self as a series of refracting mirrors

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I’m so unfinished.
–Sufjan Stevens

I started a new job recently.

So what’s your story? Why are you here? A coworker asked me.

I hesitated. What is my story? Why *am* I here? I didn’t know what to include, what elements of my life convey the realest parts of me. My interests? My jobs? My travels? My education? The way I feel when my head is out the passenger seat window and the mountains are flushed with color?

How do you tell someone who you are? How do you even know?

******

I went on a naturalist-led hike the other weekend. The woman talked about goldenrod and nightshade and emerald ash borers. She stopped at predetermined places along the route and pointed out the features of the forest. I walked. I listened. The whole thing felt a little surreal. When she mentioned an aquarium invasive that was wrecking the wetlands, I thought of milfoil in Lake George. When she talked about the brumation of snapping turtles, I thought of Cape Cod and the giant snapper kids fed hot dogs to. And when she talked about how volunteers yank out mint by the handfuls to help native species, I thought about the invasive ice plant in California and how I’d pluck a blade and snap it between my fingers just to feel it crunch.

The whole time we were walking I thought how close I was to being her, and yet how far away I was, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be her at all or if it was nostalgia welling up, and I didn’t know what I wanted anymore, I didn’t know who I wanted to be.

******

Self as a collage. Self as a scrapbook. Self as torn pages and ripped notes and railroad spikes shoved beneath narrow beds.

******

A couple months ago, someone asked me my thoughts on the transcendentalists. I was visiting a friend in California, and a bunch of 20-somethings were all sitting in the common room, mostly talking about work. And then this. A question out of the blue. What are your thoughts on transcendentalism?

The question awoke something in me, an echoing midnight self. This was once something I knew very well. I wrote an award-winning paper on the transcendentalists. Those are the words that surfaced. That’s what I wanted to say. Instead I answered broadly, and I quickly realized the question was mainly asked so that he could respond. I let him. But the whole time he was talking I was thinking about how I used to know the difference between Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass and his sixth, but I don’t know that anymore and I don’t know what to make of that loss.

******

Self as a series of unanswered questions. Self as yes. Self as no.

******

It is my fourth day of work. I am still meeting my coworkers.

Channing? One of them says after I introduce myself. He pauses for a moment then says, Rower Channing?

Suddenly I am 14 again. It all comes rushing back.

******

Self as petals and pines and water-washed pebbles. Self as worm-laden loam.

******

I messed up my fingerprints last summer. Only the ones on my right hand. I thought they’d heal normally, but my body bruises and scars easily and they’ve never been the same. It’d be one thing if they were damaged in a permanent, certain way but they change with the weather, with the dryness of my skin. My fingerprint reader on my phone never recognizes me. Even if I reprogram it. I am always changing.

Sometimes I think my hands are the most honest parts of me. They tell stories that I never will. Scars on my knuckles from campfires and metal gates. A permanent puncture wound from a horseshoe crab.

One time someone asked what words I’d traced on their skin. I lied.

*****

Self as mercury. Self as water. Self as gasoline puddles in abandoned car lots that catch ribbons of sun.

*****

It’s all water, you know that, right? Like a river?

Yeah, I know, I told the man on the bus in Zion. He eyed our clothes skeptically. Our t-shirts and shorts and hiking boots.

You’re going to get wet.

Yeah, I know.

We were hiking the Narrows, hiking up a river. None of us had appropriate water shoes, so we wore boots, sneakers, whatever we had. We were young and we didn’t care and we just wanted to be outside and have an adventure, and we went farther than most people and I remember how heavy my feet felt when I was literally swimming, keeping my bag above my head because I’d been entrusted with everyone’s cell phone, and it was stupid and I melted my boots when I tried to dry them that night, but it was that stupid perfect fun that only happens so many times in life.

*****

Self as longing, as desire, as deepthroated wishes. Self as daydreams that catch fire.

******

One time I let a boyfriend read my old journal entries. It felt like that was the most honest I could be with him. It felt important. I was shoving my past selves beneath his gaze, asking him to see who I was and how I’d gotten there. This used to be me, and this is me now, and I don’t know who I’ll be a year from now, maybe even tomorrow, but this is me. Do you understand? Can you see? Can you? Can you?

But wasn’t that love? Seeing what no one else could? Laura Ruby wrote.

To love someone long-term is to attend a thousand funerals of the people they used to be, Heidi Priebe wrote.

******

Self as lonely nights. Self as hot salt water showers. Self as staring at the mirror and thinking about Jupiter and what it means to be an unreachable planet.

******

Every time I think I know you, there’s another layer, someone once told me.

We were poolside and the irony of laying there in a bathing suit, exposed, did not escape me.

You’re so mysterious, another person once said.

How do you show someone who you are? How do you strip away the petaled layers and let your core stand alone, barren, naked of adornments and half truths and jokes that cushion reality?

…a wedge-shaped core of darkness, Virginia Woolf wrote.

What if you show someone who you really are and they still walk away? What do you do then?

******

Self as every hand you’ve ever shook. Every inch of skin touched by fingertips. Self as an exploding house.

******

I am standing in line to vote when I spot a gingko leaf on the ground.

