Thursday, December 2, 2010

The hardwood floor

My parents divorced when I was eight, which split up an already fragmented family. I was the youngest of five children, and yet an only child between my parents. That first summer after their separation, they did a smart thing. They let my grandmother take me. Grandma had certain ideas about the care and management of children, and they involved a combination of absolutely impenetrable boundaries, close supervision, and high levels of indulgence. What made it different from the approach that suffocated my mother was the addition of that last element. Indulgence was not a part of my grandmother’s parental repertoire, to say the least. But it was very much a part of her grandparental repertoire, and the combination was magic for me.

My parents’ divorce pulled the proverbial rug out from under me, but my grandmother replaced it with a hardwood floor. It was always there, waiting for me, every summer. Even during my teen years, when I was interested in no one over the age of twenty-one, I still returned to that suburban citrus patch in south Florida. The last summer I spent there was the one just before my seventeenth birthday. During the month I spent there, I devoted myself to learning the classics of all varieties. I read Buck’s The Good Earth and listened to Strauss waltzes. From that impossibly weird combination, I progressed to jazz and A Moveable Feast. The Florida house was the natural place for doing such things. My grandmother had been a proponent of my intellectual development for as long as I could remember. When she graduated from high school in 1938, she was offered a full scholarship to the state university – an extraordinary feat for a young woman at the time – but had to turn it down to care for her sick father. She was always quite clear that it was the big loss of her life, one from which she never fully recovered, and never completely stopped being angry about.

This was another area in which her parenting sharply differed from her grandparenting. She didn’t encourage, nor did she particularly acknowledge, her daughters’ academic lives. But she was relentless in promoting mine. I can’t account for that, and have mostly stopped trying. All I know is I’m grateful for it.

But more importantly, she created a space in which I was free from the burdens of anxiety or concern, and I used it to build a life of imagination. There was often a book in my hand when I was there. But if there wasn't, I would simply spend glorious amounts of time doing nothing at all, a privilege denied to so many children today. I'd lie on the porch among the orchids, picking apart hibiscus flowers, daydreaming and watching the chameleons skitter about, their red throats pulsating as we stared at each other. Or I would hold their cockatiel, Woodstock, on one finger and feed him peanut butter with another. Then I'd lift him up to my face, let him lightly peck my nose, and declare that he had peanut butter breath. Which he did, if you can imagine that of a bird.

It was there, in those tiny moments in the heat of a tropical July, that I learned the richness of experience and sensation.

And so there is a thread about to be pulled, and it feels like it must be connected to my viscera. But I know it isn't, because she never would have made it that way.

Last days

I used to hold my grandmother’s hands, usually when crossing the street. But last night she held mine, both of them, as I leaned awkwardly over the hospital bed. Her grip was surprisingly strong. I looked down at the nearly translucent skin on her hands, which are bruised and scabbed from a fall, and remembered them tanned and covered in mango juice. My grandmother’s hands always bring the same image. She is standing in front of her sink with a freshly picked mango cradled in her hand, and a paring knife in the other. Ribbons of yellow-orange mango peel are curling into the sink, and juice is streaming down her hands. I could be anywhere, perhaps standing behind her, or maybe watching from the screened porch, a skinny kid lying on a yellow chaise lounge, surrounded by tropical flowers and writing the memoirs of a ten-year-old in her head.

Mangoes don’t grow in Indiana, where I grew up, and where Grandma was born a few days before women belatedly secured their right to vote. But they were abundant on the trees in her Florida backyard. It was there I learned to eat them, usually plucked straight off the tree, because Grandma disdained any non-local mango. “They pick them green,” she said of the fruit shipped from elsewhere. “And the flavor is awful.” She’s right, of course. I can buy them at an international market ten minutes from my house these days, but the taste and texture isn’t the same.

The mango juice has long since been washed from her hands, and they intermittently squeeze mine when the pain comes. Her face is a mess, her lips a jumble of scabs, dried blood and bruising. This is what happens when you have dementia, and you forget that you’re recovering from a hip replacement, and you try to walk without assistance. You fall down. And that fall cascades into a stroke – or perhaps vice versa, the doctors are not entirely sure – and you end up gripping your granddaughter’s hands in a hospital bed.

