Hiking as a Metaphor for Life: Learn, Earn, Return

Hiking is the perfect teacher for understanding a life well lived. Each hike begins with enthusiasm and naivete` about what lies ahead. For those first few steps, one is filled with energy and the hope of discovery.

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Trail descriptions never match reality, much like one’s plans for the future. Soon the trail turns rocky and muddy, slick and slippery with gnarly roots grabbing at your feet. As the mountain looms off in the distance, peeking over the tops of impossibly high-trees, the trail now steepens. Legs strain, lungs work to keep up with the higher oxygen demand, and the heart pounds in your chest. One’s thoughts turn to self-recriminations, questioning your decision to follow this desolate, lonely, and painful trail.

After willing oneself onward, a slow, almost imperceptible change takes place. The heart adjusts, the legs find a rhythm, and the trail effort takes a less severe toll. This is the learning time. You come to understand a slow, steady pace, ever forward, with the occasional rest, is the way ahead.

You put trail miles onto your boots and hike on.

On the peaks of New Hampshire’s mountains, the dreaded Whites so infamous to those who hike the Appalachian Trail, it is the last mile that tests a hiker’s mettle. For some peaks, there is a 100, 500, or 1000-yard scramble over boulders as you pull and push yourself, ignoring your screaming leg muscles and pounding chest.

For those who harbor a fear of heights (why are you hiking?) there is the added terror of looking back down over boulders that would hardly notice your tumbling body, should you lose your balance and bounce down the mountain.

But you carry on. Any goal worth pursuing comes with doubt, difficulties, and despair. To succeed on a hike, as in life, you must accept that nothing is easy. Also, understand there are no insurmountable obstacles unless you convince yourself to give up.

Just when it seems you cannot take another step, the trail levels out, the view opens up, and the pain and sweat of the effort fade from your thoughts.

To stand where only your feet can take you. To look down on the immense beauty of the forest, rivers, valleys, and mountains of New Hampshire, Tennessee, Virginia, or any place in the world is to achieve a measure of success.

This is the earning level. Your efforts to climb the mountain, like your efforts to achieve something in life, offer a reward. During the hike, you learn. Summiting the peak, you earn. But, the lesson of the mountain is not over yet.

After enjoying the moment on the peak, you must complete the journey. Hiking down a mountain has its own challenges. You’re tired, aching, and looking forward to a rest. Yet, on the way down an opportunity opens to encourage those you meet on their own way up.

Here is the part where you return to others what you’ve learned and earned.

A simple, “you’re almost there,” “the view is worth it,” “keep going, you’ll make it,” can offer so much to those still making their way on the trail, and through life.

When you reach the end of the trail, you’ll understand, in a microcosm, what a successful life is. Hiking a mountain, as in life, you learn, you earn, and you return. That is as it should be.

At the end of your last trail, if you can say you followed those simple rules, you’ll have lived a full life.

Nature: The Ultimate Entertainment

I had the opportunity to walk through the old Rocky Point Amusement Park grounds the other day. The last time I walked this area I was likely 9 or 10 years old. The nostalgia for the lost rides, shore dinner hall, hotdogs, and cotton candy, of course, came flooding back.

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Some of the supports for the gondola ride stood rusting in the sun. Wrapped with the vines that will ultimately bring them crashing down, they will return to the earth over which they once stood.

Humans are great at building temporary things. Our intelligence and skills take the elements of the earth and converts them into towering monuments to our abilities. Yet, given adequate time through the unending process of living organisms, the earth will reclaim each of these.

Humans must work to maintain the things we build. The earth just has to continue on, patiently waiting for us to abandon these things as we so often do to once again reign supreme.

The 10-year-old me would lament the loss of the merry-go-round, the games, the Ferris wheel (named after its designer George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.), tilt-a-whirl, and myriad other rides. The memories of outings to places like Rocky Point, Lincoln Park, and Crescent Park invoke such powerful memories.

Although they pale when compared to the magic of the Magic Kingdom, my memories of these places keep a warm place in my heart. I think I prefer them to what Disney has become, although I suppose each generation feels the same of the origins of their childhood memories.

