Birdsong and Silence (Chile)
Mysterious, shrouded in blue clouds, Torres Del Paine made a strong statement in this underbelly of America. This trip had started as a photography jaunt that allowed me to tag along with Tim and learn from a real pro. But I soon realized that merely capturing an image was a superficial adventure,- nothing compared to my intimate encounter with nature, and finding my true self on the back of a horse. My life in sickness had removed many choices, but now I had discovered that same condition could open a new depth of experience, a new capacity for awe. Maybe I was developing neural pathways as I rode, maybe not. But I was simply happier being with my horse. What an awesome lesson learned atop a mountain in Chile!
The magnificent jagged peaks of Torres Del Paine are at the southernmost tip of the forlorn, unpopulated Americas. The wind blows fiercely here— even the birds are tossed about—, and yet one morning we watched as a troop of intrepid international trekkers appeared with backpacks and walking sticks. They spoke various languages, were young and old, and had an apparent bottomless reservoir of excitement. We wondered how their nights would find them as the trail would not be easy. Not only a hostile wind with rain, but mud, and a difficult path of ascents and descents, lay ahead on a 5-day or 7-day circuit of the major mountain of Torres Del Paine, the Massif. Some of them would be able to stay in a refugio for the night, but only those who had planned ahead and pre-paid.
Earlier in my life, I had spent summers working in national parks in California and Montana so that I could spend every free moment hefting a backpack and hiking in the mountains. That was prior to midlife neurological and physical change, prior to the loss of balance, heavy legs, arms that didn’t respond—all the various symptoms that came as a surprise and then left. While preparing for my trip to Torres Del Paine, I could have trained hard and then chosen a slower, longer way up so that I could have been part of this group activity. But I didn’t want to be dependent on others, perhaps hampering their already challenging path.
I didn’t want to be tromping along in the mud for days anyway, because I knew from experience with this confounding condition that if I let myself wallow in something like self-pity that I would pay, very likely have an “episode.” I could wake up partially paralyzed, with legs that didn’t listen or a hand that couldn’t grasp. Being in this incredible wild beauty demanded I participate in some way beyond taking photographs. I wanted to be like my puppy, his first time at the beach, crazed by the smells of the sea, the water rushing at him in waves, afraid to rush back at those waves and settling for obsessive rolling in the stinky seaweed. How could I roll in this experience of Torres Del Paine?
The next day my question was answered: Get on a Chilean pony and ride! We were guided by a gaucho who had little English, and clearly loved his land. We went into the mountains, crossed the plains high above, and encountered wild guanaco, not startled by our appearance. We were spellbound by the beauty of a turquoise lake in the middle of a rocky landscape that was perfectly still in spite of the high winds. We were so alone there, like humankind had never stepped upon this land before us. Even our gaucho guide seemed more a part of the landscape than an intruder. Our closeness with nature in those moments was pure and integrated; our presence and the clouds above were reflected in our azure lake. The silence was broken only by rare bird cries and constant wind, reminding us that even the eons of time could not alter this pristine place.
My disease hadn’t stopped me. The perceived insurmountable challenge of my physical limitation was transformed when I began to enjoy daily horseback rides. Perhaps for reasons of concentration, body balance and the symmetry of motion needed to successfully ride a horse my symptoms of multiple sclerosis diminished. By being open to asking for more that afternoon in front of Torres del Paine Massif, I had been shown fabulous vistas and a new life with a horse. Debilitating diseases can steal away a person’s belief in his or her right to live a full life. We may not realize to what extent we define ourselves by our limitations, even if they are temporary. Overcoming my sense of being bottled up reminded me of a frog experiment I once read about. The reptile had incredible leg strength, and yet it would not attempt to leap out of an open jar because, in a previous experiment, the jar had a lid. The poor frog was living in the past, just like many human beings who quit reaching.
To speak of healing as a separate act, such as a doctor treating a patient, would be so misunderstood in this environment. Only natural rhythms and energies prevailed. They carried me away from the mind–body paralysis I had been living with. By allowing a new story to replace the old one that refused to take me where I wanted to go, I discovered not only a different carrier— horse— but also a new me. As a horseback rider, I acquired new powers and merged into the landscape, becoming whole in this arid, ancient, wild place.
Sand and Soil (Santa Barbara, California)
A leg injury hamstrung me for nearly a decade. The chronic pain led me through many doors; it manifested questions about trust, balance, pattern, fear, control, truth. I confronted the paralysis of inaction before I realized how to open myself to the experience of embodiment, of the physical presence of the body. Accepting my condition and making choices in response to pain and discomfort were completely new to me. My tendency had been to “endure” and “overcome,” when in fact reassessment and readjustment were required. I needed to learn how to restore a very depleted body. I began reading and learning about disease and health. I then took a step outside and found the wild ones, and the wildness within. I believe wellness is a manifestation we each carry that is constantly changing. Our bodies are not meant to feel the same each moment. They communicate; you can listen.