I visit her again the next night, and she doesn’t know who I am. At first she thinks she’s back at her assisted living facility and I’m the lady who takes her dinner order. I’ve heard about this, about what a bruising experience it is for the formerly familiar not to be recognized by their loved one. But it doesn’t feel that way to me. Because the truth is, I don’t recognize her, either. I still smile. I still speak gently. But I know it sounds stilted and inauthentic, because for the life of me, there is nothing about the lady in the bed that seems familiar to me. And this feels like a terrible betrayal of everything she gave me, which was generous beyond measure. But I can’t change it. All I can do is continue to pretend. And so I do.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Losing Montana

"Something's lost but something's gained
in living every day." --Both Sides Now

I had a house in Montana once, an oddly designed, cedar-sided structure perched on a mountain bench in the far northwest corner of the state. It was a sometimes-home, a place I fled to whenever I could. It sat at the top of a serpentine gravel road that rose gently from the river valley below, a ribbon wrapping the mountain. I shared the place with the bears, and the mountain lions, and the less intimidating but still mischievous skunks, coyotes and, toward the end of our time there, wolves.

I trained Thomas there, a small pup learning how to live with me on trails through a pine forest.

Montana was the place I've been chasing since childhood, a return to a land of giant, snow-capped peaks my parents took me to see when my mind was still new. One spring day a couple of years ago I left it, loading the dogs up in the truck, closing and locking the gate behind me as I always did, and driving down the mountain.

I had no idea I'd never see it again.

I didn't know it as I closed the last gate behind me, but my life was about to blow apart. It would be the most terrifying, painful thing ever to happen to me. It would be the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the beginning of my own Phoenix Process.

But still -- still -- I ache for Montana. It's an enduring loss, a heavy price I paid to gain something profoundly valuable -- myself and my life. But I still chase the mountains. I know I'll find them again. I just don't know where, or when.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nature of the Beast, revisited: The literary edition

"What? An out-of-the-ordinary dog book? I'm all ears."

Truthfulness in animal-human relationships has long been a hobby horse of mine, along with my unyielding belief that the best avenue to them runs one way: These relationships are most likely when we interact with animals on their own territory, instead of on ours. We have the capacity to reach across that divide, across that river of rationality we crossed so long ago. They do not. As a result, relationships with animals on our terms tend to center around what we want animals to be, and not what they really are.

Domesticated animals, by definition, reside deeply within the human world. When we refrain from projecting too many human anxieties, feelings or needs onto a companion animal, we honor their animal nature and allow them to live their lives. I believe the same is true with wildlife. The documentary Raising Sancho, and my good friend Carolina Vargas, who immersed herself in the giant otter world to raise – and then lose – the orphaned cub Sancho, offer an example of a deeply truthful relationship between a human and a wild animal.

Can a work of fiction accomplish this? Can a work of fiction be a truthful exploration into the nature of a dog? Can a work of fiction enter the animal world and allow its canine protagonist to be herself, instead of merely what people want or need her to be? These are the questions raised by Rose in a Storm, a book I began reading a few weeks ago after an interesting exchange with the author. (I won’t offer a synopsis; there is an excellent one at the previous link. I’ll wait for you.)

I follow Katz’s blog via Facebook, and have read many of his books about life on Bedlam Farm. Indeed, much of my thinking on animal-human relationships has been deeply influenced by Katz’s work. So I was aware he had a new book out – a novel, told from the perspective of a dog. One day, I followed a link on his blog to find that Rose in a Storm had received a somewhat weary-sounding review in the Washington Post that devoted its opening paragraphs to snarking about the extreme competence of the book’s protagonist, Rose, a workaholic border collie. The review then proceeded to its chief complaint – the essential stoicism and humorlessness of both Rose and the entire book. I had not read the book yet, but I did notice in the closing lines of the review a final criticism: “…Katz’s occasional forays into doggie mysticism clash oddly with the matter-of-fact narration.”

