Peter Shelton

Compassion Fest: Grumpy Pete Hangs Back

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on July 27, 2012

My wife attended the Compassion Festival in Telluride last week.

I didn’t go. My mother’s maiden name is Cross. Enough said?

We Crosses are a critical bunch. We renamed a maiden aunt Grumpy Mae because she was so caustic. With her gravelly laugh, waving her ever-present cigarette, she went along; she knew the name fit. She was very funny in a Dorothy Parker, black-humor way, even to a ten-year-old. But very dark. Unforgiving.

And that’s what Ellen came home from Telluride talking about, forgiveness and empathy. These things, when you can muster them, are good for your brain, good for everyone, they said. And one way to foster compassion, to open the door to it, is to meditate. The audience at the Opera House was even led in a guided meditation. Ellen said she could see, with her eyes closed, that it could lead to good places.

My meditation is movement through space. I suspect a lot of people who have chosen to live in the mountains do the same. I’m talking about skiing and hiking and my current summertime favorite, boulder hopping up nearby dry arroyos.

I suppose one could get a related benefit from tennis or hockey. But the best out-of-body experiences, in my experience, happen beyond the courts, in the natural world with its surprising terrain and infinite patterns underfoot. These things are not games; they don’t have winners and losers. But they do have consequences. You don’t want to fall down out there in the wilderness.

So you pay attention, you give the task at hand – ascending this ridge, jumping this creek – the full engagement it deserves. The action itself wipes clean the chalkboard of verbal clutter. The combination of hyper-focus and continuous movement creates the blank mind. Or, as the Buddhists say, the mindfulness.

I like another Buddhist term I’ve heard: liberating discernment. You’re not just going through the motions out there. I haven’t talked to Hilaree O’Neill about walking on the edge at 28,000 feet, one foot in Tibet and the other in Nepal, but I’ll bet she feels pretty darned discerning while she’s doing it. And pretty liberated.

I went up the third arroyo today, and it was extra focusing thanks to the recent rains. Some of the streambed boulders had been loosened by the brief, violent flows; they weren’t as trustworthy as they might have been. Others wore a frosting of beige adobe mud. If you stepped on wet adobe, that sole was greasy slick until it wore off. Not good when you’re jumping from rock to rock and trusting your feet to stick.

The object is to hop from boulder to boulder without touching the ground in between. Lickety-split when possible, in tai chi slo-mo where necessary. Sometimes I can go a hundred yards without touching dirt. And on the best stretches, the bounding flows without stops, syncopated by the spacing of the spilled, gully-bottom boulders. My job is to keep going, unconscious, like water – water flowing uphill.

There are always awkward moments, balance gaffs, but the best sections move like a guitar riff that has no gaps in it, nothing extra and not a note out of place. Afterwards, I think about riffles in a river. Do the words have a common root?

Does meditating – sitting or bounding – make you a better person? I don’t know. Does it work to take selfish time in order to become a less selfish person? I’m not sure it works that way. Ellen does say, when I come back from carving on skis or rock hopping on the hill, that I am a happier husband.

It may lead to addiction. Look at those nut cases in the Arizona desert, on silent retreat for three years, three months, and three days. One of them murdered. The world left behind.

The Compassion Festival wants, I think, for us to be in the world, to try to improve our communities, and the planet, through listening and empathy and altruism. Their program listed an event called “Bodywork as Compassionate Service to Humanity.” The speaker was a Rolfer, so I’m pretty sure they meant that bodywork on other people’s bodies is compassionate, even noble work.

So, does bodywork on ones own body count? Given that we know the mind and body are one? And that endorphins, born of pointless, graceful movement, make me feel magnanimous and mellow? Even though I am a Cross?

Grumpy Pete.

