Humble Thoughts During a Battered Economy

Today I was hired as a Special Education teacher at Canton Middle School in North Carolina.  This fact seems ordinary to most, but the reality is that it is very big news in my life.  Eight months ago, I was laid off the second time from my last two English teaching positions.  The first time I was at the school for four years and was cut because of budget concerns.  The second time I was laid off because my job was combined into another job to save money, and so I was not qualified for the job any longer.  I had to find work, and I knew it would be hard.  In fact, it has been a full-time job the past eight months.  I get up each morning and search the computer for hours and religiously send out applications and resumes almost daily.  I have applied for exactly 93 jobs in the past eight months, and been on 11 interviews.  I have eight years of teaching experience, and yet was struggling to even get interviews for jobs I was over-qualified for.  Thank God I have been on unemployment during this time, or we surely would have lost the house.  My wife and I have managed to scrape by.  She went back to grad school a year ago for a counseling masters, and so has been in school full-time.  Luckily, she was getting student loans and that helped our small income.  We have managed to rack up our credit card bills to around $15,000 out of necessity.  It is amazing how much it takes to just survive.  We have learned to cut back on many things like going out and traveling, and have saved a lot by cutting wood this year for all our heating needs from the wood stove.  We learned about a discount store called Dickies and Amazing Savings that carry outdated items for around 50 cents.  They carry things like canned food that has been dented or a box of Little Annie’s Mac and Cheese organic dinners that are a few days past the expiration date, but otherwise just fine.  The money saved at that store alone has been incredible.  We did not buy many Christmas presents last year and my wife even made a few gifts herself like ornaments.  We had leftover gift cards from our wedding that we were able to buy a few small gifts with.  Even though it has been hard and I seem to be complaining, it really has not been so bad.  Things financially began to turn in a positive way for us two weeks ago, when I started walking a dog part-time.  That job has given us spending money and helped significantly to not add more to our credit card debt.  But during this entire time, I tried to stay positive, knowing that eventually things would get better.  I kept myself busy by starting riding mountain bikes competitively again and going to races at age 41.  I started writing again, which has been a saviour in its own unique way.  I have been reading a lot more.  I have become a better roommate and keep up with chores better now.  I have spent quality time with my wife and our two cats.  I even got to visit my family after about two years of not seeing them.  I have been thinking a lot and reflecting on life.  One of the best things has been all the mountain biking.  I have seen some amazing terrain and ridden some incredible trails in the past five months.  I saw wildlife like bears, foxes, turkey, grouse, and hawks, and have seen views of the mountains to last a lifetime.  I have experienced much peace during these times in the woods and in my own head as well.  I even starting riding with a group of people who are surely going to be good friends for a long time to come.  I know many people are worse off than we have been, and I have been thankful for the fact that we have family that has helped us some financially where others do not have that luxury.  This whole experience though has taught me to be thankful for the little things, and I know I am happier now than I have been in the past.  We will still struggle to get caught up, and this job is only temporary for the next four and a half months with no guarantee for a position the next year.  It will be a significant pay cut for me, since the job is technically a teacher assistant job.  But it is a job, and I am supremely thankful for that fact.  So many people can not even eat, much less have a place to call home.  In the end, I have been humbled by this learning experience.  I have learned to value the simple pleasures and to not take things and opportunities for granted.  I am happy and I am moving forward and yet much wiser as a result.  I am learning to be humble, learning to be patient and most of all how to persevere.  May life always bring about opportunities for learning and opportunities to grow and think in new ways.  May I continue to be humbled beyond measure.  Thank you.

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Water the Life Inside

(Poem originally written in 1993 after reading Homer’s Odyssey)

The water all around

Flooding thoughts careen,

I tread the ocean-trails before me now.

 

Inner glory is what we see

In the eyes of the child.

Beauty made alive

In just a smile.

 

To become what we will,

In this myriad before the eye.

Everything so strange it seems.

Why fight the turbulent waters?

 

Soar with the angels of light.

Dance in the darkness,

So all will know the song.

Embrace the eagles of you dreams.

