“Hello, Bob. And Bob. And Bob. And Bob. And Bob.” Gene named them all ‘Bob’—easier that way.
Even before quarantine, Gene was a little nutty about this group of eight or nine giant starfish living under seal rock. That’s the rock we paddled past a few years ago with a fat seal sunning itself and sitting right on top. Got a nice picture, too, as we paddled on by.
Gene tries to walk on the beach every day during low tide. Winter or spring. Rain or shine. It’s about a mile to seal rock, and that’s where he found these giant sea stars, clinging to their home at the base of the rock. They can live without water from 8-24 hours while they wait for the tide to come in.
What a life for these starfish. Clinging to their rock. Do they ever venture off of it? Do they ever swim around like sea anemones or jellyfish? Or do they stay on their rock in their isolation, avoiding the company of other sea creatures?
Oh Covid! You’ve turned us into a couple of hermits, me and Gene. We venture out to the store when we have to. And a couple of people even came over recently, six feet apart, no hugs.
“This is surreal, Gene,” I whine after they leave. “I miss hugging people. And I miss a closer connection with my grandchildren. I feel like I’m losing time with them.”
Bob and Bob and Bob and Bob and Bob don’t care about the coronavirus. Or isolation. Or losing time with anyone.
What a simple life they enjoy. It’s only humans that make it complicated.
Many mornings at dawn the western horizon has bands of blue, then pinkish orange rising like horizontal stripes over Whidbey Island. At just the right time the pink hovers over the Olympics, still jagged and dark, punctuating this band of color. Then I sit and watch the coloring fade as the sun in the East starts to come up over the island and change the light, muting the colors. As it rises in the sky the sun will shine down on the Olympics, looming over Saratoga Passage and Whidbey Island, like ghosts, snow-filled crevices trickling down chocolate ice cream cones.
Sometimes I wake up on warm summer nights and go out onto my deck to look at the night sky. It has barely rained at all this summer and the clarity in the heavens has been amazing. There is also very little light pollution where I live on Puget Sound. But on one particular night I was in for a visual delight that I had never had and probably would not have again.
“Make it zebra-like,” I always tell my hairdresser. “It’s so boring if it’s all the same color. Put streaks of white here and there to blend in with my white sides. But weave it in and out with what’s left of the dark.”
In similar fashion, this night sky had bands of shimmering white stars, all in different widths, stretching from horizon to horizon, with the darkness of space, like my brown hair, providing the contrast to appreciate this glimmering show. When I first saw it as I sleepily sauntered out onto the deck I couldn’t quite believe it. I did a double and then a triple take. It was so stunning. I went right inside to my computer and looked up The Milky Way, and my cursory search in the middle of the night convinced me that that’s what I must have seen. I went around excitedly telling everyone that I saw the Milky Way that night.
But that’s not what I saw. With further research I learned that the Milky Way is very different from what I saw. But it was striking anyway.
Once again I’ve been fortunate enough to have the eyes to see a natural phenomenon—I’ll call it “My Milky Way”—to remember how small I am in the scheme of things. How my life and problems are absolutely insignificant when viewed next to larger more important things that have pressing consequences for the world and its population. I need to be reminded of this on a regular basis. It lifts me out of the mire of my own ego and brings me closer to the peace and serenity that I seek.
Just consider The Milky Way: a thing of beauty that we’re part of, and if we’re very lucky we might get to see it from an inside perspective. A whole new take on the world and our place in it.
Bears are almost mythic nowadays. They’re still around but far fewer in number; we keep destroying their habitat. But once while camping on Mt. Marcy in the Adirondak Provincial Park, in upper state New York, though we didn’t actually see the bear, we knew he’d been there.
What’s scary is that we were sleeping in an open lean-to. If the bear had really been starving, he could have attacked us! As it was, he settled for going after our food.
Gene, like all responsible campers in bear country, hung our provisions up on a line out of the bear’s reach, including the locked bear-proof barrel. We went to sleep in the open air, confident that our food was safe.
As usual I woke up early while Gene snoozed on and went to get our food bag so that I could make coffee. After a long day of hiking the day before, I was hungry for a nice salty breakfast. I could taste the succulent bacon and eggs already, and was glad I’d remembered the salt and pepper packets we always snitched from McDonald’s.
But I was in for a surprise.
Sprinting back to Gene, I woke him up. “Honey,” I whispered, “the line is down and our stuff is strewn all over the ground. Did we get beared?”
