In 1995, in my late forties, I almost died in New Mexico’s Pecos Wilderness. I’d gotten lost and had been desperately trying to find my way out, fearing I was headed in the wrong direction but not knowing what else to do except keep pushing on. I’d wrongly believed that if I followed the river downstream, I’d come to an RV campground. But the canyon kept narrowing, and I had to start criss-crossing the river, which kept running deeper and faster. Suddenly I slipped in the rapids and ended up in water up to my chest, nearly got swept away, lost my gear, struggled ashore, and realized I’d careened around a corner straight into disaster.
The usual late-afternoon thunder- and hailstorm started rolling in, the gateway to dropping temperatures and a cold night. I crouched under a rocky overhang, actually mewling in despair a few times. That night, after the rain, I stayed warm enough by covering myself with a thick layer of piñon branches. In the next days, as starvation, exhaustion, and exposure gradually took over, I started hallucinating. Drinking from the roaring river, I saw myself calmly sitting twenty yards away on the riverbank, watching me drink. “I’ll only be a minute,” I told myself telepathically, but so clearly I heard my voice. “Take your time,” the me on the riverbank responded, as steady and supportive as I usually am to anyone in distress. Later, soaked from a thunderstorm—the warm air once again dissipating with the disappearing sun, the chill growing—I couldn’t find the shirt I’d hung on some log to dry, nor could I locate my cache of tree branches.
Suddenly, I realized that I didn’t have the strength, physical or otherwise, to gather more branches, and I knew that sometime during the evening I would probably slip into a coma. At some point near the bottom of the vortex, once you stop fighting the momentum and accept where it’s carrying you, things become calm. Death, I decided, was preferable to going on. I felt ready, like a novitiate, my hope having shrunk to this: that the suffering leading into coma would be short and not intense. I squatted on my haunches with nothing to do for the rest of my life, staring at the trees and bracken patches, musing about how easily life can reach its end. But then I saw with absolute clarity my five-year-old daughter’s face floating like a hologram in the thin mountain air, crying, and I realized that I had to stay alive for her. Over the next few hours, I dug a trench with my knife and buried myself from my neck down. Packed in dirt, breathing deeply and chanting auuummm (which I hadn’t done for about twenty years), staring up at more and brighter stars than I believed I had ever seen in my life, I stayed warm enough to get through the night. The next afternoon a rescue team and I stumbled across each other.
In later years, I came to believe that my vision of my daughter’s face had been a projection of my own child-self and that I had not been as ready to die as I’d believed, that underneath the calm acceptance of death, there was a part of me that was so unbearably sad and terrified about dying that I couldn’t abandon it.
For the next two years I did not go back into the mountains. But then I began desperately missing something in the high wilderness that I could not find anywhere else—solitude, silence, peace, freedom from demands and constraints, a sense of accomplishment. I kept remembering one afternoon in Colorado’s Raweh Wilderness, an area that, unlike the Pecos, I’d known well. I’d spent the entire afternoon just sitting in a high natural pasture, napping, reading, looking sometimes at the clouds brushing against the mountain peaks and sometimes at the petals and tender centers of the wildflowers just an arm’s length away, when I suddenly heard a thump and thought, “God damn it, someone else is setting up a tent. There goes the solitude.” Then I saw two deer about fifty yards away, watching me. The male had announced their presence by stomping his hind leg. I understood that because I’d been so peaceful for hours, they sensed I was no threat and that I belonged more to their world than to mine. Over the next hour the male slowly approached until finally he was so close I could see scars on his side, hear his sighing, could have touched him. I’d felt that I was in a state of grace.
