Lessons from the Aspen Grove

When I worked at an addiction treatment center next to the forest, our spiritual advisor would take the clients to an Aspen grove next to the center.  When the spiritual advisor left, I followed in his footsteps.  We told the clients that the Aspen grove, the hundreds of trees in front of us, were one organism. Underground, they were connected, firmly rooted because of how they intertwined with one another.  That way, when 2013 flood swept past, or when harsh mountain wind blew through, the trees remained upright.

I told them this with fervor, as I knew that at the heart of addiction was disconnection.  Many of the clients had already begun to learn this, as in group they let their guards down, shared their stories, and made deep friendships.  Within days, I could often see a shift in the clients, a glow, like those of Aspens in the fall.

I told this story again to my mother, just a few weeks ago, at her first chemo appointment.

Just the week before, she called me on a Wednesday evening to give me the news “I have cancer.”

She told me not to worry.  That she was tough and going to be fine.  She had the same doctors as my older sister (still going through her own cancer treatment), and they were going to take an even more aggressive route.  She told me not to come home, to continue my work in Colorado.

Two days later I learned from my older sister that my mom was in surgery to have her port put in, a small device put under the skin to make to make blood draws and infusions easier during chemo.  My older sister and my step dad went to her first chemo treatment, which my mom was upset about.  She wanted to go alone.  Not to be an inconvenience to others and their “busy” schedules.  It wasn’t until almost a month later that I found out it was stage 3.

But when your family, both in blood and deep friendship, schedules and to-do list don’t matter.

My mom’s stoicism didn’t stop my from collapsing to the floor in pain and tears minutes after we hung up, with my dog rushing over to me to lick the salt off my cheeks.

It didn’t stop me from feeling anger, sadness, and confusion.

As I gave myself the space to feel all of my emotions, I came to a few realizations.

The first being that this storyline, the storyline of “I have this problem, but it’s not for you to worry about” has shaped my own beliefs growing up.  When I felt sad, so sad that I wanted to claw my way out of my body and escape to somewhere, anywhere else, that I wasn’t enough to share how I felt.  It was my burden to bear.  Alone.  Even after the depression passed, a fierce independence took over.  It’s taken me years to learn to lean on others, like a fallen tree resting on its neighbors.  Still, I have to fight the urge to just collapse.

Second, I remembered the message of the trees.

Even more amazing than hundred plus trees in one Aspen grove being one organism, they are connected even more intimately through a fungal network.  This network not only allows the trees to send vital nutrients to each other, but also communicate.  If there is concern about disease or insect infestations spreading, the trees will send out distress signals to each other, allowing the others to alter their behavior.  And if a mother tree is felled, the surrounding trees may continue to send her nutrients, keeping her roots alive.

Humans have created this world wide web in our own way through technology.  But I suspect there is a deeper form of connection between loved ones, one that may not be visible to the untrained eye (trees also send out chemical, hormonal, and electrical signals).

I can’t say with certainty that without my phone I could have picked up on the distress of my family hundreds of miles away from me.  What I do know is that I feel better when I am in the loop, and even better when I can offer some form of help, be it a card or flying back to Ohio to provide company.

When I told my mom about the trees, I went on to say that because all the trees are connected, one’s challenge is not just theirs alone, but shared among the group.  My analogy, trying to tell my mom that we were all in this together.  She wasn’t a burden but an opportunity for our family and friends to come together and find strength.

She said she understood, but I’m not sure she felt my words.  Maybe I said too much.  I don’t know.

When I got the original call from my mom telling me she had cancer, I texted my sisters (after I picked myself up off the floor).  I told them that I never wanted us to keep things from each other, good or bad, that we never had to “go at it alone.”  When they both texted back “agreed”, I felt we solidified a pact.  We were in this life together, for reasons both known and unbeknownst to us, tied together by cell phone signals and invisible visceral strings of love.  My heart felt a bit lighter, like an Aspen leaf held up by the wind.

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The Thief of Joyous Running

While this blog strays away a bit from my usual posts for this site as it is running related, I chose to write this anyway after 1) my sister suggested I write this and 2) running is often a microcosm and metaphor for life.  So even if you’re not a runner, I trust that you will find some meaning in my words.

“Hey Sandi…?”  Followed by a slightly awkward glance as the runner passes in the opposite direction.  In the brief moment our paths cross, I usually give a nod or small smile.  Should I say “hi”, tell him I’m not Sandi, or not say anything? By the time I think this over, I usually end up with the third option and just let the runner go by.

Usually, when someone calls me Sandi on the trail, I take this as a compliment.  You see, my twin sister is badass.  I mean, she is fast.  And strong.  Like about to represent the USA in the World Mountain Championships in Poland next month strong and fast.  And sometimes I just leave it at that.  Other times, I let my joy of trail running be stolen.  Who’s the thief you ask?  Myself and my habit of comparison.

