The doctor will see you now

I recently had a dermatologist look at something that I'm fairly certain is skin cancer, though the patch of skin in question had unhelpfully healed just prior to my appointment. The doctor assured me that this is common enough, given the lag time between scheduling an appointment and actually being seen, and he handed me a mirror and a pen to have me point out the section of skin that concerned me. I took the pen and began drawing a large circle around the tip of my nose before I stopped and said, "Wait. Did you want me to use the pen as a pointer or to actually draw on my face?"

One guess which one he wanted. 

For the next 15 minutes, I sat in the exam chair trying to appear thoughtful and serious as I listened to the doctor speak, all while the tip of my nose was outlined in a very prominent circle of blue ink. It should come as no surprise that this doctor also happened to be quite handsome. In short, everything about the encounter made me wish for a skin cancer that would at least kill me swiftly, if not instantly. 

This kind of experience is fairly typical for me, but in my defense, I am not always the one perpetrating the awkwardness at my medical appointments. I once had an Aussie doctor pull the top of my gown aside to perform a breast exam only to say, with an odd enthusiasm, "You'll never have any trouble examining those!"

I was too busy staring at the cat poster on the ceiling for her comment to fully register with me, but I must have muttered something like, "Wha-?" because she felt the need to continue. 

"Oh, it's ok," she assured me. "Flat-chested women are far more intelligent!" 

I suppose I should have taken offense, but her accent was both beguiling and somewhat unintelligible, so I just accepted that I had heard a compliment buried in what she was saying and thought to myself: The doctor has spoken. Then I silently praised my genes for investing more energy into my brain than my bust. 

But that was twenty years ago. These days, there's something about being in a doctor's office that sends my IQ score plummeting, despite the intelligence conferred by my small breasts. Whenever I am handed a hospital gown, for example, I immediately forget the nurse's instructions and am left in a mild panic wondering which articles of clothing I am supposed to remove. My instinct, when handed a robe, is to completely undress. This would seem a reasonable assumption in most cases, but I once stripped down for my annual exam only to have the doctor arrive to tell me that yearly pelvic exams were a thing of the past. I tried to convince her that I had just wanted to air out a bit while I waited, but in truth, I simply expected to be uncomfortable and exposed in an exam room. It's part of the experience.

Then again, life is generally an uncomfortable experience for me. When I am not smearing ink on my face or stripping needlessly, I am still marked by my awkwardness, so plainly and painfully exposed most of the time. I've never been good at hiding my feelings or biting my tongue. I can get deeply personal with casual acquaintances. I tend to say the wrong things at the worst possible times. But if the Aussie doctor is any indication, we're all capable of acting like a boob from time to time, no matter how poised and gracious we might otherwise be. Most people forgive me my quirkiness. Some even keep me around solely to bear witness to whatever buffoonery I get into. They may laugh with me, but they always have my back. Even the dermatologist, amused as he may have been by my error, still wiped the ink from my nose before letting me walk back into the world. That’s good medicine, and I take comfort in it.  

Glacier Peak Wilderness trip report

Our four-day sojourn in the North Cascades was our most ambitious family backpacking trip thus far and the most rewarding in terms of both scenery and the sense of accomplishment we felt at the end. I often tell people that I don’t enjoy backpacking quite as much as I enjoy having backpacked, in much the same way that mothers might describe giving birth: it’s generally miserable but worth it in the end.

Hiking at Buck Creek Pass in the Glacier Peak Wilderness

Hiking at Buck Creek Pass in the Glacier Peak Wilderness

We allotted two days to cover the 11-mile trek* up to Buck Creek Pass, which was challenging but manageable. In the past, we have overestimated our abilities during the first day of a backpacking trip, so we came up with two hard-and-fast rules for day one that I thought I should share:

Whatever distance you think you can cover, cut that by about 30 percent.

We use the GAIA GPS app to find out where the camp sites are along the trail and then plan our stops accordingly. On this particular hike, we reached the first campsite (be aware that it’s a horse camp, and it smells like one) at about 3.5 miles in, and though we could have made it to the next sites, we chose to stop so that we didn’t feel rushed while setting up camp. It can be difficult for task-oriented adults to remember that the summit is not a box to be checked, and the hike is not a race. Backpacking is supposed to offer us an escape from the hectic pace of modern life, not a simple change of scenery for the same old daily grind. So embrace a slower pace, give yourself a chance to get your hiking legs under you, and save the long stretches for days two and beyond.

Stop hiking while there is still plenty of daylight.

This might seem obvious, but I can’t stress this part enough. Unless you are backpacking every weekend and are a pro at setting up camp, you will be slower to set up that first night. This is especially true if you need to assist younger children. On our first backpacking trip of the summer, we had gotten a bit of a late start and wound up setting up our camp and cooking dinner by the light of our headlamps. We were tired, cold, and hungry. No one was having fun, and this was completely avoidable. But we’re learning.

The first switchbacks were in a burnt-out portion of the forest. We were fortunate to have a cool, overcast day to tackle them.

On the second day, we had to cover seven miles, and as soon as we hit the switchbacks that began our long ascent, I realized that I was the weak link in the group. The altitude, while not extreme, still challenged me, and if we plan any future hikes above 4,000 feet, I will try to incorporate a few high-altitude day hikes into my fitness routine beforehand. I made it without prep this time but just barely. The children, however, seemed unfazed by the altitude, though my nine-year-old daughter began to require more coaxing at around mile five. Keep snacks accessible during this phase of the trip!

The trail was moderately trafficked, mostly by pack horses carrying gear up to the horse camp at Buck Creek Pass. I thought the presence of horses would keep bears from venturing too near the trail, but I was mistaken. We saw two very close to the trail, so be sure to make your presence known as you’re hiking and keep children close to the group.

