Three Moments (Part II)

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Hiking down Buck Mt. with some students (that’s Lake George on the right)

 

One

I am sitting at the check-in desk waiting for weekend arrivals. It is early in the fall season, and I’m still adjusting to the shift. Cabins in place of tents, refrigerators in place of bear canisters, paperwork and formalities in place of primal summer wildness. I am sad to see summer go. Even in this bright, wood-paneled room, I feel a little wilted.

Earlier in the day, I took day campers on a nature walk. We walked up the pipeline trail, reading blown-up placards displaying the pages of Owl Babies. I let the kids read. They were so young I wasn’t sure they could, but they surprised me as kids often do. At each sign we stopped and discussed the book. Why do you think all the letters in that word are capitalized? How does that change the way you read it, I asked them. When a word is tilted like that, what’s that called? The kids were proud that they knew the word “italics.” I was impressed with their literacy.

I’ve mostly forgotten about that walk, at least shoved it aside to a different pocket of my brain. It’s that way with busy lives. You move on. You forget. But sitting there at the check-in desk, the staff member that shadowed me approaches. I just wanted to thank you for leading that hike. I was really inspired by your teaching, she tells me. She thanks me again and part of me wants to cry.

She is 17 years old. Still in high school. I hadn’t met her before this morning. And that she came and told me what my hike meant to her, that she learned something, that she thought it was good, it is hard to describe what it feels to be recognized for something small. Recognized and acknowledged and thanked.  Some days it feels like I’m doing the right thing.


 

Two

Today we are working with middle schoolers. Typical kids and a typical program. I’m embarrassed to say how much the schools all blend in, how the faces and activities and excitement become a colored, noisy blur in my head. I pick a random table to sit with for lunch and chat with the kids. One of them is particularly conversational. A boy with blonde hair that falls into his eyes. I purposely choose his group to be with in the afternoon. Because why not?

The kid trails me like a puppy as we hike. We talk about milkweed and deer and how he wants to travel to Africa. He is intensely curious. We swap nature documentary suggestions, and I tell him all I know about bears. When I tell him I lead backpacking trips in the summer, his eyes grow big and his curiosity soars. He asks me if I have Snapchat and I hedge, telling him camp has Instagram, which instantly disappoints him.

Before we switch activities and I lose track of him, I grab him a brochure for our summer adventure trips. He sticks it in his backpack and promises to ask his mom.

Other groups arrive and the courts get busy. The boy approaches me and starts talking, but I only half-listen as I scan the crowd to see where I’m needed. And then, in reference to the summer trips, he says he’s going to come and then mumbles, I could be your ride or die.

I could be your ride or die.
I could be your ride or die.
I could be your ride or die.

I hate that I can’t remember the boy’s name (Logan? I think it was Logan). I hate that already our conversations have become threadbare and all I could do is loosely summarize them without fragrance. But mostly I hate my splintered attention, how right before he said those words my mind was elsewhere, and I think that maybe this is part of growing up, the widening of attention, the growing list of demands, but how I wish I was a kid who could boil life down to a single moment, who could be swept up in the sight of a lone cat or the feeling of sidewalk chalk in my hand, and how being so small but so centered made you feel so big. In a personal essay, Virginia Woolf wrote,  I cannot remember ever to have felt greatness since I was a child, and some days I think she was right.


 

Three

I am walking along the dark forest path to my house. I call it my house because it isn’t my home, but I don’t know what else to call it. Sometimes language fails me. Sometimes feelings are enough. My hands are full of fresh chicken eggs and I tread carefully across the arched bridge that is always slippery no matter what the weather. My headlamp is stowed in my pocket. I trust my eyes. I walk carefully. I carry those precious eggs in my hands.

As I walk, I notice a strange shadow in the darkness. I only notice it because I am walking slowly. I only notice it because I am walking without light. It is oblong and slightly rounded.

An owl.

All of its details are obscured by darkness, but the shape is distinct. An owl sitting on a branch directly eye-level with me. I like to think we are looking at one another.

A moment passes like this and then another and another, and it is just us, two gentle creatures of the woods, two dark shadows watching each other in the night.

And then I leave, chicken eggs in hand. I walk on.