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Me, Sandi, and her partner Sage after her win at the Run through Time Half Marathon in Salida.

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, said: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” *

Those words have held true for my most of my life.

Here’s a look at my thought process and downward spiral:

“I must not be that slow if they thought I was Sandi.”

“And maybe I’m not that much heavier.”

“Or maybe they think Sandi got slow and gained weight.”

“Why can’t I be as fast and skinny as Sandi?  We have the same genes!”

And so it goes.  Ugly right?  Makes one feel kinda crappy.

Why does this make me and, probably you, feel crappy?  Well one, my guess (or at least my hope so I don’t feel totally alone in this habit) is that you’ve had similar thoughts.  Second, when we compare or judge, it is usually a reflection of ourselves.  It has to do with our own lack of self-worth, feelings of not being good enough.  (So please, give yourself some compassion here!  You mostly have a wound from a past trauma or situation that made you feel like this.  Comparison and judgement are often the ego’s idea of self-protection.  It’s of course a false form of protection, but it helps to know this so we can learn and change the habit.)

I can’t tell you how many times comparison has been a dark cloud in my life.  I’ve compared myself to my classmates in grad school ‘They’re so smart! How did I get in?”, relationships “He’s so intelligent, handsome, and skinnier than me.  Why is he with me?” (that lead me to unconsciously act like a jerk that lead to the breakup), and even to all of the pro-athletes in Boulder that work out for hours each day and have bodies of gods and goddesses.

The funny thing is, when I truly reflect on where I am in life right now, I’m happy with where I am and with who I am.  I’m about to enter my 3rd year of graduate school in Naropa’s Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy program and work for SAGE Running part-time.  I don’t have time or energy to work out for hours and have 6-pack abs.  Which is totally fine! I rather be working to become an awesome therapist! I also have a wonderful partner who loves me and will call me out when I start to become “Judgey, McJudgey” (his words, not mine). My body is still exhausted from the extreme exercise and dieting in my younger years, but now I can still run for a few hour in the mountains with my dog.  That is happiness for me.  Life is truly amazing!

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All smiles (and tongue) running with my best friend in Salida.

So recently, when I went on a 3-day solo as part of my Rites of Passage journey for my Transitions class (I know, I know- I did that for school! Again, totally awesome.) In addition to going into my 3-day solo with two intentions I wanted to honor for myself, I also considered the piece of me that I wanted to let go of.  I decided the piece of me that I wanted to let go of was my comparing self.  It may have served me in some ways over the years, tried to protect me, but I was ready to say “thank you, but I never want to see you again.”  I can’t say what went on during my 3 day solo, as I feel it is a bit too sacred to write in a blog, but what I can say is I focused on loving and honoring myself.  I found my beauty, deep within in me and in my body-including my curves and touching thighs.  Part of what I found was love for myself, which pushed out any need to compare myself to others.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that my comparing mind is gone for good.  It likes to sneak back in here and there.  But I’m on the lookout and ready to call it out when it rears it’s ugly head.  Like today, when I was beginning a run with my pup at Golden Gate Canyon State Park.  We were headed up a rocky trail that had a lot more vertical than I expected, and I was hiking.   There was an instant where I thought “I’m sure a lot of other runners could run up this.”  Then, the magic came.  I said to myself “Who cares?  Let’s just enjoy this time in nature with your best friend.  If you end up hiking a lot, then you just get to spend more time outside!  And I did hike a lot.  And I smiled a lot.  Which I actually think helped me save some energy to run at the end, in between my pup’s creek baths.  It was a beautiful, joyous morning.

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Pacer, distracted by another dog, while I try to take picture at Golden Gate Canyon State Park.

I’m sure there is someone our there thinking “But comparison is a motivator, it makes you want to get better.”  And maybe it does.  My issue with comparison in running is the “beat the other guy/woman” piece.  The ego steps in.  I’m not enlightened enough to say that comparison and ego are always bad, but at least from what I’ve witnessed, ego and comparison might help get you ahead for a bit, but it doesn’t last.  In looking at elite runners, the ones who continue to win are the ones who have an internal motivator, the ones who continue to find joy in what they do.  Looking at all runners, the ones who are often able to run for years are the ones who can do so with less comparison and with more focus on the process.  They have an inner drive, a gratitude for their own ability, and a sense of play whenever they get outside.

With that being said, I’m definitely not perfect.  But when those clouds of comparison begin block out my light, I’m learning to see the thoughts for what they are and bust my rays right through them.   Then I get back to playing with my dog.

With Joy,

 

Ray

 

*Okay, maybe comparison isn’t always bad: https://medium.com/thrive-global/roosevelt-was-wrong-comparison-is-not-the-thief-of-joy-9e490cd6225