January Thaw

Acorn cap in the ice, Partridge Run.

Acorn cap in the ice, Partridge Run.

I was struggling. And then I froze.

First in September, October, and November came an extended burst of business activity, wherein I neglected much of my essay writing in favor of creative-writing-to-build-my-new-venture. Stiffening commenced.

A long viral illness ran concurrently.  Rime condensed on the edges of me.

Painful anniversaries blew in; December holidays challenged.  Whether it was the early darkness of the afternoon or the late darkness of the mornings, I slept longer than I wanted to, resistant to pull up and out of heavy-blanketed winter slumber.

The weather turned truly arctic, hikes became sporadic; cookies called my name beseechingly, promising energy, and I answered, too often. (Those no-good sweet-talking sweets.)

Movement slowed to glacial and the yoga attention wavered. Through the swirl of internal storms I couldn’t make out my wonderful new habits.  Extra pounds crept onto my body.

I solidified.

Fall leaf captured by ice.

Red oak leaf captured by ice.

Inside my hardened self, I started worrying:  How can I get back to my contemplative life? Why don’t I have energy to write about things that yes, really do, excite and feed me?

Finally, self-judgment crinkled deep into me, a solid-through, could-drive-a-loaded-semi-on-top-of-my-lake, subzero temperature drop: What’s wrong with me? Am I a failure at all of this? Will my blog join the thousands of “dead” blogs out there?

Perhaps I froze because over the months I would come home from the few hikes and instead of meditating on them, I would be planning yoga classes. Or writing about a workshop. Processing how those classes and workshops succeeded—or didn’t. Corresponding with people. Building networks. Learning my new phone. Applying for tax IDs. Rediscovering aromatherapy, selling products locally.

-Ing, -ing, -ing. A fall-into-winter shower of unique “-ing” shapes that softly, quietly, buried me.

***

Now it is January.  I took a four hour tromp on the melting icy paths looping through the woods and around Tubbs Pond, at Partridge Run.

My hiking partner called the weather a “January thaw.” I’d never experienced that at higher elevations before; just imagined it, from books. Above freezing, the snow melted some and then some more, and streams ran.

The legs were sluggish at first and didn’t want to pick themselves up over frozen upheaved beech and birch leaves, and stones covered by slushy moss.  The hiking partner’s legs protested too.

We walked and walked, up and down. I started to sweat, pulled off layers, walked and walked, got hungry, devoured peanut butter and apples, walked and walked; I walked the worry out of my body, walked until I was so tired by dusk that my eyes could barely focus.

I got to see three ponds I’d not seen before.

And ice. Oh, the ice.

Woods detritus on ice, in ice.

Woods detritus on ice, in ice.

If this were a painting, the brush strokes are magnificent.

If this were a painting, the brush strokes are magnificent.

Harsh angles.

Harsh angles.

Soft blobs.

Amoeba-like blobs.

Broken glass.

Broken glass.

Photo after photo, I lost myself in the teeny tiny: a single leaf on snow, and closer still the ridges of its veins, the iridescence of decomposition, backed by reflective crystals.  Jagged shapes, clear, opaque, rectangles, rounded blobs, layer across layer of frozen, half-frozen, refrozen. Miniature hemlock cones, red pine needles stacked pick-up-sticks style over white pine needles, leaves trapped under bubbles that couldn’t move.

The light--

The light–from below and above.

We two photographers gasped, giggled, and gestured: Look here! It can’t get more amazing—yes it can! I LOVE ICE.

Movement of water captured as it froze.

Movement of water captured as it froze.

The winter sun moved from white to gray across the sky.  We stumbled past Tubbs Pond and cheerily waved goodbye to snowmobile and deer tracks, and the chickadees who flirted from tree to tree.

My cheeks were ruddy, legs exhilarated. Days later, I still feel the warmth of following my instincts, listening to my body’s craving for beauty—and the walking, walking, walking.

I think I’ve been thawed, by the frozen.

Shimmering seeds on snow.

Winged seeds glowing red on snow, ready.

Lions and Tigers and Peaches, Oh My!