So, two years after my near-death in the Pecos, I decided to return to the familiar Raweh. On my hike in, after several hours of uphill hiking, just about 20 minutes short of the pristine, secluded lakes and pastures above treeline, the trail temporarily ended at a log across a rushing river about 20 feet below. I tightened my backpack to make sure it wouldn’t slide on my back and throw me off balance. I crawled on the log toward the other side. In the middle of the crossing my apprehension suddenly burst into panic. The noise of the river put me back into the Pecos river crossing, when things had turned so horribly wrong. Now, hundreds of miles away from the Pecos, I discovered that the experience, the memory had remained inside me like a retrovirus. When I finished crawling across the log, I stayed on my hands and knees, breathing heavily, trying to calm myself. A terrible presentiment took hold that I was going to die on this backpacking trip. I tried to reassure myself that this was merely a long-deferred traumatic reaction, fear reaching out from my past and grabbing hold of the back of my collar. Finally I calmed down, stood, and began the last, short, uphill leg of the trail. Almost immediately I saw a scarred, dead tree, recently cleaved and seared by lightning, so stark that it seemed a signpost, a warning of death. I stood for several minutes, telling myself that I was being irrational, that it made more sense to continue just an easy half mile to where the mountain leveled out and I could set up camp, spend a few days finding my rhythm in nature, and then catch another trail down so I wouldn’t have to go over that log again. I kept staring at the signpost tree, and finally I told myself that if I continued, whether my terror was a symptom of PTSD or an accurate premonition, I would be terrified every moment I camped, completely alone in the wilderness, wrestling with fears of lightning, rattlesnakes, UFOs, a psychopathic murderer, a heart attack, and that I had nothing to prove to anyone, including myself, by continuing this trip. So I turned around, crawled back over the log, and five hours later checked into a motel.
Several years after that, I tried again and couldn’t make it even close to treeline, but for a different reason: my aging midwestern body could no longer adjust to the decreased oxygen at higher elevations. A new physical limitation, not fear, stopped me.
What can you do when you come up against the very real limits of your existence? How does each of us cope with grieving—for parts of ourselves and for the other losses, both sudden and anticipated, that inevitably accumulate? The accepted psychological wisdom says that we gradually digest loss, chewing on whatever psychic antacids help us through the roughest parts—a belief in a god or afterlife, meaningful activities, distraction, denial, addictions, amusements, an acceptance of death. . . . Research indicates they’re all equally effective at eroding grief, but as slowly as water against a rock.
Nearly twenty years after the Pecos, I’ve come to the Caribbean island of Grenada for tamer, more comfortable pleasures, the kind of vacation I disdained in my backpacking days. Mike, his twenty-six-year-old son Dave, and I are going to hike to the top of Mt. Qua Qua, the highest point on the island, a paltry 2,000 feet. Near the trailhead, a badly weathered sign reminds us that everyone has the power to do something about the thinning ozone layer, dating back to a time when people talked about thinning ozone instead of climate change. For a brief moment, I recall a scene from a postapocalyptic movie in which a weathered, broken entrance sign to a deserted amusement park clatters in the wind. The sign reminds me of the broken statue in Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:
. . . Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read. . . .
[O]n the pedestal these words appear—
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Instead of Ozymandias’s cruel, arrogant hope, my hope has always tended to feel more sad, desperate, tender, loving, fearful. At sixty-six years of age, in my own waning days and in what I suspect are the waning days of our species, I’ve begun to wonder about the value of hope. Hope is a unique quality of human beings, something very different from the drive to survive, which is merely the biological imperative of living things. Hope gives us courage, inspires us and others. It fuels movements; the black civil rights movement would not have succeeded without hope. It nourishes love. It helps us cope with and even transcend our fears about the meaningless of life, the randomness of events, and the inevitability of death. But sometimes hope fuels denial, gets in the way of taking action. In the old Laurel and Hardy movies, when the villain comes toward Stan Laurel, Stanley puts his hands over his own eyes, hoping the bad guy won’t see him.
Like Stanley, I’ve usually lived with a combination of hope and anxiety, heavier on the anxiety. I’m not at the point where I welcome dying, but because I almost made it there, I can hope, in a way that I couldn’t have conceived of before, that when the moment arrives, I can find that place where I’m ready to reach toward my death with satisfaction, grace, gratitude. (That’s one of the two common hopes most of us have for our deaths. The other is that it will happen so suddenly—a massive heart attack or drunk driver—that we’re swept into the vortex and out of our life before we even know what’s happening.) My brush with death has helped give me the anxious man’s immunity: whether I’m mugged or one day find myself face to face with the grim reaper, I will feel better if I can say to my assailant, “I knew you were coming.” I want my most implacable enemies to know that I’m no fool, even if they don’t give a damn what I think.