 

In the end,

All is one in love.

 

Shine hearts delight.

Free the inner child within your soul.

All can partake of the feast.

All can sing the endless song.

 

Shout out joy to the world.

Fly now with the wonder of life.

Give to each day new hope.

Happiness is for all to see.

Motivation in the Face of Fear

Have you ever been afraid to try something new, or been afraid to take action because of the fear of failure?  We all have fears and yet some people learn to live with them and overcome them, while others are paralyzed in their presence.  Personally, I am afraid almost everyday, yet I still get up and face these fears and even overcome them once in a while.  Fear can lead one to action.  Once on a rock climb I was getting tired beyond belief and was moments away from falling.  There was a jagged ledge below and hitting it in a fall could have been deadly.  But somehow, the fear lead me to a do or die action, and I carefully placed my foot on solid holds, breathed in a deep breath, cleared my head and made the move to safety.  In that moment, fear led me forward and I used it to take appropriate action.  I remember being afraid to leave Boulder, Colorado for my first teaching job in California.  I was scared of moving across the country and failing at the job.  But I knew the kids there needed me, and I knew I could help students there find their way.  I was sad to leave the mountains, yet happy for newness.  In life you must always try to grow and seek new pastures or else you will surely fade away with the setting sun.  I remember being afraid to take up mountain bike racing again at age forty.  I wanted to see if I could rise to the challenge, because it had been fifteen years since I raced in Colorado.  I started training relentlessly and went to my first race in Danville, Virginia last October.  I was scared beyond reason and my nerves leading up to the race were overwhelming me.  I could not sleep for two days before the race and I kept catastrophizing bad situations that would happen during the race like getting a flat or crashing and getting hurt.  It turns out that after five minutes of racing it started to rain like a monsoon in Thailand.  It rained hard for an hour and the course was a slop fest.  But halfway through the first lap, I said to myself, “race your own race, it is just for fun.”  I finally calmed down and just started having fun.  I remember there was a woman who had tunes blaring from her I-Phone and she was just singing along with the music and having a blast in the rain.  I rode with her for a while and realized that really this endeavor was just for fun, and to try not to be so serious.  I pushed through the fear and started to have the time of my life.  Funny thing though on the second lap my front brake cable broke so I had only a back brake for nine miles in the mud soaked, slippery course.  But I kept going and finished the race.  I even took ninth place and still beat two people in my age class.  Wow, how was that possible?  Fear in that instance turned to action, and in the end I had fun and learned many lessons about living.  When you can turn fear into a motivator, life begins to reward you.  You realize that all things are possible and failure can happen, but it is all right.  If you fail at something, that is just an opportunity to try it again in a new way.  As Randy Pausch said in The Last Lecture, “Brick walls are there for a reason…’they’ are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”  Do you climb over the wall, do you dig a hole and go under it, or do you take a brick out and go through it?  Challenges are stepping-stones to action and trying new things in new ways.  If we never tried new things and stepped out of our comfort zone, we would never grow.  So think about whether fear is holding you back from realizing your true potential.  It is all right to have fear, but try not to let it overwhelm you to the point of non-action.  When you face life directly and go out there and live and not hide from life, life will truly reward you for your efforts.  I have learned so many life lessons simply by action and failure.  Get out there and try something new.  Climb a mountain, write a story, ride your bike, communicate to a distant family member, ask a girl or guy out to the movies, dream big, travel, live life.  Take your next step.  In the end, only good things will come to you.

Walking in Wilderness

(originally written February 20, 2005)

It has been nine weeks since my back surgery.  I am feeling excellent and have hiked a lot the past month.  Today was another classic North Carolina mixed bag of rain and of course at elevation, the smooth as glass and very slick verglas that coats everything, the rocks, the trees, and even the flat ground.  Rarely do you see many other hikers and today was not an exception.  The Middle Prong Wilderness section of the Mountains to Sea Trail(MST) was classic backcountry fun.

