ain’t nothing but a canyon mile

You never know what you’re capable of until you take yourself to the edge.  You don’t really know who you are until you break a little (or a lot).

After months of inactivity, thanks to the need to recover from a chronic running injury, naturally we decided to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon for our Christmas holiday in 2016.  No big deal.  Piece of cake.  Easy as pie, and all the other cliched platitudes about the relative lack of effort such an undertaking might entail if one doesn’t think too hard about the actual task at hand.

Neither of us had been to this National Park, which is supposed to be (and is) one of America’s treasures, a place of wonder and beauty and mystery.  Luckily we got a permit for our first preference itinerary, and the planning ensued.  Meal planning, getting there planning, clothing planning, gear management and acquisition (such as crampons and gaiters, thanks to winter conditions).

Along with regular purchases of gear came constant monitoring of weather patterns. When I say constant, I mean looking at the forecast each morning, reviewing historical performance and searching for other myriad predictions. Snow was the main problem. Lots of snow.  And chain restrictions and icy trails. Over the few weeks leading up to the trip, we thought we were going to get snowed out, or stranded.  Two days before we were supposed to head out the weather was still changing, still unpredictable.

When we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon for our first night of camping in the cold, under the stars, a shroud of fog had veiled the landscape.  The adventure on which we were about to embark remained hidden from us. There was no canyon, no plunge of land going down for one vertical mile.  There were no layers of geologic time, no cliff faces.  There were only the dense particles drifting before us as we walked along the path at the edge of the South Rim.  They stuck to our clothes, our eyelashes, my glasses. The air coated us in its heavy breath.  It was only after we ducked into one of the lodges for a beer, only after we reemerged that the fog had retreated a little to give us our first hint of the scale of the canyon, and its vibrant banding color.

Veiled Canyon

Veiled Canyon

Giddy.  Smiling and not even minding the other people who were rushing to the railing’s edge to take their photos with selfie sticks.  We looked at each other, and grinned at what we were about to descend into.

That night, snow flurries flirted at the South Rim as clouds raced across the sky. We caught glimpses of the stars through the wounds in the clouds, and tried to light a fire with wood that refused to burn, even though it was dry and the kindling was good.  As we drank port wine amid the pine trees, fresh snow dusted the ground and cold infused the air with biting teeth.  We fretted about putting up the tent, not wanting to start off with wet gear.  We fretted about the cold.

Our second day at the Grand Canyon was the real beginning of our adventure.  We parked at the backcountry office, checked our gear one last time and took the shuttle, with heavy packs on laps, to the Bright Angel trailhead.

31095710854_1312f4a1dc_z

Gear management

Though it was early, a regrettable number of people in designer boots or simple sneakers already populated the trail.  And what they were there for was not what we were there for.  Photo ops.  Daring pictures. Claiming the space and polishing their brand through two-dimensional captures. Being there for some people was less about the experience itself and more about documenting you were having the experience, all with an eye toward curation of who you want people to believe you are rather than who you are.

But these travel companions were temporary, as elevation is the ultimate filter.  Past the Three Mile Resthouse, we encountered few people.  They tended to be thoughtful and quiet, and had impeccable trail etiquette.

After lunch near Indian Garden, the weather shifted once again.  A drizzle began, which would plague us for the rest of the day.  It was at this point when I realized the Canyon had invaded my muscles and my bones. Already.  On day one before we were even halfway to the Bright Angel Campground.

31126512713_e2026358a9_z

Jessica’s last happy moment for the day

The Canyon’s extreme nature also emerged.  The elevation, the terrain of varied rockscapes, the water, which was everywhere.  I was hot one second, and freezing in the time it took to take off my beanie and gloves.  Rain, rain, and rain.  My mood steadily declined until I plodded on in silent rancor.  I was acutely aware of the muscles in my legs by the time we reached the vista for what’s called (we would later discover) the Devil’s Corkscrew. The Corkscrew is a long rambling switchback descending further into the Canyon floor.  Before even reaching it, I wondered how in the hell I was going to get back up to the rim.

