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On The Grace & Tyranny of Mortality

I made friends with death early in life. My father was a climbing guide for Exum Mountain Guides in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. I remember crouching as a child in the sage, lupine, and Indian paintbrush on a short slope of Guides’ Hill and hearing the rescue helicopter coming down through the canyons, roaring over my head and off toward Jackson Hole and its trauma center and knowing somehow that someone had been killed in the mountains. Being born into a mountaineering community, held simultaneously in my four-year-old head were two truths — that people really died climbing, and that climbing was one of the right ways to live and die. A child could see the difference between tourists and the climbing men and women who boarded the Jenny Lake ferry — a shine, maybe, based on a confidence in skill and persistence, an indifference to fashion, and a kind of odd gallantry.

Twelve years later mortality came to live with me, moved in as my persistent roommate. At sixteen I came down early off a school climb of Mt. Hood and stood on its lower slopes to watch disbelieving as a storm struck its peak that still held my friends, schoolmates, and teachers. It took days to find them all through the blizzard — those who came out alive and the nine classmates and teachers who died. For a long time afterward, simply normal living seemed achingly like a luxury. It was my turn to balance the shine against the loss.

Held against the loss, the shine is not enough. I know. I’ve been down that road. With a philosopher father and a world-traveling mother, I get that when you go, what you have are your peak experiences, your skills and openness that gained you those experiences, and the love that you have been able to exchange in all its forms. I pushed myself against limestone towers in Europe, tides of the Pacific in sea kayaks, collected languages to remove barriers to connection with anyone I wanted to be with. But there are pitfalls to the life of shine. If you’re not careful you can fall into a practice of collecting those peak experiences as if you could buttress them against further loss. Or you can wake up one morning and find you have been substituting risk for emotional courage and you have to start from scratch down the road to openness and vulnerability again.

After the loss from Mt. Hood, I took up the badge of honoring. That by living a full and giving life, I could by that life honor the lives of my friends and teachers who were not going to live the fullness of theirs. And like the shine, over the years the practice of honoring brought me to amazing experiences, skills, and love. I valued and emulated the best qualities of my lost friends — generosity, creativity, hilarity, reverence and irreverence, honor, and individuality. I completed a master’s honors thesis on monastics struggling under Eastern European communism; I started a non-emergency medical aviation non-profit. I traveled in the world, taught university, led sea-going wilderness trips for kids of all ages. I’ve jumped into love, built a family and farm over years with a beautiful man, and I let bright wool and banjo strings spin through my fingertips. I breed individualistic sheep and raise and hold blindingly white doves in my palms and release them for myself and for others. And for the generative and courageous people seeking a new path into holding both the hard and the joy, I teach and lead groups, helping them to rewrite their stories around loss and awaken a luminous everyday, a new way to contribute to their world.

And so held against loss, is honoring not enough? By itself, it is not. With all its gifts and the good that grows from it, honoring is at its heart reactive, and other-based. There were times I moved down a path of creating an exceptional life as if to show that I wasn’t wasting this chance at life that I had been given. But this begs the question, that I deserve to be still alive when others aren’t, that I need to prove to them or myself or anyone watching that I’m not squandering this incredible second opportunity. I’ve been here, too, deeply enough that I have woken wondering who I even am, who I’d be if I weren’t trying to prove, somehow, that I have earned the right to be here, now, breathing.

So where are we left then in navigating through this life, survival in the face of intense loss? There are multitudes now in this place, some of them heartbreakingly young. How are we going to support them and ourselves? How to create a way of being that is not a coping mechanism, an effort to fix something broken, but rather is based in what is possible? One that fosters courage, connection, vulnerability. Serenity. Joy. And all these in the face of loss that will never stop coming to us. The grace and the tyranny in the awareness of mortality lie in this: that it is a magnifier of the details and choices of your life. If you choose the road of honoring, and I still do, then you must take refuge in your shine, in the unique core of you, and the joy in what only you can create.

And then, over and over, make a moral practice of removing your protective skins, everything that separates you from the world, tells you that its problems are not yours, that it is not possible to make a difference, that you are not strong enough to share someone else’s pain, or to bear someone else’s judgment. Each time I manage this, peel off another layer, I am gifted with something. With love, with experience, with presence. With self, with freedom from struggle, with the difference I have made for others. It is not always a process without pain. It can be hard for me, for us as humans, to let go of something that used to serve. But each time I do, I get to stand in that place, unprotected, smiling, with nothing to prove. Free.

I choose this.

We choose this.


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