After the Holidays

The holidays are over. At my feet, in front of the gas stove, Bonnaroo’s little puppy bed is filled with a black and tan silky swirl of fur like a soft serve ice cream cone. Pooled water on the glass-top patio table begins to ripple like fish rising on a lake with the first raindrops of the next storm. The green spires of daffodils are up three inches in the backyard. It’s officially, what I call, our first of only four weeks of winter.

Spring is already relentlessly and, heedless of the calendar, bullying her way here. Part of me is grateful. Part loves the quiet, short days, long nights, and inward adventures of winter. Sometimes four weeks is not enough. As much as I love the hubbub of parties, celebrations, and gatherings, I’d love to sit cozy and quiet on the other side of the solstice for just one season in my life. Covid almost blessed me with that.

Yesterday, I noticed a now-cheap-looking holiday banner of pinecones and ribbons in the CVS parking lot framed by the bony, arching branch of a bare tree in front of Starbucks. After a month of “Happy Holidays”, “Merry Christmas”, “Peace on Earth” and the unfulfillment of the latter, it felt like a sign that reads “All ye who enter, abandon all hope.” It reminded me of that story about the enemy soldiers in the trenches of World War I, stopping their conflict long enough to sing Silent Night together, before resuming killing each other. It also reminds me of Mother Teresa’s steadfastness. In the face of never-ending poverty, she replied to a reporter’s question about her impossible task: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” And so the banners and lights and trees will be up for a few more days, encouraging us into the dark night of winter.

The saddest sight in the world is the soggy puddle of a deflated Santa blown halfway across a lawn. Often you’ll find these reminders of the brevity of the holidays even before the big day they portend. For me, without a deep religious connection, the celebrations can feel as hollow and fragile as an inflated Santa in a storm. I do love the tradition of dressing up and gathering with friends and hopefully family. I love the lights, although not those down the street mixed with neon Trump signs. I like receiving gifts, though shopping for others stresses me out. I like having the sharp woodsy scent of a conifer fill my home. I like using the fancy dishes, crystal, and the glow of candlelight. I even like that stupid stuffed moose-looking reindeer hung from the staircase post at our entryway that obnoxiously rings bells, wags its head, and sings “Better watch out…” every time you walk by.

One of my favorite Christmases was after dinner at my daughter’s when she dimmed the lights, my niece lit candles, music played low, Lisa set up her table in the living room, and alternately gave massages to everyone. Another special time was also at Lisa’s when I read an article about the origins of the idea of flying reindeer, ornaments on trees, etc. Everyone, big and small, surrounded me on the couch and sat close to my feet on the floor as if they were seeking guidance from an elder. Normally, I’m just a wife, mom, aunt, and grandma. In that moment, I was surprised to see that I’d become a revered crone, if only with a magazine article I read off my phone.

Of course, advertisers very cleverly and effectively try to convince us that the feelings of these moments can be bought with the purchase of their products. If I were a salesperson, I’d do this, too, but we need to understand that these feelings of hope and connection can only be made by ourselves, with maybe a few candles, soft music, and the joining of our spirits.

The whole family laughed one time when, after opening the presents Christmas morning, the Christmas tree fell over as if to declare its work done and our celebration complete. My mother, had she been there, would have been horrified by the chaos. We also laughed when after waving goodbye to my brother’s family out the front door, we came in to find my son’s Malamute standing over the leftover prime rib on the kitchen floor. There was also the time at a midnight Christmas supper with my family and in-laws when I learned the terrible price my daughter-in-law’s mother paid to get her family out of her country to come to the US. Or the time my elderly mother, sitting at Christmas dinner, announced to us all the amazing coincidence that she had a son who looked just like my only brother sitting across the table. How do we manage this life, these moments? We hold on to each other – those we love and who love us. For me, that is the true gift of Christmas – one that needs to be cherished and nurtured the whole year through.

In two to three weeks, the almond trees will bloom, and then the Acacias and Evergreen Pears. Daffodils will be nodding their yellow trumpets in a month, and then the fruit trees will burst forth like Fourth of July fireworks. Until then, I’ll sit in my four weeks of winter and savor the darkness. Jane Kenyon wrote: “If it’s darkness we’re having, let it be extravagant!”

Dying for Dummies


How to Live with a Terminal Illness

By Karen Najarian

As ephemeral as a shadow

You try to enjoy each day while dealing with the side effects of treatment.

You search the net for cures to the disease and the side effects of the treatment.

You connect with your Facebook drug group for answers your docs don’t have… and you find them.

You somehow deal with the unknown duration of temporarily successful treatment and that eventual unscheduled train wreck that you know is coming down the tracks when the drugs stop working.

You can’t stop thinking about the one (ONE) woman in the world who has been “cured” for five years now with a new treatment.

You hope you live long enough to benefit from a cure if they discover one.

You just smile when people say, “You can beat this.”

