I'm not sure when I met Litsa, but I fell in love with her work before I fell in love with her--which is really easy to do on both counts. Profound, funny, and warm, she's one of my go-to people when I need to talk something out. And what a writer! "Altitude Sickness", about losing her lover to rock and ice climbing and the mainstream culture that venerates them, is mind-bendingly great. (Future Tense Books). But so are her other works. Her essay, After the Fire" was selected as one of the "Most Notable Essays of 2011" by Best American Essays 2012. She's a Contributing Editor at the literary site The Weeklings, which partners with Salon and has received praise from The New Yorker, The Daily Beast, Slate, and others. Her work appears in The Believer, BlackBook, Esquire, Jezebel, McSweeney's, Men's Health, Monkeybicycle, MSN, New York Magazine, Nerve, Nylon, The Onion's A.V. Club, Paste, Poets & Writers, Salon, Slate, The Weeklings, on NPR, KUOW, and additional venues, and The Seattle Weekly named her as one of "50 Women Who Rock Seattle".
Plus, frankly, she's very, very cool. I can't thank Litsa enough for being here!
This is, perhaps, one of the most profound, real, haunting, (and also flashed with wit) books about loss that I’ve ever read. But it’s also about mountain climbing, and the price climbers and their loved ones pay for risking death to “live life to the fullest.” You’ve written about Neal’s death before, but never before in such depth. What was the writing like for you? Did anything surprise you or reveal itself to you as you were writing?
First off, thanks so much because you know how much I admire your work and think you're wonderful. And because you've written about a similar loss, you know what it's like to live it and to write about it. So, really, thank you.
"Altitude Sickness" has an unusual back story. Future Tense Books approached me and said that to commemorate their twentieth year anniversary, they were launching their first ebook line, Instant Future. They asked if I had a 10,000 to 12,000 word memoir or essay that would fit because they wanted me to launch the series. I'd been taking notes on "Altitude Sickness" for two years, so I wrote back, "Yes, I have an idea and here it is." They accepted it immediately.
Then I thought, "Oh, shit. I'm about to immerse myself in his death again. This is about to hurt like hell."
I knew what I wanted to write and why, so writing this one from a technical standpoint wasn't particularly hard. From an emotional one, though, I had many, many days where I wanted to throw up. I've been prone to nightmares my whole life, but returning to his death and its immediate aftermath really unloosed my subconscious and the nightmares were pretty fucking bonkers. Neal died mountain climbing. He was missing four and a half days before his body was found. He fell one thousand feet and died instantly. He was a highly experienced climber. But loose rock gave way. No amount of experience trumps loose rock.
I should note I got engaged shortly after I started the book and am the happiest I've been in my life. So, it says something that in the midst of such enormous joy, when I'd sit down to write, it still felt like getting flayed then dipped in rubbing alcohol.
The biggest surprise was that writing about Neal's funeral wasn't the hard part. But writing about him while he was alive was devastating. We were intertwined almost our entire adult lives. He's been dead five years now, but it's really easy to conjure him, both as a person and as a writer. As the former, I very much live in the present. His death is as much a part of me as my curly hair and most of the time, I am used to his death. But when I wrote about him alive, oh god, each time I stopped and came up for air, my subconscious was like, "Ha! Ha! Ha! You can hear him and you can see him and you want to go to a matinee´with him now but you can't because he's dead. Ha! Ha! Sucker!" The following nightmares were among the worst.
That said, thanks for taking note of the book's wit. Neal and I were often funny together. There was no honest way to write this book without being funny sometimes. Most lives have some humor in them and Neal was deeply funny. Also, his death, like many, was laden with gallows humor. Making absurd jokes was one way I kept from killing myself those first two years after he died.
I’ve often thought that part of grief healing is being able to tell the story, especially if your loved ones death is a shock. First, you tell it in hopes of a different ending. Then you tell it to let it sink in. Or maybe you tell it to keep the loved one alive in some way. Was it this way for you, or was it different?
