the 5 stages of reading A Walk in the Woods

AWITWA Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, has been one of my favorite books for almost a decade now.  Since that time, I have read it twice and recently commenced a third go-around in honor of the movie.  I am enjoying it just as much this time as I did the first, and find myself experiencing the same five distinct emotional phases as I go:

Stage 1: Hilarity
Bill Bryson is a master of dry, deadpan, hapless humor.  I cannot read this book in public except on days of high self-confidence, because my inevitable loud outbursts and beverage snorts are certain to draw attention.  A few of my favorite lines:

“What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally sh– myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties – I daresay it would even give a merry toot – and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.”

“Daniel Boone, who not only wrestled bears but tried to date their sisters…”

“Presumably, a confused person would be too addled to recognize that he was confused…unless persuading yourself that you are not confused is merely a cruel, early symptom of confusion…For all I knew I could be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state characterized by the fear on the part of the sufferer that he may be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state.”

Priceless.

AT signStage 2: Ambition
I could do that.  I could walk the Appalachian Trail.  The whole thing.  In fact, I think I will.  That’s it; I’m going next Spring…Mt. Katahdin or bust!!!”  This is my train of thought every time I read the first two chapters.  There’s something about the undiscovered (at least, by me) country, the open woods, the radical simplicity of being unplugged for so long…It calls to me, makes me feel like if I do this, I will be a real American, a real wilderness ally, a real woman.

I am not alone.  The number of thru-hikers (those who complete 2000+ miles of the AT) has increased by 78% since the year 2000, and I cannot help but believe that Bill Bryson’s story – published in 1997 – is a major contributing factor to this growth.  Attendance is only expected to grow in the wake of the movie’s debut, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has scrambled to create a program of awareness for protection of the trail amidst all of the new traffic.

(Please, if you find yourself so inspired, educate yourself, and include the ATC’s preservation techniques into your repertoire of preparation materials.  If you don’t find yourself chanting “Leave no trace!” at least three times a day, you need more study time.)

bear warningStage 3: Trepidation
Bryson spends most of chapters two through four recounting the perils and disasters associated with the AT.  At first glance, his fears are purely amusing (the dissertation on bears alone leaves me gasping for breath), but after a while, I start to wonder.  Wildlife, poisonous plants, diseases, the natural elements…How does one truly survive it all?  And why?

That’s when the rationalizing begins.  Maybe I’m not really cut out for this.  What in the world makes me think I’m qualified to go traverse the wilderness?  In fact, maybe no one should.  Maybe it’s actually irresponsible and selfish to leave the world to fend for itself while I go out strolling along, not a care or commitment in the world.

What was I thinking?

smokiesStage 4: Balance
But no.  While slightly comforting at first, the notion of giving up completely leaves a gnawing hole in my gut.  There is something in all of us that yearns to do great things, a divine spark that rallies and resists and begs to stand out.  We are not satisfied to sit at home bingeing on food, media streaming, and gossip for a reason…there is more.

Everyone’s more is different.  Some people will invent, some will create, some will build, and some will blister our feet to go witness and fall in love with this vast yet relatively small piece of the world as it was always meant to be.  I don’t know yet whether the AT is a means or an end, but I know it burns in my heart and I must follow the flame.

With three daughters and a new business in progress, it would be absolutely devastating for me to go off the grid for six whole months or more… but I can start with something.  Instead of dropping everything for an impulsive thru-hike, I will plan carefully and take the trail in small, attainable sections at a time.  Ultimately, I will either cover the full 2,000 miles cumulatively, or build my strength to do it all at once at a later date.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

awalkinthewoods_courtesy_onlineStage 5: Casting Katz
Rumors of an AWITW movie began to circulate not long after I read it for the first time, and of course I began to try and cast the characters.  Stephen Katz, Bryson’s faithful if colorful trail companion, is a linchpin of many of the best scenes, so it was essential that they get him just right; when I learned of the pairing of Nick Nolte with Robert Redford, I knew it would be perfect.  They did not disappoint.

Not long after the movie, I began thinking about the Katzes in my own life. I had one person in particular who was really on my nerves, and I couldn’t help equating our relationship to being on the trail with him – this lumbering, inappropriate trail mate who is supposed to help but instead doesn’t know what he’s doing and complains and slows everything down.  Woe is me, right?