“No, I put it up high enough. There’s no way he could have reached it,” he asserted, opening his eyes.
“Then how did it happen?” I asked, “No camper would do that to another camper.”
“There’s always a first time,” he suggested, “Is there any usable food left on the ground? Did the egg holder protect the eggs? Any sign of the bear barrel?”
“No. I’m gonna follow the food trail and see where it goes.”
“Okay. But if it leads to another tent, come back here before you say anything to them.”
The trail led down a hill to a deep stream below. I searched the area for signs of food, and there, plopped in the middle of the stream, wedged between some boulders, was the bear barrel.
I waded out to the boulders, up to my thighs in cold running water. Grabbing the barrel and slogging back to the bank, I sat on a log and nervously scanned both banks for our friend.
Deciding to see what I could salvage, I turned around and made my way back up the hill to our campsite. All I found were torn wrappers stripped off our energy bars, shredded baggies, the Oscar Meyer wrapper, and some unwashed cutlery minus the food.
For a wilderness camper, food is life. We keep forgetting that they were here first, and have every right to forage for it. We’re in their backyard.
But we got “beared” and were out of luck. So we had to pack out early.
Returning our barrel at the park entrance, the ranger gave us a knowing smile. The claw mark of our visitor was clearly indented in the top of the barrel.
A crucial part of my teaching journey has been to confront and accept who I am in relation to my students in order to forge the most effective partnership with them. In addition, I have enjoyed sitting back and letting my students educate me. For truly, as Deborah Meier said in her book, The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening, and learning is mostly telling.”
Much of my adult life has been witness to Hispanic and Ladino culture. My journey began quite randomly, when I was a nineteen-year-old college student, searching for a summer volunteer job. I ended up at San Sebastián Christian Service Center, deep in the rain forest of Puerto Rico. I went there to teach English to some of the poorest, most uneducated “jibaros” in western Puerto Rico. But, as with all the stops on my journey, I came away learning more than I taught.
This experience opened a door for me, for when I was twenty-three, I met a Cuban graduate student at Harvard, and despite our vast cultural differences, he became my husband. Angel joined the foreign service, and for fifteen years we lived in several different third-world countries. But the first two, Nicaragua and Ecuador, were the setting for what I’ve learned in this unit.
When I started teaching ESL in Arlington County ten years ago, I thought that my background would enable me to bond instantly with my Hispanic students. Was I wrong! Only now, after taking a close look at what the poor populations have endured in the last generation at the hands of the United States, in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, and Bolivia, do I understand why my students don’t feel any special affinity toward me. “But my son is Nica! He was born in Managua! You,Jeffrey Flint, you are from Managua. Don’t we have a lot in common?” “Not on your life, Miss. You and your husband represented the United States government, which backed Anastasio Somoza, who oppressed myfamily and all the poor people of Nicaragua for forty years. When I look at you I see only an American who happens to speak Spanish. I’m glad to be inyour country now, but I’ll never forget why I and all of my Central American buddies had to come here. So no, Miss, we don’t have anything incommon,certainly nothing that would endear me to you, especially. You’re just a nice teacher who happens to speak Spanish.” So much for my “in” with the Hispanics.
I never actually had this conversation with Jeffrey, of course, but I do understand him better now. Before I took this course I was always a little baffled and disappointed with my students’ disinterest in me and my background. Now, in retrospect, I think they’re being polite. There’s much they could say to me, that their parents and grandparents have told them, that I might not want to hear. For all of my Hispanic students come from poor backgrounds, and after reading Rigoberta’s story, and excerpts from Harvest of Empire, I understand where they’re coming from. “To comprehend this new Latino wave, we must have a rudimentary sense of what the immigrants left behind. Simply put, the vast majority of Central Americans today live in perpetual misery alongside tiny elites that enjoy unparalleled prosperity. The average cat in our country eats more beef than the average Central American.” “Central America’s victims perished mostly at the hands of their own soldiers…and invariably from weapons `made in the U.S.A., since in each country our government provided massive military aid to the side doing most of the killing.” There you are. Now that I’ve understood and accepted .the gulf between me and my Hispanic students, how does this affect me in the classroom?
