The Wrong Boots

Utah houses many of the most magnificent geological wonders in the world. The rock formations are simply dazzling to the eye. The state boasts over fifty state and national parks. And if you like rocks, it’s a visual smorgasbord. The Vermillion Cliffs, for example, located just south of the Utah border in Arizona, are aptly named for the brilliant and varying shades of red earth. It’s a vibrant sight from the highway. 

On a visit in the summer of 2008, my husband and I headed west from Moab on a road to Dead Horse Point State Park. Just before the park entrance, we saw a dead pigmy rattle snake. This was our third trip to the Southwest, and I had never yet seen a rattler, dead or alive. They come out at night when they do their hunting. At night, rattlesnakes are fearless, and you don’t want to encounter one by surprise.

We decided to turn around and drove over to see why this park got its name. Dead Horse Point is situated atop a plateau at an elevation of about 6000 feet. From the point, layers of geologic time may be viewed, revealing 300 million years of the earth’s geologic history. It’s as if God had taken a knife and sliced mountains and chunks of land right down the middle so that all the erosion of time could be viewed for free by anyone who was passing through.

According to the legend, Dead Horse Point was used to corral wild mustangs that were roaming the mesa. Cowboys rounded up these horses and herded them onto the point. They fenced off the neck with branches and brush, creating a natural corral surrounded by high cliffs. Cowboys then picked the horses they wanted and left the rest to die of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2000 feet below.

Death was the last thing on our minds the next day. We woke up early, ready to enjoy our last day in Utah. Why did I put on my winter-weight hiking boots? Well, I didn’t have any lightweight boots. And the truth is, our treks in the southwest recently hadn’t been that long. Otherwise my feet would have overheated, and I would have known enough to get summer boots.

That day, in particular, I wasn’t planning on doing any serious hiking at all. It started out innocently enough. A sign in the parking lot said:

“Upheaval Dome/Crater View
round trip2.5 mi (4 km)
elevation gain300 ft (91 m)
hiking time15 minutes to 1 hour
difficultyeasy

Piece of cake—a relaxing walk along the rim of this crater. It was too hot to do anything more exerting that day. We thought we’d start the day with this stroll to view the inside of the crater. We were pretty tired from a week of hiking and were anxious to fly home. This would be our day to decompress.

At 10:00 a.m., we used the restroom and then studied the billboard. With the whole day to kill time, we could dawdle. In our fanny packs were water bottles and our packed lunch which, luckily, we carried with us. We had no idea that because of our overconfidence and lack of preparedness, we would soon be swallowed up by this crater we had intended to observe only from above—and were lucky to get out alive. 

“Be prepared for a hike as demanding as it is dramatic,” the guidebook warned us. “Expect the initial descent and subsequent ascent to be steep and rugged, though both are brief. The ascent is on a particularly rough route, mildly exposed in two places where a burst of gymnastic effort is necessary to avoid an injurious fall. Alleviate these difficulties—plus gain the benefit of some timely post-exertion shade—by looping clockwise. The counter-clockwise hikers we’ve met here were distressed, admitting the trip was more time-consuming and arduous than they’d anticipated.”

This book was, unfortunately, in the car, of no use to us sitting on the front seat. We had intended to relax this last day, and we certainly weren’t prepared for a grueling hike on a hot day in July.

I was wearing the wrong boots.

We took the easy walk up to the rim and on our way back to the car thought, Hmm…not much of a challenge there. It’s only 11:00 in the morning. Let’s be adventurous and see where the trail to the left leads.

Gene and I are big risk takers. Some of the risks I’ve taken with him were thrilling, like running rapids in Canada when we were too tired to portage. And some were stupid, like taking up smoking again with his brand, Camel regulars, so we could share. This was one of the latter variety; you don’t mess around unprepared in canyon country in July.

We turned to the left and began the counterclockwise loop, another reason why, as we were nearing the valley floor and met some hikers on their way back, we were “distressed.”

“How much farther?” we asked them, as we were struggling through some boulders.

They looked at us like we hadn’t read the book and offered, “Oh you’ve got a ways to go. Might have been easier to go clockwise.”

