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Words That Mattered

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At 56, I was training to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with an all women team. I knew fitness for my first mountain climb involved more than strong legs and good lungs so, I asked some of the people to whom I’m closest, to write letters that I could open on the mountain. These were the people I most wanted with me on my journey and, as ridiculously self-sufficient as I can be, I knew I would want to hear their voices. The first envelope I received was, appropriately, from my oldest friend. She had written on the envelope “From my house to your tent, from my heart to your heart.”

Knowing each of my letter writers very well, I numbered the envelopes, depending on when I would need each one’s special brand of support, and packed them in a plastic zip lock bag inside my backpack. I carried these, and lots of water, for the six days of the climb. After I ditched most of the contents of my back pack because every bit of extra weight was a problem, I kept the water and the letters.

To my way of thinking, ten letters meant that I could read one each morning to get me going, and another as I needed in the evening. Opening each of them in my cold tent, I found their responses more generous than I could have imagined. It was as if each person had looked ahead to my world on the mountain. They understood my thoughts and concerns.

I told my friend Nancy to write a letter I could read the first day, before we began the climb. She wrote, “I anticipate that, at this very moment, you may be asking yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ and proceeded to list reasons to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, including: “It will be less crowded than our gym;” “You can recover from the traumatic absence of girl scout camping trips in your youth;” and “you got to shop for cool hiking gear.” She concluded with a more serious offering from her “extensive lack of experience” and urged me to “experience the depth of the earth” under my feet. I must have repeated that line about a hundred times during the first grueling day when I could not control my breath or my steady my feet.

The next morning, I read my daughter Jenny’s note. “I am with you every step,” and, she reminded me, “You have already climbed higher and tougher mountains.” In a timely letter on the morning of the third day, my younger daughter Keira began with an Audre Lord quote, “When I dare to be powerful. To use my strength at the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” I was surprised at how well she knew me. She also wrote, “I can only hope I’m puking my guts out on a mountain at your age,” and wanted me to notice that she had written on stationary I bought her for summer camp (twelve years ago).
At night, using my headlamp, I reread them. I had several amusing, home made drawings depicting me on the mountain, and the reassurance from my cousin Hinda that she was “holding my hand” and told me to, “go for it with love and strength.”

For two pages, my friend Ken reminded me that “none of us who love you will love you less, respect you less, or (frankly) care much at all if you decide to turn back, but, he encouraged me to go for it, to “rekindle the excitement and determination” that got me to train for months and “travel more than half way around the globe.” It was a motivational masterpiece and I had never, in more than thirty years of friendship, heard him talk quite that passionately, except about poker.

The letters told me that I was in their heads and hearts; certainly they were in mine. Since my return, I’ve reread the letters in the warmth and comfort of my home, and they are no less heartening than when I was aching, cold, dirty and tired. I remain amazed that each of them walked in my boots long enough to compose messages that reached and held me half a world away on the desolate slopes of the “Roof of Africa.”

Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist, author and professor. She has recently completed another first – a mystery novel. Object of Obsession is available on Amazon.com

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