 

(Part I of the Three Moments series can be read here.)

10 Books That Changed My Life (And Maybe They’ll Change Yours)

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When people ask what my hobbies are, only two ever surface: books and the outdoors. Every facet about books. Every nook and cranny about being outside.

Reading is the most steadfast companion of my life. It is a passion I enjoy both publicly and privately. Some books I love to discuss with friends, sharing favorite moments, dissecting writing styles. And others are too precious to share. They are mine. Selfishly. Intimately.

I write a lot about the outdoors on this blog, but not a lot about books. So here you go. Here’s a bunch of books and what they mean to me.

1. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
This was my favorite book growing up. Yes, there was Harry Potter. Yes, there was Inkheart. Yes, there were dozens of other fantasy series I could list off, each which sucked me into a vast and different world. But this was one of the first realistic fiction books I adored, and it set the tone for much of my future reading. I liked books that were sad. I liked narrators that felt cornered by life, pushed into action because they felt like they had no other choice. I liked books where people died.

I would give a lot of money to read this book again for the very first time.

2. Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bollick
I like reading about lone female authors. The choices they made, the way they navigated their own entrapping labyrinths. The more I read about them, the less I fear being alone. Because you’re not alone. Not really. You have parents and sibling and friends, coworkers and acquaintances and strangers you see on the streets that you exchange a passing nod with. But there is something about being single that feels lonely, even if only because that’s how the world tells you to feel. Reading books about older single women gives me comfort because one day that could be me. Being “alone” for my life is something I am always thinking about and adjusting to. Some days it feels easier than others.

3. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us, Kafka wrote. And this is it. This is that axe. Sharp and strong and brutal. This book holds the brand to your skin and forces you to look at the skin as it bubbles. No movement, only screams.

I remember finishing this book in Hawaii, sitting on the porch of our rented yurt, feeling horrified and grateful and sad all at once. There is a type of gratitude knowing that some strains of suffering will never be yours. You will never know that type of pain. What privilege.

The abject horror of the AIDS crisis is nearly unfathomable to me. But some days I try. I try to think about what it must’ve felt like to live through those harrowing days, to throw your friend’s ashes upon the White House lawn and know that your ashes could be next.

All the talent. All the love. Gone. All gone.

4. Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes
I was standing in the young adult section of the library in a small town in Pennsylvania. Most of the time I don’t get books from the YA section, but I still love to stand there and brush my fingers across the spines and remember when I was in high school and how libraries were a magical experience, how every book had a chance to alter my world, and I could get everything and nothing, and my parents would never ask, and that was perfect because it was my own delight, my own secret world just for me, just for me.

As I stood there, a teenage boy entered the room. He grabbed a book of anime and then turned to me and pointed to a novel on the shelf. If you’re looking for something, he said to me, I recommend this one. That was pretty much the extent of our conversation. But I got the book. This book. And it felt like this boy had given me a diary to his life, that this book was expressing everything he never told anyone. But he had told me.

It must be difficult to grow up in a small town. I wonder if the library was his magical place too, the place where he felt most alive, most independent.

I never saw him again.

5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This book made me ugly cry.  So loud and unabashed that I worried my neighbors could hear. This book is unflinchingly, unrelentingly sad, and I love it. It is still on my bucket list to take a picture on Lispenard Street.

6. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
Last fall, at an outdoors symposium, a woman told me that if she had a million dollars she would build a commune in the Adirondacks because she felt that people were losing their sense of community. God, I wanted that woman to like me. I don’t think she did. At 26, bouncing from job to job, that’s something I deeply miss. Roots. Community. Home. What a primal desire it is, and how sad it is that we no longer know how to forge those connections.

7. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
I read this book in Montana. On the outskirts of Glacier National Park, I’d park my car in the woods, set up my folding table and soccer-mom chair, and read while watching the sun set over the mountains. It is the first book I can remember reading by a Native American author. I was 24 then.

It was rather perfect. Reading this book about Native American struggles by a Native American woman in a place where Native Americans were squeezed out. Driving through Blackfeet territory was fresh in my mind, and I was disappointed in myself for how little I contemplated the modern Native American experience. I vowed to do better.

