Poem // Meditation

You know your way: Your body is the map, your heart the container to bring along all you need for the journey ahead. 

We rise to mountain tops and we fall into valleys. The shadows leave what is true, if we stay a while. But we don’t, we seek the temporary light in the valley. Cover up the dark. Run away. We leave and we return, again and again. Wishing to be on the ascent.

To feel deeply is to know life. To hurt is to taste life. To grieve is to touch life only for a moment, and then let her go.

The sun shines in the day, the moon and stars guide you by night. You are safe. You are protected. But this will hurt.

We must be here, to be there. The valley has much to teach us, blessings of skin and sand and sage. Stay here a while, but leave the weight. Receive your rest. And when it is time, take up your things and go softly.

3 Journaling Prompts:

  1. If you could time-travel to 2019, what advice would you give to yourself or others? How can you still share or receive this advice now?
  2. When was a time that you sat with your discomfort instead of distracting yourself? What was it like?
  3. Who is a person that is going through a challenging season that you can have more compassion for? What does your compassion for them look like?

—E

Anichka, a five-year-old, smiles sweetly and grabs my frozen hand, leading me toward a tiny house heated by a wood-fire. Before I open the small door, another child named Fafa hands me a soft broom and points to Anichka’s—and his own—dirt-and snow-caked clothes. My stiff hands grasp ahold of the broom and they both giggle as I brush the snow and dirt off of their snowsuits. A few mild tears spill out Anichka’s wide eyes as her face begins to thaw out from winter’s chill. We just spent the whole morning playing in the forest.

Other than for a warm lunch meal, naps, and an occasional local children’s theater performance, the students at Marianka Forest School in the southeastern Czech Republic spend their days playing and learning in the forest—year-round. As a weekly volunteer during the spring of 2016, they welcomed me into their world and taught me far more than I expected to learn from four-and five-year-olds who didn’t speak the same language as I did. My role as a volunteer was to come from 9-10 am on Tuesday mornings to open up conversations, songs, and games in the English language to the little ones. Each week, I stayed past lunchtime—during my short stay in the Czech Republic, this tiny community became like home.

In forest school—rain, snow, hail, or sunshine—the kiddos play outside, and they play hard. They run up big hills, climb around trees, and slide down frozen dirt chutes with a running start. They learn about navigation, they use their imaginations, they become students of life—and teachers. In a natural environment, children learn more about themselves and their bodies, their relationships with others, and life then in any school I’ve ever attended. Here are some of the lessons the forest school taught me:

If we give kids responsibilities, they can learn how to be responsible.

On my first day at forest school, I walked past zlatá brána—the “golden gate” that marks the entrance to the school—and saw three children playing as they cleared the snow from the little walkway with their mini shovels. They were happy and playful in their task to help make their place a little better. It was such a small task, but their smiles told of their big feelings of accomplishment.

These young people aren’t helpless—they’re full of help! Kids love to feel needed and appreciated. When we give them little tasks and the tools to do the tasks, they learn how to take care of themselves. Even though it takes some up-front work and supervision, delegating responsibility is the key to educating and empowering others.

There is a universal language.

Even though few teachers or students spoke English, we felt the same sun radiate through the forest trees, we felt the same dirt beneath our feet, we played the same games, and we all shared the fresh air. I did learn some Czech language and they learned some English words and songs, but mostly we communicated through smiles, snacks, and snowballs. Rather than focusing on all our differences, we focused on all the amazing human things we had in common.

When the sun comes out, sometimes you just need to run around in the forest with your buns out.

On the first warm day in a while, we all couldn’t get enough sunshine. Since trees weren’t yet in bloom, most of the group played as the sun radiated down through the branches. The three girls in the group wandered off toward a sunnier area. From a small distance away, I saw them taking off their snow-pants. Giggling, they ran between the trees and danced in the warmth.

When we stay present in our environment, we become more sensitive to all the changes happening. When we’ve been cold, we feel early-summer warmth deeper in our bones. When we’ve been present in sadness, we notice when joy returns. While most people can find something to complain about in any situation—these children are paying attention to their internal and outside environments and making the most out of any weather.

Small hills are as important as the mountains.

On a race up a small hill in April, four kids ran as fast as they could, all barely making it to the finish because of all the spring mud. The youngest child of the group kept sliding down to the start. She tried many times and became upset. She was very small and the task seemed too impossible. I walked behind her and encouraged her on. Determined and slow, she made it to the top by her strength.

