This Day Includes Me

This Day Includes Me

WHY is a question that I get asked a lot these days – specifically in reference to carrying my violin onto the summit of a mountain before sunrise to perform for nobody just as the sun crests the horizon. These musical mountaineering trips can be anything but fun at times – on one of our last climbs, I found myself huddled in a ball, shivering… wondering why I was standing on the summit of a peak holding my violin in 30 degrees weather wearing a dress and a pair of gold flats. Discomfort coursed through every vein of my body as I stood up to play the first few notes of music … and then… as if by some magical force, I was gone – still there, but so focused on moving my frozen fingers and listening to the notes as they left my violin, that I forgot the pain of that moment – or, rather, I sank into the present so deeply that I just allowed the experience to be what it was. A few weeks ago, I wrote the following in response to the question of, “WHY?”

For the waking up in the dark,

While the rest of the world sleeps.

The anticipation.

The cold

The sound of our feet crunching up the trail under the light of the moon.

For the feeling of our lungs burning as we breathe the air that feeds our body life.

Because we are live.

Because the mountains are a place where we can be who we are.

And for the moment when the sun’s first beams burst above the horizon,

For the wave of emotion that sweeps over us like a stiff mountain breeze

As the first notes of our music

Spill gently into the

Cold mountain air


It is only music that can speak what we feel.

For the gift of another sunrise

That includes us.

This day includes me.

This is my morning prayer of thanks.

My connection to real gratitude for the thing that matters the most – my life.

This breath.

My beating heart.

My curious mind.

I feel it most when I am in the mountains.

A place where I can only be who I am.

Where I don’t compare myself to others.

Where I feel strong

Where I notice that I am alive.

Where I feel cold, warmth, pain, frustration, joy and fear simultaneously

In the mountains, I know my prayer of thanks is heard. As if somehow the thin air allows the notes to travel more quickly.

I hear my music drift into the air but it doesn’t disappear. It is caught in the current of the world and swept away to those who need to hear it.

In the mountains, love is the only thing.

There is space out there. Space to walk. Space to breathe. Space to be.

I’m going to talk about something that is very uncomfortable for me – something that I don’t usually share, because for many years, the wounds were so open and raw that I could barely mention them. I used to use the wilderness in an extremely unhealthy way. I used my adventures to escape from my problems and to disconnect from the world. At that dark time in my life, I was in a failing relationship, for which I completely blamed myself.

Looking back, I realize now that I disconnected emotionally from my relationship and threw all of my emotional energy into climbing. Being in the mountains was the only way that I made it through the week – I felt so lonely all the time that I had to fill my days with epic trips deep into the wilderness. If I didn’t have some sort of a crazy adventure on the horizon, I would have anxiety so bad that it made it hard for me to function.

Simultaneously, I was struggling with some pretty serious family issues, and to top it all off, I got laid off from my job as a park ranger. In a way, I felt like I had been completely stripped of my identity.  I felt like a failure in so many ways – I was ashamed to talk about these problems with even my closest friends, for fear that they would be disappointed in me. I hid my problems from most people. I deleted all of my social media accounts so that nobody would know what was going on with me – I couldn’t even bear to see the people who cared about me the most because I felt like such a complete failure. Eventually, the pain in my life was too great that even the most epic of mountain climbing trips couldn’t numb me. I broke down and completely stopped hiking. I found myself sitting on the couch of a therapist’s office hysterically crying and not knowing if I would ever feel unbroken ever again. I didn’t know how anybody could ever love me – I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror without feeling shame and disappointment.

On my 33rd birthday, I remember my dad asking me a question at dinner – he said, “What is your 5 or 10 year plan… what is your legacy going to be.” I felt a lump swelling in my throat. If you know my dad, you would know that he was honestly just trying to help me, but I felt crushed. I went back to my apartment that night and I sobbed for 3 hours straight. I was 33 years old and living alone in what was essentially a hotel room with a kitchen. I felt like I had completely destroyed my life and I didn’t know how I was going to get it back – how I was ever going to find me again? And more importantly, did I still exist? I felt like a shell of a person that had one existed. My creativity and desire to explore were shattered. I didn’t care about anything. At my lowest moment, I was sitting on the floor in my 600 square foot studio apartment googling, “How can I forgive myself?”

