“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” (On teaching, the first in a series.)

The classroom was square and windowless, with white cinder block walls and overhead fluorescent lighting. Six rows of six chairs each filled most of the space, with my gray, regulation-size desk facing them. Behind my desk was a tall filing cabinet. A blackboard covered the wall next to me, a real blackboard with real chalk.

This was a long time ago.

I remember it perfectly. I can still feel what it felt like to walk in there every morning at 6:30 a.m., what it felt like to prop my legs up on the desk, what the buzzer that ripped through our eardrums at the end of every hour sounded like.

I had just moved to Minneapolis from Boston, where I had made enough money to support my life as a writer –meaning enough money to pay the rent on my one-small-room apartment, buy a pumpkin muffin every morning from the market down the street and go to matinee double features at the Harvard Square Cinema– by typing papers for Harvard and MIT students.

Charles Street Typing. $1/page. Quick turnaround. One block from the Charles St. T stop.

This was in many ways a great way to make a living if you were trying to be a writer. Make your own schedule. Get up early, write your own stories, then type other people’s papers. Get paid in cash and checks. I made so little money that I didn’t even have to file income taxes.

When I moved to Minneapolis, all this went away. There was no paper-typing market in Minneapolis, there were no lucrative temp jobs. How was I going to support my writing? I answered an ad in the paper for a part-time community liaison job at South High School. I didn’t get the job, no surprise, seeing as I had no idea what a community liaison did, nor did I know anything about either South High School or Minneapolis in general. I had moved there a few weeks earlier; it took me half the morning just to find the place, given its strange all-numbers address, so typical of Minneapolis.

But the school must have read my quickly-thrown-together resume, which listed my college major as East Asian Studies/Chinese, because they called me a few weeks later to offer me a two-week job substituting for the Chinese teacher, who was going to be out of town.

I accepted. Why not?

Those two weeks are a blur. I don’t remember anything specific about them; I had geared myself up for ten straight days teaching Chinese according to the regular teacher’s lesson plans, and then: Goodbye. Or, as we say in Chinese, zaijian.

But  it turned out that the regular teacher was actually moving to California, and the two-week substitute-teaching job was actually a full-time regular teaching job, and did I want it? This was an odd turn of events and I still, after all these years, don’t fully understand how it came about. The best explanation I can come up with is that the regular teacher loved her job and her students so much that she couldn’t face the fact that she would not be returning.

This makes sense to me, because it took only a month or so in that interior, windowless, cinder-block classroom for me to love those students too. I stayed for four years in that job, a job that was handed to me unexpectedly and that I never would have applied for.

Writer. That was the only thing I ever wanted to be, and it still is. Ask me what I am, what I do, and the only answer you’ll get is “I’m a writer.” It still and always takes me a while to remember that I also teach.

(Teaching is not an “also,” though. Teaching is a more important job, for the good of the world, than writing. It might be the most important job there is. This is something I know in my gut. Knowing it doesn’t make me less of a writer or more of a teacher; it’s a fact that I hold in my hands and heart.)

South High School, back then and still, was a cross-section of the big city of Minneapolis. Some kids who lived in the neighborhood went there because it was their community school. Some went because they were part of an “Open” program (it was easy to tell who the Open students were because of the happiness they took in questioning authority). Some went to South because they had babies and toddlers and they were part of the MICE (Mothers and Infants Childhood Education) program. Others were there because South had a Partnership program, designed to keep kids in serious danger of dropping out, kids with serious family difficulties, kids who often had serious difficulties with the law, in school and on track to graduate. Other students were there for the Arts & Humanities magnet program.

The student body was, and is to this day, representative of all races, economic classes, family backgrounds. Any and all of these children could, and did, take Mandarin; Chinese I, II, and III-IV were electives, part of an international language program that at the time included German, French, Spanish, Latin and Chinese.

Many of my students were first- or second-generation immigrants from Southeast Asia: Hmong, Vietnamese or Laotian, for the most part, with a few Chinese kids who spoke Cantonese (as opposed to Mandarin, which I taught) at home.

This was my first experience with Hmong culture and history. I had no idea until then that the U.S. hired Hmong men in the mountains of Laos as guerrilla fighters before and during the Vietnam war. I had no idea that after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, these men and their families were in danger of their lives. I had no idea that, when offered asylum in the U.S., they ended up in Minnesota and California because that was where churches sponsored them.

All this was new to me. But everything was new to me: Minneapolis, teaching, and especially teaching Chinese. I was teaching myself how to teach as much as I was teaching the students Chinese.

Three images come shimmering up every time I think back to that classroom.

Lighting. The windowless room had overhead caged fluorescent tubes that buzzed and cast that eerie pallor over everyone’s face. Fluorescent lighting is horrible for many reasons, including its ugliness and the eyestrain it causes, so the first thing I did, when I got that job, was buy lots of lamps at garage sales and plug them in with extension cords (probably breaking fire code). We turned the lamps on and the overhead off, and the room was lit with soft, warm incandescence.

Pillows. The floor of our classroom was covered with thin, tough, ugly industrial tan carpet. I had an old green sewing machine that I found at a thrift shop, the one that I still sew on, come to think of it, and I made a bunch of big pillows out of corduroy in brown and red and ochre and orange. They were heaped in a pile in a corner and the students were free to haul them out and sit or lean on them when they worked on projects or assignments.

Dark brown eyes. These are the eyes of my students, the immigrant students who wanted to take Chinese because it was closest to the languages spoken in their homes. Vue* and May and Thuyen and Phuc and Hai, dark brown eyes and dark brown hair. After a while, some of them began to come in to the classroom during lunch, or after school, and stand in front of the desk or sit in the chair I kept next to it, and talk. Their stories are with me still.

That high school classroom was my teaching crucible. What I learned in it, about teaching, about observing, about connection, about being a human being, has stayed with me my entire life.

(To be continued. *All names and identifying characteristics have been and will be changed.)

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. . .