Last week, the day after my 50th birthday, I went to see my friend Shaie speak at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist church in Warrington, outside of Philly. I occasionally attend services when I'm traveling, like the achingly beautiful mass given in Irish I witnessed on St. Paddy's Day in my beloved Dingle, Ireland a couple years back. But the habit is more about honoring and exploring the local culture than anything else. I'm not at all religious, though I guess you could call me spiritual. I'm uncertain of what comes next after this life, but I believe, or at least I very much want to, that something does. I've lost too many people I loved too much in the past few years to long consider any other possibility.
Though I attended the Unitarian service simply to support my friend, the sermon nonetheless worked it's way into me. Shaie, who is currently seeking her master's degree in divinity at Vanderbilt, spoke in her soft, sweet voice about the times in life, as she described, "that feel simultaneously empty and full, containing both endings and beginnings, moving the experience of life from what is known to what is new." She titled her sermon "The Blank Rune," after the stone in the ancient set of divinatory symbols that represents contact with true destiny, which may hold our highest good and yet brings to the surface our deepest fears.
This space between that Shaie spoke of, where all is uncertain, filled with equal parts panic and potential, is where I live now. My past life, with a love I thought would last forever, with a younger brother I thought would live forever - Gunnar always seemed simply too vital, too big and filled with energy to ever die - and with healthy parents who could tend to themselves, is over. My new life, with its quest to ascend Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua next year, has barely begun. There is little I know with any sureness. Instead, there are only questions.
Will I be able to make my body, mind and spirit strong enough to climb Kili, let alone the nearly 23,000-foot behemoth that is Aconcagua? Will I find the support from sponsors I need to make these trips happen? Will I have it within me to write a book about it all? Will I have it within me to care for my mom and dad with the compassion and diligence they deserve? Will I find great love again? And will I finally, finally make of my life something I can be proud?
I have underachieved my entire adulthood, veering close to big, traditional success upon occasion, like the time I was one of a half-dozen women under consideration for the sidekick position on mega-star Mancow's syndicated radio show. But I never quite made it, always distracted by fallout from my chaotic life, or the next novelty to catch my easily unfocused attention. Often a man. Often a man broken and unworthy. The drug addict. The rage-aholic. The commitment-phobe incapable of intimacy. I used to joke that, given my choices in previous companions, my next lover would be a serial killer. It's not a joke I make anymore. I'm leaving these loves, and whatever emptiness within them that called to the hole in my soul, forever behind.
No matter if its a place of healing, the space between is uncomfortable - it often hurts like hell, actually. It's terrifying to have no real idea what the future holds, only plans and intentions, dreams and desires. Living in the space between requires faith, a faith I find myself struggling to capture. It's like stepping off a precipice, trusting you will float rather than fall. But trust is really the only option, because when you start to fret about the future, to worry it, like rosary beads between the alabaster fingertips of an ancient cleric, you stop living. Trepidation sets in. Dread. And before you know it, you are immobilized. You become one of those people beaten by life, unsatisfied, unhappy, but incapable of reaching for better. More than anything I fear this surrender.
So I'm trying to trust in the process, as Shaie suggested in her lovely sermon. To breath deeply and exist in the still, small moments - as yet rare and all the more precious for that paucity - when I am able to let go of doubt. I've set my goals and I'm working toward them. I will work toward them with more diligence, passion and focus than I've ever worked toward anything in my life. That's really all I can do, anyway. Work hard. Trust big. Trust that there is beauty and love and adventure and joy, too - real joy - ahead. Trust that all this pain and fear will one day dissipate, leaving just a distant, disquieting recollection, an ashy smudge of a memory of the time when I thought I just might not make it.
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.
I have a tendency toward impulsivity. Something bright and shiny and thrilling and BIG pops into my head and I think "Ooooh! Good idea! Let's GO, baby!" Leave my family and friends and everything I know to move down to Tennessee and in with a guy who has TWICE before cracked my heart open like an uncooked egg by breaking up with me the moment real commitment or true intimacy became involved? "Ooooh! Good idea! Let's GO, baby!"
We all know how that turned out. Though I can say now, six weeks out from when T walked - no, ran is a much more accurate word - six weeks out from when T ran out of my life I don't regret that move to Tennessee. I regret plenty of other things about our relationship, but not that. Because if you're going to be impulsive about anything, it might as well be love that at its best was so true blue if it had a color it would be the shade of the sky over the desert after a storm. No matter how big the hurt it eventually brings.