Want to hear a cool fact about gingko trees? I ask my mother, who, because she is my mother, says yes.

My relationship with the world has changed a lot in the past couple of years. I notice more than I used to. I can identify leaves on the ground and tell you that my favorite clouds are altocumulus standing lenticular and did you know that anorthosite is found in both the Adirondacks and on the moon and no one really knows how it forms? Isn’t that wild?

What I’m saying is that the last time I stood on the bank of the Merced I realized how quiet it was and I missed the frogs. That wasn’t something I noticed three years ago.

What I’m saying is my professor mentioned Hegelianism the other day in class and people nodded along like they knew (did they?) and then my classmate brought up Agamben and his canonical texts, and it was strange because I’ve never heard of Agamben in my life and I never once cared to study Hegel, and it was strange feeling like an imposter but also not really caring.

What I’m saying is one time I spent hours researching poetry for my favorite dead rabbit and then even more hours wood burning my selection into a tree stump. I did a poor job with the sealant and the whole thing is probably rotten now.

What I’m saying is people change, and I feel scattered and refracted, whole and dismembered, and I keep running into shadow versions of myself and I keep trying to shake my own hand and look in the mirror. Is this you? Is this me? Why do we run? Is there even grass on the other side?

One time someone wrote me a 32-page letter.

*****

Self as a series of refracting mirrors. Self as light. Self as absence.

Self as blue.

10 Years

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“We didn’t matter, the consequences didn’t matter; the moment when we agreed to put our love into action did. It was not an act of courage. It was a statement of belief that the world can change if we are willing to risk our own change first.”

Terry Tempest Williams

This past winter was my 10-year anniversary of becoming a vegetarian.

In that span I saved, at the very minimum:

120 fish
250 land animals
1,260 shrimp
30,0000 pounds of CO2-equivalent gases
1,500,000 gallons of water

These are approximates and conservative estimates. If you factor in animals killed during the process of producing meat, the statistics are that a vegetarian saves between 371 and 582 animals a year. Which means I’ve saved perhaps upward of 5,820 animals from a sad and cruel end over the past decade.

There are no shortage of persuasive statistics out there that inform you how many bathtubs full of water in takes to produce one pound of beef (about 40) or how many miles you could drive to emit the same amount of CO2 as chomping down a single hamburger (for a patty alone, about 5).

Meat is bad for the environment. Like, really really bad.

But you probably already know this.

See, there is a gap between knowledge and action. We know things are bad—for ourselves, for our communities, for our planet—and we often do them anyway. We do them because it’s easy. Because that’s what we’ve been taught and that’s what we know. We do them because it’s comfortable and safe.

But easy isn’t always good. Comfortable doesn’t change the world. Real, meaningful action is difficult and imperfect and complicated. But we make these challenging choices and follow through because we care about something and we believe in the power of our own agency and we want the world to be a different place.

There is no perfect action. Maybe you give up dairy and switch to almond milk. But then you learn that one gallon of almond milk takes about 920 gallons of water to produce. So that’s not really great. Or maybe you’re already a hardcore vegan priding yourself on your sustainable choices, only to become aware that a single banana has a carbon footprint of about 121 grams (it varies greatly on where this banana is purchased. For example, a banana in New Orleans has a lower carbon footprint than one in Minneapolis. Also, if you read only a single source I’ve linked to in this piece, it should be this banana one). So maybe eating locally sourced food, including meat, is a better option.

AND THEN you have to come to terms with the fact that a “personal carbon footprint” and all those “watch your water usage” campaigns started off as propaganda from companies in order to shift the responsibility of change to the consumer and away from themselves, despite the fact that 71% of GLOBAL emissions are from just 100 companies.

The point is perfection is useless to chase after and that “sustainability” looks different with different metrics. What works for you might not work for someone else.

We, as individuals, are not responsible for the global environmental crisis. But it’s easier to criticize and target individuals than it is big industry. One of them is a bit more susceptible to guilt, easier to change.

In the face of that, the question often becomes why try at all? Why inconvenience yourself when it doesn’t matter?

Only it does matter. Individual action becomes part of collective power which can create large-scale change. It’s not about *your* singular actions changing the system but about communities changing the system together. This is true for environmentalism and anti-racism work and politics and really anything.

The hardest part is caring. Which sounds stupid, but it’s true. How do you make someone care about something that doesn’t affect them, that they can’t see or don’t experience? I don’t have any good answers for that. The opposite of love is indifference, The Lumineers sang (who, in fact, were paraphrasing Elie Wiesel), and if anything is going to be our collective downfall, it’s going to be apathy, our unwillingness to make sacrifices in our own lives because it would make them more difficult, our inability to care about anything beyond our own fleeting lives.

It is strangely easier to write loosely about the environmental crisis than it is to write about our current political landscape. It is heartening to see so many people involved this election season; however, I can’t stop reminiscing about all the apathy I experienced in 2016, the people who didn’t care enough then to do anything about it. Will they still care in 2021? Will this era in history be enough to radicalize them? I don’t know.

Life is harder when you care about things. You’re disappointed and frustrated more often. Living hurts a bit more. But if you’re not living a life you’re proud of, if you’re not prioritizing your values and trying just a little to change the world, what’s the point?