Orange newt in thick mud, August, Partridge Run

Orange newt in thick August mud at Partridge Run, Berne NY

Over two months ago, my buddy C and I hiked an overgrown path at Partridge Run, south of Albany. Like two girls in a fairy tale, we hopped and skipped and lolly-gagged, cameras instead of baskets-to-Grandma in hand. Small frogs surprised, bursting up with powerful rear legs from well-hidden spots in the mud. Orange newts appeared and disappeared, foreshortened limbs squiggling their torsos in cartoon fashion. We moseyed along, but then were stopped short by encroaching poison ivy and, smartly, turned around.

On the trail back to the car we spied something. A dark thing, in the middle of the path. A rock? A tree limb? An ailing creature? Cue the scary Little Red Riding Hood music.

I kneeled down to examine it. Looked up at my hiking partner, concerned. Looked down to take in the evidence again. Squinted up as we nodded simultaneously.

Yup.
Looks like it.
Bear, huh?
Yeah, see the blackberry seeds in it?
It smells musky around here–must be pretty fresh.
Oh. Look here in the mud. A claw print.

Straightaway we realized we should have been alert in the woods for something other than late summer wildflowers, amphibians, and butterflies. We quickly re-oriented to the aqua paint on the trees—Long Path “blazes” that marked our exit out.

Bee on the wing in late summer

Bee on the wing, before.

Only once before I’d been close to a bear in the wild (and known it), and that was a few months earlier at Kripalu. One early morning as the sangha gathered around a guest speaker, he noted drily: “You may want to look out the window.”

Across the back lawn, a youngster Ursidae was galumphing and gamboling, presumably drawn by the smell of our breakfast cooking. Since we saw the bear through glass, it was much more like a zoo encounter than a live one, though it made us all think twice before taking the paths alone at dusk.

Bears have also shown up in my nightmares, though not recently. Terror comes from a sudden smothering attack in the dark, from the inability to escape a creature so much larger and more powerful than me.

What I do know outside of nightmares: Black bears live in this part of New York, but not brown bears or the subset of brown bears known as grizzlies, which have a reputation of being more aggressive than black bears. The advice: Don’t hang out near rich food sources like fruit. Don’t get between a mother bear and her cubs. Hibernation starts in October and if you see a bear in January be very careful: it is likely a female, in labor, the most inclined to attack.

On the other hand, I have heard many stories of fairly peaceable bear-human encounters, where everybody just backed away.  Because, very importantly, bears are reclusive, prefer not to run into humans, and so we hikers should proactively announce our presence by making noise, shaking bells or singing.

***
Therefore, back in the woods, my helpful hiking mate, who was aware we should not be silent in case we came upon the depositor of the dung, began to shout.
Oh Mr. Bear, Mr. Bear!
SHE’S the plump and juicy one. I am the old stringy one. (Pause, as if listening.)
Yes, the one with the baseball cap, that’s her.

Only half-laughing, we sped our legs to cover territory fast, then faster. She continued:  Oh Mr. Bear, Mr. Bear! We had a lovely visit but we’re leaving now!

Arriving unscathed at the car, we weren’t ready to give up on our day in spite of run-ins with poison ivy and bear poo. We drove south, arriving at a more civilized path, one that led to Tubbs Pond.

I remarked as we sat down by the water, Glad I didn’t stop to eat my lunch in the woods.

Then it dawned on me the horrendous portent of what I carried in my bag, into what had proven to be active bear territory—cue more sinister music—as my fellow hiker hollered gleefully into the trees nearby,  Oh Mr. Bear! Mr. Bear! 
She’s got A QUARTER OF A PEACH PIE in her bag!

I whispered: And (more dawning, a veritable sunburn of realization) a sandwich, peanut butter and–

Whereupon she added with relish to her public service announcement:  AND HONEY!

Peace pie, water and sky on the Tubbs Pond dock.

Peach pie, water and sky at Tubbs Pond.

In the sunlight of the Tubbs Pond dock, safely consuming my late-summer pastry, I thought: Huh. In our hurry to get the heck outta there, fresh bear scat in our noses, I did not stop to take pictures.

And was beginning to regret it.

I ventured to my partner: Can we go back? I’d love to get a picture maybe of the tracks…is that crazy? My heart thumped in my throat like our legs had moved: a little fast, then faster. Without too much hesitation, she acquiesced. Only twenty minutes of walking, we figured…

Of course I was afraid. It would be a calculated risk. End of summer, blackberries obviously nearby, recent proof right in our footsteps of large alarming creatures–at least one of them.