My brow furrowed on cue. I thought Katz had been writing that way for a long time. As long as I’d been reading him, he had been wrestling with the tension between mysticism and logical rationality. I first wrote about it here in 2007. To me, that was the beauty of so much of his work. Far from “clashing”, I felt it represented a willingness to grapple with complexity and paradox. I left a comment to that effect on his post about the review, which spawned an interesting dialogue between author and reader.

I wondered at the time if what we were really talking about was not rationalism or mysticism, but the tension, co-existence and interplay of the two. In his book A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life, that tension is prominently on display. In A Good Dog, Katz relates the rational yet crushing decision to euthanize his beloved dog that had become a danger to people, and by extension, every other dog. But the very rationality of that decision honored the mysticism of dogs, and Orson’s own canine nature. In this way, we see that rationality and mysticism aren’t at opposite ends of a spectrum, but rather complementary orientations: Projecting human needs onto dogs and emotionalizing our relationships with them crushes their mystique just as surely as thinking of them as nothing more than meat computers. Rationality, which arguably stems from our instinctual animal natures in the first place, is thus what protects and honors the mystique of those animal natures, by preventing human overreaching. We all emotionalize our animals, at least to some extent. What I appreciate about Katz is that he never allows himself to become really comfortable with it, and he doesn’t allow it to interfere with his animals’ lives.

Anyone who cares deeply about animals, and lives with them closely, is going to have to wrestle with that tension. It’s here that Rose fits in. It seems to me that Rose in a Storm, despite its “occasional forays into doggie mysticism” – and more likely because of them – first and foremost attempts a genuine exploration of the nature of a particular dog, and of the larger canine consciousness. The story’s most powerful actors are canids of some kind -- domesticated, wild, and even apparitional – and those categories are fluid throughout the story. This tale of an extraordinary human-affiliated dog, with one paw still in her wild legacy, lives at the intersection of rational and mystical. But then, doesn’t all of nature?

The result is not a happy-go-lucky doggie tale. It is not goofy or humorous. It is not sentimental, and is at times deeply unsettling. (The narration of the story from the dog’s perspective taps so well into primitive, old-brain consciousness that I had to put it down several times to take a daylong break and re-center my forebrain.) I don’t mean to denigrate the goofy/cuddly/adorable dog genre, or even to suggest that those stories can’t reflect the kind of truth I hold dear. Dogs are often all of those things, and I love that about them, and I love what that does for people. I often love those books. But that’s only a slice of the world of dogs – and a frankly overrepresented one. This is not your ordinary dog book. Rose is much more powerful, and more like whole life, with its moments of darkness and its full complement of feelings.

The notion that "dog lovers" will be the most reliable fans of this book is far too simplistic. Rose is very much Rose in this book, and may not fit the emotional needs of dog enthusiasts accustomed to, as Katz put it, writing their stories on the blank canvasses of dogs. I think the biggest fans of this book will be readers comfortable dipping a toe or two into the realm of myth, who are easy with paradox and complexity, and able to honor what we cannot see and do not know.

Though not at all sentimental, Rose in a Storm is deeply emotional. In that respect the story speaks also to my other deepest interest, the defining personal battle. Anyone who has undergone what Elizabeth Lesser calls a “Phoenix Process” will recognize a familiar arc in Rose’s epic – her struggle through a relentless battering of misfortune and challenge unfolding into a Zen-like surrender to the forces opposing her, near-destruction, recovery, and finally, new growth and peace.

But is it good? you might ask. Of course it’s good, I’ll reply impatiently, with a wave of my hand. Of course it’s entertaining. All of Katz’s books are delightfully and engagingly written. But there is far more to it than that. This work of fiction, by definition not “real,” is nonetheless deeply truthful, because the story takes place on her territory, and not ours. So beware. This story is about Rose, and not what we want or need her to be. This book will place you squarely into her mind and her life. It’s a remarkable place to go, if you have the courage.

Friday, October 29, 2010

"A marketable facade"


I did not expect this video to make me cry. Much of what is produced in this vein tends toward the “But you are pretty!” variety, and I have no use for that. Not every woman is pretty.