31789968952_f94ab7a439_z

The Devil’s Corkscrew (photo was taken on the climb back up)

A. started talking about heading back, but in my mind the only way was forward. So we did the Devil’s Corkscrew, and we came to the next Resthouse, and we finally saw the Colorado River, angry with mud and swollen by the rain, and there was no sign (none, not a single evidence) of the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge.

31788618772_530b8b15c2_z

Bright Angel Suspension Bridge (photo taken heading back out on day 2 in the Canyon)

I wanted to cry.  By the time we reached the bridge (which took an excessively long time and what felt like another mile of traversing), I was in the gutter.  Legs: agony. Pack: a burden. Body: barely propelling itself forward. Emotional and psychological states: despondent.  Crossing that bridge with no indication of how far the campground was, I did start crying.  I had nothing left.  I hurt, I wasn’t having fun, and for the first time in my life, I had encountered my true edge.  I had reached the limit of my ability, and I wasn’t sure I could get myself out of the Canyon.

This was my threshold.  Every time we step through a door, we cross over a threshold. Most of the time it isn’t the physical crossings that impact us, but the mental ones. Afterall, thresholds mark a transition from one state to another.   We can feel when we encounter a boundary, just the same as we can feel when we’ve overcome that boundary. I wasn’t very grateful at the time, but now I cherish meeting that significant threshold.

Why is hitting my breaking point a gift?  I got to experience how I genuinely react in an extreme situation. Those reactions were not dressed up or contrived; they were 100% me. I got to see what my body could do, and understand better what I wanted it to be able to do.  It helped realign my expectations, and devise a plan to improve my overall conditioning.  And it revealed that my mind was powerful, because in the end determination was the only thing that got me back on my feet.

The next day, we awoke to clear skies, and the sun dancing on the edge of the mesa far above us. The aspens were chattering, and the world was quiet, and peaceful.

31935619455_291ccfee8b_z

It was at this point we made a conscious decision to enjoy the hike up to Indian Garden. We would take photos of the beauty surrounding us, take our time getting up to the next campground, take the time to solidify our memories of this amazing adventure. Indian Garden was a beautiful oasis to hobble around, and the next day we got up and ascended back to where we had come from, but not from where we started.  Later we would call how tricky it is to judge and cross distance in the Grand Canyon “a canyon mile”.

Advertisements

reasons to travel: discomfort, fear and failure

Crossing the border at Tecate is like finding a magical door at the back of a wardrobe.  When you step through, you are suddenly and instantly in another world.  A strip of corrugated metal with an opening wide enough to accommodate a single car separates one country from the other.  You slip from rural desolation into a little city of densely packed homes and businesses crowded together with a giant expanding brewery, which stands at the edge of things like some red giant.

I clutched the steering wheel and commanded Adam to navigate, because I had no idea where I was or how to get where I was going, and this not knowing terrified me.  It was my second ever time driving in Mexico.  The first time is occluded behind the gauze of memory, which is itself speckled with holes,  incomplete and porous like a sponge.

That time was two friends in my mom’s truck, federales with machine guns on a flatbed laughing at our monolingual-ness, and finding a surf spot based on referential directions, which may have been something along the lines of “take the third right after the rock painted white”.  This time was google maps, a detour, and a long line of stop signs and stoplights stuttering us out of the city.  And then Interstate 3, winding through sable-coated hills toasted warm with the coming summer and singed with the desert slinking in from the distance. The emptiness of the long ribbon of pavement, going somewhere correlated with a position on the map, comforted my angst.

I think this might be one of my hidden reasons for traveling.  Yes, I will confess it is to see something new, to understand life outside of all of my norms, my expectations and biases.  It is to peer through the curtain, and like a little voyeur revel in the shapes and textures of another life. But that is only part of it.

Slipping into another place, especially a different country where you don’t speak the language, where everything feels disjointed and like shadow or imitation of what you know—familiar enough, but still so different with its hand-painted business signs, the awkward shape of its streets and the composition of the road beneath the tires, even the chemical smell of the cleaning products—a hundred subtle things say, “this is not your home.  You don’t know this place,” and my brain at the same time insists that it must know because, besides the murky similarities, knowing is the best way to survive.  This is the dissonance; the jolt that brings fear and shakes me out of my complacency.

