Dream On

When I was 7 or 8, my brother, 19 years my elder, moved back into our house after he separated with his wife, and we shared the narrow attic bedroom space. That must have been weird for him, as he had spent his entire childhood up there with our other two brothers, who were much closer in age with him.

There we were, oldest and youngest, first and last, alpha and omega. We were the bookends of our parents’ efforts in building a big family.

Every morning, about 30 minutes or so before I would need to get up for school, Warren’s radio clock alarm would go off. He had it set to WLPL, 92.3 FM, a station I had come to love for the next decade for its cutting-edge rock that we now listen to on classic rock stations like 100.7 The Bay. My days and nights were filled with Zeppelin, Hendrix, Eagles, Elton John, Heart, and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few.

But on those mornings when his rock-and-roll clock would tick-tock click to that moment when we would both be awakened, Aerosmith played, “Dream On.”

Every. Single. Morning.

Warren would stir, grumble a bit to himself, then roll out of bed and trudge downstairs to our one and only bathroom. A few minutes later, I would hear the front door open and close, his motorcycle come to life, and then the roar that followed, then faded, as he headed off to wherever big brothers work when they have just separated from their wives.

In my head, among the grumbles and the roars of everything that made my big brother larger than life, I continued to hum the Aerosmith tune as I lay in bed, Dreaming On to a time when I would get big. And grumble. And roar.

Every time when I look in the mirror
All these lines on my face getting clearer
The past is gone
It went by, like dusk to dawn
Isn’t that the way
Everybody’s got the dues in life to pay

So here we are: four decades later. As I write on, “Dream On” plays over and over through my earbuds, into my head, along my veins, and within my heart and brain, a reverberation of love and nostalgia that seem to cancel out each other.

My brother is now dead. He no longer grumbles, roars, or dreams on. I am left with a residual, fading echo of a man I yearned to be.

warren dugout

And I would think that I would be desperate to hold on to each note of this song, each lub-dub-dub of his cycle, each synchronous wink-and-smile that he would give me, you, a stranger to let you know: “I hear you. You aren’t alone. It’s going to be okay.”

Yes. I would think just that. But it isn’t happening.

Half my life
Is books, written pages
Live and learn from fools and
From sages
You know it’s true, oh
All these feelings come back to you

So instead I try to name that narrow space that exists between love and nostalgia; I try to box it into a nice little corner where I can name it. Identify it. Label it and reduce its hold over me so I can move on and dream on (and dream on and dream on) so that my dreams might come true.

All I can find, though, is something I barely recognize as an emotion caught in the ugly balance between depression and acceptance. The clouds are heavy, you see, but I just can’t tell if they are filled with the humid rains or the sun-drenched rays.

Sing with me, sing for the years
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears
Sing with me, just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away

Here’s what I do know tonight. My brother’s synchronous wink-and-smile is getting me through. It reminds me that I am not alone, that so many of us are struggling with this new and uncomfortable feeling of loss, and that we’re going to be okay.

Throw that all together, and maybe that’s why the rains aren’t falling, but the sun’s rays aren’t getting through the clouds either. It’s this gray existence of understanding, of perspective, even of peace in knowing that, maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will indeed take us away.

But for now, we are here. And with this dream that carries on, we persevere, we find the strength between winks and smiles, and we carry each other as best we can.

We carry each other through the laughter, through the tears, through the early-morning songs that play on and on in our later years.

Yeah. Through the grumbles of thunder and the roars of silent rains and rays, I hear you. We’re not alone. And we’re going to be okay.

In fact, I think we already are.

sunset rvw

14 Hours In Light: Part 5. The Descent and The Energy Within

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photos by madelyn vanwestervelt, kevin harris, and rus vanwestervelt

14 Hours In Light: Part 5. The Descent and The Energy Within

Once the sun had cleared the mountain, I take one more walk around the perimeter of the summit before heading back to the cabin. The walk down the mountain is, at worst, in shadow. Gone are the fears about bears, injuries, or communication with the outside world.

