|Somewhere deep inside yourself
Deep inside your soul
Is a secret
To make itself known
To make itself felt
To make its mark
on the world
Before youre through
Thanks for the letter. Thanks for the clear explanation. Lots of things finally make
sense to me now. Its not what I wanted to hear, of course, but its more
important to finally understand. Still, I feel like a part of me is about to burstI
still have 100,000 things to tell you!
But since I probably wont get the chance, Ill just tell you one of the most
important ones: always remember that life is WONDERFUL! I feel funny saying that right now
because its not exactly the way Im feeling, but way down in the center of me,
its my biggest core belief. It may be pretty buried sometimes, but its always
there influencing my life and giving me direction.
And another thing: YOU are
I dont know what word to put here but I just love
who you are! I really do! I wish for you to be able to see yourself the way I do. Have I
told you enough about that? Will you remember?
99,998 things left untold. Good luck to you. Thanks for everything. I hope everything
goes your way forever.
The guidebook described three possible routes up the harder
east face of the Teepee Pillar, a tall granite tooth extruding from the southeast corner
of the Grand Teton like a bucktooth vampires awkward incisor.
"You must stay on route. Getting off route can lead to serious consequences,"
the guidebook had asserted before launching into brief, vague route descriptions.
Four hundred feet up the cliff, we found ourselves off route. I had followed Chris and
Brent and was the last to arrive. The next pitch was my lead and the thought of moving
hand over hand up the steeply overhanging flake frightened me. To make things worse, I saw
quickly that there would be no place for protection until I reached the end of the flake,
twenty five feet away.
"Either of you guys want this lead?" I asked. Chris and Brent just shook
their heads and waited for me to climb past them and out onto the flake. We named the
pitch "Zig." I breathed more easily once I had slung a loop of webbing around
the flakes sharp point and clipped my rope to it.
"Overconfidence has gotten me this far," I whispered to myself before
moving on across a section of loose, rotten rock.
Another three hundred feet up the pillar, Brent was following Chris up Zag, our second
necessary route variation to correct another misjudgment. This sort of route finding is an
inherent element of mountaineering on such an infrequently-climbed summit.
I waited below Brent, stemmed, wedged into a three-foot-wide chimney, one foot against
the vertical wall before me and sitting on the other foot, pressed against the wall to my
back, my two feet holding me between the parallel surfaces while offering mild protection
from the cold wind as I waited my turn to climb.
"Dammit!" Brent yelled from above. I pulled my face from where I had
buried it in my coat collar, looking up quickly, half expecting to watch Brent come
tumbling off the rock toward me, falling until the rope above him ran out of slack and
"Dammit!" he yelled again. His trembling voice betrayed serious fear.
"Whats up?" I shouted. The wind gusted strong enough that I thought he
might not hear my voice even at this close range. "You okay?"
Brent remained silent for a minute, then shouted down the problem.
"Im holding a fifty-pound rock with my toe!! If I let go, its going to
come right down on top of you!"
At that moment, as if to prove his point, a fist-sized rock rolled over the lip of
granite that hid Brent from my view, dropping straight down between the chimney walls.
Live & Dont Learn
That day on the Teepee Pillar was not the first time my life hung
from a 10.5 mm thread.
I didnt learn the lesson to be perfectly careful and avoid all danger. Perhaps I
would have had I not learned other lessons at the same time.
I learned that the thrill of adventure makes life run sweet in my veins. It makes me
alert and alive, because everything depends on what you do in that next moment,
everything hangs on that single quarter-inch edge of granite under your fingertips.
Sometimes you learn the right lessons, sometimes you learn wrong, and its not
always an easy thing to unlearn. Youre far more likely to learn the wrong lessons if
youre going about your lessons randomly with no clear direction.
The first step to control your learning is to ask the right questions.
I sat Indian-style in the grass next to the concrete waterfall
and considered what to teach in my afternoon lit course. The class was reading Chinua
Achebes Things Fall Apart. The protagonist, Okonkwo, lived a straightforward
code that directed his life. In the end, his fierce resistance to change, to even
considering other options, caused his death.
Today as I closed my eyes to the bright afternoon sun, letting the pleasant cacophony
of falling water lull me to sleep, I almost envied the simplicity of Okonkwos life.