I hate not knowing. I hate being wrong. I hate failing. But THIS is the stuff of growing.  We can never be more than what we are, or different than what we are if we are never challenged. Living in the safe center of our lives is like living in a wax museum.  Artificial.  Constructed.  Perfectly the same.  We have to touch the edges of our capabilities in order to expand beyond our limitations. These experiences, uncomfortable though they are at times, provide the space to be challenged, to cast aside preconceived notions and to see the world through a different filter.  It is a spark to ignite the evolution of being.

The Power of Now

An assembly of recent strangers and now acquaintances were sitting on a sunlit patio in Italy at the end of a consensus conference.  They agreed on next steps for a new educational program and were congratulating themselves on surviving the two-day journey of “storming” and “norming” (as they say in group formation speech).  It was then, in the last moments of this meeting of minds, that one of the participants, Janet, said “We have ten minutes. Let’s go ahead and pick our case studies.”

Everyone groaned and protested.  They felt they had worked so hard, and now deserved a rest from the doing of anything. But Janet persisted. In that ten minutes they selected two stories to turn into case studies, outlined the contents, and nominated the working groups.

Janet did this time and again throughout my association with this particular organization.  Some people rolled their eyes, and protested, but in the end her gentle insistence won out, and progress was made.  I came to call this “the power of now”, and it is one of the greatest lessons I learned from Janet.

Procrastination, one could argue, is a general human tendency.  If it isn’t urgent, life-threatening, or otherwise pressing, why do today what you can put off for tomorrow.  While living in Italy, I became familiar with a phrase embracing this concept: Doppo domani. As in, I’ll do it the day after tomorrow.

I used to procrastinate, somehow feeling like a hero for staying up until 3 A.M. to put together a shoddy paper less than 24 hours before it was due.  While I have been able to whittle this mindset out of my life, it does still exist in various incarnations.  Do I get gas now, or put if off for the morning? Do I do that less desirable project now, or prioritize something over it? Do I take these last five minutes in my working day to be productive, or do I slide through that time?  Do I write this post, or zone out on facebook?

Here’s the thing; procrastination takes so much energy and is much more painful than just doing the task on a normal timescale.  I have never once regretted doing something now, which could be put off for tomorrow.  More often than not, I’ve been grateful to have tackled something on my ever-expanding list of things I want to accomplish.

There is a more philosophical tack to take on “the power of now”.  None of us know how much time we have in this existence.  A friend of a friend suddenly and unexpectedly lost her soulmate.  In these moments we reevaluate things we consider important.  When we are on the threshold of leaving this existence, what parts of our lives will bring us joy, and at what parts will we despair as distractions from the heart of living?  We can all use the power of now to build a more fulfilled life.

Alarms, Beeps, and Other Auditory Tortures

We live in a world filled with noise, both the noise we generate internally from all of our mind chatter, and the externally created noise we are confronted with at the moment we awake. There is soundless noise, and there is loud, obtrusive, and incessant noise, which is not merely an alert, but a demand, or an instrument of torture. 

My boyfriend and I are of the same persuasion.  Certain noises, unfortunately present in everyday life, make us want to do bad things to total strangers, like throw a brick through the windshield of a car whose alarm is going off for no damned reason at all.

Take, for example, a lovely Sunday afternoon in Antigua, Guatemala exploring the ruined portion of a cathedral.  There is a working church on the site, and followers are praying and chanting and singing in the Sunday mass, and a breeze is picking up the ash dumped by Fuego days ago and shaping it into churlish clouds.  Fractured baroque architecture hangs above, incomplete and covered in soot and dust, and absolute lovely for everything it was and is no longer.

16466362860_6bd189e860_z

Antigua, Guatemala, 2015 © JL Colomb

There are birds, and worshippers, and ruins and the moment is one to fold up and put into a tin of memories.  Until a freaking car alarm goes off.  And continues to go off.  Not for a little while, but for the next 20 minutes. 

The spell is broken.  We speed through the fetishes and votives, and flee from the jarring WAH WAH WAH of the car alarm, which we discover is attached to a new Black Mercedes parked in a handicapped spot though there are no plates or papers or placards denoting a need for handicapped accessibility of any kind.  What’s worse, is that the doors of the church have been open during the entire mass and the car is parked not 50 feet away directly in front of them. 

