I should know better when I reach the high country: On every climb, I expect the view, back to where I started, forward to where I’m going. But mountains are deceptive and it’s not always clear like that. Anything can block the long view: fog or trees or subsidiary ridges. A path that shines clear as a yellow brick road one minute might the next be swaddled in such mystery that you could step of the trail and die of disorientation.
The path to this point in my life has been, I imagine, quite a bit like yours. Often, the mountains we’ve crossed have given us clear views and obvious directions; but other times, we’ve been waylaid by meandering detours, spiking high points, and brooding canyons. Sometimes we’ve been lost for days, or weeks or longer, with no idea which way to turn, or how to go forward.
This place I’m in now? It’s a good one, combining all the things I love: music, writing, travel, nature, outdoor activity, and a beautiful home on a mountain dirt road in the woods. I feel lucky to be here. But that doesn’t mean I’ve always taken the best path to get here. So I’m asking questions: What could I have done better? What can I do better in the future? What has been consistent the entire journey?
Inertia being what it is, it seems that the things I have carried with me this far will stay with me going forward, that what is important to me now is what has been important to me all along. But will what worked in the past be necessary in the future? Will it even still work? In hiking, technology has lightened our loads, experience has taught us to do more with less, to walk less encumbered by stuff we don’t need. Can the same be true in life?
Paul Simon wrote, “Lord ain’t it strange, after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same?” I am the same but I am also different. My growth rings spread out from the same fundamental core.
But when you get to this age… maybe you’ve made the same mistakes more than once. Maybe it’s time to fix that. Can I be more or less the same, but better? Am I not tired of feeling the same lack of control over how I approach a loaded all-you-can-eat buffet? And looking in the mirror the next day? Do I really HAVE to make the same damn New Year’s resolutions every damn January?
As with Tolstoy’s unhappy families, those of us with fitness, weight, and health issues each have our own story. From my metaphorical mountaintop I look back and see a trail of relationship eating, a few silly diets, and roller coasters of extreme activity (walking from Mexico to Canada, say, or running marathons) interspersed with months where I spent days on end doing nothing more physical than clattering away at a keyboard. And a lot of denial. A large frame hides a lot of weight gain, until it doesn’t and you can’t fit into your size extra-large ski pants and have to borrow some from your even bigger partner.
I need to be on a different trail, and this hiatus have given me the opportunity to find it. I’m in a bit of a home-bound pattern right now – David’s stroke turned everything upside down. He’s recovering, I’m staying home to help (at least, that is what I think I am doing) and what with all the doctors visits and blood tests, we’ve decided to face our issues of fitness head on.
I’ve joined David in his weekly Tai Chi class, and we’re both doing the low carb thing. (David’s blood work has come back so normal that he is off of virtually all medication; I’ll be writing more about that later). We’re walking every day, and I am hoping to add running to the mix . For the moment, I am telling myself that I want to be ready for a killer ski season, for a longer hike next summer, and possibly for a triathlon next fall with my teenage niece.
But most important of all is getting ready for ordinary life in the years ahead. I’ve been people watching closely for a few weeks now, and what I see scares the hell out of me.I don’t want to age into a body that waddles and slumps and staggers and huffs and puffs and stoops and falls and breaks. I will never be younger than I am now, which makes this the best time to insure my future that I will ever have. I want to keep my agility and physical competence and I want to look as young and move as youthfully as I feel.
I have role models: My amazing neighbors have just turned 90, and one of them was teaching skiing until just a few years ago. We can’t always choose what happens to us – acts of God and strokes of bad luck can hit anyone anywhere. But insofar as we have a choice, I am making it now.
David doesn’t recommend what he is calling the “stroke diet,” (also known as the “Karen is too fat to go paragliding diet” because that is what inspired me to look for a quick weight loss plan.”) But we play the cards we’re dealt, and David is playing his as well as anyone could. Me, I’m learning from the sidelines, cheering him on, and taking care of myself. David’s stroke is not the path we’d have chosen, but here we are on it, and it leads to a summit all its own. We both might come out the better for climbing this mountain. At least, that is my hope as I contemplate the path ahead.