The little victories teach us about our capabilities and help us discover the courage to do big things in life. Each struggle we face, no matter what size, can strengthen us.

Breaking some branches and picking flowers in nature is much less damaging to our environment than never experiencing it.

I’ve been too many places where I see a parent scolding their child for playing in dirt or picking a flower. Yes, a flower will continue to grow better if left with its roots, but what’s the harm in trying to capture a bit of beauty? If kids fear touching nature and getting dirty, the activities and things they will use to entertain themselves with will be far less enriching and potentially far more damaging to their lives and our natural environment.

Slow down.

One sunny winter day I saw a child named Honza staring deeply into the skeleton of a leaf. When he saw my curiosity, he quickly invited me over. This little explorer revealed the perfect similarities between the leaf and the palm of my hand by placing the leaf in it and tracing the lines in both. He showed me that we are all connected, and some unstructured time during our day gives us the freedom to explore the mystery of it all. We can discover all the little treasures surrounding us when we receive the gift of time and slow down.

Whether they’re examining a leaf or a bug, playing red-light-green-light, picking wildflowers, sliding down hills, drawing a map of our surroundings, gathering sticks for firewood, or managing a fight with a friend—these kids were connected to the gift of the present at each moment I was blessed to spend with them. Under the forest trees we grew from the dirt, together, as the seasons changed before our eyes.

-E

Once

hardened by hatred
weighed down by salt.
the splendor of stillness
once foreign to me
now runs through my veins.

words will cleanse
ink will detoxify what’s left
of lives lost to the doubts of having nothing to say.

out of fear of imperfection,
I didn’t write a word
not even a single letter.
these pages are messy now,
no longer blank.

this surface isn’t meant to be silent
out of fear of ruining it.
this must be colorful and real and messy and true.

have only a fear of never beginning.
enter the cracks on the surface
and burst through
all that tells you that you can’t
all who says that you have nothing to say.

the first letter
dances
barefoot on summer soil.

your mind is a lovely place,
your body filled with wisdom.
just once
tell your story true
no matter how messy it looks.

–E

mountains roar, rising and falling
snow melts and water flows through another revolution
the earth does not confine these rivers to the shape that soil desires
but with a great velocity, the waters shape their path

humans too must surrender to an uncommon course
carving away, releasing burdens too heavy
carrying life towards the sea
where pasts and futures collide

nature opens up its hungry jaws
as you do to the world in judgment
it spits you out, raw
leaving the flesh and blood behind and burying your bones

until you see the earth as a mirror
everything as a reflection of yourself
it is a terrifying and death-ridden place
with nowhere to hide but behind fear

that light that you’ve been protecting with all you have
it longs to dance with the wind
and will come back to you
more complete than before if you just allow it to soar

release your light and hold on to love
then let it go
and embrace it again
and then free it further

you are already whole
just let go of your precious heart, it is safe here
the fortress you’ve built around it only keeps it from healing
and becoming a full vessel, overflowing

darling, you contain all the love that exists
if you allow it to exist in you
nature longs to engrave not more pain on your heart,
but to embed purpose into this fractured world of men

let pass this melting into your path, don’t fight it
with great force, move, and take on your own shape
let the dark soil be your canvas
for new life

–E

The sun radiated through towering pines, laying a canopy over the dusty trail toward Suicide Rock. Idyllwild, California—the true birthplace of the YDS, home to the world’s first 5.9, and central to the rise of rock climbing in the States. On a clear Saturday afternoon, climbing parties danced up the trail to hop on all the classics. My mom and I planned to do our first traditional climb together—Graham Crackers, a two-pitch 5.6.

We arrived at the Northeast Buttress and joined the other weekend warriors—some were smiling, and some scowling at the increasing amount of people arriving at the crag. We greeted the woman standing below Graham Crackers who placed gear on her harness, preparing to lead. As we discussed our choices to wait or find another 5.fun route, a woman dressed head-to-toe in Patagonia interjected, recommending we try out Etude, 5.11a. A bit alarmed we would jump from 5.6 to 5.11, and a bit honored she assumed my mom and I would be up for it, I responded, “I do love that route but we’re looking for something easier.” The woman looked at me surprised and responded, “you’ve climbed it?”

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With this response, she suggested that either she expected us to climb it on-sight, or that she simply said it to measure her climbing ability against ours. I calmly told her I climbed the route last time I was here and my mom added in, attempting to be helpful, “she top-rope on-sighted it!” In a condescending tone, she went on to tell me that doesn’t count and she would love to see me lead it.

