The Three M’s

“Leave it all on the top!” was written among the other encouraging words. My co-workers had presented the pink bandana covered with inspirational phrases as a gift.

That pink bandana was now tied over my dirty hair. I cringed to look at our guides with their inadequate gear as I looked down on all my carefully purchased attire, bought just for this moment.

It was summit day.

The night before, our support team had made chicken for dinner. I knew that chicken had been carried on someone’s head for the last five days and tried not to think about it.

After the meal, our guide, Wense, came to give my sister and I a pre-summit day pep talk. The highlight of his speech featured showing us an oxygen tank that he would carry for emergency situations.  I wasn’t comforted.

Wense rattled the tent long before the sun rose, indicating it was time to get started. We wrestled into our clothes and emerged from the tent, strapping our headlights to our foreheads.  He looked expectedly at us, silently asking us if we were ready to begin. Melinda took a step forward toward the trailhead and I forced myself to follow her.

The first stretch of the summit was bouldering in the dark.  Yep, maintaining balance, moving from rock to rock, in the dark. I tried not to panic. As I looked at the twinkle of head lamps making their way up the dark mountain, I took a breath and told myself, “Do it for Melinda. Do it for Matt.34239_409440772942_6699517_n

Since my brother, Matt, had been killed a few years earlier, Melinda and I had gone to crazy places to see the sun rise on his birthday. This year we were going to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. It is the tallest peak you can climb as a recreational hiker.

The first few hours passed with few words and my continuous mental mantra, “Stay calm. You can do this. Just keep moving.” Or, the African version, “Pole, pole.

Melinda was in top physical form. I, however, overcame a major mental hurdle just putting on a sports bra. I had done a minimal training plan…walking to work a few times with my pack, climbing the one local peak a few times. I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I should have been and I knew it. But, Melinda had convinced me to do the trip saying, with a twinge of exasperation, “Mary, you could do it right now if you needed to!  You’d be surprised what your body is capable of.

About 60% of the way to the top, it was clear that my sister and I were traveling at different speeds and needed to part ways. We stopped to take a “just in case” photo. She pressed the button, and then again, and then again. After several attempts, she couldn’t get it to work and shook her head in confusion. Later, she realized she had a pressed the On/Off button repeatedly, absolutely unaware. A first indication of her altitude sickness.

A few minutes later, I caught up to her as she vomited into the rocks. She went to get a drink out of her water, but the line stretching to her mouth had frozen. She did her best to spit and without hesitation, she pushed forward. The junior guide followed a few steps behind her.

As the sky began to light up and we rounded a corner, I could see the summit, still off in the distance. Doubt was taking root. “Oh, it’s still a long way. Can I do this? Do I even want to?” I asked myself.

The terrain had turned to rubble, and with every step forward, I slide back a few inches. The backwards motion was wrecking havoc on my mental game and my breaks grew longer and longer. Without a word, Wense pressed his shoulder against my back, prodding me back into motion. He didn’t appear to even be exerting himself.

My mental toughness wearing thin, I couldn’t rely on my own pep talk any longer. Starting to think about calling it quits, I turned to divine help and the rhythm of words.

Hail…“–one step.

Mary…” –another.

full…“–eight inches forward.

of grace…“–another.

The Hail Mary is 23 steps long.

After I finished the whole prayer, I would pause and then, go after it again. Another 23 steps. Another plea for help. Over and over.

Somehow, beyond my comprehension, I made it. The summit!!! Amen!

I was too drained to do much celebrating. But, I had done 35892_881344741012_7154721_nwhat I needed to do. I had done it for Melinda, for Matt, and for myself.

My sister left three M&Ms behind at the highest summit post, a small token of remembrance for “the three M’s” as my mom had called us.

Enjoying the view, I turned to glance at the trail and knew that I had indeed left it all on the top. Thank God for gravity and momentum. The trek back was a stumbling, fuzzy, grumpy blur except for one vivid memory where Melinda turned and said, “I have never seen you like this. Are you okay?

I wasn’t. But, I would be…we had done it!

MP Top of Kili35892_881346712062_403916_n


To see what I could see

I had travelled more than a thousand miles to be surrounded by people, yet there I was, alone on a hard red-dirt trail in the Santa Fe National Forest.

To be clear, I was “alone on purpose,” as Nicole Morgan so deftly phrased it in her recent guest post. But following through on this intentional aloneness had taken great willpower. By choosing to set off solo on a hike that afternoon I was voluntarily leaving behind the potential of great conversations and new friendships—the very experiences I had in mind when I devoted a week of time and a sum of money to attend a Glen West writing workshop.

Many people at the Glen arrive in search of space and time to think and write, but as a full-time solitary writer who longs throughout the year for “colleagues,” I went to the Glen to fill that space and time with people. I needed a break from being alone with my thoughts and words, and during my first three days there I had accomplished just that. The mornings’ inspiring conversations in my non-fiction writing workshop transitioned into lunch hours sitting with authors I’ve long admired. Afternoons spent around courtyard tables, hearing about writing projects others were working on, gave way to more conversations over dinner, followed by engaging author and artist talks. Each night found me fighting the need for sleep as the extroverts and night owls gathered for more talk and laughter over whisky or wine, late into the night.

By that Thursday afternoon I had reached a state of “satisfyingly full” and knew some solitude (beyond the fast-asleep kind) would be good for me. It was one of those moments of awareness that separates childhood from adulthood: when you know that something—maybe eating those greens or getting up early to exercise—is important for your wellbeing, so you do it even though you don’t really want to.

