Warmth

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The hardest part was always getting out of the sleeping bag. Every morning in New Zealand I’d wake up, cocooned in my own little heat burrito, and want to snuggle as far into the puffy synthetic lining as I could. The last thing I wanted to do was emerge out into the cold, take off my layers, put on my frozen-solid boots and socks and start to hike uphill. It seemed infinitely the better choice to roll back over and drift into that delicious kind of second-sleep you get when you ignore your alarm. It was comfortable in the sleeping bag, and I didn’t want to leave.

We delayed it as long as we could. We cooked breakfast in the vestibule of the tent, unzipping the inner door and sitting with our puffy coats on and our sleeping bags around our waists, trying to glean a little heat from the stove, or put ourselves in the path of the steam coming off the boiling water. I stayed in my sleeping bag to change out of my sleep clothes and into my hiking clothes, to deflate and roll up my sleeping pad, to pack my equipment into my backpack.  We delayed, we hung there, clinging to the comfort until we could finally avoid it no longer—we had to leave the warmth and venture out into the morning and what awaited us.

Being comfortable is stealthily dangerous, a silent killer. Being comfortable is nice, it’s easy.  Staying in your sleeping bag in the morning is nice, but it’s never going to be more than that. It’s never going to be dizzying or staggering or make your chest burn. It tops out at this perfectly lovely level of fine that gets stale after a little while. In many ways, it is worse for things to be nice and easy than to be bad. When things are bad, there is motivation for change. There is an impetus for movement. You are likely to strive for something better, for something different.  The unpleasantness of your circumstances makes this the obvious and only thing to do. But when things are nice and easy, that momentum is absent. There is nothing that is propelling forward motion. It is easy to be lulled into nice and easy, into comfortable, and to stay there well past the moment we needed to leave. When things are bad, when we have to fight through to make things better, we at least gain the experience of struggle, we are at least strengthened by the process. We get nothing from being comfortable.

On the morning of October 26, 2012, we woke up at 3:30am on a glacier.  The past 48 hours had been a grueling series of mental and physical trials that had left me drained and discouraged. Two nights before, we had stayed up through the night to brace our tent against 120 kilometer an hour winds that barreled down off the mountains and into the tunnel we were camped in. Every hour one of us would venture out into the frigid, unforgiving night and try to use one of the knots we’d learned to tie the snapped guy lines back together while we could still feel our fingers. The next day we’d had to hike several kilometers uphill onto the glacier, postholing through hip-deep slushy snow the entire way. When we finally arrived at the spot we’d planned to camp at, we had to spend the next four hours probing out a perimeter, building tent platforms and snow walls to protect our tents. Glacier camping required a far more elaborate camp-making process than just tenting on snow. By the time we ate dinner, it was 8pm and dark, and we crawled into our sleeping bags immediately afterwards, wasted of energy, huddling together to try to stay warm. It was at 3:30 after that night that we woke up, put on our crampons, headlamps, harnesses and avalanche transceivers, roped ourselves together in groups of four, and began to ascend Ashburton Glacier.

Others talked about it afterwards as one of their favorite memories of our time in the Arrowsmiths, the stars glinting above our heads, the silence of the sprawling wilderness pounding in our ears, the crunch of the ice beneath our feet, the glow of the headlamps up ahead, our rope teams like tiny constellations in the snow.

It was one of my worst mornings out in the field. I was weak and lethargic and miserable. It didn’t matter that we were on our way to summitting our first peak, that we were climbing on a glacier, that the peachy pink alpine glow was starting to hit the crests of the mountains above us as the sun prepared to emerge. I was sweating and freezing at the same time, my legs felt like crepe paper beneath me, and all I could think of was the warmth of my sleeping bag that I’d left behind.  With each taxing, carefully placed footstep, I was longing for nice and easy.

Too often we allow ourselves to settle for nice and easy, to settle for comfortable because we are trying to avoid the struggle. We are trying to avoid the difficulty. We are trying to avoid moving uphill in the dark and cold. We think that by not struggling, by not making ourselves get out of the warm sleeping bag, that we are doing ourselves a favor. That we are avoiding suffering. That we are happy. We think that nice and easy is something to aim for, something to aspire to. We allow ourselves to think that being comfortable and avoiding unpleasantness is as good as it gets.

It is an indulgence, an allowance, and the longer we let it go on, the more difficult it is to free ourselves from its grasp. The longer you remain in the cocoon of warmth, the less appealing leaving it becomes. We can convince ourselves that there’s no reason to move, no reason to change, no reason to bother ourselves, to upset the loveliness. The more complacent we become in the arms of nice and easy, the more sleepy and bewitched the simplicity makes us, the more we are selling ourselves short. The more we are settling. Nice and easy feels good but it doesn’t make us better.