I was super gratified and self-righteous about this for about a minute…until I realized that maybe it was the opposite.  Maybe I am actually someone else’s Katz.  That’s a hard perspective to consider.  Perhaps I would do better to watch my own steps instead of resenting the limits of the company.

There’s danger enough out here on the trail without us turning on each other.

ta-dah!

When my girls were little, I quickly noticed that they based a large percentage of their feelings and reactions on mine.  This was most evident when they were learning to walk.  Anytime they wobbled, tripped, fell down, or even just startled themselves, they immediately looked to my face for a response.

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If I heeded my natural impulse to rush in and begin fussing over them, looking for injuries and cooing, “Oh, poor baby, are you okay?  Are you hurt?” they would take that as a cue that something was wrong – or should be.  Immediate result: terrified wailing, screaming, and gnashing of what few teeth they had.

It didn’t take me long to see that a better way was needed.  Instead of projecting worry, I trained myself to treat every fall like the world’s greatest magic trick.  Whenever they took a tumble, I would hold my breath, throw my hands in the air, and exclaim, “Ta-dah!”

To everyone’s great relief, it worked.  The girls were distracted, I was at peace, and we were all able to move forward with whatever business had been at hand.

Fast forward to today and the great thorn in my fourteen-year-old’s side: Algebra.  Well, it’s not really Algebra that’s the problem; it’s the teacher’s method.  He’s a super nice guy and his students love him, but he only teaches to one learning style.  He lectures and gives quizzes and tests, and that’s it.

My girl is a visual and kinesthetic learner.  She needs graphics and models and most of all, lots of tactile practice.  In the absence of those tools, she struggled mightily through the first semester of that class, barely passing by the skin of her teeth.  Even though she scored no grades lower than a 98 in every other class, she takes each mistake and under-performance in this one as a personal condemnation.  She must just be “bad” at math.

This week, I had the idea to talk to her about this class in terms of a new strategy.  Among some other tools that we sought out, I dusted off the old, “Ta-dah!” approach and challenged her to use it herself every time she makes a mistake on a problem in this class.

As always, my words to my daughter immediately took on an unexpected resonance for myself.  I get enveloped in self-defeating cycles in my work and aspirations every day.  Each time I miss a task, break my diet, or even just oversleep, I face the choice of whether to pick up and and move on, or take it as a “sign” of futility and an excuse not to try again.

I read just this week in the Harvard Business Review that cultivating a positive attitude toward failure is a great contributor to ultimate success.  “In fact, evidence suggests venture capitalists often see failure as an asset—not a liability—in an entrepreneur’s record. Why? Because failure suggests a tolerance for risk, a perseverance to succeed and, most important, a passion to push the envelope.”

What works for babies and pioneers can surely work for me too, right?

Forgot to put an important date on the calendar?  Ta-dah!
Procrastinated through two-thirds of my writing time this morning?  Ta-dah!
Snapped at my mom, put my socks on backwards, and dropped everything I touched today?  Ta-freaking-dah!  (Also maybe some chamomile tea at that point.  Or a cocktail.)

And now, for my next trick…

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it. -Maya Angelou

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
-Maya Angelou

plants

2015 is now three weeks old, and the best gift I’ve received so far is plants.

Not real plants, mind you, as in flower boxes or a house cactus, but just the word itself.

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My family did an exercise this holiday wherein we each chose a word – any word that was on our hearts – and threw it in a hat.  Then we drew them out randomly, and whichever one each drew would be her word of meditation for 2015.

(Before I go accidentally taking credit for this lovely idea, please know it did not originate with me; my aunt suggested it based on a testimony she read recently, and there’s even a whole website dedicated to the concept here.)

So we drew our words and the most beautiful thoughts began to emerge: purposeful, patience, change, treasure…  And then I drew plantsIt was not at all what I expected, but the more I think about it, the more I love it.  You can do so many things with plants!

My daughter submitted it thinking of biological plants, with the implication that the person who received it would use the year to learn more about them scientifically.  To kick that off, we have some philodendron leaves soaking in our kitchen window sill right now.  They are cuttings from a plant of my aunt’s (the same one who initiated the exercise, in fact, so I love the symbolism of that); in a short time, they will sprout roots, and we will plant them into pots to begin new lives of their own.

phil leaves

But there’s so much more!

