Long before this pandemic, I was quarantining myself, social distancing. I had retired from 37 years of teaching high school English to return to my original ambition of becoming a writer. Although you could occasionally spot me with my fellow pensioners on the golf course, in the pool, or on a yoga mat, most of the time, while my neighbors chatted on our cul-de-sac, I looked out from my upstairs window, like Emily Dickinson, typing away at short stories, essays, and a novel.
For six years, I lived this deferred dream, recalling or creating humorous and tragic tales, often of a slightly isolated, unfulfilled protagonist seeking some meaning or permanence in life on some low-stakes level, mostly joking or crying when he fell short.
But then I stopped. As I crept toward my 70s, this time I spent isolated, staring at a blank screen, then writing, rewriting, and rewriting began to feel counterproductive to what I had left to accomplish in the world. My lifelong need for expression with an audience, fed by my years of teaching, frustrated by my stab at writing, left me feeling dissatisfied, empty.
So I signed up for inspiring newsletters, wisdom arriving daily and weekly in my inbox from a variety of hosts who shared work by or conversed with great spiritual minds of the past and the present. I took classes from virtual “dancing monks” in Ireland and mystics in New Mexico, steeped in meditation blending with action. And, in the midst of the larger quarantine, my wife and I began to hike.
While she preferred the beach trail, I leaned toward the long, undulating hikes in the hills of San Clemente. We recently discovered a ridge trail at the south end of town that opens to sweeping vistas, the southern expanse of Camp Pendleton, Nixon’s Western White House above the legendary surf spots at Cottons, and north to the harbor and cliffs of Dana Point. With an accompanying soft ocean breeze drifting over the ridge, the long trek proved idyllic. The only impediments to pure joy were occasional lengthy, steep inclines—necessary for the cardio experience. Most walkers maintained a steady pace upward, panting a little harder at the top. Younger joggers scaled them in springing strides. A few old-timers traversed them with walking poles, like they were skiing up a slope.
At 67, 6-foot-3, and a husky 250 pounds, I obsessed over these challenges, though I am in reasonable health. I’d think about them before we arrived, then dig in at a steady pace to reach the summit without pause, my heart pounding while I watched my wife stop and start, occasionally walk backward, finally catch up with me, primed for the next challenge.
Then one day, something changed.
Facing a particularly tough, 30-degree incline, I decided to shorten my stride into choppy, measured steps. I knew this might double my ascent time, but the regularity and accessibility of the step eased the outset of my climb. I kept my head down and focused on the clichéd “one step at a time.” I’d done a version of this before, but midway up a hill, when fatigue and frustration began to mingle, I’d raised my head up to see how much distance remained, which immediately disheartened my pace. This time, I kept my head down, focusing only on the ground just in front of each step.
Creeping up this worn asphalt trail, I began noticing multiple jagged cracks, some short, some long, but none identical. These cracks morphed into interesting designs, almost like a black mural on the ground, each fissure offering its own shape and substance. Near each side of the paved path, certain sections had begun disintegrating into gravel, perhaps from the weight of maintenance vehicles. I watched and occasionally closed my eyes, listening to my hiking boots slide and crunch with each small step through the pebbles.
Where the asphalt met the dirt, occasional thin, light brown clumps of dead grass lay, perhaps left behind by seasonal weed-eaters. Up through the clumps and cracks in the asphalt, green spiny weeds sprung out and occasionally up, sporting a yellow dandelion flower. Larger weeds lay to the side in the dirt, but I was no longer seeing them as invaders to be uprooted from my yard, but plants that belonged, even more so than the asphalt along this inclining path. Delicate purple and orange wildflowers scattered near and away from the path, appearing at random intervals in tufts no home gardener had laid out. An occasional gray lizard would dart into the undergrowth. Little mounds of dark, sifted dirt suggested an animal had earlier burrowed a hole.
I stepped along, eyes wandering from the cracks to the weeds and flowers, ears attuned to the crunching gravel, chirping birds, and my deep, steady breaths. All of a sudden, I found myself at the top. I lifted my gaze to see what lay immediately ahead, then in the distance. I turned back to survey where I’d come from, which seemed so much steeper than I’d just experienced. As we continued on along the high ridge, I soon realized I was no longer looking down, my eyes once again trained ahead of me, to the distant view or to our destination. I lost track of the ground. Strangest of all, rather than dread, I began to long for the next incline, where I would once again lose myself in the minutia beneath my feet.
That very week in my online Wisdom Class, theologian Cynthia Bourgeault said, “We draw on that completeness over and over as we journey through time if we know how to look.” For that moment on the hill, and now looking back, I experienced not only focusing on the moment, but enjoying its subtle, simple, and marvelous intricacies. To wish I were somewhere else, or to focus on a sense of completion or accomplishment, was robbing me of the completeness of every step along the way.
She added, “What is still being lived in time is already, in some way, complete in space, if your perspective is big enough. … Therefore, our current life in time is in space already completed.” In that sense, I had arrived and will arrive at the peaks of many hills on my hikes, and in my life. In this sense, as I write this, I am already there now. I am complete. But paying attention, having this “big enough perspective,” ironically arrived only by observing things in each moment along the path.
Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast says we all face hardship, even tragedy, where current pain and discomfort and a long-term outcome seem bleak. Nonetheless, even then we have opportunities, one after another, to notice the myriad of details transpiring each moment—some painful, some curious, some previously unnoticed or unappreciated, some miraculous. Staying in the moment eases, even brings joy to, long-term suffering.
The archetypal mythologist Phil Cousineau discussed his book about Sisyphus. The seemingly long-suffering Greek king struggles for eternity in Hades, pushing a large boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down the other side where he has to repeat the process over and over. Cousineau suspected that the fated Sisyphus actually fed on the moment just after the boulder rolled back down, the “gap” where he could finally look up in confidence, surveying the scene of his accomplishment.
I now see it differently.
I wonder if Sisyphus looked up and out, alone on the peak, then hurried down to the bottom where he could once again resume his task and get lost in the cracks and gravel, flowers, and weeds of the journey upward.