When I decided to add this blog to my website a few weeks ago, I was thinking metaphorically. Navigating the terrain above treeline, it seemed to me, was a not-quite-perfect but good enough way to think about mid-life. The views from a mountain are expansive and reward one’s efforts; one hopes that the perspective of mid-life is similarly far-reaching and satisfying. In both cases, we can look back to where we started. In both cases – one hopes – we’ve learned and changed.
I also wanted a writing home that was similarly expansive. Over the last few years, writers have been advised to specialize, to focus on niches, to showcase expertise. But I wanted a writing outlet where I could bring together disparate elements of my world: hiking, writing, music, adventuring, photography, being an art student and a budding novelist. I wanted a place where I could explore how all these things interact.
As they say, if you want God to laugh at you, tell her your plans.
About a month ago, while sitting at the table for a family dinner, my partner, David, had a stroke.
The first signs were subtle: He seemed tired. He let other people do the chores – which is so unusual I should have called 911 immediately. Then again, when someone doesn’t clear the table, your mind doesn’t automatically jump to “he must be having a stroke.” It was only when David dropped a glass and couldn’t stand up that warning bells turned to sirens. He was the one to identify what was happening. And then he spent the next 20 days in the hospital.
To return to my mountain metaphor: the land above treeline is not all Instagram moments of glorious views. It is also fog and storm and lightning strikes; it is dangerous and unpredictable, and it can kill you. When I landed on the above-treeline metaphor, life had been sunny for a good long time. It was easy to forget that mountain weather can change without warning. And if I am writing about life above treeline, this, too, is part of it.
As I drove the hour, each way every day, to the hospital my mind mostly wandered down the mundane paths of list making, calls, doctor’s appointments, and errands. In between, I had time to consider how lucky we had been. Yes, lucky: If David had had his stroke three hours earlier, he would have been driving my 87-year old mother to our house. Five minutes later, my sister and I would have been driving my mom home; David would have been alone with visiting teenagers who live in a different state, know no-one local, and might not have been able to help the 911 folks find our dirt road. Six weeks earlier, I had been in Switzerland and David had been home alone.
As word seeped out to our friends, I learned that I had even more to be grateful for: A community that has carried us through this crisis in ways we never could have imagined.
Every year for the past 18 years, David has been one of the people leading a musical jam that brings together friends and musicians for a weekend of music making. We were scheduled to host that event two weekends after David’s stroke. We had friends coming in from Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Jersey, Toronto, and Chicago. I had to write to everyone to cancel the event.
Only, they refused to be canceled. The jam was one thing, they told me; friendship was another. They might not play music, but they wanted to visit David, help me figure out if anything in the house needed to be fixed or made more accessible, run errands, keep me company.
One of my friends said, “Karen, you’re not going to be doing this alone. You guys have a lot of friends, and people are going to be here for you.” I didn’t know what help I’d be needing…. During those early days, I was mostly in crisis mode and not looking too far ahead. But it helped to hear that our friends had our backs. And they did: Faraway friends offered to use up vacation days to come and visit and shop and clean. Local friends came for visits and offered to run errands.
And then they all came together and created some magic.
It started when one of our local musician friends said, well if the jammers are coming anyway, maybe they could put on a benefit concert? Another friend suggested putting up a GoFundMe page for people who couldn’t be at the benefit but wanted to help.
Our friends were way ahead of us on the issue of money: I was focused on David’s ability to find words and move his arms and legs. I hadn’t even begun to think of the financial implications. As writers and musicians, David and I are both in the leaky boat of creative self-employment. Yes, we have insurance, and yes, we have savings, but holding those up against the onslaught of a major medical event is like looking at an approaching tsunami and congratulating yourself on having installed a sump pump.
Huge medical events hit everyone differently. If you’re lucky, you have a job with generous sick leave, and your position will be waiting for you when you are ready to come back. But many jobs don’t offer that flexibility and stability: For too many of us, the reality is, if we don’t work, we don’t earn.