We should not have to be, to be valued, to be considered fully human, to be considered worth as much as a beautiful woman.

The conflation of a woman’s beauty and desirability to men with her worth causes so, so much misery. You can hear it in this clip, both in the speaker’s voice and in the rising crescendo of voices and cheers from the audience.

I read one woman's response to this and it struck me. This resonates with me, she observed. But yet I still have my tummy tuck scheduled. I am still on powerful medication for acne. And I’m thinking about Botox. Why can’t I just internalize this message?

Because the message isn’t – and shouldn’t be – about how individual women need to change (although I’m not at all surprised a woman construed it as such, considering that’s the overwhelming message given to women). The message of the video is that women are deeply, painfully hurt by the fact that the most valuable asset a woman can have is, as noted in the piece, a “marketable fa├žade”.

There is enormous pressure yet on women to conform to feminine standards of beauty. Very real consequences often await those of us who fail to do so. That’s probably why you can’t just internalize the message. Hell, you can be a viable presidential candidate and still have someone publicly ridicule your perceived lack of attractiveness. If you’re a woman.

I admire any woman who is able to say no to these standards, but I don’t expect every woman to do so. This sort of thing will have to get chipped slowly away. Every woman who can say to their daughter, however, as Makkai promises to, that no, no, you will never, ever, be merely pretty, is one more piece that falls away, one woman or girl a little less hurt or fractured.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Green Pony

The Green Pony, a love symbol.

One of the things about T is that when I express a desire for something, he commences immediately to look for ways to find what I want, if it's possible or reasonable. One morning last spring I started musing about wanting a riding lawn mower, so that I might indulge my enjoyment of lawn mowing on the one hand and save the money I pay to have it done for me on the other. By afternoon he'd located one in my price range. This thing is green, old, boxy, loud and aggressive, and I like it very much. While it sometimes complains when I turn the key, it always rolls over and starts up. One cannot help but feel a bit cowboyish on it, hips loosened, head cocked to one side, one hand on the steering wheel. It makes you feel just a little bit tough.

So I named it the Green Pony, both because it is green and because it is not at all like a pony. One must do what one can in this world to keep irony alive.

Today is the Green Pony's last day of work until spring -- and consequently, my last day to enjoy an outdoor ritual for the same chunk of time.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Skipping rocks on Pine Creek

On balancing a fear of risk with a risk of fear

Shortly after I made my post about sleeping alone in the storm, Jeannie made this comment, which I pondered for a very long time, wanting to get some perspective on my experience:
Jen...not trying to rain on your parade...but I have had a problem with this hiking alone. You are LIVING everyday and making a wonderful life for yourself and your son...I guess what I'm trying to figure out is why you think you need to do this to be living a full life? Facing your fears? Haven't you already proved to yourself that you can do that, and more, when necessary? And the risk you took...what would it have meant for Sean IF something had happened to you? I don't understand the need to do it. The mama in me worries about you...
I agree that something has gone awry when risk and danger is the entire end, instead of something incidental to the end. That means you're nothing but an adrenaline junkie, a category of people for whom I've historically not had much patience or interest. However, I do maintain that measured risk can be beneficial if it's attached to another worthwhile endeavor.

The risk I took hiking and camping alone, in the location and season that I did, was really quite minimal. But even the most reasonable risks are still risks, and I did end up in a bit of a pickle. But it's important to remember that, just because the situation ripened into some danger, doesn't mean it was an unreasonable risk at the start. I could walk to lunch this afternoon and get run over by a car whose driver loses control and ends up on the sidewalk. That doesn't mean the risk in walking to lunch was unreasonable. The same obtains here. In any event, being with someone would not have eliminated the danger that morning. In fact, T, my most common backpacking partner, would likely have been even less inclined to discard the hiking plans because of the forecast than I was. (Which forecast, remember, was for scattered thunderstorms the following night!)