I was realizing how the sun would face and torture us all along this counterclockwise loop.

 “Gene, we should have asked for some water,” I whined, already starting to project disaster and panic as I sneaked a peak to the left and saw where we needed to be before the sun went down. Oh no! All the way up there?

“Don’t worry. We’re doing fine,” he said, trying to allay his own growing fears that we had gotten in over our heads. I had a veritable battle going on inside my head: Can I do this? Or will I lose myself in fear and panic, both of which used to drive me into caves of denial, avoidance, and despair? 

We were soon to confront a situation that would require a serious change in attitude on my part. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t rise to the occasion; I found myself falling into those familiar caves and trying to take Gene with me. 


The walk along the canyon floor seemed endless. Gene was distracting himself by studying the Chinle formation on the banks of the wash that meandered all along the valley floor. As we neared the back of the mountain that we would need to climb in order to get back, all we could think about was reaching the car in the parking lot.

It was at this point that I turned into a harpy of major proportions. My mother had needled my father relentlessly to quit drinking, and those nasty tapes found their way to my vocal chords in magnificent stereo. 

“Gene, for Chrissake, what are we gonna do? It’s five o’clock already! How could you get us into this mess? We’ve eaten all our food, we’re almost out of water, and we have a damn mountain to climb! In three hours it’ll be dark, and of course you didn’t bring any headlamps. Did I leave anything out, Sherlock?” 

I was shaking with fear and panic. No need to look up at the cliff; we were at the base in its shadow. The sun would be going down soon. It didn’t help to see the shed skin of a huge snake on the side of the path.  I knew there were deadly snakes in canyon country. And they come out at night when most intelligent people are roasting marshmallows around a campfire. 

Gene is different from me temperamentally. The more I continued hammering away at him, the more his fear and rage built up inside. At some point, he took off in another direction. He just snapped. And he was carrying the water.

“Gene! Come back here! Where the hell did you go? You bastard! You have all the water!” 

Listening for his footsteps, I stayed on my path, wishing I had worn a megaphone. I finally gave up yelling, convinced he felt no remorse for leaving me in the lurch to make it out on my own.

This is where I drew on the strength that I had gotten from many angels over the years. I wish I could have looked over my left shoulder at the brilliant sunset and enjoyed the shadows and colors moving across the rocks, transforming their shapes as they went. But on this day, sunset meant dusk was coming, a very tricky kind of light followed by darkness. My adrenaline fully kicked in and I was on a mission to survive. I channeled all my rage into a fierce determination to get off the mountain. 

Thank goodness for cairns—small piles of rocks marking a pathway to show hikers where to go. I don’t remember when darkness set in but I do know that those cairns saved my life—the cairns and enough common sense to keep going up instead of across which is what I think Gene was doing to find an easier way out.

Or maybe he just needed to get away from me. 

I loped my way up, following the trail marked by the cairns. Ignoring the pain in my legs and feet, moving forward and up was my only option. I had no water and was terribly thirsty, but I didn’t dare sit down to rest. I just kept snaking my way along the switchbacks that were endless, until finally I reached the crest of a hill.

Walking through a juniper grove I saw a hiker approaching me and asked him for some water. He gave me a whole liter, for which I was grateful. It was 10:00 p.m. I made it refreshed into the parking lot and flagged down the last car that was leaving, asking them to call Canyon Rescue to come get Gene off the mountain.

I lay on the cool floor of the public bathroom waiting for the squad to arrive. They went right in with whistles and an hour later they walked out with Gene. He was too dehydrated to walk, had been drinking his own urine, and had just been sitting there in the bushes…waiting. Thankfully he hadn’t passed out and could respond to the whistles.

When I saw them bring him down I ran to him in relief. But those feelings were short lived as the enormity of our mistake sunk in to me. We drove back to our campsite and slept; I think we were in shock. I forget how long it took for six of my toenails to loosen and fall off, but it was painful. 

I hated him, briefly, afterwards and though I never seriously thought about leaving him, it did take me a while to sort it all out. I was able to see my part in our disastrous communication that day and I took full responsibility for pushing Gene to the edge; he, too, accepted full responsibility for a horrendous lapse in judgment.

