The Far Side of the Mountain

I still haven’t turned off my computer for an entire day, but I have been curtailing my online activities in an effort to live more of an offline life.

A couple of days ago, I went on a quest to find a trail to the top of a local mountain, but I never even got to the other side of the mountain to find the trail. Distances are deceiving in the desert, since there is no human-made structure for comparison, and it took me two hours just to get to the mountain and swing around it a bit. I had to save enough energy, strength, and water to get back, otherwise I would have made it around the mountain.

Bell Mountain. Elevation 3848 ft. The 30120th highest peak in the US.

Bell Mountain. Elevation 3848 ft. The 30120th highest peak in the US.

Today I did the next best thing — drove to the other side of the mountain and tried to hike up the far side. Did well for a while, but the steepness defeated me — even on flange of the mountain, there were places where it sloped greater than 45 degrees. (It’s the steepness that makes it a mountain, apparently. Otherwise it would be just another desert knoll.)

Getting closer!

Still, it was an interesting trip, and maybe I’ll try again someday.

The world below.

The world below.

I didn’t have any great insights, just the same one any intrepid mountain climber has about halfway up a steep slope: What goes up, must come down.

My car, far below, circled in red, near a water tank.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

A Gift From the Universe

I’m continuing my experiment in sanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, so as usual today, I went for a walk in the desert, following the same rocky paths I’d trodden the past few days. It was exceedingly hot, much hotter than yesterday or the day before, and I was drenched in sweat by the time I got to my standing spot — the spot where I stood the past couple of days and let myself just be.

The air was still. I heard the far-off whine of an airplane, the faint alarm of a distant piece of heavy equipment backing up, the buzz of a fly as it whizzed past my head. Today I saw no jackrabbit, no humans. There was just me, those few slight sounds, the desert knolls surrounding the area, the creosote bushes dotting the sandy expanse, the hot still air, the clear blue sky.

I quieted my thoughts, then after a minute or so, I spoke my new mantra.

This “mantra” appeared when I tagged my article Being Where I am Supposed to Be. I used the tags “being happy,” “being me,” “being where I am supposed to be,” and I had to smile at the sappy little ditty those tags formed. So today, out there in the desert, in the still of the heat, I said, “I am happy. I am being me. I am where I am supposed to be.” As soon as I finished speaking the word “be,” a cool current of air flowed by.

I stood there, blissfully comfortable, until the air stilled again, then I continued my walk.

I do not believe in signs or intentional gifts from the universe. The truth is, a small breeze shows in up the desert at about that same time every day, and the timing was entirely coincidental. (People think I’m silly for walking in the desert heat, but that mid-morning breeze makes the desert cooler than the city.)

Still, intentional or not, coincidental or not, that coolness was a wonderful gift, and it made me realize that once again, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. It also proved my point, that as long as one is not indulging in self-destructive or insane behavior, sanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Insanity, Alchemy, and Me

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but the saying only holds true when referring to insane or destructive behaviors. In our normal lives, we constantly do the same thing over and over, expecting different results . . . and we get them. We rise at the same time each morning, eat the same breakfast, drive the same way to work, go to the same job, but we don’t expect each day to be exactly the same as the day before. It can’t be the same — there are too many variables.

In a closed system, perhaps, the saying would hold true, but since there are no closed systems, we normally get different results. Writers and other creative people experience this every day. We sit in the same place, pen in hand or fingers on the keyboard, and open our selves up to the creative process. Sometimes the words flow and sometimes they don’t. Athletes deal with differences in performance, sometimes they are in the zone and everything is perfect, and sometimes, though they do exactly the same thing as always, their performance is off.

This expectation of different results was the basis for alchemy. We picture the alchemists doing the same procedure repeatedly to perfect their experiment, but the truth is, they did the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way in the hope of getting different results. Sometimes everything came together as they hoped, and they got the desired results, transforming lead into gold or themselves into a higher form of life or atoms into energy. (Or so the legends say.)

Why would the alchemists expect different results by doing exactly the same thing? Because they knew they did not live in a closed system. The earth hurtles around the sun at 67,000 mph. The sun hurtles around the galaxy at 140 miles per second. The entire universe is also moving and expanding, so from one second to the next we are in a completely different place with a possibility of different factors. Add in more localized variables, such as humidity, temperature, sun spot activity and solar winds, and it would seem insane to do the same thing over and over again and expect the same results.

