Goodbye, See You Tomorrow

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“Here sitting on the world, she thought, for she could not shake herself free from the sense that everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last time, as a traveler, even though he is half asleep, knows, looking out of the train window, that he must look now, for he will never see that town, or that mule-cart, or that woman at work in the fields, again.” –To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

You’ve been living in a tent on the top of a hill in Cape Cod for over two months now. Patches of black mildew blossom in the humidity. Tent freckles, you think to yourself, as you run your finger over them. It is almost time to leave again. Almost.

The summer passed you by in the strangest way. Sometimes it feels like you weren’t even there, like you were a passenger on a train watching the scenery flash by—families rotating in and out, cabin doors slamming shut in their wake—but then there are moments, moments when the window opens and the breeze smells of wildflowers—when a kid hits a bullseye and his mouth falls open in wonderment, when a camper sings boldly into a microphone with the backing of a live guitar—and in that moment you feel present, grounded, like the world is real and you belong, and you’re doing something important, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

You want to write something big and meaningful about this summer, about illness and death and human connection, but you feel smaller than normal and words don’t come easily.

Here’s what you can capture, still lifes from the train window:

Some nights you’d make tea and sit behind your mildew-freckled tent and listen to the sounds of the highway while looking up at the stars. You went to Provincetown by yourself and listened to a podcast about the Manson Family as the road narrowed and the traffic swelled, and it felt safe and warm to be alone again in an unknown city, and it made you happy to know that you could be with someone and still belong fiercely to yourself. You found a tree frog in the toilet stall and marveled that a life of tree frogs and shower spiders was now yours.

This has been a summer about empathy. About listening and learning and finding gratitude in every shadow, every narrow beam of light.

Families welcome you into their lives for a week, sharing stories of g-tubes and surgeries and stubborn doctors, and you take whatever they give you, whatever morsel of their lives they are willing to put into your hands. You are a passenger along for the ride. You are just passing through.

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.

EarthWorks Institute

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Kids running wild, as they should, during one of EarthWorks’ summer programs. (Photo courtesy of EarthWorks Institute)

The quintessential American childhood is built upon exploration. We see it time and again in children’s literary classics, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bridge to Terebithia, and the Little House on the Prairie series. More often than not, the freedom of exploration is linked with the outdoors. Even when the kids are housebound, they often find a way to circumvent their situation—say, via a secret garden or an enchanted wardrobe—and hidden, natural worlds once again are theirs to pursue. Nature is the most accessible landscape for—to borrow a line from Dumbledore—the flighty temptress adventure.

I don’t need to tell you that kids spend a lot of time in front of screens these days. If you haven’t witnessed it yourself, then you’ve definitely been bashed with a dozen or more headlines about it. Like the debate on artificial sweeteners or millennials choosing avocados over houses, screen time for children is a hot-button issue that never lacks in “news” coverage.

It’s something Lindsay Cray has noticed, too. Lindsay is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for EarthWorks Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on connecting residents in the Greater Rochester, New York, area with the world and community around them. Typically this is done through developing a closer connection with or a better understanding of the outdoors. Although EarthWorks offers classes for a variety of ages, its emphasis is on kids.

“Kids are lost,” Lindsay told me in a phone interview. “I’ve met children who literally don’t know how to climb trees, or don’t know how to cross a creek. And I’m not talking a raging river creek. I’m talking a creek that’s five or six feet wide with stones to step on. I’ve worked with children who have stopped dead in their tracks in front of a small body of water and looked at me like, ‘what do we do from here?’”

Before dedicating herself to outdoor education, Lindsay worked as a research scientist studying facets of the human condition, knowledge which influences her work today.

“We’re not as far away from our primitive ancestors as we like to think we are,” said Lindsay. “Doing things like climbing trees increases your balance and also helps you become good at math. Being outside and learning how to push your physical limits helps you to control your mental limits as well. Kids who are constantly dealing with sensory overload don’t understand how to process information and that information can either be schoolwork, or it can be social emotional learning, or it can be critical thinking skills. They’re losing that because they don’t physically challenge themselves in ways that are healthy.”

EarthWorks has many programs designed to get kids reacquainted with nature. They offer courses in tracking, foraging, primitive tools, zombie slugs, and even a Jedi-themed summer program where kids will learn “the true power of the FOREST AWAKENED.”

And the programs are working.

Lindsay says that the response from participants—both kids and adults—has been overwhelmingly positive: “A lot of people tell us that the work we’ve done with them or their children has changed their lives, that the children have become people that the parents didn’t even realize they could be, or that it’s brought them out of their shell. Kids beg to come back, especially for our forest school and our summer camp program.”

In 2016 alone, EarthWorks reached 2,180 participants. They conducted around 700 hours of programs, 620 of which were oriented at children.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would’ve been a very different story if Huck had been given an iPad in the beginning. Forget building a raft. He could have rented a kayak and booked Airbnbs along the way. But where’s the rip-roaring adventure in that?

We need adventure in our lives, especially the wilderness variety. As adventurer and indie vanlife god Chris McCandless once wrote, “I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions.”

So let the kids run wild. A little bit of mud never hurt anybody.

(Interested in learning more about EarthWorks? Click here!)