On the grace and tyranny of mortality

I began to make friends with death early. My father was a climbing guide for Exum Mountain Guides in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. I remember crouching as a child in the lupine and Indian paintbrush on the short slope of Guides’ Hill and hearing the rescue helicopter coming down through the canyons, roaring over my head and off toward Jackson Hole and its trauma center, and knowing somehow that someone had died up in the mountains. Born into a mountaineering community, in my four year-old head were held simultaneously two truths — that people really died climbing, and that climbing was one of the right ways to live and die. Even a child could see the difference between tourists and the climbing men and women who boarded the Jenny Lake ferry — call it a glow, maybe, based on their confidence in skill and persistence, an indifference to fashion and a kind of odd gallantry.

Twelve years later mortality came to live with me, and moved in as my persistent roommate. At sixteen years old I was a member of the school advanced climbing team, and I came down early off of a scheduled climb of Mt. Hood, standing then on its lower slopes to watch, disbelieving, as a storm struck the peak that still held my friends, schoolmates and teachers. It took several long and horrible days to find them all, few by few, through the blizzard — both those who came out alive and nine classmates and teachers who died. For a long time afterward simply normal days became a mythical and hoped-for luxury. It was my turn to balance the glow against the loss – and inescapable pain against the importance of venturing out again and again toward my own limits.

There are pitfalls to following life in that glow because, held against loss, that glow is not enough by itself. I know this. I went down that road. My parents gave me a love of philosophy and of exploring the world. I’ve seen that when you travel you find amazing peak experiences, the skills and openness that gain you those experiences, and the love that you have been able to exchange in all its many forms. I pushed myself on limestone towers in Europe, against tides of the Pacific in sea kayaks and gathered languages to remove barriers to connection with anyone I wanted to be with. But if you’re not careful you can fall into a practice of collecting those peak experiences as if you could actually buttress them against further loss, further hurt. I tried that. Or, you can wake up one morning and find you have been substituting knee-jerk risk for emotional courage, and then you have to start from scratch down the road to openness and vulnerability and love again. I lived that morning, too.

Soon after that loss on Mt. Hood, I took up the badge of what I named Honoring — capital H. That by living a full and giving life, I could by that living honor the lives of my friends and teachers who were not going to live out the fullness of theirs. And, like seeking the glow, over the years the practice of honoring brought me to extraordinary experiences and skills and love. I valued and emulated the best qualities of my lost friends — generosity, creativity, hilarity, reverence and irreverence, honor and individuality. I started a non-emergency medical aviation non-profit, visited and studied and wrote about monasteries struggling through communism. I traveled in the world, taught university, led seagoing wilderness trips for kids of all ages.  I’ve jumped into love, built a family and farm over the years with a mischievous man, and I let bright wool and banjo strings spin through my fingertips. I breed individualistic sheep now as well as sunlit white doves that I hold in my palms and release for myself and for others. I sing.  As a consultant and coach and educator I am a catalyst for the changes that people want to create and the joyful claiming of leadership and fierce resilience. All of these satisfy in me the need to honor through my own living the lives of those who were lost.

And so, held against loss, is honoring enough? By itself, it isn’t either. With all its gifts and the good that grows from it, honoring is still at its heart reactive, and other-based. There were times that I charged down a path of creating an exceptional life, as if to show those around me that I wasn’t wasting this chance at life that I had been given. But this begged the question, that I needed to deserve to be still alive when others weren’t, that I needed to demonstrate to myself and anyone watching that I wasn’t squandering this second opportunity.  I’ve been here, too, deeply enough that I have woken wondering who I even am, who I’d be if I weren’t trying to prove, somehow, that I am earning the right to still be here, now, just breathing.

So where are we left then in navigating through this life — stories of survival and then joy in the face of loss, of pain? There are multitudes now trying to feel their way through this place to that place beyond trauma, many also heartbreakingly young. How are we going to support them, and ourselves? How to create and support a way of being that is beyond a coping mechanism, an effort to fix something broken; but rather, is based in what is possible? One that lives in the possibility of courage, connection, vulnerability. Peace. Joy. And all these sustained through time in the face of loss that will never stop coming home to us, even when we feel we have already borne something we thought we could not bear, or have already held more than a life’s fair share of pain.

The grace and the tyranny in a conscious awareness of mortality lie in this: that it is a beautiful magnifier of the details and choices you have made in your life, raising the stakes. If you choose the road of honoring, and I still do, then you must also take refuge in your particular glow, in the unique core of you and the joy in what only you can create out on the edge of your own life. The gift of the acknowledgement of your mortality is crystalline clarity about what is important in this life; what needs to exist in the world. And once you have determined that, you then make a moral practice of carefully examining and removing your protective skins, everything that separates you from the world and tells you that its problems are not yours, that it is not possible to make a difference, that you are not strong enough to share someone else’s pain, or to bear someone else’s judgment. Each instance that I have come to this, and peeled off another layer, I have been gifted with something. With love, with experience, or with presence. With self, with freedom from struggle, with the difference I have made for others. It is very often not a comfortable process. It can be hard for me, for us as humans, to let go of something that used to serve us well, that kept us “safe”. However, the magic lies in that place through and beyond moments of fear or discomfort, and each time I practice it I get to stand in this fresh place, unprotected, smiling, with nothing to prove. Free.  And I am whole now again.

It is freedom and humor and joy that lie on the other side of moments of courage. A high stakes life. Simple aliveness.  I choose this. As a community we choose this. The world needs us there, along with what we will create.

(singing) A long, long road, well it lies before us
And fate will lead me where it will
And through the valleys and over mountains
I will not forget, but remember you, still.

Seeing what is there.