No one comes out.  No one has made a move to turn off their screeching car alarm even though, one could surmise, the owner of the car is sitting right there.

Another example lurks within the walls of our own home.  Suspect No. 1: the microwave.  Why does a microwave have to yell when it’s done?  We live in the age of advancing technology, of coding geniuses.  Why can’t we have chimes, or our favorite song, or how about a simple text message to say ‘hey, I made something for you and you might want to get it out of my belly and into your belly now’?  Why does it have to beep that jarring beep better suited for a real emergency, like fire or smoke?  And it’s not just one beep.  Four, or if you’re unlucky five, angry trill declarations will resound upon completion of the warming task.  The frequency of the beep is not the only thing that drives us crazy, it’s the pitch, too. [Aside: there was a New York Times article about what sound drives people crazy. A certain kind of baby cry, and a specific cat yowl had an equitable effect on helping people lose their rationale minds.]

Our coffee maker announces itself in this same attention seeking way.  It beeps when it’s finished brewing, and again three hours later when it decides the coffee in the thermal carafe is no longer drinkable.

I do understand these features, particularly on kitchen appliances, are desirable for some people.  I yield; however, a little extra engineering would give the rest of us an option to be free from beeping.

But now, one of my biggest nail-biting, head banging, ear gouging stimulus: lip-smacking, openmouthed chewing.  This, more than car alarms, microwaves and coffee makers, makes me want to navigate the world with my ears stuffed with wax. 

Other people don’t have the same sensitivity to this, and for the longest time I thought I was the crazy weirdo with super hearing.  As it turns out, I’m probably only misophonic.  Yep. Thanks to another New York Times article, I have diagnosed myself with this syndrome, which is so pervasive it is actually a syndrome with its own name.  Selective sound sensitivity syndrome (i.e. misophonia) is suspected when a person (like me) has an acute negative emotional response to specific stimuli.  The sounds of eating and fidgeting are popular triggers. The response? Annoyance, irritation and on the other end of the spectrum, actionable anger (the term sounded more pleasant than rage) and panic attacks.  I wonder if Hieronymus Bosch was afflicted by something like this.

We are impacted by the noises in our environment.  Car horns and alarms, speeding engines and squealing tires, arguments and anger.  And what do these sounds, or the sounds of gun shots, bombs, or the cries of someone in pain do to us? These frequencies ripple through our world.  They reshape us in the moment, and sometimes beyond.  We become to attuned to them; we bend to their peaks and troughs. From this perspective, consider the importance of silence.  Consider the critical nature of laughter, music, the sounds of the wind and birds and rain, and the joy the voice holds when we discover and wonder at something.

8013404302_67aef6de48_z

Civica Jazz Band, Milano 2012 © JL Colomb

hangry in Antigua

As my boyfriend and I walked down the cobblestone streets and alleys of the ancient capitol of Guatemala, a dusty, colorful and quaint remnant of Spanish colonialism, I grew quiet.  Everything around me faded as if the world beyond a five-foot diameter was an undefined white miasma.

Then I blurted out: “Just to let you know, I’m going to need to eat in the next five minutes.”

The ‘oh-shit’ look transformed his features as we embarked on a not so pleasant adventure to find the closest eatery that had: 1) food; 2) vegetarian options that wouldn’t cause vomiting or severe intestinal cramping; and 3) had a chance of being delicious and heathly.

Here’s the confession:  I am one of those people. You know the kind. The ones who go from 0 to scary in five minutes if they don’t receive immediate nourishment.

It’s embarassing, and causes its share of problems. As my boyfriend has pointed out, food is the source of 95% of our arguments.  Considering we don’t fight often, that’s  significant.

So what is it that drives me to become the explosive ice queen whenever I get hungry?  Or ‘hangry’ as some people call it.

As it turns out, there’s a science-backed answer in the giant morass of the great intergalactic library called the Internet.

That’s right … Science is on my side.  (And my physiology is to blame.)

