Manitou Incline.

We weren’t even twenty feet from the starting point of the Manitou Incline when we saw her stumble. From the corner of my eye I watched as a woman headed down the incline lost her footing and remained in the seated position that gravity had planted her in. She spoke to a man who passed by, seemed to be catching her breath, maybe trying to recover from the embarrassment of tumbling in front of everyone.

Some time had passed before we got closer to the woman, who remained seated.
“Are you okay?” She looked up, her face contorted into a pained grimace, flushed and sweaty. She winced and squinted up into the sunlight as my friends and I stood over her.
“I don’t think so.” She moved her right leg, and that’s when we saw the purple, swollen ankle with a very clear impression of a broken bone threatening to escape her skin.

There wasn’t much that we could do for her, but we waited with her as she called 911. We offered her food and water, and we did our best to comfort her as she threw up from the pain.

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It’s not often that I leave the small, dusty, treeless town that I live in to go hiking. While I really love hiking the incline many will tell you it is one of the most intense workouts you’ll get. I have yet to fully decode the reasons for me, and so many others, to continue to return to hike up the incline even after knowing that it is a painful, exhausting and uncomfortable hour, to two hours of your life. I know for me it is the captivating beauty of being surrounded by such beautiful trees and mountains. It’s the view from the top of that mountain when you finally succeed. Its the ache in your legs for days afterward that tells you, you accomplished something that many give up on.

After completing the incline for the second time earlier last week, I started to want to understand what makes the incline so enjoyable aside from the very obvious scenic beauty that surrounds you as you torture yourself all the way to the top.

It’s the compassion.

Out in the real world everyone is so disconnected. It is them vs us. It is the good guys and the assholes. The right and the wrong. But on that mountain? On that mountain, in the midst of such pain and taxing endurance, it seems that all the walls fall away. If the man in front of you runs ahead and then slips there isn’t a single person who doesn’t react. The people he ran in front of are the first to reach out to catch him. In the daily routine of being bombarded by stress and walls that separate us all, there would be people who smirk as the man who cut them off fell on his ass. 

Somehow we all turn into human beings again when we’re torturing ourselves. Whether it be a hike up the incline, a 5k or more serious events like helping each other after a natural disaster, the impact that we all have on each other in those moments is tremendous. I feel my heart lighten, not only after having accomplished a very difficult feat, but also because of the kind-hearted people who told me I could do it – people I had never seen in my life, and likely will never see again, and for a brief moment they opened their lives up to encourage and pull me up to the top of that mountain with them. 

~

The windowless building.

Stale lights define the mood of every employee that must spend hours of their life inside of that building. Everything is dingy, and even the floor looks depressed, lacking the shimmer a tile floor should have, and instead wear a thin coating of grime and wax added over more grime. I have spent two years working here and the highlight of each days exists only in the people who share a job description with me. We gruel away at mundane tasks that are sure to make even the most loyal employee question the direct of their life.

I look for things in the eyes of people around me. As customers pass by me, I look for a glimpse of their life inside their eyes. Some people carry anger that radiates off them. Some carry the excitement of a new toy, a new iPod or a new whatever-they-just-purchased in their eyes. Few are kind and give warm, genuine smiles to strangers. Most of them are dead though. Dead eyes like those you might find in the skull of a zombie. They walk forward with very little regard for anyone that is around them. There is always the occasional person who doesn’t even snap out of this glazed over look even when I speak to them. I would be lying if I said I didn’t also live in a similar bubble while I shopped as well. With a goal to get in and get out while spending as little money as possible has turned into a habit of looking at the floor as I walk, avoiding eye contact and weaving in and out of people to get what I need so I can move on. As a retail associate I watch other people live this way too. Glued to their phones, plugging their ears with iPods…

I am surrounded by the uninspired. The tired. The bored. My friends at work are those who share the same ideas that I do. The ones who are all so desperate to escape from working retail. Desperate, I suppose, to go to a place where people look you in the eyes, treat you with respect. But more importantly, a place where people aren’t reduced to the temper tantrums of a 3-year old when the glorious item they came to the store for because it was on the website, is not carried in our store. In having a common enemy I’ve found its easier to find friends. We all agree that we hate this place, and we are all so dead set on escape. Talks of finishing our degrees and moving on to greater things outside the realm of retail, transform into conversations about life, dreams and happiness. Sooner or later the people you suffer with become your closest friends.

~

So my question is what kind of world would this one be, if we all stopped thinking of ourselves as separate from the man or woman beside us in line at the grocery store? Are we not all fighting our own battles like hiking the incline, every day of our lives? Shouldn’t the idea that we don’t know what demons another person is fighting, encourage us to care about them?

I am reminded of Buddhism – a philosophy that has become very dear to my heart after I found that it could pull me out of the spiral of depression and anxiety that attacked me my freshmen year of college. In reading about Buddhism, in hearing stories about Siddhartha Gautama I have absorbed the idea that we should be viewing the person next to us, as part of us. “If you truly loved yourself, you could never hurt another”. I didn’t understand that quote for a long time, but experiences like the incline really help put that concept into perspective.