My own typically-modern life, with its thousand demands and million possibilities, was, in
comparison, an utter mess.
Not that I would give up any piece of my mess. Like a teenagers room littered
with toys and clothes, everything worth keeping disastrously cluttering the room.
At this time I was busy teaching college literature and composition classes while
looking for another job that would actually pay the bills. I was grading papers and
preparing lectures, meeting with students and mailing out résumés, running and biking in
the foothills and trying to keep up an active social life. Despite the rush and tumble,
life felt relatively stable and calm.
My mind drifted off to other thoughts and memories. About the thirty-six times I had
moved during the course of my life. The places and faces I had known. The dreams that had
been realized or forgotten or remained unfulfilled. The many grand achievements that now
faded into insignificancelife always demanding new accomplishments to be rewarded,
to validate my existence.
Perhaps a simpler life like Okonkwos would prove happier, but it was not an
option. Not without the willingness to let go of too many things. I was caught up seeking
both thrills and stability. I could never give up hope that life would someday be great
and sweet and rewarding and stable. That I would learn and gain enough that life could be
rich and deep without quite so much effort or fear that it might not last beyond the
morning. I could never stop working to reach that goal until I finally neared that summit.
I could never justify giving up for longer than a long weekend.
Even if I tried to slow myself down, I knew exactly what would happen.
As soon as I had taken enough time to truly relax, to enjoy the slower pace and lack of
demands, to breathe deeply and taste the sweetness of still air and slow-paced days, the
passion would catch up again. The ideas would come rushing at me and I would not be able
to contain or restrain my enthusiasm. I would run off to live in another country or to
climb another mountain or write another book or
or any number of things from an
interminable list. Things would go slightly overboard and life would grow a little too
busy again and soon I would be running, heart pounding and out of breath, to catch my
dreams, wondering if maybe I should step back and slow down a little.
In a way, this made me no better than Okonkwoeither unwilling or unable to change
even to save my life.
"Am I wrong?" I wondered. And did it matter? Would I change my ways and slow
to a more reasonable pace even if it was possible? I didnt think so.
The question was quickly drowned out by warm sunshine on my face and the relaxing
pounding of water. I lay back on the grass and let my thoughts drift away into dreams,
confident I would awake again in time for class, confident that we would find more than
enough to talk about for todays two hours.
"So what enduring themes did you find in todays
reading?" I asked, breaking into the chattering conversations carrying on around the
classroom. My tan face showed a slight tint of red sunburn from my afternoon nap.
I waited at the white board as conversations rolled to a close and students dutifully
pulled their books from their bags and began flipping through the pages. By this time they
knew what I meant by enduring themes. These were the lessons inherent in stories and
literature. These were the things that applied, in some way, to the lives of other people,
the concepts and experiences that will still apply to human life a hundred and a thousand
years in the future.
"Beneath changing fashions and cultures and circumstances, the human experience is
basically the same," I had told the class on the first day. My main goal in the class
was to teach students to really benefit from reading, to learn to find these enduring
themes and apply them to their lives, learning lessons the easy way, avoiding some of the
pain of the hard experience often required to wake us up and make us change our ways.
The underlying themes we mostly focused on wrapped around Identity and Culturewho
are we? How do we become who we are? How much control do we have over our identities and
The main paper assignment reflected this. They were required to choose an enduring
theme from the reading and discuss the idea itself, supporting and showing the ideas
through examples from reading and from their own lives. I doubted that many students had
yet put much thought into their papers, but we had a great time discussing various
One by one, students began volunteering enduring themes and I wrote them along the left
edge of the board. "Anger." "Emotions." "Self Control."
"Change." "Adapting." "Differences." "Tolerance."
"Intolerance." "Reacting instead of acting." "Love."
"Expression." "Despair." "Violence." "Peer
Milli raised her hand and I nodded at her. "The generation gap."
Soon we had two columns of enduring themes on the board and I recapped the pen.
"Any more youre dying to add to the list?" I asked. Silence. "All
right, then, where do we start?"
Some days I came with lectures prepared. When we read a book from China, I brought
coins and statuettes and pictures showing some of the things the book discussed, things I
had collected on my first trip to teach English in the Orient. When we read A Clockwork
Orange, full of Russian words converted to English slang, I brought a glossary to make
the reading easier. But any given day, all I needed was a few good questions to start us
moving, and the discussion would carry itself.