You grow your hair while you still can.

Be vigilant? Ignore it? Embrace it? Accept it? Share it? Keep it to yourself?

You’re grateful for the opportunities you’ve been given in the past and you’re proud that, in your life, you’ve reached for the ring.

It’s time to turn inward. The phase of crazy physical activity is over. It’s time to process what has been, enjoy the now, and create memories with your kids and grandkids that they will carry with them throughout their lives.

You hope you’ve made a difference. You want to still.

You hope you won’t be forgotten. You hope what people remember won’t be your craziness.

On this planet, spring follows winter. But for us humans, we get one spring. In terminal cancer, there’s enduring the treatment and keeping the disease at bay but there’s no healing from it or looking forward to returning to your old life. Even with all my willpower, I can’t train myself to hike Burma Road on Mt. Diablo with its 2700 feet of gain over four miles. I used to do it weekly with a twenty-pound pack. There are plans and goals that will never be fulfilled or attained, grandchildren you will not see graduate high school, let alone be married. You will be a great-grandmother to children you will never meet.

There are trails that won’t see your footprints again. And those you’ve hungered to trod that never will. I always hiked and experienced where I was, as if I may never be there again. Thank God.

I find I can’t plant for spring. Only nurture what I have. And dispose of the confining detritus of too much-accumulated stuff.

Clean house less. Toss more. Drive less. Amazon more. Shower less. Nap more. Hike less. Write more. More phone calls and visits with friends. Laugh more. Fewer thoughts about money. Clearing clutter. Making way for manifesting new creations.

Buy expensive jewelry, flowers, pet the dog, travel.

Embrace the splendid mystery that somehow we can manifest the “strings” of energy making up our physical bodies that see, hear, feel, hug, cry, taste, touch, and process our experience here on this tiny speck of a planet spinning in a sea of dark, empty death.

Aren’t we lucky?

PS. Even though I have an incurable, fatal illness my doc, who does have patients dying, impatiently says, “You’re not dying.” Refusing to fall into my despair, my friend, Val, bluntly reminds me when I’m feeling down that, “You’re not dying today.” It’s true that, while none of us has an expiration date, nobody gets off this bus alive. Humans don’t do well with uncertainty. Buddhists spend most of their time trying to accept impermanence. I deal with it by being open about it.

Copyright © Jan. 14, 2023 Karen Najarian

What does it mean to be a backcountry guide?

  • Returning from Costco, again, with a 4Runner full of granola bars
  • Fumbling in the garage for a screw for a pot lid knob that’s missing
  • Cleaning out bear cans,
  • Washing plastic baggies out of guilt for using so many
  • Buying new boots every two years
  • GoogleEarth shows gear drying on your driveway
  • Being asked at Walmart if you’re on a tuna diet when you buy up their entire stock of tuna packets
  • Wearing the same thing every weekend
  • Keeping a nail brush in your purse
  • Having dog pads on the bottom of your feet
  • Being asked if you’re having a party when you show up at the Sams Club register with 10, 2 lb. salames in the cart
  • Watering the lemon tree in the backyard for 2 days because you forgot about it
  • Encouraging those that need encouraging and honoring those that decide not to scale the dome
  • Modeling self-care
  • Reading body language
  • Telling stories that teach backpacking lessons as well as life lessons
  • Listening… LOTS of listening. Everyone has an amazing story
  • Having the best pictures at the end of summer
  • Hanging with the best of folks, which are your hand-picked crew of guides
  • Making new friends every weekend
  • Having your guides bring you hot chocolate in your hammock at 9500 feet
  • And having a “job” that you love, even though you’re tired and cranky sometimes.

What Yosemite has Taught Me

Barefootin' through Cathedral Meadow.
After hiking and guiding in Yosemite National Park for over 30 years I have come to learn a few things.  Yosemite, with its grand monoliths, peak-piled panoramas, and intimate gardens, holds a metaphor for every corner of the heart. These are the lessons that Yosemite has taught me as I’ve passed through her and she has passed through me.

Descending the outlet off-trail from the Mildred Lake outlet is a lot like life: overwhelming if you look at it all at once but by staying in the moment, carefully choosing one step at a time, in a serpentine fashion, one can negotiate the steep and varied terrain.

The Cathedral Lake outlet which spills over a few granite steps before it tumbles down around the side of Pywiack Dome teaches me that not all baptismal fonts are in churches. Likewise, the Cathedral Lakes Basin teaches me that some Cathedrals have no pews.  And a sunset last summer at Lower Cathedral Lake taught me that even God blushes.

The panoramic view from Glacier Point, where the roof of the Park stands out in waves of peaks like a choppy sea, reminds me that sometimes you need some distance to see the big picture.

Half Dome has taught me that sometimes what seems impossible from a frontal assault isn’t impossible at all if you find the easy way that circles around the backside.

