I'm grateful for my mom and dad. They're old and difficult and broken in a way that can't ever heal by my brother's death. We fight. I'm not nearly as patient as I should be with them. I want to do better, but I haven't. And it kills me to see their health degrade, to see them sick and in pain. But they love me unquestionably in their imperfect way, the way I love them unquestionably in my imperfect way. We do the best we can, the three of us. And for that I'm grateful.
I'm grateful for my brother. I'm grateful that he lived, if I regret every day the way he died. I still sense him here, can nearly hear his great, booming voice and feel the way he he would wrap me in a hug, putting his whole big body and sprawling soul into it. Every once in while I still miss him so much it doubles me over. But how very, very lucky I am that I was Gunnar Shroyer's sister. I'm so grateful for that.
I'm grateful for my friends. The ones who've come into my life after the end of my relationship with T, the ones I'd lost touch with have who re-entered it since and the ones who have been here forever, it seems, helping me navigate the crests and troughs of healing. This is one of the most difficult stretches of my life and it's because of you that I'm making it through. I hope you know how much I love you. For each of you I'm so very grateful.
I'm grateful for the wild. For the mountains and forests and streams. For the paths that cross them, where I've felt a peace I've found nowhere else. Those three days last month I spent hiking the Appalachian Trail were some of the best of my life. How is possible that at 50 I've discovered this lust for the wild, this strong, steady need to wander it, to explore it, to pull it close it around me, like a lover or a gown of silk? I think this love, like all great loves, will take me somewhere I couldn't imagine when I first started to fall.
I'm grateful for writing. It's hard. It hurts. But every once in a while, when I know that I've written something of beauty that might make someone feel not quite as alone as they did before they read it, I think there's a chance my life might just have meaning.
I'm grateful for every single fucked up man I ever lowered myself to let inside my heart and head, because you've shown me what I don't want ever again. I'm grateful to every single man I've hurt, because you deserved better, and you've shown me who I don't want to be. I'm grateful for the sound of a train coming slow on the tracks, for good vodka and fast cars with stick shifts, for the candles I've lit in the cathedrals around the world for my brother, for hot sunshine and cool sheets, for the scents of lemongrass and lavender, and patchouli, too.
I'm grateful for high heels, even though I shouldn't be, and great jazz, for the taste of dark chocolate speckled with sea salt, and the feel of champagne tickling my tongue. I'm grateful for sex, hot and fast or long and slow, and how my appreciation and need for it has only deepened with age. I'm grateful for the pleasure I'm discovering in working my body, in feeling it sweat and stretch, and that it's still healthy enough to do everything I ask of it.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe I've still got a little bit of shine left in me.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe I still got a great love ahead of me.
I'm grateful that I'm starting to believe life still holds the magic of sweet surprise.
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.
Want the details on my training regimen? Just have something you'd like to communicate or ask? Do you have any suggestions for me? I'd love to hear from you. For real. Comment below or email me if you'd like some privacy by hitting the link up above.
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 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