But what I got from that experience, reflecting on it weeks later, was deeply valuable to me and remains potent even now: I got both a validation of my fears and the knowledge that I could handle them. I learned anew a lesson that, for me at least, bears repeating throughout a lifetime -- that bad things can happen and I can live through them. If I had insisted on learning this lesson in a much more risky circumstance, I would tend to agree that I had lost the thread, that my path was off kilter. But the risk, going in, was reasonable -- I was probably in more danger on the highway driving to the trail. But life, for me, involves a constant quest for meaning and lessons. These have a sort of domino effect in that some of these lessons prepare me for subsequent ones. My mind sees symbolism and meaning in everything. I'm an ENFP; it's how I'm wired.

I give my child a great deal of my life, as I should. But I won't, can't, and shouldn't give either of us a risk-free existence. These are lessons I want him to learn and absorb. To me, facing my fears in pursuit of something larger -- like a night alone on a lake with a full moon in the sky -- and coming out on the other side is part and parcel of truly living.

On the other hand, I also genuinely understand how this might seem either completely insane or self-indulgent to someone living with large risks in their lives that were externally imposed, and not necessarily of their choosing. Make no mistake, I understand the luxury involved in my ability to do this, and to choose it for myself. And if I had been reckless or careless, I would count that in the irresponsible category, and hope I would examine the source of that and adjust accordingly.

I don't know if this answers Jeannie's thoughts -- sometimes there is just a gap of understanding and viewpoint that cannot be bridged. But I'm always grateful for her thoughtful comments.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Now this is more like it

I can put my own images as background.

Full moon over Glacier National Park, Montana, during the fires of 2003. Thus the purple haze.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Nature of the beast

I've had an interesting few days, capped off by a magical weekend. One of the most interesting questions in my mind, and one that seems to keep intersecting with me, is what happens when you let an animal be herself? What happens when you treat her as more human than animal? What happens when a human ventures into the animal world, instead of forcing the animal ever deeper into the human realm?

This question crystallized for me first when I saw Raising Sancho and got to know Carolina Vargas. My exchanges with author Jon Katz last week made me revisit the issue, and refine it even further. What I found striking about Carolina's time with Sancho was how she entered the otter world to a much greater degree than she brought Sancho into our world. Her entire interaction with Sancho was constructed around honoring Sancho as an otter. That is what made it so beautiful, and yet, poetically, is what also what illuminated the larger human lessons about life, love and loss.

When people project their humanity and their own problems and pain onto an animal, they deprive themselves of an opportunity to know another creature on a truthful level. At worst, they can actually bring harm to the animal, and by extension, other animals. But the same thing happens when people take a reductive view of animals and their natures, denying that animals have feelings, and are nothing but instinctive flesh robots.

There is a tension to be maintained, I think. What I was trying to convey about Jon Katz was that I think he maintains that tension in his work, and in his ethic about animals. It's there, in that tension, that the interesting things happen. He called it "rationality versus mysticism" in his post, and that is the sweet spot -- at the intersection between those two orientations -- where the lessons lie, for those willing to be taught something by the non-human set.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Coming clean

I acted in high school and college. I loved it. I enjoyed being on stage, and had no problem whatsoever performing in front of a large number of people. In fact, I thrived on it. Stage fright did not exist for me. It was bliss, one of the first real passions of my young life. In college, it abruptly stopped being fun. I abandoned acting completely, except for a brief foray back during a limbo period in my mid-20s. Why? Because real world drama programs want you to do more than funny roles. No way.

It was then I got the first inkling that I might have some trouble with emotional vulnerability. I would reach down into myself trying to read an emotional scene, and it was just not there. I would feel almost repulsed by the process. As a result, I failed utterly. Comedy, however, was easy. I'm hardly the first to observe that it's easy to hide oneself in humor.

I switched majors and even colleges, got a degree in political science and headed to law school. But problems with emotional vulnerability don't just go away, and they've been the source of most of my life's angst. Most of you who know me are aware that the practice of law is not my great calling, and often feels dry and confining, despite my skill at it. It makes me a good living, however, and allows me to work with my father and brother and a number of other funny, smart people, an opportunity I value deeply. And it allows me to engage in my creative pursuits, which have always felt like my first home.