Standing on Clouds Rest as my fellow guide, Mike, stood there speechless with his hands on his head and tears in his eyes, I am reminded of the sense of awe and gratitude that Yosemite has taught me for all things.

Yosemite has also taught me, that while the grandeur of the landscape is overwhelming, to not forget the pockets of beauty right at my feet.  I hiked the Yosemite Creek Trail for many years before I discovered the tiny pink Steershead flowers, only half an inch long, in the moist soil at my feet.

The Three Graces in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, home to trees 3000 years old, teach me perseverance through the ages.  Fire is as natural a part of the Giant Sequoia landscape as tumultuous times are in our own lives. Giant Sequoias stand tall and proud bearing the scars from many fires during their lives. In fact, they need fire to dry their cones and drop their seeds and they require freshly burned mineral soil for their seeds to germinate.  Upheaval in our own lives can feel like fiery death and destruction but we can use it as fertile soil for new ideas and new ways of being.

Speaking of destructive forces, Slide Canyon, where the Volkswagon size boulders of a landslide go down one side of the canyon and half-way up the other, and wildflowers blooming best after the hot fires in the woodland areas, teach me that some perceived catastrophes leave a new kind of beauty in their wake.

Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite Valley’s sister valley just 20 miles north and still in the Park, flooded under the lake behind O’Shaughnessy Dam, teaches me patience as she holds her breath until the Tuolumne River wanders through her meadows free again.

Snow covered Yosemite, like the lines on a woman’s face reminds me that beauty has no season and camping during winter, I learned that you can make yourself at home wherever you are.

The Milky Way over Tuolumne Meadows on a moonless night reminds me that even on the darkest night there is light to be found.

And mostly Yosemite has taught me that when I’m feeling lonely, the mountains are always standing ready, silently waiting to wrap  their bony arms around me. All I have to do is hike into them.  Join us:

  Copyright Nov. 2011 by Karen Najarian, links added 12-16-12.

Good Morning 2013

Half  Dome on New Years Morning

Good morning 2013.  Two trees across the street, still on fire from Fall’s flamboyance, welcome me as the cool morning air slams my face on my way out the front door to get the newspaper, my pink nightgown hanging out from under my Mountain Hardwear fleece jacket and over my fleece pants.  (My backpack clothes never seem to get any downtime.)  Birds flee from the dangling ornament-like Liquid Amber seed pods as I gingerly step down the drive.  The exposed aggregate driveway is cold, hard, and nubby on the soles of my bare feet.  The clouds hanging over our neighbors’ roofs to the west still retain a touch of pink and, as I bend over to pick up the paper tossed at the base of the rhodys, their buds pulled in tight against the cold, I see the daffodils are three inches high already.

It’s 7:48 am and Rick hasn’t returned from the search in Marin. He was called into service before our New Year’s toast with friends at midnight last night.  I don’t know any more than that.  Who gets lost in Marin on New Year’s Eve?  An autistic child?  A great grandfather with Alzheimer’s?  A despondent teen?  An angry husband who checks himself into a hotel?  SAR is hardly ever about looking for someone in the wilderness but the reasons people are missing are as varied as the wilderness of the heart.  Whatever the reason you are misplaced, these dedicated volunteers will be there.

The hummers perch and dip at my office window feeder.  I must refill it today.  A friend once told me that since they are the last item on her list of priorities, you can measure the order of her life by whether her bird feeders are full. Today, I find mine empty.

The bird clock my sister gave me chirps eight o’clock in the kitchen and I hear in response Abby-the-dog’s collar tags jangle as she jolts from repose amid the pile of blankets on the waterbed.  Yes, we’re children of the 60’s… still.

The computer has booted (I’ve been writing longhand) and as I click on the Yosemite Association web cams, which I do every morning, I see a snowy Half Dome and Clouds Rest.  Tenaya and Echo Peaks, Mt. Watkins, and Half Dome are lit on one side from the rising southern sun.  Yosemite Falls is frozen onto a brightly lit face of granite like a still out of a movie, it’s winter ice cone rising at the base of the Upper Fall.  John Muir climbed his way up the ice cone more than a century ago and fell through into the hollow rocky abyss within. He also wallowed up the steep snow-covered boulder field of Indian Canyon from the valley floor and descended in an “avalanche of snow stars,” cheating death more times than I can count.

Muir had a purpose, it seemed. And his life refused to let go of him until he achieved it no matter how much he put it at risk.  He won for us National Parks, the idea of glaciation in the Sierra, and the beginning of the conservation movement.  Even his last fight, the defeat of saving Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed and flooded for San Francisco’s water tank, solidified the future defense of wilderness as no win could ever do.

So, 2013, what have you in store for me on this new morning in this new year as Sierra Spirit Backcountry Guiding Company continues to awaken people to the comfort and joys of the wilderness?  Yep, there’s work still to do.

Copyright © by Karen Najarian Jan. 1, 2013.