Escape to the Mountains:
A View Through the Fog
An old friend of David’s sent us some funny lines during the worst phase of the COVID-19 lockdown. One read, “Coronavirus has turned us all into dogs. We roam the house all day looking for food. We’re told ‘no’ if we get too close to strangers. And we get really excited about car rides.”
Well I guess we got really excited recently about our car ride and long weekend away at Wintergreen Resort west of Richmond, at the top of Afton Mountain. Primarily a ski resort, Wintergreen is also a year-round destination for condo rentals, hiking, swimming, tennis, golf, and you name it as outdoor activity. We went to hike and basically just “get out of Dodge,” as they say. It was a wonderful weekend despite most of the restaurants up there still offering only limited service, and the first day's fog was so thick you couldn’t even see the valley below from our mountaintop windows. (See the lead photo.)
Still, it was a joyful experience. And why was that? Why – during this period of strange confinement – do we get “really excited about car rides?” Well, thinking about this, I have long felt that while the body craves sameness and routine and everyday habitual ritual because sameness lends itself to homeostasis – maintaining our stability and biological equilibrium. The mind craves variety – dining out, travel, and even the cognitive alterations induced by drugs and alcohol for those so inclined. The mind feeds on stimulation from multiple sources.
So off we went to the mountains, occupying a new condo in a different area of the resort property where I’d never been before – despite having traveled to Wintergreen for R&R over the decades. (In fact, I do believe – for those of you who follow these blogs – I have written several of my blog posts near the top of that mountain.) So we got out of Dodge for the sake of our mental health and came back refreshed and ready for the rest of the pandemic journey – or, in our case, until our next trip to the Poconos in about three weeks. But more about that in due time.
I, as probably many of you, have been thinking about getting through this time that we are living through – not just the pandemic but the riots and social unrest following George Floyd’s death, the political debacle that has accompanied all of that, as well as the financial stress and recession stretching across most of the world. I have been thinking about making it through all of that with persistence and grace, and possibly learning a few things in the process.
In my book Flourishing Life, I highlighted three lives that have remained my models of flourishing despite trials and suffering. Reflecting for this blog, one of these lives specifically came to mind, and one particular scene in that person’s writings stands out as a metaphor for making it in spite of the challenges and obstacles that might be in the way. Even if you have read Flourishing Life, please bear with me because I think the metaphor is a beautiful one for overcoming the barriers and struggles that we all face in life, sooner or later.
At age 55, Philip Simmons was diagnosed with ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – and was given about five years to live. Over that period, he went from mountain climbing as a college professor to traveling to the end of his driveway in a wheelchair – on a good day. He and his family retired to a farm near his parents in New Hampshire, and he set about writing his memoir, Learning to Fall (see second photo below) in a little cabin out back of their house. Amazingly, Simmons considered himself “lucky,” writing, “I am the luckiest man on God’s frozen earth” – despite the fact that his life had turned out to be not quite what he had had in mind. But then, as I point out in my book, your life and mine will probably turn out to be a bit (or a whole lot!) different than we’d planned at the start.
In one essay titled “Getting Up in the Morning,” Simmons tells the story of a big old mama box turtle, who – after laying her nest of eggs – “struggled and strained for hours to dig her way up the side of a deep, sandy ditch where she had crawled to deposit them. ... Seeing her struggle against the odds, she seemed to Simmons at that moment to be a metaphor for all the Sisyphean struggles in our lives. And yet she finally made it out ... crawling toward the swamp from which she came as if saying, ‘See? See how I dance? See how it’s done?’ She persevered despite all the odds again her.” He continues:
I can survive. And being human, I know more. Not only that I can survive but that I am blessed. Each day that I can get out of bed in the morning, I am blessed. Each day that any of us can move our limbs to do the world’s work, we are blessed. And if limbs wither, and speech fails, we are still blessed. So long as this heart beats, I am blessed, for it is our human work, our human duty, finally to rise each day in the face of loss, in the face of grief, of debility, of pain, to move as the turtle moves, her empty nest behind her [a conservation officer had already removed them from the next to prevent their being eaten by other wild life], her labor come to nothing, up out of the pit and toward the next season’s doing. (p. 63)
I go on to point out that while few of us may have started out climbing mountains and ended up in a wheelchair, all of us have been slammed once in a while by a hardball that we didn’t see coming. Like that old mama turtle, Simmons himself kept clawing his way out of the ditch his life had become – with gratitude for every breath he took. “See how I dance!” And I am, once again, inspired by this metaphoric image and inspired by the model of Simmons’ life he offered to us all for the taking.
My friend John de Gruchy ends a recent meditation of his with a quote from Paul Ricoeur – a writer, philosopher and theologian of the last century. At Ricoeur’s 90th birthday, despite “times of deep depression and semi-blindness, he said to those gathered around who asked him how he coped with growing old: ‘There is,’ he said, ‘the simple happiness of still being alive and, above all, the love of life, shared with those I love, so long as it is given to me.’ That is what learning to love later life is about. To share our love of life with others as long as the gift of life lasts.”
And so we go on. Despite pandemics, recessions, murder in the streets, and political shenanigans, we go on – like mama turtle – with persistence, with grace, and with gratitude for all that is good around us, lighting a candle in the dark and hugging one another one way or another.