But you also know that I've resisted putting my creative work out there into the current, submitting it to the world for evaluation and opinion. This has been the great conundrum of my life. I want to do this work so badly, and yet have so long lacked the will to make myself that terribly, terribly vulnerable. I created a body of work I'm fairly proud of, but I did it anonymously. Anonymity was the only thing that allowed me to take that risk of vulnerability.

Now, this has improved a great deal in the last two or so years, with the convergence of a number of events in my life. I entered and emerged from what Hugo Schwyzer refers to as the "terrible and wonderful crucible of divorce." I'm now in a relationship with a man who understands fearing vulnerability just enough himself that we've been able to create a space where, despite our occasional failures, we doggedly continue to build trust and openness. And, of course, I've spent a long time in the office of a very good therapist.

This week, something interesting happened. I've been reading Jon Katz's books and blogs for several years now, and he relentlessly implores his readers, and himself, to "live your life" and to put your work out there, and see where it goes. I'm a fan of his Bedlam Farm blog on Facebook. He's written a new book, a work of fiction this time after several memoirs about the farm and its various animal denizens. The book was recently released, and the other day he posted the first "negative" review, from the Washington Post. I clicked through, read the review, and posted the following comment:
I haven't read "Rose in a Storm" yet, and so I'm in no position to speak to the entire review. But I did notice this: "Katz's occasional forays into doggie mysticism clash oddly with the matter-of-fact narration."

I've always noticed that ...-- tension? -- dichotomy? in your work, though I don't view it as odd, or "clashing." Rather, it's part of the texture of your work. For example, you'll warn against the temptation to anthropomorphize just before you yield to it yourself in some small way or another. I see it as a recognition of and attempt to grapple with contradiction, with complexity. It's one of the things I like about your writing. So in this way, the review makes me want to read the new book to see how that plays out in your fiction. I'm not sure a "good" review would have had the same effect. So I'm thankful for this one.
This apparently struck Jon quite a bit. The tension in his work between the rational and the mystical was quite noticeable to me, and I even wrote about it here after reading A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life.* So I was a bit surprised that my observation was unique or new. But it's easy to see things about others, and not so easy to see them about ourselves.

Jon and I exchanged a few messages about the ideas I expressed and he wrote a post about them here. Although there are several layers to this onion -- and the one that struck Jon, the tension between rationality and mysticism, is one about which I have a great deal yet to say -- here is the passage that struck me with respect to what I've been confessing in this post:
You hole up writing something very personal and interior, then send it out into the world for other people to look at, accept or reject, and mull. They call it putting it out there.
As I read this, I thought of my constant exhortations to remember that dogs are just animals, and not to turn them into something else. This from a man who sat up at the top of the hill reading St. Augustine to his dogs in the middle of winter. And who in his darkest hours sang “You light up my life” to a Lab puppy in the middle of one freezing night after another. I have claimed the rational side of self in recent years, but never owned up to the other. I consider myself outed. You got me, Jennifer, nailed it. I am a crazy mystic – who else leaves his family and runs off to a farm in middle-age to find himself with a bunch of dogs, sheep and donkeys?
Here is a person who has written nineteen books and innumerable blog posts, who has braved forums with angry border collie owners who think he does it all wrong, who has shared hundreds of photographs from the time he just began to shoot, and I have "outed" him as a "crazy mystic," a part of himself that he had not, before now, owned and recognized.

And I'm too chicken to write under my own name?

I wrote him on facebook:
Jon, I have to note something else. In many ways, by "outing" you, I've outed myself. I've written and photographed a lot anonymously (read: safely) but it's always been a struggle to put that creative work into the stream under my own name and let it be carried where it will go. Your frequent admonitions to do just that have motivated me a great deal.
You have put so much of yourself out there, on display, for others. Having "outed" you, I no longer have an excuse to refrain from taking the risk of doing so myself. In that way, I deeply appreciate this conversation for my own reasons.
I no longer have an excuse.

