It was early morning in late December 2013. Snowing. Cold. I had to be at the hospital for another round of cancer treatment at noon. The treatments were long, leaving me with a sore arm, no interest in food, and very tired. The holiday season of cheer had left me feeling depressed, hopeless, and helpless. The treatments had been going on since early October. I knew the only thing that would help me feel better was to be in the mountains, despite the weather. I called a friend. “Ken, would you drive me up to Big Tesuque so we can hike up to Aspen Vista Road?”
“Nancy, it’s cold. It’s snowing!” His incredulity was palpable. “Besides, if I remember correctly your treatment starts at noon.” It was like couch potato talking to ultramarathoner. Out of his imagination, out of his comfort zone.
All I knew was what I badly wanted. Trying to use my most persuasive tone of voice, I practically begged. “I need to be in the mountains. The hike’s only a mile each way, we can easily do it if you’ll drive me to the hospital afterward.”
He offered reasons why it wasn’t a good idea. I countered each of them with, “I know, but . . . “
After a few minutes there was a silence. A sigh. “Okay, if it’s that important to you, I’ll pick you up in half an hour.” I started to thank him but he’d already hung up. I got dressed—long underwear, sweater, insulated pants and jacket, wool hat, neck gaiter, mittens and handwarmers. I greeted him with a grin. He shook his head. “Nancy, I hope you know this is totally crazy. I don’t know why I let you talk me into it.”
“Because you’re my friend and you want to make me happy?” He swatted my mitten, unable to conceal his grin as we drove up a snowy, slippery Hyde Park Road.
When we got to the trailhead the snow was coming down fast, thick flakes sticking to my hat. I stuck out my tongue to taste the cold flakes. “Let’s go,” he said. “You lead.” As we made our way up the narrow side of Big Tesuque creek it was truly a winter wonderland. I could feel my hopeless, helpless, depression dissolve into awe and joy.
I kept telling him how happy I was being in the mountains, in the snow, in the majestic silence, how grateful I was that he was willing to take me. He wanted none of it. “Pay attention to where you’re stepping. The wet stones are slippery.”
It was so beautiful I was sorry I hadn’t thought to take my camera. “Can you take a photo,” I asked.
“I guess.” We stopped so he could take a few photos. I didn’t dare ask to see them because of the snow. When we got to Aspen Vista Road, he said, “Let’s go back on the other side of the creek. It’s easier going down. Not so many rocks. You don’t want to miss your appointment.” I was too happy to argue. We hiked down the trail in silence. He drove me to the hospital. I thanked him again and again. He blushed, wished me well, and drove off.
I entered the treatment room and signed in. The intake administrator said, “Well, look at you! You’re positively beaming.” I told her about being in the mountains in the snow. She shook her head in disbelief. “Go on in and sit. The nurse will be right with you.” I found a chair in a corner and waited for the nurse to hook me up to the IV fluids. To distract myself from the painful poke of the needle I told her about hiking up the mountain in the snow, ignoring her disapproving look. “You need to be careful,” she scolded. Your white counts are very low—you’re at risk for getting pneumonia” If I didn’t go, I’d be depressed and miserable. Is that really better? I fell asleep with visions of snowflakes dancing in my mind.
When I woke up, I saw an elegantly dressed, white-haired woman hesitantly approach my chair. Her smile was warm and caring. I smiled back. “Dear,” she said, “I know you’re Jewish, so I don’t want to impose, but how do you feel about angels?”
More than a little perplexed I said, “I like them fine.”
“Well,” she said. “I make angels for patients to hang on their Christmas trees. I know you don’t have a tree but I’d like to give you one of my angels if you would like to have one.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’d be pleased to have one.”
“See,” she pointed out. “It’s got a bald head because so many people lose their hair.” I took the angel, thanking her for her thoughtfulness and skill.
“It’s really kind of you to think about us. I’m sure it’s a busy time for you.”
“I’m never too busy to share my angels.”
“You’re an angel,” I told her. She smiled and walked to the person next to me.
A few minutes later, another woman dressed in red and green, with twirling red and green earrings came up to me. “I see you have a bald angel. I also make angels. May I give you one of mine. Two is better than one, I think, don’t you?”
“Definitely. You are absolutely right,” I agreed. She gave me one of the angels she had made, looking as happy as I felt. Having never had any angels, to suddenly have two felt like a double blessing.
