I went to the mountains with the overwhelming burden of my failing financial life embedded in my chest. Foreclosure, eviction, overdrawn checking account —I owned the whole ball—and it wormed its way to my deeper places like an alien parasite that grew and waited to burst through my chest taking my last bit of life force with it. It didn’t matter if everything else was going well in my life, that I was in my first year of a Ph.D. program that was expanding my horizons in ways I had never dreamed, that my chronic health issues were fading away due to interventions that no one expected to work so well, that my beautiful family was helping one another in all the nonmonetary ways beyond a mother’s wildest reveries, filled with a love, and compassion that surpassed anything I ever felt growing up. These whole-hearted accomplishments didn’t matter in a world that measured everything by late fees and economic bottom lines, that cared little for my family, or my life… or the precious grandchildren who might become homeless if I didn’t handle things right.
It didn’t matter if I was a casualty of a still looming financial crisis created by others, or if my husband Ron accidentally pushed the wrong button when opening his Fidelity Retirement account that sucked the five thousand dollars that would’ve circumvented all the above personal problems. No, it didn’t matter to our modern world if this single momentary error had created a cascading effect from which there was no normal safety net.
Terms and conditions, do not pass go, it does not matter if you didn’t mean to hit that key, no amount of begging or endless Interactive Voice Response button-pushing would return those funds, nor fix the gap between the financial industry’s refusal to accept any responsibility for service to the living world and the hardship they cause real people, like me.
None of this mattered; at least that is what the heaviness in my heart kept saying to me as I took to the mountain. Like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, I literally took it to the mountain and even walked for a bit on the Pacific Crest Trail, where I discovered a healing, though mine might not be as glamourous as the one Reese Witherspoon depicted in the film. I’m just an average person struggling, but I’m not alone in facing troubling times.
More importantly I am not alone in the quiet shame that isolates and paralyses all middle class people who have taken the escalator down, those who have individually internalized the blame for their downward spiral regardless if it was caused by the out of control recklessness which preceded the crash of 2008. I am not alone facing the financial trauma that has seeped over the land and fallen into the deep crevasses of our lives, dictating death wherever it turns.
We live in a time of blaming the victim, it’s our entire fault because downward mobility was a life choice we all made somewhere along the line. It’s our entire fault because we have some individual cancer gene, never mind the tons of toxic chemicals that are sprayed on our food supply or the chemicals leaching from fracked water into our deepest aquifers to fuel the profits of people who have more money than they can spend in a lifetime. We have internalized all the blame as they have extracted all the profits.
Shaming and blaming according to Brené Brown is epidemic in our culture. Our bodies treat it like trauma. It is a limbic response that no amount of thinking can solve. Check out Brown’s two Ted talks.
It might add a layer of depth, but it’s not necessary, for now. The main point I am making is that no amount of sleepless nights wracking my Ph.D. level thinking brain was going to help me out of this mess. I did not have a thinking problem, and intellectual prowess was not going to help me find my way out. I had a heart condition that only the mountain could cure.
So in spite of all the above looming over our lives, Ron and I climbed in our car on a crisp autumn day and headed toward Little Crater Lake on the other side of Wy’East on a single tank of gas. On the surface it was an assignment for my ecofeminist class, but any fool could tell you I desperately needed the sunshine to heal my soul. There’s plenty of research indicating that nature can heal us, a quick search on google scholar will no doubt bring forth the evidence, but it is not this evidence that we need. We need to go to the mountain and literally let her heal us. In the living world, that supports all life beyond our computer desks and paved streets; I found hope.
Little Crater Lake is crystal clear; its water springs from a deep aquifer escaping a crack in the Earth. The metaphor isn’t lost on me. I sit wrapped in my blanket on a tree stump, breathing in cool air and exhaling my pain. I had no idea how much hurt had been buried. It leaked in the woods, into the ground, and air. My ears rang with the sound of life. I had learned in my sustainability work about grandmother trees who feed the others whenever they faltered, and I imagined that somehow these woods would adjust to my pain and give me what I needed, too.
Feeding me whatever was required, as if the soup of life adjusted because I was there and I was in need. Trees, woods, earth, mountain, lake, embraced me. My most visceral experience began with a quiet and deep acceptance in my chest. The muscles around my heart released and I let go. We sat there until the sun receded, then we sauntered peacefully back to our car.
I wish I could say I recognized immediately the deep sense of gratitude I felt. It did not bubble up to my brain that fast, it’s hard to recognize when you’re experiencing a new lightness. It wasn’t until later when we came down from the hill that I began tallying everyone and everything I was grateful for. I still had no way of knowing how I was going to make ends meet, but the mountain offered me a bubble of relief, a space where a living world acknowledged my living trauma.
Maybe in the course of thanking people the answer would arise. Maybe you can help; maybe not. Maybe if we all vote for Bernie Sanders we can change course from our dead world economically driven model. Maybe we can rally against trade agreements that seek to further alienate us from a living world model, or maybe someone, somewhere will donate a dollar or two to my checking account. I have no idea.
What I do know is I have hope where it did not exist before. I have hope that I live in a generous world, because nature is generous and alive and I am alive in spite of the fact that I live in a culture of dead things evaluated by bottom lines. Bringing the living world back into our hearts means all of us doing what we can to help one another. It might feel a bit like a swan dive into an empty swimming pool, but then I remember that Little Crater Lake is deep and clear and generosity is what makes us alive. I pause and I wonder, what would happen if I offered my Bank of America account number to the world? # 485012933968 maybe nothing will happen. Maybe the answer lays elsewhere, an email with a job offering, cash for selling a car. I only wonder if generosity could keep us all from living on a cold street, in a dead cruel world. I wonder if people who can’t donate a dime could pay it forward in some other way, donating a warm thought to spread whatever they can to whoever comes within their own little neck of the woods.
I don’t think any of us will make it, if we don’t start somewhere. Life is generous. We have to stop thinking in terms of a closed system scarce economic model. Instead, of seeing an oak tree, for example, as wasteful because it drops so many useless seeds that never sprout, if we remember that her acorns feed, and her leaves rot, every year, to make earth. Only when we understand that she feeds a whole ecosystem do we get a picture of something beyond the scarcity of economic thinking. We see an abundant world that begins with our homes and holds an ever expanding responsibility to life. And then I wondered, what would happen if people returned to the national forests and claimed the rights of the commons, our lands, our forests, our Earth, our economic systems and demanded they work toward life itself?
Along with this thought hope sprouted long ears and a bushy tail, as a wolf visited me in my dreams. Amid my tossing and turning with worry, she came. She watched as I scrambled through garbage cans, her beauty shining rainbows across her guard hairs. I stood up and stared at her. And I knew at once. It was time to stop scrambling for trash at the bottom of the heap and time to live life in all of its vibrant glory. I have accomplished so many whole-hearted things in my life, bottom line be damned. You are not the measure of my worth, nor are you the measure of the worth of anything of living value. There was a gleam of something more, and knowing that I will do everything in my power to reveal the emperor’s new clothes of your phantom significance.