Just before 7:30 am, we angled to the right to attempt the final pitch of our climb, our bid for the summit. Light had drenched our surroundings, the sun punching through a high-hanging layer of fleecy clouds in orange and gold. My rope team had been the first to leave camp hours before and we were the first to climb, one by one, onto the snowy knife-edge that jutted 2,236 meters into the sky.  We carefully removed our packs, planted our trekking poles in the snow and kicked out seats for ourselves, watching the others gain the final few meters of elevation to meet us. And though for the entire morning I hadn’t felt capable or energetic or enthusiastic, as I sat perched on the uppermost ridge of the glacier, I was filled with an elation, a sense of accomplishment and pride that seemed to overwrite all the struggling I’d done to arrive here. I wouldn’t have crawled back into that sleeping bag for anything. From our camp below we could see the mountains directly next to us, projecting directly up like saw-toothed walls. From the tip of 2236 I looked out at mountains as far as I could see in every direction, ranges beyond ranges stacking themselves in never ending snow-capped tiers.

I often have to remind myself in memory that the morning wasn’t just this unbelievable victory, but actually a fairly dismal endeavor up until the final moments. But sometimes you forget that when you look back. It was a struggle, and that was an important aspect of it, but you don’t get the sunrise over the mountains, you don’t get the soaring ecstasy if you stay comfortable in your sleeping bag with your eyes closed. You have to get out in the cold, you have to climb uphill, you have to work through your exhaustion and your bad attitude. You have to push yourself. You can’t stay still, and it’s not fine or easy. Not at the beginning or the middle or the end. You get the full range of the spectrum, from freezing and miserable to towering and triumphant. None of it’s easy and none of it’s fine. It’s worse than fine and it’s also better than fine. Stunningly, unimaginably, overwhelmingly better.

It would be simpler to settle for nice and easy, to stay in the sleeping bag. There is immediate gratification, there is warmth. There is no struggling, there is no discomfort, there is no discouragement. But there is also no triumph. There is no awe, no unbridled joy or boundless beauty. It doesn’t push you, it doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t propel your life forward in a way you never imagined.

And even if life can’t be that sprawling and blinding and ignited all the time, even if you have to spend an overwhelming amount of time in the trudging-uphill-in-the-cold-and-dark part, once you know that kind of life exists, you will never be able to stop chasing it. A life that challenges you and astounds you and demands of you everything you’ve got and then a little bit more. A life that’s sprawling and expansive and extraordinary.

Because there is a different kind of warmth, a kind that doesn’t come from wrapping yourself in down or synthetic fill, a kind of warmth that you create, that emanates from the deepest part of you, that stings and tingles and makes it a little hard to breathe.  It’s the radiance of the newly-risen sun on your face, the burn of exertion in your muscles, the glow of the bright white light in the hollows of your chest. It’s real and it’s attainable. But you have to get out of the sleeping bag.

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The Brochure

It was yesterday, as I found myself running around Santiago alone, trying not to get simultaneously deported and kicked out of my English teaching program, that I was hit with a vivid image of my NOLS kayaking instructor Ben looking out at a swollen, terrifying sea and proclaiming in his booming voice “Now THIS is the brochure!” Due to his Australian roots, the word sounded like “BRO-shuh,” and due to his slightly untraditional vision of the NOLS brochure, what we were looking at appeared to be a completely impossible situation.

We had spent most of the kayaking section “lily-dipping” through flat water, letting the sun tan our forearms and experiencing little resistance whatsoever from the elements. Instead of feeling like we were unwelcome trespassers in Mother Nature’s backyard, as we would later, she seemed to us a genial, nurturing hostess cradling us in her aquamarine arms.  It seemed impossible that clear skies, calm water, and bright yellow boats couldn’t be considered prime Brochure conditions, but the nicer the weather got, the more Ben seemed to call out across the water to the fleet, “WHERE’S THE DAMN BRO-SHUH?!” It was merely funny at first, one of the many amusing Ben-isms, but it became clear later why it was that Ben was inciting Mother Nature to bring it on.

It was a few weeks into the course and we found ourselves hitting our first major weather system—the clouds had been growing throughout the morning and less than a kilometer away from our destination we came around a corner and were blasted with an intense current, swelling waves and cold rain. I watched from my kayak as Ben gave a “cut it” gesture to Sally, our other instructor, and we were immediately instructed to get off the water. We pulled the boats onto a small beach in the cove we were floating in and watched while Ben paddled out into the open ocean around the corner to test the waters. Though a fiercely powerful rower, Ben was still unable to gain any ground against the strength of the water, and returned to the beach after a few minutes of effort, shaking his head at Sally. We went in shifts to the top of the leafy ridge to check the ocean on the other side of the cove, watching the whitecaps roll into shore. Finally, after what seemed like a soggy, cold eternity, we saw that the water had calmed enough for us to make a break for it.  As fast as we could, we got the kayaks into the ready position, pushed them out into the water, and hopped in. What we would face around the corner of the cove would be like nothing we’d seen thus far, nothing like what we felt prepared for.