But if I let the fear beat me, I might regret it forever, I thought. I really wanted photographic evidence of what we’d seen.

And lately I’m tired of being afraid of things, always stopping with “Maybe I’ll hurt myself, maybe I’ll look stupid, maybe I can’t be A+ at anything.” My new more honest self says: “Of course maybe I’ll hurt myself doing new things and of course I look stupid sometimes and yes, maybe the bear will return to the scene of his crime—er, droppings”—but should I let that keep me away?

My pulse continued to increase. I noted and then ignored it, as we climbed back into her vehicle.

After all, it was with some knowledge that we were deciding to proceed—to make noise, and look up and around while hiking, not just at our feet. Aware that if the wind is blowing at your back, the bear can smell you up to a mile away; if at your face, you can stumble on them because they can’t smell you at all.

Not out of the car a minute, hand cupped around her mouth, my buddy started:
The peach pie is in her belly, if you’re looking for a treat.

Jingling keys and singing, we found the path. She mumbled under her breath: Can’t believe we are going back into bear infested woods to get a ratsa-fratsa picture. I thought to myself—If I get attacked by a bear I’m gonna not only feel stupid, I’m going to have BEEN stupid.

Off to the side, something dark and thick swam forward in the woods; my eyes bulged and attention narrowed sharply–Oh my god, there’s a bear!

–Oh, a burned stump. In pseudo bravery, an aside to the cutthroat hiking partner: Here is where in the scary movie they say: Don’t do it! Don’t go back! You know there are bears in there!

Heart still thumping hard, I slowed my inhale, slowed my exhale. It didn’t help.

Maybe this IS a scary movie, I thought. Maybe I AM part of a fairy tale, but I can’t think about it now; I’m busy paying attention to my surroundings I shook my keys louder.

We walked quickly, one ahead, one in back.
I will stay behind you and have my camera ready, so I can take pictures when the bear comes out to greet you. She snickered mercilessly.

I hoped she knew it’s ok to take pictures with a small camera, but not one with a big lens because the bear interprets that as a large and very aggressive eye. I did know that when you encounter a bear, you look sideways at the ground, and back away or circle around.

Joe Pye Weed, with a non-lethal creature.

Earlier we’d passed Joe Pye Weed, visited by a non-lethal creature.

We arrived at the fated spot much more quickly than we thought we would; fear definitely distorts your sense of time. Involved in looking for the prints again, we walked along the path identifying deer and raccoon in the thick mud, and others, including the horse’s hooves we’d seen all over Partridge Run.

Then there they were–round, small, but bear’s prints, definitely not dog, definitely not people or coyote…click-click the camera went. I neglected to check the woods every second or two. In fact, the more bear-free minutes that passed, the less afraid I felt. We finished and hurried back to the car, the distance even shorter this time.

On our final steps:
A granola bar, Mr. Bear, I think she’s got one of THOSE still.

In the car, we giggled in relief. I had faced my fear AND gotten the pictures.

***

I am glad I had a hiking partner who was willing to go back, even if she was (verbally anyway) also willing to throw me to the omnivores. Glad I got to enjoy my peach pie, and the fairy tale lesson did not involve being swallowed and cut out again, or some outside hero saving me. Glad I’ve learned to not live without fear but to feel it and choose my action.

Having a wicked-funny friend along sure helps.

***

Postscript: At home I analyzed the photos. The ground was so wet and gravelly, it was hard to capture the details of the prints that were visible three-dimensionally, in person. You can’t see where we saw that nails and claws had dug in, versus just some other animal’s pads displacing the mud. But the dung was delightfully clear.

Yup, there it is.

Yup, there it is. The pile of scat was not large, hence the bear wasn’t either. Which is just what the size of the prints indicated as well.

Chanting? Really? Yes.

Oscillations of water wash over fall leaves, at Partridge Run, Berne NY.

Oscillation of water, like sound, washes over fall leaves, at Partridge Run, Berne NY.

Most mornings, I chant.

I have always been told I couldn’t sing well; whichever octave sits next to me is where I jump, and I waver when unsure if another note might be closer.  I’ll sing snippets with my CD player or part of a hymn I’ve practiced a hundred times, but only when I am fairly confident I will land correctly.