It's fascinating, to me, how a chance Facebook interaction can produce insights so helpful to both parties. Jon thanked me for my insights, and for respecting and understanding his work.

And I thank him for deftly yet unknowingly removing the excuses from someone who badly needed them removed. By outing him, I have outed myself. And I'll continue to do so, to try to be as honest as I can, to put my work out there, and to cultivate curiosity about where it goes, instead of trying to control its destination.

And this post is the first installment of that continuing project.

*If you read that link, please note that, after exchanging several messages with Jon, I no longer wonder whether we'd get along if we "knew" each other. That question has been resolved favorably. I wonder if what I was reading in Jon's work at the time reflected some of my own rough edges that I had yet to confront, but was destined to in the coming year. Perhaps.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

And isn't it ironic -- don't you think?

He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down, he thought "Well isn't this nice?"
And isn't it ironic? Don't you think?

-- The only passage from Alanis Morrisette's song Ironic that actually resembles irony, and one that kept playing itself over and over in my head early Saturday morning.

I had picked out a fifteen mile trail on the very southern edge of Indiana in the Hoosier National Forest, and I intended to take two full days to do it. Friday was clear and full of sunshine, but the forecast late that afternoon revealed that isolated thunderstorms were expected Saturday afternoon. "And it just gets worse from there," T advised. So I decided to go as far as I could on Friday, get up at the crack on Saturday, hustle it out and be home Saturday night. I briefly considered bagging the entire trip in light of the forecast, because these things are unpredictable. But I held myself to it, largely because I knew it would be an excuse.

I lugged my pack out of the back of my Toyota at the trailhead. It kept falling over from the weight, but I hoisted it and got going. The pack was groaningly heavy, the day was steamy and hot, and as a result the trail was more physically demanding than usual. First days of hiking trips are always the worst anyway. But I trudged on, as if toting a sofa on my back. About 4.5 miles in, I stopped, for two reasons. First, because in the event I awoke to rain, there was a connector trail that bisected the loop a short distance away, which would allow me to cut the trail distance in half. And second, because the trail had just exited the dense forest on a plateau overlooking a remote finger of a large lake.

This was clearly the best place to camp.

I dropped the leaden pack and stretched, and then happened to glance down at my legs. The trail had taken us through several patches of knee-high vegetation, and my legs appeared to be sprinkled with some sort of seed. I squinted and looked again. One of the seeds was crawling across my leg.

I snatched a bottle of insect repellent from the top of my pack, and set about drowning the tiny things on my legs. Then I took the edge of my knife and painstakingly scraped the bodies off my skin. Dirt, dead bugs and repellent ran off my legs in a disgusting gray slurry. I have no idea whether this did any good, because five days later, I look, as my guy helpfully observed the other day, like I have smallpox. The tiny moving seeds were actually chiggers. I'm just grateful they weren't ticks, and so I take my antihistamine every morning and grit my teeth, waiting for the itching to subside.

It had been steamy in the forest, but it was at least ten degrees hotter under the open sun in the clearing on the lake. I had no intention of doing the work to set up the tent in the blazing sunlight, preferring to wait until the heat subsided a bit. Instead, I stretched out my sleeping pad and gnawed on jerky, which I washed down with warmish water. Thomas found a place in the reeds by the water to cool off and pant. We sat quietly this way until the sun moved lower in the sky. When the light began to wane, I pulled the tent from the pack.

Once we got the tent set up, I relaxed a bit. There was a big, full moon suspended over the lake, against a clear sky. We opened up the tent flaps and let the breeze flow through the tent. Thomas was content, even when coyotes began howling in the distance. I read for awhile, then flipped off my light and dozed. I slept poorly most of the night -- I kept imagining chiggers migrating across my skin. But I fell into a passable sleep at some point -- until I was awakened by a loud crack and a series of flashes overhead.

I reached groggily for my phone and saw that it was 5:18 a.m. and pitch dark. It was far too early to pack up and hike out. The thunder cracked again, this time louder, and closer. As the storm gathered, the lightning flashes became more and more frequent.

This sucked. Thomas started to quiver.

