By Nancy Slonim Aronie
It’s 1997, I’m 57, and am coming off Half Dome mountain in Yosemite National Park. I have hiked its 8,839 feet under the guidance of twelve young women who take every sixth grader in California into the woods and give them basic survival skills.
Even though my husband urged me to do this trip, I was ambivalent about leaving from the minute I said yes.
But I am there because one of their own, had not survived.
I am a writing teacher. It’s how I make my living. I have come to help with their shock and terror. The workshop I teach is called Writing from the Heart but it might just as well be called Writing to Heal.
Julie was raped, murdered and beheaded. These twenty something year old fresh-faced, innocent out doorsey girls had found their friend’s head in the stream and her body in the barn.
We will do yoga in that same barn, we will swim in that same stream and I will lead the writing portion of the program. They will have the chance to get their rage on the page, and their fears, and their anxiety, and they’ll get a chance to write their own personal stories. And I’ll be able to get away from my twenty-two-year-old son, Dan, who has just been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and get the chance to sort out how to deal with my own personal story of the tsunami I have been handed.
As I am packing I hear the voice of the guy at Eastern Mountain Sports, “This is your first hiking experience? You’re gonna love it but ya’ gotta break these babies in. So walk around in them twenty minutes a day for the month before you go.” Now here it is, the night before my six-hour plane trip to San Francisco, I am taking these babies out of their box, tissue paper still intact, and I am thinking, why hadn’t I listened? What had I been thinking saying yes, I’ll fly to the west coast, drive 120 more miles, sleep in the wilderness on the ground without a pillow-top on a king-sized bed, eat trail mix instead of eggs benedict, listen to the pain of twelve traumatized young women all the while abandoning the pain of my own traumatized boy.
I am not a hiker. I am not an athlete and when they said we would spend five days at base camp and then go into the back country (back country sounded like up hill to me) for seven more days, I had hoped that I wouldn’t be expected to go on the trek with them.
I am too old to start a new hobby. Knitting is more in keeping with my newly arthritic knees. Before I Ieave, my friend Gerry gives me a mantra to repeat as I climb, if I climb. I think he is going to say something like May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be something or other. But his suggestion turns out to be even more effective. Under your breath, he says, and with every step you take, whisper to yourself, “Yo, SEMITE! Yo Semite!” I add oy so God won’t be annoyed.
The night before we set out (yes, apparently I’m going), they hold a sweat lodge ceremony. They drag saplings from every corner of the woods, prop them strategically in a dome-like structure, throw blankets over the top. They gather rocks and place them in the center and then pour buckets of water on top so when the fire roars the steam will fill our thirsty lungs. One by one we leave our clothing outside. Going in nude makes sense. This is a purification ceremony, after all. We sit in a circle and each one of us throws something metaphorically into the fire that we will not bring with us up the mountain.
Some throw their terror of returning to the trails alone, some throw their thoughts of quitting and moving back home, a few of the girls feel guilty because they had had issues with the victim and now they worry that she is becoming a martyr, a slain Goddess, simply because she is dead. They don’t know what to do with these feelings so they throw their confusion into the flames.
Deep Listening, one of the leaders says, will be a part of the ritual. She explains it’s a way of hearing in which we are fully present with what is happening but without needing to control or judge.
When it comes to my turn, I want to throw in my helplessness in my own son’s journey. Instead I toss my embarrassment that I will not be able to keep up physically. I am sure my legs and my feet won’t support me and I absolutely know for certain I won’t be able to carry a heavy backpack.
I sleep in Julie’s room the five nights before we leave. This is the wrong room for me to have been given. I haven’t had a relationship with this young girl. I only know I am there because she is dead. It is creepy and my mind slides into compulsive thinking mode. What can I do for these girls? Who am I? I’m a writing teacher. I don’t even actually teach writing. I am not an expert. I am not a guru. I am not a shrink. Ok, I think, then I’ll do what I do best. I’ll make it safe for them to write their truth. This isn’t just about what happened. This is about their own stories that shaped them. I know how to do this. I am not going to take the pain away. In fact, I am going to do just the opposite. I am going to help them feel their pain and not numb out.
