Friday afternoon, I launched myself from my desk, driven by a restlessness in my body and an urgent command inside me to move. I’ve suffered from a painful, tight right shoulder for more than two months now. I can’t get the muscle between my shoulder and my neck — the trapezius, I believe — to let go for the life of me. It’s my body, rebelling, as my body always has, when I need to stop, look around, and assess. My mind, my heart, and my spirit channel their clamor through my body, forcing me to attend to or at least consider their needs.
These days, my body is driving me to walk much more than ever before. It forces me to get outside, on the ridge top, beneath the trees, beneath the hawks with their expansive wings, their sensitive wingtips, beneath the cypress, the eucalyptus, the grand, massive oaks, and of course the peaceful, contemplative redwoods.
So, there I found myself on Friday, behind the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, on the surrounding residential streets with their breathtaking semi-mansions, on the approach to the trailhead. I coaxed my body to relax, to get into the swing of things. I allowed my breath to find its rhythm, to discover its cadence, one that could keep me going for hours.
As always, it was difficult in the beginning. I contend with problems in my body and problems in my mind. I immediately feel tired, for example. The tiny incline of the street seems insurmountable, which is ridiculous of course, because I’m about to go far, far higher. My ankles creak. My hips bitch. My shoulder feels dull. I can’t tell if the muscle is relaxed or not. The sun is too bright. My hat doesn’t fit right. My hair annoys me. The bobby pin is falling out, pushed by the hat. Chunks fall forward from behind my ear.
My mind begins to pepper me. “You left work too early,” it tells me. “You haven’t fixed the app on your phone so if someone from work tries to reach you, they may not be able to,” it chides. The subtext, of course, is, “You’re doing it wrong. Once again, you’re doing it wrong. Who do you think you are, leaving your desk in the afternoon, walking in the sun, striking out, reaching for sunshine, for peace, for trees, for acceptance, for love? What makes you so special?”
So, I have to work through all of that. Every time.
Luckily, I know from happy experience that these aches, pains, and punishing voices cease or at least calm down, eventually. They turn from shrieks to whimpers on the incline. As my feet find purchase on the dirt path and the muscles of my thighs heat up and begin to work efficiently, as my lungs begin exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide in a dance of energy-giving molecules, my mind begins to relax too.
The Claremont Canyon Hike is a particularly effective one at getting this new inclination or continuum going because it asks a lot of the hiker immediately. At the trailhead is a set of intimidating stairs. Eventually, no matter which way you approach, you face them, an interminable, winding, steep staircase carved into the earth behind the UC Berkeley campus. One begins by setting one’s foot upon that first step.
The breath has to find a way to manage quickly.
At the top of the first steep mountain, or even before that if you have the courage to turn around, one is rewarded by dizzying views of Berkeley, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay, several islands, Alameda, the estuary, The City (SF itself), the Golden Gate Bridge spanning the narrow isthmus to the ocean, and the soft, currently emerald hills of Marin County. The pitch is so steep that vertigo is not uncommon. The line of the land is sharply diagonal leaning to vertical. If look at that edge, you have to catch yourself, make sure your footing is secure, maybe even place your hand on the land to steady yourself. It’s dizzying, beautiful, and breathtaking and always makes me glad to be a denizen of this region.
At the top of the first hill, I continue on, up a steep access road to the ridge above, where a dirt trail undulates through steep hills and valleys, past a little treehouse where lovers get high or read together (I have seen them reading, heard them murmuring, and smelled them smoking), past a swing thrown over an old oak branch, where one can pump one’s legs joyfully in the air and fly over the canyon on the other side of the ridge, this one cloaked in dark-green to black shadow, bursting with breathing, rustling redwood trees.
Sometimes, if I’m lucky, after I’ve been hiking about an hour, I might be gifted with some helpful trains of thought. On Friday, halfway through my challenging hike, I began thinking about work, about my antipathy — it’s greater than ambivalence — to working “for the man,” to working for the corporate world, to being “in business.” How in my heart of hearts I have always felt it was somehow damaging to one’s spirit to be enmeshed in the world of profits, margins, and sales. How pointless it all seems, and how sad even, to the world, to the workers, to the heart.
On the other hand, it’s possible this is a serious mis-perception on my part. My job is amazing. It’s given me security and comfort, shelter, really. Shelter in a storm. I am grateful to the universe for giving me such a job. I am very fortunate.
The problem is not my job, but my attitude. It occurred to me more fully than ever before that the struggle I have with freedom versus constraint, personal freedom and the work-a-day world, and everything these topics conjure up for me has more to do with my own mind and how I frame the situation.
The truth is, I simply need to step into my power. I am not a victim or a puppet being pushed around with no will of her own. Yet, I act as if that is the case, belly-aching about hours, commutes, and corporate dictates and how my personal freedom is impinged.
This is hogwash. It’s also unhelpful and unhealthy. I know what it feels like to be without work. I know that terror.
Of course, it would be nice, nay, exhilarating, to have enough Fuck You money to be able to do exactly what one wants to do in life.
But, the sad and obvious truth is, that much freedom is often toxic to people.
Would I really be happier if my email box was empty? If no one depended on me for anything?
I don’t think so.
Of course, the best of all worlds is that we have a job that we love, that allows us to use our full talents, where we feel empowered, in flow, and sure we are contributing to the betterment of man and the world — a job that is positive and life-giving, soul-fulfilling rather than soul-crushing.
But, any work can be soul-fulfilling if viewed through the correct prism. I can, for example, make it my mandate at work, in any job I have, to help my colleagues, to be a force for good in every way, to love them, and to make them love me by making their jobs easier. That doesn’t sound so bad. I don’t have to focus on “sales quotas” if that doesn’t rock my boat. I have the power to fulfill my role as I see fit, to focus on what I wish to focus on, and let the chips fall where they may. “The man,” of course, has the power and the right to fire me if the way I show up in the workplace doesn’t match corporate mandates.
I decided on my hike, as I was slipping and sliding on long, curving, pastel-colored eucalyptus leaves and frosted green eucalyptus seeds, that I maybe, just maybe, I get to decide how my life looks. The notion formed itself, bloomed like a shy mushroom from beneath the ledge of a wet stump. There it was, nascent, naked, and quaking. It will take a lot of reminding to remember it, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit. In fact, it might save my life.
It’s radical for me to reframe my life this way.
To wonder what it look like to take my life into my own hands and begin shaping it, rather than being buffeted about as I always have. I have been blessed by life. Considering how little agency I’ve allowed myself to have, it’s amazing how well I’ve done.
Which, of course, begs the question, the question my therapist asked me periodically for years, “What would happen if you took yourself seriously?”
What would happen if I took the bit of my life into my own mouth, or spit it out entirely and stretched my neck out to its full length? What would happen if I let my limbs bunch under me, gathering their greatest strength, and really lit out? Where would I go? What would I do?
What is my contribution to the world, and where can I make the greatest impact?
These are the thoughts I had while hiking Claremont Canyon for two-and-a-half hours: to re-frame how I think about my life. To set fear and shame aside, and begin to take my power.