Anger, panic, and poor judgment got the better of both of us that day. And I managed to come out a hero. But for every instance of that sort of thing there have been ten more where he’s rescued me at great risk to himself. And of course it’s the risk itself that seduces us both. I’m at home with him. I can unravel and be myself with him. Our adventures have taken us to many places, but so often they were just staging grounds for learning about ourselves.

I was certainly wearing the wrong boots on this trek and I lost some toenails because of it. But that was a small price to pay for what I found from the experience.

We were still the right fit for each other. 

Seasonal Prompts

I love observing the seasons and the months they represent. They are the embodiment of the natural flow of life—and a constant reminder of change and renewal.

I was a high school teacher for twenty years. Summers were times for me to breathe, relax, and get off the treadmill. Then in August the anxiety and excitement would build, as I felt hungry to return to school and start using my skills in the classroom again.

Just as our lives change and new routines replace old ones, our feelings about the months of the year change as well. Bright red chili festivals have replaced pumpkin cutting in the classroom for me. Life is never static, and I do well to remain open to new opportunities as they present themselves.  Change is good. Change is very, very good.

Now, some months are times of remembrance. I’ve been retired for just over a decade, and August/September has a new meaning for me. August 16 is the birthday of my mother, who died eleven years ago. And August 23 is the birthday of my estranged daughter, Annie. But now I celebrate my granddaughter Emily’s birthday on August 9 by going to her birthday party every year. I never miss either of my granddaughters’ birthdays. In focusing on my blessings, I feel a sense of abundance every day.

September/October start to herald in autumn for me. In Albuquerque, where I used to live, the leaves change color from the frosty night air. This is a welcome change from the oppressive heat of the summer. But there, the leaves turn yellow, not the reds I used to see in New England. 

In New Mexico, autumn is a gorgeous and productive lingering—well past Thanksgiving. It’s harvest season and the farmer’s markets overflow with abundance from the ground. Many holidays come in autumn and on the cusp of winter. These are always poignant times of the year for me, but now more than ever they are times to take stock and savor all that I have. 

Winter drops like a curtain, in some states more than others. A couple of weeks before Christmas, Mother Nature lowers the boom. Winter is bitter in the high desert. Where I lived, there was very little snow. Sandia Mountain, across the rift valley from our little house, attracts all the “weather.” At nearly 6000 feet, the air is cold even with the sun shining, though the temperature rarely drops below freezing.

Winter rings in differently state to state. But universal, in the areas where cold weather does settle into our bones, is the wish to smell spring in the air. 

Many of us enjoy watching the trees coming out of dormancy and preening like peacocks, their colorful buds in bloom. We thrill to see the first flowers peek up from the ground. And gradually, though differently from state to state, we see the resurgence of nature, in all its glory. It is the season of renewal, of new beginnings. 

Life goes on, and we with it.

Spelunking

This essay was first posted in The Memoir Network, 7/21/17.

I enjoy many forms of physical exercise, from climbing mountains, to backpacking along trails, to bicycling, and even swimming. But mostly nowadays I just go hiking, sometimes with my grandchildren and partner, but often alone. Working the muscles of my body is good for me and helps keep my joints working. I feel better after a long walk.

So, too, my mental muscles feel better after a good writing workout. I’ve been writing diaries ever since I was very young, and I keep boxes of them wherever I’m living at the moment. I draw on them a great deal in my memoir writing. They offer a panoramic view of my life.

I’ve been scribbling “Morning Pages” ever since Julia Cameron’s Sound of Paper came out. Every day along with my morning writing I include entries in my gratitude journal as well as ideas for my recovery blog.

But memory can be selective; and memoir is a tricky animal to tame. Mining our depths, it’s like spelunking in a cave. But how much do we see on those walls of rock? How bright is the lantern we’re holding? We’re swinging from a rope, trying to hold ourselves erect, trying to see what’s there.

And who are we doing the seeing? Not the same person we were last year, or when we were five. What’s etched into those rocks that might read very differently to us now?