Oh, god, that's the greatest point: how in the beginning, each time you tell the story in print or out loud, you desperately want to change the ending and there's a tiny part of your brain convinced this is possible.
In my case, the first time I wrote about him was a few months after he died. It was a fictional short story about his funeral. I wrote about it because I couldn't *not* write about it. The essay I wrote later that year won Most Notable Essays of 2011 from Best American Essays. He'd been dead fourteen months when I wrote it, the shock had worn off and I was in hell. But I didn't write it thinking, "Wow, this will be a great essay." I just wanted to distill the loss and pain into something. Like, "Here is this pool of blood. See if anything will grow in it."
With "Altitude Sickness", like I said, I'd been taking notes for two years. I live in Seattle and climbers die in the Pacific Northwest fairly often because we're surrounded by mountains. I started noticing how similar many of the deaths were and how the climbers' loved ones almost always said, "He died doing what he loved." I wanted to explore what causes someone to enjoy life most when they're risking death. That's how I discovered there was already a considerable amount of study on the neurological similarities between climbers and addicts. "Altitude Sickness" examines Neal's death in this context, and in the context of a mainstream culture that venerates climbing, despite its massive and pointless danger.
I also wanted to talk about bravery. Is it brave that Neal climbed mountains, or is the real bravery that, knowing the risks, you went ahead and loved him anyway? Isn’t that the kind of bravery we should be celebrating instead?
Neal demonstrated incredible physical and emotional bravery again and again in the mountains. And like I write in the book, he was mauled by a bear in Yellowstone Park in 1999. A year to the day after the mauling, he returned to Yellowstone and hiked and camped there. He refused to live in fear. I'll always admire him for prevailing over an attack that would have psychologically crippled most of us. What's hard to reconcile, though, is that there was no purpose to his death. Climbers tend to attribute a military-like heroism to what is an extreme activity undertaken with free will. He didn't die rescuing children in a war zone. He didn't die because he was fighting a fire and saved the elderly person trapped in the bedroom. He died at forty-two because he chose to climb and loose rock gave way. Climbers hate it when I say this, and I don't care, but his life was amazing and I'm forever grateful he was here, but his death was a waste.
As for my loving him despite knowing the risk, I wouldn't say I was brave at all. Yes, I knew he could die climbing and I chose to keep loving him. I don't regret loving him, ever, ever, ever. At his core, he grew to identify as a climber, the way I identify as a writer. But when he and I met, he was acting much more often. We first met in a Creative Writing Class at the University of Washington. We always loved each other, but five years after his death, it's clear how different from each other we were becoming. I loved him deeply and completely. I have no regrets. But I don't think I was brave. I just loved him.
You write that no one can return from the high peaks with their brain in the same condition that they left. But our culture venerates climbing, even as families are campaigning against high school football, which has been racking up its share of brain injuries. What can the public do to change this mindset? I’m thinking of how cigarettes were glamorized and then there was this ad featuring a woman putting on her wig, speaking from an artificial voice box, and talking about the ravages of cancer from smoking—and that ad supposedly worked. Are there any climbers who have changed their mind about climbing and spoken out against it?
That is a great question because, in my experience, debating this with a climber is exactly like telling you're active alcoholic friend, "Hey, you're drunk again. You need help." They have to figure it out on their own, and in the meantime, they'll concoct every excuse they can to explain how they're not really harming themselves. I'm sure some climbers have reconsidered climbing and given it up, whether because of a near brush with death, an injury, the urging a of a loved one, or through their own belated common sense. I haven't met such a climber, but given the sport's growing popularity, I'm sure at least a few of them exist.
Mostly, though, when you read or watch interviews with climbers who've nearly died, they proudly state that as soon as they're recovered, they're going to climb again. To use your comparison to smokers, it'd be like someone recovering from lung cancer and proudly declaring on camera, "I'm gonna get me some Marlboros!" It's not brave; it's idiotic. And I'm comfortable being judgmental here.