The second we turned the corner, we ducked our heads down against the driving rain, trying to maintain our heading. Paddling became like pushing plastic through hardened concrete, and any attempt at communication between boats seemed to get lost in the wet, gray air. At some point I looked over to my left and saw Ben in his kayak, beaming at us and to himself. His Brochure had certainly arrived, though we hadn’t yet figured out why on earth that could be a good thing.

Nearly seven months after kayaking into the current in the Marlborough Sounds, I found myself speedwalking through throngs of Chilean businessmen on their way to work, starting to sweat a little and wondering if I was about to have to get on a plane back home. I’d spent the morning running in my business casual outfit first ten blocks in the wrong direction, then twenty blocks back to the Banco Estado where I had to pay my visa fine, and then to the extranjería where I would attempt to register the visa for the second time. Due to arriving in Chile over a month before my teaching assignment began and not being able to register my visa within the required thirty days, I was now experiencing the veritable roller coaster to hell that is bureaucracy. I’d spent four hours the previous Friday sitting in the extranjería waiting to file for my late-registry sanction, at which point I was told I’d have to pay a fine, but I had to do it at a particular bank, and I wouldn’t be able to do it until the next Monday because all the banks were already closed. I’d spent Monday morning trying to pay the visa fine before it got any higher and subsequently skipping the first several hours of my teaching orientation to do so. At the time, trying not to get deported seemed like a valid reason to miss a few introductions and housekeeping items. After walking 2 kilometers out of the way, then waiting twenty minutes for the bank to open, and then waiting another thirty in line, even at 9:30 the morning was off to a bit of a dismal start. As I was walking out the door to head to my orientation thirty minutes late, I read on the bank form that failure to register the visa within three days of paying the fine would result in more fines. Deciding to cut my losses with the orientation, I speed walked back to the extranjería to attempt to register for a second time. After two hours waiting in a cramped, poorly lit waiting room with Chilean daytime TV blasting at a jarring volume, I arrived at the counter to be told that I was missing important photocopies I hadn’t been told about and that they couldn’t do anything for me until I had them. Though up until that point I’d maintained a pretty positive attitude about everything that had been going on, feeling good about my ability to navigate the bank and the extranjería and a good deal of the Santiago streets in Spanish, this hit felt a lot like turning a corner and being blasted by a 3 knot current. Little did I know that the rain hadn’t even started yet—that in only a few more minutes I would arrive late to my teaching orientation and be told that failure to show up to any part of the mandatory training was grounds for dismissal from the program.

As I walked from the extranjería to the training center, I tried to practice deep breathing, tried to visualize that bright white light in, that black smoke out, and tried repeating over and over that I couldn’t control the raging storm going on around me, that I could only control my reaction to it. And that stressing and getting twisted up in knots would not change anything expect my experience of all of this, and that the decision to breathe deeply and think calmly was just as available to me. I was then reminded of another nugget of NOLS wisdom, one of the seven leadership principles that I had experienced many times on my semester in New Zealand and that I was unquestionably experiencing now. I could see the words written in the little yellow handbook we were all given on the first few days: Tolerance for Uncertainty and Adversity.

My first turn as Leader of the Day came near the end of our kayaking section—Ethan, my co-leader, and I had planned relay races, games and other fun activities for what we expected to be a relatively easy move on the water. Things had gone smoothly for the entire journey, until we pulled up at what was marked on our charts as a campsite. Justine and I hopped out of the boats to inspect the site, finding a place to store the boats and to set up tents and tarps. It became quickly clear that the spot was uncampable—overtaken by vegetation, hilly, and without a discernable fresh water source. We consulted the chart and found two other nearby camping options, so we rounded the boats back up and set out to try our luck at the next spot. Two more times we pulled up to a beach, hopped out of the boats, and determined that what was supposedly a previous campsite of another NOLS group was actually inhabitable. Ethan and I decided to take a beach break to figure out what the heck we were going to do, feeling the responsibility of the entire group on our shoulders. It didn’t help that it was overcast and cold, and that the morale and energy of the fleet was quickly waning.  I tried not to let the guilt and disappointment in myself that was starting to creep up on me take over as we poured over the chart, feeling as though I’d certainly failed the group as a leader. Ethan and I decided that our best option was to kayak three more nautical miles to what again was only possibly a campable spot.

