Empathy Starts Here

                                                                

Pity the poor fly. Its brain is pretty miniscule and not capable of making decisions that might lead it to its final flight.

Have you ever wondered what they were thinking flying through our open doors and/or windows? Well, they weren’t thinking; remember, they’re just flies. They had just spent a lovely day outside, gobbling up insects, laying eggs on piles of compost, and just frittering away their time, wondering what to do next.

“Oh, there’s an open door,” they venture excitedly, “maybe there’s more food through that door.”

“Nope, not a good choice,” we implore, as we flail around trying to whisk them back outside. But too late for some. They get lost in the curtains, the laundry room, the bathrooms. They do tend to linger around windows as they wistfully wonder how to get back out into the open air. Yet they have no idea how to accomplish that.

“Oh, look at all those ants…” precursors of a thought, their jaws watering at the sight of all the insects through the living room window. My son leaves the doors open sometimes, just so that they can escape the doom that awaits them.

But then more just come in.

Oh, pity those poor flies. They’re not suicidal. That would require some forethought, and they don’t think at all, remember. They just like to eat bugs. And poop. And make more flies. One place to do all that seems just like any other one.

Wrong! Inside most reasonably well-kept houses there are not a lot of bugs. So there they sit, or flit from room to room, vainly scrounging around for some edible bugs, while they slowly lose their energy, utterly bewildered by it all.

Finally, unable to carry on and fly, these lost and confused insects drop down onto the floor where I find them, usually near the windows—those glass barriers that kept them from swooping down and devouring all those ants. One by one I pick them up and take them outside, where they become dinner for other insects.

The Lessons of Solitude

2nd Place Prizewinner in Susan Wittig Albert’s Life Writing Contest, September, 2020

March, 2020:

My first awareness of a global pandemic underway.

The world had suddenly grown quiet.

Shock. Denial. Fear.

April, 2020:

More shock and disbelief. How could this be happening to us? More varied reaction to what was happening in our country: increased levels of fear in many places; bravado and disregard of science in others.

May, 2020:

Summer was coming. Many people were tired of staying inside. They pushed through their fear and opened their doors.

A policeman in Minneapolis killed George Floyd over a minor offense. The noise exploded onto the streets. Black Lives Matter protests occurred all over the world. The upheaval in our government was still looming ahead. The rising oceans are threatening our habitable land and Bangladesh is drowning.

I grow weary from the news. I close my doors and remain inside. I look within.

An extraordinary time in history is upon us, and the whole world is struggling to survive.

The everyday noises of living—traffic on the highway, baseball stadiums full of shouting fans, plays and concerts in packed halls—have lessened or been put on hold outright. Activities have stopped if they involved close human contact. Fear prevails.

How was it when the world grew quiet? When factories ceased production and the clouds of pollution dissipated? When, as a result of this, the sun felt warmer on my head while I was gardening? When bars and restaurants closed, when the theater company ceased production and returned my tickets? When I was no longer able to sing at the nursing home?

Life as we had known it was on pause, and we needed to learn how to live differently for a while.

We’ve put all of our habits and customs and dependencies under a microscope. Almost overnight we have had to prioritize everything. With a dearth of outside stimulation, I’ve started talking to myself more. And listening to myself. Without the everyday noise of living in our busy and crowded world, I search for and listen to, with intention, a calming inner voice. Hearing it comes to me more easily. It is a compelling instructor, as I reap the rewards of solitude.

The loneliness that often accompanies being separated from friends and family might have unsettled me more years ago. But now, with such ease and delight, I’ve been learning how to be my own best friend. I don’t feel lonely. That is the paradox of solitude. Much of the pressure of living—of being around people and confronting all those mirrors—has scuttled off for the time being. When we are alone, life is simpler. I revel in those moments, briefly, for the windows they open to me.

I’ve always wanted to listen to an inner voice, a positive and centering force that would sustain me as I made my way through life.  Ann Morrow Lindbergh wrote about this beautifully in 1955 in Gift from the Sea. As she grappled with her busy life raising several children and coping with the demands of a famous husband, she sought, long before it was fashionable, a sense of peace and independence within herself. Her search resonated with so many other women, and I often reread her short book full of wisdom to gain new insights.

Eliminating the distractions of life is not so easy. Our telephones ring now more than ever. The digital world has supplanted close human contact. And I have found that it hasn’t always been the outside noises that prevented me from listening to my best self. Sometimes there are inner voices competing for attention. Those voices don’t always serve me well, and it takes a certain amount of self-awareness and fortitude to rid myself of them.

Like weeds in my garden.

The rhythms of living, of course, continue to undulate through our worlds, and I wonder how many of us live really solitary lives. I do not. I regularly invite the voices of friends and family into my days, more appreciative than ever as I’ve learned to cope with so much time under quarantine.

These recent months of deprivation have brought into focus much of what my busyness had allowed me to put aside. I’ve attended to correspondence I had been avoiding for too long. This continues to be a silver lining for me in the pandemic cloud. My garden, too, needed tending, and I’ve been grateful that the worst of the social restrictions have occurred in the midst of our spring and summer weather.

Most activities away from my homehave been put on hold:volunteer work that had been gratifying to me; and the physical closeness of friends and family that I had taken for granted.With so much more free time,  I’ve found myself looking within more, and listening to myself. Not the kind of self-absorption that crowds out the rest of the world; but rather the sort of curiosity that often leads to clarity and, feeling renewed and refreshed, a welcoming of happy distractions into my world.

