There are only 3 days before I leave for Atlanta. The trip is still an abstract-though it is getting clearer, like driving through fog. My brother, who loves to buy things, gave me a new backpack yesterday. I must use it, of course, and he says he eagerly awaits the return of this fabulous backpack and stories of how it performed on the Appalachian Trail. I had asked him not to buy anything unnecessary. I wanted to make this trip with what I already had, or could borrow. It is a big part of my personal philosophy, my life’s core values. I use what I have. I take care of things, I keep them orderly, and well maintained. I don’t create unnecessary waste. I don’t buy processed foods or many new items at all. I’m poor, so that is a big reason, but mainly I am trying to make as little impact with my presence as possible on the earth.
I buy only fresh, whole food. Because I don’t buy processed, prepackaged foods, I can afford the good organic stuff. I can experiment with exotic foods to create interest and balance in my diet. I must explain that I do buy some processed foods-dry beans, grains, tea, honey (raw), foods I cannot process myself in order to eat them.
I have only myself to please and support, so I know my decision to live this way is easier than someone who must deal with a husband and children who have become accustomed to Burger King and sausage at breakfast. But I maintain that education about the effects of meat production on the planet, the corporate cruelty, and the negative dietary results can eventually redirect any family toward a healthy, compassionate lifestyle-if they choose to do that.
In planning this trip, I have thought a lot about my decision to live under the radar, to be as non-intrusive as possible, and I’ve shocked myself at my own hypocrisy. I stayed with friends in order to save money. So much of their behavior annoyed, disgusted and alarmed me that I realized I was only being accepting and compassionate when human behavior was abstract, something on TV or in the newspaper. I could sigh and shake my head and wish people would calm down, accept their neighbors and their neighbor’s differences. I held my head in my hands when I heard about every little, brutal war in every little beaten-down country. The people who live there have no choice about where they are born and their lives are days on end of poverty and cruelty, their “leaders” bleeding them dry of money, hope, purpose. When I see the deliberate cruelty of corporate farms and the people who run them, casually tossing animals into trucks or beating them because they can, I weep and wish I weren’t part of this mess at all.
After a few weeks with friends whose personal lifestyle appalled me, I had to re-educate myself. When I caught myself silently bitching about some behavior (no, I’m not going to list sloppy housekeeping or personal hygiene here, that’s not the point) I would mentally step back, open my hands and raise my arms to the sky. It is what it is, I would chant, their life is not mine to change or judge. They are encouraging my decision and helping as they can. I do not have the right to belittle anyone’s lifestyle or behavior. It helped to breathe deeply, close my eyes and say “let it go.” It does work, if you want it to work. I did have to unclench my fists more than once, I had to bite my tongue. Once I had to leave the house and pay for a motel room, but it was worth it to be in a quiet place and gather my own thoughts. Once I had to let go of a relationship, but that, too, was easier to do once I accepted that the person was not who I thought they were, something we can’t know without actually living with them. And it’s alright for people to come and go in my life. I’m sure the person I let go of has also let go of me. I am not important in the big picture, after all. Yes, I am connected to everything, everything is connected to me, so my importance is no more or less than the boxwood by the drive, or the cardinal in the feeder.
I’ve been reading essays explaining the basics of existentialism (we are responsible for our own behavior-there is no deity who makes us do anything, or decides our fate for us), Buddhism (we are responsible for what we do, everything is interconnected so compassion, being good, is good for everything, including ourselves. Karma is the consequences of every action) and variations of those ideas. I’m tired sometimes, when I read a basic tenant-you are responsible for your actions-and then the explanation goes on and on, page after page. Sometimes I think all these books about a particular philosophy-take your pick-are long and complicated because we have this idea that philosophers are so much smarter than everyone else that when they say something it must take up hundreds of pages.
For Pete’s sake. I’ve long believed, deep inside most of my conscious life, that of course we’re responsible for our actions. I don’t CARE if your father raped you, that doesn’t justify beating your children until they bleed, or berating your employees in front of everyone else. Using a sad, abusive childhood to excuse your actions is cowardly and lazy. It seems to me that most of us have had traumatic events in our childhood and young lives. It’s like making pots. They are beautiful as wet clay, but useless for any purpose. They must be fired. Some don’t survive the firing process, but the ones that do are strong and functional as well as beautiful. We must undergo a firing process or some sort of rite of passage before we are truly adult. I’ve known people who appeared to have lived idyllic childhoods and they are mostly useless as adults. They don’t understand other people, they are pale and weak and often unable to make difficult decisions.
Having trauma in your young life doesn’t have to make you incapable of growing up, of accepting the consequences of your choices. You can learn to be an adult. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. Education helps me see every day that my life, the one I have and the only one I figure I’m getting, should be lived with appreciation, enthusiasm, and no regrets. Oh, I regret not figuring this out sooner, but I no longer regret the decisions that led me here. I mourn my youth, of course, and I mourn the time I lost because I didn’t realize it would pass so quickly.
Now, I’m planning to walk 2,000 miles to listen to Nature in Her own element . I will emerge somewhere on the Trail, I hope, and will be a cleaner, purer Self, the one I’ve been trying to build these past 10 years . I am a little frightened, because it’s a journey into the Unknown (in spite of all the books written about hiking the AT) and because I don’t know who this person is that I’m trying to find. That sounds so 60’s and flakey but I haven’t figured out another way to say it.
By this time next week, I’ll be hiking the trail, trying to get used to the rawness of wind and rain and sleeping on the ground. I’ll be getting used to the sound of my own breathing, and the beating of my heart after climbing hills and mountains and rocks. I’ve hiked enough, alone, to know what to expect at first. Knowing it will go on longer than a few hours, or days, leaves me anxious, but not profoundly. It will go on longer than some jobs I’ve had, I will be walking farther than I’ve ever driven. I will be my own world longer than I ever have before. But then, I’ll also be able to sit and listen and look as long as I want, as long as Nature allows me to be part of Her day-to-day activities. If I get in the way, I know She’ll simply brush me aside, so I must be mindful of what is going on all the time. She won’t be responsible for my carelessness, She won’t catch my arm if I go tumbling down a slippery hill. I will be on my own more than I ever have. There is fearfulness in my heart, but there is also a great anticipation, like going onstage. There is no real audience, except for me. The animals most likely won’t even reveal themselves, just crouch in the underbrush, giggling at yet another two-legger bumbling through their property.
I can hardly wait.