I didn't want to train today. I'm exhausted. I'm moonlighting at Penn State, full time for this month, in the Office of Admissions. Working at 8 a.m. - that ain't me, babe. I'm also semi-crushed with assignments and trying to keep this blog going and I had a couple of disappointments happen last night with work. Nothing huge, but when you're this lowdown, it doesn't take much to sink you completely, at least temporarily. Especially when you're averaging five hours of sleep a night.
So, I didn't want to go to Victory. Hell, all I really wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed and cry. I'm crying all the time. In my car, at the grocery store, on the phone with my über-patient friends, at the office, too - I try to sniffle quietly there. (I really don't want to be the weird temp girl crying at the corner desk.) It started two years ago, this crying, when my brother died. It's increased in frequency and violence, the way summer begets thunderstorms, since T left. Since my birthday it's gotten worse.
When I feel it coming on I just go with it. Sometimes I don't have a choice. Today I wept almost continuously in my therapist's office. Big, scalding tears. Tears of pain and fear and regret and shame. A salty cocktail made of emotions I'm beginning to worry have taken up permanent residence within me. My therapist tells me to be patient, that I've been through much in these past few years. I know she's right. I have to honor this pain, lean into it, let it have its way with me. I've never done this before. I've always pushed pain away, numbed it, neglected it. Let it starve, a chained dog whose teeth no longer menace. But I can't, don't want to live my life like this anymore. I want to heal, not hide.
So anyway, I didn't want to go to Victory. But I did. I started my program and as I sweated and worked I noticed something fantastic. I noticed that I actually began to feel better. I still started crying right as I was doing my hip hikes when Green Day's "Missing You" began blaring out of the speakers - I mean that's how far gone I am, I'm actually crying over Green Day songs. But I kept on going and I kept on feeling better. It wasn't easy, of course. But maybe that's part of the pleasure. Why not try to hurt as much physically as you do emotionally?
Steve's got me doing enough different exercises now that I'm rotating two routines. For my core, I lay flat on the floor, inhaling deeply and then pulling my stomach muscles tight as I exhale. It must be working, because my abdomen always aches afterward. I also use a six-pound medicine ball a lot, swinging that thing in circles and figures eights, doing diagonal chops and "wood" chops with it. I think I look like a complete idiot, but I keep swinging it because I'll be damned if my arms aren't clearly developing muscle.
But I need special training to climb mountains and Steve, since he's ascended Kilimanjaro himself, understands precisely what will be required of my body as I trudge up and up and up first Kili and then later in the year Aconcagua's nearly 23,000 feet. I'm spending a lot of time balancing on one leg, and making "eagle" claws of my toes as I stand, flexing and unflexing them over and over. I'm doing assisted pull ups and something called cervical retractions. Which is not at all, not even close, what you might suspect it to be. Basically, I'm simply drawing my chin in toward my neck, and then jutting it back out. This strengthens my spine. I'm going to be asking a lot of my spine next year.
I feel myself getting stronger - I actually see myself getting stronger - but tackling Mount Nittany on Sunday still got my blood throbbing and my breath coming hot and quick. Tamar and I hiked the White Trail, which ascends sharply for a half-mile. Only a half-mile, but it's a steep-ish half-mile. There's also a whole five-mile loop trail over and down the mountain I'm going to start trekking, hopefully this weekend. I know I've got a long, long way to go. In many ways. But I'm not stopping, not now, not ever. Because this is the way I save myself. There's a new life ahead, there has to be, filled with passion and joy, love and maybe even some peace, too. I just have to keep walking toward it.
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I'm not there yet. I'm nowhere close to there. My heart remains unhealed, a battered, worthless thing...but. But today I felt real joy, the kind that sings, that makes the blood beat a little faster, the eyes tear in gratitude for the moment. It's been a long time since I felt this way. Alive and awake and aware; every cell, it seemed, humming, on alert. That it occurred on a mountain makes me believe in the mad magic of my dream to climb those big, big peaks next year. I think perhaps I'd forgotten how the wild soothes and centers me, how testing my legs against steepest slope makes me believe, if only for a time, that I am capable. Strong.
I've spent the past few days at Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia, which is located within a 6,000-acre state park, in an oval basin that sits at 3,200 feet. It's the second-highest inland wetland area in the United States and it is filled with creatures great and small, from ever-present groundhogs to mountain lions the rangers swear up and down don't exist. They have a lot of room to roam; there's a nearly 17,000-acre wildlife refuge next door, along with a 10,215-acre wilderness area. It's green and lush here, peaceful. I've brought along my confident and long-time friend Serafice, who soothes and centers me almost as much as the wild.