Thoreau wrote, “Be not simply good; be good for something,” and I think those are wise words. You don’t have to care about everything, but you have to care about some things, a lot of things, and you have to be willing to risk your own discomfort to make the world a bit brighter. It’s the only good fight there is.

once more

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Same Adirondack campsite, three different memories.

I

It is the final evening of our summer training hike. The previous night, we were deep in the Upper Works wilderness, camped out at a lean-to where we’d made too much fiesta rice and had to backpack it all out. It had drizzled the whole evening and because of the weather and general lack of interest, we scrapped our plans to climb MacNaughton—known as the unofficial 47th High Peak due to miscalculations of its height—and decided to head back closer to civilization.

So here we are, at a primitive campsite not far from 73. We pitch tents and air out clothes and explore the Bouquet River that burbles constantly behind us. In some ways, it is the end of the beginning. The last day of the training trip, but the beginning of the entire summer. I still have a lot to learn, and I feel a little overwhelmed. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I don’t have the extensive backcountry training that some of my peers do. But I am excited to spend a summer amongst the pines. I try to lean into the discomfort and insecurity I feel about being a trip leader because it means I’m learning, that life is still fresh. Sometimes I worry that if I get too comfortable life will pass me by. So I am always beginning again, trying and failing, struggling against uphill currents. I feel proud of this life I’ve created for myself. I did it. I’m here.

It is morning and almost time to leave. No one is ever motivated to put in effort for breakfast—mostly because no one wants to do the clean up—so we snack on leftover dry goods while people finish up packing. One of our peers disappears into the woods and we wait for her to come back as we snack and linger and listen to the Bouquet. And we wait. And wait. And then our boss asks where she is and we all kind of shrug and say “bathroom,” to which he gives us this look telling us that we’re wrong, and then we realize that this is a training scenario and we’re supposed to do something about it. We answer the basics—where was she last seen, what direction did she head, how long has she been gone—knowing the last question is the lynchpin. We go over the standard search patterns and our boss tells us which ones to use when, and after how much time do you need to call for help. It is mildly horrifying that missing children in the backcountry is something we need to prepare for, that this is our responsibility.

We find her. It doesn’t take long. I thought you guys were never going to come, she says. I was sitting there for a very long time. And then we pack up the van and leave, heading into town to meet the other groups for pie because that is always what you do after a hiking trip in Keene Valley.

II

It is the last backcountry night with our campers. We have this evening, a final night at camp, and then they’re gone. I am counting down the hours. It’s the first two-week trip of the summer, and I tell myself (and once we’re back at camp, my boss) that if the rest of the trips are like this one, I’m out. My co-lead and I are bleary eyed with exhaustion and frustration. We leave the campers by the fire and go talk by the van—a nightly mini-debrief that has become a ritual of ours where we discuss how the day went and check-in on each other’s own mental wellbeing—keeping the teens in sight the whole time. My co tells me he caved and bought cigarettes at the last rest stop even though he quit half a year ago. That’s how this trip is going: cigarette, break-your-sobriety, I-volunteered-to-do-laundry-so-I-got-time-alone worthy. We were trained on missing kids and wilderness emergencies, but not on teenage boys who desperately need therapy and more parental oversight. Our talk is interrupted when we hear a commotion back by the tents. We wordlessly exchange looks and head back to deal with whatever terrible situation the boys have created.

The night culminates in me giving a talk on personal agency and how the choices you make affect your life. It also culminates with one of the boys pouring all of the tomato crystals into that night’s dinner and subsequently puking near the Bouquet. Honestly, I don’t even feel bad. We leave the next morning and we don’t get pie.

III

The pandemic is in full swing, which means that the woods are busier than normal. I’m worried that this camp spot will be taken, but mercifully it isn’t listed on some of the popular free-camping sites and there’s only one van there when I arrive. The guy lets me know that there are plenty of sites for tents near the river, but I tell him I’m just going to sleep in my car. We chat briefly and he tells me that he’s a summit steward and that he’s been living out of his van for the summer—a gnarly, rusted-out affair that looks barely capable of motion. He seems curious about my presence and a bit wary, which is the general attitude men have toward me in the outdoors, unsure of what to make of a woman alone in the woods. I spot him staring at my Escape as I sit by the water and write.

Night unfolds and Steward Guy has a friend arrive. They invite me to hang out at their campfire with them. After internal deliberation on whether or not I want to stop reading and join them, I go over and formally introduce myself. It’s funny how normal it all feels. Sitting with strangers in the woods. Sleeping in my car. I don’t know where home is these days, but I think this is a dimension of it.

The guys are in their early 20s and their conversations are super boring, mostly involving drugs and bad decisions. You never know who you’ll meet in the outdoors. Some people are more interesting than others. I remember sitting in the desert beneath the vast skies of Utah, drinking whiskey with two guys who were parked near me. One of them, a beautiful guy from Texas, told me he was on his way to Vancouver to see the whales, and I thought that was one of the loveliest things I’d ever heard. I think about him sometimes. I wonder if he saw them.