Hungry is an emotion

Some things are happening in your body when you get hungry.  The concentration of glucose in your blood is depleting. Once it achieves a certain level (from 3.8 to 2.8 mmol/L), your brain, which survives on glucose, initiates a desparate cry for help.  A progressive SOS goes out to the pituitary gland, pancreas, and adrenal glands who in turn respond by releasing growth hormone, glucagon, and adrenaline and cortisol, respectively.  The body releases these hormones in stages.  Early stages are supposed to trigger glucogenesis, a process whereby the body converts amino acids into glucose so that your greedy, gluttonous brain doesn’t have to stop bingeing.  Adrenaline and cortisol come into play when the glucose levels further drop.

Being low on glucose is a bit like being drunk.  Muddled thoughts, slurred speech, and difficulty concentrating are some typical symptoms.  Being really low on glucose is dangerous, and can lead to seizures, coma and death.  Seriously.

The link between adrenal, cortisol and anger seems obvious, however it’s not the only thing driving this irrational behavioral response.  You know how genes provide the basis for our programming.  Well, the one controlling hunger also controls anger. Neuropeptide Y (benign name for such an implement of destruction) is found to be significantly elevated in the cerebral spinal fluid of some lucky individuals, together with a higher incidence of the Y1 receptor. [ASIDE: Neuropeptide Y, like many things in the body, has  different functions, and can induce various responses to diverse stimuli.  For example, it plays a role in obesity, aids in dealing with PTSD, enhances performance under stress, and may provide protection against alcoholism.]

Is anger ever a good thing? 

Evolutionarily speaking (because who doesn’t like gazing back on those knuckle dragging days with misty-eyed nostalgia) increased aggression while hungry probably served a very important biological function… like making sure you beat out the competition and didn’t die of starvation.

As it turns out, my irritating habit of losing my rationale mind when I get hungry may have been beneficial in some kind of yesteryear.  I imagine my ancient self racing across a muddy savannah, flecks of earth sailing through the air like miniature bombs against the smoke-filled sky.  Spear in hand.  Prey trying to escape me, but turning its sharp tusks at me once I finally corner it.

*sigh*

It’s no excuse, nor is it fair to my amazing friends and family to become she-hulk when my blood sugar drops.  How do I combat evolutionary biology?  I haven’t quite figured that out yet.  Some basic tricks are always having a healthy snack on hand, no matter where on the planet I am.  Maintaining blood sugar levels requires a bit of vigilence, as well as a deeper knowledge of our own internal bio-rhythms.

Perhaps the main thing is to remember a moment of hanger is temporary, and to stay grateful for my boyfriend, who is so patience with me, and keeps an internal map of all the closest eateries.

A word on ɛmpəθɪ

I had big plans for the weekend, and so much enthusiasm for the day that I practically leapt out of bed and started tending to the items on my list. By midmorning, I was facedown on the living room floor, unable to move, let alone proofread my manuscript or drive to the property management office for our appointed meeting.

Each time I tried to do anything, all the muscles in my back would tighten in a vise-grip around my spine and render me immobile. Simple tasks became arduous endeavors, something akin to scaling the slopes of Denali.

This episode of debilitating back pain reminded me of a man I had scene in the waiting room of a medical office almost ten years ago. He was a giant of a man, maybe 6’7″ tall, weighing 300 lbs. Under normal circumstances, he seemed to be the type who would have been jovial, laughing from his belly and enticing everyone to join him. When I encountered him that day, he was rigid with pain. Every movement left him gasping, and near crying.  He looked at me, eyes glazed yet sharp at the same time.  “I just want it to stop,” he said.

That man has been in my thoughts since Saturday.  I feel like I understand him and that moment in his life so much better now that I have the slightest taste of what he was going through.

It brings me to this question: can we be truly empathic to what someone else is going through without having analogous experiences?


/ˈɛmpəθɪ/ (noun)
1. the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings
2. the attribution to an object, such as a work of art, of one’s own emotional or intellectual
feelings about it
Derived Forms: empathist, noun
Word Origin: from Greek empatheia affection, passion, intended as a rendering of German
Einfühlung, literally: a feeling in; see en- ², -pathy
     -from dictionary.com

VS.