I'm thankful for her presence, this mystical and healing woman, because this is the first time I've traveled without T since he left me, fleeing back to the South he loves, it must be said, more than me. It's one day after my 50th birthday. Somehow it didn't occur to me that this journey would have its emotional difficulties and it's not until the door to our room has closed behind us and we are setting our bags down that I realize I'm on the verge of a panic attack. I suppose it is borne of the renewed recognition that all my future, the trips I will take, the love I will make, all my best and worst moments to come, will be without him. Each time this recognition slithers into my consciousness I'm torn apart again. When, when, when will this pain and fear end?
"Because he left," Serafice tells me, "you can be who you are meant to become. You could not have attempted this with him in your life, Jill. You never would have been allowed near those mountains. You know that. You are free now."
The panic waxes and wanes over the next few days and is finally lost as I ascend through bright, breezy meadow and shadowed forest to Bald Knob, a rocky protuberance rising 4,308 feet over the valley floor. It's a short hike - just 2.5 miles in total - but for a time, in between encounters with chattering, happy families, I'm alone. There is only the wind and the sun and the mountains in the distance, hazy and eternal. Butterflies, too, and dragonflies that dart before me on the path, as if to guide me onward. I feel tiny, dwarfed by these timeless hills, and at the same time tall and powerful, like each stride I take is that of a giant. I imagine my footfalls are making great booming sounds, that they leave deep fissures in the earth. I don't think about my age, or that, just six weeks after T and I parted, I am already yearning for a lover's touch. Already lonely. I don't think about fear.
I realize that this is the first climb I've made, small and tender though it is, since swearing my oath to ascend Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua next year.
Nearly without acknowledging it, I've begun.
I turned 50 years old an hour and 15 minutes ago and since that time I've been writing and deleting, writing and deleting. I want to pen something profound and beautiful, something wise, with humor and grit, to mark this occasion. The thing is...I don't feel that way. I don't feel beautiful or wise. My 40s seem to have taken my sense of humor with them and the only grit I've got at this point is the bit of mascara still left in the corner of my eye after a day spent crying. I was supposed to be on a beach in Cuba right now, drinking mojitos and making love in the sand.
I feel like I was knocked on the head and have woken up in a life that isn't my own. Surely I can't be 50 years old, with an epically busted heart, living with my parents as I try to take care of them - and not very capably at that - while attempting to jump start a career in a field that is disappearing faster than the polar ice caps? To quote David Byrne, "How did I get here?"
I suppose a more helpful question might actually be "How do I get out of here?" How do I get back to myself, the woman I was years ago, when life held measures of joy and promise? Ascending Kili and Aconcagua - and the physical, emotional, mental, even spiritual work that I have to do in preparation for those climbs - is half of the answer. The other half is easier to achieve, though probably more complicated. I've got to fake it 'til I make it.
Are you familiar with the concept? Basically, you act the part of who and what you want to become, faithfully and with gusto, until you actually become that person. I think it's about using intent and action and maybe even a bit of visualization to make manifest your dreams and desires. And it works. It really does.
I faked it 'til I made it years ago, back before I started traveling and doing things that really alarm my mother, like fording rain-swollen Wyoming rivers on horseback with 6'5" cowboys named Bob and investigating gay leather clubs in Amsterdam. In those days I knew what I wanted - a big life - and what I wanted to become - fearless. I acted that part, pretending to be a big, bold adventurer until it seemed that was what I'd become. For a while. And then I fell harder and more deeply in love than I think I've ever been in life. And my big world started to get smaller. I started to get smaller. Because sometimes big, bold, world-stomping women aren't what men want. Even when that's half the reason why they fell in love with you in the first place.
And when those men who you've changed your life for - hell, tried for years and years to change your very essence for - when they turn around and leave anyway? They leave behind a wraith, a pale shadow, someone with only a vague recollection of who they once were and what happiness feels like.
I don't remember what it's like not to be sad, not to be scared.
So I'm going to try to fake it 'til I make it. I'm going to pretend, as best as I can, to have strength and purpose, energy and even joy. I'm going to imagine that I'm still the woman in this picture up there, which was taken just a couple years ago, by a good friend and just for the sheer hell of it. That woman in the photo - confident, spirited, even gleeful...I want her back. I'm afraid it's too late, that at 50 I'm too old. But I'm going to pretend I'm not.
is a journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. She has contributed to Woman's Day, Country Living, Gothamist, Washingtonian, EDGE Media Network, Canadian Traveller, Country, Country Woman, and a host of other festive publications and websites. She is the travel editor for the nation's most beautiful publication, Faerie Magazine. Her column, Rebooted, is published across Pennsylvania.