Awareness starts at home, in our minds, and listening to our own voices. This is where we begin, to use Ms. Lindbergh’s metaphor, to redefine ourselves on the hub of the wheel. “Woman must come of age by herself—she must find her true center alone,” she has said. And whether or not that is true, it is a most comforting and empowering idea.

We truly can be the authors of our own lives.    

Two Songs

For twenty-five dollars my mother bought a beautiful baby grand piano in 1955, and my siblings and I took piano lessons. I don’t remember when my brother and sister stopped their lessons, but I kept at it for quite a few years.

My own three children took lessons on that same piano. But they eventually lost interest, just as I did.

Curiously, though, I managed to keep two songs in my fingers for many years: Edward McDowell’s “Scotch Poem” and Arthur Brown’s “Improvisation and Melody.” What was I holding onto?

Then, out of sheer neglect by not oiling the wood at all, the baby grand quite literally fell apart when I tried to move it to another location.

Maybe that was my Higher Power’s way of telling me to let go of those two songs.

And a lot of other things.

No Quarantine for Sea Creatures

                                                     

“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.

The Eyes To See

                                                    

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.

Humbling.

The Calling Card

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.

“Better luck next time!” he laughed.    

Ladinos And Me – A Commentary

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 my family 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 in your 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 in common, 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.

Three Days

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.

Duxbury

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.”

The Wrong Boots

Utah houses many of the most magnificent geological wonders in the world. The rock formations are simply dazzling to the eye. The state boasts over fifty state and national parks. And if you like rocks, it’s a visual smorgasbord. The Vermillion Cliffs, for example, located just south of the Utah border in Arizona, are aptly named for the brilliant and varying shades of red earth. It’s a vibrant sight from the highway. 

On a visit in the summer of 2008, my husband and I headed west from Moab on a road to Dead Horse Point State Park. Just before the park entrance, we saw a dead pigmy rattle snake. This was our third trip to the Southwest, and I had never yet seen a rattler, dead or alive. They come out at night when they do their hunting. At night, rattlesnakes are fearless, and you don’t want to encounter one by surprise.

We decided to turn around and drove over to see why this park got its name. Dead Horse Point is situated atop a 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. 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.

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.

Death was the last thing on our minds the next day. We woke up early, ready to enjoy our last day in Utah. Why did I put on my winter-weight hiking boots? Well, I didn’t have any lightweight boots. And the truth is, our treks in the southwest recently hadn’t been that long. Otherwise my feet would have overheated, and I would have known enough to get summer boots.

That day, in particular, I wasn’t planning on doing any serious hiking at all. It started out innocently enough. A sign in the parking lot said:

“Upheaval Dome/Crater View
round trip2.5 mi (4 km)
elevation gain300 ft (91 m)
hiking time15 minutes to 1 hour
difficultyeasy

Piece of cake—a relaxing walk along the rim of this crater. It was too hot to do anything more exerting that day. We thought we’d start the day with this stroll to view the inside of the crater. We were pretty tired from a week of hiking and were anxious to fly home. This would be our day to decompress.

At 10:00 a.m., we used the restroom and then studied the billboard. With the whole day to kill time, we could dawdle. In our fanny packs were water bottles and our packed lunch which, luckily, we carried with us. We had no idea that because of our overconfidence and lack of preparedness, we would soon be swallowed up by this crater we had intended to observe only 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.”

This book was, unfortunately, in the car, of no use to us sitting on the front seat. We had intended to relax this last day, and 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 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, like taking up smoking again with his brand, Camel regulars, so we could share. This was one of the latter variety; you don’t mess around unprepared in canyon country in July.

We turned 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.”

“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.”

I was realizing how the sun would face and torture us all along this counterclockwise loop.

 “Gene, we should have asked 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 no! All the way up there?

“Don’t worry. We’re doing fine,” he said, trying to allay his own growing fears that we had gotten in over our heads. I had a veritable battle going on inside my head: Can I do this? Or will I lose myself in fear and panic, both of which used to drive me into caves of denial, avoidance, and 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; I found myself falling into those familiar caves 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 meandered all along the valley floor. As we neared the back of the mountain that we would need to climb in order to get back, all we could think about was reaching the car in the parking lot.

It was at this point that I turned into a harpy of major proportions. My mother had needled my father relentlessly to quit drinking, 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 damn 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 in its shadow. The sun would be going down soon. It didn’t help to see the shed skin of a huge snake on the side of the path.  I knew there were deadly snakes in canyon country. And they come out at night when most intelligent people are roasting marshmallows around a campfire. 

Gene is different from me temperamentally. The more I continued hammering away at him, the more his fear and rage built up inside. At some point, he took off in another direction. He just snapped. And he was carrying the water.

“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, 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 I drew on the strength that I had gotten from many angels 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 the mountain. 

Thank goodness for cairns—small piles of rocks 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 just kept snaking my way along the switchbacks that were endless, until finally I reached the crest of a hill.

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. It was 10:00 p.m. I made it refreshed into the parking lot and flagged down the last car that was leaving, asking them to call Canyon Rescue to come get Gene off the mountain.

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. I forget how long it took for six of my toenails to loosen and fall off, but it was painful. 

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. 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.

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. I’m at home with him. I can unravel and be myself with him. Our adventures have taken us to many places, but so often they were just staging grounds for learning about ourselves.

I was certainly wearing the wrong boots on this trek and I lost some 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.