I had communed with the earth and the heavens; what was there to fear?

When I reach the cabin, everyone is still asleep. I make a pot of coffee and head out to the deck, looking over the mountains I had just climbed.

Distance provides perspective. For days, I have viewed these peaks from the safety of this deck. I have pondered the trails, the dangers, the views. Now that I have climbed them myself, those ponderings are replaced with strength, energy, confidence.

What I am happy about is that the beauty of these mountains is just as rich, even intensified by my morning hike. I know them now, and they know me.

DSC_8117The day carries on, and as we take other walks and consider various trips to Asheville or the oft-mentioned Exit 11 (“See, what you want to do is take Exit 11 to cover just about any need you might have that the mountains can’t give you…“), I carry with me a humble perspective. It’s as if my perceptions, my understandings of every routine, every experience are now filtered through the epiphanic events on the summit of Big Bald. I find that I spend the day doing a lot of listening, a lot of smiling, regardless of who, or what, or where.

I am learning that this is the gift of the Earth and of the Universe. This is The Way, The Path.

Late in the afternoon, my daughter Madelyn joins Cindy and me on the deck. She is 13 and has gone with us on every excursion. She has also spent a few days at the stables on the other side of the mountain, bonding with the healthy trail horses that have been giving rides to visitors for nearly 10 years.

IMG_3612She places her hands on her hips and looks to the far western ridges to our left. Within our sight, if you look closely through the oaks and eastern pines, is the top of the four-person ski lifts from the lodge that is at the base of the mountain. We have already ventured there mid-day earlier in the week, and the vantage point provides an entirely different perspective of the western range.

“We’re running out of sunsets,” she says. “We need to head up to the top of that hill tonight.”

My sister smiles. “Just like you. She’s got her list, too. Once in a lifetime.”

DSC_8129There’s no argument from me. We all have our white blazes that we pursue, where we find our confidence, our strength, our energy. Madelyn, Rob, Cindy — you, me, the stranger passing us on the street — we seek our white-blazed trail, infinitely available to us. It is in our awareness, our mindful way of living, that we see it, follow it, become it.

I open the walk to others who wish to join us, and Rob, my brother-in-law, says he’s in.

I want Cindy to go, too. Rob and I talk briefly about the possibility of taking her with us up the big hill, but we know what the terrain is like from our walk earlier in the week: an unforgiving steep pitch that is rocky in some places with knee-high grasses in others.

Madelyn agrees to help me take pictures to capture the sunset and share it with her. We pack a small bag and say our goodbyes as we head to make the day’s final ascent.

But I know that this trip is different than the one I took just 13 hours ago. I don’t carry with me fear; I carry with me the desire to capture the experience in such a way that Cindy is with us. Maybe we can’t take her to the summit, but we can bring the summit to her in all its glory. She is, after all, the one who encouraged me earlier to walk without fear.

And from this I learn: We can make the choice to live without fear. Every day.

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Next…. The last segment in this series: Part 6. The Final Ascent and Facing The Final Fear.

Read Part 1. The Decision and The Approach
Read Part 2. The Ascent and The Fear of Wildlife
Read Part 3. The Summit and The Elements
Read Part 4. The Rising Sun, The Falling Moon, and The Epiphany


During the last week of July, we were fortunate enough to join my sister and her family at their mountain cabin in western North Carolina. It was the first time that our family had been together in six years, and the first time I had seen my sister since she lost her left leg in her battle with osteosarcoma.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, I wrestled with the decision to hike to the summit of Big Bald Mountain along the Appalachian Trail and see the sun rise over the Great Smoky Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. I have selected 16 photos from that day, spanning a 14-hour period of light, where I remained focused on the energy of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. Mingling among these 16 pictures are six short passages that chronicle my thoughts during that day. This is the fifth of those six passages in my series titled, “14 Hours In Light.”