I teach to what they know as much as possible. I have many educational materials that tell their story and from their point of view. Joel Medrano, an El Salvadorian student of mine, walked from his country to the United States with a few companeros and lived to tell the tale. I just finished reading Grab Hands and Run in his class, and what classroom activity could personally validate him more? This book echoes Calixto’s tale in his Odyssey to the North. Felipe, the narrator of Grab Hands and Run and newly arrived in the United States, is getting to know his American hosts. “It seems that although the U.S. government does bad things in El Salvador and supplies the weapons with which we are killed, many North Americans have good hearts.” This, one hopes, is the conclusion many Ladino immigrants arrive at. One day in my classroom community, my advanced students and I might have a lively discussion about U.S. foreign policy and the “ugly American.” Another time we might do a role play about Sandanista policy dilemmas. The Network of Educators’ Committees on Central America has published a curriculum on Nicaragua called “Inside the Volcano,” which has all kinds of classroom activities that the students can have fun with, and more to the point, relate to.
Back in my beginning class, I have a group of Bolivian girls who speak Quechua around me as well as Spanish. It’s not that they don’t want me to understand what they’re saying (though maybe they don’t!). I think they’re just reaffirming their culture and their uniqueness because Quechua, after all, is not widely known in the U.S. It’s almost like a secret language (echoes of Rigoberta?). They always love it when I read them The Legend of El Dorado by Beatriz Vidal. They can certainly relate to the Indian history surrounding the legend. Speaking of legends, I love to teach my unit on Central American legends around Halloween: El Cipitio, La Siguanaba, La Chintintora, El Duende. The kids get a kick out of my familiarity with things only their grandparents used to tell them late into the night. Even though I’m not one of them, I think they like it that I bring these stories into their classroom community.
Of the three units we are studying, the Hispanic unit is the one I am most familiar with, both from extensive personal experience, and also with respect to the materials I incorporate into the classroom curricula. And yet, I’m still very much an outsider, just as I was when I married into a strongly male-dominated culture. It was that cultural trait that doomed my marriage, because I wasn’t willing to be told what to do. I can’t shake being an outsider and carrying the burden of white privilege, whether I’m teaching Blacks, Ladinos, or Asians. And yet it’s that very separateness that might give me the objective edge as their teacher and as their friend. Together we can read about and discuss aspects of their history, their suffering, and above all their endurance. For it is that very endurance that I celebrate often in my classroom, how I admire them for what they have had to overcome and the discrimination they are still overcoming as they assimilate into this culture. I celebrate my ESL students, so that someday they may celebrate themselves.
When I was a teacher twenty years ago, one of my assignments was as a long-term substitute. The teacher left lots of engaging assignments, and I did my best to implement them. The students had a break from their “real” teacher, and I felt little pressure to invest myself in the assignments because I knew I’d be leaving. That attitude, and my subsequent behavior, could have brought on tragic consequences.
Shirley was a pretty, soft-spoken girl in this class. She rarely smiled and I sensed that she was unhappy. But I left her alone. I had twenty-three other students to attend to. It was two weeks before I asked her if she had a problem she wanted to talk about, and she broke down in tears. I was relieved that she was so able to open up. She said that she was treated very badly at home. Shirley lived with a much older sister and her children, and this sister resented her living there. I asked her if there was any physical abuse and she said no; they just made her feel like she wasn’t welcome. Shirley said she was so miserable she wanted to die. I told Shirley I should tell the counselor about this, but she begged me not to say anything because she was afraid it would make things worse. This is where I made a huge error in judgment. Partly because I lacked experience with child abuse and partly because I had promised Shirley I wouldn’t tell, I naively hoped that the problem would correct itself.
But for three days I didn’t sleep well. I had a terrible sense of misgiving, and finally realized that I had to tell Shirley’s counselor what she had told me. There was immediate intervention, and Shirley was placed in a foster home where she eventually finished high school.
The weight of those three days still burdens me sometimes when I think of how my poor judgment could have proved disastrous. The fact that I was a substitute in no way should have diminished my responsibility to my students. My inexperience would have been a poor excuse if anything had happened to Shirley. Needless to say, after that I was very vigilant with my students, and often went to their counselors with my concerns.
But a larger truth I realize now as I’m telling this story is that we teachers are all imperfect, vulnerable human beings who have been given a large and important responsibility to care for other people’s children. How we regard that responsibility is at least as important as what we do in the classroom. That is the lesson we learn. We will make mistakes. If we are good, well-intentioned people who strive to do our best, are open to critical reflection and can learn from those mistakes, then I believe the teaching profession is better off with us than without us. And that’s what making a difference is all about.
This is an excerpt from my second memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.
“Lining up all my conches and other shells like students in a classroom, I’m mindful of what they are teaching me.