Darkness often comes to light when I read pages I wrote when I was ten years old. I may not be that hurting ten-year-old anymore, but I can remember that ten-year-old hurting. The essence of memoir is the change that has occurred in the years in between.

Stringing thoughts together and writing them down keeps my mind agile and open to understanding myself better. At times, I feel confused or I want answers, and when I write about it, the mud often sinks to the bottom and I can see things more clearly.

It’s a clarification process.

Sometimes I start a piece, and by the time I’ve finished it, I’ve answered some questions. It’s sort of like, as Lillian Hellman once described the term “pentimento:” my “old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”

“Pentimento”—a term in art where sometimes, the artist changing his mind, paints over what he had previously put on the canvas. Thus, he repented. 

Many times, I’ve written stories that ended up nowhere I had intended. I thought I wanted to write about one thing, but ended up writing about something else. My first memoir started out as an angry rant about losing my daughter to a horrific illness. But in the two years it took me to write it, it evolved into a memoir of recovery. I was changing and transforming myself even as I was writing it—a very organic process.

So, writing for me is self-discovery. It’s a real excavation process, as we mine our depths often coming out so much richer in self-knowledge than we were in the beginning.

Something Unexpected

Grampy Gene doesn’t have any grandchildren of his own, but they call him that anyway because he’s my partner of nearly twenty-five years and I’m their grandmother. They lost their birth grandfather to cancer only six months ago, so he’s taken on a bigger significance in their lives. He’s still just a step-granddaddy.

But how do we measure love?

We spent the winter at our house up on Puget Sound and spent a lot of quality time there with these two granddaughters, aged five and seven. My son brought them up to the island to celebrate Christmas, a tradition I hope to repeat every year. 

I made dough-daddies just like my mother did on Christmas mornings when I was a child. As I drift into old age, reenacting moments like that are like grabbing a little piece of immortality, carrying things down to be repeated, keeping traditions alive.

Gene and I love to ice skate and we wanted to teach the girls. So we all met at a rink in Shoreline, rented skates and took off on the ice.

Catherine was game from the beginning. She grimly pushed herself out there, counting her splatters on the ice like a punishment. Emily clung to the sides mostly but braved the ice if I held her hand.

And Gramps was doing great. He’s a good skater, back on the ice after a few years. He was just getting his “ice legs,” skating backwards and doing leg lifts on one skate, but keeping his eyes on the girls.

Oops! He’s not so young anymore. Splat! Right on all fours on the ice.

“No, no, it’s nothing. I’ll just get some ice,” he insisted.

“Marilea, will you drive? My wrist hurts,” he whispered privately later.

Next day, x-rays at Urgent Care, double wrist fracture, painkillers.

“Geez, Marilea! Why’d you tell the kids? Now they’ll feel guilty we took them skating.”

Next morning, before she left for school, Catherine softly climbed into bed where Gene was sleeping, kissing him on the cheek.

“I love you, Gramps. Feel better soon.”

Karma

This is an excerpt from my second memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.

“Our first house in Virginia boasted an outdoor speaker system so we could listen to music on the patio. But it was broken and we never had it fixed. 

Instead, the speaker provided a nesting place for a number of birds in the six years we lived there. Every spring, forgetting that it was right next to our kitchen door but high enough for the birds to feel safe from curious humans, I would start to notice the flight of a couple of birds back and forth to the same spot. And there was a maple tree in front of our fence where one of the birds often sat, waiting its turn to be a parent.

“They’re back!” I yelped to my neighbor who was pulling up weeds. I felt foolish, tipping the birds off.

“I want to see how many eggs she’s laid, Angel. Please bring the ladder outside,” I asked as he was hanging up a picture in the dining room.

“Don’t be crazy; if they see you go anywhere near their nest, they’ll abandon it.”

So I left it alone, watching Mom and Pop swoop in and take turns sitting on the eggs.

One May morning I heard a lot of chirping coming from inside the broken speaker, and I observed the parents, one at a time, bringing food to their hatchlings. Such a simple cooperative effort, ensuring the welfare of their young.