Mountains to Sea Trail signpost

Image via Wikipedia

For the first time ever, the white blazes of glory that light the path were somewhat obscure.  There were blazes, but not as frequent, and the ice seemed to hide the markers and play tricks on my head.  The trail was obvious, but the two signs for the MST were welcome relief twice on the route.  You start doubting yourself and then this weird latent fear of getting lost creeps up your spine.  You know you are all right and keep plodding forward.  The rain is incessant and the arms and thigh area of my top of the line Mountain Hardware rain gear are wet.  I am warm and dry inside, but I wonder what it might be like to have to be exposed like this all night?  Fears moves me forward and suddenly I see MST signs appear like ghosts in the mist.  I guess in the wilderness areas, the forest service and trail volunteers do not paint the trail markers as often.  I get to the junction with Green Mountain Trail and peer earnestly towards the south, where Mt. Hardy(6110ft.) stands somewhere one mile through the whiteness.  For the past hour I have been walking through the thickest soup of clouds and fog I think I have ever walked through.  foggy mountain2

It is beautiful, but at the same time unnerving.  I start to walk over in the direction of the summit, but having no compass made me hesitant.  I decided to turn around there, content to hike the summit when I can see it, or untill I buy a compass.  The verglas on the rocks made the trail quite slick.  You had to inch your way over creeks and down steeper sections.  It made for slow traveling and I got back to the car after three hours and forty minutes.  I was pretty wet when I threw off my coat and pants.  My inside layer was fine and my shoes were only just beginning to get wet inside.  The rest of this day hike was sheer joy in wilderness.  One time on the descent, I stopped briefly in a small break in the trees.  Something white and stark caught my eye.  Off in the distance a seventy-five foot waterfall was pasted on the far valley.  A chance break in the white out of clouds made the valley open up for a brief time and I spotted the beauty.  It doesn’t have a name on the map, but I bet it has been named by someone by now.  The moment was one of complete bliss and pure experience.  foggy mountainThe rest of the hike was very special to me as well.  Walking in wilderness when no one is near, not even close, is incredibly fulfilling and meaningful.  Being at one with your thoughts and emotions, taking action and moving forward.  Creating memories and bringing a sense of calm and relaxation into your being.  Hearing the wind and beat of rain and feeling the pulse of life.  Rain falling on leaves like the beat of a heart, the beat of humankind.  Nature’s power and life, weaving spiritual connections inside your head, merging energies.  God, nature, man, trees, ice, water, wind, mind, voice, steps…keep walking.

Written by Chris Coney, co-owner of Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures http://pisgahmountainbikeadventures.com/

Overcoming Fear at The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass, NC

Rarely can you climb one route and feel completely satisfied.  The curse of the addicted climber always rings true–just one more climb.  Yesterday, one more climb was not necessary.  My wife and I walked joyfully down the trail at dusk with not a tinge of regret at having done a mere two pitches on the cloudless and perfect, early spring Sunday afternoon.  Arriving at the parking lot of the Southside of The Looking Glass at the crack of noon, we headed up to the familiar moderate area of classic flaring cracks and eyebrow face climbs.  The Southside is a great place to get your bearings on the incredible granite of The Glass.  The climbs are all fun classic cracks, like the quintessential finger-crack corner Rat’s Ass(5.8), the bomber jams of Bloody Crack(5.8), and the long slabby finger-crack The Zodiac(5.8+).  On the way up the trail, my mind was undecided on what our prize should be today.  My mental nemesis route called Windwalker(5.9), was the only route on the Southside we hadn’t done, so with a hesitant and loud sigh I agreed to have a look and possibly try it.  I have looked at the route on numerous occasions, but the rumors sung in my head and created a surge of doubt and hesitation each time I thought of trying it.  An old-school traditional climber once told me, “Yeah, it is pretty cerebral, but doable.”  Famous last words I thought to myself.  If this friend says its cerebral, what does that really mean?  I climbed with him four times and never once saw an ounce of fear or hesitation from him, so what would I be in for on this journey?  Run-outs between gear, sketchy protection, steep eyebrows, slabby crimping, balencey and technical moves–yes all of the above apply here.  North Carolina standard fare.  Old school 5.9, bold and brilliant.  I should have known by the name Windwalker, that it would be good.  The name conjures up images of a wise shaman who travels the desert with the shifting winds, always seeking answers, always moving and learning.  This climb today calls on these same skills of mental and physical clarity of purpose.