I wonder if Walt Disney himself would regret the destruction of the natural vistas to create artificial worlds filled with people losing their appreciation of this planet?

The half-a-century older me is glad the area is slowly returning to its natural state. It is a sign that we do have the potential to make sound decisions in our care of this planet when we chose to leave nature to itself.

Building ticky-tacky little houses all looking the same as we paved paradise would have made someone wealthy in the short run. (Aren’t you glad I put those songs playing in your head so you will hear them all day?) This Earth would still wait patiently for the moment to send out that first shoot of a vine or tree.

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A shoot that would begin the inexorable process of taking back to the earth what man foolishly believes he has stolen for himself.

I for one am glad the vines and trees are tearing down the metal poles, reopening the vista of Narragansett Bay and the endless variations of nature’s bounty. While the view from a Ferris wheel can awaken the imagination of a young boy and create a lifelong memory, to embrace and appreciate nature creates joy for a lifetime.

The Inconvenience of Death

As a writer, I often cannot control the voices in my head. They run Helter-Skelter from one thought to another. When one strives to write, you often find yourself more a spectator or passenger. Rare to have any control at all.

It was thus that, amid writing a piece for a weekly blog called the Heretic and the Holy Man, I started thinking about how inconvenient most deaths are.

It is not often that a death occurs without interrupting someone’s plans, altering the course of one or more days, or disrupting the general pattern of living. This is never inconvenient for the deceased. His part is over. The inconvenience, no matter how unintentional, is with those left behind. My parents taught me to be considerate of others, I thought it appropriate that I leave a message for those who survive me.

I do not want to cause any inconvenience.

Now, do not read anything into this. I have not received any dire medical news, I am not clinically depressed, I have no omens of my death, I just do not want to inconvenience anyone once I do leave this mortal coil.

I have a goal for a long life. I plan to be in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest living human. If successful, I will achieve this goal sometime in the year 2079. The current record is a French woman who lived to be 122 years and 194 days.

Even that may not be long enough to read all the books on my Kindle or work on the thousands of ideas I have for stories to write.

I have often said I want to die on my birthday, for no particular reason other than symmetry. If I achieve both goals my memorial will read;

Born July 25, 1956
Died July 25, 2079

It’s good to have a goal, but I also know reality may intrude. In the event I don’t beat the odds, no matter how unlikely, I’d like to leave some rules behind for family and friends after my death.

1.           If you are on a Caribbean beach when you hear the news, DO NOT LEAVE. There is no need to rush home. I am already dead. (A more important point is, if you are on a Caribbean Beach WHY are you getting messages?)  Order another drink, lie in the sun, and enjoy life.

2.           If you are at work when the news arrives. Notify a co-worker that you have to leave immediately. Tears would be helpful in convincing them of the urgency. Then, fly to a Caribbean Beach and refer to #1.

3.           If you are at home and the news arrives, there is no need to change whatever plans you might have. Since the instigating incident (Mortem meam, my death for those of you who didn’t benefit from five years of Latin) is a fait accompli, there is nothing you can do about it. Go out to dinner, meet with your remaining living friends, go on with life.

Dying is an inconvenient aspect of life. It rarely occurs with any consideration for the living. Sometimes death poses a threat to others. If it occurs, say, while you are driving a car or school bus (just picture the look on all those little faces as the bus careens along without a living operator.)

It would seem if intelligent design was responsible for our existence, there is a design flaw.

Death should always occur during sleep, preferably while sleeping alone or  when your sleeping companion is already awake (but hasn’t started breakfast, no need to waste food.)

Death comes with the timing of an uncontrollable fart in polite company. It sneaks up on you, rudely announces its presence, and then you begin to stink.

Our world of instant communication complicates the problem. Between Tweets and Facebook and Instagram the last breath has barely escaped and notices are flying around the world.  It was better when it took years for the news to spread, less intrusive to life.

Here’s another of those random thoughts. Someone needs to come up with an icon for a Facebook status of croaked.  But I digress. (The voices just won’t stop.)

So as a favor to the (at the moment) still living me, take this request to heart. To those of you whom, in some small measure, I have made your life more enjoyable, continue to enjoy that life. Altering plans due to an inevitable element of existence makes little sense. Mourn if you must, but do it for the briefest of moments.