Of course, you're catching me at a good moment. Ask me how I feel about it when I'm sobbing at the dining room table before my stricken parents in the middle of supper and I might not be quite so perky about the whole thing. I still cry. A lot. Not every day, but close. I still, if you want to know the truth, cannot quite believe he's gone. At best, I miss him right down to my bones. At worst, I find it ridiculous that I'm expected to continue on without him. At very, very worst, like last night, I'm seized fully with a terror of the future looming in front of me, sinister and ugly, like a dark shadow in a desolate alley. Of the alien aloneness of it. T left. My brother is dead. When my parents are gone, I'm it. The last woman standing.
Anyway, as you might have guessed, I did not agonize over the decision to climb two of the Seven Summits in '17. I began with the idea to tackle Kilimanjaro next summer. I remember thinking something along the lines of "The last time T broke my heart I moved to Ireland for five months. This is the last, last time he will break my heart. So what in the hell do I do now?" And there came the image of Kilimanjaro, unbidden, blasting its way into my brainpan. Almost immediately I decided to blog about the experiences I would have as I trained to climb the mountain, thinking maybe it might not only do me some good, but also a few other people. People like me, who had lost so much they were in danger of losing themselves, too.
Then a few days later I heard that a lot of people climb Killi, about 25,000 annually, so shortly after that I decided to up the ante and add Aconcagua to my list. Only about 3,000 a year try it, maybe because it's known in South America as "The Mountain of Death." And then I got a web designer and a trainer and a photographer and went public with the plan and...here we are. The whole process, from "Ooooh, good idea! Let's GO, baby!" to now took three weeks. I want to think there is something magical in that - the speed, the ease, with which it all came together.
But now it's finally hit me, exactly what I've done. And I'm so scared. Not precisely because of the climbs...it's more the failure that could come with attempting them. Suppose no one reads my blog? Suppose I can't find any sponsors? Suppose I just can't do it? Because who do I think I'm kidding? I'm just a frightened, desperate mess. I'm not brave or a warrior. I'm not even a jogger. How in the hell am I going to get this nearly 50-year-old, out-of-shape body up two of the tallest mountains in the world? I really have no idea, other than to work harder than I ever have before and listen to the guys at Victory Sports and Fitness.
I had my fitness assessment at Victory last week. I was nervous, really nervous, because I pictured getting asked to do a pull-up, failing miserably, and everybody in the gym laughing at me, which is pretty much what happened in 5th grade. But instead Rob, Victory's energetic and charming owner, simply evaluated my posture, flexibility and range of motion. He discovered that my left calf is slightly less developed than my right - and assured me we'll get that squared away. He found that both my big toes only bend about half as far as they should. We'll deal with that, too, because I need my feet in good working order for Summit Day on Aconcagua, a 12-hour trek to the top. My scapulas, however, are in great shape - strong enough, Rob assured me, to bear the pressure without a shoulder dislocation if I take a tumble during the ascent and catch myself with my hands. That's as long as I don't fall 65 feet into a crevasse, like two Americans did on Aconcagua a few years ago on New Year's Eve. I'm not telling my parents about that.
A couple days after the evaluation I had my first session with my trainer, Steve Jury. Steve is about my age, with a big mustache and kind eyes. I like him very much. I also trust him to know what I need to do to get up those mountains because a couple months ago Steve did just that on Kili. The day I met him he showed me pictures of Africa he'd taken from the top of the world. In a few he's perched in front that epic, endless landscape, the place where man began, smiling so wide you'd think it was the best day of his life. Maybe it was.
Our first session surprised me. I don't know what I expected - Steve hurling medicine balls at my stomach while screaming at me to "Feel the burn," maybe. Instead, mostly what I did, along with a little cardio and some serious ankle and big toe stretching, was breathe. Flat on my back at first, later with arms held over head, then legs extended out and finally while on all fours, I breathed. From my diaphragm, with lips pursed, pulling my belly in with every exhale. It seemed easy enough. Too easy. Breathing?
"Baby steps to big steps," Steve said.
I liked that. Steve also said "Suffer now and summit later," which I liked even more. It sounded tough, like something I can chant to myself when I want to quit during a workout or practice climb. I understood the concept more clearly by that evening. My core, from my pelvis up to my breasts, had begun to ache with a dull, consistent pain that I hadn't felt the likes of in a long time. It's the pain, I suppose, of beginning. The pain of hope, too, perhaps. Because hope hurts just as much as it soothes, doesn't it? That's the hell of the thing.
Baby steps to big steps.
This is the beginning. This is how it starts, with a whimper, not a bang. My name is Jill Gleeson and in 11 days I will turn 50 years old. It's something I may find difficult to discuss with any semblance of wit or intelligence - though I will do my best as we go forward - because basically I have no clue how in the hell I got to be so old. I was 24, like, the day before yesterday. And it was fun.
Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included