Eyebrows at The Looking Glass

Eyebrows are a curious horizontal crack feature in climbing and look like an eyebrow from a distance(see photos).  It takes a few times to get use to climbing on them, but when you master the mantel, high-step, palm, crimp and balance routine, you have got it made.  Eyebrows love to eat up small Metolius or Alien cams and Lowe Tri-cams are indispensable(these are names of particular climbing protection pieces).  But eyebrow climbing is very heady and run-out between pieces of protection.  A climber routinely has to make three or four moves to a promising eyebrow only to be denied protection.  They are then forced to climb a few more feet to the next horizontal, which must have pro, you hope.  Windwalker is the same game of hit and miss protection, but enough is there to make your heart and mind shout joys of thanks each time you click your rope to the carabiner.  The clicking sound is one of relief and relaxation, where torments of anguish are temporarily eased, and the mind can focus again on the next few feet and the next few moves.  To succeed on Windwalker, one must be like the shaman, seeking, searching, moving.  From the opening moves out of a shallow corner onto the arete and face, the route starts dishing out the business.  Rounded crimps and shallow eyebrows challenge the mind and yet to the faithful, yield the right of way and offer passage.  A blend of fear, balancing acts on semi-stances, and faith brings one to the final bulge that has good horizontal crack jams and underclings.  High step on the slab, and you are free again and then a perfect horizontal eyebrow belay calls out ten feet below the nice 5.5 corner of pitch two.  This cerebral pitch was one of my favorites on the Southside.  It has been a breakthrough pitch for me and helped me develop the tenacity to go with the moment and persevere.   Afterall, climbing is a lot about keeping going and seeking adventure.  As the late Derek Hersey said, “Having a look around the corner.”  When we can go forward in the face of the unknown, seeking answers in our physical craft, answers that ease the wandering, restless spirit within, then we can find great joy and peace in these moments.  We can know that life can sometimes bring one closer to truth and closer to finding ultimate realities.  Not bad for an old-school 5.9 eyebrow climb, eh?  Any questions?

(Written March 6, 2006)

Climbing

Me climbing Shredded Wheat at Rumbling Bald, photo by Paul Rothfeld

Beautiful upward progress

Across faces and seams of rock.

Orange, yellow, red, brown, and gray

All mixed together with the blue clearness in the sky.

Many colors merging with the mind

Yet calm, pure Breathing.

Breathe it in deep.

What a gift

The rock gods have brought

A ledge for four,

300 feet off the deck.

Sun beaming

Beckoning one to movement.

Merging dances with the rock.

Quietness and yet most alive you are now.

Moving forward,

Always searching the wall

For the right path.

Concentration.

Chalk up the fingers

Always thinking upward and above.

What lies next,

Beyond that block?

A face or a perfect finger crack to the summit?

We know not,

So we climb to find out.

Our curiosity

Overwhelms and inspires us

To movement

And art unfolding in the unknown.

We are drawn onward

By secret, silent voices

And visions of beauty in form and action.

(Poem written in May, 1998)

Bushwhacking in High Places

Can you say bushwhacking?