Here is what the National Weather Service has to say about being in a tent in a thunderstorm:
Remember, there is NO safe place outside in a thunderstorm. If you absolutely can't get to safety, this section may help you slightly lessen the threat of being struck by lightning while outside. Don't kid yourself--you are NOT safe outside.

Being stranded outdoors when lightning is striking nearby is a harrowing experience. Your first and only truly safe choice is to get to a safe building or vehicle. If you are camping, climbing, on a motorcycle or bicycle, boating, scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities and cannot get to a safe vehicle or building, follow these last resort tips. They will not prevent you from being struck by lightning, but may slightly lessen the odds.

And then, a few paragraphs above this:

Click here to read a story of a person killed while seeking shelter in a tent.

No, thanks, maybe later.

And I was in the worst possible spot -- in a clearing, on a lake. The one fortunate aspect of my predicament was that I was in a lower-lying spot, but that was about it. The rain had started pounding relentlessly, abusing the rain fly. Flash, flash, bang.

I frantically started packing my things. It was at least an hour before daylight. I looked around. I had a flashlight. I could just leave the tent and head for the woods, I thought. Only a few miles back to the car.

And then the inanity of that adrenaline-stricken thought occurred to me, and I recognized that I was getting a case of Panic Brain. As the NWS so astutely observes, you're really not safe anywhere outside in a storm, and I was going to add wandering around in the dark to my list of problems? No. So I did the only thing I could do -- I huddled up next to the dog and waited it out. I passed the time by cursing my decisions -- specifically, heading out in the first place when there were thunderstorms anywhere in the forecast. When we were in Utah, T and I had almost backpacked up to and camped out on the peaks behind his parents' yurt, but decided that we wanted to kayak that day since storms were forecast for the next day. Which was a very good thing for us, because the storms arrived that night instead, and were shockingly intense on the exposed peaks we would have been camped on. It was a fortunate decision.

No such luck this time. I continued to wait it out. One wave of storms passed over, but another one followed shortly thereafter. My impeccably pitched tent and rain fly began to take on water.

I waited.

The birds seem to know before anyone else when a storm is over. The spaces between thunderclaps and flashes began to get longer, and longer still, and although the driving rain and wind continued, I started to hear chirping in the lulls between ever-more distant thunder. Black had become gray, and at a little past seven, I looked at Thomas.

"Let's get the hell out of here," I said.

I swear he knew exactly what I was saying, because he got up, stretched his legs, and nosed the door of the tent. We broke the tent down in the rain. The dangerous part of the storm had clearly passed. A group of ducks was gliding placidly across the choppy surface of the lake.

I had that weak, wasted feeling you get after a long period of tension and fear has ended. The adrenaline dump had mostly subsided, but I was eager to move. I shouldered the pack, which was slightly lighter since I had consumed a couple of quarts of my water. The storm had lowered the temperature by about ten degrees, and the rain also helped keep me cool.

I was energized, moving, and feeling very lucky that my most pressing problem was the need for caffeine. I hadn't lingered to fire up the stove for coffee, and I wanted my fix. Thomas and I covered the miles very quickly. The rain continued, and water was flowing off my forehead into my eyes.

Hikes like this are slogs. You put your head down, withdraw into yourself, and do what needs to be done. Thomas managed to enjoy himself, chasing after a rabbit here and a squirrel there, but I was getting my satisfaction from covering ground. With a little over a half a mile to go, the trail crossed the road. I dropped my pack except for the dry bag containing my keys and a bottle of water, on the theory that no one would be in the business of stealing packs from road crossings on a day like this, and Thomas and I nearly ran the remainder of the trail.

It was truly a mighty clusterfuck of a trip, but deeply worthwhile nonetheless. I learned a few things about myself, perhaps most importantly that I can handle the fear on my own. I find that the times I grow the most are when I am forced to sit with overwhelming feelings and manage them.

The fear or pain comes, it works on me, and it goes. I did not get struck by lightning. Here I am, safely in my bed, typing this out. Someday, I may get struck by lightning. But I won't know it, because I'll be dead.

But before then, at least I will have lived.