I excuse myself early and head over to the Bouquet. On the banks, the trees obscure the sky, so I rock hop to the middle of the river and lie down on one of the boulders. I’ve gotten very into constellations in the past eight months, and it is strange how the stars now give me the same driftwood feelings of home. But I’ve been in high light pollution all summer and the sky has changed from when I last studied it. From my mid-river view, I see little I recognize. And that’s OK. That’s good. Discomfort. Lean into it. I take out my phone and check my constellation apps, and I find Hercules and Draco and a portion of Hydra. And then I learn a new one because it’s summer and time waits for no one and if I want to feel like I belong to this world I have to embrace it every season, even when it begins anew and I am lost all over again, so I learn Cygnus, the swan, and I lay on that rock and trace its starlight wings, and everything feels right in this slender, perfect moment.

My friend finds me that evening and we get up at 5:00AM to claim a parking spot and hike. Of course, we get pie.

spikes&soft places

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“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” –Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum LP

Tenderness is a wound. I think I’ve heard that before. A poem somewhere, probably, something consumed that lingers and that I’ve since lost the name for but the taste lives on, the words bubble up, because the things that live inside of you always find a way out. Always.

There was a point in time in which I was convinced that apathy would save me. If I cared less, things would be better. If tenderness was my wound, then I needed to be plated in silver, dripping with mercury, spikes in all the right places. It felt like if I were tougher, less affected by the sight of wildflowers, than I could come out on top.

But there is no winning. We all die and you don’t get any more points for withholding love, for being less hurt. You don’t win anything if you get out of life unscathed.

The poet Rilke wrote: With their whole being, with all their forces gathered close around their lonely timid, upward-beating heart, [young people] must learn to love. Loving is a process, a continual unfolding of self into the unapologetic world. I am still learning. My heart beats upward, awayawayaway into the fading pink sky, and I resist the urge to pluck it from the air, wings and all, and stuff it back under my sleeve. What is it like to release love into the world and ask for nothing back? That is what I’m trying to learn.

It is the wanting that undoes me. The fallow-fielded yearning. That is the second emotion I remember most from my phase of careless apathy—wanting. Not my own, but its sordid, mirrored counterpart. I didn’t allow myself to want—cold, hard spikes, remember?—but I was starving for the world to want me in a narrow, specific way. Wanting to be wanted. And it’s always like that, isn’t it? That’s why people play hard to get. Because there’s something about seeming unattainable, aloof, that makes people want you. Softness is unseemly up close; stare at it too hard and it unravels beneath a sharpened gaze, all daisies and puddles and wafts of lavender. Softness shreds too easily in a knifeblade world. Tenderness is a wound.

My friend texted me a love letter the other day. I’m crying on my kitchen floor right now, she wrote. That was it.  It was beautiful. It is a gift to be soft with a person, to trust them with your tenderness. Alternatively, she could’ve written, I am in pain; share it with me. And I would have. Because that’s love.

I am practicing the art of tenderness these days. I walk in the park and say hello to my favorite sweetgum tree and listen to the sound of mud as it squelches beneath my sandal. I watch the herons wade into the river and the ducks that sunbathe near a copse of cattails. I am honest about my feelings when asked, even if they are unsightly. I embroider t-shirts for people and send them out into the world because I think it’s nice to be thought of and the act of gift giving feels meaningful right now. I put myself out there, I givegivegive until I’ve reached the precipice of wanting, and then I stop. I pull myself back.

How much love can you put in the world before you want something back?

There is so much to learn.

 

(If you want to read a post about spikes, click here.)

(The title of this post is taken from one of Helena Fitzgerald’s Griefbacon essays. Cannot remember which one, but honestly, you should do yourself a favor and just read them all.)

To Chingachgook

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Once upon a time, I worked at a camp called Chingachgook. It was a sprawling camp nestled in the southern Adirondacks with a 32.6 mile lake at one end and a 2,631-foot mountain at the other. It was home to squirrels and owls and eastern newts. It was home to dozens of staff members, their numbers fluctuating with the constellations. For four seasons, it was home to me.

I remember when I first arrived at Chingachgook. It was early evening and the world around me was tinged an atmospheric blue. I was given a golf cart tour around the campus and then moved temporarily into a yurt, which lingering summer camp staff tried to use as a hookup spot that night. It was the last week of camp, and it was strange to be welcomed to a place that was winding down, to be eager and new amidst a tired, sun-drained staff. I felt out of place and overwhelmed.

Flash forward a year and I was sterning a canoe full of college freshmen back to camp after a three-day trip down the lake. We bumped onto the shore and I began the process of de-boating the participants, holding the canoe even and steady as they clambered out. It was my last trip for the summer and already the fall staff had begun to arrive. I was sorry to see summer go. I felt like something had changed within me that summer—on the summit of Upper Wolf Jaw, in the swatches of Canadian wilderness, 100 feet below the lake—and I was scared that I would lose it with the shortening autumn days.

It is strange what you remember once an era is over. It is interesting which totems you take with you.

COVID has been a slow suffocation for a lot of camps and outdoor places, Chingachgook among them. The doors are closed. The people are gone. The woods grow wild with the absence of campers.

I’ve written a lot about the loss of places, and it’s tempting to do that again—to dissect my favorite Chingachgook spots and hold them close in memory—but that’s not the loss I’m feeling most acutely this time around. Because the wetlands will be there when I visit next. The billion-year-old rock will be perched by the brook. Red Fox Hollow will be shaded by its perpetual canopy of pine.