The climb tempted me with its beautifully delicate features, but I was new to traditional climbing, I wasn’t warmed up, there were a plethora of stressed climbers defensive of their spot in the queue for Flower of High Rank—the climb just next to it, and my mom would be tense and terrified belaying me. These didn’t feel like excuses, they were valid concerns. And for some reason, my ego still wanted to prove that I could.

I looked up at the climb from where I was sitting and took a deep breath. I knew that it wasn’t my voice telling me I wanted to climb it—it was the insecurity of another. I smiled and brushed it off as if her challenge was a friendly joke. We ended up waiting only a few minutes more for Graham Crackers. My mom and I climbed our two pitches and had a great time together.

As climbing ascends even more into the mainstream, crags are becoming more crowded and the competition becoming far less than friendly. With this, we worry that climbing-related accidents will also become more common. We’re a community, after all. Why doesn’t it feel like it sometimes?

Increasingly, and not just in California, I have seen people pushing their goals—and insecurities—onto others. If someone has a true intention to do something, they will do it rather than spray about it. If you have a goal to try climbing indoors, try it! If you’d like to climb outside, it’s wonderful! If you’d like to climb 5.15, work super hard and get there! But please remember, we all have different limits and we all have diverse goals. Competition can be positive, helping us try hard and do our best. But not everyone wants to compete.

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There’s a huge difference between challenging others to be great and shaming them for not being “as good” as you. It takes enough strength and energy to become a better version of ourselves, and criticizing others’ abilities and decisions is a waste of it. We must use this energy to grow, as members of the same community, and encourage others rather than judge them for growing in a different way. Climbing is a beautiful physical endeavor, but it can also help us face the weaker parts of ourselves so we can see that there’s something bigger going on than just scaling a blank-looking rock.

What we learn when we climb—about patience, about respect for ourselves, other climbers, and the natural world, about overcoming fears, about having grace with ourselves—can translate into our everyday lives. If we are busy invalidating others’ pursuits and accomplishments, we will miss opportunities to better ourselves and our community. Wherever we may be in our journey of ability, we must all embrace our own goals and allow others the stillness to reach theirs. Climb on!…if you want.

–E

What to say when the mountains call.

While many people in our country spend these frigid months watching the news or Netflix in Snuggies, most Bozemanites keep warm by skiing or snowboarding Bridger, Big Sky, or the backcountry. Unfortunately, many of us must spend five of seven days inside an office or a classroom—sans ridiculously comfortable blanket with arm holes—in order to afford gear, lift passes, and the medical expenses that accompany a mountain lifestyle. For the weekdays when the heavens anoint our peaks with fresh powder, and your closest view of the Ridge is the background photo on your laptop, try these excuses with your superiors.

“I strained my chi doing camel pose in yoga last night.”
It’s really important to listen when the universe tells you to take a day off. Some unbalanced chakras could really mess up the workspace feng shui.

“I’m taking a sick day.”
Although we try to discourage using the word “sick” interchangeably with cool, awesome, wonderful, etc., there’s finally an appropriate use for it—and it’s barely fibbing when used as an explanation for your absence in class or at work. The nipple-deep pow and the lack of lift lines are sick, indeed.

“I’m sick. Really.”
Chances are you may truly be afflicted by a virus, but what invigorates your system better than some fresh air and cold smoke? You’re less likely to spread your infection while bundled up head to toe in ski gear; however, you are more susceptible to a snotty beardsicle—and pneumonia. Use this one with caution.

“My dog has the flu.”
Most employers and professors will understand that you will need to be gone all day giving her medicine, homemade bone broth, and mixed-berry popsicles. Substitute “child” as necessary.

“My doctor recommends that I spend time outside to cure my winter blues.”
You will probably do yourself and everyone else a favor this season if you just go outside. Ask your doctor, a yoga teacher, or the cashier at the Co-op to write a prescription. “200 turns in fresh powder before lunch, three to five times a week to help prevent the transmission of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Repeat after one week. Refills: Unlimited.”

“Do you mind if I take a half-day today? I’d like to take advantage of the powder.”
Be real and remember that you are in Bozeman, after all. The powder clause and nature tax are real things here, and your supervisors likely want to get outside as much as you do. Odds are, you’ll be running into them on the slopes. If they still say no, give ’em a disappointed head-shake and mutter something about the robust middle-management job market in Miami.

–E

This article first appeared in Outside Bozeman Winter 2017-18.