Self-Portrait at Twenty-Five

 

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You are 25. A quarter of a century. You feel 25. You’re still young but somehow, without noticing, you’ve slipped into adulthood. You like being 25.

You sport a $16.95 haircut, and thrift-store sweaters, and purple Vans you bought in California back in high school. You still own your Death Cab for Cutie hoodie from eighth grade.

You sneak glimpses of your body in mirrors as you walk through your poorly insulated house, dashing from bedroom to bathroom through the chill of the living room. You are thinner than you once were. Stronger. You lift boats and hike mountains and belay children for a job. Your body feels capable and thriving.

People ask if you have matches on you, if they can borrow your pocket knife. These facts make you feel strong and capable, too.

You think about aloneness a lot. You remember your eighth grade English teacher pulling you aside and telling you things got better—English teachers always knew you best—and now you’ve come to realize that you misunderstood him. You thought that things would change. They don’t. But aloneness is something different now. Something comforting and desirable like your red down jacket with the duct tape patch on the cuff. You’re not sure how to live any differently, and you don’t think there will ever be a time when you don’t feel this way.

Friends from once-upon-a-time invite you to hang out, and their invitations make you pause. You have come so far since then. Since whenever. You are further and further away from who you once were, and you find it increasingly difficult to reconnect with people from your past. You don’t know how to explain your wildness. Someday you hope it won’t need an explanation.

You have a list of inspirational women that you thumb through in your head like rosary beads—Hanya Yanagihara, Rebecca Solnit, Arundhati Roy, Lindy West. All of them are strong and motivated, and you often worry that you’re not doing enough, that these women work harder, fight more fiercely, and you’ll never be one of them. You compare yourself with others in terms of accomplishments because you’re scared one day you’ll wake up and regret things undone. You worry about time. About wasting it. About not having enough.

Your world is a lot bigger than it used to be. You daydream about dusk in Yosemite, and backpacking in Nepal, and the David Wojnarowicz exhibition at the Whitney that you didn’t get to see (Hanya Yanagihara saw it). Your goal for this winter is to practice cello and learn how to bake bread.

You think about your past selves. You picture them all together like nervous actors before auditions crowded in a waiting room. Childhood Channing is reading Harry Potter in a matching neon green outfit, sprawled unapologetically in a chair. Teenage Channing has discovered eyeliner and nihilism. College Channing holds a can of PBR in one hand and a PBJ sandwich in the other.

It almost scares you how much you’ve changed because you’re only 25. Who will you be in five years? Ten? Twenty? So much is unknowable and sometimes you wish you had a master plan, a well-lit path to follow. But mystery is too inviting. So you push onward in the darkness, hands out in front of you, hoping not to stumble. You’ve learned that it takes the human eye about twenty minutes to readjust to darkness, which is something you tell kids when you lead them on night hikes, challenging them to abandon their flashlights and trust their primal selves. This is how you travel now. No lights. Just courage.

 

 

Three Moments

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Fern Boy and his friend were very proud of their fort, as they deserved to be.

One

I have a group of eight students. It is their first week of school.

We’re going to do some get-to-know-you games, I say. To start, let’s go around the circle and say our name and favorite holiday. You can go first. I gesture to my left. The boy shakes his head as he looks up at me.

You won’t know my favorite holiday, he says.

Try me.

Eid.

I know that one. Why’s it your favorite?

We go around the circle. Several kids say Eid. One says Ramadan. No one but me says Earth Day.

Those three are new to school this year, a teacher tells me as the kids take a water break. They’re refugees from Syria. 

We play another game. The children run back and forth, switching spots on the polydots.

You can leave the polydots on the ground, I tell one of the boys as he picks them up laughing. Just run from one to another. 

You said to steal them.

I pause. I did say that. Steal the dots meaning sneak onto them. It’s a baseball term. 

I never phrase the instructions that way again.


Two

We’re building forts at Red Fox Hollow. I let the kids choose their own groups, or work by themselves, if they prefer. I instruct them to use only dead and downed material, but one boy picks a handful of living ferns anyway to use as insulation. I know he’s been labeled as difficult by his teachers. I take the ferns from him and tell him to find something else.

At the end of the session, all of us tour the forts and the students explain why they built them the way they did.

Fern Boy and his classmate have the most impressive fort by far.

I was inspired by Winnie the Pooh, Fern Boy says. See, there’s this one episode when Eeyore is trying to build his house and it doesn’t work, and eventually all of his friends help him. But I remembered how they used one long stick between trees as the top, and leaned other sticks against them. And then all these leaves are insulation.

I ask all the kids to vote on which shelter they’d prefer to spend the night in. All but one vote for Fern Boy’s.

The kids tear down their forts as we head back to camp, but I let Fern Boy leave his up because I love it so much.

A week later I pass by it on a hike. It is still standing. I think of Eeyore.


Three

Minority high school students from Albany and Schenectady flood camp for the day. I lead seven of them on a hike to Stewart’s Ledges, a short but rewarding trip that offers beautiful views of Lake George. The leaves are bursting with color.

We pass several private residences on our way to the trailhead.

Look at those houses! Ryan remarks. They’re made from wood, actual real wood.

Two girls comment how their houses in Nigeria were made from concrete blocks and how you could never punch those walls.

Ryan is seventeen years old.

We take pictures and admire the view from the top. We have extra time, so I lead the group off the rocks and into the trees. Shelter building time. Only dead and downed material, I tell them.

Why is there grass up here? Ryan asks me.

What do you mean?

Why is it here? There’s no one to mow it…

One of the kids snickers. None of them call him stupid or offer an explanation.

It’s wild, I tell him. It’s probably a different type of grass than grass you’d find in a front yard, grass that you’d mow. Wild grass seeds are brought by animals or the wind and then it grows. It grows more over here because there’s no trail, no one’s walking on it. Animals keep it short so it doesn’t need mowing.

He nods and then wanders back to his shelter. He finds a mushroom and picks it to use as a doorknob for his fort. I don’t tell him that mushrooms aren’t dead and downed material. I let him use it. Ryan is seventeen years old. I want this world, the outdoors, to be as magical and welcoming as possible. I don’t want to tell him no. I let him use the mushroom.