Here we are between the holidays and new year, a week that I hope is vacation-like for you. Perhaps you’re planning projects and setting specific goals for the new year. I am too, but rather than write about new year’s resolutions, I decided instead to describe an ongoing psychological issue and intent that is not quantifiable and probably will be something to work on the rest of my life.
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For the second time in my life, I tried ice climbing. On Monday, my husband, daughter, and I met a guide at a lesser-known nook in a canyon near Telluride, where a short trail leads to a natural waterfall frozen into a massive curtain of bulging and glimmering bluish-white ice.
I felt much more confident and adept than when I first did it a year ago. I kicked the crampons and swung the picks to scale the ice with more determination and fluidity than a timid total beginner. Making methodical progress up the frozen wall, and studying the up-close details of the ice formation to get a grip on it, felt strangely satisfying and so different from my usual activity of running.
Everything slowed. My body moved upward instead of forward. My arms worked as purposefully as my legs. My mental chatter quieted as I focused entirely on choosing the next spot to make the ice pick or the crampons hold.
But when I reached the top, that confidence and mindfulness evaporated. On the edge several stories high, I had to lean back and rappel, fully trusting the top anchor and the guide’s rope management. This is supposed to be the fun and easy part. Instead, I shrieked—uncontrollable yelps of fear and shouts of “Oh, Jesus!”—and resisted leaning back and letting go. It took a ridiculous amount of coaxing and reassurance from the guide to get me to transfer more of my weight onto the rope and push off with my legs to lower down.
I could have reacted completely differently. I could have countered the inner fear of the falling sensation by telling myself, “This is fucking awesome!” and audibly let loose a “wheee!” instead of a shriek.
This was only one of several times recently when I struggled to loosen my grip (mentally and literally) and relinquish control, to chill out, and to try to view the situation with enthusiasm and appreciation rather than anxiety.
For example, when we skied on Christmas morning, I hooked my right arm behind the back of the lift’s chair and gripped tight, as I always do, to feel secure and prevent falling out. This may seem silly, especially since we could use the safety bar, but my husband legitimized my fear when I watched him fall a short ways off the icy bench of the chair lift. He had scooched his butt to wipe away some ice and accidentally slipped off right after sitting down, thus falling about a foot and landing next to the base of the lift. The kids and he thought it was hilarious, but I couldn’t stop imagining one of us falling like that midway up the slope. Rattled, I stayed tense and on high alert, rather than relaxing and absorbing the beauty in the details of the setting.
Imaginary worst-case scenarios also kept me from fully enjoying a bonfire party we threw last Wednesday for the winter solstice. We had hired some local guys who run an arborist business to fell and buck numerous dead or dying aspen trunks from the forest. They transported the long logs to a clearing where they built a two-story-high pile shaped like a teepee.
I had figured on at least a foot of snow surrounding the pile, but the snow layer was only a couple of inches thick last week. Patches of tall, dry meadow grass sprouted through it. Morgan used our weed-whacker to mow much of the tall grass surrounding the pile, but still, I worried about the fire risk and a forecast for high winds. Would a bonfire be dangerous and irresponsible?
We got our longest hose and attached it to a faucet on the side of the house, ready to put out spot fires. I also placed a couple of fire extinguishers and shovels near the fire to extinguish out-of-control sparks. Fortunately, the sky stayed calm with only a light breeze, and two guests who work as volunteer firefighters told me the fire was plenty safe.
I stood by the intense heat of the flames and tried to release not just fear of the fire, but all the worries and sadness from the year. Watching the flames grow and dance toward the sky, I wanted to embrace the promise of fresh starts and more light that the solstice represents, but I didn’t fully succeed. I kept feeling there was something I was supposed to do—either monitor the fire, check the appetizers, or greet the late arrivals—instead of just being there and letting the fire and party run its course on its own, which would’ve been fine. I regret not being better able to simply observe and appreciate the awe-inspiring fire and engage with the company of those who gathered.
I’d like to let go of the tension from micromanaging, along with the visions of bad things happening, to be more of an observer in each moment and less of a controller. It’s all related to the practice of mindfulness, and it’s something I know takes effort. I need to practice letting go of worry about what-if’s and worst-case scenarios, along with letting go of regrets about past actions.
Yesterday, while flying from Montrose to Denver to LA, I had a chance to practice letting go, and going with the flow, while trying to be more present. I flew to LA with my daughter for a few days to help her pack and move to new housing.