Glacier Peak at sunset. Though Rowan appears to be giving me the finger, she is whittling a stick with her Swiss Army knife.

At Buck Creek Pass, the trail winds down a slope to several campsites that are in plain view of Glacier Peak. While the view is stunning, the sites are a bit exposed, and the winds in that spot can be punishing. That said, if you’re hiking in August during the Perseids, those spots offer an unobstructed view of the sky and are perfect for stargazing. We opted to continue into the valley where we found a few sheltered spots along the creek and even two open-air pit toilets. (Hot tip: There are no flies in the toilets after dark!) We were able to have a fire when we were there, but this changes frequently, so check for restrictions at the trail head before you head up. Also, keep in mind that at 6,000 feet, the temperatures can drop severely at night. Our summer-weight quilts were barely adequate, even in August.

View of Liberty Cap from the Buck Creek camp sites

Our camp was at the base of Liberty Cap, so we spent our third day tackling the six-mile hike around the back side of the peak going toward High Pass. It was a pleasant walk along very gradual switchbacks (made all the more pleasant with only a light day pack), and we were able to see almost the entirety of the trail we had hiked up the day before, giving us all a sense of the scale of our accomplishment.

On our final day, we hiked the entire 11 miles back to the trail head, which was, in short, a bad idea. Even the dog gave up at mile seven and plopped himself down in a stream. We had run out of water at that point anyway, so we stopped to collect more and tried to tap into our physical and mental reserves to get us through the rest of the hike. Trying to cover such a distance was a rookie mistake—hiking downhill is not as strenuous, but it has its own challenges, particularly for people with knee troubles—but at least we now have a better sense of our limits.

Enjoying a break at the top of Liberty Cap

*Both the Forest Service website and our GAIA map indicated that the hike would be 9.6 miles from the Trinity trail head to Buck Creek Pass; however, the GAIA app recorded our hike as 11 miles from the trail head to our camp site. Keep this in mind for your own planning purposes.

The gift of presence

An older gentleman in Starbucks this morning kindly advised me to avoid breaking my wrist, nodding toward the brace on his hand as proof that he was an expert on such matters. I laughed and told him I'd try my best, at which point he went into great detail about how he had injured himself in a recent mountain biking accident. He then showed me some of the scars he has collected over the years and noted that they were the reason he had to settle for doing "stupid safe shit" (such as mountain biking, I suppose) in his old age. When he was through with his inventory, he sighed and said, "You've probably broken a few bones during this journey of life, so you know how it is." Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "As beautiful as you are, I'm sure you've broken a few hearts at least." 

I had to overlook some things about this interaction to be sure. Like the fact that the heart is not a bone or that the man was carrying a white cane. . .Still, I was happy to oblige his flirtation. There was an undercurrent of loss to his voice that resonated with me, fond as I am of all things melancholy. I knew that he was really asking me to see him, to picture more than just an old man in a coffee shop; he was asking me see the entirety of his life, to imagine who he was in his more daring and virile youth. We all seem to be starving for real human interaction these days, to be genuinely seen and heard. We live hyper-connected but isolated lives. If I can do nothing else to combat this sense of isolation, I can at least offer people my full attention and my whole heart. When a stranger strikes up a conversation, I always engage.

Once, again while in the coffee line, a man behind me took note of my USAA card and asked how I was affiliated with the military. I wasn’t in a very social mood at the time, and I had considered giving a terse reply and letting my body language do the rest of the talking. However, he mentioned that his son was stationed at Ft. Rucker, which I knew was a hub for Army aviation, so I engaged. I asked if his son flew helicopters for the Army. He did, in fact, and this man could not have been more pleased to spend a few moments putting his pride for his son on full display. I was unexpectedly filled with joy to witness this.

On another day, I ran into an acquaintance who I knew was deep into the preschool years with her children, ones that tend to swallow up a mother’s sense of self. I leaned into that and asked how she was getting on in life, not the mama part or the wife part or the preschool president part but how the selfhood part was getting on, and she began to cry. We hugged and talked and shared pieces of ourselves on the sidewalk of our city and then went on about our day, feeling heard and understood. On any given day, I might encounter several people who wind up crying in my presence, not because I have asked anything particularly personal, but because I have asked about them—the real them—at all. This is engagement. This is connection. This is what we’re missing.   

I came to understand real isolation when my husband was deployed to Kyrgyzstan years ago, leaving me to care for our infant son alone. I relied on the kindness of strangers to see me through the lonely days and months. My conversations with grocery store clerks and baristas often extended beyond the typical pleasantries that are expected of such interactions, which I was conscious of, but no one ever denied me that one thing I was clearly desperate for: connection. It is such a fundamental human need that we instinctively turn toward any opportunity to connect. That is why I am always talking to strangers, a secular ministry of sorts, tending to the unspoken sorrows so many people carry with them and sharing in joy when it is offered to me.

Recently, I was thinking about how to characterize what I do with my life beyond the typical work-related responses, and I came up with this: I create spaces for authentic connections through meaningful conversation. And I think this is what I do by my nature. I save space. I leave pretense behind. I show up.

Showing up. Is this what a purposeful life is built on? I’ve been struggling with the impossible questions lately, ones about meaning and purpose that we all seem to come to around middle age—maybe earlier for those with a philosophical bent—but no matter what ideas I toy with for how to live, I always land on this fundamental principle of presence: presence in and gratitude for the moment, presence with the people around me, presence in the work of each day. These interactions with strangers, ones that can often feel like sacred moments of communion, have helped me to understand that a life of purpose is a life of presence. And I will keep showing up for it.

This piece appeared on Thrive Global July 1, 2019.