It may have been despair that drove me to the edge of the seashore, but I believe there was a deeper need to feel a rhythm. The tide pulled in debris, deposited shells, filled in footsteps. I pounded the sand of Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara, California, for most of a summer. I dragged my body to the farthest cove, where I felt the possibility of my own regeneration. In the beginning, I only seemed able to find the suffering. Before my eyes appeared sea birds with missing feet, broken legs, dragging wings. I must have met every harmed, malformed little animal in that entire stretch. I began to ask myself how I could help. This pivotal question shifted me towards action. I tried to protect the injured birds from frisky dogs, and I filled a bag with trash each day I returned to explore.
My hands started to reach out to the rocks and shells. Something draws us to select a shell—spiraling into infinity, painted by tumbling waves and burrowing sea creatures. I collected vessels and released them in the current. As I admired them, I began to acknowledge the great mystery and diversity of living forms. The unity that connects us also supports our uniqueness. The smooth, tumbled stones were engraved with pictograms from their travels. These rocks and shells were encouraging, like messages in a bottle sent by a castaway. From a distant shore, they helped me believe in myself. There were days when I gathered rocks with holes, and others that resembled hearts.
Out of the heart shape created by the two halves of a mussel shell, I saw wings. Holding the delicate “shell wings” one afternoon, I contemplated the rigid exoskeleton—the shellfish’s structure and strength revealed in this enduring object. What are wings? Symbols of protection, discovery, tenderness, guidance, and flight. There is a connection deeper than structural similarity between wings, and hearts and lungs. Wings: gentle movement, shifting place, expansive vision. Heart: beat of life, compassion. Lungs: breath of life. I thought of the love that makes us fly. Such ideas made me think it might be time to leave the shore for higher ground.
Standing in dry creek beds, I imagined the force that brought rocks tumbling down mountain slopes to rest before me. Balance had overcome movement. I sensed the surge of water running past, sculpting and chiseling, exposing surface, creating form, the course once traveled by each massive stone revealed in dramatic grooves across its face. I considered my own place in this grand continuum. My walks turned to gardens where I found I stepped more lightly. When did I stop listening to my own body and ignore the symptoms of pain? Will I do it again?
Turning a pinecone in my hand to receive a dusting of pollen or taking in the fragrance of a flower, I let my senses guide me. Opening to these experiences revealed how pain had stagnated my perceptions. With the flower of a trumpet vine in hand, I considered how air transforms into sound as it journeys through this instrument. I began to think about my own voice. Why does pain take away our voice? This remarkable ability to sense we are not well is an opportunity for us to realize how our body communicates. To heal is to allow the integration of mind and body once again.
I rested in the grass at Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, a few blocks west of downtown Santa Barbara, and got lost in my twitching leg muscles. I surrendered to something both corporeal and cosmic, and thought about how forgiving the body is, how it is resistant when necessary, or supple and flexible when warranted. I took off my shoes and circled the sundial that is embedded in a floor of stones. In my socks, I practiced walking, shifting weight from right foot to left. Once the heel has contact with the ground, the other foot may rise. In the center of this park, I regained my own walk.
I came upon a female turtle that had wandered from the large pond. A gardener was nearby, and I alerted him. I asked if she was sick. He told me she was laying her eggs. I asked why she had traveled so far from the pond. “The pressures of overpopulation,” he said. She was searching for a new pond. Instinct was attempting to ensure survival of the next generation. The turtle reminded me that being alone only really matters when we are searching for ways to serve life. I had been spending too much time examining my condition and needed to end my isolation. Thus began my six-month apprenticeship with the park’s master gardener.
Caring for the body is like tending to the garden. We must pull the weeds, water the plants, and rake the beds. Tremendous patience is required. We hardly work alone, though, and our efforts resume each morning as the sun warms the evening’s damp cover. To sit in the shade, to touch the dirt, to trim and weed—I helped this garden grow.
In my own experience with chronic pain and elusive symptoms, it was difficult to find a doctor who would listen, and even more difficult to find one who would teach me how to heal. I realize I had always pushed my physical self toward a “performance model” without accepting my body as a system. One part of healing is the patient’s understanding of her condition, but the relationship between individual and cosmos that I found along the seashore and in the garden gave me the acceptance I needed to take care of myself.