"Change," one student said. "Adapting," added another. I put a
check next to the two words and looked back up at the class. "Any more?"
"Violence!" said Levi with pretended enthusiasm. I checked that as well.
"Okay," I began when no more words were added to our cue, "if you were
writing a paper about change or adapting, what point might you want to make?"
"That it happens," someone said, "so youd better get used to
"And if you try to pretend it doesnt happen," added Levi, "you
could get yourself in trouble."
"Nothing even has to change to have change," Milli said. The class turned
toward her, wondering what she was talking about. "Like when I moved here from New
York, it was a totally different life than what I had known, but nothing had really
changednot me, and not here. The only difference was that I changed places."
"True," Levi agreed. Jeremy nodded and Natalie looked steadily back up at me
to see what I would say next.
"It sounds like there are a number of different kinds of change," I said
thoughtfully. "Why dont we make a list of these and then well discuss
whichever ones you want."
The discussion on change carried on for an hour and forty minutes without so much as a
seven-minute lull. The board filled up with lists and diagrams. I finally glanced up at
the clock and reluctantly ended the discussion.
"Okay, so for Friday youll all have a half-page response to todays
discussion and read the last eleven chapters." A few students sat back in their
chairs and swiveled their faces around toward the clock, obviously surprised that the time
had run out so quickly.
The 7 Cardinal Virtues
Im not the least bit sure there are only seven, but
its a good number to begin with.
All I know is that there are secrets.
If we all knew these secrets, it would matter.
It would make a difference
It would make all the difference.
It would change life from struggle and darkness to light and adventure and something
closer to pleasure and joy.
But theres a catch:
No one can tell you all the answers.
Dont confuse simple "knowing" with true and deep
If telling were all it took, I would give you a list and you would read it in ten
seconds and be on your way to a fulfilling, marvelous existence. If telling could do the
trick, you surely would have known it all a long, long time ago, along with everyone else
in the world.
Understanding the secrets clearly enough to make all the difference requires
experiencesometimes years of it, depending on where youre coming from.
The lessons move toward and past us endlessly, sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow,
sometimes too soon, sometimes too late. Sometimes the lessons break us down and sometimes
lift us clear, like a drop of frozen rain blown by high winds, tumbling endlessly through
hazy clouds, growing ever-larger in the humid air, then suddenly rising into the bright
sunshine above before falling again, plummeting downward toward the earth with a trillion
If you stand on the grass with your tongue extended toward heaven, some of this hail
will melt deliciously in your mouth. Still more will bounce painfully from your face.
Experience offers only three shortcuts.
One is to experience moreto dive into life with abandon, chasing the breaking
wave to the shore, fighting to keep up with the rising swell, hoping to feel those
wondrous moments when gravity drags you along effortlessly, body surfing the forces of
life that tumble, crash and swirl around you.
Second is to live through someone elses experience. After all, once the wave has
crashed on the beach, once youve crawled from the surf and dried yourself off on the
waiting sand, once youve rinsed the salt from your skin and the vacation has ended,
once youve returned home and moved back into your every day life, all you have left
is a memory and perhaps a bit of skin still peeling from your shoulders from the recent
burn. Experiencing someone elses life, whether through reading or listening or
observing, you take with you a piece of their memories, a precious piece of their
understanding, and this piece becomes your own experience that no one can take from you.
The third shortcut is to ponder. Ponder with your mind and with your heart. Let the
swells roll back and forth inside you, replay the crashing waves, the foamy surf, the salt
on your tongue and the sand beneath your feet, let it grow more real, increasing your
clarity with every retelling upon the minds stage.
Little by little, day by day, page by page, experience reveals the secrets of life.
This book is about teaching and learning, climbing and falling,
seeing and suffering, about motion and reading and running and knowing, friends, family
and waterfalls, about darkness and light, snow, rain and sun, beautiful vistas and
thrilling bursts of speed.
This book is about experience.
This book is about one of the secrets.
This book is about passion.