/ˈsɪmpəθɪ/  (noun) (pl-thies
1. the sharing of another’s emotions, esp of sorrow or anguish; pity;compassion
2. an affinity or harmony, usually of feelings or interests, between persons or things: to be in
sympathy with someone
3. mutual affection or understanding arising from such a relationship; congeniality
Word Origin:  1570s, “affinity between certain things,” from Middle French sympathiefrom Late Latin
sympathia “community of feeling, sympathy,” from Greek sympatheiafrom sympathes
“having a fellow feeling, affected by like-feelings,” from syn- “together” (see syn- )
pathos “feeling” (see pathos).
      In English, almost a magical notion at first; e.g. in reference to medicines that heal wounds
when applied to a cloth stained with blood from the wound.
Meaning “conformity of feelings” is from 1590s; sense of
“fellow feeling” is first attested 1660s. An Old English loan-translation
 of sympathy was efensargung.
     -from dictionary.com


I realize the concept of empathy is a rather modern one, not yet celebrating its sesquicentennial.  For me, it is distinct from sympathy in that the observer tries to step inside the skin of the observed, and understand that person’s / entity’s experience from the inside out. In this life where our cities work to anonymize us, and some of our relationships are disconnected and superficial, being empathic maybe makes us a little more human, and a little less animal or viral meme.

Right now, as I try to imagine sitting up straight without doubling over, I have a much different perspective on that man in the waiting room and other people who are suffering from chronic pain.

For a wee more on empathy:
–  Stanford Encyclopedia on Philosophy
–  The Introduction of the Word “Empathy’ into English

(sent from the healing waters of my bathtub.  thank you wordpress app)

sometimes i do cry over spilt milk

Has it ever happened to you?  Feeling dreary and glum and no matter what you seem to do, you’re always left in a state of dissatisfaction at the result.  Your milk has gone 1% sour, and you overcooked your eggs by 5%, despite your punishing exactitude.  Your face isn’t quite right, and your body is all wrong.  It’s almost as if you’re wearing a suit, which covers you, from the tippy top of your head to the soles of your feet.  The zipper seems to have disappeared, and you can’t step out of this version of yourself.  Drinking glasses slip through your hands and shatter on the counter, throwing a cascade of shards onto your leftovers.  The work project that is supposed to be simple becomes a nightmare.

I had one of these weeks recently, when everything (from my perspective) went wrong and I didn’t feel  right.  My natural response was to draw the shades between me and the world, have a “good cry”,  and become quiet and still.  As prepared as I was to wallow in my own misery—which I know is ludicrous juxtaposed against all of the real problems in the world, but nonetheless—I realized my state was not entirely unique.  In fact it occurs with some degree of regularity.

In other words, I was moulting.

According to the illustrious reservoir of knowledge of our time (perhaps not the galactic library, but at least a global one), mammals, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians and birds all go through a moulting process.  They shed sheaths of old dead skin in some cases.  In others, cuticles (e.g. crab shells, and the like) are cast aside during periods of growth.  With birds its feathers, and fur for cats and dogs.  Goodbye scars and damaged tissue; goodbye phantom limbs and hello beautiful new claw.

Moulting is a powerful process triggered by adaptation from either external (e.g. seasonal) or internal (i.e. growth) stimuli, and is cyclical.  It is a visible manifestation of regeneration and transformation.  And it is exactly what I was going through.

it's messy

it’s messy (photo and text by JL Colomb)

This wasn’t an orderly intentional transformation, like putting together New Year’s goals or getting a make over. It was messy, and involved questioning.  Questioning my reactions to specific situations, the real source of my angst; questioning my path, and how I treat myself and others.  My eyes had to be covered with a thick slough of skin, and my sensitivities heightened so I could see what needed to change.

After a night of sulking, and a day of quiet contemplation, I decided a few things:

– This is temporary;
– All I can do is the very best I can do;
– Life requires balance;
– The most important things to me are my relationships and my art.  Everything else requires perspective; and
– Even though it can be painful, ‘letting go of that which no longer serves you’ (I heard this at a yoga class and love the concept), and accepting change and guiding it toward a transformative outcome is cathartic and revitalizing.

While you can cry over spilt milk, you can’t see out of a dirty windshield.

Go. Moult.

Snake Skin, Mojave Desert

Snake Skin, Mojave Desert (photo by JL Colomb)