Still, I wibble and wobble.

But at yoga school, chant began our day. I had to open my mouth and make sound come out. On-target or out-of-key, it didn’t matter; first thing, we intoned “the resonance of the universe,” Om, followed by three Sanskrit stanzas of the Student-Teacher Mantra.

Almost sixty of us perched sit-bones on little black cushions while out the window, sunrise pinked the eastern sky.  The mantra song felt strange to many and made them itch in discomfort and wiggle like little kids.   Mountain fog dissipated into the evergreens while our eyes remained closed, or followed the lines on a large-print poster at the front.  Over twelve days the chant became more familiar.

IMG_4024

Clouded Kripalu morning over the mountain.

During the break between sessions, I committed to continue, using a grainy digital video I’d recorded at Kripalu.

At that point, I needed to be led.

By the third stanza, usually my throat hurt.  I tried again every daybreak to coax energy, with a vocalization some mornings tentative and froggy, other times expansively bouncing off the yoga room walls. Breath slowed and deepened out of necessity, and warmed my throat. Warmed my thoughts toward myself.

This was not just a tune.

Then came even deeper breath and movement, heat, circulation and all the good invited onto my mat with those sensations. Finally, my nauseated frustration flirted with comfort. I recognized unwanted thoughts and let them float away.

When we returned to Kripalu, I heard my morning voice steady and confident.

Tibetan singing bowl with symbol of wisdom eyes.

Tibetan singing bowl with symbol of wisdom eyes.

Now out of school, why do I do it?

One afternoon I sat in a kitchen that reeked of the detritus of cooking, home early because my therapist forgot my appointment–what deep things does THAT say? I asked myself melodramatically. Basil stems and onion ends needed to be taken to the trash, cabbage bits and tea leaves laid sodden in the sink, crumbs sprinkled the table and floor.

Earlier I’d stopped at the used book store and found two 25 cent paperbacks for the lake-vacation planned with my best friend.

But at my table I acknowledged it was a vacation she and I would have to put off–because her brother is sick, so she will instead drive five hours back and forth to him a couple days a week, and then to doctors and hospitals in search of diagnosis, prognosis, the plan, whatever-that-plan-might-be, however long it might take. Because of love.

How can I make my life like a vacation without a trip? Give yourself permission, my therapist might say, like the night before, to stay up and crush the basil into pesto, to cut the watermelon and freeze the grapes for hot afternoon snacking, to wash the lettuce–but also to toss the sprouting sweet potato, feel the sticky floor under my feet, acknowledge I ate maybe one too many pieces of the blueberry buckle baked in the beautiful dark. Feel it all.

Blueberry buckle: crunchy top, tender crumb.

Blueberry buckle: crunchy top, tender crumb.

I had given the therapist some blueberry buckle as we laughed over the scheduling error. I thought, I would send some to my best friend if I could fly it there. In the midst of her pain, she’d mailed me a royal blue Pashmina shawl; the card read: Wrap yourself in this hug from me.

I want to take her to the lake we’d planned to visit, to hear the loons and go on long photo safaris in search of wild flowers and angles of light, to huff the thickly oxygenated Canadian forest air.  Drape myself like a scarf around her sad, sad shoulders. Feed her blueberry buckle and sip Chambord into the evening, watch the hummingbirds and fog dance in over the beach.

That’s why I chant. I chant to create space, to feel distress and delight. I chant, holding my best friend close, and her gravely ill brother. I chant and remember my friend J who died a year ago this month. I chant love gliding out of me for all of my existence.

I chant into the lakes and ponds and rivers and creeks, up the farmland and mountains, through the cumulous and wispy and mackerel skies. I chant into my cells, lungs, intestines, skin and fat and muscle. Into my toes and fingers. Through my navel: center of gravity, center of balance, center of self. Then out again and out again. Stretch, release.  Expand, contract.

Time passes and I am inhaling, vibrating, exhaling, feeling.

Time passes and I am in my breath in my body so time is inconsequential.

Chanting beckons me back to the mat and back to myself.

Chanting opens me with sound.

So most mornings, I chant.

Electric zing of fall color; energy courses through.

The visual zing! of fall; a path of green revealed by seasonal red.