Goodbye for Now

Fotor_157350695325064You get into your car and drive. Mile after mile. Left turn then a right. You feel the tension pulling you backward, a slow, forceful tug telling you to turn around, to gobble up your goodbyes, to stay.

Part of you wants to stay. Staying is easy. Staying is safe. But a storm recently took out a bridge, which took out some electric lines, which caused the other bridge to close, and it’s hard to ignore the gaping symbolism of it all, to view the place without the storm.

So you left. You are always leaving.

You remember your first seasonal-life goodbyes. Those were hard. It was the first time you’d lived and worked with the same people, where you existed in a microcosm only the seven of you could understand. You get used to it, one of your colleagues told you when you complained of sharp endings. You thought your soft heart would never get used to it, but in a strange way it has. Endings are commonplace in your world. People and places, they come and go.

And then there was this season. This season that was really a year and a half in the making. This russet-hued autumn in the southern Adirondacks. Much of it blurs together. A revolving door of children, a pantheon of familiar games. You taught the same program over and over until it was all mindless reflex. None of that sticks out.

What sticks out are the people. Your coworkers. Friends. How you could go to your friends’ house, take off your shoes, eat pie that wasn’t yours, and share the intricacies of your day to listening, understanding ears.

Because that’s something you miss. That’s something you’re insecure about. If Hugh Everett was right and our lives are forever splintering into parallel universes, then in one of those lives you never left Pittsburgh. You have a well-furnished apartment and a job and a circle of friends that gather for potlucks bringing homemade breads and casseroles and pies. Community. You miss that. That is something constant motion deprives you of.

But this last season you had it. You had them. You’d gather in the window booth of the bar eating sweet potato fries while people discussed job interviews and grad school and that one annoying teacher who was woefully unhelpful. You rooted each other on, mocked each other relentlessly, and comforted each other when the storm clouds gathered. It felt mature and youthful all at once.

And those are the strings that pull at you as you drive away, pavement disappearing beneath your tires. It’s the mountains, yes. It’s the 32.6 miles of lake that holds 550 billion gallons of water, sure. But it’s the people who laughed at your jokes, and listened to your complaints, and played songs from Titanic for you. You felt it this season, that buzzing of hive of community.

And as you drive away, you are both sad and hopeful–isn’t that what all goodbyes are comprised of?–because you are leaving, but there is future ahead, and it is good and bright and wonderful, and you know there will be others out there who will love you in that gentle, tireless way that friends do. They are out there. You will find them.

 

 

 

 

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.)

Thank You

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A lovely note a group of kids left outside their cabin.

Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet is appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery–as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source.
— Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

The sense of an ending is in the air—does autumn ever smell like anything different?—and I’ve been reflecting on these past two years and what they’ve given me. It’s easy to be cynical: I’ve made little money, my retirement accounts have flat-lined, I’ve eaten more vegetarian meatballs than healthy for any single person.

But here I am. Still.

This summer I posted my address on social media and invited people to write to me. Send letters, I said. Send pictures, send anything. It was both selfish and altruistic. I’m a glutton for letters, for paper scratched up with ink, but I also believe that sitting down and writing forces you to be alone and connect with yourself in ways we rarely do these days. There is no delete button. You will not know the person’s reaction for weeks to come. You are sending a token of love out into the hostile world and hoping someone cherishes it, appreciates it, sees the vulnerability revealed in that scrap of paper and loves you more for it.

People wrote me. They sent handwritten letters and cards. They sent poems and artwork and stickers from their local gear shop. And it was incredible. All of it. The words. The tokens of thoughtfulness. The fact that people had taken the time to write and postage and mail a letter when a lot of us cannot even be bothered to unload a dishwasher.

Those letters were a gift. Every time I found one resting in my hike center mailbox tears sprang to my eyes.

And it was interesting that nearly every person who wrote mentioned my blog. This little ole thing.

I never thought of it like this, but perhaps my blog is a gift to the world, a sliver of artistic musings I share with the universe, hoping they inspire and entertain and enthrall. And those letters were a gift to me, small offerings saying, I see you, I’m thinking of you.

The world’s a beautiful place, isn’t it?

Gift culture is often thought of as commodity culture, but they’re not the same thing. Not if you see a tufting cattail and smile. Not if you pass along an article to a friend saying, thought of you. Not if you perceive the small treasures the earth offers up to you, the trembling, tentative threads of human connection pushing toward you, as gifts. It’s all there. We already have it all.

The last time I visited Rochester my mother cleaned my car. My dad installed a new rear windshield wiper.

gifts. all gifts.

A summer camp counselor I trained for hikes ran up to me, hugged me, when I returned from a two-week paddling trip this summer. We didn’t even know each others last names.

what a gift.

I led a hike with fifth graders the other day, and I told them that the decaying tree stumps reminded me of abandoned cities, and for the rest of the hike they stopped at countless bits of nature and told me what it reminded them of, and I was so grateful that they could still find the magic in the hollows of trees and acorns and spongy moss, and that they shared that magic with me, and that these tiny mundane pieces of nature were really miracles disguised as something ordinary, something effortless, and that everything about nature is an absolute gift.

This is what these past two years have given me. Less money, more gratitude. Less stability, more freedom. Less tangible items, more intangible connections, with myself, with others, with nature.

And what a gift that all is. How priceless. How incomparable.

 

(Deep thanks to everyone who wrote to me this summer! For the record, you can write me whenever and I will always respond. Address is still currently 1872 Pilot Knob Road, Kattskill Bay, NY 12844, but it’ll change in the next couple of months.)

 

Three Moments

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

One

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

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

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

Try me.

Eid.

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

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

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

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

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

You said to steal them.

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

I never phrase the instructions that way again.


Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three

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

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

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

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

Ryan is seventeen years old.

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

Why is there grass up here? Ryan asks me.

What do you mean?

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

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

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

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

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.

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.