I didn’t really want to be alone, but I knew it would be good for me, so I set out on the nearby Atalaya Trail to see what gift Aloneness might have for me in the midst of so much togetherness.

photo (9)The hard-packed ground was dry and gravelly, a shade of burnt, orangey-red that might as well be called New Mexico Red. I passed by Juniper and piñon, cacti, yuccas, and sagebrush, breathing in a heavenly-yet-foreign blend of scents that added a new layer to my aloneness: I was alone in an unfamiliar land.

As I continued walking, I began to wonder what range of unfamiliar creatures might call this arid region home (rattlesnakes? scorpions?). Then I recalled the coyotes whose sparring the night before had awoken me in my narrow dorm room bed, the windows open to the cool night air. Suddenly, alone took on multiple layers of meaning: I was not only by myself, far from others, but I was 7,000 feet above sea level in a foreign land, surrounded by potential dangers. The cell phone in my pocket didn’t even have service. I began anxiously singing, for company:

The bear went over the mountain,
the bear went over the mountain,
the bear went over the mountain—
to see what it could see.

I couldn’t remember what the bear saw, so I stopped singing and walking to just breathe—to calm the tinge of fear I felt and focus my mind on the quiet and the beauty that was all around me.

After walking a bit further, I reached a trio of wooden plank steps that carried the trail up and over a gravel road. Turning around, I lowered myself onto one of the steps, opening my water bottle and taking in the view below, the path I had just walked. The college campus, where all of those conversations and friendships had taken root the days before, looked small, but there it was, waiting.

I pulled my journal out of my backpack, turning to a page where I had taken a few notes while the poet Scott Cairns had read to us an evening or two before. A line from his poem “Draw Near” had especially captivated me:

For near is where you’ll meet what you have wandered far to find.

I had traveled all the way to New Mexico to be with other writers and artists—I needed new conversations and different perspectives to help reframe the story within me. Then I had traveled up this mountain for time and space alone, in a land so different from the one I know that I couldn’t help but be aware, notice, and respond—not intellectually but viscerally. And all of those miles, all of that wandering both with others and alone, had helped me meet what is very near, in my heart.

photo (8)

Island, Dharma, Cup

“It was a bad breakup that brought me to the dharma,” a teacher once told me. The dharma — and whether or not I’ve been brought to it — is an open question yet. But it was surely a bad breakup that brought me to the island. And the island that made me whole — not just once but twice, so far. It’s good knowing there’s a place that heals heartbreak, because life can be generous with the heartbreak sometimes.

I first found the island in the pages of a catalog. I was just twenty years old, stuck in a humid, landlocked city and itching to get free of a relationship that was hurting. I felt bound to my lover by the delicacy of her mental health; if I went for a long walk to look at the magnolias, I might come home to find her in the bathtub, bloody from a half-hearted suicide attempt. I couldn’t even get to the “bad breakup” stage until I got her some Prozac or something, but that was easier said than done. Going away to college seemed like it might let her down gently. So I looked for the furthest college I could find and found it: a bare refuge of a school, small, out of the way, on the northern ocean’s edge. A place I could start again.

When I told my lover what I hoped to do, she applied and got accepted herself. So my triumphant ride to freedom was on a Greyhound, half the country over with a woman who, by the end, would barely speak to me. That was a pretty bad breakup.

Halfway UpWe went such different ways that few would believe we’d ever known one another. Free, finally, to take long walks without having to worry what sadness might be waiting for me on my return, I fell hard in love with that island. I got a bike and rode it off roads and on, deep into woods bringing nothing with me but my thirst; and I drank from dripping rocks and soaked moss and boughs laced with fog. I would throw my bike into the brush at the base of a mountain trail and climb over red rocks up into a sky that fell over ocean and pine. Until I was finally strong enough to leave.

And it would be there, to that island, that I would drive almost 20 years later, having learned that marriage can be a multiplier of loneliness. That your heart can break with longing for love, despite the ring on your finger and the child you created together out of your two bodies.

I found myself, once again, climbing those rocks up into the sky, this time with a daredevil child in tow and an old dog that preferred the gentler trails. We climbed higher than the vultures and watched their finger-wings glide below us. We’d walk out like dancers on bits of board into a swamp and sit quiet to hear the peepers. I carried my daughter on my back when she got weary, pulled ticks off the dog and I woke early, to see the sun purple the nearest hillside before anyone stirred. And my heart knit itself back together in the astonishing, delicious aloneness.

I wasn’t lonely there, until a few years passed and brought me into love again — unexpected, unsought — and yet there it came, just as thunderous as heartbreak, just as undeniable as the ocean. And I mourned to leave the island, but love rendered it the wrong place to be; if I stayed, I stayed alone, with my love far from me. So I followed love, back to the mainland and away. It nearly broke my heart to do.

It’s been five years now and I haven’t been back since. And I haven’t really needed to.

There’s a story about a teacher who describes the dharma by holding up his teacup. “This is my favorite cup,” he says, “I love it in every way. And I consider it broken already.”

I like tea and I like teacups and I first heard this story as a caution against getting too attached to things. I could also hear it fatalistically: nothing lasts forever, so be ready. But the first part of the story is essential, I think, the part about loving something in every way. Because one of the ways things can be is broken — and hurt, diseased, suffering. What kind of love encompasses even what our hearts rebel against?

On the island, I can be alone and whole, not aching for any place but where I am. But I’m not from there, I’m from away. From the places where I’m broken already, and learning to love, with this heart I have, in every way.

*   *   *   *   *

Alison on a rock“Island, Dharma, Cup” is by Alison Coluccio. Alison lives with her partner and teenaged daughter in Ithaca, New York, in an urban eco-village, where she loves gardening to build bird habitat and fun food. In her not-spare time, she studies plant genetics at Cornell in a USDA lab. She’s worked with people and plants in Togo, West Africa and Irapuato, Mexico, and her writing on seeds and spirituality has appeared in Parabola. (Landscape vista photo, above, taken by Caitlin Regan.)