Although it hasn’t made me any happier overall, now that I know in my bones, brain, and heart that I most assuredly will die, my near-death occasionally helps remind me to appreciate the good moments even more, to empty my mind and watch cumulus clouds, to light up when I hear my girlfriend laugh, to still feel a thrill whenever the theater lights dim and the movie begins. I like drinking good wine slowly, and when I smoke good dope, I smoke just enough to ride the high rather than smoking too much and weighing myself down into lethargy. I write.
As we walk past the ozone layer sign at the Qua Qua trailhead, I’m thinking that even when it was new, its message was true only in the most general and useless sense. The people of Grenada never really had any power to help save the ozone layer, just as they can do nothing meaningful to stop climate change. The hurricane belt will continue to expand and eventually embrace Grenada, and the rising seawaters will spill over St. George. Many Grenadians are already talking about shifts in the seasons and winds. (Climate change is more unfair to the poor and island nations, who have done less to cause it than the largest and richest nations but will be affected earlier by it. I remember a tour guide in Mexico at Chichen-Itza explaining that the kings’ houses were always at the heads of the rivers that flowed through the towns, so they had the cleanest water while everyone else used the water that the royal families had washed and defecated in.)
In fact, many Grenadians have done their meager share to contribute to climate change, just as I, the American, have. Parts of the island are now clogged with cars and light trucks, and occasional plastic bags and bottles litter the woods and roadsides. I hear talk about unprecedented obesity among the locals. But others here do little harm to the climate. They live simply in the hills. Their dogs, goats, and chickens wander around in a rough balance with nature; they grow many of their own fruits and vegetables; and their wooden houses don’t have air conditioners. They walk alongside the roads with a rhythm that feels to me as if they’re part of the flow of streams, waterfalls, animals, clouds gliding across the sky. I wish I could appreciate this even more. When Grenadians say a friendly hello to me, my own anxious, dyspeptic, and ungenerous impulses make me suspect that behind their smiles they’re feeling superiority, pity, or contempt. Is that my projection or an accurate intuition? Do they worry as I do about the future of our species, blame Americans like me for it? Do they think about the most important question of the next fifty years: when water, food, and good air start running out, will we go through our endgame with savagery or with grace? When will I fight, when will I endure, and when will I give up? The process of climate change seems irrevocable and fatal, though I sometimes wonder whether this growing certainty I have about the endgame of our species is just an amplification of the kinds of thoughts people have after they’ve passed sixty-five and start worrying more about their own mortality. But when I look at the science, this briefly comforting thought about our future reveals itself for what it really is: denial. Uniquely aware among all living creatures of our mortality, we have denial woven into the fabric of our consciousness. The sister of hope, denial saves us some anguish, but in the end it will do us in.
A half-hour along the Qua Qua trail, only a quarter of the way to the summit, I’m already winded and slightly dizzy. Sure, the trail’s steep, muddy, and slippery, but 2,000 feet is nothing, and I’ve been working out strenuously four nights a week, building up my muscles and cardiovascular system. I hate having to struggle so much that I can’t appreciate where I am. Ego begins battling with fear: the shame of being in last place, the drag on the expedition, watching my friends get farther and farther away from me and knowing that around some bend they’re having to wait for the old guy to catch up, when they’d just as soon get to the top. Meanwhile my heart’s pounding hard, and I know not to try walking through it. So I adopt a regimen of twenty steps, twenty seconds’ rest, and then another twenty steps. The sharply canted, slippery trail keeps sliding me toward the edges of ravines, and my calves and thighs start aching, growing weaker as they fight the pull. Faint ghosts of the Pecos fear begin to stir; you can slip into disaster so easily. But I keep going, mostly because not continuing would bring on too much self-loathing and regret. I won’t quit until the price gets higher.