Once I waded into a cave in the sea around Greece and found a large cache of sea urchin tests, or exoskeletons, long since abandoned by their hosts. When my family left Athens in 1990 I packed them as carefully as my mother’s Limoges china, but I’ve loved them more.
The most beautiful shell I have used to sit on the window seat in my mother’s hillside home in Massachusetts. We found it at dead low tide one hot summer day at Duxbury Beach when I was seven. She had held onto that conch for over fifty years, maybe for the same reason I have trouble throwing my shells away: the assurance that something of us is left behind.
From each of my beach excursions, I’ve made sure to bring back a shell or two. And in the fifty years that I’ve been amassing my collection, I’ve run out of space to display them.
Now, my son chides me, I must leave them where they are—and driftwood too—to shore up the beach.”
In her celebrated memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed documented her long, eleven hundred mile hike from the Mojave Desert all the way to the Bridge of the Gods near Portland, Oregon. She had lost a lot of things in her life: her mother to cancer; her marriage; and could have lost her life to the queen of forgetfulness, the fruit of the poppy flower, heroin. She had a lot of grief to work through.
But unlike the average Joe who might decide to take up running or a regimen at the gym to work out the kinks and stress of facing life on life’s terms, this young woman decided to walk alone along the Pacific Coast Trail. Most intrepid backpackers would need to think very carefully about what to put on their feet. Cheryl went to REI where she bought an excellent, sturdy pair of hiking boots. There was only one problem: they weren’t the right fit.
After hiking for six weeks, “those boots had blistered my feet and rubbed them raw; they’d caused my nails to blacken and detach themselves excruciatingly from four of my toes.” She was in such unremitting pain, pulling off one toenail after another, that, after one boot accidentally toppled into the forest canopy below her, she tossed the other one to join it, glad to be rid of them both.
Gene and I had been to every national and state park in Utah. The state parks are actually much nicer because they often come with free showers, and in Utah in the summer, that’s a welcome treat to look forward to at the end of the day.
There’s a reason why Utah is one of the most magnificent geological wonders of the world: heat and dryness. The rock formations are simply dazzling to the eye. We’ve been to a majority of the national parks in the United States, but we keep going back to the parks in Utah. It boasts about forty-five state and national parks in one state. And if you like rocks, it’s a visual smorgasbord. The Vermillion Cliffs, for example, located just south of the Utah border, are aptly named for the brilliant and varying shades of red earth. It’s quite a sight from the highway.
On a visit in the summer of 2008, we headed west from Moab on a road to Dead Horse Point State Park. Just before the park entrance, we saw a pigmy rattle snake crossing the road. This was our third or fourth trip to the desert Southwest, and I had never seen a rattler even once. But they’re there, all right. Just usually not dumb enough to come out around people during the day. They come out at night when they do their hunting. At night, rattlesnakes are everywhere, and you don’t want to encounter one by surprise.
The campsite was pretty disappointing compared to other places we had camped in Utah. But we’re good sports about accepting what’s available when we arrive at a campsite. So we chose the best possible site, set up the tent, and drove over to see why this park got its name.
Dead Horse Point is situated atop a high plateau at an elevation of about 6000 feet. From the point, layers of geologic time may be viewed, revealing 300 million years of the earth’s geologic history. This is why Gene loves Utah. It’s as if God had taken a knife and sliced mountains and chunks of land right down the middle so that all the erosion of time could be viewed for free by anyone who was passing through. It’s very humbling to remember how short the human lifespan is, geologically speaking.
According to the legend, Dead Horse Point was used to corral wild mustangs that were roaming the mesa. Cowboys rounded up these horses and herded them onto the point. They fenced off the neck with branches and brush, creating a natural corral surrounded by high cliffs. Cowboys then picked the horses they wanted and left the rest to die of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2000 feet below. Not a very nice way to treat animals, I’d say. I hope some of them had the good sense to leap over the brush to their deaths and die quickly.
Death was the last thing on our minds the next day. We woke up bright and early, ready to enjoy our last day in Utah at a leisurely pace. Why did I put on my winter-weight hiking boots? Well, I didn’t have any lightweight boots. I only had the Merrell’s Gene had bought me back in 1994 so that I’d have more ankle support. I had been healing from a broken ankle and wasn’t gonna let that stop me from a hike with my new boyfriend up Old Rag Mountain in Virginia. And the truth is, our treks in the southwest in recent years hadn’t been that long. Otherwise my feet would have overheated and I would have known enough to get summer boots. But hindsight is 20/20…
That day, in particular, I wasn’t planning on doing any serious hiking at all. It started out innocently enough:
Upheaval Dome/Crater View
2.5 mi (4 km)
300 ft (91 m)
15 minutes to 1 hour
Piece of cake—a relaxing walk along the rim of this crater on a hot day in July. It was really too hot to do anything more exerting that day. We thought we’d start the day with this little stroll to view the inside of the crater and then take the car farther south around the Needles District. Even though dry heat is much easier for me to tolerate than sweltering humidity, we were still pretty tired from a week of hiking and were anxious to fly home. This would be our “wind down” day, a day to decompress before we hightailed it up to Salt Lake City to catch our flight.