Hatchlings became nestlings, and then came the end of the swooping. There were no more parents taking turns at the nest, and the comforting sounds of life, the chirping, had stopped. 

I realized the babies must have been strong enough to leave the nest and test their wings. They had become fledglings, and they were off.

But I saw the female soon afterwards in the maple nearby singing. 

Gosh, those baby birds must be miles away by now. And there was Mom hovering nearby, probably thinking the same thing.

Still I wonder, sometimes, if they can hear their mother singing.”

The Sacrifice

Time was passing:
The voice inside me would not be stilled.
For years I covered my ears
And prayed for peace.
But my road was not destined to be an easy one.
The mettle still needed much testing.
My real work was about to begin.

One day I woke up and
Prepared to take up the yoke.
Step by step, I plowed the field.
Hitting rocks, one by one, I
Moved them aside.
They weren’t too heavy.  I found myself
Getting stronger the more I worked.

It’s a bittersweet victory, my field of flowers.
There was a price that was paid along the way.
As I stand and admire the smells and beauty
I see three smiling shadows darting behind the trees.
I remember when those happy smiles
Had form and function in my life.
But the Voice would not be stilled.

It consumed me.
And together, the Voice and I, watched helplessly
As the forms became shadows
Hiding behind trees.

My Spirituality

The road to my spiritual life began when I was a young child growing up in an alcoholic family. But I didn’t start to walk this road until halfway through my life when my daughter fell ill with drug addiction. 

I was very unhappy growing up. It’s a classic story of family dysfunction that many of us have experienced as children. But back then I didn’t have Alateen to go to. My father was never treated and died prematurely because of his illness.  I, too, was untreated for the effects of alcoholism, and grew into an adult child.

Well, many of us know how rocky that road is: low self-esteem, intense self-judgment, inflated sense of responsibility, people pleasing and loss of integrity, and above all, the need to control. I carried all of these defects and more into my role as a mother to my sick daughter, and predictably the situation only got worse. 

I was a very hard sell on the first three steps, and my stubbornness cost me my health and my career. But once I did let go of my self-reliance, my whole life changed for the better.  The Serenity Prayer has been my mantra every day. I’ve learned to let go of what I can’t change. I don’t have the power to free Annie of her disease, but I can work hard to be healed from my own.  This is where I’ve focused my work in the program.

My daughter has gone up and down on this roller coaster for twelve years, and right now she’s in a very bad place. But that has only tested me more. My faith grows stronger every day when I release my daughter with love to her higher power, and I am able to firmly trust in mine. 

Friends of mine ask me, “How do you do that? You make it sound so simple!”  I tell them, “First of all getting here hasn’t been simple. It’s the result of years of poisoning my most important relationships with the defects I talked about earlier. I knew I had to change in order to be happy. Secondly, I surround my heart with faith-based unconditional acceptance of whatever happens in my life. It’s my choice.

Somewhere in the readings, someone wrote ‘Pain is not in acceptance or surrender; it’s in resistance.’ It’s much more painless to just let go and have faith that things are unfolding as they are meant to. There’s a reason that HP is running the show the way he is. I just have to get out of the way; I’m not in charge. I also read somewhere the difference between submission and surrender: submission is: I’ll do this if I get XYZ; surrender, on the other hand, is unconditional acceptance.  Well, the latter is easier because I’m not holding my breath waiting for the outcome. I just let go – and have faith. Again, it’s a very conscious choice. 

We all have different stories. What has blessed me about a spiritual life is that I can always look within myself and find peace regardless of the storms raging around me. I’m learning how to dance in the rain.

Snakes on Camano

No, not the kind that slither across the road 
Until they get squashed by a fast-moving car.
I’ve seen a few of them on my morning walks.
Poor creatures: don’t snakes have ears?

No, these snakes are an invasive plant, 
Burgeoning out everywhere.
But, like the vipers that don’t exist on this island,
These snakes have fangs.

Oh, don’t fall into a blackberry patch!
I think I’d rather drink poison and die a slow death
Than impale my whole body on those thorns.
I’d pass out from the pain, I’m sure.