So I find myself struggling in the swirls of striving and pain, pride and fear, my familiar approximation of full-tilt living. As the gap between my friends and me widens, I have to force myself to take the full rest and then take the next twenty steps carefully, making sure that I don’t start rushing out of humiliation. This is the kind of adjustment we begin to learn as we approach old age, to do what we can and to be wary of ego, the cheese in death’s mousetrap. I begin compromising my twenty-twenty regimen: instead of using up some of my steps avoiding the muddiest parts of the trail, I slog straight through the mud. We did not bring enough water, so I try to drink not when I feel thirsty or slightly dizzy but only in the spots where there’s a greater possibility of misstepping, crashing down into a ravine, and having to wait several hours until my friends can fetch a rescue team, because I don’t want to be lying down in the brush and mud desperately wishing I’d taken that last drink of water. I savor each sip, wash it around in my mouth before I swallow.
This capacity for pure appreciation of the smallest things, which we had as babies and then lose in floods of hormones and ego, may grow stronger again as we get closer to our end. But at every age, it’s just another brief winning roll of the dice in a game of craps against death: at every moment we’re as subject to the random accident, the impulsive bad decision, the wayward gene, bacteria, or virus, as we are to a meteor wiping out millions of years of the work of flora and fauna. Is there really any accurate actuarial table that measures the recklessness of adolescence against the fragility of aging? In my twenties, living in New Orleans, where I’d gone with no money or contacts to start a completely new life from scratch (which of course proved impossible), I actually met someone named Scratch, one of the loosest people I ever knew: he’d walk to the edge of the pool table and in one quick motion bend and shoot and almost always make his shot, but whenever he took time to carefully line the shot up, he’d blow it. Scratch’s unconcern about everything seemed to me the way to live; on the other hand, before he reached thirty, he burned out his brain with acid and speed. I trip hard on a root and realize that my concentration is drifting. Watch where you’re going, I remind myself. Most disasters come from not paying sufficient attention. I try to say this to myself in a way that sounds wise, not nagging.
When we finally reach the top of Qua Qua, a chilly wind blows constantly at 30 miles per hour—the same trade wind that in terms of what geologists call deep time carried Columbus across the ocean just the other day. Many people believed that Columbus would sail to the edge of the ocean and drop off the edge. Others believed he would sail into the maws of giant sea monsters looming just beyond the horizon. Each generation finds its own dreads, but ours may be the first to lack enough of a sense of wonder to compensate for them.
I used to believe that progress and hope were intertwined, like strands on a lanyard, a double helix actually leading somewhere better. But increasingly it seems to me that progress usually comes at a price. We live longer lives with no appreciably greater joie de vivre. Automobiles, airplanes, telephones have expanded our horizons and built elasticity into our relationships, but whatever’s more accessible is usually less valuable: Bali isn’t really Bali anymore, and aren’t your conversations with Aunt Esther a thousand miles away in her gated community pretty much the same tired script? I remember a piece on our local news years ago about an amazing new store, Blockbuster, where you could actually rent videotapes of all the movies from your past. But now every time I see a movie again, I no longer accumulate memories of where I was the other times I saw it and what was going on in my life. The other day I took an old copy of Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ from my bookshelf, noticed British spellings, and suddenly remembered that I’d bought the book in Thessaloniki when I was twenty-three years old and in the middle of six months hitchhiking through Europe; surprised, I saw handwriting in the margins that was no longer mine, like fossils in shale—scribbles of wow! and thoughts that had seemed profound and revelatory to me at the time. Kindle doesn’t quite do it. The Internet has put once unimaginable amounts of information at our fingertips but forced us to produce more, faster, and tattered our capacity for deep contemplation.
For a few moments we take turns poking our heads around the boulder at the top of Qua Qua to look at the rest of the island below us and at the whitecaps on the sea, dainty little folds in a blue tablecloth, but every time we step from the shelter of the boulder the wind hits us straight on, chilling our sweat. I am too tired and too preoccupied with having to hike back to feel any emotional connection with Columbus, plus we can see a storm moving toward us, and if the trail gets any muddier, it will make a miserable ordeal even worse. The view is pretty nice, but not worth hanging around for. We made it to the top, and that’s enough. Now we have things to do, comforts to think of.
That evening, back in the room, I lie next to my girlfriend in bed and tell her, “I found myself thinking during the hike, if I had a heart attack up there, what my last message would be for Mike and Dave to carry back to you.”
“What was it?” she asks.
Temporarily safe, I laugh. “None of your business,” I tell her.
