Heavy Boots

Since Friday’s shooting in Newtown, I have had “heavy boots.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor those who’ve read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the reference to Oskar Schell will likely be apparent. For those who haven’t, Oskar’s heavy boots carry a powerful, if unexpected, metaphor for a sadness that a nine-year-old simply cannot describe in words. 

But the metaphor is all the more apt for the families in Newtown. Oskar is reeling from the loss of his father in 911, a tragedy that is simply unexplainable in any rational terms. And now, with Newtown, we have fathers and mothers who are reeling from the loss of their children in a tragedy that, like 911, is equally unexplainable in rational terms. 

The issue is not the language skills of a nine-year-old.  The issue is the utter inexplicability of making innocent people pay for some wrong— whether imagined or real—done to the attacker.   

I do not want to fill white space with words that cannot describe my pain at watching the endless repetition of appalling details, the endless effort to “explain” the unexplainable.

All I can say is that I have heavy boots.

Walking Alone – Further Reflections on Nepal

I have to continually remind myself that when things don’t go as expected, I need to look at them through a different lens.  

When I was accepted for the Above + Beyond Cancer trek, I prepared myself for the role of caregiver. I expected to spend my days in the company of others, sometimes in companionable conversation, other times providing moral support, encouragement and/or a helping hand.  

And so it was for the first few days.  I spent one day with a trekker who fought nausea every step of the way. Another day, I hiked with a woman who, like me, found the going tough and had to stop frequently. 

By 12,000 feet, however, the reality of the thinning air destroyed any illusion of being a caregiver … I could barely get myself up the trail, let alone help someone else. Thereafter, I walked alone most of the time, in no small measure because I found it hard to walk and talk at the same time.  

As the days wore on, my fatigue increased. Occasionally, when putting one foot in front of the other was almost more than I could manage, I wished someone would volunteer to carry my pack or stay back to walk with me. Apart from the occasional Sherpa, no one did. I felt more and more disconnected from the group. 

And then, last week, back in Des Moines at a writing workshop for trekkers wishing to share their experience in written form, a woman who’d needed considerable help from time to time, revealed her hurt and annoyance when her walking mates went on ahead without her. But as we talked, it seemed clear her companions had assumed she was now able to manage just fine on her own. No slight had been intended.

Suddenly, the lens slipped into place. Yes, I had been tired, but I hadn’t ever really been sick. Yes, the climb was harder than anything I’d ever done, but manage it I did.  I wanted someone to make it easier for me, but no could do that.  In an environment where so many were so visibly sick, I couldn’t justify asking for help. And so I trudged on, walking alone.

How many times in life do we think we have been left to walk alone, when all we need to do is ask for help?

Reckless, Irresponsible Optimism

My early morning rotary group seems to be steady source of inspiration.

This time it was Dr. Nathan Noble, head of the Children’s Developmental Center at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines and a specialist in care for children with autism.  Commenting on the prognosis for his clients, he explained that almost every autistic child has the capacity to excel at something.  His role is to help the child and the family find that “something.”  

He does it, he said, by approaching each child with “reckless, irresponsible optimism.”

It reminded me of another lovely phrase—the energy of ‘Yes’—from an essay in Meg Wheatley’s Perseverance.  How many of us approach a challenge armed with a list of the things we don’t want to go wrong. Whether the challenge is personal or professional, it’s so easy to define in advance what outcomes constitute success or failure.  

But according to Wheatley, defining possible outcomes in advance limits the options that may be available to you but lay just outside your ken or your reach.  The energy of yes allows you to see the situation for what it is, to act in the moment, to avoid getting trapped by your own expectations and anxieties.

So, it seems to me, does reckless, irresponsible optimism.  Defined this way, optimism is not grounded in a belief that you’ll achieve a desired outcome or follow a desired course.  Rather, it rests on a determination to re-evaluate the situation on a moment-to-moment basis, to acknowledge and explore the possibilities inherent in the results you never expected. 

In a world where control over our environment is, as often as not, an illusion, Noble’s formula offers a way to keep moving forward when things don’t go according to plan.   

I think I have been recklessly and irresponsibly optimistic most of my life!  What role has reckless irresponsible optimism played in yours?

Reflections on Nepal: Letting Go

It seems I have to learn the same lesson again and again: that when things don’t go how you expect—when you are beset by a sense of failure—you need to take a deep breath and let it go.  Buddhists call it detachment.

I learned that lesson in my forties when I gave up the frenzied and utterly goal-oriented life of a Wall Street banker to sail around the world in a small boat. During the years on that boat, where the essentials of life—wind and weather—were completely out of my control, I developed a profound appreciation for living in the moment, for a life in which failure wasn’t even an option. 

But trekking in the Himalayas in September, I forgot everything I’d learned.  I expected a challenge.  Thin air. Unfamiliar foods. Primitive accommodations. But I’ve dealt with all those things many times before. I assumed my body would cope, so my eye and my spirit could be nurtured as I climbed through the spectacularly beautiful and remote Khumbu region of Nepal.

For a time, things went according to plan. I didn’t get altitude sickness.  My personal plumbing worked fine. I enjoyed the Tibetan dishes our Sherpas prepared, especially the curried vegetables. But one day, I realized I was bone tired in a way I’d never been before.  I hadn’t actually observed anything of my environment in days. 

Why? The rough and irregular trails that never allowed me to take my eye off where my foot would land?  My age, twenty years more than when I last set out on a physically arduous adventure?

Neither. The simple fact was that I’d succumbed to the goal of reaching 20,000 feet, much as I had once succumbed the Wall Street goal of making a lot of money. Now, at only 15,500 feet, I knew I’d allowed myself to be driven to the point of exhaustion by a goal that ultimately didn’t matter. 

That realization didn’t change my overwhelming sense of failure. 

When I finally acknowledged I couldn’t go on, several others in the group admitted it as well. We renegades headed down with a Sherpa, at our own pace. For the first time in ten days, I could reflect on the beauty of the snow-capped mountains towering over us, contemplate the magic of the mid-day clouds below us, honor the ancient tradition of walking clockwise around Buddhist stupas.  

Once I let go of a meaningless goal, my trek in the Himalayas became a magical journey. 

The kind of journey it should have been all along!