Friday, June 17, 2022

The weight of invisible things

On the last day of the school year, the hallways whirled with exuberance. The whirling happens every year at this time, of course, but this year everyone seemed especially giddy. I went with it. I planned nothing for my classes, letting my students sign yearbooks, draw on the chalkboard, tell jokes and laugh, tell them again and laugh harder. One girl had brought a bag of balloons to blow up and toss around. This was fun until balloon met ceiling fan. Kablooey. The kids darted nervous looks at me; I turned off the fan and let them have their fun.

I’m glad I did, because just a couple days later, I would have had to stop them immediately, and even as it was I could sense the students’ apprehension that a scolding was imminent because popping balloons sounds way too much like shooting. That’s one more thing they know that I didn’t when I was their age. Sometimes they seem older than I am now. I am often shocked when I see a student without a mask and realize how incredibly young they look—how young they still are. The masks seem to rob them of their youth, in more ways than one.


Kids learning about science will sometimes be given a balloon to answer questions about what air is—is it just a big empty nothing, or does it have weight and volume? An inflated balloon suggests the latter: it may not be visible by itself, but it exists, certainly, squishable within the latex sphere, up to a point at least. Then kablooey. One wonders how the same demonstration might be made with certain emotions like anxiety or grief. The weight of such an emotion feels crushing, the volume massive, but how can you prove all that when the emotion itself isn’t something you can see—when it just seems like a big empty nothing in an easily punctured container? Maybe it is a big empty nothing. Ask anyone who has ever grieved how much an absence weighs.


Two days after the end of the semester, K and I headed for Colorado for a camping-and-hiking trip we’d been planning basically since the last camping-and-hiking trip the previous summer. Avoiding the crowds of the Front Range, we chose more remote terrain, with unobstructed views of still-snow-capped mountains and a whole lot of nothing else, including basic utilities. This was the longest we’d camped off-grid – no electricity, no running water, no internet and spotty cell signal – and saying that is a very potent reminder of what a privileged first-world princess I am. Ten days taking teakettle-and-washcloth showers is really not a hardship when you know it’s temporary; you see it as an adventure. A somewhat grimy adventure, granted, but it’s fun to be a little dirty a short amount of time. It’s fun to see what culinary masterpieces you can concoct solely from food items in cans and boxes cooked on a camp stove. (Gnocchi with tomatoes and artichoke hearts—not too shabby.) Even if it isn’t all fun (and it isn’t, admittedly; at the point where K said “my toes are sticking together,” we conceded that not showering gets gross), it’s an experience, something different from the usual that we would, probably, survive just fine.

At least once or twice, however, that “probably” seemed like it could be in doubt. We weren’t there just to “rough it,” after all; we were there to hike. Hiking in Colorado is different from hiking in east-central Illinois. Let me put it this way: you know those analogy questions they have on standardized tests? They look like this:

Jogging : Running :: Walking : …

The answer, at least for the purposes of this blog post, is hiking. Runners hate it when people call what they do “jogging,” but realistically I have to admit that the pace at which I do ultras is barely faster than walking—sometimes not even. Likewise, what I call a “hike” ‘round these parts wouldn’t even get you down the road to the trailhead out there. I think of a dirt path through someplace nature-y with a few challenges thrown in there—ups and downs, roots and rocks, maybe a moment or two when the way forward seems uncertain, but not many and not for long. Well, the hike we chose for our second full day of adventure had all that and more, plus one thing it had considerably less of compared to what we were used to back home: oxygen.

Denver is named the mile-high city not merely because of its recreational marijuana; it’s almost exactly 5280 feet above sea level, and visitors from the lowlands can feel it. Every time I’ve been there and gone for a run, I forget about the effect of altitude on exertion until I’m wondering why the heck I’m so ridiculously out of breath after so short a distance. Oh right, the oxygen thing. Well, the trailhead for West Spanish Peak, our hiking destination that day, was over two miles up, because the peak itself stands at over 13,000 feet. I don’t know why we didn’t think this would be an issue.

For most of the ascent, the hiking was exactly the way I think of hiking. It wasn’t a walk in the park, but it was manageable and scenic and we got to eat snacks. Once we got past the treeline, things got tougher; the trail was harder to follow and there was a lot more scree. (Scree, by the way, is the sound you make when you slip down it, a version of onomatopoeia I’m not sure there’s a name for yet.) With just a half-mile or so left to the top, things got very bad very fast. The trail disappeared; we had only rock cairns, few and far between, to mark the best (meaning least terrible) route to take, and the cairns were surrounded by other, non-deliberate cairns, because the whole top of the mountain was basically one huge, crazy-steep, unstable rockpile looming up into the oxygen-poor air.

The dog and I stopped at about 12,500 feet. We’d both had enough. K went on a little further, mostly because I encouraged him to (“Don’t let us stop you! You can do it!” I cheered, and I wouldn’t blame him if he hated me at that moment), but none of us ended up going to the very top. At that point it just didn’t seem worth it. We were way out of our league here. A couple weeks back I had just run a 40-mile ultra; today I couldn’t go a quarter mile without feeling like my heart and lungs had just hit a ceiling fan. It was humbling, to say the least.

But not disappointing. People often talk as if there are only two possible outcomes to any undertaking: success or failure. The really annoying ones talk as if there’s only one outcome, because “failure is not an option.” Really? Then why bother? Truth is I’ve failed at more things than most people have ever even dreamed of trying. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much to brag about, but bragging is not the point. The point is experience. Sure, mastery is one of the key ways humans achieve a sense of fulfillment. It feels good to be good at something. But to get good at something means starting off not so good. To put it another way, I suppose, it means failing.


I started writing this post having no idea where I was going with it. The phrase “the weight of invisible things” kept coming back to me, and while it has a nice, quasi-profound feel to it, I’m not sure what it means or whether it really applies much to what I’ve written. I’ve struggled to write anything these last few months, struggled to feel like I have anything worth saying. But that’s putting things again in stark success-or-failure measurements. What are these thoughts “worth”? What is their weight? Impossible to say, though I somehow do, I think, feel a little lighter now for having said them.