It wasn’t one thing that happened, but rather millions of things. Like climbing a mountain, reaching the summit of a peak does not happen in one leap, but rather, inch by inch… step by step. Slowly, I started to re-emerge. It started with movement – going to yoga and re-connecting to my breath. I continued to see my therapist – week after week, month after month – peeling back all of the layers and false beliefs that I had about myself. Learning to be kind again. As my shame dissipated, I started to reach out to my friends again – I started to remove myself from my self-induced solitary confinement. I started to feel worthy of friendships and relationships. I started to feel like maybe I was worthy of being loved.

Guilt and shame and anger come in waves. At first, I felt it like a tidal wave. I could make it through the day most times, but suddenly and unexpectedly, the wave would arrive and pummel me in the choppy surf. Just when I thought it would hold me down so that I would never re-surface, I would find the air and gasp in a breath. I was alive. Over time, the waves got smaller and smaller until gradually, they were gently lapping at my ankles like ripples from a stone being tossed in a pond.

And from that pond, I stepped onto the trail again. But this time, it wasn’t to escape or disconnect – it was to re-connect. To re-discover who I was. To find the person that I had been missing – the person that I knew I was meant to be. I still remember my first hike after my hiatus – my lungs were burning and my heart was pounding in my head… tears streamed down my face as I remembered what it felt like to be alive.  As I remembered why I loved this so much. For those few hours, I remembered who I was.

One of the things that helped me the most when I was learning how to forgive myself was the concept of seeing myself as a friend. I asked myself this question a lot, “If one of your closest friends came to you with the exact same issues and concerns that you feel so horrible about, what would you say to them?” The answer was always clear – I would not judge them – I would welcome them with open arms and listen to them and offer them my unconditional love and support. And yet, why is it so difficult for us to offer the same love and support to ourselves? It’s hard to admit when you have done something wrong or when you feel ashamed or like a failure. As the oldest of three girls, I lived most of my life with the feeling that I had to be a perfect example – that I couldn’t possibly screw up or disappoint anybody. This was the first time in my life when I had to accept the fact that I was truly human – flawed, imperfect and capable of disappointment and failure.

The mountains do not judge you because you ruin a relationship. The mountains don’t care if you think you are a failure. The mountains don’t care if you blame yourself for a family member’s illness. The mountains don’t care if you used to be a park ranger. The mountains are just there. Waiting. Allowing you to roam through them and explore – and it is through those explorations, and in that infinite space that the things we torment ourselves with, gently fall away. Think about the last hike or backpacking trip you went on – or even just the last time you were outside… what mattered in those moments? Was it trivial negativity or thinking that you were a failure at life? Of course not – the mountains bring us back to the simplicity of what matters – moving, breathing, nourishing, loving, living. When we step away from our car at the trailhead and we walk out into that vastness – we are really walking in. We are stepping inside ourselves and discovering who we truly are. In the moments when I am ascending a peak or hiking a trail, I am cautious – I want to be safe. I care for myself. I am caring – I look out for others. I am kind – I nourish my body. I am compassionate – I cry at the sight of a beautiful sunrise. I am loving – I feel that I am connected to every being on this planet. We are connected by love and light. I realize that in forgiving myself and in loving myself, I can extend that same love and forgiveness to everything around me.

Rose Freeman (piano) and I. Photo by Ian Terry, The Everett Herald.

Playing music in the mountains is such a simple action, but it is not a simple act. A few weeks ago I wrote, “Is this a dream? I’m in a place where I shouldn’t have my violin. It feels so delicate up here – so fragile. One slip spells disaster. On the cold, solid granite. And yet, my violin is made from a tree. So maybe I’m just bringing it back where it really belongs. Where the notes an melt into the air of the earth that created them. Where they drift into the energy current of life. Each time we touch, I give life to that which cannot breathe, yet says so much. That which speaks to all, without knowing a single language. It is the voice of my heart. Can you hear it drifting through the world?

This morning I woke up and it was pouring rain outside. I laid down on the couch in our living room and I covered myself with my down puffy jacket so that I could listen to the rain on the window. In my head, I repeated, “This day includes me. This day includes me. This day includes me.” This day includes you too. This day includes us. Nothing is guaranteed in life. Nothing is certain. Each day, each moment is a gift. What can we do this day to bring more love and light into this world?  Be the one to remind others that this day includes them too.

The Musical Mountaineers. Photo by Skye Stoury.

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