Being self-employed, David and I both have the option to juggle our schedules and take time off (although too much time off might mean rebuilding our student and client lists later down the road). But the trade-off – flexibility for reduced income – was a good one: It meant that I could spend time at the hospital to participate in the therapy sessions and learn how to help David at home.
But we knew that even with insurance, expenses will mount during the weeks or months when David will be unable to work. Another thing: trying to keep going with work when you are managing a homefront in crisis can be emotionally as well as practically difficult. So although it felt a bit uncomfortable, we said yes to the benefit and yes to the gofundme page. We had no expectations; we were just grateful to accept help.
Writing this post feels odd because these issues – accepting help, financial realities, friendships – are deeply personal, and I don’t really know who I’m writing to. But I’m going to assume that you’re not a stranger. You could be a high school, college, camp, or work friend, a musician friend, a fellow writer, a current or former student, or one of the thousands of people from all over the world who have learned to play guitar thanks to David’s Internet writing. If you live in the Berkshires, you might be a student, coworker, fellow musician, friend — or all of the foregoing. You could be one of the many people who donated anonymously, and this is the only way I will ever be able to thank you.
Many of you contributed to David’s recovery in so many ways I can’t even begin to list them all: Contributing money, yes, and also bringing food and drink to the benefit, hosting the musicians at dinner, donating items for the raffle, contributing your music to the nearly 6-hour event, helping to get the word out with calls and e-mails, collecting donations at the door, selling food and drink, cleaning up afterwards, sending heartening messages and notes, and coming to visit.
David has received notes from all over the world, often from people who he doesn’t know, but who have told him how much his work (teaching guitar and writing about how to learn to play guitar) has meant to them and how they have applied that knowledge in their lives. Many of these notes came with donations. We appreciated every single one, from friends and strangers alike: For you to follow David’s recovery, write a note, and take the time to send a contribution because his work has touched you in some way has bolstered our spirits in ways you can’t imagine.
On a practical level, these donations mean that we can breathe a little easier as David works on regaining his balance, his hand coordination, his strength, and his endurance. Just now, everything is exhausting and laborious, but the daily improvements continue to be very noticeable and encouraging. The first three months after a stroke are when the most progress is made, so being able to focus on his recovery at this crucial time is a huge gift.
As important is the sense of community you shared with us. The weekend concert turned into much more than a fundraiser: It was an expression of how music brings communities and people together. Event organizer Erika Ludwig picked up her violin to lead the Fiddling Femmes, who opened the show joined by other instruments from flute to tuba. The B.U.B.s (Berkshire Ukulele Band) followed with a 45 minute set that included “Imagine” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (I was able to video that for David, and he got teary viewing it). Next up was the Riverside Jam Band, with two hours of music with Nick Torres lead singer and Jeff Brownstein as conductor, set director, and cat herder. And thanks SO MUCH Fred Shane, sound engineer, for your great sound work! The icing on the cake was Marilyn Miller’s community jam and open mic that featured originals, favorite pop and rock tune, and one of David’s students on classical guitar. I think there were more than 60 musicians from somewhere around age 8 or 9 to 80 (at a guess). And scores of audience members.
Even now at home, we continue to receive cards and offers of help and notes and little gifts, some of them anonymous. Who left the little bouquet of wildflowers at my door? How are we going to thank you if you don’t tell us who you are????
I am not usually a “silver linings, the universe has its reasons” sort of person. The universe can be full of love and wonder, but who draws what straws in the lottery of life seems pretty random to me. And that same universe can turn on a dime and be pretty freaking nasty. You just have to look at a news reports (Syria, tsunamis, floods, terrorism, mass shootings) to disabuse yourself of the notion that everything happens for a reason. All of us get sick, all of us die, none of us gets a pass through the hard stuff as we explore our humanity. And sometimes the S&%t hits the fan.
On the other hand, sometimes there ARE silver linings, and when they shine right in front of your face, you can’t pretend they aren’t there. Grace often appears in the midst of crisis. In this case, the silver lining – the grace — is all of you.