Pulling into the parking lot at 10:00 am, we got out of the car and studied the billboard at the start of the hike. With the whole day to kill time, we could dawdle. In our fanny packs were about two bottles each of water and the usual munchies I always carry because I can’t stand to be hungry. We also packed a lunch since all our food was back at the campsite and we knew we’d be gone until dinner. Luckily, the same guardian angel that kept me alive on many other occasions was watching over us that day: instead of leaving it on the front seat, we carried it with us. We had no idea that because of our over confidence and lack of preparedness, we would soon be swallowed up by this crater we had intended only to observe from above—and were lucky to get out alive.
“Be prepared for a hike as demanding as it is dramatic,” the guidebook warned us. “Expect the initial descent and subsequent ascent to be steep and rugged, though both are brief. The ascent is on a particularly rough route, mildly exposed in two places where a burst of gymnastic effort is necessary to avoid an injurious fall. Alleviate these difficulties—plus gain the benefit of some timely post-exertion shade—by looping clockwise. The counter-clockwise hikers we’ve met here were distressed, admitting the trip was more time-consuming and arduous than they’d anticipated. Which also suggests this shouldn’t be your first-ever canyon-country outing; work up to it.”
Well, this helpful book was, of course, in the car, of no use to us sitting on the front seat. We intended to unwind this last day of our trip and just view the syncline valley from above. We certainly weren’t prepared for a grueling hike on a hot day in July. I was wearing the wrong boots.
We took the easy walk up to the rim described in the guidebook and on our way back to the car thought, Hmm…not much of a challenge there. It’s only 11:00 in the morning. Let’s be adventurous and see where the trail to the left leads.
Gene and I are big risk takers. Some of the risks I’ve taken with him were thrilling, like running rapids in Canada when we were too tired to portage. And some were stupid and self-destructive, like taking up smoking again with his brand, Camel non-filtered, so that we could share. This was one of the latter variety; you don’t mess around unprepared in canyon country in July.
So we took the trail to the left and began the counterclockwise loop, another reason why, as we were nearing the valley floor and met some hikers on their way back, we were “distressed.” And we were only two hours into the loop.
“How much farther?” we asked them, as we were struggling through some boulders.
They looked at us like we hadn’t read the book and offered, “Oh you’ve got a ways to go. Might have been easier to go clockwise.”
Thanks, pal. I already figured that out, I thought to myself, realizing how the sun would face and torture us all along this counterclockwise loop.
“Gene, we should have asked them for some water,” I whined, already starting to project disaster and panic as I sneaked a peak to the left and saw where we needed to be before the sun went down. Oh shit, all the way up there?
“Don’t worry. We’re doing fine,” he said, trying to shut me up and allay his own growing fears that we had gotten in over our heads. I had a veritable Star Wars battle going on inside of me: good vs. bad. Bad represented the way I had learned to think for most of my life before I got into recovery. Pessimism, closed mindedness, and above all fear and panic. The last two used to drive me into caves of denial, avoidance, and ultimately, despair.
We were soon to confront a situation that would require a serious change in attitude on my part. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t rise to the occasion on that day; I found myself falling into that familiar cave and trying to take Gene with me.
The walk along the canyon floor seemed endless. Gene was distracting himself by studying the Chinle formation on the banks of the wash that snaked all along the valley floor. Mercifully dry, or we would have been further challenged.
Straight ahead in seven miles was the White Rim Road, and three miles before that was a campsite. But we had no provisions, no tent, nothing to comfortably make it through the night. All we could think about was getting back to our car, as we neared the seemingly sheer cliff we would need to scale in order to get back.
It was at this point that I turned into a harpy of major proportions. My mother needled my father relentlessly to quit drinking so much during their marriage, and those nasty tapes found their way to my vocal chords in magnificent stereo.