As for what might prompt a climber to change his or her mind, I don't know what would work. I remember the anti-tobacco commercial you''re referencing. I don't know what the climbing equivalent would be. Maybe your loved one identifying your partially decomposed and shattered body in the morgue? Would even *that* work? I don't know.
Many people think that when you grieve a loved one, you move on, you find love again, if you're lucky, your life goes on. But you very astutely show that that isn't the whole story. You're engaged to a peach of a guy who you adore--but like a layer beneath that, is your love and grief over Neal. Can you talk about that please?
I'm extremely fortunate. I'm in love again and the happiest I've been. My fiance´is the greatest man I've known and I just feel so fucking lucky. I hate mornings and, with him, we laugh over breakfast each morning. I've never done that with anyone in my life. He understands parts of me that Neal never did.
But, as you wisely note, I still love Neal dearly, of course. Death didn't change that. I will always love him. But even immediately after he died, I refused to canonize him. As everyone who has lost someone, particularly someone young, will recall, you miss your dead loved one so much, you miss even the things that annoyed the hell out of you when he or she was alive. So, even while I was missing what I found to be Neal's most annoying traits--and he knew all of mine intimately, so that's not a one-sided assessment--I didn't make him a plaster saint. I hate it when people do that. It robs the dead of all their complexity.
You wrote something really wise, though, and I'm sorry I can't remember which essay or book it was in, but it has stuck with me for years, that the dead become different in death, take on a different incarnation from who they were alive. And that is *so* true. Despite my being able to recollect Neal in great detail, I think of him now in sweeter, softer ways. It doesn't matter that he didn't get a cell phone 'til six months before he died, for instance. When he was alive, that drove me nuts. Now it's a funny quirk that was part of what made him unique.
Some friends don't quite understand how I spent so much time missing Neal and then fell in love again. Some didn't understand why I didn't fall in love again much sooner. The best friends, of course, just understand your loss and help you get through the early hell years and are thrilled when you're happy again.
One of my friends describes it best: most new parents worry they won't love their second child as much as their first. But their hearts expand. So, as with birth, it is with death. Our hearts expand. I love Neal. I love my fiance´. it's not a competition and it's not contradictory.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
My fiance´is a professor. He's lived in Seattle over a decade, but he grew up in the South. He's an amazing cook--I found a genius who loves to cook--and for the first time in years, I'm eating butter again. BUTTER IS AWESOME. Dear god, butter, how could I have turned on you? Also, I was caffeine-free for five years, and because he makes coffee first thing in the morning, I started sipping it again. Now I have one to two cups a day and it is electric brain nectar and I thank it so.
In terms of pop culture, I'm becoming obsessed with Bill Hicks. I'm really, really late to that party, particularly given every comedian I've interviewed or known has cited his genius. And he was a genius. He died young of pancreatic cancer two decades ago, but his humor and observations are as relevant now as they were then. I also love Key and Peele. So damned brilliant and hilarious!
As for what's obsessing me as a writer, I have an answer to that. But I hate discussing my writing obsessions while I'm writing about them because I am super-neurotic about that. It's not pretension; it's me being a bit tightly wound sometimes.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
What curly hair care products work in humidity? You and I have similar hair. You're on the East Coast and I'm on the West. With climate change, Seattle is becoming increasingly humid. We just had our warmest summer in forty-seven years. You're more acclimated to the heat and humidity. If I'm going to face a global catastrophe, I'd like to do it with my hair not resembling kudzu.
Litsa, I swear by Deva! Wash with One Condition. Then, when your hair is soaking wet, put in some B-Leave-in, and scrunch the extra water out with a t-shirt. Never dry your hair with a bath towel, just with paper towels or t-shirts!
Caroline, again, you are my inspiration! Your questions were deeply thought-provoking.