Bursts of Speed
On Tuesdays and Thursdays I had no classes to teach at the local
college and sometimes accepted substitute teaching jobs in the secondary school district
in an effort to make financial ends meet. One day during a break in classes at the junior
high school, I found this quote taped to a wooden podium on the teachers desk:
"Anyone who imagines that bliss is
normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he's been robbed. The
fact is that most putts don't drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just
people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, most jobs
are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old time rail journey...delays,
sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful
vistas and thrilling bursts of speed."
The most common junior high school subbing assignments came from teachers who worked in
the "resource" classrooms. The children here had been removed from other classes
because of their utter lack of discipline and the havoc they wreaked there. How these
teachers manage to get through as many challenging days as they do remains a mystery.
I wondered if the quote had been taped here to calm a teacher whose nerves were
frazzled. Who had expected more from life but now struggled both to make ends meet on a
teachers salary and to keep her sanity while fighting to maintain order among the
preadolescents in her classes. I wondered if it served as a consolation, as some kind of
permission to give up on other dreams or wishes for a more fulfilling life.
I copied the quote onto a scrap of paper and read it again and again. I wondered if it
was true. I wondered if I would save myself a great deal of effort and frustration if I
simply accepted this quote as the unchangeable way of life and the world.
In the end, I could not bring myself to accept the defeat of my
dreams and high hopes. I decided that life is what you make it. I chose to believe that I
have the power to make my dreams come true. I looked around and saw so many opportunities
for adventure and to experience beauty and joy that even with moderate effort, I could
fill my glass to overflowing.
I am bound and determined to not allow the quote to become true for me. I am determined
to fill my life with continual breathtaking vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. I
believe I will succeed if I remain willing to do what it takes.
Maybe even if I succeed, even if life grows continually beautiful and thrilling, maybe
the quote will still be true. Surely most of my efforts will not succeednot on the
first try, at leastand I will experience more than enough delays and sidetracks. But
if I notice and remember only the thrilling and the beautiful, then my wish will have come
true. Maybe only the perspective matters.
Maybe the key is not to expect life to be bliss, but to not mind the missed putts, the
tough beef, the cinders and dust in your eyes and the millions of ordinary people that
fill our thrilling, beautiful world.
Months later, I found another quote by the same man:
Gordon B. Hinckley
"There is no substitute under the heavens for productive labor. It is the process
by which dreams become realities. It is the process by which idle visions become dynamic
achievements. It is work that spells the difference in life. It is stretching our minds
and utilizing the skills of our hands that lift us from mediocrity."
I will work at my dreams and the repetitive word "most" from the first quote
will not, in the end, apply to my life.
Three students had lingered after class to discuss their paper
topics, todays discussion, and life in general. By the time we each wandered away to
our cars and home, there wasnt much time left. I sped home, changed quickly, jumped
on my mountain bike and headed for the foothills rising up from the valley one mile from
my front door.
Sweat poured down my forehead and into my eyes by the time I reached the high point on
my usual ten-mile loop of single track. My lungs heaved and ached for more oxygen. My legs
burned for a rest, already turned to jelly by the continuous uphill pump, but the sun was
already sliding down past the horizon.
I pedaled slowly as the ground leveled off. Two thousand feet below me, the valley
spread out flat, covered by the grids and squares of streets and homes. Six thousand feet
above me, the summit of Mount Timpanogos glowed in the soft red light of dusk. All around
me, the grass was just beginning to turn green beneath the dry, brown stalks of last fall.
The trail wrapped in and out through patches of scrub oak where I sometimes startled small
herds of mule deer waiting for night to wander and feed.
My heart rate slowed to a more comfortable level and I breathed the clean air deeply,
enjoying the sweet and thrilling sensation of health and fitness. I could almost feel the
steaming, red blood pumping fuel through the miles of veins and arteries meandering
purposefully through my arms, legs, and brain. I felt perfectly awake and alive.
The path turned gradually downhill and I quit pedaling. Coasting along, the cooling
breeze blowing softly against my face, turning the rivulets of sweat to white lines of
salt, everything cleared from my mind and heart, leaving me floating through an inspiring
moment of perfect calm, peace and beauty.
The rest of the ride was the icing on the cake. The steep, winding trails, the cool
wind, the deepening shadows, the quick uphill cranks and thrilling bursts of speed were
like sweet grape jelly spread thin and sweet over golden-brown toast, crunching
deliciously on my tongue and between my teeth every morning.