“Gene, for Chrissake, what are we gonna do? It’s five o’clock already! How could you get us into this mess? We’ve eaten all our food, we’re almost out of water, and we have a fucking mountain to climb! In three hours it’ll be dark, and of course you didn’t bring any headlamps. Did I leave anything out, Sherlock?”
I was shaking with fear and panic. No need to look up at the cliff; we were at the base of it in its shadow. It was a long way to the top and the sun would be going down soon. It didn’t help me to see the shed skin of a huge snake on the side of the path. I knew there were snakes in canyon country, deadly ones. And they come out at night when most intelligent people are roasting marshmallows around a campfire.
Gene is different from me temperamentally. He keeps it all in. The more I continued hammering away at him, the more his fear and rage built up inside. At some point as we were silently putting one foot in front of the other, he took off in another direction. He just snapped. And he was carrying the water—all of it.
“Gene! Come back here! Where the hell did you go? You bastard! You have all the water!”
Listening for his footsteps, I stayed on my path, cursing him every few minutes, wishing I had worn a megaphone. I finally gave up yelling, convinced he felt no remorse for leaving me in the lurch to make it out on my own.
This is where the rubber hit the road for me. This is where I drew on the strength that I had gotten from my mother and a handful of others over the years. I wish I could have looked over my left shoulder at the brilliant sunset and enjoyed the shadows and colors moving across the rocks, transforming their shapes as they went. But on this day, sunset meant dusk was coming, a very tricky kind of light followed by darkness. My adrenaline fully kicked in and I was on a mission to survive. I channeled all my rage into a fierce determination to get off this mountain and return unscathed.
Thank God for cairns—small piles of rocks, placed at regular intervals, marking a pathway to show hikers where to go. I don’t remember when darkness set in but I do know that those cairns saved my life—the cairns and enough common sense to keep going up instead of across which is what I think Gene was doing to find an easier way out. Or maybe he just needed to get away from me.
I loped my way up, following the trail marked by the cairns. Ignoring the pain in my legs and feet, moving forward and up was my only option. I had no water and was terribly thirsty, but I didn’t dare sit down to rest. I was afraid I wouldn’t get up, so I just kept going. And going, and going…snaking my way up the switchbacks that were endless, until finally I reached the crest of a hill, and I hoped that the worst was over.
Walking through a juniper grove I saw a hiker approaching me and asked him for some water. He gave me a whole liter, for which I was grateful, and I didn’t even ask him why he was going into the syncline valley at this hour. It was 10:00 pm. I made it refreshed into the parking lot and flagged down the last car that was leaving. Gene also had the keys to the car and the phone. I asked the people in the car to call Canyon Rescue to come get Gene off the mountain. Thank God someone was in the parking lot to make that call. Silver linings…
I lay on the cool floor of the public bathroom waiting for the squad to arrive. They went right in with whistles and an hour later they walked out with Gene. He was too dehydrated to walk, had been drinking his own urine, and had just been sitting there in the bushes…waiting. Thankfully he hadn’t passed out and could respond to the whistles.
When I saw them bring him down I ran to him in relief. But those feelings were short lived as the enormity of our mistake sunk in to me. We drove back to our campsite and slept. I think we were in shock from the experience. I forget how long it took for six of my toenails to loosen and fall off, just as Cheryl Strayed’s had in California, but it was painful.
I have never known Gene, in all the years that we’d hiked together, to be anything less than assiduously prepared, to the point of dragging every topographical map we might need, extra food and water, extra clothing, first aid, and extra books which I told him I refused to carry. That’s why this near-death experience stands out in my mind as the exception.
I hated him, briefly, afterwards and though I never seriously thought about leaving him, it did take me a while to sort it all out in my mind and use my recovery tools to return to the comfort zone we had been enjoying for many years. I was able to see my part in our disastrous communication that day and I took full responsibility for pushing Gene to the edge; he, too, accepted full responsibility for a horrendous lapse in judgment. I was certainly wearing the wrong boots on this trek and I lost my toenails because of it. But that was a small price to pay for what I found from the experience. We were still the right fit for each other.
Anger, panic, and poor judgment got the better of both of us that day. And I managed to come out a hero. But for every instance of that sort of thing there have been ten more where he’s rescued me at great risk to himself. And of course it’s the risk itself that seduces us both. Gene and I have been on quite an exciting ride together—and it’s not over yet. I’m at home with him. I can unravel and be myself with him. I can find myself and lose myself and know without a doubt that he’ll still be there when I find myself again. Our adventures have taken us to many places, but so often they were just staging grounds for learning about ourselves. On this trip we saw ourselves at our very worst. And though the Dark Side took over in both of us on that day, we got lucky and survived to savor the lesson—and each other.