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In Which the Author Wins a Stage

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on July 19, 2012

Peter Shelton (Team Boulder-Rock) won the ninth stage of the Tour d’Ouray bicycle race Sunday with a bold solo assault on the Beyond Category Col de Piñon. (more…)

When Nature Is Nurture, Part 3

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on July 12, 2012

In 1964 Harry James decided he was too old and retired the Trailfinders Camp for Boys. He didn’t retire from Trailfinders, he ended the franchise. He had no heir apparent. (He and his wife Grace had no kids of their own.) It was a one-man show from start to finish. (more…)

When Nature Is Nurture, Part 2

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on July 5, 2012

How do we end up where we are, who we are?

Harry James read to us occasionally, even though the youngest Trailfinders were probably 11 and the oldest 14 and 15. Once in the shade of a yellow pine (I know it was a yellow pine because he had us put our noses to the vanilla-scented bark) he read us Chapter 10 of John Muir’s The Mountains of California: “A Wind-storm in the forests.” The archaic language of 1874 only added to the drama:

“Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed.”

Muir, of course, did more than climb trees in windstorms. He founded the Sierra Club and helped create Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. He’s the one who said: “Climb mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”

We climbed mountains, and trees, that summer in Yosemite’s high country. We took over the group camping area in Tuolumne Meadows. Harry set up his kitchen. We all picked our sleeping spots on the pine-needled forest floor.

We were close by the Tuolumne River, which flowed around granite boulders between meadow-grass banks. The water was astonishingly cold. We were not far from its headwaters in the Lyell Glacier. But because we were boys, and because we hiked many miles most days and didn’t have the pond on Indian Creek to rinse off, we edged out into the current and took the plunge.

I decided for some reason to see how far downstream I could swim underwater. The sunlight beaming into that golden world drew me on. There on my right was a rainbow trout holding in the lee of boulder. Another one on the left, in the dappled shade, gills waving. Breast-stroking with my belly inches from the golden sand, I kept going, riding the invisible current.

When finally I popped up I had the biggest ice-cream headache of all time. It alarmed me. I thought my brain might freeze, or explode. But I worked my way back up the bank to do it again.

We did riskier things than that. Near the end of the fortnight, when we had become trail-hardened and nearly immune to thirst – sucking on a pebble was a suggested sublimation – we hiked in to Cathedral Peak and climbed its dragon-back ridge. We carried no ropes. This was not Outward Bound. Harry was not a technical climber. It is remarkable to me in retrospect that he let us do what we did. The climbing was not especially difficult, no more than a class 4 on the Yosemite scale, but the exposure was horrendous. Slip off and it would have been certain death. Harry just assumed that none of his 40 boys would be so foolish as to slip. It was part of his worldview, his insistence (we might call it naiveté in today’s litigious world) that the correct path, the only conceivable path to success, be cleaved to.

Because Harry didn’t worry, or show it, I didn’t worry either. All I felt on that knife-edge was the elation of movement through space, pure movement through rarefied air, focused, consequential movement.

On one of our nights in Tuolumne, I woke to a sound I couldn’t figure out – wet and scratchy, nearby. When my eyes adjusted at last to the darkness, I saw, not 15 feet away, a full-sized black bear sitting up with his legs outstretched holding a tin can between his paws slowly licking the flavor from its inside.

I tried to think through a logical best strategy. It wouldn’t do, surely, to bolt up out of my bag, or even to try to slither out and steal away. So, I decided to lie as still as I could, keep my breathing slow and calm. It worked like a charm. I fell back to sleep and didn’t stir until the sun was on me.

At the end of his wind-storm essay, John Muir wrote: “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings – many of them not so much.”

Why do our journeys take us where they do? Some stay close to home. I grew up at the beach, a bustling place of cars and surfboards and the sounds of volleyballs smacking the sand. I could have stayed. Or come back. Much of my family stayed on the California coast.

On that Trailfinders trip to Tuolumne I took dozens of snapshots with my Brownie box camera. I didn’t have an eye. They all came out looking the same: dull, black-and-white landscapes of trees and rock and sky. But I loved what I was looking at through the viewfinder. I was pretty sure I wanted my “tree-wavings” to happen in the mountains, with all that the mountains could offer up.

To be continued.