About three years ago, I completed the South Beyond 6000(SB6K) hiking program in North Carolina.  This program is a hiking challenge sponsored by the Carolina Mountain Club to hike all the state’s 6000 foot peaks.  There are technically 60 peaks above 6000 feet, but only 40 are in the challenge.  You end up hiking all the peaks as some are sub-peaks of others, and as in Colorado, there are rules for distance and elevation changes between peaks(see rules at The Carolina Mountain Club website).  This challenge was one of the hardest life accomplishments I have ever completed.  I started almost by accident.  I had just had low back surgery and my doctor said I could not rock climb for three months, but to walk and hike as much as I wanted.  I was bored waiting around with nothing to do, and frankly I was depressed as well.  Well, why not hike instead of mope?  I slowly increased my distances, and one day went out to hike a 6000 foot peak in Pisgah Forest, Mt. Hardy.  I remember that there was snow on the ground and the hike was harder than anticipated.  No one was around, which is very typical in the winter in North Carolina.  People for the most part seem to not venture too far than a mile from their cars, who knows?  Well anyways, the day was a blue bird day with the warm sun shining on my face and thoughts of solitude and adventure penetrated me to the core.  The views were incredible up top, which later I found out is not always the case in North Carolina, because of the thick trees and foliage.  Well, after that solo hike I was definitely hooked on hiking again and started to want more.  After a few weeks, I had done all the peaks on the maps I had, and then randomly met a hiker one day that was in the Carolina Mountain Club.  He suggested I do the SB6K program and I looked it up that night.  After browsing their maps and information, I was intrigued, and decided that if I could not climb for three months, why not hike.  I had already hiked ten peaks, so why not?  At least I would stay busy for a while.  It took me 2 years to complete the program, and I have to say that some of the peaks I never want to go to ever again.  In the East, peaks above 5000 feet are being ravaged by the wooly adelgid beetle and many trees are dying off.  This situation causes there to be an abundance of deadfall and briars.  North Carolina briars in the summer are not just little thorn bushes, they entangle whole tops of mountains in an impenetrable barrier like barbed wire fences at Alcatraz.  These briars are sometimes about eight feet tall and twist and turn around every tree, rock and bush, and combined with the deadfall, you literally have to crawl on your hands and knees at times to make forward progress.  I remember so many days being surrounded by this mass of life and literally only being able to see about five feet in any direction.  It is very disconcerting at times.  And you better know how to use a map and compass too, because over half of the peaks require about a mile of bushwhacking to reach the summit.  The summits of these bushwhacks are sometimes only a pile of rocks with flagging, or if you are lucky, there is a forest service bench mark.  About a fourth of the peaks have no views because of the aforementioned deadfall, briars, and tree fortress, that blocks any hope of a view.  But for me, it was more about the adventure than the views.  You always get views in North Carolina, but they are usually on the way to the summits.  You get up on a ridge and the trees will open up to the next valley and give you a window view of the greenest green you have ever seen.  And did I say trees?  Yes there are a lot of trees in North Carolina.  I lived in Colorado for twelve years and was always used to wide open expansive views of mountains and valleys.  In Colorado, I never used a compass, because you could always see your destination from ten miles away.  It was hard to get lost.  Here, the trees enclose you and you become part of the forest you are treading in.  You learn to narrow your focus and go inward.  The forest encloses your mind and you notice the small things.  I have seen so many small miracles of life-like spiders, salamanders, morning dew glistening on fresh cobwebs, snails, etc., that I probably would have missed in other parts of the country.  Also, there are so many colors of green in the woods here that I can’t even describe it to you, except I have seen shades of green I did not know existed here.  It is as if Van Gogh had painted the colors here, and played with his easel by experimenting and mixing new colors not on the color wheel.  The weather is another crazy factor in North Carolina.  I have hiked in blue skies, I have hiked in the dark, and I have hiked in the rain, sleet, and snow.  I have hiked in cold temperatures, in boiling hot temps, in the humidity, and in extremely high winds.  The mountains here are very unpredictable.  I have been out on summer days that have turned very dangerous in a matter of a few minutes.  And one thing you will definitely encounter in North Carolina is rain.  Buy good rain gear, because you will use it.  Hiking in the rain is so amazing though, when the clouds and fog are rushing through the trees creating window views of valleys and mountains in all directions.  Above 5000 feet when you are in the clouds it is very exhilarating.  You become a part of the living world of nature and you feel so small and insignificant, and yet happy and content.  You become part of the miracle of life and you wonder about the meaning of it all.  So if you want to challenge yourself, or if you just want to see some beautiful places, hike North Carolina summits.  You will find places of peace there and you will not be dissatisfied.