Which do you think is scarier: speaking to an auditorium full of high school students or running into a bear in the woods? My friend Ellen has done both.
She was in Virginia last week, backpacking the Appalachian Trail with her two hiking mates, Sandi and Rachel, when they came across the bear. The women clicked their trekking poles together and spoke to the bear in normal voices. It turned and walked away.
Later that day, a bobcat passed in front of Ellen on the trail. Again, everyone remained calm, cool, and collected.
From my own extensive experience in the wilderness, I know it is one thing to be low-key about big animals when the sun is shining and you are standing erect on a trail, but quite another when you climb into your sleeping bag in the pitch black night, with the only barrier between your human burrito self and a predator's sharp teeth a nylon wall the thickness of a birthday party balloon.
This was Ellen's second trip in twelve months to backpack a portion of the Appalachian Trail. She is seventy-one, a retired school teacher, and very fit for her age. Heck, she's fit for my son's age. Her pack weighed thirty pounds. She carried it for one hundred miles. She claims it got easier by Day Four, but I know that's Ellen's unsinkable outlook talking.
Now that we've established Ellen's bravery around the ursus americanus, let's move onto the other terrifying creature I mentioned earlier -- the adolescent americanus. After Ellen's first trip on the Appalachian Trail, she was asked to speak to a few hundred high school students about her experience. I went along to watch.
She looked so tiny on the stage, wearing a pretty black sweater and a plaid skirt. She began by telling the students that she was older than most of their grandmothers. "But I'm so much like you," she said. "My heart still breaks. I still dream."
She talked about life on the trail, going without toilet paper, a mattress, pure water, wi-fi. How hungry she got. How she and her trail mates agreed to never complain. How on the first day, she thought she was going to cry from exhaustion. How beautiful it was and how it got to the point that they felt the need to limit their exclamations over the majesty of the terrain.
She described how each woman came with some physiological baggage and the trail cured them: a bad stomach; asthma; sleep issues; all disappeared.
And how the kindness of strangers overwhelmed them time and time again. The young man who helped them over a tough spot. The trail angels who provided rides. The young man who tucked them into sleeping bags and brought them hot coffee.
Ellen told the kids, "I went because I wanted to stay bold. You have to practice being bold."
Ellen was my youngest son's third grade teacher. He loved how she did headstands on the days when the class was particularly good. I remember the parent conference when she told me that my son had chutzpah and I thought, "Teacher, if anyone's a judge of chutzpah, it's you!"
After my son left elementary school, I didn't see Ellen for years. Then I joined an adult learning group, and Ellen was a member. By then, she had retired from our suburban elementary school, but she wouldn't stay away from teaching for long.
A principal from a Milwaukee inner city school asked Ellen, "Do you have one more year in you?"
So Ellen went back to school again. Wearing pearls and a plaid skirt, she stood in front of the class and introduced herself. No one looked at her. No one had crayons. No one had anything. She asked another teacher where to find the paper room and was given directions to the Walgreen's. Every desk was too tall and there was no custodian to the lower them. The principal lent her a screwdriver.
The disparity between her suburban school and this one, twenty minutes down the road, shamed her deeply. Even though she had spent her entire adult life in a classroom, she was not prepared. She felt like she was twenty-two again, untested and naive.
Ellen lives her life facing outward, deliberately putting herself into new situations. She is a pathfinder. It comes as no surprise that her nickname on the AT was Scout. I think she isn't afraid of anything except maybe the inability to learn. Last winter she stood with the Native Americans at Standing Rock. One of her Facebook friends commented, "You are meeting humanity. You are an ambassador for peace, love, and the adventurous soul."
Ellen was eager to be photographed for this feature. She told me I could experiment with her. That she was willing to be a guinea pig. On this day, as we gazed from behind the lens at Ellen modeling her gear, we noticed that she could not help but smile at us. I'd direct Ellen: "Can you try to look a little more ... determined? Or contemplative?"
Her serious face would last about ten seconds and then it would settle back to its resting state - happy and smiling. She just can't help it. She loves faces. I think about how every piece of artwork in her home -- and there are many -- features a face.
Perhaps that's one of those secrets to being a good teacher. When a child looks at you, you reflect back their innocence and possibility. I can't imagine Ellen suppressing her inner optimism, even when the clouds role in.
The morning after the photo shoot, Ellen texted me, "Well that was an adventure! I loved the experience! Thank you. No one has ever said to me before, 'don't lift a finger, you are the talent.' I liked that."
This morning, Ellen texted me again. "All three of us feel lean, mean, strong, and ready to take on the messy world." Her words comfort me. She will stand for me in any fight. And she is formidable.
Ellen begins each day by raising her arms and greeting the sun. Here is a poem that puts words to Ellen's practice:
Look To This Day by Kalidasa
Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!
Photos by Renn Kuhnen.
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