This is probably sacrilegious, but here are the last lines of the book, which are 100% amazing and perfect: “On every one of my childhood trips that place was always a stop for ice cream, coffee and a newspaper, pie. It was always what my father called the last leg of the journey. But we did not stop this time. We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.”

8. The Anatomy of Being by Shinji Moon
This a perfect book of poetry. I’ve taken this book with me all over the globe because just knowing that this slim black book is tucked into my backpack is enough to keep me afloat. This book is perfect because it found me at a time when I needed it. I often think that happens. That art will save you precisely when you are drowning.

Shinji was one of the original tumblr poets, if such a thing exists. She posted regularly, and then she published this book, and then she disappeared from the Internet. I like that I don’t know anything about her anymore. I like that she is younger than me and enormously talented. I like that this book is hard to find and in that way it is like my own personal secret, a word-perfect treasure I am guardian of and can dole out to whom I please.

Wherever she is, I hope she is doing OK. I hope she is still writing.

9. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Some of the best books are those that make you pause and reexamine your life through a different lens. After reading this book, I don’t look at trees the same way. Because, yes, they are trees. But they are also forest giants who talk to one another, and who have seen the rise and fall of civilizations, and who are cloaked in mystery like another canopy of leaves that no microscope, no formula, can penetrate.

The other day on a hike with fifth graders, I told the kids that as smart as humans are, we have no idea how to create wood. None. Whatsoever. We can create titanium and construct skyscrapers and build computers, but making wood is beyond us. Wood. One of the best building materials. Something we take for granted every day of our lives. The earth has so much to teach us. We know nothing. The kids thought a lot about that and then began imagining what the world would be like if we could grow wood in a lab. We would never have to cut down trees, they told me. Imagine what the woods would be like, they said. Sometimes kids are really cool.

10. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell
This writing is the closest to holiness I know. This book. This translation. Rilke’s changed many people’s lives, and I am no exception. I never lend out my copy.

Now

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Time is a sloshing, sticky thing. I first started this blog as a way to document my travels when I lived out of my car. That was nearly two years ago, and here we still are. I’ve kept writing because I’ve always written and I don’t know another way to live. But I also write because it connects me with other people and with myself. I have most of my writing from fifth grade until the present and about once a year I’ll do a deep dive and sink myself in memory, to a time when I was that girl, that woman, with those thoughts, those feelings.

So here’s what I am up to now. For you. For me.

Where I am:

The Adirondacks are thick with pollen this time of year. A swell of wind blows through camp, and plumes of pollen emerge from the trees like fog, like smoke, like every wish you ever dreamed when you blew on a wispy dandelion.

I like to think I know the Adirondacks, but I really don’t. Teaching here for the past two seasons has taught me that much. I’ve visited it as a tourist does–dropping in for a weekend in the High Peaks, walking around Lake Placid–but never knowing its bones. I’m trying to know it better. I root around in the woods and sleep on its ledges and talk to the frogs that hop away from me in the wetlands, and I hope that someday I have a place I know like a lover, a place that feels like mine. Because right now everything is all rain and movement and mudslides. And it’s good. It’s fine. But I want that stability. I want a forest I can watch change throughout the seasons, a woodland I can grow with.

What I’m doing:

This is my first season here not teaching outdoor ed. I still haven’t adjusted to the change. The new coworkers, the new responsibilities, the new shared spaces. Camps blossom in the summer season, and it is harder to find spaces to be alone.

It’s been exactly one week since I’ve started my summer adventure job, and already I’ve been on two backpacking trips. My legs ache with mosquito bites and my gear is drenched, but two nights ago I stood on a ridge with a group of high school boys, and we talked about traveling and climate change and how short life sometimes feels, and the sun set behind us, and it was a little bit magical, a little bit splendid.

What I’m reading:

I was upset when I finished watching Call Me By Your Name last spring in Ohio. It made me ache in that beautiful way art does when you see your own heartache mirrored back at you. Sometimes people stop loving you and there is no answer why. Why are you so upset, one of my coworkers asked me, and I realized that answering her question required more honesty than I possessed.

The book burns. I listen to Sufjan on repeat. Elio Elio Elio.