They’re vicious and relentless, the way
They rise up over existing bushes
Like snakes ready to strike.
But I’m at the ready with my clippers.

Cutting them back as soon as I see them.
Some are just skinny babies.
Others half an inch thick.
But my clippers win today.



Tomorrow, more snakes will rise up out of the woods
And try to take over my landscaped grounds.
I won’t spray, though.
My deer family live here.

Air Currents

This is an excerpt from my second memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.

Carter and I had been driving home from his friend Chris’s house one Saturday afternoon. Chris lived near Mount Pentelicus, one of my favorite haunts outside of Athens. From the crest of this hill on a clear day in winter, you could see the whole bowl of Athens with the smog hovering overhead. This was where the Brits came to celebrate Boxing Day every December 26.

Crowds of people also came to fly kites on Mount Pentelicus in December when the weather changed. As we turned the corner, we saw the tail of a kite peeking out from under a pile of rubbish, flags zigzagging down the string. Its owners must have had no more use for it when it lost its wind, and so it lay abandoned in the field.

Our curiosity taking over, we stopped the car, got out, and went to investigate. We wanted to breathe new life into this broken and tattered kite. I never thought that something inanimate could come to life. But at that time in my life, there was a dying in me that I knew I had to defeat or it would defeat me. My son was part of this tragedy, and somehow we knew that the road to healing could start with repairing that kite and watching it fly again. A dust-covered old TV pinning it down to the ground was holding the kite hostage. Its colorful tail saved it from certain death.

So we took the kite home and repaired it with glue and tape. We waited for a day with just enough wind to try and fly it.

I was restless inside, as though we were testing something other than the kite. Lying on the sofa for weeks, staring at our beautiful Christmas tree, I had been questioning my decision over and over. How could I do this to my family? How could I be so selfish? My mother stayed, I remember thinking to myself. And when I was much younger, she was one of the saddest, most guilt-ridden women I knew. I wanted to be happier than she had been.

The day to test the kite finally came, a clear, sunny day with a nice breeze. Together we took the kite back to the mountain. We watched it continue to rise and float in the air until all the string was used up. We ran with it as it leaped in the wind, flying like it was brand-new. A miracle!

We brought it down and carefully put it in the car. We would probably never fly it again, but I couldn’t let go of something that had taught me such an eloquent lesson: I was sure from that day on that there are second chances in life for those who have the heart to reach for them.

Our Human Fellowship

From Each Day A New Beginning, April 10:

“’Even though I can’t solve your problems, I will be there as your sounding board whenever you need me.’ ~Sandra K. Lamberson

Our emotional well-being is enhanced each time we share ourselves—our stories or our attentive ears. We need to be part of someone else’s pain and growth in order to make use of the pain that we have grown beyond. Pain has its purpose in our lives. And in the lives of our friends, too. It’s our connection to one another, the bridge that closes the gap.”

Never in my lifetime have words and phrases meant more to me than “connection,” “bridge,” and “closes the gap.” We are all living through an extraordinary time where the viral pandemic has halted life as we know it. Of necessity, many of our routines have stopped. From my small world of one to the world at large, nothing will ever be the same again. This is a time when our physical health and wellness are uncertain; it’s a time when the world is being engulfed by an invisible threat which to some extent is out of our control. We’re doing our best to slow the progression of the disease. Mitigation, social distancing. We are being tested.

I, for one, am enjoying yet another opportunity to look within and put things into a larger perspective. And things will be different after this. I can’t see into the future, and everyone’s world will change in different ways. But my world already involves more appreciation for the finer things in life: things like kindness, consideration and thoughtfulness, generosity of spirit and time, and human connectedness. Just remember how Zoom crashed recently while Americans across the country were anxiously trying to visually connect with one another. This intense appreciation for those things will inform my choices on how to live, what to do with my time. This is a good thing.

We are interconnected and interdependent. We may not be able to connect hands right now, but we can connect our hearts and minds as we all strive to figure things out, learn some important lessons, and determine to make our planet stronger for the next generation to enjoy and pass on. The world belongs to my grandchildren and their children. God keep me strong to leave them something beautiful and resilient, reflecting the best in us all.