The next day, when I close my eyes, it is trees that I see.The scaly trunks of oak and poplar, the peeling bark of birch, the smooth skin of beech. Dark green hemlock needles above a shaded rust-brown carpet. Trees across a vast distance, greening up mountains and greening in valleys as spring comes to the high places.
There are also faces. Straight on and at angles. Beautiful faces. Men, women, a dog. Smiling, big-hearted, and sunny. Laboring and weary. Resting and satisfied.
Images of faces and trees, flashing, lingering, and after-glowing on the retina of my heart. They please me, ease me, soften and soothe me. They are evidence that the day before, while I was lost in a work of worry and will, love and beauty were still having their way with me.
Last Saturday I joined six friends and a dog for a run-hike of the Art Loeb Trail. The Art Loeb begins alongside the Davidson River outside Brevard and ends at the base of Cold Mountain, at Camp Daniel Boone outside Canton. It traverses dense forests, spectacular overlooks, and a high-elevation wind-whipped bald. It is rugged–rocky, root-y, and lots of climbs and descents–and wondrously beautiful, especially on a clear day in April when the wildflowers are in bloom.
It is also really long. I won’t say how really long. If I do, you’ll think my friends and I are insane. And you’ll be right, at least partly, though I will offer–not in defense of myself or my friends but in defense of insanity–these words from the esteemed psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott, who said, rather wisely, in my opinion, “Pity the person who is only sane.”
So the Art Loeb, let’s say, is insanely long. And in the afternoon, as I tired, and looked tired (“you look pale,” Mark told me), I began to worry about finishing—finishing being something to worry about when you’re in a wilderness area miles from any road. And as I tired, and worried, I drew a circle around myself and withdrew.
In the movie Chariots of Fire, the runner Eric Liddell asks, “Where does the power come from to see the race to the end?” His answer: “from within.” And that’s where I turned. Not because Liddell said it was a good idea. And not because I wanted to. It’s just what I did. I entered an inner chamber where the deepest stores of will are kept, where energy is rationed, directed away from everything extraneous, and given only to the things that are needed—keep moving, watch your step, don’t fall.
Usually, my heart feels pretty open when I run, and I can feel myself being nourished by the friends I’m with and the woods I’m in. The morning had been like that: pausing at an overlook, seeing the clouds in the valley from which we had just climbed; watching Liz suck water from her backpack, spit it into her cupped hands and give drink to Ollie, her dog; noticing the sun turn a field full of bushes to gold, bushes no one knew by name, and didn’t need to, to appreciate the glory of light on leaves. The morning was lovely and amazing.
But by mid-afternoon, weary of body and mind and aware of the miles ahead, I went to an inside place. I did not want to. I knew that my friends could help me, that the woods could help me, if I could let them, and I wanted to remain open. But I could not. I pulled away from the group, away from the world. I kept up conversation, but it was a thin and surface version of myself I sent out to do the talking. The larger part of me I kept inside, near the hearth, near the food, near the blankets. Only once did I come out, when I felt a friend flagging and fading. I opened my heart to help her along, but when I felt her recover I closed back up and focused on my own survival.
My friends did help me, of course. They stayed near. They talked. They pointed to things of beauty. They fed me salt tablets. And the trees helped me. Many of them had been surviving in those woods long before I was born and will be there long after I’m gone. A few times I would feel one whisper to me as I approached, and I’d pause, lay hands on it, and ask for its strength. But mostly I felt apart from—apart from the trees, apart from my friends– on the other side of a wall I rightly or wrongly felt I needed to keep myself moving.
And one way or another, I did keep moving. Willing myself along. All the way to Cold Mountain, like Inman in Charles Frazier’s novel. Then four steep miles down to the finish.
Joel and I were the last ones in. He may not want me to tell you this, but I will anyway. Joel is 69 years old. Sixty. Freakin. Nine. Seriously.
There was beer waiting on us. Not to mention potato chips, goat cheese, banana bread, hummus, and an amazing ceviche prepared with love by Ivan, who drove us all home in the back of his sixteen-foot cargo van that we called, of course, the iVan. And if you ever wondered what the best beer I ever had was, I don’t know the name of it. It was pitch black dark. But I drank it in the back of the iVan along a curvy mountain road.
When at last, that night, I laid me down to sleep, it was not without some measure of accomplishment and satisfaction. But what I felt most was disappointment that I had just spent an incredible day, with incredible people, on an incredible journey, in an incredible place, and, because my heart had closed up—necessarily or not, who’s to say—I felt I had soaked up so little of it. I had given so much to the day—training for it, anticipating it, doing it—and in the end I felt mostly empty.
Only it wasn’t the end. When I awakened the next day, there was that slideshow of trees and faces playing luminous on the screen of my heart. This was a surprise and a joy. My friends and the woods were more deeply a part of me, ingrained in me, rubbed off on me. I loved them more. This happens to soldiers, to teammates, to families, and sometimes to coworkers: While they do together the things they do together, something else is happening, something deep and wonderful, a joining together than no one can put asunder.
And it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my willing, that did it. I didn’t bring these images into my heart. They brought themselves in. They passed through a wall, a bit like Jesus did in one of the resurrection stories.
This is how Love is, I believe. It is all around. It is always helping us, even when we feel so closed off we do not feel it helping. The walls we build and the wills we assert are no hindrance whatsoever.
So close your eyes. See your friends who bear the light. See the oldest living creatures on earth giving away for free the very thing you need to keep breathing. And see the incandescent afterglow of Love that is always and forever seeing you through.