What I’m feeling:

It poured all day yesterday. There was a strange deja vu as I arrived back at our campsite, eager to check for flooding in my tent. Because there was a different tent once. A different place. Different people. A different year. I remember muttering excuses and racing from the dining hall to my tent on the hill, piling my possessions on the air mattress in the middle, pulling the rainfly taut, and readjusting the ground cloth underneath. It is hard not to think of Cape Cod this time of year. It is hard not to miss people and places that don’t belong to me.

What I’m thinking:

Everything and everyone has their time and place. And I am here. I am here. And it is now. It is now.

 

The Word for Woman is Wilderness

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“Okay, so honestly, why are you doing this? Did something bad happen to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, usually that’s why people do things like this, they are running away.”
“Why do you go camping, Stan? Did something bad happen to you?”
“No.”
“Exactly.”
“But like, you don’t even come from a place that would prepare you for this. You don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for.”
“I thought you said you came from Florida?”
“You know bears in Denali maul twenty people to death every year, right?”
Then I smiled at him and passed him my 
Collected Words of Jack London with all of the feminist and socialist stories and passages earmarked and annotated for his consideration. I know he is lying about the bear statistic because I already looked it up.
What happened to me? Nothing. I think that that is the point. I need to experience something visceral to placate the hunger. And I am sick of the men that want to keep it from me. Maybe you could say patriarchy happened to me. So like a dog cast out into the rain maybe I do leave, to go cry myself a big fat fucking two-hearted river. To sleep in an open field! To travel west! To walk freely at night!
The Word for Woman is Wilderness, Abi Andrews

I tried to read On the Road by Kerouac on my way to the Himalayas. It was 2013 and Wild by Cheryl Strayed had been published the year prior. Sitting in Heathrow during a five-hour layover, I was itching to read something that’d ignite the traveler within me, something exciting yet mundane, profound yet accessible.

I’d developed an interest for adventure nonfiction in high school, starting with classics like Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and moving on to lesser-known gems like A Man’s Life and Buried in the Sky. Wild was the first adventure book I’d ever read about a woman. I was nineteen years old when it came out. Nineteen years old.

(I never finished On the Road.)

At a Buffalo Wild Wings in Ohio, I got into an argument about the movie Black Panther.
My point: Black Panther is important because its protagonist is a black superhero, and kids need to see that, especially black kids. His point: Empathy allows us to identify with people we don’t look like; why the fuss? The Cavs playoff game blared on TVs all around us, and I remember swelling with indignation and frustration, trying to explain why diverse representation mattered. He could see the storms in my eyes. Honestly, this isn’t an issue I’ve thought about much, he told me. I deflated a bit then. Of course he hadn’t. He sees himself everywhere. The world was built to mirror back his experiences, his identity; he doesn’t have to try.

It seems silly to state this but also strangely necessary: People experience things differently. We are not all treated similarly when we travel. We do not all feel identically when alone in the woods with only ponderosas for company. We are not the same.

On a cold morning outside of Lake Tahoe, I woke up to frost inside my car. It was only October, but already the Golden State was getting ready for ski season, packing away its swimsuits and water goggles, dusting its trails with early morning snow. I set up my small stove and boiled water for instant coffee and oatmeal, waiting for the sun to slip above the pines. A woman and her husband were walking among the sparse campsites, and they stopped about twenty yards away when they noticed me. I don’t remember much about our conversation, but I do remember their body language like a stop-motion reel. Her first. Then him. Slowly. Only after it was deemed safe. After was deemed safe, not a frightened animal prone to biting. The only words I remember are not even words but a sentiment: Are you okay? I explained that living out of your car was kind of a fad for young people these days, and that this was a chosen adventure, not a desperate flight. It felt strange having to explain my choices.

I’m not sure men ever have to do that.

A Tumblr post I once read said that when women scream people wonder what is wrong, but when men scream people wonder what they’re going to do. I think about that a lot. How much of our lives are encoded by violence. Gendered violence, really. One time a male friend told me about a situation at a truck stop where a man cornered him in the bathroom; he had to whip out his pocketknife in order to escape before things really went awry. He was drunk and crying when he told me this story. I felt bad. But I also wasn’t surprised. This is the world we live in. This is the price we pay for existence. But he’s never had to pay this price before because he’s a man and men often get passes for things like this. You are not alone, my friend. Welcome to the sisterhood.