There’s no time to waste. Everyone’s death is imminent in a relative sort of way.

Embrace the living, walk in the rain, lay on a Caribbean beach absorbing the warm sun. The most touching thing you can do to remember those who are no longer here to share life is embracing your own.

In mortem, et finem. In vitae, spem. (You’re still alive. Look it up.)

Appreciating the Magic of Memory

Most people misunderstand how memory works. We think of it as a recording of our daily lives. It is not. It is a compendium of images, sounds, smells, and tastes; voices, conversations, laughter, and feelings; moments of ecstasy and sorrow, joy and tears, the common and the unique.

We don’t record our memories, we ingest them. They become the spark that lights up the synapses and neurons of our brain.

It is why the smell of freshly mowed grass sparks a memory of Little League baseball game from long ago.

It is why the sight of a school bus triggers the echoes of a loud end-of-school song sung endlessly home on the last day of fourth grade.

It is how the taste of cranberry sauce ignites the memory of a conversation with a long dead grandfather.

It is why we recall all the words of a song we haven’t heard in years when we see the ocean.

It is how we remember voices of friends and the experiences we shared.

Our memories aren’t part of us. Our memories are us. They make us what we are today and how we will change tomorrow.

It is one of the things which defines our individuality. Even those seemingly shared experiences; first love, graduation, flying on a plane, catching the final out of a championship game are seen in our own unique way.

I had a moment today to lie in the grass with my daughter’s dog and just watch the clouds wink in and out of formation. Taking on shapes. Morphing into creatures or food or faces.

Something I recall doing often in my youth.

With all the distractions in the world, I do not think we take enough time to simply look up at the clouds. To watch a wind-blown spider web jump in and out of visibility. To see sunlight catching the needles of a pine tree, changing the hue through the whole spectrum of green.

When was the last time you took a moment to lie in the grass and look at the sky?

When was the last time you listened to the memories in your mind as they linked and jumped and danced in your brain?

When was the last time you took a moment to listen to yourself breath? Let the sun warm your face? Felt the breeze wash over you?

Don’t think you have time for such things? All too soon, you may find you were right.

Focusing on Death: Missing an Opportunity

It is the most common of human experiences, dealing with the death of a family member, friend, or others who affected your life.

I think we make a mistake when we focus on the tragedy of death. Death is one of two things every human being shares. Better that we come to accept this.

Since we all die, and none of us knows what the experience entails, I think we miss an opportunity to gain something positive from death.

It does not matter how one dies. The manner of death is like the weather, uncontrollable and unpredictable. Why rage against something so outside our ability to change?

What does matter is how one lived. Focusing on their death masks the real loss; the missed opportunities when they were alive. That is not to say we should not mourn, but we can give the natural state of mourning a purpose.

When someone dies, the living bear the loss. For those who have passed on, all opportunities are gone. The greatest lesson we can learn from someone’s death is to appreciate the living. To focus the time you have on things that really matter.

Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist and survivor of Auschwitz, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote that people could survive the most horrendous conditions if they have a reason to live. Focusing on things beyond their control is useless.

Frankl’s experience in the camps taught him this; the one thing that no one can take from you is your choice of how you respond to the course of your life.

This would include dealing with death.

Most of the things we focus on, the material things, are secondary to living. Finding meaning is the key to life. Meaning cannot come from death. Yet a reason to bring something more into your own life, and the life of others, can.

Death in inevitable. Raging against such a certainty is folly. Deriving something good from it is enpowering.

In the wake of someone’s death, we need to focus our efforts on finding meaning in our lives and to give meaning to those we hold dear.

Death should remind us to live, not waste time raging against it. The sadness that comes with someone dying lies not in mourning the death but in mourning the missed opportunities when they lived.

Sometimes our blind trudging through our day overshadows the days of our life. Often our focus on the things of this world, jobs, money, the accumulation of things, detours us from living. The things we accumulate are nothing but the dust of life. They are the flotsam and jetsam of existence.

Lost opportunities are what death so starkly points out. Therein lies the sadness, and hope.

