We are dancers. The day I came off the mountain having hiked Yosemite with 12 young women guides who take sixth graders in California into the woods to teach them basic survival skills, I understood for the first time that life is a dance.

I was there because one of their own had not survived. She had been raped and murdered. And these twenty-something, fresh-faced, innocent young women had found their friend’s body.

I had come to help with their healing. We would do yoga in that same barn, we would swim in that same stream and I would facilitate the Writing from the Heart part of the program. They would write their fears, their sorrow, and they would have the chance to get their rage on the page.

I was not a hiker. I was not an athlete, and truth be told, I didn’t even realize when I accepted the job that I would be going on the trek with them. I had reluctantly left my son who had just been diagnosed with MS and was losing ground fast. I was ambivalent about leaving home right from the outset.

The first four days we stayed at base camp. The night before we left they had a sweat lodge ceremony. Each one of us threw something metaphorically into the fire that we would not bring with us up the mountain.

Some of them threw their terror of going out alone, some threw their thoughts of quitting and moving back home, a few of the girls felt guilty because they had had issues with the victim and now they worried that she was becoming a martyr. They didn’t know what to do with those feelings so they threw their confusion into the flames.

When it came to my turn, I wanted to throw my anxiety and helplessness surrounding my own boy’s journey. Instead, I threw my embarrassment that I would not be able to keep up. I was sure my knees and my feet wouldn’t support me, and I absolutely knew for certain I wouldn’t be able to carry the heavy backpack.

Deep listening was part of the ritual and the next morning everyone began dividing my stuff until my pack was much lighter, but still a huge load for me.

The hike was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But they were doing something even harder. They were reclaiming the landscape that had turned evil on them. I just had to cross a stream or two with a knapsack on my back.

When we reached the summit, they all stood on top of a huge boulder and applauded me.

That night we talked about loss and death and the arbitrariness of events in one’s life. I told them one of my favorite Ram Dass stories of how he had asked his wise friend Emmanuel why bad stuff still happened to him even though he was trying to be so good. He listed all the spiritual work he was doing and Emmanuel said: “Ram Dass, you’re at The University of Life; take the curriculum”.

I said, we’re all students. And maybe there are no answers as to why such terrible things can happen. Maybe it’s more about acceptance and not fighting, not pushing away feelings that are painful but embracing them as part of your particular journey, your particular course of study. Your curriculum.

Then I said words I had never spoken before but when I heard them I knew they were right. I said, we are dancers. We bend and we sway and we move with the rhythm of the music. We are not rigid. We are not static. We flow. Our tragedies are our tests. And one of the ways to pass these tests is to not get stuck in the tragic, but to know there is a teaching here and most important to keep our hearts open in hell.

I thought about how immobilized I had become in the middle of my test and right then I decided I would accept the invitation to dance. I would bend like bamboo and I would flow like that stream. And no matter how hard it became I would stay in my heart.

The campfire warmed my freezing feet. And I knew in an instant this was exactly where I was supposed to be, and that I was surrounded by my teachers. We sat in a circle, silent and safe. Their faces glowed reds and oranges and blues.

And finally with more joy than I had felt in months I said: “Look at us, we’re all taking a different course of study and we’re all passing with flying colors.”

Nancy Slonim Aronie lives in Chilmark. She is the author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice (Hyperion/Little Brown) and teaches the Chilmark Writing Workshop.