“Put your weight on your right foot!” my date yelled.
I was teetering on a windsurfing board, trying to make it turn. I may as well have been trying to turn the Titanic.
“I AM!” I wailed, as the board continued straight ahead.
My date yelled louder. “Put your weight on your right foot!”
He repeated that a few more times, his voice fading in the distance as I picked up speed toward the far shore of the Potomac. Finally, I put my left foot clear in the air to prove, once and for, all that my weight WAS on my right foot. The board kept going straight.
Lousy teaching? Lousy learning? Maybe both: I have an astounding lack of talent when it comes to standing on moving boards (skateboards, snowboards, surfboards; it doesn’t matter which).
The point is not whether I ever learned to windsurf (I did not) nor whether my date was or wasn’t a good teacher. (He was not.) And forget about the relationship. What I’m pondering is the importance of experiencing failure as we journey through life.
When we’re young, we spend most of our time learning, and a lot of that time is spent failing. We try to walk a hundred times before we toddle across the room to mommy or daddy. We sing the alphabet song a thousand timers wrong before we sing it right. But as time goes on, that balance changes. As adults, days may go by when we don’t step outside our comfort zone. We may not fail at something for weeks.
I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, not only when I’m learning, but also when I’m teaching.
Most of us, when we teach, are sharing our knowledge of something we are good at. We forget what it’s like to not know how to step on a windsurfer and shift three mysterious hidden muscles somewhere in our core, and have the board turn.
Failure reminds us.
A few months ago, I decided to try to sing a song in semi-public after weeks of practicing to an audience of my cats. I must have rehearsed the song 500 times.
The venue was a a small musicale with a small group who met a key requirements: they are astonishingly non-critical, willing to find something to praise in even the most earsplittingly bad performance. As I started, my voice wobbled in an unsettling way, then I fell off pitch — kind of like the sound a train makes as it moves, unstoppably, away from you. And I forgot the words. “I did this better at home,” I wanted to mutter — which is exactly what my students tell me day in and day out.
There is knowing what a student is going through. And then there is KNOWING. As I slunk off the make-shift stage, I KNEW what it felt like for an insecure beginner to get it (sort of kind of) right at home, then fall apart on stage. My days of being a beginning piano player are long behind me, but my days of being a beginning singer are painfully present.
When my students complain “it’s HAAAAAARD!” what are they really telling me? It might be that they don’t understand what I’ve asked them to do. Or that they haven’t yet developed the skills to break a task into manageable pieces. Maybe they don’t yet know how to make intuitive adjustments until some secret neural pathway figures out how to put it all together. Or they may not enjoy tussling outside of their comfort zone.
Failing is a route to understanding the learning process. My inability to balance on a surf board while putting weigh on one foot and trying to change direction is not all that different from a student’s inability to relax the wrist, support the bridge of the hand, and turn one finger under the other while moving to a different place on the keyboard. In recent months, I’ve tried to rock climb, ski moguls, sing into a microphone, build a better website, speak Italian, and play the bass.
Each time, my success, or lack of it, has taught me something about teaching, even if it’s only to remind me, once again of this:
The most important part of being a teacher is creating a space where it is okay to fail.
Right now, I’m taking an art class. We’re supposed to draw things — so far, I’ve tried lots of vases and flowers, some seashells, a few faces, a cow bone, a gourd, a seed pod, and a skull. My first skull looked like a wax model that had melted in the heat.
The seed pod presented a whole universe of challenges: its delicacy and translucence, the shadows, the lights and darks, the edges, the angles and dimensions. I didn’t get it right; I may not have even gotten it recognizable (I’ve stared at it so long I can’t tell any more). “This is hard!” I found myself saying as I started a third attempt to make the seed pod three-dimensional.
But I was laughing as I said it. Maybe this is the lesson you learn about learning when you fail: Hard is good. Failing is on the road to succeeding. And the whole process means there are whole new worlds ahead to explore — one wobbly attempt at a time.