I love that, as a noun, the word is plural, implying a plentiful yield from that which was sown.

I love that, besides flora, it also can refer to places (again, plural!) where large quantities of manufacturing work happens – centers of productivity and industry.

Best of all, I love plants as a verb: to place or fix something in a specified location, usually with the intent that it will grow.  Whether I’m planting the seeds of our Three Sisters garden or planting a kiss on my girls’ cheeks or planting my stake in the ground, I am definitely praying for exponential growth this year.

And I pray the same for you.

    “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

 

the big reveal

Halloween costumes have been the subject of much colorful discussion this year in my circles.

First there was this cartoon, which I saw posted on several Facebook pages but most notably on A Mighty Girl:

costume dilemma

Somewhat related, several of my coworkers have loudly bemoaned their difficulties in finding the perfect work-appropriate costume that is fun while remaining firmly within our safety and HR-friendly standards.

And scary clown costumes are making headlines, thanks to some disturbing experimentalists in California and Europe, as well as our freaky friends at American Horror Story.

All this talk of dressing up and what to wear and whom to be and how to be it has me thinking.  I don’t believe we actually cover ourselves up in this tradition of donning the perfect disguise / gag / alter ego for the night.  Rather, our choices reveal much more about us than we intend.

halloween 13For example, two years ago, my oldest daughter, in the midst of a tumultuous inner bout with teenage emotional upheaval, chose that Halloween to become Storm, the X-Men team member with control over any type of weather.

My beloved cousin, who moved away this year to law school, is being the Mad Hatter for Halloween: a kinetic, poetic creature driven mad by his craft, but coping through the whimsical interpretation of a comforting domestic ritual: afternoon tea.  (He also happened to escape an unjust conviction and sentence through manipulation of the “law” and an appeal to the Queen of Hearts, who had condemned him.)

Celebrities often dress up in surprisingly tame choices – surprising until you remember that they are already larger than life.  In that case, a simple cat or garden gnome costume is comforting in the other direction: a reflection of things that are ordinary, simple, and safe.

When you consider that the original purpose of wearing a disguise on Halloween had to do with warding off unwelcome spirits and/or attacks against the soul, the expressiveness of our costumes becomes all the more poignant.

I myself am not dressing up for Halloween, and haven’t done so for years.  Whether it’s due to an excess of honesty (I am who I am and I like who I am), crippling indecision, or mere self-deprecation (I don’t feel qualified to wear the one I really want to be), I will leave to your imagination.

Then again, that might tell you everything you need to know.

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.  Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.  -Oscar Wilde

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. -Oscar Wilde

 

superpower of choice

It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. -J.K. Rowling

Comic-Con International is coming up this week and I am irrationally, inordinately, ridiculously SUPER-pumped for it…especially for some one who’s not even going.

I don’t know how it is that I’ve never been.  Comic-Con is a shining beacon of and for nerdom around the world. Teeming masses of fans, friends, artists, cosplay exhibitionists, geeks, gamers, and not a few of the just-curious descend upon San Diego every year to get the scoop on what’s coming up in all things story-related or comics-inspired.

It used to be overlooked at best and derided at worst twenty years ago; now a Comic-Con panel is THE place to unveil any project that wants to be cool (or at least, wants to make tons of money).  As with any gathering of thousands united around a single cause or idea, it definitely attracts its fair share of nutcases and extremists, but at heart Comic-Con is a giant, fearless celebration of imagination.

I LOVE IT.

I keep thinking to myself, I wonder what Joss Whedon is doing right now?! – because you just know there’s something awesome on deck for the Avengers panel.  I also wonder how many of the attendees are rushing around in a tizzie trying to get their costumes together, how the convention center staff feels about it (anticipation or dread?), and how Zack Snyder can sleep after choosing to enter no presentation at all for Superman vs. Batman.  I am mystified by the games arena (haven’t played a video game regularly since Q*bert) and in awe of the vast array of panels open to the public.  As you can easily surmise, attending Comic-Con someday, somehow is way up there on my bucket list.

Naturally, all of this has me contemplating superhero stories yet again, and how they have grown so rapidly in resonance over the last decade or two.  When I was in high school, fanboys were fodder for bullies and snark, and fangirls were rare, mysterious creatures on par with unicorns.  Now, nearly everyone in the general population of America has a favorite superhero, and every personality quiz will at some point ask what super power you would choose if you could.  We have absorbed the stories (if not yet the fanboys) into mainstream culture and filter many of our own stories through their lens.