Mama gave me her complete set of Havilland Limoges when I became a diplomat’s wife in 1975. How she loved the ring of those words, “diplomat’s wife,” and loved to brag to her friends about her younger daughter. She was so proud of me, and she wanted me to use the best items possible when I was entertaining and representing our country overseas. But as it turned out, I was required to use the embassy china for the many dinner parties I gave in the countries I lived in. I don’t know why. I remember the waiters coming to the house and unpacking all the gold and white china, only to pack it up the next day after it had been carefully washed and dried by my kitchen staff. It seems like it would have been simpler to let me use my own china. But oh yes, of course, I only had a service for twelve, and our parties were attended by four to six times that number of people. And so my handsome set of Limoges sat in my pantry, lonely and collecting dust, except for an occasional holiday meal over the next thirty-three years—until I retired from Washington-Lee High School. That’s when I actually needed a teacup.
That would be the first of several celebrations to make me feel especially valued as an educator. It was a very difficult time in my life, a very poignant time. And I needed a teacup. I suppose I could have brought a mug or a plain teacup. I have many from all my travels. But I thought I’d dust off one of Mama’s teacups for a tea the school was having in my honor. In my honor…imagine that! This was a real tea with scones, cucumber sandwiches, and people who came to wish me well in my new life. My new life…but that was a story that hadn’t unfolded yet.
Mama was thrilled when I told her. She felt that in some way my life had come full circle, as if my life had revolved around her Limoges china. And in some ways my adult life had. As I wrote this upon my retirement, I was seeing how.
I’d been an ESL teacher for over twenty years. I taught in Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, and Greece. I trained to be a teacher in college and was fully certified. Still, in my first years as a teacher overseas, I had little or no idea what I was doing. It wasn’t until I landed in Arlington, VA, that I truly learned how to teach. Teaching and learning: that endless hermeneutic circle that would define much of who I had become as an adult. I stayed at the same school for seventeen years, taught hundreds of students, and I was tremendously happy in my work. Getting my Master’s Degree in reflective practice only intensified my fulfillment as an educator. I enjoyed writing in my reflective journal about how my earlier life had impacted me as a teacher. I loved discovering connections between certain life events and my experience with students. In my 60th year, however, a personal challenge presented me with difficult lessons that needed learning. For a time, I felt more like a student than a teacher. And so I knew, then, that it was time for me to step down and refocus my energies, though I wanted to remain in education on some level.
It’s hard leaving work that you love, for whatever reason. So much of whom I’d evolved into at that time centered on my work. When I left my husband in 1991and brought my children back to Virginia, I threw myself into career mode out of necessity. I knew I needed to work to minimize the effects of the divorce on my children. So I went back into teaching, a demanding profession by any standards. Day and night I taught for a while, going to graduate school at the same time to upgrade my credentials. After a year I started full-time at Washington-Lee High School. My children eventually got through high school and college and, being so close in age, all three of them left home within six months of each other in 2000. Suddenly my job became everything to me. And for the next eight years it had consumed me. I knew then that jumping off the fast track wouldn’t be easy.
But I made my decision and was busy planning for semi-retirement. I knew people didn’t want me to leave; but I still hoped to fade away without a fuss. No such luck! This shy woman who avoided attention like the plague, who once lost her voice on the stage when it was time for her solo, was suddenly being celebrated multiple times.
“Please join us to wish a cherished colleague a happy retirement,” the invitation read. Cherished! My goodness, I was stunned by the word! This looked like my moment in the sun, and they don’t often come twice, so I wanted to enjoy it. One of life’s lessons I’d been learning was that we couldn’t go back and do things over…and we couldn’t go forward. All we could do, if we wanted to enjoy our lives, was to make the most of what was right in front of us. And this was my moment in my career as a teacher. What better symbol of my self-regard in this profession, my worth as a teacher which came to me at great personal cost, than to share my mother’s Limoges, not a Styrofoam cup, at a celebration in my honor.
The making of this china was difficult, like many hard-won accomplishments. But I’m glad I brought Mama’s china teacup. What had long since ceased to matter to my now-deceased mother has now taken on a new meaning for me: “Don’t be afraid to do the difficult,” she told me when I got divorced. “It will make you stronger.””
I love observing the seasons and the months they represent. They are the embodiment of the natural flow of life—and a constant reminder of change and renewal.
