark path in your mind, you could start imagining all kinds of things, things that would make you freeze where you stand.

If you let yourself be afraid like that, walk through the world in fear, you might turn around right now, before you even step out onto the rock of the summit, before you even shade your eyes and look west. You would hope they hadn’t noticed you. You would tell yourself that you could hide in the woods if you had to, climb a tree if you had to.

Be fearless. You push on through the last few feet and emerge into the open sunlight.  The men turn, and you say hello, and they say hello, and then all of you turn back to look at the view.

That view. The Champlain valley spreads out below. To the west, across the river, are the Adirondacks where you grew up. Here, in the Green Mountains, they rise in the distance, a smoky blue-green.

You hold out your phone to the closest man.

“Take my picture?” you ask him.

On the way back down you think of your redhaired mountain goat friend, running. What were you afraid of? Falling? Why didn’t you even try? How hard could it be?

Not at all, as it turns out.

The world is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in Nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away. . .

– and hid his face among a crowd of stars

When she was a girl she built a treehouse in the giant maple. She wanted to be high up, above the earth. There she lay on the wooden platform, looking up into the green leaves. She carved her name on a limb and watched as, over the years, the tree fattened around her initials, finally absorbing them.

tire-swing1This was in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, in far upstate New York, where on summer mornings she walked down the road to see the sun rise over the fields. When she grew older she chose a college in Vermont, in the Green Mountains, because it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. She wanted to live there, those silent mountains rising around her, turning themselves to flame in the fall.

All her life she has loved to hike. Up the mountains and then down, but not before standing on the summit and looking down at the rivers and valleys and towns below. No sound but the wind, whooshing about her.

She used to call her sister Oatie with her location, in a haphazard, human GPS-ish way, before starting up the trail.

“It’s me,” she would say. “I’m at the base of such and such mountain. If you don’t hear from me in eight or nine hours, you can start to worry.”

The rhythm of an upward hike through greenery, twigs and leaves snapping underfoot, trail winding steeply ahead, calms her like nothing else, soothes her highstrung nature and sets her mind free. Some of her best conversations take place in the mountains, back and forth between her mind and some invisible presence.

Wide open treeless spaces scared her, and had scared her as long as she could remember. Giant parking lots, shimmering with heat under the sun. Wide flat treeless land. A photo of a Kansas horizon, flat land stretching forever, could make her turn away, inwardly shudder.

Mountains were like shoulders, shrugging their way up from the vast living body of the earth. Sheltering. Someone like her could live in a valley among mountains and feel herself hidden and safe, while knowing that anytime she wanted she could strike out for the summit and be standing above what felt like the entire world.

She wanted always to live among mountains.

But she moved far away, to Minneapolis. At first, she refused to believe that she was living so far from mountains. She charted a hills course through the city, and when people came to visit she would drive them or bike with them on her personal Hills of Minneapolis course.

“See?” she would say, zipping up Dupont just above the Walker Art Center.  “This is a hill!”

“See?” she would say, zipping down 54th by Penn. “This is a hill too!”

She didn’t leave the city much. When she did, she avoided those wide flat lands, those lands that wild winds sometimes came writhing through, snatching up cars and houses and flinging them about at maniacal will. Snow that drifted forever, covering up roads and fences.

“Nowhere to hide,” she tried to explain to a midwestern friend once. “Nowhere to take shelter.”

Nowhere her thoughts could smooth themselves out, be free of her clutching mind.

“But the plains are beautiful,” the friend said. “Endless and rolling, like the ocean.”

She could not see it. She wanted those mountains back. Sometimes she subdued a sense of panic. The plains are not beautiful, she would think. They scare me. Get me out of here.

Now she wonders if she ever gave them a chance, back then. She has lived on the plains for more than twenty years now, and it’s only recently that she has begun to see them, really see them. She charts the change to a road trip she took a couple of years ago, following Route 12 from Minneapolis to Montana. She looked forward to Montana – the mountain part of it – but thought of the drive out as something mostly to be gotten through. Flatness to be endured, in order to get to the good part.

But, a couple of hundred miles west of the city, something changed. She looked out and saw not emptiness, treelessness, but a land of silent majesty as profound as the particular kind of stillness she sought at the summit of a mountain.

Her sense of this land shifted from what it lacked – lack of trees, lack of mountains, lack of shelter – to what it held, which was fullness. Soil that could grow anything. Miles of prairie with grasses taller than her, undulating in the wind.

If mountains are the shoulders of the earth, then the plains are its belly and breasts, its long, curving flanks. Had she turned away from these plains for so long because all she could see was what they weren’t?

She imagined herself on top of a mountain, looking down at the earth spreading itself to the horizon, and she felt her own self changing, widening out, able finally to encompass both the mountain and the plains.