I’m haunted by a mundane image. It won’t seem to let go of me, or I should say, I don’t seem to be able to let go of it. It’s the smallest thing, a tiny mahogany-hued ant struggling to move a dead, decaying pine needle atop a bed of its brethren fallen needles. The ant seems to have a plan that involves relocating this particular one some distance away. To me, they all look the same, and I ponder what makes this specimen unique, so much so that it’s the one that fits the intended purpose. The brittle, brown needle is at least 10 times the size of its claimant. It’s the rubber-tree plant song playing on repeat in my brain.
I suppose it’s because the metaphor is so comprehensive, and there’s been plenty of time to contemplate metaphors lately.
The middle path, the one of balance and equilibrium, is often contrasted with a swinging pendulum. High highs and low lows are identified as causes of suffering— the lows because they’re, well, low— and the highs because we develop craving for them, and feel deprived without them. The past year, our fifth of living in our 66-square-foot camper with our two dogs, has been 12 months of pendulum swinging. June is our “anniversary” month, the month we left our home in Ogden in 2015 and became nomads.
Last summer we were exactly where we are right now, in Site 5 in the Maple Canyon Campground. We’re doing the same Campground Host things we were doing last year, cleaning pit toilets, posting reservations, educating visitors about the fee structure. We’re also rock climbing, which is even more of a privilege to be able to do than it’s ever been in the past.
One year ago, I was experiencing the best climbing season of my life. Instead of accomplishing my one goal for the season, I accomplished four. But the high of my strongest summer to date was bluntly confronted with an equal and opposite force when we realized that my mother had been hiding the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. We left Maple in a mad dash to get Frankie (the min-pin) and me to Michigan, where Mom needed our help. The situation was even more dire than we could see from a distance, and I remained in “The Mitten” for the better part of four months, my sister and I helping Mom find an apartment in a senior living community, selling her condominium, and getting her started on immunotherapy treatments for stage four lung cancer.
After a winter spent mostly apart, Charlie, the dogs and I regrouped in Kentucky before making the drive west, ready to get back to normal. But normal never came. February at the Hurricave turned into a convention of the suddenly unemployed and un-obligated. The southern Utah desert became thronged with people, and we spent March and April searching for Nowhere, out-running the global pandemic. Our only stops were for fuel. Pump, wash hands, drive on. We had toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but not a gun. If someone needed these things so badly they would shoot us for them, we would hand them over willingly. This is a conversation we had.
We ended up in northern Arizona, in Jack’s Canyon. It had been a very long time since we’d heard it mentioned by anyone, and figured it couldn’t be getting too much traffic. That was true for a couple weeks, then the weekend Flagstaff and Phoenix crowds started to arrive. Next came the random license plates from New York, Minnesota, Colorado, Arkansas. The kids from California living out of a Tesla. Even Jack’s, with its out-of-vogue drilled and chipped routes, was being overrun. Fortunately for us, the steeper section of limestone we targeted happened to be the least popular zone in the Canyon, and social distancing on climbing days wasn’t hard to do.
My mother was quarantined in her new apartment, alone and confused, with only the nursing assistants who brought her medications and took her to cancer treatments with her to celebrate the shrinking of the tumor in her right lung. Even if I had gone back to Michigan, I wouldn’t have been allowed to visit her.
My sister, in Portland, Oregon, has asthma. She and her partner work directly with the public, in an essential industry. They share an employer, so are dependent upon the same source for their income.
Charlie’s youngest daughter is working from home with two daughters of her own who require attention, schooling, and energy-depleting activities. Her husband is a first responder, who has no choice but to be out in the thick of things in Salt Lake City.
For Charlie and me, although we’ve had to make some adjustments to our habits, life hasn’t been as altered by covid19 as it has for most. We’re always together 24/7. We generally venture into civilization once a week. We don’t have ubiquitous phone or internet access. Gatherings of more than two people and two dogs are a disruption of our norm. It turns out we’ve been living like there’s a pandemic for the last five years. For us, more is the same than different (the nature of our adjustments are in our awareness). Of course, there’s limbo in our lives, too. But uncertainty is not a source of fear. Actually, it’s the only thing that’s certain. We are very, very lucky.
In April, my mother died from an infection following a fall. She tested negative for
covid19. My sister and I are orphans once again, both of our adoptive parents, gone. We hold within us the best parts of the people who chose us, proof that the apples need not fall from the same tree. Blood may be thicker than water, but parental love is not an experiment in viscosity. Mom believed in a heaven, which was right for her. I myself do not expect to see her again in some alternate existence and because of this, the memories she gifted me and the example she set are tantamount.
Returning to the campground feels like hyper-stimulation. The traffic from around the country doesn’t seem to be significantly lessened by the pandemic. Numbers of climbers who are obviously not family, and do not share residences are all converging on this experiment. We see few masks, and very little social distancing behavior. Sanpete County, where Maple is situated, has 39 cases of covid19 to date. When we arrived on April 29th, there were only 6. This is a typical rural farm and ranching community, without an abundance of medical resources, and with a long-established distrust of outsiders. It’s not encouraging to see the lack of concern displayed in the campground and at the crags. We’ve even heard comments like, “If you’re worried about covid, you should stay home.” My feeling is that if you’re too selfish to care about giving covid to others, you should stay home.
So, about the climbing…Why did I choose to get right back on last year’s project? I wasn’t ready for it, not even close. Two months of climbing a completely unrelated style did not prepare me for the gymnastic movement and epic length of this route, but I have an extremely hard time motivating to spend time on things that are not my actual goal. The journey may be the destination, but it’s also true that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Progress may be slow, but my focus is on trajectory. Charlie has a more calculated approach, and it seems to be working for him. He’s better at the long view, and willing to take slight detours to try hard again on climbs he’s already done for the benefit of his current goal. As the saying goes, the way you do anything is the way you do everything.
And that’s what this year has reinforced. We are all in, no matter the nature of the endeavor. If there’s something we need to accomplish, it is approached in the same way we approach everything, with concentration, consistency, and patience. In meditation, the question invariably arises, how long will I be sitting here? The rational answer is, forever. How long will it all take? How long will we have to work to feel like ourselves again, to feel success again? Will that ant ever finally drag that dried, dead pine needle to its destination? It could take forever. Forever’s a mighty long time, but, (like that little old ant,) we’ve got high hopes. And as long as we remember that 99.9% of the time hopes and dreams and thoughts and prayers all require action to manifest, we have a fighting chance.
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