Last weekend I went on a day hike and almost died of hypothermia. It was epic and frightening and I’ll write about it some time after I get warm again and my metabolism goes back to normal.
I barely knew the two people that I was hiking with that day, and we still barely know each other, but wilderness experiences, especially life-and-death ones, have a way of forming a bond between people that has nothing to do with how well you know each other or what you think of each other in the real world. There’s this understanding that you reach after trusting someone with your life, and this is one of the things I like most about being in the wilderness.
On a mountaineering trip a few years ago, I remember descending an awful steep snowy slope in extremely sketchy conditions and being scared to death. The person closest to me was helping me climb, and I realized that I was literally trusting my life to him. This was a person with whom I had immense personality conflicts, we had gotten in terrible fights, and I just generally disliked him. Being more stable and less scared than I was at that moment, and having ended up next to me in the climbing line, he took my hand, looked me in the eye and reassured me, and helped me with every step until we reached the bottom safely. I wouldn’t have made it off that mountain if it weren’t for him. After that, and a few other instances of watching each other’s backs, we didn’t exactly become friends, but trusting each other with physical safety led to much more emotional safety.
I wish every new social enterprise or relationship was preceded by such a wilderness outing.
One week to go until my students arrive for the program that I’ve been working on developing for the better part of a year. This program is like a black hole that draws everything into its gravity and bends time and reality around it. I have a kind of paralysis of the mind; I am unable to think of anything else. I am unable even to fathom thinking about anything that might occur after this program: what I might be doing next month or next year or what I ultimately want to do with my life, which in normal circumstances is something I think about often. Now when I try to think about any of these, I draw a huge blank.
Thank goodness for books. Reading is the only means by which I can entertain thoughts of anything unrelated to work. I read a young adult book recently called “Princess Academy” by Shannon Hale. I would never have picked up a book with such a stupid title if it were not a Newbery Honor book. It turns out that despite the cheesy title and premise (a group of girls from a mountain village go to a school to be educated in the ways of royalty because a prophecy has been made that the Prince will choose one of them for his wife), it’s a lovely book with more depth and poignancy than I expected. Having recently spent a lot of time working with young adolescent girls who have just the penchant for this kind of story, I think this book really speaks beautifully to the universal yearnings of young (and not-so-young) girls’ hearts. It is also a really nice story with well-developed fantasy elements. Of course, the thing that I find both lovable and frustrating about this and most children’s books is the tidiness of its resolution. I turn to these kinds of books when I want to see emotions distilled with the clarity and purity of childhood, and when I want every character’s story to be concluded neatly with no loose threads. It’s a nice respite.
A very different young adult book I’ve been devouring is “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation”, a historical novel about slavery during the Revolutionary War. It is a lexical heaven, written in the language, style, and grammar of the 18th century. Logophiles must read this with a dictionary and notebook close at hand. I took down several pages’ worth of obscure words and archaic uses of familiar ones. This is a great book that sheds light on the philosophical pursuits of the Age of Enlightenment and presents a quite appalling picture of the times, far from the romantic patriotism I usually think of. From the brutal violence of colonial warfare to the sickening apparati used to subdue slaves to the gruesomeness of tarring and feathering, the Revolutionary War was a period I definitely didn’t want to witness. There are two volumes to this story, and after I finished Volume 1 I immediately went back to the library and was appalled that they didn’t have Volume 2.
When I was a kid, I thought that the only important and meaningful experiences in life were the fun ones, and hard times were just an unfortunate part of life. In college, I thought that the only true growth came from struggle and difficulty, and the good times were merely reward and respite. Now I think that both good and bad times can be learning and growing experiences, or both can be meaningless.