But the people? They are gone. Maybe for good. And certain places are only special because of the people who inhabit them, the memories forged in their presence. It’s like the hollowness I feel whenever I visit Pittsburgh: It’s not the dingy streets I miss, but sipping shandy on sagging front porches, or eating egg noodles at 1AM and forcing my few still-awake friends to watch Wild China with me. The city feels empty in their absence.

I thought I’d gotten good at impermanence; it was something I’d honed and practiced through seasonal work. I was always leaving, always moving on. But there was a self-centeredness to it all, a sense of agency. I was the one leaving. I was the one who chose to say goodbye.

And now I am the one who is left.

See, Chingachgook was a place I took for granted because I always assumed it would be there. I could go back whenever I wanted. Things would have changed, yes, but not very much. My bosses, my friends, they had full-time jobs and employee housing. The seasonal staff would change, but the bedrock people would still be there, of that I was certain.

When you go into the wardrobe, when you burst through the brick wall at Platform 9 and 3/4, you expect the world you left to keep existing in your absence. You are off on your own grand adventure, but the world will wait for you to come back. You can go off and vanquish the darkness and marry the prince and slay the dragon, and the world will be ready to welcome you back when the time comes. You don’t expect the world to leave you. You don’t expect the people you left behind to vanish.

What breaks my heart the most is that the community I existed on the periphery of is crumbling. I can only watch from a distance as this seemingly stable structure of people is forever altered. There is no going back. From my vantage point, they’d made it. They had those few coveted full-year positions in the outdoor world and a sense of community that held steadfast through the changing seasons. They were proof to me that you could have it all, that a life like that was possible.

Bereft. Such a formal, tight-laced word. To lose something you didn’t know you could lose and what to do with that sudden emptiness. That is something I’ve been learning throughout this pandemic—how to deal with the world when tectonic plates shift and certainty crumbles and you are left alone.

I’ve been fighting the urge to end this post with a happy, nostalgic memory—something wistful, something pleasant—but it feels disingenuous to the moment. This post is rather messy in construction, the metaphors are lopsided, and the flow is shaky. But that in itself feels authentic, true to the unspooled chaos of the moment and my own ragged thoughts. Not every wound can be turned into poetry. Sometimes things are just sad and it’s OK to let them be sad.

 

Self-Portrait at 27

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This is your first summer not out in the sun, and it is hard.

This time last year, you were paddling a canoe up in Canada.

And the year before that, you were watching the tide crash on Cape Cod.

And the year before that, you were backpacking through the Adirondacks and finalizing your road trip plans.

before that before that before that

It has been three years of wandering. Three long, sun-kissed, moonlit years.

Stability both taunts and terrifies you. It is strange having an apartment to yourself, being reunited with your kitchen supplies and business casual wardrobe. Some days you just want to burn it all and drive off into the sunset, but you are grateful for purpose and stability in this time of upheaval. It’s as if the world conspired to make you stay still, taking away all your easy escapes. You have never quite figured out if you are running away or toward.

Twenty-seven doesn’t feel much different than any other age. You wear the same clothes and listen to the same bands and keep your hair at approximately the same length. The biggest difference is that people like to inform you that you are getting closer to thirty, and then you have to politely inform them that it doesn’t matter and what we refer to as time, like many things, is a construct that we have developed in order to hide what we don’t understand, and did you know that string theory requires ten dimensions, time being only the fourth of them? No? OK, let’s move on.

You’ve spent a lot of time on self-reflection this year, most of it pandemic-induced. You unearthed some good bits and some not-so-good bits, and you’ve come to the realization that you are highly flawed, but you are honest about most of it, which somehow makes it OK. You consider yourself very aware of your thoughts and actions, but someone pointed out that sometimes you stop talking in the middle of a sentence, and you cannot figure out why you do that, why you give up halfway through, why words sometimes evaporate and you are left alone in the middle of your thoughts.

This does not keep you up at night. But what does keep you up at night is how sometimes you feel like you are simultaneously too much and not enough. (String theory keeps you up at night, too.)

In this time of solitude, you have been very nostalgic. Memories wash in like waves, some of them called for, some of them not. You vividly remember standing against a large door frame this past winter in California and jumping as an older woman put her hand on your waist, saying, it’s so nice that you young folks are spending time out here, and the part that you remember is her hand on your waist, and how it was touch that startled you, the suddenness of someone’s body against yours.

In a way, California was a snapshot of door frames. Closing and opening and nervous knocking and are you busy? and feeling disappointed and feeling excited and watching the door handle of the kitchen turn as you ate cereal, wondering if you could guess who was about to emerge.

One morning you stood in a cabin door frame as you said a final goodbye to a coworker and you remember the exact line he called back to you over his shoulder as he disappeared down the hill. That line he said lingers. You still have it. You do that a lot—picking up the scraps people have left behind and knitting them into something bigger than they were ever intended. People will sometimes compliment your memory, and you always fail to articulate how heavy it can be.

You sometimes do the mental math as to what time it is in California and then sharply remember that it doesn’t matter anymore.