As I was playing with my angels, a man dressed in white introduced himself and asked if I would like a foot massage. First two angels, then a massage? All the while hooked up to an IV in a cancer clinic? “Yes, I would like one. Very much.” He helped me take off my socks and I lay back in the chair, enjoying the feel of his strong warm hands on my cold feet. I must have dozed off because when I woke up, he was gone and my socks were back on my feet.
I was waiting at the clinic door for a friend to pick me up and take me home. When she asked how the treatment had gone, I told her, “It went fine. I slept for most of it, dreaming I was dancing in snowy mountains with angels.
Seven years later, still in remission, the two angels hang in the entryway to my house, reminding me how the kindness of strangers helps me to heal.
It’s a difficult time in which we’re living: political uncertainty, the virus, and for me, my cat who is wasting away yet still manages to leap up on to my bed and purr, ready for an all-night cuddle. I call it purrdling. I cuddle, she purrs.
Depression has been my life-long companion. Drugs don’t touch it. What has always helped me manage to keep going, to feel a little better, is being in the forest, hiking in mountains, preferably alone. I’m grateful that at 84 I’m still able to hike down a steep trail to a circle of stones made by the few hikers who pass by. It’s a large circle divided into four quadrants, lined with stones leading to the inner circle. It feels like a special place, with a mystical energy I cannot describe.
I hike with a talisman stone heart. Every time I hike it nestles in my left pocket, a source of comfort and security. This time, when I approach the circle, an inner voice says I need to put my talisman stone heart in the circle. I resist. I put heart stones I’ve found in the circle. My inner voice is relentless. I need to place my talisman stone heart on the center stones. Reluctantly, wondering why I am listening to a voice I don’t understand, I carefully, almost tearfully, place my talisman stone on top of the other heart stones I’ve put there. I stand quietly, allowing my heart to fill—with gratitude, love, hope—the wish that people would stop shouting and start talking, would listen intently, even to those whose ideas seem most egregious. When an inner voice says I am ready, I walk slowly around the circle. At each quarter I stop. I think about the world as it is, not caring that I am only one small, insignificant person among billions. I send compassion, lovingkindness, and the wish for peace and justice into the world.
I step back from the circle, taking in its wholeness. I appreciate the many people, unknown to me and perhaps each other, who have created this space in this place. It feels good that in order to reach it you have to hike up or down steep mountainsides.
As I turn away, ready to hike back up, I feel something inside me shift. I feel a little lighter. I feel a little more hopeful. I have done what I can do.
Photo by Jane Ely
As part of my 80th birthday celebration I chose to do a vision quest—four days and four nights alone in the wilderness, with no phone, books, watch, or digital devices. I hoped being alone, with no distractions, and only a journal to write in, would enable me to shed emotional and psychological burdens I’d carried for years.
There were months of preparation—making 144 prayer ties filled with cornmeal and tobacco, monthly visits with the vision quest leader, a 12-hour mini-vision quest in a nearby forest, preparation with our retreat leaders and the group for two days before beginning the vision quest, yet nothing prepared me for what happened.
We entered our designated location at 5am and I immediately slept for hours, lulled by the sounds of the forest. I was woken by a voice inside me telling me it was time to get started.
What I did during the four days and nights is considered medicine, not to be shared. What I can say is that each time the voice told me to do something, like stamp on dead branches, memories of my early childhood surfaced—memories of horror and abuse and murderous violence—of living away from home. At times, experiences I’d been told never happened. Other times, experience for which I was blamed. I understood the abuse was not my fault, that for years I’d had a metaphorical sign on my chest saying, “Abuse me.” I left it all in the wilderness.
At the retreat center we processed what we had experienced. When it was my turn, I began to cry for the first time since I was 16 and had been refused entry into a school club because I was Jewish. The other retreat participants waited with calm, waited until I was ready to speak. I told the truth of some of the abuse, how it had scarred me, how I never felt good enough or lovable. They listened with no judgment, many quietly crying. When I finished there was a perceptible silence. Had I said too much? Had I said the wrong thing?
As a group they came over to me, offering hugs, encouragement, kindness, caring. For the first time I felt part of a group. For the first time I felt good enough.
Once one knows something, one cannot unknow it. What I experienced doing the vision quest made it possible for me to continue healing, by choosing to be with people who treat me well and with kindness. I’m still learning how to feel good enough.