It doesn’t take a psychology degree to assess why super powers are so appealing; the answer is all in the origin stories.  A young, bullied nerd becomes an agile, cool, smart-mouthed defender of the defenseless.  A mega-rich, genius inventor of weapons is humbled and dons his armor to end war instead of equip it.  Two orphans – each alone in precise and excruciating ways – derive purpose and power in the very sources of their alienation; one finds the human connection that he craves, the other the isolation that soothes his scars.  It’s easy to find ourselves and fuel our ambitions in their narratives.

In this, the “real” world, I have decided that there is only one visible super power, and every human being on earth has been equipped with it from the first day they entered the atmosphere.  It is the power of Choice.

Choice is everything.  It determines the quality of my every day and the direction of my journey.  It gives me the power to soar over my circumstances or be crushed beneath them, to overpower resistance or be driven by it, to join the battle with the rest of the called or shrink and hide and lose both the struggle and the victory.

Choice determines the course of my adventures and whether they will even BE adventures, or merely an accidental series of unappreciated moments carelessly toppling over each other.

As with any super power, Choice can be used for good or for evil.  It can be mutated to generate toxicity in the form of Judgmentalism, which is the choice to condemn the way others use their power.  The only thing it can’t do is be eliminated, for even doing nothing is itself an act of Choice.

Choice is the greatest power in the world; all others are merely its fruit.

the stuff of dreams and lent

Last night, I had an epic trilogy of nightmares.

In Part I, I was first pursued, then held hostage by a serial killer.  This dude was scary; he was Hannibal Lecter and Lex Luthor and Nurse Ratched all wrapped in one.  I kept trying to get away from him, but he always caught up.  I couldn’t let anyone around me know what was happening or else he’d kill them all, too.  He wanted me and only me, and I felt like a mouse being played with by a cat.

Eventually, I was able to distance myself and my family from him somehow, because Part II found us at church.  The service and Sunday School were over and we were about to go outside when a brewing storm system suddenly gave birth to about a dozen tornadoes.  Most of them were far away, but I saw one coming right for us, so I ushered us down into the basement.  It passed over us without harming us or the structure around us, but I could hear people’s screams outside as they were sucked in.

This transitioned into Part III as we drove home and settled in.  My girls went to bed and I was talking with my mother, when out of one of our bedrooms came the person with whom I have the most difficult relationship in my life.  She came out and stared right at me, but she wanted to talk to my mother, not me.  I stepped aside and let her pass, and then walked away, praying fervently my mom wouldn’t allow herself to get hurt in the conversation.

Then I woke up.  I believe my profound thought upon rousing was, “What in the [bad word] was that?!”

Now I’m no Joseph, but I enjoy dream analysis and interpretation very much.  There is a lot of material in these dreams to pore over, and it doesn’t take a genius to speculate that there is some kind of stress / turmoil going on in my head.

Do I think it a coincidence that my last thoughts before going to bed that night circled around Lent?  Absolutely not.

I have observed Lent since I was sixteen years old and it is always a complex labor of love.  Deciding what to do / not do for forty days seems straightforward, but I easily devolve into a sort of tug-of-war between what God is calling me to do and what I think will benefit (or, let’s be honest, what will look best on) myself.  I must constantly check myself and pray over it, or I can degrade the spiritual work by turning it into a glorified New Year’s resolution.

And that’s the “easy” part.

After that comes the real work of living it out.  Giving without letting my right hand know what the left is doing, keeping up appearances so as not to garner the praise or sympathy of others, and doing it all without complaining or arguing…well.  I can barely master those disciplines on Christmas Day!  Throw in a little warfare against my human nature and will and it’s amazing how fast and furiously the rationalizations start to fly.

The truth is, I know this all affirms that the work is good.  If my flesh lashes out, it’s because it needs the discipline.  When my mind tries to talk me out of it, it only shows that it needs this retraining.  Every swing of my emotions will only reorient them to the One I really need to connect with for peace.

Serial killers?  Come ahead!  I’m killing myself anyway so I can live with Christ.

Tornadoes?  Blow away!  I serve the One who will both use and calm the storm.

Enemies?  Do your worst!  I will walk in love and forgiveness, and God will make everything right in the end.