Because you are back on the East Coast living a sweaty animal existence. You work and create art and read and try in vain to distinguish between swamp oaks and bur oaks. You’ve started meditating in a nearby park, and as you walk back to your apartment, men will sometimes catcall you, and that imagery alone really sums up what life is like these days.

Sometimes you sit on your second-story porch in your underwear and just watch the rain. It never rains enough.

 

 

(You can read my self-portrait at 26 here, and self-portrait at 25 here.)

(Also, string theory is only 10-dimensional for superstring theory, not some of the others, but pretty sure no one was going to fact check me on that one. . .)

to be alone

cocoa puffs, lee price 2009

Cocoa Puffs, 2009, Lee Price. (This is a painting! Check out more of her stuff here).

 

“There are worse things
than being alone
but it often takes
decades to realize this
and most often when you do
it’s too late
and there’s nothing worse
than too late.”
—Charles Bukowski

to be alone
to be alone (with you)
to be alone

It was Friday night, and my friends and I were at a bar, a dirty curbside affair that served cheese fries through a literal hole in the wall. I was newly 21 and I wasn’t entirely sold on bars and beer, but this is what people my age did and I was trying to say yes to more things, trying to fit into the shape of the world around me.

What do you want from life? my friend asked me as we sat at the counter.

I remember being surprised at the depth of his question. To be happy, I replied, which was the shortest amount of words I could utter and still be honest.

Are you happy?

Usually. I try.

But you’re alone?

Even now, six years later, I can freeze frame on that moment. Him—sitting on the stool clad in jeans and a navy zip-up. And me, on his left, stunned silent for a moment. I don’t remember how I responded. I probably didn’t.

It struck me for two reasons. One, that you would call out someone’s aloneness. That you would ignore their friends and family and look at their dearth of dating, and tell them that they are alone. And two, that being alone and being happy cannot exist simultaneously.

I think about being alone a lot. It is something I actively work on and work toward.

Having a goal of finding a partner, of getting married, of anything of that ilk feels uncontrollable. It is putting my future in someone else’s hands. Because what if you don’t find that person? What if you never know a person whose presence feels like home? Do you say yes to the next person who asks because you’re getting older and more uncomfortable with your aloneness? Do you settle? What do you do?

It feels too blindly hopeful to aim for a relationship status. In the Russian classic “A Hero of Our Time,” Lermontov writes, Why did you hope? To want something and to strive for it, that I can understand, but whoever hopes?  If I set a goal of climbing that mountain, of writing that book, of identifying every tree in that godforsaken park, I will get there. I can do that with my own dedication, my own two hands and eager mind. But that’s not true of finding a partner. There is a sense of randomness to it. Good timing. Luck. A conspiring of the universe and all its unstable elements.

But you’re alone?

One time I went to a concert alone. I was visiting my parents that weekend and the concert was halfway between their house and where I lived. Upon returning, one of my friends said, You went by yourself? I would *never* go to a concert alone. Her tone gave me pause. I couldn’t tell if she was impressed that I went or if she thought it was weird. Not that I particularly cared. But it made me think of all the things we miss out on because we’re scared of doing them alone. Scared that we will be bored or lonely, or that the people around will judge us. Sometimes the choice is to do something alone or to not do it at all. What then?

But you’re alone?

Being alone is easier in some respects. When I’m alone, I never have to justify my existence. When I’m alone, no one tells me that I’m walking too slowly or that I’m too quiet in all the wrong moments or that my joke was ill-timed.  Being alone means you can be unapologetic. It means you can exist in your mess and glory and complexity without explanation. It means you can lie on your mattress and only eat Doritos for dinner and listen to the new Fiona Apple album on repeat and stare at the dark ceiling for hours and exist in this tangled tired fashion and no one gives a shit because no one is there.

In one of my all-time favorite essays, Helena Fitzgerald writes about all she gave up when she knitted her life to someone else’s. The piece is incredible (read it here), both for the full scope it encompasses and the details. The lack of obligation to arrange my face in a way that someone else would understand, she writes, and which I love because of how true it feels on a basic, primal level.

We’ve sculpted aloneness as something to be feared, to avoid. It is a sign of failure. If you are alone, specifically romantically so, you cannot be happy. Not fully. It is Plato’s Symposium all over again—a hunt for our other half.

But what if we made aloneness something to strive toward, something desirable? Something, whether you are there by choice or circumstance, it is still wondrous? Loneliness is not the terror we escape, Fitzgerald writes, it is instead the reward we give up when we believe something else to be worth the sacrifice.

But you’re alone?

It can be difficult to be alone. There are moments when your apartment feels too empty, when no one asks you about your day, when you want to remark upon the sunset and realize there is no one there to care. Sometimes your skin feels unbearably lonely. Aloneness can ache. But I think all of life can.

The past couple of years, I’ve put a lot of effort into my platonic relationships. I write letters, I talk on the phone, I reach out and check in when communication has been sparse. I try and try and try to be a good friend, to be there for people. In a world dominated by romantic ideals, friendship sometimes feels like settling, a backup plan for when you can’t have something else, something more.