Imagine the important, breathtaking moments of our lives are like the stars on a crisp dark night. The enormity of the vision is powerful and vibrant.

Now picture the stars on a bright sunny blue-sky day. They are all still there, still amazing. Yet we cannot see them. Blinded by what seems to be a beautiful day.

Such are the many things we do in our lives. They may bring us some sense of satisfaction, some sense of value. Give us some measure of self-worth. Nevertheless, when the light fades and the stars show themselves, those bright things of the day pale in comparison.

When someone dies, we should celebrate their life, learn from those missed opportunities, and resolve to embrace those moments still left to you.

Frankl also wrote, “Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.” Choosing to find meaning in our lives, through the things we do and the people we touch, is what matters.

There is no greater memorial to those who have died than embracing the living. To find meaning in our lives and to share that with others.

When I die, if those who remember me say that I learned to do just that. That I tried to embrace my time as best I could. That I found meaning in my life and shared it with others. Then that is a life worth celebrating. Death is simply part of the process. Rather than something we mourn, death should remind us to live.

 

Generational Perspective

Here is a bit of a perspective for my fellow members of the Cumberland High School Class of 1974.

In 1974:

The President of the United States was Richard Nixon, until August 9th, and then Gerald Ford after Nixon resigned due to the Watergate hearings. Ford pardoned Nixon. Both Ford and Nixon are dead

The Soviet Union was intact, armed with nuclear weapons, and still our sworn enemy. Alexei Nikolayevich Kosygin was the premier. He is dead

There were no cell phones, internet, or cable television

We landed on the moon for the first time 5 years before in 1969 and for the last time in 1972. Only 12 men have ever walked on the moon. We have not been back since nor do we have a real timeline for returning.

The Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst. She later joined them and participated in a series of bank robberies. She is now 61.

Muhammed Ali fought George Frazier in the Rumble in the Jungle. Ali is 73 Foreman is 66.

A gallon of gas was $.55

The speed limit was changed to 55 to conserve gasoline.

President Ford announced an amnesty for Vietnam War deserters and draft evaders.

The Kootenai Native American Tribe in Idaho declares war on the United States. It settled peacefully. The only time a war was declared and resolved without a shot being fired or anyone killed.

The World Population: 4 billion. (now 7 billion)

India successfully tests a nuclear weapon. They become the 6th Nuclear power. (There are 9 now, 15923 total estimated nuclear warheads in the world as of 2015)

The first MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is developed.

After 84 days in space, the American astronauts aboard Skylab return to earth.

A 3.2 million year-old hominid skeleton, 40% complete, is found in Ethiopia. She is named Lucy. Dr. Johanson, the paleontologist who found her, says he named her for the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

The pocket calculator goes on sale. (I got one as a graduation present, it cost my parents 84$)

Bar codes are used for the first time.

Salty Brine was still on WPRO announcing “No school, Foster Gloucester.”

Movies of 1974

The Sting, The Exorcist, Blazing Saddles (my favorite), Serpico, Death Wish

#1 Song of 1974

The Way We Were

Other songs:

Time in a Bottle, Hooked on a Feeling, Band on the Run, Can’t Get Enough of You Babe, Kung Fu Fighting

(How many of you sang these songs as you read them?)

1974 holds the record for the most #1 Billboard hits in one year, 35.

TV Shows:

Kojak, The Price is Right, The Six Million Dollar Man

Here’s one that may bring some of you to tears

Born in 1974:

Leonardo DiCaprio, Alanis Morrisette. Jimmy Fallon, Victoria Beckham

So why the walk down memory lane? The end of a year lends itself to a momentary review of things. A recap of the path of our lives. We have come a long way from 1974, some of those class members didn’t have the opportunity to reach 2015.

As time moves on, as the year changes from 2015 to 2016, as we all approach our 60th birthdays, I thought I would remind us of where were all those years ago, the events that shaped us, and, more importantly, get us all to make the most of the time we have left.

The reality of life is that most of us will not be around when a Cumberland High School Class of 2016 graduate writes a similar memoir of his or her graduation year. It is important for all of us to be mindful of today and use the time we have wisely.