After my moment of happiness yesterday, when I could feel that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing (simply “being”), I decided to do the same thing again today. Not surprisingly, the results were different. I stood in the same place, repeated the same mantra (“I am happy”), felt the breeze and the heat, smelled the sun-warmed creosote bushes, inhaled the clean air. It was nice, and I felt peaceful, but there was no moment of clarity as there was yesterday. I truly did not expect the same results. I know about variables. The day was hotter, the sky a paler blue, no jackrabbit loped by but humans in their motorized vehicles were driving around disturbing the air currents and creating sound vibrations. I might not have slept as well as I had the previous night, or perhaps I’d dissipated my mystic energies in exercising before going for my walk, which I didn’t do yesterday. Still, it felt good standing in the desert, doing nothing but being, so I intend to do that very same thing over and over, expecting different results each time. And therein lies sanity.

Desert Revelation: Dealing with Life on My Own

People often tell me how sorry they are that I’ve had no signs from my dead life mate/soul mate, but the truth is, even if he does still exist somewhere, there is no reason for him to try to contact me. A sign from him wouldn’t change anything, not his life, not his death, not my missing him. And it wouldn’t change my life.

I am not an Ebenezer Scrooge who needs to be shown the effects of my evil ways, nor am I a George Bailey who needs to be shown the effects of my benevolent ways. I do the best I can each day, trying to be kind to others, trying to be kind to myself.

All my life, I’ve studied religions, philosophies, mythologies. I’ve even had strong beliefs at various times, and have lived accordingly, though those beliefs have shifted through the entire spectrum of theological thought. I haven’t just been living haphazardly with nothing in my head but me me me. Whatever lies beyond this life, whether we retain our individuality or our energy becomes part of the “everything,” it isn’t germane to my life here on Earth since this is the only life I know. Understanding the truth of my existence won’t change anything I do.

I still question, of course, because that’s what my life is all about — quest(ion)ing. As with all quests, it’s the journey that counts, not the elixir of truth you find at the end. Even if you were shown the truth ahead of time, until you become the person who understands that truth, the truth remains obscure.

And so is this blog post — obscure. But I don’t mean it to be. I’m just trying to put today’s desert revelation into words. I am still prone to strange and mystical thoughts on my daily walks in the desert, though the thoughts could be the result of heat baking my brain instead of true insights. But this one feels true.

As much as I would like to talk to my mate, to find out how he’s doing, to know if he’s glad he’s dead, it wouldn’t change anything. I call him my soul mate because while he was alive, we had an incredibly strong connection, but I don’t think he’s actually sharing my soul. He’s his own person, on his own quest, and the further I get from our shared life, the more I feel the truth of that. Besides, I have my own quest to deal with, and it’s all I can handle right now.

How are characters integral to the setting?

I often troll my site statistics, curious as to how people found this blog, and the other day, several people landed here after Googling “How are characters integral to the setting?” It sounds like they were taking the easy way out doing their homework, but still, it’s a very good question. If the setting is simply a place for events to unfold, then the author has missed out on an opportunity to tighten the story by making the characters an integral part of the setting and the setting an integral part of characterization. Everything should be in service to the story, including the setting.

In my novel, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the setting and characters are intertwined. The setting is Colorado in the midst of an epidemic. The story is driven by the women, all very ordinary, especially Kate. And that was the point — to tell a story of an ordinary woman who struggled during prosperous times when everyone else was doing well, but who managed to prosper in the dark times when everyone else was having difficulties. Without the epidemic, without the quarantine, without the very terrain of Colorado, Kate would have no being. And without Kate and the other characters, the setting would have no meaning.

Eudora Welty said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.” Most of my books are set in mountain climes, and the mountains create the characters and the characters complete the setting. A stage is empty and lifeless without the characters. You need characters to interact with the setting to make it come alive.

Think of a desolate area, such as a desert road. It evokes a feeling of loneliness, but if you put a character on that road, you personify the loneliness.

The setting/character relationship is not simply a story construct. We are integral to our settings and vice versa. Gardening and lawn care is one very obvious way we are integral to our settings. If not for gardeners, gardens would not exist. But the settings of our lives extend beyond such evident comparisons.

I used to live off a highway on a dead end road bounded by fenced alfalfa fields, so the only place I could walk was by trudging up and down that .3 mile road. This was indicative of my life at the time. My life mate/soul mate was dying, had been dying for a long time, we were stuck in a terribe situation that seemed to be going nowhere.