Did you know that the female record-setter for the most summits on Everest works as a dishwasher in Hartford, Connecticut, at a Whole Foods? How does that make you feel? If you look at the Wikipedia article “List of Mount Everest summiters by number of times to the summit” each female mountaineer is denoted by the female gender symbol next to their name. There is no symbol next to the male names. How does that make you feel?

I read more female adventure books after Wild. There was Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis where she hikes the PCT after experiencing sexual trauma. There was Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow by Maria Coffey–one of my all-time favorite adventure books–that grapples with being a loved one to thrill-seekers and how they are always leaving you, sometimes forever, and what it means to be in love with loss. They were good books, even great books. But they were somehow still about men. Men were the cause, the impetus for emotions, sometimes the entire journey. Can’t women exist alone? Can’t the wilderness belong to them too, without fear, without hesitation? Can’t we have a book that extols travel and nature with the same literary backbone as fucking Kerouac?

Then I found The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews. It is everything I wanted. It is fiction but it feels like nonfiction. It has the journal-like quality I was hunting for.

Sometimes women go into the wild simply because they want to go. Not because they are running away but because they are running toward. And women have their own adventures in the wild. Their own stories. We need to listen better. We need to seek out their unadulterated voices more.

If you’re reading my blog, you should consider reading The Word for Woman is Wilderness. It is not an easy read. It is not brimming with action. It references cosmological physics far more than you would expect a nature book to. But because it is difficult and genuine and informative is why you should read it. Because if you list every adventure book you’ve read about a man, and every one you’ve read about a woman, and every one you’ve read about a person of color, you may come to the conclusion that you should read a little broader.

So you should read this book.

(And purchase it because buying this book supports an independent publisher and lets them know that the public values books like this. And we do. We do.)

(ALSO, if you have any adventure book recommendations about/by authors of color, I’d love to hear them.)

Government? Closed. Parks? Open.

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People taking pictures of things at a busy national park (I prefer to photograph the people taking photographs, obviously)

Reading the news is a small daily horror. We are currently in the longest government shutdown of the modern era, and people and places are suffering. The institutions we have built this country upon are failing us.

The national parks are staying open despite being understaffed and unable to handle the influx of visitors. Restroom facilities are closed. Trash is no longer being picked up. Landscapes are being damaged, sometimes irreparably so.

I’ll save you the trouble of digging through the news dumpster yourself:

We can blame the shutdown. We can blame the lack of money and resources that protect our parks. We can blame troublemakers and rule breakers.

But the root is us. Thoughtless, hurtful humans. Because it’s not one person causing all of this, not two, not a handful, not a couple “bad seeds.” We, the collective, are the problem.

Natalie Diaz tweeted the following in regard to the destruction at Joshua Tree National Park:

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I could make this post a philosophical musing on human nature and destruction and how we love to play god for the brief eclipse of power. I could cite scientific studies (hello, Stanford Prison Experiment). I could quote Shakespeare. But none of that is helpful.

See, what bothers me about news is that very few outlets tell me what to do about any of this. They inform me of all the bad things happening but don’t give me ways to help fix them. And for me that’s frustrating. I’m a doer. I believe firmly in my own agency and my ability to affect the world. I believe that change is brought about by people, and that I can be a source of power if only I do and act and try.

So I do. And I act. And I try.

This is me trying. This right here. This small, sparrow-boned post.

Want to help our parks? Here are some things you can do:

  1. Don’t go. Even if you promise not to litter or take a dump, human traffic is still a problem. Please don’t visit the national parks right now.
  2. Educate yourself on the Leave No Trace principles. There are seven of them. Learn how to best minimize your footprint in our parks–both national and local–so that when you visit in the future, you will know how to respect the surrounding wilderness.
  3. Donate. Money is helpful and necessary. Small local organizations are stepping in right now to protect our parks. Support them. Yosemite is one of my favorite national parks and through some research (AKA a recommendation from Beth Rodden, a Yosemite resident and pro-climber, on Instagram), I learned that Ken Yager and the Yosemite Climbing Association are doing a lot to help the park, especially with the current trash overload. They have a donation page!
  4. Write thank-you letters to park staff. Kind words are always welcome.
  5. Get involved with your local conservancy or park. Education is one of the best ways to develop an appreciation and understanding of nature. Will it help immediately? No. But change doesn’t happen overnight and the American wilderness faces a long, globally-warmed road ahead; it needs all the supporters it can.

