“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke's Book of Hours, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
I administer these words to my body like a balm as I heave and weave, clambering up mountains, hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail, the Rockies, the Adirondack High Peaks.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
But feelings can seem like the alpha and the omega as I dodge mosquitoes, skate on clumps of melting snow, and breathe like Darth Vader after a pack of Lucky Strikes, while realizing that my natural Australian deodorant, purchased online for $10 (which was accorded four-and-a-half stars by 66 reviewers), quit deodorizing 30 yards from the trail head.
Feelings seem final when I scarf trail mix and shuffle along as a living, (barely) breathing, partial pair of Beatitudes: meek and poor in spirit, sure, but without a prayer of inheriting Heaven or Earth just yet.
Still, I say yes to this doubt for the same reason all humans commit irrational acts: longing. Love. And isn’t this true of love?: What attracts—he’s so tenacious; she’s so compassionate—also repels—he’s so stubborn; she’s so thin-skinned.
I side with St. Augustine—or Diogenes the Cynic, depending on whom you believe: solvitur ambulando, “It is solved by walking.” It’s akin to Just keep going, isn’t it? When my brain buzzes with the blustery, broken song of myself, walking opens a release valve on language. Movement liberates a tangle of grievances and anxieties, all the balled-up fists of coulda, shoulda, woulda.
Climbing plunges me straight into mystery—a trajectory that can unnerve a ferocious planner given to tidying disordered bookstore shelves and engaging in a lifelong tussle with trust in “things not seen.”
Fear: Grizzly bear.
Fear: Loose rock = twisted ankle.
Fear: Charges that I’m a sluggish trail-mix hog.
The good news is, these fears do not spread out into a borderless country, seeping like grief, or heartache, or that gang of pugnacious coulda, shoulda, wouldas. These fears have beginnings, middles, and ends, assume shapes, like rock outcroppings, occupying a geography. They even boast elevation. I know where they claim territory: My index finger can graze a map and connect the dots between my doubts.
Among them: Am I strong enough? Why am I even here, when I could be sprawled out on a lawn chair at sea level, reading Sherman Alexie’s new memoir?
Because I’m up here, reading cloud shapes (cowboy atop a bucking bronco; high-heeled shoe; Marie Antoinette); because I’m inspecting wildflowers, naming bits of my surroundings—lupine, thistle, yarrow—and isn’t naming a sanctifying act, a way to proclaim, I know you?
I’m discerning the language of birds, collecting their songs. For so many years, whenever birdsong drifted toward me, a single note registered in my suburban brain: BIRD. Now, it’s mourning dove, grackle, mountain bluebird, the parts of speech, diagrammed, warbled sentences strung between sturdy branches of lodge-pole pine.
I insist on reading above my head, while naming those dabs of color grazing my shins, and devoting myself to ricocheting birdsong. Because here in the shimmering woods, the day slides off our mud-spattered backs, and listen, no, listen: The internal bickering ceases to matter.
The birds chatter as we just keep going, consecrating ourselves, once again, to letting things happen to us, on the way up, on the way down—beauty and terror, terror and beauty, solvitur ambulando. Meanwhile, I’ll slip this into the heart of your sweaty palm, mile after mile, I’ll share this with you like a sip of water, even my last handful of trail mix: Beauty. It’s the beauty that lasts.