Everybody has to believe in something. Even nihilists’ nothing gives a kind of comfort and shape to their world. My girlfriend, a lapsed Catholic, wants me to go back into psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis helped her develop a deep quality and appreciation of her life, and although she does not proselytize for it, she believes in it fervently and insists it can help many people whose lives fall short of what they would like them to be. Like many religious people and their religion, she believes that psychotherapy can make life better for many people who would be willing at least to try to embrace its fundamental tenets. I am also a therapist, but I am a writer, too, and so I think that writing can sometimes do the job of therapy. Ultimately, though, nothing works for long; that’s not a statement of pessimism but an ode to the ongoing process of living.
Meanwhile, this week in Grenada I’ve run the air conditioner in my room and have driven around the island burning gas and spewing emissions. None of this is enough to make any difference in climate change, so why not? I believe that I have a moral obligation to the species and to everything on the planet, but it’s not as if there’s anything I can do that really matters, is there? So I recycle whenever I can, and when I’m leaving my room, I turn the air conditioner on low. Outside our room, as twilight fades to dark and the birds sing themselves to sleep, I stare into the night sky and wonder, does anything matter? Last year my oldest friend died of lung cancer. Our longest running dialogue, whenever he chain-smoked and consumed distressing amounts of meat and trans-fats, went like this:
“Gordon, I’m going to outlive you.”
“Yeah, but I’ll have more fun.”
We’ve both won the argument. Or maybe it ended, like everything else, in a draw.
We all need to find an answer, order and meaning, behind the most basic questions that confront us all: what are we doing here, and how much does anyone else care about us, from our lover lying beside us in bed to whatever immanence, intentional and sentient toward us or not, lies beyond the sky? Writing, raising kids, doing good work, leaving our marks are all ultimately useless pastimes but the most important pastimes we have. Graffiti taggers, lovers who carve their initials into a tree, our ancestors who painted on their cave walls, believe in two things: that their actions have some kind of effect and that the universe cares when you declare, “I am.”
Those moments in which we transcend or sweeten our awareness of time give us respite from the knowledge that someday whatever we’ve left behind of possessions, writing, and memories, whatever impact we’ve made, will eventually fade into insignificance and then out of memory. Even the ashes in the urn will one day find their rightful place in the universe. Once in a small Nebraska town I stumbled across an estate sale. Everything the dead old lady had owned circled the outside of her house: furniture, silverware, tablecloths, curtains, pencils from places like Frank’s Hardware, scratch paper pads, postcards and letters, a road map so old that Interstate 80 appeared only as a ghostly planned projection (had she gone on a trip long ago, and if so, with whom?), embroidered napkins, candles, clothes, bottles of perfume, tubes of ointments and salves, a flyswatter, ruler and yardstick, needles, pins, buttons and threads, playing cards, photographs of people who would never again be identified. It was impossible to tell which things formed the fabric of her life and which were only the loose ends. When everything had been sold, the crowd, led by the auctioneer, filed inside the house and bid on the air conditioners, the radiators, the furnace, and the hot water heater, and then the house itself went up for auction, until everything about her had been dispersed. I still have her roadmap and keep meaning to put it in plastic, but it’s so yellowed and fragile that I’m afraid to touch it.
That evening, we go to dinner at a friend’s house, high on a hill above the lights of Grenada. We look at the stars, and Vishnu, who is Hindi, tells us, “We believe that the universe began as just one thing, an incredible tight compressed ball.” A subatomic piñata. The universal, prime seed. All that has burst from this compressed ball is still part of it, still expanding, just as a flower opens and its pollen and seeds create other flowers, just as a sperm chimes against an egg, snuggles its head inside, and both are consumed in and transformed by their embrace. We are all earthworms crawling through the humus. Behold the cauliflower or broccoli, how each smaller piece looks like a miniature of the head it came from. Bend down to eye level with the moss in the tundra, look closely, and you will see a forest. Just as bacteria and virus and amoeba unfurled into amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, we are all part of the continual developing cosmos, neither in the center nor on the edges, our history and future only this: everything, including us, is stardust, all things are both forged inside of and form part of the furnace of creation. Hope is a candle in the desert night, a skyrocket that bursts, disperses, and becomes absorbed into the sky, but while it lasts, it has its uses, pleasures, and even thrills.