What the parks need right now and in the future are kind, compassionate, thoughtful human beings who care about the people and the world around them. Because even if there isn’t someone there to tell us what to do, even if we are able to run free and wild with sunsets in our eyes, we need to do the right thing. For the planet we live on. For our own fragile humanity.

There’s no better time to start than now.

(Do you, dear reader, have other suggestions? How can people help our parks and wilderness? What cool, inspiring things have you done or heard about in this vein? Let me know!)

Ohio on Fire

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Forget what they say
the year started in March
when a girl offered you a cigarette
leaning against her blue beater.
The match was lit.
Still
you stayed.

Did you know fingers
can smell of cigarettes?
Fingers that point and pluck and love
perfumed with a past
no memory of you.

You’re not sure how it started.
It started when you arrived
it started when you wrote your name
(not your name)
in marker
on a blank white sheet
it started when you were mopping the rec room
and his doubts poured out
straight into the dirty water
and you washed the entire room with them.

(Did his doubts smell like tobacco?
You don’t remember.)

It’s easy to ignore smoke
to name it incense
fog
a dirty ghost from
a dirty past
rising from the rec room’s
dirty-water-washed walls.
It’s happening, they told you.
No, you said
and walked away.

(You cried on your drive to Ohio.
You never told anyone that.)

People tried to bury
their loneliness in you
like an armoire
they could hide their
secrets and shame
knowing they’d soon be smoke.
They expected you to be someone
when you were barely yourself.
Call me by your name
No.
Call me something else
let me be someone else
let me move to Ohio
and be synonymous
with the sound of rocks
sinking in stagnant water.

Farrow
(Only one person asked
what book it was from.
You never give more
than asked.)

Bonfires burning the night
all eyes on California
when really it was Ohio
going up in flames.
Scorched love.
Scorched earth.
I still don’t know
if love or anger
burns hotter.

Paper Worries

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A bracelet found in my communal bathroom.

“I sometimes think that the size of our happiness is inversely proportional to the size of our house.”
Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

I have many hobbies and one of them is worrying. I worry about getting my heart broken, being stuck in an unfulfilling life, and money, often money. My money worries come suddenly and with force—I’ll see a picture on Pinterest of a white-walled kitchen lined with mason jars and mismatched mugs, and I’ll think “I want that someday.” Then I’ll think that to have a kitchen you must have a house and having a house means you probably have a job, and doesn’t that mean you have to stay in one place? And how does one buy a house, anyway? And why does the word “mortgage” make me envision a coffin?

Here’s the direct path of the worry spiral: Do I want to work seasonal gigs forever? Probably not. But what am I qualified for at this point? Who would hire me? What if no one will hire me but a marketing firm that sends email blasts about Viagra? What if I have to write about Viagra FOREVER just because I want to live in one place for longer than three months? And how will I take vacations if I have a full-time job writing about Viagra? And honestly, what kind of apartment could I afford with a job like that? Could I even afford decorative mason jars for all of my loose bulk products? And I wouldn’t have time to hike or read or do anything except think of more palatable phrasing for “erectile dysfunction” (Could I somehow make a pun with “limp stick” and Limp Bizkit? Maybe.).

Somehow the solution I always land on is money. If I made more money, I’d feel more secure about my flimsy future, and life would unfold in front of me with clarity and precision. It would be like a board game where life progresses effortlessly from one space to the next, a definitive end in sight. You get two-hundred dollars every time you pass go.

But life doesn’t feel like that. Instead, it feels like the scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry’s flying around on his broom grabbing at keys, hoping to find the exact one that will unlock the next door guarding the stone. It feels aimless and overwhelming, and yeah, Harry knew which key to grab because of the bent wing, but I’m certainly no 11-year-old Harry Potter, and I’m not even sure if it’s keys I’m reaching for or tree branches or part of my front door that broke off this week and will probably never be repaired.

