Updated: Oct 15, 2020
My feet in dusty hiking boots have to pay attention to each uneven step on a rocky path up the mountain. After an hour, my heart feels stretched, like it is in a cage too small, so I lean against the shady side of the hill and rest until I feel normal again. Up I climb. After ninety minutes, I sit to drink from my water bottle and let the autumn breeze cool my sweaty neck and arms. As my breathing evens out, I smell sage, moist dirt, and lemonade berry.
After two hours of climbing, at my eye level I see shiny black crows dip and turn, flying in broad circles in the sky. One flips over, like swimming on its back, and then turns right side up again. It looks like he is playing with the wind. I sit to watch, as I have never seen crows like this. I usually frown at big crows as they dive for discarded food in the gutters where litter lines the streets in the city. Out here they look happy.
All along the “Way Up Trail” are 4-foot tall metal markers topped with the shape of a quail. They mark our hiking progress on the trail - 699 feet, 999 feet, then toward the peak: 1200 feet elevation.
At the peak, we take a road to picnic tables that overlook a blue reservoir, cupped by the brown curved hills below us. After lunch we take the trail back down. There are few people, and most wear masks. They nod and politely make way for each other on narrow parts of the path.
Traveling downhill is a breeze compared to climbing up. I smile until I see two dark haired women right in the center of the path, blocking the way down. It is mid-afternoon and it looks like they are on the more difficult way up. One sits on a big rock. The other leans over her. “Do you need help?”, I ask as I get close. The middle-aged woman, who is standing says, “Oh, no we are fine.” She looks embarrassed. The younger woman stands up slowly and I look at her. She is a teen, whose eyes are red from crying. I am guessing her mother made her come and she did not want to. She looks down. The Mom says to us, “Well, there is a nice breeze.” The daughter frowns and does not follow her mother up the trail. I look at the teen and say, “I had to rest on the way up too. Just rest when you get tired. It’s okay.” The daughter nods, offers a half smile, turns and trudges up the steep trail behind her mother.
As we head down, we see signs off the side that read, “Fragile Habitat, Please Stay on Trail”. Some people had taken shortcuts to avoid the longer way around, which eroded the habitat.
This made me think of a younger colleague who called me this week. She ran her idea by me of a new way to look at working with clients in psychotherapy. “Using your 2009 paper, ‘Borderline Revisited’, as a jumping off point, I want to expand the idea that there are 3 levels of functioning within each personality type.” I felt enthusiastic about her theory and encouraged her passion in writing a paper on the subject. Basically, she is advocating a new way to consider the level of fragility of each patient.
As we end our hike and head back to the car, I think more about this idea of fragility. When you don’t consider the level of fragility of the habitat (or person), you might take shortcuts that can cause damage. The Asian teen was fragile in that moment. Her Mom wanted her to look on the bright side and get moving. She stood still. I identified with her tiredness, to normalize resting on the path. Then she continued on the trail.
How do we shift “fragility” in people? By understanding their level of need. By joining in their world, by pausing, by resting, by taking stock of how our hearts, feet, noses, and our whole bodies experience the world right now. I smell sage and lemon and watch a happy crow fly upside down. You plop in the road and refuse to move until someone says it is okay to rest. How do we save the fragile habitat in all of us? By listening to the body. That is the Trail, the Path we return to that leads us.