But that’s a lie. Good friendship is everything. My friends send me pictures of wildflowers and bears and trees bathed in sunset. They read books I recommend and message me with updates and favorite quotes as they go along. They gift me souvenirs from their travels, and art they created, and strange plastic collectibles of that Iowa YouTuber I’m obsessed with. The list goes on and on. People being thoughtful and generous with their time and energy. People picking up the phone and listening when I call at strange hours to vomit up my feelings. People appreciating me and acknowledging me and loving me for so many different things, from so many different angles.

This is all just to say that solitude is a lovely worthy thing, something to embrace, something to be grateful for. I know it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes it’s hard to be alone.

I’ve said this before, but I’m always surprised at who reaches out to me based off this humble little blog and what they have to say. I’ve gotten some letters over the past year that have been brutally, wonderfully honest, and it just makes me think how much better it would all be if we talked about the things that matter more, if it was easier to say I am lonely. I am sad. How do I hold this solitude? None of us have to be that alone.

So if you’re feeling alone and not in the good, Fiona Apple sort of way, just know I’m always here if you need anything. You’re only as alone as you want to be.

 

 

 

the art of looking

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I like to describe this color as hot dog tie dye.

 

“In a world myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.”
–Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Taxonomy is the “orderly classification of plants and animals.” Meaning this is an orchid, this is a lupine, they are both flowers. Meaning raccoons are not flowers. Meaning the world was given to us without labels and we are trying desperately to scratch them in.

During training this past spring, we spent time with a seasoned naturalist named Dean, a towering man with a beard who knew the exact inflection to give every word so that you held on just a bit longer. He told us that when guiding hikes people would constantly ask him, what’s this? what’s it called? can you eat it? They wanted to know the taxonomy. The name mattered to them. He would answer. Eventually. But first he would ask them what they noticed. The shape of the leaves. The texture of the stem. What did it smell like? What colors did they see? It was the observing that mattered. Giving a name is easy. But giving a name without noticing shrinks the moment. We are used to instant answers, but we are not used to sitting with our questions, with our own budding wonderment.

It was on a hike that I discovered Ceanothus, also known as the California lilac. They were small blue flowers blossoming on large twiggy shrubs and the thing that tortured me—and still does to this day—was how to describe the smell. Online sites say “floral” or “sweetly scented,” but none of those are quite right. There was a hint of spice to it, something I can’t put my finger on. I do not have a single apt adjective for how they smell. But I took the time to smell them. I noticed the color and the shrubby bush and I looked up the name when I got back.

The thing about describing something, labeling something, is that we are often wrong. We want things to be neat and orderly. We want everything to fit inside the narrow molds we’ve made with our own flawed hands. So we call Sarcodes sanguinea (snow plant) a plant even though it contains no chlorophyll and instead gets its nutrients from fungi, but we don’t call Nereocystis luekeana (bull kelp) a plant even though it does contain chlorophyll and photosynthesizes, which makes me think that all our words exist with a sense of hollowness in their bones and we are trying desperately to define things we don’t really understand.

Our human knowledge, our human senses are subjective. They too can fail us.

For example, our own eyes deceive us. Water is approximately 800 times denser than air and as such, absorbs light. Water appears blue not because it is actually blue (it’s clear), but because the frequency of blue light can penetrate the furthest. This is a fancy way of saying that something you see 40 meters below the waterline will not look the same when you bring it to the surface. The colors will look different. The fish you saw at 40 meters and which you thought was gray is actually red. But were you wrong? Maybe the fish is a Schrödinger fish. Maybe it is both. And does it matter that the fish is red? Maybe what matters is that you were in a submersible and you saw this breathtaking fish and you squealed and grabbed your partner’s hand and shouted looklooklook as you jabbed your finger at the glass. Maybe that matters more than the true shade of its scales.

And besides, what is red anyway? Different species have different numbers of rods and cones in their eyes, which allows them to perceive the world differently. Some animals see in UV. Some animals use sonar to create mental, visual maps of where things are. So maybe in the grand, natural order of things identifying red is relatively unimportant. Maybe we need to worry less about names and about being cosmically right, and to understand that the way we perceive the world is our own personal truth, and there are so many truths out there and all of them are wonderful, and it’s not about being “right,” it’s about standing there in the water ankle-deep, feeling tendrils of algae brush against your leg, and then seeing a fish hiding beneath a rock and wondering where it sleeps at night, wondering if it feels fear when it senses looming human shadows.

It is a sculpin. It is brown. I love him.

 

 

 

 

nothing ever ends as you think it will

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If I’m a slut for anything, it’s closure.

I will do backbends, somersaults, aerial pirouettes (unsure if that’s a thing) to ensure I get the ending that feels right. I want the memories gift wrapped and then safely shelved away, everything neat and easily retrievable. I want resolution like a knife sliding effortlessly through a cake—no mess, all clean edges.

At least that’s what it used to be like.

Endings feel different now. I’m not entirely sure what it means for something to end because it feels like most things never do. Not really. Not fully. There are always dangling threads, smears of memories left behind, a puddle of feelings left to cool on the stained linoleum floor.

I used to obsess over lasts. Last dinner. Last night. Last kiss. I wanted to know when and how and why something was ending so I could squeeze every drop of meaning from it. I wanted to know it was an ending so I could properly record it and save the memory for a rainy day. It’s my last day in India and I’m hungover and sad, my final post from the Himalayas begins. And just like that, I can go back. My writing is a gateway to take me there.