He is gone out of my life now, and so are the interminable laps on the short road. I left that place of constraints and came to this desert community to take care of my 95-year-old father. When I first got here, I walked the long straight roads in the nearby desert. They seemed indicative of my new life — emptiness and desolation and loneliness stretching endlessly before me. More recently, I’ve taken to hiking a narrow path up and over the knolls. This too is indicative of my life. The desolation isn’t as pronounced, but the challenges are becoming greater as it sinks it that I will always live with his absence, that I will be growing old alone. The true challenge, though, is to make room for joy along with the continued sadness.

I’ve come to see that this is the true purpose of grief — to stretch our minds, souls, psyches so that we can encompass all that life has to offer. At first I thought I could get over my grief. Then I thought I could bury it with new activities. Now I see that sorrow will always be a part of me, but that doesn’t mean it will be the only part of me. Nor will I always be here in the desert. There will be new places to walk, places that reflect the changing me at the same time as I reflect the places.

How are your characters (or you) integral to the setting?

Occupying Wall Street, the Desert, and Small Spaces

This morning I went walking among the creosote bushes with only jackrabbits for companionship. It was a gorgeous fall day in the desert and would have been perfect except for the smoke from people’s fireplaces that burned my lungs and aggravated my allergies. People are within their legal rights to use their fireplaces around here, but still, they encroached on my right to breathe clean air just because they didn’t want to wear sweaters or otherwise deal with inside temperatures a degree or two beneath their comfort level.

The problem with humans is that we encroach. We always want what we want without regard to others. And if we’re not stopped with regulations or fights or lawsuits, we continue to encroach.

An example of encroachment took place several years ago at an art show. Each person was allotted a ten-foot-by-ten-foot space. One woman (let’s call her Pat) used a six feet table across the front, with two feet on either side for an entry to an additional exhibit behind her table. All would have been fine except that the neighboring person used part of Pat’s space for an easel. People couldn’t get behind Pat’s table without tripping on the easel, so Pat moved her table to give people space to get around the easel. Next thing she knew, the neighbor moved the easel further into her space, so again Pat moved her table because it just didn’t seem worth fighting over such a petty matter. Again, the neighbor moved the easel, and yet again, but now there was no room to shove the table out of the way, so Pat asked the neighbor to move the easel, explaining it was in her space. The neighbor didn’t move it, so Pat did. And all the rest of the day, she had to listen to her neighbor complain about how Pat had moved her easel and stolen her space.

A silly story perhaps since there was nothing at stake besides a couple of feet of floor space, but it illustrates a fundamental human trait — we want whatever we can take, and once we’ve taken it, we feel it is ours.

The rich want to take from the middle class (they don’t want to take from the poor since the poor don’t have anything), the middle class (what’s left of it) wants to take from the rich, and the poor want to take from the rich, the middle class, the government, anyone they can. Our whole system of entitlement is based on this need to encroach. We need, so we should get. We are all trying to capture as much of our share of resources (power, money, land, energy) as we can. Sometimes we buy into the stock market hoping to make a killing. Sometimes we do get something for our investment; other times we lose it all, and when we lose it, we complain about all we have lost, when in fact we have lost nothing but paper profits we took from someone else. Sometimes we have many children, which is a way of staking out more than our share of resources. Sometimes we cheat a little — or a lot — and justify it because how else are we going to get what is ours? And sometimes we occupy someone’s space just because it’s there.

Quite by accident the other day, I happened to walk past a western offshoot of “Occupy Wall Street.” Most of these people wanted a redistribution of wealth, some wanted to ban Nukes, some wanted a place to stay or a reason to feel important. Perhaps those who began the movement are right and the rich have too great a share of the world’s resources, but the trouble is not the rich. The trouble is us — all of us, rich and poor alike — and our inbred penchant for encroachment. We all want more. The rich are just better at encroachment than the rest of us. Or maybe not. Maybe they just had more resources to begin with. Or were in the right place at the right time. Or were smarter. Or were more nefarious.  Or were born into a rich family. But it doesn’t really matter why they are rich. If the pyramid of wealth were reversed and the rich became poor and the poor became rich, the world would be exactly the same, just with different faces at the top and bottom. Our situation/status in life defines us just as much as we define our situation in life.

Still, whatever our status or situation, we want something we don’t have. And today what I wanted was a wonderful walk and a perfect day. And like most of our wants, I didn’t get it because other people wanted something completely different.

But the day was not lost. I got a blog topic out of the deal.

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