And I know it’s silly, and I know it doesn’t make sense, but part of my brain whispers that a steady income would solve all of that.

It’s a worry that’s been implanted into my mind from the world I inhabit, a worry that people around me unknowingly nurture. When will you go back to your real job? So it’s kind of like a gap year? You have a degree?! People tacitly imply that I’m not doing enough, that I’m spinning wheels instead of racing forward, and it can be difficult to remind myself that my life is fulfilling and meaningful. I’d rather be in the sunlight helping kids conquer their fear of heights than tucked away in an office thinking of ways men can feel confident about their soft genitalia. Society abides by a very narrow definition of success, and I am frequently reminded that I do not meet that criteria.

Every trite thing you’ve heard about money and life is true, but I’m going to tell it to you again because I need to hear it for myself:

It will never be enough. But it is enough. You are enough. Make enough that you can sustain yourself and the ones you love, and then place your wants elsewhere. Crave time and adventure and human connection, and forget all the rest. Forget what they’ve taught you about needing more. Being busy isn’t the same as being successful. Being successful isn’t the same as being happy. Life ebbs and flows, and it’s most vivid at its most wild. Don’t stress. Don’t worry. It’s all just borrowed time anyway.

What Blossoms From Anger

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“The children of the woods play wild, secret games.” –Gillian Flynn. My campers playing games in the fields of Ohio.

When I was eleven, I wrote a strongly worded email to General Mills arguing that gymnast Paul Hamm should be on a Wheaties box. I didn’t regularly eat Wheaties and I didn’t do gymnastics, but I thought that the red-headed gymnast was adorable and talented and totally deserved to be smiling up at frazzled grocery store shoppers who were confused about what aisle the granola had been moved to. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t an issue I cared much about (sorry, General Mills, for the deception), nor did it matter that Paul’s hair would’ve contrasted poorly against the orange Wheaties box (Shadowbox it with white? Photoshop a stylish hat on?). People online convinced me to take up the cause, and I was enamored enough with the tiny ginger man that I did.

The next time I wrote a protest email to a person or organization was thirteen years later. The White House had changed hands, and the Internet had erupted into a firestorm of white hot anger. I read the discourse, I felt the heat of the flames, and I joined the fight. And, once again, it was the People of the Internet who stirred me into action.

It was different this time. At eleven, I had felt the feeble force of injustice at an athletic slight, but none of it was anger. Anger has never been an emotion I’ve worn well. I cry (often) and brood (probably more often) and overthink (hence the parenthesis), but I don’t rage.

But this time, at 24 years old, the echoes of outrage reverberated within me. I composed letters and emails, even faxes, to my local representatives. I hosted postcard parties to speak out in quantity. I left voicemails. Sure, Paul Hamm may have been denied the coveted position as the poster boy of Wheaties because he may or may not have fairly won the gold all-around medal (I’m sure this controversy keeps you up at night too), but this was injustice on an unfathomably large scale. I was angry about health care. I was angry about the slackening environmental regulations. I was angry about the corruption and the greed and the callous disregard for humanity.

It is July 28, 2018. It’s been over a year since I’ve contacted a local representative. In fact, I forgot to register in time for an absentee ballot for the New York primaries this past spring. Bouncing from place to place, it is harder to stay in touch with the national discourse these days. WiFi is infrequent. I spend my days out in the sunlight, helping kids into kayaks. I spend less time reading the news.

And the questions I’ve been asking myself lately revolve around my fading anger. Do I need to rekindle it? And if so, how and for whom? On what scale should I be fighting—for my country, for my hometown, for the trees I now call neighbors? In the time that I have, what’s the best way to make a difference?

The problem is I want to do it all. I want to learn more about proposed legislation for ATV use in the Adirondacks. I want to rage against the inadequate assistance in Puerto Rico and our complicity in our own quiet tragedy. I want to become a rafting guide in Arizona, and teach at a camp in upstate New York, and live in a cabin in a sun-stained patch of woods with mismatched mugs and towering bookshelves and my imported Lord of the Rings posters. I want it all.