Nancy was joined by friends and readers Live on Zoom for the virtual launch of her latest book and memoir: Breaking the Silence. Nancy did not read from the book directly, opting instead to tell some of her life's story and some of the stories she has picked up along the way as she would have recounted them to a friend. In the Q & A session, she talks about how this memoir came to be, how writing this book has been a part of her healing journey, and what she hopes this book can do for those who read it.
I think I was born a storyteller. At first, when I was young, I hid in as safe a place as possible and told stories to myself. I imagined saving children from evil monsters, floods, fires, and parents who abandoned them in the forest. As I grew older, I noticed that when I told stories, students stopped what they were doing and calmed down, adults listened attentively. I told world stories that featured brave heroines, murderous queens and incestuous kings.
I discovered that telling stories helped create a kind of community no matter the ages of the listeners and this helped people feel connected to one another and to me. I later realized that what was happening in my life found its way into the stories I was telling. When my son was in the hospital, not knowing if he would live or die, I told Cinderella, focusing on the hardships she suffered, her disbelief in fairy godmothers, her depression—the bleakness of her life. A few weeks later, when my son was out of the hospital, I easily focused on how quickly Cinderella responded to her fairy godmother, the wonderful ways in which her life changed. Both times I told the same story, but how I was feeling personally worked its way into my storytelling.
Stories matter—all stories, whether they’re world tales or personal stories. Stories are how I make sense of the world and help to create the person I am.
I began what I thought would be my sixth novel, but everything I wrote turned out to be stories of my life. Disgusted by my lack of ability to control my imagination, I gave in and wrote what poured out. The more I wrote the more deeply I remembered. As I typed, first person present tense, it felt like I was typing from a theatre in my mind. I could taste, smell, feel, touch, see each happening as if for the first time. Some memories were very painful, full of horror. I kept the chapters short, allowing the energy of each memory to dictate what and how much I wrote.
After I had about 300 pages, I sent the manuscript to my editor who told me, “Nancy, the writing is fine, but I can’t figure out where I am in your life. How old are you? Where are you? Why does this chapter matter? You need to revise it so your writing is chronological.”
Once the chapters were arranged chronologically, I understood the arc of my memoir was about healing from trauma, abuse, and violence, beginning before I was born. Writing opened mental barriers long closed by pain and disbelief. The more I wrote, the more I understood how unknown forces acting on me had resulted in making bad decisions that I knew were bad at the time. Writing released body memories and freed me from the emotional and psychological grasp of lies told by family members. I understood that I was able to use my wounds to help heal the wounds of others.
I sent the new draft to my editor. She asked, “How are you going to end it? Happily ever doesn’t quite do it.” Finding a satisfying ending was agony. I wrote so many ending chapters, that had I been printing out each chapter I discarded, my wastepaper basket would have been overflowing.
I wanted to end the memoir with some sense of how “old age” was proving to be the best time of my life. I wanted the last chapter to be about love and loving. It came to me, there was only one way to end the book—with an experience I had with a very young child in a small Peruvian village. An encounter of love and warmth and total acceptance that still lives in my heart.
Before the pandemic I hiked twice a week, mostly in silence, on hikes led by a friend—amazing hikes, often off-trail, with stunning vistas—places where it felt as if no one had walked those grounds for centuries.
When the pandemic began, my friend chose not to lead hikes. People who agreed to hike with me cancelled at the last minute. I was frustrated, irritated, and wary of popular hikes where there were too many people and no solitude. I remembered a hike I had found years ago when I was still hiking with a regular hiking buddy. The little known trail is steep both ways and not on any popular trail maps. I decided in mid-March that I would hike every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday by myself.
Despite initial trepidation at hiking in wilderness by myself, I began. Each hiking morning I email a friend to tell her when I am leaving and email her when I return. The regularity of hiking three times a week gives a rhythm to my week, a way to dissolve rising tensions over the election and my dying cat. Hiking in the mountains offers comfort, deep breathing, confidence that at 84 I can still do a hard hike in good time, and the sense that I am connected to the earth and trees and birds and rocks and sky. I am hiking by myself but I am not alone. I am home inside myself.
In the mountains,
when I’m hiking,
and the energy of the trees.
is sending me murmurs of hope
that help to heal the distance
between myself and me,
I am comforted.
As I walk among the trees,
their leaves stirring in the breeze,
I hear them whisper:
“You have come.
Be filled with light.
You are here.
You are home.”