I wish you all a very Happy New Year, I apologize for reminding those of you trying to ignore the significance of 2016 age-wise, and hope you all have many more memories yet to create and cherish.

 

Resolutions: The best intentions

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

There are few complete truths. One undeniable truth is that New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time. Either you will do something or you will not. Setting some arbitrary date for a change does not insure anything, or make it any more likely to succeed.

The money spent on unused gym memberships alone would come close to balancing the budget.

I do have one suggestion. A resolution well within the reach of everyone reading this. I concede there is a bit of a conflict in my method for suggesting this.

Some might say I’m being hypocritical. That my vehicle for delivery is a clear contradiction of my goal.

However, it is unavoidable. In fact, one might argue it underscores the need for such a resolution.

We have texts, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, email, instant messaging, Facetime, and others. We have social networking reminders of our memories from last year, the length of our ‘friendships’ on Facebook, and myriad other regurgitations of our online postings.

We consider 142 character messages profound and spelling does not count. As a matter of fact, spelling and grammar are a waste of the character count.

My entire early education wasted and made obsolete by an arbitrary limitation. While brevity is the soul of wit, somehow brvitisthsolofwit loses something in translation.

We are a society in the midst of a technology generated evolutionary curvature of our spines. Soon, humans may be like the flatfish. Our eyes migrating down our face. A better view of the screens on our devices.

So here is my idea, instead of TBT let’s have a TFD-Technology-Free Day.

A whole day (or more if you are so inclined) without email, text, cellphones, or any of the other “advanced” communication technologies.

We could talk to each other. Hold a real book in our hand. Go for a walk and listen to nothing, or the sounds of the world.

We could just think.

Start slow if you like. Try to go an hour without. Work your way to two hours and so forth.

Set a goal. Mine is a whole day. No text, email, messaging, or other.

On the Appalachian Trail, we went days without Wi-Fi or cell service. I miss that. There existed an understated revulsion by most when we saw hikers wearing headphones. You are in the woods, listen to nature for goodness sake.

If you cannot go even one hour without your iPhone, iPad, Android, Laptop, or Facebook, that should give you pause. The world will survive for a day with you out of communication.

So read this, pick a day, and go for it. If I do not hear from you, I will just assume you “like” it.

I was Just Wondering

Did you ever wonder at what point you will realize you’re dead, or if there even is such a realization.

Some people see their imminent demise.

Some are looking in the opposite direction.

Some try everything to avoid the inevitable.

Some try to hasten it.

So what does one think about?

Regrets?

Joys?

Lost opportunities?

Successes?

Failures?

Vodka?

Or some combination thereof?

I believe it likely that most people in the “civilized” countries think,

“Now?”

“Really?”

“I just (fill in the blank)”

or

“But I just got (fill in the blank again)”.

And most people in those “third-world” areas think

“Finally”

I would like to die on my birthday. Not a specific birthday, preferably one in the distant future.

And not to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It would also make the Date of Birth and Date of Death symmetrical, at least the first two designators.

I would like this for no reason other than it allows me to live 364 days a year without considering Death in my daily list concerns.

No fear of not waking up, being trampled, struck by lightning, head ballet on a windshield, infections, heart attacks, shark attacks, bears, alligators, spider bites, food poisoning, or the several billion other ways to die.

Why do I suggest there are billions of ways?

Every person who ever lived, did, and every person alive, will. It is a reasonable conclusion that, absent evidence to the contrary, regardless how long life expectancy increases, everyone yet to be born, will as well.

If everyone died at the moment I finished this sentence it would be 7,023,088,208 deaths (June 29, 2012 21:05 UTC). All would be unique in time and space (well in space at least).

While there may be general similarities, accidental or on purpose, personal or random, public or private, each will be different.

The difference, other than the mechanics of death, is some are celebrated, some are mourned, some are ignored, and a very few are remembered.

Unfortunately, we tend to remember the death of those who embodied evil, rather than those who died at the hands of the evil.

So, if all goes well. I can write another 26 days worth of blogs, pause for 24 hours on July 25, just in case, and resume for another year.

Or I could write on the 25th, assuming I wake up, and hopefully it won’t end like thi……………………………..

Requiesecat in Pace