04/24/2015 04:38 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2015

John Muir Was Right: Climb the Mountains

Halfway up an erupting volcano, I remember I am afraid of heights. Thousands of feet up and hanging on, there is no time like this for thinking about your life, which is wild after all. And at this moment, you are hanging out, literally, with the poets.

April 12, 2015

Rome. I am thinking about the Orion challenge, tell us what mountain conquered you.

I immediately think of Stromboli, of course. It did get the better of me. But conquer, that seems a warrior term -- dominate, dominion -- and it was not like that, or even the way we use conquer to speak of love, that surrender, that spiritual giving of oneself, an act of giving up, giving wholly, in the way of ecstasy and ultimate belonging to someone, something far larger than oneself, in communion, losing one self, becoming One.

It began with the way we can have of being in the world, proceeding as if we are not lost or in danger -- that is, not needing to look, not heeding, ignorant and yet invited in, in the forgiving way the earth has of teaching us, of revelation.

We were in Sicily, place of my mother's ancestry, and although she worried, I consider her worries prayers that keep me safe. Wrapped in her prayers for a stupie, a nincompoop who has no idea what she is in for, non essere uno stupido, I set forth. I am the kind of person people give advice to, perhaps because I am so clearly a person who can use advice. Advice is the remarkable unbidden and disregarded figures, pop ups on our journey, disguised gods, and to them, I say yes. With the exception of my mother, I do what I am told. Thus I have found myself deep below the earth in caves, although I have claustrophobia, and on the black-snake infested rocky fields of the Temple of Borobudur, although I am terrified of snakes, and president and dean of colleges for whom those very titles were irritants in the eye of the culture (I had no idea), and I have walked with innocence into places where I was a "soft target," where I thought "soft" meant my plumpitude.

On Milazzo, the beach with the brightly colored wooden boats, in red, green, yellow, and blue, we stand on sands waiting for the ferry to Lipari, where our innkeeper tells us we should really go further out to Stromboli, and thus we take another ferry, whipped around by Homer's waves high as the boat, while men with boxes of chickens bound for the island laugh, and find ourselves on a black sand beach, trudging up to the white-washed walled walkway bordered with bougainvillea, until at the end of the path, we meet a priest who rents us a room. In all of this it is a letting go, being in the flow, stunned and compliant as the uprooted are, trusting in the universe itinerary as some cosmic syllabus, the spontaneous advice of strangers the assignment for life's student.

The island as we approach appears cone-shaped. Walking from the beach to the village path, we are told there are hiking trails where one can get a view, but are cautioned: it is a volcano -- whatever that meant, some fact, like longitude. At first, we follow a flat trail bordered by walls with grape vines, then gravel, and then we are on all fours, heaving ourselves up and over rocks, farther and farther up, and before long, we are on a narrow pathway.

It was about at the same moment that this trail started weaving, and I look down, realizing where we've come -- straight up -- that I recall I am afraid of heights; as the mountain -- for it was a mountain we were on, after all -- not only began to shake, violently, but, because it was a volcano, in truth, to erupt. Amid sulfuric fumes, rocks hurtled skywards and rained down, as the mountain rumbled, moved up, down, sideways. Now, you are reading this, and you are thinking, what were you thinking? You are reading this, but you have lost any trust in my judgment; for, honestly, who, who is afraid of heights, so afraid that she fell to her knees and then lay prostrate at the top of the Washington Monument, could not go up in the Eiffel Tower, keeled over in the funincular in Bergen, lying on the floor of the car, and never did get out and see the view of the rainy town, fainted on a ferris wheel, when it stopped and swung, slowly, back and forth, over the fairgrounds, fainted once and then, coming to and realizing she was still in the plane, the ground way below, on a little plane piloted by her friend over New Jersey, fainted again, that she swooned in her interview suit in the glass-backed elevator at the San Francisco hotel one night during an MLA convention, having wearily leaned against it on its way up to the 34 floor, only to have the sides disappear into the night: this person.

To remember that you are afraid of height thousands of feet up an erupting volcano transcends trauma; it is transformational comedy.