When we finally arrived, everyone drained from the difficulty and the ups and downs of the day, we found ourselves engaging in what Ben referred to as “combat camping” – a fight against the encroaching tide to stay dry on the tiny sliver of beach. After setting up our tarps we all gathered in a circle to do the daily debrief, a discussion of what had gone well and what could be improved upon for the leadership of the day. I sat next to Ethan, prepared for us to get reamed out for leading the group astray not once, not twice, but three times, and waited for what our feedback would be. To my shock, the group and the instructors commended us for being able to roll with the punches, for being able to re-strategize when things didn’t go according to plan, and to deal with unexpected challenges in a calm and competent manner.

Remembering this phrase, Tolerance for Uncertainty and Adversity, as I walked home from orientation alone, having been pulled aside to be reprimanded for skipping and still not having sorted out the visa problems, I felt my heart rate slow, my breath even out. I imagined Ben looking at the situation I was in and saying, “Now THIS is the Bro-shuh!” I knew the reason that he’d wished to provoke the wrath of Mother Nature, the reason that a day that seemed like complete catastrophe had been reason for praise, was because the Brochure, the Uncertainty and Adversity, those are the places we grow. Those are the places where our abdominals strengthen from paddling against a forceful current, those are the places where our independence and competence soar, those are the places where we learn to keep breathing deeply as we walk even when things around us are spiraling into a tangled wreck. Navigating difficult seas, remaining calm and clear-headed in the face of uncertainty and adversity—the image of that, that is the Brochure. And though it may not look like the pretty picture we’d wanted, may we all be lucky enough to experience it, and to keep paddling right through it.

Traveling Light

Coming back to Chile for the third time was distinctly different than the second–less a breath-quickening miracle of a thing and more a warm, familiar loveliness. Spanish tasted like a favorite childhood food in my mouth, the air seemed to wrap its arms around me. Our first night in Santiago I felt the wild, sprawling love for this country that had been dulled my last departure by the state of my father`s health. I had missed Chile more than I’d been aware of, missed the quick, aspirated S`s, the steady reggaeton baseline pumping out of car stereos, the omnipresence of small, oblong avocados, the certain crisp flavor of the air.

Going back to Coquimbo to visit my host family seven years after living with them felt like a tug as natural as the gravity holding me to the stone patio overlooking the tiny bay. I sat at their kitchen table as I’d done dozens of times before, sipping black tea with sugar and talking about how things were going, and it felt like slipping into another version of myself, one that had been set aside somewhere, but that felt as right and as comfortable as a favorite old fleece jacket. It felt like this self, transmitted through the medium of the unique Chilean strain of the Spanish language, had just been waiting here for me to slide back into it. It felt as organic and as mine as any other part of me.

But it felt strange to line up all the other parts next to this one and create a cohesive, co-existing whole. The me sitting in Coquimbo chatting in Spanish to dozens of members of extended family felt worlds away from the me cross-country skiing through silent snow laden trees in Maine, to the me swaying to live music before the Chicago skyline. They all seemed strikingly disparate and yet equally valuable, equally authentic.  Would it ever be possible to unite them and the others in their company to create a complete self, or would some parts always be taking a backseat to others?

At the beginning of my NOLS semester in the fall, our kayaking instructor Sally told us that this was an opportunity to be our best selves–to come in fresh to this experience, leaving behind all the aspects of our personality we wished we didn’t have, and allow the most true and beautiful parts of our nature to take the lead. The air in the small room at base camp was  suddenly thick with the acceptance of the challenge. Everyone seemed to be mentally sifting through themselves, choosing what should stay and what should be left behind, just as we had when packing our 90 liter backpacks for the semester. The strategy was similar– take only what you need, only what will be the most beneficial and useful. We are often weighed down by the useless and the unnecessary. And so as we were instructed to lighten our gear loads, we were advised to lighten our identities as well.

As one of the oldest members of my NOLS group, I was approached for advice by one of my younger friends who was struggling with how to choose a college.  I told him what I firmly believed to be true– that in life wherever we go is bound to bring out different aspects of our personalities, and to choose somewhere you will be happy you must first decide what aspects you want to be brought out.

Sitting in my host family`s kitchen, I felt pulled in many directions, and was struck with the visceral and looming concern that many shades of myself would prove to be mutually exclusive– that I would be forced to choose. And it was one thing to unpack unnecessary or bulky items and leave them behind, and quite another to realize that you can either bring your socks or your hat or your gloves, but not all three.

It seemed to me as I switched between rattling off Chilean slang to my host sister and translating for Marielle in English, shifting rapidly between selves, that I either hadn’t come to terms with the reality of a difficult choice, or I hadn’t found the right backpack yet– one that would allow space to pack in all the best, necessary things. But luckily, our journey was young and so were we, and as you go you always find better ways to pack everything in.