If you know happiness and love and compassion, and if you know pain and misery and anger, wouldn’t you know exactly which emotions you’d want to encourage and which you’d want to extinguish? If you truly care about yourself, wouldn’t you want the people around you to also feel good? People who are happy don’t hurt others.

Its going to take several years, but I hope to one day see a person who is so angry that their words are accentuated with spit and pulsating veins in their throats…I hope to meet that person, and stay calm and open. My initial reaction is to be afraid of them, to close myself off and walk away from them because I don’t deserve that disrespect. To be angry at them for treating a stranger like that… Even though with reading on Buddhism, I know a better, more peaceful, way of thinking of them would be to remember that anger is an expression of pain. To remember that I know what it’s like to feel so angry that I would want to yell at a stranger (or simply to empathize with what levels of pain must lead someone to scream at  people who have done nothing to hurt them)…To know what it feels like when, in the midst of anger, I am met with someone who doesn’t not have the same repulsed reaction. When I am met with open ears and someone who does not take that anger or those bitter words to heart so much so that they cannot see the pain that lies beneath the words.

This post has trailed off. My basic idea here is that I wish the world would take moments like the incline, and carry them in our hearts a little longer. Reach out to the people around us. Say hello. Ask how someone is and actually listen to the answer.

What would happen to this world if we all treated each other as if we were hiking up a treacherous mountain, rather than as if we were all racing to the shiniest trophy to be first and win everything?

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darkness.

Darkness

Sometimes it feels like a weighted blanket that is consistent in dispersing an uncomfortable weight across the back of your neck, across your shoulders. A subtle reminder that it is there, and that no one else will ever see or feel it quite like you do. Other times it is like a straitjacket around your body and a sledgehammer to your throat. You cannot move. You cannot do anything at all, because your every movement needs a coherent thought to come to life…and none of your thoughts feel like they are your’s anymore. 

High school was hell. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. To begin with, I was never like my peers. I liked black. I liked music that screamed. I liked people who pushed limits and scared the living shit out of the cheerleaders, the jocks, the absentminded assholes who sneered at me when I chose to work alone on projects. People who used to be my friends started calling me “the emo” in passing in the hall… Because they smiled and laughed I don’t think I fully allowed myself to feel the sting of their words… They seemed amused and happy by it, they didn’t say it with anger, so I didn’t allow myself to realize that I wasn’t okay with it. I remember when the football players would watch me as I sat alone in the library, writing on my laptop. I could feel their stares, see their heads continually move as they whispered, but I kept my headphones in. It was my shield. I listened to the men who got me through high school – at times feeling like my only friends – and I blocked them out. When one of them spoke with a smirk, through giggles ‘Rachel, will you be my valentine?’ followed by a chorus of other giggles, I remember saying no and plugging my headphones back in. And then the wave of heat came over me, traveled to my face and plummeted me into this feeling of confusion. Did he actually like me? Was he mocking me? Why were they so fucking entertained by it?

This isolation encouraged my art. I found peace in the stories I worked on while being mocked by others. I found happiness and release in the vibrations of the bass guitar through the walls of the house. I felt a smile come to me as I played every breakdown with precision and proved to myself, and maybe others too, that I was more like the artistic musicians I idolized, than the shithead popular people who found so much entertainment in keeping me isolated. 

Naturally, I gravitated towards the classes in college that spoke about the mind. Philosophy and psychology were something that I wished I had more exposure to in high school, because they may have alleviated some of the ache that I carried with me every day in the halls. It started as a deep need to understand the chaos that I felt in my mind. I wanted to know why I feel sadness wash over my like a cloud drifting in front of the sunshine. I wanted to know why I couldn’t remember the last time I smiled, and I wanted to know why I started to hate seeing other people smile.

I learned that there was nothing wrong with me. In conversation with others in my classes I learned that most people have a passion for school and maybe one other thing… I learned that there are a few people like me who reach out to writing, music, reading, and then thrive. Those are my people. The creative. The outcasted and misunderstood. As I told others about my passions and hobbies in the icebreaker first-day-of-class activities to meet my fellow psychology students, it quickly became clear that all that people had mocked me for before was a strength now. While others claimed to enjoy school, there were a few (including a guy I dated for a time), who had nothing else outside of school. I watched them stare blankly, honestly troubled by the fact that their lives revolved around school and their 4.0 GPA is where it stopped…. I started to feel pride in my art. I may not get a 4.0 GPA, but I am knowledgeable about what I have a passion for. I may not get an A+ on the textbook exam, but I know how to be compassionate and listen to you, to understand the human being behind the pain on the outside. I may not have the best grades, but I have a depth of other talents to share with the world and I am far from done yet. My music. My fiction. My compassion for others… This is all the start.

I’ve transformed that darkness into something new.