All kinds of things during travel triggered me—the three-times-as-long-as-usual check-in and security lines at the regional airport; the delayed first flight that reduced our connection in Denver to about 20 minutes; the atmospheric river of moisture and wind that made the completely full plane jolt and shudder from turbulence; and the rental car lot that had run out of the kind of four-door sedan I had reserved, so we had to take a two-door sports car that’s not practical for moving boxes.
With each stress trigger, I took deep belly breaths, tried to act cool about the situation, and tried to model equanimity and positivity for my daughter. I told her it’s fine, we’ll make our connection and our luggage will too, and I showed her the news stories online about how much the Southwest Airlines passengers are suffering from cancelled flights and lost luggage. Things can always be so much worse.
When the plane violently shook with turbulence and I toyed with the idea of it falling from the sky, I looked at my daughter seated next to me and watched her sketch a design on her iPad, the stylus operating as an extension of her fingers and creative brain as she rapidly chose colors and drew lines and curves to develop a captivating image of a woman walking with a handbag slung over her shoulder. She was totally absorbed in her work project, developing an image to market the handbag she had made.
As I shifted my focus from imagining airplane catastrophes to observing my daughter’s sketching and marveling at the presence of my baby all grown up, I felt my shoulders and jaw relax. Whatever happens, I can be dazzled by this time with her right now.
When running long distances, I always tell myself and the clients I used to coach, “be in the mile you’re in.” Especially during ultras. Don’t ruminate about the miles past and troubles that may have occurred, such as a bruising fall or a wrong turn. Don’t dwell on all the miles still to come. Just settle into this mile and make the most of it.
Take what the trail gives you is the main advice in my book’s first chapter, meaning: if the trail gives you a smooth, runnable segment, then stride out and revel in the run. If the trail transitions to steep, technical footing, then adjust your pace and make peace with the vert and the tripping hazards. If the trail devolves into a muddy morass, then trudge through and try to keep your sense of humor. Work with the trail, don’t fight it, and never forget that being out there is a gift and privilege.
Running isn’t a substitute for a good therapist (I know because I went through a few years of counseling earlier in life and learned about cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness). Running also isn’t the same as meditation. And yet, I use running like self-therapy and active meditation to work through stress or other negative feelings, and to develop psychological traits including mindfulness that nurture happiness and peace of mind. This running-therapy always is a work in progress that takes effort, yet I almost always finish a run feeling better, and the ripple effect improves non-running hours in the day. This, perhaps more than any other reason, is why I’ve been hooked on running for more than half my life.
During that moment descending the ice wall, or those moments riding the chair lift or standing next to the bonfire, I could have done what I did on the airplane: let go of the fear and worry, and replace the negative thoughts by observing what’s right next to or in front of me. Chances are, whatever it is, on some level it’s beautiful or impressive or in some way deserving of gratitude, love, and respect. Or, at the very least, it’s interesting in its own way.
This train of thought reminds me of a classic new-year’s essay, now more than a decade old, by Brendan Leonard, about practicing maximum enthusiasm. It reads in part:
“I urge you to notice when something is awesome, as it often is, and exclaim or murmur or just make a mental note of it. Isn’t it just goddamn fantastic that you have your health, for example? Or running water, or electricity? Or that you have enough money to actually pay someone else to make you a cup of coffee? … Your life, even the bad parts, is fucking amazing. And most of the small things that make up your life are amazing, too—mountain bike rides, rock climbs, ski runs, sunsets, stars, friends, people, girlfriends and boyfriends, dogs, songs, movies, jokes, smiles … hell, even that burrito you ate for lunch today was pretty phenomenal, wasn’t it?”
With that in mind, I’m going to spend the next 72 hours practicing maximum enthusiasm here in Los Angeles, focused on packing and cleaning my daughter’s apartment while she goes to work. I’ll try not to worry that the new place is still dusty and unfinished due to ongoing renovation. Isn’t it phenomenal that I have her as a daughter and she has housing and a job and her health and it’s raining in dry LA?
When the enthusiasm starts to wear thin, I’ll take a break and go for a run by the beach, really looking at the shoreline and experiencing awe of the ocean before returning to the snow.
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This renovated so much. Thanks for sharing ♥️
Thank you for these reminders. It really is an ongoing practice to be where you are. I love the analogy of being in the mile you are in & I will carry these thoughts of welcoming 2023 with enthusiasm over the next few days. 🤗