I was a high school teacher for twenty years. Summers were times for me to breathe, relax, and get off the treadmill. Then in August the anxiety and excitement would build, as I felt hungry to return to school and start using my skills in the classroom again.
Just as our lives change and new routines replace old ones, our feelings about the months of the year change as well.Bright red chili festivals have replaced pumpkin cutting in the classroom for me. Life is never static, and I do well to remain open to new opportunities as they present themselves. Change is good. Change is very, very good.
Now, some months are times of remembrance. I’ve been retired for just over a decade, and August/September has a new meaning for me. August 16 is the birthday of my mother, who died eleven years ago. And August 23 is the birthday of my estranged daughter, Annie. But now I celebrate my granddaughter Emily’s birthday on August 9 by going to her birthday party every year. I never miss either of my granddaughters’ birthdays. In focusing on my blessings, I feel a sense of abundance every day.
September/October start to herald in autumn for me. In Albuquerque, where I used to live, the leaves change color from the frosty night air. This is a welcome change from the oppressive heat of the summer. But there, the leaves turn yellow, not the reds I used to see in New England.
In New Mexico, autumn is a gorgeous and productive lingering—well past Thanksgiving. It’s harvest season and the farmer’s markets overflow with abundance from the ground. Many holidays come in autumn and on the cusp of winter. These are always poignant times of the year for me, but now more than ever they are times to take stock and savor all that I have.
Winter drops like a curtain, in some states more than others. A couple of weeks before Christmas, Mother Nature lowers the boom. Winter is bitter in the high desert. Where I lived, there was very little snow. Sandia Mountain, across the rift valley from my farmhouse, attracts all the “weather.” At nearly 6000 feet, the air is cold even with the sun shining, though the temperature rarely drops below freezing.
Winter rings in differently state to state. But universal, in the areas where cold weather does settle into our bones, is the wish to smell spring in the air.
Many of us enjoy watching the trees coming out of dormancy and preening like peacocks, their colorful buds in bloom. We thrill to see the first flowers peek up from the ground. And gradually, though differently from state to state, we see the resurgence of nature, in all its glory. It is the season of renewal, of new beginnings.
This essay was first posted in The Memoir Network, 7/21/17.
I enjoy many forms of physical exercise, from climbing mountains, to backpacking along trails, to bicycling, and even swimming. But mostly nowadays I just go hiking, sometimes with my grandchildren and partner, but often alone. Working the muscles of my body is good for me and helps keep my joints working. I feel better after a long walk.
So, too, my mental muscles feel better after a good writing workout. I’ve been writing diaries ever since I was very young, and I keep boxes of them wherever I’m living at the moment. I draw on them a great deal in my memoir writing. They offer a panoramic view of my life.
I’ve been scribbling “Morning Pages” ever since Julia Cameron’s Sound of Paper came out. Every day along with my morning writing I include entries in my gratitude journal as well as ideas for my recovery blog.
But memory can be selective; and memoir is a tricky animal to tame. Mining our depths, it’s like spelunking in a cave. But how much do we see on those walls of rock? How bright is the lantern we’re holding? We’re swinging from a rope, trying to hold ourselves erect, trying to see what’s there.
And who are we doing the seeing? Not the same person we were last year, or when we were five. What’s etched into those rocks that might read very differently to us now?
Darkness often comes to light when I read pages I wrote when I was ten years old. I may not be that hurting ten-year-old anymore, but I can remember that ten-year-old hurting. The essence of memoir is the change that has occurred in the years in between.
Stringing thoughts together and writing them down keeps my mind agile and open to understanding myself better. At times, I feel confused or I want answers, and when I write about it, the mud often sinks to the bottom and I can see things more clearly.
It’s a clarification process.
Sometimes I start a piece, and by the time I’ve finished it, I’ve answered some questions. It’s sort of like, as Lillian Hellman once described the term “pentimento:” my “old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”
“Pentimento”—a term in art where sometimes, the artist changing his mind, paints over what he had previously put on the canvas. Thus, he repented.
Many times, I’ve written stories that ended up nowhere I had intended. I thought I wanted to write about one thing, but ended up writing about something else. My first memoir started out as an angry rant about losing my daughter to a horrific illness. But in the two years it took me to write it, it evolved into a memoir of recovery. I was changing and transforming myself even as I was writing it—a very organic process.
So, writing for me is self-discovery. It’s a real excavation process, as we mine our depths often coming out so much richer in self-knowledge than we were in the beginning.