Some days I feel like I’m doing enough. I send thank you letters to authors who’ve impacted me, and I get a message back, a thank you for a thank you. Kids gift me smiles and laughter. Parents thank me for my time and efforts, my willingness to live out of a tent for the summer so that they can enjoy camp for a week. And maybe the smallness of my efforts are OK. Maybe I’m impacting more lives by teaching kids how to shoot a bow and arrow than I ever did with my emails and letters. Maybe it’s passion, not anger, that matters more.

A Year

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One year ago, I was sitting at a desk. It was a nice desk. The chair was padded and it swiveled; I had an entire drawer dedicated to colored paper, glue sticks, and craft foam; a painted alligator made of egg cartons and cardboard boxes watched me work. It was a lovely desk.

Fifty-two weeks ago, the end of my desk life was in sight. I was leaving my job at the end of June and embarking on a new adventure. I was ditching my office desk for a collapsible one my dad and I made that fit snugly into the back of my car. Farewell to my padded chair and hello to a bright red camping chair that had a single cup holder in the right arm. Spontaneity was swapped with security. AC was abandoned for smoke-stained Western air.

Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days ago, I thought I was taking a break from the 9-5 lifestyle. Just a couple months of wildness, I told myself. Then I’ll be ready to start again.

But those couple months stretched and stretched, until here I am, one year later, with no foreseeable end in sight.

The past 525,600 minutes feel heavier than those that came before them, weighed down by the places I’ve visited,  the trails my shoes have pressed against, the people I still daydream about. Time passes without significance in the cogs of routine, but adventure forces you to be present every moment.

3.154e+7 seconds ago, I was a different person. I loved fewer people. The world felt more hostile. In this narrow space of becoming, I shed my skin and ran, growing with the world instead of against it.

One year ago, I left my lovely desk job. I haven’t looked back since.

 

 

Wild Child(ren)

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      “What’s this tree’s name? C’mon, we just went over it.” I point to a slender tree with gray bark peeling off like wallpaper. The kids look at it uncertainly.
       “I know it!” A girl exclaims, tugging on her braid. Her eyes widen in revelation. “A shaggy hickey!”
       I look at the shagbark hickory and stifle a laugh. “Not quite.”

Outdoor education is exhausting. Thirteen-hour days filled with sixth graders and mud and “No, that’s not edible!” Mashed potatoes with the consistency of Drano. Thin vinyl mattresses that you slip off of if you forget to put a sheet beneath your sleeping bag. There is never enough food, never enough sleep to fill me up.

This was supposed to be my in-between gig, a brief respite before my next full-throttle adventure. But then the lake water receded, the buds burst on the trees, and I dreamed less and less of faraway places. For the first time in years, I wanted to stay.

“Is Farrow your real name?”
“Do you ever wear make up?”
“Have you actually been to all those places on your water bottle?”

The questions flow ceaselessly. I answer them honestly. Most of the time. The kids distract themselves with their disposable cameras, taking pictures of half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches and their own muddy boot prints on the tile floor.

“What time is it?”
“When’s lunch?”
“What would happen if I accidentally fell into the lake?”

They start off a little shy, uncertain about me as an instructor. But then their caution melts. They smile as I play off of their Vine reenactments. Their eyes widen when I reference the twisted towers from Fortnite. Their eagerness grows as I tell them yes over and over again, boundaries from their daily lives slipping loose, delivering them fresh and breathless into the wild.

Small acts feel like gifts. Can I put mud on my face? Yes. Can I lick this tree? Yes. Can I get my shoes wet? As long as you don’t complain later. The kids splash unceremoniously into creeks and hold salamanders in their hands. Tree branches crack as boys beat them against rocks. Girls rub sand into their hair.

There’s a sense of pride I get from being the one to say yes, the one to give them this tiny sliver of freedom and wildness. How strange that it’s a luxury to get dirty. How odd that climbing rocks feels like a privilege.

“So that’s poison ivy? Can I eat it?”
“How do snakes poop?”
“A crawdad? The counselor over there told me it’s a lobster.”

People say to dream big, but I’m dreaming smaller these days. A clean thermos, a book, and a child brave enough to interrupt me during a lecture to tell me I have a tick on my face all feel like bliss. Some days this is enough.