I have been called a midwife for words. I am a midwife for words… that have feelings, feelings that must be acknowledged. I know what denial and numbing does. It serves nothing. I know when you hold sorrow in, it will find its way into your cells, your liver, your heart.
The next morning, thankfully they have heard me and everyone begins dividing my stuff until my pack is much lighter, though still a huge load for me.
When we reach the summit, (of course I am the last one lagging behind, but they always have someone lagging with me) they stand on top of a huge boulder and the minute they see me they erupt in spontaneous applause.
That night under billions and billions of stars, we talk about loss and death and the seemingly arbitrariness of events in life.
I talk about my teacher, Ram Dass. I tell them that before he had found his guru, he had been Richard Alpert, the psychology professor who, with the famed Timothy Leary, facilitated LSD experiments at Harvard. I tell them how Be Here Now, his landmark hippie book had changed my life. How I had read it in 1977, how one of the things I learned from Ran Dass is that everything is unfolding perfectly for your particular journey. And that there is no such thing as time, which also means there’s no late and there’s no early. Everything is right on time. I tell them one of my favorite stories of his. He had asked his dis-embodied friend, Emmanuel, why after all the spiritual work he was doing; meditating, fasting, being mindful did shit still happen to him. And Emmanuel said, “Ram Dass, you’re at The University of Life. Take the curriculum.
I remember while listening to his tapes, laughing out loud in the car once, when he said he was just a rent-a-mouth.
I said, “We’re all students. And maybe there are no answers as to why terrible things happen. Maybe it’s more about acceptance and not fighting, not pushing away feelings that are painful but embracing them as part of our unique odyssey, our particular course of study, our curriculum.”
Then I said words to these young women that I have never spoken before but when I heard them coming out of my mouth I knew they were right. I said something like, “We are dancers. We bow and we sway and we move with the rhythm of the music. We can’t be rigid. We are not static. We flow. Our tragedies are our tests. And one of the ways to pass these tests is to not get stuck in the tragic, to feel it, but at the same time to know there is a teaching here.
I tell them another one of my favorite Ram Dass stories about a guy who has a painting of a sunset. Most of the painting is blah, grey, almost depressing. But in the right hand corner is a brilliant swath of magenta. So the man brings it to the framer and two weeks later he goes to pick it up and the framer says, “Gee, I didn’t have a frame big enough, so I had to fold over… that pink thing.” The key is to acknowledge the grey, the sorrow but to not fold over the pink thing. Because there is always something beautiful. The goal is balance. The work is to make a bigger frame for the story. The challenge is, how do you keep your heart open in hell?
I thought to myself how immobilized I had become in the middle of my test with Dan’s MS and right then I decided I would accept my invitation to dance. I would bend like bamboo and I would flow like that stream. And no matter how hard it became I would stay present with it. I would make my frame bigger. I would not fold over the pink thing. And if the pink thing wasn’t obvious I would look for it.
The campfire warms my freezing feet. And I know in an instant this is exactly where I am supposed to be. And that I am surrounded by my guides, my teachers.
We sit in a circle, silent and safe. Their faces glow red, orange and amber. And finally, with more joy than I have felt in months, I look around and understand I am simply a conduit for someone else’s wisdom, a rent-a-mouth, if you will. And that I am taking my own personal course of study, my own particular curriculum.
And this trip is just the beginning.
The hike is one of the hardest things I have ever done. But they are doing something even harder. They are reclaiming the landscape that has turned evil on them. I have a landscape to traverse as well. I can’t reclaim it because it’s all new territory. But at the very least, my boots will get broken in.
Nancy Slonim Aronie is a commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and the author of Writing From the Heart. She received the Teacher of the Year award three years running at Harvard University where she taught for Robert Coles. She teaches workshops on Martha’s Vineyard.