But to record is to remember and to remember is to linger and to linger means to never leave and to never leave means it doesn’t end.

See, moments do in fact end—you move away, you breakup, you change jobs—but feelings never do; they mutate. And feelings may be the only true grasp of reality we have (thanks, Yuval Noah Harari).

Like a fortune-teller reading tea leaves, I find symbols in everything. It makes endings cleaner and more significant, even if it’s all in my head. It helps with closure, if such a thing exists. It helps with moving on.

I always dance on this strange precipice of wanting to share everything and absolutely nothing. Even in this blog, which people have told me is honest and vulnerable, I share genuine feelings but sometimes not the moment itself. People ruin beautiful things, Khalil Gibran wrote, and sometimes I feel like if I share too much the moment will no longer be mine, that it will lose some of its effervescent glow, that people will damage this wondrous, fragile thing and it just won’t be the same. I felt that way about last summer (you can read the one post I wrote about it here). I feel that way about quarantine-time in California.

Here’s how I knew it was time to go. Here were the symbols:

The rabbit was dead.
The kitchen was rearranged.
The grass the turkey had been calling home was mowed.

And here’s how California said goodbye in the final, waning hours:

The spot where I’d last seen a dying possum was covered in a deliberate pattern of pine cones.
The small, empty house we’d always passed by and commented on was no longer empty.
A dog I’d encountered only once before ran out of his house and up to me, staying only long enough for a single head pat before disappearing back inside.
A cat followed me on my walk and gave me the best leg nuzzles of my life, and I openly broke into tears.

Night walks were one of my favorite parts of the Central Coast (wrote about them here and here and actually here too). I took one final evening walk, clad in only shorts and a sweatshirt, the puffy jacket evenings a thing of the past. Clouds tessellated the sky that night; in fact, the sky hadn’t been clear in days, a somber last weekend of gray and rain after months of unadulterated sun. I remember my first night walk in California so vividly—wandering the neighborhood lost and alone, constantly scanning the sky for the Big Dipper. And there I was, six months later, alone, walking the same streets, knowing exactly where I was. I walked to my favorite ocean-side bench and listened to the black waves crash against the rocks. I waited and watched and listened and as I sat there the clouds shifted, revealing pockets of sky, and I looked at the stars—Leo and Gemini and Arcturus and Hercules—and I knew them all.

 

dream(s) deferred

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I currently live here. Isn’t that something?

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Langston Hughes

In another lifetime, I am teaching kids about tidepools. We scavenge the shallow waters for crabs and urchins and the occasional elusive octopus. In this lifetime, it is late April and kids are still arriving. Every day is full of sun.

In a lifetime different than that, I am backpacking in Yosemite. I’d long dreamed about returning to the land of granite cliffs and illuminated valleys, and it feels weirdly poetic to come back to the place that was the culmination of my long, solo road trip. This time, however, I am not alone.

And in yet another lifetime, I am working in the Adirondacks this summer. I have a cadre of returning friends and the woods that I’ve been missing are there to welcome me back. The sunbutter is plentiful.

It is May, and none of this will happen.

It is OK. It is fine. (How are you? / Silence again. / Fine, fine, I mumble, fine, / unraveling like string…—Sandra Cisneros). This is the way life goes. Sometimes you get the luxury of making choices, but sometimes you don’t, sometimes circumstances rear their head and the future you carefully crafted becomes dust in a heartbeat. You can only plan so much. For much of life, you just have to ride it out.

Life has changed for everybody lately, but among my own circles of friends, some feel it more acutely. When you work seasonally, your job and housing and food are often intertwined. To lose a job means to become mapless, it means to sit in your car and look out the bug-splattered window and wonder where to go next. It means to uproot yourself, once again, and toss your fragile body into the wind and see where you land.

Vast swaths of summer programs have been cancelled, and I’ve been thinking of all my seasonal-life friends, wishing I could hold them a little closer and promise them a safe and ripening future.

In a letter I received the other month, there was this one incredible line that lodged itself in my brain and I’ve been thinking about ever since: “. . . if I’m not careful, twenty years of these paychecks will go by and I’ll have done nothing but work for it. I think that is even more frightening, to know your future rather than to not know it.”

I think that is even more frightening, to know your future rather than to not know it.

…to know your future rather than to not know it.

I very much do not know my future. Not in any grand sense. Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who knew exactly what they wanted. But that’s not me. Sometimes I think I want something and then I get it and realize that’s not what I want at all, and then I have to start all over again. How do people do it? How do people know who they’re going to become?

This is all just to say that sometimes life sucks and you don’t get a choice. Things happen, and the only choice you have is how to react, what to do next. It’s OK to be disappointed. To be scared. To feel alone. It’s OK to look at your life and wish it was a little more sturdy, a little less susceptible to raging ocean currents.

I’ll be heading back east in a couple of weeks, and it feels strange to start over again in the midst of all this uncertainty. I have a place to go. I have stuff to do. But leaving this time feels different. Leaving this place. These people. The tattered dreams for what I hoped and longed for.

Onward & Outward

(I write about leaving allll the time. My all-time fav is this one, but this one is a solid more recent one, too.)