Back around Thanksgiving when I was visiting family and half the people there were sick, I managed to catch a cold. A cold that turned into a sinus infection, that turned into an ear infection, that turned into sudden hearing loss, that turned into one of the most painful illnesses I’ve had to deal with as an adult to date. I was in and out of doctors’ offices, taking multiple rounds of antibiotics, painkillers, and steroids…yet the hearing in my left ear stubbornly refused to return. After finally being referred to an ENT at Vanderbilt, I got a steroid shot through my eardrum, took some more antibiotics, and at last had an MRI which revealed I have mastoiditis. The short version of that is I have a chronic infection in the bone behind my ear which is responsible for conductive hearing. Due to shoddy medical care at the walk in clinics I went to and poor decision making on the part of the first ENT I saw, I now am dealing with a condition where I have nerve damage and still have not regained, and may never regain full hearing in my left ear. The latest round of antibiotics hasn’t seemed to help, so the next step is another temporary hole in my eardrum that will enable me to deliver antibiotic drops to the inner ear. The saga continues in a couple of weeks at my next visit.
During this time, I have also been dealing with some issues that resulted from the antibiotics I had to take. Lady issues that I won’t go into here. I’ve been to an excellent women’s clinic here in Nashville that specializes in delicate issues and found out I have two other conditions which have made my private life as a woman rather difficult over the past several years. Except these are issues women don’t talk about because we’re too embarrassed or ashamed to admit that we deal with them. These issues have resulted in feelings of shame, brokenness, self loathing, and utter despondency that I struggle with in my marriage and as a woman in general. They are directly related to my scoliosis, which was discovered when I was 12. After the embarrassment of wearing a back brace for 2 years, that effort failed, resulting in a doctor callously telling me I needed a surgery to fuse the vertebrae in my spine. I could not be more grateful that I never went through with that surgery. I have struggled with chronic pain for years, my hips and shoulders are a bit crooked, and my muscles spasm in all the right places after I’ve done a good day’s work in the yard, but I still have mobility and am filled with gratitude for the things I can still handle.
In short, there are days when I feel like my body is falling apart. I am in my 30s and there are moments when I feel frail and vulnerable as a feather in the breeze. At the same time all of this is happening, I have never felt physically stronger in my life. To say that nature is a healing force would be a gross understatement. Over the past couple of years, I’ve transitioned from writing a lot about the remodeling of our home and gardens to the trails I’ve hiked and the trips we’ve taken. Much of this sharing is an effort to expose people to beautiful places in the hope that they too might want to travel and see them, that other women might be brave enough to get out there, even if it means going alone. As glorious as these places are on the outside: alpine forests layered in moss, frozen lakes that turn azure in the summer, golden aspens flung across mountainsides, and trails that go for miles through wilderness where the only sounds are those of chirping birds and winds caressing branches. I wish I could adequately describe what these places have done for my heart and my body.
This past weekend, I strapped on my new backpacking pack, loaded up with 17 pounds of gear, and headed to a local trail. I had just done this trail a couple of days before with a friend. We saw 3 barred owls and watched two of them call back and forth to each other before silently taking flight through the trees to meet on adjoining branches. It was a moment frozen in time that left me in wonder. On the way home from the trail, a brown coyote loped sneakily across an expansive front yard in a wealthy neighborhood. Not even the rich are safe from those that prowl at dusk. As I hoisted the pack onto my back two days later, my muscles were tired, my legs, hips, and shoulders were still sorely recovering from the prior exertion. I put my headphones in and struggled over those 4.8 miles, feeling like that trail would never end. The hills seemed so much bigger. The 1700 feet of ups and downs that I can normally handle without a problem felt like it was going to break me. 17 extra pounds felt like 50. I have no idea how thru-hikers do it!
The reason I’m training with my pack is because Rob and I are planning to hike Rocky Top in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with some friends in May. It’s one of the hardest climbs in the park and we are backpacking a few miles up to a back country campsite, then hiking the rest of the way to the summit. In June we’re going to Yosemite and I want to hike as much as I possibly can and see a few places I didn’t have time to see last year. At elevation, those hikes are a challenge even for people who are in good shape. In September, we’re going to Vermont for a friend’s wedding and would like to attempt to hike Mount Mansfield, the highest peak in the state. The last time we hiked in VT, the trail seemed to just go straight up into the sky over boulders and tree roots, so this time I want to be more prepared. As a person who is clumsy at best, and not the least bit athletic, these endeavors may seem silly, even downright stupid, but they have been paths to healing for me. The pain in my back has lessened dramatically as my legs and hips have strengthened from repeated ascents and descents in the hills and mountains of Tennessee. Emotionally and mentally, being outside has brought focus, purpose, and meaning to my life where the church left a giant painful void years ago. If you want to find me in church, I’ll be out in the woods, where the hiking community is welcoming, caring and judgment free, and God’s creation is so painstakingly evident in every tiny flower, leaf, mushroom, birdsong, feather, millipede, mountain view, rainbow trout, and black bear paw print. Surround me with forest and I am in the arms of God.
In the moments of weakness when I feel like I can barely make it up the next incline, those are also the moments where I discover a strength I didn’t realize I had inside of me. All of us have something. Maybe it’s the betrayal of our own bodies falling to pieces on us no matter how healthy we try to eat or how cautious we try to be. Several people we know are dealing with the devastation of their marriages falling apart, having to piece themselves together to function for their children, or figure out how the hell to keep their lives from disintegrating miserably to pieces as they lose everything they once held dear. There’s addiction, loneliness, grief, loss, depression, the ugly little lies we tell ourselves….there is so much to overcome. But there is beauty at the top of these internal mountains after the shitty parts are over. The tears and sweat bring you to a place where you can look back from where you came and finally release the weight you’ve been carrying. A climb can bring a person to a clearer perspective…and all before you is beauty. We can choose to see beauty or we can choose to see pain. A dear friend who lost her son said she makes that choice every single day.
I think it’s important to remember that we can be weak and strong at the same time. That it’s ok to admit our frailty and still be emboldened by our strength. It’s one of those weird puzzles in life that I will forever be trying to make sense of. In the meantime, I may ask you to repeat what you said a little louder. I may ask you to help me carry something that feels a bit too heavy. And I will definitely ask you if you want to come hiking with me…