Below, several thousand feet straight down, was the sea, into which, next to me, perhaps five feet away, lava was flowing straight down, meeting the water with a roaring hiss and upswing of white mist and rocks and gray spray. Grabbing a bush, I crouched, holding on for dear life, for dear life, that expression coming alive to me, as do all clichés sooner or later, and it was at this moment that I received clarity about where I was, if not also who I was. I was on a mountain, a volcano, in a perilous situation. I began to ponder, as we do only when the tree has fallen upon us and we think, why me? And open ourselves to a reflection on our lives we would not do if we were not suddenly immobilized, beset with a message from the universe bent on getting our attention. How calamity, sudden and striking, shakes us out of our complacency, as we amble along heedlessly, with no understanding of the significance, the the danger, the spectacular possibility of our lives here on earth. Not seeing, not looking, until and unless we are lost, trapped, in peril. Then, we start to think. I confess I also engaged in philosophically profound questions: are you crazy? Sei pazzo? Non essere pazzo.

Facing my life, my choices, wondering at finding myself on an erupting volcano far out in the windy oceans of Odysseus, alone, with my bush, which I prayed would stay rooted, I wept, I trembled with fear. To contain my panic, I counted by eights.

Now you may say that this mountain conquered me, in that it brought me to my knees, my senses, humbled and shaken by my lack of respect both for mountain and myself, a coward who has no business climbing any mountain. And in the way of love, yes, it conquered me, as I surrendered, embraced it like a lover who could protect me from its own thrashing power. I press myself into its warm, heaving gritty sweet smelling smelly gassy sharp knobby pebbly flesh, and we breathe each other's heaving breaths. We shake together. As I count eight, sixteen, twenty-four, thirty-two, I think about how this is really my life, not just this moment, but whole life. My dear life! Emily in Thornton Wilder's Our Town comes to mind: we walk not seeing where we are, noticing only if we are lost and trying to find our way; not realizing we are on a dynamic, living, pulsing mountain, a mountain with its own tides of seething energies, with yet untold life and lives, a momentous place, on which we stand at the edge, barely holding on, beholding. If we could know this, how precarious, how precious, are our lives, how dangerous: the majesty, the magnitude, the majestic reality of life, of being, on such an earth that is not yet over, that is not done at all, that yet has volcanoes -- an earth still in process, thrusting, throbbing, tremulous, trembling, alive and alive again, heaving and making, and here we are, engaged with this mountain of truth.

How I, a plump soft woman given to panna cotta and drawn to dishes with squash blossoms and pumpkin cream, not an athlete, an embarrassing coward who shrieks in taxis that go too fast, came to be on such a mountain, clinging, clutching, counting by eights, was a rattling mystery to me, that the universe had such confidence in me, not a brave person, not an adventurer like you, O Reader, or John Muir, climb the mountains and get their good tidings, or Maria in Sound of Music's "climb every mountain," or St. Francis, in his Monte Subasio cave, or Moses on Mount Sinai: yet how we are called, how we find ourselves, find ourselves, as Dante wrote, on our true path, by way of being lost, afraid, alone; how, as the poet Wendell Berry says, It may be that when... we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. Discovering we are lost, we are found, as I found hand-holds in this mountain's crevices, its warmth as the Aeolian winds whipped me; its scent of scrub, its velvet feel, its Merced green, its rough surface, dark pebbles, silky ash. Not wanting to be known, perhaps, or even touched; perhaps this mountain wanted only to be beheld, just respected. This path up an erupting volcano is my path. This trembling embrace of it is my way, my way of living. My amnesia about my fear of heights lets me experience a mountain fully, even if only half-way up paralyzed with fear. I like to think of it not as unfinished business, a score to settle, with mountain or self. Rather, I think of it as the time I was lucky I forgot, so I got to know something of wildness, a sudden break in what keeps me from the world. I like to think how I was conquered by a volcano, a badge of honor I know, as a coward, I hardly can deserve.

If Stromboli did not conquer me, in that I did not engage it in a power struggle, it got the better of me. It got the better out of me, a better me, a recognition shaken literally out of complacence, a consciousness of glorious eonic and atomic life, a little flesh here, eons there, supernova-spawned, pressed and stressed in time and place, led to reverence in the amazement of being human, a woman shaking in fright on a mountain so alive, as alive as the sea surging below, as alive as I, in my own inner tumultuous tides, heaving consciousness, clinging to a planet for dear life.