The skies have cleared in Missoula and I’ve been running again. It feels so good. I went on a few runs in the particulate thickened air, and didn’t realize how bad it felt—how hard it was to keep moving and breathing—until I had a taste of clarity.
The skies gradually and intermittently cleared, but we basically went from smoke to snow in a single day after breaking a record of forty-two precipitation free days. And as I always say: strike while the iron is hot.
My body hurt from a month of inactivity, and I went from a month of maxing out with three slow walk-jog miles to running five. I tallied those miles in the woods, with my phone in my pocket to count the miles, but my headphones left behind. How nice, right? The woods….the solitude…the longish run…the meditation of feet hitting dirt and breath going in and out.
My motives were not pure, though, and my sedentary-too-long body could have used a little Katy Perry pick-me-up. Except that it wasn’t on the menu. The fact is I’m terribly scared of being in the thick trees alone. I prefer the open hillsides where you can see for miles, and the only wildlife hazards are harmless snakes crossing the trail and making sure the dogs don’t chase white-tails.
I think it’s good to go to the places that scare you, especially if they aren’t very scary, but sometimes even if (and because) they are. American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron wrote: “A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. ”
Look directly. What an idea.
I am not scared when I’m in the woods with friends, and most of that is attributed to the fact that when I’m with even one friend we yack it up so consistently that we’re not liable to startle a bear, and are far more likely to scare the wildlife than be scared by them. All bets are off when I’m alone in the thick trees. I hear things so little, so big, so not even there.
Birds flushing out of the brush or a chipmunk snapping a twig can freeze my blood when I’m alone. The hairs on my body stand up and my muscles lurch to a stop. What happens next is that I’m embarrassed. There is nothing to be afraid of. Birds and chipmunks? Really? “Pull it together,” I tell myself. Then there are the facts: these woods are home to bears, wolves, and mountain lions. There are things to be afraid of, but not so much so that I can’t put one foot in front of the other.
There’s another aspect to this madness. I forget to carry bear spray. Always. Actually, I forget to buy it, which is just downright silly because there are plenty of things, like these Frye boots, that I would never “forget” to buy. I also forget to put a bell on Lucky so the jingle can frighten off bears and so I know, when I hear the cracking, rustling sounds that lead to my bristling, that it’s just the dog exploring.
We humans seem to avoid doing the things that we know will help us. Ok, I can’t speak for you, but I know this human often makes things more punishing than they need to be.
Sometimes a perspective shift is all that is needed. Instead of seeing the shadows you can see the sunlight. Illumination makes everything less scary. Go ahead, shine a light into all the dark corners.
What about when you can’t see? There is a sweet, tree lined country lane that bends a hundred yards ahead of you. Instead of fearing what is around the corner, you can rest assured that there’s no way to know what’s on the other side unless you go there. You can stall out, or you can go.
The places that scare you can be external—woods, public speaking, pages of a book, standing up on a surfboard with your rash guard hiked above your belly—or they can be of a far graver version: they can be internal. (For what it’s worth you can shine light into those dark corners too…)
A hill rises before you. It’s a mile long and you’re not sure you can make it up the grade. You might have to walk and would that be so bad? You think it might be “that bad,” but what would be worse: going and having to walk, or not going and not knowing?
You can focus on what you might not achieve, or you can take it one step at a time, or until your favorite song is over, or until you reach that fence or that tree, or maybe, god willing, the top. The thing is: you will not know unless you try.
Today: go to a place that scares you.