The upside of pain

From M. Sendak’s Open House for Butterflies

I never thought I’d think, say or infer something so trite-sounding and cruel as “the upside of pain.” But this morning while downward-dogging in yoga and then again in a crazy-tough bind, I thought of the upside of a recent season of bewilderment and anomie.

Favorite memories moseyed into my thoughts as I stretched this and that way and later did not successfully get into the behind-the-back, one-up-one-down posture called the “cow face pose.” I remembered – almost as if I were on the trail in those moments – how it felt to climb mountains.

Immediately following high school, I had the opportunity to learn and climb in the Bavarian Alps. The program,”Project Bold,” was similar to Outward Bound stateside. It was my second non-skiing exploration of mountains and involved hiking, whitewater kayaking, free climbing and climbing on/off belay. Three weeks of cabins, bivouacking, run and dips in glacier runoff, getting lost between Germany and Austria, eating kippers and sardines and meeting my team along the way.

The experience was so new. Hard. Excruciating at times.
And so worth it.

Like childbirth, had I known all of the internal and physical shenaniganizing the universe was going to drop, I may have had second thoughts. Like childbirth, I am glad I was ignorant of the pain ahead.

At first I was not afraid. After several switch-backing miles, a few blisters and chucking my expensive hiking boots, I began to be afraid.

Our team was made up mostly of young men. Two other women joined our cadre: one was quiet and studious and the other carried a butane-powered curling iron in her kit. I lived somewhere in between.

Alongside the physical slogging up some of the most inspiring and magnificent land on the planet, was the challenging relational climb.

I like people. I really like people. But when humans are tossed together into a band of strangers…with hormones firing, youthful ego and a desire – a need – to belong,  someone is going to get the short end of the conversation.

The guys wanted to compete. The girls wanted to giggle. I wanted to climb and learn and become part of the ad hoc community. Competing was not something on my radar. Nor was following the herd as they talked about things I didn’t know (Swedish porn and/or make-up).

A few of us were oddballs. I remember one who’s gentle spirit comforts me even now. The other was Bahraini and because of his exquisite and biting wit, soon became a fan favorite. I walked on. When my colleagues complained about having to carry this stove or truck out trash, I began to pick up the offending object and add it to my pack. “Stop complaining,” I’d shout silently to myself. We were in the mountains and we had so little time to enjoy them.

We had places to climb and happy cows to see. 

Eventually, my practice of picking up the slack became – not the helpful habit I’d hoped for – but the lightning rod for my teammates’ scorn. How did that happen?

Eventually, our lead told me the guys felt insulted and embarrassed that I’d carry heavier packs and hike faster up the mountains than they were. He asked that I lead from behind; something I have been trying to learn ever since. Brad coached me to find my way up the mountains and to seek their company instead of distancing myself from their conversations. He suggested I try to influence the culture of our checkered band with huge packs and American bravado.

I’m not sure if I did. But I think upon that three-week climb as the end of my growing up story and the beginning of the story I hoped to live forward of family, presidency, safety, contribution and community.

The mountains were still beautiful. The Konigsee was still glacier cold and refreshing. Our meals were haphazard. Climbs, blisters, glaciers and ice axes in my shin; kayaking and feeling like I was going to drown when I got caught in a white-capped swirl, navigational mistakes leading us two hours off-track across the Stenernes Meer, ruined food, singing Germans in huts, happy cows, rocks in the shoes and the fresh fresh air.

It was tough. Terrifying at times. Lonely, too.

I bled, cried to myself, almost pitched off a not-so-small cliff while scrambling up a rock face without rope, spotter or help.

And I left much of my old sorrowful self on the mountains.

I left the sit-on-the-couch old Allie-oops. A weary fear that life of working, avoiding the cruelties that ruled our family of origin and despair was all that living offered.

On the mountain and because of the pain, I found courage to advocate for myself, peacefulness that ignited my soul to the outdoors, wisdom (“lead from behind”) and the memory of what hard work can do. The view from the top. A challenge accepted.

The upside of pain. 

And so as this recent season of feeling like an enigma billows into the ether, I am happy again. Not 100%. But enough to build upon.

Stripped of my need to fix, to be everything to everyone, or to honor at the cost of my own dishonor.

I still want to climb and learn and become part of the community. To belong. I belong to me.

My friends and I, we choose to belong together. My children – the greatest upside of pain in my life – choose to invest in our family.

On this climb up an unknown mountain, I will continue to do my best. I will learn what I bring to the zig-zagging imbalances. I will hope to live in community. And whether I lead from or fall behind, is no longer the point.

There are mountains to climb. The views are worth the pain in the ascent.


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